College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

Angels in Her Carpet, Milton on Her Mind

Poet, professor, scholar, and Trekkie, Ida Fasel led “rather a full life.”

By Lara Ehrlich

Ida Fasel at her home in Denver, Colorado, in 2009. Photo by Heinz Kluetmeier

Ida Fasel (CAS’31, GRS’45) began writing poetry as soon as she could hold a pencil—and she was still writing at 102. She was soft-spoken and refined, and never left home without her hat and gloves. At barely five feet tall, she seemed fragile, but those who knew her knew better. Ida Fasel was a firecracker.

Born in Portland, Maine, to Russian immigrants in 1909, Fasel (née Drapkin) began writing “ambitious things, like a novel, when I was only 13,” she said on her website. “I was like Jo March, using my imagination.” She earned a BA and MA in English from Boston University, concentrating on Milton and the Renaissance. “It wasn’t very practical” during the tail end of World War II when careers for women were just beginning to open, but she “never thought of jobs. I just thought of learning more about writing.”

The University of Connecticut offered Fasel her first teaching position in 1946 when the campus expanded to accommodate the influx of returning GIs. UConn “didn’t care if you were a woman or a man. They needed faculty.” She met German instructor Oscar Fasel during a faculty meeting on her first day, and “it was love at first sight.” Together, they “adventured into Oklahoma and Texas, and finally Denver,” where she earned her PhD from the University of Denver in 1963. For the next 30 years, Fasel taught English literature at Colorado Women’s College and the University of Colorado and wrote poetry on the side. “It was rather a full life, I must say.”

She was “a gentle soul,” says Professor Emeritus and mystery writer Rex Burns, who taught with Fasel for three decades. “She was quiet, and people who didn’t really know her thought maybe she was shy. But I think she was considerate of the English language—how it sounded and what she could do with it. She didn’t waste words. When she spoke, she spoke clearly and to the point. And when she didn’t, you could see behind those sparkling eyes that her mind was really going to work. She reminded me of a very alert, bright sparrow.”

“I THINK SHE
WAS CONSIDERATE
OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE...
SHE DIDN’T
WASTE WORDS.”
—REX BURNS

Her voracious passion for knowledge was reflected in the collection of books piled throughout her home. She had one writing room for her reference books, a second writing room for eighteenth-century literature and Milton, and a sunroom packed with at least 3,000 “fun” books on subjects ranging from ballet and metaphysics to James Joyce and religion—to Star Trek. A self-proclaimed “original Trekkie,” she collected every episode on video, as well as the show’s game books, character compendiums, and paperbacks.

Her fascination with the celestial dovetailed with her love for Milton’s epic masterpiece Paradise Lost, about the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel Satan. Angels often played leading roles in her poetry—most prominently in her chapbook Air, Angels & Us—and “she had about 500 angel statues,” says longtime friend Sally Kurtzman. “Huge ones, three-foot ones, and then tiny little ones that kept getting lost in the carpeting.”

When she retired from teaching in 1977, Fasel devoted herself full time to writing. She published collections of poems and chapbooks on themes as intimate as marriage:

...the shadow
your page makes as it turns,
the lift of your face in the corner
of my eye
as you wait for my look to meet yours.

—from “Reading Dante Late at Night”

She masterfully shifted from musings on nature:

the window is open. A lark
is sending up his song
ahead of himself from his nest in grass:
cadence tiny, assured, complete.

—from “Lark My Mentor”

to aching commentary on current events like September 11:

the leaves fell early, and I cannot write
Of those who danced at death
with such delight

—from “September 11, 2001”

for which she received a personal letter from former President George W. Bush.

She edited her typewritten manuscripts “in this tiny little writing, where she would work on one page over and over and over,” says Kurtzman. “Poetry really demands that each word is important, and the poet looks for the words that are instrumental in getting an image across in the fewest number of words. That was the challenge for Ida, to find that succinctness, that specific word.” In 2011, the last year of her life, Fasel published Milton on My Mind, a compilation of essays and poems on Paradise Lost. “She wanted to bring Milton to the average American,” Kurtzman says. “That’s such a lofty ideal—people just don’t have those ideals anymore.” Though her ideals were lofty, Fasel was always humble. As she once said: “All I know is that I could write, and so I did.”

A gift of $1.1 million from the late Ida Fasel made possible the establishment of the Drapkin-Fasel Graduate Fellowship Fund in Judaic Studies, named in memory of her parents, her sister, Ruth Drapkin, and her husband, Oscar.