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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

What Happened to O?

August 27, 2015 | by

The death of an exclamation.

William Blake had me thinking about death.

I was lying on my couch, Norton Anthology in my lap, when I stumbled on Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose.” I’d read the poem before, and I remembered its famous opening lament: “O Rose, thou art sick!”

What follows is a compact poem built of stark imagery. An invisible, amorous worm is flying through a storm at night. It descends on a rose. A death is at hand. And the perpetrator of the rose’s death, Blake warns, is none other than the worm’s secret love.

I reread the poem, parsing its lines for meaning. Then I read it once again. The night was late, and I felt drowsy. As sleep approached, an inchoate thought began to surface.

I sat up. O Rose, I thought. O Muse. O death.

I stood from the couch and found a pen. I tore off a piece of scratch paper, and on it I wrote myself a note: “What killed O?” Read More »

Two Irreducible Singlenesses

August 14, 2015 | by

Smuel Beckett Murphy manuscript for sale

Beckett’s doodles in the notebooks for Murphy (1938)

A letter from Samuel Beckett to Cissie Sinclair, his aunt, dated August 14, 1937. At the time, Beckett was trying, fitfully and without much success, to become an art dealer; he’d gone so far as to travel through Germany for six months for the express purpose of seeing as much art as he could. Though his efforts as a dealer foundered, he emerged with an affinity for Cézanne, Watteau, and especially Jack B. Yeats, whose painting “Morning” he bought when he could scarcely afford it. The poem he includes here, “Whiting,” was published soon afterward.

Southampton, En route to South Africa

14th [August 1937]

Gresham Hotel, Dublin

dearest Cissie

I was glad to get your letter this morning. I wanted you to think of me sometimes when you had a drink. How else would I render it likely? Have many.

[…] I had a letter from Tom by the same post as yours. He is writing about Jack Yeats, inspired apparently by some Constable exhibition & a chance remark of mine about the Watteauishness of what he has been doing lately. Every Thursday there seems to be something to prevent me going in to see him. I suppose to suggest the inorganism of the organic—all his people are mineral in the end, without possibility of being added or taken from, pure inorganic juxtapositions—but Jack Yeats does not even need to do that. The way he puts down a man’s head & a woman’s head side by side, or face to face, is terrifying, two irreducible singlenesses & the impassable immensity between. I suppose that is what gives the stillness to his pictures, as though the convention were suddenly suspended, the convention & performance of love & hate, joy & pain, giving & being given, taking & being taken. A kind of petrified insight into one’s ultimate hard irreducible inorganic singleness. All handled with the dispassionate acceptance that is beyond tragedy. I always feel Watteau to be a tragic genius, i.e. there is pity in him for the world as he sees it. But I find no pity, i.e. no tragedy in Yeats. Not even sympathy. Simply perception & dispassion. Even personally he is rather inhuman, or haven’t you felt it? Read More »

Letters of Note

August 13, 2015 | by

Thomas_Rowlandson_-_A_Book_Auction

Thomas Rowlandson, A Book Auction, 1810-15.

In his late twenties, my father was a habitué of the Charles Hamilton Autograph Auctions at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, where he would snap up anything that went unsold at the end of the day; in this way he earned the nickname The Vulture. Charles Hamilton himself was a noted signatures expert who had given testimony in a number of prominent forgery cases. His auctions were known for their quality and their miscellany, and for the personality of their proprietor. ‘‘Unless you have a soul made of solid lead,’’ he purportedly said, ‘‘your pulse quickens and your eyes brighten when you look upon something that a great man actually held and into which he put his personal thoughts.’’

My father, due to his own somewhat indiscriminate buying practices, ended up with a somewhat unfocused collection of bargains. He had some good pieces of ephemera—two tickets to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, a dinner invitation from Thomas Jefferson—but he also had a single strand of John Keats’s hair. And then there were the ones that got away. There was that time Hamilton auctioned off Harry Truman’s World War I diaries, and the asking price was a bit high, and no one was allowed to inspect them before bidding, “and they might have been incredibly boring,” but still … Read More »

Chillin’ at the Holiday Inn

August 3, 2015 | by

Hayden Carruth in the forties.

A letter from Hayden Carruth to Jane Kenyon, dated April 29, 1994. When Kenyon was dying of leukemia, Carruth wrote her almost daily, though he knew she was unable to respond. His correspondence is collected in Letters to Jane. Carruth, born on August 3, 1921, published poems in three issues of The Paris Review; he died in 2008.

Dear Jane,

I’m in the waiting area at the Washington National Airport with another hour before boarding for my flight to Syracuse. I hate this place, I hate it. Hatred has not been a prominent factor in my life, but in this particular place at this particular time it is. The weather here is INTOLERABLE, hot, hot, hot, and coming from Upstate New York I’m not dressed for it, wearing my faithful tweed jacket that I customarily use for readings. And I’ve had three glasses of house chardonnay in one of those little cubicles off the waiting area, the only place where one is permitted to smoke …

Well, I’ll insert a “poem” I wrote while I was having my coffee and so-called croissant: Read More »

Te-thrum, Te-thrum

July 28, 2015 | by

Malcolm Lowry in the late thirties.

A letter from Malcolm Lowry to Conrad Aiken, sent in the winter of 1929. Lowry, who was born on this day in 1909, was so enamored of Aiken’s novel Blue Voyage that he attempted, with this bumptious letter, to strike up a correspondence; throughout, as if to prove his worth, he quotes liberally from Blue Voyage and Aiken’s poem “Palimpsest: A Deceitful Portrait.” It worked: the letter sparked a complicated, rivalrous mentorship that would last until Lowry’s death. By July of 1929, Lowry had already decamped to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for lessons from Aiken, who was twenty years his senior. Lowry called his first novel Ultramarine in parodic reference to Blue Voyage.

 

5 Woodville Road
Blackheath, London S.E. 3

I have lived only nineteen years and all of them more or less badly. And yet, the other day, when I sat in a teashop (one of those grubby little places which poor Demarest loved, and the grubbier the better, and so do I) I became suddenly and beautifully alive. I read … “I lay in the warm sweet grass on a blue May morning, My chin in a dandelion, my hands in clover, And drowsed there like a bee … Blue days behind me Reached like a chain of deep blue pools of magic, Enchanted, silent, timeless. Days before me Murmured of blue sea mornings, noons of gold, Green evenings streaked with lilac … ”

I sat opposite the Bureau-de-change. The great grey tea urn perspired. But as I read, I became conscious only of a blur of faces: I let the tea that had mysteriously appeared grow clammy and milk-starred, the half veal and ham pie remain in its crinkly paper; vaguely, as though she had been speaking upon another continent, I heard the girl opposite me order some more Dundee cake. My pipe went out. Read More »

In Which Mark Twain Perspires

July 20, 2015 | by

Sam Clemens in September 1867.

A letter from Mark Twain to John T. Moore, July 1859. Moore, also known as Tom, was an “old river man” and a longtime friend of Twain’s. More than twenty years later, in 1883, this note appeared in The Arkansas Traveler and was afterward reproduced by papers nationwide—a few weeks later, though, the Traveler’s editor, Opie Read, claimed it was a hoax, thus casting doubt on its authenticity. Today most Twain scholars believe it to be genuine, suggesting that the notion of a hoax was, itself, a hoax.

Memphis, July 6, 1859.

My Dear John:—

I have made many attempts to answer your letter which received a warmth of welcome perspiringly in keeping with the present system of hot weather; but somehow I have failed. Now, however, I screw myself down to the pleasant task. It is a task, let me tell you, and it is only by the courtesy of friendship that I can call it pleasant. Read More »