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Jean Burden:
Retrospective and interview

Conducted by Lanla Gist, master’s candidate, Cal State L.A.

Setting the scene

Conversations with renowned poet, Jean Burden were a rarity that unfolded in the comfort of her Altadena home just days following her 93rd birthday on Saturday, September 8, 2007.  Servings of pastries and laughter went hand-in-hand as Burden freely shared revelations about her long and fruitful life and career as a respected writer and poetry editor.

Adorned in a floral gown with her gray hair swept up into a ponytail, Burden contemplated old age. “Am I 93? How did that happen,” she said with laughter. “You get experience with age. I’m not sure you get wisdom. You get experience and you learn how to live with it. It depends of course on what kind of life you are living.”

‘I didn’t want to be Shakespeare’

“I was a writer and a poet,” said Burden. “I don’t write much poetry lately, I must admit. I’m just naturally a writer. I’m committed to it and I write notes to myself. Everything is verbal. It isn’t anything else. And my sense of humor is verbal. I have a lot of humor. It helps. Every mood, every experience, everything. If you get to be 93, your life has lengthened to all kinds of things. I thought I was much more of a writer earlier. What I mean by that is that I wrote not only poems and I had quite a lot of success with it. I had every kind of writing, except playwriting. I didn’t do any plays.”

“I loved to write and my experience with writing was translated into words very early. I enjoyed that. It made it even better to be able to go back and read what I had written even though it wasn’t Shakespeare. I didn’t want to be Shakespeare. I wanted to be me.”

Bounty of poetry

In a career marked by accomplishment, Burden’s work has appeared in The American Scholar, Beloit Poetry Journal, Saturday Review, Virginia Quarterly and The New York Times. Her first book of poetry entitled “Naked as the Glass” was published in 1963 and her second collection of poetry, “Taking Light from Each Other” was published in 1992.

Burden’s work explores themes on human relationships, nature, lost love, friendships and more. Her body of work including the famous poem, “Landscape for Stones,” has garnered praise from noted poets including the late May Sarton, the late Howard Nemerov, Paul Zimmer and Maxine Kumin. Critics have described Burden as a writer who possesses high intelligence, candor, wit and feminine sensibility without indulgence in sentimentality.

          Burden reigned as poetry editor for prestigious Yankee Magazine for 47 years. In a typical week the publication received some 1000 manuscripts from poets various geographical locations. Burden shared that routinely perhaps one or two pieces might be remarkable while the majority were mediocre or “plain awful.” In a 1974 article in Yankee Magazine entitled, “Poetry is a Celebration of the Concrete,” Burden commented that: “My excitement at plucking a fine poem out of the welter of poor ones in the pile and discovering it is from someone I have never heard of is one of the rewards of this job.”

Humor, intuition, other ingredients

            Her many years spent as a writer and poetry editor helped shaped her staunch beliefs on what makes poetry good. “I think poetry should not always be looked at as very, very serious. I think poetry can be humorous, light and serious. Never flippant.”

“I think you have to have humor. Sometimes I write a poem and it’s funny or about a situation that is funny. I don’t always write serious poems.”

“I think you have to be intuitive to be a poet.” Burden once voiced that good poetry is concrete in its use of metaphors and symbols communicated with vivid images that are bold. The use of nouns and active verbs that are precise are important. In a 1976 article in Yankee Magazine entitled, “A Poem is not a Lullaby,” Burden elaborated: “Poetry is a happening. In other words, it is active, moving, breathing. It goes somewhere and it takes us with it.”

Burden’s love of nature has long inspired her poetry. “I think every poet does that,” she shared. “That’s the natural world. It’s just part of what you are surrounded by and what you love.”

Earlier years at Friskies, in Chicago

          Her passion for animals is just as strong. Burden spent years working in public relations for Friskies. She is a strong advocate of animal rights. She previously wrote a cat advice column for Woman’s Day Magazine and was responsible for an anthology called “A Celebration of Cats and the Woman’s Day Book of Hints for Cat Owners.” Burden has been the proud owner of cats with lively names like Lucy, Linus and Beckett.

“When I was a little girl I had animals,” she recalled. “My mother let me have cats. No dogs. They’re too noisy. I just loved animals. I don’t think that’s very unusual in a child.”

            Burden’s began life in Waukegan, Illinois. Some of her fondest memories of her youth in Chicago include her attending the University of Chicago. “The professors were wonderful, people who had experienced life in a different way completely than yourself,” she said. “The University of Chicago is one of the great universities in this country. I was very lucky to go there. It was really one of the blessings of my life.”

“I had some wonderful teachers at the University of Chicago. And those who were not influential were soon discarded. Why should I spend time with them?” She studied with famous writer, Thornton Wilder who was one of the strong influences in her life. “He was special. He was shy. Most teachers are not shy.”

What it takes to teach

Burden became a highly sought after teacher in her own right after proving herself as a gifted poet and established editor. She conducted popular poetry workshops out of her Altadena home. “I taught writing which was great fun. I was a pretty strict teacher they said,” Burden admitted with a laugh. She stated that she was, “honest, direct, constructive, but never unkind.”

Burden remains unclear about how the workshops in her home started. “I don’t really know for sure. I presumed somebody asked me some questions and I started to answer. And that was it. I didn’t plan to be a teacher. It just evolved and I think it would have with anyone because you are asked questions and you have to make explanations. Pretty soon you’re talking. I found that I was a good teacher. Surprise, surprise!”

          Burden described good teaching as: “Being honest without being hurtful. Keeping up with other poets or writers. Keeping up with how people explain themselves. It’s very interesting because everybody does it differently.”

“I’m a pretty honest gal. I think I am. I don’t know? I love people. Not the same…A or B or C. I’m not that careful. I love people. I learn a lot from people. I think I’ve learned something from every student I’ve ever taught. And I like all of people. Not all kinds I must say. They are certain types I don’t care for too much. But that’s easy to control.”

Quiet pride amid confinement

“I think the best things that can happen to a person that is a poet is not the things that you share with other people. They are private things and after they have happened to you they were sort of secretive. Then you say ‘oh, that’s good.’”

            Nowadays Burden is largely confined to her Altadena, Calif., residence, which she made her home in 1946. She describes her life as, “quiet with very, very nice people who are my friends.” She keeps abreast of worldly news by the way of the newspaper that does not seem to stray far from her bedside.

          Burden is proud that she is the ongoing honoree of the Jean Burden Poetry Series at California State University, Los Angeles, which annually recognizes and celebrates the works of noteworthy poets. Burden described the program stating that she had: “No specific hopes. I think I’m interested in watching it grow and taking note of what happens to it, rather than try to guide it. I’m not interested in guiding it. If I were asked I would probably give a suggestion here and there. I do better in answering questions about it, but guiding it I question less.”

          In her long life and career, Burden commented about what she is most proud of. “I think the books I’ve published,” she shared. “Most of all, I like people. I’ve made some wonderful friends, not necessarily famous people. I’ve known a lot of famous people. As I’ve gotten older I’m more quiet. I don’t drive anymore. I used to drive everywhere. I mean everywhere. At 93 you slow down, believe me.”

            Above all else, Burden holds steadfast to the fact that, “I have never lost my sense of humor.”

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Postscript: Jean Burden died April 21, 2008, at her home in Altadena, Calif.

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