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W. S. Merwin (1927-2019)

Margalit Fox in the New York Times:

Though the stylistic hallmarks of Mr. Merwin’s work changed appreciably over time, his abiding preoccupations — dissolution, absence, loss — remained nearly constant from the beginning.

This bewildered some early reviewers.

W. S. Merwin, “Language” (via

The Merwin Conservancy

W. S. Merwin reads his poem “For the Anniversary of My Death”

The Next Frontier

U.S. President Ronald Regan, from Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Jan 13, 1989:

Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we're a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier. This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.

These remarks were quoted by Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, at a Friends of Ireland Luncheon in Washington, D.C. on March 14, 2019.

A mighty woman with a torch

Emma Lazarus, “The New Collossus” (1883)

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Pets and Wild Animals

Matthew Zapruder in the Paris Review

When James Tate died on July 8, 2015, at the age of seventy-one, he left behind more than twenty collections of poetry and prose, including Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, published right around the time of his death. Most of us assumed that this was his final book. But it turned out there were more poems, which have been assembled into a truly final volume, The Government Lake, to be published by Ecco in July of 2019.

. . .

Only someone with a great mind, who had devoted his whole life to poetry, could write so casually, while also conjuring such a quiet, wild, mysterious force, to the very end.

What Are the Chances?

Dan Piepenbring, in the Paris Review (2016), on James Tate’s last poem, found in his typewriter after his death and published as “Untitled.”

Michael Gielen (1927–2019)


The Austrian-German conductor [Michael Gielen], known for his championing of new music, has died in Mondsee, Austria. ...

After studying piano in Buenos Aires, where he also assisted Erich Kleiber, Karl Böhm and Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Teatro Colón, Gielen joined the Vienna State Opera as a répétiteur and conductor where he oversaw numerous new works. From 1960-65, he was a conductor at the Royal Swedish Opera, he then joined Netherlands Oper and Frankfurt Opera (1967-77). In Frankfurt he regularly collaborated with directors like Hans Neufels and Ruth Berghaus (including a Ring cycle).

As a symphonic conductor, he held posts with the Belgian National Orchestra (1969-73), Cincinnati SO (1980-86) and SWR Symphony Baden-Baden and Freiburg (1986-89). He also served as a Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1978-81). He retired from conducting 2014.

His service to contemporary music was immense and he championed works by György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Hans Werner Henze, Betsy Jolas, Isang Yun and Henri Pousseur, as well as earlier 20th-century masters.

Michael Gielen, A Conversation with Bruce Duffie (1996)

The Ernst von Siemens Music Prize-Winner Michael Gielen

The Michael Gielen Edition

Elliott Carter: Piano Concerto; Variations for Orchestra (Ursula Oppens, piano; The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Gielen)

UPDATE: David Allen's obituary in the New York Times

Calculus and God

Evelyn Lamb at (2018) on mathematician Maria Agnesi (1718-1799):

The witch of Agnesi, you may be disappointed to know, is a curve that math students generally learn about in calculus class. It doesn’t look much like a witch, or a hat or even a broomstick. It’s nothing more than a gentle, sloping curve.

If a modern math textbook says anything about the Agnesi for whom it is named, it will probably note that Maria Gaetana Agnesi was an 18th-century mathematician who became the first woman to write a major calculus textbook. It may also note that the name is a mistranslation of the Italian versiera, a term the mathematician Guido Grandi had coined based on the Latin for “turning curve,” which translator John Colson mistook for “avversiera,” which means she-devil – or, more succinctly, witch.

Sans Forgetica

RMIT University on their Sans Forgetica typeface:

When a piece of information is too easily and cleanly read, it can fail to engage our brains in the kind of deeper cognitive processing necessary for effective retention and recall.

Sans Forgetica is an attempt to address this somewhat ironic flaw of design. By disrupting the flow of individual letterforms, readers are subtly prompted to increase their focus on the text being communicated. Multiple tests undertaken by RMIT’s Behavioural Business Lab have confirmed that the effect of this is to increase memory retention of the text in question.

McClain, Koch, Lawrence, and Facciol

Shaiann Frazier for NBC News MACH:

Kicking off Women’s History Month, NASA announced Tuesday that its first-ever all-female spacewalk will take place later this month.

The March 29 spacewalk at the International Space Station will feature astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch, who will be aided on the ground by flight directors Mary Lawrence and Kristen Facciol at NASA's Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

McClain and Koch were both chosen from NASA’s 2013 astronaut candidate class, which had the second-highest number of applicants that the space agency has ever received. Of the eight candidates selected in 2013, half of them were women, representing a mix of scientists and military pilots.

Hypothesis and Dream

Elisa Gonzalez, inteviewing Louise Glück for Washington Square Review (2015):

Glück: Then I began to see what I hadn’t seen before.

Washington Square: Such as?

Glück: The same story told from multiple vantages, which I hadn’t seen was a factor. And then at the very end I was once again in a period of thwarted-ness because I had all these piles of pages and I’d begun to rather like some of it, but it clearly wasn’t a book. And Kathy Davis suggested that I reread Kafka’s short short stories. And I didn’t love them but that was good, that meant that I could use them. So I tried writing a prose poem.

Washington Square: And that was the first time you’ve done that?

Glück: Yes. And I thought, well this is probably complete garbage. I was having dinner that night with Frank Bidart, and before I threw it out, or put it in my folder, I thought, well, I’ll show it to Frank because I don’t mind being humiliated. With my close friends, I’ve been humiliated many times. So I showed it to him and he adored it. It’s not usual for us to have such a wide discrepancy of opinion.

Washington Square: Which poem was this?

Glück: “Theory of Memory.”

Louise Glück, “Theory of Memory” (from Faithful and Virtuous Night, 2014), on The Writer’s Almanac.

Die Laufrichtung

Franz Kafka, “Kleine Fabel” (A Little Fable, ca. 1920):

„Ach“, sagte die Maus, „die Welt wird enger mit jedem Tag. Zuerst war sie so breit, daß ich Angst hatte, ich lief weiter und war glücklich, daß ich endlich rechts und links in der Ferne Mauern sah, aber diese langen Mauern eilen so schnell aufeinander zu, daß ich schon im letzten Zimmer bin, und dort im Winkel steht die Falle, in die ich laufe.“ – „Du mußt nur die Laufrichtung ändern“, sagte die Katze und fraß sie.

“Alas”, said the mouse, “the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last room already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am running into.” – “You need only change direction,” said the cat, and ate it.

This is the story David Foster Wallace spoke about in a 1998 speech at the PEN American Center, excerpts of which were reprinted in Harpers as “Laughing with Kafka.” (.pdf)


Gabriel García Márquez, interviewed by Peter H. Stone in The Paris Review (1981):

At the university in Bogotá, I started making new friends and acquaintances, who introduced me to contemporary writers. One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read “The Metamorphosis.” The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . .” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago.

. . .

I do find it harder to write now than before, both novels and journalism. When I worked for newspapers, I wasn’t very conscious of every word I wrote, whereas now I am. When I was working for El Espectador in Bogotá, I used to do at least three stories a week, two or three editorial notes every day, and I did movie reviews. Then at night, after everyone had gone home, I would stay behind writing my novels. I liked the noise of the Linotype machines, which sounded like rain. If they stopped, and I was left in silence, I wouldn’t be able to work. Now, the output is comparatively small. On a good working day, working from nine o’clock in the morning to two or three in the afternoon, the most I can write is a short paragraph of four or five lines, which I usually tear up the next day.
The Woman playes to day, mistake me not

Georgianna Ziegler in The Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Shakespeare & Beyond” blog:

When Othello was performed on December 8, 1660, the audience saw something startling – a woman acting the role of Desdemona.
A Mode of Public Personality

Lucasta Miller in The Atlantic

L.E.L. – revealed by an early editor’s note to be “a lady yet in her teens” – presented an especially fascinating mystery: How could a young female adopt, with a precocious knowingness, the erotic pessimism of late Romantics such as Byron, on display in verses like these of 1823?
Twine not those red roses for me, –
Darker and sadder my wreath must be;
Mine is of flowers unkissed by the sun,
Flowers which died as the Spring begun.
The blighted leaf and the cankered stem
Are what should form my diadem.

A voice like this invited both heartfelt identification and prurient attention.

Public Utility

Tobais Haberkorn interviews Nick Srnicek, author of Platform Capitalism in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

What do you make of the recent attempts in regulating and controlling Facebooks on the political level?

I think there have been two broad responses so far. First, Facebook insisting that they can and will self-regulate. Their attempts to label fake news, or their promises that AI will solve their problems, are examples of this trend. The problem with this approach is that their entire business model is reliant on advertisement. And advertisement in the internet economy is based upon surveillance. So Facebook has to monitor people, it has to collect data, and the more private data they can get, the better it is for their bottom line. Despite the best intentions of individual Facebook employees, the structural necessity is that they have to collect more and more data. And I don’t think self-regulation is going to be able to ever overcome that hurdle.

On the other hand, you increasingly have regulators (particularly in Europe) pressing for more stringent controls over Facebook.... Perhaps most problematically, a lot of the discussion assumes that Facebook – and other private platforms – should be making decisions about censorship and content and access. As you mentioned, platforms like Facebook are increasingly taking on public utility functions, and as such, they need to be governed by the public, not by a private company and its executives. This means entirely changing the governance structure of these platforms.

Pound, Cerf, and Auden

from Edward Mendelson, ”Auden on No-Platforming Pound” in The New York Review of Books:

Bennett Cerf (to Lewis Gannett):

Damn it, Lewis, this war is not over. The same ideology that caused it… is still too prevalent in the world. Every time you parade the work of a man who represents such ideas, especially while he still lives, you are in a sense glorifying him, and giving tacit approval to his point of view.

W. H. Auden (to Bennett Cerf, after Cerf's letter was published):

As you say, the war is not over. This incident is only one sign – there are others and far graver ones – that there was more truth than one would like to believe in Huey Long’s cynical observation that if fascism came to the United States it would be called Anti-fascism. Needless to say, I am not suggesting that you desire any such thing – but I think your very natural abhorrence of Pound’s conduct has led you to take the first step which, if not protested now, will be followed by others which would horrify you.
Nieuw Ensemble Comes to a Halt

Sad news from Amsterdam, where the Nieuw Ensemble has announced that it will disband at the end of 2019 due to a lack of funds. The group commissioned and premiered nearly 1,000 compositions by (among others) Richard Barrett, Gerald Barry, Gerard Brophy, Richard Carrick, Chen Qigang, Unsuk Chin, James Dillon, Franco Donatoni, Miranda Driessen, Gabriel Erkoreka, Milton Estévez, Guerrero Francisco, Chris Paul Harman, Johnathan Harvey, Wim Henderickx, Hui Tak Cheung, Otto Ketting, Tristan Keuris, Jo Kondo, Daniel W. Koontz, Lo Shih-Wei, Matthew Sergeant, Rodney Sharman, Rodolfo Valente, Xu Shuya, and Jay Alan Yim, as well as Elliott Carter’s Luimen (1997).

Founder and Artistic Director Joël Bons:

We are lucky to have experienced the most wonderful blossoming of ensemble-culture you can imagine. So we count our blessings: the NE has done a huge amount of stimulating projects, worked together with hundreds of composers of all ages and backgrounds, continuously premiered pieces especially written for us and gave concerts all over the world. We have realized almost all our dreams, it is time to move on.
Potentially Mobile

Genesis 3:20 (trans. Robert Alter):

And the human called his woman’s name Eve, for she was the mother of all that lives.

Robert Alter:

Like most of the explanations of names in Genesis, this is probably based on folk etymology or an imaginative playing with sound. The most searching explanation of these poetic etymologies in the Bible has been offered by Herbert Marks, who observes, “In a verisimilar narrative, naming establishes and fixes identity as something tautologically itself; etymology, by returning it to the trials of language, compromises it, complicates it, renders it potentially mobile.” In the Hebrew here, the phonetic similarity is between ḥawah, “Eve,” and the verbal root ḥayah, “to live.” It has been proposed that Eve’s name conceals very different origins, for it sounds suspiciously like the Aramaic word for “serpent.” Could she have been given the name by the contagious contiguity with her wily interlocutor, or, on the contrary, might there lurk behind the name a very different evaluation of the serpent as a creature associated with the origins of life?
JACK, Juilliard, and the Carter 3rd

The JACK Quartet was on hand for Melinda Wagner’s composition seminar at Juilliard on Feb 26, 2019 to play Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 3 (1971) for an audience that included three former members of the Juilliard String Quartet, for whom the piece was written and to whom it is dedicated. Violinist Earl Carlyss and violist Samuel Rhodes played the premiere at Alice Tully Hall in 1973, and cellist Joel Krosnick joined a year later. All three had close, decades-long relationships with Carter, recorded all five of his string quartets (some more than once), and performed them hundreds of times for audiences around the world.

The JACK Quartet – violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell – has been a gift to everyone who loves contemporary music and it is both appropriate and heartening that they have taken on the Carter quartets as core repertory. They will play all five at The Morgan Library on April 14th. Carter encourages some distance between the piece’s two duos and at Juilliard they were seated about twenty feet apart, which everyone seemed to agree made the counterpoint clearer. The piece has a somewhat paradoxical reputation as both the most fearsome and the most crowd-pleasing of the five. The JACK’s performance was confident, transparent, and expressive. They get this music and it shows.

The students had lots of good questions, but along with the opportunity to hear such a brilliant performance of such a brilliant piece, the workshop’s greatest pleasure was observing the bond that emerged between the two generations of quartet players. Hard to believe, but the JACK quartet is only at the beginning of their careers. (John Pickford Richards’s bio notes that he was “Called ‘wholesome-looking’ by the New York Times.”) But someday they will be the wise elders, marvelling at the next generation of impossibly young-seeming performers dedicated to scaling Carter’s heights. And one hopes they will look back on their accomplishment with amazement and delight, as Earl Carlyss did. “I can’t believe I played that piece,” he said.

UPDATE: JACK Quartet awarded Avery Fisher Career Grant (via The Strad).

Digital Humanities

The University of Nebraska – Lincoln's Center for Digital Research in the Humanities maintains free online archives devoted to Civil War Washington, Willa Cather, Walt Whitman, and the court battle against slavery in Washington D.C. between 1800 and 1862.

Willa Cather to Ferris Greenslet (Scarsdale, Aug/Sep, 1918):

It is a glorious party, but the silence of the cornfields will be almost welcome after so much of it. As Josephine says; "Les Sonat', les quatuores a deux heures le matin – c'n'est pas raisonable, vous-savez, mademoiselle!"

So this is why I won't have the pleasure of lunching with you in Boston.

After Sunday my address will be Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Fred, Ursula, and Lucy

In the past few months, Merkin Hall in New York City has hosted three birthday concerts for three remarkable musicians: cellist Fred Sherry, pianist Ursula Oppens, and soprano Lucy Shelton. All three have reached a certain age and to look back at their collective achievements is to be amazed and seriously inspired, but the celebrations were anything but maudlin.

Fred presided whimsically over “FredFest!” – a dazzling array of music and musicians brought together by Derek Bermel. Ursula played two world premieres – one by Tobias Picker, and one (with the Cassatt Quartet) by Laura Kaminsky. And Lucy ranged from Oliver Knussen to Harry Von Tiltzer, leading the performers in a kind of conga line through the audience to the strains of “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie.”

Lucy, in both words and music, paid loving tribute to her mentor Jan DeGaetani, and Elliott Carter was a common thread through all three concerts. The celebrated musicians all dispensed with formality in kind and welcoming ways and warmly shared the stage with their younger colleagues, on whom the future of contemporary music increasingly depends.


David Lidov, in Is Language a Music? (2004):

The images that flit by in the corner of our eye are often subject to extravagant interpretation: a vague blip turns into a mouse running through the grass or maybe a golf ball. Auditory streaming is like that too. Intent on a conversation with one person and oblivious to the background noise, I suddenly whirl around when I hear somebody mention my favorite semiotic theory – it turns out to be a cake recipe, instead.
A literary curiosity

L. P. Elwell-Sutton in In Search of Omar Khayyam (2011) by Ali Dashti:

It is a literary curiosity of our time that Persian poetry, one of the richest poetic literatures in the world, is known to the West largely through the person of a single medieval writer who, in the opinion of some scholars, never wrote a line of poetry in his life.

Attributed to Omar Khayyam (trans. L. P. Elwell-Sutton):

This circle within which we come and go
Has neither origin nor final end
Will no one ever tell us truthfully
Whence we have come, or whither do we go?
motion that forces change

Jorie Graham, “Prayer” (2002) (via Poetry Foundation)

He says he doesn’t feel like working today

John Ashbery reads “My Erotic Double” (1979)

text (via Poetry Foundation)
audio (via PennSound: John Ashbery)

Numbers falling through numbers

Robert Hass, from “A Note On Numbers,” in A Little Book On Form (2017):

And then within a line, we might hear one or two or three, even four phrases, which also make rhythmic units, as the line usually makes a rhythmic unit.

Two phrase units:
Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Three phrase units:
Is lust in action, and till action, lust

Four phrase units:
is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Five phrase units:
savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

And in this way the formal imagination is about numbers falling through numbers, as it is in music.
This here’s no story

Lynn Hunt in The New York Review of Books:

Long before René Magritte painted The Treachery of Images (1929), choosing the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” to draw attention to the act of painting and its curious relationship to representation, Diderot had titled one of his short stories “Ceci n’est pas un conte” (This is not a story). In it he introduces a fictional reader to interrupt the flow of the story and in this way draw attention to the necessary negotiation between author and reader.

Decades before Hegel, Diderot showed that the master-servant relationship is mutually constituted, which means that it incorporates within itself the means of its own destruction in favor of equality. Even while fighting for the power of reason, science, and knowledge, Diderot saw that these had their own inherent fragilities. If the human race is a cosmic accident, then what is the meaning of life? If our individual lives are predetermined by material circumstances, then what is the space for human freedom of action? Do reason, science, and knowledge ultimately tell us that we are not free after all? Diderot was never afraid to look into the abyss.

James Baldwin

from “Stranger in the Village” (1953):

I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world – which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white – owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us – very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will – that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality.

from “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown” (1950):

Perhaps it now occurs to him that in this need to establish himself in relation to his past he is most American, that this depthless alienation from oneself and one’s people is, in sum, the American experience.

Both in James Baldwin: Collected Essays (1998), from the Library of America.