NEW YORK (AP) — J.D. McClatchy, a revered and versatile man of letters praised as a poet, librettist, educator, editor and translator, died Tuesday night at his home in Manhattan. He was 72.
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf announced that McClatchy, known as “Sandy” to his friends, had been battling cancer and died at his home in Manhattan.
“Sandy always had time to gossip in the midst of myriad deadlines, and I marveled at the hours he logged in his dedication to the literary arts,” Knopf editor Deborah Garrison said in a statement Wednesday. “His own work was a major contribution to American poetry, yet he rarely mentioned it because he was busily engaged in editing or enlarging the work of others.”
As a poet, McClatchy was acclaimed for drawing upon a rich and unpredictable range of influences, from classical music to Japanese history, for his perception and intimacy about private life and growing concern about political life, especially after the September 11, 2001, attacks. His books included “Star Principal,” ”The Rest of the Way,” ”Hazmat,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2003, and, most recently, the 2014 publication “Plundered Hearts.”
He wrote often about the human body, its desires and its failings, observing in “My Mammogram” that “the future each of us blankly awaits/ Was long ago written on the genetic wall.” The poem, from his 1998 collection, “Ten Commandments,” ends with his fears of illness and the body’s transformation.
So suppose the breasts fill out until I look
Like my own mother … ready to nurse a son,
A version of myself, the infant understood
In the end as the way my own death had come.
Or will I in a decade be back here again,
The diagnosis this time not freakish but fatal?
The changes in one’s later years all tend,
Until the last one, toward the farcical
He also took on numerous other art forms and responsibilities. He had loved opera since childhood and wrote what The New York Times called a “witty, singable English translation” of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” His other credits included libretti for “Orpheus Descending,” ”A Question of Taste” and “Miss Lonelyhearts.”
“Operatic dramaturgy has its own rhythms,” McClatchy told Opera Chic in 2009. “I think being a poet trains you to be concise, to move in language by images, to understand the dynamic of speech. Advancing a plot and revealing a character in opera — well, there’s very little time to do that. Poets seem best equipped for the task.”
He was a longtime professor at Yale University and editor of The Yale Review, one of the world’s oldest literary journals. He was a former president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the editor or co-editor of works by Thornton Wilder, James Merrill and many others, and the executor or co-executor of the literary estates of fellow poets Merrill, Anthony Hecht and Mona Van Duyn.
Joseph Donald McClatchy Jr. was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and as a boy attended Jesuit schools, developing a lifelong interest in classical literature. He studied at Georgetown and Yale as an undergraduate and received a Ph.D. in poetry from Yale. But he also struggled personally and professionally, and had a breakdown in his mid-20s, later telling Poets & Writers Magazine that he was “afraid of being gay and what the consequences would be.” His first collection, “Scenes from Another Life,” was published in 1981.
He is survived by his husband, Chip Kidd, an associate director of cover art at Knopf, and three sisters.
“Sandy was a remarkable person: a brilliant poet and teacher — the inspired and tireless editor of Yale Review — one of the most successful librettists of our time — a powerful and generous presence in our literary culture,” his friend Joyce Carol Oates wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “He will be terribly missed.”