UCLA Spotlight


Stephen Yenser, English

  • By Meg Sullivan, Laura Berton
  • Published Nov 1, 2002 8:00 AM

UCLA English professor Stephen Yenser is a poet, a scholar, a mentor to other poets and a champion of their work.

But who knows where his life would have tended, absent two important influences: a car accident and a friendship.

The car accident happened in Yenser's teenage years. He wasn't thought of as a promising young writer. He was someone who had been arrested several times and thrown out of school for fighting.

"I was a punk," he admits.

But then came the summer after his sophomore year.

"My best friend was home on leave from the Navy, and he and I and three other guys got drunk at a nightclub, went home to get a gun with some crazy idea of confronting the bouncer, and on the way had a wreck that killed two of the other passengers," he says.

The friend who had been at the wheel was charged with negligent homicide and went to jail. Yenser was badly hurt in the crash and spent months in traction and a body cast.

"The auto accident and its immediate aftermath constituted the most intense and self-contained period in my life to that point," he recalls. "Afterward, I started to take everything more seriously - school, reading, writing."

This more serious approach to life led him to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. There he showed one of his poems to a rising literary star, James Merrill.

Yenser was a 25-year-old graduate student. Merrill had already won the National Book Award, and would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

"What I remember is that James took my poem utterly seriously. There wasn't a touch of condescension in his manner," Yenser recalls. "He assumed that, for better or for worse, I had slaved over the poem. Which indeed I had."

After their first meeting, Yenser and Merrill began to correspond. Soon they were swapping poems, a routine that continued for the next 27 years until Merrill's death in 1995 at the age of 68.

"Everything I did after James and I became friends was different because of James," Yenser says.

"Almost everything I wrote went before him first, especially poetry and a lot of my prose, too," Yenser says. "Even when I wasn't going to be showing him, say, a draft of an essay, James was always present in my mind. He was my ideal reader. He still is. I don't even have to think, 'What would James say?' It's ingrained by now."

Today, Yenser is a UCLA professor of English and director of the undergraduate Creative Writing Program. His own work has won him national and international recognition - the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets for his 1993 collection The Fire in All Things and the B.F. Connors Prize for Poetry from the Paris Review.

Yenser has also emerged as a gifted teacher, earning the respect and accolades of colleagues and students alike. "He treated me like a fellow poet from our first interaction," recalls Maggi Michele, a Ph.D. candidate who first took a course from Yenser while an undergraduate.

Yenser's first book about Merrill, The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill, published in 1987, is considered the definitive look at the poet's work. Now Yenser is involved in an even more expansive endeavor. With J.D. McClatchy, editor of The Yale Review, he is co-executor of Merrill's literary estate. Together they are laboring to compile and edit a definitive set of Merrill's work.

"When Robert Lowell died in 1977, he was thought to be the best living poet, yet he's almost vanished because his executors haven't come up with a definitive version of his work," says McClatchy. "Unless good editions of a poet's work are available, the work goes unread and untaught and it fades from sight."

Yenser's friends, students and colleagues insist that if anybody's up to the task, it's Yenser

Stephen Yenser continues to write and published his most recent volume of poetry, "Blue Guide", in 2006. - (Updated 1/07)