Mary Jo Salter
Poet, editor, essayist, playwright, and lyricist Mary Jo Salter was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She grew up in Michigan and Maryland, and earned degrees from Harvard and Cambridge University. A former editor at the Atlantic Monthly, poetry editor at the New Republic, and co-editor of the fourth and fifth editions of the Norton Anthology of Poetry Salter’s thorough understanding of poetic tradition is clearly evident in her work. The author of five books of poetry, including A Kiss in Space (1999), Open Shutters (2003), and A Phone Call to the Future (2008), Salter has received numerous awards for her work. Her second book, Unfinished Painting (1989) was a Lamont Selection for the most distinguished second volume of poetry published that year, Sunday Skaters (1994) was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and Open Shutters was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Salter has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation and taught for many years at Mount Holyoke College. She is currently a professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
Often marrying domestic concerns to exotic locales, Salter’s most acclaimed poems are at once formally inventive and speak to her experiences in foreign cultures, including Iceland, Italy, Japan, France, and England. Discussing her first collection, Henry Purcell in Japan (1985), in the New Leader, Phoebe Pettingell described how Salter skillfully maintained her poetic individuality without abandoning the influence of her Western predecessors. According to Pettingell, “even where she employs English Poetry’s most traditional forms, rich in historical associations, her own voice sings out clearly.” Salter’s work shows the influence of English literary history, as well as that of writers like Elizabeth Bishop, who was her teacher at Harvard, and Amy Clampitt, whom she published at the Atlantic. Along with her former husband, the poet and writer Brad Leithauser, Salter was an important figure in the flowering of the New Formalist poets of the 1970s and 1980s. This loose grouping of poets sought to reinvigorate received and traditional forms. Published in the anthology Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism (1996), Salter’s early work is especially notable for its formal control and lucid poise, though Salter herself has never proclaimed allegiance to the group itself. In an interview with Rob Steward, Salter said of the New Formalists: “Although I admire many of the people who are part of that movement, I’m not really interested in promoting it. I’m interested in trying to find … an appropriate way of saying something. So, for me, temperamentally, rhyme and meter are pleasing. They help me say what I want to say, and I suppose that’s been true ever since I was in college.”
Over six collections, and her stewardship of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, Salter has remained committed to the history and forms of English and American poetry. However, reviewing her volume of new and selected poems, A Phone Call from the Future, in the New York Times, James Longenbach suggested that Salter’s true strengths lie in poems that struggle against the elegant formality—which often masks “a distaste for the unseemly” according to Longenbach—for which she has so often been praised: “But what makes Salter worth reading—what makes her stand apart from the merely polemical elegance of the New Formalism—is that she herself is appalled by this distaste.” Longenbach continued, “While many of her poems are burdened by a need to dispense wisdom (“love dooms us to earn / love once we can speak of it”), her best are driven by a compulsion to confront the inexplicable.”
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, instructor, 1978-79; Atlantic Monthly, Boston, MA, staff editor, 1978-80; instructor in English conversation at various institutions in Japan, 1980-83; Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, lecturer in English, beginning 1984, Emily Dickinson lecturer in humanities, 1995—. Poet-in-residence at Robert Frost Place, 1981.
- Henry Purcell in Japan, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.
- Unfinished Painting, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
- The Moon Comes Home (children’s book), Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
- Sunday Skaters, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
- (Coeditor) The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Norton (New York, NY), 4th edition, 1996, 5th edition, 2004.
- A Kiss in Space: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
- Open Shutters, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
- A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 2008.
- The Moon Comes Home (children’s book), Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
- (Editor, with Margaret Ferguson and Jon Stallworthy). The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th edition. Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
- (Editor, with Margaret Ferguson and Jon Stallworthy). Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th edition. Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
- (Editor, with Margaret Ferguson and Jon Stallworthy). The Norton Anthology of Poetry: Shorter 5th Edition. Norton (New York, NY), 2005.
- Falling Bodies (play), Mount Holyoke College premiere, 2004.
- Rooms of Light (song cycle), The Allen Room, Lincoln Center premiere, 2007.
Contributor of articles, poems, and reviews to various publications, including New Yorker, Poetry, and Kenyon Review. New Republic, poetry editor, 1992-95.
- Contemporary Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
- Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
- American Poetry Review, November-December, 1989, Marianne Boruch, review of Unfinished Painting, p. 21; March-April, 1991, Sam Hamill, review of Unfinished Painting, p. 37.
- Antioch Review, winter, 1995, Judith Hall, review of Sunday Skaters, p. 119; winter, 2004, John Taylor, review of Open Shutters, p. 177.
- Book, September-October, 2003, Stephen Whited, review of Open Shutters, p. 89.
- Booklist, March 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of A Kiss in Space, p. 1279; May 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Open Shutters, p. 1567.
- Commonweal, December 3, 1999, review of William Pritchard, p. 22.
- Hudson Review, autumn, 1989.
- Library Journal, April 15, 2000, Barbara Hoffert, review of A Kiss in Space, p. 94; May 1, 2003, Rochelle Ratner, review of Open Shutters, p. 118.
- New Criterion, June, 1999, William Logan, review of A Kiss in Space.
- New Leader, April 8, 1985; July, 1989; June 14, 1999, Phoebe Pettingell, review of A Kiss in Space, p. 20.
- New Republic, April 8, 1985; July 17, 1989.
- New York Times Book Review, April 7, 1985; April 1, 1990, Stephen Dobyns, review of The Moon Comes Home, p. 26; April 11, 1999, Melanie Rehak, review of A Kiss in Space, p. 24.
- North American Review, December, 1989, p. 58.
- Poetry, November, 1985; April, 1990, Henri Cole, review of Unfinished Painting, p. 36; May, 1995, Robert B. Shaw, review of Sunday Skaters, p. 109; April, 2000, David Yezzi, review of A Kiss in Space, p. 42.
- Publishers Weekly, March 29, 1999, review of A Kiss in Space, p. 98.
- School Library Journal, March, 1990, Nancy Curtin, review of The Moon Comes Home, p. 200.
- Times Literary Supplement, May 31, 1991.
- Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 6, 1989; January 14, 1990; May 31, 1991.
- Washington Post Book World, August 6, 1989; September 10, 1989.
- Borzoi Reader Online, http://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/ (April, 2001), interview with Mary Jo Salter.