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There are words, and then there are words….

Not very long ago, I found myself at a friend’s 75th birthday party, despairing aloud about the deluge of words that engulfs our world. A somber, very sober, man leapt to the defense of  language and good writers. There’s nothing I respect more, he said, than a good writer who can clarify and inspire.

Well, I like good writing and good writers too, I retorted….  but he wasn’t interested in anything I had to say. I was obviously some kind of philistine, or at the very least stupid.

He’s probably right. Not about the philistinism or the stupidity, but about words. Only words, well-crafted, beautifully put together, will be able to help us. No wordless vision, no great symphony, not even a Kumbaya, will do.

Albert Camus, 1957. Library of Congress.

I was reminded of this when I ran across an Adam Gopnik article on Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre in the April 9 issue of The New Yorker. Gopnik argues for the superiority of Camus’ journalism to his fiction or his philosophy. In a time in France that was nearly as chaotic as our own, Gopnik writes,

He struck a tone, not of Voltairean Parisian rancor but of melancholic loft. Camus sounds serious, but he also sounds sad – he added the authority of sadness to the activity of political writing. He wrote with dignity at a moment when restoring dignity to public language was necessary, and he slowed public language at a time when history was moving too fast.

How beautiful is that? Where is our Camus?

Writing in a world awash in words

The New York Public Library, where books congregate

Years ago, when I went to college in San Francisco, I was distressed by the numbers of people who wanted to write. My writing was to be special – more stylish, more moving, more profound than theirs. Besides, I had an important need to write. But when I got on with life I discovered that I didn’t have the mojo to make it happen.
Now that I’m at it again, the world of books has gone all peculiar on me. Today, as then, everyone is writing or expects to. The difference is that now, in much greater numbers, they can publish. Most of them, now as then, aren’t honest-to-god writers, not the way I dreamed of writing. But today everyone can publish books without the scions of the publishing world passing on them. And, somehow, I think that’s probably all to the good. Even if it does make me feel sometimes that the world is awash in words. Too many words.
Among these, are some that warn of a world where the digital book will not only kill off all the lovely paged books with colored covers that we adore, but books themselves. Even the ones on Kindle and the Nook will cease to exist. Everyone will have learned to express themselves in 140 characters or less. Sometimes, the critics just mean to prophesy the end of fiction, but that’s hardly less dire.
Ann Patchett, who is one of the nation’s finer fiction writers, recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times complaining, as a writer and a reader, of the failure of the Pulitzer Prize Committee to choose a work of fiction this year. “… Either the board was unable to reach a consensus, or at the end of the day the board members decided that none of the finalists, and none of the other books that were not finalists, were worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.” She went on to name six or seven books she thought were worthy,* and to worry that the Committee’s failure to name any of them was a loss to all of fiction. The Pulitzer Prize is important because of the publicity and public celebration it creates. It stirs up “the buzz that is so often lacking in our industry – Did you hear about that book?”
We live in a time of transition, of chaos, of confusion. And nowhere is that more obvious than in media of every kind, and especially in fiction.
I’ve come of age. It’s taken a very long time, but I’m finally ready to write. But what’s happened, what’s happening, to the world?
All this to say that I’ve placed a small ad for the first book I’m publishing in this odd era. It’s to your right on this page. You’ll see that I’ve decided to become, among other things, a cozy mystery writer. In future posts, I’ll talk more about writing and writers, and especially the elderly among us. I’ll create another page on this blog to advertise and present samples of “The Body in the Butter Churn,” and eventually of other books. I’ll continue to help fill the air with words, words, and more words. I really have no other choice.

I think Ann Patchett’s list of books worthy of a Pulitzer is fascinating and, in the interests of doing my small part in the project to give them publicity, I’ve listed them. I’m afraid I haven’t read any at this writing. The first three were on the Committee’s short list.
“Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson
“Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell
“The Family Fang” by Kevin Wilson
“Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories” by Edith Pearlman
“Lost Memory of Skin” by Russell Banks “Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward
“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides
“The Pale King” by David Foster Wallace

Truth and fiction

History is after all only a pack of tricks we play on the dead,” said Voltaire.

Well, maybe it’s not quite that bad–but memory is certainly unreliable. There are as many versions of history as there are historians. There are certainly as many possible memoirs as authors to write them. Facts are elusive. The truth of fiction has never had to depend on facts.

But more recently and again and again, memoir and fiction have been joined.
A recent book, The Lifespan of a Fact, is a debate by essayist, John D’Agata, and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal, over D’Agata’s essay about the suicide of a teen (Levi Presley) who leapt from the tallest tower on the Las Vegas strip. The essay is reprinted at the center of each page with Fingal’s notations about inaccuracies, altered quotes, half-remembered events, and outright falsehoods–and D’Agata’s response. Says the writer: “By taking these liberties, I’m making a better work of art–a truer experience for the reader–than if I stuck to the facts.”

“You’re inventing significance,” Fingal writes to him in Lifespan. “It’s not like you’re interpreting empirical data and prophetically unveiling to us a meaning that was hiding there all along. You’re threading Levi’s life through a needle you made.”

D’Agata may not be the best spokesman for his point of view, but he still has a case to make. “Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.”

I haven’t read the book and probably won’t. What I’ve quoted is from an article on Slate by Dan Kois who is deeply troubled by the debate, and especially by D’Agata’s cavalier attitude towards facts (“The Lifespan of a Fact: Essayist John D’Agata defends his right to fudge the truth”). When he describes his struggle with the issue, when he repeats his despairing “I don’t know what to do,” a writer he admires responds, “Just keep writing.” “And so I did,” he says.

The fact is that the fiction writer has always mixed fact and imagination to produce art or “story truth” but since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, one of the first of the “non-fiction novels,”  the question of what is or is not real, what is or is not true, has become critical.

And, for the life of me, all I can offer is the same advice as was given to Dan Kois, “Just keep writing.”

Let America be America Again

Many years ago, in the middle of a project about the pillaging of the earth by various coal companies, I worried that America wasn’t America and never had been. There was no “shining city on a hill,” only a country with good and bad, strength and weakness, justice and injustice. It’s a fascinating country and one I love but, contrary to the nation’s odd array of Republican debaters, I’m not sure that it’s a country God loves better than any other.

Strip coal mining. Photo by Stephen Codrington for Planet Geography 3rd Edition (2005). Creative Commons.

That’s when I realized that America is a dream–sometimes almost realized, often not.  Patriotism is not an unconsidered devotion to “my country, right or wrong,” but an allegiance to a dream and the work to  to realize it.

Langston Hughes had already said it in the 1930s, and said it powerfully. Most of my readers are probably familiar with this poem, but it, more than most – and especially now – bears repeating.

Let America Be America Again  

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home–

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?

Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay–

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–

The land that never has been yet–

And yet must be–the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath–

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain–

All, all the stretch of these great green states–

And make America again!

 

Poets and Old Age: Emily Dickinson

One of our best poets about growing older and about death was Emily Dickinson. And the best known of all her poems about the subject was this one.

The Chariot

Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me;

The carriage held but just ourselves

And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,

And I had put away

My labor, and my leisure too,

For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,

Their lessons scarcely done;

We passed the fields of gazing grain,

We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed

A swelling of the ground;

The roof was scarcely visible,

The cornice but a mound.

Since then ‘tis centuries; but each

Feels shorter than the day

I first surmised the horses’ heads

Were toward eternity.

 

Here’s another less familiar one.

We turn not older with years, but newer every day.

These words they sing

Of hope

Of joy

These words leave me to

Play

Within my mind

Within my heart

Within my newer day

My newest day

Sparkling bright

Washing cares away

My newest day

Born afresh

Born afresh…

Today

Giving me

Once again

The chance to Seek

And pray

Giving me

The chance

To thank

The One who gives this day

Behold!

My newness…

Startling me

Though mirrors are away…

As in my mind

Once again

Life’s magic has its way

Has its way

Comforts me

Walks hand in hand with age

Walking towards that Promised Land…

Where newness wins the day!

Some more poetry

William Butler Yeats wrote a good bit of poetry about growing older—I’m not sure why. But this is one of his best known.

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

- Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

 

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

 

O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.

 

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

- William Butler Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium

 

Here’s a very lovely poem, a very interesting poem, by Milosz.

On the day the world ends

A bee circles a clover,

A fisherman mends a glimmering net.

Happy porpoises jump in the sea,

By the rainspout young sparrows are playing

And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

 

On the day the world ends

Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,

A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,

Vegetable peddlers shout in the street

And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,

The voice of a violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night.

 

And those who expected lightning and thunder

Are disappointed.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and the moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.

 

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet

Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,

Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:

No other end of the world will there be,

No other end of the world will there be.

- Czeslaw Milosz, A Song on the End of the World (translated by Anthony Milosz)

The Poet and Old Age

Old age is frequently a subject that inspires mirth, and of course much of it comes at the expense of us, the old people—of which I am one! But none of these intend to ridicule, so enjoy, whatever age you are.

There was an Old Man with a beard,

Who said: “It is just as I feared!

Two Owls and a Hen,

FourLarks and a Wren

Have all built their nests in my beard.”

- Edward Lear

 

… The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

William Shakespeare – As You Like It

 

“I was looking in the mirror the other day and I realized I haven’t changed much since I was in my twenties. The only difference is I look a whole lot older now. ~

- George Carlin

Old age ain’t no place for sissies. -Bette Davis

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

- Forgetfulness by Billy Collins