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David Russell WagonerDavid Russell Wagoner

Hoosier Connection: David Wagoner moved to Whiting, Indiana, at the age of seven, where the industrial urban area and its desolate landscapes left a strong impression on his poetry and his views of the natural world. He attended a graduate program at Indiana University in Bloomington, and taught briefly at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.

Works Discussed: Dry Sun, Dry Wind, A Place To Stand, The Nesting Ground, Staying Alive, New and Selected Poems, Working Against Time, Riverbed, First Light

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 in Seattle.

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 natural world.

In Staying 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 take
The truths or consequences
Of which there are none to be filched or mastered or depended on. (36)

Wagoner finds this barren patch of land to be inspiring, because its lack of features forces us to look inside ourselves for meaning.

1983’s First 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.”



"David Wagoner." American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, Supplement 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, Brown, 1983.

---. 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 2002.

---. Riverbed. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1972.

---. Staying Alive. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1966.

---. Working Against Time. London: Rapp & Whiting, 1970.