Thursday, July 29, 2010

Marvelously Chiseled Gems

Best remembered as the inventor of the cinquain, Adelaide Crapsey is a poet whose compressed lyrics "are a remarkable testament of a spirit 'flashing unquenched defiance to the stars,'" as quoted in Boston Transcript.

A great deal of Crapsey's poetry revolves around the subjects of death and dying most probably influenced by her knowledge of her own terminal illness. She had been diagnosed with tuberculosis of the brain lining in 1911.

Her poetry book "Verse" was published in 1915, shortly after her death was the only collection of her own verse which she edited during her lifetime. It contained only sixty-three poems. Her entire body of poetic work contsists of less than one hundred poems.

During her prolonged illness, her work centered mainly on her confrontation with death. The subject of death took on more than usual significance, even preoccupation to a poet who living with a terminal disease.

"To her genuine poetic ability Miss Crapsey added a considerable technical knowledge of metrics. In the verse form which she invented and called the cinquain she has done some of her best work—clear cut ideas sharply focused, single impressions etched in a few significant lines," wrote a reviewer for the Independent. A critic for the Boston Transcript called the poems "marvelously chiseled gems."

Crapsey's first passion was the meter of a poem. Crapsey was most interested in the technical problems, not the poetic sentiments behind her poems and she regarded some of her verses as "mere by-products" of her metrical studies. She wrote "A Study in English Metrics in an attempt "to classify poets by comparing the percentage of one—or two—syllable words with the percentage of polysyllabic words in their poems. She hoped to develop a theory of the relation between natural accent and poetic accent in English verse." as explained by Susan Sutton Smith in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

Here is one of my favorite of Crapsey's poems . . .

The Properly Scholarly Attitude

The poet pursues his beautiful theme;
The preacher his golden beatitude;
And I run after a vanishing dream—
The glittering, will-o’-the-wispish gleam
Of the properly scholarly attitude—
The highly desirable, the very advisable,
The hardly acquirable, properly scholarly attitude.

I envy the savage without any clothes,
Who lives in a tropical latitude;
It’s little of general culture he knows.
But then he escapes the worrisome woes
Of the properly scholarly attitude—
The unceasingly sighed over, wept over, cried over,
The futilely died over, properly scholarly attitude.

I work and I work till I nearly am dead,
And could say what the watchman said—that I could!
But still, with a sigh and a shake of the head,
“You don’t understand,” it is ruthlessly said,
“The properly scholarly attitude—
The aye to be sought for, wrought for and fought for,
The ne’er to be caught for, properly scholarly attitude—”

I really am sometimes tempted to say
That it’s merely a glittering platitude;
That people have just fallen into the way,
When lacking a subject, to tell of the sway
Of the properly scholarly attitude—
The easily preachable, spread-eagle speechable,
In practice unreachable, properly scholarly attitude.


  1. I thought it said "gams."

    I am a big fan - of your poetry, and now also of Miss Crapsey.

  2. I will be writing a curriculum for a workshop on blogs I'll be doing in Bellevue this winter. I will e-mail you what I have when I have it.

    Great beginning!