In memoriam: Marie Borroff, 1923-2019

 

Professor, poet, and translator Marie Borroff died July 5, aged 95. Borroff first wrote for The Yale Review in 1949. Her poem about the challenge of stringing a lyre, “Ars Poetica,” speaks to a lifelong interest in the interplay between poetry and music. Raised by a successful touring musician mother, Marie was set in front of a piano at three, and soon was giving regular recitals in her Long Island village of Rockville Centre—at eight, playing Beethoven and Bach. In a 1934 interview, however, her mother, Marie Bergerson Borroff, predicted a different future for her. “Marie writes marvelous poetry,” she told the local paper. “I think she will go into the literary field.”

As a teenager, Borroff would begin sending sentimental poems to Edna St. Vincent Millay, (whose career she would evaluate in our 2002 issue), but Millay didn’t answer. Borroff graduated high school at fifteen and spent a few more years struggling to find her way as a pianist before enrolling at the University of Chicago. There, as she told an interviewer as part of a Yale collection documenting the history of women at the university, she learned why her juvenile expressions hadn’t been worthy of a response. Under the tutelage of Norman Maclean, she began to see poetry anew, to understand the deeper capabilities of poetic language. She wrote about Maclean’s later work in her review essay from April 1994.

After a stint teaching at Smith College, she would begin graduate school at Yale in 1951, and, after a brief return to Smith, would in 1959 become the first woman English professor in the department. Up through her 1994 retirement and many years after, the Review was fortunate to have her as a contributor, offering more poems, reviews, and a text from her life-work translating the Gawain poet.

Among that work is a remarkable 1971 essay concerning the possibilities of computer-generated poetry, an essay richly illuminating the nature of metaphor—and also the nature of the human. She concludes with a thought experiment, imagining the ultimate poetry machine. Such a machine, she suggests, must not only have deep linguistic and cultural knowledge, but also particular biases and tastes, must be expressive of the unique influences normally imparted by one’s parents and her community. Most important, the perfect poet must be flawed, must be frail:

It is here that we must remind ourselves that the expressive impulse giving rise to the creation of poetry has its source in human experience, and that art achieves its ultimate purpose in helping to define and enlarge the experience of those who respond adequately to it. We may say that both creation and response are predicated on what are, or have been up to now, “uniquely human” capacities, yet fail to realize that what is most distinctively human is not these capacities in themselves, but their presence in a warm-blooded mammalian creature which, like other such creatures, is instinctual, irritable, vulnerable to pain and hunger, capable of fear, anger, sexuality, playfulness, humor, loneliness, and affection. It is uniquely human, not to understand the logical value of the proposition “All men are mortal” and to draw the appropriate consequences for the man Socrates (a machine can easily be programmed to do this much), but to know, and therefore to feel, that we and all those we love must die. Were it not for this and other aspects of human experience, there would be no such thing as poetry, for there would be “no expression, nothing to express.” If indeed at some future time a machine is developed, capable of having experiences of its own and of giving expression to them in art, the value of that art for human beings must be assessed by human beings. Such assessment is the domain of the humanist, and within it he has an authority which all the technological marvels of the future cannot take away.

More on Marie Borroff’s life and career.

Ars Poetica

Next Moment

Noah’s Flood

The Achievement of Norman Maclean

Creativity, Poetic Language, and the Computer