Poetry and Pros Glascock poet-judge Marianne Moore speaks with aspiring writers including 1955's eventual cowinners, Sylvia Plath (far right) and William Key Whitman (third from right).
Since 1923, Mount Holyoke College's Glascock poetry competition has launched the careers of some of this century's most celebrated poets. Past winners include Sylvia Plath, Donald Hall, Mark Halperin, Kenneth Koch, and Katha Pollitt; and MHC's own Mary Jo Salter, who took second place representing Harvard-Radcliffe in 1976. This year's event marks the contest's seventy-fifth anniversary and will take place on April 17 and 18. Poet-judges will be MHC alumna Gjertrud Schnackenberg '75 (twice a Glascock winner), Ellen Bryant Voigt, and former U.S. poet laureate Richard Wilbur.
The Kathryn Irene Glascock Poetry Prize Contest began in 1923 with a memorial gift from the parents of a member of the class of 1922 who died shortly after graduating. After one year as a contest within the College, it was expanded to an intercollegiate event and immediately became a tradition. Students are invited from an alternating roster of four to six colleges, with Mount Holyoke holding a permanent place in the competition. This year, Mount Holyoke's Yasotha Sriharan '98 will compete with representatives from Amherst, Bard, Barnard, Harvard, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Past Glascock judges--including W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan, Robert Frost, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, May Sarton, Stephen Spender, and Derek Walcott--represent the pantheon of modern American and English-language poets. Contest artifacts currently on display at the College Archives, including photographs, letters, manuscripts, and posters, show that judges have embraced the opportunity to encourage, direct, and anoint the next generation of important poets.
"My chief criticism of [student poets] as a general group lies in the matter of language. This comes, of course, from the attempt of all these writers to force their words and phrases into rigidly prescribed forms. It results in frequent inversion of phrase, the selection of the literary rather than the precisely observed term and the word that sounds rather than signifies," complained William Carlos Williams in 1942.
Such criticisms were strictly private; in public, the poets went out of their way to be kind to and supportive of the competition's young poets. In 1955, Judge John Ciardi gushed, "After a number of re-readings, all I am absolutely sure of is that Sylvia Plath walks away with first place hands down." That same year, Marianne Moore asked "that you will not darken the horizon of any contestant by letting him or her see my notes verbatim. Could you quote what surely might be helpful and nothing else?" Two decades later, Maxine Kumin echoed Moore. "I don't want to wound, only to be helpful," Kumin wrote.
Since the competition's inception, Mount Holyoke has fielded twenty-six first- or second-place winners, half of them before 1940. Just one MHC entrant has brought home the honors since 1985. But would-be entrants take heart. Even Sylvia Plath (then a Smith College student) took her lumps from 1955 Glascock judge Marianne Moore, who said Plath "evinces ability throughout," but disliked the way her "adjectival manner borders on formula."