Mary Jo Salter describes herself as a ‘particularly formal poet’. Her attention to and rigorous engagement with poetic form is not only manifested across her eight books of poetry, but in her co-editorship of the Norton Anthology of Poetry in its fourth and fifth edition – a staple for many students and scholars of American and English poetry – and in her classes at Johns Hopkins, where she is a Professor in The Writing Seminars. The recipient of numerous fellowships and accolades, her second collection, Unfinished Painting (1989), was a Lamont Selection, Sunday Skaters (1994) was shortlisted for a National Book Critics Circle Award and in 2015 she received The Poets’ Prize for Nothing by Design (2013), to name just a few. Salter has also acted as poetry editor for The New Republic and an assistant editor for The Atlantic Monthly, and vice president of the Poetry Society of America (1995-2007).

Jessica Johnson writes that ‘reading Mary Jo Salter can be like taking a walk with a very bright friend who has a knack for the well-told anecdote, the vivid confidence’; her writing is both richly cosmopolitan and closely engaged with domestic and personal histories – marriage, dementia and the learning of a foreign language all feature in her poems. Amy Glynn, reviewing Nothing by Design, describes the ‘quintessential Salter’: ‘self-effacing humour, puns, malapropisms and serendipitous mishearings’ and ‘a substrate […] of existential dread’. Humour and dread are bound together as the poems frequently walk a tightrope between light verse and elegy: form is thoroughly integrated with compassion and humanity. Salter has spoken of the redemptive qualities of sound in poetry, that ‘if we hear certain sounds that chime for us they provide a subliminal consolation even if the subject can be quite dark’, and in her recordings for the Archive such chiming is delicately enunciated; there is an embrace, in ‘Absolute September’, of the inevitability of cycles both aural and seasonal: ‘as soon as one leaf’s off the tree / no day following can fall free / of the drift of melancholy’.

Form comes to the fore in ‘Complaint for Absolute Divorce’, a villanelle, which brings to mind Bishop’s ‘One Art’ (Salter was a student of Bishop’s at Harvard): its use of iambic tetrameter rather than pentameter gives a heightened sense of constriction – there is little room for ‘practise’ in the context of divorce. The repeated rhymes on ‘divorce/endorse’ embody a charged ambivalence, with its sharp to-fro between force and hesitation, which troubles the speaker’s assertion ‘Nothing by design’, a curious and deceptive claim, particularly in the context of the poet’s oeuvre, the word ‘nothing’ being itself intrinsically related to form (‘form, perhaps, is the sense of nothing’, writes Angela Leighton).

These poems are also frequently ekphrastic and are fascinated by the perception – or misperception – of visual stimulus and art, illusion and allusion (‘Who needs real shadow more than play?’), be it the ‘Trompe l’Oeil’ of the painted shutters in Genoa, which are also crucially a deceit of language, of ‘the words pinned to this line’, or Botticelli’s Venus reproduced on the pavement in chalk by a street artist. In describing art – its process, medium, perception – the poems often describe themselves, or the very act of self-description, forming a kind of Möbius strip of self-reflection and ‘unbroken / concentration’ from Maes’ ‘Young Girl Peeling Apples’:

[…] as he:
                     who has
                painted her at her knife
paints the brush that puts life
      in her, apple of his eye

To hear Salter’s light, exacting readings of these poems is to feel one’s own unbroken concentration build as ever more elaborate patterns of sound and image emerge. 

This recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 5 November 2015 at the Centre for Educational Resources, Johns Hopkins University and was produced by Brian Cole.

Mary Jo Salter’s favourite quotes about poetry:

‘If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’ – Emily Dickinson

‘Poetry is not magic.  In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.’ – W.H. Auden

‘But the purpose of the poem is not disclosure or storytelling or the telling of a daydream; nor is a poem a symptom.  A poem is itself and is the act by which it is born.’ – Mark Strand

Poems by Mary Jo Salter

The Rebirth of Venus - Mary Jo Salter
Young Girl Peeling Apples - Mary Jo Salter
Absolute September - Mary Jo Salter
Trompe l’Oeil - Mary Jo Salter
Complaint for Absolute Divorce - Mary Jo Salter
Bed of Letters - Mary Jo Salter
Mary Jo Salter in the Poetry Store

The free tracks you can enjoy in the Poetry Archive are a selection of a poet’s work. Our catalogue store includes many more recordings which you can download to your device.

Books by Mary Jo Salter



The Frost Place poet in residence


Lamont Selection for 'Unfinished Painting'


Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship


The Poets’ Prize for 'Nothing by Design'