Geraldine Clinton Little, a poet who made every syllable count

Born in Co Derry, a master of the haiku found her lyrical voice in the US

One of the best known and most active American haiku poets of her generation was Co Derry-born Geraldine Clinton Little, although she didn’t start writing until her late forties. It’s probably true to say that this award-winning poet, who was born 100 years ago on September 20th, is little remembered today on her native island.

She was born in Portstewart, Northern Ireland, the sixth child of a Methodist minister, the Rev James Clinton and Louise Corr. The family emigrated to the US when she was two and her father was the senior minister of the Central Congregational Church in central Philadelphia for many years. The family lived at Mount Airy in northwest Philadelphia.

We don’t have many of her biographical details but we know that she married Robert Little, who was an inventor and president and chief executive of RKL Controls, Inc, a hardware company, and that they moved to Mount Holly Township, New Jersey, in 1956. They had three sons: Rory, who settled in San Francisco; Tim, who lived in Pemberton, New Jersey, and Rodney, who made his home at Peachtree City, Georgia.

Her career as a writer of poetry, fiction and drama and as a college lecturer began later in life. She studied for her bachelor’s degree in English while raising her sons, who were in high school at the time, and she graduated from Goddard College in Vermont in 1970 and received her master’s degree from Trenton State College, now the College of New Jersey, in 1977.


In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 13th, 1994), she said that she got her inspiration for her creative writing from everywhere. “I come from a family where both books and music were part of the wallpaper.” She said that her father was a violinist and a tenor and her mother was a concert pianist and an organist. One of her sisters wrote screenplays and one of her brothers wrote three books on theology, and she said that she loved writing and music about equally.

She developed a particular affinity for the short Japanese verse form known as the haiku (a three-line poem with five syllables in the first and third lines and seven in the second) and became one of its finest American exponents of her generation, receiving Japanese awards for her haiku writing. One of her earliest collections, Stilled Wind (1977), has many fine examples, such as: “Early communion: / a single white rose catches / the candle’s shadow.” She was president of the Haiku Society of America in 1982.

Hakugai: Poem from a Concentration Camp (1983) was a book-length poem which “gives voice” to the 110,000 Japanese-Americans interned during the second World War, according to a 1984 review that stated: “Through dramatic monologues, snatches of conversation and journal notes, the prisoners’ lost words are heard again. The world of their hakugai [persecution] is resurrected.”

Among her published works are eight volumes of poetry and she won six national awards from the Poetry Society of America. Contrasts in Keening: Ireland (1982) is a deeply moving set of sonnets that tell stories of ancient and more recent Ireland, of being conquered by war and by love and by hate. She herself described the work as a lament. A Well-Tuned Harp (1988) was another of her collections that proved popular.

But perhaps her best known work was a verse-play, Heloise and Abelard, which was written in 1989 and produced off-Broadway in 1990 by Edgar Lansbury, brother of the well-known actor Angela, and it was later performed in other theatres. Asked in an interview if she had a favourite work, she replied: “No. Your poems are like your children – you don’t pick favourites.” Poet Karen Swenson, who won the 1993 National Poetry Series Award, felt that Geraldine Clinton Little’s works stood out because of their “unusual clarity and precision of form” and because of being “full of wonderful imagery”.

She taught at Rutgers University’s Camden campus and Trenton State College in the 1980s and was an adjunct instructor in writing and English literature at Burlington County College, Pemberton, New Jersey for more than a decade. Out of Darkness (1993) is a work of literary criticism where she explores the lives and works of five major poets whose creativity never saw the light of day during their lifetimes but only posthumously.

She loved to sing and her singing career included performing with the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia (the major choral group associated with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and with a company specialising in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

She died on March 7th, 1997, and the college theatre in Pemberton Township was renamed the Geraldine Clinton Little Theatre in 2001 “in memory of the gentle woman who lived quietly in Mount Holly but whose words touched so many souls and ignited so many spirits”, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer (November 6th, 2001).