- In a 1914 publicity stunt—back when poets were free to partake of the great PR machine—Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, and four others gathered at a luncheon to eat a peacock. “The papers were alerted, and news of the meal spread far and wide, from the London Times to the Boston Evening Transcript.”
- Karl Ove Knausgaard, your humble correspondent, is traveling across America for The New York Times Magazine: “The editor proposed that I travel to Newfoundland and visit the place where the Vikings had settled, then rent a car and drive south, into the U.S. and westward to Minnesota, where a large majority of Norwegian-American immigrants had settled, and then write about it. ‘A tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville,’ as he put it.”
- Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Wagner: the Romantic legacy of these composers lives on … in first-person shooters. “The grandiloquent sounds of the nineteenth century are still alive in the new millennium … but only when someone is getting bludgeoned, bloodied, blown-up, or decimated with automatic weapons … Even heavy metal isn’t heavy enough for most composers seeking to juice up their combat scenes. We need something with a little more sturm und drang.
- Starting to write a book is hard. Then there’s the whole middle part—also difficult. And finally there’s the end, which is no cakewalk, either. Can we learn anything from the last sentences in famous novels? “For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game.”
- On rereading Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth, a 1982 memoir of her turbulent marriage to John Berryman: “For a long time I could not shake the belief that these poets, all of them dead before their time from madness, self-neglect or suicide, paid a noble price for their pursuit of truth and beauty … I don’t think that anymore. Now, it’s Simpson herself who seems to be the hero … Simpson, who became a psychotherapist and went on to publish several books, writes with an almost uncanny clemency and a kind of cerulean objectivity. Where there might have been bitterness there is, instead, compassion.”
I recently read Poets in Their Youth, by Eileen Simpson. Now I’ve taken to doubting my every turn. Am I a lout? A drag on my partner’s freedom and happiness? Am I going to drink myself into a coronary or into some sort of baking mishap? Is there anyway I can pretend that I won’t die cold and alone?
From your note it’s hard to tell whether you’re a poet or a poet’s main squeeze. Those are both high-pressure jobs and generally conducive to drinking. But take heart. For whatever reason, poets today—even good ones—are much less likely to walk in front of a car, or gas themselves, or even destroy their livers than poets fifty years ago. This makes them easier to live with, I imagine. (How could it not?)
Like, perhaps, more than a few of your readers, I am an anxious person. This anxiety manifests itself in a number of ways, but one of the most taxing is when it renders me extremely irritable. Feeling overwhelmed by a cornucopia of small tasks, I sometimes experience an actual skin-crawling physical discomfort as I attempt to slog through them—it’s nails-on-a-chalkboard all over if someone tries to talk to me or sends me an e-mail or if I even glance at any of my open tabs in Chrome. I have the feeling that reading should help—but all those tiny words on a page! It just makes me feel even more agitated. Do you have any particularly soothing books you could recommend? The book equivalent of a warm bath? (Obviously one can’t take a warm bath at work. Or at least not at mine.)
First, turn off your computer. You could have the calm of a lama, and you still wouldn’t be able to read a book and keep an eye on your e-mail. It can’t be done.
Now, are you able to sneak out of the office? If so, head to the nearest library. Really. In my last job I used to take the subway up to the Forty-second Street library whenever I could. One day I got busted by my editor-in-chief. He was doing the exact same thing.
If you can’t leave your desk, then close your door. If you can’t close your door, try earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.
Readers of this column know my opinion of the Jeeves books. They are gratinee for the soul. Kids’ books lower my blood pressure, too: Roald Dahl, Narnia, E. Nesbit’s Complete Book of Dragons. My grandfather, in his long final illness, swore by Trollope.