Ever since I started editing The Paris Review, I’ve wished we could interview Merle Haggard. No songwriter means as much to me. Unfortunately, the Review doesn’t have a series on the Art of Songwriting (and for good reasons), so for the past six years I just wished. Then last Friday, at a friend’s wedding, I met a country deejay named Rebecca Birmingham. We happened to start talking about Merle and how much his songs moved us both, how true they were to experience, how original they sound even now. We both knew he was in poor health, he’d been in poor health for years, but she had a friend who’d know how to get in touch … Four days later we got the news that he was dead. Read More
The long tradition of outlaw poets.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Austin Reed’s The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, here.
Early in the first volume of Panegyric—the bad-tempered, ironically self-deprecating eulogy he wrote for himself in the late eighties—Guy Debord sang the praises of a kind of writer he knew he could never become. “There have always been artists and poets capable of living in violence,” he wrote. “The impatient Marlowe died, knife in hand, arguing over a tavern bill.” Five hundred years earlier, in the picture Debord goes on to imagine, the medieval poet François Villon presided over a cluster of writers who lived raggedly and riskily at the banks of the Seine. These were outlaw poets, “devotees of the dangerous life”—starved, browbeaten figures for whom pariahdom, persecution, imprisonment and homelessness were both facts of life and the materials out of which they made their art.
Outlaw poets are what certain prison writers become when their term is up—when they’ve been let loose into a world that spurns them and whose values they reject. In some cases, the poetry they write from this position turns out bitter, sour, and defiantly indigestible, full of lines that dare their civilized, comfortable readers to tolerate rude language, unhinged imagery, and wild variations in refinement and shape. In others, it comes off as a seductive, pining lament, a plea for pardon or a performance of rueful self-blame. Some of the great outlaw poets shuffle unpredictably between these two tones. “I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am,” Merle Haggard sang in 1967, less than a decade after the end of his two-year term in San Quentin: “but they won’t let my secret go untold; / I paid the debt I owed ’em, / but they’re still not satisfied; / Now I’m a branded man / out in the cold.” He could write an equally convincing song that placed the fault on precisely the opposite side: “Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied; / that leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.” Read More
A few pages into Barbara Pym’s 1944 comedy of manners Crampton Hodnet, I turned to Sadie in confusion. What’s with the descriptions? On page sixteen, “He was dark and thin, just a little taller than she was”; on seventeen, “He was a tall, distinguished-looking man with a thin, sensitive face”; and on twenty, “He was a short, jolly-looking man, while Mrs Wardell was tall and thin.” As Sadie explained, Pym never saw fit to publish Crampton Hodnet in her lifetime, so it’s possible that all these height measurements are a sign of inexperience and haste. On the other hand, the novel is such a sharp send-up of romantic conventions (handsome new vicar meets long-suffering lady’s companion) that they may be part of the joke. In any case, the book is addictive, with scenes as funny and impatient as anything in her later work. —Lorin Stein
The Greek tragedies were written for and performed by soldiers. Sophocles, a retired general, wrote his plays—many of them postwar tragedies, PTSD tragedies—between two major Athenian wars, and because they were performed during citywide festivals, they seem to have been a part of the civic war mechanism: a way for the citizenry to cope, understand, and grieve together. Bryan Doerries’s Theater of War project, which I first read about in Harper’s, stages readings of ancient Greek tragedies for service members and veterans in an effort to remind them that they’re “not alone across time.” Doerries’s new book is about his readings of the plays—and how he gained support from the U.S. military for his project—but it’s also a study of the therapeutic values of art. Many of us lamely suffer from PTSD headline fatigue: it’s always in the news but rarely makes the front page anymore, not for lack of persistence but because there aren’t many new ways of thinking about it. Doerries’s book implicates everyone when it says that the most useful healing is public rather than private. It’s hopeful, in a way, to consider that we can learn through catastrophe: that this is not a new idea, and that it’s best done together. —Jeffery Gleaves
“All the more elegant forms of cruelty, I’m told, begin / with patience.” That’s the first line in Carl Phillips’s newest collection, Reconnaissance. The book is thin, no more than forty-eight pages, and though you could easily read it in an afternoon, I’d recommend sitting with it awhile longer. Raw and unafraid, Phillips’s poems sift through the cruelties of the heart; he writes of the old lovers that “rise as one before you …/ like perennials you’d forgotten to expect again”; of betrayal, “the kind of betrayal … I’ve been waiting for, / all my life”; of mistakes, “the ones that sweetly rot beneath me.” He left me so mesmerized that I reread the collection as soon as I’d finished it. A few favorite (devastating) lines from “The Strong by Their Stillness”: “You can love a man / more than he’ll ever love back or be able to, you can confuse / your understanding of that / with a thing like acceptance or, / worse, all you’ve ever deserved.” —Caitlin Youngquist Read More