John Albert Holmes

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Holmes, John (Albert) (6 January 1904—22 June 1962)

The poet John Holmes was born in Somerville, Massachusetts. He entered Tufts College in the fall of 1925. That university's president, John Cousens, had heard Holmes read the class poem at his high school graduation and, impressed, took him under his wing. Holmes earned his bachelor's degree in 1929.

Holmes began his teaching career at Lafayette College. He later returned to Somerville and Tufts, joining the faculty of the Department of English as an instructor in 1934. At Tufts, he advanced through the ranks of assistant and associate to a full professorship in 1960.

Holmes achieved notable success as a poet and author during his lifetime. He published seven collections of poetry, and his work appeared in numerous publications, from literary journals to daily newspapers. Holmes wrote two books about the writing of poetry, The Poet's Work (1939) and Writing Poetry (1960), in addition to many essays and book reviews.

His wife, Sarah, suffered from mental illness and took her own life in 1947. This led him into despair as well as enduring his own struggle with depression. He met an English teacher at Tufts, Doris Vivian Kirk, and in 1948 they married and had a son and daughter, Evan and Margaret.

Two of Holmes's poems were included in the Unitarian hymnbook, Hymns of Humanist, compiled by Kenneth Patton, the humanistic leader of the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston in the 1950s.

When Priscilla Robertson and Warren Allen Smith, at an American Academy of Arts and Letters annual ceremonial at which Robertson received an award, asked Academy member John Ciardi for a recommendation of someone to be poetry editor of The Humanist, Ciardi named his teacher Holmes, who accepted the position (1957). A distinguished poet, Holmes was a teacher whose students included Ciardi, Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck.

Among the first poems that Holmes published in The Humanist was one found by Warren Allen Smith, who located a poem by Albert Einstein, a work in German that praised one of Einstein’s teachers and contained a passing use of the word “God,” which was not used in any theological sense. Holmes remarked that if anyone else had written such doggerel he would not have included it, but “it is always comforting to hear a student who states that a teacher has helped change his life.”

Holmes when 58 died of cancer. A memorial service was held on the Tufts campus. Earlier that month at its Commencement the university had given him an honorary Doctor of Literature degree in absentia. Three years later the Unitarian Universalist Beacon Press published his Selected Poems with an introduction by John Ciardi, who observed that "he is there in the good life of his poems."

(Alan Seaburg, in the online Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography, describes his early life, his schooling, his works, and includes examples of his outlook as shown in his poetry.)

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