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RUTSALA, VERN (1934- ) Vern Rutsala is a prominent Northwest poet and an important voice in western American literature. Starting with the publication of his first collection, The Window (1964), his poetry has sought to uncover the intricate relationships in daily lives, with a particular focus on the importance of place. Like the earlier Northwest poet Theodore roethke, his work finds its substance in exploring regional differences and circumstances. Yet Rutsala's use of locality achieves universal significance through a constant inquiry into shared existential conditions, moments in the routine patterns of our lives when each of us is confronted with the absolute freedom of choice. What the critic Erik Muller calls "a critique of practical living" opens the poems to a range of such concerns with the past and its place in the poet's ongoing life (23).
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Born in McCall, Idaho, Rutsala has spent the greater portion of his life in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches at Lewis and Clark College. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1974 and 1979) and the Guggenheim Foundation (1982). His most recent book, Little Known Sports (1994), a collection of prose poems—of which he was an early practitioner, shaping the form for himself in the early 1960s—was the winner of the Juniper Prize.
A proponent of free verse, Rutsala revels in the subtleties of nuance and phrase associated with the common American idiom (see prosody and free verse). His work over the years has developed through various phases of experimentation with line length and form, such as in the prose poem collections Paragraphs (1978) and Little Known Sports. The short, sometimes almost voyeuristic views of the daily world found in Paragraphs reinforce the poet's quiet intensity as a discoverer of the hidden workings of everyday life. Two of his most important collections to date are the sequential Walking Home from the Icehouse (1981) and Back tracking (1985). In these, Rutsala returns to his childhood in order to explore how present-day experiences are informed not only by our personal past but by our memories of a common past.
In "Long Distance" (1985), Rutsala writes, "The only way out is against the law," and against, that is, the comfortable routines our lives create for us. Our relationship to the past is constantly refigured and reformed, and the poet must be prepared to live in this continuum. "The present is all transition," he writes, "each man his own / agent against himself" "Long Distance." In this way, the individual is paramount in Rut-sala's understanding of the struggle of life; at some point each must stand alone. And yet, throughout the poems, the poet employs the language of common people, aware of the shared value of their failures as well as of their triumphs.
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