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West Virginia's Poetic Heart

In November 2020, The New York Times asked poet laureates from across the nation what the people in their states had to be thankful for in the difficult year. West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman responded with “Dispatch from the Mountain State,” which the Times published the day before Thanksgiving of that year. 

On June 21, Harshman read “Dispatch” to the audience gathered in the Downtown Libraries’ Milano Reading Room and those watching online from afar as West Virginia University Libraries and the West Virginia and Regional History Center celebrated West Virginia’s 159th birthday. The theme was “West Virginia’s Poetic Heart.” 

Harshman explained to the audience how he quickly went to work crafting the poem on the newspaper’s tight deadline. Despite the rush, he clearly found the words to transport New York Times readers to West Virginia. 

Marc Harshman

West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman read a selection of poems by Maggie Anderson, past poet laureates Irene McKinney and Louise McNeill, and himself.

In the poem, he introduces readers to a child racing on the sidewalk to enjoy dinner with his grandmother, someone homeless and trying to sleep on a cold night and a neighbor trudging through snow with soup and a shovel. 

The poem concludes with these hopeful lines: 

“You see we’re still holding on here just enough 
despite all we’re doing wrong, holding on enough 
to give not only this man but ourselves 
enough for which to be thankful, even this, 
these little gestures that can re-birth a nation, 
reconcile not only colors like black and white, 
like blue and red,
but reconcile us one to the other.”

Harshman is a West Virginian by choice. Back in 1969, at the age of 18, he left Indiana to attend Bethany College in the Northern Panhandle and fell in love with the Mountain State. 

“Both places are much defined by rural culture,” Harshman said. “People respect hard work, are welcoming and friendly. It’s the kind of place where people know the name of things – plants, the next hollow over, roads, and creeks. And that all suited me.” 

Harshman was appointed Poet Laureate for West Virginia in 2012. He is the author of 14 children’s books including “The Storm,” a Smithsonian Notable Book, and numerous books of poetry. He also holds degrees from Yale University Divinity School and the University of Pittsburgh. In 2018, WVU invited him to be part of the inaugural group of Distinguished West Virginians who contributed their papers to the WVRHC. 

“Here we takethe maybe with the bad and the certain along with everything else — nothing goes to waste in the heart of Appalachia” “Dispatch from the Mountain State” by Marc Harshman

“I have a great faith in poetry to refocus in us what it means to be human and with every passing year I feel an ever greater need to be reminded about what it is that we hold in common as men and women who value beauty and the kind of meaning revealed in artistic expression,” Harshman said. 

“I am not embarrassed to continue to quote as immensely relevant William Carlos Williams’ adage that, ‘It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there’.”   

In addition to his own works, Harshman read poems by noted Appalachian poet Maggie Anderson and past poet laureates Irene McKinney and Louise McNeill. 

Maggie Anderson

Maggie Anderson

Maggie Anderson

Harshman views being poet laureate as an opportunity to pursue his writing diligently but also to promote the arts of West Virginia, whenever and wherever he can. In that vein, he is quick to praise Anderson, a long-time friend. She, unfortunately, was unable to attend the event. 

“Maggie writes poems that are heartwarming, that make you proud to be a fellow human being, even as some of the poems ask you to face challenges and to explore the darker issues of our times,” Harshman said.   

Anderson is a poet and author of five books of poems, most recently “Dear All.” She was born in New York City in 1948 to parents from West Virginia and western Pennsylvania. Her mother and father both graduated from WVU, and her mother taught the University’s Department of Political Science in the early 1940s. 

Her family returned to West Virginia when she was 13 years old. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English, with high honors, from WVU in 1970, she stayed to complete master degrees in creative writing and social work. She taught poetry at Kent State University from 1989 until her retirement in 2009. 

Although she’s lived in many places throughout her life – New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon and Ohio – she calls West Virginia home. 

“There are the familiar hills, there are my memories of my friends and me growing up there,” Anderson said. “I have vivid memories of Morgantown from when I was in college. I used to walk these hills and walk these streets. In some way, what we think of as home is a place of memories.” 

She treasures her memories of her close friend Irene McKinney, Poet Laureate for West Virginia from 1994 until her death in 2012. 

“I used to go to her place outside of Elkins. It was out in the country,” Anderson said. “I loved to be in the green and in the fields, and I think that all goes directly into my writing. 

I can’t seem to write anything without a tree in it.”   

Harshman read four of Anderson’s poems: “The Beans” from “Years that Answer,” “Country Wisdoms,” from Windfall, “Independence Day” from “Cold Comfort” and “Note from My Father” from “Dear All.” 

Harshman also read poems by past poet laureates Irene McKinney and Louise McNeill. 

Irene McKinney 

McKinney was born in Belington, W.Va., and earned degrees from West Virginia Wesleyan College, WVU and the University of Utah. She served as director of creative writing at West Virginia Wesleyan and assisted in developing the low­ residency Master of Fine Arts program there. She also co-founded the poetry journal “Trellis.” 

In 1993, Gov. Gaston Caperton appointed McKinney as poet laureate, succeeding her mentor, Louise McNeill. During her 18-year tenure, McKinney gave readings, workshops, and recorded a series of radio commentaries for West Virginia Public Radio. She published her first book of poems, “The Girl with the Stone in Her Lap,” in 1976. Six more books of poetry would follow including “The Wasps at the Blue Hexagon,” “Quick Fire and Slow Fire,” “Six O’ clock Mine Report,” “Vivid Companion,” “Unthinkable: Selected Poems 1976-2004,” and “Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet?” published after her death.   

“I was always struck by and slightly in awe of the honest authority with which Irene spoke, as well as wrote,” Harshman said. “There is a raw power in her poems rare in any age that, I believe, will continue to stand out as truly remarkable even as the years advance.” 

He read McKinney’s poem “At 24” from “Vivid Companion: Poems.” 

Louise McNeil

Louise McNeil

Louise McNeill 

McNeil was born in Buckeye, Pocahontas County. She earned several degrees including a doctorate in history from West Virginia University and taught history and English at all levels of education for more than 30 years. 

Poetry in McNeill’s opinion, deals with the “fundamental and serious things about life and the earth is very fundamental.” Her passion for family and the history of her people's mountain land, which she refers to "as a place called solid, " echoes throughout her work. She married Roger Pease in 1939, but published her poetry collections under her maiden name. Her first collection, “Mountain White,” was published in 1931. Her best-known work, “Gauley Mountain,” hit shelves in 1939. 

As the world entered into the Atomic age, McNeill’s focus stretched into science, specifically physics with works like “Paradox Hill” and “Fermi Buffalo.” McNeill published nine volumes of poetry, two historical books, and an autobiography during her lifetime, leaving a wealth of treasure in verse and prose. Anderson edited two of McNeill’s late career books, “Hill Daughter: New and Selected Poems” and “The Milkweed Ladies,” her memoir. 

In 2006, the WVRHC was named a Literary Landmark by the Friends of the Library Association U.S.A. for preserving McNeill’s papers. 

“The work of Louise McNeill ages well,” Harshman said. “Her love of more formal verse was just that, a ‘love,’ and I believe that love is transferred into the grace and beauty that marks much of her work. At its best, as in a poem like ‘First Flight,’ McNeill conjures a sense of delight that remains forever deeply moving.” 

Harshman read her poem “First Flight” from “Hill Daughter: New and Selected.” 

Woman at Poetic Hearts Exhibit

A West Virginia Day attendee browses the exhibits on display in the West Virginia and Regional History Center.

 “West Virginia’s Poetic Heart” Exhibit 

Visit the West Virginia and Regional History Center to view the “West Virginia’s Poetic Heart” exhibit, which features 27 West Virginia poets and their books and papers that are held at the Center. The exhibit begins with the state’s seven official Poet Laureates and then turns to other poets who are represented in the Center’s collections. The majority of the poets featured are 20th and 21st century writers, but some 19th century poets are also highlighted as well. 

West Virginia is home to many wonderfully expressive poets who share their heart and character through their words. Each poet’s voice is individual but some common themes emerge in the exhibited poems: the natural beauty of West Virginia, food and folk traditions, resilience and resistance to stereotypes, and a desire for recognition and social justice. 

Experiencing poetry is often a personal experience and each reader will take away their own meaning and feeling from the works featured here. It is hoped this exhibit will inspire visitors to seek out these poets further and also explore the many gifted West Virginia writers that could not be represented.