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Pastan, Linda

PASTAN, Linda

Born 27 May 1932, New York, New York

Daughter of Jack and Bess Schwartz Olenick; married Ira Pastan, 1953; children: Stephen, Peter, Rachel

Linda Pastan studied at Radcliffe College (B.A., 1954) and in her senior year won Mademoiselle's Dylan Thomas Poetry award. (Sylvia Plath took second place.) She earned an M.L.S. from Simmons in 1955 and an M.A. from Brandeis in 1957. Her life as a mother and homemaker both interrupted and fueled her vocation as a writer. She suspended a writing career and carved out hours for writing when her children were at school; family life emerged as her major subject.

Pastan's poetry explores the nuances and meaning of domestic life by recounting her daily transactions as mother, wife, daughter, and poet in light of older stories and myths (chiefly biblical and classical). Her oft-noted ironic vision rises out of the paralleling of familiar domestic experience and culturally privileged narratives.

Pastan is committed to writing accessible short lyrics of personal observation. Skeptical of the division between public and private poetry, she asserts that "the ability of the poet to make the reader see and feel always serves a political function." Pastan's poems are built of finely wrought images and plainly articulated narratives and are replete with references to a writer's tools. Her central emphasis is on labor: her labor to form words that meet experience; her labor against desolation and toward meaning in light of mortality. Death and the shadow that death casts on domesticity and life are major preoccupations.

A Perfect Circle of Sun (1971), Aspects of Eve (1975), The Five Stages of Grief (1978), Waiting for My Life (1981), and PM/ AM: New and Selected Poems (1982) consider events large and small—in light of death. The tension, comedy, and continuity of family experience is explored in poems such as "Passover" that blend the old and new family saga: "The wise son and the wicked / the simple son / and the son who doesn't act, are all my son / leaning tonight as it is written / slouching his father calls it." In Aspects of Eve, Pastan asserts the writing of poems and the naming and nurturing of children as parallel and necessary acts of saving, although powerless against loss.

The Five Stages of Grief is the most thematic of her books, taking its name and its divisions from Elizabeth Kübler-Ross' understanding of the grief process as sequential stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. In this book of midlife, Pastan explores these feelings and discovers that her pain emanates from the reality that within mutability, nothing can be definitively lost. The book is a process of making peace with her desires for an intensity of feeling and perception that has passed.

There is a permanent shift in the gravity of Pastan's poems with A Fraction of Darkness (1985). Written during her mother's stroke and its aftermath, the book reflects Pastan's heightened sense of mortality and renewed commitment to the search for sense. This is evident, too, in the title and scope of her 1995 offering, An Early Afterlife. In The Imperfect Paradise (1988) and Heroes in Disguise (1991), Pastan focuses her attention on art objects: paintings, formal gardens, museums, The Odyssey. She remains concerned with passages in a woman's life and with the gleaning function of the poet in a world depleted of and hungry for meaning: "Look out the car window. / Hogs have been let loose / in the stubbled fields / like heroes in disguise / to find what grains of corn / are left."

Pastan was named poet laureate of Maryland in 1991. Cowinner with Naomi Lazard of the Poetry Society of America's di Castagnola Award (1977), she has also received the Bess Hoskins Prize of Poetry magazine and the Maurice English Award.

Other Works:

On the Way to the Zoo (1975). Selected Poems of Linda Pastan (1979). Even as We Sleep (chapbook, 1980). Setting the Table (chapbook, 1980). Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1998 (1998).

Contributed poems to: Atlantic, Georgia Review, Harper's, Kenyon Review, Ms., New Republic, Ohio Review, Paris Review, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Tri-Quarterly and others.

Contributor to the following anthologies: Images of Women in Literature (1991), Writers on Writing (1991), A House of Gathering: Poets on May Sarton's Poetry (1993), No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets, Newly Revised and Expanded (1993), American Identities: Contemporary Multicultural Voices (1994), Poetry Baltimore: Poems About A City (1997) and others.

Bibliography:

Ingersoll, E. G., et all, eds., The Post-Confessionals: Conversations with American Poets of the Eighties (1989). Jackson, R., Acts of Mind: Conversations with Contemporary Poets (1983). Mullaney, J. P., Truthtellers of the Times: Interviews with Contemporary Women Poets (1998).

Reference works:

CA (1976). CANR (1986). CLC (1984). DLB (1980).

Other references:

Academic Medicine: Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges (March 1992). America (21 Feb. 1976). American Book Review (March 1990). APR (Jan. 1982). Belles Lettres (Fall 1988). Christian Science Monitor (30 July 1975). Encounter (Apr. 1980). English Journal (Dec. 1979, Nov. 1990). Georgia Review (Winter 1979, Spring 1983, Summer 1986, Summer 1988). Hudson Review (Autumn 1978). Massachusetts Review (Spring 1989). Ms. (Sept. 1976). New Republic (4 Feb. 1978). NYT (18 Aug. 1972). NYTBR (20 Feb. 1983, 18 Sept. 1988). Poetry (Sept. 1982, Jan. 1984, Apr. 1986). Prairie Schooner (Summer 1976, Fall 1979, Spring 1991). Sewanee Review (July 1976). Southern Review (Winter 1992). TLS (18 Jan. 1980). Tulsa Studies in Women's Lit. (Spring 1990), Virginia Quarterly Review (Winter 1981, Winter 1982, Spring 1983, Autumn 1988). Washingtonian (May 1996). WRB (June 1986, Oct. 1988).

Audio and video:

Linda Pastan Reading Her Poems with Comment in the Recording Laboratory (audio, 1971). The Poet and the Poem at the Library of Congress: Linda Pastan (audio recording, 1990). Seven Washington Poets Reading Their Poemsin the Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress (audio, 1998). The Writing Life: A Conversation Between Richard Wilbur and Linda Pastan (video, 1986). The Writing Life: Linda Pastan Talks with Eavan Boland (video, 1996). The Writing Life: Lucille Clifton Talks with Linda Pastan (video, 1992).

—DARIA DONNELLY,

UPDATED BY SYDONIE BENET

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