W.H. Auden and Campus Sexism: an Interview with April Bernard

W.H. Auden and Campus Sexism: an Interview with April Bernard

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April Bernard reading from a new volume of John Berryman's sonnets at Barnard College in 2014

Poet April Bernard calls. She is currently Director of Creative Writing at Skidmore College, and she has taught at Bennington in both the undergraduate and low-residency M.F.A. programs. I answer the phone, and I begin our interview by apologizing for what I was certain would be inevitable stumbles: forgetting questions, facts, the thoughts I had carefully articulated hours before the call. Bernard responds to this onslaught of insecurities by asking that I stop referring to myself using gendered, derogatory terms along the lines of “dingbat,” “dotty,” or “shrew.” These are terms that function as verbal tics, I can now see, apologies for being young, and for being a woman. They come out of me in a way that is frighteningly unconscious.

Bernard taught at Bennington as a member of the Literature Faculty from 1999 to 2009. Her time on the undergraduate faculty intersected with that of fellow poet Stephen Sandy, who was on the faculty for more than thirty years, from 1969 to 2008. In one interaction that Bernard recalls, Sandy pointed out that her office (Barn 203) had previously been occupied by Bernard Malamud, a distinguished novelist and short story writer whose work explored themes of immigration, anti-semitism, and the redemptive qualities of love and sacrifice. Bernard described Sandy over the phone to me as a “senior professor” then—one who paid an occasional visit to faculty meetings, but whose involvement at that juncture in his career mostly concerned students and their work.

Sandy demonstrated respect, she told me, maybe even reverence, for earlier figures on the campus like Malamud and poet Howard Nemerov. Bernard describes students flocking to Sandy’s classes as much to learn how to analyze a text and workshop their own creations as to hear Sandy talk about his life and the people he’d encountered. Sandy taught English at Harvard, later at Brown, and traveled to Tokyo on a Fulbright Visiting Lectureship. He served in active duty in the Navy, and married Virginia Scoville in 1969. It was at this point that he moved to Bennington, Vermont and began to teach at Bennington College, taking up the position previously held by Nemerov. He published eleven volumes of poetry, including Man in the Open Air: Poems (1988), Thanksgiving over the Water (1992), The Thread: New and Selected Poems (1998), and Overlook (2010) 

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Stephen Sandy on the right, flanked by poets Ben Belitt (center) and Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney (left)

Two of Sandy’s articles in Bennington’s archive concern the British-American poet W.H. Auden and the spans of time that Auden spent at Bennington. Auden was a pivotal figure of 20th century poetry—Bernard says that he was arguably “the” figure, and had a highly influential presence in the literary world of his time, and the artistic world in general. The first of these articles (“Writing As A Career: An Early W.H. Auden Jaunt in the States”) describes a brief visit Auden made to campus in May of 1939 to deliver a lecture. Students in attendance recalled his appearance and mannerisms more then anything else; the content of his lecture seems to have proven a little more ephemeral.

This was early in Auden’s poetry career, when he was not well known in the U.S. (Auden had been a guest teacher at St. Marks School, a prep school outside Boston, for the months preceding his lecture at Bennington. Before St. Marks, Auden had taught at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.) One Bennington student recalled Auden being “lank, loose-limbed, and blonde,” while another described him as “decidedly ill-at-ease ... tall, slim and somewhat slouched with a bad haircut—or perhaps just cowlicky hair.” Sandy’s frustration at the lack of information about the content of the lecture can be discerned in the tone of the essay, as well as in his correction of a memory offered by former student Beatrice O’Connell-Lushington in the 28th volume of the Bennington alumni magazine (O’Connell-Lushington’s letter regarding Auden was published in the Winter, 1996 issue, Sandy’s response in the Spring, 1996 issue). It is as though he wished that he could have attended the lecture, jotted everything down, and kept the sanctified information hidden away somewhere as a treasure. 

In May 1997, Sandy’s article “Auden at Bennington” was published in the sixteenth edition of the W.H. Auden Society Newsletter. The article details a more lasting visit that Auden made to the college in 1946 in order to fill a position occupied by faculty member Theodore Roethke, who had been offered a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1945. Auden taught two classes: “Forms of Literature,” an introductory course all literature faculty taught; and “Verse Form,” a prosody workshop ordinarily taught by Roethke. It might also be interesting to note that Auden became a U.S. citizen while at Bennington.

Auden stayed in the Commons building, in the same suite he had occupied six years earlier when he first visited the campus. A chart detailing evaluations of the General Meetings Program for the 1945-6 academic year includes an evaluation of a poetry reading that Auden gave. The comments offered by the evaluator (a faculty or staff member) include—from a sum total of five points— “1. Define Philosophy,” “2. Fewer Lectures,” and “3. Less pretentious drivel.” These are comments directed towards specific areas of the program (no notes were written for Auden’s reading), but the physical evidence of Auden’s presence is powerful.

Sandy then delves into a series of delightful student and faculty descriptions of Auden. The trend of focusing on physical attributes and mannerisms first seen in the student recollections of 1939 continues in these descriptions. Former student Eleanor Rockwell Edelstein provides that Auden was, “serious, stem, awkward (physically and socially), wry, uneasy in his role as teacher.” She goes on to say that he “went about in carpet slippers, occasionally on the wrong foot, and lunch displayed on his tie and shirt front.” This was amusing to her because of Auden’s insistence upon something he termed “proper form.” 

While Auden was at Bennington, he was hard at work on his long poem The Age of Anxiety (Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 for piano and orchestra of the same name, was inspired by this work). He was appointed faculty advisor to the student literary magazine, The Silo, and contributed one lyric: “How still it is, the horses," which he later re-named “Noon.” “Noon” eventually made its way into The Age of Anxiety—The Silo has another small claim to fame!


From The Silo vol. 7, no. 2, Spring 1946 in Crossett Library at Bennington College

Sandy's article is a fascinating read that provides as much insight into Auden’s character as it might into Sandy’s, or into the culture of Bennington at the time. The last sentence of its opening paragraph reads: “That Bennington girls danced nude and ogled Auden from the garden outside his study windows, and such stories must remain lore, unverifiable embellishments of fact; that Auden and Roethke shared a house turned out not to be the case” (Sandy, 1). The closing paragraph, a quote from Auden describing his experience at Bennington, reads: 

"Yes, [I taught at Bennington] for one term, while someone else was away on a Guggenheim fellowship. Bennington is positively a brothel, you know. Around eleven o'clock one night I heard a knock on my door. A girl came in and simply refused to leave--insisted on staying the night. Oh, they're nice girls, all right. But they talk. The next morning they rush to the telephone and tell everyone all about their night. It used to be that people were more reluctant to tell than to do. Now it's the other way round."

The choice of Sandy’s to make these sentences bookends for the article spoke to Bernard of a problem as old as Bennington itself; the problem of sex, and the fragility of male ego. Bragging about sleeping with a Bennington girl would have been a protective measure for someone like Auden, who—though quiet about his sex life—was certainly bisexual, and arguably had his most lasting and profound romantic relationships almost exclusively with men. Sandy may simply have been following the faculty tradition of the subtle (or, overt) implication of having done the same. Bennington was founded in 1932 as a women’s college. Since its inception, and arguably up until the recent past, Bennington established a reputation as a sort of colony of debauchery and sex scandals. Rumor (and some amount of fact) have it that faculty and staff slept with students on a fairly regular basis. Auden’s brag, then, was not unrealistic. 

After asking Bernard what her views were on this choice of bookends, she provided that the faculty bragging point of having slept with a Bennington girl was something that she had encountered herself. In her words, “As recently as 15 years ago, at an M.F.A. event which included some retired Bennington College faculty members and the then-director of the M.F.A. program, Liam Rector, the old boys made a lot of jokes about how, back in the day, it was said that girls came to Bennington to lose their virginities. I remember thinking, ‘You wish.’” 

After leaving Bennington, Auden went on to summer in Italy with his partner, poet Chester Kallman, and later, to teach as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. Sandy retired in 2008 in order to devote his energy to what would be a long battle against cancer. Bernard left the undergraduate program at Bennington for Skidmore in 2009. She remains a member of the core faculty of the Bennington Writing Seminars M.F.A. program.

For students at Bennington today, Sandy’s reverence for figures of Bennington’s past might resonate. I would offer that we can pair that reverence with a fair amount of criticism. Bennington has been a co-educational institution since 1969 (the year that Sandy arrived), and is arguably still learning how to function as such. It has been a long, excruciatingly slow learning curve for a college that has thought of itself as a socially liberal and progressive institution since its founding.

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