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:
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!
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,
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.
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.