Archive for August, 2019

“A Genius, Without a Doubt”: Ted Gioia considers Gershwin’s legacy

Saturday, August 31st, 2019

The year of his death. (Photo: Carl Van Vechten)

Jazz scholar Ted Gioia‘s personal connection to George Gershwin’s music goes back to his teenage years, when he first started performing his music on the piano.

Ted reviews the newest biography, Richard Crawford‘s Summertime, in A Genius, Without a Doubt, in yesterday’s Wall Street JournalTed describes it as “a genial account … that demonstrates his passion for Gershwin on almost every page.” At nearly 600 pages, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Many biographies precede it: the earliest, George Gershwin: A Study in American Music, was published in 1931 to coincide with the composer’s 33rd birthday – not as soon as it might seem. The gifted composer died at 38 of a brain tumor.

It was the first of many biographies: “Two dozen more have appeared since, along with various musicological studies, sheet-music compilations and other works,” Ted writes. “Howard Pollack’s George Gershwin: His Life and Work, published in 2006, clocks in at almost 900 pages and stands out from the pack for its intelligence and depth. Ira Gershwin, the composer’s brother and frequent lyricist, left us a charming 1959 volume titled Lyrics on Several Occasions, a gossipy and insightful guide to their collaborations. Finally, I’ve consulted the chapter on Gershwin in Alec Wilder’s seminal American Popular Song (1972) so many times that my copy is falling to pieces (perhaps the ultimate testimony to a beloved book).”

His legacy? “Gershwin’s reputation as a composer is still going strong 100 years after he emerged on the music scene, but probably not in the way he envisioned. Sheet-music sales don’t generate much income nowadays, and Broadway has almost become a Disney theme park, but Gershwin calls the tune in other, unexpected places. You will hear his melodies everywhere from Starbucks playlists to United Airlines flight-safety videos.”

Yet Ted finds it puzzling that Gershwin “allegedly legitimized jazz as serious music with the success of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in 1924 but that not a single jazz musician was able to benefit from this crossover success.

“You might think that Duke Ellington or James P. Johnson or some other jazz star would have also been embraced as a composer of symphonic music. But the door opened for Gershwin and quickly shut behind him. We can hardly blame Gershwin for this—he was, after all, an ardent champion of his favorite jazz musicians—yet it remains an important matter and isn’t dealt with anywhere in these pages.”

He concludes: “We still need a book that makes a strong case for this towering figure’s relevance in our own time.” Read the rest here.

Postscript on 8/31: A Facebook comment from journalist Jeff Selbst:  The fallacy cited is that somehow Gershwin was a ‘crossover’ figure who should have been followed with the same respect by James P. Johnson or Duke Ellington. This fundamentally misunderstands Gershwin’s music and his place within music history.  He was emphatically not a composer of jazz. Every analysis will reveal a composer who began firmly in the tradition of Tin Pan Alley and transitioned successfully to a conservative classical tradition. “Jazz,” if it exists at all in his music, is a spice, an overlay, a hint of exoticism over well-shaped post-Romantic classical music. His most important works were written in the late 20s through the mid to late 30s, a period in which really revolutionary things were being done in music (Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Ravel), something Gershwin recognized when he went to Paris to ask Ravel to teach him and was famously turned down. (In a wonderful irony. Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto in G shortly after meeting Gershwin and guess who seemed to have rubbed off on him!)

The point of all this is that the door didn’t open and close around a seminal jazz figure. He was never the groundbreaking figure that some musicologists pretend. That said, I find his music bloody irresistible.

Ann Kjellberg asks: Is there a role for strong, considered thinking in our digital future?

Tuesday, August 27th, 2019

Editor par excellence

Ann Kjellberg is known to many as the executor of the Joseph Brodsky Estate and a former New York Review of Books contributing editor. We’ve published her views of Joseph Brodsky translations of his verse into English here. She is also the editor of the journal Little StarBut for last year, she has taken on an additional role – she’s also launched Book Post, a subscription-based book review.

From her latest post, “Notebook: The Writer of the Future”

… the promise of the “free” internet, a public square where the best ideas rise to the surface, seems increasingly remote. Recent events have shown not only how easy it is to game the system, but that the system by its nature juices our most destructive impulses. Anger, fear, conflict—these drive clicks, the “engagement” that whips up user data, and the algorithms that determine what we see respond to engagement: a digital fight attracts engagement just as violence draws a crowd. “Whenever something significant happens it attracts negative emotions,” [tech pioneer Jaron] Lanier says, “negative emotions are the most addictive patterns … You engage people by ruining society. That is the current business model.” Algorithms reacting to the worst in us organize what we see; plus the Federal Communications Commission’s 2017 repeal of net neutrality enables industry heavyweights to buy our attention outright.Writing (read, any creative endeavor) begins in solitude. An editor approaches a solitary person, a person who has given long thought to something, whether a creative idea, or the product of careful research or analysis, something they have nurtured alone in order eventually to share it with others, and helps them navigate this transition, from thinking to disclosing. I began Book Post a year or so ago because I was looking into this feverish swamp of disclosure, where ideas are told to move fast, to scrape up “engagement,” to become “viral” (formerly a bad thing), and I wondered how strong, considered thinking is going to take hold in our digital future. What happens when people who develop substantive ideas cannot be compensated, and, on the other side, when readers and consumers are not provided with good information? News journalism has strong defenders, but what about other, slower, more fundamental ideas, the ones that ground our culture and inform our values?

She discusses the predicament of the writer, and her hope “to create rooms in which writing can grow,” here.

Au revoir to Yale’s Alexander Schenker: “intelligence,” “quick wit,” and “the ability to understand the soul of another human being.”

Friday, August 23rd, 2019

A postwar life at Yale. (Photo: Andrzej Franaszek)

Author and Slavic scholar Alexander Schenker died today. He was 94. The Kraków-born scholar was deported to a Soviet labor camp in 1940, after the fall of Poland in World War II. As he put it, “As if answering my childish prayers, World War II interrupted my general education in the ninth grade of Polish high school. As a result, I had to spend my formative years outside of Poland.”

He studied at a university in Tajikistan, then left the Soviet Union in 1946 and studied at the Sorbonne, followed by graduate studies in Yale’s Department of Linguistics, receiving a Ph.D. in 1953. He taught at Yale until his retirement in 1995.

A Facebook tribute from Andrzej Franaszek, author of celebrated biographies of Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert (translated from the Polish by Alla Makeeva Roylance):

“Alexander Schenker has died, or rather, Olek, as he was called by those who knew him. His biography covers a whole chunk of the last century. From his life in Kraków during the 1920s and 1930s, the war flung him deep into the Soviet Union. A few years later, luck brought him to the States, then to his studies in Paris, and later a return to the East Coast, settling in New Haven, with decades of work at Yale. He was a Slavist, the author of textbooks. The last book, which apparently is being published by “słowo/obraz terytoria” [the name of a publishing house] is about the monument to Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. He was a man blessed with a gift of selflessness. A close friend of Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert; he also knew a good many Polish artists. He was veritable fountain of wit, but at the same time he possessed something much more important – psychological insight, empathy, the ability to understand a soul of another human being. His combination of intelligence and quick wit made him the perfect embodiment of the best Polish-Jewish cultural amalgam. In recent years, he came to Krasnogruda [Miłosz’s birthplace, now a conference center], on the invitation of Krzysztof Czyżewski; he began to work on his memories, and he also had a chance to talk about Herbert in front of Rafael Lewandowski‘s camera, so we will see him again in the fall – or at least his image, a specter of him. A very important person in my life. Kind, profound, I owe him a lot. If only for the  fact that eighteen years ago, in New Haven, Olek and his wife Krystyna made me feel like a family, invited me to their beautiful house in the woods – hosted, uplifted, mentored me. And many more such guests were there before me (and what guests! even Jerzy Turowicz) and after …”

I knew him from my work with him on his essay, “Wanderer,” in my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław MiłoszAn excerpt:

“I knew that Miłosz was superstitious; therefore, I never dared mention a possibility of his being nominated for the Nobel, although such a speculation circulated quite openly by then. Still, I was confident (and for good reason, as it turned out ten years later) that a simple comment on the “nobelization” process did not warrant a jinx from whatever dark forces were at play. Therefore, I allowed myself to remind him how important it was to have good English and Swedish translations of his work. As an example, I cited the case of a Bosnian writer, Ivo Andrić, who received a Nobel just a few years after his Bridge on the Drina appeared in a Swedish translation. I did it deliberately because I was satisfied neither with the quantity nor with the quality of existing English renditions of Miłosz’s poetry, which, unlike Herbert’s or Tadeusz Różewicz’s, does not lend itself easily to translation. Although clear as crystal in his prose, in his poetry Miłosz makes his exposition denser and emphasizes the phonetic aspect of the verse, especially in his frequent references to the language of bygone centuries and to dialects. The fact that, even in the loosely fitting garment of the English tongue, Miłosz achieved such an enthusiastic following among international readers and literary critics is yet another measure of his greatness.”

My last correspondence with him was on November 15, 2012. I had just suffered a nasty spam attack on my email account. I was mortified. My entire mailing list received an email purportedly from me, under the subject header: “Hey about careers in online marketing?” The body of the text included some cheesy story about hard work poorly remunerated, and urging clicks to a scammy website so that the recipient can say goodbye to bad jobs forever. The most witty and rueful reply to me was from Alexander Schenker, a former inmate in a Soviet forced labor camp:

“Mine was even worse – It was cold and I was paid in kopecks, Alex”

Postscript on August 24: An email from Prof. Susanne Fusso of Wesleyan University: “I would probably have left graduate school after one year if it hadn’t been for Alexander Schenker. He listened to me (a blessing in itself), gave me a stipend, and gave me a job. I will always remember his kindness. My deepest sympathy to his family.”

The most romantic words of all are not “I love you.” Here’s something better.

Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

Authors Mary Morris, Larry O’Connor celebrating their 30th anniversary in Brooklyn last night.

Most people say the three most beloved words in the English language are “I love you.” I’ve always contended the top three should be “You are right.” But what are the top seven? I think novelist Mary Morris nailed it with this Facebook anecdote celebrating her thirtieth wedding anniversary to author Larry O’Connor yesterday. Consider it another in our sequence of courtship stories (our inaugural one last year, on “Romance on the Rails in NYC,” is here).

Thirty years ago today I made one of the best decisions of my life. I married this smart, funny, rock solid human being. I don’t think I know anyone with a sharper moral compass, a more decent soul, or a keener sense of beauty. I have never met anyone who can stare longer at a single painting or wait more patiently outside the ladies room. We have raised a child and several animals, traveled the world, lived in our home, and been partners in work and crime. (Well, there have been minimal crimes.)

But truth be told there was a moment of doubt years ago when we were engaged. We hadn’t known one another that long. I had a small child and a lot of responsibility. I’d also inherited a little bit of money that was my nest egg. Friends were adamant that I get a prenuptial. When I told Larry, he said it was fine. I should call a lawyer. But months went by and I never got around to it.

Valentine’s Day rolled around and Larry came home with a dozen roses and an enormous schmaltzy card. You know the kind. With spring flowers and a giant heart and glitter and birds making nests out of ribbon. The most garish card I’d ever seen – enough to make me doubt my decision even more.

When I opened it, Larry had written, “I love you. I will never sue you over assets.”

I’ve never looked back. I am incredibly grateful. To my fellow traveler, husband, friend, thank you. Here’s to thirty more.

Morris is the author of 2018’s Gateway to the Moon – “A sweeping generational tale that stretches from the Spanish Inquisition to modern-day New Mexico, beginning with Luis de Torres, a Spanish Jew who accompanies Columbus as his interpreter,” according to the New York Post.

Postscript: And it turns out there is a Stanford connection to this story. O’Connor’s 2003 book, Tip of the Iceberg, was nominated for a Stanford Libraries’ Saroyan Prize.

A Nobel for Bob Dylan? “Grow up!” says a guy who is still on a rant about it.

Monday, August 19th, 2019

I’ve been privileged to know three Nobel writers in my life, though my connection with Seamus Heaney was only a brief, epistolary one. So to see songwriter Bob Dylan placed in the same empyrean in 2016 … well, it gave me pause. 

It gave one other writer a lot more than that. Professor and blogger Akim Reinhardt over at the esteemed 3quarksdaily wrote a long rant today called,“I Have A Concussion And Can’t Write 2,000 New Words, So Here’s An Old, Unpublished Essay About How Ridiculous It Is That Bob Dylan Won A Nobel.”

An excerpt or two:

Ugh. Bob Dylan.

Even though we’re well into the 21st century and half the Baby Boomers are collecting Social Security, they’re still determined to thumb their noses at their parents. Even the Swedish ones, apparently. So Bob Dylan gets a Nobel Prize in Literature.

I told you, daaaaaaaaad! My music is art toooo! Seeee?

You know what? You’re dad’s dead. Grow up. Find a new battle to fight. Go argue with your grandkids or something.

Bob Dylan. Jesus.

The guy plagiarized substantial portions of the only prose book he ever wrote, his 2005 memoir. You’d think that right there would disqualify a writer from winning the world’s most prestigious lifetime literary award. But this is the Age of Truthiness, so I guess all bets are off.

Nobel? Puleez!

After the announcement, predictability set in.  Would he or wouldn’t he accept? Yawn. Shortly before the deadline for handing in an acceptance speech or else have the offer of a tacky medallion and substantial monetary award rescinded, like the miserable teenage stoner that he is, Dylan predictably submitted a plagiarized essay, replete with classic misinterpretation of Moby Dick, and cribbed in part from the cheating industry’s 300 lb. gorilla, Spark Notes.

Good. That’s exactly what the Swedish Academy deserves for putting its finest lipstick on a clever little pig.

High literary crimes and misdemeanors aside, however, the real issue of course is merit. When I think of great literature, I think of words that offer penetrating insight into the human condition. But I was 14 years old the last time I thought a Dylan song carried that kind of punch. Lounging in the backseat of my parents’ ‘69 Buick LeSabre, “Blowin’ in the Wind” came on the AM radio.

“Wow, that is so deep,” I thought to myself unironically.

Did I mention I was 14? I was also really moved by paintings of big-breasted women with swords.

Not long after that, however, the bloom came off. Part of it was my increasing revulsion with the cultish adulation heaped upon Dylan, of people solemnly praising the “bard,” “the master.”  Of straight-faced people putting him on a par with William Shakespeare, a not uncommon sentiment during the 1970s.



Don’t get me wrong. Dylan wrote some great songs. But his lyrics are quite erratic in quality. Their “literary artistry” profits immeasurably from the musical enhancements of his song craft, which is often excellent. Dude knows chords and melody, and always surrounds himself with top notch musicians, producers, and engineers. But I think a lot of his words, when printed naked on the page, get exposed as pretentious, and even trite. At his best, Bob Dylan never struck me as the divine wordsmith that so many people make him out to be.

At the very least, I think it’s quite safe to say that he’s nowhere near the greatest English language lyricist of the 20th century. Authors such as Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, and Townes Van Zant, to name just a few, blow him away. Really, the list just goes on and on and on.

I know. They’re all dead, and therefore ineligible to win a Nobel. However, simply because the Nobel Committee was too stodgy to give the literature prize to a lyricist back when any of those folks were still alive is really no reason to give it to Dylan now that they’ve finally digested postmodernism and are willing to move beyond the rigid boundaries of staid categories.

Read the rest here.

No surprise that the literature award was suspended the following year. The shame, the shame.

Seamus Heaney and a toddler who “blew the heart wide open.”

Friday, August 16th, 2019

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other … 

Those are the opening lines of the Irish Nobel poet Seamus Heaney‘s “Postscript.” It was the subject of an email sent to me by Dartmouth English Professor James Heffernan a few days ago:

Dear Cynthia,

Having tracked down your email address, I write to follow up on my tweeted response to the story of your brief correspondence with Seamus Heaney in your blog—evidently something you posted some time ago, though I just caught up with it.

I first encountered Seamus in (I think) the mid-90s, when he came to Dartmouth – a short hop from Harvard, where he was then teaching for regular stints each year. Besides reading his poetry, he gave a thoroughly captivating lecture on the first chapter of Ulysses, which I heard with particular interest since I was then leading a seminar on it.

A few years later, in (I think) the summer of 1998, I met him at a Wordsworth conference in the English Lake District. When I told him how much I had enjoyed his lecture on Ulysses, he threw back his head and called it a “ludicrous” performance, thus disclaiming his right to say anything about Joyce for lack of professional credentials—or something like that. But not long after, when I read his essay on Brian Merriman’s “Midnight Court” in The Redress of Poetry, I was so struck by the resemblance between Merriman’s poem and Molly’s monologue that I wrote an essay on the two that appeared in James Joyce Quarterly (Summer 2004). When I sent it to Seamus with thanks, he replied cordially.

Discussing “Ulysses” at Dartmouth

But all that is background to his postcard, which came in response to a letter of mine about my son Andrew and his daughter Kate. In late 2005, as I recall, Andrew sent me an email saying that just after he had read aloud Heaney’s “Postscript” to his daughter Kate, he was surprised to find that she had memorized nearly all of it and recited it back to him. When I wrote to Seamus about this and mentioned that Kate was (then) two-and-a-half years old, he replied by postcard: “Kate Heffernan blows the heart wide open. The poetic line is alive and well, in ear and ancestry.”

In every way, he was truly a marvelous man.

He was indeed. And the toddler was indeed precocious. The marvelous poem ends this way:

…You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Read the whole thing here. Or listen to the Irish poet (we’ve written about him here and here and here) read it himself below.

Mali’s cultural hero Abdel Kader Haidara: how a librarian saved the treasures of Timbuktu

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

Abdel Kader Haidara explaining some of Timbuktu’s treasures.

The Islamic State ransacked and demolished mosques, shrines, churches, libraries, and historical monuments across the Middle East and North Africa.  There were a few heroes who stood against them. We wrote about one of them, Syria’s Khalid al-Assad, here. Here is another, librarian Abdel Kader Haidara, who rescued Timbuktu’s cultural treasures after the jihadist occupation of Mali in 2012.

According to the Wall Street Journal: “The prizes in Mr. Haidara’s own private collection, housed in his Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library, include a tiny, irregularly shaped Quran from the 12th century, written on parchment made from the dried skin of a fish and glittering with illuminated blue Arabic letters and droplets of gold. His collection also boasts many secular volumes: manuscripts about astronomy, poetry, mathematics, occult sciences and medicine, such as a 254-page volume on surgery and elixirs derived from birds, lizards and plants, written in Timbuktu in 1684.”

From Joshua Hammer’s 2016 article, recently reposted on the social media (Hammer’s earlier article on Haidara at the National Geographic is here):

A few days after the jihadist occupation began, Mr. Haidara, who worked full time as a book restorer, archivist and fundraiser, met with his colleagues at the office of the Timbuktu library association, which he had formed 15 years earlier. “I think we need to take out the manuscripts from the big buildings and disperse them around the city to family houses,” he told them, as he recalled the conversation for me two years later. “We don’t want them finding the collections of manuscripts and stealing them or destroying them.”

Months earlier, the Ford Foundation office in Lagos, Nigeria, had given Mr. Haidara a $12,000 grant to study English at Oxford in the fall and winter of 2012. The money had been wired to a savings account. He emailed the foundation and asked for authorization to reallocate the funds to protect the manuscripts from the hands of Timbuktu’s occupiers. The money was released in three days. Mr. Haidara recruited his nephew, and they reached out to archivists, secretaries, Timbuktu tour guides and a half-dozen of Mr. Haidara’s relatives.

The result was a heist worthy of “Ocean’s Eleven.” They bought metal and wooden trunks houses around the city and beyond. They organized a small army of packers who worked silently in the dark and arranged for the trunks to be carried by donkey to their hiding places. Over the course of eight months, the operation came to involve hundreds of packers, drivers and couriers. They smuggled the manuscripts out of Timbuktu by road and by river, past jihadist checkpoints and, in government territory, suspicious Malian troops. By the time French troops invaded the north in January 2013, the radicals had managed to destroy only 4,000 of Timbuktu’s nearly 400,000 ancient manuscripts. “If we hadn’t acted,” Mr. Haidara told me later, “I’m almost 100% certain that many, many others would have been burned.

Dick Macksey: “the cool professor who spoke a zillion languages, had read everything and owned half of it.”

Friday, August 9th, 2019


Dick Macksey at home in his library of 70,000 books.

More on the legendary Johns Hopkins University polymath Richard Macksey, who died last month. This time a lively memoir by by Bill Benzon over at his blog, New Savanna. It includes the curious story about how he wound up in the final report to the Ford Foundation on the renowned 1966 Baltimore symposium on “Structuralism” … without ever having attended. 

On the evening of July 22 I learned that Dick Macksey had died earlier that day. He was a Hopkins legend – a prodigious polymath who speaks who knows how many languages, a tireless teacher, a genial host, and an indefatigable conversationalist who owns more books than the Library of Alexandria, though only a few of them are quite so old. Everyone had said so for decades, and Everyone is now saying it again. The thing about legends is that they are based in fact, but are also used to distance the facts they’re based on.


Truth is, I probably took the course in part because I had heard the legend, about this cool professor who spoke a zillion languages, had read everything and owned half of it, could talk his way from Baltimore to Towson (just north of Baltimore for those who don’t know the area) by way of Lubbock, Timbuktu, Paris, Moscow, and Dublin, and who smoked a pipe. What’s to tell, strictly from memory?


Home sweet home.

I worked with Macksey for seven years between 1966, the spring of my freshman year at Johns Hopkins, and the fall 1973, when I went to SUNY Buffalo to get a doctorate in English lit. I have had occasional contact with him since then. I knew the legend. I would also like to think I glimpsed something of the man.

I came away with the impression that the Macksey-behind-the-curtain worked really hard. Of course, anyone who knows him knew that he worked hard. How else could he get it all done, teaching four, five, six courses – and on two campuses (Arts and Sciences at Homewood, the Medical School in East Baltimore), advising the Chaplain’s Office on films (not to mention hosting discussions of them in his library screening room), the editing, the correspondence, the guests, and who knows what else? His family, Catherine and Alan! But here I’d been in the middle of the maelstrom. I’m tempted to say that I felt just a bit like Mickey Mouse drowning in that whirlpool of freely associating brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. But it was Macksey himself who was riding the waves and there was no sorcerer to calm the waves. He just had to ride it out.


This is from an article that had appeared in the Hopkins Gazette:

“You needed a profession, and we didn’t have any medical people in my family, so I said, sure, I’m going into medicine,” Macksey says. “It got adults off your back when you said you were going to study medicine. And then I gradually realized that it was a way to give meaning to your life—or at least to make a plausible story.”

Bingo! “It got adults off your back.”

And he’s been doing it all his life. It’s the “adults” who insist that knowledge be divided into discipline, each carefully insulated from one another. It’s the inner six-year-old who insists that the world isn’t like that, so inquiry shouldn’t be like that either. It was the inner six-year-old piloting those flights of intellectual fancy Macksey was famous for, demonstrating that it’s the knowledge that matters, not you or me or Milton Eisenhower. He’s got the chops to fly us to the moon and back.

Read more here.
Meanwhile, a Book Haven exclusive: former student Peter Koper sent us his memories of the academic year 1966-67 at Johns Hopkins University:

Late night in a darkened Levering Hall, a flickering 16 mm. film series was overseen by a tweed and tie, dark glasses, tobacco pipe gesticulating figure with a pile of books under his arm. It was one of the only places in Baltimore to see foreign films and my first introduction to Dr. Richard Macksey. On the all male undergraduate campus populated with students fiercely focused on science, math, and engineering, we few wandering misfits – often in an LSD haze – yearned to become poètes maudits. And we had found our teacher, mentor, patron.

Dr. Macksey’s intimate, free-ranging, classes worked off an impossibly extensive list of dense books we were supposedly reading. But no matter, the real treat for hypnotized students arrayed at his feet was his non-stop stream of consciousness of the entire oeuvre of world literature. A discussion of Grotowski‘s Towards a Poor Theater would somehow end up with Antonin Artaud‘s colon cancer. Dr. Macksey was dazzling. The highest honor was to be invited to a seminar at his oriental carpeted, book packed home. He was so revered that the student weekly News-Letter I worked on ran a 42 point screaming front page tabloid headline “STRUCTURALISM!” for a news story about Dr. Macksey’s ground breaking world symposium at Hopkins.

When I became the co-editor of the Hopkins literary publication, Dr. Macksey was a loyal and caring advisor. We changed the name from the august Charles Street Review to the incendiary DeathBurger and filled its pages with radical literary screed and illustrations. We caused a campus ruckus and went over budget. It lasted two issues. But Dr. Macksey had our back and shielded us from an irate administration.

Like neolithic elders passing on wisdom around the campfire, teachers who mold us live in memory till the end. Dr. Macksey will remain in mine.

“Gardens grow backward and forward in the mind”: Beverley Bie Brahic’s poem on mortality and apples

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

There are sometimes unexpected benefits for going to the gym. I discovered one yesterday, when I encountered friend, poet, and translator, Beverley Bie Brahic, en route to renew a few books at Green Library before I headed for the elliptical. We discussed her recent poem in The New Yorker, which I very much admired, and she gave me permission to republish it, with the proviso that I include a link back to the original New Yorker publication, which also includes Beverley reading her poem. (Check it out.)


Apple Thieves

In his dishevelled garden my neighbor
Has fourteen varieties of apples,
Fourteen trees his wife put in as seedlings
Because, being sick, she wanted something
Different to do (different from being sick).

In winter she ordered catalogues, pored
Over subtleties of mouthfeel and touch:
Tart and sweet and crisp; waxysmooth,
And rough. Spring planted an orchard,
Spring projected summers

Of green and yellow-streaked, orange, red,
Rusty, round, wormholed, lopsided;
Nothing supermarket flawless, nothing imperishable.
Gardens grow backward and forward
In the mind; in the driest season, flowers.

Of the original fourteen, five trees
Grow streetside, outside the hedge.
To their branches my neighbor, a retired
Statistician, has clothes-pegged
Slips of paper, white pocket handkerchiefs

Embroidered with the words:
The apples are not ripe, please don’t pick them.
Kids had an apple fight last week.
In September, when the apples ripen,
Neighbors are welcome to pick them, even

Those rare Arkansas Blacks that spill over
The hedge. Yes, I may gather the windfalls.
Mostly it’s squirrels that throw them down.
Squirrels are wasteful. Squirrels don’t read
Messages a widower posts in trees.

The meaning of love in politics: What Hannah Arendt wrote to James Baldwin

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

Today is James Baldwin‘s birthday. To celebrate, here’s a portion of “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” which appeared in The New Yorker on November 17, 1962 – and then Hannah Arendt‘s reply. In his essay, Baldwin concluded: 

When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty? For black people, though I am aware that some of us, black and white, do not know it yet, are very beautiful. And when I sat at Elijah’s table and watched the baby, the women, and the men, and we talked about God’s – or Allah’s – vengeance, I wondered, when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty then? I could also see that the intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable – a vengeance that does not really depend on, and cannot really be executed by, any person or organization, and that cannot be prevented by any police force or army: historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance, based on the law that we recognize when we say, “Whatever goes up must come down.” And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

Here’s what Hannah Arendt, who knew him slightly, replied in a letter that is now at the Library of Congress:

November 21, 1962

Dear Mr. Baldwin:

Your article in the New Yorker is a political event of a very high order, I think;  it certainly is an event in my understanding of what is involved in the Negro question.  And since this is a question which concerns us all, I feel I am entitled to raise objections.

What frightened me in your essay was the gospel of love which you begin to preach at the end. In politics, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy. All the characteristics you stress in the Negro people: their beauty, their capacity for joy, their warmth, and their humanity, are well-known characteristics of all oppressed people. They grow out of suffering and they are the proudest possession of all pariahs. Unfortunately, they have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes. Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive;  you can afford them only in the private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.

In sincere admiration,

cordially (that is, in case you remember that we know each other slightly) yours,