A March Maine Poet
As tomorrow is my birthday and this is National Poetry Month, I would like to introduce or re-introduce you to a Maine poet who was born in March.
Robert Tristam Coffin was born in Brunswick, Maine on March 18, 1892 and died in 1955. While I cannot give you a complete analysis of his work or a comprehensive report on his life and works here, I would like to give you a reason to look up this important writer from Maine.
Coffin was not only a poet. If you go to Bowdoin Special Collections Library online, you can find detailed information about the 50 linear feet of manuscripts, drafts, proofs, notes, lectures, plays, poems, recordings, essays and photographs they have at Bowdoin.
Coffin was a Rhodes Scholar and a professor of English at Bowdoin. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work “Strange Holiness,” in 1935.
Just a few of his works with Maine subjects include: “Saltwater Farm,” 1937; “Apples by Ocean,” 1945/1950; One Horse Farm: Down East Georgics”, 1949; “Maine Doings, Informal Essays,” 1950; “Mainstays of Maine,” 1944/1978 and later a republication in 1991, which was about Maine cooking.
From the Colby Quarterly, Vol. 7, Issue 4, December 1965 I found some interesting observations about Coffin’s work.
He is described as a sharp observer of nature and could be called a naturalistic but, as the Quarterly notes, “Unlike Louise Dickinson Rich, for example, who “took to the woods” and wrote impressively about that temporary experience, Coffin “emerges from” the geographical elements of the Harpswell-Casco Bay area.” They describe his outlook as more jovial rather than being morbid.
From “Island Living” from Yankee Coast we can see an example of this outlook (from the Quarterly)
“There is a religion to island weather. It has its holy iconography.
It comes out in the lines of reachboats and dories, the economies of
roof and gables on island fish-houses. It is an awareness to the intangibles
of infinity. It is the life-and-death matter of changes of wind
and tide which makes up the laws of this religion. An island man is a
worshipful man. He goes like a small boy with his hand in the hand
of a father too tall to see eye-to-eye with. He trusts and believes,
because he knows how to read his salvation in a cud of fog, in the
sound of a changed wind, the rote of distant surf on an unseen reef
in the night.”
This quote demonstrates Coffin’s belief that “Maine is a state of mind.”
Another “naturalistic” example, also found on in the Quarterly, is:
“A thrush singing in the woods . . . . It was the first bird I had ever
really heard sing. It was the last marvel in a long chain of marvels.
The first violets, like pieces of the sky, the first anemones, like drops
of snow left over into April. I had had my first trip out past all
houses, out of sight of all windows and doors. I was too tired to take
in anything more. Then, when the shadow of the earth was climbing
up the eastern sky, the bird sang among the distant trees. Three broken
little songs rising higher and higher until they faltered and failed. All
at once I knew what it was to be alone and among things so lovely
that they made your heart ache. For you could never tell how beautiful
they were even though you were to live a thousand years and have
all the best words on the end of your tongue. My father thought it
was weariness that made me burst suddenly into tears. But it was the
thrush I have to thank for that.”
It is the writers of Maine like Robert Tristam Coffin who in their passionately beautiful words continue to remind us of how much we love the Great State of Maine. It’s one of the best ways we as Maine people can introduce the rest of the world to our beloved state. I challenge you to read a work from Robert Tristam Coffin today and to pass on his legacy to others. It would be a wonderful birthday present for me.
Thanks for listening.