Kenward Elmslie 1929 – 2022

Personal Remembrance by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno

Kenward Elmslie

Just a brief Viva here for one of the most delightful men I have ever met. Over the thirty-five years my wife Patricia Pruitt and I knew him, Kenward was always infectiously upbeat, the consummate bon-vivant. He was the author of more than thirty books of poetry and prose, a card-carrying member of the New York School of Poets, an acclaimed librettist, a renowned performer. As publisher of Z Press and Z magazine he was dedicated to making “eccentric” poetry flourish. His own certainly was. John Ashbery once described Kenward’s Tropicalism as being like the notes of “a mad scientist who has swallowed the wrong potion in his lab and is desperately trying to get his calculations on paper before everything closes in.” All Praise. The chaotic unpredictability of his language and often multiple intentions, made it all work.

In his later years he became best known as a songwriter of irreverent and engaging songs. He toured widely as a performer and produced a number of albums. One of his great performances is here:

In 1953 he and his partner John Latouche bought land with a farmhouse in Calais, Vermont. It was, as he put it, “his HQ,” until the end. After Latouche’s death he shared Calais with his long-time partner and collaborator Joe Brainard.

Kenward had a love affair with language that led him to create the most unpredictable pairings of words and hence associations. Such as: “Banjo expertise made whole beaches dream of wheat.” Or: “She gilt herself all over for the nightclubs in the north. / But the parrot dropped its flag and tourists talked of home.”

Just as his verse could be effusive, so could his greetings. Patricia captured a quintessential Kenward salutation in this poem:


For Kenward Elmslie

He said,
“I am more thrilled
to see you my dear,
than I would be
to have Marilyn
sing Happy Birthday
to me
in Madison Square Garden.”