It is Life; It is Not an Ivory Tower
I have taught a great many exceptionally brilliant students. I am also an Airedale fancier. In my capacity as a teacher, I correspond, I suppose, to a professional handler at a dog show.
A poem entitled “For a Girl Killed at Sea” appeared in the October 1955 issue of Poetry. Its author was a promising young poet, Calvin Thomas Jr., and it was his first and (so far) only appearance in the magazine. Many poets whose names are familiar to our readers started out in this magazine—but there are even more whose subsequent careers have remained a mystery. We are therefore fortunate this month to have reconnected with Cal Thomas, who tells us how it all began:
After sophomore year at Yale I went out to Kenyon College where John Crowe Ransom had a summer school. Allen Tate and Carolyn Gordon, Yvor Winters, Mark Schorer, Eric Bentley, Herbert Read, and Ransom were there. I was in love with a girl called Winifred whose sisters fed me at night. After composing the Latin ode for Yale’s Presentation Week in 1951 I enlisted in the Air Force, thinking I’d live longer that way. Everyone else I knew in Officers Candidate School went to Korea, but the Air Force found out I knew German and sent me to Germany. I interrogated men whose lives hadn’t gone well. I wrote poems with no plan for them. But I mailed them off with short stories to Wallace Stegner and to my surprise, learned I’d won the Stanford Fellowship, together with Thom Gunn. Now I belonged to Winters. Those were the afternoons! Winters and his wife, Janet Lewis, used to have me over pretty often for dinner, sometimes with such worthies as Tate and W.H. Auden (I once forgot an invitation to go with Louise Bogan). At Stanford, Winters had me sign up for courses in the usual periods leading to the doctorate—Old English, Renaissance, the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, American literature—to be followed four years later by written exams about them. If you passed you went on to do a dissertation and then orals. I dutifully took these courses, skipping the nineteenth-century one, and then sat for the exams after less than two years. I failed them all—except the nineteenth century. That set me thinking. Besides there was a girl I wanted to marry. In spite of all Winters’s arrangements for me to stay on, I left Stanford and got a job.
The story is more complicated than that, as you’ll see from the following letters written by Winters the year before Thomas’s poem saw print. The first, under the guise of “unofficially” welcoming Thomas to Stanford, is a frighteningly frank assessment of the younger poet’s talent; the second, filled with Winters’s characteristically blunt reflections on teaching “the art of writing in verse,” is written directly to the poet’s father, Calvin Thomas Sr.
Cal still writes poems, and a selection of his work can be found at poetryfoundation.org; his short story, “The Repatriate,” about a German veteran returning to civilian life, appeared in Stegner’s Stanford Short Stories series. He now lives in New Delhi.—DS
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To Calvin Thomas Jr.
March 19, 1954
Los Altos, California
Dear Mr. Thomas:
This note is to inform you—unofficially—that you will receive a fellowship in poetry. You will receive your official notification some time after April 1. Meantime you are not supposed to know. Stegner said that you were among the first nine or ten in fiction, but not among the best three.
Your poems are pretty rough, and half the time you fall flat on your face. But the piece on the airplane crash has a good deal of power, especially in the second half, and could probably be revised into a good poem. There are good fragments in several others, but you certainly contort yourself like a muscle-bound acrobat. However, we will try the famous Winters massage and electric shock treatment.
If there is anything I can do for you in advance of your coming, let me know. Such as finding you a place to live. It will be easier to snag a place toward the end of the spring quarter or early in the summer. By the time you get here most of the good places will have been snagged. But I would have to have not only your authorization but two pieces of information: will you have a family? will you have a car?
If you have a car and can drive across, you had better drive. You will see the country that way, and the car will be extremely useful when you get here. But you can get along without a car.
My other fellow will be an Englishman from Cambridge, of the same age as yourself. Thomson W. Gunn, of St. John’s College, in case you are over there.
Last year, Charles Gullans and Hugo Theimer, both of whom were at Kenyon when you were there, had the poetry fellowships. Charles is now in England on a Fulbright, and Hugo is in the army.
It will be nice to see you again.
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to calvin thomas sr.
November 20, 1954
Los Altos, California
Dear Mr. Thomas:
Your son Cal has talked to me a good deal about his plans and I suggested that I write you about his plans and about him as I see him. He agreed to this, and I believe has informed you that I would write. I hope that you will forgive me for intruding into what may strike you as purely private affairs. Since I am intruding, however, I am giving Cal a copy of this letter, and the two of you can then discuss any aspects of it which you may wish to discuss, in private.
I first met Cal in the summer of 1949 at Kenyon College. As I remember, he was one of three undergraduates admitted that summer to the School of English. One of the other undergraduates held the poetry fellowship here the year before last; another student of the same age, but a first year graduate student, also held one of the fellowships the year before last, though he came to Stanford a year earlier—he is now on his second year on a Fulbright award to England, completing his doctoral dissertation.
Cal chose to go into the army after graduation. The other undergraduate, Hugo Theimer, has now been in the army for a year. Charles Gullans, who was a first year graduate student when I first met him (at the age of nineteen) and who is now in England, expects to enter the army as soon as he gets home. All three are about the same age. They were the most promising students I met at Kenyon in a carefully selected group. All three showed me their poems while at Kenyon, and all of the poems were frightful. Nevertheless they were all young and all intelligent, and I encouraged them all to try for our fellowships. Gullans had made the acquaintance of one or two people who had studied under my former student J.V. Cunningham before he got here. Cunningham I suspect to be one of the two best poets living, and he is an expert teacher of poetry as well as a great scholar. Gullans thus got a head start: he is at present a very fine poet, though I think potentially more limited than Cal. Theimer I fear will never be as good as either, because of a streak of softness, of spiritual laziness.
Cal has not yet completed his first quarter here, and hence it is rash to make too many predictions. Nevertheless, I can say these things: his record at Yale was exceptionally good, he did well in the army, his reading, though spotty, is wide, and he is extremely intelligent in conversation. These are the obvious things. Beyond these, his poetry shows a vigor of line and passage which is frequently astonishing; and, although he arrived here in a state of almost complete ignorance with regard to the craft, he has learned faster than anyone else I have ever taught, and now has a dozen or so poems (an astonishing number, when you consider the time involved) which are really very impressive. He will certainly distinguish himself as a poet, a critic, and a scholar. I cannot promise you at this writing that he will be a great poet, but if he should prove to be one ten years from now I would not be overwhelmed with surprise.
I am trying to speak of Cal with a certain caution. Please bear in mind, however, that I am an expert in judging and teaching this kind of student. I am one of the best-known poets and critics now living, and I have a pretty high reputation for this kind of teaching. I have taught a great many exceptionally brilliant students. I am also an Airedale fancier. In my capacity as a teacher, I correspond, I suppose, to a professional handler at a dog show. Cal is one of the most promising specimens I have ever handled, and if I were his owner I would consider myself infinitely fortunate. But he needs training. (Cal will disapprove of my simile here, but let it pass.)
The training in question is not merely training in versification. If it were merely that, I alone could give it to him in a year. But a great poet is a man who writes well in a particular medium about human experience profoundly understood. And it takes more than raw genius to make a great poet, though the raw genius is certainly necessary.
If I may speak frankly and without seeming to boast, I would like to say that I can teach more about the art of writing in verse and about the history of this art than anyone in the country save perhaps Cunningham. But I would like to add that my department is certainly of the half dozen best in the country as regards scholarly achievement and may well be the best of the half dozen in general critical intelligence. It is, in any event, an extremely fine department, and I know its virtues and limitations very thoroughly. This department is one of my principal tools in training my poets: I superintend their use of the department with some care, and they invariably get a great deal from the department, and what they get I utilize in my training. I do not know what you think of departments of English, but the good ones are not random collections of tedious pedants, but are rather carefully selected groups of historical scholars who work in fairly close collaboration with each other. Such a group, in two or three years of instruction, can save a student like Cal (no matter what his genius) fifteen years of labor, simply by giving him a succinct outline of their own work in background materials and in historical outlines. And without these background materials and historical outlines, he will misunderstand at least in some measure, and often in a large measure, almost anything he may read; and if he is a poet, his development may be irremediably retarded. A great poet is a sport of nature, but he is not merely that: he is a thoroughly intelligent man, and intelligence is not easily come by; any man is a fool who does not pick up as much as he can get, wherever he can get it, and as rapidly as possible. The best place to pick up the elements is a good graduate school.
I do not know whether Cal should plan on a university career or not. He has all the requisite talents, but I do not know whether he would really like teaching: teaching requires certain temperamental gifts beyond any intellectual gifts. He will have to decide that one for himself. However, the university career has certain advantages for a person like Cal, provided he likes to teach. First of all—believe it or not—civilization would disappear very rapidly without our universities; in fact it would disappear very rapidly if you eliminated our best departments of literature, history, and philosophy, and nothing more. The profession is therefore important. Furthermore, I myself have found teaching an extremely pleasant occupation: in a place like Stanford the average level of the students’ intelligence is passably high (even the worst are endurable); there are always a few, especially, though not always, at the graduate level, who are very brilliant, and from time to time I get students who as poets or as scholars are something close to geniuses. If I were to name the twenty people whom I most admire and with whom I would prefer to spend a day or a week, most would be students or former students. It is possible to earn a perfectly respectable living in the better universities (and there is no reason why Cal should not land in one of the best) if one is satisfied with a way of life which is clean, comfortable, unpretentious, secure, and enlivened by good company. Beyond this, and this is very important for a person like Cal, one’s professional activities (as a teacher and as a scholar who is supposed to publish) are almost inseparable from one’s activities as a poet or (God forbid that Cal should become one) a novelist. The activities are the same, and both kinds of fruit are natural to the activities. It is not like being a lawyer for a living and writing poetry instead of playing golf. One’s scholarship improves one’s poetry; one’s poetry improves one’s scholarship. It is a unified life. Furthermore, like life in a law office, it is life; it is not an ivory tower. I have never really encountered an ivory tower, any more than I have encountered a unicorn or a sea serpent. And my acquaintance has not been limited: in my time, I have known Stock Exchange brokers (my father was one), Board of Trade brokers (my father was one), prize fighters (Leach Cross, for example), actors (Otis Skinner and a few others), coal miners (for two years I lived in a couple of coal camps in northern New Mexico), and so on. All of these people in retrospect impress me as having been more isolated from Real Life than I am. In fact they impress me as having been very severely isolated; I have seen a lot, and I talk daily with learned and brilliant men, most of whom have seen a lot. The only penalty one pays for this life is that one has to teach; but if one likes to teach—and I confess that teaching amuses me infinitely—it is no penalty. I find myself charmed by the intelligent young, just as I am charmed by beautiful puppies.
When Yvor Winters’s publisher and friend Alan Swallow hailed him in 1940 as the “sage of Palo Alto,” he accurately touched on the paradox of Winters’s career: the isolation in which he became admired as a poet, a teacher, and critic of poetry. For Winters, who adopted California early in...