• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

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Poetry Friday: Choosing laughter

I’ve always liked the idea of Barbara Howes’s “carnival hour” so much better than the “arsenic hour” I started hearing about when my three were tots. As the Poetry Foundation’s wonderful online biography notes, Miss Howes’s “verses paint a world of family, natural surroundings, and the wisdom inherent in natural inclinations” (emphasis mine).

Early Supper
by Barbara Howes (1914-1996)

Laughter of the children brings
The kitchen down with laughter.
While the old kettle sings
Laughter of children brings
To a boil all savory things.
Higher than beam or rafter,
Laughter of the children brings
The kitchen down with laughter.

So ends an autumn day,
Light ripples on the ceiling,
Dishes are stacked away;
So ends an autumn day,
The children jog and sway
In comic dances wheeling.
So ends an autumn day,
Light ripples on the ceiling.

They trail upstairs to bed,
And night is a dark tower.
The kettle calls; instead
They trail upstairs to bed,
Leaving warmth, the coppery-red
Mood of their carnival hour.
They trail upstairs to bed,
And night is a dark tower.

from Poetry for Pleasure: The Hallmark Book of Poetry (1960), selected and arranged by the editors of Hallmark Cards, who did a surprisingly good job, all things considered

* * *

Although Barbara Howes was a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry in 1995 for her Collected Poems 1945-1990, her poems were little known during her lifetime. In his New York Times review of Collected Poems, New Criterion poetry editor Robert Richman praised Miss Howes’s “ability to sketch domestic scenes” as well as her “formal adeptness and lyric skill” (Early Supper is, after all, a triolet — not to be confused with the French board game, by the way). He also called her “as obscure a worthy poet as I can think of.”

Poet Dana Gioia wrote in his review of Collected Poems and appreciation of the poet,

Howes’s current obscurity is difficult to understand. Before A Private Signal [a finalist for the 1978 National Book Award], she had published five books of poetry, each of which met with a very favorable reception: The Undersea Farmer (1948), In the Cold Country (1954), Light and Dark (1959), Looking Up at Leaves (1966) and The Blue Garden (1972). Her admirers constitute an impressive club that has included Richard Wilbur, Stanley Kunitz, Carolyn Kizer, Robert Phillips, Robert Penn Warren, and Katherine Anne Porter. Reviewing her second book, Louise Bogan [The New Yorker’s poetry critic for 38 years] called her “the most accomplished woman poet of the youngest writing generation—one who has found her own voice, chosen her own material, and worked out her own form,” an opinion she repeated in subsequent reviews of Howes’s work. Yet over the year Howes’s reputation has not grown. She has become a poet known mostly to other poets of her own generation.

Miss Howes was born in 1914 in New York and adopted by a Massachusetts family. She was raised outside of Boston in Chestnut Hill and attended Bennington College in Vermont; according to her New York Times obituary, “While she was a student, she sought, and learned, the identity of her natural parents and found that her ancestors included Anne Bradstreet, the 17th-century American poet.” After graduating in 1937, she worked for a time for the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union in Mississippi, founded three years earlier.

Miss Howes later moved to New York, living in Greenwich Village and working as an editor; she was literary editor of the magazine Chimera from 1943 to until her marriage in 1947 to the poet William Jay Smith. The following year saw the publication of Barbara Howes’s first volume of poetry, The Undersea Farmer.

The couple, who had two sons, Gregory Jay Smith and David Smith, lived for a time in England and Italy while Smith studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and the University of Florence. William Jay Smith has written of their life together,

In the year 1947 everything that I had been working toward for some time seemed to come together. I had spent a year at Columbia University as a graduate student in English and comparative literature while at the same time teaching classes in beginning and intermediate English and French. I had applied for a Rhodes scholarship from Missouri. The age limit for applicants for the scholarships had been extended so that veterans might apply. In the spring I went out for interviews in St. Louis and in Iowa and I was one of those chosen to enter Oxford in the fall. At the same time my friends Claude Fredericks and Milton Saul, who had founded the Banyan Press in New York, came to ask if I had a book of poems ready for publication. I quickly put together what I thought were my best twenty-one poems and just as they were completing the printing of the book, which I had called simply Poems, a letter was forwarded to me by the editors of the little magazine Furioso, which had printed a poem of mine entitled “Cupidon.” The letter from poet Marianne Moore stated that she considered this poem “a permanence, a rare felicity.” Marianne Moore gave us permission to quote her and although the book had no dust jacket a special band with her statement was made to wrap around each copy. The result was that she really launched my poetic career: her recommendation meant that the book was reviewed by the New York Times and other important newspapers and magazines, which was very unusual for a first book by an unknown poet published by a new and unknown press. Then just three days before leaving for Oxford I married the poet Barbara Howes. We had met in New York when she accepted a poem of mine for Chimera, the literary quarterly that she edited. The rules for Rhodes scholars had been changed, and for the first time, because of the dislocation of the war years, members of our class were allowed to be married. I arrived in Oxford as a married man and a published poet. Stephen Spender, whom I had met on his first trip to New York, had accepted a poem of mine for publication in Horizon, which he edited in London with Cyril Connolly. We had introductions to some of the leading poets, among them the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who was then living near Oxford. We used to see him and his wife Caitlin regularly along with other Oxford friends such as Enid Starkie, a lecturer in French, the historian A. L. Rowse, and Lord David Cecil. Living in Oxford at the time was not easy; food was still rationed and heating was difficult. But I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet such talented writers and scholars.

I went on writing poetry, but rather than stay on at Oxford to complete my doctorate, we left at the end of the year to take up residence in Florence, where we had gone to visit friends. Florence at the time was like Paris after World War I: it attracted a great number of American artists and writers. Living was inexpensive and we were able to rent a villa on the outskirts of the city while I studied Italian language and literature at the university. We stayed for two years and our elder son David was born there. We returned to America to settle in Pownal, Vermont, in a farmhouse that Barbara, who had attended Bennington College nearby, had purchased before our marriage. I then began teaching part-time at Williams College, just over the border in Massachusetts. But Italy drew us back again and we spent a second two-year period in Florence from 1955 to 1957. …

The couple divorced in 1965. Thereafter Miss Howes lived at her Vermont farm, spending time as well in the Caribbean. She continued to write — her works often appeared in The New Yorker — and to edit; some of her best compilations of the time include From the Green Antilles: Writings of the Caribbean (1966) and The Eye of the Heart: Short Stories From Latin America (1973). Her final volume of her own verses, Collected Poems 1945-1990, appeared in 1995. Barbara Howes died the following year at age 81 in Vermont. Reflecting on her writing, the poet Richard Wilbur remarked, “Some of her poems have the tartness of up-country New England, yet she can speak fantastically, to evoke the fantastic clamors of New York; and in many a southerly poem, she speaks, for our pleasure, the tongue of pure felicity.”

For a bibliography and more of her poems, see the Poetry Foundation page for Barbara Howes.

* * *

Today’s Poetry Friday round-up is hosted by Kelly Herold at Big A little a. Speaking of choosing laughter, Kelly’s Poetry Friday selection is Bruce Lansky’s “Confession”. Thanks for hosting, Kelly, especially because this sounds like a very busy weekend!

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