Stanley Burnshaw: The poet in the world
Stanley Burnshaw, one of America’s most versatile, influential, and longlived men of letters, was born in New York City on June 20, 1906, to Ludwig Bernstein, an immigrant from Latvia, and his Russian-born wife, Sonya. Burnshaw (his Anglicized name was taken from an English relative) grew up in Pleasantville, NY, where his father had established an innovative cottage-style orphanage for destitute Jewish children. Ludwig’s philanthropic example deeply impressed his son, as did the communitarian arrangement of the orphanage. Burnshaw would later see this experiment writ large in the kibbutzim of Israel, and his commitment to socialism and Zionism — the first fading with the years, and the second unflagging although ultimately pessimistic — was naturally set.
Burnshaw received his BA from the University of Pittsburgh in 1925. He found work writing advertising copy for a steel products company, Blaw-Knox, but he was set on a literary career. Its first fruit was a slender Poems (1927), and, with money saved from his job as well as his father’s support, he made the ritual pilgrimage to France in 1927–28. Here he met his first literary mentor, Andre Spire, whose work he was to translate and champion; and it was here, too, while walking a beach on the Riviera, that he experienced the revelatory moment that was to structure his subsequent career. It was not until his mature masterwork, The Seamless Web (1970) that he was able to fully express it discursively, although it appears from his early poetry onward, perhaps most pithily (and lyrically) in “Bread”:
This that I give you now,
This bread that your mouth receives,
Never knows that its essence
Slept in the hanging leaves
Of a waving wheatfield thriving
With the sun’s light, soil, and the rain,
A season ago, before knives
And wheels took life from grain
That leaf might be flour — and the flour
Bread for the breathers’ need …
Nor cared that some night one breather
Might watch how each remnant seed
Invades the blood, to become
Your tissue of flesh, and molests
Your body’s secrets, swift-changing
To arms and mounds of your breasts,
To thigh, hand, hair, to voices,
Your heart and your woman’s mind …
For whatever the bread, do not grieve now
That soon a flash of the wind
May hurry away what remains
Of this quiet valiance of grass:
It entered your body, it fed you
So that you too can pass
From valiance to quiet, from thriving
To silenced flesh, and to ground:
Such is our meager cycle
That turns but a single round
For the deathless flesh of the earth,
For the signless husks of men dead,
For the folded oceans and mountains,
For birds, and fields, and for bread.
Burnshaw’s vision is here one of the “round” of interconnectedness and transformation by which matter takes the form of life and returns to its original state, a ceaseless process in which man and his world are “folded.” From this comes a profound ecological consciousness, and a sense of perpetual becoming that is as close to a religious reconciliation with the terms of life as agnosticism can yield. Sixty years later, in “Argon,” he would restate it a last time: “So long as leaf and flesh – / Fed on each other’s cast-out breath – / Nourish the oceans of lower sky: so long // As lip-sealed earth fulfils / Its sun-warmed captive circle, drink, / O drink while we may the forever imprisoned air.” Materialism is here, as in Empedocles and Lucretius, the ground of spirit, the link that holds us to our sanity and health. The “imprisoned air” is our freedom, for it is only within it that we can survive, and our planet’s wellbeing is our own. Darwinian perception darkens this vision; there are, as Burnshaw notes in “Argon,” “Killers” too among us of natural necessity, and the scythes and threshers that bring in the harvest of “Bread” also acknowledge the violence that life rests on. There is no alternative to this, and what Burnshaw in a late essay calls “planetary maturity” depends on it. Our difficulty, as he suggests, lies in a double bind: the fearful, “terrified radiance” from which our earliest consciousness sprang; and the sophisticated, lifedenying despair to which its exacerbated modern forms are prey, and which, having resulted in the suicidal world wars of Burnshaw’s own youth and early manhood, led at their farthest stretch to the genocidal attempts to exterminate whole populations, human and animal alike.
For the young Burnshaw, socialism offered the best prospect of human reconstruction. While working at another advertising job, for Hecht’s in New York, he pursued a master’s degree at Cornell, which he received in 1933. His hopes of a teaching position were dashed by the Depression, and doubtless by the anti-Semitism still pervasive in academia as well. Publishing was a fallback option, and it was to prove a career. Burnshaw joined the Marxist Modern Monthly as a contributing editor, and then the staff of New Masses, the leading leftist periodical in the country. Christina Stead described him in his office as “a neat, limber young man with clear large appraising eyes” that seemed to take in the world from a distance. He was nonetheless very much engaged in it, laying out the magazine’s issues as well as writing for them, running an art show and a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, and lecturing on literature, culture, and fascism. At the same time he was making his own name in the literary world, publishing Andre Spire and His Poetry in 1933 and a verse cycle, The Iron Land, in 1936. The latter book, containing “Bread,” but chiefly devoted to depicting the bleak world of Pennsylvania mill workers, marked the apogee of his political commitment:
Rise unrisen millions, hurl your answer,
Bend no more your bleeding shoulders of hope
But lift your head; break the air with your singing:
Fling your sun out of the iron ground.
(“Invocation to the Unrisen”)
The chief episode of Burnshaw’s career at New Masses arose from his critical review in October 1935 of Wallace Stevens’s longawaited second book, Ideas of Order. Stevens was stung by Burnshaw’s criticism of the rarefied “crystallography” of his verse, which, he said, “people concerned with the murderous world collapse can hardly swallow today except in tiny doses.” Stevens responded with a lengthy, seven-part poem, “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue,” in which the latter, and the further images it generates, appears to stand for the process and product of the poetic imagination. At the same time, he may seem to yield a point in the poem’s opening lines:
The thing is dead … Everything is dead
Except the future. Always everything
That is is dead except what ought to be.
“The thing” remains unspecified; it might refer to anything from the imagination as such to present reality to the whole of the human past. It might be all of these things, since “Everything is dead / Except the future.” That line can certainly be read in a political context, but also as a renewed validation of the imaginary. The ambiguity continues into the next line’s affirmation of “what ought to be,” which might or might not include the claims of social justice.
Critics are generally of the view today that Stevens’s later poetry reflects a greater social consciousness if not engagement, and that this represents a modification of his aesthetic. Burnshaw modestly disclaimed credit for this, although some have given it to him. In commenting on the affair in a 1961 article for the Sewanee Review, he claimed “not the slightest pride of authorship” in his review. Still, it continued to resonate, and as late as 1989 Burnshaw was invited to address the Wallace Stevens Society on the subject.
The irony of this episode is that Burnshaw was himself conflicted about the relationship between his political commitments and his own poetry. He left New Masses in 1936 — on amicable terms — to go into the publishing career that would occupy him for the next three decades, first with the Cordon Company, then with the Dryden Press (1939–1958), of which he was founder and publisher, and finally, after the sale of the press, as a senior Vice President at Henry Holt (1958–1965). In this latter capacity he served as Robert Frost’s editor, and developed a close relationship with the elder poet in his last years. Frost turned to Burnshaw for protection from Lawrance Thompson, whose official biography he feared would undermine his reputation. The apprehension was justified; the Frost of Thompson’s pages was callous to the point of moral monstrosity, and Burnshaw would later attempt to correct the record in his memoir, Robert Frost Himself (1986).
Apart from his work at New Masses and his essay on Spire, Burnshaw had been chiefly a poet in his early years. Between 1936 and 1942, however, he went largely silent. The pressure of work was no doubt one element; he worked sixteen-hour days at the Dryden Press while getting it off the ground. He himself has noted the prolonged depression into which the loss of an infant daughter threw him at the time, and for which his business labors may have been a partial antidote. It is likely that the tension between his politics and his art was a factor as well. He wrote in any case no more political poems such as those of The Iron Land. When he published again, in 1944, it was a verse addressed to Walt Whitman. A daughter, Valerie, had been born to him in 1940, and he reflected on this in “Thoughts of War and My Daughter.” Its background was not, however, the ideological stakes of the 1930s, which Popular Front politics was still promoting, but the nightmare of the Holocaust, of which no Jewish father could be unaware.
In addressing Whitman as an iconic figure, Burnshaw was trying in the 1940s to situate the poet as one who could be simultaneously true to his own vision and yet a full sharer in the quest for a better world. Whitman’s democratic openness was both a strength and a weakness, for it left him in the unsatisfactory stance of every prophet whose time, of necessity, goes by. If Whitman was representative, it was not as one who had achieved a final significance, but rather as one who had made an offering of his own best self without subterfuge or evasion — the faults he had seen in Stevens. This was the gift of personality to the collective endeavor, for, as Burnshaw wrote, there was “no final answer / If they deny the mind its birthright freedom / To range all worlds of sense or thought or vision.” Candor, in the widest sense, was the poet’s obligation, and freedom was its essential condition — of the person himself, and of the society to which he spoke.
Burnshaw made this poem the preface to his verse drama, The Bridge (1945), his first published work in nine years, and one in which he continued to work out his sense of human destiny in opposition to the “Perfect, bloodless technicians” who would reduce it to pattern and dogma. A theme that would recur in his later work is sounded by one of the play’s characters, who declares near the end that “The race of man wakes to its childhood now.” The prehistory of human infancy was not to be displaced by a programmatic utopia, but was only the beginning of a journey across a “bridge” that must be constructed as it was being crossed.
Burnshaw’s other major work of the decade was a novel, The Sunless Sea (1948), whose heroine recoils from being spat upon by a monkey at the zoo. Though this work is less overtly concerned with politics and the human future than The Bridge or The Revolt of the Cats in Paradise (1945), a verse satire on utopias contemporary with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, it does deal provocatively with the issue of the human flight from animal origins and its implications for our cohabitation with our evolutionary peers. But Burnshaw’s most significant commitment remained to poetry, and, although “Walt Whitman” would be the only poem he published in a periodical between 1936 and 1952, in the latter year a new collection appeared, Early and Late Testament (Dial Press). This would be followed by a further volume, Caged in an Animal’s Mind (Holt, 1963), and a summative one, In the Terrified Radiance (Braziller, 1972). Each of these books contains material from previous ones (hence the “Early Testament,” which includes material from The Iron Land), as well as translations— in Burnshaw’s parlance, “second-hand poems” — by Spire and others. They are, in short, a cumulative project, as well as a record of the author’s successive approaches to it.
That project, if one can suggest its amplitude, is to describe the emergence of the human itself, the ripening of consciousness, and the acquisition of moral value and responsibility. The Preamble to “Early and Late Testament” (“Time of Brightness”) sets the issue in the form of a quest for the aboriginal sources of mind:
What was it
Prodded your sleep into waking, shaped in your tongue
Word to be said to earth, your discovered home,
Syllables of serenity such as a man
Sure in belief could say to a more-than-beloved
The “more-than-beloved” is the earth, a home “discovered” only after long occupation; and yet, as the image suggests, it is a human beloved as well, since what we discover is not a bare frame but a dwelling, where consciousness is met by its kind. Thus it is that man finds the world as part of a dialectical process that involves the recognition of others in it, and thus it is that one must rather search for the world “Through tedious streets than to dream at an ocean’s edge,” i.e., through aesthetic contemplation alone (ibid.). In binding the search for origins to the quest for love in the present, Burnshaw restates his commitment to the political in its broadest sense. The poet cannot savor his private consciousness — the objection he had voiced to Stevens — but must rather regard it as an instrument of knowledge in the world.
As Burnshaw suggests in Caged in an Animal’s Mind, our progress is not out of Eden but up from it, since that is the place where the first Otherness was shaped in the recognition of human helplessness and contingency. We called it God, and found in it the overwhelming source of both terror and comfort, the friend who abided and the enemy at whom one blindly struck (“The Axe of Eden”). Man’s culture thus begins in a liberating (but also imprisoning) act of violence, for “The edge that kills creates” (ibid.). When the political world emerges, man transfers some of his primordial fear/trust from the deity to the divinized ruler, a literally worshipped figure in antiquity but no less a monstre sacre in the shape of a Hitler or a Stalin. Thus the fully matured consciousness must “smash the hero statues” and “Spit in the tombs of glory” (“The Hero Statues”).
Of course, as Burnshaw reminds us (and himself), we have literally neither past nor future, but only the anxious present that looks ahead and behind. It is impossible to recover the hypothesized world of early, Edenic consciousness (“Their Singing River”); nor can one foretell — let alone dictate — where the human project itself will eventuate. This is the burden of argument in In The Terrified Radiance, where the aging poet, watching the friends who fall about him (“Dialogue of the Stone Other”), wonders whether man will survive, let alone reconcile the contradictions of his “strangelove mind and suicide hand” (“Chanson Innocente”). Having barely discovered the world, as this latter poem suggests, we despoil “The hostage acres of soil we flay / And beg for our bread and warmth.” If this indeed be our self-elected destiny — Burnshaw’s “terrified radiance” also bears witness to the nuclear sublime — then, in the poet’s grim salutation, “hail / Catastrophe!” (ibid.). It may indeed be necessary to look beyond the human to find some residual sanity, a point made in an earlier poem, “End of the Flower-World”:
Fear no longer for the lone gray birds
That fall beneath the world’s last autumn sky,
Mourn no longer the death of grass and tree.
These will be as they have ever been:
Substance of springtime; and when the flower-world ends,
They will go back to earth, and wait, and be still.
The poet’s job, of course, is not to comfort, console, or counsel, but only to follow his own best perception, wherever it may lead. The prose writer may, in contrast, propound and advocate. With his retirement from Holt, Burnshaw set about in earnest to complete his long-meditated critical-anthropological study of the origins of human creativity, The Seamless Web. The capacity for creativity, he felt, was the distinctively human attribute; at the same time, it was man’s essential mode of evolutionary adaptation, the tool with which he shaped his world. In its highest as well as its most generalized form, this was poetry, the mind’s response to its environmental contingency (including the fact of consciousness itself). Poetry was thus not an ornament of civilization but the most critical and practically important of human functions. It connected the most primary biophysical functions to the highest mental ones. The maintenance of this connection was one of the most important tasks of poetry itself, for the unmoored imagination was, inevitably, denatured, self-deluded, and ultimately self-destructive. The organism itself is a “performance” in the world, a center of highly attuned perception and response, of which mental processes are only a part; in Donne’s formulation (a paradigmatic quotation in Burnshaw), “The body makes the minde.” Poetry, as poets themselves have noted from time immemorial, was both the most highly concentrated and voluntaristic of acts, and the most involuntary. (Burnshaw himself always insisted that his own verse came unbidden, on impulse, and could only then be shaped into artistic form.)
The “seamless web” that Burnshaw refers to is that of creation before the advent of human consciousness, a unity that can be restored, for man, only in the unifying act of poetry. Such moments are temporary and provisional, because they represent only the perspective of a single individual consciousness as it is able to communicate its healing moment to others, and take further life in this dialogic engagement. The healing action is an achieved knowledge that others may share, and this knowledge, because of its capacity for moral effect, stands above the merely instrumental knowledge that scientific or other discursive knowing affords. The best and most pertinent of such poetry, Burnshaw suggests, will be what he calls elsewhere a “creature poetry” that strives to express and actualize our relationships to the body of the world and our own bodies within that world. Once again, the essential text in Burnshaw’s own canon is “Bread,” with its rhapsodic yet eminently clearheaded celebration of the whole cycle of life.
Burnshaw extended the argument of The Seamless Web in an important lecture, “A Future for Poetry: Planetary Maturity,” first delivered to university audiences and later published in the London-based periodical Agenda. Echoing Robinson Jeffers, he suggested that anthropocentrism was a form of “infantilism” that the human race, with its newfound capacity for nuclear annihilation, could no longer afford. A different kind of consciousness was essential if the race was not to self-destruct, one that would represent a whole new phase of evolutionary consciousness. If creature poetry alone could not achieve this, it was nonetheless an indispensable modality of it. It was not, however, a means of transcending the human condition, but of accepting it. As Burnshaw concludes, with an uncharacteristic optimism perhaps adapted to his student auditors:
Planetary maturity, the inevitable next stage in human evolution, is in no respect a more soothing state that reconciles kindness and cruelty. But maturity never is.
Burnshaw’s decisive break with the intellectual Marxism of the 1930s came with Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges in 1952, a campaign halted only by the dictator’s death in March 1953. Burnshaw was shocked that any pogrom, let alone one in a supposedly socialist state, could be launched in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. At the same time, he had watched the difficult birth of the state of Israel. It was only when he visited Israel in the 1970s, however, that he began a new reckoning with his own heritage. The first fruit of this was a booklength poem, Mirages: Travel Notes in the Promised Land (1977), which Burnshaw described as “a public poem.” Modern Israel he found to be a land of paradox, indelibly stamped by the centuries of the Diaspora and the nomadic wandering that had preceded its first foundation, yet still mysteriously unified: “wherever I turn I see a different nation / Yet they may all have been one face.” By inverting the expected trope (many faces, one nation), Burnshaw sharpens the puzzle of Jewish identity, perhaps more critical an issue for the secular Jew than anyone else, and also the radical novelty of Israel itself, not an ancient state reborn but a new kind of community whose destiny could not be predicted: “Nothing with roots can stay. / All that you do must rise.”
The question of Jewish identity in its long historical continuum led Burnshaw to return to the form of the novel after thirty years in The Refusers: An Epic of the Jews (Horizon Press, 1981). Somewhat in the manner of Hermann Broch and Arthur Koestler, Burnshaw reached back to emblematic figures to meditate on the past and its relation to the present. The three whose independent tales he chose to relate were Moses, a figure lost not only to the mists of time but the chariots of Hollywood; Uriel da Costa, an obscure seventeenth century heretic and precursor of Spinoza; and, in a particularly daring (but also characteristic) maneuver, his own father, Ludwig.
In dealing with Moses, Burnshaw took up the issue Freud had raised in his quasi-novel Moses and Monotheism about the human creation of “God.” Burnshaw’s interest was in the conflation of the personal and partly megalomaniacal need of a leader with that of his tribe to produce an awesome, appalling, and deeply consequential conception. It is a study both of prophetic divination and political action, out of which Israel itself was forged for all its good and ill — a legacy that stamped what would become the most powerful civilization ever created, and whose uncanny reincarnation in modern times, the result of an unexampled suffering such as no people had ever endured, had projected its fearful conflicts anew on the modern world:
Nor yet can a generation
Die without shouting once into the air to purge its heart
Of the blind obsessive tale. as though for always unsure
Of the wrong of worshipping the blood’s terror of sacrifice.
The reference here is to the sacrifice of Isaac, projected back onto the biblical forebear Abraham in the Hebrew Testament but clearly the result of the Mosaic vision as interpreted by Burnshaw. Pagan sacrifice could be satisfied by the figure of the scapegoat, but monotheism, in establishing its uniquely personal relation between worshipper and deity, required an appeasement far more terrible and intimate. The struggle to escape this bind — Abraham does not sacrifice Isaac — created, as Burnshaw suggests, a new moral bond, but also left its indelible scar. As the above quoted lines imply, no Jew can be fully persuaded that the sacrifice of Isaac was not in fact required, and that the tribe’s punishment was not the consequence of the failure to carry it out.
Uriel da Costa is the pivotal figure in The Refusers, because his efforts to live within what he conceives to be the Mosaic code bring him into conflict with rabbinical orthodoxy and precipitates his crisis of unbelief. That skepticism — brought to fruition in Spinoza — presented itself in turn as the alternative to the credal conflicts that had consumed sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, and foreshadowed the rationalism of the Enlightenment. As the Jews had created the idea of a personal deity, so, it seemed, they were fated to pioneer a post-theistic world. This too was a service for which they were not to be thanked.
Someone like Marx or Freud might have been thought suitable for Burnshaw in rounding off his trilogy of critical Jewish figures, but, in a daring move, he chose to depict his own father, Ludwig. There was a deeply thematic as well as personal reason for this. Ludwig had devoted his life to nurturing Jewish orphans and, by extension, all children, thus symbolically banishing the specter of the Abrahamic sacrifice. At the same time, the mature Burnshaw would reflect on his own childhood sense of being merely a part of a large dormitory, an unelected son among too many others. In Mirages, too, he remembered a moment of corporal punishment that seemed to revive the ghost of Isaac:
Even my own father
One morning of my longago childhood helplessly
Watched his thought slip through the Hegelian chain
With which he wrestled the world, to relieve the curse
Thou shalt not raise thy hand …
Burnshaw called this autobiographical section of The Refusers “My Father, My Friend.” It proved the most accessible part of a sometimes gnomic text, and was subsequently published as an independent work by Oxford University Press. The title has a superficially sentimental ring, but, in fact, the conversion of a father into a “friend” is a leveling process too, not merely the maturation of a young adult into the peer of an older one but (specifically, in this case) a reversal, too, of former roles. The child who had never been quite special enough now befriended a father who was also but one among many. From that vantage, however, their relationship blossomed, and though never without tension it was evidently fulfilling for both.
Ludwig Bernstein died during the depths of World War II, in a despair over the Holocaust that his lifelong task to rescue children could only have made more terribly cruel. In this disaster, father and son bonded deeply, and, for Burnshaw, survivorship took on the added responsibility of bearing witness to the postwar rebirth of the Jewish people: indeed, in keeping with the practice of most of his earlier books, he appended the text of Mirages to The Refusers, as well as a historical retrospect describing the advent of Zionism. In later years, Burnshaw himself would sometimes despair over whether modern Israel could survive, and the moment of this present writing would not in all likelihood have given him grounds for greater hope. But it made him all the more determined to assert his identity as a Jew.
Burnshaw’s eightieth year, 1986, brought both the Oxford publication of My Father, My Friend and Robert Frost Himself. Their simultaneous appearance was not perhaps wholly a coincidence, since Burnshaw’s acquaintance with Frost had long preceded their final editorial association at Holt, and Frost had been not only an important poetic mentor but in some sense a surrogate father. These books brought the circle of Burnshaw’s career full circle. He continued to write verse into his eighties, and worked on the voluminous manuscript of a book of memoirs, first entitled (after Carlyle) “Truce with Necessity,” and, later, “Tyche”; never completed, it is now, with the Burnshaw papers, at the Harry Ransom Center for the Humanities in Austin, Texas. A special Burnshaw number of the British journal Agenda appeared as its Fall 1983/Winter 1984 issue, and in 1990 A Stanley Burnshaw Reader was published by the University of Georgia Press. Finally, Stanley Burnshaw: The Collected Poems and Selected Prose appeared from the University of Texas Press in 2002, carefully overseen by the then ninety-six-year old Burnshaw himself, who made his final winnowing of poems for it in their definitive texts. An annual Stanley Burnshaw Lecture was also endowed, with addresses by distinguished critics presented in alternating years at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and at the University of Texas, Austin.
Perhaps the most influential of all Burnshaw’s works has been The Poem Itself (1960) and its companion volume, The Hebrew Poem Itself (1965), a work which, edited by T. Carmi and Ezra Spicehandler and published by Holt with an important introduction by Burnshaw, virtually introduced modern Hebrew poetry to the English-speaking world. Burnshaw’s own interest in translation went back to his encounter with Spire, forty of whose poems he had rendered into English as part of his study of the Frenchman. His major midperiod collections — Early and Late Testament, Caged in an Animal’s Mind, and In the Terrified Radiance — all printed or reprinted a section of his translations, which he clearly regarded as an integral part of his own corpus. Yet the very enterprise of translation was deeply problematic for him. The poet of a foreign tongue and his English versifier could enter into a variety of relationships, none more satisfactory than in any other intimate encounter with the Other. The responding poet could assume the persona of the original one, in his own voice and for his own purposes, as Burnshaw had done in a sequence on Mallarme, “The Hero of Silence.” He could take the other’s poem as the basis of a derived poem in English, more or less faithful to the sense of the original although in no respect a reproduction of it. Such a poem had to be judged on its own merits, which might be quite genuine, but could not part the veil that concealed the original. To print the original and the “secondhand” poem side by side was helpful, indeed essential, but could not be sufficient. The former had to be unpacked, line by line and word by word, with its various shades of meaning and historical connotation made fully explicit. Only then and thus could the original be approached.
Burnshaw’s argument struck a profound chord in an era when “free” translation was much in vogue. It made the art of translation not only a poetic but a scholarly enterprise, and placed on the reader the difficult but ultimately rewarding burden of entering a foreign text in all its complexity, and paying it the same respect given work in one’s native tongue. Instead of a reduction, it offered a panoptic, interpretive approximation — the most that could be hoped for without genuine literacy in another language.
In many respects, Burnshaw’s insistence on the close reading of foreign language verse was of a piece with his overall critical approach, and his valorization of literature as the deepest and most unifying knowledge possible to a culture. Although his critical writing is a model of clarity and perspicacity, his verse and fiction can be demanding; as Norman Fruman says of the “Moses” section of The Refusers, it requires a high degree of concentration, and is prose is “often harsh, glaring, elliptical, [and] ruthlessly sparing of conjunctions.” This is not meant as, and should not be taken for, negative criticism. Difficult thought demands its own expression. If we grant that to Mallarme, we can make some allowances for Burnshaw. And yet, he is capable of great lyric poise as well, and surely “Bread” must be considered one of the most movingly direct expressions in the English verse of the twentieth century (although, for all that, a far from simple poem).
After retirement, Burnshaw continued to live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, spending summers on Martha’s Vineyard and winters on Key Biscayne in Miami. His first two marriages, to Irma Robin and Madeline Goodfriend, were relatively short-lived (Madeline was the mother of both his daughters), but a third union, to Lydia (Leda) Powsner, was ended only by her death in 1987. He reconciled himself to widowerhood, but in 1996 he met Susan Copen-Oken, a photographer more than thirty years his junior, with whom he formed a deeply loving relationship; they were married in 2003, and his final years were happy ones. He died at his home in Martha’s Vineyard on September 16, 2005.
Few if any modern men of letters had a wider circle of acquaintance and friendship than Stanley Burnshaw, from Alfred Kreymborg to Alfred Kazin, and, in his close and long-continuing association with Spire, he bridged parts of three centuries in his own long life. He devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to selflessly nurturing and advocating the work of others in whom he found value, and he was a superb editor; indeed, much of his legacy lives on silently in books to which he never signed his name. His voluminous correspondence is in itself almost a pocket history of twentieth century American letters, but his circle extended abroad as well to figures as diverse as the Australian novelist Christina Stead and Bet-Zion Netanyahu, the scholar of Iberian Jewish history and father of the Israeli prime minister. What one finds in it, though, is not merely a wealth of observation and circumstance, but the personal care and concern he always evinced for others. His father’s example was most evident in that. His legacy in no inconsiderable part rests there.
That Burnshaw regarded himself principally as a poet is clear in his valedictory statement, The Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Poetry came first, however many occupations he had and however many periods of silence he endured. He understood it as the epitome of life, and the furthest probe of knowledge. There were things that needed to be said in prose, but the echo of the poetry was always in them.
A career of Burnshaw’s scope is difficult to imagine these days. His chief rival is Edmund Wilson, who for all his many virtues had not an ounce of poetry in his body. One will look in vain, certainly, for the standards of clarity and rigor he maintained as an editor and publisher. One will look equally in vain for the commitment to social justice that survived every disillusion.
Burnshaw knew that humanity was a troubled condition as such. As his destructive century unfolded, he feared increasingly for its future as a species at war with its habitat. His call for “planetary maturity” is more relevant than ever, but he understood that bland stewardship and rational adjustment would not be enough. If humanity were to be saved, it would not be by its technocrats but its poets.
And he practiced what he preached.