Podcast • February 12, 2013

Geoff Dyer: “… on whom nothing is lost.”

  Geoff Dyer would tell you he found his way into writing as a way of not having a career. With ever-ready tennis raquet in his book bag, he seems pretty much the man we all want to be when we grow up. He’s a ...

 

geoffdGeoff Dyer would tell you he found his way into writing as a way of not having a career. With ever-ready tennis raquet in his book bag, he seems pretty much the man we all want to be when we grow up. He’s a pissed-off Englishman but light-hearted about it. He’s learned, he’s liberated. He’s prolific, he’s celebrated. And he’s very, very funny, in person as on the page. We’re making conversation here at the Key West Literary Seminar this winter.

Geoff Dyer hooked me 15 years ago with But Beautiful, an inspired set of improvisations on the sacrificial lives of jazz geniuses (Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, Bud Powell) whom Dyer (astonishingly to me) had never seen or heard in life. He is famous since then for Out of Sheer Rage about his constitutional inability to write a scholar’s account D. H. Lawrence. He has served a long apprenticeship with the hero he speaks about here: the anti-critic and anti-theorist John Berger. Meantime when Dyer writes from the road about importunate Cambodian kids trying to sell him a Coke — he lifts the travel essay toward a very personal moral majesty.

What’s so individual about Geoff Dyer is the mix of amateur and expert voices — of the angry working-stiff with an Oxford degree who’s judgmental but always original on photography and poetry, history, fiction and that “foreign music” known as jazz, just for starters.  He’s in the great line of stylish pubic thinkers from Hazlitt to George Scialabba, writing ever “outside his field,” because in truth he has no field. He invites and challenges all of us to pay attention to everything, to look at what we’re seeing, to get us into the act, to be touched by it.

Podcast • November 27, 2012

Tuesday in Tahrir: Field Notes, with Novelists

  CAIRO — On the way into the tumult in Tahrir Square today, we’re in conversation with the novelist Mona Prince of So You May See and My Name is Revolution. And on the way out late Tuesday night, we are listening to a beloved ...

 

Podcasting colleague Mark Fonseca Rendeiro high over tents in Tahrir Square. Tuesday, November 27, 2012

CAIRO — On the way into the tumult in Tahrir Square today, we’re in conversation with the novelist Mona Prince of So You May See and My Name is Revolution. And on the way out late Tuesday night, we are listening to a beloved writer in this crowd, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, author of many novels, four in English translation, including Nobody Sleeps in Alexandria. From my own “archives of the feet” (Simon Schama’s phrase) Egypt’s Tahrir Revolution of January 2011 appears to be roaring back to full life — spirits higher, some say, even if numbers may be lower than two winters ago. And the chants are full-throated echoes of the slogans that drove Hosni Mubarak out of power: “The Egyptian people say: leave!” and “We want bread, and freedom.”

I found myself at one point in a mass of lawyers stretching out a 25-yard red-white-and-black Egyptian flag, shouting over and over: “Gamal Abdel Nasser said: You can’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood.” Lawyers and judges I met today are up in arms because President Mohamed Morsi’s decrees last week put him formally above the law. So they chant: “The Brotherhood is not legal.” Other rhythmic rants that caught on: “It’s a joke! How much can we take?” And dead seriously: “People demand to remove the regime!”

Hardest to absorb and pass on are the extreme emotions around what could look like a festive football crowd. Ecstasy and the deepest sadness and remembered pain are all in the mix. A 40-year-old man named Hassan told me he himself had carried 70 dead or dying people out of Tahrir Square in February 2011. “It was horrible,” he said. “Horrible! But we succeeded. The people succeeded. Mubarak was a thief,” and then he spelled out the word “thief” in ballpoint on his newspaper to be sure I understood. He added: “Freedom is fundamental for the Egyptian people.”

I saw one flash fight on the edge of Tahrir this afternoon, eight feet from me. Suddenly a tall suited man with a handsome Nubian look was swinging hard slaps at the face and head of a smaller man with a formal beard. An undercover cop beating a civilian, was my first thought. No, my friend Hassan explained, it was an outraged civilian taking warning shots at a man with the “black chin” of the Muslim Brotherhood, as if to say — maybe saying: “how dare you take a picture of me? You people don’t belong here — and here you are spying on me!” Braver men than I jumped quickly between the combatants, who melted as quickly into the crowd. And wave after wave of practiced, peaceable protesters poured into the ocean of Tahrir Square.

Podcast • July 5, 2011

Harold Bloom: On the Playing Field of Poetry

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Harold Bloom (50 minutes, 23 mb mp3) Photo by Adam Fitzgerald, Boston Review Harold Bloom, in conversation about his famous Anxiety of Influence, slips so comfortably into baseball and jazz metaphors (“tropes,” in the lingo) that I’m wondering ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Harold Bloom (50 minutes, 23 mb mp3)

Photo by Adam Fitzgerald, Boston Review

Harold Bloom, in conversation about his famous Anxiety of Influence, slips so comfortably into baseball and jazz metaphors (“tropes,” in the lingo) that I’m wondering if it’s time for the wall chart version of his literary argument — something like David Marriott’s Periodic Table of Jazz Pianists. Or perhaps an interactive game, or Wiki, drawing on a poetic equivalent of Bill James‘ reinvention of baseball statistics. “A Sabremetrics of literature, you mean?” quoth Bloom. Yes, poetry’s answer to fantasy baseball, I say, with players named Shelley, Keats, Dickinson and Ashberry.

How different, I’m asking him, was Mickey Mantle’s relation in the Yankees’ centerfield to the myth of Joe DiMaggio on the same turf (or Johnny Damon’s relation more recently to the memory of Mickey Mantle) from the creative tension between American poets Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955) and Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)? “No different,” judges Professor Bloom. Or Paul Gonsalves sitting in Ben Webster’s tenor saxophone chair in the Ellington band in the 1950s? “Absolutely no different.” Or Adele, the contemporary young British songstress with the Ella Fitzgerald intonation?

Influence, as the Sage of New Haven expounds it again in The Anatomy of Influence, is a process that begins in love and extends itself in a certain amount of narcissism and robust self-investment. It describes part of Milton’s link to Shakespeare, Nabokov’s to James Joyce, Charlie Parker’s to Johnny Hodges and Louis Armstrong, and Carl Yastrzemski’s to Ted Williams.

I am confessing that I preferred the original title for the new book: The Living Labyrinth, because it so elegantly represented not literature so much as the surging search-engine of Bloom’s overstocked head. Influence anxiety, as he likes to say, exists not between the artists but between their poems endlessly bumping into each other in readers’ memories, none vaster than his own. “Let’s face it, Harold,” I had said to him most of two years ago, “the living labyrinth is you!” He answered with a long laugh, and then: “A nice trope, my boy.”

There are more flashes of autobiography than usual in this our umpteenth conversation, on the eve of Bloom’s 81st birthday. It touches me somehow that baseball keeps popping up as a sort of alternative home of the Bloomian imagination. He’s remembering the Bronx in the summer of 1936 when Bloom’s uncle, “the splendid Sam Kaplan,” took the 6-year-old boy to Yankee Stadium, and the rookie Joseph Paul DiMaggio streaked like a gazelle onto the Bloom horizon. The inspiration is not forgotten. Bloom loves (who doesn’t?) the famous DiMaggio line when asked why he’d nearly killed himself chasing down a fly ball in a game that had already been decided: “because there might be a kid in those stands who hasn’t seen me play before.” Bloom will teach another ten years at Yale, he hopes — till he’s carried out, in any event; and he still takes speaking gigs at the New York Public Library, he explains, because there might be someone in New York “who has never seen Bloom talk before.”

I call the first section of this book literary love. I think that in order for later poets to be profoundly influenced by earlier poets, they have to begin by falling in love with the poems. But of course, like love of all kinds, if you’re fiercely enough in love, it carries its ambivalences. And those ambivalences constitute part of the phenomenon I call the anxiety of influence.

When I call the subtitle of this “Literature as a Way of Life”, I mean that. I think that there are people who love religion. I don’t. There are people who love history, I hate history. I agree with James Joyce that it’s a nightmare from which we should try to awake but we can’t. There are people who love science or philosophy. I don’t.

I think we are in a society now, for more than a century, and it will go on this way, I fear, where all our cognitive modes have failed us. My late friend Richard Rorty once said to me, “You know Harold, when the cognitive modes — philosophy, science, religion, history — fail a society, then willy-nilly, whether it wants to or not, it becomes a literary culture.” And I said, “Yes, Dick, and I’m not so sure this is good for literature, or good for society.” But I think this is what has happened.

Even now in the digital age, though we call it by different names and we adulterate the phenomenon, we live in a literary culture.

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon in New Haven, June 2011.

Podcast • May 12, 2011

Anna West: Poetry That’s “Louder than a Bomb”

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with Anna West Anna West, poet and teacher, is letting us in on “Louder than a Bomb.” Before it was an inspirational film, it was a high-school slam poetry festival she founded a decade ago with the Young ...

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with Anna West

Anna West, poet and teacher, is letting us in on “Louder than a Bomb.” Before it was an inspirational film, it was a high-school slam poetry festival she founded a decade ago with the Young Chicago Authors — a mentoring method that took off in the Second City and which she has now brought to the Harvard Ed School for some fine New England grooming, so to speak. She is on her way back now to her hometown, Baton Rouge, where she developed a WordPlay teen writing project. So she’s ready to demonstrate how lots of school districts can build platforms for budding writers — “garage poets.” That is, to build poetry into the performance repertoire of expressive teenagers.

Anna West is a favorite among the “stage” poets who have seized the initiative at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival on the weekend of May 13 and 14. The sound of her young poets here is closer to hip-hop than to Homer, you start to say, but then you wonder. It’s the sound of people first claiming their voices, the sound of selves crystallizing in words, declaring themselves. Not least: a lot of fresh responses here to the Whose Words These Are questions we started asking two years ago: Who’s writing poetry, in our midst, these days? And what is it trying to tell us?

When we talk about the bardic tradition, when we talk about Homer, of course we’re talking about spoken word. People talk about spoken word as if it’s this kind of contemporary, cultural movement, but really it’s tapping into an ancient art, which is the art of taking the verse and putting it right here in the space between you and me, as a way for us to connect.

We’re also drawing directly from hip-hop pop culture in big ways. I think that those of us who are outside the culture of hip-hop think of it in its commercialized form, which is actually something that has been co-opted, souped-up and sold back. Underneath that, there’s this entire fabric of participatory culture, which is really where it comes from, this idea that “Joey” around the corner has got crazy skills, and he’s a maker of culture, not simply a consumer of culture.

Anna West with Chris Lydon at the Grolier Poetry Book Store, Cambridge, May 2011.

Thanks to the Grolier Poetry Book Store in Harvard Square, Cambridge for studio space.

Podcast • May 10, 2011

Whose Words… (36) Alex Charalambides: “Look at Me!”

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with Alex Charalambides Alex Charalambides, a slam star at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem next weekend, is the child of Greek refugees from Romania who settled in Worcester, Massachusetts — the town that gave the world Elizabeth ...

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with Alex Charalambides

Alex Charalambides, a slam star at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem next weekend, is the child of Greek refugees from Romania who settled in Worcester, Massachusetts — the town that gave the world Elizabeth Bishop.

Greek patriotic poems opened Alex’s road into poetry and performance — and kept him out of Little League baseball, he says. As a word nerd in high school, then a history major at Boston College, he found his inspiration in Charles Bukowski, the high priest of low-life; then Daniel Quinn, the anarcho-humanist-environmentalist of Ishmael, and climactically the poet and songster Saul Williams of the documentary film “Slam.”

For a decade now, Alex’s poetry has developed out of the Rand McNally School of Self-Discovery, on the long road of jams and late-night joints from Providence to Oakland where he found his fun and expressive power in slam competitions.

“Look at me!” delivered for us here, gives you the spirit of his enterprise. He’s remembering that it was “a charming 2-year-old” in Duluth who cooed “look at me,” at him! “That’s what all art says,” he answered her, laughing uncomfortably. “I guess I do kinda want your attention. All artists who dare take page or stage, we just tend to augment, like ‘Look at me: war is fundamentally wrong… Look at me: the world is in desperate need of new love songs… Look at me: Crazy!… Look at me: I dig jazz, the good kind… Look at me: I dig trenches…’ I say: ‘Look at me, ’cause I’m frantically searching for options. Look at me, ’cause I think I know some words that you don’t know.”

For Alex Charalambides no venue is too small, no national slam rivals are too big. He likes to reflect on “what someone along on a stage could do with just words. Beyond the hoopla, the competition, the small fish rock star status, a human being, alone, with their words on a stage, could change someone’s world forever.”

Q: If you weren’t a poet, what would you be?

A: A bass player

Q: What’s the talent you’d most like to have, but don’t, yet?

A: I would love to be a really great cook.

Q: Who are your brother and sister artists in other mediums?

A: Daniel Quinn is my favorite writer, not for the way he writes but his overall message. I have it tattooed on my arm — he wrote this book called “The Story of B.” … I have an album that is called “I am B”, that’s sort of dedicated to that. I love Tom Waits as a singer-songwriter musician. He shows such a range of emotion and style and texture of voice, I love his work.

Q: What’s the quality above all that you look for in a good poem?

A: Honesty

Q: What is the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: I try to make my poems say yes.

Q: What’s your motto?

A: “Quit your job and get to work.”

Thanks to the Grolier Poetry Book Store in Harvard Square, Cambridge for studio space.

Podcast • May 5, 2011

Whose Words These Are: January O’Neil’s Underlife

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with January Gill O’Neil January Gill O’Neil personifies the very broad reach of the third Massachusetts Poetry Festival, coming to Hawthorne’s old witch-burning town of Salem, north of Boston, on May 13 and 14. Family poems fill O’Neil’s ...

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with January Gill O’Neil

January Gill O’Neil personifies the very broad reach of the third Massachusetts Poetry Festival, coming to Hawthorne’s old witch-burning town of Salem, north of Boston, on May 13 and 14.

Family poems fill O’Neil’s first collection Underlife — about her mom’s career in a newborn intensive care unit: “She liked doing the kind things that love cannot do: adjusting another woman’s breast, lifting the pillow under her head…;” about her daughter Ella, at three, munching on her crayons. “This tells me you know how to eat words. You’ve tasted those intangible calories that fill my cavernous heart.” O’Neil is chatty in the kitchen, first obvious then arresting “In Praise of Okra: … you were brought from Africa as seeds, hidden in the ears and hair of slaves.” And then she’s bold in the bedroom: “Ass up, head down, no stroking, no kissing, just clumsy, fractional fucking that was over before it began.”

It was the Massachusetts Poetry Festival two years ago that prompted this “Whose Words These Are” series of Open Source conversations on where poetry comes from these days, and where it is going. At Salem, poetry would seem to be heading in the direction of hearty performance — led by inspirational school teachers like Anna West and Alex Charalambides as well as Sarah Kay and Jericho Brown; the Iraq War veteran Brian Turner of Here, Bullet; the crowd-pleasing Filipino-American Aimee Nezhukumatathil and the hall-of-fame slammer Patricia Smith. And oh, yes, the National Book Award winner Mark Doty, for Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (2008).

January O’Neil, Virginian by birth, is a writer/editor at Babson College outside Boston. She has studied with Sharon Olds, Philip Levine and Galway Kinnell. She credits Toi Derricotte with “opening the door,” and Cave Canem with keeping it open.

Q: Who are your brother and sister artists in other mediums?

A: I wish I could write a song as perfect as The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” which is a waltz. When I think about writing poems, I think about stringing them together like the Beatles do in some of their albums.

Q: What is the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: I like to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary, to capture a moment and elevate it.

Q: What’s the talent you most covet that you don’t have, yet?

A: Singing

Q: What quality do you look for in a poem?

A: I love being surprised. I love starting a poem someplace and not knowing where it’s going.

Q: Who is your favorite character in fiction?

A: Celie, from The Color Purple.

Q: Whom do you respect?

A: My parents.

Q: What’s your motto?

A: “I move to keep things whole,” which is a line from Mark Strand’s poem “Keeping Things Whole.”

Thanks to the Grolier Poetry Book Store in Harvard Square, Cambridge for studio space.

Podcast • March 17, 2011

C. D. Wright in Triumph: One With Others

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with CD Wright. (33 minutes, 15 mb mp3) [newyorker.com image] C. D. Wright is well known for assembling her patchwork poetry from local and vernacular fragments. Even with fame and standing, she has still the one-of-a-kind comic, passionate, choleric ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with CD Wright. (33 minutes, 15 mb mp3)

C. D. Wright is well known for assembling her patchwork poetry from local and vernacular fragments. Even with fame and standing, she has still the one-of-a-kind comic, passionate, choleric sound of an offbeat oracle of the Arkansas Ozarks, where she grew up. So the National Book Critics Circle award last week for her book-length poem One With Others — after a near-miss for the National Book Award — seals a distinctly individual triumph of voice and art.

One With Others is her telling of one small fragment of the Civil Rights epic. The place is Forest City in the Arkansas Delta. The time is August 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, about 40 miles away. The central event is a March Against Fear led by one Sweet Willie Wine. “If white people can ride down the highways with guns in their trucks,” he insisted, “I can walk down the highway unarmed.” But the center of poem is the one white person who joined Sweet Willie and the black cause — an almost anonymous mother of seven (called V.) whose raging erudition and reckless love of freedom in action set C. D. Wright an example of the provocative life and impelled her to be a writer. “Just to act,” V. liked to say, “was the glorious thing.”

She had a brain like the Reading Room in the old British Museum. She could have donned fingerless gloves and written Das Kapital while hexagons of snowflakes tumbled by the windows…

She loved: Words. Cats. Long-playing records. Laughter. Men.

Alcohol. Cigarettes. The supernatural. It makes for a carnal list. Pointless to rank. Five in diapers at once — a stench, she claimed, she never got used to.

One With Others, p. 19.

Our conversation is about V., about Arkansas then and now, and about the mixed-media of One With Others. Food price lists of the time and place (“Jack Sprat tea bags only 19 cents. A whole fryer is 59 cents… Cherokee freestone peaches, 5 cans for $1.”) are juxtaposed with Dear Abby advice columns in the local paper (“DEAR TOO MUCH IRONING, I would iron his underwear. You are wasting more energy complaining and arguing than it takes to iron seven pairs of shorts once a week. Everybody has a problem. What’s yours?”) and intercut with the poet’s interviews 40 years later:

The woman who lived next door to the old house came outside to pick up her paper. I asked if she had known my friend V who lived there in the 1960s, and she allowed that she did.

Flat out she says, She didn’t trust me, and I didn’t trust her.

Then she surprised me, saying, She was right. We were wrong.

Then she shocked me, saying, They have souls just like us.”

One With Others, pp. 10 – 11

There’s a considered bending of forms here, in the spirit of collage.

Well, for me it’s poetry if I say it’s poetry. The genres are not exactly porous, they’re not exactly fluid. But conventions and genres are shifting, like everything else, and people are increasingly receptive to those changes. I think people who read and write prose miss poetry in their lives. And I think poets are tired of the isolation of poetry. I think the documentary record has a lot to yield that creative writers can explore to put a different lens on those facts.

C. D. Wright in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, March 16, 2011.

The reader’s impression is less that she has extended her poetry with the authenticity and detail of the documentary record; it’s more that she has lifted an historical account with the breath and cadence of poetry.

The house where my friend once lived, indefinitely empty.

Walnuts turning dark in the grass. Papers collected on the porch.

If I put my face to the glass, I can make out the ghost

of her ironing board, bottle of bourbon on the end.

One With Others, p. 7.

Podcast • January 27, 2011

Whose Words These Are: Christian Wiman’s “Wound of Being”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Christian Wiman. (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3) Robert Murphy (NYT) photo Christian Wiman didn’t plan it this way but his poetry is now entwined with his grave illness and his engagement with God and faith. He grew up ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Christian Wiman. (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Robert Murphy (NYT) photo

Christian Wiman didn’t plan it this way but his poetry is now entwined with his grave illness and his engagement with God and faith. He grew up in West Texas, amidst the “eyesore opulence” of his poem “Five Houses Down.” He’s lived all over the world, and is based now in Chicago as the editor of the ever-evolving, ever-provocative Poetry Magazine. Our conversation begins around his new book, Every Riven Thing:

Riven means broken, it means shattered or wounded or unhealed, and I think that notion is very important to me and my notion of God and of religion: that we are broken creatures, very broken creatures. And I don’t think of God as necessarily healing that brokeness as much as participating in it.

What disturbed me about these poems is that God is in a way thrust out of them, in fact there’s open contempt for the idea of heaven and the idea of some transcendent God. … I was greatly helped [to understand that feeling] when I came across a quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a great twentieth century theologian. He said God calls us to be in the world without God, I’m mangling the quote somewhat but that’s the notion.

Christian Wiman tells me in conversation that he finds it difficult to write about God today, in a language of religion that has been so compromised that “even the word God is very difficult to use.” He considers many of the poems in this book to be sort of “anti-devotional devotional poems” that reveal faith even in their apparent repudiation of God. And though his own spiritual life is “very muddled,” Christian Wiman finds a clear expression of “credible belief” in his poetry.

… Our experience of God is in some way a fundamental experience of loneliness, there is some ultimate loneliness that we go into to experience God and yet paradoxically that intense lonely feeling eases itself, it answers itself in some way.

Christian Wiman in conversation with Chris Lydon, January, 2011.

Podcast • January 18, 2011

Lydia Davis: Miniatures from a Mind on Fire

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Lydia Davis. (60 minutes, 29 mb mp3) Theo Cote photo Lydia Davis keeps popping up in conversation as a favorite writer of our favorite writers — Rae Armantrout, the Pulitzer poet, among them, and the novelist Robert Coover. ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Lydia Davis. (60 minutes, 29 mb mp3)

Theo Cote photo

Lydia Davis keeps popping up in conversation as a favorite writer of our favorite writers — Rae Armantrout, the Pulitzer poet, among them, and the novelist Robert Coover. Dan Chiasson makes her Collected Stories “one of the great books in recent literature, equal parts horse sense and heartache.” David Shields‘ demand in Reality Hunger for aphorism, personal urgency, and “an explosion on every page,” is always satisfied in a Lydia Davis story, whether it’s short or very short or just a sentence or two. So finally, we are hearing Ms. Davis beautifully honed prose in her own voice, and engaging with her on how she writes it: suddenly sometimes, but also waiting patiently a year or two for the shape (and punctuation) of a last line, as in “Head, Heart,” in its entirety here:

Head, Heart

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.

As Paul Harding, of Tinkers fame, was formed in part by the drum patterns of Elvin Jones, Lydia Davis seems to have been influenced by the sleek wit of pianist Glenn Gould and the architecture of Johann Sebastian Bach. Ms. Davis — often hard to distinguish from the narrative voice in her stories — grew up idolizing Glenn Gould and “working as hard at the piano as any professional, partly to avoid doing other things that were harder, but partly for the pleasure of it.”

The narrator that’s so intriguing in many of these nearly 200 Collected Stories is, like the author, a professor whose father was a professor. She’s a bookish New York woman who thinks of herself (we don’t) as “prim.” She is in and out of the City — to lonely weekend places, to France for long stays — without ever having to tell you what city. She’s been married, and she’s brought up a son. “My husband” in these stories is a man now married to someone else. Our narrator is a woman who “always needed to have a love even if it was a complicated love.” She fantasizes about marrying a cowboy — “I imagined that maybe a cowboy would help me stop thinking so much.” But she goes on writing endlessly about her own mental process. She is not a great housekeeper in town or country. She drinks a bit, and sees a shrink. But always she is pursuing her own non-stop line of questions and answers on her own: what can she learn, for example, about giving her son something like the care she devotes to her century-old dictionary? “… I consider its age. I treat it with respect. I stop and think before I use it. I know its limitations… I leave it alone a good deal of the time.” She wonders if memories, to be happy, must be recalled happily by the other people in the picture.

I blurt out unwisely that I read these stories asking: “is this the way chicks’ minds work?” But it’s not chicks, of course. It’s writers with minds on fire and a gift for sentences that go off like little rockets. Lydia Davis writes in the company that includes Montaigne, Emerson, Proust, Beckett, Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Parker. She also reads wonderfully.

Podcast • December 9, 2010

Rainer Maria Rilke for Beginners: Whose Words These Are (31)

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Damion Searls (54 minutes, 26 mb mp3) When Rilke was dying in 1926 — of a rare and particularly agonizing blood disease — he received a letter from the young Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva. “You are not the ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Damion Searls (54 minutes, 26 mb mp3)

When Rilke was dying in 1926 — of a rare and particularly agonizing blood disease — he received a letter from the young Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva. “You are not the poet I love most,” she wrote to him. “‘Most’ already implies comparison. You are poetry itself.” And one knows that this is not hyperbole. That voice of Rilke’s poems, calling us out of ourselves, or calling us into the deepest places in ourselves, is very near to what people mean by poetry… He induces a kind of trance, as soon as the whispering begins…”

Robert Hass, “Looking for Rilke,” in Stephen Mitchell’s Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Damion Searls, the precocious story-writer, translator and trend-maker, is our conversational guide here in digging up old gold and present-day power in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Often bracketed with Yeats at the pinnacle of European poetry in the 20th Century, Rilke makes an even better pair with Walt Whitman as the irresistible great poet for everyone.

From The Inner Sky, “poems, notes, dreams” that Damion Searls has selected and translated, we are reading Rilke fragments that can make one gasp on a first hearing. I like specially, for example, these “Notes on the Melody of Things,” which snuck up on me six weeks ago and induced just the sort of trance Robert Hass recounts:

VII. There are, in fact, moments when a person stands out from his grandeur in clarity and silence before you. These are rare festive pleasures that you never forget. You love this person from then on. In other words, you work to retrace with your own tender hands the outlines of the personality that you came to know in this hour.

VII. Art does the same thing. For art is a farther reaching, more immodest love. It is God’s love. It cannot stop with an individual, who is only the portal of life itself: it must move through that individual. It cannot tire. To fulfill its destiny, it has to appear where everyone is — a someone. Then it bestows its gifts on this someone, and boundless riches come over everyone.

Rilke has a history, of course, but it hardly seems to matter. He was born in Prague in 1875, the German-speaking only child of a unhappy family in what was then the capital of Bohemia. In Proust’s Paris, Rilke became a sort of all-around aesthetic apprentice of the sculptor Rodin. Rilke’s mistress Lou Andreas-Salomé — who’d been Nietzsche’s mistress and later a confidante of Freud’s — took him to Russia to meet Tolstoy. So he had familiar access to the giants of the fin de siecle, and still his writing seems to come from beyond time and space, as in the legend that his masterpiece “Duino Elegies” were “dictated” to him by an angel in a final 3-week frenzy of writing in 1922. Rilke’s writing is continually turning up cards we’ve seen in his work before: theories of “space” and “sky,” mirrors and roses, girls in a game “as if set on fire by something godlike,” death, loss and longing, but also praise in those famous elegies: “Tell us, poet, what do you do? — I praise.” But it remains the great lure and beauty of reading Rilke that his meanings are not reducible, not readily transcribable into any other context. To take another of those “Notes on the Melody of Things,” might we hear this as a comment on intimacy? on globalization? perhaps on the American war in Afghanistan:

XI. Art has accomplished nothing, except to show us the confusion in which we already find ourselves most of the time. It has frightened us, rather than making us quiet and peaceful. It has shown us that we all live on different islands, only the islands are not far enough apart for us to stay solitary and untroubled. Someone on one island can pester someone on another, or terrorize him, or hunt him with spears — the only thing no one can do to anyone else is help him.

“Notes on the Melody of Things,” in Rilke’s The Inner Sky, Damion Searls, translator.

All I really know on an early acquaintance with Rilke — “when a person stands out from his grandeur in clarity and silence before you” — is that I want to keep reading him for the rest of my life.