David Russell Wagoner (June 5, 1926 – December 18, 2021) was a prolific and highly regarded poet, novelist, educator and editor. He was most associated with the Pacific Northwest, especially in the realm of nature, but wrote on a wide array of subjects. He also had a strong reputation as a teacher of writing and served as editor of the distinguished literary journal Poetry Northwest for nearly 36 years. Among his published works are 24 collections of poems—two of which were finalists for the National Book Award—as well as ten novels.
Born in Massillon, Ohio and raised in Whiting, Indiana from the age of seven, Wagoner started writing poetry in grade school. While an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State University he studied under the poet Theodore Roethke. He received an M.A. in the writing program at the Indiana University in 1949, then taught at DePauw University and Penn State and worked as a reporter at The Hammond Times in Indiana. He published his first poetry collection, Dry Sun, Dry Wind, in 1953, and started teaching at the University of Washington in 1954, having been hired there on the suggestion of Roethke who had been teaching there himself.
The natural environment of the Pacific Northwest was the subject of much of David Wagoner’s poetry. Citing his move from the industrial Midwest as a defining moment, Wagoner soon became best known as a poet and novelist whose work was attentive to place, environment, and the natural world, and dealt with the corrupting influences of modern society. He also wrote insightfully of childhood memories and often addressed his more lighthearted poems to other people, such as a student who fell asleep in a poetry workshop, or a couple making love upstairs while he tried to write a poem.
Wagoner’s poetry collections include Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems(1999); Walt Whitman Bathing (1996); Through the Forest: New and Selected Poems (1987); First Light (1983); Landfall (1981); Collected Poems, 1956-1976 (1976), and In Broken Country (1979). His collection Who Shall Be the Sun? (1978) is a collection of poems based on the folklore, legends, and myths of indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast and Plateau regions.
Other collections of poetry include Sleeping in the Woods (1974), Riverbed (1972), New and Selected Poems (1969), Staying Alive (1966), The Nesting Ground (1963) and A Place to Stand (1958). His novels include The Escape Artist (1965), which was adapted into a movie by Francis Ford Coppola in 1982. He is also the editor of Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, 1943-63 (1972).
Wagoner was selected to serve as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1978 and was the recipient of numerous awards including the Pushcart Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, the English-Speaking Union prize from Poetry Magazine, the Arthur Rense Prize, and the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
In 1991, the poet Rita Dove, a judge in the Lilly competition, told The Seattle Post-Intelligencer why she thought Mr. Wagoner deserved that prize. “He has never imitated himself,” she said. “He has always moved in deeper directions; he has always been exploring something new.” He also received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
After receiving emeritus status at the University of Washington in 2002, Wagoner continued to write and publish poetry in periodicals, anthologies, and books, such as The House of Song (2002), Good Morning and Good Night (2005), and After the Point of No Return (2012). He also continued to teach well into his eighties, in the low-residency MFA program of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island.