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Linda Pastan

Finding a new poet
is like finding a new wildflower
out in the woods. You don’t see

its name in the flower books, and
nobody you tell believes
in its odd color or the way

its leaves grow in splayed rows
down the whole length of the page.

© 1991 by Linda Pastan
Reprinted from “A New Poet” from Heroes in Disguise by Linda Pastan. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W.Norton & Company,Inc.

In the lines above, Linda Pastan describes what I feel upon reading her poems: the joy of discovering unexpected delights. Linda Pastan’s poems have a simple beauty, appreciated by the casual reader or academic alike. Every word is essential, every phrase is perfectly composed, without verbosity or excess.

During a career spanning four decades, Ms. Pastan has inscribed her name indelibly upon the canon of modern poetry.  She has received numerous accolades, and is revered and loved in equal measure by her peers and a legion of readers.

When I first made contact with Linda, she put me immediately at ease.  I found her to be modest, patient and generous in nature.  In July we both holidayed at the same time on islands separated by a mere three thousand miles of Atlantic foam.  We exchanged postcards, Linda kindly recommended some light holiday reading for me, which I enjoyed immensely.  I hope that we can repeat this in the years to come, but in any case I can reach for my well-thumbed copy of her “Carnival Evening” and our acquaintance is renewed in the flick of a page. 

Linda Pastan was born in New York on 27th May 1932, only child to surgeon Jacob Olenik and his wife Bess Schwartz.  Her upbringing was “culturally Jewish”, and her poems often visits scriptural themes and makes reference to moral and ethical issues which draw upon this background.  More often however, her chosen themes are either domestic, dissecting the myriad wonders of “ordinary” life as a mother, wife and daughter, or nature related, inspired by the magnificence of her rural surroundings. Linda has lived for many years in Potomac, Maryland with her husband, eminent physician and researcher Ira Pastan.

In addition to the aforementioned “Carnival Evening” published in 1998, Linda Pastan has released twelve volumes of poetry.  Her latest book “Travelling Light”, published by Norton & Co, will be available in January 2011.

1971  A Perfect Circle of Sun. Chicago: Swallow Press Inc.
1975  Aspects of Eve. New York: Liveright.
1978  The Five Stages of Grief. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
1980  Setting the Table Dryad Press.
1981  Waiting For My Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
1982  PM / AM. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
1985  A Fraction of Darkness. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
1988  The Imperfect Paradise. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
1991  Heroes in Disguise. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
1995  An Early Afterlife. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
1998  Carnival Evening. New and Selected Poems: 1968 – 1998. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
2001  The Last Uncle. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
2006  Queen of a Rainy Country. Poems. W. W. Norton & Co.
2011  Travelling Light,  W.W. Norton & Co.

     
             
Traveling Light available for preorder at Amazon January 2011.    
   
             
     

The collections “PM/AM” and “Carnival Evening” were both finalists for the prestigious National Book Award and indeed Linda’s writing career is peppered with awards and accolades. Notable amongst these are a Pushcart Prize, Dylan Thomas Award, Di Castagnola Award, Bess Hokin Prize, Maurice English Award, and the 2003 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. She received a Distinguished Alumnae Award from Radcliffe College and served as Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991 to 1995.  Linda has also shown her passion for assisting in the education of up and coming poets, teaching and lecturing for twenty years at the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference.

In a recent Washington Post interview Linda Pastan revealed:

“Though my poems are often a reflection of my so called "real life" (the woods outside my window, my family, what I read about in the newspapers), they are usually more disguised, less specific in their details. Maybe that's because I lead such a quiet life that I have to invent, or at least embroider.”

Let us look more closely at a selection of Linda Pastan’s poems:

Her musings in this excerpt regarding the loss of her mother are particularly poignant, putting words to emotions we all struggle to elaborate:

 

From “Notes To My Mother”

1.

Your letters to me
are forwarded to my dreams
where you appear in snatches
of the past, wearing
appropriate clothes-
a thirties’ shirtwaist or the long
seal coat you wintered in.
And since your gravestone
is shaped like the front
of our old mailbox,
I’ll try to leave my messages
of flowers there.

2.

“Feeling fine, having a good time.”
I had to stamp those words
on postcards home from camp,
though I was so homesick there
I’d read the nametapes on my socks
and handkerchiefs-scraps of my real self
you had sewn on by hand.
And so I write it now, though
I’m still homesick eight years after
you left me in my life for good:
feeling fine, having a good time.

© 1998 by Linda Pastan
Reprinted from Carnival Evening by Linda Pastan
Used with permission of the publisher, W.W.Norton & Company,Inc.
Excerpt from “Notes To My Mother” - Carnival Evening, New and Selected Poems, W.W. Norton & Co., 1998)


Such a lovely wistful poem, sure to resonate deeply with those who have suffered a recent loss. Truly a brilliant piece of reflection. The first stanza suggests that we can receive "messages" from those long gone through the medium of our dreams.  Haven’t we all yearned for that chance to say the words left unsaid?  I love the simile of the gravestone and the mailbox, and imagine that noticing the similarity of shape was the conception point for Linda. This is how poetry is conceived—it needs to start with a concept then grow from there. The second stanza lays homesickness alongside grief and they do indeed look and feel similar. The small things matter so much, those nametapes sewn into our socks are what keep us going in life.

The punch line "feeling fine, having a good time" is delivered with masterful handling. Although the hint of irony at the beginning of the stanza with "wish you were here,” states an adult’s reflections, the very real pathos in the child’s heart is echoed at the end, when confronting the permanent loss of a parent.

And below, we have Linda’s poetic interpretation of Rousseau’s painting “Carnival Evening” which also lends its title to her excellent collection. So often we find that ekphrastic poems do not add to our appreciation of the original artwork. Here however, we are treated to a layered illumination of the subject, which helps bring the picture to life in a truly vivid way:

 

Despite the enormous evening sky
spreading over most of the canvas,
its moon no more
than a tarnished coin, dull and flat,
in a devalued currency;

despite the trees, so dark themselves,
stretching upward like supplicants,
utterly leafless; despite what could be
a face, rinsed of feeling, aimed
in their direction,

the two small figures
at the bottom of the picture glow
bravely in their carnival clothes,
as if the whole darkening world
were dimming its lights for a party.

© 1998 by Linda Pastan
Reprinted from Carnival Evening by Linda Pastan
Used with permission of the publisher, W.W.Norton & Company,Inc.


Linda displays her mastery of imagery in this dark gem. The parting shot in those last three powerful lines says it all. The hardest part is the walking away:
 

 

October Funeral
For Ag

The world is shedding
its thousand skins.
The snake goes naked,
and the needles of the pine fall out
like the teeth of a comb I broke
upon your hair last week.
The ghosts of dead leaves
haunt no one. Impossible
to give you to the weather,
to leave you locked in a killed tree.
No metaphysic has prepared us
for the simple act of turning
and walking away.

© 1971 by Linda Pastan
Reprinted from A Perfect Circle of Sun, Swallow Press,
Used with permission of the Author, and Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency.
(A Perfect Circle of Sun, Swallow Press Inc., 1971)


Next, this little poem catches the atmosphere of night for me and the loneliness of being “cold expanses of pillow” away from a sleeping partner. There is no more melancholy sound in all of nature than the bark of a fox and they often sound disturbingly like crying babies. The choice of the possessive personal pronoun “its” rather than “his” or “hers” to refer to the baby’s cry adds to the sense of detachment and sadness:

 

Night Sounds

When the clock
like a moon shows
the dark side of its face
we reach
across cold expanses
of pillow
for speech.
In that silence
a fox barks
from the next field,
or a train drags its long syllable
over a hill,
or the baby
washed up again from sleep
sends its vowels
calling
for their lost
consonants.

© 1975 by Linda Pastan
Reprinted from Aspects of Eve, Liveright Publishing
Used with permission of the Author, and Jean V. NaggarLiterary Agency.)


The following poem is ostensibly flippant, which has provoked much debate.  Clearly the speaker is a somewhat disillusioned housewife and mother, who is tired of being “graded” by a family who doubtless take her for granted. The grades are not too bad though, and the last line is left deliberately ambiguous, which in all good poetry, lends itself to various interpretations—“dropping out” could conceivably mean running away from home, committing suicide or merely refusing to be labelled and judged:

 

 

Marks

My husband gives me an A
for last night's supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I am average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass. Wait 'til they learn
I'm dropping out.

© 1978 by Linda Pastan
Reprinted from The Five Stages of Grief by Linda Pastan
Used with permission of the publisher, W.W.Norton & Company,Inc.


The parallels between peace and health, war and death are used to great effect in “An Early Afterlife.” Who amongst us would not rather galvanise themselves whilst strong, by experiencing the pain of separation in advance? Unfortunately, although we can write a will to put our financial affairs in order, file it away and get on with life, “affaires de coeur” do not usually lend themselves so easily to compartmentalization:

 

An Early Afterlife

". . . a wise man in time of peace, shall make the necessary preparations for war." —Horace

Why don't we say goodbye right now
in the fallacy of perfect health
before whatever is going to happen
happens. We could perfect our parting,
like those characters in On the Beach
who said farewell in the shadow
of the bomb as we sat watching,
young and holding hands at the movies.
We could use the loving words
we otherwise might not have time to say.
We could hold each other for hours
in a quintessential dress rehearsal.

Then we would just continue
for however many years were left.
The ragged things that are coming next—
arteries closing like rivers silting over,
or rampant cells stampeding us to the exit—
would be like postscripts to our lives
and wouldn't matter. And we would bask
in an early afterlife of ordinary days,
impervious to the inclement weather
already in our long-range forecast.
Nothing could touch us. We'd never
have to say goodbye again.

© 1995 by Linda Pastan
Reprinted from An Early Afterlife by Linda Pastan
Used with permission of the publisher, W.W.Norton & Company,Inc.


The next is a rare venture for Linda into the realms of formal poetry–in this case the form is the Pantoum where lines are repeated in a defined way.  Quite apart from being fun to read, the patterns of repetition give those repeated lines subtly different nuances of meaning each time, and lends the overall poem a roundness and a symmetry. This is an astonishingly hard form to carry off with such expertise:
 

 

Something About The Trees

I remember what my father told me:
There is an age when you are most yourself.
He was just past fifty then,
Was it something about the trees that make him speak?

There is an age when you are most yourself.
I know more now than I did once.
Was it something about the trees that make him speak?
Only a single leaf had turned so far.

I know more now than I did once.
I used to think he'd always be the surgeon.
Only a single leaf had turned so far.
Even his body kept its secrets.

I used to think he'd always be the surgeon,
My mother was the perfect surgeon's wife.
Even his body kept its secrets.
I thought they both would live forever.

My mother was the perfect surgeon's wife,
I still can see her face at thirty.
I thought they both would live forever,
I thought I'd always be their child.

I still can see her face at thirty.
When will I be most myself?
I thought I'd always be their child.
In my sleep it's never winter.

When will I be most myself?
I remember what my father told me.
In my sleep it's never winter.
He was just past fifty then.

© 1988 by Linda Pastan
Reprinted from The Imperfect Paradise by Linda Pastan
Used with permission of the publisher, W.W.Norton & Company,Inc.


Linda Pastan’s poems often address rather dark subject matter. This point has been made so often that Linda did what she does best–she wrote a wryly witty poem on the subject:
 

 

Why Are Your Poems So Dark?

Isn't the moon dark too,
most of the time?

And doesn't the white page
seem unfinished

without the dark stain
of alphabets?

When God demanded light,
he didn't banish darkness.

Instead he invented
ebony and crows

and that small mole
on your left cheekbone.

Or did you mean to ask
"Why are you sad so often?"

Ask the moon.
Ask what it has witnessed.

© 2006 by Linda Pastan
Reprinted from Queen of a Rainy Country by Linda Pastan
Used with permission of the publisher, W.W.Norton & Company, Inc.


The implied criticism need not be regarded as such. Much of Linda Pastan’s poetry may be dark, but it reflects life in all its myriad colours as perfectly as an obsidian mirror. Plain, unvarnished truths carry startling insights just beneath the surface. Pastan’s work carries a depth and breadth that stretches the boundaries of our own beliefs and ideas; it speaks of the internal and external, and all matters pertaining to human existence. That she is able to compress these abstractions into beautifully rendered poems speaks clearly of her mastery over this medium.

Linda has admitted to editing and re-editing each poem up to one hundred times. This level of dedication to honed perfection is evident in the finished product. And yet her poems have such a natural flow - there is no sign of jaggedness or write-by-numbers contrivance. Pastan’s words flow musically, whether read silently or aloud, each line break is precisely where it must be. I read somewhere that Linda can be distracted with the contemplation of a particular line break whilst driving across town. Such attention to detail is only one of her hallmarks: accessibility without loss of profundity, personality without loss of universality, poetry without affectation. 

Incidentally, I would encourage readers to seek out footage and recordings of Linda Pastan reading her own works. There are several available on the internet, notably from the Dodge Poetry Festival, and these are not to be missed—Pastan is a rare talent at bringing her own poetry to life.

Pastan is one of the truly important poets publishing today. She fuels our emotions, makes us think and rethink, and most importantly, she is accessible to all her readers—her work is enjoyed by all without the worry of decoding poetic rhetoric, yet paradoxically, the mystery is deepened in the ordinary. Behind her words exists a real person, someone who has lived and touched pain and joy, someone who understands what truth is, and the value of love and people. Linda Pastan opens her world generously and invites readers in—to read her is to love her.

Oliver Lodge
October, 2010

 

Please read about Linda’s new poetry collection in her fascinating interview.

Also read Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s essay about Linda Pastan’s poem in The Poetry Foundation.

 

(Pirene’s Fountain gratefully acknowledges Ms. Pastan’s graciousness and warmth in sharing with us so generously, her time and remarkable work. We also thank Tara A. Hart of the Jean V. Naggar Agency for her invaluable help in procuring permission to use all the materials in the feature. In addition, we are indebted to Katelyn Mirabelli  of W. W. Norton & Co., for her help in obtaining permission to using all the poems and excerpts for this Showcase feature. )