We drove down the twisted, winding road with Rodney Torreson’s blue van following us. When the trees cleared, we saw a large house designed by Mies Van der Rohe, who believed in designing with straight lines and nothing extra. His motto: form follows function. When Mr. Ridl bought the house, it had been empty for 10 years. It was a mess; the house was just a shell. Jack spent nine months fixing it up. By the time it was completed, it was filled with his daughter’s art and livable once more.
At his front door, next to a small pond, we stood ringing his doorbell. The dogs barked at our arrival. Jack, Charlie, and Stafford welcomed us in. (Charlie and Stafford are dogs). Jack offered us a soda after a very tedious journey. (Traffic jam) We accepted gratefully and moved into the living room. We talked and discussed poetry and sports.
Jack told us the job of a poet: to look for things that are overlooked and everything is significant. Some of Jack’s poetry is based on his past basketball experience, when his dad Buzz Ridl was the coach of the University of Pittsburgh basketball team.
As we sat in his living room, several of us read poems that we wrote during the summer, while working with Mr. Torreson. Jack liked the poems very much. Then he read us several poems from a manuscript that was soon to be accepted for publication.
The poems Jack read showed how straight forward he is in his sports’ poems. They have a toughness, as a result. Instead of prettying things up, he begins his poem “Coach's Kid’s Summer” in this way:
He lifted weights—bench press, curls,
toe rises, dead lift. And he ran
fifteen miles; jumped rope; and
shot from the corners, around the lane, top
of the key; then fake left go right, fake,
right go left, drive, hook; hit
the boards—tap, tap tap tap tap.
The poem also uses lots of verbs, and that seems appropriate since the poem is about the action on the basketball court. We hear him leaning on verbs throughout other poems, as well. His poem “Getting in Shape,” which mentions one of his basketball heroes, Oscar Robertson, ends this way:
We’d wear our sweats: I’d wrap
my newly haired legs
to calm the skin splints
breaking toward my knees.
I’d look back at Oscar, slam
the locker door: Practice.
After the readings, Jack gave us a tour of all his land. Charlie the beagle mix came, too. We went down to his creek where Charlie got a drink.
We explored the rest of his 4.5 acres. We stopped by the miniature pond, as Rodney Torreson and Jack chatted. We played with Charlie as we were waiting, giving the energetic beagle the time of his life. After that we said our goodbyes and thanked him for our wonderful visit.
Jack grew up in Pennsylvania , where his mother was a trapeze artist. Jack moved to West Michigan about 40 years ago. He has taught at Hope College for 37 years, where he created the Visitors Writing Series. The Carnegie Foundation named him “Michigan Professor of the Year” for 1996. Jack was honored as Hope’s most outstanding professor in 2003.
Arguably his most famous book, Broken Symmetry, was published by Wayne State in 2006, Wayne State also selected it best poetry book. Against Elegies won a Chapbook award in 2001, which was chosen by former poet laureate Billy Collins and Sharon Dolin. Ridl’s work has been praised by writer Naomi Shihab Nye, poet laureate Billy Collins, poets Richard Jones, Conrad Hillberry, and Bob Hicok.
By Matt Rozelle, Ben Talen, Donald Sund, Eric Van Swol, and Drew Dygert, 8th graders at Immanuel-James Lutheran School during the 2007-2008 school year.