Tuesday, April 12, 2011

`The Forthright Starch of His Opinions'

Like alter kockers on a park bench vying for dominance in the misery competition, Dave Lull and I swapped email health updates:

KURP: “I saw my doctor this morning. The wound looks good but the results from the cultures she took aren’t back yet.”

LULL: “I think staying in bed all day makes one mentally fuzzy; I'm doing things that don't require a lot of thinking.”

KURP: “I’m home, reading and vacuuming.”

LULL: “If you're fit enough to vacuum you can't be too sick. (Reading doesn't prove anything; you'll be reading on your death-bed.)”

Happy thought. My pre-death-bed reading on Monday included Donald Hall’s remembrance of his former teacher at Stanford University, Yvor Winters, collected in Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets (1992). In passing, Hall describes a scene of Winters reading in his office, circa 1953:

“Twice a week I arrived early for writing class in order to talk with him. Mostly when I knocked he was sitting at his desk reading poetry. His low loud voice told me to come in, and when he saw me he put a bookmark in his book. He turned his dilapidated morris chair to face me, and I tried things out on him, enjoying the forthright starch of his opinions.”

The anecdote is revealing in its details. The great poet-critic is spied reading, not a scene I witnessed with my professors. More likely they were grading papers, or talking on the telephone or with another student. Readers in the act of reading are oddly vulnerable, perhaps more themselves than on other semi-private occasions, abstracted enough to be self-revealing.

The scene with Winters seems oddly domestic, a man doing what he does at his ease, reading poetry. Another man might be listening to music or playing solitaire. The bookmark suggests the scene was no pose staged for a credulous student. It also suggests care: When finished with this interruption, I wish to resume my reading. “Low loud” is how I imagine Winters’ voice, confident enough not to holler. The “dilapidated morris chair,” too, is what I would expect – no frills, a little old-fashioned, without pretention, like Winters’ poems. “The forthright starch of his opinions”: Speech untrimmed to his listener’s delicate ears. No polite or fashionable niceties. This confirms all that we know of Winters’ critical stance and personality. Hall offers another account of Winters reading:

“Once as I entered his office, I asked him what he was reading. `Hart Crane,’ he said, and grumbled forcefully again about Crane’s romantic pantheism. `Then why do you read him?’ I asked. He answered shortly, `Because he’s so beautiful.’”

Only a fool expects consistency in human thought and action. Elsewhere in his essay Hall refers to Winters, a little archly, as “conservative dogmatist of logic, Saint Thomas, and metrics,” and continues:

“From that first night with Winters I remember not only his generosity and aggression; I remember how he introduces his Airedales—the great Black Jack above all—and the flora of the West; he loved dwelling on the abundance of vine and flower. He showed me a pomegranate, then split the fruit and demonstrated how to eat it: the New Englander took lesson in California.

“Winters was friendly, warm, and fatherly; Winters was pugnacious and nuts.”

An alter kocker worth knowing.


Shelley said...

"Because he's so beautiful."


Helen Pinkerton said...

Don Hall's sketch of Winters is quite acute, except his comment that he was"nuts." He was not; he was simply a very serious man, which was and is rare in the world of letters.I liked the memoir, since he was unexpectedly objective and fair. Winters was very hard on Don's poetry and another type of poet might have tried to get back at him.