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On marginalization

In which Kelly tells you what she is now working on (at least part-time), and gets a bit ranty.

During National Poetry Month (list of posts here), I spent several days on the cinquain, a form I happen to love, which of course meant I was talking about Adelaide Crapsey, a woman I happen to admire. And here's the thing: she is the inventor of a poetic form, and the only truly American-invented poetic form at that, and she gets such short shrift from pretty much everyone that it's truly unfair.

So I've decided to write a picture book biography about her, as a means of helping to right that particular wrong. Thus far I have acquired a first edition of Verses, her posthumous poetry collection, and will track down the later Knopf editions (which have more poems in them). I've ordered two books, one that's out of print and another from an academic press. And I've been reading what I can find about her online, including doing preliminary research in advance of a trip to Rochester, NY, to visit the University of Rochester's holdings. (Where I was headed in any case for suffrage-related research.)

But in a way, I digress. Because what I wanted to discuss is the terms in which female authors have historically been described, even in somewhat academic texts. Today's example comes from an article written in 1961 by John Rothwell Slater, who was the head of the English department at the University of Rochester. Here is an excerpt:

As a graduate student at Smith College, where she came under the influence of Esther Lowenthal and the critical methods of Edith Rickert, there was increasing concentration on poetic form as a subject for inductive research. Under Miss Lowenthal's guidance she began to examine minutely the vocabulary of poetry from Milton and Pope to Tennyson and Swinburne. Selecting typical long poems, not scattered passages, she counted and computed the percentage of monosyllables, dissyllables, and polysyllables. These percentages, based on thousands of lines, were calculated to the second decimal place. The tables of that tedious research on pages 76-80 of "A Study in English Metrics" represent the factual basis of her theory about English metres before the age of free verse.

Along with this study of vocabulary, she marked major stresses or accents in each line for a study of rising and falling rhythms, based on exact figures rather than guesswork. She was studying technique, not aesthetic preferences or philosophical meanings. For that purpose Pope was as good as Keats, Tennyson better than Swinburne. Her own personal preferences had been acquired long before; this was an impartial objective approach.

Other qualities of verse, such as secondary accent, vowel pitch, liquid consonants, could also be counted by reading aloud and statistically recorded. All this apparently mechanical drudgery wore on her failing strength and finally had to be abandoned.

Such monotonous counting will never have to be done over again. This little lady in gray did her homework well.

Her own mature poems, including not only cinquains but many other measures, seem to have been deliberate attempts to combine difficult patterns with free and spontaneous expressions of feeling. She was not hampered but rather stimulated by the limitations of the particular medium chosen. Considering her variety of forms, her achievement can be compared with Emily Dickinson's only because Emily stuck pretty closely to the common metre, short metre, and long metre of the hymnbooks. Emily's range was so much wider, her life so much longer, her energy so superior, that the two are not in the same class.

Yet it is interesting, in examining these work sheets and experimental versions of Adelaide's verses, to see how hard she tried, how fastidiously she rejected the obvious and despised the trite. Some contemporary poets whose careless, formless ramblings disfigure the pages of certain magazines might well study the last years of a tired little woman, who would not give up the quest for perfection. She listened to wind and water, and followed an invisible guide.

I will first note that some of his facts may be amiss, as it appears that Crapsey's work on A Study in English Metrics appears to have predated her time at Smith College. And then note that he wrote an essay that largely praises her and her work and her genius, and it was undoubtedly not his intention to diminish her in any way.

And yet.

In this portion of the essay, he refers to her as a "little woman in gray" and a "tired little woman". Sure, she was known to wear gray dresses at the time she taught at Smith College. And I have no clue how tall she was (yet). But "little woman in gray" is designed to make her seem less than, no? Certainly, one cannot be threatened in any way, even intellectually, by such a person. And "tired little woman" is worse still - especially when one reads that paragraph, which makes it sound like the work she was doing on metrics, involving lots of math and statistics, was what wore her out, when in fact she had tuberculosis for years at a time when they had no way of treating it, and only stopped working on her study of metrics when ordered to do so by her doctors during the last year of her life.

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May. 4th, 2016 12:50 am (UTC)
I believe you mean "as little ladies are."
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