21. Sara Teasdale – Collected Poems (1937)

In a short piece, “Paris Please Stay the Same”, Burroughs indulges his nostalgia for the Paris of the 1940s which he knew, the Paris of the 1920s which he didn’t, and finally the great lines of poetry that wash back over him as he reflects – some Parisian, some otherwise.

Between lines of St John Perse, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and the singer Maurice Chevalier, Burroughs lists one “Sarah Teasdale, St Louis poetess, who drowned herself many years ago, circa 1934”.

“For I have lived enough to know / The things we never had remain / It is the things we have that go…”

This is Burroughs’ only mention of Teasdale. It is clearly drawn from memory (firstly, because the piece is about memorable lines, and secondly, because he misremembers “Sara” as “Sarah”). And the potted biography suggests he considered her somewhat obscure.

I was keen, despite its obscurity, to follow it up.

Teasdale, after all, came from St Louis; a Missourian just like Burroughs. She was active in the 1910s and 1920s. As we’ve seen, Burroughs had a special soft spot for the 1920s, and he also enjoyed light and polite verse.

Teasdale lived a life on the outskirts of the WASP gentility, just like the Burroughses. This no doubt made her sympathetic to Burroughs, while her suicide added a little Late Romantic drama.

Having read her collected poems, I can see why she remains liminal. Her verse is polished almost to perfection. Glittering scenes, complete and clever, sometimes funny and sometimes moving, compete with each other like contestants at a finishing school poetry competition.

She certainly has none of the inventiveness of her St Louis contemporary, T.S. Eliot. Her verse is too ornamental to be truly 1920s. It offers Edwardian, turn-of-the-century rigour, in place of the vitality of genius.

Her poems nevertheless have a cut-glass purity. My favourite, “The Faery Forest”, offers beauty in miniature:

                The faery forest glimmered

                Beneath an ivory moon,

                The silver grasses shimmered

                Against a faery tune.

                Beneath the silken silence

                The crystal branches slept,

                And dreaming through the dew-fall

                The cold, white blossoms wept.

The use of perfect rhymes and precise metrical structure contain a poem that would otherwise overflow with imagery. No noun comes without a descriptor; each are painted in colours – silver, white, ivory – and textures – crystal, silken. Our verbs are decadently static: glimmering, shimmering, sleeping, weeping and dreaming.

If this is the poetry that Burroughs came across in his youth, one can understand why the doggerel aesthetic of The Wild Party appealed to him. Teasdale is the kind of poet you would like to give a prize to, but would be terrified to try and imitate.

She is sophisticated. And that can be intimidating.

But Burroughs clearly admired her poetry enough to have committed lines to heart. It is unusual, however, that he cuts short his memory after three lines. One would think, with Teasdale’s capacity for perfect rhyme schemes, that the final line would provide some kind of denouement. For whatever reason, Burroughs neglects it.

As a side note, I had a very Burroughsian moment when reading the Collected Poems. Having read 181 pages of poetry over about a month, I decided I’d open up The Adding Machine again and remind myself which lines Burroughs quotes.

Reading the quote, I looked it up in the index of first lines. It wasn’t there. I then Googled it – worried it might not be in the collection at all. It’s title, I learned, was “Wisdom”.

I returned to the book. “Wisdom,” it turns out, was on page 182. It was the next poem that I would have read had I not taken the detour to look it up.

“There are no such thing as coincidences…”

Mildly perturbed, I read on. Burroughs, it seems, had misremembered part of the poem. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say “adjusted” it; for the missing line, it turns out, was not the fourth of the stanza, but the first: the three lines that haunt him are the resolution of the poem:

                It was a night of early spring,

                The winter-sleep was scarcely broken;

                Around us shadows and the wind

                Listened for what was never spoken.

                Though half a score of years are gone,

                Spring comes as sharply now as then –

                But if we had it all to do

                It would be done the same again.

                It was a spring that never came,

                But we have lived enough to know

                What we have never had, remains;

                It is the things we have that go.

Burroughs, by comparison, remembers the lines like so:

“For I have lived enough to know / The things we never had remain / It is the things we have that go…”

Replacing the “but” with “for” is suitable, considering the three lines stood alone no longer need to answer for what came before them. Notably, he switches the collective first person for the individual; personalising the “we lived” into an “I lived” on the first line.

He also removes the alliterative “what we” and removes the comma. The pacing on his line is therefore more standard, less controlled, but – as it now echoes the word “things” on the final line – it is more suited to an oral delivery. Memory and recitation have sanded down its ornamental edges.

But so much for close reading…

Why did Burroughs remember this poem in particular? Was it just those specific lines that caught his eye? Perhaps, although one suspects it’s the context that deepens their meaning for him. After all, in the same essay he quotes “’tis gone, ‘tis gone” from Romeo and Juliet – a line, taken alone, that hardly required the genius of a Shakespeare to write.

No, one suspects that the particular impact of the lines comes from their pairing with an earlier thought within the poem:

                But if we had it all to do

                It would be done the same again

In this couplet, we hear the lonely lament of a Calvinist Missourian, living her same life over day after day, and also the mystical mind of our subject, obsessed with Time Tracks, time travel, and the desperate struggle of the individual against their scripted destiny.

Burroughs is in Lawrence as he recalls Teasdale’s lines. It is a time of reflection in his own life, and of setting aside his fantastic method in favour of an increasingly nostalgic, memorious style.

Teasdale’s poem, in Burroughs’ hands, expands regret into a teleological category. There is the beginning and the end, and time stretches between it, and those things we never do are the ghosts that reside beyond what is. As ghosts, they are always impinging, trying to get in and possess us. They remain, where what is accomplished goes.

As much as I think Burroughs probably enjoyed Teasdale’s poetry, I believe that it’s only in this one that he found anything he could work with. The rest, if he did read them, he read for pleasure. This one is of critical importance.