Worcester Poets: a sampler

Some of America’s greatest poets were born right here in Worcester! Meet them – see our city in their poems!

By Michael True

The literary history of Worcester over the past three centuries continues to be enriched by successive generations of poets, novelists, essayists, and children’s authors. The poems of Stanley Kunitz, 1905-2008, Elizabeth Bishop, 1911-79, David Williams, b. 1953, and Mary Fell, b. 1948, quoted and referred to below are representative of work informed by the people and geography of Central Massachusetts. In some instances, as W. H. Auden said of W. B. Yeats and Ireland,Worcester “hurt them into poetry.” At other times, their art is informed by the pleasures and quality of lives of its residents. In either case, these lyric poems of exceptional quality deserve an appreciative audience among readers locally and in the wider community. — Michael True, co-founder ofWorcester County Poetry Association, Inc., wrote Worcester Area Writers, 1680-1980, 1986.

Stanley Kunitz, Elizabeth Bishop, and Charles Olson, all born in Worcester, are internationally known, each of them claiming a place in American literary history.

In recent years, a younger generation of Worcester writers has made itself known, having received national awards for their writing: the late Chris Gilbert, the Walt Whitman Award; Mary Fell, the National Poetry Series; John Hodgen, the Donald Hall Award.

These writers, along with Fran Quinn, Jim Beschta, and Mary Bonina, studied with the late Denise Levertov, when she taught at Assumption College in 1975. The previous two years, they joined wellknown poets—Galway Kinnell, David Ignatow, and Michael Harper–in offering writing workshops for students at Holy Cross, North High School, and Quabbin Regional High School, Barre, in a program administered by Worcester County Poetry Association, Inc.

Among books over the past two decades by Worcester poets, I return repeatedly to Mary Fell’s The Persistence of Memory, 1984, and David Williams’s,Traveling Mercies: Poems, 1993. Both Fell and Williams write precisely and forcefully, with a political sense, though “without ever being preachy, self-righteous or sentimental,” as Madeline DeFrees said.

Mary Fell is particularly skilled in rendering the distinctive culture of Main South, Worcester, where she grew up. In “American Legion,” dedicated “to all veterans/ of all wars/ of the Main South Area,” she describes a veteran entering a local bar:

After work he straggles in, tired of fighting.
He shoulders through the line of men,
lays his arms on the bar and orders a tall one.

But there’s this pain near his heart
where something went in he can’t wash out.
He and the others bathe their wounds

With stories each agrees to swallow.

These remarkable poems are of a high quality, in their simplicity of language, authentic speech and imagery. The haunting title, The Persistence of Memory, is exactly appropriate to the elegiac impulse of the collection, which includes the long poem, about the historic “The Triangle Fire,” in early twentiethcentury Manhattan.

Anyone native to Central Massachusetts will find Fell’s references familiar. “Driving Out of Southern Worcester Country” and “Out-of- Luck, Massachusetts,” for example, convey the uniqueness of Central Massachusetts. The latter poem begins,

The town that couldn’t be licked
gives up, sunk
between these hills. The sacred
heart beats fainter, blessing the poor
in spirit. Boarded-up
factories litter the river.
…. In company houses
the unemployed wear out
their welcome. Diminished
roads run east, west, anywhere
better than here.

Formerly a social worker, Mary Fell, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is on the faculty of University of Indiana East, in Richmond, She returns to her hometown occasionally, having read at the Worcester Public Library and Assumption College.

David Williams’ powerful and moving first book,Traveling Mercies, is distinguished by “the sheer force of its humanity,” according to Lawrence Joseph. The subjects, each conveyed in an appropriate language and tone, represent a variety of topics, often tragic in their implications, but occasionally comic and personal as well. They give the reader a strong sense of an older world, as well as the contemporary scene.

In “Recognition,” the poet acknowledges a debt to his wife, who “taught me the names of trees I’d known/ only as a lyric blur/ of leaves turning up their pale undersides/ in wind that made me speak of flames and tongues.”

Other poems in the collection reflect his Lebanese-American heritage, and the tragic circumstances his extended family endured throughout history:

The people I come from were thrown
as if they were nothing, whatever they
might have
said become stone, beyond human
except for the songs. But what is
their daily
breath against all the ardent, cunning
justifications for murder?
The stunned drown of grief becomes
the fierce,
tender undertone that bears up the

Attuned to the sorrows, as well as the persistence of his ancestors, Williams acknowledges, as well, the suffering of others who later who resisted violence and oppression in Central America. He brings to life the stories of refugees, who “got up and dug the bullets/ out of the wall, and carried them all the way from Guatemala,” to Tucson, Arizona.

“Homage to Oscar Romero” is a tribute the late archbishop of San Salvador, a rather conservative pastor, whom Latin Americans regard as a saint and martyr:

Considered at first
he found, death by death,
the distance closing
between this life
and the one to come.
He became himself—This is
my body—became them all….
He held up bread and wine
with steady hands.
The harvest comes
because the grain of wheat dies,
The vessel was broken.but not one
drop was lost.

These poems by Fell and Williams, who teaches writing at Wheaton College, are obviously exceptional works of art. In contemporary language and form, they contribute to a literary history initiated by earlier generations of Worcester writers. Meanwhile, other young writers publishing in national poetry journals, including Worcester Review, extend that history to the present moment.