John Robert Colombo: The Great Encourager

Photo of John Robert Colombo
John Robert Colombo

(A dedication to Clare Warwick 1930- 2019 – teacher, journalist, friend)

By J.S. Porter

You wake up one morning and in your electronic mailbox is a message, a response to something you’ve just written.

…so lyrical, so deft, so appealing…

Sounds like your mother, but it isn’t.  The words come from a man you admire and respect for many reasons, not the least of which is his great Found Poem on Dr. Norman Bethune, the Northrop Frye Quote Book, his essays on under-appreciated Canadian writers such as Krystyna Gunnars, his Canadiana in The Canadian EncyclopediaJohn Robert Colombo | The Canadian Encyclopedia – including a charmer on Ookpiks.

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. John Robert Colombo is not all laud; sometimes he’s caustically size-shrinking. He’ll tell you straight out when a sentence is a clunker. This compiler and poet of things is, as George Fetherling noted some years ago, the embodiment of “a kind of private-sector scholarship that is as admirable as it is rare,  a scholarship  mightily  visible in works such as Colombo’s Canadian Quotations and Colombo’s Canadian References.”

John Robert Colombo has been in the word business for a long time.  He compiles words (often in the form of Quotation Books), writes his own words (often in the form of poems and aphorisms), introduces them, edits them, evaluates them, publishes them.   He’s a professional writer, someone who makes his living by his word-skill.  Being a writer, he is also a voluminous reader, a broad reader (science fiction, the fantastic, the philosophy of Gurdjieff, the paranormal, Canadian literature, Bulgarian poetry, etc.), and a close reader (he was an editor at Tamarack Review and edited George Grant’s Lament for a Nation).

He’s also tremendously encouraging of writers less experienced, and less adept at word games than he is.  I know this firsthand because JR, the “name” or initials I use in my e-mail correspondence with him, has unfailingly encouraged me in whatever writing I’ve chosen to undertake in prose or in poetry.

In my first book—The Thomas Merton Poems—published by Moonstone in 1988,  he wrote the back-cover endorsement:

“The Thomas Merton Poems dramatize a deep, almost dimensionless response to the world of the flesh, the spirit, and the values around us. I am not sure whether the poems invade the reader or the reader invades the poems. Whatever the dynamic, these are poems that stay with one, remain part of one’s values, and are akin to prayer.”

In response to my Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality and other works, he made a selection of sentences that would be suitable for a Quote Book.  For example:

Spirituality/Spiritbookword: the breath of the word in the book. I jumped up and down like a four-year-old. Hallelujah! I had found my word. I could now look for spiritbookwords in others. * J.S. Porter, essayist, coining a word to refer to his sense that the spirit inhabits the script of the word that is bound and unbound in the book, Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality (2001).+

When my Lightness and Soul: Musings on Eight Jewish Writers appeared in 2011, JR let his friend in New York City, Richard Kostelanetz, know about it. Richard, in turn, wrote an incisive review on the book for the Jewish magazine Outlook.  Richard let me know in the brief correspondence we shared that he doesn’t publish a word until JR has seen it and approved it.

A few years ago, JR wrote an essay about me, which has a place in his Notebooks (five volumes).  He called the essay “The Great Appreciator” and in it, I learned things about myself. JR dubbed me as an appreciator, as someone who writes appreciations of others’ writings. He listed Clifton Fadiman, Edmund Wilson, and Alberto Manguel as among the great appreciators. Malcolm Cowley is another great appreciator, and closer to home, George Woodcock and John Robert Colombo himself.

I don’t think anyone previously had ever told me who I was as a writer or what I did as a writer. Ah, I said to myself, I’m an appreciator and what I write are appreciations. Thank you, JR.

John went on with other insights into the minor scribbler whom he sometimes refers to as JS (moi).

“Number One Insight: Text is tops! [JS] loves the poems and songs of Leonard Cohen. Knowing this, I drew his attention to the speech that Cohen delivered upon the acceptance of the Prince of Asturias Award. I recommended that he watch the magnificent speech on YouTube, and he did that. He wrote to assure me he had done so, adding, ‘I would really prefer to read it than to watch it. I have always been like that.’”

“Number Two Insight: No existence outside print. We exchanged emails about some subject or other that had to deal with perception, and I casually mentioned that the text brought to my mind the famous Zen Rock Garden at the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. The garden in question, the most famous such sand and rock garden in existence, was so landscaped as to permit most – but not all – of its standing stones to be visible at the same time from one location. One has to walk along the platform along its entire length to see the ‘missing’ rocks only to discover that the previously visible rocks are themselves now missing…

“I went on to say that what is not generally known is that it is but one of two related gardens at the Ryoanji Temple. The second garden is located just around the corner from the first one, but it has no visitors.   … I see these two gardens as constituting one single whole, a point I have never seen in print. The famous Garden demonstrates symmetry and design and grants the viewer a somewhat bracing (and certainly dry) metaphysical insight. The unknown Garden is completely neglected; it demonstrates the truth that a garden will grow wild if left untended by the hand of man. These gardens are the yin and the yang of creation, but because of their placement, they are unable to be viewed both together, so that one of them must be sought out to the exclusion of the other…”

Ever a Doubting Thomas, I fell into my habitual skepticism.  I asked JR how he knew about the two Zen gardens. Where did he read about it?  JR replied that he didn’t read it, he saw it.

JR concluded his essay on me as an appreciator with this quip: “The conclusion I came to is that in John’s eyes unless it is described in print it is not real and has but a phantom existence at best.” There is more truth in this sentence than I care to admit.  In my logocentric, bibliocentric mind, there is sometimes no world outside the book, no existence outside of words.  But, pot-kettle- black: is anyone more word-soaked and book-riven than JRC himself?

JR reminded me that “there are things in this world – and perhaps beyond it – that are real – that are pre-print. There was a world before books, before print, before script, before words, and even before human utterance.”

John Robert Colombo is a man of many gifts, one of which is his encouragement of others.  I appreciate his encouragement and his wisdom.


For more on John Robert Colombo, read my interview in Hamilton Arts and Letters:
Visit John’s website at:
Be sure to read Manina Jones on Colombo’s contribution to the Found Poetry:
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