Thursday Feb. 18, 2016

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Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

“Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert from Refusing Heaven. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of poet Jack Gilbert (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1925). He failed out of high school and found jobs as a pest exterminator and a steel worker. He was eventually admitted to the University of Pittsburgh without a high school degree — apparently on a clerical error. One of his classmates was Gerald Stern, who wrote poetry; after they became friends, Gilbert decided to try writing some poems of his own.

When he published his first book, Views of Jeopardy (1962), he won the Yale Younger Poets prize and became an instant celebrity. He had photo spreads in Glamour, Vogue, and Esquire; famous poets praised him publicly; and Views of Jeopardy was so popular that it became the most stolen book from American libraries. He said: “I enjoyed those six months of being famous. Fame is a lot of fun, but it’s not interesting. I loved being noticed and praised, even the banquets. But they didn’t have anything that I wanted. After about six months, I found it boring. There were so many things to do, to live.”

So he left the country. He had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which meant $5,000 and the chance to travel in Europe, and for the next two decades, he rarely returned to the United States. He lived in Greece, Denmark, and England with his partner, the poet Linda Gregg. She said: “All Jack ever wanted to know was that he was awake — that the trees in bloom were almond trees — and to walk down the road to get breakfast. He never cared if he was poor or had to sleep on a park bench.” After they broke up, Gilbert fell in love with a sculptor named Michiko Nogami, and he moved with her to Japan. During all those years, he didn’t publish another book — when he was asked why, he said that he was spending his time falling in love with those two women.

In 1982, he published his second book, Monolithos. That same year, Nogami died of cancer; she was just 36 years old. Gilbert wrote a chapbook dedicated to her, Kochan (1984), and then once again didn’t publish for a decade. He continued to travel; he never owned a home, and drove a car only twice. He managed to annoy a lot of his contemporaries because he was so critical — in 1962, he announced: “If 99 percent of the poets writing today stopped publishing, it would not be a loss.” He didn’t like poets who had nice comfortable jobs at universities, and who wrote impressive-sounding poems about things that didn’t matter much. He said that most American poets didn’t even actually want to write poems, but had to in order to keep getting grants and positions. He said: “If he’s a man teaching at a university, as he probably is, and married to a wife he courted years ago, and has several quite healthy children [...] what’s he going to make his poems out of? [...] He’s unlikely to be what the Elizabethans admired so much, an over-reacher. You aren’t likely to get a big-boned poem straining its limits. [...] They reduce poetry to something toilet-trained and comfortable.” He said that the only things really worth writing about were these: “Love, death, man, virtue, nature, magnitude, excellence, evil, suffering, courage, morality. What is the good life. What is honor. Who am I.”

After Monolithos, he wrote just three more books of poetry: The Great Fires (1994), Refusing Heaven (2005), and The Dance Most of All (2010). When his Collected Poems was published in 2012, all of his work fit in its 400 pages. Gilbert died later that year.

It’s the 85th birthday of Chloe Wofford, better known to readers as Toni Morrison (books by this author). She was born in Lorain, Ohio, on this date in 1931. Lorain was a small town, with one high school. “We all played together,” Morrison remembers. “Everybody was either somebody from the South or an immigrant from east Europe or from Mexico. And there was one church and there were four elementary schools. We were all pretty much [...] very, very poor.” She never lived in a black neighborhood, and everyone just went to school together and didn’t think anything of it. “I didn’t really have a strong awareness of segregation and the separation of races until I left Lorain,” she said. She grew up listening to her mother sing — all kinds of music, from opera to the blues — and her chief sources of entertainment were radio plays, and the ghost stories and folk tales that the grown-ups around her would tell.

She studied literature at Howard University and eventually returned there to teach. She took a job editing textbooks for Random House, and moved to Syracuse, New York, a divorced mother of two young boys. That was when she started writing in earnest. “I was in a place where I knew I was not going to be for a long time,” she said. “I didn’t have any friends and didn’t make any, didn’t want any because I was on my way somewhere else. So I wrote as a thing to do.” Her first book, The Bluest Eye (1970), grew from a short story she had brought to a writers’ group. In 1983, she left her publishing job to write full time. In 1987, she published the book that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize: Beloved. In 1993, she received the Nobel Prize in literature.

Beloved was inspired by the real-life story of Margaret Garner, a woman who escaped slavery in 1856. Garner fled from Kentucky with her husband and children, and made it across the Ohio River, but slave owners caught up with them. Margaret Garner killed her young daughter rather than allow her to be taken back into slavery. Morrison had come upon an article about Garner in 1974 when she was compiling The Black Book, an anthology of archival materials on the African-American experience. When Morrison accepted one of many awards that Beloved received, she said that the book was necessary because there were no memorials to the millions of victims of slavery. “There’s no small bench by the road,” she said. “And because such a place doesn’t exist [...] the book had to.”

Morrison has published 11 novels, including Song of Solomon (1977), Jazz (1992), and A Mercy (2008). Her latest novel is God Help the Child, which came out last year (2015). She wrote a number of children’s books that were illustrated by her son Slade; he died of cancer in 2010. She also wrote the libretto for an opera based on the life of Margaret Garner (2005).

It’s the birthday of Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis (books by this author), born in Heraklion, Crete (1883). Kazantzakis made his international reputation as a writer fairly late — when he was 56 — with the publication of his best-known work, Zorba the Greek (1946). The book was semi-autobiographical, based on a man Kazantzakis had known, George Zorbas, who in the novel is an uneducated man who pursues experiential rather than book learning, and who drinks, works, loves, and lives like a force of nature, the perfect embodiment of vital energy.

Kazantzakis’s other well-known work is The Last Temptation (1953), which was condemned and banned by the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches for presenting a Christ who wants to cast off his divinity. The work reached a new level of notoriety after Kazantzakis’s death when director Martin Scorsese adapted it for film, and book and movie alike were attacked for what many church leaders said were blasphemous implications. Kazantzakis, on the other hand, felt his revisionist look at Jesus was in fact a reverent one and that “every free man who reads this book, so filled as it is with love, will more than ever before, better than ever before, love Christ.”

When Kazantzakis died, the church refused him burial in consecrated ground, and he was laid to rest in a tomb outside the walls of his ancient hometown, his grave marked by a stone that reads: I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.

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