Authors on Authors

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Long, long ago, not long after I started this blog, I published a list of authors  whom my favorite authors had pointed to as influences on their work. It was just lists of names, nothing more than that. So today, I’d like to update and expand upon some of those entries, guided by the words of the writers themselves.

Seamus Heaney

Ted Hughes

The fact of the matter is that the most unexpected and miraculous thing in my life was the arrival in it of poetry itself—as a vocation and an elevation almost. I began as a school teacher in Belfast in 1962. I taught for one year in St. Thomas’s Secondary Intermediate School. I had a good degree in English at Queen’s University and felt that I had some literary possibility, but I had no real confidence. . . . My pseudonym at Queen’s, in the magazines where I published, was Incertus—Latin for uncertain—I was just kicking the ball around the penalty area, not trying to shoot at the goal. Then in 1962 the current began to flow. I remember taking down Ted Hughes’s Lupercal from the shelves of the Belfast public library and opening it at “View of a Pig,” and immediately going off and writing a couple of poems that were Hughes pastiches almost. The first one was called “Tractors”; I remember a line that said “they gargled sadly”—which pleased me a lot at the time. So I sent it out to the Belfast Telegraph—not the greatest literary journal in the world, but even so, it published that poem. And that was of immense importance because I knew no one at the paper, which meant that the thing had been accepted on its own merits, such as they were. [From The Paris Review‘s “Art of Poetry” series.]

On first discovering Gerard Manley Hopkins as a student in Catholic school:

It was a matter of sensation, little ricochets and chain reactions within the nervous system. Like “As tumbled over rim in roundy wells / Stones ring” or “rose-moles all in stipple upon the trout that swim; / Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings.” I once said it was like getting verbal gooseflesh. And, naturally enough, when I wrote my first poems as an undergraduate a few years later, I wrote in Hopkins-speak.

What you encounter in Hopkins’s journals—the claustrophobia and scrupulosity and religious ordering of the mind, the cold-water shaves and the single iron beds, the soutanes and the self-denial—that was the world I was living in when I first read his poems.

So yes, you’re right that it wasn’t simply a matter of the phonetics taking over, it wasn’t just the fireworks in phrases like “shining from shook foil.” It was the fact that the height and depth of Hopkins’s understanding matched my own. [From Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, pages 37 and 38.]

R. S. Thomas

When I read him first, I enjoyed the self-conscious element in the writing—very artful versification, slight affectation of direction, a touch of Crowe Ransom fastidiousness. But what made him especially attractive was the fact that a potential dandy was being suppressed by a very strict, very frugal censor. And then there was the sheer familiarity of his subject matter in those Welsh hill-farm poems. . . . He got very far as a poet, a loner taking on the universe, a kind of Clint Eastwood of the spirit. Every bit as unsmiling as Clint, but in either case you couldn’t be sure there wasn’t really a wild comedian lurking in there somewhere. [Stepping Stones, pages 112 and 113.]

C. S. Lewis

G. K. Chesterton

It was here [in an army hospital during World War I] that I first read a volume of Chesterton’s essays. I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors. It would almost seem that Providence, or some “second cause” of a very obscure kind, quite overrules our previous tastes when it decides to bring two minds together. Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love. I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. His humor was of the kind which I like best—not “jokes” embedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure) a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humor which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the “bloom” on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly. For the critics who think Chesterton frivolous or “paradoxical” I have to work hard to feel even pity; sympathy is out of the question. [Surprised by Joy, pages 190-191]

Ray Bradbury

Read almost any interview with Ray Bradbury and you’ll probably find at least a dozen mentions of writers whose work he loved. One of his favorite ideas to return to was “the train,” which he described in an interview with The Paris Review in 1976 (republished here):

Bradbury: A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am. But it burns with a high flame. I’ve had my “literary loves,” too. I like to think of myself on a train going across midnight America conversing with my favorite authors, and on that train would be people like George Bernard Shaw, who was interested in everything, interested in the fiction of ideas. He himself on occasion wrote things that could be dubbed “science fiction.” We’d sit up late into the night turning over ideas and saying, “Well, if this is true about women in 1900, what is it going to be in the year 2050?”

Interviewer: Who else would be on that train?

Bradbury: A lot of poets. Hopkins, Frost, Shakespeare. And then writers like Huxley, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe.

Interviewer: How has Wolfe helped you?

Bradbury: He was a great romantic. When you’re nineteen, he opens the doors of the world for you. We use certain authors at certain times of our lives, and we may never go back to them again. Wolfe is perfect when you’re nineteen. If you fall in love with Shaw when you’re thirty it’s going to be a lifetime love. And I think that’s true of certain books by Thomas Mann as well. I read Death in Venice when I was twenty, and it’s gotten better every year since. Style is truth. Once you nail down what you want to say about yourself and your fears and your life, then that becomes your style and you go to those writers who can teach you how to use words to fit your truth. I learned from John Steinbeck how to write objectively and yet insert all of the insights without too much extra comment. I learned a hell of a lot from John Collier and Gerald Heard, and I fell madly in love with a number of women writers, especially Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter. I still go back and reread Edith Wharton and Jessamyn WestThe Friendly Persuasion is one of my favorite books of short stories.

Or sometimes, he didn’t need the prompting of an interview to come up with a list of favorite authors. From his essay collection Zen in the Art of Writing:

You have your list of favorite writers; I have mine. Dickens, Twain, Wolfe, Peacock, Shaw, Molière, Jonson, Wycherly, Sam Johnson. Poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Pope. … Think of all these names and you think of big or little, but nonetheless important, zests, appetites, hungers. Think of Shakespeare and Melville and you think of thunder, lightning, wind. [“The Joy of Writing,” pages 3-4]


The Time Neil Gaiman Invented a G. K. Chesterton Quote

All this talk of quotations puts me in mind of a very famous one, supposedly by G. K. Chesterton. No doubt you’ve seen it floating around Pinterest, Twitter, etc. by now:

Source: Pinterest
Source: Pinterest.

It certain sounds like Chesterton, and it’s in line with things he did say, but it’s not Chesterton. It is in fact the work of another author of fantastical prose, Mr. Neil Gaiman.

To be fair, Gaiman was basically saying the same thing Chesterton had said, just in fewer words. In his essay “The Red Angel,” Chesterton wrote:

Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Around seventy years later, Gaiman decided to use this quote as an epigram in his novel Coraline. The only problem was he couldn’t remember how it went. As he explained to a curious fan on Tumblr:

Gaiman in 2009 (with an unidentified dog). Photo by Kyle Cassidy.
Gaiman in 2009 (with an unidentified dog). Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

When I started writing Coraline, I wrote my version of the quote in Tremendous Trifles, meaning to go back later and find the actual quote, as I didn’t own the book, and this was before the Internet. And then ten years went by before I finished the book, and in the meantime I had completely forgotten that the Chesterton quote was mine and not his.

I had always wondered how quotes ended up being attributed to people who never said them. Apparently, that’s how.

“Dear Mr. Lewis, I’m Sorry You Died”

You might have noticed that in my last “Bookish Links” post, I included a link to Eric Metaxas’s page on Soundcloud where he published excerpts from interviews he conducted last month in Oxford, England. One of his interviewees was Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis’s former secretary, a trustee of his estate, and, in the words of another blogger, “an adorably committed CSL fanboy.” Having known and worked for Lewis, Hooper was able to tell his audience all sorts of new things about him, including that he still gets mail from young fans.

The Kilns
The Kilns, Lewis’s home in Oxford. Photo by jschroe.

Shortly after the first of the Narnia books was published, fan letters from young children started pouring in, nearly all of which Lewis answered. Nowadays, letters just like these still arrive in Oxford, where Mr. Hooper, now 84, replies to all of them. And these new fans are just as enthusiastic about The Chronicles of Narnia and its characters as their grandparents might have been sixty years ago. For instance, in Metaxas’s interview, Mr. Hooper recalled one letter he received from a six-year-old boy named Josh. When Josh first talked of writing to C. S. Lewis, his teacher explained to him that Lewis had died several years ago. Josh wrote to him anyway, in a letter that began,

Dear Mr. Lewis,

I’m sorry you died. I just want you to know how much I love Aslan.

Earlier in the interview, Mr. Hooper claimed that Lewis fully expected to be forgotten a few years after his death. It’s nice to know that even after all these years, he and his books are still having a profound impact on young people.

Ern Malley and Ridiculousness in Modern Poetry

“Stay away from most modern poems. It’s crap! It’s not poetry!”

— Ray Bradbury, 2001

One thing that I think you ought to know about me is that I’ve never liked modern poetry. True, I greatly admire W. H. Auden, and I’ve even found a “slam poet” or two whose work impresses me, but other than these, I’ve always found a lot of modern poetry to be inaccessible, self-deluded, and needlessly ugly. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so.

When the modernist movement first emerged in the twentieth century, it was immediately met with criticism and disgust from the more traditional poets of the world. Two of these poets, Australians James McAuley and Harold Stewart, fashioned from their disdain one of the best literary pranks of all time.

In mid-1940’s, when the modernist movement in poetry was at its height, McAuley and Stewart hatched a plan to expose modernist poetry for the tripe it is. Using random lines copied from whatever books happened to be within reach, they penned sixteen poems, all of which were purposely devoid of meaning and cohesion. They then mailed the poems to Max Harris, editor of the literary magazine Angry Penguins, using the joint pseudonym Ern Malley. Accompanying the submission was a letter, supposedly written by Malley’s sister Ethel, saying that she discovered the poems shortly after her brother’s death and would like Harris to tell her if there is any literary merit in them.

Cover art from the edition of Angry Penguins that unleashed Ern Malley onto the world. Source.
Cover art from the edition of Angry Penguins that unleashed Ern Malley upon the world. Source.

McAuley and Stewart’s idea wasn’t a new one: in 1926, a twenty-eight-year-old C. S. Lewis had tried to play a similar trick on T. S. Eliot, who was then the editor of The Criterion. However, unlike Lewis, McAuley and Stewart’s verses were not only published, but they were also lauded by the modernist establishment. Max Harris was particularly impressed, even running a special issue of Angry Penguins with a whole segment dedicated to Malley’s work. However, soon after the poems were published, the public already began to suspect that Ern Malley was not who he claimed to be. Eventually, Stewart and McAuley were found out after a journalist friend of Stewart’s gave the scoop to her boss. Not only was Max Harris humiliated, but he was also later prosecuted for publishing the Ern Malley poems, which the Australian government found to be “obscene.”

James McAuley later went on to write more serious verse (under his real name), but his devotion to strict, traditional forms, coupled with his right-leaning views and his conversion to Roman Catholicism, ensured that he went largely unnoticed by the literati. The Ern Malley poems, however, have endured, with poets such as John Ashbery having praised them in the past.

It’s all very amusing, but very sad too. According to McAuley and Stewart, their whole design in staging this hoax was to answer this question: “Can those who write, and those who praise so lavishly, this kind of writing tell the real product from consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense.” The answer, it would seem, is no.

An Anniversary I Had to Mark

Photo by George Hodan.
Photo by George Hodan.

I’m not going to lie: I was never a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s not that I read his stories and didn’t like them, or read his poems and found them wanting, I simply didn’t like his reputation, and for this reason, never tried him. Dead girls who aren’t really dead? Brothers who bury them before they’re dead? No, thank you.

But recently, for some reason or another, I read Poe’s legendary poem “The Raven,” which just so happens to have been first published on this date in 1845. Like many things, I didn’t expect to like it, but once I read the poem–really read it–I was amazed at what I had been missing. This poem is brilliant! Poe was a genius! Being rather unschooled when it comes to poetry, I can’t tell you exactly what it is about this poem that I love so much; maybe I just admire Poe for being able to keep this long, involved rhyme scheme going for so long without becoming monotonous, or maybe I love the way the words tumble out one on top of the other to give it the reader a sense of the fear and urgency the speaker feels. But whatever it is, I adore this poem and I love Poe for being brilliant enough to write it (from a distance, that is. I love Poe from a distance).

Here without further adieu is the 170-year-old poem itself:

“The Raven”

by Edgar Allan Poe

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!

Of course, if you don’t feel like reading it yourself, this guy gives a pretty good reading:

P.S. I hope this makes up for me missing the last installment of “Poem of the Week.”

In Which I Shamelessly Geek Out Over All Things “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Harper Lee accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Harper Lee accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Today is a very special day for book geeks everywhere: it’s To Kill a Mockingbird‘s 54th birthday! As you might have gathered already, TKM is one of my most favorite books in the world, so in honor of the anniversary of its publication, allow me to indulge in some useless knowledge concerning the book. 🙂

I suppose it all started with Harper Lee’s father, who bore the outlandish name of Amasa Coleman Lee. Much like Atticus, Amasa was a lawyer and an Alabama state legislator who wasn’t afraid to do the right thing. Also like Atticus, he once took–and lost–a very controversial case, that of two black men who were accused of a white person’s murder. According to some, this trial inspired Tom Robinson’s famous trial from the book (this is probably what inspired Atticus’s first case too). Continue reading “In Which I Shamelessly Geek Out Over All Things “To Kill a Mockingbird””