Remembering David Clewell: Missouri Poet Laureate and Honored Professor
February 16, 2020
ST. LOUIS - David Clewell, Missouri's poet laureate from 2010-2012, author of 10 collections of poetry and more than 50 other works that appeared in various publications, and a long-time professor of literature at Webster University, passed away early Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, his relatives confirmed. He was 65.
Former Missouri Governor Jay Nixon once noted that Clewell "has a unique perspective on contemporary American life and the characters and ideas that loom large in our recent history.”
"David's voice--on the page and in his public readings — gripped audiences with the rightness of his words to convey insights uniquely his own yet immediately recognizable for their truth,” said Webster University Chancellor Elizabeth (Beth) J. Stroble. “His signature style conveyed warmth and good humor. I loved hearing David read, and I will long remember the delight he created as he invited us to look anew at ourselves and the life and times in which we live. Many will remember David for his generosity in advising fellow writers, my family included. I am grateful to have been the beneficiary of not only his impactful writing but his collegial encouragement. The gift of his poetry will be with us as we mourn his loss."
As Clewell would often say when explaining his methodology of writing poetry, “When I say I, it isn’t always me.”
Clewell was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1955 and was born to be an artist, he recounted in interviews. He picked up the trumpet at an early age and developed a love for jazz. At the same time, he also discovered literature and spent so much time at his local bookstore that the store owner eventually hired him, allowing him to spend his high school years working nearly 40 hours a week after school. Clewell called it a “parallel education” in literature.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Washington University St. Louis. He joined Webster University’s faculty in 1985 as an English and creative writing professor. Within one year, he would make an impact at Webster by creating the Webster University Visiting Writers Series, which he coordinated until his death.
“David was not a poet — he was the Poet!” said Webster University President Julian Z. Schuster. “Like Andrei Voznesensky, whose poetry he greatly appreciated, David was one of the so-called ‘children of the '60s,’ a generation of thinkers who tasted intellectual freedom during the Cold War era. His innovative verse thrilled readers and irked those for whom humanism, solidarity, and love were just confusing emotions. David’s poems are striking in their use of direct language and imagery and full of a passionate but intellectually subtle moral fervor. His work will live on, in multiple volumes of poetry, in the writing styles of the thousands of students who passed through his classroom, and in the memories of his tens of thousands of fans who felt a personal connection to his powerful words and cadence. As Voznesensky wrote: ‘A poet can't be in disfavor/ he needs no awards, no fame/ A star has no setting whatever/’ no black nor a golden frame/…/What matters is music and fervor/ not fame, nor abuse, anyway…’ Goodbye, my friend.”
“David Clewell was a beloved member of the Department of English. He was a prolific writer and well respected in his field of poetry earning numerous awards and recognitions for his work,” said Dean of Webster’s College of Arts and Sciences Anton (Tony) Wallner. “His contributions to his profession, Webster University and our students will continue to have a lasting impact. We are all saddened by this loss.”
Clewell once said his love of poetry started at a young age. "Shortly after the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Bob Stephens read every word of Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ out loud to his 8 a.m. Freshman English class at Highland Park High because he honestly believed that words, used well, had the power to change lives. Small wonder, then, that he was the person to show me the first poems I actually cared about in mine," Clewell told a reporter from Geosi Reads.
He was a prolific writer who still preferred to use pen and paper and a typewriter, instead of a computer, and was notorious for spending hours upon hours in his on-campus office, reading, writing, editing and rewriting. Some colleagues called him “a hermit,” due to the amount of time he spent in his office. The work paid off, as he published 10 volumes of poetry over the years and published more than 50 other works in various magazines, collections and anthologies.
His work earned him admiration at the highest levels, leading to his appointment as Missouri’s Poet Laureate from 2010-2012. Clewell later said that he enjoyed this time, as it allowed him to read his poetry in prisons, on factory floors, in farm fields and in other locations where he felt that his poetry had better resonance.
Other honors earned include the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry for his collection, “Now We're Getting Somewhere,” the Lavan Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets; and the 1989 National Poetry Series, for “Blessings in Disguise.” In 2017, the Webster Groves Art Commission honored Clewell with the Lifetime Achievement in the Arts award.
Clewell lived in Webster Groves with his wife Patricia and son Ben, a Webster alumnus, who graduated in 2018.