What It Really Means to Write from Experience

by Bonnie Friedman

Even as an adult I was a person on whom a very great deal was lost. In fact, that’s why I became a writer. I used a bridge of words to arrive at what I couldn’t discover in any other way. Emotional truths, the real perimeter of personality and event that was otherwise lost behind a viscous myopia—those were the aims of my work. I unconsciously assumed each essay was a kind of prosthetic arm that allowed me to extend further than my limbs could reach to locate what was past the blurry limits of my vision. And I even prided myself on my combination of ignorance and intelligence. Flannery O’Connor wrote that to become a writer one needs a grain of stupidity. I had my grain! In fact, I possessed a hoard of the stupidity that I accurately understood to be an essential ingredient in originality. One must be able to see things new in order to see them fresh. I was the new girl at school in fourth grade, the new girl when I was a professor, and even in middle age, due to some imperturbability of character, I remained frustratingly (by now, to myself) new.

Aspects others took for granted—the right hair care product, the fact that when others offer you a breath mint the correct answer is always to say yes, the awareness that when leaving a party one ought to thank the host and say goodbye and then reciprocate, or that, when meeting a person in a position to help you, you ought to try to impress or at least to connect—were novel to me. I had a somewhat feral quality but this allowed me to register with particular acuteness the textures and valences of things, the weave in a linen shirt, the snarl in a soft command, the precise slightly bitter scent of fresh clay in the art room at school. That is: I was alert to the sense-based fabric of life. My nose twitched, and my ears detected as keenly as if they were the size of cabbage leaves. I was like a blind person who maneuvers through darkness by superior hearing, and whose very skin seems gifted with subtle radar. Social life was of only ephemeral significance to me, while the experiences of the body had sacred force. I assumed this heightened sensitivity meant that I was the type of person Henry James had in mind when he said that a writer ought to try to be someone on whom little—or actually, in his words, nothing—is lost. Didn’t I register a great deal? Wasn’t very little lost on me? But in fact, I’d misunderstood his famous dictum. It was Joan Didion’s Where I Was From that brought this home to me.

For what Joan Didion notices are power dynamics, economic structures, political log-rolling, and the idealization and sentimentality that created the kind of psychic myopia that engulfed me. She takes a corner of the canvas and discovers the weave that extends across the entire big fabric. She knows how to infer. To be more specific: this 2003 book (which ought to be far better known than it is) about Didion’s family origins, the myth of the pioneer, and the development of Southern California, makes visible the kind of structures that undergird visible reality. An example: in examining the once-famous “Spur Posse” of swaggering male high school athletes who preyed upon and molested many of the girls in their town of Lakewood, California, Didion starts with a portrayal of the deteriorating industrial base of that area, and the stunted educational aspirations of the parents there, and the federal subsidizing that had at one time underwritten it all despite the region’s touted ethos of rugged individualism. She shows how one dramatic public phenomenon can be the manifestation of a webwork of forces that might otherwise appear only accidentally related.

Didion saw much more than I did. She focused on what I’d previously considered immaterial, non-essential, and far beyond the scope of what a creative writer required. And so I turned again to Henry James. What exactly had he meant when he stipulated that a writer be someone on whom nothing is lost? Here he is, in “The Art of Fiction,” defining what he means by experience—specifically, what it means to tell a writer to write from experience:

“The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience . . . Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, ‘Write from experience, and experience only,’ I should feel that this was a rather tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’”

On whom nothing is lost! At least he gives us that exclamation point, as if to acknowledge the impossibility of ever being quite that. But I could—we can—try to be people on whom less is lost. I wanted to be more Didionesque. To understand the realities that ground the apparition of things. Because, even being a personal essayist and not a journalist, I knew my work would gain force if I became more worldly, both figuratively and literally. How to do this?

I bought myself an atlas. Soft-cover, plump with maps. And every time I read a place name in any book, I looked it up. Soon I knew where Sacramento was, and the San Bernadino valley, but I also knew where the country was that had been Burma, and where exactly Selma, Alabama, was, and Kentucky, and Saudi Arabia, and St. Ives, and Tolstoy’s Sebastopol. Knowing exactly where communities are made them more real to me.

I kept a notebook in which I wrote facts from news items that I had a hard time remembering because they seemed so preposterous. While Paul Manafort charged Donald Trump nothing to work as his campaign manager, he was 10 million dollars in debt to the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. A sixth of the people in the US today suffer from “food insecurity,” not knowing if they will be hungry today or this week. 49,068 people in the US lost their lives in deaths related to the use of opioid drugs last year and we are on track for more to do so this year. Every now and then I flipped back and read the surprising facts again to make them more real.

And I exhorted myself to investigate beyond my comfort zone. Interviewing frightened Didion, too. I must occasionally pursue the encounters she does—with the school superintendent, the factory manager, the officials in possession of a distinct vantage-point who I fear won’t give me the time of day. I must ask them to give it. I must discover the time of day as they see it so I can calculate the hour more accurately for myself. For even the essayist and novelist, as Henry James proposes, ought to be able to extrapolate from the glimpse to the gestalt, knowing what it means when a realtor behaves a certain way, and a family court judge, and a film maker, able to make use of the detail to divine the real deal.

Yet I cling to James’ exclamation point, with its jaunty acknowledgment of the impossibility of ever being someone on whom nothing is lost, even as I understand that for a writer—especially for a writer—an expansion in awareness is the constant necessity. Flannery O’Connor’s golden grain of stupidity complements James’ suggestion that we make use of even the tiniest bit of data. He is saying: prize your ability to surmise and also prize your informed imagination to carry you along. And O’Connor is saying: Let your rejection of received wisdom, which others register as stupidity, enable you to clear a path ahead. The writer needs the kind of fresh experience that comes from innocence, and the kind of information that the educated imagination alone can provide. The writer is ingénue and worldly sage, both.


FullSizeRenderBonnie Friedman is the author of the books Writing Past Dark: Envy, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life (HarperCollins), The Thief of Happiness (Beacon), and, most recently, Surrendering Oz: A Life in Essays (Etruscan), which was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein Award in the Art of the Essay.  Her work has appeared in The Best American Movie Writing, The Best Writing on Writing, and The Best Buddhist Writing.


Lux City Living

by Donald Morrill

A stump endures beneath the floor of my screened porch in Tampa, Florida—of an oak cut down when this row of bungalows was put up nearly a century ago. I didn’t learn of it until last year, when David, the pest control man, crawled there and soaked it with creosote and other poisons to beat back the termites whose vast galleries rummage far below this old end of town. The stump and termite join my growing roster of tutors on the topic of how much lies unknown so near beside, above, within—and after only twenty-five years writing out here on this porch, in plein-air, at some hour nearly every day. Twenty-five years I didn’t intend, really, with the ospreys cruising up from the pond adjacent to the expressway . . . and the anoles—migrants from the Caribbean in the 1930’s—dashing across the sidewalks, always in the same direction, from the street-side grass to the interior lawn . . . and the white powdery noonday light of midsummer . . . and the rainy season making our street a gondola-road each afternoon, the run-off sluicing from roofs as though the tiles were melting. Decades gone from my first home-place in Iowa (all changed now but in a few minds) I have become a native of this porch. And like the prose I love and strive to emulate, it has become an instrument of awareness, observation, contact, a layering of memory and artifact. It’s become a point through which ever more accumulating lines pass concurrently. Take that temporary meadow across the street, for instance, blooming scruffy and spiny white behind the sign with townhouse illustration announcing Lux City Living (starting in the $600k). A year ago a Spanish Med stood there—built the same year as our house. Dissipated Ambler lived in it; before him, Derrick and David (who sold children’s clothes on the net) and before them, Emily and her piano tuner boyfriend. And others. Others all around. They lived in it, in what has vanished. They will also live in the vanishing to come. It’s the only fact left to them, of them. How can that be? Yet another tutor about the near and nearly unknown, Robert Francis, in his great poem “Juniper,” gets at the luck in it. Of the berry of that tree, he writes:

Its colors are the metals: tarnished bronze
And copper, violet of tarnished silver,
And if you turn it, white aluminum.
So many colors in so dull a green
And I so many years before I saw them.

I see those colors now, and far, far more
Than color. I see all that we have in common
Here where we live together on this hill.
And what I hope for is for more in common.


Morrill Author Photo JPG copy - Version 2_face0 copyDonald Morrill is the author of the nonfiction volumes Impetuous Sleeper, The Untouched Minutes (River Teeth Nonfiction Prize), Sounding for Cool, and A Stranger’s Neighborhood, as well as three collections of poetry (among them Awaiting Your Impossibilities, a 2016 Florida Book Award recipient). His debut novel Beaut won the Lee Smith Fiction Prize and was published in 2018 by Blair. He has been the Bedell Visiting Writer in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and Writer-in-residence at the Poetry Center at Smith. Currently he teaches in the Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at the University of Tampa.

The Winter Rain of the Poets: A Report from Civita di Bagnoregio and The Bronx

by Judith Baumel

“You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall.” With resignation, I note this power of God during my everyday prayers in Civita. Shakespeare, too, comes to mind every day. “With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, . . . the rain it raineth every day. “

Civita, the city that dies, is the remnant of an Etruscan and then medieval Cathedral town north of Rome. It is built on volcanic material that crumbles and landslides nearly every day and, despite the intervention of modern geologists and engineers, still cracks and breaks in response to earthquakes. I am here alone, a guest of the Civita Institute founded by Astra Zarina and Tony Heywood in the town they helped revive. I believe that Tony is the only other person who sleeps in town on a regular basis though some of the weekend people and some of the owners of B&Bs keep their lights on at night which arrives early in January.

From the first day of winter, we all know, spring is always on its way. Here, the almond trees bud and bloom. I visit them when I can.

And when the downpour doesn’t stop, I am indoors reading an amateur memoir called “In the Heart of Civita: Memories of a Lost Civilization.” Vilma Catarcione is my mother’s age, which is to say, she was a teen ager during WWII. Catarcione’s stories remind me of my mother’s. They match piquant wit to an observant eye. At the end, Catarcione includes a chapter in dialect she calls “Various Sayings and Nonsense.” I love the phrase for nonsense: “Ninne-Nanne,” an onomatopoeia that is instantly comprehensible and suggests, tentatively, the Yiddish “Bubbe meises.” Some of the dialect is slow going for me, but pian, piano I’m getting it. And I try my hand at rough translation. This one leaps out to my wet self:

Pe’ piova e pe’ caca’ nun bisogna Dio prega.
For shit or for rain, to God we needn’t pray.

As does this other, for a different reason, alas:

Un fijo e’ uno spasso
dui so’ ‘na frulla,
tre, quattro fanno fracasso,
cinque, sei fanno ‘r ghetto dell’ebrei.

One son is fun
two are a spin
three and four make a din,
five and six turn your home, O, into a Jewish ghetto.

There were never Jews in Civita but 30 miles up the road, in another tufo city sits the Jerusalem of Italy, Pitigliano’s now-emptied ghetto. You can visit a recently spiffed-up synagogue, no longer used, and a small museum. Below the synagogue and carved from the tufo is a complex of rooms that include what was once a kosher winery, kosher butcher, matzah bakery and oven, ritual baths, a dye-works and a tannery. At its largest the Jewish community made up 20% of Pitigliano’s citizenry. Once they relied on and supported these institutions that are now relics and hypotheticals.

I am sitting at the big kitchen table in Il Nuovo apartment of the Civita Institute. Beside me in the fireplace is a vase of laurel branches I collected as the gardeners pruned next door. I’m reading An Infant In The Storm: Memories of a Child in Pitigliano during the Racial Laws by Ariel Paggi. A hail storm comes in. The hailstones are so small I can only see them if I squint. They make a tinkling on the roof-tiles like a rain stick or a bead curtain. At first I don’t notice. I am deep in the grotto which gentile friends carved when they could no longer shelter the Paggi family in a farmhouse basement.

It’s early 2018. The confusions and betrayals of the Fascist era become ever more pressing to me. Pressing and distressing. Enlightening and disabling. So many people in the States are declaring “This is how Fascism starts.” For the young Paggi and Cartarcione, Fascism started like the weather. Which you can’t do anything about. The hail begins and you don’t notice until your toes are wet or the streets are white with hoar. And then the Racial Laws and then Fake News and Alternative Facts and False Facts and Self Censorship come so much into the mix you don’t exactly know how to follow the conversation. You don’t know what your neighbor is doing or thinking. To whom she is talking or to whom you should talk. Speaking the truth falls to the poets who sharpen every word and demand a divorce from easy language.

Ariel Paggi writes about one of his Jewish neighbors. Well into the German occupation, when the Jews of the area were in one kind of hiding or another, a community leader, Tranquillo Servi, belatedly following official orders, presented himself and family to the local internment camp. They were released in a month and they subsequently went about encouraging everyone do the same. To follow suit or not was the open debate throughout the winter in the Paggi family’s cave. It was December, it was dark, they were wet, they were cold. They were tempted but they did not leave by choice. They were eventually deported, survived, returned but didn’t live in Pitigliano much longer. In middle age Paggi researched the background of the Servi episode. Paggi is withering in his assessment of what Servi, the Fascist Jew, did to save his own family and the devastation he brought to those who took his advice.

American Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reminds us that “Poetry is not the language we live in. It’s not the language of our obligation-fulfilling, not the language with which we are asked to justify ourselves to the outside world.” “Poetry,” she says, “frees us from the tyranny of literal meaning and assures us of the credible reality of emotional truth.”

And this explains why the steady, clear-toned memoir An Infant In The Storm is most moving when the workaday prose won’t suffice and it yields to the poetry and prayers and songs which broke through the violent weather of that time.

Candelora is the original Groundhog Day. Is winter almost over? Depends on whether there is wind, rain or snow on the Feast of Candlemas. And depends on where you are. Different dialect versions of the same proverb assert opposite conclusions. We have the same weather as Maria Luisa Venti up north a bit in Umbria where Perugians say: La Madonna candelora dell’inverno semo fora, ma se piove e tira vento dell’inverno semo dentro (By Candelmas morn, winter is gone but if there’s rain and wind, winter we’re still in). Conversely, Civitans say Per la santa Candelora se nevica o se pioa dell’inverno semo fora (On Candelmas raining or snowing means winter is going).

I think the point of all weather proverbs is to train us to look carefully. They don’t predict but they prescribe. Sometimes we find what we want to see. And sometimes we squint into the weather for some bit of bracing truth. Strongmen who call the press the enemy of the people use this disconnect between words and weather to sever causality. It’s always something. It’s part of God’s great mixed up universe. As the weather wasn’t created by any individual, so the violence under which we suffer is just the weather of bad politics.

Civita’s Chiesa San Donato holds mass only on Sunday mornings and special occasions. On Candelora afternoon five people are in the pews. The sexton; Rosanna, the woman in charge of the presepio which I’m to help dismantle on Candelora; Rosanna’s husband; me; and a young photographer from Milan who is photographing the meager service in the town that is dying. I’m holding the mass card of a dear friend’s child who died in a car crash years ago. The winter of that loss has never left me. Don Luca agrees to say mass for Steven on his birthday, this Sunday. Our long-burning now-blessed candles flicker through the indoor fog. Rosanna and I set them on the altar’s candelabra and collect wooden sheep and donkeys to pack away for next year.

When I’m alone, things that go bump in the daytime woods, things that crack, things that whistle and whoosh, things that huff and rustle terrify me. I imagine the worst and the worst for me are human predators. I imagine the madmen, the Misfit, Cropsey, even just a kid out to steal my iPhone. Yeah, it’s plausible to me that there could be a larcenous kid waiting out in the chestnut groves of Bagnoregio. I’m a city girl at heart. I don’t feel so vulnerable out at night in NYC as I do in “the woods” anywhere any time. Tramping through ankle deep mud I come upon a collapsed house. A bathtub is outside up the trail a bit. And further, a roll of barbed wire and nylon rope. My mind goes crazy. What lunatic violent squatter hermit is lurking in the rubble? No Saint Francis for sure, though the good church father is said to have spent a winter nearby in a cave beneath Bangoregio and saved the young Giovanni Fidanza. This child became the theologian and fiction writer Saint Bonaventura. Bonaventure wrote the first narrative of Francis and set about destroying whatever documentary evidence contradicted his story. Mud or no, unsettling objects or no, I am stalking a good view of the sun setting on a particular rock outcropping called the “Gothic Cathedral.” So I summon all my bravery and march on. I live to tell the tale, of course, though in bed I think I see a hand hook hanging from a far ceiling beam. And I recall Czesław Miłosz’s words in “Ars Poetica” as translated by Lillian Vallee

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

This Pole saw what happens when violent speech causes violent acts. Saw what happens when dog whistle speech calls back the ancestors, our invisible guests, the good ones and the ones we thought we’d buried and forgotten. Our polity is an open house with no keys in the doors.

The mud puddles in the square are coated with ice this morning. By afternoon I find a harbinger of spring. A lone ginestra blossom along the donkey path. Ginestra would be on my flag of Italy and on my coat of arms if anyone ever asked to me design such things. Ginestra means Italy to me. It means Umbria to me. In my first book I published a poem in direct conversation with the Romantic poet Leopardi and his great and grand and definitive poem “Ginestra.” In December I got to talk about some of this with Maria Luisa’s students. They were like high school kids everywhere. Some had heard of their country’s second most important poet and some had not. Even the students who had heard of Leopardi had not read him. In my horrid American accent I quoted him. I doubt that my performance encouraged anyone to go to the Canti. But maybe my passion did. Poets are the only ambassadors for poetry. I kept telling those open-faced teens that poetry matters because it calls our attention to words. Poetry demands that we go beyond slogans and beneath the superficial promises of the public square. Poets write nationalism for what it is, as Leopardi does, early in “Ginestra”:

See your reflection here,
O proud and foolish age
Who stumbling backward
Trumpet your retrogression as a gain.
Your maunderings have made
The brilliant (if unlucky) gather round,
Like children smiling to a father’s face
And muttering to his back….
The thought which helped us rise from barbarism,
Alone encourages civility,
And guides us better in our general life.
You did not like the truth.  (Ottavio Mark Casale, trans.)

Poets ask “what is it like?” Metaphor is our medium. So because we are the best ambassadors for poetry we are also the best ambassadors for peace, justice, wildness, resistance, beauty and, yeah, truth.

Fog. Civita Fog. A horse or a cat of a different color. The lightest of drizzle when I wake up but I can see the wall a meter from my window. Gradually I realize there is no more rain but also nothing whatsoever visible from my window. In the street I only make out general outlines of familiar buildings. I walk toward the bridge. Immediately exiting the Porta Maria, the fog is so thick I can’t see ahead or beside or behind. It feels like a long ago November trip during which there had been Acqua Alta in Venice and so much fog in Ravenna I couldn’t see my own hand while inside Galla Placida. I stumbled toward Dante’s tomb feeling like a ghost ready to meet another. The political fog through which Dante cut clear words hovering still over his permanent exile.

There are Guelfs and there are Ghibellines and, further, there are White Guelfs and there are Black Guelfs. If you can’t get this straight, you can’t really get Dante straight. I confess I struggle. Still, there are dire consequences if you don’t get your words straight.

The main gate in Civita was built by the Etruscans and the lower part still has their big tufo blocks. The arch was restructured in the late middle ages and again in the renaissance with a protective fortress above it. Two matching bas reliefs flank the gate. Some writers claim that the reliefs are originally Etruscan. Some writers claim that the iconography represents the triumph of the forces of nature over mankind. Etruscans already suffered the worrying landslides and building collapses that are still going on today. And they already used the decorative basaltina stone which is still quarried nearby. Most writers, however, believe the bas reliefs celebrate the victory of Civita over the Monaldeschi family of Orvieto. The Monaldeschi were Guelphs and they controlled Civita to keep it out of the hands of the Ghibellines of Viterbo. In 1457 Civita, “tired and exasperated,” according to a text I found in the Landslide Museum, rebelled and destroyed the castle of Cervara, home of the Monaldeschi. That’s what the human heads within rampant lion paws are supposed to remind us of. At the center of the arch, threatening above both lions, is a single bas relief of an eagle grasping the head of a lion. Just so you know before whom you stand.

All this predates the decisive earthquake of 1695. Much of the ground on which the town was built disappeared. Deemed unsafe, the Cathedral was demoted to an ordinary church. Most everyone including the clergy were evacuated to the outlying area that is now the dominant town of Bagnoregio. Some stragglers returned and stayed and had children and grandchildren and so on. But pieces kept breaking off. Over the years St. Bonaventure’s house which had become a small church in 1524 fell into the valley. The southern gate collapsed. Poets remember and wait. They sharpen their language and they insist. Civita’s most famous epithet, “the dying town,” comes from the writing of native son Bonaventura Tecchi in his 1928 collection The Wind Between the Houses.

I wish that among the little statues and household gods on the fireplace mantel in the Institute’s library were a bust of Dante. You probably guess why I want Dante to hover over me as I read and write. How can I not? His genius provides infinite inspiration. And, as his writing is a compendium of landscape and character sketches of greater Italy, he often functions as a Baedeker. You may wonder, as I do, if the poet of The Divine Comedy therefore provides us a few lines about Civita. The answer: About Civita only the most modest fact: it is Bonaventura’s birthplace.

Dante has a lot to say about the spiritual value of this landscape in which St. Francis laid hands on his biographer Bonaventure. Dante tells this story in his characteristic sly and teasing way. Bonaventura of Bagnoregio is in the circle of the sun in Paradise. The saint speaks from a ring of moving musical lights to tell Dante the story of Saint Dominic, as, in the matching previous canto, St. Thomas tells the story of St Francis. Dante switches biographers and their subjects to emphasize the match between the foundations of the religious orders they founded (Franciscan and Dominican). At first, it feels like a strain to have the gentle Francis made a soldier of Christ. After a while, Dante’s exhortation becomes clear. For Dante-the-poet, military, imperial and political fighting are metaphors on the way to the highest spiritual end.

It is late 2018. I’m home now amidst the verbal earthquakes and landslides of America’s president. Lock her up. Build the Wall. Murderers and Rapists. Knock the crap out of him. Every day Trump and his enablers send out minor temblors and landslides. I write at the end of a week in which pipe bombs were sent to critics of the president, two black people were killed in a Kentucky Krogers parking lot and a Pittsburgh synagogue endured the massacre of 11 people at prayer. Some of us are required to reject, again, after so many previous rejections, the rhetoric that “good people with guns” are needed to combat the “evil people with guns.” I can’t believe there are still people in this country who don’t see the link between mass shootings and assault rifles. But there are. To them I say, automatic guns do not belong in schools and places of worship and post offices and factories or any public space. He’s not my president and I won’t live his atmospheric violence. Today I enlisted in Dante’s and Leopardi’s army. I’m a warrior for peace.


Baumel Judith Baumel is the author of three books of poetry: The Kangaroo Girl (GenPop books, 2011), Now (University of Miami Press, 1996), and The Weight of Numbers (Wesleyan University Press, 1988), for which she won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. She has published poetry, translations, and essays in Poetry, The Yale Review, AGNI, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. A former director of the Poetry Society of America, she is associate professor of English and was founding director of the Creative Writing Program at Adelphi University. Her website is http://www.judithbaumel.com.

The Light of Homer

(for Peter Manning, teacher and mentor)

by Josh Gidding

“…and down from the high heavens
bursts the boundless bright air…”

Autumn comes around again, like a familiar old taskmaster no longer to be avoided, but full of old memories, and not entirely unwelcome after the summer has run its course; and with the change of season, thoughts of Homer arise. I believe it has to do with the quality of light at this time of year. The weakening, goldening light of October, always a little ceremonial, elegiac and antique—like the music of Elgar, which somehow puts me in the same frame of mind. The afternoon light, mote-filled and evocative, slanting in through the west windows, pouring over the bookcases, fixing the moment in the nostalgic mind. I think of the time—the fall of freshman year at Berkeley—when I first read The Iliad and then The Odyssey in their entirety, back to back. The full dose of riches. Those days of reading Homer (the Lattimore and Fitzgerald translations, respectively—still my favorites, after all these years) are imprinted in memory. They were days of strangeness, newness, and nervousness—the nervousness of being new at the university, and the strangeness of its impersonal, public vastness, so different from my elite private high school back east. And the beauty of October in Northern California only made it stranger: the mockery of the California sunshine falling on my sadness—the congenital mild depression I have always carried with me, but didn’t know enough then to name.

It may seem odd that the idealized, romanticized vision I have now of the kind of light that goes along with reading (and later teaching) Homer should be connected with a poem—The Iliad is the one I have in mind here—that is so far from romanticizing or idealizing anything. The world of The Iliad is a world severely stark and unillusioned. Consider the scene from Book XXI, where Achilles kills Lycaon, a young Trojan warrior who has just begged him for mercy:

“So friend, you die also. Why all this clamour about it?
…Even I have also my death and my strong destiny,
and there shall be a dawn or an afternoon or a noontime
when some man in the fighting will take the life from me also…”
…Achilles drawing his sharp sword struck him
beside the neck at the collar-bone, and the double-edged sword
plunged full length inside. He dropped to the ground face downward,
and lay at length, and the black blood flowed, and the ground was
soaked with it. (Lattimore translation)

What is especially noteworthy about this passage, as critics like Simone Weil and George Steiner have pointed out, is the implacable, matter-of-fact vision of fate conveyed, by both speaker and narrator. The title of Weil’s famous essay is “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force”—“force on loan from fate,” as she puts it; and both the force and the sense of fate behind it take on a quality of the sublime. Something supremely austere is at work here, remote and untouchable: “…and red death came flooding down his eyes,/and the strong force of fate” (Fagles translation). The purity of this austerity may be what Matthew Arnold was getting at in “On Translating Homer,” when he described him as “the clearest-souled of poets.” And the graphic nature of the carnage takes nothing away from the austerity—as when Patroclus, soon to die himself at the hands of Hector, brains the charioteer Cebriones with a rock:

The sharp stone crushed both brows, the skull caved in
and both eyes burst from their sockets, dropping down
in the dust before his feet as the reinsman vaulted,
plunging off his well-wrought car like a diver—
Cebriones’ life breath left his bones behind
and you taunted his corpse, Patroclus O my rider….
(Fagles translation)

Here Patroclus behaves like a cold-hearted killer; yet this recognition doesn’t keep the poet from addressing him with a personal epithet that, formulaic though it is, also conveys a sense of attachment to the character. Homer does something similar near the bloody climax of The Odyssey, where he addresses Odysseus’ loyal servant Eumaeus several times as “O my swineherd”—a homely locution I have always loved for its incongruous mixture of humbleness and nobility.

The homely and the grand sit comfortably together in Homer. In the climactic scene of The Iliad, Achilles chases the doomed Hector several times around the outskirts of the city—past the wild fig tree, and the Trojan lookout point, and the wagon trail, and the hot-and-cold springs where the Trojan women did their washing before the war came: homely locales all. But then the poetic register shifts gracefully from the familiar back to the heroic:

Past these they raced, one escaping, one in pursuit
and the one who fled was great but the one pursuing
greater, even greater—their pace mounting in speed
since both men strove, not for a sacrificial beast
or oxhide trophy, prizes runners fight for, no,
they raced for the life of Hector breaker of horses.
(Fagles translation)

The understatement of this last line is breathtaking, and anticipates the quiet, sublime simplicity of the very last line of the poem: “And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

In The Iliad there is room for all things under the sun: war, with its occasional peaceful moments; grandeur, and sometimes homeliness; darkness and red death; and also—remembering Arnold here—sweetness and light. Yet the resolutely austere, clear light in which the great events of the poem unfold is also—for me at least—of a piece with the more homely light in which I have always read it, and will continue to read it: the waning light of October, with its intimations of mortality, its many memories of schooldays past, and its anticipation of schooldays yet to come. Fewer, these, without a doubt, but still sweet, if it please the gods.


good jojay photo copyJosh Gidding is the author of Failure: An Autobiography (Cyan Books, 2007).  He has previously published two essays in AGNI: “On Not Being Proust: A Study in Literary failure” (Spring 2008), which was listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays 2009, and “On the Desire for Future Biographers” (AGNI Blog, April 10, 2017).  He lives in Seattle, and teaches writing at Highline College.

On Bibliodiversity

by Sydney Lea

I am no theorist, nor even a man who thinks well about philosophy, politics, or social policy in their broader avatars. My testimony, then, is only that of a writer devoted for the most part to ‘minor’ genres.

There I stood at the top of a small local mountain in rural Vermont, where I live, the snow deep, brilliant, crossed only by tracks of deer and coyote. I was 74 years old, and had just sold my thirteenth book of poems to an independent publisher, its editor/director the most sensitive and competent I’ve known.

There was some satisfaction in that, but just then another project announced itself to me: a book of essays on certain people and landscapes of Vermont, and of a place in remote Maine where my family has had a fishing camp for four generations.

Many of those people would be well over a hundred if they still lived, men and women so attuned to their backwoods environments that in memory I still find it hard to tell in their cases where human nature ends and actual nature takes over.

Their culture and particularly their narrative skills have all but disappeared now, none of them left a written account of those lives and times, yet they had meant so much to me as man and artist that I felt I owed them a tribute.

An evil voice asked, Who will publish a book like that?

A better voice replied, It’s what you want to write, so write it!

As it happens, a certain small New York house has since that morning published the book in question. This is a ‘niche’ publisher, one that caters to readers with similar enthusiasms to mine—canoeing, fishing, hiking, hunting. There appear to be enough of those readers that the house can survive on sales alone.

To most publishers of poetry, non-academic literary criticism, personal essay and short fiction, however, government support is increasingly crucial, and here’s the rub: the American hagiography of—The Market. Despite the fact that unfettered U.S. capitalism lately produced disastrous effects at home and worldwide, an article of Market Faith is that if it sells in plenty, then it must be valuable. (By that measure, of course, we should have everything to say about bear-baiting in Elizabethan England, and little about—oh, I don’t know: King Lear?) Recent efforts, especially from the Republican party, to stifle the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, crucial supporters of work that does not meet the market standard of value, are therefore unrelenting.

Given the Latin etymology of the word, with its emphases on saving and together, it strikes me as bizarre that the congregants in this faith regard themselves as “conservatives.”

As I stood on my snowy eminence, I remembered doing so on other hills when I lived just a bit farther south. From there, my prospect today would be onto out-of-scale new houses…or else much older ones, lived in by single families for generation upon generation but now belonging to relocated suburbanites, who have entirely altered them and their surroundings. These newcomers seem oddly intent on transforming what they fled to into what they fled from.

In a word, downriver from me a demographic revolution has occurred, native families—the ones so brilliantly limned by Robert Frost—forced out, consumerist culture imported, along with such notions as that no real town can endure without a five star restaurant, and so on.

This is conservatism, this sundering of community and tradition?

A warning about the extinction of upper New England’s hill people may have less glamor than an elegy on the indigenous people, say, of the Amazon basin; and yet the juggernaut of The Market and of Globalization is assaultive of both.

Where am I going with such apparent divagation? Well, the social transmogrification to which I’ve alluded in Frost’s territory (and in the Latin-American rain forest) makes a lot of money for certain non-local entrepreneurs. Similarly, if one looks at the best seller list of the NY Times, one finds it dominated by what we call page-turners, books that have scant regard for felicities of style or intricacy of narrative but seek, in effect, to ape the pace, dazzle and formulaic quality of television, film, and now the so-called social networks and video games—in a word, books which, to the delight of large interests, sell in a hurry and in large numbers. As with real estate, what makes the most money becomes what’s most important.

And yet some of us keep insisting on writing and reading the “minor” genres, on the related urgency of language both precise and lyrical; we go on living, at least metaphorically, in precious and vulnerable little houses, which may be razed or ‘refashioned’ when the global market’s juggernaut reaches them, as surely it must.

With respect to writers and readers of American poetry, for example, these little houses have been and become more and more the sort of little publishing houses that I have stuck with throughout my long career—with one disastrous exception: I once sold a collection of poems to a big New York house, whose parent company, I subsequently learned, had only eight per cent of its assets in publishing as we once knew it; the corporation, or so I was told by my excellent editor there, actually had much more invested in food for pets than in poets.

My book sold well by my measure…but not nearly well enough to avoid rather quick consignment to a shredder; the pages I’d labored on were then turned into paper towel (another of the company’s investments). That fine editor got fired, precisely for taking too many books like mine. The executive officers wanted an 18 percent return, and neither I nor my poetic fellows would be contributing much to that.

I’ve never had such an experience with a small press…and yet, as I have hinted, these presses are heavily dependent on financial support not only from individuals of means but also from state and federal governments. It’s not hard to imagine what may become of them if the dismantlers of such support for the arts prevail.

Of course it behooves these publishers, along with their writers and readers, to pressure political representatives for support of our less commercially viable arts all over the world. But I suspect, to make an analogy, that, if my remark about bear-baiting and Shakespeare holds, so today the poet, the essayist, the short fictionist all appeal to constituencies whose political power is paltry when stacked up against The Market or Globalization or—what is for us the same thing—the producers of those page-turners.

Do I sound like a pessimist? I am.

Now it may well be that our future lies in the world of cybernetics: online publishing, electronic books, Google, what have you? I am all but innocent of that world, my own computer, for example, serving me solely as a very high quality typewriter and a machine for sending and receiving e-mail. So I can scarcely offer a cultivated opinion one way or another on such a matter. It does, though, feel to me that the cyberization of publishing is, in the end, another aspect of the market juggernaut I began by lamenting. No time to slow down and prize an author for her creative and intellectual endowments: let’s just get her “stuff” out there, digest it as quickly as possible, then cast it aside.

I’m out of my depth here, yes. Still, I can’t help fretting that if literature’s future is dependent on rampant technology, whose greater harm or benefit to humanity has never been publicly debated in any serious way, and if I live long enough, I’ll miss the feel of an actual book in my hands, the capacity physically to turn its pages—back as well as forth—and will be restricted to fondling and savoring favorite old volumes as they regard me, melancholically, from their shelves. I already miss the tiny Woodsville Bookstore across the river in New Hampshire, from which I used to buy all my reading materials, and with whose cheerful and literate proprietor I shared tips on new authors; the likes of amazon.com and other Internet retailers forced such a shoestring operation into nonentity as if overnight.

As I stand and look out from any local promontory, it is all too easy to imagine an immense, garish and costly modern structure standing in the vista, like some grand Pulp Fiction House or Tech Leviathan looming over the crumbling small houses and shops of my actual, my metaphorical, my spiritual village.


author photo Big Falls_Sydney Lea, a former Pulitzer finalist, founded and for thirteen years edited the New England Review. His thirteenth collection of poems, Here, is due from Four Way Books in 2019. Likewise, in fall of 2018, Vermont’s Green Writers Press will publish The Music of What Happens: Lyric and Everyday Life, his collected newspaper columns from his years (2011-15) as Vermont Poet Laureate. In spring of ‘18, GWP has just re-issued his collaborative book of essays with former Delaware laureate Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Join Us to Celebrate AGNI 88!

JOIN US! Tuesday, October 30, 2018, at 7:00 p.m.

Join us to celebrate (3)Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave, Boston (Green Line B, Pleasant St.)

AGNI celebrates its EIGHTY-EIGHTH issue with readings by:

  • Maisy Card: Jamaican-born author of “The True Death of Abel Paisley” (AGNI Online)
  • George Scialabba“One of America’s best all-round intellects” (James Wood); author of the new essay collection Slouching toward Utopia
  • Willa CarrollAuthor of the new poetry collection Nerve Chorus
  • Ira Sadoff: Author of eight poetry collections and The Ira Sadoff Reader

Plus a performance of words-to-music by harpist/vocalist & composer Noelle Micarelli. Our release party follows. We’d love to see you there!


Listening: The Ethics of Translation

by David Ball

I spend most of my working time translating literature from French: fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. We literary translators suffer many indignities. Reviewers often ignore the translation altogether, as if they were reading a novel written in English. They may praise “the style” of a novel written in, say, Hungarian, whereas they’ve read the English version and what they’re praising is what the translator wrote to put it into English. Or they may praise a translation for its “smoothness.” But what if the original was not smooth at all? When translations are publicly evaluated, it is usually by people who don’t know the original language, or not very well, since those who know it well read the text in the original. Translation prizes are often given without considering the relationship between the original language and the English text. A novel in lyrical, rhythmic English may be given a prize by people who have no idea that the original was written in intentionally prosaic, gritty, non-lyrical Estonian. This is, of course, a worst-case scenario, but it is perfectly possible.

The year I was one of the judges for PEN’s translation prize, we gave it to Philip Gabriel’s translation of Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. I found the novel in English magnificent, but I wanted to know if it really rendered the Japanese, a language I do not read. I was told in no uncertain terms that this was not ALTA, where translations are first evaluated by people who know the source language, but PEN. Now, PEN is a great, worthy organization and I support it with all my heart and wallet. But the misunderstanding of what’s involved in translation, or rather, the ethics of translation—and by accomplished literary translators, no less! stuck in my craw. I went behind their backs and asked an acquaintance who taught Japanese at Berkeley to take a look at the original. He did, and reassured me. I voted for it and everyone else did, too. So PEN got it right–at least that time.

Literary translators need to render the connotations, the tone, the rhythms of the writer while sticking as close as possible to the denotative meaning. Getting that meaning is, as I implied above, part of the ethics of translation. It is part of the unwritten pact between translator and reader. But a literary text is, of course, far more than the simple meaning of its words: it produces a complex esthetic, emotional and intellectual effect on the reader. My goal is to produce a similar effect on readers of English to that which the original French text had on readers of French. I realize this statement is not without problems (which readers, for example?) but I think it’s what most working translators really try to do as they work, as distinguished from what they may say about translation after their work—especially if they’re academics.

Thus, when I translated Jean Guéhenno’s Diary of the Dark Years, the journal a prominent left-wing intellectual and teacher of French classics wrote under German Occupation, I tried to get the English equivalent of his literary, tightly controlled, often eloquent French, so unlike the telegraphic, casual style of most diaries. It is no accident that it was also unlike the vulgarity of the Vichy propaganda in the newspapers and magazines Guéhenno read every day. Deposition, the Occupation diary by the anarchistic novelist Léon Werth, is entirely different, though it has the same contempt for Vichy and hatred of the Nazis. Here I tried to render Werth’s varied, lively style and his terse, ironic, quips in equivalent English. Now I’m working on a collection by a surrealist poet who was officially “excommunicated” from Surrealism at the age of 22 and died from an infected needle at 36.

Producing something close to the effect of French poetry in English obliges the translator to negotiate between the denotative meaning and sound patterns, whether regular and rhymed or irregular and “free.” No sound pattern, no poetry. That’s the true part of Robert Frost’s over-quoted (and misquoted) dictum that poetry is what gets lost in translation: if the sound doesn’t work in English, the poetry disappears. But anyone who has read Ron Padgett’s recent translations of the French Modernist Guillaume Apollinaire, for example, knows that sometimes poetry does not get lost in translation. These English poems let you understand why the French rank Apollinaire with the great poets of their literature.

Rendering Roger Gilbert-Lecomte’s strong, sometimes wild voice in English has its own special problems, but I doubt if they would interest anyone but a fellow translator. That’s why going to ALTA, the conference of the American Literary Translators Association, has been such a pleasure for many years. At last, people who understand what we do! Women and men who are concerned about literary translation, who love it and talk about their practice, the problems involved and suggestions for the best way of handling them, practical advice about publishing, and so on. An added bonus is the non-stop bilingual translation sessions, where you can pop in and hear Chinese or Romanian poetry read in the original and in English any time you like while panels are going on elsewhere, like a three-ring circus. Since literary translation pays next to nothing except for the few folks who’ve managed to get a job translating bestsellers for big publishing houses, most of our members are academics whose day job is teaching at a college or university. MLA would be our natural conference. But I found early on that when you go to MLA, people talk about their latest book or article. At ALTA, you hear enthusiastic recommendations of new translations from literature all over the world, not necessarily their own translations. In MLA panels, they read lectures that one could more easily follow in print. Reading papers has always been discouraged at ALTA: we talk to our colleagues, not at them. Translators are trained listeners and readers, not lecturers; we listen to what the author says. No one reads a piece of writing more attentively than the translator, who weighs every word, every expression, every paragraph. We have to.

AGNI Monkey

davidDavid Ball’s latest translation is Léon Werth, Deposition 1940-1944: A Secret Diary of Life in Vichy France, which he also edited (Oxford University Press). His Diary of the Dark Years: 1940-1944 won the French-American Foundation’s 2014 translation prize in non-fiction (they do examine the original) and his Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology 1927-1984 (University of California Press) won MLA’s prize for literary translation in 1995. His own poetry has appeared in half a dozen chapbooks and many ephemeral magazines. He is Professor Emeritus of French and Comparative Literature at Smith College. See what he’s published in AGNI here.