Born in Roanoke, Virginia, Ruth Stone grew up in Indiana and Illinois and was educated at the University of Illinois. Although she did not publish her first book until 1958 and withheld her next book until 1970, she nevertheless had a long and distinguished career. It was also, however, a career very much on the margins of the poetry establishment, about which "Some Things You'll Need to Know / Before You Join the Union" testifies with devastating wit.
Had Wallace Stevens not existed—a lifelong insurance executive writing some of his country's most insistently metaphysical poetry—it would hardly have been plausible to invent him. Yet Stevens had actually committed himself to writing poetry before taking a position with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company; the job was a way to earn a living. He was born and grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, and was educated at Harvard and at the New York University Law School. He began publishing poems in magazines in 1914, but his first book, Harmonium, did not appear until 1923.
Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Gertrude Stein and her six siblings were left alone when her mother died in 1888 and her father died in 1891. Stein and her brother Leo moved to live with her mother's sister. Meanwhile, an older brother helped to secure an independent income for them. She then followed Leo to Harvard, studying at the Annex that would later become Radcliffe, and spent two years with him at Johns Hopkins studying medicine.
Born in rural Kansas, William Stafford was a conscientious objector during World War II and was active in pacifist organizations. After degrees from the University of Kansas, he went on to study at the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he also earned a Ph.D., and to teach at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, from 1956 to 1979, publishing his first book, West of Your City, in 1960. Stafford's writing process, as he explained it, was to rise early and work in the quiet before others awoke.
Born in San Francisco and raised on a farm north of Seattle, Gary Snyder was educated at Reed College, where he studied literature, Buddhist philosophy, and Native American mythology. He then worked as a logger and spent summers as a forest-fire lookout in Oregon, Washington, and California. Involved with the Beat writers in San Francisco in the mid-1950s, he made a major change in his life in 1956, moving to Japan to study Zen Buddhism. Except for some shipboard work, he remained there for twelve years.
Born in Pasco, Washington, Ron Silliman grew up in Albany, California, just north of Berkeley. He was educated at Merritt College, San Francisco State University, and the University of California at Berkeley. He has worked as an organizer in prisoner and tenant movements, as well as a lobbyist, teacher, and college administrator. In the 1970s, he first edited Labyrinth for the Committee for Prisoner Humanity and Justice and then edited the Tenderloin Times for San Francisco's Central City Hospital House.
Born Anne Gray Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts, the child of a wool merchant, Sexton's family lived in Boston suburbs and spent the summers on Squirrel Island, Maine. She married Alfred Sexton in 1948. Experiencing severe depression after her daughters were born in 1953 and 1955, she attempted suicide in 1956. Her doctor recommended writing poetry as an outlet for her feelings, and she attended Boston poetry workshops run by John Holmes and Robert Lowell.
From the outset, Muriel Rukeyser was at once a political poet and a visionary. At times, as at points in "The Book of the Dead," those qualities were intensified and in those moments she was simultaneously a revolutionary and a mystic. But to grasp the forces that drive her work—through a career that spanned five decades of American history—we have to come to terms with a visionary impulse rooted in time, embedded in a struggle with lived history. Politics is not only the large scale public life of nations.
Born Solomon Fishman in New York, Edwin Rolfe grew up on Coney Island. He took the pen name Rolfe in high school and eventually adopted it as his only name. Rolfe began writing revolutionary poems while he was still in high school and was soon publishing them in the Party's newspaper, Daily Worker.
Theodore Roethke was born and raised in Saginaw, Michigan, where his family managed greenhouses that were the subject of several of his early lyrics. In these densely nurtured spaces, Roethke began to forge a kind of mystical animism that stayed with him throughout his career. From these contained, miniature natural worlds, embodying a whole range of human sexual and generative impulses, he would eventually reach outward to the large scale visionary landscape poems of "North American Sequence," landscapes at once meticulously observed and psychologically suggestive.