Elizabeth Arnold  (1958-2024)

Friends of Writers mourns the passing on February 24 of poet Elizabeth Arnold after a long illness. A 1996 poetry graduate of the MFA Program for Writers, she returned to the Warren Wilson campus as a Joan Beebe Teaching Fellow in 1998-99 and served on the MFA program’s faculty from 2004-2007.  She received her PhD from the University of Chicago, and taught in the University of Maryland’s MFA program from 2001 until her recent retirement. 

Elizabeth published six books of poetry: Wave House (2023), Skeleton Coast (2017), Effacement (2014), Life (2010), and Civilization (2006), all from Flood Editions, and The Reef (1999) from the University of Chicago Press. Her numerous awards included the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, a Whiting Award, and a fellowship from Radcliffe Institute.  

MFA Program for Writers founder Ellen Bryant Voigt, who supervised Elizabeth in her final semester, writes:

Liz was not only blazingly intelligent—she was seriously learned. It was her graduate class at a WWCMFA residency, in which she gave a close reading of a few of Pound’s Cantos, that helped me begin to understand that epic work.  Meanwhile, her scholarship on the early Moderns uncovered a powerful formal approach to highly charged personal material; I saw this happen in her Thesis Manuscript, which became The Reef, her first book. For Liz, illness was an old familiar, as was solitude.

Michael Collier, who met Elizabeth as an MFA student and later taught with her for more than two decades at the University of Maryland, writes:

Liz’s life and work embodied the passion that Berryman believed was “the great presence/ that permitted everything and transmuted it in poetry.” And those transmutations she conjured out of iconoclastic influences (Bunting, Niedecker, Loy, Oppen) contained the “movement and invention” that Berryman also praised. Two decades ago, when the English Department at Maryland moved offices, Liz never unpacked her books. A self-described wanderer, one summer she planned to drive to Alaska with her three dogs, all of them (and her) sleeping in a roof-top car tent. She had a lovely, whirl-windish and exasperating energy that made you wonder bemusedly if she was actually listening to you. The way she listened to her students was through their poems and from her they learned how they might make their own music.

One of those students, Rose McLarney (poetry, 2010), was supervised by Elizabeth in her first semester in the MFA Program for Writers.  She offers the following:

Elizabeth Arnold was my first advisor in the Warren Wilson MFA Program, and a major influence. That first reading list she put together for me was essential in developing my understanding of contemporary poetry and she both reassured me and prompted me to expand my thinking in the right, perceptive measures. At the end of the semester of our work together, she likened my poetry to a boater fixing her eyes on a point ahead of the rapids they were steering through. Now, after more rough waters, I hope that Liz knows, in addition to whatever destination she has now reached, there is her guidance, which remains on this earth as points some of us still use to find the way.

Scott Challener (poetry, 2008) worked with Elizabeth in his final semester and wrote of the “affirming, intensive, and incredibly generous” nature of her teaching.  Those qualities are echoed in Reginald Gibbons’ comments about Elizabeth’s poetry. Reg supervised Elizabeth’s essay semester in 1995; 28 years later she thanked him (as well as Michael Collier) in Wave House’s acknowledgements for crucial advice in her translation of  “The Wanderer,” which first appeared in TriQuarterly in 2022.  Reg writes:

Elizabeth Arnold’s profound attentiveness to feeling and to the language of feeling and of perception, to words used both precisely and surprisingly, and to particular scenes and locales and history, made her one of those poets whose sense of poetry itself extends through centuries while remaining—in her words’ worth—brilliantly interesting and surprising and contemporary. A poet with unique voice and courageous perseverance, she is someone whom I deeply miss as a poet and person, and whom I admired and will always admire entirely.

We have asked Liza Hudock, a January 2024 graduate of the MFA Program for Writers, to select a poem from Wave House to conclude this remembrance. Liza’s first collection of poetry, Reveille, will be published by Elizabeth’s longtime press, Flood Editions, in 2025, and we’re proud to honor the vibrant connection between these two poets who share an alma mater and a publisher. Liza has chosen “Like Looking through Good Glass,” she says, “for the hope and the humor”:

Like Looking Through Good Glass 

at birds I dismissed
so easily before as common, 

or listening to Chopin through these new 

ridiculously expensive speakers, 

makes planets swim. 

Beethoven composed stone deaf. 

I need to learn how as I age, 

my senses 

a little bit blunted now I’m thinking, 

Horowitz looking eighty on YouTube, 

weirdly like James, 

as he plays the subtlest shifts in volume 

of Schubert’s Impromptu no. 3 

for precisely 6 minutes, 44 seconds on my iPhone. 

Reprinted with permission of Flood Editions