- In which James Wood discusses “smarty-pants tone,” his revised opinion on David Foster Wallace, and erasing the distinction between pleasure and analysis: “At exactly the moment that I wanted really to write, and started writing poems and then trying to write bad fiction, I was reading with a view to learning stuff. I was reading poetry. How did Auden do his stanza forms? And I was trying to copy those. What’s a successful poem, what’s an unsuccessful poem? … What’s a good sentence? I don’t think I’ve changed. I am as sincerely interested in novels that fail as I am in novels that succeed. I just want to work them out. It’s a pleasure for me actually.”
- Who doesn’t love a good moral panic? In today’s advanced society, hardly a decade can pass without the populace whipping itself into a righteous lather over something or other—the eighties’ day-care abuse scandals stand as an especially potent reminder of our ability to delude ourselves, and the consequences of this delusion. Richard Beck’s We Believe the Children remembers the madness: “Jennifer went to regular one-on-one meetings with a therapist named Miriam, who also saw other children who had been allegedly abused at the day care. Miriam used dolls to demonstrate sex acts and then asked Jennifer to affirm that these things had happened to her. ‘I remember getting massive headaches,’ Jennifer said. ‘And I remember Miriam saying, “Say this happened to you, it did, it did”—repeatedly—“it did, didn’t it?”’ Over and over again.”
- The Japanese poet Sagawa Chika died, in 1936, before she’d even turned twenty-five—and before a long period of cultural upheaval in which her work quickly fell out of favor. “But over the past decade, her work has enjoyed a revival among contemporary Japanese poets, and it has begun to appear in English … Sagawa used free verse to explore her interiority through imagery: rather than relying on traditional forms, she expressed an individual relationship with the world and with nature … the body frequently becomes alien, distant, and threatening.”
- The Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, on the other hand, fled modernity in all its guises, embracing instead a thorough, religious misanthropy: “He despised modern consumer culture—talking of ‘the machine’ with its ‘cold brain,’ the yearning for the latest white goods to plug up the spiritual emptiness … He did not want to see an unspoilt spot carpeted in caravan parks and hated that the road to the saints on Bardsey had become ‘a thoroughfare for ice-cream vendors.’ He was enraged to bump into a ‘creature in a bikini’ on a birding trip.”
- Why did Jeff Bezos choose the name Amazon, anyway, all those years ago? “Bezos’s Amazon was not, it turns out, named for a woman warrior, but for the mighty river … Apparently Bezos didn’t take his research that far, or even so far as to consider some relationship between the greatest river in the world and a mythical tribe of female fighters. He began, rather, with the name Cadabra … When his lawyer misheard the word as Cadaver, Bezos was prompted to change the name. He went for the river because of the implication of large scale and because website listings at the time were mostly alphabetical. The A and Z in Amazon didn’t hurt, since it allowed the logo designer to join them with a little yellow arrow, suggesting a place that sells everything from A to Z and also leaves its customers smiling.”
I wrote in my journal, “It is Valentine’s Day. Very good weather. I walked through Central Park feeling lonely and benign and so happy for everyone I saw who was in love, or starting to be in love. I have come to accept that that kind of thing is not meant for me, but that is not a sad thought: there are many ways to love, and be loved, and live a rich life anyway. I will be okay!” I was eighteen.
At the time, I didn’t know the poem “Luminary” by R. S. Thomas; I wish I had. A friend would introduce me to his work the next year. This poem, which so captures a certain wistful quality, came to me even later; it is one of the “rediscovered poems” anthologized a few years ago with Thomas’s other uncollected works.
Those who know Thomas will recognize certain tropes: the elevation of the natural, the suspicion of institutions and “the Machine.” But it is, first and foremost, a love poem. “My balance / of joy in a world / that has gone off joy’s / standard.”
Romantic, yes, but as even I recognized as a melodramatic spinster of eighteen, romance and love can coexist quite comfortably. This poem, to me, conjures both. Read More
Friday, October 20, Capo Caccia
On Sunday morning I read poetry at the Union with Wystan Auden. He read a great deal of his own poetry including his poems to Coghill and MacNeice. Both very fine conversation pieces I thought but read in that peculiar sing-song tonelessness colourless way that most poets have. I remember Yeats and Eliot and MacLeish, who read their most evocative poems with such monotony as to stun the brain. Only Dylan could read his own stuff. Auden has a remarkable face and an equally remarkable intelligence but I fancy, though his poetry like all true poetry is all embracingly and astringently universal, his private conceit is monumental. The standing ovation I got with the ‘Boast of Dai’ of D. Jones In Parenthesis left a look on his seamed face, riven with a ghastly smile, that was compact of surprise, malice and envy. Afterwards he said to me ‘How can you, where did you, how did you learn to speak with a Cockney accent?’ In the whole piece of some 300 lines only about 5 are in Cockney. He is not a nice man but then only one poet have I ever met was—Archie Macleish. Dylan was uncomfortable unless he was semi-drunk and ‘on.’ MacNeice was no longer a poet when I got to know him and was permanently drunk. Eliot was clerically cut with a vengeance. The only nice poets I’ve ever met were bad poets and a bad poet is not a poet at all—ergo I’ve never met a nice poet. That may include Macleish. For instance R. S. Thomas is a true minor poet but I’d rather share my journey to the other life with somebody more congenial. I think the last tight smile that he allowed to grimace his features was at the age of six when he realized with delight that death was inevitable. He has consigned his wife to hell for a long time. She will recognize it when she goes there.
From The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams, Yale University Press, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Swansea University.