ANACORTES — Northwest poet Robert Sund, whose disarming, playful words and unerring aesthetic sense made him the region's unofficial poet laureate, has died of cancer.
Mr. Sund, 71, died Saturday at Island Hospital.
"Robert is probably the most beloved poet of any of the writers I know," said environmental writer Tim McNulty of Sequim, a longtime friend. "He's a poet who grew out of the soil of the Northwest."
Mr. Sund, whose second book, "Ish River," won the 1984 Washington State Governor's Award, had been working on a series of garden poems at his home in a local boatyard.
Like everything in Mr. Sund's life, the tiny house was a harmonious blend of function and beauty, his woodworking skills evident in every hinged and fitted nook and cranny.
"I never saw anything he did that wasn't beautiful," said photographer Mary Randlett from her home in Olympia, citing his poems, paintings, calligraphy and "every place he lived."
But his exacting standards kept his formally published collections to a minimum.
Aside from "Ish River" — celebrating the region's many rivers whose names end with "ish," such as the Stillaguamish, the Snohomish, the Swinomish and Duwamish — there is only 1969's "Bunch Grass," his first book, based on a summer working in Eastern Washington.
There are smaller volumes — "The Hides of White Horses Shedding Rain," "As Though the Word Blue Had Been Dropped Into the Water" — but not many.
"He just had a certain way a book should be. If a person wasn't going to go with it, that was it," said Jim Hartz, a former director of the Intersections art center in San Francisco's North Beach, where he met Mr. Sund at a reading that also featured Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry.
"I don't think he was worried about getting published. If finickiness got in the way, too bad!" Hartz said.
For Mr. Sund, poetry was meant to be spoken. He savored every syllable, every hushed pause. The published lineup for last spring's Skagit River Poetry Festival says Mr. Sund "reminds us of the power of the oral tradition, not only to entertain, but to comfort, sustain and teach us."
"He was a real performer. He drew you into the poetry. He could weave a spell around it," says Seattle artist Charles Krafft.
But there may be more publishing in the future, giving Mr. Sund "the national readership he deserves," McNulty said.
Randlett said she, Krafft and other friends had long "wanted to get one beautiful book out with his paintings, translations, haiku and calligraphy."
"Now that Robert's out of the way," that may be possible, several friends said, laughing.
Mr. Sund didn't take himself too seriously, despite the long silver mane and wispy beard. His rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes conveyed unfailing good humor — even on his deathbed.
"He once stayed at my place in San Francisco for five or six weeks. We convinced ourselves we had invented the term 'too much fun,' " Hartz recalled fondly.
Mr. Sund, a student of poet Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington, was a Buddhist influenced by Asian nature poetry, "in which you study nature to get a better handle on yourself," Krafft said.
As a young man, Mr. Sund worked the wheat harvest in Eastern Washington, cooked for commercial-fishing crews in Alaska, washed Seattle city buses and was poetry-program director for now-defunct KRAB-FM.
Since the 1970s, he had lived as an artist — "often broke, but always true to his calling," writes longtime friend Art Greeno of El Prado, N.M.
"He's the only poet I've ever known who actually lived as a poet, without compromising," says Pat Knox of Seattle, a literary facilitator and longtime bookstore operator now running Recovery Centers of King County.
"He understood how special each day was and taught a lot of us about that."
Born in Olympia on Nov. 29, 1929, Mr. Sund was raised by adoptive parents in Elma.
His will creates a trust to be overseen by 11 friends, with authority to publish his writings and art as a means of financing creation of "a place known as The Poet's House," where writers, potters and calligraphers can work.
A celebration of his life is planned. No date has been set.