From the Archive
October 20, 2014 | by Robert Pinsky
In the spring of 2000, The Paris Review published an issue dedicated to poetry—dubbed, in fact, the Poetry Issue—including a series of prompts for poets and an essay by Robert Pinsky, who was then the U.S. Poet Laureate. Pinsky is seventy-four today; an excerpt of his essay, “Occasional Poetry and Poetry on Occasions,” follows.
What does it mean that so many distinguished and gifted poets responded to the somewhat goofy games and assignments suggested by The Paris Review for this issue? Not just willingly, but with spirit, they have composed poems to strange titles like “An Empty Surfboard on a Flat Sea” and “Lavatory in a Cathedral,” written commentaries on worksheets—written, in other words, to suit the occasion.
Occasions have elicited poems throughout history: coronations, birthdays, weddings, victories, executions, seductions (successful and unsuccessful), births, and deaths have their genres and great examples. Poems responding to specific circumstances have ranged from the agonized majesty of Yeats’s “Easter 1916” to the humblest good-humored verses produced for benign laughs at the office retirement party or a family anniversary. Donne wrote “the Anniversaries” on assignment and Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” is the most gloriously entertaining in-group, after-dinner speech in the language.
Does this play of talent in response to occasions and assignments tell us anything about the art of poetry? Many poets have been unwilling or unable to write on assignment, in response to circumstance but even their work has been used after the fact—quoted in speeches, inscribed in stone, read at the graveside or after the victory. (Anyone who writes or studies poetry can remember being asked for something suitable to be recited at a wedding or a funeral.)
Occasional poetry is a reminder that poetry is related to speech a little bit in the way dance is related to walking: it is more playful, as well as more serious. Poetry’s medium is not merely light as air, it is air: vital and deep as ordinary breath. Read More »
October 15, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
You may well have seen that our new Fall issue features a loping and very funny editorial exchange between George Plimpton and Terry Southern, one that captures both men at the height of their wit—and especially Southern’s, shall we say, distinctive style on the page. (“Yes, it’s true I’ve a rather crackerjack interview with good Hank Yonge tucked away in the old jock-strap, and naturally I’m eager to see it get the sort of dignified dissemination its merit does warrant,” a not-atypical sentence goes.)
The Review has published a lot of Southern over the years. Issue 138, from Spring 1996, has a particularly rich cache of what the man himself might call “Quality Lit,” not just by Southern but about him. It is, essentially, a Terry Southern memorial: when Southern died in October 1995, Plimpton and the staff collected some of his unpublished work and a series of remembrances in his honor. Among the tribute are four pages from an unfinished screenplay, which we’ve reproduced below. It’s just enough to make you wish he’d seen the thing through, and just enough to make you wonder what the hell the movie would’ve actually been about. Skeet shooting? Drug-addled romantics? The French?
As a salute to Southern, who died nineteen years ago this month, for the rest of October we’re offering copies of Issue 138 for only fifteen dollars—fifty percent off the regular price. The issue features an essay by Southern, an interview with him, and remembrances by William Styron, George Plimpton, and Henry Allen. There’s also of course a glut of material having nothing to do with Southern whatsoever, if that’s more your thing: fiction by Junot Diaz and Milan Kundera, interviews with Richard Price and Billy Wilder, poetry galore, et cetera, et cetera. Get a move on!
October 14, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
For E. E. Cummings’s birthday: a letter he wrote to Ezra Pound in October 1941, larded with gossip, political commentary, neologisms, and mordant pseudonyms. (Look out for Archibald MacLeish and William Carlos Williams, among others.) Pound and Cummings first met in Paris in 1921; this letter and others from the expansive Pound-Cummings correspondence appeared in our Fall 1966 issue, with Cummings’s “often eccentric punctuation and his verbal byplay intact.”
October 8, 1941
whole, round, and heartiest greetings from the princess & me to our favorite Ikey-Kikey, Wandering Jew, Quo Vadis,Oppressed Minority Of one, Misunderstood Master, Mister Lonelyheart, and Man Without A Country
re whose latest queeries
East Maxman has gone off on a c-nd-m in a pamphlet arguing everybody should support Wussia, for the nonce. “Time” (a loose) mag says Don Josh Bathos of London England told P.E.N. innulluxuls that for the nonce writers shouldn’t be writing. Each collective choisi(pastparticiple,you recall,of choisir)without exception and—may I add—very naturally desires for the nonce nothing but Adolph’s Absolute Annihilation, Coûte Que Coûte (SIC). A man who once became worshipped of one thousand million pibbul by not falling into the ocean while simultaneously peeping through a periscope and sucking drugstore sandwiches is excoriated for,for the nonce,freedom of speech. Perfectly versus the macarchibald maclapdog macleash—one(1)poet,John Peale Bishop, hold a nonce of a USGov’t job;vide ye newe Rockyfeller-sponsored ultrarumpus to boost SA infrarelations. Paragraph and your excoed Billy The Medico made a far from noncelike W.C. of himself(per a puddle of a periodical called “Decision”)relating how his poor pal E.P. = talented etc but ignorant ass who etc can’t play the etc piano etc… over which tour d’argent the wily Scotch duckfuggur Peter Munro Jack 5 Charles Street NYCity waxed so wroth he hurled at me into New Hampshire a nutn if not incandescing wire beginning “stab a man in the back but do it three years too late”:’twould hence appear you’ve still some friends, uncle Ezra, whether vi piace or non
now to descend to the surface;or, concerning oldfashioned i: every whatsoever bully(e.g. all honourless & lazy punks twerps thugs slobs politicos parlourpimps murderers and other reformers continues impressing me as a trifle more isn’t than least can less and the later it’s Itler the sooner hit’s Ess. Tune: The Gutters Of Chicago
“make haste” spake the Lord of New Dealings
“neutrality’s hard on my feelings”
—they returned from the bank
with the furter in frank:
& the walls,& the floors,&the ceilings)
As my father wrote me when I disgraced Orne—forsan et haec. And the censor let those six words through
hardy is as hardy does
September 30, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Since it’s both International Translation Day and W. S. Merwin’s eighty-seventh birthday (many happy returns!), today’s a fitting occasion to excerpt this interview from our Spring 2002 issue, in which Merwin discusses his translation of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet “Whoso list to hunt,” from the sixteenth century. His interlocutor is the poet Jason Shinder.
Who so list to hount, I knowe where is an hynde,
But as for me, helas, I may no more:
The vayne travaill hath weried me so sore.
I ame of theim that farthest commeth behinde;
Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde
Drawe from the Diere: but as she fleeth afore,
Faynting I folowe. I leve of therefore,
Sins in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.
Who list her hount, I put him owte of dowbte,
As well as I may spend his tyme in vain;
And, graven with Diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her faier neck rounde abowte:
Noli me tangere for Cesars I ame;
And wylde for to hold, though I seme tame.
W. S. MERWIN: I think this is probably the greatest sonnet Wyatt wrote, and I think it’s one of the greatest sonnets in English. I’ve known it for so many years, but it always startles me with the real strength of passion in it—and irony and freshness of language and the mixture of sensual feeling and bitterness that runs through the best of Wyatt. Take that first line—the whole courtly feeling about the opposite sex, which angers, quite rightly, the feminists—the pursuit of women becomes a kind of predacious pursuit: if hunting is what you want to do, I know a deer who’ll keep you busy. The speculation is that it’s about Anne Boleyn, and it may well be; it's certainly about a very elusive and uncatchable person. [...]
JASON SHINDER: To the modern ear, the language is also unfamiliar and difficult to access. As someone who reads Wyatt in public, how do you approach the poems?
MERWIN: We don't really know what Wyatt's language sounded like, and I’m not an expert on late Middle English and Tudor English. I don’t try to imitate what I think would be exact Tudor English. I don't try to put him into the modern American either. For example, the line “Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde.” I think the e in meanes was still slightly pronounced for Wyatt, so I keep it there. When I read these poems, they run through my mind like a piece of music.
Wyatt’s meter baffled Victorian editors—they tinkered with it until they got it into nice iambic pentameter and made it scan right. But iambic pentameter had little to do with it. My theory is that Wyatt’s meter was influenced by the lute—Wyatt was a great composer of lute songs, and I think he composed verse the way a lutanist would. His work is something in between metrical and syllabic verse. Read More »
September 23, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
An anecdote about censorship, since it’s Banned Books Week. Readers of today’s TPR know that our writers cuss with all the relish of a splenetic sailor who’s just stubbed his toe on shore leave. But such was not always the case. The magazine’s earliest editors were leery of salty language, and Terry Southern never forgot it.
Our latest issue features an editorial exchange between Southern and George Plimpton from 1958, when they were preparing Southern’s interview with Henry Green for publication. That interview features a now-classic aperçu from Green about the origin of his novel Loving:
I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.
As Southern wrote to Plimpton, “Hot stuff, eh George? Well now you realize of course that the word ‘cunty’ makes the reply, gives it bite, insight, etc. I mean to say it simply would not do to rephrase it, ‘Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, eating toast with fingers,’ would it?” Read More »
September 4, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Richard Wright was born on this day in 1908; he wrote Native Son and Black Boy, among dozens of other books, and his often controversial work helped to change race relations in the twentieth century. Wright hailed from North Carolina and in 1946 moved to Paris, where he befriended Sartre, Camus, and a number of expatriate writers, including Max Steele, one of The Paris Review’s founding editors. In our fiftieth anniversary issue, from 2003, the late Steele wrote “Richard Wright: The Visible Man,” a remembrance. Below is an excerpt from the essay.
I do not remember what month I saw him for the last time. He was strolling slowly in the light rain toward his flat on Monsieur Le Prince. He, in his double-breasted English raincoat and new beret, was walking upstream against the French with their umbrellas rushing down from the Comedie Française toward the Metro at Odéon.
I remember more vividly the first time I had met him at the Monaco (quite casually, even though I had arrived with a letter of introduction to him from our editor at Harper’s). When he learned I was from Chapel Hill he assumed immediately that I knew Paul Green, with whom he had written the play Native Son. He said, “The sleepiest man I ever saw.” He laughed and talked and laughed that laugh which he later admitted was his first line of defense, though it felt that afternoon like offense. He claimed that Green would go to sleep when they were writing dialogue for the most exciting moments in the play. “I’d say a line and look over and there Paul would be asleep.”
Five years later when I was again in Chapel Hill, teaching, I met Hugh Wilson, a cousin of Paul Green’s, who told me how exciting and dangerous those weeks were when Wright was in town working with Green on the play. “Of course he couldn’t stay at the Carolina Inn and there was no other place, so we got him a room down on Cameron Avenue in that big Victorian house behind those two giant magnolias. When the Ku Klux got wind he was there in a white neighborhood, they put out word they were going to kill him. Wright never knew that. Night after night Paul and I walked shotgun on that block. Paul would go up Ransom and I’d go down Cameron for a block or so and then we’d walk back and stand on the corner awhile, then patrol again. All night. I don’t know how Paul could write the next day. I didn’t care for Native Son. But Black Boy, that was one helluva book!” We admitted it had changed Wilson’s attitude and mine.
I heard later that Ellen [Wright’s wife] had placed a copy of Black Boy on Wright’s chest before the coffin was closed.