Virginia verses: Celebrating 5 poetic icons for National Poetry Month

Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

By Amie Knowles

April 1, 2024

There’s no shortage of great writers when it comes to our commonwealth. From the haunting verses of Edgar Allan Poe, who found solace in Richmond’s shadows, to the expansive plains of Nebraska that fueled Gore-born Willa Cather’s imagination, Virginia blossoms with literary talent. 

Join us this April as we delve into the lives and legacies of these extraordinary wordsmiths during National Poetry Month. 

Edgar Allan Poe

Virginia verses: Celebrating 5 poetic icons for National Poetry Month

One of Virginia’s most famous Poe-ts was born in Boston, Massachusetts, but a string of tragedies as a toddler placed him in the commonwealth for much of his young life. Edgar Allen Poe’s mother died of tuberculosis in Richmond when he was just two years old. Poe’s father previously abandoned the family, leaving the future writer and two siblings without parents.

A local Richmond merchant, John Allan, and his wife Frances had no children of their own. They fostered and raised Poe—and even gave him their surname as a middle name—but never formally adopted him. John paid for Poe’s education, but the young man’s college days were short-lived. Poe racked up such a large sum of gambling and other debts during his one and only semester at the University of Virginia (UVA) that John refused to send him back to Charlottesville for a second term. 

That prompted Poe to enlist in the army, where he started writing poems. He published two volumes in the late 1820s and eventually attained notoriety with stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Poe Museum in Richmond contains numerous structures and countless artifacts from the literary figure’s life. If you’re interested in Poe, or simply the macabre, the museum is well worth the visit.

Willa Cather

Virginia verses: Celebrating 5 poetic icons for National Poetry Month

We actually had to look up where Willa Cather’s hometown was on a map. Located in the western part of Frederick County, Gore is closer to the West Virginia state line than the closest Virginia city, Winchester. That’s approximately 1,200 miles from the setting of Cather’s most famous novel, which took place in Nebraska. 

Cather’s inspiration for My Antonia came from a childhood friendship with a girl named Annie Sadilek Pavelka. Cather met Pavelka, who immigrated from Bohemia (Czech Republic), when her family relocated to live on the plains. Many of Cather’s characters in the novel came from real-life encounters she had while living in Nebraska, according to the Chicago Public Library. 

Rita Dove

Virginia verses: Celebrating 5 poetic icons for National Poetry Month

This multi-award winning writer doesn’t just specialize in one style. From poetry to essays to stories, lyrics, and more, Dove seemingly does a little of everything when it comes to creative writing. 

She’s won Lifetime Achievement Medals from the Library of Virginia and the Fulbright Association, and became the only person to ever win both the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts. The latter was presented to her by former President Barack Obama.

The Poetry Foundation noted that Dove attained 29 honorary doctorates from schools including Yale University, Harvard University, and a multitude of others. Dove, who served as the US Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995, currently teaches at UVA in the English department. 

Ellen Glasgow

Virginia verses: Celebrating 5 poetic icons for National Poetry Month

Can you imagine writing an entire book and not taking credit for it? That’s exactly what happened when Ellen Glasgow published her first book at just 24 years old. 

Glasgow’s breakout novel, The Descendant, came after a tumultuous decade in her life. In 1890, she destroyed 400 pages of writing after a traumatic editing session with a New York publisher. Three years later, Glasgow’s mother died, followed by her mentor and brother-in-law George McCormack the next year. After her mother’s death, Glasgow destroyed much of her first draft of The Descendant.

The Richmond-born author resumed writing in 1895 and chose to publish her first book anonymously in 1897. The Descendant told the story of lead character Michael Akershem, who met Rachel Gavin—an artist who ultimately pursued her own creative passions rather than a proposal from Michael. It wasn’t until Glasgow’s second book debuted the following year that she took credit for the first.

By the age of 72, the Pulitzer Prize winning author published 20 novels, a collection of short stories, and poems, spanning decades of change for Virginians and women.

Anne Spencer

Virginia verses: Celebrating 5 poetic icons for National Poetry Month

Anne Spencer didn’t let geography get in her way. Despite living in Central Virginia, the writer made friends with famous Harlem Renaissance writers like James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, who resided in New York during the height of the movement. 

The writer published 30 poems in her lifetime and was the first African American women to see her name in the prestigious Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry in 1973. Spencer’s home in Lynchburg—where she hosted guests like Zora Neale Hurston and Martin Luther King, Jr.—is open for tours by appointment.

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.



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