On a day in the mid-1980s, while copyediting a manuscript in the offices of Raritan, I was consulting a copy of our house dictionary, Websters New Collegiate, and I happened to see the definition for the entry fellow-feeling, which was illustrated with the following quotation: "fellow-feeling . . . in the face of the impersonality of urban life.—Richard Poirier." I showed the book around the office, and everyone was impressed, as I was, that this estimable reference work cited our editor-in-chief as an authority on language. But when I showed it Richard Poirier himself, who happened to be in the office that day, he glanced at it, smiled, looked at me as if to see whether I wanted to make any further comment and, when I didn't, thanked me and went back to his work.
He was evidently pleased, as anyone would be, to see himself quoted in the dictionary, but not to any great degree. He might well have had misgivings about appearing in the dictionary in this way, given his view, expressed at least as early as 1970 in the essay "What Is English Studies, and If You Know What That Is, What Is English Literature?" that language is in motion and needs to be understood in specific contexts and in distinction to specific previous uses, because language is, in terms used by Emerson that Poirier helped to bring to modern critical attention, vehicular, transitive, flowing. If Poirier's words were being used by the dictionary editors to settle a meaning, you could say his arguments were in that sense being misread, even betrayed.
But of course, that's over-thinking the situation. Poirier's response to being shown the dictionary—the smile, the look, and the moving on—appeared to be immediate and not the result of reflection on how the fact of being quoted in a dictionary squared or didn't square with the arguments of his books. He wasn't awed. He didn't let himself be impressed by himself. What I am trying to get at through this example is that Poirier appeared to be a man who more than most lived in and for his immediate responses and made his work out of explaining them, and not correcting them or subordinating them to those of others. What T.S. Eliot famously said about the mind of Henry James—so fine it was never violated by an idea—can be applied to Poirier's, in the sense that he didn't seem to let ideas come between himself and his experiences, at least not unwittingly. As William James argued, again in a passage Poirier brought to prominence, language, meaning the already formulated language of received concepts, works against our perception of truth. Poirier behaved as if he didn't want to miss the truth of his own experience. He most admired writers who through exertions of style struggled with language to get at the truth of what they knew and felt, like Emerson, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and D. H. Lawrence.
Poirier was sublimely self-regarding, in the sense that he trusted, valued, and nurtured his reactions and prejudices. And from my observations during the 1980s when I worked at Rutgers, he formed his professional work and achieved his remarkable successes through a process of explaining his immediate reactions and his whims. The method of reading "in slow motion" or close reading that we associate with him can be taken as a means to bring out the nuances of an immediate reaction to a text, even if it is an immediate reaction to the -nth reading of the text. That living, moment-by-moment responsiveness is what he valued, and it is what his students tried to emulate. Nothing brought out his scorn more than the suspicion that someone expected him to do something that would distort or condition his responsiveness. So, for example, in The Renewal of Literature, he derided the report prepared by the Department of Education that directed English teachers to focus on literature that provided uplifting meanings about human destiny, just as in later essays he belittled what he called the FDA approach to literature, taken by people who thought students should be protected from the presumably insidious effects of reading canonical writers.
One had the impression that he was fearless, at least in professional and social contexts. He was certainly unapologetic; he would not allow himself to be bored and he didn't care what people thought when he showed it. His graduate-level classes, when I took them, consisted of student reports, followed by discussion which he would occasionally join. If a report didn't interest him, he would clean out his pockets, suck on a candy, stare out the window. Inane students he confronted. He is said to have fought ferociously in administrative political battles at Rutgers and elsewhere. He was a friend for many years of Lillian Hellman, which by itself is said to have required nerve and a thick skin. Though a devoted resident of New York City, he had an uneasy relation to the world of the New York intellectuals that was in any case winding down when he came to live in the city. After Alfred Kazin wrote cloyingly about Emerson, Poirier dismissed him and his cohort as "the mothball fleet." He wrote for the Partisan Review, and even brought the magazine to Rutgers for a while when it was in need of an institutional home, though it soon went elsewhere. A review of his appeared in the inaugural issue of the New York Review of Books, though he was not a regular contributor thereafter. At a party once in the 1970s, Poirier defended a man who was being attacked (only verbally, I think) by Norman Mailer. Poirier, who had written a book on Mailer for the Modern Masters series, received a letter from Mailer, saying the argument was none of Poirier's business and implying that Mailer didn't want to have anything to do with Poirier in the future. I happened to see a copy of Poirier's masterful letter in response, in which he described, as to a dullard, the childishness of Mailer's own behavior at the party. Poirier went on to say that he was only ever interested in Mailer as a writer, never as a person, so the threat to break off their relation meant nothing to him. (The break was repaired at least partially some years later, when Poirier published a favorable review of Ancient Evenings in the TLS.)
All of which adds to the incongruity of Poirier being quoted in the dictionary to illustrate fellow-feeling. At times he seemed to lack common feelings, or at least to know their limits. It may be closer to the truth to say he didn't accede to anyone's expectations of how he should feel and behave. He mocked the sentimentality of undergraduates who thought that finding a lifelong partner in love was among the important goals of human life, as if nothing more absurd could be imagined. He was said to have ruined people's professional lives through caustic letters of recommendation, and to have brought opponents to tears during debates in faculty meetings. But he wrote with the highest sensitivity about, for example, the "achievement of domesticity" in poems like Frost's "Home Burial." Through personal conversations and letters, he helped establish the careers of students and others who hadn't yet demonstrated their abilities but in whom he had faith. He called Frank O'Hara a "Demosthenes of the telephone," and he was another, reaching out to talk to friends, students, and colleagues at various times of crisis.
The idea to commemorate Dick Poirier in this issue of College Hill Review originated with two of its previous contributors who studied at Rutgers, Celeste Goodridge, Professor of English at Bowdoin College, and the poet Mark Scott, who teaches at the College of St. Mary, in Nebraska. The essays they have helped us to collect demonstrate, document, extend, mirror, and reanimate many of the important elements of Poirier's legacy. This is most evidently the case when the essays examine the details of expression in a work, even if they deal with texts he never commented on (Don Quixote, for example) or promote views he never supported (the materialism of modern science). As Poirier implied in the interview conducted for the Italian journal Ácoma, and published here in English for the first time, his own criticism of Emerson is partial, as all criticism is. This is also the case for eulogies and remembrances, including the ones we've gathered here. While these pieces illuminate many aspects of Poirier's character, none fully encompass him. His own work on Frost, Emerson, Whitman, and William and Henry James shows the wrongheadedness of even wanting to do that. Instead, through the writing in this issue, we want to recognize Richard Poirier's achievement and encourage the kind of reading and writing to which he dedicated his career.