Archive for January 3rd, 2018

Tim Steele remembers poet Helen Pinkerton: hardscrabble origins and poems “deeply in the American grain”

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018
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A few days ago, we noted the death of the Stanford poet Helen Pinkerton, who died last Thursday, December 28, 2017, and we cited some earlier words from Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele, a longtime contributor to the Book Haven (here and here and here) and the subject of a number of its posts (here and here). He wrote his own tribute for Helen on Facebook:

Helen Pinkerton rose from hardscrabble origins to become one of the most thoughtful and graceful poets of her generation. She was born in 1927 in Butte, Montana, the home of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and possibly the roughest and most corrupt town in the country at the time. (Dashiell Hammett portrays it as Personville in Red Harvest.) Pinkerton had to take a circuitous route on her walk to school each day to avoid the town’s large and thriving red light district. Her father worked in the mines and was killed in 1938 in an accident in one of the shafts in Butte Hill—“the richest hill on earth” during the copper boom. After graduating from high school in 1944, Pinkerton moved with her mother to Palo Alto, where they worked in a cannery. She applied and was admitted to Stanford. She later modestly said that she thought she got in because all the young men were off in the Second World War and the university needed students. Originally intending to study journalism, she took a class from Yvor Winters, who recognized and encouraged her talent for poetry and scholarship. After receiving her B.A. from Stanford, she earned a doctorate from Harvard. She married the scholar J. Wesley Trimpi, with whom she had two daughters, and wrote influential studies on modern poetry, the Civil War, and Herman Melville. Melville’s Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s (published under her married name, Helen P. Trimpi) is considered a classic in its field.

With Helen and poet Turner Cassity in 2010

But Pinkerton’s greatest work is her poetry. It exemplifies T. S. Eliot’s thesis that fine poems are often a blend of tradition and individual talent. Her “Elegy at Beaverhead County, Montana,” which appears below, draws on the long tradition of elegiac poetry in English. Its metrical-stanzaic form and its pastoral meditation recall Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Churchyard.” At the same time, Pinkerton’s poem is deeply in the American grain. Its twenty lines touch on so many critical issues in our country and culture—including the cruel manner in which we divide the future from the past and the struggle between those who cultivate the earth and those who would exploit it for wealth. (Pinkerton once noted that Native American observers had been shocked when settlers from the East started extracting minerals from the planet without putting anything back in.) Pinkerton also portrays—with moving sympathy and a daughter’s cautious watchfulness—her strong and disappointed father, a man who had relatively little formal education but who loved music and played the violin.

Pinkerton uses as her epigraph, “Gold and silver,” the motto that Montana adopted in 1865, when it became an official United States Territory. “Love, faith, and poetry” is a motto that her friends and admirers will remember her by.

Elegy at Beaverhead County, Montana

“Oro y plata”

My father fished here summers, scaled and cleaned
His catch by the gray weathered fence that dips
Into the river. Thin as a pine, he leaned
Again to rinse the knife in chilling rips.

The river is Missouri’s western source,
So clear and shallow even stones and sand
Under that sun seem golden in its course.
Men came for gold and, failing, took the land.

Sons of unsettled men sometimes remained
To change the land through labor and design.
He left, rejecting when he might have gained,
But only found another ore to mine.

His quiet lapsed to taciturnity,
Slow anger to hard answers in a glance;
Music alone and its brief gaiety,
His father’s gift, remained from circumstance.

For that rich butte in whose deep shaft he died,
Where I first saw, as silver as the earth,
Another stream flow west from the Divide,
Gave to him nothing of its final worth.

Helen Pinkerton (1927 – 2017)
from Taken in Faith (Athens, OH: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2002)

The poet Annie Finch remembered that Tim had put her in touch with Helen years ago when she was organizing her anthology, A Formal Feeling Comes. She posted the page with Helen’s artistic credo, and the moving elegy on her Aunt Nora: