• On the Lost Lyric Poetry of
    Amelia Earhart

    A Missing Pilot and Her Poems

    Marriage is a privacy with many secrets. The union of famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart to her business manager and author-adventurer George Palmer Putnam in 1931 had many carefully constructed privacies. Putnam preserved some of those confidences after her disappearance, most notably drafts of her poems. Although Earhart wrote three books about her flights, was the aviation editor for Cosmopolitan, and wrote numerous other pieces of journalism about everything from her experiences flying an autogiro to her musings on clouds, her love of poetry only shows up on rare occasions in her prose.

    Article continues below

    Despite poetry’s absence in much of her published writing, Putnam said in his memoir, Soaring Wings, that “AE wrote many fragments of verse, for she found a deep pleasure in building little images with words. That aspect was very privatealmost secret.” While acknowledging that private pleasure, Putnam also published two fragments of poems from among her papers in his memoir, but the other splintered lines weren’t discovered until his granddaughter donated Putnam and Earhart’s papers to Purdue University in 2002.

    Among the secrets he helped keep were her lyric fragments on death and desire, and her rejected submission to Poetry magazine. Exploring the archives, the only final drafts of any poems I found among the old scrapbooks and scribbled notes on envelopes were those in that rejected submission. Somehow it enamored me even more—this famous and unknowable aviatrix and writer left only these unfinished drafts as clues I could puzzle over, watching her mind revise, redact, question, leaving no answer to the mystery of where her final poems may be. 

    Searching the archives for Amelia Earhart’s lost poems is a study in fragments—every tucked-away line on the back of a receipt hidden in a notebook an invitation to speculate on her thoughts. Even when her widower published pieces of her verse in his memoir, he had an independent source verify the authenticity of one of them, unsure if the private voice on the page was indeed hers.

    This fragment, titled “A Child’s Trilogy,” contains short sections of pleasures, of beloved yellows like “clean scrubbed lemons in the market stall, our black cat’s eyes at night.” The piece is written in the voice of a child, asking questions while lying in bed: 

    Article continues below

    How is all the fragrance that narcissus have
    packed in one small green bud?
    What kind of scissors do the angels use
    when they cut the snowflakes from the soft white clouds?
    And is my lost jack-knife really on the moon? 

    The poem goes on to wonder if the speaker and the birds envy each other. There is no date or context to say when this may have been written, though Amelia’s sister Muriel wrote in her memoir Courage Is the Price that she believed the poem was inspired by the children Amelia met when she was a social worker. Amelia was a child with a reputation for adventure and experiment, as well as a child who loved language.

    I study the lines and consider what I would leave out if I reprinted my vows or old love letters, what intimacies would I invite others to know, what intimacies will always and only be mine.

    She and Muriel loved stories and created their own private vocabulary. They called vacated cicada shells “Hannibals” and conducted a ritual called “Hannibal Fate,” in which they sang made-up songs and lit the cicada husks on fire, saying if they weren’t careful to extinguish all the flames there would be grave trouble “for many honeymoons to come.”

    Whether the poem fragment George published was written when she was young or when she was a social worker is unknown, though I see both a child’s innocent wondering and an adult’s wisdom, and feel I understand something of the young woman Earhart once was in these lines, some of the few to survive the fire in 1934 that destroyed her and Putnam’s home. 

    Of all the people in Earhart’s life, the one who devoted the most pages to Amelia’s relationship with poetry was her sister Muriel. As she describes in Courage Is the Price, she and Amelia fell in love with poetry when they were young, memorizing and reciting verses to each other. Poetry remained an important shared value when they were both nurses in Canada during World War I. After their time as nurses, Amelia enrolled at Columbia to study medicine but also audited a course in French poetry and would write French poems on her physics exams when she didn’t know the answer.

    Article continues below

    When she and Muriel lived in Chicago they were devotees of Poetry, and while Amelia adored many poets, Muriel said her greatest “admiration [was] for the poetic apostle of beauty, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.” In their childhood library, Muriel discovered a quatrain below one of Rossetti’s sonnets, that she believed to be Amelia’s: 

    Beauty is not the hue and glow of right
    Nor for man’s pleasure given;
    For hell itself is beautiful at night
    From the far windows of heaven. 

    Between the two sisters, poetry was a shared language and a shorthand. When Muriel gave Amelia $40 to pay the coal bill for the social-work house, Amelia returned with a receipt for $20 of coal and a bird carved from ivory she’d purchased at a curio shop. She defended her financial decisions and protested she could not resist the appeal of it, saying “[It’s] so much lovelier than hunks of coal, Pidge, you must admit . . . Let me have my hyacinth just this once!”

    The reference to the hyacinth was from one of Amelia’s favorite quatrains by Moslin Eddiv Saudi about selling one’s coat to buy a hyacinth. I admire and envy their closeness as sisters. Although they grew more estranged with age, when they were young they shared a bond that they triangulated through poetry, their touchstone for intimacy. 

    Among the fragments of poems Amelia left behind are small pink notes in no discernible order. When I hold them closer, the light pencil scrawls of Earhart’s cryptic script get more illegible rather than revealing clarity in the graphite lines and loops. All the unassembled pieces seem to be about women and beauty. On the back of two poems in her Poetry submission, “To M——” and “My Friend,” she wrote “personality.”

    Article continues below

    It tempts me to believe the M in the poem’s title is a redaction of Muriel’s name. On the backs of some of the scattered pink notes is a clear P. Perhaps these, too, were part of a series on personality, though it is equally tempting for me to chart a connection to Muriel’s nickname Pidge, to see the love of poetry extending beyond recited verses with books tented on their laps and believe that the person who shares a love can also become the subject of that love. Poetry is such a useful art for temptation, and even more so when almost all that’s available to study are fragments. Voyeurism always wants the privilege of intimacy without the requisite consent and vulnerability. 

    A wedding is a public act, but a marriage is a long intimacy that usually keeps its privacies. In the premarital agreement with Putnam that Earhart penned the night before their marriage on her soon-to-be mother-in-law’s stationary, Earhart famously requested an open marriage and asked to leave if she wasn’t happy in a year. She also asked, “Please let us not interfere with the other’s work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements.”

    Although he respected her wishes in many ways, the privacy of the letter itself was something George did decide to disclose in Soaring Wings, saying it was a “sad little letter, brutal in its frankness, but beautiful in its honesty,” that he was sharing “for it is a document of striking integrity and independence.” However, the version he published contained redactions, leaving out details of why they might seek love outside of their marriage, and her final sentence is cut short, failing to complete her offer to “give you that part of me you know and seem to want,” as revealed later in a biography by Mary S. Lovell.

    While some disclosures of the private seem a betrayal, the openness of the formerly private letter seems a revelation made out of pride rather than shame. Why he redacted two sentences is a secret for himself, but it was a secret that remained uncovered for 50 years. When his granddaughter Sally Putnam Chapman wrote a memoir called Whistled Like a Bird after reading the original draft, she resisted the temptation to speculate too much about the reason for his edits, saying “I find it curious.”

    I don’t resist the temptation. I study the lines and consider what I would leave out if I reprinted my vows or old love letters, what intimacies would I invite others to know, what intimacies will always and only be mine. Putnam’s granddaughter leaves her conclusions simple and open to interpretation, respecting the redaction’s small cloak for privacy.  

    Article continues below

    In his memoir, George also shares a fragment on desire that Amelia wrote, though the object of desire remains unclear. While her prenuptial letter does say neither of them would be bound by a “medieval code of faithfulness,” biographers have debated claims that she had a relationship with her friend and National Aviation Director Gene Vidal. Putnam never asserts the small verse is about him, though perhaps he didn’t feel he needed to. It’s possible he never thought the desires Amelia mentioned in her prenuptial letter would come to bear. It was a scrap of paper in his own pocket that betrayed an early infidelity to his first wife, but perhaps he couldn’t believe that Amelia’s heart could have the same appetite as his own.

    Or perhaps he knew for sure, the fragment coming from a locked drawer where he’d saved the tender missive from years past, wanting to remember, to see himself the way she saw him. He does not disclose that. He simply presents Earhart’s desire in his memoir, saying it is one of the few fragments of her verse that survived the house fire: 

    To touch your hand or see your face, today,
    Is joy. Your casual presence in a room
    Recalls the stars that watched us as we lay. 

    I mark you in the moving crowd
    And see again those stars
    A warm night lent us long ago.
    We loved so thenwe love so now. 

    Perhaps George knew the rumors. He was certainly aware that she was (falsely) accused of infidelity with her business partner Paul Mantz in his divorce. And there were rumors that she would divorce Putnam when she concluded her world flight. Maybe like the secret of the full draft of her premarital letter, he expected a more complete truth to surface one day. Or maybe he knew she loved another and included it because he admired her lines.

    While he did not comment on the quality of her poetry in Soaring Wings, he critiqued her fiction as unstructured, though confessed it did “contain some passages of nerve-stretching beauty.” So perhaps his silence on her verse was awe, or not knowing how to remark on the few fragments that remained. Marriage is a narrative, but the memory of love is a lyric. 

    Although it’s clear Amelia and her sister Muriel used poetry as a way to communicate with each other, it’s not clear if George shared the same shorthand in their conversations or if Amelia shared drafts of her poems with him. As a publisher, he was certainly well-versed in literature, and sharing a poem with his first wife, Dorothy, was how she knew they would get a divorce, according to his granddaughter’s memoir, Whistled Like a Bird. After years of fighting and infidelity on both their parts, he slipped a poem called “Light Love” by C. H. Towne into her tent during a trip, which ends: “blest be all kisses, / And blest be the love that dies before satiety.”

    In her diary, Dorothy wrote: “we pass from one phase to another, opening and closing doors on emotions that at the time you were sure were eternal!” When I read about Putnam’s relationships, I imagine the wildness with which he loved is the same as my ex-husband’s, and it becomes easy to impose my story on someone else’s. By all accounts, Putnam was a husband who loved the romantic gestureflowers, poems, thoughtful gifts. Though despite his demonstrativeness and evident love, he kept secrets too, writing to his first wife Dorothy and begging her to reconsider the divorce, even after he’d begun his relationship with Amelia.

    I know some of the secrets my ex-husband tried to keep from me, though some he surely kept more secure. Archival voyeurism is a speculative genre. It’s hard for me not to use the lives of others as a mirror, or to project my own truths into someone else’s life, as if my secrets or ex-husband’s could teach me what happened in the private intimacies of another marriage. 

    Earhart’s lack of writing about desire or love among the remaining fragments is likely due to the fact that many poems predate her relationship with George Putnam.

    Sometimes the secrets a marriage keeps are not out of shame or even protection of the other person. Some secrets are about the privacy of the self. One mysterious love fragment written on hotel stationary was among Earhart’s papers donated to Purdue by Putnam’s granddaughter. Since the stationary was from a hotel George often visited with Amelia, he is believed to be the subject of this fragment: 

    I have seen your eyes at dawn, beloved,
    Dark with sleep
    And lying on your breasthave watched
    The new day creep 

    George seems not to have known about this love fragment, or he chose to keep this one private. I wonder if he even knew the full extent of the pieces of verse hidden within the scrapbooks that escaped the house fire, since so many didn’t appear in his memoir. Or perhaps he felt it was permissible to reveal some secrets while continuing to guard others. Both Putnam and Earhart surely knew that if she wanted to make her poems public, she could have. He was not only her business manager but a well-known publisher who had written books on his own adventures and was responsible for publishing and promoting Charles Lindbergh.

    In fact, it was at his urging that she wrote her three memoirs, and on her first trip across the Atlantic he gifted her with a diary. Writing was a shared value, and yet poetry was a secret they honored in different wayshe keeping private the fact that she wrote, and she perhaps keeping to herself that she wrote about him, drafting lines about his face in sleep, the tenderness of that vulnerability in him so few ever got to see, the love she felt held in the quiet of a quatrain. 

    Earhart’s lack of writing about desire or love among the remaining fragments is likely due to the fact that many poems predate her relationship with Putnam, though she did have other romantic relationships. Her early poems circled around the nature of time, friendship, and aviation. In her 1921 submission to Poetry, 23-year-old Earhart included four poems and a cover letter that states: “Enclosed are four small efforts of a novice” and is signed with the pseudonym Emil A. Harte.

    Her four small efforts included a typed version of “From an Airplane,” “To M——,” “Palm Tree,” and “My Friend.” She kept these next to earlier drafts written in longhand, as well as the personalized rejection from the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe, which read: “Not quiteas yet. But we consider these unusually promising. So please send more when you have some you like.” However, if Amelia sent back to Poetry or submitted to other magazines, she did not keep the returned final drafts, though, as noted in Lovell’s biography, Sound of Wings, Gene Vidal recalled that “she wrote poetry for magazines under another name.”

    He is also quoted in East to the Dawn as saying he shared his own poetry with her and that she steered him away from Edgar Allan Poe and towards Amy Lowell. I like to think this was an intimacy she began to share with Vidal, no longer confiding in Putnam about the fervent poetry she still composed, sending out her crafted drafts in secret. Even before she became famous, she submitted under a pseudonym, wanting to write and be read, but without revealing who she was. Before fame she also used a pseudonym for other purposes, checking into a hotel under Putnam’s wife’s maiden name, for example.

    Privacy was always a primary value. Her poems—especially under a pseudonym—seem to be too much of the self, an extraordinary secret to keep in a marriage, though one I understand, especially if the force of that love and adoration feels consuming. If Vidal is right and Amelia continued to submit poems under pseudonyms, there is no sign of what became of those submissions among the numerous notebook pages and clippings in scrapbooks. All that remains among her papers are fragments from a couple dozen poems, a small trail of clues I keep believing will solve the mystery of her private obsessions with love and death. 

    Traci Brimhall
    Traci Brimhall
    Traci Brimhall is the author of Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod and three previous collections of poetry: Saudade (Copper Canyon Press); Our Lady of the Ruins, selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize; and Rookery, selected by Michelle Boisseau for the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Her work has been featured in The Best American Poetry, and she has received numerous fellowships, including a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the 2012 Summer Poet in Residence at the University of Mississippi, and scholarships and fellowships to the Breadloaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences.

    More Story
    Danez Smith: 'Being a Poet Means Committing to Vulnerability' Danez Smith burst into national recognition in 2014, when their poems about the Black Lives Matter movement found piercing...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.