The American West and the Wasatch Mountains are so vast, Utah needs at least three poets laureate just to cover the territory. The state has Brewster Ghiselin in Salt Lake City, Veneta L. Nielsen to the north in Cache Valley and Clinton F. Larson in Utah County.
And as the fates - or muses - would have it, two of the three have fresh collections of verse hot off the presses.Nielsen's book of verse is "Looking for the Blue Rose." It's a classy collection of poems published by the USU Press. As for Larson, he has found an odd route into print. He has given us "Sunwind," published by Geneva Steel Corp.
Says Nielsen, "My last book was a compilation of poems that won competitions. This book came about because, at age 81, a person starts throwing things away and I didn't want my daughter to have the problem of deciding what was worth keeping.
"Besides," she says, "I had a series of dreams recently and I wanted to publish the dream poems."
In many ways, Nielsen doesn't just write poetry in Utah, she invented it. She was alive here when Mark Twain was alive. She was also a great friend of the late May Swenson and has probably been in touch with every major poet and poetry movement of the century. Literally thousands of writing students have learned their craft from her. She continues to write as well as ever.
For Clinton Foster Larson, writing "as well as ever" means writing with as much passion as ever. Now in his 70s, Larson has produced four books of poetry over the past two years alone and says he has so many poems that "publishers can't keep ahead of me." He's churned out 200 poems a year for the past 54 years, almost 6,000 poems.
Brewster Ghiselin first encouraged the young Larson to write. Hugh B. Brown and others kept the flame alive. Currently Larson is at work on the definitive collection of his plays.
Readers will get a quick taste of his high-energy but difficult style in these opening lines from his poem "Theology:"
It is a lilt against leaves where there is no form
But the constant variance in the tremor of stars,
A disquisition. And to come as less than a storm,
Warm in preternatural light, not given, it was
The face of history in the consistory of awe.
Nobody has ever accused Larson of writing conversational poems.
As for his book "Sunwind," the joint venture with Geneva Steel (the steel mill appears on the cover) has both puzzled and intrigued readers. Geneva, it seems, has been contributing more and more to Utah County arts, and Larson was hand-picked as their poet for a book. David Evans went through the entire Larson canon to find the lyrics that most readers could enjoy.
The two poets come at their work very differently. Larson tends to trade on epic oratory - large sweeping images and lines. Nielsen's work is quieter, trim and neat. Yet holding both the books and the poets side by side, one is quickly struck by similarities. Each poet was born and bred in a Utah town, each has Scandinavian ancestry. Both received a first-rate education and opted to stay at the academy and teach - Nielsen near her Wellsville home at Utah State University and Larson, a native of American Fork, at Brigham Young University.
As for the poetry, both write in formal, highly polished cadences and both trade heavily on metaphor, symbol and classical references. Ask either one to recommend some reading and the names of Dante, Shakespeare, Spenser and Cervantes will be offered up.
But the most striking sympathy between these two books - and two poets - may be the heartfelt sense of spirituality; a deep-rooted reverence - not just awe - toward life. This, for instance, from Nielsen's "Psalm for Solstice:"
We who lack strength to be gentle,
We who lack simpleness to be wise,
We who lack patience for slow turning seasons,
We who lack courage to cry
Long for the light that is coming, at Solstice
of Knowledge, the joyous laughter of light.
"I suppose many of us come to the end of our lives looking for something," says Nielsen. "We assume that we're more than just a process in the evolution of things. I happen to believe the little word `soul' applies there. I think most of my poetry has been religious - not in a formal sense - but as I've read extensively in Oriental and Middle Eastern religion and philosophy I've hung on to things that felt somewhat stable to me."
If Nielsen's book is "informally" religious, with poems that feel sculpted and carefully shaped, the theology in Larson's poems is overt and open.
"I want to appeal to the highest aspirations that people have," he says. "I have a very high purpose in doing what I do, and much of that is religious in nature."
It would be easy to see the underlying spiritual bent in each book as an influence picked up by drinking the water in Mormon Utah, but one should also note that the most important 19th-century poem in English ("Leaves of Grass," by Walt Whitman) and the most important 20th-century poem ("Four Quartets," by T.S. Eliot) were also religious poems.
In speaking with Larson, a man of large gesture and big-bone rhetoric - an authentic bard - one gets the notion he feels many modern poets have abandoned their calling. They've shucked off any form and structure in their work and have done the same in their lives.
"I like a good poet in any generation," he says. "But some of the work I read in the New Yorker is so pared down it disappears on the page. I ask myself, `For cat's sake, where's the statement? Where's the education and the message?' "
It's true that fewer and fewer university students have the education and curiosity to sift Larson's major poems for meanings.
Nielsen's work, too, suffers from the shorter attention spans and lack of classical training in her students. She takes a philosophical approach.
"I suppose a person who has spent a lifetime in the classroom - as I have - is going to be unconsciously writing for study-oriented readers. I want people to exercise their own thinking processes - readers who don't have their ideas cut out for them. I think my poems are modest, almost apologetic at times."
Two poets, two different approaches to writing and to life.
And two major voices in the making and shaping of verse in Utah.