Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick reads “Rent” by Jane Cooper.
Sundress: I love a good origin story, learning how writers find other writers and their work. What can you tell us about Jane Cooper? Do you remember when you first read her work?
Shannon Hardwick: A: What I really need to know is, do you want the entire origin story? It’s a long one. Back in the day, when I was in high school, I joined a poetry community online called allpoetry.com. Thankfully, my poems and page don’t exist anymore (I’ve looked) due to inactivity but basically, you sign up, post poems and other poets comment / critique your work. It was my lifeline, really, for the majority of high school and into my first couple years of college.
I met a now ex boyfriend there, from Toronto. We ended up applying to grad schools together. Ultimately, that didn’t work out. Still friends. I also met an ex fiancé from England. That’s a whole other story. But most importantly, I met Jane Cooper’s nephew. We became pretty close. He was a sort of mentor and championed for me to apply to graduate school.
Of course, he was the one that told me about Sarah Lawrence, where his Aunt, Jane Cooper, taught for 30 plus years. He told me amazing stories of her friendships with Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Muriel Rukeyser, Grace Paley, Jean Valentine–all of these amazing women poets would become my poet-mother-figures. It all started with Jane, though.
Eventually, I graduated undergrad and starting working in Oil and Gas in Fort Worth, Texas. But at night, I’d research Jane and her friend’s work. That’s how I encountered Kazim Ali, who I admire so much now, as he wrote an essay on her for American Poetry Review. You had to order the essay online and they would mail it to you. I remember waiting for my letter of acceptance from Sarah Lawrence and that essay coming in the mail. It was in a large envelope and I thought it was my acceptance letter.
Anyway, I ended up going to Sarah Lawrence, but Jane had passed away the year prior, so my first year in New York, I went to the New School for a gathering of remembrance for her, a poet who I was looking so forward to meet, who, through her nephew, I gained the strength to follow my dream against amazing push back from everyone else in my life.
So, I stood there in the New School among so many amazing poets, getting ready to read Jane’s poems I had sat for hours reading in my little apartment in Fort Worth, Texas, and in walks her nephew, a lawyer from California who I had shared my work with for six years. It was the first time we had met in person, at Jane’s life-celebration reading.
My first conference with Marie Howe, at Sarah Lawrence, I walked into her office and I said, “This was Jane’s office.” I didn’t know, per se. But I knew. She said, “Yes, it was.” Jane Cooper was a great mentor to Marie Howe.
The next day, I handed her a poem I had written called “For Jane, on Her Nephew’s Birthday,” which was really a poem dedicated to her life as a poet, and she hung it on her office door. Jane Cooper published a book every decade of her life, starting in her late 30’s. She worked quietly and fiercely and each poem was loved and cared for long before seeing the light of publication. At a time when I was a little fledgling poet, writing long pieces all about my internal woes, Jane was the mature mother that I still aspire to be more like.
Sundress: That’s one of the most incredible stories I’ve ever heard! I’m always stunned to find out who knows who in the literature world. It seems that people are so nebulous that chances are you’ll have literary connective tissue with someone anywhere—time-space compression and all that. I like how you identify Jane Cooper as the “mature mother” you strive to be. It seems that attending Sarah Lawrence after her passing was a powerful experience. What was it like to develop as a writer in that environment?
Shannon Hardwick: Sarah Lawrence was one of the most formative and positive experiences for me. I only applied to University of Toronto and Sarah Lawrence. Those were simply the only two places in North America that I wanted to attend. I really wanted to attend postgraduate work in the United Kingdom. However, that never panned out and maybe won’t, ever. Anyway, I didn’t get into U of T and I was actually wait listed to SLC. It was devastating. A month after my wait list letter, I was accepted.
No one agreed with my decision to apply. I got lectures from my family. Why would I want to leave a high paying job in oil and gas for a poetry degree? In New York? I remember I celebrated that phone call for maybe an hour before it set in that everyone in my life thought I was an idiot. They came around, though, in the end, and I knew I could always go back to my previous work experience.
So, being at Sarah Lawrence was sort of rebellious and freeing and I finally felt like I was doing something for me, and only me. I felt like I had found a real community and I loved every single second of it. Not to mention, Jane Cooper helped, along with Rukeyser and others, Sarah Lawrence grow the writing program to what it is today. It really did feel like fulfilling a soul-legacy, as weird and vague as that sounds.
New York did stress me out, though. I found I actually wrote more when I returned to Texas. But being around so many writers and creative minds was invaluable to me, and luckily so because those student loans were a bitch.
Sundress: What about “Rent” makes it essential to your bookshelf? Of all her poetry why did you choose “Rent?”
Shannon Hardwick: It was hard to pick one poem, but this one has to be it. It sums up the power of her poetry. How much she can move in such a tightly refined space.
Sundress: The title of the poem, “Rent,” implies a thing owed, paid, and a separation. But I also can’t get the relationship with rend out of my mind. What do you make of Cooper’s word play?
Shannon Hardwick: I love that you pointed out the play on “rent” and “rend”. Jane Cooper worked quietly but with great force. It’s like a slow turning of heat on the skin–afterward you realize you’ve been burned by brilliance while being pulled in by her rhythm and form. That is to say, in much of her work, there’s a quiet pain; sadness, almost, toward things left unsaid, or things that should be said.
How to maintain the female voice in post-war America is how many describe her work, but I think it goes much deeper, more personal, toward simply being a woman and then a human, in this world. She dealt with the complexities but subtly. Here, the poem starts out almost in a confrontational tone, at least to me. But it ends in a sort of willing, gorgeous surrender. One could go so far as to say this tone is a metaphor for how we start and end life. I really see that here.
Not only that, but to get even more metaphysical on you, it starts very material, with monetary “rent”, with a formal, contractual tone in “free agents”, etc. And then we get a bit more abstract with the armchair shaping the air like a body—here’s the transition from physical to spiritual, if you will. Then her literal turn with, never mind all that physical stuff: “I don’t want you rent.” The speaker wants, perhaps, what God or the Universe wants from our lives: “radiance”, “attention”, “awe”.
I get emotional just thinking of the powerful transitions in here. No kidding, I’m tearing up. And then that ending–the act of seeing a couple at a dinner table, candle between them, limitless in the field of stars.
Sundress: I find the metaphor you pointed out and the transition from the more material towards the abstract really interesting. There appear to be a lot of transient notes—surrendering the apartment and rent, the rocking chair can “let you go” just as easily as it holds you, there is the ethereal flame—are these what point you towards the poem as a metaphor for the beginning and end of life? Or is that being drawn from elsewhere?
Shannon Hardwick: Yes. I guess I see it through the lens of Jung’s four stages of life, in a way. Interestingly, there’s four stanzas to the poem. The first stage is childhood, obviously. The learning of symbols, the sorting of life—having to deal and learn life in a very material way. Adolescence is a time of feeling out external forces as it relates to the self. The armchair can let you go—this grappling with abandonment.
Then there’s adulthood and mid-life where we reclaim ourselves. That defiant, “I don’t want your rent”, what I really want is….” Awakening to our expanding challenges within, challenging what we have believed we have wanted in life up until that point. What the speaker really wants is radiance. Then there’s the last and final stage: Wisdom and preparation for our end. There’s no more pretenses, no more material struggle. Just the awe between two beings and the roof (literally all things material) lifting to this sort of heaven of the “field of stars”.
Sundress: In other interviews you’ve discussed writing to the sky. Do you think it’s possible that Cooper is doing that here—that this poem is addressed to God/the Universe? What do you make of the idea that the speaker in this poem is God/the Universe?
Shannon Hardwick: I don’t know if it’s necessarily only addressed to God/Universe. I think it really can simply be a poem addressed to a lover, as some can read it, or deeper than that. That’s what I love about her work, and this poem in particular–so many layers in one short piece. It’s a lot to unpack if you want to unpack it.
I really do like the idea of the speaker being the Universe / God. Isn’t that what God / Universe would want from us, in the end? To not think so much about the material things, but to become in awe of simply being here? To lift the metaphorical roof and remove the materials in order to make way for that view of the field of stars between all of us. I think that’s our natural state, anyway, if you want to go that far. We are part of nature, after all.
This poem and its repeated idea of awe and radiant attention reminds me of what perhaps Jesus is supposed to mean by becoming little children to get into heaven–children live in a state of awe, don’t they? Maybe this poem read backwards could show the arch of how that is taken away from us as we grow older and have to learn to deal with the world practically. But then, in the end, we return to the first stage of radiance in the last stage of life, perhaps.
Sundress: Are there other poems by Cooper that you think grapple with notions of the female voice in post-war America? What other work of hers would you recommend to readers searching for poetry that explore what it means to be a woman and then a human in this world?
Shannon Hardwick: I think a good complement to “Rent” is “The Blue Anchor,” which I almost chose, as well as “All These Dreams.” Cooper also dealt with that sort of white southern guilt in a couple poems, particularly, “Being Southern:”
It’s like being German.
Either you remember that yours was the defeated country
(The South breeds the finest soldiers, my uncle said,
himself a general in one of his incarnations)
or you acknowledge the guilt, not even your own guilt, but
can any white person write this, whose ancestors once kept slaves?
What the “Seer Said: is a poem that chillingly describes a sort of silence of the female voice through the influence of the masculine and in this poem, particularly, her father. And the poem “Estranged” deals literally with silence of voice: “I was ashamed, I couldn’t speak, they voted me out of the shelter. / Like Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy I lay exposed to the nuclear night / till a dog found my throat.”
I suggest reading the collection, The Flashboat, for a comprehensive study of her life-work.
Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first full-length book, Before Isadore, is forthcoming with Sundress Publications and she has two chapbooks in print with Thrush Press and Mouthfeel Press. She is an associate poetry editor for The Boiler journal. Her work has appeared in the following: Devil’s Lake, Night Train, Versal, Sugar House Review, Four Way Review, among others.
Christopher Petruccelli is an associate poetry editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection and is currently trying to survive his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared in Connotation Press, Still: The Journal, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.