The Elliston residency began as one part of a larger poetry program established in 1951, five years after Ms. George Elliston, a local newspaper reporter, poet, and supporter of all the arts, left a huge-for-the-times endowment to the University of Cincinnati for "the study of poetry." The first Elliston Poet was supposed to be T. S. Eliot, who canceled his commitment a week before he was scheduled to arrive. Fortunately, the redoubtable R. P. Tristram Coffin, a Maine poet, was available to step into the breach, and become, ahem, our Maine man. The roster of EP's for that first decade--and really, throughout all six decades--reads like a Who's Who of American and British poetry: John Berryman, Robert Frost, Randall Jarrell, Stephen Spender, Robert Lowell, et al. The EP lived here for ten weeks, during which he (alas, always "he" until the first woman, Denise Levertov, in 1973) taught a class, gave seven lectures and a poetry reading, and according to the biographies of several poets, as well as numerous eyewitnesses now mostly dead, consumed an enormous amount of alcohol. All this for the princely sum of $3000, a big haul for the times. Robert Lowell had a terrible breakdown here, as detailed in Ian Hamilton's biography, which was compounded by locals who tried to "defend" Lowell from his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, and his doctors. Randall Jarrell charmed the entire city; Donald Justice delivered seven amazing scholarly lectures (soon to be available in digitized format, as will most of the tapes in the Elliston audio archive); Phil Levine fell in love; Marge Piercy's cats destroyed an apartment; and on his first day John Ashbery discovered our local Empress Chili AND our department head, an abrupt woman who wore jodphurs and riding boots to work, and carried a crop. And almost all the poets stayed, over the years, in the Vernon Manor, a grand old beast of a hotel, which still, until its makeover in the late '70s, maintained a wall of old signed photos of all the "stars" who'd stayed there. My favorites were a picture of the Beatles and one of Danny Thomas.
But to begin. It was spring of 1976, and I'd been curator for some months. I was standing in the old Elliston Room in Blegen Library--yes, that Carl Blegen--staring out the back window at a magnolia tree that was in its three-week bloom. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, warm and full of airborne pathogens. A presence--that's the only way I can describe it--suddenly filled the room. Though I hadn't remotely been thinking of him, and though I had no idea when he was arriving in Cincinnati for his ten-week residency--and certainly entertained no thought of his stopping by the room before he made his presence known to the English Department--I knew in that moment with absolute clarity that when I turned around, I would greet Gary Snyder. And when I did turn around, there he was, smiling, sun-soaked and bearded and beaded, in all his there-ness: part American Indian, part Kyoto monk, part mountain man, part Beat, part myth. Probably, if you need a scientific explanation, perhaps I heard the scuff of a moccasin, and leapt ahead to the visitor I knew was coming. But I'll tell you, it didn't FEEL like that, not at all. It felt like what it was, and is: people are larger presences than their bodies.
Anyway, thus began a great ten weeks, watching GS's openness to experiencing this part of the country, this city, us. I remember tonight a comment Snyder made a few years ago in an interview about his involvement in local politics--something along the lines of, "If you're going to get involved in changing things, you have to learn how to wait." I witnessed his ability "to wait," while he was here, and what that allows you to take in. Unfortunately, Gary's son, Kai, suffered from asthma, and when he got into our humid fecund place--Snyder had remarked, looking at the landscape from the plane, how he'd "forgotten how lush the country was, east of the Mississippi"--Kai had a terrible attack and had to be hospitalized. I remember speaking on the phone to the chair of the department, John McCall, a Chaucer scholar, and telling him the Snyders had no health insurance, and that the Elliston should pay for Kai's hospitalization. McCall said to have the bill sent directly to him, which it was; and no one heard any more of it. An example of the good side of the patriarchy, if you will. More tomorrow.