Making History Bearable: Lynda Hull and Reading Newark

Like Newark, Hull also contains a troubled past. A self-described “feral child,”[8] she was born in Newark on December 5, 1954, and grew up in Upper Montclair. She attended Montclair High School and won a scholarship to Princeton in 1970, but dropped out of high school and ran away at fifteen. As a child, she was always writing or reading, drawing and painting. She was always interested in Newark. Her mother, Christine Hull said: “We would go to Newark and Jersey City once a year around Christmas to deliver food to families in need… she just loved that. Her interest came about with the Newark fires… going to her grandmother’s roof and being totally impressed.”[8]

Hull’s family moved to New Jersey from Pittsburgh in 1963 and lived variously in Montclair and the Caldwells. Her last years at home were “fragmented by drugs.”[8] She lived on the streets,[9] crashed on friends’ sofas, and married a Chinese gambler, an illegal alien. Moving to and from Chinatowns in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, she pursued the marginal, liminal status that would fuel many of the subtexts of her writing: poverty, alcoholism, and heroin addiction.[10] In adulthood, when she’d return to her hometown, she’d often drive to the hills of upper Montclair — a place where she could see both Manhattan on one side of the view and Jersey and its environs on the other.[11]

Jauss elaborates on this: “Much of Lynda’s poetry conveys this essential hunger of hers, this desire to feel and understand everything human, no matter how devastating. Perhaps this is why… she seems to glamorize desolation — after all, it is an essential path toward understanding the riddle, toward immersion in the life she felt separate from.” Mark Doty, in the afterword to Hull’s posthumously published third book, The Only World, wrote: “If the difficulty of personal history is glamorized, in these poems, it is because glamour is a way of making history bearable.”

Hull’s poems show a genius of synthesis that interweaves disparate worlds, juxtaposing moments that Yusef Komunyakaa, Hull’s graduate poetry teacher at Indiana University in Bloomington, says: “allude to public history alongside private knowledge.”[12] These connect to each other in her poetry in several ways: through her compassion for outcasts, mortality, and an understanding that the recognition of human transience is the necessary predecessor to wonderment and a credible appreciation of beauty.[13] With her alternating currents of attraction and repulsion, Hull attempted to connect Newark’s fraught history — she paid attention to the city’s multiple manifestations of race, class, and gender — to her own battered past. She never saw the publication of The Only World, as she died in a car crash on March 29, 1994.[14]

Hull’s lyricism offers an artistic inquiry into artistic inquiry. She exists in a rich cultural context of visual artists, jazz musicians,[15] and photographers who were driven by an impulse to embrace the cities during this period. Wayne Shorter, a tenor saxophonist and composer, perhaps the most famous living musician from Newark said:

“Newark was a hell of a place to learn something about how to survive… a lot of things, whether you were well-off or very, very down in the dregs of poordom. Poordom. There is only a few people from Newark now who are somewhere in the world, imparting their knowledge of survival intelligently, or just daily survival.”[15]

Hull’s “Love Song during Riot with Many Voices”[16] uses inventive methods of language to address the state of the city. Hull’s poems, particularly those with an aim to ethically describe urban space, can help us formulate three essential questions: first, will such methods prove to be transferable or even useful in the classroom or even to the city council or citizens of Newark; second, does Hull’s poetry help us to discover what happened in Newark, maybe cognitively; third, does it help us make discoveries that the scientific method simply could not yield?

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  1. Hull, Lynda. Collected Poems. Ed. David Wojahn. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2006. 227.
  1. “We [Christine and Gene] didn’t see her from her 16th birthday until 1974 or ’75” (Interview with the Hulls, 1 May 2009); “Lynda was the oldest of a family of four children, two brothers and a sister. Father was a businessman, working in various aspects of sales, mostly carpets. Her mother was the head dietician in one of the New Jersey State mental hospitals. Family very dysfunctional during her childhood, for a number of reasons. But later on they grew vastly more stable. After about ten years of being incommunicado with them (from her late teens, when she ran away from home, into her late ‘20s), she reconnected with them, and had an especially close relationship with them in the last decade of her life” (Interview with David Wojahn, 27 April 2009).
  1. Ibid. “From a child on, she always looked for someone who was hurt, different from the norm.”
  1. Interview with David Wojahn. 27 April 2009.
  1. Hull, Lynda. Collected Poems. Ed. David Wojahn. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2006. xii.
    These did not always connect via desolation, however. Coleridge, and other Romantics, for example, made a connection between their private understandings of the artist in an environment with utopian principles in the New World, like Pennsylvania, where Coleridge and Robert Southey had planned a “Pantisocracy.” Frontier America and 18th-century England were affected by the Romantic vision of personal freedom. John Keats’s brother, George, emigrated to Kentucky in 1818. (Manning, Maurice. A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Long Hunter, Back Woodsman, &c. San Diego: Harcourt, 2004. 125.)
  1. Interview with David Wojahn. 27 April 2009.
  1. She was pronounced dead at the scene, Route 3 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, shortly after the 8:15 p.m. crash in the southbound lane. She was driving between 75 and 80 m.p.h. She had apparently tried to avoid an exit while traveling in the passing lane, may have swerved and lost control on the wet and icy road. “She attempted to make a sharp right turn avoiding Exit 4 and she lost control of the vehicle and struck a guardrail, vaulted over it and traveled down the embankment and struck a tree.” (Dowdy, Zachary R. “Poet Dies in Crash on Route 3.” The Boston Globe. 31 March 1994, sec. Metro.)
  1. Many jazz musicians were from Newark: Andy Bey, Better Carter, Babs Gonzales, Scott LaFaro, Grachan Moncur III, James Moody, Ike Quebec, Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter, Alan Shorter, Sarah Vaughan, and Larry Young. “Years later, Wayne Shorter said he would run into Sarah Vaughan on tour: “I’d say ‘What’s happenin’?’ and she’d say ‘Newark,’ and that was enough, ’cause you know what Newark does to people.” (Mercer, Michelle. Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter. New York: Tracher/Penguin, 2004. 22-23.)
  1. This was composed between 1986 to 1991 and published in 1991.

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