Posts Tagged ‘J.V. Cunningham’

“She has put a planet on the table”: Dana Gioia on poet Shirley Lim

Monday, January 24th, 2022
“An unusual economy and panache”

Over at The Los Angeles Review of Books, poet Dana Gioia praises Shirley Geok-lin Lim as “a poet of exile and assimilation, loss and recovery, journeys and explorations.” His friendship with the Malaysian-born poet goes back four decades, when they first met in Katonah, NY. During an awkward conversation, he recalls, “Finally, I asked a polite but banal question about her graduate studies in English. Shirley replied that she had worked at Brandeis with J. V. Cunningham. His was not a name to impress most people, but to me, Cunningham was a gold standard. He was the greatest American epigrammatic poet — ever. He was also a formidable scholar, mordant curmudgeon, and semi-recluse. Tell me more, I said. And she did.”

“A year later Shirley sent me her first book, Crossing the Peninsula & Other Poems (1980). Published in Kuala Lumpur by Heinemann Asia in a tiny format, the book gave the impression of slightness. I always worry when reading a book of poems by an acquaintance, Will I like it? Will it be interesting or awful? In Shirley’s case, I was immediately engaged, though I recognized her debut volume was a very unusual collection.”

“A gold standard”

Why? He explains: “Most first books have a grab bag quality. Young poets want to show all their steps toward creative maturity — different styles, subjects, and stances. Lim’s book did that, too, but with an unusual economy and panache. The poems had ambitious subjects — Adam and Eve, Christ, shopping, divorce, Cezanne — but they were mostly short. They didn’t waste a word. (Surely the terse Prof. Cunningham’s influence at work.) Few young poets show such control, especially mixed with such an appetite for ideas and experience.”

He soon added her poem, “To Li Po,” to a new edition of An Introduction to Poetry, which he co-edited with X. J. Kennedy. “Since then I have hardly published an anthology which did not include one or more of her poems.”

Dana Gioia recalled the words of literary critic Hugh Kenner, who once described American Modernist innovation as a “homemade world” — “unorthodox creativity free from pomp, precedent, and pretension.” Then he added “Shirley’s best poetry has that ‘homemade’ quality. Like Wallace Stevens, she has put a planet on the table, a ‘homemade world’ of her own experience.”

Lim’s In Praise of Limes, will appear in March from Sungold Editions. Meanwhile, read more about her in The Los Angeles Review of Books here.

Dana Gioia’s archives go to Huntington, Stanford – including “tens of thousands” of letters!

Monday, April 20th, 2020

Dana Gioia’s books, manuscripts, libretti are now at the Huntington Library.

Dana Gioia is a man of letters in the time-honored sense of the term, influencing our culture as a poet and essayist, but also as a translator, editor, anthologist, librettist, teacher, literary critic, and advocate for the arts. His correspondence was extensive, and it went on for decades. Hence, his archive is a treasure trove, and though he has had offers from other institutions to acquire it, he wanted his papers to stay in California. Now they will. He has donated his substantial archive to the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, which announced today it had acquired the papers of the poet and writer who served as the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003–09 and as the California Poet Laureate from 2015–19.

Dana Gioia in L.A. with friend, Doctor Gatsby (Photo: Starr Black)

It is the second large donation he has made in the last year. Last August, he gave to Stanford the large archive of Story Line Press, which he co-founded. The papers are the central archive for the New Formalism movement. The archive includes a number of people who have spent time at Stanford, including Donald Justice, Donald Hall, Christian Wiman, Paul Lake, Annie Finch, and of course Dana himself, among others. Stanford Libraries already holds the archive for The Reaper, so this is a natural pairing with that irreverent journal.

The larger Huntington archive includes correspondence with many of the major poets and writers for the last several decades, including Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Ray Bradbury, Rachel Hadas, Jane Hirshfield, William Maxwell, Thom Gunn, Edgar BowersKay Ryan, Robert Conquest, Julia Alvarez, Thomas Disch, Cynthia Ozick,  Donald Davie, Anthony Burgess, John Cheever, J.V. Cunningham, and even some musicians, such as Dave Brubeck. It also includes his own books, manuscripts, and libretti. “Even after I pruned my correspondence, there is a lot of letters – in the tens of thousands,” said Dana.

“When I told my brother Ted that I had made the donation, he commented that I wanted my papers to be at the Huntington because our mother took us there as children. ‘You’re probably right,’ I said. I  still remember seeing the elegant manuscript of Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’ there nearly sixty years ago. It was my first glimpse into that enchanted kingdom by the sea called poetry.”

The Huntington picked up 71 archival boxes last December – the first part of his donation. Then Dana Gioia had a more urgent task: the next day he flew back to northern California home, which sustained fire damage during last year’s Kincade wildfire.

From the Huntington release:

The archive documents Gioia’s work as a poet through fastidiously maintained drafts of poems and essays from his books, which include five books of poetry and three books of critical essays. He is one of the most prominent writers of the “New Formalist” school of poetry, a movement that promoted the return of meter and rhyme, although his arts advocacy work situates him in a broader frame.

The archive en dishabillé, as Mary Gioia helps organize.

“In his correspondence, you see a writer who has been willing to engage the young and old, the esteemed and emergent—anyone who wants to critically discuss poetic form, contemporary audiences for poetry, and the importance of literary reading during decades when popular culture has become increasingly visual and attention spans have fractured,” said Karla Nielsen, curator of literary collections at The Huntington. “We are delighted that Dana has entrusted his papers to The Huntington, where his collection fits perfectly. He is a local author—he grew up in a Mexican/Sicilian American household in Hawthorne—and even as he attained international recognition as a poet and assumed the chairmanship of the NEA, he remained loyal to the region and invested in Los Angeles’ unique literary communities.”

“I’m delighted to have my papers preserved in my hometown of Los Angeles, especially at The Huntington, a place I have loved since the dreamy days of my childhood,” said Gioia.

While the range of correspondents in the collection is broad and eclectic, the sustained letter writing with poets Donald Justice, David Mason, and Ted Kooser is particularly significant.

Gioia’s work co-editing a popular poetry anthology textbook with the poet X. J. Kennedy from the 1990s to the present will interest scholars working on canon formation during those decades when the “culture wars” were a politically charged issue.

A portion of the materials represent Gioia’s work as an advocate for poetry and the arts at the NEA and as the California Poet Laureate. This work is integral to his career and will be important to scholars interested in the place of poetry and the role of reading for pleasure within greater debates about literacy and literary reading at the beginning of the 20th century. … At The Huntington, Gioia’s archive joins that of another businessman poet, Wallace Stevens; that of a very different but also quintessentially Los Angeles poet, Charles Bukowski; and those of two other New Formalist poets, Henri Coulette and Robert Mezey.

Tens of thousands of letters and much more – now at the library his mother Dorothy Ortiz took Ted and Dana Gioia to visit as children. Dana remembers the Poe manuscript of “Annabel Lee.”

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

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Helen's hero ... as seen by Bernardo Daddi

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

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

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

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

Fra Angelico's Aquinas

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

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

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

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

Helen, me, and the late Turner Cassity

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

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

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

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

Yvor Winters Reading – 1958

Don’t look for him in Wikipedia

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Thursday

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

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

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

Ease, effervescence, and endless verse

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veracity and vim

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

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

No longer on P.S.T.

Here’s Seth’s author’s note:

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

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

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