My first class taught by a “real” poet was back in January, 1978, my freshman year at The College of Idaho. We had a four-week winter term, where we typically took a single class for the term, and as a visiting professor, the British poet Jon Silkin taught the one class I took. Silkin was probably near the height of his fame at that time, safely enshrined in the first edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, being the editor of Stand Magazine for some 25 years, and being an international authority on the poets of the first world war. His poem “Death of a Son” published in his first book established his reputation.
It was my first workshop-based class, but most of my classmates, save one, were just tourists. Me, I was in awe of Silkin, his shock of white hair setting against his dark beard, his deep, powerful, Shakespearean voice–he was a small man, but his voice boomed. Intense, quick in his delivery, and so focused even on the worse of the poems he had to read. It was the first time that I realized that being a poetry professor meant having to cull through all kinds of atrocities and banalities, pretend that it mattered and that it didn’t matter simultaneously. All my peers wanted was a pat on the head and to be affirmed and then be left alone. All the while, I thought, DON’T YOU KNOW WHO THIS IS? He simply taught me that poetry itself is a physical thing, a simple knot of language. “Quit showing off,” he would say.
Not quite 10 years later, I encountered Silkin again. I was the editor of Indiana Review then, and I came across a few of his poems in some small magazine, and I contacted that editor to get Silkin’s address. I wrote a piece of fan mail, reminding him about taking that one workshop, and in the end solicited some of his poems. He promptly sent me the same poems that were already published in the other magazine, with a kind cover letter, but with an odd note at the end saying that he’d need $50 for the publishing of these poems. I then wrote back saying we didn’t publish previously published materials, etc. We exchanged a few other short missives–of course, he didn’t remember me, and of course, he didn’t send any other poems to the magazine.
Another 10 years later, after he had been excluded from the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, I came across his obituary, from the Independent (I was at the University of Miami then), where there was an odd final note about Silkin having felt that he had been set aside. And while I was glad to see his Complete Poems coming out about two years ago, and glad to see Stand continuing as an important literary magazine, I think of Silkin having indeed been set aside. Outside of his beloved Leeds, who reads his work today?
I like it that I share his birth date, and I like it that he was born the same year as my mother. I still have my copy of The Peaceable Kingdom, and I routinely read his work every year or so. I hear his voice. I also remember my old professor Dick Widemayer tell me that the only reason they were able to get Silkin to teach at The College of Idaho was that Silkin’s wife was from Caldwell, who had a father there who recently died, who he himself had been a writer it seems.
So from Silkin, I slip to Lorna Tracy, who had married Silkin in 1972, who would publish a single book of short stories in 1981 that received a glowing review from Angela Carter in the London Review of Books, who would co-edit Stand, whom I met once at a reception during Silkin’s stay in Caldwell. And while she is still alive, and while her one book is the culmination of her literary publications, her papers are already collected in the Boise State Library. There, I discover that she was a budding actress, living in New York City in the early 1950s, taking classes in Actors Studio, appeared on What’s My Line? (pretending to have been Mrs. America!), as well as later attending the Iowa Writers Workshop, before leaving to England.
From Lorna, though, I slip to her father, Paul E. Tracy, whose papers are also in the Boise State University Archives (thanks to Tom Trusky, another slippage for me). Her father in the 1930s had published poems in Poetry and had a short story accepted by Marianne Moore and published in The Dial. He also went to The College of Idaho, and while he aspired for a career in journalism, he made his living as a plumber, living and dying in Caldwell, having put aside his literary ambitions. But his diaries are alive, showing such breadth and currency of reading. Late in his life he did have published two book by the local Caxton Press, a mix of home-spun wisdom and wit, but also, in the older poems, a there there.
I think of these slippages, between very high accomplishment, celebrity, and then something else, a reduction and diminishment, a retrieval, a letting go, a not caring. But also in the very elemental writerly act of sharing news, simply crafting something very carefully, deliberately, and sending it off, whether a letter home to Caldwell, a poem to an important editor, or a simply need to make a buck or to share a memory makes a most necessary and human connection.