In 1995, the poet Henri Cole traveled to Italy as the recipient of the Rome Prize in Literature. While there, he spent time with the American painter and photographer Chuck Close, who died last week, aged eighty-one. Recently, Cole came across a notebook in which he had recorded his impressions. Read More
On this archival recording, playwright August Wilson celebrates the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with a reading at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center on January 21, 1991. Wilson reads poems and selections from the plays Fences and Two Trains Running (which had yet to be produced), and participates in an extended audience Q&A. Before reading from Fences, set in Pittsburgh in the fifties, he reads the play’s introduction:
Near the turn of the century, the destitute of Europe sprang on the city with tenacious claws and an honest and solid dream. The city devoured them. They swelled its belly until it burst into a thousand furnaces and sewing machines, a thousand butcher shops and bakers’ ovens, a thousand churches and hospitals and funeral parlors and moneylenders. The city grew. It nourished itself and offered each man a partnership limited only by his talent, his guile and his willingness and capacity for hard work. For the immigrants of Europe, a dream dared and won true.
The descendants of African slaves were offered no such welcome or participation. They came from places called the Carolinas and the Virginias, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. They came strong, eager, searching. The city rejected them and they fled and settled along the riverbanks and under bridges in shallow, ramshackle houses made of sticks and tar paper. They collected rags and wood. They sold the use of their muscles and their bodies. They cleaned houses and washed clothes, they shined shoes, and in quiet desperation and vengeful pride, they stole, and lived in pursuit of their own dream. That they could breathe free, finally, and stand to meet life with the force of dignity and whatever eloquence the heart could call upon.
By 1957, the hard-won victories of the European immigrants had solidified the industrial might of America. War had been confronted and won with new energies that used loyalty and patriotism as its fuel. Life was rich, full and flourishing. The Milwaukee Braves won the World Series, and the hot winds of change that would make the sixties a turbulent, racing, dangerous and provocative decade had not yet begun to blow full.
Listen to the full recording from the event below:
In 1959, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick were feeling restless with their Boston life. It was the year of the publication of Lowell’s Life Studies:
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,”
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is a “young Republican.”
(“Memories of West Street and Lepke”)
Lowell won the National Book Award for the collection, but the publication also coincided with a manic episode. “I feel rather creepy and paltry writing now to announce that I am all healed and stable again. So it is. Five attacks in ten years make you feel rather a basket-case” he wrote to Elizabeth Bishop in July. By the fall and winter, still recovering, he was writing little, working mostly on translations.
In the meantime, Hardwick was writing essays for Harper’s that would go into her collection A View of My Own, including “The Decline of Book Reviewing” in October (the article that would inspire the founding of The New York Review of Books in 1963), and, in the December issue, “Boston: The Lost Ideal,” an excoriation of the city they lived in and a longing for the one they would move to the following year: “In Boston there is an utter absence of that wild, electric beauty of New York, of the marvelous, excited rush of people in taxicabs at twilight, of the great Avenues and Streets, the restaurants, theatres, bars, hotels, delicatessens, shops. In Boston the night comes down with an incredibly heavy, small-town finality.”
When Frederick Seidel traveled to their Boston home to interview Lowell for The Paris Review in March 1960, he described the sounds of the street outside: “Four floors below the study window, cars whined through the early spring rain on Marlborough Street toward the Boston Public Garden.”
In the Christmas of 1959, Lowell, dressed as Santa, gave their daughter, Harriet, a doll with a velvet hat. The gift was actually from Elizabeth Bishop. He wrote to thank her on January 4, 1960 (Harriet’s third birthday): “Three marvelous bottles of wine from S. S. Pierce made you seem just around the corner, while Harriet’s ‘Anna Karenina’ doll, dressed in the white boots you brought her, made you exotic and far away.”
Saskia Hamilton is the editor of The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019) and the author most recently of Corridor (Graywolf, 2014). She is an advisory editor for The Paris Review.
To put it mildly, John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) is no ordinary account of days gone by; a plain record of events would be too simple for such a daring and meticulous artist. The product of thirty years, Diary allows us a glimpse of the late twentieth century through Cage’s eyes. His insights and observations reveal a generous, openhearted view of the world in tumult. In keeping with this openness is the book’s methodology: using a number generator based on the I Ching, Cage would allow chance to determine each entry’s word count, left margination, and typeface. Like much of Cage’s oeuvre, the complexity of this process melts away in the experience of the work. Here, for instance, is the first page of Part II, which was originally published in the Winter–Spring 1967 issue of The Paris Review:
At first glance, it scans as chaos. In practice, it reads like poetry, though the typographical pyrotechnics lend it a unique tactility, as though the letters are swelling off the page. In 2015, Diary appeared in a single volume for the first time, published by Siglio Press. A new paperback version has just been released, now with a selection of pages from the unpublished ninth installment in Cage’s project (he had planned ten parts in all but completed only eight by the time of his death, in 1992). Six facsimile pages from Cage’s notebooks appear below.
The Paris Review’s founding editor George Plimpton was a man of many enthusiasms, but fireworks were chief among them. His lifelong affair with pyrotechnic explosives began when he served as a demolitions expert in the U.S. Army. He even wrote a book on the subject—Fireworks: A History and Celebration. Needless to say, he loved the Fourth of July.
George could be counted upon to supply and launch fireworks for all manner of occasions: weddings, celebrations, and, of course, Fourth of July parties, such as one held in the late sixties on Martha’s Vineyard, which Rose Styron—poet, activist, wife of founding editor William Styron, and member of The Paris Review’s extended family—recalls as particularly full of misadventure. In celebration of this year’s Independence Day, we called her up to hear the story. Read More
Two years have passed since Leonard Cohen’s death on the eve of the 2016 American presidential election, and to no one’s surprise, the world remains steeped in the miserable mix of darkness and fleeting hope that the poet-songwriter articulated so well. The Flame, published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is Cohen’s parting gift: a collection of poems, lyrics, drawings, and pages from his notebooks. Cohen’s son, Adam, writes in his foreword: “This volume contains my father’s final efforts as a poet … It was what he was staying alive to do, his sole breathing purpose at the end.” Below, we present a selection of images from the book.