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Turnpikes, refineries and -- poetry?

November 29, 2003|Robert Strauss | Special to The Times

You might think the likely route for a poet in New Jersey would be to find as many words as possible to rhyme with turnpike, soot and goombah. You might think that New Jersey poetry would stink as bad as the grungy air along the refinery-filled scenery. But you'd be wrong.

For when Paul Muldoon won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry this spring, he became the third poet from New Jersey to receive the honor in the last four years and the fourth in the last decade to live hard by the maligned New Jersey Turnpike.

New Jersey, it turns out, is a land of verse and meter.

Muldoon, a Princeton University English professor, succeeded his Pulitzer-winning Princeton colleagues C.K. Williams (2000) and Yusef Komunyakaa (1994), as well as Richard Stockton College of New Jersey professor Stephen Dunn (2001).

"Maybe there's something in the water," said Williams with a chuckle.

While there is no 21st century New Jersey school of poetry, say, the way there were Impressionist painters of a like stripe in 19th century Paris or Elizabethan playwrights in 16th and 17th century England, surely there has been a passel of poets from the state.

Robert Pinsky, who was United States poet laureate in the 1990s, grew up in North Jersey, got his undergraduate training at Rutgers, New Jersey's state university, and called his last book of poems "Jersey Rain." Philip Freneau, a Monmouth County, N.J., native and James Madison's roommate at Princeton, is widely considered the father of American poetry.

William Carlos Williams, though he made his money as a doctor, told of life in the Jersey towns of Passaic and Rutherford in his poetry and was awarded a rare posthumous Pulitzer in 1963. Beat poet guru Allen Ginsberg ("Howl"), and his Socialist poet father, Louis, were from Paterson, in North Jersey.

Indeed, New Jersey poets are even celebrated somewhat commercially. Two New Jersey Turnpike rest stops are named after poets -- the same number as for presidents and one more than for famous football coaches. You can rhyme with Joyce Kilmer ("Trees") going northbound, and emote with Walt Whitman ("Leaves of Grass") while driving south. Only Vince Lombardi among the brawny crew merits his own rest stop.

"I've never taken a census, but it seems New Jersey's contribution to poetry is outsized compared to other places," said Sander Zulauf, who teaches writing at County College of Morris and is the editor of the Journal of New Jersey Poets. "And poetry is not obscure here. We have the wonderful Dodge Festival at Waterloo where maybe 10,000 people come and get exhausted over four days hearing voices of poets come alive."

To be sure, not every New Jersey poet spends all his time writing about New Jersey, but there is at least some inspiration in the air. The epic poem that dominates "Moy Sand and Gravel," (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002) Muldoon's Pulitzer-winning volume, is titled "At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999," and begins with a Jersey scene near his Princeton home:

Awesome

the morning after Hurricane

Floyd

to sit out in our driveway and

gawk at yet another canoe or

kayak coming down Canal

Road

now under ten feet of water.

Muldoon, who grew up in Ireland, supposedly a land of poets, is happy to be brandishing his pen in New Jersey, especially at Princeton, where he has taught since 1990.

"The way Princeton is set up is that it is a university that acknowledges that poetry is another way of making sense of how the world functions," he said. "People who do this, they believe, are useful people to have around. One is meant to be teaching away, but also contributing something to the general intellectual community."

Dunn, who used to live in Port Republic, a remote interior South Jersey small town, now splits his time between Ocean City and Frostburg, Md., where his wife is from. His time at the Jersey Shore has inspired a whimsical series of poems in his first post-Pulitzer volume, "Local Visitations" (Norton, 2003). In poems such as "Melville at Barnegat Light," "Mary Shelley in Brigantine," "Harriet Beecher Stowe in Sweetwater" and "Stendahl in Sea Isle City," Dunn imagines some of his favorite writers in towns at the Shore and inland South Jersey.

"It was fun to try to populate my area with these people," he said. "But more seriously, it was a way of using their sensibilities as a lens for me, to see where I live. I think of mindscape more than landscape historically," he said. "I think much more about psychological space than I do of place, so this was an effort, but a good one for me to do."

Muldoon, though, said he often is inspired to write by looking at his surroundings.

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