Meet ‘The Peoples’ Poet’, Delaware’s E. Jean Lanyon

Since Delaware artist and Poet Laureate emeritus E. Jean Lanyon was old enough to hold a pencil she has been drawing and writing – and she’s still at it.

E. Jean has worked her whole life to be an artist. “I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil”, E. Jean says. 

The only way E. Jean’s (as she is known) grandmother could keep track of her as a child was to give her some paper and a pencil so she could draw the world around her. “She knew I was alright for awhile, till the paper ran out”, E. Jean says, laughing.

When not trying to be an artist, but trying to pay the bills, E. Jean spent over 25 years working in the architecture and engineering field.

The need to create and communicate, both through her visual work; drawings, paintings, and her written work as a poet is what really drove her.

“I’m just possessed, or what you would call driven”, E. Jean says.

Most artists paint not because they can but because they have to. The need to create, to use that artistic gift for expression, can be all-consuming. “If I don’t paint and draw, I wither up, I get sick, I have to do it”, E. Jean says.

‘The Peoples’ Poet’

Along with E. Jean’s painting and drawing she is also a poet. “I’ve written poetry since I could write. To me that’s painting with words”, E. Jean says.

E. Jean served as Delaware’s Poet Laureate for 22 years. She is often referred to as ‘The Peoples’ Poet’.

“I write very simple poetry. The Peoples’ Poet is how other literary people think of me, and that’s what they call me”, says E. Jean.

Once E. Jean had a body of work she was proud of she applied to be Delaware’s poet laureate. Many people applied that year and the state’s arts council narrowed the selection down to three.

It was left to then Governor Pete du Pont to decide the winner. E. Jean got a phone call from the governor. “He said ‘I don’t know anything about poetry, but I can understand what you wrote. Do you still want to be the poet laureate?’ I said sure” says E. Jean, while laughing at the memory.

E. Jean served in that post under many Delaware governors. She asked to be re-appointed several times, only to find out she already had been.

“I asked to be reappointed a couple of times ‘well you already are’ is what I was told, that’s by various other governors, so I just kept going because there was no other poet laureate”, says E. Jean.

‘Dream Streets’

During the 70’s many of the mainstays of the arts scene around Wilmington began to open up.

“It seemed that a lot of people woke up to the need to do art, the need to get it out to the public” says E. Jean.

Galleries were opening, art became a staple of the Wilmington experience, and that’s when ‘Dream Streets’ was born.

Dream Streets was an arts magazine, which ran from 1976 through 2001. From poems to drawings, artists in the Newark and Wilmington area were able to get their work seen by the public. E. Jean was approached to contribute to the work; the first issue had one of her drawings.

I asked E. Jean what it was like to be part of an arts movement. For E. Jean it wasn’t about a movement, but about a community. Being a part of a community of artists and writers who could talk about their craft together.

“We wanted to be seen and heard. Because that’s what creativity is about”, says E. Jean.

The Delaware Art Museum has a big retrospective exhibit titled: Dream Streets: Art in Wilmington 1970-1990, which runs through September 27th. Many artists are featured in the exhibit, including works by E. Jean.

The Dream Streets magazine was brought back for the exhibit and contains several drawings and poems from E. Jean as well as other artists.

Continuing legacy

Many of E. Jean’s paintings are of the natural world. That is where she finds not only inspiration, but also the biggest challenge. It’s that challenge as an artist that she describes as “like a donkey chasing a carrot”.

“Artists are a little bit like the donkey with the carrot on a string in front of it. There’s always something more to reach for, there’s always some new challenge to paint.”

To bring the natural world to other people is one of E. Jean’s goals when she sits down to paint.

“As an artist you want to preserve that. You want to somehow interpret it and make it live for other people.”

“The fact that somebody is responding to what I do, and that I have a chance to share that, that’s the important thing.”

 E. Jean continues to draw, paint, and write poetry, you can even watch E. Jean read one of her poems featured in the latest ‘Dream Streets’ magazine, titled: Hats off to the seventies. E. Jean teaches art in her home as well as at various locations around Wilmington and Newark. You can get more information on the Dream Streets exhibit at the Delaware Art Museum when you visit them on the web.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal