Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

From Being to Faith: The Poems of Helen Pinkerton

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

From Being to Faith: The Poems of Helen Pinkerton

Article excerpt

THE year 2009 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Helen Pinkerton's first book of poems, Error Pursued (1959). It was a slight chapbook, containing only thirteen short lyrics, and went little noticed, save by a small circle of readers and certain judges of fine book production, who gave its press an award (Pinkerton, "Personal Interview"). (1) Pinkerton's only full-length collection, Taken in Faith (which appeared from Swallow Press in 2002), contained roughly sixty poems. By any quantitative standard, this is a small achievement. Indeed, one may fear that her recent, mammoth history of Harvard University veterans of the Confederacy, Crimson Confederates (2010), alongside her monograph and essays on Herman Melville and Civil War literature, so dwarf the size of her poetic output that the latter will be swept aside and Pinkerton will come to be known exclusively for her work as a literary scholar and Civil War historian. (2)

That would be a great shame. In her handful of poems, Pinkerton has provided American literature a number of masterpieces in several poetic genres; some few of her lyrics stand up among the most accomplished, and certainly the most intellectually sophisticated, of meditative poems of the last century. Beyond these individual achievements, there is a coherence to Pinkerton's corpus, a unity greater than the sum of its parts, the realization of a personality, just shy of the type that T. S. Eliot identified with the major poet. According to Eliot, minor poets produce anthology pieces, they may even produce reams of brilliant lines, but we know a major poet when we sense that each individual work contributes to the construction of some larger whole, the realization (not to say the expression) of a personality. (3)

We may note certain biographical details about the poet whose personality these poems in some sense recompose--at least those details that most evidently occasioned and informed her work's development. Pinkerton was born in 1927 in Butte, Montana. As she mentions in her great early poem, "Elegy at Beaverhead County, Montana," her father was a miner and the family's moves through the Northwest were driven by that work. In the poem, Pinkerton observes,

   Sons of unsettled men sometimes remained
   To change the land through labor and design.
   He left, rejecting when he might have gained,
   But only found another ore to mine. (Taken in Faith 8)

From the perspective of maturity, and from that of an intellectual Catholicism to which we shall turn shortly, Pinkterton's poem takes her father for a symbol of concupiscence, of insatiable bodily appetite in a fallen world. Rather than accepting and "sticking with" what Wendell Berry has called the gift of good land, her father drove on and was killed in a mining accident when she was eleven years old (1938). (4) The mature Pinkerton reflects that, as he was driven by concupiscence, her father could not find the goods that would truly satisfy his desire. In consequence, he sought after much in this world, gaining neither what he thought he wanted nor what would have given earthly contentment or lasting peace:

   For that rich butte in whose deep shaft he died,
   Where I first saw, as silver as its earth,
   Another stream flow west from the Divide,
   Gave to him nothing of its final worth. (Taken in Faith 8)

Pinkerton's mother was of Catholic ancestry, and made some notional gestures of initiating Pinkerton into the Church, but these made little impression on the child (Pinkerton, "Personal Interview"). And yet, the westward flow of the stream in the "Elegy" alludes to the unintended but great gift her mother would ultimately provide to her. After Pinkerton's graduation from high school, the family moved out of state, winding up eventually in California. "We arrived in Palo Alto in June 1944," Pinkerton told me in a correspondence we have been conducting for half a decade now; "both of us went to work in the local fruit cannery for excellent wartime wages, and I applied for admission to Stanford. …

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