Posts Tagged ‘Donald Davie’

Seamus Heaney at Stanford

Saturday, August 31st, 2013
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Seamus Heaney

Portrait of the poet as a young man.

Seamus Heaney, who died yesterday at 74, never taught at Stanford, but he did visit here at least once.  I was thumbing through Stepping Stones, the book-length Q&A with the late Dennis O’Driscoll, which I purchased after he mentioned it in his second letter to me (see yesterday’s post about that brief encounter here).  As with my usual impulsive book purchases, I had more money than time, so I never did more than crack the spine.  I did today though, and ran across this:

O’Driscoll:  Did you meet Thom Gunn?

Heaney:  During my later visit, yes, a couple of times. I don’t think we encountered in 1971/2. But when I was Beckman Professor [at the University of California] in 1976, Donald Davie organized a dinner in his house in Stanford and sent Alan Shapiro to collect me and drive me down. Alan was his graduate student at the time and had a car.  Thom Gunn was a guest that evening also and the whole event went off with great brio; but what I remember most was the fact that Thom had hitch-hiked down from San Francisco.  No pampering there – even the bus was too much for him.  I think, by the way, that I stilll like the iambic, English side of Gunn better.  Fighting Terms is a terrific first book; and there are poems like “The Discovery of the Pacific” and those late Dantesque treatments of the pre-AIDS gay scene in San Francisco.  He can really build the pressure when his stanzas are working for him.

thom-gunn

Gunn: he packed a punch

It wasn’t courage only that led Gunn to thumb his way down to Palo Alto from his Upper Haight apartment. He doesn’t drive, at all.  Who needs to in San Francisco, he told me.  (I suppose he still could have taken some sort of bus, if there was was one … which I doubt.)

To my knowledge, I was the last person to interview Thom Gunn. The Q&A  ran posthumously in the Georgia Review in Spring 2005 – alas, it’s not online.  Now Gunn did teach at Stanford, briefly, for one quarter.  I wrote about that here.

“And finally time runs out”: Evan Connell dies at 88

Sunday, January 13th, 2013
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“I was sitting in a saloon wondering what to write next.”

Evan Connell has died, “of old age,” according to a relative.  He was 88 at the time of his death last week in  Santa Fe.

I didn’t know Evan Connell’s work, except from Ken Fields, who recently mentioned Mrs. Bridge as a masterpiece.  Apparently Wallace Stegner thought so, too.  He called it “a hell of a portrait…She’s as real and as pathetic and as sad as any character I have read in a long time.”

Connell, the author of 18 books, was a student of Stegner’s during his time at Stanford in the 1940s.  And Stegner was his first publisher:  Stanford Short Stories: Nineteen Forty-Nine (Stanford University Press), edited by Stegner from submissions by Stanford students, contains the first book appearance of a work by Connell.

Connell was in the first class of Stegner Fellows at Stanford, 1947-48, in the illustrious company of Donald Davie and Donald Justice.

The road to Stanford was not an easy one.  Connell was the son and grandson of physicians, and his father did not take easily to the idea that his only son would not follow in his footsteps. According to the Los Angeles Times:

He was a pre-med student at Dartmouth, which he attended from 1941 to 1943, but ultimately decided against following in his elders’ footsteps. This did not please his father, whom Connell described as “a rather severe man.”

“He was concerned that I would never be able to make a living at this kind of thing,” Connell, in a 2000 interview with the Associated Press, said of writing. “It was a justifiable concern, I think. I grew up in a home where there was no music, no interest in any of the arts.”

He dropped out of Dartmouth and joined the Navy, training as an aviator at a base near Albuquerque, where he fell in love with the vastness of the West. After completing his military service, he studied painting on the GI Bill and traveled, living in France during the 1950s and writing for the Paris Review.

Usually, Connell’s first published work is credited as the critically acclaimed The Anatomy Lesson and Other Stories (1957). His first novel, Mrs. Bridge (1959), according to the Man Booker Prize website, “dissects the life of a conventional upper-middle-class Kansas City matron who lacks a sense of purpose and conforms blindly to what is expected of her.”  Connell published Mr. Bridge a decade later, retelling the same story from the husband’s p.o.v.

According to the Los Angeles Times obituary:

He initially wrote Mrs. Bridge rather conventionally, with about 15 chapters, but it was rejected by numerous publishers in part because it lacked a climax. That was his intention, Connell said, because “our lives do not reach a dramatic climax in the way that books usually do. Most of us just go on day to day through major and minor trials and defeats. And finally time runs out.”

He restructured the novel as a series of 117 vignettes, which paint a devastating portrait of a woman puzzled by the emptiness of the small world she inhabits. The novel was “one of the very few written since World War II that clearly deserves to be called, as it has been, a masterpiece,” William H. Nolte wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

Connell followed the same theme and structure a decade later in the companion novel, Mr. Bridge. Some critics found it darker and more satirical than the first novel because the main character, Mrs. Bridge’s joyless lawyer husband, was far less likable than his wife.

Both novels became the 1990 film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge with the husband-and-wife team of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Success didn’t spoil him.  Again according to the L.A. Times: “Despite the success of the Bridge novels, Connell held a number of odd jobs to get by. He delivered mail, read gas meters and was a counselor at an unemployment office. In his exceedingly dark 1966 novel The Diary of a Rapist, the main character is working in an unemployment office when he goes crazy.”

Connell’s bestselling 1984 biography of Custer, Son of the Morning Star also earned praise and became a 1991 mini-series.  Larry McMurtry, writing in the New York Review of Books, said the book was “one of the few masterpieces to concern itself with the American West” and particularly noteworthy for its portrayals of the Native Americans.  Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times also called it a masterpiece with a “lasting visceral resonance.”

Connell told the New York Times: “‘ There are two explanations for writing the book. Just about all the kids in this country grew up on cowboys and Indians. Maybe now it’s ‘Star Wars,’ but when I grew up in Kansas City, you could send in box tops — from Quaker Oats, I think — and get something like a color picture of Sitting Bull.

“As far as this project goes,” he continued, “a few years ago I was sitting in a saloon wondering what to write next. I didn’t have any ideas for a novel, and for years whenever I couldn’t manufacture something successful, I simply worked on a subject that interested me. And the Old West came to mind.”

Connell won the $100,000 Lannan Literary Award in 2000 and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2010. He was nominated for a Man Booker lifetime achievement award in 2009.  But I can find nothing else online about his time at Stanford.

Postscript on 1/16:  D.G. Myers has an excellent piece on Evan Connell’s oeuvre over at The Commonplace Blog.  “Connell’s message is that superficial lives are superficial not by accident but by intention…”  Check it out here.

Peter Dale Scott’s “J’aime mais j’accuse”

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011
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Poetry reviews are hard to come by in our increasingly distracted world, so Peter Dale Scott wrote me yesterday to say that he is understandably chuffed with John Peck‘s hefty, megawatt review for his  Mosaic Orpheus in the current Notre Dame Review. (If you scroll way down to the bottom of the screen here, you can download the 15-page pdf, which is certainly a clumsy way for NDR to do things.)

Peter, a former Canadian diplomat, is one of the few to tackle political poetry in a way that is gritty and specific, rather than the more commonplace attempt to commandeer politics to give oneself unearned gravitas via airy and politically correct generalities.  Robert Hass called Peter’s 1988 Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror “the most important political poem to appear in the English language in a very long time.”

Peck’s discussion opens with the 1988 “contemplative epic”: 

“Coming to Jakarta, his attempt to contain distress over the blocked publication of his investigative research findings comes up against ‘mosaic darkness’—not familiarly seamless obscurity, but kaleidoscopic stuff—while in the poem’s later books Dante’s civic grief and wrath, with his loyal love for a dead woman, make him an Orphic brother-father to Scott, in that Alighieri’s existential defeat folds out into contrary visionary assurance. Such is not regulation Orphism, particularly as invoked collegially against American amnesiac indifference toward a largely occulted, webby congress of state terrorism, proxy mass slaughters, off-the-books funnelings of the sluice from international drug cartels to black ops, economic decline and the management of fear by debt, false-flag events, assassinations, and greasy resource wars.”

Shovel ready

Peck’s writing style is dense, but often rewarding.  And while I hadn’t been terribly looking forward to a long gaze at the nastiest sides of American policy — other than that proffered by the daily news — I must say that Peck’s review has heightened my interest.  Of Scott, Peck writes:

“He must be the only poet now writing who can say that Czesław Miłosz, peace-studies scholar Ola Tunander, various prominent vipassana teachers, and certain unnamed informants in government service deceased in mysterious circumstances, equally have nourished his effort. This span, together with an iron stomach for the forensics and catharsis of difficult findings, spell his personal equation. His poetics therefore will likely be neither a standard Orphic affair nor a canonical Buddhist one, although the poetry plainly arises in order to square those canons, and that personal equation, with a civics obdurately impersonal and malign.”

Peter, one of Miłosz’s earliest translators, describes his up-and-down relationship with the Nobel laureate — the two parted over politics, but reconciled much later — in my  An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

Peck concludes:

“The spirit of research in this our dump needs every acolyte who carries a shovel. My Ketman-meter, its needle pushing into the red zone, tells me that our bitched order forces doubleness into both zones, out behind the vast oligarchic scrim and down into the crannies of palimpsested authority.  Scott has done us the honor of adopting this country as his own. Shall we read his voluminous J’aime mais j’accuse with due attention? His vade mecum, Mosaic Orpheus, reminds us that this labor has been one of hopeless, yet justified, love.”

By the way, Clive Wilmer called Peck, a Pittsburgh-born psychotherapist, “the outstanding American poet of his generation–as well as one of the most difficult.” As a young man he studied under Yvor Winters, and earned his Stanford PhD with doctoral thesis on Ezra Pound, supervised by Donald Davie.  Some of Peck’s poems are at the Poetry Foundation here.