Daisy Aldan: An Appreciation of the Poet as Teacher
Daisy Aldan, courtesy of www.blueskypress.com
By Renée Magriel Roberts
The profession of “poet” has always been an economically marginal, readily forgotten occupation. So few poets achieve recognition in the canon of literature, while the vast majority labor for little or no economic reward. Ordinarily we encounter poets in books, with no experience of the person in real life.
From 1960 to 1964, in what I have always viewed as an almost mystical time in my life, I was fortunate enough to attend the High School of Art & Design, one of New York City’s special high schools. This period (mid 60’s) was kind of a time warp, where art education was actually funded and supported. The new principal, John B. Kenny, who was a gifted artist in his own right, hired real artists and writers to work at the school — as opposed to art education majors, or folks who had studied art theory. Sculptors from Steuben Glass taught me ceramics; Tom Wesselmann, the Pop artist, was my illustration teacher. And Daisy Aldan, a gifted poet and editor, was hired to teach English, specifically poetry, and to manage the literary magazine. The idea of the “artist-in-residence” was integrated throughout the school structure, as opposed to being like an alien from another planet surrounded by traditional classroom goings-on.
What this meant, for us students, was that we were literally surrounded by excited, working artists. It was a school that nobody ever wanted to leave, overflowing with incredible work, music, literature, an excitement that also translated into the “core” subject areas. It was a very happy school.
Having Miss Aldan as a teacher, was like having a combination of the European continent and the Greenwich Village literary scene brought into the classroom. We were fascinated, but largely unaware of the importance of the writing and the people to whom we were introduced. For example, one day she brought Anaïs Nin to our class to talk about Cities of the Interior. We were constantly exposed to the work of European and American poets, especially those of the Beat Generation whom Miss Aldan knew well, for she was not only a poet and a teacher, but also the editor of a publication called “Folders”, which included original and reproduction art works and poetry. By combining translation work (she was a gifted translator of Mallarmé, Anaïs Nin, Rudolf Steiner, and Arthur Steffen), writing, teaching, and editing and promoting the work of others, Miss Aldan created a viable living for herself, and also afforded herself the luxury of not only writing luminous poetry, but of having the time to encourage others to write as well. Our classes were filled with music, experimental writing, and rich mythological studies.
Daisy Aldan: An Appreciation of the Poet as Teacher
Image from Folder Vol. I Number 1, Winter, 1953
Her gift to me was the passing on of her own intense interest, the awareness of the need for discipline in writing (she had me write poetry every day), and an exposure to people and ideas that ordinarily would never have been offered to a 15-year-old. When I met her on the street in Greenwich Village, several years after I graduated, she asked me if I was still writing poetry. When I hesitated, she was critical. She still cared enough to verbally kick me in the butt for letting my mind wander into other areas. “You have a gift,“ I remember her saying, in the tone of someone watching something fine being trashed. She was truly the one person who got me writing and kept me writing.
In 1963, Miss Aldan published The Destruction of Cathedrals and Other Poems, with a preface by Anaïs Nin. This was followed by The Masks Are Becoming Faces (1964), Seven: Seven (Poems and Photographs) (1965), Breakthrough (1971), Love Poems of Daisy Aldan (1972), Between High Tides (1978) and In Passage (1987). She was awarded the NEA Poetry Prize in 1968 and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Between High Tides and In Passage in 1978, and again in 1991 for Day of the Wounded Eagle, a novella. Her translation of Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de dés” is a surrealist masterpiece. The Collected Poems of Daisy Aldan is in print and available through major booksellers. She also wrote The Art and Craft of Poetry in 1981.
In addition to editing Folders, Miss Aldan corresponded with a virtual who’s who of the literary world, including John Ashbery, Edward Field, Barbara Guest, Denise Levertov, Larry Rivers, Eugene Walter, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Paul Blackburn, Robert Bly, Julian Beck, Marguerite Caetani, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Galway Kinnell, Henry Miller, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Rexroth, May Swenson, and Alice B. Toklas, many of whom submitted work to the publications she edited.
Daisy Aldan’s papers, from 1946-1966 have been deposited with the Harry Ransom Humanities Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and include correspondence and materials collected for the Folders publications. More information on her life and work can be found in Valerie Harms, Celebration with Anaïs Nin, Riverside, CT: Magic Circle Press, 1973.
But this writer, at least, won’t remember her for her papers, or for her friends, or even for her work. For me it is much simpler; she gave the selfless gift of self, and set me on my path. I’ll never forget the Daisy Aldan who is so much a part, even now, 40 years later, of who I am; I hope she would be proud of me.