Posts Tagged ‘Yvor Winters’

Thom Gunn – an Elizabethan wannabe? Letters reveal a complicated poet.

Saturday, March 20th, 2021
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San Francisco Poet Thom Gunns letters have been published at last. Andrew McMillan discusses the collection, edited by Michael Nott, August Kleinzahler, and Clive Wilmer, over at The Literary Review. (I’ve written the transplanted Englishman here and here, among other places.)

The review mentions Gunn’s involvement with the “Movement” poets, a group that included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Robert Conquest, among others, but I hope a few of the letters trace the sway of Stanford’s Yvor Winters upon Gunn’s thinking and writing. While not as widely recognized as the Movement, the circle of poets and writers taught or influenced by Winters is prominent and traceable – including Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Helen Pinkerton, J.V. Cunningham, Turner Cassity, and others.

The review also mentions Gunn’s desire to be among the Elizabethans (read more about that here). From the review:

Ben Jonson, an edition of whose poems Gunn once edited, is an important figure here: Nott quotes Gunn saying that people have ‘difficulty with my poetry … in locating the central voice or central personality. But I’m not aiming for central voice and I’m not aiming for central personality. I want to be an Elizabethan poet. I want to write with the same anonymity you get in the Elizabethans.’ Nott suggests that we get a ‘staging’ of Gunn’s personality in these letters, a tailoring of voice to recipient. That certainly feels right, though it feels too as though the life and personality come through in the letters in a way they don’t in his poetry, particularly the earlier work.

“Some of the rawest moments come in early letters to Mike Kitay, Gunn’s lifelong partner, whom he met in 1952 when they were both undergraduates at Cambridge and whom he followed to the USA when Kitay returned there in 1954, after which Gunn felt able to come out. ‘We can lead rich lives together if we allow each other to, my beloved,’ Gunn writes to him in 1961. ‘Oh baby, please settle for me. I’ll never be your ideal, but you’ll never find your ideal on earth.’ It’s a letter written over the course of a week, with headings marking out the different days; it ends, ‘I can’t go on like this much longer. Please, my darling Mike.’ Gunn was largely a writer of tight, syllabic poetry who aimed for a lack of ‘central personality’; the directness and freedom of expression in letters such as these offer us a side of him we rarely, if ever, have seen before. By contrast, a letter written a few months later to the Faber editor Charles Monteith sees Gunn retreating behind a mask of business, discussing what would become a well-known combined edition of his work and that of Ted Hughes, eventually published in 1962 …”

Read the rest here.

Remembering poet Robert Mezey (1935-2020): “brilliant, mercurial and often rebellious” – with a “great tragedy,” too.

Saturday, May 2nd, 2020
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He encouraged students to burn their draft cards. (Photo courtesy the Mezey family)

The poet Robert Mezey is dead. According to his daughter Naomi Mezey, the former Stanford Wallace Stegner fellow died on April 25 of pneumonia in Maryland. The award-winning poet, anthologist, and Pomona College professor was 85. “Brilliant, mercurial and often rebellious, Mezey came to artistic maturity in the 1960s. His footloose early career embodied the challenges and changes of that dramatic period in American letters,” former California poet laureate Dana Gioia writes in the Los Angeles Times. The obituary offers an excellent and punchy summary of his rather unconventional life. Read it here.

Mezey entered Kenyon College at 16, where he studied with poet-critic John Crowe Ransom, but dropped out after two years. He was in the U.S. Army, but discharged as a “subversive.”

Former state poet laureate & Stanford alum. (Photo: Starr Black)

From the L.A. Times: “Encouraged by poet Donald Justice, who became a lifelong friend, Mezey began graduate studies at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Once again, he dropped out — but for a happier reason. His first book, “The Lovemaker” (1960) had won the Lamont Poetry Prize.

“On the basis of that debut volume, Mezey received the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, but the start of the fall semester found him in Mexico rather than Palo Alto. His new mentor, the rigorously formalist poet Yvor Winters, had to send him money to travel back to the U.S. Their relationship soon soured,” Dana wrote.

Poet and Stanford Professor Ken Fields recalled in an email: “”He and Winters did not like each other, though Bob may have changed later in a delightful clerihew on him.” He knew him later in his career, through his friends Don Justice and Henri Coulette. “Bob eulogized Henri (Hank) and my first teacher, Edgar Bowers.”

From the Los Angeles Times:

Although he still lacked a graduate degree — a situation that would not change until Kenyon awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2009 — Mezey taught briefly at several universities. His departures were sometimes abrupt.

At Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, Mezey urged his students to burn their draft cards. Offered his full year’s salary, he made an early exit.

Meanwhile Mezey’s poetic style changed; he followed the zeitgeist into free verse. “When I was quite young,” he wrote, “I came under unhealthy influences — Yvor Winters, for example, and America, and my mother, though not in that order.”

He eventually returned to metrical forms and translation towards the century’s end.

He sent the money.

“Anyone searching out his Collected Poems 1952-1999 ought to be impressed by the breadth and depth of a modern poet they probably have never heard of, wrote Ken. “‘Terezín’ is a great and moving poem on a watercolor by thirteen-year old Nely Sílvinová in a German concentration camp for children headed for Auschwitz. Among many others, I think of ‘To a Friend on the Day of Atonement’ (the phrase, ‘Jewless in Gaza’) and ‘The Wandering Jew.'”

“He could also be funny and small, as in his praise of minor poets, among whom, I think, he would include himself.” Then Ken cited this one:

To My Friends in the Art

Flyweight champions, may you live
The proverbial thousand years
To whatever smiles and cheers
Flyweight audiences may give.
Ounce for ounce as good as any,
Modest few among the many,
Swift, precise, diminutive,
Flyweight champions, may you live.

Dana Gioia describes “his greatest tragedy” as the unpublished Borges translations, but this misfortune that still can be amended (we hope):

Meanwhile Mezey had been drawn to poetic translation. His Selected Translations (1981) contained compelling versions of Spanish, French, and Yiddish authors. His greatest undertaking, however, was to prove a disaster.

With his Pomona College colleague Dick Barnes, Mezey undertook a translation of the poems of Jorge Luis Borges. After some initial encouragement from the Argentinean author’s widow, the two poets spent years crafting suave translations that replicated Borges’s original metrical forms.

Then the pair discovered they could not obtain the English-language rights. Mezey’s finest translations remained unpublished except in a few copy-shop collations circulated among friends.

He has the translations.

Ken says he has a copy of the “wonderful” translations somewhere; let’s hope others do, too. “We do have the great ‘A Rose and Milton,’ and a couple of others. Somewhere I have the manuscript.”

Dana notes that Mezey was a religious skeptic, who did not believe in the afterlife. “Instead he offered a gentle vision of death”:

Blessed oblivion, infinitely forgiving,
Perpetual peace and silence and complete
Absence of pain. Now that’s what I call living.

Ken Fields remembered another Mezey anecdote (I expect there are many floating in the world at large): “A few years before my time, Mezey was awarded a Stegner Fellowship. … In those days the fellows got all the money at once, and Bob absconded with the stipend. Phil Levine, his friend at the time, said he had no problem with Bob taking the money, but he also took the Levine’s babysitter, and that was a serious offense. When the Collected Poems came out, Bob sent me a copy, with the understanding that I would send him twenty dollars. I neglected to do it, not deliberately, and it stayed on my mind on and off for years. Time to call it even.”

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

Friday, May 5th, 2017
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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)

Robert Pinsky: “The arts are not ornamental. They are at the center of human intelligence.”

Thursday, January 26th, 2017
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Stanford’s handsome civic poet (Photo: Jared C. Benedict)

Robert Pinsky, former U.S. poet laureate, has returned to Stanford as a Mohr Visiting Poet for a few months. It’s a familiar habitat for him: as a Stegner Fellow years ago, he studied with the legendary poet-critic Yvor Winters and poet Ken Fields.

Robert has been called the last of the “civic” or public poets – something Irish poet Eavan Boland noted when introducing him at last night’s reading: “Through his work and his example he has made a compelling shape that has restructured the sense of the personal and public poem – and the personal and public poet – connecting and reinvigorating them in new ways.”

She continued: “As a poet he has always been of his moment and has wanted to be. In an interview he said: ‘Maybe everyone is sort of chauvinistic about their own era. I am.’ He was born on the threshold of war, at the gateway of a modern era. The enticing new American world of sports, music, vernacular energy and popular culture was to become part and parcel of his poems and his approach to poetry.”

Louise Glück, also visiting this quarter, speaks of his poems as having “dexterity combined with worldliness, the magician’s dazzling quickness fused with subtle intelligence, a taste for tasks and assignments to which he devises ingenious solutions.”

Eavan praised his newest book, At The Foundling Hospital: Poems, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, saying, “The poems in it are at once a catalog of causes for pessimism but finally an inventory of reasons for optimism. The poetry is deeply concerned with ancestors, with the mysteries of culture but finally most of all with the intimate details of what survives history or is not recorded in it, and yet makes an important angle to our human story. In the title poem of the book “At the Foundling Hospital,” comes the phrase ‘Fragment of a tune or a rhyme or name /mumbled from memory.’ It carries much of the book’s meaning.”

His own commitment to the art he practices has been stated this way: “We have this great treasure that we got from our figurative grandparents, and it would be very sad if we failed to hand it on to our figurative grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities

One of Ireland’s leading poets.

During the question-and-answer period, he was asked about last week’s inauguration ceremony, which omitted the traditional inaugural poem. “I personally don’t think it’s a great loss,” he said. “Most of them are not very good.” He pointed out that the tradition is a fairly recent one, anyway.

However, he had his own inaugural poem for this month, “Exile and Lightning,” published on CNN as an “opinion,” with a disclaimer: “The views expressed here are his.” The first two lines:

You choose your ancestors our
Ancestor Ralph Ellison wrote.

You can read it all here.  One of the ancestors he claims in the poem is our Polish grandfather Czesław Miłosz. Since he’s my grandfather, too, that means we are related. In fact, that is how we met. He contributed an essay to my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and communicated by phone and by email years before we finally met face-to-face last night.

Another comment might be interpreted as a response to the proposed cuts to government arts funding: “The arts are not ornamental. They are at the center of human intelligence.

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.

The famous Winters massage and electric shock treatment

Saturday, September 14th, 2013
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Charmed by smart kids

How’s this for “Letters to a Young Poet”?

“Your poems are pretty rough, and half the time you fall flat on your face. But the piece on the airplane crash has a good deal of power, especially in the second half, and could probably be revised into a good poem. There are good fragments in several others, but you certainly contort yourself like a muscle-bound acrobat. However, we will try the famous Winters massage and electric shock treatment.”

taj-mahal-moonlight

Home sweet home.

The 1955 pep talk was given by Yvor Winters to Calvin Thomas Jr., an incoming Stegner Fellow at Stanford.  The second letter is addressed to Thomas’s father, a very moving endorsement of the son’s gifts, and some strong opinions on the poetic craft, the role of universities, and his own preeminence as a teacher. “I find myself charmed by the intelligent young, just as I am charmed by beautiful puppies,” he concludes.

The eminent Poetry Magazine published a single poem by Thomas in 1955, before he vanished from its crosshairs.

He’s been rediscovered.  According to Poetry Magazine: “Cal still writes poems, and a selection of his work can be found at poetryfoundation.org; his short story, “The Repatriate,” about a German veteran returning to civilian life, appeared in Stegner’s Stanford Short Stories series. He now lives in New Delhi.”

Read the Winters-Thomas correspondence here.