Poet’s Words Reach Widening Audience

There might not be a lot of literary firsts left for UMW Professor of English and Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry Claudia Emerson. She was named Virginia poet laureate in 2008, received the Donald Justice Award for poetry in 2009, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship earlier this year, and recently was inducted into the prestigious Fellowship of Southern Writers.

And that’s on top of the Pulitzer Prize she claimed in 2006 for her poetry collection Late Wife.

Early this fall, though, Emerson squeezed in a couple more premieres – her début appearance at the National Book Festival and publication in The New Yorker.

In late October, the magazine included Emerson’s Catfish.

On a September Saturday at the book festival, from a stage on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Emerson discussed the journey that led to her life as a writer. She read from her works, which include Pharaoh, Pharaoh; Pinion: An Elegy; Late Wife; and her latest collection of poetry, Figure Studies. Her presentation at the event’s National Endowment for the Arts’ Poetry & Prose Pavilion followed those of fellow Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Cunningham, Rita Dove, and Jonathan Yardley.

Also in September, Emerson read Wind Scale, which she wrote for Richard V. Hurley for the occasion of his inauguration as president of the University of Mary Washington. It is printed below.

Wind Scale

By Claudia Emerson

The desire must first have been for idea,
then a line committed to it, a sketch,
sentence, paragraph – a theory, a proof,
until we have proven unable to help,
or, perhaps, defend ourselves from seeking
proof of proof, from determining the value
of the rubric itself, succumbing again
to the familiar despair of red ink.


In seeking some inarguable true north,
we might return to an older navigation,
and with it, another scale: one for measuring
the wind – invisible, named, unnamed,
the ever changing dead calm, the tempest
changeless – assurance that any passage
must be a wind-tense sculpture of sails, sheets
and shrouds, the guidelines taut, willful part
of their form. To sail fine still means to sail
as close to the wind as possible,
ability that comes not just in the practice,
but in the joy of it – measured motion,
open water a finer arrival, the feel
of the lines as it passes the surest hand.