Sewell poetry uses strange combination; language is alternately sophisticated

Donna Saucier

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Wednesday, April 16, 1969.

The poetry of Elizabeth Sewell is a strange combination of oracle and social comment, poignancy and irreverence. The language which it employs is alternately sophisticated and simple. And the poems themselves contain, at times, rhyme, stanzas, two-word lines; they are blank verse, dramatic narrative, abstract. Elizabeth Sewell is a very diverse poet.

But each of her divergences is made for a specific purpose – to suit the poem to the message. Her poem, “The Oracle,” because it tells of riddling, is written in triplet stanzas with no rhyme and irregular meter. Sentences within the poem are chart and cryptic. 

In contrast there is the short verse drama, “The Great Darkness,” a play for voices since the scene is placed in complete blackness broken only for a short distance by a small fire. The story is Abraham and the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. The irregularities here are occasioned by the fact that this is a speech. Therefore, there are no set stanzas; the meter is the uneven iambic of conversation graced by the refinement of poetry.

…”Shut your eyes and listen. No-one can hope to see

     Through midnight wilderness of heart and mind.

     Admit as much: one might as well be blind,

     Confused in that great darkness, even as they.”…

And now contrast these two with the poem, “The Land Was Theirs Before They Were the Land’s,” one of a group called “Five Mississippi Poems 1963-1964.” This is a protest against prejudice and hatred which tears down the beautiful and somehow makes me less of men. No sophistication or grand language here. Miss Sewell has chosen her words to fit the subject matter well.

….So they began to work them over, the three,

     But most the dark one,

     Bones smashed like sugarcane

     In a molasses of blood,

     Reduced them, young man by young man,

     To a sobbing retching mass, partly conscious…

     While they went back as a matter of course…

     To wiping their little children’s faces

     Sticky after their dinner,

     To the conjugal bed…

This mixture, then, is the poetry of Elizabeth Sewell. No an unpleasing mixture of straight-forward social comment, descriptive verse, lyric drama, and almost mystic statement clothed in semi-obscurity, because this combination consistently contains the mark of one creator – a depth of understanding of human motives and an expert handling of language which easily adapts to the poetic statement itself and is not chained by rigid meter or vocabulary.