Thursday, May 20, 2021

Three Women Poets You Should Know

Kathleen Raine reads her poetry and discusses her philosophy
 Interview with Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan 
Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Delhi, 1994
The complete interview is here.

Kathleen Raine in 1951
Photo by Rollie McKenna
For those of you reading this via email, click here to see the accompanying video.
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by Laurie Allee

Have you ever heard of Kathleen Raine, Marina Tsvetaeva or Rebecca Elson?  

That's okay, until recently neither had I...

Must-have if stranded on a desert island. 
Most bookworms have favorite poets, even if poetry isn't our main reading genre.  My favorite is E. E. Cummings.  My copy of his Complete Works is as tattered and dog-eared as a tent revival minister's Bible.  I love Cummings and also Pablo Neruda and Rainer Rilke.  There are many others whose books fill my shelves, but I'll poetry knowledge is not extensive.  It rests somewhere between a former liberal arts major and a wannabe slam poet.  The problem?  As I got older, poetry receded.  I spent long, rainy afternoons drinking coffee and reading Sylvia Plath when I was in my twenties, but at some point Sylvia went on the shelf and I went to work, or to the grocery store, or to pick up my daughter from guitar class.  
I'm holding out for Anne Sexton.

Poetry isn't discussed in pop culture nearly as much as the work of fiction authors or film directors or musicians.  Occasionally Hollywood makes a poet biopic, but it's not like we have summer blockbuster poet movies with accompanying sales of poet action figures.   (How I would love an E. E. Cummings action figure!) It's easy to miss out on poetry.  It's even easier to miss out on the work of lesser-known poets.  They are overshadowed by Frost or Browning or Keats in English Literature anthologies, as well as in all those quote memes on Instagram.

With that in mind, allow me to introduce you to three incredible poets you probably haven't heard about:

I don't know how Kathleen Raine escaped my attention for so long.  While she is widely known and celebrated in the UK, I can't remember ever hearing of her in any of the literature classes I've taken in the United States.  I first learned of her a few years ago from Gary Lachman's fantastic book, Lost Knowledge of the Imagination.  

She was not just a poet, but also a respected expert on William Blake.  She is remembered for her epic, two-volume masterwork Blake and Tradition, published in 1968.  This scholarly collection offered a passionate, intellectual defense of William Blake's romantic philosophy, refuting TS Eliot's somewhat condescending analysis at the time.  In an age where reason was paramount, where rational, science-based materialism eclipsed idealism and  mysticism, Kathleen Raine was an intellectual anomaly and literary rebel.  

She revered the divine vision of the imagination, and the transformative spirituality of nature.  She recognized the value of romanticism during an era fraught with existential angst and postmodern ennui.  She was passionate in the face of popular cynicism. So, naturally, she had a difficult time getting the rational gatekeepers of poetry to accept her early verses as more than trivial.  

Her body of work  -- spanning decades -- is vast and multifaceted. It reflects her love of eastern traditions, neo-Platonic philosophy, Jungian symbols, the hero's journey of Joseph Campbell and what Aldous Huxley called "The Perinnial Philosophy" -- a consistent message present in all great spiritual traditions.  When published, her early poetry exemplified her passionate dedication to spiritual values in a society that often seemed too cool to care.  As she matured, her writing comfortably settled into the tradition of Shelley, Yeats, and Coleridge.  She was a poet of the natural world, celebrating the soul's experience as part of that world.

Kathleen Raine's life story reads like a great BBC period drama. Born in 1908 in Ilford, Essex, she spent a wildhearted, innocent youth in the idyllic English countryside. (She entitled her memoir of the time Farewell Happy Fields.)   She was the pretty, precocious only child of doting parents who valued her exceptional gifts, and transcribed her childhood poems before she actually knew how to write.  As she grew into a charming, ravishingly beautiful teenager, her Methodist minister father forbade early romances.  Raine rebelled against her parents, claiming their interventions "cut something from her soul."  This led her "to set out in a dream/to go away."  

She landed a college scholarship, fell into the prevailing mid-century nihilism, and then got married because she "didn't know what else to do."  She abandoned her marriage, eloped with another man, had two children with him, but left him when she fell madly, desperately in love with a homosexual who couldn't love her the way she loved him.  They spent torturous years together, until he eventually died of cancer. Raine grieved for many years, alternately writing ... and condemning herself for not writing enough.  She agonized that she had ruined her children's lives, and thought of herself as "a destructive force."  She was convinced that she was loveless.  In one poem she wrote: 

Sin of omission: as women
Withhold love, so I poetry.

When she traveled to India in her 70s, she said it felt like she had finally "come home."  Her later years were filled with prolific work and camaraderie with intellectual kindred spirits who offered counterpoint to the cold, consumerist culture of the 1980s and '90s.  

Kathleen Raine used her art as a light to illuminate.  It led her to create The Temenos Academy of Integral Studies in London as "a new school of wisdom."  I think of her as a modern day English version Hypatia -- guiding students to philosophical breakthroughs and presiding over discussions with the great minds of late 20th Century intelligentsia. At Temenos, Raine hosted lectures, seminars and discussions with leading scientists, artists and writers from all over the world.  She died in 2003 at the age of 95.

"There are but two alternatives," Raine once said.  "The first alternative is that of secular materialism -- appealing to the authority of a science whose only reality is the measurable -- 'nothing is sacred' -- and no bounds set to destructive exploitation.  The second alternative -- embraced in every tradition of wisdom -- holds that man and nature alike are a manifestation of immeasurable spirit.  If that is so, we are custodians of a world in which, in William Blake's words, 'everything that lives is holy' and our sacred trust."

I have suffered from postmodern burnout in recent years, so I fell in love with Raine's ecstatic embrace of romanticism.  In an overly materialistic world, I need her soulful poetic vision.  In a culture that feels more and more aggressively yang, Raine is a welcome yin balance.  There is divinity inherent not only in nature, but in ourselves.  Her work exemplifies this truth without proselytizing.  Her poems bloom like wildflowers.

I really like this one: 


Wanting to know all
I overlooked each particle
Containing the whole

Intent on one great love, perfect,
Requited and forever,
I missed love's everywhere
Small presence, thousand-guised.

And lifelong have been reading
Book after book, searching
For wisdom, but bringing
Only my own understanding.

Forgive me, forgiver,
Whether you be infinite omniscient
Or some unnoticed other
My existence has hurt.

Being what I am
What could I do but wrong?
Yet love can bring
To heart healing
To chaos meaning.

Be sure to watch Kathleen Raine speak in the video at the top of this post, or watch the complete interview here.  She is a balm for our troubled, chaotic world.  

Speaking of chaotic worlds, Marina Tsvetaeva was witness to enough havoc and turmoil to last several lifetimes.  She is considered one of the greatest poets in Russian literature, and yet (I'm embarrassed to admit) I had never heard of her until last year.   

While Russian literature is known for epic, multifaceted tragedy, Tsvaetaeva's own history is one of the most fascinating, complex and heartbreaking stories I have ever read.  (Heads up screenwriters: nobody has made an English biopic about this woman.  Get typing!)

Born into an academic and musical family, she was a prodigy.   She published her first book of poems at eighteen -- a somewhat controversial collection of confessional poems including subjects previously considered taboo in Russian poetry.  As the harrowing events of the early twentieth century bulldozed her youth, Tsvetaeva held fast to an apolitical insistence upon individual freedom, tolerance and a refusal to accept any form of ideological narrow-mindedness.  During turbulent events of Russian history, she criticized hypocrisy from both Red and White, causing her to become somewhat of a pariah in political circles, including the emigre community in 1930s Paris.     

Her husband fought against the Red Army in the 1918-1921 Civil War, but later became a Soviet spy.  She endured exile, extreme poverty, famine, illness and unimaginable loss.  When she put her daughter in a state orphanage to try to save her from going hungry, the little girl still died of starvation.  Her other daughter was arrested for espionage and held in a Soviet prison for over 16 years.  Tsvetaeva's husband was also arrested for espionage.  He was executed.  

She had passionate, complex relationships with Boris Pasternak and Rainer Rilke.  She dedicated her work to Anna Akhmatova.  She explored the limits of gender, political identity and self-expression.  She did not suffer fools gladly, and frequently called out all pretenders and imposters in political and artistic life.  

When I read her Selected Works a few months ago, I was dazzled by her writing.  She turned her personal, tumultuous experience of the Russian Revolution into lyrical poems of sorrow, hope and passion.  I know I'm missing something by reading her work in English, but it's hard for me to believe it can be even more beautiful in its original language.   She is known for using rhyme brilliantly, almost musically, which is likely why it took so long for her work to be translated.  (Watch an interview with one of her translators here.)  

Marina Tsvetaeva joins Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Beatrice Hastings, Sara Teasdale and Deborah Digges in the tragic club of women poets who committed suicide.   According to the book Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva, the NKVD tried to force Marina Tsvetaeva to become an informant.  Instead, she hanged herself in 1941 at the age of 49.  In her note to her son she wrote, "Forgive me, but to go on would be worse.  I love you passionately.  Do understand that I could not live anymore.  Tell Papa and Alya, if you ever see them, that I loved them to the last moment and explain to them that I found myself in a trap."

Knowing the circumstances of her death make this poem all the more heartbreaking.  Still, it's my favorite:
Much like me, you make your way forward, 
Walking with downturned eyes.
Well, I too kept mine lowered.
Passer-by, stop here, please.

Read, when you've picked your nosegay
Of henbane and poppy flowers,
That I was once called Marina,
And discover how old I was.

Don't think that there's any grave here,
Or that I'll come and throw you out...
I myself was much to given
To laughing when one ought not.

The blood hurtled to my complexion,
My curls wound in flourishes...
I was, passer-by, I existed!
Passer-by, stop here, please.

And take, pluck a stem of wildness,
The fruit that comes with its fall --
It's true that graveyard strawberries
Are the biggest and sweetest of all.

All I care is that you don't stand there,
Dolefully hanging your head.
Easily about me remember,
Easily about me forget.

How rays of pure light suffuse you!
A golden dust wraps you round...
And don't let it confuse you,
My voice from under the ground.

Read her poems first, then check out her diaries.  

Rebecca Elson was a distinguished astronomer whose principle work focused on star formation and evolution.  She spent her professional life looking far into the deepest reaches of space, studying not only stars but the mysterious dark matter surrounding them.  

She was also a phenomenal poet.

"Facts are only as interesting as the possibilities they open up to the imagination," she wrote in A Responsibility to Awe,  her slim but magnificent book of poetry.  Her poems are spare, glorious, funny, curious, and touched with the aching uncertainty of someone who knows her days are numbered.

Elson was 29 when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a devastating blood cancer usually not seen in young people. Through the brutality of chemotherapy, the brief remission and the last agonizing days, Elson greeted her world with grace and determination, with a soulful declaration that life -- all of it, even the end of it -- is magnificent, awe-inspiring, beautiful and overflowing with wonder.  Her poetry is a testament to her deeply-felt gratitude for the human experience, no matter how short it turned out to be.

She began publishing poetry while at Princeton, regularly appeared in literary magazines and even managed to teach writing classes during her time at Harvard while she was a working scientist.   She was almost tempted to leave astrophysics, sometimes speaking about how she found the sexism of scientific circles absent in the poetry community.   

She spoke three languages, played mandolin, had a lighthearted sense of humor and a good-natured competitiveness that even extended to her role as a "top-scoring striker on her Saturday football team." 

When Elson died at 39, she left behind 56 celebrated scholastic papers and one gorgeous book of poetry.  She was mourned by numerous friends and colleagues, many of whom she had met and interacted with briefly, but whose friendships she had maintained over long distance.  

When I discovered her book during the bleakest part of the pandemic, I could feel her warmth and generosity flow forth from the pages, like a message of encouragement from the great beyond.  It's as if somehow she lit up a twinkly spark of an idea in all that universal dark matter: We are part of this.  We are actually part of all this wonder.  Isn't it awesome?

Antidotes to Fear of Death

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, inside me, 
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it's enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.  

After spending time reading these poets who were new to me --feeling, the way I always do, that poets speak to me from the liminal spaces we all subconsciously share -- I am certain that poetry is one of the things we need during our own calamitous time.  We need poetry to see past our similarities and smoothe over our differences.  We need it to celebrate the tenacious beauty of life on earth.  We need it to balance all of our culture's thudding, soulless materialism and remind us of our own divine nature, and our own spectacular place in the cosmos.  We need it to call out political hypocrisy like Marina Tsvetaeva.  We need it to remind us of nature's spiritual splendor, like Kathleen Raine.  We need it to wake us up before it's too late, like Rebecca Elson. 

I've already taken Sylvia and E.E. back off the shelves.  If nothing else, I'm making room for new poets.  Stay tuned and I'll share.   
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If you want to see my library of favorite poetry books, click here.  

For poetry inspiration, click here.

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