Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The librarian as poet: Alice M. Sterling of New Castle

In more than 8 months of research, I have not uncovered many personal diaries or letters that reveal the "off-desk" lives of Pennsylvania librarians. Whether their entire beings revolved around their labors, or whether the documentary record is simply lacking, I cannot say. Unfortunately, this is true of Alice Myra Sterling, head of the New Castle Public Library from 1915 to 1957. Her November 2, 1970 obituary in the New Castle News informs us that she was born in 1879 in Lawrence County, PA, attended Grove City College, earned a library science degree, and was a member of various community organizations. In her later years, she was heavily involved in the Northminster Presbyterian Church. In addition to organizing its library, she was the first female to be ordained as an elder there. Yet this death notice tells us little about what these various achievements meant to her.

Alice Sterling's collection of poetry, available at the New Castle Public Library
With this in mind, I was delighted to find a small volume of Sterling's poetry when I performed a shelf-read of NCPL's local history collection. I had known that she had founded a Poetry Club in New Castle, but I wasn't sure she had written anything herself. Apparently, most of the world was in the dark, too. According to the book's preface, Sterling had lived with Caroline G. Black for the last 34 years of her life (i.e., from the mid-1930s through 1970). After Sterling's death, Black gathered the poems, and enlisted the aid of Allurah Leslie, an officer of the local Poetry Club, to categorize them as they appear in publication. I did not find any articles in the New Castle News announcing its release, so I presume the preface is correct in saying the collection was published posthumously in September 1971.
Alice Sterling certainly wasn't the only librarian of her generation with substantial artistic talent. Both O. R. Howard Thompson of the James V. Brown Library in Williamsport and Mary E. Crocker of the Annie Halenbake Ross Library in Lock Haven were published authors. But for the first time, I decided to sit down for a few hours to read a librarian's creative writings as potential windows into her life. My skill in analyzing poetry is rudimentary at best, and unfortunately, few of the poems were dated or dedicated to specific individuals. Thus underlying contexts and meanings are difficult to discern. Still, it may be helpful to discuss reactions to them.

Annual programs of New Castle's Poetry Club,
which Alice Sterling founded in 1934.
Important yet unresolved questions are whether the speaker is Sterling herself, whether her poetry gives voice to other persons, and whether they are imagined or real. If Sterling was writing as and of herself, the section of poems on "Love and Friendship" are especially intriguing for what they say (and don't) about her personal life. Two poems appear to refer to a crush or lover who moved to the West Coast (see "The Perseids," pg. 41-42 and "Morning Song," pg. 44). Several others mention long absences of unidentified loves (see "Waiting," pg. 42; "Welcome," pg. 45;  "Valentine," pg. 46; "Birthday Greeting," pg. 48; and "In Absentia," pg. 49). If Sterling was writing about her own relationships, they must have been passionate but furtive ones. To me, the most powerful poem is "In Absentia" (pg. 49), which describes the warped reality a person in love -- especially one thwarted by love -- experiences. Despite shining sun, "velvet-soft" grass, and blooming flowers, the writer is "sick and lone" without her "beloved." In another verse, the speaker urges her muse to "become my cherished wife" and promises to be "true in all the future years" ("Another Valentine," pg. 47). Since all accounts, including Sterling's obituary, refer to her as "Miss," she probably never married. The poem "Secret" (pg. 45), which describes a passion that is expressed through glances, lends to an interpretation that if an infatuation or affair actually occurred, it was not common knowledge. My challenges in understanding Sterling's poetry reminded me that I need to re-read James V. Carmichael's pathbreaking book, Daring to Find Our Names: The Search for Lesbigay Library History (Praeger, 1998).

Some poems, like "Viaduct" (pg. 15) -- which we are told should be sung to the tune of "Tannenbaum" -- were forgettable. The "Religious" poems, which seem to adapt Biblical passages to verse, weren't very interesting to me, either. Yet overall, her work was thought-provoking. I especially enjoyed "The Perseids," which describes the experience of waiting on a cool, dark night to watch the annual meteor shower. There is something endearing about a lone, middle-aged woman throwing an old raincoat on her lawn and stargazing. Then, she hears all kinds of nighttime sounds, including the creaking of wooden buildings, the milkman on his rounds, and a neighbor rummaging around in his garage. Indeed a night's stillness and our undivided attention open our ears and eyes to events we would never notice during the daytime. I also admired "The Wind," which personifies this climatic force as a "robber" who steals hats and a "soul crying out in the night" (pg. 58-59). It seemed that Sterling was at her best when describing the natural world.

One thing that struck me was the isolation and material poverty that Sterling may have experienced in her very old age. She apparently tended to use public transportation rather than driving a car (see "Traveling By Bus," pg. 8). Sadly, when a close friend moved to Beaver, it may have severed their relationship. Although Beaver is only about 20 miles away from New Castle, Sterling (who is the "Alice" of the poem) says Frances will be sorely missed and asks her to "return when [she] can" ("To Frances, Moving to Beaver," pg. 9). In "To My Maple," the speaker refers to her clothing as "shabby and old" and her home as "very plain and small" (pg. 10). This likely refers to Sterling as well. When I tried to spy her last residence on Google Maps, I found that the street apparently wasn't worth being photographed. The real estate site Zillow confirms that properties on Shaw street tend to sell for less than $100,000. Birds-eye views reveal simple rooflines and cramped yards. It is depressing to witness hard-working professional women like Sterling coming to this. 

Thankfully, if her poems are any indicator, Sterling was far from pitying herself. For example, in the same verse describing her dresses and house, she noted a maple tree in her yard that "wears hues of red, brown, and gold" that "crowns" her property (pg. 10). She also enjoyed daffodils, geraniums, nasturtiums, and other garden flowers (see "Flowers," pg. 10). Importantly, several poems indicate that Sterling believed in the power of individuals to make choices about their circumstances and perceptions. In "A Land," we see a person who yearns for a place "Where men are merciful,  love justice; where children may be safe." At the end, this speaker determines, "I must discover, nay, create this land" (my emphasis, pg. 22). Similarly, another poem describes a "Riotous World," a chaotic wartime place which is "full of terror and woe." The speaker reminds us, however, that though the world may remain "terrible," our own "horizon" can be made bearable. The answer is altruism -- comforting children, giving to people in need, praying, and "liv[ing] at peace" (pg. 26). 

Several of the poems describe a conscious turn away from both domesticity and also from political activism that Sterling tended to align with men. For example, in "Before" she cleverly juxtaposes the busy to-do lists of housewives and statesmen. The women feel they must dust, polish silver, do laundry, and conserve produce "before" they may go anywhere. Men, on the other hand, feel driven to make speeches and revise laws in the name of "progress." It seems that the housewife is only looking toward the end of a day; the politician, to the end of his term in office. Yet the speaker, who is thinking about the time she has left "before [her] last, long sleep," wants to correspond, laugh, show gratitude, and visit with friends (pg. 25). Similarly, in "A Psalm of Gratitude" she is most thankful for the "glow and fragrance" of fruit, for the "silvery water" and roar of oceans, for the "varied heritages" of people throughout the world, for a free United States, and for her ability to "work ... play ... speak ... and listen" (pg. 52). Despite whatever difficulties she may experience, the speaker seems grateful to live in the United States under any terms. For example, in the poem "Thoughts," she writes of composing a script for a weekly radio broadcast, while other women are only valued for their abilities in keeping house. Also, she is thankful she has the right to cast ballots in democratic elections, as opposed to people living in other nations whose elections are shams. She also notes her freedom to listen to the radio, whereas other people have been "shot when dials have twirled" (pg. 16).

Reading Alice Sterling's poems were good for my soul. During my sabbatical, I've encountered a lot of difficult circumstances, many of which I have yet to write about. She reminds me of John Milton's famous quotation, "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven" (Paradise Lost)
Alice Sterling in later life. From Poems, 1971.

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