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Story Last modified at 10:52 p.m. on Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sexton poems touch very heart of nature

by Frank E. Baker

As you have undoubtedly gleaned from past columns, I continuously attempt to get outdoors and connect with nature as much as possible. One of the ways I've been able to maintain that connection over the years has been through the poetry of Tom Sexton, former Alaska Poet Laureate and retired University of Alaska Anchorage English professor.


Tom Sexton

Many years ago I enjoyed being a student in one of Sexton's creative writing classes. In subsequent years I have been privileged to have his sage counsel on some of my writing projects and to have become a long-distance friend through e-mail and other correspondence.

For anyone who is drawn toward the more serene side of nature, I highly recommend Sexton's work. He is a perceptive observer of nature, and readers benefit from that finely tuned acuity. To date, he has authored 11 books, mostly about Alaska, but some about Lowell, Mass., where he was raised.

After graduating from Lowell High School in 1958, Sexton spent three years in the U.S. Army – two of them stationed in Alaska. He then worked odd jobs before enrolling in Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Mass. He went on to enter Salem State College. He graduated in 1968 with a bachelor's degree in English, then traveled to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree and was hired to help establish the English Department at the newly opened Anchorage Campus.

From 1970 to 1994, Sexton taught English and creative writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage where he established the creative writing program and served as English department chairman for several years. He was one of the first editors of the Alaska Quarterly Review, leaving the magazine when he retired in 1994. He was appointed Alaska's Poet Laureate in 1995 and held that post until 2000.

Sexton's books include "A Clock With No Hands," a collection of poems about growing up in Lowell; "For the Sake of the Light," "A Bend Toward Asia," "Leaving for a Year," and "Autumn in the Alaska Range," all of which include poems mostly set in Alaska.

Sexton's most recent work is titled, "I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets," published by University of Alaska Press. This collection smoothly blends his life in Maine, where he spends every other winter, with his years in Alaska, and his love of Chinese poetry—some of it dating back to the 8th and 9th century. Over the years Sexton has read translations of these poems and says they have greatly influenced his writing, sometimes at an unconscious level.

"The Chinese poets, like Tu Fu and Wang Wei, possessed a deep spiritual connection with nature and love of solitude that have helped me evolve and shape my view of the natural world," he says.

His most recent collection demonstrates an eight-line, Chinese poetic form called a "Shih." These tightly rhythmic, compact poems convey a rare deftness with – and an even more uncommon ear for – language. They reveal a poetic form to be neither a puzzle nor an accomplishment in itself, but a compositional tool and a spur to creativity.

From his new book:

To Wang Wei After Reading a New Collection of His Poems

How bright the world an hour before dawn.

Yesterday's bare ground is covered with snow

that fell while I slept and is falling still.

Pearl-white clouds glow from deep within.

They fill the room with their luminous light.

I put the kettle on and sit by the window.

I'm a glow worm who from time to time

thought he was the moon until I read your poems.

Sexton and his wife, Sharyn, spend every other winter in Eastport, Maine. They are looking forward to returning to their Alaska home in June.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, March 2, 2011.