By David R. Altman
Okay, that one is too easy if you’re reading this column. I’m sure you could name Henry W. Grady, Carson McCullers, Pat Conroy or Margaret Mitchell. Or, maybe Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker, among others.
Of course, if you include famous Georgians who are also writers, you’d have to think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and, of course, Jimmy Carter.
All of those great writers are among the 69 honorees in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame over at the University of Georgia.
Here’s another question: can you name three famous Georgia poets?
That one’s a little tougher, isn’t it? Since April is National Poetry Month, let’s look at some of our state’s greatest poets.
One of the earliest and best-known Georgia Poets (not just because he has a lake named after him) is Sidney Lanier, a Macon native who fought in the Civil War and was captured by the Union Army. He developed tuberculosis while in prison, which later led to his death. Lanier lectured on literature across the country, and often invoked Biblical and religious themes in his work. Read his poem entitled “Acknowledgment.”
Does the name David Bottoms ring a bell? He’s written ten books (including two novels) and is the former Georgia Poet Laureate. Bottoms writes about nature, about human nature and, of course, about death (and, often, about resurrection). Bottoms, a Canton native who won the prestigious Whitman Award, (his work was chosen by the great Robert Penn Warren) teaches at Georgia State and lives in suburban Atlanta. You can start by reading Bottoms’ poem “Allatoona Evening.”
And then there is A.E. Stallings (the A.E. stands for Alicia Elsbeth), who grew up in Decatur, Georgia and went to school in Dekalb County. She also studied the classics at UGA and Oxford University. Stallings, who now lives in another Athens (Greece), was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and she has won fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations. Another poet inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, you can start by reading her poem entitled “Failure”.
There are many other great poets in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, including James Dickey. While Dickey is perhaps most famous for his explosive book, Deliverance, he is often compared to Penn Warren as perhaps the South’s greatest poet. Read Dickey’s memorable poem “For the Last Wolverine”.
You may already know the name Natasha Trethewey. A former United States Poet Laureate and UGA graduate, Trethewey writes — in unforgettable and searing language — about race and family. Trethewey formerly taught at Emory University and is now a professor at Northwestern. Get introduced to Trethewey’s powerful verse in her poem “South” from her Pulitzer winning book, Native Guard.
More recently, Judson Mitcham, another former Georgia Poet Laureate, was a 2013 inductee into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. Mitcham’s plainspoken and unforgettable verse is deeply rooted in family and relationships. His award-winning work includes both poems and novels and he is the only two-time winner of the Townsend Prize for fiction. Read Mitcham’s beautiful poem entitled “Body."
Then there are the latest generation of Georgia poets. Several come to mind that are already established in the Georgia poetry community — and elsewhere.
William Wright is a poet and teacher who produced nearly twenty books of poems and anthologies before his 40th birthday. He is on the faculty at Emory at Oxford and has also taught at the University of Tennessee, Emory and Reinhardt. Wright, a former Georgia Author of the Year, has his first novel coming later this year, called Blight. Read Wright’s poem “The Milk Witch.”
A contemporary of Will Wright’s is the immensely talented Sandra Meek, a professor at Berry College in Rome, whose sixth and most recent book is entitled Still. Meek’s thoughtful poetry reflects both her well-traveled experiences and her concerns — expressed in intimate terms — about the fate of our planet. She is also a former Georgia Author of the Year winner. Read her poem “Still, With Judas Goats.”
William Walsh, who directs the Etowah Valley Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) program at Reinhardt University, has just released his fourth book of poetry called Fly Fishing in Times Square. Bill Walsh’s poetry (not unlike that of his mentor, David Bottoms) dives deeply into both family experiences and his passion for the great outdoors. Richard Blanco, a Presidential Inaugural Poet, called Walsh’s poetry “masterful”. Read Walsh’s poem “The Hunter Recovers in North Georgia.”
While these are but a few of the current generation of Georgia poets, they are ones you should consider reading during this National Poetry Month.
Most of the poems I’ve recommended here are available on-line. When you find poets you like, please consider supporting them (and all of poetry) by buying one of their books.
The enjoyment they provide will never subside.