I am often complimented on how warm my coats look: “You look so bundled up!” It is praise I accept not for myself, but on behalf of the country where I bought them: Russia. I spent a total of two winters there, in Moscow, and each time, I approached the matter of buying a coat with an almost superstitious seriousness, as if the Russian winter were a spirit that watched me as I shopped, waiting to punish me if I made the wrong choice of down, or underestimated the need for moisture-wicking fabric. I was not wrong; I swear, that first winter, the wind felt like a ghost slapping me in the face, chiding me for getting the hood that buttoned rather than zipped. Perhaps that is why, every Halloween, as ghost stories make their return, my mind often wanders to Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” Published in 1842, it tells the story of a vengeful ghost, who in life had his overcoat stolen and now in death haunts the city of St. Petersburg, pulling coats off the backs of innocent passersby. Gogol’s story, at its heart, is a frightening tale of poverty and social isolation. It is also a testament to the power of hauntings that take place on a larger scale, where ghosts seek to collect debts not for individual transgressions but for the failings of an entire society. Read More
“Oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it,” an English lady tells an eager American couple at the start of one of Edith Wharton’s stories.
The one, of course, is a ghost. The Americans are newly rich and thus in need of an estate. Their manor need not have either hot water or electricity. Their sole requirement is that there be a ghost in residence, and the only haunted house their hostess can offer is a country home, in Dorsetshire, whose ghostliness is as vague as a ghost itself. In “Afterward,” one is only sure of having seen a ghost, well, afterward.
The story appeared in Tales of Men and Ghosts, a collection published in 1910, while Edith was still living with her husband, Teddy, at the Mount, the estate in the Berkshires that she designed and expanded as her writing income allowed. The House of Mirth not only made her a best-selling author and celebrity when it was published in 1905, it paid for her elaborate gardens. The Mount was sold in 1911—the specter of divorce loomed—and after the Whartons moved out, the place became famous as a haunted house. An extremely haunted house, in fact, whose ghosts do not bother with ambiguity or disguises, as in the opening pages of “Afterward,” but freely roam the hills and halls at all times of day and night. I had gone to the Mount on a guided tour of the haunted grounds, hoping to overcome my fear.
What was I afraid of? Nothing specific, and everything all at once. Just as it’s the “rare bird” who sees ghosts outright, it’s unusual to know what single, precise thing haunts you. The “ghost-feeler,” according to Edith, is more common—aware of the presence of ghosts, but abstractly. What would happen if I actually saw one? I hoped that I could mumble a few words of awkward, apologetic exorcism and feel less haunted by my own anxiety, the “vague dread” I recognized in Edith’s ghost stories.
“75 at 75,” a special project from the 92nd Street Y in celebration of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s seventy-fifth anniversary, invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response.
The Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y has a seventy-year archive of recordings—it began hosting readings in 1939 and recording them in 1949—and it offers a unique opportunity to study poets’ voices and reading styles. Between 1952 and 2014, John Ashbery made seventeen appearances on the stage of the Poetry Center. He read with other poets—Barbara Guest, Mark Ford, Jack Gilbert, John Hollander, J. D. McClatchy, W. S. Merwin, Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, and James Schuyler. He read with painters—Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers. And he joined in readings honoring other poets—tributes to Frank O’Hara (1970), Elizabeth Bishop (1979) and Marianne Moore (1987). Ashbery, who made regular Poetry Center appearances from the ages of twenty-four to eighty-seven, is on a short list of poets whose Y readings spanned so many decades (others include W. S. Merwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Richard Wilbur, and Galway Kinnell).
As a scholar and poet who uses software to analyze performance style in poetry recordings, I was thrilled when Bernard Schwartz, the Poetry Center’s director, invited me to study the archive. The Ashbery readings seemed, to me, like a perfect corpus to begin with.
The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the most exciting novels ever written and on the other hand is one of the most badly written novels of all time and in any literature. The book is full of holes. Shameless in repeating the same adjective from one line to the next, incontinent in the accumulation of these same adjectives, capable of opening a sententious digression without managing to close it because the syntax cannot hold up, and panting along in this way for twenty lines, it is mechanical and clumsy in its portrayal of feelings: the characters either quiver, or turn pale, or they wipe away large drops of sweat that run down their brow, they gabble with a voice that no longer has anything human about it, they rise convulsively from a chair and fall back into it, while the author always takes care, obsessively, to repeat that the chair onto which they collapsed again was the same one on which they were sitting a second before.
We are well aware why Dumas did this. Not because he could not write. The Three Musketeers is slimmer, faster paced, perhaps to the detriment of psychological development, but rattles along wonderfully. Dumas wrote that way for financial reasons; he was paid a certain amount per line and had to spin things out. Not to mention the need—common to all serialized novels, to help inattentive readers catch up on the previous episode—to obsessively repeat things that were already known, so a character may recount an event on page 100, but on page 105 he meets another character and tells him exactly the same story—and in the first three chapters you should see how often Edmond Dantès tells everyone who will listen that he means to marry and that he is happy: fourteen years in the Château d’If are still not enough for a sniveling wimp like him. Read More
Charles Schulz exposed me as a fraud. Nearly two decades ago, upon hearing of Mr. Schulz’s impending retirement, I drew a clumsy comic strip tribute to Peanuts, fancying myself a halfway-decent mimic. I attempted to copy the strong, fluid lines of his mid-’50s work, which I long admired (idolized), but I quickly realized that I was going to fall far short. I could only scratch the surface of his inimitable drawings—as natural as handwriting, but even harder to forge—much less the emotional content he could pack into every molecule of ink. And anyway, the veneer is never the thing itself. You know how sometimes you might hear what sounds like a simple melodic line in, say, Mozart, and then you see the actual sheet music, which reveals an unfathomably complex, rich structure, an eternity condensed into tiny, elusive black marks flowing through, over, under, and beyond the staves, swimming like furtive cells viewed under a microscope, seemingly unfixed and unfathomable yet cohering into a unified and inextricable whole, all of this therefore outing you as an arrogant, deluded, oblivious fool? That was me.
While I hadn’t been drawing comics for very long at that point, I should have known better. A teacher in high school once explained that drawing was simply observation; thirty-five years later, that still seems like a pretty thorough definition. For starters, I wasn’t observing keenly or deeply enough. Even though in my pastiche/homage I was “drawing a drawing,” I hadn’t fully understood what I was looking at, because cartooning exists in a kind of liminal space somewhere between writing and drawing. Sure, one could imitate the telltale twirl of a brush winding its way through a stroke, or calculate the pressure applied to a nib traveling along a particular vector, but there was also something ineffable about comics, something more than the sum of its parts. Read More
Astonishing but true: in the fall of 2016, the United States was struck by an outbreak of clown sightings. The first sighting was reported in Wisconsin that August, and over the following months sightings were reported in every state in the nation, along with D.C. and Puerto Rico. Some of the clowns were engaged in seemingly innocuous behavior—walking around, or waving—while others stared creepily at passersby. Some attempted to lure passersby into nearby woods or unmarked vans. Others roamed around neighborhoods banging on windows and knocking on doors. Schools went on lockdown as clowns threatened to kidnap students and commit mass shootings. In a suburb of Los Angeles, a clown armed with a knife approached a man on a porch before being frightened off by a gunshot. In Florida, a pair of clowns with an axe and a bat chased after pedestrians. In New Jersey, a child was chased down an alley by a clown with a sword. On a trail in Colorado, a clown hit a man over the head with a bottle of whiskey. At the time, I was living in a city in Michigan. I was very much keeping informed about the situation. Hiking to the library once a week with a backpack full of books, I would occasionally glance behind me, keeping a lookout for people in whiteface and red wigs. In Michigan alone, a clown had terrorized a group of schoolchildren at a bus stop, a clown had been seen stalking a college campus, a clown had been seen lurking behind an ice cream shop, a clown had been seen lurking in an empty car wash, a clown had been spotted hiding behind a tree, a clown had been spotted walking alone at night down a rural highway, clowns had been spotted prowling near a supermarket with a hammer, a clown with a knife had attacked a child in a yard before disappearing, and clowns had chased a pair of teenagers down a street late at night in a flat-out sprint.
That November the United States held a presidential election. And abruptly, that November, the clown sightings ended. As if the clowns had only ever come for a single purpose: to herald the rise of a clown president.