I thought of Clay Hunt today when I took a look at Ezra Pound’s Spirit of Romance, Pound’s first prose book, a set of lectures on medieval romance language poetry. Of course, I might not have become an English major and so might not be looking at a minor work of Pound except for Clay Hunt. But it was more specifically those poets, Arnaut Daniel, Guido Cavalcanti, that Hunt taught with such gruff pleasure in his Dante course.
Like much of the late 60’s English Department, Hunt was a second generation New Critic. They had adopted the method that eschewed biography for close readings of the poem itself. It was usually lyric poems rather than longer works, and it was often those New Critical favorites like Donne and Marvell. And Hunt kept the Modernist edge, dropping sentiment for a more earthy physicality and more austere intellectualism.
And now I think he may have also picked up Pound’s faux-folksy Idaho colloquial style. For Hunt this was a Kentucky Southern (most of the first generation New Critics were Southerners) cross-cut with long readings in Italian.
At the end of the semester, Hunt invited the class to his house for drinks. I’d sipped sherry at Robert Allen’s architect-built house on a Williamstown hillside. Hunt lived in a cabin up the road to the Hopper and we drank beer from cans on his porch looking up at Greylock.
Remembering Clay Hunt
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun…
I remember some of the lines of “To Autumn,” the first poem I wrote about in English 101. I’ll never forget the line that Clay Hunt drew across the entire first page of my essay. Bright red. Diagonal. Guided by his ruler from top left to bottom right. I can still see the three-word writing lesson he penned on that line: “Cut the crap.”
I can still hear the ice-breaker he used when we met to talk about that paper: “Don’t waste time describing the question. I wrote the question, so I know what it is. Get to the point.”
For over half a century, every time I’ve begun a second draft of anything, I see that diagonal line, and I see those three words, and I hear Clay’s voice. Rough. Kindly. With a dash of Kentucky.
Per corer migliori acque alza la vele
omai la navicalla del mio ingegno,
che lascia dietro a sè mar si crudele…
For better waters now the little bark
of my indwelling powers raises her sails,
and leaves behind that sea so cruel and dark…
John Ciardi’s translation of the opening of The Purgatorio
To course over better waters the little bark of my wit now lifts her sails, leaving behind her so cruel a sea…
John D. Sinclair’s translation
In Clay’s Dante course (pronounced, of course, DONN-tee), he insisted we juggle three versions of The Divine Comedy:
• the original Italian text, so we could understand the musicality of the language and feel the rhyme and meter
• a literal English translation, so we could understand what the heck was going on
• a second English translation so we could experience rhyme and meter in our own language.
I don’t remember Clay ever reading from notes. His intellect captured the span from physics to metaphysics, from history to mystery. In the Dante class, I remember wondering if he knew everything about everything.
Twenty-four years remind the tears of my eyes.
(Bury the dead for fear that they walk to the grave in labour.)…
It was 1968. Senior year. I was sitting in an economics class titled something sexy like “The Corporation.” Three weeks into the semester, in the middle of class, it hit me. The last semester at Williams. Ever. Thanks to the Viet Nam War, for some it would be their last semester anywhere. I gathered my books as if in a dream, stood up, mumbled “job interview,” and left. I floated directly to Clay’s office. “I need to be in your Modern Poetry class.” “Tom, we’re a ways into the semester.” “Clay, I have to be in your class.” He looked at me and understood. “See you there tomorrow.” To catch up, he had me analyze the poem “Twenty-four Years.”
The years go by.
I read that Clay Hunt died in 1977.
No he didn’t.
5 thoughts on “Clay Hunt”
I was forced to take a semester of English lit as a 1964 pre-med. I wanted to concentrate on chemistry, bio, physics, scientific stuff, not waste my time on liberal arts, so I reluctantly signed up for English 102. Clay Hunt lit my fire. I’ll never forget he was descending the Hopkins Hall stairs from 4th floor right behind me after class with the taunting comment, “Herpel, you’re pushing for that A”. He inspired, I pushed, and I earned an A- from one of the most notoriously stiff graders at Williams college. Maybe what he said about a Shakespearian reference to Moorditch Sewer, “That’s where all the piss and shit of London went into the Thames” got me going. I became an English / Chemistry double major! Great teaching never dies.
My first class at Wiliams was at 9 am with Clay Hunt. I sat next to him and by the end of the class my space was covered with cigarette ashes. He gave a vigorous presentation of e.e. cummings’, Buffalo Bill. Jumping ahead to second semester senior year I signed up for Clay and Ulysses. He was very irked by the casualness of the students. “Goddamit it! We’ll stay here all night to justice to this book!” After graduation the senior majors got invited to his mountain retreat. “There will be swimming in the creek. No suits required nohow!
I later heard that on the day of his death he was wheeling around town in a sports car. He once taught us “Do not go gentle into the night.” Is his last day a Williams myth?
Clay Hunt continued: I went to a lecture by Robert Penn Warren. Just before it began there was a bustling behind me. It was Clay Hunt, here to hear a good talk.
Soon discontent was heard from behind. “I never heard such shit in my life” When there was a break Clay bolted in his dramatic fashion. Years later I chanced upon him on campus. Playing dumb, I asked what he thought of Warren’s talk. “That was pure Kentucky. I grew up with that shit.”
I was a student of Clay Hunt’s at Williams in courses in Renaissance and 17th-century English literature and Modern poetry in 1949-51. This was before he started teaching Dante. I’m a novelist and was a university teacher for 35 years, deeply influenced by what I learned from Clay Hunt. Donne particularly — but Stevens and Yeats in the Modern Poetry class. I wonder if any of his later students can connect me with some of the materials of the Dante course. I assume Prof Hunt never published a book on Dante. I wonder if there are records of his insights into Dante from the course he taught.
I still have some of the books from Clay Hunt’s Dante course from the late 1960s, all yellowed of course. I think our main text was the Viking Portable Dante with Divine Comedy translations by Binyon. For The Inferno, though, we used John Ciardi’s “new” translation. And we had three volumes of John Sinclair’s translation of the Divine Comedy with Italian on facing pages.
Clay was at his best reciting in Italian in his gruff, angry voice. That may have had a Kentucky accent too, for all I know. Had he recently spent a sabbatical in Italy? It was always The Comedia for The Divine Comedy.
We read La Vita Nuova in Mark Musa’s translation, along with courtly love poets and Dante’s peers: Betran de Born, Guinizelli, Cavalcanti, and others (maybe in Flores’ Anthology of Medieval Lyrics). Did we read C.S. Lewis’ The Allegory of Love in Clay’s course? I remember being stunned by the idea that romantic love was “just” a literary convention.
We spent some time on Dante’s prose. The Convivio, sort of like La Vita Nuova, offered close readings of poetry, much like Clay’s New Criticism. Clay made you look at what was really there, or hear what was really there.
How wonderful to come across this as I just thought I’d look up Clay Hunt. I was in the class of ’58. And took only one course from him, alas. If I’d had him freshman year I would have been an English major and put in all that mileage of the great books. I always wanted to be a writer and that’s what I am. When Clay had his sabbatical in Rome I think it would have been ’58-’59. I stayed with him in Rome for a good spell, he was most generous and hospitable. Looking back I wish I had been more able to appreciate his genius. I wrote a terrible novel that year in Rome and he was merciful by saying very little, should have been ‘cut the crap’. Took me long to learn. He had great stories. Great teacher.