My Plea

Nonfiction / James Davis May

:: My Plea ::

The poem below was writ­ten some­time before Jan­u­ary 26th, 1938. I have a copy of it on delicate—nearly tissue-thin—manila paper. There are two holes punched into the left-hand mar­gin, and the poem itself was writ­ten on a type­writer. The poem’s flaws will be obvi­ous to any sea­soned poet­ry read­er; I hope, though, that you’ll take the time to read it, as its author was very dear to me. I think, too, that the poem can tell us a lit­tle about per­sis­tence and poetry’s impor­tance to the young. What I’m ask­ing, I sup­pose, is for you to be less con­cerned with eval­u­at­ing the poem’s mer­it than you are with acknowl­edg­ing the human voice that lives inside its lines. Here it is:

MY PLEA

I do not want to know about hell and strife
The pit­falls, the ago­nies endured in life
No, do not press them upon me
I shut my eyes that I might not see—
The ugli­ness and bare­ness of it all
See men live, rise, love, and fall.
Instead show me love and hap­pi­ness
Qui­et streams and peace­ful­ness,
Hear stir­ring music and voice full of song
Show to me the right and not the wrong.
I want to live in beau­ty and be free
Trav­el to moons and across seas
I am Youth!
Hear my plea!

NMB

The poem arrived by mail last week. It was in an enve­lope with­in an enve­lope, the first of which was mod­ern and the sec­ond of which was not. That sec­ond enve­lope, which was the same aged col­or as the paper, had my late grandmother’s maid­en name on it—Miss Nora Brown—and her address (123 Mor­gan St., Brack­en­ridge, PA), along with a post­mark: Jan­u­ary 26th, 1938. 7:30 p.m. Philadel­phia. My grand­moth­er passed away last Decem­ber, and my aunt found the poem in my grandmother’s draw­ers. My grand­moth­er was not a hoard­er; she kept a very neat and clean house, so if she kept some­thing, it meant some­thing.

Until very recent­ly, every poet who’s ever tried to pub­lish a poem could remem­ber the dread inher­ent in find­ing his or her own hand­writ­ing on an enve­lope in the mail. It meant you had been reject­ed by the mag­a­zine you sent your poet­ry to for con­sid­er­a­tion. In my grandmother’s case, it was the Ladies’ Home Jour­nal that sent her the bad news. Read­ing the rejec­tion slip enclosed in the enve­lope along with the poem, I was sur­prised by how lit­tle has changed over eight decades:

We regret that the accom­pa­ny­ing man­u­script, which had the most care­ful read­ing, is not in every way adapt­ed to the spe­cial require­ments of Ladies’ Home Jour­nal.

Please accept our thanks for your cour­tesy in per­mit­ting us to exam­ine it, and feel assured that we are always glad to give man­u­scripts our care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion and to report prompt­ly as to their avail­abil­i­ty for our needs.

Yours very tru­ly,

THE EDITORS

Com­pare that to my lat­est from Poet­ry mag­a­zine, which came via email:

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, your sub­mis­sion isn’t quite right for us. Thank you very much, though, for send­ing work our way—and thank you for your inter­est in POETRY mag­a­zine.

Sin­cere­ly,

THE EDITORS

Both my grand­moth­er and I were “blanked”—in oth­er words, the edi­tors (or more like­ly some­one work­ing for the edi­tors) signed their title instead of their names. A pas­sive-aggres­sive way of say­ing “Please stop send­ing”? Anonymi­ty dic­tat­ed by vol­ume? We’ll nev­er know. Though blank rejec­tions appear to have got­ten shorter—yet anoth­er symp­tom of cul­tur­al ADHD in the dig­i­tal age—the cool­ness and false con­tri­tion remains: LHJ wrote that they “regret” that her poem “is not in every way adapt­ed to the spe­cial require­ments” of their mag­a­zine; Poet­ry, mean­while, begins its dis­missal with “Unfor­tu­nate­ly,” before telling me my “sub­mis­sion isn’t quite right” for them—the edi­to­r­i­al equiv­a­lent of “it’s not you, it’s me.”

Any­way, I have advan­tages my grand­moth­er did not, name­ly a healthy ego. I’ve been pub­lished, after all, and teach cre­ative writ­ing for a liv­ing. I’ve been sea­soned by hun­dreds of rejec­tions just like these. I even used to keep all of my rejec­tions in a bloat­ed large enve­lope until some­one point­ed out that it was tacky to do so. My grand­moth­er, on the oth­er hand, was a recent high school grad­u­ate, was not yet nine­teen, and worked at a drug­store. She would not, as I did, go to col­lege, let alone eight years of grad­u­ate school. For every hard­ship she endured—the Great Depres­sion, World War II, Richard Nixon (she’d like that joke)—I’m cer­tain I can cite ten ways in which I was priv­i­leged, and she is one of the peo­ple, along with her hus­band and my par­ents, who made my eas­i­er life pos­si­ble, a life that allowed me to pur­sue such an imprac­ti­cal voca­tion as writ­ing poet­ry. Pri­or to receiv­ing her poem in the mail, I knew only that my grand­moth­er was a tremen­dous read­er. My father and aunt have since told me that she want­ed to be a writer, a poet in par­tic­u­lar.

It’s like­ly that she bor­rowed the type­writer and, I’ve invent­ed this detail, the copies of LHJ that she read pri­or to send­ing the mag­a­zine her work. It was her first and, I believe, only rejec­tion. Which makes the note on the back of the envelope—“My first attempt and a rejec­tion!! ‘If first you don’t suc­ceed, try, try again.’”—somewhat iron­ic, if not sad. The “again” in that note is under­lined twice. In less than a year, she’d mar­ry my grand­fa­ther, whom, the fam­i­ly leg­end goes, she fell in love with when she saw him march­ing as part of the fire station’s drum and bugle corps. In fact, the Brack­en­ridge fire sta­tion was and still is right across the street from the address on the SASE. On Google Street View, I see a yel­low-brick build­ing com­posed of rough­ly ten row hous­es. My grandmother’s for­mer res­i­dence, where she lived with my great-grand­par­ents and like­ly wrote this poem, is the sec­ond from the cor­ner and less than two blocks from the Alleghe­ny Riv­er. If I zoom in, I can make out a tiny mail­box to the left of the front door. I doubt this is the same mail­box that briefly housed my grandmother’s rejec­tion, but it cer­tain­ly looks old enough.

About that poem. It was writ­ten in 1937 or ’38, as I’ve said, a decade and a half after the pub­li­ca­tion of The Waste Land, so it seems anti­quat­ed, yes. Anti­quat­ed and at times clichéd. But it has virtues, and were I to find it in a stack of sub­mis­sions exclu­sive­ly from high school stu­dents, I think it might have caught my eye, espe­cial­ly the sen­ti­ment behind the first cou­plet: “I do not want to know about hell and strife / The pit­falls, the ago­nies endured in life.” There’s a delight­ful irony to these first two lines. The poet says she does not want to know about these things (that is, “hell and strife”), but in nam­ing them we’re led to believe that she does know about them. My grand­moth­er was Irish Catholic, so she would have been well acquaint­ed with hell; and I imag­ine grow­ing up on the shore of the Alleghe­ny dur­ing the hey­day of steel and coal pro­vid­ed good mod­els for what eter­nal damna­tion might look like. Bil­low­ing smoke­stacks, sun­less days, etc. Her father, mean­while, worked in the mills and by all accounts drank more than even the most hyper­bol­ic Irish stereo­types. All of this to say that this teenag­er like­ly expe­ri­enced real, not imag­ined, strife.

The poem oper­ates by negation—it’s a protest against those images of strife: “No, do not press them upon me / I shut my eyes that I might not see.” Now the poem has tak­en up its title; it has become a plea. We won­der to whom it’s addressed. A deity? Cul­ture (i.e., media and lit­er­a­ture)? Cyn­i­cism itself? We don’t know, but the force behind this plea strikes me because, unlike a lot of poems by teenagers, it opts for some­thing more force­ful than melan­choly. It protests, and the word “press,” along with the speaker’s shut­ting her eyes, sug­gests vio­la­tion, a vio­la­tion against which the poem push­es back.

The next couplet—“The ugli­ness and bare­ness of it all / See men live, rise, love, and fall.”—veers too much toward abstrac­tion, we’d prob­a­bly say in work­shop, and yet view­ing this poem through a his­tor­i­cal lens, we’d be remiss if we didn’t men­tion that its con­cerns, its proph­e­sies, were valid. World War II would begin in a few years, and as we all know, this war was one that had a long windup. It’s rea­son­able to think war had been on this young poet’s mind. How many of the men that worked in that fire sta­tion across the street were head­ed to war in three or four years? How many would end up dying in the next decade? That Brack­en­ridge was a steel town, mak­ing many of those men vital to the war effort, prob­a­bly kept the per­cent­ages down but not by much. So many in my grandmother’s senior class were about to “live, rise, love, and fall.”

The poem has son­net DNA. If we’re generous—and let’s be since this is my grandmother!—it has four­teen lines. It also has a turn, albeit a non­tra­di­tion­al turn. The vol­ta comes at line sev­en instead of line nine: “Instead show me love and hap­pi­ness / Qui­et streams and peace­ful­ness.” Here, of course, any cre­ative writ­ing pro­fes­sor would object. We’ve got two glar­ing abstrac­tions, and those abstrac­tions are, as abstrac­tions tend to be, clichés. Not unusu­al lines to find in a teenager’s poem. The next cou­plet is more spe­cif­ic than its pre­de­ces­sor: “Hear stir­ring music and voice full of song / Show to me the right and not the wrong.” The first line of this cou­plet is curi­ous. Is the speak­er implor­ing the addressed to hear the music, or is she ask­ing to hear that music her­self? Gram­mat­i­cal­ly, it’s the for­mer, which makes the poem more inter­est­ing to me. For one thing, it gives the speak­er more author­i­ty: we’ve already said that she knows about “hell and strife,” and now we know she knows about this music, a music that by impli­ca­tion is unknown to or dis­count­ed by the per­son or pow­er she address­es. That per­son or pow­er doesn’t hear or doesn’t choose to hear the music. It fol­lows, then, that the addressed also has a ten­den­cy to show “the wrong” instead of “the right.”

I’ve said this poem has son­net DNA, and that’s true, but it’s pri­mar­i­ly an ele­gy, the strand of that form iden­ti­fied by Edward Hirsch as con­tain­ing “poems of great per­son­al depri­va­tion shad­ing off into med­i­ta­tions on muta­bil­i­ty and peti­tions for divine guid­ance and con­so­la­tion.” Con­sid­er­ing this def­i­n­i­tion makes me all the more cer­tain that my grandmother’s poem address­es God. If so, what a brave poem for an eigh­teen-year-old Catholic to write! That a poem would be the prop­er form to issue imper­a­tives to God is also intrigu­ing because it points to the fun­da­men­tal rea­son we write poet­ry: we want mean­ing and order.

Tonal­ly, this poem reminds me, odd­ly enough, of “In War­saw” by Czesław Miłosz, which was writ­ten some sev­en years lat­er, under very dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances. In that poem, Miłosz stands in front of the ruins of St. John’s Cathe­dral in War­saw, which had just endured the car­nage that result­ed from the Nazis quash­ing the War­saw Upris­ing. Miłosz asks him­self why he is there med­i­tat­ing on the ruins and remem­bers that he “swore nev­er to be / A rit­u­al mourn­er.” The poet has no choice, though, as the hands of the dead grab hold of his pen and “order [him] to write / The sto­ry of their lives and deaths.” This oblig­a­tion to the dead is not one Miłosz embraces, not at first any­way. In the poem he con­fess­es that he desired to be a poet of odes, not ele­gies:

I want to sing of fes­tiv­i­ties,
The green­wood into which Shake­speare
Often took me. Leave
To poets a moment of hap­pi­ness,
Oth­er­wise your world will per­ish.

The last full lines of my grandmother’s poem read, “I want to live in beau­ty and be free / Trav­el to moons and across seas.” Both poems express unre­al­is­tic wants. Time and His­to­ry, which live beyond the bor­ders of all poems and occa­sion­al­ly invade them, occa­sion­al­ly sack and lev­el them, had dif­fer­ent plans, plans that were in place for both poets by the time Miłosz fin­ished his own poem. Miłosz, at thir­ty-four, had the sub­ject of human suf­fer­ing, one that he would write about for six more decades. My grand­moth­er, at that same moment, had her fam­i­ly, my grand­fa­ther, father, and a lit­tle lat­er, my aunt, and then much lat­er her six grand­chil­dren, sub­jects that would obsess her the way poet­ry obsess­es poets. I read those last two lines—“I am Youth! / Hear my plea!”—eighty years after they were writ­ten and feel sad. Sad because she want­ed to be a poet and couldn’t be. The war years, I imag­ine, put poet­ry on hold. As did this rejec­tion. If I could write to her, I’d tell her, as I tell my stu­dents and as my pro­fes­sors told me, that rejec­tion is part of the game, that she went big—LHJ was the first Amer­i­can mag­a­zine to hit over a mil­lion subscribers—too big for a first poem, and that the rejec­tion she received and opened on the cold porch in Brack­en­ridge in Jan­u­ary of 1938 was not a com­ment on her tal­ent. Lis­ten to what you wrote on the back of the enve­lope, I would tell her. Keep try­ing, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.

And what to say about that life? What to say with­out sound­ing sen­ti­men­tal? She nev­er learned to dri­ve, loved cham­pagne, hat­ed pars­ley, lived until she was nine­ty-sev­en, sev­en years longer than my grand­fa­ther, and mourned his death in the ways of the old epics. It wasn’t right that he was tak­en from her. I think of that sec­ond line, “The pit­falls, the ago­nies endured in life.” If you asked her how she was doing dur­ing those last years, she’d say “lousy,” and add that she was ter­ri­bly sad and lone­ly. No pre­tense what­so­ev­er. You knew where you stood with her and, it appears, so did God.  

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

When my father called to say that he and my aunt found a poem my grand­moth­er wrote, I asked him to send it to me. In the days between that phone call and the poem arriv­ing by mail, I enter­tained absurd dreams of becom­ing my grandmother’s lit­er­ary exe­cuter. “I will find a way to pub­lish this poem,” I kept telling myself. My grand­moth­er loved Eliz­a­beth Bar­rett Brown­ing and read as wide­ly and as dili­gent­ly as any of my aca­d­e­m­ic friends. So I had high hopes even though I hadn’t read the actu­al poem. When I did, I got real­ly sad. My grandmother’s posthu­mous lit­er­ary career rests on this poem, a poem that is good, I think, for a teenag­er writ­ing in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, but its virtues are in the poten­tial it sug­gests, not in its actu­al lines. That makes the blank rejec­tion slip she received all the more heart­break­ing. My grand­moth­er expe­ri­enced lit­er­ary rejec­tion, some­thing I expe­ri­ence so often that it hard­ly fazes me, and it looks as though that rejec­tion end­ed her lit­er­ary aspirations—what to do with that infor­ma­tion? My grand­moth­er died at nine­ty-sev­en and was lucid for all but the last few years, so in the months after her death, I didn’t feel as though I had missed oppor­tu­ni­ties to know her. I didn’t feel as though there was any­thing unsaid between us. This poem changed all of that. Sud­den­ly, I want to talk to her, her teenage self, the girl who wasn’t that much younger than my stu­dents are now. I want to pro­tect her ego, but I can’t. All I can do is make a case for the poem.

 

James Davis May is the author of Unqui­et Things, which was pub­lished by Louisiana State Uni­ver­si­ty Press in 2016. His poems have appeared in The Mis­souri Review, The New Repub­lic, New Eng­land Review, The South­ern Review, and else­where. The win­ner of the Poet­ry Soci­ety of America’s Cecil Hem­ley Memo­r­i­al Award, he lives in the Geor­gia moun­tains with his wife, the poet Chelsea Rath­burn.