blackbirdonline journalSpring 2013 Vol. 12 No. 1
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A First Reader

A first reader satisfies the poet’s real need for audience, and, ever enthusiastic, spurs him to productivity, but this may be limiting if the poet listens too obediently to the expectations of this audience, whether one close supporter or a contemporary school, more than to his own inner workings.

I have not written for the ear of a Dear Reader, specific or idealized: not a decision, just modus operandi. I write, I assume, from the poem’s dictation; it is slow, but autocratic. Later, I try to improve objectively. Sometimes I have realized a line or reference was so personal it would be meaningless to any reader, and usually said, “I don’t care,” as if the poem were more for me than for the reader. I believe readers find their needs answered in the right poem, somewhere, whether it is “A while absent thee from felicity” or “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” or “There is no one left to care / For all we said and did, and thought— / The world we were,” and they may even divine some of the poet’s foreign tongue.

I have defined my first reader not as the confidante but the critic—my first real critic.

My first poem was a fourth grade entry in a Norwood News contest for students—a rhyme modelled on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Autumn Fires.” After that I had the luck of an outlet in the young people’s Sunday section of The Charlotte Observer, where the weekly prize poem actually got $2 a whack—a windfall to a Depression farm girl—and, later, a similar page for teen writers in a Methodist church publication. Of course, later, my college magazine. I turned to fiction during the two years I taught school, but in 1947, with housekeeping and a full-time job at Sears’ Greensboro office (answering letters of complaint), was turning out some poems again, and, though I had written some poems in Allen Tate’s undergraduate class in college, had, in Randall Jarrell, my first real reader.

That was in 1946–47, the second year Peter and I lived in Greensboro, where he had his first teaching job. He had been instrumental in bringing Randall to the English Department at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina through the unusual-at-that-time interest of Marc Friedlaender in having a college writing program. (Friedlaender also originated the college’s Arts Forums—with Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Robert Penn Warren, and the Kenyon crew—John Thompson, Robie Macauley, David McDowell, Robert Lowell—as well as Flannery O’Connor—what riches for the North Carolina undergraduates, all women) and we had in 1946 bought a duplex on Spring Garden Street with Mackie and Randall. Peter made our dining room into an off-hours study for himself, and I began writing poems again. One day after I had shown Peter new ones, he decided Randall should see them. I dared not. “Come on!” He knocked on the door across the hall and announced, “I’ve taken the little girl by the hand and brought her to show you her poems.” Was it something Randall had feared? He immediately began to read, his expression growing more and more solemn, as my heart fell. I don’t remember his words, but what he said gravely was that they were indeed very complicated and very polished. A day or so later, as I recollect, we had a little conference in the Jarrells’ living room, Randall in his established spot on the sofa in the southwest corner, across from the fireplace where there was usually, in winter, a coal fire, made by Mackie, and a good view out the big front window.

It was the first of two or three serious conferences we had about my poems. I did know what spectacular luck I had fallen into, and was properly humble. One conference was in his office at the college, where he met with student poets. These businesslike sessions were initiated by him. I would not have had the courage to ask. They often consisted in explaining to me the strengths of the poems—what to build on.

He always asked to see any new poems, and I was astonished at the way he entered into a poem completely. He knew what I meant to say, and what I said. Of course this was what I had admired in his reviews and critical articles long before we met; when I learned Peter knew Randall at Vanderbilt and Kenyon, I couldn’t rest until I was introduced. They had not been close friends there, but we all became so.

He made me uncomfortable by prying into the psychological origins of my poems. “Water-throated day” intrigued him. “Talk about that.” What were my childhood memories of water? “Talk some more about that.” I don’t think he was aware of how self-conscious this made me—this was simply the Randall who had a double major at Vanderbilt in English and psychology, had read Freud early, understood the psychological needs of art, the clues about us—our unconscious confides to our art. This deep understanding was, I think, his undoing—partly, despairing at how little others—the world—understood.

That same winter he read Peter’s new stories and was extremely enthusiastic, marveling at the psychological framework of “Reservations.”

Peter was not a regular first reader for me. He had written poems in John Crowe Ransom’s class at Kenyon (in the shadow, he felt, of Robert Lowell and John Nerber) but he was then writing fiction every spare minute, as well as teaching it. This meant concentrating on its analysis and criticism, which he complained were not easy for him. When he read my poems he approved, but rarely made any detailed comment.

Randall put me on to repeating a line, a phrase, a word, to slow the poem, or for a meditative effect. He would never have used such terms. He said simply, in what I considered an incidental way he had, “I’d just repeat that line.”

Soon after the first conference he suggested he send some of my poems to Kerker Quinn, the highly respected editor of Accent at that time, and this is where the first poems of Wilderness Of Ladies appeared. How generous he was. He sent other poems to Poetry, and prodded me on with my first book, then wrote the introduction.

Robert Lowell used to say Randall must be avoided if you’d just printed a poem he didn’t like, or your most recent book wasn’t up to snuff: Randall would be so offended he wouldn’t speak to you. Exaggerated, but with an element of truth. It was possible to get back into his good graces, but I think he never forgot a black mark.

I never had a reader who made objections, suggested major changes, or wholly disapproved of some poems. Perhaps I instinctively avoided them? Perhaps because I sent out so little, and not to editors who operated that way. I was always cross with the editors who wrote Peter urging changes in a story, and tended to justify keeping it as it was. He, on the other hand, took every criticism seriously, with no offense, and would work out a creative way to remedy it, always ending with real improvements on a story I had felt needed no improvement.

In 1947 Peter and I bought an old house he had fallen in love with in Hillsborough, NC. (He commuted to Greensboro classes.) The Jarrells drove up one afternoon and found us in the yard. Randall, in one of his exhilarations, called from the car, “Hello, Eleanor Ross! Are you going to print under ‘Eleanor Ross’ or ‘Eleanor Taylor’?” Peter said, “She’s going to print as ‘Mrs. Peter Taylor’!”

Looking back, I wonder if some of Randall’s enthusiasm for my poems was part of his political idealism at that time. My poems, full of country background, may have appealed to his pro-proletarian, pro-peasant position. It was one of the Mackie-Randall bonds. I have the copy of Marx’s Capital she gave me, “Mackie Langham, 1937” on the flyleaf. I think even the most dedicated of those particular thinkers did some reconsidering, editing, in the 1949–54 period; certainly Randall changed. In the early ’50s he seemed to give up austerity for the comforts, even the luxuries, of life.

I cannot leave out the importance in my young writing life of Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon. They were brought to the Greensboro college in its earliest move to an innovative undergraduate arts emphasis, and were ideal fosterers of beginning writers. I was accepted in the Tate class on the strength of rather stodgy formal poems. A year later, when some new poems came out in the college magazine—after I had been introduced in that class to Cummings, Pound, Eliot, et al., Mr. Tate was so generous as to write me a note expressing his approval. He said, “What a long way you’ve come.” A loyal champion, he printed me later when he was editing The Sewanee Review, nominated me for an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and earlier got me a writing fellowship at Vanderbilt, after I had been teaching in high school for two years. Incidentally, Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate read my brother James’s noir classic They Don’t Dance Much in manuscript, got him a Houghton Mifflin fellowship, and Maxwell Perkins, Caroline Gordon’s first publisher, brought out the novel. Both were discoverers of writers, not followers after acclaim and not with an eye to future favors for themselves; they were, and remain, I think, grand figures in the American literary scene.  end

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