I won’t attempt to transcribe this shape poem. WordPress would make a mess of the spacing, and instead of beards, the poem would look like a string of pennant flags.
Beards have been in the news lately, and not just in “News of the Weird” columns where beard stories presumably land—these beard tales are front page. Major Nidal Hassan, on trial for killing 13 servicemen at Fort Hood, has been ordered to shave his beard. The defendant had petitioned to keep his beard for religious reasons, but prosecutors argued that the beard growth is an attempt to confuse eyewitnesses. Other beards were sheared in the trial of a breakaway Amish sect in Ohio charged with a hate crime. It seems they clipped the long beards of rival Amish men to shame them. They held down their victims and brandished shears used to cut horses’ manes. The breakaway sect disapproved of the religious practices of the now short-bearded men. I’d say that’s a big pile of facial fungus, considering that the group’s leader, the inaccurately named Samuel Mullet, offers members sexual “counseling” and punishes the sinful with long confinements in chicken coop cages.
It’s a shame Monty Python isn’t around anymore.
So now for something completely different:
The meaning of beards in Maxine Kumin’s poem, “The Victorian Obsession with the Preservation of Hair,” has nothing to do with religion. The poem begins with a literary pogonology (a word new to me, meaning “the study of beards”), evaluating writers by the size and shape of their beards. (I found a book online, Poets Ranked by Beard Weight, which does the same. This tongue-in-cheek compendium of beard lore plays on the idea that we ascribe deep thoughts to those with large beards. It also has a section on beard flirtation and beard dangers. Link here for excerpts. For those like me getting distracted by the very strangeness of beards, link here for beard charts and enjoy the wit of beard nomenclature.)
The poem’s title and the activity that led to Mrs. Longfellow’s death refer to a handicraft popular in Victorian times. Women threaded needles with human hair to fashion pictures, rings and bracelets. Hair crafts were used to mourn dead relatives. Such preservation of what was once living, Kumin says, is a memento mori, a reminder of death. (Once at a museum I saw a Victorian wreath woven from human hair. I found it frightening and also disgusting which is mildly hypocritical, since I long ago gave a boyfriend my extracted tooth, wrapped up in a ring box.)
Kumin’s neat and self-referential structure of stanzas shaped like beards mirrors the neat if gruesome series of events in the Longfellow home. In preserving the hair of a daughter she lost, Mrs. Longfellow lost her own life. In trying to preserve the life of his wife, Longfellow nearly lost his own. His subsequent hair growth (necessitated by too-painful shaving) preserved the memory of his beloved wife. His beard became his own Victorian hair craft. It’s a Chinese box of a story and Kumin tells it straightforward, without flourish: the details of the story and the meaning she pulls out of it are embellishment enough.
Poems of course are less flammable forms of preservation. Longfellow wrote a lovely poem to his dead wife (“The Cross of Snow”) which ends with another metaphor for preservation of the dead:
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.
Kumin preserves Longfellow’s devotion in a beard of her own creation. It almost makes me dizzy to think of the interplay of form and words and events, all together so clever and moving.
I left this poem outside a barbershop and congratulated myself for an impish placement. But now that I think about it, the poem might have been better placed elsewhere. Few men wear beards anymore, and if they do, the rest of their hair is usually gathered in an un-barbered ponytail. Not counting men with a tentative commitment to facial hair—men on vacation and men with little goatees—the last man with a beard I knew was my college philosophy professor. Back then beards and a corduroy blazer with elbow patches were practically a uniform in the philosophy department. Dr. Stapleton wore it well and I loved going to his 8:00 a.m. class.
Poet Maxine Kumin was born in Philadelphia in 1925. She went to Radcliffe, now part of Harvard, and swam competitively there. She took a seminar with novelist Wallace Stegner, and his criticism of her work discouraged her from writing poetry. For a long time she wrote poems privately.
As a mother of young children, Kumin took a poetry class at an adult education center. There she met poet Anne Sexton. The two mothers, both at home, became close friends and stayed close up until the day of Sexton’s suicide. Together they wrote four children’s books. (The books were illustrated by Evaline Ness, wife of FBI agent Eliot Ness, the inspiration for the “Untouchables” television show.) Kumin was first published at age 36, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly prize, and most of the big honorifics a poet can receive.
She and her husband Victor, a chemical engineer who worked with Oppeheimer on the atomic bomb*, had three children and now live on a farm in New Hampshire where they raise organic vegetables and breed horses. At age 74 Kumin almost died in a horse driving accident. She broke her neck, ribs, and punctured a lung but recovered and is still writing poetry in her eighties.
She’s often compared to another northeastern pastoral poet—she’s been called the feminist Robert Frost. But after reading some of her poems and marveling at her non-writing daring-do, I’m starting to think of her as a feminist Ernest Hemingway: physical, fearless, unembellished. Sans the beard of course.
*Victor Kumin refused to continue work on the atomic bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was threatened with court martial but in the end was honorably discharged. For a full account of his fascinating story, link here.