“The Lady …
The lady is a humble thing
Made of death and water
The fashion is to dress it plain
And use the mind for border”
― Elise Cowen
I’m not sure why but the first time I ever set eyes on a picture of Elise Cowan I wanted to know more about her. I can’t explain why, I just felt something. What I did find was a marvelous poet with a brilliant mind. She was a woman dressed in black with these thick-rimmed glasses; little did I know just how much I would love her work. Why am I writing about her? Well I know you can find anything you like on the Internet but I want you to know her and read her work. It is a rather sad tale and I believe that no one should ever be left in their literary grave and go unnoticed.
I often wondered, what ever happened to the women of the Beat Generation? They may have written, they may have sat next to Ginsberg in a café or along the bar next to Kerouac but what lurked inside them. Some of these women were thought of as the muse or the girlfriend; the hanger-on. Deep down these women had fire in their bellies and poetry in their souls and it was dying to come out, dying to be heard. Disturbingly, I have read pieces online saying that the Beat women were just not good enough writers but of course every piece of art is subjective; it is for the reader to decide. Elise did not want to be unsuccessful or contained in any way. She hated the fact that becoming a successful writer like the men around her could be an impossible task. She was admitted into hospital because of the deterioration in her mental health but soon checked herself out; she went back to her parent’s house where she committed suicide. Elise was just 28 years old.
Her lifelong depression was certainly reflected in her poetry. Her work was very real, very haunting with a free form structure. It felt distant yet so personal and relevant. During her short life, Elise didn’t have any poems published and it is very sad to learn that only a small portion of her poetry survived of which some have appeared in various collections thanks to a friend of hers. In 2014 a volume was put together from her only surviving notebook, titled Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments, edited by Tony Trigilio.
Recognized only for her associations in the Beat movement, her writing went unseen. We never hear that Elise was a writer, they often say “wasn’t she Ginsberg’s girlfriend?” After her death her parents burnt her work, its content disturbed them with its references to sex and drugs and they didn’t want it going public. To burn the very words that seep from a writer’s soul is to destroy it altogether but her poetry still lives on. Her parent’s decision to burn her work is quite disgraceful but like a phoenix, she certainly did rise from the ashes even if she isn’t around to see just how many people enjoy her work.