In Memoriam

Poet, librettist, and longtime Yale Review editor J.D. McClatchy

J.D. McClatchy
J.D. McClatchy

J.D. (Sandy) McClatchy ’74 Ph.D., an eminent poet, literary critic, translator, and opera librettist who served as the editor of The Yale Review for more than 25 years, died of cancer at home in New York City on April 10. He was 72.

He published eight books of poetry, including “Hazmat” (a 2003 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), three books of criticism, and 18 edited volumes. He also wrote 16 opera libretti, the most recent of which was an adaptation of Stephen King’s “Dolores Claiborne,” which was commissioned and produced by the San Francisco Opera in 2013.

He became editor of The Yale Review in 1991, when the university had been considering closing the journal after a 170-year run. McClatchy expanded its literary content, revamped its finances, and was instrumental in raising a permanent endowment that continues to support its work today.  At the time of his retirement last June, he said, “It has been the honor of my lifetime to have served as editor of the oldest and most distinguished journal in this country. In an age of sidebars and short takes, The Yale Review has provided long, thoughtful pieces on crucial issues of the day, as well as a vibrant array of prize-winning literary work.”

He was also an adjunct professor of English at Yale, where he taught the courses “Writing of Verse,” “Literary Translation,” and “The Opera Libretto.” He was a leader in the English department’s creative writing program during a period of great expansion and excitement.

Marta and I are deeply saddened by the passing of alumnus and faculty member Sandy McClatchy,” said President Peter Salovey. “One of the great poets and critics of our lifetimes, Sandy was also a gifted teacher who inspired generations of Yale students. For nearly 30 years he led The Yale Review with formidable energy and discernment, giving new life to this historic journal. We remember his superb talent and deep humanity as we mourn his loss.”

McClatchy’s other collections of poems include “Scenes From Another Life” (1981), “Stars Principal” (1986), “The Rest of the Way” (1990), “Mercury Dressing” (2009), and “Plundered Hearts: New and Selected Poems” (2014). One of his last poems, “Radiation Days,” which describes his own medical treatments for cancer, was published the day after his death in American Scholar with an introduction by his Yale colleague Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English and chair of the English department.

Sandy was such a multi-talented man of letters, always doing something in the service of someone else’s creativity, it’s possible to overlook his own,” said Hammer in an email to YaleNews. “But he was a master poet with strict technique, immense seriousness, and a continually fresh sense of our human comedy. W.H. Auden would have approved.”

McClatchy’s literary essays are collected in “White Paper” (1989), which was given the Melville Cane Award by the Poetry Society of America; “Twenty Questions” (1998); and “American Writers at Home” (2004). Among his edited volumes are “Poets on Painters: Essays on the Art of Painting by Twentieth-Century Poets” (1988); “The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry” (1996); “Christmas Poems,” which he co-edited with his Yale colleague, the late John Hollander; “Love Speaks Its Name: Gay and Lesbian Love Poems” (2001); “Poems of the Sea” (2001); “Collected Poems by James Merrill” (co-edited with Stephen Yenser, 2002); “Allen Ginsberg: The Voice of the Poet” (2004); “James Merrill’s Collected Prose” (2004) and his “Collected Novels and Plays” (2002); “Poets of the Civil War” (2005); Thornton Wilder’s “Collected Plays & Writings on Theater” (2007);  and “Seven Mozart Librettos” (2010).

As part of the university’s Tercentennial Celebration in 2001, McClatchy edited a collection of literary works, titled “Bright Pages: Yale Writers, 1701-2001,” by Yale alumni poets, novelists, playwrights, journalists, and essayists. In its introduction he said, “The link between artistic knowledge and moral understanding has, during three centuries now, been at the heart of a Yale education. There are those for whom the world means only itself and others for whom the inner soul and destinies of humanity are their subject … More than many other groups of writers, I think, Yalies have cultivated an instinct to probe the moral dimension of experience, to turn emotions in the light of thought, to site the private self within a complex of public allegiances and pressures.”

McClatchy served as co-executor for the literary estate of James Merrill. For Random House, he edited the acclaimed “The Voice of the Poet” series of audiobooks, which includes the work of 19 poets. In addition, he has published fiction and translations, and his work appeared regularly in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, The New Republic, and many other magazines.

He wrote libretti for William Schuman’s “A Question of Taste,” Francis Thorne’s “Mario and the Magician,” Ned Rorem’s “Our Town,” Lowell Liebermann’s “Miss Lonelyhearts,” and Eliot Goldenthal and Julie Taymor’s “Grendel,” among others. In addition to the San Francisco Opera, his work was performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, and other leading opera houses. His singing translation of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” for the Metropolitan Opera was broadcast live to movie theaters around the world.

Many of McClatchy’s own poems have been set as songs by various composers.

Poet and translator Karl Kirchwey ’79, associate dean of faculty for the humanities at Boston University and a professor of English and creative writing there, said that McClatchy’s course on contemporary American poetry, which he took as a Yale undergraduate, “proved definitive” for his own life’s work.

That course more or less coincided with the publication of great books by [Robert] Lowell, Merrill, and [Elizabeth] Bishop, and Sandy’s teaching was infused with the excitement of having been present at the creation,” Kirchwey explains. “During the 13 years I served as director of the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York, I had occasion, not only to appreciate the extraordinary range of Sandy’s activity — as poet, critic, editor, translator, and librettist — but also to benefit from his counsel and his knowledge as I curated this country’s largest annual literary reading series. I participated in some of Sandy’s projects, such as the tercentenary volume ‘Bright Pages,’ and I was fortunate to be published in The Yale Review. Beyond the importance of his own poetic work, in its formal intelligence and its cultural range, to my own, I learned greatly from Sandy’s expanded vision for poetry in its connections to sister arts such as painting and music, and indeed from his omnivorous appetite for every kind of literature, including fiction and belles-lettres. His energy and his high level of productivity were a kind of by-word and an inspiration to the rest of us. His combination of an exacting literary sensibility and conversational brilliance with a great personal tenderness was inimitable, and his death is a significant loss to contemporary American letters.”

Penelope Laurans, a former editor of The Yale Review and a senior adviser at the university, was another close friend of McClatchy. Of his wide-ranging influence she says: “Sandy brought the winds of the literary world to Yale for nearly four decades. Countless readings, performances, and literary events at Yale depended on him and benefitted from his fluency and charm. His wide friendship with poets meant that virtually every poet of significance came to Yale during his presence here, giving students an incomparable chance to meet them, and his rooms in Silliman College, where he was a resident fellow in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were a salon for many of the great writers of the day.”

McClatchy received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1991, he received an Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1999, he was elected to the academy’s board and served as its president from 2009 to 2011. He was named a chancellor of the American Academy of American Poets in 1996 and also served on its board of directors. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998. In 2000, he received the Governor’s Arts Medal from the State of Connecticut.

McClatchy was born in 1945 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He earned his B.A. from Georgetown University. In addition to his home in Manhattan, he also maintained a home in Stonington, Connecticut. His survivors include his husband, graphic designer Chip Kidd, whom he married in 2013; and three sisters: Edythe Pahl, Joan Brennan, and Elizabeth Davis.

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