My Own Private Parthenon by Timothy Liu
Before having met Linda Gregg for the first time in the summer of 1990 at the Aspen Writers Conference, I was already a devoted fan. Not only had I read her two published books many times (Too Bright To See and Alma, copies I picked up used at Sam Weller’s in downtown Salt Lake City while an undergrad at Brigham Young University), I had also managed to track down many of her previously published poems that had not yet appeared in a book. After we met, I started to quote/recite some of these uncollected poems back to her, so much so that Linda would say, “Tim, I think you know my poems better than I do!” It was like Christmas when she gave me a xerox copy of her as yet unpublished third book, The Sacraments of Desire, the typed manuscript kept by Linda in a spring-loaded thesis binder back in those days before the internet. In the ensuing years, I’d witness Linda assembling and arranging all of her subsequent books, collating them from pages she had typed up on her Hermes Rocket.
When Linda died this past March, I found comfort reading through the files I had managed to cobble together over our almost thirty years of mutual knowing. The unpublished essays and handouts she’d given to her students are treasure troves unto themselves, but my pride and joy was perhaps having tracked down all of her poems previously published in magazines that remain uncollected, detritus mostly lost to a not-so-easily-accessible official record of a major American poet. I was reminded of those days when I’d spent countless hours in the dusty stacks of university libraries (Brigham Young, the University of Utah, the University of Houston, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Columbia University, New York University) looking for copies of prominent and obscure literary journals I could Xerox (or copy out by hand when no working machine could be found), sometimes even sleuthing my way through microfilm and microfiche after having scoured several indexed sources of contemporary American poetry in the days before online research search engines, databases, and downloadable PDFs. Stone by stone, I was reconstructing my own private Parthenon one poem at a time. Even so, as every literary detective knows, so much is lost to history.
I suppose most poets are imperfect record keepers. Even if comp copies of literary journals are kept in storage somewhere, having survived the perils of fire and flood, so much gets thrown out over the course of a lived life, in the wake of ever-changing domiciles. Given enough time, with few exceptions, most magazines also have a way of going defunct. To gather up the entire corpus of a deceased poet is no less a daunting task than an Isis reconstructing her Osiris, and it’s hard for me to imagine a more ecstatic ritual of grief, grief which comes from the Middle French and simply means “a burden.” There are so many ways to embark. An obvious one is to examine the Acknowledgments pages of a poet’s published books. If magazine titles and poem titles are mentioned, which exact issues did the poems first appear in? Are there poems from those issues that were not collected in subsequent books? And if a poet contributes frequently to a particular journal, how does one go about tracking down every published instance? What if indexes and databases are not meticulous in their thoroughness? How can one keep stray poems from falling through the unindexed cracks?
Another question arises: why collect the uncollected at all? What if a poem published in a journal is deemed a mistake by a poet, something minor, something unworthy of inclusion in a book? Does digging up juvenilia and apprentice work and hodgepodge somehow do a disservice to a poet and how they want to be remembered? Painters can burn their paintings! even if photographs or video documents can foil such attempted erasures. But poets? One can’t help but wonder if the archival zeal of a project like Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments made Elizabeth Bishop turn over in her grave.
On top of all this, part of me believes that poets are not always the best judges of their own work, either in the heat of the making or in cool reflective contemplation. Sometimes they are, but either way, once dead, the corpus is out of the corpse’s hands. Some of my personal favorites that Linda wrote remain secrets hidden in plain sight, and make no mistake, there’s a proprietary pleasure in knowing that. Let your own sleuthed devotions be their own reward! How many folks even have access to the double issue of Pequod 26/27? If you did, you’d catch a glimpse of three poems (“Dancing,” “Dancer Holding Still,” and “Resisting the Music”) that are as fine as anything Linda ever wrote. I once read them to her, and she seemed pleased, even stunned that she had written something so fine and forgotten. That the poems never fit into the arc of any subsequent book Linda was working on doesn’t diminish their value.
Since her death, my file of the Uncollected Linda Gregg has grown to seventy-eight poems.
Imagine my joy unearthing “Alma at Home” in the Spring/Summer 1997 issue of The Green Mountains Review, another Alma poem published twelve years after her book Alma in which Linda conjured up her eponymous alter-ego. Or the heartbreak I felt in the stacks of Columbia’s Butler Library when trying to track down an issue of New Letters, only to find the library had every issue of the magazine on their shelves except the one that I had wanted: issue 60.1. What choice did I have but to call the magazine’s Kansas City office and hope that someone would answer and ship copy of the missing thing out to my lonesome. Not only did someone answer, they were able to slash the $10 back issue price in half since the original cover price was only $5 to begin with! That’s how Linda’s magnificent poem about Oedipus called “Colonus” showed up on my doorstep like a time-addled orphan.
I could tell you dozens of stories like these, unexpected discoveries I’ve been able to add to some glittering mosaic pieced together inside a tomb I alone have gained entrance to.
Meet me there.
Linda Gregg was born in New York and raised in Marin County, California. She earned both a BA and an MA from San Francisco State University. Gregg published many several collections of poetry, including All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems (2008), a Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of 2008 and winner of the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award; In the Middle Distance (2006); Things and Flesh (1999), finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award for Poetry; Chosen by the Lion (1995); Sacraments of Desire (1992); Alma (1985); and Too Bright to See (1981). Gregg’s lyrical poetry is often admired for its ability to discuss grief, desire, and longing with electrifying craftsmanship and poise. W.S. Merwin has praised Gregg’s poems, observing, “They are original in the way that really matters: they speak clearly of their source. They are inseparable from the surprising, unrolling, eventful, pure current of their language, and they convey at once the pain of individual loss, a steady and utterly personal radiance.”
Gregg won many awards, including the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Sara Teasdale Award, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, the Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize, and numerous Pushcart Prizes. She has also been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Lannan Literary Foundation.
Gregg taught at the University of Iowa, the University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton University. She lived in New York until her death in early 2019.