Contemporary Poetry Review

Reviewed By:
Kathleen Rooney

Freighted with Memory 


Over the Summer Water by Elizabeth McFarland. Orchises Press, 2008. 63 pages, $14.95. 


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          Take a moment to read the following poem, “The Flower”:

You flower, that greed for rotted ground,

Feed on my thought’s warm compost-mound;


Then thought will mould you, flower, to be

Symbol of Beauty’s gluttony


That grows not pure, but must infect

Heart and the rubbish intellect


Till, bloated and deformed by those,

You make a poetry of prose,


A garden of a garbage pile,

But chastity of self defile:


Beauty is truth betrayed by the senses,

Written for love and other pretenses. 

Why should we bother reading this poem or care who wrote it? First we must understand who Elizabeth McFarland was. Fortunately, Orchises Press has just published Over the Summer Water, a small and attractive 63-page, posthumous collection of her poetry. Elizabeth McFarland was born in 1922 and died in 2005. She served as the poetry editor of Ladies Home Journal from 1948 through 1962, and her own poetry evokes—to borrow a phrase from Henry James—“the romance of certain old clothes.” 

Such poems as “Vanity, Vanity” from the book’s first section can’t help but seem quaint now, with their prim meter and romantic overtones:

The little pots of rouge are dust

With Pompeii, Carthage; but the trust

That quickened with cosmetic force

And came from elemental source

Still shines in every blade of grass

That holds the dew for looking glass. 

Considering the prevailing pressures of Modernism and Confessionalism at work even then, they may have seemed equally quaint at the time. Quaintness aside, McFarland’s poems possess a certain romance, a curious appeal that makes one glad to have them around, if only for historical purposes, as winsome illustrations of the styles and tastes of a particular time and place. The curious outfit McFarland sports in her author photo—a periwinkle blouse with white buttons and popped collar, a soft pink scarf worn at the throat like a cowboy’s bandana, and the wide, high, cinched-in leather belt—further illustrates, albeit probably inadvertently, this appeal. For the most part, people are not manufacturing or wearing these kinds of clothes anymore, but it is fun to know that at one point they were, and it is fun too to see them in your higher-end vintage shops or period-piece dramas every now and then. Fittingly, McFarland’s poems concern themselves frequently with appearances and styles, containing images of mirrors and reflections, and, especially in the earlier poems, her own face. In “Myself,” for instance, she writes “I have stood so long in this place / I have lost account of my face,” and in “Lost Girl,” she writes, “She has grown into herself, she has lost her girlness / And found her face.” 

McFarland’s own poetry and the poems she selected for LHJ remind contemporary readers why a certain kind of poetry—poetry dedicated to the concept of “uplift” and designed to appeal inoffensively to the widest possible audience—fell out of fashion from the 1940s through the 1960s. In much the same way that it is gratifying to know that women once forced themselves into corsets and whalebone stays, it is instructive to read the kind of poetry that popular magazine editors once presented to the public as capital-P Poetry. 

            One of the best features of Over the Summer Water is its loving and informative twelve-page introduction. Called “A Poet Who Brought Poetry to the Millions,” it was written by her husband of 57 years, Daniel Hoffman, who is himself the author of 11 books of poetry (the first of which was selected in 1954 by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Series) and who served as the Poet Laureate from 1973-1974, when the post was called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. In it, Hoffman gives us a great deal of background information about his wife’s life and work that, as the press release accompanying the book states, “illuminates the literary atmosphere of the period in which her work was done.” One of the most surprising hallmarks of this atmosphere is the money that McFarland had at her disposal, courtesy of LHJ, to see that her poets were paid handsomely. For McFarland believed that authors deserved to be properly compensated for their efforts, a belief which most writers today wish were shared by more editors, and which many editors, in this era of shrinking budgets and rising operating costs, wish they were better able to share. 

At the time, Poetry paid 50 cents per line, and the New Yorker paid two dollars. McFarland persuaded the publisher of LHJ to allow her to offer $10 per line, a figure which helped her attract submissions from William Stafford, Maxine Kumin, Sylvia Plath, and Marianne Moore. Ten dollars per line would amount to a decent check for a poet today (to wit: that’s the rate offered by Poetry magazine at present) but the largesse is especially welcome when one considers how much that rate was worth in adjusted dollars. In 1957, for example, when McFarland accepted the 46-line Richard Eberhart poem “The Clam Diggers and Diggers of Sea Worms,” he wrote in his thank-you note that the check for $460 would more than cover his summer’s rent in Maine. 

Hoffman’s introduction also reveals much about gender roles and expectations, specifically how notions of what might be acceptable for men but not for women affected both the work McFarland wrote and the work she was able to champion. Understandably, because of the generosity with which she paid her writers, poets were more than happy to submit their work for McFarland’s consideration. (So too was she more than happy to submit her own work for her own consideration, publishing, in a move that might strike some readers today as being mildly tacky, at least 70 of her own poems in the Journal.) 

Still, she was an active and thoughtful editor. Never content to let the money do the work for her, she tirelessly sought out poets she considered to be the best and the brightest of the day, including W.H. Auden, whom she and Hoffman had first seen at a meeting of the all-male Boar’s Head Poetry Society at Columbia University. Since Columbia was men-only until 1983—the last Ivy League school to go co-ed—they had to smuggle her in, “fooling no one,” as Hoffman fondly remembers, even though she wore a trench coat and trousers with “her hair done up in a beret.” McFarland’s efforts eventually paid off when in 1950 she published Auden’s poem “Secrets.” 

Hoffman admits that he does not know exactly how much Auden received for his troubles, but speculates that “it was surely more than the ten dollars lesser lights received.” In 1952, McFarland requested that Auden send another poem. No doubt at least partially thanks to the fact that he had been paid so much for the first, he quickly obliged. But in a story that reflects the era’s prudish attitudes about what kind of subject matter and language were acceptable for “ladies,” Hoffman explains:

My guess is that he stuffed into that envelope the latest poem he had written; it described, in a couple of stanzas, innocent middle-class boys on shore leave, but told that they got ‘drunk’ and were approached by ‘a whore.’ This obviously wouldn’t do for the Journal. My files reveal this much, but not who declined the poem. It must have been I, since he sent it not to Liz but to me asking that I pass it on to her. Auden held no grudge when, the following year, he chose my ms. for the Yale Series of Younger poets. Liz used to say she lived in fear of having to send a rejection note to W.H. Auden, so it’s obvious she hadn’t done so with this one, nor, since he didn’t try the LHJ again, did she ever need to return a poem of his. 

Although McFarland was obviously a strong, smart, and capable woman of the world, this story shows that even she was perceived by her own husband as too weak and delicate to handle such forceful and disturbing subject matter, or to inflict it on her audience, and too timid and meek to really get her hands dirty with the sometimes disagreeable business of adhering to one’s editorial vision. 

            Then again, based on her own poetry, one might begin to think that perhaps she really was somewhat squeamish and mild. Her topics tend toward the easily pleasing: poems such as “No Other Love” addressed to a lover whose “gentleness has softened all my days,” “Plums” about going “to gather beach plums while the moon rose / Tremulous, large, impatient from the sea, / Turning our pails to canisters of silver,” and “Off Little Deer Isle” about “A box of sweet grasses / Sun-sucked, meadow-long, / a wreath of young pine cones / Fine candles among.” None of this is to say that her poems aren’t nice to read. Who doesn’t love sunshine and flowers and birds and pretty girls? Yet reading the pages and pages of pleasant, metered short lyrics in Over the Summer Water, one can’t help but wonder how much even better work she could have done had she permitted herself to move beyond obvious niceties. 

            She appears, however, to have remained uninterested, throughout her career, in expanding her repertoire or changing her approach. According to her obituary in the December 25, 2005 New York Times:

Hoffman [McFarland’s married name] thought of herself as writing and publishing poetry that appealed directly to readers' emotions. She was dismayed by both the modernist tradition, whose lyrics reflected T.S. Eliot's injunction of impersonality, and by the confessional school that became increasingly popular in the later 50’s, free verse by poets like Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, which represented what Hoffman considered tabloid topics, like sexual abuse, insanity, alcoholism and suicide. Focusing primarily on domestic subjects, the poems Hoffman published were essentially conservative; they were designed to affirm rather than to disturb the reader's life and to illuminate the beauty rather than to reveal the horror or emptiness of the everyday. By the time she left L.H.J. in 1962, the style of poetry she favored was out of vogue, and poetry itself disappeared from women's magazines. 

In his introduction, Hoffman writes elegiacally of the abandonment of poetry by women’s magazines in the 1960s, explaining, “the great shift in mores was under way.” But even with the six and a quarter million readership LHJ had enjoyed when McFarland was on board as poetry editor, one might wonder to what extent poetry was ever really in women’s magazines in the first place, if the kind of work they were required to publish was so toothless. 

Perhaps when presenting poetry to large commercial audiences, as in presidential elections, when one is forced to appeal as broadly as possible to the largest number of individuals, one cannot risk being too substantive or original, nor can one risk being in any way transgressive or provocative. Many of the poems McFarland wrote herself and published in the Journal provide fascinating sociological glimpses of an era when women were expected to serve as Keepers of Culture. But so too do these poems illustrate how, unfortunately, the value of the culture that they kept seems less enduring than that kept by men. Reading McFarland one also wonders how many other polite and well-disciplined female poets from the mid-century may have been lost to the ages because they did not have the good fortune to marry a Poet Laureate themselves. One wonders, sadly, too whether a poet can consistently be published in a magazine with a massive circulation, or with “Ladies” in the title, and expect to be taken seriously, or to echo through the ages. 

Reading Hoffman’s introduction, one also gets the sense that the kind of poetry LHJ had to publish—to please its advertisers and to avoid alienating its subscribers—almost uniformly possessed the uselessness and purposelessness that one associates with the kind of art that is meant to signify Art and little else. It is art that serves the social function of enabling its managers to declare See? We have art, and it is a kind of poetry that signifies Poetry, and reveals that the uplift that LHJ sought to promote was by necessity light on content. 

This is not to say that the work McFarland performed was not worthwhile, nor is it to suggest that it wasn’t sad or unfair that, because of changing tastes, her career was basically over by the time she hit 40, and that, as her obituary states “while Daniel published two dozen books of poetry and criticism during their 57-year marriage, Elizabeth raised their two children, entertained visiting writers, kept a summer house, gardened and traveled, including a trip with Daniel to Dublin, where she had tea with Mrs. Yeats and discussed linens.” Even today, he is listed on the website of the Poetry Society of America, while she is not, and this is too bad. 

More maddening is the way that McFarland seems to have effectively tied one arm behind her back in terms of her poetic approach. She clearly has the wit and the skill to write incisively and compellingly on any number of topics. She can be arresting in her use of imagery, as in “The Lost Gold,” the title poem of the book’s penultimate section, where she writes, “O bumblebee-colored hair of my little daughter.” And she can be funny and winsomely rhythmic, as in “Flower Market, Rittenhouse Square,” where she writes:

The elderly dear in

The Rittenhouse hat

Turns towards the sun and

Arranges her cat 

But at the same time, she cuts off her own access to countless subjects in her relentless quest to remain in good taste. She locks herself away from formal innovations by positioning herself firmly against Modernism and Confessionalism. In this regard, her short lyric “Mother Song” reads as a kind of ars poetica, concluding:

I sing of dreams and treasures lost;

Of all young hope that braves the frost—

Stars locked behind embedded skies,

And little lonely children’s cries.

I sing the mother-song of years

To lull the world and dry its tears. 

Even as she seeks to dry the tears, she fastidiously avoids talking about the causes of the sorrow; in fact, we know from her work, from her husband’s introduction, and from her obituary that she considers the causes of the tears to be in terrible taste, or at least to be matters best not addressed in public, and certainly not in poetry. 

The most bodily reference we get in the entire collection shows up in “The Old House” where she quotes a parent as saying “Go to the bathroom” but immediately follows up with “and wash those hands.” The problem with McFarland’s refusal to address all facets of life is not that we crave bathroom poetry per se, but that it seems facile and myopic not to acknowledge that such things are a part of life. The contemporary reader inevitably finds it difficult to buy McFarland’s images of blissful and effortless domesticity in comparison to Sexton, Plath, Lowell, and almost anyone who came after; it remains too easy to see McFarland’s take on the world as excessively cute, escapist, or little. But her poetry is not hard to like. If anything, McFarland uses the word “little” so much, thereby insisting on her own tiny harmlessness—her own eagerness to please and not be too big of a distraction, not to take up too much of your time or make you think too hard—that she is impossible not to like. Yet so too is it difficult to really love her. Too often, she comes cross as a very polite guest who never talks more than she listens and never overstays her welcome. 

To the contemporary reader, McFarland’s emphasis on littleness can’t help but recall Robert Pinsky’s assertion in Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry that “As part of the entertainment industry poetry will always be cute and small; as an art it is immense and fundamental.” Yet McFarland’s compulsion to insist and insist and insist something that should be self-evident makes her appear to be policing the poetry and making sure it remains little, whereas the best poetry of that period—and maybe of this one too—pushes against this littleness all the time, and in some cases rages against it. So while her poems are often pleasant enough, they frequently veer into the territory of the ingratiating. 

This may simply be a function of having to please a massive number of readers all at once. To an extent, you can see this happening in the New Yorker, too, (at least under Alice Quinn, though it may change now under Paul Muldoon) one of the only venues today that conveys poetry to as large a number of people as LHJ once did. In his March 2007 piece “Annals of Poetry,” in the New York Times, critic David Orr observes of this phenomenon that:

The New Yorker tends to run bad poems by excellent poets. This occurs in part because the magazine has to take Big Names, but many Big Names don’t work in ways that are palatable to The New Yorker’s vast audience (in addition, many well-known poets don’t write what’s known in the poetry world as “The New Yorker poem”—basically an epiphany-centered lyric heavy on words like “water” and “light”). As a result, you get fine writers trying on a style that doesn’t suit them. 

So the issue is not that the poetry of McFarland—or of the New Yorker—is in poor taste or even questionable taste; it is relentlessly tasteful. It has many of the same good qualities that you might associate with a cup of hot cocoa, but not with something that ostensibly has ambitions; this kind of poetry just wants to make you feel warm and comfy, which is not so bad, really. But what could be bad or dangerous about this type of literature is the way that it sometimes gives the appearance of feeling without ever having made you really feel anything, or the sensation of thinking deeply when really the exercise has been merely rote. 

Each of the six sections of McFarland’s book, with their romantic titles such as “The Acrobatic Heart,” “No Other Love,” and “Reminders” resembles a tastefully decorated little room that is potpourried and kept at 72 degrees, and always full of doilies and silk flowers. McFarland seems to enjoy writing about flowers, predicating one poem, “Climbers,” on an extended pun having to do with the names of varieties of roses. “Dusk falls on my roses: / On Purity and Peace, / On Tausenchon and Elegance, / And Pax and Golden Fleece,” she begins, before concluding with the big punch line: “Ah, but their perfume rises, / Now while the moon smells sweet, / Climb, climb to my window, Dr. W. Van Fleet.” 

            Troublingly, many of the poems in Over the Summer Water could have been written anytime between 1600 and now, or even 100 years from now. There are certainly circumstances under which this quality of universality might be a positive attribute. But in McFarland’s case, the poems give less of an impression of eternal truth, and more of an impression of inoffensive “poetic” tropes and clichés assembled to go down as easily as possible, as in “Backgrounds” where she writes:

I’d draw you to me

With every breath,

Ah, but you knew me

On some lost heath


Or down a wild hillside

We ran our race;

And our loud, ringing laugh sang

The stars out of place! 

Such bland riffing is not really contemporaneous to anything. It is an attempt to exist outside of time, but not in what one would call a Yeatsian way. Rather, it seeks to refer to nothing outside of itself, and more importantly to nothing outside the reader. When one considers all that was going on at the time of these poems’ composition—the Cold War, Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights movement, the spread of television, the Korean War, the rise of rock-and-roll music—it is worrying to think how little this poetry problematizes, and how deliberately it chooses not to place itself or the reader more in the world. Such blindly optimistic and unprovocative poetry also makes the reader consider that poetry that works so hard not to appear ideological—that strives not to make an argument, not to express values, and not to make any distinctions—might actually be the most ideological, and reactionary, poetry of all. 

          I want to be clear that my frustration with McFarland’s poetry does not stem from her use of traditional meter, rhyme, and form. I love good formal poetry. Nor does my frustration stem from what the poems contain. Rather, it arises from what they elide. The art of her poems comes not only from the efforts she makes to shape and control them, but also from the efforts she makes to keep certain things—discomfiting attitudes and critical words or disconcerting subjects—out. She tries so hard to keep her little rooms in perfect order and to make sure that everything happens in an little airtight poetry space that the poems never really get a chance to speak or breathe, which is heartbreaking because you can tell she is a passionate and a talented writer. 

The title poem, “Over the Summer Water,” is perhaps the best of the bunch, and the one which most illustrates the potential of the entire collection, an elegy for a bygone era, and also, an elegy, if you’re inclined to read it that way, for a bygone style of writing. “Summer people, like daguerreotypes,” she writes, “don’t fade;” rather: 

They are watermarked, and that is that—

Professor and Mrs. Pew on the Esplanade,

Old Mrs. Ferris’s hat . . .

The Fat Boy . . . the Twins . . . the Sophomore . . . the Beaux . . .

The Belles in their bright boating dresses—

Memory wears retrospective clothes,

Slim waists, and (preferably) long tresses. 

The past, this poem seems to suggest, was nice and we are glad that it happened, but we should not fight its inevitable departure, nor resent what follows. Rather, we can remember the past fondly and let it go its way with dignity before we ourselves continue on into the future. “For water is ghost-freighted with memory;” the poem concludes, “It widens in rings beyond telling / Where time’s old excursioners go down to sea, / Their scarves and their bannerets swelling.”


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