The unjustly neglected early modernist developed from haiku her own form, a vessel for pared-down vernacular observation
When a loved daughter was christened in Brooklyn Heights in 1878, the name Adelaide must have seemed to her mother, another Adelaide, and her father, the freethinking Episcopal minister Algernon Crapsey, a fine choice. But a name may date quickly, especially in times of dramatic historical change, and it's just possible that this distinctly unfashionable handle contributed, alongside her gender, to the poet's later neglect.
Crapsey's posthumously published collection Verses (1915) was initially a popular success. Critical attention eluded her, however, and she was sidelined by the pace-setting anthologies. Yet she was one of the pioneers of 20th-century modernism. Inspired by a collection of Japanese haiku and tanka published in French translation, she invented the unrhymed, 5-lined, 22-syllable form known subsequently as the American cinquain. If only, like HD, she'd had Ezra Pound as a publicist and an intriguing pseudonym. Poetry editors just might have been more receptive to the work of "AC Cinquainiste".
The cinquains are a good introduction to her work and I've picked two examples for this week, Blue Hyancinths and Youth. They appear separately in her collection, but the pairing usefully illustrates her range, and recalls the haiku influence. Haiku traditionally consist of poems which focus on images from the natural cycle, and a sub-genre, senryu, depicting everyday social life.
Crapsey's stress-pattern is usually iambic. The number of stresses per line is 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, while the syllabic pattern is 2, 4, 6, 8, 2. However, she's not rigidly tied to these rules, as both poems demonstrate, particularly Blue Hyacinths. The beautifully casual first line ("In your") can be stressed in various ways according to pronunciation, or better still not stressed at all. The second line has five syllables, not four, and the fourth has all of nine. This is worth noting, because the irregularity seems to enhance the difference of scale between the flower's individual "curled petals" and the vastness of the "blue headlands and seas" their colour evokes. Fragile brevity takes on an increasing weightiness as the poem opens out into those rich classical associations, culminating in the "perfumed immortal breath sighing / Of Greece". The two-syllable last line of the cinquain can sometimes create the sense of a "dying fall", but here there's a culmination of meaning and sound in the now solidly iambic stress – "Of Greece". The last word consolidates the flower's mythical qualities, but the flower is not romanticised out of existence. This seems akin to the way HD's poems characteristically operate. Crapsey, too, had visited Europe; in fact, she had studied in Rome. A southern sensuousness is evident in many of her nature poems.
Blue Hyacinths, for all its allusion, is a voiced poem, a rhythmical pulse of praise addressed to the hyacinths. A different sort of voice gives utterance in Youth. The poem works like a small dramatic monologue. Although Youth was written before Blue Hyacinths, it's not an early poem. Crapsey wrote her cinquains late in her short life: she was already ill when she began them in 1911, working on them till 1913 and perhaps a little later (she died in 1914). The voice in Youth may or may not be that of the poet's remembered younger self, but it obviously denotes a speaker young and healthy enough to feel immortal. The syntax is cleverly organised to capture the natural emphases of vehement speech, and this time the first line is firmly iambic: "But me / They cannot touch, / Old age and death …"
There's no direct concrete description, but in the lines "the strange / And ignominious end of old / Dead folk" the adjectives are doing something they too rarely do in poems: pulling their weight. They show us how youth separates itself from age by instinctive blind revulsion. The repetition of "old" insists on the speaker's sense of the difference between these "folk" and herself: perhaps it also suggests, by protesting too much, that she fears their fate. An ellipsis after "death" (perhaps counted as a silent syllable) furthers the idea of a threat which defies expression. Unlike the speaker of Blue Hyacinths, this narrator seems raw and exposed, without the comfort of imagining a living, "breathing" past. Youth turns away from the image of the "old / Dead folk", unaided by any intellectual or aesthetic mediation. Three accented syllables ("old / Dead folk") create a shocking climax, an effect broadcasting what the speaker strenuously wishes to avoid.
Crapsey's earlier neglect has been repaired of late, and there are some excellent online sites devoted to her. The cinquain as a form is discussed comprehensively here, with a good accompanying selection of Crapsey's finest. An important champion of her work, Karen Alkalay-Gut has written an illuminating account of her discovery and reappraisal of a poet she initially feared as a boring, stuffy "local poetess" and has assembled a complete online collection here.
In terms of poetic DNA, Adelaide Crapsey can be regarded as HD's elder sister and Emily Dickinson's niece. Her stature may be smaller than theirs, but she's not a negligible figure. Rightly celebrated for her skills in the cinquain, exemplified by these two selections, she wrote poems of many shapes and sizes. While admittedly some of them can seem derivatively romantic, it's the keen-edged, pared-down vernacular of the kind found in the cinquains that distinguishes her, both as an heir of Dickinson (check out The Sun-Dial or You Nor I Nor Nobody Knows in the online collection) and as an important transitional poet of early modernism.
Two cinquains by Adelaide Crapsey
Curled petals what ghosts
Of blue headlands and seas,
What perfumed immortal breath sighing
They cannot touch,
Old age and death … the strange
And ignominious end of old