It is a great privilege to come to the end of the year with a chance to perform an extreme act of kindness for the loyal and exuberant readers of Poetry Friday.

We received a gift of the season in the opportunity to interview a poet as wise, as accomplished, as simultaneously new and mature, as Gwendolyn Jensen. And herewith it becomes a gift to you as well.

Welcome to Part One of our conversation with Ms. Jensen, reverently offered with two poems from her inaugural book, Birthright.

Next week will bring the joy of her poem entitled “Christmas,” as well as Part Two of the interview. Joy To The World indeed.

Birthright is your first book of poetry, but it is clearly the work of a mature and accomplished poet.  Have you been writing for a long while? And when did you know you would collect your work into a volume?

I began to write poems when I retired from the presidency of Wilson College in 2001. I had written prose off and on throughout my career, first as a historian, then as an academic administrator. But I had never written poetry, though I have read it off and on, all my life.

I went to a poetry workshop for several years, which was very helpful, not only in learning how to write a poem, but also in such things as how to go about getting a poem considered for publication. Gradually I began to submit poems to journals, and though most were rejected (of course), some were accepted.

It was only in the last couple of years that I realized I probably had enough work for a book. I had not written the poems as if they were to be a part of a book. And then began the long and difficult process of creating a book, which I found to be very much like writing a poem.

Having come  to writing poetry at the end of an era in your life, what is your feeling about the potential for embracing an aspect of one’s authenticity late in life?

I don’t know if I would have been able to write at any other time. Or, putting it a better way, if I had begun writing at a more customary time, my work would have been very different—not worse, not better, just different.

For one thing, my natural inborn optimism and cheerfulness and joy would have been as yet unaffected by the reality of living. I would not have known loss or the reality, the certainty, of my own end.

And for another, my childish anger at being a child, at having the particular parents I had, at living where and when I lived, all those foolish things that young people seem to dwell on—all that would still have been a part of me, and I imagine would have appeared naked and foolish in my work, unsoftened by my time as a parent, by the fact of facts.

I do sometimes wonder about this, and regret the longer time to write that I have lost. But it was in that time, in the choices I made in that time, that came the living that enables me to write now.

And of course, assuming reasonable health and financial security, one can do in old age just about anything cerebral that one could have done while younger, only slower. And that’s not all bad, especially for a poet.


It is the crust of daybreak, that civil time

Between two different sorts of silence,

The one that seems to be, but isn’t, the one

That seems not to be, but is. She sniffs

What the overnight has left, what choices

Made by other dogs. There is a code,

A mindful pattern that defines a dog,

The dignity of dog—to lie to cool

The belly in a gutter puddle, to sense

The sense of rolling in dead squirrel, to know

The art, the science, of separation,

When to wait, to let go, to be done.


John Donne

It is late. Your handkerchief is folded

to keep the light of my reading from your eyes,

with little puffs of breath you make it rise

and fall, as all around us night unfolds.

It is a threadbare matter, getting old.

Nothing about us is quite done, our lives—

like this old shirt—are sweetened by surprise,

nicely turned, ironed slick.  And so wholesome

is our nakedness, its smell is chaste,

yet brazen now, as it was brazen then,

when in open solace unattended

we lay sleek in summer’s new-mown grace—

untouched by fear, untouched by fear’s sweet thirst—

we slowed the spin of rounded earth.

(Poems reprinted with Permission from Birthright. Copyright 2011 by Gwendolyn Jensen.  Birch Brook Press, Delhi, NY 13753. (607) 746-7453.)

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