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Happy Mother’s Day, to Foremothers, Poet-Moms, and Maggie

By Annie Finch

Today I went to visit my mother, Margaret Rockwell Finch, who turned 88 a few weeks ago.  As always lately, she showed me a new poem.  Maggie was my first model of a

maggie_1961_1
Margaret Rockwell Finch, 1961

working poet, entering and once winning the contests of the Poetry Society of America, whose meetings she brought me to as a teenager; typing drafts and final copies (with carbon copies!) on her portable typewriter; keeping green metal fileboxes recording submissions to magazines and contests.

Lately I realize how much of my own poetic destiny has been shaped by my relationship with her.  I grew up on stories that ended up making a larger story whose outlines I can only now perceive.  It was her mother, and her aunt, who believed in her as a poet from the beginning. When she enrolled in a class with John Malcolm Brinnin in the 1940s, she was told that her poetry was “too lacey and Millayish,” but she kept on her path undaunted, proud to be associated with Millay.  She met my father at a lecture by Auden, suspects him of possibly “disappearing” her Millay collection after an argument early in their marriage, and stopped showing him her poems after he told her he thought she should write like T.S. Eliot.

Maggie has always been stubborn about her poetry—and a good thing, too.  Just this afternoon I suggested she add a “the” to the first line of her new poem beginning “Standing at window.”  “Hmmmm …” she replied, and then told me that one of my sisters had suggested the same thing by email earlier in the day.  Her tone made it clear she was unlikely to change it.

My mother has been writing since the 1920s, when she was too young to write and her mother had to write her poems down for her.   But I published her first book for her, in the mid 1990s. Why hadn’t she taken her poetry further in terms of a career, I asked her years ago.  She answered that as the mother of  five children, she just hadn’t been able to maintain enough silence.

Maxine Kumin told me once, not too many years ago, that her mentoring energy now  is reserved not for younger poets, but for women poets not much younger than herself.  I understand this.

It’s mother’s day, and I’d like to pause to honor all the poetic foremothers whom we celebrate on the Wom-Po listserv—all the women through the centuries who managed to write, and sometimes to publish, in spite of everything.  And I’d like to honor all the poet-moms, to name another listserv—the contemporary poets who are also mothers and still struggling with many of the same issues of divided loyalties, divided poetic identity, and divided attention that made being a poet so tricky for my mother.  And most of all, I’d like to say Happy Mother’s Day to my first poetic influence, Margaret Rockwell Finch.

Margaret Rockwell Finch

THE SEVENTEENTH DAY OF MAY

Grow maples in me this grow-maple day;

I lie in the long chair and wait your coming.

Spin from branches heavy with fruit of leaves

My sudden seeds, my one-wings, turning, turning!

Leap in the wind that understands the life:

Land on on my leg and do not slide;

Catch in the ready furrows of my hair—I say

I have no pride.

For in me all the broad and murmuring branches

Wait but to hear it spoken.

The porch, the chair, the gutter will not take you.

But I am open.

Heads of life, stretched to the shape of flight,

Plunge to my upturned palm, and with good reason:

My earth, my rain, my sun, my shade will grow you.

Let your season bring me into season.

Comments (11)

  • On May 11, 2009 at 1:12 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    yes! Annie, and YES!!!! Margaret Rockwell Finch, yes for you and this lovely “Grow maples in me” poem & “all the broad and murmuring branches” – yes yes, on your poetic head.

    (& Finch-annies, both, if you didn’t see, you might enjoy the reference & link for re-read I made to Millay’s “Aria da Capo” on Martin Earl’s “wall” post last week…(it’s one of her best & less remembered)

    for foremothers, aftermothers & such daughter-ing, a maytime yes.

    & all best,
    margo

  • On May 11, 2009 at 4:21 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    yes! Annie, and YES!!!! Margaret Rockwell Finch, yes for you and this lovely “Grow maples in me” poem & “all the broad and murmuring branches” – yes yes, on your poetic head.

    (& Finch-annies, both, if you didn’t see, you might enjoy the reference & link for re-read I made to Millay’s “Aria da Capo” on Martin Earl’s “wall” post last week…(it’s one of her best & less remembered)

    for foremothers, aftermothers & such daughter-ing, a maytime yes.

    & all best,
    margo
    Sorry, forgot to add great post! Can’t wait to see your next post!

  • On May 11, 2009 at 12:43 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Annie,

    “When she enrolled in a class with John Malcolm Brinnin in the 1940s, she was told that her poetry was “too lacey and Millayish,” but she kept on her path undaunted, proud to be associated with Millay.”

    There’s some irony, here I think.

    JM Brinnin…let’s see…won three—count ‘em, three—Hopwood Awards. (John Ciardi, who also bashed Millay, won a Hopwood. We have to keep track of these things! Only if it helps us to remember!)

    Brinnen attended U. Michigan, which administered the award—but winning three is an interesting accomplishment.

    Brinnin also did graduate work and taught at Harvard and wrote studies on WC Williams, TS Eliot and Gertrude Stein, the Modernist clique.

    Brinnin was a poet but he was best known for being Dylan Thomas’ U.S. tour agent.

    (Has anyone read his book, “Dylan Thomas in America?” I have not.)

    Dylan Thomas’ best poem (with a bit of an anapestic drive) “Do Not Go Gentle” (1951) was STOLEN (perhaps not stolen, but anyone can see the resemblance) from Millay’s “Dirge Without Music” (1928) of which the last stanza reads:

    Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
    Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
    Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
    I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

    The Modernist Boy’s Club, which included Dylan Thomas pal John Malcom Brinnin, has much to answer for in their abuse of Edna Millay, a mother to all who love poetry.

    Thomas

  • On May 11, 2009 at 3:46 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Thomas, I’m not quite sure what the significance of the Hopwood awards is, but it sounds intriguing. Perhaps you’ll illuminate. I wouldn’t think of Thomas and Millay as being so terribly far apart now aesthetically, but apparently that rift was quite lively at the time (in spite of your making the intriguing connection between “Dirge Without Music” and “Do Not Go Gentle”) My mother explained Brinnin’s attitude to me by saying that, being Thomas’ tour agent, he was completely in his camp aesthetically and that put him far from Millay’s.

    One of the most interesting aspects of my mother’s account, to me, was that Millay was a superstar, so the adjective Millayish didn’t carry, for her, the disparagement that it would have carried more recently, say during the last fifty years. And yet, as you say, the modernist critical machine was grinding Millay to powder already. Cheryl Walker’s book on women poets and modernism is especially good on Millay.

    Margo, thank you for that maybasket of good thoughts!

  • On May 11, 2009 at 4:54 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Annie,

    I love your mother’s poem, by the way. Pure exuberance. For some reason the line “I have no pride” breaks my heart. I believe the poem–fully. Please tell her I adore it.

    The Hopwoods have no significance, per se, though there’s probably a tale there somewhere. I had discovered John Ciardi had not been kind to Millay, and then Brinnin, and they both won the award. Merely an amusing detail.

    The two poems “Gentle” and “Dirge” do share quite a bit, I think. Edgar Poe, I suspect, would have made much of it, if for no other reason than to champion Millay–and stir up the Boy’s Club.

    Thomas

  • On May 11, 2009 at 6:07 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Thank you Thomas. I will tell her.

  • On May 25, 2009 at 12:21 am Ellen Moody wrote:

    This hurt a bit because I don’t get along with my mother or older daughter and my younger daughter is Aspergers. I do know that so many mother-daughter relationships are antagonistic, adversarial, or broken (as mine are). I realize you don’t mean it that way, but can’t help bringing out the common other side of the paradigms.

    E.

  • On May 28, 2009 at 9:11 am Margaret Rockwell Finch wrote:

    Thomas, –(Oh, dear–am I too late with this?)
    At the risk of sounding most unprofessional, I feel I must thank you for “adoring” my
    poem! I don’t recall anyone using that word before, and it’s brought a lot of cheer into my life! Imagine, a total stranger “getting it” so deeply!
    As for the Ciardi-Brinnin thing: there, again, you have brought me pleasure, as I had not known about Ciardi’s attitude toward Millay. The nice twist here is that several years after Brinnin told me that I was “too Millay-ish,” Ciardi, as poetry editor of Saturday Review,
    published a poem of mine (such a triumph!). But I must admit, it concerned a moment in American history, and did not have a single lacy word in it.
    Maggie Finch

  • On May 28, 2009 at 11:46 am thomas brady wrote:

    Maggie,

    It’s never too late–I hope!

    That’s funny about Ciardi publishing you!

    I’d love to see the poem!

    I was sincere in my praise, by the way, though I’m sure you know this–“I have no pride” is…is…just so perfect. Your poem is a gift.

    I had a friend, Antonio, who knew John at Harvard, I think, and I still remember how he told me when he found that Ciardi was going to translate Dante, “But, John, you don’t know any Italian!” My friend, Antonio, was a poet and knew lots of languages. I do remember Ciardi’s “Good words to you” with that deep voice on the radio.

    Yes, if it’s no bother, I’d love to see the poem that Ciardi published…

    I’m still researching Millay…

    Thomas

  • On May 29, 2009 at 8:08 pm Margaret Rockwell Finch wrote:

    Thomas—-since you insist! Did I warn you?: no sign of Millay, here (at least the Millay I love)

    MOMENTS IN AMERICA: II FIRST LETTER FROM NEW ALBION (ROBERT EVELYN, 1634)

    I.
    “I thought good to write unto you my knowledge.
    We fitted out a shallop in July
    Sailing from Jamestown, and made anchorage

    At Eriwomeck, where two rivers lie.
    Bustards and swans abounded on the spot;
    I left the ship to barter and to buy:

    Plenty of delicate fishes filled our pot.
    The King of Kechemeches was undone,
    Naked and unarmed against our shot:

    I durst with fifteen men, or even one,
    Sit down to trade with fifty of his kind:
    All, I suppose, are fearful of a gun.

    These are the only humans that we find.
    I do not think that we have been unkind.”

    II.
    What came before we cannot ever know,
    Before this multitude of wing and fin
    Was sent beyond that shallow into now:

    Was sent to Albion, the anxious kin
    Far over waves and days, by the exact
    Extending voice of Master Evelyn:

    Sent in a ship outward to port of fact,
    Onward through autograph to history
    Bringing a continent the world had lacked.

    What came before the prow cut through the sea
    To break the dream of heron on the shore
    And chain the Indian eye behind the tree?

    This letter tells the moment that he wore.
    The king of pioneers can do no more.

    —————-
    For several years, back then, I was obsessed by the earliest history of New Jersey and it spread . . . then life caught up with me, and I was too busy having emotions (and children!) and I guess there was no room for further historical musings. . . .

    GO MILLAY!!

    Maggie

  • On June 1, 2009 at 2:08 pm Marta Finch wrote:

    Dearest sister, What a treat to find this posting for Maggie—bravo! How well I remember stepping out through the French doors onto the bedroom porch after school (that particular smell of the sun warming the roof, and the wisteria tendrils creeping up from below) to find her there on the chaise longue, writing. But your post told me other things I hadn’t known, and it sent me back to her book for a long overdue re-reading. I’ve always loved “Old Garments,” beginning with “When you go / Leave clothes in the house / The cat will love to sleep on them.” and ending, “When you go / It will be, finally, as simple / As bending over to pick up a sweater.” The mysterious, penultimate poem used to make me think of the poor young princes (Richard? Edward?) murdered in the Tower of London. Do you know?:

    CLAIRVOY
    There will be a child’s bones
    Found in the wall, when
    At last the palace falls.

    [. . . .]

    But never mind.

    The sun, the moon
    Will ever move themselves across the sky
    Led by the story of their fingers on his cheek,
    And the recollection of his young hand’s gesture
    Will push the dark down wells, and into caves.
    ——–
    Thank you, Annie. love, Marta


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, May 10th, 2009 by Annie Finch.