Linda Pastan, poet of concentrated beauty, dies at 90

Linda Pastan, a poet who drew inspiration from seemingly ordinary events — a children’s carpool, a high school reunion, the hurried sunset of a late fall evening — and distilled them into lines of concentrated beauty, died Jan. 30 at her home in Chevy Chase, Md. She was 90.

The cause was complications following cancer surgery, said her daughter, Rachel Pastan. Ms. Pastan, who had previously lived in Potomac, served from 1991 to 1995 as Maryland’s poet laureate.

Ms. Pastan began writing in adolescence and, by her senior year at Radcliffe College, had shown enough promise to win a collegiate poetry contest sponsored by Mademoiselle magazine. A young Sylvia Plath placed second.

She embarked on her career relatively late, however, publishing her first poetry collection — “A Perfect Circle of Sun” (1971) — the year before she turned 40. Her embrace of professional writing marked the end of a decade that she spent in the throes of an affliction she described as “the perfectly polished floor syndrome.”

“I didn’t think, then, that I could be the right kind of wife and mother and keep pursuing something as important to me as poetry always has been,” Ms. Pastan told Washingtonian magazine in 1996. “I think now that I was wrong. And a young woman probably wouldn’t make that mistake today.”

Over the next half-century — her most recent book, “Almost an Elegy,” was published last year — Ms. Pastan produced roughly a score of poetry collections. Two of her volumes, “PM/AM” (1982) and “Carnival Evening” (1998), were finalists for the National Book Award.

In 2003, she received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which is accompanied by an award of $100,000 and is regarded as one of the most prestigious honors in poetry. Acclaimed for their luminescent simplicity, her works were widely anthologized and earned comparisons to the works of the 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson.

Throughout her writing career, Ms. Pastan experienced what she described as an inescapable “impulse to condense.” She at times drew from biblical sources, particularly the figure of Eve, as well as the epics of Homer. But she was perhaps best known for poems that captured in short, spare lines the unnoticed emotional freight in everyday occurrences. She wrote in her poem “Meditation by the Stove”:

into a small but steady blaze

where the dough has a life of its own,

breathing under its damp cloth

where the real child plays under the table,

pretending the tablecloth is a tent,

practicing departures; where a dim

brown bird dazzled by light

has flown into the windowpane

and lies stunned on the pavement —

it was never simple, even for birds,

Ms. Pastan was regarded as a master of metaphor. A fight between father and son made her into a “no man’s land.” In a poem about teaching her daughter to ride a bicycle, she compared the young girl’s hair, flapping behind in the wind, to a “handkerchief waving / goodbye.”

Her “vision is focused, rather than sweeping, more tentative than ambitious,” poet Tina Barr wrote in a review of “Carnival Evening” published in 1998 in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “While Pastan’s work is simple rather than technically complex, domestic rather than adventuresome … it yields quiet rewards.”

A carpool prompted Ms. Pastan to contemplate her children’s mortality, a minor surgery and gathering of old classmates her own. She wrote in the poem “25th High School Reunion”:

We come to hear the endings

As Maryland’s poet laureate, Ms. Pastan declined to write official poems for grand occasions. Her goal, she told The Washington Post at the time, was “just to make poetry a little more visible to people, so they’ll perhaps be tempted to take a chance and read some themselves.”

Linda B Olenik — her middle initial, with no period, stood for nothing — was born in the Bronx on May 27, 1932, and spent the later years of her childhood in Armonk, in New York’s Westchester County. Her father, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, became a surgeon. Her mother was a homemaker, sometimes working in his medical office.

An only child, Ms. Pastan recalled a lonely youth in which books at times offered her only companionship. She wrote in the poem “The English Novel”:

In The English Novel, where I spent my girlhood,

I used to think chilblains were a kind of biscuit,

and everything was always pearled with fog —

the moors with their purpling heather

and the beveled windows where the heroines,

my sisters, waited for heroes …

Ms. Pastan was 12 when she submitted her first poems to the New Yorker, a magazine that along the Atlantic and the Paris Review would years later regularly publish her works.

She was married in 1953 and received a bachelor’s degree from Radcliffe the following year, then a master’s degree in library science from Simmons University in Boston in 1955 and a master’s degree in English and American literature from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., in 1958.

“Brandeis had a fund that paid for babysitters and allowed you to go part time, but then my husband got an internship at Yale, which had no part-time studies and no babysitter fund, so I stopped school,” Ms. Pastan recalled to The Post. “I had another baby, and I stopped writing. I was into the whole ’50s thing, kids and the clean floor bit. I was unhappy because I knew what I should be doing.”

Ms. Pastan ultimately returned to writing, her daughter said, with the strong encouragement of her husband. She began writing every day, working around her children’s nap and school schedules.

Survivors include her husband of 69 years, Ira Pastan of Chevy Chase; her daughter, a novelist, of Swarthmore, Pa.; two sons, Stephen Pastan of Atlanta and Peter Pastan of Washington; seven grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Ms. Pastan said she did not wait for literary inspiration to strike her, but rather “coaxed” it from its hiding place by the simple act of sitting down at her desk and working. Asked if she had advice for aspiring writers, she implored them not to be discouraged by rejection.

“All poets get rejected, even the most famous and honored,” she told Washingtonian. “I tell young poets one trick I’ve learned. For each group of poems you send out, have an envelope ready on your desk to resubmit those poems. Then, when they come back, don’t leave them sitting around on your desk; send them right back out into the world.”

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