Renowned Stonington poet J.D. McClatchy dies at 72

April 11, 2018

Renowned poet J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy, a part-time Stonington resident, co-executor of the James Merrill estate and longtime editor of The Yale Review (1991-2017), died Tuesday evening in his Manhattan home after a battle with cancer. He was 72.

He had written eight collections of poetry, the fifth of which, “Hazmat,” was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. His work often appeared in the New Yorker. He also was an accomplished opera librettist, having written 16 opera libretti. In addition, McClatchy edited and co-edited works by Stonington’s James Merrill and Thornton Wilder.

“McClatchy’s poems, they are no walk in the woods ... No moonlit nights, no lakesides, no sea sides. His poems are about people, including himself, who contend with some of the big issues of life and death. Love and loneliness,” Christie Williams, artistic director of The Arts Café in Mystic and a friend of McClatchy’s, said on Wednesday. “I often saw him in a variety of settings, restaurants, bars, the gym, the farmers market, all kinds of places. He had a really warm style with which he greeted people, a handsome smile. One felt good to be in his presence.”

McClatchy is remembered for his involvement in the Stonington art scene of the ’70s, ‘80s and ’90s, which boasted artists such as esteemed photographer Rollie McKenna, gardener and author Eleanor Perenyi, her mother and novelist Grace Stone, and, of course, Merrill, who greatly influenced much of McClatchy’s work.

“He revered James Merrill and they became the closest of friends,” said Langdon Hammer, chair of Yale’s English department and McClatchy’s friend of 40 years. “Stonington was a place he loved deeply and a big part of his life from the 1970s until now.”

McClatchy became co-executor of Merrill’s estate after Merrill died of AIDS-related complications in 1995 and had since been a member of the estate’s advisory board establishing and overseeing the James Merrill House Writer in Residence Program.

McClatchy started as an assistant professor at Yale in the ’70s, moving on to teach at Princeton University and Columbia University throughout the ’80s. McClatchy returned to Yale as an adjunct professor of English, teaching poetry, translation and libretto writing, and he took over as an editor to revive The Yale Review in 1991, one of the world’s oldest literary publications. During his tenure, the magazine became known for its poetry criticism, memoirs, essays and reviews, Hammer said.

“At Yale, Sandy was someone who brought a lot of writers to campus and was a central figure in the cultural life at the university,” Hammer said.

McClatchy stepped down from the position last June due to his declining health.

McClatchy and his husband, Charles “Chip” Kidd, an associate director of cover art at Knopf, divided their time among homes in Stonington, New York City and Florida.

“Sandy was an amazing presence,” Hammer said. “He lived on Grand Street (in Stonington), and he was a grand figure, but he was also an intimate friend to many people and the most loyal person I’ve ever known. I think everyone who was close to him feels the light has gone out. We will have to find some solace in our memories of him and his poems and operas.”

McClatchy’s poetic work is wide-ranging and was described Wednesday in an Associated Press obituary as “drawing upon a rich and unpredictable range of influences, from classical music to Japanese history.”

In 1999, McClatchy was elected into the membership of The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in January 2009 he was elected its president. He previously served as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1996 until 2003. In addition, he has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

McClatchy’s remains will be placed in the Stonington Cemetery located on Route 1. He movingly wrote about the experience of selecting his plot in his poem “My Plot,” featured in the New Yorker in January. In the poem, McClatchy writes,

“I signed up for a double bed, the gruffSix inches above an adamant rockledge hereThat doesn’t allow for anything but ashes —Yours and mine,I trust.”

Those who were close with McClatchy remember him as witty, compassionate and generous but also fiercely opinionated.

“He was clearly possessed of a large intellect and large learning and didn’t suffer fools,” Williams said.

Edmund White, a longtime friend and professor of creative writing at Princeton, wrote on his Facebook page of McClatchy Wednesday: “He was a foul-weather friend, who’d take care of everyone in need. Too funny to be sentimental, he was modest in his kindness ... (He) turned his own life into great poetry, entertained with style and joie de vivre, remembered every name, never indulged others nor himself, was one of the last cultured New Yorkers ... And a wonderfully encouraging force in the world of the arts.”

Joseph Donald McClatchy Jr. was born in Bryn Mawr, Penn. He studied at Georgetown and Yale as an undergraduate and received a Ph.D. in English from Yale.

McClatchy is survived by Kidd and three sisters.