Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sunday, January 28, 2007

7 Wonders

Janne at Machu Picchu - May 2005
Stonehenge - August 2001

Of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one (the pyramids of Egypt) still exists. The original list dates from the the 2nd century B.C. Now, voting for the New Seven Wonders of the World is underway. 21 sites have been nominated. The results will be announced in Lisbon, Portugal on July 7 (070707). I've seen 6 of the 21, and perhaps not surprisingly, 4 of those are among my 7 choices. My votes go to Angkor Temple in Cambodia, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, Kiyomizu Temple in Japan, Machu Picchu in Peru, Stonehenge in England, and Timbuktu in Mali.
How Baghdad has Changed--from NY Times Week in Review

Friday, January 26, 2007

Robinson, Mozart, and Others

Scott Donaldson essay on Edward Arlington Robinson in New Letters
Review of Hurricane Blues (poems about Katrina and Rita) by Ellen Steinbaum in The Boston Globe
"The Triumph of Mozart" an essay by by Jon Pott in Books and Culture: A Christian Review in the year of the 250th anniversay of Mozart's birth
New York Times obituary for Ryszard Kapuscinski, author of The Emperor
The drawing and selecting of New Yorker cartoons--from The Washington Post
National Book Critics' Circle Award Nominees

Monday, January 22, 2007

The James Dickey Conference

James Dickey's son Christopher, author of With the Contras and Summer of Deliverance, now Newsweek Paris Bureau Chief

Pat Conroy
I attended most sessions of The James Dickey Conference at the University of South Carolina last Friday and Saturday. Oddly, the venue was the 8th floor of the Business School. The panels featured scholarly papers on Dickey's work as well as personal reminiscences. Attendance was respectable but not quite as heavy as I expected. A number of the presenters, such as Lorrie Goldensohn from Vassar College and Edward Larrissy from the University of Leeds in the UK (both on my Saturday afternoon panel) had their expenses paid. I expected to see far more students, especially grad students, in attendance. Perhaps the conference fee was a deterrent, but you'd think the English Department would wave costs for students. The only undergrad I saw there was my friend Akane, who showed up particularly for my session, which pleased me.
I particularly liked the session featuring writers John Lane, James Applewhite, and Ron Rash, as well as the fascinating panel discussion by Dickey's sons Chris and Kevin, his daughter Bronwen (now in grad school at Columbia University), and his second wife Deborah. They acknowledged his drinking and carousing but all praised his parenting, agreeing that despite his work, he never turned them away. He could be stern but never violent. He often devised inventive, unorthodox games and elaborate fantasies with them. He taught them all to shoot a bow and arrow. Chris and Kevin, who were growing up just as Dickey's star was rising and he was traveling extensively, commented on the poet's contacts with celebrities, such as the time Robert Redford came to visit their Lake Katherine home to discuss movie projects--or the time Bob Dylan called in the middle of the night to discuss creativity.
Pat Conroy, who actually attended some of the other sessions, delivered a funny and poignant closing talk to a packed auditorium. He gave a hilarious account of his own trip down the Chattooga River with a friend, emulating the guys in Deliverance. He spoke for a good 40 minutes from a text hand-penned on yellow legal sheets. He recalled his fascination with Dickey's work when he was in his early twenties, working on the book that would become The Water is Wide. He eventually commuted two days a week to USC to audit a poetry course with Dickey. Conroy admits to being a lousy poet but claims to have learned much from the man he reveres as his best teacher. As much as he admired Dickey, he said, "I got to see James Dickey fall in love with being James Dickey. This taught me something. He was heading straight for 'sock-em dog' [an infamous stretch of rapids on the Chattooga, which had done in Conroy on his outing]." Conroy went on, "It was deleterious to have moon-eyed groupies such as me follow him like turtles around campus."
Conroy, in a characteristic bit of hyperbole, claimed that Poems: 1957-1967 is "the best book of poetry published by an American." Dickey "strung language up to his bow and aimed it at the carotid artery of poetry itself."
About his first book, The Boo, Conroy said that the Citadel officer who was the book's title character was (unlike his father) "a hard man who was also a soft man." And "Dickey was that way too."
Joe Queenan writing about astonishing books

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

James Dickey and Music

James Dickey circa 1985, about when I took his poetry classes at the University of South Carolina

James Dickey Playing Guitar at Home, 1993
Photo by Gene Crediford

Friday and Saturday this week, the University of South Carolina hosts the James Dickey Conference, which comes on the 10th anniversary of his death. The James Dickey Newsletter and Society provides a schedule of events. My presentation Saturday afternoon concern's Dickey's own interest in music, specifically guitar playing, and its manifestation in the poetry--especially in Buckdancer's Choice, his fourth volume, which won the 1966 National Book Award.

Dickey was never better than in that collection, though some of his subsequent poems, such as "Falling" and "The Eye-Beaters" are among his best. Most critics agree that the poems of his last two decades do not measure up to the stunning, innovative early work. There's an argument to be made that his interests turned more to fiction as he attempted to follow up the blockbuster success of Deliverance with the less successful Alnilam and To the White Sea.

Two biographies of Dickey published since his death haven't helped his reputation: his son Christopher's bittersweet memoir, Summer of Deliverance, and Henry Hart's massive James Dickey: The World as a Lie. The bulk of his huge library is now housed in The James Dickey Library and Seminar Room in the Thomas Cooper Library at USC.

Favorable New York Times Review of Buckdancer's Choice in 1966 by Joseph Bennett
All reviews and articles on Dickey published by the New York Times

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Monet in Raleigh

Wednesday I went with 12 colleagues to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh to see the "Monet in Normandy" exhibit--70 or so paintings showing the artist's development from the 1860's, when he was in his twenties, to his final work among his water lilies at Giverny. It's always fascinating to see a chronological record of a master's work, albeit a selective one. The earliest pre-Impressionist work, as colorful as it often is, seems drab and static in comparison to his mid-career and later work, in which waves, trees, grain stacks, cathedrals, or seascapes are often stripped to their abstract essentials but come to life in a stunning scattering of light and brush stroke.

Garden at Sainte-Adresse, 1867

As remarkable as the evolution in his appreciation of and skill in evoking light was Monet's persistence in capturing just the effects he wanted. He would sometimes keep 14 or more paintings of one scene going, shifting his attention from one to the other as the light changed during the day. Thus, he produced multiple renderings of a few scenes that drew his attention: the cathedral at Rouen, the dramatic seaside rock formations at Etretat, or, most famously, his beloved water lilies in his Giverny garden. Perhaps success for an artist (as for an inventor such as Marconi) requires an obsession with the work.

The Needle Rock and the Port d'Aval, Etretat, 1885
I like best his paintings of the middle period, from 1880-1895, but I'm also fond of the somewhat later Houses of Parliament series. One of those I saw in 1965 at Grace Underwood Barton's mansion in Brooklyn Heights. It was Houses of Parliament, Effect of Sunlight (1903). I was visiting along with a group working at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, where we were working for the summer. Barton was an aging member of the church and invited us over. I didn't know much about Monet, but I knew to be impressed when I saw the painting hanging above the mantel. She bequeathed it to the Brooklyn Museum.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Larson, Rosengarten, and Ray

Eric Larson's nonfictional Thunderstruck follows a strategy the author used to stunning effect in The Devil in the White City: the juxtaposition of two parallel story lines that initially seem to relate only tangentially but begin to complement and intersect with one another. In this case, one of Larson's accounts involves Marconi's tireless work on wireless communication, much of which took place in London, where he thought he had a better chance to have his work recognized. The other story line follows the career and relationships of Hawley Harvey Crippen, an American homeopathic doctor who made some money selling patent medicines and married a would-be opera singer with marginal talent. Living in London, the couple seemed happily married for a while, but the relationship ended in murder, a crime solved aboard a U.S.-bound ship with the aid of Marconi's wireless radio. Marconi's doggedly worked to perfect a technology that he had no real assurance could ever work. He proceeded largely by intuition, a sense that wireless communication over long distances was possible. His faith in this, his persistence, and his ability to develop it into a lucrative business, were almost superhuman. This story I find more engaging than that of the ill-fated Crippen.

After finishing Larson's book, I started in on All God's Dangers, a life story narrated by "Nate Shaw" (a pseudonym for Ned Cobb) transcribed by Theodore Rosengarten. Coincidentally, Cobb's life unfolds at the same time as the events in Thunderstruck. Cobb was born in 1885 and was interviewed in 1969. His powers of recall and the intensity of his narrative are amazing, especially for a man of 84. He grew up in Tallapoosa County, Alabama, not far from my hometown of Auburn. Although the locations in the book are fictionalized, I was able to identify many of the actual places by studying a map. He lived near the miniscule town with the actual name of Notasulga, only 20 miles or so from Auburn.

The third nonfiction book on my holiday reading list was Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which I reread with pleasure in anticipation of Ray's visit to our campus later in the spring. I'll use this book as a text in my English Composition course. As with Larson's book, there are two story lines here. The first is an account of her life up through college, her upbringing in the town of Baxley, Georgia with parents who operated a car junkyard. The second is the awakening of her interest in nature, especially the charm of the longleaf pine forests that once dominated Georgia and the surrounding states but were decimated, overcut for lumber and turpentine. Her campaign is to save and expand these forests, which in turn means saving the entire ecosystem that they support.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Remembering a Writing Teacher

Donald Murray

The deaths of three prominent men have dominated the news recently. Former President Gerald Ford was laid to rest in Grand Rapids, Michigan accompanied by countless retrospective accounts of his short-lived but critically important presidency. As far as I can tell, he had no detractors, no enemies. Having been appointed by Nixon to replace Spiro T. Agnew, who resigned in the shadow of financial scandal, he was our only president elevated to the office without having been elected as vice president. His pardon of Nixon was the single most ontroversial act of his presidency, but history has gazed sympathetically on the pardon, many pundits arguing that it was an essential step in the process of national healing that had to follow the Watergate coverup and the dramatic Senate hearings that gripped the country for months in 1973 and then again (with Judiciary Committee deliberations) in 1974.
Simultaneous with the news honoring the life of Gerald Ford was the sudden announcement that Saddam Hussein had been hanging following his conviciton in an Iraqi court. Magnifying the impact of that grisly event was the video recording surreptitiously made (apparently by cell phone) and distributed almost immediately on the internet. The outrage expressed by Sunni Muslims is predictable, although his death was not followed by as much turmoil and violence as some had anticipated. The Bush Administration has tiptoed around Hussein's death, careful not to appear too gleeful, while reminding everyone of the evils he wrought. Christopher Dickey's commentary on the hanging, as well as full coverage of Gerald Ford's death may be found in Newsweek.

Another recent death worth noting is that of James Brown, "The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business," who has a legitimate claim to his title as "Godfather of Soul." In recent years, his reputation has been marred by a string of arrests on firearms and domestic abuse charges. He was jailed for two and a half years as a result of a police chase between Georgia and South Carolina. Brown's BBC obituary.
As notable, in radically different ways, as the lives and deaths of those three men are, of more significance to me personally is the December 30 death of Donald Murray, which was announced in The Boston Globe on New Year's Eve. Murray, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The Boston Herald, joined the faculty of the University of New Hampshire in the sixties and forged a highly successful second career as a writing teacher. He, along with Peter Elbow, was a primary influence on the "writing as process" movement that took hold in the seventies and has continued in composition classrooms to the present. His countless articles, as well as books such as A Writer Teaches Writing and Write to Learn, have motivated a generation of teachers and students. A characteristic excerpt:
Writing is a craft before it is an art; writing may appear magic, but it is our responsibility to take our students backstage to watch the pigeons being tucked up the magician's sleeve. The process of writing can be studied and understood. We can re-create most of what a student or professional writer does to produce effective writing. (AWTW, 2nd ed., p. 4)
Murray, more than anyone else writing about composition, was capable of instilling confidence in the writing process. He demonstrated this repeatedly in a rare openness about his own writing and in his practical in-the-trenches approach to gathering and gradually working through ideas on the page. Although retired from teaching, he continued to write a newspaper column about aging, often focusing on his Alzheimer's-afflicted wife, Minnie Mae, until her death in 2005. He was an admirable, approachable man in person as well as in print.