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John Malcolm Brinnin

By Richard Wilbur

When John Brinnin died last June, I was asked by the Key West newspaper Solares Hill to write a little reminiscence of him. What I wrote cannot have been seen by many who are present today, and though it has its insular moments, I trust it will serve to celebrate John at a meeting of the Academy to which he was so proud to belong. 

With John Malcolm Brinnins passing, Key West has lost a townsman of great literary talent, and a beloved figure whose affability and elegance are not replaceable. John had an authority which came of his being an old hand in modernist arts and letters, and which owed even more to his quiet and disinterested good taste. Consequently, he had scarcely sold his St. Thomas house, and settled among old friends on this island, when people began calling him things like the dean of Key West’s literati.As such, he served often as advisor, keynoter, or introducer on literary occasions, and even in small matters like the traditional weekly anagrams game, he was expected to preside–deciding who would be invited to play, and where and when we would convene. Like many bachelors, he was not a frequent partygiver, but he was a great partygoer, a valued and lively guest who was no less lively, in his latter years, for abstaining from drink on his doctors orders. When John walked into a Key West room or patio—in fact, when you saw him anywhere—he was the bestdressed person around, and be cause it was John the rest of us felt not resentfully scruffy but grateful for his gift of style

He was always stylish. When my wife and I first met him in Cambridge, more than fifty years ago, I was just out of the Army and struggling to begin life at Harvards graduate school of English. John, by contrast, had arrived: he had published three well-received books of poems; he had taught at Vassar; he knew everybody, and had connections or involvements with ballet and experimental film; he was about to become director of the Poetry Center in New York, and he had begun to coedit what would be an influential anthology of modern poetry. On top of all that, he wore excellent clothes, and had a convertible and a poodle. Someone else with the same achievements and properties might have been full of himself and his career, but what we discovered, and what endeared him to us, was that John’s makeup was simply the reverse of that. Then and always, he was modest about his work, and wasted no time on thinking about literary status and the poetic pecking order. As for the excellent clothes, he told us with amusement that they all came from Filenes basement, where his knowledge of labels and tailoring enabled him to find great bargains. Perhaps because of a certain bleakness in his Nova Scotian background, he was always intrigued by chic and classiness: it tickled him to have Vuitton luggage at the moment when that was fashionable, and to rent, as he did for a time, Henry Jamesold digs in the Palazzo Barbaro. At the same time, he knew that all that was nonsense, and had no doubts about the difference between spiffiness and beauty, glitz and brilliance, expensiveness and worth

John was more interested in others than in himself, and that is one reason why, starting with his book Dylan Thomas in America (1955), he wrote so much biography and memoir. His interest in others also made him, like his longtime dear companion Bill Read, unwilling to center his life in the gay world; he lived in the world at large, amongst people of all kinds, and collected such extraordinary friends as the great burlesque comedian, Irving Harmon, from one of whose wisecracks he took the title of his splendid life of Gertrude Stein, The Third Rose. For a half-century he was the friend of all our family: my wife was his confidante and the addressee of his poem, “Letter from an Island;” he was at all times the most loyal critic and encourager of my poems; and my children all remember him lovingly. 

Back in the Cambridge days, he had been John Brinnin the poet, but by the time of his coming to Key West he had long diversified his writing, and was now rightly seen as a distinguished man of letters. John once said to me – I can’t remember just when – that at a certain point he had turned from poetry to other things because he “had be come interested in life.” Coming from some poets, that would make no sense, but one can divine what it meant in John’s case. In some of the poems of his book, The Sorrows of Cold Stone (1951), he had developed a rich and complex style: “The Worm in the Whirling Cross,” for instance, which was the book’s centerpiece, took its exact metrical shape from Milton’s “Lycidas,” and had a density of language reminiscent of Joyce or of Dylan Thomas’ formidable sonnets. Despite the splendors of such artifice, I think that John felt that he had estranged his poetry from the everyday, and that he found it difficult thereafter to retrieve an open style. Let me show my preferences by quoting one of his best and openest poems, as an example of his most enduring work in verse:

Nuns at Eve

                                    On St. Martin’s evening green

                                    Imaginary diamond, between

                                    The vestry buttress and the convent-wall,

                                    Solemn as sea-birds in a sanctuary,

                                    Under the statue of the Virgin they play baseball.

                                    They are all named Mary,

                                    Sister Mary, Mary Anthony or Mary Rose,

                                    And when the softball flies

                                    In the shadow of the cross

                                    The little chaplet of the Virgin’s hands

                                    Contains their soft excitements like a house.

                                    A flying habit traces

                                    The unprecedented rounding of the bases

                                    By Sister Mary Agatha, who thanks God

                                 For the easy triple and turns her eyes towards home;

                                    As Mary, Mother, Help Me echoes in her head,

                                    Mild cries from the proud team

                                    Encourage her, and the obliging sun,

                                    Dazzling the pitcher’s box

                                    With a last celestial light upon

                                    The gold-spiked halo of the Virgin in her niche,

                                    Leads Sister Mary John to a wild pitch.

                                    Prayer wins the game.

                                    As Sister Mary Agatha comes sailing home

                                    Through infield dusk, like birds fan-wise

                                    In the vague cloisters of slow-rising mist,

                                    Winners and losers gather in to praise

                                    The fleetness of a bride of Christ.

                                    Flushed and humble, Agatha collects the bats

                                    And balls, while at her belt

                                    Catcher’s and pitcher’s mitts

                                    –Brute fingers, toes and gross lopsided heads–

                                    – Fumble the ropes of her long swinging beads.

This is artful, moving, humourous and humane, and it shows how the poet’s Catholic education, though he had put its dogmas behind him, could still inform his sensibility.

Everyone knows about John the seafarer, the taker of cruises and crossings whose The Sway of the Grand Saloon (1971) is our best history of the great age of passenger ships. So grateful were the Cunard Lines for that book that he was invited to launchings and consulted about renovations, and was ever in an honored place at the captain’s table. When not afloat, he wished to be near the sea, though some allergy prevented him from swimming in it. In Wellfleet or Duxbury or St. Thomas or Venice, or in his many-windowed apartment in Key West’s Truman Annex, he worked within sight of the sea and its doings. When he came to visit us in landlocked western Massachusetts, and hammered his typewriter for days on the screened porch of our guest quarters, we were glad that we could offer him, at least, a view across the swimming pool. Wherever he is now, God bless him, may John be looking at water.


Read by Anthony Hecht at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 13, 1999.

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