Linda Pastan

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Linda (Olenik) Pastan 1932–

American poet.

Since the publication of her first collection of poetry, A Perfect Circle of Sun, in 1971, Pastan has evidenced a gift for expressing the everyday events of human life in a compelling manner. The poet considers this "dailiness" to be the soul of her work. She writes of the complications of family relationships in Aspects of Eve (1975), the acceptance of loss in The Five Stages of Grief (1978), and the conflicts of desire and obligation in Waiting for My Life (1982).

Pastan has been praised for her clear, unpretentious writing. Such writing, critics feel, effectively persuades the reader to look closely at the commonplace and to see its wonder. Because of her spare style and domestic subject matter, however, Pastan's critics have also noted that, at times, her poems are saved from sentimentality only by their disarming, yet dignified innocence. She uses traditional topics such as love, aging, loss, loneliness, and the search for identity, and pairs them with established allusions from folktales, legends, and biblical stories.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64 and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)

Thomas Lask

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The individual poems in "A Perfect Circle of Sun" fit so nicely into the total work and complement one another so successfully that it is easy to believe that Linda Pastan had conceived a book rather than single poems. Her concerns are uniform: the ties of family that bind three generations, a received heritage that she would not willingly let slip, the love of man and woman, a commodity that remains a wonder to her. Her lyrics are short, clear and neatly bitten off at the end. No loose threads show and neither does the joinery.

"Second Son," in spite of its fierce metaphors, is a tender tribute to the very young child. "Notes From the Delivery Room" takes a wry look at herself at a moment when she is supremely womanly and supremely vulnerable. In "Skylight," a circumscribed view of the poet's surroundings is used as the light-attracting mirror of a telescope, to bring distances into small compasses. "At the Jewish Museum" is more than homage to her ancestors. It emphasizes the obligations the older generation imposed….

She has an image-making power. Time and again the appropriate comparison comes to hand with ease when summoned…. If I have a complaint it is that the past is too contained, the poetry understated. I can sense the strength of her feelings, but she doesn't transmit it or, perhaps I should say, transmits it too easily.

Thomas Lask, "Voices from the Distaff Side," in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 18, 1972, p. 29.∗

Janet Bloom

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Linda Pastan has pursued her craft assiduously and her work will be favorably received by many who accept her inhibited tragic or pathetic attitude in which she fights for life by coddling herself and being deprived. Quite typically, in "View" [in A Perfect Circle of Sun] Pastan complains of a boy playing basketball under a tree she uses for poetic perceptions. Although the poem ends in a lively fashion … she basically wishes that her vision not be disturbed by life since she does not greet the disturbance with welcome or wonder, even if she does finally take it in….

A Perfect Circle of Sun only invites the reader to look into it as into an easter egg with mise en scène —rather stark with no frosting—to admire the finesse and complexity of its small tableaux. The reader can only observe, cannot identify or participate, cannot be swept into a new angle or energy. Pastan's poems just go on being themselves...

(This entire section contains 372 words.)

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in a hard shelled way. She does not often see or fight for life as sharing, exchanges, transfusions, but, as in "Early Walk," sees it as eternal, if not hopeless, cold division. (p. 130)

There is virtue in Pastan's surefooted acceptance of life, as there is in her smooth technique—but at a cost. She never loses clarity and control; she miniaturizes and cuts off or pares down life, excluding its hazy, rough margins, confusions, and passions. She seems to have given up or in and serves up her poems as dull duck à l'orange neatly arranged under glass. (p. 131)

Yet Pastan has a toughness I like. My favorite poem in A Perfect Circle of Sun is "Emily Dickinson" because in it she goes straight out on a limb of admiration and doesn't have to break the limb or double back on it to some frozen balance or tepid impasse…. Pastan has an easy, strong, and direct rhythm; and a gift of observation … and sharp images…. I would like to see more of that boldness in Linda Pastan's work, and a reaching for a new air of expectation…. (pp. 131-32)

Janet Bloom, "A Plea for Proper Boldness," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1972, pp. 130-34.∗


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The free verse [in the brief poems of Aspects of Eve] is in the objectivist vein, with short lines (sometimes one word) and little interest in stanzaic arrangement…. [Pastan] introspects on domestic concerns, but her ideas are [easy] to follow because of the precise figurative language. Although the verse is plainspoken and direct, its disarming simplicity is not artless, for the poet conveys much with great economy of means. Her concise diction and carefully chosen imagery communicate with clarity and immediacy, suggesting William Carlos Williams at his sparest and least pretentious. There is nothing major here, nothing truly ambitious, but the individual poems express an unmistakable genuineness of feeling. Although the lack of intensity and passion is no doubt deliberate, the poems seem occasionally too casual, too mundane, to grasp and hold the imagination. (pp. 1447-48)

A review of "Aspects of Eve: Poems," in Choice (copyright © 1976 by American Library Association; reprinted by permission of the American Library Association), Vol. 12, No. 11, January, 1976, pp. 1447-48.

Paul Ramsey

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Linda Pastan's Aspects of Eve has dream images, essencing images, house and family and garden imagery, Old Testament imagery, classical imagery, usually in short narratives about coming to terms with her experience. The poems are sure of touch, rightly distanced. The terms are not small terms; she says important, clear words about some important subjects: death, endurance, kindness. Her poems go unexpected ways through several kinds of imagery and saying, and they work out as wholes, naturally, uncontrivedly. "David" and "Algera" are, in my judgment, the two best poems in the book; but my favorite is "Folk Tale." It's nice, among all the current goings-on, to have a poem for parents. (p. 539)

Paul Ramsey, "Image and Essence: Some American Poetry of 1975," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1976 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXIV, No. 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 533-41.∗

Kathryn Ruby

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[Aspects of Eve is a] conventional and intense book. Despite frequent references to old myths—Greek, Biblical, and literary—these poems lose none of their relevance and power. The woman's voice is contemporary, whether as mother … or as a wife…. These poems about family life and parenthood are refreshing without being—I hate to say it—"sentimental." A personal book, without being private, Aspects of Eve bears reading and rereading. (p. 105)

Kathryn Ruby, "Chants, Parables, Sagas: New Books by Women Poets," in Ms. (© 1976 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. V. No. 3, September, 1976, pp. 103-05.∗

Samuel Hazo

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For the poetry of Linda Pastan I have a continuing and solid—respect. Never baroque, never sentimental, never suffused with a militant feminism or any other transient ism that forces poetry to yield to ideology or sociology or worse. What is she then? Simply a competent poet. And not because of one or two good poems but because all her poems have a kind of uniform excellence. Now the earlier poems of A Perfect Circle of Sun and Aspects of Eve have a shelf companion in her new The Five Stages of Grief. Her language in this new book, as in its predecessors, is spare as gristle and just as hard and, if I'm not pushing the comparison too far, just as luminous. There is not a poem in the book that does not have the succinctness of final precision…. But succinctness is only half the story. The other and deeper half is vision. This is a woman with convictions; she is not satisfied to be mere litmus paper to the world. How can I describe this vision except to say that it is maturely Jewish in the humanistic sense in which Spinoza's vision is Jewish—an almost sophisticated mysticism leavened with wit and an awareness of the ironic. It is the very soul of the title poem as well as the poems like "Self Portrait at 44" and "Because." But the one that reveals it best is "A Short History of Judaic Thought in the Twentieth Century."… (pp. 537-38)

Samuel Hazo, "The Experience of the Idea," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 3, Autumn, 1978, pp. 536-47.∗


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[Linda Pastan's The five stages of grief: Poems] bears resemblance to her previous works in its quality of imagery and consistency of tone. The imagery seems always familiar yet exactly correct, like an old myth restored in new words. These new words, the images and statements, then weave themselves into a voice that speaks, rails, sings of life, of its disappointments, inevitabilities, and possibilities. But this voice has the consistent tonal qualities a child remembers as being behind the stories heard read through the winter of sleepless nights. This consistency of tone unifies the whole volume as clearly as do the physical divisions, the five stages one goes through before the acceptance of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Even more important than the overall structure of the work is the fine structure of each poem. The poems are delicately crafted, like small carvings amazingly designed yet simple and totally precise in every detail. The content of the poems reflects intelligence, vitality, and a mind of forgiveness.

A review of "The Five Stages of Grief: Poems," in Choice (copyright © 1978 by American Library Association; reprinted by permission of the American Library Association), Vol. 15, No. 10, December, 1978, p. 1372.

Peter Stitt

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Linda Pastan is a master of the well-made poem. Her use of technique is so precise, so careful, that it seems she would be a perfect example to use in teaching young poets how to control their material. Her best poems are specimens, admirable for the telling way in which their point is made. She shows best, too, in single poems; her volumes tend not to have much cohesion—even when, as in The Five Stages of Grief, such cohesion is obviously an important goal for the volume. The book is arranged according to the five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—and the jacket tells us that the source of the original grief is coming to terms with our own death, our own life. The concept is vague, and its appearance in the poems is equally vague, perhaps all we could expect. There is another pattern present in the volume, one which seems in fact to undercut this one. In several poems, the speaker (obviously a woman) asks someone—husband, lover—not to abandon her. In the final poem, which is also the title poem, Pastan goes through all five stages of grief in response to the statement: "I lost you." Indeed, after acceptance is supposedly achieved, the poem ends with the speaker again plaintively uttering the same words: "I have lost you." In terms of theme, we seem to have gotten nowhere—in poem and book alike. (pp. 928-29)

Clarity and imagery are her strongest virtues; when she relies on these rather than on a flippant sense of humor, she can be counted on to produce outstanding work. (p. 930)

Peter Stitt, "Violence, Imagery, and Introspection," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1979, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Winter, 1979, pp. 927-32.∗

Desmond Graham

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[Loneliness] provides the creative conflict out of which many of [Linda Pastan's] poems are made. After journal-like, imagistic beginnings, the colloquial style she develops through the four collections from which her Selected Poems … are taken, increasingly sets out to explore a double loneliness: that of a commitment to family relationships caught in a time-scale (children grow up etc.), and that of commitment to the isolated life of a poet. Her witty style and capacity to grow poems through extending and shifting metaphor widen the significances of these two areas, but her strength lies in her basic human understanding and her ability to find and time metaphors. (pp. 74-5)

Desmond Graham, in a review of "Selected Poems," in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 22, No. 1 (1980), pp. 74-5.

Alan Brownjohn

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Linda Pastan's Selected Poems are written almost entirely in a mode that lends itself to expressions of limitation and low spirits: short poems, short lines, mild sub-romantic diction…. Many of them teeter on the brink of sentimentality (and there is an obvious danger of sameness about the routine). Yet somehow they do draw away from it: a well-controlled, resolving image will often work successfully against the current pulling a poem down towards bathos. Now in her forties, she has only been writing during the 1970s, and it's encouraging to see that towards the end of this volume she is getting more strength and resonance into these modestly structured pieces.

Alan Brownjohn, in a review of "Selected Poems," in Encounter (© 1980 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LIV, No. 4, April, 1980, p. 66.

The Virginia Quarterly Review

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Linda Pastan's voice [in Waiting for My Life] grows in quiet maturity, as her poems continue to combine delicate irony of vision with grace and elegance of expression. Hers is a distinctive style, pure, clear, and precise, her images chosen with a sure sense of balance and proportion. The short lines and economy of language may give the impression of a slight poem, but this spareness corresponds to an aim for simplicity and integrity. (pp. 25-6)

A review of "Waiting for My Life," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1982, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 58, No. 1 (Winter, 1982), pp. 25-6.

Dave Smith

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"What do I mean by straight writing, I have been asked. I mean, in part, writing that is not mannered, overconscious, or at war with common sense," Marianne Moore wrote. Nothing could better describe the writing of Linda Pastan, which is everywhere accessible, clear, and straight. But it is a straightness that has some of Frost's walking stick to it. She is so in command of herself and of her abilities that you turn the pages of her fourth collection, Waiting For My Life, with almost the same expectations that you have when you fall asleep for the night, that tomorrow is entirely possible and probably more interesting than today. If Linda Pastan is like anybody now writing it is William Stafford; that steadiness, that willingness to be with everything in the world, to be just what one is, and to know it acutely.

Waiting For My Life begins with an epilogue and a prologue, in that order, which suggest that between the end and the beginning there is only one story. We imperfectly understand this story but we may not avert our faces, for if we do we are condemned to darkness and silence. This is the consequence of a fairy tale, a tale which is fabular but which must be impeccably true as it is local for the imagination. Pastan's poetry, like the good tale, legend, and dream, rides just above the bowing ice beneath which the black water waits. Death is less a direct threat in her than it is context, presence, the story within which all other stories fit and pulse. Artists, she says, "are only translators, uneasy/unequipped." The responsible translator must give us as much flesh as possible, not merely skeleton or dummy. Yet it is exactly the apprehended unknown we are always losing in our translations and I think this is why Pastan so frequently mentions secrets, codes, shadows, emblems, disguises; all those words which suggest the divided kingdom of tales. Often enough in her poems someone is saying we don't know what we want, only that we do want. This would constitute a pitiful vagueness in Pastan's book if it were not functional (and there are a few less than impressive, merely vague poems here); that is, the context of desire is slowly examined, given objects, brought to crisis, and to a degree resolved. A poet who knew less of her abilities and limits could not walk the lines that Linda Pastan does.

The tale of Waiting For My Life is that of a suburban woman and her "dailiness."… Emily Dickinson took her dailiness to the heights of metaphysical vision and, it may be, Dickinson is Pastan's ghost, though less perhaps in sound than in what to look at and how to show it…. Pastan's tale is, as I think Dickinson's was for the most part, the constant attempt to know how beauty accommodates itself to and survives the beast. Maybe that is all poetry's life ever is. If that is true it is because poetry, like the tale, will never go very far from the heart in crisis.

Perhaps the distinctive quality of Waiting For My Life is not the utter absence of bad writing, not the unfaltering professional excellence of the poet, and not even the lifting of suburban life to the tale's powerful recognition of what we are, we fearful and hopeful creatures. Rather it is the wry, wise depth of experience expressed with such scrupulous indifference to what everything means that we know this is the poetry of innocence; we know it is incapable of ignorance, deception, malevolence, or mendacity. Partly Pastan now writes what is called "autumnal" poetry; that which looks back on the harm's way that life is, and partly it is Pastan's ability to turn gnomic detail into understated symbols of how things flatly are. She shows us parents musing on the lives of grown children, on their own altered flesh, the weather, the slackened but not dead fevers of desire, those moments spent at windows in kitchens or gardens where we are astonished at the speed and movement that is all the not-us. And yet there is another distinction in this book, a sly presence not heretofore so evident in Pastan's poetry.

"Who is it accuses us of safety?" Linda Pastan asks in the middle section which she calls "The War Between Desire and Dailiness." Her poem defends the sometimes domestic, sometimes introspective life this way: "We have chosen the dangerous life." Pastan would argue that the best defense is a good offense. A little like Hopkins rappelling the cliffs of the mind, Pastan now takes on those mountains of the suppressed life, fidelity and betrayal. They are, of course, metaphors for poetry, imagination, and knowledge. They ask Prufrock's questions about daring, presumption, change, and they have the real urgency of sexual passion. But this urgency is tempered by the recognition that love which is for some a salvation is for others betrayal and madness. Renewal and destruction, obligation and will, now sit at the heart of Pastan's writing like toad and prince. (pp. 40-1)

Linda Pastan has come to ask to what shall we be faithful, the aching thaw of desire or "echoes/from the buried chambers/of the heart?" Dickinson spent a lifetime asking that question and her answer was to disappear into poems that refused any answer. Pastan says: "Let dailiness win." It sounds as if she has chosen safety but the line ends a poem with anything but conviction. In "Returning," "When the Moment Is Over," "Eyes Only" and others Pastan's sensuality gets the boy so much wanted. Who accuses her of safety? She does, down there in the heart's boneshop. Waiting For My Life is full of surprises that make it far from daily. It keeps a low heat, but it is radiant heat nonetheless…. (p. 41)

Dave Smith, "Some Recent American Poetry: Come All Ye Fair & Tender Ladies" (copyright © 1982 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Dave Smith), in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, January-February, 1982, pp. 36-46.∗

Publishers Weekly

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Linda Pastan appeals to a broad audience, from the readers of serious poetry journals to the readers of women's magazines. Stark simplicity is her hallmark, and her values are conventional and family-oriented. Pastan's language is plain, her lines are short, her message is heartwarming. Within these small formats, she exhibits a fine technical skill and genuine inspiration. Many of her metaphors, which are never overly ingenious or forced, are chosen from the Bible and other classical sources. Pastan's work depicts continuity in the dailiness of life and the peaceable kingdom of domesticity. Drawn from four books that have appeared over a decade, [the poems in "PM/AM: New and Selected Poems"] are highly complementary. Many poems that seemed minor and fragmentary first time around are transformed by the unity of their context here. "PM/AM" merits a reexamination of Linda Pastan's place in contemporary poetry.

A review of "PM/AM: New and Selected Poems," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the September 10, 1982 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R.R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1982 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 222, No. 11, September 10, 1982, p. 73.

Hugh Seidman

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"PM/AM" is a selection from Linda Pastan's four previous books, plus some newer poems….

As her rather low-key title might imply, Miss Pastan is a chronicler of the quotidian, domestic world….

Miss Pastan is clever at turning images and references to serve her purposes symbolically, though her poetry takes few overt risks of either form or subject and her main gesture is one of reiteration and confirmation rather than illumination of the sources and consequences of her obsessions and turmoils. (p. 33)

Besides family,… [some] poems invoke death, failed relationships, feminism and the role of the poet…. Her diction is uncomplicated and direct, with little overt manipulation for rhetorical effect or intellective complexity….

At the end of "Friday's Child," Miss Pastan [calls all words "epitaphs"]…. This may be true, but it is certainly just as true that words also imply energies of rebirth. It is this latter possibility of language that one often misses in her work, although one cannot deny that her vision has gained in depth over the years. Her last book has a stateliness and solidity of tone not reached in earlier ones, and there is evidence of more emotional opening out in some of her newest pieces. (p. 34)

Hugh Seidman, "Word Play," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1983 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 20, 1983, pp. 6, 33-4.∗