Poet and editor George Hitchcock, who died August 27th in Eugene, Oregon at age 96, always seemed larger than life. As an editor of the literary magazine Kayak, and the poetry press of the same name, George Hitchcock changed American poetry.

From 1964-1984, he edited and published sixty-four issues of Kayak. The magazine's contributors included Anne Sexton, W. S. Merwin, Philip Levine, Nancy Willard, Louis Simpson, Robert Bly, Kathleen Fraser, Diane Wakoski, Margaret Atwood, and Michael McClure, among luminous others.

For much of its life, Kayak was the magazine that poets wanted to be in. Produced at the beginning of an era in which small presses flourished, Kayak visually reflected the freewheeling spirit of its time with whimsical or surreal graphic accompaniment. Hitchcock invited open debate and controversy in the magazine and succeeded in creating what felt like a poetry salon in print. Kayak books were equally important, including the first two books by Charles Simic, second books by Philip Levine and Raymond Carver, translations by Merwin, and early books by Robert Bly and James Tate.

His poetry, surreal, romantic, political, playful, free, and sometimes formal, breathes an independence, wisdom, and wit that's memorable and restorative to the attentive ear and spirit. As an example from his book, A Ship of Bells, the poem "Dawn" is a vision from Celtic mysticism, a poetry of the natural world that has as much John Muir in it as W. B. Yeats. Written in the sixties, this poem reads today like a precursor to more recent poems of spiritual inquiry and the natural world.

Hitchcock also wrote novels and stories, which are often bizarre and exhilarating experiences, and plays that are elegant puzzles. His paintings, which he focused on for the last fifteen years of his life, are a great American art treasure waiting to be widely discovered.

As an unfriendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he gave some of the most memorable testimony ever aimed at that shameful body.

Though he came late to teaching, Hitchcock was brilliant in that role, too, mostly at UC Santa Cruz. The world of poetry feels a little more somber and sad with the passing of this remarkable and unforgettable man.

Copyright © 2010 by Robert McDowell. Used by permission of the author.