Late starts do not typically presage momentous contributions, but originality has at least as many fathers as victory does, and whether or not their late arrivals on the scene had anything to do with it, these local luminaries made and continue to make contributions that reverberate far beyond the purlieus of their initial engagements. Perhaps the fact that they were devoted to their respective subject matters as children and young adults, before they ever thought to make a formal study of them, accounts for their outsized influence. Or perhaps the Academy has the ability to see all volcanoes as dormant until the appropriate credentials are established.
Rod Jellema, professor emeritus of English and founding director of the creative writing program at the University of Maryland, did not start writing poetry until he was forty, but was fighting so hard for his poetic principles as a teenager that he failed high school English twice just to prove his point.
In his seminal essay in the special 125th anniversary edition of the nation’s oldest literary magazine, Poet Lore, Jellema reflects on teachers and readers (and non-readers) who never venture beyond what they call “accessible poems.” He tells how he first got “slapped awake by the tyranny of the accessible” in the early 1940s in his sophomore English class. Because he was forced to explain the meaning of William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfall,” the young Jellema could only see “grandiose, stilted, and inflated pseudo-poetic verbiage” when a simpler recounting would have sufficed. Three teachers in three years made him memorize it, never realizing that their insistence on semantics was holding back their most promising pupil. Here the young Jellema, always the master teacher, is standing in for all the young students who “come to college sure they don’t like poetry.”
Whether or not Miss Phisterer is the reason for his late start as a poet, we can be confident that Jellema was so intuitively tuned in to the “sense” of what a real poem was that he is perhaps better categorized as a prodigy than a late arrival. When Jellema finally began to write, he tried to write poetry that “struck the whole person, not just the understanding.”
It may not be surprising then that Jellema’s poetic integrity is such that he never leaves the planet in order to achieve a separate poetic peace. It is one of the pleasures of reading him that his insistence on the things of this world come not despite but because of an enormous metaphysical apparatus backed by immense learning and erudition. At his best, Jellema is one of the very few poets for whom religious depth comes at no expense to fidelity to the pond’s edge, the rattling road, the tarnished town.
Incarnality, Jellema’s collected poems, was released in 2010, but an early poem not found in that volume, but in 1979’s The Lost Faces, suggests something of the struggle that has informed both his teaching and his writing. Early on, in a poem ostensibly about his father, he writes:
He understood about incarnation
but my father still had the dazed Galilean
fisherman’s habit of looking up.
After six stanzas the poem ends this way:
Face by false ascent by phrase
by face by riot I learn, learn that words matter
like bodies, learn not to look up
for some pure-spirit godkin
Christ but down the lost faces
the Word became
before we made it mere word again,
mere tracks in the snow.
One can only speculate, of course, but one wonders if that long period of dormancy also reflected a profound struggle to come to terms with the physical world, to accept corporeal life, however difficult or painful, as the given from which there is no release. Whatever the reason, one feels secure within the trajectory of a real poet (whether he was writing or not!) in that his work is a response more to internal demands than the literary fashions and publishing exigencies of the day.
Another poem not found in his collected edition, but perhaps relevant to the struggle detailed here, is in his 1984 volume, The Eighth Day. In this poem, one senses that even as he refuses to mythologize experience, he learns to find in experience the very mythology he has been seeking:
Just before the lights come on
in the skyscrapers down below
you suddenly see
evening doesn’t fall
Darkness does not sift down
like black Slavic flower. It rises.
– Nightrise from the Observation Deck of the World Trade Center
By this time Jellema had begun to master describing the “meanings” inhering inside their supposed opposites. By this time “meaning” sits unmajestically but rightfully beside its more maligned brothers and sisters. And the spiritual doesn’t “drift in,” it’s just there — or as the noted critic Alberta Turner said of the poems in this volume, “He [Jellema] sees the strange in the ordinary and makes the commonplace wide again.”
This same fidelity to the commonplace perhaps explains the reason Jellema began the transformational “Poetry and National Conscience” conferences during the Vietnam War that were cited during this year’s “Splendid Wake” program on March 20 at George Washington University’s Gelman Library. “Splendid Wake,” coordinated by Joanna Howard and supported by many local literary lights, was founded a few years ago to document and preserve the history of Washington D.C. poetry from 1900 to the present. Jellema and Linda Pastan were asked to speak about the poetry workshops born during these conferences.
It might be said, therefore, that it is first and foremost Jellema’s poetic identity, his insistence on finding meaning where meaning resides, that makes his life and work inextricably intertwined with the educational, literary, and political history of his time.
Eleanor Heginbotham, who spoke on May 16 at the Georgetown Public Library, one day after the 129th anniversary of Emily Dickinson’s death, was devoted to her subject even while a diplomat’s wife during a counter-coup in Vietnam. In her talk, “Bulletins from Immortality: Emily Dickinson’s Life after Death,” she described in detail the story of how Dickinson’s poems came to public attention after her death in 1886.
She said little, however, about her own place in this beguiling and intriguing true-life tale.
Heginbotham described the motivations and machinations behind those who made Dickinson’s immortality possible, from her sister Livinia and Mabel Loomis Todd, who had an affair with Emily’s married brother, Austin, to the noted 20th century scholars Thomas Johnson and Ralph Franklin. Franklin, selected in 1950 to create the valorum edition, shocked readers who thought Emily only the wise lady poet of flora and fauna with her ungrammatical dashes, purposeful misspellings, and impolitic subject matter. As Heginbotham said, “‘Wild Nights’– what?!” This of course brought the attention of the modernists: T.S. Elliot saw the metaphysical reach, e.e. cummings the unusual linage, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Or so it seemed. When Heginbotham was preparing her PhD thesis at the University of Maryland, after the age of fifty, she wrote to twenty major poets who had written poems or essays about Emily Dickinson. Except for two men, one of whom was Charles Wright, our current poet laureate, each admitted to carefully choosing their poem’s place and position for their books. Heginbotham’s dissertation, which won the Carl Bode Award in American Subject Dissertations in 1992, argued that Dickinson had been done a disservice by wrenching the poems out of the forty scrapbooks, or “fascicles” as Mabel Loomis Todd called them, and in which Heginbotham argued they had been so carefully positioned.
A few years later, her book Reading the Fascicles of Emily Dickinson was published. In it, Heginbotham insisted that one must respect Dickinson enough to read and teach the poet in her own context. Now a scholar herself, Heginbotham found herself in the ironic position of arguing for meeting Dickinson on Dickinson’s own ground, not in slots that fit into scholars’ interests. She found herself making what in the law is known as the “res ipsa” argument – that is, that the facts speak for themselves. At the end of one passage, she writes simply, “Anyway, regardless, they exist.” And then later: “somersaulting with Dickinson is the only story this book provides.”
It is a further irony that Heginbotham has been called a “fetishist” by other scholars. Indeed Ralph Franklin himself wrote her off in one sentence, calling the fascicles “just scrapbooks.”
In a book of essays on the fascicles published last year and edited by Heginbotham and fellow Dickinson scholar Paul Crumbly, it is perhaps a measure of the distance her crusade has covered that the inevitable dismissal, when it occurs, as it does for example in an analysis by Paula Bennett of fascicle 16, nevertheless notes that the arrangement of the poems in the fascicles is “self-chosen.” But drawing any meaning from this fact, Bennett insists, “is itself a projection.”
Whether or not it is a projection to simply point out, as Heginbotham does, “that we might nevertheless more than provisionally accept…that Dickinson herself folded the five cream lightly ruled and embossed stationary sheets…and sewed them with something more like twine than like thread…in forty little threadbound volumes” is a matter we will have to leave to each reader to decide.
It is the inferences Heginbotham draws from these facts that are the subject matter of the greatest dispute. She believes that reading a poem in its proper placement – Emily Dickinson’s intended placement, something the general reader, remember, cannot do – would help the reader to a clearer understanding.
To give just one example of Heginbotham’s many pages of analysis on this subject, take a look – because in this rare case you can (as they are 445 and 446 in your collected edition) – at the poems facing each other in fascicle 21, midway through what Heginbotham calls Dickinson’s “self-publishing project.” On one side is a poem that begins, “This was a poet.” On the other side there is one that begins, “They shut me up in prose.” On these facing pages, Heginbotham observes, “Prose visually confronts Poetry….From first line to last the two poems about the poet speak across as well as down the pages.” In an analysis that cites figures as diverse as Webster, Keats, Emerson, Carlyle, and even Lord Kames, Heginbotham argues that the facing poems gather enormous strength through proximity.
In her thoroughgoing analysis, Heginbotham finds these kinds of patterns and conversations everywhere. Paired poems, poems in their proper places – she even sees reasons why poems are repeated in different fascicles. Heginbotham sees the work of a master not only in the poems themselves but in their placement, even seeing each fascicle as a separate poem.
Heginbotham’s talk, devoted to those who gave Dickinson her well-deserved immortality, left out a name that perhaps one day will be recognized as important as all the rest. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, just because everyone is applauding doesn’t mean they know what they are applauding about. Perhaps we will one day have a popular edition of Dickinson’s work that will bestow upon us the poems as they were once sewn together and meant to be bestowed.