Asked to name that book published in the last quarter of a century that she believed to have been the most undeservedly neglected for an American Scholar feature on “Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years,”, Louise Bogan, in one of her last letters, nominated “the poetry of Abbie Huston Evans.” Chances are few of The American Scholar’s readers recognized Evan’s name. Chances are even fewer of today’s readers would.
And chances are that Evans would have taken this in stride. Few poets have had her capacity for patience and her ability to see things from the long view.
When an eye ailment required a series of surgeries that forced her to postpone entering Radcliffe College for six years, she waited, spending endless days walking along the coast near her home in Camden, Maine. Over thirty when she graduated, she still took on the challenges of a younger woman, traveling to France to work with the Red Cross during World War One and returning to the States to work in social relief for miners in Colorado and steelworkers in Pittsburgh. By the time she joined the faculty of the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, she was forty-one; she taught there for the next thirty years.
With a little help from Edna St. Vincent Millay, who’d been one of Evans’ Sunday school students in Camden, Harpers agreed to publish her first collection of poems, Outcrop, in 1928. Evans was 47. “Read these poems too swiftly, or only once, and your heart may still be free of them. Read them again, with care, and they will lay their hands upon you.” Evans herself acknowledged that she favored things that required long study. “For some twisted reason I/Love what many men pass by,” begins one of her early poems, “Juniper.”
She could write of “The Mountains” that “they are at best but a short-lived generation,/Such as stars must laugh at as they journey forth.” Looking at the stones in “The Stone-Wall,” she could see that, having been dug up from the earth, they were “Back to darkness sinking/At a pace too slow/for man’s eyes to mark, less/Swift than shells grow.” No wonder that when Richard Wilbur presented Evans with the Russell Loines Award for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1961, he said that “her subject is nature, and it is not a nature bordered by candytuft. It is ancient, vast, mysterious, and catastrophic; it includes the polar ice-caps and ‘knittings and couplings’ of the atoms.”
Some of this tendency she owed to her father, a Welshman who emigrated to the U. S. as a young man, and who worked for years to be able to put himself through college and theological seminary, becoming a Congregational minister in his thirties. Evans was proud of her father and commemorated him in “Welsh Blood,” a poem written in her seventies.
Here my own father
Worked in the coal seam
Out of light of day,
Going in by starlight,
Coming out by starlight,
First, a child of seven.
Last, a man of twenty,
Throwing down the coal pick,
Crossed the ocean,
Found my mother,
Evans’ second collection, The Bright North (1938) gained little recognition when it was published in 1938, but a few other poets cherished a number of poems from the collection. Louise Bogan liked to include Evans’ “To a Forgotten Dutch Painter” in her readings, perhaps because it celebrated the same attention to fine details that was integral to Bogan’s own style:
You are a poet, for you love the thing
Itself. In twenty ways you make me know
You dote on difference little as that which sets
Berry apart from berry in the handful.
It was not until she was nearly eighty, however, that she won the Loines Award and her third collection, Fact of Crystal, was selected as winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. A slender book of just thirty-seven poems, it had taken her over twenty years to write. “Words have to ripen for me,” she once explained, and she was satisfied that two or three poems a year was a perfectly respectable rate of production.
If anything, Evans felt that haste was antithetical to good poetry. In “The Bridgehead Generation,” she cautioned her colleagues,
We are too near. In the face of what we see
Silence is better than the sound of words.
Homer himself sang not till Trojan swords
Were long since rust in an old century.
Not till the tumult dies, and under green
Lie all of us, and time has brought to birth
Poets whose frame-dust slumbers deep in earth
Can men make song of what our eyes have seen.
And yet she remained very much aware of the changes taking place around her. She took part in a “Poets for Peace” reading in New York City in 1967, alongside Wilbur, Arthur Miller, and Robert Lowell. When the University of Pittsburgh published her Collected Poems in 1970 as part of its Pitt Poetry Series (which is full of fine volumes of unjustly neglected poetry), it included five new poems Evans had written within the last two years. Among them was “Martian Landscape,” inspired by the signals sent back to Earth by Mariner 4 and Mars 3 spacecraft. In it, she demonstrated an understanding both of the nature of digital communication and the possibilities of finding poetry at the cutting edge of technology:
I think of the Martian landscape late delivered
To the eye of man by digits of a code
Reporting shades of grayness, darker, lighter,
In dull procession; in the end disclosing
To the rapt eye the unimagined craters.
— And I see a poem, word by word assembled
In markings down a page flash into code,
And bring in sightings of another landscape
No eye has seen before.
When Evans died at the age of 101 in 1983, no major newspaper noted her passing. Her friend, Margaret Shea, wrote of her interment, “I didn’t expect trumpets and a Bach chorale, but I had hoped for some better farewell to a great poet. One spray of flowers lay on the astro-turf; on a small disposable table behind the flowers stood a box containing her ashes…. What a ceremony for such a lively, gallant lady.”
Evans was a great lover of music. She had season tickets to the Philadelphia for decades, and sometimes quipped that half of the musicians in the Orchestra had been in one or other of her classes at the Settlement Music School. And so I want to close by reprinting a lovely and funny tribute to music from Fact of Crystal:
All Those Hymnings-up to God
All those hymnings-up to God of Bach and Cesar Franck
Cannot have been lost utterly, been arrows that went wide.
Like homing birds loosed from the hand, beating up through land fog,
Have they not circled up above, poised, and found out direction
(The old God gone, the new not yet, but back of all I AM)?
Such cryings-up confound us; I think they are not tangential,
But aimed at a center; I think that the through-road will follow their blaze.
No man has handled God, but these men have come nearest.
I trust them more than the foot rule. Bach may yet have been right.