del Valle Schorske: Autumn’s lessons from alums

‘So, after summer, in the autumn air, comes the cold volume of forgotten ghosts, but soothingly, with pleasant instruments, so that this cold, a children’s tale of ice, seems like a sheen of heat romanticized … The instinct for heaven had its counterpart: the instinct for earth, for New Haven …” – Wallace Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”

I moved here from California, where sun means heat. It has taken me years to develop enough suspicion of sunlight to pull on layers of awkward wool in the face of all that November brilliance. Season of contrast, of paradox: yellow leaves so bright the black branches shun then shed them.

November is the month for another “cold volume of forgotten ghosts”: alumni. They descend for banquets and lectures at their diversified senior societies. They descend for the Princeton and Harvard games. They descend, dancing, for cups at Mory’s, which does not taunt them with remodelings or menu changes. “But soothingly, with pleasant instruments!” It is a festive time in which the nostalgia of our elders does much to romanticize our experience of Yale.

Wallace Stevens was an insurance man; once he was established as a famous poet, he was offered a professorship at Harvard that he famously turned down to remain in the “accident and indemnity” business. He is not without predecessors in the American literary tradition. William Carlos Williams never gave up his medical practice as a pediatrician, even as he wrote red wheelbarrows into our national imagination.

It was in this line that I situated one alum who graduated in the 1960s, whom I met after a lecture by Mary Pearl, the president of the Wildlife Trust. He quoted Wordsworth back to me from memory after he heard me reading aloud to friends: and ’tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes.

Mr. Alum, as I shall call him, is now standing at the end of a long and fruitful career as a physician, and compiling a booklet of poems written by members of his family. “If you don’t publish it, it doesn’t exist.” I pressed him hard enough that he began to say other things, like “only three poets have ever mattered,” in direct proportion, he argued, to how often or long they’re read.

But on what scale are we hoping to make our mark? Modern times? The times of man? Earth time? If time is the dimension we are struggling to pull back to us, it is a battle whose terms are too far beyond us to say that we are sure to lose it. We, even if “we” are Shakespeare, are sure to lose it.

When Mr. Alum and company return to Yale in November, we are all in an anxious mood. Finals or retirement almost upon us, we search for ways not to transcend the smallness of these moments of judgment, a smallness which can seem to belittle us in turn. Yale as an emblem, as a myth, as an institution in love with largeness — remember the city-sized, blow-up bulldog that first greeted us on Old Campus? — is a sunny invitation. But it is also the invitation that has had us make much of time, and of making our mark on it. It is the invitation that has had us believe that if you don’t publish it, it doesn’t exist. Either a poem exists or it does not exist– there is no “if.”

Mr. Alum spontaneously spouted more Yeats; reading and writing poetry has made him into a memorable being — perhaps “memorable” is the wrong word, since it situates him on a temporal axis. It has made him into a being that makes me acutely aware and appreciative of being — no small triumph for a physician. The instinct for heaven had its counterpart: the instinct for earth, for New Haven. These are the twin habitats in which the human spirit is most at home. But during moments of great institutional fervor, of which I have always been suspicious, I find an awkward middle zone in which the heart soars, but not high enough, yearning only towards history, and not towards heaven. In those moments of not-far-enough, I am happy to fall back to earth, to New Haven. Where the leaves have fallen and been swept away, the sidewalks are tattooed with their brown outlines.

carina del Valle Schorske is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.