I sometimes like to imagine that I am teaching a class in English literature or poetry and walk into class with something like what is in the photograph at the right. I don’t say much to the students but just walk up to my desk and place it in the middle of the desk. If one is familiar with plants of the temperate zone, one might recognize that plant part as the mature inflorescence of lilac flowers. These are the seed pods of lilac flowers that bloomed, heavy scented in billows of lavender, blue, purple, or white blossoms unrivaled for attention in the spring but now, in the fall, are almost unnoticed by passersby.
All I would say to the students is, “Write a poem about this.” There would be a lot of rumbling amongst the students, and a few questions like “What is it.”, “I can’t do that!”, to which I would respond, “It’s a lilac flower, you can do it.” Then I would just say, “You’ve got 15 minutes.” Oh, probably some students would have 3 or four lines about lilacs but most would still be bruising their brain at the end of 15 minutes. Then, I would smugly provide each student a copy of the poem that Patience Worth wrote about browned lilacs and say, “This is what she did!”
(Before you read the following poem by Patience Worth try to write one of your own. You can take as long as you like.)
I dinna believe I would have recalled
When the lilacs had browned,
For their purple plumes had nodded
Blithesomely upon the sunlit airs.
I dinna believe I would have recalled them so.
But the sun had stood high,
And the little fleece-clouds had played
At skipping o’er the gold-sprayed sky;
And the birds had skimmed the heights
Calling their music shrill, high upon the vasty ways,
And the brook was chattering beside,
Telling, telling of the mountain’s gab.
And I was youthed, and stepped the pathways
Joy-sped, listening to the bird’s songs,
Knowing the nodding of the lilac plumes,
Taking in their perfume, plucking them
To deck my love which pulsed in youthfulness.
Ah me, but that day hath gone,
And the skies are grey, and the clouds
Have wearied, sinking low to rest
Upon the earth’s rim. And I—Ah,
I too am weary. No longer
Doth Youth send her wine for my supping—
And the lilacs are bare, bare, but their spears
Stand brown against a silver sky,
Like old script writ of some older day!
Oh, I dinna believe that I
Would have recalled the lilacs so!
Well, I don’t know about you, but I would have to labor over a poem like this. It’s not only the creativity and beautiful use of words but the thought that had to be there first before the words could come. Those who believe that Pearl Curran created this poem out of her subconscious mind need to remember that this poem, like all the other writing of Patience Worth was given sometimes letter by letter or word by word as fast as it could be written down by the stenographer. Fifteen minutes may have been more than enough time for delivery. There was no hesitation, no fumbling for the perfect word, no writing and rewriting, no re-arranging lines as is often done by poets as their subconscious mind provides them thoughts to write down. It’s as if the poem had already been composed and Patience Worth (or Pearl Curran) was just reciting it for her listeners. I ask you, who of you would not be proud to have written this poem?
Dr. Walter Franklin Prince in his investigation of the Patience Worth case wrote:
“Suppose that any living poet you can name were to have more than thirty subjects fired at him one after another in a single evening, and attempt to improvise, with the result that he orally delivered 32 short poems and 7 more or less witty and aphoristic remarks, the whole containing 1360 words! Is there one who would dare to be put to the test? Edgar Lee Masters, had listened to the improvisation of a number of poems by Patience Worth on subjects given, he was asked if he knew of any writer who could do the like, and replied, “There is but one answer to that question, it simply cannot be done.”
Almost universally the poets employ time and reflection and pains upon their work, and after the first draft of a set of verses is made, go over it and revise, some of them repeatedly. . . . .This evening’s work, 32 brief poems, and 7 other utterances, each started a few seconds after the subject was given by some one of the company present, contains no alteration either at the time or subsequently, but is here given as Patience Worth dictated and her words were taken down.”
Well, Dr. Prince may say this but we all know that Pearl Curran and other editors did smooth out the rough spots of some of the writing of Patience Worth prior to publishing. (See “Typos”.)