In reading Linh Dinh’s wonderful post about Montana and thinking of Bill Knott’s insightful comment in which he asked, “Is the regional poet extinct?” I began to think of how regional poetry is defined and, indeed, how I might define myself. Having been in New York now for 9 years, where I hope I have not let the “hegemonic nets” blind me to my own personal territory, I find it difficult to find a determinative factor that leads one to the self-proclamation of “regional poet.” I live in New York, but I know every name of every street in my hometown of Sonoma, California (okay, not the every single one, but MOST of them), I am personally invested in the town’s well-being as an artistic community, and I still read the local paper. I return often, sit quietly, and memorize everything from the inanimate objects to the singular stunning landscape.

But, because I’ve chosen the cement-covered city for this past decade, does that mean I cannot say I am a regional poet of the Sonoma Valley? Or California for that matter? Or can I say that I am a New York poet? And why is it important? Or is it? (In case you were wondering, these are not rhetorical questions, feel free to expound below in the comments if you have enlightening answers. Or if you have any ideas for a good high school graduation gift for my 18 year-old brother. That too would be helpful.)
Growing up in such a small town, there was a sort of similarity of subject matter in the poetry I heard from the town’s writers. Of course landscape was important, vineyards, horses, class, racism, oak trees. But it never felt as if they were writing the same thing, nothing defined them as being local poets with local poems aside from perhaps their street addresses. When Philip Levine came to read or Francisco Alarcón, the subject matter was just as vastly different as when local poets Carolyn Kizer and Earl LeClair read (they lived there, but they too were from other places). The most essential connection seemed to be that there was a great gathering place, and still is, for poets, writers, and readers (Readers’ Books) where readings were actually happening. That there was interest in language no matter what state it came out of or what state is was wandering to.
I’ve been accused by my dear friends of extricating myself from labels and definitions as they often make me uncomfortable. I get claustrophobic! It runs in the family! So, I don’t mean to be particularly wily while pondering self-proclamations. Though I think I would claim myself a... California poet (ouch, this definition is too tight and it smells like old wine). I am curious however as to whether or not a return to regionalism will in fact change the nature of poetry and perhaps foster an indigenous aesthetic or if it’s too late for that inward shift? I wonder if it is enough that we create our communities where ever we go, rambling about our pasts as well as our present as we lug them along with us in our suitcases full of trees and barbed wire.
Actually, this whole conversation that I’ve had (with myself) has just made me particularly homesick. I think I’ll book a flight home and in the meantime, I feel a little like this:
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
—W.B. Yeats
I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the mourning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
P.S. Thanks to Mr. Bill Knott for inspiring this meandering post.
[the picture is of two beloved horses, one of the passed away just 2 months ago]

Originally Published: May 21st, 2008

Ada Limón is the author of Lucky Wreck (2006), This Big Fake World (2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and Bright Dead Things (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award. She earned an MFA from New York University, and is the recipient of...

  1. May 21, 2008
     Adam Strauss

    I don't think regional poetry/poets are gonna go off the map
    though what regionalism looks like may change; Susan
    Howe may not be a name that makes one think
    regionalism, but she can be viewed as one of the
    most regional poets ever!

  2. May 23, 2008
     bill knott

    . . .
    an interesting and thought-provoking entry, Ms. Limón . . .
    i don't have the resources to do it, but i would imagine that
    if someone compiled a bibliographical list
    of anthologies of regional poetry by USA poets
    published in the last 4-5 decades,
    that it would include dozens and perhaps even
    hundreds of titles . . .
    has there been one for every state by now? Many cities also
    have had their poets gathered thus . . .
    but what do these numerous olios signify– the ongoing cohesion
    of a regional lit,
    or are they merely memorials, epitaphs for an ideal that was killed
    off in 1975 by Ashbery's Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror?
    I still read and love Stafford, but i'm old: five years or so ago
    I ran into Marvin Bell and heard him lament that the students
    at Iowa refused to read Stafford . . . do any young
    poets of relevance read him?
    the problem with defining or identifying oneself as a
    regional poet is complicated not just because one doesn't
    want to look like a cornball Stafford compared to the
    cosmo Ashbery,
    it's compounded by regional heritage/histories of
    political forces and racial socioeconomic inequalities . . .
    to declare oneself a local poet today is to invite disdain
    and dismissal . . . cosmopolitanism has overwhelmed
    To me Levine is a great and important poet but
    my taste was formed pre-'75 . . . before le deluge
    of Ashbery . . . i know my preferences are archaic
    and obsolete and defunct . . . Stephen Burt ain't
    going to write encomia to Stafford/Levine et al . . .

  3. May 23, 2008
     bill knott

    . . . in thinking about another regional poet whose
    work i have read and admired deeply,
    R.S. Thomas,
    it seems clear that his conviction in and alliegiance
    to the local was strengthened by Welsh antipathy to the
    British cultural forces overwhelming what
    he could obviously think of as "his land" (my quotes) . . .
    in resistance to the Capitol the boondock bard
    can dig in and find a rooted stubborn
    raison d'etre . . .
    (that's what Heaney seems to always be harking
    desperately back toward, and though I was exasperated reading
    his last book by his use of vernacularisms like "snedder",
    i can understand his need to stand by his
    home-patois, as phony and put-on as it sometimes seems) . . .
    a snedder is something you use to skin turnips
    with (if i'm remembering correctly) . . .
    and of course Les Murray the Australian poet
    also flaunts pride in his provincialist approach . . .
    but USA poets, we USAPOs, are any of us willing to
    profess as adamant as Thomas/Heaney/Murray are
    their adherence to the backyard?

  4. May 26, 2008
     D. A. Powell

    Sonoma County is one of those places that invites a certain homesickness, with its various landscapes: the vineyards, the geysers, the redwoods, the Russian River, the coast. I remember Earl LeClair's poems well; he would often read in my series in Santa Rosa. If you are in touch with him, please give him my best.

  5. May 27, 2008

    D.A. Powell,
    I am in touch with Earl and I will pass on your regards. It is true that Sonoma begs a certain homesickness inherent to the landscape. I have often told people (I was born in Sonoma on a green couch) that I have never felt like I was "from" Sonoma, but rather "belonged to it" in some way,
    All the best,

  6. May 28, 2008
     Brian Salchert

    An older writer, the core of my 1967 thesis at Iowa was a lyric narrative
    of an other me walking through a specific section my Wisconsin hometown.
    I have written about other places where I have lived or passed through,
    but in that instance I was quite strongly a regional poet.

  7. June 17, 2008

    Dear Ms Limon, etc...
    I "grew-up" on an anthology called A New Geography of Poets, but before you check the index for your favorite regional poets--you will NOT find Howe, Ashbery, or Thomas, but you will find a Stafford poem--consider that any anthology is only as definitive as its necessarily meager collection can be, and this anthology provides little compensation in the way of commentary--only the thirteen-page intro. By letting the poems speak for themselves, the editors, (Field, Locklin, & Stetler) construct a take on regional that exposes its slippery slopes:
    "... the 'geography' of poets is not only where they happen to be. Along with the news of the world around them, their poems report the state of the world inside: the cities and highways, rivers and mountains, yes, who and what populates the landscape--human, vegetable, and animal--but also the poet's inner geography, where ancestors, old neighborhoods, and political issues mingle... the native-born mixed with newcomers and transients, influencing each other, creating the mix, sometimes irreconcilable, even combustible, that is at the core of this country: The voices of the places."
    I am "home" in So Cal for a visit, soon to return to a relatively new life in Paris, France... a Paris poet, an American, a Long Beach poet, all possible combinations, and other things depending on who's talking; Consequently, I find one assumption problematic: the idea that writers claim regional labels for themselves. More often, others impose the labels... relative classifications useful for archiving, analysis, and marketing but maybe not very useful to the art itself. I find myself to be always just outside of everything... pulling at the trap doors to see what spills out.
    Maybe this is a regional thing! ;) Thanks for the provocation!