A STREAM OF MEMORY
Call these islands in the stream of memory. They are what recollection provides. There is no single story that captures Smith Kirkpatrick as I knew him. Smith taught the wholeness of stories better than anyone, but his, as I know it, is fragmentary. Perhaps all that we his students say about him will have the completion we seek in stories, the unity he taught us.
I met Smith on a night in the early 1970s when a piece of my writing was discussed in that for us famous room at the end of a hallway in a building, “D,” that had been temporary since World War II. I use the word “piece” because what I submitted for discussion was certainly not a story. My struggle for many years after that first night was to discover the mysterious nature of narrative and how to tell a story whole and without cheating. As you will see, I intend the word “discuss” as irony.
It was a piece of writing about my boyhood, a series of impressions of seasons and games and people, nothing more. Entering his office that night, Smith found my manuscript on his desk. (I seem to remember that one of his students had told me that the curious mode of the class was “to read and discuss what was on desk.” I later learned that this method came down to Smith from John Crowe Ransom by way of Andrew Lytle.) Smith read my pages while I, while we all, sat smoking so concertedly that the room became a fog bank, and, when he had finished, his gentle, expressive voice had revealed every false note and sophomoric pose in them. Smith asked the class in his fashion, somehow meek and sardonic at once, for comments.
A student said, “Nice writing, no story.”
Smith nodded, his wire-rimmed spectacles precarious at the tip of his nose, and said, “Yes, I believe that’s right,” and he set my manuscript aside and picked up the next one. Which was a story, as I recall, though it, too, needed the kind of help that Smith and his students had learned to give way back in those days before “creative writing” was an enterprise as grand as Microsoft.
How did I feel that night?
Embarrassed, humiliated, beset, hurt, no, harmed. But somehow I kept myself from walking out with grim dignity. Then I convinced myself it would be shabby to leave at the break. Then I thought I might demonstrate a certain admirable stoicism by staying to the end. And of course then I was hooked, converted, the victim of an epiphany. Walking home, I dropped my “piece” in a trash can at the hamburger joint across the street. I couldn’t wait to return the following week to begin the long lesson in talking that talk and knowing that thing. How to write a story.
I stayed with the class through the two years of my master’s degree and wrote the first thesis of fiction the university had permitted since the days when Lytle taught and Madison Jones was his student. That permission is worthy of recollection now because it is part of Smith’s legacy. In the days when scholars ruled a kingdom of footnotes and treated storytellers with casual scorn, Smith fought for and won our rights. He laid the groundwork for what is now an important writing program. I heard later that he was badly treated by the writers who came after him, who did not recognize what he had done for them.
Who knows how many novels and stories Smith’s fight for our rights cost him? Let us all remember that when he began the fight, he had not yet published his fine novel, The Sun’s Gold. It was his reputation as a teacher whose classroom had been a magical place for a generation of students that finally convinced the footnoters to open the gates and let us in.
How did he teach? He taught by inviting the best from his students, by orchestrating their comments so that at the end of every hour, every conversation about a story, the sum of what was said was marvelously greater than its parts. He was not the first discussion leader, but he was one of the best. Lecturing was not in him, though reading aloud with spellbinding beauty certainly was. You will recall that for a number of years in the university‘s freshman lecture series, Smith read aloud to fascinated audiences a short story by William Faulkner, “Two Soldiers.” That was it. He read it, and they loved it, and him. And consider for a moment that Smith taught in the age before copying machines, that he read our stories aloud, and that we discussed them after hearing them once and did it well. Extremely well, as I recall. That training in listening and thinking was infinitely valuable to us.
I stayed with Smith’s class for several years after finishing an M.A., writing bad stories, then beginning a novel that was bad for a very long time and then finally good enough to be published. It was eight years from the time I met Smith until that publication, and there was never a day and rarely an hour when his gentle dicta did not echo in my head.
One of the especial privileges of Smith’s class during those years was that he read aloud to us chapters of The Sun’s Gold, offering them for discussion in the same spirit of humility that he asked of us. We talked, offering help as best we could, and those were heady times. Our teacher was writing a book we knew was good, a book that would be published, and that might even do well in the marketplace, might make him, and by some hopeful chemistry of association, make us more connected to the greatest of all conversations, literature. It was to Smith’s everlasting credit that he wanted our thoughts and ideas, that he sifted and considered them and listened to us with never a scintilla of ego or rancor. He lived his teaching method in the most risky way. Never have I in over thirty years of teaching offered anything of my own to students for critique, and, as I write this, I have no idea why this is so. I know that in those days Smith gave us something very rare—his work and himself, the art and the humility from which it came.
Smith started a writers’conference at the university that brought to our then still small town voices from the great far away, some of them exalted, all of them interesting, most of them, like Smith, people who knew themselves to be servants of the story not its masters.
Out of the writers’ conference came residencies, for a time three each year. Richard Adams, John Ciardi, James Dickey, John Knowles, Maxine Kumin, Richard Eberhardt, Reynolds Price, John Nims, and Nelson Algren were among those who came. And under the bright stars in Smith’s grassy backyard, even the footnoters, made sensible by the bourbon that flowed (Heaven Hill), gave ground to the charms of those voices, talents, minds. I tended bar at Smith’s big parties, wandered here and there among the literary lights, listened to the talk, laughed inwardly when stern scholars, lords of my English classes, went weak in the knees and the voice in the presence of Ciardi, or Dickey, or Algren. Once or twice I added my own voice to the conversation, later recalling with boiling mortification the drivel I had spoken.
It is probably a little known fact that Smith was a wonderful golfer. Every writer is the protagonist of his own myth, and Smith’s was the legend of a boy from an Arkansas mountaintop who found a seashell left behind by the timeless alluvial shrugging of tectonic plates, and who knew then and there that his destiny was to go to sea. How did such a man, small and wiry, learn to hit a golf ball preternaturally straight and sneaky long? It is a mystery as impenetrable as the origins of the gift of gab. I was often invited to fill out a foursome with Smith, John Ciardi (whose game, like much he did, was muscular and not subtle) and Don Eastman, then an English graduate student, now a college president. My game was just on the good side of awful. Eastman frequently broke 80 on the old university course, and Smith often did, too. His strength was his short game, pitching, chipping and putting. Especially putting. On the greens he stroked the ball with a simple elegance and a casual confidence, and many were the putts that ran home like homesick gophers. One day on the links, Smith walked into the rough and began pulling a plant from the earth and stuffing it into his golf bag. When I asked him what he was doing, he declared that the herb was pokeweed, and that he was taking it home to cook and eat. Thus did Arkansas invade the empire of golf.
After grad school, I returned to teach fiction writing at the university. I was proud to have been chosen to teach the same course Smith taught. I did my best to imitate his method and his manner. My classroom was his Building D office, and in the drawers and filing cabinets I found several of his old manuscripts. One of them was a war novel. It was about life on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. I read sections of it, loved them, wondered why it had not been published, wondered if Smith would ever rewrite it (to this day I wonder what became of it), and wondered what Smith would do if he walked in and caught me guiltily, happily turning his pages. When The Sun’s gold was underway, I realized that the alcoholic captain of the aircraft carrier had been practice for the merchant ship captain of similar vice in Gold.
Once when I visited Smith at home, I saw a framed picture of a Douglas Dauntless dive bomber taking off from a carrier deck. I could not make out the face of the pilot or his rear-facing gunner. I knew that the Dauntless had earned grim fame as the glory and coffin of aviators in the Battle of Midway. I think I recall hearing Smith say that he had flown the Dauntless, but can’t be sure. I wonder if any of you know the story of Smith’s war. Like so many men of his generation, he did not talk about it much.
I have only one recollection of time spent alone with Smith. After I had tried a story in a Fitzgeraldian voice, he took me into a vacant classroom and there in the dim, chalk and linseed smelling silence, told me that I was attempting an idiom I had not earned and could not yet manage, and, after that blow, he added with characteristic hope and gentleness that he thought someday I might grow into a voice of my own.
Smith always told us that the meaning of a story had to be discovered in the telling. As I write this, I realize that Smith’s dusty old office in a temporary building is the perfect metaphor for a permanent treasure. The class that met once a week long ago and its teacher were intended like all things human for transient love and glory, but somehow, sometimes, under Smith’s gentle guidance we glimpsed through a glass darkly the mythic, the legendary, the eternal. We knew the whole story.
Too often the teacher’s gift is given to those who cannot recognize its value. Too often the student sees the goodness of the gift only when it is too late to say a simple thank you. I have heard that Smith’s last years were sometimes lonely and bitter and that his death was hard. I hope that in times of reflection he knew what he meant to us. I regret that I never told him.