(ed note: This is the first in a four-part series by Laurence Goldstein. 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.
(Tomorrow: Laurence Goldstein's rules for the "encounter poem.")