Requiem for a Heavyweight

James Humphrey (February 20, 1939-May 21, 2008), poet, playwright, and abstract artist, who took the pain and suffering from his abusive childhood, to bring a voice for those suffering a similar plight, died unexpectedly Wednesday afternoon, May 21, at his home in Yonkers, NY. He was 69.

The cause was cardiac arrest. James developed a heart condition within the last year after suffering from chronic sciatica and spinal pain for more than 30 years.

As a poet he wrote with an informal, “bare bones” style. James earned praise from fellow writers, Charles Bukowski, Robert Creeley and Kurt Vonnegut, among others, for keeping his “typewriter in the heavyweight fight.” With his non-conformist literary attitude and choice of bitter subject matter, James’s life didn’t boast a commercially successful career but it was a life of victories—personal and public. He spoke openly about child abuse and as a counselor, he worked with victims of abuse in New York City and Westchester County, NY.

New York poet Daniel Berrigan, an American peace activist, and Roman Catholic priest praised James as “a moralist of the imagination.” He continued saying Humphrey’s poems are a “lexicon of the heart’s ecology…his work and life raises going counter to a sacrament.”

James was born In Sioux City, Iowa, but moved often throughout the Midwest during his childhood. By age five, his mother, a former Miss Iowa beauty queen, and stepfather, a Supply Sergeant in the United States Air Force, were rearing him. Regularly he was beaten by the stepfather. Without any family support and strong enough at 16, he slugged his stepfather and left home, never to return. Broken, but not without a strong will to endure, he spent the next years learning in Iowa libraries and working odd jobs. In 1959, in poor health, he wrote his first poem, “A Fallen Man Searching,” which originally appeared in his chapbook, In Tribute to Survivors (1984).

Reaching a milestone in 1974 at age 34, he began college for the first time. Choosing Brown University, he graduated with honors less than three years later with a combined BA/MA in literature and creative writing.

James wrote 17 published books during his career. His final book, Naked Poems Selected and New 1969-2006, was published in 2006. However, he admitted he never much liked being a poet. At a 2006 poetry reading in New York, he said, “playing center and batting clean up for the St. Louis Cardinals—then upon retirement, building a ranch in Iowa for young survivors…that was my human destiny. Because of the extensive crippling to my body by stepfather, writing was all that was left for me.” His legacy of work also includes a veritable mountain of screenplays, short stories, novels, essays and art works.

James also developed a passion for abstract painting. Beginning as a muralist during the 1960s, he experimented with envelope and postcard art during the 1980s and onward. Using his Mont Blanc fountain pen and a wide array of felt-tip markers, James used his correspondence as a canvas to create quickly drawn abstractions of expressionistic colors and shapes for his recipients. In 2004, with writing on hold while he recovered from a series of surgical spinal injections for his pain, he began transferring his emotion to canvas and “let his insides come out.” The paintings show flashes of intense color and a transference of the written word to visual poetry.

“I never know what I’m going to paint when I start. I just paint and hope that I’m taken to a higher place inside of myself. Maybe I learn something from within. It’s not about composition or design—it’s about just letting it happen,” he mused during his New York gallery opening—a show entitled “Dawn and Beyond”—just a couple weeks before his death.

James’s marriage to his wife Norma, a librarian at Yonkers Public Library, began in 1966 and was a source of pride during his lifetime. A strong supporter of Jim’s work, she nurtured his health, and continues to manage his estate. His other survivor is their only child, Saroyan, named after William Saroyan. A graphic designer and photographer, he collaborated with his dad on nearly all of his books beginning with The 5¢ Poem published in 1981.

Just days after Jim’s death, a previously arranged environmental art installation in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, unexpectedly land marked Jim’s passing. A poem he wrote in 1969 waves on Main Street. It reads:


Today I am
looking out
all around
me: I am
all that I am.

Rejoice if I love
you. It is the best
of my love.
I am I.

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