Parini, Jay (Lee) 1948-
PARINI, Jay (Lee) 1948-
Born April 2, 1948, in Pittston, PA; son of Leo Joseph (a minister) and Verna Ruth (Clifford) Parini; married Devon Stacey Jersild, June 21, 1981; children: Will, Oliver, Leo. Education: Lafayette College, A.B., 1970; University of St. Andrews, B.Phil., 1972, Ph.D., 1975. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Episcopalian. Hobbies and other interests: Basketball, tennis.
Home—1641 Horse Farm Rd., Weybridge, VT 05753. Office—Department of English, Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT 05753. Agent—Elaine Markson Literary Agency, Inc., 44 Greenwich Ave., New York, NY 10011.
Educator and writer. Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, assistant professor of English and director of creative writing, 1975-82; Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT, Axinn Professor of English, 1982—. Teaching staff, Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, 1982—. Editor of "North Star" poetry series. Member of Vermont Council on the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1975—; member of Vermont Council of the Arts, 1980-82; editorial committee, University of Massachusetts Press, Juniper Prize for poetry, 1984—; National Book Critics Circle, board of directors, 1996-99.
Modern Language Association of America, Poetry Society of Great Britain, Atheneum Club (London).
Fellowship, American Council of Learned Societies, 1985—; George Washington Kidder Prize, 1990; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1992-93; Christ Church College, Oxford, visiting fellow, 1993-94; honorary LL.D., Lafayette College, 1996; Chicago Tribune /Heartland Award, 1999, for Robert Frost; John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award, National Italian American Foundation, 2002.
Singing in Time, J. W. B. Laing, 1972.
Anthracite Country, Random House (New York, NY), 1982.
Town Life, Holt (New York, NY), 1988.
House of Days: Poems, Holt (New York, NY), 1998.
The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems, George Braziller (New York, NY), 2005.
Theodore Roethke: An American Romantic, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1979.
John Steinbeck: A Biography, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
Robert Frost: A Life, Holt (New York, NY), 1999.
One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
The Love Run (novel), Little, Brown, 1980.
The Patch Boys (novel), Holt (New York, NY), 1986.
The Last Station (novel; also known as The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year), Holt (New York, NY), 1990.
Bay of Arrows, Holt (New York, NY), 1992.
Benjamin's Crossing (novel), Holt (New York, NY), 1996.
The Apprentice Lover (novel), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
(With M. Robin Barone and Sydney Lea) Richard
Eberhart: A Celebration, Kenyon Hill (Hanover, NH), 1980.
(With Robert Pack) The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1985.
(With Robert Pack) The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Short Stories, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1987.
(With Robert Pack) The Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Essays, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1989.
Gore Vidal: Writer against the Grain, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1992.
The Columbia History of American Poetry, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1993.
(With Robert Pack) Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary American Nature Poetry, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1993.
(With Robert Pack) American Identities: Contemporary Multicultural Voices, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1994.
The Columbia Anthology of American Poetry, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1995.
(With Robert Pack) Touchstones: American Poets on a Favorite Poem, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1996.
(With A. Kenneth Ciongoli) Beyond the Godfather: Italian American Writers on the Real Italian American Experience, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1997.
(With Robert Pack) Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1997.
The Norton Book of American Autobiography, Norton (New York, NY), 1999.
British Writers: Supplement VI, Scribner (New York, NY), 2001.
British Writers: Supplement VII, Scribner (New York, NY), 2002.
British Writers: Retrospective Supplement I, Scribner (New York, NY), 2002.
British Writers: Retrospective Supplement II, Scribner (New York, NY), 2002.
(With Robert Pack) Contemporary Poetry of New England, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 2002.
(With Kenneth A. Ciongoli) Passage to Liberty: The Story of Italian Immigration and the Rebirth of America, Regan Books (New York, NY), 2002.
British Writers: Supplement VIII, Scribner (New York, NY), 2003.
World Writers in English, Scribner (New York, NY), 2004.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2004.
British Writers: Supplement IX, Scribner (New York, NY), 2004.
(With Donald Kuspit and Tom Roberts) Anthony Quinn's Eye: A Lifetime of Creating and Collecting Art, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
British Writers: Supplement X, Scribner (New York, NY), 2005.
An Invitation to Poetry (textbook), Prentice-Hall, 1987.
A Vermont Christmas, Little, Brown (New York, NY), 1988.
Some Necessary Angels: Essays on Writing and Politics, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1997.
The Art of Teaching, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2004.
An American Revolution (play), produced by the Old-castle Theater Company, 2004.
Contributor to language and literature journals. Founder, coeditor of New England Review, 1977—. Also author of introductions, including for Robert Lowell and the Sublime, by Henry Hart, Syracuse University Press, 1995; This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Signet Classic, 1996; The Complete Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, Signet Classic, 1996; and Travels with Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck, Penguin, 1997.
"Jay Parini brings to his poetry a calm self-assured tone of voice, a classical sense of balance, and a rare skill at the art of writing verse," asserted Richard Tillinghast in the Sewanee Review. A novelist, poet, biographer, and editor, Parini has been admired by critics and peers. His mentor, Gore Vidal, "is quick to praise Parini's novels," according to Paul Sullivan of Book magazine, and Christopher Bohjalian, a novelist and admirer of Parini's, told Sullivan, "He is one of the last real literary figures."
Parini's collection of poetry entitled Anthracite Country has been noted both for its nostalgic yet serious tone and the author's skillful manipulation of language. In the New York Times Book Review, Anne Stevenson observed that the book "takes risks.… Anthracite Country will be read for its honesty, for its emotional commitment to experience and its artistic commitment to a craft." Joseph Parisi, writing in the Chicago Tribune Book World, commented, "Direct and deceptively simple, many of these poems speak volumes." Parini adopted a nostalgic tone again for Town Life, an autobiographical poetry compilation. Bruce Bennett in the New York Times Book Review described the cyclical, highly personal nature of the volume as "the stock-taking of a poet at mid-life who wishes to determine both how he has fared so far and how he expects to fare. His philosophical bent inclines him to speculate about, in Frost's phrase, 'our place among the infinities.'" W. C. Hamlin lauds the volume's variety and depth, commenting: "Overall, the poems offer a marvelous diversity of imagery and form and attest greatly to the illusion of artlessness and freedom born of total control."
House of Days is another collection of poems by Parini. New York Times Book Review critic Bill Christophersen found the poetry "candidly observed, wryly reflective poetry in a Robert Frost vein." The poems reflect Parini's interest in nature. Christophersen continued, "For Parini … nature is a bible." Graham Christian for Library Journal noted, "He is interested in nature and the response of his own mind and heart to nature's operations." The collection contains a sequence of twelve poems which follow the months. Donna Seaman for Booklist related, "The book's title is taken from a set of twelve poems, one for each month, in which the narrator marks the connections between the cycles outdoors and inside his quiet home." Describing the poems, a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews, wrote that the verse "rues the imperfect relation between objects, words, and tropes." Seaman called Parini a "commanding presence on the page" and his poetry "immaculately constructed."
Parini's skill with language is also evident in his prose in both his novels and his biographies. His novel The Patch Boys chronicles a young boy's coming of age in Pennsylvania's anthracite country around 1925. In the New York Times Book Review, James D. Bloom remarked that "Parini has produced a subtly paced narrative." Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Lewis Stone elaborated, "Parini relates Sammy's reminiscences in a down-home first-person idiom that clings to the memory as coal dust to a miner's overalls." Robert Ward likewise emphasized the author's ability to describe colorful detail in the Washington Post Book World: Parini "writes with a wonderful sense of place. Not only nature, but the patch itself is fully alive." The critic concluded, "My final impression was that I had visited a lost part of America.… It is this vivid rendering of place that is the true success of The Patch Boys."
The last year of the life of Leo Tolstoy is the emphasis of Parini's novel The Last Station. Set in Russia in 1910, the events of the text are told from six different viewpoints. As with his earlier prose, The Last Station is noted for its sense of place and the author's attention to detail. A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review called the book "one of those rare works of historical fiction that manage to demonstrate both scrupulous historical research and true originality of voice and perception."
In 1992, in commemoration of Columbus's landing in the Americas in 1492, Parini released a novel titled Bay of Arrows. The novel juxtaposes a modern-day professor of English in New England, appropriately named Christopher "Geno" Genovese, with Christopher Columbus. Geno has an affair with a student, whereupon the school charges him with sexual harassment. With his unhappy spouse and uninterested sons he drags the family with him to the distant Bay of Arrows in the Dominican Republic—where Columbus landed. The story alternates between the two men's lives. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly described the piece as a "larky, clever novel." As well, a writer for Kirkus Reviews called Bay of Arrows a "witty, imaginative, and refreshing reprise of the now increasingly worked-over Columbus saga."
Parini next wrote a novel based on Walter Benjamin, an intellectual who lived from 1892 to 1940. Benjamin was born in Berlin into a Jewish family of means. With the rise of the Nazis in Germany, he traveled to Paris. From there, he fled to Spain in 1940, where he took his own life. Benjamin left his mark on the world through his ideas which he expressed in writing. Parini's novel "covers only the few months in 1940 between Benjamin's frantic flight from Paris and his suicide at Port Bou in Spain," related Robert Grudin in New York Times Book Review. David S. Gross for World Literature Today remarked that the "novel follows what is known of Benjamin's last months and days quite accurately."
A writer for Kirkus Reviews found the novel "a meditation on the experience of exile and the difficult emergence of modern thought." The reviewer described the writing as "a moving, impressively informed novel" in which Parini renders a "portrait of an entire generation of intellectuals overwhelmed by revolution and war … [that] is resonant, convincing, and deeply sad." Similarly Grudin commented, "Parini's story is at once painstakingly researched and dramatically recounted." However, Grudin noted "little effort to recreate the orality" of Germans born in Berlin at the time. Gross felt that the book was "weakest in those passages which deal with Marxism." Overall, though, he found Parini's expression of Benjamin's ideology accurate, relating that narrations "for the most part ring true with regard to Benjamin's ideas and opinions, his relationships, and the important events of his life." "Parini presents a philosopher who has opened every book except the book of life," relates Grudin. "Parini presents Benjamin realistically as a literate, aspiring but fallible thinker who was never completely satisfied with his own theoretical approach and who died with his major work unfinished," he continued. Gross finished his review deciding for those interested in Benjamin, "the book is fascinating, whatever our quibbles."
Parini delved into the topic of mentorship with his novel The Apprentice Lover. Set in the 1970s, the novel features Alex Massolini, who drops out of Columbia University when he discovers that his brother has been killed in Vietnam. He becomes the apprentice of Rupert Grant, an eccentric writer resembling the British poet Robert Graves, at his home on Capri, an island in the Mediterranean. "In a sense, this should have been my first novel," Parini told Paul Sullivan in an article for Book magazine. "It's the kind of story about your beginnings as a writer. I needed thirty years to do it justice." Paul Evans, in a review for Book, wrote, "This story works fresh changes on a classic genre.… There's wit … but also wisdom." A critic for Kirkus Reviews commented on Parini's "masterful prose, pacing, characterization, and ear for language," while a reviewer for Booklist called the novel Parini's "most seductive work to date."
While Parini's novels have covered a wide range of characters and themes, his biographies have focused on poets and novelists. His first, published in 1979, discussed the life and analyzed the writings of Pulitzer Prize-winner Theodore Roethke. It wasn't until 1995, however, that Parini wrote his first straight biography with a portrait of John Steinbeck, John Steinbeck: A Biography. Patrick H. Samway for America wrote that Parini "has written a solid reassessment." The critic concluded, "Parini honestly summons the spirit of Steinbeck, as embodied in the man and his books." Donna Seaman from Booklist described the work as "finely wrought," commenting that Parini "presents a quixotic, didactic, yet heroic figure fired with 'moral outrage' and centered by a profound respect for nature and belief in the importance of stories." Paul Binding in New Statesman & Society noted, "Jay Parini has done us all a great service in devoting his considerable powers of understanding to such a man as Steinbeck."
Parini's next biography focused on Robert Frost, who has been, Parini says, his "favorite poet ever since ninth grade." Robert Frost: A Life rekindled mixed feelings among critics about Frost. Acknowledged as a great writer, Frost had an exceptionally difficult personal life. His three children met the harshness of nature: one died four years after childbirth, one committed suicide, and one went insane. Frost, though married, carried on an affair with his secretary, Kay Morrison, for many years. He was known as insensitive and as having a temper. Previous major biographers have either considered Frost a "monster" or have been altogether too worshipful of the man's poetry to recognize him as a complex person; Parini worked to bridge that gap. Through the morass of literary battles as to who Frost really was as a person, Christopher Benfey for the New York Times Book Review found Parini's biography "sturdy and well-informed." Jeffrey Hart, writing in the National Review, commented on the amount of information available before Parini's biography was released: "At this point can Parini … add more? The answer is a very firm yes."
Lance Morrow, reviewing for Time, described the book as a "judicious new biography." Though Morrow perceived Parini's fondness of Frost, he considered "Parini, a balanced, sophisticated reader." Morrow continued, "Parini finds Frost to have been, on the whole, an admirable husband and father, deeply engaged in his children's upbringing and supporting them far into adulthood." In a review for Library Journal, Robert Kelly noted, "Parini acknowledges that Frost was often combative and independent, sometimes duplicitous, and wrestled with depression." Kelly explained, "Some biographers have concluded that Frost was self-involved and tyrannical, Parini sees him as a loving and faithful husband, a tender father." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly reflected, "There could be no better tribute for a poet so often under-rated, maligned and misunderstood than this sympathetic and balanced portrayal." The writer concluded that "the result is a book revelatory of both the poetry and the poet." Richard Whittington-Egan, writing for Contemporary Review, remarked on the volume: "Giving every indication of having been research-honed to reliability, [the book] dismisses the previously prevailing picture of Frost as monster, both in his personal and professional life. Readable, as well as scholarly, it purposes to provide 'a sensitive roadmap to (the) remarkable verbal planet' of Frost's poems, and offers 'a major reassessment of the life and work of America's premiere poet of this century.'" Ludovic Hunter Tilney, reviewing the biography in the Financial Times, noted that "while Parini doesn't presume to show us the making of the poet, his biography does provide an excellent account of something similar: the persona Frost created for himself."
Though Parini had not planned to write any further biographies, he found himself drawn to write about William Faulkner, and in 2004, One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner was released. Parini focuses on the dominant personas of Faulkner, recognizing the writer as a man with "many thousands of selves." Parini also recognizes and discusses Faulkner's own human weaknesses, considering the author's opinions and habits to be a product of his place and times. Parini "is an important and gifted biographer," according to a critic for Kirkus Reviews. The critic continued, "Parini shows in bright relief the fierce discipline that enabled Faulkner to produce major works in a short time." Though critical of "clumsy prose" in the book, a Publishers Weekly reviewer called the biography a "solid account."
Parini has worked on many projects as an editor. In 1992, Parini edited a collection of writings by Gore Vidal, titled Gore Vidal: Writer against the Grain. In this collection Parini attempts to give Vidal the credit he feels Vidal is due. Marvin J. LaHood noted this sentiment expressed in Parini's introduction and related it in his review for World Literature Today: "The reasons Parini suggests for this neglect range from some sort of 'troubled' relationship with academe to Vidal's 'unusual productivity' that makes it difficult for critics to 'focus' on his oeuvre." According to LaHood, regardless of the success of giving Vidal his due credit, Parini has created a "comprehensive and masterful collection of essays on Vidal's work." LaHood goes as far as to state "the result is the best book yet on Vidal's work." He also made note of a "very revealing" interview with Vidal himself, which Parini conducted. Lorna Sage, reviewing the book for the Observer, also reflected on the absence of Vidal from the upper echelon of American writers. Sage wrote, "It's only a matter of time before … Vidal becomes respectable—though it has to be said that he's doing his damnedest to prevent it."
Again, in 1993, Parini exercised his editorial skills with The Columbia History of American Poetry. Charles Tomlinson, reviewing the history for the Times Literary Supplement, described the book as "long on giving us food for argument." Tomlinson also discussed the "many points of view" Parini worries about—"from the Beats to the Blacks, to the emergence of other ethnic poetry in English and the anti-paternalists among women poets." Tomlinson was dismayed by the "editorial health warning" Parini provides in his introduction. However, David Kirby in Library Journal described the work as "an essential volume that shows how poetry intersects with our lives and vice versa." "Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller have given us the politically correct critical volume for the 1990s," wrote John Piller in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Piller found the sum of the volume "fascinating." He characterized: "The breadth of material covered is impressive, and it is to the editors' credit that none of the essays seems blatantly out of place or uncalled for." Piller concluded that The Columbia History of American Poetry is "a book that offers an enjoyable, and sometimes provocative, look at American poetry."
In reference to the representation of Italian Americans in the film The Godfather, Parini edited a collection of essays focusing on discrediting the stereotypes Hollywood portrays of Italian Americans. The collection, Beyond the Godfather: Italian American Writers on the Real Italian American Experience, "tries to discuss all facets of the Italian American experience," according to Charles Nash for Library Journal. Nash called the essay collection "a memorable collection for any library." Likewise, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly stated that the work "offer[s] new appreciation of the often discounted influence that Italian Americans have had on American literature and life."
In 1998, with Robert Pack, Parini edited Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems. Fifty-five writers, including Clara Yu, Joyce Carol Oates, X. J. Kennedy, Maxine Kumin, Erica Jong, and David Huddle, reflect upon a poem. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found the premise a "promising idea" but the result "trite and unedifying." David Kirby, writing in Library Journal, wrote: "Pack and Parini have put together a valuable companion volume to Touchstones: American Poets of a Favorite Poem."
From the early 2000s, Parini served as editor for a series of books about British writers, as well as such texts as World Writers in English and The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. World Writers in English was considered "a significant step in English literature reference works" by a reviewer for Booklist, and a critic for School Library Journal wrote that The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature "provides a wealth of reliable information on standard bearers of American literature."
In his first solitary collection of nonfiction, Parini published a collection of essays in 1998 titled Some Necessary Angels: Essays on Writing and Politics. The essays range from thoughts on literary figures to more focused essays on contemporary political issues. Parini describes his politics as "Tory socialist," and whether personal or broader in commentary, Parini writes all of his essays in a subjective form. David Kirby in Library Journal described Parini's mind as "lucid, broad-ranging." Kirby also related the variety of essays, from "a ringing endorsement of life in Italy to a cold anger towards the media." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly concluded that the essay "Fact or Fiction: Writing Biographies versus Writing Novels" is "brilliant." The same reviewer finalized his thoughts on the essays: "Eloquent, clear and learned, without being pedantic, these essays provide a voyage into delight." In an analysis for College Literature, Clifford T. Manlove wrote, "Parini conducts his critique of political culture from a subjective vantage point, suggesting that the authorial voice can best effect political justice."
Jay Parini's mastery at evoking emotional and visual images is partly the result of his experimentation with different writing forms. Parini once told CA: "Although my primary interest is writing poetry, I am now writing a lot of fiction and criticism.… I intend to keep writing novels, poems, and critical essays. In a sense, I use writing to pay attention to the world, to explain it to myself. The poems arise out of a strong wish to embody things: objects, emotions, ideas. I celebrate the physical world and my relationship to it.… I write criticism because, as T. S. Eliot once said, it is as natural as breathing."
The author more recently told CA: "I write every morning and, when I can, in the afternoon. I have children and a wife, and we like to spend time together, so I find myself having to focus my work in discrete blocks as much as possible. There seems to be a natural rhythm for me as I move among new poems, novels, and essays. I'm also working on a play. I think what attracts me to different genres is the shifting demands of each form. The form, in a sense 'brings out' an aspect that was elsewhere hidden. I've written two conventional biographies—of Steinbeck and Frost—but may well abandon the form. I prefer writing fiction and poetry and plays, genres where a great deal of freedom to invent exists. I like that freedom."
Jay Parini contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
MY LIFE SO FAR
There is something irresistibly seductive about the prospect of visiting one's past in memory, about moving through that pre-verbal jumble of images and feelings that surfaces in nightmares, in daydreams, in sleight of thoughts. Freud talks about remembering the past in order to "burn it up," as if that would do it. It won't. The past is obstinately pre-verbal; indeed, the unwritten world is not erased by the written word. It is merely shadowed by it, or limned.
The treasure-house of images that constitute a sense of one's self-in-the-world is stunningly resilient and productive. One can go back to it again and again, for stories and poems, for essays. And every attempt to capture it—to arrest and reify a little piece of it—seems just wrong enough to warrant another try. And this keeps us (if I may speak for other writers as well as myself) writing.
How does one begin to describe the curve of one's private memory, the history of one's heart? The first thing I remember, or imagine I remember, is sitting beside my father in a blue 1950 Chevy. I was two, and it was one of those red-letter days that sticks out in memory because it was different from the others. We went over to a Chevy dealership in West Pittston owned by a man called Roy; the dealership was on the banks of the Susquehanna River in West Pittston, Pennsylvania. Our double mission that day was to pick up the new car and drive to the hospital, where we were picking up my mother and my new sister, Dorrie, who had been born a few days earlier. She was born, like me, in the old Pittston hospital, which looked out across the river.
What I recall is leaning against my father's strong, hairy arm as we drove. It was August, bright and hot. And that wonderful smell briefly in the possession of all new cars filled my head: an odor of plastic, squeaky clean glass, hot leather, and oil. To this day I never see a 1950 Chevy in one of those antique-car dealerships without finding myself breathless with adoration. One day I plan to buy one.
I spent the first four years in Exeter—mining village near Pittston—then in Scranton. The imagery of anthracite mining was all around me: abandoned coal breakers, with their thousands of tiny windows long ago smashed, the clapboard siding weathered gray much like the barns of New England. Culm dumps were heaped around the edges of the towns, burning a bright vermillion-blue at night; when the summer winds drew across them, they filled the air with a sulphurous smell that struck me then as natural. It was what air smelled like.
Here and there one could actually find abandoned mineshafts, with hexing crosses nailed over the entrances saying "Danger" and "Keep Out." I was deeply attracted to those mines: the idea of tunneling backward into time. My uncle Gene was a miner, and my paternal grandfather had been one, too, although briefly. Indeed, my uncle Gene was among the last miners killed in the anthracite mining region: on the day I graduated from high school in 1966. The mine caved in on him, crushed him, leaving his widow with five young children. I wrote a poem about it called "The Miner's Wake"—
The small ones squirmed in suits and dresses,
wrapped their rosaries round the chair legs,
tapped the walls with squeaky shoes.
But their widowed mother, at thirty-four,
had mastered every pose of mourning,
plodding the sadness like an ox through mud.
Her mind ran well ahead of her heart,
making calculations of the years without him
that stretched before her like a humid summer.
The walnut coffin honeyed in sunlight;
calla lilies bloomed over silk and satin.
Nuns cried heaven into their hands
while I, a nephew with my lesser grief,
sat by a window, watching pigeons
settle onto slag like summer snow.
The sense of having come from a family of Italian immigrants on my father's side was always strong. My mother's family were from England—working-class WASPs. So I felt, in a way, tugged (not torn) between two worlds. On alternate Sundays I would visit my Italian grandmother, Ida, who would serve me a wonderful plate of homemade pasta with her own rich tomato sauce or visit with my English grandmother, Ruth Clifford, who cooked dumplings and roast beef and delicious blueberry pies. (My mother, Verna, cooked plain old-fashioned food: ground beef and mashed potatoes, string beans, iceberg lettuce.)
There was a good deal of suspicion of the ethnic Italian world on my mother's side, but my father, Leo, had been transmogrified from a threatening little Italian guy who had never graduated from high school into an upwardly mobile businessman who had joined the Baptist Church and now taught Sunday school. The story of my father's climb to the respectable middle class is one of the central stories of America in the postwar era.
He was one of five brothers, the son of a smalltime hood who dabbled in cards, dice, race tracks, and various traditional cons; he worked in the mines only when he was desperate. "Pop" had come from Rome, and in his late twenties he was married by prior arrangement to a fifteen-year-old girl from near Genoa—my grandmother. The children came quickly, five kids in five years, but my grandfather was no family man. He took off, returning every now and then from Miami or New York to say hello in a broad-brimmed fedora and chocolate-brown suit. His gold-toothed smile is the only thing about him I remember (and the fact that he carried a pistol in a shoulder holster).
In the mid-eighties, while living in Italy, I wrote a poem about my grandmother and her boys: an idealized version of what heaven might be like when they are all home for Sunday dinner. It's called "Grandmother in Heaven," and it sums up my impression of that particular family:
In a plume-field, white above the blue,
she's pulling up a hoard of root crops
planted in a former life and left to ripen:
soft gold carrots, beets, bright gourds.
There's coffee in the wind, tobacco smoke
and garlic, olive oil and lemon.
Fires burn coolly through the day,
the water boils at zero heat.
It's always almost time for Sunday dinner,
with the boys all home: dark Nello,
who became his cancer and refused to breathe;
her little Geno, who went down the mines
and whom they had to dig all day to find;
that willow, Tony, who became so thin
he blew away; then Julius and Leo,
who survived the others by their wits alone
but found no reason, after all was said,
for hanging on. They'll hake their places
in the sun today at her high table,
as the antique beams light up the plates,
the faces that have lately come to shine.
The contrast with my maternal grandparents, who lived around the corner from my house on South Rebecca Avenue in West Scranton, was extreme. Grandpa Paul Clifford worked for the telephone company as a lineman. He put up wires all over northeastern Pennsylvania, and he liked to smoke stogies and sit in his undershirt and listen to ball games on the radio. He had little to say, but he had a rather kindly gruffness about him. My grandmother, Ruth, was large and sweet, a diabetic farmgirl from near Altoona whom my grandfather had met by chance while on a job. She spent her life longing, I suspect, for the simple life of the farm she'd abandoned. Her gentleness was inspiring, and she and I formed an extremely close bond, especially after she lost her legs from the diabetes when I was twelve. I spent hours sitting and talking with her in the few years she had left.
My parents were molded by postwar mores. My mother had worked in a shipyard with my father during the war, but—like all American women of the time—she was herded back into the home, where the idea of being a 'housewife and mother' was glorified by the magazines and, more importantly, by television, which hijacked the nation's collective mind in the early fifties. I don't think she ever really liked being a housewife, and as soon as Dorrie and I left high school, she rushed eagerly out to work.
I was among the first generation to be raised by the shiny little screen. Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Greenjeans, the Mouseketeers: these were my friends. I loved Walt Disney, and I envied him. The idea that he spent his time thinking up cartoons and movies like Parent Trap and Davy Crockett struck me as the ideal life, and I determined at the age of six to live by the imagination. I wrote to Walt Disney, and he (or his studio) sent an autographed photo that I pinned above my bed. It stayed there until I left home for good in 1966.
I was a daydreaming, nervous child with no friends to speak of. I loved baseball, but I couldn't hit and I couldn't catch. I did not like school. My mother told me what to do and when, and I did whatever I was supposed to do on the surface and did what I wanted to do behind the scenes. My body was going through the motions of daily life, but my heart and head were powerfully elsewhere. I learned dreadful habits of dissociation from the world around me that I have to fight against now rather painfully. And I rarely win this fight. My natural state is dreaming, and 1 find the imagined world preferable in most cases to the "real" world, though I understand that the imagined world depends upon and springs from the real world—a subject contemplated with infinite sophistication by Wallace Stevens in his poems, which have meant a great deal to me over the past two decades. (I keep thinking of two lines from "Man with a Blue Guitar"—"I cannot bring a world quite round, / Although I patch it as I can.")
My father was successful as an insurance salesman, and I became very enamored with the image of success. It was part of the American story, and I liked that story. I still do. I watched my father energetically perform his work and learned by imitation to perform well in whatever work I had at hand. I determined to get out of what my mother called "my shell." To make friends. In the seventh grade I bought Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, and I memorized his rules for social interaction. I put them into practice. To my astonishment, I found I could actually make friends quite easily; people were hungry for attachments, for recognition, for an audience. I became a reasonably good listener, and I still listen with attention to my friends.
My father, in his late thirties, was converted to a Fundamentalist brand of Christianity, and one of the positive side benefits for me was a thorough introduction to the King James Bible. Every morning my father would read a chapter to us, and I loved to hear him linger over the biblical rhythms and quaint diction. The language of Bible was imprinted on my brain, and I still feel those rhythms as I write: the slight pitch toward formality undercut by a startling draft of ordinary speech. "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." There is no better prose than this.
For reasons involving family dynamics too complicated to explain here, I could never abide being told what to do. At school, I resented any assignment and would read only books not suggested by a teacher. This resistance continued through college, and it continues today. I have to struggle to read even the books that I assign my own students! And I do not easily follow instructions. Nothing gives me more pause than a booklet full of instructions that must be followed: how to assemble a fold-out bed, how to put together a stereo system or install a new program on my computer or get my fax to work. The result of this deep-set resistance to being told to do anything was that my high school and college grades were, given my natural bent toward reading and writing, comparatively low.
Still, I managed to get into Lafayette College. As the first person in my family ever to attend college, I felt amazingly privileged and proud. And Lafayette impressed me deeply with its traditions, its idyllic campus on a hillside overlooking the small industrial town of Easton, Pennsylvania. One of America's oldest colleges, founded in 1826, Lafayette still had the aura of the twenties clinging to it, with football games attended by gentlemen in fur coats, with rich and drunken alumni staggering around the campus on weekends.
I took to college life with relish, even though I had to struggle horribly with issues of authority and self-discipline. I got a C in freshman English my first semester, but I liked the course, and I began to write poetry and prose in my spare hours. In the spring of my freshman year, I saw that an open poetry reading was being held at the coffeehouse on campus sponsored by the chaplaincy, and I appeared with a trembling sheaf of a dozen poems in hand.
My turn came, and I took the stage in front of a sizable crowd and two well-known English professors, W. W. Watt and James Lusardi. My poems were terrible in almost every way, but they showed a certain affinity for verbal expression, and I was encouraged by the response of the audience and, in particular, Dr. Lusardi. He took me under his wing, and that made all the difference.
My career plans were uncertain. I had imagined that, somehow, I would become a lawyer and politician, running for Congress or some such thing. Those ambitions harked back to my "successes" in high school as class politician, actor (I was actually quite good, I thought, in Our Town and Camelot), Eagle Scout, and Boy Most Likely to Succeed. Public life had seemed possible, and it was even comfortable. I could escape into an image of myself thrown upon the screen of society. I imagined it was not impossible that one day I might become President of the United States.
But the truth was I preferred reading and writing poems to almost anything else. And my "real" self, the person I meet in the dark, in silence, walking in the woods or sitting by a pond, has little interest in publicity, power, or "politics" in the conventional sense of that much-abused term. It did not take a genius to see that American politicians were hollow men in suits, and that they made little dent on the imagination, the emotional, or spiritual life of the people they "represented."
I entered college in 1966, and I recall seeing my first demonstration against the Vietnam War during the early part of my freshman year. I watched a dozen or so upperclassmen (there were no women at Lafayette then) holding up protest placards, all led on by the college chaplain, F. Peter Sabey, who later became a good friend. I remember that water was dumped from a window of a dorm onto their heads by some fraternity boys, who snickered and jeered. Until that moment, I had vaguely thought the war was a good thing. In high school, I had actually led a march in favor of the war (and received a gold medal from the American Legion for my efforts!).
I was, briefly, on the brink of having to go to Vietnam myself. My draft board called me up, and I went on an early-morning bus to Wilkes-Barre, where I stood in line, naked, with a hundred other eighteen-yearolds. The horror of that day comes back to me with dream-exactitude. The innocence of those boys, all joking about "killing gooks," still saddens me. I did not want to kill anyone. And I did not want to see them, my countrymen, killed.
A turning point for me was reading Noam Chomsky's essay on "The Logic of Withdrawal" in Ramparts in September of 1967. The magazine was sitting in the chaplaincy office, and I took it back to my dorm. I realized then what a mistake the war was, and how American power had been thoroughly misused. The country had been hijacked after the Second World War by "the best and the brightest," a small group of men who were using anticommunism as a way to create a huge national security state, complete with a secret police on the domestic (the FBI) and international (the CIA) fronts. That we were interfering in a civil war in a remote land by dropping endless bombs on children in tiny jungle villages was intolerable. This essay is no place to rehash my objections to the Vietnam War and what it symbolized; let me only say that I found myself deeply at odds with my country. I became a skeptic about America and its purposes in the world, and I have never lost that skepticism. I felt just as angry when we dropped all of those "smart bombs" on the innocent people of Iraq, thus increasing their already mammoth suffering.
I fled America in 1968. I went to Scotland, where I'd been accepted for a year abroad at the University of St. Andrews, an idyllic place if one ever existed. The oldest university in Scotland, dating back to the twelfth century, St. Andrews hung in a medieval haze. A city wall surrounded the town, centuries old, protecting it from the ravages of modernity. Students wore long scarlet gowns to class, and the lecturers wore black gowns. Time could not penetrate that atmosphere, and I sunk happily into a solipsistic life of the mind, reading poetry with the excitement and vengeance of first acquaintance.
A seminal moment came in a long British bathtub in St. Regulus Hall, where I lived in a damp basement room. I had just bought a paperback edition of the selected poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and I opened it in that tub, reading "The Windhover," "God's Grandeur," and the "Terrible Sonnets" for the first time. When I closed that book, I knew that I would spend the rest of my life making poems. It was one of those strange, ecstatic hours. I was lifted; my soul felt as if it had been rinsed.
I could hear in Hopkins a voice that wakened my own voice: the hard alliterative drive, the linking sound of vowels chiming on vowels. A friend gave me a copy of T. S. Eliot's poems, and I now read "Prufrock" and "Burnt Norton" for the first time, then I turned to Wallace Stevens, Frost, Yeats, Whitman, Wordsworth, and Keats. Under the patient guidance of a young don at St. Andrews by the name of Tony Ashe, I learned what poets one might read and how one might talk about what one read. My own poetry came alive. I wrote day and night, trying my hand at sonnets, villanelles, and rhyming couplets. I wrote elegies, nature poems, verse epistles to friends in the manner of Pope, even ballads. It was a thrilling time for me.
I also gathered a circle of friends, mostly British. I went to tea parties, I walked along the West Sands and watched the cormorants grazing for herring on the cobalt waves, and I sat for hours on the pier looking across the North Sea. I walked in the woods nearby, once coming upon a whole field of bluebells in spring. The texture of British life was deeply moving to me, and it remains so: the smell of tea, the stone walls, the damp gardens, the tight smiles of the people, the lilting voices. I was fairly ignorant then of class differences, so I was not bothered by the snobbish aspects of life in Britain that would later come to upset me.
I did not, indeed, forget about the Vietnam War entirely. I argued against the war constantly with my friends, and I attended a rally against the war at the American embassy in London. I travelled to Paris, where I met a number of young Americans who thought like I did about the war. These were heady days, and I really did believe that a revolution had occurred; that the people of my generation would never again let wars and oppression, racism, economic injustice, and all the bad things happen, and the hypocrisy and ignorance that seemed to occlude the minds of the generations ahead of me would be banished forever.
Another guide for me at this time was Bertrand Russell. I read his Autobiography—still one of my favorite books; it's a splendidly clear and moving book, and the first volume culminates with his imprisonment for protesting the First World War. The senselessness and barbarism of that war paralleled, for me, the Vietnam War, and I was inspired. I bought a multivolume collection of Russell's essays, and I found in his reasonable tone and liberal attitudes a home of sorts. Russell became a hero. I wrote to him in Wales, asking if I might come and visit, and he wrote back: "Dear Parini: Were I not ninety-six and at death's door, I should certainly welcome you to tea. Alas, we shall have to meet in the next world. Good luck to you." It was signed merely "Russell."
I went back to Lafayette College with reluctance. St. Andrews was difficult to leave. But the academic year of 1969-1970 was a zinging one: Kent State, the bombing of Cambodia, the full dithyrambic dance of the sixties. I found myself marching on Washington, making speeches to student groups, leading demonstrations. I debated the war on local television with a right-wing student. And I continued to write and read poetry. James Lusardi, with whom I was now studying Milton, read my poems with an intensity and affection that amazed me, treating my imperfect and jejune efforts as if he had just stumbled upon "Tintern Abbey." He gave me the confidence to declare myself, to my family and friends, a poet; he also suggested that I pursue graduate study in literature.
My academic career gathered momentum now, for the first time. I got an A in every course, and I did an honors thesis on Hopkins that won a prize. I was given a fellowship from Lafayette to be used for graduate study anywhere I chose. At the same time, my draft lottery number was promising, and—in any case—I was not opening any letters that arrived from my draft board. I simply took off for Scotland, unsure of when or if I would return. (When ominous-seeming letters from my draft board arrived, I dropped them into the fireplace unopened.)
My stay in Scotland lasted through 1975. I lived, first, in the freezing attic room of a house owned by Tony and Sue Ashe. Tony remained my closest friend and academic counselor throughout my years in St. Andrews, and I learned from him and Sue what conversation sounded like. We had long lunches every day, and these were attended by friends and colleagues; we traded witticisms, talked about politics, books, films. I learned the complicated ins and outs of the British class system.
For all its positive sides, my first year back in Scotland was difficult. I fell into a bleak despair, and I would spend hours simply staring into the fire in my room. I walked the beaches at night, alone. I felt isolated, frustrated, confused. I thought I was going to die, and I took to reading Buddhist and Christian scriptures with a vengeance. At night, in bed, I felt like I was dropping through a dark and windy void. The "Terrible Sonnets" of Hopkins became my life, with lines like "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day" echoing in my head.
After six months or so, the depression passed. I turned my attention to my work, studying a little Latin and less Greek. I read everything I could lay my hands on from Chaucer and Wyatt through Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Dryden, Byron, Arnold, Joyce, and Beckett. I studied mythology, religion, and art—all in the rather haphazard way characteristic of British education—to my mind, the best way to do it. I always had the impression that my counterparts in American graduate schools were being too systematically "trained." They left with Ph.D. degrees from Yale and Stanford somehow believing they knew more than they did, feeling that their education was over. I knew this was just the beginning, and that I would never really "catch up." One never does. Indeed, I find myself endlessly circling back, encountering favorite literary works as if for the first time and wondering where I was when I first read them.
I was writing poems and, sometimes, stories in addition to working on critical research projects on Hopkins and, later, Roethke. It was in 1971 that I happened to meet Alastair Reid, the poet and essayist from the New Yorker.
Reid was a graduate of St. Andrews (his studies had been interrupted by the Second World War, in which he served in the Pacific), and my former history tutor—Miss Anne Wright—was a friend of his. When I confessed to her my poetic ambitions, she said, "Ah, you must meet Alastair." She called him, and we met in a pub in the center of town. He invited me to come to his house the next day with a batch of poems.
Reid and his son, Jasper, lived in a glade just off the Royal and Ancient Golf Course—the oldest golf course in the world. His house was called Pilmour Cottage, and it was nestled in a small copse of trees filled with rooks. One could see and smell the North Sea from his kitchen. I used to go jogging along the golf course, and I did so that day with a packet of poems in a manila folder. I knocked anxiously at his door.
"Ah, the poet," he said.
I followed him to the kitchen, and we sat at the table and he worked systematically through my poems, crossing out words, whole lines and stanzas, adding words and phrases. He said almost nothing. Just "corrected" the poems.
"I used to work with Robert Graves," he said. "In Majorca. I translated Lives of the Noble Caesars with him. I'd provide a rough translation—though I never thought it was rough at the time. And he would simply revise it, changing what struck him as wrong. He would add this word or that phrase. It was how I learned to write." From then on, I brought him poems on a regular basis. And he would change things. We became fast friends, and the friendship continues to this day.
I learned a great deal from reading Alastair Reid's poetry, too. His mellifluous style, his idiosyncratic syntax, his tone of amazement: I picked all of this up from him. Reid got me interested in Yeats, in Dylan Thomas, in Graves, in Auden, and John Crowe Ransom. He also introduced me—quite literally—to Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, both of whom he translated. Borges came to St. Andrews in 1972, and I spent many hours listening to him. In London, that same spring, I met Neruda. It was all immensely terrifying and exhilarating. Ideas and influences were coming at me from every direction, but I liked it.
In 1974, a local bookseller told me he was starting a poetry press, and he asked to see a manuscript. I eagerly cobbled one together from poems I considered finished at the time, and he quickly agreed to publish it. Singing in Time appeared in a hardback and paper edition, with a tiny print run. My friends all dutifully purchased or bummed a copy, and I was happy to see my poems in type. It was about this time that Scottish International—a "real" magazine—accepted my first poem. I also began reviewing poetry for Lines Review. Not surprisingly, my first article was a survey of the poems of Alastair Reid.
I should add that Alastair wasn't the only writer I knew in those days. Two poets who lived together in Glasgow became good friends: Anne Stevenson and Philip Hobsbaum. They were both immensely kind to me and helped me. I would take the train to Glasgow for the weekend, attending their informal seminars on Sunday evenings. Hobsbaum introduced me to his former student, a young poet called Seamus Heaney, who was about six or seven years my senior. I invited Seamus to St. Andrews, where he read at a poetry festival I had helped organize. Later, I visited him a couple of times in Dublin. We shared a commitment to clear, imagistic poetry written in a concrete, musical, and alliterative style. My second book of poems, Anthracite Country, is deeply indebted to Heaney's early work.
The chairman of the English department at St. Andrews was a weathered and eccentric little man called Alec Falconer, who had been a naval officer during the war. His main interest was Shakespeare, and he had spent a lifetime studying Shakespeare in relation to the sea. He was convinced that during the Bard's lost years he must have been an officer in the Royal Navy. His masterwork was Shakespeare and the Sea, which he followed with A Glossary of Naval and Gunnery Terms in Shakespeare—two of the oddest pieces of literary scholarship ever produced.
Falconer was known only as "the Professor," and indeed each department had only one professor. Everyone else was a "lecturer." The poor man did, as it were, go completely insane in his latter years, and while he was my supervisor he was clearly suffering from paranoia and something like encroaching senility. But we got along well, and I liked sitting in his vast office discussing history, politics, and literature, He adored "Sir Winston," and he disliked "newcomers." C. S. Lewis was "that odious fraud." James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence were anathema. The great modern writer was Hugh Walpole. He was deeply conservative, but he was not an imperialist. He thought the Vietnam War "an ignominious war" because it was not fought among equals for reasons of self-defense.
I finished my thesis on Hopkins and the meditative tradition for Professor Falconer, then turned to my study of Theodore Roethke, which involved a summer of research in Seattle, where I systematically ploughed through the poet's working notebooks, which were housed in the Special Collections department of the library at the University of Washington. I loved doing research and writing criticism because so many different things came together as one proceeded. Working on Roethke, I had to grapple with the entire English poetic tradition, with Jung and Freud, with the mystical writers from St. John of the Cross through Evelyn Underhill.
My thesis work was also my education as a poet in the formal aspects of the craft. Roethke tried his hand at everything, and it was fascinating to read through his notebooks and to see how a great poet worked through many drafts, arriving in the end somewhere that could never have been foreseen. I noticed, for instance, that a phrase like "a sidelong pickerel" smile cropped up in poem after poem for two decades before it found its perfect and final resting place in the famous "Elegy for Jane." Roethke's notebooks became a model of sorts, and I still am never without a notebook. Mine is full of ideas for poems and stories, phrases, rough drafts, titles, favorite lines from other poets, fragments of conversation overheard in a diner, I quarry these notebooks regularly for poems and essays.
In retrospect, I feel gratitude to Falconer; he saw me through the complicated process of Scottish postgraduate study, and he was unfailingly kind. Most of the graduate students I knew in St. Andrews never finished their theses, for all kinds of reasons. The temptation to do little or nothing was overwhelming. But Falconer did not encourage meandering and laziness, and my instincts were in any case to forge ahead. I managed to have the doctoral thesis done by autumn of 1974, and I had the degree a year later.
I began tutoring and lecturing at St. Andrews from the moment I returned as a postgraduate student, and by 1974 I was pretty much accepted as a member of the teaching staff. My habit of writing in the morning and teaching in the afternoon evolved during that time. After breakfast, I would go to a building adjacent to the University Library that once housed the Scottish parliament—long before Scotland ever succumbed to English rule. There was a huge room on the top floor that seemed perpetually empty, and I found a niche there where I could work in peace. I began writing a comic novel about a young Canadian archaeologist who came to St. Andrews to do research on medieval castles. Written in the style of Evelyn Waugh, my favorite novelist at the time, it grew to some five or six hundred pages in manuscript. I would read it in the evenings to friends, who loved the roman à clef aspect of the story. We all had a good time, but the novel did not hang together, and I decided not to try to publish it. It still sits in my attic, a neat bundle of semifictive madness never quite realized.
In my last couple of years in St. Andrews I rented a little house on a lovely backstreet. I shared the house with close friends, and quite an energetic social life emerged: the usual big lunches, dinner parties, dance parties. I entertained various poets: Hobsbaum and Stevenson, the brilliant and blind John Heath-Stubbs (who spent a week with me once). I met Auden, just before he died, in Oxford. I continued my friendship with Alastair Reid, who had moved away from St. Andrews for a year or two, then returned. Once I made a pilgrimage to the island of Orkney—far to the north—where my object of veneration was a wonderfully original and affecting poet and novelist called George Mackay Brown, with whom I have occasionally kept in touch by letter.
The option of staying on in St. Andrews presented itself, but it was never really a possibility. I missed the United States—my family, especially. My parents were desperately eager for my return, and I had begun to tire of the British class system, which pervades and determines all aspects of life there. I applied to various colleges for jobs and was hired by Dartmouth, in New Hampshire. I left Scotland, in midsummer of 1975, for a new life.
I remember so well getting onto the train at Leuchars Junction, a few miles outside of St. Andrews. Tony Ashe drove me to the station, and I boarded the train with my head full of unrelinquished tears; I looked balefully out the window at the bright passing landscape of Fife, its green rolling pastureland, the sudden sky-blue glimpses of the North Sea, the tight-woven little copses. I had learned a great deal in Scotland, had grown up there in fact. Even after the six-month downward spiral in autumn and winter of 1970-1971, I had brief periods of being miserably depressed, but I always pulled through and learned something from the depressions. As Roethke once wrote: "In a dark time, the eye begins to see."
The idea of living in New England had always been attractive to me. Once on a family vacation in the early sixties, I had passed through Vermont and New Hampshire, and I recalled having thought these states would make a fine place to live. Robert Frost had been a particular favorite of mine ever since I first read "Birches" in the ninth grade, and I was much taken with the fact that Frost had gone to Dartmouth (though he dropped out quickly) and often lectured there in his later years. He had spent a rather bleak period as a farmer in New Hampshire, and had written affectingly about the stony landscape of the region.
I rented from Dartmouth a small apartment just off the campus on an elm-lined street. It was exciting to have a "real" job and to have my very own place to live in for the first time. The first years in Hanover were dizzying. I sat through endless academic dinner parties. I was involved in inviting visiting writers to the campus to give readings, so I quickly met dozens of poets and novelists. My senior colleague was the poet Richard Eberhart, a kind-hearted and generous man who, with his wife, Betty, became surrogate parents. I settled into a rather comfortable life.
My daily ritual involved getting up about eight, then walking uptown to Lou's Restaurant for breakfast. At Lou's, I would settle in with my notebook and write poems. Midmorning, I would return to my apartment, type up the poems, rewrite them, and send them out to magazines. I would prepare classes, teach them, and meet with students in the afternoons. Evenings were spent reading or socializing with friends.
It all sounds very cozy, but there was a darker side. Dartmouth was stuck on itself, and there was a certain amount of silly snobbishness around that upset me. I found many of my colleagues difficult to talk to. Longstanding factions existed in the English department, and one had to put one's money on this or that horse. I tried to fathom the games being played, but I didn't get whatever it was that was going on, Quite naturally, I was deeply resentful of having to play games at all. On the other hand, I wanted to succeed at these games. Many nights were spent lying awake and fretting over what I'd said or not said to this or that colleague.
I was also lonely and sexually frustrated. Most of my real friends were, in fact, students, and in 1978 I met Devon Jersild, a beautiful and intelligent young woman from Illinois. She came into my office to ask if I would read her poems. I did. One thing led to the proverbial next thing and, by 1980, we had decided to get married soon after she graduated. My colleagues, alas, took a dim view of my relations with a student.
My feelings of resentment toward Dartmouth had been growing, and in 1979 I sat down in a fever of composition and wrote a novel called The Love Run—an immature thriller with a satirical underlining. The book was accepted by Atlantic-Little, Brown, with an advance of $12,500. I was amazed and delighted. (I also sold the movie rights and did a screenplay version, which—like most screenplays—was never produced.)
The novel was set at Dartmouth, and my contempt for certain aspects of the college was evident on every page. The sexual frustrations I'd experienced in painful ways during the first few years at Dartmouth were similarly unconcealed. I have never been able to keep a secret. I wrote what I felt, and the book contains many explicitly erotic pages that, in retrospect, I find embarrassing. Still, the book is cleanly written, has a fairly absorbing plot, and I will not disown it. One's books, like one's children, have a life of their own; one must not judge them too harshly.
Meanwhile I had published my thesis on Roethke, which I'd rewritten in substantial ways. Theodore Roethke: An American Romantic appeared in 1979 with the University of Massachusetts Press. It was well received, with reviews in the usual academic journals. And my poems, essays, and reviews were being published here and there: the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Poetry, the Sewanee Review, the Hudson Review, the New Republic, the Nation.
I felt very good about the poems, in particular. Coming back to the States had reawakened memories of childhood, and I wrote a lot about the mining region of Pennsylvania that became the first section of Anthracite Country, which was taken by Random House and published in 1982. Those poems were mostly short lyrics with a tight narrative and a concretely imagistic texture. One of my favorites is "Coal Train," which is about a young boy lying in bed listening to the train as it passes his house:
Three times a night it woke you
in middle summer, the Erie Lackawanna,
rung to the north on thin, loud rails.
You could feel it coming a long way off:
at first, a tremble in your belly,
a wire trilling in your veins, then diesel
rising to a froth beneath your skin.
You could see the cowcatcher,
wide as a mouth and eating ties,
the headlight blowing a dust of flies.
There was no way to stop it.
You lay there, fastened to the tracks
and waiting, breathing like a bull,
your fingers lit at the tips like matches.
You waited for the thunder of wheel and bone,
the axles sparking, fire in your spine.
Each passing was a kind of death,
the whistle dwindling to a ghost in air,
the engine losing itself in trees.
In a while, your heart was the loudest thing,
your bed was a pool of night.
With the anthracite poems, I felt I had suddenly come into my own as a writer. I had swallowed up the voices of Hopkins, Roethke, Heaney, Frost, and others; I had digested them. What came out of all of this digestion was a new thing: my voice. The poems felt right to me, and real.
My personal life grew richer and richer. Having found Devon, I suddenly had a friend: someone I could talk to, share everything with. I also became close friends with Sam Pickering, a colleague at Dartmouth who wrote familiar essays and criticism. Most nights I would drop by his apartment across the street and have a drink. We shared war stories about the college, we talked about writing. In winter, we would ski through the woods together along the Connecticut River. In summer, we would go swimming in the ponds hidden in the woods around Hanover.
It was also during these years that I met Ann Beattie. She had written to me, having read some of my poems in magazines. It turned out that she lived near my sister, just outside of Boston. We met, and we have remained close. Ann was just beginning to publish stories in the New Yorker, stories that caught the frustrations and disillusionment of our generation with astonishing wit and artistry. I was, indeed, visiting her in Connecticut when she was just finishing her second novel, Falling in Place, and I read those pages in rough draft with admiration and awe. The absurdist note in her work—a peculiar mix of despair and wry humor—is part of Ann's way of being in the world. And I've watched her change and grow from book to book.
I could write a whole book about my friends. In the old days, as it were, extended families offered a kind of emotional life insurance. One's children moved among relatives. And neighborhoods. I grew up in that kind of world, having lunch at my grandparents' house, dinner with an aunt, and so forth. My neighbors on South Rebecca Avenue in West Scranton all knew me intimately; the mailman, for instance, was also my Sunday school teacher, and he awaited my letters of acceptance from colleges as eagerly as I did. It was an intimate and protected world. But it was not the latter half of the twentieth century.
Dislocation, separation, and isolation are part of contemporary life, and my generation has been unusually dependent, I think, on friendship. We talk on the phone, visit each other, even travel together. Perhaps I am more inclined this way than others, but I rely on this contact with friends. It has been sustaining.
The Love Run was published in late spring of 1980, and the Dartmouth community did not like it one bit. Hate letters poured in from loyal Dartmouth graduates who loved their school and couldn't bear to hear a word said against it. With regard to my job, the timing could not have been worse, since I was up for tenure the next fall term. Needless to say, I did not get tenure—even though I had overwhelming support from the English department (much to my surprise). I was sent packing, and it was not an easy time for me.
Devon had graduated, and she was teaching for a year in Boston at the Commonwealth School. I would drive back and forth between Hanover and her apartment on Commonwealth Avenue nearly every weekend. I still recall the bleakness of that winter and spring of 1981. Where would I go? Was my academic career finished? Should I give up the idea of teaching altogether and simply write? It was a letter from Seamus Heaney, telling me not to dwell on external signs of accomplishments like teaching positions, that freed me. Seamus said, "Write your books. That's where your life is." And I did.
I buried myself in my work now, beginning a novel in Boston called The Patch Boys, having just finished Huckleberry Finn. I wanted to do a Huck on the Susquehanna, to write a novel that invoked the atmosphere of the anthracite region: the beauty of the natural world, the warm spirit of the people, and the sense of what William Carlos Williams once called "a new world naked." I was also eager to write a novel that would be as good as my poems, that would incorporate the lessons I had learned as a poet about imagery and tone, clarity and fidelity to one's innermost experience.
My father was always full of stories about growing up in Exeter, the little mining town outside of Scranton where I spent my first four years. I knew the place well, since my grandmother lived there until her death in 1979. 1 loved swimming in the river, with its mossy banks and slippery stones; I loved floating in the tepid ponds nearby. I loved the abandoned breakers, the ramshackle houses, the crooked streets that seemed to tumble in upon themselves. I loved the sense of neighborhood and family. And I wanted to get all of this into The Patch Boys.
I was married to Devon in Moline, Illinois, in June of 1981. We left the day after the wedding for Umbria, where we rented a tiny, stone farmhouse that was four hundred years old. In that village, called Torre Gentile, I lived blissfully with Devon, working several hours a day on my portable Olivetti. The Patch Boys grew and grew, although it would not see the light of day until 1986.
Torre Gentile was just outside of Todi, one of the classic hilltowns of Umbria. We made lots of friends that summer, and we grew to love Italy, the gentle rhythms of daily life there, the aura of the past that seemed to hang in the air like a benevolent shadow. The Umbrian hills were visible from our terrace, and we'd sit there sipping wine into the night with the violet hills spreading their long thin arms in a hauntingly open gesture. During the day we took long hikes in the woods nearby, which were full of wild boars. I think I could easily have stayed on in Torre Gentile for the rest of the year, but my final commitments to Dartmouth had to be fulfilled.
The final year at Dartmouth was, in fact, a pleasant experience. I was married now, very happy, and Devon became pregnant with Will, our first son. I was still hammering away at The Patch Boys, making progress. And I found that nearly every job I applied for yielded a request for an interview. In order to stay in northern New England, which I adored, I took a job at Middlebury College, which was just over the mountain in Vermont.
Again, I seemed to be following in the footsteps of Frost. Frost lived in Ripton—near Middlebury—for a good part of his life, and he was a founder of the Bread Loaf School of English and the famous Writers' Conference there, which are both part of Middlebury College. Frost loved Middlebury College, and he often lectured and read there. He had many friends in the area who were still alive in 1982 when I pulled into town with Devon, who would soon give birth to Will.
I was pleased to discover that the departmental angst that everyone took for granted at Dartmouth was alien to Middlebury. My colleagues got along rather well. I quickly felt at home.
We bought a small house on a wide, tree-lined street called South Street—a street right out of Sinclair Lewis. I would write every morning and teach in the afternoons, often wandering into the town to write poems while sitting in a diner. The poems that came out of my newfound status as paterfamilias and local burger were gathered in a volume called Town Life, published by Holt in 1988. Those poems are about fatherhood, about marriage, about living in a town. But that speaks only to their surfaces. The poems reflect a deepening of overall tone and effect. I'd been reading Wallace Stevens again, and I became enamored of the way thought—its looping interlocking circles—had been embodied by Stevens in a language that was witty and resonant. I tried for something like the same effect. While there is still a concreteness and narrative motion in those poems, I think—or I imagine—there is an openness and freedom of association which occurs that had not found its way into my work before. There is a lot of attention to nature as an emblem of mind, a searching out of Emersonian "correspondences." Every natural fact is taken as a sign that points inward, then outward. As in "The Function of Winter," which I take to be characteristic of the voice emerging in Town Life:
I'm for it, as the last leaves shred
or powder on the floor, as sparrows find
the driest footing, and November rains
fall hard as salt sprayed over roads.
The circulating spores take cover
where they can, and light runs level
to the ground again: no more the vertical
blond summer sheen that occupies a day,
but winter flatness—light as part of things,
not things themselves. My heart's in storage
for the six-month siege we're in for here,
laid up for use a little at a time
like hardtack on a polar expedition,
coveted though stale. Ideas, which in
summer hung a crazy jungle in my head,
subside now, separate and gleam in parts;
I braid them for display on winter walls
like garlic tails or onions, crisp bay wreaths.
One by one, I'll pluck them into spring.
If truth be told, I find it easier
to live this way: the fructifying boom
of summer over, wild birds gone, and wind
along the ground where cuffs can feel it.
Everything's in reach or neatly labeled
on my basement shelves. I'm ready to begin
to see what happened when my heart was hot,
my head too dazzled by itself to think.
Town Life also includes a poem about one of the two trips I took, on journalistic assignments, to the Far East in the mid-eighties. Called "This Kampuchea," the poem returns to the Vietnam imagery that continued to haunt me from the sixties and still does. I recall flying over Vietnam for the first time and seeing the endless acres of permanently destroyed forests and thinking again about the hideous abuse of power—economic and military and political—represented by that terrible war.
A growing influence on my poems in the eighties was Robert Penn Warren, whom I had met soon after coming to Dartmouth through the good offices of Richard Eberhart. The friendship with Warren and his family grew, and Devon and I would visit the Warrens often at their house in West Wardsboro, Vermont, which was not too far away. Warren, called "Red" by his friends, would read my poems and offer suggestions. We would go for long walks in the woods and sit, over dinner, talking about literature. One of the things that attracted me to Red was the way he had moved so easily among the genres, writing poems, stories, novels, book reviews, essays—even plays! And he did this while teaching at Minnesota and Yale. He was a man of letters in the old sense of that term, and I admired that.
I once asked him about the way he moved from genre to genre, and he said, "Poetry is the great schoolhouse of fiction." I've never forgotten that. My novels would be incredibly different had I not been a poet, too. My sense of language is rooted in the traditions of English and American poetry, and my sense of narrative structure owes as much to Paradise Lost as to The Great Gatsby (I often, as a kind of private joke with myself, bury quotations from favorite poems in my novels).
I had a sabbatical leave from Middlebury in 1985-1986, and we took ourselves to Atrani, a small town in southern Italy along the Amalfi Coast. We were lucky enough to find a villa overlooking the sea. The town of Amalfi was a mile or so away—a pleasant walk—and Devon and I would go into town every day and write in cafes, which had come to expect us. Our second son, Oliver, was only six weeks old when we arrived in Italy, and we attracted attention simply by having a small baby. The Amalfitani would pass Oliver from arm to arm, sometimes kidnapping him for the whole day.
A local family adopted us, and they would look after the boys in the morning and bring us hot meals at midday and see that everything in the house was operating smoothly. For the most part, it was. But the transition to Italian life was hard for Will, who was only three and had a new baby brother. And the weather in winter—drizzly, cold, and windy—affected us deeply. The villa was unheated, so we crammed around a kerosene heater to get warm, inhaling its noxious fumes as rain beat against the shutters. Spring seemed reluctant to find us, which is not the way we thought it was supposed to work in southern Italy.
For me, one of the great pleasures of the Amalfi Coast was getting to know my neighbor Gore Vidal. Gore lived in a luxurious villa called "La Rondinaia" which clung to a steep cliffside like a swallow's nest. We could see his villa from our terrace, and every day he would pass our house on his ritual walk into Amalfi to buy his newspapers. One day I left a note with the newsagent, saying that I was an American writer and was living temporarily in Atrani. He called immediately, and we soon became friends. We saw each other often, and we still talk on the phone every week or so. I've been back to Amalfi nearly every year to visit him.
It was Vidal who gave me the idea for The Last Station, my novel about Leo Tolstoy's last year. I had been reading and thinking about Tolstoy for some time, and after I read Henri Troyat's biography I got the idea for writing something about that intense and surreal last year, in which Tolstoy runs away from home and dies in the little railway station at Astapovo. My original thought was to make a book-length poem or play out of it. But reading Vidal's Lincoln, I fell upon the idea of trying my hand at the historical novel.
Everyone in the Tolstoy circle, including Tolstoy, kept meticulous diaries of their daily life. As I collected and read through these diaries—those by Tolstoy, Sofya Tolstoy, his wife, Valentin Bulgakov, his secretary, Sasha, his daughter, his publisher Chertkov, and so forth—I realized that a kaleidoscopic novel was presenting itself. I decided to preserve the diary-like form, writing the novel from six or seven different viewpoints, one of them my own. In the original draft, there were long chapters by "JP" that reflected on the ongoing action in a discursive manner. I also wrote some fifteen poems during the composition of the novel, and these were included as part of the original, much longer, manuscript. I was eventually persuaded to drop the "JP" meditations and cut the poems back to the three that survive in the final book.
The novel was published in the summer of 1990, and the reception took me rather by surprise. The New York Times Book Review put it on the cover, as did Newsday and many other papers. I was besieged by interviewers and invitations to do this or that. It was at first exhilarating, and heartening; soon, as one might well imagine, I grew tired of talking about the book. A couple of months after it was published, however, a phone call from Anthony Quinn, the actor, came one night after dinner. Quinn apparently had a passion to play Leo Tolstoy in a film; he wondered if I might like to do a screenplay version of The Last Station.
The many months that followed—a year and a half, in fact—were somewhat exhausting at times. Tony Quinn likes to wrestle a bear to the ground, and I spent countless long weekends in New York, where he lived, engaged in amusing battle. We would sit across from each other at a dining-room table in his studio, imagining scenes. I would go away and write them, then Tony and I would act them out. At one point I complained: "How is it that you always get to play Tolstoy, and I have to play Mrs. Tolstoy?" Quinn said, "Because you are playing Sofya in the film."
While the screenplay was underway, I was simultaneously writing poems in the morning, often for an hour or so after breakfast, and writing a new novel, Bay of Arrows. Once again, Alastair Reid was instrumental in my life. Devon and I had taken the boys for a winter holiday to the Dominican Republic in 1989, the main purpose of the journey being to visit Alastair, who was living in Samaná, a remote area of the island not far from the Bay of Arrows, a beach where Columbus was showered with arrows by the Taino Indians in 1492. Indeed, this small inlet was the first point of conflict in the New World between the Europeans and the indigenous population—a tremendously symbolic place.
Alastair, like Robinson Crusoe, had fashioned a life for himself out of very little there in the jungle. The two small houses he'd constructed, with help from a few local carpenters, were perched on a slope overlooking the sea and surrounded by tall palm and coconut trees. There was no running water, no electricity, little in the way of civilization. So Alastair collected rainwater in a cistern for drinking and cooking. He dug a latrine. He imported solar-powered generators to provide enough electricity to run a small refrigerator, some lights, and even a computer. His library was growing slowly, and it was filled with books on Columbus. I lay in a hammock reading.
I had always been interested in Columbus. My grandmother was born and raised in Savona, the town outside of Genoa where Columbus and his parents moved when his father decided to expand into the wine-and-cheese business. I used to sit in Scranton's Courthouse Square contemplating a huge statue of Columbus. (I even wrote a poem about him that appears in Anthracite Country.)
One thing led to another, and I found myself writing this novel that shuttled back and forth in alternate chapters between 1492 and 1992. The contemporary sections are about a man called Christopher Genovese, or "Geno." He is, in a sense, the reincarnation of Columbus. I stole countless little and large details from my own life to portray Geno—he's an English professor at a small college in Vermont, his wife is a writer, he has two boisterous sons. And Geno lives in a rambling mid-nineteenth-century farmhouse much like the one that we moved to, just outside of Middlebury, in 1989. But the parallels are all superficial. The personality of Geno is utterly his own. He is much more headstrong than I am, more sexist (I would hope), less willing to see beyond the patriarchal society around him. He is, like me, interested in radical politics, but his politics are terribly hypocritical.
One of Geno's interests is Noam Chomsky. As I have said earlier in this piece, Chomsky was a crucial figure in my early thinking about the U.S. in relation to the outside world, and I returned to reading Chomsky in the mid-eighties, frustrated by Reagan's brutal war against the Nicaraguan people. I found myself repoliticized, and angry. I could see that we had learned nothing as a nation from the Vietnam War. Our leaders were essentially bought men (and I do mean men). They owed their allegiance to the wealthy corporations who had sponsored them, and one of their chief purposes in life was to maintain a status quo in which American power was not questioned anywhere on the planet. They had, somehow, to justify a mammoth defense budget which was simultaneously pushing millions of Americans into a condition of poverty.
How does one restrain oneself? I wrote, on a whim, to Chomsky from Italy, and he replied at great length in a kind and thoughtful letter. When I returned from Italy, we met. (I did an interview with him for Mother Jones magazine.) We became friends. And I still find myself returning eagerly to his twenty-odd books on American power.
The novel Bay of Arrows grew out of my life in the late eighties, reflecting a wide range of my daily interests and concerns. As with The Last Station, it contains poems which are used to break the pattern of the driving prose narrative. Always, in writing, the pace of a narrative changes as one proceeds, moving between poles. On the one side, there is narrative momentum: the sheer delight of the story itself; on the other, there is lyric intensity, those passages where language takes on a strange concreteness. Often in writing I find myself so moved by a particular scene that I break from prose into poetry. By making the "hero" of this book a poet, I was able to use the urge toward lyric-making to my advantage, I think.
But book-making is a peculiar occupation, one that often seems at odds with teaching. Nevertheless, I find myself happily oscillating between the classroom and my study. The books I teach at Middlebury often inspire me to write something of my own. I enjoy talking to students, many of whom become friends. I like the notion of a community of scholars such as that described by Paul Goodman in his book of that name. In Goodman's vision, the academic village is a place where professionals work with apprentices in the mutual pursuit of knowledge. I do find that it works that way in writing seminars. My students, most of whom will never go on to write professionally after college, are nevertheless hopeful that this might happen. I have read a lot of poems and stories, and I can help them with theirs.
Life is so brief. I see the children growing fast, and it seems heartbreaking. I try to savor their sweet lives, but I feel this life spilling through my fingers like water. Poems—more often fragments of poems—accumulate in my notebooks, a kind of diary of my emotional life. The novels, written and unwritten, capture my imagination for a period, then subside. I like to think of the unwritten novels (there are about three or four in my head) as planes waiting for permission to land. Meanwhile, books for review cross my desk. I get the urge to go somewhere, to interview someone, or write about something. I wonder how to engage myself more directly with my wife, with my boys, with my community. I wonder how to use what talent I have to effect change in the larger political sense. I try to read, to think. All of this happens against a background of the shifting seasons: the lyric bloom of summer, the slow but unmistakable descent into fall, into winter's lockgrip, with snow muffling and blanking out whatever I thought I knew. I wait impatiently for spring, and it emerges slowly—with the hillsides turning from cobalt gray to a faint rouge as the buds swell. I go for long walks in the countryside, thinking. The wind that crosses my face is very much the world's breath, the spiritus. I know that soon enough I will return to the energy of the world in a much-reduced state, having finally learned (I hope) exactly how one lives in, around, the silence at the heart of what is real.
Jay Parini contributed the following update to CA in 2004:
In 1993, my wife and I moved with our sons Will and Oliver to Oxford, England, for a year. The Oxford period was vivid for us. I was a visiting fellow of Christ Church College and had an office in the lovely Peckwater Quad. We lived in a flat on Banbury Road, about half an hour by foot from the college, and I walked into town each morning. I loved walking past the various colleges, stopping at a little café in the Covered Market en route, getting a cup of strong tea and a scone, writing poems in my notebook. I relished the sights and sounds, even the smells, of Oxford, and the idyllic views into college gardens and quads.
Will and Oliver wore their school uniforms each day with some displeasure at first; gradually, however, they became English schoolboys, and by the end of the year they were reluctant to leave. My wife, Devon, devoted herself to her own writing and reading, rather happily. In addition to the poetry, I worked on a biography of John Steinbeck and started a novel about the German-Jewish critic, Walter Benjamin, who was chased by the Nazis over the French border into Spain during the Second World War.
During this year, we got to know John Bayley and Iris Murdoch quite well and made friends with a number of extraordinary people. I often had lunch or tea with Isaiah Berlin, whom I had met many years before in St. Andrews, and I saw a good deal of my old friend Peter Ackroyd, the novelist and biographer, in London. In a sense, this year in Oxford had, for me, a feeling of coming home.
Britain has always been a magical place for me, even though many aspects of life in contemporary Britain remained disconcerting. I did not like the bad air, the filth in London streets, or the traffic in Oxford. But these were mainly inconveniences, and the robust intellectual and cultural life that seemed everywhere around us, easily accessed, made this a fine time for us.
I had never written a biography—not as straight biography—so I approached the life of Steinbeck with some trepidation, with Elaine Steinbeck, the writer's third wife, hovering over me in ways that were sometimes awkward. I liked Elaine a great deal nonetheless. She teemed with ideas and made this book possible for me by opening her address book for my use. She sent me a long list of friends and acquaintances to interview, and I spent a lot of time on the telephone, talking to people about Steinbeck. I did, of course, spend a month or so in California, interviewing family and friends of the novelist, looking at unpublished papers and so forth. I was always amazed by how easily one could find people who knew Steinbeck, or claimed to know him. My notebook filled with stories and recollections.
I wrote the book rapidly, under horrific pressure from the British publisher, who needed the biography to spearhead a new line of Steinbeck titles. I don't think I have ever, before or after, written so much, so quickly. The British edition came out first and was so ragged and loose that I felt embarrassed, and I spent several months revising it for publication in the United States, rewriting sentences, trimming, shaping. In a way, I considered the British version a rough draft of the American edition, the "real" one.
I was much happier writing my poems and stories, and I returned to the United States in the autumn of 1994 to settle into a quiet stretch, during which time I finished Benjamin's Crossing and the poems of House of Days. I also brought together a volume of essays—most of them previously published in scattered journals. This was Some Necessary Angels: Essays on Writing and Politics. It was interesting for me to revisit a number of older essays, on such poets as Alastair Reid and Seamus Heaney, and to revise them for this volume.
In the late nineties, I resumed work on an old, often-aborted, project: a life of Robert Frost. I had thought of writing this book in the mid-seventies, and I actually began the book several times. I had a good deal of material from the seventies and eighties that I could use, and rewrite, including interviews I had done over the years with people associated with Frost. Suddenly I found myself writing quickly and easily; the biography was finished in 1999 and published in 2000.
Frost has always been a primary figure for me, a poet whose work moved me deeply, and who in essence provided an aesthetic upon which I managed to construct my own. Frost thought of a poem as a direct expression of feeling couched in a plain-speaking voice. He wrote simply, although not without considerable grace and subtlety. His interest in literary forms was profound, and he was able to adapt these forms to his own purposes. His sense of nature, of the land itself, and the people who occupy the land with grace and dignity, was acute. I learned from all of these aspects of Frost, absorbing this knowledge, making it my own.
After finishing the Frost book, I vowed I would never write another biography. This kind of work is, in some respects, tedious; I prefer to invent my own world, as in poems and novels. So I lunged into the writing of The Apprentice Lover, my sixth novel. This was a book in which I could dwell on all the things I cherish: poetry, the subject of literary apprenticeship, romantic love, Italy, and so forth. I lived in the dream of that book for a year or so, writing happily, absorbed in the story and the characters, never doubting the narrative itself or its manifestation in language for a second. I'm still very proud of the novel, although I thought it would have found a larger audience. I suspect that, in time, the right readers will find it.
It's difficult to know what to think about the audience for one's work. Who are they? In a very literal way, I write for my friends, to amuse them, but I also write for myself, calling into being the sort of books I would hope to find in a bookstore and purchase and take home to read in bed at night. I always wanted to read a book exactly like The Apprentice Lover, so I wrote it. It's a kind of shadow autobiography, so it remains dear to me.
My life as a teacher has moved along beside my life as a writer, and the truth is that I've come to like teaching more and more. I once found the labor of lecturing and conducting seminars something of an annoyance, a distraction from my writing. Now I find it both comforting and exciting to discuss books with students at Middlebury College. Most of my teaching is now focused on poetry, and I find this stimulating and satisfying. It means that I am constantly rereading the poets I most admire: Whitman and Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, Yeats, Auden, Roethke, Hughes, Heaney. I also find that personal relationships with students mean more and more to me.
As I write this, my two older sons have gone off to college, and I've got only Leo at home, who came late into our lives, and who has proven an immense treasure. He and I share a love of basketball. Somewhat to my own amazement, I play more basketball now than I did when younger. In fact, three days a week I go the college gym for "noon hoops," where I play ball with a group of colleagues and friends: full court, for an hour or more. This keeps me in shape and provides a necessary relief from the hours spent reading and writing in my study.
What I take to be my last biography, a life of William Faulkner, has just come out: One Matchless Time. I wrote this book to make myself more familiar with the world of Faulkner's fiction, having long admired his stories and novels. Indeed, I began thinking seriously about Faulkner in the late seventies, when I got to know Robert Penn Warren. We would take long walks in the woods, often talking about Faulkner, who was a personal favorite of Warren's. I plunged into this world of Faulkner's, Yoknapatawpha County, and made my way though the novels and stories with a growing sense of awe, even envy; the whole world he summoned fit together so beautifully.
While working on Faulkner, I was able to write what I consider some of my best poems, often in response to 9/11 and the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I strongly opposed these invasions, and have written a good deal about the situation and participated in public protests. I combined this writing and political work with trips to the Middle East, to Israel and Egypt, to Jordan. In a sense, my life in the twenty-first century became more grounded in politics than ever, and my writing more responsive to the immediate situation of the world.
The new poems appear in The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems, which contains all the latest work of the past eight years or so plus a selection of poems from the previous volumes: more than three decades of poetry. I consider this book a reflection of what lies at the center of my writing and imaginative life. It is certainly a volume that grew from my steady attention to poetry—work I usually do in the early morning, before the world distracts or interrupts my consciousness in its purest form.
Down the road, I want to focus on poems and novels. I think that is where my instincts are taking me, away from criticism and biography. But what I like about the life of writing is the furious unpredictability of the undertaking. A writer must respond to the world around him, bringing a weight of language against the weight of the world, looking for a sense of equilibrium. I hope to do this work as long as I can.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 54, Gale, 1989.
America, March 18, 1995, p. 29.
Book, March-April, 2002, Paul Sullivan, "Spellbound: Gore Vidal's Protege Writes a Novel about Mentoring—and Finds His Own Apprentice," p. 13, Paul Evans, review of The Apprentice Lover, p. 75.
Booklist, January 15, 1995, p. 892; April, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of House of Days, p. 1295; January 1, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Robert Frost: A Life, p. 790; March 1, 1999, p. 1149; February 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of The Apprentice Lover, p. 923; May 1, 2004, review of World Writers in English, p. 1574; June 1, 2004, review of The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, p. 1791.
Chicago Tribune Book World, August 8, 1982.
Choice, May, 1988.
Chronicle of Higher Education, April 4, 2003, "The Role of Poets in a Time of War," p. B14.
College Literature, spring, 2000, Clifford T. Manlove, "Beyond the Left and the Right," p. 193.
Contemporary Review, February, 1999, Richard Whittington-Egan, review of Robert Frost, p. 105.
Entertainment Weekly, April 16, 1999, p. 54.
Financial Times, January 27, 2001, Ludovic Hunter Tilney, "American Emblem, Earthy and Untamed," p. 5.
Hudson Review, December 3, 1982.
Insight on the News, May 24, 1999, p. 36.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1992, p. 744; March 15, 1997, pp. 410-411; December 15, 1997, pp. 1819-1820; April 1, 1998, p. 442; February 15, 2002, review of The Apprentice Lover, p. 215; September 1, 2004, review of One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner, p. 852.
Library Journal, February 1, 1982; May, 1990; August, 1992, p. 151; November 15, 1993, p. 78; December, 1997, p. 105; January, 1998, p. 100; February 1, 1998, David Kirby, review of Some Necessary Angels: Essays on Writing and Politics, p. 86; March 15, 1998, Graham Christian, review of House of Days, p. 68; February 15, 1999, Robert Kelly, review of Robert Frost, p. 150; February 15, 2004, Laurie Selwyn, review of World Writers in English, p. 118.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 19, 1986; November 2, 1986.
National Review, May 3, 1999, Jeffrey Hart, "Frost in a Clear Lens," p. 52.
New Republic, December 8, 1997, p. 38.
New Statesman & Society, March 26, 1993, p. 37; May 6, 1994, p. 37.
New York Times, July 17, 1990.
New York Times Book Review, June 8, 1980; December 12, 1986; June 12, 1988; March 12, 1989; July 23, 1990; June 29, 1997, p. 12; April 25, 1999; June 21, 1999, p. 24.
Observer (London, England), September 27, 1992, p. 50.
Publishers Weekly, December, 1981; July 20, 1990; August 23, 1991, p. 53; June 22, 1992, p. 45; September 15, 1997, p. 65; December 1, 1997, p. 41; January 5, 1998, review of Some Necessary Angels, p. 51; February 15, 1999, review of Robert Frost, p. 93; August 16, 2004, review of One Matchless Time, p. 49.
Salmagundi, summer, 1983.
School Library Journal, April, 2004, Mary Ann Carcich, reviews of The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature and World Writers in English, p. 95.
Sewanee Review, winter, 1983; summer, 1983.
Time, April 5, 1999, Lance Morrow, "Embedded in Our Subsoil: A Biography Puts Frost's Dark Side in Perspective," p. 69.
Times Literary Supplement, February 6, 1981; July 10, 1981; August 27, 1982; August 14, 1987; October 21, 1994, pp. 22-23.
USA Today, September, 1999, review of Robert Frost, p. 80.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1995, pp. 362-366.
Washington Post Book World, December 13, 1986; August 5, 1990.
World Literature Today, winter, 1996, pp. 191-192; spring, 1998, David S. Gross, review of Benjamin's Crossing, p. 372.