The city of Worcester has always had its fingers in all areas of the arts and literature. It has been the home and the resting place of many great writers and poets. When most think of the poets in Worcester, names like Kunitz, Bishop, or Olson surface, but what has kept that fire alive has been the less known, less published poets of this generation. Mary Fell was born in and grew up in Worcester, and she is one of these poets.
Fell was born to Elizabeth “Betty” and Paul Fell in Worcester City Hospital on September 22, 1947. Betty had come from Fairhaven, Massachusetts to Worcester during the Great Depression in order to find work. Once there she met and married Paul, an Irish American “Worcester kid.” Paul worked as a custodian in Worcester, was on the city Retirement Board, and had become chairman by the time he passed away.
Fell grew up mostly in Main South Worcester with her older brother Paul. She attended Downing Street School for kindergarten, and then went to St. Peter’s through high school. Though their mother was a Protestant she sent her children to St. Peter’s because at the time children had to come home for lunch at Downing St., but St. Peter’s allowed them to bring their lunch. This was important because her mother needed to work and couldn’t be home for the children at lunchtime.
Fell spent most of her childhood days in Main South at the St. Peter’s School and church and in the local landmarks like the Park Theater, Coes Pond, Beaver Brook, and Crystal Park. Because they never owned a car, any family excursions were taken on the bus. She remembers downtown Worcester being magical with ice skating in Elm Park, and the Charity Circus at the Auditorium.
Though she was born after the war World War II was very present in her life. This interest is portrayed in her poetry. Poems like American Legion and Basic Training illustrate everything from the effect the war had on veteran soldiers, to war games played by children.
We practice jungle belly crawl
through the high grass in Gordon's yard,
Red Ryder air rifles cradled in our elbows.
For sneaking up on enemies, walk
heel first, then the whole foot, quietly.
Take a bottle cap. Gouge out
the cork heart. Put it inside your shirt
over your own heart, the cap outside.
Push them back together:
a war medal.
- Basic Training
After high school Fell attended Worcester State College and majored in English. Throughout most of her childhood the children she encountered were just like her “second or third generation Americans who were rarely ethnically diluted by more than half – Irish or Polish or Italian.” It wasn’t until she attended college that she was introduced to many of the other ethnicities and people of the world. College in the 1960s meant the anti-war movement, free speech, civil rights, and feminism. These were all accepted as part of daily life.
It was in college that Fell began writing poetry. She studied, loved and tried to write it. However, she felt that it wasn’t possible for someone like her to write poetry. It wasn’t until the Women’s Movement in the 1970s that she realized that she could write poetry about the things she wanted to write about: mostly, the life and people she had grown up with. This movement made Worcester a great place for a budding poet in the 70s. The Worcester County Poetry Association brought many of Fell’s heroes to Worcester for readings. Poets like Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Ann Sexton, Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Bly, Michael Harper, Galway Kinnell all came to Worcester during this time.
After graduating from college in 1969, Fell worked as a social worker for the Welfare Department for about five years, and later in a city social service project until 1975 when she met Fran Quinn, another local poet, and they toured local schools reading poetry and teaching workshops on how to teach poetry. She returned to social work until 1977 when she went to the University of Massachusetts in Anherst and received her MFA in 1981. Right after graduate school Fell went to Indiana to fill in for another professor that was on sabbatical and eventually it turned into a permanent position. It was here that in 2001 she received the Indiana University Award for Distinguished Teaching.
Fell’s first book, The Persistence of Memory, was published in 1983 when it was selected for the National Poetry Series. The poetry in the book speaks in a very personal voice about everything she has experienced. The poem Out of Luck, Massachusetts, for example, illustrates the unfortunate downfall of the town of Ware, a town outside of Worcester:
The town that couldn't be licked
gives up, sunk
between these hills. The sacred
heart beats fainter, blessing the poor
in spirit. Boarded-up
factories litter the river. It does no good,
town fathers knitting their brows,
there's not enough shoe leather left
to buy a meal. In company houses
the unemployed wear out
their welcome. Diminished
roads run east, west, anywhere
better than here.
The Persistence of Memory also includes The Triangle Fire; a collection of poems once published as a hand-sewn chapbook. This collection contains several poems about the tragic Triangle Factory fire that took place on March 25, 1911. This fire took the lives of 146 of the 500 employees of this sweatshop because of the poor safety measures taken during the Industrial Age. This fire also caused a reform in fire safety for many businesses and buildings. The poems help to portray the actual events of this horrific fire in a very human way.
Mary Fell is currently living in Indiana where she teaches English at Indiana University, and continues to write.
- The Persistence of Memory, 1983
- Triangle Fire, 1983
- If people experience what it is like to write poetry, then that experience will inspire them
- — Mary Fell