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."



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!


Two words that changed LBJ's life

Speech_balloonIn fables and myths, we find plenty of moments when magic words come into play. Not a magic spell -- just a simple statement that unlocks hidden possibilities for somebody who really needs help. Think of abracadabra, open sesame or valar morghulis ... to name a few.

In the case of Lyndon Johnson, 36th president of the United States, two heartbreaking words produced a transformation on the Texan Democrat that was nothing short of magical. That's what Robert Caro said last night.

I had the pleasure of listening to Caro deliver a talk at Claremont McKenna College about his research into The Passage of Power, the latest installment of his mammoth-sized, multi-volume biography "The Years of Lyndon Johnson."

There's nothing better than having a world-class historical biographer describe his research methods: how he studied secret memos and photographs, how he tracked down interviewees, how he dug deeply into historical moments that we all thought we knew.

Take, for example, the hours after the assassination of JFK in Dallas. We all know that the Kennedys scorned Johnson. They called him "Rufus Cornpone," Caro said, and they referred to Johnson and Lady Bird as "Uncle Cornpone and his little pork chop." Johnson stood off to the side, forgotten, while everyone waited news of Kennedy's condition.

Then, Caro said, someone approached Johnson and uttered two words to him that made the situation clear:

"Mr. President."

"In that instant, a change comes over him," Caro told the audience. "A moment of transformation" in which Johnson's stature immediately grows as he realizes what he has become.

I was struck by the magic quality of Caro's narration of that historic moment ... and I was heartened by the thought that words still possess magic.

It's easy to forget this in the constant barrage of twitter feeds, google alerts, etc. Words are cheapened, turned into fast food, discardable. But as Caro reminded me, and as I wish to remind you, my beloved friends, words still have the power to reach into the depths of myth.

Bach is back ... actually, he never left

  That's the point of Paul Elie's new book, "Reinventing Bach" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).  I thought the bookish highlight of my week was hearing Robert K. Massie talk about Catherine the Great -- wrong.  Elie gave a vivid, intimate lecture to an audience Thursday night at Claremont McKenna College - another of the Gould Center's offerings this fall, shepherded by Director Robert Faggen - that reminded us that Johann Sebastian is still among us.

You just have to listen closely to find him. And sometimes you don't.

"My faith in Bach's continuing relevance gets restored every year on Halloween," he said with a smile. "When someone needs some spooky gothic music, they usually turn to the Toccata."

Everyone laughed.

That's the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor - the deep rich organ blast that's been borrowed by everyone, from the Phantom of the Opera to Walt Disney.

Disney, in fact, is a player in "Reinventing Bach," and Elie spent part of his lecture  upon Bach's influence on Disney as well as Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Glenn Gould and Leopold Stokowski (who teamed with Disney to create "Fantasia"). Elie played snippets of recordings by Casals, Gould and Stokowski -- he also showed us the "Bach-like" musical progressions found in the music of the Beatles,  Procol Harem .... and, yes, even Spinal Tap.

(This one goes to eleven.)

"I wonder what Bach would think, if he were alive today, and found that all of his work was being illegally sampled!" he said with a grin.

Elie's lecture - like his book - shows what a thoughtful writer can accomplish when he is willing to take narrative risks. It's one thing to paint discrete portraits of great figures (Schweitzer, Casals, Stokowski, Gould), but it's something else when that writer can take these portraits and weave them into a single, unified context. That's what Elie has accomplished.