I’ve always thought I’d really enjoy writing staff recommendations if I ever got a job at a bookstore. Well, as you may or may not know, I did get a job at a bookstore (which is in large part why I’ve been such a negligent writer recently…though to be honest there are more complicated factors in play when it comes to the near-complete absence of writing from my recent life) and the whole staff rec thing actually was a bit of a challenge for me…
But I did finally write one, spurred on by the fact that a book came out by a poet who I really love and who I want to recommend to everyone. I figured since this recommendation counts as writing about reading, it’s only fair I share it here as well.
So, here’s my recommendation for Here, a newly released collection of poems by Wislawa Szymborksa.
Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborksa is one of my favorite poets, perhaps my favorite living poet. She’s certainly the one I’d most like to have tea with, if cover photos are anything to go by.
If you’ve never read Szymborksa before, the 27 poems in this short volume are a wonderful introduction to her work, and if you’ve been following her poetry for years, Here is like a long awaited conversation with an old friend who’s been living far, far away.
This collection showcases the roaming curiosity of Szymborksa’s poetic eye (she writes about everything from metaphysics and memory to assassins, accidents, and the art of poetry itself), her ability to create language which is simultaneously intricate and direct, and the modesty, wisdom and humor which made me love her poetry in the first place. These are poems which open outward even as they zero in, poems of such simplicity and depth that they’ll move you on the first reading and stay with you for years to come.
I’m a couple days late with my felicitations, but W.S. Merwin was named America’s 17th Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress, on Thursday, July 1! Past Poet Laureates include Robert Lowell, Howard Nemerov, Rita Dove, Billy Collins, and Louise Glück. Good Company!
Merwin, who is 82, has written volumes and volumes of poetry, won two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award (two of the three in the last decade! Pretty fantastic for a septuagenarian/octogenarian) and scores of other awards. I’ve always thought that W.S. Merwin had to be an important, serious poet because he has the two initials instead of a first name (like W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, etc.) and I was gratified and amused to find out in this New York Times’ article announcing his impending Laureate-hood, that Merwin “has said that he used his initials because doing so seemed serious and adult.”
Head to poets.org for their biography of Merwin and to read some of his poems, or enjoy this excerpt from The Poet’s View: Intimate Profiles of Five Major American Poets, which features Merwin alongside Kay Ryan (our 16th Poet Laureate) John Ashbery, Louise Glück, and Anthony Hecht:
This week, my last in Europe, I spent a few days in London where, per the recommendation of a lovely and knowledgeable friend, I visited Daunt Books for Travellers, a fantastic bookshop on Marylebone High Street. If you’d like to visit without shelling out for airfare, you can take a virtual tour of the shop at their website, http://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/.
I spent a happy hour and fifteen minutes there before leaving with several gifts for friends, a new Daunt Books linen bag (free, with a 20£ purchase, so essentially impossible for me to have left without one) and a slim volume of poetry called Endpoint and Other Poems, the last collection of poems by American writer John Updike, who passed away in January of 2009. While on the Eurostar back to Paris, I read the whole collection, which included this sonnet, called “Evening Concert, Sainte-Chapelle”:
Evening Concert, Sainte-Chapelle
The celebrated windows flamed with light
directly pouring north across the Seine;
we rustled into place. Then violins
vaunting Vivaldi’s strident strength, then Brahms,
seemed to suck with their passionate sweetness,
bit by bit, the vigor from the red,
the blazing blue, so that the listening eye
saw suddenly the thick black lines, in shapes
of shield and cross and strut and brace, that held
the holy glowing fantasy together.
The music surged; the glow became a milk,
a whisper to the eye, a glimmer ebbed
until our beating hearts, our violins
were cased in thin but solid sheets of lead.
~ John Updike
The poem struck me the first time I read it with the power of its imagery, the fantastic mixture of senses, the rhythm and forceful, corporeal precision of its observations. Today, after waiting in a tremendously long queue, I visited Sainte-Chapelle, on l‘île de la Cité, and just by chance happened to have Updike’s book with me in my bag. Remembering the sonnet, I pulled it out and read it again, beneath the fantastic vitreaux he is writing about, surrounded at some moments by shush-induced silence, at others by rising voices and laughter.
I think this is a great sonnet. Sainte-Chapelle is truly gorgeous and Updike masterfully integrates the visual experience of the stained-glass windows with the aural experience of music. He captures the power and weight of the vitreaux’s structure and the many black bars of lead which hold the thousands of panes of glass in place, and melds this with the simultaneous flow and structure of music, and the sheets of the black bars and notes which underlie the glorious sounds of Vivaldi and Brahms. Within the sonnet, all this melts together into a singular, magnificent and nearly frightening sensual experience, evoking both the grandeur and the limitations of the soul. But I wax unduly poetic where the poem–and the vitreaux–speak better for themselves. Enough from me! Bonne Nuit.
I meant this “In Memoriam” post to be solely about the great author, professor and historian, Howard Zinn, who passed away yesterday at the age of 87, but I just learned that another incredible figure from America’s literary history, J.D. Salinger, passed away yesterday as well, at the age of 91.
I came across Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States via a not-too-illustrious source: in the film “Good Will Hunting,” the title character played by Matt Damon mentions it during a scene where Will puts an intellectual smash-down on a Harvard graduate student who tries to embarrass Will’s friend by spouting off ideas plagiarized from his most recent American history seminar.
Fueled by my crush on Matt Damon, I tracked a copy down and read parts of it in tandem with my A.P. U.S. history syllabus, and later returned to it in college as I studied American literature. The book changed a lot of my ideas about what history is, about how and by whom it’s recorded, and about the reality of history as a fact of the present as well as a record of facts from the past. I highly recommend tracking down a copy of this book or some of Zinn’s other writings; if films are more your style than books, you could also check out the biographical portrait of Zinn, “Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,” narrated by Matt Damon, or “Howard Zinn: Voices of a People’s History,” which is a DVD of readings from A People’s History of the United States performed by a number of well-known people. The former is available for instant viewing on Netflix, if you’re interested.
Whereas Zinn was remarkably active and vocal in American public and political life for decades, J.D. Salinger, though probably possessing the better known “name” of the two, maintained a remarkably reclusive existence for one of the foremost figures in American letters. Though in this sense they have little in common, both of Salinger and Zinn fought in World War II, and lived through a rapidly changing America in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, through the Civil Rights and Feminist movements, more wars, presidents and assassinations, rapid technological advances, increasing globalization, ever-evolving notions concerning the place and production of art and literature and the treatment of artists, writers, and celebrities, and the arrival of a new millennium.
Salinger’s famous The Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951, and now, more than half a century later, it is nearly ubiquitous on required reading lists across the United States. I remember reading it in 9th grade and then completing a writing assignment that asked me to write an essay about a day in my life in the style of Holden Caulfield. I still have that paper somewhere; I remember that I used several swear words and bitterly lamented the sheep-and-shepherds nature of middle school existence. I was very proud of it, I think.
I have to say that hearing about J.D. Salinger’s passing away has made me desperately miss some of my friends from college – – I wish we could get together and read from his works and talk about literature the way we did when one of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, died in 2007. It also makes me miss my father, who I know loves Salinger’s books as well, since he has given me a couple of them; over the years Dad has given me what’s become a veritable library of books by the writers who comprise the male portion of the American literary canon: Steinbeck, Salinger, Hemingway, Melville, etc., and this year, for my birthday, Mark Twain.
So I’ll miss Salinger, even though he hasn’t, to my knowledge, published any new works in my lifetime (or even for a decade or so before I was born). He still played a big part in my education, and in my friendships. One of my favorite things about literature is the way that it becomes incorporated into one’s life, and the way it entwines itself into one’s connections to the lives and minds of others. So thanks, to Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger, for their contributions to literature, to history, to the world, and to me. May you both rest in peace.