Poet gave words a stage

Posted: November 06, 2001

The first time I met Geraldine Clinton Little, I was a rookie reporter and she was becoming a nationally known poet. She was vice president of the Poetry Society of America, a playwright, and a scholar. And such a lady.

Little died in 1997 at age 73 of a rare disease called amyloidosis. Just before her death, she not only flew over her beloved Burlington County in a four-seater plane to see the cranberry bogs she loved, but she also worked feverishly on her poetry and on works in progress at Burlington County College's Foundation Theatre - still struggling to find the perfect word or phrase.

How fitting, then, that 10 days ago that college theater in Pemberton Township was renamed the Geraldine Clinton Little Theatre in memory of the gentle woman, who lived quietly in Mount Holly but whose words touched so many souls and ignited so many spirits.

I liked Little immediately after meeting her because she had an uncanny ability to put people at ease. Besides, I was a former English literature major who also loved poetry.

Little had postponed her career until her three sons were well on their way to manhood. Women who come of age later somehow assure me that good things do come to those who wait. Good things came to Little.

A minister's daughter, she was born in Northern Ireland and immigrated to the United States with her parents and five siblings when she was a toddler.

Her sons knew a woman who regarded motherhood as her most important work, and who taught them that a civilized life should include art, music and poetry.

Her own wonderful poetry won many prestigious awards, and her play, Heloise and Abelard, garnered popular and critical acclaim. It became a traveling production of Foundation Theatre.

At the brief ceremonies just outside the theater on Oct. 27, the poet's son Rory, now a San Francisco law professor, remembered his mother by reading some of her poetry:

I sit by a stream in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey

Birds spin and turn somersaults

I have brought a book to read because I would sooner find myself nude on a major highway than be without a book.

It was vintage Little - lovely, with just a touch of humor.

Then there was the prophetic piece the poet wrote just before the death of her husband, Robert. One of its lines:

Where his coat hung, the long, empty nail . . .

A well-known businessman in Mount Holly, Robert Little loved setting up card tables at his wife's local readings and selling her books.

So, there we sat 10 days ago, just outside the Geraldine Little Theatre at Burlington County College's Parker Center, smiling, remembering, missing the blithe spirit of this grand lady.

And it seemed so right that her name would live on in a place where words spin magic.

Little had mastered the art of economy in her poetry. And because her passion was for haiku, her spare works are among her most acclaimed.

How perfect an ending to the brief ceremony of remembrance and honor when Rory Little read one of his mother's luminous haikus:

How bright the sound of one star humming among the many.

And we all knew just who that bright star was.

Sally Friedman, a newspaper columnist long familiar to Burlington County readers, writes from Moorestown.

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