Monday, May 21, 2018

Magic Mountains

Nicholas Lezard

When this edition of the book dropped through the letterbox, I was mildly intrigued. When a reissue of the Penguin Classics edition followed a couple of days later, I took it as a recommendation from providence. This is, after all, one of the great unread ancient European books. Our own national contribution to the genre is the Domesday Book, which is also now published by Penguin; but Polo's Travels offer, unlike Domesday, the conventional pleasures of reading, in spades.

I imagine that more people have read Calvino's Invisible Cities than Polo's Travels. In Calvino's book, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of various imaginary cities he has visited - all of them, if you wish, in some way versions of his own home town, Venice. So in a sense we feel we have "read" Marco Polo already, when all we have done is seen his reflection, an upside-down image in a lagoon. (Which I suspect was precisely Calvino's intent, or one of them.) Here, then, is the original image: and it is just as remarkable.

Here are provinces where, for three hours of the day, the inhabitants immerse themselves up to their chins in water so as to escape the effects of a blistering, suffocating wind. Here are lakes of fire, worshipped by descendants of the Magi; here is the first western mention of the Old Man of the Mountains, who trained his assassins to welcome death by drugging them and then allowing them to experience all the pleasures of Paradise. Here are mountains so high that fires fail to cook food properly; here are eagles trained to kill wolves.

Here, too, is the province of Peyn, where, if the husband is absent from home for 20 days (by no means a rare occurrence in a region where the nearest town was typically five days away), the wife had a right to take another; even more enticingly, here is the district of Kamul, where the men not only are "addicted to pleasure, and attend to little else than playing upon instruments, singing, dancing, reading, writing... and the pursuit, in short, of every kind of amusement", but also offer their wives and all female relations to any strangers seeking accommodation, while they leave the house. When the local ruler, Mangu Kaan, discovered and banned the practice, crops failed, and, with the abrupt cessation of visits from outside, the area's entire income dried up. When the locals begged Kaan to reconsider, he replied: "Since you appear so anxious to persist in your own shame, let it be granted." By the time Marco Polo arrived, things were back to normal. Likewise, ambassadors to the great Khan's court were offered a different courtesan each night. Polo was away from home for 26 years, and stayed with Khan for 17 of them.

I have gone for the much older translation rather than Ronald Latham's 1958 Penguin version. The latter is more complete and, strictly speaking, more useful - Polo's text exists in numerous versions, and it's not always easy to tell what was put in later - but the Norton edition (which is a 1930 scrubbing and polishing of William Marsden's 1818 translation) not only has nice illustrations, it has an excellent introduction by Manuel Komroff, a more colourful and engaging style, and wonderful notes. Example: the people of Kashcar "are a wretched and sordid race, eating badly and drinking worse". Footnote: "Their manners have not improved. See Ancient Khotan, Sir Aurel Stein." Other notes attest to the veracity of some of Polo's more astonishing claims, including tricks that would appear to be beyond any contemporary scientist or magician. (Why should I become a Christian, asked Khan, when Christians "do not possess the faculty of performing anything miraculous"?)

Polo's travels endured so long in the imagination that, 500 years later, Coleridge was inspired to use some of their details in a work of visionary intensity. They coloured all subsequent imaginings of China until 1948 - and may do once again. This is a world of almost inconceivable possibility - and the remarkable thing about it is that so much of it turns out to have been true. Besides, how can you fail to love a travel book which, from time to time, gives up looking for marvels and declares: "Nothing else occurs here that is worthy of remark"?

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 2005 in The Guardian.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Butterfly Trial

Kathryn A. Kopple

Leonora Carrington

A butterfly was tried in a higher court today. 

Attended by court-appointed counsel, the butterfly appeared composed, almost frozen, to the side of the hermetically sealed glass box, where it had been held in solitary, if transparent, confinement since a team of FBI agents in khaki shorts and wielding nets went looking for the alleged suspect in a heavily wooded area in upstate New York. 

The authorities applied old-fashioned crime solving strategies to complex theoretical models involving chaos theory, quantum physics, and optics in their search efforts.  A clairvoyant also weighed in on the case.

The first to take the stand was an aged scientist, well versed in his field, who explained with clinical precision all the ways in which a flutter of a butterfly's wings in Brazil might set off a tornado in Texas.  Outraged, people swarmed the streets denouncing the oppression of Intelligent Design Theory.  The authorities arrested several of the protestors, including a man with a giant blue monarch tattoo on his back, and the trial resumed.   

Throughout, the butterfly showed little remorse.  It appeared utterly indifferent to the harsh words uttered against it, even when the prosecution labeled the creature "evil," "mass murderer," and "sociopath."

In a unanimous decision, the butterfly was sentenced to death, and would have been led out of the courtroom in chains, except that the heavy weight would have crushed it—thus denying the State the opportunity to see that justice was served.  It was decided to keep the butterfly in its glass prison until it could be transferred to death row.

The death penalty would have to be enacted swiftly, since butterflies have short life spans anyway.  Just as the butterfly was about to be taken out of the courtroom, the defense counsel, rising to his feet with a defeated look on his face, knocked his client off the table, whereupon the glass broke, and the prosecution, in an effort avoid the flying shards of glass, crushed the stunned monarch underfoot.

 The butterfly's death was deemed accidental and no charges were brought against the prosecution.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Marguerite Duras, 81, Author Who Explored Love and Sex

Alan Riding

Marguerite Duras, author of the best-selling novel "The Lover" and one of the most widely read French writers of the postwar era, died today [March 4, 1996] at her home in Paris. She was 81.

Miss Duras, who was also a prolific playwright, film maker and screenwriter, was best known for the way she used her early life in French Indochina as the inspiration for many of her works, including "The Lover," the story of her clandestine teen-age romance with a wealthy young Chinese man. Yet perhaps what most characterized her 53-year literary career was her simple, terse writing style, as if language itself were merely a vehicle for conveying passion and desire, pain and despair. The mysteries of love and sex consumed her, but she had no room for sentimentality in her works, or indeed, in her life.

I write about love, yes, but not about tenderness," she said in a 1990 interview. "I don't like tender people. I myself am very harsh. When I love someone, I desire them. But tenderness supposes the exclusion of desire." Ever provocative in her use of language, she always bowed to the supremacy of words. "Acting doesn't bring anything to a text," Miss Duras wrote of her work for cinema and theater. "On the contrary, it detracts from it -- lessens its immediacy and depth, weakens its muscles and dilutes its blood."

In the theater, this seemed to matter little, and her plays continue to be performed regularly in France. However, despite the enormous success of her screenplay for Alain Resnais's 1960 classic, "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," few of the 19 movies she wrote and directed herself did well, not least because words often entirely replaced action. Until her 70th birthday, her novels had a loyal albeit small readership. With the publication of "The Lover" in 1984, however, Miss Duras reached a mass audience in France and abroad. The book sold more than two million copies and was made into a well-received film in 1992 by Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Because she considered her words to be sacrosanct, she often had stormy dealings with movie directors who adapted her novels, among them Peter Brook, Tony Richardson and Jules Dassin. And when Mr. Annaud altered her screenplay for "The Lover," Miss Duras broke with him and turned her text into yet another semi-autobiographical novel, "The Lover From Northern China." She described that book, published in 1991, as a "reappropriation" of "The Lover," yet once again she seemed to be reinventing her life to a point where it became impossible to know whether her original novel, Mr. Annaud's film or her second version of the story was the closest to reality. To Miss Duras, of course, this did not matter.

She was born on April 4, 1914, in Gia Dinh, near Saigon. Her parents, Henri and Marie Donnadieu (she changed her name to Duras in the 1930's), were teachers in France's colonial service. She was only a child when her father died, and her first memories were of economic hardship, above all after her mother invested the family's savings in a disastrous rice-farming venture.

After attending school in Saigon, Miss Duras moved to France at the age of 18 to study law and political science. After graduation, she worked as a secretary in the French Ministry of the Colonies until 1941, but by then Nazi Germany had occupied France. In 1943, she joined the Resistance in a small group that included Francois Mitterrand, who remained a friend until his recent death.

In 1939, Miss Duras married the writer Robert Antelme, who was arrested and deported to Germany during the war. By the time he returned from Dachau concentration camp in 1945 (he was the subject of her 1985 book "La Douleur," later published in the United States as "The War"), she was already involved with Dionys Mascolo, who was to become her second husband and with whom she had a son, Jean.

In the late 1940's, Miss Duras joined the French Communist Party, and though she later resigned, she always described herself a Marxist. Yet perhaps her strongest political stance was her contempt for Gen. Charles de Gaulle. "He never pronounced the word Jew after the war," she said in the 1990 interview. "Many people think I am Jewish, and that always pleases me."

Her first book, "Les Impudents," was published in 1943, and from that time, she lived off her writing, gradually building a body of work that included more than 70 novels, plays, screenplays and adaptations. She eventually acquired a country home in Normandy, but her book-lined Left Bank apartment on the Rue St.-Benoit remained her Paris home from 1942 until her death.

For many years, she struggled with alcoholism -- a subject she frequently addressed in her writings -- and her health was further shattered by emphysema. But in the 1980's, long separated from Mr. Mascolo, she also found love again in an unusual relationship with a young homosexual writer, Yann Andrea Steiner, with whom she shared her final years.

Late last year, struggling again with illness, Miss Duras published "That's All," a tiny 54-page book that seemed intended to be her literary adieu to her readers, to Mr. Steiner and to herself. Written between November 1994 and last August, with each occasional entry carrying a date, it consisted of poetic bursts of love, fear and despair, as if all too aware that her death was near.

The very last entry, on the afternoon of Aug. 1, 1995, read:

"I think it is all over. That my life is finished.

"I am no longer anything.

"I have become an appalling sight.

"I am falling apart.

"Come quickly.

"I no longer have a mouth, no longer a face."

She is survived by her son and Mr. Steiner.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Delightfully Out-of-Control Sentences of a Writer in Love With Ruins

Morgan Meis

A few pages into Robert Harbison’s “Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery,” I had to stop, catch my breath, and laugh. Harbison opens the book by reflecting on a chunk of the Pergamon frieze, which was part of a second-century B.C. altar and which depicts, among other things, the mythical battle between the Greek gods and giants. The chunk somehow ended up in the “decayed industrial town” of Worksop, in Nottinghamshire, England. Meditations on the frieze lead Harbison to Peter Weiss’s “immense historico-political novel ‘The Aesthetics of Resistance,’ ” a book composed of “unwieldy blocks” of prose, not unlike the unwieldy fragments of stone that the Pergamon frieze has become over time. From Weiss we move on to Bernardino de Sahagún and Guaman Poma, “two preservers of the native cultures of Mexico and Peru.” Sahagún’s “General History of the Artifacts of New Spain” (1575-7) interests Harbison primarily because it was suppressed in Spain and “disappeared for two centuries until the hand-coloured original was discovered in the national library of Florence in the eighteenth century.” A paragraph or two about Poma and Sahagún and Harbison is off to a garbage dump in “the vanished Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus,” where fragments of lost plays by Aeschylus have been discovered. We are eight pages into the book.

Robert Harbison is a hard figure to pin down. He’s an expert on architecture—at least, he lectures about architecture here and there, though he doesn’t hold a position at any institution. He wrote a book called “Eccentric Spaces,” which was first published in 1977, and in 2000 was reissued by M.I.T. Press. On its website, M.I.T. Press explains that the book concerns “the mysterious interplay between the imagination and the spaces it has made for itself to live in.” Richard Todd, in a review of the book for the Atlantic Monthly, wrote that “Eccentric Spaces” “awakens the reader to the space around him” and described the book as “a reminder of how much we want from the world.” Reading these descriptions and others, one gets the sense that many smart people like Robert Harbison’s writing and aren’t entirely sure what it’s about.

There are also those, of course, who don’t like it. In 1980 the writer Brigid Brophy dismantled Harbison’s “Deliberate Regression” (subtitle: “The disastrous history of Romantic individualism in thought and art, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to twentieth-century fascism”) in the London Review of Books. Brophy found herself violently annoyed by the following sentence:

The way out of the impasse brought on by the decay of religion available to Wilson was an authorised version of Ruskin’s symbolic correspondence, authorised by duplicated evidence from the distant past excavated by science, and institutionalised by the artist in specific forms, like the Brighton chalice, also a calyx, a flower on its stem, attempting to work a magic which would inhere in a thing not just in one’s method for contemplating it.

“This shock-horror pile-up on the motorway manner of writing makes it hard to sort out what belongs to what,” Brophy wrote. And she has a point. You do tend to smack into such pileups when reading Harbison. This is true of “Ruins and Fragments,” too, though the grammatical traffic accidents have become a bit less dramatic, by and large. Ponder, for instance, this sentence from the prologue: “The story begins with dramatically shorn off ancient fragments, of the Pergamon frieze and Aeschylus’ plays, but we find them stuck to other things that in one sense have nothing to do with them, a grimy location in England or a rubbish dump in Egypt, but their later history is now part of them and makes these ragged scraps more riveting than the others who stayed behind in their proper places.” Not as egregious as the sentence Brophy singled out, granted, but something does go syntactically awry once we get into the first subordinate clause. Harbison seems to find nuances of meaning in the word but that are unavailable to the rest of us.

Still, just as we are about to give up on Harbison and his unfathomable sentences, we come across this line, in which he discusses the often haphazard way Montaigne structured his “Essays”:

The seeming randomness or scatty variety of Montaigne’s titles isn’t actually borne out by the text: the reality is much worse, a writer who when he wants to change the topic is capable of saying ‘And now to change the topic.’ But constant change isn’t irresponsibility or faithlessness, but almost the reverse, a kind of integrity in pursuit of the natural rhythms of consciousness. He becomes increasingly aware that his quarry is the self in all its hideous inconsistency.

Admittedly, Harbison’s now-familiar compulsion to drag the word but into rather odd territory is once again on display. Still, we must give some credit to a thinker who can call Montaigne’s writing “scatty.” More substantively, the description of Montaigne as “in pursuit of the natural rhythms of consciousness” is genuinely illuminating. Also, “the self in all its hideous inconsistency” is a great phrase. Harbison is talking about Montaigne here, but he is also, obviously, talking about himself.

Toward the middle of “Ruins and Fragments,” Harbison gets lost in a rambling but delightful discussion of Laurence Sterne’s impossible-to-categorize eighteenth-century novel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” Harbison is trying to explain the structure of Sterne’snovel, which is largely the deviation from any structure.

As each deviation from regular progress is announced, we may view it as an amusing prank—certainly the Preface finally appearing in volume three reads this way—but with a little distance, or maybe, having built up sufficient stock of such surprises, we begin to see it as an expression of the way reality works. And finally we come to feel that the whole effect is a symphonic version of the ungraspable flux of our consciousness, which moves with a life of its own, essentially out of our control.

As with the meditation on Montaigne, Harbison is clearly doing something autobiographical here. But the passage applies not just to Sterne and Harbison but to the rest of us as well: we are all symphonic fluxes. We grasp, we fumble. We hit on an illusory fragment of stability now and again, but we are not in control.

And this, ultimately, is why Harbison is so interested in ruins and fragments. They are not, in his view, aesthetic amusements to be discovered at the periphery of civilization but clues to “the way reality works.” Fragments can, paradoxically, reveal more than the whole from which they came. They tell a greater truth about fragility and time than perfectly preserved monuments. Harbison regards ruins and fragments so highly that he has written a book about ruins and fragments that reads like a series of ruins and fragments.
Plenty of others before him have written about the power of such objects, and many of those writers have crafted smoother sentences and published better-organized books. But there is a beauty in the symmetry between Harbison’s subject matter and his style. It is possible, of course, to conclude, as Brigid Brophy did, that Harbison’s mind is as jumbled as his sentences sometimes are, and that there is nothing salutary to be found in mental jumbles. One might even invoke the mimetic fallacy. But those of us who love his work love precisely the way those intellectual jumbles reflect an idea about the world.

If you have not read his work before, and wonder in which camp you will find yourself, consider the following pileup from near the end of “Ruins and Fragments”:

Among Homer’s archaisms are certain ruin-words, mainly adjectives, that no one claims securely to understand, which, it has been proposed, he didn’t understand either, but saved into his verses out of respect for their supposed antiquity. One of them—amumon—had usually been translated ‘blameless’ by analogy with a similar known word, until Anne Amory Parry insisted the word couldn’t apply to Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s accomplice in murder, so it is probably better understood as ‘handsome’. Even so it remains a patch of obscurity, like a knot in wood that there is no way to straighten into intelligible, smooth running grain.

You may smile with satisfaction after reading this paragraph, with its unlikely simile that pleasingly gets at the knotty delights of Homeric Greek. Or you may wince at its clauses and commas and general clutter. I am of the former camp. To me, Harbison’s books, difficult as they may sometimes be to understand, consistently provide brief, fragmentary glimmers of hope.

Credits:  This article was originally published in 2015 in The New Yorker

Friday, May 11, 2018

The lasting appeal of Christopher Isherwood

Peter Parker

Otto Dix

On November 29, 1929 Christopher Isherwood packed two suitcases and a rucksack and set off for Berlin on a one-way ticket. “To Christopher, Berlin meant Boys”, he later wrote, and by going to live there he was rejecting both his upper-middle-class background and the social values to which his mother, widowed in the First World War, was still clinging. This ferocious family quarrel had been dramatised in his highly accomplished but heavily remaindered first novel, All the Conspirators, published in 1928.

In Berlin he would work on a second novel, The Memorial, which further explored the gulf between the generations caused by the war and was admired by EM Forster among others. It was, however, the novels he wrote about Berlin, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), that made his reputation as one of the leading writers of his generation, providing an indelible tragic-comic portrait of a city teetering on the brink of catastrophe as Hitler gained in popular support.

While Isherwood, who was born on 26 August 1904, was attracted to Berlin by the ready availability of homosexual partners there, he always had a keen journalist’s instinct for being in the right place at the right time. “Here was the seething brew of history in the making,” he wrote, “a brew which would test the truth of all the political theories, just as actual cooking tests the cookery books. The Berlin brew seethed with unemployment, malnutrition, stock market panic, hatred of the Versailles Treaty and other potent ingredients.”

Isherwood’s Berlin novels portray this history-in-the-making at street level, showing how ordinary people were affected. Isherwood’s sharp eye for physical detail and human oddity means that his characters are never merely representative of their class or condition, but leap off the page and live on in the memory. And in the feckless cabaret singer Sally Bowles (on whose story the stage musical Cabaret was later based) he created one of literature’s immortals.

Isherwood’s lasting attraction as a writer, apart from the unfading crispness and sheer readability of his prose, is that he encompassed a century. Although born into the Edwardian age in 1904, he still seems strikingly modern. He may have effectively left England in 1929, but he took his Englishness with him, becoming, as he put it, “a permanent foreigner”. He recognised that being an outsider wherever he went, both nationally and sexually, gave him an invaluable perspective as a writer.

Having fled Berlin in May 1933, he spent the next few years trailing around Europe with his young German lover Heinz Neddermeyer in search of a country in which they could settle without being harried by immigration officials and the Nazi authorities. Heinz was eventually imprisoned for draft evasion and sexual offences, after which Isherwood travelled to China as a somewhat improbable war reporter with his friend WH Auden. The two emigrated to America in 1939 and Isherwood settled in California. He worked with leading directors in Hollywood, became the disciple of a Hindu guru long before hippies followed in The Beatles’ footsteps to India, and ended up a figurehead of the Gay Liberation movement. He died in 1986.

Every step along the way is recorded in the books he wrote, so that reading Isherwood gives one a real sense of what it was like to live through the 20th century, a century characterised by wars, the clash of ideologies, widespread deracination and massive social change.

Isherwood, who died on 4 January 1986 aged 81, was celebrated in 2011 in Kevin Elyot’s adaptation for BBC "Two of Christopher and His Kind," Isherwood’s memoir of his life in the Thirties, published in 1977. Taking advantage of the new freedoms resulting from gay liberation, Isherwood not only placed his homosexual experiences back at the centre of his Berlin life in this book, but went on to describe his further travels throughout what Auden described as “a low dishonest decade”. As in Goodbye to Berlin, this is a personal story played out against and driven by history. The familiar refugee experience is given a novel twist, however, for it is sexuality rather than race that forces Isherwood to seek another homeland. The book ends hopefully with him setting sail for America, like many European émigrés; and it is here that a whole new chapter of his life and work will open.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 2015 in The Telegraph.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Short Story by Ed Coonce

Horst and Zuckerpuppe 


Horst Lingenstoltzger walked carefully, not hard, so as not to dislodge Zuckerpuppe, his kitty, from atop his helmet. She rode serenely, meowing occasionally, since it was close to her dinner time. Horst was a bit chilly, snow lay on the ground, and the new uniforms mandated by Obergruppenführer Colonel Fee lacked a certain...uh...length and the fabric was very light. The cold seeped into his bones, but he kept on walking heroically, spine straight and chin in, hoping that spring was just around the corner.

Following orders to the tee, he walked with the mini-ShakeWeight in his right hand and his laser pointer in his left. When his squadron marched in close-order drill, the effect was spectacular. Most of the kitties stayed atop their perch, but there were always a few that became agitated when the ShakeWeights began shaking and the lasers illuminated sharp, jerky points on the pavement. They invariably ran down the soldier's back and chased the laser lights, running through the troops' legs in random chaos. Seen from the private boxes in the reviewing stands, the action was beautifully controlled, yet terrifying. The drills were filmed and released in propaganda clips in order to intimidate and demoralize the enemy.

Horst hadn't signed up for this sort of duty. He'd had visions of himself in action, rushing the enemy's lines, tossing his grenades, parachuting from the Stuka as it dive bombed the Allied artillery batteries. He wasn't alone, though. His battalion, three thousand strong, shared the indignity of their situation without complaint. Well, once in a while, some private would throw his ShakeWeight at the Obergruppenführer and yell out "Are you fuckin' crazy?" The military police would come and remove him within minutes, and the company commander would dismiss the troops for a chocolate milk and streusel break. Fortified, the soldiers would then return to work.

Horst shivered. An icy late afternoon wind turned his forearms to goosebumps and his bare thighs stung with each gust. Zuckerpuppe stepped onto Horst's shoulder, where it was a little warmer. Time to move onto the next assignment.

Casual Friday was nearly over and he could get back into his greatcoat and go see Wibke, his girlfriend. She lived with her aunt in a small flat near the Brandenberg Gate, where she eked out a living as a window washer. Wibke could be found nearly any day on a scaffold high above Berlin, cleaning the windows through which the Obergruppenführers watched the city.

From her perch, she could see Horst as he high-stepped off the parade route and headed for his barracks. She wiped the last window dry and lowered the scaffold to the ground. Tonight was going to be very special. She and Horst and Zuckerpuppe were going to the screening of "Der Handshumaker," a short dramatic film-noire about Ilsa, a short girl who models gloves for the hoi polloi until, in a fit of pique, she runs out of the shop, down along the river, pulls her nine millimeter and shoots herself in the hand.

The cuckoo clock sounded as the doorbell chimed. Horst had arrived. This was going to be a great weekend.

About the Author

Ed Coonce is an artist, actor, poet, and writer living in Encinitas, California. He studied fine art at Indiana University after serving two tours as a Marine in Vietnam, and transferred to the Coronado School of Fine Art, studying printmaking and painting under Monty Lewis, a Depression Era muralist who participated in the New Deal’s Public Works Art Project. Ed writes short satire and humor, and his current art frequently reflects the topical nature of his stories. Hie is a past board member of the Oceanside Cultural Arts Foundation, where he worked on annual events such as the Oceanside International Film Festival, The Art Festival, And Write On, Oceanside, an annual literary event. He hosts East Hell Writers and Phantom Poets, and is the creative director for Theatre Arts West. He is currently acting, singing, and dancing in a new musical comedy and writing the screenplay for two others.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Interview with poet Ron Smith

TLY:  We couldn’t be happier about this opportunity to ask poet Ron Smith questions near and dear to our hearts here at the blog.  Ron Smith is a former Poet Laureate of Virginia and is currently writer-in-residence at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia.  He has published four collections of poetry, as well as essays and reviews.  In 2005, he received the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize.

Ron, thank you so much for speaking with us.  You grew up in Savannah, Georgia.  What was Savannah like when you were growing up?

Ron: Pre-gentrified Savannah was magic to a little kid. I have only recently begun to believe that its peculiarities had a profound effect on me: The crisp geometrical order of the squares imposed on a tropical gothic decay. Water oaks and live oaks draped spookily in Spanish moss. Just outside of town in nearly every direction: marsh smell, slow muddy rivers, alligators on the slimy banks . . .

I had a wonderful childhood in Savannah and, later, in nearby Garden City. It was probably a typical childhood for the time and place, a perfect balance of parental love and parental neglect. I was free to roam the woods all day, climbing (and falling out of) trees, up to my knees in a frog-rich ditch, tightroping the rails of a freight track for miles. I was an only child until the age of ten, and I loved being alone. It was, I guess, a very Wordworthian childhood. Open-ended. But somewhere in the back of my mind were the rational right angles at the heart of our city.

My mother, who read to me every night, bought me a new Golden Book every Friday at the Colonial Store on Bay Street. My first trip to Italy happened in my mind, in the story of Pinocchio. In elementary school I discovered the astronomy shelf in the school library and felt that dizzying awe that vast spaces and immense stretches of time can stun you with. When I turned twelve, sports kicked in and I dedicated myself to becoming a great third basemen. After failing miserably as a hitter in baseball, I began to play football—a test of manhood and self-discipline.

Downtown Savannah is a wonderful place today. But back then—before the Savannah College of Art and Design appeared (and before The Ladies gentrified the place with the help of that cartoonish novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil)—it was, as H.L. Mencken said of the entire South somewhat earlier, “The Sahara of the Bozart.” I remember being disheartened by the shabby Telfair Museum. I wonder why? I knew nothing about museums. Still, there were artists. The man across the street who worked for the Savannah power company was a weekend painter. He taught me how to color in my coloring book. His blending of colors changed my life, taught me how to see and taught me that the world was more subtle than I had realized. He also lent me a volume of Poe. That changed my life, too. I never realized writing could be that intense. 

TLY:  We speak often of “southerners” and “northerners.”  As someone who has lived in both the North and South, what do these names mean to you?

Ron: As we move further into the twenty-first century, the differences seem to me less and less. Still, southerners self-identify by region in a way that northerners do not. As one friend from New York pointed out, up there you say, I’m Jewish or Italian. But you’d never say, “I’m a Northerner.” Even though she knew the woman was joking, my friend, fresh from Brooklyn, was terrified when her hairdresser in Richmond said loudly, “Look, y’all. I’ve got a real live Yankee by the hair.”

Broadly—very broadly—speaking, I’d say those in the Deep South are warmer to strangers than are northerners. Below the surface? I once heard a North Carolinian say, “A Virginian is a block of ice.” I think he meant the temperature just behind that Virginia smile. Like several of my relatives in Georgia, he didn’t count Virginia as part of the South. The fact that Richmond was the Capital of the Confederacy means nothing to them, believe it or not.

And it’s true that in the Deep South they take their time, both speaking and walking. My father, who grew up on a farm, strolled so slowly that my mother, a city girl—a Savannah girl—made fun of him, mocking his “I’m-conserving-my-energy” explanation.

On my first trip to New York City, I was shocked at the bluntness and candor of cabbies and waitresses. But I realized right away that I found it refreshing—none of that “Ain’t she cute?” fake politeness Flannery O’Connor exposed so well.

The tropical atmosphere of Chatham County, Georgia, is driven deeply into my psyche. When I see moss and palms, when I smell the marsh, something unclenches inside me. But my training in philosophy puts me partly on the side of that Yankee of Yankees, Henry David Thoreau, who rejected the usual pleasures and rewards of life for, well, “truth.” “Say what you have to say, not what you ought,” Thoreau said. I spent two summers at Oxford, which struck me as more like the American South than, say, like tense, cerebral Harvard—an atmosphere Thoreau both embraced and rejected. At Oxford I sensed a relaxed, gentlemanly excellence. What am I saying? That I guess I want everything?

By the way, the Northern notion that there is more racism in the South than in the North is, in my experience, nonsense. There are plenty of racists north of the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s an ongoing American evil, not a particularly Southern one. 

TLY:  Moon Road: Poems 1986-2005 might be described as a book about exodus. Would you agree?

Ron: Hm. That’s interesting to think about. From a sort of bondage in an alien realm through hardship and finally to the Promised Land? It’s true that the penultimate poem finds Jerusalem the ultimate city, a place of baffling origins.

But the final poem, “When I Was Eight,” returns the book to its beginnings, back to the father and to Georgia, back to the family. I guess I see that book as less an exodus than an odyssey. It’s about adventure, about going away and coming back, about discovering the exotic and becoming a bit exotic oneself. 

TLY:   Ezra Pound is quoted as saying, “A great age of literature is perhaps always a great age of translations.”  What do you think he meant?

Ron: I think he meant that great literature insists on jumping the guardrail, that inspired writers need the push and pull, the difficulty, of a foreign language. Because translation is impossible, it slams open the doors of the possible. “Failure is the true test of greatness,” Melville said. If you did something perfectly, it was too damn easy to begin with. I don’t read Russian, but I love trying to figure out just what Pushkin was up to—with this ending, with that rhythm. I can never really know, but pondering, say, the different effects of “luna” (Italian) and “moon” (English) uses a different part of my brain, I believe. It opens new channels. 

TLY:  Imagination and inspiration.  How would you define the two?

Ron: Inspiration is “divine guidance,” isn’t it?

And imagination? I rather like Coleridge’s notion that the imagination is a perceptive power, a kind of spiritual laser beam that penetrates the surface of things.

There’s an element of play in inspiration and imagination.

If divinity exists, it exists in extraordinary minds at the play we call work. And it’s in ordinary minds, too, when they are working (playing) extraordinarily.

I’ve been asked many times, “Can you really teach someone to write poetry?” If the question means, “Can I (or anyone) teach someone to be a great poet?” the answer is no. Nobody can teach you how to be Shakespeare or Dickinson. If the questions means, “Can you teach someone a craft?” the answer is, “Of course.” Inspiration and imagination? You have to find them yourself, I think.

TLY:   What is the role of ethics in writing poetry? 

Ron:  What is the role of ethics in parenting? In golf? In serving on a jury? In creating laws? In driving your car safely?

Ethics, like play, should be at the heart of everything we do, I think. Some poets see ethics as an artistic hindrance; some poems express or yearn for the amoral. But I see ethical thinking as a source of energy and clarity. Sure, some poets commit Poe’s “heresy of the didactic.” Preachy poetry is not the goal, though. Fully human poetry is the goal—and healthy humans are moral agents. 

TLY:  You served as vice president and trustee of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. You have also taught entire semester-long courses in the life and work of Poe (graduate and undergraduate courses at University of Richmond and high school courses at St. Christopher's School). Why Poe?  Do you find in his work a kindred spirit?

Ron: I see Poe as a tormented rationalist, as one who felt compelled to interrogate the spiritual and to parody gothic writing. To satirize romantic thinking in general.

I don’t think I’m particularly tormented, but I am essentially a rationalist-materialist who nevertheless yearns to encounter the Absolute, the Platonic, the Ultimate. Who believes he has glimpsed from time to time something Beyond, something of transcendent significance. Who is trying to make sense of peak experiences.

TLY:  Your collection Humility of the Brutes contains the poem “Dostoyevsky’s Last Flat.”  The poem conveys an impression of terrible decay, as do other poems about the former Soviet Union.  Would you say therein lies the humility and humanity—in the sense that there is a last flat out there for all of us?

Ron:   You know, I don’t see “terrible decay” in those poems. What I see mainly is incomprehension. The speaker moves through a truly alien place, yearning for insight and never getting it—at least not the kind of insight that would satisfy him. The humility in those poems is, I guess, primarily the speaker’s (which is to say, more or less mine). Because I couldn’t “figure out” Russia, for a long time I didn’t think I could write about it. Then, I decided that a failed epiphany doesn’t necessarily mean a failed poem.

TLY:  Ron, it has been an absolute honor and pleasure.  Before we let you go, would you like to share any current projects you may be working on? 

Ron: I’ve been writing sonnets lately, some about my father, some about Italy, some about the Upper and the Lower South.

And, a few years ago I drew what I thought were final conclusions about Hemingway. I’ve always loved the early stuff (up to 1929); but I decided that the man was an ungrateful braggart and a remarkably malicious liar. Recently, I’ve been trying to reassess him, to find a way to admire Hemingway the man and his later writing. I’ve been reading the later fiction and nonfiction and the biographies. Wish me luck.


Ron grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and attended college on a football scholarship, playing for the University of Richmond Spiders for four years, including its Tangerine Bowl Champion team. He holds BA, MA, MH, and MFA degrees, with concentrations in British and American literature, philosophy, American drama, Renaissance and modern literature and art, and poetry writing. In addition to the University of Richmond, he has studied writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and Bennington College in Vermont; British drama at Worcester College, Oxford; and modern poetry at the Ezra Pound Center for Literature, in Merano, Italy. In 2005 he was named an Inaugural Winner of the $10,000 Carole Weinstein Prize in Poetry; in 2006 he became one of the Curators for that prize. In 2010 he was named Poetry Editor for Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature. Many of his poems deal with the joys and the ethics of sports. In 2016 he was awarded the Ellen Anderson Prize.

He is the author of Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery, runner-up for the National Poetry Series Open Competition (judged by Margaret Atwood) and subsequently published by University Presses of Florida. Smith’s three later books are published by LSU Press; his The Humility of the Brutes appeared in August of 2017. His poems have appeared in The Nation, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Georgia Review, New England Review, Anglican Theological Review, and many other periodicals, as well as in anthologies published in the U.S., Canada, England, Scotland, and Italy. His essays, reviews, and poetry columns have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Georgia Review, Blackbird, Shenandoah, Edgar Allan Poe Review, H-Arete, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and some multivolume library reference works.

Ron Smith has read his poems on the floors of the Virginia Senate & the Virginia House of Delegates, at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, at the American ambassador’s official residence in Rome and at the Keats-Shelly House beside Rome’s Spanish Steps—and many other places including Dublin, London, & the wilds of Western Canada.

He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in poetry and general humanities at Mary Washington University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and University of Richmond. He is currently Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia, where he also holds the George Squires Chair of Distinguished Teaching.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts recently commissioned him to write ekphrastic poems for its 2018 exhibition “The Horse in Ancient Greek Art.”

Ron Smith was the Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2014 to 2016. He has lived in Virginia for several decades with his wife, Delores.

[2 May 2018]

 From University Presses of Florida

From Louisiana State University Press

Magic Mountains

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