Friday, February 25, 2011

Book Club: Howard's End by EM Forster

"All I write is, to me, sentimental. A book which doesn't leave people either happier or better than it found them, which doesn't add some permanent treasure to the world, isn't worth doing." -EM Forster, 1879-1970

I finished Howard's End last night. Honestly, the plot pyrotechnics in the latter half of the book didn't touch me quite as much as the simple truths and observations that, though less grand, putter innocuously through the novel's quieter moments; it's the stuff between action sequences that resonated with me. The structure is making me wonder about what I'll think of On Beauty, the Zadie Smith novel that pays homage to Howard's End by borrowing the EM Forster story line. Acton's read it and I've promised to bring the book as secondary reading to our book club later this month.

Here's EM Forster describing the awkwardness that guests can feel:
"Poor Mrs. Charles sat between her silent companions, terrified at the course of events, and a little bored... Crumbling her toast, too nervous to ask for the butter, she remained almost motionless, thankful only for this, her father in law was having his breakfast upstairs."p 95

Here's EM Forster on a chance encounter with acquaintances:
"With a good dinner inside him and an amiable but academic woman on either flank, he felt that his hands were on all the ropes of life, and that what he did not know could not be worth knowing."p137

On feeling like you've fallen off the proper track:
"Miss Wilcox had changed perceptibly since her engagement. Her voice was gruffer, her manner more downright, and she was inclined to patronize the more foolish virgin. Margaret was silly enough to be pained at this. Depressed at her isolation, she saw not only houses and furniture, but the vessel of life itseld slipping past her, with people like Evie and Mr. Cahill on board."

On annoying couples:
"Mr Cahill insisted on sirloin, but admitted that he had made a mistake later on. He and Evie soon fell into a conversation of the "No, I didn't; yes you did" type-conversation which, though fascinating to those who are engaged in it, neither desires nor deserves the attention of others." p159

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Letters of Don DeLillo from the Ransom Center

"One of the most interesting components of an archive is correspondence. Many archives are filled with letters. Norman Mailer's papers, for example, include thousands of letters that document more than 60 years of his life. Mailer kept both incoming letters and copies of his outgoing correspondence with family, friends, fellow writers, business associates, politicians, activists, and fans, among others. Other archives, like the papers of David Foster Wallace, include very little correspondence.

Correspondence can help illuminate the creative process behind the work of a writer or artist while also providing a glimpse into the personal thoughts and the day-to-day activities that fill a life. Such information can help one better understand a writer or artist, and thus correspondence is often of great interest to biographers and scholars. Many writers  are talented correspondents who have mastered letter wrtiging as an art. The letters of James Salter, for example, are often as lyrical and perfectly crafted as his novels." -Ransom Center

Here's a letter from Don DeLillo to publisher Bob Mills. DeLillo at this point has only had short stories published and he's asking Mills to take a look at some of his pieces. In his letter he states he's working on a 'longer book', which we're assuming in this instance is Americana published in 1971.

In the following letter, DeLillo writes to Norman Mailer about The Time Of Our Time, a book with a similarly sweeping scope. DeLillo tells Mailer that the "inexhaustible subject, America, throbs through much of the book, through nearly all of it. What ready explanation for the broad dimensions of the book. If contemporary Americans are the only novelists to believe in the big book, still, it's only because this culture dares and tempts and troubles us into matching the powerful spin-out size of the forces around us."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Correspondence B/W David Foster Wallace & Don Delillo at Austin's Harry Ransom Center

This weekend Adam and I were in Austin, Texas visiting family. While we were there, we stopped in for a visit at the Harry Ransom Center. The Ransom Center features a near-incredible collection of the  letters and works of some of America's brightest contemporary fiction writers. I can't wait to give you guys a full recap of all the amazing correspondences we were able to check out. Saying I took LOTS of photos is definitely an understatement. Here's a little teaser to whet your appetite! What was that you said Don Delillo? xxE

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In one scene in Howards End, the young intellectual, Margaret, is taken out to a fancy lunch by the more modern Mr. Wilcox, to a fashionably traditional place. She tells him, "next shall come to lunch with me at Mr. Eustace Miles'."

I looked him up and found out he was an early 20th century Michael Pollan in the flesh. An athlete turned food writer turned restaurateur, Eustace Miles advocated what he called the "Fleshless Foods" for people who were nonetheless "fond of the their meals." Arguing for "The Simpler Diet," he had found that cutting meat, fish, and eggs (though cheese, for protein, was alright), and stimulants (alcohol and tea) out of his diet, he had lost weight, gained energy and focus, and increased his personal morality. Segments of his book, "Muscle, brain, and diet: a plea for simpler foods," are available on google books. When you reach the simpler food cookbook he kindly includes, you might mistake him for Alice Waters. Here is a recipe of his for Mushroom Toast that was an example of ways in which he claimed to early vegetarians that we need not sacrifice taste for morality:

Rebecca Mead on Middlemarch

"Middlemarch" suggests that it is always too late to be what you might have been-but it also shows tht, virtually without exception, the unrealized life is worth living. The book that Virginia Woolf characterized as "one of thh few English novels written for grown-up people" is also a book about how to be a grownup person-about how to bear one's share of sorrow, failure, and loss, as well as to enjoy moments of hard-won happiness.
-The New Yorker, February 15th 2011p.80-83

Rumor Mill: George Eliot, author of Middlemarch, was notorious for being less... fair of face than her contemporaries. On her honeymoon in Venice, her husband, John Cross, allegedly jumped out of their bedroom window one night and into the awaiting canal waters. Biographers suspect it was because Cross could not bring himself to seal the deal. The above picture is the only photographic portrait that Eliot ever sat for. Honestly, she doesn't seem that awful to me. But literary historians love to emphasize this aspect of her story.

Sloane Crosley Update

This just in: Sloane Crosley is set to edit Haughton Mifflen's Best American Travel Essays. Can't wait to read her picks!

Literary Gastronomy You Say?

Yes please! Flavorwire covers 10 feast descriptions from James Joyce to Virginia Woolf. Click here for the full link.

Friday, February 11, 2011

eight word stories

In this literary analysis of why The Social Network's anti-hero works, Dedi Felman calls attention to this brilliant line that Mark Zuckerberg says to Eduardo over the phone:

"You should definitely come and live with us."

In Mark's signature non-confrontational style that borders manipulativeness, crossing over often, the line manages to communicate a lot about the relationship. It's one of those lines that makes The Social Network the true writer's movie of the year, more than The King's Speech, and why screen writer Aaron Sorkin is a shoe-in for the Best Adapted Screenplay oscar. In eight words, it communicates Mark's regret but also puts the blame easily on Eduardo.

You see, Mark would've like it if Eduardo had been the kind of person who would've wanted to come and live with them. We would've "liked" Mark more if he had been the kind of person to tell Eduardo that sooner. But as it is, Mark has to state this as a command-suggestion, a "should," one of those words that can go either way while leaving it "up to Eduardo." The line also communicates their friendship at the same time as it cannot help from gloating about their growing apart. It's like saying "I wish you were here!" but in a totally non-commital, totally Mark Zuckerberg (the character) way. It sounds obvious but a different person would have communicated this in a completely different way. This is not the movie speaking through Mark, like the movie Juno (which somehow won best screenplay) speaks through Juno The Character. It's Mark The Character as himself.

What other single line in the movies or in books this year communicated so much so concisely?

I was trying to think of one-liners from Freedom, The Social Network of books, if you will. But then I remembered that Rand and I could've sworn we heard Zadie Smith mutter "Franzen" under her breath when she talked about novelists who can't give up the sound of their own voice for a single sentence.

Can you guys think of any?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Richard Yates

I picked up the novel Revolutionary Road over a short plane trip this weekend and couldn't put it down. I remember half-watching the first part of the film adaptation starring Leo and Kate Winslet but finding the dialogue false and sentimental. Two words could not apply less to the novel.

Though people often compare Richard Yates' style to the stripped down prose of his contemporaries like Carver and co., it is actually much more complicated and, for lack of a better description, pretentious-in-a-good-way. Every page turns up a stylistic flourish--a surprising metaphor, a shift in point of view, a parenthetical, or a well-placed exclamation point (gasp!)--that Gordon Lish would've stabbed with red pen.

Still, I couldn't help being frustrated in the end that the novel bears the 1950s stamp of stand up men and hysterical women.

I'm sure I'm over simplifying here. Richard Yates, like Mark Twain (to quote Michael Chabon), was an "artist" and his characters are people without exception.

Having said that, if you're not half in love with Frank Wheeler by the end of the book, you're not "female," the definition of which I'm borrowing from the novel's paranoid schizophrenic character, John Givings.

Richard Yates in the 1960s

Revolutionary Road was Richard Yates' first novel, and before that, he was a journalist and a speech writer for Robert F. Kennedy. It may not be such a surprise that two of his marriages ended in divorce.

Though none of his books were in print at the time of his death in 1992, Richard Yates has relatively recently become a cult figure and the predictable pick for any hipster's "favorite writer."

I recently read the Brooklyn-based writer, Tao Lin's sardonic little novel entitled "Richard Yates." The protagonists are fictional characters named Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osmond and the novel documents their destructive, co-dependent relationship through gchat transcripts and terse, often spot-on descriptions. I was perplexed by the title before reading Revolutionary Road and, despite the superficial connections, have to admit, still am. I suppose Richard Yates' time and ours are times in which alienation comes easy. Also, as I said, many hipsters like to cite Richard Yates as a favorite writer, a fact which may be closer in line with the intentions of the Tao Lin I came to know.

Words From the Creator of Clueless on Jane Austen's Emma

"On any given evening, the music/alcohol/flirting places where young people congregate, you will find them. Some are attractive, most merely dress as if they were, and at the slightest provocation (e.g., a touchdown on the TV, a Beyonce song on the sound system) they will throw their arms up and shout. These are the girls who say "Whoo!" Sometimes "Whoo!" is replaced with "All right!" or "I love this song!" They may even entreat everyone to "Party!"

These females will dance, flick their hair back, or otherwise find ways to physicalize their joie de vivre, and hopefully get you to look at them. The whooping girls certainly have their antecedents. In the first half of the nineteenth century, they might have been giggling incessantly over the soliders in town, as Lydia and Kitty do in Pride and Predjudice. They might feel the need to "take a turn around the room," as Mr. Bingley's sister does, in an obvious ploy to show off her figure. Possibly jumping off a high staircase into someone's arms seems to them like a hilarious idea, as Louisa from Persuasion thought.

But there are the girls who can't say "Whoo," who can't be so verwhelmed by the latest song that they must draw everyone's attention to their bodies, and who can't laugh hysterically at something they don't find funny. It is here, among the non-whooping females, that one finds a large prtion of the Jane Austen fan base. She has made leading ladies of the sensible sisters. She created a world where dashing, if arrogant, men seem to fall madly in love with the women who have more brains than fancy ribbons (in the 1800s, they didn't have body glitter). This paradigm works so joyously well that one only wishes she had written dozens more in that vein."

-Amy Heckerling, 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Michael Chabon on The Huck Finn Debate

Chabon on reading his kids Huck Finn/ Struggling with the n word:

"Next I reminded them that Mark Twain was a great artist, a moral man and, furthermore, an accurate writer. I said that as a writer myself the idea of somebody taking the words I had worked so hard to get absolutely correct and spatchcocking in whatever nonsense made them comfortable made me insane. Then I asked them what they thought I ought to do, whenever I arrived at the word in the course of the next few months. I told them how I had substituted "slave" while we were reading Tom Sawyer, but that in this book the word was going to mean so vastly much more, and less, than that...

"Hey, Dad," the little guy asked me at one point. "How come if you can't say you-know-what, when you were reading Tom Sawyer you kept saying INJUN Joe, because that's offensive, too."

"Because I'm an ass," I said. Only I didn't say "ass."

-The Atlantic, January 12th

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Billy Collins Rebuttal

Here's the thing: What I like, and what others like I think, about Billy Collins is exactly that he is a writer that creates poems that speak to our everyday lives. Sure, it's not epic in the same sense that, say, Whitman is epic. But after plowing through pretty verses and lines about 'Ah Sea' the smallness and preciseness of Collins is something I look forward to. Here's a section of Leaves of Grass i was reading this morning:
Billy Collins
Walt Whitman
'You Sea! I resign myself to you also..I guess what you
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers, 
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me;
We must have a turn together..I undress...hurry me
     out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft..rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet...I can repay you.
Compared to my all time favorite poem by Billy Collins:

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart. 

I think what Collins does, putting drama in the quotidienne and heartbreak in the mundane is exceptional. And better still, it opens up poetry to someone who isn't going to sit down and read "Press close barebossomed night'! (line 435, Leaves of Grass, 1955). Whitman, when he self-published Leaves of Grass, wrote in his introduction that "The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." By Whitman's own standards, Billy Collins is an American Poet of the highest order.

Bookmark Worthy Events: Week of February 6th

Sunday, February 6th
What: The World's Most Literary Rent Party
Where: PS 122 East Village
When: 7:00pm
Why: New York writing greats gather together to support The Bock family. Rub shoulders with Susan Cheever, Joshua Ferris, Mary Gaitskill, AM Homes, Nicole Krauss, Rick Moody, Richard Price, George Saunders, Gary Shteyngart,
Cost: Depends on how you get your ticket. The party is sold out.

Monday, February 7th
What: Harold Blook in Conversation with Brian Kulick, artistic director of Classic Stage Company
Where:  Classic Stage Company East 13th Street
When: 7:00pm
Why: Bloom is a famous literary critic. He's the final word on Shakespeare in America. He'll be discussing the collaborations of Shakespeare and John Fletcher on two major works: "The Two Noble Kinsmen" and "Cardenio"
Cost: Tickets $150 benefit the Theater Company's Shakespearean reperatory

Monday, February 7th
What: A celebration of Tennessee Williams
Where: 92nd Street Y
When: 8:00pm
Why: Readings from Tennessee's greatest works and a celeb siting of Alec Baldwin, who'll be in attendance. Also on hand to honor the playwright will be Zoe Caldwell, Michael Cristofer, Olympia Dukakis, Zoe Kazan, Tony Kushner, Jessica Lange, Marian Seldes and Angelica Torn.
Cost: $28

Wednesday, February 9th
What: Jennifer Egan in Conversation with Helen Schulman, the fiction coordinator of the NYU Creative Writing Program
Where: Alvin Johnson/Kaplan Hall
When: Wednesday at 6:30pm
Why: Here Egan discuss her recent NY Times Best Seller, A Visit From the Goon Squad, hopefully motivating you to finally head out and pick up a copy to read! 
Cost: $5

Wednesday, February 9th
What: An Evening with Junot Diaz
Where: Community Church of NY, 40 East 35th St
When: 7:00pm
Why: Proceeds go to the support of Revolution Books.
Cost: Tickets vary from $20-$250.

Thursday, February 10th
What!?: Matchmaking with Nick Galifianakas
Where: Word Brooklyn
When: 7:30
Why: The prospect of meeting other like-minded peeps there to secretly laugh at literary matchmaking via podium moments of awkward bibliophiles discussing their favorite book? Or this:
No date for Valentine’s Day? Not to worry! Meet fellow bookworms at our literary matchmaking mixer, complete with special guest cartoonist and author Nick Galifianakis. Galifianakis will kick off the party with a presentation from his new book, If You Loved Me, You’d Think This Was Cute. Attendees should bring a favorite book for an open mic show-and-tell, hosted by Galifianakis. Libations will be on hand for social lubrication purposes
Cost: Free

Thursday, February 10th
What: I Like Your Glasses: Connections Missed and Made with with CoverSpy and Alikewise
Where: Housing Works Cafe
When:  7:00pm
Why: A mixer for those who totally judge you by your book cover (glasses not required). Plus $3 pints of Sixpoint Sweet Action, free drinks for the first thirty to arrive, and giveaways from Harper Perennial and Slice magazine. Hosted by Alikewise, Internet dating by the book, and CoverSpy.

Friday, February 4, 2011

David Foster Wallace on Pretension

When I happened upon this little snippet, I was actually looking for a quote from David Foster Wallace on Pynchon. In reading Gravity's Rainbow (still 450), I've found some unmistakable similarities between GR and Infinite Jest: The use of a few pretty esoteric words I remember looking up for the first time in Infinite Jest, for one, the ending of chapters in mid section as in Broom of the System, and the two author's serious treatment of the mystical and supernatural.
But it turns out DFW wasn't necessarily thrilled about the prospect of having his work compared to Pynchon's:

"Pynchon was important to me when I was in college. The first book
that I wrote, Broom of the System, some reviewer for the New York
Times said it was a rip-off of The Crying of Lot 49, like that I
hadn't read yet. So I got all pissed, and then I went and read The
Crying of Lot 49, and it was absolutely, incredibly good. 
....Gravity's Rainbow is a great book, but for the most part Pynchon 
kind of annoys me, and I think his approach to a certain amount of stuff is kind of 
shallow, to be honest with you"
-Transcript from David Wiley, The Minnesota Daily, Feb. 27, 1997

"There were a few -- That thing in Infinite
Jest where two representatives (Steeply and Marathe) of two
countries are on a cliff-side and are making enormous shadows and
playing with it -- and there's even the use of the word
Brockengespenst, which comes out of Slothrop and Geli Tripping
(from Gravity's Rainbow) fucking on the Brockengespenst -- that's
an outright allusion. And I think there are a couple -- that's not
supposed to be any kind of inter-textual allusion.  
 -Transcript from David Wiley, The Minnesota Daily, Feb. 27, 1997

The last article I read was an early review of Infinite Jest by one of the editors at The Atlantic from 1996. The writer made the case that what's Pynchonian about Infinte Jest is the 'renegade spirit in a world gone as flat as a circuit board...tailoring that richly comic idiom for its new-millennial uses.' I loved this image and, honestly, it's helping me bring 'texture' to my reading of Gravity's Rainbow. The book can be a little cold for my taste- all esoteric references and dramatic getaways or near-getaways at any rate. I'm trying to see Slothrop as a renegade now and not just a luckless, lab-rat being acted upon. Goodness. Here's hoping.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Zadie Smith In Conversation with Someone Distinctively NOT Wells Tower

Last night, Acton and I attended the much-anticipated NYU/Harper's Magazine Zadie Smith Event. The talk was ostensibly held to celebrate Zadie's takeover of the New York literary world. A two pronged attack, forwarded by her recent appointment to Creative Writing Teacher at NYU and her new New Books column at Harper's, which will debut in the March Issue of the magazine.

Acton is one of Zadie's biggest fans so as soon as we got the invite, we were quick to rsvp. Lucky we did as we were later informed that the event had a 300 person wait list.  Zadie was everything we had hoped for and more: Smart, witty, and with a soft spot for DFW and Virgina Woolf; two writers who get high marks with Livre Life.

A Pic of John MacArthur we snapped speaking at the event last night

That said, attending the event was a little like blithely walking into your parents bedroom only to find Mom and Dad at each others throats, claws bared.

Harper's has been having a public controversy over the firing of two senior editors Ben Metcalf and Ted Ross. The two were influential in helping Harper's Mag unionize last year and there's been a large uproar within the magazine's extended community about the, some say strategic, firing. MacArthur has maintained that the decision to let Metcalf and Ross go is purely a feduciary concern. The thing is Harper's is a non-profit. It's funded solely by John R. MacArthur, the charitable grandson of billionaire John D. MacArthur.  (John R. convinced his grandfather to buy the magazine back in 1980 when it was operating at a loss of around 2 Million dollars a year.) The Harper's Union insists that MacArthur could hypothetically resolve the funding issue by opening up investment opportunities to interested parties, as opposed to firing key members of the editorial staff. In an open letter that was circulated throughout the publishing community, writers such as Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, George Saunders and, yes, Zadie Smith admonished MacArthur for his actions pertaining to Metcalf and Ross thus far.

Last night while we were waiting inline, a sea of tweed and dark framed glasses between us and Zadie, a senior personage at Harper's cut in front of us to snap at the overwhelmed check-in gals that they should be passing out a pile of manilla memos to all attendees. The memo, it turns out, was a rebuttal from MacArthur discussing the recent Harper's issues and restating his committment to working with the union to negotiate contracts for Metcalf and Ross and securing the journalistic integrity of Harper's by refusing additional funding that came with strings attached.

There's more. When we sat down, a nervous looking man, furtively passed us a SECOND memo. Here's what it said:
"We, the members of the Harper's Union, would like to thank you all for coming out tonight and listening in on what is sure to be a wonderful conversation. We fully support Zadie Smith and are delighted to welcome her to the pages of Harper's Magazine. We would, though, make you aware that the Harper's management is currently refusing to bargain with us in good faith, and is insisiting on a retaliatory layoff that would be detrimental to the quality of our common project. To learn more, please visist HARPERSUNION.TUMBLR.COM. We will continue our fight for a fair contract, and we will continue, as always, to celebrate great writers like Zadie and great readers like you." Oh the drama!

After MacArthur's initial introduction, we were informed that Wells Tower would not be attending the talk. Instead, Rita Skeeter, Gemma Sief would be hosting. Sief was clearly too enamored of Zadie to moderate any sort of real discussion. But Zadie managed to respond thoughtfully and, we agreed, originally to every sycophantic superlative that Sief threw at her.

I thought one of the evening's best takeaways was getting to hear what Zadie believed made a novel great. She said that many contemporary writers felt that books to be great had to be easy*. But, to her, a book " doesn't always have to come smiling at you or say 'hey sit in this chair in the corner by the fire and read this book." Maybe this is just weighing on my mind at p.450 of Gravity's Rainbow. But I found it extremely inspiring and took it as a challenge to dig in and finish the rest of this mother-lovin book.

Did any one else attend this event? We'd love to hear your thoughts!


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Billy Collins: "Bard" of the Bourgeoisie

I have always been frustrated with Billy Collins, though I give him credit for being one of the only living poets who is also a household name. Still, a typical poem of his is, to me, no more beautiful than a typical Mark Bittman recipe. To me, Collins belongs to the same class of writers as Bittman. Many of them write for The New York Times, and increasingly, like Collins, for Slate. They are educated and, therefore, often insightful, but they are also unapoligeticly comfortable, and, worse, they seem to write only for people like them. Don't get me wrong, I think this is a totally acceptable quality in a writer of recipes and any other kind of nonfiction, but for some reason, it doesn't seem to quite cut it for poetry. Maybe I'm being overly romantic, but though Billy Collins is consistently clever, his poems, with their constant references to newspapers, breakfast tables, and pets, are so rarely more than that.

Take this poem Billy Collins published in Slate this morning called "Roses"

In those weeks of midsummer
when the roses in gardens begin to give up,
the big red, white, and pink ones—
the inner, enfolded petals growing cankerous,
the ones at the edges turning brown
or fallen already, down on their girlish backs
in the rough beds of turned-over soil,

then how terrible the expressions on their faces,
a kind of
was it all really worth it? look,
to die here slowly in front of everyone
in the garden of a bed-and-breakfast
into die here slowly in front of everyone
in the garden of a bed-and-breakfast
in a provincial English market town,
to expire by degrees of corruption
in plain sight of all the neighbors passing by,a provincial English market town,
to expire by degrees of corruption
in plain sight of all the neighbors passing by,

the thin mail carrier, the stocky butcher
(thank God the children pay no attention),
the swiveling faces in the windows of the buses,
and now this stranger staring over the wall,
his hair disheveled, a scarf loose around his neck,
writing in a notebook, writing about us no doubt,
about how terrible we look under the punishing sun.'

I think this poem represents one of his regular attempts at self-awareness. But self-awareness can actually be an enemy of poetry. My guess is old Billy relates to the roses "in the garden of a bed-and-breakfast/ in a provincial English market town,/ to expire by degrees of corruption/ in plain sight of all the neighbors passing by." Like them, his job is to give pleasure through beauty. Like them, he is seen as sell-out-y because he is so expected, and successful. Like them, he is a figure of high visibility, and he has a lifespan, which has has invited the world to look on as he withers. And Billy is feeling self-conscious from his perch in the garden of a bed and breakfast in front of the young artistic-looking man.

The subtext, though, is that Billy Collins is somehow not the old rich guy the young guy might think he is. He is a "poet" who feels things deeply. But I don't see any evidence of that. I think his wit would be better suited to magazine editorship and the poetry left to the man who feels more than self-consciuosness and guilt at his own success.

Then again, maybe this is how people felt about Robert Frost, who was also majorly commercially successful, in his lifetime. I think Robert Frost differed in that he took himself deadly seriously. Billy Collins seems so light. Poets need a little pain without perspective.

This is Leonardo DiCaprio portraying Arthur Rimbaud in a movie I once saw by accident. This image comes with a warning: tempting as this screen cap is, do not, under any circumstances, see this movie. It is a stomach-turning, mess. There is a reason you have never heard of it. The point is, Rimbaud had a lot more to worry about than Billy Collins, and that is why he is both better looking and a better poet.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The In Crowd: Bloomsbury Style

On our way back from Skiing in Stratton this weekend, Adam and I stopped by award-winning Northshire Bookstore to pick up a good audio tape for the long drive home.  After a little cajoling on my part, Ad relented and we were ready to roll with this gem from the British Library:
The Spoken Word, The Bloomsbury Group.
Maybe it was Acton and my recent visit to The Algonquin that inspired the choice. Or maybe it was that Acton and Dr. Burnshead and I have been recently discussing starting up a writers group of our own. But either way, I can't seem to get enough of literary in-crowds these days.
The heart of the Bloomsbury Group lay within the Stephen's family, which was comprised of Virginia Stephen (later Woolf), her sister Vanessa (later Bell) and their brother Thoby. It was Thoby who would extend the circle of the Bloomsbury Group by introducing Virginia and Vanessa to his friends at Cambridge. The circle later encompassed notables such as John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey.
Bloomsbury started as a writers group; although now they're most famous for serving as history's archetypal bohemians. Once a week, the friends would meet around 9 or so at Virginia and Vanessa's house and bring chapters from their most recent works. All of them wanted to write a novel. The tapes mention that their was very little alcohol or food in those days. They drank mostly coffee and would end the evening with a whiskey and soda.
In the later part of the Bloomsbury period after WW1. The group centered more around critical essays and discourse. They also began throwing extravagant parties infamous for their carousing and debauchery: Sailors parties, fancy dress parties and many charade nights and improvised short plays.
Far and away the best treat of the CD was getting to hear old BBC interviews with the peripheral members of the group. These speakers tended to point out the intellectual elitism that Woolf and her sister were famous for. Or the ole 'limp handshake and a grave expression' that the group used to show that you were NOT part of their circle. The CD suggests that this could have arisen from the Woolf's evangelical background where some were chosen and others were not.

Further Reading:
Virginia Woolf on Jane Austen
Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy by Jane Dunn
Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers
Among The Bohemians, Virginia Nicholson