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She's Well-Versed in the Art of Writing Well : Poetry: Author, editor and teacher Jean Burden shares her lifelong obsession through invitation-only workshops in her home.

August 16, 1992|BERKLEY HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALTADENA — A small sign by the barn-red cottage's screen door lets you know to expect a different sort of encounter with the longtime occupant.

Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons "or other proselytizers! . . . " should positively stay away, the sign on the wooden front porch warns, but adds, "All poets welcome!"

From the time she was growing up in the suburban enclave of Evanston, Ill., Jean Burden has gone against convention to welcome the muse into her home and life.

And as a writer, editor and teacher of poetry, she has done so with a respectable measure of success. Her second collection of poems was published in the spring. Since 1955, the longtime resident of Southern California has served as--of all things--poetry editor of the quintessential New England magazine, Yankee. Six years ago, Cal State L.A. established a poetry-reading series in her honor. And now at age 77, though occasionally beset by ill health, she teaches invitation-only poetry workshops in her cozy Altadena living room.

Burden's poetry, according to Howard Nemerov--the late U.S. poet laureate who championed her work after reading her first collection in the early 1960s--is filled with "unobtrusive technical virtuosity."

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin, who has long been a friend, praises Burden's poems for their "tough-minded candor."

For her part, Burden, an Altadena resident since the mid-1940s, said she is just "a hard-working writer" who has "made the most out of what is probably a medium-sized talent."

"I'm a good minor poet," she said. "And that is saying something. But one should keep oneself in perspective."

*

Carl Selkin, the English department head at Cal State L.A. and a friend of Burden's for 20 years, said it is important to realize that "there is a big difference between a minor poet and a second-rate poet."

"Though she hasn't produced a body of work comparable to major poets, her poetry has great force," he said.

The best way to gain the proper perspective, admirers say, is to read Burden's latest collection, "Taking Light from Each Other," published by the University Press of Florida.

The book contains 46 poems dealing with subjects such as mother, father, friends, lovers and cats. Many of them originally appeared in respected poetry journals.

Once a University of Chicago student of writer Thornton Wilder, Burden said she had no other choice than to write poetry.

"I started writing little verses when I was about 7," she said. "They were dreadful. But I loved poetry. I was always going to be a writer. There was never any other ambition."

Still, she said: "I never was a prolific poet. I marvel at poets who say they write a poem a day. I'm very critical, which makes me a good teacher and good editor. But it inhibits me as a poet."

Her poems often spring forth, she said, when "a certain degree of emotional malnourishment exists" within her. "You don't write poetry when you are happy."

Neither did she write poems to earn her living, although her poetry books have done well, and a collection of her essays on poetry is often used as a college text.

Burden's bread-and-butter came from free-lance journalism and public relations that included promotions to sell dog and cat food. Under the pen name Felicia Ames, she wrote six nonfiction books dealing with the care of animals, and these are estimated to have sold 2 million to 3 million copies.

Publishing in magazines as disparate as Atlantic, Mademoiselle and Prairie Schooner, Burden has written about 1,000 articles that stretch across the broad landscape from Eastern religious thought to pets. For more than 10 years, she was the "pet editor" of Woman's Day.

Besides that work, she developed a reputation as a formidable poetry teacher. Once a lecturer at both Pasadena City College and UC Irvine, for three decades she has conducted private workshops, attracting students that include college deans, English department chairmen and published poets.

"What I've learned to do as a teacher is to pull poems out of people," she said. "And to be able to criticize poems without criticizing the poet."

An outgrowth of Burden's teaching was the creation of an unusual poetry series at Cal State L.A., named in her honor when it was started by Selkin in 1986. Some of America's best poets have read in the series, which opened with former Burden student Paul Zimmer and was followed by a string of award-winners: Tess Gallagher, Nemerov, Kumin, Mark Strand, Lucille Clifton and Carolyn Kizer.

To fund the series, Selkin, who has been part of the workshops for 15 years, used Burden's Christmas-card list to let her friends know that money was needed.

The response overwhelmed Selkin. Poets and friends of poetry sent $10,000. Later, a former Burden workshop member, Virginia E. Smith, provided an additional boost by contributing $50,000.

"I don't know of any other poetry series funded like this," said Selkin, who added that it is a testament to Burden's significance as a writer, editor and teacher--and even promoter--of poetry.

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