J.D. McClatchy, Poet of the Body, in Sickness and Health, Dies at 72

J. D. McClatchy at his home in Stonington, Conn., in 2016.

J. D. McClatchy, an American poet known for work whose cool formal sheen belied the roiling emotion below its surface, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 72.

His death, from cancer — an illness that had been grist for poems in recent years — was announced by Random House.

The author of eight volumes of poetry, Mr. McClatchy was considered one of the country’s foremost men of letters. He was also a prolific editor, anthologist, translator and critic, as well as the author of a string of acclaimed opera librettos, among them “Our Town,” for Ned Rorem’s setting of Thornton Wilder’s enduring drama of village life, and the Metropolitan Opera’s condensed English-language production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” designed by Julie Taymor.

Mr. McClatchy’s poems and essays appeared frequently in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review and elsewhere.

From his first book of poetry, “Scenes From Another Life” (1981), to his last, “Plundered Hearts” (2014), Mr. McClatchy’s work was esteemed for its elegance, erudition and impeccable technique. His subject was most often the body: as a vehicle for the expression of desire — erotic love between men was an echoing theme — as the repository for a wellspring of emotion and, increasingly, as a locus of decay.

In “His Own Life,” from “Plundered Hearts,” for instance, Mr. McClatchy wrote: “How in turn will I deal with the pain / Not of separation from but of attachment / To a body which has become a petulant / Tyrant?”

Critics sometimes took Mr. McClatchy to task for what they saw as an overreliance on surface polish and the conspicuous display of his vast learning. (His poems could invoke everyone from the writers of classical antiquity to Albert Camus to the filmmaker Jean Renoir.)

But the tension between a poem’s deceptively unruffled surface and the undertow beneath, as close readings of his work made plain, was precisely Mr. McClatchy’s point. Reviewing his 1986 collection, “Stars Principal,” in The Times Literary Supplement, the British periodical, the poet and critic Jay Parini observed:

“The poet appears to have found his subject — the labyrinth of self-deceit into which we are led by, among other things, language itself, by the difficult reformulation of one’s own story.”

For Mr. McClatchy, a poem could be the occasion for mordant humor, as in the opening lines of “Found Parable,” from his 1998 collection, “Ten Commandments”:

In the men’s room at the office today

some wag has labelled the two stalls

the Erotic and the Political.

The second seems suitable for the results

of my business, not for what thinking

ordinarily accompanies it.

So I’ve locked myself into the first because,

though farther from the lightbulb overhead,

it remains the more conventional

and thereby illuminating choice.

Mr. McClatchy had honed the craft of poetry, he often said, by listening to music, and even on the printed page the aurality of his work was striking.

“I have learned as much about writing a poem — that is to say, about the sort of poem I want to write — from listening closely to certain pieces of music as from reading other poems,” he once told the reference work Contemporary Authors. “This song by Fauré, that étude by Schumann, those vacant heaves of Mahler, the sweet-and-sour fantasias of Purcell, the slippery stones of a Bach courante, the dramatic build of a Verdi aria — these have taught me what I know about rhythm, enjambments and emotional transitions, the signifying strengths of the line and of pure sound.”

His work as a poet would repay that debt in full, standing Mr. McClatchy in fine stead as a librettist.

“Poetry was a good preparation, because it is as much an art of leaving things out as of putting things in,” he told The New York Sun in 2006. “That search for the perfect word or the balanced line comes in handy when you are working in a form that demands a great deal of concision, and where you have to turn over the emotional argument to the music.”

His operatic work includes original librettos for “Miss Lonelyhearts,” composed by Lowell Liebermann and based on the Nathanael West novel; “Orpheus Descending,” by Bruce Saylor, based on Tennessee Williams’s play; and “Dolores Claiborne,” by Tobias Picker. That work, based on Stephen King’s novel about a murderous heroine, was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera and later performed by New York City Opera.

Mr. McClatchy also wrote well-received English translations of European opera librettos, that, with their careful attention to stress and sound, were expressly designed to be sung. A book of his verse translations, “Seven Mozart Librettos,” was published in 2011.

The longtime editor of The Yale Review — he held the post from 1991 until his retirement last year — Mr. McClatchy wrote and edited many books of criticism.

He was known in particular for “Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics,” a 1978 essay collection he edited, as well as for volumes centering on Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose “Selected Poems” (2003) he edited for the Library of America, and James Merrill, a friend and poetic mentor for whom Mr. McClatchy served as a literary executor.

“Probably no American poet-critic since Randall Jarrell has written such beautiful prose or wielded such manifold and supple terms of analysis,” the novelist and critic Edmund White wrote in 1998, discussing Mr. McClatchy’s work as a literary essayist. “McClatchy analyzes poetry as only a poet could, with an insider’s knowledge of the craft.”

Mr. McClatchy was also a Thornton Wilder scholar — he edited the Library of America’s 2007 volume “Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater” — and that, too, proved a professional boon when he entered the operatic world.

Though the Wilder estate had perennially turned down requests to adapt “Our Town” as an opera (Aaron Copland had long sought to set it), Mr. McClatchy’s deep familiarity with Wilder’s work helped him secure permission to create the first opera based on the play. “Our Town,” with Mr. Rorem’s music, was given its premiere by Indiana University Opera Theater in 2006 and has since been performed by other companies.

Mr. McClatchy had begun writing very early in life, for, as he once explained, “what rhyme-dazed child, what ‘sensitive’ adolescent, what literary college student does not?”

The son of J. Donald McClatchy and the former Mary Jane Hayden, Joseph Donald McClatchy Jr., familiarly known as Sandy, was born in Bryn Mawr, Pa., on Aug. 12, 1945. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in English literature from Yale. He taught at Yale in the 1970s and early ’80s before decamping for a decade at Princeton. He rejoined the Yale faculty in the early 1990s.

Throughout his poetic career, as Mr. McClatchy said in a 2001 interview with The Advocate magazine, he sought to forge works “that mix autobiography and fiction in an effort to get to some sort of emotional truth.”

Over time, that emotional truth came to be bound up with illness: with the loss of friends to AIDS and with Mr. McClatchy’s own experience of cancer. One of his most acclaimed volumes of poetry, published in 2002 and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, makes the connection explicit in its title — “Hazmat” — which constructs the body as a fount of hazardous material.

Mr. McClatchy fell into opera by accident in the 1980s, when he was asked to write the libretto for “A Question of Taste,” by the composer William Schuman. An adaptation of a short story by Roald Dahl about wine snobbery carried to its most comically insufferable extreme, it received its premiere at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1989.

His other librettos include Mr. Picker’s “Emmeline,” based on Judith Rossner’s novel; Lorin Maazel’s “1984,” an adaptation of the George Orwell novel; and, with Ms. Taymor, Elliot Goldenthal’s “Grendel,” based on John Gardner’s “Beowulf”-inspired novel.

Among Mr. McClatchy’s many laurels are two Lambda Literary Awards and Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize. He was a past chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a past president of American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Mr. McClatchy’s survivors include his husband, the noted book-jacket designer Chip Kidd, whom he married in 2013; and three sisters, Edythe Pahl, Joan Brennan and Elizabeth Davis.

His other books include the poetry collections “Kilim” (1987), “The Rest of the Way” (1990) and “Mercury Dressing” (2009), the volumes of criticism “White Paper: On Contemporary American Poetry” (1989) and “Twenty Questions” (1998), and the anthologies “Poets on Painters: Essays on the Art of Painting by Twentieth-Century Poets” (1988), “The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry” (1990) and “Love Speaks Its Name: Gay and Lesbian Love Poems” (2001).

In one of his most recent published poems, “Radiation Days,” which appears in the Spring 2018 issue of The American Scholar, Mr. McClatchy used his cancer treatment as a last occasion for the blackest of black humor.

“The young Vietnamese radiologist wants a last look,” Mr. McClatchy wrote. He continued:

Already naked, I lie sidelong on the examining table,

And he gingerly spreads my now withered buttocks.

I cannot see what he is looking at

But I can hear his smile. “Wonderful!”

He assures me. “It looks just like Dresden.”

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