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From the Archive

The Verb to Be

February 19, 2015 | by

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André Breton in 1924.

André Breton’s poem “The Verb to Be” originally appeared in our Spring 1985 issue.

I know the general outline of despair. Despair has no wings, it doesn’t necessarily sit at a cleared table in the evening on a terrace by the sea. It’s despair and not the return of a quantity of insignificant facts like seeds that leave one furrow for another at nightfall. It’s not the moss that forms on a rock or the foam that rocks in a glass. It’s a boat riddled with snow, if you will, like birds that fall and their blood doesn’t have the slightest thickness. I know the general outline of despair. A very small shape, defined by jewels worn in the hair. That’s despair. A pearl necklace for which no clasp can be found and whose existence can’t even hang by a thread. That’s despair for you. Let’s not go into the rest. Once we begin to despair we don’t stop. I myself despair of the lampshade around four o’clock, I despair of the fan towards midnight, I despair of the cigarette smoked by men on death row. I know the general outline of despair. Despair has no heart, my hand always touches breathless despair, the despair whose mirrors never tell us if it’s dead. I live on that despair which enchants me. I love that blue fly which hovers in the sky at the hour when the stars hum. I know the general outline of the despair with long slender surprises, the despair of pride, the despair of anger. I get up every day like everyone else and I stretch my arms against a floral wallpaper. I don’t remember anything and it’s always in despair that I discover the beautiful uprooted trees of night. The air in the room is as beautiful as drumsticks. What weathery weather. I know the general outline of despair. It’s like the curtain’s wind that holds out a helping hand. Can you imagine such a despair? Fire! Ah they’re on their way … Help! Here they come falling down the stairs … And the ads in the newspaper, and the illuminated signs along the canal. Sandpile, beat it, you dirty sandpile! In its general outline despair has no importance. It’s a squad of trees that will eventually make a forest, it’s a squad of stars that will eventually make one less day, it’s a squad of one­-less-­days that will eventually make up my life.

Translated from the French by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow.

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Philip Levine’s “A Sign”

February 18, 2015 | by

Philip Levine in 1980.

This week, we’re celebrating Philip Levine by posting some of his poems from our archives. This one, “A Sign,” comes from our Spring 1981 issue.

The last words the sea spoke
before it died, the last sigh
of the great wind that blew
before we were born, the last
light that dawns on the hill
of our dying, skull hill we
would call it.

Read the whole poem here.

Philip Levine’s “She’s Not Gone”

February 17, 2015 | by

Levine in 1980.

As we mentioned over the weekend, we’ll be celebrating Philip Levine this week by posting some of his poems from our archives. This one, “She’s Not Gone,” comes from our Winter-Spring 1980 issue. To my knowledge, Levine never reprinted it in any of his collections.

“You met a lot of unpretentious people in Philip Levine’s spare, ironic poems,” Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times on Sunday. “Come as you are, this important and emotionally committed poet told us.”

Someone enters your life
on a day you no longer
remember. The years pass,
and she becomes the mother
you never had, the older
sister smoking before breakfast,
the first friend.

Read the whole poem here.

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John Bayley on British Wit

January 22, 2015 | by

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John Bayley with Iris Murdoch, 1980.

The New York Times has reported that John Bayley died last week at eighty-nine. A literary critic and Oxford don, Bayley was best known for his vivid, searching memoir, Elegy for Iris, about his married life with Iris Murdoch, who in the late nineties had fallen deep into Alzheimer’s disease. “To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone,” he wrote. “To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.”

But Bayley was a keen critic, too. Remembering him in the Guardian, Richard Eyre writes,

John was a brilliantly readable reviewer, often witty and sometimes waspish, but invariably bearing the authority of a man who could speak knowledgeably of all European cultures. He believed that the point of literature was to make sense of the world, and, although shy and unassertive, he was a blazingly confident guide to how and where to discover those truths. If I were looking for an epitaph for him it would be from Tolstoy: “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

In our Spring 1998 issue, The Paris Review asked thirteen British writers to answer questions about the state of the nation’s literature. Bayley was one of them—here, to remember him, are the two questions he answered.Read More »

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Vegetable-snake Undersea Beings: A Belated Correction

January 20, 2015 | by

Ginsberg in May 1965. Photo: Engramma.it

When The Paris Review interviewed Allen Ginsberg for our Spring 1966 issue, he expressed a sense of conflict about hallucinogens. He treasured their effects on consciousness—“you get some states of consciousness that subjectively seem to be cosmic-ecstatic, or cosmic-demonic”—but his body was having trouble tolerating them. “I can’t stand them anymore,” he said, “because something happened to me with them … After about thirty times, thirty-five times, I began getting monster vibrations again. So I couldn’t go any further. I may later on again, if I feel more reassurance.”

Thomas Clark conducted that interview in June 1965; the issue was on newsstands the following spring. A year later, though, in June 1966, Ginsberg sent The Paris Review the following letter, which recently resurfaced in our archives: Read More »

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Boudoirs of the Future

December 8, 2014 | by

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Schwartz, date unknown.

Delmore Schwartz was born on this day in 1913. The below is from a letter he sent to his publisher, James Laughlin of New Directions, on May 8, 1951; it’s extracted from a series of their correspondence published in our Summer 1992 issue. A few years after this letter, in 1953, Laughlin dissolved his business relationship with Schwartz, who had succumbed to neurosis and paranoia, early signs of which are visible here. By the early sixties, Schwartz had cut off nearly all his friendships and started to drink heavily. He died in 1966.

I have decided not to be a bank clerk, after all, since I would probably be paralyzed by the conflict between my desire to steal money and my fear of doing so.

It was pleasant to learn that you expected our correspondence to be read in the international salons and boudoirs of the future. Do you think they will be able to distinguish between the obfuscations, mystification, efforts at humor, and plain statement of fact? Will they recognize my primary feelings as a correspondent—the catacomb from which I write to you, seeking to secure some word from the real world, or at least news of the Far West—and sigh with compassion? Or will they just think I am nasty, an over-eager clown, gauche, awkward and bookish? Will they understand that I am always direct, open, friendly, simple and candid to the point of naïveté until the ways of the fiendish world infuriate me and I am poked to be devious, suspicious, calculating, not that it does me any good anyway? And for that matter, what will they make of your complex character?

It develops that the jukeboxes in bars now have an item entitled Silence, which costs a nickel, just like Music. This can only lead to drunken disputations between those who want Silence and those who will be goddamned if they can’t have a little Music with their beer.

The Giants, after losing eleven straight and thus preventing me from buying the newspaper for eleven days, defeated Pittsburgh twice in three days, which made me reflect on the fact that I have been a Giants rooter for thirty years: the expense of spirit in a waste of games.

Yours,

Delmore

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