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Two National Treasures: Poets Lydia Sigourney and Linda Pastan

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Lydia Sigourney

Lydia Sigourney

Poets as National Treasures

Early America is rich in literary historical figures. From Anne Bradstreet to Philip Freneau to Emily Dickinson, many poets not only enjoyed a thriving career, but also, with the exception of Dickinson, gained considerable recognition in their own life times.

However, some of those who enjoyed celebrity in their own time have not stood the test of time famewise or through critical acclaim. Lydia Sigourney belongs to this latter group.

Still, Sigourney's achievements have allowed her abilities to be recognized as a national treasure, a label also assigned to contemporary poet, Linda Pastan.

Lydia Sigourney

Lydia Sigourney achieved fame and financial rewards for her writing in her own lifetime, but her compositions have not stood the test of time.

Early Life and Marriage

Born in 1791 to Ezekiel Huntley and Zerviah Wentworth and named Lydia Howard after her father’s first wife, this poet achieved fame in her own lifetime, unlike Emily Dickinson, whose name became widely recognized only after her death.

Lydia experienced a happy childhood and remained devoted to her parents, and by her writing was able to support them in their later years.

In 1811, Lydia and Daniel Wadsworth established a girl’s school in Hartford. Wadsworth helped her secure funding and pupils for this school, urging daughters of his friends to attend. In 1815, Wadsworth was instrumental in the publication of Lydia’s first book, Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse.

After her marriage to Charles Sigourney in 1819, Lydia retired from teaching and wrote only in her leisure time. Her husband did not want her to publish, so when she did publish, she did so anonymously.

However, after her husband’s business started to fail, Lydia started to write seriously in pursuit of financial gain to help her husband and also her parents.

Success as a Writer

Sigourney’s writing met with great success. According to Sandra A. Zagarell’s biographical sketch appearing in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fourth Edition,

When Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolutionary War, visited the United States in the 1820s, a procession of schoolchildren with wreaths proclaiming "NOUS AIMONS LA FAYETTE" greeted him in the city of Hartford, Connecticut. The phrase was the refrain of a poem in his honor by Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney.

Sigourney’s Poetry

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The Lafayette event characterizes Sigourney’s position as a writer. Her poetry, like her prose, was about public subjects—history, slavery, missionary work, as well as current events. But it also treated personal matters, especially loss and death, as experiences common to all.

In contrast to Dickinson or Emerson, Sigourney wrote for popular consumption; thus her work expressed a communal ethic based on compassionate Christianity and on conservative republicanism.

Sigourney was prolific in her writing and by the time of her death in 1865 had published at least fifty books. She was an aggressive business woman, who was able to negotiate lucrative contracts that resulted in substantial royalties.

Sigourney's two books The Girl’s Reading Book (1838) and The Boy’s Reading Book (1839) were adopted for use in the public school system.

One might wonder why such an accomplished writer and skillful business negotiator who was enormously famous in her own day is no longer recognized.

Part of the answer lies in the types of works she published; her moralizing is viewed today as old-fashioned, irrelevant, and in some circles just plain wrong. Her only biographer calls her a "hack writer."

Sample Poem "Indian Names"

The following poem offers a taste of Sigourney’s style as it demonstrates her mindset and interest in topics for exploring.

Indian Names

‘How can the red men be forgotten, while so many of our states and territories, bays, lakes, and rivers, are indelibly stamped by names of their giving?’

Ye say they all have passed away,
That noble race and brave,
That their light canoes have vanished
From off the crested wave;
That ’mid the forests where they roamed
There rings no hunter shout,
But their name is on your waters,
Ye may not wash it out.

’Tis where Ontario’s billow
Like Ocean’s surge is curled,
Where strong Niagara’s thunders wake
The echo of the world.
Where red Missouri bringeth
Rich tribute from the west,
And Rappahannock sweetly sleeps
On green Virginia’s breast.

Ye say their cone-like cabins,
That clustered o’er the vale,
Have fled away like withered leaves
Before the autumn gale,
But their memory liveth on your hills,
Their baptism on your shore,
Your everlasting rivers speak
Their dialect of yore.

Old Massachusetts wears it,
Within her lordly crown,
And broad Ohio bears it,
Amid his young renown;
Connecticut hath wreathed it
Where her quiet foliage waves,
And bold Kentucky breathed it hoarse
Through all her ancient caves.

Wachuset hides its lingering voice
Within his rocky heart,
And Alleghany graves its tone
Throughout his lofty chart;
Monadnock on his forehead hoar
Doth seal the sacred trust,
Your mountains build their monument,
Though ye destroy their dust.

Ye call these red-browned brethren
The insects of an hour,
Crushed like the noteless worm amid
The regions of their power;
Ye drive them from their father’s lands,
Ye break of faith the seal,
But can ye from the court of Heaven
Exclude their last appeal?

Ye see their unresisting tribes,
With toilsome step and slow,
On through the trackless desert pass
A caravan of woe;
Think ye the Eternal’s ear is deaf?
His sleepless vision dim?
Think ye the soul’s blood may not cry
From that far land to him?

Sources

  • Editors. "Lydia Sigourney." History of American Women. Accessed August 9, 2022.
  • Editors. "Lydia Huntley Sigourney." Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. Accessed August 9, 2022.
  • Lydia Sigourney. "Indian Names." Poetry Foundation. Accessed August 9, 2022.
Linda Pastan

Linda Pastan

Linda Pastan

Linda Pastan has been lauded for her attention to detail and compared to Emily Dickinson, and her poetry readings are delightful.

Simple yet Profound

In Linda Pastan’s poem, "Muse"—with the subtitle, "after reading Rilke"—the speaker begins by making a self-effacing confession that she has not had the privilege of conversing with angels.

Muse

after reading Rilke

No angel speaks to me.
And though the wind
plucks the dry leaves
as if they were so many notes
of music, I can hear no words.
Still, I listen. I search
the feathery shapes of clouds
hoping to find the curve of a wing.
And sometimes, when the static
of the world clears just for a moment
a small voice comes through,
chastening. Music
is its own language, it says.
Along the indifferent corridors
of space, angels could be hiding.

But by the end of the poem, the speaker’s lack has yet produced a profound realization that, in fact, angels could be hiding even in places where it seems unlikely.

Compared to Dickinson

Pastan bases many of her poem on close observation and fine details. Those observations often result in expressing human emotion and heartfelt experience. Her poems remain humble and demonstrate how something great may originate with something quite simple.

The Hudson Review said of Pastan’s style, "a poet of a hundred small delights, celebrations, responses, satisfactions, pleasures." The same has been observed about the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Both poets made careers of paying attention to the domestic scene, a place often overlooked by writers of all stripes.

Young writers are often encouraged to travel widely and look beyond the narrow wall of home and hearth, but Pastan and Dickinson are proof that great poetry can be gathered if the poet simply grows where she is planted.

Homemade Dessert Every Night

Pastan put her poetry-writing career on hold for many years after she married and started a family. Often called sacrifice, this strategy has paid off for this poet. About her sabbatical from writing, she explains that as a women coming of age in the American 1950s, she felt she had certain obligations.

Pastan has said she is a "product of the '50s." By that she means that after she married she felt she was expected to keep the perfect home, providing a homemade dessert for every night's dinner. Even though she was still attending college when she married, she felt obligated to be the perfect wife as well as the perfect student.

Because she felt being perfect at both roles was impossible, stopped writing poetry for nearly ten years. But then her husband got tired of hearing her complain unhappily that she could be a good poet if she had not chosen to marry. So her husband encouraged her to start writing again, and as they say, the rest if history.

After publishing some fifteen collections of her poems, Linda Pastan has earned many awards for her poetry.

Those awards include the Pushcart Prize, the Dylan Thomas Award, the Bess Hokin Prize (Poetry Magazine), the Di Castagnola Award (Poetry Society of America), the Maurice English Award, the 2003 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the Charity Randall Citation of the International Poetry Forum.

Not Reclusive

Pastan was also honored with a Radcliffe College Distinguished Alumnae Award. Her collections of poetry, PM/AM and Carnival Evening, were nominated for the National Book Award, and The Imperfect Paradise was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Unlike Dickinson, Pastan did not dedicate herself to reclusiveness; Pastan has given many poetry readings, and she served as Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991 to 1995. Pastan also taught at Breadloaf Writers Conference for twenty years. The Washington Post describes Pastan as,"one of the real treasures in poetry of our time."

A Bronx Girl

Born in 1932 in the Bronx to a Jewish family, Pastan completed her undergraduate degree at Radcliffe College and then earned an M.A. at Brandeis University. Pastan currently lives in Potomac, Maryland. Hearing Linda Pastan reading her poems is a delightful experience: Linda Pastan poetry reading Library of Congress Webcast.

Sample Poem

Linda Pastan’s "Marks," similar to Theodore Roethke’s "My Papa’s Waltz," often receives a dismal negative reading through misunderstanding the use of the controlling metaphor. But the poem is clearly playful, describing a minor annoyance, not a serious complaint.

Marks

My husband gives me an A
for last night's supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I am average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass. Wait 'til they learn
I'm dropping out.

In her poem "Marks" the speaker is using a school metaphor to vent her frustration at being constantly evaluated by her family. "Marks" means grades, and each family member has his or her own system of grading the mother.

The poem is a playful, tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the speaker’s annoyance from constantly receiving criticism on her performance of household chores. This poem demonstrates the clever take on an issue that Pastan often puts on display.

Linda Pastan Reading 3 Poems

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the major influence on Linda Pastan's writitng?

Answer: The Hudson Review said of Pastan’s style, “a poet of a hundred small delights, celebrations, responses, satisfactions, pleasures.” The same has been observed about the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Both poets made careers of paying attention to the domestic scene, a place often overlooked by writers of all stripes.

Young writers are often encouraged to travel widely and look beyond the narrow wall of home and hearth, but Pastan and Dickinson are proof that great poetry can be gathered if the poet simply grows where she is planted.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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