I was 15 and my mother was dying of ovarian cancer. My teachers were very kind. As a kid who read far outside and beyond school assignments, I wanted to be turned loose in English and American poetry. I needed to be somewhere outside my life. Miss S. agreed to an independent study, and all I had to do was keep a record of what I read—in between regular homework and visits to the hospital.
I was a little slow to recognize, as I made my way through anthologies and volumes of selected and collected, that, with the exception of a poem or two by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, or Edna St. Vincent Millay, all the works I read were written by men. Any secret thoughts I had about becoming a writer of verse were smothered in the cradle. Women didn’t or couldn’t write poetry. Or they did, but nobody bothered to notice.
At the age when kids need to discover what’s out there, I didn’t have the psychic energy to think about options or to explore how to become a poet. And I had a more pressing concern. I was the only child of divorced parents and only marginally connected with my father. I had to take charge of my life. As a top student in an academic magnet high school, I already saw myself as a future teacher and maybe scholar. I needed to belong somewhere, quick.
If I couldn’t explore becoming a poet, I could be an advocate for literature. Or could I? When I was in graduate school at a major university, there were no women in most academic departments—none in classics or philosophy and one in the English faculty of 96. If you lived in the academy, you lived the life of the mind, which was valued more than other aspects of being alive. This view reflected an ancient duality in Western culture. The intellect, ruled by reason, belonged to men; women were embodied, by nature subject to all the body’s processes, senses, and emotions. But there were women’s colleges, where women professors taught. Hard work would earn me a place.
I earned degrees in Greek and Latin literature. My Ph.D. thesis was on Horace’s Odes. I published in journals and taught for 25 years.
Later still, in the midst of a midlife upheaval, the old desire stirred and I found a new source of courage: the feminist movement. Many women were “writing women’s lives,” which meant giving voice to women’s long ignored and discounted experiences. The poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, for example, did so vividly. The exclusions of the life of the mind were now asserting themselves.
As I thought about trying to write poetry, I asked myself what I had to lose. Maybe I would try to write and find that I couldn’t. Or find that I could, but it was bad. Or it would be viable. I needed to learn how to do this. A friend who was a poet suggested that, given my long immersion in literature, I already knew quite a bit about how to do it. That sounded almost Platonic (we are born with knowledge but have to discover that we have it). My friend was right. Greek and Latin literature had taught me to be concise; from Horace I learned understatement, irony, syntactic wit, and that neat trick of ending a poem with a vivid sensory image.
Where did I belong? Much as I admired classic meters and forms, I wanted something other than tradition. Much free verse I was now reading struck me as too free. Eventually, my work would fall somewhere in between, a kind of order through rhetoric, as Marie Ponsot, whose workshops I was privileged to attend, would tell me.
People spoke of “finding your voice.” I seemed to have many voices, and after being silenced for so long, they were all clamoring. And so began the process of hearing the music, feeling the rhythms, modulating and culling everything that might become part of a poem. Learning a craft takes many years, and I have often had the sense other poets also speak of, that a poem is never finished. But each poem evolves organically, from germ cell to complex organism. Poets nurture the process, are midwives to the birth.
Nancy Kassell is the author of two books of poetry, Text(isles) (2013) and the chapbook Be(longing) (2016), both from Dos Madres Press. She has published poems in Kalliope, Spoon River Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Review, Feminist Review, and Salamander, as well as in several anthologies, including Verse and Universe. She is also the author of a cultural study, The Pythia on Ellis Island: Rethinking the Greco-Roman Legacy in America. (updated 2018)