Belinda’s Book Notes – April 2021
POETRY MONTH, NEW BOOKS FROM OLD FRIENDS, ‘TRIBUTES OF PLEASURE’ – SPRING!
‘The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.’ (George Herbert, ‘The Flower’)
That sense of a gift freely given is echoed in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘A Cold Spring’, perhaps one of the loveliest of Spring poems – ‘Now, from the thick grass, the fireflies/begin to rise:/up, then down, then up again:/ lit on the ascending flight,/ drifting simultaneously to the same height,/ – exactly like the bubbles in champagne….. And your shadowy pastures will be able to offer/ these particular glowing tributes/ every evening now throughout the summer.’
As an added gift, the epigraph to ‘A Cold Spring’ is from Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnet ‘Spring’ – ‘Nothing is so beautiful as Spring’. All these poems can be found on Poetry Foundation.org.
So, in these Notes for April, I offer ‘tributes of pleasure’ to some of those who are contributing to the life of the Library, making it, in George Herbert’s words ‘new, tender, quick’, words from his poem ‘Love Unknown’ that belong to any time or season but somehow especially to now. Incidentally, his birthday is April 3rd! Something to celebrate!
‘Waking Up To The Earth’ is the title of the anthology that Connecticut Poet Laureate, Margaret Gibson, will be presenting on Sunday, April 11th with a group of Connecticut poets reading their poems. As Keats wrote ‘The poetry of earth is never dead’. Margaret is devoted to helping us hear that poetry, through her own work and as an advocate for that of others.
An exciting publishing event this month is a collection of James Merrill’s letters edited by Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser entitled ‘A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill’. It is hard to imagine two more qualified people to handle such a project – and that it is coming out on the anniversary of the death of James Merrill’s close friend and fellow poet Sandy McClatchy has a powerful significance. Life continues and is indeed ‘new, tender, quick’.
Gregory Dowling in his review of the letters in the Wall Street Journal (3/6/21) writes “the art, the music, the reading in esoteric subjects, the daily life of shopping and cooking – and, most important, the friendships…This book immerses us in that world, and enriches our understanding of the poetry that came out of it.” We have a taste of that friendship, food and poetry in James Merrill’s life here in Stonington – those parsnips in Eleanor Pereny’s garden immortalized in his poem From the Cupola – “Finally I reach a garden where I am to uproot/ the last parsnips for my sisters’ dinner….. I look at them a long while/ mealy and soiled…blind… with tender blindness. Then I bury them/ once more in memory of us.”
Other book news, local author, friend and neighbor, David Leeming, James Baldwin’s biographer and author of many books on myth, has two new books that will be published later this year. One is ‘a discussion of Native American creation myths in the context of and as opposed to American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny and the reality of a nation built on stolen people and stolen land’. The second is in the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series and is on world mythology. It is a survey of the various cultural treatments of universal topics – deity, creation, the flood, the trickster and the hero. David has kindly agreed to give talks on both these books once we can have in person programs again.
Thanks to the thoughtful generosity of James Longenbach, we have some important additions to our poetry collection, his highly regarded works on the art of poetry as well as volumes of his own poetry. Here I want to pay tribute (‘tributes of pleasure’) to James’s father, artist and educator, Burton Longenbach, for his enchanting drawing on the cover of ‘Stone Cottage, Pound, Yeats & Modernism’, James’s acclaimed critical study of the friendship of Yeats and Pound. Mr Longenbach’s line drawing of Stone Cottage matches exactly the description of the cottage and Ashdown Forest and its history at the beginning of the book – Ashdown Forest, haunt of The Venerable Bede when he wasn’t at Lindisfarne, and home to the Five Hundred Acre Wood, scene of the adventures of Winnie the Pooh! Land of enchantments. No wonder it appealed to Yeats.
It also seems appropriate in Spring and in Poetry Month to recall Ezra Pound’s famous dictum ‘Make it New’ – which in turn echoes the 17th Century physician Sir Thomas Browne – inspiration to Herman Melville in his writing of ‘Moby Dick’ and a favorite author of Elizabeth Bishop’s. In his introduction to his essay ‘The Garden of Cyrus’, Browne wrote to his friend Nicholas Bacon, ‘of old things we write something new.’
Which brings me to another book donated by James Longenbach and just added to our collection – ‘Conversations with Joanna Scott’. In one of these interviews Joanna says ‘I have always appreciated the power of fiction to make us responsive…. To give us the ability to go out and see the world with freshness and intensity’. Again, new – new ways of seeing.
Jim and Joanna will be giving a reading for the Library from their new work on June 17th – Jim from his new book of poetry, ‘Forever’ and Joanna from her new collection of stories, ‘ Excuse Me While I Disappear’.
Still celebrating poetry, the ‘Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt’ has been added to the collection as has ‘Love Amy’, her selected letters. As I mentioned in an earlier Notes, Willard Spiegelman’s biography of Amy Clampitt will be published later this year, as will Jonathan Post’s ‘Elizabeth Bishop, A Very Short Introduction’. This is his second book in this Oxford University Press series following his study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems published in 2017 – a happy reminder that April is Shakespeare’s birthday – let ‘..sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child/Warble his native wood-notes wild,’(Milton, ‘L’Allegro’).
Both Willard and Jonathan have kindly agreed to give talks on their much awaited books later this year. What a wealth of talent and generosity we enjoy. So much to look forward to. So much that is new happening at the Library – always!
Belinda’s Book Notes – March 2021
“I sing of the Spring flower-crowned,
I sing the praises of the Rose,
Friend, help me sing my song….”
An invitation to think Spring by the Greek, Anacreon (5th Century BCE) – quoted on the cover of a seed catalogue that Katherine White chose as her frontispiece in the first of her fourteen essays in the New Yorker, published on March 1st 1958. These essays were collected together after her death by her husband E. B. White (‘Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, et al) into one of the most enchanting gardening books ever written – “Onward and Upward in the Garden’. It is even more enchanting as it can be enjoyed and savored even if you have neither the opportunity nor the inclination to garden – enjoyed for its wit and wisdom, its warmth and wonderful writing, her voice as clear and real as when she first wrote.
Many will know Katherine White as the distinguished editor at the New Yorker whose correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop is among the finest of any epistolary exchanges, their voices and their friendship alive on the page. (The book is ‘Elizabeth Bishop at the New Yorker’ edited by Joelle Biele.) I recently came across a quote from the 20th Century English novelist, Henry Green – ‘Prose is an intimacy between strangers’. A comforting observation in this time of imposed isolation – especially as the word intimacy seems to cancel the idea of stranger and replace it with friend – the friend who will help us sing our song. (By the way, Henry Green’s novels are delightful if you don’t know them.)
When I read the first essay in ‘Onward and Upward in the Garden’, the paean of praise to the writers of seed catalogues, my mind leapt to our upcoming program on March 18th with Master Gardener Noreen Kepple!
Surely, everything does connect! Noreen has given delightfully informative presentations on gardening at the Library and it was she who established our very popular Seed Library several years ago – which our staff member Ivy Hope Burns, has kept going in spite of the pandemic restrictions. Thank you Ivy! It was these restrictions that made gardening and seed planting a number one activity for all ages last year and this Spring it will have the same life giving appeal.
Noreen’s program is the second in our new lecture series – at present still via Zoom – and it will follow Stuart Vyse’s talk on March 14th on his book ‘Superstition – A Very Short Introduction’– an engaging and fascinating read which I highly recommend. We are very grateful that he has agreed to do this for us. It promises to be both informative and entertaining!
Like superstitions, gardens have been around forever and maybe longer than that. Milton’s Eden was wondrously beautiful but very labor intensive, which caused Adam a lot of stress and then disagreements between him and his beloved (Bk IX) and, alas, as you know, things did not end well. On the other hand, the Roman poet, Ovid, (whose birthday is March 20th, 43 BCE) had a more relaxed approach and said that, when his time came, he would be content to die while planting his cabbages, and, what is more, did not care if he had not finished doing so! He and Adam should have had a chat. Meanwhile, a bit nearer our time, 18th Century Voltaire’s Candide concluded that the best answer when the world falls apart is that ‘We must cultivate our own garden’. What interesting shoes we walk in as we journey on into another Spring.
My other all time favorite book about gardening was written right here in our own backyard. ‘Green Thoughts – A Writer in the Garden’ by Eleanor Perenyi. Eleanor was a resident of Stonington for over thirty years until her death in 2009, author of a biography of Liszt and an enchanting memoir of her life in Hungary before the war, ‘More Was Lost’ – reprinted to much acclaim by the New York Review of Books in 2016 with an introduction by J.D. (Sandy) McClatchy.
Published in 1981, ‘Green Thoughts’ was republished in 2002 as a very attractive paperback by the Library of America and, like Katherine White’s book, can be read with enjoyment by gardeners and non-gardeners alike. Full of strong opinions, huge breadth of knowledge as well as an infectious passion for gardens, this book has that same quality – the experience for the reader of being in conversation and being the richer for it.
Eleanor and her mother, the novelist Grace Zaring Stone (‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’ was one of her many novels) were large presences in the community and even make a cameo appearance in a James Merrill poem. In fact, in a delightful neighborly pas de deux, James Merrill makes an appearance in ‘Green Thoughts’ in a touching and lyrical passage in ‘From the Cupola’, a poem in the volume ‘Nights and Days’. I cannot quote it for copyright reasons, but if you go to Poetry.org you will find it, ‘Finally I reach a garden where I am to uproot the last parsnips’. Or look in ‘Green Thoughts’ under ‘Reward’ – the book has the easy charm of arranging each subject in alphabetical order. It is worth the trip I promise, as is Eleanor’s ecstatic comment – ‘The parsnips have made it into literature. Onward!’.
Friends helping each other sing their song. And talking of song, Eleanor took her title, as many of you will know, from the 17th Century poet Andrew Marvell’s beloved lyric poem ‘Thoughts in A Garden’
“Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.’
Which seems to be a perfect segue to April, Poetry Month, when Connecticut Poet Laureate and good friend to the Library, Margaret Gibson, will present poets reading from a new anthology ‘Waking Up The Earth’ on Sunday April 11th.
Friends, always more thoughts, more books, more connections as we help each other sing our song.
Belinda’s Book Notes – February 2021
‘Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
Quite underground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown,
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.’ (George Herbert – ‘The Flower’)
Here at the Library, looking forward to Spring and our new programs, ‘recovered greenness’ is what I feel. Reaching out to the writers, poets, biographers, scholars all, in our community whose programs had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, I feel a sense of renewal and hope for new beginnings.
In his memorial tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill quoted the Italian poet and essayist Eugenio Montale – “The ancients said poetry is a staircase to God’ – maybe with our 21st Century sensitivity we might say it is a staircase to new ways of seeing.
It is this new way of Seeing that stands out as a theme in all that is happening around books old and new and friends old and new here at the Library.
Which leads me to “the famous eye’ of Elizabeth Bishop that Merrill refers to, quoting Robert Lowell, and the upcoming book about the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop by our neighbor and friend of the Library, Jonathan Post, that will be published by Oxford University Press later this year. We eagerly await his study of this, one of the greatest of American Twentieth Century Poets – her eye, a staircase to a new vision for all who read her – compassionate as in “Filling Station’ – (‘Somebody loves us all’) – visionary as in ‘The Moose’, painterly in detail as in ‘At The Fishhouses’, all seeing as in ‘Jeronimo’s House’, knowing as in ‘The Shampoo’ (“The still explosions on the rocks,/the lichens, grow/by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.’) heart wrenching in ‘The Armadillo’ and, oh, the birds, the sandpiper, the owls, the song sparrows.
‘life and the memory of it…
– the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.
Elizabeth Bishop ‘Poem’
Professor Post’s other works include a critical study of Anthony Hecht, “A Thickness of Particulars”, and he is the editor of Hecht’s Letters. He has written extensively on English lyric poetry of the early 17th Century as well as Milton and Sir Thomas Browne and is a distinguished Shakespeare scholar. In 2019 he gave an illuminating talk at the Library on his book “Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems – A Very Short Introduction’ that is also a very engaging read, a delightful page turner for this general reader!
Continuing on the theme of seeing, our friend and neighbor Willard Spiegelman had his talk on his collection of essays on art -’If You See Something, Say Something’ – postponed by the pandemic and we look forward to the day when we can once again all gather in the Library and enjoy another of his lively and informative presentations. Meanwhile, however, Professor Spiegelman is working on a biography of the poet Amy Clampitt which will be published early next year. He writes: “AC was an inspiration to many because she was a patron saint for late bloomers. She lived in total obscurity for almost forty years before appearing on the literary scene. She made a splash, and was a major figure, but only for a decade and a half. Between 1978 and 1994, her poems appeared in The New Yorker. She gave readers things they had not seen in years, if ever. And even if she had never achieved fame, she would be an admirable figure in her private capacity as a reader, thinker, and consumer of high culture.”
Something we can all look forward to – meanwhile I find our collection is sadly wanting when it comes to Amy Clampitt’s books and this is being rapidly addressed! Willard’s books of delightful and surprising essays can be found in our catalogue, as can the books by Jonathan Post and those of all the writers mentioned here.
More immediately, former Merrill Poets in Residence and now neighbors, James Longenbach and Joanna Scott both have new books. Joanna, author of several acclaimed novels, has a collection of short stories -”Excuse Me While I Disappear”- coming out in April and James, a book of criticism, ‘The Lyric Now’, was recently published (as he explains, Now is a noun, ‘inviting readers into a nowness that makes itself new each time we read…’ ) and his new poetry collection -’Forever’ -is being published in June. Jim and Joanna will be giving a Library Zoom talk in June – many will remember their reading at the Library two years ago which gave us a foretaste of their new books – it is very exciting to welcome them back again!
On Sunday, March 14th Stuart Vyse, Connecticut College Professor, author of many books, Stonington resident, a familiar friend of the Library, will give a talk – this time via Zoom – that was postponed a year ago on his book “Superstition: A Very Short Introduction” – one of the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series. (We own quite a selection of this series and will be adding more.) In it Stuart ‘explores the nature and surprising history of superstition from antiquity to the present. …..He looks at the varieties of popular superstitious beliefs today and the psychological reasons behind their continued existence, as well as the likely future course of superstition in our increasingly connected world.’ Guaranteed, we will find ourselves looking at old things in a new way
Then, on Sunday, April 11th, (Poetry Month!) Connecticut Poet Laureate, Margaret Gibson, long time colleague and friend of the Library, will present a program of Connecticut poets reading from a new anthology, ‘Waking Up to the Earth’, that addresses the urgent and painful challenges of climate change. Margaret also has a new book of poetry, ‘The Glass Globe’, coming out in August and we hope very much to be able to welcome her to an in-person reading in the early Fall. In her introduction to the anthology Margaret brings us back to our theme of seeing, with echoes of Elizabeth Bishop –
“These poems call us home to ourselves as human inhabitants who are not separate from the other inhabitants on this earth, …”
‘Poetry allows us to wake up and to see; it teaches us how to sustain our gaze, paying attention…’
So my friends, I give you, from the heart of the Library, in this winter moment, thoughts of ‘recovered greenness’ and Montale’s staircase and hopes for a new day for us all.