April 2009

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hand-in-pocket

Pockets

Are generally over or around
Erogenous zones, they seem to dive
In the direction of those

Dark places, and indeed
It is their nature to be dark
Themselves, keeping a kind

Of thieves’ kitchen for the things
Sequestered from the world
For long or little while,

The keys, the handkerchiefs,
The sad and vagrant little coins
That are really only passing through.

For all they locate close to lust,
No pocket ever sees another;
There is in fact a certain sadness

To pockets, going in their lonesome ways
And snuffling up their sifting storms
Of dust, tobacco bits and lint.

A pocket with a hole in it
Drops out; from shame, is that, or pride?
What is a pocket but a hole?

–Howard Nemerov

I needed to read something light-spirited and this suited me just fine. Besides I’ve always considered pockets to be one of the better attire-related inventions.

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Now this is a great title for a book: What Are Intellectuals Good For? And the first thing that came to mind is the now legendary episode of the Simpsons where an oversized donut falls from the shop’s marquee, lands on the fleeing villain and saves the day to which Homer responds with his signatory dumb assurance: “Donuts. What can’t they do?”

Who knows what an intellectual even is anymore. In this no-brow cultural climate it has become a term that can mean just about anything. But for Maureen Corrigan, this new book by George Scialabba speaks to the dwindling population of freelance thinkers and provocateurs. I heard her review on Fresh Air yesterday and was both charmed and compelled.

From Corrigan’s review:

Some years ago, when, at last, I’d finished my belabored dissertation and got my Ph.D. in literature, a relative of mine “congratulated” me by asking: “So, are you making any money now?” It’s that kind of attitude, the all-American pragmatism that needs to attach a bottom-line value even to ideas, that prompts the title question of George Scialabba’s new collection of essays and reviews: What Are Intellectuals Good For?

The national tendency to equate the term “intellectual” with “ineffectual” hits Scialabba where he lives. Scialabba is one of the last of the free-range eggheads, a nearly extinct breed of public intellectual not affiliated with think tanks or ivory towers. Granted, he graduated from and has long been employed by Harvard, but as a clerical worker, not a faculty member. In his free time, Scialabba writes, acutely, about literature and politics and ethics.

I first came upon his byline in The Village Voice in the 1980s, and once you read one of his lively and learned review essays, you are always looking for more: These days, you’ll find him in The Nation or The Boston Review or in those little avant-garde journals like N+1 that celebrity public intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens have left behind for the greener pastures of Vanity Fair and Hardball.

This new Scialabba collection, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, has been published in a beautiful paperback edition by the tiny Pressed Wafer. No one could expect it to be a stealth best-seller. But if you’re at all interested in 20th century thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Dwight Macdonald, William F. Buckley, Ellen Willis and Christopher Lasch to name a few, and in the larger question of whether the world would be poorer if they’d never written a word, then you’ll find Scialabba’s ruminations here invigorating. In fact, just reading Scialabba’s collection will make you feel smarter — even if it’s not clear if that kind of smarts has any direct social utility.

Scialabba tries to get a handle on just what intellectuals do for civilization, by delving into the work of Great and allegedly Great Minds. In that latter category, critic Edward Said comes in for especially droll and scornful attack because of what Scialabba sees as the damaging legacy of his writing: that is, inspiring this current generation of academics into deluding themselves that they’re carrying out political work by teaching, say, post-colonialist critiques of Paradise Lost. If intellectual work matters, Scialabba implies, it has to matter in ways that run deeper than delusionary self-puffery.

Lionel Trilling is one such thinker whom Scialabba prizes for something beyond the obvious. In his shimmering appreciation of Trilling, entitled “The Liberal Intelligence,” Scialabba says: “Though nearly everything Trilling wrote had an ultimate political relevance, almost nothing he wrote had an immediate political reference.” Later in the essay, Scialabba tries to clarify what he means by that riddling statement by linking Trilling with the great Victorian culture critic Matthew Arnold and demonstrating how both men saw literature primarily “in its moral aspect” — as an agent for teaching “discrimination, receptiveness, patience, magnanimity.” That pronouncement surely serves as part of Scialabba’s answer to what intellectuals — or at least some of them — are good for.

But that pronouncement wouldn’t carry much weight with my bottom-line-only relative and his millions of fellow citizens. Truth to tell, the audience for writers like Scialabba and the journalists and thinkers he admires here was always relatively small. Even in their post-World War II golden age, the New York Intellectuals — Irving Howe, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald and the rest of that crowd — weren’t speaking to a fraction of the audience who was tuning into I Love Lucy. That’s why it’s something of a miracle that an independent public intellectual like Scialabba has managed to hang on.

If you’re one of the fit-though-few whose brain doesn’t go into automatic snooze mode at the mention of the word “intellectual,” his pieces here are a pleasure to read — supple, accessible and wide-ranging. Writing enthusiastically about the work of journalists Alexander Cockburn and I.F. Stone, Scialabba says that, while they didn’t “create monuments of unaging intellect … they hemmed in everyday barbarism a little.” That’s a fine way to sum up Scialabba’s own achievement: He’s not a household name, his essays and reviews won’t rock the world, and I doubt that they’re making him a whole lot of money, but to those of us who follow his lonely patrols around the perimeter, his work hems in the everyday barbarism of mental laziness and moral evasion, just a little.

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To read more by and about George Scialabba, visit his blog.

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A Single Autumn

The year my parents died
one that summer one that fall
three months and three days apart
I moved into the house
where they had lived their last years
it had never been theirs
and was still theirs in that way
for a while

echoes in every room
without a sound
all the things that we
had never been able to say
I could not remember

doll collection
in a china cabinet
plates stacked on shelves
lace on drop-leaf tables
a dried branch of bittersweet
before a hall mirror
were all planning to wait

the glass doors of the house
remained closed
the days had turned cold
and out in the tall hickories
the blaze of autumn had begun
on its own

I could do anything

–W. S. Merwin

For anyone who has buried parents and had to dismantle a magpie’s nest of belongings, this poem is haunting. Merwin has described his own parents, particularly his preacher father, as harsh and cold. But in spite of that unsentimental objectivity, this poem is not coated in the resentment that many adult children harbor with resilience for an entire lifetime.

And here is one more:

Rain Light

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

You can hear Merwin read both these poems in an interview at NPR’s Fresh Air.

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From Athanasius Kircher’s “Mundus Subterraneus”

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I’m running a few weeks behind on my Times Book Review reading, but here’s a piece by Jim Holt from the April 5th edition that rang true. Holt does a compelling job of advocating for memorizing poetry. Imagine that. At a time when so many poems can be accessed online, Holt makes the claim—and I agree with him—that there is no replacement for committing a poem to memory. That’s when you really claim it.

Not that I’m good at this. I have a few favorites from my younger years that I still carry around inside, like The Idea of Order at Key West, The Snowman and The Emperor of Ice Cream by Wallace Stevens, and Sailing to Byzantium and the Lake Isle of Inisfree by Yeats. I have tried to add others but they do not log in as easily as they did when I was 17. Frustrating but true.

But I know the difference in the way a poem feels when it is coming from memory versus reading from a page.

Paintings don’t get memorized the same way as a poem. My experience has been that you can look at a piece of art for hours and still find surprises, as if it refuses to be captured completely. That furtive quality reminds me of Winnicott’s description of artists –- “continually torn between the urgent need to communicate, and the still more urgent need not to be found.”

But a poem allows itself to take up residence in the interior landscape, complete and whole. And the mystery deepens by the knowing.

A few excerpts from the article by Holt:

For the rest of us, the key to memorizing a poem painlessly is to do it incrementally, in tiny bits. I knock a couple of new lines into my head each morning before breakfast, hooking them onto what I’ve already got. At the moment, I’m 22 lines into Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” with 48 lines to go. It will take me about a month to learn the whole thing at this leisurely pace, but in the end I’ll be the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.

The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. You cling to the meter and rhyme scheme (if there is one), declaiming the lines in a sort of sing-songy way without worrying too much about what they mean. But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem — the “duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA” of iambic pentameter, say — and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words. (Part of the genius of Yeats or Pope is the way they intensify meaning by bucking against the meter.) It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It’s the difference between sight-reading a Beethoven piano sonata and playing it from memory — doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer’s emotions. And with poetry you don’t need a piano.

That’s my case for learning poetry by heart. It’s all about pleasure. And it’s a cheap pleasure. Between the covers of any decent anthology you have an entire sea to swim in. If you don’t have one left over from your college days, any good bookstore, new or used, will offer an embarrassment of choices for a few bucks — Oxford, Penguin, Norton, etc.

***

Are there cognitive benefits? I sometimes feel that my mnemonic horsepower is increasing, but that’s probably an illusion. “Memorizing poetry does seem to make people a bit better at memorizing poetry,” Geoffrey Nunberg has observed, “but there’s no evidence that the skill carries over to other tasks.”

Nor, as I have found, will memorizing poetry make you more popular. Rather the reverse. No one wants to hear you declaim it. Almost no one, anyway. I do have one friend, a Wall Street bond-trader, who can’t get enough of my recitations. He takes me to the Grand Havana Cigar Club, high above Midtown Manhattan, and sits rapt as I intone, “The unpurged images of day recede. . . .” He calls to one of the stunningly pretty waitresses. “Come over here and listen to my friend recite this Yeats poem.” Oh dear.

The grandest claim for memorizing poetry is made by Clive James, himself a formidable repository of memorized verse. In his book “Cultural Amnesia,” James declares that “the future of the humanities as a common possession depends on the restoration of a simple, single ideal: getting poetry by heart.” A noble sentiment. I just wish that James had given us some reason for thinking it was true.

I don’t have one myself, but I hope that I have at least dispelled three myths.

Myth No. 1: Poetry is painful to memorize. It is not at all painful. Just do a line or two a day.

Myth No. 2: There isn’t enough room in your memory to store a lot of poetry. Bad analogy. Memory is a muscle, not a quart jar.

Myth No. 3: Everyone needs an iPod. You do not need an iPod. Memorize poetry instead.

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crow-in-snow

In the past, when I began to study Zen,
it was all a mistake.

Wandering through numberless
mountains and rivers,
I wanted to find
something to know.

It’s all clear in hindsight.

Having learned this,
what do I have?

Release a crow into the night
and it flies
flecked with snow.

- Dayang Jingxuan

Dayang Jingxuan lived in the 10th century. Thank you to Whiskey River for bringing this poem to my attention.

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I was so sorry to learn of the passing of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. If you are not familiar with her work, this piece by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times puts her work and contribution into perspective.

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Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who died last week at 58, co-founded the influential scholarly field known as queer theory. (Carrie Boretz)

Now that colleges have created gender-neutral housing and bathrooms, and gay couples can be married in Iowa and Connecticut, it may be hard to understand the uproar that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work caused when it first appeared in the mid-1980s.

Ms. Sedgwick, who died of breast cancer last week at age 58, found subterranean homoerotic impulses in the work of Henry James, Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Dickens. In the decorous novels of Jane Austen, she unearthed hidden references to masturbation.

These analyses and others helped form the basis of an entirely new scholarly field, queer studies, a kitchen-sink sort of enterprise that proposed a groundbreaking way of looking at art and culture.

Drawing on literature, psychology, law, politics, sociology and the work of Michel Foucault, Ms. Sedgwick argued that assigned categories like “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” not to mention “male” and “female,” don’t begin to capture reality. Sexual desire and sexual identity exist on a continuum, spilling over the neat labels we create to contain them.

What’s more, she asserted, the failure to openly acknowledge these flawed definitions impairs “an understanding of virtually any aspect of Western culture.”

“The word ‘queer’ itself means across,” Ms. Sedgwick wrote, referencing its connection to the German “quer.” And she reached across set categories and conventions — sexual, political, scholarly — to explore the often strange spaces in between.

An English professor at the City University of New York, Ms. Sedgwick started out by using the lens of queer theory to analyze fiction. In Melville’s “Billy Budd,” for example, she argued that Billy’s accuser, the evil John Claggart, is a homosexual “presented as different in his essential nature than the normal men around him.”

“At the same time,” she writes, “every impulse of every person in this book that could at all be called desire could be called homosexual desire.”

At first her work was met with shocked disbelief. “No one would hire me,” she recalled in a 1998 interview with The New York Times. Now queer theory is as at home on many college campuses as men’s lacrosse and late-night lattes.

While the impact on college and universities is obvious, to most people outside that world, queer theory remains either a punch line or a puzzle — an exotic flower that blooms only in academic climates.

Yet as Ms. Sedgwick herself would have been delighted to point out, seemingly unconnected things are related to each other in strange and unexpected ways. Queer theory and its cousins have had more influence outside the academy than anyone might have imagined.

For starters, the ideas that she and others developed helped to usher in the era of multiculturalism, which challenged traditional scholarship as well as the primacy of Western thought and peoples. The resulting battles over ideology and values that composed the culture wars made their way into the national conversation.

Queer theory challenged people to question definitions and frames of reference they previously would never have thought twice about. Conservatives could thank Ms. Sedgwick for helping them win support; the paper on Jane Austen and masturbation that she delivered at the 1989 Modern Language Association meeting became the rallying point for attacks against political correctness and left-wing militancy in the university. As John J. Miller wrote in National Review Online last week, “It perfectly embodied the weirdness of what passed for intellectual life in our colleges and universities, and helped the public understand an emerging problem that remains with us now.”

Ms. Sedgwick was an equal opportunity radical, though, and upset some gay people who rejected her notion that all societal rules and conventions regarding sex were repressive. Although she called her own motivations “gay affirmative,” she insisted that queer theory was neither political, nor pro- or anti-homosexuality. Rather it was a mode of analysis, a doorway to understanding modern thought and culture.

Still, her work inspired AIDS activists who fought efforts to restrict gay sex in bathhouses and elsewhere. And the theory was frequently lumped in with identity politics, despite its bedrock claim that rigid identities like gayness don’t exist.

“She made clear that there were different ways of approaching questions of gay and lesbian sexuality,” explained Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and a co-founder of queer theory. “Some of us affirm the specificity of our lives, and others make the claim that one can actually find homosexuality everywhere.”

The link between Ms. Sedgwick’s ideas and current political issues is still strong, Ms. Butler said. “In a way, these very live and important debates drive academic work in sexuality studies, and these ongoing tensions affirm Sedgwick’s early analysis, and show that it remains incredibly relevant to contemporary debate.”

Consider the issue of gay marriage. Some contend that gays are like everyone else (what Ms. Sedgwick called the “universalizing view”) and should be treated that way; others portray them as an oppressed minority (the “minoritizing view”) who deserve protection. At the same time, those who would outlaw gay marriage can argue either that homosexuals are a deviant subgroup (minoritizing) or that the ubiquity of homosexual tendencies (universalizing) endangers the traditional institutions that underlie civilized society.

The persistence of the deadlock between the universalizing and minoritizing views, she wrote, is “the single most powerful feature of the important 20th-century understandings of sexuality, whether hetero or homo, and a determining feature too of all the social relations routed, in this sexualized century, through understandings of sexuality.” Ms. Butler said, “her brilliance was to show how both of these claims are often made at the same time, and that this is actually a productive tension.”

In a way, queer theory itself has been the subject of this tension. Scholars and students in all sorts of disciplines have incorporated its ideas, using the theory as just another analytical tool in their kit. At the same time, it remains a symbol of wacky, out-of-touch academics.

As far as its own fate was concerned, queer theory was uncannily prescient.

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Homestead in Dakota Territory

Wintering

Dakota Territory, 1884

Already, winter makes a corpse of things.
Snow reshapes what ice has taken. You’ve lost

interest in letters. So let sunrise come.
Let smoke grow darker by the light of day—

what I could spare of you I’ve burned already.
The fencepost needs repair. Let sunrise come.

Let panels of light make thirsty the ice-
caked stump of oak. Let the sky go empty

as December’s intimations, when in snow
we fashioned ourselves side by side as fallen

angels: yours, the greater wingspan; my outline
barely reaching. Daybreak. I lay my body down

in powder. Roots torque up through the chest’s
blankness, snarl of knots unloosed. What comes,

on parting you insisted, will come. Ice splits,
in the distance. What breaks will break. Let it.

–Shara Lessley

We all have ambient narratives in us, those story lines that speak in particular to us. This poem draws on a very powerful narrative thread in me that has been present in my life for as long as I can remember. Maybe having pioneer progenitors leaves an imprint in that supra-DNA sense.

Lessley came to my attention by way of her entertaining re-evaluation essay about Milton on Rumpus. If you are a Milton fan, take a peek at this.

Shara Lessley is the recipient of the Stegner, O’Connor, Tickner and Diane Middlebrook poetry fellowships, the “Discovery”/The Nation prize and a John Ciardi scholarship from Bread Loaf. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The Cincinnati Review, Black Warrior Review, and Fence, among others.

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A few more thoughts gleaned from the Guggenheim show, The Third Mind. This show was as closely aligned to my view of artmaking as any other exhibit I’ve ever seen. The experience is still reverberating for me several days later.

Here are some provocative words from two giants, John Cage and Philip Guston.

We learned from Oriental thought that those divine influences are, in fact, the environment in which we are. A sober and quiet mind is one in which the ego does not obstruct the fluency of things that come in through the senses and up through one’s dreams. Our business in living is to become fluent with the life we are living, and art can help this.

–John Cage

Art is not self expression but self alteration.

–John Cage

Look at any inspired painting. It’s like a gong sounding; it puts you in a state of reverberation.

–Philip Guston

To will a new form is unacceptable, because will builds distortion. Clear the way for something else—a condition which…resists analysis—and probably this is as it should be.

–Philip Guston

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Every once in a while I find a news bit that makes me feel that there may be some justice after all. This is particularly true in regard to the biological destiny (imperative?) that differentiates males and females. This piece, originally from the New York Times magazine, addresses how the perceived differences in prime breeding life span between men and women may be inaccurate. So to Lisa Belkins who wrote this article, thank you for pointing out that the playing field just may be more level than we had supposed.

Read between the lines of a recent study out of Australia and you can see hints of a coming shift in the gender conversation. Researchers at the University of Queensland found that children born to older fathers have, on average, lower scores on tests of intelligence than those born to younger dads. Data they analyzed from more than 33,000 American children showed that the older the man when a child is conceived, the lower a child’s score is likely to be on tests of concentration, memory, reasoning and reading skills, at least through age 7.

It was a small difference — just a few I.Q. points separated a child born to a 20-year-old and a child born to a 50-year-old. But it adds weight to a new consensus-in-the-making: there is no fountain of youth for sperm, no “get out of aging free” card. The little swimmers, scientists are finding, one study at a time, get older and less dependable along with every other cell in the male body.

And men don’t have to be all that old to be “too old.” French researchers reported last year that the chance of a couple’s conceiving begins to fall when the man is older than 35 and falls sharply if he is older than 40. British and Swedish researchers, in turn, have calculated that the risk of schizophrenia begins to rise for those whose fathers were over 30 when their babies were born. And another Swedish study has found that the risk of bipolar disorder in children begins to increase when fathers are older than 29 and is highest if they are older than 55. British and American researchers found that babies born to men over the age of 40 have significantly greater risk of autism than do those born to men under 30. (The age of the mother in most of these studies, showed little or no correlation.)

Lay this latest I.Q. news atop the pile, and you find yourself reaching the same conclusion as Dr. Dolores Malaspina, a professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center, who has done some of the schizophrenia research: “It turns out the optimal age for being a mother is the same as the optimal age for being a father.”

***
To offer another perspective on the ongoing gender teeter totter, here’s another interesting perspective from Jessica Shepherd at the Guardian:

Boys do worse in English when there are girls in their class, researchers will say today, contradicting the widely held belief that girls are always a good influence on boys in school.

Boys do best with “as few girls as possible” in English lessons at primary and secondary school, Steven Proud, a research student at Bristol University, will tell the Royal Economic Society’s conference.

But when it comes to maths and science, both boys and girls at primary school achieve up to a tenth of a grade more when there is a high proportion of girls in the class, Proud found.

Proud tracked boys’ and girls’ test results at the ages of seven, 11, 14 and 16 in 16,000 schools in England between 2002 and 2004 for his PhD.

He analysed the test scores to see whether the proportion of girls in a year group made a difference to the results of both genders in maths, science and English.

There are marginally more boys than girls in schools, but most classes in mixed schools are almost equally split between the genders. Proud looked at these and schools that were exceptional in their high or low proportion of girls.

Boys consistently perform up to a tenth of a grade worse when they study English with high numbers of girls as opposed to few or no girls, Proud found.

The more girls there are in an English class, the worse boys perform. This is particularly the case in primary schools, he discovered.

Proud will argue that his results show boys should be taught English in single-sex classes.

Girls, who outperform boys in English at every stage at school, are unaffected by the number of boys in their English classes.

Girls also do better when there are some boys who receive free school meals in their class, Proud found.

He said: “The results imply that boys would benefit at all ages from being taught English with as small a proportion of girls as possible. In maths and science, the results tend to imply that both boys and girls benefit from having more girls in the classroom. A mix of the genders in both science and maths is optimal.”

Proud said boys may do worse in English when there is a high proportion of girls in their class because they realise that the girls are better than them. It could also be that teachers use teaching styles more appropriate to girls when there are more girls than boys in the class. Both genders perform better in maths and science at primary school when there are more girls in the class because boys tend to disrupt the class more, he said.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said girls started school with slightly better verbal skills, while boys started with a slightly greater aptitude for maths.

“Boys might be discouraged by how well girls are doing in English,” he said, “but that still does not explain why they would do better in maths and science with a higher proportion of girls in their class.

“This is one study, among many, which detects very small differences between boys and girls. But you can’t say that it means boys or girls should be separated. It has very little practical importance for schools.”

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Air

Naturally it is night.
Under the overturned lute with its
One string I am going my way
Which has a strange sound.

This way the dust, that way the dust.
I listen to both sides
But I keep right on.
I remember the leaves sitting in judgment
And then winter.

I remember the rain with its bundle of roads.
The rain taking all its roads.
Nowhere.

Young as I am, old as I am,

I forget tomorrow, the blind man.
I forget the life among the buried windows.
The eyes in the curtains.
The wall
Growing through the immortelles.
I forget silence
The owner of the smile.

This must be what I wanted to be doing,
Walking at night between the two deserts,
Singing.

W.S. Merwin

Congratulations to Merwin for winning the Pulitzer Prize.

Merwin has published over twenty books of poetry and nearly twenty books of translation. His honors include the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Bollingen Prize, a Ford Foundation grant, the Governor’s Award for Literature of the State of Hawaii, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the PEN Translation Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Wallace Stevens Award, and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, and fellowships from The Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

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