‘The Job of a Poet Is to Tell the Truth’: Remembering Gerald Barrax

Poet Gerald Barrax sits at his desk.

Poet Gerald Barrax published six books of poetry and won numerous awards and honors over a long, illustrious career. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Acclaimed poet Gerald Barrax, emeritus professor of English at NC State, died on Saturday, Dec. 7, after he was struck by a vehicle while walking across a street in Raleigh. He was 86.

Barrax won numerous awards and honors during his career, including the Raleigh Medal of Arts, the R. Hunt Parker Award for Literary Achievement, the Sam Ragan Award for Contribution to the Fine Arts, the Broadside Press Award for Poetry and the North Carolina Award for Literature, which cited him as one of North Carolina’s “most eminent and accomplished writers.” The North Carolina Award is the highest civilian honor presented by the state. He was also inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.

Barrax’s poems appeared in such prestigious literary journals as the Georgia Review, the Southern Review and Poetry, and they have been included in more than three dozen anthologies. He also wrote six books of poetry. His 1992 book Leaning Against the Sun was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Inspired by a Tonsillectomy

Gerald William Barrax was born in Attalla, Alabama, in 1933. His family moved to Pittsburgh in 1944. His interest in poetry was sparked during his senior year in high school when a girl wrote him a poem after he had been hospitalized for a tonsillectomy. In response, Barrax wrote a poem back to her, which turned out to be the first poem in a storied career.

“It was just as bad as hers, but at least it got me started,” he said.

Barrax graduated high school in 1951 and took a job with U.S. Steel in Homestead, Pennsylvania, to earn money for college. At the steel mill, an ex-convict co-worker of Barrax’s introduced him to a book of love poems by Walter Benton, which further stimulated his interest in poetry.

In 1952 he enrolled in Duquesne University as a pharmacy major. He soon began having trouble paying for school, so after a year he left college and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force to obtain G.I. Bill funding for his education. He was stationed at an Air Force base in Greenville, South Carolina, where he wrote a great deal of poetry despite being largely unaware of poetic conventions.

“I had been writing all along, writing very bad stuff and not knowing it was bad,” he said.

One day at a used bookstore in Greenville Barrax discovered Clement Wood’s Poets’ Handbook, which he studied to teach himself the fundamentals of poetic craft.

After his discharge from the military in 1957, Barrax returned to Duquesne — but not to the pharmacy program. “I realized I couldn’t spend the rest of my life putting pills into bottles,” he said. He switched to journalism and kept writing poetry.

The campus newspaper published one of his poems, and when his English teacher saw the poem she liked it so much that she read it aloud to Barrax’s class. She also told him he should be an English major, so he took her advice and graduated from Duquesne in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in English.

Barrax went on to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, where he completed a Master of Arts in English in 1969. That same year he got hired as an instructor at North Carolina Central University in Durham.

In 1970 Barrax left N.C. Central to begin his 27-year career of teaching poetry at NC State. This was also the year when he published his first book of poems, Another Kind of Rain, nearly two decades after he began writing poetry.

“I love being in the classroom more than anything else,” Barrax said of teaching. “I just love sharing what I’ve learned with other people. I love seeing their enthusiasm.”

An Emphasis on Craft

Barrax was famous — or infamous, depending on whom you asked — for insisting that his students do rigorous exercises to learn the mechanics of the poetic craft.

“I believe an artist should know his craft, whether he is a painter or a sculptor or an author,” he said. “It’s like trying to build a house with only a hammer and a saw. You can’t do it. You have to have the tools to build a complete house. You need all the tools in the toolkit of poetry to build a complete poem.”

While at NC State, Barrax served as editor of Obsidian II: Black Literature in Review and as poetry editor of Callaloo, a literary journal of the African diaspora. Barrax became a poet-in-residence at NC State in 1986, a position he held until his retirement in 1997. After retirement, he continued to serve as an emeritus professor of poetry. When NC State’s MFA program in creative writing was launched in 2004, he taught poetry courses to MFA students.

“Gerry was a fine poet and teacher,” says Emeritus Professor John Kessel, former director of the MFA program and a longtime colleague of Barrax. “He was a craftsman, a quiet, thoughtful man, with interests that ranged far beyond poetry.”

Tony Harrison, Distinguished Professor of English, remembers Barrax this way: “He was an admired teacher and mentor to his students, though demanding. A perfectionist in his own work, he required that his students strive to achieve their best potential, and he assisted them in doing that however he could. A normally quiet person of utter integrity, he kept a low profile, but his colleagues understood his many strengths — and how lucky they were to have him working in their midst.”

“He was one of the finest professors I’ve had at State,” says Judith Darling, a former student of Barrax’s who is now a lecturer in the Department of English. “He changed me profoundly in the standards he set and the insight he had. His presence! Just his presence was this moment of quiet dignity and deep respect for his students. Words can barely convey what a rare soul he was.”

One of Barrax’s closest friends was poet Betty Adcock, a former student of his who later taught poetry alongside him at NC State. “Gerry was a powerful poet whose power was matched by love in his work,” she says. “He was shy, funny and the kindest, gentlest man I have ever known. Gerry’s poems are fine, unusual, taking the English language tradition to wider places without ever losing it. He was quietly and passionately one of the very best poets North Carolina has ever had.”

And how might Barrax himself have summed up his life as a poet?

“The job of a poet is to tell the truth,” he said. “And everything flows from that.”

Barrax is survived by his four children and eight grandchildren.

His funeral service will be held at noon on Friday, Dec. 20, at Lea Funeral Home Chapel, 2500 Poole Road, Raleigh, with visitation beginning one hour prior.

This post was originally published in NC State News.