Self Made

In the early years of the 20th century, Florence Ripley Mastin called herself a poet, and then she made herself one.

When Florence Josephine Mastin was in her 20s and already a published poet, she decided to replace her girlish middle name with “Ripley.” “Ripley” sounds jaunty and masculine, and Mastin was proud of her Ripley ancestors, including George Ripley, a Transcendentalist who founded the utopian community of Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Mass. For the rest of her life, her friends called her Ripley.

Florence Ripley Mastin chose her own name, and she spent her entire life trying to hoist that name out into the world. Between roughly 1900 and 1967, the year before she died at age 81, she published probably hundreds of poems in newspapers and magazines, including more than 90 in the New York Times alone. She authored several books of poetry, and her work appeared approximately a dozen times in Poetry between 1918 and 1935.

Mastin’s timing was lucky and unlucky. She was brash and butch and she loved women—one woman especially—but she died one year before the Stonewall riots. She was not a great poet, but she was lucky enough to be writing in a time where poetry was published in almost every daily newspaper, and commissioned for just about every public ceremony. Poetry, during her lifetime, was a viable, exciting, and culturally relevant pursuit; Mastin relished its sheen of elitism, but the truth is that she benefited from its mass appeal. She was able to publish prolifically as a high school teacher with modest talent and without many connections to the literary scene.

It is possible today to see Mastin as an unlikable woman; an unrelenting self-promoter, she sent clippings and copies of her work to friends, acquaintances, and politicians, including President Eisenhower. She was forever bragging about her Mayflower ancestry and her distant familial connection to Ralph Waldo Emerson. But she was a confident striver, that great American archetype, and her identity as a poet gave shape and weight to an otherwise ordinary life. She called herself a poet, and then she made herself one. And her story illustrates an important but easily overlooked chapter in the story of poetry in the 20th century.

Mastin was born in 1886 in Pennsylvania. Within a few years, the growing family moved to Piermont, New York, a village about 20 miles north of Manhattan. The house in Piermont, named Four Gables, would be Mastin’s emotional touchstone, poetic inspiration, and home for many of her adult years.

Four Gables perched on a hill and offered a 25-mile view of the Tappan Zee, where the Hudson is at its widest. To Mastin, the Hudson and the house were inextricably connected. Her father sailed a 40-foot catboat named the Ariel, named after the spirit in The Tempest; in the summers, he would take Florence and her brother sailing as far as Albany. They slept in the boat, with the water lapping just a few inches from their heads. Later in life, Mastin would be known locally for sailing her own catboat, the Ludwig van Beethoven, in the river. She once said, “The Big Four of my life are my poetry, my sailboat, my dog, and Four Gables.”

Mastin’s entire working life was spent at Erasmus Hall High School in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, where she taught English and poetry writing for more than 40 years. She must have stood out in the halls with her short haircut and eclectically mannish sartorial style, but she was adored. One former student called her a “a champion of the newly articulate.” Bernard Malamud, who graduated from Erasmus in 1932, told the New York Times 50 years later that her classes were “unusually exciting.” (The Times rendered her name as Florence R. Martin, prompting another former student to write a letter to the editor with a fond correction.) One of her poems, “Old Gray School,” was turned into a song that students sung in chapel for many years. She called Erasmus her “beloved second home.”

Grace Beatrice MacColl, Mastin’s partner of some 50 years, was a fellow teacher at Erasmus. Mastin met MacColl, who was born in Vermont, when they were students at Barnard College. When they graduated, they both took the exam to become New York City high school teachers, and applied to teach at Erasmus “because of its illustrious past, its beautiful campus, and its famous staff of teachers,” Mastin later wrote.

Mastin and MacColl’s partnership was as public as the era allowed: They presented themselves as “close friends and devoted companions,” to use a phrase from feminist historian Judith Schwarz. Family members and friends sent “love to Grace” in their letters, and the pair traveled together, marched in suffrage parades, and lived together. When an Erasmus student working on a profile of Mastin for the school newspaper wrote her a letter in 1961 mentioning her “devoted friendship” with MacColl, Mastin wrote back paragraphs on the “gifted beautiful girl” who “was a constant inspiration for my poetry: She had a keen, a brilliant mind, a broad understanding and a subtle and delightful wit. She was more of a realist than I, and was an excellent balance wheel for my romanticism. A more noble, true and devoted friend never lived.”

Mastin published her first poem, “The Hudson River,” in the Nyack Star when she was just 14. She had found her calling. She wrote constantly. Her primary venue for publication was New York newspapers, including the Times, the Sun, and the Herald Tribune; other papers across the country often reprinted work that had appeared first in New York.

Poetry was a mainstay in 19th- and early 20th-century American newspapers. These were poems often ready-made for clipping—inspirational, seasonal, or funny, often running under headlines such as “Poems for Your Scrapbook.” Mastin’s work often appeared on the society pages, alongside engagement announcements and household cleaning tips. Sinclair Lewis satirized “newspaper poets” in his 1922 novel Babbitt, through the character T. Cholmondeley Frink, the author of a syndicated column called “Poemulations”: “Despite the searching philosophy and high morality of his verses, they were humorous and easily understood by any child of twelve.”  

Mastin wrote plenty of this brand of poem, along with topical work on subjects from the suffrage movement to both world wars to Sputnik to Vietnam. “At the Movies,” two stanzas on watching a newsreel of British soldiers, was anthologized in a 1919 Treasury of War Poetry and is one of her only works to be reproduced frequently online.

Mastin also wrote poems reporting on her own life: poems after visiting friends, poems about students (sometimes tart, sometimes mawkish), and countless poems about the seasons at Four Gables. She wrote poetry about nature, dogs, her mother, and love. “In your work there is always the heart-gripping loveliness of a spring night,” one friend told her, after she sent him a poem in the mail. “Even when your subject is a bare winter branch, always it is implicit with the eternal life.”

Occasionally she was funny, even cruel. In one undated handwritten poem, she savaged “certain modern poets”:

The ebullitions of modern poets make me sick.
I am an ordinary person, thank God,
With an ordinary brain and ordinary emotions;
And I come in tired to a warm fire and a drink,
And I open this book of verse . . . . . . . .
I may as well be a surgeon hereafter
And open gall bladders and tracts of bile and
holes with pus in them.
Why should I continue to read your verse
Spread everywhere like damp fungus?
… Dirty highways caked with manure will be
clean to me after you.

As her confusion and anger at highbrow moderns suggests, Mastin was an old-fashioned lyric poet with little interest in being on the literary cutting edge. And though she was publishing constantly, there is no evidence that she was in regular conversation with serious poets of her day, even those she admired. For Robert Frost’s 75th birthday in 1949, Mastin published a poem about him in the New York Times, then printed the poem on a huge scroll and had her students at Erasmus sign it. When Frost gave a talk at the New School soon afterward, a delegation of three students presented him with the scroll. She was only a dozen years younger than Frost, but this is the work of a fan, not a peer.

Mastin made an occasional foray into the higher-brow scene, including the pages of Poetry under founder Harriet Monroe. Her first appearance, in January 1918, is a collection of “School Room Sketches” of her students. (“David, you failed— / Yet every face is dim but yours.”) The following year, Monroe reviewed her book “Green Leaves” in the magazine, calling it “a slight but delicate offering”: “One finds old-fashioned ‘poetic’ artificialities—words like lethèd, yea, perchance, give pause, with But oh and Quoth he lines and over-wrought figures,” Monroe wrote. “In the better poems, however, the emotion is carried without strain.” One of Mastin’s later appearances in the magazine came 1935, and took the form of a sonnet about snow. The issues she appears in include work from Robert Penn Warren, Amy Lowell, Marianne Moore, and other giants. But they are also filled with the names of poets now as obscure as she is. Her last publication in Poetry came in 1947, with a short and playful poem titled “Teacher on Strike.”

Even after she had been published widely in reputable newspapers and magazines, Mastin was an inveterate contest-enterer. On a trans-Atlantic voyage in 1920, she won first prize in a writing contest that asked passengers to submit a 20-word impression of the trip. She won an honorable mention in a newspaper’s limerick contest, and 20 years later won a gag-writing contest sponsored by Benson & Hedges. She submitted a long poem as an entry in the 1945 Hunter College Diamond Jubilee Essay Contest (assigned topic: “How Can the American Teacher Help to Foster Inter-Cultural Relations?”). She won significant prizes too. The Poetry Society of America awarded her a $100 prize for best poem of the year in 1952, the year she retired from Erasmus.

Newspaper poetry was in decline by the middle of the century. The New York Times, which published so much of Mastin’s work, had largely ceased printing poetry on its op-ed pages by the 1950s. But she kept writing. In 1959, she composed a long poem called “Freedom’s Dream” at the request of the state of New York, in celebration of its “Year of History,” marking the 350th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage up the river now named for him. The following year, the poem won an award from the Freedoms Foundation, a nonprofit entity associated with Valley Forge. Mastin seems to have sent copies of the poem and announcements of the award to everyone she could think of. Governor Thomas E. Dewey, who was mentioned in the poem—“Thomas E. Dewey, a governor of the proud / And fortunate citizens of the state ...”—sent a signed note of thanks. So did Nelson Rockefeller, soon-to-be New York City parks commissioner Newbold Morris, and Mastin’s former student Bernard Malamud. Mastin sent multiple copies of the poem to the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library, Barnard’s alumnae collection, and the school library at Erasmus. She sent an inscribed copy to the White House; Eisenhower’s personal secretary sent a polite note saying “he very much appreciates having your award-winning poem brought to his attention.”

Mastin spent the spring of 1960 promoting the poem. Just a few months earlier, Grace MacColl had died and been buried in the Mastin family plot on a hilltop overlooking the Tappan Zee. Afterward, Mastin couldn’t maintain Four Gables on her own, and she moved into an apartment north of Piermont, where she had a porch, a garden, and a view of her beloved Hudson River. “I think I never shall feel old—and maybe it is because I have lived with poetry all my life—and poetry is timeless,” she wrote around that time. “It is built of music and dreams so it never grows old.” She died in 1968.

Florence Ripley Mastin loved to see her name—the name she had chosen for herself—in print. She kept detailed records tracking which newspapers reprinted which poems and who nominated her for which awards. Today, a few boxes of those papers can be found in the archives of Syracuse University’s Bird Library: dispatches from a life in poetry when such a thing must have seemed like anyone’s for the taking.

Originally Published: May 13th, 2014

Ruth Graham is a journalist in New Hampshire.

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  1. May 14, 2014
     says what she thinks now

    Fascinating. Thanks so much for addressing Mastin's gender and sexual expression in this article without making it the only story here.

  2. May 14, 2014
     John Rigney

    Lovely article-- It's always interesting to take a look at the poets who were contributors--but whose contributions have been lost in the shuffle of our turning the same few pages in our anthologies.
    So much of Mastin's self-creation seems in line with some of my ideas about the poetics of identity she shared with many of her more professional peers I the early 20th Century (and our legacy "post" them today)-- that poetry in style, substance and form was a choice, and in making a choice to become a poet, one sets out with a clear end in mind, a set of rules to be followed, and of course, a persona that one attaches to the entire enterprise. For many of the moderns, these all came first, before the work, and in many cases were the work itself-- the poems were the proof, the product.
    To hijack Stephen Greenblatt's description of Renaissance Self-Fashioners, the moderns did more than make themselves-- in some liminal space between the past and the future, obsessed with history and where and how they would be written into it, people like Florence Ripley Mastin were self-conceivers-- creating themselves and their art wholly from their own minds, or perhaps more accurately, wills.

  3. May 19, 2014
     Roger Seamon

    Popular poetry migrated to music, where there are poets of all sorts, from
    Dylan to Leonard Cohen, to The Monkees. Once people cared about the
    "music" of poetry, but that died among the educated in favor of other
    values, mostly intellectual ones, esp. complexity.

  4. May 22, 2014

    I wish newspapers still printed poetry: it would be a new
    way for new (non-professional) readers of poetry to see
    what they might like.

  5. May 23, 2014
     Joseph Robinson

    Great study on a person of interest, a history, and a expose on the popular poet.

    In a way, today's blogosphere and the internet of social media is the new vehicle replacing newspapers and magazines.

    In a sense giving the voices an easily expressed outlet. Trouble is with editing. Perhaps, not many of these verses and lines get proper editing and the quality is lower?

    It might be looked at like a workshop venue in a way, for the true poet to go deeper and find expression in more elevated ways and places as they mature.

    Mastin will serve as a beacon of hope that a life fulfilled includes the poetic and the songs from our heart.

    And as a true American, to tell us so.