Ted Enslin (1925-2011)
by Ted Wojtasik
I knew Ted Enslin for one decade, and in that time he became one of my most memorable and important friends. Each time a good friend or a family member dies, an emptiness opens up within me—no more. With Ted it is no more laughter, no more letters, no more talks, no more poetry. His death is a profound loss.
I first met Ted in the spring of 2000 in a terminal at the Fayetteville, North Carolina, Regional Airport when he flew down to St. Andrews the first time to do a reading for the Writers’ Forum, a weekly event at our university. Whit Griffin and I had gone to pick him up. (Whit was an undergraduate student at St. Andrews at the time and actively involved in the creative writing program.)
Ted had a rather formidable reputation. He had published over 100 books and chapbooks when I first met him and I knew that he was considered an avant-garde poet who wrote highly musical poems. In fact, he had studied musical composition with Nadia Boulanger who recognized his talent for writing and encouraged him to pursue poetry. Ted often said that he considered himself “a composer who happens to use words instead of notes.”
Waiting in the terminal I did not know what to expect that evening. His flight had been seriously delayed; Alison, his wife, had called a colleague worried about him and the delayed flight; and then Ted walked through the gate wearing a pair of jeans, his long gray hair pulled back into a ponytail, a walking stick in hand, a pierced ear, a broad smile, a pair of eyeglasses low on his nose, and a beard—a grand Fireside Poet’s white whiskers. Despite the delayed flight, Ted was in fine mettle and pleased to meet us. That evening the three of us became instantaneous friends.
On the drive back to campus, the conversation ricocheted from magic realism and Alejo Carpentier to mythology in The White Goddess, by Robert Graves, and firewood (Maine winters). Ted was quite impressed that Whit knew that Osage Orange is some of the hottest burning wood in the world. Ted and I also talked about Isak Dinesen. Ted had recently re-read the short story “Sorrow-Acre” and had been musing deeply over it. Fortunately, I had read most of Dinesen’s short stories, the magnificent memoir Out of Africa and a biography about her, so I was familiar with her work and her life. On that 45-minute drive what I remember most is that Dinesen was the most salient topic of conversation. Later, that fall, the St. Andrews Press would publish a chapbook titled Ring, by Ted Enslin, which is a long poem he wrote in response to Dinesen’s “Sorrow-Acre.” The poem had been brewing in his mind on the flight down from Maine and in his conversation on the drive back to campus.
Whit became close friends with Ted and had formally studied with him for one week one summer at his home in Maine. Ever since then Whit would visit him in Maine each year, sometimes twice a year. I also became close friends with Ted and spent numerous memorable occasions with him in Laurinburg, North Carolina; Milbridge, Maine; and the Outer Banks.
One such memorable occasion occurred on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Ted and Denver Butson, another poet and through whom I met Ted, were both at St. Andrews for the week to meet with students to discuss their poetry, to teach a few classes, and to read at the Thursday night Writers’ Forum. I had an 11:00 a.m. class, which was an introduction to creative writing. Ted and Denver were going to be guest lecturers that morning.
Between 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. I heard about the airplane attacks on the Twin Towers. At 10:30 a.m. I heard that the North Tower had collapsed. I had lived in New York City, in Chelsea, while getting my MFA at Columbia University, and I used to wake up each morning to the Twin Towers. I kept thinking and saying, “The North Tower collapsed? It collapsed? How is that possible?” I had imagined it plunging sideways over lower Manhattan, not imploding. Then the Pentagon attack. The South Tower collapsing. The crash into the Pennsylvania field. It was sheer pandemonium. Radio. Internet. Television. Telephone. Cell phone. President Bush on Air Force One. All flights canceled and all active flights grounded. Denver lived in Brooklyn with Rhonda (then his girlfriend, now his wife). No one knew if there were going to be more attacks. No one knew what was going on. Denver couldn’t reach Rhonda by cell phone or landline, because the systems were all overwhelmed.
Dazed the three of us walked into my classroom. Some students had not yet heard anything. Ted and Denver talked briefly about poetry and about the tragedy unfolding. And then I canceled class. The president of the university also canceled all classes for the rest of the day.
The three of us went to the Pine Acres Lodge where Ted and Denver were staying. All the rest of the day we sat in Ted’s motel room and watched television while Denver kept trying to reach Rhonda. Eventually, he did, and she was fine but frightened. We really didn’t do anything except stare disbelievingly at the television screen all afternoon and all evening. At one point, for dinner, I drove to Kentucky Fried Chicken to buy a bucket of fried chicken. Part of my life history is that on the day of 9/11 I was with Ted Enslin and Denver Butson in a hotel room in Laurinburg, North Carolina, watching television and eating KFC.
Another memorable occasion happened the first time I visited Ted at his home in Milbridge, Maine, the summer of 2002. I also had the pleasure of meeting his wife Alison. On that visit, I saw and explored his eighteenth-century house. We then walked down the macadam road so many yards. At the start of a grassy lane, Ted pointed out Alison’s potting shed in the woods near the road. We strolled up the grassy lane through some woods and fields to Bloomside, a small A-frame cabin that is his writing studio.
I now had a vivid image of Ted at home in his poetic world in Maine. I could now see him ambling down the road each morning and hiking up the grassy lane to work in his studio. Ted moved to Maine in 1960 and had lived in Washington County ever since—it is difficult to separate Ted from Maine or Maine from Ted, so intertwined had the two become in his work and in his very existence. It is difficult for me to think that his fine intelligence, his poetic sensibility, and his generous nature are no longer part of this world. It is difficult for me to think that this good man is no longer walking up that grassy lane to his studio to write poetry.
Ted had always remained on the margins, literally and figuratively, away from the crowds and away from literary fashion. He was, as Herman Melville would say, an isolato, someone who remains isolated from the world to be able to function in the world. For decades Ted remained alone in his studio writing poetry, and he wrote book after book of poetry. Someone once said that he was the best-known unknown poet of his generation.
He not only wrote poems, but he also wrote letters in that studio. The summer of 2011 I knew something was wrong when I sent him some essays I had written with a brief note and did not receive a letter back from him within a few days. Ted was one of the most prolific letter writers I have ever known. If you sent him a letter, he would respond to it within a few days, and he corresponded with numerous writers, poets, and friends. In that studio he would write poetry, write letters, and listen to his beloved Mozart. That studio and those back fields and woods were his Walden.
In many ways he was similar to Henry David Thoreau in that he was a naturalist who loved the wildness of woods and fields and seas—and he had all three because Milbridge is a village on the Maine coastline. And that is one reason he loved the St. Andrews campus so much. On more than one occasion, he stayed in the Lake House. He enjoyed walking along the cypress swamp and Lake Ansley. He liked the geese, the ducks, the egret, the great blue heron. He could identify each tree and shrub and plant, common name and botanical name. As Thoreau writes in The Maine Woods:
“Is it the lumberman, then, who is the friend and lover of the pine, stands nearest to it, and understands its nature best? Is it the tanner who has barked it, or he who has boxed it for turpentine, whom posterity will fable to have been changed into a pine at last? No! no! it is the poet; he it is who makes the truest use of the pine—who does not fondle it with an axe, nor tickle it with a saw, nor stroke it with a plane—who knows whether its heart is false without cutting into it—who has not bought the stumpage of the township on which it stands. All the pines shudder and heave a sigh when that man steps on the forest floor. No, it is the poet, who loves them as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand.”
For 51 years, from 1960 to 2011, the Maine woods have shuddered and heaved a sigh each morning as Ted Enslin stepped on the forest floor to walk to his studio to write poetry.
Author Bio: Dr. Ted Wojtasik, an award-winning writer, holds two terminal degrees: an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in twentieth-century American literature from the University of South Carolina. He is the author of two novels and numerous short stories. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, NC.