Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Steele’

Happy birthday to poet Edgar Bowers! He thought “intelligence and sympathy” would save the world.

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017
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edgar-bowers3Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele has another birthday post (see earlier ones here and here and here). This time the Stanford alum is appreciating another Stanford alum, the under-recognized Edgar Bowers:

Born in Rome, Georgia, on March 2, 1924, Edgar Bowers served in Europe in the Second World War with the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps. After Germany surrendered to the Allies, he was posted to Hitler’s alpine retreat in Berchtesgaden, where he headed a unit of the “De-nazification” program, whose goal was to identify individuals and groups responsible for atrocities committed during the Third Reich.

In his later years, Bowers came to believe that the survival of the species depended on its intelligence and sympathy, though he recognized that human knowledge is inevitably limited and that science and peace will probably never entirely overcome the forces of ignorance and war. He published five books of poetry, including a Collected Poems in 1997.

Bowers died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in San Francisco in 2000.

One of Bowers’s best-known poems is “The Astronomers of Mont Blanc,” which he reads in the video below. The poem and the recording  (taken the early 1950s, when he was a graduate student at Stanford University) are reproduced with the kind permission of The Literary State of Edgar Bowers and its Executor, Joshua S. Odell.

Happy birthday, Edgar!

The Astronomers of Mont Blanc

Who are you there that, from your icy tower,
Explore the colder distances, the far
Escape of your whole universe to night;
That watch the moon’s blue craters, shadowy crust,
And blunted mountains mildly drift and glare,
Ballooned in ghostly earnest on your sight:
Who are you, and what hope persuades your trust?

It is your hope that you will know the end
And compass of our ignorant restraint
There in lost time, where what was done is done
Forever as a havoc overhead.
Aging, you search to master in the faint
Persistent fortune which you gaze upon
The perfect order trusted to the dead.

– Edgar Bowers (1924-2000)

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

Friday, July 22nd, 2016
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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.)

“Death is so plain!” Remembering Thom Gunn on the anniversary of his death.

Monday, April 25th, 2016
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tim120I’ve been thinking about San Francisco poet Thom Gunn in the last few days, for reasons I won’t get into. But perhaps a subliminal one is worth mentioning: he died on this day, twelve years ago. I was, to my best knowledge, the last person to interview him at his flat in the City, in a Q&A published in The Georgia Review – not online, alas. 

He was apparently on L.A. poet’s Tim Steele’s mind, too. Both poets are alums of Stanford’s English Department and its Creative Writing Program. Gunn studied with the legendary Yvor Winters while at Stanford; Tim was a Jones Lecturer. 

Tim remembers one of Thom Gunn’s many fine poems on this sad anniversary:

gunn3Thom Gunn died on April 25, 2004. A wonderful elegist, he also wrote with memorable affection about domestic animals, and these gifts come together in “Her Pet.” As he indicates in a video clip (below), he composed the poem when, during the AIDS crisis, he was reading Michael Levey’s “High Renaissance” and came across a reproduction of Germain Pilon’s sarcophagus for Valentine Balbiani (1518-1572) that resonated with own experiences of seeing friends die in the epidemic.

The Balbiani sarcophagus is an example what Erwin Panofsky calls “the double-decker tomb.” On the top of the tomb, Pilon depicts the reclining figure of Valentine as she was in life. Below, on the side of the tomb, he renders her as she was after she died.

Contracts concerning the sarcophagus survive, and they call not only for this double depiction of Valentine, but also for her being accompanied by “a little dog of marble, made as naturally as possible.” Dogs often appear on tombs, but generally at the feet of the deceased and chiefly as symbols of fidelity. In this case, however, the dog was an effigy of a real companion of the subject, and according to contemporary accounts, it died of sorrow three days after its mistress did.

gunn2Writing about the sarcophagus, Gunn imitates its appearance by devising a double sonnet. The first sonnet—the upper one—describes the portion of the tomb that shows Valentine alive. The second sonnet describes the side-relief of her in death. Below is the text of “Her Pet,” along with the two images of the tomb reproduced in Levey’s book. The video clip of Gunn’s reading of the poem is from a 1994 appearance at the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles.

“Her Pet”

I walk the floor, read, watch a cop-show, drink,
Hear buses heave uphill through drizzling fog,
Then turn back to the pictured book to think
Of Valentine Balbiani and her dog:
She is reclining, reading, on her tomb;
But pounced, it tries to intercept her look,
Its front paws on her lap, as in this room
The cat attempts to nose beneath my book. …

[Well, copyright laws forbid us to do more. Listen to the rest below…]

Postscript on 4/26 from Tim Steele: “I well remember your Georgia Review interview with Thom. It brought many characteristic flashes of his insight. I also recall his comparing, in his conversation with you, Yvor Winters’s influence on him to his mother’s influence on him. (This appeared in your Stanford Magazine piece on Thom, I believe.) That’s an incredibly revealing and touching comment. People often think of Winters as a formidable father figure, and he may have been that for Thom to some extent. But Thom also saw Winters as a nurturing, supportive, literature-loving figure, just as his mother had been.”

Happy birthday to the bad boy of Roman poetry!

Saturday, March 19th, 2016
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tim120More birthday greetings from our correspondent, the Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele. This time the occasion is the birthday of Ovid. Tim has offered occasional salutations to Virgil, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, George Frideric Handel, Christina Rosetti, William Hogarth and Oliver Goldsmith. And we have written about Ovid here and here and here and here and here.

But the years roll round again relentlessly offering us another occasion to celebrate the author of Metamorphoses – and Tristia, too.

This Sunday marks the birthday of Ovid, the bad boy of Roman poetry. Born in 43 BCE, he reports in his Tristia that versing came naturally to him even as a child. His masterpiece, “Metamorphoses,” is a tour de force that knits together, by the recurring motif of transformation, myths and legends from the origin of the world up to the time of Julius Caesar. Though Ovid did not invent the stories, he recounted them with unforgettable psychological vividness and gave them their definitive form. No other poem has had a greater influence on subsequent art. Sculptors, painters, composers, novelists, and poets have drawn on it for centuries.

narcissusIn his own day, Ovid was immensely popular, but, unluckily, the emperor Augustus was not a fan. A libertine in youth, he metamorphosed as a ruler into a priggish defender of public morals, and he detested Ovid’s poems, which breezily treat sex and seduction and which parody conventional Roman pieties. In 8 CE he banned Ovid’s work from the state libraries and banished the poet himself to Tomis, an imperial outpost on the Black Sea notorious for its bandits and bad weather. Ovid died there in 17 CE.

Many anecdotes survive about Ovid’s genius and vanity. The Elder Seneca reports one of them in his Controversies (2.2.12): “[Ovid] was aware of his faults—and liked them. This is clear from an incident when he was asked by his friends to get rid of three of his verses; in exchange he asked that he should be allowed to make an exception of three verses which they could not touch. This seemed a fair condition. They wrote down privately the ones they wanted damned: he wrote down the ones he wanted saved. Both sheets contained the same verses. … From [this] it is clear that this talented man lacked the will rather than the taste to restrain the license of his poetry. He used sometimes to say that a face was all the more beautiful for a mole” (trans. Michael Winterbottom).

At right is a rendering of the Narcissus episode in Metamorphoses executed by the great bad boy of Italian painting, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

catullus

Another bad boy

Postscript: A gentle reader wrote to ask … Isn’t Catullus the bad boy of Roman poetry? Tim replies:

“That’s a good question. Catullus is revolutionary in his sexual candor. However, his epigrams and lyrics are often bitterly realistic, and he is sometimes excruciating on the subject of his obsessive relationship with Clodia/Lesbia. His ultimate disillusionment with his passion for her is the opposite, it seems to me, of licentious. (Catullus was also very well-born and a friend of Caesar’s, who evidently admired his work.)

“Ovid, on the other hand, really is naughty. The Art of Love is virtually a vade mecum for adulterers. And in theMetamorphoses he presents (with great relish) the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses as pathologically vindictive, sensual, or deceptive. This isn’t to say Ovid can’t be poignant and moving, as in the tale of Baucis and Philemon or Pythagoras‘s powerful speech in favor or vegetarianism near the end of the poem.”

And then, courteous gentleman that he is, Tim thanked the reader for raising the point.

Happy 331st birthday, George Frideric Handel!

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016
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tim120Always a pleasure to hear from our friend, the Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele. Today he celebrates the birthday of Handel – a passion we both share, apparently. We’ve posted Tim’s birthday announcements here and here and here and here. Here’s what he had to say about the great composer:

Like many composers, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) sometimes found himself at odds with those who performed his music. On occasion, exasperation got the better of him, as in his collaboration with the gifted but capricious soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. One day during rehearsals at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket for Handel’s opera Ottone, she announced she didn’t like the “Falsa imagine” aria and told him to write another in its place. Handel seized her around the waist and swore he’d throw her out the window unless she sang what he’d written. (She did, and the aria became one of her signature hits.)

handel

He kept his temper … usually…

Usually, however, Handel kept his temper and bore his trials with ironical wit. When, prior to the opening of “Flavio,” the tenor Alexander Gordon objected to Handel’s harpsichord accompaniment and threatened to jump up into the instrument and smash it, Handel replied that he liked that idea and that they should use it in advertising the show, since more people would come to see Gordon jump than to hear him sing. On another occasion, Handel conducted a concert in Dublin featuring the violin virtuoso Matthew Dubourg. During one number, DuBourg tore off on a wild rambling solo. When he concluded, Handel, who had been marking time with orchestra, cheerily called out, “Welcome home, Mr. DuBourg!”

Welcome home, Mr. Handel! It’s your 331st birthday!

Above, Philippe Mercier’s portrait of the composer, around age 45, at his (unsmashed) harpsichord. Below, soprano Rosa Mannion’s lovely rendition of “Falsa Imagine” in a modern context.

Happy birthday, Jane Austen! Here’s how she’s like the Beatles.

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015
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austenLos Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele celebrates Jane Austen’s birthday today. Let’s join him:

If any writer put in the work, it was Jane Austen, who was born on this day in 1775. From age 11, she wrote tirelessly, trying out different genres and styles, coming at her subjects from every conceivable angle. But she didn’t break into print until she was 36, and her career as a published author was compressed into the six years between 1811 and her death in 1817. She may remind us of the Beatles, who spent countless hours rehearsing and performing in clubs, and then burst on the scene in 1962 and ran the table for eight glorious years before breaking up. Another parallel between Austen and her musical countrymen is that both drew heavily on available models while producing work that was utterly fresh and magical—work that sounded, as Ray Charles said of the Beatles, like nothing you’d heard before. (The Beatles absorbed such influences as R&B, the skiffle craze, music hall standards, Chuck Berry, and Brill Building Pop, while Austen synthesized the psychological intimacy of Samuel Richardson, the clever satirical plotting of Henry Fielding, and the watchfulness of Fanny Burney.)

Discerning readers recognized immediately that Austen had enlarged and transformed English fiction. Walter Scott, the reigning king of the novel, confided to his diary, “That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.” He added, “The big Bow-Wow strain [the novel of adventure] I can do myself like any now going; but [she has] the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment.”

Happy, birthday, Jane! (At right, a watercolor of Jane, at the age of 28 or 29, by her sister Cassandra.)

Best Christmas carol ever? Christina Rosetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Sunday, December 6th, 2015
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A guest post from Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele, on a Christmas theme:

tim120

Tim Steele

When in 2008 the BBC asked choirmasters in the United Kingdom and United States to name their favorite Christmas carol, Harold Darke’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” topped their list. The poem first appeared in 1872 in a holiday issue of Scribner’s Monthly, which had asked Rossetti for a contribution appropriate to the season. Though she never collected the poem in a book, her brother William included it in the edition of her Poetical Works that he published in 1904, ten years after her death. The poetry-loving Gustav Holst recognized the poem’s choral possibilities and in 1906 did a setting of it that some prefer to Darke’s, which dates from 1911.

rosetti1

She was troubled. (Photo: Lewis Carroll)

For all its lovely directness, “In the Bleak Midwinter” reflects Rossetti’s troubled religious faith. An Anglo-Catholic influenced by Calvinism and Adventism, she found God the Father terrifying and remote but identified with the humanity and suffering of Jesus. In describing the nativity, she mentions the attendant celestial spirits but stresses the earthier elements of the scene—the tangible milk and love that Mary gives her child and the comforting companionship of the animals in the stable. This attraction to natural manifestations of divinity may remind us of Emily Dickinson, who was Rossetti’s nearly exact contemporary and of whose work Rossetti was an early champion. (Both poets were born in the bleak, midwintery December of 1830—Rossetti on the 5th, Dickinson on the 10th—though Dickinson died in 1886, eight years before Rossetti.)

Below is the text of Rossetti’s carol, plus a performance of it in Darke’s setting.

“A Christmas Carol”

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow has fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter,
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Throng’d the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,—
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

– Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894)

Happy birthday to Oliver Goldsmith and William Hogarth! A few words from poet Tim Steele on the occasion.

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015
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tim120

Birthday boy.

More birthday news comes to us via our learned friend, the Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele, this time on the double birthday today of poet Oliver Goldsmith and painter William Hogarth. He enjoined us to celebrate Virgil’s 2,085 a few weeks ago. Here’s what he has to say on today’s occasion:

Other poets may have been more celebrated for their art and scope, but none was more trusted, as Samuel Johnson noted, than Oliver Goldsmith, whose birthday is today. Though Goldsmith repeatedly burned through large sums of money, friends and associates rarely failed to advance him funds whenever he requested loans. As a result, he died £2,000 in debt, a remarkable figure for somebody of his era and modest background.

hogarth

Still stooping to folly, all these years later.

Paradoxically, he wrote acutely about economics, and historians of that subject still cite the lines in “The Traveller” about income inequality (“should one order disproportion’d grow, / Its double weight must ruin all below”) and the passage in “The Deserted Village” about the effect of land enclosures on small farmers (“Ill fares the land, to hast’ning ills a prey, / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay,” etc.). Goldsmith’s lyric poems include Olivia’s song from “The Vicar of Wakefield:

When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?

The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
And give repentance to her lover,
And wring his bosom—is to die.

At right is “After the Seduction,” a painting by William Hogarth, another great eighteenth-century satirist whose birthday is today.

“One of the most significant short novels in English”: Janet Lewis and The Wife of Martin Guerre, Feb. 20 event

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013
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She loved to travel. (Photo: “The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis,” used by permission of Ohio University Press)

NOTE:  Some of you may remember the launch of the Another Look book club last fall – I wrote about it here and here and here.  This season’s pick is another winner:  Janet Lewis‘s 104-page The Return of Martin Guerre, a novel that was, in fact, born at Stanford.  As I wrote in an article here, it all began with a terrible scandal in 1933.  From the “Another Look” website:

In May 1933, a Stanford University Press sales manager was arrested for the murder of his wife at their campus home on Salvatierra Street.

Was it murder or accident? Placid Palo Alto was embroiled in a sensationalized scandal that endured for more than three years. After conviction, appeals and retrials, David Lamson was finally acquitted.

Young Janet (Courtesy Melissa Winters)

One of the unlikelier outcomes of the notorious case: three distinguished novels by Stanford poet Janet Lewis, focusing on historical trials that had been swayed by circumstantial evidence. The most famous was The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), which eventually became the subject of an opera, a play, several musicals and a film. Atlantic Monthly called it “one of the most significant short novels in English.”

The book will be the focus of the second “Another Look” book club event at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, at the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Room. The event will be moderated by English Professor Kenneth Fields, who was a friend of the late Janet Lewis (1899-1998) and her husband, renowned poet-critic and Stanford professor Yvor Winters (1900-68).  

Fields will be joined by acclaimed novelist Tobias Wolff and award-winning Irish poet Eavan Boland, both professors of English. An audience discussion will follow. The community event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited and available on a first-come basis.

Winters’ role in the Lamson case was legendary: Outraged at the injustice, he actively campaigned for Lamson’s acquittal and helped prepare the defense brief. With a colleague, Winters provided a cogent 103-page pamphlet for public consumption, explaining why Lamson could not have killed his wife in the manner required by the prosecutor’s case.

A prescient colleague gave the Winterses a 19th-century book, Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence, including real-life accounts of the failure of justice. Lewis was struck by the 16th-century story of Martin Guerre and his wife, Bertrande de Rols.

Guerre abandoned his family and returned eight years later a changed man – or did he? Was he Martin Guerre at all? The case of imposture wracked southwestern France, just as Palo Alto had been roiled by the Lamson case.

Outraged … and right.

According to the New York Times, “Miss Lewis pursued a literary life in which the focus was on the life and the life was one of such placid equilibrium and domestic bliss that she had to reach deep down in her psyche – and far back in the annals of criminal law – to find the wellspring of tension that produced some of the 20th century’s most vividly imagined and finely wrought literature.”

But for Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre was also born of her love for France. Lewis had been a French major at the University of Chicago. According to her friend, poet Helen Pinkerton, Lewis’ passion for the country began in 1920. For her graduation, her father gave her a round-trip ticket to Europe and $400. Lewis got a job with the passport office on Rue de Tilsitt, behind the Arc de Triomphe, and stayed for nine memorable months. She returned with a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship in 1950.

There was another reason for Lewis’s novels and short stories: Lewis was a gifted poet, but her prose brought more money than verse – and the Winters family of four needed the extra cash. In pre-war days, academia was still something of a gentlemen’s profession, with many professors holding independent incomes.

Moreover, colleagues who had been riled by Winters’ pugnacious opinions delayed his promotion to a full professorship until he was 50 years old – although he went on to get an endowed chair, a Bollingen Prize, a National Institute of Arts and Letters award as well as grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

David Levin, writing in 1978, recalled that the Lewises “lived in extraordinary simplicity”: “The plain furniture in their small house in Los Altos did not change in all the years of our association, and Winters drove a 1950 Plymouth Suburban from 1949 until he stopped driving in the year before his death,” he wrote.

Her friends describe the Winterses devotion to their Airedale terriers, their cooking and their gardening in the Los Altos house they’d assumed in 1934 and never left.

The poet in her 90s. (Photo: Brigitte Carnochan)

Lewis nevertheless made time for her writing – and perhaps the externally uneventful life contributed to the celebrated psychological poise. The British poet Dick Davis wrotein London’s Independent: “Her books possess a quality of deep repose, a kind of distilled wisdom in the face of human disaster and pain, which is difficult to describe and impossible to imitate, but which, once encountered, is unforgettable.”

Lewis has never been short of admirers: W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan and others praised her work. Yet writer Evan Connell observed, “I cannot think of another writer whose stature so far exceeds her public recognition.”

In the years since her death, her reputation has been fostered by a circle of friends, including Los Angeles poet and Stanford alumnus Timothy Steele, who praised her poems for their “clear-sightedness” and “intelligent warmth.”

“They’re full of joy and sorrow. It’s very directly stated. No evasiveness. She doesn’t hide behind ironic postures or anything like that,” he said. “She is someone who has both a sense of the permanent patterns of existence and the transitory beauty of living things, of people and animals and plants.”

Steele recalled, in particular, a party on a summer day at the home of Helen Pinkerton and her then-husband, English Professor Wesley Trimpi. “Among the guests was [political philosopher] Eric Voegelin. He was brilliant, wearing a three-piece suit and discoursing very eloquently about Plato,” remembered Steele. “Janet appeared and said happily, ‘Does anyone want to go for a swim?’

“It seemed such a contrast – a rewarding experience in both cases. She was so vital and connected with physical activity and the warm summer afternoon.”

In any case, Lewis didn’t wait for a reply, but headed for the cabana and changed into her swimsuit for a quick dip. She was well into her 80s.

Ease, effervescence, and endless verse

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010
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A few days ago, I wrote about near-forgotten novel-in-verse, The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth — and was surprised to learn that an acquaintance actually bought the book on the strength of my reportage. Such, such is the power of the word.  So let me have another go at it.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll sell three.

In citing Gore Vidal‘s encomium, however, I somehow neglected the one below it, by his fellow poet, the late James Merrill:  “Mr. Seth’s beautifully conventional characters would self-destruct on the page of any prose fiction.  But his verse sets them glowing from within, and the result is as humanly poignant as it is mechanically reassuring — in short, a cause for rejoicing.”  So true.  And a large reason why I found it, despite its slight and commonplace characters, so much more satisfying than his novels.  The verse sustains them.  Power of the word, etc.

Here’s another strong reason why the 1986 book is so much fun:  Nothing keeps happening.  It brings to mind what Somerset Maugham said about Jane Austen: “Nothing very much happens in her books and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next.  Nothing very much does and again you eagerly turn the page. The novelist who has the power to achieve this has the most precious gift a novelist can possess.”

Take this, for example, a random sonnet early in the book, while John waits in a San Francisco Chinese restaurant for his sculptor friend Janet Hayakawa:

John thinks, “It’s not that I’m fastidious. …
I wish they’d turn that music down.  …
It’s gross. That calendar is hideous …
(He stares at a distasteful clown.)
… I’ve waited half an hour, blast her!”
Her hands encased in clay and plaster,
Janet arrives at twelve to two:
“So sorry, John, I had to do
This torso. Yes I tried to hurry.
I’m glad you’ve got yourself a beer.
What’s that? Tsingtao? Don’t look severe.
I didn’t mean for you to worry.
You’ve ordered? No? This place is fun!
What’ll you have? It’s family-run.”

Seth’s miraculous gift for playfulness and delight in meter and rhyme overwhelmed his Stanford class, I’m told.  One participant confided that the kids puzzled over the phrasing in one of his poems, till they realized he had rhymed all the first words in the lines, as well as the last.  One begins to understand how he might be able to write verse at a staggering 600 lines a month for over a year.

In The Golden Gate, his effervescence and ease brims over so thoroughly that he puts his dedication, author’s note, acknowledgments, and even his table of contents into Pushkin’s fleet, four-footed sonnets.  I wonder how many people understand his dedication:

Veracity and vim

So here they are, the chapters ready,
And, half against my will, I’m free
Of this warm enterprise, this heady
Labor that has exhausted me
Through thirteen months, swift and delightful,
Incited by my friends’ insightful
Paring and prodding and appeal.
I pray the gentle hands of Steele
Will once again sift through its pages.
If anything in this should grate,
Ascribe it to its natal state;
If anything in this engages
By verse, veracity, or vim,
You know whom I must credit, Tim.

The mentor he credits is Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele, author of several collections of verse, and a prosody scholar as well, with his Missing Measures and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing.  Tim also edited the Poems of J.V. Cunningham, a kind of homage to the poet who weds emotional intensity to stylistic purity — and who was a major influence for Tim at Stanford.  Tim is also the subject of my third-of-a-book interview, Three Poets in Conversation, where he shares space with Dick Davis and Rachel Hadas (who, incidentally, was a close friend of James Merrill.)  Years earlier, I did a shorter online interview with him for the Cortland Review.

No longer on P.S.T.

Here’s Seth’s author’s note:

The author, Vikram Seth, directed
By Anne Freedgood, his editor,
To draft a vita, has selected
The following salient facts for her:
In ’52, born in Calcutta.
8 lb. 1 oz.  Was heard to utter
First rhymes (“cat,” “mat”) at age of three.
A student of demography
And economics, he has written
From Heaven Lake, a travel book
Based on a journey he once took
Through Sinkiang and Tibet. Unbitten
At last by wanderlust and rhyme,
He keeps Pacific Standard Time.

That last lines lie — when I interviewed him a decade ago, he was dividing his time between London and Calcutta.  Wanderlust had bitten again.

Update: Triumph!  Frank Wilson of Books Inq said this morning he is getting a copy of Golden Gate after what he purports is a vacation out in the hinterlands!  That makes two copies sold.  Any other takers?