Posts Tagged ‘Robert Frost’

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.”