A Halloween Treat

No tricks here. Today is the birthday of John Keats (1795) and, as the last day of October, an appropriate moment to share his great poem “To Autumn.” I append it below for those of you who think fall is a good time for poetic commemoration. For all you others, happy Halloween anyway!

To Autumn

John Keats, 17951821

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, 
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells 
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees, 
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store? 
  Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, 
  Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, 
  Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep 
  Steady thy laden head across a brook; 
  Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? 
  Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, 
  And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn 
  Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; 
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; 
  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
  The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft, 
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Literature Prizes and Genre

The Nobel Committee’s awarding of the Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan has not, of course, gone unnoticed in the literary community. More than one novelist has taken to social media to say they feel hard-done-by. And to be fair, this is the first award to an American since Toni Morrison’s win in 1993. But a lot of comments read like sour grapes. Gary Shteyngart, for instance, said that he gets it, that “reading books is hard.” Since he is in no position to win a Nobel anytime soon, we can take his statement as showing that he feels aggrieved on behalf of his craft, which is fair enough.  Last year it was Belarussian oral history compiler Svetlana Alexievich and now this, two minutes and three chords.

The Committee, meanwhile, seemed a little defensive, citing Homer and Sappho, which is reaching back rather far. We could cite instead an actual Nobel Laureate, William Butler Yeats, noting that his award did not say, “for everything that is actual poetry but not for ‘Down by the Salley Gardens,’ and a handful of other songs.”

Let’s try thinking about this another way. Rather than defining literature as comprising two or three privileged genres, maybe we can think of it as, irrespective of genre, those endeavors that feed into the One Big Story, the story what it means to be human. That shift can be jarring, I know, when we consider that it would include not only Homer and Shakespeare but also Mickey Spillane, not only novels and poems and plays but also memoir, New Journalism, cinema, and popular song. But bear in mind that prose fiction’s membership in the club is quite recent. For its first couple of centuries, the novel was regarded as a commodity rather than an art form. Not until Henry James and a couple of others began theorizing about the novel in the late nineteenth century did the practice of fiction begin to be seen as a serious literary art. I realize not everyone is willing to make that leap with me. But hold it in mind as the Swedish Academy’s bombshell ripples out into the culture.

Disregarding matters of genre, name another writer whose influence is as profound, whose reach is as global as Dylan’s. When speaking of songwriters in other countries, the phrase is almost always, Mali’s Dylan, Uruguay’s Dylan, Estonia’s Dylan. I mean, who else gets this treatment? Besides Shakespeare, that is. Hardly anyone.

Now, I didn’t always have this view of the literary world. I recall distinctly in high school (that I can recall anything distinctly from so long ago is miraculous, but never mind) that when we were to study poetry in English class, certain other students would clamor for popular songsters, usually the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and of course Dylan. Oh, come on, I thought, let’s study real poets, if we’re studying any of them. So what happened? In the words of someone, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

The Age of Writing – 3

After a slight delay, the third installment about writers of different generations. At a talk I gave the other day, I happened to mention that all of my writers, that is, the ones who were young when I was, are getting old. And as someone who professes to study contemporary literature, that’s not really a problem, because there are always new writers coming along. The talk, as it happens, was at the kickoff event for a community read at Mott Community College; they’re calling it Mott Novel, and the novel in question in this inaugural year is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. She’s not brand new, but she’s still young enough to qualify as someone who is renewing her chosen literary form. If I said to you–heck, if someone said to me–that this is a post-apocalyptic novel, you would say something like, “Honestly? Haven’t we had enough of those.” But what matters is the nature of a particular apocalypse and what happen in the “post” period. Oh, and how well it is told. This one is told extremely well.

I have been extremely impressed with a number of other writers as well, and I apologize in advance for those I fail to name. Amanda Coplin (The Orchardist) and Adam Foulds (The Quickening Maze) demonstrate what can be done with meticulous historical research if you can then make it sing. Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife is a marvel of invention. Zadie Smith has been around so long that we almost forget how young she still is. And the still comparatively young (compared to me) Irish novelists Emma Donoghue and Colum McCann continually surprise. If the last decade produced any works more astonishing than Room and Let the Great World Spin, I missed them.

Of all the newer writers, Helen Oyeyemi is fast becoming a favorite. She wrote her first novel while still in secondary school, which is how she could have five published works of fiction before turning thirty. First I read Mr. Fox, loved it, then had to wait for Boy. Snow. Bird. to come out in paperback (because I’m a cheapskate) and was completely blown away. And then, not wanting to wait for her next novel, I went backward in the catalog when I found White Is for Witching at Powell’s City of Books this summer. More delight. I love what she can do with reworked fairy tales, which isn’t quite like Angela Carter, whom I idolize, or like anyone else, come to think of it. Plus, her name is just so darned much fun to say.

So, if you’ve finally read everything by your favorites, or if their numbers dwindle away, don’t mourn. All you have to do is look around.