Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Steele’

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:

“No poet in English writes with more authority”: Requiescat in Pace, Stanford poet Helen Pinkerton (1927-2017)

Saturday, December 30th, 2017
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At left, Helen Pinkerton at a Stanford event in 2010, with poet Turner Cassity at right. I’m in the center.

I met Helen Pinkerton fifteen years ago, when I wrote about her for Stanford Magazine. It was part of my effort to write about all the “Stanford poets” who had been in the orbit, however briefly, of poet-critic Yvor Winters – a circle that is largely unacknowledged and under-appreciated. Helen and I stayed in touch over the years, though not as frequently as either of us would have liked, for she was a indefatigable correspondent with a wide network and I had heavy writing commitments. (I have written about her here and here, among other places.)

En route to the Tucson airport yesterday, I received an email from her daughter Erica Light: “It is with infinite sadness I must let you know of the passing of the poet, scholar, Civil War historian, teacher, and friend to many, my mother Helen Pinkerton Trimpi, at her home in Grass Valley, California, at the age of 90. She made her peaceful transition yesterday, Thursday, December 28, 2017, in the morning with her family close about her.”

I would have written differently about Helen today, but there were nevertheless some good bits in my long-ago article:

“She has written some of the best poems of her generation,” says poet and scholar Timothy Steele, ’70. Pinkerton’s mentor, Yvor Winters, deemed her “a master of poetic style and of her material. No poet in English writes with more authority.” The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, calling her style “austere,” notes that “her carefully crafted poetry is profoundly philosophical and religious.” …

Meeting Winters turned her aspirations upside-down. “I discovered a whole new world, which was the serious writing of poetry,” she says. She decided she’d rather be a mediocre poet than a first-rate journalist. For Pinkerton, poetry “was a better thing to do—it was more interesting and more valuable. It was a funny choice to make, I must say,” she adds wryly.

A second turning point occurred a few years later, when she read Moby Dick on an ocean liner going to Europe after completing her master’s. It became the subject of her 1987 scholarly work, Melville’s Confidence Man and American Politics in the 1850s—and of a number of her long narrative poems. “I gave a lot of my life to Melville,” she says.

But poetry always came first, she says. “For fifty years, Pinkerton has been writing beautifully crafted poems, but the age has favored flashier and more improvisational talents, and her work has not received the hearing it deserves,” Steele writes in the afterword to Taken in Faith. Flashy and improvisational she’s not—but with a little luck, she may outlast both those trends.

Over at the Weekly Standard, James Matthew Wilson, another of her many friends and correspondents, wrote a retrospective of her work in “It’s a Battlefield”:

Over seven decades, Helen Pinkerton has published a small number of poems admirable for their austere intellectual beauty, such as the newly collected “Metaphysical Song.”

First Principle
Being’s pure act,
Infinite cause
Of finite fact,
Essential being,
Beyond our sight,
Without which, nothing,
Neither love nor light

Like those of her mentor, Yvor Winters, Pinkerton’s lyrics exhibit both philosophical depth and clean, classical lines. She exceeds him in her careful definition of the human condition in terms of its inescapable orientation to the divine “First Principle.” …

Over the years, I have published several articles on Pinkerton, in hopes of bringing her metaphysical lyrics to a wider audience. I see now, however, that I have given short shrift to what may be her most lasting contribution to American letters, her five dramatic monologues in blank verse on the subject of the Civil War. These, I believe, will become classics: miniature epics that, like Virgil‘s Aeneid, draw public history and private tragedy into a poetic whole.

And last but not least, Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence, wrote a tribute yesterday, “The Spirit’s Breath and Seed,” which includes a long excerpt from their own correspondence. (I believe I can take credit for introducing the two some years ago via email.) From Patrick:

Helen was among the last of Yvor Winters’ students to leave us. With their teacher, they – Helen, [Edgar] Bowers, Thom Gunn, Turner Cassity – along with J.V. Cunningham and Winters’ wife, Janet Lewis, represent the supreme flowering of the art of poetry in the United States.  Helen’s interests always surprised me. She published a book on Melville and another, Crimson Confederates, devoted to the students at Harvard who fought for the Southern cause in the Civil War. Last year, Wiseblood Books published A Journey of the Mind: Collected Poems of Helen Pinkerton 1945-2016.

Only death stopped her. Helen’s collected poems, A Journey of the Mind, was published last year – a late harvest indeed, but that’s not all. Her final poem, “Dialogue,” appears in the Fall 2017 issue of Modern Age. And even her last few days held a surprise: two days before her death, she received the completed and bound copy of her interview from the Stanford Oral History folks, which, according to her daughter,”looks very nice indeed.” The link for the video interview is here.

Requiescat in pace, Helen. Your grace, intelligence, and fine poetic ear will be missed.

Four poets, two versions of Orpheus

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017
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Greville, for purposes of comparison.

Thom Gunn once wrote a letter of reference for Edgar Bowers, and he evidently said afterward that the experience made him feel like Philip Sidney recommending Fulke Greville.” So Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele opens his “Two Versions of Orpheus” in the summer issue of the Yale Review. One thing the Gunn and Bowers shared: a deep grounding and love for the Renaissance poets, including of course Sidney and Greville.

We’ve written before about Gunn here and here, and about  Bowers here and here, and even a little about Fulke Greville here, and Tim Steele here and here and here, among other places. 

But that’s all in pieces. Tim’s essays are always thoughtful, erudite, and insightful, and this long piece is one of the best of them – and it begins with Gunn’s anecdote, which frames the essay.

You can read it for yourself, but if you don’t know either of the poets, who studied with Stanford’s Yvor Winters, here’s your introduction, which gives you a taste for the whole:

Gunn: a panther tattoo and an earring.

Even in the personal impressions they produced, Gunn and Bowers differed in ways that Sidney and Greville did. Just as Sidney was the cynosure of his era, Gunn was a rock star in the poetry world of the second half of the twentieth century. Tall and handsome, he combined courtly good manners – he was in person very thoughtful and considerate of others – with an appealingly piratical air. He wore an earring long before it was a common fashion accessory for men. On his right arm, he had a tattoo of a panther that he got in 1962 from Lyle Tuttle, the San Francisco artist who later did Janis Joplin’s tattoos and who tattooed the Allman Brothers with the mushroom design that has remained the band’s logo to this day. If Paolo Veronese painted Sidney, artists like Don Bachardy and Robert Mapplethorpe drew or photographed Gunn. The dust jackets of some of his books carry their portraits of him. Seeing these, many of us feel that, yes, this is the way a poet should look.

Counterpoint: Sidney as fashionplate.

Bowers was just the opposite. Reluctant to call attention to himself, he dressed in a quietly tasteful Brooks Brothers manner, and with his understated charm could have passed for the kind of cultivated civil servant that Greville became for Elizabeth and James I. Though a wonderfully intelligent and lively conversationalist, he had no artistic airs. As devoted as he was to poetry, he sometimes said, as Dick Davis recalled in a memorial essay on Bowers in Poets & Writers (2000), that one is a poet only when one is writing a poem. Further, he thought that the poet’s main responsibility was to write well and to produce the best individual poems he or she could, and he believed that it was ruinous to poets to imagine that they were more special than other people or had creative spirits that automatically conferred value on whatever they wrote. He worried that his contemporaries judged poets more by their appearance than by their work, and on one occasion during a literary dinner in Florence, his suspicion received ironic confirmation. One of the other guests, not realizing that Bowers had good Italian, remarked within his hearing that he obviously was not a real poet, in view of how well groomed he was. Such thoughtlessness irritated Bowers, but he recognized that it reflected the zeitgeist and resigned himself to the situation as best he could.

Bowers was a Brooks Brothers guy.

While on the subject of the folly of judging merely on appearances, I should add that Gunn, despite his outlaw image and his genuinely wild side, conducted his writing life with extraordinary meticulousness. Those who visited him at his house on Cole Street in San Francisco have noted how neatly he kept his room and library. As is shown by his notebooks and diaries archived at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, he was also an inveterate maker of to-do lists and was continually mapping out writing projects, quite a few of which he relinquished simply because there was not time enough in one life to do them all. Moreover, he maintained careful and extensive records of his publications and public appearances. In an essay in The Threepenny Review (2005), Wendy Lesser conveys the powerful impression produced by the thoroughness of this documentation.

TIm

After Gunn’s death the previous year, and at the request of his longtime partner Mike Kitay, she and August Kleinzahler inspected Gunn’s study: ‘‘We found drawers of file folders containing every draft of every poem he had ever published, all sorted into book-manuscript order and each clipped to the finished, printed version of the poem; and we found schedules of every reading he had given for the past four decades, each with the list of poems to be read that night.’’

In contrast, Bowers possessed, in spite of his conventionally tasteful wardrobe and exquisitely poised intellect, the kinds of quirks and crochets we tend to associate with the artistic temperament. As he confessed in a 1999 radio interview with Troy Teegarden’s Society of Underground Poets, he was ‘‘very disorderly.’’

Read the whole thing here

Is our anger an addiction?

Saturday, August 19th, 2017
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David’s “Wrath of Achilles” – but he doesn’t look nearly as angry as my friends.

Rage is contagious and addictive. I didn’t need the recent article in Time to tell me that. All you have to do is look at the social media, with all the shrill ridicule, the belligerent invective, the hectoring denunciation, the flared nostrils, the strong statements to one’s friends about how this or that cannot be tolerated, in the name of tolerance. These posts are immediately endorsed by other angry friends. No persuasion is occurring – it’s the far safer practice of preaching to the converted.

But the Time article about the (scientifically proven) nature of anger sure helps, and I hope it finds an audience. From Susanna Schrobsdorff’s “The Rage Flu: Why All This Anger Is Contagious and Making us Sick”:

Modern role model?

If we’re always ready for battle, any bit of breaking news can bolster the fear that things are out of control. And judging by the rise in violence at political rallies, some things are getting a bit out of control. But as Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, points out, our fears often don’t match actual risk. … “In a very fearful and tribalistic society, we run on emotion, which is the currency of social media. It’s emotive first,” says Levin. But all the sharing and venting we do has toxic side effects. One of those effects is the increased acceptability of crude or violent insults. They are now so commonplace that they fail to shock, whether they’re coming from the man in the Oval Office or a late-night comedian. And that ups the ante so that those trying get our attention have to go a little further each time.

Anger is particularly contagious on social media. Researchers at Beihang University in Beijing mapped four basic emotions in more than 70 million posts and found that anger is more influential than other emotions like sadness and joy–it spreads faster and more broadly. This is as much a physical phenomenon as a mental one. Anger gives us a burst of adrenaline and sparks a fight-or-flight response in our nervous system.

No wonder it feels as if the nation is a little sick. It’s as if we all have a virus and some of us are more vulnerable to it than others. That is in fact how some social scientists are describing the spread of rage and division. Violence and violent speech meet the criteria of disease, says Dr. Gary Slutkin, founder of Cure Violence and faculty of the University of Illinois, Chicago. Like a virus, violence makes more of itself. Rage begets more rage. And it spreads because we humans are wired to follow our peers.

The article was brought to my attention by a friend who lives in Charlottesville, John Murphy, who wrote: “As René Girard and others have pointed out, imitation leads to competition and competition leads to imitation. When we enter into tit-for-tat conflict with rage-filled people who say and do outrageous things, we end up eventually as rage-filled people who say and do outrageous things ourselves. It’s a moralistic arms race that can’t be won, with mutually assured self-destruction at the finish line.”

Schrobsdorff concludes:

More recently, big societal shifts, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage or the election of Donald Trump, have left segments of the population feeling profoundly destabilized. “People are experiencing a shock because they thought they knew who we are. Now they don’t. They think, Does that mean I don’t belong, or does it mean that I have to get rid of these other people?” says [author David] Berreby. “This becomes a big source of fear, and people get angry when they’re fearful.”

And if policy disagreements are described as existential threats to our identity, issues like immigration, climate change or GMO foods can feel like a clash of civilizations. Once it reaches that level, says Berreby, it’s no longer about the facts or the data. “It becomes a sacred conflict,” says Berreby. “If you don’t believe in this, then you’re not a good person.” Then it doesn’t matter what you say, no one’s changing camps. “At that point, it’s more important for you to stay with your team than it is for you to be persuaded,” says Berreby.

Tim

And therein may lie the problem. We don’t seem to have anyone capable of reminding us that we play for the same team.

One of the best antidotes is a poem by another friend, Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele.

It’s written in “sapphics,” named for the Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, 7th-6th century B.C.

Sapphics Against Anger

Angered, may I be near a glass of water;
May my first impulse be to think of Silence,
Its deities (who are they? do, in fact, they
Exist? etc.).

May I recall what Aristotle says of
The subject: to give vent to rage is not to
Release it but to be increasingly prone
To its incursions.

May I imagine being in the Inferno,
Hearing it asked: “Virgilio mio, who’s
That sulking with Achilles there?” and hearing
Virgil say: “Dante,

That fellow, at the slightest provocation,
Slammed phone receivers down, and waved his arms like
A madman. What Attila did to Europe,
What Genghis Khan did

To Asia, that poor dope did to his marriage.”
May I, that is, put learning to good purpose,
Mindful that melancholy is a sin, though
Stylish at present.

Better than rage is the post-dinner quiet,
The sink’s warm turbulence, the streaming platters,
The suds rehearsing down the drain in spirals
In the last rinsing.

For what is, after all, the good life save that
Conducted thoughtfully, and what is passion
If not the holiest of powers, sustaining
Only if mastered.

Happy birthday to poet Charles Gullans! “He did political poetry especially well!”

Friday, May 5th, 2017
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hogarth

Wilkes as seen by Hogarth

Another birthday celebration, coming to us courtesy the Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele:

The poet and translator Charles Gullans was born on this date in 1929. Educated at the University of Minnesota and Stanford University, where he studied with Yvor Winters, he achieved significant notice in the 1950s and appeared in such anthologies of the time as “New Poets of England and America.” Though his classically inclined work fell from favor during the ascendency of the Beats and the Confessionals, he was a popular and productive professor at UCLA and continued to write excellent poems until his death in 1993. He did political poetry especially well, as is illustrated by his poem about John Wilkes, the eighteenth-century Whig politician, journalist, and thorn-in-the-side of George III. (Wilkes once declined an invitation to play cards, remarking that he couldn’t tell the difference between a king and a knave.) In view of this past fall’s election, some readers may find timely Gullans’ suggestion that we should prefer an imperfect political leader to one who is barbaric. The anecdote to which Gullans refers at the end of his poem exists in several versions and may be apocryphal. But it suits the context and Wilkes’ character in any case. Happy Cinco de Mayo! Happy Birthday, Charles Gullans! (The caricature of Wilkes that accompanies this post is by William Hogarth. [Go here for Tim’s birthday tribute to the artist – ED.])

John Wilkes

Lord Bute, whose rant was the establishment,
Had studied and had mastered the appearance
Of public virtue, but his private bent
Was mistresses and whores built for endurance.

The public interest hid his private acts.
His principle, self-interest of the few,
The fool aristocrat, he hated facts,
And any man of strong, contrary view.

But here was Wilkes, the upstart gentleman,
Bourgeois, with an aristocrat’s disdain
Of canting ethics and of rant in one,
Or in the many, whom he hoped to gain.

“I have no minor vices,” though a boast,
Was license to quick, brittle fools to laugh;
Then, teaching what hyperbole may cost,
His wit pursued him like an epitaph.

No hypocrite, his vices all well known,
“Godless, but never womanless an hour,”
Hard and contemptuous, still the man had grown
Hating restriction and abusive power.

Consistency is firmness in each type.
Yet men of principle may simply be—
Hero or saint, coward or guttersnipe—
Persistent in the partial good they see.

Then if defect seems equal in each eye,
Prefer the cynic to the hypocrite.
Despise the Bute who said to him, “You’ll die
Of syphilis or on the gallows yet.”

birthday cakePrefer the Wilkes who looked into that face,
And with the swift inconscience of the bored
Said, “That depends on whether I embrace
Your mistress or your principles, my Lord.”
Charles Gullans (1929-93)

Happy birthday to poet Edgar Bowers! He thought “intelligence and sympathy” would save the world.

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017
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edgar-bowers3Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele has another birthday post (see earlier ones here and here and here). This time the Stanford alum is appreciating another Stanford alum, the under-recognized Edgar Bowers:

Born in Rome, Georgia, on March 2, 1924, Edgar Bowers served in Europe in the Second World War with the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps. After Germany surrendered to the Allies, he was posted to Hitler’s alpine retreat in Berchtesgaden, where he headed a unit of the “De-nazification” program, whose goal was to identify individuals and groups responsible for atrocities committed during the Third Reich.

In his later years, Bowers came to believe that the survival of the species depended on its intelligence and sympathy, though he recognized that human knowledge is inevitably limited and that science and peace will probably never entirely overcome the forces of ignorance and war. He published five books of poetry, including a Collected Poems in 1997.

Bowers died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in San Francisco in 2000.

One of Bowers’s best-known poems is “The Astronomers of Mont Blanc,” which he reads in the video below. The poem and the recording  (taken the early 1950s, when he was a graduate student at Stanford University) are reproduced with the kind permission of The Literary State of Edgar Bowers and its Executor, Joshua S. Odell.

Happy birthday, Edgar!

The Astronomers of Mont Blanc

Who are you there that, from your icy tower,
Explore the colder distances, the far
Escape of your whole universe to night;
That watch the moon’s blue craters, shadowy crust,
And blunted mountains mildly drift and glare,
Ballooned in ghostly earnest on your sight:
Who are you, and what hope persuades your trust?

It is your hope that you will know the end
And compass of our ignorant restraint
There in lost time, where what was done is done
Forever as a havoc overhead.
Aging, you search to master in the faint
Persistent fortune which you gaze upon
The perfect order trusted to the dead.

– Edgar Bowers (1924-2000)

Happy birthday to poet Edgar Bowers! He thought “intelligence and sympathy” would save the world.

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017
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edgar-bowers3Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele has another birthday post (see earlier ones here and here and here). This time the Stanford alum is appreciating another Stanford alum, the under-recognized Edgar Bowers:

Born in Rome, Georgia, on March 2, 1924, Edgar Bowers served in Europe in the Second World War with the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps. After Germany surrendered to the Allies, he was posted to Hitler’s alpine retreat in Berchtesgaden, where he headed a unit of the “De-nazification” program, whose goal was to identify individuals and groups responsible for atrocities committed during the Third Reich.

In his later years, Bowers came to believe that the survival of the species depended on its intelligence and sympathy, though he recognized that human knowledge is inevitably limited and that science and peace will probably never entirely overcome the forces of ignorance and war. He published five books of poetry, including a Collected Poems in 1997.

Bowers died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in San Francisco in 2000.

One of Bowers’s best-known poems is “The Astronomers of Mont Blanc,” which he reads in the video below. The poem and the recording  (taken the early 1950s, when he was a graduate student at Stanford University) are reproduced with the kind permission of The Literary State of Edgar Bowers and its Executor, Joshua S. Odell.

Happy birthday, Edgar!

The Astronomers of Mont Blanc

Who are you there that, from your icy tower,
Explore the colder distances, the far
Escape of your whole universe to night;
That watch the moon’s blue craters, shadowy crust,
And blunted mountains mildly drift and glare,
Ballooned in ghostly earnest on your sight:
Who are you, and what hope persuades your trust?

It is your hope that you will know the end
And compass of our ignorant restraint
There in lost time, where what was done is done
Forever as a havoc overhead.
Aging, you search to master in the faint
Persistent fortune which you gaze upon
The perfect order trusted to the dead.

– Edgar Bowers (1924-2000)

Happy firthday to the mixed-up guy who invented Spoonerisms!

Friday, July 22nd, 2016
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tim120Another birthday tribute from Los Angeles poet, scholar, and friend Timothy Steele. Collect the whole set here and here and here and here, among other places. Meanwhile, today’s birthday boy:

Born on this day in 1844, William Spooner was for many years Dean and Warden of New College, Oxford. He became so famous for transposing the initial sounds of words that we now refer to such slips of the tongue as “Spoonerisms.” Errors attributed to him include an offer of assistance to a foot-weary acquaintance (“May I sew you to a sheet?”); a reproach of a lackadaisical student (“You have tasted a whole worm!”); a description of his favorite means of transportation (“a well-boiled icicle”); directions from Oxford to London (“Leave by the town drain”); and reassuring words about Providence (“Our Lord is a shoving leopard”).

spoonerThough some gems associated with Spooner are doubtless apocryphal, he does seem to have been almost congenitally disposed to mixing things up. He once spilled salt on a tablecloth and immediately poured claret over it. Giving guests a tour of his college, he warned them that a staircase they were about to descend was badly lit, then switched off the weak lighting, and led them down into total darkness. Also, he suffered from albinism, so his eyesight was poor. Reading lectures was a challenge, and he naturally mangled the text from time to time. It was reportedly during a formal address to farmers that he called them “noble tons of soil,” and it was during a speech before Queen Victoria that he said, “Which of us has not felt in his heart a half-warmed fish.”

When he died in 1930, Spooner was remembered not only for his eccentricities but also for his long and fruitful marriage (depending which account you read, he and his wife produced five or seven children), for his able administration of New College, and for his devotion to his students. Among the latter, Leonard Woolley (“Woolly of Ur”) recalled how, when he was young and clueless, Spooner convinced him to become an archeologist. Spooner had long been aware of his reputation, and his friends sometimes detected a subversive wit in his odd expressions, as in his remark to a colleague: “Your book fills a much needed gap.”

So hail, Dr. Spooner! It’s your Firthday on Basebook! (At right, is Leslie Ward’s 1898 caricature of Spooner for Vanity Fair.)

“Death is so plain!” Remembering Thom Gunn on the anniversary of his death.

Monday, April 25th, 2016
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gunn1

tim120I’ve been thinking about San Francisco poet Thom Gunn in the last few days, for reasons I won’t get into. But perhaps a subliminal one is worth mentioning: he died on this day, twelve years ago. I was, to my best knowledge, the last person to interview him at his flat in the City, in a Q&A published in The Georgia Review – not online, alas. 

He was apparently on L.A. poet’s Tim Steele’s mind, too. Both poets are alums of Stanford’s English Department and its Creative Writing Program. Gunn studied with the legendary Yvor Winters while at Stanford; Tim was a Jones Lecturer. 

Tim remembers one of Thom Gunn’s many fine poems on this sad anniversary:

gunn3Thom Gunn died on April 25, 2004. A wonderful elegist, he also wrote with memorable affection about domestic animals, and these gifts come together in “Her Pet.” As he indicates in a video clip (below), he composed the poem when, during the AIDS crisis, he was reading Michael Levey’s “High Renaissance” and came across a reproduction of Germain Pilon’s sarcophagus for Valentine Balbiani (1518-1572) that resonated with own experiences of seeing friends die in the epidemic.

The Balbiani sarcophagus is an example what Erwin Panofsky calls “the double-decker tomb.” On the top of the tomb, Pilon depicts the reclining figure of Valentine as she was in life. Below, on the side of the tomb, he renders her as she was after she died.

Contracts concerning the sarcophagus survive, and they call not only for this double depiction of Valentine, but also for her being accompanied by “a little dog of marble, made as naturally as possible.” Dogs often appear on tombs, but generally at the feet of the deceased and chiefly as symbols of fidelity. In this case, however, the dog was an effigy of a real companion of the subject, and according to contemporary accounts, it died of sorrow three days after its mistress did.

gunn2Writing about the sarcophagus, Gunn imitates its appearance by devising a double sonnet. The first sonnet—the upper one—describes the portion of the tomb that shows Valentine alive. The second sonnet describes the side-relief of her in death. Below is the text of “Her Pet,” along with the two images of the tomb reproduced in Levey’s book. The video clip of Gunn’s reading of the poem is from a 1994 appearance at the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles.

“Her Pet”

I walk the floor, read, watch a cop-show, drink,
Hear buses heave uphill through drizzling fog,
Then turn back to the pictured book to think
Of Valentine Balbiani and her dog:
She is reclining, reading, on her tomb;
But pounced, it tries to intercept her look,
Its front paws on her lap, as in this room
The cat attempts to nose beneath my book. …

[Well, copyright laws forbid us to do more. Listen to the rest below…]

Postscript on 4/26 from Tim Steele: “I well remember your Georgia Review interview with Thom. It brought many characteristic flashes of his insight. I also recall his comparing, in his conversation with you, Yvor Winters’s influence on him to his mother’s influence on him. (This appeared in your Stanford Magazine piece on Thom, I believe.) That’s an incredibly revealing and touching comment. People often think of Winters as a formidable father figure, and he may have been that for Thom to some extent. But Thom also saw Winters as a nurturing, supportive, literature-loving figure, just as his mother had been.”

Happy birthday to the bad boy of Roman poetry!

Saturday, March 19th, 2016
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tim120More birthday greetings from our correspondent, the Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele. This time the occasion is the birthday of Ovid. Tim has offered occasional salutations to Virgil, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, George Frideric Handel, Christina Rosetti, William Hogarth and Oliver Goldsmith. And we have written about Ovid here and here and here and here and here.

But the years roll round again relentlessly offering us another occasion to celebrate the author of Metamorphoses – and Tristia, too.

This Sunday marks the birthday of Ovid, the bad boy of Roman poetry. Born in 43 BCE, he reports in his Tristia that versing came naturally to him even as a child. His masterpiece, “Metamorphoses,” is a tour de force that knits together, by the recurring motif of transformation, myths and legends from the origin of the world up to the time of Julius Caesar. Though Ovid did not invent the stories, he recounted them with unforgettable psychological vividness and gave them their definitive form. No other poem has had a greater influence on subsequent art. Sculptors, painters, composers, novelists, and poets have drawn on it for centuries.

narcissusIn his own day, Ovid was immensely popular, but, unluckily, the emperor Augustus was not a fan. A libertine in youth, he metamorphosed as a ruler into a priggish defender of public morals, and he detested Ovid’s poems, which breezily treat sex and seduction and which parody conventional Roman pieties. In 8 CE he banned Ovid’s work from the state libraries and banished the poet himself to Tomis, an imperial outpost on the Black Sea notorious for its bandits and bad weather. Ovid died there in 17 CE.

Many anecdotes survive about Ovid’s genius and vanity. The Elder Seneca reports one of them in his Controversies (2.2.12): “[Ovid] was aware of his faults—and liked them. This is clear from an incident when he was asked by his friends to get rid of three of his verses; in exchange he asked that he should be allowed to make an exception of three verses which they could not touch. This seemed a fair condition. They wrote down privately the ones they wanted damned: he wrote down the ones he wanted saved. Both sheets contained the same verses. … From [this] it is clear that this talented man lacked the will rather than the taste to restrain the license of his poetry. He used sometimes to say that a face was all the more beautiful for a mole” (trans. Michael Winterbottom).

At right is a rendering of the Narcissus episode in Metamorphoses executed by the great bad boy of Italian painting, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

catullus

Another bad boy

Postscript: A gentle reader wrote to ask … Isn’t Catullus the bad boy of Roman poetry? Tim replies:

“That’s a good question. Catullus is revolutionary in his sexual candor. However, his epigrams and lyrics are often bitterly realistic, and he is sometimes excruciating on the subject of his obsessive relationship with Clodia/Lesbia. His ultimate disillusionment with his passion for her is the opposite, it seems to me, of licentious. (Catullus was also very well-born and a friend of Caesar’s, who evidently admired his work.)

“Ovid, on the other hand, really is naughty. The Art of Love is virtually a vade mecum for adulterers. And in theMetamorphoses he presents (with great relish) the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses as pathologically vindictive, sensual, or deceptive. This isn’t to say Ovid can’t be poignant and moving, as in the tale of Baucis and Philemon or Pythagoras‘s powerful speech in favor or vegetarianism near the end of the poem.”

And then, courteous gentleman that he is, Tim thanked the reader for raising the point.