||Obit: Sheldon Zitner: 1925-2005
by Susan Glickman
Sheldon Zitner died on Tuesday April 26, 2005 of cardiac arrest while recovering from surgical complications. He was 80 years old and had been in poor health for some time, though his mind was as sharp as ever. Born and raised in New York, he taught literature at Grinnell College in Iowa from 1957 to 1969 before becoming a professor at the University of Toronto, which is where I met him. Though I never took a course from the man universally revered and feared as "the great and terrible Zitner", he agreed to supervise my doctoral dissertation on Shakespeare's dramaturgy. Through the process, I grew to respect his wide and retentive knowledge of literature, art and music, to cherish his sardonic wit, and to admire his clarity of thought and his eloquence. In recent years, as we went to chamber concerts together and read each others poems, as he saw my children grow up and I saw his beloved daughter Julia marry and move to England, our relationship moved from that of student and teacher into a profound friendship.
Sheldon Zitner began as a poet, publishing works in Poetry and The Nation at an early age, but in the context of an academic life his writing was to become more often analytical and interpretive than creative. He started his professional career with three critical books-A Preface to Literary Analysis (1964), The Practice of Criticism (1966) and The Practice of Modern Literary Scholarship (1969)-but soon found his way to those elegant and highly original interpretations of Elizabethan literature that were to make his reputation. These included editions of The Mutabilitie Cantos of Edmund Spenser (1968), Francis Beaumont's comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1984), and Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing (1998), this last for the highly regarded Oxford Shakespeare. He also produced a groundbreaking introduction to All's Well that Ends Well for the Twayne critical series (1989), and many articles which, like his piece on Aumerle's Conspiracy, have become classics. (I once taught a second year Shakespeare course at U of T in which a student plagiarized this last essay, perhaps thinking that the observations that Zitner made so persuasively were already common knowledge and not the original contributions they were to the field!)
Only with his retirement from the University of Toronto was Sheldon Zitner to return to his first love, poetry, with all the passionate commitment he had brought to his teaching career. His first collection, The Aparagus Feast, was published by the Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series of McGill Queens University Press in 1999. It was an immediate success ("accomplished, beautiful, and moving," said The Globe and Mail; "A feast indeed it is: rich in language and imagery" said the The Malahat Review).
At 75 years of age, the author was amused to find himself the focus of media attention, including a CBC radio interview with Michael Enright on the topic of "Aging Dangerously". He was particularly proud of a newspaper photograph of his own bearded visage posed next to one of the African masks he collected as though he were the village shaman-which, in a way, he was.
The Asparagus Feast went into a second edition, a rare event for a first book of poetry, and McGill-Queen's was happy to publish Zitner's next volume, Before We Had Words, in 2002. Books in Canada remarked of that book that:
"The emergence of Sheldon Zitner as a major figure in Canadian poetry is itself a matter for rejoicing. Before We Had Words is a work of wit, passion, and discipline. He deserves all the honour we can give him."
and his colleague A.F. Moritz remarked:
"Sheldon Zitner's writing combines energy and wisdom, vigour and experience. In one poem he speaks of an art that, distrusting show, achieves elegance without forgetting beginnings and their frugal joys.' His own work delivers just this mixture of gusto and refinement, memory and activity. Staying close to things of the earth and early loves, it lives in the here and now, thinking and dreaming ... This new book grapples with our thought-encumbered images 'in a poetry that means to cherish not to awe.' Its success is our enlightenment and pleasure."
At the time of his death, Zitner was working on a still-untitled volume of translations from the Chinese, and a new manuscript of poems called The Hunt on the Lagoon (and apparently among his papers is a complete set of wonderful lyrics he wrote for a never-produced musical on life in Toronto). His most recent publication was a chapbook from Junction Books entitled Missing Persons (2003) containing a sample of these new poems.
He will be sorely missed.