In the 1970s, as editor of Z Press and its annual Z Magazine, Mr. Elmslie published many of the poets he admired. His own work defied categorization. There was plenty of wit, as in “Touche’s Salon,” which shamelessly dropped names to evoke a 1950s gathering at Mr. Latouche’s penthouse:
Meet Jack Kerouac. Humpy and available.
His novel On The Road is unreadable. And unsalable.
John Cage is sober, Tennessee loaded.
Better not ask how his last flop show did.
But his more serious poetry could be ambitious, as well as dense. Mr. Ashbery once said that it was like the notes of “a mad scientist who has swallowed the wrong potion in his lab and is desperately trying to get his calculations on paper before everything closes in.”
Mr. Elmslie came to combine his various hats — librettist, songwriter, poet — both in his books, some of which were collaborations with visual artists, and in his poetry readings, which might find him in costume delivering a song in addition to reading his verses. Susan Rosenbaum, reviewing his 2000 book, “Blast From the Past: Stories, Poems, Song Lyrics & Remembrances,” in Jacket magazine, noted that the printed page didn’t do justice to his wide-ranging interests.
“For an artist as multitalented as Elmslie, the book is a limiting format: One wants to see and hear his musical works in performance, to visit the galleries where his visual collaborations are displayed,” she wrote. “But the very ability to elicit this desire — to reveal poetry’s affinities with song, theater and visual art — is a measure of the talent of this unique poet.”
Kenward Gray Elmslie was born on April 27, 1929, in Manhattan. His father, William, met Constance Pulitzer, Joseph Pulitzer’s youngest daughter, when he was working as a tutor for another of the Pulitzer children. They married in 1913.