The Biographical Poet: Henry Hart

Cast your eyes about Henry Hart’s office in William & Mary’s Tucker Hall, and everything you see screams English professor. Stacks of papers awaiting grading. Wall-to-wall bookshelves crammed full of dense texts. And the professor himself, thin, bespectacled, with a slight amount of gray creeping into his closely cropped dark hair. But then he rolls up his left sleeve and reveals something that throws this pedagoguish image off-kilter—a mottled bruise blotching his skin from biceps to wrist.

“I have a couple of chainsaws and enjoy cutting up stuff,” he explains. “About a week ago, I was working to pull down a big branch from a tall tree, and it jumped and whacked me hard. I was afraid that my arm was broken.”

He has this smiling way of talking through pursed lips, dimples creasing his cheeks as if working hard to restrain a full-bodied laugh. It gives the impression that he’s letting you in on an inside joke. And now, rolling up his sleeve, he actually does laugh as he confesses, “I haven’t shown my wife yet.”

For Hart, this incident is as likely to instigate a poem as any other event in his life. Everything is grist for his literary mill, though his personal interactions are the most likely culprits. He has written poems about bottle digging with his brother—We leaned under gold oak leaves that cold November / saying nothing as wind numbed hands and the sky whitened—about pondering the likelihood of Jesus appearing in a tree on his lawn—A full moon hung like a moldy grapefruit in the tulip poplar—and about making maple syrup in a sap house—It dripped heavy with sugar into the final barrel. / I wanted to taste the pure elixir, / the oracle spelling itself out in mist, / the juice stinging my tongue like flame. Whatever the subject, the one constant is Hart’s artful construction of carefully considered language. 

He strives to instill passion for well-wrought verse in his students, but today’s emoji-addled youths make his job harder than it need be. “They do not have much patience with what you might call formal poetry or very artful poetry,” Hart says with his trademark grin. “Maybe because of social media and how very basic communication is there. They want the message communicated quickly and clearly. Of course, there is something to be said for that. But if that’s all you can really appreciate, you are narrowing your vision. Think of the centuries of literary tradition where poets were writing in a very formal way. You can learn a lot from studying these poets.”

Hart has devoted much of his life to the deep study of great poets. Yes, he has achieved acclaim with his own poetry, publishing four collections and winning numerous awards. But he is also known for penning five biographies of poetic geniuses: Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney, Robert Lowell, James Dickey, and, his latest, Robert Frost, which has taken up the past six years of his life and is just hitting bookstores now.

He compares their dazzling performances to that of Michael Jordan on the basketball court. And just like Jordan—or anyone else for that matter—Hart points out how wondrous feats make up one small portion of the whole, and the sum of their lives is much greater. Dichotomy beating at the heart of so much poetry, it’s no wonder this academician with a lumberjack’s yen is so intrigued by other poets’ backstories. Getting past the snap judgments, the button-down façades, rolling up a person’s sleeves and getting at their bruises—that is what thrills Hart the most.

The difficulties associated with undertaking a literary biography are many, and the onus of veracity substantial. Every subject presents his own challenges, none more so than the unreliable James Dickey.

“James Dickey was such an elusive figure,” says Hart. “He took great pride in lying about every aspect of his life. He had an incredible narrative gift, so when he told a lie, which he really thought of as a story, he was very believable. Even everybody in his family believed his fictitious accounts of his life.”

That sort of obstacle would cause most biographers to turn back, but not Hart. He sifted through the lies to find the nuggets of truth. He tracked down family members and friends and then traveled the country to interview them. He also read thousands of Dickey’s letters, what he calls “the backbone of a biography” since letters provide specific dates and names and because writers are often more candid in private correspondence.

“It was an awful lot of work,” he says. “I went to Atlanta, South Carolina, St. Louis, the Library of Congress in D.C. I was traveling all over the place, interviewing people for my research. It was fascinating. I felt like a detective. I spent years trying to understand why James Dickey behaved the way he did and why he lied the way he did.”

The resultant biography, James Dickey: The World as a Lie, was universally praised and became a finalist in nonfiction for the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. As rewarding as that was, Hart hopes his next book, an expanded look at Seamus Heaney, will not prove as difficult. He is planning a trip to Dublin this summer to continue his research in the National Library of Ireland.

Until then, he has his duties at the school, papers to grade and students to inspire. He’s hard at work these days writing poems about his youthful experiences growing up in a farming community. On days after the wind prowls through the ravine behind his house, you might find him trudging out with a chainsaw in hand to carve up the deadfall for his neighbors. Just don’t tell his wife.


Henry Hart reads The Bottle Dump on Virginia Poetry Online:

Bill Glose
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