Thorough, knowledgeable, gossipy biography of a remarkable but little-celebrated American poet.
With a name shared by her eccentric aunt and patron of the arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1915–1981) found her own fame eclipsed shortly after her last collection was published, just before her death. “Eclipsed” proved the leitmotif of the younger Gardner’s life, as her monumental talent as a poet and actress was submerged under the lifelong weight of her aristocratic parentage and wealth, the stifling umbrage of four unsatisfying marriages, the exigencies of mopping up after her unstable children and the demands of her ultimately all-consuming alcoholism. Yet Gardner managed to release four collections of stunning poetry: Birthdays from the Ocean (1955), The Looking Glass (1961), West of Childhood (1965) and That Was Then (1979). She also established herself as a dogged poetry critic, especially during the four years she volunteered as manuscript reader for Poetry magazine under the tutelage of Karl Shapiro. With her marriage to Allen Tate from 1959 until 1966, Gardner became part of a sensational “literary team” whose parties were legendary. Janssen (The Kenyon Review, 1939-1970: A Critical History, 1990) ably fleshes out her subject, delving fearlessly into the rollicking, drunken complicated lives of these brilliant but troubled characters. The author answers her own questions about Gardner—“Where did she spring from, and why had she sunk into oblivion?”—by quoting extensively from her poetry and correspondence, and from those who knew her. She provides an intimate examination of this charming, intriguing, largely self-educated woman who either was sidelined by the paternal bias of the day or sabotaged her own gifts.
A long-overdue study that will surely spark new interest in Gardner’s work.