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Posts Tagged ‘sonnets’

George Plimpton on Muhammad Ali, the Poet

June 6, 2016 | by

In the clip above, our founding editor George Plimpton recalls hearing Muhammad Ali give a lecture to thousands of Harvard graduates, and the poem that emerged from it:

He gave this wonderful speech … It was moving, it was funny at the same time, and there was a great roar of appreciation at the end of it. And then, someone shouted out, Give us a poem! Now the shortest poem in the English language, according to Bartlett’s Quotations, is called “On the Antiquity of Microbes.” And the poem is “Adam / Had ’em.” It’s pretty short. But Muhammad Ali’s poem was, “Me? / Whee!!” Two words. I wrote Bartlett’s Quotations and I said, Look here, that’s shorter than “Adam / Had ’em.” You wanna put it in? It stands for something more than the poem itself: Me, whee. What a fighter he was, and what a man.

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Extra, This Is the Meaning of Life

December 8, 2015 | by

From the cover of our Winter 1986 issue. Edward Ruscha, Several Monograms (detail), 1986, dry pigment and acrylic on paper.

“Sonnet,” a poem by Delmore Schwartz from our Winter 1986 issue. Schwartz was born on this day in 1913 and died in 1966; this poem, dated 1938, was drawn from his unpublished manuscripts and typescripts at Yale University’s Beinecke Library. Robert Phillips called it “a good example of his earliest work, which took Eliot and Yeats as models. Compact, rhyming, and formal, the poems attempted to mythologize Schwartz, to dramatize history, and to pay homage to the world of culture.” —D. P. Read More »

Flush with Talent, and Other News

September 4, 2015 | by

Minako Nishiyama, Miki Kasahara, Yuma Haruna, Melting Dream, 2014. Photo by Yasunori Takeuchi. Courtesy Toilennale

  • Joy Williams has a new collection out, and a reporter has found her in rare form:Williams does not have an email address. She uses a flip phone and often writes in motels and friends’ houses on old Smith-Coronas; she brings one with her and keeps others everywhere she stays … Williams now splits her time among Tucson, her daughter’s home in Maine and Laramie, migrating across the country with her dogs in her Toyota, which has 160,000 miles on it but is pretty new by her standards. (Her last car, her old Bronco, neared 360,000.) She eats a lot of Weetabix.”
  • You should be proud of your name: it’s yours. It denotes y-o-u, and no one can take that away from you. Unfortunately, things get a bit complicated if your parents happen to have given you a necronym, that is, a death name: “It usually means a name shared with a dead sibling. Until the late nineteenth century, necronyms were not uncommon among Americans and Europeans. If a child died in infancy, his or her name was often given to the next child, a natural consequence of high birth rates and high infant mortality rates … In their 1989 Dictionary of Superstitions, folklorists Iona Opie and Moira Tatum offer one reason for the necronym’s decline: many parents feared it was a murderous curse.”
  • “Unless ice burns and burning fire cools / No bard could look on you and not speak out / It can not be that I monopolize / The making of the songs that give you praise / Or that such pools as are your dearest eyes / Have just one bather.” These lines, and about eight others like them, are worth seventy-five hundred pounds. That’s not because they’re excellent, necessarily. It’s because Ezra Pound wrote them. They’re from an unpublished sonnet he wrote to the British painter Isabel Codrington in April 1909; it sold at auction earlier this week. “He obviously admired her,” said a perceptive employee at the auction house.
  • Let’s go on an adventure with the passive voice, shall we? Watch as, step-by-grammatically-irksome-step, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” becomes “Speed was involved in a jumping-related incident while a fox was brown.” “We have finally fully arrived at the ultimate in passive voice: the past exonerative tense, so named because culpability is impossible when actions no longer exist. For the most extensive erasure of direct communicative value, the original object can now even be removed entirely.”
  • Duchamp is old hat. The future of toilet art is, like the future of most things, in Japan, where an exhibition called Toilennale “brings together Japanese artists who have transformed sixteen public restrooms into sites for art installations … one park lavatory literally becomes a sweet site, transformed inside and out by a trio of artists into an enormous piece of pink candy titled ‘Melting Dreams.’ ”

Love Is a Bohemian

June 11, 2015 | by


Vivien and Barney in 1900.

From “Renée Vivien,” an essay by Natalie Clifford Barney anthologized in A Perilous Advantage: The Best of Natalie Clifford Barney. Vivien, a poet who was born on this day in 1877, began an intense affair with Barney in 1899; in 1901, they broke up, and Barney began to devote herself to winning Vivien’s affections again. Eventually they reunited and traveled together to Lesbos, but not without great effort on Barney’s part. “How could I win her back?” she writes: “Should I bang on her closed door? Dare to send her a more direct poem, reveal to her my suffering, how much I was suffering? Swallow my pride and admit that I loved her still, since I could not help but be faithful to her?” She decided to write a sonnet—“My tears are a slow poison I will drink/Instead of gleaning from some trivial affair/A barren cure, the final numbness,” are among its lines.

But how to get this sonnet to her without anyone else reading it? I asked my friend, Emma Calvé—who was also suffering from a romantic desertion … to lend me her irresistible voice. That night, disguised as street singers, she sang under Renée Vivien’s French windows: “I have lost Eurydice, there is no pain like mine,” while I pretended to pick up coins thrown to us from the other floors. At last René opened her French window, the better to hear that astounding voice singing the famous aria. “Love is a Bohemian whom no law binds.” The moment had arrived. I threw my poem, attached to a bouquet of blowers, over the garden fence so that she would see it and pick it up. But passers-by were beginning to crowd around us and we had to slip away before the singer, recognized even in the shows by her voice, was swamped with applause. Read More »

Staff Picks: Pop, Rock, and Bear Hock

August 29, 2014 | by

From Barry Guy's Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

From Barry Guy’s Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

John Swartzwelder has written more Simpsons episodes than any other writer (fifty-nine in total). He’s also one of the most eccentric writers in the business: one story goes that “when he could no longer smoke in restaurants, he bought his favorite booth from his favorite diner and had it installed in his home.” Since leaving The Simpsons in 2003, he has self-published a novel each year, all of which are available on his Web site. After reading his first novel, The Time Machine Did It, I’m not surprised that Swartzwelder is the same person who introduced now-classic Simpsons characters such as Cletus Spuckler, Stampy the Elephant, and the three-eyed fish Blinky (who has now become a symbol among pundits for nuclear waste and wildlife mutation). The novels are pure screwball, honoring the comedies of the Marx Brothers and Preston Sturges as Swartzwelder dismisses any narrative rule for laughs. In The Time Machine Did It, a private detective named Frank Burly (“to give prospective clients the idea that I was a burly kind of man ... and who would be frank with them at all times”) finds himself traveling through time for a supposed multimillionaire who wakes up one day to find that everything he owns is gone. The plotline includes a homemade time machine and a town taken over by criminals, but why the novel works is the simple fact that it never takes itself too seriously. “On an impulse I mooned most of the 1950’s as I went by. I don’t know what makes me do these things. I guess it’s just part of my charm.” —Justin Alvarez

In outline, it reads like something made up by Roberto Bolaño: an Austrian writer crosses America, wracked by nightmares and visions and pursued by his mysterious, estranged wife. Peter Handke’s 1972 novella Short Letter, Long Farewell helped inspire the American “road movies” of Wim Wenders, and if Bolaño didn’t know the book, there is a strong family resemblance. As the critic Wayne Koestenbaum put it, the two writers share an “ability to sound sane (though vacant-souled) about insane circumstances,” whether these involve a desert sunset or a restaurant serving bear hock à la Daniel Boone. —Lorin Stein

That Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is, in part, a transmutation of birdsong into lines of music has oddly come up several times over the past month, in the course of putting together the Fall issue and elsewhere. At the same time, I’ve found myself returning periodically to Music & Literature’s impressive fourth issue to gaze at the work of British composer Barry Guy, whose graphic scores are translations of sensory experiences relating to literature, painting, and architecture and visual reflections of movement, energy, and pitch. So it felt like the stars had fully aligned when I read Christian Wiman’s “translations” of Osip Mandelstam, from a small collection called Stolen Air. Instead of faithfully translating Mandelstam’s poems, Wiman has created versions of them: though some closely resemble the originals, others, he says, are “liberal transcriptions” and “collisions and collusions” between the two poets. Wiman sought to get at the sound of Mandelstam’s language, its music, without having any knowledge of Russian but feeling buoyed by Mandelstam’s notion of a poet’s “secret hearing.” And so we get silvery, jostling lines like “I love the early animal of her, / These woozy, easy swings” and “Better to live alluvial, / Better to live layered downward, / To be a man of sand, of hollows, shallows / To cling to sleeves of water / And to let them go—” —Nicole Rudick Read More »


Banal Sentimentality; Tackling Tolstoy

February 10, 2012 | by


I’m planning a trip to Southeast Asia later in the year, and I’m looking for fiction set in the countries I’ll be visiting. For the most part I've managed to find books that fit the billGraham Greene’s The Quiet American for Vietnam, André Malraux’s The Way of Kings for Cambodia, and Christopher Kremmers Bamboo Palace for Laos. But I'm really stuck on Thailand. Theres The Beach by Alex Garland, which Ive read and wasnt a huge fan of. Aside from that all I can seem to find are some fairly nasty-looking crime novels. I’d prefer something slightly more on the literary side of things if possible, whether fiction or nonfiction.

Thanks (and kap koon kah).

John Burdett’s not your speed, eh? In that case, I recommend Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork. Set in Chiang Mae and in the jungles of northern Thailand, it tells the story of an anthropologist and a family of American missionaries battling over the hearts and minds of an animist village. No less an authority than Stephen King raved about it in Entertainment Weekly:

This is a great story. It has an exotic locale, mystery, and a narrative voice full of humor and sadness. Reading Fieldwork is like discovering an unpublished Robertson Davies novel; as with Davies, you can’t stop reading until midnight (good), and you don’t hate yourself in the morning (better).

King didn’t like the title (“Berlinski tells us the editor hung that says-nothing title on the book. The guy should have stuck to editing”). As the editor in question, I may be biased—but I promise it’s the book you want.

Bon voyage!

Dear Lorin,

Perhaps you can assist me with a delicate matter. Having lately fallen in love, I find I have been inspired to address to my particular Phoebus Apollo a string of flamboyant sonnets, which, although they genuinely come from the heart, are, I suspect, really terrible. True, they scan quite well and, of course rhyme, but in their slightly banal sentimentality they make John Betjeman seem highbrow. So, mindful of the possibility that such a dubious body of work might someday come to light, is it better, do you think, to run the risk of being labeled as an awful poetaster who’s heart is in the right place, or disconcerting Phoebus Apollo by engaging in ruthless self-censorship?


Dear Daphne,

Why not take a page (a very famous page) from Sir Philip Sidney?

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show
That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite—
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

As Sidney writes, a love sonnet needn’t be good—just induce a modicum of pity. Your limitations can only be a strength. Read More »