Poetic License

B Y  K I R S T E N  W I L L E


A local musician and

unlikely scholar,

student Craig Arnold

tries his hand at poetry

and ups his ante

with prizes and praise.

Dressed in black leather pants and an oversized floral-print shirt, Craig Arnold pouts and wails into a microphone before the intimate crowd at Burt's Tiki Lounge, a lesser-known private club on State Street. The other members of Iris, an alternative-rock band of local indistinction, exchange knowing smiles at the antics of their singer and songwriter. The audience responds to the music only intermittently, unaware that they're witnessing a performance of America's most promising young poet.


Hermit crab

A drifter, or a permanent house-guest,
he scrabbles through the stones,
and can even scale
the flaked palm-bark, towing along his latest
lodging, a cast-off periwinkle shell.
Isn't he weighed down?
Does his house not pinch?

The sea urchin, a distant relative,
must haul his spiny armor each slow inch
by tooth only – sometimes, it's best to live
nowhere, and yet be anywhere at home.

That's the riddle of his weird housekeeping
– does he remember how he wears each welcome Out in its turn, and turns himself out creeping unbodied through the sand,
grinding and rude,
and does he feel a kind of gratitude?

©1994 Craig Arnold

A 30-year-old doctoral candidate in the U's creative writing program, Arnold is the 1998 winner of the coveted Yale Younger Poets Competition. Though he's not the only musician turned poet – the late Jim Morrison of the Doors self-published a collection of ineffectual verse, and neo-folk singer Jewel Kilcher is now raking in profits for her latest poetic endeavor – he's undeniably the most talented.

In July, Yale University Press informed Arnold that his book-length collection "Shells" had been declared the winner of its annual poetry contest for unpublished writers under the age of 40. Founded in 1919 to publish literature with "the fairest promise for the future of American poetry," the competition has launched the careers of the nation's finest poets, including Adrienne Rich, former poet laureate Robert Hass, Carolyn Forche, and the judge of this year's competition, W.S. Merwin. For a budding writer, there is no higher accolade. The award is a crowning accomplishment for both Arnold and the creative writing program where he honed his skills.

Merwin, who declined to name a winner last year because he said no entry, in its entirety, merited the award, calls Arnold's 27-poem manuscript a "gifted collection of daring writing." Traditional in form, the poems engage a range of timeless but contemporary subjects, from love, desire, and intimacy to death, loss, and distance. Yale University Press will publish "Shells" in April 1999.

Many of Arnold's poems are narrative, conversational, and written in rhymed couplets. He says he imagines readers will find his work "classical, in an in-your-face kind of way." Though he could not point to any particular influence on his work, he admits to greatly admiring the English romantic poet Lord Byron and the Roman poet Horace for their polish, ease, humor, and generosity.

Arnold has been writing poetry since completion of his undergraduate degree at Yale in 1989. He says that he was shocked by the award, though it was not the first honor in recognition of his talent – nor was it the last.

In September, "Shells" won first place in the poetry collection category of the Utah Arts Council's fortieth annual Utah Original Writing Competition. Arnold also received second place in the competition's poetry selection category.

Two years ago, he received the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship which allowed him to spend nearly half the year 1996 writing in Sanlucar de Barrameda, a small port at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River in Spain's southern province, Andalusia. And his work has been featured in numerous publications, such as Poetry, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, and The New Republic.

In January, Arnold was notified that his poem "Hot" was selected for inclusion in the 1998 edition of Scribner's annual anthology, Best American Poetry, along with a poem by U English professor and head of the writing program, Jacqueline Osherow, with whom Arnold has studied.

A Guggenheim fellow with three volumes of published poetry. Osherow says Arnold is a "wonderful poet and student," though she wasn't always sure he'd realize his potential in those directions.

But Arnold's willfulness to be different and think for himself didn't prevent him from listening to suggestions and carefully weighing critical reviews of his work. "That's one of the great things about him as a student, his ability to take suggestions. He kept pushing and worked very hard. He's very ambitious and takes enormous risks," says Osherow.

She attributes much of Arnold's success to his dedication as a serious student of literature. "I think that his devotion to academics shows in his poems, which are very sophisticated. We're very proud of him." she says. Although his extracurricular endeavors make him an atypical scholar, Arnold's success reflects the writing program's philosophy: the more one reads, the more one understands what is possible to achieve, and the greater the likelihood of producing something of excellence and literary value.

Arnold, who says he plans to continue writing, will no doubt continue to produce meaningful poetry. Meanwhile, he says he intends to stick around Sale Lake City with his wife and 4-year-old, perform with his band, and look for a university teaching position, which his recent accomplishments practically assure him.

If the U's showing at the recent fortieth annual Utah Original Writing Competition is any indication, Craig Arnold isn't the only student earning accolades along with his degree. U of U students placed in all but one division of the Utah Arts Council's contest, sweeping the poetry category and dominating the short story category as well. The U winners are as follows:


1st Place
Brenda Miller

2nd Place
Craig Arnold

Honorable Mention
Melanie Figg

Honorable Mention
Jennifer Tonge


Short Story

1st Place
Michael Gills

Personal Essay
Honorable Mention
Susan M. Anderson

Honorable Mention
Michael Gills

Nonfiction Book

2nd Place
Natalie Taylor

Poetry Collection
1st Place
Craig Arnold

2nd Place
Lance Larsen

2nd Place
Lisa Vickmore

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