After 50 Years' Cultivation, a Harvest of Poetry
The crop is not huge, but well-weeded.
By Cynthia Haven
Poet Helen Pinkerton appears poised in an apartment chock-a-block with books, paintings, photos and the occasional small vase holding a cluster of fresh-picked garden flowers. The atmosphere is not so much one of chaos as of cheery abundance. In the midst of it all, Pinkerton is calm, cool and collected in white trousers and a white blouse that set off her curly white hair—the whiteness is relieved only by the short string of blue glass beads at her neck.
But ask her a quick question and you’re likely to get a baffled answer. Did she publish poetry in the Paris Review? Well, perhaps . . . that’s what her publisher’s website says? It must be right, since they have her résumé. She’s nonplussed and can’t remember. What would be the highlight of many a career is only a half-forgotten footnote in hers.
She’s not going daft, though she is likely to accuse herself of precisely that. The articulate, intelligent Pinkerton, 75, is the least dotty person you are likely to meet. But the slips of memory are inevitable: after all, it has been a half-century of writing.
“She has written some of the best poems of her generation,” says poet and scholar Timothy Steele, ’70. Pinkerton’s mentor, Yvor Winters, deemed her “a master of poetic style and of her material. No poet in English writes with more authority.” The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, calling her style “austere,” notes that “her carefully crafted poetry is profoundly philosophical and religious.”
So why is she not better known? Though a small circle of those in the know have praised her work for years, it’s only now that Pinkerton, ’48, MA ’50, is publishing her first widely available trade book, Taken in Faith (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2002). Her output is small by today’s unfortunate production-driven standards in poetry. But then, as she admits, most of her poems hit the bottom of her wastebasket.
“I’ve never seen any reason to publish a lot,” she says. “I throw away a lot of half-finished poems and drafts. It does not make for quantity. But I’m afraid that’s my temperament.”
Other occupations kept Pinkerton busy. She has been on the faculty of a number of universities, spending more than a dozen years as a lecturer at Stanford. With her former husband (and still good friend), Stanford English professor emeritus Wesley Trimpi, ’50, she reared two daughters. After earning a PhD in English from Harvard in 1966, she became a Herman Melville scholar. (Her Menlo Park apartment houses a one-room library devoted to the author’s Civil War period.)
Pinkerton is passionate and, she fears, controversial as she decries today’s “breakdown in the notion of what a poem can be.” She deplores the tendency to call any kind of lineated self-expression a poem.
“I think the kids today aren’t learning the art of poetry. They’re told that everybody can be a poet,” she says. “Not everybody is capable of being a poet —just like everybody isn’t capable of being a fine ballet dancer or a fine pianist.”
To Pinkerton, the “art” of poetry requires going back through the entire English tradition, beginning with Chaucer. “Then you see whether you have anything that can stand up to them.” She subscribes to poet J.V. Cunningham’s phrase “peers of tradition”—poets who have gone before, even millennia before. “If we love poetry, we ought to love the older poets,” Pinkerton insists.
Then she begins to fret: “I’m getting polemical again.” She says she’d prefer to extol “all the really fine poets who are in the Stanford school of poets.” Their common point of reference is the late poet, critic and long-standing faculty member Yvor Winters, who taught at Stanford from 1927 to 1966. The group’s most famous representatives include Cunningham, Thom Gunn, Philip Levine and Donald Hall. But other names—Edgar Bowers, ’49, PhD ’53, Ann Stanford, Donald Stanford, ’33, PhD ’53, Stanford English professor Ken Fields, PhD ’67, Catherine Davis, ’51—are comparatively little known. Like Pinkerton.
Pinkerton was born in Butte, Mont. Her father was a copper miner; her mother had been raised in an orphanage—“or whatever is the politically correct term nowadays,” she qualifies. When Pinkerton was 11, her father was killed in a mining accident, leaving her mother to rear four children, including two teenage boys and a 6-year-old girl. The death created a decade-long crisis of faith for Pinkerton, whose parents were Catholics. Perhaps this is one reason faith is a running theme of her poems. She describes her central concerns as Thomistic—focused on St. Thomas Aquinas’s “questions of being and existence.”
Pinkerton came to Stanford determined to be a journalist, after working a two-year after-school stint for a Mt. Vernon, Wash., weekly paper, as well as editing her high school newspaper and yearbook. Her colleagues at the Stanford Daily raved about Winters and encouraged her to take a class with the outspoken maestro.
Meeting Winters turned her aspirations upside-down. “I discovered a whole new world, which was the serious writing of poetry,” she says. She decided she’d rather be a mediocre poet than a first-rate journalist. For Pinkerton, poetry “was a better thing to do—it was more interesting and more valuable. It was a funny choice to make, I must say,” she adds wryly.
A second turning point occurred a few years later, when she read Moby Dick on an ocean liner going to Europe after completing her master’s. It became the subject of her 1987 scholarly work, Melville’s Confidence Man and American Politics in the 1850s—and of a number of her long narrative poems. “I gave a lot of my life to Melville,” she says.
But poetry always came first, she says. “For fifty years, Pinkerton has been writing beautifully crafted poems, but the age has favored flashier and more improvisational talents, and her work has not received the hearing it deserves,” Steele writes in the afterword to Taken in Faith. Flashy and improvisational she’s not—but with a little luck, she may outlast both those trends.
Cynthia Haven is a Northern California writer who covers arts and letters for Stanford.
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