Have You No Rebellion In Your Bones? the poetry of Adelaide Crapsey

If you’ve never heard of Adelaide Crapsey before, you’re not alone. This poet who lived from 1878 to 1914 is, today, largely forgotten. If you have heard of Crapsey, your first thought is likely the cinquain*, a poetic form she invented. However, at least a handful of today’s scholars feel Crapsey and her work deserve a closer look, and I heartily agree. After reading this book:

CrapseyCoverAdelaide Crapsey: On the Life & Work of an American Master, ed. Jenny Molberg and Christian Bancroft, Pleiades Press, 2018.

On just over 200 pages, the editors collect a number of essays about Crapsey as well as a selection of letters and poems gleaned from her papers. Also included is part of Crapsey’s Study in English Metrics, which she spent considerable time and energy on.

If all this sounds awfully dry and academic to you, it’s my shortcoming, not that of the book. Reading this collection felt very much like a personal introduction to this interesting and underrated writer, and wanting to know more. Much is still unknown about Crapsey.

Here are the bare bones: Adelaide Crapsey grew up in the state of New York, the daughter of an episcopal priest. She and her siblings were raised with liberal values, including that it was good for a woman to be educated. She attended Vassar, then studied in Rome.

After charges of heresy, her father was defrocked as a priest in 1906. Crapsey took a teaching job in Connecticut to be near her family. She’d been suffering from chronic fatigue for nearly three years. However, she was restless – she’d travel to Europe to research her Study in English Metrics. In 1911 she was finally diagnosed with tuberculosis – which she had likely had for some time and which she would succumb to in 1914.

Restlessness is, I feel, a theme in Crapsey’s short life. She was frustrated with the lack of energy and, toward the end of her life, with being forced to spend most of her time lying down or sitting quietly, not even allowed to write more than a short letter a day. Being able to read some of her letters is a chilling privilege. From these letters emerges the voice of an intelligent, strong-minded young woman, a sort of academic heretic who tries for theories of her own rather than revere the theories of others. In her poetry, too, she marches to her own drum. She writes about physical illness and death in ways that challenge or mock the dead. In “Lines Addressed to My Left Lung Inconveniently Enamored of Plant Life” she tells off her lung:

It was, my lung, most strange of you, / A freak I cannot pardon, / Thus to transform yourself into / A vegetable garden.

Or take the poem “To the Dead in the Grave-Yard Under My Window”, from which I’ve drawn for the title of this blog post — here, the speaker’s disapproval is almost palpable:

How can you lie so still? All day I watch / […] / Oh, have you no rebellion in your bones? / The very worms must scold you where you lie / A pallid moldering acquiescent folk

Crapsey’s first book of poems, Verse, came out in 1915, and her Studies in English Metrics would not be published until four years after her death. In 1926, fellow poet Marianne Moore praised the late’s Adelaide Crapsey’s work (Essay-New Poetry Since 1912, Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1926). If you know anything about Moore you’ll know she wasn’t easily impressed, so this is praise indeed.

After reading this ‘Introduction to Crapsey’ I came away wanting to know more, wanting to actually go look at her papers and drafts and letters, to get to know this woman better and read more of her poetry. I also want to look more deeply into how we as scholars and as creatives ‘write’ illness and read writing that comes from a place of illness.

Read / learn more: 

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*) cinquain = an accentual form with 5 lines, stresses: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1. While some scholars argue that the form was inspired by Japanese forms, others point out Crapsey’s interest in (and the form’s possible indebtedness to) Cherokee incantations.

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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