Sunday, July 23, 2017

`Boxer's Vigilance and Poet's Rigour'

The best allusions are unannounced and kept under wraps. That eliminates the showoffs who want only to parade their learning. The second time I read Ulysses, I did so with the goal of thoroughly annotating it – a ridiculous ambition for a twenty-year-old autodidact even to contemplate. I did pretty well with Shakespeare but muffed the opera and Irish history references, among other things. Still, with subsequent readings, I filled the margins of my old black-covered Random House edition and taped in additional sheets with further annotations. Now the book is swollen and held together with rubber bands, and is less a novel than a curious artifact of my prideful youth. I’m unlikely to read Joyce’s novel again.

In 1954, Yvor Winters brought Thom Gunn to the United States and Stanford University. Gunn had graduated from Cambridge the previous year and published his first collection, Fighting Terms. He had never visited the United States. On Aug. 28, 1954, Winters writes to the young Englishman (The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, ed. R.L. Barth, 2000), welcomes him to the U.S. and invites him to come to supper when he arrives. Winters quickly chucks his formidable reputation:

“I am not a Don; I am merely a professor. My most intimate friends are Airedales, but I enjoy my poets, and during the school year I have not the time to see as much of them off the campus as I would like.”

Winters expresses sadness that Gunn’s first glimpse of the U.S. will be the Atlantic seaboard: “It is a dismal province, and you will like the west the better, I suppose, for having seen the worst the first.” Winters drily balances wit and West Coast chauvinism:

“In New Mexico and Arizona . . . the earth is red. These are good states. In California the earth is red on the western slope of the Sierras, and when you get down into the great valley, the grass will be dead and the air will be yellow. I find that I cannot endure to be far from the yellow air for very long. It is like gold to airy thinness beat, but it smells better.” 

A good allusion flatters the recipient. It’s a gift. Winters knew Gunn had read his Donne, and Gunn saw in Winters a “boxer’s vigilance and poet’s rigour.”   

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