Sunday, December 29, 2019

R.I.P. 2019

American novelist and essayist and Nobel Prize for Literature Laureate Toni Morrison leads the list of writers who died in 2019.  Another prominent fiction writer of the African American experience was Ernest J. Gaines, author of  A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

Harold Bloom
Morrison broke ground for women writers and writers of color.  But other writers who died in 2019 may represent the end of a line.  At least one prominent obit speculated that Harold Bloom may not have many successors in passionately elucidating and advocating for writers he most admired.

Technological, economic and societal changes seem to be combining to threaten the institutions that supported the best journalism of the past.  Often what began under sponsorship of daily newspapers or weekly and monthly magazines, ended up in influential books that provided powerful reading and essential information.  So it is not certain there will be many more with the career of reporter and fictionist Ward Just, or reporter and analyst William Greider, whose last book was entitled The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy.  

He may be remembered by many as the genial second host of PBS Masterpiece Theatre, but Russell Baker's bread and butter was his New York Times column, which won a Pulitzer Prize.  Baker won another Pulitzer for his autobiographical book, Growing Up.

 The singular career of American poet W.S. Merwin--and the poems that resulted, especially in his later years--should fascinate future generations, though he is likely to remain unique.  Assuming those future generations (if any) have perception as well as perspective, his reputation will be much higher, and his absence from most 2019 "notable deaths" stories scandalous.

Gene Wolfe was a model of literary science fiction, who younger writers now emulate.  He is best known for his Book of the New Sun series.

Peter Nichols had a long career in theatre and journalism in the UK, though he is known in the US primarily for his play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.  Gahan Wilson's cartoon style was immediately recognizable to generations, through books he illustrated and numerous cartoon collections from 1965 to 2011.

But it isn't always the most famous who provide important books, in individual lives as well as society.  Among the books written by historian of the 20th century John Lukas was his 2005 Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, a topic of our moment he foresaw.

Jonathan Miller
Jonathan Miller had many dazzling accomplishments in theatre, opera and television, but he was particularly proud of two of his books, Subsequent Performances and The Body in Question (drawn from his PBS series.)  Harris Wofford's political career included counselling John and Robert Kennedy, and serving as a US Senator, but he also wrote (and ghost-wrote) books, including his 1960s history Of Kennedys and Kings. 

Among the other fiction and non-fiction writers from around the world who died in 2019 (in no particular order) were novelist Larry Heinemann, Charles A. Reich (The Greening of America), literary theorist Jean Starobinski, writer and publisher James Atlas, historian Alan Brinkley, biographer Edmund Morris, Nick Tosches.

James Atlas
Anne River Siddons, Martin Mayer, Barbara Probst Solomon, Francine du Plessix Gray, Christopher Knopf, Rosamund Pilcher, Irene Coates, Gillian Freeman, Anthony Price, Tom Ungerer, Dorothea Benton Frank, Mary Warnock, Ulla Trenter, Elizabeth Spencer, Josie Rubio, Andrea Newman, Joseph C. Wilson, Peter Collier, Anthony Price, Noel Ignatiev, Dorothea Buck, Graham Gibson, John Bersia, D.J. Conway, publisher Sol Stein, Michel Serres, editor Elisabeth Sifton, Dan Jenkins, architect Cesar Pelli, publisher Susannah Hunneweil.

Among the poets from around the world who died in 2019 (in no particular order) were A. Alvarez, Leonard Wolf, Joe Rosenblatt, Kevin Killian, Louis Jenkins, John Irwin, Jules Deelder, Carol Muller, Piu Shahe, Amjad Nasser, Ludwig Zeller, Carol Satyamurti.  Apologies for omissions and misspellings.

May they rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Happy Birthday, Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder, American poet, essayist and teacher, is 89 today. In celebration of his birthday, I'm posting the poem that comes last in his 1991 collection, No Nature: New and Selected Poems. It's become one of my favorites.


 "Ripples on the surface of the water--
were silver salmon passing under--different
from the ripples caused by breezes"

 A scudding plume on the wave--
a humpback whale is
 breaking out in air up
 gulping herring
                  ---Nature not a book, but a performance, a
 high old culture

 Ever-fresh events
 scraped out, rubbed out, and used, used, again--
 the braided channels of the rivers
hidden under fields of grass---

 The vast wild
             the house, alone.
The little house in the wild,
           the wild in the house.
 Both forgotten.

                                  No nature

            Both together, one big empty house.

I first heard Gary Snyder read when I was a student at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois in the spring of 1967. In his late 30s then, Snyder had been a presence in American poetry for over a decade.  He was among the poets who read at the famous Six Gallery evening in 1955 that premiered Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and launched the so-called Beat movement.  A student of American Indian cultures and both Chinese and Japanese languages, Snyder interspersed months and years at a Zen monastery in Japan with jobs on an oil tanker, on logging crews and as a fire lookout.

He was recently back from Japan when, just a couple of weeks before his Knox visit, Snyder accompanied Allen Ginsberg in leading the legendary Human Be-In in San Francisco that established the counterculture alliance between hippies and political activists, and prefigured the upcoming Summer of Love.

 The Knox Student lists Snyder's events as a lecture on Tuesday (subject: "What's Going On?") and a reading on Wednesday, both in the Alumni Room of Old Main beginning at 7:30 in the evening.  While Snyder did speak about political, cultural and environmental subjects at one or both of his appearances, I recall him reading a great deal of poetry at both--hours of it.

I'm pretty sure he read from Rip Rap and the completed sections of his long sequence Mountains and Rivers Without End.  He probably read work not yet published in book form; I seem to recall he read a version of "The Circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais."  ("Circumambulation" is a ritual walk around a sacred object in Buddhist and Hindu traditions, and Mt. Tam near San Francisco is considered a sacred mountain. A year or two later, I participated in such a circumambulation of Mt. Tam.)

 Snyder's readings were mesmerizing: poems of direct descriptions in brief bursts of mostly nouns and verbs, and short, often one syllable words (a conscious choice in Rip Rap due to his observation of classical Chinese) that produced a cumulative, incantatory magic.  After awhile the words became mostly sound and you got tired, but then they took you to another level.  I doubt that many audiences anywhere had the opportunity to hear Gary Snyder read for such sustained periods.
His "talk" was probably similar to observations in his essays "Buddhism and the Coming Revolution" and "Passage to More Than India" published in his 1969 book Earth House Hold (the title is one literal definition for "ecology"), and also reprinted in Allen and Tallman's 1973 The Poetics of The New American Poetry.   I'm certain, for example that he quoted (as he did in "Buddhism and...") the old International Workers of the World slogan, "Forming the new society within the shell of the old."

His emphasis on the ignored value of the non-human and Indigenous cultures struck a chord with me: as he wrote, "In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past."

 Snyder also was an impressive presence on campus.  One attendee remembers that he wore an earring, some decades before this became a male fashion.  I recall the bells in his boots: little jingle bells that rang as he walked.  I loved that, and tried it myself for awhile.  But even in the upcoming counterculture it didn't catch on, alas.  Still, I remember sitting in the audience for the second event, alive with anticipation, and hearing those jingling boots tromping down the Old Man hall.

 The party for him was at a student apartment.  I asked him one question.  Though I don't remember what I asked about, it was in the nature of "how do you know?"  He answered that I'd have to "experience it."  I immediately jumped to the erroneous conclusion that he'd advised me to take LSD.  Such were the nerve endings as the wildness of the counterculture approached.  It was in fact a practical as well as a perfectly Buddhist answer to almost anything.

I heard Snyder read again a few years later at a benefit reading for an ecology organization in Berkeley. He was among his old San Francisco colleagues, including Lew Welch, who read his famous California poem with the refrain "This is the last place/there is nowhere else to go."  Months later Welch disappeared, a presumed suicide.  I spoke with poet Michael McClure in 2003, who read there that day as well as at the historic 1955 event that launched Howl, and he remembered that reading in Berkeley as something special.

 For the next five years Snyder published poems in periodicals, from Look magazine and the New York Times to Poetry and the Hudson Review to Kayak, Caterpillar and Unmuzzled Ox.  His collection Turtle Island (a traditional name now applied to North America) sold something like 100,000 copies and won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize.  It included the prose statement "Four Changes" that set the agenda for a number of environmental groups.

Pretty soon after Snyder's Knox reading I bought the Four Season Foundation printings of RIPRAP and Cold Mountain Poems, and Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End at the Knox bookstore, soon adding the earlier Totem Press edition of Myths and Texts.

  For awhile after, I acquired his books haphazardly, mostly as I came across them used, but eventually I had the poetry collections The Back Country (1968), Regarding Wave (1970) Axe Handles (1983), Left Out in the Rain (1986) and the hybrid Turtle Island (1975) as well as the prose collections Earth House Hold (1969), The Old Ways (1977) and The Real Work (1980).

Probably his prose masterpiece is The Practice of the Wild, published in 1990.  It was one of my first acquisitions as a resident of California in 1996.  I saw it in the window of Arcata Books, used.  The bookstore owner sold it to me and said, "I knew it wouldn't last long.  I just put it out this morning."
I had already found Gary Snyder: Dimensions of A Life (probably on a sale table at the U. of Pittsburgh bookstore), a large collection of tributes on the occasion of his 60th birthday. The Haida artist Robert Davidson provided the cover illustration. When I mentioned the book to Davidson in 1994, he was surprised to hear Snyder was still alive.  He thought it was a memorial volume. But when I met the novelist and poet Jim Dodge here in Arcata a few years later, I could recall having read his contribution to this collection.

 For me, living in California brought new dimensions to Snyder's work, both in terms of places he wrote about and the relevance of his writing to our ecology. (He lives most of a day's drive south of me, in the foothills of the Sierras.)  So I began to acquire his more recent books: the completed Mountains and Rivers Without End (1997), Danger on Peaks (poems, 2004), A Place in Space (new and selected prose, 1995), Passage Through India (1992 edition) and Back on the Fire (essays, 2007.)  I even got his doctoral thesis, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth (1979.)  Even at that, there are books I missed.

More recently I added The Etiquette of Freedom (2010), a companion book to a film featuring Snyder in conversation with poet and fictionist Jim Harrison, which also includes the film on DVD.  Now I have another experience of Snyder reading his work (which he said "is mostly done") in his late 70s.  In honor of his 89th birthday, I just purchased a recycled copy of No Nature: New and Selected Poems.  

Gary Snyder's writings led me beyond his own books to a wide network of others, too numerous and involved in their connections to describe here. They helped define my attitudes and activities in relationship to forests and non-human life in general, and they were checkpoints along the way.  To some degree, they led me to far northern California, where I've lived for more than 20 years now.

So I celebrate his work, and the fact that he is among us now to celebrate his own 89th birthday.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Overstory of Our Time

Congratulations to Richard Powers and The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  It's a significant achievement, not only for the author (who in my opinion should have won years ago for The Time of Our Singing in 2004) but for fiction that takes the world seriously--that is, the world beyond urban relationships, beyond only human relationships to other humans.  It may be too late to make the crucial difference, but if there is time to avert the end of life as we know it, the importance of human relationship to other life must be acknowledged.

Here's a link to my review posted here in October 2018.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

R.I.P. W.S. Merwin

Once Later

It is not until later
that you have to be young

it is one of those things
you meant to do later

but by then there is
someone else living there

with the shades rolled down
how could you have been young there

at that time
with all that was expected

then what happened to
the expectations

there is no sign of them there
a shadow passes across the window shade

what do they know in there
whoever they are

W.S. Merwin
published in New York Review of Books
May 7,2015

Rain Light

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

W.S. Merwin
 the New Yorker
March 2008

W.S. Merwin, a hero among poets, who not only defended forests in his work, he planted a forest.   The world he spoke for has lost a voice.  And tomorrow we wake without question, even though the whole world is burning.