David Wagoner was born in the small town of Massillon,
Ohio, in 1926, where he lived until the age of seven, when
his family moved to Whiting, near Gary, in northwest
Indiana. His father worked in a steel mill, and the industrial
landscape influenced Wagoner and his writings about the Midwest.
After high school, Wagoner entered the Naval
ROTC program at Pennsylvania State University. While there,
he studied under Theodore Roethke, who would become a major
influence on his career and his early writings. Wagoner graduated
from Penn State in three years and began a graduate program
at the University of Michigan. After one year there, he transferred
to Indiana University in Bloomington,
earning his M.A. in 1949. Wagoner taught for a semester at
IU, and then moved to DePauw University, in Greencastle,
Indiana, but taught there for only one year. He moved from
DePauw to teach for the Penn State Extension System in Philadelphia
for two years, and returned to Indiana to work briefly as
a reporter for the Hammond Times. Wagoner soon returned
to Pennsylvania to work at the main campus of Penn State.
His first book of poems, Dry Sun, Dry Wind, was published
by Indiana University Press in 1953, and the next year he
joined Roethke, who had moved to the University of Washington
Wagoner’s relocation to the Pacific Northwest
brought about major changes in his poetry and his perceptions
of nature. He notes the vitality and the greenness of the
landscape as inspiration directly opposing the desolate landscapes
of Whiting and Gary, Indiana.
Throughout his prolific career, Wagoner has attained
a staggering number of literary prizes and honors. In 1956, he received
a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction. Poetry magazine awarded
Wagoner its Zabel Prize in 1967 and its Blumenthal-Leviton-Blonder
Prize in 1974. The Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines awarded
Wagoner a Felz Prize in 1975 for his work as editor of Poetry
Northwest, and another for his own poetry. His Collected
Poems 1956-1976 was nominated for the National Book Award in
1977. That same year, Wagoner won Poetry magazine’s
Tietjens Prize, as well as a Pushcart Prize. In 1978, he was honored
with one of twelve positions as chancellor of the Academy of American
Poets, and In Broken Country was nominated for the National
Book Award in 1979. Wagoner received a second Pushcart Prize in
1983, the Literary Review’s Charles Agnoff Prize
for 1985, and the Ruth Lilly Prize in 1991.
While some poems from his first
collection, Dry Sun, Dry Wind, deal
with the natural world, many critics claimed that the influence
of Roethke’s style was overpowering. It would be four
more years until Wagoner published a collection which he felt
accurately carried his own voice. In fact, he chose not to
include any of the poems from Dry Sun, Dry Wind in
his later volumes of collected poems.
In 1958, Wagoner published
A Place To Stand,
which established him as a poet in his own right. However,
with the exception of a pair of rhyming, celebratory poems,
environmental themes are largely absent.
Wagoner soon took to his
new environment, incorporating the wonders of the landscape
more thoroughly into 1963’s The Nesting
Ground, his third collection of poems. While
many of these poems, such as the much-anthologized “A
Guide to Dungeness Spit,” specifically focus on the
Northwest, others remain pertinent to the landscapes of Wagoner’s
youth. “Elegy for Simon Corl, Botanist,” pays
tribute to the poet’s blind great uncle, who ventured
into the woods to listen and learn. In “Standing Halfway
Home,” the speaker strolls through forest
and stops to connect with nature, while nearby, a resident
has built a fence to separate the world of humans from the
Alive, published in 1966, Wagoner further explores
his adopted home; nevertheless, a few poems are relevant to
Indiana. The speaker in “Burying a Weasel” finds
natural splendor in a dying weasel as he carries the creature
from the highway of its undoing to a burial spot in a pasture.
The poem is an inspired examination of nature and wild beauty
that endures in lands altered by humans, highways, and automobiles.
New and Selected
Poems, a collection from 1969, contains “Nine
Charms Against the Hunter,” a poem wishing for any of
a variety of complications that would prevent a hunter from
making a kill. Here Wagoner shows both his sense of humor
and his perceived kinship with animals of the wild.
In 1970, Wagoner published
Working Against Time, which contains
two commonly anthologized poems. “Staying Alive”
is noted for its unique tone and voice, as it reads like an
actual guide to surviving if lost in the wilderness. The poem
advises readers to follow fencerows and avoid bitter tasting
plants, and gives instructions on signaling for help. While
there are few places left in the state where a person might
become lost, the discussions of forests and vegetation certainly
elicit images typical of Indiana. The other poem, “The
Words,” takes note of the poet’s attachment to
six words: wind, bird, tree, water, grass, and light. Although
simple, these words are crucial to Wagoner’s poetry
because they allow him to write about and represent the natural
world. Also in Working Against Time, Wagoner expresses
his disgust at air
pollution and lack of environmental concern with “A
Valedictory to Standard Oil of Indiana,” a fierce invective
against the company following the automation of processes
and the ensuing dismissal of several workers. Many of these
workers were Wagoner’s friends, neighbors, or schoolmates
in Whiting, IN, where, as he says in the poem's opening line,
"In the darkness east of Chicago, the sky burns over
the plumbers' nightmares/ Red and blue, and my hometown lies
there loaded with gasoline" (26).
In his 1972 collection,
Riverbed, Wagoner includes only
a small number of environmentally pertinent poems, among them
“Riverbed” and “The Survivor,” which
address the voyage of salmon upstream to spawn. “The
Middle of Nowhere” discusses an area of clay and shale
that yields only a ragged variety of weeds.
This is the place where we must be ready to
The truths or consequences
Of which there are none to be filched or mastered or depended
Wagoner finds this barren patch of land to
be inspiring, because its lack of features forces us to look
inside ourselves for meaning.
Light includes a number of poems that exalt
the wonders of nature. In “Feeding,” the speaker
watches catfish swim to the surface to eat bread crumbs, contemplating
their behavior and movement. “Under the Raven’s
Nest” expresses a similar respect for the wild. The
poem’s speaker, upon walking too close to a raven’s
nest, is angrily berated by the squawking bird, but instead
of becoming alarmed or indignant, the speaker pauses briefly
to admire the bird. In “Three Ways of a River,”
a poem which, even in its title shows the influence of Wallace
Stevens, Wagoner speaks clearly and thoughtfully on the courses
of running water. These expressions of awe toward nature are
countered by a number of poems that convey contempt and outrage
toward those who destroy it. “To a Farmer who Hung Five
Hawks on his Barbed Wire,” and “For a Fisherman
who Dynamited a Cormorant Rookery,” employ a sharp,
sarcastic tone to condemn persons who abuse and exploit nature.
“Stump Speech” is a slightly different poem, reading
something like a eulogy for a tree, presumably one that was
logged through clear-cutting, a practice often criticized
in Wagoner’s recent poetry.
In discussing the process of writing environmental
poetry, Wagoner explains, “If you’re angry, as
a poet, and I have been very angry over environmental difficulties,
you have a particular problem as a writer, because anger and
disgust are emotions that tend to warp the voice, to make
it ugly, to make it ineffective. A shout is not an art form….
It [environmental poetry] calls for all resources as a writer
to figure out the best way to have any effect at all.”
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IX. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002.
"David Wagoner." Contemporary
Authors, New Revision Series. 1981.
"David Wagoner." Dictionary
of Literary Biography, Volume Five: American Poets Since World
War II Part 2: L-Z. 1980.
McFarland, Ronald E. The World of David
Wagoner. Moscow, ID: UP of Idaho, 1997.
Wagoner, David. Dry Sun, Dry Wind.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1953.
---. First Light. Boston : Little,
---. The House of Song. Urbana,
IL: UP of Illinois, 2002.
---. The Nesting Ground. Bloomington,
IN: Indiana UP, 1963.
---. New and Selected Poems. Bloomington,
IN: Indiana UP, 1969.
---. A Place to Stand. Bloomington,
IN: Indiana UP, 1958.
---. Personal interview. 9 October
---. Riverbed. Bloomington, IN:
Indiana UP, 1972.
---. Staying Alive. Bloomington,
IN: Indiana UP, 1966.
---. Working Against Time. London:
Rapp & Whiting, 1970.