Gerald William Barrax (1933-2019) was a poet, writer, editor, and educator. His early work is closely associated with the experimental poetry of the 1960s, which expanded traditional poetic forms and language, and the so-called confessional poetry of the 1980s, in which the poet became the subject of the poems. After the publication of his first collection in 1970, Barrax garnered increasing recognition and received numerous awards for his work.
Gerald Barrax Gerald Barrax was born in Attalla, Etowah County, on June 21, 1933, to Aaron and Dorthera Barrax. He lived in rural Alabama until 1944, when he and his family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as part of the Great Migration; his father had moved there earlier seeking work during World War II. Barrax was not always interested in poetry and ultimately came late to it. His interest was sparked initially during his senior year in high school when a girl wrote him a poem after he had been hospitalized for several days following a tonsillectomy. After graduating high school in 1951, Barrax worked for a year with U.S. Steel in Homestead, Pennsylvania, to earn money for college. The job unexpectedly proved to be a turning point for his interest in poetry when an ex-convict coworker at the steel mill introduced him to Walter Benton’s poetry, love poems written in diary format. Benton’s work had a profound impact on Barrax’s perception of poetry both in stimulating his interest and in influencing his poetic style.
Barrax enrolled at Duquesne University in 1952 as a pharmacy major. Financial problems forced him to drop out after a year, however, and he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. He was stationed in Greenville, South Carolina, at Donaldson Air Force base, where he worked as a radio mechanic. During this time, Barrax wrote a great deal of poetry despite being largely unaware of poetic conventions. He discovered Clement Wood’s Poets’ Handbook and used it to teach himself about the art and craft of poetry. Barrax was discharged in 1957 with the final rank of Airman First Class. In 1954, Barrax met and married Geneva Catherine Lucy, with whom he would have three sons.
After his discharge, Barrax returned to Duquesne and, with the GI Bill to fund his schooling, earned a bachelor of arts in 1963. In 1967, Barrax entered the University of Pittsburgh and completed a master of arts in English in 1969. During this time, Barrax held multiple jobs, including cab driver, mail carrier and postal clerk, awning hanger, and encyclopedia salesman. That same year, he took a teaching job at North Carolina Central University and then joined the North Carolina State University (NC State) faculty in 1970. He divorced Geneva in 1971 and married Joan Dellimore, with whom he had two daughters. An award from the Ford Foundation prompted him to pursue a PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but he dropped out of the program after he realized that the doctoral work was limiting his time to write. He stayed on as an instructor at NC State, also serving as the editor of Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, a literary journal he brought to the university in 1985.
Barrax’s poetry, both in form and thematic material, reflects a personal introspection and a deep commitment to poetical craft as an art. His work is characterized by three major periods. His earliest work explored existentialism and reflected the Black Arts movement, the literary and arts manifestation of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His middle works are distinctly personal, often confessional. And his later works maintain the confessional themes but gravitate toward ruminating on both personal and social anxieties. In creating his work, Barrax drew from what he knew—he merged influences, technique and craft, and personal experience to address themes such as the African American experience, romantic love, music, and the power of verse, as well as death, God, and religion.
Barrax published his first book in 1970, nearly two decades after he first began writing poetry. The work, entitled Another Kind of Rain, featured poems he had written over many years that dealt with the search for renewal and center around themes of father-son relationships and the general African American experience. In 1980, his second collection An Audience of One, was published. It is equally personal, reflecting on his movement from one marriage to another and exploring the possibilities and new beginnings inherent in a new family. His third work, The Deaths of Animals and Lesser Gods, was published a short time later in 1984. The themes of this work shifted from experiences with family to experiences through faith. Barrax focused on possibilities of belief and the belief in belief.
Despite the enthusiasm of his publishers over his first three books, Barrax received little popular recognition for his work; it was not until his fourth work, Leaning Against the Sun (1992), was nominated for the National Book Award that he began to be noticed by a wider audience. Leaning Against the Sun celebrates domestic peace and further attempts to understand God and humanity and meditates on freedom and faith. In 1995, he edited and published a collection of work from Obsidian under the title Obsidian II: Black Literature in Review. Barrax published his last volume, From a Person Sitting in Darkness: Selected and New Poems, in 1997; released by Louisiana State University Press, the work is a career retrospective collection.
In 1997, Barrax retired from his position as professor of English and Poet-in-Residence at NC State. He earned various awards including the Ford Foundation Fellowship, the Sam Ragan Award, and the Raleigh Medal of Arts. He has been inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame (2006) and was the recipient of the 2009 North Carolina Literature Award. He lived in Philadelphia for some time and then returned to Raleigh late in life. Barrax was killed by a motorist while crossing the street in Raleigh on Decemer 8, 2019.
Selected Works by Gerald Barrax
Another Kind of Rain (1970)
An Audience of One (1980)
The Deaths of Animals and Lesser Gods (1984)
Leaning Against the Sun (1992)
From a Person Sitting in Darkness: Selected and New Poems (1997)
- McFee, Michael. “‘Dazzle Gradually’: The Poetry of Gerald Barrax.” Callaloo 20 (Spring 1992): 327-40.
- Pettis, Joyce. “An Interview with Gerald Barrax.” Callaloo 20 (Spring 1997): 312-26.