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Wyatt Prunty


On May 15, 1947, Wyatt Prunty was born in Humbolt, Tennessee and raised in Athens, Georgia. He received a BA degree in 1969 from the University of the South where he studied with Allen Tate. After serving for three years in the Navy, he attended the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins and received a master's degree in 1973, followed by a PhD from Louisiana State in 1979.

He is the author of several collections of poetry, including:The Lover's Guide to Trapping (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Unarmed and Dangerous: New and Selected Poems (2000); Domestic of the Outer Banks (1980); The Times Between (1982); What Women Know, What Men Believe (1986); Balance as Belief (1989); The Run of the House (1993) and Since the Noon Mail Stopped (1997).

Through he does not write exclusively in form or meter, Prunty is often associated with the New Formalism movement which seeks to revive traditional forms of verse. His poems frequently examine the concerns and experiences of daily life, addressing family and work with deep clarity. In a review of Unarmed and Dangerous in the New York Times Book Review, Melaine Rehak writes: "There are vast expanses of ordinary fabric, bejeweled by moments of existential clarity . . . Prunty holds everyday experience up to the light in such a way that it seems anything but. He has an exquisite hold on life."

About his work, Donald Justice has said: "People a century hence will be able to look back through the lens of these poems and see what it was to live in our time—to live, that is, in the center of the culture and not at its edges, where the grotesque and bizarre have tended to clutter, especially in the literature of the South. No, these poems are different. They are, you might say, exaltations of the ordinary, if we may understand the ordinary as, after all, one of the great and enduring subjects. I should add that some of the poems are very funny, too."

Prunty is also the author of a critical work on contemporary poetry, "Fallen from the Symboled World": Precedents for the New Formalism (Oxford University Press, 1990), and the editor of a collection of essays, Sewanee Writers on Writing (Louisiana State University Press, 2000). His grants and honors include fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, Johns Hopkins, and the Brown Foundation.

Prunty is the founding director of the Sewanee Writers' Conference and holds the Carlton Chair in poetry at Sewanee: the University of the South. He has taught at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, Louisiana State University, Washington and Lee University, and Middlebury's Bread Loaf School of English and Writers' Conference. He is the general editor of the Sewanee Writers' Series and director of the Tennessee Williams Fellowship program.

Wyatt Prunty
Photo credit: Heather Prunty McKay

By This Poet


Two Views

Into the laterals and faults of strata 
Whose linear seams are like memory,
Water wades its way, settling matters
In small aquifers, incised meanders;
Then floods over a landscape that teaches 
Plains are only so much sediment,
Silt the slow ocean of any reach.
Think travertine and serpentine mantel-
high in living rooms, or kames and tills
Scattered like loose change, the marvelous marble
Of dolomite and metamorphic rock,
Or granite now as coolingly aloof 
As someday overhead . . . small seismic self
Feeling a gust rattle years through the roof.
Meanwhile, there’s still the phone and mail, the door,
And the reassuring fact the fault’s not yours
As you’ve not budged. Not even the cat crosses the floor.
Outside, the world’s continuum of nests
Is full of cries announcing differences,
While mineshaft down, the brittle shale of self
Waits, certain of its own circumferences. 
One is colossus of one’s growing doubt,
With ideas like past presidents profiled
And floating enthusiastic shouts
From old elections, conclusions of the will,
The dehydrations of mere permanence. 
But high wing over shadow, how the world
Doubles in its transience. 
Resplendently fragile, more color than weight,
As agile of flight as of changed habitat,
The birds are choric in the fate
Of their varieties; predictable
Of habit and Darwinian choices,
Myriad on one scale, and on another 
Essential and of but one in all. And voices,
This side liquid whistles followed by a trill,
While there, a series of clear carolings,
Then the rapid whinnies of descending will
While somewhere overhead a finch attempts 
All notes at once, as though to summarize
The way limbs ladder up, step green to blue 
So shadows rise.
But year on year, wing beat and season,
Fattened or starved, silent or full 
Of migratory sass, one reason
Brings each back, whether the same or no—
Warbler and thrush, sparrow and finch, wren, jay,
Thrasher and dove, tanager, waxwing, owl, crow, hawk . . . 
They light, feed, breed, migrate or stay.
Calendar wise in their brief histories
And vulnerable as any emigrants 
Searching to eat, they are geographies 
Of days, convergences of now, 
And needed if for nothing more than their arrival
When, worthy that again we crane to see, 
They bring survival.

Last Century

Last century we took a lot of shots
Of what we did, framing things for Look and Life
So we could see us and our lot Riveting the lattice of a skyline
Or walking the I beams of infinite rooms
Over Manhattan, Cleveland, Washington—
          Oh elevated light.
We were amassing works—bridges and dams,
Ike’s interstates, highrises; raising tons
Out of a continent unfolding by
Mountain and pit, plain and gradient river,
The convex sky bottling cirrus highs
And the steep cumuli of moody weather,
          Oh century of light.
Back then we were stout realists working out
All manner of the world as one-to-one,
The aerials that Margaret Bourke-White got
Of factories and bombed-out towns,
Also the gaunt subtractive stares by Evans,
Whose dust bowl poor became our luminous 
          Internal weather. 
And then at Buchenwald there were those faces
Of ourselves—fed guards, starved Poles and Jews,
The citizens of Weimar just trucked in
Bearing the stares of deformed children,
As now our lenses focused on the krill
And undertow of the swallowing real
          Weather of enlightenment.
Add in atomic white, the napalm blind . . .
An overbright disequilibrium
Had settled in, a kind of countermind,
Blind as those guards at Buchenwald, darkroom
And looking up, gashed faces wide with fear,
All interrogatives frozen where
          Someone holds a light
For focusing Margaret Bourke-White;
While the two guards, deserving or not, stripped
To bloody underwear, still looking up
In horror at what’s coming next, hear "Pop!"
Thanks to the flash, so everyone will see
Us taking our turn at victory,
          Oh century.


For weeks he’s tunneled his intricate need
Through the root-rich, fibrous, humoral dark,
Buckling up in zagged illegibles
The cuneiforms and cursives of a blind scribe. 
Sleeved by soft earth, a slow reach knuckling, 
Small tributaries open from his nudge—
Mild immigrant, bland isolationist,
Berm builder edging the runneling world.
But now the snow, and he’s gone quietly deep,
Nuzzling through a muzzy neighborhood
Of dead-end-street, abandoned cul-de-sac,
And boltrun from a dead-leaf, roundhouse burrow.
May he emerge four months from this as before,
Myopic master of the possible,
Wise one who understands prudential ground,
Revisionist of all things green;
So when he surfaces, lumplike, bashful,
Quizzical as the flashbulb blind who wait
For color to return, he’ll nose our green-
rich air with the imperative poise of now.

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