Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and educated at the University of Pittsburgh, Ed Roberson’s work is influenced by spirituals, the blues, jazz, visual art and the natural world. Poet and critic Michael Palmer has called Roberson “one of the most deeply innovative and critically acute voices of our time.” In the citation for his 2008 Shelley Memorial Award from the Academy of American Poets, Roberson’s work was described as “a lyric poetry of meticulous design and lasting emotional significance.”
Roberson's interest in science and limnology have brought him to travel extensively: to Alaska, Bermuda, Peru, Ecuador, Nigeria, West Africa and more, and these travels influence his work. In an interview with Fifth Wednesday Journal, Roberson said, "People would say we don't need nature poems. And my reaction is that humans are nature. Nature is us. Nature is not a separate thing." John Yau points out that Roberson's "view of nature breaks as well as critiques the historical conventions of nature poetry, which is the picturesque view that enables the poet to believe there is a sanctuary outside of human reality."
In addition to the natural world and our connection to it, Roberson also writes about death, race, history, and culture.
And again today in the market
I asked her I had to
know if she was who I knew . . .
"Only two things you really has to –
tha's to stay black and die."
Black, yes, but if black leads some to pretend
that you have died
except you're black and alive
who are you?
– from 'May I Ask'
Roberson's experimentation and use of duality even takes advanatge of individual words, such as the use of "sights" in 'Rosetta Stone Serious Study of Love Song (From the British Museum)':
that can say three ways we say the one thing,
the breaths and sights of each way in rock,
a milestone in intangibles between them.
"Sights" retains it's visual connotations but also holds the physical, guttural instance of "sighs," as in "the breaths and sighs of each . . ." In this way, "one thing" is expanded both outward (to set "sights" upon something) and within (the very intimate action of releasing breath) – all, in this case, to "step through from beyond all description / into the calling of flesh in black skin: / beauty. Beauty. Beauty."
Examining Roberson's work in relation to (and away from) the Romantic tradition, Yau writes, "Rejecting a pantheistic view of nature, he regards himself as a scientific materialist who wants to observe what it means to be a bounded being orbiting in an unbounded reality." Yau also notes that Roberson's work is "informed by perception, memory, and study (forms of gathering data) rather than story (the retelling of an event)."
she's never got through, the eye
which requires it all taken off down
all blown away to get through to
that still naked-ness of clear again
even if she's not still, the voice comes through
that if we could listen as she is equally
raw hear with meat and gut below the skin,
beyond the last violence,
to the silence just before
the bone if we could still hear there
– from 'Aunt Haint'
Roberson's numerous books of poetry include To See the Earth Before the End of the World (2010), which was a runner up for the Los Angeles Times Poetry Award; Atmosphere Conditions (1999), which was chosen by Nathaniel Mackey for the National Poetry Series and was a finalist for the Academy of American Poets' Lenore Marshall Award; and Voices Cast Out to Talk Us In (1995), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize. Roberson lives in Chicago and has taught at the University of Chicago, Columbia College, and Northwestern University.
To See the Earth Before the End of the World, Wesleyan University Press, Wesleyan, Connecticut, 2010
The New Wing of the Labyrinth, Singing Horse Press, San Diego, 2009
City Eclogue, Atelos, Berkeley, California, 2006
Atmosphere Conditions, Green Integer, Los Angeles, 1999 (Sun & Moon Press, 2010)
Just In: Word of Navigational Change: New and Selected Work, Talisman House, New Jersey, 1998
Voices Cast Out to Talk Us In, University Of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1995
Etai-Eken, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1975
When Thy King Is a Boy, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh 1970
'The Earth Before the End of the World: Ed Roberson's Radical Departure from Romantic Tradition' by John Yau at Poetryfoundation.org
Audio of 'Ed Roberson' poetry lecture at PoetryFoundation.org
Audio of 'Poetry and Piano', poetry lecture, at PoetryFoundation.org
'Evie Shockley reads Ed Roberson' at Lemon Hound
Review of City Eclogue by Thomas Fink, Galatea Resurrects
Review of The New Wing of the Labyrinth by Eric Weinstein, Jacket 2
'Mechanisms of Emotion: An Interview with Ed Roberson' by James Ballowe, Fifth Wednesday Journal
On 'Ed Roberson's new book' by Reginald Gibbons