Posts Tagged ‘George Plimpton’

Poet Marianne Moore meets Muhammad Ali: “I’m a poet, too!” he said.

Saturday, June 4th, 2016

They decided to write a sonnet together…

A meeting between poet Marianne Moore and legendary Muhammad Ali, who died today. They had been introduced by George PlimptonThe historic rendezvous took place at Toots Shor’s in Manhattan. Here’s the story over at “Such Stuff“:

She made a confused, pleased gesture and then had a sip of her tea. He ordered a bowl of beef soup and a phone. He announced that if she was the greatest poetess in the country, the two of them should produce something together — “I am a poet, too,” he said — a joint effort sonnet, it was to be, with each of them doing alternate lines. Miss Moore nodded vaguely. Ali was very much the more decisive of the pair, picking not only the form but also the topic: “Mrs. Moore and I are going to write a sonnet about my upcoming fight in Houston with Ernie Terrell,” he proclaimed to the table. “Mrs. Moore and I will show the world with this great poem who is who and what is what and who is going to win.”

“We will call it ‘A Poem on the Annihilation of Ernie Terrell,’ ” Miss Moore announced. “Let us be serious but not grim.”


What rhymes with “hell”?

“She’s cute,” Ali commented.

A pen was produced. Ali was given a menu on which to write. He started off with half the first line — “After we defeat” — and asked Miss Moore to write in Ernie Terrell (which she misspelled “Ernie Tyrell” in her spidery script) just to get her “warmed up.” He wrote most of the second line — “He will catch nothing” — handing the pen over and expecting Miss Moore to fill in the obvious rhyme, and he was quite surprised when she did not. She made some scratchy squiggles on the paper to get the ink flowing properly. The fighter peered over her shoulder.

“What’s that say?” he asked.

“It doesn’t say anything. You could call them ‘preliminaries.’ Terrell should rhyme nicely with ‘bell,’ Miss Moore said tentatively. I could see her lips move as she fussed with possibilities. Finally, Ali leaned over and whispered to her, ” ‘but hell,’ Mrs. Moore.”

Read the whole thing here.

Donald Hall on old age: “an unknown, unanticipated galaxy”

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Not funny. Donald Hall receiving the National Medal of Arts, 2011.

Update on June 24, 2018: Donald Hall died last night. Some memories from Don Share, editor of Poetry Magazine:

“It was only a few weeks ago that I last was in touch with Don Hall. He was so pleased with Martín Espada’s being awarded the Lilly Prize; and he always mentioned – of course! – baseball, family life, and poetry: “I wish I still wrote poems” was the last thing he wrote to me, alongside his praise of the direction POETRY, which he read faithfully, has been taking. His kindness and generosity was spontaneous, unbidden, and abiding, and these things were watered from the same deep well as his poetry. He was capacious, more so than he got credit for being. And literally to the end, he was gently courageous and somehow funny, too. He wanted to remember, perhaps, more than be remembered; but lots of us will think about him and his life in poetry all our days.”

He was one of those rare creatures, a poet who writes into advanced age and illuminates the path for the rest of us. My earlier post from 2016, on Donald Hall and old age.

The endless ageism of this election cycle has been a dispiriting spectacle for quite some time. In fact, you are welcome to join me in documenting it on my Twitter hashtag #Ageism2016. While we live in a society that is fascinated with attractiveness and youth in its leaders (cough, cough, Justin Trudeau), it stands to reason that anyone with sagacity and experience for international leadership will have cycled more than a few dozen times around the sun. But politics is not the only arena where wisdom comes with years.

Remember way back when we targeted The Washington Post‘s casual (and, I suspect, unintended) dissing of poet Donald Hall when he received the National Medal of Arts in 2011? The diss involved a caption contest for a “funny” photo of the poet. We created something of a national stir with that one, with even Sarah Palin chiming in – you can read about it here and here.

I hadn’t read the 87-year-old poet’s latest collection of essays Essays After Eighty, but Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings had, and apparently a caption contest was the least of the insults he had to work with that day in Washington, D.C. From one of Hall’s essays:

“I go to Washington to receive the National Medal of Arts and arrive two days early to look at paintings. At the National Gallery of Art, Linda [Hall’s girlfriend] pushes me in a wheelchair from painting to painting. We stop by a Henry Moore carving. A museum guard, a man in his sixties with a small pepper-and-salt mustache, approaches us and helpfully tells us the name of the sculptor. I wrote a book about Moore and knew him well. Linda and I separately think of mentioning my connection but instantly suppress the notion — egotistic, and maybe embarrassing to the guard. A couple of hours later, we emerge from the cafeteria and see the same man, who asks Linda if she enjoyed her lunch. Then he bends over to address me, wags his finger, smiles a grotesque smile, and raises his voice to ask, ‘Did we have a nice din-din?’”

His forbearance is greater than mine would have been. There’s a reason little old ladies carry handbags (hint: remember Ruth Buzzi.) But the indignities of age didn’t end with the guard or the caption contest. At the ceremony, President Obama bent to whisper a few memorable sentences in his left ear. Except that Hall is completely deaf in his left ear, and never heard them.

hall-coverRelief was near at hand:

On the day of the medal, [Linda] wheeled me from the Willard InterContinental Hotel to the White House. Waiting at the entrance to go through security, I looked up to see Philip Roth, whom I recognized from long ago. I loved his novels. He saw me in the hotel’s wheelchair — my enormous beard and erupting hair, my body wracked with antiquity — and said, “I haven’t seen you for fifty years!” How did he remember me? We had met in George Plimpton’s living room in the 1950s. I praised what he wrote about George in Exit Ghost. [I wrote about the passage in Exit Ghost here – C.H.] He seemed pleased, and glanced down at me in the chair. “How are you doing?” I told him fine, “I’m still writing.”

He said, “What else is there?”

It’s litotes to point out that none of us are getting any younger, but as I travel this dark road myself, I find the journey more interesting than anyone had ever told me it would be. Donald Hall apparently feels the same way. He holds a lamp for us as we all move forward into the night, with his wry self-awareness, stoic anguish, and endless insight:

“After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other — thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty began to extend the bliss of fifty — and then came my cancers, Jane’s death [i.e, his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon], and over the years I traveled to another universe. However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying — in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way — but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.

People’s response to our separateness can be callous, can be goodhearted, and is always condescending… At a family dinner, my children and grandchildren pay fond attention to me; I may be peripheral, but I am not invisible. A grandchild’s college roommate, encountered for the first time, pulls a chair to sit with her back directly in front of me, cutting me off from the family circle: I don’t exist.

When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it asserts its power. Sometimes the reaction to antiquity becomes farce.

First-ever major exhibition on Hemingway – and it even has his wartime “Dear John” letter.

Saturday, January 30th, 2016
Ernest Hemingway: Between Two wars. Entrance to the exhibit. Morgan Library & Museum. Jan/ 2016

Entrance to the exhibition. (Photograph: Zygmunt Malinowski)

From our roving New York City correspondent, photographer Zygmunt Malinowski filing from … Hawaii! You can read more of his posts here and here and here and here. Meanwhile:

When he was nineteen, young Ernest Hemingway enlisted as a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War I. Within a month, he was severely injured with shrapnel wounds to his legs. Notwithstanding his trauma, he helped other soldiers to safety first and so was awarded medal for bravery.


In Milan, 1918. (Photograph Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

The story behind the exhibition “Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars” begins about then. His personal letters (including his 1920s Paris letters correspondence with Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sylvia Beach), partial drafts of manuscripts, first edition books, and photographs can be found at New York City’s Morgan Library and Museum, located near Grand Central Station. It is in the first major exhibition ever for Hemingway (1899–1961), one of the major American writers of the twentieth century.

The war was not all suffering. While convalescing in the hospital, he fell in love and became engaged. Nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, seven years his senior, was the daughter of Polish-Russian-German émigré. However, she broke off the engagement with a Dear John letter – and that, too, is featured in the exhibition.

The romantic setback was only one episode during his war experience. He left a more enduring record with his successful wartime short stories and novels, including Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway later wrote to Fitzgerald, who read and commented on some of his drafts: “war is best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.” And so it was with him.

The exhibition is a treasure trove of his written records, handwritten and printed, included in annotated notebooks, single pages, and letters. I felt I was standing over this literary giant’s shoulder, watching a work in progress (he received Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954). Some of his handwritten pages in pencil give the impression that he was in a hurry to jot down his thoughts – his quick and careless handwriting runs slantwise on unlined pages.

The exhibition includes the drafts of Farewell to Arms, in which he rewrote the ending again and again. During an interview George Plimpton asked him why he reconfigured the ending so many times. Hemingway replied: “To get the words right.”

The exhibition, organized in collaboration with John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Library in Boston, ends its New York run on Jan. 31, and then continues to Boston where it will reopen in the spring at the JFK museum. (Read about it in the lower lefthand corner here.)

“It’s our time. It’s our humanity. We have to be part of it too.” Philip Roth on George Plimpton

Friday, January 17th, 2014

Plimpton escaping his glamor in 1987 (Photo: MDC Archives)

My only interaction with George Plimpton, the legendary founder of The Paris Review, occurred about a dozen years ago.  I was aware that I was dealing with a “famous person,” but he didn’t seem to be … that is, he wasn’t acting as if he considered himself to be a grand person with me only a fly on his schedule. The matter at hand was Sven Birkerts‘s interview with Joseph Brodsky, which I planned to republish in Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. Apparently, there were several versions and we were sorting them out.  I can’t remember how the issue is resolved, and I can’t remember precisely the conversations, except I refer to them in my later correspondence, so I know they must have happened.

brodsky2Hence, I was interested to read Philip Roth‘s treatment of Plimpton in Exit Ghost. The words, of course, are embedded in a work of fiction, and come from the mouth of the elderly writer Nathan Zuckerman, who is returning to New York City in 2004, after 11 years of seclusion in the Berkshires. He is shocked to learn of his colleague’s death, in his sleep at age 76, the year before – and he is doing some late-life wrestling with his own mortality, too. In Roth’s novel, Plimpton ingenuously winds his way into the last 50 pages, and accounts for some of the most moving passages in the book. Here’s one such passage, though not his final word on the subject:

George escaped his glamour without losing his glamour, only further enhancing it in autobiographical books seemingly driven by self-deprecation. Climbing into the ring with [boxer] Archie Moore he was simply practicing noblesse oblige in its most exquisite form – a form, moreover, that he had invented. When people say to themselves “I want to be happy,” they could as well be saying “I want to be George Plimpton”: one achieves, one is productive, and there’s pleasure and ease in all of it.

Nobody on such casual good terms with the mighty and the accomplished and the renowned, nobody so in love with the excitement of deeds and words, for whom the suffering that is mortality seemed so remote, nobody with as many admirers as George had, with as many attributes as George had, nobody who could speak to anyone and everyone as easily as George did … On I went, thinking that the closest George would ever come to dying would be to simulate it in an article for Sports Illustrated.  …

ExitghostHow could George be dead? I kept coming back to that. George’s having died a year ago made everything absurd. How could that happen to him? And how did what happened happen to me for these past eleven years? Never to see George again – never to see anyone again! I did this because of that? I did that because of this? I defined my life around that accident or that person or that ridiculously minor event? How outlandish I seemed, and all because, without my knowing it, George Plimpton had died. Suddenly my way of being had no justification, and George was my – what is the word I’m looking for? The antonym of doppelgänger. Suddenly George Plimpton stood for all that I had squandered by removing myself as forcefully as I had and retreating onto Lonoff’s mountain, to seek asylum there from the great variety of life. “It’s our time,” George said to me, his singular voice ringing with its spirited confidence. “It’s our humanity. We have to be part of it too.”

What do Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Philip K. Dick, and Jean-Paul Sartre have in common?

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Hermann Hesse finds true love

I have a lot of writing to finish between now and Sunday night – I’ll be going at it 24/7.  Meanwhile, you might want to check out Buzzfeed’s “30 Renowned Authors Inspired by Cats.”  There’s also more at Writers and Kitties.

Mark Twain was an obvious choice.  But I combed through to see if they were going to remember some of the world’s most famous cat-lovers.  Colette, for example, who famously said, “Plus je connais les hommes, plus j’aime mes chats.”

Mississippi and J.B. (Photo: Bengt Jangfeldt)

She’s there, along with Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, Philip K. Dick, Hermann Hesse, Edward Gorey, George Plimpton, Jacques Derrida, W.H. Auden, and Jean-Paul Sartre make the cut.  But where’s T.S. Eliot, for goodness sake?

A few other notables were missed.  Where is Joseph Brodsky and his famous cat Mississippi?

I’m not entirely sure Vikram Seth is a cat-lover, but I think he must be.  The gnarly old tomcat Charlemagne, in The Golden Gate, is one of the great literary cats. I could find no photo of him with cats – only this from Delhi Walla, which is as close as I’m going to get tonight.  And since my own copy of Golden Gate is loaned out to a good cause, I found this sole sonnet (the novel is composed of Pushkin tetrameter sonnets), in which the lawyer John is warned of his romantic competition for the heart of fellow attorney Liz.  I like the way these fleet, four-footed sonnets fit onto wordpress better, next to a photograph, without awful line breaks:

Vikram Seth and fan

Ah, John, don’t take it all for granted.
Perhaps you think Liz loves you best.
The snooker table has been slanted.
A cuckoo’s bomb lies in the nest.
Be warned. Be warned. Just as in poker
The wildness of that card, the joker
Disturbs the best-laid plans of men,
So too it happens, now and then,
That a furred beast with feral features
(Little imagined in the days
When, cute and twee, the kitten plays),
Of that familiar brood of creatures
The world denominates a cat,
Enters the game, and knocks it flat.

Charles Bukowski and friend

Speaking of Vikram Seth, let’s take a moment to give equal time to dogs.  I have in mind one that played prominently in Seth’s novel, An Equal Music. It’s St. Augustine’s small white Maltese dog in Vittore Carpaccio‘s Saint Augustine in His Study, in Venice’s Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. It’s from Carpaccio’s mature period – he began it in 1502 and completed it in 1507. It’s one of seven panels he made, still in the Schola, depicting the guild’s patron saints.

On Vikram Seth’s authority, I shlepped to the Schola a decade or so ago. It’s tucked away on one of Venice’s sidestreets and not easy to find.  It was worth it. The schola is dark and mysterious and pure magic. The painting everything he said it would be.

Highly recommended.


A saint's best friend...Carpaccio's Augustine in his study