Eaton, Charles Edward

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EATON, Charles Edward

Nationality: American. Born: Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 25 June 1916. Education: Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, 1932–33; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1933–36, B.A. 1936 (Phi Beta Kappa); Princeton University, New Jersey, 1936–37; Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1938–40, M.A. in English 1940. Family: Married Isabel Patterson in 1950. Career: Instructor, Ruiz Gandia School, Poncé, Puerto Rico, 1937–38; instructor in creative writing, University of Missouri, Columbia, 1940–42; vice consul, American Embassy, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1942–46; professor of creative writing, University of North Carolina, 1946–52. Art critic and organizer of art shows. Awards: Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Robert Frost fellowship, 1941; Boulder, Colorado, Writers Conference fellowship, 1942; Ridgely Torrence memorial award, 1951; Gertrude Boatwright Harris award, 1955; Arizona Quarterly award, 1956, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1982; Roanoke-Chowan award, 1970, 1987, 1991; Oscar Arnold Young award, 1971; New England Poetry Club Golden Rose, 1972; O. Henry award, for fiction, 1972; Alice Fay di Castagnola award, 1974; Arvon Foundation award, 1980; Hollins Critic award, 1984; Brockman award, 1984, 1986; Kansas Quarterly award, 1987; North Carolina literature award, 1988; Fortner award, 1993. D.Litt.: St. Andrews College, 1998. Membership: American Academy of Poets. Address: 808 Greenwood Road, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514, U.S.A.



The Bright Plain. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1942.

The Shadow of the Swimmer. New York, Fine Editions Press, 1951.

The Greenhouse in the Garden. New York, Twayne, 1956.

Countermoves. New York and London, Abelard Schuman, 1963.

On the Edge of the Knife. New York and London, Abelard Schuman, 1970.

The Man in the Green Chair. South Brunswick, New Jersey, A.S. Barnes, and London, Yoseloff, 1977.

Colophon of the Rover. South Brunswick, New Jersey, and New York, A.S. Barnes, and London, Thomas Yoseloff, Ltd., 1980.

The Thing King. New York, Cornwall, 1983.

The Work of the Wrench. New York, Cornwall, 1985.

New and Selected Poems 1942–1987. New York, Cornwall, 1987.

A Guest on Mild Evenings. New York, Cornwall, 1991.

The Country of the Blue. New York, Cornwall, 1994.

The Fox and I. New York, Cornwall, 1996.

The Scout in Summer. New York, Cornwall, 1999.

The Jogger by the Sea. New York, Cornwall, 2000.


Sea Psalm (produced Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1933). Published in North Carolina Drama, Richmond, Virginia, Garrett and Massie, 1956.


A Lady of Pleasure. New York, Cornwall, 1993.

Short Stories

Write Me from Rio. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, John F. Blair, 1959.

The Girl from Ipanema. Lunenburg, Vermont, North Country, 1972.

The Case of the Missing Photographs. South Brunswick, New Jersey, A.S. Barnes, 1978.

New and Selected Stories, 1959–1989. New York, Cornwall, 1989.


Charles and Isabel Eaton Collection of America Paintings. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, 1970.

Karl Knaths. Washington, Connecticut, Shiver Mountain Press, 1971.

Karl Knaths: Five Decades of Painting. Washington, D.C., International Exhibitions Foundation, 1973.

Robert Broderson: Paintings and Graphics. Washington, Connecticut, Shiver Mountain Press, 1975.


Manuscript Collections: (verse) Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; (prose) Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University.

Critical Studies: By Louis Untermeyer, in Yale Review (New Haven, Connecticut), winter 1944; by Robert Hillyer, in New York Times Book Review, 22 July 1951; "The Poetry of Charles Edward Eaton" by W.W. Davidson, in Georgia Review (Athens), spring 1953; by Gerard P. Meyer, in Saturday Review (New York), 31 March 1956; in Booklist (Chicago), 1 May 1956; by May Swenson, in Poetry (Chicago), March 1957; "The Greenhouse in the Garden" by William Carlos Williams, in Arizona Quarterly (Tucson), spring 1957; Wallace Fowlie, in New York Times Book Review, 12 May 1963; by John Engels in Poetry (Chicago), September 1963; by F.C. Flint, in Virginia Quarterly Review (Charlottesville), autumn 1963; "Betwixt Tradition and Innovation" by Robert D. Spector, in Saturday Review (New York), 26 December 1970; "The Crisis of Regular Forms" by John T. Irwin, in Sewanee Review (Tennessee), winter 1973; "The Shining Figure: Poetry and Prose of Charles Edward Eaton" by Dave Smith, in Meanjin (Melbourne), summer 1974; Robert Miola, in Commonweal (New York), 18 August 1978; by M.L. Hester, in Southern Humanities Review (Auburn, Alabama), fall 1979 and fall 1981; by John Hollander, in Yale Review (New Haven, Connecticut), autumn 1983; by Walter Shear, in Midwest Quarterly (Pittsburg, Kansas), summer 1989; by Harold Witt, in The Chariton Review (Kirksville, Missouri), spring 1990 and fall 1992; by Cynthia Wong, in The Cream City Review (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), summer 1990; in The Arts Journal (Asheville, North Carolina), June 1990, in Paintbrush (Kirksville, Missouri), spring 1992, and "'The Machete Working in the Fields of Grace': An Essay on Three Recent Books by Charles Edward Eaton," in Pembroke Magazine (North Carolina),30, 1998, all by Judy Hogan; by Glenn B. Blalock, in Poets, Dramatists, Essayists and Novelists of the South, edited by Robert Bain and Joseph Flora, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood, 1994; by Walter Shear, in Midwest Quarterly (Pittsburg, Kansas), August 1997.

Charles Edward Eaton comments:

Though I am resistant in general to definitions of poetry and poets as too limiting, if pressed I might admit to being a modern formalist, but I should insist on the importance of the qualifying adjective. I compose in a number of verse forms and write lyrical as well as dramatic poetry, but I do not lean on any poet of the past or present for technical inspiration. I believe that each poet must develop his own organic sense of form and adapt even the most conventional meter to his personal rhythm. For example, a number of my poems are written in triptychs, their long lines rhyming every other line, modulated in an entirely individual way. William Carlos Williams, in a study of my work, called this three-line stanza an Americanization of terza rima. Perhaps he felt it was very American in its love of freedom and yet somewhat European in its formal allegiance. There is no doubt that I like poetry that is both vigorous and controlled.

In this respect I think the best short statement about my work has been made by Robert D. Spector in Saturday Review: "Charles Edward Eaton may not belong at all in the category of unconventional poets, and yet, it seems to me, his use of conventions becomes a very personal thing that removes him from tradition … If Eaton's poetry, with its use of rhymed stanzas, appears superficially to belong to a formal tradition, his long, free lines and sometimes brutal imagery and diction, pushing his feelings to their limit, suggest otherwise. On the Edge of the Knife combines conventional and unconventional in such a way that it is finally the poet's own work. Perhaps, after all, that is the way of poetry. Whether bound to tradition or not, its value rests on the peculiar virtues of the poet."

I am in emphatic accord with any statement about my work which indicates that I believe in working powerfully and freely on one's own terms within the entire range of poetry. I am in no sense a reductionist, but have confidence in the fundamental richness of poetry and the surprise lurking in its possibilities. Form should be an energetic expression of the poet's own psychology, not an artificial imposition, and the poem should convey some sense of the struggle which went into the formal achievement: "I have a powerful nature in pursuit of pleasure. / Peace, good will, and I do not share / My time's contempt for passion balanced by strict measure." An extension of what is involved in this position is given at the conclusion of "The Turkey": "So the bird I know is like a gaudy catafalque. / If you should carry a secret hump upon your back, / You, too, would have a burdened and uncertain walk. / This is what it is to spread an image in the sun— / This is how we teach thick, precarious balance as if the land moved like a ship / And one set sail heavily, slowly, encumbered with imagination."

As to my subject matter, it is greatly influenced by where I am living and what I am doing at any given time. In this sense it is always around me, and it moves forward with me as I go along. Almost every poem, hidden though it may be to the reader, has its donnée from some aspect of experience. Landscape wherever I have lived (North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Connecticut, etc.) comes strongly into my work, but I do not consider myself a nature poet. Animals and flowers are continuous with and contiguous to my interest in human beings and are a constant motif in my work, but I am not interested in fauna or flora per se and am in no sense a botanical or zoological poet. All of my subjects are finally a way of talking about people in the expanding enclave of interest and experience I have chosen to explore. I have been amused by one magazine editor's recognition of my predilection for "all things, great and small" in welcoming a new submission as another poem from "the Garden of Eaton."

Painting has been another seminal influence, and I have long enjoyed what John Singleton Copley called "the luxury of seeing." This interest is the specific motivation in such poems as "The Gallery," "The Museum," "Homage to the Infanta," and "Nocturne for Douanier Rousseau," among others, but it is a constantly underlying, energizing source. "Five Études for the Artist" (Art International, November 1972) is an extended statement of this pictorial dedication which has been noted by numerous artists, including the New England painter Karl Knaths, who has commented at length on the "vital imaginative reality" of the visual qualities of the poems.

The intellectual content of my poetry and its final outlook and credo have been greatly strengthened by the study of philosophy. Writing in the New York Times about Countermoves, Wallace Fowlie recognized this influence when he said, "Charles Eaton demonstrates an admirable technical control over the effects he wishes to make, and a clear awareness of at least one major function of poetry. This would be the art of questioning everything, and of questioning in particular the power of poetry."

Fowlie's acknowledgment of the power of sentiment as balancing the intellectual in the poetry is reflected in a line from my long poem "Robert E. Lee: An Ode": "I believe in the world seen through a temperament." I am certain that it is always the task of the writer to give us his personal vision of reality. This means an uncommon dedication, a determination to keep the fine arts fine, a perpetual sense of renewal and reaffirmation. One must constantly ask oneself in times of discouragement, Who will do my particular kind of writing if I don't? Who will take care of my dreams when I am gone? In our dispersive time it is not easy to keep a sense of personality and purpose, and, as a consequence, attention to the disciplines of character is equally important with ability. Probably more writers fail through lack of character than of ability. Morale is one of the essential fibers of a meaningful life. Cézanne reminded himself every morning to be "Sur le motif!" So must the poet.

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The poetry of Charles Edward Eaton ranges from the quiet, reflective, and calmly precise to the colorful, daring, gripping, and raw. The best of his work provides the reader with a delightful though sometimes disturbing experience: he advances confidently, secure in the carefully controlled rhythms, the superbly disciplined energies of syntax, until of a sudden he loses his balance. Upon recovering it the reader discovers that he has been walking on a tightrope, stretched precariously between the world as he usually sees it and the world as it really is.

Eaton is a poet who allows his mind and heart to play upon experience. He sings of ordinary things: the amber light of the sun, the fading fragrance of purple lilacs, the red fire of October, the bodies of swimmers, golden and hard muscled, a day in spring "… like a bell / Rung suddenly in many tones of green, / Sprung full and clear-toned well / Into the rounded air …" He sings also of extraordinary things: a giggler, voyeur, centaur, eunuch, cowboy, woman with a scar, dagger thrower's assistant, and Madame Midget, "Her tiny heart, loaded with feeling close as a plum is to its stone." Repeatedly, through skillful use of conventional form and variations, the poet demonstrates how tenuous and fluctuating is the distinction between the two. For Eaton all experience, the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, the painful as well as the pleasant, is matter for poetry to assimilate and rearrange. "From bee-sting, spider-bite, thorn-prick, hammer-bruise," no less than from "lip-brush" and "hand-grasp," the flesh learns and "grows wise."

On the Edge of the Knife and The Man in the Green Chair explore with increasing boldness and vigor the abnormality of the normal. They reveal the bestial power of Eros and descend into the primitive darkness deep within each of us. The verse, like the song of the tree frog, is often "raw with harsh and heartfelt music," a music that reverberates through the intelligent verse paragraphs, the chiseled quatrains, the unorthodox, long-lined triptychs. Such rawness never chafes or offends. Eaton's mastery of form, achieved by years of experience and adapted to the distinctive sound of the poet's individual voice, finally teaches the heart the lesson it learns in "Della Robbia in August," not only to grieve but also to rise "in a brilliant form of care."

—Robert Miola