Chapala’s unsung bard Witter Bynner

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Witter Bynner

Witter Bynner (1881-1968) was an American poet, writer and scholar who, for much of his life, divided his time between homes in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chapala, Mexico.  While Bynner’s reputation is today eclipsed by contemporaries including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W. H. Auden, he was in his day a literary superstar.

His talent was already evident by the time he enrolled at Harvard, where he was not only invited to join the student literary magazine, but was also published in The Harvard Monthly. He graduated with honors in 1902, and released his first book of poems, An Ode to Harvard in 1907.   The university named him its Phi Beta Kappa Poet in 1911.

250px-SpectracoverIn 1916, Bynner and friends including Arthur Davison Ficke, all writing under pseudonyms, published an elaborate literary prank titled Spectra that was aimed at deflating the self-important poetry critics of the time.  The work was enthusiastically reviewed as a serious contribution to poetry before the hoax was finally unmasked two years later.

A conscientous objector, Bynner was  assigned alternative service teaching Oral English to the Students’ Army Training Corps in Berkeley, CA. during World War I.

51HGG8E024L._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_While there, he met a Chinese professor with whom he began an eleven-year collaboration on the translation of T’ang Dynasty poems.  He  traveled to China in 1920 to study its literature and culture.

In that same year, Bynner was elected President of the Poetry Society of America.  In an effort to encourage young poets, he created the Witter Bynner Prize for Undergraduate Excellence in Poetry, whose later recipients included Langston Hughes.  The Spectra hoax, however had tarnished Bynner’s reputation within the poetry establishment, and his works which followed the scandal received far less attention.

In 1922 a lecture tour took him to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Exhausted and suffering from a lingering cold, he cancelled the remainder of his tour to recuperate there.  Enchanted by the

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Bynner (center) with the Lawrences in Santa Fe.

setting and its artistic community, he returned four months later with his companion to take up permanent residence, and soon after met D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda.

514-XmrPHUL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_In 1923, Bynner and his companion accompanied the couple on a journey through Mexico that inspired Lawrence’s novel The Plumed Serpent, which includes an unflattering character based on Bynner.   In contrast, Bynner had high esteem for Lawrence, about whom he wrote three poems and a memoir titled Journey with Genius published in 1951.

Bynner stayed on in Chapala after the Lawrences left Mexico to continue working on his book of verse, Caravan (1925). At the time he noted that several other American writers and painters had already taken up residence there.

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Between 1923 and 1929, Bynner penned more than a dozen poems that drew upon his Lake Chapala experience.  Many appear in his collection Indian Earth (1929), which he dedicated to D. H. Lawrence.

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Robert Hunt & Witter Bynner

In 1930 poet Robert Hunt visited Bynner in Chapala.  They would become companions for the remainder of their lives.

Arthur Davison Ficke, Bynner’s friend and partner in crime on the Spectra hoax, spent the winter of 1934-35 in Chapala, and drew upon the setting to write his novel Mrs. Morton of Mexico.

In 1940 Bynner purchased a house in Chapala from Mexican architect Luis Barragán that became the second home to which he would often return over the next three decades.  His acquaintances during these years included  resident writers Nigel Millett and Neill James, and a visiting Tennessee Williams.

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Former Witter Bynner home | Calle Madero 411, Chapala (Arq. Luis Barragán)

Bynner had a minor heart attack in 1949 and in the following year began to lose his eyesight, but neither infirmity prevented him from travelling with Hunt to Europe, where they visited acquaintances including Thornton Wilder, James Baldwin, and George Santayana.

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Witter Bynner

He  was almost completely sightless by 1964 when he lost his Robert Hunt to a fatal heart attack.  The following year, Bynner suffered a severe stroke from which he never recovered, and he died in the U.S. in 1968.

The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry was founded in 1972, funded by a bequest from his estate. Since 1997, it has sponsored the Witter Bynner Fellowship, for which the recipient is selected by the U.S. Poet Laureate.  The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters established a Witter Bynner Poetry Prize in 1980.

Witter Bynner’s works can be found here on Amazon.

Read more about the Lake Chapala area’s rich literary legacy here.

Check out the complete listing of RiberasAuthors by genre here.

(Posted by Antonio Ramblés.)

 

The Chapala-Taos Connection

Witter Bynner
Witter Bynner

American poet Harold Witter Bynner (1881-1968), divided his time between homes in Chapala and Taos, New Mexico for nearly 30 years, and had the distinction of introducing both D.H. Lawrence and Tennessee Williams to the Lake Chapala area.   Williams had visited Mexico before Bynner hosted him in 1947, but Lawrence’s trip in 1923 was his first of three visits, and the Englishman might never have come to Mexico had not he and Bynner met quite by happenstance in Taos.

Lawrence and his wife Frieda had left England in 1919 for a self-imposed exile that the Englishman called his “savage pilgrimage”.  Their intended destination was Taos, New Mexico, but their route was quite circuitous, beginning with almost two years of travel through Italy. Malta, Germany, and Austria.  They left Europe early in 1922 and arrived in Taos late that year by way of Ceylon and Australia.

Frieda & D. H. Lawrence
D. H. Lawrence & wife Frieda

Bynner, having met a Chinese professor with whom he had begun collaborating on the translation of T’ang Dynasty poems, had traveled to China during 1920-21 to study its literature and culture.  Upon his return to the U.S. he embarked on an extensive lecture tour which brought him to Santa Fe, New Mexico in February 1922. Exhausted and ill, he canceled the rest of his tour and remained there.

Taos had first come to the attention of the Eastern artistic establishment in 1898 when Harpers Weekly published an article illustrated with work by artist Ernest Blumenschein, who had arrived in Taos while touring the U.S. and decided to stay.   Within a few years other American and European-born artists joined them.  Lawrence had often discussed the idea of setting up a utopian community with several of his friends, and in a 1915 note wrote:

“I want to gather together about twenty souls and sail away from this world of war and squalor and found a little colony where there shall be no money but a sort of communism as far as necessaries of life go, and some real decency… a place where one can live simply, apart from this civilization with a few other people who are also at peace and happy and live, and understand and be free…”

Mabel Dodge Luhan
Mabel Dodge Luhan

Many artists were drawn to Taos by Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy heiress from Buffalo, New York.  She had hosted art salons in Florence, Italy, and Manhattan before settling in Taos in 1917, where she married her third husband and carried on her salon tradition.  Luhan hosted artists, writers, and other luminaries including Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz in Taos.  Even D. H. Lawrence painted while in Taos, and his work is on display at La Fonda Hotel on the Taos Plaza, signed with the pseudonym “Lorenzo”.

Dorothy Brett
Dorothy Brett

Artist Dorothy Brett arrived in Taos with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda in 1924, sowing the seeds of a conflict that fully bloomed upon Lawrence’s death in 1930.  Luhan, Brett, and Lawrence’s wife Frieda each considered themselves in some way Lawrence’s true muse, and argued over the disposition of Lawrence’s ashes. To prevent Mabel from stealing and scattering them, Frieda had them mixed with concrete and formed into a block which remains to this day on the D. H. Lawrence Ranch above Taos.

Luhan’s salons continued, and in the years following Lawrence’s death her guests included Carl Sandburg, Willa Cather, Igor Stravinsky, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, and Thornton Wilder.

Following WWI, a new generation of writers and artists arrived in Taos to turn the page on the town’s artistic heritage, but Lawrence’s works The Plumed Serpent and Mornings In Mexico arguably owe their existence to his Taos connection and friendship with Witter Bynner.

Today, as the Lake Chapala area is poised to celebrate the centennial of Lawrence’s first visit, dozens of writers who call it home carry on the literary tradition.

Browse the Authors Gallery and find links to their bios and reviews of their work here.

Read more here about Lake Chapala’s long-standing literary tradition.

(Post by Antonio Ramblés.)

 

 

 

Tennessee Williams’ Mexico link

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Tennessee Williams in 1945 at age 34

American playwright and poet Tennessee Williams visited Mexico on more than one occasion, but didn’t come to the Ribera until 1945, when he summered here as the guest of American poet Witter Bynner.  By then more than twenty years had passed since Bynner had first met and befriended D. H. Lawrence during the English writer’s 1923 Chapala stay.

During his Mexico sojourn, Williams continued work on the draft of a play to which he gave several successive working titles, the last of which was A Streetcar Named Desire.  The work won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948.

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Statue of John Huston, Isla Cuale, Puerto Vallarta

Mexico, though, clearly left a big impression on Williams.  In that same year, he adapted one of his short stories into the play Night of the Iguana, but more than a decade would pass until it was first performed in 1959.  It opened on Broadway to acclaim late in 1961, and was released as a motion picture in 1964 starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and  directed by John Huston.  (Today Huston’s statue sits on Vallarta’s  Isla Cuale, Liz and Dick’s former house is now a boutique hotel, and a local movie theater named after Tayler which once showed G-rated films shows only porn flicks!)

Williams considered the best setting in which to write as “a remote place among strangers, with good swimming.”  The Ribera de Chapala may no longer be remote, its burgeoning writers’ community makes night of the iguana posterstrangers increasingly few and far between, and the lake’s reputation as a swimming hole has been usurped by ubiquitous swimming pools, but anyone who doubts that this intimate corner of Mexico still has the power to inspire writers need only look for reassurance to its fourth generation of English language writers!

(Post by Antonio Ramblés.)