Paul Violi, a Poet Both Wry and Sly, Dies at 66

By WILLIAM GRIMES
Published: April 15, 2011

 

 

Paul Violi, a poet with an easy, conversational style and satiric bent who reworked arcane historical verse forms and invented his own in poems that mimicked glossaries, errata slips, travel brochures and cover letters, died on April 2 in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. He was 66 and lived in Putnam Valley.

The cause was cancer, his wife, Ann, said.

Mr. Violi (pronounced vee-OH-lee) began writing poetry under the influence of the New York School, sharing its interest in contemporary speech, the visual arts and the urban scene, but he soon embarked on his own wayward path.

“Index,” his most anthologized poem, consists of index entries, followed by page numbers, that hint at the bizarre life and career of Sutej Hudney, a painter and poet. “Arrested for selling sacks of wind to gullible peasants,” one entry reads. Another offers the following cryptic clue: “Dispute over attribution of lines: ‘I have as large supply of evils/as January has not flowerings.’ ”

Mr. Violi adopted the voice of a fey fashion commentator to describe the march of Xerxes’ multinational army across the Hellespont: “Nice fish-scale pattern on those breastplates./Just the right beach touch, very decky.”

And even the somber aftermath of the 9/11 attacks could not prevent him from injecting a wry note into “Sept. 13, 2001”:

I stop

At the West End, keep a weak joke about Oswald Spengler

to myself, and ask Jay to translate

what he’s chalked up

on the slate board behind the bar.

Veni, Vidi, Velcro:

“I came, I saw, I stuck around.

His elegiac or lyrical flights almost inevitably took a sudden absurdist turn, while his most far-fetched conceits could lead to passages of tender description or lyric bursts. In the short poem “Tanka,” for example, he moved abruptly from haiku mode to ransom note:

Where the blossoms fall

like snow on the dock

bring fifty thousand in cash

or you’ll never see your baby again.

David Lehman, explaining his choice of two poems by Mr. Violi for inclusion in “The Oxford Book of American Poetry,” singled out “his wit, his ability to find the poetic resonance of nonpoetic language, his deadpan and his ability to get serious ideas across without didactic earnestness.”

Paul Randolph Violi was born on July 20, 1944, in Brooklyn and grew up in Greenlawn, on Long Island. After earning an English degree from Boston University in 1966, he joined the Peace Corps and made maps in uncharted regions of northern Nigeria.

On returning to New York, he worked for WCBS-TV and various newspapers and magazines and began spending time at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, home to the second wave of New York School poets.

In the early 1970s, while employed as the managing editor of The Architectural Forum magazine, he published his first poems, collected in “Waterworks” and “In Baltic Circles.” His Nigerian experience provided the material for a long poem, “Harmatan,” published in 1977.

He published more than a dozen poetry collections, including “Splurge” (1982), “Likewise” (1988), “The Curious Builder” (1992) and “Overnight” (2007), as well as the prose work “Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes” (2002).

With the British artist Dale Devereux Barker, he collaborated on several books that combined poems and images.

Mr. Violi was a poetic reporter and a parodist, always on the alert for the telling encounter, the ripe bit of urban speech, the priceless instance of pop vulgarity. “Counterman,” written in dialogue, records the back-and-forth between a deli worker and a customer whose sandwich request takes an ornate turn. (“The lettuce splayed, if you will,/In a Beaux Arts derivative of classical acanthus.”) The inspiration for “House of Xerxes” came from a fashion channel that mesmerized Mr. Violi after he signed up for satellite television.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his mother, Irma, of Ridge, N.Y.; a sister, Anita, of Medford, Mass.; a brother, Peter, of Bohemia, N.Y.; a daughter, Helen, of Girdletree, Md.; a son, Alex, of Brooklyn; and two grandchildren.

“I’m still the willful 12-year-old who wants to do what he feels like,” Mr. Violi said in a 2004 interview with The North magazine. “I still think anything is worth a try, I’m still mixing things up, different genres, forms, styles — different elements — and hoping I don’t look like a mad chemist.”

 

 

Note:

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 18, 2011

An earlier version omitted one of Mr. Violi's survivors, his brother, Peter, of Bohemia, N.Y.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 16, 2011, on page A22 of the New York edition.