Joseph Brodsky on Anna Akhmatova: “Big gray eyes. Sort of like snow leopards.”

January 17th, 2018

“You do not know what you were forgiven.”

A link for a radio discussion of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova – the interview is with the Irish journalist Mary Russell, one of her many fans, and it aired on RTE Europe here.

Akhmatova’s protégé was Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, who was drawn to her circle in 1961, a few years before she died. He speaks for a few moments at the beginning of the clip, but to my ear the timber isn’t quite right, a bit tinny (and Russell calls him “Joe Brodsky,” which jars, because no one ever did).

He speaks about Akhmatova this way:

“She’s the kind of poet whose lines you unwittingly mumble to yourself, especially when you’re in trouble. I remember several times, when I would be sick in hospital, surgery, this and that, et cetera et cetera. I would find myself mumbling, completely unrelated to the situation, a few of her lines. Well, they are very memorable.”

Then Akhmatova’s own voice breaks in, reading a few lines in Russian, before he continues: “She was simply, physically, visibly, beautiful. Big gray eyes. Sort of like snow leopards – you know those eyes, ya? Tremendous nose. She was one of the most beautiful women of the century, I think. Tremendous head. Just … absolutely majestic.”

Russell describes her hours of on the train from Leningrad to Komarova, where Akhmatova is buried. Deep snow in countryside. Accompanying her, a woman who had attended the funeral in 1966. They walked through the darkening, forest to the cemetery. She brought flowers, and found the grave already covered with bunch of fresh, red carnations. (It reminds me of my own trek to Pasternak‘s austere, snow-swept dacha outside Moscow – I mentioned it here.)

But which lines did he mumble to himself? I wondered. Perhaps he gives a hint when he reads this 1919 poem, in Russian (it’s better in Russian, trust me):

Has this century been worse than those that went before?
Surely so, that in a fog of fear and grief
It has probed the blackest sore,
And yet has failed to bring relief.

In the west the setting sun still blazes,
And city roofs are gleaming in its light,
But here Death scrawls crosses on the houses,
And calls the ravens, and the ravens fly.

I’m not fond of this online translation, but too many of my books are still in boxes to hunt for something better. Perhaps Solomon Volkov cuts to the heart of the matter when in Conversations with Joseph Brodsky:

“We did not go to her for praise, or literary recognition, or any kind of approval for our work. […] We went to see her because she set our souls in motion, because in her presence you seem to move on from the emotional and spiritual – oh, I don’t know what you call it – level you were on. You rejected the language you spoke every day for the language she used. Of course, we discussed literature, and we gossiped, and we ran out for vodka, listened to Mozart, and mocked the government. Looking back, though, what I hear and see is not this; in my consciousness surfaces one line from the same ‘Sweetbriar in Blossom’: “You do not know what you were forgiven.” This line tears itself away rather than bursting out of the context because it is uttered by the voice of the soul, for the forgiver is always greater than the offense and whoever inflicts it. This line, seemingly addressed to one person, is in fact addressed to the whole world. It is the soul’s response to existence. It is this, and not the ways of verse-making, that we learned from her.”

“Sylvia Plath’s voice comes down to us like the will of Hera.”

January 15th, 2018

Anwen Crawford‘s article in New Yorker, “The Letters of Sylvia Plath and the Transformation of the Poet’s Voice,” will be reassuring to many. Like the rest of us, Plath’s early work was “awful.” Moreover, her letters were boring. Now we know that for sure, thanks to the 1,300 or so pages of unexpurgated correspondence recently published in The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1, 1940–1956, There’s lots about boys and studies and food, and much of it is dull.  To wit: “Last night I had three big helpings of potatoes (mashed) and carrots for supper and a scant helping of meatloaf as well as 2 pieces of bread and butter, 2 apricots & a glass of milk.”

As the editors of the collection, Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, note in their foreword: “Plath wrote and typed to the very edges of her paper.” As for the awful early work, it is clear that it wasn’t just talent, or even primarily talent, that made Plath an innovative poet, but discipline, will, application, and an indefatigable  refusal to give in to limitation.

And a couple powerful paragraphs from the piece may reframe our discussion of Plath forever:

The belief among many of Plath’s devotees seems to be that if we can get clear of other people’s fingerprints on her texts, allowing Plath to “fully narrate her own autobiography,” as the editors here describe it, we will at last solve the riddle of her. The extremities of her poetry will balance against the circumstances of her life; the latter will equal the former.

But her griefs were ordinary; it is what she did with them that wasn’t. Plath turned her common sorrows—dead father, mental illness, cheating husband—into something like an origin story for pain itself, as if her own pain preceded the world. The moon was her witness, an elm tree spoke to her, or through her. Her poetry speeds beyond the facts of her life and becomes Olympian in its fury. “I am too pure for you or anyone,” she writes in “Fever 103,” from 1962, “Your body / Hurts me as the world hurts God.” What a thrill, to have honed within oneself such contempt for the living world, and then to unleash it. Plath’s voice comes down to us like the will of Hera.

And, amid the imperiousness, a tenderness, too, just as worked at, and as breathtaking. It was directed at her children, also turned into archetypes, as if they were the first children who had ever been. “Love set you going like a fat gold watch,” she writes in “Morning Song,” the poem that opens “Ariel.” “The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry / Took its place among the elements.” Few poets before Plath wrote of motherhood with such attention, or, rather, few that we know of; who can guess how many other mothers wrote but were never read? Plath’s work survives, which is why we have needed her. If only she had, too.

Read the whole thing here.

Happy birthday, Raif Badawi, still in a Saudi jail: “Freedom of speech is the air that any thinker breathes.”

January 13th, 2018

Saudi writer, blogger, and human rights activist Raif Badawi is spending his 34th birthday the same way he spent the last one – behind bars. He was arrested in 2012, and has been jailed for “insulting Islam” after he blogged and wrote about freedom of speech. The father of three, who was already in frail health, was sentenced to ten years in prison and a thousand lashes. He received the first fifty in 2015, and it nearly killed him. Later that year, the Amnesty International “Prisoner of Conscience” was also awarded the Sakharov Prize. The prestigious award, offered each year by the European Parliament, honors individuals and organizations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The authorities also jailed Badawi’s lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, founder of the group Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. He was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for undermining the government, inciting public opinion, and insulting the judiciary.

To celebrate his birthday, five quotes from his book, 1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think.

“Freedom of speech is the air that any thinker breathes; it’s the fuel that ignites the fire of an intellectual’s thoughts.”

“As a human being you have the right to express yourself. You have the right to journey wherever your mind wanders and to express the thoughts you come up with along the way. You have the right to believe, and to atone, the same way you have the right to love and to hate.”

“To respect the opinions of those who stand against you is nothing short of courageous.”

“It’s a wonder of human behavior: we build our own handcuffs that trap and harm us. We create the myth, and we honor it. We tell the lie, and we believe it.”

“As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas, you will find hundreds of fatwas that accused him of being an infidel just because he had the courage to discuss some sacred topics. My biggest fear is that the enlightened Arab thinkers are gong to leave the Arab world in search of fresh air: somewhere far away from the sword of the religious authorities.”

Kepler’s Books ❤ Marilyn Yalom and her “Amorous Heart”

January 12th, 2018

Author in the pink. (Photo: Margo Davis)

The shape is ubiquitous: two rounded curves swooping downward to meet in a single point. It’s meaning is universal: love. But where did it come from?

Marilyn Yalom, author of the brand new The Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love (Basic Books), was in the British Museum when the question came to her a few years ago, as she gazed at a treasures from the 15th century in the “Fishpool Hoard,” discovered in Nottinghamshire in the 1960s. In the midst of the jewelry: a perfect heart-shaped brooch. As she marveled at the delicately enameled piece, she knew she was hooked.

Hence her new book, which had her at Kepler’s earlier this week, in a “public conversation” with Theresa Donovan Brown, a longtime friend and sometimes co-author. Marilyn, a longtime friend of mine as well, is also the author of the acclaimed How the French Invented Love – we wrote about it here and here. (And about her husband, the eminent psychoanalyst Irving Yalom, is also an author, here and here).

The Amorous Heart is likely to be as successful as her previous efforts, with Robert Pogue Harrison proclaiming it “Another tour de force by one of America’s leading cultural historians.”

“For anyone whose heart has ever palpitated in love or devotion, this is a thumping romp through the history of hearts – in love, literature, illuminated manuscripts, and valentine cards,” added Christopher de Hamel, author of Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.

The heart that launched…

For the Kepler’s occasion, fueled by plenty of Prosecco and heart-shaped cookies, almost everyone seemed to be wearing pink – even yours truly, though it was happenstance in my case. Fortunately, our mutual friend, photographer Margo Davis (who was wearing NYC black, without a touch of pink) was around to document the occasion. (See photo above.)

What did she discover in her long journey that began in the British Museum? Marilyn learned that the heart has been considered the “home of love” at least as far back as Sappho, though the visual rendering didn’t occur until much later. The first known rendering is ambiguous – a heart stamped on a coin in Libya, circa the third or fourth century B.C. It may, however, reflect the shape of a variety of a fennel pod still extant during the time. (Catullus makes mention of the fennel plant as a means of contraception … a clue?)

It was “a form in search of a meaning” until the 13th century, when the troubadours were full of amour and the need to represent it. In art, however, the heart was usually portrayed as a cone-shaped object, thanks to the imprecise discoveries of medicine. Sometime in the 15th century – we don’t know how, or where, or exactly when – the heart shape caught on. By the 14th century the heart had become a commonplace symbol, as Marilyn’s beloved brooch demonstrates. By the 16th and 17th?  Shakespeare uses the term “heart” almost as much as he does love.

Religion was never the same again. The “Sacre Coeur” of the Church became ubiquitous and portrayed with leaping flames and crowns of thorns. Its more regular representations continued unabated in the profane arts, too. Just as the image was about to sink into inevitable kitsch, it was revived by none other than Martin Luther.

Then, the 20th century, with more innovations. The heart became a verb, as in I ❤ NY. Or I ❤ San Francisco. Or Paris. Or Berlin. Then the computer age, and the Japanese made it into an emoji. Is it dissipating into meaninglessness? Marilyn celebrates it nonetheless. Might we suggest the delightful volume for Valentine’s Day?

“It’s the most popular symbol in the world, the perfect shape,” said Yalom. Two equal halves, conveying the Platonic idea. “It really moves our hearts, makes us feel good. Something in the shape itself.”

The battle for Arthur Miller’s papers: and the winner is … no surprise.

January 10th, 2018

Arthur Miller, University of Michigan grad, in 1939

When I saw a New York Times headline about the acquisition of the Arthur Miller papers, I hoped it would have something to do with our common alma mater. But it looks like the University of Michigan was long ago priced out of the market for its most glorious literary alum:

More than 160 boxes of his manuscripts and other papers have been on deposit for decades at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, uncataloged and all but inaccessible to scholars, pending a formal sale. Another cache — including some 8,000 pages of private journals — remained at his home in rural Connecticut, unexplored by anyone outside the intimate Miller circle.

Now, the Ransom Center has bought the entire archive for $2.7 million, following a discreet tug-of-war with the Miller estate, which tried to place the papers at Yale University despite the playwright’s apparent wishes that they rest in Texas.

That battle pitted two of the nation’s most prestigious, and deep-pocketed, archival institutions against each other, in a mini-drama mixing Milleresque high principle with more bare-knuckled competition. And it cracks a window onto the rarefied trade in writers’ papers, and the delicate calibrations of money, emotion and concern for posterity that determine where they ultimately come to rest.

Miller opted for the Ransom Center years ago, when it was positioning itself as one of the most aggressive players in the increasingly aggressive archival world. (Oil dollars are behind its quick climb to the top). The author and playwright was hard up for cash and looking for a tax break.

The archive includes everything from the development of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible to Miller’s confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee. It also includes his advocacy against censorship from his last years before his death in 2005.

But what everyone wants to know: are there more hot letters to his second wife, Marilyn Monroe? Unlikely, but something better: his unfinished essay, which he started on the day of her funeral on Aug. 8, 1962. It was frequently revised, but never published, and from the snippet view on the New York Times page, it was very, very bitter. “Instead of jetting to the funeral to get my picture taken I decided to stay home and let the public mourners finish the mockery,” Miller wrote. “Not that everyone there will be false, but enough. Most of them there destroyed her, ladies and gentleman.”

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on 1/12: Our favorite archivist (and also friend) Elena Danielson, former director of the Hoover Library & Archives (and author of The Ethical Archivist), favors us with a reaction once again:

Thank you, Elena!

Whenever these million dollar deals are announced in the press, ordinary donors start to get grand ideas about the financial value of their papers and it takes a while for the asking price to come down to earth. The tax break referred to in the article is the result of Nixon’s huge tax break for donating his own papers. In response the law was changed, you cannot get the tax break for donating your own papers, however your heirs on the other hand can claim the deduction. Determining the market value of a collection is an imprecise science.

The auction value and the research value are usually two very different things. Auction value depends primarily on name recognition. In this case, however, the collection has both artifactual and research value, so the price tag should probably be high. And keeping a collection together, all in the same place, retaining its integrity, is a basic ethical principle. The Arthur Miller papers are a national treasure, so the main thing is to keep it in the U.S. in a well funded, well run archival repository, which the Ransom Center fortunately is.

Don’t invite Goethe to dinner! Here’s why.

January 7th, 2018

Was he a schmuck?

Was the glory of Goethe just a 19th-century invention, pumped up for a resurgent Germany that craved a national hero? Ferdinand Mount makes the case in the New York Review of Books, where he is reviewing Rüdiger Safranski‘s Goethe: Life as a Work of Art, newly translated into English.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was not, to put it mildly, the sort of fellow you’d want to have over for dinner. Not if you valued your crockery. He had to be prettified and cleaned up massively to become the national bard:

Herr Glaser of Stützerbach was proud of the life-sized oil portrait of himself that hung above his dining table. The corpulent merchant was even prouder to show it off to the young Duke of Saxe-Weimar and his new privy councilor, Johann Wolfgang Goethe. While Glaser was out of the room, the privy councilor took a knife, cut the face out of the canvas, and stuck his own head through the hole. With his powdered wig, his burning black eyes, his bulbous forehead, and his cheeks pitted with smallpox, Goethe must have been a terrifying spectacle. While he was cutting up his host’s portrait, the duke’s other hangers-on were taking Glaser’s precious barrels of wine and tobacco from his cellar and rolling them down the mountain outside. Goethe wrote in his diary: “Teased Glaser shamefully. Fantastic fun till 1 am. Slept well.”

Goethe’s company could be exhausting. One minute he would be reciting Scottish ballads, quoting long snatches from Voltaire, or declaiming a love poem he had just made up; the next, he would be smashing the crockery or climbing the Brocken mountain through the fog. Only in old age, and more so in the afterglow of posterity, did he take on the mantle of the dignified sage. Yet even late in life, he remained frightening. His daughter-in-law, Ottilie, whom he insisted on marrying to his son August, though they were not in love and got on badly, admitted that she was terrified of him.

He alarmed people as much as he charmed them, not only by his impatience, his sudden flare-ups, and his unpredictable antics, but by his foul language. In moments of exasperation he would denounce as a shithead any of the great men who had assembled at Weimar—Wieland, Herder, Schiller. The best-remembered line from his first play, Götz von Berlichingen, is the robber baron Götz shouting through the window to the emperor’s messenger: “Tell his Imperial Majesty that he can lick my arse”—otherwise known as the Swabian saluteGoethe’s Venetian Epigrams cheerfully skitter through masturbation, sodomy, and oral sex, with sideswipes at coffee shops and yo-yos (one of the first mentions of the toy).

I made the dutiful trek to Weimar some years ago, clipped a small tendril of the vine outside his house to take back home, but once on my windowsill it loyally refused to thrive in California – or perhaps America generally, for in the Anglophone world, Goethe is still more honored than read. I always attributed this neglect to the difficulty of translating his lyric poetry.

I found his early (1774) and influential Sorrows of Young Werther a tedious exercise in self-pity. As Mount writes, “The copious weeping, the unbridled privileging of personal feeling, the letter format—all these are characteristic of the eighteenth-century novel of sensibility … and the novel is drenched in the possibility of suicide.” I was willing to suspend judgment and view it as an artifact of a certain sensibility. Elective Affinities, which I’ve read several times, was philosophically meatier and less morose, but, like Mount, I remain “baffled by its implausibilities: the extraordinary stilted talk between the husband and wife, Eduard and Charlotte, the failure of anyone to notice that beautiful Ottilie is starving herself to death, the immunity of her lovely corpse to the normal processes of decomposition. The central conceit that the characters are attracted to one another by a quasi-chemical process seems to me to lack any shock value, since they are such inert substances to begin with.” And Iphigenia at Taurus, with its long stand-and-deliver speeches?  Schiller’s Mary Stuart seems just as good with far less fanfare. I enjoyed the Eckermann’s conversations, and also saw where the stand-and-deliver came from: the man himself. The verse. What about the verse… I prefer Rilke or Hölderlin.

Shall I make a full confession? I’ve only read snatches of Faust, and am far more familiar with Gounod‘s version than Goethe’s, with it’s stunning ensemble finale. I still need to make a concerted effort for Faust.

The upshot of Mount’s lively, insightful, and enviably excellent review: he seems to favor Nicholas Boyle’s “mighty undertaking, which has already occupied two volumes (1991 and 2000), each slightly longer than Safranski’s, with another twenty-nine years of Goethe’s life still to go.”

“Safranski does not begin to measure up to the depth and subtlety of Boyle’s analysis. On the other hand, he says certain things plainly that Boyle tends to blur or omits altogether—like the story of Herr Glaser. After reading Safranski, we are enlightened, amused, and impressed but rather less inclined to take Goethe’s life as nonpareil, while still regarding him as a wonderful writer.” Which is handy. Because I’ve dutifully kept Volume II in my book hoard for well over a decade. It’s there, on the bookshelf in front of me, where it’s spine is still unbroken and its pages still virginal.

Mount gives the Goethe legend a radical debunking – harsh, but he ends on an ultimately humane note. He recalls that Nietzsche extolled the German poet as “a man to whom nothing is forbidden, except it be weakness, whether that weakness be called vice or virtue.” Mount concludes: “Give me a little weakness every time. Hardness only leads to hardness. I am not the first to note that included among the sights of Weimar in the Michelin Green Guide is Buchenwald.”

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on 1/8/2017: A number of voices weighed in on the social media about this post – pro, con, and somewhere in the middle. Here are a few of them.


Elena Danielson, former director of the Hoover Institution Library & Archives: Have you read the West-Oestlicher Divan? When I was reading lots of German in grad school, I couldn’t get enough Rilke, Heine, et al. I only read Faust and Werther because it was all so amusingly overwrought. And then it was just speed reading to get through. I reluctantly had to take the Divan course because the chairman taught it. I sat in the back. But the Divan unexpectedly swept me away. Maybe you have to be under 30. Maybe you have to read it in German. “Gingo Biloba” is probably the best known.They grow Gingo trees in Weimar in honor of the little three-stanza poem. JWvG smuggled in two poems by his girlfriend, who would have been in difficulties if her family knew….

Early Goethe was high spirited and into Sturm und Drang. I prefer the late Goethe of the simple but sublime West-oestlicher Divan. But he was excellent company throughout his life, despite what the NYRB article claims. He had to flee the court in secret and travel anonymously south to escape all his admirers. But made even more friends in Rome. There was no Germany in his lifetime. And Buchenwald was a forest.

Jim Erwin: Not sure if I got this from Eckermann or elsewhere, but none of this is surprising. His extremities of behavior and sentiment, paired with his devotion to aristocracy which functioned as a substitute for knowing which side his bread was buttered on is what made him an icon of Romanticism. In some respects he was a court jester in that he knew how to ingratiate himself to nobles powerful enough to protect him from the lesser nobles he savaged. He also lived in an age that was, in the right social circles, quite libertine. Group nude bathing was normal and group sex not uncommon. They knew how to party like it’s 1799.
Eckermann probably whitewashed many of Goethe’s eccentricities and outbursts (a 19th century Seanpicer?), but he wrote clearly about how nearly everyone admitted to his home to meet him was nearly incontinent with fear from Goethe’s reputation of, verbally at least, ripping people to shreds if he did not like them.

Paul Achitoff, lawyer: I think the piece’s POV is that Goethe was greatly overrated, and therefore presents its case. I’ve never been a Goethe fan, but I think some of his work, while rejected by the conventional scientists, was of great interest to some with broader minds. His work on morphology is often cited as a precursor of Darwin, and his color theory was admired by Wittgenstein, Godel, and Schopenhauer.

The Ethos of “Cool”: Robert Harrison on Jim Morrison and The Doors

January 5th, 2018

The Doors in 1966: John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison.

We know what you’re thinking: Is the high-toned Book Haven, lovers of Brahms, Bach, Beethoven and Byrd, getting into bed with rock ‘n roll? 

Just this once. Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison is a huge rock fan. So the latest podcast on Entitled Opinions’ new channel at the Los Angeles Review of Books features one of his favorite bands. We listened to it, wrote about it, and … well, found it fascinating. You might, too, especially Robert’s exposition of the “ethos of cool.” (Or go straight to the website to listen to it here.)

Here goes:

“Hot is momentary. It quickly turns to ashes. But cool stays cool.”

Fifty years ago, the award-winning album The Doors was released into the world – a landmark debut for what would become L.A.’s biggest band. The Doors and its lead singer Jim Morrison have few champions as articulate and passionate as Entitled Opinions host Robert Pogue Harrison, who interprets the band’s legacy in this podcast.

“The beginning holds sway over the entire unfolding of the story,” he explains, describing how Morrison was “incubating his future on a rooftop,” as he lived for weeks in “a high-perched nest in Venice, California.” He had little more than a blanket, candles, oranges, notebooks, and LSD, which was cheap and legal at the time. He meditated. He filled his notebooks with poems.

Although he’d never studied music, nor played a musical instrument, songs swirled in his head – and eventually “the ghosts became flesh,” says Harrison. Morrison described what happened this way: “I was just taking notes at a fantastic rock concert that was going on inside my head.”

These were most critical weeks of his life. “In little more than a month, Morrison had undergone a metamorphoses,” according to Harrison.

Harrison discusses Morrison’s military family, and how the young man was “raised to military code of order, discipline obedience, and stoical formalism.” He also explores the ethos of “cool.” Although many see Morrison’s music as a Dionysian expression, Harrison points out that “what you never hear is a convulsive maniac in need of an exorcism.” Morrison always returns to form, measure, restraint. “In the final analysis, Apollo always dominated over Dionysius.”

Potent quotes:

“Morrison had one of the great screams in the history of rock.”

“Jim Morrison had a great deal of fire, but it was the cool that prevailed and always called the shots.”

“Cool does not crave. But our age is craven.” 

“Morrison always withheld something, even when he appeared to let it all hang out.”

“The slowness of cool is not lymphatic, it’s the deliberate withholding of speed.”

“Jim Morrison was in a hurry only when it came to finding a way to die.”


Listen to the whole podcast here.


Tim Steele remembers poet Helen Pinkerton: hardscrabble origins and poems “deeply in the American grain”

January 3rd, 2018

A few days ago, we noted the death of the Stanford poet Helen Pinkerton, who died last Thursday, December 28, 2017, and we cited some earlier words from Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele, a longtime contributor to the Book Haven (here and here and here) and the subject of a number of its posts (here and here). He wrote his own tribute for Helen on Facebook:

Helen Pinkerton rose from hardscrabble origins to become one of the most thoughtful and graceful poets of her generation. She was born in 1927 in Butte, Montana, the home of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and possibly the roughest and most corrupt town in the country at the time. (Dashiell Hammett portrays it as Personville in Red Harvest.) Pinkerton had to take a circuitous route on her walk to school each day to avoid the town’s large and thriving red light district. Her father worked in the mines and was killed in 1938 in an accident in one of the shafts in Butte Hill—“the richest hill on earth” during the copper boom. After graduating from high school in 1944, Pinkerton moved with her mother to Palo Alto, where they worked in a cannery. She applied and was admitted to Stanford. She later modestly said that she thought she got in because all the young men were off in the Second World War and the university needed students. Originally intending to study journalism, she took a class from Yvor Winters, who recognized and encouraged her talent for poetry and scholarship. After receiving her B.A. from Stanford, she earned a doctorate from Harvard. She married the scholar J. Wesley Trimpi, with whom she had two daughters, and wrote influential studies on modern poetry, the Civil War, and Herman Melville. Melville’s Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s (published under her married name, Helen P. Trimpi) is considered a classic in its field.

With Helen and poet Turner Cassity in 2010

But Pinkerton’s greatest work is her poetry. It exemplifies T. S. Eliot’s thesis that fine poems are often a blend of tradition and individual talent. Her “Elegy at Beaverhead County, Montana,” which appears below, draws on the long tradition of elegiac poetry in English. Its metrical-stanzaic form and its pastoral meditation recall Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Churchyard.” At the same time, Pinkerton’s poem is deeply in the American grain. Its twenty lines touch on so many critical issues in our country and culture—including the cruel manner in which we divide the future from the past and the struggle between those who cultivate the earth and those who would exploit it for wealth. (Pinkerton once noted that Native American observers had been shocked when settlers from the East started extracting minerals from the planet without putting anything back in.) Pinkerton also portrays—with moving sympathy and a daughter’s cautious watchfulness—her strong and disappointed father, a man who had relatively little formal education but who loved music and played the violin.

Pinkerton uses as her epigraph, “Gold and silver,” the motto that Montana adopted in 1865, when it became an official United States Territory. “Love, faith, and poetry” is a motto that her friends and admirers will remember her by.

Elegy at Beaverhead County, Montana

“Oro y plata”

My father fished here summers, scaled and cleaned
His catch by the gray weathered fence that dips
Into the river. Thin as a pine, he leaned
Again to rinse the knife in chilling rips.

The river is Missouri’s western source,
So clear and shallow even stones and sand
Under that sun seem golden in its course.
Men came for gold and, failing, took the land.

Sons of unsettled men sometimes remained
To change the land through labor and design.
He left, rejecting when he might have gained,
But only found another ore to mine.

His quiet lapsed to taciturnity,
Slow anger to hard answers in a glance;
Music alone and its brief gaiety,
His father’s gift, remained from circumstance.

For that rich butte in whose deep shaft he died,
Where I first saw, as silver as the earth,
Another stream flow west from the Divide,
Gave to him nothing of its final worth.

Helen Pinkerton (1927 – 2017)
from Taken in Faith (Athens, OH: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2002)

The poet Annie Finch remembered that Tim had put her in touch with Helen years ago when she was organizing her anthology, A Formal Feeling Comes. She posted the page with Helen’s artistic credo, and the moving elegy on her Aunt Nora:

Stanford celebrates Frankenstein on the bicentennial of its publication – be there on Jan. 24!

January 1st, 2018

Artist: Lynd Ward, provided by the Estate of Lynd Ward

Today is more than the usual New Year’s Day. It marks the bicentennial of the very day the 20-year-old Mary Shelley published her masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus on January 1, 1818. It was an immediate popular success. The book would rock the world, and inspire films, theater adaptations, television shows, video games, sequels, and spinoffs. But today’s public conception of the hero may owe more to Boris Karloff‘s iconic 1931 film role than to the “the Creature” that Shelley created in her classic, with its complicated and troubling humanity.

Hence, the winter “Another Look” event spotlights Shelley’s Frankenstein. The discussion will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 24, at the Bechtel Conference Center. Frankenstein will be a special two-hour event with four panelists. So far, we’ve seen a lot of interest in this one from the medical and technology  communities – at Stanford and beyond. We’re bracing for a full house.

Another Look’s winter event on Frankenstein is part of Stanford’s year-long celebration of the bicentennial of the book’s publication. Shelley’s tale has proved timely, even prophetic, given our current concerns about artificial intelligence, stem cells, and animal-to-human transplants. Frankenstein explores the role of conscience in creation, and asks: What does it mean to be human? Is it wise to play God? What are the creator’s moral obligations towards his or her creation?

While the campus-wide Frankenstein@200 will explore the moral, scientific, sociological, ethical and spiritual dimensions of the book, Another Look will focus on the book as a literary work: a flowering of the romantic imagination, as well as a pioneering landmark in science fiction.

According to critic Harold Bloom, “The greatest paradox and most astonishing achievement of Mary Shelley’s novel is that the monster is more human than his creator. This nameless being, as much a modern Adam as his creator is a modern Prometheus, is more lovable than his creator and more hateful, more to be pitied and more to be feared, and above all able to give the attentive reader that shock of added consciousness in which aesthetic recognition compels a heightened realization of the self.”

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by three panelists who have all taught Frankenstein at Stanford: French Prof. Dan Edelstein, Classics Prof. Andrea Nightingale, and former Stanford fellow Inga Pierson.

The panelists will be focusing on the original 1818 version of the novel, rather than the later 1831 edition – and discussing some of the differences between the two. You can find the Oxford edition of the original at the Stanford Bookstore, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto. (But don’t worry if you’ve read a different edition!)

The Another Look book club takes on short classics that have been forgotten, neglected, or overlooked—or may simply not have received the attention they merit. The selected works are short, in order to encourage the involvement of Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Subscription at is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.

All Another Look events are free and open to the public – and please bring your friends!

A New Year’s resolution from Nietzsche: “I do not even want to accuse those who accuse…”

December 31st, 2017

~ From “Sanctus Januarius” in Friedrich Nietzsche‘s Joyful Wisdom (1882). (Krzysztof Michalski‘s interpretation of Nietzsche is here, in “Krzysztof Michalski: Without Death – there is no me.”)

Hat tip to our friend and colleague from the New York Public Library, Paul Holdengraber.

And a very Happy New Year to all Book Haven readers!


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