Poetry Fridays: Linda Pastan

Posted on by Dodge

Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

Linda Pastan’s reading of two poems, “Because” and “An Early After Life,” contains the sweep of a lifetime in just four minutes.

“Because” was published over thirty years ago in Pastan’s collection, The Five Stages of Grief. Lines in the poem reveal it was written at least twenty years after the betrothal it describes. The speaker of the poem has already lived through much of the future the new bride “knows” is coming. How does she know?

An Early Afterlife” appeared nearly twenty years later in a collection of the same title. Instead of looking back, the speaker of this poem looks forward into the imagined unimaginable: the time when this now long-married couple must part. Yet, does the speaker of this poem know what lies beyond the threshold any better than the young bride in “Because?”

The notion that a poem can capture a moment or thing of beauty and preserve it forever is at odds with how poems are experienced over the course of a lifetime. As time passes, long-familiar poems change. Not only do cultures redefine their meaning, but we, as individuals, discover layers in them at thirty, fifty or seventy we could not possibly have understood or even perceived in our teens or twenties.

Pastan’s reading creates a living metaphor for the dynamic nature of our relationship to poetry. The full range of the stages of life through which these poems might be encountered is alive and present in both the listeners and the poet. Someone in that audience is a newlywed; someone else a widow. Pastan herself is not only the young bride of fifty-five years ago; she is also the woman on stage who has already outlived the speaker of “An Early Afterlife” by more than a decade.

Pastan reads with such careful attention, and her language is so lucid, both poems feel immediate and new. Perhaps this is what poems that continue to matter to us really preserve: the human connection. Listening to Pastan, we have a very real sense that poems like hers are hard-earned through a lifetime of dedicated effort, and we are grateful that she persevered.

Linda Pastan’s most recent collection is Queen of a Rainy Country. For a generous selection of poems from her earlier books, see Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1998 . Visit the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival Poet Pages for a biography of Linda Pastan.

Be sure to return for upcoming Poetry Fridays, when we will feature many poets from past Dodge Poetry Festivals in the weeks ahead, including Charles Simic, C. D. Wright, Franz Wright and others.

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