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SNAPSHOTS

For versatile versifier Richard Armour, 82, 'life has no meaning if he can't write.'

March 24, 1988|BRYAN STYBLE

By any standard, including that set by Frost, Armour ranks as a remarkable talent. Since 1935, the Claremont author and educator has published more than 10,000 pieces of the sort of poetry most beholden to the mechanical considerations valued by Frost: light verse. More incredibly, this prolific output wasn't even the path by which he achieved his greatest fame.

Inspired principally by Jonathan Swift, Armour developed his approach to prose with his "It All Started With" books in the 1950s. Lampooning personages and events of historical fact and fancy in a style dense with puns and anachronisms, the spoofs established him as a premier satirist.

Whether poking fun at America's past ("It All Started With Columbus"), warfare ("Stones and Clubs"), medicine ("Hippocrates") or even communism ("Marx"), each book was intended to entertain even those not familiar with what was being parodied.

Armour's academic career, during which he lectured on about 200 campuses worldwide, was spent mostly as a professor of English, literature and poetry, chiefly at Scripps College in Claremont. Now 82 and suffering from Parkinson's disease, he lives in quiet semi-retirement with his wife, Kathleen.

"Going Around in Academic Circles," "A Diabolical Dictionary of Education" and "It All Started With Freshman English" are but three of the titles which Armour devoted exclusively to the ribbing of his colleagues.

Proving to his students that he didn't take his classroom discourses too seriously, works like "American Lit Relit" and "The Classics Reclassified" lampooned every literary great from Homer ("Almost nothing is known about Homer, which explains why so much has been written about him") to Hemingway ("The reader will notice how Hemingway has got rid of the nonessentials and is moving toward that mastery of the writer's art which would permit him also to get rid of the essentials"). And in most of his books, many of his best punch lines were buried in footnotes, the scholar's digression of choice.

With most of his books out of print and readily available only in libraries, Armour doubts that his place in the annals of American letters is secure. "I really don't think my work is lasting," he said.

Even so, interest remains in his work, though it's hard to imagine how "It All Started With Eve"--his facetious history of womankind, typically dependent on wordplay--will translate for the edition currently being prepared in Hungarian.

Most of his 65 books feature at least some verse, though many of his stanzas were first published in "Armour's Armory," his widely syndicated newspaper column. The New Yorker began publishing Armour during the Great Depression.

Kathleen Armour, who looks and sounds a quarter-century younger than her 82 years, met her future husband when they were in the first grade in Pomona, though they remained mere acquaintances until they reached college.

Ultimately, his career required extended stays for the couple in many distant locales, including Germany just as Hitler was coming to power in 1933. Still, throughout much of their 55-year marriage--which produced a son and a daughter--they have managed to remain close to their roots. Their present home is in a retirement community in Claremont, only six miles from where they were raised.

Until the onset of his ailment a few years ago, Armour was a passionate, low-handicap golfer. His love for the sport prompted two of his books, including "Golf Is a Four Letter Word."

He thinks his disease is "somewhere in the middle" of the extremes exhibited in various victims. "I think every day about death," Armour confides. His wife, meanwhile, laments about how the neurological disorder has made writing very difficult for him, and "he thinks his life has no meaning if he can't write."

Thus Armour spends much of his time revising old pieces of his verse. He toils in his bedroom office, diligently isolating phrases that could benefit from a rewrite.

While Armour clearly recalls the time he appeared with Groucho Marx on "You Bet Your Life," he prefers to reminisce about his frequent television appearances as a guest of Johnny Carson.

Armour remains one of the world's foremost authorities on Bryan Waller Procter, the 19th-Century British poet, playwright and essayist better known as Barry Cornwall.

The subject of Armour's dissertation at Harvard as well as of a subsequent, serious tome, Cornwall died in 1874 at the age of 86. "Cornwall lived a very long life in a time of short-lived people. He was important only because he knew so many important persons," Armour explains, referring to figures such as Byron, Shelley and Keats. Armour has known some important people. He said Carl Sandburg once coached him on how his daily calisthenics could be done more efficiently. He remembers Frost both for his extreme political partisanship and as a raconteur: "He was a great talker who just went on and on and on, talking about everything until three o'clock in the morning."

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