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Poetry in Person: Twenty-Five Years of Conversation with America's Poetsby Alexander (edt) Neubauer
IN THE FALL OF 1970, at the New School in Greenwich Village, a new teacher posted a flyer on the wall. It read “Meet Poets and Poetry, with Pearl London and Guests.” Few students responded. No one knew Pearl London. But the seminar’s first guests turned out to be John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, and Robert Creeley. Soon Maxine Kumin followed, then W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Galway Kinnell. So London upped the ante: She began asking all poets to deliver nothing less than the manuscripts of their newest poems for discussion.
“If you can come,” she wrote each of them, “I would appreciate you sending me any notes jotted down on the back of an envelope, or work sheets of any sort, even doodles. This is a course concerned essentially with the making of the poem, with the work in progress as process— with both the vision and the revision. In a sense, the shaping spirit of the imagination is what it is all about.”
Poets accepted one after another, word spread, and for the next twenty-five years London’s classroom became know simply as “Works in Progress,” a coveted destination for Nobel laureates Walcott and Heaney, a string of eight U.S. poet laureates, double National Book Award winner Merrill, and eleven Pulitzer Prize winners. There were poets at the height of their careers—Rukeyser, Simic, Clampitt, and Olds for instance— and poets at the cusp of their emergence in letters, like Carson and Muldoon. They came to London’s door as she requested, with fresh manuscripts and sheaves of notes and drafts in hand, under-the-hood evidence of exactly “the vision and the revision” that provoked her attention.
Maybe for the poets it seemed almost natural at the time, to finish or nearly finish a poem and share stages of the process with a small class of would-be poets and a dedicated teacher. But for us, in retrospect, the sheer accumulation of key names and important poems casts this seemingly quiet enterprise in a different light. Some of the poems they shared with London’s class would later be widely anthologized; many would turn out to be central pieces in the poets’ careers—for instance, the title poems to Pinsky’s The Want Bone and Hirsch’s Wild Gratitude, Clampitt’s Black Buttercups, a section of Merrill’s epic The Changing Light at Sandover, and Hass’s essential “Meditation at Lagunitas.”
What did the poets get in return? They got examined, dissected, valued, and exposed. And nearly everyone came back for more—some two or three times, Plumly a record five. Within four walls for an hour and a half every other week, London quietly brought a generation to light, the best poets and poetry of the last quarter of the 20th century.
THIS STORY might have been lost or little known following London’s death in 2003—as classroom magic always fades, except briefly in memory— if not for the discovery of a hundred tapes hidden in boxes in a closet at her home in Manhattan, near Washington Square Park. The tapes represent most of the sessions recorded through 1998, when she retired. That the trove existed, secreted away for so long, stunned most everyone who knew about this seminar. It made sense that a few recordings would survive and resurface, since an old- fashioned cassette player sat on a desk during class, manned by one student or another. No one paid particular attention to it, however. No one ever expected to see the tapes together again, certainly not a complete catalog of them side by side. Yet there they were, along with file upon file stuffed with copies of the manuscripts and drafts the poets brought along on the days they visited.
I KNEW about Pearl London’s class, though not about the tapes or files. For five years in the mid-1990s I taught fiction writing at the New School, and if there was an empty chair and my schedule allowed, I dropped in to listen. Forché, Pinsky, Kunitz, Plumly, Hirsch— these were like no interviews I’d ever heard. It’s a mistake to call them interviews at all, of course. With London in charge, as first-time guests learned soon enough, the interview model just broke down. These were conversations: passionate, human, sometimes formal or funny, tilting now and then toward improvisational theater. How did their new work reflect each poet’s central concerns? Were they after form or meaning, rhythm or rhyme, lyric or narrative, protest or confession? London kept looking for the heart, the essential metaphor of their work, and often enough she found it.
OF THE HUNDRED or so newly discovered recordings, I had to winnow down to the following twenty-three for this book. They appear for the first time. Some tapes, such as Creeley’s and Ashbery’s, had gone missing entirely. For others, the choice was extremely difficult. How, say, to leave out W.S. Merwin? It came down to finding a particular array of poems and an array of particular voices, as I hope readers will see. In the end the poets speak for themselves. I’ve included brief chapter introductions to situate their visits in time: who they were when they arrived at London’s doorstep, what they had written, what was later to come. But I also need to say a word more about how London set these conversations in motion and teased so much original material from so many poets for so many years. It may help to see what they saw on their way to her class.
FIRST THING: Works in Progress was held in an unusual room. You reached it through the 66West Twelfth Street entrance of the New School, with its 1930s International-style façade, then went straight to the fifth floor. Auden, Frost, Lowell, O’Hara, and Kunitz had taught there, in a writing program founded in 1931, and Pearl London’s room—best of the best—held the sprawling, nine-panel murals of Thomas Hart Benton. They surrounded the class, regionalist images of America at work and play, until they were tragically sold off just before Derek Walcott’s 1982 visit. As students filtered in, Pearl London would already be sitting at a desk in the front, going over countless notes and passing sheaves of copied manuscripts among the early arrivals. She also positioned the poet’s previously published books in front of her, annotated to the hilt in her signature heavy ink; with check marks beside the poems she liked, double checks beside the stanzas, underlining and marginalia flooding the page. In addition she brought her own sheets of notes for the day and a few starting quotations ready to go on the blackboard. It was preparation taken to a new level. And then there was London herself.
“When I recall her I always see her ‘in color,’ ” Philip Levine wrote to me. “She dressed colorfully, and her speech and gestures—her whole presentation of herself—was dramatic. For that and for her beauty I assumed she had experience acting.” She favored cloaks, bright red lipstick, and large necklaces, a 1950s- style of high fashion she never changed, and she doused her visitors with a hospitality bordering on devotion. Levine also recalled a woman “of some years” who “still has the presence of someone who clearly knows she is attractive but makes nothing of it.” She certainly could be charming, by turns almost girlish in her excitement over new poetry and new poets and then astute, strong- minded, and clear. “Magnificent poem,” she would repeat—and mean it.
For poets coming from afar, she played host; there would often be coffee or drinks at her row house a few blocks away on Washington Mews, gatherings for students, friends, and admirers of poetry. She served in a quiet way as literary doyenne, if doyenne is still a role possible in this world: a Natalie Barney or Mabel Dodge. She was the daughter of M. Lincoln Schuster, cofounder of publishing house Simon & Schuster, and the wife of Ephraim London, a lawyer who famously defended artists’ rights of free expression. Maybe that explains part of it.
At age twenty-two London had written the official poem of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Orson Welles had read it over the radio. Louis Untermeyer had anthologized a translation she made in his canonical Treasury of Great Poems. She earned a master’s in English at NYU, and, as Robert Polito notes in his postscript here, there was some talk of late poems, but it’s sure that nothing she did creatively gave her as much pleasure as those decades she devoted to teaching poetry, choosing and inviting the poets, and preparing weeks in advance for their visits. If not consciously a mission, the class anyway became her life’s work.
At the start of each session, she was always gracious, formal in an old school way, characteristically addressing her guests by both first and last names: “Derek Walcott, I’m thrilled you are here, it’s really very good of you to come, we’re going to start right in.” And start she did, with a query about a particular line of his that bothered her. Questions were meant to be provocative and intricate, but rarely, as I came to hear them, merely literary. Again, she pushed to engage the core of the poetry. When June Jordan came a second time, London started with a quotation from her favorite instigator, W. H. Auden: “Poets who want to change the world tend to be unreadable.” London knew the reaction she’d get. She invited many poet-activists to her class, from Rukeyser to a young Clampitt to C. K. Williams, and one can tell she sympathized with them. Jordan found Auden’s sentiment appalling and elitist, and it provoked a rather brilliant run of thoughts. The poets understood what London was doing. Hirsch joked that he felt exposed and wanted to put on his jacket. Grennan said that if London probed any further he’d have to take off his shirt. She’d openly suggest line and word alternatives—to Peacock, to Jordan—while Kumin was brave enough to admit she actually came to class looking for help on a poem.
Far from being put off, poets rose to the occasion. They were sitting beside someone who had read every word of both their poetry and essays, recent and old, and who even remembered answers from previous visits—see Stanley Plumly’s surprise at her recall. He later wrote her a thank you note: “I enjoyed especially visiting with your classes because they are your classes—well-prepared and caring.” Where else could they find that level of preparation, that kind of complete immersion in their poetry?
And, I imagine, the instinct to prepare and immerse has a complementary instinct, which is to save and record, if only for oneself. London was so devoted to these poets she couldn’t throw out any record of their visits, not a note, not a book, not a letter, not a copy of their work sheets—not a flimsy cassette tape thirty years old.
WHICH BRINGS A LAST WORD: Each of these ninety- minute tapes, transcribed, ran to some forty to fifty pages of text, so it also wasn’t obvious what parts to leave behind. Some stretches of each conversation were serious and meticulous in detail, others just freewheeling and irreverent—and the balance swayed from poet to poet depending on their mood that day or that week or even that year. My primary goal was to capture the poets’ voices and habits of thought as faithfully as possible, whether they spoke in complete paragraphs, like Walcott and Matthews, or sounded like telegrams. In short, poets not only spoke for themselves, they were also allowed to sound like themselves. Since cuts had to be made, much more of Pearl London’s voice was lost in favor of space for the poets.
Which is as it should be, of course. London would never have stepped in front of her guests. Nevertheless, if a book like this somehow retrieves lost slices of time in art, it may also catch in its net, by luck, a voice no one would otherwise come to know. During the course of his 1993 appearance, Edward Hirsch repeats a line from Robert Frost to the effect that if a book of poetry holds twenty-nine poems, the book itself becomes the thirtieth poem. Nearing the end of her career at the time of Hirsch’s visit, Pearl London loved that thought, and I think I know why. There was a narrative drive behind the rhythm of her questions, and it was energized by a deep love of poetry—and poets. Her classroom became the thirtieth poem and, one hopes, some of that energy and love will be present in this book.
From the Hardcover edition.
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