Jeanne Murray Walker’s eighth book of poetry, Helping the Morning, is more than a collection of new work by a poet whose writing has been described as providing readers with a “down-to-earth vision of the transcendent.”
The book is also a capstone to Walker’s 40 years to date of writing poetry, a “best of” compilation that includes some 80 percent of her previously published poems, many of them in books that are now out of print.
Walker, professor of English and head of the creative writing program at the University of Delaware, said the book’s publisher, WordFarm, approached her with the idea for Helping the Morning: New and Selected Poems.
“The editor at WordFarm proposed this as a reprise of my seven earlier books,” Walker said of the independent literary press that publishes about 20 books a year. “It was an honor to be asked, and I was more than happy to work with them.”
The poems were selected and grouped in new ways for the book by editor Marci Rae Johnson, who Walker said did “an amazing job of sequencing” the works.
In the process of working on the collection, “I could see the arc of what I was doing over the years,” Walker said. She described her poetry over time as expanding in ever-widening circles of subject matter as her own life developed — from early love poems, to writing about pregnancy and children, to exploring the question of ancestors and community, to the divisions she saw in American society after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“What does it mean to raise a child, to be in a tradition, to pass things down, to be part of a neighborhood … and part of a nation?” Walker said. “I think poems are really more about questions — questions about being human — than they are about answers.”
Fellow writers have praised Walker’s new and past work.
“I have always admired Jeanne Murray Walker’s gift for finding the poetry in the everyday, the song in the mundane, the epiphany in the moment,” said Mark Jarman, author of the poetry collection Bone Fires. “It’s her willingness, no matter how many times she has seen the sun come up, to regard each time as a fresh beginning.”
In addition to her books of poetry, Walker has written plays, essays and a prose memoir,The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, about caring for her mother.
“I loved writing prose, and I probably will do more of that,” Walker said. “But I’m certainly not giving up poetry.”
While on sabbatical from UD last semester, she explored a couple of different types of writing — sonnets and song lyrics. With their formal structure, sonnets are “a kind of practice, like playing scales on the piano,” she said.
“I’ve written 60,” she said recently. “I never set out to do that many, but I discovered that I loved writing them.”
Walker is also working with a classical composer on pieces called “Songs in Ordinary Time.” She has had her poetry set to music before, but this is her first time working on lyrics at the beginning of the composing process.
She has received numerous awards for her writing, including a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, eight Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships and the Glenna Luschei-Prairie Schooner Prize. Her plays have been performed across the United States.
Walker, who joined the UD faculty 40 years ago, also lectures, teaches and gives readings extensively in places including the Library of Congress and Oxford University. She is a mentor in the low-residency master of fine arts program at Seattle Pacific University and serves on the boards of Shenandoah and Image magazines.
For more, visit her website.