New poet laureate Henry Hart talks career, Virginia history

Over the summer, English professor Henry Hart was appointed to serve as the poet laureate of Virginia. LEONOR GRAVE / THE FLAT HAT

It was a Wednesday afternoon in August, and English professor Henry Hart sat in his office in St. George Tucker Hall, a quintessential academic nest complete with slanted ceilings and bookshelves packed to the brim. He said he had just been working on a poem for a new collection focused on his family’s past.

“Quite a few of the poems are about my older brother, who was really the most literary one in my family,” Hart said. “Alas, he died several years ago, but he was the one who really introduced me to poetry. He wrote poetry when he was in high school, he introduced me to the world of literature, [and] he was always bringing books back to the bedroom that we shared.”

It’s not an unusual day of work for Hart, who only last month was appointed for a two-year term as poet laureate of Virginia. As poet laureate, he will serve as the ambassador and chief promoter of poetry in the commonwealth on behalf of the Poetry Society of Virginia.

Hart was officially sworn in at a ceremony July 2 in Richmond, Virginia, among a crowd of members of the Poetry Society, local politicians, former students, peers and friends. Unfortunately, Govenor Ralph Northam couldn’t make the ceremony because he was in Williamsburg, swearing in newly appointed College of William and Mary President Katherine Rowe. But Hart isn’t one to hold a grudge; he welcomed Rowe to the College, he said, by baking her one of his special blueberry pies.

“When I got so interested in poetry and literature in college, my parents worried that I was going down the wrong path,” Hart said.

While Hart eschewed overly effusive praise of this particular honor, he said this appointment does carry a special weight to his family.

“I think I am kind of a modest guy, but I was very happy [about the appointment] because my parents are still alive,” Hart said. “When I got so interested in poetry and literature in college, my parents worried that I was going down the wrong path. My dad would say, ‘It’s wonderful to study poetry and literature, but you’re never going to get a job — you’ve got to study chemistry and math and physics.’ It was very nice for them to see that things actually worked out.”

Hart also carries the distinction of being the first faculty member at the College to be the Virginia poet laureate. However, on a more personal level, Hart said he sees the laureate position as a symbolic validation of his literary career, having spent over three decades as a writer of poetry but also as a poetry critic and a scholar.

“Poetry is a lot like songs; poetry is a lot like stories — and songs and stories are important to us,” Hart said. “I’ve always felt that poets tend to explore regions, personal regions, social regions, that often other people don’t explore.”

One of Hart’s works of literary biography focuses on Irish poet Seamus Heaney. But Hart’s connection to Heaney turned out to be more than simply scholarly and spanned 30 years. After Heaney spoke at the College in 2002 — a visit Hart himself arranged — he called Hart on the phone and told him he had left some Irish coins behind in his hotel room. Heaney offered to let Hart keep them to give to his two young children as gifts.

“I carry one of those coins in my pocket every day as a good luck charm,” Hart said, as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a shiny brass Euro coin, recognizably Irish due to the Celtic harp engraving on its back.

His career as a poet and his work as a professor have been intertwined since he first arrived on campus 32 years ago. He often gives drafts of his poems to his research assistants, or to students in his classes he has gotten to know.

“I give [students] drafts and I always say, treat these drafts the way you treat drafts of poems in a workshop,” Hart said. “Give me candid assessments, that’s what I want. Don’t say, ‘Oh professor you’re a genius, this is a work of genius.’ I don’t want that.”

The role Hart’s students play in his work does not go unrecognized, and he often dedicates his published works to his students. The dedication page to “Background Radiation,” the poetry collection he published in 2007, even reads: “For my students at the College of William and Mary.”

At the College, Hart teaches creative writing and literature classes, including a freshman seminar on World War II literature. He thinks of the creative writing classes as particularly rewarding because of their hands-on nature and the energy and the passion students bring to the room.

“That’s what writing is all about, sending your poems out there to an audience and getting reactions — positive and negative — from an audience,” Hart said.

“It’s essentially a workshop where everyone is always participating, and they want to participate,” Hart said. “They have skin in the game. Their poems are out there, they want to have feedback, [and] they want to learn how their peers react to their poems. That’s what writing is all about, sending your poems out there to an audience and getting reactions — positive and negative — from an audience.”

Jake Leonard ’18, a recent graduate of the English department and a former student of Hart’s, said that his former professor’s passion for poetry is contagious.
“In the classroom, he has a unique mix of knowledge and experience, and he warmly shares the joys he finds in a poem,” Leonard said. “He has a talent of pointing out the intricacies of a poem that looks simple at first glance and of demystifying complex contemporary verse. For his creative writing classes, he gives consistent feedback that helps every poem reach its full potential. In his own poetry, he has a wonderful knack for acknowledging and pointing out the beauty in the mundane. As the poet laureate of Virginia, I have no doubt he’ll continue to share his love of poetry, and he’ll be an accessible and easy-to-reach ambassador to poetry in Virginia.”

When Emily Saylor ’20 took Hart’s WWII literature seminar the first semester of her freshman year, she said she was struck by how much he cared not only about the subject matter, but for his students’ well-being — Hart would bring the class donuts to make sure they were eating breakfast.

“When I came to see him during office hours, he made an effort to get to know me as a person and as a student beyond his specific course,” Saylor said. “I loved sitting and chatting with him about the text we had read in class and other points of interest. It was clear he was passionate about teaching. His priority was always helping us. Whether it be understanding a particularly difficult passage or identifying interesting topics for papers, he would walk us through the steps it took to be successful.”

Saylor said she believes Hart’s passion for writing makes him an asset to the literary community in his position as poet laureate.

“I have complete faith that he will continue to inspire his students and create great works,” Saylor said.

While Hart is impacted by his work in the classroom, he also demonstrates a keen awareness of the history of his surroundings, especially in regard to the representation — and misrepresentation — of American history. When Hart visited Historic Jamestowne for instance, he noticed that the statue of Pocahontas was wearing clothes that would not have been accurate to the indigenous people of the 17th century Algonquian culture of eastern Virginia, but rather to the indigenous people of the Great Plains, and wrote a poem about that topic.

“The history of Jamestown was especially grueling and bloody,” Hart said. “There was a starving time where there was cannibalism and whatnot, and again, I was thinking about how the origins of American democracy often get romanticized when in fact it was a terrible ordeal at the beginning.”

His interest in the themes of American history began when Hart was an undergraduate himself at Dartmouth. He took an introductory English class where Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” a book of poems in which a seemingly mundane visit to the Boston Common conjures a vivid sequence of historical associations, was on the syllabus.

“It really did light a light bulb in my head,” Hart said. “I was enchanted by the language, by the themes of the American past and the American present.”

Hart said he was especially struck by the jarring dissonance between the professed ideals of the founding documents of the United States and the country’s contemporary realities and injustices. Poetry was pivotal for him in making those connections during his freshman year, and the issue of historical dissonance has continued to be a theme of his literary career, as well as an idea he imparts to his students and peers.

“I think that [poetry] can be helpful to talk about things that sometimes may make other people uncomfortable,” Hart said.

The poetry collection he published in 2014, “Familiar Ghosts,” centers around historical themes and even includes a poem titled “The Surprising Survival of Ghosts in and Around Colonial Williamsburg,” which itself explores the theme of traveling in time from contemporary TV screens to the lingering ghosts of Confederate soldiers.

“I think that [poetry] can be helpful to talk about things that sometimes may make other people uncomfortable,” Hart said. “It can be therapeutic. I think that a lot of poets deal with personal crises or social crises, historical crises. Again, when sometimes others don’t want to deal with those crises.”


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