Nora May French (california Poetry)

Dana Gioia

Nora May French is one of the neglected treasures of California poetry; A tragic and romantic figure, she committed suicide at twenty-nine while a guest at the Carmel home of the poet George Sterling. She had been writing poetry since she was twelve and left behind a small but distinguished body of work consisting of about: seventy poems, including The Spanish Girl, a sequence of lyrics in three parts containing twenty-two separate poems. About a dozen of her poems were published before her death in Argonaut, Sunset, Current Literature, and The American Magazine.

Nora May Freneh was born in Aurora, New York, Her father, Edward French, was a professor at Wells College. Her mother, Mary Wells French, was the sister of Henry Wells of Wells, Fargo and Company. In 1888 her family moved to Los Angeles, where her prosperous father bought a ranch in what is now Glendale. A few years later a fire destroyed the French home and left the family impoverished.

French attended Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, working for her room, board, and tuition. In 1905 the beautiful young poet was engaged to Alan Hiley, a wealthy timber farmer. Her apprehensions and fears of this union (the engagement was soon broken) provided the background for The Spanish Girl, her most ambitious work. While living in Los Angeles, French became a member of Charles Lummis's Arroyo Seco group of writers and poets, and Lummis published several of her poems in his Out West magazine. The feminist nature writer Mary Austin was a member of the group, and she came to regard French as a talent equal to George Sterling and Jack London.

French moved to San Francisco in 1906 not long after the great earthquake, and she quickly entered the bohemian subculture. She was involved in a love affair with Harry Lafler, a handsome editor and notorious womaniser. She broke off this affair only to begin another, while also reviving her earlier engagement with Hiley, French moved to Carmel in 1907 and lived with Sterling and his wife -growing more and more despondent in the lively bohemian atmosphere. She made plans to kill her former lover and herself. After a clumsy attempt to poison him failed, she took her own life with cyanide.

French's poems are often melancholy but never depressive, and there is a recurrent blend of whimsy and wonder at the beauty of nature. They also reveal the conflict in the poet's psyche over the desire to lead an independent and creative life and the social pressure to enter into a secure hut passionless marriage. Her poems also reflect French's anguish at her rejection by other women. Tall and shapely, she had golden blond hair and bright blue eves, A striking figure and dynamic conversationalist, she was conspicuously attractive to men. She claimed to have no female friends, inspiring nothing but envy from members of her own sex. In a short story published in the Saturday Evening Post a few weeks before her death, French expressed her frustration defensively, pointing out that anyone who deviated from social norms was judged "queer": "I am different," she said, "I don't see why I should pretend to deny that."

French did not publish a collection of poems in her lifetime. In 1910 three of the dead poet's friends brought out Poems, the only collection of her verse to be commercially published. Featuring a romantically beautiful portrait of the young poet by society photographer Arnold Gen the, the edition of five hundred sold out quickly. In 1936 the Book Club of California published a pamphlet of about twenty of her poems as part of a series on California poets for its members. Since then, French has remained almost completely unpublished and unread.

From: California Poetry: the Gold Rush to the Present by Dana Gioia, Heyday Books, 2003