This week I have enjoyed reading Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet’s Life, by Scott Donaldson, so on Friday I checked out from the university library Robinson’s Collected Poems, a 1,018-page volume published by MacMillan in 1929. I realized how little of Robinson’s ample body of work I had actually read, and so, entirely by happenstance, I learned that Friday was the 72nd anniversary of the poet’s death.
Inside the front cover is inscribed “Katharine Keats Braithwaite, Christmas 1929.” The handwriting for the middle name is poetically ambiguous -- “Keats” might also read “Yeats.” Pasted on the front pages are four newspaper clips, brown and brittle but intact and legible, reporting Robinson’s death on April 6, 1935. Judging from fragments of stories and ads on the backs of the clips, they were cut from a Boston newspaper, probably the Herald. The main story, accompanied by a mug shot of Robinson, carries three headlines in a one-column format:
POET, DIES AT 65”
“Maine Native Thrice Won
Pulitzer Prize for
“FIRST WON FAME
AS N.Y. LABORER”
How long is it since you saw “thrice” in a headline? Here’s the lead of the Associated Press story:
“The living ranks of the great moderns of American poetry and literature, who achieved classic fame with the turn of the century, dwindled further today with the death of Edwin Arlington Robinson.”
One wonders how A.J. Liebling would have parsed this yearningly awkward sentence. Three paragraphs down we read:
“Only Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay are now left of the little group of ranking poets who won acclaim in the 1900’s.
“Amy Lowell and Vachel Lindsay, two others outstanding, are dead.
“They, with Robinson, first began to achieve real prominence in 1914. Harriet Monroe of Chicago, who published a magazine called `Poetry,’ early printed their works and the works of others of their contemporaries and played a large role in building up their popularity in the United States and England.”
I can visualize the guy on the wire desk cobbling together this fractured history of early 20th-century American poetry, throwing in “Harriet Monroe of Chicago” as though she were “Al Capone of Chicago,” and as a transition using the phrase “the works of others of their contemporaries,” which reads like the newspaper equivalent of sutures made of baling wire. Further on he writes:
“Robinson was shy, a shunner of publicity, but a poet who wrote in the simple language of the world.”
It’s easy to make fun of this, but the deaths of how many poets today would merit a sizable story and photo in your hometown paper? The newspaper also published a letter to the editor from Mrs. C.B. Porter of Old Town, Maine, complaining about an editorial devoted to the neglect supposedly suffered by Robinson in his home state. Mrs. Porter writes that she belongs to “a little group of women numbering 20, few very young, known as Our Neighborhood Club, who had an `Evening with Edwin A. Robinson’ several years ago. His poems were discussed and read, or read and discussed.”
All of this is precious – the A.P. guy’s muddled story, Mrs. Porter caring enough to write a lengthy letter, Ms. Braithwaite caring enough to preserve the clips and paste them in her copy of Robinson’s poems, and the book, last checked out in 1995, ending up in the Fondren Library at Rice University, in Houston, Texas. This is piecemeal immortality, the best we can hope for. Robinson, a shrewd man acquainted with failure and oblivion, wrote in his sonnet “George Crabbe” about another dimly remembered poet:
“Whether or not we read him, we can feel
From time to time the vigor of his name
Against us like a finger for the shame
And emptiness of what our souls reveal
In books that are as altars where we kneel
To consecrate the flicker, not the flame.”