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Siegel, Robert (1939-2012) | Archival Collections at Wheaton College

Name: Siegel, Robert (1939-2012)

Historical Note:

Robert Harold Siegel was born to Frederick William and Lucille (Chance) Siegel on August 18, 1939 in Oak Park, Illinois and, except for two years, lived in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights until he was eighteen. Siegel's father was in Army Intelligence in World War II and the family lived outside Washington, D.C. and on Long Island during a few of the poet's childhood years.

Siegel's memories of these early years in the East reveal the beginnings of the affection for and attention to created things. One family trip in particular made a strong impression: “I recall a fall weekend in Vermont when the sky and the ground under my feet were paved with gold leaves, and I heard the rushing waters of a millwheel all night. Our backyard on Long Island sloped down to a small creek and on the other side was a wood, endless to me, that had a far side I aspired to reach on foot, but never did. A few miles east lay the vast (and empty) sands of Jones Beach, and the rollers that would knock me off my feet and leave a wonderful taste of salt in the mouth.”

Siegel often spent his childhood afternoons reading. His first poem, about clouds, came in fourth grade. In eighth-grade, a teacher, Eloise Bradley Fink--a poet herself--did the most to point Siegel towards poetry. She sent the class out into a field to hunt for metaphors. Siegel found himself “trying too hard” and “came back empty-handed,” but wiser. High school revealed Siegel's academic prowess, where he graduated co-valedictorian in a class of 365 and participated in debate, the school newspapers, “and about every other non-athletic activity.”

Spending a year and half at Denison University in Ohio, Siegel discovered his own love for English literature and a growing interest in theology. Life's apparent meaningless and the anti-supernaturalism of the academic world troubled Siegel, and he went through a period of agnosticism. Spenser, Keats, and other poets, however, encouraged his belief in the transcendent. In the middle of his sophomore year, he experienced "a crisis of faith." His faith thus renewed, Siegel transferred midyear to Wheaton College in Illinois.

At Wheaton, Siegel pursued his interest in English literature, and a course in the Romantics taught by Clyde Kilby fed his passion “for a transcendent reality apparent in nature.” Kilby introduced him to the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Siegel's fantasies have often been compared to Lewis's and Tolkien's, and their influence on him was strong. The “Sehnsucht” or joy Lewis describes in his autobiography pinpoints the force that Siegel felt drew him "into literature and toward the ineffable." Siegel's poetic gifts were honed at the Morton Arboretum where he and friends would wander, and read and write poetry. During his junior year, Siegel wrote poetry weekly for a group called the Poet's Corner.

After graduating from Wheaton, Siegel married Roberta Ann Hill, afterwards they moved to Baltimore while the poet took a Gilman Fellowship in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, under Elliott Coleman. In the M.A. program a steady diet of ready modern fiction, poetry and drama was complemented by weekly evaluation of student poetry. After taking the M.A., Siegel returned to Chicago where he served a year as temporary chairman of the English Department at Trinity College. A heavy and exceedingly diverse teaching load convinced Siegel to go back for his doctorate.

Siegel was eager to study under Robert Lowell, who had become poet-in-residence at Harvard; and, in the fall of 1963 Siegel headed east again. Siegel greatly admired Lowell and was assured of his calling as a poet, largely as a result of Lowell's encouragement. Siegel relates, “Lowell was an absolutely straight-forward teacher of the art. He pulled no punches when discussing a poem. I loved it.” Siegel's dissertation, prepared under the direction of David Perkins, was "The Serpent and the Dove: the problem of evil in Coleridge's poetry." During his years at Harvard, Siegel first began placing his poems in magazines. Since then, he has published poems in dozens of journals and anthologies, including Atlantic Monthly, Image: a journal of the arts and religion, New York Quarterly, and The Beloit Poetry Journal. His work has received prizes and awards from Poetry and The Transatlantic Review, and is a past fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts.

His Ph.D. dissertation almost complete, Siegel left Harvard to take a position in the English Department at Dartmouth. There he helped direct the poetry programs and oversaw the Thursday Poets, an informal workshop which gathered each week. A Dartmouth Faculty Fellowship and Travel Grant and a sabbatical enabled the Siegel family to live in Cambridge for ten months and to travel to France and Germany and throughout the British Isles.

After Siegel's return, his first book of poems, The Beasts and the Elders, was accepted for publication by the University Press of New England, it then received several awards and numerous reviews. The London Times Literary Supplement praised "the unpretentious versatility of Robert Siegel" and compared the wealth of his poetry with "returning to the mainland after a tour of the islands." Siegel's mentor, Robert Lowell, also had high words of praise for The Beasts: "Nothing is unseen or untouched here. What first shows in Robert Siegel's poetry is that the chinks are filled--they are filled with description...."

After brief residencies in poetry at Princeton and Wheaton, Siegel took the position of assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where he served as Coordinator of Creative Writing for several years. The succeeding years at Milwaukee saw Siegel receive several grants, fellowships, and prizes for his poetry, along with the status of Professor of English.

Siegel's second collection of poems, In a Pig's Eye, began to take shape while he was on a fellowship at Yaddo Artists' Colony. In 1980, In a Pig's Eye and Siegel's first fantasy novel, Alpha Centauri, were published. Both received favorable critical attention and set off a wave of comparisons of Siegel with C.S. Lewis.

The next year, Whalesong appeared, "one of those rare and wondrous things, a book which is born a classic," according to Madeleine L'Engle. Richard Eberhart called it "a conscious novel of artistic strength and aesthetic charm about the human condition as well as that of the whales." In 1986, Whalesong won the Golden Archer Award from the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. In 1982, a fairy tale, The Kingdom of Wundle was published.

In 1985, Siegel was the visiting professor of English and American Studies at the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe University in Frankfurt, and for the 1988-89 school year he was awarded a competitive sabbatical by the University of Wisconsin, allowing Siegel to write a double-length sequel to Whalesong, titled White Whale. In 1994 Siegel completed the Whalesong stories with a third volume, The Ice at the End of the World. The Whalesong trilogy has been translated into numerous languages, including German, Japanese, and Hebrew.

Siegel retired from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee as professor emeritus of English after over twenty years of teaching and where he twice directed the graduate creative writing program. Siegel lived near the Maine coast with his wife, Ann, until his death at age 73 on December 20, 2012.

Note Author: Wheaton College Archives & Special Collection staff

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