Poetry and Place: A Guest Post by Tom Sexton

I’m spending the winter in a small town in Maine less than a mile from Campobello Island, New Brunswick. Being away from Alaska has me thinking about how place can influence a poet or at least how place influences me as a poet. Excuse me if my posts seem overly self-interested, but I believe the best way for me to discuss poetry is to discuss the evolution of my own work. Place may not be important to many poets, but it is to me. I can’t imagine Wordsworth without England’s Lake District or Frost without the landscape of Vermont and New Hampshire. A poet needs a familiar place to stand and observe the world unless the main focus of his or her work is confessional as it is in the poetry of Ann Sexton and Robert Lowell. I arrived in Alaska more than fifty years ago as an eighteen year old army private, and all I wanted to do was finish my tour of duty and return to Massachusetts where I knew I belonged. When I had a three day pass during basic training, I hitchhiked from Fort Dix, New Jersey to Lowell, Massachusetts , and I believed I could tell when the car I was in entered my home state. The light was different and the landscape greener, or the snow deeper. The feeling became more intense as I got closer to Lowell. I laugh when I think of that now.

When I returned to Alaska with my wife in an old Volkswagen bus to attend school in Fairbanks in 1968, I wrote a poem about Whitehorse that was included in my first book, Terra Incognita. In it I wrote about the men who arrived there leading a white horse. I’m slightly embarrassed by that poem now since I later learned that the town was named after the Whitehorse Rapids which were thought to resemble the manes of white charging horses. So much for knowing a place without knowing it.

Looking back , I realize that the brief poems in my first book, Terra Incognita, consisting mostly of poems from my MFA thesis, lack a sense of place because at the time I had no place, and I was under the influence of the imagist poets. I still treasure Pound’s “ In A Station Of The Metro” which reads :”The apparition of these faces in the crowd/Petals on a wet black bough.” The imagist poets were not interested in narrative or place. They were the perfect poets to emulate at the time because I lacked a connection to Alaska and to the North. My mind and my heart were still in Massachusetts.

The following two poem are from Terra Incognita:

At Daybreak

Covered with frost
the peas
lie flat, their blossoms

turning brown like an
old man’s
fist on a white sheet.

It’s time to
turn the dogs loose.

* * *


The night
moves slowly
like a black glacier;

a woman
in her kitchen
bolts the door.

In “December” I was beginning to move closer to a true awareness of what it means to live in the North. It shows some awareness of place. I wrote it during our first winter in Fairbanks, and I might have been reading John Haines’ Winter News at the time. I do know that it was around -30 for all of December, and I had discovered Robert Bly’s brief imagistic poems

I continued to write in this style for a few years; it was a good brief style for someone teaching three genres of creative writing, but I knew that eventually I needed to develop a style that was capable of telling a story, and I needed to develop a voice, but what voice? I grew up in a blue-collar family in a decaying mill town, and I was now living in a place most people still considered the frontier. At the time, if you mentioned Alaska to someone they quoted Robert Service. I remember students at the university with knives attached to their belts as they made their dangerous way from the dorm to the commons or to the library. Believe it or not, someone quoted Service to me just last week in Massachusetts.

In retrospect, one poem in Terra Incognita was beginning to take me in the direction I needed to go even if I didn’t know it at the time. Here are two stanza’s from that poem, “Uncle Paul.”

Uncle Paul

I still remember walking with him
and my father in the warehouse
on Suffolk Street where Paul worked
until it closed. We made our rounds
checking doors and punching clocks.

Few mills were left when I was seven.

Paul would sit in our front room for hours
with my father talking of going to Arizona
or Alaska. By the end of August, he was dead.
He fell and broke his neck while picking apples.

“Uncle Paul” is my first published poem that develops a narrative, and in a very small way I’ve fused my two worlds with my brief mention of Alaska. I knew that I was heading in the right direction.

Tom Sexton began the creative writing program at UAA in 1970. His latest book, I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets, will be released by the University of Alaska Press in February 2011.

4 thoughts on “Poetry and Place: A Guest Post by Tom Sexton”

  1. Hi Tom!
    Thanks SO much for your wonderful post. It was exactly what I needed, a bit of poetry before bed, like a good night story or a lamp left on to keep out the darkness.
    Cheers and happy holidays,
    Cinthia R.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I really enjoyed this, Tom, including your willingness to reveal how your voice developed, influences and so on. (More! More!) If we can see how others took those steps, we can better understand our own writing path as well. So much of the writing life is opaque to us without this personal kind of sharing.

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