Photo ©Catherine Solt, c.1980. Used with permission.
Mary Ellen Solt was born in Gilmore City, Iowa, on July 8, 1920 the first of four children of an immigrant Methodist minister from Yorkshire, England, Arthur Bottom, and his American wife, a former schoolteacher, Edith (Littell) Bottom. Until she attended college at Iowa State Teacher’s College (now University of Northern Iowa), where she was a friend and classmate of Mona Van Duyn, Mary Ellen’s creative pursuits were focused on music. She possessed a passion for the piano. At the Teacher’s College an inspirational professor of literature, H. Willard Reninger, first excited Mary Ellen about poetry, an interest that would take precedence over the piano and dominate her creative and professional life. In one of Reninger’s seminars she met her future husband, Leo F. Solt; they were married after Leo’s wartime service in the Navy, during which Mary Ellen began her career as a teacher. After her marriage on December 22, 1946, Mary Ellen continued to teach school and earned a M.A. in literature from the University of Iowa, Iowa City in 1948. And after receiving her degree she moved to New York so that her husband could pursue doctoral studies in English history at Columbia University. While in New York, Mary Ellen taught at the Bentley School and studied poetry at Columbia with Leonora Speyer and at the Poetry Center with John Malcolm Brinnin and Kimon Friar, among others. After Leo completed his Ph.D., Mary Ellen moved with him to Amherst, Massachusetts where he had secured a three-year teaching position at the University of Massachusetts. During those three years (1952-1955), Mary Ellen gave birth to two daughters, Catherine (1953) and Susan (1955), and continued to work on her poetry. In 1955 Mary Ellen moved with her family to Bloomington, Indiana, where Leo had been offered a job teaching early modern English history at Indiana University. (During his career at I.U., Leo served as Dean of the Graduate School ( 1978-87) before his retirement in 1992.) Mary Ellen joined the I.U. faculty in comparative literature in 1970. For the academic year 1976/77 she was invited to teach American poetry at the University of Warsaw, Poland. This led her to assuming responsibilities as Director of the Polish Studies Center at I.U. upon her return to Bloomington, a post she held until 1984. For her service at the Center on behalf of educational and cultural exchange, she was awarded the “Gold Badge of Order of Merit of the Polish Council of State” in 1981. Mary Ellen retired from Indiana University in 1991 as professor emerita of comparative literature. After Leo died in 1994, Mary Ellen moved to Santa Clarita, California in 1996 to live with her daughter Susan, who was then Dean of the School of Theater at the California Institute of the Arts.
Mary Ellen Solt was first recognized professionally for her critical writing on William Carlos Williams. During her early years in Bloomington she established a correspondence with the older poet that became a close friendship until Williams’s death in 1963. Old and frail as he was, Williams came to Bloomington in 1960 to hear Mary Ellen read what turned out to be a fairly controversial paper, “William Carlos Williams: The American Idiom,” for the School of Letters evening forum in the summer of 1960. The paper won the Folio Prize for prose for that year. Over the years, as the author of numerous articles and essays, Mary Ellen Solt established herself as a leading critic in the field of William Carlos Williams studies. On the occasion of her retirement from teaching the Williams Carlos Williams Society recognized her with a session held in her honor in Washington, DC, in May of 1991. The last article she completed on Williams's theory of poetry is entitled “William Carlos Williams: Idiom as Cultural Icon.” Mary Ellen received a fellowship from the national Endowment for the Humanities in support of this project. Other Williams’ related publications include the article: “The American Idiom,” (1983) and the book: DEAR EZ; LETTERS FROM WCW TO EZRA POUND, COMMENTARY AND NOTES (1985).
Mary Ellen’s critical texts led her deeply into semiotic theory, most particularly the writings of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. An essay, “Poems as Signs,” is a product of this interest. It is anchored by a comparative analysis between a poem by William Wordsworth and a poem by her long-time friend the Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay. Two other essays of a related nature precede this work: “Charles Sanders Peirce and Eugen Gromringer” and “The Concrete Poetry as Sign” (1982). Another related publication is ROBERT LAX AND CONCRETE POETRY (1990).
Mary Ellen Solt is best known around the world as a concrete poet, particularly as the author of FLOWERS IN CONCRETE (1966). And as the editor of: Concrete Poetry: A World View (1968). Her long introduction, "A World Look at Concrete Poetry," is a critical history of the movement. In an unpublished short essay, WORDS AND SPACES (c. 1985), Mary Ellen Solt wrote:
Concrete poetry invites us to consider words not only as symbols that convey meanings but as things themselves...In his long poem, PATERSON, the American poet William Carlos Williams agonizes over his responsibility as a poet to clean up the words, to revitalize a language divorced from meaning...Concrete poetry asks us to look at the word: at its esthetic properties as a composition of letters, each of which is a beautiful object in its own right...Concrete poetry asks us to contemplate the relationship of words to each other and the space they occupy. We must be prepared to contemplate poems as constellations of words, as ideograms, as word pictures, as permutational systems. By discovering the meaning of the poem as it emerges from the method of its composition, the reader becomes in some sense the poet.
Throughout her career Mary Ellen lectured extensively on her poems and concrete poetry all over the world, as well as conducted workshops and symposia.
In an ANTHOLOGY OF WOMEN POETS FROM ANTIQUITY TO NOW, editors Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone have this to say about her career:
[A]s a poet, [Mary Ellen Solt] is a pioneer theorist, anthologist, and poet of the international concrete movement—no one has contributed more to the diffusion of concrete poetry in the United States and abroad… CONCRETE POETRY: A WORLD VIEW (1968) [is] the most comprehensive anthology of concrete poetry and theory. Her poems reveal far-reaching interests, from moon rocketry to semiotics. As a sensitive observer of nature and people, her impeccably crafted poems unite verbal and visual arts in unique creations.
Mary Ellen Solt’s visual poems (particularly “Forsythia”) have been published in magazines and anthologies and many college textbooks in Great Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Germany (including Der Speigel), Poland, Latin America, Japan and the United States (including Newsweek, McCalls, and Harper’s Bazaar). They have been exhibited in museums and art galleries in most of these countries including: La biennale de Venezia (1969); the Stedlijk Museum, Amsterdam (1971); and The Jewish Museum, New York, (1970).
Her poems have appeared on television a number of times, including CBS CAMERA THREE, May 12, 1974. Several of her poems—“Forsythia,” Touch,” ZigZag,” “The White Flower”—have inspired works by artists in other media (dance, music, film).
Mary Ellen Solt has published the following books and pamphlets of her own poetry: FLOWERS IN CONCRETE (1966), A TRILOGY OF RAIN (1970), THE PEOPLEMOVER 1968: A DEMONSTRATION POEM (1978), and MARRIAGE: A CODE POEM (1976).
Mary Ellen Solt maintained an active correspondence with other poets and writers. In a letter dated April 25, 1960, published in the William Carlos Williams Review (Fall 1987), William Carlos Williams wrote this to Mary Ellen Solt: “Flossie read me your poems this morning. They are excellent, they are so excellently conceived that I do not trust myself to praise them… [Y]ou have a conception of the poetic line which is revolutionary and may lead you anywhere, with its implications…” In addition to her closest poet friends William Carlos Williams, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, and Louis Zukofsky, Mary Ellen was in correspondence with Robert Creeley, Cid Corman, Denise Levertov, and George Oppen, among many others. Over the years she amassed an extensive collection of concrete and visual poetry. Her archive is housed at the Lilly Library ( Indiana University, Bloomington).
Mary Ellen Solt died peacefully, after several years of declining health, of a stroke on June 21, 2007 at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, Santa Clarita, California, in the company of her daughters: Catherine Solt, a health care professional in New York, NY and Susan Solt, a feature film and theater producer and current faculty member at CalArts who lives in Stevenson Ranch, CA. Mary Ellen is also survived by her sister Margaret Jean Peterson of Iowa City, IA.