Was Emilia Lanyer the first woman poet?

Hidden in Plain Sight: Women Writers in the Early Modern Period

Was Emilia Lanyer the first woman poet? No, women have been writing poetry, drama, and fiction, as well as other forms, for a long time, and they have been publishing since the invention of the printing press in 1440. But women writers haven’t always been recognized. Many women writers have been hidden in plain sight.

An example: although Ben Jonson is given credit for the first country house poem in English, Emilia Lanyer’s “Description of Cookham” predates Jonson’s. Her poem was published in 1611 in her book Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, while Jonson’s “To Penshurst” was published four years later in 1616.

Another example: last year I took a course on the sonnet. The professor told us that the first sonnet sequence in English was Sir Phillip Sidney’s “Astrophel and Stella.” After class, I asked him why he didn’t mention Anne Vaughan Locke’s sonnets, published in 1560, which predate Sidney’s by decades. He said the Sidney poems were so much better. But that wasn’t my point: even if Anne Vaughan Locke’s sonnet sequence wasn’t as good as Sidney’s, it was the first one in English. Women’s writings have been read and published, but not always acknowledged.

So Emilia Bassano Lanyer was far from being the first woman poet, or even the first English woman poet. Who are some other women poets and authors who preceded her or who were her contemporaries?

In France in 1405, Christine de Pizan’s Book of The City of Ladies appeared, written as an answer to male authors in the so-called “querelle des femmes,” a literary fashion of writing diatribes against women begun by Jean de Meung, author of the Roman de la Rose. Christine countered de Meung’s slurs by praising virtuous and powerful women from the Bible and classical antiquity. She is known as the first to write a book in women’s defense. Writing before the printing press, Christine created her book with the help of copyists and illuminators and distributed it by offering it to noble and wealthy patrons.


In England in the early 1400s, Julian of Norwich, an anchorite (a nun who spent her life in a tiny cell), wrote religious meditations, gained a reputation for wisdom and holiness, and received many visitors asking advice. One of these visitors was Margery Kemp, a working-class woman who had a vision in which God told her to stop having sexual relations with her husband and to preach the Word. She did so and wrote her autobiography as well, the first such work in English.

In the 1500s, Anne Askew, the Protestant martyr, wrote two works, published in 1546 and 1547, about her imprisonment and torture. These were clearly intended as testimony, inspiration, and encouragement to other dissidents.

Anne Vaughan Locke, mentioned earlier, was also a Protestant dissident of the early 1500s. Her book containing the first sonnet sequence in English was published in 1560. She also published other religious works. This intrepid woman left her husband and child to travel to Geneva, where she lived and assisted John Knox in the community of Protestant exiles.

Isabella Whitney, a London gentlewoman, published two collections of poetry in 1567 and 1573, poems about love and betrayal. Margaret Tyler translated part of a Spanish romance, wrote a defense of women in the preface, and published the book in 1579. Another defense of women in English appeared in 1589 entitled Jane Anger, Her Protection for Women, published in 1589. (Jane Anger is likely a pseudonym.)

The French princess Marguerite of Navarre wrote a devotional work called miroir de l’ame pecheresse (Mirror of a Sinful Soul) in 1531. It was translated by the eleven-year-old Princess Elizabeth into English and given to her stepmother Catherine Parr as a Christmas gift in 1544. Elizabeth not only wrote the translation and penned the text in her best handwriting, but also embroidered the cover. (You can see this remarkable book in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.) Elizabeth went on to become Queen Elizabeth I, writing poetry and speeches and producing many translations from Greek, Latin, Italian, and French. Her stepmother, Queen Catherine Parr, published two books, Psalms or Prayers (1543) and Lamentations of a Sinner (1547).

The most well-known woman writer of Emilia’s time was Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke and sister to the poet, soldier, and courtier Sir Phillip Sidney. Mary Sidney completed her brother’s translations of the Psalms, left unfinished at his death. The Sidney-Pembroke Psalter, as it was called, circulated in manuscript and was widely read and highly influential on other writers. Mary Sidney also published a translation of a French play, Marc-Antoine, the Anthony-Cleopatra story, in 1592. She circulated translations of other works in manuscript. She is one of the women to whom Emilia dedicates her own book of poetry Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews).

Another woman writer and dedicatee of Emilia’s is Lady Arbella Stuart. Cousin to Queen Elizabeth and to King James I, Lady Arbella was well educated and wrote letters and poems, though she did not publish. Her misfortune was being too close to the throne; she married without the king’s permission and found herself locked up in the Tower of London.

Emilia also wrote a dedication to Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset (and later Pembroke). Lady Anne kept a diary at different times during her lifetime, writing about her life at Court and recording her struggles to keep her lands from male relatives and her own husband. Again, she did not publish her writing.

So Emilia, far from being the first woman to write poetry or to call herself a poet, actually stands in a tradition of women who wrote, translated, and published. She is unique, however, in that she was the first woman author to seek patronage the way a male writer would, by dedicating her work to a wealthy or titled person in the hopes of getting monetary reward or even employment. Seeking patronage makes her the first woman in England to claim an identity as a writer. Her work is not restricted to the home or to the realm of private life or devotionals. She sought to be acknowledged as a writer in the public sphere, like Ben Jonson, Phillip Sidney, or William Shakespeare.


Books for Further Reading:

Beilin, Elaine V. Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance (1987).

Hannay, Margaret P, ed. Silent But for the Word (1985).

________________. Phillip’s Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (1990).

Porter, Linda. Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr (2010).

Salzman, Paul, ed. and introd. Early Modern Women’s Writing: An Anthology, 1560-1700 (2000).

Schleiner, Louise. Tudor and Stuart Women Writers (1994).

Wilcox, Helen, ed. Women and Literature in Britain 1500-1700 (1996).

Wilson, Katharina M. Medieval Women Writers (1984).


Read More

Emilia’s Music

Emilia’s Music

Emilia Bassano Lanyer was a member of the Venetian Bassano family of Court musicians and instrument makers. They came to Venice from the small Italian town of Bassano de Grappa. If they were secret Jews, they may have migrated from Spain or Portugal around 1492, when Queen Isabella decreed that all Jews must leave Spain. The Bassanos were invited by King Henry VIII to come from Venice to London to be Court musicians. Emilia’s father Baptista was the youngest of six Bassano brothers who moved to England (An older brother stayed in Italy). They lived at first in the Charterhouse in London (it still stands off Aldersgate Street north of the Barbican). The Charterhouse was emptied of its monks when Henry VIII took over the monasteries. Emilia’s mother was Margaret Johnson, possibly of the same family as the famous Robert Johnson who composed some of the songs in Shakespeare’s plays.

Emilia would have been surrounded by music from birth. She would have learned the lute, as many gentlewomen and ladies did, and probably also the recorder, since her family was known for playing in the Court recorder consort (a consort is a small band made up of the same kind of instruments) and for making recorders and other wind instruments. In Dark Lady: A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer, Emilia plays the lute with her cousins, Alfonso and Roberto, at a festive evening at Gray’s Inn. When she is invited to the London house of Lord Hunsdon, whose mistress she becomes, she plays her lute for him. When she goes to Court with Hunsdon, she accompanies some of the ladies on the lute as they sing a cheerful song called “Give Me My Yellow Hose Again.”

When Emilia visits Place House, the country estate of the young, flirtatious Earl of Southampton, and has a disastrous meeting with her lover Will Shakespeare, she sings a song called, “Now, O Now I Needs Must Part.” The song expresses her feelings toward Will and also marks a triumph for her, since her older cousin Augustine, head of the Bassano family, once told her that she could not play with the Consort since she was female. Now he has to conduct the prestigious Bassano Consort as they accompany her.

Emilia often plays her clavier at home, and after a visit by an unwelcome guest, she vents her feelings by pounding the keyboard in a rousing Spanish dance. And at her final meeting with Will, she joins him in singing a few lines from “The Wind and the Rain,” a song from one of his plays, Twelfth Night.


Below are some of the songs that Emilia performs in Dark Lady:

“Now, O Now I Needs Must Part,” music (and words?) by John Dowland

“Give Me My Yellow Hose Again,” traditional English melody (same as “Bonny Peggy Ramsey”)

Mignonne, allon voir si la rose,” words by Pierre de Ronsard, melody anonymous

“Can She Excuse My Wrongs?” music by John Dowland, words attributed to Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex

j’ai vu la loup,” music and words traditional French

“The Wind and the Rain,” from Twelfth Night, words by William Shakespeare, music anonymous


Read More

Who was Emilia Bassano Lanyer Anyway?

Who was Emilia Bassano Lanyer, anyway? We don’t know much about her life, and we don’t even have a picture of her, even though there is a miniature painting that some think might be her. We know she published a book of poetry in 1611 called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Her name on the cover is “Mistris Aemilia Lanyer” and she is identified as the wife of Captain Alfonso Lanyer.

Other things that are known about her:

-She was the daughter of Baptista Bassano and his “reputed” wife Margaret Johnson. Baptista was the youngest of a family of musicians and instrument makers who were invited by King Henry VIII to come from Venice to be Court musicians in England.

-She was in the household of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent, for a while when she was young.

-She spent time at a country house called Cookham Dean with Margaret, Countess of Cumberland, and the Countess’s daughter Lady Anne Clifford.

-She was mistress to Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, cousin of the Queen.

-She married Alfonso Lanyer, a royal musician, who was either the son or stepson of her first cousin Lucretia Bassano Lanyer. (In Dark Lady, Alfonso is Lucretia’s son and younger than Emilia.)

-She was mother to Henry and Odillya Lanyer. Henry lived to adulthood, became a Court musician, married, and had children. Odillya died in infancy.

-She visited Simon Forman, astrologer and physician, in 1598 and early in the 1600’s. Much of what we know, or think we know, about Emilia comes from Forman’s casebooks.

-She published Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum in 1611, and was one of the first women to publish a book in England.

-She dedicated her book to women at Court, thus implicitly seeking patronage. (Seeking patronage then was a little like applying for a foundation grant today.)

She also sued her husband’s Lanyer relatives for income from his part in a patent to weigh hay and straw; she ran a school for 2 years; she lived to be 76 years old; she died, after the theaters were closed by Cromwell, in Clerkenwell, a then northern suburb of London. (This information isn’t in Dark Lady; my book ends with the publication of Emilia’s book.)

Historian A.L. Rowse speculated that she was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets and that she was part of a love triangle between Shakespeare, the Earl of Southampton, and herself. He also represents her as a cruel, grasping, promiscuous woman who was “a bad lot” and “no better than she should be.” My book is indebted to Rowse in that I follow many of his suggestions as to what may have happened. It differs in the interpretation placed on these events and the motivations of Emilia and others.

Recent scholars in English and women’s studies have focused on Emilia’s being an early woman author, the first woman to seek patronage in England by writing a book and dedicating it exclusively to women, and an early feminist. Most of these scholars do not accept Rowse’s theory of her relationship with Shakespeare. These two camps seem to have no common ground with each other. Either you believe that Emilia was a serious author or you believe that she was a whore. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.*

But what if they both are right? What if a bold, proto-feminist author also had a love affair with Shakespeare?  What if Rowse’s negative view of her character is clouded by misogynistic stereotypes? What if Emilia Lanyer’s story were to be told from a perspective sympathetic to women and specifically to her?

Actually, several works of fiction have been written with Emilia as the main character or as playing an important supporting role, and two recent ones have been entirely sympathetic to Emilia, as is mine.

However, Dark Lady differs from other books about Emilia in that I place her squarely in the life of her time, the life of a middle-class wife and mother who happens to have connections to Court, to the theater, and to women important in political life and in Protestant reformist circles. I show Emilia as connected to a circle of women who are interested in literature, who write themselves, who believe in reform, and who are connected to one another by blood and/or religious/political sympathies.

So Emilia may have been kept as a mistress by a nobleman, had a hot romance with a player and poet, settled down into married respectability with her cousin, and then been pursued by an unscrupulous astrologer, yet also may have had friendships and connections with a number of important, titled, literary women.

Why couldn’t all these be possible? Well, in fiction they can be, and in Dark Lady: A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer, they are.

Another post will introduce Emilia’s Court connections and show their connections to one another.


*Even how you spell her name indicates where you stand. “Aemilia” is her name as it appears on the cover of her book and is the preferred spelling of those who see her as primarily a serious writer—and not involved with Shakespeare. “Emilia” is Rowse’s spelling and the spelling of most of those who accept his arguments and his judgements about her character. Rowse uses “Lanier,” following Forman; “Lanyer” is used by Susanne Woods and other scholars and appears on Woods’ biography of Emilia and her edition of Emilia’s works. I use “Emilia” because I started out thinking of her as having that name. I used “Lanier” at first and then changed it to “Lanyer.” I also tried to change my spelling of her first name, but “Aemilia” just didn’t suit the character I was creating. So her name in my book is a hybrid: “Emilia Lanyer.”


Read More

Patti Smith at the Variety, 11.12.15

“You hop on a train, a train of thought.” Patti Smith sits in an overstuffed chair, lank and silver-haired, long hands draping over armrests, talking about her new book, M Train, with her interviewer, Tony Paris. She’s a storyteller, talking about her deceased husband Fred Sonic Smith, her children, growing up in rural New Jersey, where nobody ever leaves, and leaving. Her Jersey accent is strong and rhythmic, her voice only a little raspy, although she’s recovering from a cold. Conversation is peppered with references to pop culture that I don’t get for the most part. She is unexpectedly feminine. About some techno something, she says, “I’m a twentieth-century girl.” Talking about being asked her occupation by an airline questionnaire, she says she puzzled over it: poet? She said, “I’m not a musician.” Someone told her to put “entertainer.”

In the Q&A, a young woman asks, talking quickly as though embarrassed, “I know you’re spry-as-hell and sharp-as-a-tack, but what about, I mean, what about when, what about what you leave behind?”

Slowly, deliberately, “You mean, when I die?”

I wait for the explosion. Patti Smith spry? Sharp as a tack? What condescending, ageist crap is this? That little egg, that acorn, that embryo, how dare she say that to the Godmother of Punk?

The outburst doesn’t come right then, but does later, when Patti answers another question and starts blasting out profanity and invective, not mean, just exasperated, angry, pure New York, New Jersey, pure no-sh*t, no-f**kin’way. She orders a guy to shut off the light from his mobile device. He must not have done it, since a few minutes later, she orders him to do it again. Like so many of us, she doesn’t respond to the most direct insult, but blows up about something else, maybe something not quite so close to the bone. She’d probably deny that. It may not be true.

Then, after the questions, when we think it’s time to go, she stands still, a beanpole topped with a white sweeping brush, hands by her sides, and says almost apologetically that she’s sorry she can’t sign our books, but she’s getting over something, and so instead she and a guy who comes onstage with a guitar are going to do a mini-concert.

Lights go down, bright red backlight flashes in vertical bars on the back curtains, we see the piano, the guitar guy starts, and before we can believe our good fortune, she starts to sing.

In the 80s, I never listened to Patti Smith. My partner at the time listened to anything women sang, from Meg Christian to Aretha to Janis Joplin to opera singers Marilyn Horne and Kiri Te Kanawa. I listened to these, plus Chopin, Mozart, and silence.

But one night, on the radio in a hotel room, I heard a powerful female voice singing “Be-cause the Night Was Made for Lovers.” I was mesmerized. Then I filed it away. I wrote a story about a woman rocker who sang that song, as well as other songs of her own making. She was modeled, I realize now, on this woman singer, this presence, who was there on the edge of my consciousness.

Patti Smith sings four songs. She is mesmerizing, tall, sketches minimal gestures with those long witch hands, the stage lights at one point edging her with green fire, her hair a green-white blaze. She ends with “Because the Night Was Made for Lovers.” The audience goes wild, on their feet, cheering and clapping, faces glowing with the ancient joy of communal music. All of us stand and sway and sing along, including kids whose parents weren’t old enough to drink when she began her career. She encourages and conducts us, stepping forward and waving her arms, stopping singing to hear us sing the chorus, then singing again. She is cured from whatever ailed her by this connection, this ritual.

Occupation? Why not shaman, witch?

As we leave, still high on the unexpected and un-looked-for experience, I notice that this is the whitest, most heterosexual crowd I’ve been in for quite a while. That thought brings me down some. Punk anarchic music can and has spoken to people of color, but not this evening. The crowd was of mixed ages. Plenty of white and gray heads in the audience, plenty of lined faces. Yet the absence of dark faces and queer styles saddens me.

Yet I celebrate Patti Smith for who she is, a woman of strengths and lacks. She is in her seventies. A rock star who has grown old like a rock. Like the stones she writes about in her book M Train, stones brought from a French Guiana prison to give to Jean Genet, she’s worn, crumbling around the edges, silvered with mica and dust, but still riding her trains of thought, a raspy voice of female rage, anarchy, passion, and exultant joy.

Read More

Old Books and Racism

Old Books and Racism

The Decatur Book Festival is over for another year. I sold a few books and connected to bookseller friends and others who dropped into the booth. My partner Libby Ware is pleased with how well her business, Toadlily Books, did.

Yet I’m still puzzling my head over a book that stayed in my mind: Three Races Under God, published in 1956 by Grady Fowler, a Georgia minister, who lays out an amazingly convoluted defense of racial segregation based on the New Testament. I didn’t think the New Testament had much if anything to say about race, but this reverend managed to tease out statements that left me shaking my head. The book dealers who had the book for sale said they found it weird and incomprehensible. As a white Southern woman who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, I’m afraid I understand its twisted logic all too well. It sounded so much like what my own parents might have said.

Fowler, a friend of Marvin Griffin, the then-governor of Georgia, states that people will only achieve world peace if the three races—he calls them white, black-brown, and red—are completely separated. I’m staggered by the practical implications of his plan, let alone the ethical ones. It reminds me a little of a certain presidential candidate’s plan about a wall.

I found myself thinking about other books, such as the Southern Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930), by a group of Southern writers including Allen Tate, Andrew Nelson Lytle, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. These poets and men of letters made an impassioned argument defending the Southern agrarian way of life against Northern industrialism, defending individualism against what they saw as creeping conformity

What they left out is the fact that the agrarian lifestyle in the antebellum South depended upon the unpaid labor of enslaved black people. That agrarian pastoral couldn’t have been sustained if agricultural workers were paid even a minimum wage. Also, after the Civil War, thousands of formerly enslaved people of color migrated north, eliminating that pool of cheap labor. What they also left out was the terrorism that hung over the black people who remained: how they were controlled by violence and the threat of violence. The Jim Crow South was not just segregation; it was a reign of state-supported terrorism.

How could such brilliant, thoughtful men as the Agrarians not be aware of these realities? How could they not be aware of the lives of people of color who lived all around them? A simplistic question: how do so many white people today still remain unaware?

I’m reminded of another book, actually a trilogy, two of which I own. They are The Leopard’s Spots (1902), The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907) by Thomas Dixon. The second of these formed the basis of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation and helped to give new life to the Ku Klux Klan, spreading the message of white supremacy. (Not that the ideas were limited to the South; Griffith’s racist message found fertile ground all across the U.S.)

Knowing as I do the underlying assumptions—crazy and false as they are—makes me wonder why people were so shocked at the recently published Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee, reputed to be the first version of To Kill A Mockingbird, in particular the book’s portrayal of Atticus Finch. I found myself thinking, how could they not have known that these would be his attitudes and beliefs? Atticus was no anti-racist. He didn’t talk about his belief in segregation because it was the air he breathed, the backdrop of his entire life. Atticus defended Tom Robinson, not because Robinson was black, not because he believed him to be unjustly accused, but because he believed in the law. He believed that everyone deserves a fair trial. And so he took the case. The Atticus Finch in Watchman is in no way inconsistent with the Atticus Finch in Mockingbird. They are the same white Southern gentleman, with both his virtues—which are many—and his flaws. It’s just that the flaws are more visible now.

Atticus believes that people have fixed essences that cannot be much changed. That families, nations, races, genders have such essences. That these essences may be a little altered in some individuals by education and change of circumstances, but that the core, the essence of a person, a race, a nation, a gender remains the same. All beings are lined up in a natural hierarchy, like a ladder. And those on the higher rungs are superior to those on the lower ones.

It’s the kind of belief that rural, agrarian life tends to reinforce: cows are cows, mules are mules, shepherd dogs are shepherds and not spaniels. Humans are above animals, and males are above females. Girls are girls, and boys are boys. Men and women are both human, but different and unequal. Some held the belief that not all whites are equal. Poor and working-class whites are innately inferior—with some exceptions, there are always a few exceptions allowed—to middle-class and upper-class whites. Black men and women may be human, therefore, but they are on a lower rung of the ladder. As Atticus Finch says in Watchman, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” And Scout agrees with him. Atticus does leave some wiggle room with the words “down here” (in the South), and he allows that black people have made “terrific progress,” but he goes on to say “white is white and black’s black. So far, I’ve not yet heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise.”

If you understand this belief, called essentialism, you can understand much of white Southern, white supremacist thought. It clarifies the romantic ramblings of Scout Finch’s Uncle Jack as he goes on about the “Anglo-Saxons” and how much they love liberty and individualism. Jack has accepted, hook, line, and sinker the fable that the Civil War was fought over States’ Rights, not slavery. He may have learned that Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, said that the main reason for the Confederate rebellion was to preserve slavery, that “peculiar institution,” and he may know that South Carolina justified secession on that basis. But he manages to gloss over that knowledge in his mind, holding fast to the notion of his brave, fighting Anglo-Saxon ancestors who would not accept outsider rule.

A rambling piece, this. Books lead your mind to ramble over long-ago arguments, snatches of overheard conversations, contradictions between what you were taught in church (“Jesus Loves the Little Children … red and yellow, black and white”) and what you heard everywhere else. Both rational arguments and hateful blasts of invective added up to the same conclusion: integration is wrong, it’s against the laws of God and nature, it will bring the end of civilization. Segregation is right, moral, and natural. We’ll kill anyone who tries to end it.

I could say these are just old, outdated words and books, deserving to be relegated to the garbage can of history. But they are not long ago at all. The other day, I read on Facebook when someone mentioned that most benefits of the New Deal did not help black people, and someone responded “this list is getting crazy.” For some people, even mentioning racism or white privilege is “crazy,” an attack on white people. Many white folks feel that saying black lives matter means white people’s lives don’t matter.

William Faulkner was right, and continues to be right, when he said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”


Read More

So Much Depends…

So Much Depends….

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


(“The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams.)

The poem is brief and startling and vivid, evoking a rain-streaked red wheelbarrow and some white chickens, and somehow embuing them with elusive meaning. The article takes me back to graduate school, where we read and analyzed William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot; where we learned that a poem was an object in itself, like a well-wrought urn, and referred to nothing in the “real” world. Context, the author’s life, his beliefs, where he lived, didn’t matter. These were all fallacies: pathetic, intentional, historical, biographical. A poem is an artifact built of words. It is not about feeling, unless it be the rarified joy of perceiving something carefully crafted. A joy that has nothing to do with the author’s color or gender or what he (almost always a he) may have lost or lived through, nothing to do with his aspirations or desires, nothing to do with laws, elections, wars, judgments, poverty, riches, pregnancies, lynchings, shipwrecks, economic crashes, fortunes lost or made, except that they might be turned into an artifact to gaze upon and marvel at.

These are ideas about poetry that I’ve now abandoned. (Hello, slam poetry, farewell, modernism!) Poets now do what Homer and the singers of the tales of Beowulf, Rodrigo Diaz el Cid, and High John the Conqueror did: rage and whisper, howl and chuckle, spin tales to mesmerize and horrify and delight, get us to hiss, roar with laughter, wipe away tears, and leap to our feet cheering. We now care a lot about who the poets are and what their lives are like, what they have known and how it has gone into the crucible of their nerves and synapses and memory cells to come out in words.

I don’t often remember that time in my life when I studied those carefully crafted edifices of words by white men, taught by professors who claimed that their whiteness and maleness didn’t matter (but somehow it did too, because everyone who was not white and male just couldn’t manage to create such perfect edifices, no matter how many white chickens and red wheelbarrows they described.) Years of feminism, antiracism, political study and activism have come between my young English-major self and who I am now.

Some of the modernists were Southern Agrarians, poets who loved the sensual beauty of their land and what they convinced themselves were its rural virtues. They saw the beauty and turned their faces away from the horror and injustice of its past and present. They said they would take their stand, echoing the song “Dixie,” a song that famously recalls, not any cause nor abstract belief, but a frosty morn, a field of cotton, and undescribed old times that are not forgotten. It could be sung by any exiled Southerner, and has been. (“American Trilogy,” by Mickey Newbury and popularized by Elvis Presley, soulfully weaves it with two other songs from the Civil War era.)

A poem is an artifact without context, without history or biography, supposedly. How can anyone say that? How can you write poetry to support your political stances, but follow theories that say your political stances don’t matter? Maybe the theory erases your political stance, makes it the norm, just like your gender (male) and your color (white).

The man whose red wheelbarrow and white chickens were frozen into a modernist poetic artifact by William Carlos Williams was actually an African American street vendor who lived near Williams and had been his patient (Williams was a physician as well as a poet). He does not appear in the poem next to his wheelbarrow and chickens, but he does appear in a grainy photograph recently published in the New York Times along with an article (a link is below).

He kept chickens in his back yard in a coop. Since he was a street vendor, he probably used the wheelbarrow to carry his wares as he went about his day calling people to come and buy (the article doesn’t say exactly what he sold, perhaps chickens or eggs). As my partner said, so much did depend on that red wheelbarrow; the vendor’s livelihood.

When I think of the poem from now on, I will see his tall, thin frame, his face serious, his moustache like a bushy rake (my grandfather’s looked similar). I will see him pushing his red wheelbarrow along the streets of Rutherford, New Jersey. I think of the stone that will be placed on his formerly unmarked grave. I will think of his name: Thaddeus Marshall.

Years after the poem was written, Williams acknowledged the person, the context, that inspired the poem. He said in an interview that it “sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He . . . had to work in the hold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton . . . . In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.” (quoted by Sergio Rizzo in “Extra-poetical Contexts and the Racial Other in ‘The Red Wheelbarrow,’Journal of Modern Literature 29.1 (2005): 34-54.)

The modernists took their stand and now are gone. The white chickens and red wheelbarrow remain. And now Mr. Marshall too remains, standing next to them, an archway over his head oddly like a niche curving over a saint’s image in a cathedral, his lean frame and dark shadowed face and moustache now part of the whole, now made visible. So much depends on knowing, on revealing, on uncovering what has been lost.

This blog post was inspired by an article in the New York Times online, “The Forgotten Man Behind William Carlos Williams’s ‘Red Wheelbarrow'” by Jennifer Schuessler.

Read More

Children’s and YA Books, Part 2

As I get ready for the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair, March 12-15, 2015, I’m thinking about children’s and YA books. Here’s my second blog post about some of my favorites.

Children’s books by British authors are often about time. I suppose it’s because writers in England can’t go out of their houses – or around inside their houses – without stumbling over the past. It lies in wait around corners, under paving stones and gravel paths. It lurks in mirrors, wells, and mazes; behind hedges, over fences, beyond doorways and gates.

Penelope Lively calls time a palimpsest in her memoir, Dancing Fish and Ammonites. In her children’s books, she layers decades and centuries over one another, and characters in one layer can catch echoes from an earlier one. Maria, in A Stitch in Time, hears a dog barking and a swing creaking from a generation before her time, while Clare in The House in Norham Gardens hears drums from New Guinea, half a world and two centuries away. In Thomas Kemp’s Ghost, a twentieth-century boy finds himself the unwilling apprentice of a sixteenth-century alchemist who can’t stop trying to control people and events, unwilling to face the truth that he and his magic are sadly out of date.

In Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe books, part ghost stories and part time travel narratives, a little boy meets the children in a painting from the seventeenth century. One century layers over another as characters move between them.

However, recent contemporary American children’s and YA books unroll in an urban present unmitigated by the past or places that might be different. Jay Asher’s characters in The Future of Us experience present and future as essentially the same, only differing in the details, even as their Facebook pages show them varying futures that change every day. In Thirteen Reasons Why, a teenage girl commits suicide, and her classmates and friends try to figure out why based on clues she leaves them on cassette tapes, tapes that open their eyes to her secret, despairing life in a modern high school. Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar also explores the anguish of teens stuck in their private traumas. Teen anguish has been the subject of fiction for a long time, but am I imagining that it seems more isolated, frightening, and despairing now than in earlier times? Or are writers just more willing to probe and reveal?

Lev Grossman’s Magician series, books that attract adult readers as well as teens and young adults, follow the adventures of Quentin Coldwater, a nervous, brilliant insecure New York teen, self-absorbed and self-doubting, who feels equally uneasy in his real world and the fantasy worlds he visits. Admitted into a Harry-Potter-like college for magicians, he finds a way into a world he always believed existed only in a series of children’s books he had loved. The two magical worlds are equally unnerving. Quentin, in entering his favorite childhood literary fantasy, finds that he cannot recover the sense of wonder and certainty about good and evil that he had when he read those books as a child, for they now present adult dilemmas with no moral certainty.

Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly, differs from many American YA books in that it shows a young girl who does have strong connections to the past: the more recent past of 1960s rock-and-roll and the music of the eighteenth century. A talented musician herself, she loves both and tries to hear links between them. Music is her escape and her salvation. Her time-travel experience – if that is what it is – brings her to reconciliation to her own present. Such an awareness of the past is atypical of American YA books.

Yet maybe I’m speaking too quickly. The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman takes on American Southern history with its tangle of race, sex, and family secrets. A young girl in the twenty-first century enters a grown-over maze on her family’s plantation, meets a magical creature, and goes back in time to slavery days, only to find herself on the wrong side of the race equation. It’s as though Octavia Butler and E. Nesbit (Five Children and It, The Railway Children) decided to collaborate.

One of my recent British favorites, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, does show connections to the past, as well as to myth and folkways. Not for very young readers, it is true Gaiman: scary and magical, modern yet timeless. Like Susan Cooper, Charles Kingsley, C.S. Lewis, George McDonald, and J.R.R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman stands in the tradition of great British fantasy writers who peel back to the bones of story, where the familiar opens out onto the uncanny, magical, and timeless.

What are some of the YA and children’s books that have moved you most? Does a sense of the past or of other worlds move you, or do you prefer contemporary settings and stories?

Read More

Children’s and Young Adult Books, Part 1

Here is my first blog post of 2015. Books are drawing me now to write about them. So this will be my first post about books that have been important to my life.

I’ve always been passionately drawn to children’s books, ever since I was a child. One of my most treasured possessions was a copy of Little Women, awarded to me by my fourth grade teacher for winning a spelling contest. I read it, I guess, about 16 times. I longed to have a family like the Marches, where everything seemed so calm and reasonable, and parents talked about being good and doing right. We were Southern, less genteel, more emotional, our roots in plowed earth and fervent prayer, and everything seemed more confusing than it was inside the covers of that book. I didn’t realize that the Marches – the Alcotts in real life – were at least as conflicted and confused as we were, and far more odd.

Getting older, I loved Young Adult books long before they were called by that name (Actually, Alcott’s books are YA books, since their protagonists grow up during the course of the narratives). But the book didn’t have to be for young readers. Any book with a young protagonist drew me. At around nine, I loved The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West. The narrator was my age, and everything was from her point of view. She was far wiser than I, and I envied her that. How observant she was about money and her parents’ impracticality! How well she knew their weaknesses as well as strengths. Her prejudice against her elder sister was most understandable. I would have not liked Cordelia either, I was convinced then. Now, I’m not so sure. I loved the complicity that Rose had with her twin, Mary, and how they both tried to protect their parents.

I also loved the hint of the supernatural, and their mother Claire’s attitude towards it, which can be summed up as: it’s there, it’s foolish to deny it, but it’s more than foolish to seek it out or encourage it, because you never know how powerful or bad something might be. And the worst part is your own vanity in trying to make such a connection.

I sympathized with Claire’s contempt for people who were not talented but thought they were, or people who could not tell “good” music from “bad.” I adopted her views uncritically. Now, I see her attitudes as elitism. Yet, though she was a classically trained pianist, I don’t think she would reject good jazz, gospel, or blues, for she understood music at its core as something that is not only discipline but that comes from the heart.

I discovered Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at about the age of eleven – the age of the protagonist, Francie. It was a revelation of another world. I soaked up the life of Brooklyn, of new immigrants from Ireland, Austria, Italy who clashed and fought and bought and sold in the streets and lived in tenement buildings with fire escapes. I envied Francie for her street smarts, wisdom, craftiness, and sense of responsibility. As the overprotected only child of old parents who themselves were from rural areas and distrusted cities and much of the modern world, I longed to break free and live in the great world of classical music, foreign languages, foods and customs from other cultures.

Now, I delight in the range of children’s and young adult books available to me. I collect books I couldn’t have when I was growing up, that I read in the library of my little rural high school: it was called a library, but was only a room with bookshelves around three sides of its back half. I strained against my parents’ well-meaning prohibitions: I was not allowed to read many books because I would ruin my eyes. The bookmobile came to our small rural community once a week for a while, and I would check out the limit. My mother also checked out books from the bookmobile. One of her picks was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I discovered it only when its time in our house was almost up. I was frantically trying to finish it when my mother snatched it up to turn back in. For years I wondered how it ended, and only discovered it again after I had graduated from college.

During most of my adult life, I kept a tight rein on myself, reading books for school and pleasure, but somehow not allowing my thoughts to stray back to those books that my younger self had reveled in and longed for. When I did pick up Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, I read it with a sense of astonished delight. I think I must have been in my twenties. A feminist by then, I was filled with wonder that a Victorian Englishman had written a book with a female divinity. Then I discovered George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and was again astounded for the same reason.

I also discovered Tolkien in my twenties. For years after, I would read Lord of the Rings about every two years. I loved the roads and journeys, the inns, the magical people like Tom Bombadil, the Elves and their poetic language.

Rudyard Kipling became one of my favorites for a while. His appalling politics ran off me like water off a duck; I soaked up his sense of the magic of place, the way his stories seem to draw you into strictest confidence about far-off, secret, terrifying things. His sense of the supernatural, his matter-of-fact descriptions of it, worked on me like a drug. I never went in for true horror, though; that drug was too strong for me. I felt I might be taken to a place I could not come back from.

It has only been in the last ten years or so, since I became the partner of an book collector whose home is filled with books, floor to ceiling, stacked on every available surface, who gives books for presents as though they were candy, that I have finally let go of the tight rein I have kept on myself. Now I splurge: I order books online that I had longed to read but had despaired of ever finding (thank goodness for online booksellers!), books that had slipped through my fingers, seen by chance in a bookstore and not bought for false economic reasons (do I really need it?). I never ask that question any more. Who really needs a book? Who does not really need one?

So now I give myself, and am given, as many children’s and young adult books that I could ever imagine wanting. In the last year, I’ve read nineteenth- and early twentieth-century books, as well as just-written ones. I’ve even discovered graphic novels. I’ll be selling some of my finds and favorites this March at the St. Petersburg Antiquarian Book Fair, with my partner, who has been setting up there for over a dozen years.

And I’m so glad that one favorite, beloved part of my life, one that for so long was secret (like many others), can now be openly loved and shared, that I can now indulge myself to my heart’s content.

I still feel guilty sometimes, feel that I’m spending too much money on something not as essential as, say, a mortgage payment or a box of laundry detergent. I feel I’m giving in to a craving for something that, to me, is the equivalent of a box of chocolate-covered toffees. That I’m being a hopelessly self-indulgent layabout.

But I remind the voice that says those things – it sometimes sounds like my frugal, farm-raised parents and sometimes like my ex-partner – that not only do I give myself books, but that I just finished writing, a few months ago, a novel that, while not for children or young adults, does have a female protagonist whose childhood and young adulthood takes up a good part of the narrative. And she, too, is a girl who loves books with a craving like my own. And I’ve started another novel about yet another girl whose love of reading is a passion.

I’m in good company.

Read More

What I Mean When I Say I Am an Atheist

The following piece is adapted from one that I wrote in November 2012 for The Existentialist, my congregation’s newsletter. I’m posting it on my blog in part as a response to an attack made recently on a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Florida and in part to answer a question I was recently asked. Someone said, “Atheists are always saying what they don’t believe. Tell me what you do believe.”

In explaining why I call myself an atheist, I want to clear up a few things. First, many people assume that if you’re an atheist, you believe in no ethics or morals. “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted,” a character of Dostoyevsky’s said. Now this is not me by a long shot. I believe in ethics. “How can you have ethics,” some people ask, “if you don’t believe in a God who gives rewards and punishments?” But do people do the right things only because they want rewards or fear punishments? No, most people who do good things genuinely want to help someone, or they want to live in a community where people think of others, not just themselves.

Another assumption is that atheists think science has all the answers. We are supposedly so rational that we have no use for mystery, poetry, metaphor, or what can’t be explained. Looking down our noses at messy emotions, vague intuitions, irrational loyalties, or mystical spirituality, we imagine that nothing has value unless its value can be proved by hard facts or logical arguments. That’s not true of me. I like logic, and I hold facts to be important. I think there is such a thing as truth, even if we can’t grasp it. Yet I also believe in mystery, in things that can’t be explained. I value feelings, affection, loyalty, friendship, love—often in spite of reason.

Atheists are sometimes seen as angry at religion or religious people. They often are. Many people of my generation raised in Christian families in the South revolted against the racist, sexist, unjust beliefs that surrounded us. When I was growing up Baptist in North Carolina, I was surrounded by people who claimed to be Christian yet who had no qualms about expressing the most appalling race prejudice. Even the mildest could not see that our way of segregated life went counter to the teachings of Jesus. I felt they were not only wrong but that their words and actions were deeply repugnant to my sense of right and justice. I didn’t rage against them; I just quietly withdrew. The people who were angry were better than I am, for they were in the forefront of the fight for civil rights.

But I’m not angry at Christianity nor even at Baptists now. I respect honest attempts to find meaning and community that are based on compassion and the desire for justice for all. I belong to a liberal Unitarian Universalist congregation that originated independently, based on Existentialist and feminist principles. I also attend a racially diverse women’s spiritual discussion group.

By saying that I am an atheist, I simply mean that I don’t believe in a conscious, aware, thinking, directing, non-physical being who created everything and who is aware of us, a being known as “God.”  True, many Christians (and Jews) don’t believe in such a being either. They believe that God is universal love, or nature, or a life force or energy. I’ve often said I wished I did believe in the arc of the universe tending toward justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did. Or in karma, as my partner does. But I find it highly unlikely that justice is built into the structure of things. We are responsible for bringing it about; it will not happen without our efforts.

So why do I call myself an atheist? Because I want to be honest. If I don’t say anything, most people assume that I believe in God, since most people say they do. I would escape the opprobrium and disapproval shown to atheists. I could shelter under that wide, protective umbrella.

What do I believe? I believe that we act in freedom, and that we define ourselves by how we act. I believe that with freedom comes responsibility, and that we are responsible to others, for we live in community, not alone. Even if we think we live alone, we cannot live without others. As for what happens after death, I just don’t know. No one does. There may be no meaning on the large scale, but meaning is here and now, for we create meaning. What we do matters. And I am grateful to my congregation, the First Existentialist Congregation of Atlanta, in providing a place where people can talk, think, ponder, reflect on what we believe and how we live our beliefs.

Read More

If you really want to get rid of a migraine, you can, right?

If you really want to get rid of a migraine, you can, right?

I have heard this from people who ought to know better. This blog post is going to be about migraine and the people who have it. I’m concerned about the subject, not because I am a migraineur (I’m not) but because my partner is, and I have learned about what people who experience migraine go through from her and from researching the subject. So I’d like to write about it here, first, to bring awareness about  migraine to people who may not know much (like me before I met my partner), and second, to dispel some of the myths that people believe about migraine.

First, migraine is a neurological disease. It is genetic and hereditary. My partner’s brother also suffers from migraine, and her mother used to. One symptom of migraine is a headache that can be extremely painful and debilitating. The headache usually occurs on one side of the head, and sometimes is accompanied by nausea and vomiting. People may see flashing lights or wavy lines just before they get a migraine episode. The time period before, during, and after the headache is called the aura. Some people don’t get headaches, but do experience the flashing lights, etc. A migraine episode often includes sensitivity to light or loud noise.

While stress may intensify migraine, it does not cause it. Stress may intensify any pain or discomfort. Distracting yourself won’t cure it, although sometimes it may alleviate the symptoms temporarily. Well-meaning people may tell someone with a migraine that they have tight neck or shoulders, implying that the tightness caused the migraine. Since this is sometimes coupled with an offer to massage those shoulders, it’s not entirely bad. But the kindly person needs to realize that massage won’t cure the migraine. Implying that the migraineur just needs to relax and get stress out of their lives is not only insulting, but blames the victim.

That’s another thing. People who get migraines often do not like to be called victims or migraine sufferers. Many feel that these words makes them seem weak. They are also tired of hearing the latest remedy you have read about on Facebook or heard from your friend. Chances are they have already tried chiropractic, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, biofeedback, meditation, or yoga. They most likely go to a specialist who prescribes preventatives and pain medications, many of which work for a while and then stop working. They have tried changing their diets. My partner no longer drinks wine, red or white. (Beer, ale, and mixed drinks don’t bother her.) She avoids chocolate and aged cheese. She has a long list of foods that are migraine triggers.

The thing is, migraine is still not that well understood, even by neurologists. It is one of those chronic diseases that are understudied and underfunded. No one wears a gray ribbon in support of finding the cure for migraine. No activists that I know of have picketed the CDC, waving signs and yelling catchy chants like, “It’s not all in our heads!” or “I shouldn’t have to choose between pain meds and the mortgage!”

Let’s look at the costs of migraine. Medication costs can be crippling. Nine pills of a leading prescription drug for migraine can cost over $400.00. People who get migraine often lose days from work. Some get headaches several times a week. They may only get nine pills a month because of insurance restrictions and may have to decide if a particular migraine is bad enough to warrant taking an expensive pill.

So migraine is something more people need to be aware of. We need to support migraineurs and not blame them for this neurological condition. And we need to work for a cure.

Read More
1 2