P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.29 - October 2018
David Graham's POETIC LICENSE 2018 October No. 29
“This Feast of Life”: In Praise of Abbie Huston Evans
“This Feast of Life”: In Praise of Abbie Huston Evans
In a couple of typically cheeky essays titled “Either Or” and “Major,” Robert Francis questions the way we tend to designate a select few poets in every generation as “major,” which necessarily consigns the rest to “minor” status. Behind any major/minor definitional squabble, Francis knew, lies a false dichotomy, as if these extremes were the only two options, with no gradations in between. When we argue over whether a given poet is major or minor, we place “all the poets into their respective hemispheres,” Francis says, “separated by a line as inexorable and as imaginary as the equator.”
Another problem with this habit, he notes, is that we never seem to agree on the defining traits, much less which poets exemplify them. A further issue, though he doesn’t focus on it, is that the canon changes over time, so that we regularly see giant reputations fade like your grandmother’s curtains, while poets like Whitman or Dickinson, considered minor oddities during their lifetimes, blossom after their deaths into splendid reputations as major figures.
Francis himself, it’s worth mentioning, was overshadowed for his entire career by his friend and sometime mentor Robert Frost, to whom he was often unfavorably and even condescendingly compared. I’m fairly sure Francis wouldn’t have enjoyed being so public a poet as Frost in any case. And I for one prefer to think of him not as a minor Frost but as wonderfully himself, a first-rate Robert Francis. As we sometimes forget, poems are always more interesting, and important, than poets, including their relative rankings.
Which brings me to a poet most readers have long since forgotten, if they ever knew of her: the quite marvelous Abbie Huston Evans. During her incredibly long life (she died in 1983 at age 101) she achieved a fair number of honors and prestigious prizes, and published several fine collections of poetry. But in her case she was far overshadowed in fame by her friend Edna St. Vincent Millay, another formalist poet with ties to Maine. (Poetry trivia: Evans was once Millay’s Sunday School instructor.) Moreover, Evans didn’t publish her first collection until she was 47 years old; her output was sparing (only three full books in that long career); and there were long gaps between books. For all these reasons and perhaps others, she’s long since fallen from notice. She was never renowned in the way Millay and Frost were, and for whatever reason, our own era has apparently decided to slot her as minor, or worse, forget her almost entirely. She’s absent from most of our major anthologies of the period, and as I write this, her books are out of print.
And that’s a shame. I’ve been a fan of Evans’s work ever since 1988, when I read an appreciation written by an old friend of mine, Carl Little, published in The Massachusetts Review. (“The Life and Poetry of Abbie Huston Evans,” Summer 1988). In it he quotes a number of Evans’s poems, and that was all it took for me to go out and hunt up some of her books. Well, actually I could only locate one at the time, her 1964 collection Fact of Crystal—which was then and still is out of print. Little asserts that it’s her best book, and I would agree. Years later I also turned up a used copy of her collected poems published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1970—out of print as well. But any of her three books would be well worth searching out in libraries or used bookshops.
It’s easy to see why Evans fell out of fashion, especially during the last decades of her life. As Carl Little speculates, in part she’s likely a victim of the rampant sexism of the poetic world during her lifetime, when as a matter of course very few women poets were admitted into that magical, imaginary realm of “major.” Also, unlike someone such as Millay, she lived a relatively quiet and retiring life, and did not put herself much in the public eye. She’s also an old-fashioned nature poet, rather formal in both tone and style, sophisticated in vocabulary and syntax, and fairly challenging intellectually.
Additionally, she is an unabashedly religious poet; and she’s a poet of praise, mostly lacking the leavening irony and agonies so common in other poets of her time. Like Richard Wilbur or her one-time pupil Millay, she never made a decisive shift, as so many 20th Century poets did, from conventional rhyme and meter to explore free verse. Even during her lifetime, then, she must have struck many readers as a bit of a throwback to an earlier era. In this regard it’s striking to realize that she was older than Williams, Pound, Eliot, Moore, and of course Millay. When she was born, Dickinson, Hardy, Kipling, Browning, Tennyson, and even old Walt Whitman were still alive. In her lifetime she travelled from the horse-and-buggy era to the age of the Apollo moon landings.
I hope that by now few readers would dismiss Evans simply because she often favors meter and religious themes (after all, no one dismisses Eliot for his faith; and Wilbur was well-honored for his metrical facility). For that matter, readers still appreciate Wordsworth, Poe, Dickinson, and the rest of our certified classics—the power of their writing erases any concerns over poetic trends. What makes Evans compelling are the same things that make any poet worth reading: her command of craft, her memorable descriptions and metaphors, her music, her powerful expression of both ideas and feelings.
Consider the opening of “Deep Down it Dwells”:
Things come plain in the middle of the night.
Roiled water clears; we see what’s at bottom,
The rock silted over, the water-logged tree.
This turns to that before us—ask not how it happens
We come back fledged with power from the great gulf entered.
This is clear, densely textured, vivid writing, with striking turns of phrase such as “roiled water clears” and “fledged with power.” The poem as a whole succeeds in the difficult task of putting words to the inexpressible. She never needs to specify what mystery the “it” in the title refers to, but see how confidently and clearly she evokes that ineffable something as she concludes the poem:
We swim up out of sleep like the diver with his pearl.
As fearless as a drawing made by the sure hand of a child,
Life assumes an outline; we have a hint to go by.
Likewise, in a poem describing a rainstorm, she evokes the timeless “old sound” and ferocious but nourishing energies of nature, and does so with a finely tuned ear:
Rain with the old sound, with the country sough
From fields and meadows overpast and trees
That strip it into whip-lash, I hear now
Beat on this hill and cut about its knees.
Throughout her work one finds marvelously evocative and musical phrasings like “strip it into whip-lash.” Yet her poems are seldom merely descriptive. Typically, she sees in the natural world the same kind of timeless spiritual meanings gleaned by the Transcendentalists, yet always with a keen alertness to the vastness of geologic time that modern science revealed. (“I hear the sounds earth knew before we men / Came on, and shall know after we pass.”) Furthermore, the ordinary processes of nature are, for Evans, always a source of wonder, even awe, in the oldest sense of something both beautiful and fearsome. All of which can be seen in the firmly assured way she concludes her sonnet:
While ancient rumor rising to a shriek
Comes in to tell of matters we forget,
I am one more of the beasts of the field in bleak
Ecstatic cover, huddled from the wet.
So stands the ox, so crouches now the mole,
So sits the dry woodpecker in his hole.
We seem to live in a time that often undervalues nature poetry, finding it quaint or simplistic, when in fact the human place in the great web of life strikes me as one of the timeless themes, and more relevant these days than ever. In any case, Evans’s poems on nature never reflect any vapid Sunday-school sentimentality. Only a hasty reader would miss the darker implications of that “ancient rumor rising to a shriek,” or fail to notice the compact and unsettling complexity built into a phrase like “bleak / Ecstatic cover.”
Carl Little astutely points out Evans’s kinship with Theodore Roethke, especially his later nature poems, which as he notes show “a special rapport with the untidy, neglected aspects” of the natural world. He cites the opening lines of Evans’s “Juniper” as example:
For some twisted reason I
Love what many men pass by,--
Lean-fingered and rock-clinging things,
Bitter-berried, far from springs
Of sweet water, wringing up
Moisture from the rock’s own cup . . . .
I can’t say if the younger Roethke read and was influenced by Evans, but in her work I can also hear echoes of two older poets both Evans and Roethke would have known. Compare these lines from later in Evans’s poem:
All things harsh and slow of root,
Pungent, racy, sparse of fruit,
Heather, gorse, and upland fir,
Lichen, moss,--and juniper!
to this famous passage from Gerard Manley Hopkins:
All things, counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim. . . .
Both the attitude and the sound here strike me as similar. Likewise, though the music is quite different, I imagine Evans would have approved of Walt Whitman’s praise of the overlooked, the shunned, the despised in section number 24 of “Song of Myself”:
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the trivial and flat and foolish and despised,
Of fog in the air and beetles rolling balls of dung.
Compare Whitman’s lines to Evans in “Weeds” declaring that “I am all for letting / The worst of all come in,” and proceeding to heap praise on “Hawkweed, that pest pernicious” as well as “blue vetch, full as vicious, / (Too beautiful to tame!)”.
Evans’s work has more variety than I have space to demonstrate here. For instance, she can write a concise, indelible portrait of a neighbor (“She had achieved a thorny continence / Like a locust tree in winter” [“Ellen”]; or capture the laconic speech of traditional New Englanders:
“You’ve had a full life, Sarah.”—“That depends;
“If you mean busy, I suppose so. Yes.”
In “All Those Hymnings-up to God” she speaks in praise of the explicitly religious music “of Bach and Cesar Franck” even in our secular age (“No man has handled God, but these men have come nearest.”) And in the uncharacteristic poem “To a Poet Yet Unborn” she can even anticipate the great Gwendolyn Brooks, dispensing quirky advice in chiseled, slightly odd language:
Attempt what’s perpendicular. Scale what’s impossible.
Try the knife edge between two voids. . . .
. . . Subdue what blasts. Dare do it.
Ride formlessness, word wordlessness. Be not aghast. Be poet.
But it is as a poet of nature—its generative mysteries, the vast time-scale of its processes, its visionary gleams as well as its here-and-now factuality—that Evans shines most brightly. As noted, her natural world is essentially religious in import. In “Hunger,” for example, she contrasts the real satisfactions and beauties of nature with a spiritual hunger that the natural world provokes without ever fulfilling:
No one of all my line has ever loved
This river so, I swear,
Or found the sun so sweet, or been so moved
By the bliss of breathing air.
This feast of life, for all it is so good,
is but an alms, and mean.
My hunger prowls afar, and stalks such food
As eyes have never seen.
She often meditates on the contrast between our human vantage point (wherein a century or so is all one person can ever know) and the unimaginably vaster perspective of cosmic or geological time. Gazing at a mountain range in “The Mountains,” for instance, she thinks not about how huge and eternal they look to humans in our “inch of time,” but rather how vulnerable they are to the “dwindling” effects of erosion and weather:
Dwindling mountains are they on a dwindling planet,
These that look so solid, these that show so fair;
Wind and rain and frost and hail set tooth to the granite,
It wastes like smoke into air.
As many have noted, she has an almost erotic love of rocks and geological action, returning again and again in wonder and fascination, as in “The Mineral Collection”:
I always knew the Ural Mountains glowed
And burned inside with emeralds and gold,
Copper in clefts, and platinum in rifts
Like tamped-in tin-foil; now my eyes have seen
Splinters from that great beam that braces Asia . . . .
So too in the title poem of Fact of Crystal, in which she marvels at the beautiful symmetry that mysteriously arises, in its “obscure, slumbrous, geologic way” from mute matter, mere dust in space somehow transforming into shapes as perfectly organized and gorgeous as a poem:
Behold the beauteous sluggards and their work--
The slothful quartz, the lazing tourmaline,
And their great tardy dazzle. Envy rock's glory.
This that hung once thinner than breath in space,
Wraith of a wraith, earth's uncreated dust,
Now signals with the flung-down fact of crystal,
Its stern-decreed geometry achieved,
Its pattern worked out to a T, its tip atom in place.
I’ll end what could easily be a much longer appreciation of this neglected lyricist by quoting in full one of my long-time favorites. In it she describes a September gale, no doubt off the coast of her beloved Maine, in terms both specific and cosmic, the storm being equally magnificent and more than a little frightening. For all her spiky language and sure-footed craft, and the clarity and power of her themes, Evans’s vision of the human place in the universe is measured, the opposite of arrogant. Perhaps the 20th Century ultimately wanted its “major” poets to be more assertive than this understated, reticent praiser of rocks, weeds, and waters, but as she puts it in a late poem, despite the greatest human ambition and achievement, “Humble is the password of the wise.” Personally I find much wisdom in her beautifully nuanced and splendid humility.
Here is “From an Offshore Island”:
Hear now the ocean trouncing off this island,
The under-roar of wind down unfenced sea,
And through chance flaws, like dim light down a tunnel,
The bell buoy spent with distance.
Orion's chill, washed, subterranean glitter
Wheels up from under, and great Rigel blazes
Between tossed oak boughs that the gale of autumn
Tears at, lifts, lets fall.
Old ocean's hoarse and implicated roaring
Brings me up sitting at the dead of night,
Its pent-in mouthless fury calling back
The wild first of creation,
The rage, the might, the rampage.
---How shall I
Up from this anchored island not make answer,
I with my bones of rock-dust hardly knitted
And my blood still salt from the sea?
©2018 David Graham
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