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Poet and novelist believed in the power of narration

James Reiss | Provided photo

Even as a young child, James Reiss was drawn to such poets as Homer, Dante, Spenser, Milton and Keats, whom he described as “devoted to narration.”

As a poet and later a novelist, Mr. Reiss was also devoted to narration, to the point that former California Poet Laureate Carol Muske-Dukes described him as “a committed story teller.” In fact, the latest of his six books of poetry was titled “The Novel.”

Mr. Reiss, of Wilmette, who died Dec. 2 at age 75 of a heart attack, also published a novel in April, “When Yellow Leaves,” and was a professor emeritus of English and founding editor of Miami University Press at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

“He always felt that poetry should tell a story rather than just be an abstract idea or a series of words running together that might sound interesting,” said Mr. Reiss’ wife, Mary Jo McMillin.

“He wrote every single day,” she added.

James Reiss reads from his poetry in April at the Cliff Dwellers Club in Chicago. | Thomas Frisbie/Sun-Times
James Reiss reads from his poetry in April at the Cliff Dwellers Club in Chicago. | Thomas Frisbie/Sun-Times

In an interview earlier this year, Mr. Reiss called for a return to poems devoted to narration.

“In 2016, many poets in my generation aren’t fond of telling stories,” he said. “When I published my first poem in the New York Times [on Jan. 21, 1962], some of the coolest new poets, Robert Bly and William Stafford, inaugurated a Midwest renaissance that deployed poems . . . like James Wright’s ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.’ Many of these poems extolled the pastoral simplicity of snowy fields and trees with unbreakable branches. . . . These days, with notable exceptions, Midwest poetry has fallen asleep in a hammock of flyover blandness. Some recent chic poems seem to be written by handheld devices in bicoastal enclaves.”

Mr. Reiss grew up in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood and in Hillsdale, New Jersey, where he began writing fiction in fifth grade. He also taught at Queens College, City University of New York and the University of California-Davis.

After writing fiction as a child, “I switched to poetry for a variety of reasons,” Mr. Reiss said at a poetry reading in April at the Cliff Dwellers Club in Chicago. “I read fiction, current fiction, scads of it, loads of it. . . . Poems have been much more difficult for me.”

For example, he began one poem in 1983, but it didn’t get published until it appeared in the Atlantic in 1996, he said. “It took 13 years to figure out how to work that poem, how to get it to come around.”

Mr. Reiss received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of Chicago. His first book of poetry, “The Breathers,” published by Ecco Press/Viking in 1974, was nominated for the National Book Award. His subsequent books of poetry were “Express” (1983), “The Parable of Fire” (1996) “The Thousand Good Mornings” (2001), and “Riff on Six: New and Selected Poems” (2003).

Over his lifetime, Mr. Reiss wrote thousands of poems, although some remain unpublished in stacks of papers in his home. His poems appeared in many publications, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, Esquire, the Nation, Poetry and Virginia Quarterly Review.

Mr. Reiss received many awards and grants, including a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Writing Fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, two Poetry Society of America awards, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination, among others. He also was an active member of the Society of Midland Authors.

His second novel, “Façade for a Penny Arcade,” is scheduled to be published posthumously next year. He also co-edited “Self-Interviews: James Dickey” (1970) with his first wife, the poet Barbara Eve.

Mr. Reiss is also survived by a sister, Lucinda Luvaas; two daughters, Crystal Reiss and Heather Saporta; and five grandchildren.

A celebration of Mr. Reiss’ life will be held in the spring.