Heaney’s Bog Poems

Here’s Seamus Heaney, first talking about his poems on the bog bodies of Iron Age Europe, in Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones, and then the bog poems themselves, spanning three of his collections: Wintering Out, North, and District and Circle. Also, since I hope to do a post on the bog bodies at some point, interested readers would do well to […]

Read More →

Allen Ginsberg, “Kaddish”

I’d like to say that after Four Quartets, I don’t know of another long poem from the last century that’s meant as much to me as Allen Ginsberg’s elegy for his mother, Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg, 1894-1956. But it’s so powerful that even describing it as a poem seems silly: it really doesn’t matter what you call it, as it […]

Read More →

Hart Crane, High & Low

Here is one the my favorite moments from a writer’s life, followed by one of the saddest. Only seven months apart, they typify the pendulum of great highs and awful lows in Hart Crane’s life. Desperate to write, and giving in his letters as articulate a record of that burning desire as any writer I know, it is hard not […]

Read More →

Yeats Comes to the Occult

Here is W. B. Yeats, remembering some of his adult experiences with the occult and supernatural. All taken from his The Trembling of the Veil, collected in Autobiographies: When staying with Hyde in Roscommon, I had driven over to Lough Kay, hoping to find some local memory of the old story of Tumaus Costello, which I was turning into a […]

Read More →

Henry Vaughan – 5 Poems

Here are a few pieces from seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan. Going through The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, the usual names stuck out, but Vaughan seemed to run past most of them. Trying to place him, he strikes me very nearly as a forerunner of William Blake in the visionary quality of his unexpected rhythms. I’ve seen him placed a […]

Read More →

Tacitus & Primo Levi

It was nice to realize that two Italian writers who lived almost two thousand years apart appear to share the same tone and outlook on world events. Here are a few bits from the Roman historian Tacitus (in his Annal of Imperial Rome) and the more recent memoirist and novelist, Primo Levi (in his The Drowned & the Saved). They […]

Read More →

Whitman Last

It has always seemed significant to me that, at the beginning of the first and the end of the last edition of his great book of poems, Walt Whitman gives us a long essay in prose. I thought to only give selections of them, but it is impossible to edit Whitman, to put a stopper in one of his sentences […]

Read More →

Whitman First

It has always seemed significant to me that, at the beginning of the first and the end of the last edition of his great book of poems, Walt Whitman gives us a long essay in prose. I thought to only give selections of them, but it is impossible to edit Whitman, to put a stopper in one of his sentences […]

Read More →

Yeats Discovers Poetry

Here’s W. B. Yeats recalling his earliest experiences of poetry: ….This may have come from the stable-boy, for he was my principal friend. He had a book of Orange rhymes, and the days when we read them together in the hay-loft gave me the pleasure of rhyme for the first time. Later on I can remember being told, when there […]

Read More →

Heaney on Writing

Here’s Seamus Heaney talking about writing, from Dennis O’Driscoll’s book-length interview with him, Stepping Stones: On Inspiration On the week in May 1969 when he wrote “about forty poems”: It was a visitation, an onset, and as such, powerfully confirming. This you felt, was “it.” You had been initiated into the order of the inspired. Even though most of the […]

Read More →

Joyce & Proust Meet

From that greatest of literary biographies, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, here is the account of Joyce meeting Marcel Proust, only a few months before Proust’s death: On May 18, 1922, Sydney Schiff (“Stephen Hudson”), the English novelist whom Joyce had met a few times, invited him to a supper party for Stravinsky and Diaghilev following the first performance of one […]

Read More →

T. S. Eliot on Dante

Is there anything better than T. S. Eliot talking about his debt to Dante? Here is the majority of his famous essay “What Dante Means to Me” (hence my own “What Eliot Means to Me”), which can be found in his collection of essays, To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings. The essay was originally presented as a speech given […]

Read More →

The Unfinished Kafka

Reiner Stach, in the middle entry of his three volume biography of Franz Kafka, writes, “Anyone who studies bibliographies today will envy Kafka’s earliest readers, who knew very little about his life and could enjoy his work as literature and not as an accumulation of autobiographical codes.” (186) Stach’s biography (and its beautiful translation into English by Shelley Frisch) seems to give us Kafka as if from that very perspective: for while Kafka’s life and writing are clearly interwoven, there is no sense of stretching or forcing the life or the writing over each other. The second volume at least is less concerned with “what of the life got into the writing” than it is with “what kind of life did the writing emerge from,” and for that and many other reasons is easily one of the most enjoyable biographies I’ve read in a very long time. My earliest reading of Kafka included this remark from George Steiner, on Kafka’s fable “Before the Law”: “The knowledge that it was written … by a gentleman in a bowler hat going to and from his daily insurance business, defies my grasp.” Stach’s book allows that defiance to continue, and deepen, and is just as much the biography of a writer as it is of a young man from Prague in the years leading up to World War One, as he struggles with the pressures of family and career, and the possibility of marriage. […]

Read More →

Wallace Stevens, Intergalactic Planetary

Here are some bits on writing, nature, and anonymous everyday life from Wallace Stevens, that quiet murmur of American poetry who may well outlast nearly everybody. The following are from his letters and journals, from 1898 to 1955, only a few months before his death at seventy-five. That a poet so technically isolated (and gladly so) from all the clichés […]

Read More →

Heaney Comes to Poetry

Here are some of Seamus Heaney’s memories of reading, writing, and poetry, from earliest schooldays to university, all taken from Dennis O’Driscoll’s wonderful book-length interview with him,  Stepping Stones. Yes, my memory of learning to read goes back to my first days in Anahorish School, the charts for the letters, the big-lettered reading books. But I don’t think I showed […]

Read More →

Yeats & Lady Gregory

(photo from the LG/WBY Heritage Trail) In the single-volume Autobiographies of W. B. Yeats, which collects all of Yeats’s autobiographical writings from throughout his life, the great Irish poet mentions the memoirs of one John O’Leary. O’Leary was apparently taking his good old time at it, writing “passages for his memoirs upon postcards and odd scraps of paper, taking immense […]

Read More →

Classic Joyce

Too much to choose from, but here’s some classic bits from James Joyce that are always worth keeping in mind: On Writing: “Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do? I mean that I am trying in my poems to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure […]

Read More →

Hart Crane to His Father

In early January, 1924, the poet Hart Crane, twenty-four and basically broke, received a letter from his father offering to hire him into the family business. To a friend, Crane wrote, “Along comes a letter from my father this morning offering me a position with him as travelling salesman! This is unacceptable, of course, even though I now can’t complete […]

Read More →

Jung’s Great Dream

Jung traveled with Freud and others to America in late September, 1909, and on the boat returning to Europe, he had a dream. Whatever you make of Jung’s overarching theories and scholarship, it always seems better to think of him more as a poet or mystic, and so his strength seems to lie in descriptions of intense inner experiences, and […]

Read More →

T. S. Eliot’s Sacred Wood

Here is a favorite bit from a youthful T. S. Eliot (he’s just turned thirty but that’s young to me now): after leaving America for England and abandoning the teaching job at Harvard his family was expecting of him, he made an unfortunate marriage and started a literary life of day job, essays and reviews, and (when he could), poetry. […]

Read More →

Jean Guéhenno (Favorite Passages)

Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944: Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris, by Jean Guéhenno Guéhenno bio A selection from one of the best documents of occupation during wartime, and one of my favorite diaries of a writer: [Guéhenno, on how he was a pacifist after WWI, but not after WWII started] I will never believe that men […]

Read More →

Albert Camus, Notebooks (Favorite Passages)

Albert Camus: Notebooks, 1935 – 1951 Volume 1: 1935-1942 What I mean is this: that one can, with no romanticism, feel nostalgic for lost poverty. A certain number of years lived without money are enough to create a whole sensibility. 3 It is in this life of poverty, among these vain or humble people, that I have most certainly touched […]

Read More →

Hieronymus Bosch

Entries in the Anthology series organize my favorite anecdotes about artists, writers, and historical events, and are always being updated. While I love and depend on the exhaustive biography or study, in many ways the disconnected stories and fragments have been more important in my day-to-day living with art, literature and history. As such, nothing original is assumed here, and […]

Read More →

Albrecht Dürer

Entries in the Anthology series organize my favorite anecdotes about artists, writers, and historical events, and are always being updated. While I love and depend on the exhaustive biography or study, in many ways the disconnected stories and fragments have been more important in my day-to-day living with art, literature and history. As such, nothing original is assumed here, and […]

Read More →

Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper - People in the Sun

Entries in the Anthology series organize my favorite anecdotes about artists, writers, and historical events, and are always being updated. While I love and depend on the exhaustive biography or study, in many ways the disconnected stories and fragments have been more important in my day-to-day living with art, literature and history. As such, nothing original is assumed here, and […]

Read More →

Cyril Edwards (Interview)

I’ve relied on many translators and scholars in the writing of To the House of the Sun, and over the years I’ve been lucky enough to correspond with a few of them. Their specialties vary widely—Greek religion, Hinduism/Indo-European studies, Egyptology, Arthurian romance, etc.—and it seems that their enthusiasm and love for language, history, and religion are worth sharing. Especially since […]

Read More →

What Eliot Means to Me

(for Eliot’s essay “What Dante Means to Me,” go here) I. Late in life, T. S. Eliot hoped the essays of his that would last would be those “appreciations of individual authors,” saying he had written best “about writers who have influenced my own poetry.”[1] He had come a long way from the essays written in his youth, essays famously […]

Read More →