Looking back over seventy years of poetical pleasure (from grade school to graduate school and beyond), I ask myself, “Whose Poetry is it, anyway?”
It all came into focus when my favorite Philly poet, Daniel Hoffman, created a posthumous selection of his late wife’s poems, Elizabeth McFarland (1922-2005), Over the Summer Water (Orchises, 2008). Now in addition to being a solid muse herself, she performed the greater miracle of getting major English language poetry for over a decade in a mass circulation woman’s magazine, the Ladies Home Journal. Before I please you with a swatch of her poems, let me share her husband’s preface about how his lover’s work differs from mainline American poetry, dominated as it has been by T.S. Eliot-like mistyphysics and gritty confessionals.
A LITTLE LIKING
A little liking is a dangerous thing:
Who knows what woes ensuing time may bring
With swift amour? Passion, Romance
Warm at propinquity as well as chance;
And converse begun mildly, friend to friend,
May leave one lost in longing at the end.
I will not have it thus! Rather deny
Your company than cause one sigh
Or want from me when we are far apart
(And I’d not known my throne within your heart),
This risk you take who say you hold me “dear,”
Love me at once—then there’s nothing to fear.
Calm, deep, loving. That’s Liz’s voice. Never shrill nor hysteric.
IF I COULD BREATHE
If I could breathe
Breath into Clay
I’d make you turn
To me and say—
Say what? Are we
With words concerned?
You need not speak!
Oh if you turned
That lunar head
My lost stars wreathe
I’d speak for both
If I could breathe.
Liz savors silences. How different from another Columbia star, Dan’s coeval, Allen Ginsburg.
It was our first visit to England. 1965. And there was a Poetry Event at the Royal Albert Hall. What a glorious opportunity. But what a letdown. As I tried to interview Adrien Mitchell, Allen was dry fucking his pal Peter on stage—it seemed part of his performance. I could have howled for shame.
Ten years later, at the Walt Whitman Cultural Center, I had to introduce him from the stage. He was arrogant about my qualifications! What qualifies you on Whitman? “Twenty years of teaching his work.” Silence.
“Would you like to visit his house on Mickle Street?” Bored silly, “O.K.” On the way over I told him how we had “saved” Whitman’s mausoleum in Harleigh Cemetery. On the centennial of his moving to Camden after a stroke in 1873. And how Dan Hoffman read “On Crossing Walt Whitman Bridge” at the Graveyard Party for local poets we held on his Birthday in 1974 to reconsecrate the now repaired burial place. He seemed chastened, willing to concede Walt had many friends, some very different from his. As he prepared to leave at the end of the celebration, I bent over to shake his hand—and he started coming on to me—ruffling the hair at the back of neck salaciously. Arrgh.
Black folk talk argues “Different strokes for different folks!” I apply that bromide to disavowals as well as accords. I recently read a “green” literary critic (my first!) who wondered why more modern poets didn’t turn on the young to Nature, the way their Romantic forebears did: Good question. Modernism legitimized all esthetic maneuvers as long as they rejected the established.
On this centennial of Marinetti’s silly Futurism (destroy all libraries!), let us stop and reflect on the death trap of uncritical modernism. English professors in their droves have never had the mature humanism of a Liz McFarland who believed “the Girls” would relish first class poetry—and she proved it. Such “unconventionality” is as rare as it is precious. Arrogant isolation from the mainstream by those who should set an example sucks. Liz showed how.
Rattle and Hannigan with the Philadelphia Orchestra
21 hours ago