Songs of the Hills: Poetry in West Virginia [excerpt]

Written by

Michael Pauley
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Year

2007
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What follows are selections from a 1986 essay which provides an overview of the development of poetry in West Virginia. It appears in its entirety at MountainLit.com.

Poetry has always been an important aspect of literary life in the mountains and valleys of West Virginia. Just as the Indians have left us manifestations of their art and magical beliefs in the form of petroglyphs, so one can easily imagine them sitting about an evening camp fire composing poems to the mountain spirits or singing of moonrise over the Kanawha. Indeed, one of the most famous poetical statements ever made by an American Indian was the speech of Chief Logan in 1774, which was once memorized by every West Virginia student.

Poetry, of course, is also a product of civilization and thus the rugged men and women who tamed the West Virginia frontier had little time or inclination for pondering The Muse. As soon as life had settled into more stable patterns, however, the yearning for the most beautiful aspects of culture, such as poetry, began to be felt.

It is generally acknowledged by literary historians that the first western Virginia poet of any stature was Joseph Doddridge (1769-1826). Doddridge is noted for his poems "A Dirge" (1800), written to commemorate the death of Washington, and "Elegy on the Family Vault."

Another good poet of this period was Margaret Blennerhassett (1778-1842), wife of Harman Blennerhassett, whose "Deserted Isle" is a hauntingly moving lyric about their life on Blennerhassett Island. The poem appeared in her work Widow of the Rock and Other Poems, By a Lady (1834).

Froissant Ballads and Other Poems, containing the still popular poems "Florence Vane" and "Rosa Lee," was published by Philip Pendleton Cooke (1816-1850) in 1847. A resident of Martinsburg, Cooke was one of the first noted western Virginia poets to write movingly of the mountains, a theme that was to recur and be elaborated upon over and over again by our poets.

Thomas S. Lees of Wheeling published, in 1831, Musings of Carol, a volume of verse that contains "Musing on the Ohio," a beautifully descriptive poem on the Ohio River. The rivers of West Virginia are also a recurrent theme among the state's poets.

The Civil War gave birth to the separate state of West Virginia. The years following the end of this war witnessed the emergence of many fine poets, though a great many of them looked, not to the future of statehood, but to a more idyllic past of a supposed time of peace and harmony before the grim realities of war destroyed those days forever. Naturally, this poetical school found its most natural setting in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, which had been solidly pro-Southern during the Great Conflict.

Virginia Lucas of Rion Hall in Jefferson County was the first of these poets and was dubbed "The Pastorial Poet of the Shenandoah." Her early death in 1865 cut short a very promising career....

Daniel B. Lucas (1836-1909) of Jefferson County is considered by most authorities to have been the finest poet of this era. His "The Land Where We Were Dreaming," published in 1865, is considered the finest poem extolling the vanished life of the Old South; so much so that he was named "Poet Laureate of the Lost Cause" by many southern literary journals. Other popular works by Lucas included The Wreath of Eglantine and Other Poems (1869) and The Maid of Northumberland (1879).

At the beginning of the 20th century, Dr. Waitman T. Barbe (1864-1925) was one of West Virginia's most popular poets and interpreter of poetry. Among his most popular works were Ashes and Incense (1892) and Famous Poems Explained (1909). Barbe's work evidenced a classical, scholarly approach to the writing of verse; indeed, he was a professor of English at West Virginia University from 1910 until his death. His books, which included historical sketches and background material and interpretation of the poems involved, were frequently used in classroom study. He was also managing editor for the West Virginia School Journal from 1915 until 1921. Barbe's influence is still felt in state literary circles.

During the first half of this century, probably the most widely known West Virginia poet was John Peale Bishop (1892-1944), a native of Charles Town. Although also known for his novels, Bishop achieved an international reputation as a poet and moved in literary circles that included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and E. E. Cummings. Bishop is still, 40 years after his death, highly regarded as a poet....

[Former] Poet Laureate of West Virginia, Louise McNeill Pease, originally of Morgantown and a longtime resident of Lewisburg, emerged as one of the state's--indeed the nation's--leading poets with the publication of Gauley Mountain in 1942. This book received national attention, as did Mountain White (1939) and Time Is Our House (1951). Her Elderberry Flood, published by the Department of Culture and History, was the literary event of 1979 in West Virginia.

Dr. Pease was preceded as Poet Laureate by Karl Myers of Parsons, a fine poet and author of The Quick Years (1926) who was appointed in 1926 by Governor Gore, and subsequently by Roy Lee Harmon of Beckley. Harmon, a newspaperman, was appointed by Governor Holt in 1937. He had a gift for rhythmic homespun versification that had a strong appeal to Mountain State readers, as does the work of Jackson County poet Lee Mays, author of many such volumes of poetry in mid-century....

In the past several decades, new voices in West Virginia poetry have been called forth, as well as a number of fine organizations and publications to promote the literary efforts of West Virginians. Muriel Miller Dressler of St. Albans began to give voice in the early 1970s to a new, assertive type of Appalachian verse, mixing traditional and more modern styles to extol the virtues of living in the mountains. Her Appalachia (1977), containing the ringing "My Appalachia" instantly established Dressler as a formidable new voice in our poetical literature.

The Southern Appalachian Writer's Co-Op, founded in the early 1970s and centered more of less in southern West Virginia, was the first of a number of organizations to spring up representing newer movements and poets of West Virginia. Mountain Union Books of Beckley, led by the powerful new poet Bob Snyder, was a similar group. Together, the two organizations sparked a veritable renaissance of literary activity in West Virginia, with a strong emphasis on poetry.... Also, other literary groups and periodicals sprang up during this period....

Other poets of the "new poetry" in West Virginia who have risen to prominence include Ira Herman, Dark Horses Leaping Into Flame (1978); Mary Joan Coleman, Take One Blood Red Rose; Maggie Anderson, Years That Answer (1979); and Llewellyn McKernan, Short and Simple Annals (1979)....

The literary field of poetry in West Virginia, with its many facets, styles, and individuals, is speaking with a stronger voice than ever before, standing, as we have seen, on a solid legacy of past achievement and has reached new vistas of the poetical vision....


The above selection was made possible with the help of MountainLit.com, the Bridgeport Public Library, and Phyllis Wilson Moore.