Steve Kowit dies at 76; San Diego poet championed numerous causes
To Steve Kowit, the biggest sins that could be committed by poetry were being dull, obscure, too laden with allusions that might woo the intellectuals but turn off the common man (and woman).
His poem “I Attend a Poetry Reading” is Kowit’s sendup of much of modern poetry and modern poets: “Polite applause had stiffened / to an icy silence: / no one clapped / or nodded / No one sighed.”
As a poet, essayist, teacher and self-described “all-around no good troublemaker,” Kowit was never dull. In a dozen volumes of poetry, his enthusiasm burst off the page in language that was direct, accessible and devoid of the ambiguity favored by some literary critics.
His poetic models included Walt Whitman, Robinson Jeffers and Allen Ginsberg, and he admitted in an essay titled “The Mystique of the Difficult Poem,” that try as he might, he could not fathom poems, such as those of Hart Crane and others, that were “filled with footnotable literary allusions and hopelessly gnarled syntax and untrackable metaphoric acrobatics.”
Recently retired from Southwestern College in Chula Vista but still holding poetry workshops at Liberty Station in San Diego, Kowit died April 2 of cardiac arrest at his home in Potrero in a rural stretch of southern San Diego County near the border with Mexico. He was 76.
He died just days before his latest volume of poetry is set to be published by Tampa University Press.
A story in The Times once described Kowit as “a pro, bard of innumerable liberal causes, a teacher, elfin, self-mocking, editor of a sassy volume of a no-intellectuals-need-apply poetry called ‘The Maverick Poets.’” Among his causes, in poetry and prose, were animal rights and the plight of immigrants.
Steve Mark Kowit was born June 30, 1938 in New York. He liked to say that he was “Jewish by birth, Buddhist by inclination.” He served in the Army Reserves and attended Brooklyn College.
In New York, he was part of the Lower East Side poetry-reading scene in the early 1960s. Later, attracted by the intellectual freedom accentuated by the Beat poets, he moved to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury and received a master’s degree from then-San Francisco State College.
He taught at San Diego State, San Diego City College, UC San Diego and the College of Southern Idaho, and was publisher of Gorilla Press and founder of the Animal Rights Coalition of California. Among his books was “In the Palm of Your Hand: A Poet’s Portable Workshop: A Lively and Illuminating Guide for the Practicing Poet.” His poetry was read by Garrison Keillor on his national radio show.
Part of Kowit’s reputation among poets and poetry lovers came from poetry readings.
“He was a terrific performer,” said poet and artist Austin Straus. “He could have been an actor; when he was onstage he was mesmerizing. He used humor to talk about matters of life and death.”
Mixing passion and satire, Kowit poked at the “idiotic grandiosity of the human ego” — like his poem “The Workout” about the fitness craze of Southern California.
“Not unlike the penitents of other sects
they are convinced that decades of decay
can be undone & that the more one genuflects
the less one rots — a doctrine
that has got the aged, the adipose & the misshapen
pedaling their stationary bikes
in such unholy fury.”
Still, the openness of Southern California appealed to him, like his poem “Joy to the Fishes.”
“I hiked out to the end of Sunset Cliffs
& climbed the breakwater
sneakers strung over my shoulder
& a small collection of zen
poems in my fist.”
In “Refugees, Late Summer Night,” he sees the universality of the immigrants moving past his property:
“Out there, in the dark, they could have
been anyone: refugees from Rwanda
slaves pushing north.
Palestinians, Gypsies, Armenians, Jews…
the lights of Tijuana, that yellow
haze to the west, could have
been Melos, Cracow, Quang Ngai…"
And in “Notice,” he wrote about the shortness of life and the death of a friend:
“Take heed, you who read this,
& drop to your knees now & again
like the poet Christopher Smart,
& kiss the earth & be joyful,
& make much of your time,
& be kindly to everyone,
even those who do not deserve it.”
In “The Garden,” he brooded about life without his wife, Mary.
“In the bedroom, Mary has fallen asleep.
I stand in the doorway & watch her breathing
& wonder what it will be like
When one of us dies.”
Kowit is survived by his wife and his sister, Carol Adler.
A poetry reading in his honor is set for April 26 at Liberty Station, sponsored by San Diego Writers Ink.
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