Archive for August, 2013

Seamus Heaney at Stanford

Saturday, August 31st, 2013
Seamus Heaney

Portrait of the poet as a young man.

Seamus Heaney, who died yesterday at 74, never taught at Stanford, but he did visit here at least once.  I was thumbing through Stepping Stones, the book-length Q&A with the late Dennis O’Driscoll, which I purchased after he mentioned it in his second letter to me (see yesterday’s post about that brief encounter here).  As with my usual impulsive book purchases, I had more money than time, so I never did more than crack the spine.  I did today though, and ran across this:

O’Driscoll:  Did you meet Thom Gunn?

Heaney:  During my later visit, yes, a couple of times. I don’t think we encountered in 1971/2. But when I was Beckman Professor [at the University of California] in 1976, Donald Davie organized a dinner in his house in Stanford and sent Alan Shapiro to collect me and drive me down. Alan was his graduate student at the time and had a car.  Thom Gunn was a guest that evening also and the whole event went off with great brio; but what I remember most was the fact that Thom had hitch-hiked down from San Francisco.  No pampering there – even the bus was too much for him.  I think, by the way, that I stilll like the iambic, English side of Gunn better.  Fighting Terms is a terrific first book; and there are poems like “The Discovery of the Pacific” and those late Dantesque treatments of the pre-AIDS gay scene in San Francisco.  He can really build the pressure when his stanzas are working for him.


Gunn: he packed a punch

It wasn’t courage only that led Gunn to thumb his way down to Palo Alto from his Upper Haight apartment. He doesn’t drive, at all.  Who needs to in San Francisco, he told me.  (I suppose he still could have taken some sort of bus, if there was was one … which I doubt.)

To my knowledge, I was the last person to interview Thom Gunn. The Q&A  ran posthumously in the Georgia Review in Spring 2005 – alas, it’s not online.  Now Gunn did teach at Stanford, briefly, for one quarter.  I wrote about that here.

Au revoir, Seamus Heaney! My two letters from the Nobel laureate

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Generous, humble, and glowing from the inside

“You of all people!”  That’s how my first letter from Nobel poet Seamus Heaney began.  It’s not hard to keep track of them; there were only two.  This, the first one, was in a large envelope,  addressed in his loose, open handwriting in December 2007.  His Strand Street address was in one corner, and some attractive, carefully chosen stamps with foxgloves, dandelions, and black bog rush.  (You see how carefully I still treasure this missive?)  I had written half a year before to ask that the Irish poet contribute his memories to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, and hadn’t received an answer.  When I heard today that he’d died, at 74, I went and pulled the letter out of a storage chest.

“You of all people! I’m very sorry to have overlooked your letter of last July: your book of Conversations with Czeslaw is one of the most helpful and constantly readable, and I’ve admired several reviews,” he wrote. He wanted to contribute, but warned that his memoir would be brief, and asked if I thought this would look “niggardly.” He kindly enclosed another piece on Joseph Brodsky, which he’d written for our mutual friend Valentina Polukhina. He neglected to remind me that he was still recovering from his 2006 stroke when I first wrote him, and had cancelled work for a year afterward.

heaney2Well, this was the man.  He was being humble to me.  It’s a powerful lesson in noblesse oblige, whether in poetry or some other field.  But one has to admit in the literary arena, it’s somewhat rare.  As an editor or journalist, one is more likely to be treated like an annoying tick than a respected colleague.  I pinned the letter to my wall for several years, to look at it in the bad times.

So I even treasured the second letter from Dublin, nine months later, signed simply “Seamus” with handwritten insertions (this one with a stamp featuring sea asters).  He wouldn’t be able to contribute after all.  He was about to set out on a road show with Dennis O’Driscoll (who died before him, I wrote about Seamus’s generous tribute hailing him as “my hero” here) – they’d just published a book-length Q&A called Stepping Stones – plus a TV documentary for his 70th birthday.  Given his schedule, and he was “naturally very sorry not to have been able to deliver a piece that would do credit to Czeslaw and indeed to myself before now.”  Henceforth we communicated back-and-forth through a flurry of emails via the mysterious cyberspace intermediary “Susie,” since she had an email address and he didn’t – he admitted “I’m still at the scriptorium stage of development.” We wound up reprinting his earlier memoir, “In Gratitude for All the Gifts” for the book, written when his fellow Nobelist had died in 2004. And no, it wasn’t “niggardly” at all.  It was, like him, generous and humble and glowing from the inside, like a peat fire in a cold Irish winter.

Postscript from Jane Hirshfield, as always eloquent. Jane joins the world in mourning the loss of Seamus Heaney, one of its greatest, most eloquent, and most generous poets. She writes: “In his presence and in his words, you felt always the embrace of being. His words brought the burnish of original seeing. You were made, quite simply, more alive by his aliveness, in life and on the page – as in the opening poem from his 2010 collection, Human Chain:

Had I Not Been Awake

Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it

It came and went too unexpectedly
And almost it seemed dangerously,
Hurtling like an animal at the house,

A courier blast that there and then
Lapsed ordinary. But not ever
Afterwards. And not now.


Two poets, held in memory…

Robertson Davies goes postal on his 100th birthday!

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

birthday cakeOh dear, oh dear, oh dear!  How could we have almost overlooked that today is the centenary of Robertson Davies, an author who has given us so much wisdom and laughter?

Whew!  Fortunately we’re just in time for the day.  Happy birthday, Robertson!  And we’ve baked you a little cake to celebrate!

How could we forget the man who said:

“A happy childhood has spoiled many a promising life.”

“I do not ‘get’ ideas; ideas get me.”

“The dog is a yes-animal. Very popular with people who can’t afford a yes man.”

“Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons.”

robertson2“Do not suppose, however, that I intend to urge a diet of classics on anybody. I have seen such diets at work. I have known people who have actually read all, or almost all, the guaranteed Hundred Best Books. God save us from reading nothing but the best.”

“Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.”

“Inactivity and deprivation of all accustomed stimulus is not rest; it is a preparation for the tomb”

“Fanaticism is overcompensation for doubt.”

Fortunately, fortunately, the Canadian post is on top of things, which makes a nice change.  They’re issuing a commemorative stamp.  (Canadian readers, can you send me one?)

Here’s how Canada’s National Post summarized his career:

Born in 1913 in Thamesville, Ontario, Davies had a long and distinguished literary career, not only as a novelist, but also as a playwright, journalist, and critic.

Davies’ career spanned six decades and numerous genres. In 1940, he became the literary editor of Saturday Night magazine. He was also a longtime editor for the Peterborough Examiner.

davies3A lover of theatre, Davies wrote more than dozen plays during his lengthy career, and would help launch Canada’s Stratford Festival in 1953, where he served on its board of governors.

Davies was also the founding master of the University of Toronto’s Massey College, in 1963, where students jumped at the chance to hear him tell ghost stories each Christmas.

The author’s greatest success came from the 11 novels he published during his lifetime. The most famous of those, The Fifth Business (1970), was on the Toronto Star bestseller list for 42 weeks, and would form one part of The Deptford Trilogy.

Davies won many awards, including a Booker Prize, a Governor General’s Literary Award (for The Manticore), and the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour (for Leaven of Malice).

Towards the end of his life, Davies himself responded to such introductions this way: “The introducer has approached me by what may be called the biographical path. He begins by telling that I was born, and when, and where. As soon as he mentions the date of my birth I can see the audience doing a little sum in their heads, after which they look at me with renewed interest to see how I am carrying the burden of my years. He is all kindness; he romps through the public details of my life, but under the circumstances I cannot laugh or weep.”

RobertsonDaviesThat’s from the 1989 Paris Review interview with Elisabeth Sifton.  I was happy to read that Davies confirms my own prejudice about writing by hand.  No surprise, perhaps.  Like me, he began in the daily wipes:


Now, the requisite Paris Review question: How do you write your novels? In your instance, this is a more interesting question than usual because you have an extraordinarily beautiful italic hand. Do you write the first draft of your novel longhand or do you type?


daviesI type because writing by hand I find to be a very great betrayer. If you write carefully and try to write legibly, as I do, you finish a page and think, That’s a handsome page. This is absolutely wrong. Also, you can only write so long with a pen before your hand becomes tired, and then your invention begins to tire. If you type, which I do because I had my earliest training as a newspaperman and learned to use the typewriter readily, you have what you’ve written there before you cold and bare. Then you can go over it, and it is as though someone else had written it and you can edit it with great severity. I am a terrible fidget about form, and the first typed draft is often pitifully ragged and messy. But then after it goes to my secretary, who makes a clean copy, I revise extensively. The heavy work is done, but I like revising. As for editing, though I try to be stringent, you will recall that I resist your editorlike zeal for total clarity—all the lights blazing and not a dark corner to be found. I am a writer much given to light and shade, and I firmly believe that to know all is to despise all.

Read the rest here, and pop open a bottle of champers for “The Man.”

Eth, thorn, and ash: they flunked the screen test for our alphabet

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Clapboard (clapperboard) isolatedEver wonder why we use the same letters “th” for the “this” and “thin”?  It is not always so in foreign languages – and didn’t have to be in ours. The answer is in the “eth”:

 eth“Originating from Irish, it was meant to represent a slightly different pronunciation of the “th” sound, more like that in ‘thought’ or ‘thing’ as opposed to the one found in ‘this’ or ‘them.’ (The first is the voiceless dental fricative, the second is the voiced dental fricative).

“Note that, depending on your regional accent, there may not be much of a difference (or any at all) in the two pronunciations anyway, but that’s Modern English. Back in the old days, the difference was much more distinct. As such, you’d often see texts with both eth and thorn depending on the required pronunciation. Before too long, however, people just began using thorn for both (and later ‘th’) and so eth slowly became unnecessary.”

The sad story is that this most useful letter didn’t make it into the final cut for our 26-letter alphabet.  The other far-flung rejects come from Iceland, Rome, and elsewhere.  A must-read over at mental floss features a few more.

Here are a couple favorites:

thornHave you ever seen a place that calls itself “ye olde whatever”? As it happens, that’s not a “y”, or, at least, it wasn’t supposed to be. Originally, it was an entirely different letter called thorn, which derived from the Old English runic alphabet, Futhark.

Thorn, which was pronounced exactly like the “th” in its name, is actually still around today in Icelandic. We replaced it with “th” over time—thorn fell out of use because Gothic-style scripting made the letters y and thorn look practically identical. And, since French printing presses didn’t have thorn anyway, it just became common to replace it with a y. Hence naming things like, “Ye Olde Magazine of Interesting Facts” (just as an example, of course).

And here’s the old familiar “ash,” as in Cæsar.

ashYou’re probably familiar with this guy from old-fashioned Greek or Roman style text, especially the kind found in churches. It’s even still used stylistically in words today, like æther and æon.

What you may not know, however, is that at one time the ae grapheme (as it’s now known) was an honorary English letter back in the days of Old English. It still had the same pronunciation and everything, it was just considered to be part of the alphabet and called “æsc” or “ash”after the ash Futhark rune, for which it was used as a substitute when transcribing into Latin

Read the rest over at mentalfloss here.  Anyone up for a revival?

A useful update from the University of Michigan’s John Lawler:

lawlerEth/Edh (ð) and ash (æ) are letters in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and also frequently-used phonemic symbols for English. Thorn never made it, however — the IPA and English phonemic symbol for voiceless interdental fricative is Greek theta (θ); ð is voiced, θ is voiceless. In most Middle English dialects, there was little or no phonemic distinction between voiced and voiceless TH; this was true of fricatives in general. But a multitude of changes brought distinctions between /s/ and /z/, /f/ and /v/, and inevitably /θ/ and /ð/. Though there are only two known minimal pairs for the /θ/-/ð/ distinction: ether (θ) vs either (ð), and thigh θ) vs thy (ð). This means that there’s very little “functional load” in the distinction, and that’s why we can get away with spelling them both the same way. Most people don’t even notice such differences until they collide with something.

For Beckett, this is what a “happy” play looks like…

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Courtney Walsh as Winnie … I’d go into a tunnel, too.

After Samuel Beckett wrote his play KrappMaureen Cusack, wife of the leading actor Cyril Cusack, suggested that he “write a  happy play.”  Happy Days is the Irish playwright’s idea of a happy play.  “But what is the play about?” Stanford Summer Theater Artistic Director Rush Rehm asks.  “A marriage?  The onslaught of old age and physical limitation? The strength of a female psyche in the face of the inevitable?  The humor (and hell) of habit?”


“Krapp” … definitely not a happy play

Come to the Nitery for the final performance tomorrow afternoon.  Or rather don’t come, because the tickets are gone.  Or rather do come, and take your chances – doors shut promptly at 2 p.m., and no latecomers are seated, so that provides a few unexpected opportunities.  There were a few empty seats around me today.

In any case, here’s the story, in Rush’s words: “Winnie finds herself buried to her waist in a mound of earth, but she carries on with irrepressible energy, winning zest, and that ‘deriding smile’ for which Beckett is famous.”  Spoiler:  By Act II, she’s up to her neck. Her husband Willie grunts, hacks, harrumphs, and eventually emerges (in Act II) from behind the mound of sand.  Not much to go on, yes?  Here’s what Beckett thought it was about, as related by Brenda Bruce, the first Winnie in 1962:

He said: “Well I thought that the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody, would be not to be allowed to sleep so that just as you’re dropping off there’s be a ‘Dong’ and you’d have to keep awake; you’re sinking into the ground alive and it’s full of ants; and the sun is shining endlessly day and night and there is not a tree … there’s no shade, nothing, and that bell wakes you up all the time and all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life.” He was referring to the life of the modern woman. Then he said: “And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”

When the play was performed in 1962, critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that it was “a metaphor extended beyond its capacity” – then urged his readers to buy tickets.

Courtney Walsh‘s 80-minute uninterrupted monologue – uninterrupted except for a few brief interruptions from Don DeMico’s “Willie” – is a tour-de-force, a restless, chirpy show of indefatigable brightness that would drive just about any thoughtful, introspective soul into a tunnel.  Rush rightly calls it “the Mt. Everest of female roles,” so it’s perhaps the most impressive achievement of her long association with Stanford Summer Theater.

UPDATE:  For the official wait list go here.


Maureen’s hubby

UPDATE on 4/2/2014:  Sometimes an error produces interesting mail.  We received this email from Paul Cusack:

Firstly, I suspect that S. Beckett would have been amused by the mis-conjugation, my mother was not his wife! My father Cyril was my mother’s wife. I was there, in Paris in 1960, aged 14, when my father played Krapp at the Theatre des Nations and won Critics Award Best Actor. I was not allowed to see it. It was then, that my mum said, ‘Sam, would you ever write a happy play?’.

I am told, that around about the same time, Sam asked my father what he thought of Krapp, and he said, ‘I think it is a load of Protestant guilt’, to which (I imagine after a ‘significant’ pause) Sam responded, ‘I think you’re probably right!’

Thanks for the correction.

Marilyn Yalom is having a good year – and so is How the French Invented Love

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

yalomMarilyn Yalom, author of How the French Invented Love, dropped me a line to tell me her book has been noticed in high places (read more about it here and here and here).

She’s just been nominated for a Phi Beta Kappa Society Christian Gauss Award, which carries a $10,000 prize.  The prize is offered for literary scholarship or criticism.

The other nominated books are are:  Charles Dickens and ‘Boz’: The Birth of the Industrial-Age Author, by Robert L. Patten; Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, by Claudia L. Johnson; The Long and Short of it: From Aphorism to Novel, by Gary Saul Morson; and The Worlds of Langston Hughes: Modernism and the Translation in the Americas, by Vera M. Kutzinski.

how-the-french-invented-lovePrevious award winners have included books written by eminent authors such as Harold Bloom, Christopher Benfey, and Marjorie Garber.

That’s in addition to the earlier news that she’s been nominated for the American Library in Paris Book Award, given to the best book of the year in English about France or the French-American encounter.  The 2013 book award jury is high-powered:  Diane Johnson, Adam Gopnik, and Julian Barnes.

The winner of the award receives a prize of $5,000. But this may be the best part: the winner is invited to Paris, with air travel and accommodation at the Library’s expense, for an award ceremony on and a public reading.

Both awards will be announced in October.  It will be an interesting month.  Stay tuned.