University of Rochester

By Ed Moran | April 20, 2016

Seventy-five years after it was written by a twenty-something college graduate—and long before that graduate became a Rochester professor—Hyam Plutzik’s eloquent Letter from a Young Poet still resonates with today’s millennials in their quest for life’s calling. Addressed to Odell Shepard, Plutzik’s mentor at Trinity College, the 72-page letter is a “song of the self and the soul,” in the words of poet Daniel Halpern, who wrote the Foreword to the book, published in 2015 by Trinity’s Watkinson Library.

With its title inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s acclaimed Letters to a Young Poet, Letter from a Young Poet can be read as Plutzik’s response to Rilke’s mentorial admonition to his young poet friend to “have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your hear . . . live in the question.”

Plutzik would continue to ask ever deeper questions for the rest of his life. Early in his career at the University, Plutzik committed himself wholeheartedly to following his poetic muse. In a 1950 article for the Poetry Society of Rochester, speaking on behalf of poets everywhere, he wrote: “We must stay alive, must write then, write as excellently as we can. And if out of our labors and agonies there appears, along with our more moderate triumphs, even one speck of the final distillate, the eternal stuff pure and radiant as a drop of uranium, we are justified.”
But mortal poets, unlike Athena, do not spring full-blown from the brows of the gods. Typically, a poet’s “final distillate” is the result of a lifetime of engagement with the radioactive element known as language. “Nobody ever said a poet’s life is supposed to be easy,” declared the late Hayden Carruth in the 2006 documentary film Hyam Plutzik: American Poet. “It’s not—poets are supposed to do hard work..

This letter foreshadows Plutzik’s eminent career as a poet and as the Deane Professor of Poetry and Rhetoric at the University from 1945 until his untimely death in 1962, at age 50. During his 17-year tenure here, he became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three times, for Aspects of Proteus (1949), Apples from Shinar (1959), and Horatio (1962). Following his death, the Plutzik Reading Series was established in his honor, bringing many of the world’s leading poets and authors to the campus at no charge to audiences.

Reflecting on the illustrious history of the series, now in its 54th year, former series director Jarold Ramsey wrote: “At bottom, we have shared the conviction, inherited from Hyam Plutzik himself, that contemporary poetry and fiction matter greatly, most especially in intellectual communities like Rochester, and that local visits by active writers are worth the having.”

…Like many 20-somethings fresh out of college, (Plutzik) confronted the “terrible weight of the big city” with an admixture of trepidation and anticipation, pondering where his destiny lay while working hard in such a daunting environment.  (excerpt follows) 

The school year came to an end, and I left Yale as meek as a whipped dog. The trouble, I suppose, was that I had done things half-heartedly. If I hated graduate work and thought it a waste of time, I should have had the courage to break away cleanly; on the other hand, since I had decided to hang on, I should have decided to do well what I was supposed to do. What actually happened was that I changed back and forth without decision from my school work to the other literary interests, and ended up confused and desperate.

This was the summer of 1934. I went down to New York, where my folks had moved, and I resolved that the first thing I should do would be to get a job and support myself. I needed that as a prerequisite to my self-respect.
But jobs in those days were few. An air of stringency seemed to hang about New York, and people talked and talked, and felt that their foothold in our system had slipped, and hardness and cynicism were to be met everywhere. There is nothing so devastating as to feel that one has no place in the commonwealth in which one lives; that one is superfluous. That summer was, I think, the unhappiest time of my life. I am sure that in my old age, if ever I should become fearful of change and indifferent to the struggles and idealisms of the young, a turning of my memory to the experiences of that summer will surely bring tolerance. I have had other intervals of unemployment since then, but for the latter I was already armored. The first experience, however, was like the sun beating down on a lidless eye.

Excerpted from Letter from a Young Poet by Hyam Plutzik with a foreword by Daniel Halpern, published by The Watkinson Library at Trinity College Copyright © 2015 Trinity College and the Estate of Hyam Plutzik. Used with permission.