- Over the Summer Water: Poems by Elizabeth McFarland
In its Christmas issue about notable people who died during 2005, the New York Times Magazine honored Elizabeth McFarland. McFarland was a poet with a distinctive, warm, and lyrical voice. Vibrant and energetic, she was also a force to be reckoned with as poetry editor at the Ladies’ Home Journal, where from 1948 to 1961 she brought high-quality poems to millions [End Page 204] of readers. Over the Summer Water: Poems by Elizabeth McFarland, with a preface by Daniel Hoffman, gives a picture of McFarland both as a poet and as a formidable poetry editor. Hoffman, a former poet laureate and one of America’s leading poets, is Elizabeth McFarland’s husband.
McFarland loved and wrote poetry from childhood on. After attending college in the South, she went to New York City, where she took a job as poetry editor at Scholastic Magazine. World War II was over. Dan Hoffman, who had served in the Army Air Force editing a technical data digest, was attending summer school at Columbia. Hoffman picked McFarland out in a line at the Thalia, an art movie house on upper Broadway, where McFarland was waiting with a girlfriend to buy a ticket. Hoffman chatted up the girls and managed to sit next to “the one I favored.” After the movie, he took them to a bar on Broadway. The three asked one another the usual questions—where are you from? what brought you to the city? Putting a few of his cards on the table, Hoffman mentioned that he had just purchased the new Oscar Williams Anthology of American Poetry 1944. When McFarland said she had already bought the same volume, it seemed that their ticket-line encounter had been intended by fate. The marriage lasted fifty-seven years.
When McFarland moved from Scholastic to be poetry editor at the Ladies’ Home Journal, she took on a position that allowed her to connect fine poetry to the widest possible audience. The LHJ had an enormous circulation, and McFarland published the day’s most eminent poets—Richard Eberhart, Mark Van Doren, Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden—as well as beginners like Sylvia Plath, Maxine Kumin, and John Updike. McFarland not only published the best-known poets but she also paid them extremely well. Poetry magazine paid fifty cents a line. The New Yorker paid two dollars. McFarland persuaded the editor at the LHJ, Bruce Gould, to match the New Yorker and then raise the LHJ rate to ten dollars a line. John Ciardi wrote to thank her for making it possible to winterize his house. William Stafford was grateful for help with his mortgage. Philip Booth, eking out a living on a fellowship, thanked McFarland for the boost to his income. In 1958, Marianne Moore sold a sixty-two-line poem to the LHJ for $775. In terms of 2005 buying power, the poem would have been worth slightly more than $5,000. In his preface to McFarland’s book of poems, Hoffman refers to his wife as “a one-woman Guggenheim Foundation.”
This bonanza time ended. The sixties arrived, changing just about everything. During her tenure as poetry editor, McFarland had received one thousand poems a week. With a discerning eye and a good ear, she quickly found the 1 percent she wanted and that the magazine had room for. And then the LJH stopped publishing poetry. But clearly, as a poetry editor, McFarland knew that poetry had value and that poets deserve a substantial reward for their work. In addition to recognizing and rewarding the talent of others, she also had the sensibility to write strong poems herself, some published in the LHJ, some published elsewhere. [End Page 205]
McFarland’s work—warm, lyrical, sensuous, and well-crafted—shows another side of this remarkable woman. Hoffman (who promises a second volume of McFarland’s poems for and about their children) has arranged thirty-five poems in four sections, thematically and chronologically. Cover art that amplifies the title, and generous use of white space between the sections, make...