She’s Well-Versed in the Art of Writing Well : Poetry: Author, editor and teacher Jean Burden shares her lifelong obsession through invitation-only workshops in her home.
A small sign by the barn-red cottage’s screen door lets you know to expect a different sort of encounter with the longtime occupant.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons “or other proselytizers! . . . " should positively stay away, the sign on the wooden front porch warns, but adds, “All poets welcome!”
From the time she was growing up in the suburban enclave of Evanston, Ill., Jean Burden has gone against convention to welcome the muse into her home and life.
And as a writer, editor and teacher of poetry, she has done so with a respectable measure of success. Her second collection of poems was published in the spring. Since 1955, the longtime resident of Southern California has served as--of all things--poetry editor of the quintessential New England magazine, Yankee. Six years ago, Cal State L.A. established a poetry-reading series in her honor. And now at age 77, though occasionally beset by ill health, she teaches invitation-only poetry workshops in her cozy Altadena living room.
Burden’s poetry, according to Howard Nemerov--the late U.S. poet laureate who championed her work after reading her first collection in the early 1960s--is filled with “unobtrusive technical virtuosity.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin, who has long been a friend, praises Burden’s poems for their “tough-minded candor.”
For her part, Burden, an Altadena resident since the mid-1940s, said she is just “a hard-working writer” who has “made the most out of what is probably a medium-sized talent.”
“I’m a good minor poet,” she said. “And that is saying something. But one should keep oneself in perspective.”
Carl Selkin, the English department head at Cal State L.A. and a friend of Burden’s for 20 years, said it is important to realize that “there is a big difference between a minor poet and a second-rate poet.”
“Though she hasn’t produced a body of work comparable to major poets, her poetry has great force,” he said.
The best way to gain the proper perspective, admirers say, is to read Burden’s latest collection, “Taking Light from Each Other,” published by the University Press of Florida.
The book contains 46 poems dealing with subjects such as mother, father, friends, lovers and cats. Many of them originally appeared in respected poetry journals.
Once a University of Chicago student of writer Thornton Wilder, Burden said she had no other choice than to write poetry.
“I started writing little verses when I was about 7,” she said. “They were dreadful. But I loved poetry. I was always going to be a writer. There was never any other ambition.”
Still, she said: “I never was a prolific poet. I marvel at poets who say they write a poem a day. I’m very critical, which makes me a good teacher and good editor. But it inhibits me as a poet.”
Her poems often spring forth, she said, when “a certain degree of emotional malnourishment exists” within her. “You don’t write poetry when you are happy.”
Neither did she write poems to earn her living, although her poetry books have done well, and a collection of her essays on poetry is often used as a college text.
Burden’s bread-and-butter came from free-lance journalism and public relations that included promotions to sell dog and cat food. Under the pen name Felicia Ames, she wrote six nonfiction books dealing with the care of animals, and these are estimated to have sold 2 million to 3 million copies.
Publishing in magazines as disparate as Atlantic, Mademoiselle and Prairie Schooner, Burden has written about 1,000 articles that stretch across the broad landscape from Eastern religious thought to pets. For more than 10 years, she was the “pet editor” of Woman’s Day.
Besides that work, she developed a reputation as a formidable poetry teacher. Once a lecturer at both Pasadena City College and UC Irvine, for three decades she has conducted private workshops, attracting students that include college deans, English department chairmen and published poets.
“What I’ve learned to do as a teacher is to pull poems out of people,” she said. “And to be able to criticize poems without criticizing the poet.”
An outgrowth of Burden’s teaching was the creation of an unusual poetry series at Cal State L.A., named in her honor when it was started by Selkin in 1986. Some of America’s best poets have read in the series, which opened with former Burden student Paul Zimmer and was followed by a string of award-winners: Tess Gallagher, Nemerov, Kumin, Mark Strand, Lucille Clifton and Carolyn Kizer.
To fund the series, Selkin, who has been part of the workshops for 15 years, used Burden’s Christmas-card list to let her friends know that money was needed.
The response overwhelmed Selkin. Poets and friends of poetry sent $10,000. Later, a former Burden workshop member, Virginia E. Smith, provided an additional boost by contributing $50,000.
“I don’t know of any other poetry series funded like this,” said Selkin, who added that it is a testament to Burden’s significance as a writer, editor and teacher--and even promoter--of poetry.
Her role as a promoter of poetry is perhaps best represented by her transformation of the poetry page of Yankee into a place where some of the country’s best poets publish for an audience of 1 million subscribers.
If she told the real story of how she became poetry editor, she said, “it’d be a bestseller.” Regardless, Burden said it stemmed partly from a love affair, but she preferred not to elaborate.
But no matter how she got the job, Burden said she faced opposition from the dyed-in-the-wool New Englanders who “didn’t want to read contemporary poetry.”
Not long after she took over in 1955, someone wrote the magazine--published in Dublin, N.H.--saying: “I wish you would quietly drop Jean Burden into Dublin Lake or something.”
Other readers were irate to discover that she didn’t even live in New England.
“How come your letter was postmarked from Pasadena?” wrote one reader.
Burden’s terse reply: “Because that’s where I live.”
The tone is typical of her acerbic side.
Said Selkin: “She is very demanding as a friend and as a teacher. She doesn’t put up with a lot of stuff, and that has lost her some friends. But it means that the people who really do like her stick with her.”
An only child, she was married for eight years as a young woman and then divorced in 1949. “I’m the kind of person who is very happy living alone and doing what I want,” she said. For much of her adult life, she worked to support not only herself but also her mother, who moved to the West Coast from the Midwest with her. In 1969, her mother died.
“She was a very strong personality and in some way I resemble her,” said Burden, who has written a powerful poem called “Photograph of My Mother at Eighteen.”
Throughout Burden’s life, she has surrounded herself with a creative circle.
In the 1950s, she met Alan Watts when he was lecturing in Los Angeles and, she said, “was swept off my feet.” The late Watts, once referred to as “the brain and Buddha of American Zen,” is best known for popularizing Eastern thought in the West during the 1960s.
“We had a four-year, tumultuous love affair,” Burden said. “He was a very difficult man to be in love with. He was a rogue. He drank too much. Women were catnip to him. I finally couldn’t reconcile his moral hypocrisy.”
Yet, she said, “He was one of the most fascinating men I ever have met.”
When Burden gave a reading at the Huntington Library in San Marino in March to celebrate the publication of her new book, she did not mention Watts by name, but she did talk affectionately about a gift he made for her.
Holding up the book, she explained that the cover’s Japanese calligraphic design was based on an original work hanging in her living room. She also pointed out that it was the time of the March full moon and told the audience the calligraphy’s translation: “All the waters contain the moon.”
She read poem after poem to appreciative listeners, and, in the end, admirers gathered around.
“It made me cry,” one woman said.
“Poetry should move people to cry,” Burden replied bluntly.
Then, in the way a good poet can shift the mood in an instant, Burden said: “Say, if we get any puddles tonight, be sure to see if they contain the moon.”
A Sampling of Her Work
Closing of Jean Burden’s “Photograph of My Mother at Eighteen”
lithe as a whip,
she menstruated at nine, she told me,
read Ovid for pleasure,
worked in the garden on her knees,
baked thirteen kinds of bread,
sang me to sleep with “La Boheme.”
At 91 she almost outlived me.
Her eyes were as bright as finches’.
She weighed less than a child.
“Let me go,” she said. It was her last command.
I carry her lightly in my bones.
Opening of Jean Burden’s “On Being Asked to Join a Communal Tub, Mt. Tamalpais”
Wacky, bearded gent,
friend of my childhood,
you howl with laughter
at my doubt, and tell me
your mother at eighty
just learned to play the drums.
The tub holds seventeen--plenty
of room, you say, for me
so slight you could lift me in one hand.
The invitation is tempting,
as though you had proposed
seduction in a bed
big enough for a clutch of mermaids,
impersonal as a pond,
as what the fish do under it.
I imagine saying yes.