by Joanna RakoffMay, 2001
1965, poet and memoirist Kathleen Norris a shy, sheltered 17-year-old left her home in Hawaii and traveled several thousand miles to Bennington College in Vermont. As Norris recounts in The Virgin of Bennington, her fourth memoir, the distance between Honolulu and New England was more than geographical. Though academically rigorous, Bennington in the '60s was a playground for wealthy, "artsy" girls, members of the various branches of the East Coast elite. "I had no idea," Norris says, ". . . that I was signing on for a crash course in the turbulent dynamics of place and culture." Overwhelmed by her peers' hedonism affairs with professors and heavy drug use Norris retreated into herself, wrote poetry and critical essays, and earned a reputation as a prig. At 21, she was still a virgin, a complete anomaly at Bennington.
But after four years of college life, Norris succumbed; she developed a crush on a married professor a man who, she discovered years later, had engaged in countless affairs with students and doggedly pursued him. Her quest took her to New York, where she through the professor's connections landed a dream job as the assistant to Betty Kray, then-director of the Academy of American Poets. When the affair fizzled, Norris was crushed; but the failed romance became, in a way, a windfall. For it drew Norris closer to Kray by all accounts an extraordinary woman, friend to every major mid-century poet and inventor of any number of innovative arts and education programs (as well as a talented writer herself, evidenced by the letters included in Norris' book). Kray tutored Norris in everything from fashion to revision techniques to social etiquette and introduced her to James Wright, Diane Wakoski, Galway Kinnell, Richard Howard and a number of other poets. The book is filled with Norris' appreciative remembrances of these luminaries who taught her, in essence, how to be a poet. "Even in casual conversation they often imparted great wisdom on the joys and demands of the writing life," Norris says. Populated with some of the 20th century's most compelling writers, 0679455086 is a lively, jumbled tale full of literary history. Norris, author of the best-selling Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, has written a fascinating coming-of-age story.
Joanna Smith Rakoff is the book editor for Shout magazine.