Reading and Writing

The Pennsylvanian Gazette
April 1998

FEBRUARY, MY WIFE Carole Bernstein, C'81, and I gave a reading at the Kelly Writers House here on campus, part of the House's Alumni Writers Series. Carole read from her recently-published book of poems, Familiar, as well as some newer work. I read a short story and a passage from a novel that came out a few years back.

We had both looked forward to reading at Penn, but we were also nervous. There's nothing worse than looking out over a podium at a bunch of people sitting there stone-faced ... except to look out over a room of empty chairs. But this reading was a fine experience.

The audience appeared interested throughout, laughed at the right spots, and applauded warmly when we finished. Afterward, we lingered in the Writers House dining room, drinking wine (from real wineglasses, not plastic cups!) and munching on cookies, talking about writing and readings past. It was, a friend of ours said, like "being in college again."

When Carole and I were students, the main venue for readings was a series run by now-emeritus professor of English Daniel Hoffman, which featured many of the best poets writing. The readings took place on the fourth floor of College Hall, in the Philomathean Society's meeting room, where the dark wood and pews for seating created a pleasantly serious, churchly feeling, as if we were all participating in a kind of sacrament of high art.

These days a lot of the literary-cultural action on-campus seems to be at Writers House, where the atmosphere -- even after a major renovation and despite the wineglasses -- is a bit funkier and the offerings can be bewilderingly various. A reading-junkie could take up residence there and have his or her fix nearly every day of the week. For every famous name, there are relative unknowns like Carole and me, not to mention plenty of student readings, workshops, kids' programming, and musical performances.

After our reading, a DP reporter who was there asked me what Penn had meant to me as a writer. Fumbling for a response, I finally told him that it was the first time in my life and the first place I had been where people took writing and literature very seriously -- and was surprised to realize, saying it, how true that felt.

I was reminded of that sensation as I read senior editor Samuel Hughes's cover story on the friendship between Ezra Pound, C'05, G'06, and William Carlos Williams, M'06, Hon'52 -- a fascinating portrait of two very different artists as young men. Though I had known they had each gone to Penn, much of this story was new to me, both as to what Pound and Williams had meant to each other and what Penn had meant to them -- even, as was the case with Pound especially, as something to rebel against. I suspect it will resonate with any once-budding artist (or scientist, scholar, or entrepreneur), whatever his or her era.

There is a remarkable passage from a letter by Williams that the article quotes, and which is referred to in our cover illustration, about Pound coming to Williams's room to read him his poems. Pound is so intensely involved that he reads the lines in a virtually inaudible voice, and Williams is personally uncomfortable -- "of all things in the world the last I should have wanted to do was to hurt him" -- and also feels inadequate as a critic. "But I listened," he adds, "that's all he wanted, I imagine."

That's it exactly.