Philip Larkin comes under the scalpel again, but this time the hand is friendly. The book, Philip Larkin – Life, Art and Love, takes a look what’s become a focal point of the great poet’s life and work: his seemingly banal Life as a librarian (I never shared that view – library work is richly rewarding for the literary inclined), his Art, which suffered tragic abuse when several critics and higher journalists blurred the picture by noting some seemingly racist and sexist language in his collected letters followed by a respected biography noting the same thing. And along with all that, his secretive Love life was exposed, which came as a shock and added spice to the staid picture he had painted of himself as a bored, suburban bachelor in a staid, middle class town.
Life, Art and Love are given a therapeutic scrubbing in this book, returning him to the shelf of normal, healthy souls who chose to live their life in semi-seclusion and not in the public eye. After all, Larkin’s true charm came from presenting himself as being un-Byron and un-Shelley, and, yet, he is, for our time, as great as the greatest British poets.
Larkin’s steadfast champion over the years, Clive James, gives the book high marks for setting the record straight and throwing water on whatever fainting spells caused the sniping in the first place.
Here’s an essential new book by Greil Marcus, our best writer and social critic on Rock, Blues and early American music. The premise is 10 Rock songs as a way to approach the intertwined history of Rock music. He has an uncanny knack of taking a knife and opening up the heart of songs, putting you inside the music, making you wish for a compilation of the songs he illuminates. The choices are not what you’d expect – some are very obscure – leaving you wishing you had his ears and knowledge to “read” the music. Here’s an interview.
A classic, eclectic anthology on the major world religions is available now from Norton. The book includes some 4,200 pages of texts spanning roughly 3,500 years. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are presented “in their own words,” followed by critical responses, dissents, appreciations, commentaries, poems, songs, broadsides, in short a wide range of material that offers a reader one of the broadest, most comprehensive views possible of humanity’s search for the meaning of life. The overall editor, Jack Miles, discusses the book here.
The Spectator has an article here about James, his serious health problems, and the books he hopes to finish: “This month there is a new book of writing on poetry, Poetry Notebook. He still hopes to live to see a new Collected Poems out next year, perhaps finish a final volume of memoirs and write a sequel to his immense 2007 work Cultural Amnesia.”
The Sinosphere blog of The New York Times has published an interview with Bill Porter, who also publishes translations of Chinese texts under the pseudonym of Red Pine, upon the release of his Yellow River Odyssey, a travel journal written just prior to China’s emergence into the modern world. His extensive photographs of the trip capture a China that has largely disappeared. Many of Red Pine’s books are now bestsellers in China, after being translated from English into Chinese, including his translations and commentaries on Buddhist poems and sutras. The interview is by China correspondent Ian Johnson, and can be read here.
Yellow River Odyssey is published by Chin Music Press.
I’ve still not let go of reading and rereading new and old essays of Vidal. He’s fearsomely prescient and usually right in interpreting US history and forecasting where the world is heading, in some cases fully 40-50 years before recent events and popular opinion confirmed and caught up with him. Here he is in the essay “The Day the Amercan Empire Ran Out of Gas (1986)” from Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (2004).
“When Confucius was asked what would be the first thing he would do if he were asked to lead the state – a never-to-be-fulfilled dream – he said, ‘Rectify the language.’ This is wise. This is subtle. As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: You liberate a city by destroying it. Words are used to confuse so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their interests. Finally, words must be so twisted as to justify an empire that has now ceased to exist, much less make sense. Is rectification of our system possible for us? Henry Adams thought not. In 1910, he wrote: ‘The whole fabric of society will go to wrack if we really lay hands of reform on our rotten institutions.’ Then he added: ‘The whole system is a fraud, all of us know it, labourers and capitalists alike, and all of us are consenting parties to it.'”
Is it really too late to right the system more towards the people rather than the oligarchical class? I hope not, but certainly effort is all and it could make a difference as it has throughout America’s history. US history is nothing if not a sustained attempt by hardy souls to come closer to a more egalitarian, just society not controlled by an elite, wealthy oligarchical class. A wise Jewish saying from The Sayings of the Fathers, a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period, offers sage advice:
“It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” – Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:21.
Ruben Habito, my Zen teacher for many years, who will always be a core presence in my life, continues on his path, bringing Zen to Texas, writing his many books on Zen, and opening himself and his zendo to teaching anyone who seeks a way into Zen practice or a way to experience their own religion more intimately. Over the years, his students have been agnostics, Jews, Christians, and members of other faiths, all seeking to experience life more deeply and simply. This interview, which appeared in Tricycle, is typical of Ruben, gently building bridges that can lead Christians and others into Zen practice, pointing to the connections that bind us all to each thing. I wrote a chapter on Ruben in my travel/memoir, which is sitting silently now unable to find an agent or publisher. If for no other reason, I would like the book to be published if only to spread the word about Ruben’s unique life, profound understanding of people, and his unwavering commitment to compassion. As more years pass without seeing him, I miss him more and more while at the same time feeling his presence grow even deeper.