The Magazine

Brief Encounter

Once upon a time, Archibald MacLeish cast a shadow.

Mar 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 23 • By JOHN SIMON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Students being students, they looked for and found spurious shortcuts. In the case of Yeats, they latched on to the line "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart," and bandied it about as an answer to every question about the poems. This was brought to MacLeish's attention and mildly upset him.

What upset him much more was the students' discovery of what remains to this day his best-known poem, "Ars Poetica," and its portentous ending: "A poem should not mean / But be." Visibly embarrassed, MacLeish went into a superior performance of rhetoric and oratory trying to explain that those words, whatever they managed to be, did not mean what they seemed to say. But dissatisfied with his own sophistry, he resolved to repudiate the poem and prevent its future reprinting. Needless to say, he dropped the idea.

When the course got to Rilke, MacLeish announced that, in a forthcoming lecture, we would alternate: He would read a poem in translation with me then reading it in the German original. I don't know how the reigning beauty among Radcliffe students, Christine Bosshard, of German-Swiss origin, got wind of this and came to me asking to audit that session. I, of course, agreed--and, after one look at her, so did MacLeish.

Christine enjoyed my performance, but alas, not enough to show any further interest in me. MacLeish, however, summoned me to his office, which I entered wondering what I had done wrong this time. He, however, received me cordially, and merely wanted to know who was that beautiful girl I had brought to his class. I told him what little I knew.

Christine graduated, but I somehow managed to track her down in New York's West Village. She granted me a short walk around a few blocks of the Village. She revealed very little about herself, and made no mention of MacLeish. That was the last I saw of her.

As the course progressed to Rimbaud, I hoped that Archie (that was how I thought of him, but certainly not how I addressed him) would also ask me for some recitation in French. This didn't happen, either because he did not know my fluency in French, or because, in his five expatriate years in Paris, he had learned enough French to be able to recite Rimbaud in French to himself, and let the students fend for themselves.

At term's end, Archie threw an afternoon farewell party for his students in both courses. He and his wife Barbara inhabited a rather grand house in the suburbs, and we foregathered in a large, glassed-in terrace room. In a corner sat Barbara, lovely but prematurely white-haired, looking wifely and silently knitting. When Archie would turn to her for comment, she would just smile and knit on. He was nicely put together, as always, conservatively suited as befits a former assistant secretary of state and Librarian of Congress. Not for him the academic uniform of rumpled corduroy jacket and khaki pants.

For some reason, Harold Brodkey wasn't there; perhaps he had had enough of menopausal maunderings. When MacLeish voiced his regret at the absence of an outstanding student, I had had enough and quoted the outstanding student's slur. The result? It was held against me, not him.

The last time I saw Archie was years later at some cultural program of New York's 92nd Street Y. He was seated a few rows ahead of me on the aisle, with the good wife next to him. I went up to them and greeted respectfully. After the briefest bafflement, Archie beamed at me, greeted me warmly and, turning to Barbara, asked, "You remember John Simon, dear, don't you?" Barbara said little, if anything, and smiled her knitter's smile. No memorable words passed, and perhaps there wasn't even time before the program began.

Sad, but not exactly unearned, is how unread and unremembered MacLeish has become today, not quite 27 years after his demise, both as poet and cultural propagandist. This despite his two Pulitzer Prizes for poetry and one for drama (the pretentious but hollow verse play J.B., which also won a Tony). He also won a National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize in poetry, an Academy Award for Documentary Feature (The Eleanor Roosevelt Story), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

His poetry hardly even needed Edmund Wilson's brilliant satire, "The Omelet of A. MacLeish." Check out almost any poem of his and it reads like a parody of T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound. Even the frequent absence of punctuation MacLeish could have derived from e.e. cummings or Guillaume Apollinaire. On dusty shelves, the poems may still be, but they certainly do not mean much.
Perhaps the best thing Archibald MacLeish ever wrote was a radio play, The Fall of the City. In it the citizenry are terrified by a menacing figure in armor outside the city walls until, though conquered by it, they discover that the armor is empty. How prophetic of Archie's fate.

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.