Sunday, May 13, 2018

`If Anything's Enduring, These Endure'

In recent weeks I have expressed interest in two poets, both one-time students of Yvor Winters at Stanford University, and both in danger of being swallowed by what Clive James calls cultural amnesia: Charles Gullans (1929-1993) and Turner Cassity (1929-2009). Kentucky’s gift to poets and discerning readers, Bob Barth, has sent me a selection of their work, chapbooks and postcards, much of which he published. In 1989, he brought out The Music of His History: Poems for Charles Gullans on His Sixtieth Birthday, edited by Timothy Steele. Included in its twenty pages are some of the best American poets of the time: Edgar Bowers, Dick Davis, Thom Gunn, X.J. Kennedy, Helen Pinkerton and Barth himself. Here is the final stanza of Steele’s “For Charles, on His Sixtieth Birthday”:

“Keep writing, Charles: the truest reader hears
Through the vicissitudes of tastes and trends.
May health sustain you in the coming years;
And if, at times, despondency descends
Take heart in the admiration of your peers
And in the help that you’ve provided friends.
Be cheerful by such attainments, and be sure,
If anything’s enduring, these endure.”
Gullans’ quiet, rigorous, plain-spoken poems couldn’t have less to do with today’s “vicissitudes of tastes and trends.” The day when poems were expected to make sense, please the ears and perhaps remain happily in memory are long gone. Now poetry too often consists of “language [that] imitates / The public riot,” as Gullans puts it in “A Word for Poets and Politicians”:

“Come, let us teach
The virtue of plain speech
And plainer actions.
Enough of old distractions,
I’m sick of muddled thought
Which has slain kings
And kingdoms with confusion;
Its wars are always fought
To justify illusion
And hide the heart of things.

“Words should be brief
Lest action come to grief
And be disrupted.
Where manners are corrupted,
There language imitates
The public riot
In an excess of kind.
Each word delineates
The true shape of the mind
And the mind’s true disquiet.”

The poem comes from another chapbook Bob sent me – Moral Poems, published in Palo Alto in 1957 by John Hunter Thomas, a botanist at Stanford who is described in his obituary as an “amateur book printer.”

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