This year the books I liked best fell into two categories: the ones I read in a rush, squeezing in pages every spare moment or staying up late to finish them; and the ones I read slowly over several months, so that the books became my faithful companions. I tend to read three or four books at a time and this year what often happened is that one book would reveal itself to be a tortoise, and would live on my nightstand for weeks, while the hares (and whatever animal is between a hare and a tortoise — a cat?) raced by. As someone who gravitates toward “slow” books and movies, my sympathies lie with the tortoises, but I have to admit it was exciting to come across so many books that I couldn’t put down.
The books that raced past were the aptly-titled This Is Running For Your Life, by Michelle Orange; See Now Then, by Jamaica Kincaid; The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud; Schroder, by Amity Gaige; Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple; The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer; and The Circle, by Dave Eggers.
Of those hares, the one that still haunts me is Schroder. (And I have to thank Kathryn Schulz, whose in-depth rave made me pick it up.) It’s a novel about a divorced father, Eric Schroder, who is so frustrated with his custody arrangements that he kidnaps his daughter, taking her on a road trip through New England. Halfway through the book I felt I had been kidnapped, too, in the way that I was won over by a narrator I didn’t completely trust.
My tortoise reads included Dear Life, by Alice Munro; Far From The Tree and The Noonday Demon, both by Andrew Solomon; and Independence Day, by Richard Ford. I am actually still reading Independence Day, and I have been reading it since September. It’s the second novel in Ford’s Frank Bascombe trilogy, after The Sportswriter, but you don’t need to have read The Sportswriter to enjoy it. (Or at least, I didn’t.) Like Schroder, Independence Day is narrated by a divorced father, concerns a road trip between a father and his child (although without the kidnapping), and takes place over just a few days. It feels a little funny to spend several months with it. A week passes by in my life, while just a few hours go by in Frank Bascombe’s. But I love the way Ford stretches time in this novel, reveling in moments of happenstance, overheard conversations, and local landscapes. Here’s the view from Frank Bascombe’s windshield in upstate New York:
“A sign by a turnout announces we have now entered the Central Leatherstocking Area and just beyond, as if on cue, the great corrugated glacial trough widens out for miles to the southwest as the highway climbs, and the butt ends of the Catskills cast swart afternoon shadows onto lower hills dotted by pocket quarries, tiny hamlets and pristine farmstead with wind machines whirring to undetectable windows…In my official view, absolutely nothing should be missed from here on, geography offering a natural corroboration to Emerson’s view that power resides in moments of transition…”
Finally, I have to mention the children’s book Ox-Cart Man, by Donald Hall, which I guess would fall in the tortoise category, since I’ve read to my one-year-old son at least twice a day for the past six months. It’s a simple story about a 19th-century farmer who travels from his small homestead to Portsmouth, N.H., where he can sell his harvest, his ox, and his cart at the market. My son loves it because it is full of lists and repetition. I love it because the language is plain and elegant and perfectly matched to the story. It’s so elegant, in fact, that I thought it would make a beautiful poem, and in a moment of procrastination I discovered that there is indeed a poem, “Ox Cart Man”, (by Donald Hall), which you can read in the Poetry Foundation’s archives. Now that I think of it, Ox-Cart Man is yet another book about a New England road trip, so perhaps that’s the true theme of my year in reading. Maybe I should close out the year with On The Road and head into the New Year looking west.
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I interviewed graphic designer/creative director John Gall for the upcoming book that I co-edited with Yuri Leving entitled Lolita – The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design being published this month by Print Books. In it, eighty graphic designers provided their own cover designs for Nabokov’s famous novel; and design luminaries, scholars, and the Nabokov-obsessed contributed essays discussing the difficulties inherent in representing visually the themes of this great and controversial novel. To top it off, Mary Gaitskill has written a very wonderful preface.
John Gall is the creative director for Abrams Books and previously spent fifteen years as art director for Vintage and Anchor books, where he was responsible for at least two Lolita covers, not to mention the redesign of the entire Nabokov catalog (minus Lolita).
John Bertram: Nabokov wrote: “I want pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls.” And: “Who would be capable of creating a romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non-juvenile, picture for LOLITA (a dissolving remoteness, a soft American landscape, a nostalgic highway—that sort of thing)? There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.” What weight do you give this and his other well-known opinions about what should or should not appear on the cover of Lolita?
John Gall: I completely agree with Nabokov on what I think is his main point: No little girls. On the other hand, his description of what he would like reads beautifully but would be a complete yawner as a cover. It is so non-specific that it could be the cover of almost any novel ever written. A question I like to ask myself when designing a cover is: “Can this be the cover for any other book?” The closer you get to a “yes,” the worse off you are.
There are two directions for this cover: either you take the title head on and go with some representation of Lolita, or you don’t. But be careful; the land of metaphor is filled with furrows and ruts and roads going off into the distance.
All that being said, I love the concept of “pure colors” as an approach. “Melting clouds” . . . ?
JB: Dieter Zimmer concludes “Dolly as Cover Girl” with: “Which cover do you consider the best? . . . It is exactly this loaded question that each publisher must ask him- or herself when attempting to decide which of the artist’s sketches will appear on the front of a book. For such decisions there exists no theoretical apparatus, only the intuition of the individual responsible for making the final decision.” What, no theoretical apparatus?
JG: No marketing research either! Ah, the intuitive decision. This is what makes designing covers both wonderfully rewarding and incredibly exasperating. The research and theory and conceptual rigor are the responsibility of the designer. They need to bring that to the table. No one else will. No one is going to ask for more intellect on a cover, especially in the commercial book-publishing world.
When designing, I employ both the conceptual and the intuitive. Cover art is for the brain and the eyes. I’ve seen too many visually stilted covers that apply their concept too strenuously, leaving us with a flat, boring design.
JB: Peter Mendelsund eloquently writes in “Fictions”: “in attempting to sell a book, designers must, not always, but sometimes, pander to…a public which can on occasion lack the interpretive subtlety to parse literary subtext — i.e., if the general reading public expects a schoolgirl or schoolgirl uniform on a Lolita jacket, then book buyers and booksellers will also be expecting a schoolgirl or schoolgirl uniform on a Lolita jacket; and one can then reasonably assume that marketing departments in publishing houses will want them as well. In the end, going backward, upriver towards its source, even editors begin to take their cues from misinformed readers at large.” That certainly covers a multitude of sins. What do you think?
JG: Peter is spot on about this, though it is a fine line between pandering and communicating. I am trying to connect to as many people as possible with a cover. How do you do that without dumbing things down? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had covers shot down because they are too “smart” or too clever, or worse “I don’t get it.” It can be seen as a liability. You won’t reach the people who don’t want to think for more than a second about what they are looking at.
I think a more interesting question might be: Why do people expect a schoolgirl or schoolgirl uniform or a girl in sunglasses with a lollipop? Is it all Kubrick’s fault? It wasn’t always marketing departments and editors forcing this issue. This stuff originated at the source.
Lolita is not only a book but also a cultural touchstone, and it carries a lot of baggage. There is so much visual reference associated with this book. There have been hundreds of covers. These schoolgirl uniforms and lollipops are all part of the visual language attached to the book. This has to be dealt with in some way. The visuals associated with the book are probably better known than the book itself.
For my very first attempt at designing the cover for Lolita, I attempted a typographic solution. After this was shot down, I made the decision to see if there was a way to reinterpret the iconography.
JB: Duncan White notes that “Lolita has been repeatedly ‘misread’ on the cover of Lolita and frequently in a way to make her seem a more palatable subject of sexual desire.” I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the cover you designed within this context and the more time I spend with this partial topography of a young girl’s face the more it becomes enigmatic, dissolving into a tabula rasa. Is it a stretch to suggest that your intention was provide an image upon which the viewer projects his or her own ideas about Lolita?
JG: This cover came about after a previous, more pointed design was rejected. I decided to see if I could put a twist on a classic image associated with Lolita: the lips. The lips we see on the final printed cover were originally positioned on the page vertically, giving the image a dual meaning — mouth or genitalia? It was cover as Rorschach, though a heavily weighted Rorschach. The responses to the cover ranged from revulsion to the publisher asking to have a printout framed for his wall.
Lolita will sell 50,000 books per year regardless of what is on the cover. Is it worth it to a publisher to put something on a cover that will turn off a segment of the readership? I don’t think so. Is it worth it to do something controversial with the cover of a controversial book? It doesn’t need it.
The sphinxlike representation of Lolita on the final cover is intentional. I wanted her barely there, elusive. I also read it as if we are Humbert, fixated on a particular detail of Lolita’s anatomy. I don’t like the idea of designing something that is wide open to interpretation. I think it’s a bit of a cop-out. But for classic books like this, a book that can be interpreted in a number of different ways, I think it is OK to get out of the way with the design.
By the way, when the anniversary edition came out there was a mention of the cover on Page 6 of the New York Post saying this was, to paraphrase, “the steamiest cover yet for Lolita”. If they had only seen the previous version.
JB: Ellen Pifer bluntly calls the novel “a threnody for the destruction of a child’s life” an assertion I find it difficult to dispute. How does this shape your responsibility to Lolita
JG: I don’t think it is ever a good idea to represent the most horrifying aspects of a book on its cover.
JB: Why was Lolita not included in the most recent shadow-box redesign?
JG: We had recently repackaged the book for its 50th anniversary and didn’t feel the need to rejacket the book so soon thereafter. I have a plan in place for putting Lolita in the box format when the time is right, which will hopefully be soon.
JB: You mentioned that you would not “give this as an assignment in a million years” to your cover-design class. Why not?
JG: I think it is a project that is too easy to get wrong, too hard to get right, and with not enough room to experiment in between. It is not just this title. There are a number of books that I have found to be not only difficult for students but for professionals as well. The Great Gatsby, On the Road, Catcher in the Rye — have you ever seen a really great cover for any of these books? Certainly, there are iconic covers — Catcher in the Rye’s yellow-type-on-red-background Bantam paperback—but is the actual design that amazing? Not especially, but as an artifact it transcends mere design discussion.
When coming up with projects, I look for titles that can be interpreted a number of different ways (OK, Lolita does fall into this category). Judging by the responses I’ve seen to your project, I may have to rethink this. I also don’t like to give out assignments for projects I am presently or have recently worked on.
JB: What will your next Lolita cover look like?
JG: I really cannot imagine a scenario where I will be designing this cover again.
“You should sign up for this,” my sister said, showing me an article about a bookstore that doubles as a matchmaking service. At the Brooklyn indie, lovelorn bookworms choose their prospective romantic interests based on their list of favorite authors pinned to a cork board. The article went on to point out that women never wrote down Jack Kerouac as one of their coveted authors.
My decade-long enamor with the poets and writers of the Beat Generation was about to pay off. As the only woman who adored Kerouac, I would be the vixen of the literary matchmaking board.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m a girly girl. My regular weekend activity includes clothes shopping, I feel naked without nail polish on, and my favorite color is pink. In fact, it was while reading the fashion magazine Seventeen my senior year of high school that I stumbled upon a mention of Ann Charters’s The Portable Beat Reader and quickly became obsessed with all things Beat related. After reading Jack Kerouac’s road-trip novel On the Road, it only seemed natural to pack my bags and move across the country for college. As Kerouac wrote, “I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”
While attending Scripps, a women’s college in Southern California, my interest in Beat literature grew as I went on a San Francisco pilgrimage to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, infamous for its involvement in the obscenity trial over Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. When I returned, diploma in hand, to the East Coast, I attended talks by Beat writers at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. I tucked Gregory Corso’s poem “Marriage,” in which he asks “Should I get married? Should I be good?” into my heart. That would be the poem I want read at my wedding, I thought. When I read On the Road, I connected to Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, shambling after friends, being nostalgic for events even as they’re happening, seeing beauty in the mundane, and hitting the road in his eternal quest for meaning — topics I thought both men and women could relate to.
Until my sister showed me the matchmaking article, it had never occurred to me that the author of On the Road could be a cement divider on Lover’s Lane. I had met guys who’d been inspired by Kerouac. They thrilled at the freedom of stuffing beef jerky in a backpack, wearing the same band t-shirt for days, and hitting the road with no plan but more life experience. It’s true I didn’t personally know any women who admired Kerouac, but I figured he just wasn’t on their radar since fifty years had passed since On the Road was published. There were plenty of women I knew through books who had loved Kerouac — women like Edie Parker-Kerouac, Joyce Johnson, and Helen Weaver, who wrote memoirs about their romances with Kerouac. Overcome with his prose prowess as I was, it was easy to overlook the parts that weren’t exactly rom-com material — the failed marriages, the refusal to acknowledge his own daughter, the fact that he lived with his mother until the day he died — particularly since I didn’t read his novels as love stories but as poetic travelogues.
Then I encountered a woman who openly disdained Kerouac — and all that he seemed to represent. It occurred to me that women saw him as a misogynist vagabond, the bad boy who had left their broken hearts in a trail of exhaust fumes. He didn’t like being tied down by responsibilities, or women. Perhaps those female readers who actually did like his writing feared adding Kerouac to their list of favorite authors for a literary matchmaking board because they didn’t want to end up with someone like him: a penniless drifter, a dreamer, an alcoholic.
If I am to be terribly stereotypical, I’d say the literary crush I hear most women talk about is Mr. Darcy, the cute fixer-upper worth the effort because of his money and social standing. Sure, maybe he’s a bit aloof at first, but in the end Mr. Darcy’ll put a ring on it. Of course, dating-savvy women wouldn’t necessarily include Jane Austen as their favorite author for the literary matchmaking board: they’re smart enough to know they might scare off potential male suitors if they implied they enjoy staying in on a Friday night to watch BBC films on television, possibly having to get out the smelling salts during the “pond scene” in Pride and Prejudice.
Instead, women might disclose preferences for less polarizing authors. Female authors would be perfectly acceptable to list, so long as they’re “serious” or witty authors like Toni Morrison, Tina Fey, and Jennifer Egan — and not authors whose books feature shopping bags, pearl necklaces, or candy hearts on the covers. Words like “wedding” and “feminist” probably shouldn’t be anywhere in the title either. There’s nothing wrong with reading these books — in fact, wanting to get married and being treated as equal are both positive desires — it’s just that, well, if on your first date you wouldn’t bring up the number of kids you want to have (unless, of course, you’re on The Bachelorette), then you also would probably subtly edit your reading tastes when you know you’re being judged by them. Like with clothing, it’s best to leave a little mystery.
Men’s disinterest in Austen and other female authors has, of course, been its own cause for consideration. Last year, in an article entitled “Men Need Only Read Books by Other Men, Esquire Post Suggests,” The Atlantic Wire rightly took issue with the fact that only one female author was listed in Esquire’s “75 Books Men Should Read.” However, guess which male author The Atlantic Wire specifically mentions, as if he is the driving force behind men’s exclusion of female writers: “hard-living, macho writers like…Jack Kerouac.” Interesting. I would have called him a life-affirming, sensitive author. It was Kerouac, after all, who wrote, “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk—real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.”
In the past few years, culture critics have speculated that in general men read less than women and that specifically they don’t read much fiction — Kerouac presumably excluded. It appears, then, that men and women read quite differently. If men are more likely to read nonfiction, it seems likely that men are reading to obtain information. In contrast, women maybe read fiction for the entertainment of a character-driven story. And this is where it gets interesting. Every so often, social debates arise whether women are more “sympathetic” than men, “sympathetic” being defined by dictionary.com as “acting or affected by, of the nature of, or pertaining to a special affinity or mutual relationship.” If it is true that women are more sympathetic, either because of their genetic makeup or because they have been conditioned to be so, then perhaps women read relationally, placing themselves within the story. It would be natural then for female readers to cast themselves as the female characters instead of the male characters. In a work written by a man, the female character is usually going to be the subject of the male gaze. If that work happens to be On the Road, you’re going to end up with women like Marylou and Camille, flat characters being two-timed by hyperactive car-thief Dean Moriarty. It’s no wonder then that many women, even when they put his personal lives aside, don’t relate to Kerouac’s writing.
I don’t believe all women — or all men — think and act and read the same way, though. I never automatically put myself in the stilettos of the female character in a book. I read On the Road through the eyes of the eager narrator, Sal Paradise. Even if I didn’t agree with his every action, I desired Kerouac’s joie de vivre.
More than that, I was also the narrator of my own story, my own life. After reading Kerouac, I became the one dashing out the door for my next adventure. If I had a week off of work and wanted to take a vacation, I packed my bags and hopped on a bus or a plane. I took a Greyhound across the United States. I saw Stonehenge. I visited shrines in Kyoto. And I did it by myself, sometimes couch-surfing with friends who lived near my chosen destination before venturing off on my own to a hostel.
I was never looking for someone to jumpstart my story, to open the car door for me, to give me permission to do something. It didn’t occur to me that I needed a boyfriend or even a friend to accompany me to art galleries or readings or to make my life full. I wasn’t looking for my Jack Kerouac. I was Jack Kerouac. And so I never signed up for the matchmaking board. I didn’t believe in lonely nights. I was a reader. If I wanted company, all I had to do was pick up a book — or my car keys.
Image via [email protected]/Flickr
1. A Sacred Vocation
“I was first introduced to Philip Levine through the mail in the summer of 1976,” Mona Simpson wrote by way of introducing her interview with the poet in The Paris Review in 1988. For my part, I was first introduced to Philip Levine through his second book of poems, Not This Pig, in the spring of 1976.
“I was studying literature at Berkeley,” Simpson continued, “and my friends and I, all college freshmen or sophomores, were ardent readers of Levine, W.S. Merwin, Donald Justice, Gary Snyder and Hart Crane.” At that time I was studying English at Brown, I was a senior, and I was an ardent reader of Merwin, Snyder and Crane, with heaping side orders of Baudelaire and Bukowski, Stevens and Williams, Ginsberg and Rimbaud. I knew already that I had no talent for writing poetry, but I loved to read it because I believed then as I believe now that its compression and precision make it the highest form of writing, even more exalted than the beloved novel.
Simpson went on, “A friend from the college literary magazine, The Berkeley Poetry Review, introduced me to Ernest Benck, a California poet, who kindly sent some of both of our poems to Levine. Levine wrote back to us, marking our poems assiduously. Since then I have received many letters from him, always on yellow legal paper with comments like, ‘I’m not sure my remarks, which are fairly nasty at times, really indicate…’ His comments, though never nasty, were always serious, as if he took the business of correspondence to be part of the education of a poet. I had the feeling he wrote many such letters to young poets around the country: poets driving trucks, picking oranges, poets who were waiters and acupuncturists’ assistants and college students.”
This is where Simpson’s story and mine, after nearly twinned beginnings, started to diverge. I never sent Levine any poems and he never sent me any letters. But I kept reading his poetry, marveling at the development of his craft, his earthy subject matter, and his unkillable passion for poems in a country that was doing its best to marginalize all serious writing, especially poetry.
Finally, Simpson summed up the lesson she learned from all the letters she has received from Levine over the years: “Levine takes his role as mentor with the responsibility of a sacred vocation.”
All of which is a roundabout way of saying I believe Philip Levine is going to make a sublime Poet Laureate when he takes over the post on October 17.
2. Not This Pig
When the pupil is ready to learn, says the Zen proverb, a teacher will appear. Without realizing it, I was ready to learn from Not This Pig when it came roaring into my life, unannounced, in the spring of 1976. I had never heard of Philip Levine and I don’t remember how I came to the book (or how it came to me), but I do remember being intrigued the instant I picked up this thin $2 paperback and read Levine’s remark on the back cover that the book’s 37 poems “mostly record my discovery of the people, places and animals I am not, the ones who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos – a gesture they don’t need – would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasaran’ or ‘Not this pig.'”
The book’s opening poems were an astonishment. Written in sparkling, almost stark language – with short lines and non-existent or haphazard rhyme schemes – the poems are populated with auto workers and other prosaic nobodies doing the most unspectacular things: driving home to Detroit after an all-night drinking spree in Toledo; stopping on the side of the road to piss in the snow; tripping the switch that stirs to life the “slow elephant feet” of a metal-stamping press; driving overnight from Detroit to Chicago to see what Lake Michigan looks like at dawn. This last poem, “A New Day,” ends with a stanza I can still recite from memory 35 years after first reading it:
And what we get is what we bring:
A grey light coming on at dawn,
No fresh start and no bird song
And no sea and no shore
That someone hasn’t seen before.
In these poems, shorelines are not open places full of promise and possibility. They’re where the land dies, where things end, where Levine’s characters come up against the iron limitations of their small lives. This carries a predictable sense of resignation, but in this resignation there is no admission of defeat; there is, paradoxically, a stubborn refusal to succumb to monstrous and superior forces, in this case the great dehumanizing dynamos of the industrial Midwest. These are, remember, people who live at all cost and come back for more and say, “Don’t tread on me” and “Not this pig.” Their refusal to admit defeat is a triumphant twist, one that reminds me of Camus’ struggle to find the strength “to accept what exists once I have recognized that I cannot change it.”
Philip Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at the age of 14. For the next dozen years he worked a series of brain-killing factory jobs at Chevrolet Gear & Axle, at Cadillac, at Brass Craft, at Feinberg and Breslin’s First-Rate Plumbing and Plating – jobs that nearly crushed his spirit and his body but wound up providing him with rich and unlikely fodder for his poetry. “Those were my first good Detroit work poems – the poems in Not This Pig…,” Levine told an interviewer for The Cortland Review in 1999. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work… I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it – that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.”
There are several reasons why I was so ready to learn from Not This Pig in the spring of 1976. First I, like Levine, had grown up in Detroit and was, like all residents of that once-proud, now-ruined city, attuned to the all-powerful rhythms of its auto industry. My father, like everyone’s father, worked in the industry, not in the oceanic roar of a car factory but in the considerably less brutal buzzing of the Ford Motor Company’s public relations hive. Second, there is a narrative quality to these early poems (and many that would follow), a straightforward telling of stories about unpoetic people that appeals to my own novelistic temperament. Levine once said, “One of the aspects of my own poetry that I like best is the presence of people who don’t seem to make it into other people’s poems… What I regard as novelistic about my work is the telling of tales, which is utterly natural to me. How can a poet or fiction writer tell the truth…if he or she can’t present the events in a meaningful sequence, which is what a story is?” And most importantly, when I first read Not This Pig in the spring of 1976 I was living in the gray borderlands between two worlds, getting ready to leave the world of school and go off into the world of work. It was a confusing time and a confusing place. I had known since the age of 10 that I wanted to be a writer – a real writer, a novelist – but after two years of college I’d become convinced that further schooling would be a waste of time. I was a 19-year-old kid from the middle class who had not yet lived, and I told myself that if I wanted to write fiction I would need a “body of experience,” to borrow Levine’s phrase.
So I dropped out of college after my sophomore year, loaded my dog into my ’54 Chevy pickup truck, and took off on an erratic cross-country odyssey that was equal parts Travels With Charley and On the Road, with a few pop quizzes from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test along the way. I got jobs as a racehorse groom, a farm hand, a dish washer, a fruit picker. I worked alongside rednecks, cowboys, Mexican immigrants, Okies and Arkies, people I was not, the ones who lived at all cost and came back for more. One day in northern California, while high in a tree picking fat green Gravenstein apples and listening to my fellow workers chatter in Spanish, I had an epiphany. This was the summer of 1974, the summer when Woodward and Bernstein were completing the ruination of Richard Nixon, and it occurred to me that if I wanted to be a writer I needed to quit picking apples and start getting paid to write. And the best way to do that would be to get a job as a newspaper reporter. And the only way to get such a job, given the “credentials inflation” of the day, was to get a pointless but prerequisite college degree. So I returned to college where, in the spring of my senior year, I came upon a book of poems that proved to me that art can be made from absolutely anything, from a night-shift job at Chevy Gear & Axle or a job picking Gravenstein apples, and that if I truly wanted to be a writer it was up to me to get busy making use of my own body of experience and, far more important, my imagination, my wits, and my will.
Philip Levine made me believe I could do it.
3. Small Heroics
In 1988, while I was struggling to write a novel set in Detroit during the 1967 riots, Levine published a book of poems called A Walk With Tom Jefferson. Like Not This Pig, the book came into my life, almost magically, at a moment when I was ready to learn from it. In one of the book’s first poems, “Winter Words,” I heard a thrilling echo of “A New Day”:
Friday night, after swing shift we drove
the narrow, unmarked country roads searching
for Lake Erie’s Canadian shore.
Later, wrapped in rough blankets, barefoot
on a private shoal of ground stones
we watched the stars vanish as the light
of the world rose slowly from the great
gray inland sea. Wet, shivering, raised
our beer cans to the long seasons
to come. We would never die.
But it was the long title poem, which comprises the second half of the book, that spoke most powerfully to me. While revisiting his hometown some twenty years after the riots, Levine happened to meet an out-of-work autoworker named Tom Jefferson who was living in an abandoned house on a burned-out block, growing flowers and vegetables, eking out a humble but proud life. Tom Jefferson, who had come up from Alabama, needed just a dozen outraged words to sum up the history of Detroit: “We all come for $5 a day and we got this!” In that Paris Review interview with Mona Simpson, Levine talked about how the poem came into being: “I met a guy who lived in one of these (abandoned) houses. He didn’t own it or rent it, and in fact he didn’t even know who owned it. He described his life there, and the poem rose out of the conversation we had. It also came out of the hope that the city might be reborn inside itself, out of its own ruins, phoenix-like, rising out of its own ashes. Except I don’t see it in heroic terms. The triumphs are small, personal, daily. Nothing grandly heroic is taking place; just animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be, even in this most devastated of American cities.”
“Nothing heroic is happening in Detroit,” Simpson says.
“Nothing epic,” Levine replies. “Just the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn’t give a shit, getting through the world with as much dignity as you can pull together from the tiny resources left to you. It’s the truly heroic. The poem is a tribute to all these people who survived in the face of so much discouragement. They’ve survived everything America can dish out. No, nothing grandly heroic is happening in Detroit. I guess nothing grandly heroic ever took place there; it was always automobiles, automobiles, hard work, and low pay.”
Again, Levine had passed along a valuable lesson – that heroics can be small, that there is something immense about animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be in the most hostile of circumstances. It was a revelation that helped me see my own novel with fresh eyes. I was trying to write with broad brushstrokes about big themes – race, rage, revenge – when I should have been concentrating on my characters’ personal daily triumphs and setbacks, the small heroics of getting through the day. Levine helped me finish writing that book.
4. A Message From the Kingdom of Fire
If Not This Pig contained Levine’s first good Detroit work poems, then 1991’s What Work Is contained his very best. The book won the National Book Award, justly so, and minted Levine as a major American poet after thirty years of steady toil. (Four years later he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Simple Truth, and he has been awarded numerous other poetry prizes.) What Work Is opens with a poem called “Fear and Fame,” which comes on like a blowtorch and sets the tone of all that follows:
Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acid lowered to me on ropes – all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin’s
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I’d stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold
water rained on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Such crystalline, deceptively simple writing is the work of a master at the pinnacle of his powers. There is great dignity here, and rich humor too – this working stiff seeing himself as a knight, an adventurer, a chef preparing a lethal stew, and winding up amazed that no one, “oddly enough,” welcomes him back from his epic adventure down inside a kingdom of fire that is, in truth, nothing but a poisonous pickling tank.
5. Gifts That Change Our Lives
Though now justly famous as a poet – if “famous poet” is not too ridiculous an oxymoron in 21st-century America – Levine also happens to be a superb writer of non-fiction. His 1994 book, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, is less a memoir or straight autobiography than a collection of impressionistic essays about his boyhood and early manhood in Detroit, his later years in California, where he taught poetry, and his travels in Spain, where he fell under the spell of Gaudi’s architecture and Machado’s poetry and the legends of the doomed anarchists who’d inspired the Spanish Civil War. While writing the book, Levine reports, “I realized I was striving to account for how I became the particular person and poet I am.”
The book opens with a portrait of his two teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1950s, the disappointing Robert Lowell and the ferociously inspiring John Berryman. It was Berryman who instilled in Levine and his classmates – including Donald Justice, W. D. Snodgrass, Jane Cooper, William Dickey, and Robert Dana – the notion that writing poetry is a serious, nearly sacred pursuit, one that requires intensive study and a lifetime of hard work. Yet Berryman was not without a sense of humor. At the end of the semester, teacher and pupil had a conversation about what a poet should look like. “No poet worth his salt is going to be handsome; if he or she is beautiful there’s no need to create the beautiful,” Berryman told Levine. “Beautiful people are special; they don’t experience life like the rest of us.” (Lord Byron, apparently, was the exception who proved this curious rule.) After a pause, Berryman added, “Don’t worry about it, Levine, you’re ugly enough to be a great poet.”
Levine has reverential feelings for his two most influential mentors – Berryman, the future suicide, and Yvor Winters, who taught Levine that his soul is the part of him that leaves each time he lies. I’m convinced that this reverence goes a long way toward explaining why Levine came to regard his own teaching duties as a sacred vocation, why he has written so many letters on yellow legal paper critiquing the poems of Mona Simpson and all those other young poets who were driving trucks and picking oranges and struggling to be poets.
There is a lovely essay called “Entering Poetry” about boyhood nights when Levine climbed up into trees in the woods near his home in Detroit and spoke to the stars. “I would say ‘rain’ and ‘moon’ in the same sentence and hear them echo each other, and a shiver of delight would pass through me,” he writes. One night, noticing that his hands smell of earth and iron, he says to the stars, “These hands have entered the ground from which they sprang.” “That,” he reports giddily, “was the first night of my life I entered poetry.”
Not long after entering poetry, Levine discovered his first poet. “When I was in the eleventh grade and the war was still going,” he said in an interview with The New Yorker in 2006, “a teacher read us some poems by Wilfred Owen. And after class, for some reason, she called me up to her desk and said, ‘Would you like to borrow this book?’ How she knew that I was responding so powerfully to these poems, I’m not sure, but I was. She said, ‘Now, I want you to take it home, and read it with white gloves on.’ In other words, don’t spill soup on it. It was probably the most significant poetic experience I had in my whole life, and I was only seventeen.”
In the essay “The Poet in New York in Detroit,” Levine describes his young self as “a humiliated wage slave employed by a vast corporation I loathed,” namely General Motors. The chapter opens with a frank portrait of this wage slave’s unlikely path to poetry: “In the winter of 1953 I was working at Chevrolet Gear and Axle, a factory in Detroit long ago dismantled and gone to dust. I worked the night shift, from midnight to eight in the morning, then returned by bus to my apartment, slept for a time, and rose to try to write poetry, for I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life – or at least the part my work played in it – I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.” I have not read a more succinct portrait of an artist as a young man bursting with an impossible and gorgeous dream. Speaking of his heroes Berryman and Winters, Keats and Whitman, Machado and Garcia Lorca, Levine wrote words I wish I had written about Levine: “That’s what they give us, the humble workers in the fields of poetry, these amazingly inspired geniuses, gifts that change our lives.”
Levine concludes, from long personal experience, that Diego Rivera’s graceful, colorful frescoes of autoworkers at the Detroit Institute of Arts are “nonsense.” I agree, partly on aesthetic grounds and partly because Rivera, that great communist and champion of the working man, was paid out of the bottomless pockets of Henry Ford’s son, Edsel. Likewise his ill-fated mural at Rockefeller Center in New York City, which was paid for (and destroyed) by another family not known for its liberal politics or the sympathetic treatment of the working man.
The only weak stuff in The Bread of Time is an essay called “Class With No Class,” in which Levine throws a roundhouse punch at the people who have grown rich at the expense of wage slaves like himself, all those country club swells in Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills and Sherwood Forest. Levine, it turns out, is much better at celebrating than at denigrating. Yet “Class With No Class,” for all its flaws, had the salutary effect of revivifying the legends of class warfare all Detroiters grow up with. Now more than ever those legends demand to be remembered. In 1937, Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic, anti-union founder of the company my father would eventually work for, had sent his goons out from his River Rouge plant to bloody Walter Reuther and other United Auto Workers union organizers in the notorious Battle of the Overpass. A few months earlier, workers at one of GM’s Fisher Body plants in nearby Flint had shut down the assembly line and barricaded themselves inside the factory until the exasperated General Motors brass broke down and agreed to negotiate its first contract with the union. We’ve come a long way since those heroic days. We now live in an age of high unemployment when labor unions – that is, people who work for a middle-class wage teaching school and making cars and climbing down into pickling tanks – are being laid off and demonized for somehow causing the current economic malaise. Meanwhile, as vast corporations and rich individuals enjoy unconscionable tax breaks and immunity from the public’s wrath, the middle class doesn’t even realize that it’s been hoodwinked, or that it’s sinking faster by the day.
For this reason, among a great many others, I was thrilled when the Library of Congress announced that our next Poet Laureate will be a card-carrying member of the proletariat, a man who went to work in a Detroit soap factory at the age of 14 and, from that unpromising beginning, went on to write timeless poems and pass along his passion for poetry to hundreds of students like Mona Simpson and untold thousands of ordinary readers like me.
We’re an unmoored country that needs to be reminded what work is – and what it is not – and there’s no one more qualified for the job than Philip Levine.
I didn’t have a costume for Halloween. I did, however, attend a horror show, in the form of a documentary called One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur. After a short junior high love affair with On the Road, I’ve never been particularly interested in Jack Kerouac. But I didn’t have anything else to do, and I miss California, and I thought I could enjoy the scenery and learn a thing or two. In retrospect, I think that my past disinclination to revere Kerouac stemmed from a spooky presentiment that a movie like this would be made about him. The promise of this foul enterprise lurked in every high school yearbook page, in every reference to the mad ones and the roman candles and the burning sensation. In this film, all of the maudlin silliness which Kerouac unwittingly spawned is made manifest.
The premise of the film is as follows: Several fixtures from Kerouac’s life (Carolyn Cassady, Joyce Johnson, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others) were interviewed about Kerouac and specifically, his breakdown in Big Sur. Additionally, a bewildering crew of actors and artists was assembled and given a paperback copy of the book. I’m sure the people involved are great people and good performers in their respective milieux, but they were such a very motley crew, with so little obvious connection to the work and people and places involved, that it was comically weird and distracting. Instead of listening to their insights about Kerouac (such as they were), I spent a lot of time racking my brain, trying to figure out if Donal Logue was in The Lord of the Rings (he’s not).
There is also Amber Tamblyn (her dad was Dr. Jacoby on Twin Peaks, and she is particularly criminal in this movie when she shakes her head and says “Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack,” as though he had once taken a pair of her underpants), John Ventimiglia (who was on The Sopranos and has a very nice reading voice), S.E. Hinton (she wrote The Outsiders, which is neat), Aram Saroyan (minimalist poet, novelist, son of William), and Dar Williams (a singer-songwriter who is responsible for the shocking nadir of the film, when she cries on camera). Then there are Tom Waits and Patti Smith, whom I suspect were brought in because they are perceived as having a never-ending fund of “cred.” I have seen Fishing With John, and I know that Tom Waits is a veritable one-man cred festival, but all he does here is flip pages and rub his face and growl.
I will say, though, that Tom Waits did have the good sense not to participate in the beach bonfire, during which some members of the crew hang out in the sand, drink, and talk about Jack (Jack, Jack, Jack). Which was probably really fun to do, but is excruciating to watch.
To make things even more confusing, sometimes you hear this crooning, and you think, “Is that the guy from Death Cab for Cutie,” and it is that guy.
This is a cast that, when describing the purportedly tragic death of Kerouac’s cat, not only makes it not sad, but actually raises a chuckle from (at least two) members of the audience. The film also does the near-impossible and makes San Francisco and Big Sur look hideous. Perhaps this was to show the twisted darkness of Jack Kerouac’s soul. I’m not sure, but the whole thing is very grainy and made for unpleasant viewing.
Carolyn Cassady was a highlight of the film. For one, people who knew the subject are always more interesting to hear from than someone who was on hundreds of unrelated TV shows long after the subject’s death. Also, Carolyn Cassady had relations with both Neal Cassady and Kerouac, and it’s neat to hear what she has to say about it all (I think what she actually says on that particular aspect was something like “It was nice for me,” which I thought was a hoot, especially since it came after a shot of the famous photo of Kerouac and Cassady, this photo being why I think they invented the lewd expression about wanting to be the meat in a given sandwich.)
My understanding is that Kerouac and his contemporaries were zany and drug-addled and sometimes brilliant and sometimes just crazy, and as such there are a multitude of stories and anecdotes about all of them; it’s an embarrassment of riches. This movie, in trying to showcase a handful of the riches, is mostly just an embarrassment (I don’t know what Dar Williams’ music is like, but I’m telling you, the crying scene was very, very bad).
I was moderately happy I saw it, though. It is kind of an unintentional laugh riot. Also, the production and most of the commentary are so comically bad that they highlight Kerouac’s writing, which in part narrates the action (such as it is). I have avoided Kerouac’s work for so long that I had forgotten, if I ever knew, how startling and beautiful it can be, even if it is often responsible for bone-chilling jazzy readings and scat flights.
It is marginally interesting to hear from the people who knew Kerouac. And there is nothing intrinsically wrong with making a movie about how a group of unrelated randoms perceive a particular work. This group, though, was like a drunken, barely-prepared book club, whose members interrupt one another to say “Oh shit! I loved that part! That was so awesome!” Which, as I said, is fun to do and not fun to watch.
Two thumbs down!
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?