Sharing an amiable discourse with a poet

The Selected Letters of Mark Van Doren, Edited and with an introduction by George Hendrick. Foreword by Dorothy Van Doren. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press. 280 pp. $30. Mark Van Doren used to give a broad stage wink now and then when he said something playful in conversation. I saw it a couple of times as an interviewer, and I can almost see it again in these letters - when, for instance, the Pulitzer Prize poet/professor risks a pun between friends.

But most of the time the wink gives way to an epistolary equivalent of the Van Doren smile. For, amid details of publishing, etc., the recurring purpose of letter after letter is to bestow praise. Not only for literary achievement but for personal conduct (as in the newsmaking episode of son Charles's facing up to his role as contestant in a rigged radio quiz show). It is as if the teacher, parent, writer, critic were acting on what he told students: that no action is more human than to praise.

And this is a warmly human book, fully in keeping with what I once heard Van Doren say that he believed with all his heart: ``All people are interesting.'' Here he writes to fellow poet Robinson Jeffers that he shares Jeffers's desire to see no one, ``though, as my wife points out, I have never really been sorry for any given encounter.''

This letter (see longer quote on the next page) is in response to Jeffers's response to Van Doren's work. It exemplifies what is in so many of these letters, the art of both giving and receiving praise - often with a bit of comment or criticism slipped in. From these latter threads can be stitched a Van Doren theory of poetry:

``People forget that poetry says, not sees, that it talks, not does, that ultimately, even, it is not anything at all.'' (Take that, Archibald MacLeish, with your famous dictum: ``A poem should not mean/ But be.'')

``I suspect they [ideas] don't belong there [in poetry], at least on the surface, and I really should prefer that you didn't offer them as handles by which the poems are to be grasped.''

``I am much more interested in a poem's being good - i.e., absorbing - than in its being true.''

``In all cases I must have occasions, and think only of them as I write. I have, for instance, never thought of myself as writing `a poem.' Neither on the other hand have I ever thought of myself as `expressing' my `experience.'''

``The dryness is good, but I wouldn't indulge it further, for it could then become a trick (polysyllables, metaphysics, astronomy, planets, etc.).''

It would take considerably more of such comment to make this book feel like a substantial as well as friendly volume. There are not enough profundities or apercus to suggest Van Doren had one eye on publication when he put them in the mail.

They do disclose Van Doren's low opinion of a few well-known literary figures. They show some stress and strain behind the urbane radio program, ``Invitation to Learning,'' in which Van Doren participated. But there are no private revelations to alter the public image. Much is left to Van Doren's ``Autobiography,'' such as his acquaintance as a teacher with Columbia student Whittaker Chambers, who became a central figure in the Alger Hiss spy case.

The letters are mainly to friends and family. They begin in 1910 with a teen-ager's humorous note to older brother Carl (already in the scholarly world where Mark, too, would have a distinguished career at Columbia University and elsewhere). Next come notes to Dorothy Graffe (who would become Van Doren's wife) inviting and responding to criticism of his youthful poems. Several years later, Van Doren is writing Robert Frost for permission to use some of his poems in an anthology and trying to conciliate him when Frost thinks the choices have been ``perfunctory.'' Recipients of the remaining letters include literary names such as Lionel Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, and Joseph Wood Krutch, Van Doren's best friend. But the letters are primarily to three poet friends: Allen Tate, a near contemporary, and two former students, John Berryman and Thomas Merton.

To Tate in 1927: ``It was thinking of you - and perhaps fearing you - that made me sit down two months ago and try to write poems that would have more in them than I had formerly put in.''

To Berryman in 1941: ``One of my freshmen has just written - I have the blue book before me - `Homer is a very epic poet.' Why is that so funny? I wish I knew.''

To Merton in 1957: ``My autobiography has no movements in it. Quite the contrary. It is the story of how I have learned to stand still.''

It would have been interesting to see the letters from these correspondents as well as to them. But George Hendrick's helpful editing gives us what is needed to understand Van Doren's end of the correspondence. We share a sense of amiable discourse in a circle where each other's opinions mattered, where gratitude and praise often seemed sides of the same coin.

Van Doren was moved to wrath when his poems were so often called ``quiet,'' as indeed many of them, like these letters, are. More typical is the writer giving the reader the benefit of the doubt in the tone that helps one enjoy the company of this book: ``Don't always blame yourself if they [Van Doren's own poems] are not clear,'' he wrote. ``I consider this to be my fault....''

To Robinson Jeffers

As for reviews of poetry, and particularly yours, I have about decided never to write them again. For several years it has made me uncomfortable to do so, and now there is a bit of shame mixed in. I never, for instance, say what I set out to say about your poems. I always return to the absurd notion that I must not add another note to the monotony of my praise, and so concentrate on something to say which will not be praise. I think I shall merely read you henceforth, and admire you, and perhaps write you letters to that effect. Why not?

Yet I did mean what I said about ideas in poetry. I suspect they don't belong there, at least on the surface, and I really should prefer that you didn't offer them as handles by which the poems are to be grasped. It makes the grasping at once too easy and too difficult.

-Mark Van Doren

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