Someone said that the three greatest characters in the English language are Falstaff, Mr. Pickwick, and Samuel Johnson. And while James Boswell, a reluctant lawyer, did not create Johnson, he did, with The Life of Samuel Johnson, write the greatest biography in English literature. Nothing even remotely comparable to it was written before 1791, and certainly nothing since.
When they met in London, Boswell, a Scot, was only 22 years old; Johnson, from Litchfield, England, was 53. The book grew out of a close relationship between the two exceptional men and a special union of their talents. Johnson, the son of a bookseller, was a genius, a voracious reader, a Classics scholar, a gifted writer, and a conversationalist with an incredible command of the language. Boswell’s illumination of him still glows 225 years later because of Boswell’s skill as a writer, his dramatic sense, his ability to draw people into conversation, his astonishing memory, and his capacity for admiration. He, too, was a genius. The pages of the biography resonate not only with the wisdom and wit of Johnson and Boswell, but also of Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Fanny Burney, and Hester Thrale Piozzi.
Boswell delighted in provoking Johnson with idle and curious comments anticipating the response he knew he would receive. There are numerous instances of his doing this in The Life. Here are a couple:
Boswell: “Some time I have been of a humor of wishing to retire to a desert.”
Johnson: “Sir, you have desert enough in Scotland.”
Boswell: “There is one impudent fellow from Scotland who maintains that there is no distinction between virtue and vice.”
Johnson: “Why, sir, if your fellow does not think as he speaks, he is lying. But if he really does think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, then Sir, when he leaves our house, let us count our spoons!”
Acknowledging and giving tribute to Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is a sincere pleasure. It is unquestionably the finest piece of writing by one human being about another.
More about Johnson and Boswell soon. Until then, happy reading to you.
Some years ago Oxford University Press released an edition of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson with Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides chronologically inserted. The Tour, published several years before The Life, is a journal of Johnson and Boswell’s travels in the Scottish islands. Since I had been reading and collecting books by and about both men for a long time, and since The Tour was not readily available, I ordered the Oxford edition from a local bookstore. Later, while paying for my copy, the store owner said to me, “Samuel Johnson… I bet you don’t know his cat’s name.” I paused, smiled, and answered, “Hodge. Dr. Johnson’s cat was named Hodge.”
The bookstore owner’s deflated pride has been a lesson I’ve not forgotten in the 25 years at Faulkner House: Don’t flaunt knowledge; share it. Customers, I always assume, know as much as I do, and if they are avid collectors, they likely know more. So I listen and learn.
More will come on Johnson and Boswell and other of my favorite writers, as well as some of my most memorable bookstore moments and encounters. Happy reading to you.
The Collected Poems of Ai. W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 35.00. Call us or visit to purchase.
Nominated in 2014 for a Lambda Award, The Collected Poems of Ai is an essential book for just about anyone who takes poetry seriously. Ai, who died of breast cancer in 2010, was a poet who stood alone in the contemporary literary landscape. She wrote primarily in the form of the dramatic monologue, creating fully formed characters and narratives in her work and bringing back to life a form that had been mostly overlooked since the 19th century. Her poetry is complicated, impossible to pin to one aesthetic. Though much of her work deals with race and gender, she has repeatedly refused to label her work as feminist or African American poetry. She is a poet wholly unto herself. After learning that her biological father was violent toward her mother, Ai dropped his last name, and took the name “Ai,” Japanese for “love” and polyphonous with the English pronoun “I,” a name that reminds her readers that she is an individual containing multitudes, who slips effortlessly and empathically into the characters of her poems.
In his introduction to the book, Yousef Komunyaka writes of his first encounter with the poems of Ai, “her poems seemed like scenes from nightmarish movies imprinted on the eyeballs, yet the images were revealed so matter-of-factly, so damn casually.” This is the power of Ai: to horrify her reader without horror in her tone. These are not poems for the faint of heart, but neither are they bereft of beauty. Quite the opposite: Ai’s images are wholly original, almost mythic, and they elevate the violence and sorrow of her work to a place of universal importance. An example of this is the beginning of the poem “Prostitute,” in her first book, Cruelty:
Husband, for a while, after I shoot you,
I don’t touch your body,
I just cool it with my paper fan,
the way I used to on hot nights,
as the moon rises, chip of avocado…
Death, violence, the chilling ethereality of the moon: Ai captures it all in just a few perfect lines. The horror lived and enacted by Ai’s characters is elevated to the status of myth, of sacrifice, of ritual. In her early work, she uses her own experiences of violence and poverty to give aching voice to characters from America’s underbelly: the rural poor, women in violent marriages, midwives carrying out abortions, murderers. But she goes a step further, too, turning these characters from mere humans into demigods of cruelty.
In an interview, Ai once said, surprisingly, that the poems in Cruelty were about love: “The distinction between my ‘sex-and-violence’ poems and others you might read is that in mine the characters love each other. The poems are not hate poems.” In her early work, Ai approached love through a lens of sorrow and violence, refusing to sentimentalize the often-brutal complexities of human emotion. It is jarring to see these as love poems, as love is juxtaposed so violently with images of cruelty. For example, in “The Hitchhiker,” Ai writes from the perspective of a male murderer:
We stop, and as she moves closer to me, my hands ache,
but somehow I get the blade into her chest. I think a song: “Everybody needs somebody,
everybody needs somebody to love.
The murder itself is, in a way, an act of love, with the speaker literally claiming the woman’s heart as he thinks of a love song. In The Killing Floor’s “The Kid,” one of Ai’s most famous poems, she inhabits the voice of a child who murders his family. In the midst of the poem, a conventional love lyric is twisted into a line on murder:
Roses are red, violets are blue,
One bullet for the black horse, two for the brown.
The child who kills his family is perhaps one of her most representative characters, embodying the paradox of love and cruelty and the absurd evil that humans, even children, are capable of in Ai’s dark poetic vision.
To echo again Komunyaka’s sentiments, in her best work, Ai presents gruesome occurrences without commenting on them, allowing the reader to be shocked by what is presented in such sparse language. In “The Cockfighter’s Daughter,” from her third book, Sin, death is both horrific and ordinary:
I found my father,
face down, in his homemade chili
and had to hit the bowl
with a hammer to get it off,
then scrape the pinto beans
and chunks of ground beef
off his face with a knife.
The meal is literally fused with death, food rotting into the flesh of a deceased body. The speaker is unphased, breaking the bowl from her father’s face before calling the police. Death is made extraordinary through its extreme ordinariness, its ability, like the poet herself, to turn everyday circumstances horrific.
Throughout her life, Ai was ever evolving as a poet, and this collection is invaluable for its scope of her prolific career. In her fifth book, Greed, Ai focuses on the intersection of American capitalism and violence, and approaches political figures with humor in a departure from her solemn earlier work. In “Hoover Trismegistus,” for example, she writes,
When they called Joe McCarthy’s bluff,
he grabbed his nuts and ran
and the others banned together
to save their asses
any way they could.
There are multiple poems about Hoover in this book, in which Ai shows that she is capable of writing poems that use humor and American vernacular, departing from the mythic quality of her earlier work.
In her final two collections, Dread and No Surrender, Ai mostly abandons her political characters, turning to a more personal poetics. No Surrender, which was released after her sudden death in 2010, was written while Ai was working on a memoir, and is particularly personal. Ai inhabits a woman’s voice more often here than in earlier collections, in particular in poems titled “Motherhood,” “Sisterhood,” and “Widowhood.”
The final poem in No Surrender and in this collection, 2010’s “The Cancer Chronicles,” is particularly striking. It is written in the rare third person, though the “she” refers to Ai herself, who died that year of cancer. It is as if to get to such a personal place in her poetry, Ai needed to take the rare step of distancing herself from the speaker. The poem chronicles Ai’s relationship with cancer, from the first discovery of the lump to death. She speaks of the tumor as “a relative who’d fallen on hard times,” and says of it,
I’ll feed, clothe and house you,
But I will not allow you to destroy me.
Ai watches her own death with fear and fascination: “She never knew what to expect of her furtive trysts with death.” Death in this poem, like everything in Ai’s poetry, is deceptively complicated, alternately terrifying and exhilarating. The poem and the book end with the poet’s death, a fitting and tragic conclusion for a posthumous collection.
We are lucky to have the unique poetics of Ai collected for the first time. The poet Vijay Seshadri writes in the New York Times of Ai, “Here is an imagination that has consistently fought its way into the most terrible places of human experience.” And yet she does not exploit those places, but rather forces her reader to face the horrors that humans visit upon one another. Ai is an uncompromising poet, a prophet of both love and violence.
This Saturday from 2-3pm at Faulkner House Books, we will be hosting the author Kevin Sessums, who will be signing his new book I Left it on the Mountain, which is the followup to his best-selling memoir Mississippi Sissy. Publisher’s Weekly writes of the book:
Sessums chronicles his career as a prominent celebrity writer for Vanity Fair, Interview, and Parade, rubbing elbows with Andy Warhol and interviewing Madonna and Courtney Love before falling into methamphetamine addiction. Interludes throughout the primary narrative detail Sessums’s love of extreme travel: he’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and walked the famed El Camino Santiago across Spain. However, his love of other extremes—in sex and drugs—seeps into his sparkling career.
Read the rest of the review here, and join us tomorrow to pick up a copy of the book and meet the author! As always, we’re at 624 Pirate’s Alley in the French Quarter.
And this Sunday, March 15, from 2-4:30pm, the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society will be co-sponsoring a celebration of the launch of Randy Fertel‘s new book, A Taste of Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation, at the Cabildo in Jackson Square. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins says of the book,
A Taste for Chaos provides a sweeping view of the complex history of the notion of artistic spontaneity. Packed with erudition and references ranging from Lucretius to James Brown, and written with reader-friendly clarity, Fertel’s book is a lively examination of the centuries-old debate between the improvisers and the deliberators. This detailed labor of love deserves its place on any serious bookshelf devoted to literary study or the history of ideas.
Randy will give us his own take on improvisation, which he sees as at the very heart of literature. There will be wine, refreshments, and books available for sale. This is a free event, but please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org so we have enough wine for everyone!
Denise Levertov, The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov. New Directions, 2013. $49.95. Call (504)-524-2940 to order or visit us in Pirate’s Alley!
Though she died in 1997, it wasn’t until last year that we were finally graced with Denise Levertov’s complete collected works. This is a beautiful volume, stunning even before it is opened to reveal the life’s work of one of 20th century America’s most important poets. The poems’ chronological arrangement allows us to observe the evolution of Levertov’s poetic voice over a period of more than 60 years.
If you are unfamiliar with Levertov’s less known works, this is the perfect opportunity to delve into her canon. She is a poet whose entire oeuvre demands reading and rereading. Poetry was her highest truth, as she writes in the poem A Cloak, from Relearning the Alphabet:
Levertov’s poetry is characterized by her precision: reality sparkles under her guidance, coming into sharp focus to reveal beauty that we might otherwise have overlooked. Her early collections (The Double Image, Here and Now, Overland to the Islands) are pure lyric, concerned deeply with the perennial subjects of love and death, marriage and war. An early poem, 1940’s Listening to Distant Guns, foreshadows some of her major poetic concerns:
That low pulsation in the east is war:
No bell now breaks the evening’s silent dream.
The bloodless clarity of evening’s sky
Betrays no whisper of the battle scream.
Levertov approaches her topics with a realist’s eye for the background noise. She brings the war into focus here, for example, by dwelling on the places where war seems nonexistent, the negative spaces of the horror, and she brings into chilling relief the powerlessness of human suffering to touch every part of the world.
In Here and Now, Levertov brings her uncompromising vision to New Orleans’ own Jackson Square (home of Faulkner House Books!) She writes,
Bravo! the brave sunshine.
A triangle of green green contains
the sleek and various pigeons
the starving inventors and all
who sit on benches in the morning,
to sun tenacious hopes…
She focuses on the smaller details of the place: not the looming cathedral, but the hopes of the “starving” people who try to make a living in the square. And yet the sun is still bright, the pigeons still varied; though sorrow is an inextricable part of her poetic world, it does not color all it touches. And isn’t this the most unsettling thing of all, to know that though we suffer, the sun shines on?
In With Eyes at the Back of our Heads, we see a poetic shift in which Levertov becomes more concerned with the role of the poet in her society. The book begins with a translation of a Toltec codice entitled The Artist, in which the true creator is praised. And in the poem The Charge, she writes,
to all the unsaid
all the lost living untranslated
in any sense,
and the dead
only in dreams that die by morning
is a mourning or ghostwalking only.
You must make, said music…
For Levertov, it becomes increasingly important that her poetic and political lives overlap and fuse. Art is a way for her to respond productively to the political upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s.
In 1971’s To Stay Alive, Levertov writes wrenchingly of the death of her sister and the war in Vietnam. These poems are darker than her early work, and rightly so. Her “political” poems demonstrate perhaps most clearly her humanity as well as her poetic abilities. In Life at War, she writes,
We are the humans, men who can make;
whose language imagines mercy,
lovingkindness we have believed one another
mirrored forms of a God we felt as good—
who do these acts, who convince ourselves
it is necessary; these acts are done
to our own flesh; burned human flesh
is smelling in Vietnam as I write.
She resists always the dehumanization of war, forcing her reader to recognize that though the sun still shines, we cannot escape the legacy of the suffering we enact upon one another. Humans are great artists; we are also murderers, and this is the cold truth of which she reminds us.
Her later work shifts again, to what Eavan Boland calls in her introduction to the collection “a fully realized moral vision.” Many of her poems from the 80’s onward, informed by her late conversion to Christianity, survey the beauty of their world and seek its goodness. These lines from the poem Salvation, from Sands of the Well, strike me as particularly transcendent:
this unhoped-for pardon will once more permit
the stream to offer itself at last
to the lake, the lake will accept it, take it
the stream restored will become pure lake.
Levertov’s Collected Poems is a treasure chest waiting to be searched. Her poetic vision is always clear, striking, incisive. Whether she is writing about nature or war, marriage or death, she never wavers from her commitment to artistic excellence. She brings to mind the idea of the poet as prophet, as she was surely a voice of her time.
Louise Glück, Poems 1962-2012. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2013. $40.00. Call (504) 524-2940 to order or visit us!
If you have encountered Louise Glück’s work only through the odd anthology, or if you haven’t yet had the chance to discover her, this beautiful volume is the perfect way to delve deep into the canon of one of America’s most important contemporary poets. Robert Boyers writes in The Nation that Glück “has found ways to engage with the world as it is without capitulating to its felt demand that she renounce any alternative sense of what is real.” Glück does not create her own mythology, but rather infuses the stark reality of her lived experience with myth, paradoxically increasing the precision of the realism in these poems. In 1996’s Meadowlands, for example, Glück uses the story of the Odyssey as observed by Penelope and Telemachus to create heightened resonance in poems about her own unraveling marriage. In Penelope’s Song, she writes,
He will be home soon;
it behooves you to be
generous. You have not been completely
perfect either; with your troublesome body
you have done things you shouldn’t
discuss in poems.
Glück inhabits the anger of Penelope, who has been raped in the absence of Odysseus. She calls upon herself to “be generous,” though tragedy and unfaithfulness have driven a wedge between herself and her beloved.
For her there is no shortcut to the truth; truth itself is tangled, unclear, complicated. In “Moonless Night,” Glück writes, “Such a mistake to want / clarity above all things.” Truth is in the bleakness of Vita Nova’sAubade, the “room with a chair, a window. / A small window, filled with the pattern the light makes.” Yet truth also reveals itself, in a later Aubade from The Seven Ages, through the “Smell of the mock orange tree / Corridors of jasmine and lilies.” Glück confronts the complexity of beauty and sorrow through a careful assortment of objects. The flowers in her poetry, like the chairs, are unadorned.
You may know her most famous poem, The Garden, from 1980’s Descending Figure, which includes the lines:
The garden admires you.
For your sake it smears itself with green pigment,
the ecstatic reds of the roses,
so that you will come to it with your lovers.
Here, as elsewhere, Glück subverts the traditionally “feminine” style of ornamentation. She is anti-Romantic: in the process of ornamentation, her garden “smears” itself. In Glück’s work, nature is no pastoral comfort. It is a set of objects, and like the chair, or the window, it is tinged with the darkness that inhabits all aspects of the human condition. As she writes in Sunrise, from 2009’s A Village Life, “maybe that’s what nothing tastes like, thyme and rosemary.” The natural world is equated with the void that seems always at the edge of these poems. Beauty is not enough for Glück. In her poetry, she seeks something deeper, something harsher. And in this collection, spanning 50 years of her career, we watch as she deftly paints a world of darkness, a world of beauty.