Memorial Tribute for Ralph Salisbury

Ralph Salisbury

January 24, 1926 – October 9, 2017

Ralph James Salisbury, poet, writer, editor, and professor emeritus at the University of Oregon, died peacefully in Eugene on October 9, 2017. He was 91.

Born on January 24, 1926, in Fayette County, Iowa, Ralph grew up hunting and trapping for meat and pelts, and working on his family’s farm, which had no electricity or running water. After surviving a lightning strike at age 15, he was left with “a sense of awe and an intense love of life.”

Ralph graduated from Aurora (Iowa) High School at age 16, and the following year, enlisted in the Air Force, with dreams of rescuing his older brother, who had been captured by Germans in North Africa and was being held as a POW in Italy. He never engaged in active duty, for which he was grateful; he said that the only killing he did during his military service, was the rabid skunk he shot, while on guard duty one night, at an airbase near McCook, Nebraska.

Through World War II Air Force service, Ralph earned six years of university education, including an MFA from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he studied under the poet Robert Lowell. During the Korean War, he became a conscientious objector, pacifist, and activist in the early civil rights movement.

Ralph published 11 collections of poetry, including Rainbows of Stone (2000) and Like the Sun in Storm (2012), both finalists for the Oregon Book Award, and Light from a Bullet Hole (2009), nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He also published three short-story collections and a memoir, So Far, So Good (2013), which received the RiverTeeth Book Award for Literary Nonfiction.

His work reflects his Native American (Cherokee, Shawnee) heritage and family history, his pacifism, and what he described as a “devotion to harmony with nature.” His poem “In the Children’s Museum in Nashville” was published in the New Yorker in 1960, and has attracted attention as a precursor to the contemporary Native American literary movement.

Dedicated, as he said, to the Tribe of the World, Ralph wrote: “Though I have lived and worked among the intelligentsia of many nations, my writing comes from being a questing, mixed-race, working-class individual in a violent world. My work is offered to the spirit of human goodness, which unites all people in the eternal struggle against evil, a struggle to prevail against global extinction.”

For six years the editor-in-chief of Northwest Review, he also edited A Nation Within, an anthology of contemporary Native American writing, and co-translated two books by Sámi (Lapp) poet Nils-Aslak Valkeappää: Trekways of the Wind and The Sun, My Father.

He was Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Oregon, where he began teaching in 1960, and directed the MFA in Creative Writing program, which he helped to develop. Besides the University of Oregon, Ralph also taught at Drake University, Texas A & M University, the University of Frankfurt, and the University of Freiburg (Germany).

A disciplined and prolific writer, Ralph’s literary legacy, passion for justice, truth and beauty, and his far-reaching influence as beloved teacher and friend, is carried on in the lives of his students, many of whom have, in turn, gone on to distinguished literary careers.

A winner of the Northwest Poetry Award, he was also a Rockefeller Foundation Resident at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy. A three-time Fulbright Professor in Germany and a Fulbright translation grant recipient in Norway, he also received an AMPARTS lectureship in India. In 2015, he was honored with the C.E.S Wood Retrospective Award, one of the Oregon Book Awards, celebrating a distinguished career in Oregon Letters.

Over the years, he presented his work in hundreds of poetry readings, on stage, on the radio, and on TV, throughout North America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, and India.

Private burial services will be held at the Eugene Masonic Cemetery. The public is invited to attend a memorial tribute service on January 14, 2018, at 3 pm,  at Gerlinger Alumni Lounge on the University of Oregon Campus. A reception will follow.  

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that gifts in memory of Ralph’s lifelong devotion to peace and justice, to human rights, and to furthering the preservation of indigenous cultures through literature, may be sent to Returning the Gift: A Native and Indigenous Literary Festival (https://rtglitfest.org), the American Civil Liberties Union (https://action.aclu.org/donate), or Mercy Corps (https://www.mercycorps.org/donate).