Creative Writing

Leonie Adams' Incantatory Poetics

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Explores the surprising role of opacity and incantation in the poetry of Leonie Adams. Understanding Adams' poems as incantation helps us to appreciate this important and neglected woman poet. Love’s proverb is set down transliterate.
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   Annie Finch Leonie Adams’ Incantatory Poetics 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
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