Merwin the mighty

MERWINOne of the great privileges of my life — aside from being a husband and a father, of course — was meeting W.S. Merwin. He was eager to get home to Hawaii, to his wife, to his gardens, but we talked for about an hour while he was visiting Claremont McKenna College a few years ago. I had my connections to the college, and my identity as a rep for a large newspaper, and that created the kind of opportunity that only seems possible in a dream. But I was also forewarned that he was leery of interviews and suspicious of reporters because they routinely mangled the currency of his craft and took his comments out of context. I was reminded of that warning after reading a comment included in a Huff Post article about a new film of the poet's life. Merwin sounds like a person whose life is characterized mainly by "I don't...":

"He said 'I'm not going to talk about Buddhism and I'm not going to talk about my writing process,' and on top of that, he's just a deeply private person," the filmmaker says in the article. Merwin  "put some creative parameters on what the film is."

Initially, I felt the same parameters. Especially when he eyed the digital recorder in my shirt breast-pocket. He told me not to use it. What could I do?  I tried so hard to keep up with the flow of his thoughts, but I couldn't scribble fast enough.

I knew his work pretty well, especially his Purgatorio translation and early poetry, and the lovely little book about his years in Provence. I asked him question after question. Maybe that made a difference.

I also started expressing my  frustrations over the fate of a manuscript, and he didn't hide his irritation at the whole marketing process, either. It was a revelation. The whole thing bothered him--Him!--too. When he talked about visiting Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth's, it felt like a flash-bomb had gone off in my face -- Pound, for God's sake, he knew Pound!

He was as generous to me, and as passionate about his work, as the young Princeton student who once talked poetry with John Berryman:

I asked how can you ever be sure that what you write is really any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure you die without knowing whether anything you wrote was any good if you have to be sure don't write

And suddenly I heard those words that I'd never expected to hear. He pointed at my recorder and said,  "ok, you can let it run a little."



P.S. Dante's salty bread

Credit: Fastily While a Kirkus Review item on Prue Shaw's Dante book praises Shaw for showing us the genius of Dante's work, there's something else I'd like to mention -- more of an aside than anything else -- that is just as worthy as her assessment of that mighty poem.

The poet's biography, embedded in the lines.

Not the major elements of his biography -- not his encounters with actual friends and family members, enough's said about that -- I'm thinking more of stray, little bits that dramatically illustrate his own circumstances.

One is especially moving to me, my friends. Maybe it will be to you, too.

In Paradiso, canto 17, Dante speaks of his exile from Florence. Following a gorgeously-stunning line that I can't help but think inspired Cavafy -- Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta/piu caramente... ("You leave behind everything that you love most dearly"), he continues:

Tu proverai si come sa di sale lo pane altrui, e come e duro calle lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale.

("You will know how salty is the taste of another's bread, and how demanding a road it is to climb up and down another's stairs")

There's the real cost of being exiled -- the realization that one is lost comes with every bite of food and every movement through another's house. (I'm sure that anyone who's ever  had to sleep on a friend's couch for a few weeks  can appreciate this sentiment.)

Shaw is oh-so wise to include it. Yet another way to remind us of the poet's circumstances.



A shield for your thoughts ... and Daniel Mendelsohn

Shameless advertising: This post has absolutely nothing to do with Captain America. Photo credit: Though I'm not in the newspaper trade anymore, where interesting people and topics flow constantly through the door,  I'm at the next best thing, a powerhouse liberal arts college. The  flow continues as brilliant minds visit — not in the hopes of getting good attention on the front page -- but simply in order to stretch their legs and show just why they deserve to be called brilliant.

I sat down today with Daniel Mendelsohn, one of a handful of writers who keep a shine on that venerable old plaque embossed with the word "critic." He's at Claremont McKenna College as a visiting fellow, and I was looking forward to meeting him. I never had while I was at the Times,  though I'd often hoped back then that we could bank up enough of our little book review budget to snag a freelance piece from him (him and also Neil Gaiman … with Gaiman, I tried and tried to get him. Lord how I tried). I mentioned that to him and he smiled.

He lamented the deflation of book coverage in newspapers, and he sounded an optimistic note about Pamela Paul and the New York Times. (While others decline, the Gray Lady, like the Dude, abides.)

In keeping with our surroundings, the conversation focused on the notion of the humanities in our tweet-afflicted, Facebook-smitten, tumblr-besodden era. (I'm sure that litany rings corny, but hey this is my blog. I'll do what I want.)

When we were done, and I went happily on my way, I realized that I truly was happy after we'd finished.

That's been a hard thing to achieve in the past several months, especially now as my family licks its wounds after a painful loss. (See the previous post.) That doesn't mean I've dressed in sackcloth and sat in ashes since December, that I haven't  laughed with my friends or broken into a weird tribal dance while my younger boy is practicing on his drums. I have, even as I feel the pangs of my mother's absence.

But as I left that interview, I was thinking of myth and Mendelsohn. He made a point that myths continue to appeal to us because we're hard-wired to appreciate them -- and because myth addresses those human needs that aren't sated by a fat paycheck or a career that causes a roomful of people to genuflect as you enter. Those human needs have to do with the milestones -- births, deaths, love, weddings, anniversaries, heartbreaks, and all forms of loss.

When we're mindful of them, myths prepare us in a special way for these things. They equip us in a way that Mendelsohn explains with a lovely lovely riff from an essay on the Iliad. He writes about the epic and ordinary scenes Hephaestus inscribes on Achilles' shield. That mixture of the high and low, the common and uncommon, leads to this reflection:

[T]he shield presents images of a city at peace and a city at war, of weddings and a lawsuit, of people dancing and people arming for ambush….. All of which is to say that when Achilles returns to battle—returns to deal out death—he is armed with a vision of life, at once expansive and movingly intimate, enormously rich but necessarily confined within a boundary that shapes it and gives it coherence.

Isn't that what the best stories -- myths -- do for us? Isn't that why, at the deepest and most vital level, reading and writing are as crucial to our daily life as food? (At least they should be.)

I returned to my office with this thought in mind -- feeling a little more secure, comfortable, shielded.


  • Home page for Daniel Mendelsohn:

Hard truths and honey: A mythic master class with Stephen Greenblatt

Primavera (detail), Botticeli (1482) When you look at Botticelli's painting Primavera (detail,  above), what do you notice?

Scantily-clad ladies dancing like they're at Woodstock?

Images of the Eternal Feminine?

Zephyrus wearing a creepy gray bogeyman costume?

Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World and The Swerve, notices something else entirely.

For him, the painting contains a kind of survival.

greenblatt"What you see here is a 'xenograft,' " he told an audience last week at Claremont McKenna College. An image of Primavera was projected on a screen behind him. "What this painting contains is a grafting of one thing into another in order to keep it alive."

The "thing" in question is the pagan worldview nearly smothered by the Holy Mother Church for centuries. His prize-winning The Swerve tells the story of how  the Latin poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius -- a stunning exemplar of that view -- was nearly lost in that climate of intolerance, forgotten on a shelf in a German monastery ... until the book hunter Poggio Bracciolini came along and rediscovered it in the 15th century.

Greenblatt's visit was nothing less than a master class. If he was using notes, I sure didn't see them. He moved easily between references to antiquity and the present day -- and so easily around the actual stage, too -- that I couldn't help thinking, Man, this is how it's done.

Greenblatt also moved nimbly from that epic poem's shocking revelations -- that God doesn't exist, the natural world is built from atoms, nature is in constant flux and full of mutations, organized religion is brutal, our souls will come apart when we do -- to a very simple question:

"How," he asked, "did stuff like this manage to survive? How was the intolerable tolerated?"

The answer: Because it was wrapped up as poetry.

Or, as Lucretius himself explains, near the beginning of Book IV:

For just as doctors, who must give vile wormwood with sweet and golden honey: thus the child, young and unknowing, is tricked and brought to set the cup to his lip; meanwhile, he swallows the bitter wormwood, and though deceived is not infected, but by this trick grows well and strong again: so now, since my philosophy often seems a little grim to beginners ... I wished to tell my tale in sweet Pierian song for you, to paint it with the honey of the Muses....

(from a translation by Frank O. Copley, published by W.W. Norton)

Greenblatt went on to explain other reasons why the poem was copied and not destroyed, but the power of art was the one reason that stayed with me long after Greenblatt's speech was over.

My friends, this was really inspiring to me. It's what I wanted to share with you. Here's another reason why we write and try to create other forms of art. Because art stands a greater chance of survival thanks to the fact that people often tend to revere what they don't understand.

Which is why Botticelli could employ pagan imagery or Shakespeare give atomic views to Mercutio (his Queen Mab speech) with some measure of impunity. The world treats art and dogma differently.

Hard truths, in other words, are much easier to swallow with a bit of honey.

Wait a minute, does that mean that Mary Poppins read De Rerum Natura? That 1964 film just might be another version of Lucretian survival! Move over Botticelli!


Such a cute pagan!