Zimmer Teaches a Young Dog Old Tricks

This post is personal. It’s a little story about a man I admired and loved and lost.

A tribute to Poet/writer/editor Paul Zimmer

When I was 23, I wrote songs. When that didn’t work out, and I didn’t knock Paul Simon off the charts, I decided to write poems. After all, I had written lyrics, so poems had to be much easier. No music!

I had been reading a lot of Rod McKuen and feeling sorry for myself — sure-fire inspiration for poetry. So I went out and bought a yellow legal tablet (so cool!) and wrote and wrote.

I was living in Pittsburgh. A classmate was the administrative assistant at the International Poetry Forum there. She offered to introduce me to the poet Paul Zimmer, then also the editor of The University of Pittsburgh Press.

I summoned up the nerve to ask Paul if he would take a look at my poems and offer any advice. Under my arm were likely fifty-some pieces. Gracious as I had heard he was, Paul took the pile, combed through a few and gently said, “Let’s start over.”

That began my apprenticeship with an American original. He said he would tell me when I had written a poem. I asked him what his fee would be. He said, “Ya know, instead of a fee, what I’d really love would be access to your father’s locker room before and after games. (My father was at the time the head basketball coach at PITT.) I had grown up in Dad’s locker rooms, and this was all Paul wanted? He said it would be a thrill and interesting to watch pre-game talks as well as the press conference after a game.

We had a deal.

We met every few weeks. Paul would look at a poem, one about fishing, for instance, and say things like, “Now go read Yeats’s poem about a fisherman.”

After six weeks, he had not said I had written a poem. I asked if I should quit.

“If you want to,” he said.

Coach’s kids don’t quit.

Two and a half years later, he looked at the poem I’d brought and said, “You did it. This is not only a poem; it’s your poem.”

And that was it.

Paul Zimmer created a character “Zimmer,” a sometimes bumbler, a man of empathy. He loved jazz. He loved his dogs. He loved his family.

Two weeks ago I learned my mentor had died–in October. Nothing in the New York Times or anywhere. No obituary to be found. Paul had published the first books of at least forty writers who are now critically acclaimed. He discovered them. And not a tribute anywhere..

As a journalist in the Army, Paul covered the first tests of the atom bomb. He died of effects of that exposure. He wrote “Zimmer: Ass Over Tea Cups into the Atomic Age.” There is just one of his poems here.

RIP, Zimmer.

Zimmer Teaches a Young Dog Old Tricks

Zimmer took me on. that wheezing, pony-bottled
gentleman assured me, sure as shootin’
I would write/make poems
hard as Wanda’s winter nipples.*
Zimmer, creaking critic, teased me
out of taught, told me
here a line and there a dash had
kicked his ass. He wiped my pose,
and led me like a lemming
to the little magazines.
Zimmer pulled my purple plug.
He ordered me to “look at Yeats’s fisherman
before you toss your lines.
No bass would hit your lurid bait.”
Zimmer punched my eyes out.
then he sent me searching blind for images
till now at night I see no stars,
no sleek and sinewed constellation.
I’m led by a grin across our galaxy
as this mock hero shuffles through my Milky Way,
a pencil in his bow. “Who is, what is that?”
demands the learned astronomer.
The starry night winks back and whispers, “Zimmer.”

*Wanda was one of Zimmer’s characters.

–Jack Ridl

Published in The Same Ghost and in Poems from The Same Ghost and Between (Dawn Valley Press)

D.R. James has published a new collection, Flip Requiem with cover by Meridith Ridl. David does fascinating things with the ways he modifies nouns, giving us wonderfully fresh perceptions. Anne-Marie Oomen writes of these poems, “D.R. James flips poetic expectations like a skilled juggler of the world’s finest carnival.” Find it at your bookstore, or order from the publisher Dos Madres Press, Inc.

At last, the reading at The BookNook & Java Shop in Montague has been set.–7pm on April 28. I guarantee you will love the place along with its good food and beverages. Many thanks to owner and arts promoter Bryan Uecker.

Jack’s Homily, “The Devil Went Down to Douglas” is here for those of you interested in marking the occasion.

Don’t miss subscribing to this podcast.  And Then Suddenly is the brainchild of the kind and brilliant Angela Santillo, whose path I’ve crossed once before while working with CavanKerry Press. Her podcast has a brilliant premise…  Describe a moment in your life that changed… everything. She’s had that moment, and from it she has made this podcast. Here’s the conversation we had recently.  I hope you explore many of the episodes. Because they will change you. In a good way.



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Visit Reader’s World or Hope-Geneva Bookstore in Holland, The Bookman in Grand Haven, the Michigan News Agency in Kalamazoo, and The Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague to find Jack’s books in West Michigan.

Jack’s page on Amazon.

Click here to subscribe to receive Jack’s poems and news in your inbox.

Click here for Jack’s entire collection, In Time — poems for the current administration.

Jack on And Then Suddenly podcast by Angela Santillo.

Click here to watch Jack’s TedX talk.

Jack at Fetzer Institute on Kindness.

Jack at Fetzer Institute on Everyday Forgiveness.

Jack at Fetzer Institute on Empathy.

Jack Ridl at Fetzer Institute on Suffering and Love.

Beyond Meaning with Jack Ridl, C3: West Michigan’s Spiritual Connection

16 thoughts on “Zimmer Teaches a Young Dog Old Tricks

  1. Thanks for the Zimmer tribute! This is the first I’ve heard of his passing. Long ago at a conference I was leafing through a book of poems, and a guy standing near me nudged me a little bit and said something about what a good book it was. I made some noncommittal response and read a little more. Then I looked over at him, and saw his nametag. Yes, it was Zimmer, and it was his book of poems I was reading. I laughed, and we talked a little, and I bought his book. We had him come to read at Bluffton a little later, and he was great. We never became close friends, but I admired his work, and it was plain that he was one of the good people. I’m sad to hear that he’s gone.

    • Thanks, Jeff. You two would have been laughing dear friends.
      Still bewildered by no tributes or even notification, not even by the Academy or Society and he was a supporter.

  2. Jack, thank you for remembering your mentor and teacher, Zimmer. And you know of course his name means “room” but it is a “neuter” noun in German. I read the brief thumbnail about him and the one poem that Poetry Foundation had available. And wow! I’ve never thought of dog singing in such ways – and never will again. He must have been quite a fabulous human being. Thanks for these Thursday morning gifts. They always come filled with surprise and not a little pathos.

  3. Jack, a couple of years ago when I had first dared to contact you, a real poet, you recommended at some point three writers to me: William Stafford, Baron Wormser and Paul Zimmer. Of course I bought books of all three and enjoy them ever since. It is a shame that there was no obituary nowhere. Certainly not here in Germany. On the other hand every stupid racist fart of 45 makes the headlines – OK, let’s drop the subject. It is so kind of you to write about Paul Zimmer, your mentor, who must a been quite a character.

    I did know that dogs sing, but I did not know Zimmer’s lovely poem. Our Bouvier Kajsa sings every Sunday morning when she gets her Sunday egg presented on her special plate (on the floor!). She sounds like a mix between Janis Joplin and Maria Callas with a very heavy cold.

    Life without poetry and dogs, hmm? It is possible, some say, not for me though. Thanks again, dear friend for sharing your wisdom and wonderful words with us here.

    I humble gratitude

    • Oh my Friend, thank you.

      It’s so interesting to think what it would be like if we were to receive tweets from caring, loving poets
      instead of what is hurled at us daily.

      How you would have loved Zimmer (Room), You two would have savored a fine beer and many a laugh and talked Holderlin into the late night.

      I fell over laughing at your brilliant description of who Kajsa sound like! And Sunday is the best time to sing.

      My homily is on Facebook. I think you will find it heroically heretic, funny, and something to agree with.

      Poets in America are all but invisible unless they know one another.
      Hugs and care

  4. I imagine you staring out a window, the sun shining on mottled grass and thinking, “Why didn’t someone acknowledge his passing? What is this world coming to when silenced voices aren’t heralded like the passing of the last pigeon?” Hearing, over the many years, how important and special he was to you, I send you a hug. I hope you feel it. Love Aud

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

    • i feel it. For sure I feel it.

      And yes, lots of staring. No acknowledgement? Only in America where words we never
      should hear are blathered minute by minute.
      Thank you so much for understanding.

  5. Thank you, Jack. You make Thursday mornings so beautiful to wake up to.

    My condolences to you. ❤️

    Always forward, ever upward,


    • If we can make it to Thursday, we can get the rest of the way.

      Thank you for your condolences. Oh to live in a place where we hear the
      kinds of words Zimmwe sent into the air, rather than the horrid stuff we hear all the time.

  6. Wonderful post and poem! I had not read Zimmer’s work before and enjoyed the Dog Songs poem. What a sad thing to hear no tribute was given upon his death. You have certainly done so through your writing and respect for him. I’m glad you shared that, as I am sure others will appreciate the homage it pays to him as well. Blessings to you,


    Sent from my iPhone


    • Thank you. Without Zimmer, there’s no teaching, let alone at Hope, there’s no Landscapes, etc.
      Thank you for your kind words about my work being a tribute to him. That certainly means so much.

      His collected poems is one to have.

  7. Oh Jack- I had never heard the full version before…or the details of the “fee” you paid. Such a gift Zimmer was,is- through his porms,your poems, yhe poems if all those piets he nurtured.

    And now we the lucky ones- who receive your mentoring.

    Looking forward to our time together… though I’m having a major writing block. Will see what unfolds.

    And…was so hopeful to see your homily- but there was no link! Just this (see below) Is there one? Hoping!🙏💕 > > Jack’s Homily, “The Devil Went Down to Douglas” is here for those of you interested in marking the occasion. >

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Thank you for your kind, comforting, and affirming condolences.

      Don’t worry if you don’t have a poem or two. We can easily postpone.

      The homily is on Facebook, both Julie’s and mine. I bet you get a kick out of it.

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