Grace Simpson

Grace Simpson (1931– )

Grace Pow Simpson was Poet Laureate of Virginia (2000–2002) and is the author of the poetry collection Dancing the Bones (2001), which received the Writer's Digest National Self-Published Book Award in 2001. A widely published poet, Simpson also received the Rainmaker Award for Poetry from Zone 3 in 1991 and holds an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Hampden-Sydney College. Her free verse is known for its attention to rhythm and its often bleak subject matter. MORE...


Simpson was born in Georgetown, South Carolina, in 1931, and earned degrees from Winthrop College in South Carolina and Longwood College in Virginia. She taught English, creative writing, and journalism at Prince Edward County High School from 1973 to 1988 while continuing to publish her work in such journals as the Southern Poetry Review, Negative Capability, the Formalist, the Cincinnati Poetry Review, the Christian Century, and Snake Nation Review.

In volumes such as Dancing the Bones and her chapbook Speech Lessons (1993), Simpson mostly avoids standard poetry forms, instead writing in free verse that combines restraint in diction and line-use with an exacting attention to rhythm. She creates that rhythm through a range of aural repetitions, often layering sounds, as well as words and phrases, onto a two- to three-beat base, as exemplified in the opening stanza of "Palm Sunday" from Dancing the Bones: Cross our palms
with palm crosses,
raw-wood color,
stiff and drawn
as mummy skin,
shaped for our sins
at the state asylum.
Let them mean something.

Simpson's tone is generally observant, detached, and humane in the face of the poems' sometimes grim subject matter. Rather than rely on exaggeration, her poems are understated and quietly gather force, often on the back of a strong narrative. Simpson's primary subjects include personal and family history, religion, nature, and the South. Her poetry also reflects a sharp visual sense and some of her poems respond to specific paintings, such as "Marriage at Cana" (1562/63 by Paolo Veronese) and "The Skating Minister" (officially called "Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch," 1790s) by Sir Henry Raeburn.

Dancing the Bones was published by Scotch Broom Press, a small press founded and run by Simpson and her husband Hassell Simpson, professor emeritus of English at Hampden-Sydney College (since 1962 the couple has resided on the campus in Virginia). The volume draws on autobiographical material, reflecting a plain-sighted nostalgia for the poet's youth, though it is often darkened with tragic strains. She mentions the after-effects of her father's debilitating stroke and his impending death when she was a child, as well as her brother's suicide. Perhaps the volume's major concern is the poet's effort to extract some meaning out of death that may give sustenance to the living. The title poem presents one approach, depicting a Madagascan burial ceremony that turns the mourners' grief into ritualized celebration before the grave. The poem further exemplifies Simpson's rhythmic control, as sound is neatly interwoven with sense, the lines themselves "swaying and whirling" to a pulsing pentameter base while the mourner-celebrants go "with flags and music to their loved ones' tombs," lift out the decayed bodies and hoist them overhead, "swaying and whirling, dancing the bones—seven turns around the crypt."

Major Works

  • Speech Lessons (1993)
  • Dancing the Bones (2001)

Time Line

  • 1931 - Grace Simpson is born in Georgetown, South Carolina.
  • 1991 - Grace Simpson receives the Rainmaker Award for Poetry from Zone 3.
  • 2000 to 2002 - Grace Simpson is Poet Laureate of Virginia.
  • 2001 - Grace Simpson receives the Writer's Digest National Self-Published Book Award for her collection of poetry Dancing the Bones.
Further Reading
Hankla, Cathyrn. "The Poetry of Grace Simpson." In Four Virginia Poets Laureate: A Teaching Guide, edited by Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda and Edward W. Lull, 57-62. Alexandria, VA: The Poetry Society of Virginia, 2006.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Turner, D. C. Grace Simpson (1931– ). (2014, January 1). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

  • MLA Citation:

    Turner, Daniel Cross. "Grace Simpson (1931– )." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: February 7, 2008 | Last modified: January 1, 2014

Contributed by Daniel Cross Turner, an assistant professor of American literature at Siena College, Loudonville, New York.