Poetry

Poetry Sunday: Linda Gregg Tribute

Linda Alouise Gregg was born in Suffern, N.Y., on Sept. 9, 1942, one of four girls. Their father was an architect and arts educator, and their mother was a teacher. When Gregg was young, her parents moved the family west to start a cooperative school in Marin County and lived in a tent in Samuel P. Taylor State Park for almost a year. Later the family bought land in the county in Forest Knolls, and Gregg was raised there. “I am made of the landscape in northern California where I grew up,” she wrote in an essay, “The Art of Finding” (cited and linked below), recalling a mountain where she and her twin sister communed with “the live oak trees, the stillness, the tall grass, the dry smell of the hot summer air where the red-tailed hawks turned slowly up high, where the two of us alone at ten did the spring roundup of my father’s twenty-six winter-shaggy horses.”
Gregg was nearly 40 years old when her first book of poetry, Too Bright to See, was published in 1981. She followed it with half a dozen more volumes, attracting praise from poets as distinguished as the late W.S. Merwin, who lauded her poems as “original in the way that really matters,” saying “They speak clearly of their source” and “are inseparable from the surprising, unrolling, eventful, pure current of their language, and they convey at once the pain of individual loss, a steady and utterly personal radiance.”
“I believe that poetry at its best is found rather than written,” Gregg observed in “The Art of Finding.” “What matters to me even more than the shapeliness and the dance of language is what the poem discovers deeper down than gracefulness and pleasures in figures of speech.” She said that, when reading a poem, the emphasis should be on “the insides of the poem rather than with its surface, with the content rather than with the packaging. Too often in workshops and classrooms, there is a concentration on the poem’s garments instead of its life’s blood.” [Id.]
Gregg graduated in 1967 from San Francisco State University, where she also received a master’s degree in English in 1972. Her professors there included Jack Gilbert; they were a couple for eight years and remained friends until his death in 2012.
Current US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, featured in Poetry Sunday last Sunday, says “the inner realm” of Gregg’s poems “always feels at once deeply human and quite nearly sacred.” Though many of Gregg’s poems were about matters of the heart, she could take a hard look at hard problems, as in “There She Is” above and in her Alma series about homeless women in a New York shelter. “When her poems hit their sweet spot,” said poet Tony Hoagland, “they strike a note that is both tragic and relevant; they display an acceptance of fate that seems clean and valuable as a reference point, as well as elegant in language. The directness of such work enlarges our perspective, makes us more honest, and perhaps even more willing to encounter our own experience at a new depth.”
In later decades of her life, Gregg taught at prestigious institutions including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Princeton University, and Columbia University, and received awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, several Pushcart Prizes, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and the Jackson Poetry Prize. Her collections of poetry included “Eight Poems” (1982), “Alma” (1985), “Sacraments of Desire” (1991), “Chosen by the Lion” (1994), “Things and Flesh” (1999), “In the Middle Distance” (2006), and “All of It Singing” (2008). Gregg lived in New York until her death in early 2019. Author photo credit: Hal Lum. [Sources: www.nytimes.com/2019/03/27/obituaries/linda-gregg-dead.html, www.marinij.com/2019/03/31/linda-gregg-marin-bred-poet-of-national-acclaim-dies, and www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/linda-gregg.]
 
Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Because this is a tribute column, I am not going to present my usual craft essay and instead will let Gregg speak for herself in the poems above and in excerpts from her brief but brilliant essay, “The Art of Finding,” below. Let me just say that I have loved Gregg’s work from the moment I discovered it in Chosen By the Lion (Graywolf 1996); “Let Deer” is a particular favorite. To me, her poems are unusual in the way they combine what feels timeless and universal with what also feels intimate and peculiarly personal, all from a distinctly woman’s point of view. I highly recommend her essay, from which I include a few quotations below. There, Gregg talks about something I have thought long about, that writing poetry begins with a practice of “seeing” in a new way. As a teacher she assigned students the task of making a list of the things they observed each day, noticing that the lists changed as time went on, away from self-consciously “poetic” observations and toward genuine poetic seeing. In time, she says, students

begin to see carelessly and learn a kind of active passivity until after a month nearly all of them have learned to be available to seeing—and the physical world pours in. Their journals fill up with lovely things like, “the mirror with nothing reflected in it.” This way of seeing is important, even vital to the poet, since it is crucial that a poet see when she or he is not looking—just as she must write when she is not writing. To write just because the poet wants to write is natural, but to learn to see is a blessing. The art of finding in poetry is the art of marrying the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human.

You will find a treasure trove of Gregg’s poems, many including audio files of her reading them, at www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/linda-gregg and at www.poets.org/poetsorg/poems/44469, but please, please do consider buying and reading at least one of her books all the way through—you will be richly rewarded.
Selected Excerpts from “The Art of Finding” by Linda Gregg:

  • “It may be that the major art in poetry is the art of finding this shining—this luminosity. It is the difference between a publishable poem and one that matters. Certainly one can make good poems without feeling much or discovering anything new. You can produce fine poems without believing anything, but it corrodes the spirit and eventually rots the seed-corn of the heart. Writing becomes manufacturing instead of giving birth.”
  • “At the start, let us agree that the poet must master the elements of his craft: the rhythm, the strategies, the importance of compression, when to use rhyme and when not to use it—all of that. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that the craft must not become the content of the poem. It must not become an end in itself. The craft must serve primarily to deliver what the poet is trying to say to the reader, and to deliver the feelings or discoveries to him with as little loss as possible. Ezra Pound defined craft as ‘the means for delivering the content of the poem and to deliver it alive.’”
  • “There are two elements in “finding” a poem: discovering the subject matter and locating the concrete details and images out of which the poems are built. In this instance, I do not mean the subject matter to be the ideas or subjects for poems. Instead, I am referring to finding the resonant sources deep inside you that empower those subjects and ideas when they are put in poems. .  .  . Your resonant sources will be different from mine and will differ from those around you. They may be your long family life, your political rage, your love and sexuality, your fears and secrets, your ethnic identity—anything. The point is not what they are but that they are yours. Whatever these sources are, you must hunt them out and feed your poems with them, not necessarily as topics, subjects or themes, but as the vital force that fuels your poems.”

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