Poet Phyllis Janowitz, professor emerita of English, dies

Memorial gathering on campus
A gathering to remember and celebrate the life and work of Phyllis Janowitz will take place Friday, April 17, at 11:30 a.m. in the English Department Lounge, 258 Goldwin Smith Hall. All are welcome to attend. Bring favorite poems, reminiscences, testimonials and any other offerings you wish, or come to listen. If you plan to attend, please email Victoria Brevetti at vlb3@cornell.edu.

Poet and Professor Emerita of English Phyllis Janowitz died Aug. 17 at Seneca View Skilled Nursing Facility in Montour Falls, New York. She was 84.

Janowitz taught creative writing and poetry at Cornell for nearly 30 years and served as director of the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English twice, from 1980-83 and 1986-91. She retired as a full professor in 2009.

Colleagues remembered Janowitz fondly for her generosity, sense of humor and creative talents.

“Phyllis was one of the funniest and kindest people I’ve ever known,” said her former student Alice Fulton, MFA ’82, the Ann S. Bowers Professor of English. “She had a delicious sense of the absurd and a warm heart, an unusual combination. Her poetry exhibits these qualities; on the page, as in the world, she was an original. Phyllis’ work was brilliantly eccentric, and its singularity made it an important influence for me and for countless other poets.”

Phyllis Janowitz

Kenneth McClane, the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of Literature Emeritus, said: “Phyllis was a wonderful presence, one of our finest poets and, just as importantly, one of the most generous people I have ever known.

“Writers can be self-involved and too concerned only about their own advancement. Phyllis, in her wonderfully zany way, celebrated everyone with whom she came in contact. No one was ugly or immaterial in her universe. We shall all miss her terribly.”

Born March 9, 1930, Janowitz graduated magna cum laude from Queens College in 1951 and earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1970. She taught at Harvard and Princeton universities and came to Cornell in 1980 as a visiting assistant professor and poet in residence before joining the English faculty. She was a former student of Robert Lowell’s and a longtime friend of poet and faculty colleague A.R. Ammons.

What a simple lot we were, but she,
raspingly clever, kept us breathless,

our innocuous moxie cresting to order.

– Phyllis Janowitz, “The Necessary Angel”

The author of three poetry collections, “Rites of Strangers” (1978), “Visiting Rites” (1982) and “Temporary Dwellings” (1987), Janowitz published her work in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The Paris Review, Ploughshares and numerous anthologies and journals. Her national and international honors included the Emily Dickinson Award of the Poetry Society of America.

Survivors include her daughter, Tama, of Ithaca; and son, David, of Houston.