West Chester, Walt Litz, Gwendolyn Brooks, and taking the purple veil

“The last thing I thought I’d be doing today is talking about Walt Litz,” Molly Peacock marveled to me. I’d admired her work from a distance but never met her until last week, when we ended up sharing a few lovely breakfasts at the Faunbrook B&B, before panels at the West Chester Poetry Conference. Over berry parfaits, I learned that her partner, Joyce scholar Michael Groden, had studied with A. Walton Litz decades ago. Walt was first reader for my own 1994 dissertation on Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, H.D., and Gwendolyn Brooks. Molly and I didn’t realize, as we spoke, that Walt had just died nearby, in a Princeton hospital.

I don’t know how many dissertations Walt directed, but I meet his former advisees all the time. At the 2012 T. S. Eliot society meeting in St. Louis, braver scholars were stripping down for a chilly dip at the Phlebas the Phoenician Pool Party. I was swapping Walt stories with other resolutely-clothed modernists and acquiring the name of his nursing home. Nervous about calling, I mailed Walt a note afterwards, but I never heard back.

In his glory days, Walt was a powerhouse of a department head, as well as one of the biggest names in the field. By the time I met him in 1990, he was growing frailer, but he was still fostering networks, dispensing favors, and teaching popular courses. He would take me to lunch at the Annex, a little basement restaurant near Firestone Library, before his three-hour afternoon seminar on the Modernist Long Poem. When I arrived at 11:30, the waitress would be whisking away two martini glasses and serving him a civilized glass of white wine and a boiled egg, though he couldn’t really eat much anymore. I’d order a grilled cheese and we’d chat. The Spenserian Tom Roche, lunching alone at a nearby table, would listen without embarrassment and sometimes chime in. Omar Pound might stop by and massage my shoulders in a totally inappropriate and disturbing way, trying to engage me in conversation about Lorine Niedecker. I was Persephone—treated royally but still trapped in a weird and slightly sordid academic underworld.

Even boozed up, Walt taught memorably; I still quote him in my own courses. I also served as T.A. for a couple of rounds of his undergraduate lecture course on modernism. He basically blew the dust off yellowed old notes before reading them aloud—a way I would never teach—but they were interesting notes. And then, in 1993 I think, he collapsed at the podium; an assistant professor named Doug Mao, who has since become a leading modernism scholar himself, took over the lectures; and Walt was ushered into retirement. I was one of the last students he helped with one of his legendary hire-this-person phone calls. In the winter of 1994 I had a campus visit at Washington and Lee. W&L still employs old guys who don’t want to work with women, but back then it employed many old guys who would openly say, “I don’t want to work with women.” English was fending off an EEOC lawsuit and needed to diversify pronto. I was told later that Walt, a genteel southern man who knew how to sound all the right notes, reassured them I was competent but not especially volatile, a safe compound to introduce to the department’s chemistry experiment. “She’s pleasant to work with,” he reported, “but she is not a doormat.”

I’m grateful to Walt for giving me good advice—about conducting archival work, negotiating my job offer, and a million other matters—while granting me space to follow my own stubborn muse. When I told him I didn’t like Four Quartets as much as the early Eliot, he smiled and said, “It’s a poem for middle age. Wait a couple of decades.” When I wanted to write about Gwendolyn Brooks, he was not pleased, but he nodded. His one response to that chapter, framed as compliment/ comeuppance, was also the most shocking thing he ever said to me: “You almost make it sound as if she were worth writing about.” I was too young and green to understand his prejudices, his generosity, or the potentially terrifying extent of his power. I just knew how to get along with alcoholic old guys, being my father’s daughter. Further, while my father was terribly pained by my independence of opinion, Walt seemed indulgent of it; I was grateful for some academic fathering that was mostly angst-free.

Molly Peacock & Marilyn Nelson, taken by Allison Joseph, who also rocked the house

Molly Peacock & Marilyn Nelson, taken by Allison Joseph, who also rocked the house

And how strange that Walt died while I was unpacking at Faunbrook! As I wrote last week, the last time I attended West Chester, my alienated alcoholic Republican father had just died at the Philadelphia V.A. Hospital and I was waiting for details about his funeral. So this will forever seem like the Dead Patriarch Conference to me. The event itself is full of men who operate in a sexist and racist way, as well as better folks trying to take deep breaths and maintain a positive attitude. I had stimulating conversations with old friends and new, but I also observed one distinguished poetic statesman onstage who kept egregiously passing over the raised hand of a younger African-American woman to call on older white people. I attended a number of moving readings and generative panels (Marilyn Nelson was particularly stunning), but I also saw members of a closed club congratulating each other ad nauseam.

You learn from the bad as well as the good, though. One of those breakfast conversations with Molly Peacock will haunt me. Echoing what female actors say about Hollywood, she told me that her metaphor for turning fifty as a woman poet is taking the purple veil. She observes others of her generation ceasing to be sexually desirable to the fifty- and sixty-something men in power, and therefore becoming invisible when it comes to the honors that waft towards some men in the same age-range. Some women pass through it by seventy or so, though, she said—good roles exist for grande dames and grandmothers. In the anniversary panel for A Formal Feeling Comes, the fix she prescribed to women was criticism-writing: don’t be afraid, she said, to frame the standards you’ll be judged by.

I wonder, as I march through my own forties, if I’m spending too much time blog-writing when I should be bombarding high-circulation magazines with my prose. Lots to ponder. In the meantime, thanks to all the West Chester attendees who were open, wise, and thoughtful. And thank you, Walt, wherever you are. I really am tremendously grateful for all you taught me. Even though I learned just as much from my paper mentor, Gwendolyn Brooks. Who is definitely, permanently, transcendently worth reading.

*

I’m not sure how soon I’ll post again because I’m off to France shortly: if you’re lucky enough to be in Paris next week, check out http://poets-live.com/. Also, I forgot to mention last week that The Receptionist and Other Tales made Ms. Mentor’s summer reading list for campus novels—woo-hoo!

One thought on “West Chester, Walt Litz, Gwendolyn Brooks, and taking the purple veil

  1. I’m glad you’re blogging, Lesley, and as a fellow “last student” of Walt’s, following in your footsteps and a bit more distant from Walt, I treasure your recollections of that complex figure in our lives!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s