Last reviewed: June 2017
May 27, 1932
New York, New York
Linda Pastan has produced an important body of work that has received both critical and popular acclaim as well as numerous awards. Born Linda Olenic to Jacob L. Olenic, a surgeon, and Bess Schwartz Olenic, Pastan grew up the only surviving child of parents who professed an uncompromising atheism despite their eastern European Jewish descent. Still, her childhood in the Bronx was saturated with the domestic details and cultural expectations of Old World Jewry.
Pastan attended the Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York, a progressive private school affiliated with the Ethical Cultural Society, a humanist organization for free-thinking Jews. Ethics was an important part of the curriculum, starting in the lower grades with courses emphasizing the Greek myths as moral paradigms. Later, these mythical heroes and gods would appear in her poetry as archetypes.
After completing Fieldston, Pastan attended Radcliffe College, where she majored in literature and won Mademoiselle’s Dylan Thomas Award in her senior year. In 1953, she married Ira Pastan, a medical student, and received her BA in English the following year. The couple remained in the Boston area until 1958, while Pastan completed a library science degree at Simmons College and an MA in English at Brandeis University. During the next decade, Pastan immersed herself in domestic life and bore two daughters and a son. During this period she wrote no poetry, but by the end of the 1960s, determined to break out of her creative hiatus, she began to produce a remarkable number of poems that were published in some of the finest literary journals. These efforts culminated in the publication of A Perfect Circle of Sun, a first collection that anticipated many themes that Pastan was to develop later: marriage, motherhood, nature, and her Jewish faith. During the 1970s, Pastan consolidated her reputation with four books of poetry and won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; the John Atherton Fellowship, awarded by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference; and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award.
In the 1980s, the death of her parents, the departure from home of her children, and her own near-fatal automobile accident led Pastan to reevaluate her life. This effort was strongly represented in the poems that were included in her next six collections, including two chapbooks and four major books. Her last three books of the decade earned wide acclaim; PM/AM was nominated for a National Book Award, A Fraction of Darkness won the Maurice English Award, and The Imperfect Paradise was nominated for both the Los Angeles Book Prize and Poetry magazine’s Bess Hokin Award. During this period, she also won a Maryland Arts Council Fellowship and joined the staff of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
The quality of Pastan’s poetry most frequently noted is its emphasis on ordinary subjects. More striking than Pastan’s subjects, however, is the unstated ambivalence of her tone. Any fixed imaginative vision underlying Pastan’s poems is usually sabotaged by fragmented experiences that prohibit coherence. The poem “All We Have to Go By,” from Heroes in Disguise, is an example:
Pastan’s use of imagery and metaphor has become more powerful over the years. Her basic technique is to describe things as themselves and then to develop them in conjunction with other things to achieve layers of meaning. Critics found her early metaphors awkward and forced, but apparently effortless metaphoric transformations are important hallmarks of her mature style.
Pastan accepted the position of poet laureate of Maryland in 1991, and she has traveled widely, giving lectures and readings to a variety of audiences. In 1992, she served as a judge of the National Book Award for poetry, and she received Prairie Schooner’s Virginia Faulkner Award for her poetry and for the essay “Washing My Hands of the Ink.” In 1998, Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968–1998 was a finalist for the National Book Award for poetry.
Still writing into the tewenty-first century, Pastan published the collections The Last Uncle (2002), Queen of a Rainy Country (2006), Traveling Light (2011), and Insomnia (2015).
Despite a busy social life, Pastan struggles to allow time for the introspection and creative freedom that her work demands. She and her husband own homes in the woods of Maryland and on the shore of Nantucket, Massachusetts, where Pastan continues to chronicle what is at hand.