You might think the likely route for a poet in New Jersey would be to find as many words as possible to rhyme with turnpike, soot and goombah. You might think that New Jersey poetry would stink as bad as the grungy air along the refinery-filled scenery. But you'd be wrong.
For when Paul Muldoon won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry this spring, he became the third poet from New Jersey to receive the honor in the last four years and the fourth in the last decade to live hard by the maligned New Jersey Turnpike.
New Jersey, it turns out, is a land of verse and meter.
Muldoon, a Princeton University English professor, succeeded his Pulitzer-winning Princeton colleagues C.K. Williams (2000) and Yusef Komunyakaa (1994), as well as Richard Stockton College of New Jersey professor Stephen Dunn (2001).
"Maybe there's something in the water," said Williams with a chuckle.
While there is no 21st century New Jersey school of poetry, say, the way there were Impressionist painters of a like stripe in 19th century Paris or Elizabethan playwrights in 16th and 17th century England, surely there has been a passel of poets from the state.
Robert Pinsky, who was United States poet laureate in the 1990s, grew up in North Jersey, got his undergraduate training at Rutgers, New Jersey's state university, and called his last book of poems "Jersey Rain." Philip Freneau, a Monmouth County, N.J., native and James Madison's roommate at Princeton, is widely considered the father of American poetry.
William Carlos Williams, though he made his money as a doctor, told of life in the Jersey towns of Passaic and Rutherford in his poetry and was awarded a rare posthumous Pulitzer in 1963. Beat poet guru Allen Ginsberg ("Howl"), and his Socialist poet father, Louis, were from Paterson, in North Jersey.
Indeed, New Jersey poets are even celebrated somewhat commercially. Two New Jersey Turnpike rest stops are named after poets -- the same number as for presidents and one more than for famous football coaches. You can rhyme with Joyce Kilmer ("Trees") going northbound, and emote with Walt Whitman ("Leaves of Grass") while driving south. Only Vince Lombardi among the brawny crew merits his own rest stop.
"I've never taken a census, but it seems New Jersey's contribution to poetry is outsized compared to other places," said Sander Zulauf, who teaches writing at County College of Morris and is the editor of the Journal of New Jersey Poets. "And poetry is not obscure here. We have the wonderful Dodge Festival at Waterloo where maybe 10,000 people come and get exhausted over four days hearing voices of poets come alive."
To be sure, not every New Jersey poet spends all his time writing about New Jersey, but there is at least some inspiration in the air. The epic poem that dominates "Moy Sand and Gravel," (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002) Muldoon's Pulitzer-winning volume, is titled "At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999," and begins with a Jersey scene near his Princeton home:
the morning after Hurricane
to sit out in our driveway and
gawk at yet another canoe or
kayak coming down Canal
now under ten feet of water.
Muldoon, who grew up in Ireland, supposedly a land of poets, is happy to be brandishing his pen in New Jersey, especially at Princeton, where he has taught since 1990.
"The way Princeton is set up is that it is a university that acknowledges that poetry is another way of making sense of how the world functions," he said. "People who do this, they believe, are useful people to have around. One is meant to be teaching away, but also contributing something to the general intellectual community."
Dunn, who used to live in Port Republic, a remote interior South Jersey small town, now splits his time between Ocean City and Frostburg, Md., where his wife is from. His time at the Jersey Shore has inspired a whimsical series of poems in his first post-Pulitzer volume, "Local Visitations" (Norton, 2003). In poems such as "Melville at Barnegat Light," "Mary Shelley in Brigantine," "Harriet Beecher Stowe in Sweetwater" and "Stendahl in Sea Isle City," Dunn imagines some of his favorite writers in towns at the Shore and inland South Jersey.
"It was fun to try to populate my area with these people," he said. "But more seriously, it was a way of using their sensibilities as a lens for me, to see where I live. I think of mindscape more than landscape historically," he said. "I think much more about psychological space than I do of place, so this was an effort, but a good one for me to do."
Muldoon, though, said he often is inspired to write by looking at his surroundings.
"I write to make sense of where I am, wherever that might be," he said, noting that an inordinate number of his poems are set in either Ireland or New Jersey of late. "That involves the place and the personality and all that goes into it, the histories that are combining there and the languages combining. So much of that comes together in one place, and the place I am in most now is New Jersey."
Neither Dunn nor Muldoon spent their youth in New Jersey, but Williams did, growing up primarily in Newark, which he said doesn't directly influence his work but which presumably has some residue.
"When you live in a place for 18 years, it must be in there somewhere," said Williams. "Newark was the first city, at least in my mind, that was killed by the move to the suburbs. It is an interesting social phenomenon, a lab for that. I grew up down the street from a man who worked on the docks, who had to be involved in some way with the Mafia. Now I am at Princeton. The variedness so close has to be inspiring for writers."
Gregory Djanikian, a poet who runs the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania, said that since poetry, in general, is a less public pursuit than, say, singing or painting, it perhaps doesn't really matter where you live.
"But I guess you would expect good people from any discipline at Princeton, so that isn't strange for good poets to be there," said Djanikian, a friend of Dunn's. "And then there is Stephen [Dunn] think delighted in those poems about South Jersey. It is a generally unimagined landscape in literature, which gave him permission to imagine anything."
Much as he would like New Jersey to be an ethereal magnet for poets, Zulauf too believes there is a somewhat mundane reason why there have been so many notable ones in the state.
"We have good universities near metropolitan centers like New York and Philadelphia," said Zulauf, who is poet laureate of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, which makes him, he believes, perhaps the only church poet in the country.
Whitman was famous for his poetry before he moved to Camden to be near his brother and their ailing mother. He was seen as somewhat of a diva of poetry in his later years and received a steady stream of visitors who wanted merely to meet the writer of "O Captain, My Captain" and "Song of the Open Road."
"Oscar Wilde, who wasn't known at all yet, came to pay homage to Whitman near his death," said C.K. Williams. "It must have been a funny scene. Wilde, who was so flamboyant, and Whitman, with his long beard and very old. That's New Jersey poets for you."
Other poets surely have bridges named after them, as Whitman does: the suspension bridge over the Delaware that connects Gloucester City in Camden County with South Philadelphia. But Whitman gets the ultimate Jersey distinction: He has a mall named after him. It's on Long Island, near his birthplace, but that's still a Jersey boy's dream.