Root, William Pitt

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ROOT, William Pitt

Nationality: American. Born: Austin, Minnesota, 28 December 1941. Education: University of Washington, Seattle, B.A. 1964; University of North Carolina, Greensboro, M.F.A. 1967; Stanford University, Stanford, California, 1968–69. Family: Married 1) Judy Bechtold in 1965 (divorced 1970), one daughter; 2) Pamela Uschuk in 1987. Career: General helper, Todd Shipyards, Seattle, Washington; stock clerk, warehouseman, and teamster, Seattle and Long Beach, California, 1960–64; bouncer, Sweet Chariot Bar, Seattle, 1964–65. Instructor, Slippery Rock State College, Pennsylvania, 1967; assistant professor of English, Michigan State University, East Lansing, 1967–68; Stegner Creative Writing Fellow, Stanford University, California, 1968–69; visiting lecturer or writer, Mid-Peninsula Free University, 1969–70, Amherst College, Massachusetts, 1971, Wichita State University, Kansas, 1977, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, 1977, University of Montana, Missoula, 1978, 1980–81, 1983–86, and Interlochen Arts Academy, Michigan, 1979. Since 1986 associate professor, Hunter College, New York. Since 1971 active in poets-in-schools programs in several states. Awards: Academy of American Poets university prize, 1966; Rockefeller grant, 1969; Guggenheim grant, 1970; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1973; Pushcart prize for poetry, 1977, 1980, 1985; Bicentennial exchange fellowship, 1978; Stanley Kunitz award, 1981; Guy Owen prize, 1982; Poet Laureate of Tucson, 1997. Address: English Department, Hunter College, 195 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10021–5024, U.S.A.



The Storm and Other Poems. New York, Atheneum, 1969.

Striking the Dark Air for Music. New York, Atheneum, 1973.

The Port of Galveston. Galveston, Texas, Galveston Arts Center, 1974.

A Journey South. Port Townsend, Washington, Graywolf Press, 1977.

7 Mendocino Songs. Portland, Oregon, Mississippi Mud Press, 1977.

Coot and Other Characters: Poems New and Familiar. Lewiston, Idaho, Confluence Press, 1977.

Fireclock. Boston, 4 Zoas Press, 1981.

Reasons for Going It on Foot. New York, Atheneum, 1981.

In the World's Common Grasses. Santa Cruz, California, MovingParts, 1981.

Invisible Guests. Lewiston, Iowa, Confluence, 1984.

Faultdancing. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.

Trace Elements from a Recurring Kingdom. Lewiston, Idaho, Confluence Press, 1994.


Screenplays (with Ray Rice): Song of the Woman and the Butterflyman, 1975; 7 for a Magician, 1976; Faces, 1981.


The Unbroken Diamond: Nightletter to the Mujahideen. Galveston. Texas. Pipedream Press. 1983.

Editor, What a World, What a World! Poetry by Young People in Galveston Schools. Galveston, Texas, Pipedream Press, 1974.

Translator, Kingdom of Quick Song: Selected Odes of Pablo Neruda. Boston, 4 Zoas Press, 1984.


Manuscript Collection: University of North Carolina Library, Greensboro.

Critical Studies: By Benjamin DeMott, in New York Times Book Review, 10 December 1967; "Notes on Current Books," in Virginia Quarterly (Charlottesville), August 1969; "The Storm" by Robin Skelton, in Malahat Review (Victoria, British Columbia), October 1969; "Striking the Dark Air for Music" by Paul Nelson, in Carleton Miscellany (Northfield, Minnesota), September 1974; "An Ultimate Magician: Notes on the Work of William Pitt Root" by Floyd Skloot, in Chowder Review (Wallaston, Massachusetts), winter 1978.

William Pitt Root comments:

As a counter to the proliferation of much instant poetry, I regard with respect the efforts of such men as Bly and Merwin in America or Hughes in England, who, with others, bring into English the works of writers from other cultures where the conditions for the development of the human spirit are still more trying, more essentially demanding.

Regarding my own work, I hope it reflects something of the qualities I admire most in Roethke (whose primordial consciousness is inimitable), Frost (who forged memorable work out of an inconsolable solitude), Williams (whose love of animation in people and nature was inexhaustible), García Lorca (whose passions were essential, unsummoned), and Whitman, Blake, Neruda, Lawrence, and Jeffers (who share the impulse to accomplish the mythic common bond out of the apparently commonplace)—these are men who in opening to their own experience can extend us as well. These poets are makers, not designers, and what they make is self being freed of ego, first defining, then transcending those limits. In America, now, the most exciting groundwork for such growth is being established by the waking generations of women who dare to explore their own frontiers. I should add I mean those who travel by foot, to distinguish between them and those who travel by bandwagon. No frontier has ever been approached by bandwagon.

*  *  *

William Pitt Root's book Reasons for Going It on Foot is so animated with the beauty and mysteries of wildlife that one is convinced that his earlier obsession with the dead and the dying has been dismissed for being only part of the story. In Striking the Dark Air for Music, Root exposes a vision of death as being the mean conclusion to a short and troublesome life:

I saw the crippled tree
crumple into colors, shedding
their brilliant disease of leaves
that left the branches dead.

If life must be celebrated, it must be noted that life is mostly menacing. In "A Start" the poet recognizes spring while holding his young daughter's "flowersmeary hands." Then he feels "the green blades cocked /in dry wood /drive free." The word "cocked" serves to undermine the poem's theme of new life with the hint that it arrives armed and dangerous.

Root's later work, however, nearly abandons these earlier worries with poems that celebrate life and the living. Everywhere in Reasons for Going It on Foot the living are awake with action. In one poem slugs are making love; in another it is the spiders who are amorous. Throughout the book the images of birds dancing, of men and women "diving like seals," of hands as "quick fish" appear as the sparkling rewards of the book's quest expressed in its title poem:

...I may identify
myself as a stranger
eager to know
the ways of those
I beg my life from
as I pass.

The desire is to be filled with the happenings of others' lives, to be as conspicuously alive as the slugs in "Slugs Amorous in the Air," not to feel empty and alone after the "white birds like spirits gathered for a ceremonial /dance … /… drew their long yellow legs onto the commotion of/their wings" and were gone.

Though Root's theme has changed, his style has not. His snap-to-it diction and no-frills syntax remain. Though he was already the unsung master of personification, Root's skill in this area has become even more sophisticated since he now more readily compounds metaphor with sound. This is exemplified in the contrast between the earlier line "The sun heats and robs me" and the later and more musical line "a single horse /stood beneath the single singing tree."

What has not changed is Root's continuing experimentation with the poem's form. Reasons for Going It on Foot, for instance, like his earlier books exhibits a variety of stanza patterns that range from the couplet, to the quatrain, to stanzas with unjustified margins, to stanzas justified like prose. Root's versatile use of form is one of his enduring traits as a craftsman. His ability to evoke the pains of life and the lushness of nature in thrifty images is his enduring trait as a poet.

—Susan Kaplan