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Our Voice: Distinguished Artist selection panelist Emilie Buchwald's introduction to 2012 recipient John Caddy

​​December 2012 - Emilie Buchwald, founder of Milkweed Editions and member of the McKnight Distinguished Artist selection panel, introduces John Caddy at the event honoring his receipt of the award.

Good Evening. It’s my privilege to introduce the 2012 McKnight Distinguished Artist, John Caddy, the unanimous choice of the selection committee.

Celebrating this award here at Open Book is highly appropriate, since Open Book is the home of John’s longstanding publisher, Milkweed Editions. I’ve been delighting in John Caddy’s poems for almost thirty years, since I accepted a group of them for publication in the journal, Milkweed Chronicle. In 1986, the newly begun Milkweed Editions published his first book, Eating the Sting, followed by subsequent collections, with cover  art and illustrations by Randy Scholes, my copublisher. Milkweed’s present publisher, Daniel Slager has continued that tradition by publishing John’s new and selected poems, With Mouths Open Wide.

Vickie Benson has spoken eloquently and thoughtfully about John Caddy’s many accomplishments and the breadth of his career. As Perry Moriearty commented, you will be able to read about John’s life and work in great detail in the beautiful and stunningly produced tribute book that McKnight has published in his honor as this year’s Distinguished Artist. Therefore, I’ll mention only a few facts.

Bill Holm enjoyed reminding us that in the Twin Cities we live in lesser Minnesota, whereas John Caddy, like Bill, was born in Greater Minnesota, in this case, in Hibbing and grew up in Virginia, Minnesota. His great-grandfather, Hibbing Pioneer Tom Caddy, was a Mine Captain from Upper Michigan who came from Cornwall and sank the first underground mine shafts in Hibbing. John Caddy moved down here to lesser Minnesota as a student at the U of M,  taught at the University High School and then at the College of Education for eight years. In 1967, John was one of the founding poets of the Minnesota Poets in the Schools Program (now COMPAS). He has been mining new ground in education ever since. In fact, I consider John one of Minnesota’s great educators for his unique, zesty amalgam of poetry grounded in love of the natural world and deep environmental knowledge.

To spiritual nourishment from the woods and lakes, John added a variety of art forms in his environmental teaching. His Self-Expressing Earth program of weeklong residential programs inspired artists, naturalists, and classroom teachers to become immersed in the natural world. Self-Expressing Earth evolved into Morning Earth, a nonprofit educational organization. Five days a week, John sends out a poem and a photo to more than fifteen hundred online subscribers and several thousand visitors each month, based on five continents. I look forward every day to receiving an original, engaging Morning Earth.

The McKnight Distinguished Artist Award is given for a significant body of artistic work over time—a lifetime. Thus, the McKnight Distinguished artist is likely to be ripe in years, a euphemism for, well, being old.  You have probably heard Robert Browning’s poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra” cited as an ode to the virtues of old age. It begins: “Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be, /The last of life, for which the first was made.”

In point of fact, Browning was not “old “when he wrote “Rabbi Ben Ezra” but a man in his hearty ’50s. Browning, therefore, had yet to experience, much less understand, the challenges of being old—in particular the challenges that face an artist grown old.  Speaking as someone who has wandered into that country of advanced years, I can tell you this: The artist who continues to work at his art and who desires to accomplish significantly in old age, walks against a cold wind every day—and is more likely to feel and to observe life’s cruelties and miseries than its glories.

For these reasons, I believe that the older artist must come through the fire that tempers steel, the fire of loss and grief, still intending to live joyfully and at full throttle for as long as possible. That individual must possess a fierce dedication to her/his work, a dedication that fuels the determination to persevere and to keep moving forward.

I perceive all of these attributes in John Caddy.  I find them movingly embodied in one of my favorite poems, “Siembrate!”, by the Spanish poet Miguel De Unamuno. Here are a few stanzas  from that poem in Robert Bly’s translation:

Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit
sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate
that brushes your heel as it turns going by,
the man who wants to live is the man in whom life is abundant.

Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,
don't turn your face, for that would be to turn it to death,
and do not let the past weigh down your motion.

Leave what's alive in the furrow, what's dead in yourself,
for life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds;
from your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.

For most of his life, John Caddy has thrown himself like seed into the natural world. Day by day, poem-by-poem, the world he has created has grown up around him, a prairie, a pond, a woods, a sky full of birds, wild land filled with wild beings, an expressive earth.

A stroke and illness haven’t stopped him. Suffering hasn’t closed him down. His eyes are clear, open to the grandeur around him. He continues every day to make the miracles of nature, some vast, some minute, visible to the rest of us. We, his readers, have been able to partake of these miracles through his ability to embrace and absorb them. He connects us. He calls our attention to what we might simply pass by, as if we were sleepwalking.

We have plentiful evidence that the world of nature is being torn to shreds around us. Therefore,  John’s daily reminders that it is precious and fragile—and worth preserving!—are more important than ever. On this darkening planet of carbon emissions and acid rain, his poems offer us the splendors and wonders we still possess—and let us know what we will lose if we do nothing to save them.

For his wise teaching and his soul-enhancing writing, we embrace John Caddy, bard of Cornwall and singer of the natural world. As Miguel Unamuno’s poem promises—

John: from your work you have indeed been able to gather yourself.

Please welcome and salute John Caddy.