Born: June 27, 1921, Bloomington, Indiana
Died: July 19, 1993, Eustis, Florida.
Robert Hazel published five collecitons of poetry, three novels and several short stories. He also was a much-admired teacher and mentor to writers who became famous, including Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, Rita Mae Brown and Charles Simic.
Robert Elvin Hazel, the son of a physicist at Indiana University, served in the U.S. Marines during World War II. He attended several colleges as an undergraduate, switching his major from science to English his junior year. He earned a B.A. from George Washington University and an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins University, where he studied with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Karl Shapiro.
As a writer, Hazel was best known for his poetry. He said he was influenced by Walt Whitman, Hart Crane and Charles Baudelaire. His first volume, Poems/1951-1961, had a glowing introduction from poet Allen Tate.
“He ought to be one of the best of the second half of the century,” Tate wrote. “I do not know any younger American poet who has access to an associative imagery as rich and unpredictable as Mr. Hazel’s.”
James Dickey said of Hazel’s poetry: “His principal characteristic is fearlessness; he will say anything that comes into his head, or any other part of him.”
Hazel’s best-known short story was “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant,” published in The Hudson Review, Winter 1967.
Hazel taught writing at the University of Kentucky (1955-1961), shooting pool in his spare time with the future Kentucky Hall of Fame writer Walter Tevis. He was fondly remembered by former students, five of whom are now members of the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.
“Time after time, he didn’t hesitate to say that your writing wasn’t good enough,” Berry said. “He would go to great lengths to tell you why it wasn’t good enough.”
Mason remembers Hazel as a seductive personality who made his students believe they could become writers. “Professor Hazel embodied the glamour of the writing life,” she said.
“Bob Hazel was a huge influence on my generation of Creating Writing students at UK in the late 1950s,” Norman said. “He was youthful, well-published — books of fiction and poetry — and available to us personally. Bob could be casual with us students but never at the expense of his authority.”
Norman said Hazel urged him to apply for a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford University. “I filled out my application to Stanford, got cold feet, said I didn’t want to apply,” Norman recalled. “He said, “Gurney, if you don’t apply, I don’t want anything more to do with you.’ So I applied and a few weeks later got word I had been granted the fellowship. Life-changing experience.”
Hazel quit UK and moved to Louisville to write before taking other teaching jobs at Oregon State University and New York University. At NYU, his students included Brown and Semic, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990. He was poetry editor of The Nation magazine in 1972, lived in North Carolina for a time and was a writer-in-residence at Virginia Tech (1974-1979).
After teaching at Virginia Tech, he retired to Eustis, Florida, where he died at age 72.
American Elegies (1969)
Who Touches This: Selected Poems 1951—1979 (1981)
Soft Coal (1985)
Clock of Clay: New and Selected Poems By Robert Hazel (1992)
Praise and Threnody: Collected Poems (2021)
The Lost Year (1953)
A Field Full of People (1954)
Early Spring (1971)