Sunday, January 25, 2009

on Madeline Gleason 1903 - 1979

Madeline Gleason was a beat long before Ginsberg or Kerouac made their way onto the scene. While they were still learning how to grow beards, Gleason was mixing old fairy tales and nursery rhymes with contemporary language to create a sound within poetry not yet heard. In the late 40's she founded the San Fransisco Poetry Center alongside Robert Duncan (who usually gets the credit). In April of 1947 she held the first ever San Fransisco Poetry Festival, creating a new forum for the spoken word. It was one of the first times poetry would be performed like a concert, with multiple poets coming in to read original work, sometimes with musical accompaniment. The festival was such a success that it become a regular event, bringing in poets from around the country. It was this festival that would spawn the Six Gallery reading where Allen Ginsberg first performed Howl.

Not unlike Kerouac or other Beat poets, Gleason's work often rhymed and included references to pop culture. Her one poem, "Once and Upon," published in The New American Poetry is a perfect example of her unique use of nursery rhyme themes to display more contemporary ideas.

Cross at the morning
and at waking,
with a mourning for summer,
she crossed the bridge Now
over the river Gone
toward the place called New
to begin her Once Upon

Beat poetry had the ability to be heard in a way that bridged the gap between poetry and music and Gleason was doing so before there even was a movement. Unlike many of her other poems that do rhyme, "Once and Upon" has a playful tone to it. Gleason is excited about language, the way old phrases and ideas can be broken down and put into a new order.

And no trees bent down
to whisper their wisdom
for her becoming.
Ah! Now! Ah! Gone! Ah! New
Ah! Once Upon!

The poem ends with such energy that leaves the reader wanting to know what else Gleason will show them or where she will take them.


  1. Nice! This piece -- "Once Upon" -- is a sweet one. I was thinking about discussing Gleason... She was playfully excited about language and eagerly attentive to sound... like a (Lacey) somebody I know! :)

  2. Gleason (as far as I know) is still woefully under-discussed in poetry criticism. Perfect material for a research project!