POETRY IN WEST VIRGINIA THEN AND NOW    

The following essay, “Songs of the Hills: Poetry in West Virginia appeared in Wonderful West Virginia: A Special Issue West Virginia Poetry, Charleston, WV, November, 1986.  It is published on www.mountainlit.com in 2002 by permission of the editors; all rights are retained by Wonderful West Virginia.  The author, the late Michael J. Pauley, served on the staff of the West Virginia Department of Culture and History for several years and was active in  promoting the literature of West Virginia.  This 1986 essay provides an overview of the development of poetry in West Virginia.


SONGS OF THE HILLS

 POETRY in WEST VIRGINIA

By Michael Joseph Pauley

     I am both pleased and honored to serve as consultant and introduce this special issue of Wonderful West Virginia which is devoted to the best of contemporary poetry in the Mountain State.  It is designed to illustrate how the special magic of the mountains and the experience of living in West Virginia consistently brings out the best in that most sublime vehicle of human expression, poetry. 

     Poetry has always been an important aspect of literary life in the mountains and valleys of West Virginia.  Just as the Indians have left us manifestations of their art and magical beliefs in the form of petroglyphs, so one can easily imagine them sitting about an evening camp fire composing poems to the mountain spirits or singing of moonrise over the Kanawha.  Indeed, one of the most famous poetical statements ever made by an American Indian was the speech of Chief Logan in 1774, which was once memorized by every West Virginia student. 

     Poetry, of course, is also a product of civilization and thus the rugged men and women who tamed the West Virginia frontier had little time or inclination for pondering The Muse.  As soon as life had settled into more stable patterns, however, the yearning for the most beautiful aspects of culture, such as poetry, began to be felt. 

     It is generally acknowledged by literary historians that the first western Virginia poet of any stature was Joseph Doddridge (1769-1826). Doddridge is noted for his poems “A Dirge” (1800), written to commemorate the death of Washington, and “Elergy on the Family Vault.” 

     Another good poet of this period was Margaret Blennerhassett (1778-1842), wife of Harman Blennerhassett, whose “Deserted Isle” is a hauntingly moving lyric about their life on Blennerhassett Island.  The poem appeared in her work Widow of the Rock and Other Poems, By a Lady (1834). 

     Froissant Ballads and Other Poems, containing the still popular poems “Florence Vane” and “Rosa Lee,” was published by Philip Pendleton Cooke (1816-1850) in 1847.  A resident of Martinsburg, Cooke was one of the first noted western Virginia poets to write movingly of the mountains, a theme that was to recur and be elaborated upon over and over again by our poets.  In “The Mountains,” Cooke wrote: 

The axle of the

Lowland wain

Goes groaning from the

fields of grain:

The Lowland suit with

craft, and gain.

 

Good Ceres, with her

plump brown hands,

And wheaten sheaves that

burst their bands,

Is scornful of the

Mountain lands.

 

But mountain lands

so bare of corn,

Have that which puts,

in turn, to scorn

The Goddess of the

brimming horn.

 

     Thomas S. Lees of Wheeling published, in 1831, Musings of Carol, a volume of verse that contains “Musing on the Ohio,” a beautifully descriptive poem on the Ohio River. The rivers of West Virginia are also a recurrent theme among the state’s poets. 

     The Civil War gave birth to the separate state of West Virginia.  The years following the end of this war witnessed the emergence of many fine poets, though a great many of them looked, not to the future of statehood, but to a more idyllic past of a supposed time of peace and harmony before the grim realities of war destroyed those days forever.  Naturally, this poetical school found its most natural setting in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, which had been solidly pro-Southern during the Great Conflict. 

     Virginia Lucas of Rion Hall in Jefferson County was the first of these poets and was dubbed “The Pastorial Poet of the Shenandoah.”  Her early death in 1865 cut short a very promising career. 

     Danske Dandridge (1854-1914) of Shepherdstown was another promising poet of the era, publishing Joy and Other Poems (1888) and Rose Brake (1890).  Her poetry was of a highly lyrical nature, so much so that Waitman Barbe said of it “. . . if a rose is her theme, the poem embodying it is as perfect as a rose.  Her song sparrows and her thrushes never sing out of tune.”  This type of poetry, which became so popular in the late 19th century, is still prevalent among certain traditionalist schools of poetry in West Virginia. 

     Daniel B. Lucas (1836-1909) of Jefferson County is considered by most authorities to have been the finest poet of this era.  His “The Land Where We Were Dreaming,” published in 1865, is considered the finest poem extolling the vanished life of the Old South; so much so that he was named “Poet Laureate of the Lost Cause” by many southern literary journals.  Other popular works by Lucas included The Wreath of Eglantine and Other Poems (1869) and The Maid of Northumberland (1879). 

     At the beginning of the 20th century, Dr. Waitman T. Barbe (1864-1925) was one of West Virginia’s most popular poets and interpreter of poetry.  Among his most popular works were Ashes and Incense (1892) and Famous Poems Explained (1909). Barbe’s work evidenced a classical, scholarly approach to the writing of verse; indeed, he was a professor of English at West Virginia University from 1910 until his death.  His books, which included historical sketches and background material and interpretation of the poems involved, were frequently used in classroom study.  He was also managing editor for the West Virginia School Journal from 1915 until 1921.  Barbe’s influence is still felt in state literary circles. 

     During the first half of this century, probably the most widely known West Virginia poet was John Peale Bishop (1892-1944), a native of Charles Town.  Although also known for his novels, Bishop achieved an international reputation as a poet and moved in literary circles that included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and E. E. Cummings. Bishop is still, 40 years after his death, highly regarded as a poet.  

     Other, though somewhat lesser lights, poets of this period included Gertie Stewart Howard of Weston, author of Blown Leaves and Petels (1934); J. Herbert Bean of Hinton, producer of A Pilgrim’s Harp (1923); Thomas B. Sweeney of Wheeling, with Sunward (1933) and many other works to his credit; and Elizabeth Davis Richards of Morgantown, whose most noted volume of verse was The Peddler of Dreams (1928). 

     Poet Laureate of West Virginia since 1978, Louise McNeill Pease, originally of Morgantown and a longtime resident of Lewisburg, emerged as one of the state’s---indeed the nation’s---leading poets with the publication of Gauley Mountain in 1942.  This book received national attention, as did Mountain White (1939) and Time Is Our House (1951).  Her Elderberry Flood, published by the Department of Culture and History, was the literary event of 1979 in West Virginia. 

     Dr. Pease was preceded as Poet Laureate by Karl Myers of Parsons, a fine poet and author of The Quick Years (1926) who was appointed in 1926 by Governor Gore, and subsequently by Roy Lee Harmon of Beckley. Harmon, a newspaperman, was appointed by Governor Holt in 1937.  He had a gift for rhythmic homespun versification that had a strong appeal to Mountain State readers, as does the work of Jackson County poet Lee Mays, author of many such volumes of poetry in mid-century. 

     During this same period, periodicals and organizations devoted, at least in part, to poetry began to arise in West Virginia. Echoes of West Virginia, A Magazine of Verse, was founded in 1949 by Doris Enfield Hicks.  The editorship of this publication was taken over in 1951 by Doris C. Miller of Huntington, a fine poet in her own right, who also authored “The Poetry Corner,” for many years a regular feature in the Huntington Herald-Advertiser. Mrs. Miller is also the author of Who Burnishes the Lamp (1952) and Winged Thoughts (1979).  Closely associated with the West Virginia Poetry Society, an organization founded in 1950 by Roy Lee Harmon and others, Echoes of West Virginia ceased publication in 1955. The West Virginia Poetry Society, with various chapters around the state, has continued to function since its founding, sponsoring poetry contests and a number of publications and offering encouragement to individual poets. 

     In the past several decades, new voices in West Virginia poetry have been called forth, as well as a number of fine organizations and publications to promote the literary efforts of West Virginians.  Muriel Miller Dressler of St. Albans began to give voice in the early 1970s to a new, assertive type of Appalachian verse, mixing traditional and more modern styles to extol the virtues of living in the mountains.  Her Appalachia (1977), containing the ringing “My Appalachia” instantly established Dressler as a formidable new voice in our poetical literature. 

     The Southern Appalachian Writer’s Co-Op, founded in the early 1970s and centered more of less in southern West Virginia, was the first of a number of organizations to spring up representing newer movements and poets of West Virginia. Mountain Union Books of Beckley, led by the powerful new poet Bob Snyder, was a similar group.  Together, the two organizations sparked a veritable renaissance of literary activity in West Virginia, with a strong emphasis on poetry. 

     Anthologies such as New Ground (1977) and Soupbean (1977) brought forth the creations of an entirely new generation of West Virginia poets.  The works of these poets---among them Snyder, Joseph Barrett, Bob Henry Baber, Gail Amburgey, P.J. Laska, and others--- were further highlighted in an ongoing periodical, What’s A Nice Hillbilly Like You…?  All of the aforementioned poets produced individual works, most notable among them Snyder’s We’ll See Whose a Peasant (1977), Barrett’s Periods of Lucidity (1977), Baber’s Assorted Lifesavers (1976), and Laska’s Songs and Dance (1977) and Wages and Dreams(1980).  Laska also edited The Unrealist, a periodical of avante-garde poetry that was published into the 1980s.  The Southern Appalachian Writer’s Co-Op, under the editorship of Baber and Jim Webb, continued to produce anthologies of an even wider scope, Mucked (1978) and Strokes: Contemporary Appalachian Poetry (1980).  A strong new voice appeared in 1981 with the publication of Paul Curry Steele’s Anse on Island Creek and Other Poems, which has achieved international recognition.

     Other literary groups and periodicals sprang up during this period.  The Appalachian Literary League, founded in 1975 in Lincoln County, published (1975-1982) The Illustrated Appalachian Intelligencer under the editorship of Michael J. Pauley and Pat Love. This publication presented many new poets and their works and provided book reviews and on-going news of the literary movement. It became, for a time, the largest circulating literary periodical in both the state and region.  Hill and Valley, under the editorship of respected poet Shirley Young-Campbell of Charleston, was published on a monthly basis from 1977 until 1985, producing 80 issues and publishing countless poems by West Virginian poets.  Its final issue was capped by a fine anthology, Best of Hill and Valley (1986), edited by Campbell, which contained the work of 60 poets, most of them West Virginians. 

     Current publications that devote significant segments to today’s Mountain State poetry are Grab-a-Nickel, edited by Barbara A. Smith and produced at Alderson-Broaddus College; Laurel Review, edited by Mark DeFoe and published at West Virginia Wesleyan College; and Kanawha Review, produced at West Virginia State College. 

     Other poets of the “new poetry” in West Virginia who have risen to prominence include Ira Herman, Dark Horses Leaping Into Flame (1978); Mary Joan Coleman, Take One Blood Red Rose; Maggie Anderson, Years That Answer (1979); and Llewellyn McKernan, Short and Simple Annals (1979). 

     The founding, in 1977, of West Virginia Writers Inc., marked the beginning of a new era in poetry, as well as other literary forms, in the state.  This organization, which holds a yearly state-wide writer’s conference and sponsors other literary-related activities, has successfully brought together all the diverse groups and individuals involved in literature in the state so that all may learn from one another and grow as writers.  West Virginia Writers holds a yearly writing awards contest which includes several categories of poetry. In the past three years they have given out over $20,000 in awards money, about a fifth or so of that going to poets. The organization has also published two anthologies, Catching the Crow (1982) and What the Mountains Yield (1986), both strong in poetry. 

     The literary field of poetry in West Virginia, with its many facets, styles, and individuals, is speaking with a stronger voice than ever before, standing, as we have seen, on a solid legacy of past achievement and has reached new vistas of the poetical vision.  In the following pages, you will find selections from among the finest of the state’s contemporary poets, intermingled with photographic scenes from the mountains and valleys of West Virginia, the land which has served as their inspiration.

                                                                           The End

  Note #1 The article’s index:

 

Page 7           “Autumn Hilltop”  Louise McNeill Pease

Page 8           “Appalachia”  Muriel Miller Dressler

Page 9           “An Entrance, Slowly”  Shirley Young Campbell

Page 10         “Mountain Child”  Mittie L. Jordan

Page 12         “Soft Fire”  Terrance Hill

Page 13         “In Crastino”,  Timothy Russell

Page 14         “Enchanted Wildwood, West Virginia”  Connie Harding

Page 17         “Quiet Waters: A Meditation”  Susan Sheppard

Page 19         “That Little House in the Country”  Ira Herman

Page 20         “West Virginia Louku”,  Bob Henry Baber

Page 22         “On Cranberry”  Kirk Judd

Page 23         “Psychic State”  Barbara Smith

Page 24         “All the While It Clucks”  Boyd Carr

Page 25         “Woodgathering in Long Shadows”  Joseph Barrett

Page 27         “What Shall I Say”  Muriel Miller Dressler

Page 28         “My Lincoln County Home”  D. Ray Pauley, Sr.

Page 30         “ Fences”  Valerie Hunt

Back Cover     “Still Life”  Joseph Barrett

 

  NOTE #2 www.mountainlit.com

A complete list of the Poet Laureates of West Virginia is available on the award’s section of this site.  The state’s current Poet Laureate is Irene McKinney of Belington, WV.

Much has transpired in Mountain State poetry since 1986, for current poetry information please access this site’s review of WILD SWEET NOTES: FIFTY YEARS OF WEST VIRIGNIA POETRY 1950-2000.  The review, written by Pamela Steed Hill, a West Virginia poet and Marshall University graduate now living in Ohio, was donated to www.mountainlit.com and to TRADITIONS: A JOURNAL OF WEST VIRGINIA FOLK CULTURE AND EDUCATIONAL AWARENESS, the official journal of the West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State College It was published in TRADITIONS in 2002.

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