Messenger - Vol. 1, No. 2, Page 8 Winter 1992 Four paths to Poet's Land; Following the muse at Delaware Welcome to the University's Land of Poetry. You are fortunate to be here, for it is a magical world filled with wonderment of all sorts, like ghouls and goblins; angels and saints-and you and me. The Land is nearer than you might think, so come along. There are dreams to uncover, and the poet creators await your arrival. You can meet them if you like. The First Creator Since he has been a member of the University of Delaware's English department faculty longer than any other poet, Gibbons Ruark might well be called the first creator in the Land of Poetry. He has already been called a fine creator of poetry, having received national awards for his first three books, as well as major fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Before coming to Newark in 1968, Ruark taught at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, not far from his home town of Raleigh. In the majority of his work, the influence of his Southern upbringing is clear. For instance, Ruark's latest collection, Rescue the Perishing, which Louisiana State University Press published in August, contains a number of love poems to his wife, Kay. According to the author, such poems reflect the strong sense of family that he developed as a child in North Carolina. "I suppose one might say that (a strong sense of family) is typically Southern," Ruark says. "The stereotypical view is that Southerners place a, possibly undue, emphasis on family connections." But the subjects of Ruark's latest work are not limited to family matters. Many of the collection's poems depict scenes from Ireland, which has been one of the poet's subjects since he first visited there in 1978. About two-thirds of the new collection's 36 poems are set in the Emerald Isle. These poems usually describe the author's travels through the country and the people he has met there. In North Towards Armagh, a poem first published in the Antioch Review, the poet recalls a meeting with a "handsome woman" in an Irish pub: The slant, rainy light through the plate-glass window Welcomes the absence of soldiers in the street. The publican's grim story of the car bomb Six months back, just inches from where we sit, Ripples though us, and we turn to our glasses. I show her my poem for Kay and the swallows. She mentions her recent savaging breakup, Says nobody writes a poem without love. Of his Irish poems, Ruark says, "Growing up in a small Southern town made certain aspects of Irish life familiar and appealing. "It feels familiar to me, somehow. I'm not from there at all, and have no relatives there, but I've felt some connection that seems to go back a long way." As English department chairperson Carl Dawson says, "In Gibbons Ruark, I think there is a subdued power. His exploration of topics is subtle, but there is quite a bit going on in each poem." The Most Celebrated Creator The University's most celebrated poet, William DeWitt Snodgrass won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1960 for his first publication, Heart's Needle. The writing style of that volume of verse contributed to a literary movement known as "confessional" poetry, which Snodgrass is credited with founding. Snodgrass has produced close to 30 books, including poetry collections, translations and criticism. His poems have appeared in scores of publications around the world, including most of the important anthologies of the last three decades, and they have been translated into many languages. The prolific poet also has received numerous grants and has given lectures and readings in more than 15 countries. In a 1987 review, The New York Times called Snodgrass "one of the six best poets now writing in the English language." A member of the English department faculty since 1979, Snodgrass, Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing and Contemporary Poetry, studied under Randall Jarrell and Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Lowell. He also served as a mentor to Anne Sexton, another Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose scandalous 1990 biography captured popular press headlines. Snodgrass also is a musician who collects guitars, lutes and bouzoukis, which are stringed instruments from Eastern Europe. A tenor, he sings the Scottish ballads of his ancestors. In addition, the poet also translates and sings Hungarian and Romanian folk songs, Renaissance ballads and the songs of 12th-century French troubadours and German minnesingers. Of Snodgrass, Dawson says, "Dee's range of talents is astonishing. His creativity is almost unbelievable." Upon receiving an honorary degree from Allegheny College last spring, Snodgrass delivered a poem, In Memory of Lost Brain Cells, which reflects that creativity, as well as his wit. Before reading the poem, Snodgrass said: "You have probably learned that you have anywhere from 10 billion to 100 billion brain cells. We don't know exactly how many. That would seem to be enough. Now, each of those neurons may have at least 1,000 dendrites....Thus, the number of connections possible to your brain exceeds the number of particles in the universe. An amazing fact. All the same, brain cells do wear out and die-and, sadly, no new brain cells can be born or developed to replace them." In his In Memory of Lost Brain Cells, the poet wrote: Here, at our Academic Festival, It's just that we survivors should recall Those lost from our ranks: those selfless neurons Worn down and persecuted past endurance; Those agents, gatherers of intelligence Whose network through benighted continents Flashed out their messages of wit and brilliance.... Of the content of his poems, Snodgrass says, "What I meant to put in isn't important. I don't know what I meant to put in there. I just know I hope to find something there." Currently, among a host of other projects, Snodgrass is working on After-Images, an autobiography, and a "long, long" cycle of poems about Hitler. "My doctor up in New York this summer said I'll be making plans on my deathbed," Snodgrass says. Creating Connections Fleda Brown Jackson toils in the Land of Poetry to make connections. Author of one award-winning book of poems, Fishing with Blood, Jackson says writing poems is "the most intense area of my life." In an interview in 1990, Jackson said Fishing with Blood is about family and family relationships. Many of the book's 57 poems were inspired by the author's experiences with her father, daughter and niece. An example of Jackson's familial poetry is Whaler, which appeared in her first collection: I teach my niece Elizabeth to let down her oars, then pull and lift with mine. Our wake smooths like a tail. Elizabeth says we are a dragonfly, double-oared. I think we are an old woman, our low whaler spreading the reeds with wide hips.... Recently, Jackson said poetry "is no good if it doesn't make connections." The Great Lakes Colleges Association awarded Jackson its New Writer's Award in 1988, for the best first book of poetry published that year, recognizing the critical connections in Jackson's work. "Her themes of human interrelatedness and of the past's hold upon us are presented with deep, though controlled, emotion," the award reads. Dawson says Jackson's childhood recollections, ranging from the weather to a particular image, are "really skillfully portrayed, with a kind of lovely narrative form." Since Fishing with Blood, Jackson says she has been working simultaneously on a pair of projects. The first project is a collection of unrelated poems, whose working title is Do Not Peel the Birches. The collection is almost complete, and may be ready for publication in February, she said. The second, and more exhausting, project is a narrative book of poems about a woman with multiple personalities. Based on a true, contemporary case, Jackson said various personalities of the woman speak in different poems. A priest also speaks in certain poems, as does the poet herself. According to the author, the priest "comments on the woman's condition" and the poet "comments on writing the story." Jackson has been working on the story for about three years. "It's the hardest thing I've ever tried to do," she says. "At times, I've just burst into tears over it." Tentatively called The Devil's Child, Jackson said the manuscript is based on 30 hours of the woman's recorded therapy sessions, as well as eight to 10 hours of personal interviews with the subject, whom she met a few years ago. The poet explains that she has never written poems using a "narrative thread." Instead, she has written individual poems, as in Fishing with Blood. More than 75 of her poems have appeared individually, in such publications as the Indiana Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Poetry Northwest and The Poetry Review. A Creator in Form "Thank God nothing terribly exciting ever happens to me. Interesting things that happen to people usually do not make good subjects for poems." Those curious words are from the mouth of Jeanne Murray Walker, a professor of English and a literary scientist of sorts, who uses words and dialog to test the bounds of her creativity. Since joining the University faculty in 1975, Walker has written in just about every form imaginable. She has completed three poetry collections, a play, a musical comedy, short stories, a novel and a screenplay. Dawson calls Walker a "beautiful poet," whose work "has made revelations about how we think and how we love." He adds, "She does this in small, unpretentious poems." A few words from Cutpurse, a poem in the author's third collection, Coming into History, bear out that assessment: If I had stopped in a rust of deep love and spent the money on that blouse as red as the blush that rises after a full kiss on the mouth, or if I had dropped the bills like seeds into the dirty pocket of that drunk who begged on the sidewalk, or if I had only snapped my shoelace, so I'd had to leave ten mortal minutes later, I might not have felt the strap slip off, the purse go light and vanish. Despite the simple subject of Cutpurse, Walker rejects the idea that poetry can be well written without effort. "The notion that you can just say what's closest to your heart is false," she said. "Most things that come directly from the heart are the cliches of the culture." Winner of the 1988 Prairie Schooner/Strousse Award for best sequence of poems, Walker emphasized that her poems, and her works in other forms, are almost always based on extensive research, and are usually rewritten numerous times. For instance, Walker drafted more than 12 versions of her musical comedy, On the Street, in the last year. Another of Walker's works, a collection of poems based on the fantastic tales told in supermarket tabloids, has been in the works for more than seven years. The poems already have been used to create Walker's first professional drama, Stories from the National Enquirer, which won the 1990 National Theatre Playwrighting Competition. "I think I am working in different forms to work out the issues of narration and dialogue," she said. "I definitely think of myself as a poet, although I might continue to work in the theatre." -Stephen M. Steenkamer, Delaware '92 This story contains information from The Chronicle of Higher Education, the University of Delaware's UpDate and the Wilmington News Journal.