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
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), writtento 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
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
But mountain lands
so bare of corn,
Have that which puts,
in turn, to scorn
The Goddess of the
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.
Note #1 The article’s index:
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
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.
Literature ~ Honors and
Awards ~ Links and Credits
WVLA Authors ~ WV African-American Authors ~ Essays ~ Book Reviews ~ Home