Saturday, October 31, 2009

REVIVAL OF AN OLD POET


When we moved to Sewanee with the intention of staying at least six months of the year, I had to cull my library here in New Iberia for favorites to take with me to The Mountain. Most of my books of poetry found a new home in Tennessee, but I left hundreds of other beloved volumes, some of which were passed on to me by my godparents who lived in Virginia most of their lives. Markham, my godfather, was Head of the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, so I inherited anthologies of literature and books by the Elizabethan and Romantic poets. Dora, my second cousin and godmother, passed on several volumes of poetry written by friends of the family, among which were two volumes by Mary Leslie Newton.

In another life when I took Communion to Sarah Helm of New Iberia (now deceased), I found we shared a mutual interest in the work of poet Mary Leslie Newton who had been Sarah’s headmistress at All Saints Episcopal School in Vicksburg, Mississippi and who had been Dean of the school when my godmother served as Assistant Dean. Sarah had never seen one of the small volumes I inherited from godmother, a green leather book measuring 3 ½” x 5 ½” entitled THE WINGS OF LONELINESS. The volume, with its parchment frontispiece (still in good condition), was written in 1925 and contained twelve poems to coincide with the months of the year, each reflecting the theme of loneliness.

On a flap torn from another of Newton’s books of poetry entitled A CROOKED STAFF, I learned that the poet had graduated from the University of Tennessee, and following her retirement from All Saints, she had moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, a forty minute drive from my second home at Sewanee. She'd probably be judged as a “minor poet” in contemporary literary circles, but some of her work had appeared in the “New York Times,” the famed “Poetry” magazine, “The Lyric,” “Singing Mississippi,” and other publications.

During WWII, Mary Newton was in great demand as a lecturer and conducted a class on current events during the war years. In addition to her work at All Saints, she taught at Noble Institute in Anniston, Alabama, Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah, and at St. Mary’s Hall in Dallas, Texas. When she attended the University of Tennessee, she produced so many publishable poems that she had to use several noms de plume for the school paper in which they appeared so the readers wouldn’t accuse of her monopolizing space.

Mary Newton’s friends referred to her as Emily Dickinson, and she was capable of writing what I call “pithy snippets;” e.g., “A memory is a sudden coin you touch/Deep in an empty pocket…”

From THE WINGS OF LONELINESS, a few lines from the poem depicting August:

“Night is a pool of silence, on whose brink
Hover the stars, and winds stoop down to drink.”

‘Seems she was a minimalist in 1925 before the minimalist movement had gained momentum in the literary world. It’s nice to find such small treasures on my own bookshelves.
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