Saturday, August 07, 2010

`Maintained in Being'

The recent discovery for which I’m most grateful is Helen Pinkerton’s Taken in Faith: Poems (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2002), reassuring evidence of a life well spent. Born in 1927, she was a student of Yvor Winters, and her interests, as reflected in her poems, include Thomas Aquinas, Herman Melville, the natural world, the Civil War and the landscape of the American West. The poems, given their subject matter, seriousness and quiet formality, are probably as unfashionable as any being written today by an American poet. Pinkerton offers the rare and comforting assurance of being in the company of a poet who is also a grownup. Here is “Degrees of Shade”:

“Our darkness stays, the self-made dark we know,
And I, ever desiring to be right,
Am ever more removed, conceiving not—
As foot can feel the earth and hand the snow
And still be unaware—I live in light,
Within yet willfully without your thought.

“Your partial absence, as a shade, extends
Upon the brightness that my will obscures.
I am confounded by degrees of shade
And sometimes think the shade’s arc reascends
To perfect separation. But I am yours,
Though nothing, if again I am unmade.

“I cannot do as some in rage have done,
Who hating love’s compulsions love their hate
So much they slay themselves perfecting it.
The course must be endured that was begun
In shade’s dominion and empowered so late
To move from out the darkness you permit.”

Pinkerton’s poems often dramatize our divided natures. Our selves, “ever desiring to be right,” sabotage goodness freely given. We choose darkness over “the brightness that my will obscures,” and some, non-being over being. Those who “hating love’s compulsions love their hate” have been making a lot of noise lately and receiving a lot of attention. Pinkerton appends an epigraph from Summa Theologica: “Sic autem se habet omnis creatura ad Deum sicut aer ad solem illuminantem.” In T.C. O’Brien’s translation: “To apply this: every creature stands in relation to God as the air to the light of the sun.” Here is the subsequent sentence:

“For the sun is light-giving by its very nature, while the air comes to be lighted through sharing in the sun’s nature, so also God alone is being by his essence, which is his esse, while every creature is being participatively, i.e. its essence is not its esse.”

Only the invisible makes the visible possible. In Chapter XVI of Mont San Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams quotes the same passage from Aquinas:

“If, for an instant, God's action, which is also His will, were to stop, the universe would not merely fall to pieces, but would vanish, and must then be created anew from nothing: `Quia non habet radicem in aere, statim cessat lumen, cessante actione solis. Sic autem se habet omnis creatura ad Deum sicut aer ad solem illuminantem.’ God radiates energy as the sun radiates light, and `the whole fabric of nature would return to nothing’ if that radiation ceased even for an instant. Everything is created by one instantaneous, eternal, universal act of will, and by the same act is maintained in being.”


Cynthia Haven said...

Wonderful that you are taking an interest in this too-little-known poet, Patrick!

I'm perhaps the only journalist to interview Helen Pinkerton, a poet of the Yvor Winters circle at Stanford, the so-called "Stanford school of poets" (I say "so-called," because they all eschew the title, though it's a surprisingly cohesive network, as poetic "schools" go), a group that included J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers, Turner Cassity, Janet Lewis, Thom Gunn, and many others.

The article is online here:

Another article about Helen, now in her 80s, called "The Realism of Helen Pinkerton," is also online. There may be some material at the ablemuse site, for those who want to dig deeper.

Cynthia Haven said...

As a postscript to my earlier comment, many thanks for bringing this particular poem to light -- plus digging out the Aquinas reference, and Henry Adams passage on it. Perfect way to begin the day.