Poet, novelist, critic, translator and publisher
Wednesday 21 September 2005
Stanley Burnshaw was one of the unsung heroes of American letters. A poet and theorist of poetry, he was also an editor, translator, novelist, and playwright. Among his closest friends was Robert Frost, whom he edited. Burnshaw's biographical memoir of Frost, Robert Frost Himself (1986), remains an indispensable work.
He was born in New York in 1906, the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe; his father directed an orphanage for Jewish children. Burnshaw often wrote about his childhood, and he never lost his interest in Jewish themes. Indeed, he edited a well-known anthology, The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself (1965, following the success of his 1960 anthology The Poem Itself), in which the Hebrew poems were accompanied by literal translation and brief critical essays. His collection of three novellas The Refusers (1981) dealt with his Jewish heritage in affecting ways, especially in the final segment, where he writes about his early life through the eyes of his own father. He wrote about his mother's flight from persecution in Tsarist Russia in "House in St Petersburg", a poem that appeared in Caged in an Animal's Mind (1963).
Educated at the universities of Columbia and Pittsburgh, Burnshaw hoped to become a writer and teacher. To support himself, he took a job in advertising, saving enough money to go abroad. In 1927, he published a slim Poems and travelled to France, where he studied at the University of Poitiers and the Sorbonne. His friendship with the poet André Spire began there, and he later translated his poetry and wrote about him at length. He also began his career as a translator and theorist of translation in the late Twenties, eventually translating such poets as Paul Eluard, Stefan George and Rafael Alberti. Later, Burnshaw wrote a memorable sequence of poems about the life of Mallarmé called "The Hero of Silence".
In 1928 he returned to New York and advertising. Five years later he took a master's degree from Cornell and began writing for publications including The New Masses, a leftist journal that published many of the best writers of the time. Burnshaw never joined the Communist Party, but remained a left-leaning writer, someone whose concern for social problems, and whose interest in the environmental movement, continued throughout his long career.
Burnshaw also famously quarrelled with the poet Wallace Stevens. He reviewed Ideas of Order in The New Masses in 1935, suggesting that Stevens had lost his footing as a poet, and that the poems lacked any clear engagement with the world around him. Stevens responded testily in a poem, "Mr Burnshaw and the Statue". The feud did not end for many years.
Burnshaw's own poetry stood in stark contrast to the baroque obscurity of Stevens. His poems were immensely readable, in the tradition of Frost, whom he met in the Thirties, and whose directness and simplicity appealed to the younger man. On the other hand, Burnshaw dealt more explicitly with public themes than Frost, as in The Revolt of the Cats in Paradise (1945), a volume of satirical poetry in which the poet explicitly rejects Marxist solutions to economic and social woes. Burnshaw's later volumes include In the Terrified Radiance (1972), which contains some of his most mature and compelling poems.
From the late Thirties on, he became increasingly involved in publishing ventures, eventually becoming director of the Dryden Press, which merged with Holt, Rinehart & Winston in 1958. At that point, Burnshaw began to edit the work of his friend Robert Frost, who had been published by Holt for decades. It was, in fact, Burnshaw who put together the infamous 80th birthday celebration for Frost where Lionel Trilling (Burnshaw's good friend) described Frost as the most "terrifying" of modern poets, much to Frost's astonishment and the amusement of the press.
Toward the end of his life, Frost said to Burnshaw: "Save me from Larry." He referred to Lawrance Thompson, Frost's chosen biographer, who eventually wrote a damning three-volume work in which he depicted his subject as a monster. Burnshaw's memoir drew a very different picture of Frost. It was an affectionate book that set the record straight on Frost, in Burnshaw's eyes, by citing many anecdotes in which Frost helped friends and fellow poets.
Perhaps the most lasting of Burnshaw's books is The Seamless Web (1970), a study of the relationship between poets and readers. He argued that a "poem is nothing if not physical", suggesting that
words are also biology. Except for a handful of poets and scholars, nobody has taken time to consider the feeling of verbal sounds in the physical organism.
Although these ideas came mainly from Frost and others, they were given a unique form and cadence in this unusual book.
Stanley Burnshaw would never be mistaken for a major poet or critic; he was never consistent enough, nor original enough, for that. Yet the range of his work over many genres, as well as its wide sympathies and intellectual grace-notes, put him in a class of writers that is highly select. Indeed, one looks around in vain for writers who risked so much, and who achieved so much, over so many decades.
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