I’ve been trying to read through all the early novels and poems written by women which have won Pulitzer Prizes. (There were quite a lot more of them in the 1920s and 1930s than later on.) This brought me to Margaret Widdemer whose collection of poems The Old Road to Paradise won the Pulitzer in 1919 (before it was even called the Pulitzer). I could only find a copy locally in a volume of her selected works so I got to hear a little of her different voices, in between her introduction discussing how she ordered the poems and how she introduced the sections and the poems themselves. (She put all the most widely-requested ones in a section of their own. I’m so tickled, both that she had, well, requests, and that she was so thoughtful for her readers.)
In this collection, I found one of two poems she included titled “Search”. (Scan of the poem available here.) I keep coming back to it and I wanted to share why it works so strongly on me.
The first four lines are very typical of their time, I’m assuming, and today they are the sort of thing that would make many people skip over this poem: rhymed couplets, iambic tetrameter (I do love tetrameter). Plus, she’s describing a very girly dress (“in wide bows like a butterfly”). Perhaps I was willing to keep reading because of the context I was in, meaning I was already flipping through a book of metered, rhymed poems, but the emotion that went along with the careful description of the dress really deepened in line 9: “I could put out my hand by night / and find it”. That’s a dress she really loves, that’s a dress that’s more than just cloth.
Lines 10 and 11 were special for me, for their specificity and for the difficulty. She is recalling where to find the dress:
Between my Leghorn on the wall
And Mother’s heirloom China shawl
I don’t know what a Leghorn is, I have to look it up, it’s a particular type of straw hat, but the proper name is magical here, next to an heirloom. So now I really want to understand the importance of the dress. Not just cloth, not just a pretty gown, so important she can find it without sight, she can picture where it waits for her. The description of the gown’s location continues to be very specific, ending with “In the blue room on the third floor. . .”
And that ellipsis is part of the poem. Widdemer purposefully trails off there. Which, of course, has the effect of propelling me on to read faster (at least, the first time, I slowed down there on subsequent re-reads, in anticipation). Ellipsis is a type of punctuation I don’t recall seeing often as a sign of a turn, it’s fascinating.
And then the speaker tells us how “hard to reach tonight” that room is. It’s “at such a height” and “two flights of stairs” away. And this is where Widdemer’s genius, to me, rattles my bones. The penultimate couplet of the poem reads:
I’d have two flights of stairs to climb,
And seven weary years of time
It’s a masterful use of full rhyme, in my opinion, effortlessly surprising the reader (well, me) with two transitions, a physical one and a mental one. In that one line, Widdemer stretches out this description of a dress into the life of the dress, the life of the speaker. That beautiful gown was seven years ago. It is still hanging there now but there is a difference even as the gown is still as loved.
But Widdemer does not stop there. There is more between that gown and today than just stairs of time. She closes the poem like this:
To find it, and the girl-heart, lit
With gay unwisdom, under it.
These are the first two lines in the poem with internal punctuation, slowing the reader down. These are the first two lines with some invented (non-standard) English words. Widdemer has taken what perhaps feels to a reader from today as a nursery rhyme, full-rhyme and ribbons, and written the reader right into its pain.
I can’t help but come back to the title of the poem after the final line. Because it is a bit of a boring title, it is not one that I feel most readers would stop at in a table of contents. And, at the beginning, it is clear we are searching for the dress, the first line says so, explicitly. But, by the end of the poem, we know that the dress is not cloth. And, perhaps because I am so moved by those final lines, I feel like the dress is not simply the speaker as a younger person. The lost dress may be youth, or naivety. It is most certainly light and joy.