A Poet's Dawn
I'm thrilled to receive the Frost Medal for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement in American Poetry, though I must confess to finding some irony in the word "lifetime." Although I've lived for many moons, I'm still starting. When I work on a new poem I feel I never knew how to write before, and finishing each draft is a new sunrise. As for "lifetime achievement," I hope to live longer, and to write poetry for the rest of my life.
Feeling that way, when I first heard the news, I went to Robert Frost for guidance. After all, he won the Award in 1941 and later it was named for him. I thought of Frost's luminous popularity, and of his many merited honors, none of which kept him from the freshness of his perceptions or the seriousness of his calling. Nor did it ease the work of "someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks," as he put it in "The Wood-Pile," in a line having to do with the hard labor of cutting and stacking wood, but also with the precision and care required in drafting, discarding, and revising, the finished poem. As ever, what he wrote had resonance. I was struck by his repeated use of the word dawn: in an essay, "Poetry and School," he asserts: "A poem is an idea caught fresh in the act of dawning." And, in a recorded conversation, he is heard to say:
[A] definition of poetry is dawn.It's something dawning on you while you're writing it. It comes off if it really dawns when the light comes at the end. And the feeling of dawn – the freshness of dawn – that you didn't think this all out and write it in prose first and then translate it int0 verse.
Dawn. Surprise, wonder, the unexpected. Those things uppermost in Frost, are qualities I cherish and hope to live up to. In "The Figure a Poem Makes" Frost's famous preface to his Collected Poems, he admits, "For me the initial delight is the surprise in discovering something I didn't know I knew . . . There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing."
The New England poet's meticulous observation of common things is spurred by his capacity for wonder – the feel of the rake, the ax, the long scythe, the smell of woodsmoke, the look of old "pecker-fretted apple trees." And they lead to his dialectic between earth and its transcendence, as in "Birches," where the speaker wants to climb heavenward and back again, and in "Directive," where he sees "a broken drinking goblet like the Grail / Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it."
Frost's wonder at the commonplace has roots in Emerson, who observes:
Wherever snow falls or water flows or
birds fly . . . wherever is danger,
and awe, and love, -- there is Beauty,
plenteous as rain, shed for thee, and
though thou shouldst walk the world
over, thou shalt not be able to find a
condition inopportune or ignoble.
Even after consulting Frost, I still had questions about this "lifetime achievement" dilemma: Does a poet's achievement start at a given point? When does it stop? For answers I went to Marianne Moore, who received this very same Frost Medal in 1967. Moore was asked in an interview when she first thought of herself as a poet. She replied, "NEVER." I understand her denial as a link to her belief that writing poetry is striving constantly for "the genuine" and the joy is not so much in the achievement as in the trying.
The submission to hard labor, what Marianne Moore calls "the love of doing hard things," is remarkably similar to Frost's "turning to hard tasks:" in doing so he is the mower of grass, the apple-picker, the maker of repairs, the doer of fresh endeavors that have their true meaning in the making of poems. That dedicatory spirit of both Frost and Moore is foregrounded by Chaucer, who gave us, "The lyf so short, the crafte so long to lerne / th'essay so hard, so sharpe the reckonynge."
. . . . . .
In my own lifework, I've been closer to Walt Whitman, our other quintessential American poet, who did not influence Frost. In fact, they are opposites, except for their close observation of common objects and their lines about dawning. For Frost's adherence to "the freshness of dawn," Whitman announces, in Leaves of Grass: "Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me, / if I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me." Other than that, they are strangers.
Here I must confess that I depart from Robert Frost in some big ways. Frost never enjoyed teaching, and in fact had great contempt for it: "A poem will bear only so much of teaching," he told writers at Breadloaf. He is not known for service to poetry, for translation, or for editing. For me writing is inextricably tied to serving poetry. This past January I was startled into excitement by a phone call from Ruth Kaplan, then president of the board of the Poetry Society of America, telling me that I'd won the Frost Medal. It reminded me of another call: In 1972, when I was working in considerable obscurity, I heard from James Storrow, then publisher of The Nation, saying he'd read some poems of mine in The Nation and wanted me to serve as Poetry Editor. After I fainted, I accepted the job and stayed for 36 years. Once there, I read submissions in an office with bound back issues placed so close to my desk I could touch them, Henry James panning Whitman's Drum Taps, William Butler Yeats' last poems, Thomas Higginson's columns praising Emily Dickinson far more than he did while she was alive. Many of the poets whose work appeared in those back issues, such as Moore and Yeats, were also editors of the poems of others. And I was happy to discover that The Nation's great poems of those years were bought by women editors, such as Freda Kirchwey, editor-in-chief, great-aunt of our Karl Kirchwey, and Margaret Marshall, literary editor.
At that time there was a burgeoning excitement about poetry in translation, as well there should have been in a world where Borges, Neruda, Milosz, and Gorbanyevskaya were still about. New translations were featured by the likes of Daniel Weissbort in London, editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, Daniel Halpern in New York, editor of Antaeus, and Stuart Friebert and David Young, in Ohio, at Field. I thought of Whitman, who, American as he was, called for "an internationality of poets," and a "bridge between languages." And in my tenure, The Nation would have translations from the Greek by Edmund Keeley; from the East European poets, by Michael Hamburger; and by Latin American poets, such as Juaroz, translated by W. S. Merwin.
One year after I started at The Nation, I began serving also as Director of the Poetry Center of the Y, programming established poets plus some new upstarts, such as Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. The Nation's poetry in translation was extended to national nights at the Y, Mike Keeley singing Greek songs; Turk Talat Halman's translations of Rumi with a whirling dervish and an oud; Leopold Sedar Senghor, President of Senegal, reading his poems in French and English to the beat of jungle drums. Inspired by Whitman's "bridge between languages, and warmed by that translation fever, I wrote a poem that took off from the tower-of-babel story, in which God separated the earth's languages. "When God confused out languages, he uttered, / in sapphire tones, "Let there be translators!" It ended with a vision of "change through fire's change" to find "earth's own fire, the radiant rock of words."
One of my joys was organizing Discovery-The Nation, the contest for new poets. Before my tenure the Y's "Discovery" had a good life in a different form, as it does now, but those 36 years of Discovery-The Nation produced such winners as Rosanna Warren, Michael Collier, Jessica Greenbaum, and Mary Jo Bang. Another program for emerging poets, Introductions, boosted the likes of Alfred Corn and Robert Pinsky.
Along with that obsessive service, my major job has been teaching at Baruch College for nearly half a century. All things were connected in that the writers I served at The Nation and the Y read at Baruch, often to students who had never been to a literary reading. I teach poetry now, and one of my favorite assignments is having students translate poetry from their native languages, which are many, some of them little-known, and, sadly, growing extinct. My students are of different races, nations, languages, even beliefs, and that diversity, I've found, though I wouldn't dare tell this to Robert Frost, is the best way of raising standards.
. . . . . .
My earliest influence as a writer had to have been my grandfather David, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who long ago organized a series of readings by Israeli poets visiting Brooklyn. Like Whitman, he walked uptown from the Battery to go to concerts and opera, his walks imagined in my poem called "Footsteps on Lower Broadway":
Move, move, move, to con brio scores
in your head. Praise all things fixed and loose.
Even when you can ride in horse-drawn cars
walk, to feel unstuck cobbles through your soles,
to see leaves stuck to pebbled rectangles
like jewels in velvet bodices . . .
My serious formative influence was Marianne Moore, a longtime friend of my family through E. McKnight Kauffer, a book designer. To her I sent poems when I was very young. She replied, "The flawless typing shows your work to its best advantage." From her I learned first-hand then and in successive years of friendship the love of hard tasks, and to take no success, however small, for granted. One method of training she frowned on was graduate school. "I never got a Ph.D.," she said, "and T. S. Eliot never got a Ph.D. And yet you persist." Well, I did persist, though for me graduate school at N.Y.U. was not a means to an end but a place for me to so closely identify with figures like Caedmon and Julian of Norwich as to speak for them, which I did in my early poems.
From Marianne Moore and from my family I caught the excitement of living New York. I think continually of Henry James, who was born in my own neighborhood of Washington Square, and whose grandmother, Catherine Sloper, lived a block away from my house. I've dreamed of being locked in the Metropolitan Museum, whose El Greco's, Monet's, Soutines, and especially whose Netherlandish Room, informed my book of poems, The Paintings of Our Lives. The paintings still inhabit my poems, though I'm less interested in ekphrasis than in the tension between art and people's lives, between the beautifully made and squalid disorder.
Jazz has dominated my life and work as long as I can remember, especially John Coltrane's prayerful chords, Art Tatum's quicksilver arpeggios, Billie's high-lows, Miles' improvisations in Kind of Blue, of which I wrote: "if only my heart could teach my hands to play / and get it right on the first take."
It was Thelonius Monk, though, who changed my life. Before I found my vocation I covered books for a fashion magazine, and saw all around me strangled waists, sleek heads, and breadknife heels. Then one night I heard the Monk play in a club on Astor Place, thumps, craggy runs, one-finger-jabs on keys that were hot pans, heels dug in wood, soles flapping like seals. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers and shaped pain and joy into order. That was form. Not the superimposition of form, unrequired and pasted on, but this urgent shaping out of darkness that came from the welling up of intense emotion. To capture my amazement, I wrote it this way in "Thelonius Himself":
And all was void, as before Creation
and there was light. I left the job next day.
More recently, as a professor with summers to write, I've been following Whitman's footsteps from the asphalt of this city to the stones of Eastern Long Island. For my work I need both: the concert hall and the juniper; the tern cries and the jackhammers, until there are no boundaries between them. Lines come to me in the walking dunes, a stretch of sand hills inland, as close to a desert as I can imagine on the North Atlantic coast. I crave both terrains, as I do the history of the stalwart Montauk people, Wyandanch, who sold the land to settlers for mirrors and overcoats, and whose voice I still hear in the flash of waves that explode in a hard rain.
To quote Marianne Moore once again, the process of writing poetry involves "endless observation, curiosity, and a great deal of joy in the thing." Although I've had the fortune to know that joy all of my adult years, it hasn't been enough for a lifetime. I hope to go on, serving poetry as I reach after words in the act of dawning.
I think continually of mentors and friends who have inspired me, bolstering confidence, and keeping my hand on the hard task. I'm grateful to Bill Henderson's Pushcart Prizes, The Guggenheim Foundation, the Aiken-Taylor judges, to Yaddo, MacDowell, and to my own Baruch College for their encouragement and support. Above all, I thank my family, and especially my husband, Jerome Schulman, my most sympathetic and harshest critic.
I'd like to close with two poems I wrote, respectively early and new. The first is "Blue Dawn," from one of my books edited at Houghton Mifflin by Pat Strachan, who is in the audience tonight. Although I didn't think of it at the time of writing, it seems to me now to speak to Frost and Whitman, to their joy in newness:
I see Viola float in on a plank
from the wreck, touch land, pocket a seashell
for luck, and, shivering, glide into a kingdom,
as once Long Island's settlers trudged ashore
and, though weary, took in blue-green forests
at sunrise, before lines furrowed the oak trees.
When his ship steamed into New York Harbor,
my father stood on deck in cramped, thin shoes
and watched blue rocks grow to be Ellis Island.
Sailing through fog at daybreak, his eyes burning
with the statue's unlit torch, how could he know
that one day he would walk on asphalt pavement
wearing a tweed coat, though still in cramped shoes
Scant time for shops, he said, but I knew he chose
to save the blue wonder of what might be,
as I do now: slate flagstones going blue
in the not-yet-risen sun, an unopened iris,
the miracle of a lined, unwritten page.
The second one is in the current issue of the Yale Review, whose appearance at this very moment of my Frost Award I regard as either magic or else a sign:
Not raised but found, this dancer, idling on trash,
abandoned in the compactor room,
fated to be smothered in a green bag,
seven blooms caught me, hot pink smiles
in deadpan weather, on the year's shortest
day, with the long night ahead. Gingerly,
sponging off ashes, eggshells, silvery
powder (talc, I hope), from its mossy planter,
I slide it toward high windows, and it changes
like fire: sherry to red-purple to magenta,
colors of blood, of beaujolais, of sin}
and holiness, of saints on stained-glass panels,
light shining through, a diva's fan.
Fuchsia, the color named for a plant
that must have jolted Leonhart Fuchs,
the botanist, when he discovered it
in the 16th century, my orchid's
serious name is phalaenopsis,
for moths in flight. Its wingy blooms
blink, teasing, just out of eye's reach.
Sunsets they turn the color of red ochre
mixed with manganese, powdered and blown
through reeds by the early cave painters, fearful
of beasts, to glitter from a bison's frame;
I don't know the exact shade of red-purple
the Phoenicians used to dye robes for kings,
but I think this was it, also the color
of a rose Yeats set afire to see its ghost.
In my mind the ancient Egyptian
who painted amulets inside a royal tomb
wished only for this sizzling fuchsia
to wake the beloved dead, as he mixed gypsum
with rose madder in futile passion.
Once as a child I wandered in the park
bordering my usual asphalt streets,
and saw a flower, red-purple on a stem
with wings. I called to it, my angel.
Now I give an orchid air and water,
turn down the lumiere, stroke the crooked stem
that darts out to reveal wings whose vermillion,
burning against a window facing brick,
defies endings on this cold year's end.