Alums in (the) Paris (Review)

Peirce Hall in the late 1930s; if you squint you can see Robert Lowell in the distance.

It’s the week before Thanksgiving and the semester has begun to wind down and I’ll venture to guess that you’re getting pretty tired of Netflix and the weather has got you thinking gloomily about better days or as they’re often termed glory days. Despite all the lavish contests we’ve got going these days at The Thrill, I’m afraid I can’t offer you a plane ticket to a tropical island paradise for your usage of caps-lock in the comment section or my undying gratitude for referencing me to an alleged Kenyon-based dating site. However, I can in fact give you some long, distracting, literarily inclined reads from Kenyon alums featured in the famous Paris Review Art of Fiction and Art of Poetry interviews, who almost without fail are asked about their own collegiate glory days. In case you didn’t know, John Crowe Ransom did a lot more than get a building, a lawn and an acapella group named after him. So turn off that “Pyschological Mind Bending Thriller from the 80s,” that a computer-powered algorithm has decided you’d enjoy and slip on those reading glasses.

Anthony Hecht

Anthony Hecht: On choosing Kenyon in the 1940s.  “I already had my B.A., but after years of communicating in the coarse, monosyllabic illiteracies that are standard military procedure and parlance, I scarcely felt ready for graduate school. So I elected to go to Kenyon as a special student on the strength of what I had heard and read. Ransom was in certain ways a dangerous influence, precisely because his poetry was so idiosyncratic.”

William Gass

William Gass: On how Kenyon influenced his aesthetic “positions.”

“I was already very fascinated by Ransom’s stuff when I was in high school. I wrote an article on Ransom and sent it to him at the Kenyon Review. It was god-awful, but he was very sweet and returned it with a nice letter. I’d never met him, but I was so in love with the man’s “manner” I scrawled his initials in the books of his I owned and pretended to others that he’d signed them. When I got to Kenyon he did remember my essay, or was polite enough to pretend to. And that “manner” was real. When I was going to school there, the faculty were very much under the influence of Ransom and the New Criticism, but I think that influence was so widespread you’d have found it most places. I did audit a few courses that Ransom taught, but I didn’t take any courses in English while I was at Kenyon. I was busy taking philosophy and other things of that sort. And I found that I fought English classes. I was such a smart-ass I thought I knew much more than the instructor. No, my pretensions got ground beneath another heel. I couldn’t get published in the literary magazine—not a colorful fart, not a thumbprint. The students were very good writers; some of them were publishing in the Review already. And I held a small, limp pen; I was terrified and crushed; I couldn’t get anywhere; I was unbelievably bad; I was lousy. I knew the formalist ideas were in the air, of course, but I didn’t really come face-to-face with them in any extensive way until I went to grad school, so I think that the influence of Kenyon was predominantly philosophical.”

E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow: On his interest in language and Kenyon’s influence as well as the famous Ohio State football-Kenyon poetry comparison.

“What I actually said was that Kenyon was a place where we did literary criticism the way they played football at Ohio State. We did textual criticism. I studied poetry with John Crowe Ransom. I could write twenty-page papers on an eight-line lyric of Wordsworth. Of course it was invaluable training. You learned the powers of precision in the English language. The effect, for instance, of juxtaposing Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words. But criticism is a different conduct of the brain. That kind of analytical action of the mind is not the way you work when you write. You bring things together, you synthesize, you connect things that have had no previous connection when you write. So, all in all, as valuable as my training was, it took me through language in the wrong direction. It cost me a few years of writing time to recover my ignorance, the way I felt about writing as a child. I really started to think of myself as a writer when I was about nine.”

Peter Taylor

Peter Taylor: On John Crowe Ransom as a teacher and the influence of poetry upon the short story.

“He was the best kind of teacher or the best for me at that time—a satisfying, reassuring person to talk to about one’s work just because he was so impersonal. When you gave him a poem to read the first thing he did was to look at the poem and tap on the desk to make sure the meter was correct. Then he carefully checked the rhyme scheme. He would not discuss other elements of the poem until he had done that. It seems now that what he taught me about writing was compression. And compression is what I have set great store by as a short-story writer. He was so questioning of every detail in the manuscript before him that you felt compelled to make everything functional and to be ready to defend it. That habit carried over into story writing. I believe that’s one reason I write stories instead of novels. As Faulkner is said to have said, everyone wants to write poetry in the beginning but if you can’t write poetry you write short stories, and if you can’t write short stories you write novels. Well, that’s too easy, but still there is some truth in it. And, of course, when I was at Kenyon I was writing poems in self-defense. The general interest there at that time was all in poetry, not at all in fiction. I’ve referred to Ransom’s interest, of course, but it must be remembered I was rooming with Robert Lowell. And Randall Jarrell was there, too. Jarrell knew a great deal about fiction, but his chief concern was with poetry.”

James Wright

James Wright: On Nietzsche and being a chickadee.

“Human beings are unhappily part of nature, perhaps nature become conscious of itself. Oh, how I would love to be a chickadee! But I can’t be a chickadee, all I can be is what I am. I love the natural world and I’m conscious of the pain in it. So I’m a nature poet who writes about human beings in nature. I love Nietzsche, who called man ‘the sick animal.’ ”

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell: On the value of  Classics (which he studied at Kenyon).

“At Harvard my second year I took almost entirely English courses—the easiest sort of path. I think that would have been a disaster. But before going to Kenyon I talked to Ford Madox Ford and Ransom, and Ransom said you’ve just got to take philosophy and logic, which I did. The other thing he suggested was classics. Ford was rather flippant about it, said of course you’ve got to learn classics, you’ll just cut yourself off from humanity if you don’t. I think it’s always given me some sort of yardstick for English. And then the literature was amazing, particularly the Greek; there’s nothing like Greek in English at all. Our plays aren’t formally at all like Aeschylus and Sophocles. Their whole inspiration was unbelievably different, and so different that you could hardly think of even the attempt to imitate them, great as their prestige was. That something like Antigone or Oedipus or the great Achilles moments in the Iliad would be at the core of a literature is incredible for anyone brought up in an English culture—Greek wildness and sophistication all different, the women different, everything. Latin’s of course much closer. English is a half-Latin language, and we’ve done our best to absorb the Latin literature. But a Roman poet is much less intellectual than the Englishman, much less abstract. He’s nearer nature somehow—somewhat what we feel about a Frenchman but more so still. And yet he’s very sophisticated. He has his way of doing things, though the number of forms he explored is quite limited. The amount he could take from the Greeks and yet change is an extraordinary piece of firm discipline. Also, you take almost any really good Roman poet—Juvenal, or Virgil, or Propertius, Catullus—he’s much more raw and direct than anything in English, and yet he has this blocklike formality. The Roman frankness interests me. Until recently our literature hasn’t been as raw as the Roman, translations had to have stars. And their history has a terrible human frankness that isn’t customary with us—corrosive attacks on the establishment, comments on politics and the decay of morals, all felt terribly strongly, by poets as well as historians. The English writer who reads the classics is working at one thing, and his eye is on something else that can’t be done. We will always have the Latin and Greek classics, and they’ll never be absorbed. There’s something very restful about that.”

One response

  1. Pingback: My First Thanksgiving: “My family may be a bit crazy, but I’m more than a bit crazy, too.” « The Thrill

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