Claudia Emerson

Claudia Emerson (1957– )

Claudia Emerson, a Virginia native and long-time resident of the state, is one of the South's most prominent poets, winning the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for her volume Late Wife. Although a narrative poet, Emerson is nevertheless distinguished by her dense lyricism and sustained dedication to the rough blank verse line. Her books, all published by Louisiana State University Press, include Pharaoh, Pharaoh (1997), Pinion: An Elegy (2002), and Late Wife (2005). MORE...


Born and raised in Chatham, Emerson spent her early years in a largely rural culture. In an interview with the literary journal Shenandoah, for which she is a contributing editor, she remembered her childhood as a time when "white children joined the Children of the Confederacy right along with the church choir and the Girl Scouts." This experience of race and class segregation helped shape her self-definition as a "Southern writer," and her work, as a result, attends to the voices of the undervalued and dispossessed: farmers, the elderly, and—most often—women.

This attention to the individual voice is apparent in Pharaoh, Pharaoh, which also highlights Emerson's other abiding interest: the natural world. In poems like "The Taxidermist" and "Bait Man," she creates speakers whose professions seem mired in ugliness but who reveal that their seeming entanglement with death can also be interpreted as a "messy resurrection" of an animal or a shattered human body.

In fact, Emerson's second book, Pinion: An Elegy, owes its overall shape to the voices of her rural characters. Three members of a farm family, "Preacher," "Sister," and their much-younger sister, Rose, govern the book; different sections are devoted to their first-person narratives, which, together, make up a choral interplay almost dramatic in its effect. As each character relates the tale of a life circumscribed by poverty, family obligation, and illness, an unfolding larger story of their combined struggle for beauty in relentlessly harsh situations emerges.

Late Wife marks a significant, though not radical, departure from the earlier books. Culminating in a sonnet sequence dedicated to Emerson's husband, these poems are more directly autobiographical. They lean more into lyric, as the voice of the poet surfaces. Narrative remains a strong presence, and the poems still linger on the rich details of nature—a hawk caught in a batting cage, bumblebees and spiders that infest a house, locusts dying in a drought—but a sharper picture of a contemporary southern woman—observer, discoverer, lover—grounds these images.

Emerson, who teaches at the University of Mary Washington, is at work on a series of poems located in a girls' boarding school, much like the one she attended in Chatham. Marked by a growing interest in the intersection of various genres of text, these poems use epigraph, allusion, and anecdote to explore the female body itself as a text, both social and sacred, that straddles the border between the natural and the constructed worlds.

Time Line

  • January 13, 1957 - Poet Claudia Emerson is born in Chatham, in Pittsylvania County.
  • 2006 - Claudia Emerson wins the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry volume Late Wife.
Further Reading
Byrne, Edward. "Everything We Cannot See: Claudia Emerson's Late Wife." Valparaiso Poetry Review 8 (Fall/Winter 2006-2007).
Emerson, Claudia "An Interview with Claudia Emerson." By Sarah Kennedy. Shenandoah 56, no. 3 (Winter 2006): 27-37.
Williams, Susan Settlemyre. Review of Pinion: An Elegy, by Claudia Emerson. Blackbird: An Online Journal of Literature and the Arts 1, no. 2 (Fall 2002).
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Kennedy, S. Claudia Emerson (1957– ). (2014, May 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

  • MLA Citation:

    Kennedy, Sarah. "Claudia Emerson (1957– )." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 27 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: February 26, 2008 | Last modified: May 27, 2014

Contributed by Sarah Kennedy, associate professor of English, Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia.


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