la. poets

"Louisiana Poets, A Literary Guide" by Catharine Savage Brosman and Olivia McNeely Pass, University Press of Mississippi, 256 pages, cloth cover, $28 

Catharine Savage Brosman and Olivia McNeely Pass have assembled 41 biographical and critical essays that provide fascinating reading and scholarly appraisals of poets who were born or who did significant poetical work in Louisiana.

In their excellent preface, the authors state that “the principles of selection include the scope, abundance, and excellence of a poet’s work, its critical reception, and the local and national standing of writer and work.”

An average of four pages of text is allotted to each writer, and within that space, the two veteran professors of English departments at Louisiana universities offer an overview of the subjects typically treated by each, as well often quoting from critics’ reviews. Of special interest are the brief explications of passages from the poets’ work. Brosman and Pass also provide a wealth of personal information about the authors that often sheds light on those works.

One can only be struck and pleased by the variety of subject matter — cultural, religious, generational — included about the poets and the stylistic variations noted in the discussions of poets chosen.

Baton Rougeans will be interested to read about Ava Leavell Haymon and Pinkie Gordon Lane, two local residents and former poets laureate. Quite a few of the other writers have either taught or received advanced degrees from LSU, among them Rodger Kamenetz, David Middleton, Stella Nesanovich, Sue Owen, Andrei Codrescu and John William Corrington. The latter left LSU for Loyola, as did his LSU colleague Miller Williams, who is unfortunately absent here despite his secure place in the canon of modern American poetry. The story of Robert Penn Warren’s departure because LSU would not match his better offer is the type of tidbit that keeps the text lively.

By not adhering to a uniform formula in their organization or remarks, the authors keep the text interesting for the nonacademic reader as well as those who teach or write poetry themselves. Then, by offering interesting and sometimes gossipy sidelights about various people, we read on for entertainment as well as enlightenment. For example, we learn that of the poets who were offspring of clergy, none professes the religious beliefs introduced to them in their homes. One could wonder, “Why is this?”

As a nod to poets whose reputations rest primarily in other fields, the authors have added an appendix that briefly identifies some poets whose reputations mainly rest on their writings in other genres.

Pass and Brosman, herself a poet of some stature who receives a place among the 41, have produced a work that teachers of poetry will certainly want to include in their libraries. Although, as their preface implies, they could have developed the book by regions — they cite Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Acadiana as the centers of poetical production in the state — or other principles, their choice to alphabetize the poets makes the book especially useful as a reference work.

Others who wish to broaden their knowledge of poetry, particularly Louisiana poetry, will find it a guide to further exploration of the works of those authors honored by inclusion in this important book.


Sims is retired from teaching in the LSU English Department. She has been a journalist, author, steamboat lecturer and lover of poetry during her lengthy career.