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In Memoriam Helen Pinkerton (1927–2017)

Winter 2018 - Modern Age (Digital)

American letters suffered several losses in 2017, and Modern Age has felt them keenly. In the spring, our new editor, the great political philosopher, Peter Augustine Lawler, passed away unexpectedly. This autumn, the life of the most important American poet of the last half century, Richard Wilbur, reached its conclusion at the age of ninety-six. Just before the year came to a close, on December 28, the poet and scholar Helen Pinkerton joined these men in eternity. Less well known or widely published, to be sure, than either Lawler or Wilbur, Pinkerton nonetheless stands alongside them because of her distinguished contribution to our literature.

Born in Montana, a miner’s daughter, Pinkerton attended Stanford University during the Second World War, where she met the brilliant but severe poet and critic Yvor Winters. Sitting in his classroom changed her life; almost on the instant, she decided to dedicate her life to poetry. Winters mentored her and, by the time of his death in 1969, he had repeatedly praised her as one of the most masterful poets of our age.

Pinkerton completed a doctorate on Herman Melville, at Harvard University, and spent the next several decades teaching at different universities, while raising two daughters with her husband, another distinguished Winters student, Wesley Trimpi. Her affection for Melville would lead to her becoming an important scholar of his work and of the American Civil War, but let there be no mistake: Pinkerton’s “conversion” to poetry in Winters’ classroom and his own public admiration of her early work were but the first signs of her true calling to the art of poetry.

Over six decades, Pinkerton composed a slender body of austere, philosophical lyrics and probing historical narrative poems that have earned a permanent place in our literature. A true heir to the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, Pinkerton’s lyrics were genuinely, or shall we say literally, worthy of that title; her abiding theme was the nature of being. Astonished by the profound metaphysics found in Saint Thomas Aquinas and in his modern-day disciple Etienne Gilson, Pinkerton explored the act of existence as a gift and revelation of God as Being Itself and as the fundamental fact with which the human soul must reckon.

And reckon is the right word. For, Pinkerton saw in herself and in our culture a ravenous hunger to subordinate being to our own private wills. Whether one calls this hunger romanticism, nihilism, voluntarism, or solipsism does not so much matter; reality is the order of being to which the properly formed soul must submit, and yet, again and again, we strive to remake being in our own willful image. This lust is a sin whether or not we avow it, whether or not, she writes, you can “name / The creditor you owe.” It finds its prototype in Satan, whose proud refusal to be constrained in the “flesh” of his proper being provides a precedent for our own refusals of the created body in its nature, particularity, and finitude. Is this wish to be all-in-all not at once a faithlessness to our true selves and a refusal of reality and creation as a whole? As Pinkerton writes in “The Romantic Eros,” it must therefore be a love of nothingness, a true death wish, from which the only escape is to accept existent being for the reality that it is and to recognize it as a gift of the divine that, finally, calls us beyond the horizon of the world to the contemplation of God. Pinkerton saw that sound metaphysics is in itself a summons to religious conversion, and she responded accordingly.

Pinkerton’s reputation would be secure simply on the basis of her metaphysical lyrics and her many meditative poems on works of fine art. But, as I noted in a review of her Collected Poems last year, it may be that her most generous contribution to American letters is her series of five narrative verse letters written about the American Civil War. There, her Christian metaphysics joins with the great moral drama of slavery, secession, and national reconciliation—all of which she first studied in the pages of Melville—to scrutinize the hard choices and sufferings that are the stuff of heroism.

Pinkerton never wrote unless she was convinced she had something important to say. Verse was not an occupation or a career for her but a form of discovery. One can tell as much from reading any of her reticent, intense, and gemlike poems. For this and other reasons, we at Modern Age were honored to be entrusted with the publication of her last poem, “Dialogue,” in our Fall 2017 issue.

There, Pinkerton addresses her great-granddaughter, Juliette Light, and shares with her the lessons of ninety years’ close reflection. To enter into the world and to speak in the first-person anticipates the answering call of being, the voice of God as the one who puts all things in existence, she writes. To hear that voice is to affirm our individual lives as part of, but distinct from, the totality of the real. And thereby we escape “a crippling solipsism,” and may advance along a difficult path that usually will not lead to our achieving the heights of absolute wisdom, but will nonetheless allow us to see the world for what it is, divinely created truth, and to consent in love to its goodness. “The dialogue” with God “confirms duality,” she concludes,

For it assumes our presence, here and now,

And also that of the other, taking us
Out of a crippling solipsism—not quite
Into Platonic wisdom, but at least,
Able to read his dialogues with care.

Though she would no doubt eschew any easy use of the term, Pinkerton was the very model of the conservative poet. She sought, as Winters admonished, “to write little, do it well.” In her writing we find a faithful and reverent dialogue with our political and philosophical traditions. By pondering the wisdom of the past and subjecting her own soul to scrutiny, she sought to respond in truth and dignity to the gift of existence. She lived well and wrote well, and now, having left us with her good work, she has gone to her reward. Requiescat in pace. ♦

James Matthew Wilson's most recent book is The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition. He was awarded the 2017 Hiett Prize by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.