You will find God in the poetry of Temple Cone.
It may not be the God of Moses and the Burning Bush, bearing great pronouncements, instead, you are more likely to experience the divine in a way comparable to the deity the prophet Elijah encountered in the wilderness after a great, and sudden storm: A God who speaks in lyric silences.
In our social media-saturated world, many self-styled Christian artists, writers, and singers use God as a prop on stage, or a hook in an otherwise bland, three-chord pop hymn. When faith is an adverb, it falls flat.
What Cone does is give us a glimpse into the complexities of life. In doing this, he takes a classical and balanced approach to explore the human experience. And sometimes it is cosmic.
Cone uses poetry like a loom, and the words woven into the garment he offers speaks of something beyond us in believable, compelling, and sometimes lyric language.
Cone may also have “poetry’s” most novel teaching gig out there. Cone, who also is the poet laureate for the City of Annapolis, is a U.S. Naval Academy English professor.
“It is an absolutely terrific place to teach,” says Cone. “One thing I always say is that if poetry really matters, the people I should be teaching are not liberal arts majors, and in this case, it is to future officers.”
Cone’s honors include two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council and an Annie Award for Literary Achievement. He can trace his poetic roots back to childhood. His parents, he remembers, would read to him from Eugene Field’s Wynken, Blynken, and Nod at night.
“I think as a child, I always responded to poetry and to the musicality of it,” he says.
His early upbringing in the church also played a role. It is something that still reverberates in his work.
“I know some of that goes back to being said Episcopalian and being an acolyte in church and in being exposed to hymn and the liturgy,” he says.
Cone holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, an M.F.A. from the University of Virginia, and an M.A. from Hollins University. Certainly, one of the country’s leading poets, Cone confesses that his first literary aspiration was to be a Hemingway, rather than an Eliot.
“But in my last year in college, I took a writing class with poet Claudia Emerson (who later went on to win the Pulitzer Prize). She had a way of talking about meter and the life rhythm in a line of poetry. It not only made sense, but it made it seem like it would be worthwhile devoting oneself to (poetry),” he says. “She showed me that a life could be perfectly well spent working for a poem.”
Cone continued to write verse in pursuing his Masters, and he confesses that grad school gave him “lots of time to get the bad writing” out of his system.
“Creative writing programs are great for that,” he believes.
The lyric quality of Cone’s work is never excessive or garish. If poetry is a landscape, then God would be the tundra underlying his work. It permeates his poetic topography.
“It is the language that I have been furnished with,” he says. “In some ways, I cannot help but write a poem that way.”
Those early church years continue to resonate poems like this startling poem, Psalm:
We hold the hands of the dying as if we might follow them.
But they journey alone, and we must prepare for the darkness
By walking outside and filling our pockets with sunlight.
L E A R N M O R E
Cone is the author of four books of poetry: Guzzle, (FutureCycle Press); That Singing (March Street Press); The Broken Meadow, which received the Old Seventy Creek Poetry Press Series Prize in 2010); and No Loneliness, a book that received the 2009 FutureCycle Press Poetry Book Prize. Cone was invested as Annapolis’ Poet Laureate on 18 June 2018. He has a forthcoming chapbook coming out, and he continues to work on a longer collection.
Image by Tom Darin Liskey