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Peter Balakian

1951–

Peter Balakian was born on June 13, 1951, in Teaneck, New Jersey. He earned a BA from Bucknell University in 1973 and an MA from New York University in 1975, and in 1980, he received a PhD in American Civilization from Brown University.

He is the author of seven poetry collections, including Ozone Journal (University of Chicago Press, 2015), which was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry; Ziggurat (University of Chicago Press, 2010); and June-tree: New and Selected Poems, 1974–2000 (HarperCollins, 2001). His work frequently bears witness to the Armenian genocide, which his maternal grandmother survived, and other issues of social justice. According to Sherrie Spendlove, “Peter Balakian has been called 'the American conscience of the Armenian Genocide.’”

Balakian has said of his work, “As a poet I want to have my antennae always hooked into things that have significance, that matter, that are necessary and that in some way belong to me—that I can make a legitimate claim to. I don’t want those issues to be writing the poem, but I want them to feed it and fuel it for the larger engagement with the materials and the consciousness that I, as a poet, am always pursuing.”

He is also the author of several books of prose, including the memoir Black Dog of Fate (Basic Books, 1997), which was awarded the PEN/Albrand Prize, and The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (HarperCollins, 2003), which received the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize.

Balakian has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the Movses Khorenatsi Medal from the Republic of Armenia. Since 1980, he has taught at Colgate University, where he directs the Center for Ethics and World Studies.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
Ozone Journal (University of Chicago Press, 2015)
Ziggurat (University of Chicago Press, 2010)
June-tree: New and Selected Poems, 1974–2000 (HarperCollins, 2001)
Dyer’s Thistle (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1996)
Reply from Wilderness Island (Sheep Meadow Press, 1988)
Sad Days of Light (Sheep Meadow Press, 1983)
Father Fisheye (Sheep Meadow Press, 1979)

Prose
The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (HarperCollins, 2003)
Black Dog of Fate (Basic Books, 1997)

By This Poet

2

Ode to the Duduk

It’s not the wind I hear driving south
 
through the Catskills—it’s just bad news from the radio
 
and then a hailstorm morphs into sunlight
 
—look up and there’s—
an archipelago of starlings trailing some clouds—
 
But how does the wind come through you
primordial hollow—unflattened double reed—
 
so even now when bad news comes with the evening report—
I can press a button on the dashboard and hear your breath implode
 
the way wind blows through the slit windows of a church in Dilijan,
 
then a space in my head fills with a sound that rises from red clay dust roads
and slides through your raspy apricot wood—
 
Hiss of tires, wet tarmac, stray white lines
night coming like wet dissolve to pixilation—
 
Praise to the glottal stop of every hoarse whisper, every sodden tree
which speaks through your hollow carved wood—
 
so we can hear the air flow over starlings rising and dipping as
       	the mountains glaze the sun—
 
so we can hear the bad news kiss the wind through your whetted reed—

Waiting for a Number

words appeared as the soft purring of a cat, crow screeching, 
end of a hymn, cicadas in treesspilling in the white 
noise of my headDa Nang Mekong Saigon Nam.

I walked suburban streets to school, hi-fi blasting Somebody To Love
coach meting out orders, my playbook of fakes and jives, 
my head swelling in the helmet. Over sweet cocktails with my beloved 

under the yellowing gingkoes of 64th off Lex, for a moment I felt 
grown up and then the air in my head was orange chemical Dow 
and DuPont, the juke box blasting Light My Fireand where were we?

staring at the image: pistol to the head, a boy I once knew 
on the white-lined field was bagged
and flown back in the dioxin haze of morning.

In the mangrove of my head chopping sounds 
under the covers, rice pattiesfloating mirrors with unidentified
objects. There were Catholics in Saigon and Catholics on my street,  

what about Laos? what about Cambodia? 
American questions spilling in sunlight on white 
shutters, and I’m home on plush carpet waiting for a number.