Margaret Yarborough Rabb

January 6, 2010 

Margaret Yarborough Rabb, 56, a prominent poet and creative writing professor, died at her home Sunday January 3, 2010 in Chapel Hill. The cause of death was cancer.

Ms. Rabb's poetry earned her a national reputation. Early this year, Margaret Rabb: Greatest Hits will be published in Columbus, OH by Pudding House. The publisher is compiling a national archive of signature works by poets of note. Upon her death, she was director of Creative Writing and assistant professor at Wichita State University in Kansas, a post she held for a year and a half.

She worked with her creative writing students on the phone and by email up to the last few weeks before her death, and made sure their grades were posted for the first semester.

"She was a teacher to the end - inspiring, and even more than dedicated, she was gifted," said her colleague Jeanine Hathaway, professor of English at Wichita State University. Ms. Rabb's art and spirit electrified people at the university and all over Wichita, Ms. Hathaway said.

Born in Minneapolis, MN, Ms. Rabb spent her early years -- some of her happiest as a child - in a home overlooking the St. Croix River near Minneapolis.

For almost 40 years, she called Chapel Hill home, even as she moved around the country as a student and teacher.

She was graduated in 1974 with highest honors from UNC Chapel Hill, where she studied poetry with William Harmon and Carolyn Kizer. She was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Valkyries, the highest women's honorary society. She went on to receive her JD from the UNC School of Law.

She worked for 20 years as a design director for corporate and educational clients and served for four years as the communications director for an $88 million USAID-funded health care for women and children in the developing world.

At age 40, Ms. Rabb returned to writing poetry. Her poems have received many awards and have been published in numerous literary journals. In 2000, she published her first book, Granite Dives, which received North Carolina's Roanoke- Chowan Award for Poetry. In 2006, her poems were chosen for the initial Rumi Prize given by Arts & Letters journal.

Former state poet laureate Fred Chappell termed her poetry "strong and taut as a bowstring drawn to the archer's ear."

Because teaching and writing were her twin passions, she enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Washington where Ms. Kizer had started Poetry Northwest.

Ms. Rabb's intellectual pursuits were wide-ranging, but poetry was her mainstay. "I thrive in a community of writers," she told an interviewer in Wichita when she started her job there. "...Words are my medium, my paint, my video voodoo."

She was fascinated by the earliest texts in English, studying Old English, translating Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, and integrating them into her poetry. She had a special interest in Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic.

Ms. Rabb termed her late entry into full-time poetry an "oddball trajectory."

"It's important for people who want to concentrate on their art to know that it simply can't be too late. Ancient Chinese poets fulfilled their worldly obligations to family before they finally took to the hills to write poems on trees and rocks. I am grateful to be nearby."

Hathaway, whose office was near Ms. Rabb's, could hear her clapping out rhythms with her students. "She got them physically involved in rhythms such as Iambic pentameter, and rhyme. It was always about wisdom and delight."

"I don't know anybody who could achieve their MFA and become director of a creative writing program, all the while battling cancer."

Despite her many accomplishments, Ms. Rabb was modest and private. She was almost six feet tall, lanky and dressed with distinction. She loved yard sales, Goodwill shops and taking long walks, chatting with friends in person or by phone and organizing great parties to bring people together. She was a luminescent, generous and remarkable friend to many.

She is survived by her daughters, Eleanor Arwen Rabb Potter and Diana Blake Rabb Potter and her son-in-law Yusef Napora, all of Chapel Hill. She also is survived by her parents, Stuart & Catharine Case Van Buren Rabb, of Asheville.

A funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday Jan. 8 at the Chapel of the Cross on Franklin St. in Chapel Hill followed by internment in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery in the "Poet's Corner" established by writer Max Steele. Visitation will follow at the home of Sharon & Chris Ringwalt at 8 Cobb Terrace, Chapel Hill. Memorial gifts should be made to Doctors without Borders or any charity Ms. Rabb would have supported.

Expressions of sympathy to the family should go to: 8030 Union Grove Church Rd., Chapel Hill, NC. 27516.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service