A neurosurgeon’s road to compassion: “They need each other – the brain and the heart.”

July 24th, 2016

The good doctor with the Dalai Lama. (Photo: Firdaus Dhabhar)

Dr. James Doty is one of the more fascinating people I know – I’ve written about him here and here. He is the founder and director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE, pronounced “see care”), which is at the forefront of a growing movement to bring the tools of psychology and neuroscience to the study of empathy, compassion and altruism. His friend, the Dalai Lama, is one of its benefactors.

I visited him last week at his office to discuss his brand new book Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart, which has quickly climbed the New York Times bestseller list. It’s terrific tale – and he assures me it’s all true. The book begins with his impoverished childhood on the edge of the Mojave Desert, the son of an alcoholic father and clinically depressed and suicidal mother. He describes his struggles to go through medical school, eventually becoming a distinguished neurosurgeon. But most of all, it tells of the important lessons he learned in a magic shop in a rundown strip mall when he was twelve years old.

A video clip of my 2010 interview with him is below. And here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

There’s a certain sound the scalp makes when it’s being ripped of of a skull – like a large piece of Velcro tearing away from it’s source. The sound is loud and angry and just a little bit sad. In medical school they don’t have a class that teaches you the sounds and smells of brain surgery. They should. The drone of the heavy drill as it bores through the skull. The bone saw that fills the operating room with the smell of summer sawdust as it carves a line connecting the burr holes made from the drill. The reluctant popping sound the skull makes as it is lifted away from the dura, the thick sac that covers the brain and serves as its last line of defense against the outside world. The scissors slowly slicing through the dura. When the brain is exposed you can see it move in rhythm with every heartbeat, and sometimes it seems that you can year it moan in protest at its own nakedness and vulnerability – its secrets exposed for all to see under the harsh lights of the operating room.

magic-shopThe boy looks small in the hospital gown and is almost swallowed up by the bed as he’s waiting to enter surgery.

“My nana prayed for me. And she prayed for you too.”

I hear the boy’s mother inhale and exhale loudly at this information, and I know she’s trying to be brave for her son. For herself. Maybe even for me. I run my hand through his hair. It is brown and long and fine – still more baby than boy. He tells me he just had a birthday.

“Do you want me to explain again what’s going to happen today, Champ, or are you ready?” He likes it when I call him Champ or Buddy.

“I’m going to sleep. You’re going to take the Ugly Thing out of my head so it doesn’t hurt anymore. Then I see my mommy and nana.”

The “Ugly Thing” is a medulloblastoma, the most common malignant brain tumor in children, and is located in the posterior fossa (the base of the skull). Medulloblastoma isn’t an easy word for an adult to pronounce, much less a four-year-old, no matter how precocious. Pediatric brain tumors really are ugly things, so I’m OK with the term. Medulloblastomas are misshapen and often grotesque invaders in the exquisite symmetry of the brain. They begin between the two lobes of the cerebellum and grow, ultimately compressing not only the cerebellum but also the brainstem, until finally blocking the pathways that allow the fluid in the brain to circulate. The brain is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and to explore its mysteries and find ways to heal it is a privilege I have never taken for granted. …

I know both Mom and Grandma are scared. I hold each of their hands in turn, trying to reassure them and offer comfort. It’s never easy. A little boy’s morning headaches have become every parent’s worst nightmare. Mom trusts me. Grandma trusts God. I trust my team.

Together we will all try to save this boy’s life.



Benefactor. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The surgeon assisting me is a senior resident in training and new to the team, but he is just as focused on the blood vessels, and brain tissue, and minutiae of removing this tumor as I am. We can’t think about our plans for the next day, or hospital politics, or our children, or our relationship trouble at home. It’s a form of hypervigilance, a single-pointed concentration almost like meditation. We train the mind and the mind trains the body. There’s an amazing rhythm and flow when you have a good team – everyone is in sync. Our minds and bodies work together as one coordinated intelligence.

I am removing the last piece of the tumor, which is attached to one of the major draining veins deep in the brain. The posterior fossa venous system is incredibly complex, and my assistant is suctioning fluids as I carefully resect the final remnant of the tumor. He lets his attention wander for a second, and in that second his suction tears the vein, and for the briefest moment everything stops.

Then all hell breaks loose.

The blood from the ripped vein fills the resection cavity, and blood begins to pour out of the wound of this beautiful little boy’s head. The anesthesiologist starts yelling that the child’s blood pressure is rapidly dropping and he can’t keep up with the blood loss. I need to clamp the vein and stop the bleeding, but it has retracted into a pool of blood, and I can’t see it. My suction alone can’t control the bleeding and my assistant’s hand is shaking too much to be of any help.

“He’s in full arrest!” the anesthesiologist screams. He has to scramble under the table because this little boy’s head is locked in a head frame, prone, with the back of his head opened up. The anesthesiologist starts compressing the boy’s chest while holding his other hand on his back, trying desperately to get his heart to start pumping. Fluids are being poured into the large IV lines. The heart’s first and most important job is to pump blood, and this magical pump that makes everything in the body possible has stopped. This four-year-old boy is bleeding to death on the table in front of me. As the anesthesiologist pumps on his chest, the wound continues to fill with blood. We have to stop the bleeding or he will die. The brain consumes 15 percent of the outflow of the hear and can survive only minutes after the heart stops. It needs blood and, more important, the oxygen that is in the blood. We are running out of time before the brain dies – they need each other – the brain and the heart.

(What happens? Read the rest of the story below…)

Read the rest of this entry »

Happy firthday to the mixed-up guy who invented Spoonerisms!

July 22nd, 2016

tim120Another birthday tribute from Los Angeles poet, scholar, and friend Timothy Steele. Collect the whole set here and here and here and here, among other places. Meanwhile, today’s birthday boy:

Born on this day in 1844, William Spooner was for many years Dean and Warden of New College, Oxford. He became so famous for transposing the initial sounds of words that we now refer to such slips of the tongue as “Spoonerisms.” Errors attributed to him include an offer of assistance to a foot-weary acquaintance (“May I sew you to a sheet?”); a reproach of a lackadaisical student (“You have tasted a whole worm!”); a description of his favorite means of transportation (“a well-boiled icicle”); directions from Oxford to London (“Leave by the town drain”); and reassuring words about Providence (“Our Lord is a shoving leopard”).

spoonerThough some gems associated with Spooner are doubtless apocryphal, he does seem to have been almost congenitally disposed to mixing things up. He once spilled salt on a tablecloth and immediately poured claret over it. Giving guests a tour of his college, he warned them that a staircase they were about to descend was badly lit, then switched off the weak lighting, and led them down into total darkness. Also, he suffered from albinism, so his eyesight was poor. Reading lectures was a challenge, and he naturally mangled the text from time to time. It was reportedly during a formal address to farmers that he called them “noble tons of soil,” and it was during a speech before Queen Victoria that he said, “Which of us has not felt in his heart a half-warmed fish.”

When he died in 1930, Spooner was remembered not only for his eccentricities but also for his long and fruitful marriage (depending which account you read, he and his wife produced five or seven children), for his able administration of New College, and for his devotion to his students. Among the latter, Leonard Woolley (“Woolly of Ur”) recalled how, when he was young and clueless, Spooner convinced him to become an archeologist. Spooner had long been aware of his reputation, and his friends sometimes detected a subversive wit in his odd expressions, as in his remark to a colleague: “Your book fills a much needed gap.”

So hail, Dr. Spooner! It’s your Firthday on Basebook! (At right, is Leslie Ward’s 1898 caricature of Spooner for Vanity Fair.)

F. Scott Fitzgerald to wannabe writers: “Nothing any good isn’t hard.”

July 18th, 2016

“You’ve got to sell your heart”: the author at 25.

It is a strange thing to write for a living. I’ve never really done anything else, since I was a teenager. And because I do it for a living, I write whether I feel like it or not. It has its good days and it has its bad. The last few weeks have been particularly grinding. So I found the blunt advice of F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsbyto two young women writers of his acquaintance oddly bracing. “It is an awfully lonesome business,” he writes. And also, “Nothing any good isn’t hard.”

Letter #1 is to his to the daughter of a family friend, Frances Turnbull, a Radcliffe sophomore, who had sent the author a short story she had written. (You can read about the Turnbull home where famous writers visited, in an interview with her years later, here.) Letter #2 is to his own 15-year-old daughter, Frances Scott Fitzgerald. (She went on to write for The Washington Post and The New Yorker.)

The letters are from F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters. (And thanks to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings for finding them three-and-a-half  years ago.)


November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming—the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent—which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.


Grove Park Inn
Asheville, N.C.
October 20, 1936

Dearest Scottina:

… Don’t be a bit discouraged about your story not being tops. At the same time, I am not going to encourage you about it, because, after all, if you want to get into the big time, you have to have your own fences to jump and learn from experience. Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.

Let me preach again for one moment: I mean that what you have felt and thought will by itself invent a new style so that when people talk about style they are always a little astonished at the newness of it, because they think that is only style that they are talking about, when what they are talking about is the attempt to express a new idea with such force that it will have the originality of the thought. It is an awfully lonesome business, and as you know, I never wanted you to go into it, but if you are going into it at all I want you to go into it knowing the sort of things that took me years to learn. …

Nothing any good isn’t hard, and you know you have never been brought up soft, or are you quitting on me suddenly? Darling, you know I love you, and I expect you to live up absolutely to what I laid out for you in the beginning.


With love from Warsaw: Julia Fiedorczuk and a message from the mist

July 15th, 2016

scatteringJulia Fiedorczuk, the young Warsaw poet, has written some beautiful verse – well, we wrote about that here, after a magical April night in Berkeley that ended at Chez Panisse. Most of the poems that were read that evening came from a new anthology Scattering the DarkBut one, inspired by Czesław Miłosz, was not. I was not able to use print it at the time, since it was under consideration for publication by the Poetry Foundation, and Julia kindly gave us Psalm 2 instead. We’re pleased to say that Julia’s “Psalm 31,” was not selected (Psalm V was, and is published online here). So here is Psalm 31, all these months later, below. “The whole cycle rhythmically and poetically alludes to Miłosz’s translation of the Hebrew Psalms,” the poet said. We think so, too. Tell us which of the three psalms you like the best (all translated by Bill Johnston). I still think this one has the most Miłoszian bent. She sent it with her love from beautiful Warsaw:

Psalm XXXI

chickadeesfor R. K.

a chickadee had perched on the window-sill like a message
generated by the mist, October
was turning into November in the birches oaks alders,
in the frost-resistant flowers, in the cemeteries
where our fathers wrote no memoirs,
where they would not recognise our children, our
poems, ourselves. The television was showing Poland
that had perished, and then had not perished, and then
again had perished, and then not, and then the sun
flung up a mesh of branches, all at once
the chickadee was absorbed by sky before I could say
remember, remember me.

David Yezzi on the late great Geoffrey Hill: “He was that rarest of things: a musician of genius.”

July 13th, 2016

The multi-faceted Yezzi at Hopkins…

Poet, librettist, and playwright David Yezzi, a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, writes about the late great Geoffrey Hill in the New Criterion, where he is poetry editor: “I remember him scolding an audience once for needing poems to be ‘What’s the word?’ he growled. ‘Accessible?’ He drew out the vowels like they were poison on his tongue. So much for any hope of wide popularity.”

More from Yezzi about the English poet who died earlier this month:

“He was not a popular poet, to that the extent that poets can be popular, and in a sense he was not of his time. If this rankled him at all, it did not affect the way that he wrote. One gets the sense in reading Hill that he did not measure his poems by any contemporary lights but by his eminent precursors and sometime models such as Hopkins, Milton, and, more recently, the modernism of Tate and Eliot. His poems are moral without being religious in any conventional sense, skeptical of power and the duplicity of language, and tonally fluent in ways that recall both the Jeremiad and the Psalm.

Asked if he liked a particularly severe photograph of himself, he replied: "It terrifies me."

Not popular, and he didn’t care about it.

“He was that rarest of things: a musician of genius, able to strike in language a new “pitch” (his prized word adapted from Hopkins). Perhaps that is why he was so little known in the end; his copious and original gift was for something that few readers of poetry and even many poets truly understand, let alone value—a language able to convey precise shades of emotion through sound as well as sense. It is telling of how dependent poetry has become on subject matter to the exclusion of much else these days. It’s not that Hill has no subjects; quite the contrary. His books range over huge spans of history, literature, and intellectual life. He is also one of the greatest pastoral poets of the English landscape.”

Read the whole thing here, with links to poems, reviews by William Logan, and an additional essay by Yezzi.


Necessary praise for 3QuarksDaily! “To be terribly corny, love has always held it together.”

July 11th, 2016

Running a blog ain’t easy. It’s time-consuming, it exposes you to nasty comments, and it pays (for most of us) diddly squat. So it’s nice when a blog gets kudos and sometimes, even a little cash. My friend Abbas Raza started 3QuarksDaily a dozen years ago … well, actually, our friendship began on 3QD, though I have yet to visit him in his idyllic village in the Italian Alps, where I will be able to sample some of his exquisite North Indian and Pakistani cooking.


Abbas Raza & poet Robert Pinsky – wife Margit Oberrauch looks on.

That will be a future pleasure. The past pleasure is that Humble Moi and the Book Haven have been regularly featured on 3QD, just as we’ve regularly featured 3QD gleanings on our pages. We’ve always been pleased as punch about it, but we must say that it’s been taken to a new level with Thomas Manuel‘s article, “Why the Web Needs the Little Miracle of 3QuarksDaily,” in The Wire today:

The need for filters, aggregators and curators to navigate the web isn’t new. Arts and Letters Daily, the inspiration for 3QD, was founded by the late Denis Dutton way back in 1998. It in turn was inspired by the news aggregator, Drudge Report, which started in 1995. But each of these had their own niche (literary humanities and conservative politics respectively) while Raza envisioned something more all-embracing – which ironically turned out to be a niche of its own. His plan was to “collect only serious articles of intellectual interest from all over the web but never include merely amusing pieces, clickbait, or even the news of the day… to find and post deeper analysis… and explore the world of ideas… [to] cover all intellectual fields that might be of interest to a well-educated academic all-rounder without being afraid of difficult material… [and to] have an inclusive attitude about what is interesting and important and an international outlook, avoiding America-centrism in particular.”

Morgan Meis

Morgan Meis is proud, too.

In practice, this elaborate vision looks deceptively simple. According to Morgan Meis, one of the editors of 3QD, all you had to do was “get a few reasonably smart people together, have them create links to the sorts of things they would want to read across the web, on any given day. Voila! You’ve got an interesting website. Then, don’t fuck that simple formula up. Don’t get cute. Stay the course.”

As Raza figured, an editorial team of ‘reasonably smart people’, by dint of their own diverse interests, would automatically bestow the site with a broader perspective. Currently this team, apart from Raza and Meis, consists of Raza’s old friend, Robin Varghese, his two sisters, Azra and Sughra Raza, poetry editor, Jim Culleny and assistant editor, Zujaja Tauqeer.

Varghese and Raza met at Columbia University in 1995 while they were both graduate students. Varghese, who posts much of the political content on 3QD, was pursuing a doctorate in political science while Raza had taken up philosophy after studying engineering as an undergraduate. Varghese still lives in New York and works in the development space while Raza currently lives with his wife in Brixen, a small town in the Italian Alps, where his major occupation, apart from running the website, is cooking elaborate North Indian and Pakistani style meals.

The article has a nice overview of the current predicament of the cyberspace echo chamber, and how 3QD really is different:

Today, information discovery comes in all shapes and sizes – from the New Yorker Minute that does a number on theNew Yorker, to Amazon’s book recommendation behemoth. There isn’t a doubt that the latter is a remarkable feat of software engineering, as are the algorithms employed by Netflix, Spotify, Facebook and Google. Netizens depend on these wonders – relying on them to suck in chaos and spit out order.



Yet these same sites are also examples of total moral capitulation. Underlying the logic of many algorithms is the idea that to find what people want, we need only look for what similar people have wanted. Apart from engendering near total surveillance, a mechanism built around the urgency of giving people what they want ignores the importance (or even the existence) of a responsibility to give people what they might need. This isn’t a surprising stance for profit-driven corporations to take. However, as citizens who value democratic access to resources and knowledge, it’s dangerous to allow ourselves to become complacent with gatekeepers who don’t acknowledge their own roles as stewards or see their power as weighted by responsibility to the community. It’s the logic of giving people what they want that’s made virality the metric for deciding what makes the news and triggered the current race for the bottom that has marked the new culture wars.

In stark contrast stands the purpose of 3QD as outlined by Raza in a radio interview with the National Endowment for the Arts. Laying out the three classical realms of knowledge – the realm of beauty, the realm of morality, the realm of truth, he stressed that all three were “immensely important to all human beings”. It’s a safe assumption that he didn’t learn this through a market survey.

What’s their secret? According to Morgan Meis, another 3QD friend: “It is the people and the relationships,” he said. “That’s the core of it. It is, to be terribly corny, love that has always held the thing together.”

Read the whole thing here. And go to 3QuarksDaily here.

Kim Addonizio’s Bukowski in a Sundress: she’s not oversharing.

July 9th, 2016

addonizioHaving been nominated for a prestigious prize, and then lost it, poet Kim Addonizio learned that one judge had characterized her as “Charles Bukowski in a sundress.” Hence the title of her newest collection of essays.

Meredith Maran reviews the volume in the Chicago Tribune‘s “‘Bukowski in a Sundress’ by Kim Addonizi: Don’t call it oversharing.” (We hope the Trib will correct the misspelling of her name by the time you read this blogpost.)

If this sample is at all representative, I want the whole book:

“Necrophilia is a term that is commonly misunderstood. You probably think it means being so attracted to dead people that you skip the dating part and go straight to their place with a little wine …. What necrophilia is, really, is this: sexual obsession for men who are incapable of having a real relationship because they have no heart in their chest cavity. What they have is an empty socket that will electrocute you if you try to get close and touch it or maybe just point a flashlight that way to see what’s wrong.”

From a chapter called “How I Write”: “I write and it’s good and I am queen of the kingdom and every flower is for me. I write and it’s not good enough; I go and read someone who is very, very good and feel inspired, and go back and write again.” Well, it’s a good thing it doesn’t make her feel envious and frustrated and wanting to break something and move to a remote island and whittle sticks for the rest of her life, which is how Humble Moi tends to feel in the same circumstances.

Maran concludes:

The best memoirs have a paradoxical effect on their readers. On the one hand, they make us attach to their authors, which in turn makes us wish they hadn’t suffered the indignities that spawned the tale. On the other, we’re grateful for the pearl that came from the irritation, the rich gift of the book. If there is any justice at all in the literary world (a premise Addonizio might dispute), “Bukowski in a Sundress” will have that effect on the wide-ranging audience its brave, brilliant author deserves.

Charles_BukowskiRead the whole thing here.

Postscript on 7/10: It occurred to me that some of you may not know who Bukowski is, in the first place. Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) is a Los Angeles poet who has been called “the laureate of American lowlife.” You get the picture – booze, women, and hard livin’. Photo at left. He smoked, too.



Translator Beverley Bie Brahic remembers Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016)

July 7th, 2016

The poet…

Yves Bonnefoy, who was generally regarded as France’s pre-eminent poet of the postwar era, as well as its leading translator of Shakespeare and a wide-ranging art critic in the spirit of Baudelaire, died on Friday in Paris. He was 93.” So begins the New York Times obituary. You can read the rest of it here. He published many major collections of verse, several books of tales, many studies of literature and art, and an extensive dictionary of mythology.

I think I prefer this comment from friend and poet Alfred Corn: “I had one meeting with him in New York, on the occasion of the U.S. publication of his monograph on Giacometti, in preparation for a review I did of it. A cool, self-possessed, silvery manner, his French speech elevated and polite. Any chummy effort at ingratiation was clearly not his intention, as it would have struck him as mere mauvaise foi. His surname in itself precluded that.”

presenthourIn a statement, French President François Hollande called Bonnefoy “one of the greatest poets of the 20th century” and praised him for “elevating our language to its supreme degree of precision and beauty.”

He was a close friend of several of my friends. One of them, Canadian poet and translator Beverley Bie Brahic, was his translator as well, of his collection, The Present Hour.  She’s also a poet in her own right: her poetry collection, White Sheets, was a finalist for the Forward Prize and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her other translations include Guillaume Apollinaire:The Little Auto, winner of the Scott Moncrieff Prize, and Francis Ponge: Unfinished Ode to Mud, a finalist for the Popescu Prize for Poetry in Translation.

The Book Haven asked her to send us a few personal reflections on the great French poet. Here’s what she wrote:

 I began translating Yves Bonnefoy, for my own enrichment, about ten years ago and, if I recall correctly, with what is still my favorite book, Début et fin de la neige. I was drawn by the haiku-like sequence of New England poems, such as this one:

The Apples 

And what to think
Of these yellow apples?
Yesterday, they astonished us, waiting so, naked
After the leaves fell.

Today they charm,
Their shoulders so
Modestly stitched
With a hem of snow.

…and his translator. (Photo: Leslie Roth)

Translating these poems from Snow (the collection is available in Emily Grosholz’s fine translation, Beginning and End of the Snow) with their simple but resonant images gave me intense pleasure and led me to other books, and eventually to Bonnefoy’s study on a hillside in Montmartre: I came with translations and a sheaf of questions, and left with more translations, enthusiastically published by Naveen Kishore and his marvelous international enterprise, Seagull Books.

However many times I made the journey to Montmartre I usually found Bonnefoy more interested in talking—about California, where he had taught, Provence, whose landscapes figure prominently in many of his poems, or Italy and its paintings—than in puzzling over the fine points of translation of books that were by then behind him. His confidence was empowering. The author of many essays on translation, he understood that something must always be sacrificed in a poem’s move from one language to another, and he supported the translator’s freedom to adapt the source text, though he could be a stickler for details. One kind of frog was not another kind of frog! He was less interested, it seemed to me—perhaps because the problem had arisen too often—in the translation of philosophical terms such as “evidence” (tricky) than in pinning down the precise kind of rock that figured in a poem set in Provence.

Bonnefoy was a philosophical poet, but one who could catch the present moment with all its sensuousness in a sonnet as limpid as this one from The Present Hour (Seagull Books, 2013):

Low Branches 

Instant that wants to endure, but how
Wrest eternity from the branches
Protecting the table where light
And shade play on my white page of this morning?

Two trees, and around them the grass,
Then the house, then time, then tomorrow
Opening to oblivion, that already dissipates
Yesterday’s fruit fallen close to the table.

Over there is far. Though mostly
Here and now are what’s out of reach;
Easier to go into the future

Taking, for later, some pieces
Of this ripe fruit, by whose grace
Blue and green merge in the night of the grass.

Favorite quote from The Paris Review, 1994: “We are deprived through words of an authentic intimacy with what we are, or with what the Other is. We need poetry, not to regain this intimacy, which is impossible, but to remember that we miss it and to prove to ourselves the value of those moments when we are able to encounter other people, or trees, or anything, beyond words, in silence.”

Can songs heal? Okla Elliott and Ted Gioia think they help.

July 5th, 2016

Finding solace where he can.

I met writer Okla Elliott online – well, on Facebook, to be precise.

I’m regularly daunted by his output, which he posts about regularly: His work has appeared in Harvard Review, The HillHuffington PostIndiana Review, The Literary ReviewNew Letters, Prairie Schooner, and he had a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2015. His books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction). The last book has gotten a lot of attention this year, for obvious reasons. Oh yes, and he’s currently working on Pope Francis: The Essential Guide (nonfiction, forthcoming), from an unusual p.o.v.: “I’m probably technically an agnostic, but I am a kind of Tolstoyan/Buddhist/existentialist/leftist-Catholic agnostic, so a theological and philosophical mutt.”

Then, suddenly, his intimidating output briefly plummeted to zero. He fell ill. … like, really near-death ill. A few weeks ago, he was hospitalized for a mysterious illness that turned out to be “diabetic acidosis.”

healingsongsNevertheless, he took some unusual medicine. He turned to Gregorian chant. As he explained in his Facebook status: “I listen to the monks of the Abbey of Notre Dame singing in Latin every night for an hour before I go to sleep. It’s oblique immersion research for my pope book; it’s relaxing and enchanting; and it’s just really pleasant. I recommend it highly. I kinda zone out and/or kinda meditate and/or think about random crap, letting my mind float wherever it will. Anyway…this is a pointless status, as are so many, but there you have it…Oh, and it’s streaming on Amazon Prime, so you can listen for free, if you have interest.” It’s on Amazon Prime here.

Geoffrey Hill and the “unwitting travesty of the ‘authentic self.'”

July 1st, 2016

Asked if he liked a particularly severe photograph of himself, he replied: "It terrifies me."

Asked if he liked a particularly severe photograph of himself, he replied: “It terrifies me.”

Geoffrey Hill is gone. The 84-year-old English poet’s death was announced on Twitter at 2.49 a.m. on Friday by his wife, the librettist Alice Goodman. “Please pray for the repose of the soul of my husband, Geoffrey Hill, who died yesterday evening, suddenly, and without pain or dread,” she wrote. You can read more about it here, in The Guardian or in the New Statesman here. Many thought he was the greatest living poet in the English language.

Hill’s death returned me to his 2000 Paris Review interview with Carl Phillips. I’m still reading it. Meanwhile, a few excerpts below; the whole thing is here.


What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.



“Inner exile”

Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification. …



Poet and martyr

Do you see yourself as a kind of martyr figure, in terms of your being a poet, and in the context of what we’ve said about people not understanding issues of difficulty or possibilities for intelligence?


No, absolutely not. My interest in the Elizabethan Jesuits, and in particular Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion, is that they seem to me to be transcendently fine human beings whom one would have loved to have known. The knowledge that they could so sublimate or transcend their ordinary mortal feelings as to willingly undertake the course they took, knowing what the almost inevitable end would be, moves me to reverence for them as human beings and to a kind of absolute astonishment. The very fact that they lived ennobles the human race, which is so often ignoble. I also have to admit that I contemplate them to in some way exorcize my own terror of terminal agony. I can go with them to the point where my own emotional endurance can go no further.


hillbookAgain, taking a long, historical view, I can understand why I was impressed by Eliot’s contempt for the “inner voice.” I would still maintain that a considerable amount of the very unsatisfactory stuff that is being written now is unwitting travesty of the “authentic self.” The particular tone of the unsatisfactory changes from period to period, the unsatisfactory poetry of the age of Pope is not quite the same sort of creature as bad poetry in the age of Tennyson, and bad poetry in the age of Tennyson differs from the bad poetry of the present time. A great deal of the work of the last forty years seems to me to spring from inadequate knowledge and self-knowledge, a naive trust in the unchallengeable authority of the authentic self. But I no longer think that the answer to this lies in the suppression of self; it requires a degree of self-knowledge and self-criticism, which is finally semantic rather than philosophical. The instrument of expression and the instrument of self-knowledge and self-correction is the same. There is a kind of poetry—I think that the seventeenth-century English metaphysicals are the greatest example of this, Donne, Herbert, Vaughan—in which the language seems able to hover above itself in a kind of brooding, contemplative, self-rectifying way. It’s probably true of the very greatest writers. I think it’s true of Dante and Milton, and I think it is true of Wordsworth. It’s a quality that these poets possess supremely. The rest of us, even the very best of us, possess it to a lesser and differing degree, but I cannot conceive poetry of any enduring significance being brought into being without some sense of this double quality that language has when it is taken into the sensuous intelligence, and brought into formal life.


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