Robert B. Shaw

Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award For Scholarship

"Becoming a poet is no easy task," reflects Robert Burns Shaw, the Emily Dickinson Professor of English. For over thirty years--he began teaching at Mount Holyoke in 1983, after receiving an A.B. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Yale--in one stunning volume of poetry after another, Robert Shaw has shown us that the task of poetry is truly his calling.

Beginning with Comforting the Wilderness (1977), followed by The Wonder of Seeing Double (1988), and the creative burst that begins with The Post Office Murals Restored (1994), Below the Surface (1999), Solving for X (2002.) In 2013, he received the prestigious Poet’s Prize for his most recent volume Aromatics (2011.) Robert has emerged as among the most important, indeed serious (although often wonderfully wry and witty) poets of his generation. When we consider his vast catalog of poetry criticism--writing with verve and generosity on virtually every major modern and contemporary poet of our time in such important journals as The Nation, Poetry Magazine, The Yale Review--along with his now standard academic study Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use (2007)--it is clear that Professor Shaw stands as a towering figure in the world of poetry, and in the landscape of contemporary letters.

How might we describe Robert as a poet? His subjects range from striking perceptions of the local geography, as in “Hill Towns in Winter,” which takes us on journey from the snowy present to a reflection on the continuing presence of the past (“Then there is a portion of road that seems a detour into the nineteenth century,” the poem begins). Or meditations on our often comic practical lives, as in “Making Do,” which leads from a new homeowner’s struggle to make well-honed home repairs to sudden, startling insights, the mundane yanking us into the past: “Making do, we don’t always do badly.”

What Robert observes about the achievement of one of his own major influences, our local Valley luminary Richard Wilbur, might be said of Robert himself: his poems “explore, from various angles, the interactions of perception and memory and speculate on the hows and whys of such negotiations. . . .They exemplify what they are about, because the poet’s keenness of perception and the substantial presence of what he describes are equally vivid  in his lines.” 

As a poetry teacher and teacher of poetry Robert is equally distinguished. A student in his Advanced Verse Writing observes, “Professor Shaw’s approach to verse writing is refreshing. His pedagogy revolves around letting the students find their own voice, find their own critical taste, and find their own inspiration.” Another student speaks about her beginning to understand how poetry works: “My favorite part of the course was the poetry section [no mean feat!], in which I feel I learned a lot about how much meaning a poem can hold and how to find it in meter, in rhyme, language and even in the poem’s appearance.”

In his essay “Consistency and Variety: Two Goals for the Poet,” Robert advises: “Read a lot, write a lot, listen to yourself; listen for yourself.” We, along with our colleagues and students over these many years have been listening to Robert Shaw’s brilliant poetic art with gratitude, and admiration.

For his superb record of achievement as poet, critic, scholar, and teacher, we are pleased to award the Meribeth E. Cameron Prize for Scholarship to Robert B. Shaw.