Daughter of George Peabody and Rose Grosvenor Gardner; married Harold van Kirk, 1938 (marriage ended); Maurice Seymour, 1943 (divorced 1947); Robert H. McCormick Jr., 1947 (divorced 1957); Allen Tate, 1959 (divorced 1966); children: Rose, Dan
In the poetically rich quarter century between 1950 and 1980, Isabella Gardner earned a wide-ranging and considerable reputation in poetry, her chosen vocation. She was raised in Boston, one of six children of a wealthy society family with a strong New England heritage. She was a cousin of poet Robert Lowell and was often confused with the other Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Boston art patron and collector, who was her great-great-aunt and godmother. At one time in her life she even lived in her godmother's house, and, according to many, with her red hair and snub nose, she also looked like her.
Gardner's education included the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia, from 1931 to 1933, the Leighton Rollins School of Acting in East Hampton, New York, and in 1937, the Embassy School of Acting in London, England. For a few years she pursued an acting career, specializing in character roles "where her shy stutter would be less liable to obtrude."
After marriage and the birth of her children, she resumed the writing of poetry, which she had begun in her early teens and had given up because she believed herself to be "too facile" at the craft. Once renewed, however, her position as a poet-contemporary of such writers as Howard Shapiro, John Logan, Richard Eberhardt, John Frederick Nims, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop was secured.
Although her output was comparatively slim (about 100 published poems), her work appeared in such prestigious literary journals and magazines as Poetry magazine, Partisan Review, Paris Review, the New Yorker, Nation, and Atlantic Monthly. There were five books of poetry: Birthdays from the Ocean (1955), Un Altra Infanzia (in Italy, 1959), The Looking Glass (1961), West of Childhood: Poems 1950-1965, and posthumously, The Collected Poems (1985). Her work was anthologized in, among others, A Pocket Book of Modern Verse (1955), Imagination's Other Place (1955), Erotic Poetry (1963), Eight Lines and Under (1967), and Honey and the Gall (1967).
Sound and rhythm are crucial elements in Gardner's poetry. She makes extensive use of rhyme, including internal rhyme and "near-rhyme," and there is an exuberant musicality in her poems, even while many of them explore death-related themes. There are echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins and similarities to Dylan Thomas, but these are not so much derivative as independently original. According to one biographer, "Gardner's early work is often compared to that of Dylan Thomas, particularly in terms of her vital, unself-conscious love for words." She has also been compared to Muriel Rukeyser and Sylvia Plath in her ability to use words with significant import.
According to Marian Janssen, author of a major biographical article in Kenyon Review on Gardner, "She controlled the chaos of life by end rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and, often, strictly metered iambic lines, as well as [in Gardner's words] 'symbology, inter-relating, universal + associative, of Christianity + myth + magic (+ Freud)."' All of her poems were inspired by the incidents of her life—both happy and tragic, as indeed her life became. In her earlier years she often used forms—the sestina, terza rima, triolet, even the obligatory sonnet. After the breakup of her marriage to the difficult Tate (at his instigation, not hers), she withdrew to a somewhat reclusive existence in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City and a self-imposed poetic silence of 15 years. Her later poems, in a slight nod to changing poetic fashions and trends, went to longer lines and even an abandonment of the brilliant end rhyme that had been so characteristic of her.
From 1951 to 1956 Gardner was associate editor of Poetry, while Karl Shapiro was editor. There she became known for her caring concern for the success of younger poets she worked with, even providing monetary help in some cases. Shapiro praised her first volume of poetry and thought the second (The Looking Glass) was even better: "Nearly every poem in the volume deserves applause," he wrote in the New York Times Book Review. "It is an outstanding book. If I had anything to do with it, I would nominate it for the Pulitzer Prize." In fact, both Birthdays from the Ocean and The Looking Glass were nominated for the National Book Award (Birthdays was runner-up in the year that W. H. Auden won the award), That Was Then was nominated for the 1980 American Book Award, and in 1981 Gardner was selected as the first recipient of the New York State Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for Poetry.
In "The Fellowship with Essence: An Afterword" to her last book, Gardner wrote: "If there is a theme with which I am particularly concerned, it is the contemporary failure of love. I don' t mean romantic love or sexual passion, but the love which is the specific and particular recognition of one human being by another—the response by eye and voice and touch of two solitudes. The democracy of universal vulnerability."
During her poetry years Gardner gave poetry readings throughout the U.S. and in Europe. The Library of Congress has three tapes of her readings, one with John Logan. Her manuscript papers are at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
CA 97-100 (1975), 104 (1982). CP (1970, 1975).
Booklist (15 Mar. 1955, 1 Mar. 1966). Carroll, P., The Poem in Its Skin (1968). Harper's (6 Aug. 1966). Kenyon Review (Summer 1991). LJ (1 Apr. 1955). Modern Age (Winter 1961-62). NYT (10 July 1981). NYTBR (22 May 1950, 21 Sept. 1980). Poetry (Oct. 1966). Poulin, A. Jr., ed., Contemporary American Poetry, 4th ed. (1951). Saturday Review (9 July 1955). Sewanee Review (Jan.-Mar.1956). Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring 1966). Yale Review (Sept. 1955).
—JOANNE L. SCHWEIK