Wednesday June 3, 2015

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To This May

They know so much more now about
the heart we are told but the world
still seems to come one at a time
one day one year one season and here
it is spring once more with its birds
nesting in the holes in the walls
its morning finding the first time
its light pretending not to move
always beginning as it goes

"To This May” by W.S. Merwin from Present Company. © Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1924, Franz Kafka died (books by this author). He wrote to his friend Max Brod: “Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me [...] in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread. [...] Yours, Franz Kafka.” But Brod had already told him that he would never destroy any of Kafka’s manuscripts — not even if Kafka himself told him to — and critics are skeptical about the sincerity of Kafka’s request. The three novels Kafka left behind — The Trial, Amerika, and The Castle — were all published by Brod, who made substantial changes to the manuscripts. He corrected Kafka’s odd spelling and punctuation, moved chapters and paragraphs around, and gave the works cleaner endings. It was not until the 1970s that the originals were translated into English as Kafka wrote them.

It’s the birthday of Allen Ginsberg (books by this author), born in Newark, New Jersey (1926). His poem “Howl” is said to have turned America from the 1950s into the 1960s overnight. It begins: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night ...”

Many critics agree that Ginsberg’s best poem is “Kaddish.” He wrote most of it in one 40-hour sitting, an epic elegy for his mother who had suffered from mental illness all of Ginsberg’s life and who died in a psychiatric hospital on Long Island in 1956.

The poem for his mother, fully entitled “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894–1956),” begins:

“Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on
the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village,
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking,
talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues
shout blind on the phonograph
the rhythm the rhythm — and your memory in my head three years after —”

It’s the birthday of a novelist who said, “Being a writer and a Texan is an amusing fate.” That’s Larry McMurtry (books by this author), born in Archer City, Texas (1936). Archer City was a small town, and his parents and grandparents were cattle ranchers; he said, “I grew up in a bookless town, in a bookless part of the state.” When he was six years old, his cousin stopped through on the way to enlist in the Army and left behind a box of 19 books, and McMurtry’s love of reading began.

He knew that cattle ranching was not for him, and eventually he went to Rice University. He said, “When I stepped into a university library, at age 18, the whole of the world’s literature lay before me unread, a country as vast, as promising, and, so far as I knew, as trackless as the West must have seemed to the first white men who looked upon it.” At Rice, McMurtry began writing stories. He published a few in the student magazine, but he felt that most of them weren’t very good, and he destroyed more than 50 stories. After graduation, he set out to write a novel, and he returned to one of the stories he had liked best: a story about a herd of cattle infected with hoof-and-mouth disease. He wrote a long novel that he revised over and over, eventually trimming it down to 245 pages. He was just 25 years old when it was published as Horseman, Pass By (1961). His first novel was well received and won an award from the Texas Institute of Letters. A couple of years later, it was made into the film Hud (1963) with Paul Newman. McMurtry wanted to challenge the romanticism of the West. He said: “I’m a critic of the myth of the cowboy. I don’t feel that it’s a myth that pertains, and since it’s a part of my heritage I feel it’s a legitimate task to criticize it.’’

He wrote 10 books, including The Last Picture Show (1966) and Terms of Endearment (1975), both of which were made into successful movies. He was still not particularly famous; he liked to wear a sweatshirt that someone had given him, which was stenciled with the words “Minor Regional Novelist.” Then he decided to write a novel that would help him understand his own father and grandfather better, an epic novel that drew on all the characters and myths of the Old West. He used the landscape of his grandfather’s ranch, with its house on a hill looking out at the plains. He said: “It’s still such a strong landscape for me. I can’t escape it in my fiction. I can work away from it, but I always start here. And whatever place I’m writing about, I’m still describing this same hill.” When he published Lonesome Dove (1985), the book was a huge best-seller: it sold 300,000 copies in hardback and 1.2 million in paperback, and won a Pulitzer Prize. It was also made into a hit miniseries.

McMurtry moved to Washington, D.C., and opened up a bookstore of rare and used books called Booked Up. Then he had a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery, and afterward he suffered from terrible depression. He said: “I faded out of my life. Suddenly I found myself becoming an outline, and then what was within that outline vanished.” He could barely get up from the couch for a year. He didn’t even want to read, but the one thing he continued to do was write, for an hour or two each morning. Finally that writing turned into a book, Streets of Laredo (1993), a sequel to Lonesome Dove. When his depression got better, he moved back to Archer City and opened another rare bookstore there.

He has written more than 30 novels, including Leaving Cheyenne (1963), Buffalo Girls (1990), Sin Killer (2002), and The Last Kind Words Saloon (2014).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®