The Great American Novelist

by Matthew Sitman

Pivoting off the recent PBS documentary, Philip Roth: Unmasked, Michael Kimmage finds the novelist to be the last of a dying breed:

Writing in American, he stands in a long line of national writers, each of them a living presence in Roth’s own novels: Hermann Melville, William Faulkner (Roth’s Newark resembles Faulkner’s South), Saul Bellow. These writers depended on American novel readers, even if, in Melville’s case, it took a few generations for them to find their way to Moby-Dick. They also depended on the cherished idea of a national literary culture. American novel readers are dwindling, and the ideal of a national literary culture is fading away. It has been passed over by writers, critics, editors, publishers, and academics convinced that, to be good, literature must be global. Accordingly, most contemporary literature vacillates between the island of the self and an ocean of global detail. The national writer, a product of the nineteenth century, is a relic of the past. Yet it was Roth’s calling to be exactly this, to join nation and imagination and to serve his citizen-readers as a writer-citizen, the worthy object of as many monuments as the nation is willing to sponsor.

A Poem For Saturday

by Matthew Sitman


Here’s our second poem from Robert Bly, “Something to Do for Aunt Clara”:

There’s something we hold to in the morning. Maybe
It’s just the light, or the way the clock by the bed
Changes slowly, or how wall paintings gradually
Become clear, or the good weight of the eiderdown.
Maybe it’s all the books here in this room.
And the sound of dishes rattling, and the teenagers
Waking up, and a child muttering to herself. Now we have time
For the last few sips of coffee before we go to the funeral.

(From Talking into the Ear of a Donkey © 2011 by Robert Bly. Reprinted with permission of W.W.Norton & Company. Photo by Flickr user oveth)

A Poem For Friday

by Matthew Sitman


Alice Quinn, executive director of the Poetry Society of America and the Dish’s amazing poetry editor – she brings you the poems we feature every week – has shared the news that Robert Bly will be presented with the Poetry Society’s highest award, the Frost Medal, at the Society’s annual awards ceremony in their home at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park in New York City tonight. Details about the ceremony, which is open to the public, can be found here.

To celebrate, we’ve decided to highlight Bly’s poetry this weekend. All three poems will be taken from his most recent book, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, published by W.W.Norton & Company. Here’s the first of Bly’s poems we’ll be sharing, “The Teapot”:

That morning I heard water being poured into a teapot.
The sound was an ordinary, daily, cluffy sound.
But all at once, I knew you loved me.
An unheard-of-thing, love audible in water falling.

The citation for Bly’s award was written by his fellow poet, Billy Collins, and should provide a sense of the man and his work:

From rural Minnesota to the U.S.Navy, to Harvard, to Iowa, then to Norway on a Fullbright, then New York and back to Minnesota—these were a few of the stops in the travels of the younger Robert Bly, and whatever else he discovered along the way, he learned then to listen to poetic voices not yet clearly heard in America such as Vallejo, Trakl, Kabir, and Rumi. Thus began Bly’s mission to expand the vocabulary, the tonal range, and the imaginative freedom of American poetry by mixing into it the sounds and techniques of other countries and cultures. Jiminez, Neruda, Machado and others would not be so commonly recognized here today were it not for Bly’s enthusiasm for the good these writers could do to enrich our poetry, to correct “the wrong turn,” as he put it, our native poetry had taken before it found itself in a bloodless dead end.

But Bly’s  most persuasive urgings for a more exciting and direct poetry are found in his own poems, beginning in 1962 with Silence in the Snowy Fields. By example, he showed so many poets how to jump from the small into a mystery, how to shuttle quickly between the inner and outer world, how to leap over the fence of logic into strange new fields. So many of us watched with our reading lips moving and our mouths open as he hopped from a teapot to the assurance of love, from the touch of a son’s or daughter’s hand on his shoulder to ‘shining fish turning in the deep sea.’

The Frost Medal celebrates the many roles of Robert Bly—protester, anthologist, translator, myth-maker, story-teller, chimer, image-maker, champion of the father, and citizen of the world inside this world. But what gladdens every alert poet is the good news that their teacher, their liberator is being honored once again.

(From Talking into the Ear of a Donkey © 2011 by Robert Bly. Reprinted with permission of W.W.Norton & Company. Photo of Bly in 2009 by Nic McPhee, via Wikimedia Commons)

Francis Emerges, Ctd

by Matthew Sitman

Pope Francis Attends Celebration Of The Lord's Passion in the Vatican Basilica

J. Michelle Molina finds the heart of Jesuit formation – St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises – to be a revealing, but thus far largely neglected, way to understand Pope Francis:

No matter how we stake our political or religious claims, any effort to understand the man ought to include a sense of the Spiritual Exercises, a Jesuit meditative program of spiritual renewal that connects self-reform to transformative action in the world. These meditations offer a framework with which to interpret Francis’s actions because they have provided the key metaphors with which the Jesuit Bergoglio has sought not only to know himself, but also to engage the world.

One point of emphasis in the Exercises:

[The Jesuit] joins the twin goals of contemplation and action in a world understood in both geographical and existential terms. “Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out.” These words echo a very Jesuit notion that personal reform is linked, in the words Bergoglio drew upon to inspire the conclave, to an evangelizing church that is “called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.” He has eschewed certain liturgical vestments as, quite literally, trappings that would encumber his desire to walk in the world. And this sense of self in the world likely inspires Francis’s controversial symbolics, such as the washing of women prisoner’s feet.

I think this is very perceptive, especially because – as Molina intimates – it allows us to avoid imposing simplistic categories on Francis. Recently we featured a quote from Jody Bottum that made exactly this point, that our usual political labels don’t make much sense when applied to Francis, nor, at its best, historic Christianity more broadly. There’s no reason we should expect a man forged in spiritual practices developed in the 16th century to fit comfortably within any contemporary ideology scheme. And even more, the notion of contemplation joined to action in the world seems particularly fitting when considering Francis, as he appears to be intent on his deeds, from the simplicity of his lifestyle to the washing of a woman’s feet, conveying as much as his words. That style of leadership, that way of living, surely has its roots in the rich tradition of Ignatian spirituality.

There’s one other point worth making here. Molina notes this about Francis’s experiences with the Spiritual Exercises:

Bergoglio has made the full 30-day version of the Spiritual Exercises at least twice and has repeated the shorter, eight-day version every year since he entered the Society of Jesus in 1958.

A 30-day regimen of prayer, meditation, and introspection is an experience most of us probably have trouble fully imagining. One aspect of Ignatian spirituality, as Molina’s article makes clear, is knowing yourself. To overcome or transcend the self one must be acquainted with the darker corners of your soul. The humility and compassion Francis evinces, I suspect, comes at least in part from the rich inner life, the self-critical inward turn, that is a part of the Exercises. A deep awareness of your own faults and failures – a contrite heart – is the precondition for the extension of mercy and love to others. It isn’t surprising, then, that the Jesuit “activism” of Francis has skewed not toward ideological, political ambition, but humble service. Molina’s sketch of the new pope’s Ignatian formation goes as far toward explaining why this is so as any account I have read.

(Photo: Pope Francis prays on the floor as he presides over a Papal Mass with the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion inside St Peter’s Basilica on March 29, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. By Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Instant Omniscience

by Matthew Sitman

Calvin Trillin recalls his early days working at Time magazine. He was a “floater,” an editor “who was brought in to a section when, say, the person who wrote Sport was home with the flu, or when one of the World writers was on vacation”:

There were some enjoyable aspects of being a floater. When I settled into the desk chair of, say, the Education writer, someone who presumably pored through the education quarterlies and lunched with school reformers and kept abreast of the latest disagreements about how best to teach reading, I could feel myself imbued with the authoritative tone favored in those days at Time; I called that “instant omniscience.” I had become adept at using one of the tools employed to assert Time’s authority—what I thought of as the corrective “in fact,” as in “Democrats maintain that the measure would increase unemployment. In fact…” There were no bylines in Time then, so the readers had no way of knowing whether the Art section’s critique of the new Coventry Cathedral had been written by someone steeped in the history of church architecture or by a floater who’d moved in after a short stint in Medicine that had left him with no words in the magazine for two weeks and a more detailed knowledge of loop colostomy procedures than he’d ever hoped to have.

Losing Control Of Love

by Matthew Sitman

Tom Jacobs takes stock of his life thus far and the lessons he’s learned. While making the case for incautious love, he quotes Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Voladoras“:

When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words ‘I have something to tell you,’ a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in a thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.

Facing Grammatical Extinction

by Matthew Sitman

Megan Garber unpacks the decline of “whom”:

[T]he Internet, itself almost aggressively forward-looking, institutionalizes the errors. Dating sites talk about the people “who you match with.” Twitter offers its users a recommendations list titled “Who to Follow.”

We break the old rules, then, because new rules are, effectively, replacing them. Few of us still use whom in speech, and we’ve adopted that practice in our writing, particularly in more-casual forms (e‑mails, texts, IMs). What scholars refer to as “secondary orality,” the tendency of written language to adopt the characteristics of speech, is for many of us the new linguistic reality. According to the language blogger Stan Carey, “Whom is unnecessary—indeed, it’s out of place—where a conversational tone is sought.” We type with our telephones and we chat with our keyboards and we write, increasingly, as we talk. And—to whom it may concern—our words rise, and fall, accordingly.

The Weekend Wrap

by Matt Sitman


This Easter weekend on the Dish, Andrew praised the radical Christianity of Pope Francis, told us about his inspiring trip to West Point to speak to the military academy’s gay-straight alliance, and announced he was taking a breather.

We also provided our usual eclectic mix of religious, books, and culture coverage. Fittingly, we emphasized matters of faith, doubt, and philosophy, with Marilynne Robinson musing on the Resurrection, Paul F.M. Zahl making the religious case against drones, Karen Armstrong urging us to believe in a grown-up God, and Thomas Holgrave considered the complex traditionalism of young Christians. Julia Kaganskiy profiled programmers exploring the similarities between scripture and code, Alice Bolin recalled the benefits of reading like a child, Helen Rittlemeyer plumbed the parallel lives of DFW and Coleridge, and Francis Gino explained how what we wear impacts the likelihood of our cheating.

In literary and arts coverage, David Biespiel pondered the ways we live in the wake of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the publication of Willa Cather’s letters defied her dying wish, and Edward Jay Epstein remembered Nabokov’s Dirty Lit. Ben Schrank described why he’s drawn to writing female characters, Danny Nowell re-read Walker Percy, and Harold Augenbraum profiled Proust’s young love. Avi Steinberg detailed why teaching creative writing in prison is so important, Barry Hannah proffered the reasons for writing, Maria Bustillos penned a love letter to editors, and Julia Fierro contemplated the challenge of novelists writing about sex. Stephen Marche was disappointed by the Kindle’s lack of development, Kate Hakala mourned the decline of steaminess on the big screen, James Parker put The Real Housewives franchise under the microscope, and Patrick Radden Kaffe was fascinated by the brainstorming sessions for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Read Saturdays poem here and Sunday’s here.

In assorted news and views, coughing in a quiet music hall meant more than you think, Roy Peter Clark downplayed claims of a plagiarism pandemic, Tomasky grew tired of waiting for his restaurant checks, and wine declined in France. Dinosaur sex proved to be complicated, Barry Schwartz continued the conversation about marriage and love, and Alison Gash chronicled how same-sex adoption victories were won. Cool Ad watch here, MHBs here and here, FOTDs here and here, VFYWs here and here, and the latest window contest here.

(“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Caravaggio, via Wikimedia Commons)