Literature Symposium: Alan Stephens

 

Late 1986, College of Creative Studies

Robyn Bell: Thank you for coming to this reading. It’s a temptation to put a lot of words around a poet, but the time appointed to us can be used to a better purpose, so it’s a privilege to introduce Alan Stephens.

Alan Stephens: I asked Robyn if I could do this poetry reading, really, so as to have an occasion to say something in the way of informal, unofficial recollections about Marvin Mudrick, before a College gathering. Afterwards, in order to make Robyn’s announcement come true, I’ll read a few poems, if there’s any time.

After class today, a student walked down the hall with me, to talk about the paper he was contemplating writing, and it looked to me like he was heading toward disaster. So I talked with him for a while about it, and finally got him headed in another direction. And he turned and went down the hall, and a few steps away he looked back over his shoulder and said, “You’re a smarter man than you look.” Then I went over these notes that I wrote yesterday, about Marvin, thinking I’d be done in the morning, and finding myself still at it at five-thirty in the afternoon, and I had my doubts about what that boy said.

One thing . . . In the excitement of writing them down I find I said some rather wild and provocative things about poetry, but that’s in the spirit of Marvin, so I’m leaving them in.

You couldn’t say that this poetry reading should be dedicated to Marvin, because he had a low opinion of poetry, once you get past Chaucer, and a few of the later figures. Donne, I remember, he said he liked. And especially low of Romantic and Modernist poetry and what came after it. He called it “wall-paper” for a while, there. Poetry hadn’t been about enough, he felt, for a long time, a long time. I think probably his analysis was including the fact that fiction came along, and took over big territories of subject matter, and left the poets without occupation in a good many literary respects. Poetry wasn’t about enough, and it didn’t know it. It put on airs, it indulged in naive egotism; weak, ready-made sentiments, dumb stunts, silly judgments, tricky rhetoric . . . the whole list would be a long one.

And you know, I suppose I’m the person in the College who’s known Marvin — who knew Marvin — longest, anyway. And experience has taught me that when Marvin speaks out against something, you really ought to take a good hard look at it. There is lots of evidence for his position about poetry. I noticed, reading around in Hemingway’s letters the other day, the young Hemingway agreed with him. Hemingway was not somebody who Marvin cared a lot about. But Hemingway said that he’d found that, he felt there’d always been good poetry, and with a little luck, we’d always have a little, he said, but not a hell of a lot. And that’s maybe not a risky position to take.

Well. It was three days after Marvin’s death that I came on campus for the first time, and the place looked to me, as it must have looked to lots of you, very small, stricken, listless. A phrase jumped into my mind — the phrase that jumped into my mind was, “a big force is gone.” Force is not, maybe, the right word, but a better one hadn’t come to me. But I meant a big force of intelligence, big force of personality, big force of character, big force of imagination, big force of passion and talent and bounding energy. All that was gone.

Thinking about Marvin’s writings, and looking at them again yesterday, it occurred to me to propose a contest with the poetry lovers. I’ll take Marvin’s side. You cover a page with passages from your favorite twentieth-century poets, and let me pick a page full of passages from Marvin’s writings. Then we’ll see which can and cannot stand up to which. We’ll compare them for original wit, for rhythmic power, speed and compactness of expression, images, metaphors, for understanding, for imagination, for emotion. In short, we’ll compare them for art, and for scope (you know Shakespeare’s line: “Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope”) and for everything else.

You’re saying, “Why, you can’t compare that way,” and I say, “Sure you can; it’s all writing.” I just want something to read. All I ask is to be smitten, as Robert Frost says.

I think where I’ll beat you is in this: The poets have their lines to work with, and they have their images, and their rhythms and other sound effects; but the trouble is, they have to write in sentences, too. And it is well, it’s really immensely advantageous, for a sentence to be saying something; and a sentence by Marvin says a lot, a lot. So there’s where I think you should put your money: on me.

Now I want to talk about . . . just a few . . . something about my long friendship with him. When I came to UCSB the College wasn’t here, but Marvin was. And I was a very green assistant professor from the sticks; hot-headed and overconfident; rigid with principle . . . the list there would be long, also, if I completed it. And in those days everybody shared an office. Nobody had an office to himself. And Hugh Kenner, who was the chairman at the time, put me in with Marvin. And I got direct warnings, and fearsome stories, from various people; and I even got a letter from, quote, a very distinguished professor from a university up north: “Watch yourself with Mudrick; he can tear you limb from limb.”

Well, what we did was argue, after our acquaintance with one another was provisionally and perfectly pleasantly established. Wonderful arguments they were; great fun. I never had encountered such a quick, strong, and resourceful intelligence. Marvin and Kenner were the two smartest people I had ever met. I hadn’t even imagined people that smart. And I learned, as you have if you’ve been in Marvin’s classes, that intelligence is infectious. It makes you smarter to be around it. (So is stupidity, unfortunately.)

Knowing Marvin helped me become not as smart as he was — but at least I had a chance to become as smart as I could be. Those contests, those arguments, were sometimes spectacular, and Marvin I found was like Dr. Johnson in the heat of the battle: he would sometimes stop arguing in order to arrive at the truth, and start arguing to win, and throw every argument that he could lay his hands on at me.

But what was exhilarating for me, was that I never was afraid to blurt out any idea that jumped into my mind in the course of an argument. I knew always that Marvin would grasp it, right away. When I tried this on other people, too often what happened was that my idea, I could see it traveling in that person’s mind over to the nearest cliché, and getting digested there. Very irritating. Not with Marvin; a quick understander. And also you’d notice that he’d understood not only that idea but a great big area around it that you hadn’t yet got around to looking into. With nearly all other academics, I’ve found, to argue is to quarrel; the herd instinct is very strong in our profession, as in others. Differences of opinion are taken very seriously. Not that Marvin and I didn’t quarrel. But really it was that I quarreled with him, and then he would bring me back to my senses. So that I learned lessons in conduct from Marvin. I do remember once he got angry at me. His knee had been hurting him, and I suggested that he get a decent pair of running shoes, instead of wearing the seven dollar sneakers that he had. They were a brilliant odd green color, and I think he had something like ten pairs of them. And he blasted me right out of the office, with one growl.

Even back then, when I first got here, I knew how to read. That’s probably the thing I can do best. Anyway Marvin soon found out about this, and from then on, for over a quarter of a century, four times a year, right down to a few weeks ago — four times a year, sometimes oftener if he was writing other things, I’d get a phone call from Marvin. I’d say, “Hello?” He’d say — it always went the same — “Oh, hello Al. Al, I’ve finished a piece for The Hudson. Could you possibly look at it today?” And I would say, “Bring it right over,” as often as I could. And never was there a delay of more than a day or so, I think.

Well, here he’d come, with two copies, one for him and one for me. We’d sit down, and read it. Those pages would be typed solidly, and with margins — narrow margins; and the type was small, so you’d get the most words possible on the page. And the paragraphs . . . really big, massive things, like Aztec masonry. And then squeezed in between, in that tiny but very clear writing — really it was printing — would be the revisions and additions. So you get this . . . so I’d read along. And when there was a problem, I was always amazed how unhesitatingly he went to work on it, and how deftly, how soon it was fixed, usually. Once in a while it would be tough, and then Marvin’s tenacity would set in. And he might even have to leave our meeting without getting the thing fixed. But there’d be a phone call an hour later, and then another couple hours. And by the next day, he’d have it licked. He’d have it licked. But to watch the efficiency with which he moved, in clearing up the problems, was a great, great thing to see.

Often as not there weren’t any problems, especially in the last five years or so. I’d just read it and tell him, “Its magnificent.” Often as not, too, of course, as I read I’d be half-blinded with tears of laughter, because they were often so funny in places; at the same time they were funny, they were producing other very complicated emotions and reactions. An awful lot goes on at one time in Marvin’s prose.

People will describe him as a demolition expert. One thing to say about this is that the demolitions are always instructive. The weaknesses in the writer under review — failures of responsibility, dishonesty of one kind or another — Marvin depicts clearly; and the harm done, he makes plain. And his readers, who are likely as not themselves writers, read along, and they think, “Please, God, not me next.” This is really so. I remember my own experience with this (I was very ashamed of it) in graduate school, reading Pope — reading Pope on the literary life — [unintelligible] I’d think, “Jeez, this is awful good but I’m glad that he’ll never be around to take a look at what I have to write.”

A big fear of this man. I saw this spring, in a letter from the leading international authority on a major figure in English literature, who had just published the book which crowned his career, the statement, “I hope Marvin doesn’t review it.”

And these people of course forget all the . . . the many celebrations of the works he loved, with their attractions all set out so brilliantly, and movingly.

I think I’ve also hit on another reason for Marvin’s ogre reputation. You read into a piece by Marvin — and you know he never called them reviews, he never called them essays; it was always “a piece” — you read into a piece by Marvin, and very soon you sense the momentum gathering, and you find yourself after a bit, by way of a most delicately managed transition, right in the middle of a tumultuous crescendo, with rocketing metaphors, often made over from slang . . . voices, different voices (he was wonderful at mocking: suddenly you realize its not Marvin’s voice you’re hearing, but this fool author’s, or some hypothetical character’s); jokes — always good jokes; potent and original generalizations, coming out like bursts of light; those long, eventful parentheses . . . all of it carried forward on the rhythms of a very powerful, complicated emotion. And then you’re brought around and down firmly to the brisk conclusion. And you can say to yourself, “What have I read? I’ve read a review, and a very good review. A very thorough, just, and startlingly vivid review.”

But more than that, it will be a review with an essay on the subject. And that essay will be backed by fresh reading in all the relevant literature, massive reading, so that you’re reading also an authoritative, scholarly assessment and set of reflections on the topic. But it’s something more than that, too, because other essays, other scholarly essays, and other reviews don’t read like this. And it does seem to me that what you’re reading is those two forms plus another thing, to make what Marvin called a “piece,” that he had developed on his own. A new art form, of which he was the sole inventor and practitioner. Hunting around in my mind for anything to compare it with, the closest thing I could come to, and I just came across it by chance, is Demosthenes, the Greek orator. [unintelligible] Let me read you this description of what it was like to hear Demosthenes:

“The smoldering momentum and the solid crescendo of his speeches, the range of his tones, the second-nature quality of his devices [that’s nice; his devices are second nature to him] make him a great artist, if any orator ever was. He mingles simplicity with complication, and the natural rhythms of speech with a vastly extended formal music.” (I wonder how many readers of Marvin realize how marvelously managed rhythms are, in his prose. I used to watch the minute attention he would give the placing of a syllable, the location of a word, and its sound. Everything in that prose was inspected with such alertness . . . .) “Sir Richard Jebb praises Demosthenes’s lighter gifts as if he were a Cambridge don in the late Victorian age . . . .  But Demosthenes is more formidable than that. Sir Kenneth Dover has shown the power of his deliberate tactics. Demosthenes at his most powerful is a compound of many talents and devices.” That, I think, is exactly right, of Marvin’s writing. It’s a compound of many talents and devices. (The last phrase here is, “All of them terrifying.”)

I think that Marvin did use, as he needed it, virtually all the resources and devices to be found in literary art. And his work has, in its own fashion, all the fearful, and delightful powers, of an art. I say fearful, and I think this strange phenomenon of Marvin’s writings made his fellow academics uncomfortable, or really, afraid.

There’s an old tradition of art hatred in our culture. It goes back to Plato; Plato gave it its most formidable expression. And it comes right down into the present fads of literary criticism, which, I found the art critic Arthur C. Danto recently saying, “busies itself finding ways to keep art at a safe distance.” The profession is swarming with people like that. The other day I heard a lecture on the new kind of criticism  [unintelligible], the lecturer declaring that “we have now proved that a work of art is subject to endless interpretations.” And it just so happens that the Danto, Arthur Danto, article that I had read, had taken up that very notion. What he said about it was that “it is a way of not having to deal with what makes art threatening, and its experience important.” There’s a phrase in Paradise Lost — (I just remembered how Marvin detested Milton, threw a strong light all over Milton’s work: very instructive!) — anyway, there’s a phrase in Paradise Lost, it comes in a speech by Satan: “Though terror be in love / And beauty . . .” and I think the same terror can be inspired by art, and that everybody experiences it dimly or otherwise, because the demands made, like those made by love and beauty, are very severe on the timid little self, waiting hungrily in its own little twilight.

I think people feel fear at the magnitude of the powers they encounter, when they read a piece by Marvin. It takes — you must summon up a lot, to respond adequately, to do it justice.

Well, if I’d written just a little more I could get out of reading poems altogether.

From the beginning, you would feel, as you read from essay to essay, quarter by quarter, that Marvin was developing this or that value; it would emerge, reappear . . . reappear in various essays. And you could see his mind working on that particular value . . . Over the years, I think (this is just an impression, I haven’t reread his writings) — I think there was a kind of gathering together of a set of values, ever more clearly defined, and reflected upon more and more, and these values are what come shining out, variously and so splendidly, especially in the work of, say, the last ten years. Here they are. They were set out by Marvin, in his characteristic straightforward way, in the preface to the last book that he published. You must know this, but maybe you don’t, and if you do you’ll like to hear it again anyway. He says:

“I write . . . from the angle (with the bias) of certain at least theoretical choices of my own: either over neither, both over either/or, live-and-let-live over stand-or-die, high spirits over low, energy over apathy, wit over dullness, jokes over homilies, good humor over jokes, good nature over bad, feeling over sentiment, truth over poetry, consciousness over explanations, tragedy over pathos, comedy over tragedy, entertainment over art [Amen!], private over public, generosity over meanness, charity over murder, love over charity, irreplaceable over interchangeable, divergence over concurrence, principle over interest, people over principle.”

Bravo.  Bravo.  Bravo.