Once upon a time, Archibald MacLeish cast a shadow.
Mar 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 23 • By JOHN SIMON
Lately I have been rereading some of the poems of Archibald MacLeish. I can't say that I like them any more than I ever did, but it brings back memories of the time when I was a section man at Harvard in a poetry course he taught.
Between 1949 and 1962 he was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, a grand title if ever there was one, though perhaps a tautology as well. What, one wonders, is the difference between rhetoric and oratory? At most, the one between how to write an effective statement and how to deliver it effectively. But while the former remains in the purview of an English department, the latter would seem to belong in a theater department.
As a professor of English, MacLeish put together efficient classroom presentations and delivered them in a smooth and pleasing manner; not for nothing had he been a lawyer and a diplomat. What impressed me even more than the content was that he always began precisely at the designated minute, and always ended with his last word synchronous with the bell announcing the end of the hour. Did he use a stopwatch when composing a lecture? And even so, how did his punctilious punctuality defy the irruptions of the unforeseen?
It happened either in the academic year 1950-51 or, possibly, in the next one. MacLeish was teaching two courses. One a seminar in writing, mostly for graduate students, with which I wasn't involved. That year his star students were William Alfred, working on his play Hogan's Goat, and Ilona Karmel, with concentration camp horrors behind her, writing the autobiographical novel Stefania. The play, first produced locally, eventually made it to a short New York run, providing Faye Dunaway with her first lead. Alfred then faded away. Karmel's novel was a moderate success, after which she, too, disappeared.
The one-semester undergraduate course, in which I was one of three section men, was called "Yeats, Rilke, Rimbaud." The professor lectured twice a week to the entire class. Each section man, a graduate student in charge of one-third of the undergrads, filled in details, answered questions, and discussed the written assignments he had graded. Interesting papers were also shown to the professor.
At a preliminary meeting with the section men, MacLeish provided an outline of the course. David Aivaz, one of my fellow section men and himself a promising poet, asked whether someone like Hart Crane wouldn't be similar enough to Rimbaud and easier for the students--Rimbaud and Rilke having to be read in translation. With considerable hauteur, MacLeish replied that Crane was in no way a worthy substitute for Rimbaud, with which, tacitly, I completely agreed.
As it happens, into my section fell three subsequent celebrities. Rona Jaffe, future pop novelist and author, above all, of the bestselling The Best of Everything, was a standard B student, neither problem nor pleasure. Adrienne Rich, already winner of the Yale Younger Poet Prize, approached me the second week in a huff: Why was the course so elementary, and couldn't I get MacLeish to make it more advanced? I couldn't, and saw no need for it; Rich promptly dropped the course.
Harold Brodkey--future author of the appealing story collection First Love and Other Sorrows and, among several lesser works, the grandiose but unfinished 836-page posthumously published autobiographical novel The Runaway Soul--was a problem. MacLeish's assignments were perfectly reasonable: explications of a certain number of key poems. This Brodkey couldn't, or wouldn't, do. He wrote, instead, self-indulgently surreal prose poems that had nothing to do with the assignments.
I finally sat down with him on the steps of Widener Library and tried for an hour to guide or coax him into doing right. He wouldn't budge. In one of his typically irrelevant papers he made fun of MacLeish's "menopausal maunderings"--or was it "lucubrations"? In any case, something similarly offensive.
I graded Brodkey as incomplete, and thus a failure. MacLeish simply transferred him to Peter Seng's section, where he got a respectable grade. A mediocre student named Felicia (last name forgotten), who belonged to a prominent family, got MacLeish to up her grade from a C to a B. Altogether, he always tried to be popular with the students, whether or not they deserved special concessions.
Occasionally, MacLeish would summon me to his office in Widener, trying paternally--or paternalistically--to turn me into an easier grader. In the sense of how education evolved, he was right; as to where such leniency landed us, he was not.