San Francisco State College: Leonard Wolf and Graduation in 1963

My most recent post on Bill’s Blog–“San Francisco State College in 1962–Wright Morris”–was the first in a series of two pieces on my experience as a graduate student in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at the College–“one of the most rewarding periods of my life.” I said the second post would focus on poet Leonard Wolf–another major influence at the time–and see us through the acquisition of my Master of Arts degree in May of 1963. I’d like to offer that second post now.

In the first post, I claimed that, in 1962, the Creative Writing faculty consisted of some of the finest writers of the era, one of whom, Wright Morris, I focused on exclusively.  Here’s a photo, taken in 1964,  of a portion of the staff in the office of Wright Morris, who is standing (far right) talking to Kay Boyle (Death of a Man, Three Short Novels: The Crazy Hunter, The Bridegroom’s BodyDecision, and several short story collections); Leo Litwak seated far right (whom I would come to know well years later, when we were guest writers at the Foothill Writers Conference; Leo was then at work on his memoir, The Medic: Life and Death in the Last Days of World War II), Bill Weigent in the center; Mark Harris far left in the back (Bang the Drum Slowly, The Self-Made Brain Surgeon and Other Stories, Mark the Glove Boy, or The Last Days of Richard Nixon, Diamond – The Baseball Writings of Mark Harris), and Judith Shatnoff down front: (Photo credit: Haunted: The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris)

SF State College Creative Writing Staff (2)While I’m dropping names (and the names of books), I might as well mention other faculty members of note when I arrived in 1962. Walter Van Tilburg Clark (author of The Ox-Bow Incident and The Track of The Cat) was Division Chairman, and would serve as my primary faculty adviser. Poets James Schevill, Bill Dickey, and Leonard Wolf (much more about him coming up) would make up my Masters of Arts thesis committee—and other writers on the staff were Ray B. West (Rocky Mountain StoriesThe Art of Modern FictionKingdom of the Saints); poet/critic Mark Linenthal (who liked to tell students “Everything I learned about poetry, I learned from jazz.”), James Leigh (The Rasmussen Disasters, No Man’s Land, and What Can You Do? Also a jazz trombonist who in 2000 published his memoirs, Heaven on the Side: A Jazz Life); and Herbert Wilner (All the Little Heroes, Dovisch In the Wilderness and Other Stories, Quarterback Speaks To His God).

Leonard Wolf, who became my thesis project adviser (my thesis a manuscript book I would call Poems: The Weekend—“A creative work submitted to the faculty of San Francisco State College in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Master of Arts”), was–at the time I worked with him–not one of the “well known” writers on the Creative Writing staff, although he had published his work in The New Yorker and other respected journals, along with a book of Poems, Hamadryad Hunted (1948, Bern Porter Press). In 1962, the year I met him, his daughter Naomi was born—and she would become, in the words of Wikipedia, “an American liberal progressive feminist author, journalist, and former political adviser to Al Gore and Bill Clinton,” Naomi Wolf  would come to prominence in 1991 as the author of The Beauty Myth. She also wrote The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See: a “lovely personal memoir about an unconventional, openhearted man … a wild old visionary poet … passionate eccentric and a radically romantic humanist” who believed the creative force resides “inside all of us.”

Here is the cover of The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See—with father and daughter together in Leonard’s later years; and here is a photo of father and daughter taken in 1966—three years after I graduated from San Francisco State College: (Photo credits: The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See)

Leonard Wolf Naomi Book about Leonard  Leonard Wolf and Naomi 1966

In 1962, I found Leonard Wolf to be a lean, handsome, dark-bearded (he reminded me of photos I’d seen of D.H. Lawrence) purposeful, intense at times, but modest, mild-mannered, accessible, empathic adviser I felt comfortable with the first time I sat down with him in his office. I did not yet know his “history” (which turned out to be nearly as colorful as that of Wright Morris). Leonard Wolf was born in Vulcan, Romania (Transylvania), his name originally ‘Ludovic’, which was changed upon his arrival in the United States in 1930 with his mother, Roseita, older brother, Maxim (Mel) and younger sister, Shirly. After I left San Francisco State College in 1963, Leonard Wolf would, in 1967, start “Happening House, one of many organizations that originated with the hippies of the Haight Ashbury district … conceived as an alternate university, an arts center and a place of learning.” In 1968, he would publish Voices from the Love Generation with Little, Brown—a book I purchased and read while teaching in Wisconsin.

Here’s the cover of that book, and the cover of Leonard Wolf’s book of collected poems, The Stone Cicada, published by Medusa Press in 2001.

Leonard Wolf Voices from the Love Generation    Leonard Wolf The Stone Cicada

I’ve already mentioned (last post) that I had to submit my own work to be accepted in his poetry writing course, and that once he had selected the students he felt qualified, he asked us to meet at his home, rather than in a classroom on campus. I don’t recall exactly, but I think just about ten students would gather there on a weeknight–and all of them talented, interesting people. I was twenty-six, and a definite dowager was in her seventies. She had an elegant home in the Marina section of San Francisco, and we met there on one occasion. I wish, now, I’d kept a list of the students’ names (for future reference—what may have “become of them”), but unfortunately, I didn’t. The sessions held at Leonard’s home were lively, informal, and informative in a multitude of ways (regarding the craft of poetry, and otherwise)—each student respectful of the others, and Leonard open to the needs of each of us.

Aside from the friendship I formed with my sculpture teacher, Cal Albert, at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in the mid-50s, I’d never been in the “home” of an artist or writer with whom I took a class before, to see what “domestic” life was like for them—so these journeys up the hill above Kezar Stadium to Leonard Wolf’s home were inspiring. His daughter Naomi was not born until 1962, so Leonard’s wife was “carrying” her at this time, and his wife, Deborah, was an interesting, attractive, personable woman. The house was, as Naomi would describe it in her book, The Treehouse: Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love, and See, as follows (I’ll quote at some length, to give the full effect):

“Our house in San Francisco had been built in 1890, in the style of a hunting lodge. Its foundation, we were always being reassured, was on bedrock. It had survived the 1906 earthquake. Nevertheless, maybe because of the quake, it leaned visibly out of level … I did not live in a room with level floors in it until I was old enough to vote. It was easy, in a house like this, to believe that the imagination was a world that was as normal to inhabit as any other …The house was built so that the entire back end was pitched straight over a cliff. That half perched on two big timbers, with a sheer drop fifty feet down. The cliff-side balconies sagged markedly. Every time you went out on one, you were taking your life in your hands. The front half of the house was buried in wild growth: tangles of nasturtium and ivy covering a steep forest floor, overshadowed by eucalyptus and Monterey pines. When you stood on the roof of the house—which my parents insanely allowed me to do—you could see all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge in one direction, and all the way to the Bay Bridge in the other: a silver necklace and a golden chain binding the city at both harbors … As I curled up with a book in a niche by the ash-laden fireplace, looking out at the evergreens that surrounded the house, continually painted and erased by the fog, like the trees in a Chinese wall hanging—I experienced the house day-to-day as a crucible of magic.”

Here’s a photo, a family setting, of Leonard, his wife Deborah, and daughter Naomi (Photo credit: Michael A. Smith)

Leonard Wolf Chatting with Naomi and Wife

I had far less acquaintance with the house than she would, obviously, but I too found it magical. Yet, just as I found with Wright Morris, it was the one-on-one sessions in Leonard Wolf’s office–where we concentrated, together, on making my thesis project the best, most interesting “entity” we could—I felt were most valuable. Leonard Wolf was studying Russian at the time, and he suggested I include my own translations in my project, which I did: three poems by Alexander Blok (“Catkins,” “The Stranger” and “The Artist”), although we’d gone over a number of poems I had translated while taking lessons from our babysitter, Mrs. Pein. She’d given me language lessons in exchange for guitar lessons for her granddaughter—my reward if I did хорошо (good) after each lesson was not just one but two shots of vodka. At the time I felt I was being a fool (дурачить; durachit’), because, although I was able to read the poetry of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Pasternak in the original language, we focused mainly on grammar (I even wrote compositions for her which she “corrected.”). I did not learn to speak the language all that well—but a very constructive, positive result of the three years I spent working at the Lawrence Radiation Lab was, on my multiple bus journeys to and from work each day, I studied Russian, and by the time I met Leonard Wolf, I knew the language fairly well.

Here are two translations of Alexander Blok I made (with Leonard’s support and assistance–he was a stickler for finding just the “right” word–one word and one only—to “fit” the Russian)—two poems we would include in my final thesis manuscript:

[I am sorry to say this WordPress format will not reproduce the poems that follow as they appeared on the page, their exact form (lines indented, etc), so I will simply indicate the line breaks where they occur. We lose the visual counterpart, but at least we have the words–in correct order!]

THE ARTIST

In summer heat and snow-driven winters, / On the day of your wedding, feast, or funeral / I wish to rouse my deadly boredom with / The soft forgotten sound of bells.

Here! It is rising. With cold regard / I want to know, and fix, and strangle it. / Before my keen review the peal of bells / Extends to a barely perceptible thread.

Is the whirlwind rising from the sea? The bird / Of paradise singing in the leaves? Time swung / To a halt? The apples of May strewn with snow / Of blossoms? An angel passing in flight?

The hours pass, prolonged, bearing the world’s weight. / Sound, motion, and light expand; / The past passionately gazes at itself in the future. / No present. Nothing pathetic any more.

Finally, on its threshold of birth, the soul / –The new soul, the unknown force– / Is stricken by a curse, struck like thunder, / Conquered by creative reason, only to be killed.

He is locked within the frozen cage— / The gentle, kind, unbroken bird, / The bird that wished only to bear away death, / The bird that flew only to save the soul.

Here! This is my cage, of tempered steel / That glistens in the evening fire. / Here is my bird, formerly bright in plume, / Swinging on a hoop, singing in the window.

Its wings are clipped. It knows the song by rote. / Do you like to stand beneath the window? / The songs please you. But I, jaded and forlorn, / Long for more—and again, am bored.

THE STRANGER

On evenings above the restaurants / Densely lies the troubled air; / It holds the rancid breath of spring, / Conveying drunken calls—

Over the dust of by-lanes falls, / Toward the bored suburban flats, / The baker’s golden crest / And the shrill cries of children.

At night, beyond the city pikes /The dandies by the ditches stroll / With their ladies, tipping their derbies, /And exercise their wits.

Out on the lake the oarlocks creak, / A woman screams, /While in the city, bored with it all, / Indifferent, curls the moon.

On nights like this my only friend /Is the curved reflection in the glass, /Like I, befuddled / By the bitter sacramental wine.

In rows by tables close to mine / The drowsy waiters stand, / While drunks with rabbits’ eyes cry out, / “In vino veritas!’

Each night, at one suggested hour / –Do I dream, or do I see?– / The figure of a girl in silk / Passes by the window pane.

Then slowly, slight, she makes her way / Among the drunken men–alone– / As frail as smoke within the room, / And sits beside the window frame.

A vestal dressed for solemn rites: / Her skirts, like wine, excite, / Her hat with plumes among the smoke / And rings on every finger.

Strange: to watch her weave that spell / I see beneath a darkened veil; / Stranger still the promise held / Of veiled and distant shores.

The secret spell is mine to keep / –Deliverance in the sun– / Into the center of my soul / The wine and she have found their way.

I am turned on a spire of feathers– / My brain, like plumes, begins to sway— /  Drawn by the blue, the glass of her eyes, / Its light on distant shores.

Now in my soul a treasure lies, / And I am keeper of the key! / In truth, O drunken prodigy, / I know in wine is truth!

Here is a photo of Alexander Blok; a scroll painting I did of “The Stranger” (with Russian text); and a painting of another poem by Blok which I also translated: “This lamp, street, evening, shop, / This dim and senseless light of night– / If you should live another twenty years, / It will remain so. No end to it … You will die and begin again, go / Through it all again, as of old: / Evening, the icy fragments in the canal, / This lamp, this street, this shop.” (Photo credit: https://beautifulrus.com)

Alexander-Blok (1)  Alexander Blok The Stranger My Painting

Alexander Blok This Lamp Street Evening my painting

When it came to my own poems, Leonard Wolf was the perfect adviser, or “partner,” to have, for we thought along totally compatible lines when it came to the relationship of form to content. My training at Pratt Institute (anatomy classes coupled with life-drawing labs; rendering sessions, trompe l’oeil; design projects such as creating a living room based on color juxtapositions found in a favorite painting) had left me with much respect for formal properties in the visual arts (and the same in music: learning to play over set chord progressions long before I attempted “free jazz”). I had carried this respect for formal properties over when I started to write poetry—respect for the fundamentals.

I was thrilled by the “freedom” of Dylan Thomas’ poem “Fern Hill” (Line 1, 14 syllables; Line 2, 14 syllables; Line 3, 9 syllables; Line 4, 6 syllables; Line 5, 9 syllables; Line 6, 14 syllables; Line 7, 14 syllables; Line 8, 7 syllables; Line 9, 9 syllables. The lines are not arbitrary, for Thomas sticks to the set pattern in each stanza of the poem. Each stanza has the exact same number of lines with the exact same number of syllables in each line. I was thrilled by this mastery of craft (in spite of the poet’s drunken social habits), thrilled to find a host of words in the margins of his drafts, awaiting the selection, or choice, of just that “right” word–the inevitable word–for the poem.

I carried my respect for formal properties over into my own poems, and I would pay a price for it with certain factions at SF State, for “free verse,” or totally open, or “uncooked,” poetry, such as that practiced by the Beats, was still in vogue (a sort of Civil War, in fact, going on between open and closed form poets. More about that Civil War in a moment)—but Leonard Wolf was on my side. Again, In Naomi Wolf’s book, I found a very thorough, accurate, account of his ideas on the subject:

“Be disciplined. Do you want to know how to become a writer? It is not romantic. There is no revising a blank page. Keep going … [Naomi’s words]: “I remembered how, when I was a child, after I had told him I wanted to learn about them, he taught the standard forms of traditional poetry. Like a carpenter showing a child how to build a birdhouse, he taught me the basic shapes one could work with.” [quatrain, sonnet, ballad … and “the beats of the words”: iamb, trochee, spondee, anapest, dactyl, blank verse.] … “I would show him my latest poems—often written in the dreaded free verse, which was of course fashionable at the time … ‘Naomi, don’t paint abstractly until you can draw the figure. You can beak the form successfully once you have mastered it. Structure has to be the foundation—then you can play with it or depart from it altogether. But you have to know your craft … Emotions can be more powerful when they are closely confined by a strict form …The postwar poets I admired said that emotion, too, was a legitimate mode of thought. But the Beats made it a law that emotion would be the only mode of thought. They put feeling first and thought second. That led to disaster. I thought that was a pity, and I still do … The liberation of feeling and the discipline of form need each other. They need to be in balance.’”

Here is a poem of mine called “The Barmaid” we included in my thesis manuscript (I followed the syllable count of “Fern Hill” exactly—and even had the audacity to include rhyme!).

THE BARMAID

How could I ignore you, thinking of Renoir? / Like him, I’d trace your breast abed this frozen night. / I’m stirred with ginned regard. I know / Your skin would take the light. / But do I dare? Comme ci, comme ce,  / I walk toward the phonograph – a crystal flue / Of winter sounds -and drop a dime. The trumpets snow / All floors with sleight; but you / Refuse my offer of a pas  

 De deux:  ” For Sir, our management does not allow!” / So, let me tell you of your shoulders, how the sun / That frank, that unremembered glow / — “But Sir, I’m on the run?”– / Of light, would, be remembered now: / I’d put you in a field of wine and shade, and look /  At you–just look at you–with the eyes of art, you know. / And what if eyes forsook / Their handwork for the nude below?

We’d sing hip, bone and breast while nestled in the grain / And drink the reddest wine and swim the dappled sun. / And stop to press our place of love / And sign it, just for fun. / But here? Blue-violet bodies strain / To cold and crowded sound, and no one sings. “Now Sir, / I’ve work to do, you’ll have to take a seat!” I shove / And shoulder from the girl, / Thinking Renoir would complain.

Here are three more poems we decided to include in the manuscript. The third,  “Weekend,” would provide the title for the collection itself. A year after I graduated from San Francisco State College, and was teaching at the University of Hawaii, Carolyn Kizer, Editor of Poetry Northwest would accept “Weekend” for publication in the Autumn-Winter 1964-1965 issue of that journal—saying it “could be a major work”; and then, when she took the final version: “Congratulations on a noble effort.”

ANNIVERSARY: NUMBER SIX

I

We stomped, six years ago, the grass / Of churchyards with our love. / We shared our favorite trees, and felt /  Our white within the greenfields move.

II

The flesh that broke you tore our youth / in two. Our white time fled / and left two howling naked lives, / twin secrets of a medieval bed.

III

You Jill, I learned to love; began / to love your kitchen: / the flowers you picked, the roses,  pale, / and splintered glass you placed them in.

IV

Jack Thumb, a boy in corner, I / became. Vodka and caviar / my life; and kids who licked their lips / while I stained the frets of a small guitar.

V

If I were a sculptor I’d hoist your skirt; / a husband hold your hand. / I become either, a lover of sorts, / but seldom make the gesture bland.

VI

Guests in the doorway! Greet them well— / and if we have a fight /–open, flared when the moon comes up— / tell them, by God, we’ve earned the right!

Here’s a photo of the (somewhat puzzled–“What have I done?”–maybe reluctant)  young father depicted with his kids “who lick their lips” in the poem—and a full family photo, with Betty, taken at the same time:

Bill as Dad with Tim and Baby Steve  Bill, Betty and Boy Feeding Time on Hayes St

PERSIAN MINIATURES

Pure form is like a nun who never works: / You will respect her chastity, but wish / That she would pray for you, or teach a child, / Or do some menial job among the sick. / By her work her grace is best exposed, / As in this world of rhythm and of shape / Where line is both itself and loving Persia.

Whose face and gilded horse peer over hills? / A man of valor and a thing of line. / This green umbrella tilts to make a shape / But also tilts to shade a Sultan’s head. / The light blue horse on which the monarch sits, / Surrounded by a galaxy of flowers, / Is music of the painter’s craft alone.

And more; for there the Sultan really sits, / Upon a horse whose midget feet reside / In fields of white and dark vermilion flowers. / This quiet work, in which each part is placed / To tell and yet transform the Sultan’s day, / Outshines the brightest flame, and makes one think / More secrets lie in fabric than in fire.

Pure form is like a nun without a church, /A Sultan who has lost his canopy.

WEEKEND

I

The faces of the street are your best friends: / The worried, blind, and weak; they come and go / And you are fond of them. You love the light / In laundromats, where many things are done: / You stop and see–who knows ?–what rough delight / In frayed machines, on working hands, in men. / –I’ve said a thousand times that we should move, / But nothing’s cheap, your mother knows– / Come home; your mother waits. We are involved / In time, and time derides your dalliance, /But cannot cast it out, as it did mine.

II

Perhaps the rank thorn is the separate will: / Today our eldest son plays Cain and strikes /
His two week brother at the breast. Good Cain, / My self, my child, why must we live like men? / We sulk and try to share a public park: / Its monody of color on the green, /
Its carrousel of lives. We eat above / And bide our time with talk and sandwiches. /
Yet when the boy returns from dirt to show / His wounded cheek, you send us off to join /
The children, fathers, lovers down below.

III

You call the ducks and give them crusts of bread; / I sit among the bland in hell. You stop / And listen, what to hear? My child, you know / But cannot say, and that is just as well. /
Deprived of lunch, I pass the row of blondes / Called mothers by their neighbors; hoist my son / Upon his small and honest seat, and watch / Him spin on iron gadgets in the sun. / One day we walked out early and he threw / Himself on dewy grass, who hadn’t been / Outside the house for days.

IV

It’s three o’clock. I’ve come for milk but sit / Beside the soft electric purr of our / New frigidaire, and drink the wine. It drums / –In vino veritas–a fever in my skin. / You stand beneath a single light and say,  / “What reason brings you here?” The night, my dear,  /
Is my best friend; and night and I shall have / A time, be ridiculed and ridicule– / Together purge our pity and our fear. / Sometimes I make you sick, you say. My dear,  /
Sometimes my sickness makes me envy you.

V

“Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” I sing– / And who are they? My boy, I cannot say, / But don’t they have fine names? I turn; you smile / And hug the boys, who tug upon your apron string. / Together by the sink, our forms imply / Four names in one, yet live alone. If I / Could often join the three of you, and keep / The truth that wine and night and I must bear, / I know we’d have a pretty thing; but dear, / Saturday night and Sunday too, / One does the work that one was born to do.

Here is the cover of Transfer 20, an anthology “representative of the best of the first nineteen years … intended as a celebration” published in 1965—an anthology which contained two of my own poems, “Persian Miniatures” and “The Barmaid”; and the cover of the issue of Poetry Northwest, 1964-1965 in which editor Carolyn Kizer would publish “Weekend.”

SF State College Transfer      Cover Poetry Northwest

I took one more “literature” course in my last semester at San Francisco State College: a course in poet John Milton. Oddly, I do not recall who taught it. It may even have been Leonard Wolf—or Mark Linenthal? I will include, here, the last paragraph in a paper I wrote for the course, because it shows whatever progress I may (or may not) have made in my critical prose—and does illustrate what a “true believer” I’d become when it came to poetry. “An epic is the sum of the experience of all of its separate ‘books,’ or parts; of all of its metaphors, expostulations, and expulsions—correspondences, contrasts, and complexes. It may be a frieze or an ocean, but it has the unity of its adventure, and, in the case of Paradise Lost, the meaning is each grain of sand contained in the hourglass to which Milton committed it. And he would be the first person to remind us that those grains, like the parables of angels, are just a portion of the complete knowledge which we and poetry, as citizens of the City of God, are in a position to receive.”

I recently found another paper I wrote for that course: “Thought, Poetry and Theology,” in which I quote from Eric Heller’s The Disinherited Mind,” Meister Eckhart’s The Aristocrat, Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life, and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—and a draft of the final poem we would include in my thesis manuscript: a poem in ten parts called “A Letter to Friends in Alaska.” The “friends” were John and Margo Mitchell, whom I’d known in Hawaii when I first went there in 1956 (John was teaching English at the University, but quit to become a full time salmon fisherman in Alaska). The paper shows the extent of my reading at this time—even more extensive for I was also preparing, daily (and nightly) for my “orals” (which would accompany my thesis book of poems), orals to be administered by three professors: Leonard Wolf, James Schevill, and Bill Dickey. The orals would cover all of English literature from Beowulf to the present—so I had a fairly substantial list of books I was reading!

I was also taking a course called “Seminar in the Teaching of Writing”—in preparation for a job teaching I hoped to acquire upon graduation. And I was a teaching assistant for an undergrad composition course–one night a week–which meant I was “correcting” the first comp class papers I’d ever had to correct. I was very slow at it (“learning on the job,” so to speak). I called my “final” paper for the teaching seminar “Miss Lonelyhearts Among the Illiterates: a response to the remedial situation.” The last paragraph of this paper was not quite so positive as what I’d written John Milton’s poetry: “What is the mission of Miss Lonelyhearts, the ambivalent and diffident, the curious and affectionate teacher? First, perhaps, to tell his students not to be too easily sure of themselves, not to have too much poise.” [This strikes me now as an odd way to encourage the acquisition of ‘character;’ but also, it strikes me as vague. Was I encouraging “humility”?] “As for the English language, he would teach them to choose their words carefully, and remind them that the words they use—truth, death, desire—had not been easily won throughout history, and that, in an age of easy fulfillment such as our own, it was the teacher’s duty to keep them–in Philip Larkin’s phrase–from ‘fulfillment’s desolate attic.”

Before I turned in my poetry manuscript and suffered through my “orals,” something wonderful–a complete surprise–happened. I had three poems in the college literary journal, Transfer in 1963, and won the prize for BEST POEM, $25! The poem was “Persian Miniatures.” I was asked to accept the prize and give a “reading” at the Poetry Center. I’d never given a full-public reading of my work before. Here’s an account I would write years later of what took place.

“In 1962-63, I was a graduate student in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at what was then San Francisco State College. I was also a fairly recently ordained father (I had two kids under five years of age), a husband of sorts, and had been a full-time employee–a Scientific Data Analyst no less–at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley. I rode the bus to and from work every day, studying Russian (a portion of my M.A. thesis consisted of translations from Alexander Blok), and took classes at night. Needless to say, this was a hopping, hectic, nervous, but exciting time.

“I had some poems printed in Transfer 15, S.F. State’s literary magazine, and two of the editors were fellow students I never met: Ed Devlin and Paul Oehler. I won the twenty-five dollar annual poetry prize in ‘63, for a poem called “The Barmaid,” modeled on the intricate syllabic stanza patterns (and adding a rime scheme) of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill.’ I was twenty-seven years of age, left work, attended classes, returned home, and was decidedly not a part of the campus literary scene. I was also so shy at the time that, accepting the prize and giving my very first poetry reading, I never even bothered to look up–thus missing my own boycott. ‘Beat’ students objected to a closed form or ‘cooked’ poem (as opposed to open and ‘raw’) having won the prize, and protested by raising a banner at the back of the hall–a gesture of dissent that, my then reticent and bashful consciousness buried in the task of reading my poem, I never witnessed.”

It’s all “true,” but something that surprises me now is that, according to this account, I was still working “full time” at the Rad Lab throughout the time I was at SF State, which strikes me as a nearly “impossible” thing to have brought off  (given the course load I carried), although it is true that I was not “a part of the campus literary scene”—a situation that may have prompted the boycott. Years later (1971), I would have Ed Devlin as my office mate while teaching at Monterey Peninsula College, and I would finally meet, and become friends (we would do a book of poems together: Natural Counterpoint) with Paul Oehler, a superb poet.

“Poems: The Weekend” was accepted as “A creative work submitted to the faculty of San Francisco State College in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Master of Arts.” My “orals” turned out to be another unanticipated “adventure.” I had assumed they would take place on campus, in a cheerless classroom or office, but on a sunny afternoon, I found myself walking alongside Leonard Wolf, Jim Schevill, and Bill Dickey down to Stonestown Shopping Mall.

Here are photos of the three poets who would “grill me mercilessly” on the art form at a bar in Stonestown—when I thought I would “breeze through” the oral exam required for my Masters Degree: Leonard Wolf, Bill Dickey, and James Schevill: (Photo credits: www.sciencesource.com; Poetry Foundation; Goodreads)

Leonard Wolf 3 Bill Dickey (2)

James Schevll and dog (2)

I had applied to several colleges and universities for a job as an instructor (I’d heard, tentatively from the University of Hawaii, and I had even applied at SF State!). And I do recall feeling so confident about my prospects alongside my soon to be interrogators (or grand inquisitors) that I said, about a school I’d not heard from, “Well, if they’re not interested in me, I’m not interested in them!”–which must have prompted a response on the part of my three professors such as, “Good luck, you stupid cocky kid!”

They led me to a bar in Stonestown, and I thought, “Wow! This is going to be a piece of cake! A few drinks, a few laughs …”; but once we sat down and they asked what I might like to drink, they ordering nothing themselves. I declined their offer, thinking, “I’ll have a Cutty Sark on the Rocks–in honor of Hart Crane–when the celebration starts.” However, no celebration occurred for some time—about an hour and a half if I remember correctly. For that period of time, all three grilled me, mercilessly, on what seemed every aspect of English poetry. I don’t feel I did all that well on the academic and historically specific questions (“What is the difference in the way Wyatt and Surry first employed rhyme in their poems?”), and the thing that saved me was the poems I’d been memorizing each day—poems by everyone from Chaucer to John Keats to Dylan Thomas (and some poems in Russian and Classical and Modern Greek!).

The three professors left me sweating and devoid of a drink at the table while they excused themselves to determine my fate. When they returned, Jim Schevill told me I’d “passed,” and congratulated me–whereas Leonard Wolf whispered in my ear that the impressive recitations had saved my ass—if not exactly in those word, to that effect. Then all thee excused themselves to go home after another “hard day at the office,” I was left at the table–to order and sip my Cutty Sark on the Rocks, alone, lost, lonely–but  greatly relieved.

Here’s a signed copy of my thesis project, “Poems: The Weekend,” and my M.A. degree:

SF State College Thesis Acceptance  SF State College degree 1963

Ar last! I now had my Masters Degree in Language Arts (Creative Writing) from San Francisco State College, and I did receive an offer to teach at the University of Hawaii, for $5,500 a year. I’d been so impressed with the company I’d kept at SF State (heroes, idols such as Wright Morris and Leonard Wolf–the entire staff!) that I couldn’t sleep the night before I was to go in and tell them my decision regarding the future. I had actually decided (in spite of  only “part-time” possibilities) to stay with San Francisco State College, if they let me—but when I told the hiring committee that I’d received an offer from the University of Hawaii, they all jumped up from their shares and grasped my hands in congratulations—and that was that.

Leonard Wolf would leave San Francisco State College and go to New York in 1980. He would go on to publish several more books: A Dream of Dracula, Blood Thirst, 100 Years of Vampire Fiction (editor), Bluebeard : The Life and Crimes of Gilles De Rais, Dracula : the Connoisseur’s Guide, Horror – A Connoisseur’s Guide To Literature And Film, Monsters: Twenty Terrible and Wonderful Beasts From The Classic Dragon And Colossal Minotaur To King Kong And The Great Godzilla, The False Messiah, The Glass Mountain: A Novel (Overlook Press, 1993), The Passion of Israel, Vini-Der-Pu: A Yiddish version of Winnie the Pooh (Dutton 2000)—and others.

Leonard Wolf was ninety-six years of age when he passed away on March 20, 2019. I am very grateful to have known and worked so closely with this extraordinary man. Here are some of the books he published: (Photo credit: amazon.com)

Leonard Wolf Dracula The Connoisseur's Guide JPG  Leonard Wolf The False Messiah  Leonard Wolf Bluebeard The Life and Crimes

It seemed that, next thing I knew, my wife Betty and I had packed up our MacAllister Street home and she, Tim, Steve and I were literally sailing (on the President Wilson line) back to where marriage and family life had first started: the island of Hawaii, now an actual state in the USA since 1959.

I will close this post with three more photos: filming a lei-adorned Betty on board the President Wilson (about to sail to Oahu); my Betty looking very much at home in our new setting (the small backyard of an even smaller house we found on University Avenue), and the boys, Steve and Tim, with me in my dress code “uniform” (suit coat and tie in 1963—even in humid Hawaii!). But that–The Teaching at the University of Hawaii Years–is another tale I have to tell in the book length manuscript memoir I am at work on: “Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments.”

Hawaii 63-66 3

Hawaii 63-66 2    Hawaii 63-66

San Francisco State College in 1962–Wright Morris

“Medical issues” have required a break from Bill’s Blog, sorry (and I will save an account of that “adventure” for another time), yet a treatment program I have undertaken has not prevented me from completing other work I was engaged in. I would like, now–making a sort of “come back,” if I am able–to post, a chapter from a book in progress, a memoir: “Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments”—a chapter focused on the year and a half I spent in graduate school at San Francisco State College. That adventure started in the summer of 1962, when I was twenty-six years of age, and it would turn out to be one of the most rewarding periods of my life.

In this blog, I will not attempt to reproduce all of the chapter I have completed on my San Francisco State College days (and nights, for that’s when I attended most of my classes), but focus on my initial experience at the school and one of my favorite teachers: novelist Wright Morris. I will save, for a blog to follow, another favorite teacher—poet Leonard Wolf—and completing requirements for an M.A. degree.

Here, by way of introduction, are photos of Wright Morris and Leonard Wolf (Photo credits: Wikipedia; http://www.sciencesource.com):

Wright_Morris    Leonard Wolf 3

By the summer of 1962, I had spent three years working at the “Rad Lab” (Lawrence Radiation Laboratory) in Berkeley, the last year of which was not a fortunate experience (depicted in a previous chapter of the “Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments” manuscript) and I felt as if I had been released from a prison sentence, a term of incarceration, confinement, and would enter what, by comparison, I felt as monastic bliss. I was “back in school” again—and the very best, most inspirational educational institution, San Francisco State College (now University) I could have found for that time of my life.

In 1962, the Language Arts (or Creative Writing, the section of it I was enrolled in) division and its program were ideal—and the Creative Writing faculty consisted of some of the finest writers of the era, one of whom, Wright Morris (although a reviewer for the Washington Post once wrote, “No writer in America is more honored and less read than Wright Morris.”) was regarded by many sources I found as closely equal to, or “right up there” with, authors such as Willa Cather, William Faulkner (“a voice as distinctive as William Faulkner’s”: Michael Upchurch, The Chicago Tribune), John Steinbeck, John O’Hara, and Norman Mailer. A blurb (by critic John Aldridge) on the back of the first book by Morris I would read (just before I took a directed writing course with him: “one on one,” in his office), his winner of the 1956 National Book Award, The Field of Vision, said: “Wright Morris seems to me the most important novelist of the American middle generation.”

Walter Van Tilburg Clark (author of The Ox-Bow Incident and The Track of The Cat) was Division Chairman, and would serve as my primary faculty advisor. Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles; her husband Stan was a faculty member) would receive her MA in Creative Writing in 1972. She has provided one of the best accounts I’ve found on what made the school’s program so unique: “What I loved about San Francisco State was the passion. It was a commuter college and most of the kids were working, and it was very hard to go to school. They weren’t being handed an education, they were working for it just as we were working and I respected that passion very much. I loved it … I thought I had some of the best teachers I’ve ever had at San Francisco State. People that were passionate … and showed me a whole new way of looking at literature … I guess what I loved about it was the freedom and the egalitarian quality and the proletarian quality of it all — that we were all working people together … we had all that passion; we had all that warmth. We had people just hungry, hungry to learn and to write, to create and to make something of their lives. I found that incredibly exhilarating.”

Here are photos of Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Anne Rice (Wikipedia; http://www.thewomenseye.com):

Walter Van Tillburg Clark    Anne Rice

I agree, completely with her assessment. I would still be classified as a “working” person (or Proletarian”), closing out my time at the Rad Lab when I first “tested the waters” at SF State in the summer of 1962. I took a single course, and whereas I don’t remember the instructor’s name (He was not one of the faculty members of some “fame”), he was enthusiastic about the art of writing, and re-introduced me to it on an academic level in a manner that felt good, not at all threatening.

A typical assignment was to come up with single sentences that would disclose or reveal an “Instant” of existence (I came up with: “Small rain sacks walk electric wires”; “Two beer caps fell to the floor of Patty’s Place”; “The searchlights crossed, wintergreen, diamond cold.”). We were also asked to provide a “Lyric” moment (“The night we stood on sand and waiting long, beneath the single moon and open sky”; “My father and his rake, his loving arms and leaves”; “Filled with passion by your perfect commonplace”); “Kinesthetic” (“Her body was smooth and white, like the enamel on a refrigerator.”; “Fish, seaweed, leather, a horse blanket”; “The thick wet leather slammed into the socket of his eye.” [I’d done some boxing as a kid]; and “Grandeur” (“Together, they lit the silence of the night.”; “The Assyrian rage of the sky”; “I am my father’s brother, not alone his son.”; “We began, tense with genesis.”).

These exercises taught me an important lesson: every word must count, had to count; should have meaning and purpose, be the work poetry or prose! Yet I also recognized that the short lyric (of the moment) impulse or inclination came most naturally to me, given my temperament and whatever talent I might have.

Another exercise we were asked to complete was a list of “Themes” (from published work we liked) with one-sentence of examples or summaries. I chose” “The Ledge,” by Lawrence Sargent Hall: “A small light life … the Fisherman meant to hold it there, if need be, through a thousand tides.”; “The Maid’s Shoes,” by Bernard Malamud: “These people had endless troubles, and if you let yourself, you could become endlessly involved”; “The Fate of Man,” by Mikhail Sholokhov: “The fate of man, ‘a grain of sand, an orphan,; is to suffer, endure, and prevail” [the last two words lifted from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech!]; “The Circus Wrestlers,” by Alexander Kuprin: “The wrestler’s perfect body becomes a temple of illness; full circle, boo-me-rang, бумеранг!” (Here, I must have been trying to show off my recently acquired knowledge of Russian!—my instructor didn’t bother to comment on the inclusion).

I’m not sure just what, regarding my creative capabilities, I took away from all this at the time (aside from the “Show, don’t tell” mantra, which I’d heard before) and a sense that I was OK when it came to creating “a poetic effect,” but the course was, overall, an excellent way to ease back into an academic setting (and put the Rad Lab far behind me)–although looking back now, I am puzzled by samples of my writing I chose to submit, once I had completed this “Fundamentals of Creative Writing” course, and began the formal procedure of being admitted to the graduate school program.

The only sense I can make, now, of what I must have had in mind is that, when I learned that Walter Van Tilburg Clark, author of The Ox-Bow Incident and The Track of The Cat and  Division Chairman, would serve as my primary faculty adviser (the person who would determine the direction my thesis project would take), I must have decided to submit work that resembled his own: literary realism, or what might qualify as “American Literary Regionalism” or “Local Color”—not the “familiar materials of Western Saga” he employed “to explore the human psyche and to raise deep philosophical issues” (Wikipedia) but material grounded in the Midwest I’d grown up in. I was probably more impressed that Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novels—The Ox-Box Incident and The Track of the Cat—had been made into movies than with their content—for I was still too “immature” as a writer to have anything truly meaningful to say about “the human psyche,” and in spite of my fascination with philosophy while a student at the University of Hawaii (and my “A” in that subject), I had not yet formed a philosophy of my own which could be incorporated in my prose fiction.

Here are the covers of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novels The Ox-Box Incident, The Track of the Cat, and his story collection The Watchful Gods:

Walter Van Tillburg Clark Ox-Bow Incident  Walter Van Tilburg Clark Track of the Cat  Walter Van Tilburg Clak The Watchful Gods

The fiction I’d written while a student at the University of Hawaii from 1956 to 1958 (and I was surprised to discover just how much of it there was!) was sadly lacking in inspiration, was very “pedestrian,” or flat, somewhat boring. The best work I’d done up to 1962  was a Radiation Laboratory-inspired surreal science fiction novel I was still working on (“The Chuckleheads”), and some of the poetry I’d produced, and while I did include a portion of that work in the “portfolio” I submitted, the bulk of what was there was of the pedestrian, flat, “realistic,” boring variety—and Walter Van Tillburg Clark was quick to recognize that. He suggested that I set such prose aside for a while, and concentrate on my poetry, and, perhaps also, prose more stimulating to the imagination. He recommended taking a directed writing course with Wright Morris, as a means of finding a suitable direction for fiction, if I should continue to persist in my desire to write stories.

Which is what I did (take a directed writing course with Morris, simply because he was such a respected figure on campus), but my schedule was focused primarily on poetry: Mark Linenthal’s English 218 (critical papers); The Craft of Poetry with Leonard Wolf, who had us submit poems on the basis of which we would (or would not) be admitted to a class limited to a small very interesting selection of students—and I became one! Not only were we “hand-picked” or approved, but on the first day of class, he suggested we “ditch” the room we’d been assigned on campus and meet at his own home (where we might even drink wine while we discussed our work!), located on a hillside above Kezar Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers played their home games at the time—just a short walk from the apartment Betty and I and the boys had on McAllister Street. But I will save an account of that experience, and the poetry I would write, for Part Two of my account of graduate study at San Francisco State College.

I would come to love the work I did with Leonard Wolf, who would supervise my thesis project: a manuscript of my own poems and translations of poems by the Russian poet Alexander Blok–but I would come to idolize Wright Morris, telling people now that once I had discovered and read his books, I just wanted to kneel down, kiss his ring, and say, “Teach me everything you know!” I was more than ready to learn from these masters, who were not just academics, scholars, but actual living respected writers!

Here are the covers of three of my favorite books by Wright Morris: The Field of Vision, Love Among the Cannibals, and Will’s Boy:

Wright Morris The Field of Vision (2)  Wright Morris Love Among the Cannibals  Wright Morris Will's Boy (2)

The “facts” of the life of Wright Morris, known as a “writer’s writer,” are intriguing. He came from a humble background, a self-taught man of inclusive talents–gifts he made full use of. According to Wikipedia: “Wright Marion Morris (January 6, 1910 – April 25, 19098) was an American novelist, photographer, and essayist. He is known for his portrayals of the people and artifacts of the Great Plains in words and pictures, as well as for experimenting with narrative forms …Morris was born in Central City, Nebraska … his mother, Grace Osborn Morris, died six days after he was born. His father, William Henry Morris, worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. After Grace’s death, Wright was cared for by a nanny, until his father made a trip to Omaha and returned with a young wife, Gertrude.”

In another favorite work of mine, Will’s Boy, Wright Morris states, “Gertrude was closer to my age than to my father’s.” Gertrude hated small-town life, but got along famously with Wright, as they shared many of the same childish tastes (both loved games, movies, and ice cream). In 1919, the family moved to Omaha, where they resided until 1924. when Morris moved to Chicago—but in 1933, Wright Morris would graduate from Pomona College in California. Following college, he traveled through Europe on a “wanderjahr,” an adventure he later fictionalized in a novel, Cause for Wonder. From 1944 to 1954, Morris lived in Philadelphia. From 1954-1962, he divided his time between California and Mexico. In 1963, he accepted a teaching position at San Francisco State College.

Which takes us to the time of my acquaintance with him—but before I get to my own experience of this exceptional man (whom I feel I was not just fortunate but blessed to know and study under in 1962-1963), I’ll provide an example of a perceptive critic’s response to and appraisal of a book by Wright Morris, for the review cites aspects of his writing that attracted me to his work, and to Wright Morris as a man–a sort of “father figure” to me at the time. In a 2015 Chicago Tribune article, “An appreciation of novelist Wright Morris,” novelist/critic Michael Upchurch wrote: “Nebraska-born novelist Wright Morris was on fire in the early 1950s … In the space of five years, he published four novels that were rich in their ambition and maverick in their sensibility. They were also, in their variety of setting, reflective of his sharp-eyed travels back and forth across the country. One of them, ‘The Field of Vision,’ won him the National Book Award in 1957. But the book that most Morris fans see as his touchstone work (Morris himself described it as “the linchpin in my novels concerned with the plains”) is ‘The Works of Love.’ … Here, in a voice as distinctive as William Faulkner’s or Henry Green’s, Morris describes the desultory eastward drift of a Nebraska railroad man never sharing a marital bed for long and has oddly unconsummated affairs on the side. His one true object of devotion is a boy who isn’t his, but whom he gives his name and raises as his son … Will is as generous in nature as he is befuddled in spirit. He is, as Morris puts it, ‘a father, one who didn’t know what being a father is like, and a lover, one who didn’t know much about love.’ … His travails are at the heart of the book — yet calling them ‘travails’ feels like exaggeration. Will is an unsettling mix of the nondescript and the eccentric, and he slips elusively through even the biggest events in his own life. He acquires houses, spouses and businesses, yet it’s only in hotel lobbies — furnished, inevitably, with potted palms and cigar counters — that he truly feels at home … One peculiar effect of the novel is that the reader winds up feeling far more deeply for Will than he could possibly feel for himself. That’s due largely to the rolling, forlorn cadences of the novel’s prose, starting with its opening: ‘In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in man that begins to flow.’ … Throughout the novel, Morris keeps that steady, chanting beat going, even as he spices it with wry picaresque elements … ‘The Works of Love’ — achingly, quizzically, obliquely — means something.”

Again, I hadn’t seen this high praise of Wright Morris’ work before I took my first directed writing course with him, but, as I mentioned, I made sure to read his National Book Award-winning novel The Field of Vision, and—thinking, “This man is going to be my teacher, my mentor!”—I was first impressed by the blurbs on the back cover alone: “Wright Morris is one of the most gifted and significant novelists at work in America today.” (Chicago Tribune); “Writing that is beautiful, sad, funny, quietly humorous—and as significant as anything you will find in contemporary literature.” (Cleveland Press); “The image of American life that emerges from his whole work is unequalled by any author of his generation.” (The Reporter). And the novel didn’t let me down.

In it, a group of Midwestern tourists witness the “spectacle” of a bullfight in Mexico, and each of them is flooded with memories (a middle-aged wife for whom a stolen kiss from long ago still imposes on her marriage; a flamboyant failure reliving a childhood act that kindled his desire to “touch bottom”: an eighty-seven year old pioneer who is blind to everything but the past and what he hears; a pseudo-psychiatrist accompanied by his only remaining patient, who refuses to speak). The thought, longing, isolation, hidden passions, dreams of each character is depicted by Morris’ mastery of rotated point of view—the prose original and precise at every turn. In the author’s own words: “This bizarre assembly of oddballs, dreamers, and failures might naturally come together in one place only—the bull ring of Mexico City. This least likely of all likelihoods was appropriate to this unlikely gathering.”

As for my actual sessions with him, Walter Van Tillburg Clark had been right. Contact with and being “critiqued” by a writer such as Wright Morris was exactly what I needed to grant new life to my prose fiction. I haven’t preserved the first piece I submitted to him, but I recall that it was one of the stories I’d started for my summer session class—more than likely “The Rope,” a piece overly dramatic, too predictable, “a pleasure ride becomes a nightmare” story about a “young man” on a San Francisco Bay sailing adventure with a married woman named Mrs. Alonzo B. Sturgess III. Wright Morris returned it to me with witty, pithy, no-nonsense, uncompromised commentary I wish I had on hand now (not having the manuscript itself), but he said something to the effect that I could take my place in a very long line of wannabe fiction writers hoping to have their work published in one of the then popular magazines for women, such as Cosmopolitan, McCall’s, Woman’s Home Companion, or Redbook.

He went after my clichés with a vengeance. He seemed to find them everywhere in my work (language that seemed to come quite naturally, too easily to me—but expressions so overused they’d grown boring, unoriginal without my awareness), yet we seemed to get along beautifully, as if not involved in a teacher/student situation, but more the sort of thing you were likely to find in his work: a genuine friendship, but one never acknowledged as such, a “just is” thing, an acquaintance that came about without self-conscious effort—as if, rather than meeting in his office (which we did), we were meeting in one of the many comfortable, companionable hotel lobbies found in his novels: “All the lobbies are more alike than they are different, in that the purpose of every lobby is the same. To be both in, that is, and out of this world … The lobby draws a chalk mark around this unreal world … It prepares you for a short flight from one world to a better one. From the real world, where nothing much ever happens, to the unreal world where anything might happen—and sometimes does.” (From The Works of Love).

His hotel lobby office turned out to be a splendid setting for discussing the art of fiction. This may be just another cliché, but, yes, Wright Morris did become something of a “father” figure to me (I was writing, and talking to him often, about the father with whom I did not get along so well). Whatever his faults on the domestic front, my own father was a first-rate raconteur, and Wright Morris encouraged me to “talk” or tell, to work my stories over well in my head before I set them down on paper, and that seemed to help their presence on the page. He also went after my “sentimentality”–on the page, and elsewhere (in my life). In his excellent book, Haunted: The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris, Jackson J. Benson writes: “Wright may have been caught up in nostalgia, but at the same time he hated the idea of it. He followed the lead of most modern writers in despising any expression of sentimentality. At heart he was attached to the past and to the process of documentary but was determined, intellectually, not to be captured by a soft view of it.” Wright Morris joked about my attachment to what he called “the good olde daze.”

Here is the cover of Haunted: The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris by Jackson J. Benson (an engaging biography)—and the cover for Morris’ own The Works of Love, which became another of my “favorites” (Photo credits: amazon.com; http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu):

Haunted The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris    Wright Morris The Works of Love

Wright Morris openly advocated writing that, as far as “material” went, maintained an “everyday quality”—concentrating on (again in the words of Jackson J. Benson): “not the action or external circumstances so much as the inner life, the struggles—the guilt, the dismay, and even the pain in the consciousness of his characters … there would be almost as much comedy as darkness. At times reading his work, one doesn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or relax with a smile and be depressed … Morris was a writer who specialized in bringing forth the reality behind and hovering beyond what we commonly take as real and making it tangible, not to our fingertips but to our minds.”

The more specific (‘technical”) lessons—on avoiding sentiment and clichés—were accompanied by the large picture, the “umbrella” view, such as what he would write in his essay on Katherine Anne Porter in Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments: “To be fully conscious, to be one of those on whom nothing is lost, is to be aware of the ceaseless overlapping of the past and the present …  However vibrant and intense, however lyrically persuasive, however appealing the sound, look and feel of the present, if the dead were not part of the quick [Porter] knew the larger part of conscious life was lacking.”

He liked Henry James’ statement: “Objects and places disposed for human use and addressed to it, must have a sense of their own, a mystic meaning proper to themselves to give out.” With me, he suggested finding that essential “figure in the carpet” (“The carpet wears out, but in the life of the carpet the Figure wears in.”), and then get out of its way writing about it (“You don’t count; only the material does.”)—transforming, transmuting, transcending experience. He liked to mention the ambivalent “Green light” at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby—the promise of excitement and beauty, but also the end of aspirations and dreams: the valley of ashes at the book’s end. Unavoidable ambivalence. Henry James, Wright Morris would write, “contributes the consciousness of image-making itself. The restless analyst will never have done with this impressions, the overlapping and ceaseless reappraisal, and the newly liberated should read him with caution lest they find themselves again in chains. Freedom was one illusion he always treated with the greatest respect.” At the time of our acquaintance, I was definitely “newly liberated” and in need of “caution” as a writer.

Wright Morris emphasized “finding the right voice.” The voice that would fit my intention as a writer, saying, “From the voice like a seed the rest of it would grow.” He didn’t introduce me to, but he showed me how to make best use of providing several points of view, each chapter in a novel given the person telling the story (as he’d done in The Field of Vision) alternating points of view throughout the novel. It was the technique I’d employed on my own in “The Chuckleheads.”

The best way I can illustrate the nature of our “exchange” is to quote some of the comments he posted on a paper I did save from another course I took from him (aside from directed writing sessions), a course called The Craft of Fiction, with a lecture format,  and for which we read work by D.H. Lawrence (Women in Love), Henry James (The Turn of the Screw), Thomas Mann (Death in Venice), E. M. Forster (Howards End), Louis-Ferdinand Celine (Journey to the End of the Night), Albert Camus (The Fall) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby). Our “final” was an extended paper on one of these authors, and I chose Fitzgerald. The title of my paper was “The Chinese Wall of F. Scott Fitzgerald”—based on something the character Nicole says about the main character Dick Diver in Tender is the Night: “Let him look at it—his beach, perverted now to the tastes of the tasteless; he could search it for a day and find no stone of the Chinese Wall he had once created around it, no footprint of an old friend.”

I began my paper with some personal reminiscence—something my father once told me about Zelda, Fitzgerald’s wife. “’Zelda?’ my father said. ‘Of course I knew Zelda. I danced with her up at Sewanee—although it was your Uncle Alcorn knew her best.’” Wright Morris had underlined the word “Alcorn,” and wrote in the margin: “A gem. Who else but Uncle Alcorn?” And he gave me an “A” on the paper as a whole (work that, when I read it now, often displays my efforts—successful to a degree, I think, to adopt my professor’s own style of writing!). Of the piece as a whole, he wrote: “Very good. AND readable. How about the Chinese Wall of W.C. Fields? Do the Irish always have 3 initials? JFK, FSF, WCF? Soberly speaking-(Where’s your Mother?)-What part of this wall do you scale next? Should be a good climb.” “Where’s your Mother?” referred to a passage in the opening section of my paper, where I tried to match his own playful nature yet set the overall tone, alluding to my paternal grandfather, who, as a seventeen year old cannoneer in the Confederate Army, had—at Cumberland Church, two days before Appomatax—been shot through the lungs with a Minnie Ball, and woke believing he was “associated with the Heavenly Host” (a “Miss Hobson” was spooning chicken broth into his mouth); and I followed that with: “Where’s your Mother?”, for my father, telling this tale I’d heard so often before, was reaching beneath the drapes for his glass of Early Times, and praising my mother as a “race horse,” saying “You can always tell the difference between a race horse and a mule,” insinuating that he, by comparison, was a mule.

I loved the fun Wright Morris seemed to have telling me that I had, within my paper, provided a “good climb” of Fitzgerald’s Chinese Wall—and I was thrilled by the large “OLE!” he inscribed, in the margin of my paper, beside my words “We don’t really care how Gatsby made his money, but we do wonder just what Dick Diver is doing in medicine.”; and the three even larger “GOOD[s]” he’d written in the margin beside the following: “In Fitzgerald, the Organization Man had no hardened sense of life; he simply swapped the terms of poetry for the terms of commerce.“; “The most striking fault of Tender Is the Night is that it shares in its hero’s dissolution.”; “The novel does have a strong steady tone that tempts one to overlook the fragments of incident and character—in an attempt to lace together many fates, to resolve them with a single theme: beauty that must die.”

Here are the three books by F. Scott Fitzgerald I’d used for my extended paper:

Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby  Scott Fitzgerald Tender Is the Night  Scott Fitzgerald The Crack Up

Wright Morris only granted me a B+ (no “A” this time) on a second follow-up paper I wrote on F. Scott Fitzgerald, this one called “Helen and Priam on Fitzgerald’s Wall.” Morris himself wrote: “The tone of this is good and well sustained, but able Carraway Minor might have scratched a bit harder.” Reading the work now, I agree—although I did find seven large “Good[s]” inscribed in the margins, attached to the following observations: (the first referring to Fitzgerald’s “exploitation of himself and Zelda as material”): “What is amazing is that Fitzgerald was so fully on display for the writer who stood constantly at his side.” I also received a “Good” in the margin for (on Fitagerald’s letters to his daughter): “To his daughter he was Polonious and Pope and … Priam, the tired king, who had earned the right to his opinions, and was proud to reveal them to his last and most prized possession.” And on The Crack Up: “There is something in it of grandstand play, and for an unworthy audience, an audience that loves sudden failure as well as it loves success … For him, the redemption of a basically senseless battle lay in a well-conceived and well-constructed book.”

I compared Fitzgerald’s statement that he had been “only a mediocre caretaker of most of the things left in [his] hands, even of [his] talent”—to W.C. Fields: “Much of the humor of [Fields] depends on the ‘dissolute’ pride to which this statement comes dangerously close: ‘rivers of highballs, lakes of cocktails, oceans of distilled damnation … I think I’ll put on my bathing suit’ … Like Fields, Fitzgerald hadn’t lost his touch, but he’d drunk up his material, and, as The Last Tycoon shows, needed to shop around for more.”

I ended the paper with a bit of fantasy: the hope that Fitzgerald’s “heaven” might turn out to be an Elysium washed with gin-filled waters, a place where he and Zelda, and W.C. Fields perhaps, having performed due service to Helen and reclaimed by Priam (“Fitzgerald, I said, having written The Great Gatsby, was the truest son of Troy.”), are permitted to do more of both [not just write such a book, but also go “into Show Biz, having gone along with Rogers and Hart and ‘that gang,’ to cap the sublime off with a bad commercial.”] In response to this last bit, Wright Morris wrote, “That’s some heaven, man!” But he wasn’t buying this paper as a whole, and in his initial commentary, he employed a favorite phrase of his: “Ahhhhh, the good olde daze!”—adding: “Having browsed in these pastures of heaven, it’s not for me to deprecate the real estate. Nevertheless, it is true (and sad) that the Chinese Wall of Fitzgerald still marks the Continental Divide—on the one flank those who make it, on the other, in the potshards, those who count.”

I enjoyed hearing him “lecture” in the Craft of Fiction course as much as I did spending time with him in our one-on-one directed writing sessions, although some of my fellow graduate students felt he was just a so-so teacher in the former, for he spent nearly as much time relating anecdotes from personal experiences (which I loved!) as he did on the authors we were to have read. Again, in Jackson J. Benson’s words: “He was a great storyteller, and often the stories he told, while entertaining, had little to do directly with the purpose of the class.” True, but I found Wright Morris fascinating in any capacity. What Benson adds to his appraisal is also true: “But one-on-one he was as encouraging as he could be, depending on the quality of the work that was submitted to him.”

At the time, I treasured every word he wrote to me on the papers I submitted, or granted me in person—and still do. We made, I think, an interesting match-up or “pair” in our own hotel lobby, sharing mutual opinions and feelings. He did not treat me as if I were just another “student,” but a fellow writer, and that, at the time, was immensely satisfying. I’m just sorry that, unlike what I wrote for the Craft of Fiction course, I haven’t retained specific pieces he commented on from the directed writing sessions, but I do remember his being intrigued by the character, Honey Foots Cadwell, I came up with for the Chuckleheads novel. What I wrote about Honey Foots has the stamp, the rhythm and tone of Wright Morris all over it, so I know we worked on that piece together: “For as long as he could remember, Foots had waited. Waited, for his father to come home, his mother to go away. For John James Alcorn, his black sheep uncle, to sober up, get drunk, just about anything. He had waited in bars, in pharmacies, in filling stations. On playgrounds, in parking lots. Outside of church, on waterfronts. All night truck stops. In beds … Now, standing on the roof of his friend’s San Francisco apartment building, he waited for Perry, his friend, and the girl … Once, in a bar in Tiburon, he had waited six days for Perry to finish a game of chess. Well, not just a game of chess. The game lasted for a day, morning, and afternoon. But Perry, finished, went to the men’s room, and from the men’s room to Hawaii. Foots, uninformed, waited.”

I would not read Wright Morris’s other National Book Award winner, Love Among the Cannibals, until after I had my graduate degree from San Francisco State, but when I did I wished I was back in his hotel lobby office again, for the book begins “This chick, with her sun-tan oil, her beach towel, her rubber volleyball, and her radio, came along the beach at the edge of the water where the sand was firm”; and that reminded me of the way I began my summer session story, “Hand of Chance,” I wrote just before I met Wright Morris: “Two girls came up the beach to sit in the sun. An entire baseball game stopped to watch them. The ball dribbling into the sea. The girls set up an orange umbrella that looked almost white beneath the open sky. They stripped and sat on the hot sand in their too-small bathing suits. The better looking of the two lit a cigarette and the blue smoke went up her nose and came out again.” The ”chick” character “The Greek” in Love Among the Cannibals lives with “two other chicks” and “they all worked as waitresses at the same Wilshire drive-in.” I don’t know how many drive-ins resided on Wilshire Blvd. in 1956, when I hitch-hiked from New York City to Santa Monica that year, and I ended up washing dishes with an interesting assortment of wineos, I would have loved to have had an opportunity to tell Wright Morris about that coincidence, and hear his reaction, which would have been priceless, I’m sure.

Here’s a sample of the photography of Wright Morris, and the cover of his collection of the same, Distinctly American: The Photography of Wright Morris (Photo credits: Sheldonartmuseum.org; www.leegallery.com; amazon.com):

Wright Morris Photo Through the Lace Curtain (The Home Place)    Wright Morris Photo Train Depot The Home Place

Wright Morris Photo Uncle Harry    Wright Morris Photo book Distinctly American

He would not retire from teaching at San Francisco State until 1975—but even though we returned to The City in 1966 after I taught at the University of Hawaii for two years, I never saw him again—which was a mistake on my part, for he had been, and remained, a major influence on my life, and one of the most interesting, intriguing, engaging human beings I would ever meet.

Because of the long-lasting influence of Wright Morris, I would like (before I turn to a second most important person during my time at the College, Leonard Wolf) to honor him by citing an article I would discover in Poets & Writers magazine in 1997 (Morris would die of esophageal cancer in Mill Valley, California in 1998). The article, or homage, was called “Wright Morris and the American Century,” and it was written by James Hamilton, who happened to be living in a “small town across the bay from San Francisco,” and one day saw “a distinguished-looking elderly man in a floppy white hat walking along the sidewalk in [his] direction.” Hamilton “recognized him as the novelist Wright Morris, whose face [he] had seen on numerous book jackets over the years, but whom [he] had never met.” From that point on, Morris “steadily worked his way into [Hamilton’s] daily thought, because “It saddened me that a man who had graced his profession as he had was living in what I assumed to be fairly total obscurity.”

James Hamilton had actually read very little of [Morris’s] work, but he began to devour it, and “spent long hours in Morris’s small, darkened apartment” within a rest home “just down the street.” Hamilton learned that, at age 87, Morris had stopped writing—explaining: “I have been a workaholic all my life … but what words will not do is what now impresses me. Music is what sustains my life now, Mahler in particular … I had reached the point where, as a work-oriented man, the work was simply not good enough. My imagination seemed to be out of reach of the problem. It was a great injury to discover that my critical judgement had begun to fail. It was very painful.”

Hamilton’s article is rich with reflection, forward and back in time, on the part of Wright Morris, and the younger writer pays loving tribute to the latter’s portrayal of mid-20th century American values (literary historian John Aldrich wrote that Morris “took America as his province. He wrote with a sense of the whole of America in his blood and bones.”). Hamilton included the author’s feelings regarding “our own uncivil age”: “It is the incoherence that bothers me, the wastage. I cannot imagine how this nation is ever going to correct itself, it is so profoundly screwed up … What we’re going through is the real McCoy, not something we can sweep away on down the line. We can’t just ask Mother to come over and clean the table off, just get rid of the spots.”

I will conclude my own tribute to (my fortunate acquaintance with, unique friendship with) this great man, with a “parade” of his still available (Thank God!) work. Wright Morris’s final novel, Plains Song, would win the American Book Award in 1981. Just a partial list of his works is impressive: My Uncle Dudley (1942), The Man Who Was There (1945), The Inhabitants (photo-text) (1946), The Home Place (photo-text) (1948), The World in the Attic (1949), Man and Boy (1951), The Works of Love (1952), The Deep Sleep (1953), The Huge Season (1954: finalist for the National Book Award), The Field of Vision (1956: National Book Award for Fiction), Love Among the Cannibals (1957: finalist for the National Book Award), Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960: finalist for National Book Award), Cause for Wonder (1963), One Day (1965), In Orbit (1967), A Bill of Rites, a Bill of Wrongs, a Bill of Goods (essays) (1968), God’s Country and My People (photo-text) (1968), Fire Sermon (1971), The Fork River Space Project (1977), Plains Song: For Female Voices (1980: National Book Award for Fiction), Will’s Boy (1981, Solo (1983), A Cloak of Light (1985), Time Pieces: Photographs, Writing, and Memory (1989).

A lifetime of work by Wright Morris remains accessible, available, obtainable—throughout an era (ours) in which nearly everything is expendable. Considering his good fortune, I thought of all the worthy authors for whom “survival” (the ongoing recognition and respect they deserve) has not proved true—and then, three of my favorite 19th century authors for whom it has: Charles Lamb ( English essayist, poet, and antiquarian, best known for his Essays of Elia and the children’s book Tales from Shakespeare), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England), and  William Hazlitt (English essayist, drama and literary critic, painter, social commentator, and philosopher–now considered one of the greatest critics and essayists in the history of the English language). Here are some of their thoughts on literary perpetuity (the quality or state of being perpetual) and the significance of books.

Charles Lamb: “There is more reason to say grace before beginning a book than there is to say it before beginning to dine … What is reading, but silent conversation … I love to lose myself in other men’s minds … Books think for me … A presentation copy is a copy of a book which does not sell, sent you by the author, with his foolish autograph at the beginning of it; for which, if a stranger, he only demands your friendship; if a brother author, he expects from you a book of yours, which does not sell, in return … When my sonnet was rejected, I exclaimed, ‘Damn the age; I will write for Antiquity!’”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Poetry has been to me its own exceeding great reward; it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the good and beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me … Language is the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests.”

William Hazlitt: “The world loves to be amused by hollow professions, to be deceived by flattering appearances, to live in a state of hallucination; and can forgive everything but the plain, downright, simple, honest truth … Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own … No man is truly great who is great only in his lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history … Those only deserve a monument who do not need one; that is, who have raised themselves a monument in the minds and memories of men … Fame is the inheritance not of the dead, but of the living. It is we who look back with lofty pride to the great names of antiquity, who drink of that flood of glory as of a river.”

I’ll close out the photo gallery with Wright Morris in the company of Charles Lamb (a portrait by William Hazlitt) and Hazlitt himself (a self-portrait)—excellent company Wright Morris has every right to keep (Photo credits: www.fantasticfiction.com; www.poemhunter.com; http://www.datadeluge.com):

Wright Morris hands folded photo  Charles Lamb color portrait  William Hazlett portrait

I look back on my acquaintance, my friendship with him with “lofty pride” (or immense gratitude) and to re-reading his work throughout what remains of my life—work that will remain a monument in the mind and memory forever.

Next blog: Leonard Wolf and more reflection on the time I spent at San Francisco State College.