The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Letter from Palo Alto


Helen Pinkerton Trimpi



A letter is the heart’s good-will in brief.


So wrote J. V. Cunningham in the first line of an early poem, “A Letter,” written while he was living in Palo Alto in 1935. He translates and sharpens the Roman rhetorician Demetrius’ observation that “A letter is designed to be the heart’s good wishes in brief.” Or, as Wesley Trimpi elaborates from Demetrius, On Style: “The poem is sent as a gift in which the mind of the author himself is more clearly revealed than in a portrait” (Ben Jonson’s Poems: A Study of the Plain Style, 1962). Or, as Angel Day observed in The English Secretorie (1598), a letter is “the familiar and mutual talke of one absent friend to another.” Poets and rhetoricians noted the freedom of the form to take up any subject of interest to the writer and/or recipient, whether personal, even intimate, matters or those more general but of mutual concern. For the verse letter is, as traditionally observed, one half of a dialogue.


            It may be an invitation to visit, as in Thomas Wyatt’s first letter to John Poyntz, where, after giving his moral reasons for not living at court, he writes: “But here I am in Kent and Christendom, / Among the Muses where I read and rime.” And, “Where if thou list, my Poyntz, for to come, / Thou shalt be judge how I do spend my time.” Or it may be an invitation, as in Jonson’s admirable “Inviting a Friend to Supper.” Donne forthrightly claims to Sir Henry Wotton: “Sir, more then kisses, letters mingle Soules: / For, thus friends absent speake.” And, in another to Wotton, “It is my deed of gift of mee to thee.” Similarly, Milton takes up the tone of gracious affection in his verse epistle to Edward Lawrence, inviting his friend to a dinner “Of Attick taste,” with wine and music of “the lute well toucht, or artfull voice.” Pope’s great “Letter to Dr. Arbuthnot” consummately exploits the letter’s capacity for self-justification, even to the point of irritable exaggeration, and suggests that should it fail to be composed from the “heart’s good-will,” the letter might turn out to be one of those that Timothy Steele describes in “Old Letters,” that:


[…] speak of

Now jettisoned ambitions

And insecurities which passed for love,


[…] And as one reads, one may, between the lines,

Construct the features of a former self

                       Too given to the self and its designs.


The letter, while self-revelatory, ought not to be narcissistically self-obsessed, for that would leave out the other half of the dialogue, the presence of the friend.


            Whatever his reason, Cunningham apparently felt that his verse letter was a failure, for he republished it only in a truncated form in 1937 and did not include it in his Collected Poems and Epigrams of 1971 (it is included in Timothy Steele’s edition, The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, 1997). However, at about the same date, living in Palo Alto, he wrote a splendid example of the verse letter, “To a Friend, on Her Examination for the Doctorate in English.” Addressed to a fellow woman graduate student at Stanford, it epitomizes the true literary scholar’s concerns and costs (not quite our contemporary “theorist’s” idea of graduate study), expressing his “heart’s good-will in brief”:


                       […] A learned grace

                       And lines of knowledge on the face,

                       A spirit weary but composed

                       A soft voice and historic phrase

                       Sounding the speech of Tudor days,

                       What ignorance cannot assail

                       Or daily novelty amaze,

                       Knowledge enforced by firm detail.


On the other hand, Cunningham’s friend, Yvor Winters, for all his later love of literary tradition, published no verse letter in the manner of Wyatt, Jonson, and Donne. Ever the experimentalist, he published an early free verse poem, “The Schoolmaster Writes to a Poet,” (R. L. Barth, ed., The Uncollected Poems of Yvor Winters: 1919-1928), in which, almost accidentally, the form emerges, barely suggesting some of its usual intentions. Written from Santa Fe in the early 1920s to a friend (possibly Glenway Wescott), it gives news, of a sort: “Again the summer, / Santa Fe, / And a few people— / A moment when one speaks / Beneath low trees […]” It is somewhat self-revelatory, alluding to what the poet had earlier written, quoting himself: “The villages / Are pressed flowers / Laid away.” He concludes by conveying some of his heart’s goodwill, noting that he continues to send letters, “From old habit,” but his mood is intensely melancholy:


                       The summer ages.

                       The people come and go.

                       And I shall go—

                        For my gray fence is old,

                       My letters quiet,

                       And these lines forgotten.


It is a minimalist verse letter. The possibilities of the classical plain style, which he came later to love so well, are barely hinted at here.


            A verse letter of Janet Lewis, rare in her work, “Forsan et haec,” was written in nearby Los Altos in the 1980s. Addressed to her old friend and fellow poet, Donald Stanford, it shows the letter’s freedom to touch on matters of mutual personal interest—in this instance, a shared sense of place during a summer long ago in Upper Michigan.


                       In that quiet place there was always

                       The sound of the wind in leaves, the lapping

                       Of water, and the voices of the freighters

                       Coming upstream […]


A shared sense of time, in details referring to Stanford’s youth and her father’s age, sharpens the personal force available to the letter form. She quotes the well-known line from Virgil’s Aeneid, which her father had inscribed in a copy of the Latin poem that he gave young Stanford one summer long ago:


                       Look back on this with me now. To no one else,

                       After these fifty-seven years, can I say:

                       Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.


            Remembering these three poets, reading them in relation to the powerful background of the traditional verse letter, has been for me this spring a dipping into the well of time. All three lived in Palo Alto during the 1930s. Cunningham was living here again, just returned from teaching math to army students in Santa Ana, when I came to Palo Alto, the summer of 1944. I remember, the next spring, his intense, lean figure walking swiftly down tree-lined Emerson Street, where he was renting a house with his small daughter, Margie, and I rode past him on my bicycle. I knew him from the class at Stanford in Freshman composition, entitled “Narration,” which I was taking and where I was introduced to the prose of Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon, and James Joyce, and the poems of Louise Bogan, the model for his own austere lyrics. I had already taken the required class in Freshman comp from Winters and had been recommended to Cunningham’s advanced class. He left for Hawaii the end of the school year, and I did not see him again until the summer of 1952, when he taught a long humid term at Harvard Summer School and became a friend. His satirical bent by then had taken the briefer, more concentrated form of epigram and epitaph.


Happily, however, the satirical capacity of the verse letter has reemerged recently in the work of Kenneth Fields, who lives now in Palo Alto. In his “Several Voices Out of a Cloud: Letter to the Poet in Exile” (August Delights, R. L. Barth Press, 2001), he realizes some of the powerful possibilities of social criticism that the Latin satirists, Wyatt, Donne, Jonson, and Pope, so well demonstrate. His observations on the contemporary world are not about Court or aristocracy, but about the corruptions of American academia. He uses, as the letter writer may, a historical persona, although this variation of the form should rightfully be treated as what used to be called the heroical epistle. Writing in the persona of Horace, he sends a report to Ovid, who is in exile. It is a marvelous device for his purposes.


Beginning with a pose of having “nothing left to satirize / Dull-eyed and neutral, dozing in the corner,” he proceeds to anatomize the hypocrisy, vanity, silliness, and ignorance of a contemporary English Department, meeting to discuss (what else?) curriculum and promotions. He moves in and out of the persona of Horace, revealing personal details and obsessions, even while he etches, through quoted talk, his colleagues’ attitudes toward literature—the supposed responsibility of their profession. He concludes, echoing a line of Ovid:


                                   The stiffened herm in the garden’s shivering,

                                    The sky that touches everything’s growing solid,

                                    Somewhere a boat is trailing vines in its wake,

                                    Hot breath of panthers unseasonably close by . . .

                                    My Anacreon seminar’s getting harder by the day.


Alluding to the beauty of the great Western traditions of poetry, Horace-Fields conveys his current malaise to a sympathetic correspondent. To evoke the tough, rough lines of Donne’s great verse letters and the severe but amiable self-characterization of Jonson’s is not easy to do. If Palo Alto has a literary tradition, Fields is in it.


            Among my recent memories of Palo Alto is the Stanford Humanities Center Centenary Symposium honoring Winters’s life and work, November 16-18, 2000. In his participation and in conversation at parties afterward in Palo Alto, a welcome presence was British-born Dick Davis, author of Wisdom and Wilderness: The Achievement of Yvor Winters (1983). Included in Davis’ A Kind of Love: Selected and New Poems (1991) is another superb example of the verse letter, one that realizes beautifully the self-revelatory—easily autobiographical—capacity of the form and shows its enduring power as a poetic form. Like Fields, Davis uses an historical persona, but only for the recipient. In his “A Letter to Omar,” November, 1982, he addresses a personal letter, in English translator Edward FitzGerald’s stanza, to Omar Khayyam, the great Persian poet. Intimate in self-revelation, reminiscent in autobiographical detail, filled with the poet’s “heart’s good-will,” Davis’ poem is exemplary of the capacity of the form for the kind of detail that is usually today the province of prose narrative. He relates his discovery, as a child, of FitzGerald’s masterly translation of Omar’s Rubaiyat, his pursuit of “what your Englished verses meant” to Tehran, Persia, his choice of teaching as a career, his marriage, learning the language—in sum, the direction of his entire life as influenced by a passion to understand the Persian poet’s meaning. He concludes:


                       And if I reveled in your melancholy […]

                       It was the passion of your doubt I loved,

                       Your castigation of the bigot’s folly.


Moreover, through the letter form, “reporting” to Omar, he recreates its potential for political satire. In Iran:


                       The warring creeds still rage—each knows it’s wholly right

                       And welcomes ways to wage the martyrs’ holy fight;

                       You might not know the names of some new sects

                       But, as of old, the nation is bled slowly white.


                       Listen: “Death to the Yanks, out with their dollars!”

                       What revolution cares for poet-scholars?

                       What price evasive, private doubt beside

                       The public certainties of Ayatollahs?


                       And every faction would find you a traitor:

                       The country of the Rubaiyat’s creator

                       Was fired like stubble as we packed our bags

                       And sought the province of its mild translator.


Themes, observations, allegiances in both Davis and Fields, restore in new contexts, the great subjects of the traditional verse letters of Wyatt, Donne, Jonson, Pope, and others. What better form for our contemporary literary and political malaise?






Pinkerton Trimpi, Helen. “Letter from Palo Alto.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 3 (June 2004) <>