Tuesday, May 23, 2017

`I'd Rather Let Them Surprise Me'

The first writer I met was Max Ellison (1914-1985), a bearded Michigan poet who visited my high school in suburban Cleveland in 1969. He had just self-published a collection, The Underbark. I bought a copy for $2.50 and he signed it. Even then I recognized his poems were folksy, sub-Sandburg and not very good, but what I remember is sitting with him in the school library, just the two of us, talking. I was awed to meet a guy who had actually written a book and published it – in hard cover! I have no recollection of the substance of our conversation, except that Ellison encouraged me to write, if that’s what I wanted to do. To a directionless sixteen-year-old, he was a nice man.

I entered the state university in 1970. As an English major I met more writers – Anthony Burgess, Jerzy Kosinski, Stanley Plumly, Gary Snyder and John Hawkes. Burgess was entertaining, a raconteur; Kosinski, a drunken narcissist; Plumly and Snyder, solemn bores; Hawkes, a harsh egotist, another sort of bore. Best of all, I met the short story writer Peter Taylor, a well-mannered gentleman whose work I didn’t yet know but would later admire. I wasn’t aware of it, but the visiting writer industry was well underway on American university campuses by the early seventies. The rubber-stamp format was in place: meet with a class or two, give a public reading, collect a check – a sort of literary one-night stand.

An early variation on this formula is documented in Talks with Authors (Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), edited by Charles F. Madden. In 1964, Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., sponsored a course called “American Life as Seen by Contemporary Writers” for its students and those at five historically black colleges. The class, an early precursor to “distance education,” was taught in part by telephone. On Monday, Prof. Harry T. Moore of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale would lecture to the students, introducing the writer being read in class that week at the six schools. On Wednesday, students discussed the assigned work in class with their instructors. On Friday, the author would speak informally by telephone with the students. Among the writers taking part were James T. Farrell, Karl Shapiro, Anne Sexton and Kay Boyle. Transcripts of their conversations make up most of Talks with Authors, and most are predictably dreary. Fortunately, Richard Wilbur was among the participants. He is by far the most cordial, amusing and learned, betraying not a trace of condescension to the students. His manner is commonsensical:

“I think I ought to begin by saying that I’m not a militant member of any school of poets or poetry. I don’t have any poetic theories to sell. I don’t feel any impulse to tell other poets how they ought to write; I’d rather let them surprise me. To listen to some of the critics nowadays, especially those who write for the popular magazines, you’d think the American poetry scene was a battlefield with beats and squares and intermediate types all locked in deadly combat.”

Wilbur says the best American poets have always been “independent operators—what they call wildcatting in Texas,” which describes his own practice. He goes on:

“I do, of course, have opinions on other things besides poetry. I’m for God and Lyndon Johnson and conservation and civil rights, city planning, the nationalization of the railroads, and a few other things. However, I think it’s not generally for opinions and ideas that poets are interesting. Some [deadly word] poets are intelligent men, and they are entitled to their thoughts, but abstract argument and intellectual pioneering are not the special function of a poet.”

Wilbur reads and discusses three of his poems – “Seed Leaves,” “Beasts” and “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” Some of the discussion by students and teachers is tiresome, but that’s not Wilbur’s fault. Poetry, good or bad, brings out the pretentiousness in a lot of people, especially those who pursue “meaning” like predators. Wilbur remains gracious:

“What poetry does with ideas is to pull them down off the plane of abstraction and submerge them in sensibility: embody them in people and things, and surround them with a proper weather of feeling—an appropriate weather of feeling—to let you know how it would feel to dwell in the presence of a certain idea—how the world would look if you had a certain idea in mind. It helps you to respond not merely with the intellect but with the whole being.”

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