Grand Canyon poets

Verse of the Grand Canyon

By

Emma Greguska

Editor's note: This story is part of an ASU Now series celebrating the centennial of the Grand Canyon National Park.

If you live in Arizona and you’re a writer, you can’t escape it. The blazing sunsets, mighty saguaros and endless mountain peaks are nothing if not breathtaking. There’s simply no substitute for the unique beauty of the desert landscape to inspire the creative mind.

But if tourism rates are any measure of a particular scenery’s allure, perhaps the most stunning of natural wonders in the state is the Grand Canyon.

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Grand Canyon National Park, ASU Now asked some of the university’s most dynamic wordsmiths to wax poetic about the famous landmark.

For some, it was the first time they’d put pen to paper in an attempt to capture the spectacle. Others have written several pieces celebrating its majesty.

Here, they share their personal stories of the indelible memories and lasting impressions the canyon left them with.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Rosemarie Dombrowski

ASU senior lecturer of English; city of Phoenix poet laureate

Memorable canyon trip:

"The first time I went to the Grand Canyon was with my 'Geology of the Grand Canyon' class in 1994 at ASU. I think I went twice with that class, then I went back and got camping passes. I’ve done the Kaibab trail, I've done Bright Angel, I've done the Hermit trail, which is actually a restricted trail that probably no one should ever hike. Most of the experiences were harrowing in some way, and they just keyed me in, to an even greater extent, to the power of nature and geological forces."

Why it’s inspiring:

"I grew up reading romantic poetry … poems about Mont Blanc and standing a few miles above Tintern Abbey, you know, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Wordsworth. That was my first introduction to poetry in high school. So for me, geological manifestations of ecological forces have always been some of the most profoundly inspiring things. I may not write directly about them all the time, but they certainly influence me, my spirituality, my writing. When I see the Grand Canyon, I think of how insignificant I am. I think of how insignificant every word that I could ever write about the canyon is. It's just not anything that's articulable with language. I think it's a spiritual experience that is really difficult to put into words. And I think it also puts you in your place in the universe, which I love. There’s something about that humbling experience. I think an artist likes to be so humbled that they're prostrate on the ground, and then from there, you try to make some beauty out of the shards that you're picking up around you."

Jacqueline Aguilar

ASU English literature and communications undergraduate

Memorable canyon trip:

"The first time I went to the Grand Canyon, I was standing behind a rail and I was amazed at how expansive it was. And I was mesmerized by the fact that it had made its own history without any human intervention, and that it will forever live as its own history, as a beautiful part of nature."

Why it’s inspiring:

"I think because it's such a wonder. And to me, it's a very big mystery. I feel like it has no ending. So I can see how inspiration can come from something so massive that it seems incomprehensible, or how some things can seem like they don't have an ending. It’s so wonderful but intimidating at the same time, and I think that’s why I like going there, because it’s a very overwhelming but exciting experience and it makes me feel as if I’m part of an adventure, even though I’m just standing there looking at it."

Laura Tohe

ASU professor emerita of English; poet laureate of the Navajo Nation

Memorable canyon trip:

"I went with my family, and for some reason my mother made me get dressed up in my traditional Navajo clothing and I had to wear moccasins. We took the Kaibab trail just a little ways down. I remember walking on these rocks ... and I kept sliding with my moccasins, so I didn't get very far. But the tourists liked what I was wearing, so I got a lot of pictures taken of me."

Why it’s inspiring:

"There’s so much there that it's really hard to say just in a few words what it all means. But I think just the enormity, the immensity, the beauty, the timelessness that's there, it all comes at once. Because that canyon has been growing for millennia, and I just think about what history that canyon has seen. I also think about the people who live there, on the top of the canyon and the ones that live down below and what it must be like for them to have lost some of their land. I think I can only take it in really small pieces and try to understand this immense beauty and power and everything that's there that makes it the Grand Canyon."

Patricia Murphy

ASU principal lecturer of English; founder of Superstition Review literary magazine

Memorable canyon trip:

"I hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim, from South Rim to North Rim, and lost all 10 of my toenails because my shoes were too small. But that was fine, because it was beautiful. It was stunning. And it was a really wonderful way to see the canyon, too. We slept for three nights at the campground there. And what always strikes me about the Grand Canyon is you can't capture it. You can't capture it in language, you can't capture it in a photograph, because it's so expansive; it's farther than the eye can see and there are so many textures and colors that are shadowed and can't be represented through image. It's almost a spiritual experience going to the canyon because most people have never seen anything that expansive before. And I know I felt that way when I first looked into it. I had heard that it was going to be stunning, that it was going to be unbelievable. I teach travel writing, and I usually tell students not to use the word 'unbelievable.' But that was my experience with the Grand Canyon. That you can't express the levels of beauty there."

Why it’s inspiring:

"I was inspired to write about the Grand Canyon because I have a deep love of wilderness areas and wilderness, especially the desert. I'm from Ohio, I’m a transplant, and it took me a while to warm up to the desert and to the landscape. But the Grand Canyon was a place that I felt instantly attracted to and instantly at home in. Hiking the Grand Canyon and being on the Colorado River and looking up to where you just were … it's a sense of accomplishment, it’s a sense of pride, it’s a sense of belonging."

Alyssa Lindsey

ASU English creative writing and global health undergraduate

Memorable canyon trip:

"The first time we went, I was 8. I went with my grandma, my great aunt and my mom. I think it was late February, so it was still a little snowy. And I just remember it being really beautiful. I'm from Phoenix so I’ve been maybe about five or six times. I feel like it's different every time, especially if you're going at different times of the year."

Why it’s inspiring:

"Living in Arizona, you see a lot of that mountain scenery and that sort of thing, but the Grand Canyon is a totally different experience from the mountains that we see around here. So there's a lot to write about."

Alberto Ríos

ASU University Professor of English; first poet laureate of Arizona

Memorable canyon trip:

"I was older; I didn’t go there as a child. I probably had just started college, somewhere in that age range. And it was one of those things that comes up, if you’re an Arizonan. 'Hey, it’s the weekend, why don’t we go to the Grand Canyon? Has anyone ever been?' Nobody had ever been. So it was one of those things. So we decided to go. Didn’t know what we were doing and didn’t exactly know what to expect, and it seemed much farther than it looked on the map. And we drove and drove, and I think we mistimed everything, so we were waiting to have lunch and it was too long a drive, and so everybody was kind of cranky. And then you get up to the edge and the world is suddenly solved. And you are small in that moment, and it is large. And your problems therefore are small, and you are in the embrace of something."

Why it’s inspiring:

"It is a constant act of the imagination. You cannot see, even though you’re looking. I write about it all the time, which is surprising as a Latinx writer, who are so often characterized as writing about people and community. But I grew up in a rural circumstance outside of Nogales and was so affected by that growing up that it is a huge part of my life. So I write about nature with the idea that it is complicit in all things, that it is a partner in the moment of being alive, not separate from it."

Top photo: Clockwise from top left, Rosemarie Dombrowski, Alberto Ríos, Laura Tohe and Patricia Murphy shared new lines of verse inspired by the Grand Canyon with ASU Now. Photos by Ken Fagan/ASU Now