Three dead men. The most recent in the evening of May 25,2008. George Garrett, Chad Walsh and Bink Noll. Three teachers. Three writers.
A person first becomes an adult when their parents die. They become old or older when their teachers die.
In 1962 professors read student applications to college. That is probably hard to believe today. Now professors have abdicated one of their essential roles: the selection of students they want to teach. I later learned that Chad Walsh had read my application to Beloit College. What stayed in his mind: in answer to the question: what was the last book you had read I had answered Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. And that was a fact. Walsh became my adviser and facilitated my dropping out of Beloit in order to spend my third year at University College, Dublin. This again was before the organized nonsense of sending large groups of American students abroad to waste a year getting drunk with each other. Walsh read with interest my writings and we remained friends until his death. I still look at a textbook he wrote, Doors Into Poetry, a genuine introduction to poetry. He edited an anthology which included the much overlooked work of Gil Orlovitz. While I was at the college Walsh published a book of poetry, The Unknowing Dance, and inscribed it, "I'll buy a copy of your first one and you can autograph it for me."
Two years ago when I drove through Marion, Virginia I remembered that Walsh was originally from that town and had worked on the newspaper there that Sherwood Anderson had edited at the end of his life. Anderson's fate was something Walsh hinted at in regards to the vagaries of fame... In the public library I was happy to discover a folder had been established to collect clippings about Chad Walsh. For a time Walsh was a frequent book reviewer and was one of the writers responsible for establishing C. S. Lewis in the United States...
When I was at loose ends and teaching seventh grade in a Catholic school in Menasha, Wisconsin where my parents had been exiled to from Patchogue, Walsh suggested I might go to Hollins College and get a MA. Walsh had been to Hollins the previous year and had met GEORGE GARRETT.
George Garrett was the best sort of a teacher: worldly wise and widely read. He sought no disciples and only tried to help a student find his own voice. Happily he leaves no school behind, no quirks or attitudes or themes that students can easily mimic.
The best memorial for Garrett can be found in reading his novel, Death of the Fox, a poem, Three Night Poems, the story, A Wreath for Garibaldi. These three works will send you to sample his 34 books.
Again at loose ends now in February 1970 only wanting to continue writing I was sitting in Garrett's office at Hollins College and he suggested that I should go to Columbia. Two years in New York City. I agreed and he called right there and then Frank MacShane the head of the graduate writing program. After a few minutes of talk Garrett got off the phone and said, "You've been accepted, now fill out the application and tell them how much money you want." I went to Columbia for two years. I published two little stories in The Village Voice--- Goodbye W.H. Auden and A Son's Father's Day--- and could not be bothered to re-type my writings on the special paper Columbia demanded for the MFA degree.
So now I had learned in America what I had learned really and not theoretically in the People's Republic of Bulgaria: it is all a matter of connections.
Five years ago which is the last time I saw Garrett he had me invited to the University of Tennessee for a conference celebrating his life and work. He arranged that the university give me a honorarium and he himself paid for the plane ticket as he knew I did not have the money. I gave a little talk. It along with the other talks was to have been published in a book by the university but Garrett was a realist and knew that the book was only talk and that the conference itself had been a dry run in the hopes of running a conference for a far more famous writer who was obviously Cormac McCarthy. George accepted this situation as it allowed people like me to come down to Tennessee and allowed his friends to meet each other.
Just after receiving the e-mail on May 24, 2008 explaining that Garrett was at home under hospice care I wrote to George and Susan his wife of so many years what I knew was likely to be a farewell letter... telling them of sitting earlier that day on the aluminum bleachers watching my son playing baseball at Groton School with an unobstructed view of the chapel across a far field and later trying to tell the headmaster (who well knew the history) of how I was then also remembering standing in front of the Episcopal church in Tombstone and how in less than two months I would be standing in front of that church again with my son and how it seemed to be beyond words to describe this linking of the founder of Groton School with the same man, Endicott Peabody, who had actually built that first church in Tombstone having arrived in that notorious town just after the famous gunfight and how he had collected the money for the church from participants and observers of that gun fight... but in the actual writing to George and Susan, I wrote, George had shown the way in his own writing and with much effort and a deep trust in words that it was possible to link the present to the ever present past as surely as Peabody's chapel on that sunny Saturday in New England was intimately related to a church now just around the corner from the site of the gunfight at the OK Corral, in Tombstone, the town too tough to die.
Maybe in my letter I should have just remembered Garrett's last published book, Double Vision, which is about a writer named George Garrett who asked to review a biography of a former neighbor Peter Taylor in turn invents another character who in turn is reviewing a book about a neighbor. Late in the book Garrett had his fictional character, "Frank also copies down one sentence from a piece, "The writer's Life" by Thomas McGonigle: The dead are always with us...
In the morning of what turned out to be the day of Garrett's death, Susan wrote to me that she appreciated my letter and would read it to George. I wonder if it was one of the last things he heard...
Always linked to these two men is Bink Noll who was a professor of English at Beloit College. Noll was an elegant poet with an impeccable Ivy League background who published three books of poetry---The Center of the Circle, The Feast and The House--- in his life time. As he got older he became gay and lived with a man named Wayne who was from the hometown of Ed Gein the inspiration for Psycho. In Bink's basement Wayne edited a magazine EDINITE which was devoted to the male nipple and those who treasured them. Garrett had been the sponsor of Noll's third book of poetry published by Louisiana State University Press, The House.
As his life wore on Noll was afflicted with much illness: he made light of his colostomy and how changing the bag was just one more item in his morning ritual. Noll was always a good host when in the early 1980s I used to make a pilgrimage about the Midwest visiting Chicago (Jack O'Brien), Milwaukee (James Liddy), Madison (Paul Rux)... Bloomington (Marcia Cebulska) Baltimore (Jenny Burdick) Washington (Lucja)...
Noll told me a very good story about his experience when invited to read his poetry at Princeton. At the train station he was met by a student as his host had been called away. When they got to the hall--- more a lounge, Noll noticed and with only four or so kids in attendance. The show must go on The young man told Bink that the host had given him a paragraph to read as an apology and introduction. Even before that happened one of the four left the room. As the introduction was being read two more students left. The host student left as he had a class to get to. So Bink was standing at the podium with his one man audience. Noll began to read from The House. He read two poems and then noticed that the student in the audience had raised his hand. Bink asked, Yes? and the young man replied, Sir, no disrespect but I was wondering how long you planned to go on because I am studying for a physics final.
Bink concluded his story by saying, and that is how I came to give a reading at Princeton with no one in the audience. Princeton did send him a check, he was happy to note, only two months after the reading. The student host had forgotten to give it to him.
That story was repeated by George Garrett at the celebration at the University of Tennessee and is known as the Bink Noll at Princeton story. It is the great consolation story and underlines what is all so obvious...
PS: a version of this has appeared at the Jacket Copy blog of the book section of the Los Angeles Times. June 4, 2008