George Garrett

Charlottesville, Va. (AP) - George Garrett, a prolific poet and novelist and retired professor, has been named poet laureate of Virginia, Gov.Mark R. Warner announced Tuesday. Garrett, 73, will succeed Grace Simpson, a retired English teacher and poet. The appointment is for two years, and there is no limit on the number of reappointments. "Years ago I learned to expect nothing," Garrett said. "I did know my name was in there." Garrett retired in 2000 after years of teaching creative writing and literature at Hollins College, Princeton University, the University of Michigan, the University of South Carolina and the University of Virginia. He was the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing Emeritus of UVa., where he taught from 1962-1967 and 1984-2000. "I'm going to lead from weakness," Garrett said. "Thats because I'm old."

By Fredrick Kunkle

Quick to laugh, self-deprecating and courtly, George Garrett would like you to think his post-retirement mornings now involve slapping the snooze button and sleeping in until 8.

But you believe Garrett, 73, when he says his fancy new title -- poet laureate for the Commonwealth of Virginia -- will not go to his head.

"It's a pat on the back for an old guy," Garrett said, chuckling.

Garrett, who has written 32 books and retired a year ago from the University of Virginia after teaching for 42 years, sounded pleased at the accolade bestowed this week by Gov. Mark R. Warner.

But one of the first things a friend of his did after learning of the honor was run an online check of how many libraries have Garrett's poetry on the shelves. Not many, it turns out. But Garrett sounded pleased just the same.

"It's an honor, and I'm delighted to have it," he said in a telephone interview yesterday from his home in Charlottesville. "It honors the art form and the poetry and not an individual. . . . I don't want to be too establishment or anything."

He also admitted that he is not quite sure what the post requires.

"I haven't seen any paperwork on this," Garrett said. "Everybody said, 'We don't know. It's just whatever you want to do -- whatever you want to make up.' "

Garrett was chosen under procedures adopted in 1996 to address complaints that politics mattered as much as art in the appointment. Warner selected Garrett from three nominees submitted by the Poetry Society of Virginia. Edward Lull, the society's president, said an executive committee first winnows the list to five. Then the society's 350 members vote for the final three. The two-year honorary post is awarded every July during even-numbered years, he said.

Warner selected Garrett because of the high regard the poet's peers have for his work and because of his contributions as a teacher, spokesman Kevin Hall said. The governor also was impressed with his verse, Hall said.

"George's work is unique in combining a kind of wonderful insight into personality and a good grasp of contemporary trends and fashions," said poet Fred Chappell, a Yale Bollingen Prize recipient who teaches at the University of North Carolina. He said Garrett writes with a "genial, chatty, disarming style" that takes the reader by surprise.

Garrett declined to name his strongest poems. Though he knows their flaws, he said, it would be like a parent choosing favorites among children.

"I love them all equally," he said.

Quoting a character in a Thornton Wilder play, Garrett said he has viewed his poetry through the lens of a simple philosophy: "Cultivate one great vice, and then let your virtues spring up modestly around it."

Whatever being a laureate means, Garrett said he doesn't want to turn it into a state-sponsored readings tour promoting his work. More to his liking, he said, would be to hold events that would draw poets from across the commonwealth from different movements, ages and schools to celebrate the region's poetry.

"I thought, well, that's one thing I can do. I know a lot of people, and I can bring them together -- as a kind of gathering of the tribes," he said. "I'm going to ask a lot of people to do something for nothing -- but that's basically what poets do anyway."

Garrett, who was born in Orlando, received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Princeton University and served in the Army before becoming a professional writer. He is best known for a historical trilogy -- "Death of the Fox," "The Succession" and "Entered From the Sun" -- that explores, respectively, the lives of Sir Walter Raleigh, the succession to the throne of King James I and the murder of playwright Christopher Marlowe.

At the end of the fall 2000 semester, Garrett, the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing at U-Va. since 1984, retired.

Last month, he and his wife, Susan, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They have three children and two grandchildren.

In addition to writing eight books of poetry, Garrett co-wrote the screenplay for "Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster" (1966).

Garrett, who noted that the movie was once considered one of the worst 100 of all time, said he remembers seeing it at a drive-in.

"They mixed up the reels, and it didn't make any difference at all," he said.