Worcester in poetry

By Michael True

Isn’t it time for someone to write a knowledgeable literary history of Worcester?   Certainly the city deserve one, having been the birthplace or long residence of over 300 poets, novelists, playwrights, children’s writers, and literary critics since the 17th century, identified by the Worcester Public Library’s Committee on Literary History.

     In the past fifty years alone, the city has been the subject or setting for a numerous verses, by younger writers, as well as by nationally known poets. Stanley Kunitz, Charles Olson, and Elizabeth Bishop are perhaps the most frequently sited, their work the subject of  literary criticism as well as literary conferences and special issues of the Worcester Review.   Other local poets have also received national awards for their work, including Mary Fell, John Hodgen, and the late Chris Gilbert.  In April, a number of they gathered to mark the thirty-eighth anniversary of a memorable workshop with the  a major American poet, Denise Levertov, at Assumption College in 1974,

      Main South  is the setting for the skillful lyrics of Mary Felll, in The Persistence of Memory, 1984.  Among the particularly memorable poems in that collection are  “Out of Luck, Massachusetts,” a sardonic elegy to the town, and “Driving Out of Southern Worcester County,” beginning

                          say goodbye to small towns

                          their boundaries cutting across the names

cutting across the names

of dead Indians, trees

still remembering that speech.

      As in  Stanley Kunitz’s early poems set in Worcester’s East Side, Fell reflects the experience of many natives who came of age in the city during hard times, as in “The Prophecy”:

As if it were funny, my father tells how neighborhood

kids went out to search the tracks for coal, each lump

a treasure.  His old friend Milly laughs and says how

she held up her skirt when a train went past, tempt-

ing the railroad men to throw her coal.

Among the remarkable qualities of the writing is Fell’s ability to recapture the exact tone and context of the lives of Worcesterites at a particular moment of history. Even those poems that reflect the hardship of working class life inevitably betray an affection for the place and its special character:

At Kelly Square, the streets come together to form a

star.  Immigrants followed it here, Poles, Irish and

jews settling along its five arms.  Green Street was my

Father’s point on the star.

      Stanley Kunitz’s early poems suggest similar hard times for city residents between 1900 and 1930.  For Kunitz, the harshest event was the death of his father by suicide, leaving his mother heavy debts and sorrowful memories. “The Portrait,” begins

My mother never forgave my father

for killing himself 

that spring, when I was waiting

to be born.

A later poem, “Passing Through,” written on his seventy-ninth birthday,  returns, as he often does, to his birthplace.  It is an account of how his birthday “went up in smoke/ in a fire at City Hall that gutted the Department of Vital statistics::

If it weren’t for a census report

of a five-year old White Male

sharing my mother’s address

at the Green Street Tenement in Worcester

I’d have no documentary proof

that I exist.

      Kunitz often said that, in spite of hardships, there were nonetheless happy times, even magical times. “The Testing Tree,” arguably his greatest poem, is about the young boy traipsing in the woods near Providence Hill  just beyond Worcester Academy:

                                     In the haze of afternoon,

          while the air flowed saffron,

 I played my game for keeps

                                     for love, for poetry, for love

  and for eternal life.

  after the trials of summer.

      Similarly, “The Magic Curtain” conveys his delight in skipping school in the morning, accompanied by Frieda, his yellow haired blue-eyed baby sitter.  They walked down to the Front St. Bijo (spelt Bijou),

“where we were, as always, the first in line,/ with a hot nickel clutched in hand.”  In the movie theater, enthralled by action films, he wrote that: 

Cabiria taught me the Punic Wars

                  at bloody Antietam I fought at Griffith’s side

                  And Keystone Kops came rambling on the scene.

 In outsized uniforms, moustached,

  their thick-browed faces dipped in flour

                        to crank  tin lizzies that immediately collapsed.

      In an autobiographical  essay, Kunitz commented on how unlike his contemporaries, Elizabeth Bishop and Charles Olson, he was “unable to forget Worcester.  I doubt that I ever shall.  Perhaps it scarred me more.”    He spoke of of his native city was reminiscent of what W. H. Auden said about W.B. Yeats, that  “Ireland hurt him into poetry.”  In the same essay, nonetheless, Kunitz speaks  with great affection about his teachers at Classical High School and “the sepulchral public library on Elm Street,/  where the floors buckled and the rooms smelled of old books, old wood, and immemorial dust.”

          By 1970,  Kunitz appeared somewhat reconciled to his native city, as in one of the later poems. “The Lamplighter, 1914,” which was set in Quinapoxet, a region of Holden. “My Mother’s Pears,” written not long before he died, describes  a pear tree in his back yard as a child.  It’s still growing  nearby the Stockmahl’s. house, now a national literary site, on  Woodford  Street.

        Charles Olson, who grew up on the West Side, near Blessed Sacrament Church, returned to that neighborhood and Newton Square, in one of his best known poems, “   

                      Trolley-cars

are my inland waters

(Tatnuck Square and the walk

from   the end of the line

to Paxton, for May-flowers

or to the old road to Holden,

after English walnuts

After studying at Clark, Olson graduated from Harvard, and spent much of the rest of his life living in and writing about the region around Cape Ann, in his magna opus, Maximus.   Even in Gloucester, Olson returned, in memory, to his native roots.”The Grandfather-Father Poem,” is a vivid account of his immigrant relatives employed “In the South Works’/ of U.S. Steel/ as an Irish shoveler

to make their fires hot

to make ingots above

                                        by puddlers of

melted metals

and my grandfather

down below

at the bottom of the

rung

A prose memoir of his father, “The Post Office,” also describes the hardships endured by many Worcesterites during the Great Depression.

      Notable recent collections by local poets include Traveling Mercies, by David Williams; and This Garden by Dan Lewis, who received the 2012 annual prize awarded by the Worcester County Poetry Association, Inc.  The recipient of national awards, John Hodgen is the author of four collections, including his latest, Heaven and Earth Holding Company, with a remembrance of his family. “Finding my Father at the Worcester Art Museum,” begins, 

                             Forty years now, but Jesus, here he is, seen, unseen

                              In George Bellow’s “Monhegan Island, 1913

        Choosing Worcester  as the setting for of their poems, younger writers continue the tradition.   Jonathan Blake, in “Returning to Castle St. After a Summer in the Green Mountains,” for example, pays tribute to apartments on the street that have sheltered a number of local artists.

             Now in its forty-first year,  Worcester County Poetry Association continues to sponsor a variety of readings, workshops, and literary celebrations throughout the year.   And the Worcester Review, founded in 1972 and edited by Rodger Martin, publishes individual issues devoted to the writers mentioned above, among others. A special issue, entitled “Flollowing Kunitz…Worcester Poets on the National Stage,” is Volume XXVII, Numbers 1 ad 2 in the series.  

          The city’s literary history continues to thrive, in other words, informed by writers working in several genres, in a significant, diverse, and vital literary culture.  This article is only a cursory report, citing just a few of them who contributed to a significant, diverse, and vital literary culture.

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