Authors: Linda Pastan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Poet

May 27, 1932

New York, New York

Biography

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:

     As if I had dreamed the snow     into falling,     I wake to a world     blanked out     in its particulars,     nearly erased.    This is the silence     of absolute whiteness—the mute     birds nowhere     in sight, the car     and animal tracks    filled in,     all boundaries,     as in love,     ambiguous . . .

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.

Author Works Poetry: A Perfect Circle of Sun, 1971 Aspects of Eve, 1975 On the Way to the Zoo, 1975 The Five Stages of Grief, 1978 Selected Poems of Linda Pastan, 1979 Even as We Sleep, 1980 Setting the Table, 1980 Waiting for My Life, 1981 PM/AM: New and Selected Poems, 1982 A Fraction of Darkness, 1985 The Imperfect Paradise, 1988 Heroes in Disguise, 1991 An Early Afterlife, 1995 Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, 1968–1998, 1998 The Last Uncle, 2002 Queen of a Rainy Country, 2006 Traveling Light, 2011 Insomnia, 2015 Bibliography Franklin, Benjamin V. “Theme and Structure in Linda Pastan’s Poetry.” Poet Lore 75 (Winter, 1981): 234–241. Summarizes Pastan’s first four books and discusses the “fatalistic” nature of Pastan’s vision, arguing that she is both “anguished” and “indomitable.” Gray, Richard. American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. London: Longman, 1990. While this book does not comment on Pastan, the chapter titled “Formalists and Confessionalists: American Poetry Since the Second World War” surveys poetry contemporary with and relevant to Pastan’s. See the section titled “From Formalism to Freedom: A Progress of American Poetic Techniques Since the War.” Ingersoll, Earl G., et al. The Post-Confessionals: Conversations with American Poets of the Eighties. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989. Stan Sanvel Rubin’s “Introduction” provides a detailed definition of “The Post-Confessionals” and links Pastan with her contemporaries. “‘Whatever Is at Hand’: A Conversation with Linda Pastan,” recorded in 1976 and updated in 1987, discusses Pastan’s interest in mythology and science, the theme of death, and the influence of William Stafford, especially upon her writing habits. Norvig, Gerda S. “Linda Pastan.” In Jewish American Women Writers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. A solid overview of Pastan’s career and accomplishments, paying special attention to the tension between the domestic and the transcendent in her work. Smith, Dave. “Some Recent American Poetry: Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies.” American Poetry Review 11 (January/February, 1982): 36–46. In this unusually insightful review (of Waiting for My Life), Smith argues that Pastan’s central theme is desire—an asking both of what people want and of what deserves their allegiance. He also notes the profundity and “innocence” in Pastan’s telling of her main story: death.

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