MAKING POETRY THE STUFF OF LIFE Laureate to expand awareness


Potomac -- "Something really exciting happened to me today," exclaims Linda Pastan.

She is not referring to the explosion of spring colors around her suburban home near Washington, where the flowers and trees have burst into blossom, nor to the crew of painters wielding brushes and rollers, nor even to her recent appointment as Maryland's poet laureate.

What has Ms. Pastan bubbling is the fact that several poems she has been working on for the past four or five months have finally clicked, have come together into a single long poem in three parts: The worst of the struggle is over.

Such are the ways of Maryland's new first poet.

"A breakthrough like the one this morning is very exciting," she says, sitting in her book-lined study. "It's so clear now I was working on the same poem all the time without realizing it."

Such literary discourse has no effect on the family's two dogs, Caleb, a Rhodesian ridgeback, and Tanya, a miniature poodle. Nevertheless, this lively pair were the inspiration for a children's book on sibling rivalry between canines, which the poet is hoping to have published.

Author of seven volumes of poetry and recipient of numerous honors, including the di Castagnola Award (Poetry Society of America) and the Boss Hakin Prize (Poetry magazine), the 58-year-old will be officially sworn in April 5 at the Rockville Courthouse for the three-year term. Later this spring, she will be welcomed in a more elaborate ceremony by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who made the appointment.

The honorary title provides no remuneration, but it does bring with it the responsibility of fostering a greater awareness and appreciation of poetry in Maryland. Ms. Pastan plans to give readings before audiences that do not ordinarily encounter poets, at places such as prisons, senior citizens centers and certain high schools. She feels that poetry, with its humanizing influence, should be part of everyone's life.

"I feel strongly about this, and that's one reason why I'm happy to be named poet laureate," says the mother of three grown children and grandmother of four. "I think all poetry is political, not in the ordinary sense of having a particular agenda that a poet would want to write about, but in the sense of making people look at the world freshly and exercise their imagination."

By teaching people to imagine themselves in another's shoes, she says, poetry and literature can enable them to act more intelligently and compassionately in making political decisions.

"When you invent a metaphor in poetry, you join two disparate elements, therefore you use your imagination," she explains. "I have a poem in which I say evil is simply a grammatical error, the failure to leap the precipice between 'he' and 'I.' Evil is the failure of imagination. We go to war because we cannot imagine the horror."

Concerned that poetry is given less than its full due, she says, "A famous poet is an oxymoron in this country. I think people are scared off, afraid they'll not be able to understand. Their teachers have told them so often, 'No, that's not what that poem means!' "

In her own poetry Ms. Pastan strives for clarity and accessibility, using plain, simple language. Her lines are brief, her images direct, her stanzas short and her poems overall highly condensed and full of meaning. She describes her work aptly as having an "accessible surface and a complex underside."

"Like Midas, I guess

everything we touch turns

to a poem --

when the spell is on,

Ms. Pastan reflects in her poem "Voices." Over the years she has touched much that was close at hand, drawing on the stuff of daily life: a visit to the gynecologist's, Passover, wildflowers, a second son, minor surgery, an egg, a 25th high school reunion, her father's death. She uses the quotidian less for its narrative value than for the insight it provides into human existence.

"She has a warm eye for the world she observes and lives in. She describes it with grace," says Reed Whittemore, Maryland's poet laureate from 1985 to 1988.

A native of New York, Ms. Pastan grew up as an only child in Westchester County, where her father was a surgeon. She recalls being shy and introspective, turning to books for friendship and conversation. By the age of 12, she was submitting poems to the New Yorker and the Atlantic, without luck. Actually, she was in her 40s when she finally appeared in those publications.

At Radcliffe College, she studied literature, but found the atmosphere more conducive to scholarship than creativity. Following graduation she enrolled at Brandeis University in a Ph.D. program in literature, and dropped out after getting her masters degree.

She was married by then to Ira Pastan, now a molecular biologist working on cancer and AIDS research at the National Institutes of Health, and was caring for an infant son. When her husband received an internship at Yale, she went along.

Her first published poems appeared in Mademoiselle in 1955, winning that magazine's Dylan Thomas Poetry Award. She later learned Sylvia Plath had been the runner-up. Despite the early success, she gave up poetry for almost 10 years to be a wife and a mother. Eventually she found the separation too painful and resumed writing in the '60s. Her work began appearing routinely in Poetry, Ms., Sewanee Review and other publications. Her first collection, "A Perfect Circle," came out in 1971.

Ms. Pastan's newest collection "Heroes in Disguise" will be published by W.W. Norton in the fall.

These days, Ms. Pastan closets herself in her study every morning at 8:30, usually working steadily until 1 p.m., longer if inspired. A year ago, with some misgivings, she started using a word processor, but now finds it indispensable for making revisions.

"I go through hundreds of revisions, the same thing over and over again with a couple of changes," she says, hinting at the rigors of the poetic process. "I can keep working on something for more than a year until I think it's right."


There Are Poems

There are poems

that are never written,

that simply move across

the mind

ke skywriting

a still day:

slowly the first word

drifts west,

the last letters dissolve

on the tongue,

and what is left

is the pure blue

of insight, without cloud


%From "Waiting For My Life"


She wore

her coming death

as gracefully

as if it were a coat

she'd learned to sew.

When it grew cold enough

she'd simply button it

and go.

* From "The Five Stages of Grief"

The Angel of Death

Ingres drew her

with rudimentary breasts

and pre-pubescent wings

barely sketched in.

The hair is cropped,

the narrow eyebrows arched

into a look both thoughtful

and pitiless as only

the young can be,

who know themselves


(From "The Imperfect Paradise"

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