It’s strange to me that the same month that sees the publication of Tiresias: The Collected Poems of Leland Hickman would also see the poems of Nora May French in book form.

I came across French in the first few days of my research into Los Angeles poetry, trying to track down publications in the UC libraries and so forth, but found them hard to come by. Dana Gioia included some poems of hers in his anthology (co-edited with Chryss Yost and Jack Hicks) called California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, but otherwise she doesn’t appear in too many contemporary anthologies (such as the excellent volumes of 19th Century Poetry from the Library of America).

French wasn’t terribly prolific, and she died at the age of 26; about 100 pages of this collection is of her poetry, the rest being a long biographical essay, several remembrances and miscellaneous reviews of her work, many of which were more concerned with her dramatic death by suicide than the quality of the poetry.

I’m not sure that too many readers today will find her poetry exceptional, at least those that don’t have at least some fondness for writers like A.E. Housman and the poets of the Nineties (Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, etc), or poetry by women of the early part of the century, such as Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay. (John Wilkinson has written a really nice essay about John Wieners particular fondness for women poets such as Teasdale, but I don’t think French makes an appearance in that. It appears in his excellent collection The Lyric Touch.)

She couldn’t be considered an “early Modernist,” and even a much older writer like Edwin Arlington Robinson makes her seem old-fashioned, but this isn’t suprising considering the rather provincial nature of Los Angeles at the time (population around 300, 000). She moved to San Francisco and eventually Carmel in the last year of her life, though did spend a year studying painting in New York.

I actually enjoy trying to puzzle through these occasionally cramped, overwrought verses, and I think she compares favorably to more fluid writers in her circle such as George Sterling. She had that urge for gem-like porfection that Pound admired in Theophile Gautier, which is not something I see in a lot of early American poetry. If anyone I’d compare her to, it would be someone like Sylvia Plath, as, indeed, she was quite obsessed by death in her last years, and her poems are incredibly economical, with really very little time to spare on the niceties of literary ornament.

This very short one is metrically a little daring for her, as she preferred standard ballad meters for most of her work.


We saw unpitying skill
In curious hands put living flesh apart,
Till, bare and terrible, the tiny heart
Pulsed, and was still.

We saw Grief’s sudden knife
Strip through the pleasant flesh of soul-disguise—
Lay for a second’s space before our eyes
A naked life.

Kind of has a Thomas Eakins (i.e. The Gross Clinic) element to it, but also reminds me of certain Plath poems such as “Morning Song” that seem ambivalent about the relative values of birth and death. There was, apparently, a number of light, humorous poems of French’s that were destroyed by her family after her death as they didn’t seem “poetic” enough, which is too bad since she often seems rather humorless in the poems that remain. The few humorous poems in this collection are very good.

The publisher, Hippocampus Press, is mostly known for work in the H.P. Loveraft vein; I think French got on her list due to her friendship with George Sterling and the appreciation of her work by Clark Ashton Smith. Below is the press copy:

Nora May French (1881-1907) is an enigmatic and ethereal figure in American poetry and in the poetry of California. Born in Aurora, New York, she came to Los Angeles with her family when she was a little girl, and in the course of her brief and tragic life she lived and wrote more intensely than many who live a full span of years. Her poetry possesses its own kind of cosmic consciousness, aligning it with the work of Clark Ashton Smith and her friend George Sterling. Its delicacy and pathos render it an imperishable monument to the throbbing emotions and aesthetic sensitivity of the woman who, although beloved by all in Sterling’s Bohemian circle, suffered keenly from her own love affairs and committed suicide in November 1907. Now, more than a hundred years after her passing, her poems have been gathered in this volume for the first time. The book includes an extensive biographical and critical introduction by Donald Sidney-Fryer, tributes to French by her contemporaries and by later admirers, and a selection of reviews.

Nora May French published no books in her lifetime, but her Poems were assembled in 1910 by George Sterling and others. That volume, however, was incomplete, and many fugitive poems have been added by Donald Sidney-Fryer and Alan Gullette, two of the leading authorities on California poetry and the poetry of fantasy and terror.