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Posts Tagged ‘obituaries’

Robert Stone, 1937–2015

January 12, 2015 | by

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From our Winter 1985 issue: “A Robert Stone manuscript page, from his most recent novel, Children of Light; an indication of how barren the word processor has made examples of a work-in-progress.”

“I like big novels,” Robert Stone said in his 1985 Art of Fiction interview. “I really admire the grand slam.” Stone died last weekend in Florida, at seventy-seven. He leaves behind more than a few grand slams—broad, despairing, powerful books full of searchers, outsiders, and misfits. His work exudes what Jessica Hagedorn calls “exquisite paranoia and apocalyptic dread.”

Of course, descriptions like that can make his novels sound too potent—and one of the surprising things about Stone, it must be said, is how little he’s read these days. I hope that will change. As M. H. Miller wrote of him in 2013,

He’s a best-selling author whose work has been heaped with critical praise, but because of the long interims between books, he is more heard of than read by a certain generation of readers. Updike had Rabbit, Roth had Zuckerman, Norman Mailer had Gary Gilmore, even Joan Didion, whose novels are the least interesting thing about her, had Maria Wyeth. Among Mr. Stone’s books there is no clear standout, no obvious introduction. His work is best taken in tandem, like one long narrative where you age with the characters.

He’s right: among readers my age, Stone’s work has had that enviable air of mystery to it. He was always that major writer lurking in the distance. His books didn’t seem approachable, not because they were long or “difficult” but because, as the New York Times put it, they “resonate with philosophical concerns, the thin divides between life and death, good and evil, God and godlessness.” These were tomes about war and God and postwar tumult, and, uh, we definitely wanted to get to them, yes, but—maybe later? Read More »

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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 >>

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Mark Strand, 1934–2014

November 29, 2014 | by

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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 »

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Meet the New Black Friday (Same as the Old Black Friday), and Other News

November 28, 2014 | by

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

  • The mystery novelist P. D. James is dead at ninety-four. “‘When I first heard that Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall,’ she was fond of saying, ‘I immediately wondered: Did he fall — or was he pushed?’ ” (James was interviewed for The Paris Review’s Art of Fiction series in 1995.)
  • Black Friday is hell. But now there is a new hell, for there is a New Black Friday. (It involves Walmart and money.)
  • “In recent years, not just in novels but in movies, television, poetry, video games and the visual arts, drones have taken on a life of their own. As a character, they are menacing, melancholy or gallant; beastly, blind, snub-nosed, noisy and fast—Predators and Reapers in real life, ‘Helicarriers’ in Hollywood. They are the oversize hook at the end of a joystick, a militarized, antiseptic video game characterized by precision; or they are a weapon system proliferating at a breathtaking rate, and leaving a trail of destruction behind. They show off the military talent of their users, or they are an expression of unbridled hubris. They represent protection or extermination—and they carry out both things at once.”
  • In 1948, an eleven-year-old girl named Sally Horner was abducted—and the details of the case bear more than a passing resemblance to Lolita.
  • Something to ponder over leftovers: the literature of Thanksgiving. (From Mark Twain: “In the island of Fiji they do not use turkeys; they use plumbers. It does not become you and me to sneer at Fiji.”)

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Galway Kinnell, 1927–2014

October 30, 2014 | by

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Photo via GalwayKinnell.com

Galway Kinnell, who aspired to a poetics that “could be understood without a graduate degree,” died on Tuesday in Vermont, at eighty-seven. A winner of both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, Kinnell wrote poems that “dwell on the ugly as fully, as far and as long as I could stomach it,” as he once told the Los Angeles Times. “I think if you are ever going to find any kind of truth to poetry it has to be based on all of experience rather than on a narrow segment of cheerful events.”

Tony Hoagland said that Kinnell’s primary subjects were “mortality, erotic love, and creatureness.” That might make him sound solemn, But Kinnell, who was born in Rhode Island, could also be exceptionally warm, especially when his subject was New England. An obituary by the Associated Press quotes Major Jackson, who included Kinnell among “the great quintessential poets of his generation”:

In my mind he comes behind that other great New England poet Robert Frost in his ability to write about, not only the landscape of New England, but also its people … Without any great effort it was almost as if the people and the land were one and he acknowledged what I like to call a romantic consciousness.

It would be hard to overstate the effect of Kinnell’s poems on the form at large. “I don’t think Galway Kinnell influenced me, but what’s more important, he inspired me,” Philip Levine said in his Art of Poetry interview:

When I read his great poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” I said, My God, this is how good the poetry of my generation can be. I can remember exactly where I was when I first read it, on the second floor of the library in an armchair holding The Hudson Review and shivering with excitement.

The Review published Kinnell’s poems throughout his career; his work first appeared in our Spring 1965 issue. We’ve made available one of those earlier poems, “On the Frozen Field,” which begins:

We walk across the snow,
The stars can be faint,
The moon can be eating itself out,
There can be meteors flaring to death on earth,
The Northern Lights can bloom and seethe
And be tearing themselves apart all night,
We walk arm in arm, and we are happy.

You can also read “The Geese,” from our Summer 1985 issue, and “Lackawanna,” from Fall 1994. But best of all is “Another Night in the Ruins,” which Kinnell read at a Review salon in 2001; you can hear the recording here.

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Carolyn Kizer, 1924–2014

October 13, 2014 | by

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I’ve been enormously fortunate. People say, How do you feel about your reputation? My real belief is that I have exactly the reputation I deserve … on the whole I feel comfortable with myself. You know I’ve always always loved that line from Chaucer’s Criseyde, “I am meyne own woman wel at ease.” That’s the way I feel. Of course, there are always disasters looming, both cosmic and domestic. But even if it should all end tomorrow I would just hope I’ve burned enough bad drafts and old love letters!
—Carolyn Kizer, the Art of Poetry No. 81, Spring 2000

Carolyn Kizer died last Thursday at eighty-nine, the New York Times reports. Her poems are immaculately crafted and very smart, often with a steely feminism; she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for her collection Yin. As the Times says, “She was writing as early as the 1950s about the conflict for women between the creative imperative and social expectations—but it was far different in character from that of her contemporary Adrienne Rich. Where the poems of Ms. Rich, who died in 2012, landed like bombs flung from the barricades, those of Ms. Kizer felt more like a stiletto slipped between the ribs.”

Ursula K. Le Guin called Kizer’s poetry “intensely, splendidly oral, wanting to be read aloud, best of all to be read or roared by the lion herself.” Kizer, born in Washington, was known for her long, careful periods of revision, as evidenced in the manuscript above. (She was an honest self-critic, too; note that “Re-write this LOUSY couplet” scrawled in the margin.) She took more than thirty years to edit the sequence “Pro Femina,” which contains one of her most famous lines: “We are the custodians of the world’s best-kept secret: Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity.”

In addition to her Writers at Work interview, The Paris Review published many of Kizer’s poems, including “Twelve O’Clock,” in our Winter 1990 issue; and “Gerda,” which opens with an old Swedish children’s prayer, from Spring 1987. To celebrate her life, we’ve made them both available online. Read More »

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