Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Obsessed by new poems

‘Working like mad. Obsessed by new poems, writing and rewriting difficult, aware of one’s limitations. To surmount one’s limitations. That’s the great secret.’ This is from the published diaries of Marya Zaturenska, a Russian-born American poet who died 40 years ago today. She won the Pullitzer Prize for poetry when still in her mid-30s, and published, with her husband, a history of American poetry.

Zaturenska was born in Kiev in 1902, though she never knew the exact date. Her parents were Jewish and her father a tailor. The family emigrated to New York when she was eight. Her mother died soon after, and her father remarried. She worked in a clothing factory during the day, but was able to attend school in the evenings.

Zaturenska was an outstanding student with a leaning towards literature. She was encouraged to write poetry by Jeanne Foster who also helped her obtain a scholarship to Valparaiso University in Indiana. Her writing flourished and won her a fellowship to the University of Wisconsin. Before she was even 20, she had published numerous poems in different periodicals and was being recognised as a prodigy. In 1925, she met fellow poet Horace Gregory, a recent Wisconsin graduate; they married within weeks. Two children followed in 1927 and 1932. 

Zaturenska published her first volume of poems - Threshold and Heart - in 1934, and the following year the couple moved to Bronxville, New York, so Horace could be closer to his teaching post. In 1938, her next volume - Cold Morning Sky - won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. That year also saw the couple move again, to New York City in 1938. From 1940 to 1942, they worked together on a collection of essays that would become their History of American Poetry, 1900-1940. She wrote eight volumes of poetry and edited six anthologies, and was published in The New York Times and Poetry Magazine.

My Poetic Side has this assessment: ‘Zaturenska achieved great popularity as a poet despite being regarded, in some quarters, as an “old fashioned writer”. This was mainly due to her stubborn refusal to change her style which borrowed much from the English Decadent movement of poetry which was prevalent during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was, most certainly, a technically skilled writer and her work was often optimistic and full of hope, but sometimes dark and illustrative of a society in decay. At this time America was going through a long period of depression both socially and economically and she belonged to the school of thought that “life must go on” despite the trials and tribulations.’ She died on 19 January 1982. Further information is available online from Wikipedia, Milwaukee Public Library, and

Zaturenska kept diaries throughout most of her adult life. A selection of entries from them was first published by Syracuse University Press in 2002 as The Diaries of Marya Zaturenska 1938-1944 (edited by Mary Beth Hinton). The book includes an introduction by her son Patrick Gregory. He says: ‘The selections published here were drawn from three diary notebooks dated respectively August 1938 to December 1940, December 1940 to May 1942, and May 1942 to October 1944. These volumes were chosen because of what the editors considered their combined interest as biography and history. They were written during a critical period of their author’s personal and literary life, a period when, in spite of illness, acute depression, and near despair, she was beginning the work that was to constitute her most enduring legacy as a poet. They also reflect with a remarkable sense of immediacy the tumultuous historical events of the time. In these pages the connection between poetry and politics is made real, and the focus of literary history shifts, as it were, from the poet’s living room to the battlefield, and back. “The war is too large, too dreadful, too heart-breaking,” she wrote. “I am not fit to touch a theme of such scope and tragedy - only a little of the sadness and terror bit by bit, almost unconsciously, can appear in my poems.” Above all, these notebooks record one woman’s perilous journey, nel mezzo del cammin de nostra vita, through that dark wood where the straight way was all but lost.’

The book can be previewed at Googlebooks and borrowed digitally from Internet Archive. A short review can be read at Publishers Weekly. Here are several extracts including a longish one concerning a visit to the famous American poet, Robert Frost.

22 August 1938, Boulder, Colorado
‘The immensity and inhuman beauty of the mountains and the scraggly Velasquez-like landscape. Austere - half desert, half treeless plain, closed in by mountains.

Illness - the same pain, a continual pressure behind the eyes. Not a day spent without pain. The doctors say nonchalantly that it is not serious - that everything will clear up - but months pass, all is the same, and the world grows terrifying seen with eyes that are strange to me.’

25 September 1938, Bronxville
‘Working like mad. Obsessed by new poems, writing and rewriting difficult, aware of one’s limitations. To surmount one’s limitations. That’s the great secret.

Norman Pearson aristocratic, sensitive. His half-tendency toward fascism, his exquisite courtesy to all who worked for him, his generosity to the poor, his kindness and feeling of responsibility to servants. B. the Communist brutal to his servants, robbing the sick who were dependent on him as a doctor, saying that since we live under a corrupt system one must be corrupt too. His intense racial consciousness - awkwardness, fear, servility and contempt towards gentiles. When he talks of Mary he means Moses. Would really be happier as a Zionist. Wants a world where the Jews can live in a golden unmolested ghetto. N. P.’s attitude of tolerance and sympathy towards the Jewish problem. But he dislikes Jews and wouldn’t have one too close to him. Yet he would die defending them from persecution - on principle. Neither type is representative of the best or worst of their kind, of course.’

27 November 1938
‘Bought such a pretty winter coat with a heavy beaver collar. My old fur coat that I had bought with some of the Shelley Award money (1934) is almost all worn out and Horace insisted that I get a new one. Couldn’t afford a fur coat so I got this one instead. It’s not expensive but I have a fearful sense of guilt and extravagance and dreamed about it last night. Still it’s a good feeling - being able to have nice things exactly when one needs them. It should have happened when I was younger. It would have made another person of me.

The stripped black trees on Riverside Drive leaning into the water, more beautiful than when clothed with leaves. The pure anatomy.’ 

1 December 1938
‘Unable to write, revision so exhausting that I become ill. Read one of those foolish reviews where the reviewer divides all poetry into Personal Poetry, Nature Poetry and Poetry of Social Vision! Angry at the bad journalists-poets who inflict their stupidities on every sensitive, honest poet who can’t follow a formula and has no important political job like Louise Bogan to protect them. Personal Poetry and Nature Poetry is romantic, says the theory. Poetry of S. V. is not (so they say) - but I’ve seen more romantic nonsense, more flagrant unrealities in poetry of S. V. than in the whole romantic movement. For instance the foolish optimism of the Daily Worker, pretending that the Revolution is almost here - when reaction is triumphing almost everywhere. It is silly, dangerous and romantic and based on unrealities.’

4 April 1939
’Returned yesterday from a trip to Boston. I left on April 1, on a beautiful spring morning, very much excited because it was the first trip I had taken by myself for years. I went at the invitation of M. B., a young woman on the Atlantic Monthly who had praised my last book warmly and who seemed anxious to have me visit her. Arrived in Boston and it rained and rained. Felt that I talked too much and too excitedly and that Miss B. was not particularly finding me to her liking. I was modest and humble about my work when I should have been impressive and arrogant. But honestly I can’t put up great claims for my work - yet. Yes it’s good - but it will be better if I can keep on writing and printing. As a great treat (and it was) M. B. took me to visit Robert Frost. We had dinner with him and then we went to his apartment near Louisburg Square where he lives alone. Frost still shows the remains of great physical charm, but he is potbellied now, pale, looks ill and old.

He was charming, warm, and friendly, and in response to his tactful questioning I opened up and talked a great deal. Miss B. sat overcome with awe and reverence, looking horrified when I disagreed with him from time to time. We talked “shop,” which seemed to be annoying M. B., but Frost evidently enjoyed it for he went on and on. Some good malicious stories about E. A. Robinson, his stinginess, his sponging, his drunkenness, the awfulness of his disciples. All this with a deprecating smile and a rather disarming “Of course I was jealous of him. And he of me. But we were good friends.” More stories about Ezra Pound. “The poor devil hasn’t a friend on earth. No one but a group of young disciples whom he changes from year to year and eventually antagonizes. He is so lonely he even ran into Louis Untermeyer’s arms when he met him at Rapallo. He abused him afterwards of course.” Also comments on Kreymborg and J. G. Fletcher. Of the last: “He behaved so badly while in England that all I had to do was to be mild-mannered and quiet and everyone took me to their bosom saying, ‘You see there are Americans who are decent fellows.’ ” Of his beautiful, luxuriously furnished apartment: “Oh friends got it and fixed it up for me. I never bother about such things.”

In speaking of Frost I should emphasize his remarkable and indescribable charm, which made me forget some of the small petty things I knew he had done to people who hadn’t praised him as he felt he had a right to be praised. One forgets his malice; I only felt that air of warmth, naïveté and kindliness which he contradicts by his own words. No intellect but a lot of worldly wisdom and shrewdness. He knows literary politics as no one else does, but the air of naïveté half disguises it. I think I know his faults very well - and yet I could see that one could grow so fond of him that his faults would be forgotten. And he is not incapable of using the love he inspires for his own ends - if it were usable. His literary taste is bad - but he instinctively knows what to do with his own work and is really interested in no one’s work but his own. But no one blames any artist for that. A great critic is as rare as a great poet and he is rarely both. Self-criticism is all we can expect.’

30 April 1944
‘Correcting the final proofs of The Golden Mirror. I have never felt more fatalistic, more troubled about a book though I do feel that it’s the best book I’ve done so far. It certainly leaves me dissatisfied and I feel incapable of judging it dispassionately. It’s completely out of the vogue - the current fashions. And I haven’t the least idea of anyone who might like it. Small as Horace’s public is mine is even smaller. My only hope is in a miracle. It’s as if one is going against the grain so far that I can’t expect a word of praise. And the review sections are full of poets who can’t get books published, and who will wonder why I can publish at all. I know of no critic who will care for what I do - since I’m neither “traditional,” in the sense that the almost fashionable Yvor Winters group speaks of “tradition,” or “esoteric” enough or smart enough and my personality in literary circles has not been a successful one. I’ve been too humble, timid, unpoised to have aroused confidence in myself.

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