Tuesday, April 3, 2012

National Poetry Month—Sara Teasdale "I Shall Not Care"

Today’s  poet like, Vachel Lindsay, was once enormously popular with critics and public alike but has fallen out of favor and into a kind of obscurity.  In fact, she and Lindsay were contemporaries, Midwesterners from prosperous and religious families whose lives paralleled each other and intersected.  In fact Lindsay once tried to woo the lovely young poet, but was rejected, probably because of his near poverty and bohemian life style.

Sara Teasdale was born August 8, 1884 in St. Louis, Missouri.  She was the youngest child of large family, born when her parents were both in their 40s.  She was small, frail and sickly and under the care of a nurse most of her life.  Her parents adored, sheltered, and spoiled her.  She was tutored at home until she was nine and had almost no contact with other children except for her much older siblings.  She learned to imitate adult conversation and cultivate adult praise.  He mother thought she was “drawn to beauty.”

She completed her education at a series of private schools, but her infirmities and shyness kept her from being close to other students.  She began to write lyrical poems in school and was first published in local newspaper.

After leaving school she often traveled as she was able with a companion including influential trips to Europe and spent a good deal of time in Chicago where she became part of the group around Poetry Magazine.  Harriet Monroe encouraged her and provided a literary audience for her for the first time.  Teasdale’s first collection, Sonnets to Duse, and Other Poems was published in 1907.  The title reference was to dancer Eleanora Duse, who she read about but never saw perform.  The book was a popular and critical success.  Critics admired her deceptive simplicity, lyricism and musicality.  As one said,  Miss Teasdale is first, last, and always a singer.”

Two more volumes were published in the next few years, Helen of Troy, and Other Poems in 1911 Rivers to the Sea, in 1915.

Just before the latter volume was published, Teasdale married Ernst Filsinger, who had courted her, off and on, since their teens.  Ernst had been wooing her at the same time as Lindsay, who inundated her with passionate letters.  But she chose the more stable businessman, although the two poets remained close the rest of their lives.  Lindsay never really got over her—which might explain his decade of  “exile” in that Seattle hotel room.  One of his greatest poems, To a Chinese Nightingale was said to be inspired by Teasdale.

By all accounts, however, the were a deliriously happy young couple.  Together they moved to New York City.  Her 1917 book Love Songs reflected their happiness. The following year she was awarded the first Columbia University Poetry Society Prize—the award that would be re-named the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry—on the strength of that book.

She continued to write during the 1920's and critics began to note an increasing depth—even hints at an underlying philosophy, that they felt had been missing from her earlier work.  These were Flame and Shadow in1920, Dark of the Moon  in 1926, and Stars To-night  in 1930.

Even as she was achieving professional respect as a poet, Teasdale’s personal life was unraveling. She divorced her husband against his will in 1929. 

She spent the rest of her life as a semi-invalid, seldom venturing far from her Manhattan home.  Her writing began to explore a world in which she could not quite extract a sense of wonder and beauty as she had before.

Teasdale fell ill with a protracted and devastating case of pneumonia.  In despair, she swallowed the contents of a bottle of sedatives and died on January 29, 1933,  just a few months after Lindsay took his life.   

Strange Victory, hailed as her most mature and work, sophisticated in its deceptive simplicity, was published posthumously the same year.

Here is a poem from that last book.

I Shall not Care

When I am dead and over me bright April
      Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
      I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
      When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
      Than you are now.

–Sara Teasdale

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