Noah Webster’s civil war of words over American English

In the United States, the name Noah Webster (1758-1843) is synonymous with the word ‘dictionary’. But it is also synonymous with the idea of America, since his first unabridged American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828 when Webster was 70, blatantly stirred the young nation’s thirst for cultural independence from Britain.

Webster saw himself as a saviour of the American language who would rescue it from the corrupting influence of British English and prevent it from fragmenting into a multitude of dialects. But as a linguist and lexicographer, he quickly ran into trouble with critics, educators, the literati, legislators and much of the common reading public over the bizarre nature of his proposed language reforms. These spelling reforms – for example, wimmen for ‘women’, greeve for ‘grieve’, meen for ‘mean’ and bred for ‘bread’ – were all intended to simplify spelling by making it read the way that words were pronounced, yet they brought him the pain of ridicule for decades to come.

His definitions were regarded as his strong suit, but even they frequently rambled into essays, and many readers found them overly aligned with New England usage, to the point of distortion. Surfeited with a Christian reading of words, his religious or moral agenda also shaped many of his definitions into mini-sermons or moral lessons rather than serving as clarifications of meaning. A typical example is one of his expositions of purpose: ‘We believe the Supreme Being created intelligent beings for some benevolent and glorious purpose, and if so, how glorious and benevolent must be his purpose in the plan of redemption!’ Overall, his dictionary was prescriptive rather than descriptive, a violation, if you will, of a central tenet of lexicography that holds that dictionaries should record the way language is used, not the way the lexicographer thinks it should be used. 

Webster’s etymology, meanwhile, which he spent a decade dreaming up, was deeply flawed because of his ignorance of the exciting discoveries made by leading philologists in Europe about the evolution of Indo-European languages from roots such as Sanskrit. His etymologies conform entirely to the interpretation of words as presented in the Bible. He was convinced that ‘the primitive language of man’ spoken by the ‘descendants of Noah … must have been the original Chaldee’.

Webster fought his battles over language not within philology circles but within the larger context of an emerging American dialect (pejoratively dismissed by the British as provincialisms). He believed that increasing immigration, the multiplication of unique American words, the new meanings attaching to English words and the proliferation of slang – or, as the English saw it, vulgar and undisciplined language – made an American dictionary essential to American life.

New words came from several sources. Native Americans contributed wampum, moccasin, canoe, moose, toboggan and maize; from Mexico came hoosegow, stampede and cafeteria; from French, prairie and dime; meanwhile, cookie and landscape came from the Dutch. Existing words were combined to make new ones, for example rattlesnake, eggplant and bullfrog. Settlers of the West borrowed mesa and canyon from Spanish, and came up with robust words and expressions such as cahoots and kick the bucket. There were also entirely new words: gimmick, fudge, notify, currency, hindsight, graveyard, roundabout. Shakespearean and other Old World words returned: gotten (got), platter (plate), mad (angry). There were new spellings, too, a few of them of Webster’s own invention: some of those were preserved – specter (spectre) and  offense (offence) for example – but many more were mocked: wimmen (women), blud (blood), dawter (daughter). Idiomatic ‘tall talk’, as Daniel Boorstin called it in The Americans (1965)– the robust informality and ‘brash vitality’ often attacked by the British as vulgar Americanisms – thrived, especially out West: down-and-out, flat-footed, to affiliate, down-town, scrumptious and true-blue. Not surprisingly, the British worried that, one day, if this mushrooming of Americanisms continued, they would scarcely be able to understand Americans.

That didn’t happen. Because of high mobility and the blending of different cultures and backgrounds in the US, there were far fewer dialects or dramatically different pronunciations than in England, where isolation was more common in spite of the smallness of the country. 

The British thought that Samuel Johnson’s great Dictionary of the English Language (1755) would suffice for America as it did for Britain. Many Americans agreed, but many more wanted their own national dictionary to lend them a type of secular authority that was analogous to the spiritual authority of the Bible. But then there was the question of whose American dictionary would provide such an authority – which consideration instigated the ‘American dictionary wars’. Should Webster’s voice prevail, on behalf of the Americanising of English and the writing of dictionaries that would record such usage? Or would Webster’s great rival Joseph Emerson Worcester (1784-1865) with his more traditional, well-informed and solid scholarship triumph? Their conflict became America’s. What emerged in the country was an adversarial culture concerning language in which Americans fought each other in a civil war of words. It was also partly an ideological war, pitting various sectors of society – political, social, educational, religious – against each other over the direction that American English should take. 

Webster died before these wars were resolved, feeling that he had failed as a lexicographer (and a visionary), and disheartened by poor sales of his dictionaries. His legacy and eventual iconic standing was secured largely by his editors (chiefly Webster’s son-in-law Chauncey Allen Goodrich) and publishers (Charles and George Merriam) who began to remove most of his work from his dictionary while he was living, and continued the process over the 20 years following his death. The Merriams knew that Worcester was the superior lexicographer, but they recognised that Webster was more marketable because of his patriot credentials, so they dedicated themselves to cleaning up his dictionary and defeating Worcester in the marketplace.

Ultimately, the Merriams were the real winners in the American dictionary wars, having made a fortune from Webster’s name. Had Webster returned to see what had happened to his dictionary, he probably would have thought of himself as one of the big losers. Meanwhile, American English would pursue its own inevitable national development, with little help from him.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter Martin is the author of numerous books, including the acclaimed biographies Samuel Johnson and A Life of James Boswell. He has taught English literature in the United States and England and divides his time between West Sussex, England, and Spain.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Editor Ben Tate on his trip to Hay Festival

It’s the mother of all literary festivals, and since its establishment in the late 1980s virtually every living writer of consequence has attended. It was here that the late Christopher Hitchens promoted, in turn, both his atheist manifesto as well as his memoir, and it was here that Margaret Atwood appeared just last year for an extended discussion of A Handmaid’s Tale. In 2004 John Updike, before presenting one of his last novels, insisted upon arriving by train ‘because they don’t have trains in Massachusetts’, and famously, and rather awkwardly, Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul were reunited here in 2011 after their long estrangement. It was in 2000 that Gore Vidal made one of his last truly robust public appearances, amusing audiences with his impressions of Ronald Reagan and Spiro Agnew; and Bill Clinton, after peddling his own book here in 2001, referred to it as ‘the Woodstock of the Mind’, though he was thinking more of upstate New York than of West Oxfordshire. This is, of course, the Hay Festival, staged every May in the Welsh market town of Hay-on-Wye, which is perched along the River Wye, and not too far from the southern extension of Offa’s Dyke, the Anglo-Saxon earth wall which more or less demarcates England from Wales. But it’s not for the stunning countryside that the festival is held here. For many bibliophiles, Hay-on-Wye is the very centre of the known universe: it’s the ‘town of books’ for a reason, as there are more than 30 used bookshops tucked into its narrow streets. And it’s such a relatively small place that one could conclude a ratio of one bookshop for every resident.

I had made pilgrimages to the town in the past, primarily to buy books I never intended to read with money I never really had. Last month, however, I visited the actual festival for the first time. And what a spectacle. Although until a few years ago the festival was held literally in the town, it is now of such a magnitude that it’s staged in an open field on the outskirts, in what is really a self-contained city of tents and marquees, with two bookshops on the site and a food hall of overwhelming variety and quality. I was there with a purpose, specifically to see our author Marion Turner, whose new book, Chaucer: A European Life, has been acclaimed as nothing less than a literary milestone. It’s a biography which situates Chaucer within the broadest cultural, political, social, and intellectual context, and by predicating the narrative upon the places in which Chaucer is known to have lived and travelled the author has rendered the subject’s life and work into a tangibly concrete and complicated reality. With helpful instruction from our publicist Katie Lewis, herself an expert hand at Hay, my wife Ginny and I made our way to the festival green room, where we found Katie and author in mid-conversation, and mid-prosecco, just about an hour or so before the early afternoon event. The green room was exactly what one would want it to be. Cake, bubbly and coffee were in generous and complimentary supply, as were various British cultural celebrities: Jeanette Winterson was there chatting with friends before her event; Bettany Hughes, the popular ancient historian, breezed through on her way to a panel on reconciliation in time of conflict; BBC lion Melvyn Bragg was holding court, because he’s Melvyn Bragg and this is the sort of thing he does; and finally there was Stephen Fry, whose presence exerted a kind of gravitational pull on the rest of the room. I had to remind myself that I first knew him as Jeeves more than twenty-five years ago.

Marion was whisked away by a festival official for a debriefing, and then after a quick lunch Katie, my wife and I walked over to Llwyfan Cymru (Wales Stage) for the sold-out event. 800 people crammed under the marquee to hear Marion discuss the book with Jerry Brotton, a professor of Renaissance studies Queen Mary. Brotton was the perfect interlocutor: he never imposed himself upon the proceedings, and his questions were posed just frequently enough to move the conversation naturally from one subject to the next.  Marion, not surprisingly, was effortlessly lucid and engaging, distilling her considerable learning with a youthful and noticeably infectious enthusiasm.  Audience questions, including one from the former manager of Tower Bridge, carried on until the very last minute of the hour-and-a-half event before a throng queued up in the main festival bookshop to buy signed copies.

Princeton’s Hay experience this year extended well beyond Chaucer. Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, talked about the future, and more specifically his wonderful On the Future, and later in the week Jonathan Bate attracted a crowd of 1500 for his talk on How the Classics Made Shakespeare. It’s difficult to get one’s head round a festival like Hay. For more than a week, thousands of readers converge on muddy farmland to see authors both prominent and obscure and to listen, learn, eat, drink, talk and buy books. The scale of it overwhelms and reassures at the same time. We’re fortunate to publish authors who are invited to engage with the public at such an annual gathering, and more literally we’re fortunate to be positioned in such proximity to the ‘town of books’.

Princeton University Press Announces Participation in Art & Architecture ePortal

Princeton University Press (PUP) is delighted to announce our participation with the Art & Architecture ePortal, a dynamic online platform that offers individuals and institutions access to digital copies of backlist and out-of-print volumes from leading publishers and institutions. Ten PUP titles are now live on the site.

The portal was launched by Yale University Press in July 2018, with the aim of making a diversity of art historical books more widely available and easily discoverable, and is supported by funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

According to Michelle Komie, Art and Architecture Publisher at PUP, “We are so pleased to be partnering on this important scholarly initiative, which will greatly enhance access to critical scholarship in art and architectural history. This platform offers exceptional discoverability that has previously been unavailable for published work within these disciplines, especially highly illustrated works.”

In addition to PUP, participating publishers included The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Paul Mellon Centre; Harvard Art Museums; Harvard University Press; The MIT Press; Art Institute of Chicago; Yale University Art Gallery; and Yale University Press.

 

Justin Smith: If reason exists without deliberation, it cannot be uniquely human

Philosophers and cognitive scientists today generally comprehend the domain of reason as a certain power of making inferences, confined to the thoughts and actions of human beings alone. Like echolocation in bats or photosynthesis in plants, reason is an evolved power, but unlike these, the prevailing theory goes, it emerged exactly once in the history of evolution (porpoises and shrews also echolocate, cyanobacteria photosynthesise). Reason is exceedingly rare, a hapax legomenon of nature, and yet this rarity has led to a bind: when pushed to account for its origins, thinkers who champion reason’s human-exclusivity are forced to lean on supernaturalism, while those who contend that reason is a fundamentally natural property have then to concede that ‘lower’ lifeforms are capable of exercising it. The question is – how?  

Most philosophers and scientists who see reason as some sort of inferential ability involving abstract representations will allow that experiments with ‘higher’ animals can yield evidence of some low-level reason-like faculty: for example when apes hide stones in anticipation of future conflicts. But researchers almost always draw the lower limit for such ability in a way that excludes species whose behaviour is not observably similar to ours. The search for reason beyond the bounds of the human species always ends up as a search for beings that remind us of ourselves.

But what if reason is not so much an inferential ability, as simply the power to do the right thing in the right circumstances? Furthermore, what if this power flows automatically, from simply being the sort of creature one is? This is, more or less, the view of the 16th-century diplomat Girolamo Rorario, as captured in the title of his principal, posthumous treatise, That Brute Animals Make Better Use of Reason than Men (1654). Rorario is representative of a little-known but venerable tradition of thought, extending back to Plutarch, that not only holds that reason is natural, but insists that reason is very widespread in nature indeed.

Rorario’s core idea is that human deliberation – the period of hesitancy when we survey our various options and eventually select what appears to be the best of them – far from being an advantage over other beings, is in fact a mark of our inferiority. Animals and plants do not hesitate. They cut right to the chase and, to the extent that they do not examine alternative options in order to choose among them, they are in a sense incapable of being wrong.

This is not to say that they are never foiled, that gazelles always take a path in fleeing the lion that assures their escape, or that vines always creep in the direction that will give them the most sunlight. It is just that, when they are foiled, this cannot be because they failed in their deliberation, since they do not deliberate. And still they seem to be doing just fine for themselves, pursuing their species-specific ends.

Potentially, it’s not just living beings that fall under the scope of this alternative interpretation of reason as the power to move directly to action, rather than the power of making the correct inference. For everything in nature also just does what it does, simply and without deliberation, by virtue of the fact that everything in nature is bound by the same physical laws. Nature just keeps working smoothly. It never, ever breaks down.

Nature itself is a rational order, on this alternative view, both as a whole and in any of its subdomains. Reason is everywhere, with human reason being only an instantiation or reflection, within a very tiny subdomain, of the universal reason that informs the natural world. The regularities of the motions of the heavens (to speak with the ancients) or the laws governing the orbits of the planets (to speak with the moderns) are not there in place of reason. Rather, these regularities or laws are the reflection ‘out there’ in the world of what human thought is ‘in here’ inside our minds.

If such a view seems irretrievably prescientific, note that among the things we find out there in the world are not just natural systems such as galaxies and tidepools, but also artificial systems such as reckoning machines and smartphones. And unlike the attribution of rationality to animals, the idea that machines make better use of reason than men, first fashionable in the 17th century, is still taken very seriously now.

In the 1670s, the German polymath G W Leibniz expressed the sincere hope that machines might soon be able to take over the drudge work of calculation that we undertake when we do mathematics. He also anticipated that, some day soon, formalised natural language, perhaps processed by machines, might help two disputing parties, including diplomats representing warring states, to determine which side had the morally stronger position.

If we have been disappointed recently in our overreliance on algorithms to maintain social harmony, we are nonetheless prepared, for the most part, to see computer programs as, in some sense, ideally rational. And unless we are raving singularitarians, we do not concern ourselves so much with the question of whether the machines that run these programs are approaching self-awareness, the capacity to have qualia, or any of the other usual markers of subjecthood. For most of us, to say that a computer is rational is, as it was for Leibniz, simply to say that it is following down the right pathways for reasons that are predetermined in the program it is running.

But vines follow the right pathways when they move toward the sunlight too, and in the end computers, like plants, are made only of various combinations of minerals and chemical elements. So when we look at our reckoning machines and we detect an instance of reason, we might use this occasion to work our way back into that less familiar understanding of reason, according to which its instances are everywhere in nature.

In answering the where question of reason in this maximally broad way, we are able to preserve the naturalism that philosophy and cognitive science insist upon today, while dispensing with the human-exclusivity of reason. And all the better, since faith in the strange idea that reason appears exactly once in nature, in one particular species and nowhere else, seems, on reflection, to be itself a vestige of pre-scientific supernaturalism.

A basic insight of the scientific revolution had it that whatever is natural is unexceptional. As Leibniz expressed this idea, citing a line from his favourite comic opera: ‘Everywhere and always, it’s the same as it is here.’ We accepted this idea long ago as concerns physical laws. But terrestrial biology is now considered unexceptional too: most biologists today are inclined to believe that exoplanetary life is a statistical near-certainty. So perhaps it is also time to give up the idea of rationality as nature’s last remaining exception.

Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason (2019) by Justin E H Smith is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

Justin E H Smith  is professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris 7–Denis Diderot. His books include The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton). An editor at large of Cabinet Magazine, he also writes frequently for the New York TimesHarper’s Magazine, and other publications. Twitter @jehsmith

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Dora Malech: Poetic Influence and Poetic Constraint, Ex Post Facto

MalechThe last question in W. S. Merwin’s gnomic Q & A poem “Some Last Questions” is “Who are the compatriots.” In the process of writing my most recent collection, Stet: Poems (Princeton University Press, 2018), I found that question—who are the compatriots—running through my head again and again. I had embarked on a project of constrained poetry (poems engaged with form outside of the traditional parameters of rhyme and meter, in my case, through procedures of erasure, lipogram, and anagram in particular) without any clear sense of why I was drawn to these processes. It began intuitively, a “lonely impulse of delight” drawing my attention to the limited and recombinant, but I soon felt the seemingly arbitrary becoming necessary, even revelatory, for me. The more I reflected on my process, the more these forms directly spoke to and enacted the individual context out of which they arose—the change in my own life (interpersonal, geographical, embodied, and so on) a function not of the impossible “fresh start,” but of my metaphorical and literal pre-existing conditions. I could only write myself new by acknowledging what and who and where I already was; to that end, I begin the collection with an epigraph from Henri Cole’s poem “Anagram”: “Scrawling the letters of my name, I found and changed what I became.”

The collection foregrounds its influences (Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and Unica Zürn’s Hexentexte, for example)—writers and writings I sought out as I processed my process, attempting to find precedents and context for my formal constraints—but lately, I’ve been struck by the way in which the “project” of a book doesn’t end when the book itself ends. There’s some element of frequency illusion at play, sure, but now, in the wake of Stet, I find my compatriots everywhere—other contemporary poets working with anagrams, lipograms, abecedaries, and so on. Each time I read new (or new to me) contemporary work engaged with constrained form, I find myself attending to the why of form anew, and finding different answers in each poet’s work. Here at the end of poetry month, I wanted to celebrate the work of my compatriots, drawing up a short list of those who are keeping me company.

If you’re looking for contemporary anagrams, check out Mike Smith’s Multiverse, published by BlazeVOX books in 2010, and Kevin McFadden’s Hardscrabble, published by The University of Georgia Press in 2008. Both of these collections use the anagram to explore the making of identity, particularly focused on embedded lineage and American literary identity. Then there’s K. Silem Mohammad’s Sonnagrams 1-20, published by Slack Buddha Press in 2009. While these anagrams of Shakespeare’s sonnets seem to resist being taken too seriously, presenting themselves as more conceptual than lyric, I can’t help but find the actual language strangely compelling. The print version of the sonnagrams is now hard to access, but there are still plenty of individual sonnagrams floating around on the internet, which, while frustrating, seems a fitting fate for poems that came out of the Flarf movement. Kiki Petrosino’s Fort Red Border (Sarabande Books, 2009), its title an anagram of “Robert Redford,” uses this titular anagram as a kind of enactment of the imagining and reimagining (including the imagining and reimagining of an imagined relationship with “Robert Redford”) to be found therein. The use of the anagram in Jeffrey Pethybridge’s Striven, The Bright Treatise (Noemi Press, 2013) fascinates me in its ambivalence. In an interview with The Rumpus, he says:

[With] the anagrams, I think of them as a kind of linguistic materialism which works with the book’s engagement with the materialist psychology in contemporary psychiatry (brain chemistry) and the early modern materials psychology of humoral theory, so the poem refracts those ways of conceiving of human affect and cognition. And also, as a writer, the constraints and strictures sponsor creativity for me / they help me make the poem . . .

And one of the first pieces i made was “The New Humors(1),” which started when I was reading the word serotonin in the dictionary and saw the anagram no tin rose, which then immediately recalled Stein’s a rose is a rose is a rose. And then I was launched into a poem.

When asked to speak more about the connection between materialist psychology and anagrams, he writes:

[They] are two different intensifications of material: anagrams are a linguistic materialism—making a poem mostly out of the letters of a given word; and the focus on brain chemistry is a focus on the material body as the cause of suicide rather than in the mind, the psychological drama.

I’m fascinated by this uneasy relationship the book has with the reductive nature of the anagram – Pethybridge interrogates that reduction in terms of lived experience, while also letting its poetic constraints prove paradoxically productive.

Terrance Hayes’s “A Gram of &s” series in Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002) uses a kind of end-“rhyme” anagram form, based on a word game found in newspaper puzzles. Using the game’s specific constraints, each end word re-works letters of the poem’s title into new words, “Stupor” becoming “sour,” “sport,” and so on. This form interests me because it manages to foreground transpositions of sound alongside the visual.

I haven’t noted every single anagrammarian out there, but it should give some sense of who’s working with alphabetic transposition in poetry, and why. I’d love to move on to the lipogrammarians and the poets working with erasure and redaction now (Marwa Helal! Solmaz Sharif! Kristi Maxwell!), but I’ll adhere to the constraint of a blog post and wrap this celebration up before I hit 1000 words. I feel lucky to have found the compatriots on the page, and luckier still that I’m still discovering new ones. Happy reading, and Happy Poetry Month.

Dora Malech is the author of two previous books of poetry, Say So and Shore Ordered Ocean. Her poems have appeared in the New YorkerPoetryThe Best American Poetry, and many other publications. She is assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.

Poetry Editor Anne Savarese Celebrates National Poetry Month

National Poetry Month is the perfect occasion for us to celebrate the many poets we have been lucky enough to publish through the years in our two poetry series, both of which began in the early 1970s, and to spread the word about recent and forthcoming poetry collections.    

The Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, currently edited by Susan Stewart, is dedicated to publishing the best work of today’s emerging and established poets. Originality is one of its hallmarks, and its recent titles represent a range of forms and perspectives: Austin Smith’s reflections on the rural Midwest and contemporary America in Flyover Country; Dora Malech’s innovative wordplay in Stet; Myronn Hardy’s variety of voices and locales in Radioactive Starlings; and Miller Oberman’s combination of new work and Old English translations in The Unstill Ones.

Coming soon in the series are two books from established poets: Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2017, by Eleanor Wilner, who received the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry from the Poetry Society of America on April 18th, and The River Twice by Kathleen Graber, the first volume in nearly a decade from the author of The Eternal City (2010), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award.

Another poetry series at the Press, the Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation, provides a forum for first-rate literary work by translators of various backgrounds, working in a variety of modes. The series is deliberately eclectic, with notable titles ranging from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sharrard’s now-classic translations of George Seferis and C. P. Cavafy, to Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wisława Szymborska, translated by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire, to Peter Cole’s anthology The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492.

The most recent book in the series, Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004-2010, by the late Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély, translated by the award-winning Ottilie Mulzet, is the first selection of the three current series editors, Peter Cole, Richard Sieburth, and Rosanna Warren. This fall we will publish Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli, translated from the Italian by Taije Silverman with Marina Della Putta Johnston, and we look forward to new translations under way of poetry in Arabic, ancient Greek, and medieval Galician-Portuguese, among others.

We also salute the many venues that help poetry come alive on and off the page, from the Monday Night Poetry series at KGB Bar in New York’s East Village to The Slowdown podcast with Tracy K. Smith. Outstanding poets and translations await your discovery, in April and throughout the year.

 

Jonathan Bate on How the Classics Made Shakespeare

Ben Jonson famously accused Shakespeare of having “small Latin and less Greek.” But he was exaggerating. Shakespeare was steeped in the classics. Shaped by his grammar school education in Roman literature, history, and rhetoric, he moved to London, a city that modeled itself on ancient Rome. He worked in a theatrical profession that had inherited the conventions and forms of classical drama, and he read deeply in Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca. In a book of extraordinary range, acclaimed literary critic and biographer Jonathan Bate, one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare, offers groundbreaking insights into how, perhaps more than any other influence, the classics made Shakespeare the writer he became.

Is Shakespeare on par with the ancient Greek and Roman writers of the classics? What made him stand out, rather than his contemporaries?

Astonishingly, considering that the theatre was still a fairly disreputable profession in Shakespeare’s time, people began comparing his works to those of classical antiquity even in his lifetime. His poems were compared to those of Ovid, his comedies to Plautus and his tragedies to Seneca. A few years after his death, his fellow-dramatist Ben Jonson wrote a poem in his memory—it’s included in the First Folio—in which he claimed that Shakespeare’s plays actually surpassed those of the ancients. Given that Jonson himself was phenomenally learned in the classics, that was a striking claim indeed. It does immediately provoke the question: why has Shakespeare and not Jonson or any of the other fine dramatists of the Elizabethan age become our classic, the modern equivalent of Sophocles or Virgil? That’s a question I’ve explored in my earlier books on the history of Shakespeare’s posthumous reputation—I return to it in the final chapter of this book, where I look at the classical idea of “fame”—but the implicit answer I have found, in the several years it took to research and write How the Classics made Shakespeare, is that the sheer range of his work was unmatched by any contemporary. Jonson was more obviously compared to Horace, Spenser to Virgil and Bacon to Cicero, but Shakespeare seemed to combine the gifts of them all. Similarly, Marlowe was great in tragedy and Jonson in comedy, but Shakespeare was, as he wittily puts it himself in Hamlet, the master of every genre, “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.”

How important was it that Shakespeare’s audiences understand allusions to fables and myths? Did Elizabethan theatre-goers have greater cultural literacy than modern audiences at Shakespeare plays when it came to understanding these references?

This is a big theme—and an anxiety—in my book. You have to remember that Latin was the absolute core of the Elizabethan schoolroom curriculum. Grammar school meant Latin grammar, morning, noon and night. The history, literature, thought and culture of ancient Rome—and, to a lesser extent, Greece—was everywhere in education, in the Elizabethan frame of mind, even, I suggest, in the architecture and iconography of the city of London. The theatres themselves were designed on Roman models. This meant that anyone who was literate, and probably quite a few citizens who were not, would have known what Shakespeare was talking about when one of his characters mentioned Hercules or Julius Caesar or Lucrece or Adonis or Actaeon or Alcibiades and a hundred others. My anxiety is that with the decline in knowledge of classical literature, history and mythology, many such references now pass over the heads of playgoers and students. For example, I have a riff in the book that begins with an inscription on a funeral monument in a London church in the parish where Shakespeare lived and then goes into a reference to Jason and the Golden Fleece in The Merchant of Venice. Both the monument maker and the playwright clearly assumed that people would know that story—but not many of us know it now (though maybe it is handy that Disney has reanimated some of the old classical myths!).

In the book, you say that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights agreed that “a work was good not because it was original, but because it resembled an admired classical exemplar.” If there are only 7 basic plots under the sun, why do modern audiences and writers frown upon stories that aren’t “original” while also still appreciating Shakespeare for his ability to pay homage to the classics? 

I like to tell my students that they need to get the nineteenth-century Romantic idea of genius and originality out of their head when they think about how Shakespeare put his plays together. It’s better to find an analogy in the way that art students were trained for centuries: you begin by copying the works of the great masters—that is how you hone your technique— and then you start performing variations on classical themes. That is how you prove your ingenuity: by variation and embellishment, not starting with a blank canvas. My book grew from a series of lectures at the Warburg Institute in London: it was the Warburg scholars, such as E. H. Gombrich in whose memory the lectures were named, who did more than anyone else to help us to understand this Renaissance process of offering original re-presentations that engage in dialogue with what they called “the classical tradition.”

Plenty of people have accused Shakespeare of plagiarism, or of lacking sufficient training in Greek and Latin. What are some other common misconceptions about Shakespeare that you’d like to rebut?

These claims go back to Shakespeare’s own time and to the indignation of university-educated dramatists, such as Robert Greene (who called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”), upon witnessing the rapid rise to theatrical prominence of the man from the backwoods with only a grammar school education to his name. But we need to remember that the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon produced some real talent—one of the schoolmasters was a published author of Latin verse, while Shakespeare’s fellow pupil Richard Field became a distinguished printer of books in many languages. The danger of the misconception created by jealous writers such as Greene is that it leads all too easily to the idea that Shakespeare couldn’t have been educated enough to write the plays … and that leads to all those ridiculous authorship conspiracy theories. The classical learning in the plays precisely matches that of the grammar school curriculum, with some later reading added on (notably the English translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans). The poems and plays are emphatically not written in the very different styles that we find among university-educated dramatists, Inns of Court trained lawyers, let alone aristocrats.

Is there any classic tale that Shakespeare reimagined that has made a lasting impression on you? 

I guess the one that has most haunted me is his adaptation of Ovid’s story of how the artist Pygmalion made a statue of a woman that was so beautiful that he fell in love with it and the gods then brought it to life. That’s an allegory of the power of aesthetic delight and a very sexy story, but also a slightly seedy one in which the woman is merely the object of desire. What is beautiful about Shakespeare’s reimagining is that the statue is not some abstract notion of female beauty, but a once and once again beloved wife who has been abused by unfounded male sexual jealousy and is then given back, so that the husband has a second chance—I’m talking, of course, about Hermione and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, where the reanimation at the end is an allegory of the power of theatrical magic (achieved through distinctively female agency in the form of Paulina) and at the same time a triumph of love as opposed to an act of sexual desire. The whole question of eros and its relation to theatre and to magic is at the heart of my book.

In your opinion, are there any writers from the past century who drew upon the classics and/or Shakespearean plots and might stand the test of time like Shakespeare still does today?

There was no guarantee that it would be Shakespeare rather than some other dramatist who became our immortal, and by the same account it would be a fool’s game to guess who will and who will not endure from the last hundred years. What does strike me, though, is that the poets whom I find myself reading—as Ben Jonson said we should read Shakespeare—“again and again” all seem to have been steeped in the classics, fascinated by the old stories and adept at translating, imitating and remaking them. I am thinking, for example, of W. B. Yeats, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. They were the poets who, along with Shakespeare, were my first “classics” when I was a teenager and a student.

Jonathan Bate is Provost of Worcester College and professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College. His many books include Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare and an award-winning biography of Ted Hughes. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC, has been on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is the coeditor of The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works,

Austin Smith on Becoming a Poet

SmithBecause my father is a poet, I met many poets as a boy. They would come to Freeport, Illinois to read through a series curated by the poet and provocateur Kent Johnson, who taught Spanish at the community college: Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Forrest Gander, Michael Mott, Armand Schwerner, John Haines, Michael Heller. They would sometimes come out to our farmhouse for dinner. I vaguely recall those evenings, the warmth and laughter, the candlelight, the copious amount of eating and drinking. They were late nights, despite the fact that my dad had to be up at 4 to milk cows. The neighboring farmer, Colberg, would have seen Michael Mott walking down Winneshiek Road with a walking stick and a cape. My Dad still talks with him on the phone almost weekly. When Snyder visited, he told my Dad that he should teach the cows to meditate, so they wouldn’t need to be milked or fed for three days, and then he could come out West for a visit, and Snyder could show him his trees. It struck me even as a boy that being a poet was about more than merely writing poems (though there’s nothing “mere” about that): it was an entire livelihood, a way of being in the world. Were I to become a poet too, there would be friends to welcome come evening, books to exchange, good meals by candlelight, long walks in the morning, conversations that bordered on the theological. That has been more or less true. My best friends are the friends I have made through poetry. One becomes part of a larger family, composed of both the living and the dead. Indeed, sometimes the latter seem more present than the former.

The first time I heard my father read poems, at the art museum in town, I understood that there was a different register of language available to us. It was a similar register to the language I heard at Mass on Sunday mornings. Not long after learning of this register, I wrote my first couplet, in a notebook titled Poetrey (sic):

 

            The fire is burning hot.

            I can hear the hunter’s shot.

 

I can still recall how it felt to write this line, kneeling before the fire on an old woven oval rug that sparks from past fires had charred black divots in. I had built the fire. Now, by its light, I was writing of it. I was writing also of the sound of the hunters on the hill shooting geese. It was a lie: I couldn’t hear them in that moment (after all, who hunts at night?) and yet it was somehow still true. The domestic comfort of the fire was somehow connected to the firing of guns on the hill, and the rhyme of “hot” and “shot” proved that. Language, which had before seemed arbitrary, suddenly held within it an infinity of keys and locks. By using language in the right way, by fitting the right key to the right lock, a door could be opened that had never been opened before. One could enter a room that was being created as one entered it, like a room in a novel.

I started reading the books I found on the shelves, inclined towards the slimmest ones because they were certain to be poetry collections. I loved a short book of short poems by Merwin, Finding the Islands. And I loved also those New Directions volumes that Rexroth put together, One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. To read a poem was as much a visual experience as it was a mental one: the preponderance of white space compared to the black text, the cleanliness (usually) of the left margin versus the surflike shape of the right.

And I kept writing. Kent Johnson published my first poems in the literary journal he edited, The Prairie Wind. When Margaret Gibson came, I shared some poems with her. I remember how we stood in one corner of the living room, in lamplight. She must have thought, “What a strange, precocious boy.” I don’t know what I was asking for. Certainly not feedback on the poems themselves. Some kind of permission, perhaps. I wanted to know, as I still do, whether I’m allowed to live this life, which seems, despite its obvious financial difficulties, the only life I could ever have led: a life of books, friends, travel, meals in cities I would have no reason to visit were I not there for a reading, gossip, but mostly solitude, trying a thousand keys in the lock.

Austin Smith grew up on a family dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He is the author of a previous poetry collection, Almanac (Princeton), and his work has appeared in the New YorkerPoetryPloughshares, and many other publications. He teaches at Stanford University and lives in Oakland, California.

Marion Turner on Chaucer: A European Life

More than any other canonical English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer lived and worked at the centre of political life—yet his poems are anything but conventional. Edgy, complicated, and often dark, they reflect a conflicted world, and their astonishing diversity and innovative language earned Chaucer renown as the father of English literature. Marion Turner, however, reveals him as a great European writer and thinker. To understand his accomplishment, she reconstructs in unprecedented detail the cosmopolitan world of Chaucer’s adventurous life, focusing on the places and spaces that fired his imagination.

What compelled you to write a biography about Chaucer that focuses on place rather than chronological events in his life?  

I was trying to find a way to get under his skin. Although we have an extraordinary amount of information about Chaucer—mainly because he was a government servant, and records were meticulously kept—we don’t have personal letters, diaries, recollections, the kind of material biographers of more recent subjects can access. But I realised that I could get into his head—his imagination—by focusing on his environment: the art he saw, the streets he travelled, the kinds of buildings and structures he lived in. He had an extraordinarily adventurous life—travelling to multicultural communities in the Iberian peninsular, being taken prisoner and ransomed in the Hundred Years War, travelling at least twice to Italy, picking up manuscripts on the way, seeing slave markets in Genoa and the art of Giotto in Florence. Some of my chapters focus on actual places, such as Navarre, Vintry Ward in London, or Reims; others on more conceptual spaces such as Peripheries, Thresholds, and the Cage; and others on institutions such as the Inn, the Great Household, and the Abbey. For me, this structure enabled me to get inside Chaucer’s world, to think, for instance, about what it was like to live in a much more public way than we do now. And this structure also allowed me to follow particular themes and threads more organically than a strictly chronological structure would. At the same time, I am interested in the development of his imagination across time—in how he became the poet of the Canterbury Tales—so I did maintain a rough chronology, with the book divided into three parts that each span a phase of his life. One wonderful thing is that many of the places that mattered in Chaucer’s life can still be viewed today—the walls and Tower of London, for instance, or the medieval town of Olite in Navarre. I found tracing his footsteps to be profoundly important as I researched the book.

Why was writing a narrative poem in English so revolutionary in the 14th century? What was particularly challenging about that task, from a linguistic and stylistic standpoint?

People had been writing long poems in English before Chaucer, and indeed there is an unbroken tradition of poetry in English going back to Beowulf and even earlier. But it wasn’t a prestigious language in Chaucer’s day—the prestigious languages were French and Latin, and English was very much the poor relation. Then things started to change, and Chaucer was at the forefront of that change. In the second half of the fourteenth century, Chaucer was part of an upsurge in the production of texts in English—other poets, such as Gower, Langland and the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were also writing in English, religious writers including the female author Julian of Norwich were beginning to write texts, and English was increasingly used in government—for instance in the law courts.

Chaucer was an innovator in what he did with English. At this time, court poets were writing in French, and it was completely new to write a courtly love poem—these were called ditz amoureux—in English. When Chaucer wrote his first long poem, the Book of the Duchess, it was very much in the style of French poets, such as Machaut and Froissart. Chaucer then went into a kind of experimental frenzy—he developed all kinds of new verse forms, and really pushed the boundaries of what English poetry could do. Most notably, he invented the iambic pentameter—the ten syllable, five stress line that became the building block of English poetry, and was used by later poets such as Shakespeare. Chaucer had to borrow a lot of words from other languages, and invent new words, to expand what English could do. He even complains in one short poem about the scarcity of words in English. Indeed, he was so newfangled that he invented the word newfangled!

Clearly, Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most important figures in the English literary canon because of his myriad contributions to the language and the poetic form. Is there anything that readers might find surprising?

So many things. The idea of Chaucer as father of English literature came about after his death, in the fifteenth century, and has gathered momentum ever since then. But in many ways, it really misrepresents him, and makes people think of him as a rather establishment, patriarchal, national figure. One of the things that I want to get across in this book is that he was a great European figure—and that for Chaucer the idea that being English somehow meant not being European would have been crazy. His choice to write in English was very much inspired by what Italian poets (such as Dante and Boccaccio) had been doing—he was part of an international trend to focus on more accessible vernaculars, rather than prestigious, exclusive languages. His life was outward-facing—he travelled a great deal, was multilingual, and in London was living at the heart of global trade networks. You could buy spices from Indonesia in London in the fourteenth century, and Chaucer’s childhood ward had more immigrants living there than any other London ward.

And much of Chaucer’s writing is indeed focused on the importance of allowing different kinds of people to read and to tell stories. In contrast to his sources, when Chaucer wrote a tale-collection he ostentatiously made sure that the tellers were from myriad social groups, and refused to allow principles of hierarchy to dictate the order of the tales. Another great example is his dream poem, the House of Fame, a poem which attacks the idea of the canon, and emphasises that a poet or storyteller can’t only rely on old books—they have to go to the streets, listen to their neighbours’ gossip, find inspiration in life as well as libraries. Literature, for Chaucer, was dynamic and living, and that is one reason why it has survived so well and continues to inspire so many contemporary poets to make their own creations. He’d have loved that!

A particularly disturbing anecdote from the book reveals that Chaucer was very likely accused of raptus, or rape, though this is hotly contested by literary critics who hold that his treatment of female characters made him more sympathetic towards women in general. What does this shred of evidence mean for us as readers, when we’re forced to grapple with the overlap between an important writer’s public and private lives, or between their works of fiction and their reality? 

That’s such a difficult question, and it has many parts to it. I suppose the key question here is what is the relationship between life and works? It seems to me to be very dangerous to assume that because someone shows sympathy to women in their writings, or music, or films, they could not also be personally violent towards them. Whatever Chaucer, or Marlowe, or Ezra Pound did or thought does not, ultimately, affect my judgement of their art. And if we only read works written by people of whose opinions and actions we approved, we’ll certainly be intellectually impoverished. I do think there is a difference if we are talking about people such as Roman Polanski, or Michael Jackson, whose victims are still alive today—a difference in terms of our sensitivity towards and respect for those people. A separate question is whether Chaucer was indeed guilty of this accusation—and that remains an open question, which scholars are still debating, and which I do talk more about in the book. I’m also interested in many aspects of his relationships with women in this biography—in particular his daughter, whom no one has written about before, and his first employer, Elizabeth de Burgh, who dressed him in scandalously tight trousers when he was a teenage page.

What do you hope that readers take away from Chaucer? 

One of the mantras of the Canterbury Tales is ‘diverse men, diversely they said.’ In other words, different people have different opinions. Chaucer himself is profoundly interested in perspective, in the idea that what you see depends on where you are standing—both literally and metaphorically, That’s something that contemporary scientists and artists were interested in too, as men such as Oresme debated about the rotation of the earth, for instance. In the Tales, Chaucer shows us that the same tale can be told in contrasting ways by different tellers; that readers or listeners will interpret stories in varying ways; and that no one interpretation is final or authoritative. I hope that readers will be caught by surprise and interest when they read about the global medieval world, or about Chaucer’s preoccupation with imagining astral flight, or about Chaucer’s role looking after the king’s falcons, or about what it was like to be imprisoned in 1359, or about Chaucer’s journeys amongst Jewish and Muslims communities, to give a few examples. But mainly I hope that each reader finds something that fascinates them, something that maybe challenges a previously-held assumption or belief—but what that is might be different for each reader.

Marion Turner is associate professor of English at Jesus College, University of Oxford.

 

 

 

Justin Smith on Irrationality

It’s a story we can’t stop telling ourselves. Once, humans were benighted by superstition and irrationality, but then the Greeks invented reason. Later, the Enlightenment enshrined rationality as the supreme value. Discovering that reason is the defining feature of our species, we named ourselves the “rational animal.” But is this flattering story itself rational? In this sweeping account of irrationality from antiquity to today—from the fifth-century BC murder of Hippasus for revealing the existence of irrational numbers to the rise of Twitter mobs and the election of Donald Trump—Justin Smith says the evidence suggests the opposite. From sex and music to religion and war, irrationality makes up the greater part of human life and history.

What led you to write a book about irrationality?

I had long supposed that human thought and behavior have been a relatively static thing for the past 200,000 years, that there is a fairly narrow range of species-specific responses to the world around us, and that these are not going to fundamentally change until or unless we become a different sort of animal. The past few years have tested this long-held assumption. I came to feel that the world was going mad, that many people, including many I know and love, were now speaking and reasoning as if they had passed through to the other side of a looking-glass, or had come back from the other side, and were now communicating in a frenetic glossolalia or in pretend robot-voices. And it terrified me. I began to wonder whether this is not a normal process of disillusionment one can expect to go through at a certain stage of life, when the scales fall from our eyes and we realize that human beings have been bonkers all along and that society is just a flimsy tarp that camouflages this madness, or whether, instead, there really is something important about the present moment that is bringing the irrationality out, like methane from below the ice of the melting tundra. It seemed to me the best way to answer this question would be to investigate it historically, with a maximally sweeping view, attempting so to speak a genealogy of irrationality, one which reaches back into the past, but always with an eye to understanding the present. 

You say that irrationality is ineliminable from human life. Why do you think humans are so inherently irrational? Why doesn’t it seem to matter to us if there are facts that directly contradict our irrationally-held beliefs?

The point of emphasizing its ineliminability is that, again at least until we become a different sort of animal by evolution or by genetic engineering, harm to human beings will be reduced if we understand irrationality as something to be managed, in the way we manage our proneness to tooth decay and do not simply knock our teeth out and replace them with dentures, rather than as something to be obliterated, like polio or cancer. Historically, every attempt at structuring society in a perfectly rational way has been a folly, and has resulted in tremendous individual suffering, in part because the human beings made to endure such political projects remain exactly the same inwardly as humans in those societies that have found effective ways to manage all our dark impulses and unjustifiable but beautiful attachments rather than simply to suppress them. In this respect my argument is kind of boring in its centrism and its attachment to the golden mean, but it also discerns, I think, an important dialectical connection between the two poles in question: do not become too devoted to reason, or you will be pulled over into the opposite extreme. 

Can groups like LessWrong ever really eliminate irrational decision-making as it relates to artificial intelligence and business operations?

Of course not. As I say in the book, they’d be a lot better off just reading some Virgil or Shakespeare and not worrying so much about whether it’s helping them to better apply Bayesianism to their daily lives, rather than acting as if human flourishing is equivalent to making rationally justifiable choices. I mean, obviously, if you spend your days writing Harry Potter fan-fiction, which seems to be a thing in that subculture, something has gone very wrong, and no amount of formal epistemology or probability theory can rescue you from what appears to an outsider to that subculture as an obviously bad choice, not just of how to spend one’s time, but of a whole form of life. 

Is there any benefit to thinking or behaving irrationally?

Sometimes, but it can also kill you, so you need to make your decisions wisely. Sometimes it’s a good idea to smoke; sometimes it’s a good idea to be foolhardy in combat; sometimes it’s a good idea to free solo climb El Capitan. Other times it’s not. The big mistake is to suppose that one can turn to philosophy to find ‘rules for living’ that would dictate generic principles applicable in all circumstances, rather than acknowledging that the only answer is, often, what may be called a radical choice, ungrounded in any principle or rule. 

So, what can we take away from all of this?

The book is an essay and not a theoretical or argumentative work, which means that it is a contribution to a genre in ill repute among academics, and runs the risk of being dismissed by my philosopher-peers as conveying little more than what is called on Twitter a ‘mood’. I can live with that. Moods can be diagnostically very useful, and we certainly know more about what people were really thinking, say, in the 16th century, when we read Montaigne than when we read Francisco Suárez. In any case if the book were making a theoretical argument, it would almost certainly be wrong. In being honest about its true character as an essay, I may hope that at least some readers will be able to share the mood of it, and perhaps thereby to accompany me in the project of becoming a bit wiser. 

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris 7–Denis Diderot. His books include The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton). An editor at large of Cabinet Magazine, he also writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and other publications.

Miller Oberman: On Mentorship

ObermanWhen I was sixteen, like many teenagers, I worked in a corporate coffee shop in a corporate bookstore; I won’t name them here. In that bookstore I started to read contemporary poetry. I read everything lucille clifton had written and could recite half of it, and I read Split Horizon by Thomas Lux. By chance, I saw in a magazine that he taught a summer workshop at Sarah Lawrence College, and applied. It was the first time I ever printed my poems and put them in an envelope. I was accepted, and my parents let me get on a bus alone to go from Virginia to New York. When I arrived, I was told that the workshop “was for adults,” but I argued my way into Lux’s classroom, and at the end of the week, he suggested I come to school there. I never tested well and wasn’t sure I could get in, but he said to apply and to “shove a note in there that says ‘see Tom Lux about this kid.’” I did. It wasn’t until he died in early 2017 that I realized how common this story is. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of poets Tom taught, helped get into school, found jobs for, believed in.

I had incredible teachers as an undergraduate. Marie Howe sat me down behind her desk and physically taught me how to make line breaks, and I think I have most of her book What the Living Do memorized. Suzanne Gardinier taught me patience and persistence, and that good poets are better readers, and Victoria Redel showed me the freedom in rejecting barriers between genres. But Tom was my first mentor, and the first poet who made me believe I could be one myself.  

Tom was an incandescent teacher. On the first day of class he read us Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” performed it, really, and though I followed almost none of it, it was somehow the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. Perhaps this is because after he finished reading it, he said, in the same tone as he’d read it in: “I would sell every single one of your souls to have written a single line of this poem.” I read it again. And again. Today it reminds me of Tom’s poem, “An Horatian Notion,” from Split Horizon, the book that caused me to apply to the summer workshop in the first place. Tom begins by describing what he sees as the illusion of God-given genius or inspiration, “the gift,” model, which he considers ridiculous. He counters, arguing instead:

 

              You make the thing because you love the thing

              and you love the thing because someone else loved it

              enough to make you love it.

 

For Tom, the removal of the common fantasy of the artistic “bolt of fire” only adds intensity to the process. The poem concludes:

 

              And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded

              toward the earth’s core.

              And with that your heart on a beam burns

              through the ionosphere.

              And with that you go to work.

 

This “heart” burning “through the ionosphere” has everything to do with mentorship. It is how we are made, how we measure ourselves, what we take with us. This is the eternal life art promises—someone loves a thing “enough to make you love it,” and you love it enough to make another love it, and so on. It doesn’t come from heaven, it’s not a bolt from the blue, it comes from our mentors; either on the page or in the flesh. Taking the mystery out of the process doesn’t diminish it: we still get the “core,” the center of the earth and the heart, and the “ionosphere,” as our words travel outwards, above the earth’s surfaces and our own.

Tom died just before my first book, The Unstill Ones came out, and the fact that he read it and wrote about it means a great deal to me. As I did when I was young, I nervously printed the poems and mailed them to him, hoping that when he read it, he would see some of his teaching in my poems in a way that might make him proud. I know that the poems in the book where I see his influence are some of my own favorites. I hear Tom’s voice in my poem “Lies After the War,” because it’s dark and funny at the same time, one of the only poems in the book that attempts humor. And of course, in my poem “Voyages,” which begins with a quote from Hart Crane: “and could they hear me, I would tell them.”

Miller Oberman has received a number of awards for his poetry, including a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a 92Y Discovery Prize, and Poetrymagazine’s John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation. His work has appeared in PoetryLondon Review of Books, the NationBoston ReviewTin House, and Harvard Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Myronn Hardy on Origin: “Birches”

It began with that set of Encyclopedia Britannicas on the tall family room shelves.  Those maroon and navy bound books that had everything in them.  The volumes I often used to lookup random things: cities, countries, animals, historical figures and events.  Those were the books we had in my Michigan childhood home.  Those books and a random one I hadn’t touched until I was six or seven, the thick book with a black dust cover photograph of blurry sun beams passing through heavy boughs of nondescript trees. 

I remember having to hoist myself onto the counter and stretch my arm to its limit just to pull that one book from the high shelf.  Once safe, down from the counter with the book in hand, safe on the gray carpeted floor, I read its cover, The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged.  I opened the book erratically to the poem, “Birches.”  I read it intensely.  I knew what the world “birch” meant because there was a birch in the front yard.  And whenever my parents and I walked through the yard, or other yards or forests, they’d named the trees in it.  Perhaps they wanted me to know their names, to know they had names, histories even.  They wanted me to be aware.

In that poem, Frost refers to ice storms and that ice breaking from those birches as glass.  After a storm, I remembered making the same assertion in my very young mind.  The language in the poem was thrilling.  The way it worked on the page both charmed and perplexed me.  I got up from the floor to ask my mom what was the difference between this form of writing and what I’d seen in those encyclopedias or the newspaper.  She said, “This” she pointed to the poem, “is concentrated.”  She when on to compare it to the pulpy-concentrated orange juice she mixed with water each morning. 

            “So this is pure?” I asked.

            “I don’t know about pure but that’s kind of it,” she said.  I didn’t tell her then, but I felt I’d found something to make, something to attempt to make.  I found myself staring at that birch in the front yard and noticing the strange beauty in its pealing skin.  Somewhere in the process of staring at this tree, and once swinging in its boughs, I realized that that poem and other poems I’d read in Frost’s book, were prompting me to notice or see more profoundly: to notice the small, or what I’d later be told, the “insignificant.”  And that my task, perhaps, was to make that “insignificant” thing momentous, to make it the center.

            This one poem, this one book of poems, that almost fresh awareness of the birch in our front yard, began my seeing, my imagination, my seeing-imagination in poetry.  It began my writing of poetry.  I had no idea but now pondering it, sifting through it, there is the birch.  There are birches. 

            In high school, one of the large boughs of the birch had becoming infected.  The leaves became yellow and dropped in the summer.  Eventually, it had to be removed from the tree to potentially save the whole of it.  Of course, this large bough seemed to be almost half the tree.  I watched that large part being sawed off and helped with its later chopping up and removal from the yard.  I later wrote something about this.  A poem that began with yellow dust billowing from an electric saw as yellow leaves blew about the speaker in August. 

            That image became nightmarish.  It kept repeating itself in dream and I kept writing that poem, kept changing it.  The poem never worked but it marked a moment:  the birch’s almost death, that title of the first poem I remembered reading, and my first real attempting at writing poetry.

            In 2009, a year after my second book, The Headless Saints was published, I received the Robert Frost Poetry Fellowship to attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  A month after that conference, I moved to Morocco where I lived and taught at a university there for nine years.  I didn’t see any birches there. But there were sycamores and cedars.  And I wrote several poems with those trees in them.

             I’ve lived now in Maine for eight months.  Here there are birches everywhere.  And I’ve seen their branches covered with ice.  I’ve been carrying around Frost’s “Birches.” 

            I keep thinking about this idea of return, the space of return.  These groves of birches I walk though almost every day is a return I hadn’t expected.   Perhaps this is the next poem. 

Myronn Hardy is the author of four previous books of poems: Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize; The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Award for Poetry; and, most recently, Kingdom. He divides his time between Morocco and New York City.