22 August 2011

In A Japanese Mood: Adelaide Crapsey

"Among the bumble-bees in red-top hay, a freckled field of brown-eyed Susans dripping yellow leaves in July,
I read your heart in a book.

And your mouth of blue pansy—I know somewhere I have seen it rain-shattered.

And I have seen a woman with her head flung between her naked knees, and her head held there listening to the sea, the great naked sea shouldering a load of salt.

And the blue pansy mouth sang to the sea:
Mother of God, I’m so little a thing,
Let me sing longer,
Only a little longer.
And the sea shouldered its salt in long gray combers hauling new shapes on the beach sand. " - Adelaide Crapsey by Carl  Sandburg

There are echoes of Japanese tanka and haiku  in Adelaide Crapsey's cinquains,  the five line poem.of her invention.  Crapsey wrote them during a brief three year period from 1911 to 1913.   After her early death from tuberculosis in 1914, other poets like Carl Sandburg (above) and Lola Ridge kept her work alive, following her example and testifying to her continuing presence in their own work.  In her academic career, Crapsey  became a scholar of meter and rhythm, publishing a major work on metrics shortly before a physical collapse.   It's all there in  her version of the classic tale of Susannah And The Elders.

"Why do
You thus devise
Against her?"  "For that
She is beuautiful, delicate,

"The old
Old winds that blew
When chaos was, what do
They tell the clattered tress that I
Should weep."

Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914)  was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Rochester, New York, the third of nine children of an Episcopal priest, whose areer ended with his expulsion from the clergy. She attended Vassar College and taught at Smith College until she became ill . Artist Dwight William Tryon, also an admirer of Japanese arts, taught at Smith with Crapsey. 
The strengths of her combination of diverse aesthetic interests are evident in Blue Hyancinths.

"In your
Curled petals what ghosts
Of blue headlands and seas,
What perfumed immortal breath sighing
Of Greece."

Although she taught at an elite college, Crapsey conducted her artistic career outside the mainstream of American culture.  Long years of illness punctuated her short life.  In her best poems, we experience the interior life of a lone individual as she contemplates the  passing of a  never to be retrieved moment.

"Still as
On the windless nights
The moon-cast shadows are,
So still will be my heart when I
Am dead." 

"Look up …
From bleakening hills
Blows down the light, first breath
Of wintry wind…look up, and scent 
The snow!"

With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisped, break from the trees
And fall." 

"The cold
With steely clutch
Grips all the land…alack,
The little people in the hills
Will die!" 

"Well and
If day on day
Follows, and weary year
On year…and ever days and years…

 "Not these hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Like these."

 excerpted from THE COMPLETE POEMS AND COLLECTED LETTERS OF ADELAIDE CRAPSEY, edited by Susan Sutton Smith, Albany, State University of New York Press: 1977 – Alfred A. Knopf: 1922.

1.Philip Bacon - Kesa, 1900, National Gallery of Art, Melbourne.
2..Wilhelmina Seegmuller - Flower Study, c. 1908, Indianapolis Museum of Art.


Melinda9 said...

There's always something new to be learned from this blog - artists I never knew about, and a poet, Adelaide Crapsey. Thanks, Jane!

Jane said...

Melinda, although her life was very short and full of illness, she achieved so much. Crapsey's work was extended through her modernist contemporaries who enjoyed the good fortune of long life.

Rouchswalwe said...

Achingly lovely words set in such musical language. My goodness! Some of her lines make my heart beat faster. Thank you, Jane! Thankfully her contemporaries took up the baton.

ACravan said...

I discovered Crapsey's work only last week, so it was great to find this post this morning while doing further research. Curtis Roberts

Jane said...

Curtis, her work is well worth your efforts. I wonder if people pass her by today, thinking her name sounds like a joke. Unfortunate. When I read Richard Wright's "Haiku: The Other World" I wondered if he had read Crapsey's work, as her name would been familiar when he was growing up.