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Showcase—Feature by Mark McKay



Jane Yolen

Another Spring: A Pantoume

If I never see another spring–
the green thrusts of daffodils,
the violin curl of ferns–
I will still remember them.

The green thrusts of daffodils,
the scatter of crocuses.
I will still remember them
when I am under earth.

The scatter of crocuses,
like children in a playground,
when I am under earth
will still look the same:

like children in a playground.
The violin curl of ferns
will still look the same
(even if I never see another spring).

©2013 Jane Yolen All rights reserved


Jane Yolen

It would seem that the turn of another season finds our featured poet, Jane Yolen, in a reflective mode with the delicately wistful pantoume above.

Jane Yolen is one of the most prolific writers of our generation, and she could easily cover every wall in her Massachusetts and Scottish homes with awards, certificates and accolades—yet that is not what she is about. Jane Yolen is imbued with a Calvinist work ethic, and with well over three hundred titles already published, this New York born writer with the ready smile and rapier wit shows no sign whatsoever of slowing down .
It would take much more than this feature to properly address Jane Yolen’s impact and influence on literature over the past fifty years or so; we can only scratch the surface - so given our natural bias towards the poetic, that’s where we shall focus the lens of our microscope.

Poetry is woven into every strand of Yolen’s literary DNA – in her own words she has “been a poet and poetry lover all my life”.  In reality much of her work can (and should) be considered as poetry, but we’ll restrict ourselves to her work aimed more specifically at an adult audience.  Perhaps Jane’s huge success as a children’s writer has diverted attention away from her “grown-up” poetry.  If so, we can begin to redress this injustice a little here.


Online Resources

Jane is a long-time friend and regular contributor to PF, so many of our readers will already feel they know her well.  For a broader perspective of the phenomenon which is Jane Yolen however, the reader is directed towards her rather excellent official website at, where a wealth of information, poetry and a particularly fascinating online journal is available. You can also learn about Jane’s long term “poem-a-day” self-challenge, an inspiration to all the poets out there. Googling Jane will yield over a million results, with the usual mix of wheat and chaff, but including many great video and audio recitals on Youtube and elsewhere.


Published Poetry

As previously mentioned, Jane has six books of adult poetry, namely:

Among Angels with Nancy Willard (Harcourt Brace), 1995
The Radiation Sonnets (Algonquin), 2003
Things To Say To a Dead Man (Holy Cow! Press), 2011
Ekaterinoslav (Holy Cow! Press), 2012
The Last Selchie Child (Midsummer Night Press), 2012
Speaking in Pearls (Papaveria Press), 2013

Books link to their Amazon page.

Among Angels co-written with Nancy Willard, examines angels from a metaphorical as well as a religious perspective.  The contrast of the writers’ poetic styles and divergent approaches to the subject matter make for a truly unique read.

The Radiation Sonnets is a deeply touching journal in verse, covering a six week period of radiotherapy from a lifetime partner’s perspective.  The book will resonate in particular with those of us who have travelled this agonising road with a loved one.

Things to Say to a Dead Man continues the timeline from The Radiation Sonnets, and is a cathartic journey of death, grief and redemption. In spite of the difficult subject matter, this collection is ultimately life-affirming and confirms the triumph of love, even over death.

Ekaterinoslav follows Jane’s father’s journey as a seven year old émigré from the Ukraine to America.  She describes these poems as “a celebration of passage, of ritual lost and then found, of a family who left a land of custom and arrived in a place of opportunity”.

The Last Selchie Child is an entrancing mix of myth, magic and fairy tale.  Here Jane returns triumphantly in poetic form to her abiding themes.

Speaking in Pearls is a recent fine art, limited edition pressing to which we have not had access at time of writing.


A Sampler of Jane Yolen's Recent Poetry

How can we approach the task of selecting a representative sample of Jane Yolen’s poetry? Here is a poet who pens (at least) one poem every day after all.  I have offered her the title of “literary artisan” and she seemed to like it very much.  She is a proponent of Paul Valery in that she considers a poem “never finished, only abandoned” – and yet none of her poems, as we shall see, show any sign of abandonment.

Mercifully, Jane offered a delightful selection of her recent poems from which we chose the following.  They are all as yet unpublished elsewhere except for one, and therefore have a certain currency and freshness. It would be misleading to describe them as a representative selection though – Jane’s range, both in stylistic and thematic terms is immense.  She can turn her hand equally well to free or blank verse, formal poetry, strict or surprising rhyming schemes, biting satire, heart-rending love poetry, and everything in between.

First let’s look at a poem which on a first reading is rather an angry one. Certainly Jane is no shrinking violet, but there’s much more here than a mere diatribe:



“No poet can hope to understand the nature of poetry unless he
has had a vision of the Naked King crucified to the lopped oak. . .”
--Robert Graves

You old fraud, Graves, now dry and dusty as your name,
trying to measure us all by that bloody yardstick.
Surely there are other myths as deep. Motherhood
has as much blood and nakedness, plus a woman’s
moontide, the flow of milk into an infant’s mouth.
So that Naked King may have died for some, but mothers
bleed every day and make no mention of it. Passing strangers
give up their shirts, their shoes, their lives to others. Children die
on street corners, in schools, in cars, at the end of a noose
or belt, under African suns without food or water, bayoneted
in war, crouched in a farmyard trough, or coughing
out their lungs in an overstretched emergency room.
Where are your poems, your songs, your admonishments then,
Graves, who lived safe in several countries, plunging yourself
into poems and women as indiscriminately as the old ones
killed Year Kings on that proffered lopped oak.

©2013 Jane Yolen. All rights reserved

By any measure a personal poke in the eye for Graves, but reading this over the Easter period lent it (pun acknowledged) extra poignancy.  We are invited to challenge the foundations of our religious beliefs and the concept of sacrifice. Although a very different poem, it also recalls for me MacDiarmid’s The Innumerable Christ in the way it challenges the monopoly of suffering. And now for another reflective poem – which asks “what are words worth”?



It would take me over a minute to count the years,
over a week to remember the highlights,
over a month to recount the blessings,
seven years to mourn the sorrows.
It is a life spent in story, in herstory,
misspent some would say. I have not
stepped on the moon, run for president,
danced for Balanchine, translated Homer,
invented disposable diapers, run a marathon,
or walked the Appalachian trail.
I have not set a leg or started a stopped heart,
or stepped in front of a bullet for a friend.
All I have had are words and stories.
Some would say this has been enough.

©2013 Jane Yolen. All rights reserved

In “Desiring Dragons” Jane takes on another literary giant in Tolkien, but this time the rebuke is witty and gentle.  The pen is indeed mightier than the sword, and a change of underwear infinitely more useful:


Desiring Dragons

“I desired dragons with a profound desire,"

Be careful. Wishing can be getting.
Desire at the same time an open heart,
an inquisitive mind, a books of stories
and a notebook full of riddles,
a good pair of walking shoes,
aloe for burns, a roasting spit,
a change of underwear.
Do not bring armor.
Leave the sword behind.

©2013 Jane Yolen. All rights reserved

And here Jane displays her mastery of metaphor and provides an insight into the creative process:


Resolved: Combustion

"Success isn't a result of spontaneous combustion.
You must set yourself on fire." Arnold H. Glasow

First find the right tinder,
a handful of dry grass,
the idea of the poem, piecemeal,
shaggy, rough, flaking in the hand.
A bit of flint next, the hard idea,
needing something striking at the core.
Find a stick, not for poking about with,
that will come later in the revision,
but a place to cradle the nascent flame.
Then blow. Oh—wait,
your hot air is not regulated enough.
You might put the small spark out
with too quick, too percussive a blow.
Thrust the ember into the pith,
into the heart of the poem.
Feel the heat of it, browning the edges,
curling, curing, curating your lines.
Now you are ready, the fire is set.
Breath deep, steady, passionately slow.
Blow yourself apart.

©2013 first published January in Huffington Post

Jane’s use of the word “pith” strikes me.  If her poetry has a defining quality it is “pith” - pith, open-heartedness, wit and no little skill in weaving all these elements together.  And that explosive last line!

Next in line, we have a touching example of humanity and survival against all the odds:


The Trochenbrod Miracle

“The little girl wasn't more than 3 years old. . . very very sick,
and she died. . .we left the little girl under a pile of leaves,
and we figured . . .we'll go and bury her. When we came back to bury her,

she was breathing! Just barely.” --Avro Bendavid-Val  from
The Heavens Are Empty, Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod

The trees hid the miracle, bless them.
Their heavy trunks, limbs twisted
as an old man’s fingers, made a wall.

The bunker nursed the miracle, bless it.
Dug deep into the earth, it made a nest,
a sanctuary, a hospice, a home.

The leaves blanketed the miracle, bless them.
They hid her small body, not dead,
not quite dead yet, till she was ready.

The village mothers fed the miracle, bless them.
They opened beaks like frantic birds,
dripping water into her mouth.

The village fathers held her close, bless them.
They gave her warmth pulled slowly
from the burning of their hearts.

The world gave her back life, bless it,
so she could bless G-d with her living,
her goodness, after the war.

©2013 Jane Yolen. All rights reserved

Bendavid-Val would approve of this affecting retelling of a miracle.  It speaks eloquently of the very nature of miracles and blessings, the resilience of life and humanity in the midst of wickedness.
If Jane’s poem brings readers to Bendavid-Val’s original, or indeed to Primo Levi or Ivan Denisovitch, or the many others who have written of the triumph of the spirit then, it will have done a great service.

It is appropriate that we include this rejoinder to Billy Collins.  Perhaps Jane’s poetry most closely matches that of Collins - the apparent levity of subject, but with multiple hidden layers of meaning.

As a long-time exponent of the Buddhist principle of mindfulness, I get Collins’ original, at least on one level.  Jane extrapolates by inviting other deities onto her driveway…


An Answer to Billy Collins’ “Shoveling Snow with Buddha”

So I’ll see you your Buddha and raise you,
thinking I’ll try Jesus first, as soon as he walks
over on the ice floes across the Connecticut River,
shovel in hand, to help out an old widow.
We work side by side until he begins to sing.
My, that man is out of tune with the universe,
his tenor flattened further by each successive throw.
I fire him and call the next one in, that bruiser,
Moses, who arrives with a long stick and a snowblower,
parting the white sea in my driveway with such ease,
the flakes fly off to Tel Aviv or the Golan Heights.
As he works, he hums through his commodious Egyptian nose,
the sound so irritating, I try the next god on my list,
whose card was given me at a science fiction con.
It reads: “No job too big, no job too small.”
He’s an odd guy, Cthulhu, octopus head in dreads,
crooked grin on his face. He flies in on rudimentary wings
flapping as fast as a gnat or a gadfly, or maybe
in the figure eight of infinity like a hummingbird,
it’s hard to tell which. He doesn’t offer a tentacle,
just sets to work shoveling, expecting me to sit out
until the very end, when he’ll exact a rough payment,
knowing I won’t dare complain about the workmanship
or the darkness that surrounds him like a noxious smell.              

©2013 Jane Yolen. All rights reserved

Perhaps the poem below may not win too many fans in Norway – but it evokes yet again that wistful, reflective state of mind.  How much better is “starveling” rather than “starving”? Such a subtle word choice can make all the difference.  One hopes that Jane is still in much warmer climes than Norway – no offence intended to our Norse readership, whose ancestors left their indelible mark on the land of myth and legend which Jane and I share for a third of each year:


Writing One’s Way Out of Winter

“One writes music because winter is eternal. . .”
--David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas

Writing is writing, whether in staves or between the lines.
Wind howls and sniffs like a starveling wolf at my heels,
makes my hair turn white. In this Norway of my life,
I write to keep warm when the fire no longer does its job,
when my bed is empty, my larder and ardor low.
Snow, that old seducer, sings outside the door,
Soon it will be time to sail on the ice floe, but till then
I will write because winter is eternal and I am not,
though that does not stop me from trying.

©2013 Jane Yolen. All rights reserved

In these “twittersphere” days, scurrilous rumor can certainly reach every corner of the globe before the truth has his socks on in the morning.  The line between fact and fiction, truth and lie is so blurred that it sometimes seems to have been erased entirely.  And what part do we have to play in either accepting or challenging this new reality? 

The clever split last line with its use of the archaic form “art” leaves us with a fundamental question -

Who “art” we, and what does our art say about us, our values and beliefs?



“Rule number seven: All rumors are true.”
—Meg Rosoff, What I Was.

Does it matter what the first six rules are?
The world is shaped by the seventh. Truth
is re-made by gossip and innuendo,
those twin streams that can wear through any rock,
the force of them carving new pathways,
despite the dogged resistance of the stone.
Time turns legend into logos, story into history.
The tick of the clock changes rumor into reality.
We are what we believe,
                                              we believe what we art.

©2013 Jane Yolen. All rights reserved

Jane Yolen has built up a strong fan base with her fiction, and will continue to delight readers with her poetry for years to come. Given the breadth and depth of Jane Yolen’s work, the oft-quoted comparisons with Hans Christian Andersen and Aesop are not an exaggeration. The poem below is a fine example of Yolen’s accessibility as a poet:


The Coral Lesson

The coral does
its sexy dance
when moonbeams lead it
to romance.
In this short poem
there is a moral:
be as receptive
as the coral.

©2013 Jane Yolen. All rights reserved

We thank Jane Yolen for her gracious participation in this feature and interview.  We have enjoyed exploring her thought-provoking poetry, and welcome her back to Pirene’s Fountain when time and space allow.

This feature is dedicated to David W. Stemple, “the man who knew everything.”
With a nod to his ornithological expertise, and in tribute to an enduring love.

Please click for Mark's interview with Jane Yolen