Wyatt Prunty's poetry has generally been associated with the New Formalism movement, although he reportedly attempts to shrug off such labeling as too self-limiting. As detailed on the Wyatt Prunty June 1998 Web site, "Wyatt Prunty's early memories include weekend field trips taken with his father, Merle Prunty, the geographer. Packed in among graduate students taking notes, a seven-year-old Prunty listened as the landscape ticked by outside the van was summarized inside a day-long monologue delivered from the driver's seat through a haze of unfiltered Lucky Strikes. Prunty's early conviction was that all things were related and between the asking and the next cigarette every question could be answered." The same site noted, "Although Wyatt Prunty's home was located in the college town of Athens, Georgia, during childhood he spent every summer and Christmas on a farm that bordered the small farming community of Newburn, Tennessee, and the patterns found in the landscape of this area still inform some of his writing." This overlay of two radically polarized existences seemed natural to the youthful Prunty. "Now it appears in poems that have their origins in puzzlements over the contrasts between a privileged city life and a raw agricultural existence."
According to William E. Clarkson in Contemporary Southern Writers, "Wyatt Prunty's first published poem appeared in the Autumn 1968 issue of the Sewanee Review while the poet was still a student at the University of the South. He was taught and encouraged by Allen Tate and Andrew Lytle, who was then editor of the Review." In 1989, after years spent in naval service, graduate study and teaching at other institutions, he returned to the University of the South as a Carlton Professor of English. In the fall of that year, funds received from the estate of Tennessee Williams were used to place into motion plans for the envisioned Sewanee Writers' Conference, and Prunty was appointed its director. He gathered a distinguished group of poets and fiction writers to comprise the faculty for its debut gathering in the summer of 1990. Under the continuing direction of Prunty, the success of its first season has been repeated annually, placing the Sewanee Writers' Conference among the most influential gatherings in American letters.
Despite its inherent formality, Prunty usually eschews structuring his verse upon rigid, historical poetic forms, even when—as several poems in Since the Noon Mail Stopped do—they consist of the same traditional, fourteen lines that comprise the form of the sonnet. Most of Prunty's verse is blank, with a loosely metrical basis. His use of rhyme is deft but spare, and while some poems are tightly rhymed throughout, others begin in blank verse and flow so subtly into distant and slant rhyme that the reader may not perceive this transition into a rhymed environment until they reach its final line.
Prunty's verse may be formal, but it is far from repressive or elitist. His work embodies his stated belief that it is not form so much as the poet's "modes of thought, the means of figuration" that are most important. And among the "figurative modes of thought" that interest him, he cites the "New Critical staples of irony, paradox, and ambiguity" as due special attention—staples that his own work enthusiastically embodies.
Perhaps Prunty's most frequently appropriated and celebrated poem is "Learning the Bicycle," the lead-in work of his 1989 collection, Balance as Belief. It is a forceful and epigrammatic study in paradox. Its narrator recalls his daughter's struggles and failed attempts to master riding her first bicycle, knowing full well that when she achieves the necessary balance she will ride away, far away from "the place I stop and know / That to teach her I had to follow / And when she learned I had to let her go."
The 1997 collection, Since the Noon Mail Stopped, demonstrates Prunty's meditative spirit and wry humor, his deft and imaginative wordplay, the subtle nuances of tone, and the precision and immediacy of his imagery. In "Grown Men at Touch," backyard football players use the shadow of a barn as the demarcation for their goal line. "By four, our shadow-field / Had gone long past the longest pass; / By five, no one could run its length." In "Coach," a poem of four brief stanzas, he turns his attention to expressing the inner life of a family dog, from puppyhood to death. "All trucks were from Hell and deserved my bite, / all children sheep and not to leave the yard . . ." Other poems involve such unlikely subjects as four houseflies, the Zamboni polishing a skating rink, and the inner landscape of a pyromaniac's thoughts.
In discussing Unarmed and Dangerous: New and Selected Poems, a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted the "Frostian stoicism and precise observation of sad American scenes distinguish the poems of Wyatt Prunty." And in her New York Times Book Review assessment, Melanie Rehak stated that "Prunty has spent the last two decades . . . examining the ways in which human experience is made up of small traditions bound together into a larger story—the subset of ritual within narrative, one might say. His language mirrors this relationship; it has a plain-spoken sweep with, every so often, beautiful, intricate phrasing appearing on the horizon." She said, "There is . . . a kind of wistful humor lurking behind the scenes in Prunty's work . . . He has an exquisite hold on life. And in 'Unarmed and Dangerous' he displays an inherent understanding of the fact that comedy and tragedy, both on the page and off, coexist more often than not."
Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, instructor in English, 1978-79; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, assistant, associate and full professor of English, 1979-89; University of the South, Carlton Professor of English and founding director of the Sewanee Writers' Conference, 1989—. Visiting writer at Washington and Lee University, 1982-83; visiting associate and professor (Coleman chair) at Johns Hopkins University, 1987-89; visiting teacher at Bread Loaf School of English and Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Staff associate of Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, 1983. Gives poetry readings. Military service: U.S. Navy, deck officer and gunnery officer, 1969-72; became lieutenant.
- The Times Between, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1982.
- What Women Know, What Men Believe, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1986.
- Balance as Belief, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1989.
- The Run of the House, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1993.
- Since the Noon Mail Stopped, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1997.
- Unarmed and Dangerous: New and Selected Poems, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1999.
- Domestic of the Outer Banks (poetry chapbook), Inland Boat Press, 1980.
- Fallen from the Symboled World: Precedents for the New Formalism (literary criticism), Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1990.
- (Editor with Peter Mayer) Just Let Me Say This about That: A Narrative Poem, John Bricuth (Sewanee Writers' Series), 1998.
- (Editor) Sewanee Writers on Writing (Southern Literary Series), Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2001.
Work represented in anthologies, including Pocket Poetry, Number 1, 1975; Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry for 1979, edited by Alan F. Pater, Monitor Books (Beverly Hills, CA), 1980; Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry for 1980, edited by Pater, Monitor Book, 1981. Contributor of poems, essays, and reviews to magazines, stateside and abroad, including Cimarron Review, Colorado Quarterly, Kenyon Review, New Criterion, New Republic, New Yorker, Ploughshares, PN Review, Salmagundi, Southern Review, and Yale Review. Poetry editor, Sewanee Theological Review; founding editor, "Sewanee Writers" series (Overlook Press), 1997.
- Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
- New York Times Book Review, March 19, 2000, Melanie Rehak, "The Small Stuff."
- PN Review, Volume VIII, number 5, 1982; Volume IX, number 2, 1982.
- Publishers Weekly, December 6, 1999, "December Collections," review of Unarmed and Dangerous: New and Selected Poems, p. 74.
- Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1982.
- Wyatt Prunty, June 1998, http://members.aol.com/poetrynet/month/archive/prunty/(June 11, 2000).
Audio & PodcastsPoetry Off the Shelf
Poems by Ed Skoog and Wyatt Prunty.
LIFE SPAN 1947–