Friends, colleagues, readers and students of Ted Weiss will gather in the James M. Stewart Film Theater, in Princeton University’s creative arts building at 185 Nassau Street, on Friday and Saturday, November 21 and 22, for "A Celebration of the Life and Work of Theodore Weiss."
This rambling brick and stone building, formerly the Nassau Street School, is an appropriate venue for this time of remembrance; it has housed the University’s Creative Arts Program since 1966. Theodore Weiss brought his vital essence to this program in 1967, having arrived at Princeton the previous year to serve as poet-in-residence. Critics have reached rare consensus on this man’s legacy: "During the 1950s and 1960s, Weiss was at the center of the poetry world," writes one. Weiss died in April of this year at age 86 after battling Parkinson’s disease.
Fellow poet and colleague Edmund Keeley, former director of the Creative Writing Program, honors Weiss "not only as a poet, but also as an influential and credible critic, with an ability to identify the most important figures in poetry — discover[ing] new talent and defin[ing] the significance and contribution of established poets to American and international literature." Weiss was a memorable teacher, holding forth alongside luminaries such as Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Burgess, Stanley Kunitz, Galway Kinnell, E.L. Doctorow, and Joyce Carol Oates. To say nothing of John McPhee, Princeton’s teacher of "the literature of fact."
Weiss’s catalytic literary influence was centered upon his tenure at the helm of the Quarterly Review of Literature, now 60 years young. This key publication is the brainchild of Ted and Renee Weiss, his talented and supportive wife (also childhood sweetheart, fine violinist, fellow poet, and editor, who will be one of the participants at the celebration). Through these two, over six decades, the finest in prose and poetry has surged to world attention. William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings, Randall Jarrell, and Ezra Pound are among early stars in their firmament.
The Weisses took the radical step of turning their magazine over exclusively to creative work, observing that "too many people were devoting too much of their time to criticism, at the expense of writing itself."
"We have tried, as hard as we could, to throw the magazine open to work which is, first of all, good in its own terms." Still thriving, the publication "is now neither quarterly, nor a review, nor of literature in the broadest sense" (wrote Robert Kendall in Poets and Writers Magazine). Later featured authors were Kafka, John Ashbery, Eugenio Montale, James Dickey, W. S. Merwin, and James Wright, among many others.
The Weisses’ impact on poets and poetry was not limited to the role of publisher. Volumes lining the walls of their Haslet Avenue home testify to the broad array of talent the two encouraged throughout their careers. Keeley asserts that Weiss was "absolutely honest in his judgment of poetic talent. He could be very tough, but he was also very generous, particularly giving credit to unknown, young, and aspiring poets."
Weiss’s support began at the neophyte stage. As one who studied with Weiss in the classrooms of 185 Nassau Street in the 1970s, I can testify that "he took our fragments and helped turn them into poems." Ted’s regard was continuously lofty, yet never Olympian. He read the strong poems of others, frequently those inspired by the ordinary encounter, such as Elizabeth Bishop’s "Large Bad Painting." Weiss gave his poets permission, demonstrating that everything is grist to the poet’s mill. Writer and teacher Reginald Gibbons calls Weiss, "a dream teacher, in that I received from him intense intellectual engagement and teaching — a transforming experience."
Weiss’s own poetic process was the subject of two films by Harvey Edwards. One of them, the award-winning 1987 documentary, "Living Poetry: A Year in the Life of a Poem," chronicles Weiss at work on a single poem, "Fractions," from its initial inspiration to finished piece. But is a poem ever finished? Obviously not, since the film’s 1995 sequel, "Yes, With Lemon," chronicles further revisions, as well as an undergraduate discussion concerning the poem’s "final" version.
Throughout the decades, Ted and Renee Weiss were familiar figures in the audience at 185 Nassau. They usually arrived early to savor the ritual filling of that auditorium with fans of poetry. It was a treat to pay court to them, as individuals and as a team. (Not that either would appreciate the exaltation implicit in that term.)
It is possible that his generosity to students impeded the man’s own output. A mere (it now seems) 12 volumes of Ted’s crystalline poems are available to us. Weiss’s ultimate official service to Princeton University was as the William and Anne S. Paton Foundation Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature. He ascended to professor emeritus, then visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, as well as becoming an enthusiastic participant at Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio, Italy, in 1989.
Early in his career, Weiss set the poetic world on its ears with his poem recreating the burning of Alexandria’s library of ancient manuscripts. "The Fire at Alexandria" is based upon an horrific childhood memory — the child Theodore, cowering with his family on a nearby roof, as their home (most especially the boy’s treasured books) was consumed by flames. That man became a living conflagration. His flames still illuminate, even ignite those who come within that circle of light.
I know poets larger than their work, and those whose work surpasses the writer. With others, their influence upon the writing world becomes paramount. Ted Weiss is a synthesis of all three factors. To borrow his own line from "Fire at Alexandria," through Weiss, we experienced "the world lit up as by a golden school."
A Celebration of the Life and Work of Theodore Weiss, Princeton University Creative Writing , Stewart Theater, 185 Nassau, 609-258-4712. The two-day commemorative event opens with an afternoon of readings. Participants include Renee Weiss, Jim Richardson, Joyce Carol Oates, Edmund Keeley, Robert Fagles, Reginald Gibbons, John Koethe, Grace Schulman, Jane Hirshfield, Harvey Shapiro, and Stanley Corngold. Free. Friday, November 21 at 4:30 p.m.
Second day features screenings of two films on Weiss by Harry Edwards: "A Year in the Life of a Poem" and "Yes, with Lemon." Free. November 22, at 10 a.m.