Each Day as the Only Day

The poet Samuel Menashe died on Monday at 85. Here are excerpts from an interview by Adam Travis for the Poetry Foundation:

It isn't my decision to write concise poems, that's just me. I didn't decide to be a poet. I didn't decide to write the poems that I write. I remember once coming home — my parents lived in the suburbs and I would come home for dinner — and I said to my mother (they died when they were twenty years younger than I am now, so this was a very long time ago): "You know that poem I showed you last week, well, I've worked on it since. And she asked, "How much shorter is it?" Yes, I'm known for that. I could spend almost an entire summer revising a poem that's already been published, making a three line stanza out of a six line stanza — not just cutting away, but the whole poem goes into the works again. Didn't Poe say that in a long poem only certain parts are poetry? I'm not given to storytelling. There is narrative poetry, but it's not my kind of poetry.


If I'm working on a poem, I'm possessed by it. I have a desk by the window, and I have sun all morning on a winter morning. Well, I can repeat the same lines over and over again while I'm walking in the park in the afternoon. I wake up with them in the middle of the night, and the poem is in the works. But when I'm not working, like on a beautiful day like this — nothing is lacking in this day, even though I'm not working. Shall I recite a short poem?

The friends of my father
Stand like gnarled trees
Yet in their eyes I see
Spring's crinkled leaf

And thus, although one dies
With nothing to bequeath
We are left enough
Love to make us grieve

Now, the first four lines could have been written at any time, even in antiquity. That poem in its first version was in my first book published in England. But it was then revised. The revision always makes it more concise. But then I remember, I was walking one evening, a balmy evening, and the poem was in the works (the revision) and I had the line "crinkled leaf of spring," and suddenly when I was walking on a quiet street (there are quiet streets here) I was staggered, I mean physically. Do I dare say, instead of "a crinkled leaf of spring," "spring's crinkled leaf"? And for me that made all the difference. I dared!


If I hadn't been in the infantry and lucky enough to survive physically unharmed, I might have had a much more conventional life. I remember I used to hear people, when I came home from the war, talking about what they intended to do "next summer," and I was amazed by their certainty that they would be alive "next summer." I always thought that each day was the last day for the first few years. And then it changed: not each day as the last day, but each day as the only day. It's more hopeful in a way. So I was able to live in the day. Most people are planning for a future. I had no foresight for any future. It's a nice sentimental anecdote for a bohemian to talk about that cold water flat you had on Thompson Street. Well, I still live with a bathtub in the kitchen. If you live that way for two or three years when you're young, and then move to proper middle class housing, you can be sentimental about your old cold water flat. Anyway, I had no foresight.


In about 1957 I heard Kathleen Raine recite her poetry at the Y with two other British poets. I thought of her a few years later when I was in Europe, because she was a renowned Blake scholar. I sent my poetry to her, and she got it published by one of the leading publishers in London. My friends thought that American publishers would be waiting at the pier for me. On the contrary, it took me ten years to get my first book published here by the most unknown publisher in New York. That has been the story of my life almost to the present. I was published by Penguin in London seven years ago in a very reputable series called Penguin Modern Poets. Each volume included about three poets, and almost all of them were British. And I still couldn't get a publisher in New York. So, it's been a hard life. It's been the opposite of a life buttressed by grants and having a publisher and going to him every few years with new poems. Each time I've had to start from scratch.


Momento Mori
by Samuel Menashe, from New & Selected Poems

This skull instructs
Me now to probe
The socket bone
Around my eyes
To test the nose
Bone underlies
To hod my breath
To make no bones
About the dead 

Excerpt from Life is Immense: Visiting Samuel Menashe, a documentary filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce for the publication of the UK edition of New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2009).

Temporary Custodian of Beautiful Things

“I’ve been lucky all my life. Everything was handed to me. Looks, fame, wealth, honors, love. I rarely had to fight for anything. But I’ve paid for that luck with disasters. . .I’m like a living example of what people can go through and survive. I’m not like anyone. I’m me.”

~ Elizabeth Taylor, quoted in “A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour,” New York Times, Mar. 23, 2011

And this from a recent interview for Harper’s Bazaar, “I never planned to acquire a lot of jewels or a lot of husbands. For me, life happened, just as it does for anyone else. I have been supremely lucky in my life in that I have known great love, and of course I am the temporary custodian of some incredible and beautiful things. But I have never felt more alive than when I watched my children delight in something, never more alive than when I have watched a great artist perform, and never richer than when I have scored a big check to fight AIDS. Follow your passion, follow your heart, and the things you need will come.”

Steadied by the Darkness

Northern Lights over Fairbanks, Alaska (Stormscape Photography / Michael Phelps)

In the Sleep of Reason
by John Haines (1924 – 2011), from The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer: Collected Poems

And so I closed that book,
laid down the pen
and closed my eyes.

What had I thought to find,
reading by the light of cyphers,
abstract and piercing
in their constellations?

Nothing that night and the wind
could not have told me,
had I raised my head,
dimmed my lamp, and listened—

I, a thoughtful man, prone
to the dust of bindings,
coughing in the dry sequence
of verse and chapter
(for I had reasons).

And while I was sleeping,
came a small beak at my heart,
like a thorn, insistently
probing . . .

And I in terror awoke,
to know in that room
a tread ceaseless and pacing.

As if from within my being
came this upwelling,
of brute and shouldering forms:

heavy and beastlike, buoyant
and birdlike, but nothing
I could name, they moved
at ease, about and within me . . .

creatures of the starlight,
but also of the mind,
harbor to wolf and warlock.

So much do I remember now:
the pulse of obedient hearts,
hot tongues licking
the night; and I heard,

like a dry wind over leaves,
the scaly rustling of reptiles
coiling and resting . . .
All turned in the lamplight

eyes that never turned from mine
in their bright interrogation
(for I could see them,
and yet they were not there).

And I would speak, my hand
upheld to shield me,
when the shutter clapped
and my lamp blew out—

(was it a natural wind,
or a spirit-breath
lifting the leaves
of heavy trees in the night?)

And all subsided in the hush
that followed, in the calm
of great wings folding
and shadowy forms lying down.

I rose and left that room,
the house of my grief
and my bondage, my book
never again to be opened.

To see as once I saw,
steadied by the darkness
in which I walked
and would make my way.

See also: “John Haines, a Poet of the Wild, Dies at 86,” by Douglas Marin, New York Times, Mar. 5, 2011

A Journey into Worthy Perception

Barry Hannah

"Reading and writing train our people for logic, grace, and precision of thought, and begin a lifelong study of the exceptional in human existence. I think literature is the history of the soul. Writing should be a journey into worthy perception."

~ Barry Hannah, who died last week at his home in Mississippi

[Thanks Jonathan Carroll!]

What I Have Shaped into a Kind of Life

won't you celebrate with me

by Lucille Clifton, from The Book of Light

won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

From Baltimore Sun’s blog, Read Street today: Former state poet laureate and National Book Award winner Lucille Clifton died Saturday at age 73, after a long battle with cancer and other illnesses. Her obituary in the Baltimore Sun noted that the long-time Columbia resident was known for a mix of profundity, earthiness and humor in her 11 books of poetry…At you can read some of her poems, including "blessing the boats," and hear her provocative voice reading "homage to my hips."

The Freedom it Gave Her

From the obituary of Martha Mason in today’s New York Times:

Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung Ever since the 1940s, when she was a girl in a small Southern town, Martha Mason dreamed of being a writer. But it was not till nearly half a century later, with the aid of a voice-activated computer, that she could begin setting a memoir down on paper.

…From her horizontal world — a 7-foot-long, 800-pound iron cylinder that encased all but her head — Ms. Mason lived a life that was by her own account fine and full, reading voraciously, graduating with highest honors from high school and college, entertaining and eventually writing.

She chose to remain in an iron lung, she often said, for the freedom it gave her. It let her breathe without tubes in her throat, incisions or hospital stays, as newer, smaller ventilators might require. It took no professional training to operate, letting her remain mistress of her own house, with just two aides assisting her.

“I’m happy with who I am, where I am,” Ms. Mason told The Charlotte Observer in 2003. “I wouldn’t have chosen this life, certainly. But given this life, I’ve probably had the best situation anyone could ask for.”

…After her mother’s death in 1998, Ms. Mason began work on her [memoir] in earnest. There, in her childhood home, with a microphone at her mouth and the music of the iron lung for company, she wrote her life story sentence by sentence in her soft Southern voice, with her own breath.

[Thanks Matt!]


Indirect Methods of Communication

Testing the Limits of What I Know and Feel
by John Updike, NPR’s This I Believe (4.18.05):

Photo of John Updike by Nubar Alexanian A person believes various things at various times, even on the same day. At the age of 73, I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness. The special value of these indirect methods of communication –- as opposed to the value of factual reporting and analysis -- is one of precision. Oddly enough, the story or poem brings us closer to the actual texture and intricacy of experience.

In fiction, imaginary people become realer to us than any named celebrity glimpsed in a series of rumored events, whose causes and subtler ramifications must remain in the dark. An invented figure like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary emerges fully into the light of understanding, which brings with it identification, sympathy and pity. I find in my own writing that only fiction -- and rarely, a poem -- fully tests me to the kind of limits of what I know and what I feel. In composing even such a frank and simple account as this profession of belief, I must fight against the sensation that I am simplifying and exploiting my own voice.

I also believe, instinctively, if not very cogently, in the American political experiment, which I take to be, at bottom, a matter of trusting the citizens to know their own minds and best interests. "To govern with the consent of the governed": this spells the ideal. And though the implementation will inevitably be approximate and debatable, and though totalitarianism or technocratic government can obtain some swift successes, in the end, only a democracy can enlist a people's energies on a sustained and renewable basis. To guarantee the individual maximum freedom within a social frame of minimal laws ensures -- if not happiness -- its hopeful pursuit.

Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything -- from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their sub-microscopic components -- seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and -- may we even say -- illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.

* * *

Remembering John Updike, Literary Legend,” excerpts from Fresh Air interviews from March 17, 1988, March 16, 1989, and Oct. 14, 1997.

A Spectrum of Opinion

Michael Crichton“We are all assumed, these days, to reside at one extreme of the opinion spectrum, or another. We are pro-abortion or anti-abortion. We are free traders or protectionist. We are pro-private sector or pro-big government. We are feminists or chauvinists. But in the real world, few of us holds these extreme views. There is instead a spectrum of opinion.
The extreme positions of the Crossfire Syndrome require extreme simplification - framing the debate in terms which ignore the real issues.”

~ Michael Crichton, “Mediasaurus: The Decline of Conventional Media,” National Press Club, Washington D.C., April 7, 1993

We Have to Learn to Make Peace with Each Other

Anthony Minghella
(Jan. 6, 1954 - Mar. 18, 2008)

Anthony Minghella

"It's essentially a love story which is affected by burglary. I tried to write this first of all after my first movie, Truly, Madly, Deeply. And I had this notion of a couple who had found that their house had been ransacked, and in the course of trying to work out what had been taken, they discover that things had been added. And what had been added were in some way illustrations of the problems of their marriage. I always had this interest that a break-in  -- that a damaging event -- would fix something.

"...Scar tissue is much stronger than your regular tissue. And for some reason, this idea that a scar is stronger than the original flesh is in this movie. The idea that the damage done, when it's repaired, if it can be repaired, will make these people stronger with each other than they were before.

"I have this maybe inaccurate sense that audiences believe and commentators on fiction believe that authenticity means a kind of misanthropy or negativity, that if something is miserable, it's true, if something is pessimistic, it's true, and if something is optimistic or healing, then it's a gloss. That life isn't like that. But I don't believe that. I think that people are incredibly indomitable. They do put things back together again. They do fix themselves. They do fix each other. And that we have to believe that it's possible to fix things. We're in a world where not necessarily marriage is in trouble, but certainly harmony is in trouble in the sense that the marriages of culture that exist in cities, the observing of each other's right to believe and the right to think and right to feel is in a troubled and turbulent moment in history. We have to learn to make peace with each other and forgive each other.

"So this idea of conciliation goes way beyond simply forgiving a burglar or simply forgiving an aberrant husband. To me it's the required emotion and movement and dynamic for our future."

-- Anthony Minghella, discussing his last film, Breaking and Entering, with Elvis Mitchell on KCRW's The Treatment (2.7.07).

Benazir Bhutto

June 21, 1953 – December 27, 2007


"When I was a very young child I remember I was always against violence. It was an era when people used to go shooting and hunting. I remember once coming out on the veranda in our home in the countryside -- and my father was teaching my brother to shoot a parrot and... I remember seeing the parrot fall down dead and bleed, and I remember being appalled by it. And I remember the parrot fluttering and I can't bear to see blood to this day or killing. I'm very much against war and conflict and the taking of life, and I think that seeing that little bird -- green and beautiful and living and chirping in the tree, and then falling down dead -- did have a profound effect. It sounds silly to say that I should feel so strongly about a bird, but I remember my father telling me when he was facing the death sentence that 'I remember the little girl who cried so much because a bird died, how she must feel.' So for me, human life is very, very sacred."


"...before [my father] died, I had my last meeting with him, in the death cell, and he said that, 'You have suffered so much.' I had been in prison myself, and he said, 'You are so young. You just finished your university. You came back. You had your whole life and look at the terror under which we have lived.' So he said, 'I set you free. Why don't you go and live in London or Paris or Switzerland or Washington, and you are well taken care of, and have some happiness because you have seen too much suffering.' I reached out through the prison bars, and I remember grasping his hands and saying, 'No, papa, I will continue the struggle that you began for democracy.' "


"If you believe in something, go for it, but know that when you go for it there's a price to be paid. Be ready to pay that price and you can contribute to the welfare of society, and society will acknowledge you and respect you for it. And don't be afraid. Don't be afraid."


"I think that as nation states begin to become weaker because of the force of globalization, there will be a greater reversion to ethnicity and to religious violence. I fear that the international community lacks a mechanism for conflict prevention or being in a position to end the conflict. Everyone is looking towards America, and the American people have their own problems. They can be there if there's a strategic concern, but they can't be there everywhere. So there is a lack of growth of regional institutions that could deal with regional violence and leave the global problems or the strategic problems to the more global powers. I fear the 21st Century could witness a period of contradiction where there is the greatest era of peace -- the super power rivalry having gone -- but there is a lot of localized violence."

--Benazir Bhutto (Interview from October 2000)

In the Anonymous and Triumphant Totality

“I want to be one of the artists of the cathedral that rises on the plain. I want to occupy myself by carving out of stone the head of a dragon, an angel or a demon, or perhaps a saint; it doesn’t matter; I will find the same joy in any case. Whether I am a believer or an unbeliever, Christian or pagan, I work with all the world to build a cathedral because I am artist and artisan, and because I have learned to draw faces, limbs, and bodies out of stone. I will never worry about the judgment of posterity or of my contemporaries; my name is carved nowhere and will disappear with me. But a little part of myself will survive in the anonymous and triumphant totality. A dragon or a demon, or perhaps a saint, it doesn’t matter!”

--Ingmar Bergman (July 14, 1918 – July 30, 2007)

You Are Not Alone, Others Feel As You Do

Excerpts from a KCRW Bookworm interview with Kurt Vonnegut a year ago discussing his last book, A Man Without a Country. He died yesterday at 84 years old.

The crucified planet earth, should it find a voice in a sense of irony, might now well say of our abuse of it, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ The irony would be that we know what we are doing. And when the last living thing dies on account of us, how poetical it would be if Life could say, in a voice floating up perhaps from the floor of the Grand Canyon, ‘It is done. People did not like it here.’

Millionaires and billionaires are the only ones who have representation in our government now. And we pretend to have two parties, but it’s one party financed by millionaires and billionaires. The Repulicans and the Democrats fight—pretend to fight and to be really angry—but they’re both very well paid to pretend to fight and actually not to make any trouble for the possessors of great wealth.

My dream of a utopia right now is public schools with classes of fifteen students or fewer. That’s it. Just everywhere. And this we could easily afford. All our money...has gone into weaponry.

At the very end of every graduation address I say, ‘All right, now I’m going to want a show of hands. Everybody here: parents, students, campus cops, anybody. How many of you in the course of your education between kindergarten and today, have had a teacher who made you happier to be alive, prouder to be alive than you’d previously believed possible? A show of hands please.’ And so a lot of people will fake it, of course. And then I say, ‘All right, now please say the name of that teacher to someone standing or sitting near you.’ And all these murmurs go on. People who were faking it will suddenly think of a teacher who was that good. Look, all you need is one great teacher and some people really love to teach.

Susan Sontag said something [about the Holocaust] that was so helpful to me…‘Ten percent of any population is cruel no matter what, ten percent of any population is merciful no matter what, and the other eighty percent can be pulled in either direction.’

I have said a reason to write books—or to write anything—is to say to other people, ‘You are not alone, others feel as you do.’