Posts Tagged ‘J.V. Cunningham’

Eros as delusion: Poet Helen Pinkerton tips her hat to Thomas Aquinas (and Yvor Winters)

Sunday, July 31st, 2011
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Helen's hero ... as seen by Bernardo Daddi

Helen Pinkerton‘s interview in Think Journal, “The Love of Being,” starts out slowly – but by the time she gets to Thomas Aquinas, she’s on a tear.

The octogenarian poet came from hardscrabble upbringing in Montana. Her father died in a mining accident when she was 11, leaving her mother with four children to raise – well, if you want that story, you can read it in my own article about her here.

Then, she landed at Stanford, where she was one of Yvor Winters‘ inner circle, along with folks like Janet Lewis, Thom Gunn, Edgar Bowers, Turner Cassity, and J.V. Cunningham.  Although she intended to be a journalism major, her plans changed abruptly: “Winters’ level of teaching, the kinds of topics he expected us to write about, the seriousness of his consideration of literary and philosophical questions of all sorts simply brought out in me a whole new capacity for thinking and writing.”  After that, and a course on narrative with Cunningham, she launched an alternative career as a poet and a Herman Melville scholar, too.

After that experience, Pinkerton found that her subsequent graduate work at Harvard “was a breeze and made little mark on me as a poet or a scholar.”

Fra Angelico's Aquinas

Winters described Pinkerton’s poetry as “profoundly philosophical and religious,” and she discusses how  Ben Jonson scholar William Dinsmore Briggs led her in that direction, though she never met him – his teaching on medieval and Renaissance learning “permeated” the work of Winters and Cunningham, she said.  Helen became preoccupied with the Thomistic notion of esse, and sees “nothingness” as the primary temptation of humankind.  Hence, her poem, “Good Friday” (included in her book Taken in Faith), which claims:

Nothingness is our need:
Insatiable the guilt
For which in thought and deed
We break what we have built.

But more than temptation – it is delusion.  “The chief aspect of the drive is the metaphysical assertion that nothingness is the real reality – that there is no real being.”

She links this drive with the thinking of the 19th and 20th century, particularly romanticism, which she sees as a drive toward annihilation.  “Real love is the love of being. Eros is the love of non-being”:

Helen, me, and the late Turner Cassity

I found my way out of it by grasping the Thomistic idea of God as self-existent being. There is no nothingness in reality. It is a kind of figment of the imagination. To believe that there is is a verbal trick – a snare and a delusion. Much of modern philosophy (Hegel, the Existentialists, et al.) are caught up in this delusive state of consciousness.

I do scorn and critique (always) “romantic religion” – or the religion of eros … as I call it – and I did see in others, as well as in myself – a pervasive “unavowed guilt” in our culture – based on an unavowed longing for “nothingness.” This is a kind of obsession of mine in my early thinking (and consequently in my poems) after I came to a realization of the nature of my consciousness. What was driving me to be dissatisfied with everything and everyone, including myself, was this “eros,” this craving for extremes of feeling, for a kind of perfection in things and in others.

Patrick Kurp has written some lovely stuff about Helen at Anecdotal Evidencehere, and here, and here … oh, just type “Pinkerton” into his search engine.  There’s lots.  I’m proud to have introduced them.

Meanwhile, an Yvor Winters reading was always mesmerizing.  You can get a taste of it in this recording from San Francisco’s Poetry Center on Valentine’s Day, 1958:

Yvor Winters Reading – 1958

Don’t look for him in Wikipedia

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010
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In an era when most prominent poets seem to have a protected perch in academia, Moore Moran is rather refreshing.  Moran, one of the lesser known students of Yvor Winters, left Stanford and entered the advertising world as a copywriter and later creative director.  He lives in Santa Rosa, and has raised four daughters and a son — all the while writing poetry for the last half-century or so.  He’s managed to avoid even a Wikipedia entry.

Nevertheless, his first full-length book, Firebreaks, won the National Poetry Book Award in 1999.  His newest book, The Room Within, was published this month.

It rather startles that Moran’s name was entirely unknown to me.  For awhile, I had made a point of writing about the generally unheralded Yvor Winters/J.V. Cunningham group of poets, which included Thom Gunn, Edgar Bowers, and many others in the so-called “Stanford School of Poets” (I say “so-called,” because they dodge any grouping).  Moran and I have a number of mutual friends — Timothy Murphy for one.  The accolades on the back of the book include a few others who have been mentioned on these cyberspace pages:

“Imagine a poet who could deal with the experience of Jack Kerouac but with too much intelligence to limit himself to the road. You don’t have to imagine him. He exists. He has many skills, all of them beautifully bright, and on occasions when he looks into the abyss they take him safely over it”  — Turner Cassity (my article here — Book Haven post here)

“Moore Moran writes out of a wide range of experience in both traditional and experimental verse. Reading his work is a joy for the reader seeking a mature and sensitive mind.” — Helen Pinkerton (my article here)

And an important voice from my own alma mater, X.J. Kennedy, chimed in, too: “Moore Moran knows how poems should be made, and a great many of his poems score resounding victories.”

I haven’t had much time to go over the book thoughtfully.  But there is much that is striking and fine, and a good deal can be found online —  “Ordinary Time in the Pews,” for example.

The title poem will be top-rated for many readers, I think, but I favor this one, edged in spare mystery:

Holy Thursday

Tonight I ask You in to help me mourn.
You who help whom you please,
don’t leave me just with these–
a loincloth, timber, nail and scarlet thorn.

I‘m what I earn to think, not think I am.
Nor love, wisdom or art
sustains the baffled heart,
and fact contains no holy anagram.

Be more, Lord, than my hope, Your innocence.
Reason has never known
how to live with its own
immaculate, hard-hearted arguments.

Ease, effervescence, and endless verse

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010
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A few days ago, I wrote about near-forgotten novel-in-verse, The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth — and was surprised to learn that an acquaintance actually bought the book on the strength of my reportage. Such, such is the power of the word.  So let me have another go at it.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll sell three.

In citing Gore Vidal‘s encomium, however, I somehow neglected the one below it, by his fellow poet, the late James Merrill:  “Mr. Seth’s beautifully conventional characters would self-destruct on the page of any prose fiction.  But his verse sets them glowing from within, and the result is as humanly poignant as it is mechanically reassuring — in short, a cause for rejoicing.”  So true.  And a large reason why I found it, despite its slight and commonplace characters, so much more satisfying than his novels.  The verse sustains them.  Power of the word, etc.

Here’s another strong reason why the 1986 book is so much fun:  Nothing keeps happening.  It brings to mind what Somerset Maugham said about Jane Austen: “Nothing very much happens in her books and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next.  Nothing very much does and again you eagerly turn the page. The novelist who has the power to achieve this has the most precious gift a novelist can possess.”

Take this, for example, a random sonnet early in the book, while John waits in a San Francisco Chinese restaurant for his sculptor friend Janet Hayakawa:

John thinks, “It’s not that I’m fastidious. …
I wish they’d turn that music down.  …
It’s gross. That calendar is hideous …
(He stares at a distasteful clown.)
… I’ve waited half an hour, blast her!”
Her hands encased in clay and plaster,
Janet arrives at twelve to two:
“So sorry, John, I had to do
This torso. Yes I tried to hurry.
I’m glad you’ve got yourself a beer.
What’s that? Tsingtao? Don’t look severe.
I didn’t mean for you to worry.
You’ve ordered? No? This place is fun!
What’ll you have? It’s family-run.”

Seth’s miraculous gift for playfulness and delight in meter and rhyme overwhelmed his Stanford class, I’m told.  One participant confided that the kids puzzled over the phrasing in one of his poems, till they realized he had rhymed all the first words in the lines, as well as the last.  One begins to understand how he might be able to write verse at a staggering 600 lines a month for over a year.

In The Golden Gate, his effervescence and ease brims over so thoroughly that he puts his dedication, author’s note, acknowledgments, and even his table of contents into Pushkin’s fleet, four-footed sonnets.  I wonder how many people understand his dedication:

Veracity and vim

So here they are, the chapters ready,
And, half against my will, I’m free
Of this warm enterprise, this heady
Labor that has exhausted me
Through thirteen months, swift and delightful,
Incited by my friends’ insightful
Paring and prodding and appeal.
I pray the gentle hands of Steele
Will once again sift through its pages.
If anything in this should grate,
Ascribe it to its natal state;
If anything in this engages
By verse, veracity, or vim,
You know whom I must credit, Tim.

The mentor he credits is Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele, author of several collections of verse, and a prosody scholar as well, with his Missing Measures and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing.  Tim also edited the Poems of J.V. Cunningham, a kind of homage to the poet who weds emotional intensity to stylistic purity — and who was a major influence for Tim at Stanford.  Tim is also the subject of my third-of-a-book interview, Three Poets in Conversation, where he shares space with Dick Davis and Rachel Hadas (who, incidentally, was a close friend of James Merrill.)  Years earlier, I did a shorter online interview with him for the Cortland Review.

No longer on P.S.T.

Here’s Seth’s author’s note:

The author, Vikram Seth, directed
By Anne Freedgood, his editor,
To draft a vita, has selected
The following salient facts for her:
In ’52, born in Calcutta.
8 lb. 1 oz.  Was heard to utter
First rhymes (“cat,” “mat”) at age of three.
A student of demography
And economics, he has written
From Heaven Lake, a travel book
Based on a journey he once took
Through Sinkiang and Tibet. Unbitten
At last by wanderlust and rhyme,
He keeps Pacific Standard Time.

That last lines lie — when I interviewed him a decade ago, he was dividing his time between London and Calcutta.  Wanderlust had bitten again.

Update: Triumph!  Frank Wilson of Books Inq said this morning he is getting a copy of Golden Gate after what he purports is a vacation out in the hinterlands!  That makes two copies sold.  Any other takers?