They wait, when they should turn to journeys, / They stiffen, when they should bend.
—Louise Bogan, “Women”
I debated whether to go. The invitation for the reading arrived from a friend and colleague, the nicest invitation—old-school manners, simple but charming, sounding just the right note. Weighing the sweetness of the invitation and the opportunity, surely the last, to see and hear this poet in the flesh, I decided to go. The poet had swung through town a few years before to launch a different book and on that occasion I had undergone a complicated line of thinking that arrived at a negative conclusion, a refusal, a demurral. I didn’t want to put a face to the woman who had so memorably rejected me when I was a young, guileless girl just out of college and sending her poems out for the first time as my professors had encouraged me to do. Encouraged is too mild a word to describe the push I felt to take the next step with my writing. I was ready, they said. I was not.
Something had changed since that earlier refusal and my current willingness to hear the poet. I’m on my way out of this place where I have taught and lived, I’m in the midst of a long good-bye, and since making the decision I’ve felt as if I’m looking at my time here through the eyes of the soon-to-be-departed. I’m keeping a journal of my last “professional” days. Once you start such a project, it turns out topics arrive every day—professors from my past die, professors whom I worked with here die, comparisons are made about changes in the profession, differences between my own education as a student and my experience as a teacher. And instead of turning away from opportunities like seeing the poet, an opportunity that I feared would reopen a wound I had with time healed, I now see through this different lens, the good-bye lens.
Seeing the poet is part of the reckoning I have undertaken—she’s gotten all tangled up in the whys and wherefores of my life as a writer and a teacher. No doubt she’d be stunned to learn that she played any role at all in my life. I am a stranger, after all. And perhaps she just deserves a footnote. But she stands in for so many puzzling currents that eddy behind her that she’s taken on water. Have I played a similar role as a teacher or editor for some strangers? Did something I say lodge deeply in their lives?
I don’t know what I expected. Up until minutes before I left my house, I thought I might bag it and stay home. I wavered. But I went; it was important now to look at what had happened and who it was who had written those words that like an arrow found the bull’s eye of the target. The room was full of retired faculty who could still be counted on to show up at readings and concerts with a sprinkling of heads that were not gray or white or bald.
I thought she would be older. I thought the woman who rejected me decades ago when I lived in Los Angeles in Echo Park on top of the hill overlooking Chavez Ravine where I could see and hear Dodger Stadium was older. She sounded tired and bitter in the letter she wrote me rejecting my poem. How could someone as young as she must have been sound that old and unkind? The poet wore her hair long, streaked silver, especially in the front, but still dark black. She caught it in a silver clip, and the hair was thick and heavy on her back. Large and showy earrings, studded with diamonds, dangled dramatically from her ears. A white and black patterned scarf was tied ornately about her neck. She wore black jeans and a black jacket, departing from the baggy, waistless pants most of the other women wore. She held onto the drama and shape of her appearance, a beauty still, a woman who took pride in her beauty, protecting it, burnishing it, after a lifetime one could see of being invested in it, perhaps invested in it more than anything else, her passport.
Not what I expected. I thought she would be matronly, someone I would feel a world of difference from. Instead I felt more affinity with her than the other women who had assembled to hear her. (Say it! I felt a kinship with her.) She struck me as someone who might have viewed, might still view women as rivals, not as friends and confidantes, not as companions in this thing called life, but competitors for the spoils. For men, for position, for attention, for compliments, for praise, for publication. Wanting all eyes to be upon her. While she was no longer young, this need to be seen as a beauty, as the subject of appreciation, hadn’t dimmed, or not much, though it was streaked through with melancholy, perhaps even a touch of remorse. She hadn’t let her beauty go although she might be trying to do just that I thought, listening to her read poems about the ruin of a great, beautiful city. The poems spoke of white privilege and high culture, of a life lived abroad, of great art and seduction. She had spent time in this city, knew its language, returned to it many times, spent her happiest year living there, discovered her own beauty and sexuality there, memorably as a twelve-year-old whom men whistled at in the streets and older friends of her mother’s became unnerved by her body in a bikini at the pool. She presented herself in these poems as a Lolita, aware of herself as a sexual object, and far from resisting that disposition, embracing it and thrilling to its supposed power. Her hands, with their large rings and bracelets, gestured continuously throughout her reading. She was never still. She peered out to us over her eyeglasses perched halfway down her beautifully sloped nose.
Only her voice and her breathing gave her away. She was nervous. I could hear it in her breathing and her slightly trembling voice. She didn’t read in that poet’s voice, for which I give her a great deal of credit. Her speaking and her reading voice were one and the same. Her lines did not go up at the end and weren’t dipped in the hushed preciousness of poetry. She read poems mainly about sex and a city whose history was saturated with desire, whose famous visitors discovered their own appetites there, how she herself discovered her identity as a seductress, an identity that seems alive today. The poems were complicated, I thought, in part elegies to a city, but more important elegies to her former self who was most alive in these ruins. Part of the poems were a reckoning with her past and now her aging, that she was no longer that girl and would come near that youthful slip of a girl only in these poems which re-created her, which called her up. Still the poet was well aware, painfully aware, that she was no longer that girl, and the poems seemed to both want to memorialize her and let her go.
I remember the day I received the rejection. It was a Friday afternoon in the autumn when the Santa Anna winds were blowing—those dry, hot winds that make one on edge. The rejection came with the mail, of course, as they did before e-mail took over the task, but like all rejections I was surprised by its arrival and unprepared to receive it. Rejection always comes at the wrong time. Is anyone ever prepared for it? Weeks earlier, perhaps months earlier, I had sent out packets of poems to a variety of literary magazines I read. I frequented libraries and read the literary journals they carried and went to bookstores and stood for hours in the aisles reading the work. I had made a list of the journals I admired and carefully typed up my submission letter, made my little packets of poems and my SASE, and walked them to the post office. The whole business was laborious and deliberate. There was no such thing as a simultaneous submission. And then I waited for a response.
I didn’t run out to the mail every day looking for an envelope I recognized because I thought I’d be rejected by every place I submitted to. That wasn’t what happened. To my surprise I received many personal responses from editors with my rejections, encouraging notes about my poetry, invitations to submit again, even some funny notes full of unexpected camaraderie. I even had an acceptance or two. In my letter I had introduced myself by saying these were my first submissions and that I had recently graduated from college. This was true. I had a few items on my resume and hauled them out to make me seem less pathetic, but for the most part I presented myself for what I was—a rank beginner. Many of the editors who wrote back were sweet, happy even to make my acquaintance. But one editor, the poet, was downright offended that I had submitted my poems at all. I should add that in my submission letter I did not elicit advice or ask for a personal response. I thought it likely that all the editors would just reject me with the least amount of fuss and wasted time.
I was taken aback by receiving the handwritten letter from the poet. From her point of view I had submitted to a magazine above my rank. She thought that I was in need of a major correction, and she was just the person to give it to me. I no longer have the letter. I wish I did. I kept it for years with other memorable documents, and it followed me up the coast to graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and across the country to my first job in Morgantown, West Virginia, and finally to East Lansing, Michigan. I’m not sure when I threw it away, when I decided I no longer needed to hold on to the actual letter, for by then I had it by heart. I worried that if I died someone might come upon the most humiliating letter I have ever received. There was something shameful about the letter that I didn’t want anyone to see. It made me feel like I had felt when my mother once slapped me across the face.
She pretended she was being kind to me, that it would be cruel for her to “encourage” me to continue writing poetry when I did it so poorly. Nothing good could possibly come from my writing, and the sooner I confronted that fact and moved on the better I would be. Surely, she said, I did something better than the way I wrote poetry. She felt that by my submission of poems I presented a painful dilemma to her. The letter was all about her—her dilemma, how should she answer me, what response should she give? Years later when I read the letter I was struck that she presented my submission as a test of her. A young poet submits her poems to a literary magazine. Surely not a unique or earth-shattering occurrence. The editor rejects them. Pretty simple. Editors have the power to accept and reject—that’s what we know they will do. Even I in my infancy knew that was what the choices were. I did not expect editors to take me under their wing nor did I expect to be scolded for submitting my poems. My act triggered something deep and troubling in the poet. I knew it then, but I didn’t understand it, couldn’t fathom what nerve I had struck.
I know it even more surely now. It would have been simpler to just reject me. Why take the time to compose a letter—a performance of kindness that masks ruthless aggression? Why did the poet feel it was her duty, her moral obligation to stop me from writing poems? She said that saying nothing struck her as worse than saying something that might dissuade me from continuing. In the course of one short letter she felt she needed to persuade me to abandon my illusions. I had no talent. I needed to see this about myself. She pointed me to a poem by Louise Glück that she felt would be instructive for me to read since it did successfully what my poem failed to do. I was well-read in contemporary poetry for someone who had just graduated from college. I knew the Glück poem well. I owned Glück’s second book of poems, The House on the Marshland, had dog-eared many of the poems. The poet brought my attention to “Pomegranate” and made me see my great mistake. Fool that I was, I had submitted a poem of my own called “Pomegranate.” At the time I didn’t have it in me to coolly compare Glück’s magnificent poem and my paltry one. I took the poet’s word for the disparity between the two. The poet might as well have waved Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” in my face. I raised the flag of my surrender before I had begun. I wandered to another poem in the collection, “Love Poem,” which the poet also directed my attention to, which begins “There is always something to be made of pain. / Your mother knits.” I’m embarrassed to admit how many hours I spent trying to figure out if the poet thought the pain she was inflicting upon me was something I needed, and that if I was worth anything, I would figure out what I could make of it. Or whether she was suggesting I take up knitting.
After she demolished my poem, she closed with perhaps the oddest part of all. She said that I was braver than she. And again I remember feeling that this encounter was personal to her in a way I couldn’t fathom. I pictured the woman who wrote me as a close cousin to the headmistress of the girls’ high school I had attended. Lillian Thurman was the headmistress at Moravian Seminary for Girls. She lived on the campus with her mother. She was a thoroughly upright woman. She held herself so stiffly it was impossible to imagine she could bend even if she wanted to. She sat very tall in her hard-backed chair in the entrance every day before school started to check the length of our uniforms and whether we were wearing any forbidden jewelry. She made us kneel on the floor and with a ruler she measured whether our skirt fell two inches below the knee, exactly. She wore cashmere sweaters over tweed skirts and sensible shoes. Her gray hair was carefully coiffed off her face, and she spoke with a southern accent. She was unmarried and upheld the rules without fail, showing no sympathy to any of the girls who were hers to manage. I say manage, for surely she did not guide us. It seemed to me that Lillian Thurman hated us. Did she hate our youth, which she no longer possessed, that our lives stretched out before us and as yet no road chosen? Did she curse her fate that she was somehow, probably through no fault of her own, forced to be the headmistress of a herd of girls and have her mother in tow to boot, to lead a life she did not want? When I read the poet’s letter, it was Lillian Thurman whom I saw. Another woman who might have been a kind mentor, but who was not.
Some personal frustration crept into her letter to me. I wondered why she thought I was braver than she. It seemed to me that I had merely been foolish. Had she once been a young woman who harbored ambitions to write and did not heed them? Did someone stop her as she was trying to stop me? Did she stop herself? What was her story? What was it that made her want to slap me down—the fact that I was doing what she wanted and yet I possessed so little talent compared to her?
I couldn’t tally it all. All I knew was that the letter had succeeded in its mission. I pulled the shades in my bedroom and crawled into bed even though it was three o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and I didn’t get up again until Monday morning. I felt stricken, punched, a fool, an idiot. I spent the weekend lying there cycling through my hopes for myself and the reality that I was worthless and deluded. All my teachers who had encouraged me were wrong. The poet alone was correct in her assessment. I thought I’d run into some disappointments, rejections for sure, I just never figured another woman would want to take me down.
Of course at the reading I saw that my poet did not at all resemble my headmistress. At the time my poet had written me, she was a tender young woman, not middle-aged, unmarried, burdened with the care of her mother, and cooped up with a lot of unruly girls on an campus in the middle of nowhere. No, my poet was a beauty, a desired person, running in an elite crowd of writers and artists, the cream of the cream, and had through a story I didn’t know and don’t know risen to the role of poetry editor. I saw also that despite her youthful hesitancy to write herself, she had gone on to write and her work had found an audience and some measure of success.
In graduate school, having sufficiently made something out of my pain, I studied the modernist poet Louise Bogan, author of the ironic critique “Women,” a poem that has troubled readers because it has been read as an uncharitable portrait of women. Yet one must never forget that Bogan was a woman who fully included herself in the collective portrait, that finally the poem’s indictment turns upon its writer. Competition was fierce among women for coveted spots in journals, far fewer spots than we enjoy today. She tended to be a harsh judge of other women as if she needed to distance herself from the crop of women poets and an even fiercer critic of herself. She didn’t think that she was in a battle with men, though she was; she thought women were her enemy. I’ve come to think that the crisis of kinship Bogan experienced has not entirely dissipated with the passage of time, and my poet would not have felt the need to correct a young male writer who had submitted his poems before she deemed he was ready. She would not have written a personal letter to him informing him that he just didn’t cut it and never would. That kind of presumption is admired in men, seen as necessary to get started, to go forth. The right stuff. She would have encouraged him, given him some hope.
At the time I did not stop to wonder at the differences in response I received from editors based on their gender, but now I see that all of the encouraging notes I received were written by men. My poet occupied a relatively unique position, a privileged position of being one of the few female editors at the time. Surely she was aware of her position and the power she could exercise. And in that way she was a bit like my headmistress. She did not have the power she wanted—the power to craft a poetry that suited her dreams for herself, but she did have some power, the power over her young female charges. She could help them or hurt them; she could make them kneel down before her.
Not long after my rejection, I received an issue of a small literary magazine called Trellis, edited by Maggie Anderson, with “Pomegranate,” the very poem that had been seen as objectionable, in its pages. I had written the poem the winter of my sophomore year when Denise Levertov came to Wells College to teach for a few weeks in January. At the time Wells was on the 4-1-4 system in which students took one short but intensive course during the month of January. There were only about six of us enrolled in her class—we had to submit a portfolio to be selected. She was lodged in one of the college-owned cottages off campus and for several afternoons a week we trudged through the snow to her door. We sat in her living room arrayed around the fire, drinking tea she had made, sharing our poems, listening to her stories, following every turn of her beautiful head.
One afternoon in the middle of a discussion about line breaks, she sprung up from her chair and did a flip right before us on the carpet to demonstrate how a poem has to leap from line to line, it has to have energy and verve, and well, athleticism. We were stunned. No teacher had ever done a flip as a teaching lesson and no one has since. At the time she was no longer what you would call young. Her son was grown-up. But she was young still, in mind and body, and was a woman of great zest. She was kind and she was tough, the two traits were not incompatible. She spoke her mind but without personal rancor. She told me I read my poems terribly, that racing through them at breakneck speed in a low, barely audible voice did a real disservice to them. My writing was better than that, she said, deserved better than I was giving it, and I should hold my head up and look straight ahead when I read. I did not feel attacked or humiliated. I felt released because what she said was true, anyone could see that what she said was true. It was also something I could change. She did not doom me to stewing in my own inferior juices for eternity.
At the end of our time together she asked me if she could have “Pomegranate.” She had been asked to edit a section of poetry for a magazine—a section on up-and-coming poets. Could she have my poem? As was perhaps indicative of my lack of confidence, I didn’t quite believe her. I gave it to her at the end of January and never heard another word about it.
Several years had passed before Trellis arrived at my door. Maggie Anderson, the editor, didn’t know where I was—I had moved many times since Wells. But here it was, “Pomegranate,” the poem that Denise Levertov had found acceptable enough to publish and the poem the poet found woefully lacking any merit whatsoever. Who was right? Was I to choose? I tend to believe that the harshest assessment of my worth is the truest, but is it? I think it is safe to say that Louise Glück’s “Pomegranate” is the far better poem, a poem that will stand the test of time. And mine will not. It is also true that I was submitting to a journal above my station and perhaps I should have known not to do that. But after all these years I do think she was trying to break me, to school me into silence. I’ve been rejected many times. Some of the rejections have stung; none has knocked me out for the count like that early one. That was a knock-out punch—it was meant to land a blow and it did. I remember how it felt to be crushed—I wish I hadn’t taken her criticism to heart, hadn’t let it come inside me and take up residence there. I didn’t have the tools to see that in part the quarrel she was having was with herself.
For years I thought the scene of rejection between the poet and me was static and unproductive. The poet was fixed in my mind as a terrifying figure and I was fixed, too, in my own insubstantiality. I see her now before me leaning on the lectern at the front of the room, spent from her long reading, though. as ever, she does not see me. A crowd is moving toward her to congratulate her, as they should, for she has delivered her poems well. What I see now is that Glück was right: there is always something to be made of pain.