Sunday, August 8, 2010

James Fowler Endargo

He ended his own life at age 52 while suffering from crippling despair. But in the years between his all-American upbringing in Appleton, Wisconsin in the post-World War II era and his descent into a deep and incurable depression in the early-1990s, James Fowler Endargo lived fully and creatively, producing one of the most influential bodies of poetical work in the 20th century.

Poets rarely achieve great fame, but Endargo's particular circumstances - his complete mastery of the short lyrical form, his movie-star looks, his four marriages to beautiful and powerful women, and his knack for self-promotion - resulted in talk show appearances and wide advertising exposure that turned him into a household name and launched him as one of the most recognizable faces of the 1960s. Endargo was a great writer, but even more so he was a winning personality whom the general public found irresistible. His simple, often stark poems appealed to a surprisingly broad swath of the reading public and his face, plastered on buses and billboards everywhere, promoting everything from cigarettes to trench coats, never lost its allure. For many people in the 1960s, he was THE face of poetry and his brief, even abrupt lines spoke for a generation. His hyphenated phrases, declaring war the inseparable companion of peace, hate the necessary concomitant of love, deceit the partner of truth, echoed and reinforced the growing cynicism and hopelessness of his time. No one seemed to understand more clearly than Endargo that the great reforming spirit of the mid-1960s could not be sustained and that it must lead to an angry and selfish backlash. In this sense, he foretold the disorienting tragedies of My Lai, Watergate, and the Iran hostage crisis, and even as he captured the growing despair of this era in his own poetry fell victim to it as well, never fully recovering from a devastating drug habit and a disabling depression that shattered him when he was still only in his early 40s. But even as his creative imagination went dry, his dark, craggy, handsome face continued to bring him wealth, and his poetry readings, often treated like rock concerts, offered him the attention he always craved. Only when things had turned for the worst and he was no longer able to appear in public did his fans finally lose interest in their comely troubadour.

Following a kind of idyllic upbringing in Appleton, Wisconsin from 1939 to 1957, Endargo attended nearby Lawrence University for two years. He studied literature with legendary professor Yando Cling during this period, who in that short time introduced him to most of the important poetry produced in America, beginning with Whitman and Dickinson and continuing to Lowell and Bishop. Even then, Endargo began experimenting with the short lyric poem that became his trademark, writing a few of the poems that would be collected in his first volume of poetry called "A Blue Landmark," published in 1960. In 1959, Endargo moved to New York City and began to write reviews for Commonweal and Dissent. Declaring himself a socialist and then an anarchist, he participated in a series of civil rights demonstrations and appeared on television for the first time as a spokesperson for the beat-inspired group Americans for Holistic Liberation (AHL). His glib, charming manner and physical attractiveness drew interest and support and for many years to come he could be seen on public media promoting a wide range of causes. These early appearances led to an encounter with the fashion model Brook Tamarkin, soon thereafter his first marriage, and not long after that a bitter and very public break-up.

In 1965, when he was 26 years old, Endargo published his second volume of poetry to much acclaim, landing him on the cover of Time. This book entitled "Birding" was a strange and exotic mixture of nature poetry, presumably influenced by his Midwest experiences as a youth and the urban verse that made him famous. "Homing Pigeon" became the best known poem from this collection, with the final lines "rootless, homeless, free" perhaps the most famous he ever wrote, and still often emblazoned on T-shirts and greeting cards.

Endargo's next and most famous collection of poetry published in 1971 was "The Darkness Within." This, too, was showered with critical praise and led to his receiving his only Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Endargo's work, which was both accessible and topical, directly criticized US involvement in Vietnam, while at the same time attacking many of the youth protest movements of the time as a manifestation of spoiled privilege. Now at the peak of his fame, his marriage to the Hollywood starlet Sheila Blaine, widely covered in the popular press, quickly dissolved into another bitterly contested divorce, leading to a terrible bout with depression from which Endargo never fully recovered. (To be Continued)

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