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Annie Finch

Leonie Adams’ Incantatory Poetics

In 1954, Louise Bogan shared the Bollingen Prize for Poetry with another poet,
Leonie Adams. The two poets were often linked and compared, and Bogan, who
did not praise lightly, once said of Adams, "She has the greatest talent in the
really grand manner of anyone writing in America today.” Both honed their
poems nearly to a fault, and left highly polished, rather small bodies of work.
But while Bogan has retained respect as a poet in the past decades, Adams is out
of print, as obscure as a once-respected poet—winner of the Shelley Memorial
Award, the Harriet Monroe Award, consultant in poetry to the Library of
Congress, professor at Columbia University—can get.
No doubt there are nonpoetic reasons for this disparity—Bogan’s
relationship with Theodore Roethke, her published criticism and position
reviewing books for the New Yorker, the fact that Adams published no books
after her mid 50’s. But I suspect there is a poetic reason as well, which has
nothing to do with the quality of their work, but rather with their approach to
language.
Readers of the mid-twentieth-century seem to have liked their women
poets as either nuns or mistresses—heavy on intellect and idea, with a removed
expression of emotion, like Bishop and Moore, and to a lesser extent H.D. and

Bogan; or effusing with blatant emotion, like Millay, Wylie, Dunbar-Nelson, and
Teasdale. Leonie Adams doesn’t fit into either of these categories. Adams is a
lush, sensual poet who directed her sensuality not towards other people but
primarily towards the materials of poetry, towards syntax and symbol, diction
and word-sound, in short, towards the language itself. Stanzas like the following
are both syntactically cryptic and imagistically accessible, abstract and emotional,
intellectually demanding and physically available.

First stanza of The Lonely Host

Cast on the turning wastes of wind
Are cords which none can touch or see,
Are threads of subtle ore which bind
The grains of wandering air to peace.
If any stretch a hand to find
How fast, how gold a stuff it be,
He will but dizzy the poor mind
With bending from the steps of peace;
And though rest catch him in once more,
He is bewildered there, like birds
The storm beat to the door.

Adams' poetry teases the balance between the incantatory and
representational powers of poetic language. She uses the sounds of language as
counterweights to her poems' ostensible meanings, complicating the act of
reading and calling into question a reader's emotional responses. In “Country
Summer,” a line like “The warm farm baking smell’s blown round”
counterpoints rhythm with meaning, almost like a riddle: each word, whether
adjective, participle, noun, or verb, has equal weight and it is hard to sort out
which part of speech is which at first reading. The meaning of the line itself—the
warm farm baking smell’s blown round—describes the kind of paradoxical
experience of reality that Adams loved to write about; it is hard to distinguish
the smell from the air, from its location, and from its source, and the puzzling,
baffling disorientation of smelling such a pervasive smell, as described in the
stanza as a whole, is akin to the bafflement of reading this series of
monosyllables:

The warm farm baking smell’s blown round
Inside and out, and sky and ground
Are much the same; the wishing star,
Hesperus, kind and early born
Has risen only finger-far;
All stars stand close in summer air,
And tremble, and look mild as amber;
When wicks are lighted in the chamber,
They are like stars which settled there.

A star has only risen finger-far; stars stand close; and finally, stars have
settled inside. Things are what they seem, however strange their seeming is; and
normal proportions and distances have become irrelevant. The only humans in
the poem, some mowers in a field, are described in generalized terms almost as if
they were flowers or grasses themselves, and their own disorientation mirrors
the reader’s:

Now straightening from the flowery hay,
Down the still light the mowers look,
Or turn, because their dreaming shook,
And they waked half to other days, . .

The rest of Adams’ unusually consistent and cohesive body of work
provides clues as to the tools responsible for such disorientations. Allen Tate
placed Adams in the lineage of the Romantic poets. But in fact, Adams' poetry is
nothing like that of the Romantics. It lacks a central self with which the reader
can readily identify, and its emotional appeal is almost always twisted back on
itself in a sort of bizarre parody of the accessible lyric. And, though Adams’
poems have very few people in them, and most of them are full of nature
imagery, I would not call her a nature poet. She is too much of a Symbolist;
nature is important for her in a hermetic, gnomic sense, not because it mirrors
her own feelings or because she finds it of value in itself, but because of the way
it carries the echoes of people who have just gone, the way the leaves still shake
with someone’s movement. Nature is heavy with the “step across the field/ that
went from us unseen,” to use a phrase from Adams’ “The Runner With the

Lots”—a poem I carried with me for a week last winter, read constantly, and
came to love, without fully understanding anything of what it might mean— in
spite of its supposed syntactic coherence.
Adams wrote her dense, hermetic poems during the time when John
Crowe Ransom, in his scathing essay "The Woman as Poet," could accuse Edna
St. Vincent Millay of being incapable of being a great poet because as a woman
she was inherently lacking in intellect. But Adams’ strong intellectualism comes
out not in ideas per se, but in her challenging syntax and other poetic materials.
Adams’ world is one where meaning itself is perpetually just beyond the hill, just
across the field, just out of hearing. Adams’ nature is full of sounds that are
profoundly meaningful but don’t hold particular references; a bell, a voice, a
horn. Adams’ “The Horn” provides a clue as to why: the speaker finds a horn
that would move and delight her listeners, but in the next stanza, chilled by the
mist “risen like thin breath,” she abandons the image of the horn and names
instead a flame; its warmth seems necessary, “since bones have caught their
marrow chill.”

The Horn
While hastening to the feast I found
A venerable silver-throated horn,
Which were I brave enough to sound,
Then all, as from that moment born,
Would breathe the honey of this clime,
And three times merry in their time
Would praise the virtue of the horn.
The mist is risen like thin breath,
The young leaves of the ground smell chill,
And faintly are they strewn on death
The road I came down a west hill;
But quickening with its name I name

The slender creature-brightening flame
Since bones have caught their marrow chill.
Finally, the poet sees herself in the frightened eyes of the running hare:

And in a thicket passed me by,
In the black brush, a running hare,
Having a spectre in his eye,
That sped in darkness to the snare;
And ever since I know in pride,
The heart, set beating in the side,
Has but the wisdom of a hare.

But it is the first stanza that continues to resonate through the poem, as if
the echo of the abandoned horn continues to justify the sound of the rest of the
poem.
Adams’ poems can be best read as a series of incantatory language acts
whose meanings are ambivalent and often self-cancelling, while their primary
effect is to locate a reader within the immediate experience of language. Her
poetics can be likened to the invocation of a horn without hearers, a voice
without words, a song without melody, a language that can’t be understood, as
in the last stanza of “The Lonely Host”:

And though when lips are parched to tell
What brooded on the lips too long,
They quench them at a noisy well,
The noise of waters is so sweet
They say, The heart has ease of this,
And no more all its burden is

Than the catch of an old song;
And then to a lost catch repeat
The carking woe, the little bliss;
Like things every mortal hears,
But these tell them in a tongue
Barbarous to your ears.

But though Adams can seem to read these words as barbarous and the
lack of language as tragic, there is also room in her poems for a meaningfulness
without meaning, for a language of love that speaks without reference or
comprehension. Concerned perhaps more with the mystery of language than
with anything language supposedly expresses, bridging experimental and
traditional poetics in unexpected ways, Adams' incantatory poetry is an
intriguing precursor of the work of such poets as Helen Adam and Madeline
Gleason. As she commands the reader in the last few lines of Adams’ poem
“Counsel to Unreason,”

Then only in the slant glass contemplate,
Where lineament outstripping line is scanned,
Then on the perplexed text leave pondering,
Love’s proverb is set down transliterate

Originally written for “Foremothers Corner”
on the WOM-PO (Discussion of Women’s Poetry) Website