Advice from Walt Whitman & W. B. Yeats – Human Voices Wake Us
An episode from 5/5/21: Tonight, I read part of John Keats’s famous letter of October 27, 1818, where he talks about the poet and the poetic character. Although, the kind of person he describes is alive and well in all walks of life, from high school to the board room to the celebrity who can’t wait to leave the party.
He asks the questions: how much of a poet’s life is given up by their focus on poetry, by their people-watching and people-listening, by their lack of social skills? How much of their lives are left over when they become so consumed (whether attracted or repelled) with the lives and words of others?
Keats says, in part: “It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature–how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins so to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated.”
Tonight we hear from two great writers of fiction, Charles Dickens and Alice Munro.
Through a handful of readings from Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life, we see how Dickens (1812-1870) was able to juggle, for almost a year, the writing of two novels simultaneously, both for serial publication. Thanks to a letter written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, who visited Dickens in London in 1862, we also hear Dickens speaking privately in a way that he rarely did publicly, admitting that his villains were better reflections of himself than his more lovable and generous characters. We also answer the question: what do David Copperfield and Jane Eyre have in common?
From the introduction to her Selected Stories, Alice Munro (born in 1931, and winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize) describes how, as a homemaker, she came to writing short stories very nearly by necessity. She also discusses how she set her first attempts at fiction in faraway, historical, or Brontë-inspired surroundings, and only later came to see the artistic potential of her own backyard, in the Lake Huron region of Canada.
An episode from 6/26/22: We are incredibly lucky that, in the novelist Toni Morrison (1931-2019), we had that rare thing: a great writer who also achieved great popularity with the general public. This meant that she was interviewed about her life, her books, and about creativity and the news of the day, hundreds of times.
In this episode, I’ve gone through my favorite interviews with her and gathered the best parts into these segments:
- (:35) On love (parental, romantic, religious)
- (8:25) On childhood, family history, and being a parent and a writer
- (43:32) On race, writing in difficult political and social moments, and being more interested in good than evil
- (1:11:48) On writing in general, and specifically the writing of Beloved
The interviews I’ve drawn from are these:
- Toni Morrison In Depth, on C-SPAN
- Toni Morrison on Charlie Rose in 1993, 1998, and 2015
- Toni Morrison, interviewed by Junot Diaz
- Toni Morrison interview by Farah Jasmine Griffin at the 92nd Street Y
- Toni Morrison on NPR’s Fresh Air: in 2015, and a Retrospective
- Toni Morrison on BBC’s World Book Club
An episode from 10/25/20: A reading from the poet W. S. Merwin’s memoir, The Mays of Ventadorn, where he recalls meeting the poet Ezra Pound in 1949. Merwin, who died in 2019 at the age of ninety-one, was just starting out when he paid a visit to Pound.
For his part, by 1949 Ezra Pound (1885-1972) had already known and influenced every great Modernist poet since 1900, going to university in America with William Carlos Williams and H. D., living in London with W. B. Yeats for a time as his secretary, and famously editing T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Pound was also consumed with his own political and economic theories, and it was his time in Italy, and later broadcasts made in support of Mussolini during World War II, that prompted his arrest when he returned to American in 1945. Found mentally unfit to stand trial for treason, he was placed in St. Elizabeths, a psychiatric hospital in Washington, DC.
It was in this setting that the elder poet was nevertheless able to give the younger poet some tremendous advice, the most important of which was to become a translator. Merwin writes: He told me he imagined I was serious, and that if I was I should learn languages, “so as not to be at the mercy of translators.” And then I should translate, myself. “If you’re going to be a poet,” he said, “you have to work at it every day. You should about seventy-five lines a day. But at your age you don’t have anything to write about. You may think you do, but you don’t. So get to work translating…. Get as close to the original as you can. It will make you use your English and find out what you can do with it.”
Merwin, of course, became one of the great poets of his generation, in part because of his translations, beginning with The Poem of the Cid in 1959.
True Horror – Human Voices Wake Us
Stephen King's Great Novel of Parenthood & Grief – Human Voices Wake Us
An episode from 7/27/22: Tonight, I read from Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life, sharing the sections covering Van Gogh’s two Starry Night paintings, and his many paintings of sunflowers.
Before these images became as ubiquitous as Michelangelo’s David, they were the product of a largely unknown artist who was working in the south of France in the late 1880s. Unable to support himself in any conventional way, unable to make or keep friends, and unable–it seems–to do much else than paint and paint, these pictures are only a few of his expressions of love for the world, and how he saw it.
It is significant, too, that his Starry Night Over the Rhone includes the two stock-figures that appear over and over again in his work: a couple, walking together; that his other Starry Night depicts a village beneath its swirl of stars. And his many sunflowers were, of course, painted ahead of Paul Gauguin’s arrival at Vincent’s Yellow House in Arles, and were spread around as a kind of welcoming gift. All of these works point to van Gogh’s fantasies of romantic companionship, sympathetic friendship among fellow artists, and his simple–and sometimes sentimental–desire to simply belong, all of which were doomed. Where van Gogh failed in human company, he succeeded, at great cost to himself, with his art.