Thursday, June 4, 2009
R.I.P. Bill Witherup
Poet William Witherup died yesterday afternoon, of leukemia. I didn't know him, but a friend of mine did. Bill's sister, Sandy, had told his friend, Luis Tijerina, that Bill was dying. Luis had talked with him just three weeks ago, when Bill told him he had a flu that he "just couldn't get rid of." The diagnosis of cancer came as a complete surprise.
They had been friends for many years, and had had several discussions, in the past, about death.
Luis wrote a farewell poem to Bill, in which he recalled:
the last time we walked in a neighborhood park in Seattle,
both of us holding the hands of my little son,
while you talked to me about the poetry of Machado ...
..... how you told me there was nothing
like cherry pie, a good woman, and a shot of whiskey...
I will remember all our talks over the years.
We all die, even the girl next door dies.
But you, dear Friend, you will live on
in a crimson flame of words
shaking, like a mighty wind,
the complacency of our small lives.
In life, Witherup's "dedication to poetry remained unrelenting.".
Click here to see a video interview in which he reads several of his poems.
"As I got older, I got more radical..." he says in the interview. Bill Witherup wrote poems about the things that mattered to him: social injustice, war, nuclear proliferation, radioactive contamination, isolation and ... loneliness.
Poets who turn burning, deeply personal issues into poems. This turns some people off, I've discovered. People don't want to hear another impassioned screed against the war, racism, or that nuclear power plants contaminate the environment and cause cancer.
I like poets who wake us up. Make us think. Paint with words the images that jar us out of our self-absorption, remind us there's a world outside our writing world, encourage us to actually try to DO something about the things that gravely concern us.
These lines of Witherup's poem "On the Death of Theodore Roethke", sadly, now apply to Bill, himself, as well:
He laid down his pen and went out,
feeling the weight of his flesh,
sensing his time of singing was done... 
The death of any poet is always a loss. These poet-'singers' may now be voiceless, but their 'song' of words are still read.
Rest in peace, Bill Witherup.
Update: June 11, 2009: Bill's Obituary in the Seattle Times.