Sedona Lit is a series by Dr. Elizabeth Oakes, an award winning poet and former Shakespeare professor. A Sedonian of three years, she will highlight the literature, written or performed, of Sedona, past and present.
By Elizabeth Oakes
(December 21, 2015)
Nearly everyone has a story about how they found Sedona (or how Sedona found them). Sedona especially seems to call artists, musicians, writers, spiritual seekers, dreamers, and movers and shakers. It called the poet Patricia Benton in the mid 1950s.
In 1951 Benton moved from Westchester County in New York to Phoenix for health reasons. However, by 1956 she had found Sedona and Sedona had found her, and it changed her poetry, as she writes in the introduction to Cradle of the Sun:
“The impressions of Sedona and some of its people that have come into my life have been the source of these poems, written since my husband (Norman MacDonald) and I first discovered ourselves as part of this land. It has given us an opportunity to grow creatively which we hope to translate to others with the insistence of beauty that cannot be denied. Our home, Cradle of the Sun, now nearing completion bears witness to this dedication.”
Places like Sedona seem to inspire especially artists of all kinds to relate to the earth itself as an extension of themselves, and vice versa, and this was true of Benton. She writes in the introduction to Signature in Sand of this town as a place of personal, perhaps spiritual healing (sound familiar?):
“In contrast to the perennial greenery . . . that had been my background since childhood, I found in my sudden, new surroundings a startling, rugged strength that spoke to me of timelessness and enduring. I found I had actually, somehow, identified my own inner struggle with this quiescent, impersonal world.”
As a newcomer to Sedona, I first heard of Patricia Benton from the late Chris Riley, who loaned one of Benton’s books from her collection to an exhibit promoting the Sedona Art Museum in May, 2013. Chris had been a friend of Benton’s, as had her mother. Being interested in the literary history of Sedona, I was intrigued, especially when I started looking through her books.
Although some of Benton’s poetry, with its reliance on rhyme and flowery language, may seem dated, much is quite contemporary in its use of imagery instead of (or in addition to) rhyme and in its sharply honed language, such as in “River Song” from Cradle of the Sun about the red earth of Sedona:
As long as water flows
There will be song.
Ask the cliffs
To tell of mystery.
Ask the horizon
To speak of boundlessness.
Ask the red earth
Quite a few of Benton’s poems are as short as can be, which enhances the impact, as this one entitled “Morning” in Signature of Sand:
And this one, “Yucca Blossom at Dusk,” also from Signature of Sand:
In haloed light
Also in Signature of Sand, I found this mystical poem, “Endowment”:
We climb the ladder,
rung by rung,
Where the first great
star is hung.
And there we clasp
a shimmering arc,
the canyoned dark.
Here winds repeat
the ancient vow,
Where sands endure,
Where gods endow.
Those in Signature in Sand are accompanied by woodcuts by a Phoenix artist named Paul Coze, the desert colors of the art adding to the words, as in “Noon”:
An Indian woman,
close to earth,
weaves her shuttle
across the great loom
to follow patterns
of insistent sun.
Besides writing poetry, Benton was instrumental state-wide in Arizona, which she called “the new frontier of poetry.” She, for instance, promoted poetry in the public schools and was Chairman of Arizona Poetry Day because she “felt it necessary to lift poetry off the page and into the lives of the people.”
Benton’s influence was not limited to Arizona, however. She was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for Arizona: The Turquoise Land. That her work is valued by the academic world is attested to by the fact that her books, papers, audio recordings, and letters are held in The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center in the Boston University Library. In her life span of 1907 to 1983 she achieved much and was honored in the various locales of Arizona and New York in which she lived. On the national scale, she may be a minor poet, but she is an important one.
Although Benton lived here a relatively short time, we know from her own words above that it was integral to her development as a poet. It also nourished her as a place of peace, community, and renewal. Almost sixty years ago, on March 26, 1956, the date of the introduction in Cradle of the Sun, she wrote:
“In Sedona, the red rock country of Arizona, nature has written an incredible message. The sunset-colored summits stand guard over the peace and serenity of the land. The outside world, its complexities and tumult seem strangely far away. Yet people have come to settle in this town and its surroundings from all over the world; these people have come to join those who first settled here and started a community; these people have come to live again in a new way of life, to be restored and replenished by nature as monument to the universal.”
She, like many others, felt “restored” here, so we should “restore” her to her place in the literary history of Sedona, this town “animated by the arts,” then and now.