In Honor of Maj Ragain’s Legacy at Kent State University
In celebration of the dedication of the Maj Ragain Poetry Park, which took place on the 14th of September, generations of Kent State’s writing community came together to celebrate the poet’s influence not only on the university’s poetic presence in the nation, but also on the people around him. In a venue brimming with supporters of the arts, the sense of an ever-growing platform for local writers was undoubtedly a theme. However, as we look to the future and marvel at the thriving poetry scene on campus, we must acknowledge the pivotal role Maj Ragain undertook in this journey.
“a way of saying it for yourself and for others, a way of retrieving experience, of connecting your life to deeper patterns and rituals”
At the event, the seats were filled with people from all over the country eager to reunite with one another and share memories of the poet and mentor. With each testimony, it became clearer that Maj, as he is affectionately known, had a profound impact on the lives of everyone who crossed his path. To some he was a mentor, to others a colleague. To several, he was a professor whose class they were lucky enough to take, but all eventually described him as a friend.
In an interview with David Hassler, who at the time he met Maj, was still in his mid-twenties and finding his poetic footing, he compared the poet to a vast celestial body. A force of such mass that it pulled all those adrift towards him, collecting poets in its orbit, even if they would not claim to be writers just yet.
Ragain described poetry in one of his syllabi as “a way of saying it for yourself and for others, a way of retrieving experience, of connecting your life to deeper patterns and rituals.” Nowhere in this text does he describe the action of writing only as a craft, or even imply that for art to be worthy of time it must be done by those with admirable training and skill.
Here could easily fit a quote in which someone praises his ability to listen intently to people’s work or the fact that even as an accomplished published writer himself, he was interested in even the most unsophisticated poem from the most inexperienced poet.
Notwithstanding the fact that several people spoke on how this was a crucial part of Maj’s individuality, the addition of such a quote would be a mistake, as it might give the reader the erroneous impression that this was the opinion of one or two people, when in fact, every single person with whom I have spoken to about Maj has been vocal about their appreciation of his way of being genuinely interested in their voices. He listened deeply to whatever someone wanted to say, regardless of whether they had the prowess to express it eloquently.
“it’s not so hard. I listen to what drives each person to the page”
As the host of Brady’s Café open poetry readings, people would often wonder about his noteworthy stamina in giving his full attention to every single poem. Even as the events would stretch past two in the morning, he would actively listen to all who had something to share, making a point of commenting on how he enjoyed a certain aspect of a piece, even the ones others may have dismissed as unsalvageable.
When asked about how he could possibly endure so many hours with an unwavering curiosity, he claimed that “it’s not so hard. I listen to what drives each person to the page.”
Former student and executive director of Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures, Sony Ton-Aime, who started at Kent State majoring in economics and first fell in love with poetry through Ragain’s workshop, described poetry’s presence in such classes as tangential. Sony believes the experience encapsulated much more than just the honing of the skillful way in which one can organize words. His classes often revolved around the topic of living a fulfilling life, and students who attended his workshops praise him for his more comprehensive style of teaching.
In the classroom, David described him as a guide, gently nudging the conversation. He claimed that Ragain was “seeking for what he did not know himself” alongside his students, without clinging to the traditional classroom hierarchy.
Maj Ragain’s relationship with poetry was not confined to his time on campus. It was a part of him. He would easily spend hours speaking on the subject, and the only requirement to partake in the conversation being the genuine wish to do so. Many commented on his passion, not only for art but also for life. As someone who got polio at the age of ten, and whose doctors did not foresee reaching his thirtieth birthday, much less his seventy eighth, being alive was not something he ever took for granted.
His friends recount how he was always present. No matter if positively or negatively, the world around him impacted him deeply. Poetry was his way of communicating and connecting, which transpires in each line of his work, and if you read enough of it, you might start to feel like you knew him.
His pieces are anything but generic. They are packed with details from his own life and the people around him, as he would often write about his friends, making sure to include their names. While never lacking in precision and form, that is often not what makes people fall in love with his work, but the way in which he vibrantly captures life. The mastery in the craft being not the goal, but the means to fit such quality into stanzas.
In his poem, “The Heartbeat of Ordinary Things,” he warmly tells the reader how he keeps people’s pictures in his refrigerator, and that he would kiss his finger and touch their faces. A couple of lines below, he urges his reader to do for him as he would for them, if they ever come across his picture.
And even if he will never know, everyone who attended his memorial heeded his request as they left the ceremony.
As we now honor his work and person, it is a consensus among those who knew him that his contributions to poetry are immeasurable, with some even claiming that they are confident that he will still one day be accredited as one of the great poetic voices. Even so, Ted Lyons, fiction writing professor at Kent State and close friend of Maj, claims that recognition was not something he strived for.
The writers met one another more than forty years ago, and after just a few weeks of doing so, Maj shook his hand firmly and confidently stated that they were in for the long haul. At the time, Ted did not believe he would be in Kent for long, but forty years later you can still enroll in one of his fiction classes. I should know; I have done so four semesters in a row. And after hearing him speak about the poet, it would be hard to believe his presence did not influence the decision to stay.
Up until the day Major passed, they remained friends. Lyons remembers fondly how Maj would show up at his house and spend the afternoon in deep conversation on the lawn, the fact that they would get lunch at least once a week, and he recounts with vivid excitement the day his friend took him to a horse race. They bet big and won, but celebrated as if it were a hundred times its actual worth. Ted recalls how the poet was never scared of being unapologetically alive.
“Well David, sometimes I don’t know where my voice ends and yours begins.”
Needless to say, Maj’s prediction ended up being correct. They were in fact in for the long haul. Per David’s analogy, Ted was pulled towards the poet’s orbit.
Now would be a good place to note that while Mr. Hassler was introduced earlier in this piece as a young mentee of Maj’s, years have passed since, and he is now the Wick Poetry Center’s Director. He was captivated by the lively poetic community in his hometown and found it to be a place where he could not only partake in what was already there, but also help it thrive and grow.
After spending years honoring many of his mentor’s lessons with his own work at Wick, he recalls how Maj once said: “Well David, sometimes I don’t know where my voice ends and yours begins.” Maj saw his community as a chance to share knowledge and grow alongside one another, as people’s minds and hearts would feed one another. Which is why one could argue that Maj’s legacy is about more than what meets the eye.
Maj Ragain’s mark at Kent State University encapsulates its entire expanding community of writers. Every poet whose voice grew as they became involved with the Wick Poetry Center, every writer whose stories would not have been the same, had they not joined a fiction workshop, and even those who found a space to share their art through an open mic. Through the mouths of the people he drew, Maj’s voice continues to echo in the minds of the Kent State students, regardless of whether they know his name.
As more people listen to it and join the community he started, his once vast mass only increases, and inevitably, so does its gravitational pull.
I would like to thank Flo Cunningham, Katherine Willis Pershey, David Hassler, Ted Lyons, and Sony-Ton Aime for sharing their memories of Maj with me. This piece would not have been possible without their contributions and care for details in painting a picture of who Maj Ragain was.