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This post is dedicated to the great David Lehman. In his latest album, Shadows in The Night, Bob Dylan sings ten songs to God. For Dylan, singing is the most authentic form of prayer. The songs aren’t his own but come from the Great American Songbook as filtered through Frank Sinatra’s inimitable voice. Why not Dylan’s own songs? And, if not his songs, why Sinatra’s? To answer these questions, it is crucial to understand Dylan’s aim in the album. Dylan was after an album of allegorical love songs. This tradition started for him with “Visions of Johanna.” In that song Dylan is with the earthly Louise while yearning for the spiritual Johanna. The exact nature of Johanna's Godliness is not clear in the song. She could be God as represented by a female, or a metaphor as in the "Song of Songs" tradition, or one aspect of God, or a private way that Dylan experiences God. It is very likely that Robert Graves’ book The White Goddess influenced Dylan. That complex book is about a muse, a White Goddess, who was a single Goddess behind the various mythological goddesses. In his book Graves argues that “pure” poetry is linked to the White Goddess. That is, however Dylan formed the idea, he sometimes appears to be singing to a woman but in reality is singing also or exclusively to God. Other examples of his allegorical love songs include “Shelter From the Storm” and "Red River Shore." Therefore, while it’s easy to hear the songs on Shadows in The Night as standard love songs, they are more resonant, closer to Dylan’s intentions, if they are heard as songs to a feminine representation of God. That in part explains the use of Frank Sinatra’s songs. Sinatra provides a perfect counterpoint to the idea of woman as God because Sinatra could uniquely deliver love songs. That is, his songs were sung to woman as woman. Dylan takes these great love songs and uses them in a new way, expanding them, not just reinterpreting their sound but also their meaning. Interpreted in this way, the Sinatra songs of romantic longing remain intact but suddenly also include a desperate plea, an intense spiritual longing. These are not the songs of Dylan on a spiritual quest or Dylan in the rapture of religious embrace. These are the songs of a lost God, of Dylan wondering why God has gone. A shadow in the night is a darker shade of what is already dark. These songs long for an absent God. The album operates by looking at all angles of this longing. In “I’m a Fool to Want You” Dylan berates himself for even wanting God. In “Stay With Me,” just the opposite is true because “every path leads to Thee.” Dylan wants God to be near. “Autumn Leaves” sounds like a whole new song on the album. In “Why Try to Change Me Now,” Dylan begs God to accept him as he is: “Don’t you remember? I... Continue reading
Posted Feb 9, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
There are readers, and, I suspect, editors and agents who see the first line of a mystery metaphorically, as an anecdote is used. The line is both different from other lines but emblematic of them just as an anecdote is a unique experience in a person’s life but ironically also revealing of the whole life. A great first line uses language in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, with a sense of rhythm much in the same way that a song’s lines might. And, like a reverberating line from a Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen song, a first line can be aphoristic and therefore memorable. A great first line sets up the whole story or novel. Consider this opening line from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” The story, not routinely listed as one of his mystery stories, is an extraordinary study of the motive and strategy of a murder. Here is the line: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” Look at what this line contains. It has both of the principal characters in the story, the narrator and the tragically misnamed Fortunato. It contains the speaker’s motive: revenge. And it has anticipation through unanswered questions: what will the revenge be? What was the insult that triggered the desire for revenge? We learn the chilling answer to the first question; the second remains a mystery. A mystery in part provides the intellectual pleasure of a puzzle, but much more importantly it provides an exploration of issues involving our own life and inevitable death. All this has to be contained in a single line. No wonder some writers agonize so painfully over that line. Of course, it is agonizingly difficult for a writer to construct a first line that contains all of these elements. So most first lines settle on their most crucial task, which is getting us to read the next line. Consider the first line of Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca: “The last camel died at noon.” As a perfect title does, a good first line provides readers with a picture. We can see that camel dying. We have a sense of the setting. There’s a lot of information in those six words. Consider the single word “last.” It’s a crucial word, for camels provide transportation. If the last one has died, will a character or characters be stranded? Many popular first lines overwhelm us with charm or bowl us over with the power of their imagery and language. Consider, for example, the well-known first line from James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss: "When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon." Now, that’s a line. My favorite Dashiell Hammett first line is this famous one from Red Harvest: “I first heard Personville called Poisonville... Continue reading
Posted Feb 7, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Authors were the people who had the greatest influence on me. They weren’t the people I loved the most. That group includes my wife, children, grandchildren, and extended family. The authors weren’t even the people I necessarily admired the most. Many of them made morally repugnant political judgments. The America First Committee was a pressure group founded before World War II that urged Americans not to intervene as much of Europe was conquered, British bombed, and Jews, among others, rounded up for what would become systematic murder. Sinclair Lewis, the first American writer to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, was a member. So was the poet E.E. Cummings (or, if you prefer following his own example e.e. cummings). A young Gore Vidal, then a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, was a member of the student chapter there. In 1937, the philosopher John Dewey headed a commission. It included the novelist James T. Farrell. The Commission was inquiring into charges against Leon Trotsky at the show trials Joseph Stalin had set up. A year earlier sixteen well-known Bolsheviks “confessed” to having plotted with Trotsky to kill Stalin. The defendants were sentenced to death as was Trotsky in absentia. There were four show trials; they ended in the death of every member of the Politburo Lenin had set up except for Stalin. Of course, Stalin ended up purging millions of people, including many writers and intellectuals. A month before Dewey left on his inquiry, a group of Americans wrote an “Open Letter to American Liberals.” In the letter, this group attacked Dewey and his Commission for questioning the assertions of the Soviet Communist Party that the Bolsheviks convicted at the trials were traitors. Signers of that Letter included Nathaniel West, Dorothy Parker, Henry Roth, Lillian Hellman, Malcolm Cowley, and Theodore Dreiser. Of course, Celine, Ezra Pound, and Knut Hamsun (who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920) were notorious racists and anti-Semites. There are, sadly, many other examples of authors with repugnant political views. But it is not for political guidance that I admire authors. What authors have done is not provide social or political guidance, but a guidance that is much more personal. Many people like to point to a parent, a friend, or a teacher who changed their life, and pointed them in a direction that proved decisive in the definition of their lives. Such writers provided those directions either through an epiphanic insight, what Edmund Wilson termed a “shock of recognition,” or a reasoned argument or the emotional sway and linguistic dazzle of a well wrought novel. What is interesting in the author-reader relationship is that the two participants rarely meet, and when they do the meeting doesn’t go so well. Their intimate relationship involves authors providing a road map to the bottom of our souls and readers taking the tour of that soul and learning from it as they continue their own journeys. The last line of the Leonard Cohen song “Stories of the Street”... Continue reading
Posted Jan 30, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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 be argued that such efforts already exist or that they are unhelpful since so many of Dylan’s best lyrics are private to the point of being inexplicable. McDougal inherently argues that the life is so jam-packed, so quivering with meaning, so curious with its parade of characters, so endlessly fascinating to legions of obsessed fans, that trying to decipher the lyrics is best left to the professors who like Dylan’s poetic looks. Still, some readers will be disappointed. All biographies of Dylan have the same big problem. We know a lot about Dylan, but we also don’t know a lot. Dylan’s life is marked by interiority. No one has access to his thought dreams. No one can unpack all the lies, all the deceptions. It should be noted that McDougal’s book is particularly valuable because he emphasizes Dylan’s many false identities, “borrowing” lines, and misleading stories. With all the facts, it would have been interesting for McDougal to pause and reflect more. He has a very insightful understanding of Dylan’s audience, and I’d like to have read more of his thoughts about them. He writes in an eye-opening way about Dylan’s mother and her ability to make up stories or invent new lines for Mother Goose rhymes. I wonder to what extent Dylan’s linguistic skills, evident early to his Hibbing friends, were inherited. And do Dylan’s misdirections to everyone indicate a manipulative personalityor is there another explanation? Allen Ginsberg said of Dylan in 1976, "I don't know him because I don't think there is any him. I don't think he's got a self." McDougal is a talented journalist, and he includes material not found elsewhere. I’m impressed, for example, at how intelligently he describes the privately-printed memoir of B.J. Rolfzen, Dylan’s influential high school English teacher. But the very inclusion of such interesting material brings up a wider question. What is amazing is that even with the heft of the book, even with McDougal’s impressive research, there are compelling stories that are not included. For example, Rolfzen told me that he used to go to a local cemetery jotting down epitaphs, connecting them together, and reading that list to Dylan’s class. For the effect of this, see “11 Outlined Epitaphs” in the liner notes to The Times They Are A-Changin’. In a way, McDougal’s book makes it abundantly clear that an artist like Dylan ultimately needs a very long multi-volume... 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 as "their circus of children and dogs." FABULOUS BEAST The Sow is available from Hyacinth Girl Press. This chapbook is part of a wider collection of poems for which she is currently seeking a publisher. LE: The book is about a sow that can shift shapes and take the form of a human. (My favorite image is her as the farmer's wife playing at the piano). What special perceptions can you achieve by using a sow as the narrator? How did you come up with the idea of using a sow as the controlling image? SKG: The sow character developed as a reaction. I didn’t want to write first-person lyric, sometimes-confessional poems anymore. There isn’t anything wrong with first-person lyric/confessional poems – in fact, that describes many of my favorite poems – but I’d been doing that too much. Or rather, I’d done that too much; I wrote the first sow poem after almost two years of relative silence. Occasionally I’d write, but those attempts felt lackluster. I was rehashing the same content with the same forms. I needed a change. So the sow was my way of coming back to writing. I decided I would write poems about a character, in the third person. I gave myself an assignment; I knew, and know, that inspired writing rarely comes from assignments, but I needed a focus. Also, I stopped worrying about whether or not what I was going to write well. I needed to write, period. I have a spectacularly terrible memory, and yet I can remember the moment I conceived the sow image, which tells me that even if no one else were to identify with these poems, this character was the right one for me: It was at night, and everyone else in my household was in bed, and I decided to take my notebook out on the deck, and sit in the dark, and actually think about a character. My first thought was to choose an animal – something physically very different from myself – and my next thought was of a pig. And then she was a female pig, and then she was waking up in the dark, and then she was there, outside with me. I’m not sure about special perceptions, but the sow character allowed me to write at a distance from myself. Or, really, it allowed me to believe I was writing about... 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 wasn’t possible or even desirable to pretend that there was an easily defined set of such beliefs. Still, surely Dylan had strongly-held beliefs. So I wondered how to locate them. I finally decided to consider a representative song. My choice is completely arbitrary. I chose it because it was written at a creative and pivotal moment in Dylan’s career. “Maggie’s Farm,” recorded on January 15, 1965, is most frequently is understood as Dylan’s refusal to go along with the folk movement’s expectations of him, especially that he stick to acoustic rather than electric music and continue to write social and political protests against injustice exclusively rather than write about his personal feelings. The song became a living symbol at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went electric as he sang it. Proponents of the view that this song is a rebellion against the folk community point out the similarity of Maggie’s name to that of Silas McGee. It was on McGee’s farm that Dylan performed “Only a Pawn in Their Game” for a 1963 civil rights gathering. This song can be seen performed in Dont Look Back. However, it is also plausible that Dylan took the idea of complaining about working on a farm from the 1929 song “Down on Penny’s Farm,” which Dylan had heard on Harry Smith’s iconic collection Anthology of American Folk Music and had used as the basis of an earlier song, “Hard Times in New York Town.” “Maggie’s Farm” also bears some similarities to Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett’s “Tanner’s Farm,” recorded in 1934. There are two beliefs inherent in these observations. Dylan’s foundational belief in the song is that he will not be chained to any movement, any group that wants to claim and own him as their own. As he asserts in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” another song on the same Bringing It All Back Home album: “It is not he or she or them or it that you belong to.” He laments that “everybody wants you to be just like them.” Dylan’s crucial belief is in artistic and intellectual independence. As a rebellion against the folk music movement, it is possible to read the song’s characters as either general types or specific people Dylan knew. For example, when you ask what female ran the “folk music farm,” the answer is obvious: Joan Baez. On this level, the song is... 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 wasn’t sure why I picked Israel. No one ever talked about the country. This was 1958, and it wasn’t particularly in the news. For whatever reason, I dutifully scanned the shelves, taking down books, reading them. I met another boy from another school. We agreed to meet each week so we could read together. That was a special kind of friendship. My work was the first research I had ever done. I didn’t know it then, but doing that research prepared me for my entire life. My family moved to Sag Harbor, a small town on the eastern end of Long Island, a year later. The John Jermain Library was a few minutes walk from my house. It was a pleasant place, even if its collection was restricted. I read my first adult novel there. I was thirteen, unsure what to read. I was in the library looking for material when the librarian told me the place was closing in a few minutes, and I had to choose. My mind rushed. I didn’t know any title or any author. Then I saw the title Babbitt. I had no idea what the book was about, but I did recall that I had seen an Abbott and Costello cartoon in which the Costello character had called the Abbott character “Babbitt.” I thought the book must be funny. I took it home, sat on a couch, and began reading. I hadn’t finished half a page before I rested it against my chest and said words to myself to the effect that I couldn’t believe someone could get down so much truth on a page. And so I began serious adult reading, starting with all the Sinclair Lewis books in the library. This resulted in a problem later that year. The film version of Elmer Gantry was released in July 1960. Following the advice of her sister, my mother told me that I was not allowed to see the film. I argued that I had read the book and so I knew what the film was about. It didn’t work. She wouldn’t change. I was still thirteen, and I didn’t understand why she couldn’t see that I was old enough to watch the film. As I got older, I found it easy to forgive her. For the rest of her life, though, she periodically apologized to me for what I thought was the only... 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 Wallenberg, but the film was one of them. Working in Budapest during the War, Wallenberg issued passports and housed Jews. He saved 100,000 Jews from the Nazis. He was later arrested by the Russians and disappeared in the Gulag prison system. Leslie Howard sought to transfer the heroism he portrayed on the screen to his own life. He made other anti-Nazi films and appeared on radio broadcasts. His work was so effective that Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, called him, “the most dangerous propagandist in the British service.” When Pimpernel Smith was released, the worried Nazis pressured neutral countries not to screen it in public. That’s why Raoul Wallenberg had to see the film within the confines of the British embassy. Eventually, the Nazis were so fearful of Howard’s work that on June 1, 1943, they shot down a civilian airliner over neutral airspace because they knew he was on board. According to a recent, credible study by the Spanish journalist Jose Rey-Ximena, Howard had been personally sent by Prime Minister Winston Churchill on a successful mission to keep Spain out of the war and was returning on that flight. Beyond these two extraordinary cases, Pimpernel Smith stirred the patriotic feelings, provided emotional strength, and offered inspiration to untold millions of British citizens and alerted people around the world of the dangers of Nazism. Given this incredible history, it is both sad and unfair that Pimpernel Smith remains virtually unknown. Beyond its staggering influence, the film provides a gateway to crucial historical questions because Pimpernel Smith was one of only a few films that deliberately tried to influence America to fight the Nazis. Along with such films as Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, Pimpernel Smith raises the question of the moral obligations—as distinct from business and aesthetic interests--of films and the film industry. Pimpernel Smith was not allowed to be released in the U.S. until February 12, 1942 (that is, until after America’s entry into the War and even then under another title, Mister V), almost seven months after its release in England, and To Be or Not To Be’s release was delayed until March 6, 1942. Chaplin and Lubitsch came under enormous pressure in Hollywood, which depended on European, including German, markets. Pimpernel Smith thus needs to be seen against a specific historical background, the reluctance of America to enter... 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 another look at the lyrics, but Cohen’s autobiography immediately suggests problems with this common interpretation. Specifically, it is Cohen’s life that is being described both as the narrator and the other man. It is the friend in the song not “L. Cohen,” the narrator, who has a “famous blue raincoat.” But as the real Cohen noted in liner notes to the 1975 collection The Best of Leonard Cohen, the blue raincoat was his. “I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959….It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather.” In the song, the narrator asks the friend, “Did you ever go clear?” This is a reference to Scientology and its state of “Clear.” Cohen himself for a brief time at least was a Church of Scientology member. In the song, “L. Cohen” sings to the friend: “You'd been to the station to meet every train And you came home without Lili Marlene “ But in his concert introduction to Chelsea Hotel #2, Cohen said, “Once upon a time, there was a hotel in New York City. There was an elevator in that hotel. One evening, about three in the morning, I met a young woman in that hotel… I wasn’t looking for her., I was looking for Lili Marlene.” The song “Lili Marlene” (there are variants in the spelling of her name) was a popular love song from World War II although it had been written in Germany in 1915 during the First World War. The song is about a soldier who stands waiting by a lamppost for his love, Lili Marlene. That is, Lili is a symbol of perfect love that has gone away. But if it is Leonard Cohen who has experienced all that is attributed to the friend, then to whom is “L. Cohen” singing? To ask the question is to answer it. “L. Cohen” is one part of Leonard Cohen singing to another part of Leonard Cohen. Call that other part, the friend in the song, “Leonard Cohen.” “L. Cohen” is faithful to women. “Leonard Cohen” is not. Leonard Cohen, the real songwriter, is writing about a romantic triangle, but he is both men in that triangle. “Jane” is any woman Leonard Cohen has been involved with. Using this premise, it is possible to work through... 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, in his work In Defense of Ignorance, wrote: "The European Jew was always a visitor...But in America everybody is a visitor. In the United States the Jewish writer is free to create his own consciousness." But the Jewish writer has a more complex identity than other American writers. In Ravelstein, Saul Bellow noted that "As a Jew you are also an American, but somehow you are not." That was Dylan's status. He was an outsider as a Jew in America, but doubly so in Hibbing, Minnesota. As a rural Jew, he was, in Dalton's phrase, "an outsider in a community of outsiders." This status led him to be free to invent a self while simultaneously feeling outside of any genuine self. In one sense he had no identity at all. In 1976 Allen Ginsberg said about Dylan: "I don't know him because I don't think there is any him. I don't think he's got a self." Dylan rebelled against his birth self in every possible way. He changed his name. He changed where he lived. He believed he had been born into the wrong family. He looked for a direction to his real self and could not find it. Robert Zimmerman had a profound sense of disquiet. And so, when he got to New York, he invented stories to everyone who would listen. He was an orphan, a circus performer, a Native American. He was anybody but a small town son of a Jewish appliance dealer. But accompanying this all--inclusive self-rejection was an intense belief in himself, a sense that Fate had cleared a path in life for him that would lead to his being the most important singer in America. For me, this juxtaposition provides an approach to Dylan's identity: to look at the rapport and the rancor between his private and public selves. To do this, I think it's useful to consider Dylan as an actor. Lies are the truth for an actor. The world has facts, but for Dylan those facts didn't explain inner turmoil, the ever-moving, ever-changing, often closely-related feelings of desire and loathing, the ways that words and sounds just came to him, often when prompted by a song that moved him. He loved those songs, and then stole them, and then made them his own, inevitably vastly improving them. Actors are frequently alienated from themselves. (The best book I know about this is Simon... 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 was said half in jest, but only half. And it was said almost wholly in ignorance. I did not then know that Theo died at age 33 from dementia praralytica, a syphlitic brain infection. Luckily, neither did my brother know this. It's easy to exaggerate Theo's patience and transform him into a saint of patrons. But Vincent was not easy to be with. For many of us, our image of Vincent is forever tied to Kirk Douglas' portrayal in Lust for Life. The real Vincent, sadly, was not anything like Kirk Douglas. The real Vincent was like a dirty street wanderer with rags for clothes who mutters to himself and, seemingly for no reason at all, suddenly begins to yell at or lecture passers-by. As an alternative to Kirk Douglas, it's worthwhile to track down Tim Roth in Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo. As Vincent's incredibly articulate letters make clear (letters we only have because Theo saved them; Vincent's mother destroyed his letters to her), Theo could get frustrated. The brothers fought about money, about what kind of art Vincent should be painting, about Viincent's interminable search for understandably reluctant women models. And yet, through it all, Theo stayed loyal. He sold the single painting of Vincent's that was bought during the artist's lifetime. As an art dealer, Theo also pushed others then not so well known including Monet and Degas. It was Theo who introduced Vincent to Gauguin, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, and others, and it was Theo who convinced Gauguin to stay with Vincent at Arles. I found it interesting that Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith chose to open their fascinating recent biography Van Gogh: The Life with Theo traveling to get Vincent's body for burial. The authors assert that Vincent did not shoot himself but that he was talking to two boys, and one of them, who had frequently verbally tormented him, accidentally shot him. The authors believe Vincent took responsibility so the boys wouldn't get into trouble. This claim is made at the end of the 976 page book through a series of closely-reasoned arguments that I nevertheless did not find conclusive. What surprised me is that the claim is never considered that Vincent took his own life for a good reason--Theo was dying and when that happened Vincent would no longer be able to paint. Indeed, Theo died six months after Vincent. Theo's great-grandson, also... 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 for the woman. Much has been made of the fact that there is no entrance or exit from the diner, as though this were an existential illustration of being trapped in a world with lights so bright they don't let us hide and situated in a cosmos as impenetrably dark as a black hole. When I look at the picture, I understand the standard critical reaction, but I see Nighthawks not only as a human but also as a writer. For me, the picture illuminates the writing condition, not just the human one. To adapt the language of surrealism, Nighthawks shows a reality that looks like reality--like a photograph--but that pictured reality was never real. The picture describes a fictional world but with the verisimilitude to make viewers believe it genuinely existed. Indeed, based on a misleading statement by Hopper that he used a real diner as his model, generations of fans went in search of the place. It took an intrepid blogger named Jeremiah Moss to search diligently among historical documents in New York City and sadly conclude in a New York Times article that "the discovery that the "Nighthawks" diner never existed, except as a collage inside Hopper's imagination, feels like yet another terrible demolition." Let's call what occurs in the real world "real reality" and what happens in the painting "seeming reality." But this seeming reality is better than real reality (it's ironically more real) because real reality has limits that seeming reality doesn't. Hopper needed for there to be a diner on that corner with those people sitting just where they sat when he wanted them to sit there. But the diner and the people weren't really there. (The surrealists, of course, called the seeming reality super real and then elided the words to form the word "surreal"). Seeming reality, however, differs from super reality because surrealist art focuses on scenes that appear to have a photographic reality but can't, even in principle, occur in real life. Melting pocket watches can't hang limply over tree limbs (as in Dali's The Persistence of Memory). Neither can a bird in a cage replace a head and body (as in Magritte's The Therapist). In contrast, as in Nighthawks, seeming reality could in principle occur in real life. By using seeming reality, Hopper was able to offer not just a picture of reality that appeared to cohere with the real... 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 how Gracie might spend some spare time. One of the writers noted that she had done everything except run for president. George immediately loved the idea. In real 1940 politics, President Franklin Roosevelt was running against Wendell Wilkie. When Gracie entered the race she said that she'd been laughing at presidential candidates for years and so decided she should run herself. She declared herself the candidate of the Surprise Party. After all, she noted, her father was a Republican, her mother was a Democrat, and she had been born as a surprise. Her campaign slogan was "Down With Common Sense. Vote for Gracie." Audiences reacted so well to the idea that the writers decided to continue the gag for a few more shows. Suddenly, though, the success was such that the publicity stunt took on a life of its own. The Union Pacific Railroad donated a campaign train for her to ride to Omaha for a convention. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited Gracie to Washington. A campaign song was born. At her first press conference, Gracie promised to settle the simmering border dispute between California and Florida. When asked about the Neutrality Bill, she asserted that we should pay it if we owe it. Thousands of people greeted Gracie at each stop the train made. There were parades. When babies were thrust in front of her, she claimed she wanted to wait until the male babies reached twenty-one before she kissed them. The nominating convention was held on May 17th. Eight thousand fans were there to greet Gracie. She told them she didn't want a vice-presidential running mate because she didn't want any vice on the ticket. After the convention, Harvard University announced that it was endorsing her. The reaction of President Roosevelt, a Harvard alumnus, was not recorded. Gracie received several thousand write-in votes on Election Day. The good people of Menominee, Michigan nominated Gracie for mayor, but they noted that she couldn't serve unless she was a resident. Gracie wrote back complaining about the residence requirement because she couldn't live in two places at once. There were some complaints that Gracie wasn't taking the presidency seriously enough so she made a speech noting that she had meant no disrespect. There are those observers who claim that some presidential candidates provide enough unintended satire to render professional comedians superfluous. Perhaps, but as Gracie Allen demonstrated, Americans need what comedians... 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 topped me. Unfortunately, the surgery was just the beginning. I had a series of bad reactions, so far requiring four stays in the hospital, having needles stuck into my back and side and up and down my arms. Of course, coming face-to-face with age, illness, and mortality is difficult for everyone. I experienced it, though, not just as a person but also as a writer. I had the energy to read and watch television but not to shape sentences and paragraphs.I couldn't write for months. It was my cardiologist who told me to work on another book. Indeed, he got animated, declaring it as a medical necessity for me to begin writing again, to take my mind off my body's betrayal. That day I contacted my editor and got approval to write a book about American Jewish films. I'm going to begin writing that book soon. That was good, but I had a deeper emotional need. I began thinking about a novel I had written just before the attack. I had put it aside, ignoring it in the face of grappling with survival. The Land of Eighteen Dreams is an episodic novel made up of eighteen chronologically-conected stories, each of which is self-contained. All of these episodes concern Lily, who grows from age eight to adulthood, and her grandfather. His stories distill the inherited folk wisdom of Eastern European Jews and serve as an ongoing account of American Jewish life. I sat there and read the novel again. I had set the early part of it in Queens, where I grew up next to La Guardia Airport. I used to duck when the planes flew over. I had included some of the neighborhood characters, such as Dan, the Ice Cream Man who gave quizzes and then gave free ice cream to those who answered correctly. His first question to me was "How much is 8 and 6?" I pondered long and hard before answering, wondering if the laws of mathematics had changed since I learned how to add. They hadn't, and I got my ice cream. Flooded by memories, I wanted to publish the novel. My agent was kind and was willing to approach publishers. But here my health became a giant barrier. I wasn't allowed to drive. I was too weak to travel. I couldn't visit potential editors. And, worst of all, I couldn't participate in the required active... 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, eighteen novelettes, two short stories, and five articles. John Creasey wrote more than five hundred novels between 1932 and 1979. In 1939, Creasey published thirty-eight novels. There were many other mystery writers who wrote quickly. Between 1906 and 1932 Edgar Wallace wrote more than one hundred and seventy books. Phillips Oppenheim wrote more than one hundred and fifty novels and short story collections between 1887 and 1944. In the eleven months between May 1932 and April 1933 Georges Simenon wrote ten novels. His goal was to write a novel in eleven days. He wrote two hundred and twenty novels in his career. Sometimes genre writers are accused of being able to write quickly because the novels are generally briefer and supposedly have less psychological depth, thematic complexity, and linguistic density than "real" literature. Such an assertion ignores literary writers. John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath between June and October in 1928. Herman Melville took just six months to write Moby-Dick. (I think it took me six months to read it.) Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in six days. There are claims Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment very fast to pay off gambling debts. And Robert Louis Stevenson's stepson wrote that the famous author composed Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in three days. These feats are not just true of literature. Handel wrote the "Hallelujah Chorus" in three days and the whole of The Messiah in three weeks. Mystery writers who write quickly are not necessarily shortchanging literature. Certainly mystery authors writing a series book start off with an advantage. The setting is usually familiar as is the protagonist and the protagonist's surrounding entourage. But the plots have to be worked out and the language has to be enticing. Mystery writers sometimes work rapidly for the same reason as other artists do. Tlhey are inspired. Or the writing is a powerful and constantly needed release from anxiety. Or the tension is only relieved when the book is completed so there is great incentive to finish it quickly. But I think the crime novel uniquely benefits from being quickly written. Authors can keep the entire story in their minds. Writing a mystery requires a specific mental framework in which characters, plots, motives, clues, red herrings, setting, literary devices, and other matters all must be in perfect harmony and perspective. There are more novelistic aspects in a mystery than... 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 to be well-known. He was, after all, a pioneer. But James Brampton hasn't gotten the attention he deserves. Leaves from the Note-Book of a New York Detective: The Private Record of J.B. was originally published in 1865. John Babbington Williams (1827-1879) was Brampton's creator, but not much more is known of him other than that he was a medical doctor who wrote various stories for some of the dime magazines that then existed. Happily, Westholme Publishing reprinted the book in 2008, making its 29 "leaves" available for the contemporary reader. While it would be an exaggeration to claim that Brampton is in the same crime league as his better-known early colleagues, nevertheless the stories are intriguing precisely because Brampton relies on making close observations and drawing general conclusions from those observations. Poe had done this and Arthur Conan Doyle made such efforts famous. But Williams lack Poe's unmatchable linguistic precision or Doyle's sheer pleasure in telling the stories. Too many of the stories reach abrupt conclusions. Too many of the criminals are obvious, too many of the clues are discovered by chance, and too few of the plots are seasoned with surprises for current audiences. The book opens with an introduction in which the author supposedly meets Brampton in a Georgia bar. Brampton immediately bets the doctor that a young man who enters the bar has stolen money from his employer. The explanation folows. The premise of the book is that Brampton has retired and sends his case notebooks to Dr. Williams who will edit and publish them. Unlike Watson, that is, Dr. Williams is not the narrator of the stories. Not all of those stories can genuinely be considered true detective narratives. There are medical crime stories, which are not as good as the regular detective stories. There are also courtroom dramas and what might be termed thrillers. Williams, that is, deserves credit for exploring the then unchartered logical geography available to the fictional detective. While most of the stories are set in New York, a couple are set in Baltimore. Clearly, that is, Williams was aware of Poe. And modern readers should be aware of Williams. 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 this week, a researcher at North Carolina State University announced the development of a computer chip that can store a library's worth of information on that single chip. In ten years e-books will make up more than 80% of book sales. Look at the sales figures or estimates for the SONY Reader, the Kindle, the iPad, the Nook, or Google's new platform that makes e-books available on almost all web-enabled devices." "Ha, yourself," I yell back. I'm not that articulate in the middle of the night. "Just call yourselves Luddites and be done with it. I admit I like the feel of the book, the slow unfolding of the pages and the plot or argument, the shocks of recognition that spring from the page to my mind. But you sound like those people who moaned and groaned that the world would end when this guy Gutenberg invented the printing press. How, they wondered, could the world survive without parchment? So what if people read on the screen instead of from a book? What's the difference how you're reading Flaubert. Le mot juste can be in print or pixels." "If only it were that simple, Larry." It's an old sales trick. He repeats my name to make me like him. "But it's not. People won't be reading Flaubert or Dickinson. Have you never seen how people read online? They don't sit there and focus the way you do with a book. They grow restless. They read the first few lines. Their concentration has been reduced to tweets. They jump around. And the people who produce the materials for these e-readers aren't stupid. They want to attract consumers. The iPad is a sign of the future. It's not a dedicated reader. So you read a sentence, and then you text a friend. Then you read a few more words and listen to a Lady Gaga song. You listen to the radio on the new Nook. The writing will be filled with hyperlinks because there will be pictures to see and just a perfect YouTube video to watch instead of struggling with those long, hard words. "And I'm not done, Larry. Forget the music and the videos. Just look at the writing of the future. The words will be simple. Who is going to take the time to craft words and ideas carefully when there won't be an audience, or the current audiences... 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 than a novel at best. Uris had overcome a lot of writing self-doubt. He had failed English three times in high school. When I saw him, he pulled out a yellowed, folded piece of paper from his wallet. It was a composition he had written in sixth grade. The teacher had written a particularly brutal comment. Despite his international fame, Uris still carried a wound. Later, I contacted him asking about the most inspirational story in his life for a book I was writing. He suggested a story about how Exodus had been received in the Soviet Union in the years after its initial publication in 1958. Because of anti-Semitism and Soviet support for nations opposing Israel, the Soviets had banned the book. Members of Israel's embassy staff smuggled copies of the book through diplomatic pouches and distributed the novel to Jewish underground activists. At the time, duplicating machines were illegal for Soviet citizens, so translators typed the book a page at a time (there were 626 pages in the hardcover version) making as many carbon copies as possible. Exodus had an extraordinary effect on Soviet Jews. For many of them, the novel was their first encounter with Jewish tradition and history. They had learned that Jews were cowards, but in those pages Jews were heroes. The Soviet Jews who read the book became instant Zionists and felt deeply connected to their still budding Jewish lives. The book was a master narrative for them, a counter-history to all they had been taught about themselves. In it, they found for the first time a positive image of Jewish life, of their ancestors, of Israel, of their families, of their friends, of their own beings. Whatever a great novel is, surely Exodus qualifies in the sense that its power changed lives, re-framed identities, instilled pride, and profoundly stirred elemental human passions. Leon Uris did go to the Soviet Union. It was that visit that he called his most inspirational moment. Many Soviet Jews were particularly enthused about the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah which celebrates the completion of the annual reading of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. For Soviet Jews, the holdiay came to symbolize their public assertion that they were Jewish. With twenty thousand people in the streets outside the synagogue, and thousands more inside, Uris made his way to the seat set aside for him.... 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 a friend, a "scruffy looking guy with a a guitar" whose name Marcus didn't catch. After the show, Marcus found the young Bob Dylan crouching behind the tent trying to light a cigarette. Marcus tried to offer praise, but Dylan would have none of it. And so it began, Greil Marcus' quest to look at Bob Dylan and see how America was reflected in him and how his reflection changed America. It is a long, dazzling journey. It includes the notorious four word opening line of Marcus' 1970 review of Dylan's album Self Portrait, a review that was a succinct declaration of independence from uncritical Dylan adoration. There's a 1979 review of Slow Train Coming about Dylan's embrace of a version of fundamentalist Christianity Marcus calls "southern Californian suburban." Marcus' brilliant take in the review titled "Amazing Chutzpah" is that this kind of religious conversion seems like one more stop on Dylan's restless journey but that such a conversion can end a quest for answers by seeming, falsely, to settle every question. Over and over in this book, Marcus looks at Dylan and uses the singer to offer bulletins from the front lines of American culture. There are great essays on "the myth of the open road," the location of Desolation Row, and much else. I particularly liked Marcus' recounting his visit to Hibbing High School and Dylan's famed English teacher, the late and wonderful B.J. Rolfzen. And then there's "High Water Everywhere," Marcus' response to the September 11th attacks. The "article" is a jarring collection of quotations that, taken together, provides a penetrating look into the American soul. The book concludes on election night 2008 in Minneapolis. It is difficult to convey the energy of Marcus writing style. I think of it as linguistic pointillism, with Marcus' precise and daring dots of Dylan's career ultimately forming a larger image, a picture of a very strange landscape called America. Whatever Marcus' style is called, it is riveting. Readers won't always agree with him. Indeed, that's the fun. He's so engaging you want to enter the debate. Greil Marcus is justifiably noted for a string of terrific books, especially about American music. This anthology, vital for every Dylan fan and for those who wish to understand the last forty years of American culture, provides powerful support to those arguing for Marcus' place as the preeminent cultural critic of the country. 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 even others at some point. Every page of this book is haunted by the fact of the author's death. I used my reading to ponder why Parker was so good. I first ruled out plotting. The books generally have no intricate plots. There aren't red herrings and mysterious clues. Final pages don't offer shocking revelations. Mostly Spenser puts himself in harm's way to lure the evildoers. Some fans don't like Susan Silverman, Spenser's idealized lover, or Pearl, his dog. But they were a crucial part of his world. They propelled his character. Spenser was a gourmet cook, a weight lifter, an ex-cop and ex-boxer, a man who loved to be wanted by women he could then tell that he was taken. Spenser's Boston world was interesting but not interesting enough to explain the character's success. Many of Spenser's fans believe that Spenser's relationship with Hawk is the key ingredient. The idea of two males of different races joining in friendship is deeply embedded in American literature. And, indeed, much of the banter between the two men takes note of Hawk's blackness and therefore his differences with Spenser. But Hawk's appeal is not really because of racial complementarity. The appeal stems from Hawk's toughness. Spenser is hard; Hawk is steel. Spenser is a descendent of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe who, unlike, say, Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, discovered that reason was enough to solve crimes. They had to mix a quick intelligence with brute force. Spenser and Hawk both had that mix, but Hawk was more willing to rely on the force. His understanding of the human condition didn't have Spenser's romantic dimension. The two men were two sides of a single total hero. Hawk was the rougher side, the godfather of many characters who would emerge as the more violent sidekicks of detective heroes. Think of Joe Pike who teams with Elvis Cole in Robert Crais' books or Win Lockwood who teams with Myron Bolitar in Harlan Coben's books. What separates Spenser from relying solely on his physical prowess is his code of ethics. Susan reminds him of that code. His work tempts him to cross the line. It is this internal struggle between thug and hero that is the moral center of every book. Spenser is both civilized and discontented with civilization. He knows what the real world is like but struggles to create his own honorable world... 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 surprises, comparable, say, to a Charlie Chaplin routine followed by a topper and then a topper to the topper. In one psychoanalytic explanation by Dr. Charles Rycroft, the victims are parents, the criminals the readers' anger at parents, and the detectives, well the detectives discover they are looking at that anger in themselves. Maybe the authors and readers are all the characters in a story, with their detective side punishing their criminal side for crimes--impulses they have or actions they've taken. Such a detection and punishment symbolically cleanses their sins. This symbolic cleansing is so pleasurable and so chronically needed that we seek it over and over. Maybe Freud was right. We are discontented with our civilization, always struggling with our primitive instincts. On this interpretation, we are the criminals, and being caught provides the symbolic punishment we need to exorcise our guilt for the instincts. Perhaps readers of mysteries fear uncontrollable social change and see in mysteries the gallant defense of the status quo. This social defense theory has become complicated by many characters like Edward G. Robinson's Rico or Tony Soprano who make audiences question their identification solely with the forces of law. Or consider Dexter, the serial killer who kills killers, and Vic Mackey of The Shield, who kept crossing the border between cop and criminal. These characters make audiences ponder the acceptable limits to controlling criminality. Reading or watching mysteries provides a rehearsal for what might happen in our own social lives. Young girls watched Beverly Hills 90210 and its offspring to find models for their growing selves (a cringe-inducing fact for many parents) and experience situations that might occur in their lives before the incidents happened. So, too, mysteries prepare us for the crime we fear we might experience. Having read and seen enough examples, we have mentally rehearsed our various potential roles in any crime we might encounter. Grandest of all are the philosophical explanations. We are stuck in a cosmos we can't fully comprehend. The chaos of the cosmos is so overwhelming that we need a way to capture its power artistically and in so doing reduce its emotional control over us. In a mystery, we symbolically triumph over death, the greatest of life's mysteries. The chaos is less chaotic. Death has been captured within reason's net. Death dies because we have robbed it of its potency by solving it. With every mystery... 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 cotton was loaded on a ship bringing the cargo to New York. Buzzell went on board for a closer look, found a bale of hay, and promptly fell asleep. The crew didn't notice him, and he awoke only after the ship had set sail with the hatches battened down. His screams couldn't be heard, and so he was locked below decks for nine days without food or water. When he was finally discovered, near death, he was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital in New York where, against all odds and the expectations of his doctors, he survived. His grateful sister wanted to memorialize the hospital, and so she used the saint after whom the hospital was named as her daughter's middle name. Some literary anecdotes happened to me. When I was young, I lived in Sag Harbor, on Long Island, at the same time as John Steinbeck. The author was then researching his novel The Winter of Our Discontent. One the ways he did this was to visit my father's variety store, especially on rainy days, stretch out on the floor, lean back against the magazine rack, and observe the customers. When one interested him, he'd wait for the customer to leave and ask my father all about the person. My father, who had been born in Sag Harbor and served on a political committee with Steinbeck, knew everyone in town, knew their quirks and ancestors, their desires and their faults. Steinbeck heard their language, absorbed the stories and gossip about them, and began his construction of an American character. Once a high school friend of mine and some pals of his broke into Steinbeck's house. I assume they thought the famous author would have a lot of money. They didn't get much and discovered that the heavy television set they had taken was beyond their ability to carry. They dumped in in a local pond. They were quickly apprehended, but Steinbeck refused to press charges, and they were set free. I asked my friend why Steinbeck had let them go. Neither one of us could figure it out, unaccustomed as we were to the emotional generosity possible from a heart as big as Steinbeck's. Continue reading
Posted Jul 2, 2010 at The Best American Poetry