I read Allan Seager’s The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke when it was published in 1968 – probably the first literary biography I had ever read. My practice of letting one book suggest the next was already underway. Seager’s mention of Roethke’s interest in Paul Tillich led me to the theologian, who in turn led me to the more consequential thinker Martin Buber.
Likewise, I heard for the first time about a handful of poets new to me. Seager writes of Roethke’s “close study of the works of Elinor Wylie, Louise Bogan, and Léonie Adams.” He “carried a well-thumbed book of Elinor Wylie around with him.” When you’re sixteen and a compulsive reader who can’t ignore an allusion, you investigate. More than Roethke and the others, Bogan became a lasting love. But Wylie (1885-1928), in her finicky, pre-Modernist way, is an honorable poet worth pursuing. One-hundred years ago, in the October 1921 issue of The Bookman, she published the sonnet “Pretty Words”:
“Poets make pets of pretty, docile words:
I love smooth words, like gold-enameled fish
Which circle slowly with a silken swish.
And tender ones, like downy-feathered birds:
Words shy and dappled, deep-eyed deer in herds,
Come to my hand, and playful if I wish,
Or purring softly at a silver dish,
Blue Persian kittens, fed on cream and curds.
Words that are luminous in the dark, and sing;
Warm lazy words, white cattle under trees;
I love words opalescent, cool, and pearly.
Like midsummer moths, and honied words like bees.
Gilded and sticky, with a little sting.”
Flyweight? Of course. Too much alliteration, too many kneejerk metaphors. But inoffensive, with good phrases, including “I love bright words, words up and singing early.” The final phrases are memorable: “. . . honied words like bees. / Giulded and sticky, with a little sting.” One might prefer a little more sting in Wylie’s poems, though in the same issue of The Bookman are poems by Carl Sandburg, Aline Kilmer (widow of Joyce Kilmer), H.D., Joseph Freeman, Oscar Davisson, and Maxwell Bodenheim. A year later, Eliot would publish The Waste Land.