If states were poets, California would be big and craggy like Robinson Jeffers, but who would Connecticut be? A consensus of Nutmeg Staters might say Wallace Stevens, the stolid, conservative insurance executive by day who, in his spare hours, transmogrified into the Emperor of Ice Cream and helped usher modernism into American literature.
But then, consider the evidence presented by editor Dennis Barone in Garnet Poems: An Anthology of Connecticut Poetry since 1776 (Garnet Books/Wesleyan Press). From the get go, our little rectangular state was home to sonnet slingers. These included a group of poets known as the "Hartford Wits" that historian Vernon Parrington has called "America's first school of poetry." Of this group, Barone included Joel Barlow (1754-1812), son of a Redding farmer, whose most famous poem is "The Hasty Pudding." Poems by Barlow's poetic pals John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight (also president of Yale) and David Humphreys (of Derby) were also selected by Barone, who found equally enticing work by early women poets like Lydia Sigourney (1791-1865), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) and Stowe's great niece Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), best-known for the feminist classic The Yellow Wallpaper.
For Barone, an accomplished poet and longtime literature professor at West Hartford's University of Saint Joseph, compiling this handsome anthology was pure pleasure, the only headache being securing permissions to use some of the more recent poetry. Born and raised in New Jersey, Barone went to Bard and the University of Pennsylvania, which he claims disqualifies his own work from inclusion.
"Even though I've lived in Connecticut for substantially longer than I did in New Jersey, I didn't include myself. What with the number of excellent current poets, why leave a person out to include myself? It certainly eliminated accusations of favoritism," he says with a laugh.
Among those poets left behind was the satirist Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867), a statue of whom is in Guilford, where he was born and raised. "He was really a New York poet, and was associated with the Knickerbocker Group," Barone explains. But then, Charles Olson is included, though he is mostly thought of as a Massachusetts poet (specifically, a Gloucester poet).
"However, Olson's papers are at the University of Connecticut where he taught for a long time and he devoted his life to keeping poetry alive," says Barone. The same considerations were given to Donald Hall the nation's 2006 poet laureate who, though associated with New Hampshire, is actually from Hamden.
Our little state has had more than its share of other laureates, including Richard Wilbur, William Meredith and Robert Penn Warren, the nation's first official laureate who is inextricably linked to the Deep South for his association with the Southern Agrarian poets and for his novel All the King's Men, based on the life of Huey Long, but who (surprise!) lived in Fairfield for many years. And his daughter, Rosanna Warren (whose mother was Eleanor Clark, another great writer) is included in this collection as well.
"A Connecticut poem is about the people, geography and even the weather of the state, but every poem in the anthology is not a Connecticut poem," says Barone, who intentionally put the poets' biographies and bibliographies at the back of the book to keep the poetry cleared of academic subterfuge. "Often in these kinds of anthologies, there's too much of that sort of stuff, which seems to break up every line of a poem with a footnote. It makes reading the poems a chore. I trusted in the readers' imaginations."
Some classic poems, like Meredith's haunting "The Wreck of the Thresher" and Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" are included, but then so are startling surprises like "The Connecticut River in Flood" by Brendan Galvin and "The Death of Towns" by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, the youngest poet (born 1974) included.
Dennis Barone will appear at a number of events around the state in the next two months, along with some of the poets included in Garnet Poems, such as Margaret Gibson, J.D. McClatchy, Dick Allen, Marilyn Nelson and Lewis Turco. The inaugural event for the anthology will be held at the Noah Webster Library in West Hartford on Oct. 17, at 7 p.m.