Posts Tagged ‘Robert Frost’

Hilbert remembers Donald Hall: “Always beginning again. Always knowing he’d fail. Always beginning again.”

Thursday, September 20th, 2018
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Sometimes the best comes last. A lyrical and moving retrospective of the poet Donald Hall, who died last June, by his friend and fellow poet Ernest Hilbert, writing in the pages of The New Criterion: “It is a commonplace to claim that we will not see the like of one poet or another again. In the case of Hall, it may almost be said that he stood in for an enormous span of history and a way of life that has become almost impossible. The literary realm he inhabited, and in which he toiled so hard for so long, no longer really exists.”

Hilbert writes of America’s eloquent bard of old age, scouting out the territory for the rest of us:

In his celebrated essay “Poetry and Ambition,” Hall explained that when striving to create durable poems, poets are “certain of two things: that in all likelihood we will fail, and, if we succeed, we may never know it.” His tireless ambition resulted in memorable poems of the natural world, the contours of family life, the joys of love and sex, and, perhaps most compellingly, the pains of irremediable loss. Though always determined to succeed, Hall knew to avoid the kind of ambition that proves baleful. In a 1991 Paris Review interview—accompanied by a photograph of a full-bearded Hall tilting back to pitch a baseball—he relates a story about playing softball with Robert Frost in 1945, when that particular titan was seventy-one years old: “He fought hard for his team to win and he was willing to change the rules. He had to win at everything. Including poetry.” Hall learned a lesson and handled his own career more graciously.

It was a career unusually long-lived and rewarding for a poet of any era. It is nearly impossible to overstate the profound changes that affected the discipline of poetry between 1952—when Hall’s poetry first landed in print, in an installment of Fantasy Poets at Oxford—and 2018, when A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, his last collection of essays, appeared, not long before his death. Over that span Hall remained popular with readers and critics alike. He was a regular on radio and television, most notably Bill Moyers’s documentary A Life Together in 1993, which invited viewers into Hall’s life with his wife Jane Kenyon as they traveled to poetry festivals and spent their days writing at Eagle Pond Farm.

He concludes with some very sage advice – indispensable, really:

Friend and fellow poet Hilbert

In what amounts almost to an aside, Hall observed in one of his last essays that “anyone ambitious, who lives to be old or even old, endures the inevitable loss of ambition’s fulfillment.” As a young man, Hall learned about patience and the art of happiness from the English modernist sculptor Henry Moore, whom he interviewed for a New Yorker profile, later published as a book. Moore instructed that “the most important thing about . . . desire is that it must be incapable of fulfillment.” Hall adds to this advice that “life should be lived toward moments when you lose yourself in what you are doing. You have to have something you really want to do.” Hall showed us how a life may be fulfilled when devoted to the work one loves, even as one strives always to improve, and when spent with those one loves, even knowing they will one day be lost. His philosophy may be summed in a further remark he made about the sculptor—that he would wake each day “with the same ambition in his mind, with total absorbedness. Always beginning again. Always knowing he’d fail. Always beginning again. Amen.”

Read the whole thing here.

Richard Wilbur’s heresy: “elegance, wit, and declaration of faith in the cosmic order”

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017
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A poet of “wit and wakefulness”

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Booksthe matchless Patrick Kurp (who blogs Anecdotal Evidence) writes of the late Richard Wilbur, a poet who favored “wit and wakefulness.”

From “’The Exceptional Man’: Rereading Richard Wilbur”:

Like his mentor, model, and friend Robert Frost, Wilbur has been routinely misunderstood by admirers and detractors alike. To some among the former, he is safe and wholesome, like oatmeal. To his more emphatic critics, Wilbur commits heresy with every act of elegance, wit, and declaration of faith in the cosmic order. In this sense he was a well-mannered outsider, a fugitive from fashion. If Wilbur, who died October 14 at age 96, ever wrote a mediocre poem — one that is perfunctory, careless, egocentric, or empty — I couldn’t remember having read it.

Taking on the “Collected” in one go.

On his death, Patrick decided to take on the poet’s 600+-page Collected Poems 1943–2004 (there have been several small volumes since 2004), cover to cover. “After all, reading a writer attentively is the truest, most respectful act of criticism.” His goal: “to avoid the chestnuts and pay attention to the poems less well remembered.”

He paused at this passage from Wilbur: “The presence of potential rhymes sets the imagination working with the same briskness and license with which a patient’s mind responds to the psychologist’s word-association tests. When a poet is fishing among rhymes, he may and must reject most of the spontaneous reconciliations (and all of the hackneyed ones) produced by trial combinations of rhyming words, and keep in mind the preconceived direction and object of his poem; but the suggestions of rhyme are so nimble and so many that it is an invaluable means to the discovery of poetic raw material which is, in the very best sense, far-fetched.”

Patrick writes:

Note the order in which Wilbur describes composition: “fishing” for rhymes, sorting them, winnowing, rejecting most, all the while remembering the “direction and object” of the poem. A good rhyme isn’t the snap of a lock but a key to open the imagination. The ability to write first-rate poetry, like the gifts for mathematics and music (composition and performance), is a freakishly rare combination of rigor and openness. Few have been so lavishly gifted as Wilbur. Tin-eared critics will dismiss rhyme as handcuffs, something artificial to bind the imagination. On the contrary. When Wilbur likens rhyme to a psychologist’s parlor game, he’s not suggesting repressed memories and the unleashing of buried anguish and guilt. Music goes deeper than that. So melodic are some of Wilbur’s poems, so gracefully arranged, one might be tempted not merely to read his lines but intone them, as in these from “A Black Birch in Winter” (The Mind-Reader: New Poems, 1976): “Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth, / New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth.” Ella Fitzgerald would sing this bouncily, allegro moderato, with light stress on the nouns.

Wilbur once wrote that poems “should include every resource which can be made to work,” and in his best poems, no motion is wasted. They resemble happy athletes: the flab has been trimmed, the muscles are limber. They move with confidence and strength, and they make it look effortless.

Read the whole thing here. It will reward the effort.  So will his blog Anecdotal EvidenceMy favorite in recent days, his excellent mini-essay on historian and poet Robert Conquest is here.

A postscript on Dick Wilbur from the poet R.S. Gwynn: “Being an ‘exceptional man’ is part of Wilbur’s exceptional quality as a poet. Frost had “a lover’s quarrel with the world’; Wilbur had a lifelong lover’s quarrel with the words that make it up. Lovers quarrel to bring their best, sometimes hidden qualities to the fore. Wilbur did the same thing with language.

 

New Year’s Day and the “gift outright”

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014
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More nights than candles in the bitter Arkhangelsk region.

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky made a habit of writing a Christmas poem every year, and “1 January 1965” was among the earliest, penned while he while he was serving time in internal exile in Norenskaya, in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia.  In the old Soviet Union, gifts were exchanged on New Year’s Day, and in the Russian Orthodox calendar, Christmas falls on January 6 – hence the date of the poem.

This translation was found among his papers after his death, and later published in the marvelous collection, Nativity Poems:

nativityThe kings will lose your old address.
No star will flare up to impress.
The ear may yield, under duress,
to blizzards’ nagging roar.
The shadows falling off your back,
you’d snuff the candle, hit the sack,
for calendars more nights can pack
than there are candles for.

Remarkably, the English hews very closely to the original rhyme scheme in Russian.  The poet famously favored translations that preserved the original metrical and rhyme scheme. Given his genius for inventive rhymes and complex metrical patterns, it was a maddening task for his translators. He did compromise, however: he was usually willing to change the meaning of a line to preserve the metrics.  You can see how much he’s played with meaning with this earlier, more literal translation by George Kline:

The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same –
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your lone bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

Read the whole poem here – with it’s tip-of-the-hat homage to Robert Frost‘s “The Gift Outright” at the end. Think of it as a New Year’s present to yourself.

Yvor Winters’s westward journey

Sunday, September 15th, 2013
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Loquat lover

“I have spent my entire life in the remote west, where men are civilized but never get within gunshot of each other,” wrote Yvor Winters (I wrote about him yesterday here).  According to poet Kenneth Fields, who was also Winters’s gardener for four years as a graduate student, “It’s usual to think of Yvor Winters as a Chicago poet who came west and spent most of his life in California — at Stanford, where he received his PhD and taught until his retirement. This is true enough, but his actual journey is more complicated and is reflected in some of his best poems. In some ways everywhere he lived before he got to Stanford was wild — even Stanford, but that’s another story.”  The incomparable Ken tells them all in “Winters’s Wild West,” in the current Los Angeles Review of Books, based on a talk he gave last April at Claremont McKenna College.  Ken traces his Winters’s path from Chicago, to Southern California, to Seattle,  to Chicago again, to New Mexico (where he not only taught, but also spent a couple years recovering from tuberculosis in a Santa Fe sanatorium), to Boulder and then to Moscow (Idaho, not Russia), and eventually (and finally) to his Los Altos home with the loquat tree in back.  I had never eaten a loquat before my visit to Winters’s widow, Janet Lewis.  Winters said “loquats are one of the finest fruits I know, but they deteriorate rapidly after picking and so are never marketed,” which explains why.

loquatKen compares Robert Frost‘s late-life “To Earthward” with Winters’s “A Summer Commentary”:  “As delicate sensations diminish with age, Frost craves stronger and more painful feeling until, at the end of the poem, he wishes for death; Winters does not. Winters contrasts his youth with middle age — always earlier in those days than it is for us. (I’m counting on all those 146-year-old men to keep me middle-aged.) With the loss of sharpness of sense comes something else, especially for a writer who looks for meaning. In his youth he was a spectator — he said once that free verse was a state of mind. With age, he is a participant. His point comes home through a kind of synesthesia, a blending of the senses — the dove makes two different sounds, one in its cry, the other in flight. The repetition of soft and sweet sets the tone of the poem, as does the oxymoron “rich decay.” Winters said the brandy of the fallen fruit was no metaphor. “You could almost get drunk on the smell.”

Ken’s piece is about as good an introduction to the legendary Winters as one will find anywhere. Read it here.

The writer’s life. It’s not what you think.

Thursday, September 27th, 2012
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Skip the therapy. Write books instead. (Photo: Sonia Lee)

Two troubled childhoods.  Two men who grew up absent the parental care all children need.  One homeless child spent time living in an urban sewer system, the other boy bounced from city to city, state to state.

A recipe for lifelong failure and therapy, yes?

Nope.  Both grew up to be award-winning writers:  one is Tobias Wolff, author of Old School, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, the other is  Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer-awarded author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and, more recently, the acclaimed Hedy’s Folly.  The two friends  spoke at a private, invitation-only only event in the Bender Room in Green Library on the evening of Sept. 17 about what it takes to become a writer.  It’s not what you think.

Both talks were so good I can do no better than share my notes with you.

Richard Rhodes: “Urban Hucky Finns”

Rhodes was born in 1937, and his mother committed suicide the following year.  He lived in a series of boarding houses in Kansas City, Missouri.

From sewers to Mars in one lifetime

Could it get worse?  It did.

His father remarried and his stepmother was abusive, not allowing the brothers in the house during the daytime.  At some point, he and his older brother Stanley did what so many abused children do:  they took to the streets of Kansas City.

Rhodes recalled “I think of us as urban Hucky Finns,” he said.  Far from feeling sorry for himself, he recalled it as an adventure.

“The big city junkyard wasn’t fenced off from the world. I could wander around there and discover pieces of the world,” he said.  “The vacuum tubes smelled of hot varnish.  Baby strollers and tricycles and all those wheels.  Pieces of automobiles.”

At one point, he took apart a sewing machine he found and put it back together again – and had two extra pieces leftover.  “I felt that I had made a breakthrough.”

“It doesn’t surprise me I became interested in science and technology,” he said.

The brothers went through the dumpsters for food.  A half-eaten hamburger was something to be prized: “To brush off the cigarette ash, was to have something really wonderful.”

Ethical robots

Sewers were for the summers.  He remembers tunnels that were 12 feet in diameter. “They didn’t have sewage in them, they just had water in them … and a healthy population of rats.”

The brothers would pop up for fresh air at various points in the city through the manhole covers in the street, “no doubt scaring people.”  At that time – he was about 10 or 11 – he remembers reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  It matched his life.

“It was so wonderful … it was still the first big novel I ever read,” he said.

“By the time I got to adolescence, I was really fascinated by science fiction.”  In particular, he was impressed by Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, exploring the ethics of being a robot.”

“Trivial as it sounds, it was my first encounter with philosophy and ethics.”  Then Albert Schweitzer’s My Life and Thought showed him “a way to think of moral issue of world.”

In 1949, his older brother went to the police.  The brothers were told that they were “obviously starved.” Stanley Rhodes was  5’ 4” and weighed 98 pounds.

The boys went to a farm – a “very empowering business,” Rhodes recalled.  Then, the miracle, or as he put it, “I got lucky.”  He was offered a four-year, all-expenses-paid scholarship to Yale.

Yale was not exactly like home.  “I was feeling as if landing on Mars.”

Tobias Wolff – call him “Jack”

“My folks separated and quickly divorced when I about 5,” Tobias Wolff said. “My father was not good about support.” His mother worked at the Dairy Queen during the day, while she took nighttime secretarial classes.

"Books seemed to come from another planet."

The local library was his babysitter. “I found myself going to the library a lot.”

“I spent a lot of time in those libraries, feeling safe.” Palo Alto’s cozy College Terrace branch library is akin to the libraries he remembers.

Although he is “not at all nostalgic for world grew up with” in the 1950s, “there’s an intimacy about that world I remember fondly. It’s one of the things that stayed with me.”

He developed an addiction for the novels of Albert Payson Terhune, who wrote such immortal classics as The Faith of a Collie.  “I read all those books, one after another.”

“He wrote about Collie dogs. That’s all he wrote about. He had no other subject,” he said.  “He did his best to stay within bounds of Collie psychology,” said Toby – even to the edges of canine ESP.  In one novel, “the Master joins up in the great effort of World War I.” Back home, the dog suffers, knowing his Master has fallen in Belgium.  “This dog gets himself to Belgium, finds the man and pulls him to safety.”

Relief was on the way.  When he was 10 or 11, one prescient librarian asked him read the works of Jack London.  She pulled White Fang off the shelf for him. “Then I read everything by Jack London.”

He changed his name to Jack Wolff.  “My mother agreed to let me change my name on condition I was baptized at the Church of the Madeleine.” In Salt Lake City, where they lived, he was one of two children in his school who was not Mormon. “She was terrified I would become a Mormon.”  Baptism was a fair trade for a name like Jack.

Inspiration ... where you can find it.

“I was beginning to write imitations. To build a fire,” he said. “Books seemed to come from another planet. I really did it out of love, and for the pleasure of writing down stories that were read only by my mother for years.”

If being a “professional writer” means making a profit on one’s writing, he made it early, giving copies of stories to his friends to turn in for extra credit.

When his memoir This Boy’s Life came out, he got a call from one of his boyhood pals from Washington state, who was living in Alaska. “I hear there’s this book and I’m in it,” he said.

The pal had turned in for extra credit the far-fetched story of a family of Italian acrobats and domineering patriarch. In the finale, he dives  into pool of water from great height.  The family had taken out insurance on his life, drained pool, and painted it blue.  The End.

“What grade did she give you?” he asked.  “She gave me a ‘C’,” he replied.

“I thought it was an ‘A’ story,” Toby replied thoughtfully.  Apparently, the teacher agreed. “I think it’s an ‘A’ story,” she told the budding plagiarist.  “But you didn’t write that. Jack Wolff wrote that.”

His attendance at Pennsylvania’s Hill School changed his life.  The school emphasized literature, and writers like Robert Frost, William Golding were treasured.

The rest of that story is told in his memoirs.  He lost his scholarship for repeated failures in mathematics. He went into the army, and then to Vietnam.  “Even in army kept writing. I was conscious of myself as someone who wanted to be writing.”