Linda Pastan, poet who plumbed the ordinary, dies at 90
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Linda Pastan, poet who plumbed the ordinary, dies at 90
An undated photo provided by Carina Romano shows the poet Linda Pastan in 2014. Pastan, who published 15 volumes of elegantly simple poems that found beauty and, sometimes, pain in the ordinary sights and moments of life, died on Jan. 30, 2023, at her home in Chevy Chase, Md. She was 90. (Carina Romano via The New York Times)

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Linda Pastan, whose elegantly simple poems found beauty and, sometimes, pain in the ordinary sights and moments of life, died Jan. 30 at her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She was 90.

Her daughter, novelist Rachel Pastan, said the cause was complications after cancer surgery.

Pastan published 15 volumes of poetry, beginning in 1971 with “A Perfect Circle of Sun.”

“They have a fine feeling of mood and setting,” The Wilmington News-Journal of Ohio wrote of the poems in that volume, “and express a woman’s view of things with a simplicity.”

That “woman’s view” characterized many of her poems, especially ones about family. Jean Naggar first encountered Pastan’s work in the early 1970s, when she was an editor at Liveright (which in 1975 published Pastan’s second book, “Aspects of Eve”), and she became her agent. Naggar said by email that those early poems “spoke to me with a deep and overwhelming power, often bringing tears to my eyes.”

She added, “I can never forget reading her poem ‘Notes From the Delivery Room’ and feeling the intense thrill of knowing that someone had expressed so compellingly and in so few words the extraordinary female moment of giving birth.” The poem, here in its entirety, appeared in “A Perfect Circle of Sun”:

Strapped down,

victim in an old comic book,

I have been here before,

this place where pain winces

off the walls

like too bright light.

Bear down a doctor says,

foreman to sweating laborer,

but this work, this forcing

of one life from another

is something I signed for

at a moment when I would have signed anything.

Babies should grow in fields;

common as beets or turnips

they should be picked and held

root end up, soil spilling

from between their toes —

and how much easier it would be later,

returning them to earth.

Bear up … bear down … the audience

grows restive, and I’m a new magician

who can’t produce the rabbit from my swollen hat.

She’s crowning, someone says,

but there is no royalty here,

just me, quite barefoot,

greeting my barefoot child

Pastan did not confine herself to domestic matters. “She writes about everything from science to history, memory, poetics, geology, art, dreams, myths,” Liz Rosenberg wrote in The Boston Globe in 1998, reviewing Pastan’s collection “Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1998.”

“The book is wide, wise, various, sly, sexy, quiet, heartbreaking,” Rosenberg went on. “The effect of reading this collection reminded me of only a few other modern poets: Robert Frost, in his virtuosity and beauty, and the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, in her passion and straightforward honesty.”

From 1991 to 1994, Pastan was Maryland’s poet laureate.

“Someone in the governor’s office approached me about becoming poet laureate and asked if I’d be willing to write poems for state occasions,” she recalled in a 1996 interview with Washingtonian magazine. “‘Absolutely not,’ I replied.”

“Then she asked what I would be willing to do if I took the post,” Pastan continued. “I said I’d be happy to read poems and talk about poetry to people around Maryland who usually had no contact with poetry or poets. I’d like to help those who think they don’t know anything about poetry, and are therefore afraid of it, learn that there isn’t that much to ‘know.’”

Reading poetry, she said, should be an emotional experience.

Jill Bialosky is an executive editor at Norton, Pastan’s longtime publisher, and a noted poet herself. She said by email, “Linda Pastan writes about ordinary life — family, motherhood, aging, relationships, loss — in crystalline, transcendent verse often filled with humor, surprise, joy, and sorrow.”

Linda B Olenik (no period after the B, her daughter said; “we’ve never understood this, but it’s just a fact”) was born May 27, 1932, in the Bronx borough of New York City. Her father, Jacob, was a surgeon, and her mother, Bess (Schwartz) Olenik, was a homemaker and sometimes worked in her husband’s office.

“I’ve always written, at least I have from the time I was 12 or 13,” Pastan told Washingtonian. “As an only child, books were my main companions, and writing became my way of talking to the characters in those books and to the authors of those poems.”

As a student at Radcliffe College in the mid-1950s, she said, she won a poetry prize in a competition sponsored by Mademoiselle magazine; an honorable mention in the same contest, she said, went to Sylvia Plath, with whom she shared a birth year.

Pastan graduated from Radcliffe in 1954 and later earned master’s degrees in library science at Simmons University in Boston and in English at Brandeis.

She married Ira Pastan, a scientist, in 1953, and had put her writing aspirations on hold to start a family.

“I didn’t think, then, that I could be the right kind of wife and mother and keep pursuing something as important to me as poetry always has been,” Pastan said. “I think now that I was wrong. And a young woman probably wouldn’t make that mistake today.”

She took up writing again in the mid-1960s, trying a novel. But, she said, she found she was more interested in the descriptive language of what she was writing than the plot or characters.

“My novel kept getting shorter and shorter, becoming almost a short story,” she told Washingtonian. “Before long I realized that what it really wanted was to become a poem.”

The range of her poetry was vast. A 1978 collection was called “The Five Stages of Grief.” On the other end of the spectrum was “A Dog Runs Through It” (2018), poems that involved the various dogs, present and past, in her life.

“I knew I had written a number of poems about dogs over the years,” she wrote in the preface, “but I was surprised when looking through my work to see how many dogs had sneaked onto a page about something else entirely.”

The collection was dedicated to her dog of the moment, Toby, a rescue mini-poodle mix.

In addition to her daughter, Pastan is survived by her husband; two sons, Stephen and Peter; seven grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

In a 2016 interview with The Paris Review, Pastan acknowledged that as she aged, her poems might be getting a bit darker.

“Death, of course, is the ultimate danger, the ultimate loss, and as I move closer to it, I write about it more frequently and perhaps more feelingly,” she said. “Though I recently came upon some poems I wrote when I was 12, and they, too, are about death.”

“Clock,” from “Traveling Light” (2011), was typically unflinching on the subject. It reads in full:

Sometimes it really upsets me —

the way the clock’s hands keep moving,

even when I’m just sitting here

not doing anything at all,

not even thinking about anything

except, right now, about that clock

and how it can’t keep its hands still.

Even in the dark I picture it, and all

its brother and sister clocks and watches,

even sundials, all those compulsive timepieces

whose only purpose seems to be

to hurry me out of this world.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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