Note: This is the first article in an occasional series I’ll be doing, posting articles about the writers that make up Los Angeles’ literary history. The first article goes back to the early days of Los Angeles and one of the first poets to call Los Angeles home for close to 40 years.
Hildegarde Flanner, born June 3?, 1899, Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.—died May 27, 1987, Calistoga, California, was an American poet, essayist, and playwright known for her traditional poems that conjured images of nature and the California landscape and spoke to her passion for the environment.
Flanner was the youngest of three daughters born to Francis William and Mary Ellen Hockett Flanner, who brought up their children in a progressive and intellectual household with a strong appreciation for the arts. In 1912 their father committed suicide, leaving the family a large sum of money to live on. Upon graduation from high school, Flanner briefly attended Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia, and then moved to California, where she continued her studies at the University of California,Berkeley, beginning in 1919.
lanner’s early poetry was autobiographical, written through the lens of her religious upbringing. While still in school, she wrote “Young Girl” (1920), which received a school prize awarded annually to the best unpublished poem. Shortly after receiving the prize, her first volume of poetry, Young Girl and Other Poems, was published, as was her one-act play, Mansions (both 1920). A poem titled “Communion” appeared in Poetry magazine in 1921. That same year it was included in a small collection called This Morning (1921), with a cover designed by Frederick Monhoff, an artist and graduate of Berkeley, whom Flanner married in 1926. Monhoff went on to illustrate and design nearly all of Flanner’s publications throughout her career.
Along with her mother, Flanner lost her home and most of her possessions in the Berkeley Fire of 1923, prompting them to move to southern California, to the San Gabriel Valley city of Altadena.
As Flanner became more rooted in California, she increasingly drew upon nature in her poetry and became more specific about her natural environment, often writing of flowers, plants, and the landscape, as in poems such as “The Snail ” (1928), “White Magnolia Blossom” (before 1929), “The Owl” (before 1929), and “Pacific Winter” (1929), all published in Time’s Profile (1929), which was illustrated and designed by Monhoff.
After a life-time of witnessisng wildfires Hildegarde Flanner concluded that, “People who come to California to live with the exhilarating joys of scenery and climate must learn to pay for the privilege, faithfully and painfullly.”
During these years, according to Dana Goioa, she “became the central poet in Pasadena’s thriving artistic community, writing as a dismayed witness to urban sprawl and environmental threats.”
Flanner’s poems—as well as essays, reviews, and articles on her travels in the Southwest—were published widely in periodicals throughout the 1920s and ’30s. Much of Flanner’s work in the time leading up to World War II expressed anxious anticipation and fear of natural and human disaster, especially in poems such as “Hawk Is a Woman” and “Rattlesnake.” Those poems, and 22 more, were issued in her collection If There Is Time, a New Directions Publishing House “Poet of the Month” publication (1942). After that publication Flanner’s poetry writing slowed down, and her focus on the environment became more central. In 1962, when her husband retired, they moved north to the Napa Valley. Part of their motivation was shared anger at the pillaging of Southern Callifornia by developers.
Eve of Elegy
From: The Hearkening Eye
The last cicada prays for love
This bright November night,
Singing alone to his own song
The quavering gospel of delight
With which he late persuaded
The delicate mob of pearly kin,
The music-shaken mystics
Who tremoloed to him.
Sing on, you widowed melody,
With sweet obsessed voice
A music that should mourn its dead
(Where pathos dangles on the twig),
But stutters with hope and joy instead.
Sing on, so solitaire, so wed.
One listener will praise
The blameless errors of your ways,
Since music at this hour of night
Love that has no meeting,
Faith that has no choice,
Works by Hildegarde Flanner
Young Girl and Other Poems (1920)
This Morning (1921)
A Tree in Bloom and Other Verses (1924)
Time’s Profile (1929)
Valley Quail (1929)
If There Is Time (The Poet Of The Month Series) (1942)
In Native Light (1970)
The Hearkening Eye (Modern and Contemporary Poetry of the West) (1979)
At the Gentle Mercy of Plants: Essays and Poems (1986)
The White Bridge (1938)
A Vanishing Land (1980)
Brief Cherishing: A Napa Valley Harvest (1985)
Different Images: Portraits of Remembered People (1987)