In tribute: Philip Dake Church, 1935-98
Editor's note: On November 14, 1998, Kenyon alumni, past and present members of the College's administration, faculty, and staff, and students gathered in Kenyon's Church of the Holy Spirit for a memorial service for Professor of English Philip Dake Church, who died on June 17, 1998. (See the obituary in the Spring/Summer 1998 issue of the Bulletin.) The following tributes were among several delivered at the memorial service.
From David L. Bergman '72:
Now that I've been a teacher for more than twenty-five years, I know that you don't go into a classroom expecting to change anyone's life. You go there to teach composition, or British literature, or modern poetry, hoping that most of the students will stay interested and that a few will take something insightful with them after the course is over. And that's it; that's all you want to do because the responsibility of doing more is a burden no teacher wants to carry. Being a good teacher is a joy; being a great teacher is a curse. Phil Church was saddled with being a great teacher. He didn't just change my life--he saved it. For that he paid a price, and it is a sign of his generosity and love that he never complained of how much teaching me had cost him.
What made him a great teacher was that every class was small drama--would understanding be reached? But is was not our understanding that was in doubt, it was his. He reached each work as though he hadn't seen it before. Sometimes he was so engaged by his attempts to reach the heart of the poem that he seemed to forget that the class was even there. Not that the work was ever the enemy--it was the beloved, waiting for an embrace, a pulsing, palpable, protean thing. The enemy was the distance between him and the work. Phil made reading a heroic act--something that requires determination and sacrifice before it allows you access. What made Phil a great teacher was that he allowed you to watch him tease, cajole, and slither into the poem. He let you see him get hung up on the barbed wire, or trapped in a blind alley so that he'd have to retrace his steps and try to find his way again. You were never sure that he'd find his way, and he showed no shame at his failures. Nothing has taught me more about how to read than watching Phil reading. It was exhausting, frightening, and utterly beautiful.
But Phil gave me much more than that lesson in reading. I'm sure that he and Barbara had no idea what they were getting into when at the end of my freshman year they invited me for dinner. I looked harmless enough. I hadn't grown the dark beard that wreathed my jaw for thirty years and gave me a slightly grizzled but severe appearance. I had done well enough in his freshman writing class. Not brilliantly. He thought others wrote better and had them placed out of freshman writing, but not me. Still Phil liked my poems, which if for nothing else were poems, or so he said.
He could not have thought I was a very likeable student. I was peevish, opinionated, and hard to satisfy. I wasn't content until the text--like the lamp in Shelley's poem--is "shattered" and the "light in the dust lies dead." But now as I think of it, perhaps it was this very quality that attracted Phil.
Had I seemed more of a cowboy, I think Phil would have known to keep his distance--he would have seen that I was a danger. But he was taken in by my politeness, my city manners. Until the end, he regarded me as a bit too civilized, too polished. It is ironic that the students he had the greatest effect on--students like Dan Epstein and Ross Posnock and Richard Katz--were the urban Jews who stood poles apart from his beloved Furnace Harbor.
I remember only one topic of conversation from the first dinner Barbara and Phil gave me my freshman year. Phil had this cockamamie notion, which I don't even think he believed, that all Kenyon students should be taught surveying. "For all the money your parents are paying, at least you should learn a useful trade," he argued. He had all sorts of reasons to learn surveying, but they all boiled down to the fact that we'd "learn the lay of the land," his metaphor for bringing our sophisticated notions back down to earth. The last time I visited Phil he had me rake leaves out of a pond. He wasn't happy until I was covered with muck.
Back home during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I began drifting into the most serious of the depressions that have recurred with some regularity throughout my life--the curse of the Kenyon poets. In September, when I returned to Kenyon, I was in bad shape, but I would get far worse. Throughout the year I would spiral further and further down. The worst time of day was late afternoon, when the dark descended with a weight that was almost crushing. I got in the habit of walking out to the Church's house--the girls would be glad to see me, or so I thought--and Barbara and Phil did not complain.
All nineteen-year-olds are self-absorbed and fail to notice the pain they give to others. But depression had left me virtually imploded. Phil was always the person who needed long stretches of time to be alone with himself. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for him to give up much of his solitude. But he let me stay until the night had fallen, distracting me from the agonizing diminution of light. If Phil complained, I didn't hear him. He didn't even pull back very much as far as I could tell. Eventually when I was hospitalized, the first person I saw was Barbara, who had been called in to draw my blood. "I thought it would be you," she cheerily said. I think they both knew how bad I was.
Together, Phil and Barbara saved my life, saved me from the madness that seemed to be eating away at the periphery of my vision. They never asked me what was troubling me--I would have told them had I known. I was saved by their kindness, their presence, and what Phil knew was the best medicine: poetry. It didn't take much to get Phil to grab a book off the shelf and start reading aloud. And then the two of us would be lost in the sounds of the poem, in the great urgency of language that salved our wounds, in the power of a poem to take shape in the very act of reciting it. I was always closest to Phil when he was reciting.
But Phil has exacted his vengeance. He loved to recite Yeats's "The Fisherman," in which Yeats calls for a man with a
And his grey Connemara cloth
[who] Climb[s] up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth...
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream.
And he pledges to him: "Before I am old/I shall have written him one/Poem maybe as cold/And passionate as the dawn." It is an impossible goal, of course. Phil knew it. But having planted it in my mind, he can take some pleasure in knowing that I am doomed to spend my life hoping to write for him lines that would please him, a poem "maybe as cold/And passionate as the dawn."
From Michael K. Berryhill '67:
Our lives pass a point and do not
Pass, where we are busy, yet grown still.
--from "Furnace Harbor," 1966
A set of wind chimes hanging outside my door is ringing, tolling my grief. This morning I opened a letter from the Kenyon English department and burst into tears at the first sentence: Philip Church, my teacher, my friend, had died this summer. The College would mourn him publicly in two weeks' time. As the chimes toll, I cannot help but think of the buoy bell that rings at the opening of Furnace Harbor, Phil's life's work as a poet. That poem brought us together and, in a way, broke us apart.
In the fall of 1963, we were freshmen at Kenyon together. He had come straight from graduate school at the University of Michigan, with a Hopwood prize in poetry under his belt and a dissertation to write. He made it clear that the Hopwood prize meant more to him than his dissertation, and that poetry was far more important for us to understand than criticism, though it was still, as Randall Jarrell had written, the age of criticism and not yet, thankfully, the age of deconstruction.
I had grown up in Houston, Texas, but my mother was from Gambier, the daughter of a College carpenter. She had been John Crowe Ransom's baby sitter. She had waited tables at her stepmother's soda shop and served Robert Lowell and Peter Taylor and Randall Jarrell. If Kenyon had accepted women, she was likely to have attended. And she had a vague urge to write. So like many children, I picked up one of my parents' broken dreams and set out to fulfill it. I was returning to Kenyon to be a writer. How that was to happen, I hadn't a clue.
Ransom was long retired. Jarrell and Lowell and Taylor had gone on to other places. The Kenyon Review had been in decline. Denham Sutcliffe, the revered chair of the English department, was to die my freshman year. The department still had brilliant teachers and scholars, of course, but they were not writers.
Church was Sutcliffe's experiment: a poet, not out of the Kenyon School of Letters, not a man of New England or the deep South, not a scholar-poet steeped in classicism, but a poet of the raw Midwest, with a healthy suspicion of academic poetry and the critical tradition that had made Kenyon's literary reputation. It was my good luck to have Church for the year-long class in freshman literature, a class rich with great books and great poems, made all the richer by my teacher.
He was only ten years older than I was. He had a high voice, thinning hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a rumpled look. When he got to the platform, you never knew what he would say, but whatever he said, it would come out of total engagement with his students and with the literary text. No ulterior purposes here, no religion, no philosophy, certainly no ultimate Critical Truth. Watching Church talk about a poem (and he was usually talking about poems, not poetry) was like watching a man wrestle a bear. The bear was going to win, all right, because he was bigger, stronger, and wilder, but only just. The bear was in for a hell of a fight.
I was, I like to think, his most devoted freshman student, and he cut me no slack. I still have all the papers I wrote for him somewhere, kept to remind me what the standards were when I was teaching freshman English myself. He wrestled with my papers just as he wrestled the bear of poetry, regarding them with love and skepticism and a belief that we were both after the same thing: clarity, emotion, insight, acceptance of our limits, but extending those limits as far as we could.
Writing meant taking risks. I can still remember my disappointment with the C he gave me for a paper on Walden, written a bit like Walden, he said, but disjointed, confused. And a paper on Huckleberry Finn when I had pulled out the rhetorical stops: "Another scorcher!" he wrote. But what mattered most of all was not the final comment but the comments all over the paper. He was so completely engaged.
He taught me as much out of class as in class. He had studied with the poets Donald Hall and Radcliffe Squires at the University of Michigan, but his true teacher was the Michigan poet Theodore Roethke. How many times did we stay up late drinking the remnant of some fraternity's keg, reading poetry aloud? Invariably Philip would begin with Roethke's "The
Lost Son": "At Woodlawn, I heard the dead cry . . ." he would intone with a dirge-like sonority, and we were gone, as the Beats would say, gone, gone, gone.
I have heard it said that what a great teacher teaches is not his subject but his personality, not the subject so much as his belief in the subject. What Phil Church taught was a belief in being a writer, and a disgust with anyone who writes for fame, or attention, or praise, or any of the many traps of the literary game. Writing was about something higher, farther, better than our fears and appetites, and it was not to be betrayed. Above all, literature was not to be turned into a business.
So, of course, holding these beliefs, he was as irascible, stubborn, and cantankerous as he was open, approachable, and generous. He gave me what every young man needs: praise and encouragement, and the skeptical, thoughtful regard of an equal, not always an easy thing to do when the College expected boundaries to be set between teachers and pupils. He couldn't do otherwise. He was so alive with teaching and poetry.
And then, of course, there was his wife, Barbara, the liveliest, brightest, prettiest of women, who dealt with Philip head on, out in the open, without the least bit of meanness or pouting, and with so much laughter. They showed me what a marriage of equals meant. They wanted to pay me to babysit his daughters, Brooke and Susan, who were toddlers, but I wanted nothing in return but a home-cooked meal and their conversation.
When I graduated in 1967, my mother drove to Gambier and found me at the Churches' house, high in a tree, cutting down a dead limb as a favor to Phil. I was young and nimble and he didn't need to be climbing that tree, and I could do it in a trice. Besides, the limb hung over the patio where we sat and drank sangria after mammoth games of croquet in the meadow.
Perhaps, inevitably, there had to be a falling out. In 1966, I edited an issue of Hika with poems from outside contributors. At the center of the issue we had John Crowe Ransom's revision of his poem, "The Vanity of the Bright Young Men," and a poem by Allen Ginsberg. The final poem was "Furnace Harbor," at seven pages the longest one in the book, and one that I felt proudest of, because, though we had many well-known poets in the magazine, this poem, I felt, was closest to the heart of its author.
I knew Philip had ambitions for it, and that it might very well be a long time in being completed. I also knew that Philip was in no hurry. He was going to follow the poem where it took him. After my first year of graduate school, I drove east to New York and stopped in Gambier to visit. I had new poems to show him, and he had a greatly enlarged version of "Furnace Harbor." I thought that it had become swollen and formless. He in turn thought my poems were academic, wound up too tightly.
Both of us were probably right and wrong. But it hurt. And so the relationship ended. We had a brief encounter at a reunion in the early 1980s, where I danced with Barbara and the grown-up Susan, both of them dazzling, and Phil razzed me for moving in on his women. But we couldn't get it back. Too much time, too much geography.
And then the letter arrived with the news of his death, and I understood, really understood that he had never left me. How could he when he had given me everything? He had reinforced my calling to write, he had underlined what was important: the urgency of the quest, the importance of persistence. He showed me how to teach. He showed me how to love, both poems and, more importantly, other human beings.
I pulled down the old Hika and looked up "Furnace Harbor," as I first saw it in 1966, and came across these lines that might serve as his epitaph:
Our lives pass a point and do not
Pass, where we are busy, yet grown still.
These lines are metaphysically taut, it seems to me (how many times did he say in his lectures, "It seems to me"?), a throwback to the poetry he was trying to work his way out of. He doesn't seem to have kept them in the book-length version, and if he didn't, well, we could have another fight over that if he were still here, and how I wish he were still here. It suits me to read them, to savor them, to wrestle with them, like a man wrestling with a bear.
Associate Professor of English William F. Klein proposed the following "Memorial Minute" for Church, which was adopted at the Faculty Meeting of September 28, 1998:
Phil Church's career as a teacher as well as poet, critic, and editor was rooted in the University of Michigan. There his first teacher, the poet Donald Hall, introduced him to the life of letters, and there he wrote poetry that won prizes. But it developed in its own special way in Kenyon and Gambier in the mid 1960s. Phil Church came to the College in 1963 at the invitation of Kenyon's legendary English department chair, Denham Sutcliffe. In those days the lively spirits of Ransom's School of Letters still haunted Gambier Village. It was an exciting and challenging place for a young man with high ambitions.
To establish his ground as a teacher, he became expert in the daunting modern writers, particularly Yeats, Joyce, and Faulkner. He developed a personal and passionate style of teaching that surprised and delighted both the sophisticated students as well as the as yet unreading. Thirty-five years of crowded class rooms testify to the wide variety of students his artless art called to the reading of the difficult books. "He would do a very courageous thing," says writer David Bergman '72. "He would show the students exactly how he was thinking, feeling, wondering, never afraid to show the boundaries of knowledge. He taught us to enlarge the field of discourse."
"For many generations of the College's students, Phil's courses have been legendary," English department chair Kim McMullen told the Kenyon Alumni Bulletin in June. "We are really going to miss him."
The zenith of Phil Church's public career occurred during his tenure as editor of the Kenyon Review, from 1983 until 1988. The work with story writers, critics, and poets drew him into conversations and engagement with a national literary community. He relished this work. I will never forget the delight on his face when he barged into my office thrusting a manuscript. "Klein," he said, "you have to read this!" It was Mary Hood's short story "Moths." In prejudiced hindsight, I think it the most beautiful story we published. Her first novel, Familiar Heat, was published by Knopf in 1995.
In 1987, with his coeditor Galbraith Crump, he was awarded the Outstanding Literary Editor Award by the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines. Recognition as an editor was followed immediately in 1988 by affirmation as a poet and teacher. The University of Illinois published his major claim to a poet's place, his book-length poem, Furnace Harbor, A Rhapsody of the North Country. And then, at home, the Senior Class awarded him the Senior Cup for excellence in teaching.
He paused for a deep breath and served as chair of the English department in the 1991-92 academic year.
Five years ago, he began to look toward retirement. There was time to step back, take stock, and consider what might come next. He talked about working on a collection of personal lyrics he had set aside but might be asking for renewed care. He tried his hand at some experimental short fiction. He continued his teaching and his compassionate concern for students, up to the last minute. A very short time before his death, Phil got out of bed and went to the Office of Financial Aid to plead the case of a student whose study at Kenyon had been jeopardized by an acute family crisis.
It was not difficult in the last few years to get the impression that Phil had become quiet and somewhat distant, but content and reflective as well. Though we had been office neighbors for twenty years, I did not learn until recently of his absorbing interests in opera and gardening. And these topics came into our passing conversations more and more frequently. Obviously, his manner and appearance had changed in time, but none of us saw any serious signs of illness in him as the semester ended. Still, within days he had died.
John Crowe Ransom, late in his life and with his characteristic irony, indicated that the career of the literary critic passes through three stages in its natural course. It begins in the compelling desire to know the ultimate reality of the poetic visions. Phil Church, we can be sure, began so. But the labored and longed-for revelations fail to come and, sooner or later, disappear like a mirage. The critic awakens in the night, and he tosses on his bed. This moment is private and invisible, so we cannot know that Phil Church knew it, but we can believe so. It would be the moment when he asked himself if he really sees what he thinks he sees, and whether this is the life for him. It is the crisis, and the danger is real. But, Ransom says, miraculously the fever is broken. The relief is very sudden: an explosion of laughter, as the honest critic confesses he cannot support his great ambitions, after which he will turn over and sleep like a babe, to awaken to bird calls by daylight like a man restored, for the time being.
We cannot know whether or when this consolation came to Phil Church, but there are signs that it did. Barbara Church reported that Phil did what he could to keep the cheer and confidence of the team of doctors who were struggling night and day to support his collapsing systems. They failed, catastrophically but not tragically.
Phil Church was fond of Yeats's poem "Lapis Lazuli," where we learn about the eyes of the old men. Amidst their wrinkles, the eyes of the old men are gay.
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