Nationality: American. Born: Boise, Idaho, 24 June 1933. Education: Harding College, Searcy, Arkansas, 1951–53; Abilene Christian College, Texas, B.A. in English 1958; University of Arizona, Tucson, M.A. 1960. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1956–58. Family: Married Lois Bruce in 1956; one son. Career: Teacher, Lowell School, Bisbee, Arizona, 1958–60; director, Ruth Stephan Poetry Center, Tucson, 1964–65. Instructor, 1960–64, assistant professor, 1969–73, associate professor, 1973–79, director of the creative writing program, 1979–81, professor of English, 1979–91, and since 1991 Regent's Professor, University of Arizona, Tucson. Awards: International Poetry Forum United States award, 1970; Borestone Mountain award, 1970, 1971, 1972; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1976, 1991; Governor's award, 1991; Western States award, 1992; Southwestern award for literary excellence, 1994; Arizona Library Association's Adult Author award, 1994. Address: Department of English, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, U.S.A.
Journal of Return. San Francisco, Kayak, 1969.
The Tattooed Desert. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971.
The Heroes of Our Time. Lincoln, Nebraska, Best Cellar Press, 1972.
Of All the Dirty Words. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972.
Calendar: A Cycle of Poems. Phoenix, Arizona, Baleen Press, 1972.
Among the Stones. Pittsburgh, Monument Press, 1973.
Chosen Place. Crete, Nebraska, Best Cellar Press, 1975.
You Can't Have Everything. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975.
Desert Water. Pittsburgh, Monument Press, 1977.
The Bus to Veracruz. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978.
Selected Poems 1969–1981. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.
A Kind of Glory. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1982.
Hohokam. Tucson, Arizona, Sun/Gemini Press, 1986.
The Other Side of the Story. Lewiston, Idaho, Confluence Press, 1987.
Screenplays: Sonoran: The Hidden Desert, 1979; Another Day, 1981;The Sound of Water, 1983.
Going Back to Bisbee. Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1992.*
Critical Studies: In Chicago Tribune Magazine, 22 January 1970; in Prairie Schooner (Lincoln, Nebraska), summer 1972; in Poetry (Chicago), July 1972, July 1973, and April 1978; in San Francisco Chronicle, 27 May 1973; by Dave Smith, in Los Angeles Times, 19 February 1978; by Philip Allan Friedman, in Gramercy Review (New York), summer 1979; Rereadings by Michael Hogan, Crete, Nebraska, Best Cellar Press, 1979; by Victor Contoski, in Western American Literature (Logan, Utah), 14 (1), 1979; "Southwestern Gothic: On the Frontier between Landscape and Locale" by Scott P. Sanders, in Frontier Gothic, n.p., Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993; "Poetic Space: Richard Shelton" by Carolyn Kizer, in Proses, Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1994.
Richard Shelton comments:
I hope my work reflects something of the Sonora Desert, in which I have lived for more than thirty years.* * *
At age twenty-five Richard Shelton moved from Texas to southern Arizona (Tucson), where he has lived ever since, teaching literature courses at the University of Arizona and writing book after book of his perceptions and responses to the desert climate and terrain he has called his "chosen place." Shelton is now an inveterate Southwesterner, with deep, often spiritual affinity for the rocks and saguaro cactus of the desert, the mountains, the sea one hundred miles below him in the Gulf of California. These are his usual subjects in the many books he has written since his first publication, Journal of Return. The sea and desert are the extremes of his personal mythology. They frame the earth for him, an earth of silences, of ghostly night animals, of rocks that exchange brief whispers about the moon on nights of the long dry season. Tucson is ringed with mountains, the Tucson Mountains, Mount Lemmon, Mica Mountain, and others, and they are a third dimension of nature for him, an urge of nature to thrust up into the sky, a dream of the rocks that lie scattered on the desert floor. The night sky is a brilliance of immense stars in Shelton's poems, under which dark, quiet, sometimes desperate lives are endured.
Shelton's verse technique consolidates several extreme tendencies of modern American poetry—the spiritual visions of nature to be found in Robinson Jeffers's and William Stafford's work together with Robert Lowell's painful self-excoriations—but the result for Shelton is often more discord and discontinuity than wholeness of vision. The desert remains for him an ambiguous metaphor; either it is a spiritual paradise or it is the hell of exiled human life. As a result his poetry never leaps fully into one or the other possibility, but it seems suspended between a potential vision of desert infinities and an obsession with his own lifelong unhappiness and skepticism, as expressed in "Mexico":
I never find what I am looking for
and each time I return older
with my ugliness intact
but with the knowledge that if it isn't there
in the darkness under Scorpio
it isn't anywhere
He writes as though his own individuality will never quite hatch out to the larger realm of nature he longs to be part of.
This alone would be sufficiently interesting drama or poetry, but for Shelton it tends to sever his poetry from its intended depth and freedom. His canon has no perceptible growth or development of vision but rather moves through cycles of restatement and reexamination of his dilemma. At his best he can render the desert world with striking immediacy, particularly where he feels himself to be its interpreter and voice, as in "The Kingdom of the Moon":
the moon commands the desert cold
a word so harsh
it splits the tongue
of the true aloe
the moon pulls stones
to the surface
and directs the ghosts
of dry rivers in their paths
toward the sea
In "Burning" he says,
today the rain kept
coming back as if it had
nowhere else to go
and each time
welcomed it the gates of the desert
never rust but they open
only to the voice of rain
Shelton's poetry must be judged carefully. If it is at times didactic, sentimental, indeterminate, or merely repetitious, these limitations are along the way of a large and beautiful intention: to capture a region and to impose upon it a human witness and contact of extraordinary thoroughness and sensitivity. Many of his poems will drop away in time, but what remains of his canon will be durable lyrics that are essentially American in their effort to find spiritual jointure with the land.
Though Shelton's poetry has not continued to grow much, he has taken to prose for further self-exploration. In the personal memoir Going Back to Bisbee, modeled on Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, we go along in his old blue Dodge, "Blue Boy," back to the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, where the young Shelton had his first teaching job at Lowell Junior High. The mountain he lived on is now a bald pit mined out by Phelps Dodge. Bisbee is where the poet's consciousness and concerns for desert nature were formed, and he recalls his two years there with pain and pride as the place that made him what he is.