I have to confess that, until quite recently, I had not heard of the Pulitzer-nominated poet and highly regarded translator and teacher, Daisy Aldan (1923 -2001). But when I first came across her poetry and then learned that she was an anthroposophist who had also taught at Emerson College in the UK (where I now work) I was sufficiently intrigued to want to find out more.
Paul Matthews, who teaches creative writing at Emerson College, told me that he “never met Daisy Aldan, but I did correspond with her briefly. I understand that in the late Sixties, perhaps, or early Seventies, she gave (through Francis Edmund’s invitation) a Creative Writing contribution at Emerson College. She gave me the impression that if I had not appeared on the scene in 1972 she might well have been offered a more permanent role at the College. I hope that she has forgiven me by now! I did include a poem by her in the anthology that I edited for Rudolf Steiner Press.”
It seems that Aldan’s earliest book of poems was published in 1946. This was followed by The Destruction of Cathedrals and Other Poems in 1963, with a preface by Anaïs Nin, and Seven: Seven (Poems and Photographs) in 1965. During the 1970s, Aldan published seven books of experimental and lyrical poetry. Her non-fiction and prose works are focused on the topic of poetry and consciousness. In 1979 she published the novella, A Golden Story.
Aldan edited several important poetry magazines, including Folder Magazine of Literature and Art (1953-1959) and Two Cities (co-edited with Anaïs Nin and so called because it was based in both New York and Paris), from 1961 to 1962. She also published in 1959 a book-length anthology of poetry and drawings, A New Folder: Americans- Poems and Drawings, that she considered a continuation of Folder Magazine. She also edited and published translations of works by Stephane Mallarmé, Anaïs Nin, Albert Steffen, and Rudolf Steiner. Aldan also founded Tiber Press in 1953, publishing her own work and that of poets and artists who are today household names, such as Ginsberg, Kerouac and Jackson Pollock.
Poetry has rarely made anyone rich, however, and so to support herself, Aldan worked as a teacher at New York’s High School of Art and Design, where her presence became an institution. She retired from there in 1973 to devote herself to her writing. To this day, her former students remember her in glowing terms. One of these students, Renée Magriel Roberts, wrote that:
“Having Miss Aldan as a teacher, was like having a combination of the European continent and the Greenwich Village literary scene brought into the classroom. We were fascinated, but largely unaware of the importance of the writing and the people to whom we were introduced. For example, one day she brought Anaïs Nin to our class to talk about Cities of the Interior. We were constantly exposed to the work of European and American poets, especially those of the Beat Generation whom Miss Aldan knew well, for she was not only a poet and a teacher, but also the editor of a publication called “Folders”, which included original and reproduction art works and poetry. By combining translation work (she was a gifted translator of Mallarmé, Anaïs Nin, Rudolf Steiner, and Albert Steffen), writing, teaching, and editing and promoting the work of others, Miss Aldan created a viable living for herself, and also afforded herself the luxury of not only writing luminous poetry, but of having the time to encourage others to write as well. Our classes were filled with music, experimental writing, and rich mythological studies.… The idea of the “artist-in-residence” was integrated throughout the school structure, as opposed to being like an alien from another planet surrounded by traditional classroom goings-on.
What this meant, for us students, was that we were literally surrounded by excited, working artists. It was a school that nobody ever wanted to leave, overflowing with incredible work, music, literature, an excitement that also translated into the “core” subject areas. It was a very happy school. “
Another student, Marc Widershien, has left this account:
“I first heard of Daisy Aldan in 1978. Howard Gottlieb, Curator of the then Special Collections at Boston University, had asked me to find some poets whose work would be worthy of having a home at the Twentieth Century Archives. I must have discovered her through her celebrated Folder Editions which began publication in the early 1950s. Much of her tabloid is collected by the New York Public Library, and most of her papers are housed at the Beinecke Library at Yale. Daisy published mostly avant garde writers and artists, many of whom are still known. She was one of the first publishers of Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Rexroth, Kerouac, Jasper Johns, and de Kooning. They were all there and none of them were known.
At the time I made her acquaintance she was a proponent of Anthroposophy, an offshoot of Theosophy, founded by the Austrian Rudolph (sic) Steiner who was also the founder of the Waldorf schools. The school originated with classes for employees at the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. The schools are headquartered in Dornach, Switzerland, but have satellites all over Europe; but, there are many in America such as Pine Hill and High Moving in Wilton, New Hampshire.
Daisy loved Eurythmy which is a form of dance where speech is made visible through dance, a discipline developed by Jacques Dalcroze at the turn of the 20th Century; but of course, the Anthroposophists would never admit their debt to Jacques Dalcroze and the American-born dancer Isadora Duncan. Steiner was an occultist. It was exciting material for a poet with spiritual aspirations, and that is what I find characteristic about Daisy Aldan’s work—along with her mastery of modern diction. She explored a super reality not only through her work but through her own personal development. But she was thoroughly grounded as well, and highly practical. Her poems, though, reflect her taste not only in Anthroposophy, but French Surrealism. She was very interested, for example, in the secret society of the Cathars, who were Gnostics of the 12th Century, later persecuted by the Catholic Church, and finally exterminated through the machinations of the Spanish Inquisition. They were an affront to political power just as Aldan was through her free thinking which manifested very early in her relationships with people such as Anaïs Nin.
Daisy also was an innovator in the translating of French poetry. Her translations of Mallarme are outstanding, and only her version of Un Coup de Des is truly successful. Mallarme’s poem was symphonic in nature. She said that “Mallarme wanted it done on music sheets because it was structured like a symphony.” She tackled a number of writers, including Albert Steffen, the Swiss poet, Edith Sodegran and others. She knew many of the French surrealists. She was an actress, a poet, short story writer, critic, and a constant innovator.
For nearly 14 years, she was my friend and sometime confidante. I have reviewed some her books such as Day of the Wounded Eagle, A Golden Story, Climb Mount Parnassus and Behold, Between High Tides and others. She was unlike any American poet I had read. There was a European tradition in her work, but also the secret traditions of Gnosticism and the Jewish Kabbalah which abounded in her work. She would often write to me from Dornach, and describe her need to do Eurythmy as a way of getting in touch with her adytum.”
In 1959, Aldan had become friends with Anaïs Nin, who at that time was a struggling novelist with a small but dedicated following. Nin noted in her diary, “Daisy is a magnificent poet, of the highest quality, yet she has to publish her poetry herself. Her teacher’s salary goes into that.”
Daisy Aldan and Anaïs Nin worked together on several projects, including a 1960 reading of “Un Coup De Dés” at the Maison Française in New York, where Nin read the poem in French, and Aldan read her translation into English. This reading was recorded and subsequently broadcast on radio. Aldan was also one of Nin’s New York friends who helped her keep her “trapeze life” (her bicoastal relationships with Rupert Pole and Hugh Guiler) from being discovered by her two lovers. She would take calls from Rupert Pole (whom Nin had told she was staying with Aldan) and explained that Anaïs “had just stepped out” and would have her return the call. She then referred to a card index upon which Nin’s schedule was written, call her with Rupert’s message, and Nin would then call him back, never missing a beat. According to Aldan, she was just one of many who helped Nin in this very complicated process.
Anaïs Nin seems to have regretted Steiner’s influence on Aldan:
“Daisy Aldan’s interest in Rudolf Steiner alienated us. She sees everything through his eyes. God is back again in her poetry – an abstraction. It has removed her from human life and psychology. I feel as if in the presence of a Catholic dogmatist: every thought controlled by a theory. She translates a bad (Swiss) poet, Albert Steffen”
From The Diaries of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 7 (1966-1974)
And, according to an entry in the Encyclopedia of New York School Poets, M L Rosenthal, in an article in the New York Times Book Review, “compared Aldan to e.e. cummings for ‘combining daring technique with sentimental conception’. The latter quality evolved into a spiritualism (sic) informed by Aldan’s study of Rudolf Steiner, with the consequence that her later work failed to engage the avant-garde audience that she had originally attracted.”
Is it the case that an interest in metaphysics necessarily leads to a diminution of one’s poetical abilities? Or is it perhaps that those who know you, but who cannot follow the evolution of your spiritual development, rather than engaging with or trying to understand your new direction, resort instead to deploring this apparent softening of your brain?
Stanley Kunitz, when he was Poet Laureate of the United States, said of Aldan: “The world that engages her imagination lies beyond the ‘merely temporal and physical.’ Like Mallarmé, to whom she has devoted much of her primary and influential work as a translator, her poems evoke an interior landscape of dream and reverie, from which she ‘wakes to the miraculous.’”
I will finish with a poem Daisy Aldan wrote about Rudolf Steiner:
Y o u r a d i a n c e…
For Rudolf Steiner
You radiance in wind,
concentrically weaving in and out of window frames
in concrete and steel skeleton structures, whirl
toward my ruined orbit.
Help me to sprout coral branches of light
antennae of the Eternal, through the prison
of my skull. Lead my
resurrected INsight toward that mercurial
Sun-abyss where Archangels are holding council;
let me know those plans they’re
concocting for us down here. Let the eyes in your
photograph pasted to my wall, transmute to mine,
balance between Here and There.
Sweep, golden-angel-winged, into my monotonous
opacity, and spark that luminous
region near my heart
which, you say, moves to understand the stars,
that I may perceive Man’s spidery ties
And let my footsteps glide in tranquil three-time
pace, during the earthly sun-period of my brain;
for they are restless
as a broken radiator; and I am angry,
and gossip about my friends, and write popular songs.
Let the squealing tones
of my voice deepen, and my tongue learn the folly
of useless chatter. Make me wise to choose
to shun the Trap of Fame
whose prize is a great hunk of putrefacted cheese:
For I sniff at the plastic lures of the senses
and forget it is enough
for God to mouthe my name. Let Promethean fire
fill me, though chained to a rock; symmetry not entice,
nor the rectangles of Albers*.
Beholding, let me face the blind of back alleys:
And guide the words I write to join your beacon to the Gods!
(*a reference to the work of German-American artist-educator Josef Albers.)