Posts Tagged ‘Janet Lewis’

A new look for Janet Lewis’s Cases of Circumstantial Evidence

Monday, October 7th, 2013
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lewis_wife-of-martin-guerre-fcDuring last winter’s Janet Lewis celebration with the “Another Look” book club at Stanford, I didn’t have an opportunity to write about this enticing bit of news: Ohio University Press/Swallow Press is reissuing all three novels in Lewis’s Cases of Circumstantial Evidence series in new editions with fancy new covers.  They’re gorgeous.

The publisher (full disclosure: who is also my publisher) sent me the advance review copy of The Wife of Martin Guerre, her best-known work (I wrote about it here and here) about a now-famous case of mistaken identity.  The jacket cites praise I had not included in my earlier writing. The New Yorker said it was “Flaubertian in the elegance of its form and the gravity of its style.” Larry McMurtry, writing in the New York Review of Books, called it “a masterpiece … a short novel that can run with Billy Budd, The Spoils of Poynton, Seize the Day, or any other.” This from novelist Ron Hansen in the Wall Street Journal:  “Janet Lewis brings the haunting qualities of fable to this novella …”  Michael Dirda of the Washington Post wrote: “One of (the short novel’s) most perfect examples is Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre.” Heady praise indeed.

In a new introduction to the 1941 work, Swallow Press’ Kevin Haworth writes that the book is “a short novel of astonishing depth and resonance, a sharply drawn historical tale that asks contemporary questions about identity and belonging, about men and women, and about an individual’s capacity to act within an inflexible system.”  Maybe, but it’s a relentless and draining novel sans merci, all the way to its ruthless end.  I admit I didn’t have as much sympathy for Bertrande de Rols as I should have – and I developed instead a sneaking affection for the rakish Arnaud du Tilh, the baddy who comes on the scene to run a scam, but winds up falling in love, reforming his life, and effectively running an extended household. He is the only one who finds any kind of redemption in the novel – and naturally is destroyed. (How did such a nice woman write such a hard-hearted book?)

lewis_fc-trial-of-sören-qvistMore from Haworth: “This close attention to an individual’s moral choices in the face of strange circumstances links The Wife of Martin Guerre with the two novels that follow in the Cases of Circumstantial Evidence series. Though each of the novels stands on its own, they remain united by their shared origins in the history of law, discovered by Lewis in the same legal casebook where she first found the story of Bertrande de Rols and Martin Guerre.  The setting shifts to seventeenth-century Denmark in The Trial of Sören Qvist, which focuses on a devoted parson, albeit one with a harsh temper, who is accused of killing one of his workers. Again the law closes in on a man who may or may not be guilty, and again the characters struggle as much with their own consciences and the changing times as they do with the ambiguous legal facts in front of them. In The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron, Lewis returns to France, this time during the reign of Louis XIV. In this longest and in some ways most complex of the three novels, a bookbinder becomes enmeshed in a political drama that spirals out of control – the king is denounced in a pamphlet, leading to criminal charges – but the real crime is domestic, an adulterous affair that contributes to the tragedy as much as the public trial that follows. …

“To European critics, Lewis seems quintessentially American. To American critics, her fondness for European settings leads to comparisons as expected as Flaubert and as unusual as the Provençal writer Jean Giono. The New York Times compared her to Melville and to Stendhal. Another critic sees her, based on The Invasion and some of her short stories, as a definitive voice in Western regional writing. In some ways, Lewis’s writing remains elastic, allowing other writers to see in her a powerful reflection of their own interest. In short, as with all the best writers, her work and her decades-long career defy simple categorization or comparisons.”

As for Lewis herself, she hardly thought of herself at all. Hence, her refreshing sanity amid a world of egos. When asked if she deserved a bigger audience, she responded, “I think I’ve had as much recognition as I need and probably as much as I deserve.”

Yvor Winters’s westward journey

Sunday, September 15th, 2013
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Loquat lover

“I have spent my entire life in the remote west, where men are civilized but never get within gunshot of each other,” wrote Yvor Winters (I wrote about him yesterday here).  According to poet Kenneth Fields, who was also Winters’s gardener for four years as a graduate student, “It’s usual to think of Yvor Winters as a Chicago poet who came west and spent most of his life in California — at Stanford, where he received his PhD and taught until his retirement. This is true enough, but his actual journey is more complicated and is reflected in some of his best poems. In some ways everywhere he lived before he got to Stanford was wild — even Stanford, but that’s another story.”  The incomparable Ken tells them all in “Winters’s Wild West,” in the current Los Angeles Review of Books, based on a talk he gave last April at Claremont McKenna College.  Ken traces his Winters’s path from Chicago, to Southern California, to Seattle,  to Chicago again, to New Mexico (where he not only taught, but also spent a couple years recovering from tuberculosis in a Santa Fe sanatorium), to Boulder and then to Moscow (Idaho, not Russia), and eventually (and finally) to his Los Altos home with the loquat tree in back.  I had never eaten a loquat before my visit to Winters’s widow, Janet Lewis.  Winters said “loquats are one of the finest fruits I know, but they deteriorate rapidly after picking and so are never marketed,” which explains why.

loquatKen compares Robert Frost‘s late-life “To Earthward” with Winters’s “A Summer Commentary”:  “As delicate sensations diminish with age, Frost craves stronger and more painful feeling until, at the end of the poem, he wishes for death; Winters does not. Winters contrasts his youth with middle age — always earlier in those days than it is for us. (I’m counting on all those 146-year-old men to keep me middle-aged.) With the loss of sharpness of sense comes something else, especially for a writer who looks for meaning. In his youth he was a spectator — he said once that free verse was a state of mind. With age, he is a participant. His point comes home through a kind of synesthesia, a blending of the senses — the dove makes two different sounds, one in its cry, the other in flight. The repetition of soft and sweet sets the tone of the poem, as does the oxymoron “rich decay.” Winters said the brandy of the fallen fruit was no metaphor. “You could almost get drunk on the smell.”

Ken’s piece is about as good an introduction to the legendary Winters as one will find anywhere. Read it here.

Janet Lewis’s Wife of Martin Guerre and the cold, cold face of justice

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013
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He got around.

The second event in the “Another Look” book club (I’ve written about it here and here and here) is drawing nigh:  The event will take place next Wednesday, on the 20th of February.  The book is Janet Lewis‘s The Wife of Martin Guerre – well, I’ve written about that here.  (And did you know that Michel de Montaigne attended Martin Guerre‘s trial?)

I’d welcome some of your thoughts on the book before the event – or even afterward.  Meanwhile, here are a few of my own about the calculated lie that sets the plot in motion and the cold, cold face of justice.  The rest is on the “Another Look” website here.

The movie version

A calculated lie is at the center of Janet Lewis’ The Wife of Martin Guerre, and the lie explodes the life of everyone around it.  The novel is a brutal tour de force, defying reader expectations.

“Another Look” seeks out short masterpieces forgotten, neglected or overlooked.  In the case of The Wife of Martin Guerre, we didn’t have to look farther than home.  The 1941 book was born at Stanford, and the author taught in its English Department.  Hailed as one of the top books of the last century, it’s too little-known today. The story has become famous, but the book has not.

The short novel, about a 16th-century case of imposture in southwestern France, has been made into a play, an opera, several musicals, and most notably The Return of Martin Guerre, a 1982 movie with Gérard Depardieu in the title role.

The story is a tragedy, and like all great tragedies, has a lie at its core.  Oedipus is not a stranger who rolled into town; he’s the son of the city’s murdered king.  Claudius is not the unexpected beneficiary of a throne and wife, he’s guilty of regicide and fratricide.  King Lear’s eldest daughters do not love him, despite their protestations.  But these lies are quickly overwhelmed by their effects; in Lewis’s novel, the lie is the hard, unbudgeable kernel of destruction that no one wants to examine.

The judge’s version

Like Agamemnon, Macbeth, and so many tragic heroes, the “new Martin” resolves, “If only I can keep this, all will be well, I’ll make everything else right in the end.” But the lie he wishes to keep eventually damns any possibility of a future or peace.

The heroine, Bertrande de Rols, is initially the passive prisoner of the thing she most wishes to be true, but doubts in her heart.  In the world Lewis creates, the greatest enemy is not a person or a judicial decision: it is in the thing we do not wish to be fact – the unbearable truth just around the corner, the truth seen with peripheral vision, just by the tail as it goes down a hole.  The lie at the core of the book gives rise to a welter of smaller daily lies, which, in turn, buttresses the great one.

The characters move seamlessly from victim to perp, from perp to victim, and back again.  As poet Tim Steele, a friend of Lewis, writes in Numbers (1989-90), the book is a psychological study of “people who betray others or who are themselves betrayed in the course of the interpretation of evidence.”  When Bertrande finally turns to the truth, it turns her to stone; Lewis hints it may even lead to her death. … Read the rest here

“One of the most significant short novels in English”: Janet Lewis and The Wife of Martin Guerre, Feb. 20 event

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013
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She loved to travel. (Photo: “The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis,” used by permission of Ohio University Press)

NOTE:  Some of you may remember the launch of the Another Look book club last fall – I wrote about it here and here and here.  This season’s pick is another winner:  Janet Lewis‘s 104-page The Return of Martin Guerre, a novel that was, in fact, born at Stanford.  As I wrote in an article here, it all began with a terrible scandal in 1933.  From the “Another Look” website:

In May 1933, a Stanford University Press sales manager was arrested for the murder of his wife at their campus home on Salvatierra Street.

Was it murder or accident? Placid Palo Alto was embroiled in a sensationalized scandal that endured for more than three years. After conviction, appeals and retrials, David Lamson was finally acquitted.

Young Janet (Courtesy Melissa Winters)

One of the unlikelier outcomes of the notorious case: three distinguished novels by Stanford poet Janet Lewis, focusing on historical trials that had been swayed by circumstantial evidence. The most famous was The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), which eventually became the subject of an opera, a play, several musicals and a film. Atlantic Monthly called it “one of the most significant short novels in English.”

The book will be the focus of the second “Another Look” book club event at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, at the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Room. The event will be moderated by English Professor Kenneth Fields, who was a friend of the late Janet Lewis (1899-1998) and her husband, renowned poet-critic and Stanford professor Yvor Winters (1900-68).  

Fields will be joined by acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff and award-winning Irish poet Eavan Boland, both professors of English. An audience discussion will follow. The community event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited and available on a first-come basis.

Winters’ role in the Lamson case was legendary: Outraged at the injustice, he actively campaigned for Lamson’s acquittal and helped prepare the defense brief. With a colleague, Winters provided a cogent 103-page pamphlet for public consumption, explaining why Lamson could not have killed his wife in the manner required by the prosecutor’s case.

A prescient colleague gave the Winterses a 19th-century book, Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence, including real-life accounts of the failure of justice. Lewis was struck by the 16th-century story of Martin Guerre and his wife, Bertrande de Rols.

Guerre abandoned his family and returned eight years later a changed man – or did he? Was he Martin Guerre at all? The case of imposture wracked southwestern France, just as Palo Alto had been roiled by the Lamson case.

Outraged … and right.

According to the New York Times, “Miss Lewis pursued a literary life in which the focus was on the life and the life was one of such placid equilibrium and domestic bliss that she had to reach deep down in her psyche – and far back in the annals of criminal law – to find the wellspring of tension that produced some of the 20th century’s most vividly imagined and finely wrought literature.”

But for Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre was also born of her love for France. Lewis had been a French major at the University of Chicago. According to her friend, poet Helen Pinkerton, Lewis’ passion for the country began in 1920. For her graduation, her father gave her a round-trip ticket to Europe and $400. Lewis got a job with the passport office on Rue de Tilsitt, behind the Arc de Triomphe, and stayed for nine memorable months. She returned with a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship in 1950.

There was another reason for Lewis’s novels and short stories: Lewis was a gifted poet, but her prose brought more money than verse – and the Winters family of four needed the extra cash. In pre-war days, academia was still something of a gentlemen’s profession, with many professors holding independent incomes.

Moreover, colleagues who had been riled by Winters’ pugnacious opinions delayed his promotion to a full professorship until he was 50 years old – although he went on to get an endowed chair, a Bollingen Prize, a National Institute of Arts and Letters award as well as grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

David Levin, writing in 1978, recalled that the Lewises “lived in extraordinary simplicity”: “The plain furniture in their small house in Los Altos did not change in all the years of our association, and Winters drove a 1950 Plymouth Suburban from 1949 until he stopped driving in the year before his death,” he wrote.

Her friends describe the Winterses devotion to their Airedale terriers, their cooking and their gardening in the Los Altos house they’d assumed in 1934 and never left.

The poet in her 90s. (Photo: Brigitte Carnochan)

Lewis nevertheless made time for her writing – and perhaps the externally uneventful life contributed to the celebrated psychological poise. The British poet Dick Davis wrotein London’s Independent: “Her books possess a quality of deep repose, a kind of distilled wisdom in the face of human disaster and pain, which is difficult to describe and impossible to imitate, but which, once encountered, is unforgettable.”

Lewis has never been short of admirers: W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan and others praised her work. Yet writer Evan Connell observed, “I cannot think of another writer whose stature so far exceeds her public recognition.”

In the years since her death, her reputation has been fostered by a circle of friends, including Los Angeles poet and Stanford alumnus Timothy Steele, who praised her poems for their “clear-sightedness” and “intelligent warmth.”

“They’re full of joy and sorrow. It’s very directly stated. No evasiveness. She doesn’t hide behind ironic postures or anything like that,” he said. “She is someone who has both a sense of the permanent patterns of existence and the transitory beauty of living things, of people and animals and plants.”

Steele recalled, in particular, a party on a summer day at the home of Helen Pinkerton and her then-husband, English Professor Wesley Trimpi. “Among the guests was [political philosopher] Eric Voegelin. He was brilliant, wearing a three-piece suit and discoursing very eloquently about Plato,” remembered Steele. “Janet appeared and said happily, ‘Does anyone want to go for a swim?’

“It seemed such a contrast – a rewarding experience in both cases. She was so vital and connected with physical activity and the warm summer afternoon.”

In any case, Lewis didn’t wait for a reply, but headed for the cabana and changed into her swimsuit for a quick dip. She was well into her 80s.

Best books you’ve never read: “Another Look” explores overlooked masterpieces

Monday, October 15th, 2012
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"I didn't want the things that I loved, and remembered, to go down to oblivion. The only way to avoid that is to write about them." (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

Finally, the news is out! For several months, I’ve been working with author Tobias Wolff on a new idea for a book club, “Another Look.” First book we’re going to feature on November 12 at Stanford:  William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.  Here’s the announcement:

Book clubs have proliferated across the United States, though most stick to middle-of-the-road bestsellers. Once in a while, however, you run across an off-the-beaten-track book you may not know about, praised by a leading literary figure. Where do you go to talk about this unfamiliar, top-notch fare?

Look no further. Stanford is allowing readers to get an insider’s look at literature via a seasonal book club, “Another Look,” which will be offered by one of the top-ranked English and creative writing departments in the nation.

“Another Look” is the brainchild of award-winning writer Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English, who will kick off the event with William Maxwells 144-page novel So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Interested readers are invited to a discussion of the book at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12, in the Levinthal Room of the Stanford Humanities Center. The event is free. Wolff will talk about the book with Bay Area novelist, journalist and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford Assistant Professor Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.

For Wolff, “Another Look” started in a conversation with colleagues: “We had occasionally held lunchtime discussions of a story or novel or poem for interested students and members of the department, and these had proved popular. Well, why not open our arms a little farther and invite the university community to participate; or, better yet, open our arms out wide to the community at large?”

Said Wolff, “Each of the faculty members are choosing books that really matter to them, and that they feel have not earned the readership they deserve.”

The books will be on the short side as well. “We recognize that the Bay Area is a busy place – and we recognize that people have limited resources of time. We don’t want to suggest books of discouraging length,” said Wolff.

So Long, See You Tomorrow was originally published in two parts in The New Yorker in 1979. The book, set in rural Illinois, describes the effects of a murder on the friendship of two boys – one of whom, in old age, narrates the story. Wolff called it “a beautifully written, complex, haunting story of a boy’s attempt to find warmth and companionship following the death of his mother in the Spanish Influenza epidemic – which killed more people than the Great War it so quickly followed.”

He called it “a cry from the heart that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.”

“It’s been a project of mine since 1980 to make people read that book. Whenever I sit down with people to talk about books I love, I always make sure that I mention that one. I give it to people as a gift,” he said. “This is my attempt to give this novel to the whole Bay Area as a gift.”

Wolff hopes to encourage a rich community discussion of the book on Nov. 12. “The conversation will be much richer if people have read and thought about the book first,” he said.

“The book club offers a wonderful opportunity for the writers and scholars of the English Department and the Creative Writing Program to introduce these neglected classics to a broader audience,” said Gavin Jones, chair of the English Department. “I’m excited at this opportunity to continue our literary conversations beyond the classroom.”

For the second event in February, poet Kenneth Fields will present Janet Lewis‘ 1941 The Wife of Martin Guerre, a 109-page novel. The name might ring a bell with some Bay Area readers: Poet Janet Lewis was also the wife of Stanford’s eminent poet-critic Yvor Winters.

On Lewis’ death in 1998, the New York Times wrote: “There are many who will assure you that when the literary history of the second millennium is written … in the category of dazzling American short fiction her Wife of Martin Guerre will be regarded as the 20th century’s Billy Budd and Janet Lewis will be ranked with Herman Melville.”

Although the Nov. 12 event is free, seating is limited. Reservations on the website anotherlook.stanford.edu. The website includes Wolff’s introductory remarks, as well as Cynthia Haven’s [dat’s me – ED]  retrospective on Maxwell’s life, with interviews of his colleagues and daughter.


No, no, this is the real Emily Dickinson…more photos, more theories

Friday, August 31st, 2012
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I have joined the “world’s top thinkers” at last.  A few days ago I discussed the investigation into whether the woman on the left in the portrait above is Emily Dickinson, with her friend Kate Scott Turner at right.  The post received several comments, more tweets, and some other pick-up.

Janet Lewis, as she looked about the time I met her.

Yesterday, the post was mentioned on BigThink, which describes itself as “Blogs, Articles and Videos from the World’s Top Thinkers.”  I’m grateful to the post for something other than the promotion, however:  Thanks to my fellow “linkees” cited in the article, I found the putative portrait of Emily Dickinson, circa 1860, that I had tried to find several times in the past without success.

Here’s why:  Sometime in the 1980s, I made a visit to the Los Altos home of Janet Lewis, the poet, author, and widow of Yvor Winters.  The immediate reason for my interview I cannot recall – in any case, the article was never published, and remains somewhere in my garage on a 5″ floppy, along with the interview notes. I knew too little about the octogenarian writer at the time, but I am glad now I had the opportunity for the meeting, for whatever the reason – and yes, I remember the Winters’s legendary loquat tree.

"a gypsy face"

I also remember gazing up a photo in her kitchen, displayed high on the wall. Janet Lewis followed my gaze, and asked, “Do you recognize who that is?”  I didn’t.  “That’s Emily Dickinson, grown up.”  It was a matchless photo, attentive and sensual.  She told me it was included in the Richard Sewall biography of the poet, and that she had torn it out from the book and put it on her wall.  Years later I ordered the biography online precisely to recover that portrait.  But it had apparently been debunked in the meantime, and removed from later editions.

Now the photo has a new champion, poet Daniela Gioseffi, and author of a new biographical novel about Dickinson. From the comments section of an article about her book she writes (with some light editing on my part – it needs more):

The foreword to my book Wild Nights, Wild Nights, The Story of Emily Dickinson’s Master (at http://www.Amazon. com and plainviewpress.com) explains exactly how I researched the photo to include it. There is no doubt in many Dickinson scholars’ minds that it is Emily Dickinson at thirty years, as the features match when sized against that old 17-year-old photo that every one knows above, when the images are sized alike and put one over the other. What many non-scholars of Dickinson who have not read as fully as I have do not understand is that the well-known photo of her was taken when she was a sickly 17-year-old just arisen from a sickbed. She herself in later years is described by those who saw her a bright-eyed, clear-skinned, attractive and womanly. Yes, she was diminutive all her life, but she described herseld as having “a gypsy face” and this photo fits her own description of herself that her sister Lavinia agreed with.

I want the portrait to be true because I like it, and because it connects me, in an odd sort of way, with Janet Lewis.  To admit such a biased and unscientific judgment in writing, however, risks my removal from a blog for the “world’s top thinkers.” I am in something of a quandary.

"small, like the Wren..."

So let me throw in another red herring – the portrait at right that would date to about the 1850s.  Its defense is here, and the image would appear to fit Emily’s self-description: “[I] am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur – and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.”

And what about the new discovery above?  According to Austin Allen, one of the world’s top thinkers over at BigThink:

Of the two women, Kate is the one with a thousand-yard stare. (She’d been recently widowed.) But look closer at her friend: there’s something peculiar about that gaze. The pupils are asymmetrical, as they are in the known photo—Emily may have suffered from both astigmatism and iritis—but they’re also large, dreamy, and a little amused. Dickinson once compared her eyes to “the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves”; the woman in the picture just about lives up to the simile. …

Look: the mystery woman has even thrown an arm around her friend, a gesture we can hardly imagine the Recluse of Amherst making. If she was on the cusp of crisis, it doesn’t show yet. In my heart of hearts I doubt it’s Emily—that chin just doesn’t match up—but pending further reports on clothing samples, image records, nasolabial folds, etc., I’ll keep believing and disbelieving at once, which, as Emily said, “keeps Believing nimble.”

At least I’ve recovered the photo of “my Emily” at last.

Postscript on 9/5:  Some nice pick-up from the Poetry Foundation here.  I’m not only a W.T.T., but an “amateur sleuth” as well.

Voilà! Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence

Saturday, August 27th, 2011
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Voilà!  The Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence has been launched.  I attended the dedication ceremony this afternoon, way up in  forested hills around LaHonda, Skyline, and Woodside.  (I wrote about the venture earlier, here.)  Got mightily lost, too.

"Above all, radiant" (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Renowned chemist, novelist, and playwright Carl Djerassi, Diane Middlebrook‘s husband, assured the 50 or 60 gathered in the brilliant August day about the “green” nature of the four new domiciles built in memory of the gifted and groundbreaking biographer, who died in 2007.  The Djerassi Resident Artists Program currently hosts about 60 artists a year.  The spare new residences, overlooking the hills, will add a few more.

The 87-year-old Djerassi read a poem written by the person who had been the second oldest resident ever – Janet Lewis, the wife (and by then widow) of legendary Yvor Winters.  She was 90 at the time – two years younger than the composer who holds the record in the program. The poem Carl read,  “Landscape near Bear Gulch Road,” had been written during her residency.

Carl recalled his wife worked only on ambitious projects.  When her cancer diagnosis gave her only months to live, she turned to her personal brand of therapy, he said – that is, “to immerse yourself totally in intellectual work.”  Middlebrook tackled a biography of Ovid,  which, “though unfinished, has been published posthumously in portions as ‘A Roman in his Prime’ in the Norton Critical edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and as ‘Ovid Is Born,’ in Feminist Studies,” according to the program’s website. I had wondered what happened to it.

Until today, I wasn’t aware that Dana Gioia, Diane’s student, had published the author’s only collection of poems, Gin Considered as a Demon, in 1983, when he was editing a series of chapbooks for Elysian Press.  He waved the volume at the gathering.  He also waved the battered paperback of Wallace Stevens‘s poems that he had studied with Diane way back in 1971.

He described Diane Middlebrook as “above all, radiant.”  Such people are rare, he said: “in the warmth, enlightenment, and clarity of their presence we discover ourselves.”

Dana read Stevens’s “Final Soliloquy.”  But Diane’s daughter, Leah Middlebrook, read a rapt and haunting poem that Dana had composed at the Djerassi home-in-the-hills, “Becoming a Redwood.”  It concludes:

Something moves nearby. Coyotes hunt
these hills and packs of feral dogs.
But standing here at night accepts all that.

You are your own pale shadow in the quarter moon,
moving more slowly than the crippled stars,
part of the moonlight as the moonlight falls,

Part of the grass that answers the wind,
part of the midnight’s watchfulness that knows
there is no silence but when danger comes.

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

My neighbor: Volodya Nabokov

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010
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Secretive Sam...at West Chester's Poetry Conference

I had lunch on Memorial Day with poet R.S. Gwynn and his lovely wife Donna, the day before their 33rd anniversary, in a cosy little Mexican cafe on California Avenue. But Sam was sitting on a little secret he didn’t share with me.  Or perhaps I merely hadn’t had a chance to worm it out of him before the two visiting Texans swapped me for the more pedestrian charms of the Pacific coast.

Now he’s at the center of the storm:  Ron Rosenbaum, writing in Slate, announces the next hot Nabokov controversy, and the story is making the rounds in the blogosphere.  The poem “Pale Fire” is about to be liberated from Pale Fire. The 900-line poem at the center of what many call Vladimir Nabokov‘s finest novel, written presumably by the murdered John Shade, will be published separately by Ginkgo Press:  “Nabokov wrote it, and the question of why he wrote it and who he modeled Shade on is the subject of what will be an equally controversial essay accompanying the edition, by poet and poetry professor R.S. Gwynn.”

Vladimir Nabokov, my neighbor ... so to speak

Wait!  Wait!  Don’t dash for the exits in your excitement!

“I know, I know, this may seem to be more esoteric, it doesn’t have the built-in intrigue of a manuscript in a Swiss safe-deposit box. But it’s no tempest in a teapot, not to those familiar with the long-simmering controversy over the poem ‘Pale Fire.’ And with the unbearable beauty and delight both the poem and novel offer. But when you’re dealing with how to read—on the most basic level—the central node of perhaps the greatest work of the supreme artist of the English language of our era, the stakes are high and worth, I believe, my attempt to explain what it’s all about for non-Nabokov readers. (Needless to say, I’d prefer all of you latecomers to run out to read or reread the novel; it is a work of pure pleasure, eminently accessible, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, despite its deceptive “experimental novel” outer architecture.)

Rosenbaum continues:

“I was particularly struck by the degree of erudition about contemporary American poetry that Gwynn brought to his case that Nabokov meant ‘Pale Fire’ to be a reproof to over-casual, over-personal, over-trivial trends in American poetry. A reproof to the belief that formal poetics could not capture deep feeling in traditional verse forms. And that Nabokov had modeled John Shade on the well-known traditionalist American poet Yvor Winters, who was a partisan of formal poetics.

Lanz ... Humbert?

I’ve written about Nabokov’s brief, but fruitful, residency in Palo Alto here, in a little house on Sequoia Avenue so close to my own home that I occasionally walk my dog past it.  At that time, I was exploring the connection between Humbert Humbert and, believe it or not, the founder of the Stanford Slavic Department, Henry Lanz.  Sam had queried me about the connection between Yvor Winters and Nabokov, and I wrote to Helen Pinkerton on the subject: she seemed to have a vague memory of poet Janet Lewis, Winters’s wife, washing dishes with him at the Winters home in Los Altos.  She finally tracked down the reference in Larry McMurtry‘s “The Return of Janet Lewis,” in the New York Review of Books (June 11, 1998) — “a delightful essay on her and all of her work.”  McMurtry writes:

Winters...John Shade?

“Janet too is very polite, but she’s neither fussy nor chilly. She’s lived in that smallish but cheerful house for sixty-four years and is thoroughly the mistress of it; there she raised her family, there she watched war come and war be over, there she entertained generations of poets, artists, musicians, and even the occasional lepidopterist such as Vladimir Nabokov, who showed up at her door with his butterfly net one day in 1941.  The Nabokovs and the Winterses hit it off; the exiles came often for meals. I had heard that Navokov enjoyed himself so much in her kitchen that he sometimes helped her wash up; when I asked her about this she chuckled and said, ‘Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had.'”

Sam told me at the time “there doesn’t seem to be any record of their having met or corresponded after that. … For obvious reasons, the trail is pretty cold.”

That was then; this is now.  Rosenbaum promises the essay will be controversial:  “Was I right that Paul Berman‘s book would cause a brawl or what?”

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UPDATE:  From Sam:  “If anyone has any information about the Nabokov-Winters friendship, please post a comment here.”  Read his post in the “comment” section below.