May 24, 2011

Flannery's Angel

by Charles Wright

Lead us to those we are waiting for,
Those who are waiting for us.
May your wings protect us
                           may we not be strangers in the lush province of joy.

Remember us who are weak,
You who are strong in your country which lies beyond the thunder,
Raphael, angel of happy meeting,
                                                            resplendent, hawk of the light.

"Flannery's Angel" by Charles Wright, from Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems. © Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1626, Peter Minuit bought the island of Manhattan from the Lenape Indians. He paid them in useful goods like cloth, kettles, axe heads, and drilling awls — not trinkets, as the legend goes — worth 60 silver Dutch guilders. Was it the deal of a lifetime? It depends on how you calculate the value of a guilder by today's standards. In the 19th century, a historian reckoned the purchase price to be about $24, and that's the story that school kids still receive. If you calculate according to the actual weight of the silver, it worked out to around $72 in 1992 dollars. According to the Institute for Social History of Amsterdam, 60 guilders in 1626 was equivalent to about $1,000 today. Given the price of New York real estate nowadays, that's about a 17-billion-percent increase. It's not the best bargain in U.S. history though; the Louisiana Purchase just beats it out. At a purchase price of five cents an acre, the Louisiana territory has appreciated at 5.5 percent per year, compared to Manhattan's 5.3 percent.

The book New York City: a Short History (George Lankevich, 1998) maintains that Minuit bought the island from the Canarsie, not the Lenape, Indians. Like millions today, the Canarsies didn't live in Manhattan; they just worked there, commuting from their Long Island home. Because they sold territory that wasn't really theirs to sell, the island had to be purchased again later from its rightful owners.

It's the birthday of Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky (1940) (books by this author), born Iosip Aleksandrovich Brodsky in Leningrad. He left school at 15, worked a series of odd jobs, and began writing poetry. In the 1960s, he taught himself Polish and English, and he began to translate poems from these languages into the Russian tongue. He even translated the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" into Russian. His irregular work record led to his arrest in 1964 for being a "social parasite," and the fact that he was a Jew didn't help him either. He was sent to a mental institution and then was sentenced to five years in an Arctic labor camp. His sentence was commuted after protests by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and poet Anna Akhmatova.

He was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, and he moved to the States, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1975. In 1993, he co-founded the American Poetry and Literacy Project. His goal was to place poetry in public places like airports and supermarkets, to make poetry "as ubiquitous as the nature that surrounds us ... or as ubiquitous as gas stations, if not as cars themselves," as he put it. Poetry, he said, "is the only insurance against the vulgarity of the human heart. Therefore it should be available to everyone in this country, and at a low cost." One of the organization's first projects was handing out free copies of the book Six American Poets in hospitals, hotels, and homeless shelters around the United States.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987, and in his acceptance speech he said: "I who write these lines will cease to be; so will you who read them. But the language in which they are written and in which you read them will remain not merely because language is more lasting than man, but because it is more capable of mutation."

It's the 70th birthday of Bob Dylan (books by this author), born Robert Zimmerman in 1941. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota, and grew up in nearby Hibbing, just off the road that ran all the way up from New Orleans and lent its name to his sixth album, 1965's Highway 61 Revisited. He moved down to Minneapolis and studied art at the University of Minnesota, and though he'd started out his musical career with a rock 'n' roll band, he soon converted to folk, playing gigs at a coffeehouse, the 10 O'clock Scholar, in the Dinkytown neighborhood north of campus. Rock was catchy, but it wasn't deep enough to satisfy him, and he later said: "I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings." He left Dinkytown for New York and became the darling of Greenwich Village's folk community.

By the mid-1960s, he'd gone electric, forsaking folk and returning to his rock roots. It wasn't a popular move among his fans, and at a show in England they booed him and called him "Judas." He responded by cranking the amps even louder, never one to worry about a rapport with his audience.

His lyrics evolved too, from protest songs into more literary undertakings, influenced by Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and John Keats (to say nothing of Dylan Thomas, who inspired Zimmerman's name change). He's been called one of America's great contemporary poets, and his lyrics are studied in college poetry classes, stripped of the music. Boston University lecturer Kevin Barents directs students to consider the iambic and ballad meter on Dylan's album John Wesley Harding. Oxford professor Christopher Ricks puts him on a par with Milton, Keats, and Tennyson. He's been nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature every year since 1996. He wrote a volume of poetry and prose called Tarantula in 1966 (published in 1971), even though he had famously proclaimed himself "a song-and-dance man" in 1965, when asked outright if he was a songwriter or a poet; The New Yorker published two of his poems from that period in 2008. Perhaps it's best to draw the distinction where he did, in the liner notes for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan: "Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can't sing, I call a poem."

He's also kept up with his art, drawing and painting to fill the time when he's on the road. Some critics compare his style to Degas, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Matisse. Others say he is "spasmodically brilliant," and one art history professor said he "paints like any other amateur." The artist himself says, in his typically laconic style: "I just draw what's interesting to me and then I paint it. Rows of houses, orchard acres, lines of tree trunks, could be anything. I can turn it into a life and death drama."

It's the birthday of Michael Chabon (1963) (books by this author). His name is pronounced "'Shea' as in Shea Stadium, 'Bon' as in Bon Jovi," according to him. He was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in the suburbs of Columbia, Maryland. His parents divorced when he was 12, and he began spending summers and holidays with his dad in Pittsburgh, the setting of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988). The book was his Master's thesis for the creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine, and he never intended to publish it, but his professor sent it to an agent without telling him. For five years he worked on — and failed to complete — his second novel, Fountain City, and ended up using the experience as a springboard for The Wonder Boys (1995), about a Pittsburgh author struggling to complete a mammoth manuscript. Chabon is best known for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), which he wrote after rediscovering a box of comic books he'd kept from his childhood.

Chabon is a staunch defender of genre fiction against the snobbery of the literary establishment. He told the Los Angeles Times: "In all fairness, [the bias against genre fiction] came from the fact that the vast preponderance of art created for a mass audience is crap. It's impossible to ignore that. But the vast preponderance of work written as literary art is high-toned crap. The proportion may settle down in the neighborhood of 90/10 — Sturgeon's Law said that 90 percent of everything is crud."

Chabon is married to novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman. They have four children, and live in Berkeley, California.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show