He has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, has been a long-time nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature (I figure they have one more chance to correct that oversight next week), and won the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first book, A Mask for Janus. In 1952. He has published over fifty books of poetry, fiction, and translations. In addition to the huge body of poetry, he was an early practitioner of very short fiction, what is sometimes called “flash fiction” or in the trade parlance, the hideous term “short-shorts.”
On his ninetieth birthday, however, I think we should also celebrate M. S. Merwin’s other durable achievement: friend of the earth. He has practiced his stewardship in southern France and especially on Maui, where he and his late wife bought an old pineapple farm and returned it slowly and patiently to its native forest. They established the estate as a conservancy in 2010 to protect it for future generations. His environmental concerns manifest themselves in much of his writing, and it is the rare later poem that does not invoke nature somehow or other. Those of you who know me are aware of my immense admiration for him as a writer; I am no less in awe of him for his respect for nature.
Today is the claimed or maybe presumed or only hoped-for birthday of Miguel de Cervantes (1547). He did a lot of different things, but the one we remember him for is Don Quixote (1605/1615), the parody of knightly romances so popular in Spain during the sixteenth century. Not only is it the first major instance of a novel in the modern sense, it is highly postmodern not only in its self-referentiality (mainly in part 2) and its cunning intertextuality, from his habit of reusing, quoting, and sometimes savaging other works. In part 2, Quixote and Sancho Panza find they have become famous as a result of a book about their earlier adventures. Pretty subtle for an early novel, but then, see also, Shakespeare and plays-within-plays.
While the novel is important the world over, its centrality in the Spanish-speaking world cannot be overstated. Carlos Fuentes said that he reread it every year; he also raised the possibility that Cervantes and Shakespeare were the same person, which is one reason I like Fuentes so much. He may have meant that they were embodiments of the same spirit or genius, but then again, he may not have. They died on the same date, you know, so maybe he was on to something.
No, I can’t tell you why National Poetry Day is not in National poetry month, nor why its date is a moving target year to year. I believe at least one of those must have to do with the lunar calendar. Or the loony one. Just go with it. In honor of said day, here is a poem appropriate to the occasion. It is by an American, even if he drove an ambulance in WWI for the French (hey, they were allies). It applies, I believe, to everyone. Or Anyone. It screams to be read aloud and not thought about too long or too hard. In fact, you can’t possibly be wrong in your analysis, so just go with that, too. Enjoy!
Yesterday was the natal day of William Faulkner. As the names of the major novels loved and feared by English grad students swirled in my head, it came to me that what I really love about him is his Snopes Trilogy: The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion. I considered why this would be, when it isn’t the one I admire most (Absalom, Absalom!, from afar), when it came to me that it’s because that trilogy is his One Hundred Years of Solitude. That little voice in my head said, “But it’s not really magic realism, is it? Where’s the eruption of the fabulous?” And it’s true: there’s not that much that’s fabulous in those novels except the Snopes family’s capacity for corruption, venality, and fraud. But those are amazing. And the names. Flem Snopes’s mere existence, to say nothing of his escapade with the Texas ponies, is worth the cost of the trilogy. That’s enough. And perfectly American.
Many of you will have noticed that today is the birthday of the Gatsby fellow, but I want to celebrate another birthday writer, Eavan Boland (b. 1944). She is an important part of the wave of women’s poets in Ireland since about 1970 or so, in what was once (as in, when Boland was a young person) chiefly an Old Boys’ Club. Her Outside History is one of the most stunning statements of women’s experience–and the importance of recognizing that experience–in many decades. You know that Emily Dickinson thing about the top of your head blowing off? Yeah, it was like that for a lot of us. She shows us the value of accurate observation and precise language, the richness of experience even without extravagant gestures. If you haven’t read her, please do. She’s accessible, direct, clear-eyed, and wise.
Today is the birthday of D. H. Lawrence (1885). Sadly, he often gets referred to as the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1930), which is true but reduces him in some minds to a dirty author. It’s true that he did introduce frank treatment of sex into English writing and that he got banned repeatedly, but he was so much more. Above almost anyone, he made Americans rethink their own great writers with Studies in Classic American Literature, wrote about Freud, the unconscious, humans’ estrangement from nature, the book of Revelation (written while he was busy dying of tuberculosis), ancient Etruscan culture, and, yes, sex. Before he died at forty-four, he wrote eleven novels, three chunky volumes of short stories, many novellas, essays on a wide range of topics, and around a thousand pages of poetry. I’m not sure if my shelf of Lawrence is quite five feet, but I don’t own all of him, quite. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the role of horses in his work (hint: they often have to do with sex), something I am glad appears on no library shelves anywhere. Many of his works have been turned into films, the best of which are Women in Love (dir. Ken Russell, with Alan Bates, Oliver Stone, Glenda Jackson, and Jenny Linden and featuring the sexiest wrestling scene in cinema history), The Virgin and the Gypsy, and The Fox. The worst almost all have “Chatterley” in the title.
Just signed a contract for the Polish edition of How to Read Literature Like a Professor! When I started the book, I hardly expected there would be an American edition, much less others in numerous foreign (to me) languages. None of this would be possible without a lot of work by a lot of people at HarperCollins and Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, and especially by the agency’s foreign rights magician, Stefanie Diaz, who keeps hawking the book at international book fairs with results that continually amaze me. When you hear the phrase “lucky devil,” feel free to picture me.
A September Song is one that looks backward and forward and sees that the best of times is behind the singer and ahead lies the long downhill slide–and we know where that must end. The most famous is the Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson that you may know as a Sinatra song. This particular instance is a bit different, registering not the end for the speaker but something far worse. The birth date Geoffrey Hill gives for the victim, by the way, is one day after his own. What Hill does with allusions and line breaks is nothing short of magical.