Please leave a memory or message. It will appear below as part of our online guestbook.
I wish you a lot of strength, now that you have lost John. Two days ago I was thinking of him: we will miss him dearly. His wonderful book, Can Poetry Save the Earth, has been at my bedside for many months, and this is just one of the ways I admired him.
- Jan Fokkelman (Zutphen, the Netherlands)
The loss of a great poet. A man that has had such an impact on so many, who long to better appreciate and write poetry from the heart. May the family be comforted by the knowledge of John's great contribution and gift of poetry to so many.
- Jeffrey Heaton
John was an extraordinary man and scholar, and the father of my best friend, Alek. I slept over at the Felstiner’s for the first time at age 3, and Alek slept over at my house so many times over the next decade that his mom, Mary, quipped at his Bar Mitzvah that my parents "deserved a tax-write off." But I’m not sure if the IRS would have bought it, given that I spent just as many nights at the Felstiner’s, where John and Mary received me like second parents in the years after my birthmom’s death, when I was in need of extra love. And it’s been an absolute blessing to have a set of second parents in Stanford since I moved back to the Bay Area for grad school in 2010, even though I wish that I had visited more.
I have so many fond childhood memories with John: going to Stanford Women’s Basketball games, overnights at Boulder Creek (where I will be getting married next year! He will be with us.), listening to classical music and car talk (and throwing up a couple times) on the car ride to there, picnics in the Stanford Hills, playing soccer in the field behind the Felstiner’s house and basketball behind the garage, going to dance and music performances at Stanford, lighting Hanukah candles... John once told me that he had driven Alek to my house so many times, that one night he got out of bed, slept walked to his car, then slept drove half-the-way to my house before waking up—I was never quite sure if he was joking about this or not.
There are many wonderful things to say about John, but I think the thing that will stick with me the most is his implacable passion for people, nature, and the written word, which he never lost, even as he lost language and cognition during his battle with Aphasia. I had the gift of visiting John just a couple weeks before his transition. He looked at me and smiled as though he recognized me in his heart. Mary suggested that I read a children’s book with him, so we did—I read the pages on the right, he read the ones on the left. He had a little difficulty recognizing some of the words, but he was persistent, and after we finished reading, he wanted to start over again. So we read it a second time. And then he wanted to read it a third time, but Mary and I had to go, so we just left him there totally engrossed in the book, which is one of the ways that I like to remember him.
I'm grateful to Alek and Sarah, and especially to Mary, for taking such grate care of him during the trying final years. To the spirit of John Felstiner in all of us!
- Manuel Rosaldo
After reading Can Poetry Save the Earth? I reached out to John to see if I could meet with him as I thought his book was a terrific way to challenge kids. Out of that lunch came the idea for the Save the Earth Poetry contest. The contest, now in its 6th year, has drawn thousands of poems from high school students throughout the world. I know John and I both feel strongly that just having a student write such a poem makes a small but meaningful change in his or her perception of nature and our fragile earth.
With the blessing of the Felstiner’s family, we’ll continue the contest and, after the 10th year, publish an anthology of the 70 winning poems and then distribute the book at no charge to high schools. The anthology will be dedicated to John and be a wonderful addition to his poetry legacy.
Thank you, John.
- Charles Weeden
Dear Mary, Alek and Sarah,
I will be forever grateful to Peggy Bowers who urged me to read John's newly published book on Paul Celan (1995). Little did I know that encounter would lead me into the mystery of the power of the poem and a deep and abiding friendship that would span over two decades. John was so generous, he never turned down an opportunity to teach my friends, colleagues and students, not to mention allowing me to sit in on several of his poetry classes. Everyone who met John became mesmerized by his passion and precision with words that spoke the truth and transcended the darkest horror in human history. His meticulous passion as a translator humbled me deeply as one who translates and teaches the Scriptures. John's work on Celan became intensely personal as it began to unlock the mystery of why poetry was so powerful to embrace and transcend grief, something I was in desperate search of for twenty years after the loss of our first two children. I'll never forget countless evenings with John in my home teaching and answering heartfelt questions with everyone on the edge of their seats long into the night. As we drove home, he would always comment that each session was thrilling and better than the one before. Once he gave us the ultimate compliment, calling us Christian Hebraists. As for me, being with John "I [often] felt a grim energy verging on elation." Not only was he generous to teach so many at our church, he personally welcomed and listened intently to every visiting Romanian I brought to his office. They had much in common, being shaped by a Romanian poet who spend 17 years in prison. And to my surprise I discovered John and I had much in common—in 1982 my friend, Lee Court purchased your former home so I could use it for a Bible study for Stanford students when I was college pastor 1982-1985. For three years will filled your home with 80 students, for dinner, singing and study. Somehow I think it was a divine gift and preview of knowing John and Mary and their wondrous contribution to humanity. On a more humorous note, I have had recurring dreams about John, always a similar scenario. I am one of his students in a literature class, which demands a lot of reading. Unfortunately the dream turns into a nightmare, because I am a slow reader and have not showed up for class for weeks. As final exam menacingly looms on the horizon, I wake quite relieved that it was just a dream. Two nights ago I had a similar dream. But just before the final, John's TA announced that she would tell the class what questions John was going to ask on the final. Waking up relieved, I wondered if John took pity on me and changed the script. And then I remembered the poet "has the last word, not to mention the silence after." With all my love,
- Brian Morgan
I first met John after an Emerson String Quartet concert at Stanford. We had played late Beethoven quartets, including the Grosse Fuge, and in the post-concert panel discussion, John asked whether I had ever read Paul Celan's "Todesfuge." I had not, and had until then only a marginal awareness of Celan's work and central importance in the literary history of the last century. John, Alek and I exchanged a few cordial words after the concert; not long afterward John sent me a copy of his magisterial interpretive biography of the great Romanian-German-Jewish poet. Reading it, I became intensely aware not only of Celan's genius, but also of the challenges of translation that faced John, in rendering his poems into English, and Celan himself, when translating the work of many other poets from Russian, French and English into his native German. I was so affected by this book that I wrote a detailed letter of appreciation, and from that moment my friendship with John and Mary blossomed. I spent many happy hours at their home on the Stanford campus, before and after my concerts there, and we also met in locations as diverse as Yaddo and New York (both at my apartment and at the United Nations, where John was presenting his thoughtful book on poetry and the environment). The warmth of our friendship suffused our conversations on subjects ranging from music and literature to history, politics and family matters.
Not having come to Stanford as frequently in recent years, I had already missed John, and now will miss him even more. For solace, when I have the proper time and mental focus, I'll turn again to his biography and the subsequent comprehensive translation of Celan, as well as to the later anthologies that he edited. He made a vital contribution to the history of 20th-century poetry, and I imagine that he touched many lives deeply, as he did mine, through his work and the passion and force of his personality.
- Eugene Drucker
I have few words for my grief for John’s death and for his last years, brave as he was. It is the loss of his speech and mind which so saddens me, and the loss of his fierce intelligence which I so admired and reveled in. There was a kindredness between us, even if we did not “know” each other very well, nor spend much time together— some implicit recognition of brotherhood in the arts and literature and social responsibility.
I remember singing Monteverdi motets with him and a group of friends, and also teaching with him at Stanford that one course he was so gracious to share with me. And our talks, and our laughter, and those surprise moments when we did not expect to see each other, and did, and always there was an explosion of joy to be in each other’s company again.
I wept when I heard the news from Anne, and have thought of him many times since. Of course, it is a relief that he is no longer suffering in these ways, but there is also the irretrievable loss of his vitality, warmth, and keen intelligence that I will feel for a long time.
John, I will certainly miss your humor ! I will always remember how you made me laugh!
I am very relieved for you that your struggle is over. That was very unfair.
- Celia Lowenthal
John was a man of intellectual breadth and a great heart. He will be much missed.
- Judith Bendor
A poem for you and John
from the late Yehuda Amichai, one of John's favorite Hebrew poets
We divided the language between us: you took the vowels
and I the consonants, and together we were of one language
and many words. Listen, man, listen, woman:
our life is one, of deaths there are many, and gods not a few
our life is one and our love is one
Wishing you strength Mary. John was an important part of our Jewish Studies community at Stanford and he is missed.
- Vered Shemtov
Dearest Mary, I watched John take care of you all these decades. He helped you in a thousand ways to live a normal life with an abnormal disease. He was a great translator and a wonderful father. Everyone who knew him will miss the man we knew for so long.
- Ruth Rosen
I have nothing so eloquent to share as those beautiful thoughts above. I met John at a particularly valuable moment in my education and his teaching has inspired me ever since. Thank you, John. Baruch Dayan ha-Emet.
- Susan Heilbrunn Shapiro
Dear Mary and Family,
I heard Celan's words through your husband. What a great gift to the world.
May you be comforted in your sorrow by the memory of his love.
- Rosalind Maya Lama
I took John's winter '02 IHUM lecture, Literature into Life, a decade before I began translating poetry and discovered he was an authority in the field. If only I'd known myself sooner, I might have studied the craft with him at Stanford. As it is, I doubt anyone will ever unseat his version of Celan's "Todesfuge" as my favorite earthly translation thanks to how it capitalizes on the poet's use of repetition to teach its reader German as it goes and thereby recur to the original. It's a one-of-a-kind feat, and I wish, as I long intended, I'd told him so. More than a translator I identify these days as an ecopoet, and will make his Can Poetry Save the Earth? essential reading in any future nature-writing courses I teach. My heartfelt condolences to all John's intimates in the wake of his loss.
- Genevieve Guzmán
Over the years the journal Two Lines published a number (eight!) of John's essays on wide-ranging subjects and I thought it would be nice to share this overview with friends and colleagues who might be unaware of the breadth of his work.
In the first essay we published, "Shibboleth and Translation" (1994), he wrote about holding ritually to the "strangeness, disjuncture, ambiguity, obscurity, and also to the bluntness that makes [Paul Celan's] verse itself an act, an actuality." In "You Must Change Your Line" (1995), he explored the relationship between Rilke and Celan by examining their translations (and his own) of Valéry -- including Celan's translation of a poem Rilke called "untranslatable."
In "Fertile Misremembrance" (2002), he wrote about how Denise Levertov's misremembrance of a Neruda poem inspired him to translate Neruda's poem in a new way, allowing Levertov's poetic language to migrate into his translation of Neruda, in a kind of reverse influence.
His essay "Losses Not in Translation Only" (2003) followed Paul Celan through the year 1968, winding through the Prague Spring and subsequent crackdown, the assassination of MLK Jr, and a performance of Billie Holiday's song "Strange Fruit" in Paris — all viewed through the lens of Celan's writing. He wrote about Robert Duncan, Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan in "Faithful, Belle, and Treu" (2004). He wrote about seeing singer Victor Jara perform with Violeta Parra in Chile, and Jara's eventual execution after the 1973 coup in Chile, in "Sing Now If You Can, Hijo de Puta!" (2005). In "Tests of Translation: A Sampler" (2007) he reflected on his decades of translating poetry and writing about the process, and some notable instances of failed translations. And in his last essay for Two Lines, an Online Exclusive (2009) called "There’s no place on it / that does not see you—An essay on two of Rilke’s most beloved—and oft translated poems," he wrote about "Archaic Torso of Apollo" and "Autumn Day," two of his own favorite poems.
John helped the founders of Two Lines to get the magazine off the ground and he served as Vice President of the board for the Center for the Art of Translation for many, many years, offering us continual guidance and support. In addition to John's scholarship and his translator's acumen, we will miss his unique writing style and broad sense of humor.
- Olivia Sears
I was shocked to hear of John's death. The deeply reassuring weave of intellect and culture that enriches our humanity suddenly feels thinned. And now we are bound by loss.
- Alexis Levitin
I took three courses from John--two as a freshman, a third as a Business School grad student--so his teaching encompasses my whole experience at Stanford. He was also the first and later the final poetry teacher I had, so his ideas and examples influenced me in my life and work. I began my book of Montale's Motets in his translation class. He never talked down to his students. He was learned, allusive, and contemplative in his courses. That meant that some students were occasionally lost in his courses, but what a gift that was to the serious student! He asked us to perform at his level--impossible, yes, but inspiring.
- Dana Gioia
My sincerest condolences on your loss.
- Elliot Cohen
John's Translating Neruda was a groundbreaking book in the world of translation, as Alastair Reid, another great loss, noted in the New York Review of Books many years ago. I hadn't seen him for many years but remember him as a vital presence, and was very sad to hear of his passing. I believe one of the last times we met was with the widow of Paul Celan in the mid-80s.
My sincere condolences.
- Suzanne Jill Levine
I first met John in 1999, when I took his summer translation course at Skidmore. It was a personally tentative time for me because I was trying to find a path, in late middle age, from workaday corporate life to a” second act” spent working on the translations and essays I’d relegated to my back burner for some 25 years.
I remember a palpable sense of relief at that first session because, among his many gifts as superstar teacher, John had the ability to put a class at ease with itself. John, I’m sure, didn’t know it, but that Skidmore summer had a deep effect in helping me give myself permission to take the first small steps to enrich the next stage of my life. Although we stayed in off and on contact for years, I regret I never really thanked him for that, and saying “thanks” now, doesn’t really atone.
One thing I wish I would have said to him is that, for me, he was a teacher who brought a no less respectful and fertile level of discourse to his students than he did to his conversations with the great poets he translated.
- Dennis Dybeck
I will always remember being a student in John's "Literature of the Holocaust" course in the late 1970s; his influence on me has been so far-reaching that I can hardly do justice to it in a few words. As a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, I was beyond grateful for his acutely sensitive choice of writers, and I was dazzled by his eloquent ability to discuss not only their words but also their silences. He brought such a depth of understanding and illumination to each author and each conversation that my tentative self-awareness as a writer began to seem more and more dimensional. John helped me discover my material, and therefore helped me to find my true calling in this life. As years passed and I began to publish, John's enthusiastic support was a special blessing. Being invited to visit his class (after three decades!) to discuss my own work with his students felt like the closing of a circle --- not in the sense of an ending but as a gathering of threads that belonged together.
Thank you so much Mary and Sarah and Alex for this afternoon's exquisite sharing of John's vast and remarkable life. It was an honor to know him.
- Elizabeth Rozner
I first knew John Felstiner as Mary’s husband when I came to Stanford from the East in 1976. It was so comforting to meet these East Coast progressive Jewish colleagues! When I moved to San Francisco they generously opened their home to me, so that I always knew I had a bed to sleep in if I stayed late on campus. I knew, especially through Mary, how care-taking John could be. I got to spend more time with John during the year that we had adjacent offices at the Stanford Humanities Center. I benefitted in ways he never knew when, drawing on his own struggle in teaching about the Holocaust, he asked me how I managed the anger in studying the history of rape. His question forced me to write personally about my subject before I could write another word of history. Over the years I have marveled at the ways that Mary and John took care of each other. Since his death I continue to be saddened for all of the family – and hopeful that their memories and those of others will help sustain them.
- Estelle Freedman
I will miss John's elegant attention to language, his perceptive readings, his wonderful translations, finding the heart of the sound, the heart in the sound. Thank you to John especially for bringing us Celan. And it should be said, he was one of the earliest among male critics and teachers to celebrate the new and radical literature of the women's movement. And John himself? An elegant attentiveness again, in this too making a rich contribution to our collective souls.
- Susan Griffin