“Famous poets” is an oxymoron, words coupled together with seemingly opposite purposes. Ask the person sitting next to you on a flight to anywhere to name three explorers, inventors, or U.S. presidents, and you’ll get your trio before taking off.
Ask for three famous poets, and you’ll watch a movie, read a novel, and eat a bag of pretzels before hearing Shakespeare and, if you’re lucky, Robert Frost.
Within local writing communities, however, such as our far west suburban Fox Valley, Frank Rutledge was famous. Not in the celebrity sense that he needed adulation, but rather due to his unceasing passion for poetry and short prose. He was someone people listened to, learned from, even modeled themselves after.
Frank died at age 56 on January 3rd, 2019, at home, of heart-related complications. Those remembering Frank will surely recall his startling word combinations and rhythmical lines; his critical acumen serving him well as editor and facilitator; and his gentle, humble, nurturing personality.
I want instead to resurrect his performances. At public readings, Frank would wave his free hand, the one not holding the page on which he’d written or typed his work.
Or no, wait, it wasn’t a wave, if waving means signaling “Hello” to someone not yet arrived, or saying “Farewell” to someone receding out of sight. Rather, Frank’s hand moved in the moment, gesticulated with an energy wired to his words, his lines, his voice.
He conducted his words as a maestro does an orchestra, fingers and forearm his baton, his symphonic sound filling his auditorium, be it Water Street Studio, Graham's 318, or Limestone Coffee and Tea, the latter linked to Frank as lovingly as Hemingway's La Closerie des Lilas, or the Beat poets' City Lights Bookstore.
Picture Frank reading. His left arm, hand, and fingers, free to wander, dance with the music of his words. They show (don’t tell) his listeners all they need to know about the artist whose life was directed by his writing—shared, published, discussed, loved.
On the Waterline Writers web site, Frank answers an interviewer’s question regarding which litterateurs he would like to dine with: “I would like to go to a fine Thai restaurant with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Then after our stomachs are satiated, discuss the deeper things of life over coffee. Or maybe share a picnic and balloon ride with Emily Dickinson.”
I can almost hear Frank, Emily, and Ralph, ensconced in a window table at Batavia’s Thai Village restaurant:
“Walking through Red Oak Nature Center,” Frank is saying, “I totally get your bit about being part and particle of God.”
“You become a transparent eyeball,” Ralph follows up.
“Really?” Frank says. “That’s the best image you could come up with? Sounds like an ophthalmologist’s nightmare.”
“Cool it, Frank,” Emily puts in. “Read one of your poems so I can feel like my head’s being taken off, the proof of good poetry.”
I'll leave you with Frank's own words, a near-haiku to decollate the most granite of necks, from Clothed in August Skin (available on Amazon, as are his other works), "When in Prayer":
Like Gregorian chants on Compact Disc,
this heart and mind attempt
translation into spirit.
• Rick Holinger lives in Geneva, teaches at Marmion Academy, and facilitates Geneva library’s writing workshop. His fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in numerous literary journals.