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E. Jean Lanyon: The People's Poetby Pat Valdata

Jean Lanyon was named Poet Laureate1 of the state of Delaware in 1979, a two-year appointment that she held by default for 22 years. A native of that state, she has been intimately involved in Delaware arts and letters as both poet and painter. Her work is informed by her own experiences as a widow and single mother, by her ardent feminism, and by her empathy with the working poor. In her poetry and her paintings, she provides literary and visual observations of the landscapes and people she has encountered during her long career. She remains an enormously popular and populist figure in the First State; her poetry reading during an exhibition of her paintings at the Biggs Museum in Dover, the state capital, in April 2012, was standing room only.

Lanyon is representative of the many poets who achieve modest success working outside the academy—often, like Lanyon, through self-publishing and micro-presses—and who are largely ignored by canon makers. She is the antithesis of careerism: she is proud of her work, yet modest and gracious about it, and easily approached, very much not a snob. Her grandmotherly appearance, which serves her well when she is teaching art to troubled teens, belies a core of determination and a feistiness that erupts at the hint of any injustice or unfairness, especially with regard to women's lives, families, and work. Her social engagement is a product of both life experience and a long association with the literary magazine Dream Streets.

Her Life

E. Jean Lanyon—she does not reveal her first name—was born on July 1, 1935, in Wilmington, Delaware. Her parents divorced when she was a child, which she said was "very embarrassing" (personal interview, 2012). Lanyon lived with her mother after the divorce, but her father sent her poetry books, and she read additional poetry books at the library. Lanyon began drawing and writing during her childhood. Her talent was recognized by her aunt, who had one of Lanyon's sonnets published in a local newspaper when she was only 13 years old. Her talent was also recognized by her high school teachers, who wrote to Jeannette Slocum Edwards2, a local poet and painter, on Lanyon's behalf. In response to this letter of introduction, Edwards asked Lanyon to send her some of her poems. Edwards was so taken with Lanyon's work that she invited the 14-year-old to her home, where Lanyon met other local writers. Edwards treated the high-school student as a serious artist and poet, teaching her technique and introducing her to the work of Adelaide Crapsey, Vachel Lindsey, Emily Dickinson, and the Imagists. Lanyon became a regular visitor to writers' meetings at Edwards' home, and also took Edwards' creative writing class at the YMCA. Their relationship progressed quickly from mentor-student to good friends. The two women remained close for the remainder of Edwards' life.

When Lanyon was 16, her mother wanted her to leave high school and go to work. Lanyon's teachers managed to get her enrolled in a work-study program previously open only to boys. In the program, Lanyon went to school on weekday mornings, working in the afternoons and on Saturdays for seventy cents an hour. She studied drafting and architecture, skills with which she continued to earn a living after graduating from high school.

Eager for formal art training, Lanyon went to Goddard College, but seeking a more intensive course of study, she transferred to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Needing to support herself, she left school and worked in an art factory in Chicago, the city where she met George Andrew King. Lanyon and King were married in 1958. Only a few months later, King was killed in a car accident, the victim of a drunk driver. Lanyon, who was pregnant, came back to the familiar environment of Wilmington, where her daughter Stephanie was born in 1959. Lanyon finally completed her bachelor's degree in Goddard's low-residency program in 1974.

Lanyon taught art part-time in a storefront studio, but supported herself and her daughter through drafting, first at a Wilmington architectural firm, and then at the University of Delaware. As the sole woman working as a draftsperson in these offices, she experienced first-hand the workplace discrimination that was common almost everywhere during the 1960s and 1970s. Although she had 14 years of drafting experience when she was hired, she was unsuccessful in having her position upgraded from "salaried staff" to "professional," with the accompanying salary increase that would result. She was laid off from the University of Delaware after eight years, even though she was the only draftsperson in the department who had a college degree. She filed a wrongful discharge suit in federal court (Civil Action No. 80-350, August 13, 1982). She presented what the ruling called "a significant amount of evidence" about "working conditions and alleged harassment," (Civil Action No. 80-350, Note 17), but none of that material was admissible because of a time limitation. Lanyon lost the case, which she characterized as a feminist struggle against a male-dominated establishment, both within the university and the Delaware legal system.

Lanyon was working at the university in the 1970s when she joined a group of local counterculture poets who called themselves the Eschaton Writers3 One of them, John Hickey, produced a newsprint-format literary magazine in 1977 that he titled Dream Streets. Lanyon's artwork is in this issue, but her poetry did not appear in the magazine until 1979, in the second volume of Dream Streets. Lanyon became a regular contributor to Dream Streets (edited since 1980 by Stephen Leech) and sometimes art or poetry editor, until the magazine ceased publication in 2006.

Her first chapbook, people garden, was published in 1976 by Lenape Publishing (with a second printing in 2000). It contains 25 poems and is illustrated with line drawings by A. N. Wyeth, who studied art with Lanyon. Her second, woman scrapbook (self-published, 1979, reprinted in 2005) contains 16 autobiographical poems, illustrated with Lanyon's own collage artwork. She self-published two other small collections: poems in 1992 and snapshots in 1995. (Like E.E. Cummings, Lanyon eschews capitalization—she does not even capitalize her own name.) Other publications include the picture books The Myrno Bird and The Rose Garden; she has also illustrated books for writers Doris Inscho and Carolyn H. Caufman. Her work has also appeared in regional poetry anthologies, including A Delaware Sampler and In a Walled Garden.

Lanyon, along with other Eschaton Writers associated with Dream Streets, formed the 2nd Saturday Poetry Reading Series thirty years ago in honor of National Poetry Month. This monthly reading series continues today, with Lanyon still in attendance. In addition to her long tenure as Delaware's Poet Laureate, she received an Individual Fellowship in Painting from that state in 1997, and the Governor's Award for the Arts in 2000 for both her painting and her poetry. She is also past president of the state poetry society, First State Writers.

Now retired from full time work, Lanyon teaches art in her home studio. For the past four years she has also taught art at the Ferris School for Boys, a juvenile detention center in Wilmington.

Her Poetry

Like many poets of her era, Lanyon began writing metrical, rhymed poetry in imitation of the poets she read as a schoolgirl, but her published poetry shows how strongly she embraced free verse. Her chapbooks, even those published in the 1990s, are printed in lowercase sans serif fonts or even typescript to maintain an unassuming, retro-counterculture look. Most of the poems in her first collection, people garden, are untitled and written in the third person. They take the form of ironic observations of city life, with poems about a hit-and-run driver who wins a safe driving award (poem 6), a boy whose parents do not know that he "has a / switchblade or zipgun (poem 9), "dr. jekyl in his conservative / suit and immaculate manner" (poem 2). Or poem 19, which begins:

it won't be any different
in san francisco
than it was in new york
or montreal or kansas city
you will be anonymous
for only a little while (lines 1-5)

Lanyon then explains that the anonymity won't last because the "you" of the poem will become surrounded by "tides" of people who will enable the subject to "repeat / the habits that create / the history of yourself." It is also a book filled with lyrics about loss and longing, such as poem 8, about a gilded angel statue that ends up on:

another shelf and there
reflects for all to see
the careful shadow of itself
and all the things
it wasn't. (lines 16-20)

Her second collection, woman scrapbook, is, as the title suggests, a chronological account of incidents from a woman's life. In this case, the poems are first-person accounts, many, if not all, taken from Lanyon's own experiences. Beginning with her birth, the book chronicles events from childhood when "a girl is a cocoon / in which a woman grows" ("chrysalis" 14-15) to life as a mature woman and the mother of a teenaged daughter. These poems run the gamut of emotions, from wistful sorrow at her husband's premature death in "no rain" ("we had so little time together") to wry humor in "nine o'clock fantasy," when the speaker receives a phone call from her daughter to:

come and pick me up in one hour.
how liberated is that?
i wonder jotting
a new grocery list
on the back of the
overdue phone bill. (lines 21-26)

The collection ends with one of Lanyon's strongest poems, "lacemakers" (see appendix for full text) in which the speaker connects with generations of women who have worked with thread, especially those who are "more aware of the shapes of the holes / making of what is not there / that which is most beautiful." This celebration of negative space is written in a style characteristic of Lanyon's work, with short lines, repeated phrases, and an acute awareness of work that was, and usually still is, traditionally done by women. The poem opens and closes with the statement "we are the lacemakers," a phrase that is repeated halfway through the poem. It identifies lacemakers as "arachne challenging minerva /...industrious little spiders" who focus their efforts on "what is not there." Lanyon then explores the delicate and fussy work of lacemaking: "tatting and tying, shuttling and knotting, / entangling and ensnaring." What the lacemakers trap is "nothing," "everything," "openings, "exits and entrances"; in fact, they themselves become "entrances and exits" (a nice use of chiasmus). Note that these lacemakers do not make tablecloths, handkerchiefs, or mantillas; they make only one thing: veils. They are:

the weavers of veils,
the wearers of veils,
the tearers of veils,
the menders of veils,
the reweavers of emptiness. (lines 22-25)

Since in Western culture, most women wear a veil only when they are married, it is easy to hear in this poem not only a metaphor for the making of any art, and admiration for the skilled women who have made lace for generations of brides, but also the wistfulness of a woman who was once a young and pregnant widow.

In poems, her third collection, the voice is now that of a woman coming to terms with old age. The poems have an even stronger feminist slant than in Lanyon's previous two collections. Topics include sexual and domestic abuse, rape, homelessness, and poverty. The tone of the poems is more angry than pensive. In "advice," dedicated to another Delaware poet, Beverly Laws, the speaker advises the reader to hide in various ways, and then to hide in plain sight: "change your face / your clothes / your hair," (18-20), concluding with "grow up, grow old / but never, never / surrender" (22-24). In "another way to cry," the subject is a woman who borrows a sledge hammer to break up a concrete slab so she can build a garden, taking out her anger with each stroke: "WHAM for the man who lied! / WHAM for his ugly mouth! / WHAM for the vicious words!" (5-7).Yet this small volume concludes with two of Lanyon's most tender poems. In "my daughter," the child asserts her independence by walking "at arms [sic] length," but the speaker/mother's shadow "enveloped / your shadow and you." In "summer love," the speaker addresses an unknown person, comparing the beloved to the wildflower, Queen Anne's Lace:

hardy and wild—
untamable and uncontrolled
willful and strong
a common plant
but with a royal soul (lines 11-15)

As the name suggests, snapshots, Lanyon's final collection, contains very short poems, some about neighborhood characters, similar to those in people garden. But these later poems are more compact; a few of them, like "haunting song," are only five lines, reminiscent of a tanka:

grey cloud cover
keeps the mourning doves
cooing on and on,
little ghosts singing
through the day.

This volume is full of other ghosts: an amputated arm, a demolished school, a lost love who sends a letter "thirty years too late," a bird that flies too low and is hit by a car: "what made this bird / so intent / on singing one less song?" (kamikaze flight, 9-11). The entire book is about looking back, not looking ahead, which may be appropriate since the volume came out the year Lanyon turned 60, an age that can easily cause one to become retrospective.

Many more of Lanyon's poems appeared in Dream Streets, from "the tiny rowboat" in Volume 2 (1979) to "artist" in Volume 50 (2006). Both poems deal with themes that resonate throughout Lanyon's writing: poverty and art. In "the tiny rowboat," the speaker receives "one more bill" and recalls the father who said " 'don't worry, baby / god will take care of you!'" (15-16). The poem concludes:

i always figured god
was in the same boat as us—
there were a lot of nights
we all went to bed very hungry. (lines 17-20)

In "artist," the speaker is a "wild and willful child" chased by "mad dogs," yet "the art keeps leaking out / and betrays my whereabouts" (9-10). The "mad dogs" likely represent the establishment that Lanyon has railed against throughout her career.

All of Lanyon's poetry proceeds from advice given to her by Jeanette Slocum Edwards: "always work hard, be accessible and willing to take criticism, and don't become a snob." Lanyon has taken these words to heart, although criticism does make her bridle. Her work is extremely popular in Delaware. When she read during her exhibit at the Biggs Museum, she tried reading only three poems, but received repeated requests from the audience to read more. Among the audience for this reading was long-time colleague Stephen Leech, who now writes a blog called Broken Turtle. The blog's description shows that the anti-establishment culture of the Eschaton Poets is still alive in the First State:

Literature and politics from a microcosm called Delaware. Here all the multifaceted players across the great capitalist contradiction are reduced to a few actors: a handful of banking and chemical oligarchs squatting in châteaux, a stable of artists downwind who either take inspiration for amnesia and roses or take a stand, challenging the living to repair a polluted world. (http://brokenturtleblog.blogspot.com/)

In this blog, Delaware poet Phillip Bannowsky writes about Lanyon as follows:

The art and poetry of e. jean lanyon is direct, accessible, honest, contemplative, and beautiful. Ever refusing to be obscure, she has portrayed her life and the natural environment of Delaware as something for everyone to experience. How she has led her life is an inspiration to every artist struggling to be seen and heard in a tiny state that can be insular and suffocating. But our e. jean remains indestructible. (Blog post, April 4, 2012)

Thanks to her extended tenure as Poet Laureate, coupled with her grass-roots promotion of local poets through Dream Streets and Second Saturday Poetry Readings, in which she is still active, Lanyon holds a unique and beloved position in the First State poetry community.

Appendix A: Poems


it won't be any different
in san francisco
than it was in new york
or montreal or kansas city
you will be anonymous
for only a little while
and the sea of faces
will become
the tides that once
had washed your shore
and ruffled the sands
of your surface
and sprinkled seashell mementoes
here and there.
all of the maze will unravel
the careful labyrinth
will be too familiar
and you will repeat
the habits that create
the history of yourself.

Printed in people garden, Wilmington, DE: Lenape Publishing, 1976.

the tiny rowboat

when the bill
from the met-ed company came
i was washing dishes
for the seventh time that day,
and reached for the handtowel
that the refrigerator door
graciously held out to me.
how much does it really cost
to keep a 15 watt bulb burning
all night in an empty cabin?
one more bill i didn't open...
and i recalled my dad
who never supported us,
saying once again—
"don't worry baby,
god will take care of you!"
i always figured god
was in the same boat as us—
there were a lot of nights
we all went to bed very hungry.

Printed in Dream Streets, Volume 2, Ed. Betty McCaughey, 1979, p. 18.


we are the lacemakers
more aware of the shapes of the holes.
making of what is not there
that which is most beautiful.
we are the lacemakers
taking the least and
making from it the most.
arachne challenging minerva,
web spinners, industrious little spiders
weaving from essence a substance,
that in turn becomes essence.
making of what is not there
the most important.
we are the lacemakers
tatting and tying, shuttling and knotting,
entangling and ensnaring,
trappers of nothing,
trappers of everything,
shapers of holes—of openings,
of exits and entrances.
we are the entrances and exits,
the weavers of veils.
the wearers of veils.
the tearers of veils.
the menders of veils.
the reweavers of emptiness.
tenders of the spaces between
the gossamer threads.
we are the lacemakers.

Originally printed in woman scrapbook, 1979, p. 24

Reprinted in The Mickle Street Review #6, ed. Geoffrey M. Sill, Rutgers University: Camden, August 2006, p.73

my daughter

we stood in the bright sun
and morning grass,
you constantly holding
my presence at arms length.
i walk the careful distance
giving you the space to
always be yourself.
but my shadow,
not holding with convention,
laughed at me,
swelled beyond the size
of life— enveloped
your shadow and you.
i smiled and there i felt
the force of life.
once again so small
you grew within and
struggled toward identity
and lay within
a mothers womb
safely hidden in
the shadow of my love.

Printed in poems, 1992.

Appendix B: Bibliography


Lanyon, E. Jean. people garden. Wilmington: Lenape Publishing, 1976, 2000. ISBN 0-917178-07-6

-----. woman scrapbook. Self-published, 1979, 2005.

-----. poems. Self-published, 1992.

-----. snapshots. Self-published, 1995.

A Delaware Sampler: The First State Writers Anthology. Wilmington: Lenape Publishing, Eds. Gloria T Hull, Ruth Jillya Kaplan, E Jean Lanyon; illus. by E. Jean Lanyon, 1976.

In a Walled Garden: The First State Writers Anthology. Wilmington: Lenape Publishing, Eds. Jeannette Slocomb Edwards, E. Jean Lanyon, Sandy Michel; illus. by E. Jean Lanyon, 1974.

Poems in Dream Streets may be viewed at the Dream Streets Archive

Poems in The Mickle Street Review may be viewed at The Mickle Street Review Archive

Picture Books:

Lanyon, E. Jean. The Myrno Bird, Wilmington: First State Writers, 1970.

-----. The Rose Bush. United States: Xlibris, 1973.


Caufman, Carolyn H. A Little Laughter Helps. Philadelphia: Dorrance, 1976.

Inscho, Doris. Anita Mia. Wilmington: Lenape Publishing, 1976.


1 Poet Laureate is an honorary office whose duties vary from state to state. In Delaware, the Poet Laureate is appointed by the governor. No specific duties are required of the Delaware laureate; however, Delaware does provide administrative and clerical services and furnishes office space if requested. The Poet Laureate originally served a two-year term, but now it is an open-term position. The Delaware Poet Laureate serves as a member ex-officio on the state's Council on Archives and Cultural Affairs. The current Poet Laureate in Delaware is JoAnn Balangit, who was appointed in 2008.

2 Edwards, the daughter of poet Frank Fisher Slocomb, would become Delaware's second Poet Laureate from 1950-1953.

3 According to a prefatory note in Dream Streets Volume 2: "Eschaton refers to 'timeless time', both the end and the beginning of time. As writers and artists we step out of ordinary time and into the eschaton every time we 'create' (or are created)" (p.2).

E. Jean Lanyon
Years: 1935-
Birthplace: USA
Language(s): English
Forms: Free verse
Subjects: Women, poverty, city life
Firsts: Delaware Poet Laureate for 22 years
Entry By: Patricia Valdata
32 Poems
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