The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘death’

A Writer in the Family

February 19, 2015 | by

On writers, glass, Pliny the Elder, and the way families pass on their stories.


Vesuvius in eruption.

Since I started writing, I have sought forebears who might have had literary aspirations. Were there writers in the family? My great-uncle György, who was exiled to the Ukraine during World War II and afterward became a functionary in Hungary’s Communist government, was a novelist, but my father has always been dismissive of his work. He says György wrote a variety of socialist-realist novel that’s hard to take seriously, hard not to see as propaganda. His books have never been translated into English, and my Hungarian isn’t nearly good enough to understand what’s in them. The only existing copies I know of sit on a shelf in my Cousin Hajnal’s house in the Buda Hills. I don’t have the heart to ask to take them and have them translated. When I’ve asked her about them in the past, she’s simply said that they are books, yes, and that her father wrote them.

In their stead I have purchased rare used copies of two books written by Frederic Neuburg, author of a large trove of letters to my father’s Aunt Traute that he keeps in an old teak box in his house in Los Angeles. My father is not Bellow or Updike, and I am not the son of Bellow or Updike, but it is the book I have, in two editions, an art book containing photographs of Neuberg’s glass collection and extensive commentary on the pieces. Read More »

Philip Levine, 1928–2015

February 15, 2015 | by

We were saddened to learn that Philip Levine died yesterday at eighty-seven. The U.S. poet laureate from 2011 to 2012, he composed poems that were, as Margalit Fox writes in the New York Times, “vibrantly, angrily, and often painfully alive with the sound, smell, and sinew of heavy manual labor.”

Levine grew up in industrial Detroit during the Depression; the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he worked factory jobs for Cadillac and for Chevrolet. “You could recite poems aloud in there,” he told The Paris Review in 1988 of his time on the assembly line. “The noise was so stupendous. Some people singing, some people talking to themselves, a lot of communication going on with nothing, no one to hear.”

His time in those jobs would later inform one of his most enduring poems, “They Feed They Lion,” from the late sixties—you can hear him read it above. Levine explained the title in a 1999 interview with The Atlantic: Read More »


True Romance

January 22, 2015 | by


Byron, meditating on mortality, no doubt.

’Tis time this heart should be unmoved,
     Since others it has ceased to move:
Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
               Still let me love!

My days are in the yellow leaf;
     The flowers and fruits of Love are gone;
The worm—the canker, and the grief
               Are mine alone!

So begins one of Byron’s last poems. Is it an ode to the Greek youth he loved? A general meditation on mortality? Choose your theory. The date, at least, we can estimate with a fair degree of accuracy. In the 1825 Narrative of Lord Byron’s Last Journey to Greece, his friend, Count Gamba, related of the occasion:

This morning Lord Byron came from his bedroom into the apartment where Colonel Stanhope and some friends were assembled, and said with a smile—“You were complaining, the other day, that I never write any poetry now:—this is my birthday, and I have just finished something, which, I think, is better than what I usually write.” He then produced these noble and affecting verses, which were afterwards found written in his journals, with only the following introduction: “Jan. 22; on this day I complete my 36th year.”

Read More »

The Art of the Obituary: An Interview with Margalit Fox

December 26, 2014 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

Margalit Fox credit Ivan Farkas

Photo: Ivan Farkas

In nearly twenty years and twelve hundred obituaries, Margalit Fox, a senior writer at the New York Times, has chronicled the lives of such personages as the president of Estonia, an underwater cartographer, and the inventor of Stove Top Stuffing. An instrumental figure in pushing the obituary past Victorian-era formal constraints, Fox produces features-style write-ups of her subjects whether they’re ubiquitous public figures, comparatively unknown men and women whose inventions have changed the world, or suicidal poets. (More on those below.)

I caught up with Fox in the Upper West Side café where she’s written two books, Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind and The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, the latter of which was published in paperback earlier this year. She was remarkably jovial and eager to clarify what it’s like to write about the dead every day. We spoke about the history of the obituary, her love of English eccentrics, and how it feels to call a living person in preparation for his or her eventual death.

Does the work you do change the way you think about death?

This work does skew your worldview a bit. We all watch old movies with an eye toward who’s getting on in age. I watch the Oscars memorial presentation and sit there going, Did him, did her, didn’t do that one. For obit writers, the whole world is necessarily divided into the dead and the pre-dead. That’s all there is.

How did you end up in the obituaries department?

I’d never planned for a career in obits. The child has not yet been born that comes home from school clutching a composition that says, When I grow up, I want to be an obituary writer. I started as an editor at the Times Book Review. It was wonderful to be around books and people that love books, but the job itself was copyediting. I was afraid that all they’d be able to put on my tombstone was “She Changed Fifty-Thousand Commas into Semicolons.” I started contributing freelance to the obituary section and ended up getting pulled in as a full-time writer.

How is your section different from other news sections at the paper?

Ninety-five percent of our job is writing daily obits on deadline. It’s impossible to have an advance written for all the pre-dead who we hope to cover, so we usually have to phone someone up to ask about a person or a subject we don’t know much about. Recently, one of my colleagues was heard running around the office going, Does anyone know anything about exotic chickens?! It’s that sort of thing. Read More >>


The Lion Cage

December 4, 2014 | by

rilke in moscow 1928

Leonid Pasternak, Rilke in Moscow (detail), 1928.

Rainer Maria Rilke was born on this day in 1875. The below is excerpted from “The Lion Cage,” one in a series of Rilke translations by Stephen Mitchell in our Summer 1989 issue.

She paces back and forth around him, the lion, who is sick. Being sick doesn’t concern him and doesn’t diminish him; it just hems him in. The way he lies, his soft bent paws intentionless, his proud face heaped with a worn-out mane, his eyes no longer loaded, how is erected upon himself as a monument to his own sadness, just as he once (always beyond himself) was the exaggeration of his strength.

[…] But he just lets things happen, because the end hasn’t yet come, and he no longer exerts any energy and no longer takes part. Only far off, as though held away from himself, he paints with the soft paintbrush of his tail, again and again, a small, semicircular gesture of indescribable disdain. And this takes place so significantly that the lioness stops and looks over: troubled, aroused, expectant.

But then she begins her pacing again, the desperate, ridiculous pacing of the sentinel, which falls back into the same tracks, again and again. She paces and paces, and sometimes her distracted mask appears, round and full, crossed out by the bars.

She moves the way clocks move. And on her face, as on a clock dial which someone shines a light onto at night, a strange, briefly shown hour stands: a terrifying hour, in which someone dies.


Mark Strand, 1934–2014

November 29, 2014 | by


A manuscript page from “A Piece of the Storm,” a poem from Blizzard of One.

When I read poetry, I want to feel myself suddenly larger … in touch with—or at least close to—what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment. And when you report back to your own daily world after experiencing the strangeness of a world sort of recombined and reordered in the depths of a poet’s soul, the world looks fresher somehow. Your daily world has been taken out of context. It has the voice of the poet written all over it, for one thing, but it also seems suddenly more alive … —Mark Strand, The Art of Poetry No. 77, 1998

Mark Strand died today at eighty, we were sorry to learn. When Wallace Shawn interviewed him for The Paris Review in 1998—a year before he won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Blizzard of One—Strand described his relation to death: “It’s inevitable. I feel myself inching towards it. So there it is in my poems. And sometimes people will think of me as a kind of gloomy guy. But I don’t think of myself as gloomy at all. I say ha ha to death all the time in my poems.”

And death was arguably Strand’s great theme—few poets have written more acutely or more movingly about the chasm at the end of life. Which is not to say that he was excessively dour or bleak; the sense of isolation in his work is often leavened by light and feeling. Strand saw poetry as a humanizing influence in an increasingly inhumane world. He told Inscape a few years ago: Read More »