Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
UW poet never gave up on the sublime

UW poet never gave up on the sublime

CASPER - Craig Arnold was a writer, a musician, a chef, a performer and a professor - all parts at once.

At 41, his poems had been published in anthologies and at least a half-dozen literary journals.

He had produced two award-winning books and received a handful of prestigious awards and fellowships.

He taught poetry at the University of Wyoming since 2004.

"He really was one of the most talented poets of his generation," said J.D. McClatchy, an award-winning poet who taught Arnold as a Yale University undergraduate in the late 1980s.

It was a poet's job to journey, to capture other worlds. Arnold went looking for them.

His next book was to be something completely different: a collection of prose poetry, lyric essay and travelogue about volcanoes.

He was an experienced hiker who spent three years exploring the volcanoes of Italy, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia and Peru.

In March he left for a solo trek through Japan, documenting his travels in a blog:

"The Volcano Pilgrim has dedicated the last three years to the belief that one need not shrink from the sublime. Nay, rather, one may seek it out, with a pack on your back and a stick in your hand, liberal applications of sunblock and when necessary a gas mask over your face."

On April 27 he took a ferry to Kuchinoerabu, a 14.5-square-kilometer volcanic island in the Ryukyu chain. With about 150 residents, the island is known more for fishing than tourism. Although covered in thick, subtropical vegetation, it was neither the largest nor the most challenging volcano Arnold had hiked.

When he did not return to the inn where he was to stay by 8 p.m. local time, the staff searched for him and called the local fire department.

• • •

Miyakejima, 1

April 24

"But the hot coffee has helped you reach a kind of resolution. There is nothing for you to do but to walk, following the slope of the roads upward, to see how far you can get before something or someone makes you stop."

- Craig Arnold's blog, Volcano Pilgrim

• ••

Arnold rejected the idea that poetry belongs in one place, in a book or an academy. Poetry had a place in the world, and he wanted to bridge the gap. He dedicated himself wholly to his craft.

He wrote about pleasure and loss and figures who travel to the underworld.

He wrote about us. How we desire and try to connect and struggle with what it means to extend ourselves.

"He wrote to change things," said Rebecca Lindenberg, Arnold's partner of six years. "He wanted to write poems that would sort of lift people out of the everyday experience of being a person and ask them to participate in something bigger than themselves."

• • •

When he sang, he opened his mouth as far it would go. Arnold wore leather pants, a leather jacket, a leather hat. He swung his hips like he swung his guitar.

He was lead singer of his own pop/rock band, Iris, which played Salt Lake City up to four times a week in the late '90s.

Arnold could enter the room and take over, remembers bandmate Michael Hansen.

But in breaks between rowdy sets, when the band left the stage, Arnold would stay on.

He would sing Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" alone, and the room would go silent.

He lived, many have said, like he wrote in one of poems: "full out to the skin."

He carried notebooks with him and was an ardent observer of the world, taking time to note the way wind sounds differently when it blows through grass than it does through pine needles.

"He never saw danger in his life, but he was someone who saw the experience of wonderment and awe," Lindenburg said. " … He never gave up on the idea of the sublime."

He was a perfectionist in the kitchen, combining flavors no one had tasted into dishes like stuffed peppers, eggplant caponata and Spanish paella.

When he ate Thai with friend Jake Adam York, he ordered the spiciest thing on the menu and ate all of it until he was dripping wet. If there was pain involved, it was just part of the full experience.

On the first day of a UW undergraduate class, Poetry of the New American West, Arnold made students sign a contract. It was a pledge to be poor, to abandon the television. As long as you were chasing the material, the commercial, you couldn't write poetry. You were part of something else now.

"What he really emphasized was that you need to live," said Ryan Perry, a former student. "You have to go out and travel to third-world countries and get a disease. You have to start a band and have these concrete experiences. It's better in the long run to go out and fail."

• • •

Tokyo, 3

March 26

"We are all tenants of the lives we inhabit. What is it that makes us belong there?

When Westerners feel at home, we buy big, heavy things - houses, furniture, appliances - perhaps hoping that these will keep us in our lives, hold us down. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany's, then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name, says Holly Golightly. But you are carrying more on your back now than what many people would have owned -

Like an old turtle

the traveler stoops again

to shoulder his pack

and it has not made you a home, or brought you any closer to one. You want a home, and you want not to need one."

• • •

With frequent travels, readings and fellowships, Arnold was often on the move. Friends joked that he wanted no more possessions than would fit in his car or a U-Haul, said friend and UW colleague Peter Parolin.

Lindenberg likes to read and write from home. Arnold preferred to work in public spots. In Laramie, students and faculty often found him tucked inside The Grounds Coffee Lounge with his son, Robin, books all around him.

He loved what he was doing, but it was tiring. If a poet's job is to go out and bring experiences back, what does it mean to come to rest?

"I think it was something that gave him anxiety, not feeling particularly rooted," Lindenberg said. "He felt rooted in people. His people were his home."

In February, coming back from Colombia and a month before his trip to Japan, Arnold presented at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Chicago. He stayed with Hansen, now a student at the University of Chicago.

They talked about poetry, only this time, there was a change. It had a lot to do with the calm Lindenberg brought to his life, Hansen said. He was at peace.

"He said something that stood out to me only later: That we shouldn't worry so much about whether poems matter or not, because they do matter, and that people will realize it again when they realize that all poems are love poems," Hansen wrote later in a blog entry. "I think he meant that people matter, that we write for each other, and we should remember that."

• • •

A Digression Upon Angelica

April 26

"Crushed in the hands, the fresh leaves are sweet, slightly musky - not quite mint, not quite juniper. It is a clean, windswept smell, the smell of meadow, of England, of green, the smell of a road after rain. It is the smell of a world in which there is nothing rotten or putrid or sulfurous, a world in which all of those things have been rinsed away."

• • •

When Arnold went missing, friends, fellow writers, students, colleagues and acquaintances moved immediately. They contacted national media outlets, set up a fund and wrote to members of Congress. More than 3,000 people joined a "Find Craig Arnold" group on social networking site Facebook to follow updates and suggest new resources. People who had never met shared memories of the man they had in common.

"He means too much to too many people," read a letter sent in e-mails and picked up by bloggers.

The offices of Rep. Cynthia Lummis and U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso put pressure on local Japanese authorities to extend the search beyond the mandated three-day limit. They helped call in California-based 1st Special Response Group, an international search-and-rescue unit.

A poet in South Korea who never met Arnold in person called the Kuchinoerabu town officer to help.

The search would take five weeks and 100 people on the ground.

Trackers conducted interviews, and locals helped navigate the terrain. They followed a series of tracks leading from the caldera of the volcano down to a steep, cliff-like area covered in vegetation, said David Kovar, founder of the 1st Special Response Group.

Clues there - shoe prints and broken branches, for example - indicated someone had slipped. He was presumed to have died in a fall.

Two climbing teams descended and searched the slope and ravines below. They found no more clues.

Volcanoes and oceans swallow all clues, Kovar said, but there was no indication Arnold went toward either. The only way off the island is by municipal ferry, and someone would have noticed a tall American aboard, he said.

No one reported seeing him.


Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News