(Ed note: This is the first of a two-part essay by Laurence Goldstein. Laurence Goldstein is Professor of English at the University of Michigan and Editor Emeritus of Michigan Quarterly Review (1977-2009). His most recent book is a volume of poems, A Room in California (Northwestern University Press, 2005). A book of literary criticism, Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the City’s Essential Poems, is forthcoming from University of Michigan Press.)
MEETING B. F. SKINNER, 1963
“Wear a coat and tie, if you have them,”
my editor advised. “He’s pretty famous.”
I folded my father’s formal jacket
over my sport shirt and peggers, and strolled
across the wide piazza toward Royce Hall.
Humming step by nervous step, in a
cascade of arias from the auditorium,
I mounted many stairs to an airless room.
He wore a coat and tie, of course: Harvard
spiffed-up for UCLA, noblesse oblige.
We both sweated a little. This interview,
we understood, was one building block
in my enlightenment, like the class hour
just past, on Wordsworth or Milton, spirits
most antithetical to L.A. “I hope I don’t
bore you,” I offered. “I’m never bored,” he said,
“Tired sometimes, but never bored.” I tried
to keep it andante, but he had foresuffered
all my queries on free will and social control.
If this were sport fencing, I died in five minutes.
I flourished a final thrust: “You write in Walden Two
that this utopia knows no unhappiness,
thanks to the Planners’ perfect design. Yet
the citizens rehearse a production of Hedda Gabler.
How can that be? How would they understand
so much heartbreak?” He gazed downward;
I felt my education hang in the scales of logic.
Finally, diminuendo, his small defeated voice:
“You’re right. The young wouldn’t understand.
I must change the play in the next edition.”
I felt sorry for him, for my own petty
triumph, my cub mousetrap cunningly sprung.
Skinner didn’t correct the next edition.
So what? Walden Two lost its audience.
The late Sixties made any bossy republic
Seem an affront to the young libido. A discord.
Only the spot of time seems unshakeable,
the invulnerable memory, those few minutes
atop the concert hall, my heart pounding
and the axis of culture shifting, adagio.
“Meeting B. F. Skinner, 1963” was written to mark the semi-centennial of a half hour’s encounter between a UCLA undergraduate, myself, and a distinguished scientist-philosopher visiting the campus to deliver a guest lecture. In the early 1960s I imagined that my destiny lay in journalism, and as an eager junior reporter for The Daily Bruin I volunteered to interview B. F. Skinner, who generously made himself available for a conversation he probably assumed would be a waste of his valuable time. The poem preserves the few remarks I can remember and tries to recreate the feel of an event which turned out to be more long-lasting in my memory than my exchanges during those years with other visitors to campus as well as figures residing in Los Angeles: John F. Kennedy, John Dos Passos, Stan Laurel, Dorothy Parker, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley.
At the same time I settled into the romance of journalism—I cherished the old saw that this poorly paid profession was highly desirable because “you meet such interesting people”—I became increasingly fascinated by serious literature, especially poetry. The two worlds meshed for me; both demanded intellectual curiosity, stamina, and high-end verbal skills. The eight-paragraph news items and book reviews I wrote for the Bruin corresponded to the eight-line stanza poems, often of eight stanzas, I turned out as exercises in verse composition. Sometimes those poems had the form of a meeting, an interview, a narrative of significant contact between two people. Sometimes I still write those same kind of poems. Inevitably I have formulated a few rules governing the encounter poem.
1) For maximum effect, the narrative must dramatize a meeting between two people that is clearly a one-off, a nonce occurrence. These two people will never meet again, and that fact is understood by both parties. The unrepeatable quality of their encounter intensifies their emotional and intellectual exchange. Love poems do not belong in this category, nor poems of family and long friendship.
2) There is an imbalance, a fundamental incongruity, in their status. The speaker is likely to be the younger person, more a listener and learner taking mental notes. It is he or she who registers the impact of contact with a person likely to be somewhat exotic, exceptional, troubling, capable of surprising statements. The speaker is almost always impressed by the strangeness of the other’s presence. The best poems in this mode have that Pip-meets-Miss Havisham affect.
3) To say as much is to indicate the closeness of the genre to fiction and drama as models. The encounter poem treats scenes in ways familiar to all consumers of literature, film scripts, and popular songs. It is intertextual to a high degree, its practices open to introjection from a variety of familiar and recondite sources. The encounter poem sounds like a scene in a novel or a condensed short story. A certain moral weight attaches to the encounter poem because of its deliberate situation in the literary mainstream. Rules for social conduct are right on the surface.
4) There must be some dialogue to fulfill the above-mentioned dialogic structure of the dramatic lyric, though the speaker may prefer to direct his part of the conversation to the reader in the form of a meditative aside. Meetings with non-human creatures may have some of the same conventions as the encounter poem but their rhetorical strategies differ from this person-with-person mode. The epiphanies that belong to poems of contact with birds, fish, moose, skunks, groundhogs, bears, deer, dogs and cats (readers can supply some famous examples) differ from the turns and intentions of the interpersonal poem.
5). Likewise the allegorical conjunction of one human and one spirit figure do not qualify. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is one of the great ballads of the English language, but it does not advance by exchange of dialogue. The demon lover sings, sighs, and moans; she does not speak beyond her false declaration, “I love thee true.” (Nor does the “glimmering girl” in Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus” who calls her victim’s name but disappears before she can establish herself as anything other than an archetype.) I would make an exception of some special cases like T. S. Eliot’s encounter with the “familiar compound ghost” in “Little Gidding” and the dialogue of the two dead soldiers in Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting.” Probably it is Owen’s death in war that makes us subconsciously hear the “I” of the poem as the posthumous voice of the poet. Dialogues with God do not qualify for this category (sorry, George Herbert!) but because the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are persons, a conversation with, say, Koch Industries, is allowable.
6). The fact that the speaker has written a poem to document the encounter becomes an important motif, either explicitly or implicitly. The artifact brings news about how knowledge and power got transmitted to the talented speaker. “Something for your poetry, no?” says the Colonel as he pours a sack of human ears onto the table to intimidate the poet-journalist who is dining with him. Precisely. Carolyn Forché’s prose poem enacts the shift of power between them after their encounter, when her world-famous text mortifies his bullying performance.
These references to Miss Havisham, the Colonel, the Beautiful Woman Without Mercy, might suggest that the encounters that most interest me take the structure of a contest between Good and Evil; that the poet always portrays the Other as an antagonist to be overcome, not as an agent of personal development. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not even in my own poem about B. F. Skinner, whose brave acknowledgment of an error in his most famous book continues to inspire me fifty years later. The more complex the duality of values in the poem, the better chance it has to provoke and intrigue the reader and call him or her back to repeated readings.
I want to call attention to two masterpieces of the genre. The first is the encounter of William Wordsworth, or “William Wordsworth,” and the Leech Gatherer in the poem “Resolution and Independence.” I put the author’s name in quotation marks because the poem is not a fully accurate account of their meeting on the moors; we have Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal entry of 3 October 1800 to remind us that this most sincere of all poets did not hesitate to recast his experience into a more perfect artistic form for his readers’ benefit. He was an artificer and sought a truth-to-life beyond the constraints of exact transcription.
Manipulation of details can be expected from a poem with such an overt therapeutic purpose. We know from biographical materials that this poem of 1802 is Wordsworth’s response to his friend Coleridge’s professions in person and in writing of his suffocating experiences of dejection. Wordsworth, also a prey to melancholy even in the happiest times of his life, harked back to an encounter two years previous and impersonated the malady he shared with his fellow poet. The first-person plural in the poem’s most famous couplet is no accident: “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness, / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” In no way does this biographical context impair the poem; quite the contrary. The formal question and answer structure, rendered in rhyme royal, sustains the dignity of a colloquy that might have become maudlin in the hands of a lesser poet.
The Leech Gatherer (the poem’s original title) seems at first to be the subordinate figure of the duo: “His body was bent double, feet and head / Coming together in life’s pilgrimage.” Add to his physical debility the fact that the leeches upon whose sale his survival depends have diminished in number over the years. Poor and exhausted, he is obviously close to death by natural causes. And yet this pathetic creature is full of good cheer, fortitude, and trust in his Creator. The speaker elicits the facts of the matter by repeated questions and remarks, during which time we as readers stand in awe of how the Leech Gatherer’s “discourse . . . // Cheerfully uttered, with demeanor kind” rebukes the poet’s anxiety and self-pity. That transmission of spiritual power complicates the narrative by means of a confusion of understanding as to just who is more or less fortunate, more glad and grateful to be alive. This confusion nourishes the paradox of the poem’s presence in our lives. The Leech Gatherer continues to be a consolatory figure for readers who may enjoy comfortable circumstances outwardly but suffer bouts of melancholy within. Paul Goodman wrote that he could not read the poem without weeping. (Lewis Carroll, who skewered it in a parody, apparently could not read it without laughing.) It remains an encounter poem we read throughout our life with mixed and deep feelings.
Compared to all the hundreds (thousands?) of commentaries Wordsworth’s poem has garnered, it is astonishing to me that a poem close to it in quality has received no lengthy readings at all (I hope to be corrected on this point). I refer to Robert Hayden’s “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves” from his volume of 1970, Words in the Mourning Time, and reprinted in his Collected Poems. In Part I of this dramatic lyric the speaker wanders by a seaside minstrel/freak show featuring performers doing various sketches of a humiliating kind. “Poor devils have to live somehow,” he remarks to himself in a one-line stanza. Obviously dejected, he sits by the shore, and then in Part II he is joined by the woman who performs the role of Aunt Jemima, “fake mammy to God’s mistakes,” as she wisecracks. But like the Leech Gatherer she is full of good spirit and fills the rest of the poem with vivid autobiographical musings.
The speaker does not address her at all, making this poem a notable variation on the customary dialogue structure. (Forché directs no quoted speech to the Colonel either.) But we do hear his silent response, his meditation, or rather overhear it in the mode famously described by John Stuart Mill. Compared to Aunt Jemima’s fluent, idiomatic wit, his reactions, seemingly addressed as an aside to the reader, remain elevated in diction, professorial in allusion, and complex in syntax. What seems a mental withdrawal from interaction with his companion can also be read as an effort to translate the picaresque narrative of her life into high-culture literary language:
Scream of children in the surf,
adagios of sun and flashing foam,
the sexual glitter, oppressive fun. . .
an antique etching comes to mind:
“The Sable Venus” naked on
a baroque Cellini shell—voluptuous
imago floating in the wake
of slave-ships on fantastic seas.*
I’ve never been quite sure how to read this silent rejoinder to her discourse. He has acknowledged in Part I that he is a “confederate” of the minstrel show figures like Aunt Jemima and “Kokimo the Dixie Dancing Fool.” He too is black-skinned with a talent for self-invention. Is he evading the embarrassing implications of her demeaning self-portrait, as if turning away in shame from what she confesses is a degrading life of role-playing and deception? (She could be making it all up.) Or does he honor her by interpreting her adventurous life history as a high Romantic life-journey? In either case he has clearly retreated to the honorable role of Poet, master of language, inviting the reader’s admiration for his elevated rhetoric but covertly yielding the stage to her superior verbal skills. The last stanza is her unwitting rebuke of his quality reverie:
sighs. Reckon I’d best
be getting back. I help her up.
Don't take no wooden nickels, hear?
Tin dimes neither. So long, pal.
It’s too late for this advice, we think. His somewhat strained language—a deliberate risk on Hayden’s part—is precisely the stuff of legend and tradition that separates her low raffish idioms from his high eloquence and keeps her fixed in her lowly role as Aunt Jemima.
The poem is more complex than my few comments can begin to describe. By bringing these two figures into conjunction--alike in race, unlike in education and life experience--it challenges our good intentions of reading the plot in a straightforward, politically correct manner. The nervous speaker is too erudite to carry on a companionable conversation, and how strange that seems, to us as to him. The encounter is a dramatic and linguistic impasse, a stand-off of verbal styles. What gets transmitted to us is the same failure of class solidarity we glimpse in Wordsworth’s poem, but made more unsettling and ambiguous by the modernist manner of its clashing frames. This dissonant duet—she speaking to him, he speaking in monologue form to the reader—enlarges the genre of the encounter poem as befits a major poet.
If the alien figure of the Leech Gatherer looks forward in obvious ways to Aunt Jemima, he anticipates even more obviously Robert Frost’s haunting narrative, “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” the quintessential Great Depression poem, in which an encounter occurs between the backwoods speaker (one has to grit one’s teeth not to type the words “Robert Frost”) who is chopping wood and two lumberjacks, though only one of them approaches the wary speaker and yells “Hit them hard!” (He is given no further speech.) By approaching closer to the chopping block, he makes clear his desire to usurp for pay the speaker’s satisfying task of preparing firewood for the cold season. Like the single utterance of La Belle Dame in Keats’s poem, these three words fix the “hulking” stranger as an archetype, in this case of the dangerous woods from which he emerges. Giving him no further speech is a mistake, I think. Frost’s long monologue in response can’t help but reduce the tramp to a prop, a poor occasion for the poet’s self-congratulating sermon about the proper way to behave “For Heaven and the future’s sakes.”
One final note. When we consider the figures of the Leech Gatherer and Aunt Jemima—neither is granted a personal name in the poems—we face the inescapable problem of whether to identify them as “doubles” for the poet in the manner Freud defines this elusive concept in his essay on “The Uncanny.” Encounter poems often do introduce a dyad in which one figure seems to represent the daimon of the other. Their dialogue enacts the psychic tensions felt by the speaker, who may or may not be trying to exorcise the mysterious personality spun off as a sibling or parent from his unconscious. When I wrote my poem on B. F. Skinner I intended it as an homage. Skinner first took shape as a patriarchal voice of rectitude in the music of time. But in reviewing the manuscript drafts I see how inevitably Skinner emerges as a venerable icon that the speaker treats irreverently. He and his utopian book are an affront to the twenty-year-old, fated to be an academic scholar as well, who confronts the master and uses the poem as a way to undermine him, if not to slay him in the Oedipal paradigm. Is there a more forgiving poem about B. F. Skinner out there? I sincerely hope so.
- The painting Hayden’s speaker has in mind can be seen by searching “The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies.”