One Art


Alice Fulton (b. 1952

There is no beauty without justice: if something is very beautiful but there is no rightness to it in the ethical sense, its beauty is at heart cold and selfish, narcissistic and empty.

Alice Fulton is a native of Troy, New York, where I spent a tenth of my life. Moreover, it turns out that in the early seventies she had a radio show on WRPI, a station owned by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, my alma mater. In addition, one of my favorite novelists is William Kennedy, and he is from nearby Albany, the capital of New York State. With these two belletrists, Troy and Albany certainly have a claim to literary fertility.

Fulton was born on January 25, 1952. Her father was a hotel manager, and her mother was a nurse. As a teenager, Alice one day found a treasure in the attic: the college books belonging to her sister (an English major). She had immense delight in reading "Jude the Obscure," "Adam Bede," "The Confessions of Saint Augustine," Oscar Williams's 1952 anthology "Immortal Poems of the English Language" and others. Maybe this should not be surprising. After all, the young Fulton had the benefit of having a mentor nearby:

My first lesson in literary matters, as in so many things, came from my mother. I was a child of six or seven when she told me I must never begin a letter with "How are you, I am fine."

Fulton earned her BA degree from Empire State College, Albany, in 1978. She then received an MFA (1982) from Cornell University. (In 2004, she would join the faculty of Cornell, where she is currently the Ann S. Bowers Distinguished Professor of English.)

A volume of Fulton's selected poems, "Cascade Experiment," was published in 2004. It includes poems from her books "Felt" (2001), "Sensual Math" (1995), "Powers Of Congress" (1990), "Palladium" (1986) and "Dance Script With Electric Ballerina" (1983). In 1985, the National Poetry Series Award went to "Palladium." Selected as a Best Book of 2001 by The Los Angeles Times, "Felt" also received the Bobbitt Poetry Prize from the Library of Congress (2002). Fulton's poems have been included in several editions of "The Best American Poetry" series and in "The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988-1997."

In March of this year, Fulton received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. The Award Committee noted that she "has already been recognized as one of America's best poets, whose work combines lyrical sensuality and subtle wordplay." Between 1991 and 1996, Fulton was a MacArthur Foundation fellow. Recipient of an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York (1994), she had previously received an award from the Ingram Merrill Foundation (1990) and a fellowship (1986-1987) from the Guggenheim Foundation.

In 2009, the 5th Utah Symposium in Science and Literature brought together Fulton, Barry Mazur (Harvard mathematician) and Fred Lerdahl (noted composer) as invited speakers to discuss how the idioms they use - words, numbers and notes, respectively - shape their work and offer prospects of cross-pollination from material created in languages not their own. Science is a key influence for Fulton, who has written about the relation between poetry and chaos theory. A 1986 essay included in "Feeling as a Foreign Language" puts forward "fractal verse" as an emerging literary structure between order and disorder.

I selected the title poem from "Powers Of Congress," which develops a glossary of recurring terms and imagery: "veins, sap, stem" - "Tree, beast, bug" - "tax, spend, law." It is not a straightforward piece, but then again Fulton thinks that a fine poem "isn't eager to divest itself of its meaning." In her view, it is hard to say a given poem is "about" this or that topic; her poems are about several things and are ripe with apparent and entrenched subjects, occupations and fixations. Reviewing "Powers Of Congress" (the book) in Partisan Review, Eavan Boland compared Fulton with Emily Dickinson, commonly considered one of the two leading (the other is Walt Whitman) 19th-century American poets, and added:

But instead of seeking to define the profane by the sacred, as Dickinson often can, Fulton says ... how about using the profane to point toward the sacred? In the masterful title poem, "Powers Of Congress," she invites us to this paradox, detailing experiences of stress and force in the ironies of daily life.


  • Fulton's homepage can be found at
  • Almost all of the Fulton quotes are from her book of essays: "Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry," Graywolf Press (1999).
  • About her choice of the title "Powers Of Congress" Fulton gives this explanation:
    [I]t suggests merging and transformation through government, discourse, assemblage, and sexuality. It implies both hierarchy ("powers" indicating dominance) and a disintegration of hierarchy by means of "congress."
  • Fulton's latest book is an assortment of interrelated stories: "The Nightingales of Troy," W. W. Norton (2008). Two pieces from this book were selected for "The Best American Short Stories."

Powers Of Congress

How the lightstruck trees change sun
to flamepaths: veins, sap, stem, all
on brief loan, set to give all
their spooled, coded heat to stoves called
Resolute: wet steel die-cast
by heat themselves. Tree, beast, bug --
the world-class bit parts in this
world -- flit and skid through it; the
powers of congress tax, spend, law
what lives to pure crisp form
then break forms' lock, stock, and hold
on flesh. All night couples pledge
to stay flux, the hit-run stuff
of cracked homes. Men trim their quick
lawns each weekend, trailing power
mowers. Heartslaves, you've seen them: wives
with flexed hair, hitched to bored kids,