Archive for June, 2015

On his birthday: Czesław Miłosz on time, truth, and the “quest for reality”

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015
A happenstance Californian.

Birthday boy.

Today is Czesław Miłosz‘s birthday – his 104th. To celebrate the occasion, I revisited his Nobel lecture. Oh, and I baked him a little white cake; see below. And also, a photo at bottom from where it all began, at his birthplace in Šeteniai.

In 1980, Miłosz gave one of the all-time great Nobel addresses. A few excerpts to prove it:

“Every poet depends upon generations who wrote in his native tongue; he inherits styles and forms elaborated by those who lived before him. At the same time, though, he feels that those old means of expression are not adequate to his own experience. When adapting himself, he hears an internal voice that warns him against mask and disguise. But when rebelling, he falls in turn into dependence upon his contemporaries, various movements of the avant-garde. Alas, it is enough for him to publish his first volume of poems, to find himself entrapped. For hardly has the print dried, when that work, which seemed to him the most personal, appears to be enmeshed in the style of another. The only way to counter an obscure remorse is to continue searching and to publish a new book, but then everything repeats itself, so there is no end to that chase. And it may happen that leaving books behind as if they were dry snake skins, in a constant escape forward from what has been done in the past, he receives the Nobel Prize.”

“What is this enigmatic impulse that does not allow one to settle down in the achieved, the finished? I think it is a quest for reality. I give to this word its naive and solemn meaning, a meaning having nothing to do with philosophical debates of the last few centuries. It is the Earth as seen by Nils from the back of the gander and by the author of the Latin ode from the back of Pegasus. Undoubtedly, that Earth is and her riches cannot be exhausted by any description. To make such an assertion means to reject in advance a question we often hear today: ‘What is reality?’, for it is the same as the question of Pontius Pilate: ‘What is truth?’ If among pairs of opposites which we use every day, the opposition of life and death has such an importance, no less importance should be ascribed to the oppositions of truth and falsehood, of reality and illusion.”


His alma mater, Vilnius University (Photo: C.L. Haven)

“The thick walls of our ancient university.”  (Photo: C.L. Haven)

“It is good to be born in a small country where Nature was on a human scale, where various languages and religions cohabited for centuries. I have in mind Lithuania, a country of myths and of poetry. My family already in the Sixteenth Century spoke Polish, just as many families in Finland spoke Swedish and in Ireland – English; so I am a Polish, not a Lithuanian, poet. But the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me. It is good in childhood to hear words of Latin liturgy, to translate Ovid in high school, to receive a good training in Roman Catholic dogmatics and apologetics. It is a blessing if one receives from fate school and university studies in such a city as Vilno. A bizarre city of baroque architecture transplanted to northern forests and of history fixed in every stone, a city of forty Roman Catholic churches and of numerous synagogues. In those days the Jews called it a Jerusalem of the North. Only when teaching in America did I fully realize how much I had absorbed from the thick walls of our ancient university, from formulas of Roman law learned by heart, from history and literature of old Poland, both of which surprise young Americans by their specific features: an indulgent anarchy, a humor disarming fierce quarrels, a sense of organic community, a mistrust of any centralized authority.”


“Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember. Certainly, the illiterates of past centuries, then an enormous majority of mankind, knew little of the history of their respective countries and of their civilization. In the minds of modern illiterates, however, who know how to read and write and even teach in schools and at universities, history is present but blurred, in a state of strange confusion; Molière becomes a contemporary of Napoleon, Voltaire, a contemporary of Lenin. Also, events of the last decades, of such primary importance that knowledge or ignorance of them will be decisive for the future of mankind, move away, grow pale, lose all consistency as if Frederic Nietzsche‘s prediction of European nihilism found a literal fulfillment. ‘The eye of a nihilist,’ he wrote in 1887, ‘is unfaithful to his memories: it allows them to drop, to lose their leaves;… And what he does not do for himself, he also does not do for the whole past of mankind: he lets it drop’ We are surrounded today by fictions about the past, contrary to common sense and to an elementary perception of good and evil. As The Los Angeles Times recently stated, the number of books in various languages which deny that the Holocaust ever took place, that it was invented by Jewish propaganda, has exceeded one hundred. If such an insanity is possible, is a complete loss of memory as a permanent state of mind improbable? And would it not present a danger more grave than genetic engineering or poisoning of the natural environment?”

birthday cake“For the poet of the ‘other Europe’ the events embraced by the name of the Holocaust are a reality, so close in time that he cannot hope to liberate himself from their remembrance unless, perhaps, by translating the Psalms of David. He feels anxiety, though, when the meaning of the word Holocaust undergoes gradual modifications, so that the word begins to belong to the history of the Jews exclusively, as if among the victims there were not also millions of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians and prisoners of other nationalities. He feels anxiety, for he senses in this a foreboding of a not distant future when history will be reduced to what appears on television, while the truth, as it is too complicated, will be buried in the archives, if not totally annihilated.”


 “Complaints of peoples, pacts more treacherous than those we read about in Thucydides, the shape of a maple leaf, sunrises and sunsets over the ocean, the whole fabric of causes and effects, whether we call it Nature or History, points towards, I believe, another hidden reality, impenetrable, though exerting a powerful attraction that is the central driving force of all art and science.”

“Our century draws to its close, and largely thanks to those influences I would not dare to curse it, for it has also been a century of faith and hope. A profound transformation, of which we are hardly aware, because we are a part of it, has been taking place, coming to the surface from time to time in phenomena that provoke general astonishment.”


You can read the whole thing here. Regarding the photograph below: I had the great good fortune in 2011 to visit Miłosz’s birthplace in the rural Lithuanian village of Šeteniai. And yes, it is as idyllic as he said it was – it reminded me of the woods and deep green colors of Michigan. I took this photo on the former Miłosz family estate, overlooking the river. The fishers called out to ask if we had permission to photograph them. Yes, one of us shouted back, there was a journalist in the group. They laughed, thinking it was a joke.


The perfect place to be born. (Photo: C.L. Haven)

Late reflections on Wolf Hall: will the real Thomas More please stand up?

Saturday, June 27th, 2015

Is this the real Thomas More? Maybe… (Mark Rylance in “Wolf Hall”)

I fell in love with Thomas More as a girl, when my mother took me to see A Man for All Seasons. Whether I fell in love with More or actor Paul Scofield, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps I fell in love with playwright and screenwriter Robert Bolt, more than either of them.


The actor who refused a knighthood, here as Thomas More.

Much ink has been spilled over the defamation of More in the BBC television series Wolf Hall, based on Dame Hilary Mantel‘s Man Booker award-winning novel by that name (and now available as a boxed set). Clearly, she had a bone to pick with the English icon, as a national hero as well as saint. But she is punching the wrong man. For her quarrel is not with More, but with Bolt, a fellow atheist, who recreated More to be, as he put it in his introduction to the play, “a hero of selfhood.”

From Bolt’s introduction:

“Thomas More, as I wrote about him, became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases for he had a proper sense of fear and was a busy lover. Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at length he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff.”


Holbein’s Thomas More

The reason … well, one reason … I have delayed so long in posting my reaction to Wolf Hall is I wanted to watch the 1966 film again, and see how it holds up today, at the other end of a life. When it was made, the lauded film received best film, best actor, and best director Academy awards. Scofield said it was his toughest role ever.

So I watched the film again with two young people. (Well … young-ish … compared to me, anyway.) The low-budget film often adheres to polished stage conventions rather than modern film conventions (Scofield won a Tony as well as an Oscar for the role), and the actors wore far too much make-up. That’s not what bugged my companions, however – not the main thing, anyway. They couldn’t imagine any principle worth dying for, when a simple lie could get you off the hook. That divide proved more unbreachable even than pancake makeup. I’ve since learned that this mindset is usual among Millennials.

Bolt, too, dealt with that issue directly: “why do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can’t put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie?” he asked. The answer is bound up with his earlier discussion of selfhood:


Lesser’s More as a sadist

“For this reason: A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement, when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtue; he offers himself as guarantee. And it works. There is a special kind of shrug for a perjurer; we feel that the man has no self to commit, no guarantee to offer. Of course it’s much less effective now that for most of us the actual words of the oath are not much more than the impressive mumbo-jumbo than it was when they made obvious sense; we would prefer most men to guarantee their statements with, say, cash rather than with themselves. We feel – we know – the self to be an equivocal commodity. There are fewer and fewer things which, as they say, we ‘cannot bring ourselves’ to do.”

Bolt recreated More as a modern hero, just as Mantel has given us a postmodern one, a “recreation” untethered to anything we might consider a fact. (For a little factual history, try Gregory Wolfe‘s WaPo story here.) Hence, I didn’t care for Anton Lesser‘s performance – he portrays More as a waspish eccentric and sadist. That doesn’t fit the man described by Robert Whittington this way: “More is a man of angel’s wit and singular learning; I know not of his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability? And as time requireth, a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of as sad gravity: a man for all seasons.” And, famously, by Samuel Johnson: “He was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced.” Yet this singularly fortunate man was drawn against his will to depart from the family he loved and the society he enjoyed. Why? According to Bolt:

For More the answer to this question would be perfectly simple (though again it may not be easy); the English Kingdom, his immediate society, was subservient to the larger society of the Church of Christ, founded by Christ, extending over Past and Future, ruled from Heaven. There are still some for whom that is perfectly simple, but for most it can only be a metaphor. I took it as a metaphor for that larger context which we all inhabit, the terrifying cosmos. Terrifying because no laws, no sanction, no mores obtain there; it is either empty or occupied by God and Devil nakedly at war. The sensible man will seek to live his life without dealings with this larger environment, treating it as a fine spectacle on a clear night, or a subject for innocent curiosity. At the most he will allow himself an agreeable frisson when he contemplates his own relation to the cosmos, but he will not try to live in it; he will gratefully accept the shelter of his society. This was certainly More’s intention.


Holbein’s Cromwell

But here’s the thing: neither Bolt nor Mantel portrayed the real Thomas More, because the real Thomas More was a medieval man, not a modern one at all. He was not a solitary figure occasionally flanked not by a wife and daughter, but also by a son, two additional daughters, a stepdaughter, and a ward or two, along with a jester, servants, and uncounted hangers-on. He was not a modern lawyer, in the sense that we usually mean that – with professional restraint and carefully parsed words. Medieval lawyers let fly. Consider his attack on Martin Luther, as described by More’s biographer Peter Ackroyd in The Life of Thomas More:

“Furfuris! Pestillentissimum scurram! Pediculosus fraterculus! Asinus! Potista! Simium! Improbe mendax! Martin Luther is an ape, an arse, a drunkard, a lousy little friar, a piece of scurf, a pestilential buffoon, a dishonest liar. ‘HA. HA. he, facete, laute, lepide Luthere, nihil supra … Hui.’  The unmediated demotic speech here will be of interest to anyone who wishes to know how the educated inhabitants of early sixteenth-century London actually sounded when they spoke in Latin, but More’s grasp of colloquialism went much further. Someone should shit (‘incacere‘) into Luther’s mouth, he is a shit-devil (‘cacodemon‘), he is filled with shit (‘merda‘), dung (‘stercus‘), filth (‘lutum‘) and excrement (‘coenum‘); look, my own fingers are covered with shit (‘digitos concacatos‘) when I try to clean his filthy mouth. This is not, perhaps, the normal language of a saint; but More’s scatological obsessions are shared by Luther himself. ‘I am like ripe shit,’ he once said, ‘and the world is a gigantic arse-hole. We probably will let go of each other soon.’ ‘A Christian should and could be gay,’ he said on another occasion, ‘but then the devil shits on him.'”


The terrifying cosmos

Put that in your historical pipe and smoke it. Certainly it’s closer to Mantel’s More than Bolt’s, but her More lacks all generosity of spirit, another attribute of the “real” more. Here’s Mantel’s neat sleight-of-hand, however: she took Bolt’s trick of turning a More into a modern hero, and turned his nemesis, Thomas Cromwell, into a modern hero instead. Both Scofield’s More and Mark Rylance‘s Cromwell are serious, humane men, both are fair, industrious, and unostentatious. Both are given to long, meditative silences; both are steely and unflinching. Both are family men, and both have humble origins. As Bolt’s play reminded us, More is the son of a lawyer. Mantel goes one up: Cromwell is continually reminded that he is the son of a blacksmith.

I was riveted to Wolf Hall for weeks, but I fell in love with Thomas Cromwell after the first episode, not More. As I realized later, as one of my TV companions this week also pointed out to me … I nevertheless fell in love with the same man.

Watch the film clips below, and see if you agree. (Don’t worry … my heart belongs to Scofield forever.)


Another honor for poet Tomas Venclova – keep ’em coming.

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Terrific poet in a little-known tongue.

One of our favorite people has bagged another honor: earlier this month, one of Europe’s most eminent poets, Tomas Venclova, was awarded for “creative fidelity to the values which comprise the foundation of European civilization.”  The ceremony took place at the Ossoliński National Institute, one of Poland’s oldest scientific libraries and research centers.

In his talk, the Lithuanian poet praised the previous prize laureates: “I have followed in the footsteps of people much greater than myself, such as Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Stanisław Szuszkiewicz, Sergei Kovalev, Václav Havel, Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus and Zbigniew Brzeziński,” he said. (Personally, I’m not so sure about the “greater than himself” part.)

He also paid homage to the prize’s namesake, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a Polish journalist and war-time resistance fighter who was an emissary between the Home Army and the Polish Government in Exile in London. After the war in Communist Poland, Nowak-Jeziorański headed the Polish Section of Radio Free Europe. “Unfortunately I never met Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, although I know he was an emblematic figure in the history of Eastern Europe and global society,” said Venclova. “A politician and solider, journalist and social worker, a diplomat who was a paradigm of fidelity to his beliefs.”

Venclova himself is one of the five founding members of the Lithuanian Helsinki group, whose poetry in the disfavored Lithuanian language could be circulated only in samizdat. His dissident activities attracted the perilous attention of the Soviet authorities, and in 1977 he was forced to emigrate. He taught for many years at Yale University. His poetry has been translated by Czesław Miłosz into Polish, and by Joseph Brodsky into Russian. A selection of his poetry, translated into English by Ellen Hinsey, is at the Poetry Foundation here.

His previous honors include the Gloria Artis and Order of Merit Polish honours, as well as honorary doctorates from universities in Kraków, Gdańsk, Toruń, Lublin and the Lithuanian centres of Klaipeda and Kaunas. All that said, he is too little recognized in the West. So we think there should be more honors, west of the Danube. We have written about him here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Congratulations, Tomas!

Eavan Boland and W.B. Yeats – a connection that is “part scrutiny and all invention”

Sunday, June 21st, 2015
Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities

A sense of displacement

“There is a mystery and poignance to the way poets find one another. The process can never be mutual. It is always the younger poet in a later generation who does the finding. It is always left to the younger poet to work out a process built on artifice and illusion: to make a connection across time and distance that is part scrutiny and all invention. At the end of the process, after all the memorising and inscribing, the older poet remains intact in both meaning and achievement. It is the younger one who is revealed.”

We wrote about Irish poet Eavan Boland a few days ago, with her address at the Hopwoods Awards ceremony at the University of Michigan. Then I found this June 10 article in the Irish Times, “Saving grace: how WB Yeats helped Eavan Boland to become a poet.”

She discovered William Butler Yeats as a teenager: “What was revealed to me was how willing I was in this initial encounter to enter a Yeatsian world of lakes, of spirits hidden inside mountain winds and heroic legends. How easily I passed into all this, like an unchallenged ghost. Now I look back, I know the key to my first response was not the truth of his representation but the depth of my own displacement.


His world of lakes and spirits

“I had returned to Ireland at the age of 14 having lived for years outside the country. I knew instinctively that I lacked a secret language of location that turns a child into an adult who fits in. I missed the sense of belonging that both reveals and restricts the meaning of place. Without those signals of self I was able to accept without questioning Yeats’s artifice and invention: his landscapes filled with improbable spirits and perfect language needed no standard of proof for me. There was no other place waiting for me. I adopted his and made it my own.

“So began my late teenage years and the beginning of my 20s, when I knew many of his poems by heart. Stanzas, epigrams, exclamations guided some inner space whenever I summoned them. His words entered my mind the way melody enters the mind of someone who loves songs: a framing device well beyond the subject matter of what’s remembered. It seemed back then that I had acquired not just a possession but also a comfort zone. And I might have remained there. I might have stayed grateful for the Virgilian companionship of a poet whose well-phrased dramas and dramatic phrases brought more dignity to my everyday life than I could have provided.”

The encounter goes on. Read the rest of this beautiful essay here.

Children’s books: memory, magic, lullaby, and how now is now.

Friday, June 19th, 2015

I don’t think much about children’s literature. I haven’t read much …. oh, since I was a child. I’m not one of those people who gets all misty-eyed about childhood, but I recently ran across this lovely passage, at the very end of Laura Ingall Wilder‘s Little House in the Big Woods, and I wondered if I missed something on first reading, decades ago:


It’s still now now.

“When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

LB. Easter Egg Roll.

Mary Pope Osborne and her husband at the White House, 2007.

One more reason to reconsider: I recently became acquainted with Mary Pope Osborne, author of the Magic Tree House series, which has sold more than 100 million copies and been translated into 30 languages – success by any standards, but there’s more. The popularity of the series surpassed that of Harry Potter as #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list in 2006 (and I’ve never read Harry Potter, either). The series has been awarded by the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Booksellers Association, and she also received the Ludington Memorial Award from the Educational Paperback Association and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Random House Sales Force.

Here’s what enchanted me in the video a friend sent me above. She based a children’s book on Ovid‘s Metamorphoses, and the sad story of the Alcyone, daughter of the god of the wind, and her drowned husband Ceyx. Alcyone returns to the sea each day, waiting for his return, and Aphrodite, at last taking pity on her, sends the divine messenger Iris to the house of Sleep (a.k.a. Morpheus) to arranges a nighttime visitation, to convince the grief-stricken queen her cause is lost. In Mary’s rendering, in her 1989 A Visit to Sleep’s House, the story turns a sort of lullaby, where “drowsy Sleep lives in a cloud-covered house.” All is quiet as “you walk up Sleep’s pathway” where “no owl calls out, ‘Who?’ / and no dog barks under the moon.” Wild animals, geese, cows, are similarly soundless. At last she sees Sleep, a shadowed figure wearing a nightcap, “lying on an old wooden bed” beside yours, and you fall asleep listening to the river that “whispers, Good night, good night.” The mini-reading begins around 34.00.

zimmermanSomewhere in my messy house, I have a big fat edition of Ovid, but I can’t find it. But I recalled that the sad story of Alcyone inspired another Mary – Mary Zimmerman, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow – in her remarkable play Metamorphosis. While looking for the fat Ovid, I found instead my slim paperback of the play, in which Iris calls Sleep “Mildest of all the gods, soother of souls, and healer of wearied and pain-wracked bodies and minds.” As a result, the inconsolable Alcyone gets a nighttime visit from the shrouded ghost of her husband. As he retreats to the sea, “She began to run to him; but as she ran, crying, a strange thing happened.” Then, in an Ovidian turn, the gods have mercy – she becomes a bird, and so does he:

For the dead body was changing, restored to life,
and renewed as another seabird.
Together they still fly, just over the water’s surface,
and mate and rear their young, and for seven days each winter
Alcyone broods on her next that floats on the gentled water –
for Aeolus, her father, then keeps the winds short reined
and every year gives seven days of calm upon the ocean –
the days we call the halcyon days.

And that is how Mary Zimmerman signed my book at Stanford, with two birds over the sea.

And now to bed.

Gary Snyder, covered in ants – and how the quotidian and the cosmic are inseparable

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

ant“When I arrived at his home in the Sierra Nevada foothills in May of 1998, Gary Snyder was covered with ants. He was on the roof of a shed, straddling solar panels and pulling out insulation that a colony of carpenter ants had claimed as its own,” recalled Eric Todd Smith. “A few minutes later, he was showing me around his tool shed and the old barn that houses his office, occasionally slapping at stray ants crawling in his hair. We talked about how to use the old crosscut saw and logging cables hanging from the walls, about local birds and trees, and eventually wound our way into poetry, Buddhist philosophy, and natural resource management. Such simultaneous immersion in concrete tasks and abstract ideas is normal for Snyder, who has lived with his family at Kitkitdizze, the house he built himself, since the early 1970s. His long poem, Mountain and Rivers Without End, testifies to his conviction that the quotidian and the cosmic are inseparable.”

With this passage, Smith introduces his unpublished interview with the Pultitzer prize-winning poet Gary Snyder – but he’s also introducing the man himself. It’s only one chapter in A Sense of the Whole: Reading Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End, edited by Mark Gonnerman. Some of you locals will remember Mark as the amiable and informed host of the Aurora Forum public conversations at Stanford. There’s lots to recall Stanford in this new volume, published by Counterpoint in Berkeley.

gonnermanSnyder’s book-length poem was published in spring 1996. In December of that year, Snyder read from the poem at the legendary independent bookstore Kepler’s, just down the street from Stanford (we wrote about its history here). Gonnerman was in the audience, and perhaps that was something of an inspiration for the year-long research workshop Gonnerman organized at the Stanford Humanities Center in 1997. Scholars, writers, faculty, students, and community members met regularly to discuss Snyder’s 39-poem cycle, Mountains and Rivers Without End.  

The new volume includes the October 8, 1997, conversation at Stanford’s East House between Snyder, Gonnerman, and Counterpoint publisher, Jack Shoemaker. The following night, October 9, Snyder read a large portion of the poem to a full house at Kresge Auditorium on the Stanford campus. It also has a short Stanford discussion between Gonnerman, Carl Bielefeldt, and Charles Junkerman.

It includes essays by other participants at the year-long Stanford Mountains and Rivers celebration, such as David Abram, Wendell Berry, Carl Bielefeldt, Tim Dean, Jim Dodge, Robert Hass, Stephanie Kaza, Julia Martin, Michael McClure, Nano Sakaki, and Katsunori Yamazato.

The poem is “a complex, engaging, and, I presume, enduring work of art,” writes Gonnerman, but a work of art that’s hard to classify: “Is it an ‘American epic poem’ (M&R dust jacket)? A multimedia poem cycle? A contribution to American mythology? A collection of poems depicting major ecosystem types? Is it a spiritual autobiography – a pilgrim’s progress – aimed at effecting some kind of religious conversion?” Clearly, all of the above for Gonnerman, who intended the book as a guide to the poem, as well as an homage.

But he had another purpose, too: “One of the most pressing problems in American education and society at large is a breakdown of community owing to specialization, a trend that has infected even undergraduate life,” Gonnerman writes. He says “the book aims to inspire others to organize learning communities around poetic and allied arts. Our Mountains & Rivers Workshop began in an effort to turn the contemporary research multiversity into a university once again, if only for a moment.”

(Postscript: I have never met Gary Snyder, even while living nearby in the Sierra foothills for years. But we briefly exchanged emails two years ago, after Mark had mentioned that René Girard once spent an evening eating horsemeat with the foothills poet.  That was so far-fetched I had to check it out. I finally reached him via a mutual friend. Sorry, he said, although he’d cooked and eaten horsemeat before, he’d never done so with the renowned immortel of the Académie Française. Now if you should hear that rumor, you can squash it, too. Like an ant.)


Antless at Columbia, 2007 (Creative Commons)


Czesław Miłosz: his letters, his left-handedness, and a Russian blue cat named “Tiny”

Saturday, June 13th, 2015

CzeslawMilosz“To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life.”  

— Czesław Miłosz, Road-side Dog

David Sanders over at Poetry News in Review brought “Miłosz and His Fans” in Ontario’s Brick Magazine to our attention, and we’re mightily grateful. Molly Wesling was an assistant to Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz in the early 1990s (we’ve written about him here and here, and a gazillion other places). Her reminiscences of the Polish poet (here) absolutely sparkles with gems. Here are a few paragraphs:

The indignities of aging were on the poet’s mind. He was translating the poems of Anna Swir (aka Świrszczyńska, 1909–1984), his friend from Warsaw, into English in collaboration with Leonard Nathan. Swir wrote about what happens when bodies decay and disappoint, and Miłosz admired her candour, rare for a Polish woman of her generation. His own writing from this period onward is full of such meditations. “They were betrayed by their bodies, once beautiful and ready to dance. Yet in every one a lamp of consciousness is burning, hence their wonder: ‘Is this me? But it can’t be so!’”

Still, the world rose up to smooth the poet’s path. One of the perks of being a Nobel laureate at University of California, Berkeley—at that time there were about fifteen, Miłosz the only winner in a non-scientific field—is your own parking space on campus for life. Miłosz also had the privilege of scoring a table at a moment’s notice at the wildly popular restaurant Chez Panisse. In Berkeley these were fairy-tale prizes, like flying carpets or enchanted pots that never run out of porridge.

Over the phone in the fall of 1990, Miłosz described where to catch the bus to his house and cautioned me about the many “lacunae” in the bus schedule. I knew then I’d caught the golden ring of part-time jobs. In between letters I jotted down a few of his asides. I’ve saved my notebooks, which is why I can quote from them twenty-five years later. Once, Miłosz looked at me as I was writing and said, “I used to be left-handed too, but they beat it out of me.” On Joseph Brodsky: “he is a genius”; Robert Frost: “marvellous”; the Laments by Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski: “should be ranked with the world classics”; and my favourite: “these poems are awful” (I can’t say whose).


Feed me.

Miłosz and Carol were away for the year of 1991–92. I collected the mail and sent it to Chapel Hill. Ted was in charge of watering the bushes of the main house and tending to the needs of Tiny, the ancient Russian Blue who appears once or twice in the Miłosz oeuvre—both as himself and as a representative of the violent animal world. Through our weekly tryst at Miłosz’s aerie, Ted and I had become a couple, complete with grey cat, like the “Old World Landowners” from Nikolai Gogol’s short story of that name. When the eighty-one-year-old Master finally arrived back at his Berkeley home, he immediately noticed the dying rhododendrons and Tiny’s untidy litter box and was annoyed. Miłosz climbed back up the flagstone path to the carriage house and commenced a dressing-down. Later that evening he returned, this time to offer Ted a heartfelt apology the way only Miłosz could—eyebrows twitching, a humble bow of the head.

Read the whole thing here.

“Are most of your stars out?” Eavan Boland offers advice to young writers at Hopwood Awards.

Thursday, June 11th, 2015
Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities

She oughta know. (Photo courtesy Eavan Boland)

I have an especial fondness for the Avery Hopwood awards at the University of Michigan. During my days as a student in Ann Arbor, I was awarded two – just like playwright Arthur Miller. That might be the only thing we have in common. But the early encouragement meant a lot.

So I was very pleased that Stanford’s Eavan Bolandone of Ireland’s leading poets, delivered this year’s address on April 22. Her subject: what advice can older writers give younger ones? She has her doubts about how far words can go, but I like Nicholas Del Banco‘s comment, which she cited: “the conflicted self is crucial.” He was commenting about novels – but I think the comment embraces all genres (so does she).

Her thoughts on the subject took her back to Dublin – “improbably a city where lightning had struck. In a figurative, artistic way that is.” She described this story between two Irish writers in a a smoking room in a Dublin café, in 1902:

The meeting took place on O’Connell Street which was then Sackville Street. It was a wide street in a garrison city which was still under British rule and would remain so for fourteen years. And all of this in a country, which was considered a backwater of Europe. Not a country that people – except for a few deep inside its secret societies – held out much hope for. The meeting was between two men, two writers, who had never met before. One was in his middle thirties and one a mere twenty years of age.

The two men were William Yeats and the very young James Joyce. And they were not equals. Yeats was already an iconic figure. He had founded the Irish theater. He had written admired poetry. Joyce had yet to write anything important. When I think of the hazards of this sort of advice I think of what happened next. Before any conversation could be started, James Joyce leaned across the table to William Yeats and said, “You are too old for me to help you.”

Then she told her own story, also in Dublin, decades later when she was a student at Trinity College, studying English literature in a place where poetry was treated as “a canonical fact.” She had no idea that Irish poetry had “been forced to shine out of a darkness with effort and pain.”

rua2And then at the age of 18 I picked up a book called The Hidden Ireland by a writer I had never heard of, Daniel Corkery. It had been published in 1925. The book follows the shattered narrative of the Cromwellian clearances in Ireland in the 18th century. It alights in their aftermath in a small part of Gaelic Munster, which is called Slieve Luachra, a mountainous area on the Cork Kerry border. Corkery writes about poets such as Aodhagán Ó Rathaille and Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin. He records that they spoke the Irish language and wrote their poetry in it. That they were witnesses to the destruction of that language and the breaking apart of the Bardic order. “What Pindar is to Greece, what Burns is to Scotland  … that and much more is Eoghan Ruadh to Ireland,” wrote Corkery.

That evening as I read on I could see what Robert Penn Warren meant when he said “the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see.” I stopped on one page, and at one passage. Everything I was or hoped to be listened to what those words said.

Here is the passage the passage from Corkery that turned her on and, perhaps, changed her life: “Then we must also remember that these poets were simple men, living as peasants in rural surroundings; some of them, probably, never saw a city; not only this, but they were all poor men, very often sore-troubled where and how to find shelter, clothing, food, at the end of a day’s tramping. Their native culture is ancient, harking back to pre-Renaissance standards; but there is no inflow of books from outside to impregnate it with new thoughts. Their language is dying: around them is the drip, drip of callous decay: famine overtakes famine, or the people are cleared from the land to make room for bullocks. The rocks in hidden mountain clefts are the only altars left to them; and teaching is a felony.”

“Not to excuse, but to explain them, are these facts mentioned; for their poetry, though doubtless the poorest chapter in .the book of Irish literature, is in itself no poor thing that needs excuse: it is, contrariwise, a rich thing, a marvelous inheritance, bright with music, flushed with colour, deep with human feeling. To see it against the dark world that threw it up, is to be astonished, if not dazzled.”


Merciless obsessions.

Eavan Boland continues: “I can remember where I was when I read this. Even now I ask myself – why was I so moved by an assertion nobody could prove; about poets from another world, most of them lost to time and history? I believe I was moved because it was the first time I had come across a bold statement about the importance of the artist ‘s life. It was the first time I had read that language and literature could testify in and through time; that such testimony could pierce the darkness of a history. It was the first time anyone had expressed the dignity of the life I hoped I would live.”

The rest led her to “a life lived in and through language, with all its challenge and reward. This won’t change and has never changed.” Let me close with some of more of the great advice from great writers she cited. This one, from the Prague-born German-language author Franz Kafka: “Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”

"Lame" himself

“Were you busy writing your heart out?”

And this piece closer to home, from America’s J.D. Salinger: “Do you know what you will be asked when you die? Let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished – I think only poor Soren K. will get asked that. I’m so sure you’ll only get asked two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.”


100 reasons to go to France – Wednesday at Stanford bookstore!

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015


Francophile (Photo: Ron Haviv)

Francophile (Photo: Ron Haviv)

Marcia DeSanctis and I met the modern way – in cyberspace, over her previously unpublished interview with Joseph Brodsky. Now I’ll meet her face-to-face – and you’ll have a chance to meet her, too, at the same time.

She’ll be speaking at the Stanford Bookstore at 6 p.m. tomorrow – that’s Wednesday, June 10, 2015. The subject is one dear to her heart: France. Her 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go is for the serious Francophile – well, we wrote about the book here, in a post titled “We’ll always have Paris: 100 reasons to go back, right away.”  The award-winning author draws on years of travels and living in France to lead you through vineyards, architectural treasures, fabled gardens and contemplative hikes from Biarritz to Deauville, Antibes to the French Alps.

Marcia is a former television news producer for ABC, NBC and CBS News and has written for the New York Times, Vogue, and others: her book quickly hit the New York Times Travel Best Seller list shortly after its release last November. As I wrote a few months ago:

After a quick glance through, I began scribbling notes, picking quarrels, marking passages with stars, brackets, exclamation points, or question marks in the margins. The book is addictive, like crack, and I could see I wasn’t going to get much done unless I hid it somewhere in the midst of my piles of books and papers. And so it waited.

(Photo: Ron Haviv)

Marcia is a former television news producer for ABC, NBC and CBS News and an accomplished journalist (we’ve also written about her here), and she hardly needed a boost from me: the book quickly hit the New York Times Travel Best Seller list shortly after its release last November. Not bad, considering it was published by a small, off-the-beaten-track house. Coincidentally, the publisher is in Palo Alto – Travelers’ Tales, an imprint of Solas House.

The book abounds with solid advice on where to shop, where to go for a long afternoon walk, where to find the best wines, and where to eat, eat, eat. Typical of her advice on the latter: “Some of the best meals I’ve ever had in France have been haphazard affairs, slapped together with a quick trip to the Marché d’Aligre near the Bastille – ripe Rocamadour cheese and saucisson aux noix, bread, and a salad of mâche trucked in that morning from the Loire Valley. It’s important to dine like this in France … while uncorking a decent Beaujolais from the corner store…


He’s waiting, Marcia.

As for her own story, she writes on her website here: “I graduated from Princeton, where I studied creative writing with Russell Banks but majored in Russian language and literature. I still love those writers and wish I had the attention span to read Dostoevsky’s collected works again. … Moscow is still one of my favorite places on earth.”

I’m with you on Moscow, Marcia. As for the attention span, that’s what the internet will do to you.

Comedians1-500x500Postscript on 6/11:  Marcia DeSanctis is on the road again … but what is she reading? “When I travel, once I’ve rounded up my documents and stuffed the carry-on to bursting, the last thing I pack is a book. I slip whatever I have chosen between my change of clothes and my blanket, and close the zipper. I appreciate that e-books have, for some people, erased the need to make an absolute decision on what single piece of literature will accompany them on a journey. But on the road, I prefer a tactile, 3D, lick-my-finger-and-turn-the-page hard copy, the kind I’ve toted around for decades, stealing sentences in cafes, train stations and hotel beds all across the planet.  For me, a book is a well-considered traveling companion…” Read her discussion of her travel reading in today’s Tin House. It’s here.



So long see you tomorrow, Toby! An evening of Camus, crowds, and many fond farewells.

Saturday, June 6th, 2015



I present some surprises to Toby. Another Look’s graphic designer Zoë Patrick at left. (Photo: David Schwartz)

Stanford’s Another Look book club was born of one man’s love for a short novel – that is, acclaimed author Tobias Wolff‘s love of William Maxwells So Long See You Tomorrow, which became the first book discussed in the three-year series. He wanted to share the book not just with colleagues, but the the world. He called Another Look “a gift to the community.” (We’ve written about it here and here and here and a zillion other places). So it was fitting that we concluded the era Toby’s directorship with a Maxwell tribute. Why “see you tomorrow”? Because he’s not going far. He’s simply beginning his well-earned retirement. He’ll be around. Meanwhile, the future of the highly successful program he founded is uncertain. We’ll see what happens. Cross your fingers. Burn incense. Whatever works.


Toby begins – a little amazed at the turn-out. (Photo: D. Schwartz)

The Monday discussion of Albert CamusThe Stranger was a knockout event – the turn-out beyond anything we had anticipated. It was way beyond standing room only. The room was impassable, with a mob in the doorway, and another outside the sliding doors to the patio, opened so a smaller crowd could listen in. People sat on the floor in the aisles. There was no place in the room that didn’t have people in it. (I squatted behind the podium and couldn’t see anyone on the panel – you could say I had audio, but not visual, reception.) It was, in short, a love-bomb.

The photos above and below don’t quite capture the size of the crowd – photographer David Schwartz, who happened to be in the audience, didn’t have much choice about what he could capture at all. The fans who were lucky enough to have seats were so jam-packed that he couldn’t move.

David couldn’t photograph all three panelists together – so we augment his photos with one of Marie-Pierre Ulloaa scholar of French intellectual life in 20th-century Algeria, taken by Remmelt Pit.

No surprise that the discussion was lively and wide-ranging. Intellectual and cultural historian Caroline Winterer, director of the Stanford Humanities Center, and Toby are old friends, as their spirited exchanges show in the photos. The audience was bubbling with questions – more than the panelists could possibly answer. Many of them focused on the four extra shots fired by Meursault into the Arab – in Matthew Ward‘s esteemed “American” translation (read about him here) is rendered “And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.”

camus-9All in all, it was a wonderful send-off for Toby’s retirement – we presented him with a signed first edition of the late William Maxwell’s The Outermost Dream, a collection of his essays from The New Yorker – fitting, because Toby himself is a regular contributor to the magazine.

But the biggest surprise of the evening was the edition of Maxwell’s later novels from Brookie and Kate Maxwell, the author’s daughters, who have appreciated Toby’s attention to their father’s legacy, and his efforts for Another Look more generally. Brookie, also a photographer, included a photograph of her father that she had taken – the photograph with the kitten; you can see it here.


Teamwork: Toby and Caroline. (Photo: David Schwartz)


A spirited exchange between Toby and Caroline (Photo: David Schwartz)


Toby makes a face; Marie-Pierre giggles. (Photo: Remmelt Pit)