Here’s three more books I just finished reading (or rereading):
1. DANTE by R. W. B. LEWIS
2. WALT WHITMAN The Song of Himself by Jerome Loving
3. BACK ON THE FIRE Essays by Gary Snyder
All three of these poets—Dante, Whitman and Snyder—were early influences on my work.
1. Dante’s early book LA VITA NUOVA, with its mix of prose and poetry, influenced the kinds of books I wanted to write. His “DIVINE COMEDY” I dip into various translations of now and then to remind me of the magnitude of his accomplishment.
But despite that, and the fact that I love The Penguin Lives Series of biographies—even did a post about them—I hadn’t really read the one on DANTE by R. W. B. Lewis. That is, I read it while standing in a bookstore but never brought it home and lived with it the way I do with books I really dig.
Interestingly, I’d read and dug years ago Lewis’s EDITH WHARTON: A BIOGRAPHY (she’s another writer whose work I fell in love with early on).
When I wrote the post about the Penguin Lives, my friend Ray DiPalma recommended the DANTE, so I picked it up in a used bookstore and this time brought it home and was glad I did.
Lewis writes of what is known of Dante’s life, and somewhat of what has been speculated or can be surmised, always clearly denoting where he is imagining what is highly likely from all the evidence.
His recreation of a time when poetry mattered to the general populace and not just to other poets, and when poets not only were often respected, even revered, but also when they exchanged poems freely, responding to each other’s work, even touting their own work ala the rap poets of today, made Dante’s life and world extremely real to me.
And Lewis’s own observations are individual enough and smart enough to keep me interested in his perspective as well, necessary to the enjoyment of any biography.
For instance in his discussion of the “Paradiso” section of LA COMMEDIA, when at a lower level of the celestial realm (actually “in” the “moon”) Dante encounters a woman he knows and asks her how she can be so obviously contented at not being on a higher level of heaven, and it becomes clear to Dante (and here I quote R. B. Lewis’s text):
“’…everywhere in Heaven is Paradise.’ Piccarda Donati [the woman] follows with the finest single line in the Pradiso (iii 85): ‘His will is our peace.’ It is a line that seizes the mind at once and repays long meditation: ‘la sua voluntade e nostra pace.’”
2. Whitman’s love of litanies reverberated with the Catholic liturgy in the Latin Mass of my childhood, and matched my own love of lists which became a recurring device in my poetry, as did the long breath of his long lines, and his embrace, at least in his writing, of all experience and all types of humans.
Though not my very favorite biography of Whitman, Jerome Loving’s is one of my favorites, and I am always reading or re-reading Whitman’s poetry and prose and/or a biography of him, and this summer I chose the Loving.
He disagrees with the authors of my other two favorite Whitman biographies—Justin Kaplan and David S. Reynolds—on some of the details of Whitman’s early life and publications (the period before he became the masterful poet we know and was still a journalist and political essayist and fiction writer, as well as a more conventional poet),
But otherwise it is a story I am more than familiar with, and yet it never bores me.
I suppose that’s just a matter of taste and personal history, or maybe it’s just my own compulsiveness, but whatever the origins, I find Whitman’s life emblematic of the history of the U.S. and of “modern” poetry and writing in general, and his spirit—despite the critical perspectives of his biographers and the differences between his times and opinions and mine—I find his spirit and beliefs, as avowed in LEAVES OF GRASS and SPECIMEN DAYS as compatible with mine as anyone I’ve ever read or encountered.
To me, Whitman is the Dalai Lama of poetry and spirituality, the non organized-religion kind of spirituality that satisfies my soul.
4. I knew of Gary Snyder before I fell in love with his work. That happened in 1966, after I was discharged from the service. My first wife and I were living in Brooklyn Heights, where the only patron I ever had was putting us up in a fancy apartment while paying me to write “the great American novel,” which she was sure I would.
My wife became jealous of the patron, and then my mother passed, creating a reason to abandon the patron and the apartment and the income to move to Jersey to care for my father until other arrangements could be made
It was there, on his TV, I watched a series of educational black-and-white half hour films on contemporary poets—fifteen minutes devoted to each of two poets.
I remember Frank O’Hara being one of the poets profiled, and being amazed as he wrote a poem while talking to whoever was behind the camera filming him and then answering the phone and talking to a friend while continuing to write the poem, which after the call he pulled fresh from the typewriter to read to the camera!
I was already into O'Hara, had been infleunced by him without admitting it yet. Charles Olson was also profiled. I can’t remember anymore who else. I dug them all, but the poet who impressed me most was Gary Snyder, just sitting on a stool reading to the camera. He seemed to be reading directly to me in a way that was an epiphany.
It wasn’t that he was doing something incredibly new, I could see the impact of another of my early influences—William Carlos Williams—on his direct speech and concrete subject matter and so on, but I felt this connection to the stories in his poems, even though I was an East Coast guy with an entirely different set of experiences and reference points.
The connection may have been working with our hands—something I swore I would no longer do after I left home, wanting to make my living by my wits and creativity, not by the manual labor I grew up doing in my father’s home maintenance business where I worked for free after school and Saturdays and the other jobs I had at night and on Sundays to make my “pocket money.”
The idea of work is central to Snyder’s first book, and the one I instantly ran out and bought after seeing that film, RIP RAP, about working in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. I wasn’t an outdoors kind of guy, more city oriented, but I worked with older guys on ancient Victorian mansions—painting, and window washing and replacing, and leader and gutter cleaning, climbing ladders, carrying ladders, hard work in the open air, like Snyder’s poems referred to. Maybe that was the connection that caused that epiphany.
I’m not sure where he was filmed reading his poetry, since he didn’t return to the USA from Japan until 1968, not long after which I met him (working by hand on the first, limited edition of one of his best poetry collections REGARDING WAVE, I was the “printers devil” who set the movable type and worked the old Washington Press and creased the pages with a decades worn piece of bone and helped hand sew the folios together and cut the pages and hold them open for him to sign).
He disappointed me by insisting that the smartest thing I could do for my poetry and my family would be to move to the land Snyder owned in the Sierras and build a house for myself and my wife and our little girl and the second child she was expecting. Snyder couldn’t fathom why I would want to live in Manhattan, or any city.
It was tedious talking to him about it, unfortunately, as are some of the paragraphs in this collection of essays BACK ON THE FIRE that contain the same kinds of West Coast Pacific Rim chauvinism I encountered when I first met him.
There always seems to be an anti-European bent in Snyder’s essays, if not his poetry, that I used to share, from a different perspective, Jersey Irish etc., but which now just seems like another kind of provincialism.
I know enough, and did then, about Japanese history and culture, as well as other Asian societies and their histories, to feel they deserve no special dispensation for their crimes and follies, anymore than European societies do.
Any nation, any society, any ethnic group or so-called “race” or religion or “sexual orientation”—any kind of human category—is just as capable as any other of atrocities toward other living creatures and to the earth itself. No one gets off that hook, including ancient “civilizations” and “pre-historic” peoples.
Yes, some are worse than others in specific instances, but given the right motivation and opportunity, it seems every society can produce some evil along with the good.
But despite that huge caveat, I always love to read Snyder. He’s a terrifically clear writer, who always makes me think and consider, or reconsider, my perspective on whatever he’s writing about.
In BACK ON THE FIRE it’s mostly ecological matters, but also poetry. His mini-essay on the passing of Allen Ginsberg is almost worth the price of the book. And there are other thoughtful and thought provoking pieces in this collection of published essays and forwards and afterwards and fragments of poems and etc.
Here’s an example from “Writers and the War Against Nature”—the longest piece in BACK ON THE FIRE:
“Later it came to me, green plants doing photosynthesis are the ultimate working class. Nature creates the first level of value, labor the second.”
Bet you hadn’t thought of that one.
But if you don’t know Snyder’s work, the best introductions are his two slim volumes of poetry and prose: RIP RAP and EARTH HOUSEHOLD.
If you do know him, you might dig a lot in this collection.