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MK: How did you meet Elizabeth McFarland?
DH: It was the luckiest pick-up in the Western World! In New York City, August 26th, 1946, on queue in the Thalia, an art theatre at 95th and Broadway, waiting for the show to change, I noticed a girl with auburn, shoulder-length hair and bangs, hazel-green eyes, a sylph-like figure, ahead in the line, talking with such wit and vivacity to the girl she was with, I just had to join their conversation. By the end of the evening I discovered I’d met the Poetry Editor of Scholastic Magazine.
MK: How did she view her role on Scholastic?
DH: She corresponded with bright, talented high school kids from all over the country, and in her column, "The Round Table," published the best of their poems.. She herself, when seventeen, had won the magazine’s nation-wide poetry contest. I hear from poets who, when in high school over sixty years ago, were heartened by her encouragement. And she interviewed Marianne Moore and other famous poets, introducing high schoolers to their work.
MK: Do you remember when you first read her poetry and she read yours? Were you concerned you wouldn’t like her work or she wouldn’t like yours?
DH: Oh, we exchanged poems pretty soon after our meeting, both with a sense of wonder that among the bustling crowds of people in New York, we two aspiring poets had found one another. Liz was way ahead of me, she had already developed a mature style at an age when most teenagers, like me, were committing juvenilia. A poem she wrote at sixteen or seventeen is included in her book, Over the Summer Water. At 23, I was still trying to fly on borrowed feathers. There were no creative writing courses back then:we had to learn our craft by reading widely and imitating the best models, as Ben Jonson three centuries before us had advised poets to do.
MK: How did your lives as poets intersect? Did you offer opinions or suggestions on each other’s work?
DH: We had different aims, subjects, and styles, each going his or her own way. Liz wrote in a romantic, lyrical vein, with arresting images and verbal music:
Think of caged lilacs, of ravenous sparrows
To know why she shot those tender arrows.
Her favorite poets at this time were Emily Dickinson, Donne, and Hopkins. Mine were Yeats and Stevens. When I found my own style, a year or so after our marriage, I was experimenting with offrhymed, offbeat couplets, strongly stressed, as in the first such poem I wrote:
The seals in Penobscot Bay
hadn’t heard of the atom bomb
so I shouted a warning to them. . .
Opinions of each others’ work? For each, poetry was private, not sharing everything, as I gather Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon did. One wonders about the Brownings.... For the poems we did show one another, constructive comments, mutual encouragement.
MK: Upside of that? Downside? Of two writers living together?
DH: There’s one danger we avoided--competition. We were, as I say, mutually encouraging, recognizing each other’s individuality in our poems.
MK: What role did your mutual love of poetry and literature play in your marriage?
DH: Our imaginative lives were devoted to and defined by the poetry we read, the poets we knew, the poems we wrote. I was deep in graduate study of literature, folklore, languages, Liz was interviewing and publishing some of the poets I was reading in seminars. Later we read fiction together, passing from one to the other, among contemporary authors, each of the books in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, the novels of Robertson Davies, the short stories of, among others, Flannery O’Connor, Annie Proulx, and Liz’s favorite, Alice Munro. Of course our social life centered around poets we knew. Among my classmates at Columbia in the early ‘50s were John Hollander, Louis Simpson, Tony Hecht. Summers in Maine brought us to Richard Eberhart, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, Philip Booth. We got to know Fred Morgan, and, back in the city, Oscar Williams’s parties brought many poets together.
MK: What advice, if any, would you offer writers starting their lives as a couple?
DH: I wouldn’t presume to advise others, but can say that we found it important to give one another space in our marriage. We didn’t crowd one another’s poems or one another’s time. Writing demands solitude, can’t be done by a committee of two, or with a participating spectator over one’s shoulder. When one of us was "poeming," as we called it, we respected the other’s need to work alone. When the poem was drafted—was it Mallarmé who said, A poem is never finished, it’s only abandoned?—we’d perhaps show it to one another, inviting comment. We were both committed to resonant language in our poems, words with enriching associations and sounds. Many a poem of mine was improved by Liz’s pointing out a phrase that needed revision. I hope to have given her some useful responses too. These were part of our mutual encouragement.
MK: You said you found a folder of about seventy poems by Liz: you hadn’t seen them before?
DH: Many of course I’d seen, but there were some I don’t remember having read. Nor did I show her everything I wrote, though, as I say, I did ask her advice on those I thought could be improved. Others I shared hoping she’d like them as they were, as she did with me. Neither of us was writing in the period styles of the 1950s, not the Eliotic well-made, ironic, impersonal poems in conventional forms, nor in the reaction against that, the flat-lined free verse confessional style. Liz had no interest in such then-fashionable subjects as censorious parents, drug trips, divorce, sexual abuse, suicide. Consequently her poems weren’t welcomed in the literary magazines.
I too rejected the period styles, but fared somewhat better with magazine acceptances. Still, I had a shoebox filled with rejection slips. Like many another young literary couple, we were going to paper the bathroom with them some day.
MK: What was her role as poetry editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal?
DH: After three years on Scholastic (1945-48) she was recruited by the LHJ specifically to attract real poets to its pages. Until she joined its staff, the Journal had published undistinguished domestic verse.
MK: Who were some of the poets, then well-known, whose work she included in the LHJ?
DH: She managed, with the assent of her editor-in-chief Bruce Gould, to bring to a readership of up to six million new poems by W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Richard Eberhart, Theodore Roethke, John Ciardi, Mark Van Doren, Walter de la Mare, and other leading poets. Of the promising younger ones she published, among others, Maxine Kumin, Adrienne Rich, William Jay Smith, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, William Stafford, Philip Booth, John Updike. Some were already our friends, others she invited to send her their work. No other poetry editor has ever given leading poets such an audience, nor given so many readers opportunities to enlarge their taste. This is a service to letters not likely to be seen again. I keep meeting poets and readers who tell me their mothers subscribed to The Ladies’ Home Journal and they first read real poems in its pages.
Liz negotiated the rate of payment for the poems: in 1948 it was a dollar a line, but within a year or two, to attract good poets she persuaded Mr. Gould to raise the base line rate a dollar or two at a time until it reached $10. That was in 1950, and is what, with its recent endowment of Mrs. Lilly’s millions, Poetry magazine pays now, over half a century later. As the inflation calculator on the internet reveals, in purchasing power, in 1950, $10 was, in 2006 (the most recent date listed), the equivalent of $83 per line.
Liz’s tenure suddenly ended in 1961, when there was a change in the top management of Curtis Publishing, LHJ’s parent company. In a circulation war with Life, Look, and McCall’s, the new executives made disastrous decisions, losing circulation and advertising, forcing the retirement of Bruce Gould, and killing the poetry feature. No poems have appeared in the LHJ. Since they used up the backlog of Liz’s choices, by 1962 or ‘63.
Liz’s own poems, many of which appeared in The LHJ and, in the past year, in Poetry, Sewanee and Hudson Reviews, I’ve collected in Over the Summer Water (Arlington, VA: Orchises Press, 2008), available from the publisher or from Amazon.com. I hope to bring out a second book, of her poems to and about our children when babies and very young. This will be a book every new mother or grandmother will treasure.
A Poet Who Brought Poetry to the Millions, Daniel Hoffman speaks about Elizabeth McFarland - The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin
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