Poetry: Katherine Hoskins

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If I were still teaching graduate students in modern English and American poetry and had assigned to me an especially gifted student, widely conversant with the whole rich canon from, say, Chaucer right up to the last minute, a student who was enthusiastic, willing to work, imaginative, painstaking, and keenly sensitive to poetic nuance, I think I could do him or her no greater favor than to suggest a careful poem-by-poem commentary on the poems of Katherine Hoskins. It would doubtless prove a demanding task, but the rewards would be incalculable if it were to eventuate in a publishable book of solid critical appreciation, for it might restore her to the notice she has deserved from the first, and was hers only in the view of the best of her fellow poets. Think, if you can, of another modern poet who won the enthusiastic praise of the likes of Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, William Meredith, James Dickey, and Theodore Roethke, and is, in spite of this, quite simply unknown and out of print. It is a fate feared by Keats himself, to whom Hoskins bears certain touching and quirky resemblances.

To be sure, she did not court public notice. The books of her work that I own, three in number, are at pains to reveal nothing whatever about her except that she lived in Weston, Massachusetts. Nary a word about her family, nor her education, though it might be inferred that if she were an autodidact (as some very good poets have been) she did a first-rate job. I was able, however, to glean some facts from her publisher. Katherine DeMontalont Hoskins was born May 25, 1909, at Indian Head, Maryland, where her father was inspector at the naval proving ground, and was later to retire as rear admiral. Although she did not attend school until the age of 11, she graduated from the Smith College Honors Program in its Class of 1931. Five years later, she married Albert Hoskins, an officer of the Boston Municipal Court. They made their home in Weston, and had one child, a daughter. Hoskins was awarded the Brandeis University Creative Arts Poetry Grant in 1957 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958. She died a widow, after a stoic battle with esophageal carcinoma, in 1988.

Reading through her poems, one is aware of literary allusions, influences, and sympathies that cover an enormous range and include a great deal of 16th- and 17th-century English poetry, as well as Chekhov, Faulkner, Marianne Moore, Dickinson, the very best and earliest children's literature, folklore, and fairy tales, Renaissance painting and sculpture, geography and cartography, American and European history, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a keen love of the qualities and properties of the natural world, linked, often enough, to a thoughtful capacity for allegory and moral reflection.

Her poems, moreover, make no glib concessions to lazy readers. Her syntax is gnarled (though far from uncomely); her stanzaic forms as complex, at times, as those of the most intricate metaphysical poems, exhibiting something like the same density and compression. They also display a ventriloquist's capacity to shift within the body of a poem from the adopted diction, or noble accents, of the great Renaissance poets to local and regional dialect. She is a woman of many voices, all of them superbly tuned to achieve her wiliest effects.

Take, for example, the opening of a poem that, by the time its mere three stanzas close, has shown us the horrifying tableau of a woman (clearly a black woman) cradling in her arms a man who has been beaten to death, and whose head now is only" 'a sack of little bones. …