Ten days after the Battle of Gettysburg, New York City experienced the worst urban riot in American history to date. Whites attacked blacks. Buildings burned. Mobs tore up streets for cobblestones to throw at police officers. Ex-slaves, newly freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and escapees from the war-torn South, were strung up on street lamps. Thousands of people were injured and more than one hundred killed.
From both sides of the street people came running. The driver
Quinn's feel for the rhythm of the spoken word is evident throughout the novel. Moreover, because he is acutely aware of both past and present much of what he writes takes on the force of prophecy. Consider the following proclamation by the songwriter, Foster:
Plug, plug, plug: That's the future. The lesson of a songwriter's
The grandson of Irish immigrants and the son of a Bronx congressman, Peter Quinn currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. He works as chief speechwriter for Time Warner, Inc. and formerly wrote speeches for New York Governors Mario Cuomo and Hugh Carey.
Leo Connellan writes so close to the bone the marrow sometimes threatens to ooze out and the reader doesn't know whether to fear contamination or the poet's disintegration. Poetry so unselfconscious, like the textures and excrescence of the human body, is by turns revolting, compelling, assaultive or gorgeous.
But the work is not simply a tableaux of sensations. Connellan's is a moral vision; the vigor of the poetry reflects the pain of frustrated hope. Reading New and Collected Poems the reader recognizes that Connellan's poetry is chiefly a plea for order in a world set askew from the mildest of anybody's good intentions. Connellan eschews Job's righteous thunder at God, and instead asks the more poignant questions about human love--or nearly everywhere the lack of it.
The language he uses constantly bespeaks the urgency of this question. Lines are impacted with image upon image, like a French surrealist poet gone off a Lenten fast. The speaker in most of the poems is part-lawyer, part-liturgist, in a dual bid to both captivate and persuade the reader. So that when Connellan lets loose with his verbal turbulence he reveals not a warrior's necessary bravado, but an innocent's reactionary astonishment that the world is not a better place than it is.
Throughout his fifty-some years as a poet, Connellan explores this theme from the vantage point of the itinerant wanderer (in Another Poet In New York and Crossing America), through the lenses of persons marginalized by economics or killed in wars or war zones (The Gunman and Other Poems and Penobscot Poems).
But Connellan is not easily labeled a political poet. Most of his work is highly personal; politics, like religion, is just one of the scrims through which he looks at life's meaning and purpose.
In the three-part long narrative poem, The Clear Blue of Lobster-Water Country, Connellan takes a reckoning of his life, skating from a real or imagined encounter with a real or imagined boyhood foe ("Coming To Cummington to Take Kelly") to his wryly wise reflection on doing time in a rehabilitation. hospital ("Shatterhouse") to the modulated peacefulness of "The Clear Blue of Lobster-Water Country" in which he writes:
The poems in Connellan's recent book, Provincetown, push past the narrowly autobiographical focus of much of the earlier work. In doing so, they expand a view on the twin themes most recurrent to Connellan--the need to voice experience and have that voice remain unsilenced, and the need to connect meaning to the experience of which he must speak.
In "The Shadow of A Leaf" which appears both in Provincetown as well as in New and Collected Poems, Connellan blends an elegiac with a hortatory tone. He creates a poem that decries the ephemerality of life and pleads for speech from the uninterrupted silence of the dead. In many ways, this form of plea and lament embodies the heart of Connellan's philosophic concerns. The poem stands, among the three long poems that ballast Provincetown, as a kind of keystone.
It is as if we are in a never realized Portrait;
But is being death's voyeur enough to satisfy? Merely sending someone to death or to watch death take a person is not the same as getting the knowledge of death, right out of the mouth of dead. And knowledge comes only with the experience itself:
He is now seeing what I’m denied to see, so, in this
yet as we leave this life
Here, a grave dug with no committees met to say
The weight of knowing that we will leave what we know colors all our living actions. "The leaves vanish but are in the buds of Hardwood" he writes, alluding either consciously or unconsciously to his boyhood poem "The Leaf." A poem extolling the miracle of a leaf's annual regeneration, it ends on the hopeful note that "all the while I'm in the trees/From which I'll bud next May."
Connellan sees that, among all that is lasting in human experience, it is human existence alone that is ephemeral, unable to be called back.
We are gone and no one can know if we need help. . . because
In the poetry, Connellan calls back, ahead of time.
Jo Page is a Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute and Protestant Minister at Chapel House.
Traversing the landscapes of natural and domestic worlds, poet Kristine Santilli transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary with a quiet agility. As Helen Elam, University at Albany English Professor, suggests, Santilli's work reveals "a beauty, and subtlety, and power...a density that comes from the ability to tell two stories at once."
"I wish I could make this not true" William Patrick writes as the opening line in "An Accident," from his 1995 collection of poetry, These Upraised Hands.
Though "An Accident" recounts the brutal death of a farm manager sucked into the machinery of a post-hole digger, Patrick's wish that these things could be made not true permeates much of his writing.
Loss and its corollary theme, salvage, are pretty constant motifs for Patrick. Mostly he writes in character voice, so the reader is drawn into the immediacy of another's loss.
And he regularly crosses from one genre to another to explore these themes in his writing. These Upraised Hands is a book of poems but there is also a novel, Roxa, comprised of poetry and prose narratives, journal entries, letters, and newspaper stories. He has also written a number of screenplays, including Brand New Me, and the radio play, Rescue.
"What can we do but chronicle loss and learn from it?" he says simply, by way of explanation.
But it isn't really that simple. After years of the predictable combination of writing and teaching, supporting children from two marriages ("Trying to live as an artist in America with a couple of families is a struggle," he says), Patrick left his teaching post at Old Dominion University in Virginia.
He returned to his hometown of Troy, New York in 1993 and spent eighteen months riding with the professional firefighters and paramedics of the city. From this period comes a fresh project, Saving Troy, a work of non-fiction documenting the fires, rescues and emergency medical calls he experienced. The reasons he chose to do this work are themselves concerned with the twin themes of loss and salvage.
"I don't think I would have been hooked by these particular people [firefighters and paramedics] if it weren't for the kind of work they're doing...These guys inhabit this world of life and death. And most people don't. And that includes doctors, unless they're working in a war zone.
"I was very interested in what kind of people do that and how they've adapted to mostly not being able to save people...And I thought, I've been doing this thing in literature and they've been doing this thing in life and I want to see how they adapt to it."
Among the many things he discovered, immersed full-time in the world of professional firefighting, was the profound importance of the authentic.
"The thing I'm most interested in is what strikes me as genuine about human existence. If you learn anything in life, you learn what's real, after awhile."
For Patrick, that process of uncovering the authentic has evolved over the decades of his life. He grew up in the family of an affluent Troy car dealer, but it took some time for him to realize what it meant be raised amidst relative wealth.
"When you're young, you don't have much sense of class distinction, unless you're Donald Trump's daughter and you know you're wealthy in that way. Money didn't enter into it that much as a kid--which is a way of saying that I was upper-middle class," he adds, wryly.
Throughout his adolescence, he felt a growing antipathy for a life of privilege. He jokes about his consciously-chosen path of downward mobility.
"If I had to choose to do it any way at all, I'd do it that way. The reason is--and it's fun to have money to go out to restaurants and things--but it's a pretty vacuous life. At least, I considered my father's life always pretty vacuous and that's more to the point.
"I looked at how hard he worked and the things he got from his work...I looked at the friends he hung around with--doctors, local politicians and lawyers--and I didn't want to have that kind of life. I didn't feel that most of these people were very culturally advanced and I didn't feel that they were experiencing most of the beauty that was there to experience.
"I used to hang out at my father's garage with the mechanics. First of all, I liked them better. Second, they all had dirty pictures hanging on their lockers...I wasn't interested in putting on a suit and selling cars to people. Even though I learned how to do it. It always seemed boring to me. And more than boring, it always seemed immoral."
What's interesting, though, is that Patrick's poems about salesmen (there are several in These Upraised Hands) do not reflect the harshness of that judgment--and this accounts in part for the richness of their human portrayal.
"I never said you shouldn't talk about your life. Just lie," advises the salesman training a novice in "Stories. Real Ones. #9." The poem explores the salesman's feigned empathy as he hears the story of the death by drowning of a customer's son.
Though the speaker's words are both self-centered and self-indicting, the poem ends up raising the question of just what real altruism and empathy are. After all, most people act from mixed motives, however apparently sincere or noble the action. The speaker, though despicable in the main, both owns and justifies his hypocrisy--and thereby earns from the reader a grudging respect.
Patrick writes in the voice of an unreliable narrator fairly often and with mixed results. Unreliable narration is reliably tricky. So that, in "Stories. Real Ones #8" it is difficult to dovetail the scorn in the voice of the speaker (a woman recounting the discovery of her husband frozen to an outhouse seat) with the epiphanic moment at the end of the poem when all that remains is a ring of pink, torn flesh on the toilet seat and the echo of her laughter. The reader comprehends her emptiness, but it is not clear if she does, too.
Patrick joys in exploring new voices and tackling risky emotional states. If there is a clam or two in the lot, it's worth it to get to the stronger poems, which approach intensely-felt love and fear without any egregious sentiment.
"I hate sentimentality," he begins, then qualifies himself, "Only in These Upraised Hands did I start to deal with issues that might involve sentimentality....What was interesting was that, with Roxa, that book opened my heart up a lot and a lot of things that were happening then in my life opened my heart up and I've become an open wound most of the time.
"A lot of it had to do with Caleb's [his younger son] birth...And in These Upraised Hands, there are poems that deal specifically with him. Part of me didn't care if I was being sentimental. I stopped seeing the world through literary glasses. I started seeing the world the way you're supposed to see it--through human glasses."
This vision is particularly acute in two poems about his sons that appear in the first section of These Upraised Hands.
"Dreams When We're Not Asleep" explores the memories of a young boy while in day-care, recalling images of his life from before his parent's divorce.
Patrick segues from the boy's imagined metaphose of two sheepkilling dogs to his memory of the time of the divorce:
sleeping near the new monastery,
he grabs a chunk of cloud and puzzles out
four flappable wings,
the fat curves quieting out to perfect points.
Here you go, he says,
holding them still to slide each wing into place.
And the coy-dogs disappear along a ladder of sunlight.
Anything can happen in my dreams, he thinks,
but right away his hard memories start to line up,
waiting to be changed."
The poem culminates in the real or imagined feast he would prepare to keep the family intact.
"His parents are sitting together now
banging their knives and forks on the glass table,
impatient for this breakfast.
The boy laughs.
His father taught him how to cook.
He knows how to finish off a masterpiece."
In "Kindergarten Day" the reader hears the parent's half of the dialogue between a father and his child, the first day of school. It's a poem raw with emotion--fears of loss, separation on both parts--but modulated through the clipped lines of dialogue.
"It scared the hell out of me that my five-year-old was getting on a bus and leaving me. I love him. He's scared, I'm scared. What the hell--might as well say it," Patrick explains, a shrug in his voice.
The poem heralds the promise of return, which only the parent knows is never a guarantee. And on kindergarten day, reassurance, not readiness, is all.
"Yes, the house will still be here after school.
On November 6, poet Hayden Carruth was presented the National Book Award for Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, his 29th collection of poems. It was the latest in a long list of honors for the 75-year-old Carruth, including fellowships from the Bollingen Foundation, the Guggenhiem Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lenore Marshall Award, the Ruth Lily Prize, and the National Book Critic's Circle Award for his 1992 Collected Shorter Poems.
In presenting the award, the National Book Foundation praised Carruth's poetic voice as "unique in American poetry: disarmingly personal but always informed by an acute historical and political intelligence,'' adding that his work is, "linguistically demotic and direct while prosodically complex and diverse.'' The Foundation went on to cite the poet's "perfect pitch for Northeastern American speech," and his "writer-scholar's intimate knowledge of a plethora of world poetries.''
On October 26, 1993, Hayden Carruth appeared at the Writers Institute for a seminar and reading as part of the Visiting Writers Series. The afternoon seminar was informal. "I don't have anything to say unless you prod me,'' Carruth joked as the session began, but he was generous and genial, addressing a variety of subjects, including his working habits, the importance of jazz in his poetry, and his views on what constitutes a useful education for an aspiring poet. Carruth, his voice raspy and soft, greeted questions with his customary plain-spokeness and erudition; he seemed to be hitting his stride just as the seminar was brought to a close after an hour.
While at the Institute, Carruth was also interviewed by then-associate director Tom Smith, a discussion that, among other topics, had Carruth speaking for what may be the first time about the poems that won the National Book Award. The transcript below contains excerpts from both question sessions. It begins with the afternoon seminar. Carruth has been asked to describe the writing of his book-length poetic sequence, The Sleeping Beauty.
That's why I had this idea to write the poem.
The poem has very little to do with my wife; in fact, it doesn't really have anything to do with her. As it developed, it became a poem in which I was trying to write about the Romantic tradition in a critical way, I was trying to write about the situation of women in history and society; I was trying to write about my ideas of how to deal with the problems of life, which are very much influenced by the mid-century existential writers of Europe, Camus, Sartre and people like that. The thing took shape very slowly and over a long period of time.
The individual sections are written in a form which I invented when I was young, back in the early 50s, which I call a paragraph, and which other people often call a sonnet, although it isn't a sonnet. It has 15 lines, and the lines are of varying length, and the rhymes are not the same as the rhymes of a sonnet. When I invented it I wanted to avoid writing sonnets. I wanted a different form.
Gradually, as I worked on [the poem], it came together. There are no pieces of the poem written in the voice of the poet, except for the very last line. This is a book-length poem in 120-odd sections, each one 15 lines, and the last line is the one I wrote first, and it is My name is Hayden, and I have made this song.' That's the only place in the poem where the word I appears in reference to me. I wanted to write an impersonal poem, a poem that was broader, bigger than any individual's perceptions or attitudes.
Tastes change. Fashions change. One of the things I would say about this is that today, when a change occurs, it takes harder and lasts longer than it did previously, because our educational system is so awful (chuckles from the audience). It's just absolutely awful.
My students, who were graduate students at Syracuse University, had no idea of what was written before 1900. Their colleges, their high schools, didn't give it to them. It was late by the time they got to me. So the fashion that prevails right now, and has prevailed for the past 20 or 25 years, is all they know, and when they sit down to write a poem they can't think of any other way to write it. I think that's very unfortunate. Not because there are not fine poems -- there are many fine poems -- in the contemporary mode; just because it's getting pretty dead, it's worn out, and there needs to be a change, and young people are the ones who ought to be making the change.
But they don't really know enough about the evolution of literature, or the sociology of literature, or the whole process of the way poetry functions in a society and among people. They don't know enough about that to even, I think, in many cases, see any possibility of change. And I do blame schools for that.
I know -- I'm 72 years old, and I know -- when I was the age of my students at Syracuse, there were some things that they knew that I didn't really know, but there was a hell of a lot about literature that I knew that they didn't know, and never will know. They could not read a sonnet of Shakespeare. They could not read a sonnet by e.e. cummings. They did not know how to do it. They had no insight into what makes those poems go. I think all the workshops in the United States ought to be wiped out and replaced by courses in the history of literature -- how to read. It would do young writers immensely greater good than fiddling around with line endings all the time.
I believe there is in my case. I believe that the tonalities of my poems, the timbre of my poems, has been influenced by jazz and the blues. To some extent, rhythmic effects are influenced by jazz, although not very much, because a drum beat is a very different thing from the meter of language. To me, jazz music is the only native American art that amounts to anything, it's separate from all the other arts, it has connections, philosophical, sociological connections with the history of our culture, but it is not the same as poetry and, although more and more poets are influenced by jazz, I still think it would be very difficult with any of them to show the influence except in a very superficial way.
Nowadays, I've changed somewhat, because I get so tired I can't work at night anymore. And also, since I've retired, I don't have to go to work. So I get up in the morning and I turn on some music and I drink some coffee and I smoke a lot of cigarettes and maybe every third or fourth day a poem occurs. That's my best time now. Not when I get up, like some people. I can hardly find my way downstairs when I first get up. I have to have three, four cups of coffee, half a pack of cigarettes, then I can do it.
Sometimes these changes have been extremely deliberate. It's hard to make people understand. When I moved from Vermont, where I lived a long time, I got a job at Syracuse, at the university, and I moved over there and ended up in Liverpool, which is a suburb north of Syracuse. I was living right on the strip. It was a total 180-degree change in my life, from living in the woods, from being self-employed to working for a big institution -- and all that. And when I got there, and I got my apartment, a couple of weeks after I moved in I sat down and I took a legal pad and I wrote down a poem in an absolutely arbitrary new form that I had never written in before. Eight syllables, six syllables, eight syllables, six syllables, the second and fourth lines perfectly rhymed, absolutely perfectly rhymed -- in other words, I rhymed the and a -- I rhyme according to the way people actually pronounce words, rather than how they're spelled -- and I cast against this very, very tight form the loosest conceivable colloquial language that I could find, that I could invent, that I could overhear.
I used to go to the Pizza Hut, and the Burger King, and all the rest of the places along the strip in Liverpool and I'd carry a notebook with me and I'd write down what the people in the booth behind me were saying, then I'd work it into a poem. I don't know if those poems are successful or not -- some people like them quite a bit. I think other people don't. But they are absolutely totally different in tone, structure, even in their objectives, in some degree. But I had to do that. I could no longer write Vermont poems in Liverpool. It would be ridiculous. That is rather an extreme case, but it is, at the same time, similar to the changes I have made in my work any number of other times.
My work started out like most young people's work. I didn't go to any workshops, because there weren't any in those days. I started off imitating poets that I liked, especially Yeats. Also Ezra Pound, and to some extent Wallace Stevens. I did a lot of that kind of work, and they were terrible poems. I wasn't until I was in my 40s that I really began writing with some kind of freedom, confidence. I didn't publish my first book until I was 40. I was a slow driver.
I began writing poetry, I believe, when I was about 4 or 5 years old, and on through high school and college I continued to write. I didn't know what I was doing very well. I had very little instruction. I imitated Shelley, and tried to write what I thought were Shakespearean sonnets, and things like that. I went to college at the University of North Carolina before the war, and it was a wonderful place to be -- very isolated and quiet. I met a great many good people there, but we did not know anything about 20th-century literature. I don't believe I read any 20th-century poets except Sandburg and Frost when I was an undergraduate. And immediately I got married and went into the Army.
I got out after the war was over and I decided I didn't want to work. I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago and immediately became just surrounded by contemporary American writing of all kinds. Many of my fellow students were practicing writers. I quickly became very serious about my writing; up till that time I hadn't been. I began submitting my poems to magazines and things like that. I had some poems published in Poetry , and then was asked to be a reader for Poetry and then, a year later, I became editor of the magazine.
My feeling is that nature is the most beautiful thing we have. I love it, I love to live in it, I love to be part of it, I wish I could be part of it more than I am. But at the same time, nature contains everything. It contains our death. It contains all of our injustices, and all of our pains and anxieties. It is not simply a benign presence in our lives. All we have to do is look at floods and earthquakes. I'm always aware of that, that the blossom on the rosebush contains, by inference, at least, all of this difficulty and burden and hardship that the human race has to sustain.
Auden -- I've always disliked that aspect of Auden. I've written about it, and disagreed with him, his idea that there are these two worlds, the world of poetry and the world of everything else. I don't like that idea at all. I partly don't like it because I don't believe that poets are that different from any other people. I think we do have different skills that are specialized, and we have certain ways of looking at the world which may be specialized, but essentially what we're doing is trying to make sense out of everything, and so are plenty of other people, plumbers and carpenters and all kinds of people.
I think that politics certainly belongs in poetry. It's in all the great poetry -- The Illiad is a political poem, The Divine Comedy is a political poem, and Paradise Lost.
In April, 1991 the Writers Institute held a symposium on many areas of non-fiction writing entitled "Telling the Truth." Among the areas, science writing was covered in a panel called "Words on Things." The panelists included Tim Ferris, Richard Rhodes, Bill McKibben, Stephen Jay Gould, and was moderated by James Gleick. What follows here is a transcript of the second half of the panel's discussion. The first half appeared in the previous issue of Writers Online.
McKIBBEN: It seems to me that one thing one needs to keep in mind is that how we feel about science has a great deal to do with the kind of policy choices that people are going to make in the real world. I think an acute problem in some ways is that sense that’s grown up that science is sort of the last holy order of man and is full of people out searching out truth for its own sake, and in a lot of cases that is true. But the areas that I write about are in some ways stories in which both the heroes and the villains are scientists, or at least technicians using the fruits of what scientists have found and confronting the choices that will be made in the future. I think that there is a very widespread belief, in dealing with environmental problems anyway, that science will take care of it somehow—you name it, science will take care of it. Partly this is because none of us really wants to take the responsibility of taking care of things ourselves and changing the way that we live, and partly it’s also this fable that’s gotten imbedded in our minds that science is going to always find a solution to each problem. Something that interests me very much is the whole subject of genetic engineering. I think by anybody’s definition this is one of the real breakthrough technologies in history. I think that you could argue for a very long time about the moral and cultural implications of a lot of the things that people have proposed and that will soon be happening if they are not already, but what’s interesting to me is that this argument is almost never made. The only arguments that people have about genetic engineering are technical ones, that something bad is going to escape from a laboratory someplace and eat my children, not what is the proper place of human beings in this world. And of course one way that scientists tend to answer this is, Well, we do basic research, what happens with it in the real world is not our fault. In the first place that’s in this case not true. Most of the genetic engineers are now presidents of publicly owned corporations, busily marketing this kind of thing. There’s no question that if someone comes up with something that’s potentially profitable at the moment, in the kind of regard with which we hold this notion of progress, that it’s going to be developed and used, and probably not with enough discussion. There’s something, some sort of hagiography about science that’s grown up that lets us allow science or at least technology to in many ways change the world in very fundamental ways without feeling that we sort of have the right to ask if we want this or not.
GLEICK: You have written more critically than anyone else on this panel of the way, as you have said, science has become a kind of religion for many of us. It has become a belief system that has replaced in some ways our belief in God. Tim Ferris has said that science is the century’s greatest art form.
FERRIS: I think I stole that line from Horace Freeland Judson actually.
GLEICK: There’s no question that there is a tension between these points of view, and furthermore this is after all the century of the famous two cultures, science and science journalism. For many people science is something alien, difficult, so little a part of their lives that it is impossible to distinguished truth from falsehood on simple questions like whether there are flying saucers buzzing around capturing citizens of Albany and taking them off to indoctrination sessions.
FERRIS: It seems to me that there is another side to the point you are making about this opinion that science will take care of everything. There is also an opinion that we’ve got to stop this, that we can’t learn more about this, it’s too dangerous, which considering how little we know is a pretty interesting opinion to hold. There may be some field in which the human race has so much knowledge now that we ought to call a halt to it. There really is an enormous gulf between those views, and between the scientists. Two days ago I was at a meeting at Berkeley with a group of graduate students who were in biotechnology. These are people who are right on the edge of a wave of one of the most powerful developments in the history of science and technology, they’re right in a position to do something about it. They’ve got a list of horrible diseases and things that happen to people that they have a real prospect of doing something about real quick, and to tell them that they ought to stop and think about it, is as if they had a loaded star ship in orbit, ready finally to go to Alpha Centauri and one of the crew members says, Well, maybe we shouldn’t actually take this trip, you know, maybe we belong here on Earth after all. To them it’s not the time and place to debate it. The question becomes, where is the time and place and that debate really isn’t taking place very often in an appropriate way that’s useful and profitable to the society.
RHODES: It seems to me a relatively easy distinction to draw between science as an enterprise and technology as an enterprise. I think that much that we worry about and complain about about science properly belongs in the other category. It’s a curious notion that we can pick and choose which aspect of the real world of the world of nature we will endorse. It’s an old notion, primarily a religious notion, and it was a forlorned hope even then. If there is any rule that obtains in the world that we are all as animals a part of, it’s a rule that I think was first listed in The Once and Future King: everything that isn’t forbidden is required. Niels Bohr used to talk about science in a time when science was generally assumed even by scientists to be some sort of deluxe search for truth. He used to suggest that it had a much more modest purpose, and he described that purpose as the gradual alleviation of prejudice, the gradual removal of prejudice. And he meant by that something like what happens when one day in Berlin a couple of chemists discover that they can split the uranium nucleus. That discovery has nothing to do with whether they sat around and voted on it. It was indeed an accident. They were ready, the time was ripe, there were a lot of other laboratories that probably would have come across it the same week, and in fact did. Luis Alvarez, a physicist, told me that he discovered nuclear fission too, only it was two days after the real discovery, so his didn’t get counted. But he made it independently.
What followed from that discovery was the human world adjusting to the alleviation of the prejudices, realizing that it wasn’t possible to have essentially an unlimited source of energy in the world. That was the prejudice that was alleviated, and as it cascaded down through the years, gaining momentum through human society, it finally changed our whole system of international politics. I argue that simply because by the time nuclear fission had been embodied in the course of technological decision making and political decision making and military decision making into a series of increasingly destructive weapons, it finally reached a point long before 1989, I would say probably by 1953, when all the leaders of all the contending nation states of the world tacitly understood that they couldn’t use those things. And at that point world war ceased to be possible in the world, and in fact there have been none and there can be none, although there can still be devastating wars on a smaller scale as we recently saw. All that huge change in the course of human affairs followed from something that happened in a context where no one had a chance to vote, and even if we had voted or a dictator had dictated, they could not have discovered that discovery until they did and it could not have been suppressed. So I think it’s whistling in the dark a little bit for all of us to say, like Luddites, We’ll stick our wooden shoes in the machinery, and argue that we should stop all this because we have this cultural dissonance about it. It won’t be stopped. It will go on and it will accelerate, and it will change our world beyond recognition as it already has.
FERRIS: Stephen, given that science isn’t a religion, does science incline its practitioners toward any particular attitude toward nature?
GOULD: I think so much of this discussion really involves a set of mistaken categories. As I see science, it’s that enterprise that tries to probe the empirical character of nature and to coordinate what it finds with explanations that we call theories. In some technical sense I really do believe that it’s value neutral.
Now ideologues, and that’s all of us to some extent, use any material that’s available. Science is notoriously available because it is very powerful, by which I don’t mean that scientists don’t have ethical responsibilities, of course they do, but I don’t know that they have ethical responsibilities per se arising from the material of science. They have ethical responsibilities as human beings. All human beings have ethical responsibilities, and we damn well have ethical responsibilities to the things we’ve created. So if we happen to be harnessing ourselves to this enterprise of science and have discovered something that has implications, of course as human beings we have responsibilities for them.
Science is so broad and it is so value neutral in that sense that I don’t even know how to respond to Tim’s question, a very important one — do scientists have a particular attitude towards nature? The spectrum of science, first of all, is so great. It goes from funny little characters in my profession like me who get tiny little grants, if we get any at all, and go out and describe nature and love diversity as an aesthetic that motivates almost anyone in the field, to people who are bringing in millions of bucks a year and have very hard models about reductionistic, underlying realities that take all diversity and channel it in. Now if there are correlated general attitudes, and there probably are, that don’t again arise out of the facts, then those are more sociological or psychological correlations. Whatever attitude you have towards nature, some of which can properly be described as philosophical, theological or ethical, really doesn’t derive automatically from science anyway and can’t.
McKIBBEN: I feel the need to speak up for Luddism. This sense that things just inevitably go on and that as societies and human beings and political systems we have no possibility or right to even think of controlling them, strikes me as a dangerous, not necessarily physically, but morally, the yielding up of something important about ourselves to a priesthood that’s not necessarily any more reflective than priesthoods have tended to be in other regards. In the first place, it’s not clear physically that things will just keep going on and on forever. The Luddites said, Let’s have workshops instead of enormous factories to protect our jobs. We decided on enormous factories but one of the results, among the many good results I suppose, of that has been that the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels will have doubled by the middle of the next century. And this may represent certain physical limits.
But there’s also, this line you draw between science and technology, and at least in some of the disciplines it is not a true line, really. When I was at Harvard as an undergraduate, the people who were doing genetic engineering, were right at the beginning of this sort of commercialization of genetic engineering, and each of the labs was forming into its own corporation. At the Harvard Crimson for a while, we were keeping a table each day of what the value of the common stock of each lab was. There’s a possibility always that people live in a unique moment, and that we may be crossing over thresholds that carry us farther than we want to go. We’re talking about, for the first time in human history, a period of great loss of genetic diversity around the world, a lot of which can be traced to some of the things we’re talking about. That may be one threshold, the first time that humans are able to fundamentally alter the most basic physical systems like climate, things like that.
GLEICK: You’re complaining about the scientists. Where are the science writers during this process? Are they just drifting along like pilot fish with the sharks, reporting a naive version of the truth, or are they less cynical than their counterparts writing in other fields?
McKIBBEN: Science writers like scientists, self select to a certain degree. One of the problems with this conference is that it’s only the sort of really good people who have been invited. So you have the historians up here and really they can’t point to each other as an example of the kind of bad history that they’re talking about because they’re not writing it. I think by and large that there’s an awful lot of popular writing about science that consists of going to scientists and asking them what’s coming next and happily writing it down and assuming that’s all you have to do. All I’m saying is that whether or not you throw your wooden shoe into the machine, it’s all right for human beings to at least contemplate throwing a little bit of their culture and their religious sense or their feelings about the natural world or whatever into a machine. I don’t feel that in the end that’s illegitimate, but I do feel it’s pretty ineffective.
RHODES: In talking about these issues of science and technology we’re also talking about science writing because we as writers of verity have to try to grapple with these very issues, as is clear from this discussion. I still think that there is a valid distinction that can be drawn, perhaps it’s a shaper distinction in physics than in other lines of science, between basic scientific experiment and the technological development of that basic information that comes from that operation.
To take perhaps the most notorious example and one about which a great deal of garbage has been written, the question of the physicists working on the bomb. Now there was an example where very clearly scientists had decided to do some engineering. Robert Oppenheimer said in 1946 there was no physics done during the war. And he was referring among other things to the emptying out of the universities, graduate students going off to do this and that including work on the bomb. The decision to work on the bomb had, as far as I can see, nothing whatsoever to do with science, not only in the practical sense that it was engineering, but also in the personal sense. They made the decision as human beings. They made it on the basis of great fear of what would happen if Germany got the bomb first. And later when they knew Germany didn’t have a bomb they made the decisions on the basis of an understanding, which was quite insightful for the time, that this thing was going to change everything, that in the long run it would probably mean an end to large-scale war. They weren’t acting as scientists. When they were acting a scientists was when they were messing around with some neutron sources and some uranium nitrate in the laboratory in Berlin in 1938. That’s when they were acting as scientists.
What’s important about the question of science versus technology, and why one shouldn’t decide that scientists should sit around trying to decide whether they’re going to do an experiment and whether that’s a good thing to do for humanity, is that it’s very difficult to predict, especially the future. You can’t know the outcome, you can’t know the future unless you go there. And that’s a very frightening and threatening thing to do. I would point out, in terms of the specific context that Bill McKibben has been talking about, that the instruments that people use to determine that there’s too much CO2 in the atmosphere, the instruments that the Swedish used to determine that Chernobal had exploded, were instruments that were developed as a part of an ongoing process called science. Most scientific instruments and then their commercial versions originate as experiments and then later find application, are standardized, are manufactured and find application to look at phenomenon on a regular basis. Without science, which is I think neutral—but that doesn’t mean good or bad, it means good and bad because the consequences are the future—without the work of science there is no way to solve the problems that science and technology introduce into the world. It’s all part of this larger human enterprise which is ongoing and which I don’t think we want to stop however many stupid mistakes we make along the way, of alleviating human pain. I would just point out that at least half of the number of people in this room would be dead, would not be here, if it weren‘t for some fairly simple kinds of public health measures that were devised in a scientific spirit and context over the last hundred years. But it’s also true that some who might be here were killed in war because of explosives that were developed at the same time. Everything that science develops and technology elaborates can be either a tool or a weapon.
GLEICK: Certainly it’s clear that everyone on this panel writes with a conviction that the ideas of science, if not the things of science, are intricately bound up with the rest of the culture, with the questions that we are most seriously interested in. Dick Rhodes could have written his history of the atomic bomb, which is a military history, a political history, a social history, without including the intimate details of nuclear physics that he chose to make a part of that story. Bill McKibben, with his powerful mixed feelings about the role of science in our time, nevertheless could not help but make the ideas of science an intimate part of the story that he told in his book.
RHODES: But to leave out the science would be I think the same sort of sin of omission as the histories of the West that left out the Indians, that left out the other part of the story. I put all that physics in the book—which I think many people found to be a real stumbling block, and I understand it, so did I—because I didn’t think it was possible to understand all those other consequences unless one had some grasp of how this happened and its inevitability. That’s what was so important to me.
GOULD: I have a hundred thirty pages of anthropoid anatomy in Wonderful Life, in part for some abstract notion of completeness, but in part because it’s just wonderfully interesting material. So is your physics.
FERRIS: There’s a relationship, too, between what makes for an interesting story and a felicitous style and this goal of trying to tell the truth. Anyone who aspires to be a good writer wants to tell the truth. It’s hard to do that. I think Cervantes quotes an old Spanish saying that it’s very difficult not to write satire. Particularly when you are starting out as a writer you’re writing satire all the time without meaning to. I often tell my students that when you have a stylistic problem, a persistent stylistic problem like a lead that won’t work, and for a month you’ve been trying to start this magazine article, let’s say, and you keep moving the words around and it never works, very often what’s happening is that style is trying to signal you that the contents of the sentence are not true, and that can happen often to a young writer for many reasons, because you don’t know the truth or you’re not honest enough with yourself yet, you’re trying to get away with something, often in the lead particularly because you are inviting the reader into the story and there’s a temptation as in all retail merchandising to bend the truth a little bit in order to attract their interest. I think one of the things that attracted me to science as a subject is that one could find some verifiably true things here. But you reach a point where you say, This isn’t ultimate truth, either, and this powerful mechanism of science is embedded in the larger culture and has all kinds of effects beyond the scientists’ own power to control or foresee them. What is the most truthful attitude that one can take to that, and with that question you’re drawn out of science and into broader philosophical and religious questions, which some scientists I think, to the impoverishment of their lives, regard as irrelevant. There are scientists who simply think that all religion and philosophy is just kind of soft-headed. That is a narrow attitude and it’s by no means the attitude that all scientists take. And you know, it’s the dilemma of the writer as well. You’re following all these threads, but everything turns out to be connected and ultimately you’re back in the same soup that you were when you started the whole process. But by then you’re old and you’ve written a bunch of books and it’s all over anyway.
QUESTION: Is there a myth that science has to be entirely democratic and is not that myth not of a service to science but a disservice to democracy?
GOULD: In retrospect you can see that the junior person in research who is urging something was right and history may actually credit that person. But science is extremely hierarchical, and it almost has to be in part, a small part, in the legitimate sense that we all recognize that democracy is a terrible institution for getting certain sorts of things done. I would say, on the analogy to the orchestra model or the ship model, that to get things done you need a certain amount of non-democratic hierarchy. That’s not necessarily bad. What is bad, as it would also be on a ship, is when the captain doesn’t listen to someone in the right context. You may not be able to confront the captain while he’s leading a meeting but the captain should be willing to listen when the guy comes over to him later and says something. There are hierarchical aspects of science that are necessarily so and I don’t object to them. The bad part of scientific hierarchy is that most of it is done in institutions like universities that are intensely hierarchical in the very bad sense of the term. That is, they stifle creativity. In a sense that hierarchy of science is often very bad for people on the top because it drives them out of the laboratory. Most of my colleagues in biochemistry have not been behind the bench in years. They are administering science and writing grants. That’s what they do all the time. So there are many aspects of the non-democratic organization that are very bad as well.
FERRIS: The lionization of particular scientists at the hands of science writers has a similar effect, too. The average scientist is no better at handling fame than anyone else, and when we go out and make somebody famous we often cause a lot of damage in his or her life.
RHODES: I’m not sure that those things are exactly what one means by science. It’s certainly true that scientists organize themselves hierarchically as do most human beings in most situations. But I think the work of science itself at the level of experiment and so forth is profoundly democratic. I think it’s based on one Bill of Right, and that is freedom of speech. Without that one requirement it would not be as it is, self-correcting. If work isn’t published, if work can’t be verified, if work can’t be duplicated— those are fields of effort where democracy is vital.
GLEICK: Why do so many scientists discount science writers? Steve, why do you?
GOULD: As with all things, there’s a good side and a bad side to it, or good reasons and bad reasons. The bad reasons are embodied in the notion of parochialism. That is, we’re afraid that if people do it very well they’ll show us up. The other side of it, of course, is that many people who write science are very bad at it and we are sensitive to that. We’ve been abused often. The parochialism is enormously unfortunate, the bad writing is very unfortunate. If you could eliminate both of them would there be harmony? Probably not, given xenophobia, etc., but things would be a lot better.
GLEICK: There are a lot of built in reasons for tension. The time scales of the two disciplines are so different. Science makes news on a scale of decades or years or at the fastest, months. Newspapers like news on a slightly quicker scale. Scientists don’t like to believe a thing until they have read it in a refereed journal. Newspapers are quite happy to interview scientists in corridors. I think Steve is right. There’s a lot of bad science journalism, just as there is bad journalism in other fields. One difference is that scientists are by their nature less accustomed to the intrusions of journalists, less willing to let journalists have the arrogance to define for them what’s news in their business.
RHODES: I must say though I didn’t find that scientists disliked the work that I did. I found that historians of science were absolutely savage. Talk about parochialism—if you invade their territory, watch out.
GLEICK: A central theme of this panel has been that science makes a claim on empirical truth, yet scientists are human beings. They are ideologues. They stumble. They are, as Steve has said, always embedded in a social context. Are we doing enough to make that clear, or are we simply too accepting of the mantel of objectivity in which this discipline cloaks itself? Feynman hated the view of science as received truth, as authoritative. His dispute with text books actually was not just that they presented science as a succession of facts,but that they gave no hint of the human process and therefore they gave a false sense of what it meant to understand something. He disliked most history of science for the same reason, especially the academic history of science. My own view is that the writing of the history of science, whether by people in or out of the academy, has changed somewhat since he had these feelings.
RHODES: As Steve said at the beginning, not only scientists do science. I think what scientists do is not different from other exercises of human imagination, except again in the particular set of reference that the field defines as necessary to arrive at a given conclusion. When writers write, they try to find within the sentences that they construct with the kit of tools that they have, which is language, a very complex and rich and multi-layered kind of set of tools, a kind of verity, just as scientists do. The difference is that the set of references are different. If we are taking about fiction, for example, they are internal and they have to do with some very subtle and not usually articulated balances between experience and invention, common memories that we think we share with others and therefore can analogize with. Many things like that that are not exactly different from what scientists do except that at the end of the quest of a scientist in a particular experiment, if the experiment produces useful and interesting results— and I’ve always envied scientists this—it’s as if at the end of their effort of imagination nature steps forth and says, with a pat on the back, You’re right. One writer has compared it to paranoia, in the philosophic sense of believing that at some ultimate extreme the universe is meaningful because the paranoid essentially believes that things are happening out there that have to do with him, and that they connect with him and that there is a connection whether they be little green men or uranium nitrate. But at the end of this little paranoid exercise, nature says, Yeah, you’re right. Catching that is maybe what a lot of science writing ought to be about.
QUESTION: Recently we had a disturbing glimpse into the process of sciencing in a series of stories in The New York Times and other newspapers. The stories reported that a scientist changed data to reflect what she wanted to reflect. Someone else blew the whistle on her but was put down by the rest of the scientific community, and it took five years for much of this to be uncovered. Do you think there is enough investigative reporting into how we conduct science?
GOULD: First of all it wasn’t investigative reporters who uncovered it, but the zealousness of one person who persisted. I think it’s an unfortunate case because the incident in itself, though not unreflective as any small incident is of something that is very common in science, in this case is unfortunately so. It’s not a good paradigm case for the very real and important issue of fraud and other kinds of malfeasance in science because, handled a different way, which would have been not only more right but immensely more practical in terms of saving time, it could have been so easily handled. It’s more a question of the psychology of the people involved, and in some sense I understand. The incident itself was relatively minor, but I think the subsequent cover-up became much larger. And if investigated fully when it had first happened it would simply have led to one of the many correctives that occur all the time in science that are momentarily embarrassing to those who have to publish them but in no way life or career destroying. Any lab director must trust the people brought into the lab. Otherwise the enterprise collapses. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when it’s brought to your attention that all may not be on the up and up, the one thing this teaches us is that you really better investigate it thoroughly and not try to use authority to cover it up. But I don’t know what big issue it raises. To me it’s just a very unfortunate incident that has caused immense loss in reputation and loss of what is absolutely the most precious thing in the world, which is time. That’s something people forget. So often you suppress things not for really deep nasty reasons, but just because time is so ultimately precious.
GLEICK: But don’t you think that the press, which in other areas of social life might have been conducting investigations, asking questions, trying to bring facts to life, questioning the authority of the scientist, might have a greater role to play in such cases in the future?
GOULD: In this case a more active press role might have made the resolution quicker, which would have been less painful, but in fact there was very little press intervention until the whole thing got going. There are probably thousands of cases like this brewing.
QUESTION: Should not the public or the Luddites or whomever, have some more say into what amount of money and time is given to one particular project to the exclusion of others?
RHODES: We do have say. We elect representatives. They go to the government. Are they not our elected representatives? Don’t they say what we believe? If they don’t, then we really shouldn’t elect them. I’m saying there is a mechanism for these large financing decisions about science. It’s of course influenced by the terrible scientific illiteracy that we suffer from in the United States. We don’t really know whether we should invest in the superconducting super collider, whether we should invest in the space shuttle, etc. Those are problems which I presume refer directly to the sort of work that we as more or less informed laymen, try to do, to examine these questions, to look at past examples, to see how they came about and what we might learn from them. I’m rather cynical about what Washington might learn from my book or anyone else’s book. We’re still working on Star Wars you know. Edward Teller has a plan that perhaps the Israelis would like a little star Wars system to fight those Scuds.
FERRIS: The funding process for big science projects has itself generated a lot of problems, of which NASA is a case study. In my opinion, NASA’s constituency has become the aerospace industry and the members of Congress who fund NASA. What typically happens is the kind of space shuttle or Hubbell telescope mission where the project takes on a certain size because otherwise its not exciting enough to attract and maintain its funding from Congress. The Congress then gets cold feet about actually pouring this kind of money into it year after year so they cut funding. That delays the project and you end up with a big thing in space that’s got technology in it that’s ten or twenty years old and that has cost two or three times what it originally should have cost because you had to pay everybody’s salary during all this time that you delayed everything. And this aspect is not being covered sufficiently yet in the press. NASA is criticized for things failing, but this mechanism that’s causing failure and obsolescence of big science projects has not to my knowledge been adequately treated in the press.
QUESTION: How can theoretical concepts be adequately reported?
FERRIS: The traditional wisdom amongst newspaper editors is that there should be a paragraph around about the third paragraph or so of the story, called the nut paragraph or the billboard, and the function of this paragraph is to explain the relevance of this purely theoretical development to the man on the street as this person used to be called. I’ve always felt personally that the theoretical developments are often sufficiently interesting in themselves and I’ve had fights with editors about this as a result. In one piece in The New York Times Magazine about the search for a unified theory that would explain every fundamental process in the universe, we fought forever because there wasn’t any practical thing in this third paragraph and they kept trying to come up with things. And I would say, But it really is just interesting enough in itself. If you really say this theory would explain every fundamental process in the whole history of the universe and the reader still isn’t interested, then maybe that’s not the reader for the rest of this article.
GOULD: I think you underestimate the public, 250 million people in the country. It may be that for a majority, even 100 or 200 million, that unless there is something immediately palatable and practical they won’t read it. But there’s tens of millions of other readers who have fascination for the things of science and the concepts of science for their intellectual sake. I think that’s proven by many of us who do not in fact generally write about practical consequences but are read. Maybe we’re never going to be majoritarian but I don’t know that that necessarily matters.
GLEICK: You’re looking at a whole panel of people who have pretty much written about science as ideas without any particular product, although maybe Dick Rhodes is the notable exception. But it certainly is true. Tim is right that most newspaper editors have the cynical view of the audience that Steve has just decried—that people like to know whether this theoretical advance is going to somehow lead to a better toaster oven. I also think that it’s obviously the goal of most of the writers here to write about the ideas themselves as a part of our shared culture.
RHODES: Maybe there should be a standard piece of boiler plate for that third paragraph that says, This piece of work may help us understand how the world works.
FERRIS: Actually Walter Sullivan was said to have had a genius for this, and he always put in the same sentence which was, "That if verified this development will cause researchers throughout the field to rethink some of their basic assumptions.” In the case of the story I was mentioning, 48 hours before deadline an unidentified editor at 10 in the evening came into the office and on the computer inserted a sentence that would perform this function in my piece, which I caught before it went to press. But had I not scrutinized the computer printout, the third paragraph on my unified theory article in The New York Times Magazine would have said that if the unified theory could be found it would be “the greatest thing to have happened since the bomb dropped on Hiroshima."
QUESTION: Are science textbooks written well enough? Do they fail to provide narratives?
GLEICK: Well all of my writing is addressed to a childish level. You don’t get too much of the narrative in textbooks and I think that a consequence of that is that we receive a view of science that is not accurate, it’s not true, it’s a view of science as a collection of facts as received wisdom. When you do finally get to the frontiers, you discover that science is a bunch of human beings stumbling around in the fog, making mistakes, failing to communicate well with each other and occasionally having that moment of exhilaration.
FERRIS: When I was in school I used to wonder why the great science popularizers like Isaac Asimov were not writing textbooks, and so when I got older I wrote a textbook and I found out why. It’s not an experience I would recommend to anyone. The forces controlling what goes into textbooks are forbidding. The process is debilitating to writers. It actively discourages good writers from being involved.
RHODES: I think that brings up exactly the problem with some aspects of writing for educational systems. They are in a way the very locus of the contention between various believers and various beliefs in our society. The most obvious example is creationism and evolution, which has been an ongoing struggle in the textbook business now for quite a while. As a result you get textbooks that are lowest common denominator, committee camels, if you will. I know this sounds totally utopian given the budgets and so forth, but I still will say that teachers at some level where it’s possible should try to go to the wider literature of science, even including scientific papers. It has seemed to me that after reading some of Niels Bohr’s papers and others that if I were teaching a course in writing, especially the writing of verity, I would include in that course not only Daniel Defoe—but I would include some scientific papers because they’re models of logic and clarity—some of them, not all of them by any means. So, perhaps the problem is to try to get around this impasse that textbooks represent. They are boilings-down and boilings-down never can clarify very much.
FERRIS: One other problem is that the good stories which seem to help science teaching also can freeze it in place. The classic example of a good story is that Einstein’s theory of relativity came as a revelation and shattered classical physics. We keep repeating this story in the educational process so our children are still taught Newtonian physics, then at some point along comes Einstein and their world view is shattered and they have to change it all. It really doesn’t seem necessary that the children should keep having to relive that story just because it’s a good story. It would be easier just to start with relativity and then pick up on Newton later on.
QUESTION: Do you need a solid background in science in order to write about it?
RHODES: I think it’s very painful to approach a scientific field from the outside and try to understand it enough to write about it without deep embarrassment. I was petrified, terrified. For me the ultimate moment came after the book was published and I was invited to speak to the Harvard physics faculty. I told them the history of their own field, and afterwards one of the younger faculty members came up and said what I thought might be a rather left-handed compliment, which was, You have a good intuitive grasp of physics.
GLEICK: I’m going to tell one more story about Feynman in that connection. Feynman was once asked by one of his colleagues, a physicist but not a particle physicist, if he could explain at the level of a freshman physics seminar some obscure thing to do with particles of spin one-half or something. And Feynman said, Oh sure, give me a week I’ll come back and answer that for you. A week later he came back and said, You know, I couldn’t do that, I can’t explain it at that level and I think that means that we truly don’t understand it yet.
Edited by William Rainbolt, novelist and lecturer in journalism in the English Department, University at Albany; and Donald Faulkner, Associate Director of the NYS Writers Institute and professor in the English Department, University at Albany.
The young Dominican Republic writer Junot Díaz begins his first collection of stories Drown with an epigraph by Gustavo Pérez Firmat that underscores all the anguish which accompanies storytelling for the writer straddled between cultures: “the fact that I / am writing to you / in English / already falsifies what I / wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I / don’t belong to English / though I belong nowhere else.”
Drown chronicles the journey of a boyhood spent first in the Barrios of the Dominican Republic to the urban blight of industrial New Jersey. In at least five of the ten stories which make up Drown, the narrator is young Ramón de las Casas--nicknamed Yunior--whom we follow from his Dominican childhood to precocious, New Jersey adolescence. Díaz confesses to having an obsession for both the lost landscape of his island childhood and the gorgeously polluted “netherworld” of his teens: “In one form or another the Dominican Republic--that world which was almost but not entirely lost--has always haunted me. . .there were always, (to quote Espada) just over my shoulder, trumpets from the island of my eviction.”
Díaz’s lean prose succeeds in portraying with poignancy, poetry, and “dispassion,” all the devastation of growing up poor, mulatto, and immigrant (thrice displaced) in a country whose immigrants are locked in perpetual conflict--“turning on. . .each other.” Díaz’s narrators inhabit a fatherless world, where mothers struggle for their children’s survival and where casual cruelty, violence, and poverty are made light by a persistent and sardonic humor.
Citing Joyce’s “Dubliners” as a major influence on his work, Díaz explains how he inverts the internal paralysis suffered by Joyce’s characters: “the people in my stories are overwhelmed by their environment.”
The title story “Drown” reveals this paralysis through the internalized anger and frustration of a narrator who, so overwhelmed by the economic and emotional struggle for survival in which he and his mother are collectively entrenched, can’t seem to move on: “We live alone. My mother has enough for rent and groceries and I cover the phone bill, and sometimes the cable. She’s so quiet that most of the time I’m startled to find her in the apartment. I’ll enter a room and she’ll stir, detaching herself from the cracking plaster walls, from the stained cabinets, and fright will pass through me like a wire. . .” Whatever music or laughter once visited this place has now fled--replaced by the blue drone of the Spanish news channel with its “drama and violence.”
The future for Yunior and his companions is, not surprisingly, less than bright. At school they are warned against the seductiveness of false hope: “One teacher. . .compared us to shuttles: ‘A few of you are going to make it. Those are the orbiters. But the majority of you are just going to burn out’. . .I could already see myself losing altitude, fading, the earth spread out beneath me, hard and bright.”
Unlike his narrators, Díaz has assumed the status of orbiter--scoring a six figure advance for Drown from Riverhead Books and featured by Newsweek as one of the “10 New Faces of 1996.” A graduate of Rutgers University and the MFA program at Cornell, Díaz is frank about his recent transformation from struggling artist to overnight literary success: “I’m not going to lie to you. . .I mean, I’m pleased that I can eat now.”
Born in 1969 in Haiti, Edwidge Danticat’s most recent book of short stories Krik? Krak! was a finalist for the National Book Award. A graduate of Barnard and the Brown M.F.A. program, Danticat made early literary fame with a series of fiction awards from Seventeen and Essence, as well as the highly praised novel Breath, Eyes, Memory. Most recently chosen by Granta as among the “Best of Young American Novelists,” Danticat’s work, like Díaz’s, traverses between cultures, negotiating an identity constructed in two sharply distinct worlds
Dedicated to “the brave women of Haiti. . .(who). . .have stumbled but . . .will not fall,” Breath, Eyes, Memory chronicles four generations of Haitian women struggling to overcome poverty, powerlessness, and abuse.” In the book Danticat dares to probe into some rather painful aspects of Haitian tradition, including that of “testing”--a rural practice in which a mother inserts her fingers into her daughter’s vagina to ascertain if she is a virgin. The narrator of Breath, Eyes, Memory is Sophie-- a young Haitian girl raised by her aunt until the age of 12 when she is sent to live with her parents in the states. Danticat insists the story is not autobiographical, although she too was raised by an aunt in Port-au-Prince until being sent to Brooklyn. As Ethan Casey observes in Callaloo, Danticat’s writing: “importantly articulates a history of Haitian women which remains to be told.” In her own words, Danticat expresses the hope which language offers of retrieving a formerly muted past through voices and stories: “I look to the past--to Haiti--hoping that the extraordinary female story tellers I grew up with--the ones that have passed on--will choose to tell their story through my voice. . .for those who have a voice must speak to the present and the past. For we may very well have to be Haiti’s last surviving breath, eyes, and memory.”
When he was named the 1986 Nobel Laureate of Literature, Wole Soyinka told the press the prize had been awarded not only to him, but “to all the others who have laid the basis and were the source from which I could draw.” That nod took in writers, philosophers, and political activists across centuries and continents, for though much is rightly made of the fact that Soyinka (pronounced shoy-ING-ka) is the first black African ever to receive the Nobel, he is as much a writer of the world as he is a voice for his homeland Nigeria and Africa as a whole.
As Henry Louis Gates Jr. made clear in a 1995 essay in the Georgia Review, Soyinka, a playwright, poet and novelist, lays claim to the traditions of Western theater extending back to ancient Greece. His work, Gates wrote, has “formal ties to Euripides, Shakespeare, Synge, Yeats, Brecht and Lorca . . .” At the same time, the writing is “deeply grounded in Yoruba proverbs” the Harvard professor wrote, referring to the western Nigeria tribe of Soyinka’s birth, “the densely lyrical and resplendent Yoruba language, and [its] cryptic mystical poetry . . .”
Any writer who could, with Soyinka’s force and conviction, combine so many distinct traditions into a single literature would be ripe for the degree of prestige bestowed by the Swedish Academy. But the Nobel Prize recognizes more than virtuosity, however prodigious, or excellence, however towering. It lauds those literary artists who, through their writings, demonstrate what Alfred Nobel described when he founded the award as, “an idealistic tendency.”
So quaint-sounding a term for so profound a concept. For idealism, as interpreted by the Nobel committee, means nothing less than a commitment to justice, above all other artistic virtues. And no writer has committed his talent, energy, and being more completely to justice than Soyinka, who, for the sake of freedom, has more than once been jailed for his political activities and has had his writings banned.
“The threat of imprisonment, torture and death have remained his companions through a succession of oppressive, totalitarian military regimes in . . . Nigeria,” Gates observed. “Indeed, Soyinka is one of the few creative writers in the world who could have as justifiably been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as that for Literature.”
Soyinka’s artistic range is as impressive as his depth. He is celebrated internationally as a dramatist, poet, novelist, essayist, and polemicist. In addition, he is a stage and screen actor, a theatrical director, a singer, songwriter, and musician. It is typical of the laureate’s commitment to his homeland that in 1991 he served as chairman of Nigeria’s Road Safety Committee, applying his energy to improving that country’s roadways and reforming its system of licensing drivers.
Despite his service to his country, in 1994, Soyinka again ran afoul of the Nigerian government when he publicly challenged the current military dictator on human rights abuses. His passport was confiscated, and Soyinka faced the prospect of house arrest. He left the country, and has been in exile since. He recently completed a position at Emory University in Atlanta and now lives and writes in Los Angeles. Doubtless, though, this witness to the most politically tumultuous era Africa has ever known will one day return home.
Meeting playwright Samuel Beckett in 1963, actress Billie Whitelaw experienced what she recalls as “trust at first sight” . . . followed by 25 years of intermittent but intimate collaboration in which Ms. Whitelaw placed her signature on various plays. The only remaining actor of Beckett’s triplets, (both Patrick McGee and Jack McGowan have passed away) her new biography Billie Whitelaw....Who He?, published by St. Martin’s Press, covers Whitelaw’s childhood in Coventry, her marriage to writer and drama critic Robert Mull, and their son’s near fatal case of meningitis.
Virtually half of the book is devoted to Whitelaw’s collaborations with Beckett, including her function as Beckett’s muse and inspiration as well as a kind of physical instrument for the artist: “She and Beckett never discussed the plays. She simply put herself entirely at his disposal, allowing him, for example, to mold her body as if he were a sculptor.” (American Theatre, April 1994)
Actress Irene Worth recalls the unforgettable intensity of watching Whitelaw perform. Having taken a friend to see Whitelaw in a 1973 production of Not I, she explains: “we experienced a kind of shattering, a fear and awe, a devastation as we watched that mouth, only a mouth, talking in panic, emitting disconnected, wild, frantic words...it bonded my young friend and I together for the rest of our lives. . . the power of art without time or limit.”
Whitelaw broke down during a dress rehearsal of Not I, and had to be carried from the high stool on which she was perched, “like an astronaut who left his capsule.” The experience prompted Beckett’s now famous comment: “Oh, Billie, what have I done to you!”
Her life, as she recalls it, turned to chaos by age seven, when the Nazi Blitz ravaged Coventry. The trauma of a childhood marked by rationing, endless bombs and “hair-raising noise” allowed Whitelaw to later intuit Beckett’s words on a gut level. At one point she asked Beckett how he managed to write the story of her life “ten years before we met.”
Whitelaw began her acting career as a radio actress, and went on to join Joan Littlewood’s acting troupe, ultimately landing work at Sir Lawrence Olivier’s National Theatre. Starting with Play in 1963, Whitelaw worked with Beckett until his death in 1963, starring in Not I, Footfalls, Happy Days, and Rockaby, which the playwright wrote especially for her. Though Beckett was the “kindest and gentlest of men” he was also a ruthless taskmaster: “If you said an ‘Ah’ instead of an ‘Oh,’ he groaned as if stabbed by a knife.”
Of Beckett’s directing, Whitelaw insists that he was interested in something other than the text. During Footfalls, Beckett focused with great detail on the actress’s movements. Worth remembers “the slow pacing, the odd timing, the dim light...the grayness of the stooped figure was oppressive; the young actress had become amorphous and unearthly.
Neither Beckett or Whitelaw ever bothered to learn the rules of the theatre. Whitelaw envisioned her task throughout the years of working with Beckett simply to “get out the scream” in her stomach which the plays elicited. In recent years, Whitelaw has acted primarily in movies and television, though she insists acting is no longer “the center” of her life. When not working in her garden, Whitelaw frequently tours the college circuit—providing workshops and informal performances, “spreading the word” of Samuel Beckett.
During her visit at the New York State Writers Institute, Whitelaw will combine readings of Beckett’s poetry and prose with reminiscences of her collaboration with the playwright, including a videotape of her performance as “Mouth” in Not I. She confesses: “I don’t think people like me become actresses. . .I didn’t go to drama school and hardly went to any school at all. I don’t know the rules, and neither did Sam. Perhaps that’s why we got on so well.”
Christine Atkins is a doctoral student in the English Department, University at Albany
Bob Holman and Ed Sanders Poets for Poetry Dubbed the “ringmaster of the spoken word” (NY Daily News), “Poetry Czar” (Village Voice), and “Dean of the Scene” (Seventeen ), poet and activist Bob Holman dreams of bringing poetry back into people’s daily lives, a dream that seems ever more attainable.
Since 1989 Holman has served as co-director and host of the Lower East Side’s Nuyorican Poets Cafe—a center for spoken-word performers who portray themselves as the “multi-ethnic successors to the Beats.” As the host of the now infamous Friday night Poetry Slams at the Nuyorican, Holman conjures up images of both the comedian and the showman. In 1993 Holman co-founded with Bill Adler the “Rap Meets Poetry” series at the Fez which brought rappers such as Monie Love and KRS-l together with spoken-word poets—resulting in the “Fighting Wordz” spots on MTV. Holman warns that poetry is fast becoming “part of the world again, entering your living rooms via television, slamming across the country on the Internet.”
Born and raised in New York City, Holman describes his father as “the only Jew in Harlan County, Kentucky”—an eccentric dreamer who committed suicide after opening an amusement park in Florida which flopped. Holman was two years old at the time. In the late 1960s, Holman studied at Columbia University with Kenneth Koch and went on to work at St. Mark’s Poetry Project for seven years. The author of numerous poetry collections, Holman’s most recent book The Collect Call of the Wild (1995) has been praised for its feisty ambition; “a coming-out party for a particular poetic generation” which seeks to “drop-kick poetry” into the new millennium.
Co-Editor of Aloud! Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (winner of the 1994 American Book Award), Holman won three Emmys for producing “Poetry Spots” for WNYC-TV and most recently produced a five-part series for PBS called The United States of Poetry. As Henry Louis Gates notes, Holman has already done more to bring poetry to cafes and bars than “anyone since Ferlinghetti.”
Activist, writer, and musician Ed Sanders gained instant recognition in the 1960s with the publication of F---You/A Magazine for the Arts which provided an outlet for a “number of otherwise unpublishable poems” from leading Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, as well as Charles Olson. Raised in Kansas City by a couple of “regular American Stevensonian Democrats,” Sanders abandoned his mid-western life as a promising physicist and hitchhiked to New York City in 1958 with $35 in his pocket and a knapsack full of books which included poetry by Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, and a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl. An active figure in the local literary and political scene, Sanders was arrested in 1961 for trying to stop a newly-launched submarine by swimming in front of it. His subsequent incarceration produced the published work Poem From Jail—written on scraps of toilet paper and smuggled out in Sanders’s shoes.
In the first issue of F--- You, Sanders urged his readers—“send me your banned manuscripts, your peace grams, your cosmic data, your huddled masses yearning to be free...” A life-long student of Charles Olson, Sanders’s poetry manifesto Investigative Poetry reflected and build upon Olson’s Projective Verse, claiming that “poetry should again assume responsibility for the description of history.” Editorials for the magazine reflected Sanders’s radical politics and bohemian penchant for pot smoking and sexual liberation. F--You was published in the back of Sanders’s bookstore Peace Eye—a Lower East Side gathering place for beats and radicals housed in a former Kosher butchershop. In 1965 the New York City Police Department raided Peace Eye, confiscating two underground films Sanders was working on, along with various books and magazines. Although later acquitted of obscenity charges, most of the confiscated material was never returned.
The Peace Eye was also the birthplace of Sanders’s “burlesque folk-rock-poetry satire group” The Fugs, which he co-founded with fellow poet Tuli Kupferberg and which gained Sanders a national and international notoriety. As the musical equivalent of Sanders’s magazine, The Fugs specialized in attacking the same social, cultural, and political targets in an equally outrageous style: “they went out of their way to be offensive . . . particularly on such subjects as f---ing and getting high.” (Jackson)
Sanders’s fascination with the Charles Manson case resulted in a year of intense research which produced his best-selling book The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion (1971), whose message, Sanders hoped, would be to discourage people from following all leaders. Sanders has published numerous volumes of poetry including Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century (1987), which won the American Book Award, Hymn to the Rebel Cafe (1993) and his most recent volume, 1968 (1997), a verse history of the year.
Still an activist, Sanders chairs a committee responsible for environmentally sensitive zoning in his home of Woodstock, New York, where he also runs a weekly newspaper. Sanders’s performances are a quirky blend of poetry and music--showcasing his collection of homemade instruments which includes a “Light Lyre” and a “Talking Tie.” Of his continuing political activism Sanders confesses: “You can’t create a humane and just society sitting around.”
Christine Atkins is a doctoral student in the English Department, University at Albany
The quality that made historian Shelby Foote so convincing in his role as commentator in Ken Burns’s 11–hour PBS documentary The Civil War was his air of relaxed authority. Listening to him as he spoke from his book-lined Memphis study, one could almost imagine that Foote had been on the battlefields of Shiloh and Gettysburg himself, so lucid and precise were his recollections of what took place there. His credibility no doubt is the result of the twin endeavors that have shaped his literary career, namely, those of novel writing and history writing. As both a historian and a novelist, Foote embodies the dialectic between fact and fiction, the immutable events of the actual past and the interior details our imaginations supply to give those events resonance. Both novels and history are stories, but stories with starkly different intent. One seeks to render the past intelligible and alive for posterity, the other to conjure truths out of the untruth of fictional worlds.
In mastering the materials of history and fiction, Foote succeeds in presenting us hard, verifiable historic data still pulsing with human blood and breath. Readers familiar with Foote’s five novels, his stories or his three-volume, The Civil War: A Narrative, knew before Burns made him a celebrity that Foote’s great gift was a narrative style shot through with the juice of life. The Atlantic Monthly, reviewing his 1952 novel Shiloh, about that great Civil War battle, said that it had, “the realism which only art can impart on reality.” Similarly, historian Richard N. Current, in The Mississippi Quarterly, praised Foote’s The Civil War by observing that the reader “puts down the book feeling that he actually has met and known the actors in it.” Whether working in fiction or fact, Foote presents himself as a reliable witness, an artist who can be trusted with both the facts and the truth.
Timothy Cahill writes for the Times Union newspaper in Albany and is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor.
The test of a book is the way it lodges in the mind. Moments of great literature burrow deep into the subconscious, to be called forth almost unbidden at those times when life most needs art.
It is for such writing, of intense melancholy and passion, that Edna O’Brien is treasured by readers internationally.
HAS BIOGRAPHY REPLACED a certain kind of novel? asked one reader at an afternoon seminar at the Writers Institute in September, 1996, with biographers Brenda Wineapple and James R. Mellow.
Frank Fagan's poetry is often irritable, often wry, and always amusing. No one is more aware of the absurdities and indignities of existence. He finds the ridiculous in the heroic, the banal in the profound, the bland in the romantic. The eponymous anti-hero of his verse-play Maginn (1993) articulates the poet's vision in a fable: He recounts how he went in search of four once-famous men and found
That the master singer envied the harp player,
Life often appears an exercise in futility to Fagan. The words "upright man" allude to Job, archetypal inhabitant of a futile universe. Humorously enough, Fagan's upright man is an acrobat, much of whose life is spent anything but upright. Maginn's suffering is equally comical, but his suffering is perhaps made bearable by its comical nature.
Frank Fagan lives in Chatham, New York. Born and raised in Troy, he served in the Korean War before pursuing a variety of professions: writer, editor, political organizer and business executive. In addition to Maginn and Pick A Word, he is the author of a forthcoming novel, Martin M.
Portrayer of Love’s Lost Innocence
Modeling fur coats for the elderly Mr. Klein after school, the young narrator in Amy Bloom's first novel Love Invents Us seems right at home: "I wasn't surprised to find myself in the back of Mr. Klein's store, wearing only my undershirt and panties, surrounded by sable. 'Sable is right for you 'Lizbet', Mr. Klein said, . . . 'Perfect for your skin and your eyes. A million times a day the boys must tell you. Such skin.'"
Precocious and virtually unnoticed by her decorator mother ("You wouldn't like to study an instrument, would you? Piano? Perhaps a piano in the library. That would be attractive") and aloof father, Elizabeth gathers love greedily when she can find it-- assembling an unlikely group of admirers to usher her through a bumpy adolescence.
Mr. Klein is followed by the piano teacher Mr. Canetti, in whose eyes Elizabeth spies her own "beautiful self take shape", and then at 13, the junior high English teacher Max Stone, with whom she begins a love affair that persists nearly a decade. Max's love eventually overwhelms her, turning "what was simple and safe as milk into a pool of black ice, everything familiar slipping sideways and slipping under."
Elizabeth locates a safer object of lust in the lanky, high-school basketball star Huddie Lester. Giving themselves over to love's first insatiable pangs of desire, the narrator confesses : "We used every private place a small, affluent town has, every well-kept wood, every wintering swimming pool, every empty boat house..."
Love Invents Us follows Elizabeth's troubled love trysts as they evolve in later chapters into full-fledged adult relationships. Reunited with the married Huddie, Elizabeth comes to crave friendship as much as physical intimacy. The two negotiate a kind of partnership which includes the joint caretaking of Max during the late stages of a fatal illness.
Bloom acknowledges the genesis for Love Invents Us to be the relationship with her doting grandfather—a man who was not known in "the rest of his life" for warmth or generosity, but with whom she forged a magical and charmed world: "Mismatched and misunderstood everywhere else, in our world we were king and princess, scintillating conversationalists . . . we were not only made for each other, we were made by each other."
A practising psychotherapist and writer, Bloom's work tackles the sickness, grief, and love which line the lives of her characters with a hugeness of generosity likened to Chekhov. In her first collection of short stories Come To Me, nominated for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award, even the most disturbing of stories is graced with the persistent ingredient of hope. Novelist Dorothy Allison writes: "Bloom brings the love of the human to a new pitch, to a pure belief in hope, in sympathy, in the underlying sustenance of love itself...these are huge, wide, passionate stories."
In "Love is Not Like a Pie", a mother's journey toward infidelity with a family friend is inscribed with forgiving sweetness by her young daughter: "They only danced the fast dances, and they danced as though they'd been waiting all their lives for each song. My mother's movements got deeper and smoother, and Mr. DeCuervo suddenly came alive, as though the spotlight had hit him. My father danced the way he was, warm, noisy, teasing, a little overpowering; but Mr. DeCuervo, who was usually quiet and thoughtful and serious, became a different man when he danced with my mother . . . "
A trilogy of stories ("Hyacinths", "The Sight of You", "Silver Water") forms the poignant core of the book. In "The Sight of You", a married pianist with two young daughters embarks on an affair with her handsome neighbor, a builder who promises to leave his wife for her. The pianist recalls watching her lover swimming laps in the summer: "He got out of the water, face turned to me, and came up the stairs to the deck, dripping water through the building...'I can't not come to you', he said, 'I just don't have any choice about it.' And he gathered up my hair into little bunches and pressed them against his wet face like flowers."
"Silver Water" continues to weave the story of the same characters only years later. Here the pianist's daughter relates with grief and weary dispassion the chronicle of her singer sister's decent into madness and suicide. Loss bubbles over, mixed with nostalgia, as the narrator recalls with devastation the memory of her sister: "I closed my eyes and saw my sister, 14 years old, lion's mane thrown back and eyes tightly closed against the glare of the parking lot lights. That sweet song held us tight, flowering around us, eddying through our hearts, rising, still rising."
Using a language rich with description and fresh imagery, Bloom casts a gentle, bittersweet spell over the world's lost innocence. Love works its way into the lives of her characters with a quiet, surprising grace. In Love Invents Us, Elizabeth describes the elderly woman Mrs. Hill, for whom she has spent afternoons house cleaning under church supervision, with a tenderness which reveals deep love: "One afternoon, I found her smiling in her sleep when I walked in, her feet, brown and yellow and bumpy as toads, soaking in warm water and camomile leaves. I dried her feet and moisturized them and filed down her toenails and painted them Carnaby Crimson. I had everything I needed." In all of her work, Amy Bloom gives us ranges of human emotions, complexities of their consequences, and insights which hearken the solace of closure.
Bloom's work has appeared in The New Yorker, Anataeus, and Story. She is a contributing editor at New Woman and has published non-fiction work in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Her stories have been anthologized in the 1991 and 1992 Best American Short Stories collections, and the 1994 O. Henry Prize Story Collection.
Christine Atkins is a doctoral student in the English Department, University at Albany
It is difficult to precisely classify poet Eamon Grennan's literary nationality. Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1941, he has spent the last 30 years -- more than half his life -- in the United States, most of that teaching English at Vassar College. He is, to a sure, a product of Irish poetry, from Yeats through Patrick Kavanagh and John Montague, yet he freely acknowledges the influence of American poetic tradition from Robert Frost to Robert Creeley on his perceptions and his writing. Grennon's first book of poems, Wildly for Days, appeared in Ireland in 1982, when he was nearly 42. He has had three books published in America, What Light There Is and Other Poems (1989), As If It Matters (1992) and So It Goes (1995). The interview was conducted by telephone with Grennon in his Vassar office on Jan. 29, 1997
I was sort of literary at UCD, University College, Dublin -- I ran a magazine, a literary society, and was part of that kind of crowd. It was a fairly active Dublin at that stage -- this was 1960 to -64, and contemporaries of mine [at UCD] would have been Michael Hartnett and Paul Durcan, while at Trinity there was Derek Mahon and Eavan Boland and Michael Longley. Fairly lively. And it was still the tail-end of the Kavanagh era in Dublin.
I was writing a little bit then, but when I came here for graduate school, to Harvard, in 1965, I didn't do any writing at all. I was a student of the Renaissance, so I was writing essays, doing my thesis. In 1974, I started teaching at Vassar. I was still involved with bits and pieces of the literary life, so to speak, but I wasn't a practitioner at all. At least, I would never have shown anything I was doing.
Then, in 1977, I took unpaid leave and went back to Ireland for a year. I took my then-wife and two children back to live, and that's when I really started to write poems and publish them. I did it on purpose -- took a year off and tried to write. Any poems I've written come since then.
I went back to Ireland in '81. I had a leave given to me by the college, and I went and wrote for about six months. Again, it was a fairly deliberate attempt to plug myself back in. I knew people in my generation. My first book came out of all that, in 1983.
The semantic aspect of it is that I work through sentences. The line is the way I pattern the thing, but the sentence is the ambition of the thought. It's a forward motion. I have, it's a toothache quality, a kind of pain -- the ambition to make a sentence that is full, that has not gone limp, hasn't stopped while it still has some elasticity in it. When I'm teaching, I always tell the students -- You can take that further. And it's not just saying you can think more, but that somehow built into the sound and the rhythms of the thing there is more to be said. Meanings are partly built into sound and rhythm.
It's like a score, you hear it. It's a sound-based form, sound-based and sentence-based. The sound is the choir, the sentence is the full meaning of the thing, and the line is the conductor, keeping the thing rhythmically in check.
John Ashbery’s poetry has been compared to abstract painting for its sensuous surfaces and absence of “ideas” and narrative content. The comparison is drawn, in part, from the fact that Ashbery spent 25 years of his professional life reviewing and writing about art, first for the Paris Herald Tribune, then for ArtNews magazine, which he edited, and Newsweek. During that time, Ashbery chronicled 20th-century art as a front-line witness to its movements and momentums.
About his life writing for the popular press, Ashbery has said it trained him “to produce an article . . . rain or shine, exhibition or no exhibition.” He told David Bergman, who edited a 1989 collection of his art columns, that the experience taught him he could “sit down the same way with a poem.” Bergman noted that throughout his career, Ashbery maintained his “amateur status” as an art critic, choosing instead of connoisseurship or scholarly authority a tone of assured, refined observation. The same could be said for much of his poetry, which, however linguistically challenging, doesn’t alienate the reader with intellectual pyrotechnics.
Ashbery was a friend of the iconoclastic painter Fairfield Porter, and wrote several times about the man he called “perhaps the major American artist of this century.” Ashbery’s appearance in Albany is in conjunction with an exhibition of Porter’s realist paintings at the Albany Institute of History & Art, where he will both read from his poetry and speak about the artist. The evening offers a rare opportunity to see the Pulitzer-Prize winner in more than one role, and observe how his various enthusiasms merge and combine.
Timothy Cahill writes for the Times Union newspaper in Albany and is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor.
Phillip Lopate and Le Anne Schreiber
Revealing Life Through the Personal Essay
Asked about the social consequences of the personal essay, Phillip Lopate says "you become a watcher; you don't suppress your feeling, but there's a part of you that's always calm and watching."
This sense of watchfulness links the essays of Phillip Lopate in Portrait of My Body (1996) with the memoirs of Le Anne Schreiber in Midstream (1990) and Light Years, (1996) though for each author the view is mediated in different ways.
While both present chronicles of the lives they lead, Lopate and Schreiber position themselves at different vantage points. Schreiber is at home in her solitude and more solitary pursuits, even as she reflects on her ties to kith and kin. The knowledge she gains derives from the close communion she feels with nature.
Lopate, on the other hand, is a watcher of people, including himself. His essays take their shape from human interaction and dialogue--and speculation about unspoken motives. His gift is to paint picture images of people caught alive where he has found them.
In an essay about his father, he writes "the frailer elderly all come to resemble turtles trapped in curved shells--shrinking, wrinkled and immobile." In discussing the fee he will charge a performance artist to write her profile, he observes "now she was afraid of being suckered; she had that slightly disenchanted air of an upper-middle-class woman buying a tradesman's loyalty or a tennis teacher's time, knowing that money talked."
He seems to contend that self-knowledge and a curiosity about other people form a causal relationship; that through observation and the interpretation of human motivation, we unfailingly grow to know more about ourselves.
And nobody described in these essays escapes Lopate's unsparing portraiture. But because his hand is guided by good humor and common sense, a democracy of observation prevails.
Whether he is writing about his wife's attitude toward him during labor ("Her underlying reproach seemed to be that I was not hooked into her brain--was not able to anticipate her needs through ESP or heightened sensitivity--and she would have to waste precious breath articulating them.") or his experience at a lecture by the Dalai Lama ("...the little I heard sounded like platitudes about our need for love and world peace. Now it may well be that platitudes ultimately contain the highest wisdom attainable. But I was looking for evidence to debunk the scene"), a tactful frankness takes the leading edge.
Yet alongside the wit and eye for detail is a dry-eyed ethicist. In "Resistance to the Holocaust", Lopate argues against setting the Holocaust apart from other genocides of history simply because this is the most expedient way to prevent its re-occurrence. From Lopate's vantage point, humanity cannot afford postulations about the uniqueness of evil in a world so randomly ensnared by it.
This world, as sketched by Lopate, is an intimate one in which the rich pragmatics of human intercourse subsume and surpass theories about how life is meant to be. Along with Lopate the reader, too, is watching and watching closely.
Le Anne Schreiber's memoirs seem to arise from her life the way fog lifts off a lake at dawn.
Midstream, her first book of memoirs, began as a trout fishing journal inspired by her move to Columbia County in upstate New York. It became, instead, a series of reflections on her mother's progress toward death from cancer.
In Light Years, Schreiber's second book of memoirs, she abandons the journal format for lyrical essays in which she writes more meditatively, allowing the narratives of her father's and brother's deaths to remain veiled. It is her love of fly-fishing and the lush topography of Columbia County that provide the locus of both elegy and redemption.
Both books deal with the impact of death on the living, and increasingly Schreiber turns to nature to find stability and to her dreams to find understanding.
She is aware that this inward focus and solitude comes at the cost of her connectedness to a community of friends. She acknowledges in Light Years, "Some ask, and others look as if they want to ask, why I do not look for comfort in the company of other loving humans...It is not that I found other human beings wanting, but that I found them, like me, mortal, which is, I guess a kind of profound unreliability."
Schreiber's use of this knowledge does not lead her to despair. She writes, in Midstream that "Death is making a pagan of me." But it is clear she means it in the ancient, sacred sense of the word: paganism as connection to the natural world, including the dead which belong to it.
After living through the deaths of her family members and settling into a geography of nature, she fashions for herself a nearly palpable peace, one in which creed and dogma have no priority.
"I am not talking about belief," she affirms in Midstream, "but the experience of consolation."
Schreiber's memoirs date from the time she moved to Columbia County, which signaled a resolute change in the direction of her life. Prior to that, Schreiber was named the first female sports editor of The New York Times and then deputy editor of The New York Times Book Review. She resides in Ancram, in upstate New York.
In addition to Portrait of My Body, Phillip Lopate is the author of Bachelorhood (1981) and Against Joie de Vivre (1989). He edited The Art of the Personal Essay (1994) and was the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. He holds the Adams Chair at Hofstra University, where he is Professor of English.
Jo Page is a Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute and Protestant Minister at Chapel House.