Joyce Hinnefeld


Friday, April 20, 2012

Remembering Len Roberts

I'm getting things ready for a weekend away with local Quaker friends, a family retreat at a camp in the Pocono Mountains, where I'll lead a two-hour workshop in which we'll read and write some poems. To get ready I've gone back to Len Roberts' fine To Write a Poem, a book I draw on a lot, perfect as it is for writers of all ages and levels of familiarity with poems.

It's been five years since Len died, after a startlingly brief illness. He was such a figure here in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania where I live, a generous teacher and dedicated poet, beloved by many friends. I didn't know him well, but I admired him and his work. That spring, in 2007, he judged a student poetry contest for me, and he planned to join poets Steve Myers and Marjorie Maddox in speaking to my Poetry Writing students on April 26. But on April 13 he wrote to say he wouldn't be able to make it, that some medical issues had come up, and on May 25 he died.

I've kept copies of his emails and have felt so sorry, for five years now, that I didn't know him better.

There's a wonderful archive of Len's poems, "The Len Roberts Memorial Reading Room," at Here are the final lines of one, "The Trouble-Making Yellow Finch":

. . . the finch
down there making a racket
worse than my father's
harmonica playing when
he was drunk, crumpling
into snow banks on the way
home without losing a beat,
the tune an after-midnight
whine that made the neighbors
turn on their lights and
hang their heads from cold
windows to shout Shut up
or Turn it off, the warbler
of Olmstead Street throwing
snowballs until the cops
would come and tuck him
into their car and take
him to his other home,
his absence then
as the finch's when
I look down to curse
him again only to find
him gone, the small
wings and maddening beak,
the somersaulter
among needled twigs
who had disturbed my peace
and brought my dead father
back with his showing-off-
zipping around and
his brief yellow streaks,
his fraction-of-an-ounce heart.

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