In 1994 Donald Sheehan, then a member of the English Department at Dartmouth College, asked me to join him in preparing a course to be given together for the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth. Don’s idea was to design a course on ancient and modern lyric poetry that would focus on the links between the two eras. We did so together, and the course was so popular that we repeated it with variations at least three more times. Don knew how to bring students to poetry, to make it theirs,
whether it was the work of Sappho, Catullus, or Horace, or of Frost or Dickinson or Bishop. We would choose a focus theme and construct a syllabus. One of our courses, for example, was called “Voices of the Past Made Present, Ancient Poets, Modern Echoes and included works by and about Vergil, Dante, Shelley, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, and May Sarton. For me the experience of teaching with Don was a unique privilege. Don, who died in 2010 was Executive Director of the Frost Place in Franconia for thirty years. In fact, it was at his urging that I attended my first Frost Place Festival of Poetry in 1995. I have been attending Frost Place Festivals and Conferences ever since.
What was unique about Don, and what made it so wonderful to teach with him was not only his connection of some of the leading American poets who came to read, lecture, and teach at the Frost Place at his invitation but also his ability to make these poets live in the hearts of others. From him I learned to appreciate and read a bouquet of modern poets including Elizabeth Bishop, Ellen Bryant Voigt, B.H. Fairchild, Robert Haas and James Hoch. But it was not only Don’s intimate knowledge of modern poets and their works that made him so memorable as a fellow teacher and as the director of a noted annual poetry conference. Don was Eastern Orthodox, an intense believer, who lived a truly Christian life. His introductions each morning at the Frost Place Festival were memorable in their spirituality as well as their practical guidance. Of listening to the poems of others, he advised:
“If you must make a flash choice between sympathy and intelligence, choose sympathy. Usually these fall apart—sympathy becoming a mindless ‘being nice’ to everyone, while intelligence becomes an exercise in contempt. But here’s the great fact of this Festival: as you come to care about another person’s art (and not your own), then your own art becomes mysteriously better.”
There is deep wisdom and truth in this advice, and, when followed, it does transform one's art bringing it away from the self, giving it greater depth and connecting to the traditions that link all poets and poems.
Quoted by Hilary Mullins in her article “The Transfiguration of Donald Sheehan,” Numero Cinq Magazine, Vol 4, No. 8, August 2013, http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2013/08/06/the-transfiguration-of-don-sheehan-essay-hilary-mullins/.
After Don died, I wrote a poem about him “Elegy for a Good Man” which is published in my first book
All Roads Go Where They Will, Antrim House Books, 2010.
The poem concludes:
He knew the best bards of every age
and hosted the most successful poets
of our time at annual Frost Festivals,
but still he asked them to remember they were there
as colleagues among all the writers who attended,
despite rewards and accolades they’d garnered,
and when each festival commenced,
he spoke of love and generosity, of the vital need
to find the unique beauty in another’s work,
to value it as if it were our own – his legacy for us.