Hundreds of personal letters tell Iris Murdoch’s life story

The acclaimed novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch lived life so much through her writing that editors Avril Horner and Anne Rowe felt it most fitting for her biography to be composed entirely of her letters. For the first time, the collection is being presented as a whole in Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch. Here is the story of how this extraordinary project came together.

Presenting Iris Murdoch’s Life in Her Own Words

by Avril Horner & Anne Rowe

MurdochIris Murdoch’s prolific writing life spanned almost the entire second half of the twentieth century, and what makes her unique in British letters is that she was not only one of the country’s most famous and internationally acclaimed novelists, but also a serious moral philosopher, an engaged public intellectual and a working teacher. Her 26 novels and a significant body of philosophy, written between 1954 and 1995, emerged out of a background that only appears to be one of great privilege; her sharp intellect secured scholarships for her school and university education that enabled her to make the most of her many gifts. She both lived and thought unconventionally and was determined to change the path of English fiction and to challenge received ideas about gender, philosophy and religion.

In 2004, the Iris Murdoch Archive was inaugurated at Kingston University, London, where Peter Conradi (Murdoch’s official biographer) had taught and where the Murdoch scholar, Anne Rowe, became his successor. The first acquisition was the novelist’s heavily annotated library of over 1,000 books from her Oxford home. Today the archive comprises another personal library from her London apartment; original manuscripts; notebooks, primary and secondary resources; photographs; and over 3,000 private letters. These letters were acquired in various ways: some were purchased with the aid of various funding bodies; many were donated by individuals who had received letters from Murdoch; others were gifted by the families or friends of correspondents. This world-class archive tells many stories that both record the history of Iris Murdoch’s life and challenge earlier perceptions of it.

Of the 764 letterQueneau 29 October 1949 p1 rescans that comprise Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995, over 500 are from Kingston’s Iris Murdoch Archive. The rest were sourced from other university archives – Oxford, Cambridge, Reading, Bristol, Leeds, Bradford and the LSE in England; the University of Iowa, Washington University, St. Louis, and Stanford University, California in the United States. Murdoch wrote all her letters by hand using her favourite fountain pen. In an age of tweets, emails and texts, these letters from a celebrated writer are not only emotionally compelling, but also of great historical, as well as biographical, interest. Choosing which to include in the book was a difficult task. We decided to focus on letter runs that, taken together, give what we hope is a full picture of a complicated personality, from her school days to her final years. Our aim was to present Murdoch’s life in her own words.

Sitting at a roll-top desk that once belonged to J.R.R. Tolkein, Iris Murdoch spent up to four hours a day writing to friends, lovers and her many admirers. These letters have much to offer those researching the literature, philosophy, theology, politics and culture of the mid-late twentieth century. Murdoch’s correspondents were often highly distinguished in their respective fields, for example the French experimental writer Raymond Queneau, the mathematical logician Georg Kreisel, the moral philosopher Philippa Foot, the senior Civil Servant, Sir Leo Pliatzky, the political theorist Michael Oakeshott, the novelist and activist Brigid Brophy. She wrote to some of her students as well, for example, Rachel Fenner and David Morgan, whom she taught at Royal College of Art and with whom she had unwise relationships that could have tarnished her reputation had they been made public. Living on Paper also includes Queneau Letters image 2deeply moving notes to her Oxford contemporary Lucy Klatchsko, who relinquished a vivacious private life to become a nun, Sister Marian of Stanbrook Abbey. These letters convey Murdoch’s envy of the solitary contemplative life that was the antithesis of her own. Each of these correspondence runs reveals a different aspect of Murdoch’s character; together they record not only an unusual and remarkable life but also its more ordinary moments. Her letters frequently sketch beautiful epistolary still lives: autumnal colours glimpsed through the window of her study: winter frosts and spring snowdrops, kestrels in flight and blazing sunsets. All pay testament to her deep love for her friends and her legendary kindness and generosity of spirit, confirmed by the fact that her letters were preserved and cherished by their recipients. They are also characterized by a scrupulous integrity: although in all of the 5,000 or more letters that we read, we found irreverence, wit and occasionally just criticism, nowhere did we find a hint of spite or malice. These letters speak too of Murdoch’s own crippling insecurities about the quality of her work and convey the anguish and biting remorse generated by her complex emotional life.

The publication of Peter Conradi’s official biography in 2001 made evident how much closer Murdoch’s life was to her art than had previously been realized and suggested glimpses of many friends in her fictional characters. Living on Paper will enable a more sophisticated appreciation of the creative process that so carefully transformed the identities of friends and lovers into the complicated characters of her novelFoot letter headings spreads while preserving the anonymity of those who had inspired them. It is also clear from the letters that Murdoch’s own character was complex and contradictory. In some ways, she was a woman decades ahead of her time – she had both male and female lovers and refused to be labelled as lesbian or bisexual. Instead, she experienced what we now call “gender fluidity”, expressed in The Bell (1958) as “the sophistication of holding that we all participate in both sexes”. Sexually, emotionally, and even intellectually she was often out of joint with her own time. However, the Iris Murdoch of Living on Paper will be substantially more at home in this century than the one in which she wrote and her letters will open up her novels to a generation of new readers.

Iris Murdoch (1919–99) was a British writer and philosopher. Her twenty-six novels include the Booker Prize–winning The Sea, the Sea and Under the Net, which the Modern Library named one of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century. From the mid-1950s until her death, Murdoch lived in Oxford with her husband, John Bayley, whose memoir Elegy for Iris was the basis for the film Iris.

Avril Horner and Anne Rowe are the coeditors of Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts and Iris Murdoch and Morality. Horner is professor emeritus of English literature at Kingston University in London, and has published widely on women’s writing and gothic fiction. Rowe is associate professor of English literature and director of the Iris Murdoch Archive Project at Kingston University. She is the lead editor of the Iris Murdoch Review, the author of The Visual Arts and Iris Murdoch, and the coauthor of Iris Murdoch: A Literary Life.

George Marsden on “Mere Christianity” and the conversion of C.S. Lewis

marsden jacketMere Christianity, C. S. Lewis’s eloquent and winsome defense of the Christian faith, has a rather dramatic origin story. Recently George Marsden took some time to talk about C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, his investigation of the story of the extraordinary life and afterlife of this influential book.

Do we need another book on C. S. Lewis?

GM: That’s a great question. There are lots of insightful books about Lewis, but this one is not about simply about Lewis but is a “biography” of his most influential non-fiction book. So it comes at Lewis from a fresh angle and amplifies dimensions of something that a lot of people have appreciated, but may have not thought through exactly why. It’s like the difference between a book about Beethoven and a book about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It takes something that is familiar and accessible and tries to bring to life the story behind its appeal. In this case Mere Christianity is not just popular, it has also been extraordinarily important to many people. You might be surprised at how many will say that reading it was even life changing. And many others will say it was one of the truly illuminating books that they have read. A couple of years ago during “March Madness,” the Emerging Scholars Network associated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship held playoff rounds of voting for sixty-four nominees for “the best Christian book of all time.” Mere Christianity finished second, only behind Augustine’s Confessions. So lots of such people should be interested in the story behind Lewis’s book.

What are the highlights of that story?

GM: That’s one of the great things about writing about Mere Christianity. The story of its origins is pretty dramatic. It’s not like most books where the beginning of the story is that the author decided to write on such and such a subject and two years later he had a book manuscript. Mere Christianity originated in the midst of one of the most stressful times in British history—during the bleak early years of World War Two. When the project was begun it was at a time when there were still fears of a Nazi invasion and the Blitz bombing was taking devastating tolls every night. And one of the things that is remarkable is when he began Lewis did not think he was writing a book. Rather he agreed to present a very brief series of radio broadcasts on the BBC. Eventually it became four series of broadcasts. As he went along he had these published in separate little booklets, but he had not planned them as a single book. It was only a decade later, in 1952, that he gathered these together into one book and called them Mere Christianity.

So how did a book that was not even planned to be a book become so influential?

GM: That’s one of the most fascinating parts of the story. Lewis’s works were already quite popular in 1952. He was best known as the author of The Screwtape Letters, and was a very well known Christian author during a time of religious revival in both Great Britain and the United States. So even though Mere Christianity as a single volume came on the scene with no fanfare or reviews, it always sold reasonably well during Lewis’s lifetime, though not as well as Screwtape or the Narnia tales. But here’s what’s really remarkable about the life of this book. In the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century it has sold more than it did in its first fifteen years. Not long before Lewis died in 1963 he expressed the opinion that his books would soon be forgotten. By 1967 other commentators were saying much the same thing. But it turns out that since 2001, Mere Christianity has sold more than three and a half million copies just in English alone. Almost any other book you might think of has a very different trajectory. It makes an initial splash but then its ripples fade, even if for some classics the ripples may extend indefinitely. This book is, by contrast, is selling more than when it was originally published.

So what happened between 1967 and 2001 to make it so popular?

GM: It is hard to track the story exactly, but by the 1970s it was becoming the book to give to someone who was inquiring about Christian faith. Celebrity conversions helped. One turning point was Chuck Colson’s Born Again which came out the same week in 1976 that Jimmy Carter was explaining to reporters that he was born again. Colson presents Mere Christianity as central to his conversion. A more recent case is the noted scientist Francis Collins, highlights Mere Christianity in his The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Most fans of Mere Christianity are, broadly speaking, evangelicals. But there many Catholic fans as well, and Eastern Orthodox, and even some Mormons. It is most popular in the United States but also is a standard work throughout the English-speaking world. It ha been translated into many languages. Interestingly one place where it has become most influential is among intellectual Chinese Christian.

How do you account for what you described as bucking the using trends in the lives of books in actually growing rather than gradually fading in popularity?

GM: That is another good question and in fact that is one of the central questions that the book tries to answer. What is the genius of Mere Christianity? What accounts for its “life” in the sense of its ongoing “vitality.”? How is it that Lewis could seemingly toss off these occasional broadcasts in a wartime setting and come up with a seemingly unified masterpiece that has such lasting appeals?

So how do you answer that question?

GM: Well there are quite a few reasons. I’ll just give you a sample. One reason why the book lasts is that Lewis very consciously looked for perennial truths about human experience and the human condition. So he warned people of the danger of being taken in by the “latest” thought of their own time. As a student of literature and history he realized that every era has its own peculiar ideas and that most of these soon pass and look very quaint a generation or two later. So in part because he is looking for ideas that last, many of his ideas have lasted.

The most obvious example is the idea of “Mere Christianity” itself. Lewis was trying to present the beliefs that have been “common to nearly all Christians at all times.” By carefully trying to stick to those common beliefs, he produced a work that has a wide appeal to all sorts of Christians. As I said, that’s just a sample of how to answer that question. There are still quite a few other dimensions to the genius of the book that have contributed to its lasting vitality. But perhaps I can leave them for those who want to delve into the book itself.

George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His books include Fundamentalism and American Culture, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and The Soul of the American University. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

Children’s Literature for Grownups #ReadUp

Have you ever found yourself returning to a book considered “children’s literature?” There’s just something about our favorite children’s books that can draw us in. What’s with the magnetism? Children’s books are a part of our literary foundation, and some of the best ones hold a special place in our hearts. Or is it something more?

k10538Remember reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? First published in 1865, PUP is publishing a new edition in honor of the 150th anniversary, illustrated by none other than the famous surrealist, Salvador Dalí.

The whimsical world of Wonderland holds a special charm for both children and adults. You can bet more adults will be purchasing this item for themselves than for their children, both for the sense of nostalgia and for the promise of new things that children’s books inevitably hold. This promise is much more prominent in children’s books than it is in adult books because children’s books are written differently. They are written with the idea that they will likely be revisited, often including multiple layers and facets. Just ask Neil Gaiman. In a recent article, Gaiman notes that “When I’m writing for kids, I’m always assuming that a story, if it is loved, is going to be re-read. So I try and be much more conscious of it than I am with adults.”

Re-reading a children’s book as an adult brings the gift of new perspective. Would you read A Wrinkle in Time or The Hobbit the same way now as you did when you were 10? We might find and identify common themes, or develop sympathies for characters we formerly loved to hate. When we revisit these stories later in life, we read them with a new lens, one altered by experience and time, often picking up on new and interesting tidbits that we never knew existed. This is particularly true of fairy tales. If these Disney-esque stories are meant for children, why do we, as adults, enjoy them so much? The answer probably lies in their adult origins. One of PUP’s most popular recent books is The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. The first edition. Take note.k10300

AndreaDezso_BrothersGrimm3As David Barnett states in The Guardian in a piece titled, Adult content warning: beware fairy stories, “Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm . . . did not set out to collect the stories that bear their name in order to entertain children. They were primarily collectors and philologists, who assembled their tales as part of a life’s work. . . . And they were surprised when the adults who bought their collections of fairy tales to read to their children began to complain about the adult nature of the content.”

These stories were not polished and sanitized until much later. Originally, they were filled with violence and other adult content. (As evidenced by the picture on the above left, by Andrea Dezsö, featured in PUP’s The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm). This image is from a tale entitled Herr Fix-It-Up. Herr Fix-It-Up must complete tasks denoted by a lord and king in order to win the lord his princess bride. One of the tasks is to kill a unicorn that’s been “causing a great deal of damage.” By today’s standards, beheading of unicorns is hardly the stuff of children’s tales, but these tales are more sociological accounts than children’s stories, reflecting the sensibilities of the time period and place in which they were written.

UntitledOthk10312er “children’s” books expand on this very aspect of fairy tales, including The Fourth Pig by Naomi Mitchison. Mitchison takes many of the classic tales of our childhood including Hansel and Gretel and The Little Mermaid and re-imagines them for an older audience.

As a fairly new member of the press, it never occurred to me that some titles on our list would include some of my old favorites. What children’s books do you love more as an adult?

 

You can take a tour of the gorgeous interior of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland here:

 

 

Feature image by Steve Czajka – https://www.flickr.com/photos/steveczajka/11392783794

Frontispiece designed by Gertrude Hermes

 

An exclusive trailer for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, featuring illustrations by Salvador Dalí

ALICE WAS BEGINNING TO get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

Thus begins Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, one of the most beloved classics of children’s literature. Commemorating the 150th anniversary of its publication, this illustrated edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, edited by Lewis Carroll expert Mark Burstein, features rarely seen illustrations by Salvador Dalí. In the introduction, Burstein discusses Dalí’s connections with Carroll, the nature of wonderland, and his treatment of the towering (though sometimes shrinking) figure of Alice.

Take an exclusive peek inside the curiously mathematical world into which Alice famously falls, here:

Memorable Quotes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in WonderlandHere at PUP, we’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with a new edition that combines the text of the 1897 version (thought to be the most authentic and correct by Lewis Carroll himself) with the illustrations done by Salvador Dalí for the 1969 Random House version. Readers can enjoy this familiar tale alongside Dalí’s hyper-saturated, surrealist pictures. In honor of Alice, here are some of the most memorable quotes from the book. Which is your favorite?

 

“Off with her head!”
–the Queen of Hearts

“A cat may look at a king.”
–Alice

“Curiouser and curiouser!”
–Alice

“[W]e’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
–the Cheshire Cat

“Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”
–the Duchess

“For the Duchess. An invitation from the Queen to play croquet.”
–the Frog-Footman

“Begin at the beginning … and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
the King

“I ca’n’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir … because I’m not myself, you see.”
Alice

“The Duchess! The Duchess! Oh my dear paws! Oh my fur and whiskers! She’ll get me executed, as sure as ferrets are ferrets!”
–the White Rabbit

150 years ago today, Alice in Wonderland was published

Alice's Adventures in WonderlandJuly 4, 2015 may be about Independence Day in the United States, but in Oxford, it’s about one of the great heroes of fiction, a young girl who followed a white rabbit, met a hookah-smoking caterpillar and asked, “Who are you?” 

In July 1865, 150 years ago, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a professor of mathematics and Anglican deacon, published Alice’s Adventures Underground, a story about a little girl who tumbles down a rabbit hole into a world of nonsense, but keeps her wits about her. With this the world was first introduced to Alice (who was inspired by a real child named Alice Liddell) and her pseudonymous creator, Lewis Carroll. To commemorate the anniversary, the rare first edition recently went on display in Oxford. Princeton University Press is honored to publish our own beautiful new edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandwith rarely seen illustrations by none other than Salvador Dalí.

Of course, Alice doesn’t just have a whimsical adventure full of anthropomorphic creatures. She falls into a world that is curiously logical and mathematical. Carroll expert Mark Burstein discusses Dalí’s connections with Carroll, his treatment of the symbolic figure of Alice, and the mathematical nature of Wonderland. In addition, mathematician Thomas Banchoff reflects on the friendship he shared with Dalí and the mathematical undercurrents in Dalí’s work.

Explore chapter one in full here, view the best illustrations over the years on Brain Pickings, or click here for a list of anniversary-related events. If you’re here in New Jersey, Washington Crossing’s Open Air Theater will be performing Alice in Wonderland in the park today at 11 and tomorrow at 4.

Happy birthday, Alice!

Jeff Nunokawa on Mothers

In Note Book, Princeton Professor Jeff Nunokawa writes frequently (and beautifully) about his mother, from her approach to moles to her aversion to fiction. It’s a perfect day for these choice excerpts from Note Book. Happy Mother’s Day!

1340. The Afterlife of Moles

My mother just hated them—moles, I mean—and if you were a child of hers, your earliest premonition of Ahab had to be the sight of her, out in the backyard, smoking, frowning, and plotting to destroy her own version of the White Whale. It was trench warfare: the moles would dig up the yard, pissing my mother off, big time, and my mother would stick garden hoses into the underground passages through which they, the moles, would go about their business, and whose upward and visible signs were the mounds of dirt that would drive her, my mother, to a state of more than domestic Fury. And then, having set out the means of flushing out her enemy, she would sit back, shovel in hand, watching and waiting, waiting and watching. She got one once. My brother, four or five at the time, overheard her describe her gruesome triumph to a neighbor.

“Mommy, do Moles go to Heaven?”

“I hope not!” she replied with confusing candor. “Why did you say that to him?” I asked.

“I had to tell the truth!” she answered.

And she does. Always—have to tell what she regards as the truth, no matter what.
Note: What’s there to add to the Truth?


1388. “The Unteachable Monkey,” “The Fables of
Panchatantra,” “Indian Humor”

The Wisdom of China and India, ed. Lin Yutang (1942)

Inspecting my mother’s primary bookshelf, one last time, before my second sleep and flight home, I realize with a mild start that I perform this ritual whenever I am about to leave her. And that’s right: these books, a small community library, are the bibliographic correlative and component of her moral competence. Of course I open these books almost never. Most are very old and unpleasant in appearance, and by the looks of them, to my impatient eye at least, not at all “my bag”—Pearl Buck novels; heroic accounts of Andrew Jackson, depicting “Old Hickory” as a paradigm populist; atavistic exposés of power elites, et cetera. In a rare impulse, I take one of these books down from the place where it has rested unnoticed for decades—Professor Lin Yutang’s tome, cited above. A smooth and surprising volume, filled with all manner of familiar and unfamiliar satire and solemnity.

Reading along, I come across the story whose title forms the title of this note. The story is amusing and enlightening enough—all about a monkey whose resistance to helpful instruction becomes sufficiently violent to murder the emissary of enlightenment. I am struck more, though, by the wilderness of teachable monkeys the title of this anecdote obliquely surveys.

I hope I am one of the teachable ones. My mother, I suppose, thinks that I am, but mothers often give their children the benefit of the doubt.

Note: In fairness to her, she is hardly uncritical on the subject of Andrew Jackson.


3027. “What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?”

The Author’s Mother: A Play in Eleven Lines
The Author’s Mother: What do you want for your birthday? Jeff: I’m glad you asked. Two books by
Bob Venturi, preferably early editions …
The Author’s Mother: You’ll get whatever edition is cheapest. …
Jeff: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
The Author’s Mother: Hold on, I have to write this down … “Complexity and what?”
Jeff: Contradiction!
The Author’s Mother: Complexity and Continuation in Architecture would have been a better title.
Jeff: Yes, but that would have been a different book, now wouldn’t it?
The Author’s Mother: Yeah. A better book! Jeff: Also, Learning from Las Vegas.
The Author’s Mother: What the hell can you learn from Las Vegas?!

Note: You see my problem.


3302. Tradition and the Individual Eavesdropper

Kafka eavesdropped on tradition. … The main reason why this eavesdropping demands such effort is that only the most indistinct sounds reach the listener.

(W. Benjamin to G. Scholem, June 12, 1938)

—which doesn’t mean that you can’t transmit a little, the Tradition you only half hear, pass it on in bits and pieces—the defense of the truth, and of those who would extend it, even by evading it; the opposition to war and the devotion to peace; the styles of elegance and expertise in art and science; the beauty of the plain and simple (and the cryptic and the complicated); the methods for coping with the unbearable, and caring for that which makes it less so; the ways of loving what is, and laboring to bring about what should be.

My mom likes to tell the story about how once, when she and my dad were first married (this must have been sometime during the second Eisenhower administration), they were out somewhere in the woods with some other newlyweds, staying in some kind of log cabin (somewhere in eastern Washington State, I suppose—I can’t recall the details) without electricity or running water. One morning, my dad came back from the well with an empty bucket. (“Your father didn’t know anything about priming the pump!” my mother reports with gleeful and affectionate condescension.) Well, as little as he knew, I know less, and my ears glaze over whenever my mother seeks to explain with methodical clarity the practice and principle of this hydraulic feat for drawing water where all seems dry. I have never delved to consider the literal ground of what is best known as a popularizing metaphor for a central element of Keynesian economics, and certainly have no interest in disturbing the perfect record of my ignorance. But I like to think about how much my mother likes to tell me all about it.

Note: “(a sort of theology passed on by whispers dealing with matters discredited and obsolete)”
(Benjamin to Scholem).


4004. “a love stronger than any impulse that could have marred it”

She never repented that she had given up position and fortune to marry Will Ladislaw. … They were bound to each other by a love stronger than any impulse which could have marred it.

(George Eliot, Middlemarch)

My mother likes to remind me regularly of her aversion to fiction and, in particular, the kind of “fancy” fiction I have spent a good portion of my life studying and teaching. I was thus surprised this morning, in my semi-annual survey of her strange library—manuals for Hikers, Self-Helpers, and Chinese Communists; a celebratory biography of Andrew Jack- son; memoirs of Native American Warriors and dictionaries of Ancient Hawaiian Chants; histories of the Middle East and the Wild West; old (very old) field guides to flora and fauna, near and far; textbooks on Organic Chemistry and the like— to discover, nearly hidden in the thickets of this old curiosity shop, one of “my” books—a novel I am not alone in regarding as one of the greatest stories ever told. More surprising, still: the volume is, throughout, underlined and annotated by what could only be her hand.

I was less surprised to discover that amongst the passages she has marked for note are the lines that begin this report. Decades after their divorce, my parents remain bound together by an unfaded, though now hardly mentioned, belief that risking anything short of everything to marry each other (they are of different races; that was a different time) would have been a cowardice they would have both repented till the day they died. I like to think that my mother took some satisfaction when she came across a bare statement of the fact of the faith that determined the direction of her life—“a feeling that,

Note: in gaining the man she loved, she would gain something for the whole world” (E. M. Forster, A Room with a View).


4047. “Several people on the trip told me that I was an
inspiration, which made me feel good” (The Author’s
Mother)

And now you will no longer wonder that the recollection of this incident on the Acropolis should have troubled me so often since I myself have grown old and stand in need of forbearance and can travel no more.

(Freud, “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis”)

Many years ago, in the middle of the hardest defeat of my life, my mother came to visit me in New York. My apartment there is small; I, especially in my compromised state, smaller still, and my powers to accommodate her sizable stock of certitudes and self-doubts—their aggregate volume sufficient to fill any proscenium worth its salt—powers of forbearance that hardly amount to the armor of Hercules even in the best of times, reduced to the tattered thinness of a single fig leaf. She couldn’t have come at a worse time, I thought—until I realized that she couldn’t have come at a better one.

Seeing that I was in no shape to chaperone her, she struck out on her own. (She is, after all, according to her own Ancient History, of “pioneer stock.”) One morning, she left before I was awake and called me later from the viewing platform at the top of what was then the City’s tallest building, while I was still in bed. From this height, she felt called upon to tell me something about herself that she instructed me not to repeat, and I will not disobey her. What I can tell you is that what she conveyed to me when I was troubled, and in need of forbearance, was a memory of falling down and getting up again that dissipated the disturbance that left me thinking I could travel no more.

And now I no longer wonder that my sorrow at the thought of the day that she will pass beyond me is matched by the strength with which she has prepared me to meet it.

Note: “The two days in Athens were great but tiring. I actually made all of the excursions (one exception: a Venetian castle in Crete, but went everywhere else). Some people did not climb up the Acropolis, but I did. Why come to Greece and not go up? Was worth it. I was glad that I had both walking sticks. It really made it possible. Several people on the trip told me that I was an inspiration, which made me feel good. I will tell you all more about the trip later, and show you the pictures when I get them done” (extracted from my mother’s report on her most recent travels; her destination this time was the Mediterranean rather than Manhattan).

Which of these 15 myths of digital-age English do you believe?

One Day in the Life of the English Language by Frank Cioffi, a new style guide that eschews memorization in favor of internalizing how sentences actually work, handily refutes these 15 myths of digital-age English. Think brevity is best? Swear by your default settings? Feel sure the internet is a “total latrine”? Try out this “True or False” test and see whether you’re the digital-age wordsmith you thought you were:

Myth 1 image1.  In the age of the tweet, short and concise is always the best.
True, true, short messages are often the best. But not always. Sometimes one needs to go on at some length. Sometimes it is necessary to provide a context, especially if one is trying to communicate more than just minimal information. And sometimes the very brevity or terseness of a tweet makes it impossible to understand.

2.  My word processing program doesn’t let me change margins, spacing, or other aspects of format.
Most word processing programs can be set up to accommodate any standard style; however, you need to use the program’s capabilities and not always accept default settings. In Microsoft Word, for example, many writers allow the program its silly default—to put an extra line space between paragraphs of the same format. This should be unselected as a default off the “paragraph” menu.

Myth 3 image3.  My word processing program will highlight and automatically fix any errors I make.
These automatic correction programs are notoriously unreliable, as they often “fix” writing that is in fact correct. For example, at first I thought one of my students had subject-verb agreement problems; then I noted that the program tried to get me to introduce such errors into my own work. You, not the program, are the mind behind the words. Don’t rely on your program to fix everything. Let it check—but you check too.

4.  “Logical punctuation” is the best option in most situations.
This idea usually refers to putting punctuation either inside or outside of quotation marks. The logicality of doing so or not doing so has been questioned by many. It’s probably best to follow conventions of a given style, unless you are not working within any particular field. In that case, you can invent new rules; just don’t expect others to understand or follow them.

5. People don’t really read anymore; they merely “scan a page for information.”
Gary Shteyngart brings up this idea in his 2011 novel Super Sad True Love Story. It’s interesting and has some truth to it: I agree that many people don’t read with a lot of care or seek to understand and internalize the written ideas they encounter. But some do. Think of that “some” as your audience. At the same time, consider the needs of an audience that just “scans the page.” Ask yourself, “Does this page I’ve just written include information worth scanning?”

Cioffi jacket6.  Anyone can publish written material nowadays, so what’s the value of Standard Written English?
With the Internet, it’s true that anyone can publish now. And many self-publishing options are open to any writer seeking to get work in print. Simply publishing something is now less a guarantee of its excellence or importance than it once was, but if you strive to have your work read—by more than family and friends—it will have to respect some standard forms and conventions. Or to put it another way, no matter what your publishing goals, if you want people to read your work, you will have to write with a high level of competence and lucidity.

7.  People are much less precise and exact than they used to be, now that they have computers to rely on.
This is clearly not the case in all situations. In fact, people must be much more careful now with details such as spelling, especially when entering passwords or usernames. In many digital contexts, attentiveness to language accuracy is obligatory. If you are inattentive, you often can’t even use the computer or the program. If you don’t respect the syntax of a program, it just won’t run.

8.  “Talking street” is what most people want to do anyway.
I think that most people have to use multiple forms of English. They might speak one way to their family, one way to their friends, one way on their jobs, and another way, perhaps, when they need to write a paper for a college course they are taking. People can and should become multilingual.

9.  Most grammatical stuff is of minor importance—kind of too boring and persnickety to bother with.
I agree that there are more important things in the world, but I have been making the argument throughout this book that in fact these “minor” matters do seem to make a difference to some people—and a major difference to a small minority. And writ large, they make a big difference in our society. Admittedly, there is a persnickety quality to some of the material, but isn’t specialization all about being persnickety?

10.  Someone else can “wordsmith” my ideas; I just generate them.
The line between the idea and the expression of it is very fine; that is, how you say something is often inextricable from what you say. You need to take charge of not just coming up with a basic idea or notion but also of how that idea gets expressed. If you have a stake in how an idea exists in its final form, you should take great care with its exact verbal formulation.

11.  Since so many “styles” (MLA, APA, Chicago . . .) are available and used by various specialties, it’s pointless to worry about this kind of superficial overlay.
There are a lot of forms and styles, to be sure. But you need to find the form that’s conventional in your professional field and use that. If you don’t, you almost automatically label yourself an “outsider” to that field, or perhaps even an interloper. And sometimes, just abiding by the conventions of a style gains you credibility in and of itself, allows entrée into a field.

12.  There’s no possibility of an original idea anymore: it’s all been said.
One certainly feels as though this might be possible, considering the ever-expanding scope of the Internet and the existence of over seven billion human minds on the planet. However, each of us has his or her own individual experience—which is unique. And out of that, I feel, originality can emerge. You must really want that originality to emerge, though, and resist succumbing to the pressure of the multitude to simply conform to what’s standard, acceptable, predictable, dull.

13.  If something is published on the Internet, it’s true.
I know that no one really believes this. But I want to emphasize that a great deal of material on the Internet is simply false—posted by people who are not reliable, well-informed, or even honest. Much Internet material that claims to be true is in fact only a form of advertising. And finally, do keep in mind that almost anyone can create websites and post content, whether they are sane or insane, children or adults, good or evil, informed or misinformed.

myth 4 image14.  The Internet is a total latrine.
A few years ago, I heard a well-known public intellectual give a talk for which this was the thesis. And there are certainly many things on the Internet and about the Internet that bear out such a judgment. However, there are also some amazing things, which prompt me to say that the Internet is the greatest accumulation of information and knowledge in the history of humankind. But you need to learn how to use it efficiently and effectively, and sort the good from the bad.

Myth 15 image

15.  I can cut and paste my way through any college paper assignment.
There are many opportunities to create what looks like your own work—cutting and pasting here, auto- summarizing there, adding a few transitional sentences, and mashing it all together. I don’t recommend this kind of work; it doesn’t really benefit you to create it. You want to write papers of your own, ones that express your own ideas and that use your own language. The cut-and-pasters are ultimately sacrificing their humanity, as they become people of the machine. And when they’re caught, the penalties can be severe.

How did you do?

Frank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana universities and at Bard and Scripps colleges. He is the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.

Graphics by Chris Ferrante

Poetry by Heart

For the final entry in this year’s National Poetry Month (#npm15) series, we have a special piece by Catherine Robson, author of Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, on what changed her mind about the merits of poetry recitation.

Poetry By Heart
by Catherine Robson

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoLast month, the third annual final “Poetry By Heart”, a national recitation competition for British 14-18 year olds, was staged in Homerton College, Cambridge. Sitting there as one of the judges in the packed auditorium, I witnessed a series of magical transformations. Time and again, slightly awkward or diffident young people walked onto the stage, paused, and then became entirely different individuals altogether. When they started to speak the words they had committed to heart, they took possession not just of themselves and their poems, but of every other person in the room. I found it an exceptionally moving experience.Heart Beats

If you had told me ten years ago that I would volunteer to work on such a competition, I would have been very surprised. Back then, when I first began work on a book about the strange phenomenon of the memorized poem, I held few positive feelings about recitation. I knew that reciting poetry used to hold a privileged place in the elementary curricular programs of the past, but I didn’t know why or when the practice became mainstream, nor why and when we all stopped doing it. But I was sure that I was not a fan. Enforcing poetry on (or into) the unwilling brains and bodies of the young seemed to me a questionable activity at best. What happened, then, to change my mind?

For one thing, I discovered in the course of my researches that my negative opinion was entirely typical for one of my age and nationality. Born in Britain in 1962, I attended state primary and secondary schools that had no time for what was then regarded as an outmoded pedagogical endeavor, an endeavor likely to turn individuals against poetry for life. Today this is not the prevailing attitude in all quarters – for one thing, the British government, in addition to funding “Poetry By Heart,” now makes “reciting” a specified activity for the youngest children in state education – but the concept of compulsory mass recitation continues to make many of my countrymen uncomfortable. The idea of the memorized poem in Britain summons up thoughts of both a discredited instructional practice and a discredited educational formation – which is to say, learning by rote, and the Victorian elementary school, the institution which supposedly backed up that rote-learning with liberal applications of the rod.

Because I have now lived in the United States for over a quarter of a century, I know that Americans, by and large, are much more positive about poetry recitation. If the topic comes up in casual conversation or the media, it tends to generates not just polite interest, but passionate engagement. I’ve lost count of the number of times an octogenarian has launched into a performance of “Thanatopsis” or a bit of Longfellow for me, and I’ve heard individuals of a range of ages and from both sides of the political spectrum turn wistful, lamenting the passing of a time when all were seemingly united by a joint stock of poetic knowledge.

Digging into the rich and at times complicated story of the memorized poem’s progress in two sharply distinct public education systems has helped me to understand why it is that Britons and Americans today feel so differently about this pedagogical practice: the book I’ve written devotes its first half to this history, and its second to the recitational fortunes of three short poems that were once school classics on two sides of the Atlantic. Coming to terms with my own dismissive attitude towards the repetition of poetry has been another kind of project altogether.

It took me some time, but today I can draw a line between bad recitation and good.  I still think it’s important to notice that dismal experiences with poetry afflicted the lives of many children in less-than-ideal pedagogical environments in the past, but I no longer believe that this fact negates the value of the practice.  I now feel that in the right circumstances, and for certain kinds of people, the memorized poem carries an enormous potential charge.  Last month in Cambridge, its power took hold of us all.

Jeff Nunokawa on Poetry

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoJeff Nunokawa, author of Note Book, has woken up and written a brief essay in the Notes section of his Facebook page every morning since 2007. Note Book is the compilation of 250 of these essays. A topic that Nunokawa is particularly articulate about is poetry, and as we are currently celebrating National Poetry Month, we thought it would be fun to highlight five of Nunokawa’s best poetry notes. (Quite a few of the notes listed below are prompted from poems written by W.H. Auden. If you want to read more of W.H. Auden’s poems, check out The Complete Works of W.H. Auden.) Without further ado, enjoy the following excerpts from Note Book and sample the first chapter, here.

3505. “Telephone Directory,” “Heaven”

W. H. Auden

One could conceive of Heaven having
a Telephone Directory (“Postscript …”).

We mostly don’t call each other anymore. Not like we used to, anyway. And when we do, we mostly
don’t pick up. That’s cool, though. It just makes us appreciate more the times we do get through.
Now, when we answer, it’s like the reverse charge of the bye, which always sounds like the
beginning of the big one; it’s like a hello from here, all the way to Heaven. That’s why our
hope goes way beyond the bounds of all area codes when we hear the ring at the other end of the
line—
Note: “Stardust in negative, between the rings” (Merrill, “Mirabell”).


3313. “Money is a kind of poetry”

Wallace Stevens

Yesterday, after my annual visit, I left my accountant’s office with tears in my eyes. I don’t
think I’ve ever left my accountant’s office actually weeping. Maybe I have and just forgot-
ten. I cry a lot, and I have a terrible memory.

Once a year, I see him about my taxes. My brother thinks I’m wasting my money. I think I’m
saving my soul. Also, a lot of time and peace of mind: I’m terrible with numbers.
Especially numbers that are symbols for money. Or maybe those numbers are bad with me—hell,
either way, it’s an ugly relationship, and I’ve basically given up on it. (Don’t tell them
that—the numbers, I mean: they know exactly where I live, and they’ll come after me six ways to
Sunday.)

On the other hand, like you, I hope, I’m involved in a lot of relationships—close encounters,
lifelong romances, or some- thing simpler (like a good neighbor)—that just get better every
year. With each passing year, for example, my appreciation for the kinds of words that help
people get through a dark night or a long day just grows and grows. With each passing year, the
kinds of words that help people get brave or loving, or help them know that they can become
so—their interest compounds like nobody’s business.

Appreciating words like that, and helping others do so, too: well, that’s the better part of my
business. Of course, I lack the instruments to quantify the rescuing resonances of the
kinds of words that are the stock in trade for retail outfits like mine—like I say, unlike my
accountant, I’m not a numbers man. But let me tell you something: every year, I leave his
office a little less worried than I was when I walked in, and numbers or no numbers, I have to
figure that the better part of both our businesses is pretty much the same.

Note: “All these forms, familiar to all the arts, place us at a distance from the substance of
things; they speak to us ‘as from afar’; reality is touched not with direct confidence but with
fingertips that are immediately withdrawn” (Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money).


4301. “an extraordinary mildness”

Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness,

Auden, “Herman Melville” (for Lincoln Kirstein)

I’ve never met a mildness that didn’t seem extraordinary, and something toward the end: the
smoothing something of a final act of forgiveness after a long, jagged drama of anger and anguish
and being out at sea: some compassionate writing (don’t worry: it’s all right) that coaxes
something upset to right its balance long enough to make its way back to port; some signal sent
straight to a wayward heart that it’s safe to come home; some memory of wholeness that recalls the
amputated adventurer to the going grace of the last dance, just this side of the closing
curtain.

Lately, I’ve been meeting with another mildness as well, twin of the first, I think, and no less
extraordinary. It stretches toward a new start rather than the last rest—the one that comes
after the big fall, but well before the final flight.

Note: “so tender and mild” (“Silent Night”).


4304. “Mine would, sir, were I human”

Ariel: … if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?

Ariel: Mine would, sir, were I human.

Shakespeare, The Tempest

Not being a human being himself, the spirit settles instead for making someone who is a better
one. He’s like a poem or a page or a play or a pool that prepares its pupil to navigate the sea
of tears that surrounds us. He’s like the first song you heard about someone breaking up—the one
you go back to whenever you’re breaking up, yourself, to learn again some basic lessons in
tenderness and decency under duress. He’s like the strokes you were taught in your first swim
lessons when, later, you suddenly find yourself really over your head and very far from shore.
That’s what he’s like, and all you have to do is to remember what those like him have to teach
you, and then, no matter how dark and stormy, you’ll always make it back to where you have to be.

Note: “lessons at love’s pain and heartache school” (Jackson
Browne, “Fountain of Sorrow”).

Nunokawa Blog on Poetry


4349. “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to
each”

T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

—oh, I’ve heard a lot of amazing creatures sing and say a lot of amazing things. And I still
do—every day of the week, and sometimes twice on Sundays. I want to tell you the secret of
my continuing hearing, because someday (maybe not today,
but maybe someday, ten years or fifty years from today), it may come in handy for you: I don’t
worry, like I used to worry, whether what I’m hearing is meant for my ears. Now, when I listen
to people talk about what or who or how they love, I don’t care as much as I once did, if
they’re talking about me, or even to me. I’m just glad that the waves of sound are so pitched
with devotion.

If this sounds too good to be true, all I can say is that it seems like all the truest goods
sound too good to be true—something as good as clearing (slow or swift) from deafness to delight,
or a change in the mood of a verb, or a vision, that gives a new form of life to the most
tried and tired drab directions.

“You can’t hear God speak to someone else, you can hear him only if you are being
addressed.”—That is a grammati- cal remark (Wittgenstein). But grammar can be transformed at the
speed of a dream or the shift of a continent, and before you know it, you could wind up at a
case where you can only hear what you might call God speaking to someone else; never when you are being addressed, alone.

In any case, that’s all I have to say to you. And I’ll leave you in peace now, since I
know you have plenty to talk about amongst yourselves.
Note: “poetry is overheard” (John Stuart Mill, “What Is
Poetry?”).

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-Logo

Author photo by Phoebe

Author photo by Phoebe Ling

In the first entry in this month’s National Poetry Month (#npm15) blog series, we are proud to feature Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop, the latest title in the Writers on Writers series. Irish novelist, critic, and playwright Tóibín is both a fan of and known as a master of subtle language (as evidenced by his selection of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl as current host of The Wall Street Journal Book Club), so it is apt that he considers the famously enigmatic American poet Bishop among one of his lasting literary influences.

Tóibín discovered Bishop in his teens and brought her Selected Poems in his suitcase to Barcelona (the setting of his first novels The South and Homage to Barcelona). He offers a personal and incisive introduction to Bishop’s life and work. Spanning her poetry, biography, letters, and prose works, Tóibín creates a beautiful and complex picture of Bishop while also revealing how her work has shaped his sensibility as a writer and how her experiences of loss and exile resonate with his own relationships to place, memory, and language.

Tampa Bay TiToibin_OnElizabethBishopmes book editor Colette Bancroft recently selected On Elizabeth Bishop as one of her notable prose books on poetry. Kirkus Reviews writes that Tóibín’s book is “[a]n admiring critical portrait of a great American poet and a master of subtlety….An inspiring appreciation from one writer to another.” A Starred Review in Publishers Weekly reads, “Novelist Tóibín gives an intimate and engaging look at Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and its influence on his own work. . . . Whether one is familiar with Bishop’s life and work or is looking to Tóibín to learn more, this book will appeal to many readers.” At the Arts Fuse, Lloyd Schwartz calls it “a particularly welcome addition to the Princeton University Press Writers on Writers series. . . . [F]ew critics have dealt more revealingly than Tóibin with Bishop’s habitual illusion of ‘spontaneous’ self-correction, her process of thinking aloud on the page.” Across the pond, poet Eavan Boland writes in the Irish Times:

[C]ritical method at its best….Unorthodox, original and deeply effective….The close mesh between Tóibín’s growth as a writer and Bishop’s journey as a poet, the eloquent mirroring of place and displacement, and above all the openness to a poet’s language, a poet’s truth put this among the best books on poetry I have read in years. I have no doubt it will become an essential text on her work.

Read the first chapter of On Elizabeth Bishop on the PUP site. You can also read eleven of Bishop’s poems, including “One Art” and “The Fish,” at the Academy of American Poets site.

Don’t forget that this year’s Poem in Your Pocket Day is coming up at the end of the month (April 30; #pocketpoem). Which of Bishop’s poems would you want to carry around in your pocket to share with friends and family?

PUP celebrates National Poetry Month

Princeton University Press will be kicking off National Poetry Month by featuring a new poetry-related title each week on the blog, starting with Colm Tóibín’s deeply personal introduction to the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop. The first National Poetry Month was held in 1996, inspired in part by the success of Black History Month. Organized by the Academy of American Poets, this month-long April holiday has become a widespread way to bolster the appreciation of poetry. Poets.org offers a wealth of free educational resources and information on local poetry events, from PoemCity in Montpelier, VT, to Poetry & the Creative Mind in New York City.

In addition to retrospectives like Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop from our Writers on Writers series, and cultural histories like Catherine Robson’s on poetry recitation, Princeton University Press has long published the best of emerging and established poets in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, currently under the editorship of Princeton professor and former MacArthur Fellow Susan Stewart. Here are some poetry-related choices to enjoy this April:

 

On Elizabeth Bishop What W.H. Auden Can Do For You
The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume V The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume VI
Heart Beats The Eternal City: Poems