February 5, 2015

Dear Elise,

Elise Partridge, 1958-2015
I first met Elise Partridge in the early 2000s. She was hosting a meeting of Vancouver's Poetry Dogs and graciously included me, at Stephanie Bolster's suggestion, while I was visiting the city. What an evening! Everyone brought a poem (by someone else, canonical or not) to talk about, wonder over, appreciate, take apart and put back together. Elise and I stayed in touch; like so many others, I was the recipient of her warmth and generosity over and over, in many forms. We were mid-conversation for this blog when she became unable to continue; her response to my question about how she first came to poetry (below) romps through wonderfully playful territory as she considers successive "illuminations"--her term for the phases of her discovery of poetry: its gifts and hers in it. Her last letter about the project came in the middle of December, telling me she was making notes on the subject of voice and hoped to have an answer ready soon.

Dear Elise, your answer is already here, and has been all along: in your own brilliant voice, in your poems and your life. 

Anansi, Spring 2015
"In Grade Three, a friend -- she's still a dear friend -- gave me a book of nonsense poetry for my birthday. I was so taken with it that I brought it to Show and Tell, stood up at the blackboard and read aloud from it for quite some time. My friend's mother happened to be our Grade Three homeroom teacher, and one of the marvelous things she did for our class was read stories to us every week, so maybe I was taking my cues partly from her. I was shy and this was something very unusual for me to do, but I guess I hoped my classmates would be as amused as I was by the poem about a tarsier waiter who splattered obnoxious customers with oyster bisque or served them rice pudding stuffed in a sock; by the depiction, in bouncy couplets, of a party guest named Sir Smashum Uppe, who destroyed his hostess's teacups accidentally and went on to splintering her Queen Anne chairs; and by a free-verse curiosity that began 'What a wonderful bird the frog are.' The poems were subversive and funny and must have spoken to something I needed in the third grade. 

"A couple of years later, a scholarly uncle who had discovered I loved to read sent me my first adult modern poetry anthology, a collection called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle

"The next illumination came when I was in Grade Six or so and the minister at our church gave a series of sermons based on W.H. Auden's 'A Christmas Oratorio.' This minister was the first person I ever encountered outside of school who loved poetry -- he was an enthusiastic member of the Browning Society all his life, and once told me his favorite George Herbert poem was 'Bitter-Sweet'; he knew it by heart and recited it to me. I remember him also quoting from 'In Memory of W. B. Yeats':

      Follow, poet, follow right
      To the bottom of the night,
      With your unconstraining voice
      Still persuade us to rejoice.... 


"This minister's Oratorio sermons were the first time I'd heard Auden's name, and after that I sought out Auden's work. When I discovered his 'The Unknown Citizen,' it made a deep impression on me. I memorized it for a recitation contest at school. Though I stumbled a bit in the declamation and two other girls had prepared a spectacular co-presentation of 'Casey at the Bat,' to my surprise the contest judges gave me the prize, I think mostly because I'd chosen such a good poem.

"And then during my high-school years, I had a remarkable teacher who introduced us to Prufrock, Donne, Lear and many others. One day she gave us an assignment to write a poem, and I turned in something awful about a dead seagull. This teacher was a very tough grader who didn't hesitate to flunk students, and when she handed my effort back, I saw she had written at the bottom in red ink, 'I recognize poetry here.' I thought she was being sardonic, but when we next met she said no, she thought I had a gift. She encouraged me for years afterward, until she died much too young of cancer." 


--Elise Partridge, on how she first came to poetry, in conversation with Susan Gillis, November 2014.

Read about Elise Partridge at Quill and Quire and The Globe and Mail. More, including some of her poems, is available at The Poetry Foundation.