Friday, April 25, 2014

`Affection Is Secure'

Brad Bigelow at The Neglected Books Page this week featured a poem, “Leaves on the Capitol Grass,” by a poet I had never heard of, James Dawson, drawn from a collection, Trial Balances: An Anthology of New Poetry (1935), edited by Ann Winslow, that was also new to me. The poem was interesting (as was Bigelow’s choice of photo), and because I’m blessed by a university library with a deep collection, I borrowed the book and was surprised to find, after eighty years, some pleasingly familiar names, including J.V. Cunningham and Donald E. Stanford, as well as many who have justly earned their obscurity (Chloë Doubble, Lilian V. Inke, Milicent Laubenheimer). The work of thirty-two poets, none older than twenty-seven, is sampled. Also included are critical comments on each poet, some by masters in their own right – Yvor Winters, Louise Bogan, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens and Allen Tate. 

Stanford (1913-1998) went on to teach English at Louisiana State University and served as co-editor of Southern Review from 1965 to 1982. Winters’ brief essay on his poems is typically tart, and begins like this: 

“Don Stanford’s chief deficiency is one common to his years and to our period: He has not yet mastered his subject matter. That is, his thinking is occasionally erratic, and he sometimes fails to apprehend the relationship between idea and action or else succeeds in misapprehending it in some small measure but with a fervor and rhetorical force so considerable as almost to mislead even the skeptical reader.” 

The cool, forthright manner of these sentences, and the critical certainties that lie behind them, are so alien to the ingrown world of poetry in 2014 as to almost require translation. Winters is writing about one of his students, one he wishes to praise, encourage and share with readers. But he was constitutionally incapable of writing fluff. He was allergic to empty superlatives and couldn’t have blurbed on a bet. The praise, carefully prepared for, comes much later. Winters groups Stanford with Cunningham, James Agee and Barbara Gibbs (Cunningham’s future wife, the first of three) and says they have written “the best poetry thus far produced by the American and English poets now in their twenties [Winters turned thirty-five in 1935], or at least so far as I have examined and can judge it.” No cant, no puffery. In contrast, another Winters student and founding member of the Stanford School, Howard Baker, sounds almost fulsome when he writes of Cunningham (who was twenty-four): “…his really extraordinary command over his craft comes out best probably in `Retreating Friendship,’ which, because of the perfection in phrasing, is brilliant, complex and powerful.” Here is that poem, selected by Winslow: 

“Our testament had read:
Affection is secure;
It is not forced or led.
No longer sure 

“Of hallowed certainty,
I have erased the mind,
As mendicants who see
Mimic the blind.” 

It was Cunningham’s first published poem, appearing in the February 1932 issue of The Commonweal. He later retitled it “In Innocence” and revised two lines. “Our testament had read:” became “In innocence I said,” and the fifth line, “Of hallowed certainty,” became “Of the least certainty” – both improvements for reasons of terseness and what Baker calls “abruptness of wit.” The mature Cunningham left the punch of the final two lines intact.

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