November 12, 2014

Flannery O’Connor inducted into The American Poets Corner



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Flannery O’Connor was eminently quotable, so it’s not surprising that the most disagreement regarding her November 2 induction into The American Poets Corner came from trying to choose a quote for her plaque.

Located inside New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the American Poets Corner was created in 1984, and the first inductees were Walt Whitman, Washington Irving, and Emily Dickinson. Since then, once a year, writers including Robert Frost, William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, and James Baldwin have been inducted. Inductees are selected by a group of Electors, who have included Eudora WeltyRobert Penn Warren, Ralph Ellison, and Billy Collins,  in consultation with the Corner’s Poet-in-Residence. The Corner’s website points out that their list of Poets-in-Residence is beyond impressive, including “17 U.S. Poet Laureates and winners of every literary prize an American writer can aspire to, including the Nobel.”

Every inductee gets a quote from their work on a plaque.

Sylvia Plath‘s quote is taken from her poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree”: “This is the light of the mind / cold and planetary.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s comes from the poem “Blight”: ”Give me Truths; For I am weary of the surfaces.”

Mark Twain‘s is from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: ”There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

Emma Lazarus, from “Exultations”: “Born from blank darkness to this blaze of beauty, /Where is thy faith, and where are thy thanksgivings?”

So, about the quote they chose for O’Connor. The New Yorker‘s Andrea Denhoed attended the ceremony and talked with the current Poet-in-Residence, Marilyn Nelson.

Marilyn Nelson told me that inducting O’Connor this year was a fairly easy consensus decision. More contentious was the selection of the quotation for her plaque. The challenge was to tread a line between what Nelson called O’Connor’s “grand pronouncements” and what Alfred Corn called her southern “cracker-barrel humor.” The quote they settled on is from a 1953 letter that O’Connor wrote to Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell, to whom she became close after meeting them at Yaddo. Describing her father’s contracting of Lupus, she writes, “there was nothing for it but the undertaker.” Her own disease could be controlled somewhat with medication, but it’s clear she must have frequently been in pain. She has enough energy to write, though, she says, and then she sums up her tussle with her body in the line that’s now on her upper-Manhattan memorial: “I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing.”


Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.