He was a beloved, disheveled, charismatic ball of energy whose eyes sparkled when he talked about poetry or wolves or Shakespeare.
John Abbot Gardiner, poet, author, UC Irvine instructor, Shakespearean expert, rabble rouser, mystic and gentleman, died unexpectedly Tuesday. He was 70.
A Laguna Beach legend, Gardiner’s stories and influence reached well beyond the comfortable beachside confines that he called home. Everyone who met Gardiner was immediately drawn to his welcoming, unflappable energy.
He accepted everyone until they proved him wrong. Never one to shy away from controversy, he was a foundational figure in Laguna’s poetry and psychedelic movement.
Words were important to him but so was the experience. He was an unabashed experimenter and did not apologize for his passionate embrace of the 1960s spirit.
“My experience was to go out in the desert and get high up in the mountains,” he told me in a 2014 interview. “The last thing in the world I wanted to do was go to the Sunset Strip and jump around elbow to elbow in what can be called a ’60s’ acid-head monster mosh pit. That was too much confusion, and I had no interest in it.”
And when Timothy Leary and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love came to Laguna, he had no real interest in that either.
“Timothy Leary had no influence on me whatsoever. I was influenced completely by San Francisco and the Beat poets,” he said. “Sure, I took large amounts of acid, mescaline, peyote, etc., but I also had one foot firmly planted in the anti-war movement.”
Despite the times, Gardiner was able to stay clear-eyed and true to his literary roots. He was a drama major at UCI with a minor in creative writing. He studied under Galway Kinnell, a poet in residence who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1983.
Gardiner was always more interested in ideas than violence. Acting in plays, for him, was a way to protest without getting killed.
In 1969, for example, he was doing guerilla anti-war theater on Main Beach in Laguna.
“Everyplace we played, including Main Beach in Laguna, we quickly got kicked out by the cops,” he said. “People didn’t like it. They did not want to hear the city’s long-hair drama students doing anti-war theater. It wasn’t appreciated. It was a different time in Orange County.”
Over the years, he would continue his poetry and community involvement, including regular readings and guidance for young poets at the library. A teacher and dramatist at heart, he performed in dozens of productions of Shakespeare’s plays all over the country. He was a resident actor at the South Coast Repertory for five years and a resident actor at CSC Repertory in NYC for two years.
He also had nearly a dozen collections of verse and prose to his credit, and is published in a wide array of anthologies. An inveterate traveler, he read his work in Russia, Prague, Germany, Rio de Janeiro, Italy and Ireland, among other places.
Gardiner taught Shakespeare and poetry for several years in UCI’s extension program before joining the faculty. He was also the academic coordinator for Kaplan English Programs at Irvine Valley College for seven years and taught advanced English classes to students from more than 70 countries. Gardiner holds advanced degrees in drama, specializing in Shakespeare, from UCI.
But to meet Gardiner, he would never tell you about his achievements. The only thing that seemed to matter was the moment between you. He would always look you in the eye long enough to establish a personal connection.
And from there it was anyone’s guess. Invariably, you were off and running about something big, something poetic but always something whimsical.
Famous for his wry, Cheshire grin, he was three steps ahead of everyone else, dropping an appropriate line from Shakespeare, an allegory about wolf behavior or a raw, speckled joke about the politics of the day.
When I wrote about Gardiner three years ago, I said he never answers a question in a straight line. And it was a compliment.
“It’s a meandering journey that transports you to mysterious places and events that seem surreal at first, as if you’ve gone down some rabbit hole,” I said. “Where else can you rub the belly of a coyote? Or hear Shakespeare reincarnated? Or use words to stop bullets?”