LAWRENCE HART AND THE ACTIVISTS IN THE EARLY 1950s
Excerpt from a memoir. ©2007 George T. Wright
George T. Wright studied with Hart in 1951-53. His memories, fortified by his contemporary notes, provide a priceless glimpse of the Activist circle at the moment of its greatest prominence; his description of certain Activist practices, illustrated in part with his own fine lines and poems, could hardly be bettered. That Wright speaks now as a distanced observer, having chosen other poetic models to follow, only adds to the interest of this document. Dr. Wright went on to make his mark as a distinguished English scholar, especially in the fields of metrics and Shakespeare studies.
On September 10, 1951, I went to a class in fiction writing at the University of California Extension: “An obscene thing and I walked out after a half hour.” But within a week I tried another class—this one in poetry writing. I was determined to be some kind of writer, but I clearly needed help from someone who would look at my work and give me sensible advice about it. The class I registered for this time—$9 for eight classes—turned out very differently.
The course was taught by a man named Lawrence Hart and met once a week for two hours at the U. C. Extension building on Powell Street just off Union Square in downtown San Francisco. Hart was about 50, tall, with graying hair and a brown mustache, who in many respects was self-taught. He didn’t have the academic credentials you’d expect in an influential mentor of poets, and he never achieved academic respectability. But he had thought a lot about the modernist movement in poetry, and he had worked out some arresting ideas about how to intensify poems and poetic lines. Once he had started teaching his methods, he had attracted some extremely able students, who eventually became as much colleagues as students and formed a loose group. Somewhere they acquired a rather abstract name—Activists—which was not catchy enough to do them any good. But they published in impressive places for a while. Rosalie Moore and Robert Horan both had volumes chosen by W. H. Auden for publication in the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets, and Jeanne McGahey’s work was included in the New Directions’ volume Five Young American Poets (1941). Another poet, Robert Barlow, an archaeologist by profession and evidently a brilliant but wildly eccentric man, published a few poems in the Activist mode before committing suicide in 1951.
When I entered the class that night, I was ignorant of this history, but from the first I was intrigued. I sensed that Hart was talking intelligently about writing techniques that could make one’s verse more alive. As I wrote a year later, “He was a good teacher and he was doing things in poetry that no one else was doing and also that were good to do, and I was completely taken with the class.”
Hart had a few specific techniques by which anyone could learn to make interesting lines of verse. The most striking was what he called sensory reporting, by which he meant description (of any concrete physical event at all) in strictly sensory language, without recourse to abstraction, comparisons (trite, hidden, or even original), or evaluative language. As I described it in a summary I wrote a year later:\
You could not say “the day breaks” because while it must have been a brilliant image at one time, it has lost all its excitement. You describe what happens in the morning when the sun comes up, you do not use anyone’s expressions but your own.
It is an interesting exercise and almost impossible to do. Somewhere along the line you will find yourself using an ordinary phrase which is really a hidden comparison. Almost all Latin derivatives are metaphors. They are, in this exercise, therefore unusable. You hunt down the bones of your language, the action words, the object words.
You cut out the adjectives. You do not say the sunshine was brilliant, you are out to get the feeling of brilliance, to make brilliance, not to discuss it. When you are done, you have an emotional equivalent of, not a commentary on, the thing you have experienced.
I’ve found some examples of my own effort to write in this highly restrained manner. I’ll include one:
A tree is never only one thing,
Not in the dark without color,
Nor even in a windless place, where no light comes to the eye,
But the shadows move with the turning sun
And the line of stick against stick, leaf against leaf
Changes with the changing pupil.
Leaves fall or remain without levels, in changing masses,
In single shapes, at night without color,
Lighter by moments in the light, but in the darkness
Dark, and the touch-of-it moving.
One of the problems with this technique is that you must be so on your guard against saying anything that exceeds the sensory that you run the risk of not saying anything much. On the other hand, the very avoidance of abstractions, comparisons, and evaluation almost inevitably results in a quiet, even mournful tone.
John Hart, Lawrence’s son, who must have been no more than fourteen when he wrote it, has a better one in Accent on Barlow
STOP-SHORT ON TOAD
The hose-water splits on the rock
And then darkens the ground in six directions
And the toad comes from the third turn of the driftwood
The shadows and the shaking water on his back
Divided by a white line.
The toad tightens himself at the joints by the six-leaved plant
And then he is loose in air
And his shadow is shaping
On the stones below him.
Good poems can rarely be written in this way without leaning here and there on other ways of writing. But John’s never violates the rules.
And here’s a fine bit of sensory reporting with which Rosalie Moore ends one of her later poems:
There were the sea-birds
Bringing their bright beaks toward us.
As I wrote in my earlier description of Hart’s theories:
It is a good method to teach a beginner something about his language. To teach anybody, for that matter. Hart and his early pupils worked with this technique for years. It is seldom enough to make a good poem. It will never make a great one because a great poem has more levels than immediate perception. But they learned a good deal.
When they got onto imagery, they sometimes used another favorite technique of Hart’s. This was to make independent lists of adjectives and nouns, drawn from many categories, place them parallel on a page, cut the page in two, and then slide the two lists up and down to see what interesting combinations they might generate. Rosalie Moore’s phrase, “porcelain people,” was one result. [Hart also quoted W. H.] Auden’s “clandestine tide” (meaning sap) as an example. Putting together unlikely words in this way may occasionally hit pay-dirt. The trick, as I wrote then,
is to unite the familiar and the exotic, the homely and the extreme, in such a way as to provide the proper discord and accord with each image. The images have this internal discord and accord; together, in groups, they make a larger one; the groups make the great big one of the poem. This is all there is to writing a fine poem. It is, of course, a great deal. But there are clear ways to go about trying, to practice—finger exercises. There is sensory reporting, there is imagery, and there is what Hart calls “statement.”
Statement occurs when an idea bumps into another idea and the result is a swimming pool (?). In this method the mood is usually declarative, which accounts for its name. An example might be the closing line of one of Emily White’s poems: “Foreseen, but not easy.” Auden is a great user of this technique [where] an idea or object or a group of objects is resolved by a final word—the exact object, the exact idea. It is usually a kind of opposite, but not quite opposite, as in Auden’s “Faithful, but disenchanted” . . . It is a conjuror’s trick, completely immediate, startling, and as immediately self-justifying.
Hart’s idea was that good poets could combine these techniques and others in a poetic design that was not logical. Ideas were not to be barred from poetry but should be used in such a way as to support the poem’s design.
Logical ideas themselves, logical trains of thought, may be used in this way. It is possible in a poem to balance a system of philosophy against a scene in a bar—not contrast, but balance—while, probably, in the background a single scene or a single idea or one idée mise en scène may control the whole network. Poetry is like interior decorating—the table must be put just there, the lamp just there—just there and nowhere else. If you are designing your room, you must choose carefully, you must know, just what to put in and what to reject. The whole becomes a pattern in which one detail leads to another, suggests another, prepares for another, and the other surprises it, betrays it, upsets it, and makes it just right.
I found these ideas extremely interesting, as almost any beginning poet naturally would. It wasn’t easy to concoct a satisfying design out of such materials, partly because even when you thought you had a winner it was hard to say clearly what it was that you had. Activist poems tended to resist explication. Like Dada and Surrealist work, which had considerable influence on Hart’s thinking about poetry, an Activist poem avoided discursive structure and counted on a reader’s picking up the “connotative line,” a connotative design developed through images and statements that at first might seem baffling and whose impact is likely to be felt before it can be subjected to analysis.
With assumptions like these, Activist poems were often hard to interpret, but that was not an argument against them. Hart could cite examples from Modernist poets to show that elusive images were often the most haunting and effective. One favorite of mine was the image Eliot uses to open “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table . . .
Not only are we uncertain, as we begin to read this poem, about who “you and I” may be (and scholars have offered many different answers), but as I learned from teaching the poem to students for decades, almost every reader will visualize the evening-sky-patient image differently.
Encouraged to take chances, I began to write images of this kind without worrying about whether they were entirely clear:
I have met, like many lies,
Light like a building falling in my eyes
The light, like cocktails, spilled on either sex
In a long dress.
Under the new dispensation, it didn’t matter whether images like these were hard to visualize and didn’t submit to a universally accepted reading. Good poetry wasn’t like a problem in figuring syntax of the sort that you sometimes wrestle with in translating a foreign language, where you have to disentangle the grammar and solve the momentary obscurity. Even Shakespeare and Milton occasionally wrote lines that didn’t make perfect sense if you analyzed them closely, though even without total understanding you still could get the general idea, as most audiences do when they see one of Shakespeare’s middle or later plays.
With this relaxed commitment to logical sense, I began to turn out a different sort of poem. In imitation of the Spanish poet Lorca, I would write stanzas like these:
Above my nickname
The slash of two horses
In the desiring fields
Sets fire to my childhood.
A black forge stretches in my throat
And at night, far from the smugglers,
The great cities melt their jewels
In my love’s armpits.
. . . . . . . .
There under the pepper tree
With the leaves in stations
My love came slicing
Orders down the wind.
My love came advancing
To my great infantry,
Leaning her mountainous face
And her nose full of shadows.
That earned Hart’s approval, and he even gave to longer trains of imagery more than his usual (and ambiguous) “Interesting,” with a piece of chalk held almost up to his lower lip:
Moss fell across the light,
and the long hair of shadows
Dripped over the dry bank and detained the water;
And all afternoon slept like the ears of spaniels.
There the dust settles in parallel poles of sunlight,
The air waits, and the drawn land
Cracks in its tightness.
Hands that the sun did summer to, hung
Their children loose against the day’s diffusion:
Along the river the trees bent down like horses,
And from the open cylinder of air
Pieces of sea made up an intervention
Between the eyelid and the shaking horizon.
It did wonders for my morale to hear praise for my lines, and it was equally encouraging to meet friendly fellow students in Hart’s class. It was evident from the beginning that some of them had been signed up for some time, and in the mid-class break and after it finished they were very friendly and welcoming to newcomers. In no time at all I found that I had joined a coterie. After class it was usual to troop down to a nearby coffee shop and talk about poetry with each other and often with Hart as well. We all enjoyed these informal chances to talk, and before long I had made some serious friends. As I wrote a year later,
These meetings were backed up by evenings in each other’s homes—evenings of chess or listening to the records of T. S. Eliot, evenings of talk. Everyone knew everyone else. It was a lot of fun. . . . the best literary group I had seen, and the thing about it was that it wasn’t really literary. Larry Fixel wasn’t literary, and neither was Wally Furlong. They had read some books, but they weren’t really literary. I don’t think Wally had ever finished college, and I know Larry had never been. Laurel Trivelpiece didn’t seem to have an unusual background, as backgrounds go. She and Wally (it was really Waltrina) were the two young girls in the class—Laurel earnest and quiet, to the point sometimes of absolute shyness, working in San Francisco at copy-writing jobs. An attractive girl, but difficult to talk to, to get to say something of her own. Wally was much more vivacious, though not so pretty. She had a figure of incredible proportions and a mental concern with truth (which was later corrected by Korzybski [the semanticist]). Wally was concerned over everything for that matter and had the kind of intensity which may some day be nourished into subtlety. And the poetry class was doing her good, it was doing them both good.
One night a trio of women showed up and took the class by storm. They were all old pupils of Hart’s and appeared only irregularly, but when they came the group was always more interesting. By far the most extraordinary looking was Jeanne McGahey. She had begun studying with Lawrence Hart fifteen years before. Ten years before, she had married him, given up her work in advertising, and borne him one recent son. She was almost as tall as he and as thin as Jim Furlong, even thinner. She was so thin she didn’t seem to broaden below the neck, which made her neck seem outrageously long. Her lean face was drawn— she looked like some kind of bird. She had a lovely voice, though, to go with this imposing exterior, and a very easy manner. She had been one of her husband’s most promising pupils and his first success, having been included in a New Directions publication called Five Young American Poets. She was a capable, intelligent woman who would sit in the class and defend the students against her husband’s strictures, so that the lecture became open to discussion and everything was more informal.
Another commentator came with her—by this time more successful than Jeanne. This was Rosalie Moore. She had evidently started more slowly, but the publication of her first volume in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, edited by Auden, was something of a literary event. I had heard of her and had read her work long before entering the class, and I had never heard of Jeanne nor of the other original member of the class, Robert Horan, whose poems had beaten Rosalie’s to the Yale Series Award by one year. She was making a good name for herself. She was as lively as her poetry, in her late thirties at the time, with a hook nose and slow eyes. The third woman was Emily White, blonde, fortyish, plain.
All three lived in Marin County, north of San Francisco. They would decide to come in some weeks and would all drive down in Emily’s car, Lawrence having come to the city earlier. They were all witty and laughed a great deal. They seemed to have a lot of fun. Later on, Jeanne came more seldom, but Rosalie and Emily every other week. It was always more interesting when they were there.
Postscript: More on the Activists
In October, 2001, I attended the annual conference of me Association of Literary Scholars and Critics in San Francisco and, in reading over the program at lunch, I was surprised to see that a John Hart was listed among the participants as representing the Lawrence Hart Institute. A few hours later I found the tall gentleman who was wearing the right name tag, touched his sleeve, and told him I was Ted Wright and that I had worked with his father’s group of poets fifty years earlier. He responded by quoting several lines of one of my poems, a response usually reserved only for poets of some reputation. It turned out that John was publishing an article on his father’s group, the Activist Poets, in the forthcoming issue of Literary Imagination, the Association’s journal: “Pursuing the Modernist Vision: Lawrence Hart and the ‘Activist Group” in American Poetry.” As the son of Lawrence Hart and Jeanne McGahey, who had both died not long before at advanced ages (Rosalie Moore died a little later at 90), John had inherited all their papers and, more or less, the felt obligation to preserve the historical record of this interesting, if officially minor poetic movement. Though I didn’t stay with the group for long, I hope that what I’ve been able to write about it will help make the picture clearer.
My own poetry began to change its character under the influence of Hart’s ideas. It became less abstract and more imagistic; it often moved away from regularly metered poems to looser forms in which the rhythms were more various. I couldn’t write verse without a beat, but now the beat, like the images, was less predictable. Here’s an example of a poem I wrote for Hart’s class:
Disserter from Texas
To expound and exposit
The double Styx of any old Tantalus.
But to exceed midnight
At colloquial ecstasy!
Being his wife was tricks
To flex the flux
Of an ex-hexed sophistry;
Being his ticket was to be taken:
Doctor of Philosophy in philosophy.
The light, like cocktails, spilled on either sex
In a long dress.
Definable day, drawn like a prune,
Found him at fun in the stacks with an elderly scone
On the edge of a palpable scene.
Suspect texts exposed he had begat
Extant notes on the body
Of x the unknowne.
The aim, I think, was no longer to express an idea, a thought, but to catch a mood, an impression, an attitude. In retrospect, I think I didn’t formulate it this way, but that would seem to describe the change in my way of writing verse. In some ways it was very liberating. It meant, for one thing, that there no longer had to be a conscious speaking voice running the poem. If you started with sensory reporting, you were recording what anyone would sense in the scene being reported. Unaware at the time that this was the key to the change, I sometimes slipped back into the first-person mode, but the strongest poems I wrote at the time achieved, I think, a striking impersonality. They began to report some kinds of events with an eerie, unlocated strangeness:
LETTER FROM PRISON
Sometimes when it is damp the old men sing.
Their voices are claws over the valleys,
Light is closed down in their chapels,
Their hands tell a midnight of hanging masses,
O their snakes lie cool when they sing.
Water brings their song to the women.
Sometimes the women straighten their hands and weep.
Their sobs are the strangling of archers,
Sound has sucked up their venom,
Their breasts are handled by a thousand arrows,
O their lips are not still when they weep.
Night makes tears of their sons’ rescue.
Their sons take sick on the printed lips and die.
Their fingers scrape at the basins,
Touch is thrust tight into their home country,
Their sweat summers in the isthmus of their stomachs,
O their snakes are lips when they die.
This always sends death on the old men.
Poems with this sort of unexplained situation and elusive imagery owed a lot to one of Hart’s models, Federico Garcia Lorca, whose surrealistic effects it was liberating to try out. Writing this way absolved the poet of any responsibility for the poet’s voice. The poem, at least in the best examples, just seemed to materialize out of nowhere, a voice of nature or humankind, the voice of an emotion. Here’s another:
I AM SICK, I MUST DIE
These streets are all farewells.
Not a lover but many
Year by year will turn down.
Lock me up, old mother,
To be sand, to be sand
In the devil’s hand.
She wore green on her shoulders
And her lips rang my lips and
Good night to their changes.
By these streets will the lover
Go home and home.
Farewell, good mother,
Walls in their thickening
Lie on me, break like sand.
Simply done, simply drawn,
Black art, her stone,
By night and wrinkle
Wash these sheets, then, mother,
I will go ride.
Stiff there, unwinding,
Watches the breakers
Over his sweet suicide.
Is there news, is there news?
Ride rich, ride wide,
Ride and then ride
Up and down, a-down, down.
Lawrence Hart chose to end his 1962 collection of Activist poets, Accent on Barlow, with this cryptic poem. (He got my name wrong, printing it as James T. instead of George T.; I didn’t know the poem had been published till almost forty years later.) This was the poem John Hart quoted to me when we first met, almost fifty years after I had written it. It pleases me that John Hart liked it that much. I liked it a lot at the time I wrote it. It used to haunt me, and I gradually set it to music. My wife Norma later scored it when I sang it to her.
Hart used to say that to write good poetry you had to trust your unconscious, and in using his techniques to produce these poems and a few others, I think that this is what I had succeeded in doing. Not that the whole process is unconscious or automatic, but that—in my case, at least—the verbal design was freed from excessive control by a thinking, discursive voice. I’m sorry now that I couldn’t continue longer in this vein, though I feel no certainty that I could have kept up the visionary habit that resulted in a few good poems. But by the summer of 1953, I had made up my mind at last to return to graduate school. From then on, my life was endlessly busy as I tried to become involved in my new profession of explanation and exegesis and gave up my old one of creating new mysteries (i.e., new poems).
Even when I took part later in poetry readings, I never read my Activist poems. I had declared, as it were, for a poetry that was more lucid and tried to inform, not baffle, the reader. Though I was teaching in classes me difficult poetry of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Hart Crane, as a would-be poet I was participating in the general movement of the 1950s and 1960s toward a more open, clearer, more reader-friendly poetry. Poetry was shaking off the complex ironies of the Modernists, and I suppose I was part of that movement, though it did little to make my poems easier to publish.
When I returned to the Bay Area to teach at San Francisco State College for a year in 1960, I didn’t renew my friendship with the poets I’d known. What little time I had to compose poems of my own was devoted to a group that met once a month whose central figure was Josephine Miles, my dissertation director and a poet who I understood hadn’t got along too well with Lawrence Hart. When a poem I wrote for this group of poets—a lucid, straightforward poem not at all in the Activist mode—was accepted by the New Yorker, I was all the less disposed to go back to the style of writing I had begun to develop as an Activist.
When I had reentered graduate school in Berkeley, I had told myself and others that I wanted to understand the Modernists and why they wrote the way they did. Some of what I learned in my three or four years at Berkeley made the picture clearer, and what I must have come to realize about Hart’s approach was that it was terribly piecemeal, an assortment of composing strategies that did, indeed, result in lines that could be striking and even poems that had force. But Hart’s Activism didn’t come close to providing a history, a coherent account, of what had gone on in the French Symbolist poets, in Yeats, and in the Modernist generation of Joyce, Stevens, Pound, Eliot, and others. As I studied writers like these, I must have lost that enthusiasm for Hart’s discoveries and the “interesting” poems he had spurred me to write. What I regret is that my subsequent devotion to clarity and coherence didn’t leave enough room to continue to explore the wilder and more mysterious techniques that he had opened up for me. When I came to collect my poems in a volume issued in 1999,1 never even thought of including a single poem from what I may call my Activist period. The book is poorer for that.
I might, for example, have included this strange poem, which has till now just lain in drawers for more than fifty years but, I think, deserves better than that.
It began in the handkerchief gardens
In a country of terror.
Each man threw out five fingers
And the bells began striking
In strict succession
And the white shirts shook men’s blood in the sun.
In the upland hamlets
Rivers put on rapids.
Trees set their branches
In stances of exclamation.
Summer ran, a virgin
Dreamed of an ancestor.
Eight days later
The parade of lizards.
Thick on the highways
Their folding bellies
Shook laughs from the old women.
In the south, mudslides,
Vultures and a corpse
Not in corruption,
And sleeves on the ramparts
Like hanged spies in the wind.
By hammer, by clapper,
By the thousand slain,
Men sent down their sons
To an idea of stone.
Eyes from a locket
Gaze without focus,
Are groped for at gravesites.
Tell me no more bones.
If I had continued to trust my unconscious, I might have become a better poet, but, being the person I was, I thought I had no choice and, for better or worse, chose a writing life devoted largely to lucidity, light, analysis, a different sort of order from that which Hart had in mind, Apollonian rather than Dionysian, but still, as I tell myself in old age, an art capable on occasion of reaching Madame Kemensky’s old triad, le beau, le bien, et le vrai.