Celebrating the career of Professor Emeritus Michael Dennis Browne, who retired in May, 2010
The number of poets in the crowd gathered April 23, 2010, to celebrate poet and professor Michael Dennis Browne on the occasion of his retirement was high as expected: Robert Bly, Louis Jenkins, Lucille Broderson, Joyce Sutphen, among others. But, given the 48-person choir in attendance, the musicians in the room may have eclipsed the poets. Certainly, they out-voiced them, notes swelling to fill those tall Weisman Museum ceilings. And Professor Browne appeared quite happy about it. As he notes a month later, in an office with books still thick on the ground, "I always wanted to have a party at the end of my career when people could get a little sense of the work I've done in music.
"To have Ross Sutter singing 'The Wedding Song,' which I love, and then to have the University Singers directed by Kathy Salzman Romey [Director of Choral Activities at the U] singing three of my favorite pieces with [collaborator] Stephen Paulus--that was a highlight."
Browne pauses, reconsiders. "But when my [three] children stood up: oh God! Mary read a letter from my brother in England, which was very emotional--just the two of us left, as my sisters have died. And then when [son] Peter read 'A Blessing,' and there was Robert Bly next to me--who was the person in the poem: the horses welcoming 'my friend and me,' well that's James Wright and Robert Bly [pictured right]. And then Robert stands up! And the remarks. . . . Everything was a highlight. It was just an amazing evening. So I feel very lucky. I think I said, 'I feel very lucky.' It's been a nice career."
Emcee Regents Professor Patricia Hampl initiated the proceedings by reading the decree from Minneapolis mayor R. T. Ryback proclaiming April 23, 2010, Michael Dennis Browne Day. "WHEREAS Michael Dennis Browne, award-winning Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the University of Minnesota for 39 years, librettist of many texts for music, most notably 'Pilgrims' Hymn,' 'The Road Home,' 'Hymn for America,' and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated post-Holocaust oratorio 'To Be Certain of the Dawn' recorded by the Minnesota Orchestra, poet and former director of the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota, is retiring on the eve of his 70th birthday after teaching and living in his chosen city of Minneapolis since 1971 . . . ."
"That was totally on the initiative of my loyal wife Lisa," the poet explains, rather sheepishly. "She wrote to him. To have a Michael Dennis Browne Day was sweet, yes. It was kind of comic. But touching!" he stresses. "I was touched. I embraced my wife."
As the title of a festschrift created in his honor puts it, Some Ride! Many of the contributors to the festschrift attended the retirement celebration, and several read their contributions. Broderson, at 94 probably the oldest of Professor Browne's former students, spoke about taking that first poetry class with Michael and discovering, in her 60s, a new life as a poet and writer. This fall, she published her first poetry collection But You Were Wearing a Blue Shirt the Color of the Sky with Nodin Press; her long-time mentor edited the volume.
That project is among the many Professor Browne has had percolating on the back burner, waiting for more time. In his office, he shows off his daily calendar, in which he has scrawled "savannah" across the summer weeks: "long, undulating grasslands," he pronounces in that orator's voice of his. "Oh yeah, I'm longing to have some time just to potter around and type." On the docket: A second book of prose, to follow last year's What the Poem Wants: Prose on Poetry. A new book of poetry. A music commission for a new church with composer Stephen Paulus, with whom Browne has been collaborating since Paulus was a PhD student at the U in the 1970s.
The strength of the latter relationship represents another reason for Browne to feel lucky. "We were willing to be flexible and learn from each other," he recalls. "I knew he was good, and he knew I was good, so we knew we could do good stuff together. Though we could never have anticipated a piece like 'Pilgrim's Hymn,' for instance: that piece has changed our lives. He's just a magical composer, a gorgeous composer."
Hear Browne talk about Paulus, about hanging out at rehearsals with Osmo Vänskä and Dale Warland, and it seems music must be his favorite creative activity, as it was for his parents. But then, as he admits, "I have many loves." Lately he has discovered a passion for theology, especially the interfaith variety. "The need to be dialogic with other religions," he describes. "Judaism and Catholicism. Buddhism very much so. I used to be a Catholic; now I'm a contentious Catholic. I'm trying to do a spiritual commonplace book, my favorite spiritual ideas kind of alphabetized. So I'll probably be reading more theology than poetry [in retirement]."
Browne looks at his remaining stacks of books. "If I ever get out of this office! What is the British phrase. . . . It was a tip. A 'tip' means like a . . . landfill." He chuckles. "A landfill of poetry."
Photos: Molly Sutton Kiefer