Salter, Mary Jo 1954–

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SALTER, Mary Jo 1954–

PERSONAL: Born August 15, 1954, in Grand Rapids, MI; daughter of Albert Gregory (an advertising executive) and Lormina (an artist; maiden name, Paradise) Salter; married Brad Leithauser (a writer), August 2, 1980; children: Emily Salter, Hilary Garner. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (cum laude), 1976; New Hall, Cambridge, M.A. (with first class honors), 1978.

ADDRESSES: Home—Amherst, MA. Office—Mt. Holyoke College, Dept. of English, 8 Park St., Room 12, South Hadley, MA 01075 E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, instructor, 1978–79; Atlantic Monthly, Boston, MA, staff editor, 1978–80; instructor in English conversation at various institutions in Japan, 1980–83; Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, lecturer in English, beginning 1984, Emily Dickinson lecturer in humanities, 1995–. Poet-in-residence at Robert Frost Place, 1981.

MEMBER: PEN, Phi Beta Kappa.

AWARDS, HONORS: Discovery Prize, Nation, 1983; fellow of National Endowment for the Arts, 1983–84; Lamont Poetry Prize, Academy of American Poets, 1988, for Unfinished Painting; Ingram-Merrill foundation fellow, 1989; Witter Bynner Foundation Poetry Prize, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1989; Peter I. B. Lavan Award, Academy of American Poets, 1990; Guggenheim fellow, 1993.



Henry Purcell in Japan, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.

Unfinished Painting, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.

The Moon Comes Home (children's book), Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.

Sunday Skaters, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.

(Coeditor) The Northern Anthology of Poetry, Norton (New York NY), 4th edition, 1996, 5th edition, 2004.

A Kiss in Space: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.

Open Shutters, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor of articles, poems, and reviews to various publications, including New Yorker, Poetry, and Kenyon Review. New Republic, poetry editor, 1992–95.

SIDELIGHTS: Mary Jo Salter's thorough understanding of poetic tradition is clearly evident in her work. Salter has traveled extensively, and although she has written on various subjects, many of her most acclaimed poems have to do with her experiences in foreign cultures. Discussing her first collection, Henry Purcell in Japan, Alfred Corn noted in New Republic: "Salter steps outside what might be considered reasonable expectations for a first book." Corn remarked that Henry Purcell in Japan found some "brilliant and searching poems." Phoebe Pettingell echoed Corn's praise, pointing out in her New Leader review that Salter skillfully maintains her poetic individuality, yet without abandoning the influence of her Western predecessors. According to Pettingell, "even where she employs English Poetry's most traditional forms, rich in historical associations, her own voice sings out clearly."

Salter was an important figure in the flowering of the New Formalist poets of the 1970s and 1980s, who, according to Christopher Benfey in New Republic, "have come not from Whitman's expansive overcoat, but from Emily Dickinson's clean white dress." Many critics have noted Dickinson's influence on Salter's verse. In a review of the collection Unfinished Painting in Tribune Books, William Logan maintained that "Salter has none of her mentor's ease in forming the simple language of feeling and is too eager to draw a lesson or round a revelation from already constricted means." Other critics, however, have found that throughout Unfinished Painting, Salter nicely develops Dickinson's talent for examination and introspection. Discussing Unfinished Painting in a Washington Post Book World review, Howard Frank related that the title poem "describes an incomplete portrait this remarkable woman painted of her young son, then goes on to reveal much about the painter herself."

The title poem in Salter's collection A Kiss in Space refers to a kiss between an American and a Russian astronaut on a combined mission, but, Barbara Hoffert mused in her Library Journal review of the book, the phrase might well describe all of Salter's poems, for they are "gifts blown through the air to her readers." Hoffert found Salter a "dainty but tough" poet whose verses are not only "rich and astounding" but also "fun." The collection's first section is set in a pleasantly evoked France, complete with poetic images of such famous sights as the Eiffel Tower, Monmartre, and the cathedral at Chartres. The middle of the book is made up of the long poem "Alternating Currents," which connects Sherlock Holmes, Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell and some of their partners in a reflection on the mysteries of perception and communication. By the third section, Salter's voice has progressed from innocent to experienced. While the poems frequently sound an optimistic note, they are usually played in a "minor key," according to Poetry reviewer David Yezzi. This is effective, he stated, because "verses as poised, lapidary, sonically lovely, and pleasingly acute as Salter's seem sweetest when cut with a bit of salt."

In Open Shutters, Salter proves herself as "a mature poet at the top of her form," commended Rochelle Ratner in Library Journal. Ratner continued to say that "technically, her poems are delightful," but found them somewhat lacking in emotional resonance. She pointed out that there are notable exceptions, including the poems "TWA 800," "On the Wing," and "The Big Sleep." Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman was unreserved in her praise for Open Shutters. She described the collection as a "lucid" meditation on "openness and transparency," and praised Salter's verse as so precise and eloquent that "the exhilarated reader feels as though she's watching a gymnast perform intricate, risky, and unpredictable sequences." Summarizing the significance of Salter's work, an essayist for Contemporary Women Poets claimed that her work, marked with "variety, grace, humor, and depth," establishes her as "one of the most important and engaging of American poets born since 1950."



Contemporary Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.


American Poetry Review, November-December, 1989, Marianne Boruch, review of Unfinished Painting, p. 21; March-April, 1991, Sam Hamill, review of Unfinished Painting, p. 37.

Antioch Review, winter, 1995, Judith Hall, review of Sunday Skaters, p. 119; winter, 2004, John Taylor, review of Open Shutters, p. 177.

Book, September-October, 2003, Stephen Whited, review of Open Shutters, p. 89.

Booklist, March 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of A Kiss in Space, p. 1279; May 1, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of Open Shutters, p. 1567.

Commonweal, December 3, 1999, review of William Pritchard, p. 22.

Hudson Review, autumn, 1989.

Library Journal, April 15, 2000, Barbara Hoffert, review of A Kiss in Space, p. 94; May 1, 2003, Rochelle Ratner, review of Open Shutters, p. 118.

New Criterion, June, 1999, William Logan, review of A Kiss in Space.

New Leader, April 8, 1985; July, 1989; June 14, 1999, Phoebe Pettingell, review of A Kiss in Space, p. 20.

New Republic, April 8, 1985; July 17, 1989.

New York Times Book Review, April 7, 1985; April 1, 1990, Stephen Dobyns, review of The Moon Comes Home, p. 26; April 11, 1999, Melanie Rehak, review of A Kiss in Space, p. 24.

North American Review, December, 1989, p. 58.

Poetry, November, 1985; April, 1990, Henri Cole, review of Unfinished Painting, p. 36; May, 1995, Robert B. Shaw, review of Sunday Skaters, p. 109; April, 2000, David Yezzi, review of A Kiss in Space, p. 42.

Publishers Weekly, March 29, 1999, review of A Kiss in Space, p. 98.

School Library Journal, March, 1990, Nancy Curtin, review of The Moon Comes Home, p. 200.

Times Literary Supplement, May 31, 1991.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 6, 1989; January 14, 1990; May 31, 1991.

Washington Post Book World, August 6, 1989; September 10, 1989.


Borzoi Reader Online, (April, 2001), interview with Mary Jo Salter.