I write to comprehend and to try to find meaning in life, death, complicated societies and human behaviors, the moment, history, the global future, the endlessly foolish ways of humanity, the people I love, my self. The sometimes God like magnificence in the written word motivates me as reader, and writer. Mammal, bird, reptile, insect – my personal relationship to the natural world and the unbelievable speed at which I acutely experience the passage of mortal life – faster than the fastest bird flinging itself through the sky — inform my literary life. I worship the insightful resilient mind and look for this everywhere. I find it in nature, art, music, film and literature. I read as a wolf might jump from stone to stone in a riverbed filled with rocky remains from some ancient glacial disruption in the earth’s surface. In this same way, as reader of literature, each book, each author carries me along to the next, as surely as if they were stepping stones. I am a voracious, continuous, and passionate reader of literature of all kinds. This reading permeates every area of my waking and dreaming life. To describe my poetic journeying of the past three decades, swimming along the waterway, side stroking along the poetic currents I have traversed. From the 1970s through the early 1990s I was completely immersed in the universe of women’s poetry. I read and loved: Paula Gunn Allen, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Ogla Broumas, Martha Courtot, Irena Klepfisz, Nikki Giovanni, Judy Grahn, Susan Griffin, Melanie Kaye, Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, Robin Morgan, May Sarton, Anne Sexton, Ntozake Shange, Pat Parker, Sylvia Plath, Muriel Rukeyser, Stevie Smith, and Gertrude Stein. I have almost every book published by Adrienne Rich and Marge Piercy. I know that many of these poets wrote sonnets, ballads, Spenserian stanzas, elegies, pastorals and odes. Many of the poems in these books are powerful poetic masterpieces. However, during the years I read this poetry, I didn’t want to know about form. Not only was form of no concern to me, I saw it as restrictive, patriarchal, and echoing everything from which I, as a feminist, was fighting, politically and psychologically, to be free. In the 1970s, before Women’s Studies came to the University, I was writing poems and essays linking the madness of women writers to the limits and constrictions of tradition, standard, and rule and of which poetic form was one such manifestation. The poems which spoke to me were written in free form with unambiguous political content. Poems that spoke to freedom from oppression. During the years I read wholly the poetry of women, I was more interested in what was being said than how it was being said. Without my awareness, restricting myself within this one tributary — women’s political poetry — formed my comprehension of what was possible and the development of my own poetic style as a writer. This was, probably as limiting to my creativity than if I had been circumvented by villanelle, sestina, sonnet or couplet and taught only by men, in some Ivy League English Department in the 1940s. But, how many women writer role models were there for me when I was growing up? Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson — literary isolation, separation of woman poet from the literary relational world, early death at ones own hands – these were what I thought possible for the woman poet. Given this context, when I finally found poetry, Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language (1978) and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981), become my bibles. These feminist poems spoke to me like early beat poets — Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Burroughs — spoke to men in the generation before mine and Berryman, Jarrell, Lowell and Schwartz to the men of a generation before that. During all of those years, I must have given Rich’s poem “Transcendental Etude” to each one of my lovers. I can’t count the times I went down, silently, in the middle of the night to read “From the Monkey House and Other Cages”, by Irena Klepfisz in Keeper of Accounts. This was Klepfisz’s imaginative poem linking the treatment of imprisoned and tortured monkey’s with the experiences of women and Jewish people: a poem of being rent away from reason/culture/home/mother/lover. In the beginning of the 1990s I began to be passionately involved with folk music, as much for the poetic lyric as for the musical accompaniment. The folk music seemed almost to lead me, Siren turning into Sirius, and I faithfully following my dog, into a wider universe of poetic expression and creativity. I began to recognize powerful and compelling poetry in traditional folk lyric. To my ear and my heart, when I would listen to contemporary folk music, I was hearing, surely as the sun rises and the moon sets each day, “spoken/sung poetry”. This was not just music from and for the “folk”. It was also sonnet, narrative poem — luminous, clever, knowledgeable lyric poetry from and for the folk. I think of Bennington’s Cindy Mangsen and Steve Gillette, who sing so many traditional ballads, Swedish, Appalachian, Quebecois, and West Indian tunes, in their magnificent haunting voices. Songs Mangsen first heard from so and so, who’d heard it from so and so, who heard it, they thought, from so and so. On closer inspection, I saw some of these songs I loved were in fact, poems by Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louise Stevenson, 17th century Irish poet Charles Dawson Shanly and others less well known poets spanning the centuries. In the mid -1990s, I did an in-depth exploration and study of contemporary Native American poetry written by women for my Master of Arts thesis. I fell in love with Native American women poets Paula Gunn Allen, Beth Brant, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Wendy Rose, Leslie Silko, Diane Burns, Diane Glancy, Mary TallMountain, and many others. Soon after finishing this, due to a friend’s recommendation, I discovered the poetry of Donald Hall. Finding Donald Hall led me to Jane Kenyon. Later conversations with another friend lead me to Stanley Kunitz. Then, as a result of the occasion of the gift of a book, I embarked on an in-depth study of Anne Sexton. I listened to tapes of her reading, I read her collected poems, biographies, and eventually beginning writing a poem inspired by Sexton’s life. Anne Sexton then led me to Maxine Kumin and somehow, Maxine Kumin led me to Mark Strand. I ended some month’s later reading poems by Mark Doty, Agha Shahid Ali, Rita Dove and Lucille Clifton. The 2000s, when I received the collection In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry, and heard Dylan Thomas read “Do Not Go Gently Into That Dark Night”, that I began my study of many of the well known male writers of the past two centuries. (Who can hear Dylan Thomas reading this poem and not be moved to religion?) Over the past years, I have become as intrigued by how poets are writing as what they are saying. I was, suddenly, in love with rhymed meter, with rhythm, with the brilliant lyricism of Robert Frost, with pantoum. Like a snake crawling out from a long winter’s hibernation, needing the sun to warm my frigid body to shed my old skin, as passionately as I require air, food and water to survive, I am now desperate to read in poetic form. It feels like an undiscovered universe, an unopened door leading down ancient stone stairs to the root of my mature poetic awakening. I purchase the collection Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets Read Their Work from Tennyson to Plath and out from my bookshelves have come the poetry, essays, and biographies of H. D., Muriel Rukeyser, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Denise Levertov, and Sylvia Plath. As I read through Poetry Speaks, poet-by-poet and listen to these poets reading their own luminous poems, I am awestruck, fall in love with each poet, one after the other. A few days after reading Robinson Jeffers (for the first time), I go into a used bookstore in Northampton and discover a 1937 printing of the collected poems of Robinson Jeffers. As if I am a ship upon a small sea in a fierce gale, I am bound along into the tumultuous world of “Tamar” — a 60 page narrative poem with plot, character development, and story. As I continue to read poetry I have never been exposed to before – written by poets throughout the world and from centuries past — it seems there are endless creative possibilities for me, as poet, as writer. While continuing to dive down into that resonant emotive content that has always seduced me as reader and writer of poetry, I am now feathered with a fierce determination. I long to flap, careen, to fly wildly, systematically, and thoroughly, through the full range of poetic style, meter, and form, over time and cross cultures. To turn clay into vessel which will best contain my voice and the O so much I want to say, knowing full well, I so often make the choice to race back to free-verse, arms spread wide to her. A few days before I end writing this profile, I take from my bookshelves a 1959 edition of a book whose spine has never been cracked. I do not even remember where I picked it up. I am reading, with joy, the fourteen line sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Milay. Poems found within an infantalizing, feminized book jacket illustrated with a large butterfly, yellow, red, white and peach roses, and a lily-of-the-valley. I wonder what Edna, bohemian, brilliant, bisexual, feminist, would have felt about this book cover? I think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, of Tillie Olsen’s Silences, of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. While walking down our country road one evening at dusk, I consider peach and yellow roses and butterflies on the book jackets of Richard Wilbur or Donald Hall 1950s publications and can only laugh.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, 1980 – 2021