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Linda Pastan: The Extraordinary Power of the Ordinary
by Kyle Potvin, Poet & Independent Scholar

A Consistent Voice for Half a Century

ince Linda Pastan's first book of poetry, A Perfect Circle of Sun, was published in 1971 when she was in her late thirties, the poet has been celebrated for her way with the ordinary. Her tightly written lyric poems are, on one level, about life around her—children, home, garden—and on a deeper level, about loss, mortality, identity, and the expected unexpectedness of life. This is a poet who discovered her strong writing voice early on, and while honing her craft during the next 50 years, continued to explore her fascination with these core themes.

As Pastan, who turned 81 in May 2013, said in an interview, "It interests me that I was so aware of death even when I was 12 and writing poems—that's what they were about—and now that it is right around the corner…it hasn't really changed that much."

Pastan is a keen observer who recognizes the realities of life: illness, aging, disappointment, fear and, yes, death. In her poems, there is the sense that "The Cossacks are always coming" (The Last Uncle 15) and that in another moment life will change forever. And yet, this tension is balanced with a comforting acceptance and understanding that it is the ordinary moments that save us.

The genius of Pastan's work—her rootedness in the ordinary—is what makes her a popular and accessible poet. Still, it is a credit to her mastery of technique that her poems resonate with devotees of poetry as well as the common reader.

This dual admiration is evident in her many awards: National Book Award Finalist (twice), a Dylan Thomas Award, the Di Castagnola Award, the Bess Hokin Prize, the Maurice English Award, the Charity Randall Citation, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and the 2012 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. She was also a recipient of a Radcliffe College Distinguished Alumnae Award. And, in at least one measure of popularity, she triumphs on Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac: Her poems have been featured 67 times to vox populi poet Billy Collins' 57.


Born Linda Olenik on May 27, 1932, in New York City, Pastan was the only child of Jacob, a surgeon, and Bess, his devoted wife. With her parents immersed in their busy lives, the poet had an isolated childhood. Since she attended a school outside her immediate neighborhood, Pastan had no friends nearby; instead, she read constantly and started writing books, stories and poems. At age 12, she started sending work to The New Yorker, to which her parents subscribed.

If her father had had his wish, the world would have been introduced to Doctor Pastan instead of Poet Pastan. Because she fainted at the sight of blood, Pastan was saved her from a career she didn't want. "This is the real irony—what saved me was being a girl. He finally said, 'Oh well, she's just a girl.' If I had been a boy, I would be a doctor. There is no way I would have gotten out of it." (Interview) Instead of medical school, Pastan attended and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1954 although she did not do much writing in college.

"Harvard didn't put any emphasis on student work," Pastan said, adding that it was one of her "huge" regrets that she didn't apply for the one poetry writing class given which was taught by Pulitzer Prize winner Archibald MacLeish. At the time, however, she had just married Ira Pastan (now a renowned NIH researcher) and was busy writing a thesis: "The Failed Novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne." Later, she took a prosody course and the two poems she wrote there, although of no interest to her professors, won the Dylan Thomas Award, presented by Mademoiselle magazine. Thirty years later that she learned the runner up was Sylvia Plath.

Soon after, feeling 1950s societal pressure to perfect the role of wife and mother, Pastan stopped writing to raise her family. Pastan explained, "It's hard to imagine if you weren't in that generation the expectation that a woman get married immediately…I felt I had to be the perfect wife. I was in college, I was writing a thesis, but I had to go marketing and do the laundry and cook dinner. My husband was in medical school—he didn't have a second to help. Something had to go and poetry went—I just didn't have time." (Interview)

To put the challenges of this time period in perspective, it is helpful to look at Pastan's contemporaries. Two of these peers are iconic women with strong literary voices: poet Sylvia Plath. who was born the same year as Pastan, and author/activist Susan Sontag, born one year later in 1933, also in New York City. As was the tradition, these two women also got married in college. Sontag ended up divorcing in her twenties with one child while Plath, a mother of two, struggling to balance family and art, took her own life at age 30. Pastan may have taken the healthiest route—although not an easy one—by suspending her writing life for a decade while raising her three children.

Yet the desire to write ultimately bubbled over. "I knew being a wife and mother wasn't enough," Pastan said. "I think I was just bored without a really intellectual challenge. Babies were certainly fulfilling, but not in that way" (Interview/email). At age 32, when her two boys were in elementary school and her daughter was just born, she and her husband, who finally understood how frustrated she was, put steps in place for Pastan to start writing in the mornings, a habit that continued until she turned 70, when she gave herself permission to write only when the spirit moved her.

From the publication of her first collection, she began a productive career and, during the next 40 years, Pastan came out with a new book every three to four years. She averages writing two poems per month and is known for her extensive editing, up to 100 revisions per poem. (Brown)

Pastan, who received a master's degree from Brandeis University in 1957, taught at Bread Loaf Writers' Conference for 20 years. Although she enjoyed teaching, she found it stole energy from her own writing and so she refused regular teaching jobs and did not renew a brief stint at American University. She served as Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991-1995.

Critical Reception

From the publication of her first collection, A Perfect Circle of Sun, through her latest, Traveling Light, 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" (Stein 368).

Early on, Thomas Lask wrote in The New York Times, "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 has conceived a book rather than single poems…Her lyrics are short, clear and neatly bitten off at the end. No loose threads show and neither does the joinery" (Stein 368). Nearly 20 years later, Bruce Bennett wrote in a review of The Imperfect Paradise for The New York Times, "Pastan's unfailing mastery of her medium holds the darkness firmly in check" (Bennett). Praise continued another 20 years after that as the Christian Science Monitor wrote about Pastan's most recent collection, Traveling Light: "She shows that poetry can be meaningful, satisfying, lovely—and leave people feeling whole."

As evidence of the positive, ongoing critical reception to her work, two of Pastan's "retrospective" collections—PM/AM: New and Selected Poems, published in 1982, and Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968–1998, published in 1998—were named Finalists for the National Book Award. In 2003, at age 71, and with plenty more work ahead of her, Pastan won the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, given for lifetime achievement by the Poetry Foundation.

Yet despite these reviews, Pastan feels critics sometimes miss the deeper level that exists beneath her commonplace subject matter. Reviews often include words like "quotidian," "domestic," "dailiness" and reference "family" or "simplicity" which seem to undercut their depth. For instance, Publisher's Weekly said in a review of PM/AM: New and Selected Poems, "Stark simplicity is her hallmark, and her values are conventional and family-oriented" (qtd in Stein 371).

"I really feel as if I've been accused by critics of just writing about nice, domestic things—and it drives me crazy," said Pastan. "When men write about domestic things they are praised to the winds—look what a human, wonderful person. But when women do, they really are put down. My poems may have domestic surfaces, but that's not what they are about and it really upsets me to feel that I'm not taken as seriously as if I had been a man" (Interview).

In an interview on The PBS NewHour after winning the Ruth Lilly Prize, Pastan explained her approach this way: "I have always written about what's around me, both the surroundings here in the woods, but I mean, there's always something changing. When my children were small, there were a lot of small children running through the poems. As friends and family have started to age and die, there's a lot more darkness and death in them. But I think I've always been interested in the dangers that are under the surface, but seem like simple, ordinary domestic life. It may seem like smooth surfaces, but there are tensions and dangers right underneath, and those are what I'm trying to get at" (qtd in Brown).

As she tries to work out these tensions and dodge life's dangers, familiar "characters," inspired by her own experience, such as parents, children and husband, populate her poems. Archetypal characters also make repeated appearances. One of these is Penelope, the patient, faithful wife of Odysseus. Another is Eve, inspired more by the beautiful gardens surrounding Pastan's home in Potomac, Maryland, where she has lived for 40 years, than from religious conviction.

It is interesting to note that while Pastan considers her use of religion in her poems symbolic, some academics and readers categorize her as a Jewish poet. For instance, in her essay "Jewish Identity over the Life Cycle: Poems by Maxine Kumin and Linda Pastan," in Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal, Dr. Lois Elinoff Rubin of Pennsylvania State University, argues that "A study of Kumins [sic] and Pastans [sic] poems written over the years on a variety of Jewish subjects (what could be called their internal reports) illuminates how the various circumstances of their lives—influences of their family backgrounds and early years, events and experiences in their lives and their movement through the life stages—shape their Jewish identities, and reveals both the concerns they return to again and again and the new issues they deal with over time."

Pastan explained her approach to religion this way: "I use the Jewish culture in my poems that I learned about from my grandparents but my father was a militant atheist and I did not set foot in a synagogue until I went to a wedding when I was 18" (Interview).

While Pastan's subject matter has varied over the years depending on the circumstances in her own life—being a mother, losing parents, watching the seasons change in her garden—her themes related to mortality and the unexpectedness of life, and characters remain consistent from the beginning of her writing career to the present. To demonstrate this consistency, it is helpful to look at poems written in different decades of Pastan's life.

The poem "What We Want" (Waiting for My Life, 1981) was written when her two sons were grown and her final child, her daughter, was in her teens. Pastan was then in her forties, and we get the sense that as suggested by the collection's title, she is ready to get what she wants, now that her children are all nearly grown, and plunge into her creative life instead of waiting for it. And yet, in "What We Want," there is the realization that "what we want is never simple." Pastan explores that universal feeling of wanting what we don't have and the dissatisfaction that comes when what "we thought we wanted" no longer applies.

We move among the things
we thought we wanted:
a face, a room, an open book
and these things bear our names—
now they want us.

In her characteristically spare style, Pastan creates an ache for something indescribable, just out of reach. At the end of the poem, through repetition of words ("remember" "dream") and phrases ("is there"), the longing gnaws at us, as if when deciphering a recurring dream.

Still, Pastan's concluding images of the ever-present stars and an animal companion, presumably the faithful family dog, create a hopeful, comforting sense that despite the confusion, an answer is close at hand:

We don't remember the dream,
but the dream remembers us.
It is there all day
as an animal is there
under the table,
as the stars are there
even in full sun.

Ironically, Pastan writes about how "what we want is never simple" in a short lyric that depicts effectively and simply a concept that is difficult to capture.

A decade later, we find another poem about questioning one's identity, this time coupled with another prevalent Pastan theme: mortality. It is telling that Pastan published "Something About The Trees" in her 10th collection, The Imperfect Paradise (1988), when she was in her 50s. This pantoum's premise is that "There is an age when you are most yourself," and in it Pastan remembers when she was told this by her father who was "just past fifty then," her own age at the time of writing the poem.

I remember what my father told me:
There is an age when you are most yourself.
He was just past fifty then,
Was it something about the trees that made him speak?

Pastan also thinks of her mother at age thirty, when "the perfect surgeon's wife" was most herself.

I still can see her face at thirty.
When will I be most myself?
I thought I'd always be their child.
In my sleep it's never winter.

Pastan wonders when she will be most herself, and the reader can feel her mentally ticking thirty off the list. While her mother loved being the perfect wife ("She didn't feel like she had sacrificed anything"), Pastan is upfront about the dissatisfaction she herself felt at thirty before she emerged from full-time mother to writer. "It took me until I was over 30 to realize I could be a good wife/mother and also be a writer" (Email).

Perhaps fifty is the desired age as it was for her father. Or perhaps that age is still to come. The contemplation, the working over and over again, to determine what that age of knowing really is, comes through in the repeating lines of the pantoum. The echoing also serves to bring us in and out of the past, producing a melancholy feel which underlines the loss of her parents: "I thought I'd always be their child." The repetition subtly shifts the meaning of each line, moving from the focus on her parents' mortality to her own.

Pastan conjures an autumnal message of aging. The changing leaves prompted her father to speak of these things, sensing the passing of time ("Was it something about the trees that made him speak?"). At that point "only a single leaf had turned so far," representing the narrator's youth as well as her father's prime, and she never expects to age as her parents did ("In my sleep it's never winter") but through the poem she realizes the reality, knowing "more now than I did once." The life cycle of the tree referenced in the poem is a reminder of the importance of discovering one's true self before it is too late.

It is worth noting that while most of Pastan's work is free verse, pantoums, sonnets, sestinas, and blank verse also appear in her collections. "When I'm feeling dry and nothing comes, I will give myself a form and that will make me write again," said Pastan. (Interview) The poet started by writing only in form before gradually changing to free verse "which is not free." Pastan explained, "You must make up a form for each new poem." (Email)

Pastan's latest book, Traveling Light (2011) continues exploring these themes of loss and mortality, with perhaps even more conviction as she moves into her eighties. As with her earlier work, Pastan shows an observant understanding of how life works.

One poem from this collection, "The Ordinary," starts on an ordinary day, "of ordinary weather." Life is good – you feed the dog, prepare tea. And then…

and then: the telegram;
or the phone call;
or the sharp pain traveling
the length of your
left arm, or his.

In spare lines, Pastan creates tension by not identifying one specific event, which would be limiting to those never experiencing it. Instead, she lets the reader fill in the blanks; we have all feared receiving "the phone call" and are right there with fluttering heart.

Images are repeated and woven neatly into the poem before and after the news is received, such as the dog and teacup, which appear both at the beginning and again in the final lines. Pastan builds up suspense that "it will happen" and as she mentions these benign, domestic items, we await a malevolent turn.

The phone call comes: "And as your life is switched / To a different track / (the landscape through grimy windows / almost the same though / entirely different)." But the surprising twist comes in the realization that despite tragedy there is no room for despair; life still must be lived: the dog must be let out, the teacup washed.

Another series of images is woven through the poem. Early on, to set the stage of an ordinary day, Pastan describes "the usual assembled flowers / or fallen leaves / disheveling the grass." Later, these images are invoked once again when the narrator cries for "pathetic fallacy."

It is pathetic fallacy
you long for— the roses
nothing but their thorns,
the downed leaves
subjects for a body count.

Pastan longs for some raging Lear-like affirmation from the cosmos that trouble has arrived and "you" will be changed forever. And yet, it turns out that "it is the ordinary / that comes to save you."

One has to wonder if Pastan, whose wit is often apparent in her work, is intentionally playing with her critics who have underestimated her depth. She not only entitles the poem, "The Ordinary," but uses simple metaphor and language to capture that unmistakable Pastan-esque tension between anticipating "the phone call" and realizing that life goes on no matter how we rage against it. As is her trademark, she communicates—in ordinary, uncomplicated language— the nearly incommunicable, moving us deeply and leading us to epiphanies of our own.


Returning to The New York Times Reviewer Thomas Lask's prescient comment about how the individual poems in Pastan's first book, A Perfect Circle of Sun, came together so well that it seemed Pastan "conceived a book rather than single poems" (Stein 368), one can say the same about her total oeuvre.

Pastan, who spends hours grouping poems by themes, looking for just the right combination to make a book, said, "You want it to be more than the sum of its parts" (Interview). And she has achieved this, even if it was not a conscious process, with her entire body of work—16 books over half a century.

During 50 years of writing, Pastan has consistently explored universal themes of loss, mortality, identity, the fickleness of life. Between layers of ordinary, commonplace images of home, family, and nature, she asks and answers complicated questions related to these themes. Ruminating and writing through different life stages has created an inimitable bounty for readers, both casual and professional, drawn to Pastan's view of the world—one that exposes life's bittersweet reality along with a satisfying measure of acceptance and hope.

What We Want

(1981, published age 49)

What we want
is never simple.
We move among the things
we thought we wanted:
a face, a room, an open book
and these things bear our names—
now they want us.
But what we want appears
in dreams, wearing disguises.
We fall past,
holding out our arms
and in the morning
our arms ache.
We don't remember the dream,
but the dream remembers us.
It is there all day
as an animal is there
under the table,
as the stars are there
even in full sun.

Something about the Trees

(1988, published age 56)

I remember what my father told me:
There is an age when you are most yourself.
He was just past fifty then,
Was it something about the trees that made him speak?

There is an age when you are most yourself.
I know more now than I did once.
Was it something about the trees that made him speak?
Only a single leaf had turned so far.

I know more than I did once.
I used to think he'd always be the surgeon.
Only a single leaf had turned so far.
Even his body kept its secrets.

I used to think he'd always be the surgeon,
My mother was the perfect surgeon's wife.
Even his body kept its secrets.
I thought they both would live forever.

My mother was the perfect surgeon's wife,
I still can see her face at thirty.
I thought they both would live forever,
I thought I'd always be their child.

I still can see her face at thirty.
When will I be most myself?
I thought I'd always be their child.
In my sleep it's never winter.

When will I be most myself?
I remember what my father told me.
In my sleep it's never winter.
He was just past fifty then.

"What We Want" and "Something About Trees" are used by permission of Linda Pastan in care of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc.

The Ordinary

(2011, published age 79)

It may happen on a day
of ordinary weather—
the usual assembled flowers,
or fallen leaves
disheveling the grass.
You may be feeding the dog,
or sipping a cup of tea,
and then: the telegram;
or the phone call;
or the sharp pain traveling
the length of your
left arm, or his.
And as your life is switched
To a different track
(the landscape
through grimy windows
almost the same though
entirely different) you wonder
why the wind doesn't
rage and blow as it does
so convincingly
in Lear, for instance.
It is pathetic fallacy
you long for— the roses
nothing but their thorns,
the downed leaves
subjects for a body count.
And as you lie in bed
like an effigy of yourself,
it is the ordinary
that comes to save you—
the china teacup waiting
to be washed, the old dog
whining to go out.

"The Ordinary," from Traveling Light by Linda Pastan. Copyright © 2011 by Linda Pastan. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Works Cited

Bennett, Bruce. Untitled "Arts" Review, The New York Times, September 18, 1988. Web.

Brown, Jeffrey. Interview with Linda Pastan, PBS NewsHour, July 7, 2003. Web.

The Christian Science Monitor, "Top Picks: Alison Krauss's 'Paper Airplane,' 'The Dark Knight' on Facebook, and more," April 27, 2011. Web.

Elinoff Rubin, Lois. "Jewish Identity over the Life Cycle: Poems by Maxine Kumin and Linda Pastan," Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal, Winter 2010 Volume 7 Number 2, 2010 Women in Judaism, Inc. Web.

Pastan, Linda. Carnival Evening. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. Print.

Pastan, Linda. Traveling Light. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2011. Print.

Pastan, Linda. Personal Interview, Potomac, MD, October 15, 2011.

Pastan, Linda, Email Exchange, October 13, 2012.

Poetry Foundation. Linda Pastan Biography, 2011. Web.

Stein, Jean. Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 27, Gale, February 24, 1984. Print.

Linda Pastan
Years: 1932-
Birthplace: USA
Language(s): English
Forms: Free verse, sonnet, pantoum, sestina, blank verse
Subjects: Family, home, garden, food, Eve, Penelope, loss, mortality, identity, expected unexpectedness of life.
Entry By: Kyle Potvin
32 Poems
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