Longtime poet George Keithley keeps his work fresh
Live readings give nationally known local poet’s work new life
Although celebrated Chico poet George Keithley has won an armload of prestigious national awards, the lifetime scribe and retired Chico State professor is also just a guy who loves sharing his craft.
When Heather Lyon put out the word that the store would like to host regular poetry readings, he was all too happy to step up to the mic. In fact, he revels in the aural quality of his works.
“When I’m writing poetry, I’m also reading it aloud,” he said. “There’s a resonance as well as the meaning of the words.”
Keithley will read from his most famous work, the 1972 poetic epic of the ultimate survival tale of the Old West, “The Donner Party,” as well as “Earth’s Eye” (1994) and 2003’s “The Starry Messenger” which features tales of Galileo. He also plans to vocalize selections from “Midnight Train,” a collection of 36 short poems, each limited to 10 lines or fewer.
Such succinctness comes naturally to Keithley, who once taught a writing course at Chico State called Enough Said.
“The emphasis was on brevity,” a smiling Keithley said of the class.
While Keithley’s appearance won’t be to hawk a new book, his pen remains active. He recently completed a new set of poems he hopes to release in the fall, is putting finishing touches on a collection of short stories and has a completed novel in the hopper.
Now 72, Keithley is an old-school writer, crafting his words with pen and paper before transcribing the finished product not by computer, but via electric typewriter. He does, of course, make a couple of copies for safekeeping.
His ongoing writing efforts keep his mind sharp, while regular rounds of tennis and walks in Bidwell Park keep his body fit. He lives with his wife of 18 years, Carol Gardner, a semi-retired librarian.
Keithley’s works have been featured three times in Harper’s magazine and, closer to home, his words have been immortalized in tiles, set on a stone monument along a path behind the CARD Center on Vallombrosa Avenue. His most cherished award, he said, came from The Poetry Society of America for his “Song in a Strange Land” collection of poems, because the literary organization is made up of his peers—other renowned writers.
Unlike many careers, it’s particularly tough to carve out a successful path as a poet. Keithley eventually developed his own skills of producing vivid imagery and emotional portraits with words, but he had a head start.
“I was introduced to poems at home and school,” he said. “My parents read to me and I had good teachers in elementary school. I found myself reading poems and writing poetry through high school.”
Born in Chicago and raised in its suburbs, Keithley became a political science major at Duke University and spent a year in the writing program at Stanford before earning a master’s of fine arts in creative writing at the University of Iowa. In 1962, the town of Chico moved onto his radar when the Chico State president came to Iowa City.
“Glenn Kendall did his own recruiting for several departments, including English,” Keithley recalled.
By the fall of ‘62, Keithley was a member of the Chico State faculty, where he would stay until his retirement in 1990.
San Francisco-based composer Ron McFarland helped boost Keithley’s status a couple of notches in 1974 with his unique musical interpretation of Keithley’s prose, specifically “The Donner Party.” The award-winning book, which in June 1972 was selected for the nationwide Book-of-the-Month Club, found new life as a big-stage opera production.
“It came out of the blue,” Keithley said. “It never occurred to me for it to be on stage. It was enjoyable to see a director working with a cast and then sitting in a theater and having the words said by someone else.”
Chico State hosted its world premiere. “The Donner Party” wasn’t the only Keithley work to be turned musical. Chico State music professor, composer and clarinetist Russell Burnham set some of “Earth’s Eye” to music—which was subsequently performed at Sacramento State.
Keithley said hearing his work put to music was unusual, but nice.
“Music is an integral part of poetry,” he said. “[Poet] W. H. Auden defined poetry as ‘verbal music.’ I think that’s right, and the kind that appeals to me combines a felt rhythm and language.”