On the Poets of Pittsburgh

If you’re concerned about the Steelers facing the Ravens in the playoffs this year, here’s a little non sequitur to take your mind off the perils ahead. Who is the greatest poet ever to come out of Pittsburgh?

We already know the Ravens owe a tip of the helmet to Edgar Allan Poe for giving them both their name and their mascot. But what about the poetic background of the Steel City?

Dan Chiasson, in the December 8, 2010, issue of The New York Review of Books, may have provided an answer in his summary of the work of American poet Jack Gilbert, born in Pittsburgh in 1925 and now in his eighty-fifth year. This was on the occasion of the publication of Gilbert’s new collection, The Dance Most of All, just out from Knopf.

Chiasson’s evaluations of Gilbert as “a poet of memory, as distinct from present-lived life” and also “as a theorist . . . of language and its limits” seem appropriate and deserved. It is only Chiasson’s third and final appraisal – that the longtime expatriate Gilbert is, curiously, not only “an American poet after all,” but also “the greatest poet of Pittsburgh” – that gives one pause. And not because of any shortcoming on Gilbert’s part.

I had the privilege of meeting Gilbert some twenty-odd years ago, during my travels in New England, when I was a guest in the home of some dear friends in Northampton. Gilbert, now residing in that town, was invited to join us one evening for dinner. 

Such encounters were a normal occurrence for me when I stopped in Northampton. My host on earlier occasions had treated me to a visit of an hour or so to the rural retreat of the legendary Robert Francis, and another dinner evening in the company of the wise and gracious Joseph Langland. 

During the time I spent talking with Gilbert and the other guests present, he seemed to be surely, as Chiasson has characterized him, “the poet of happiness.” He was upbeat, courteous, and lively, and had a number of entertaining stories to tell. One of them described his visits to Japan as a cultural ambassador for the State Department, and his young Japanese writing students’ fondness for cherry blossoms, plum blossoms, any kind of blossoms you can name.   

As I listened, it seemed difficult to connect this warm and easygoing man with the reclusive and standoffish poet earlier rumors held him to be. Chiasson explains that after Gilbert won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1962, he “performed a trick few poets accomplish without dying; he became a symbol of repudiated worldliness.”  

According to the talk of the time, Gilbert, shortly after being lionized in the pages of Glamour and Vogue, removed to Europe, remained there for the next couple of decades, allegedly shunned all contact with the American literary establishment, and intentionally lived a life that if not exactly ascetic was at least convincingly Spartan. 

On that evening in Northampton I was not persuaded that the shunning had been so thorough or the alienation so extensive. Anyone who makes not one but several trips to the Orient and to other parts of the world as a representative of the State Department cannot be considered a rank outsider in the same company with, say, Albert Pinkham Ryder or Henry Darger.

For an incisive commentary on Gilbert’s work, one is advised to consult Chiasson’s article, which is the very model of a good review of a book of poems, and a wonderful overview of an admirable career. It is Chiasson’s comment about “the greatest poet of Pittsburgh” that concerns me here.

It was surely meant as a compliment, and yet how often do we hear of a less familiar poet being put down, or patronized, on such a basis?  To be identified with a city, even a state or region, is not always a good thing. One wonders why not? And what are the examples? What poets or writers come to mind when one begins to think of particular locations, urban or rural?

George Washington Cable and New Orleans. Nelson Algren and Chicago. Emily Dickinson and Amherst. Thomas Wolfe and Brooklyn. Faulkner and Oxford, Mississippi. Frost and New England. These are slippery attributions, and far from being definitive.

Thomas Wolfe is as much identified with his native North Carolina as he is with the Brooklyn Bridge. Flannery O’Connor is not summed up by identifying her with the Milledgeville near which she spent so much of her life. And yet such labels are useful, as we sort out different writers, to honor the more successful and to try to remember the less familiar.

Where did Ella Wheeler Wilcox spend most of her life? Wisconsin. James Whitcomb Riley? Indianapolis. Marianne Moore? Brooklyn, again. Poe lurked through half a dozen eastern-seaboard cities but ended up in Baltimore, along with Mencken. Legions of scribblers have been associated, respectively, with London, Manhattan, and Paris, but yet if a particular writer were to be described as “the laureate of Benton Harbor,” this might not be considered altogether a compliment.

“The greatest poet of Pittsburgh,” then. And is Pittsburgh a veritable hotbed of poetry in the same way that western Pennsylvania has produced almost all of the great professional quarterbacks worth remembering? Pittsburgh as the cradle of bards to match the simultaneous output of great signal-callers from George Blanda and John Unitas to Joe Montana and Dan Marino?  (Ben Roethlisberger, currently leading the Steelers, is from Findlay, Ohio.)

Well, it can make that claim – of being the cradle of some fine poets, indeed. Immediately one thinks of a contemporary contender for the poetry palm of the one-time Steel City, the genial and productive Gerald Stern, Gilbert’s exact contemporary, and one of the current adornments of American poetry. 

Poets & Writers’ list of contemporary poets in the Pittsburgh area goes on for pages. Two worth mentioning here are the late Margaret Menamin, a first-rate formalist poet, and David Herrle, proprietor of the online magazine SubtleTea and also author of the recent collection Abyssinia, Jill Rush.  (I hope to be writing about both Menamin and Herrle in future posts.)

Right now, if I had to pick my favorite poet now residing in Pittsburgh, it would have to be Robert Gibb, in whose company I once spent a evening hopping bars in Homestead, the legendary ground for many of Gibb’s best poems. I happen to think Gibb has one of the best ears in contemporary poetry, and in quasi-documentary narrative, based on actual historic events, he is second to none.

Harry Humes, another of my favorite Pennsylvania poets, does not qualify, since he comes from Kutztown at the other end of the state, but I’m going to mention him anyway. Leo Yankevich does qualify, since he comes originally from nearby Farrell, Pennsylvania.

But it is not toward any of these formidable talents – not Gilbert or Stern, not Gibb or Yankevich – that I turn when I ponder that strange category, “Pittsburgh’s greatest poet.”  One would like to put in a bid, instead, for a poet of a far earlier time, and of an even greater reputation. I am speaking of Stephen Collins Foster, who was born on July 4, 1826, in Lawrenceville, one of the oldest of Pittsburgh’s riverfront neighborhoods.

Collins Foster was educated in schools in and around Pittsburgh and did not really leave the area until twenty years later, in 1846, when he traveled to Cincinnati to seek work with an older brother who was involved in the steamboat business on the Ohio River. 

A great artist, admittedly, many would agree, but he was a songwriter and not a poet per se.  About this I am not so sure – not so sure about the hair-splitting distinction. Sappho and Sir Thomas Wyatt were songwriters, and more recently there have been others, from Cole Porter to Bob Dylan, who have written the lyrics to their own melodies, and who have received high marks for doing so. Collins Foster is surely in their company.

True, he occasionally collaborated and did not write all of his lyrics, but among those he did write there are many fine things – lyrics worthy of standing on their own, and that seem, in retrospect, as representative and as fine as any other poetry produced during the era of the American Civil War. 

His work is quite different from that of Whitman and Dickinson, poetry that was to be so much admired in the twentieth century  Foster’s verse is popular and accessible and written in the vernacular of the times. Never mawkish, it is invariably haunting and memorable.

We are fortunate in that Foster’s primary sketchbook has been preserved in the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. This document may be consulted online; within, one may view the preliminary texts of sixty-four songs in of Foster’s own handwriting.

Here are the preliminary notes and explorations that led to some of his greatest songs, including “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” and “Old Folks at Home.”  These compositions, in company with “Camptown Races,” “Oh Suzanna,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Hard Times,” and dozens more, were an integral part of the fabric of American life during the period 1849 to 1914. 

Until recently they were a part of the education of most literate Americans, regardless of color, caste, or class. If in later years you could not remember the lyrics, the melodies were still immediately familiar. All of us had been encouraged to sing them since grade school, and at both secular and religious summer camps.

Still, it is fair to ask if Foster’s lyrics are in fact poetry, or if in championing Foster as Pittsburgh’s greatest poet, and thereby downgrading Gilbert and the others, we are guilty of having compared apples with oranges?

The lyrics are there for examination. Here are a few.  This is the chorus from “The Voices that Are Gone”:

Once again bright eyes are gleaming,
With the light that in them shone,
Then like music heard when dreaming,
 Come the voices that are gone.

Memorable lines do not have to be complicated. “And miles to go before I sleep” is the essence of simplicity – and memorability.  In its compression and what it suggests, “music heard when dreaming” is a match for any line Tennyson ever wrote.  

Here is the second verse of “Hard Times” – popular with soldiers on both sides of the lines during the Civil War, like “Lili Marlene” during the Second World War – followed by the chorus:

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more.


‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.

What lights up the chorus is the personification of Hard Times, represented as having “lingered around my cabin door.” Once read or heard, this is not to be forgotten. It is a marvelously compact image, one which takes a common figure of speech, capitalizes it, concretizes it, and suggests a great deal on the basis of the connotations of  “lingered” and “cabin door.” 

Hard Times is not simply an interval of bad luck or misfortune, but a dark presence threatening one’s home and hearth. This is an image that spoke volumes to Americans in the mid-nineteenth century; in the early twenty-first, it still resonates. 

One thinks of similar instances when generalities are brought into sharp focus by such specificity. “Keep up your bright swords,” Othello says, when Iago and Roderigo are about to clash, and this seems nothing more than stage language until he adds “or the dew will rust ‘em” (a line that T. S. Eliot admired even while misquoting it). With the concrete nouns “dew” and “rust,” pure poetry appears, making a mockery of the bluster by Brabantio that follows.

Or take the opening stanza of “Sorry” – a far better poem on the subject of disillusion with one’s parents than Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” – by R. S. Thomas. This is the first stanza:

Dear parents,
I forgive you my life,
Begotten in a drab town,
The intention was good;
Passing the street now,
I see still the remains of sunlight.

We begin with plain speech, both archaic (“begotten”) and pedestrian (“drab town”) but are brought up short by the phrase “remains of sunlight.”  Neither noun is particularly concrete, but their contrast when yoked together – “remains,” as in a corpse, or the leavings of food, and “sunlight” with its regular associations with happiness – shifts the poem into a strange immediacy. 

As with Shakespeare and Thomas, so with Foster. I submit that the purity of diction and universality of appeal in many of Foster’s lines equal those written by other mid-nineteenth-century lyricists as various as Nerval, Heine, Clare, and yes, even Tennyson and Verlaine. Foster is not a pre-modern; not a Rimbaud or a Whitman by any stretch of the imagination. But he is very good at what he does. 

Mr. Chiasson suggests that the test of one of Gilbert’s poems in the book under review, which he quotes in full – is, oddly, its teachability. “My test for poems is often to imagine teaching them,” Chiasson says. “How on earth would one teach a poem like this one, so eager to secure our approval – as though approval could be withheld – for its incontestable claims?”

With that one sentence one begins to understand how far we have come in the past six decades since the end of the Second World War – a time when a poem’s literary significance as considered by, say, the New Critics, gave way to the fashions of the graduate workshop and what can only be called “the pedagogical imperative,” a phrase redolent of today’s assumption that all things poetic are to be valued by their fit on the Procrustean bed of “teaching” in an academic setting.

Such reification seems immeasurably distant from a time in which we might have imagined that a useful way to “test” a poem was to sing its lines or to say them aloud from memory. The origins of both myth and poetry are somewhere back in that time when both were joined with music. The Greek lyricists, the Troubadours, and the T’ang Dynasty poets are avatars of this ancient tradition. 

Rather than view artists from Collins Foster to Irving Berlin to John Mellencamp strictly as musicians and songwriters, perhaps it is time that our own views concerning verse and song be expanded. 

Nonetheless, in the New Year, to Jack Gilbert and to the Steel City and its poetical torch-bearers, past and present, from this Hoosier wanderer in the heartland — salud!  Whoever is out front in Pittsburgh poetically, may you all prosper!

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