Thursday, April 24, 2008

restoring etiquette at Bread Loaf

Sometime light-verse guy - and pre-New Formalist - X. J. Kennedy was invited to be a Bread Loaf fellow for the first time in the summer of 1960. At that time John Ciardi ruled the roost there, and it was an era of retrenchment: Ciardi wanted to maintain the old Bread Loaf ways. Customs had been slipping; time for shoring up. Fellows and special guests (big-name writer visitors) were invited to the director's cottage for late-afternoon cocktails. No crashers, no riff-raff.

Kennedy remembers the first time Ciardi talked with him. "I held one of those fellowships that required a young writer to eat with and be nice to the paying customers." Ciardi warned Kennedy as follows: "Don't get too smart around here--I've read a lot better stuff than yours."

Very nice.

Meantime, in a letter to poet-humanist Read Bain, Ciardi complained: "$1000 a year to direct a headache is not an inducement.... [But] B.L. is the best goddman two-week house-party in the western hemisphere. If I had the money, I'd underwrite it myself."

Ciardi wrote a verse letter to Paul Cubeta on August 25, 1960, while at Bread Loaf. Cubeta was there--indeed he was Ciardi's assistant director.

What are you going to be when you grow up?
I am going to be a cow-inseminator!
I am going to be an assistant pickle-taster for Heinz!
I am going to be a child vivisectionist!

Yes, those are all nice things to be, but
I am going to be an assistant director....

Robert Frost remained a Bread Loaf fixture, making an visit each summer between '58 and '62. He gave one evening lecture and it was the highlight--at least from the paying participants' standpoint--each time. In 1960 outsiders poured into the theater and filled up all the spaces; many of the paid-up Bread Loafers, and even a few staff, were unable to attend. (In '61 Ciardi figured that one out: he issued--and of course sold--tickets.)

Ciardi recruited "name" faculty to attract customers. The 1960 roster included Allen Drury, Edward Wallant, and Glorida Oden. (Ralph Ellison had been there in '59.) Some of young people there that summer would emerge much later--e.g. Samuel "Chip" Delaney who roomed across the hall from George Higgins, later a novelist (Higgins was just 20 years old then, a senior at Boston College who had won The Atlantic's college contest in fiction; his job at BL was to sling hash.)

Drury was a big deal in '60. His Advise and Consent was the number one best selling book of fiction that year.

Back to Kennedy and the Old Ways. Kennedy in '60 was told "that nobody was to come into the Treman Cottage except the staff and the fellows." Ciardi had hired Avis DeVoto (widow of the literary journalist/critic Bernard DeVoto) to be an etiquette supervisor. 1960 was her first summer and this helped to enforce custom. In '59 Alan Cheuse, who had been invited by Bill Sloane to attend the '59 conference as a waiter, led a disorganized lot of the Young in a movement against Ciardi's social orthodoxy. Cheuse was then "a vaguely Bohemian kid." During a sing-along at one of the BL parties, the partiers sang "Old Black Joe" while Ralph Ellison was standing there holding his drink. Cheuse went wild with anger at this. Leaped up and knocked over a huge trash bin full of beer cans and stopped the party. The gang of waiters and other young writers derided Ciardi's authority, smoked pot, held unauthorized meetings (my god!), and bolding invited themselves to the faculty-only/fellows-only parties. This culminated in '59, the summer of the "Old Black Joe" incident. And then, for '60, Ciardi found ways to restore social order and literary hierarchy. All was well at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference for a long while.

Above: X. J. Kennedy (left) and poet Claire McAllister with Robert Frost at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, August 1960

Sunday, April 20, 2008

ourselves to know (indeed)

Bestsellers in fiction for the year:

1. Advise and Consent, Allen Drury
2. Hawaii, James A. Michener
3. The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa
4. The Chapman Report, Irving Wallace
5. Ourselves To Know, John O'Hara
6. The Constant Image, Marcia Davenport
7. The Lovely Ambition, Mary Ellen Chase
8. The Listener, Taylor Caldwell
9. Trustee from the Toolroom, Nevil Shute
10. Sermons and Soda-Water, John O'Hara

And in nonfiction:

1. Folk Medicine, D. C. Jarvis
2. Better Homes and Gardens First Aid for Your Family
3. The General Foods Kitchens Cookbook
4. May This House Be Safe from Tigers, Alexander King
5. Better Homes and Gardens Dessert Book
6. Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Ideas
7. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer
8. The Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater
9. I Kid You Not, Jack Paar
10. Between You, Me and the Gatepost, Pat Boone

Thursday, April 3, 2008

upbeat and tough at Cosmo

In August '60 Cosmopolitan ran an essay by Richard Gehman called "The Language of Love." Poetry is back in America...because American readers are realizing that it's about robust human passion.

"It is only in recent years that Americans in mass have become aware of the vitality of this form of literature and of the rewards it has to offer them." Previously poetry was being "poorly taught, taught by rote, or taught with emphasis on scholarship and research rather than on emotion and appreciation."

Fortunately the "prototype" of the "dreamy-eyed aesthete with golden curls" is dead. It "had only a short life in an excessively effete era."

"Never forget that Shelley was six feet tall"! And that Ted Roethke "once worked in a pickle factory."

Americans "prefer robust and virile heroes" and thus poets should be " eminence."

And what about Eliot? A whimp? A Girly Man? A solitary, weak-stomached fellow who "pine[s] for inspiration"? Naw. Gehman here celebrates an anecdote he'd recently heard about T. S. Eliot: the poet, at dinner at his London club, gamely eats "game pie...full of beaks and shot, or a cut off the joint and two veg," and then after dinner roughly grabs a hunk of cheese the size "of a baby's head," stabbing with a knife the whole piece and then eats "the whole goddmaned thing." Thus proving...what? That Eliot is one of those "robust and virile" men who should affirm Americans' emergent view of American poets as regular good-guy American heroes whose stature and rough experience enable them to emote in regular good-guy ways.

And let's not forget Irving Layton (never mind that he's Canadian). After all, Layton is a "towering man" who "once shoveled coal" and fought "bare-knuckled every day" as a kid and--this really gives him credentials--refused to mourn his lousy father.

Bizarrely (and without transition) Allen Ginsberg joins this list of normative strapping real-guy poets: after all, he's so passionately into reading his poetry that sometimes he strips off his shirt, showing bare chest (hairy chest, doubltess is the implication).

"Hard" is the word here. Poets are hard folks. Poems are hardy expressions of human emotion. Powerful and hard.'s the key point..."true poetry is hard work."

And hard American work in support of the poet fits here as well. After all, isn't it true that "publicity sells poetry"?

America, the poets (and Madison Avenue ad men) are putting their virile shoulders to the wheel!