Notes on The Virgin of Bennington

“The beast of Bennington.” —Theodore Roethke, Straw for the Fire

Compiled, with glosses, in December 2012. Previously unpublished. The Roethke quote is a warning cry against the worst of Bennington stereotypes. Perhaps these notes, and this memoir, disprove his fear.

The following quotations are from Kathleen Norris’s The Virgin of Bennington (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001). These selected “best bits” all relate to poetry and the writing of poetry—and are often applicable to the writing of haiku. The book is not just a coming-of-age memoir about Norris’s life, where she learns about poetry at Vermont’s Bennington College, and then works at the Academy of American Poets in New York City. Rather, it is more an appreciation of Betty Kray, the Academy’s first executive director, who died in 1987. Norris says that she could not have wished for a better mentor than Betty Kray. In all, the book makes me wish I could have met Betty, who believed, above all else, that poets needed community.

The following quotations are all by Norris, except where indicated, which are mostly comments that Betty Kray had made about poetry.

“[A] job that would require me to attend poetry readings several times a week was my idea of heaven on earth.” (p. 22)

“[P]oetry . . . was more than a passion to get words on paper, it appeared to be a way of life.” (p. 47)

Betty Kray, for many years the executive director of the Academy of American Poets, said that, at bilingual readings, “I fiercely fought to have the English read first, and then the foreign poem.” Quoting this comment from Kray, Norris said that Kray believed “that listeners would be more alert to the beauty of the original when they had some sense of the form and meaning of the poem.” (p. 55; this is a practice I encourage whenever I curate bilingual readings, or read my own translations)

“Listening to a poem is a far better approach to understanding, for hearing a poem is an experience that begins with words and, if all goes well, ends in silent assent, and even wonder.” (p. 55)

Betty Kray “regarded the ability to edit oneself as among the greatest attributes of a writer.” (p. 63)

“[I]n constantly measuring one’s work against that of others, one may lose sight of what it means to be true to oneself.” (p. 85)

Early church theologian Philo of Alexandria said, “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” (p. 96)

“Poetry [is] a discipline grounded in experience that [draws] its life from a source much greater than oneself, and as it realize[s] its potential to touch others in their innermost being, . . . it [can] be a profoundly communal act.” (p. 101)

“[T]he essential problem of poetry . . . [is] that of finding the right words, those that offer the reader an experience that can’t be stated in any other way.” (p. 105)

In Poetry: The Unsayable Said, Donald Hall emphasizes that “The unsayable builds a secret poem, in the best poems.” (quoted on p. 105)

“[T]he special power of a poem is its own, and does not make me [the poet] special.” (p. 105)

“[P]oetry . . . exalts human language and gives integrity to ordinary experience.” (p. 108)

“[P]oetry begins not in the chatty self-congratulation of the ego, but in silence.” (p. 121)

“[D]oing what I needed to do [in life, and surely in poetry, too] meant giving up what I thought I wanted.” (p. 161)

“Reading . . . [is] essential to the making of a writer, and link[s] the writer and the reader as members of a community.” (p. 165)

On a visit to the Academy of American Poets in New York City in 1971, Japanese poet Shuntaro Tanikawa “spoke of poetry as a language transcending national boundaries.” (p. 175)

Kathleen Norris longed to have “a life centered in . . . a quiet, roomy haven where one could work surrounded by walls full of books.” (p. 182–183)

“[A] sense of balance [is] required for a life in the arts, between living in the practical realm and honoring that which transcends it. Between the freedom and the selfishness needed for creative work, and the discipline required to complete that work in the context of a full life.” (p. 183.)

“Wanting me to write out of joy as well as despondency, and to dismiss the romance of insanity as a sham, she [Betty Kray] tried hard to convince me of what her friends who had been institutionalized for madness knew all too well: that sanity, the clean and simple appreciation of ordinary, daily things, is a treasure like none on earth.” (p. 186)

“[T]he hypersensitivity to myself I thought I needed as an artist was in fact making me insensitive to other people, and the world around me.” (p. 187)

Betty Kray once said that “to describe simple, pure, intense experience requires a drowning of self in the oblivion of language. There can be no self-consciousness. Then the experience comes out of a language that is personal, convincing, and yet absolute.” She might well have been talking about haiku. (p. 197)

“[T]he imagination works not so much through inspiration as through perseverance.” (p. 198)

“To not be writing, and writing well, can be depressing.” (p. 200)

“[W]riters must always be willing to submit to processes of change that are unknown to them.” (p. 203)

After moving away from New York City, Kathleen Norris said that “at first I could not write, and then I could not help writing.” (p. 204)

Betty Kray once said that “Truth-telling may be vague and contradictory; lying must be precise.” (p. 206)

Betty Kray once wrote to Denise Levertov, saying, “I think poetry is to be used. It’s like an otter’s toboggan slide, it’s for fun, merry-making, a quick plunge of infinite use.” Kray made clear that poetry was not merely light, but took joy in its darkness as well as its light. (p. 220)

Betty Kray believed that “Poetry takes one to the fountain. . . . It’s a main stream, a river Jordan.” (p. 221)

Kathleen Norris reported Betty Kray’s belief that “writing poetry could lead you through all the vicissitudes of life, but only if you learned to shed the vanity of self-consciousness and allowed the poem to speak for itself” and that “writing is an endeavor that is born in solitude but that ultimately embraces a host of other people” (p. 241)

In a letter to Diane Wakoski, Betty Kray once said, “periodically I turn against the cooking, the washing, the tending that it demands, and turn to nature. Then I feel that the wind, the rock, the trees, and the meadow are company enough.” (p. 243)

Betty Kray once told Kathleen Norris that “You are in danger of making proper little genuflections to scholarship, when what you need is the poet’s voice.” Norris comments on this by saying, “A poem, after all, renders an experience that is more than mere opinion, idea, or doctrine. And it is as experience that a poem stands or falls, inviting the reader not to debate or argue but to respond with both heart and mind.” (p. 248)

In typing up these notes, at one point I mistyped the word “potential.” I love the word I accidentally came up with in its place: poetential. This word, I think, is to some degree the subject of The Virgin of Bennington. It implies a question that all of us can put to ourselves, asking where we want to be with our poetry. +

—11 December 2012, Sammamish, Washington