BAMA PANEL III: Indeed, Denise Levertov is increasingly appalled…
The third in a series of 5 articles on the 1984 University of Alabama Poetry Conference by THOMAS BRADY.
A perception of Wallace Stevens as participant in the “common life” was all Helen Vendler had in her defense against Louis Simpson’s charge that she (Helen Vendler) was a living embodiment of the staus quo. Vendler’s “aim in life,” she said, was to “change the status quo,” and the example she produced in Alabama that morning was that she was on a life-long quest to find some way to convince people that tubby Wallace Stevens was not a wealthy, racist snob who wrote show-offy, goofball verse. (Good luck with that, professor Vendler. You might want to check out William Logan’s review of the new ‘Selected Stevens’ in this month’s New Criterion.)
Charles Bernstein, with his back against the wall, finally…after a ‘Stern’ grilling…named… T.S Eliot.
Hendler Vendler…zonked by the poet Louis Simpson…attempted to save herself… with… Wallace Stevens.
Both Eliot and Stevens were students of the aesthetic philosopher George Santayana at Harvard.
Vendler was a full professor at Harvard.
Bernstein studied under Stanley Cavell at Harvard.
Denise Levertov, poetry editor for The Nation in the 1960s and Mother Jones in the 1970s, had heard enough. She exploded. She hit the ceiling. She yawped.
“I’m getting increasingly appalled…”
“OUR DISCUSSION KEEPS GETTING MORE AND MORE PROVINCIAL, PAROCHIAL…”
A feeling of shame moved through the panelists…
“WE KEEP IGNORING…”
“The Crimson began to turn red…”
“THERE IS A WHOLE BODY OF LITERATURE…”
Sweat trickling down the faces of every professor in the room…
“VERY EXCITING LITERATURE…”
Panelists frozen in horror…
“DEVELOPING AND BEGINNING TO FLOURISH WILDLY AND WONDERFULLY…”
“Wildly and wonderfully?” Denise, get this over with! Kill us now!
The panelists and the audience (all white) were suddenly drained of color.
“AND CHICANO POETS.”
Damn! Not Chicano poets, too!
(Maybe she said Chicago poets! no…no…Chicano poets. We’re cooked.)
Denise Levertov wasn’t finished.
The panelists didn’t move.
“All this is totally ignored and perhaps even more important…”
No one breathed. Not even Louis Simpson, the WW II vet, batted an eyelash…
“we are talking away here…talking about prizes and naming names…”
Bernstein and Stern looked at the floor…Vendler began to chew on her lip…
“and all this is absolutely parochial irrelevancy and IGNORES THE FACT…”
The panelists, one by one, began to slowly hide under the table…
“THAT AS A SPECIES WE ARE STANDING ON THE VERY BRINK OF EXTINCTION…”
Vendler, under the table, drank a glass of water very fast…
“THAT WE LIVE IN A TIME OF UNPRECEDENTED CRISIS.”
Louis Simspon, WW II vet, is now weeping into Vendler’s shoes…
I MEAN…TALK ABOUT FIDDLING WHILE ROME BURNS!!
It brings the house down. Furious applause. Papers, books, flying everywhere. Spontaneous suicides.
Alabama has never seen anything like this.
End of Part III.
Part IV will examine everything else you’ve wanted to know about how American poetry got to be where it is but didn’t know how or what to ask.
STAY VERY FINELY TUNED…