I started writing poems (again) at fifty, thirty years after I stopped, in college, when my self-confidence was crushed by a teacher. He had a wrong idea about training students in a tough world, or else he needed to make himself bigger by bullying. It doesn’t really matter why. Only that I did not keep going.
A couple of years after being widowed, I went back to writing poems because my heart insisted on it. For three years I got gradually better and more prolific, then I hit a new bump, which has momentarily slowed but is not going to stop me. In any event, I took up writing at an age when some other people might give it up, or taper off. And so, while there are many intriguing things about the Celia Dropkin poems we read together last week, I found myself also wondering about the ones she did not write.
After some struggle choosing which poet to read, I ended up with her, because her poems are hot right now, and for that matter, just plain hot. Those who champion Celia Dropkin’s work today collectively paint a picture of her as not just frank, but shocking and transgressive. Her work was ahead of its time, and was maligned and misunderstood by the overwhelmingly male critics of the day. She published only one book in her lifetime, In the Hot Wind, which appeared in 1935. A few years after her death, Dropkin’s children published a second book (in 1959), also titled In the Hot Wind, which included some additional later poems.
Edward Hirsch calls her poems, “…erotically frank and emotionally unabashed, deeply engendered, relentlessly truthful.” Kathryn Hellerstein describes Dropkin’s book as divided into the sections: “…nature poems infused with sexual tension; sexual poems infused with the voices of children and natural imagery; poems about her children sharpened by a sexual edge.” And, for Faith Jones, one of a trio of translators who recently brought out a collection her poems in English, “Dropkin is fierce and uncompromising, immediate and compelling, a radical thinker about women, the body, the conditions of love. She is disgusting. She is intimidating…She is in love with the idea of love, yet certain that love is always fraught, contingent, and humiliating.”
We looked at the poem To a Younger Poetess, which says (very loosely paraphrased) “You need to burn in hell three times in love’s fire, like me, and, when you recognize death in love,” then go ahead and write love poems. We read Mayn Mame, a poem in which a mother’s repressed sexual energy is described as an underground stream that wells up into the poem’s speaker and then bursts forth. We read Di Tsirkus Dame, in which the speaker dances for an audience in an arena where daggers are set erect in a ring around her.
Hellerstein, in A Question of Tradition, discusses several of Dropkin’s poems in detail, including the three I’ve just described. In her view (made clear in her quote above), sex is nearly always at the center of Dropkin’s work. She describes how in poem after poem Dropkin, “flouts the notion of tsnies (modesty) and asserts how essential women’s open sexuality was to the writing of poems in Yiddish.”
The poems are arresting to read now. It’s hard to imagine how shocking they must have been when they were written nearly one hundred years ago. They are also accessible to contemporary readers. The imagery tends to be vivid, but not obscure. Also, compared to most of the writers we’ve been reading, Dropkin does not as often draw on layers of meaning associated with Jewish history and the Talmudic tradition.
I became curious, as I said, about when and why Dropkin stopped writing. She had not started early. She was nearly thirty when she began first translating her own poems from Russian into Yiddish, then switched to writing Yiddish poems altogether. So the vast majority of her output occurred within a span of two decades.
True, by the standards of poets, this is not even remarkably short. Many major poets died at absurdly young ages. On the other hand, though Rimbaud also died in his late thirties, he had already stopped writing nearly half his lifetime before that, at 21. Coleridge wrote his best work in his twenties, then developed terrible writer’s block. Philip Larkin more or less stopped writing at 52. Others probably should have stopped writing earlier. Here, Alan Ginsberg comes most readily comes to mind, as he wrote brilliant work when young, and mostly junk after. Some people have a spark that then goes out.
In Dropkin’s case, one suggestion is that critics’ negative responses to her book were hard on her, and contributed to her work tapering off. The idea that, being so far ahead of her time, she was a victim of small minds has a kind of romantic appeal. But Jones, in a recent article for the Yiddish Book Center’s ‘Pakn Treger’ called Why Read Celia Dropkin? also suggests other possible reasons, both historical and personal. “Was it being cut off from Jewish life in Europe that killed her poetry? Was it the death of her husband, her one constant (and, of course, contested, difficult) love in a sea of tumultuous relationships? Did she see the end of Yiddish literature on the horizon?”
In addition to these possibilities, of being unappreciated, of grief over her husband’s death, and of the effects of the holocaust, there is also the decidedly less romantic possibility that she might have stopped writing poems anyway.
Donald Hall, when he gave up writing poetry (OK, in his case, that was in his eighties) admitted that the music simply didn’t come to him any more, and said, “I think you need higher testosterone levels to write poetry than I have at the moment.” Similarly, one person suggested, when I talked about Dropkin slowing down a couple of years after she published her one and only book, at age 47, that it could have been menopause.
Strange though that sounds, I find it plausible. Biologically, Hellerstein already made the claim that Dropkin’s work was fueled by sexual energy. Socially, the nineteen forties were decades before Gail Sheehy and others changed the way we think about middle-aged and older women. There were no greeting cards for sale saying, “These are not hot flashes, they’re power surges.” Dropkin’s sense of herself as powerful or desirable might have altered, and the way others viewed and treated her likely also changed. But also psychologically, the idea of sexual and creative fertility are linked in her poetry which, for example, uses the image of a red flower that was either unsown or illicitly sown, as a symbol for her creative product.
Did Dropkin simply reach a stage in her life when she turned her mind to other concerns? In general, we can’t really know why someone does something or stops doing something creative. Certainly, I can’t. Unlike the scholars of this subject, I have not read her letters, nor those of her contemporaries. But I thought some insight might come from seeing if her late poems were different in tone or subject matter than her earlier work. This meant comparing the 1935 and 1959 versions of In Heysn Vint.
I’ve gotten so used to all the old Yiddish books I want being available at the Yiddish Book Center, with its Spielberg Digital Library, that I was surprised and dismayed to discover they’ve only digitized the earlier version. Stymied! My only other chance would be if we had a physical copy of the later edition at the JCC.
When I wrote about the JCC’s Yiddish library earlier, I barely described it. The large, dark wood, glass-fronted bookcases take up half our meeting room. The collection started as the personal library of Yiddish poet and literary journal editor Israel Emiot. More about him soon, I hope. Because of Emiot, we have an unusually strong poetry section for a library this size. So it wasn’t completely crazy to hope that I might find the 1959 edition of In the Hot Wind. And, sure enough, when I got there on the day of our reading group, there it was!
It turns out that using the two editions to compare earlier and later poems is not quick or easy. Her children changed the ordering of poems from the first version, and either they or Dropkin herself changed several of the titles, so many poems that seem to be new were in fact in the earlier edition. The later volume does have a section of previously unpublished poems, but only a few are dated, leaving open the possibility that some of these poems, too, were written much earlier. Solid conclusions about whether the tone or subject matter of her late poems differ notably from her earlier ones will have to await someone more serious and knowledgeable than I am.
But I didn’t know this last week when I first picked up the book. I flipped through, looking for poems written after 1935, and almost immediately saw the poem To a Daughter, which was dated 1940. The poem is dedicated to the poet’s daughter, Esther. Here it is:
To my Daughter (for Esther)
Today I met you on the street
Your voice was tired; your throat,
on a cold day, was bare –
I want to buy a woolen scarf for you to wear.
It would protect you from bad weather.
I can’t protect you from what else is bad.
If I thought that it would make things better,
I’d pray all day, to ours or any other God.
I can’t sleep peacefully these nights,
thinking about you, my daughter.
Your voice sounded so tired.
Your life is exposed to bad weather,
your door open for the storm to blow through,
I want to buy a woolen scarf for you.
Celia Dropkin 1940.
No lust, masochism, exhibitionism, fecundity, or shame here. Just tenderness, and worry about a struggling (adult) child. If you can’t relate, I guess you’re not a parent. I am aware of the inadequacy of my English rendering. Because of the emotional tone of the poem, I chose a certain kind of sound over literal accuracy. But I have also come to accept more and more that all translations are approximations, and that having them is better than not having them. If the readers sense they are not getting the real thing, may it spur them on to have a go at the original.