Bill Sylvester




BY Bill Sylvester

Jean and I took our retirements from the University of Buffalo twenty years and more ago. We both remember those exalted days when we were still young.  The world seemed born again in Buffalo, New York, with dear friends.  We had lovely times with the Feldmans and the Cooks and the Connollys and the Fiedlers,and the Barths and the Fradins and the Levines and the Townsends and the Hammonds and the Hochfields, among others --a society which we accepted as associated with the best English Department in America.

Al Cook's death was a shock to all of us. At the memorial gathering in the Poetry Collection (Oct. 23, 1998) the poem Irving read was deeply beautiful, and three words struck me with particular force. When I heard “mingling”, “past”, and “present”, I was brought back to some of Al Cook’s assumptions which Irving and I share, in our different ways.

“The mingling of past and present” evokes a mind set, which I take to imply that the past and present have possibly equal importance: the present does not necessarily imply progress, or improvement from an ill formed past. On the other hand, the present is not to be sensed as a "decline" from an earlier glory. Our sequential experience of literature in the present does not necessarily replicate the sequence of actual creation. Later works can illuminate earlier ones; aspects of dada or surrealism can illuminate some unintended consequences of Spenser’s Fairie Queene.  Euripides might serve a Renaissance course better than Gammer Gurton’s Needle, and one might understand our present by jumping all the way back to cave paintings.

One practical consequence of Al's assumption was that course offerings did not have to cover all periods one after another in chronological sequence.  Innovation was encouraged. A course did not necessarily reflect what the professor had already published, but could be what was new for the professor too.

Al’s most controversial proposal was that a published poem should be taken as equal in value to a published article for hiring, promotions and tenure.

This caused more talk than action. I doubt that a single article was ever challenged by a single poem in a Promotions and Tenures Committee, but the proposal did tilt attention toward poetry as a serious endeavor.

So “creative writers” won out for a while against the “theoreticians” and “historicists”.

Yet Al himself was a theoretician, and he did not mock a sequential approach to literature, (I remember Robert Manson Meyers’ “From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, or the Wolf Motif in English Literature). Al was also sensitive to the flow from past to present, what he called the catena, or chain, but one shouldn’t be bound by it.

A shift of perspective was also possible, closer to a Pythagorean sense that past and present coexist, that underlying philosophical, moral, aesthetic considerations are not time bound. He also assumed that literature draws upon a hidden intuitive drive, something below words.

The environment that Al encouraged led to major publications by mainstream publishers.

In those days Creeley was published by Charles Scribner’s & Sons, Charles Olson by Reynal and Hitchcock, John Logan by Grove Press.  Mac Hammond and Al Cook were published by University Presses, and best seller lists ranked John Barth and Leslie Fiedler

It was as if we all shared national and international recognition, as if we were all enhanced by a company of professor poets who reached a mainstream audience, as well as an academic one. . We too shared the golden glow Irving brought from Kenyon enhanced by Viking, by readings at Diefendorf and Baird, and on to other prizes like the MacArthur, to name just one.

We lived in a world of books and libraries, a world that is yielding to other ways of communication, such as the one I am using right now.

Oh Irving we do indeed need more mingling with the past than ever before, starting for all of us here with the Pripet Marshes.