Paying homage to poetry pioneer Ruth Daigon
Published: May 4, 2010
When I learned a publisher would give me a contract and a modest advance for my second poetry collection in 2004, I celebrated. Shortly thereafter I panicked. I needed a poet with name recognition to write an introduction. By that time I’d interviewed many poets for magazine and newspaper articles. I reviewed all those I knew and decided to ask Ruth Daigon. She was easily the most approachable poet I ever interviewed.
Kay B. Day
I held my breath. What if she said no? What if she didn’t like my work?
My fears were unfounded. Ruth agreed to do the intro and she did a beautiful job. I was thrilled at the attention and the uncanny understanding she displayed when it came to my poems.
Ruth was a true poetry pioneer, one of the first to make an
impact on poetry on the Web when poetry on the Web had a scant
reputation at best. Her skill and talent, borne of a career in
classical music, established her as a leading voice with an exquisite
command of language. Poets like Ruth Daigon lent respectability to the
red-headed stepchild of literature on the Internet.
As a concert
soloist with Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica, Ruth sang at Dylan
Thomas’s funeral. She worked with W. H. Auden on a recording of
Elizabethan verse and music for Columbia records. She performed
recitals and sang with orchestras among other pursuits. Her repertoire
spanned centuries and languages including French, German, Spanish,
Italian, Hebrew, Russian and international folk music.
to Connecticut where her husband was a faculty member at the University
of Connecticut led her eventually to explore poetry. She had two small
sons, but found the time to study poetry and attend readings. “I
attached myself to anyone who knew more than I did,” she said. “And
there were plenty of those on a college campus.”
She penned some
of those experiences into nonfiction. In a memorable essay, ‘The Poet
in Bandages,’ she recounted the first time she heard Robert Sward read.
He arrived late, striding into the room with a bloody bandage on his
head. Ruth thought perhaps Sward did this for dramatic effect. “What an
entrance,” she wrote. “Now that’s the way to grab the crowd.”
Years later, she wrote with good humor, she learned he’d been hit by a car on his way to the reading.
Ruth authored at least seven books. My favorite is Payday at the Triangle
(Small Poetry Press). The book is a collection of poems about the
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911. At least 146
women, all workers, died in the fire.
In a review at Perihelion,
Barbara J. McGrath wrote, “[M]ost of the male managers on the uppermost
floors were able to rush to safety. To ensure that they would not waste
time in the rest room or talk in the hallways, the workers, mostly
young immigrant women, had been locked into the work rooms of the
multi-story factory building. To avoid perishing in the flames, many of
the workers leapt from the windows to their deaths. The firemen's nets
were not strong enough to break the fall of the bodies, and the fire
escape was broken.”
To write that book Ruth researched original
records, photographs and news clippings. I had the feeling she was
fiercely determined to ensure those women not be forgotten.
I wept the first time I read the collection. The poem ‘Mother’s Lament’ gives an idea what Ruth could do with sound and sense:
“In the province no one visits she's still/
waiting to be born/
I can almost hear her breath/
brushing by me like a dark wish.”
|Ruth didn’t just write poetry, she made her imprint on editing as well. For 20 years she and her husband Arthur produced and edited the lit journal Poets On:. Through that publication she nurtured many poets, providing a platform of quality for introducing their work to a broader audience.|
Ruth’s own poems are widely anthologized and published in print and on the Web.
She acknowledged the influence of the Internet on providing international exposure for her work and connecting her with people she might not otherwise have known. “When a folk/rock singer telephones me from West Australia for permission to use one of my poems,” she said, “I can’t help wondering who else knows where I am.”
For those of us who came up through the writing ranks dependent on print magazines, the Web opened the world to our work—it was a bastion of new opportunity.
When I interviewed her, Ruth offered advice for writers. One of my favorites was, “Don’t clean your desk. Leave your pages out. There’s nothing more discouraging than an empty page or a clean desk or a blank screen.”
I remember when I received her introduction. I sat there reading it and I realized that although Ruth and I never met in person, through our poetry we knew each other in a very personal way. Reading her words about my words, I realized a poem I’d written for my daughters, ‘This Mother’s Rites,’ had touched a chord.
Ruth wrote, “There is no breast-beating, no howling, no lament. There are only calm, cool, yet moving farewells. She confronts death as she faces life between her external and internal world, complex and rewarding with the sights and smells and movements of daily life. Nothing is unfamiliar. And the familiar is overflowing with love, lost love, and the end approaching, an event she regards with an unflinching eye.”
Somehow, rereading those words she wrote about me, I suspect that is how Ruth approached mortality as well.
Ruth Daigon died in her home in Corte Madera, Calif., on February 17, 2010.
A memorial poetry reading will be held in her honor on Sunday, May 30, at 2 p.m. at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd. in Corte Madera. Among those who will read are Jack Foley, David Alpaugh, C. B. Follett, Lynne Knight, Jacqueline Kudler, Susan Terris and others. Ruth would like that, I think—an afternoon with a fine group of poets.
When I learned of her death on receipt of an invitation to the memorial reading, I recalled all those young women who met a terrible fate 100 years ago and I recalled Ruth’s determination those women would not be forgotten.
I also recalled the generosity of a poet who read another poet’s work with diligent attention and who then penned an introduction for that poet she never met in person. And I made a decision to craft a memory of Ruth Daigon so that her work will be remembered and appreciated in years to come.
Somehow, that seemed an appropriate way to say farewell to a literary pioneer who was one of the first accomplished poets to perceive the power and the possibilities of the Web.
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for
The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International,
The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To learn more about Kay Day, see www.kayday.com. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.