By Annie Finch
(Originally published on WOMPO listserv Website circa 2000)
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Leonie Adams was born on December 9, 1899 in Brooklyn, New York. She was the fifth of six children; her father was Cuban, born of a Venezuelan mother in Santiago. Adams began writing poems while an undergraduate student at Barnard and published “April Mortality” in the New Republic before graduating in 1922. She did editorial work at publishing companies and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and published her first book, Those Not Elect, in 1925. The book was very well-reviewed, as was her second book The High Falcon, published in 1929 while she was living in Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship. In Paris, Adams lived with Allen Tate and his family and regularly visited Ford Madox Ford and Gertrude Stein. In 1930 she began teaching at NYU. She married the critic William Troy in 1933, the same year she published This Measure as a chapbook. For the next twenty-five years she published no poetry, though admirers of her work elected her to the Chair of Poetry of the Library of Congress (which would later be called the U.S. poet laureateship) in 1948. In 1954 she published Poems: A Selection, for which she shared the Bollingen Prize with Louise Bogan. She taught at various colleges including Sarah Lawrence, Bennington, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and from 1947 to 1968 as a lecturer at Columbia University. Her papers are collected at Yale University, the Library of Congress, and the University of Delaware. She died in 1988.
In 1954, Louise Bogan shared the Bollingen Prize for Poetry with another poet Leonie Adams. The two poets were often linked and compared, and Bogan, who did not praise lightly, once said of Adams, “She has the greatest talent in the really grand manner of anyone writing in America today.” Both honed their poems nearly to a fault, and left highly polished, rather small bodies of work. But while Bogan has retained respect as a poet in the past decades, Adams is out of print, as obscure as a once-respected poet-winner of the Shelley Memorial Award, the Harriet Monroe Award, consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, professor at Columbia University can get.
No doubt there are nonpoetic reasons for this disparity-Bogan’s relationship with Theodore Roethke, her published criticism and position reviewing books for the New Yorker, the fact that Adams published no books after her mid 50’s. But I suspect there is a poetic reason as well, which has nothing to do with the quality of their work, but rather with their approach to language. Readers of the mid-twentieth-century seem to have liked their women poets as either nuns or mistresses-heavy on intellect and idea, with a removed expression of emotion, like Bishop and Moore, and to a lesser extent H.D. and Bogan; or effusing with blatant emotion, like Millay, Wylie, Dunbar-Nelson, and Teasdale. Leonie Adams doesn’t fit into either of these categories. Adams is a lush, sensual poet who directed her sensuality not towards other people but primarily towards the materials of poetry, towards syntax and symbol, diction and word-sound, in short, towards the language itself. Stanzas like the following are both syntactically cryptic and imagistically accessible, abstract and emotional, intellectually demanding and physically available.
First stanza of The Lonely Host
Cast on the turning wastes of wind
Are cords which none can touch or see,
Are threads of subtle ore which bind
The grains of wandering air to peace.
If any stretch a hand to find
How fast, how gold a stuff it be,
He will but dizzy the poor mind
With bending from the steps of peace;
And though rest catch him in once more,
He is bewildered there, like birds
The storm beat to the door.
Adams’ poetry teases the balance between the incantatory and representational powers of poetic language. She uses the sounds of language as counterweights to her poems’ ostensible meanings, complicating the act of reading and calling into question a reader’s emotional responses. In “Country Summer,” a line like “The warm farm baking smell’s blown round” counterpoints rhythm with meaning, almost like a riddle: each word, whether adjective, participle, noun, or verb, has equal weight and it is hard to sort out which part of speech is which at first reading. The meaning of the line itself-the warm farm baking smell’s blown round-describes the kind of paradoxical experience of reality that Adams loved to write about; it is hard to distinguish the smell from the air, from its location, and from its source, and the puzzling, baffling disorientation of smelling such a pervasive smell, as described in the stanza as a whole, is akin to the bafflement of reading this series of monosyllables:
The warm farm baking smell’s blown round
Inside and out, and sky and ground
Are much the same; the wishing star,
Hesperus, kind and early born
Has risen only finger-far;
All stars stand close in summer air,
And tremble, and look mild as amber;
When wicks are lighted in the chamber,
They are like stars which settled there.
A star has only risen finger-far; stars stand close; and finally, stars have settled inside.
Things are what they seem, however strange their seeming is; and normal proportions and distances have become irrelevant. The only humans in the poem, some mowers in a field, are described in generalized terms almost as if they were flowers or grasses themselves, and their own disorientation mirrors the reader’s:
Now straightening from the flowery hay,
Down the still light the mowers look,
Or turn, because their dreaming shook,
And they waked half to other days, . .
The rest of Adams’ unusually consistent and cohesive body of work provides clues as to the tools responsible for such disorientations. Allen Tate placed Adams in the lineage of the Romantic poets. But in fact, Adams’ poetry is nothing like that of the Romantics. It lacks a central self with which the reader can readily identify, and its emotional appeal is almost always twisted back on itself in a sort of bizarre parody of the accessible lyric. And, though Adams’ poems have very few people in them, and most of them are full of nature imagery, I would not call her a nature poet. She is too much of a Symbolist; nature is important for her in a hermetic, gnomic sense, not because it mirrors her own feelings or because she finds it of value in itself, but because of the way it carries the echoes of people who have just gone, the way the leaves still shake with someone’s movement. Nature is heavy with the “step across the field/ that went from us unseen,” to use a phrase from Adams’ “The Runner With the Lots”-a poem I carried with me and read constantly for a week this winter, and came to love, without fully understanding anything of what it might mean, in spite of its supposed syntactic coherence. Adams wrote her dense, hermetic poems during the time when John Crowe Ransom, in his scathing essay “The Woman as Poet,” could accuse Edna St. Vincent Millay of being incapable of being a great poet because as a woman she was inherently lacking in intellect. But Adams strong intellectualism comes out not in ideas per se but in her challenging syntax and other poetic materials. Adams’ world is one where meaning itself is perpetually just beyond the hill, just across the field, just out of hearing. Adams’ nature is full of sounds that are profoundly meaningful but don’t hold particular references; the bell, the voice, the horn. Adams’ “The Horn” provides a clue as to why: the speaker finds a horn that would move and delight her listeners, but in the next stanza, chilled by the mist “risen like thin breath,” she abandons the image of the horn and names instead a flame; its warmth seems necessary, “since bones have caught their marrow chill.” Finally, the poet sees herself in the frightened eyes of the running hare. But it is the first stanza that continues to resonate through the poem, as if the echo of the abandoned horn continues to justify the sound of the rest of the poem.
Adams’ poems can be best read as a series of incantatory language acts whose meanings are ambivalent and often self-cancelling, while their primary effect is to locate a reader within the immediate experience of language. Her poetics can be likened to the invocation of a horn without hearers, a voice without words, a song without melody, a language that can’t be understood, as in the last stanza of “The Lonely Host”:
And though when lips are parched to tell
What brooded on the lips too long,
They quench them at a noisy well,
The noise of waters is so sweet
They say, The heart has ease of this,
And no more all its burden is
Than the catch of an old song;
And then to a lost catch repeat
The carking woe, the little bliss;
Like things every mortal hears,
But these tell them in a tongue
Barbarous to your ears.
But though Adams can seem to read these words as barbarous and the lack of language as tragic, there is also room in her poems for a meaningfulness without meaning, for a language of love that speaks without reference or comprehension. Concerned perhaps more with the mystery of language than with anything language supposedly expresses, bridging experimental and traditional poetics in unexpected ways, Adams’ incantatory poetry is an intriguing precursor of the work of such poets as Helen Adam and Madeline Gleason. As she commands the reader in the last few lines of Adams’ poem “Counsel to Unreason,”
Then only in the slant glass contemplate,
Where lineament outstripping line is scanned,
Then on the perplexed text leave pondering,
Love’s proverb is set down transliterate.