WRB—Dec. 13, 2023
Would you drink this?
Of that godlike authority which we think of as the default mode of narration in the traditional novel, the Washington Review of Books may well be the only English example.
In the new issue of The Yale Review, Greil Marcus on why he became a critic and what shaped him as one:
In 2015, at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, I took part in a public conversation with the late conservative philosopher and musicologist Roger Scruton. In his book The Soul of the World, about the disappearance of the sacred in the modern world and how it might be retrieved and restored, he had defined music, in a passage I quoted back to him, as “a perceived resolution of the conflict between freedom and necessity made available in a space of its own…a reality that cannot be grasped from the ordinary cognitive standpoint.” I said I thought that the dimension of the sacred, of what could not be grasped by the everyday unthinking mind, could be present in any music—pop music, blues, rock n’ roll, jazz—where the listener, whether alone or face-to-face or a hundred rows back, can at any time be overcome with a sense of unlikeliness, of the listener’s own inability to account for what is happening—any music where the listener is struck with a sense of awe, a sense of impossibility, a sense that something is taking place beyond intention, that the composer’s or artist’s or performer’s intention cannot account for the sense one receives of the presence of some force outside the ordinary thinking mind, the intervention of some external intelligence or even gnosis.
John Branch and Emily Rhyne have put together one of those excellent multimedia pieces the Times does. This one is about a camera found on Aconcagua, the Western Hemisphere’s highest mountain, and what it might reveal about an expedition that led to two deaths 50 years ago:
Here is what was certain: A woman from Denver, maybe the most accomplished climber in the group, had last been seen alive on the glacier. A man from Texas, part of the recent Apollo missions to the moon, lay frozen nearby.
There were contradictory statements from survivors and a hasty departure. There was a judge who demanded an investigation into possible foul play. There were three years of summit-scratching searches to find and retrieve the bodies.
Their discovery stirred more intrigue, leaving more questions than answers. That’s the imbalance of all the best mysteries—facts that don’t quite add up, gaps that imaginations rush to fill.
That is how Janet Johnson and John Cooper became part of the folklore of Aconcagua.
And now, nearly five decades later, an old camera had emerged from the receding glacier. It was wound, prepared to take the next picture.
In The New Statesman, Michael Prodger on Maruyama Ōkyo, a Japanese painter who “learned lessons from Western art and used them more daringly than any European”:
Ōkyo learned all these traditional forms and painted both large byobu, or screens, as well as brushwork pictures and calligraphy—a skill he never truly mastered. His interest, however, lay in melding these various influences and mixing them with lessons taken from European copperplate engravings and illustrated books. He was drawn to realism—dragons, that staple of Japanese art, feature only rarely in his work—and was one of the first Japanese artists to make a practice of drawing from nature. He compiled sketchbooks filled with drawings of insects; relished flowers, trees and animals; and made drawings of birds, dogs, rabbits, fish and terrapins for use in his landscape pictures. Other sketchbooks, from the 1770s, are filled with images of the people and environs of Kyoto, and he made illustrations for anatomy books too. One apocryphal story describes a patron commissioning Ōkyo to paint the ghost of a dead family member and the image being so faithful that it leapt off the page and startled the painter himself.
In Poetry, Tyler Malone with a [Very long but worth it. —Steve] tour of the influences and preoccupations of New Hampshire’s greatest poet, Robert Frost:
Frost often talked about a poem’s ability to discover itself. By this he did not mean the work of elves but the interplay between form and chaos that cannot be “worried into being.” The poem that the poet controls is no poem at all because it loses the very essence of poetry: the immediacy, the wildness, and the mystery of the thought thinking itself. For Frost, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
His best metaphor for this process is of ice thawing: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” The ice-skating of poetic creation is a zigzagging process. Melting ice meanders on a hot stove; it does not run straight, like a sprinter with a finish line in sight. Its finish line is its finish, the melting of a confusion. A great poem, according to Frost, “ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.”
Also in Poetry, Maya C. Popa reviews a new biography of Jane Kenyon (Jane Kenyon: The Making of a Poet, by Dana Greene, October) that attempts to situate her outside of the shadow of her husband, New Hampshire’s second-greatest poet, Donald Hall:
However, Greene believes that until the end, “Hall could not help viewing [Kenyon] as his dependent, his latter-day student. He recounted, ‘I watched in grateful pleasure as her poems became better and better,’ a pleasure that, while genuine, reflected pride in his teaching prowess.” I’m not sure I discern Hall’s self-satisfaction in that remark. If we agree with Greene’s reading, this still says more about Hall’s delusion than it does about Kenyon. That she “had to resist this merger of identities to realize her authentic poetic voice” may be true, but as I got to know Kenyon through Greene’s valuable research, I wasn’t entirely sure that she had ever been in danger of merging with Hall at the expense of her own voice. Kenyon was, as letters and poems reveal, her own arbiter, and not one to be bullied or bossed into anything. She took the feedback she agreed with and was often indignant at what she disagreed with. Hall seems to have been fairly honest, at last, in his understanding of their dynamic: “Maybe Jane in her twenties took cover in my shadow, but at forty-six she cast her own lively shadow.”
[That’s quite enough on the poets of New Hampshire for one newsletter. I’ll strike a blow for Maine in here at some point. Anyone writing about E. A. Robinson? Edna St. Vincent Millay? Maybe reevaluating Longfellow? (I don’t think that last one is going to happen.) —Steve]
[Behind the paywall: more links, reviews, news items, and commentary carefully selected for you, including a very interesting beverage, plans for media, Julia on a poem by James Wright, and some involved discussion of Jane Austen’s narrators. If you like what you see, why not subscribe, and why not consider a paid subscription? We couldn’t do it without you.]