Of the many resources I’ve mined in researching James Wright: A Life in Poetry, the most vivid have been recordings of Wright’s readings over the course of two decades, when he was a vital public figure in the world of American poetry. A strong impression of his physical presence survives in his voice, in the stories he tells, and in the poems he says—many of them written by others. Wright did not recite poems, and rarely needed a printed text. The word he used was saying poems; they were part of how he spoke, even how he thought. Wright had an astounding memory, so alert to the patterns of sound and language that some I interviewed described it as a “phonographic” memory. After saying poems in Latin, German, or Spanish, Wright would improvise his own translations. He knew countless poems by heart, as well as entire Shakespeare plays, novels by Dickens, and essays by H. L. Mencken and George Orwell—a seemingly infinite store.
In trying to sum up the experience of having spent the last ten years editing the poetry of Marianne Moore, most recently in the New Collected Poems, I think of a recent classroom interaction I had. Toward the end of a course on twentieth-century poetry, one of my students, clearly at the end of her patience with me, demanded to know why I kept asking them, “But what is a poem?” It’s probably a measure of how deeply I feel that question that I hadn’t noticed I’d asked it even once before she pointed it out.
Two items from the poet John Ashbery’s private collections appear on the cover for The Songs We Know Best. One is a yellow card from the early 1940s that his father, Chester “Chet” Ashbery, designed to advertise goods sold by the Ashbery Farm.
I first met Derek when I came to FSG in the mid-eighties, thirty years ago. He was in his vigorous fifties, teaching in Boston and writing the poems that would soon appear in The Arkansas Testament (1987), and, though I didn’t know it then, composing his magnum opus, Omeros, which we published in 1990.
It’s Emmanuel Carrère who stopped me from writing this article. Right at the moment when I’d planned to knuckle down and sort through the disparate ideas that had occurred to me during the four years I’d spent translating his works, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which had already published eight of his books in English, sent me the first typeset proofs of The Kingdom, and a month after that the second, asking me each time to read the whole thing over in a fresh light, in preparation for the book’s publication.
I met Bill Knott in late 1968, or in early 1969, at William Corbett’s house, a gathering place for poets in Boston’s South End. I’d read Knott’s highly acclaimed first book, The Naomi Poems, from Big Table, in the spring of 1968. It was published under the pen name Saint Geraud (1940–1966). I was immediately struck, poleaxed, by the emotional power of the poems. Mostly short, intense lyrics, they were unlike anything I’d ever read and moved me to the bone. I felt, before I’d read Emily Dickinson’s famous comment, as if the top of my head was taken off. Many were love poems. Most were written in his early and mid twenties. There was urgency, a longing, a wild and plaintive high-note sound that was maybe particularly attractive to a twenty-two-year-old man. Forty-seven years later, as I stand on the terrible threshold of senescence, Knott’s poems still lift the hairs on the back of my neck. His anguished poems about the war in Vietnam were among the first I’d read on that subject, and I still believe them to be among the strongest. It is the war that my generation either can’t forget or refuses to remember (sometimes both).
Shirley Hazzard, who died on December 12 at the age of 85, wrote two collections of short stories, four novels, and three works of nonfiction. FSG published her last two works: in 2000, a memoir about Graham Greene, Greene on Capri, and, in 2003, her National Book Award-winning novel, The Great Fire.
Though I was always a bookish child, two things happened shortly after my sixteenth birthday which fixed my course toward words and writing. The first of these was discovering that the British Poet Laureate was paid in wine. That I immediately decided this was the job for me was probably down in part to the flippancy of adolescence, but I think it also appealed to the noble disdain of youth that one’s life should be traded for mere money. (I have long since stopped writing poetry, but it is certainly useful to a budding author to think of being unpaid as a positive virtue.) The second important event was the gift of two volumes of poetry, one by T. S. Eliot and the other by W. H. Auden, from my mother, given on my first visit to the Middle East and first read when we were driving through the Jiddat al-Harasis desert in southern Oman.
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at,” wrote Oscar Wilde in 1891. Yet for nearly two thousand years after Plato’s Republic, most Western thinkers did ignore Wilde’s map. Christianity, as interpreted by the Apostle Paul, had hung the Kingdom of God in the heavens, so there seemed little reason to look for it here in the fallen world.
Marianne Moore’s masterpiece “The Fish” is that rare poem that enters the mind through the front door and the back door at the same time. There’s not another poem that has its cake and eats it too like “The Fish” does. It luxuriates in its absence of the human.
I first read Hamlet in Jamaica. The bleak daylight surrounding my high school Happy Grove was like the faded glow of an old photograph. Rain was expected; it never came. There might’ve been thunder, or that could just have been the pages turning in unison.
Who could resist this invitation to eavesdrop on the fabulous? The title for Ange Mlinko’s most recent book, Marvelous Things Overheard is taken from a collection of anecdotes and wonders, falsely attributed to Aristotle, which explain, in tight descriptive units, marvels of the Mediterranean lands. Already in the title, two gaps have opened up between the world-as-we-find-it and the world-as-as-we-might-be-about-to-encounter-it.
The big holy cheese Rilke declared that “more or less felicitous misunderstandings” are the most one can hope for from criticism. To him (he claimed), a review is a personal missive addressed to someone else. I don’t know if he’s referring to his recently past self, the author of whatever the work (though I don’t think it’s that), or just the “peanut-crunching crowd” (Plath), anything addressed to which he of course, like most of us, disdained.
We asked the staff of Farrar, Straus and Giroux to pick the best books published in 2015, name their favorite titles—new, old, or forthcoming—that they read this year, and to share which FSG books they’ll be giving during the holidays.
These are FSG’s Favorites Books of 2015.
In 1947, concerned about supporting his family, Kurt Vonnegut took a job his brother recommended him for in the PR department at General Electric. The GE News Bureau was organized like a real newspaper—except that its purpose was to produce stories about all the fabulous inventions and time-saving new products GE was producing.
Lucia Berlin’s writing has got snap. When I think of it, I sometimes imagine a master drummer in motion behind a large trap set, striking ambidextrously at an array of snares, tom-toms, and ride cymbals while working pedals with both feet.
Joan Didion was enamored not of the ocean but of the “look of the horizon . . . It is always there, flat.” If she was no longer physically comfortable in the Central Valley, she needed the solacing feel of her childhood geography. Each day ended fast, no muss—a snuffing of the sun in the sea, a healthy glass of bourbon. She felt Malibu was “a new kind of life.
By Joseph Brodsky’s death in 1996 he had translated many of his own poems into English, a language in which he had by then taught and written for nearly half his life. Coming from the hand of their author, these works fall somewhere between wholly subsidiary translation and original creation.
Pablo Neruda found me in a strange way. I was still a teenager, obsessed with the Beats and pouring over Whitman in English class. I enjoyed writing poetry, but did not yet take it seriously. I was standing in the poetry section of the Barnes and Noble in the Cape Cod Mall, with my boyfriend, who was also an aspiring poet, trying to discern what new book to bite into. An older man who looked identical to Charles Bukowski, down to the mole on his face, appeared from around the corner of the shelf. Returning a book to the shelf, the man said, “This is what you should be reading. That’s the good stuff.”