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Hart-warming: W&M professor wins Weinstein Poetry Prize

Good manners and great poetry. Henry Hart has an abundance of each.

Hart, the Mildred and J.B. Hickman Professor of Humanities in the Department of English, was honored for a lifetime of poetic achievement and support on Saturday, Oct. 16, when he was awarded the Carole Weinstein Prize in Poetry during the Virginia Book Awards ceremony at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.

The prize, first given in 2005 and awarded annually to a poet with strong ties to Central Virginia, recognizes recent contributions to the art of poetry and is awarded on the basis of a range of achievement in the field. Past recipients have included Pulitzer Prize winners Charles Wright and Claudia Emerson.

“I was very honored to be one of the recipients of the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize,” Hart said. “I know the poetry of Charles Wright (last year's winner), and in fact I've written numerous essays about Charles and his poetry. I also know the poetry of Claudia Emerson and of the other winners and admire it greatly. So to be included in the company of these fine poets is very flattering.”

Hart was introduced by Ron Smith, a 2005 Weinstein Prize winner, at Saturday's award ceremony. Last summer, Smith contacted Hart under the guise of driving in from Richmond to discuss Hart’s latest manuscript. Hart figured the least he could do was to take Smith to dinner, and he made reservations at the decidedly upscale Wedmore Place at the Williamsburg Winery.

When he arrived, not only was Smith waiting, he’d brought Weinstein and a couple of the judges. They then informed him that he would be the 2010 recipient.

“I'm glad that I didn't take him to some dive,” Hart joked.

Hart has published several critical books on modern poets, including “The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill” in 1986, “Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions” in 1991, “Robert Lowell and the Sublime” in 1995, and “The James Dickey Reader” in 1999.  His biography, “James Dickey: The World as Lie” in 2000, was runner-up for a Southern Book Critics’ Circle Award. He has also published three books of poetry: “The Ghost Ship” in 1990, “The Rooster Mask” in 1998, and “Background Radiation” in 2007.

“You don’t need to be a poet to read Henry Hart’s poems and see that they do in fact deliver the pathos of experience, exalt the solid fact, achieve beauty and delicacy,” said Smith in his introduction. “He is often a quiet poet, a poet whose work settles slowly in the consciousness, a poet whose work can haunt and humanize any reader who will open up to it.

“Henry’s poems are full of life, ordinary life, real life. He writes about family and fishing, parenting and parades, history and hiking; he writes about camping out and kicking back. His poems have common sense as well as uncommon sense.”

Hart’s fourth manuscript of poems, “Communion,” is circulating among publishers. He is working on a book on Irish Nobel poet Seamus Heaney, and he recently signed a contract to write a new biography of Robert Frost.

His essays and poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Southern Review, Denver Quarterly, The Gettysburg Review, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Contemporary Literature, and Twentieth Century Literature, among other journals.

Hart has facilitated the up-close study of poetry on campus by inviting Heaney, A.R. Ammons, Charles Simic, Charles Wright, and Michael Ondaatje, among others, to address the community. Many of the poets he’s invited to W&M have Virginia roots, and he is understandably proud of the fact that virtually every former student of his who’s published a book also has received an invitation to return.

That’s not going to change, he said.

“I plan to keep serving the poetry community as I've done in the past -- by inviting poets to Williamsburg, by participating in the Virginia Poetry Society, by mentoring young poets, by judging poetry competitions, by teaching poetry in the classroom, and so on,” he said.

From 1984 to 1994, Hart served as one of the head editors of VERSE, an international poetry magazine he helped found with two Scottish graduate students he met at Oxford. He edited the post-World War II volume of “The Wadsworth Anthology of American Literature,” and has written a young adult novel, “The Wild Man of the Awoosatash.”

It’s what Ron Smith meant in his introduction when he said, “Henry’s service to poetry goes far, far beyond his own outstanding poems.”