His name was Hollis Earl Pruitt.
It won’t surprise me if you don’t know it. His life wasn’t big by modern, media standards. He wasn’t a celebrity, didn’t have his own reality show, never graced the cover of a national magazine or made headline news…
…But for those of us that knew him, even briefly, he was as big as life itself.
I met Earl when I was nineteen years old.
I had written, sporadically, for most of my life. The only things I had ever finished were poems. There was this girl I was enamored with. She wrote poetry as well. I knew of a weekly poetry reading in Knoxville; the Wednesday night reading at The 11th Street Expresso House. By way of trying to get to know her, I made her a deal: Come to the reading and I will read a poem for each poem you read. In retrospect, I have no idea why that would be a way to get to know someone. But it seemed like a good idea at the time. We picked a week and both showed up to the reading. She read one, short poem. I read three. From then on, I went to the reading every week – like religion. She came maybe twice more in the next year.
Why did I stay?
Earl ran the weekly reading, and read his own poetry as well. And for the first time, since I was a child, I sat in rapt attention, listening to the words of another. Earl’s handle on the English language, his ear for phrasing, his grasp of cadence and rhythm were astounding, but if I had to tell you the one thing, the single thing that held me fast, it was Earl’s passion as he read. I think most everyone else who ever heard him read would say the same thing. Earl had passion. Passion when he wrote. Passion when he read.
There was a stable core of us poet-types at the weekly readings. Some people came and went on the fringes, but there were always six or seven of us that were there, every Wednesday night, without fail. And we were there because of Earl.
It was Earl’s passion, his joy in poetry that both inspired me and spurred me to become a better poet; a better writer. If anything I have ever written or will ever write achieves even half of the sheer wattage of any of Earl’s work, I will consider myself a success, and lucky.
It was at these poetry readings where I learned to appreciate poetry. It was there where I learned my own ear for phrasing and the sound of the language.
It was at those readings that the course of my life changed.
I was a very depressed and angry young man. Sometimes, I was hard to be around. But I was always welcomed at the readings, always welcomed to read my work, always brought into the many conversations that happened once poems had been read and various angels and demons had been exorcised. And there was Earl, at the center of it all. I was not one of the poets he mentored intensely, but many a time he would have a word of advice for me, about constructing a poem, about the sound of the language, even, once, about a girl.
Hard to be around as I sometimes was, Earl accepted me into this group of mad poets and fellow travelers. He even gave me a nickname. He gave all of the regular poets nicknames.
After some years, Earl and his family moved away. He got a job as professor at a college in Virginia. Thanks to social media and the occasional visit south, we kept in something like touch. Never as much as I would have liked, but that is on me.
Earl succumbed to cancer, earlier this week.
My one regret is that I did not get to see him in the flesh one last time. That I did not get to tell him how much he meant to me and how much his influence changed my life.
I am a published poet. In time I will be a published novelist. In no small part, that is due to the influence, inspiration, and kindness of Hollis Earl Pruitt.
That kind of thing always sounds too mushy, while both people are alive. Not so much after.
Earl left behind a wife and a daughter, and the multitudes of other lives that he touched and became, however briefly, his family – his tribe.
He wasn’t a celebrity. Many of you reading this will have never even heard his name. But if a man can be measured by how many lives he touched, by how many people remember him with fondness and admiration, then…
…His name was Hollis Earl Pruitt, and he was a great man.