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Witter Bynner

1881-1968

 

American poet and scholar of Chinese literature, Witter Bynner was hired as Professor of Oral English at Berkeley in 1918 to teach in the Students' Army Training Corps. He rented rooms at the Carlton Hotel at the corner of Telegraph and Durant. When World War I ended on November 11, 1918, only a month after Bynner had joined faculty, he was asked to prepare a poem for the armistice celebration to be held in the Greek Theatre. He composed a “Canticle of Praise,” a long dramatic ode for six male voices and a chorus of five hundred Berkeley school children. Flanked by young men in uniform and dressed himself in flowing scarlet robes, Bynner whipped the audience into a patriotic frenzy. “The whole thing was effective,” the Daily Cal reported breathlessly, “and quite new for California.”


Bynner and sailor at rehearsal of A Canticle of Praise.

When the government military school at Cal was discontinued in January 1919, Bynner was asked by the Dept. of English to stay on and teach a course in verse writing. “Can the writing of poetry be taught?” he asked rhetorically in an article published in The New Republic in 1923. “To poets, yes; to others, no. There, in two sentences, is the question I asked myself at the University of California in January 1919, and the answer I brought away in June.” Bynner preferred to hold class outdoors; the twenty-three students in his class met for the first time in a clearing just below the Greek Theatre. A photograph shows him seated against a large tree, his students before him on the hillside.


Bynner teaching his poetry class outdoors.

At other times he entertained students in his rooms at the Carlton Hotel, a practice which would draw the ire of Charles Mills Gayley, chairman of the Department of English. Bynner and his fellow instructor William Lyman were sternly reprimanded for serving cocktails and intoxicating wines to innocent freshmen. Gayley wrote a report to University President Benjamin Ide Wheeler explaining the disciplinary action he had taken against the professors: “They recognize that not only in the present temper of the time [Prohibition], but at no time and under no circumstances, should alcoholic beverages be offered to students, whether graduate or undergraduate — most especially Freshman.”

Bynner’s teaching contract was not renewed for the following year, but his students continued to meet as a group and he from time to time joined them at their poetry readings. As a tribute to their instructor the students in the class produced a volume of poetry titled W.B. in California in which they lavishly thanked him for nurturing their creativity. Some of the poems contain hints of a sexual awakening prompted by Bynner’s warm friendship.

While Bynner was having a profound emotional effect upon his students at Berkeley, his own private life was opening like one of his beloved lotus blossoms. In 1916, two years before coming to Cal, he met the Swiss artist Paul Thévenaz and embarked on what Bynner’s biographer terms “his first acknowledged love affair.” At 28, Thévenaz was ten years younger than Bynner, and represented for him a new generation of artistic and personal freedom. Thévenaz chided Bynner about his stodgy, repressed New England approach to life, and gradually during his stay in California the poet began to relax and relish his sexuality, for the first time living as openly as a gay man could during the era. His happiness was cut short when on July 6, 1921 Thévenaz died suddenly in a New York hospital of a ruptured appendix.

After leaving his teaching position at Cal, Bynner traveled to China accompanied by sculptor Beniamino Bufano. In collaboration with Kiang Kang-hu he translated eighteenth century Chinese poetry. He eventually settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, moving into an adobe house with Berkeley student Walter Willard “Spud” Johnson. Johnson had drawn the ire of the University administration with an irreverent student journal called The Laughing Horse. He dropped out of school and brought the journal with him to Santa Fe. Bynner and Johnson were soon drawn into the circle dominated by the cultural doyenne of the region, Mabel Dodge Luhan (who at one point in their stormy friendship accused Bynner of single-handedly introducing homosexuality into New Mexico). Through Luhan they met Frieda and D.H. Lawrence, and accompanied them on a trip to Mexico. Bynner and Johnson appear in Lawrence’s fictionalized version of their journey, The Plumed Serpent, as the characters Owen and Villiers.


Bynner and Indian friends in Santa Fe.

Witter Bynner’s former home in Santa Fe is now operated as a gay bed and breakfast named The Inn of the Turquoise Bear (http://www.turquoisebear.com/).

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Read More About It

  • Witter Bynner. A Canticle of Praise (San Francisco : John Henry Nash, 1918)
  • ----------. Journey with Genius: Recollections and Reflections Concerning the D. H. Lawrences (New York : J. Day, 1951)
  • ----------. Selected Letters / edited with an introduction by James Kraft (New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981)
  • W.B. in California: a Tribute (Berkeley : Privately Printed, 1919)
  • Heng-tang-tui-shih. The Jade Mountain: a Chinese Anthology, translated by Witter Bynner (New York : A. A. Knopf, 1929)
  • James Kraft. Who Is Witter Bynner?: a Biography (Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, 1995)
  • D. H. Lawrence. The Plumed Serpent (New York : A. A. Knopf, 1926)
 
 

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