Lionel Basney Award 2009
James Matthew Wilson
“The Realism of Helen Pinkerton”
Volume 58, Issue 4, Summer 2009
Text of Citation
This essay brings to light a less well-known poet, Helen Pinkerton, analyzing some remarkable poems from her admittedly small output—besides a scholarly monograph on Melville, she published a handful of poetry chapbooks before publishing her first full-length poetry collection Taken in Faith in 2002. If Pinkerton seems at first glance like a minor poet who has published little, however, Wilson manages to make her a representative figure in an important intellectual milieu as part of the small cadre of contemporary poets taught or influenced by Yvor Winters at Stanford University, or what Wilson calls the Stanford School.
Not least among the many admirable qualities of this essay—besides its lucid prose and judicious tone—is the ease with which the author moves from small details in the poems themselves to the larger historical and institutional context of contemporary American poetry. Perhaps surprisingly for an essay about a single, relatively obscure poet, Wilson provides an impressive grand tour of the history of lyric, even if there are arguably other, equally compelling versions of this story.
Situating Pinkerton in relation to other poets of the Stanford School such as J.V. Cunningham, Thom Gunn, Edgar Bowers, and Robert Pinsky, Wilson does for contemporary American poetry, though on a smaller scale, something like what Mark McGurl does for fiction in his recent book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard, 2009). That is, he gives us a compelling account of how creative writing programs have influenced the institutional context in which poetry has been written and read.
At Stanford, Wilson writes, “Winters admired a small number of poems by a fair number of his students because he had established a coherent theory of the function of poetry and strove to realize those qualities in verse. Hence, there is a degree of coherence to the standards, conventions, and practices of the Stanford School absent in most other chapters of modern literary history—a fact made all the more remarkable by its extension across generations” (630). Winters liked to admonish his students, “Write little; do it well” (629), which sounds to me like a salutary corrective to the inordinate value we place on productivity in academe these days.
Yet Winters also advocated a plain style suited to short poems—lyric, epigram, brief narrative—that were, as Wilson puts it, “capable of carrying a concentrated, rational freight of ‘motive,’ meaning, and feeling” (631). Winters also admired “metaphysical” poems, by which he meant poems committed to concrete things, to the quotidian. Pinkerton’s poems are attentive at once to physical reality and to the way language represents it, in a kind of metaphysical realism: “Pinkerton’s work distinguishes itself not by an absence of imagistic density, … but by the presence of discursive language in plain statement alongside and in frequent tension with the concrete; it insists on making present, on disclosing the reality of, aspects of language, of human reason, and—above all—of being. … Her lyrics, like sound metaphysics, strike at the ground of being, at the fundamental ontology that obtains regarding all things” (638, 648).
Here Wilson deftly explores the more abstract philosophical and theological issues in Pinkerton's poetry that make her, as Yvor Winters himself remarked, something of a “devotional poet” (647). The committee members all admire Wilson’s rich and detailed account not only of the details of Pinkerton’s poetry but also of the historical contexts in which it was written. One committee member enthused that the essay is “a real sprezzatura performance.”
2009 Publications Committee
Mark Eaton, Chair (Azusa Pacific University)
Holly Faith Nelson (Trinity Western University)
Monica Brzezinski Potkay (College of William & Mary)