New Jersey has been — and still is — home to some of America’s most important poets. William Carlos Williams spent his life in Rutherford and Walt Whitman spent his final days in Camden. Two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is from Long Branch, Allen Ginsberg from Paterson, C.K. Williams from Newark — and renowned poets like Gerald Stern, Alicia Ostriker, Amiri Baraka, Stephen Dunn, Evie Shockley, and Denise Levertov have either lived or taught in the state.
My goal was to craft a list of 10 representative poems. I reached out to about 40 New Jersey-affiliated poets via email and received a far greater number of suggestions than could be included. Winnowing this list of hundreds of stellar examples wasn’t easy.
A few possibly notable exceptions:
I did not include “Paterson,” William Carlos Williams’ multi-book exploration of the growth of America as seen through the growth and collapse of the city of Paterson, because of its length (five books across several decades), though I feel it is rises above everything else on the New Jersey poetic landscape. I also did not include “Atlantic City” by Bruce Springsteen — one of several Springsteen lyrics to be suggested — or hip-hop lyrics by Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, and others.
I also did not include “Trees” by New Brunswick poet Joyce Kilmer. A staple of elementary school lessons, the poem is not directly about the state and most poets and critics view it as maudlin.
The final list is based on the suggestions I received, though I was the final arbiter. It is a partial list, at best. Others will have a different take, and I encourage readers to share their own lists in the comments section.
1. “To Elsie,” by William Carlos Williams
“To Elsie,” my favorite, is about a working-class girl caught up in the hardscrabble life in north-central and northwestern New Jersey — “the ribbed north end of Jersey” — in the early days of the past century. Elsie is, in the language of the time, from “common stock,” and the poem explores the limitations and desperation that are her destiny.
2. “Jersey Rain,” by Robert Pinsky
The poems in the book “Jersey Rain” are part of the poet’s move to a more public voice, the likely result of his two terms as an activist national poet laureate, as the critic Adam Kirsch, reviewing the book for The New York Times pointed out. It is part of a poetic mission to unify in the face of adversity and calamity.
3. “Specimen Days,” by Walt Whitman
Lisa Russ Spaar calls this collection “beautiful prose poetry about his time in south Jersey along Timber Creek, where he often went to convalesce while living in Camden.”
4. “Newark Noir” (originally published as “Newark Black: 1940-1954”) by C.K. Williams
Laura Boss, editor of the journal “Lips,” describes “Newark Noir” this way: “This poem captures the transitions that take place in our largest city in N.J., takes measure of its past and ends with hope for its future.”
5. “Corson’s Inlet,” by A.R. Ammons
Ammons was not from New Jersey, but his wife was a native and several of his poems feature New Jersey locales — including “Corson’s Inlet.” Lisa Russ Spaar, a Piscataway native and author of “Vanitas, Rough,” said this poem, which is “about a walk taken at the Jersey shore” came “immediately to mind.” It is a poem, I would add, that revels in its open-mindedness, a poem that follows the poet’s eye and is “willing to go along, to accept/the becoming/ thought, to stake off no beginnings or ends, establish no walls.”
6. “A Contract,” by Amiri Baraka
Its full title — “A Contract. (For the Destruction and Rebuilding of Paterson” — offers a glimpse into Baraka’s use of punctuation; he purposefully doesn’t close his parentheses (in the title and in the poem), which is an aggressive, no-holds-barred deconstruction of those — white, black, Latino — who have caused the city to crack apart.
7. “Wildwood in Spring,” by Kathleen Graber
Tammy Paolino, a South Jersey poet and newspaper editor, says that Graber’s poems cause her to imagine the poet is “sitting in one of those wooden chairs with backs that flip, depending on whether you want to gaze at the sea and the seagulls or the Wildwood tram car and arcades.” It is an apt image. Graber’s voice is philosophical and questioning, leading a reader to believe her a poet of dark moods. “Wildwood in Spring,” however, which looks at the frayed seams of the seaside town, offers a glimmer of hope, finding solace and rebirth in the regularity of the tides.
8. “Garden State,” by Allen Ginsberg
Ginsberg was not known for his writing about his home state (though sections of “Kaddish” are set there). Eliot Katz, a longtime friend of Ginsberg and a poetic heir, suggested this “terrific, if lesser-known, poem,” that is directly about New Jersey called “Garden State,” it “explores the irony of a state with that pastoral nickname allowing industrialism and political callousness to let the state’s environment deteriorate so terribly through the decades.”
9. “In New Jersey Once” by Maria Mazziotti Gillan
R.G. Evans, a South Jersey poet and high-school teacher, picked this poem out of dozens of equally emblematic ones by the woman often called the doyen of New Jersey poetry, calling it “a very short poem (that) speaks to the loss of the natural world due to urbanization,” a description that seems to sum up the history of the Garden State.
10. “Ode to Elizabeth,” by Joe Weil
Gillan describes this poem as “exquisite use of detail” that “captures the city and its people.” Dave Roskos, who runs Iniquity Press and publishes Big Hammer, also chose this as a uniquely New Jersey poem.
11. “The Star-Ledger,” by B.J. Ward
This is a poem about failure as much as it is an ode to a father, capturing the evanescence of the day’s news and the distance from it felt by people like the speaker’s father.
12. “Adopt-a-State,” by Betty Lies
The poem is a paean” to the best and worst of New Jersey — “embrace/our record: the most diners,/the most malls in all our country,/the most highways, / waste dumps, chemical producers.”
13. X.J. Kennedy’s “In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus”
Frank Finale, a Jersey Shore poet, called this poem a “rollicking, great humorous poem set to the tune of ‘Sweet Betsy from Pike.’”