Sargent : Remembering a Friend and Poet
Robert Sargent, 93, long a mainstay of poetry in the nation’s
capital, died on April 24, 2006. Although he had been in declining health
following a stroke in 2004, Bob lived in his Capitol Hill home, sound
of mind, until his death, due to the daily care and attention of his
wife, Mary Jane Barnett.
Bob and I met in about 1980 and quickly became good friends. For more
than 20 years, we got together once or twice a week for lunch, for a
while at Tunnicliff’s across from the Eastern Market, where the
owner framed and hung one of Bob’s poems on the wall. Later, when
Tunnicliff’s was sold and became too trendy, we switched to Jimmy
T’s on East Capitol Street, where the waiters didn’t have
to ask what Bob was ordering—it was always the same: one egg,
one pancake and one order of bacon, along with lots of black coffee.
Our conversations over the years covered a multitude of mutual interests,
poetry, of course, and literature in general, but also politics, where—rare
among DC poets—we both had favorable opinions of President Bush.
He also loved to talk about people, not just idle gossip—though
there was some of that—but good stories about the trials, triumphs
and loves of friends and family, including those in his native Mississippi
and scattered around the country. In time, I also became friends with
his son Bobby, his daughter Mary and his grandson Billy.
Because Bob was 26 years older than I, some friends commented we had
a “father-son” relationship, but to me—and I think
to Bob as well—we were simply good friends. I was present when
he and Mary Jane were married and when Mary Jane and her father returned
from China with the infant Lula. Bob, gently prodding about my personal
life following my divorce, took the news that I am gay calmly. “I’m
surprised but not shocked,” he said, and our friendship never
skipped a beat.
Bob began writing poetry in the 1950s while still an engineer at the
Pentagon. After his retirement, poetry was a passion he was to pursue
full-time for the rest of his life. In eleven books of poetry, he wrote
about family, his native South, art, love, the Bible, and as he noted
in one of his poems, “the built-in thinness of things.”
Bob’s first book of poetry, Now Is Always the Miraculous Time,
was published by Washington Writers’ Publishing House in 1977.
Others included Aspects of a Southern Story in 1983, Fish
Galore in 1989, and Stealthy Days in 1998. He published
his last book, Lula and I, about his young adopted daughter,
in 2004 when he was 91.
In addition to his books, Bob’s poems were published in a number
of literary journals, including Antioch Review, New York
Quarterly, Georgia Review, Poetry Review, Prairie
Schooner, Western Humanities Review and many others. His
poems also appeared in a number of anthologies, including Poetry magazine’s
The Poetry Anthology, featuring the best poems of its first
90 years. His last publication was earlier this year in an anthology,
Jazz Poems, published in London.
The sound of poetry was also important to Bob, and he loved to give
readings. “You’ve known me long enough,” he once told
me, “to know that I’m not modest.” And no wonder:
When he completed a reading at the Library of Congress, the audience
rose and gave him a standing ovation. Indeed, his crafted theatrical
style and enduring Southern accent made his public readings—at
the Folger Shakespeare Library, Miller Cabin, the Writers’ Center
and many other venues—memorable poetry events.
For years, he also read at the Corcoran for the art classes of artist
and photographer William Christenberry. While Bob read his poems, Christenberry’s
students sketched the distinguished wrinkled visage of this genial poet,
as fine a collaboration of art forms as I have ever seen.
Bob participated fully in the work of sustaining the Washington poetry
community, serving as an officer or member of Washington Writers Publishing
House, The Word Works, the Folger Poetry Advisory Committee and the
Capitol Hill Poetry Group. In 1996, he received the Poetry Committee’s
Columbia Merit Award. Over the years, he also spent time at artist communities
such as Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the MacDowell Colony.
To say that he was a Renaissance man probably understates reality, for
Bob was a man of great intellectual appetite and enthusiasm in many
areas. He had that rare attribute of being equally at home in the arts
and in science. Thus, he was not only a student of poetry, art, literature,
history, jazz and philosophy, but of physics and mathematics as well.
As a young man, he worked for two years to reproduce the mathematics
of the theory of special relativity, completing the task after a letter
from Einstein helped him over one last hurdle. Later in life, deeply
impressed with philosophical pragmatism, he studied briefly with philosopher
Richard Rorty, then at the University of Virginia. Beginning when he
was 17, Bob kept a list of books he had read, which at his death numbered
Bob was born in New Orleans in 1912 and grew up in Mississippi, where
he graduated from Mississippi State University in 1933 with a degree
in electrical engineering. He also did graduate work at Bowdoin College
in Maine, where he worked on the early development of radar, and the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During World War II, he served
in the Navy. Following the war, Bob transferred to the Pentagon, where
he worked in defensive weapons technology until he retired in 1972.
During his tenure at the Pentagon, he received the Distinguished Civilian
Service Award from the Secretary of the Navy.
The Saturday before Bob died on Monday, I sat by his bed and read some
of his poems aloud to him. He looked tired and kept his eyes closed,
but he knew I was there. After reading one of his Biblical poems, I
said, “Bob, that’s a fine poem.” He chuckled and a
big smile appeared on his face.
Bob is survived by his wife, Mary Jane Barnett; his daughter Lula Jane
Sargent; and two children by a previous marriage, Mary Sargent of New
York City and Robert Sargent, Jr., of Brevard, North Carolina.
Hastings Wyman was a member of the
Capitol Hill Poetry Group for a number of years. In 1982, Washington
Writers’ Publishing House published his book of poems, Certain
Patterns. He is the editor of Southern Political Report.
Published in Volume 7, Number 4, Winter 2006.
To read poems by Robert Sargent: