John Fowles

Today is the birthday of novelist John Fowles (1926). When people were declaring the death of the novel in the Sixties, he published two of the most compelling novels of our era, The Magus (1966) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). The latter is my favorite novel, period. A stroke in 1988 robbed him of the ability to plan and execute large-scale fiction for the last seventeen years of his life. He said of my book on him that he felt the patient was treated fairly well, so that endeared him to me further. Here’s his Paris Review interview:

Robert Frost

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Frost (1874), the indispensable American poet. There were good and sound reasons that his poetry was included in one of those “Why We Fight” paperbacks issued to soldiers in WWII. You can find out the details about him in lots of places, but here’s one you might not know: he is a major force in English poetry. I can hardly tell you how many British poets claim him as a major influence. Among them were two of the best, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, both of whom make much use of nature and farm life in their verse. If those are your subjects, who better than Frost?

Happy birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti!

He’s outlasted everybody! Today, Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 98. He may be the single most important figure in First Amendment issues related to publishing in the country. His only competition would be Barney Rosset of Grove Press, who won the right to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But the Howl trial was first, and Ferlinghetti took the risk to publish this shocking poem by an unknown poet, just for the privilege of fighting government censors. He is also a major poet in his own right. As my friend Danny Rendleman says, A Coney Island of the Mind was the first book of poems every young person of his generation bought if he or she thought poetry might be a possible, if largely unpaid, career. And LF’s “Loud Prayer” is one of the highlights of Martin Scorcese’s film about The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz. Here’s a link to an NPR profile from 2015, when Ferlinghetti was just a kid of 96:

The Greatness of Chuck Berry

I’ve spent the last day thinking about what made Chuck Berry the indispensable man of rock-n-roll. Actually, I’ve spent a number of years thinking about it; in any case, here’s what I’ve come to. Of course the songwriting is brilliant; we can take it as a given. And the combination of speed and clarity is miraculous. But the thing that makes him revered among later rockers is the sound: in a three-man rock ensemble of drums, piano, and guitar, there are three percussion instruments. Four if you count his voice, which has some of the same properties as his playing. Even when the guitar is playing melodically, the attack on the  high strings is like the strike on a snare drum. As we know, other guitarists had discovered the instrument’s percussive properties, but that was mostly done on the low strings, as in the boom-chicka-chicka of Maybelle Carter’s playing on the Carter Family’s recordings or various blues guitarists. Berry was the first one I can think of where you can hear the pick strike the top two strings. The standard in jazz and pop music of the time was a sort of liquid sound–think Chet Atkins or Les Paul–so this was a departure. In the bridge on “Johnny B. Goode,” when Lafayette Leake (and not the usual Johnny Johnson, which surprised me) assails those high chords on piano and then the guitar comes in, that sound cuts to the bone. And we like it.


Ides, Anyone?

Even people who don’t know anything about Julius Caesar, the man or the play, have heard of the Ides of March. But what the heck is that?  It turns out that ides occurred in every month around the midpoint; these days were sacred to Jupiter. The long months (March, May, October, November) had 31 days and their ides fell on the 15th. The shorter months had 29 days except February, which normally had 28 but some years had only 23 (don’t ask, because I can’t tell), and the ides for those months fell on the 13th. Why the odd figuring of a midpoint? No idea, but I think it has something to do with using Superbowl numerals. By the way, the Roman calendar only accounted for 304 days, so there were sixty or so orphan days between the end of one year’s worth of months (the end of December) and the beginning of the next (the start of March), and those days were assigned to no month at all. I can’t tell where they placed February or quite when it started. I think their problems trace back to drinking wine from lead vessels. Aren’t you glad you never wonder about such things?

Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine -Redux

Many years ago, D. H. Lawrence wrote an essay with the above title (minus “Redux,” of course). The occasion was a situation that caused him to kill a porcupine on the ranch in New Mexico where he and his wife lived for a time. The killing was messy, beginning with a botched shot with a .22 and ending with a cedar post. The essay was cleaner, beginning with the backstory and ending with philosophical and political, not all of them entirely happy by modern standards. Still, it is well worth the read, especially for those–which is to say nearly everyone these days–who knows Lawrence only as the author of a dirty book and perhaps disappointed that the book in question proved less than its reputation.

I was reminded of the essay yesterday when I was called upon to dispatch a fox squirrel, mostly denuded by mange, clinging to a viburnum branch, barely able to move, and moaning piteously as it suffered the last stages of hypothermia. Denied the use of a .22 (suburbs, hardscaping, ricochet, neighbors), I was reduced to a shovel. The whole affair was managed at least as badly as Lawrence’s, and there was not the least thing literary about it.

Poets in Old Age

I’ve just been trying to say something intelligent (difficult in the best of times) about a new poem from an old poet, W. S. Merwin’s “Early One Morning,” published last year when he was about to turn 89. I have very much enjoyed that volume, Garden Time, and the previous one, The Moon before Morning, published two years earlier. That got me thinking about his contemporaries who lived and wrote well into old age, especially his Princeton roommate Galway Kinnell, along with Robert Bly and Adrienne Rich. I mentioned once before that very few poets, historically speaking, have seen the far side of seventy, much less written there. Theirs is the first generation to have so many writing into their eighties. What, then, might we learn from explorers of an almost-undiscovered poetry?

I once thought it would be interesting to do a group study of several poets first as young poets–not juvenilia, which is so juvenile, but as still-young poets who have arrived–then as poets in their prime (whenever that is) and finally as poets in old age. I’m not sure I have the energy or imaginative architecture to undertake such a project, but I wish someone would. And get a move on, would you?

Would Chaucer Rap?

A friend of mine sent me this link today of three guys rapping the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales It’s pretty great, although you’re getting that from someone who knows way more about Chaucer than rap. What’s interesting is how nicely the poem fits into the beat; these lads don’t seem to be straining at all, which reminds us of a couple of things. First, poetry and music have always been close cousins going all the way back to the early days of oral poetry. What we know from the oldest reports about poetry performance is that it was accompanied, in pretty much every culture, by music of some sort even if that was only percussion–you know, like rap. Or 1950s Beat poetry. Second, Chaucer himself belonged to the oral tradition of performance and was a part of the early era of English culture to marry that orality to written texts.

We do well to remember that Chaucer was a big fan of the new. He wrote in the vernacular, a trend which had only begun earlier in the century with Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320), and writing in the language of the people rather than in Latin was a radical departure. Beyond that, in one work he adapted Dante’s interlocking rhyme scheme, rather freely adapted, to English iambic pentameter for the first time. And he took the central concept of Boccaccio’s Decameron, a group of people thrown together who share stories on disparate topics and themes, moving them from the hills above Florence during the Plague to the road to Canterbury during Lent. As another friend said, he would likely have had no problem with interjecting “Yo” in the manner of rappers. This friend also noted, however, that he would probably have inclined more toward poetry slams than rap per se. And since he is a medievalist, I defer to his greater wisdom in this matter.

So consider what Chaucer would have thought about rap music. Or Shakespeare or Spenser or Marlowe (although he was more of a punk, I think). Just remember, being dead and white and male is no impediment to being way cool.

A Major Anniversary!

Sixty years ago, on March 1, 1957, Random House released The Cat in the Hat and reading primers changed forever. Just not right away. I was about to turn five and therefore the target demographic for the book, but, there being a serious absence of bookstores in West Cornfield, it took a while for the Cat to make his appearance in the Foster household. So I learned to read elsewhere, but Seussism arrived in time for my younger brothers, and I was envious of their good fortune. Who says it’s good to be the eldest?

The Cat in the Hat‘s contribution to literacy can’t be overstated. Because of that book, there are adults walking around who never met Ted and Sally or Dick and Jane, never had to see Spot run. Because of the book, other primers had to give young readers actual stories that at least tried to be interesting. The only other book in American history to shake up children’s publishing that much (also via the novelty of being entertaining) came out in 1900; it involved a young girl and her little dog and a yellow brick road. thecatinthehat