The Poetry of Death – The New Yorker

Before she became my student, Jane had lived a quiet, rural life, just
outside the bustle of Ann Arbor. Her parents were musicians, and she
grew up in a house full of books. In junior high, she started writing
poems and keeping a journal. She enrolled in the University of Michigan,
flunked biology, dropped out, took a job, returned to major in French,
studied to be a teacher, switched to English, and took my lecture course
in Yeats and Joyce. The following year, she applied to take my poetry
workshop, and most of the poems she submitted were slight and fantastic,
a habit of the moment that Robert Bly called “light verse surrealism.”
Yet one of her poems was darker and stronger. She wrote of trying to
capture the attention of her sick grandmother, approaching the hospital
bed “like the young nurse with the needle.” The image brought her into
my class and altered our lives forever.

In the first three years of our marriage, when we stayed in Ann Arbor,
she worked on poems mostly when I flew out of town to do poetry
readings. When I was at home my presence appeared to inhibit her. In New
Hampshire, for the first time, she worked on poems every day. Here she
had no job, no local past nor friends. We had each other, we had our
house, we had our landscape, we had my cousins in the small white
clapboard church. Every day was devoted to each other or to making
poems. She wrote tentatively about inhabiting my place, my history.
She saw, or imagined she saw, my ancestors haunting our kitchen. She
floated in space like an astronaut detached from the mother ship—or was
she attached? She found in the shed a woman’s long gray hair.

A poet from Ann Arbor had moved to Boston, a woman Jane’s age who
belonged to the Alice James Poetry Cooperative. Joyce Peseroff recruited
Jane, and the Cooperative published her first book, “From Room to Room,”
in 1978—the beginning of her career in poetry. Jane and Joyce started a
poetry magazine, Green House, addressing their generation of young
poets. It was eight years before Jane did another book, the second of
the four, but as she published new poems in magazines she came to
national attention. I remember when the New Yorker bought its first
poem by Jane, “Thinking of Madame
Bovary
.”

The year when Jane published her first book, I brought out my
seventh—that’s what she had to put up with. “Kicking the
Leaves

was a breakthrough for me, deriving its force from the ecstasy of
marrying Jane and the change from university teaching to life in New
Hampshire. My bland first collection, in 1955, had been overpraised.
When the second book followed—and the third and the fourth and the fifth
and the sixth—no one paid much attention. (Just before “Kicking,” I
published a prose reminiscence of older poets. Friendly reviewers found
it ironic that the author of “Remembering Poets” had once been a
promising poet.) “Kicking the Leaves” was reprinted many times, selling
in the end ten times as many copies as my first six titles together.
With my marriage to Jane and my return to old sources, I had found
myself as a poet.

Meanwhile, Jane’s reputation bloomed, poem after poem and book after
book. Three or four times a year she workshopped with Peseroff and
Alice Mattison,
who published short stories in the New Yorker, and would return from
the three-woman workshop triumphant. I watched her excitement and
progress with joy and envy.

For decades, she and I had written what could be described as the same
sort of poem. It was free verse—mostly short poems in lines of largely
similar length, delicate rhythms with forceful enjambments and an
assonance of diphthongs. My earliest poems, long before Jane and I knew
each other, were rhymed and metrical. Ten years after Jane’s death, out
of love for Thomas Hardy and the seventeenth century, I wrote metrical
poems again, many of them about Jane. But in the long middle of my life
I improvised, like Jane, a sensuous sound without meter. Our work had
been different enough—people knew us apart—but we belonged together to a
stylistic consensus. Then, as Jane moved from glory to glory, the
language of my poems began to diverge from hers. In one lengthy
collection, my lines became more ironic and more ingenious in structure.
A subsequent, still weaker book collected brief plain poems of anecdotal
reminiscence. It appeared just after Jane died, and a compassionate
reviewer attributed its failure to my anguish. Over the years I have
come to understand how or why my poems altered and deteriorated. Working
beside her, I felt overwhelmed as I read “Let Evening Come” and “Briefly
It Enters.” I admired the embodiment of her struggle with depression in
“Having It Out with Melancholy.” I remember when she handed me
“Twilight: After Haying,” one summer after a neighboring farmer finished
cutting our fields:

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
too tired to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed—
Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
—sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen . . . the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses. . . .

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.

Such sensuous beauty. As the dew falls the soul eases into bodily
receptiveness. These devastating enactments of Jane’s art became daily
events. The emotional abundance of her language climbed to the summit of
literary achievement, the pupil exceeding her teacher, and I made my
poems as unlike Jane’s as I could manage.

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