Loose Suits and Dangling Modifiers

A participant recalls the brilliant but eccentric cast of characters, penetrating literary insights, and unforgettable softball games of the 1950 Kenyon School of English.

Just before the summer of 1950, something wonderful came my way. At the end of my junior year at Franklin and Marshall, I learned I had been accepted to attend the Kenyon School of English at Kenyon College in Ohio. My heart had been set on this: I felt certain that the KSE, or any other institution, would never again be able to assemble such a distinguished faculty as they were offering. The trouble was that I had no money. My education was being financed by the G.I. Bill of Rights, and it was paying me about $22 a month. That problem was solved by two generous women. My grandmother, Ma-Ma, loaned me $100 (which went further in those days than it would today). Ma-Ma had lived with my family all my life, and her income came entirely from checks her two rich but none-too-generous sons occasionally sent to her, but she realized how important this seemed to me.

The other woman was Eudora Welty, whose recommendation probably got me accepted. I had become acquainted with her while a freshman at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. I had read very little of her work at the time, but I was brash enough to call her on the telephone (she lived not far from campus) and request that I might visit her. With her characteristic cordiality, she invited me to come over, and a friendship began that lasted for many years, until I left the South for good. Of course, I read everything by her available before that first visit; but it wouldn't have mattered anyway. We discussed her work very little, but I found her to be informal and charming and a teller of (real life) stories as funny and entertaining as any she ever published.

My first dilemma at Kenyon was trying to decide which two courses I should take. All the faculty members were writers, and I knew the work of most of them. I finally decided to take L.C. Knight's course on Shakespeare and Robert Lowell's course on modern poetry. I lasted only one day with Lowell. Learning what he planned to cover, I realized that I was already acquainted with most of it, and would continue to read it on my own. (After I got to know him better, I was sorry I didn't stay with him; I was later to learn how penetrating, original, and surprising his insights were.) I explained to him why I was dropping out, and he was very gracious. But my explanation was disingenuous. The real reason I dropped out was that he made me so nervous. I knew nothing then about his private life, but there was something strange about his presentation. He was tall and strong-looking, but he was nervous and awkward. He paced the floor as he lectured; he spoke into the air and made erratic gestures, putting one finger to his forehead as he spoke, his hands making disconnected movements, and there was little fluency in his staccato comments; one succeeded another without a link. They were interesting but very hard to follow. (I should add that the students who took his course loved it.)

Instead, unfortunately, I chose to study with Kenneth Burke. Mr. Burke, outside of class in conversations, was fascinating; his interests ranged widely from the trivial to the profound. (He told me once that he was very interested in graphology, which I was exploring and practicing at the time. He was impressed by a man he knew who could not only detect the presence of cancer in a person through that person's handwriting; he could also determine which part of the body was affected.)

Burke's lectures were fascinating, too, and replete with strange analogies drawn from card games and gambling. More than any other lecturer I have ever heard, his lectures did not seem in any way to be prepared; he entered the classroom, began to think and to tell us what he was thinking, with few pauses. The lectures centered on particular texts but not on what they meant, more on their underlying, almost unconscious communication: Joyce intent on discovering how to become an artist (in Portrait of an Artist); Orwell (in 1984) struggling, in his metaphors, with his developing tuberculosis. I could never quite follow where his mind was going: it worked too fast for me. I wrote for him an eighteen-page (typed) paper on Portrait; he wrote me a five-page (typed) commentary on my paper.

I got off on a very bad footing with L.C. Knight. I was already familiar with his essays on Shakespeare and admired the current approach, following the subtext of imagery rather than the narrative. On the very first day, when he was discussing the sonnets, I raised my hand to ask about one line in Sonnet 20, in which Shakespeare, having described the superiority of the Young Man's beauty to the beauty of women, concludes "But since [Nature] prickt thee out for women's pleasure,/Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure." I inquired about the usage of "prickt" and he looked at me in anger and snapped, "It's obscene, that's all!" He thought I was grandstanding, and I kept quiet in class for a while.

My first paper for him did not mend the fence. I wrote a paper on Henry IV which disagreed, though not explicitly or intentionally, with his published essay on that play, about the character and reputation of Henry, which he considered inflated. He gave me a grade of B++. Later we met one day on the patio outside the lunchroom and had a discussion about the metaphysical poets, especially about Abraham Cowley, on whom I had done a college paper. He had a bemused interest in Cowley, and we may have been the only two persons in the world having a casual conversation about Cowley that day, or even that year. Our relationship improved. On my other paper for him, about the deliquescent imagery in Antony and Cleopatra, he gave me an A triple-plus.

Sonnets and Sports

The atmosphere at Kenyon was lively and cordial. Faculty and students dined together, mingled at lectures and readings.

I particularly remember a session, lasting more than an hour, in which Robert Lowell read Robert Frost's poem "The Most of It" and offered some tentative interpretations comparing it, for example, to Baudelaire, followed by a long but indeterminate discussion. I offered some comments, and that's when I first met Elizabeth Hardwick, who had recently married Lowell. She came over to tell me that John Crowe Ransom had liked something I had said, but also because my accent (Mississippian) intrigued her. (Hers was Kentuckian.) This began a friendship that has not survived, except for a few later encounters, with one of the best writers of prose in America. She was also, in her personal reminiscences, one of the wittiest and funniest tellers of tales I have ever known. She was especially entertaining in reminiscing about her friendship with Billie Holliday and how she had tried to help Billie dress for her mother's funeral, which Billie didn't make it to.

Sometimes we met at a local tavern. I remember one session with Lowell and Burke present, during which we wrote a "group sonnet." One person would write a line of iambic pentameter, fold the page so that the next writer could not read his line, but revealing the last word of it; then it was passed to the next person, who would write the next line, and so on until it was completed. Since it was not specified whether the sonnet was to be Shakespearan or Spenserian, some odd rhyme schemes ensued. The result, of course, was bizarre; I wish I had kept it.

We also collaborated in sports. The basement of the student dormitory was set up for table-tennis, which occasionally attracted a professor. But our most active competition was in softball. We formed two teams, the Explorations (after the title of one of L.C. Knight's books of critical essays) and the Ambiguities (after the title of William Empson's most famous work, Seven Types of Ambiguity). The varieties of competence among the participants ensured that the two teams were evenly, that is to say, unevenly, matched. Not all of the intellectual students were athletes, nor were all of the faculty. The most bizarre of the players was Empson, who always participated with a faded ivory cigarette holder (without cigarette) in his lips, even when batting. He always played outfield, and when a ball headed his way, he would open his arms very wide, then slap his hands together when the ball got close. I don't know whether he ever caught one.

My greatest pleasures came when various people dropped in at the small house occupied by Elizabeth and Cal, as Lowell was always called, who often served cocktails in the afternoon. Elizabeth was at her most delightful with her reminiscences. At one time, she had written a newspaper advice column, à la Ann Landers. We inquired what kind of problems she addressed. She said that most of her questions came from adolescents with facial skin problems; and her standard advice was, "Wash your face several times a day."

Students were allowed to drop in on classes other than the ones they were enrolled in. I remember a class of Empson's in which he wrote his lecture on a blackboard as he delivered it, and by the time he finished, his script filled all the boards running across the front of the room and around one side. I never learned whether this was his common practice. I know he did not do that when he lectured to the whole school on the word "honest" in Shakespeare's Othello, a lecture which later appeared in one of his critical collections. (Later, after I began teaching, that essay cropped up in an odd way. A brilliant student of mine handed in an essay on Othello which was lifted, almost verbatim, from the Empson essay. When I confronted the student about his plagiarism, amazed that he would do such a thing, especially since I already knew he was perfectly capable of brilliant essays, he explained that Empson's essay was so cogent, he saw no reason to compete with it. Later he became a policeman.)

The Remarkable Mr. Empson

Empson was, hands down, the star of that summer. He chose, for instance, to live in the student dormitory, so that we saw a lot of him. He was friendly and accessible. Even if one did not know who he was, one knew that he was the man with the yellowed cigarette holder in his lips, even when he was the captain of the Ambiguities playing softball, as I have said; or when walking around the campus reading a book as he walked--and I would swear I saw him dive into a swimming pool with it. Once when I asked if it wasn't difficult to read while he was walking, he replied, "It's much harder on a bicycle."

He was odd enough just to look at. He was of slight build, but sturdy and vigorous. His dark eyes were magnified by thick lenses. But one's attention was drawn immediately to a most unfortunate beard, which the writer and critic John Gross once described as "a straggling appendage which began below his jaw line and looked like a false beard that had slipped." He was extraordinarily nervous, and ran his fingers through it when speaking. (I remember an amusing conversation with Robert Lowell, comparing beards: Lowell had worn one during his time as a conscientious objector and complained that he had a hard time keeping it clean: ketchup, he said, was the worst.) But Empson's nervousness was that of a person who was over-energetic and preoccupied, not fidgeting.

He wore whitish suits, unkempt, discolored, loose. His belts did not run through the loops of his trousers but ran around the trousers below the loops. And, in addition to that yellowed cigarette holder, he sometimes smoked a gross yellow pipe.

As his clothes suggested, he was not tidy. At the Lowells' afternoons, he smoked, of course, incessantly, thumping the ashes on the floor. When he finished a cigarette, he absent-mindedly threw the extinguished butt toward a window, usually having it bounce back from the screen. After a moment of startled indecision, he seemed to contemplate whether he should pick it up, but turned his back instead.

To the swimming pool he wore a flowing Chinese robe with a dragon on the back. He would walk, silently, to the diving board, stand on it several minutes, clasping his hands behind his head like a bearded fakir doing penance on a mountain, then suddenly he would dash forward, give one brusque hop, dive into the water, swim to the end underwater, clamber out, repeat the whole procedure one more time, then leave the pool.

The Kenyon School of English was unique in my experience. No other academic sojourn (at Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, or Oberlin) came close. The stimulation it provided was not limited to the remarkable staff but also was provided by the remarkable students and the atmosphere they created together.

Clifford Gordon was born in Liberty, Mississippi, but was educated in Northern climes, graduating from Franklin and Marshall College in 1951. He taught high school English for forty years in New Jersey and Pennsylvania before retiring to Hendersonville, North Carolina, in 2002. He is engaged in writing a family memoir, as the ninth of nine children, and an essay on the cats who have shared his life and provided inspiration.

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