Walter Griffin (1937-2020)

Walter Griffin
Poet, teacher, and founder of the Atlanta Poets Workshop, Walter Griffin spent his career identifying with and celebrating what he called "the Blue Glass Charlies": the transients, the losers, and the outsiders down on their luck whose lives go unnoticed in the boarding houses, cheap hotels, and bus stations of middle America.
He was born Jasper Walter Griffin on August 1, 1937, in Wilmington, Delaware, the only child of Nina Blalock and William Samuel Griffin. A year after Griffin was born, his father abandoned the family, and Griffin and his mother relocated to Florida. He spent his childhood in Florida and South Carolina, and from 1951 to 1954 he attended Gordon Military College in Barnesville, Georgia. His mother remarried, and Griffin spent a year living in Europe with her and his stepfather. To avoid being drafted into the French army, he joined the U.S. Army in Germany in 1955 and served in the infantry for three years. In 1956 Griffin was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. Married and divorced, Griffin had one son, Paul Anthony.
In 1972 Griffin founded the Atlanta Poets Workshop for aspiring and published poets. The group met in various locations around Atlanta until 1998, when health problems caused Griffin to end the workshop.
Although an award-winning poet with more than 400 national and international publications to his credit, Griffin struggled for wider recognition. His early work was published in numerous small-press quarterlies and journals, and after the 1972 publication of his poetry in Harper's magazine, Griffin's work began to appear in such major publications as Atlantic Monthly, Kenyon Review, New England Review, New Yorker, Paris Review, Poetry, Sewanee Review, and Southern Review. At the same time his poetry was being published in magazines, anthologies, and small-press publications, Griffin taught in the Poetry in the Schools Program, a national program that gave students the opportunity to work with published poets. From 1972 to 1983 he was the visiting writer-in-residence at more than 110 secondary and elementary schools, colleges, and penal institutions in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. His poetry earned him the Author of the Year Award in 1976 from the Southeastern Regional Council of Authors and Journalists, and in 1978 the Georgia Council for the Arts and Humanities (later the Georgia Council for the Arts) named him master poet-in-residence.
As Griffin told Contemporary Authors, "In my poems, I attempt to deal with middle America and isolation, the inherent loneliness of the human spirit." He saw himself as an outsider looking in, one who brought to his poetry his own childhood hurts and adolescent rootlessness. The speaker in a Griffin poem often longs to be elsewhere, hidden from the rest of the world, and is aware of his physical self and mortality. Griffin was adept at creating in his poetry a presence who watches as others move and who is isolated in the world he portrays. For example, the speaker in "Vagrant" identifies himself as "the brother of all mad men, / in bus station lobbies and rented rooms, / the lover of all my waitress sisters." In "At the All Night Cafeteria" the speaker reviews the ghostlike photographs of his past: "I take them out on the counter, / decide which ones to have dinner with. / Their cracked and folded smiles / lie amid the crumbs." Alone with the photographs, he will "crawl inside the circled edges and / hold their faded white hands."
Griffin's poetry collections include Leaving for New York (1968), Other Cities (1971), Bloodlines (1972), Ice Garden (1973), Night Music (1974), Port Authority: Selected Poems, 1965-1976 (1976), and Machineworks (1976). Machineworks was published in the Sweetwater Southern Poetry Series, for which Georgia poet David Bottoms served as series editor. Night Music won both the International Small Press Book Award and Georgia Poet of the Year Award from the Dixie Council of Authors and Journalists. Later publications include Western Flyers (1990), which won the University of West Florida's Panhandler Series competition, and Nights of Noise and Light (1999).
A longtime resident of East Point, Griffin died on November 30, 2020. He was eighty-three. 


Further Reading
Contemporary Authors, vols. 73-76 (Detroit: Gale, 1978), s.v. "Griffin, Walter."

Hugh Ruppersburg, ed., Georgia Voices: Poetry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000).
Cite This Article
Kerley, Gary. "Walter Griffin (1937-2020)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 16 December 2020. Web. 07 September 2021.
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