Mark Van Doren

Mark Van Doren (1894-1972)

Remembering today Allen’s teacher at Columbia, Mark Van Doren (who died on this day)

Allen is quoted in his (December 1972) New York Times obituary:

“He (Van Doren) was one of the few gnostic professors at Columbia,” Mr. Ginsberg said yesterday. “Most of the other professors were interested in careers in literature and he was interested in illuminated wisdom.”
“He taught Kerouac Shakespeare and gave him an “A”.  Kerouac quit the Columbia football team to spend more time studying Shakespeare with Van Doren.”

Among his other famous pupils was the great Trappist monk, poet and mystic Thomas Merton.      (and Louis Zukofsky!)

He was, by all accounts, a quite extraordinary charismatic teacher.

Louis Simpson, another of his students (and a contemporary of Allen’s at Columbia), writes:

“Mark believed that the way to think was to be inspired – an idea passionately held draws you forward – and the little details fall into place. This was not the way English was being taught in graduate schools – there students were taught to write on a limited topic that they would be able to research, one that no-one had dealt with before, so they could make an “original contribution”. more than likely the reason no one had written about it before was that it had not been worth doing, that it was not worth the trouble…”

To Allen, in 1948, he wrote: “The only thing I have ever been aware of wanting to do in poetry is this – to give something that exists outside myself, and this includes ideas, a form in words resembling its own in something else”

Van Doren joined the Columbia University faculty in 1920, having been preceded by his equally talented brother, Carl. He became a full professor in 1942, and taught English at the college until 1959, at which point he became Professor Emeritus. He was, aside from a teacher, also, a highly-regarded writer, critic, dramatist, novelist – and poet (winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1940 with his Collected Poems 1922-1938  – an expanded Collected and New Poems appeared in 1963)

Van Doren, the poet, regrettably, was not so adventurous and stimulating as Van Doren, the teacher.  Louis Simpson again:

“Perhaps he liked teaching too well. It is possible to teach with creative energy, the same kind that goes into writing. For a poet this is to be dreaded. He believed in spontaneity…He was satisfied to be spontaneous – he did not trouble to be innovative as well. And this was an age when men prized innovation above all -it was the sine qua non of Modernist writing. As a consequence Mark was “out of it”, not one of the poets critics wrote about..'”

When Allen first got in trouble at Columbia, March 1945, for writing alleged obscenities on his dorm window  Van Doren (and notably Lionel Trilling) both intervened with Dean Nicholas McKnight to prevent his expulsion, though to no avail. McKnight insisted that Ginsberg undergo psychiatric counseling and work at a job for a year before he could re-enroll.

Four years later, in April 1949, when he was was arrested with Herbert Huncke and his criminal associates, Little Jack Melody, and Vicky Russell, Van Doren was among those whose intervention diverted him to the mental hospital rather than prison.

Here is Allen writing to Jack Kerouac, contemporaneous to the event :

“(My lawyer) thinks I will have to plead guilty, have charges dropped, be placed into the hands of a psychiatrist, or take a suspended sentence with a psychiatrist. I saw Trilling who thinks I am crazy and Van Doren who thinks I’m sane but doesn’t sympathize beyond limit (he kept winking at me as we talked). He wrote Morris Ernst, a big criminal lawyer but it is too late for Ernst for my family have already arranged for lawyers…’

and later on in that letter, further acknowledging and commenting on Van Doren’s help, he cites (and quotes from) his (Van Doren’s) 1927 book on the poet Edward Arlington Robinson

“I have spoken more than once of the image of light as being the image in which he saw life reflected. The six poems are all concerned with men who have seen a light and are being punished or rewarded for doing so.”

” I believe Van Doren”, Allen declares here, “is talking about that specific miracle of vision which I have attempted to point to and specify the last year [Editorial note – Allen’s Blake vision], his poems are about it, and in conversation with him it seems so, but since (1927) he has gone on beyond that light and seen its relationship to the world of time or “sober but hateful sanity”. I say “gone on beyond” not to mean that he has abandoned it or it him,  but that it has assumed a new significance beyond its usual occasional appearance as the actual existence of some transcendent fact, perhaps he has learned to see eternity in human laws, to put it bluntly, and god’s ways in organized society, perhaps he even believes now without a further thought any, even to us weak-willed, complaint to any lawbreakers and holds the lawbreakers responsible for some outrage against other men which they really were aware of, and if they (like me) were not aware of it, it’s just as well that folks give them “a good slap in the face so that they can hear the ring of iron” The quote is from his lecture to me. Maybe he sees me and the hipsters hassling against society while cream and honey pour down unnoticed. Maybe he thinks that it’s all a big secret joke, and that the trouble with me is that I am taking it (and myself) too seriously. in fact these are his opinions. However he had an exaggerated idea of my selfhood based on what recently he had been told by (John) Hollander  and others about my fancying myself as Rimbaud. Yes, he thinks I am talking myself too seriously. Is there anything more hateful to hear from a wise man?….”

Van Doren – the voice of Mark Van Doren

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