It’s a tough day to begin with. Seven years ago on March 8, my mother passed away from a massive heart attack. The passage of time always catches me by surprise – how is it possible it was that long ago?
This year it’s a crappy day for other reasons, too, one of those times when you really start to question what you’re doing as a writer – sending out your words to a world that often doesn’t want to read them.
So it was that this morning, leafing through my mother’s notebooks of poetry, I came across a ditty that surely was meant for me, meant for this day of numb depression.
It’s called “For My Critics”:
Come, blast my songs, and I’ll care not a whit
For I am freed from embryonic night;
And soon, soon, the world will know of it.
I am the cockerel, crowing for the light.
She wrote this in 1946, and I think I know what was on her mind. She had just come out with her first book of poetry, a sonnet sequence called While Enemies Conspire, about a woman missing her lover who is away at war. Many of the poems had been published in Driftwind, a Vermont poetry journal whose press published her collection; indeed, her work had appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including Yankee, the Christian Science Monitor, the Hartford Times, as well as literary magazines, including the Rural New Yorker, Prairie Wings,and something called Hearth Songs, which published “For My Critics.”
The book’s publication was noted by Rhode Island newspapers and some of the magazines that published her work, but there was no outpouring of critical acclaim. One review sniffed that the collection “suffers somewhat from a ‘Fatal Interview’ grandiloquence.”
Perhaps she also was thinking of the letter she received that February from Charles Hyde Pratt, editor of the Florida Magazine of Verse, who said of her submission, “A sonnet should be more than a rhymed poem of fourteen five-beat lines” (ouch!) and proceeded to detail his “notion, which is shared by many authorities” that “the first quatrain also should end in a full stop.” Whatever happened to “thank you, but no”?
I can imagine how disappointing all this was for her. The book was a culmination of years of work. She was a craftsman who had begun submitting her poetry, and getting it published, while she was in her early teens. Her high school yearbook compared her to Edna St. Vincent Millay.
She was not cowed by Pratt’s patronizing letter, or by his assumption that he knew more about poetry than she did – because she submitted to him again, and this time he replied more warmly: “This is a good sonnet, but we have enough material on hand to last a year, and I hesitate to accept more. Congratulations on your acceptance by many magazines. Probably none of them are as slow in reporting as I am. Thanks too for the photograph, which is charming, and my best wishes for your continued success.”
So she had sent him another sonnet and didn’t hesitate to point out all the other editors who were accepting her work, or to send her publicity photo.
I love the defiance in “For My Critics.” I love that she sees her poetry as songs, as a “crowing for the light.” And I ache for the disappointment that underlies her defiance, because I have felt it too, oh so many times.
I like to think she prodded me gently this morning to find these four lines, written in fountain pen in one of her notebooks, a clarion call from the past. It says, “I too have been there, my child,” and it says, “Sing your song,” and it insists, “don’t give in to that old despair.”
And so we writers must crow for the light, out of the embryonic night, over and over and over again.