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Lawrence Epstein
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DYLAN: THE BIOGRAPHY. Dennis McDougal. Turner Publishing Company. There are a thousand doors that lead into the House of Dylan. Dennis McDougal has managed to open a new door. Applying a muckraking sensibility to Dylan’s life, McDougal has opened the door of snarky biography. His book is chock full of revealing and sometimes unflattering incidents, gossip, and well-researched facts. There are nuggets of juicy information on every page. This constantly entertaining approach has, however, some built-in limitations. To focus so exclusively on Dylan’s life means McDougal has to strain out extended discussions of the lyrics and the music. It might... Continue reading
Posted Aug 3, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I recently read a new chapbook of poems by a former colleague of mine. I thought the poems were so intelligently constructed, so perceptive that I wanted to introduce them to readers of The Best American Poetry Blog. I decided the best way to do that would be to conduct an interview with the author. Sarah Kain Gutowski's poems have appeared widely in such places as The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She is an Associate Professor of English at Suffolk County Community College. She lives on Long Island with her husband and what she describes... Continue reading
Posted Nov 18, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
My book The Basic Beliefs of Judaism: A Twenty-first-Century Guide to a Timeless Tradition has just been published. Writing it compelled me to think of how idea systems are structured and about the nature of their constituent elements. Of course, my mind inevitably wandered from trying to provide an organized and systematic explanation of the Jewish articles of faith to other belief systems. Since I’ve written so much about Bob Dylan, I began to wonder what it would look like to examine Dylan’s basic beliefs. I quickly concluded that, very much like the Judaism I had just written about, it... Continue reading
Posted Aug 29, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Public libraries shaped my life. In the sixth grade I went regularly to a library in Queens. Most of my friends who went there were more intrigued by the bakery across the street. The main attraction was at a side window where this new food called pizza was being served. But I was going to the library for a project. My class was assigned what was called a special interest report. I wrote mine about Israel. This subject choice would have astonished my Hebrew school teachers. They had rarely encountered a student who so exquisitely combined indifference and inability. I... Continue reading
Posted Aug 8, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Pimpernel Smith is the most morally influential film ever made. The 1941 adventure film focused on the main character’s rescue of innocent people from the Nazis. The film was made by Leslie Howard using money he had earned from co-starring in Gone With the Wind. Pimpernel Smith directly influenced extraordinary acts of heroism. For example, in 1942 the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg attended a private screening of the film with his half-sister Nina. She later noted, “On the way home, he told me this was the kind of thing he would like to do.” Surely, there were other influences on... Continue reading
Posted Jul 12, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Were the haunting, breathtaking, painful lyrics of “Famous Blue Raincoat” written by almost any other songwriter besides Leonard Cohen, there would be no question about the song’s meaning. It appears to a straightforward confessional letter about a love triangle between “L. Cohen” his woman “Jane” and their mutual friend, a man with a blue raincoat who has gone to the desert and at one time had a brief affair with Jane. As such, the song is deeply, almost embarrassingly, personal, an epistolary song about a wounded man who cannot help forgiving the friend. The overpowering emotion of the song inhibits... Continue reading
Posted May 24, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Imagination takes precedence over intellect for Bob Dylan. David Dalton tries to trace the career of that remarkable imagination in his book Who Is That Man?: In Search of the Real Bob Dylan (Hyperion) which is being published today. Dalton, a founding editor of Rolling Stone, originally titled his work Bob's Brain. I suppose he did this because he wanted to attempt the impossible: a provide a written MRI of the creator of what some people claim to be the best songs ever written. Bob Dylan's identity is, to understate the point laughably, elusive, starting with his Jewishness. Karl Shapiro,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 24, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Vincent Van Gogh was born 159 years ago today. But that's not a picture of him. It's a picture of his younger brother Theo, who virtually single-handedly provided the financial and emotional support that allowed his brother to paint. When we were teenagers, my younger brother, Richard, and I considered our destinations in life. He planned to become a lawyer. I thought I might be an alienated novelist like some in the peripatetic pack of Beats I admired. During those rare moments when I considered the financial implications of any such decision, I took to calling my brother "Theo." This... Continue reading
Posted Mar 30, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks so much for your kind comments, Bill. Larry
Seventy years ago Edward Hopper completed his masterpiece, a chilling painting that captured the reality and pain of human loneliness. (For the information completist, the painting was finished on January 21, 1942). Nighthawks has become the iconic symbol of a supposed human inability to speak with others, much less understand them. The four figures in the painting do not speak. Hopper used himself as the model for both the man sitting next to his wife and the stranger sitting alone, as though he couldn't communicate with either his spouse or even his own self. His wife Jo was the model... Continue reading
Posted Mar 9, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Stephen Colbert's mock exploration of a presidential run this year was not the first time a comedian satirically sought the highest office. Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, and Pat Paulsen were among the others. But of all the aspiring leaders, Gracie Allen was my favorite comedic candidate. Gracie, along with her partner and husband George Burns, made up one of the most successful comedy teams of all time. Gracie's character had a unique mind filled with what George called illogical logic. Writing for Gracie wasn't easy. One day in 1940 the writers were trying to come up with an idea about... Continue reading
Posted Feb 22, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks so much, Stacey. Let me tell you, it's good to be back!
Edmund Wilson called it a "shock of recognition," the realization of a truth that you knew but did not previously recognize. It took me twelve hours to be shocked into realizing that the small pain in my right shoulder with radiating lines flying out from it across my chest might be a heart attack. Then it took fourr days to get to a doctor and a hospital, have tests, wait for results, get scheduled, and undergo surgery requiring six by passes. I did inquire when I woke up if they had contacted the Guiness people to see if anyone had... Continue reading
Posted Feb 8, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
In her posthumously published autobiography, Agatha Christie revealed that she wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first detective novel, in two weeks. Ed McBain wrote his early 87th precinct novels in about a month each. Christie and McBain were in the company of the titans of what are known as "industry writers," people who can turn out one extraordinary book after another, people who vie for the title "Fastest Typewriter in the West," or anywhere else. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote mysteries for half a century and delivered more than a thousand books. In 1939 alone Gardner published four novels,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 15, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
All detective story readers know that C. Auguste Dupin, first appearing in the 1841 tale "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," was the orignal fictional crime solver. Poe created him even before the word "detective" existed. But Dupin was French. Wikie Collins created British detectives, Walter Hartright in The Woman in White (1860) and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone (1868). Sherlock Holmes was as British as British could be. He first appeared in "A Study in Scarlet," published in 1887. The first American fictional detective arrived after Dupin and Hartright but more than twenty years before Holmes. His name ought... Continue reading
Posted Apr 4, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
People want me to join the Grand Army of Literary Pessimists. A recruiting sergeant for the Army comes to visit me regularly in the darkest corner of the night when I'm unable to sleep. He begins with an accusation. "Are you blind? The book is on life support. You and your friends read books because you've read them since you were young. Do you really think that in 2061 people will be reading physical books? Do you think there will be bookstores? Or libraries? Or corners of IKEA stores where you can buy bookcases? Ha. They'll all be gone. Just... Continue reading
Posted Dec 30, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
I'm celebrating this first day of Hanukkah by launching a new project called Jewish True Tales with stories about Jewish life. The first post has anecdotes about Einstein, Emma Lazarus, and Leslie Howard (above), the British actor and anti-Nazi activist. You can find the blog here. Continue reading
Posted Dec 2, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
It's been fifty years since the film version of Exodus was released. I first read the book when I was thirteen, and, though I didn't know history well enough to grasp the full power of the words, I was entranced by the story of Israel's struggle for re-birth. I met Leon Uris some years later, thirteen years before his death in 2003. By then I was familiar with the Holocaust and Jewish history, and I had visited Israel. I also knew that the literary establishment had dismissed Uris as a propagandist at worst and a producer of a document rather... Continue reading
Posted Nov 8, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
What is this gold? This is Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus Writings 1968-2010 (PublicAffairs), a just-published treasure trove of the author's indispensable riffs on America's enigmatic musical legend. As the most interesting writer about Bob Dylan, Marcus is brutally honest, often with a trenchant wit, capable of seeing connections invisible to everyone else, and brimming with unpredictable passion. And doesn't that description fit Dylan himself? Maybe that's why Marcus is such a perfect Dylan audience. The book opens in the summer of 1963 with Marcus in a New Jersey field eager to hear Joan Baez and surprised when she introduces... Continue reading
Posted Oct 18, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Did Robert B. Parker ever write a bad sentence? The question arose as I read Parker's latest Spenser novel, Painted Ladies. The book has a bittersweet aura. I always enjoy Parker's spare prose and crackling dialogue seasoned with wisecracks and literary allusions. Parker writes in the new novel that actors use the word "indicating" to mean the moment when audiences can tell an actor is acting. Parker never indicates that he is writing. But this is a posthumous book. Parker died this past January. There will be one more Spenser novel published next May and supposedly a holiday novel or... Continue reading
Posted Oct 8, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
What's interesting about a killer orangutan and a purloined letter? Or about the endlessly fascinating literature that grew from Edgar Allan Poe's valiant effort to push back against the madness trying to create an empire in his mind? This is a mystery with no solution. We know the facts, but we never fathom the explanation. It's not that we haven't tried. Maybe, some arguments go, we read mysteries for psychological reasons. Perhaps figuring out the puzzle or enjoying the vicarious thrill of the search provides emotional satisfaction. Or maybe mysteries provide us with the childlike delight of a sequence of... Continue reading
Posted Sep 13, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Ever since I began reading adult fiction, I have been interested in anecdotes about famous writers. The principal reason for this was that in learning about writers I hoped I could somehow absorb their skills and derive directives for leading a literary life. I also simply enjoyed the stories. For example, some readers wonder why Edna St. Vincent Millay had a man's middle name, and a saint's one at that. As it happens, Millay's mother had a brother named Charles Buzzell. One chilled February day, Uncle Charles, ill with fever, was on the docks in New Orleans. He watched as... Continue reading
Posted Jul 2, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
There are those artists who never have an unuttered thought. They feel compelled to reveal their most intimate feelings, their nastiest habits, and the messiest clutter of their personal lives. The caution light in their brain has gone out. And then there's Bob Dylan. He hid behind an adopted name and contradictory, phony biographies until some of his real past was discovered. His brilliant songs seem simultaneously confessional and mysteries beyond our reach, meaning they fail to let us see him. His interviews are notorious jousts with journalists as he reveals, hints at, hides, lies, and attacks. Here he is,... Continue reading
Posted May 31, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
It is possible to select carefully chosen materials from Bob Dylan's life and songs to reflect your own beliefs. So it is with some hesitation that I describe Dylan's relationship with Israel. I will present all the material, sparse as it is. In May 1971 Dylan and his then wife Sara went to Israel without their children in hopes of escaping the media frenzy in America, having a bit of a second honeymoon, and exploring Jewish roots, a subject Dylan became increasingly interested in after his father's death on June 5, 1968. On May 24th, Dylan's 30th birthday, a photographer... Continue reading
Posted Apr 25, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
One of the charms and one of the dangers of listening to Bob Dylan is that you begin to substitute his language for your own. Sometimes an image is so startling that you attach it to your own perception of the world. Certain songs are chains of such images, as in "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" or "Mr. Tambourine Man." Sometimes one of his cries from the heart serves as a perfect expression of our own anguish. Think of "Oh, Mama, can this really be the end/to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again." For whatever reason,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 12, 2010 at The Best American Poetry