Monday, October 18, 2010

`You Heard the Language Right'

The New Compass was an online Canadian-American journal that published four issues in 2003-2004 before going the way of so many worthy literary endeavors. A number of its contributors have been associated with Yvor Winters, as students or poetic beneficiaries – Helen Pinkerton, Kenneth Fields, R.L. Barth, Dick Davis, Timothy Steele, Turner Cassity, Moore Moran. There’s much good writing here and the online archive is complete. I found The New Compass by way of Pinkerton who published “Coronach for Christopher Drummond” in the first issue:

“By lamp or morning light,
Bent close over the page,
You heard the language right,
No matter from what age.

“Whether Jonson's grieving prayers,
Or Milton's rich designs,
Or Melville's rugged verse,
Or Winters' densest lines,

“Your mind knew the intent,
Your voice wakened the sound—
The sleeping beauty pent
In chambers underground.

“Surrounded now by noise,
My words, that sought your praise,
Your understanding voice,
Confront the silent days.”

C.Q. Drummond was professor of English literature at the University of Alberta and died in 2001. Sarah Emsley, co-editor of The New Compass, writes in an editorial:

“For Christopher Drummond, conversation was essential to living: active, discriminating, intelligent, alive, and, above all, collaborative conversation. Mr. Drummond was a teacher who taught through conversation, and a literary critic who worked through his ideas in discussion and debate…In the weeks after his death I was frustrated with the conversations I heard around me in classes and seminars, and even more frustrated with my own inability to converse at the level he had required. So many of the things he said exist now only in the memories (and some class notes) of his students, as he published infrequently.”

One can see why Pinkerton wishes to eulogize Drummond and why she twice mentions his voice in the poem. A teacher, at the most essential level, is a voice, as is a writer. We communicate, yes, and relay information, but also chastise, soothe, entertain and inspire. Pinkerton distinguishes “noise” from “voice.” Noise is the empty, undifferentiated racket surrounding us. Voice is purposeful and focused.

Pinkerton’s poem taught me a new word, “coronach,” which The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines as “A Gaelic funeral song or dirge.” Drummond’s name recalls the Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649), who wrote a sonnet on life and the inexorability of death:

“I know that all beneath the moon decays,
And what by mortals in this world is brought,
In Time’s great periods shall return to nought;
That fairest states have fatal nights and days;
I know how all the Muse’s heavenly lays,
With toil of spright which are so dearly bought,
As idle sounds of few or none are sought,
And that nought lighter is than airy praise.
I know frail beauty like the purple flower,
To which one morn oft birth and death affords;
That love a jarring is of minds’ accords,
Where sense and will invassal reason’s power:
Know what I list, this all can not me move,
But that, O me! I both must write and love.”

As I write Sunday afternoon, it’s the one-hundred-tenth birthday of Yvor Winters, who died Jan. 25, 1968.


Walter Pancik said...

Did you know Christopher Drummond? I did; he was my teacher at Western Reserve University in the 60's, the best teacher I've ever had. I revere him so was moved by Sarah Emsley's words and especially Pinkerton's poem. I understand you are in touch with Helen Pinkerton; you might tell her that someone who knew Christopher Drummond believes that there could be no finer tribute to the man than her poem.

Helen Pinkerton said...

DEar Mr. Pancik,

Thank you. It is good to know that Christopher's wonderful teaching lives on in your memory--as his friendship lives on in my memory.