Petaluma River Press

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Obituary in SF Chronicle

Eugene Ruggles

Eugene Ruggles -- poet who cared deeply for others
Steve Rubenstein, Chronicle Staff Writer (with help from John Geluardi)
Friday, June 4, 2004

Poet and activist Eugene Ruggles, known for his "deep image'' verse and for organizing large and popular San Francisco poetry readings and benefits, has died at age 68. more. . .


Tony D. said...

SF Gate Return to regular view
A room of one's own
Pioneer poet Eugene Ruggles faces hard times with illness, search for a new home
- John Geluardi, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, May 28, 2004

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She has placed the wind about me

Like a shirt without a seam

and told me that the words

like men, should have weather

in them

Eugene Ruggles.

A poet who has been a major force on the Bay Area's literary scene sat in his room at the 90-year-old stately Petaluma Hotel in the city's historic downtown, contemplating his 45 years as a poet activist -- and his fight to keep his home.

Eugene Ruggles, originally faced with an eviction notice that he planned to fight, came to an agreement with his landlords last week to move out.

Ruggles' landlords agreed to give him several weeks to find a new place to live, and he is working with the Committee on the Shelterless, a Santa Rosa nonprofit that helps people find housing before they become homeless.

"I love this place. All I need is a river and a good bookstore, and I feel good," said Ruggles, who sipped red wine from a coffee cup as he talked. Citing the rising rental market in Sonoma, he said it has become too tough to live in the hotel on his fixed disability income.

"I'll be here for another three to four weeks, and then I have no place to go and hardly any money," he said. "A good friend has agreed to help out with storage for all of my books, which is what I'm most worried about." He also worries he won't be able to find a community where he will feel at home and have easy access to a bookstore and market as he has now.

Known for his disorderly curly hair, trademark Pendleton shirt and work boots, Ruggles has received critical acclaim for his poetry and for transforming poetry readings in the early 1970s from stuffy, ill-attended events into popular political happenings that attracted hundreds to large venues such as Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco.

"These large poetry benefits are common now, but then they were really wild things to do," San Francisco poet Kaye McDonough said. "Those readings he organized were incredibly exciting events that have never really been surpassed."

These days, the poet doesn't venture much out of Petaluma.

Ruggles, 68, who is recovering from open-heart surgery and requires the assistance of a walker because of bad hips, has lived in his third-floor hotel room for the past 15 years.

Within arm's reach of his bed on a small table lay a pile of books that included "Writings on an Ethical Life" by Peter Singer, "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn, Mohandas Gandhi's autobiography and several slim volumes of poetry.

He was raised on a Michigan dairy farm and moved to San Francisco after finishing college in the early 1960s. Although he associated with many of the beat poets who hung out in North Beach, his writings are more associated with deep-image poetry, a postwar movement led by academics Robert Bly, James Wright and William Stafford. The deep-image poets had grown bored with the overstructured American poetry of the early 1950s, and they livened up the dry narrative by adding an "irrational passion" that was inspired by South American poets like Pablo Neruda and Frederico Garcia Lorca.

Ruggles was the perennial bad boy of the deep-image set. Bly, Wright and Stafford carefully cultivated their academic reputations at prestigious universities. But Ruggles' booming voice was much more likely to be heard in a North Beach barroom passionately arguing poetry and politics than in a university classroom delivering a dubious explication de texte.

Ruggles' outsider status did not stop him from writing neat, narrative poems packed with emotional and evocative images of his upbringing on a farm, his love for his children and his strong distaste for injustice. His poetry has won wide acclaim and has appeared in Poetry Magazine, the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly. His 1977 book, "Lifeguard in the Snow," was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won the highly respected Great Lakes Colleges Association Award in Poetry.

His friends say it was Ruggles' overriding sympathy for victims of injustice that led him to develop large-venue political poetry benefits in San Francisco during the early 1970s.

"Anyone who knows Gene knows his most astounding characteristic is his heart," said longtime friend and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, former San Francisco poet laureate and owner and founder of City Lights Bookstore. "He really empathizes with the downtrodden and the down-and-out."

The poetry benefits Ruggles organized attracted hundreds of people, which was unusual for a poetry reading. Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Ruggles organized about 20 benefits that raised money and generated publicity for organizations such as Amnesty International and political causes such as the 18-month takeover of Alcatraz Island by American Indians in 1969 and the 1972 U.S. bombing of the Bach Mai Hospital during the Vietnam War.

Kaye McDonough, who now lives on the East Coast, said Ruggles' strong feelings against the Vietnam War and racial discrimination ignited similar passions in other poets, and the results were highly charged events that bore little resemblance to traditional poetry readings.

"Gene was very passionate about these issues, and he was able to tap into the same feeling in other poets. He galvanized them," she said. "It was Gene who made these things happen."

Ruggles was able to attract the best local poets, and others who traveled across the country to read at his benefits. They included Ferlinghetti, Andre Codrescu, Gary Snyder, Jack Hirschman, Kaye Boyle, and the international grand dame of poet activists, Muriel Rukeyser.

According to Alex McQueen, editor of the 1973 Bay Area poetry anthology "185," the readings had the energy of rock 'n' roll events.

"They were thrilling because they had such incredible meaning in a very frustrating political environment," she said. "And Gene, of course, was the handsome poet, and there were thousands of women."

Over the years, Ruggles got by working odd jobs here and there. For about five years, from the mid-to-late '60s, he was in the merchant marine, and that was the only "regular" job he held. But he also received grants for his writing from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Academy of American Poets and the Sonoma Community Foundation. Because of his bad hips, for the last 17 years, SSI has been his only income.

Ruggles' poetic sensitivities and the demon of heavy drink made for stormy relationships with his now-ex-wife, four children and occasionally law enforcement. But, according to poet Luke Breit, the editor of the Tule Review and immediate past president of the Sacramento Poetry Center, Ruggles was always able to rise above his personal problems to organize the benefits.

"In 1978, we were putting together the Amnesty International Benefit, and he was doing time on the Marin County honor farm for some legal problem or other," Breit said. (According to Ruggles it was because of "an unfortunate and volatile dispute with an uncompassionate landlord.") "I would pick him up first thing in the morning, drive him into the city to make arrangements for the reading and then I would have to have him back by a 6 p.m. curfew. It was crazy. But I saw firsthand how he would not take no for an answer from anybody. His passion for raising money and drawing attention to these causes was overwhelming."

Now, it looks as if it's Ruggles who could use a benefit to help him find a new community where he feels at home. He has grown used to Petaluma with its historical architecture, rich farming history and popular annual Poetry Walk. He said he's determined to find a place in Sonoma County, although he's not sure where. But wherever it is, he said it would have to be a cultured community with a good bookstore and left-leaning politics.

"Maybe Sebastopol," he said of the small town just west of Santa Rosa. "I hear there are a lot of Green Party members on the City Council and that's a very attractive feature."

E-mail comments to

Anonymous said...

Federico García Lorca was not a South American poet, actually he was one of the most representative Spanish poet and playwright of the so called "generación del 27".

It was just a little remark to the very well explained text written here.