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Interview with Margaret Holley ’62

Headshot of alumnae Margaret Holley '62

English Department Chair Catherine Reed recently interviewed alumna Margaret “Margie” Holley ’62 and shares these thoughts:

I interviewed the marvelous Margaret Holley to learn about why and how she became a poet. Needless to say, my favorite poem is “Thank You, Edmund Waller,” (see below) because of its subject matter, but all of them are beautiful and moving. Margaret reminds us to read, too – and we will certainly take her advice.

1. When did you know you were a poet?

As a child and teenager I never thought of myself as “a poet.” I just wrote poems for the pleasure of it. I wrote poetry because I loved to read it and to memorize and “recite” it, mostly silently. Sometime in my 30’s, when I began to submit poems to journals and started to be published, I thought of myself as a poet as opposed to as a painter or musician. Since I was a teacher at the time and because I loved teaching, being a poet was always the second of my priorities. Now that I’m 73 and retired, I can see that writing poetry both preceded and long outlasted the career by which I made my living.

2. Why poetry? Have you written prose that you like as much?

I have written plenty of prose – a decade worth of college president’s speeches, a scholarly book (The Poetry of Marianne Moore), and a small variety of essays (“Driving to Brandenberg” about commuting with the Brandenberg Concertos, “Annie Oakley and the Mystery of Skill,” etc.) – but I’m far more attached to my poems and their perpetual challenges.

3. Were you a writer when you were at Walker’s? Did you write poems then?

I was not. I wrote very little poetry at Walker’s. I learned quite a lot about the history and mechanics of poetry in my English classes at Walker’s, but I didn’t know any other students who wrote poetry or fiction, and I was much more preoccupied with learning to write better critical essays. Creative writing was not “a thing” in 1958-62. I picked up writing poetry again as soon as I went to college.

4. Did you read anything in high school that made you interested in writing in general- or writing poetry in particular?

Yes, I had a sophomore English teacher named Judith Phelps who taught us Renaissance and Metaphysical poets with unforgettable verve. I fell in love with Edmund Waller’s poem “Go, Lovely Rose” and with the poetry and “voice” of Conrad Aiken. I wrote about Miss Phelps in my poem “Thank You, Edmund Waller.” We memorized and recited poetry for class, and I ended up reciting Aiken’s “The Cloister” in front of the whole school with my heart thumping and knees quivering – a frightful experience, but I loved the poem. I hated performing but loved private memorization.

5. Who are the poets you admire now? Why those?

As an adult I learned to write poems on a whole new level by slavishly emulating the wonderful poems of Richard Wilbur, my longtime hero. I have been furtively and massively influenced by Elizabeth Bishop’s poems. Early on I loved the music of T.S. Eliot, but I’m afraid he left me too much latitude for mystification. W.S. Merwin’s mid-career free verse, all of Seamus Heaney, plus Mark Doty’s Atlantis. There are so many treasures…!

5. How does what you read influence your work?

In every possible way! Sounds and music, subject matter, each poet’s ambition and reach, the inspiration and sheer miracle of making a beautiful and meaningful poem.

6. What do you remember most from your time at Walker’s?

My amazing classmates – it was like having 45 sisters! Walking up and down the hill each day to the old Cluett. Recovering from German measles in the infirmary and there watching the sunrise one morning over Avon Mountain. Miss Sala conducting the choir and glee club and playing us a recording of Joan Sutherland singing bel canto opera. All the teachers were so patient and so determined to teach us well, to haul us through the difficult stuff – English grammar and punctuation, the novels of Thomas Hardy, the structure of the sonnet, algebra and geometry, French verb forms. I’ve been grateful ever since.

Also, at Walker’s I began a lifelong friendship with Travilla Deming, who was our “speech” teacher and drama coach. She was a practicing playwright, a wonderful role model, and a surrogate mother who welcomed me to her dinner table with husband and two children on several weekends each year. She was a tireless defender of “creativity” and encouraged me and all of us never to give up. She completed her book of essays “Darling This…Darling That” on the eve of her 100th birthday, and her daughter Alison Hawthorne Deming’s poetry collection “Stairway to Heaven” is breathtaking. They were my creative family.

7. What advice, if any, do you have for aspiring writers?

Read, read, read! As Kim Addonizio says: “Let me put this as delicately as I can: If you don’t read, your writing is going to suck.” Then as you write, I have two pieces of contradictory advice. One from Ernest Hemingway, who said that what one needs to be a good writer is “a built-in shock-proof crap detector.” And one from me: don’t let your inner critic spoil the party. Remember that you have to write a lot of mediocre and failing poems destined for the dustbin in order to produce one marvel. But it’s well worth it! Lots of sketches and studies are all part of the road to better and better work. The poem is a garden that you have to weed and nourish in order to let the blooms come forth.

8. If you could tell your teenage self something that you now understand, but did not then, what would it be?

See question 7.

9. Do you recommend a life in the arts?

I recommend a life enriched by any form of creativity – poetry, painting, sculpture, music, drama, crafts of all kind, inventions. There are a million ways to explore and express our shared human experience.

10. Which poem or poems do you think everyone should read?

Just read lots and lots of poems from all centuries and styles, and return to the ones you love.

Thank You Edmund Waller

By Margaret Holley

for appearing on an early page of English Literature,

your Go, lovely Rose, expounded by Miss Judith Phelps

in such a way that my thirteen-year-old mind

fell in love with contrasting rhymes

and syncopated three-, four-, two-, four- and four-beat lines.

Tell her that wastes her time and me

That now she knows… Miss Phelps was definitely cool,

for a girls’ school, having once been spied

exiting the campus on a Friday afternoon

in a convertible, top down, driven by an actual man.

Thank you, Mr. Waller, for splicing poetry into that

fleeting scene of Judy (we called her Judy behind her back)

being sped out of the parking lot in full view.

Do I remember a scarf in the breeze? A cigarette?

(She smoked in the faculty lounge between classes.)

When I resemble her to thee/How sweet and fair

she seems to be. She loved to make us laugh,

for instance by imitating the women in the poem

“wasting” away in “virtue,” which I equated

with our chaperones, Miss Hunt and Miss Frazier,

wanting to “see daylight” between dance partners.

Miss Phelps did not return the next fall,

but your poem has returned for over forty years

(some of them seeming to lack daylight of any kind)

to go on teaching me how that heavy book can be

as light in my mind as a single page.

The poem that Walker’s alumna, Margaret Holley, is referring to is Edmund Waller’s “Go Lovely Rose,” published in 1645.