When Janet Mills was first sworn in as Maine’s Attorney General, the poet Henry Braun stepped up and handed her a note to keep in her pocket. When Mills finally had a chance to read the note, what it said was both predictable and profound.
It said: “Write poetry every day.”
When the news of Braun’s passing came, Mills, like countless others, chose to honor the man in verse.
“The conscience of a community with such passion for peace,” Mills wrote. “A poet who passed our way has passed away. Wordless he now, speechless we.”
No doubt Braun would approve.
A poet, teacher and anti-war activist who lived in Weld, Braun, 84, died Oct. 11, leaving in his wake an almost endless string of tributes from the fans and followers whose lives he touched.
“I feel very lucky that, as a student who was pretty much in awe of Henry, he would write back whenever I wrote to him,” wrote Joseph Friedman of Philadelphia where Braun had taught at Temple University.
“Occasionally, he would include one of his poems,” Friedman wrote. “I was going through my archives the other day, and a friend of mine noted that the pages were yellowed at the edges from oxidization. I told her, ‘Well, that is what happens when you keep things for 30 years.’ I kept everything, because it was from Henry, my kindest and wisest teacher.”
“You were a guiding light to me at a point in my life when one was badly needed,” offered Jack Veasey, also of Philadelphia. “I’ll always cherish that, Henry. We let you go with love.”
The network of people mourning the loss is so vast because Braun did so much in so many places.
In the 1960s, he organized poetry readings against the Vietnam war and participated in the War Tax Resistance movement. He was convicted of tax evasion because he chose to give a portion of his taxes to the Philadelphia Veterans Hospital and to the city’s public schools.
Those who knew him say Braun was never angry, only outraged at injustices and determined to create change.
“Henry saw a sweeter world,” Friedman wrote, “than any of us could imagine.”
Braun helped organize a draft card turn-in and was a non-indicted co-conspirator at the Boston Five trial. He helped write “The call to Resist Illegitimate Authority” in 1967. The 60s were not yet over and Braun was already the stuff of legend. Everywhere he went, he made an impact in one way or another.
“A fixture in this community,” said Mills, of Farmington. “A poet and pacifist, friend of Mitch Goodman and William Sloane Coffin and Dr. Spock … a peaceful spirit.”
To some, his spirit was not only peaceful but powerful. “He was a hero,” friend Abe Kreworuka of Weld said. “He deserved a better world.”
According to an obituary written by his wife, after briefly attending Buffalo University, Braun “wandered about Washington D.C., New York, and then Boston, where he heard about the new university in Waltham, Brandeis, and was taken in on a full scholarship. There he met his future wife, Joan Lapedos Braun, studied with poets Claude Vigee and J.V. Cunningham, and took memorable courses with Leonard Bernstein and art historian Leo Bronstein.”
In 1968 Braun’s first book of poems, “The Vergil Woods,” was selected by Atheneum editor Harry Ford for publication and was later nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
“Henry Braun was nuts about poetry,” Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair wrote for the Peavey, the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance’s weekly e-newsletter to its members.
“Anyone who ever saw one of his readings knew it,” McNair wrote. “He didn’t just speak the words of his poems, he gestured, sang, and even danced them. It wasn’t a matter of a reading style. He was simply taken over by poetry’s language and its truth.”
He studied in France, where he and Joan were married. He taught at Boston University and at Temple where legions of students fell under his spell. He kept writing poetry, continued to protest war and injustice, and touched lives everywhere he went.
Braun eventually moved to Weld, where some remember him fondly as the “absent-minded professor,” a brilliant man with just the right spark of eccentricity. That image is captured in the words of Tracey Dillon, who wrote on Braun’s Facebook tribute page: “I think of Henry outside Innisfree in wig, stretched out on the ground, in the sun, piece of grass in his mouth and the seemingly endless poetry that poured from him, in actions and words. I’m so so sad, and will dearly miss his absurdist theater.”
Braun’s second book, “Loyalty,” was published in 2006. It received the Maine Poets and Writers Award for best book of poetry. Katie Barnes, Maine’s first poet laureate, praised the work.
“What did Thoreau say about the cost of any great work, that it cost a lifetime?” Barnes said. “It’s an extraordinary lifetime that we feel in this book.”
An outpouring of memories that seemed to keep outright sadness at bay followed Joan Braun’s obituary in the Daily Bulldog. Most speculated that Braun’s influence would continue to have an impact long after he was laid to rest.
“Henry was so very important in my life, and will continue to be,” wrote Diane Laison. “He was the kindest, sweetest, most sensitive, most self-effacing person I ever knew. He was a fountain of magnificent poetry. Henry helped me and everyone who knew him grow a bigger heart (and brain.) He was wonderful beyond my ability to describe or pay tribute to. He was a very great human being and I feel an empty space in the universe.”
In lieu of flowers, a poetry scholarship will be established in Braun’s name at the University of Maine at Farmington. Checks can be made out to the
Poetry Memorial Fund and sent to P.O. Box 84, Weld, ME 04285. A celebration of his life will take place at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26, at the Weld Town Hall. Everyone is welcome. Refreshments provided but potluck food donations welcome. For more information, please send an email to Joan Braun at firstname.lastname@example.org.