The Arts

The Bates Student - October 10, 1997


Professor Emeritus John Tagliabue keeps up with Bates

Features Editor

"I have the urge to write and I write. When the poem is ready, the poet arrives," said Professor Emeritus of English John Tagliabue, adding a new spin to the Hindu adage, "When the student is ready, the teacher arrives."

The 74-year-old professor and poet, who retired from Bates in 1989 after 36 years of teaching at the College, is a six-time recipient of the Fulbright fellowship and the author of many books of poetry. Tagliabue's newest collection, New and Selected Poems, 1942 - 1997 is expected to be published early next year.

Tagliabue has lived in Lewiston for almost half his life. He still keeps pace with the pulse of the College, and can be seen frequenting lectures and various other college activities with his wife Grace. Nonetheless, Tagliabue's life extends far beyond the boundaries of Bates.

Born in Italy in 1923, Tagliabue moved to New Jersey as a young child. A wanderer by nature, he spent much of his youth taking the 42nd Street ferry from New Jersey to New York (it cost only 5 cents at the time). "I loved that ferry boat ride, it was quite an adventure," quipped Tagliabue. "I'd walk all day [through the streets of New York]."

An avid reader from childhood, Tagliabue decided to pursue his undergraduate studies in English at Columbia University in New York, thereby making a more permanent move to "The City."

It was during his first year at Columbia that Tagliabue, a small, slight man with thinning white hair and quick, intelligent eyes, began to write poetry. Tagliabue said that he wrote "deliriously" then, just like he does now.

Also at Columbia, Tagliabue pursued one of the greatest loves of his life, dance. Although he never aspired to dance professionally, Tagliabue is an avid fan of the art form.

"The most natural actions for me are dancing and writing poetry, otherwise I feel a little awkward. I think my poetry, though I don't like to analyze it, is full of song and dance," he said.

As an undergrad, Tagliabue socialized with many dancers, hung out in Greenwich Village, and was part of a literary and artistic scene in New York that he now refers to as "the good old days."

Tagliabue said it always slips his mind that he was friends with fellow Columbia student, poet and beatnik Allen Ginsberg -- something that other people find interesting. He mentioned as well the famed Jack Kerouac (who had already dropped out of Columbia), Lucien Carr and William Burroughs.

"[Allen] tried to get me into that group, but I instinctively wasn't interested," Tagliabue explained. He already had his tightly-knit community of dancer friends and wasn't fascinated by the drug culture of Ginsberg and his friends. "I got along with Allen, but we weren't intimate friends. I had other intimate friends, and that was enough for me."

Tagliabue graduated from Columbia in 1944. He then spent some time in Beirut, taught for a while at Pullman State College in Washington and Alfred University in New York, and married his wife Grace. He also earned a masters degree in comparative literature, also from Columbia.

At this point, he won his first Fulbright grant, which funded his work in Italy. Tagliabue and his family (Grace, and daughters Francesca and Gina) lived in a town overlooking Florence where Tagliabue worked translating Leopardi, "Italy's most favorite nineteenth century lyric poet."

Tagliabue's Fulbright in Italy was renewed. Later, he accepted five more Fulbrights -- two more to Japan, one to China, and one more to Indonesia. It wasn't until 1953 that the Tagliabue family returned to the United States.

Although he had "never been very much north of New York City," Tagliabue accepted a teaching position at Bates when he was hired to teach "Cultural Heritage," a required course for juniors and seniors. Tagliabue taught social history and Italian, French and Greek literature, among other literatures. He prides himself on being the first professor to introduce Asian literature into the Bates curriculum through his World literature course. Tagliabue also taught Shakespeare and creative writing.

"Bates has improved in the past 30 years tremendously," remarked Tagliabue. He commented on the growth of diversity within the student body, especially in regard to the number of international students on campus. There are also more resources for the arts now, but according to Tagliabue, the conscientiousness of the professors has remained the same.

"I've always loved the campus. It is a great place of beauty and contemplation," Tagliabue said.

For 25 years, Tagliabue was responsible for the "United Nations of Poetry," a gathering of students who would assemble casually to read the poetry of others and their own work. "It was one of the best things for me in teaching," he said.

Furthermore, Tagliabue started "a very good poetry series," getting poets such as Denise Levertov and Stephen Sender to read at Bates.

Because the Tagliabues would serve these poets supper, Tagliabue had wanted his wife to write a book titled Poets I Have Fed, but "My wife doesn't want to be famous the way that I do."

Always a traveler, Tagliabue is a self-confessed "propagandist for Bates," talking up the College everywhere that he goes. His travels have also influenced his own poetry; he has found Inspiration everywhere from Indian sculpture to Japanese No theater.

Tagliabue has also been a great influence on his students. Many of his former students have published original works or translations of poetry, dedicating their collections to their professor.

Esteemed and established in his own right, Tagliabue is also related to some well-known individuals. His cousin, also John Tagliabue, is a respected journalist; and another cousin, Paul Tagliabue, is commissioner of the National Football League. Tagliabue's famous relations were mentioned when Tagliabue was questioned about the pronunciation of his name. It's Taliaboo-ay. The NFL commissioner goes by a more phonetic pronunciation.

Tagliabue is now retired and a grandfather, but he still travels and attends performances in Maine and New York. He still writes poetry, and is a faithful correspondent with former students.

There is a part of him that longs to travel on someone else's money again. "Sometimes I think, should I apply for another Fulbright? But I'm 74," Tagliabue said.

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Last Modified: 11/5/97
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