A Different Sort of Writer

To those of you who think I missed Marcel Proust’s birthday back on Monday, not a bit of it. I was saving him for today, when I wanted to wish happy birthday to Lydia Davis, whom I consider his best translator. Or maybe just his most Tom-friendly translator. For me, she saved Swann’s Way from the purgatory of C. K. Scott Moncrieff/Terence Kilmartin previous translations. She has also done a very well-received translation of Madame Bovary, although I can’t personally vouch for it.

What I really want to talk about today, however, is Davis’s own work. Her metier might be called “flash fiction” or the “short-short” (horrible associations there), but I don’t think any genre quite contains her. She does indeed write very short fiction. Her first volume had stories running from about four to maybe eight pages, but she kept refining her approach, and many of her later stories run less than a page. Sometimes much less. Here is the entirety of “Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:”: “that Scotland has so few trees.” I believe that meets the Hemingway six-word story challenge, although the four-word title might disqualify it. What she has been learning over the decades, and what she has been trying to teach us, is how very much story can be packed into a tiny space. Good lesson, don’t you think? I just wish I could learn it.

Romantic Stuff

I’ve been remiss! Yesterday was important for two writers of the Romantic/early Victorian walking poetry club. July 13 is the anniversary of William Wordsworth’s visit to the ruined Tintern Abbey in 1798 during a walking tour of the Lake District. By the time he had walked on to Bristol several days later, he had, he claimed, composed the entire 1200 line poem in his head. Upon arrival, he wrote it all down with, he always maintained, not a line changed. You can just about hear the rhythm of walking in all those unrhymed lines of iambs, but you have to listen very closely.

The other famous walker was John Clare, born in 1793. He was a peasant poet, and he merited both words. He really was a peasant who not only could have set Wordsworth straight on some of his fantasies of the rustic life but also found sudden celebrity with the publication of his first book. Alas, he was also mad, being first treated at High Beach private asylum from 1837 till 1841, when he slipped away and walked 90 miles home from Essex to Northampton. Among his other delusions, he believed that he was married to his first love, a girl named Mary Joyce, as well as his real wife, Martha, and that he was Lord Byron and Shakespeare. When pressed, he would say that he had been those writers in a previous life, a good trick since Byron was still alive for the first quarter-century of Clare’s life. He was free but increasingly difficult for five months at home, at which time he was committed to a public asylum, where he would spend the final twenty-three years of his life. One of his doctors said that in life and in prose he was utterly deranged but in his poetry he was completely sane. In any event, the poems poured out of him, over three thousand during his lifetime. Adam Foulds has a wonderful novel about Clare’s days at High Beach, The Quickening Maze. Here is his poem “Autumn”:

The thistledown’s flying, though the winds are all still, 
On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill, 
The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot; 
Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot. 
The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread, 
The greensward all wracked is, bents dried up and dead. 
The fallow fields glitter like water indeed, 
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed. 
Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun, 
And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run; 
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air; 
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there. 

An Approximate Celebration


Astrakhan Cloak

I can find no birthdate for Nuala ni Dhomhnaill aside from being born in 1952 (a birth year of which I’m inordinately fond), so I’m choosing a mid-year day at random to celebrate her. Yes, that is spelled correctly, minus a “fada” or acute accent on the “i” in “ni.” Mary O’Malley told me it was pronounced NOla nee Goo-nal, and if you can’t trust a Gaelic-speaking Irish poet, what’s the world coming to? Nuala was raised in the Dingle gaeltacht, or area where Gaelic is spoken (in this case, on the Dingle peninsula), and that’s the language in which she writes her poems. She does not translate them. Luckily for us, some really great poets also speak Gaelic, including Seamus Heaney, Medbh McGuckian, and Paul Muldoon, and they do translate them. Which is good, because they are wonderful poems. Better, Wake Forest University Press has been publishing her–in translation–for years and years, so we can find said wonders. As you can judge for yourself in the link below.


Forever Young

This piece on turning Emily Bronte’s poems into choral pieces led me in an odd direction. You know that obsession some rock fans have with stars who flame out early, especially at twenty-seven? Yeah, lit types have had that forever. And why not? We can only imagine what work brilliant young writers might have created had they lived. Instead, Bronte is always thirty years old, Christopher Marlowe twenty-nine, John Keats a shocking twenty-five, and D. H. Lawrence an antique forty-five. And you know what? Maybe that was as good as they would be. Maybe the year of the five great odes would never be surpassed had Keats lived to ninety. The romance, however, lies in not knowing. It permits us to dream.


Carpe Diem


Which means, as you remember from your Latin class, “seize the day.” What, no Latin? Me, neither. But I’ve been thinking lately about this poem by Robert Herrick, which is all about this. Why this sudden interest? Signs and portents have been abundant that the sun doesn’t stay its course. And of course, because this poem from the seventeenth century is perfectly understandable today. The painting? It’s a 1909 work by pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse, called “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.” Wonder where he got that.


Book of the Day

Hemingway said all of American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn. Close but three decades late. On July 4, 1855 a thin volume by a complete unknown containing twelve poems appeared to little fanfare. Leaves of Grass would grow to four hundred poems by the fifth edition, and it changed the national literary conversation forever. Three cheers, then, for that “barbaric yawp”!

Franz Kafka

Today’s birthday boy is a writer whose time may have come–and one whose time never quite comes. His strangeness might explain much about the current moment, but your choice of which work to read may say more about you than him. “The Metamorphosis”? “The Penal Colony”? “The Trial”? I think I’m opting for the bureaucratic morass of “The Castle.” The alienation is funnier there.

Here’s a link to three new translations in The Paris Review: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/04/12/and-other-creatures/