IN 1955 AS A twenty-one year old junior at Harvard, I had brunch with Kenneth Burke, and the well known poets Kenneth Fearing and Alan Tate. This delicious meal was consumed at the old Automat on Broadway. At a gap in the conversation I remember looking out across the street to the old Lexmark Theatre where the movie Picnic starring Kim Novak and William Holden was playing. As we sat eating twenty five cent automat sticky buns and seventy five cent egg, and bacon dishes (and free single English muffins) we talked about modern poets. Bruce Fearing, Kenneth Fearing’s son, introduced me to his father and Tate and KB as someone he just happened to have brought along to the breakfast. I remember Tate making some very funny remarks about “Red” Warren as a “border state personality” although he himself had been born in Southern Kentucky. I had heard of Alan Tate and the fugitive poets but not of Kenneth Burke. Tate and Burke did almost all of the talking. Bruce Fearing who knew everyone at Harvard and every literary figure in New York made a few remarks, but I was utterly silent. I do remember that during the meal Tate borrowed a large number of cigarettes from me.
“I bet you thought you were safe smoking Kools? Well you are never safe, not with a man as mad as I am to pack a blue coil of smoke against his belt buckle and blast it up into the stratosphere,” said Tate.
That line is burned into my memory but alas, I remember almost nothing else of what struck me as a brilliant conversation.
The two Kenneths did almost all of the talking until late in the breakfast when Burke turned to me and asked what I thought of Dylan Thomas. I knew almost nothing about Thomas but I was an asinine Harvard Square bohemian who had picked up a lot of stories from the Hayes Bickford intellectuals and so I repeated the one good story I thought I knew about him.
“Well, you know that he made a big scene at Radcliffe on his American tour in 1954,” I began and went on to relate the following tired and probably apocryphal tale:
“It was a very hot night in a theatre without any air conditioning. In a donnish bray a visiting English scholar gave a tepid introduction in which he compared Thomas to Owen Glendower, the Welsh Wizard and Ab Gwylim, the great Welsh bard. Thomas rose, strode to the microphone and recited four or five of his poems to an audience of about two hundred and fifty young women. His voice seemed thick and a bit slurred. He stumbled over an occasional consonant and repeated several of his lines, correcting himself as he went. After that he paused and mopped his brow with the tip of his filthy ascot. He looked about and asked if there were any questions.
“What does your poem Fern Hill really mean?” This question from a young woman in the back in a powerful penetrating voice.
Dylan Thomas tore off his ascot and mopped his face. He began an impressive series of throat clearings and harrumphs. Finally he walked to the apron of the stage and peered out into the audience.
“I guess it means what it means. It means I would like to screw you all,” he said.
Then Thomas straightened himself, dropped his script to the floor and walked rapidly into the wings.
Burke looked at me and the corners of his mouth twitched a little. He was not amused.
“That man wrote that ‘song is a burning and crested act, the fire of birds into the dodged night’.”
“At Harvard they call him a great minor poet,” said Fearing coming quickly to my aid.
Burke disagreed with the sages of the Harvard English Department and argued that he was a great poet. I don’t remember his arguments but I recall that Tate nodded vigorously in assent. I remember feeling wired from three cups of strong coffee and worried that Burke would engage me again when he finished his soliloquy.
After Burke’s speech of praise, Bruce stood up and excused us both on the ground that he had important business with a landlord in the village and we left them to their talk of modern poets.
“You really should read this Kenneth Burke guy. It is great exercise for your mind if you put yourself out to understand him,” said Bruce as we walked to the subway.