Harvard College Library

Tribute to George Starbuck at Woodberry Poetry Room

George Starbuck (1931-1996)
February 18, 2004 - George Starbuck (1931-1996) is a poet known for his wit, intelligence, and precision; he was the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for his first book of poems, close friends and colleagues with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and director of writing programs at the University of Iowa and Boston University. A new collection of Starbuck’s poetry, The Works: Poems Selected from Five Decades (University of Alabama Press, 2003) edited by Kathryn Starbuck and Elizabeth Meese, was recently published. In recognition of the poet’s return to print, as well as his influence on poets locally and around the world, The George Edward Woodberry Poetry Room will host A Tribute to George Starbuck: The Works, Thursday, February 26 at 7:00 pm in the Woodberry Poetry Room, Lamont Library. The tribute will include readings and remembrances by the poet's former students and colleagues including Kathy Starbuck, Maxine Kumin, Peter Davison, Emily Hiestand, Mary Baine Campbell, and Askold Melnyczuk

"George Starbuck was a renowned figure from the great era of the Boston/Cambridge poetry giants and I was lucky to study under him at Boston University. By the time I'd become a student of his, he was quite simply legendary. He managed to be both cutting-edge and a keen master of traditional forms. It is hard to think of a more ingeniously energetic poet or teacher, and he unleashed generations of writers who have changed the landscape of American poetry. The reading is an attempt to pay tribute to him at a time when his remarkable work is coming back into print," said Don Share, Curator, Woodberry Poetry Room.

Starbuck was known for the way he carefully intertwined wit and tragedy. He addressed some of the most profound issues of his day with cleverness and cunning. A master of forms, he left behind a variety of new forms, including his Standard-Length-and-Breadth-Sonnets, known as SLABS and he famously rewrote some of Shakespeare's sonnets by eliminating all but few words, and published them in a pamphlet whose full title was: "Space-saver sonnets : purged of accretions & newly published in the corrected hemimeter version, prepared under the general folgership of George Starbuck."

Starbuck said, "For me, the long way round, through formalisms, word-games, outrageous conceits (the worst of what we mean by ‘wit’) is the only road to truth. No other road takes me. Put another way: I have a conscious slavery to the language. The only alternatives are unconscious slavery, or the sainthood of the wholly silent."

In addition to the new poetry collection, Starbuck has had a resurgence of popularity due to a recent Games Magazine contest entitled Ultimate Calculatrivia (first prize $1,500) where puzzlers solve for X by first solving math problems, codes, and trivia questions. One of the most difficult questions in the game necessitated searching through Starbuck poems for clues and suddenly all across the country libraries and bookstores watched Starbuck’s books fly off the shelves. One puzzler posted a message on a blog devoted to the game saying, "My job was to track down all the extant works of George Starbuck and find out how many butterflies are mentioned in a certain poem. I slogged through several of Starbuck's books, but before long, what was a mechanical search for a particular fact became the introduction to a poet of great wit and irreverence." He never found the answer to the puzzle but he said, "Hey, at least the poems were good."

The tribute will feature Kathryn Starbuck, the author's widow, a poet and former editor of the Milford (NH) Cabinet. Past student’s of Starbucks Emily Hiestand and Mary Baine Campbell will also contribute. Hiestand is a non-fiction writer lauded for her use of humor and has received many literary awards, including The Whiting Writers Award, The Pushcart Prize, the National Magazine Award, the National Poetry Series prize, and The Nation /Discovery Award. Campbell is the author of The World, The Flesh, and Angels, winner of the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and professor of English literature at Brandeis University. Additional participants are Maxine Kumin, author of the poetry collection Up Country, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, as well as three other poetry collections; Peter Davison poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly; and Askold Melnyczuk director of creative writing at University of Massachusetts-Boston and founder of the journal Agni.

For details on A Tribute to George Starbuck: The Works contact Don Share, Curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at (617) 495-2454 or share@fas.harvard.edu.

This story appears courtesy of the Harvard College Library Communications Office
Copyright © 2004 President and Fellows of Harvard College