Posts Tagged ‘Turner Cassity’

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

Poet Moore Moran: A death in Ordinary Time

Sunday, March 6th, 2011
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Moore Moran, Sept. 27, 1931 - Feb. 27, 2011

I received an email from my publisher at Ohio University Press/Swallow Press earlier this week – the poet Moore Moran, known to his friends as Mike, died on February 27.  He was 79.

I had blogged about the Santa Rosa poet here and here. He had published his first full-length book, Firebreaks, in 1999 – it bagged a National Poetry Book Award.  His newest book, The Room Within, was published last year.

“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,” said Turner Cassity of Moran’s poems.

But I was startled when I reread the email a few days later and realized I had overlooked that the memorial would not be in Santa Rosa, but nearby, in Menlo Park – where, it turns out, he had graduated from high school before getting two degrees from Stanford.

So I dropped in on Friday afternoon to pay my respects to a poet in the century-old Church of the Nativity.  But it was not a poet who was being honored so much as  “husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, father-in-law, friend, poet,” according to the program.

He was much loved.  About 150-200 friends and family came to the mass, with bluegrass guitar and bass fiddle performers Dennis and Ehlert Lassen singing “Amazing Grace” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Not necessarily what one would expect from the poems, with their bleak, spare mystery.

Surprisingly, everyone looked like they had come for the same event – the men were all in jackets and ties, and the women in somber suits and dresses. Banished were all traces of “California casual,” where some people look as if they had wandered in from the garden or the beach or a cocktail party.  Nor did there seem to be any poets on hand from the “Yvor Winters Circle” – but then, the room was crowded and I was in a back corner, and this was a very quiet death, after all.

The priest, referred to only as “Father Davenport,” recalled that Moore Moran, despite disability, was “always smiling” and “a good man.”

His son, businessman Mike Moran, said, “I never stopped amazing my dad, and my dad never stopped amazing me.”  The son, to put it mildly, was not a poet or lit freak.

His father taught the kids Latin and music, as well as Yvor Winters, John Steinbeck, and J.D. Salinger.  He was “an encyclopedia of jokes,” recalled his son.  And, in fact, the program included his poem “Just Joking,” written on his 51st birthday, when he had “maybe a third of a tank left”:

…the bewildered heart in us which,
Year by year, measuring our slim attainments
With mounting despair, still feeds
In its recesses some faint hope, despite
The certain knowledge that what it hopes for
Cannot change the tide…

“He was often lost in afterthought,” said his son.  “I’m certainly no poet, but I came to appreciate my father’s poetry.” He recalled the children’s hesitancy to have their father correct their writing, because “then we’d go back for another hour of writing.”

But sometimes dad came in handy.  Moran Jr. recalled a long discussion his father launched when the son was having trouble “getting” Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales.  The next day in class,  Moran Jr. performed the usual duck-and-hide with averted gaze, to avoid the teacher targeting him with a question.  The teacher targeted him anyway.

Thanks to his dad’s monologue, the so-so student poured forth with a reply “at a depth and level far beyond what my teacher had.”

The class was “absolutely stunned.  The whole room was silent,” he recalled.

“I was bumped up to AP English,” he said, and paused for only an instant. “That lasted about four days.”

On Moran’s memorial page at legacy.com, David Sanders wrote: “A gentleman and a fine poet. It was an honor to edit and publish his last book.”

“Just Joking,” with its rambling style is nice, but my favorite Moran poems are quick and cryptic – like this one:

Ordinary Time in the Pews

Church of the Nativity, Menlo Park

Ordinary days again.
Advent, Pentecost are past;
who now will accept our sins,
raise the dust in which we’re cast?

Cold the God flesh on the tree,
banned the crèche to attic murk,
sheer the silence after prayer.
Nothing seems at all to work.

Yet we try and try again
serving Him we hardly know:
honk if you love Jesus, friend,
beeping blessings as we go.

Here we meet who, somehow, must
rescue meaning from the dust,
where betrayal’s kiss presents
our best hope of relevance.

PostscriptPatrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence has added a lovely tribute here.  “Earth only will find him cold.”

Postscript on 3/7: Looking online for others who remember Moore Moran, I found this mini-memoir from Peter Robinson.

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.

“A Pearl Harbor of the mind”

Thursday, July 8th, 2010
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Flanked by poets Helen Pinkerton (left) and Turner Cassity (right) at a 2008 reading

On the 26th, it will have been a year since poet Turner Cassity died — and he never did, as he had promised, take me for a night on the town (let alone to the San Francisco opera) during one of his frequent swings through the Bay Area.

It’s too bad.  I have a feeling it would have been a night to be remembered.  As friend and fellow poet Suzanne Doyle writes, “Frankly, he was the best date I ever had.”  She reminisces on the Ablemuse site here.  An excerpt:

Whenever we planned a night on the town, Turner would tempt me with, “Come on, Suzanne, let’s be wicked together.” A good part of being “wicked” included gin and the effervescent tonic of gossip.

On the particular night in question she recalls (but only patchily) how the gay librarian from Georgia began the festivities with a “French 77”:

By the book, the French 77 consists of a shot of elderberry liqueur and lemon juice in a flute, with the flute then filled with champagne. But the way the bartender made this drink for Turner, whom he had surely served before, was to present him with what I remember as being a beaker of champagne and a shot of cognac. Turner sank the shot in the champers. I have a clear memory of the shot slowly rocking its way to the bottom, like the depth-charge it surely was. If I’d even tasted that drink, I’m sure the rest of the evening would be a complete blank. Turner had two.

Turner himself called the evening “a Pearl Harbor of the mind.”

I wrote about him two years ago here, but my small effort is easily dwarfed by the Ablemuse tribute Suzanne has organized.  “Laying It on the Line for Turner Cassity” is difficult to navigate, but has some real gems (and this video) among its 133 pages.  Among the notable rubies is this tribute from A.E. Stallings:

Lines For Turner Cassity

Librarian with military bearing,
You’ve left us poems critics call unsparing,

A wit not merely clever but hard-bitten.
Sometimes I hear you utter, “overwritten,”

And even at this distance, there’s no choice
But hear the word in that distinctive voice,

Not circumflexing drawl, dipthonged legato,
But southern, brisk particular staccato—

Inimitable voice—for never cruel—
Impatient only of the pompous fool

And vagueness that gesticulates at truth.
Clear and styptic as a dry vermouth,

You taught the courtesy of kindness meant
By shaming false and floral sentiment.

Death’s crude arithmetic only exacts
The estimate of flesh and bone for tax;

You it has taken—and yet misconstrued—
For it has left us your exactitude.

I didn’t meet Turner face-to-face till 2008, at the Terrace Room reading pictured above.  Despite his talk of wickedness, he seemed gentle and affable — his sociability masking a charming bashfulness.

On my desk, I have the two last Cassity volumes — Devils and Islands and The Destructive Element: New and Collected Poems.  But Suzanne promises that there’s more to come — he left caches of material left behind.  “A whole gigabyte,” Suzanne told me, in the parlance of our times.  “That’s a lot of text files.”