Wednesday, February 18, 2004

A Cigar for Ken Hanson

The Reed College alumni magazine came today, announcing the passing of several faculty members of my time there, including my thesis advisor, the poet Kenneth O. Hanson. (I like the way the article calls Greece "the country that he discovered in 1963." Land ho!)

Regrets: that I never gave his poetics and prosody class the attention it deserved.

Hanson was something of a "Poundling," an admirer of the poet Ezra Pound. I was much more under the influence of Robert Graves; it was in the summer between my junior and senior year, while helping to build a house in Talpa, New Mexico, for another of Hanson's friends, Robert Peterson, that I read The White Goddess, was swept away, embraced Her faith, and set out to read virtually everything Graves had written.

Graves' essays included much criticism of Pound, whom, among other things, he considered uneducated; Pound's background in Latin was lacking, raw American that he was (both Pound and Hanson had roots in Idaho.)

During one of our thesis conferences (held always in Hanson's living room), he puffed his cigar, admitted Graves' fine command of poetic diction, and then added, "But then there is that Moon Goddess nonsense."

I bit my tongue.

The relationship with your thesis advisor always has multiple levels. While I did not ever become a great admirer of Pound (leaving his politics entirely aside), I did start smoking cigars. Because I was an impoverished student, getting food stamps, walking or hitch-hiking everywhere, the cigars were usually cheap ones, such as Swisher Sweets.

Today I bought a medium-priced cigar at a tobacconist and smoked it, walking up and down the muddy drive, putting away the garbage cans at the cabin, listening to the rushing of Hardscrabble Creek, watching cloud-blurred Venus hanging in the western sky.

My thesis was A book of poems titled Queen Famine, after a line by Graves. In a letter to Peterson that I sneaked a look at after my graduation, Hanson wrote: It was good, he said, but not as good as it could have been. That comment burned into my soul, of course.

Hanson's example also stopped my cigar-smoking. First, there was the experience of coming home to my little apartment, part of a tall wooden house by the southeast Portland rail yards, and smelling the reek of stale cigars.

Second, I remember stepping into Hanson's kitchen, where he had a wall-mounted white telephone--a rotary-dial telephone, as most of them were. Under the dial, going all the way around, was a brown smear, left by his cigar-stained fingers as he dialed. I was grossed out.

But I still have my copy of The Distance Anywhere. And I have reached the age that he was when he was my advisor.