She was hell on birds. She knew them like the palm of her own hand, if it had been winged and downy. She knew them, and loved them and parsed them in the way she knew and loved and parsed the accents of Maine. She was hell on the accents of Maine, and she wrote about them in that mixture-of-memoir-and-anecdote-and-linguistic-rigor that marks exactly the kind of sensibility I’m drawn to. I was drawn to her, to her sensible heartfelt generous leftward politics, and to her willingness to act on her beliefs and not merely mouth them. She had a firm will and a winsome face. She never gave up; she was hit by a truck on a snowy road, stood up and brushed herself off, and kept on going. She kept on going everywhere, it seemed to me, that a healthy curiosity could lead her: into the scholarship of the Byron circle (hell on the Romantics!), into translation of contemporary poetry, into reviews of books of poems that never forgave one for a sloppiness or a laziness but that always remained empathetic and encouraging. Without her early interest, I might not be writing today. My debt to her—two generations of poetry readers and writers’ debt to her—is beyond calculation. I think she believed that this life is the only chance at a heaven we get, and she worked toward that, she was hell on that. And man, was she hell on grammar!
Passion is not the word, though it is the first here to come to mind. Neither is integrity the word. Nor self-reliance. Marion is the word, maybe, for she is a spirit over whom in the course of one’s experience it nearly feels remiss to grieve, so long and earthly rich seemed to be her life—BPJ and books, of course; birds; blueberries; and, not too long ago, a visit from a bear she batted away from her backyard vista-to-the-bay with a broom—the recollection of her mettle also rich in that it is like the aura of the poem, the song, or the film, any work of art that might draw one back via its latent energy again and again. . . .
“What makes a poem memorable?” the Journal of the Poetry Society of America once asked her and a few other editors. “Sensuousness,” she said, “with a music to the reader aloud, engaging the whole body and mind. Also, as Coleridge said of Wordsworth: words that ‘always mean the whole of their possible meaning.’ A vision beyond the personal.”
Still, it is not through words her spirit seems to go corporeal whenever or wherever I write. Following years of rejection slips from her and, finally, two letters of acceptance before we met in the flesh, at the 50th anniversary celebration of BPJ, when she sprung from her chair to offer both her hands, which I, silent, squeezed in mine, she had become something akin to a departed mother’s surrogate, who had patiently schooled me—made me work to “make it [not only] new” but unique. Yes, there need be no words, no eulogy from me, while in my mind the mien of Marion, as if a priori, exists.
This is an earnest and heartfelt response from one of the 1200 veterans who enrolled at the University of Maine in Orono in 1946, the year Marion began teaching English there. We had no documentation, but who else would the young instructor have been who informed me gently: “Are you aware, Mr. Chute, that some of your poems would only rhyme in Maine?”—the sign of an editor who could put you right without putting you down.
Marion, I will think of you whenever I pick up a paddle, watch the birds at the feeder as I drink my morning tea, or wear the turquoise necklace, a twin to yours, that I found in my mailbox, and do my best to write something worth reading.
I don’t know how to express the admiration I had for Marion and the ways I’ll miss her without sounding sentimental, which I don’t think she’d approve of. My husband and I have a lone white pine on our property with a trunk so thick we can’t meet hands around it. Marion was that big. Now, I expect a short note in the mail in her lovely, slanted hand saying, “You can do better than that!” Not that she ever said that—she was always kind and encouraging to me from the first time I read (shaking in my shoes) in front of her to the last, and with every submission, accepted or rejected, that I sent to the journal. . . .
Marion’s friendship meant a great deal to me. I was trained as a musician and so had no academic background in English or creative writing. I consider Marion to have been one of the few mentors I’ve had as a poet. She would often help me get work I sent her into final form before publishing it. I treasured her advice, notes, letters, and learned a tremendous amount about contemporary poetry from her reviews in the BPJ, which were always the first thing I read. I often urged her to consider publishing them in book form. Sometimes she even played hooky from work and we corresponded playfully about the meaning of a poem we both knew (Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Sandpiper”), opera as one of her great loves, and books we’d read.
When I put a manuscript of poems together, she took it upon herself to champion it, writing a letter of recommendation for a competition I entered that kept me going for years—it was so warm-hearted, generous, and to the point. And when she didn’t like something I’d done, she let me know, no punches pulled. I knew I could always trust her judgment.
I'm sure there are many many like me for whom Marion Stocking has been an incredibly important figure, however disembodied. Because I came to poetry relatively late in life, I chose a number of mentors and Marion proved to be one of the most significant for me. . . . Of course I was happy to discover Beloit Poetry Journal for a number of reasons, but it was through Marion's reviews that I created my own personal "Marion"—part of the wondrous world of the written word!—who mentored me through so much poetry with such generosity, kindness, and, yes, "bounty" that I felt like so many must have felt over the years: that I was in personal colloquy with someone with a wise and infectious passion for words ignited beyond themselves. It quickly became my habit to read her reviews, then read every single book she mentioned— even in an offhand comment—and then to return to the review to consider carefully her comments.
I was very lucky to have a few most excellent teachers and I count Marion Stocking as one of those. . . . Marion is a model for me every time I enter the classroom. . . . She reminds me of my own generous spirit and that it needs to be resilient and bountiful. For the world, for the words.
What a person she was. I'll miss her ever-green reviews, and I'll never forget her encouragement to me (and I know there were hundreds like me): when she took my sequence "Eight Landscapes and Eight Poems," she apologized that there wouldn't be room to print the eight on separate pages, "as they should be," she said, and added "but you can print them correctly when you publish a book." Not if, but when. That made a huge difference to me.
Then, when I got the issue, there the eight poems were, each on its own page, space economy be damned.
I remember so clearly my first acceptance at BPJ, when I was in the first year of my MFA at Washington University in St. Louis. It was my first publication in a major journal, and it came after years of trying.
Beloit had been the first journal I had ever submitted anything to—I discovered it in the stacks at the University of Rochester's library, where I think I had been directed to it by James Longenbach, my first poetry teacher. Finally to have something accepted delivered such a sense of relief, of joyful confirmation; and I still have the note, unaccountably generous, that Marion wrote me. So began my association with BPJ, which I treasure. What a wonderful monument to Marion that the magazine continues with such success, each issue seeming more exciting than the last.
“She had a strong desire to get back to the woods,”
Fred Stocking said.
In March of 1977, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I took a small trip by train from Boston to Gloucester, Massachusetts, to spend the day in a place that was new to me, thinking about, and working on, a poem—if all goes well, my usual hope and plan for my birthday. The poem I began that day, "Four Questions Regarding the Dreams of Animals," isn't very important, but it was one of the first poems I ever published. Someone had told me that the Beloit Poetry Journal, then in Wisconsin, was a friendly venue for young poets and I discovered that indeed it was, for Marion Stocking took the poem and wrote a kind letter to me about it. In later years, Marion reviewed many of my books in her pages and each time I sent her a note of thanks, she responded, and she often mentioned that poem about the dreams of animals from so long ago. I had a sense that she never forgot any poem she published; it was obvious that her deliberations were deeply considered.
Her reviews meant more to me than anyone else's, for she always kept working toward a sense of the book as a whole, and her insights would be a spark for whatever I would do next. Her scholarship, her life-time of reading for pleasure, and her editing all played a part in the generosity she brought to her reviewing. I don't know anyone else who could write ten or fifteen reviews at a time and pay scrupulous attention, as she did, to the particular intentions of each work—there is a vast community of poets who are grateful to her.
I always thought that somehow, somewhere I would meet Marion, and this year, learning she had been ill, I decided to call, rather than write, to thank her for her generosity. I wasn't surprised by the clear voice that answered the phone, or by her matter-of-fact description of her illness and announcement that she wouldn't be doing any more writing; this brave, forthright, appraisal was her final gift to this stranger.
We write for those we love and for strangers, and sometimes, even at a distance we never overcome, a stranger becomes someone we love. Marion Stocking was, and remains, my ideal stranger and the kind of reader I would like to be.
Marion Stocking used the back pages of BPJ like a great hostess—introducing us to the poets she had invited into that space, listening to what they had to say, drawing out the deeper intentions of their words, attending to their style, accepting and even relishing their eccentricities, quirks, and excesses. She never displayed her wit or erudition at a poet’s expense, but used all of her considerable literary knowledge and warm intelligence in the service of understanding the work. I never met her, and am sorry for that, but I relied on her criticism, and trusted it. She lived the tenets John Leonard once set forth for responsible reviewing, among them: “Look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives. . . .”
Many of us will miss terribly the voice of Marion Stocking writing about poetry in the Beloit Poetry Journal. Because she wrote what can only be called “appreciations” of what she read, and she read widely, eclectically, and without the ego-strut of slash-and-burn reviewers. She was never cursory; she was careful; she took her time. In writing about a book of poems, she told us what was there, rather than (as too many reviewers do) complaining about what was not there. She had discovered one of the best kept secrets of criticism: that generosity is the most objective stance and produces the best criticism, that open reception increases the chance that the reader will discover what the poet is trying to do, and therefore discern what is remarkable and valuable in any particular work. Most memorably, she seemed grateful for the work of others, and if she ever found a book too paltry to review seriously, she must have done what was both wise and kind: simply neglect to review it.
I seem to do nothing but think about Marion, her rare intelligence, her consistency and grit, her boundless love of poetry, her long-practiced public spirit—and I always find myself remembering the virtues with which she lit all these other qualities, namely her great loving-kindness, a particular gift for the coziness of friendship, a natural playfulness. And her courage! In one of her last notes to me . . . she said how much she enjoyed going out to look at her daffodils “when I have a good day.” She always spoke about getting back to work—yes—& especially about the book she had in mind to tell about her adventures abroad as a young scholar in her annus mirabilis of 1948. I loved those stories but I remember none of the details, not even the names of the people in them—only herself going off to an important gathering having spent all her money on the wrong dress (bright red nylon, as I remember). Thank goodness her great book did come out after all those years! Thank goodness it was on the cover of TLS!
Well, we know there is still plenty of intelligence, determination, loving-kindness & humor in the world. But who can be philosophical about losing someone like Marion?
We've been balancing on the rafters
leaning out over unfinished space
planning a library—a new stud here,
some insulation there, a cursive
crawl of wires.
We're writing our future
with old barn boards—
two-by-fours that are two-by-fours,
and beams that have been
the bones of this barn for generations.
The windows, old, will soon be
replaced with double-glazed,
able to open, let fresh air in.
We are making room for your books,
the way you made room for so many
young poets. Some of the shelves
are pine, some mahogany; some are ready-
made; some we'll construct ourselves.
When the boxes arrive we'll shelve
the volumes in a logical order, but
when we crack them open,
imagination takes over from there.
All the potatoes you peeled and
cukes you planted will salad forth
in this garden plot. When you come back,
there's space for a large bird
on the cross-braces or, if you prefer,
for a small mouse to run from table
to table to nibble shortbread crumbs
dropped by foraging poets.
When you come back, don't worry, here
in the kitchen you helped us build
there will always be something good to eat,
plenty, in fact, for any wandering and hungry soul.