Thursday, August 06, 2020

History of My Reading: Presence

John Cage at Knox College in 1967.  Photo by Leonard Borden.
Of the four years I was enrolled at Knox College, I seem to have the least documentation for my third year, 1966-67: a half dozen Knox Student newspapers, a handful of letters, grade transcripts, papers and relevant notebook entries. There is however enough to nudge memories from that year--for instance, concerning some prominent visitors to campus.  Of some, like perennial Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas and UPI White House correspondent Merriman Smith, I have no recollection.  But I do remember the visit of Masters and Johnson.

 Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson were the co-authors of the sedately titled Human Sexual Response that nevertheless became an immediate best-seller when it was published in 1966.  The book reported on their studies of volunteers in their laboratory, and some of their conclusions contradicted conventional wisdom.  But their book's impact seemed based mostly on the fact that they were openly and dispassionately discussing aspects of sexual behavior and function that had not been part of acceptable public discourse.  In other words, they'd broken the silence.

 In January 1967, Dr. Master spoke to a capacity crowd of students in the Harbach Theatre and answered questions--some anonymously written in advance, some from the audience.  What I remember is the mood, which was of intense quiet and seriousness that approached reverence.  It seemed as if everybody believed that even a titter of nervous laughter, let alone a rude joke, would instantly send the event into chaos and disrepute.  (Although I do recall curious questions afterwards about the female student who had asked about fellatio and cunnilingus.)

W.H. Auden in New York 1966
From February 7 through 10, eminent poet W. H. Auden was at Knox.  He lectured in the Harbach Theatre, and read from his poetry in Kresge Recital Hall. Sometimes considered one of the 20th century's greatest poets (along with Yeats and Eliot), Auden's greatest influence was in the 1940s and 50s.

 American poetry took other directions by the 1960s, and I knew little about him.  We hadn't read him (as far as I remember) in our poetry classes, with the possible exception of his most famous poem, "September 1, 1939," written as World War II began.

 But he cut quite a figure on campus.  A couple of classmates remembered him wearing carpet slippers as he moved from place to place.  I recall his Hobbit or Tolkien sweatshirt (there was a national undergraduate revival of Tolkien underway.)

  I was among the students who had lunch with him on the balcony of the Oak Room.  This was supposed to be the first of several such lunches with various students, but it was the only one Auden attended.  He found the food inedible.  I was told that, hearing of Auden's penchant for food, the college booked him into the motel to which the Toddle House was attached.  I loved the Toddle House waffles, but it wasn't exactly gourmet dining.

 Classmate Leonard Borden was also at that lunch in the Oak Room.  He was assigned to then walk Auden to his next event, William Brady's Shakespeare class. As they ascended the stairs inside Old Main, Auden turned and offered Leonard this observation: "A poet should never use the word 'I' in a poem until he is over forty."

There was a party for him, at David Axlerod's apartment on Cherry Street downtown, which he shared with Dennis Stepanek.  Auden was there for awhile, pretty much staying in the kitchen.  This was after David got the ever-magical Judee Settipani to recreate a Mondrian design ("Broadway Boogie-Woogie") by painting it on a wall, significantly larger than the original.

 Auden had barely left the Toddle House behind before an entirely different sort of poet arrived, as cutting-edge as Auden was old guard. The second week of February 1967, Gary Snyder came to town.

  In his late 30s then, Snyder had been a presence in American poetry for over a decade.  He was among the poets who read at the famous Six Gallery evening in 1955 that premiered Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and launched the so-called Beat movement.  A student of American Indian cultures and both Chinese and Japanese languages, Snyder interspersed months and years at a Zen monastery in Japan with jobs on an oil tanker, on logging crews and as a fire lookout.

He was recently back from Japan when, just a couple of weeks before his Knox visit, Snyder accompanied Allen Ginsberg in leading the legendary Human Be-In in San Francisco that established the counterculture alliance between hippies and political activists, and prefigured the upcoming Summer of Love.

 The Knox Student lists Snyder's events as a lecture on Tuesday (subject: "What's Going On?") and a reading on Wednesday, both in the Alumni Room of Old Main beginning at 7:30 in the evening.  While Snyder did speak about political, cultural and environmental subjects at one or both of his appearances, I recall him reading a great deal of poetry at both--hours of it.

I'm pretty sure he read from Rip Rap and the completed sections of his long sequence Mountains and Rivers Without End.  He probably read work not yet published in book form; I seem to recall he read a version of "The Circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais."  ("Circumambulation" is a ritual walk around a sacred object in Buddhist and Hindu traditions, and Mt. Tam near San Francisco is considered a sacred mountain. A year or two later, I participated in such a circumambulation of Mt. Tam with former Knox student Michael Hamrin.)

 Snyder's readings were mesmerizing: poems of simple descriptions in brief bursts of mostly nouns and verbs, and mostly one syllable words (a conscious choice in Rip Rap due to his observation of classical Chinese) that produced a cumulative, incantatory magic.  After awhile the words became mostly sound and you got tired, but then they took you to another level.  I doubt that many audiences anywhere had the opportunity to hear Gary Snyder read for such sustained periods.  

His "talk" was probably similar to observations in his essays "Buddhism and the Coming Revolution" and "Passage to More Than India" published in his 1969 book Earth House Hold (the title is one literal definition for "ecology"), and also reprinted in Allen and Tallman's 1973 The Poetics of The New American Poetry.   I'm certain, for example that he quoted (as he did in "Buddhism and...") the old International Workers of the World slogan, "Forming the new society within the shell of the old."

His emphasis on the ignored value of the non-human and Indigenous cultures struck a chord with me: as he wrote, "In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past."

 Snyder also was an impressive presence on campus.  Jay Matson remembers that he wore an earring, some decades before this became a male fashion.  I recall the bells in his boots: little jingle bells that rang as he walked.  I loved that, and tried it myself for awhile.  But even in the upcoming counterculture it didn't catch on, alas.  Still, I remember sitting in the audience for the second event, alive with anticipation, and hearing those jingling boots tromping down the Old Man hall.

 The party for him was at James Campbell's apartment, which overflowed with students.  I asked him one question.  Though I don't remember what I asked about, it was in the nature of "how do you know?"  He answered that I'd have to "experience it."  I immediately jumped to the erroneous conclusion that he'd advised me to take LSD.  Such were the nerve endings as the wildness of the counterculture approached.  It was in fact a practical as well as a perfectly Buddhist answer to almost anything.

 Wendy Saul remembers telling Snyder at the party that she was writing a paper on witchcraft, and he said "something like, 'Why for God's sake? Just become a witch.' In retrospect that seems like good advice."

 But perhaps the most profound effect of Snyder's visit was felt by a younger student, Peter Overton.  He was so impressed by Snyder's talk that he decided to go to Japan as Snyder had done and study Zen.  Later he read about Tassajara and the San Francisco Zen Center.  He went to the Bay Area instead and began taking instruction at the Berkeley center.  Zen Buddhism in the Bay Area became his life.  Some of his talks are on the Internet.


I heard Snyder read again a few years later at a benefit reading for an ecology organization in Berkeley. He was among his old San Francisco colleagues, including Lew Welch, who read his famous California poem with the refrain "This is the last place/there is nowhere else to go."  Months later Welch disappeared, a presumed suicide.  I spoke with poet Michael McClure in 2003, who read there that day as well as at the historic 1955 event that launched Howl, and he remembered that reading in Berkeley as something special.

 For the next five years Snyder published poems in periodicals, from Look magazine and the New York Times to Poetry and the Hudson Review to Kayak, Caterpillar and Unmuzzled Ox.  His collection Turtle Island (a traditional name now applied to North America) sold something like 100,000 copies and won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize.  It included the prose statement "Four Changes" that set the agenda for a number of environmental groups.

Pretty soon after Snyder's Knox reading I bought the Four Season Foundation printings of RIPRAP and Cold Mountain Poems, and Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End at the Knox bookstore, soon adding the earlier Totem Press edition of Myths and Texts.

For awhile after, I acquired his books haphazardly, mostly as I came across them used, but eventually I had the poetry collections The Back Country (1968), Regarding Wave (1970) Axe Handles (1983), Left Out in the Rain (1986) and the hybrid Turtle Island (1975) as well as the prose collections Earth House Hold (1969), The Old Ways (1977) and The Real Work (1980).

Probably his prose masterpiece is The Practice of the Wild, published in 1990.  It was one of my first acquisitions as a resident of California in 1996.  I saw it in the window of Arcata Books, used.  The bookstore owner sold it to me and said, "I knew it wouldn't last long.  I just put it out this morning."
I had already found Gary Snyder: Dimensions of A Life (probably on a sale table at the U. of Pittsburgh bookstore), a large collection of tributes on the occasion of his 60th birthday. The Haida artist Robert Davidson provided the cover illustration. When I mentioned the book to Davidson in 1994, he was surprised to hear Snyder was still alive.  He thought it was a memorial volume. But when I met the novelist and poet Jim Dodge here in Arcata a few years later, I could recall having read his contribution to this collection.

 For me, living in California brought new dimensions to Snyder's work, both in terms of places he wrote about and the relevance of his writing to our ecology. (He lives most of a day's drive south of me, in the foothills of the Sierras.)

 So I began to acquire his more recent books: the completed Mountains and Rivers Without End (1997), Danger on Peaks (poems, 2004), A Place in Space (new and selected prose, 1995), Passage Through India (1992 edition) and Back on the Fire (essays, 2007.)  I even got his doctoral thesis, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth (1979.)

 Even at that, there are books I missed.  More recently I added The Etiquette of Freedom (2010), a companion book to a film featuring Snyder in conversation with poet and fictionist Jim Harrison, which also includes the film on DVD.  Now I have another experience of Snyder reading his work (which he said "is mostly done") in his late 70s.   In May 2020 Gary Snyder turned 90.

Snyder, Ginsberg chanting, Human Be-In 1967
Allen Ginsberg did not visit Knox in my time there, but he did read at the University of Iowa in Iowa City that spring of 1967, probably in April.

 It was a Midwestern version of a Be-In, called Gentle Thursday.  Ginsberg was beginning his years of greatest fame on college campuses, and his identification with the counterculture.

 I hitched a ride with a group of Knox faculty and students (Doug Wilson was one.)  I remember it as a huge event in bright sunshine, with Ginsberg reading and leading his "Om" chants.

 Leonard Borden remembers that he read his poem "Kral Majales (King of the May.)"  We, as I recall, were pretty far away. ( Leonard reports however that some Knox classmates wound up at Ginsberg's table in the University of Iowa cafeteria.) When the official events were over, we heard about a big party that night that would feature a pig roast.  Some of our group stayed, but I was among those who returned before then.  Later we learned that a number of people at the party became ill from under-cooked pork.

  John Cage visited Knox for a few days in the spring of 1967, though I have no documentation on exactly when.  Leonard Borden has some photos however, that suggest the weather was sunny and warm.
Photo by Leonard Borden (cropped): Dennis Parks, David Axelrod, Tad Gilster, Don Hanson, Bill Kowinski and John Cage on the Gizmo Patio, Knox College 1967. Click photo to enlarge .
Leonard borrowed Jack Herbig's Leica to capture these shots on the patio. That's me in the Lennon cap and sunglasses.  The person we're all focused on is John Cage.

I remember this day.  I came outside from the Gizmo counter with my paper cup of coffee in hand, and saw John Cage sitting alone on the patio.  I immediately asked if I could join him, eager to take advantage of this opportunity for a one-on-one.  Unfortunately, once I sat down I couldn't think of anything to ask him, or to talk about.
 For some reason--or out of sheer befuddlement-- I brought up the subject of the New York World's Fair, which I had visited one hot afternoon.  That Fair was notorious for the long lines to the major exhibits.  In fact, Dave Altman and I had walked around to check out the lines, and realized that there wouldn't be time to get into anything before we had to go. So I asked John Cage what he thought of the Fair.  "I liked the lines," he said.

 It was such a perfect John Cage response that I dined out on this story for decades--including an actual dinner with a group from Carnegie Mellon University, where I got to tell it to monologist Spalding Gray.  And just after writing this I chanced across some black and white film footage of a younger Cage (in a biography of dancer Merce Cunningham) advising that people stuck in lines could be entertained by hearing the sounds around them as music, and seeing the movement around them as dance.

 But that brief exchange was about all the solo time I had with Cage, as a stream of other students (and one faculty member) saw us and clustered around.  In these photos by Leonard Borden, you can see ceramics prof Dennis Parks, and students David Axelrod, Jack Herbig, Tad Gilster and Don Hanson.  Others came and went.

For his event (or events) at Knox, Cage likely read from his book Silence (perhaps the "Lecture on Nothing") and newer work that would be collected in A Year From Monday -- maybe "How To Improve The World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse.")

In any case, it is from this latter piece that I extracted two statements that have stayed with me over the years.  I can only approximate his line breaks: "They ask what/the purpose of art is.  Is that how/things are?  Say there were a thousand/artists and one purpose, would one/artist be having it and all the nine/ hundred and ninety-nine others be missing the point?" "The truth is that everything causes/everything else.  We do not speak therefore/ of one thing causing another.  There/are no secrets.  It's just we thought they/said dead when they said bread." This piece also contains a speculation that seems to have come true: "Relevant information's hard to come/by.  Soon it'll be everywhere, unnoticed."

This lecture and others were replete with references to McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller and others who would form the backbone of 1970s futurism, a forgotten story.  Since I was well into my unguided and somewhat solitary immersion in McLuhan, this was pretty exciting.

 Cage talked about making creative choices based on "chance procedures," mostly throwing the stalks or coins of the I Ching.  I believe he selected some of what he read at Knox based on chance procedures.  I also seem to remember there was a performance of his most famous work, called 4' 33,'' which basically consists of musicians in a concert environment doing nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds.  The sounds that arise naturally in the room and from outside it during that time constitute the music.

 John Cage, born in 1912, had quite a life-- in California, Europe, the Pacific Northwest, New York etc.-- before his period of greatest international fame began in the 1960s, and his ideas found resonance in new intellectual movements as well as the growing counterculture.

John Cage at Knox 1967 by Leonard Borden
His music and his ideas could confuse and infuriate people, but John Cage himself was such a calming, good-humored and seemingly guileless presence, that the word "disarming" could have been coined just for him.

 He was that way at Knox, and he charmed everyone with his storytelling, and with a simplicity that encouraged receptivity to the complexities and paradoxes of his ideas. Formally dressed, with his cigarette holder, he was almost courtly. He listened.  But he wasn't stuffy.  We got to experience that frequent and legendary laugh. He seemed to enjoy Knox and its surroundings, including the mushroom-hunting he loved.  Wendy Saul remembers picking mushrooms on the Old Main lawn with him, and I recall overhearing on his second visit to Knox his rapturous description of a local mushroom expedition, probably at Green Oaks.

 On that second visit (probably the following year), Cage brought Merce Cunningham and dancers, so Knox got the rare opportunity to see these dances in intimate surroundings, with the artists available before and after the performances. (My memory is meeting them in the rehearsal lobby outside the Studio Theatre.)

 As I recall, these dances were also governed to some extent by indeterminate means and chance procedures that decided what each dancer would do in a particular space for each interval of time, so that every dance was a unique event. It's worth noting that the Merce Cunningham dance troupe worked in obscurity for more than a decade, from 1953 to 1965. They started to achieve recognition, especially within the dance world, no more than three years before their appearance at Knox.  Cunningham's stellar career stretched over 50 years.  He died in 2009 at the age of 90.

There are several threads that link these people together, other than their appearance at Knox in 1967.  One would run through Allen Ginsberg, who knew them all, including W.H. Auden.  But the most meaningful thread linking Snyder, Ginsberg and Cage is Zen Buddhism, and specifically the man who largely introduced Zen to America, D.T. Suzuki.

 This common starting point is described at the beginning of Kay Larson's wonderful 2012 book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists.  The book is mostly about Cage but it starts with Gary Snyder in 1951, sitting by the side of the road while waiting for rides through Nevada to school in Indiana, reading Suzuki's essays.  Before long he would be meditating five hours a day in a Zen monastery in Japan.

A couple of years later, Allen Ginsberg picked up a different book by Suzuki in the New York Public Library, and decided to check out Suzuki's classes at Columbia. He didn't go for long but this first foray into Eastern modes would bear fruit in later years.

 Meanwhile, John Cage was already interested in Eastern modes of thought when he first heard Suzuki lecture on Zen in 1950.  When Suzuki's regular classes began in 1953, Cage was there.

 To some extent, Zen came naturally to Cage.  The basis of Buddhist meditation is attention; to be fully present in the moment.  That was his approach to music and living.

 Indeterminacy comes from Zen, Larson writes, in which there is no fixed identity but only process. Ego and other, inner and outer, life and death and other foundational dualities in western thought are questioned in Buddhism, which, if nothing else, liberates the individual to question other assumptions and behavior.

 Cage also found the essential humor in the apparent paradoxes and the odd wit of masters such as D.T. Suzuki, S. Suzuki (founder of the San Francisco Zen Center) and the Dalai Lama. According to Larson (a veteran art critic for New York Magazine and afterwards a practicing Buddhist), one element that the artistic innovators of the 1940s onwards had in common is that they'd just talked to John Cage.  For them and for us, Cage provided two attitudes: encouragement to be open to new ideas and one's own way, and his own openness to others, even when their work was very different from his.  Our "proper business", he said, is "curiosity and awareness."

Cage and Merce Cunningham, maybe 1950s
Larson also observes something especially relevant to these Knox years: that while postwar existentialism expressed alienation and suffering, the long tradition of Buddhism was meant to liberate individuals and alleviate suffering.  She structured her book in part to show how Cage found a way out of his own suffering by the means presented to him in Buddhist teachings. Cage presented alternatives to approaches and attitudes underlying our academic programs.

  There was a period when I made some decisions using chance procedures, to see what happened.  I used them in some writing, even in the 1970s.

Ultimately there is the question of how to sustain a life with this commitment.  But just having Cage's ideas and example in the mix was valuable.

 One of Cage's Knox trips was the occasion for an anecdote in his later book M:Writings 67-72, about Sam Moon picking him up at the airport. Cage became more of an international globe-trotter in the 1970s, but he did return to Knox for a performance in 1983, and was interviewed in the student magazine Catch.  This was shortly before Moon retired, which is a reminder that the other common thread here is that Sam Moon brought them all to Knox. John Cage died in 1992, weeks before his 80th birthday, which was set to be celebrated around the world.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

History of My Reading: The Summer Electric

First, some housekeeping.  One of the virtues of the Internet is that it's easy to change what's been published to reflect new information.  Another is that others read it and offer corrections and additions.  Sometimes I also find notes or documentation that clears up a mystery, corrects a fact or adds something.  So (perhaps contrary to blog tradition) I go back and make those corrections and additions in the appropriate posts in this series.  I consider it all a work in progress.  And a big thank you to those who offer these corrections and additions.  Please keep them coming. 

In May of 1966 I won $75 (or maybe it was $50) worth of books from the Knox Bookstore, as awarded for the best writing in English classes by a second year student.  To understand what a bonanza this was, considering the following:
I don't know all the books I bought immediately but I am pretty sure that this is when I expanded my James Joyce collection with quality Compass Books paperback copies of Dubliners ($1.45), Finnegans Wake ($2.25) and the accompanying A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell (yes, that Joseph Campbell) and Henry Morton Robinson ($1.65.)  I topped that off with a Modern Library hardback copy of Ulysses ($3.25.)


Earlier that school year I'd purchased the Compass Books paperback of A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man ($1.45.)  So that's all of Joyce's fiction for $8.40.

 Which suggests the purchasing power of my prize. Though I've since acquired other editions (especially corrected ones) and have considerably expanded my Joyce collection, I should mention that I've had all of these same copies for more than 50 years, and they're still in fine shape.

 The Compass books are especially praiseworthy: sturdy and all the same vertical length, they are made to be shelf companions for years.  But the Modern Library edition of Ulysses is also made to last.  It has passages marked that I used as quotes in my book, The Malling of America published in 1985.

So my personal library was considerably enhanced, and my summer bright with the possibilities of exploring these books.  I packed much of what I'd acquired so far in a cardboard box I got from the Knox Bookstore, and sent them home. Once back in western Pennsylvania, with a makeshift and mind-numbing job, I eagerly awaited their arrival.  And waited.  And waited.  The box never came.

Efforts to trace it were unavailing, and I had sleepless hours of anxiety and despair over its loss.  I was not going to be able to replace that cache of books any time soon. The mystery was solved unexpectedly when I returned to campus in the fall.  I was in the Knox Bookstore when someone on the staff heard my name--or I was telling someone the story or something--but he remembered a box of books in the back with my name on it.  Somehow my books had been delivered not to my address, but to the Knox Bookstore.  The prodigal books were returned to me, and if there was not immediate feasting, it was because I was in considerable shock.

  However, the prize did result in at least one book that dominated my summer.  I was discussing my windfall with Doug Wilson that May, and he suggested a book that was stirring a lot of controversy called Understanding Media by someone called Marshall McLuhan. The bookstore had it in paperback, and it was small enough to carry with me when I traveled home.  It changed everything, that summer and for years to come.

It's hard to describe--or to minimize--the impact of that book, not only on me but on the academic/intellectual/ book-reading world, and ultimately beyond that to professions, government and corporations. McLuhan was featured on magazine covers and television news programs worldwide.

 A 1967 book I acquired in hardback, McLuhan hot & cool: a critical symposium collected articles and essays on McLuhan by cultural critics Susan Sontag and Dwight Macdonald, literary critics Frank Kermode and George Steiner, art critic Harold Rosenberg, economist Kenneth Boulding, advertising guru Howard Luck Gossage, anthropologist Dell Hymes, Marxist critic Raymond Williams, poet A. Alvarez and journalist Tom Wolfe, among others.

"Suppose he is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov...?" Wolfe asked, reflecting the hyperbole of the time.

Today he seems largely forgotten, except for his signature phrase "the medium is the message," while contemporary culture has absorbed and assimilated much of what he observed and formulated, especially concerning media and technology.

 And he continues to be misunderstood, as he was for the decades of his academic/intellectual popularity (which provided the comedy for a famous scene in Annie Hall.)  At the time, however, it was all new--and potentially a key to almost everything.  McLuhan and all that he generated, dominated the next five years, and probably overwhelmed me.

That summer, reading him was like fireworks going off in my head.  Technology as the extensions of our organs of perception and action.  New media adopts the old media it replaces as content, as an art form.  Electronic media as radically new in comparison with previous media--the overriding importance of what the form did and meant, dwarfing the supposed content it had shaped into something new.
Most--but not all--of my current McLuhan collection
McLuhan's aphoristic style and his way with literary quotes made immediate and dare I say electric connections.  I still have that first copy of Understanding Media, with its underlinings.  One of them was:  "The student today lives mythically and in depth."  Sure sounded like my experience.

 I had problems grappling with the sense of electronic media--principally television then--making the book obsolete.  But I felt this much truth of it: our media environment was changing how we experienced books, as well as how books might be written.

  Understanding Media, like any personally important book, was a gateway drug.  Not only to all the other McLuhan books that tumbled out in the next few years, but to Buckminster Fuller, Edmund Carpenter and other thinkers and writers he referenced. The excitement of McLuhan contrasted with the tedium of my summer life and job. Once again, I did not get the job I thought I was getting this summer.  In fact I thought I'd be spending the summer still in Galesburg.

  At the end of May I'd moved from Anderson House to my first off-campus apartment, in the same West Berrien building as James Campbell's place.  This smaller apartment--two rooms on the second floor around the back with the address of 247 1/2--was the residence of Gerry Roe (who Campbell dubbed "Geroe," a nickname which stuck tight.)  I believe the apartment as well as the editorship of the Siwasher had been bequeathed to Geroe by Bob Misiorowski.

I was moving in, not only for the summer but for the coming school year.
Admiral/Maytag plant outside Galesburg
The plan was to get one of the many temporary and well-paying jobs at Galesburg manufacturers.  There were so many jobs that the employment bureau told us to wait until we were ready to start and they would place us.

The most likely was the Admiral plant. (All of this is from letters I wrote home--I'd forgotten most of it.) But just as I was finishing schoolwork the Admiral plant shut down one complete division--building air conditioners--because, even with at least a hundred students already signed up, they didn't have sufficient manpower to run it.  So we were suddenly unemployed because there were too many jobs.

The other job sources in town quickly filled their vacancies.  Temps were often expendable anyway--subject to being fired at any time if someone permanent was hired. The only work I got was a few days painting a ceiling in Doug Wilson's new house (built in 1874) on Tompkins Street.  Our plans for the summer fell apart.

 Not only that, but so did plans for the apartment in the fall.  We soon realized that the space was too small for three, and somebody else had dibs on the second spot for the school year.  Just before I left Galesburg I was promised an apartment on the other side of campus that a fellow student had leased but didn't want.  It was a couple of rooms on the first floor of a nice house or duplex.  As it turned out I would never live there either, but that's another story.

So I soon found myself back in Greensburg, and cutting grass and doing other menial work for a small complex of apartment buildings. It's hard to explain the enervating and at times maddening effects of such a summer, not only on body, mind and spirit but on identity. (In addition, the "generation gap" was starting to open--this was the summer when hair length started becoming an issue.)  Without the support of the college environment and the people there, the new self I'd been building threatened to leak away.  Leaving me with what?  With who?

Books helped, and letters, and movies, but most important was music.  Music would become the principal support of a generation's identity, and it was becoming mine.

 Key to the summer of 1966 was the release of the Beatles' revolutionary album Revolver, with its first double-sided single  "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yellow Submarine" on the radio.

 Earlier in the summer, their U.S.-only album Yesterday and Today was released, including songs that would appear on the UK Revolver, while others had been on the UK's version of Rubber Soul.  I remember hearing some of them the previous spring in Galesburg, purloined from the UK according to the deejay, on a transistor radio I carried with me to the laundromat.  I particularly remember "And Your Bird Can Sing" and  "I'm Only Sleeping," with its backwards tape sound.  "An early clue to the new direction," as the trend manager says in A Hard Day's Night.

Spring had seen Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (and summer his mysterious motorcycle accident and disappearance) and the Beach Boys Pet Sounds. Also released that summer were Donovan's Sunshine Superman and the first Jefferson Airplane album, heralding the San Francisco sound that would soon help define the psychedelic 60s.

Though I didn't yet acquire the Beach Boys and Donovan albums, songs from them were on the radio. The Crosscurrents learned "Let's Get Together" from the Airplane.

Before our school year started in September, the Monkees television show began, and the first of their string of hits ("Last Train to Clarksville") was on the radio. Many of their songs would be written by classic pop composers like Carole King and Gerry Goffin. But this was just the beginning of the counterculture, and the culture it was counter to would make Herb Albert and his easy listening trumpets by far the best selling recording artist of the year in the US, with several albums in the top ten.

 Besides the records and some of the music on the radio, I had the music I was making with my friends in the Crosscurrents.  There is no sustained pleasure like that of creating songs as a band, and few ways to relate to other people so profound as sharing that creation. And then there was this day...one of the strangest of my life.

Three times in the past school year, the two worlds of my life, of Galesburg and Greensburg, had been scheduled to meet.  The first was the Christmas visit to Greensburg of friends from Knox that was cancelled because their car was damaged before they left.  The second was less scheduled than speculative, when my friend Mike was debating at another college in Illinois, but a hoped for visit proved impractical.

 The third time was to be a concert by the Crosscurrents at Knox.  I'd cajoled the powers that be to schedule it in some small auditorium and throw in a little money for expenses.  Mike and Clayton were all set to join me in Galesburg, when intense family pressure descended on Mike, and I got a phone call telling me they would not make the trip.

 But there was a fourth time, that summer, when it actually did happen.  By spring I was seeing Peggy Miller, a junior at Knox who had committed to finishing her degree in San Francisco the following year.  She was spending the summer in Dayton, Ohio with an aunt, a teacher, while working at a restaurant to save money for school.

 In July, her aunt and a couple of other teachers were driving to a conference in Pennsylvania, and would come close to Greensburg on the turnpike.  Peggy could hitch a ride with them, and meet them near that exit for the return in a couple of days.

There wasn't much to see or do in Greensburg, but Peggy was eager to hear the Crosscurrents.  I'd played her a tape and told her about what we were doing.  So I arranged for Mike and Clayton to come to the house, and we would play for her.

Peggy got to Greensburg in late afternoon.  Everyone was nervous, especially my parents.  Peggy and I soon escaped to coffee and a movie.  At some point in the evening, Peggy got a brief headache of a particular kind she had learned to associate with bad things happening to a family member--a premonition.  When we got back she asked my parents if anyone had called her.  No one had, and she was relieved.

 The next morning I awoke with the worst headache of my life. Every sound was torture.  I tried to settle myself down with a cup of morning coffee but it just got worse.  I simply bolted out the back door and began to walk.  Peggy was asleep in my room and I of course had slept in the basement.  I didn't want to leave her marooned there but I was compelled to move.

I walked without thinking, without being able to think.  When I came to myself, I realized I was walking on the side of the highway, near where it met with the road that led to my grandparents' house in Youngwood about six miles away.  I stopped and turned around.  I had to get back.

Late that afternoon Mike and Clayton arrived, and we set up in my basement where we often rehearsed and worked out our new songs.  My parents were out on the patio with another couple, firing up the grill.  Eventually we did one song for Peggy, maybe two.  But then there was a knock at the door.

It was a woman I didn't know, one of the couple on the patio, who said my mother had gotten a call from my grandparents' house and both parents rushed out immediately.  The phone rang soon after and I was told that my grandfather had died suddenly.  Later we learned it was a cerebral hemorrhage.  After lunch he had retired to his favorite living room chair for his customary nap.  That's where my grandmother found him.  He just didn't wake up.  He was 72.

The coincidence of Peggy's premonition and my headache and hypnotic walk that morning did not immediately emerge as memorable, since there was so much to do and so much else to feel.  But it stands out now.

I said goodbye to Peggy the next day and faced the strangeness of the next few days, for this was the first death in my family I'd experienced. I always felt close to my maternal grandfather, and it was years before I realized that I'd never had an actual conversation with him, at least after childhood.  Our relationship was complete without it.  I'd known him all my life.  My first Christmases were at that house in Youngwood, I'd stayed there often as a child.  I'd spent afternoons with him in his tailor shop up the street, though truthfully, much of that time I was reading comic books in the barber shop next door.

Me in my First Communion suit with my grandfather
As would be clear in the ceremonies before and during the funeral, I was the eldest grandson.  At our big family dinners I always sat in the far left corner--partly because I am left-handed, partly so everyone was in range of my one good ear, and partly because I was sitting next to my grandfather at the head of the table.  He would color my glass of 7Up with a cloud of red wine, and over the years, he increased the proportion, until it was all wine.

 Ignazio Severini was born in Manoppello, a mountain town in the Abruzzi province of Italy, near the Adriatic coast.  He was posted in northern Italy during World War I.  My grandmother told me stories that suggested he had not been part of the fighting.  But one of his daughters, my Aunt Toni, told me he had, and that he'd been poison gassed.  She remembered that even when she was a child his digestion was so delicate that my grandmother had to make his meals without tomato sauce or spices. (That changed by the time I came along.)

When I read about the Great War in that region, I realized that he might have been there for some horrific battles. But my grandmother still may have been right.  She said he'd been saved from the front lines because an officer saw how well his uniform fit, and learned he was a tailor.  That he was kept busy tailoring uniforms for officers may indeed have saved his life.

He grew up directly across a narrow street from Gioconda Iezzi, and after he returned from the war he married her.  With two friends and nearly 3,000 other passengers, he sailed to the United States in 1920 aboard the New Amsterdam, the last major ocean liner to carry auxiliary sails.

  I saw one of his companions at his house in Youngwood the day he died.  Vince said he'd intended to visit that evening, because it was the anniversary of their departure.

There were men and families from Manoppello already in Greensburg and Youngwood. He stayed with an older sister and other extended family not far from where I grew up.  Ignazio worked at a tailor shop in Pittsburgh, taking trolleys back and forth the 35 mile distance, and later in a shop in downtown Greensburg, near the train station and the big hotels.

He saved his money, as so many young Italian men did--some to take back to Italy, some to bring their wives and family to America.  His wife stayed in Italy to take care of both of their mothers in their last illnesses.

His daughter Maria Flora, my mother, was born there, weeks after his departure.  She was two years old when she and my grandmother made their ocean voyage to New York, and the train trip to Greensburg.

During the early days of the Depression, a man who couldn't pay the taxes on his house in Youngwood sold it to my grandfather for a song, because--my grandmother said--he liked them.  My grandfather set up his own tailor shop several blocks up the street. He lived in that house and worked in that shop for the rest of his life. It's one thing for his grandchildren to remember him as a kind and loving man.  But it's another for his children to remember him that way.  My mother said it that day, and my aunt was still saying it thirty years later: above all, he was kind.

I saw Peggy again later that summer when I visited her in Dayton.  She worked in a huge, noisy restaurant where the waitresses were guided by numbers that lit up on a strip above the doors to the various rooms.  But she'd been an actress at Knox, and in her waitress uniform she was another smiling version of the maid Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth.

While I was in that part of Ohio we drove the half hour to Yellow Springs, so I could at least see Antioch College, which had declined to accept me as a transfer student.

We saw a movie playing there, now pretty much forgotten but very important to me at the time.  It was called Morgan! and featured Vanessa Redgrave (who received an Oscar nomination) and David Warner (whose 1966 Hamlet is considered the best of a generation) in their first starring film roles. Directed by Karel Reisz and with a witty, crazy and complex script, it was one of those movies that personalized the 1960s for me.

Those 1960s British films (Richard Lester's The Knack as well as his Beatles movies; Georgy Girl, Poor Cow, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Girl With the Green Eyes, War Game, Doctor Strangelove --which Kubrick made in England while he was living there; Two for the Road, Charlie Bubbles and Lindsay Anderson's If...) were all important to me.  They not only were cinematic companions to the music coming from the UK, they were influencing, for better or worse, my personality and relationships, as well as my writing and my reading.   That would only become more evident in the coming school year.  

Sunday, June 28, 2020

History of My Reading: The Pressure of Reality

Books come alive in real time, and in its context.  The book, a product of its time, enters into a kind of dialogue with readers in their time and place; the year, the year of their age, the month and season, the days and nights of sun or rain or snow, of being in love or longing, bereft, lonely, beset, anxious, ebullient, tired.

Seymour Library at Knox College 
In sunlight or yellow lamplight, in a specific room, on a train, within glancing distance of a tree, of tail lights bright in the dusk, in a noisy coffee shop or under florescent lights at a quiet table in the dead of night.

 But the context extends more generally. Part of it is what's in the newspapers, what's on the radio, what's on everybody's mind, what's most insistently on the reader's mind, the state of the reader's heart.

All the rhythms of life affect the rhythms of the words, and if the book casts a strong spell, the rhythm of its words will affect the rhythm of the reader's heart and spirit, and the kinds of things the reader sees and hears, thinks and feels.  Some effects evaporate, while others marinate.  The reader may forget the book, but the book seldom forgets the reader.

It matters to a greater or lesser degree how the book and reader find each other, who introduced the book, why and when, and who if anyone shares the reading, and what they say.

So the books I read in the college year of 1965-66 form experiences that are one with my head colds, my weekends, the wind in the trees, the scream of the war, and especially the web of events and relationships that seemed so dominant at the time, so fraught, so consuming and above all so fateful.

The class on Yeats lost in the blond hair inches in front of me. The fatal walk through the mist of Standish Park, with bursts of rain at the cinematic moments of highest emotion.  The surreal departmental party in the room where Lincoln had slept; flattery, cruelty, confusion and deception, with too much interior paramour punch.

In a prior post I mentioned how busy I was that year from the start of school, and subsequent posts indicate something of the intensity of that year's new reading.  I was also writing more, and more intensively, than I ever had: poems, plays and fiction as well as  columns and articles and course papers.  Though I took writing courses in poetry and plays, I also had an ambitious program of writing stories.

 So says the disorganized piles of paper that have survived, as well as a few notebooks and letters. This was all confused and confusing.  My poems reflected a cacophony of what I was reading.  In part it was experiment, in part exorcism, especially the attempts at grand statements on my time that read like collisions of "The Wasteland," "The Comedian As The Letter C" and "Desolation Row."

 Even the short lyric poems we all were writing seldom cohere.  Occasionally I stumbled on a resonant image. For instance: The light of her eyes is a sad light/ like moths in October in which I accidentally accessed a sense not only of autumnal sadness but of moths attracted to light.  (I suppose there was an unconscious association.)  But that’s the exception.  Mostly the images are simply unusual, too cute.  The strength that stands out now is the rhythm, the music of the best lyrics.  (Not too surprising, then, that I was also writing song lyrics that I actually set to music, or sent to my songwriting partner.)

All of this, all of this hothouse life at a small college, had its cost.  I'd had always been prone to colds (whereas now I go years without one), and my letters quite often mention them and their related conditions, and cold and cough and sore throat and flu remedies. Even a visit to the college health service is recorded, which indicates some desperation, since I had been warned of its reputation for resident quackery.

 Besides suggesting a mundane indication of physical strain, colds at Knox were a public thing.  I used to joke that you could wake up in your room with a cough, and on the walk to breakfast be asked three times how your cold is.

Towards spring, the pressure of reality got to be a bit too much, and I rebelled by demanding solitude.  I insisted on a single room by myself at Anderson House.  I even went to the extent of occupying an empty room without authorization (it happened to be my old turret room on the third floor) until I was finally given a small room near the foot of the stairs from the second to third floors.

 It's taken me years to begin to understand the probable effects of being deaf in one ear.  In many ways it's not noticeable to others, and became conscious to me only in certain situations.  But I've since realized these effects were profound.  For one thing, the act of hearing--of transforming sounds into intelligible information-- required more attention and energy. We all must sort out the signal from the noise (to put in information theory terms.)  Those with the confidence of two ears can be more relaxed about it.  I could not, even if that wasn't a conscious process.  I could not so easily block out the noise, because there might be a signal to decipher in it.  But it could also be overwhelming-- at a certain point it was all noise.  Only in solitude is there peace and a sense of safety and control.  That had to contribute to my mental state that year.

Again, I've written a little about events and activities in the fall and winter.  But spring did come--that brief and beautiful Galesburg spring.

  At some point in the year, I fell in with a group that tending to revolve around James Campbell, a student in the class a year ahead of me. He had a large apartment in a somewhat ramshackle frame house on West Berrien, which he painted entirely black.  He wrote poetry and fiction published in the literary magazine the Siwasher, and did finely rendered etchings of houses and plants--his work was featured on the cover of both Siwashers of this year. I remember him wearing crew neck sweaters without an apparent shirt or t-shirt underneath, and a blazer or jacket over it.  He taught me to keep a book of matches in the jacket's top pocket--"to light old ladies' cigarettes," he suggested.

James Campbell. Photo by Leonard Borden.
I don't actually know if he went to prep school, but in memory he does represent my first experience of a preppy--though a Bohemian preppy in his case. When I saw the PBS Brideshead Revisited on TV, I saw a little of him in the charismatic Anthony Andrews character, at least in how he functioned in our college ecology.

Though I suppose his apartment was something like our version of Gatsby's. He was at the arts and political center of things that year.  He was behind his friend, Student Senate president Mike Chubrich, in his successful efforts to bring Chicago blues musicians down to Knox, including the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Siegel Schwall Blues Band.   They were largely responsible for me being appointed a student representative to the Faculty Committee on Student Affairs beginning the next school year.

 I was not in the inner circle but was often included socially.  I remember being at his apartment listening to a record by a new folk singer, Eric Anderson.  I'd heard someone (possibly Eric but I doubt it) do one of his songs on that album in my only visit to a Greenwich Village folk music club the previous summer.  I followed his music for decades.  Close the door lightly as you go.

James Campbell also is associated with one of the few books I remember that year not generated by a course.  He was very enthusiastic about a novel called The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy. He was particularly taken with the line "Bang on, wizard."  I found a copy, and was also swept up in its rhythm, language and personality.  The book was just taking off, and led to a series of Donleavy novels published in the 60s and 70s especially, and I read them all.
The only other novel not related to a class that I associate with this school year is A Separate Peace by John Knowles, a coming of age story set in a prep school. Perhaps ironically (and perhaps not), it was too suspiciously popular to win the approval of the Campbell group.  I read it in one sitting on a long train trip, to or from Galesburg.  I was utterly absorbed in it and charmed by it, yet once I finished it I never opened it again.  I don't know that the copy I have is the one I read, but it is a 1961 first paperback edition, and is in pristine shape.

 The Campbell group is the center of a sweet memory of that spring, a ceremony of innocence amidst the angst and anxiety.  (For this was the spring that an April TIME magazine's cover asked "Is God Dead?" and that LBJ proclaimed that the US would never leave Vietnam except in victory, on the same May day that the highest weekly number of US deaths in the war so far was announced.)

Linda Wise Campbell. Photo by Leonard Borden
But it was also the spring of "Batman" on television, and the Frisbee.  Adam West's Batman, with its camp-serious dialogue and crazy-angled action shots broken by cartoon balloons of BIFF!, POW! and ZONK! caught Campbell's attention. It soon become a national sensation. The Frisbee had been introduced in the late 50s but for some reason was only becoming popular, at least at Knox, that spring.

 Television sets, even in student apartments, were rare.  So the group of us would meet to throw a Frisbee around out on the green lawn in the last warm sunlight before going inside, to Campbell's apartment (I believe),  sweaty and happy, to watch Batman.  It was on twice a week then, on successive evenings.

  On the radio was "Good Lovin,'" "Wild Thing," "Secret Agent Man," "Gloria," "Red Rubber Ball."  On the jukebox: "Paperback Writer," "Monday, Monday," "Eight Miles High," "Pledging My Time," "Homeward Bound," "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?"  Though the music of what would soon be called the counterculture was edging in, especially with the release that May of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, the deluge wouldn't begin until summer.  Broadway show tunes still led the album charts, and the top selling record of the year was "Ballad of the Green Berets."

At spring parties we danced to the songs on the Stones' new album Aftermath (hearing that title, Ringo Starr proposed that the next Beatles album should be called After Geography): "Mother's Little Helper,""Under My Thumb," "Paint It Black," "Out of Time."

 It was the year of Levi's.  Female and male students wore them--the ones called "white Levi's" though the most common color was a brownish beige.

 They also came in actual white, light blue, dark green and black. They were far more popular than blue jeans (although that would soon change.) This was still an era in which it wasn't uncommon for males to wear blazers or sports jackets on campus: corduroy, cotton or wool blend but seldom tweed. Except for James Campbell, and maybe a few others.

  My first poems in the Siwasher appeared that year, but I'm more intrigued now with my short story in the spring issue, "The Pressure of Reality."  Early in the school year I had tried several realistic stories in the John Updike mode.  But this was different.  It incorporates several experiments--dropping capital letters as a way to speed up the rhythm, and a modified use of the punning Lennonesque/Joycean language I employed in some pieces published in the Knox Student.  But basically it is an attempt to enact rather than describe the pressure of reality that year.

The phrase comes from Wallace Stevens, introduced to me by Doug Wilson (not in our Stevens class actually, but before that--I heard him talk about it on WVKC campus radio.) "It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence from without," Stevens wrote in his essay "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words."  "It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.  It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives."  


Spring issue. Cover by J. Campbell
Those surviving piles of paper suggest that I was making notes and doing drafts of this story for some time that year. It's not a good story.  I can see with embarrassing ease that rhetorically I was trying to render campus life from the perspective of a Beatles movie, including a verbatim line or two from Help!  

How others experienced this I don't know. But mostly it has the same basic flaw of most of what I wrote then and for the next many years about college, of trying to enact the emotional chaos of everyday life, and especially the multiple collisions of relationships in the general tedium.

This involves too many names and oblique daily events which, though most absorbing at the time, turn out to be not that interesting to read.  A real moment dramatized, a real place described, would now be valuable (though there is some of that in those pages of drafts.)  At best, the snatches of coffee shop and in-class dialogue and so on provide something, a flavor, of that time and place, only suggesting the pressure of that reality.

 Still, a notebook records that another student told me the story made her cry.  I was 19, and it was both a technical experiment and a reflection of how I experienced Knox. So there is authenticity to it.  I can not like it that much, and still be fond of it.

  So this is how Pound and Eliot, Dylan (who wrote about them fighting in the captain's tower) and the Young Rascals, Wallace Stevens and Batman, John Lennon and J.P. Donleavy, LBJ and Walt Whitman are all part of the same experiences and memories, along with many people I could name, and therefore all part of each other, in my life and reading of that spring, that year.

 My reading and my book collection got a big helping hand that May, when I won the award for the second year student who had done the best writing in English classes.  The prize was (as I recall) $75 in books from the Knox Bookstore. Bonanza! It set me up for a magnificent summer of reading.  Or it should have.

To be continued...

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

History of My Reading: The Zen of Sam

Sam Moon: official photo 1966 yearbook
"We think by feeling.  What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow." Theodore Roethke

  I took a poetry writing course from Sam Moon in the fall semester of 1965-66 and a playwriting course the following spring semester, both in  my second year at Knox College.

Sam was not only head of the Knox writing program—he was the Knox writing program that year. Harold Grutzmacher, who taught fiction writing, had left after the 1964-5 year, and Knox had not replaced him. Nor would there be a permanent replacement until 1967-68.

 Contrary to current college propaganda, Knox had a writing program going back beyond Moon’s first year at Knox in 1953. Moon credited his predecessor, Proctor Sherwin with starting it. It's just a guess, but maybe the excuse for dating the current writing program as beginning in 1968 is that a creative writing major was added for students after that year.  But Knox already had a literature and composition major, which pretty much amounts to the same thing.  I ought to know. It was mine.

 I have general recollections of the classes I took from Sam Moon, a little hard to separate from non-class conversations. There were just a few students each time, and I believe we mostly met in Sam’s office in Old Main, either near the window overlooking Alumni Hall and the campus, or clustered around his desk. The classes might entail examining the work of a published “professional” poet or fellow student work.

Sam Moon, probably in the 1950s
Sam Moon’s students tend to remember him for their one-on-one sessions or moments. This might be analyzing a poem by an established poet or the student’s own work, or a conversation about aspects of writing untethered to a particular work. When Sam retired, and later after he died, many came forward with stories of how he helped them, and in some cases changed their lives.

Sam Moon was certainly an encouraging and nourishing influence on me, from my registration and first semester throughout my time at Knox. Sam always read and talked to me about anything I showed him, or anything of mine that appeared in campus publications, whether I was in a course or not. Though these one-on-one moments might happen in private or the Gizmo, some might be moments from a class, especially when the classes were as informal and intimate as I remember.

 I’ll skip to spring because I do have a specific memory about my playwriting class. I’m reasonably sure I took this course in the spring because I used a line from Wallace Stevens as the title of a play I wrote (now lost) and I was reading Stevens that spring term for Doug Wilson's class.  I also used the verse in which the title appears as a quotation before the text of the play. (I liked those lines so well that at about the same time I wrote a song lyric around them, and with my songwriting partner's music, the Crosscurrents performed it.)

 On the day the class discussed my play, I began by verbally correcting the quotation—I’d left out a word. It was a very small class—maybe a half dozen students. I remember that when I made the correction, several of those present—including Sam—feigned shock, joking that this additional word cast an entirely different light on the play. I remember one student comment, which came from Mike Stickney. The protagonist of my play made a fairly long speech at the end. Stickney said that a more realistic and convincing speech at that point would be: “Oh, fuck.”

The professional plays we read were in One Act: Short Plays of the Modern Theatre (Grove Press), edited by Samuel Moon, who also wrote the thoughtful introduction.  He clearly enjoyed seeing plays as well as reading them.

  I’ve got textual notes on only one play: Yeats’ Purgatory, which was produced later in the Studio Theatre. I’m not sure which other plays we read as a class, but I am sure that I read Ionesco’s The Chairs, Thornton Wilder’s Pullman Car Hiawatha, Arthur Miller’s Memory of Two Mondays, and Hello Out There by William Saroyan, whose fiction I’d avidly read in junior high or high school when I came across his books in the public library.

 Plays by Strindberg, Pirandello,Tennessee Williams, Sean O’Casey, Jean Anouih, and Archibald MacLeish are also in the volume.  Perhaps I read them all. These days, one act plays have almost disappeared, between the epics with multiple meal breaks and the ten minute (and now one minute) plays. Permit me to observe—as someone who has seen contemporary plays done across the country, at least until a few years ago—that today’s playwrights might benefit from the discoveries and disciplines of writing one act plays, and audiences might enjoy seeing them.  In any case, this book is still in print.

Sam Moon was also especially qualified to teach the poetry writing class in the fall. He was himself a poet who published in Chicago’s Poetry Magazine, historically one of the most important American periodicals for the poetry of the 20th century. Eliot, Pound, Joyce and especially Wallace Stevens all published there. (Examples of Sam's work here and here.) Though he was steeped in that history, he was foremost at Knox in bringing contemporary writing into the curriculum and the culture. He not only knew contemporary poetry, he knew the poets, on equal terms—as one of them.
The major anthologies of contemporary poets I remember—either assigned or recommended—were Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Donald Hall, and The New American Poetry, edited by Donald M. Allen. The Allen anthology had the larger and broader selection, and remains a very good representative of post-World War II American poetry up to 1960 or so, especially as it includes both poets who became famous, and poets that have slipped into obscurity.

 (In 1973, Allen and Warren Tallman added a companion volume, The Poetics of The New American Poetry, with statements of purpose by some of these contemporary poets plus relevant pieces by their forerunners, including Walt Whitman.)  The anthology included representatives of the various "schools:" the Beats, Black Mountain, New York, etc. The Hall anthology was smaller (even the book itself was a smaller-sized paperback) and somewhat more focused. I bought the first edition (1962). (I also have the second edition of 1971, which was revised and enlarged.)

first edition cover
In Hall's first edition--which we probably used for this course--I made check marks before the names of certain poets and poems.  I don't know if these indicate what we read for this class, or just my preferences, but they are what I remember reading.

 The poets marked are Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, James Wright and Gary Snyder, with individual poems by Louis Simpson and Donald Justice.  (Others in this anthology I don't recall reading at the time became important to me later: first Galway Kinnell, then William Stafford and most recently W.S. Merwin.)

 I marked these sentences in Hall's introduction: "Yet typically the modern artist has allowed nothing to be beyond his consideration.  He has acted as if restlessness were a conviction and has destroyed his own past in order to create a future."

According to many of these poets, and Sam Moon as well, the major inspiration for postwar American poetry came from William Carlos Williams. Born in New Jersey in 1883, he practiced medicine there for the rest of his life, while becoming the foremost advocate for an American approach to modern writing. His work was eclipsed for awhile by the stardom of T. S. Eliot, but he emerged as the single most important influence on the new American poetry we were reading in the 1960s.

 Though it was poet Archibald MacLeish who came up with the foundation sentence, “A poem should not mean but be,” William Carlos Williams was the exemplar of that credo. This I learned from Sam Moon.

 My copy of Williams’ Selected Poems comes from this year, and I would subsequently acquire his masterpiece Patterson, as well as several books of his prose.

Jay Matson, who was a senior when I was a freshman, recalls reading a number of poets in his classes with Moon, including American poet Theodore Roethke, who died in 1963.

 Jay and Sam worked together examining Roethke's poem "The Waking" (the quotation at the top of this post is the second verse.)  I was surprised to learn this, because Roethke was not a fashionable poet in my years, though his reputation has grown since. Personally I was drawn to his work--especially "The Waking," "Elegy for Jane," "The Far Field" and "Wish For a Young Wife," and his children's poems.  There was something about him I understood, and I liked the music.

Now I also see how at least some of Roethke might appeal to Sam Moon.  I believe I discovered Roethke on my own, in a magazine I read in the Knox library. But maybe I'm wrong about that--maybe it was Sam Moon.  In any case, I remember acquiring one of Roethke's books, Words For The Wind, and got the first edition of his Collected Poems, published in 1966. That's the thing about influential teachers--or any teachers: we don't always remember what they taught us.  Perhaps the best lessons are the ones we thought we'd always known, or found ourselves.

A major aspect of Sam Moon's contribution--and one that many remember--was the writers he brought to Knox.  Many were poets who knew him as a poet.  But he also brought fiction writers and other contemporary artists.

 They weren't always well-known--yet.  His first guest writer was the 29 year old Philip Roth, who hadn't yet published his first novel.  Gary Snyder was barely back from Japan when Sam brought him to Knox for a week. Archibald MacLeish visited before my time, and Galway Kinnell after it, but during my years I saw and heard fictionists Grace Paley and Richard Yates, poets Mark Van Doren and W.H. Auden, as well as poets who were in those anthologies: Robert Creeley, David Ignatow, Denise Levertov, Snyder, Robert Bly and James Dickey.

 We got to experience these writers often in several contexts.  We heard them reading their work and answering questions, often in the Commons Room of Old Main.  We saw some of them in the classrooms as well, and around a lunch table or informally around campus, and often at an evening party in their honor.

Both Bly and James Dickey were on campus in the spring of 1966.  Bly came first: mesmerizing, flamboyant, opinionated and unlike anyone else.  He read his work in a very individual way.  He must have enjoyed himself at Knox, for he came back a year or two later.

 Immediately after his reading, I bought Bly's latest collection, Silence in the Snowy Fields, which furnished most of the poems he read.  I also amused a few credulous souls by imitating his delivery.  Bly probably talked about Pablo Neruda and James Wright on this occasion, which led me to these poets.  And I would keep my eye on Bly and his work for some years to come.

 James Dickey's first public event on campus was just a few days after Bly's last.  It's possible their paths crossed in Galesburg, although it might not have been comfortable if they did.  Bly, who had praised Dickey's earlier work, wrote a review excoriating Dickey's latest collection, Buckdancer's Choice, not only in poetic but in moral terms. (It's not clear when this review was first published, but it is included in Bly's 1990 book, American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity, with a date of 1967.) Nevertheless Buckdancer's Choice won the National Book Award for poetry, and Dickey was appointed the United States Poet Laureate in 1966. This was several years before his novel Deliverance and the subsequent movie made him rich and famous.

 Dickey was on campus, as many writers were, partly to make the final choices for that year's student writing awards.  I was completely surprised when he named me as the third prize winner in poetry.  That could be why I remained in a fog as he talked about my poems, and read one of them--he even paused and grinned over a line or image he liked. (I actually may remember it: "my eyes from cold coffee run to her.") He described them partly in terms of other poets, some of whom I knew but others I'd never read.  I had to resist the temptation to write the names down then and there, but that would have given me away. I did try to remember them however, so I could read the work that had apparently influenced me.

Physically a big man, Dickey made a big impression, though not all of it good.  He had a dazzling smile and was ebulliently theatrical, pouring on the southern charm.  He entertained a group of us at lunch--his imitation of how the original King Kong turned his head was uncanny.

But some who spent more time with him were not so charmed. His constant self-referencing act wore thin.  More than one person (and I was one) noticed his less than subtle lechery at parties.  Who could forget him asking every female student he met her age, and then drawling at them "That's a fahn age for a woman," often ending with an invitation to leave the party with him?

 It's hard to overestimate the value of these writers and artists visiting campus. Physical presence is exciting for everyone--we may have been excited to briefly meet Robert Bly, but Bly had once been thrilled to briefly meet T.S. Eliot.

It's true that sometimes seeing and hearing a poet read actually ruins the experience of reading them .The voice in person is not the voice in your head. (Judging from recordings on YouTube, I suspect I would have felt that way about Roethke.)

  But most times it adds dimensions to the printed words.  Some of these experiences at Knox opened new doors and provided new choices for student writers and readers by bringing sound to the words, and the words to life.

 They provided models, and gave at least some hint of what it was like to be writing in our time, and in the various places and situations we might end up.  We may have looked upon some as heroes, but we also got glimpses of their human weaknesses.  Some were living cautionary tales. But the good and bad were proportions in most.  Seeing and hearing them in the same room, meeting them even briefly in different circumstances, eventually enabled me to relate personally to writers and artists I met, at Knox and then afterward.  I had the confidence to meet them on equal terms, not equal as writers but as intelligent human beings with common interests, and certain common writing experiences.

Robin Metz and Sam Moon
Sam Moon taught at Knox College from 1953 until 1984.  Together with Robin Metz, who joined the faculty in 1967 as a fiction writer, he presided over the expansion of the writing program that continued after his retirement.  Big writing programs are a national trend but Knox has been one of the exemplars.

 I last saw Sam on a brief visit to Galesburg more than a decade after I'd left, a few years before he retired.  Apart from Doug Wilson (my host) and Robin Metz (who was invited to lunch but didn't show), he was the only teacher at Knox I sought out.

I walked up to his Old Main office, knocked on the door and opened it.  I'd forgotten the rule--if the door is closed, it means there's a class in session.  I stood at the entrance, seeing across the room a familiar scene as if it were a sepia print: Sam at his desk in the far corner with a semi-circle of students clustered close around him, all heads bent to a text.  He said sharply that this was a class.  I mumbled an embarrassed apology and began backing out the door. Then I heard his voice again, in a different tone: "Is that Bill Kowinski?"  We agreed to meet in the Gizmo after his class.

I don't remember what we talked about, but except for the changes in the Gizmo (all for the worse, in my opinion), it was another familiar scene.  A few years later I was one of his former students to be asked to write a tribute, to be collected with others and presented to Sam on his retirement.

The Sam Moon I knew was modest and unassuming, with a lively sense of humor.  I can't say I knew him well.  But I am still discovering the Sam Moon I didn't know.

a Cortland, New York landscape
According to Jay Matson (who knew Sam a lot better over the years), Sam and his wife Doris stayed in Galesburg for some years after his retirement, and spent summers at their place on Lake Huron in Canada, where Doris was from.  They moved to southern New York state when Doris became ill, to be near their daughter Vicky.

 Sam remained in Cortland, New York after Doris died, and eventually reconnected with an old love, with whom he shared some years intermittently at her home in Colorado, as well as his homes in Canada and New York.

Sam weathered his last illness in Cortland. He died in 2011 at the age of 89.  He'd spent 31 years at Knox, but after he left he had  27 years of another life away from it. Even in his Knox years, Sam had a more complicated personal life than most people knew.  One of the smaller things I didn't know about Sam is that he was an avid swimmer, and wrote a series of poems about it while at Knox.

After he retired, he published a book in 1992 that wasn't poetry or about plays or literature or teaching: it was about Henry Goulding, the man who ran a trading post in the Four Corners area of the southwest, and his relationship to the Navajo.  According to Doug Wilson, he worked on this book for some 20 years.  The novelist William Eastlake had a ranch in the area, and wrote about the people there in his early books. Sam brought him to teach a term of fiction-writing at Knox my junior year, so I wonder if he had anything to do with this.  The title of the book is Tall Sheep and it is available on Amazon.  I look forward to reading it.

 Sam got interested in Buddhism, as many of us did in the 60s, but he went deeper into it.  Initially intrigued by reading Thoreau (again, according to Wilson) and by John Cage (who he brought to Knox several times) and (my guess) by Gary Snyder, he went beyond the philosophy to the practice of Buddhist meditation.

He also translated the Tao Te Ching by Lao T'zu and provided a commentary on the text and his translations.  For awhile after his death no one seemed to know what had become of this manuscript, but eventually Sam's daughter found it, and sent a copy to Jay Matson, who sent a copy to me.  It's wonderful.

After Sam's memorial at Knox in 2012, three of his former students--David Gustafson, Jay Matson and Dave Lunde--set about collecting some of his work and creating a book, A Little Farther: Selected Works of Samuel Moon. The cover was designed by Sam's daughter Victoria Moon Delaney, and Doug Wilson wrote a short biographical sketch of Sam.

 The book begins with those swimming poems, and though other poems are undated, some (like "Man in the Landscape") are identifiably from his Knox years.

  But about half of the book is given over to his last work, a beautiful and unusual prose piece called "The Dunes."   It's a fable about a meditation circle held by animals in the woods, presided over by a cat.  Though it reminds me of animal teaching stories in many traditions, it is also strikingly original.

 Within the terms of its world it deals realistically with spiritual questions, inspired by the natural world. Most conspicuously it has profound things to say about single-point meditation (which usually involves paying total attention to the breath of the present moment, as in Zen meditation)  and the Buddhist concept of emptiness.  It's in short chapters, and lately I've been reading one aloud before each of our evening meditations.

"The Dunes" also incorporates lines from those swimming poems, which suggests that Sam had been living a version of meditation for a very long time. Someone asked Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen master who founded the San Francisco Zen Center, why he meditated.  To prepare for old age and death, he replied.  Judging from "The Dunes," Sam Moon was about as prepared for death as a man could be.

 Unfortunately the book is hard to find.  The Knox Bookstore carried it before it sold itself out to a notorious national chain and stopped being an actual bookstore.  It was published by Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, but I can't find it on their website. Jay Matson has a few copies, and he thinks that David Gustafson does as well.  At the moment, they're your best bet.

  These three teachers--William Spanos, Doug Wilson and Sam Moon--formed my second year of college and a great deal of my subsequent life, with their teaching, their example and the worlds they opened to me through the books and writers we read.  Other teachers of this year, notably Donald Torrence and Phil Haring, made their mark as well. What remains to tell about this year surrounds and permeates these experiences.  There was a dark side to the intensity of this year, but also new friends and acquaintances, and the experiences I shared with them, which included books we read that weren't part of any classes. And then there's summer, and one of the strangest days of my life.  Laters.