Herb Coursen, Maine poet, dead at 79

Posted Wednesday, December 14, 2011 in Features

Herb Coursen, Maine poet, dead at 79

Herb Coursen, lecturing at Curtis Memorial Library, Brunswick.  (photo: Nancy Randolph)

TOPSHAM — Herbert Randolph Coursen was passionate about Shakespeare, poetry, sports, music and politics. They enlivened his conversation and defined his life. Coursen — a talented, brilliant, witty and sometimes irascible man — died Saturday, Dec. 3, in his sleep at his home in Brunswick.

H.R. Coursen was born in 1932 in Newark, N.J., attended Amherst College, where he was a member of Sphinx, the honor society, Wesleyan University, and the University of Connecticut, from which he received a Ph.D. in English. He taught at Newark Academy, the Choate School, Bowdoin College, where he was chairman of the English Department, Clemson University, Ohio University, The University of London, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, University of Maine at Augusta and Southern New Hampshire University.

A fighter pilot in the USAF during the 1950s, he was an early opponent of the war in Vietnam and one of the original members of Veterans for Peace. 

Robert Chute of Poland Springs, noted poet and Bates professor emeritus of biology, joined Coursen at local poetry readings. They were helpful to each other, as Chute explained: “I knew Herb as a fellow U.S. Air Force veteran in Veterans for Peace — his war Korea, mine, World War II. I knew him as a fellow poet, exchanging, without offense or favor, suggestions, edits, corrections. He was an insightful scholar and a writer of astounding diversity. His life, as are all lives, was many things, but much of it was Literature, with a capital L.” 

Coursen leaves a plethora of writing: 18 critical books on Shakespeare, 36 books of poetry, 25 novels, an eight-book fantasy series and seven classic stories adapted into modern verse. In 1996, a poll conducted by Penn State University named him one of the “25 Master Teachers of Shakespeare during the past one hundred years.” His “Mythos” was a Writer’s Digest finalist in 2001. He won the Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club in 1998 for best book of poems in the previous year and was given the Warren Award from the New England Poetry Club in 1992, 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2005 for best published poem of the previous year. He won the Maine Poets Society Award for best poem several times.

Coursen was active in Maine’s poetry community, including the Maine Poetry Society, local poetry readings and slams and providing guidance to the Longfellow Days Committee. “Herb was indispensable to the Longfellow Days poetry readings at Curtis Library, and, before his death, had booked all the poets for the 2012 readings. He was planning to lead poetry workshops at Thornton Oaks, The Highlands and the Brunswick Inn at Park Row. These plans will be realized and a special tribute offered in his memory,” said Claudia Knox, member of the Longfellow Days Committee. Longfellow Days Chair Maryli Tiemann said that she was overwhelmed by Coursen’s death. “The entire Longfellow Days committee joins me in mourning the loss of Herb. For over seven years he has been our Longfellow poet.” 

John Ambrose, a retired Bowdoin College professor, said he will miss his longtime sports buddy. “Herb and I were close friends while colleagues on the Bowdoin College faculty. The friendship extended to the tennis courts where we often played together.” During the summer of 1977, Ambrose and Coursen won the town of Brunswick doubles tournament. Ambrose still has the trophy. “Herb was an excellent athlete; his tennis strokes were as precise as his quotations from Shakespeare.” During the fall they got together on Sundays to watch the New York Giants football games, usually in Coursen's cozy TV room surrounded by souvenirs of bullfighting; posters, glasses and figurines added to his ever-increasing collection of overlapping Shakespeare, sports and travel souvenirs.

“Herb was an absolutely devoted and knowledgeable Giants supporter. We talked about players, coaches, strategy, as we did every game. Herb's observations were often more incisive than even the game announcers. I'll never be able to watch a Giants game without thinking of Herb by my side to cheer or grouch with. As he liked to say, ‘Grouching is part of watching football!’ "

Herb was a New York Giants fan, but larger than that, he was the ultimate sports fan. He knew the statistics for baseball, football, bullfighting and most other sports to the degree that one wonders how he found the time to write so prolifically. But he did write and his “October Saturday: 1949” headed an article, “Seeing Daylight,” in the Jan. 10 issue of Sports Illustrated. "I'm probably the only poet who has had two poems in Sports Illustrated," he joked to a reporter in 2005. 

Coursen’s writing also appeared on the editorial pages of publications that accepted letters to the editor, including The Times Record, the New York Times and The Nation. His subjects were anti-war, social programs, education and the vulnerability of the electric delivery grid. His essays — what some would say were rants — pointed out the ever-widening gap between the rich and the rest. His clear evaluations of topics and ardent calls for action will be missed. 

For many years, Coursen conducted a big band show for WYAR in Yarmouth, using his vast collection of records as the basis of the program. That ended at the beginning of the new century. Coursen collected hundreds of vinyl records, continuing to play them for his own enjoyment, sometimes playing along on his cornet. 

The people who will miss Herb Coursen the most are his family. Speaking with his publisher in 2008, he agreed that his grandchildren brought out the best in him.

For more information, contact Nancy E. Randolph at (207) 837-0558.

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