Poet Interprets Scenes From Lives of Writers Who Inspired Her
Amy Newman's latest collection of poetry imagines scenes in the lives of seven poets who emerged in the mid-20th Century: Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz and Anne Sexton.
Many critics identify these poets as writing in the Confessional style, often in the first person and including then-taboo subjects such as sexual abuse and mental illness.
"It was a time of introspection," Newman says. "Freudian psychotherapy was at its high-water mark -- this kind of self interrogation, this idea that you could look at yourself and become a better person."
Newman notes this therapy coincided with advances in pharmacology. "Therapists were prescribing many different, interesting drugs in order to offer what they thought would be happiness," she says.
All these poets suffered from mental illness and/or addiction. Three -- Plath, Berryman and Sexton -- killed themselves. "They were crippled by their afflictions in some ways," Newman says, "but these afflictions were responsible for some of the most beautiful poetry of the 20th Century."
Newman's book is a Read With Me selection for this summer. Throughout it, she imagines the poets driving cars, making love, and -- in the case of Theodore Roethke -- eating a raw steak:
When Theordore Roethke suddenly knows what it feels like to be a lion, he enters a diner and orders a raw steak. It was such a good day, nature so explicit with him, little mongrel, little flirt, that he couldn't sleep, what with the rough, unfinished world, so saturated with survival, it can't help itself. It's a hothouse of kill and feed and multiply, fruit and feather, gristle, and chew and want, hunger and hunt, drag back to the cold nest again. It has to thorn and rub and run and burr and fly, and shake into the wind, disperse, to seed and to root, and here it was, patient with him while he fled into it. Nature slipped its cool, soft hand into his, looking at him with that knowing glance it has, just wanting to be with him, his shirt undone, his mouth half-open. Where have you been all my life? He heard the roses, under their pinnate leaves, ripening their hips. Nature let him in, transparent, weightless, confused, trembling, a little wrong, but he couldn’t help himself, drunk, savage, remote, microbial, a seed in the flesh, a tooth, sharpening, coarse, terribly honest, too good, too good, get me down, he said, get me off this, he told the dean, weeping a little in his growling bones.
("When Theordore Roethke Suddenly Knows What it Feels Like to Be a Lion, He Enters a Diner and Orders a Raw Steak." Copyright © 2016 by Amy Newman. Reprinted by permission of Persea Books).
"This was a time when Roethke was on a tear," Newman says, "trying to work and get by with no sleep, and he ends up in Sparrow Hospital for a 'rest cure.'" She cites Allan Seager's book The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, in which Roethke describes the episode:
For no reason I started to feel very good. Suddenly I knew how to enter into the life of everything around me. I knew how it felt to be a tree, a blade of grass, even a rabbit. I didn’t sleep much. I just walked around with this wonderful feeling. One day I was passing a diner and all of a sudden I knew what it felt like to be a lion. I went into the diner and said to the counter-man, “Bring me a steak. Don’t cook it. Just bring it.” So he brought me this raw steak and I started eating it. The other customers made like they were revolted, watching me. And I began to see that maybe it was a little strange. So I went to the Dean and said, 'I feel too good. Get me down off this.' So they put me into the tubs.
"The quote was compelling to me," Newman says. "He's feeling himself inside of nature, experiencing something tremendous and potentially terrible at the same time."
Newman says every moment captured in her book is based on real events. "I read a lot of biographies, letters and diaries, and tried to isolate moments when I could see something significant happening," she says, adding the poem she writes is her interpretation of that moment. "I'm imagining how the poets felt or what they saw," she says, "but most of the details are actually true -- the cigarettes they smoked, the flowers on the table or what they wore -- all that is taken from the materials I researched."
Amy Newman is a Professor of English at Northern Illinois University. On This Day in Poetry History is her fifth poetry collection. She was also interviewed by WNIJ for her previous book, Dear Editor.
Tomorrow, we conclude our series with a collection of short fiction by a former student of Newman's: The Andrew Jackson Stories by Aaron Sitze. Listen during Weekend Edition Saturday at 7:35 a.m. Then come back here for an author reading and other information.