For Love of Language
Poet and publisher Constance Hunting on the melody and mystery of
A poet and widely published author,
owner of one of the foremost small presses in Maine and founder of the
state's first literary magazine, a teacher and mentor to countless
numbers of University of Maine students through the years, Hunting
continues to make her distinctive mark on the literary world.
She is a champion of language, a true apostle of the integrity of words.
Much of what she has accomplished the influence she has brought to
bear on the literary community in Maine and beyond has been in the
name of language and literature.
In an information age, Hunting's dedication to the deliberateness of
language and commitment to create a lyrical artform rather than just
communicate may seem out of time. Amid the onslaught of verbiage in our
lives, Hunting asks us to hear the words and to feel their meaning,
based on her conviction that language has a melody and mystery all its
own, that good writing requires no thesauri, and that writers of all
ages are on the same literary path, but at different stages.
"I like to look and listen," says Hunting of her love of language.
"Place and landscape are important to me, just as Maine is in my work. I
remember standing for 15 minutes beside a stream in autumn and just
watching the leaves. What a luxury the color, motion and shapes."
by Constance Hunting
My grandfather once saw a black-
snake in the act
of swallowing a frog.
Quick as lightning Grandfather
fetched the axe,
smote that snake like thunder.
The frog sprang out and sprang away
across the meadow likely to start
a new religion. Grandfather said
you never saw a frog
leap so high!
by Constance Hunting
are the sheep of these
is the wool of these stones
A native of Rhode Island, Hunting
pursued her interests in music and writing from an early age. At 7, she
started taking piano lessons. She also wrote her first poem. It was
about a November sunset.
"That was my track music, and always reading and always writing," she
At Brown University, Hunting studied music and English. When she married
and began a family, her training as a classical pianist took a backseat.
But not her writing.
"You can't practice (piano) four to six hours a day, but you can write
in your head," she says. "Children go to bed early when they're young;
then they go to school."
Now, as it was then, says Hunting, "there is never a time that I'm away
from the writing. It's always in the back of my head."
In 1960, Hunting's first adult poem, "After the Stravinsky Concert," was
published. By the end of that decade, her first book of poems by the
same title was published by Scribners.
Of the poem, Iconic poet William Carlos Williams noted that "something
clicked for me and when that happens I hope I have sense enough to
recognize it as a rare occurrence."
Poet and novelist May Sarton once said of Hunting's poetry: "I stay
puzzled, fascinated, unused to a magic door that has such sudden
Hunting was named poet laureate of Indiana before moving with her family
to Orono in 1968. Her husband, Robert, a scholar of 18th-century
literature, served as head of the English Department during his first
eight years at UMaine.
"The milestones in poetry are the people who teach you," says Hunting.
"They are not necessarily professors but those who make you say, Oh, I
see,' when you read them. For me, those people included Wordsworth,
Shakespeare, of course, and the romantics generally; and T.S. Eliot,
Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop. Virginia Woolf was the highest for me
in her prose, criticism, novels and diaries. I started reading her when
I was 17. She also makes it seem so easy while, at the same time, so
many things are going on in the work a lot of simultaneous mental
Throughout her life, Hunting read a lot of fiction, but it was poetry
that struck a chord.
"It had to do with the chimes of the sound," she says. "My poetry is
very musical, people say. Playing with that sound is the core of my
work. I doubt it would be the poetry that it is without the music and
its composition the repetition, themes, sound, transition of keys.
"Some people think poetry is the communication of ideas. I regard it as
a much higher example of the possibilities of the human being. If you
want to (simply) communicate, send a memo."
Language, says Hunting, is a mystery. Writing how an author knows
which word or combination of words to use to convey meaning is not an
exact science. How one views words and their usage means the difference
between communication and creativity.
"Some people use thesauri and think synonyms are equal," says Hunting,
who was one of six writers of Maine tapped last year for the debut of "A
Good Read: Writers on Writing," a Maine Public Broadcasting series,
hosted by author Sanford Phippen. "As a result, they are attempting to
communicate rather than to make something. Part of the mystery of
language is the cluster of resonance that surrounds a certain word like
In her poetry, which ranges from imagist lyrics to a verse novella,
Hunting is in constant pursuit of "the only word no easy phrases
unless they're the right ones, no dipping into the basket of cliches."
"All that makes me a slow writer," she says. "In some ways, it's like
listening to the oracle. You wait and some words come up from the well.
It is not a journal but a mysterious process. It's an exploration."
Hunting's first book was published in 1969. "The royalties were hot in
my pocket," she remembers. "I told myself I'd redecorate some rooms of
the house. But I'd always been interested in small presses like Woolf's
in London. Then one day a book came into my hands in the library stacks
about presses. I sat on the floor and read it.
"After that, I would wake up every morning thinking, How can I start a
press?' People told me, You're crazy,' and that just reinforced the
Hunting founded Puckerbrush Press in 1971. Seven years later, she
started a biannual literary magazine, Puckerbrush Review. As a result,
Hunting has fostered the aspirations of more than 50 book authors, and
countless other writers whose works have been published in the Review.
"The press fills a great interest in my life. I like to read stories and
poems, and I know certain things need to be in print."
Hunting knows some of the authors she publishes; many she has never met.
Literature published by Puckerbrush contains either Maine or
The press receives up to 40 manuscripts each month. Those chosen for
publication are in keeping with Hunting's definition of good literature.
"I look for writing that's clear but fresh, that is at once new and
recognizable," she says.
One of the hallmarks of the Puckerbrush legacy is the publication of
authors who subsequently went on to even wider literary recognition. It
has published works by and about renowned writer May Sarton, and debuted
such authors as James Kelman, Carolyn Chute, Tema Nason and Lee Sharkey.
Hunting characterizes a small press like hers as "a pleasant little
fillip in the literary world." For those who know Hunting, Puckerbrush
is the vehicle through which she successfully champions writing in
"For me, it's a kind of a missionary thing, opening up language to
people," says Hunting, who received Westbrook College's Deborah Morton
Award for Literary and Cultural Contributions to Maine in 1992. "These
are books that are not going to be on a national best-seller list.
Instead, they are part of a literary enterprise experimental, probably
elitist, and done for the love of literature."
Hunting also champions writing in Maine through her work in the
classroom, where she has been teaching English full-time since 1978.
Students come away from her classes with a new appreciation for
language, the self-confidence to find their voices, and a full
understanding of Hunting's knowledge of good writing.
"Teaching, reading poetry, creative writing with students are part of
experiencing the whole spectrum," she says. "I love to get people who
are starting this amazing path."
The journey's goal is "to find out what language is all about," says
Hunting, who helped found the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance.
"When you have students and see that first light in their eyes when
they're talking about a word with connotations, it's rather thrilling."
Hunting thrives on students' freedom to approach literature with fresh
perspectives, and the ability of poetry to be timeless.
"I can't teach the same poem in the same way twice. My notes are not
yellowed in that I have no notes. I have the source the poem. When
students see the teacher thinking right there with them, they realize
(the literature is) alive."
In the past three decades, Hunting has had 14 books of her own prose and
In 1991, The Myth of Horizon, a selection of more than 30 poems, placed
her in the international literary spotlight. That year found her giving
a poetry reading at Harvard, a poetry workshop at the New School in
Manhattan and a residency at The Mount in Yorkshire, England.
Hunting's most recent book, Natural Things: Collected Poems 1969-1998,
was published two years ago by the National Poetry Foundation, based at
The University of Maine.
Next year, Puckerbrush will publish An Amazement, a book of new poems by
Hunting. Also next year from Puckerbrush: a two-volume set of some of
May Sarton's earliest poems and journal writing.
"I love the life and being here," says Hunting of her career in Maine.
"I just don't want to miss anything and think later, I wish I had tried
that.' I see my life as a crystal, multifaceted, so that when you hold
it up to the light, you see different patterns."
by Margaret Nagle
December, 2001/January, 2002
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.