Back in the mid-1990s, at the end of my career as a graduate student and beginning of my career as college professor, I moved into a big house with three poet friends of mine: Rebecca Davis, James “Jim” Haining (the founder and editor of Salt Lick), Gerald Burns. It was a very lively environment to live in. I learned a lot about literature and writing from the experience, although Jim and Gerald were absolutely vicious when it came to literary merit. All that time, Jim was getting weaker and weaker from multiple sclerosis. But it was Gerald who managed to die first. As I recall (and by that time I was not in constant contact with him), his mother had died and he went back home to help his father. Shortly after arriving, he had a heart attack and died. He was just 57 years old.
Jim used to say that reading a lot of poets was like chewing rocks, and that Gerald was such a poet — but it was worth the effort. It was true. Gerald’s poetry was very difficult. He wore his erudition on his sleeve. But I learned something really powerful from him: it isn’t necessary that a reader understand all the finer points of your writing. Sometimes the mystery has a poetry of its own. And it certainly freed me up to indulge in my own rarefied knowledge. In fact, I am doing that quite explicitly in my most recent novel. But if you want a better example, look no further than Moby Dick. I think the details about sailing and whaling are what make the novel great.
Recently, I found a website of the Gerald Burns Society. It is not the only website preserving his memory. And it isn’t surprising. The first time I met Gerald, he came to a party I was giving, and managed to pretty much single handedly destroy the party. He could be a distinctly difficult person. Yet he was the one thing that we should all strive to be: constantly interesting. And once you got to know him, he was the sweetest man in the world who would do anything for you.
At that time, I was very much involved in my education and thus science. Gerald pushed me to write about that. Of course, he also tried to train my mind regarding literary matters. Now how I wish he were around so we could discuss Ulysses. I remember back with some regret talking about how much I liked the Inferno and he tried to convince me that it was too easy and that I needed to learn to appreciate Paradiso. I wish I had tried at the time. I have tried since, and still don’t really enjoy it. I could really use his help.
Anyway, the Gerald Burns Society has a nice introduction to him. It is a little light on his writing, but it is filled with his drawings, which I must admit to having forgotten about. And it has this wonderful quote from David Searcy (one of the Salt Lick bunch), under the heading, The Earliest Published Burns?
Yep, that’s Gerald!
Anyway, check out the website. It is great to see people keeping Gerald’s work alive.