poem index

The Poetic History of Colorado

Written by

Mary Crow
Contributor Page

Year

2007
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Because Colorado was settled late in the nineteenth century, poetry in English begins late in Colorado. Though there were nomadic Indian groups and, later, settlers from Mexico, there is little poetry of record before the middle of the twentieth century. In 1953 Mina Loy moved to Aspen, where she spent her final years working mainly on sculpture but where she did revise an early book of poems; it was published in 1958 in an enlarged edition under the title Lunar Baedeker and Time Tables (recently reissued as The Last Lunar Baedeker). At the same time in Denver, bon vivant and poet Thomas Hornsby Ferril was writing and entertaining poets passing through the state. Indeed, for many Denverites poetry in Colorado begins with Thomas Hornsby Ferril, whose words are engraved in the state Capitol:

     Here is a land where life is written in water....
     Look to the green within the mountain cup....

Ferril seemed to be Denver's poet laureate, so associated was he with the state's capital (one of his books of poems was titled Words for Denver), where he worked as a poet, journalist, and playwright, earning his living at the Great Western Sugar Company for more than 40 years. Many well-known U.S. poets were entertained in his Victorian house (now headquarters for the Colorado Center for the Book), and both Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg wrote admiringly of him—Sandburg called him "the Poet of the Rockies" and "one of the great poets of America." In 1979 Ferril was named poet laureate of Colorado, a position he held until his death in 1988. Ferril is best known for his poems about the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado landscape, themes and imagery which still figure in Colorado poetry, most notably in the poetry of Reg Saner, whose seven books about the American West won him the Wallace Stegner Award, Pattiann Rogers, and Linda Hogan, a Chickasaw who is both an award-winning novelist and essay writer as well as a poet.

While western poetry is an important strand in Colorado poetry, it is only one of many strands; other notable strands include Xicano poetry, Beat poetry, performance poetry, and experimental poetry, strands which often cross and blend. From about the 1960s on, Denver has been home to a large community of Xicano poets including Abelardo "Lalo" Delgado, activist and prolific author of poems and essays, winner of Premio Quinto Sol, a national award for Xicano literature, the Colorado Human Rights Award, and the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts. Ray Gonzalez, who lived in Denver during the 1980s and helped to shape the Xicano scene, was active in promoting poetry through the organization of readings and the editing of anthologies of Colorado writers as well as through his own poetry. Beyond Denver, Lorna Dee Cervantes, a faculty member at the University of Colorado, was also writing about Hispanic experience, most notably in her book of poems, Emplumada.

Beat poetry has long associations with Colorado through Neal Cassady, who grew up in Denver; Cassady became the model for the main character of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and later, with his flowing and breathy style, inspired the writing of Allen Ginsberg (Kerouac was Howl’s "secret hero") and Ken Kesey. In 1974 Ginsberg founded Boulder's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics with Anne Waldman; their school became core to the Naropa Institue, now an accredited university with an emphasis on Buddhism.

Author of more than 30 books, Waldman is a well-known performance poet who is experimental in other ways, sometimes collaborating with musicians. She has performed her poetry all over the world and teaches poetry performance at Naropa. In Denver performance poet SETH has formed the trio Jafrika, which is multimedia, multiethnic, and multidimensional. Other state centers for performance poetry include Telluride on the western slope, where Art Goodtimes established the Talking Gourds readings and Pueblo, where Tony Moffeit is writer-in-residence at the University of Southern Colorado's library.

Among the experimental poets of Colorado, the late Edward Dorn stands out. Educated at Black Mountain College, Dorn settled in Boulder to teach at the University of Colorado (which offers an MA in creative writing) in the fall of 1977 and started the now defunct literary magazine Rolling Stock. Dorn studied under Charles Olson and was included in the series New American Poetry and The Poetics of the New American Poetry. Among other works, he authored Gunslinger, a long mixed media poem with the polyphonic narrative technique Dorn pioneered. Other experimental poets in Colorado include Bin Ramke, who writes poems which have been called "conversations among texts," and Cole Swensen, whose experimental verse explores the intersections between writing and the visual arts. Ramke and Swensen teach at the University of Denver, which offers a PhD in creative writing. Laura Mullen of Colorado State University continues to push her new work in a more and more experimental direction that blurs the boundaries between prose and poetry.

But categories cannot really contain these poets who all have multiple interests, as Ed Dorn demonstrated through his translation of Latin American poetry, especially the work of César Vallejo. Indeed, translation has been an important sideline of many Colorado poets. Colorado State University poet Mary Crow has translated Latin American women poets, creating an anthology of their work, as well as Argentine and Chilean poets. Naropa faculty member Anselm Hollo publishes translations of writers such as Pierre Reverdy and Blaise Cendrars while Naropa regularly invites writers from other countries to the school's summer program. Colorado literary magazines, including Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Many Mountains Moving, and Rolling Stock, have supported this statewide interest in translations. But translation hasn't been the only road for poets to a wider view of the world—Bill Tremblay, for example, has brought the world of Latin America into his poems through his dramatization of the life of Frieda Kahlo and the circle around her.

While many of the best-known Colorado poets teach in the state's colleges and universities, independent poets also have made their mark, working in other fields or teaching part time; among the best known are Veronica Patterson, Renate Wood, Mark Irwin, author of a body of elegiac and spiritual poetry, Joe Hutchinson, and Lois Hayna as well as Marilyn Krysl, retired from the University of Colorado, author of powerful political poetry.

Readings take place in the cafes of most Colorado towns and cities. In Colorado Springs, Poetry West has hosted poets in the community for years, as have the Loveland Museum, the Canon Mine in Lafayette, the Writers Guild and the Ah Haa School of Poetics in Telluride, and the Mercury Café in Denver. Every summer Aspen is host to the Aspen Writers Foundation Writing conference and Loveland to Poets in the Park. Golden is home to the Columbine Poets, an organization that sponsors poetry workshops and contests. Moreover, the presence of poetry in the larger community has been fostered by the Denver-based book review, Bloomsbury Review and its late editor, Tom Auer, a vociferous advocate for the literary arts that reviews many poetry books in a time of declining reviews. For decades, the Colorado Council on the Arts with the aid of the National Endowment for the Arts sponsored poetry in the schools, a work now under the leadership of Young Audiences. One long-term Colorado participant, Boulder poet Jack Collom, has published a number of books on teaching children to write poetry. Poet laureate projects in northern Colorado include Literacy through Poetry, which trains graduate students to teach poetry in the schools, and Poetry in Motion, which places poems on placards in buses in Fort Collins (in conjunction with the Poetry Society of America, which has trademarked Poetry in Motion).

In 2000 the Boulder Public Library dedicated four stepping stones in its Poets Way, the first of 50 which are to display excerpts from the works of 50 poets from around the globe. This project is representative of Colorado's investment in the diversity of poetry; the first four poets whose words are carved on the initial stones are Rabindranath Tagore, Anna Akhmatova, Wawatay Eninew, and Thomas Hornsby Ferril.

It may be that there is in Colorado "a forest dreaming / inside every wall" as Linda Hogan would have it in The Book of Medicines. Certainly the Colorado landscape has been a starting point for many Colorado writers, yet has not limited the state's writers, whose work is as varied as poetry elsewhere in the country, as varied as the state's landscape with its mountains, cities, deserts, high plains, farms and ranches.