Adventures in poetry

The written word has carried English grad Lester Graves Lennon on a journey that began at, and regularly circles back to, UW-Madison.

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Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science

If you were looking for Lester Graves Lennon back in the late ’60s, chances are you found him at the Rathskeller.

“I basically haunted the Rath,” says the English major from New York who came to UW-Madison because that’s where smart characters in James A. Michener novels went to college. Lennon could spend hours hunkered down in the Memorial Union hangout, playing bridge or dabbling in poetry.

“When I finished a poem, I’d go around the Rathskeller showing my friends,” he says. 

Beyond the Union, the written word played a defining role in Lennon’s UW experience. A standout memory is a Shakespeare course taught by former English professor Standish Henning. “I love how he brought it to life,” Lennon says. “He had the combination of passion, intelligence and the ability to give a close read without being boring.”

And he’ll never forget meeting Gwendolyn Brooks. The first African American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry served as the Rennebohm Visiting Professor of Creative Writing in the spring of 1969. Lennon took her class and came away both inspired and encouraged to keep putting pen to paper.

Lennon continued writing as his path veered from UW, first to San Francisco and Berkeley, where he worked in a student-owned record store he’d read about in Rolling Stone, and then in city jobs in the Bay Area, where he picked up some finance skills. When a friend told him about an investment banking firm starting up in San Francisco, Lennon was ready for the challenge.

Lester Lennon Pullquote 163X163

There are very few bankers who can walk into a meeting and leave with a book of poetry on the table. I at least am memorable for that.

When he set down roots a few years later in Los Angeles, Lennon established himself as both an investment banker and a poet. The two pursuits, he has found, have more in common than one might think.

“It’s all about energy, it’s all about creativity, it’s all about trying to find solutions for problems,” he says. “It would be easier for me to do poetry without investment banking than to do investment banking without poetry.”

Indeed, being the “poet banker” has given Lennon a competitive advantage in drumming up business. “There are very few bankers who can walk into a meeting and leave with a book of poetry on the table,” he says. “I at least am memorable for that.”

Lennon is now working on a third book of poetry, filled with some pieces that start at visits to the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, where Lennon sits on the board of directors. He also is on the board at Red Hen Press and was part of a mayoral task that force helped appoint Los Angeles’ first poet laureate in 2012.

Through it all, Lennon has maintained a connection to UW-Madison, serving on the Board of Visitors for the English department and returning to campus twice a year for meetings.

This spring, he was eager to visit his old stomping grounds. He checked out the Memorial Union renovation and searched for a personalized brick that he purchased to commemorate all the hours spent here.

Its inscription: Poetry written here.

My College Roommate’s Daughter

She was two years old forty years ago
when I was twenty-two. I held her hand.
We walked the path along a road cars ruled.
My body was her shield. She held my hand
naturally. It was my first time guiding
a child. We did not speak we held hands walking.
I felt my future daughter warmly waiting.

– Lester Graves Lennon