My move to St. Louis in the fall of '83 began an education in and out of class. I went there to get a Master's in English at Saint Louis University. Having just graduated from a college attached to a Benedictine monastery in the hills of Southern Indiana, and having grown up in the southernmost town in Indiana, Mt. Vernon, with its two stoplights and population of 7092, I found St. Louis to be a bustling metropolis.
Because in college I had fallen under the sway of T. S. Eliot, I was all aquiver to live in the city of his birth, and spent many hours of my first year there looking for the "burnt-out ends of smoky days" and "grimy scraps / Of withered leaves" that his poetry had taught me to seek. I don't think I ever saw them.
The main campus of Saint Louis U. lies in a part of town that at this time occasionally smelled like a blend of rich coffee and burning rubber. Other days the smell was more like rotting fish. I never found out where these scents came from or what caused them, but several times a week each wafted across the campus like a foul mood, bringing a satisfying stench of irony and angst to my studies.
My first semester in St. Louis was a revelation about poets in our midst. Of course, I knew about poets when I was growing up. Back in high school I loved William Cullen Bryant's "Thanatopsis," and I made a habit of sitting at the river front reading Carl Sandburg and composing verses of my own. Sometimes I wrote lines of my poetry in the sand so that the tide of the Ohio River could wash them away. I was so romantic a young man as to be a danger to myself and others, and probably should have been institutionalized.
I also remember sitting by the river and reading a selection of poems by Leonard Nimoy. But I don't recall seeing a bona-fide literary magazine, other than the high school magazine that I co-edited my junior year, until going to college, where I read about how Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" first appeared in the June 1915 issue of Poetry. Somehow in college I got hold of an issue of Poetry Northwest, which I read over and over, lying in bed before evening Mass. Nevertheless, it somehow never quite occurred to me that there were poets of stature around. Sure, there were poets in residence here and there, and actors who played alien beings and wrote poetry on the side, but somehow the notion of a contemporary working in the same grand tradition as Eliot, Stevens, and Pound seemed about as alien to me as Vulcan logic.
So it came as a jolt of surprise when I was sitting in my room at Lewis Hall on the Saint Louis U. campus, reading an anthology of twentieth-century poetry, and came across the bio-note of a poet named Howard Nemerov, who taught at Washington University. There he was anthologized alongside Eliot, Stevens, and Pound. It took me a few minutes to get used to the idea that this was the same Washington University that existed right there in my adopted city, rather than some Washington University of the mind.
Having reconnoitered the campus, having found Nemerov's office and taken note of his hours, I set out early one morning with a copy of his Collected Poems. When I knocked on his door, a voice from within bade me enter. The door was locked. He said, "Oh, one moment."
Mortified, I calculated that I could run out of the building before he made it to the door, but I stood my ground. The strangest thing that I recall happening that day was that Nemerov answered the door. I'd thought that at the very least some minor order of angel a fierce and flaming cherub perhaps would have told me to wait outside until the poet was available.
As luck and author photographs would have it, I didn't recognize Nemerov at first. "Mr. Nemerov?" I asked.
"Yes?" he answered.
We stood there looking at each other for a moment, a step away from performing some worn-out vaudeville routine about mistaken identities, but I managed to get out that I should like him to sign his book. He signed his name and asked me mine, and after a minute's chat I said goodbye because surely he had epics to compose. I spent the rest of the day elated from my brief sojourn on Mt. Parnassus.
The times that I lived in St. Louis '83 to '89 and '91 to '95 were haunted by a notion of literary aristocracy, some image of elegant sophistication and enlightenment, a realm set apart, one that I could never gain access to. I've long known this realm to be a fiction, though sometimes it still haunts my dreams.
Probably because of some things I encountered in the literary press, I came to associate this myth of aristocracy most strongly with William H. Gass, also of Washington U., whose grand and alliterative prose may or may not descend to mere plot or thesis statement, depending on its learned mood. In my early years in St. Louis (I think it was soon after I sought out Nemerov), I went to Paul's Books in the Delmar Loop to shake Gass's hand and ask that he sign a copy of On Being Blue. I myself was breathlessly blue, having ascended to such a height.
Back in college, one of my roommates had been a Jesuit in St. Louis for a short time, and he told me about his Jesuit spiritual director, Father Walter J. Ong, and sometimes he read aloud from Ong's books. I moved to St. Louis because I wanted to study under such a learned Jesuit. He's fluent in more languages than I can name, and at the height of his writing career he cranked out his marvelous books with the energy and aplomb of a first-rate journalist working his beat. It's just that Father Ong's beat happened to be the evolution of Western consciousness. It's not bad work if one can get it, though it helps to have a highly developed consciousness of one's own. Although Father Ong is deservedly reputed to have an intellect sufficiently sharp to put Mr. Spock to shame, it should also be noted that he has the heart and devotion of a saint. A couple of times after pulling an all-nighter in graduate school, I attended Father Ong's 5:35 a.m. Mass, which he said every weekday for twelve or thirteen years. After Mass he would stand talking with the others in attendance, who didn't seem to know, or at least not much to care, that Father Ong was an internationally renowned scholar. Father Ong didn't seem much to care about this either; he was busy with the pastoral work of his calling. When he finally decided to call it quits with this everyday pre-dawn Mass, he mentioned to a mutual friend that this sort of thing gets to you after a while. True enough, though if something is going to get to me, it usually does so after two or three weeks rather than a dozen years.
When I say that Father Ong has the heart of a saint, I mean the kind of saint who's tough as nails, someone like Thomas More, whose memory walks the Saint Louis U. campus in the person of Professor Clarence H. Miller. Although I was never able to take a course with Professor Miller (he was still working at Yale during my first year at SLU), he nevertheless became a friend, influence, and support. At the time I met him, he was the executive editor of the Yale Thomas More variorum project, which came to completion under his direction. His translations of More's Utopia and Erasmus's The Praise of Folly are literary achievements of the first order. Not only are they distinguished by their stunning accuracy, they are the only translations I know of that capture the verbal agility of the two great humanist writers. From time to time, Clarence and I would sit down to coffee, and all I had to do was ask what he'd been working on that day to be treated to an excursion into the arcana of early sixteenth-century texts and politics and their relations to the Scriptures, the classics, and the Church Fathers. No doubt one reason that Clarence could head up the More project at Yale so well was because, I am convinced, he knew virtually everything that More knew. In many ways he knows more than the former Lord Chancellor because the latter didn't have to internalize Spenser and Donne, Hyder Rollins and Herschel Baker.
After teaching for a couple of years as a part-timer at local St. Louis colleges, I was lucky to land a job at Saint Louis University High School, which has one of the more learned and devoted English departments that I have ever had the privilege of working with. It was largely from them that I learned to be a teacher and to carry out close readings of texts, to linger over the complexities of detail and implication.
But here I am touching only briefly on the many marvelous experiences that St. Louis opened me to, and have not been able to say much about many others: running in Forest Park on summer evenings; haunting Left Bank Books; meeting Jeff Hamilton and beginning a long and ongoing conversation about poetry that includes working on Delmar, the literary magazine that continues to be one of St. Louis's treasures; teaching for three years at Nerinx Hall High School in Webster Groves; hearing Tom Hall play his steel guitar; reading Wallace Stevens over coffee at ibid's, the coffee shop attached to Paul's Books in its final years.
Somehow all this comes together to bring me to my current occupation as a visiting professor at Kenyon College, a place much associated with poetry; as far as I know, this is the only college in the country with a major administrative building named after an American poet, John Crowe Ransom, who taught here for many years and founded the Kenyon Review. The walls of the room in which I teach my freshman course have photographs of Kenyon luminaries who have made their way in American writing: Ransom (of course), Robert Lowell, Robie Macauley, Peter Taylor, Randall Jarrell, William Gass. It's a good thing my colleagues at SLU High trained me to keep my eyes focused on the text; otherwise, in such grand company, I probably wouldn't be able to concentrate.