December 13, 2010


A friend shared this quote from the TV show, Mad Men:
Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel, it's called the carousel. It let's us travel the way a child travels - around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.
 Reminded me of what Milan Kundera wrote about Nostalgia in Ignorance:
The Greek word for "return" is nostos. Algos means "suffering." So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. To express that fundamental notion most Europeans can utilize a word derived from the Greek (nostalgia, nostalgie) as well as other words with roots in their national languages: añoranza, say the Spaniards; saudade, say the Portuguese. In each language these words have a different semantic nuance. Often they mean only the sadness caused by the impossibility of returning to one's country: a longing for country, for home. What in English is called "homesickness." Or in German: Heimweh. In Dutch: heimwee. But this reduces that great notion to just its spatial element. One of the oldest European languages, Icelandic (like English) makes a distinction between two terms: söknuour: nostalgia in its general sense; and heimprá: longing for the homeland. Czechs have the Greek-derived nostalgie as well as their own noun, stesk, and their own verb; the most moving, Czech expression of love: styska se mi po tobe ("I yearn for you," "I'm nostalgic for you"; "I cannot bear the pain of your absence"). In Spanish añoranza comes from the verb añorar (to feel nostalgia), which comes from the Catalan enyorar, itself derived from the Latin word ignorare (to be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss), In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don't know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don't know what is happening there. Certain languages have problems with nostalgia: the French can only express it by the noun from the Greek root, and have no verb for it; they can say Je m'ennuie de toi (I miss you), but the word s'ennuyer is weak, cold -- anyhow too light for so grave a feeling. The Germans rarely use the Greek-derived term Nostalgie, and tend to say Sehnsucht in speaking of the desire for an absent thing. But Sehnsucht can refer both to something that has existed and to something that has never existed (a new adventure), and therefore it does not necessarily imply the nostos idea; to include in Sehnsucht the obsession with returning would require adding a complementary phrase: Sehnsucht nach der Vergangenheit, nach der verlorenen Kindheit, nach der ersten Liebe (longing for the past, for lost childhood, for a first love).

Also, later on page 77-78, he writes: 
Until then her view of time was the present moving forward and devouring the future; she either feared its swiftness (when she was awaiting something difficult) or rebelled at its slowness (when she was awaiting something fine). Now time has a very different look; it is no longer the conquering present capturing the future; it is the present conquered and captured and carried off by the past. She sees a young man disconnecting himself from her life and going away, forevermore out of her reach. Mesmerized, all she can do is watch this piece of her life move off; all she can do is watch it and suffer. She is experiencing a brand-new feeling called nostalgia.

I realized I have posted before on the subject of 
añoranza and Kundera's take on it here.

December 12, 2010

Of fame and disgrace

Found this great quote by Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet, which I thought was worth sharing: 
"I experienced great fame, I experienced great disgrace and I have come to the conclusion that, in essentials, it is all the same" - Anna Akhmatova, enduring the scathing attack by Stalin and his flunkies.

After reading some of her poems, I got intrigued to read more about her life and picked up "Anna of All the Russias", a biography of Anna Akhmatova, at the library yesterday. Here is a brief gist of the background to the above quote (In the paragraphs below I often quote entire lines from the book, Chapter 13; all copyrights remain with the author, Elaine Feinstein and the publishers of the book): 

The 1920s and 1930s were years of much torment and anguish for Anna Akhmatova and you can read a brief summary of those "accursed years" here
However, things seemed to be looking better by 1940 when Stalin approved the publication of her bookof poems 'From Six Books' and Mikhail Lozinsky, the foremost translator of Shakespeareinto Russian, praised Anna Akhmatova saying her poems "would last as long as the Russian language exists, and every last grain of them will be garnered like lines of Catullus". However, by later that year she was being hounded by the Soviet authorities again, with production of her books halted by August when they caught the attention of theNKVD (pre-cursor of the KGB). By October 29th, the few copies of 'From Six Books' that had been printed were taken from the shops and her book banned. The despair of war and Hitler's attacks on Paris and London and the seige of Leningrad followed...
After the war, as the Cold War gripped the world, her meetings with the British diplomat Isaiah Berlin brought further attention from the Soviet powers-that-be. In August 1946, the executive committee of the Writers' Union launched a scathing attack on Akhmatova, with Andrey Zhdanov, Stalin's cultural commissar saying:
"Anna Akhmatova is one of the representatives of a reactionary literarary quagmire devoid of ideas... one of the standard bearers of a hollow, empty, aristocratic salon poetry which is absolutely foreign to Soviet Literature....  Anna Akhmatova's subject-matter is thoroughly individualistic. The range of her poetry is pitifully limited -- this is the poetry of a feral lady from the salons, moving between the boudoir and the prayer-stool. It is based on erotic motifs linked with motifs of mourning, melancholy, death, mysticism, and isolation. … She is half-nun, half whore, or rather both whore and nun, with her petty, narrow private life, her trivial experiences, and her religious-mystical eroticism. Akhmatova's poetry is totally foreign to the people."
It is in this context that Akhmatova has been said to have said:
"I experienced great fame, I experienced great disgrace and I have come to the conclusion that, in essentials, it is all the same"
Ironic how some people endure so much pain and anguish during their lives.... but continue to "live" eternally in the memories of people through their work and the stories of their lives. 120+ years since her birth and 40+ years since her death, here I am spending a weekend reading her poems and about her life! But what does such fame mean to someone long dead and who suffered a lot in her life at the hands of totalitarian regimes? Something to ponder over...especially given all the recent attention and celebration of another such hero suffering at the hands of a totalitarian regime: Liu Xiaobo.

I'll leave you with these words from Anna Akhmatova's famous poem, Requiem:
I have learned how faces fall to bone,
how under the eyelids terror lurks,
how suffering inscribes on cheeks
the hard lines of its cuneiform texts,
how glossy black or ash-fair locks
turn overnight to tarnished silver,
how smiles fade on submissive lips,
and fear quavers in a dry titter.
And I pray not for myself alone...
for all who stood outside the jail,
in bitter cold or summer's blaze,
with me under that blind red wall.

What is fundamental, enduring, essential

On this day in 1976 Saul Bellow made his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Here are some excerpts from this amazing speech:
Characters, Elizabeth Bowen once said, are not created by writers. They pre-exist and they have to be found. If we do not find them, if we fail to represent them, the fault is ours. It must be admitted, however, that finding them is not easy. The condition of human beings has perhaps never been more difficult to define. Those who tell us that we are in an early stage of universal history must be right. We are being lavishly poured together and seem to be experiencing the anguish of new states of consciousness. In America many millions of people have in the last forty years received a "higher education" - in many cases a dubious blessing. In the upheavals of the Sixties we felt for the first time the effects of up-to-date teachings, concepts, sensitivities, the pervasiveness of psychological, pedagogical, political ideas.
Every year we see scores of books and articles which tell the Americans what a state they are in - which make intelligent or simpleminded or extravagant or lurid or demented statements. All reflect the crises we are in while telling us what we must do about them; these analysts are produced by the very disorder and confusion they prescribe for. It is as a writer that I am considering their extreme moral sensitivity, their desire for perfection, their intolerance of the defects of society, the touching, the comical boundlessness of their demands, their anxiety, their irritability, their sensitivity, their tendermindedness, their goodness, their convulsiveness, the recklessness with which they experiment with drugs and touch-therapies and bombs. The ex-Jesuit Malachi Martin in his book on the Church compares the modern American to Michelangelo's sculpture, The Captive. He sees "an unfinished struggle to emerge whole" from a block of matter. The American "captive" is beset in his struggle by "interpretations, admonitions, forewarnings and descriptions of himself by the self-appointed prophets, priests, judges and prefabricators of his travail," says Martin.
Let me take a little time to look more closely at this travail. In private life, disorder or near-panic. In families - for husbands, wives, parents, children - confusion; in civic behavior, in personal loyalities, in sexual practices (I will not recite the whole list; we are tired of hearing it) - further confusion. And with this private disorder goes public bewilderment. In the papers we read what used to amuse us in science fiction - The New York Times speaks of death rays and of Russian and American satellites at war in space...... ...It is with these facts that knock us to the ground that we try to live.

Good and evil are not symmetrically distributed along political lines. But I have made my point; we stand open to all anxieties. The decline and fall of everything is our daily dread, we are agitated in private life and tormented by public questions.
And art and literature - what of them? Well, there is a violent uproar but we are not absolutely dominated by it. We are still able to think, to discriminate, and to feel. The purer, subtler, higher activities have not succumbed to fury or to nonsense. Not yet. Books continue to be written and read. It may be more difficult to reach the whirling mind of a modern reader but it is possible to cut through the noise and reach the quiet zone. In the quiet zone we may find that he is devoutly waiting for us. When complications increase, the desire for essentials increases too. The unending cycle of crises that began with the First World War has formed a kind of person, one who has lived through terrible, strange things, and in whom there is an observable shrinkage of prejudices, a casting off of disappointing ideologies, an ability to live with many kinds of madness, an immense desire for certain durable human goods - truth, for instance, or freedom, or wisdom. I don't think I am exaggerating; there is plenty of evidence for this. Disintegration? Well, yes. Much is disintegrating but we are experiencing also an odd kind of refining process.

What would writers do today if it would occur to them that literature might once again engage those "central energies", if they were to recognize that an immense desire had arisen for a return from the periphery, for what was simple and true?
Of course we can't come back to the center simply because we want to; but the fact that we are wanted might matter to us and the force of the crisis is so great that it may summon us back to such a center. But prescriptions are futile. One can't tell writers what to do. The imagination must find its own path. But one can fervently wish that they - that we - would come back from the periphery. We do not, we writers, represent mankind adequately. What account do Americans give of themselves, what accounts of them are given by psychologists, sociologists, historians, journalists, and writers? In a kind of contractual daylight they see themselves in the ways with which we are so desperately familiar. These images of contractual daylight, so boring to Robbe-Grillet and to me, originate in the contemporary world view: We put into our books the consumer, civil servant, football fan, lover, television viewer. And in the contractual daylight version their life is a kind of death. There is another life coming from an insistent sense of what we are which denies these daylight formulations and the false life - the death in life - they make for us. For it is false, and we know it, and our secret and incoherent resistance to it cannot stop, for that resistance arises from persistent intuitions. Perhaps humankind cannot bear too much reality, but neither can it bear too much unreality, too much abuse of the truth...

What is at the center now? At the moment, neither art nor science but mankind determining, in confusion and obscurity, whether it will endure or go under. The whole species - everybody - has gotten into the act. At such a time it is essential to lighten ourselves, to dump encumbrances, including the encumbrances of education and all organized platitudes, to make judgments of our own, to perform acts of our own. Conrad was right to appeal to that part of our being which is a gift. We must hunt for that under the wreckage of many systems. The failure of those systems may bring a blessed and necessary release from formulations, from an over-defined and misleading consciousness. With increasing frequency I dismiss as merely respectable opinions I have long held - or thought I held - and try to discern what I have really lived by, and what others live by. As for Hegel's art freed from "seriousness" and glowing on the margins, raising the soul above painful involvement in the limitations of reality through the serenity of form, that can exist nowhere now, during this struggle for survival. However, it is not as though the people who engaged in this struggle had only a rudimentary humanity, without culture, and knew nothing of art. Our very vices, our mutilations, show how rich we are in thought and culture. How much we know. How much we even feel. The struggle that convulses us makes us want to simplify, to reconsider, to eliminate the tragic weakness which prevented writers - and readers - from being at once simple and true.
Writers are greatly respected. The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with them, continues to read them and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for. At the center humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom, the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul. If writers do not come again into the center it will not be because the center is pre-empted. It is not. They are free to enter. If they so wish.
The essence of our real condition, the complexity, the confusion, the pain of it is shown to us in glimpses, in what Proust and Tolstoy thought of as "true impressions". This essence reveals, and then conceals itself. When it goes away it leaves us again in doubt. But we never seem to lose our connection with the depths from which these glimpses come. The sense of our real powers, powers we seem to derive from the universe itself, also comes and goes. We are reluctant to talk about this because there is nothing we can prove, because our language is inadequate and because few people are willing to risk talking about it. They would have to say, "There is a spirit" and that is taboo. So almost everyone keeps quiet about it, although almost everyone is aware of it.
The value of literature lies in these intermittent "true impressions". A novel moves back and forth between the world of objects, of actions, of appearances, and that other world from which these "true impressions" come and which moves us to believe that the good we hang onto so tenaciously - in the face of evil, so obstinately - is no illusion.
No one who has spent years in the writing of novels can be unaware of this. The novel can't be compared to the epic, or to the monuments of poetic drama. But it is the best we can do just now. It is a sort of latter-day lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes shelter. A novel is balanced between a few true impressions and the multitude of false ones that make up most of what we call life. It tells us that for every human being there is a diversity of existences, that the single existence is itself an illusion in part, that these many existences signify something, tend to something, fulfill something; it promises us meaning, harmony and even justice. What Conrad said was true, art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential.

October 8, 2010

Every dog has its day - 3

But this day was not this dog's!

Workers from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi capture a stray dog near the Indira Gandhi Stadium, one of the venues for the Commonwealth Games

October 6, 2010

Putting the night away

I am really enjoying reading the book, Poetry In Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets, ed. by Alexander Neubauer. The book contains many "sparkling exchanges" about the craft of poetry, as discussed in interviews the late Pearl London had with various poets at the New School in Greenwich Village. From Maxine Kumin in 1973 to Eamon Grennan in 1996, the book includes chats she had in class with what is arguably the Who's Who of poetry in the last few decades. (I do not mean it is a comprehensive list of all poets; just that the poets she spoke to are famous poets of the last 40 years: from Robert Pinsky to Louise Gluck to Charles Simic, and Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, James Merrill, Paul Muldoon, Amy Clampitt,  Stanley Plumly, Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, Li-Young Lee, Edward Hirsch, and many others.)

As you may expect, the book is full of quotable quotes and while I have not taken the time yet to transcribe many of the quotable lines, I felt the urge this morning to write down these lines from the Hirsch interview because it speaks to so much of what poetry is about for me.

"...the idea of alienation. And loss. I believe that that's the beginning of poetry. Poetry begins with alienation, and poetry speaks against our vanishing. The lyric poem in particular seems to me to have the burden and the splendor of preserving the human image in words, as the most intense form of discourse. Poetry speaks about and against loss in its root function. I see the writing of a poem as a desent. The descent is psychological. That which is darkest in human experience. It can be in yourself, it can be in others, it can be in the death of someone you love. It's a descent into the unconscious. You try to unearth something. You try to bring something to the light."

Note: After that question, Pearl London mentions a phrase from one of the poems in Hirsch's first books which inspired the title of this post. The context of "putting the night away" may be different in this lovely nostalgic poem but I am interpreting it here in the context of "putting the night away" and trying to "bring something to the light" with the help of poetry.

Here is the poem, in its entirety:

My Grandmother's Bed by Edward Hirsch
How she pulled it out of the wallTo my amazement. How it rattled andCreaked, how it sagged in the middleAnd smelled like a used-clothing store.I was ecstatic to be sleeping on wheels!
It rolled when I moved; it trembledwhen she climbed under the coversin her flannel nightgown, kissing meSoftly on the head, turning her back.Soon I could hear her snoring next to me-
Her clogged breath roaring in my ears,Filling her tiny apartment like the oceanUntil I, too, finally, swayed and sleptWhile a radiator hissed in the cornerAnd traffic droned on Lawrence Avenue...
I woke up to the color of light pouringThrough the windows, the odor of soupSimmering in the kitchen, my grandmother'sFace. It felt good to be ashore againAfter sleeping on rocky, unfamiliar waves.
I loved to help her straighten the sheetsAnd lift the Murphy back into the wall.It was like putting the night awayWhen we closed the wooden doors againAnd her disappeared without a trace.

October 1, 2010

My Relations with Illusion & Reality

Perusing some of Philip Larkin's poems again, I started reading more about him via Google Books and found this quote, which I really liked.
"The real trouble with me is my relations with illusion & reality. Illusion is poetry, art, love, belief, confidence, and is what you are enthusiastic about. Reality is daily work, illness, death, money, sex, one's actions independent of one's beliefs or fancies, and is impossible to be enthusiastic about."
He also said: "Joy impregnates, sorrow brings forth; perhaps that is the explanation" ...on how his muse demanded that he be in a constant state of privation to be able to write. Or put another way, he said: "life, personally is unhappy: imperssonally it is happy."

Leave you with these lovely lines from Larkin's rather depressing poem, Aubade, which has been lauded as Larkin's almost perfect poem:
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,   
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill   
That slows each impulse down to indecision.   
Most things may never happen: this one will,   
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without   
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave   
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood. 

September 22, 2010

A presumptuous taming of reality

Heard this excerpt from John Updike's memoir, Self-Consciousness on an old interview with Terry Gross (No transcript but there is a link to that interview from 1989 at this page on NPR, which is from when Updike died in Jan 2009.)

Writing is my sole remaining vice. It is an addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous taming of reality, a way of expressing lightly the unbearable. That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world -- it happens to everybody. In the morning light one can write breezily, without the slightest acceleration of one’s pulse, about what one cannot contemplate in the dark without turning in panic to God. In the dark one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture and scenery and the bright distractions and warm touches, of our lives. Even the barest earthly facts are unbearably heavy, weighted as they are with our personal death. Writing, in making the world light -- in codifying, distorting, prettifying, verbalizing it -- approaches blasphemy.

Been a fan of Updike's fiction from the first time I read it in 1995 and continue to be wow-ed by how he puts together sentences.

September 3, 2010

Betraying the existence of hope

I imagine the writing of a poem, in whatever mode, still betrays the existence of hope, which is why poetry is more and more chary of the conscious mind in our age." - W. S. Merwin (Notes for a Preface)

Maybe the above quote explains my reading poetry a lot the the last couple of years. It is like I am searching for something - sifting through the words of great poets and trying to find meaning. It is not obvious to me why I do it but it is like being in the woods, picking up acorns, biting into them, kinda liking the taste but not really getting a full understanding of the complex tastes, throwing them away, then again sifting through the leaves that clutter the forest landscape, picking up acorns again, half-digesting what they have to offer.... the cycle continues. I remain unsatisfied and restless, lost in a forest I suddenly do not recognize but try to understand. This inability to understand fully what these 'acorns' (the words of the masters) are trying to say and yet finding myself continually attracted to them is fascinating because I am intrigued by not only what they have to say but also what it means to me! It is like the words flirt with me, giving me some semblance of hope, a small semblance of solace, and occasionally a fleeting sense of joy... but then they are inadequate in really explaining my fascination with them. The restlessness that is the underlying theme of life continues unabated and I forage again..and again..and again.. looking to get beyond the inadequacy of the words and their ephemeral delight. I recently wrote two poems too trying to capture this feeling... but ironically, these half-baked attempts at poetry are inadequate in capturing what I wanted to say and hence are best left unlinked to here.

August 31, 2010

Lapsing into oblivion

Found this quote in an essay, The Conspiracy of Silence, by the poet Charles Simic in the book, Memory Piano.
 "How everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described, or passed on." - W. G. Sebald (Austerlitz)
Or as the poet, Donald Justice, so eloquently put it in his poem, Bus Stop:
And lives go on   
Like sudden lights   
At street corners

Or like the lights   
In quiet rooms
Left on for hours,   
Burning, burning.
And so it goes.

August 13, 2010

The crack's in me

I seem to have blogged this quote twice before (in 2007 and again in 2009) and I found myself returning to it again today.
"The natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness. I think also that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain than you are only adds to this unhappiness in the end" - F. Scott Fitzgerald, as quoted in Nonconformity by Nelson Algren
I had read the above quote when I read NonConformity some years back. But today, I dug out the actual piece by Fitzgerald. It was a very interesting essay - a three-part self-analysis by Fitzgerald in Esquire magazine back in 1936. What an amazing start to the essay, titled Crack-Up:
Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work -- the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside -- the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within -- that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.
What a find! Going through some personal issues myself and so this really finds a connection with the way I feel at the current time!

Here is another lovely excerpt from the essay:
"Instead of being so sorry for yourself, listen -- “she said. (She always says “Listen,” because she thinks while she talks -- really thinks.) So she said: “Listen. Suppose this wasn’t a crack in you -- suppose it was a crack in the Grand Canyon.”

“The crack’s in me,” I said heroically.

“Listen! The world only exists in your eyes -- your conception of it. You can make it as big or as small as you want to. And you’re trying to be a little puny individual. By God, if I ever cracked, I’d try to make the world crack with me. Listen! The world only exists through your apprehension of it, and so it’s much better to say that it’s not you that’s cracked -- it’s the Grand Canyon.”
Here's another great excerpt from the 2nd part of the essay:
Now the standard cure for one who is sunk is to consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering -- this is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutary daytime advice for everyone. But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work -- and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day. At that hour the tendency is to refuse to face things as long as possible by retiring into an infantile dream -- but one is continually startled out of this by various contacts with the world. One meets these occasions as quickly and carelessly as possible and retires once more back into the dream, hoping that things will adjust themselves by some great material or spiritual bonanza. But as the withdrawal persists there is less and less chance of the bonanza -- one is not waiting for the fade-out of a single sorrow, but rather being an unwilling witness of an execution, the disintegration of one’s own personality…
Unless madness or drugs or drink come into it, this phase comes to a dead end, eventually, and is succeeded by a vacuous quiet. In this you can try to estimate what has been sheared away and what is left.
And this quotable quote:
Trouble has no necessary connection with discouragement -- discouragement has a germ of its own, as different from trouble as arthritis is different from a stiff joint.
In the third and final part, he writes:
This was at least a starting place out of the morass in which I floundered: “I felt -- therefore I was.” At one time or another there had been many people who had leaned on me, come to me in difficulties or written me from afar, believed implicitly in my advice and my attitude toward life. The dullest platitude monger or the most unscrupulous Rasputin who can influence the destinies of many people must have some individuality, so the question became one of finding why and where I had changed, where was the leak through which, unknown to myself, my enthusiasm and my vitality had been steadily and prematurely trickling away.

-- I only wanted absolute quiet to think out why I had developed a sad attitude towards sadness, a melancholy attitude toward melancholy, and a tragic attitude toward tragedy -- why I had become identified with the objects of my horror or compassion.
Does this seem a fine distraction? It isn’t: identification such as this spells the death of accomplishment. It is something like this that keeps sane people from working.
And later:
This led me to the idea that the ones who had survived had made some sort of clean break. .......  A clean break is something you cannot come back from; that is irretrievable because it makes the past cease to exist. So, since I could no longer fulfill the obligations that life had set for me or that I had set for myself, why not slay the empty shell who had been posturing at it for four years? I must continue to be a writer because that was my only way of life, but I would cease any attempts to be a person -- to be kind, just, or generous. There were plenty of counterfeit coins around that would pass instead of these and I knew where I could get them at a nickel on the dollar. In thirty-nine years an observant eye has learned to detect where the milk is watered and the sugar is sanded, the rhinestone passed for diamond and the stucco for stone. There was to be no more giving of myself -- all giving was to be outlawed henceforth under a new name, and that name was Waste.

The decision made me rather exuberant, like anything that is both real and new.
And so we prod on.... looking for that which will set us free - hoping that we have the audacity to make that 'clean break' and move on to what is "both real and new".

August 12, 2010

Why write?

At one point, a public relations guy named Jay asks about the purpose of novels, and Grimes wonders: "What are novels for? Entertainment? Metaphysical inquiry? Chronicling one's times? Could I tell Jay that the world is chaos and an artful novel satisfies our human desire for order, or that the novel excavates meaning from the rubble of incomprehension? That a novel is a thing to be read upon a beach in July for pleasure, or that I was an Iowa Writers' Workshop student and writing a novel was my homework? Or that I never want to die and when I'm writing a novel I believe I never will?" 
That's something the author Tom Grimes wonders about in his recent memoir, Mentor, which is reviewed in the WaPo this month. Later..

For me, writing is a necessity. I exist in sentences. I forget my sense of failure. I forget time. I forget that I'm aging. I forget that one day I'll die. Revising sentences is an act of hope, and connecting with a reader is the only leap of faith I'll ever take.
And this from Grimes towards the end of the book:
I'm a failure as a writer because I've overreached; my ambition was larger than my talent. Yet I willingly accepted that risk.
How many of us can say that we had the chutzpah and the cajones to take that risk and step out an swing!

Echoes: What has escaped us, we bring with us

Having read and enjoyed W. S. Merwin's 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning book of poems, 'The Shadow of Sirius' (Review) in July, I have been reading his earlier poems this month - collected in his National Book Award winning book, 'Migration: New and Selected Poems'. What a treasure trove of poetry from this great poet - the mind reels at the number of poems in this collection! So,  started with some of his poetry from the 1960s: The Moving Target (1963), The Lice (1967) and some from The Carrier of Ladders (1970) and then jumped ahead to more recent poems from The River Sound (1999) and The Pupil (2001). It is like trying to drink from a fountain and overwhelmed, I have set it aside for the time being.

So, couple days ago, I moved on to a book of prose by Merwin: The Book of Fables, which I had picked up at the library recently along with a book of Selected Prose by the poet, John Ashbery. I have not read the essays by Ashbery yet - many are art criticisms; Ashbery in addition to being a amous poet also writes serious art criticism. However, I started with the Merwin book prose after reading a review of the book in the WaPo, where Michael Dirda writes:
...dense, elegant prose shorts that probe dread and threat, shame and fears, and tensions between the material and spiritual worlds. There seems to be no statute of limitations on texts that plumb these competing realities, employing surreal touches and a variety of conceits and dictions, all unfolding in some lush fusion of past, present and future -- a world in whose dark, labyrinthine caverns we humans often lose our way. (emphasis mine)
I thought I was really going to love it! Well....the update after two attempts to read a few different prose pieces is that somehow things are not clicking. A handful of the pieces (most are half to one page long) were good but most are too abstract and none of them snared me with their beauty! Maybe it is just me... maybe I just need to come back to it later in a different mood. Sometimes poetry (for example, some of Ashbery's poems) and abstract prose can be like that -- they exist on a very different mental plane than I am at.

In any case, here is one excerpt from a short piece called Echoes that I did enjoy:

Everything we hear is an echo. Anyone can see that echoes move forward and backward in time, in rings. But not everyone realizes that as a result silence becomes harder and harder for us to grasp -= though in itself it is unchanged - because of the echoes pouring through us out of the past, unless we can learn to set them at rest. We are still hearing the bolting of the doors of Hell, Pasiphae in her byre, the cries at Thermopylae, and do not recognize the sounds. How did we sound to the past? And there are sounds that rush away from us: echoes of future words.

So we know that there are words in the future, some of them loud and terrible. And we know that there is silence in the future. But will the words recognize their unchanging homeland.
P.S. I take the title of this post from the preface to his ground-breaking book, The Lice, in 1967:
"All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.” - Heraclitus

August 11, 2010

The Feeling of Awe

I have been reading and enjoying Merwin's poetry lately and started reading some of his prose pieces (The Book of Fables) last night but could not really get into it much. 

So, instead I looked up some critical articles and interviews with Merwin on JSTOR. Reading an interview from 1988, I found this paragraph which I thought was worth transcribing and saving because it really echoes the way I usually feel about human endeavors and ventures on earth!
I don't see that our culture and our species are behaving in a more enlightened and gentle and harmonious fashion now than we were twenty years ago. And the cause of the anger is, I suppose, the feeling of destruction, watching the destruction of things that I care passionately about. If we're so stupid that we choose to destroy each other and ourselves, that's bad enough; but if we destroy the whole life on the planet! And I'm not talking about a big bang; I'm talking about something that is happening as we are sitting here talking about it - the destruction of the seas, the destruction of species after species, the destruction of the forests. These are not replaceable. We can't suddenly decide years down the line that we made a mistake and put it all back. The feeling of awe - something that we seem to be losing - is essential for survival.

August 10, 2010

Our endless quest for understanding

Great quote about fiction.
"A good piece of fiction, in my view, does not offer solutions. Good stories deal with our moral struggles, our uncertainties, our dreams, our blunders, our contradictions, our endless quest for understanding. Good stories do not resolve the mysteries of the human spirit but rather describe and expand up on those mysteries." - Tim O'Brien
Also this: 
"Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story." - Tim O'Brien

I have only read Tim O'Brien's famous (and very moving) title piece, The Things They Carried, but have not read anything else by him. I really need to at least read the whole book - he seems like an author one should not miss!

July 22, 2010

Where we end and the world begins

One of my favorite poets this year has been Mark Strand. I have put up some excerpts from his poems which I read and enjoyed but to capture the essence of what his poetry means to me, I am going to use* something he wrote (as quoted in this article by Edward Byrne):
“ … it’s not that poetry reveals more about the world — it doesn’t — but it reveals more about our interactions with the world than our other modes of expression. And it doesn’t reveal more about ourselves alone in isolation, but rather it reveals that mix of self and other, self and surrounding, where the world ends and we begin, where we end and the world begins. ”
Elsewhere (in the Introduction to the Best American Poetry, 1991), Mark Strand also said this about poetry:
The way poetry has of settling our internal house in order, of formalizing emotion difficult to articulate, is one of the reasons we still depend on it in moments of crisis and during those times when it is important that we know, in so many words, what we are going through. ... Without poetry, we would have either silence or banality, the former leaving us to our own inadequate devices for experiencing illumination, the latter cheapening with generalization what we wished to have for ourselves alone, turning our experience into impoverishment, our sense of ourselves into embarrassment.
* I could never articulate what poetry has meant to me (especially in the last 2-3 years) in any meaningful way and so I have to lean on these giants of poetry to speak for me! 

Man's best friend

This is just plain wrong!

Dogs attend a special 3D screening of the new Warner Bros film, Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore at the Empire Cinema in Leicester Square
Dogs attend a special 3D screening of the new Warner Bros film, Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore at the Empire Cinema in Leicester Square - Source.

And what can I say about this! 

Dogs, wearing hats and sunglasses, are used by their owner to beg for coins in Manila
Dogs, wearing hats and sunglasses, are used by their owner to beg for coins in Manila - Source

July 21, 2010

That airy dream of the future

My Facebook update today read: "Be seated, thou. Be seated."

It is cryptic and almost meaningless without the context, isn't it? It is a reference to the last line of a Wallace Stevens poem, titled 'Mozart, 1935'.

Here is the relevant excerpt:
"That airy dream of the future,
The unclouded concerto . . .
The snow is falling.
Strike the piercing chord.
Be thou the voice,
Not you. Be thou, be thou
The voice of angry fear,
The voice of this besieging pain.
Be thou that wintry sound
As of the great wind howling,
By which sorrow is released,
Dismissed, absolved
In a starry placating.
We may return to Mozart.
He was young, and we, we are old.
The snow is falling
And the streets are full of cries.
Be seated, thou."
I should admit that I would never have understood the poem as I now do if I had not read what this lovely blog post elucidates!
"The present must pass, and what is created remains. It is not the second coming of Christ that will comfort and save the masses in this poem; it is Mozart. It is the power of expression and the imagination that can reflect the present and offer absolution and the release of sorrow. We need to save ourselves, by force of the imagination and the transformation of what we experience into something that will survive to relate the experience to humanity as it gets older. Thus, the young Mozart still comforts and offers something to us, grown old and weary from war, economic depression, personal tragedy, and the inevitability that it will all happen again."
Alan Perlis goes further in explaining this poem in his book, Wallace Stevens: A World of Transforming Shapes):
As he does in so many poems, Stevens uses a contrived character to talk about himself as poet. The poet's song, which is a pastiche of many of the composer's songs, reminds us of our mortality by stripping away the feelings that enable us to avoid it. Each circle takes a turn inward until the poem reaches its center - the place from which no one can turn.

The feeling of death, which is a nearly constant presence in Stevens's poems, evokes two accompanying feelings, each usually expressed in circular patterns: terror and emptiness. The first is a dominant force in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and the prevailing force in "Domination of Black," a poem in which the eerie presences of night circulate and confound in the memory.
I could go on but I suggest you read more at the book (I got a copy from the local public library but it is available to read in great part via Google Books).

Stevens remains a poet whose poetry I find difficult to understand but still find amazing to just read over and over. There is a certain music in the arrangement of words that is alluring even when I do not understand it completely. You get the feeling he is saying something important - which you know is true but teases you by being on the fringes of your understanding. I should add that,
with the help of critics like  Perilis, Bloom, Vendler, and others, I am beginning to really understand the depth of many of his poems. But his oeuvre is so vast and his poetry has been analyzed so much, with various critics having explored so many different themes in each of his poems, that one wonders if one will ever completely "get" his poetry. And so I keep coming back to it every few months and re-reading the same poems and reading more and more about them, again and again, in a circular pattern of understanding and not understanding.

"Poetry, then, is the only possible heaven. It must necessarily be the poetry of ourselves; its source is in our imagination.” - Wallace Stevens

July 20, 2010

The giant is there, nevertheless

Found this lovely excerpt in a lecture given by Helen Vendler titled, "The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar" - the Jefferson Lecture, 2004. (The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, established by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1972, is the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.)
I thought, on the train, how utterly we have forsaken the Earth, in the sense of excluding it from our thoughts. There are but few who consider its physical hugeness, its rough enormity. It is still a disparate monstrosity, full of solitudes & barrens & wilds. It still dwarfs & terrifies & crushes. The rivers still roar, the mountains still crash, the winds still shatter. Man is an affair of cities. His gardens & orchards & fields are mere scrapings. Somehow, however, he has managed to shut out the face of the giant from his windows. But the giant is there, nevertheless. - Wallace Stevens (Souvenirs and Prophecies, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1977), note of April 18, 1904, p. 134)

July 19, 2010

The beauty and awfulnes of the filiation

Reading Donald Justice's New and Selected Poems, I stopped at the poem "Sonatina in Yellow" and re-read it a few times. Something about it captured me and made me want to get deeper and understand it better.

The pages of the album,
As they are turned, turn yellow; a word,
Once spoken, obsolete,
No longer what was meant. Say it.
The meanings come, or come back later,
Unobtrusive, taking their places.


Forgotten sunlight still
Blinds the eyes of faces in the album.
The faces fade, and there is only
A sort of meaning that comes back,
Or for the first time comes, but comes too late
To take the places of the faces
Luckily, via Google Books, I found a paragraph in Dana Gioia & William Logan's "Certain Solitudes - On the poetry of Donald Justice", which elucidates the essence of this poem better:
The dead belong here, because our relation with them must be circular. They have prepared us for their place, and we have taken it. The hushed tone that marks Justice's voice mounts to reverence as he evokes his relation to his father in "Sonatina in Yellow." Here, the ambiguities, continuities, and repetitions move parallel to memory and forgetfulness, in a sequence impressively like a musical modulation. Love for the dead suggests love for the past, the poet's desire to keep with him the beauty and awfulnes of the filiation that he will hand on in his turn; and the imagination then seems our one genuine weapon against mortality.
Indeed! Reality bites but the imagination lets us fight back. Like Wallace Stevens said, "The imagination is man's power over nature."

"...much of the world of fact is the equivalent of the world of the imagination because it looks like it. Here we are on the border of the question of the relationship between the imagination and memory, which we avoid. It is important to believe that the visible is the equivalent of the invisible." - Wallace Stevens (The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet)

Realize where I am

Lovely snippet from an interview with John Ashbery:
John Ashbery: I don't know what my life is, what I want to be escaping from. I want to move to some other space, I guess, when I write, which perhaps was where I had been but without being fully conscious of it. I want to move in and out of it, while I'm writing.
Sue Gangel: Take a journey?
JA: Yeah, but also realize, more, where I am.

Source: Interview with Sue Gangel. "An Interview with John Ashbery" (originally printed in the San Francisco Review of Books [November 1977], rep. in Joe David Bellamy, Ed. American Poetry Observed: Poets On Their Work (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1984), 14.

July 18, 2010

Yet while I live, you do not wholly die

Which son could have said it better... this sonnet captures everything I have felt in the last 2 years so perfectlyl the difference being I have not been able to put into words...

Sonnet to My Father
 - Donald Justice

Father, since always now the death is come
Looks naked out from your eyes into mine,
Almost it seems the death to come is mine
And that I also shall be overcome,
Father, and call for breath when you succumb,
And struggle for your hand as you for mine
In hope of comfort that shall not be mine
Till for the last of me the angel come.
But, father, though with you in part I die
And glimpse beforehand that eternal place
Where we forget the pain that brought us here,
Father, and though you go before me there,
leaving this likeness only in your place,
Yet while I live, you do not wholly die.

July 16, 2010

And all the voices silent

Coinciding with W. S. Merwin being appointed poet laureate of the US for 2010-11, I started reading some of his poetry - starting with The Shadows of Sirius, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2009 and also have his National Book Award winning 'Migration: New and Selected Poems' (a book I had perused through some years back) by my nightstand.

But before I get into the poems, I am really enjoying reading his interview with Bill Moyers shortly after winning the Pulitzer in 2009. I think reading poetry book reviews and also interviews like this greatly enhances the reading of the poetry itself. For example, I read and enjoyed the poem "Still Morning" from The Shadows of Sirius. But I wondered what the "patch of sunlight" was about. And then I found that Moyers and Merwin talk about it. Read this excerpt below, which also includes the poem in its entirety.

BILL MOYERS: So, what about this poem in your new book? "Still Morning."

W.S. MERWIN:          
It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
voices murmur in a shadow
as I watch one patch of sunlight moving
across the green carpet
in a building
gone long ago and all the voices
silent and each word they said in that time
silent now
while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight
BILL MOYERS: That patch of sunlight. Where was it? 

W.S. MERWIN: Actually it was in the church in Union City, New Jersey which has been torn down many, many years ago. 
BILL MOYERS: Your father's church? 
W.S. MERWIN: And I was being held up. And may even have been when I was baptized, you know? Very, very early. I can remember it. I remember the man in a brown suit, who was holding me. And I said this to once to my mother. And she said, "You can't possibly remember something back that far." And I said, "Who was the man in the brown suit, who was holding me? I never saw him again." And she said, "Oh, yes. That was Reverend so and so. And he came for a visit. And he said he would hold you for the ceremony." And I never saw him again. But I remember being held up and watching the green carpet and that patch of sunlight. 
BILL MOYERS: You did grow up right across the river in Metro New York, New Jersey, looking out on the skyline of New York. 

W.S. MERWIN: Which was silent. 

W.S. MERWIN: Yeah. New York was silent. That was extraordinary. And that still, to me, is haunting. You know, to be able to think of that skyline that I saw as a child. And you could hear sounds from the river. There was a river traffic, which is gone, most of which is gone. The ferries back and forth, all the time. And ferrying of whole trains went across on ferries, you know, on barges. And I would spend as much time as I could in the back of the church looking down on Hoboken Harbor and on the river and on the city over there. And the city was absolutely silent. Then, of course, you took the ferry over there all the noise of New York was there. And I found that very exciting.
Also, I wondered what The Shadows of Sirius meant... here's an excerpt from the interview where Merwin so beautifully explains what it is about.
Moyers asks: Now, Sirius is the dog star, the most luminous star in the sky, twenty-five times more luminous than the sun. And yet, you write about it's shadow. Something that no one has never seen. Something that's invisible to us. Help me to understand that.

Merwin replies: That's the point. The shadow of Sirius is pure metaphor, pure imagination. But we live in it all the time. We are the shadow of Sirius. There is the other side of-- as we talk to each other, we see the light, and we see these faces, but we know that behind that, there's the other side, which we never know. And that — it's the dark, the unknown side that guides us, and that is part of our lives all the time. It's the mystery. That's always with us, too. And it gives the depth and dimension to the rest of it.

More about Merwin and his poems later.

July 15, 2010

Interesting articles

1) Interesting read when you have time. Is about sports but also goes beyond some ways! Could say that about movies etc too!

2) Havent read this yet ... skipped thru first and last para of it only so far..but seems like an interesting article too.

3) Never drank coffee till 2003-2004 but now I need to have a cup of coffee every morning and often am tempted around 3pm or so to have a coke too!

What caffeine actually does to your brain.
4) A Scientist Takes On Gravity: What if gravity is all an illusion, a sort of cosmic frill, or a side effect of something else going on at deeper levels of reality?

How Microbes Defend and Define Us - Sounds ewww...but read about the interesting case of "bacteriotherapy or fecal transplantation"!

June 20, 2010

Hiatus Redux

My return to blogging was short-lived; 'twas more an impulsive passing thought-of-the-moment than a concerted effort to blog again. I never really blogged well and have never really used this forum to put together my own thoughts on any subject. And I see no real value to merely cobbling together things from here and there as blog posts. So, this blog is back in hiatus-mode. Maybe I will return to the blog again some day...maybe I won't.

In the meantime, from time to time I continue to update quotes I collect at and longer excerpts are now being updated (mostly on weekend mornings) in a new format at Follow me there... ;-)

May 8, 2010

The brilliant rise of morning after morning

My aunt called from India last night to tell me that a childhood friend (who I spent a LOT of time from age 10-15) died suddenly. Though I had pretty much lost contact with him in the last twenty years, he lived 3 houses down from the house I grew up in (and where my grand-parents and other family still live) and so I did meet him a few times since then when I visited family. He's married to a good friend of my sister's (also a neighbor of ours). So, it is with grief that I received the news of his early passing yesterday.  I am still in shock and no amount of music and poetry since I got the news has helped assuage this heavy weight I feel on my chest.

RIP, N. V. You'll be missed. 39 is no age to go. :(

We sit behind
Closed windows, bolted doors,
Unsure and ill at ease
While the loose, untidy wind,
Making an almost human sound, pours
Through the open chambers of the trees.
We cannot take ourselves or what belongs
To us for granted.


We do not feel protected
By the walls, nor can we hide
Before the duplicating presence
Of their mirrors, pretending we are the ones who stare
From the other side, collected
In the glassy air.
A cold we never knew invades our bones.
We shake as though the storm were going to hurl us down
Against the flat stones
Of our lives. All other nights
Seem pale compared to this, and the brilliant rise
of morning after morning seems unthinkable.

- Mark Strand, Violent Storm

April 26, 2010

Attempts to flee from oneself

Paul Auster in an interview for Believer Magazine (talking with the author, Jonatham Lethem) about writing:
PA: You try to surprise yourself. You want to go against what you've done before. You want to burn up and destroy all your previous work; you want to reinvent yourself with every project.Once you fall into habits, I think, you're dead as an artist. You have to challenge yourself and never rest on your laurels, never think about what you've done in the past. Just say, that's done, now I'm tackling something else. It's certain that the world's large enough and interesting enough to take a different approach each time you sit down to write about it.

JL: Anyway, your voice is going to be helplessly your own. And so the books will be united despite your attempts to ignore your own earlier work.

PA: Exactly, because all your attempts to flee from yourself are useless. All you discover is yourself and your old obsessions. All the maniacal repetitions of how you think. But you try. And I think there's some dignity in that attempt.

JL: I'm laughing, because now, as I'm about to begin a new novel at last, the only thing I'm certain of are the exclusions, the things I'll refuse to do again.


PA: Well, that's good. When you become aware of what your limits have been so far, then you;re able to expand them. And every artist has limits. No one can do everything. It's impossible. What's beautiful about art is that it circumscribes a space, a physical and mental space. If you try to put the entire world into every page you turn out chaos. Art is about eliminating almost everything in order to focus on the thing that you need to talk about.
and a little later:
PA: "I think the glory of the novel is that you're open to everything and anything that exists or has existed in the world. I don't have any proscriptions. I don't say: "This is not allowed because..."
What is said about the process of writing above is true of the way we ought to lead our lives in general too, I think.

I read the above interview with Auster and many other great interviews with writers in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers in January and February this year. In addition to Paul Auster, I read interviews with John Banville, Haruki Murakami, Grace Paley, George Saunders, Marilynne Robinson, Ian McEwan, Tobias Wolff, and part of the interview with Joan Didion. The book is a delightful treasure trove and different of 24 interviews, with the interviewer also being a writer, sometimes a now famous name like Zadie Smith (who interviews McEwan). Definitely a book worth buying! (I am a big fan of Paris Review's collections of interviews with authors and poets and I'd put this collection right up there with those books.)

The fundamental naming of the gods

While readng something else, I read about Hölderlin calling the writing of poetry as a "fundamental naming of the gods." Intrigued, I had to look up the quote.
"The writing of poetry is the fundamental naming of the gods. But the poetic word only acquires its power of naming, when the gods themselves bring us to language." - Hölderlin
One more excerpt from what Holderlin wrote:
"And therefore has language, most dangerous of possessions, been given to man, so that creating, destroying, and perishing and returning to the everliving, to the mistress and mother, he may affirm what he is--that he has inherited, learned from thee, thy most divine possession, all-preserving love."
Interestingly, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger delivered a seminar lecture in 1936 titled "Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry." (Published in Existence and Being, 270–291, 1949) in which he writes:
"Poetry is the inaugural naming of being and of the essence of all things - not just any speech...but that particular kind which for the first time brings into the open all that we then discuss and deal with in everyday language. Hence poetry never takes language as a raw material ready to hand, rather it is poetry which first makes language possible. Poetry is the primitive language of a historical people."
Lovely excerpt!

Not one more refugee death, by Emmy Pérez

And just like that, my #NPM2018 celebrations end with  a poem  today by Emmy Pérez. Not one more refugee death by Emmy Pérez A r...