Connoisseurs of Catastrophe

David R. Slavitt on Bink Noll, the 'Vermeer of American poetry'

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, c. 1662–63

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, c. 1662–63

 

There is a small, handsome book on my shelf called Seven Princeton Poets that my good friend the late George Garrett gave me, and the roster of its contributors is an impressive one: Louis Coxe, Garrett, Theodore Holmes, Galway Kinnell, William Meredith, W.S. Merwin and Bink Noll. The last of these names is remembered, if at all, by connoisseurs of catastrophe, because he was invited back to Princeton to give a reading and was deeply pleased to be returning to his alma mater to perform. But it didn’t go well.

A graduate student had been charged with meeting him, taking him to dinner at one of the eating clubs, and then escorting him to the room where the reading was to be held. All very straightforward, or so one might expect. But the graduate student, having made strenuous apologies, explained to Mr Noll that he had learned just an hour or so before, that he could drive Albert Camus from his New York hotel to the airport for his plane back to Paris. This meant he would have an hour or so alone with Camus, the subject of his thesis. An opportunity of a lifetime. If it was all right with Mr Noll, then, the student would introduce him, leave him his check, and then depart to drive like a madman to New York. Would that be okay? Noll understood that this was important to the young man and said it would be perfectly fine for him to do that.

So they’re in a lounge somewhere with a lectern and an array of green leather couches and easy chairs. On one of the couches there are a couple of undergraduates. The graduate student introduces Noll and dashes out, having of course forgotten to leave the check. Noll reads a poem. One of the undergraduates asks him if some kind of meeting is going on. They’re studying for a chemistry exam. Noll apologizes and leaves to go to the Nassau Inn and have a drink or three. The story circulates because, for the rest of us, no matter how minuscule we may fear our audiences may turn out to be, they are never so bad as a negative three.

***

What was on offer from Noll? Mere excellence, a delicacy and accuracy of vision, a linguistic dexterity, and a celebration of ordinary things that is close to religious. He also had an uncanny ability to leap from some modest domestic detail to the great universe. Pindar and Bacchylides do this in their odes, soaring up from some sports victory to a larger myth and then gracefully modulating back down to the here and now. More recently, think of what Wilbur was able to do, turning sheets on a laundry line into ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World’.

Noll is one of those poets who deserves a second look – or would if he had ever had a real first look. His obscurity in the po’ business isn’t his misfortune but ours.


This piece was taken from David R. Slavitt's introduction to Bink Noll: The House and Other Poems

David R. Slavitt is the author of more than 116 books – novels, poetry, reportage, and
translations. For Little Island Press, he has edited Merrill Moore: XxX, 100 Poems and Bink Noll: The House and Other Poems.

Lou B. (Bink) Noll was born in Orange, New Jersey, on April 15, 1927. He graduated from Princeton University in 1948, after having served in the Merchant Marine from August 1945 to January 1947. After teaching at Beloit College in 1953–54, he taught for six years at Dartmouth. In 1960–61 he lectured on American language and literature in Zaragoza, Spain, on a Fulbright Fellowship.  He received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant in 1974. He died on November 9, 1986.