Posts Tagged ‘Literature’
There is within us–in even the blithest, most light hearted among us—a fundamental dis-ease. It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and the deep regions of our souls.
All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, addictions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release.
Two great paintings suggest this longing in their titles—Gauguin’s “Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?” and de Chirico’s “Nostalgia for the Infinite”—but I must work with words. Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence, with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.
Saddened when I heard that Robin Williams suddenly passed away today. I hope he’s now at peace…
Here’s a quote from one of his movies, Dead Poets Society, which incidentally is one of my favorite movies:
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
This article was published online and printed in the New York Times Magazine before Mr. Matthiessen died on Saturday April 5.
Out the Montauk Highway, south toward the water, then a quick right before the beach and you’re there, at the Sagaponack house where the author and Zen teacher Peter Matthiessen has lived for the last 60 years. The home used to be the garage and outbuildings of a larger estate, and there is an improvised, of-the-earth sprawl to the place. One side of the main house is grown over with ivy, and under the portico, in between two piles of chopped firewood, an immense finback whale skull balances on blocks. Just to the left of the front door sits a tree stump covered stupalike with shells and other found objects. After I ring the doorbell and rap a few times on the glass, Matthiessen emerges from his living room and waves me in.
He has spent much of his career going back in time — up to ancient villages in the remote reaches of the Himalayas, out to the vast plains of Africa in search of the roots of man — but now time has caught up to him. He’s 86, and for the last 15 months he has been countering leukemia with courses of chemotherapy. You can still see the intensity in his long, serious face and clear blue eyes, but there is an unexpected softness to him as he pads back toward the living room in an old sweater and stockinged feet. His latest novel, “In Paradise,” is being promoted by his publisher as his “final word,” but Matthiessen doesn’t want to talk about the book or his career in those terms. He has no desire for sympathy points. Though he did not want to dwell on it, he acknowledged that his medical situation was “precarious,” and a few weeks after our two days together his health would decline to the point that he had to be admitted to a hospital, with family standing by. It gave our conversations the feeling of stolen time.
Though Matthiessen is not as well known as some other names of his generation, you would be hard-pressed to find a greater life in American letters over the last half-century. He is the only writer ever to win the National Book Award for nonfiction and fiction, but it’s not just the writing: Born into the East Coast establishment, Matthiessen ran from it, and in the running became a novelist, a C.I.A. agent, a founder of The Paris Review, author of more than 30 books, a naturalist, an activist and a master in one of the most respected lineages in Zen. As early as 1978, he was already being referred to, in a review in The New York Times, as a “throwback,” because he has always seemed to be of a different, earlier era, with universal, spiritual and essentially timeless concerns.
These concerns are evident throughout his house. In the living room, on the wall behind the piano, is a set of photographs from an expedition Matthiessen undertook to New Guinea with Michael Rockefeller in 1961, a trip that Matthiessen would turn into “Under the Mountain Wall” (1962). As we stood in front of the images — tribal boys throwing spears through a hoop hurled aloft, warriors approaching one another in aggression — Matthiessen mentioned that a recent book by the journalist Carl Hoffman confirmed his suspicions that Rockefeller was killed and eaten by Asmat warriors on a later expedition. It was a reminder of the extremity of his serial travels. On the other side of the room, behind a well-stocked bar, is a small study, where Matthiessen showed me two framed photographs: on the left, two slender young men in bathing suits; on the right, an aged Matthiessen holding a wooden box in his hands. “That’s me and Bill Styron on a dock in Italy,” he said. “We were drunk. That was right before I left the C.I.A.” Then, pointing at the other: “And that’s me with Bill’s ashes.”
Matthiessen’s family is descended from Friesian whalers; he notes, with some pride, that one of his ancestors is name-checked in “Moby-Dick.” He was sent to St. Bernard’s, Greenwich Country Day School, Hotchkiss and Yale, and you can feel all of that breeding in his mannerisms and speech, as much as he might later have tried to forsake it. Yet despite the privilege, Matthiessen has referred in his work to an unspecified rage and pain that he felt as a young man, which led him to rebel against authority throughout his adolescence and then to experiment later with psychedelic drugs and meditation.
“I was so angry,” he told me. “I was constantly in a contest — not a contest, but with my father.” We were sitting in his living room, flanking a picture window that looks out over the yard. Matthiessen’s father, Erard, was a successful architect who later in life became interested in conservation. “He was a wonderful man, and I ended up devoted to him, but it wasn’t so good,” Matthiessen said. “I was always in trouble, constantly in trouble. I was combating the world.”
After graduating from Yale in 1950, Matthiessen became engaged to Patsy Southgate, a Smith graduate whose father had been the chief of protocol in Roosevelt’s White House. Southgate was famously attractive and energetic; The Times, in her obituary in 1998, noted without irony that she was “renowned as the most beautiful woman in Paris.” Matthiessen made what he calls “an utter shambles” of their engagement party that summer, behaving so badly that “people still talk about it,” and then he left the next morning on a birding expedition without saying sorry or goodbye. “I was being sucked into the system before I was ready,” he said. “I hadn’t had the adventures, the travel.”
Southgate called off the engagement, but he eventually won her back — “She was worth fighting for” — in part by securing a job with the C.I.A. that would send them both back to Paris. “I didn’t know anything when I went over there,” he said of his posting. “In those days, it was considered a patriotic act, to spy for your country. People were scared of the Cold War. You can’t blame them — everybody brandishing nukes. And here I am, a young Yalie, I’m always in the club drinking martinis, what did I know from politics?” It’s his standard explanation for how it happened, and though it imputes a high degree of naïveté to an already fiercely intelligent and independent young person, in its way it seems true enough. The C.I.A. wasn’t yet what it would become. “I’d started a first novel, and I had no way to pay for it,” Matthiessen said. “I was being urged to do something for my country, which appealed to my patriotic thing. I thought it was an ideal situation. And they also told me I would hardly have to do any work at all, that I would have plenty of time for my own.”
He was assigned to keep his eye on communist “enemies,” who were, he said, “out on the street corners peddling L’Humanité,” the party newspaper. In his spare time, he worked on his fiction. There was a healthy community of American expatriate writers in Paris in the early ’50s, just as there was after World War I, among them Terry Southern, Doc Humes and William Styron, who had early success with his first novel, “Lie Down in Darkness.” Matthiessen befriended them, and out of several late-night conversations with Humes came the idea for a new literary magazine. Matthiessen wasn’t sure that Humes was up to the task of running it, so he called his childhood friend George Plimpton, who was then at Cambridge. Plimpton soon arrived in Paris and became the first editor of The Paris Review, a position he would hold for 50 years.
Matthiessen has been frank about his motivation for starting the magazine. As he told Nelson Aldrich Jr., for “George, Being George,” an oral history of Plimpton: “I needed more cover for my nefarious activities, the worst of which was the unpleasant task of checking on certain Americans in Paris to see what they were up to. My cover, officially, was my first novel, but my contact man . . . had said, ‘Anything else you can do while you’re here?’ I could now say, ‘Well, yes, I’m an editor on a magazine.’ ” When Matthiessen eventually decided years later to tell Plimpton the truth, Plimpton was “shocked and very angry, understandably so,” Matthiessen told Aldrich. “Who, after all, wants to hear that the ‘love of his life,’ as he himself would call it, had been conceived as a cover for another man’s secret activities?”
Matthiessen’s double life in Paris would come to an end in 1953. He began to be disillusioned by the C.I.A., which in his estimation was filled mostly with Ivy League stuffed shirts who didn’t know or care anything about the poor people whom the communists were trying to reach. He was also repelled by the anticommunist witch hunts taking place in the United States. The environment as a whole “pushed me leftward,” as he put it. He has said that his stint as a spy was the only of his life’s adventures that he regrets.
After quitting the C.I.A., Matthiessen returned to America with Patsy and soon settled in Sagaponack, where he would supplement his writing income with commercial fishing. He described those early years on Long Island as the happiest of his life, “when I was writing but also doing hard physical labor.” He referenced a line from Turgenev a few times, from the suicide note of a character named Nejdanov: “I could not simplify myself.” “That really struck home,” Matthiessen said. “I knew exactly what he means.” He paused and then whispered it again. “ ‘I could not simplify myself,’ ” and then he added, “That’s always been my goal.”
Over the next 15 years, Matthiessen would produce four novels — including “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” (1965)his first commercial success — and six books of nonfiction, most based on his far-flung expeditions, from New Guinea to the remote forests of South America. He and Southgate divorced in 1956, and in 1963 he married the writer Deborah Love, a spiritual seeker as he was. He’d already taken ayahuasca in the South American wilderness, an episode he transmutes memorably into fiction in “At Play,” and with Love, he would turn to other psychedelic drugs and a bizarre LSD-driven form of therapy. In August 1968, returning from a seven-month trip to Africa that would become a part of “The Tree Where Man Was Born” (1972), Matthiessen arrived at home to find three Japanese Zen masters standing in his driveway. They were visiting Love, who had become a Zen student while Matthiessen was away on expeditions. He likes to joke that they took one look at him, saw how deluded he was, then immediately felt sorry for his wife. A year or so later, one of those teachers, the enigmatic and charismatic Soen Nakagawa, would accept him as a student.
Matthiessen’s turn to Zen was directly responsible for the two best books he has written (and maybe three, if you count “The Tree Where Man Was Born,” which he finished after becoming a student). “The Snow Leopard” (1978), Matthiessen’s account of his journey high into the Himalayas, and the finely wrought, poetic novel “Far Tortuga” (1975), represent the height of his craft as a writer. “The Snow Leopard” is almost entirely about Zen, and “Far Tortuga,” plainly Matthiessen’s favorite book, grew out of his practice in a different way. “It was the most exhilarating book I’ve ever written,” he told an interviewer for The Paris Review in 1999. “More than anything I’ve done, perhaps, ‘Far Tortuga’ was influenced by Zen training. The grit and feel of this present moment, moment after moment, opening out into the oceanic wonder of the sea and sky.”
Such talk can be hard to parse, which is why Matthiessen usually avoids it. “I don’t love talking about Zen,” he told me. “Somebody says, ‘So what is Zen, anyway?’ Often with a note of hidden hostility. And you try to explain, and then it’s, ‘Oh, crap, what am I saying?’ ” He laughed and then mimed shooting his own head off. But as the Zen master Dainin Katagiri once said, “You have to say something.” So: The heart of Zen is the practice of zazen — seated, silent meditation — which is based predominantly on bringing your attention to the present moment (often via concentrating on your breath) and then doing your best to keep it there. The extension of that practice to life off the cushion is fairly straightforward: When you’re listening, really listen; when you’re eating, just eat. Pay attention to what you’re doing. There are more advanced practices, of course, and the particular tradition that Matthiessen studied in his early days was a rigorous form called Rinzai, which is noted for its intense focus on kensho, or sudden enlightenment.
Starting when he was 43, Matthiessen spent a full week several times a year in sesshin, a retreat in which he and other students sat zazen for as many as 14 hours a day. He was extraordinarily devoted. Something about the intensity and formality and even the pain of Zen appealed to him. (The cross-legged positions are painful for everybody, and an oft-recycled quote holds that “pain in the legs is the taste of zazen.”) In regular interviews with the teacher, called dokusan, the student is able to test his understanding, and there is a confrontational element that also fits with Matthiessen’s nature. The structures — robes, chanting, bowing, long periods of silence — can seem rigid and foreign, but in some ways they are like the theoretical musical structures that underlie jazz. They are there to fall back on, and to make you free.
In late 1971, less than a year after Matthiessen started practicing, Love fell ill. After meditating all day on a Saturday, Matthiessen returned home and saw, immediately, in a way that she didn’t yet know herself, that his wife was dying. As he wrote in “The Snow Leopard”: “The certainty of this clairvoyance was so shocking that I had to feign emergency and push rudely into the bathroom, to get hold of myself so that I could speak.” The next day they ended up opposite each other for the daylong meditation, and as they finished a particular chant, Matthiessen had this experience: “The silence swelled with the intake of my breath into a Presence of vast benevolence of which I was a part. . . . I felt ‘good,’ like a ‘good child,’ entirely safe. Wounds, ragged edges, hollow places were all gone, all had been healed; my heart lay at the heart of all Creation. Then I let my breath go, and gave myself up to delighted immersion in this Presence, to a peaceful belonging so overwhelming that tears of relief poured from my eyes.”
Later, Matthiessen’s teacher would confirm that this moment represented an opening for him, a glimpse of kensho. More important, the clarity achieved would see him through the death of his wife from cancer several months later, helping him find the right words to say in the right moments, without recrimination and self-doubt. It would also lead him to accept an offer, in the wake of Love’s death, to accompany the field biologist George Schaller to the Himalayas as a kind of pilgrimage, which would result in the ecstatic jewel of a book that is “The Snow Leopard.”
As he ascended into the Himalayas, he felt as if he were walking into a myth, up into the mountains and back in time. “If I can’t get a good book out of this,” he remembers thinking to himself, “I ought to be shot.” In the daily journals that comprise the book, he combines penetratingly clear descriptions of the peaks around him with memories of his wife and his pursuit of mystical experience. Somehow — the work of several years of hard editing, among other things — the various strands of Matthiessen’s journey cohere into a kind of fable, in which the potential for clarity and insight struggles to fly free of the past and the people that he (we) can’t ever really let go of. “For fame, for craft, for our enlightenment,” a reviewer wrote in The New York Times when the book was released, Matthiessen and Schaller “did us the old-fashioned honor of risking their lives.”
You might think that winning two National Book Awards for the same book (for “contemporary thought” and nonfiction) would be supremely satisfying, but for Matthiessen, it wasn’t. “ ‘The Snow Leopard,’ he now sees it as a bit of an albatross,” Matthiessen’s third wife, Maria, told me after I visited him in Sagaponack. “People think of him as a nonfiction writer, but he thinks of himself as a fiction writer who wrote these other books.” Asked to “define yourself” — in the first question of the famed “Art of Fiction” interview series in The Paris Review — Matthiessen said: “I am a writer. A fiction writer who also writes nonfiction on behalf of social and environmental causes or journals about expeditions to wild places. . . . I have been a fiction writer from the start. For many years I wrote nothing but fiction.”
“Peter comes from a very distinctive generation of men who take seriously the matter of writing American fiction,” says Elisabeth Sifton, Matthiessen’s editor at Viking Press for “The Snow Leopard” and several other books. “For him, that’s primum. That’s something I’ve never fully accepted. Because the nonfiction is so stupendous.”
In the late 1960s, The New Yorker sent Matthiessen to Grand Cayman to sail on an old schooner in search of green turtles along the Miskito Bank off Nicaragua. He eventually turned in an article, but he felt that a novel would better express the truth of what he’d seen. He spent the next eight years experimenting with the right way to tell the story, and the book that resulted, “Far Tortuga,” is radical in nearly every way. Matthiessen uses blank space, pages of dialogue without quotation marks or attribution, pictographs, hand-drawn illustrations and, perhaps most striking for a writer who loves to draw comparisons in his work, only one or two similes in the entire book. “The trouble with metaphors and similes is they bring the author into it,” Matthiessen told me, “and I was trying to stay out of it.” The elimination of the ego is a standard part of Zen training, as is the admonition to keep things simple and free of adornment. “A roach out from underneath the cook shack with its antenna up, that was so striking and strange and beautiful that you don’t need ‘like a radio antenna’ or something like that,” he said. “You just don’t. The thing itself is so good.”
Robert Stone, writing in The Times, said that “the author’s joy in [the dialect] is so infectious and his ear for it so sure that its music comes to permeate the reader’s consciousness as thoroughly as the wonderful descriptions.” Thomas Pynchon would write, “Matthiessen at his best — a masterfully spun yarn, a little otherworldly, a dreamlike momentum . . . full of music and strong haunting visuals.”
Others hated it. Matthiessen still remembers the review from The Village Voice, “two pages destroying the book, or trying to”; people thought it was too experimental, too difficult, and it never sold as he hoped. Even Matthiessen’s own editor at Random House, Joe Fox — who also edited Truman Capote, Ralph Ellison and John Irving, among others — never fully supported the book. The week before Fox died, in 1995, 20 years after “Far Tortuga” was released, Matthiessen and his wife invited Fox to join them for Thanksgiving dinner. When dinner was over, as Matthiessen was walking Fox out to his car, they got into a heated argument about how Random House had mishandled the book, an argument that continued even after Matthiessen called to apologize once Fox returned home. It was the last conversation the two men would ever have. Even as I sat with him, nearly 40 years after the publication of “Far Tortuga,” the intensity of his feeling was striking. “Those books are so long ago,” I said, in reference to “Far Tortuga” and “The Snow Leopard,” “but they still seem vivid to you now.” Very quietly, very sincerely, he said, “Yes.” When I added that “Far Tortuga” must be a highlight of his career, Matthiessen, for all of the egolessness of the book’s authorial style, was quick to correct me: “Well, no. ‘Far Tortuga’ got no awards, whatsoever.”
Matthiesen would finally be recognized for his fiction in 2008, with the publication of “Shadow Country,” a sprawling 892-page epic that brought him the National Book Award at the age of 81. The book is a dark mix of many of Matthiessen’s themes — the heedless degradation of the environment and native peoples by modern life and capitalism, the blindness of people to their own behavior and the conflicts that result. As the poet W. S. Merwin noted, “It is the quintessence of his lifelong concerns, and a great legacy.” But you get the sense that the National Book Award, like his father’s eventual begrudging approval after years of estrangement, perhaps came a little too late.
Just off to the side of the main house, at the end of a wooden walk, is an old stable that Matthiessen and several Zen students converted into a zendo, or meditation hall. Matthiessen has led a small community of Zen practitioners here since 1990, when his American Zen teacher, Bernie Glassman, gave him permission to teach. It’s a humble space, with two rows of black meditation cushions and an altar at one end. On the Saturday of our second interview, I attended morning service in the zendo with about 15 people who had come from far and near to chant and sit zazen together. After the service ended, one of Matthiessen’s senior students walked me over to the house.
Matthiessen and I sat in his office in the back, talking about “In Paradise,” his new novel. “It was a very odd book and a very difficult book for me to do,” he said. I wondered why, at this stage in his life, he had stuck with it. His legacy is secure, and he has said in numerous places that he thinks most writers don’t know when to quit, that very few do quality work after they get beyond a certain age. “I couldn’t walk away from it,” he said. He stopped for a moment. “It was such a powerful experience, and I just couldn’t walk away from it. I tried.”
The experience was a retreat at Auschwitz in 1996, led by Glassman, who appears in the novel under the transparent designation of “Ben Lama.” The retreatants, who came from all over the globe, sat in meditation on the train platforms in Birkenau where people had been sorted and selected for death. In the evenings, after the sittings, everybody would gather to talk about the day’s experiences. One night, there was a spontaneous outburst of dancing, which was deeply moving for some and outrageous to others. “How does that happen?” Matthiessen asked me rhetorically, posing the question of the novel. He referred back to the novel’s epigraph, a poem by Anna Akhmatova that wonders, when we are surrounded by so much death, “Why then do we not despair?” Matthiessen looked at me, eyes dancing, beating on his leg in time as he said, “Something, something, something,” unable to name the mysterious life force that allows us to rejoice even at Auschwitz. “That fascinates me.”
On another night during the retreat, Matthiessen stood up to speak. “It was a very charged atmosphere,” Glassman told me, “and he was very passionate when he was talking. He got up and said — I remember so distinctly — that man is basically an evil being.” As Matthiessen remembers it, “I just got up and made a generality that if we think the Germans are unique in this regard, we’re crazy. We’re all capable of this, if the right buttons are pressed. Our countries have all done it. Man has been a murderer forever.” But then he cautioned me to take the drama out of it. “It was no great manifesto up there. I just wanted to say, ‘Come on, we’re all in this together.’ ”
The novel that emerged from Matthiessen’s experiences at Auschwitz is short and stark, narrated by a middle-aged academic named Olin Clements who blunders his way through the entire book. The settings are Krakow and Auschwitz; what little nature there is in the book is bleak, windy and covered in snow. “I felt like I was cold and damp the entire time I was reading the book,” said Becky Saletan, Matthiessen’s editor at Riverhead Books — maybe not the greatest recommendation for the reading experience, yet exactly how Matthiessen wants you to feel. The book is a continuous unresolved argument, between retreatants and inside the mind of the narrator. The few moments of uplift, like the spontaneous outbreak of dancing, are quickly splintered by disagreement.
Olin is not unusual as a fictional character for Matthiessen; many of his subjects are strangers to themselves, acting for reasons they don’t understand, out of some vague impulse to find a “home” that is more an idea than a place they can ever actually return to. In his own life, Matthiessen found a home in Zen. As he writes in “The Snow Leopard”: “In the longing that starts one on the path is a kind of homesickness, and some way, on this journey, I have started home. Homegoing is the purpose of my practice.” And yet, in “In Paradise,” Matthiessen takes even that consolation away. The evil that Olin encounters at Auschwitz is so terrifying that spiritual practice can’t mitigate it. Olin reflects on Solzhenitsyn’s observation that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” and then decides to show it to one of the retreat leaders — who responds with a Buddhist bromide about eliminating “all self-lacerating partial truths while good and evil fall away.” It is correct doctrine, but Matthiessen makes it sound like claptrap. Of spiritual practice in general, with which he has a casual and conflicted relationship, Olin wonders: “How long would such delicate attainments have withstood the death camp’s horrors?” It is another way of asking the question we all ask of ourselves: How would I have fared?
The book is grim, but Matthiessen isn’t. Earlier that morning, I watched as he said goodbye to a guest who stayed over the previous night. They were business associates, friendly but maybe not friends, and as the guest was at the door, he good-naturedly offered optimistic advice about radical experimental measures that Matthiessen might take. Matthiessen smiled and said: “I don’t want to hang on to life quite that hard. It’s part of my Zen training.” In preparing for our interviews, having read “In Paradise,” I wondered whether the Buddhist teachings were providing him any more consolation than they did the characters in his book. I hoped so. “The Buddha says that all suffering comes from clinging,” Matthiessen said. “I don’t want to cling. I’ve had a good life, you know. Lots of adventures. It’s had some dark parts, too, but mainly I’ve had a pretty good run of it, and I don’t want to cling too hard. I have no complaints.”
The characters in “In Paradise” cling too hard and are full of complaints, which is one reason that the book doesn’t feel like any kind of “final word.” The novel lacks the beautiful and affirming moments so much more present in Matthiessen’s nonfiction, moments more beautiful even than the dancing at Auschwitz, because they don’t come with the same complications. When Matthiessen was happy, as a writer and as a traveler, he always let us in on it; most often, he found that happiness in reverence of the natural world and in a hard-won, if fleeting, acceptance of his own uncertain place in it. “Lying back against these ancient rocks of Africa, I am content,” he writes in “The Tree Where Man Was Born.” “The great stillness in these landscapes that once made me restless seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without ever having discovered what it was.”
— Jeff Himmelman
The other day, I woke up with the quote in my head from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.”
“…what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
And I started thinking: where is the poetry in my life lately?
I used to find it everywhere. I used to swim in it. It used to be part of my daily existence. But recently, I’ve been so focused on, I don’t know…Living? Making money? Worrying? The space in my heart and mind for poetry got crowded out, I guess. And just when I started pondering that, what do you know? All this beautiful poetry started appearing.
On a random Facebook posting of someone’s, I read this,
“I’d cut my soul into a million different pieces just to form a constellation to light your way home. I’d write love poems to the parts of yourself you can’t stand. I’d stand in the shadows of your heart and tell you I’m not afraid of your dark.”
Going to watch poets was one of my favorite things to do when I lived in Austin, TX. I’d go to Ego’s and experience poets doing their thing. (Now, the Austin Poetry Slam takes place elsewhere.) It was so inspiring and exhilarating. I wonder what those poets who held me breathlessly captive in that dive bar are doing now. They were housewives and software salesmen and teachers and plumbers and all kinds of people in their “day” lives who would show up every Wednesday night and express life so vividly, so viscerally, through poetry spewed forth with intense vitality, humor, truth, and plain sheer guts. You just felt so fully alive when you left. Like they’d plugged you into their electricity of observation and source, so you felt what they felt but also felt your own stuff. They opened you up to observe and feel in your own way. They even inspired all us lay peeps in the audience to write our own poetry. (At least this one lay person.)
I hope they’re writing and performing still—releasing that kind of passion and intelligence into the ethers can only make the world a better place.
A few hours after I discovered Andrea Gibson’s poetry, I went on a walk in my neighborhood, and when I’d almost arrived back home, I ran into two butterflies doing a dance. Just right there on a street under the Hollywood sign, with garbage dumpsters and me as their audience. I watched them for a while and had to try to take a few photos to capture the magical butterfly dance. I noticed their shadows dancing with them below. It seemed to go on forever, and they never got tired. I wonder how long they continued before resting, or if they ever did.
Then this came my way via the wonderful Brain Pickings:
“A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a lovesickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”
Robert Frost, Letter to Louis Untermeyer, 1916
“Heed the words of Robert Frost. Start with a big, fat lump in your throat, start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, or a crazy lovesickness, and run with it. If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now, not two weeks from now. Now.”
Yes. I don’t think I need to expound upon this. I know I don’t want to.
Take what you want from these poets and their work: Mary Oliver, Andrea Gibson, Robert Frost, Debbie Millman, and the butterflies. That’s what it’s for. (And you can end your sentences with prepositions if you want to. In poetry, anything goes.)
~ Elise Ballard
Honore de Balzac
Balzac’s writing schedule was brutal: He ate a light dinner at 6:00 p.m., then went to bed. At 1:00 a.m. he rose and sat down at his writing table for a seven-hour stretch of work. At 8:00 a.m. he allowed himself a 90-minute nap; then, from 9:30 to 4:00, he resumed work, drinking cup after cup of black coffee. (According to one estimate, he drank as many as 50 cups a day.) At 4:00 p.m. Balzac took a walk, had a bath, and received visitors until 6:00, when the cycle started all over again.
Faulkner usually wrote best in the morning, although throughout his life he was able to adapt to various schedules as necessary. He wrote As I Lay Dying in the afternoons before clocking in on the night shift as a supervisor at a university power plant. He found the nocturnal schedule easy enough to manage: he would sleep in the morning for a few hours, write all afternoon, visit his mother for coffee on the way to work, and take catnaps throughout his undemanding shift. He did not wait for inspiration to strike. “I write when the spirit moves me,” Faulkner said, “and the spirit moves me every day.”
For many years, Angelou worked in hotel or motel rooms, the more anonymous the better. In 1983, she told an interviewer, “I keep a hotel room in which I do my work—a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous.”
Heller wrote Catch-22 in the evenings after work, sitting at the kitchen table in his Manhattan apartment. “I spent two or three hours a night on it for eight years,” he said. “I gave up once and started watching television with my wife. Television drove me back to Catch-22. I couldn’t imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.” During the day he worked in the advertising departments of Time, Look, and, finally, McCall’s magazines. He was not miserable at those jobs—he later called his Time colleagues the “most intelligent and well-informed people I worked with in my life,” and said that he put as much creative effort into a McCall’s promotional campaign as he did into his fiction at night.
Mann was always awake by 8:00 a.m. After getting out of bed, he drank a cup of coffee, took a bath, dressed, and had breakfast with his wife. Then, at 9:00, Mann closed the door to his study, making himself unavailable for visitors, telephone calls, or family. The children were strictly forbidden to make any noise between 9:00 and noon, Mann’s prime writing hours. It was then that his mind was freshest, and Mann placed tremendous pressure on himself to get things down during that time. Anything that didn’t come by noon would have to wait until the next day, so he forced himself to “clench the teeth and take one slow step at a time.”
Milton was totally blind for the last 20 years of his life, yet he managed to produce a steady stream of writing, including his magnum opus, the ten-thousand-line epic poem Paradise Lost. Milton devoted the morning to solitary contemplation in bed, beginning at 4:00 a.m. (5:00 a.m. in the winter). First he had an aide read to him from the Bible for half an hour. Then Milton was left alone to compose as many lines as his memory could retain. At 7:00, Milton’s aide returned to take dictation—and if the aide happened to be running late, one early biographer noted, Milton “would complain, saying he wanted to be milked.”
In 1942, under pressure to finish what would become her breakthrough novel, The Fountainhead, Rand turned to a doctor for help to her overcome her chronic fatigue. He prescribed Benzedrine, still a relatively new drug at the time, to boost her energy levels. It did the trick. Rand had spent years planning and composing the first third of her novel; over the next 12 months, fueled by Benzedrine pills, she averaged a chapter a week. Her writing routine during this period was grueling: she wrote day and night, sometimes neglecting to go to bed for days (she took naps on the couch in her clothes instead).
Sand produced a minimum of 20 manuscript pages nearly every night of her adult life. She always worked late at night, a habit she picked up as a teenager caring for her ailing grandmother, when the nighttime hours were her only chance to be alone and think. As an adult, it was not unusual for her to slip out of a sleeping lover’s bed to begin a new novel in the middle of the night. In the mornings, Sand often couldn’t remember what she had written during these nocturnal writing sessions. “If I did not have my works on a shelf, I would even forget their titles,” she claimed.
~ Mason Currey
The following is an excerpt from Laura Bates’s Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard. Bates taught Shakespeare to solitary confinement prison inmates. She befriends a convicted murderer named Larry. The following is the story of their budding friendship:
“Oh, man, this is my favorite freakin’ quote!”
What professor wouldn’t like to hear a student enthuse so much over a Shakespeare play—a Shakespeare history play, no less!—and then to be able to flip the two-thousand page Complete Works book open and find the quote immediately:
“’When that this body did contain a spirit, a kingdom for it was too small a bound!’”
He smacks the book as he finishes reading. Meanwhile, I’m still scrambling to find the quote somewhere in
“Act uh . . . ?”
“Act five, scene four,” my student informs me, again smacking the page with his enthusiastic fist. “Oh, man, that is crazy!”
Yes, this is crazy: I am sitting side-by-side with a prisoner who has just recently been allowed to join the general prison population after more than ten years in solitary confinement. We met in 2003 when I created the first-ever Shakespeare program in a solitary confinement unit and spent three years working together in that unit. Now we have received unprecedented permission to work together, alone, unsupervised, to create a series of Shakespeare workbooks for prisoners. Larry Newton is gesticulating so animatedly that it draws the attention of an officer walking by our little classroom. He pops his head inside.
“Everything okay in here?” he asks.
“Just reading Shakespeare,” I reply.
He shakes his head and walks on.
“That is crazy!” Newton repeats, his head still in the book.
A record ten and a half consecutive years in solitary confinement, and he’s not crazy, he’s not dangerous—he’s reading Shakespeare.
* * *
I started doing volunteer work in Chicago’s Cook County Jail because of an argument with my husband’s friend, a theatre practitioner working in maximum-security prisons. “Those guys are beyond rehabilitation,” I insisted. “You should focus on first-time offenders.” And, to test out my own hypothesis, that’s what I did. At the time I could not have imagined that eventually I would be working in supermax—that is, the long-term solitary confinement unit, the prison within the prison.In the twenty years I had spent working as a volunteer and as an instructor in prisons in Chicago and Indiana, I had never met an inmate who scared me. Until Larry Newton. The day we met, I was going cell to cell in the solitary confinement unit looking for prisoners interested in reading Shakespeare. Eventually, I would have as many as fifty prisoners on my waiting list, nearly one out of every four housed in the unit. At the beginning, I would have been happy to find at least one. But when I looked at Newton through the pegboard steel door of his cell, I crossed his name off of my list, thinking, “I can’t work with this one.”
So what was I doing one week later, fighting for special permission to get one of the most allegedly dangerous prisoners in the state’s supermax unit into my Shakespeare program? It wasn’t something in me; it was something in Newton. And it was obvious from the start. Not the first time he looked at me, or the first time he spoke to me, but the first time he wrote for me. It was in response to the initial Shakespeare assignment that I distributed to segregated prisoners as a way of screening prospective participants: a soliloquy from the last act of Shakespeare’s history play,
Spoken by the overthrown king who is now imprisoned, the speech begins: “I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world. And, for because the world is populous and here is not a creature but myself, I cannot do it.” Along with the speech, I attached a blank sheet of paper with one question:
While most prisoners scribbled a brief response, Newton submitted a full page, both sides, with incongruous smiley faces punctuating every other sentence:
That comment alone earned him a place in the program. Awareness of multiplicity of interpretation is the key to reading Shakespeare. Not bad for a fifth-grade drop-out.
And his conclusion captured the deeper philosophical lesson about the meaning of life in Richard’s speech:
Wow. That was the most thoughtful response I had ever gotten to an initial Shakespeare assignment—in prison, or on campus. And Newton didn’t even know who Shakespeare was.
* * *
Whenever a participant left the program, I distributed a little survey in which I asked, “What has Shakespeare done for you?”“It helped me to expand my mind,” Green had written.
“It introduced me to a whole new world,” Jones had written.
“It got me out of my cell,” Guido had written.
After I watched Newton disappear down the hallway, I took the folded paper out of my pocket. It was the survey. What has Shakespeare done for you? He had written, “Shakespeare saved my life.”
My research confirmed that the program did have an effect: lessening the likelihood of violent incidents in a population with extensive histories of violence. I studied the conduct records of twenty of the most long-standing and active participants in the program and found that their combined conduct history accounted for more than 600 violent or Class A offenses, including weapons charges and assaults, in their “B.S.” (Before Shakespeare) years. During their time in the program, there were only two charges total: none of them were violent or Class A. In fact, of the hundreds of prisoners who have been in the program—some for months, some for years—not one violent offense was committed.
When Larry was out of segregation, and we were able to have normal conversations sitting side by side, without a steel door between us, I wanted to ask him to elaborate on what he had written in that survey he had handed me when he left the SHU.
“What did you mean,” I asked him, “when you said that Shakespeare saved your life?”
“I meant it both ways: literally and figuratively,” he told me. “Literally, Shakespeare saved my life. For so many years I had been really self-destructive, on the razor’s edge every day. I’m confident that I would’ve done something drastic and ended up on Death Row. Or I would’ve one day found the courage to take my own life. So literally, he saved my life.”
It sounded like he was talking about suicide, but I couldn’t believe it—didn’t want to believe it.
“And I meant it figuratively,” he continued. “Shakespeare offered me the opportunity to develop new ways of thinking through these plays. I was trying to figure out what motivated Macbeth, why his wife was able to make him do a deed that he said he didn’t want to do just by attacking his ego: ‘What, are you soft? Ain’t you man enough to do it?’ As a consequence of that, I had to ask myself what was motivating me in my deeds, and I came face to face with the realization that I was fake, that I was motivated by this need to impress those around me, that none of my choices were truly my own.
“And as bad as that sounds, it was the most liberating thing I’d ever experienced because that meant that I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be some fake guy that my buddies wanted me to be. When I started reading Shakespeare, I was still in segregation; that circumstance didn’t change. But I wasn’t miserable anymore. Why? The only thing that was different was the way that I saw myself. So the way that I felt about myself had to be the source of all my misery. I’m of the opinion that we are the source of our misery; we perpetuate our own misery. And that realization is empowering! So Shakespeare saved my life, both literally and figuratively. He freed me, genuinely freed me.”
Newton was the only prisoner I’ve ever met who was convicted as a juvenile and is serving life without parole. Through his work in the Shakespeare program, in college, in other prison programs and job assignments, as well as in his acceptance of responsibility in his crime, Larry consistently demonstrated evidence of rehabilitation for nearly ten years. But every request for the right to appeal his sentence was denied.
No matter what he does, he will never leave prison.
~ Laura Bates
I have built a city from the books I’ve read. There are thousands of books that go with me everywhere I go. A good book sings a timeless music that is heard in the choir lofts and balconies and theaters that thrive within that secret city inside me. I can walk the pleasure-giving streets of that illuminated, sleepless city anytime the compulsion strikes me, day or night. Some of the streets are flyblown and unsafe, with chamber pots emptied on them by the housewives and butlers whose thankless labors allowed royals to be royal throughout the long reign of the printed word. If you follow me closely, I can guide you to alleyways of quartz, amethyst, and sunbaked rubies. I’ve developed a soft spot for overgrown, ruined gardens that offer safe nesting sites for vireos and orioles and tanagers. Ospreys dive for mullet in palm-lined lagoons, and a Serengeti plain allows the migrations of wildebeests through rivers teeming with crocodiles and hippopotamuses, with lions and warthogs and flamingos gathering at water holes in darkness. My city has bright aquariums, and the harbor linking it to the oceans of the world is heavy with the traffic of ships as a great white whale moves toward the setting sun; as Caesar makes up his mind about crossing the Rubicon; as Jesus of Nazareth blesses the bread and wine of his final seder feast; as an Icelandic poet composes a saga out of the primitive savagery of ice; as a cattle car is loaded in the train yards of Poland; as Rumi enters a trance of ecstatic life in Damascus. The stars whirl above in their ancient scrimmage of light, and everyone in my city notices their astonishing arrangement that lends a note of both order and chaos.
In the writing room of my Fripp Island house, there is a chapel of ease with my library rising in terraces and shelves all around me. For several months I’ve done little but think about the books I’ve read and collected over the years, the ones that have changed and challenged and elated me—along with the ones that disappointed in their execution or in some failure of conception. I require a solid judgment of good books to lead me to those unmarked lairs and secret bonfires that will clear the way to my own path of enlightenment. Ever since I was a child, I have read books to make me savvy and uncommon, and to provide me some moments of sheer divinity where I can approach the interior borderlines of ecstasy itself. Reading and prayer are both acts of worship to me.
My mother promised that reading would make me smart, and I found myself recruited in Mom’s battle over her own lack of a higher education. She distributed books to me as though they were communion wafers or the tongues of fire that lit up the souls of the disciples with Pentecostal clairvoyance. Mom would point her finger to a wall of books and tell me she was showing me the way out of a shame that was unutterable. I took whatever book she put into my hand and made it part of me. I made it the life of me, the essence of my own tree of knowledge. With each book, I built a city out of what my heart loved, my soul yearned for, and my eyes desired.
Some of us read to ratify our despair about the world; others choose to read because it offers one of the only safety nets where love and hope can find comfort. The subject of all writers is the terrible brightness that wards off the ineffable approach of death. I write a poem in hopes that my name will lie fresh on the tongues of language lovers a hundred years from now; I write a novel in case a poem is not enough. I create a city of fiction because I want to leave an entire, considered world behind me. When I open a window in a town that I’ve made up in my head, I want to make a world that readers can approach in wonder.
Reading great books gave me unlimited access to people I never would have met, cities I couldn’t visit, mountain ranges I would never lay eyes on, or rivers I would never swim. Through books I fought bravely in wars of both attrition and conquest. Before I’d ever asked a girl out, I had fallen in love with Anna Karenina, taken Isabel Archer to high tea at the Grand Hotel in Rome, delivered passionate speeches to Juliet beneath her balcony, abandoned Dido in Carthage, made love to Lara in Zhivago’s Russia, walked beside Lady Brett Ashley in Paris, danced with Madame Bovary—I could form a sweet-smelling corps de ballet composed of the women I have loved in books.
I learned how to be a man through the reading of great books. Give me the courage of Prince Andrei as he dresses for the Battle of Borodino. Let me have one shot glass of the courage that Robert Jordan displays at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Give me the curiosity and resiliency of Garp, and a quest so great that I would ride as a sidekick to Don Quixote. Allow me to deliver the St. Crispin’s Day speech before the battle of Agincourt or secrete myself into the wooden fretwork of the Trojan horse. Give me a father like the one who raised Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory, or one with the integrity of Atticus Finch, or the courage of Colonel Aureliano Buendía as he faced the firing squad in the immemorial first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Permit me to see the Lake Isle of Innisfree through the eyes of Yeats, or the infinite glories of Fern Hill through the sensibility of Dylan Thomas; the beaches of Chile as Pablo Neruda courted a gorgeous woman with a Spanish language that soared above them on a condor’s wing.
I’ve always wanted to write a letter to the boy I once was, lost and dismayed in the plainsong of a childhood he found all but unbearable. But I soon discovered that I’ve been writing voluptuous hymns to that boy my whole life, because somewhere along the line—in the midst of breakdowns, disorder, and a malignant attraction to mayhem that’s a home place for the beaten child—I fell in love with that kid. I saw the many disguises that boy used to ward off solitude, hallucination, madness itself. I believe that the reading of great books saved his life. At any time, I could take a sudden departure from the fighter pilot’s house and find myself drifting through the tumult of Paris described in a book by Balzac. I could find myself on Whitman’s river-shaped Manhattan or be in Daisy Buchanan’s arms when I woke up with a hangover in The Great Gatsby. I’ve used books to take me on journeys all over the world, to outer space, and to forbidden planets beyond. I’ve crossed the Arabian Desert with T. E. Lawrence; refreshed myself on an oasis in Morocco with Paul Bowles; gone up a treacherous African river with Joseph Conrad; lived deeply in Atlanta’s Peachtree Road with Anne Rivers Siddons. I’ve traveled through Iraq with Freya Stark and … I could write like this forever. My city of books seems immeasurable and inexhaustible, and I can feel the others jumping up and down with their hands raised, demanding my attention, insisting that their voices be heard and their ballots counted.
When I lived in the heart of ancient Rome for three years in the 1980s, I would often go up to sit on the top step of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Because I had read The Education of Henry Adams, I was well aware that Mr. Adams had sat in the same spot in silent homage to Edward Gibbon. Gibbon had lingered there as he took in the city’s vast majesties while deciding to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When I walked to the church after I had finished my writing for the day, I’d read from one of the five volumes of Gibbon’s masterpiece, knowing that I was occupying the same spot that sparked the great journey of Gibbon’s life. I was then in the middle of writing The Prince of Tides, and I’d always take the time to pass through the grand entryway of the Palazzo dei Conservatori to stare at a piece of broken marble embedded in the wall across from the colossal head of Constantine. Earlier, two Englishwomen had pointed out the word “BRIT” in the surviving fragment; they informed me that this was the first mention of the island of Britain in world history. They reminded me that the language that was our common heritage was forming on the tongues of illiterate savages who had fallen before the implacable surge of the Roman legions. It remains a sacred moment in my life. That same week, the great American writer Gore Vidal showed me the exact spot where Julius Caesar fell after his assassination. For two years I paid the maintenance fees for the grave of Richard Henry Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast. He is buried in the Protestant cemetery along with John Keats, whose epitaph reads, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
Often at night I find myself drifting through my library of thousands of books and feel the lamps of wisdom light up the candelabras of my city of books. Deep within me, I’ve constructed elaborate museums and labyrinths from those writers whose complete works I have read over the years. Before I was twenty-five I had read every book that Charles Dickens wrote. Jane Austen came next, then Balzac, though I surrendered after I read half of his voluminous production. Wolfe, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway joined the reception line. When I bought a collection of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I returned home with a bright enthusiasm to begin the long march into the Russian soul. Though I’ve failed to read either man to completion, they both helped me to imagine that my fictional South Carolina was as vast a literary acreage as their Russia. Then I entered my Henry James period, and I polished off The Golden Bowl to complete my study of his work. When Gene Norris lay dying in Newberry I spent the summer reading Anthony Powell’s splendid collection A Dance to the Music of Time. Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty and Toni Morrison signed my dance card when the orchestra began to tune up in the main ballroom.
When I fell in love with a Dominican woman, she opened up to me a showy convention of Latin American writers from Márquez to Borges to Vargas Llosa, and I read everything of those writers that had been translated into English. My attraction to Latin American literature led me to explore the rich literature of other countries, and I discovered the amazing world of Australian writers, which led me on a direct path to the teeming cities of India and the astonishing work of the Israeli writers, who then pointed me in the direction of Cairo, where I encountered the Egyptian world of the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz.
In a reading life, one thing leads to another in a circle of accident and chance. When I found a copy of Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees on a bench in Central Park, I remembered meeting him at a coffee bar in Rome, but the encounter was so low-key that I didn’t rush out to find his work. Once I did, he became one of my favorite writers. His Invisible Cities strikes me as a masterpiece of the first order. The book is a long epic poem, a glittering tour de force, an extinct volcano that comes roaring back to explosive life, a code of conduct into the mind’s interior realms, a delight and a paradox. I can’t pass a bookstore without slipping inside, looking for the next book that will burn my hand when I touch its jacket, or hand me over a promissory note of such immense power that it contains the formula that will change everything about me. Here is all I ask of a book—give me everything. Everything, and don’t leave out a single word.
The poets of the world occupy a place of high honor in my city of books. Those wizards of language draw me into the vast acreage of their talent. A book of poetry is made up of threads that coil around the soft bodies of sound. Stealing the linens of the spoken word, poets are not shy about displaying the rose windows and altar cloths of their prodigious art. When they arrive at my city gates, they clamor for entrance and scream out their poems to me from outside the city walls. I go to the poets often for their comfort in the maelstrom of their imaginations. Some of them write with a monastic clarity and simplicity that reduces art to its very essence. I prefer the poets who roll up their sleeves to show me intricate tattoos of peacocks and dragon-ravaged towns and clowns playing glockenspiels. Each day before I begin to write, I choose a poet to keep on my desk. Poets candle the pilot light where language hides from itself.
In other moods and other hours, I carry a keen desire for those poets who know how to trim the fat with blades turned deadly with whetstone. These are the poets who use language so sparingly they can nail your hand to a doorway. Each word comes to you hard-earned and deboned, flayed and boiled down to its essence. These astringent poets keep their tool belts full of instruments that carve and cut and sort. Cavafy writes poems of this nature and doesn’t clear his throat or raise his voice as he spreads his whole world on the table for inspection. William Carlos Williams became famous for his championing of a poem being as simple and lovely as a string of pearls. With all poets, it comes down to how they put words together and the effect those words have. Though they struggle to make a living, poets will always have the last word about how the language is shifting as we move into a distraught, rustled future. I like poets to light their fires, granting me permission to begin my own work for the day.
Across from where I write, I keep a strong-shouldered squad of poets at my beck and call. Though there is a frequent changing of the guard, I try to find the clearest, most mesmerizing voices to jump-start me into creation. These poets wink at me, knowing that I am praising them. It begins with The Beauty Wars, my sister Carol’s lyrical collection. Rumi, red-jacketed and whirling, follows my sister in his trancelike devotion to the dance of language. The next marksman in my squad is the sad-faced Federico García Lorca, shouldered against Wallace Stevens and Geoffrey Hill. Lisel Mueller is dancing with Eugenio Montale while Dylan Thomas is offering James Dickey a whiskey at the White Horse Tavern. Executing an about-face, I come up to inspect the tricorn hat of Marianne Moore, who is dressing herself for a windswept walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with her drinking buddy, Hart Crane. Three poetry books form a strong line of defense at the end of the squad: an anthology of Latin American poetry, the complete poems of Borges, and the collected works of Pablo Neruda. A young man or woman could take that string of books, study them with no small degree of fanaticism, and spend a far richer year than they ever did at a university.
Each day of my life begins with a poem that will unloose the avalanche of words inside me, that secret ore that, once polished, will sit before me disguised as the earth’s jewelry. I’ll select from its garnets, its milky-eyed opals, its insect-killing amber—it’s the language I revere above all. I cheer when a writer stops me in my tracks, forces me to go back and read a sentence again and again, and I find myself thunderstruck, grateful the way readers always are when a writer takes the time to put them on the floor. That’s what a good book does—it puts readers on their knees. It makes you want to believe in a world you just read about—the one that will make you feel different about the world you thought you lived in, the world that will never be the same.
I return a final time to my city of literature, my honored city of books, and the glittering city of words that greets me as I walk through my library. On my desk lies a treasure sent to me by the bookseller Chan Gordon, who runs an excellent bookshop in Asheville, North Carolina. From his desk at the Captain’s Bookshelf, Chan has presented me with an exquisitely printed elegy by Thomas Meyer mourning the death of the poet Jonathan Williams. The pages are handmade, and the slender volume looks as though it might have been milled with butterfly wings and the armored enamel of ladybugs. The title of the poem is taken from an obscure yet enchanted Japanese word, kintsugi. When I read the title, I thought I’d been reading my whole life waiting to stumble upon this spellbound word camouflaged in the bonsai ferneries of a foreign language. “Kintsugi” is “the Japanese practice of repairing ceramics with gold-laced lacquer to illuminate the breakage.” Ah, I thought, there is no attempt to hide the breakage—that golden, beautiful lacquer emphasizes the harm to the crockery or stemware. As Thomas Meyer bids farewell to the poet, he turns his words into a gold fluid that hardens along the fault lines that are ending the poet’s life. Because I love to read, Thomas Meyer comforts me over the loss of Jonathan Williams and offers me a deep shell of metaphor that I can use to help explain my own writing to myself. Though I have always known that pain was a ham-fisted player in my novels, I didn’t understand that I had used the radiant lacquers of the language to mark the wounds and fissures I had forced upon my characters. Though I was aware I hurt and damaged many of the characters I’d grown to love in my books, I never knew I practiced the subtle art of kintsugi until Thomas Meyer let me in on the secret.
In Vienna in 1982, I was met at the train station by the American novelist Jonathan Carroll. Someone had sent him a copy of The Lords of Discipline, and he’d liked it enough to invite me to visit him. He’d also sent me an inscribed copy of his book The Land of Laughs, and I received it with much excitement. His penmanship was lush and wondrous, and he drew pictures of bull terriers next to his autograph. When I read the book, I entered into such a strange and oddball country of the spirit that I was thrown off. Then the magic happened, the feeling I always wait for, as the book began to launch itself into orbit. I found myself in perfect congruity with the navigator and started trusting the narrator’s insistent voice. Since that first book, I’ve read every book that Jonathan Carroll has published, from Bones of the Moon and A Child Across the Sky to White Apples. I’ve read no other writer like him, because there is no other even remotely similar. Anything goes in his books. In America, I once called him a cult waiting to be born. In Poland, thousands line up for his autograph. He’s the kind of guy who wins the Nobel Prize at the end of his life when no one in his native land even knows his name.
On my first night in Vienna, Jonathan walked me down to the Danube, where we sat on a flight of steps leading down to the river. The dog walkers were out in force. Greetings were exchanged with small movements of the eyes, and the dogs sniffed one another fondly. Handsome and imperial, Jonathan looked every inch the American expatriate. He exuded a serenity and a seriousness that I lack. But he kept his eye on a woman at the next bridge. She was moving so slowly I thought she might be leading a dogsled pulled by escargots. After an hour, the woman walked in front of us, and she bowed her head in acknowledgment of Jonathan. With great dignity, he returned the gesture. To my surprise, she was walking two enormous tortoises, displaced natives from an Ethiopian desert. The woman walked them every night, and Jonathan was always there to admire their passage.
“That’s what writers do, Conroy,” he said. “We wait for the tortoises to come. We wait for that lady who walks them. That’s how art works. It’s never a jackrabbit, or a racehorse. It’s the tortoises that hold all the secrets. We’ve got to be patient enough to wait for them.”
~ Pat Conroy