Recently I was asked to write the foreword to a book of poetry written by female pilots. The editor, American Airlines captain Linda Pauwels, knew of my work as a journalist writing about aviation. I hadn’t read much beyond the first pages before I realized Pauwels’s book included one jaw-dropping contributor: Among the poems written across a century of flight are several previously unpublished pieces by the most famous aviatrix of them all, Amelia Earhart.
Dozens, if not hundreds of books have been written about Earhart, arguably the patron saint of women fliers. But I was not alone in my ignorance of Earhart’s secret desire to have her poems published. Despite her many accomplishments, she disappeared in 1937 not having achieved that goal.
That changes with the publication of Pauwels’s book, “Beyond Haiku: Women Pilots Write Poetry.”
Earhart’s husband, George Palmer Putnam, wrote in his biography of her, “Truly, I think among all her crowding ambitions, AE would have enjoyed best of all the leisure to play about with the friends she liked so well — words.”
The story of how these poems and others became public nearly 85 years after Earhart’s disappearance is a fascinating one. And according to Sammie Morris, archivist of the Earhart collection at Purdue University, they will cast the aviatrix in a new light.
Earhart was one of the earliest aviators, a record-setter, a college professor and well ahead of her time as a champion for women’s rights. Yet she is also one of history’s more enigmatic figures, not just because of the way she died, on the final leg of a round-the-world flight, but also because, throughout her public life, she was tenacious about guarding her privacy, including her desire to be a writer. Putnam described it as “almost secret.”
“When I read Amelia Earhart’s poems, I knew right away she was one of us,” Pauwels said, noting that her poems addressed the same themes as other aviators: strength, endurance and a love of flight. “Our voices are speaking of similar things.”
In the poem “From an Airplane,” Earhart writes:
“Even the watchful, purple hills
That hold the lake
Could not see so well as I
The stain of evening
Creeping from its heart
Nor the round, yellow eyes of the hamlet
Growing filmy with mists”
While two professional journals have featured some of the poems since their discovery, five of those in “Beyond Haiku” have never been published, elevating a niche poetry volume with a feminist bent to the latest twist in the mysterious Earhart saga.
Only one poem penned by Earhart was made public during her lifetime and it was contrary to her wishes, according to Morris, who is also a professor of library science at Purdue. In an article she wrote for Provenance, Journal of the Society of Georgia Archivists in 2005, Morris explained that Earhart turned down a 1928 request by author Marion Perkins to use the poem “Courage” in an article she was writing about Earhart, but it appeared nonetheless.
No other poems emerged even in the decades after Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished on July 2, 1937.
Few people beyond Putnam even knew of their existence. Putnam’s secret may have been easier to keep because in 1934 a fire at the home he and Earhart shared in Rye, N.Y., destroyed many of her personal papers. What few realized was that hundreds of her documents survived the blaze, including dozens of poems in various stages of completion. Putnam never revealed that — even to Earhart’s family.
Fifty years after Putnam died in 1950, those documents, which his widow gave to Putnam’s granddaughter, were donated to Purdue — paving the way for their publication.
To Morris the poems are an “amazing puzzle piece,” even while they create more puzzles.
Considering Earhart’s reticence, why did she risk exposing her intimate thoughts by writing them? That Earhart’s mother delivered a stillborn baby in 1896, the year before Earhart was born, has been reported, but among Earhart’s papers is a handwritten, untitled poem that reveals the enduring impact of that event on the aviatrix:
“The firstborn child of my mother
Died in a few hours
Does she hold it still
As she might have him
When we fail?”
“She was such a complex person, who had a defined sense of what was and was not public, and poems may be the way she tried to thread that needle,” said Traci Brimhall, a poet and professor at Kansas State University. Brimhall wrestled with Earhart’s poetry for an article she wrote for Literary Hub.
The author most recently of “Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod,” Brimhall developed a fascination with Earhart, with whom she shares a birthday, during a visit to Earhart’s childhood home in Atchison, Kan.
At the archives at Purdue, Brimhall lingered over the poems. They were written in pencil and riddled with edits and notes. Part literary detective and part fellow traveler, Brimhall extrapolated from her own experience as she tried to decipher Earhart’s words.
“Poetry is like a secret clouded in metaphor, but by transforming emotions into images, you make thoughts and feelings into an art form,” Brimhall said. “The risk is that others can see the things you’ve hidden from yourself, and a poem can accidentally confess something private.”
Still, as Brimhall writes in her analysis of the poems, she was unable to turn the poetry fragments into a revelatory narrative, leaving Earhart’s desire for opacity intact, at least for now.
In “Beyond Haiku,” Earhart’s poems appear alongside the works of other pilots over the past century, including Louise Thaden. Her untitled poem was written following her first solo flight. Earhart and Thaden were close friends and occasional competitors.
Few knew Earhart as well as Thaden, said Keith O’Brien, author of “Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied the Odds and Made Aviation History.”
“Both women were not just great and daring pilots at a time where most men believed women should stand firmly planted on the ground,” O’Brien said. “Both women were great writers who knew how to turn a phrase and make people think by the words they chose.”
Earhart used words to challenge traditional thinking about women’s roles and turned the spotlight on literature that left women out of the story.
“No one can scan the shelves of teenage reading matter without being struck with the fact that girls are evidently not expected to join in the fun,” she wrote in a speech to a group of librarians. “There are no heroines following the shining paths of romantic adventure as do the heroes of boys’ books.”
She put her words into action in the fall of 1935 when she accepted a job as adviser to Purdue’s aeronautics program and its first career counselor for female students. At the time she said, “I hope this movement will spread through all branches of applied science and industry and that women can come to share with men, the joy of doing.”
So it seems fitting that Earhart’s poems should debut in a book dedicated to honoring female pilots and encouraging girls to become pilots.
Morris, the Purdue professor, was the first person to write about Earhart’s newly discovered poems in her 2005 article. Now she hopes the publicity surrounding the latest Earhart poems to be published in “Beyond Haiku” will trigger other discoveries.
“It is possible in some family attic there are some other things that she wrote,” Morris said. “If there are other unpublished things out there, it would be a tremendous find.”
Christine Negroni is an aviation writer and the author of the New York Times bestseller, “The Crash Detectives.” Find her at christinenegroni.com.
Women Pilots Write Poetry
Edited by Linda Pauwels
Fig Factor Media Publishing. 128 pp. $24.97
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