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Poetry: Katherine Hoskins.

If I were still teaching graduate students in modern English and American poetry and had assigned to me an especially gifted student, widely conversant with the whole rich canon from, say, Chaucer right up to the last minute, a student who was enthusiastic, willing to work, imaginative, painstaking, and keenly sensitive to poetic nuance, I think I could do him or her no greater favor than to suggest a careful poem-by-poem commentary on the poems of Katherine Hoskins. It would doubtless prove a demanding task, but the rewards would be incalculable if it were to eventuate in a publishable book of solid critical appreciation, for it might restore her to the notice she has deserved from the first, and was hers only in the view of the best of her fellow poets. Think, if you can, of another modern poet who won the enthusiastic praise of the likes of Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, William Meredith, James Dickey, and Theodore Roethke, and is, in spite of this, quite simply unknown and out of print. It is a fate feared by Keats himself, to whom Hoskins bears certain touching and quirky resemblances.

To be sure, she did not court public notice. The books of her work that I own, three in number, are at pains to reveal nothing whatever about her except that she lived in Weston, Massachusetts. Nary a word about her family, nor her education, though it might be inferred that if she were an autodidact (as some very good poets have been) she did a first-rate job. I was able, however, to glean some facts from her publisher. Katherine DeMontalont Hoskins was born May 25, 1909, at Indian Head, Maryland, where her father was inspector at the naval proving ground, and was later to retire as rear admiral. Although she did not attend school until the age of 11, she graduated from the Smith College Honors Program in its Class of 1931. Five years later, she married Albert Hoskins, an officer of the Boston Municipal Court. They made their home in Weston, and had one child, a daughter. Hoskins was awarded the Brandeis University Creative Arts Poetry Grant in 1957 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958. She died a widow, after a stoic battle with esophageal carcinoma, in 1988.

Reading through her poems, one is aware of literary allusions, influences, and sympathies that cover an enormous range and include a great deal of 16th- and 17th-century English poetry, as well as Chekhov, Faulkner, Marianne Moore, Dickinson, the very best and earliest children's literature, folklore, and fairy tales, Renaissance painting and sculpture, geography and cartography, American and European history, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a keen love of the qualities and properties of the natural world, linked, often enough, to a thoughtful capacity for allegory and moral reflection.

Her poems, moreover, make no glib concessions to lazy readers. Her syntax is gnarled (though far from uncomely); her stanzaic forms as complex, at times, as those of the most intricate metaphysical poems, exhibiting something like the same density and compression. They also display a ventriloquist's capacity to shift within the body of a poem from the adopted diction, or noble accents, of the great Renaissance poets to local and regional dialect. She is a woman of many voices, all of them superbly tuned to achieve her wiliest effects.

Take, for example, the opening of a poem that, by the time its mere three stanzas close, has shown us the horrifying tableau of a woman (clearly a black woman) cradling in her arms a man who has been beaten to death, and whose head now is only" 'a sack of little bones.' "The poem is called "After the Late Lynching." (The asterisks, my own, are explained below.)

No, It goes not liquidly for any of us.(*) Yseult 's as hard as Troilus. Heloise is far away and Difficult. Nor's Death felicitous.(*) Not princes' proud defiant trumpets, Not good men's easyness With Death is not ours yet(*)

This elaborate stanza is faithfully repeated (though with approximate rhymes later on) throughout. Its tone is seemingly wry and disenchanted. It speaks of the old juxtaposition of Love and Death, and it does so by deliberate literary allusion. Yseult is given her medieval (not her Wagnerian) name to insist upon the antiquity of the conflict in which she played a part. Troilus and Heloise are both "far away and/ Difficult." It all seems artificial, legendary, highly literary in the most removed sense, and the poet knows exactly what she's doing.

But in addition to those famous names, there are also allusions in the lines I've starred with asterisks. The first is to a poem ("Philomela") by John Crowe Ransom, which I had occasion to comment on recently in these pages [WQ, Spring '94]. The allusion is important here. Philomela, too, was a victim of love and rape; she too was an ancient figure. In Ransom's poem we, in our modern era, are hopelessly severed from the grandeurs of music and of tragedy that her story and her song as a nightingale represent. There has been for Ransom, as for Hoskins, a crude and degenerate falling away from an earlier loveliness, though with no diminution of the world's horror.

The second starred line is meant to recall the dying words of Hamlet, who says to Horatio, "If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,/ Absent thee from felicity a while,/ And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,/ To tell my story." There is brilliant irony at work here. For Hamlet, death may seem felicity because life is repellent; for Hoskins, the death she is about to describe is almost too hideous to believe.

Finally, the third starred phrase concerns the death of good men as conceived by John Donne in a poem called "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." The very title suggests its relevance to Hoskins's purpose. And her spelling of "easyness" is meant, once again, to confer the burnish of antiquity. Donne opens his poem thus:

As virtuous men pass mildly away, And whisper to their souls, to go, Whilst some of their sad friends do say, The breath goes now, and some say, no. . . .

The serene tranquility Donne allows to those who have a clean and untroubled conscience at the hour of death is, again, opposed by Hoskins to what is found in the world we moderns inhabit. The richness and ramifications of all her allusions serve as substructure and solid foundation for the modern horror she is ruthlessly planning to expose.

Readers properly equipped to get the most of Katherine Hoskins's poems will come upon her splendid "To Apollo Musagetes" (Apollo as leader of the Muses) and will find themselves compelled to think of Yeats's "The Circus Animals' Desertion," Coleridge's "Work Without Hope," Robert Lowell's "Epilogue" to his last book, and, finally, of Keats's self-composed epitaph: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
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Author:Hecht, Anthony
Publication:The Wilson Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1994
Words:1153
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