Connecticut State Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin read selected work to students on Jan. 26 at the Hotchkiss School. As a poet be believes poetry to be more oral performance than paper work. McQuilken crafts anecdotes rooted in minimalist images with an ear for language that incorporates subtle alliteration. He writes about people, birds, and landscape with allegorical, painterly touches. Such subjects usually involve travels through memory that dramatize at least two nodes in time. As a person, he’s friendly, warm, and personable.
McQuilkin is fascinated by the sweep of history, which sometimes draws him into focusing on a subject series. His most recent book, A Quorum of Saints, explores the legends of saints and their peculiar dramatic quandaries. He says he’s not much interested in religion, but in compelling stories and what those stories might tell us today. A former teacher, he pointed out to students that endings of poems should supply some note of surprise; otherwise it would not be a good or memorable poem. He says good chess players don’t make good poets because they over-plan; they look for the end game and not the process of discovery. This vein of quiet-spoken poetry (McQuilkin read with clear diction and articulate rhythm), perhaps in the manner of Robert Hayden, appeared to be new to the students who responded with perplexity and warmth.
As the publisher of 70 books from Antrim House, which he founded two decades ago, he also produces a television series of poets reading their work. That archive of “Speaking of Poetry” can be viewed at simsburytv.org. McQuilkin, whose mother was also a poet, began writing poetry at eleven because he came from a musical family in Rochester, N.Y., where everyone had perfect pitch, except him. He continues to write a regular column for The Hartford Courant. A YouTube video of McQuilkin reading appears below.
McQuilkin, the author of twelve poetry collections, favors indirect statement. He wants readers or listeners to participate in the poem, in the space and silence between words, in the music of his rhythms, which vary from poem to poem. Students often want certainty and McQuilkin offered light humor and intimate mystery, conveying that poetry created craft, sensibility, and inspiration patterned on the activity of life itself and its echoing intimacy. A short poem, “The Digging,” by McQuilkin appears on our poetry page.