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Saturday, December 29, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nelson Bentley, 72, Poet Laureate Of Northwest And UW Professor

Nelson Bentley's motto for the poetry-struck students who crowded his classes - ``Avoid self-pity like the plague'' - became a T-shirt saying. His gentle reminder that their art is all - ``Support Onomatopoeia'' - evolved into a bumper-sticker campaign at colleges in several states.

Thousands Mr. Bentley's former students will immediately recognize those memories of a one-of-a-kind teacher and friend.

Mr. Bentley, the Northwest's undisputed poet laureate and English professor emeritus at the University of Washington, died Thursday at Group Health Hospital after a long battle against cancer.

Mr. Bentley, 72, retired from the UW in 1989 - a casualty of a state law that forces university professors to retire at 70. But he never quit writing, said his wife, Beth. His last work was a poem to be read next spring at the wedding of his daughter Julian.

Mr. Bentley taught at the UW for 37 years - year-round without a summer break or a sabbatical. He presided over a variety of English classes in the daytime, and he taught poetry workshops in the evenings. He was best known for his poetry-writing class, where he gently urged students to reach beyond the cliche of youth in search of life experiences.

``He devoted all his teaching life to his students,'' his wife said yesterday. ``He cared more for his students' success than for his own. . . . He was known for his generosity toward them. Even people who were unqualified, he found something good about their work always.''

``He was instrumental in starting me on the road,'' said Tess Gallagher, the Port Angeles writer who is one of Mr. Bentley's most famous students. ``I was one of his regular daytime students, and I knew he wrote poetry, so I began turning in poems.

``He invited me to sit in on his class at night. I said, `No, I can't. I don't have any money, and I'm working two jobs.' He just said, `Tess, come anyway,' and I did.''

Charles Johnson, director of the UW's creative writing department and recent winner of the National Book Award, said recently that Mr. Bentley was ``the most incredible teacher I've ever known in my life. He has tremendous dedication to students and the institution.''

For at least 30 years, Mr. Bentley, in his professor's robes, led students of the College of Arts and Sciences through graduation ceremonies. The last time was in June, when he prevailed upon doctors to postpone a needed operation until after graduation.

Mr. Bentley was justifiably proud of his students. He kept count of who they were and what they did when they left the university.

And he announced the results of his count each quarter when a new class gathered. At last count more than 950 former students - including Gallagher and Pulitzer Prize-winner James Wright - are published writers. Carolyn Kizer, Theodore Roethke, Pattiann Rogers, Duane Niatum, Paula Jones and Richard Hugo have called him friend or mentor.

Mr. Bentley studied at the University of Michigan under W.H. Auden in the 1940s. He was quoted once as saying ``Auden taught me that in order to proceed further as a poet I must know everything that happened in the last 5,000 years, including milestones in religion, philosophy, literature, mythology and, if possible, science. . . .

``People have this idea that they should go to a desert island and write. Art functions in the middle of society. Its aim is to harmonize and the artist can't do that unless he gets along with society, loves society.''

Mr. Bentley left his native Michigan in 1952 to teach at the UW because he idolized Roethke. Roethke was regarded as the architect of the Northwest School of Poetry and was on the English department faculty at the time. Roethke nicknamed Mr. Bentley - a gentle bearish man - ``Moose.''

Mr. Bentley began writing when he was 7 years old, publishing a daily elementary-school newspaper. By the time he entered the University of Michigan he was known for comic ballads he later crafted into the humorous poetry for which he is known - poetry that juxtaposes Genghis Khan and Socrates with the Fuller Brush man and sings elegies for Ivar Haglund and Morris the Cat.

``Poetry is a delight,'' he said once. ``Like religion, poetry is primarily a joyful experience.''

More recently he said, poetry offers ``the most rich, musical,

evocative, original use of language and deals with the problems of the universe. . . . It is the condensed essence of everything. Poetry is the central voice of civilization.''

During his career he started the weekly Castalia Readings, during which students publicly read from their work; was a co-founder of Poetry Northwest and The Seattle Review; promoted the inclusion of poetry in programs on public radio and television; and was poetry editor of the Times' Pacific Magazine.

He won the University of Michigan's Hopwood Awards in 1942 and 1949, the Washington State Governor's Arts Award in 1987 and the Governor's Book Award in 1967. Several of his books and hundreds of poems are still in print.

Besides his wife, also a poet and teacher, Mr. Bentley is survived by his son Sean, and daughter, both writers; daughter-in-law Robin and Julian's fiance, David Edelman.

A private family service is planned. The family requests memorial gifts to the Nelson Bentley Poetry Prize at the UW department of English.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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