Yale Alumni Magazine

And why me again? Is that ‘right’?

I mean, morally, morally right — the wrong question

I ask because I was brought up to believe everything

Is either right or wrong. So is cancer ‘wrong’?

So reads an excerpt from “Radiology Days,” by renowned American poet and former editor of The Yale Review J.D. McClatchy GRD ’74, one of the last poems he published before he died on Tuesday from cancer. He was 72. He is survived by his husband, book jacket designer Chip Kidd and three sisters.

McClatchy’s propensity to write about his battle with cancer as he approached the end of his life epitomizes one of his greatest talents as a poet — his ability to “consistently [show] how poetry and art continue to flow into all aspects of one’s life, and that one’s life flows into one’s sense of art and its possibilities,” said Richard Deming, a colleague of McClatchy and the current director of Yale’s creative writing program.

Although foremost a poet, McClatchy was a literary jack-of-all-trades — a critic, anthologist, editor and opera librettist. During his prolific career, he published eight books of poetry, including the 2003 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, “Hazmat,” three books of criticism, 18 edited volumes and 16 acclaimed opera libretti, including an opera adaptation of “Our Town” and the Metropolitan Opera’s condensed English-language production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute.”

“Sandy was an all-around all-star man of letters. … He was serious about all those roles and threw himself into them, selflessly, in the service of art and literature,” Chair of the English Department Langdon Hammer ’80 GRD ’89 said. He did so much it was possible to lose sight of his central achievement, which he was modest about, in poetry.”

McClatchy became editor of The Yale Review in 1991 when, according to Hammer, “it had been left for dead.” But McClatchy raised the funds that endowed the Review and assured its future, establishing “a level of style and seriousness that few publications can match.” He remained editor until his retirement in 2016.

A “friend of poets everywhere,” McClatchy published most of the greatest writers of the day in the Review during his quarter-century tenure as editor, according to former Yale Review Editor and Head of Jonathan Edwards College Penelope Laurans. To Laurans, he was a “unifying presence” in the world of letters, at the center of the literary establishment.

She reflected fondly on a reading by a major poet McClatchy hosted several years ago in his Silliman College residential suite, a “glittery heady world of poetry” with a broad mix of famous literary figures and undergraduates invited.

In addition to his work as editor, McClatchy played a significant role in shaping the creative writing program at Yale, which was in its infancy when he began teaching poetry as an adjunct professor at Yale in 1991. In his role as a professor, he was one of the first people to take charge of the writing concentration, infusing “great excitement” in creative writing at Yale, Hammer said.

Deming attributes the fact that Yale has a creative writing program at all to McClatchy’s ability to “bring together a group of people and a form of community dedicated to uncovering the inner life of language by way of careful, unflinching attention.”

To Deming, the elegance and wit of McClatchy’s work as a poet, a teacher and a writer of prose show that writing and thinking must always go hand in hand — good writers must learn to do both as well as they can.

“He never let us forget why it matters to keep one’s standards high, that there are stakes for what we do and that art, in whatever form, asks only and always the best from us that we can give,” Deming said. “That’s his legacy and that’s what we have to live up to. We were lucky to have him as long as we did.”

Adelaide Feibel | adelaide.feibel@yale.edu