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Poems, Pints & Prose At Dressel's Public House

Jon Dressel gathers each month with other poets and writers at his Dresselís Public House on North Euclid Avenue. photo by Tom Breeding (click for larger version)
May 20, 2011
On the first Tuesday evening of every month, able-bodied poets and writers climb the narrow stairway to the second floor of Dressel's Public House, 419 N. Euclid Ave., just north of McPherson Avenue. Kristin Sharp often presides over an invited collection of spoken word performers.

One poet is nearly always first on the docket. That would be Sharp's neighbor and mentor: poet and pubmaster, Jon Dressel.

Dressel, a retired restaurateur, professor of literature and a foremost expert on the poetry of Wales, addresses the assemblage in the pub table "classroom." Usually he will share a story and poem or two from one of his Welsh poet friends. He adds a couple of his own poems which may address anything from classic literature to Civil War or Welsh history to birds in his Central West End back yard or the St. Louis Cardinals.

Dressel grew up in Granite City, Ill. He had Welsh-speaking grandparents who had come to work in the steel mills. Dressel's family operated a dairy business, delivering milk and making products like the ice cream mix used by Dairy Queen.

He assisted in the dairy business after a 1950s stint in the Navy. Armed with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, he and his wife, Barbara, chose to live near their favorite haunts in the old St. Louis Gaslight Square. They bought the Walton Row house, where they still live, back in 1960. Dressel wrote for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat until he decided to go back to school at Washington University in 1965 to earn a masters of arts degree.

"I found out I didn't want to write stories," remembers Dressel. "I wanted to write free verse."

He won first prize at the university's annual poetry contest.

Upon graduation he found a job teaching journalism and creative writing at Webster College. A semester sabbatical led him to Wales. Webster wasn't willing to start a Welsh literature program, but Central University in Pella, Iowa, was willing for him to start a Wales Study Centre in cooperation with Trinity College in Carmarthen, Wales. The next two decades were spent commuting among Wales, Iowa, and St. Louis.

Dressel had been a partner in the start-up of Llywelyn's Pub on McPherson Avenue in 1975. He sold his interest when he began traveling to Wales. But in 1980, to help support the seven months of the year he lived in St. Louis, he and a former student began Dressel's Public House.

Dressel's son, Ben, has presided over the daily duties of running the iconic neighborhood pub for six years now. Jon Dressel is free to read, write and take in activities with Barbara.

Award-Winning Poet

A Dressel poem about the biblical story of Lot, whose wife turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back at the burning city of Sodom and Gomorrah, was included in a prestigious Best Poems of 1975 compilation by Borestone Mountain Poetry Award Foundation. Among that year's select poems, Dressel's "Lot: Some Speculations" was awarded first place.

A Welsh Bardic Crown award for a series of eight poems almost followed in 1979, but the collaboration with a translator was disqualified from the judges' unanimous decision. The collaboration did not violate the rules of the competition, but it did violate the tradition of an award going to a single poet.

"It created a literary controversy that went on for years," said Dressel.

Seventeen years later, Dressel became the only poet not born in Wales to be named to the centuries-old Bardic Order.

Dressel has published six books of poetry. A 1994 dissertation for a PhD from St. Louis University in American Studies took the form of a 33-part narrative dramatic poem. The poem brought to life the ghosts of Civil War characters including generals Sherman and Grant who talk in a St. Louis tavern and in a West End living room.

A project last year involved writing poems for each member of the St. Louis Cardinals named to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Dressel used a whimsical limerick-like poetic style called a clerihew to salute the Redbird Hall of Famers.

The clerihew is a small poetic form loosely related to the limerick, and like the limerick, is almost always humorous in intent. It is named for its inventor, Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956), an English poet and journalist. Here are just a few Cardinal greats, with the year each was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Clerihews by Jon Dressel

Rogers Hornsby 1942

Rogers Hornsby

was famously ornery.

But he hit .400 in a season thrice,

which was nice.

Dizzy Dean 1953

To Jerome "Dizzy" Dean

we should write a paean.

That he won thirty games in a championship season

is sufficient reason.

Stan Musial 1969

The achievements of Stanley Frank Musial

are leagues beyond usual.

It would take an epic poem to do justice to the list

and not a ditty like this.

Johnny Mize 1981

Slugger Johnny Mize

was a man of some size.

And all of "Big Jawn"

was natural brawn.

Bob Gibson 1981

On the mound fierce Bob Gibson

could induce conniption.

His fast ball was enough to make a batter cower,

as was his glower.

Enos Slaughter 1985

Enos "Country" Slaughter

should have been a potter

in some place like India, Boston fans say.

Then he might not have scored from first on that play.

Lou Brock 1985

Louis Clark Brock

liked to run, not walk.

He could not abide stasis,

so he stole nine hundred and thirty-eight bases.

Red Schoendienst 1989

Albert "Red" Schoendienst

is a credit to the Hall.

It's a shame, if not a crime,

that his name has no rhyme.

Ozzie Smith 2002

If you were a Cardinal Earl Osborne Smith

was a joy to be with.

But if you tried to hit one past him as an opposing batter,

it was a different matter.

The Bird Itself

The call of the cardinal

is tunefully cordial.

It goes "whit-tew, whit-tew, whit-tew",

which makes a rhyme with "clerihew."

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