Category Archives: On Writing

Music in the Snow

OK. Here’s a bit of parallel thinking about a snowfall heading up the coast from Florida to Boston. See if you can navigate all this without losing your balance and falling into the slush.

Let’s begin with some music.

James Taylor’s “Frozen Man”: Overture for a snow storm heading up the coast

Regressive of me, sure. But when the weather service predicts “plowable” snow for a school day, I’m already imagining the joys of forced malingering.

And as we all have a musical score for our lives, I YouTubed James Taylor’s “Frozen Man.”

I know. “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” would be more appropriate. He sang a duet with Nathalie Cole. Very sweet. But the frozen man story always gets me — along with that signature acoustic guitar style and one of the great voices of the past quarter century:

Last thing I remember is the freezing cold
Water reaching up just to swallow me whole
Ice in the rigging and howling wind
Shock to my body as we tumbled in
Then my brothers and the others are lost at sea
I alone am returned to tell thee
Hidden in ice for a century
To walk the world again
Lord have mercy on the frozen man

Next words that were spoken to me
Nurse asked me what my name might be
She was all in white at the foot of my bed
I said angel of mercy Im alive or am I dead
My name is william james mcphee
I was born in 1843
Raised in liverpool by the sea
But that aint who I am
Lord have mercy on the frozen man

It took a lot of money to start my heart
To peg my leg and to buy my eye
The newspapers call me the state of the art
And the children, when they see me, cry
I thought it would be nice just to visit my grave
See what kind of tombstone I might have
I saw my wife and my daughter and it seemed so strange
Both of them dead and gone from extreme old age
See here, when I die make sure Im gone
Dont leave em nothing to work on
You can raise your arm, you can wiggle your hand
And you can wave goodbye to the frozen man

I know what it means to freeze to death
To lose a little life with every breath
To say goodbye to life on earth
To come around again
Lord have mercy on the frozen man
Lord have mercy on the frozen man


Can’t resist those tales of redemption. Dante himself might have admired it, except his frozen Judas and other nasty boys. But America’s the land of second chances, isn’t it? Of underdogs like Stallone’s Rocky getting up off their ass and taking their punishment as a triumph?

But there’s a counterpoint to this: There are no second acts in American lives, said Scott Fitzgerald. (Of course, he never saw all the “Rocky” sequels or “Godfather II”.)

Then there’s Robert Bly’s “Silence in the Snowy Fields” poem:

Poet Robert Bly

Poet Robert Bly

(Are you still with me? Lost you yet?)

Something about snowfalls stops us in our tracks. Poems — with their inner-silence capabilities — can capture that. Robert Frost could, of course. Even a lesser light like Bly.  (No sin to be a “minor poet”. Get a couple of good shots off. Heck, even one beauty’s enough for a whole career.).

Then there’s Emily Dickinson (#341) to give us the dark side of the snow, so to speak:

“After great pain, a formal feeling comes —

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs

. . .

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —

First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go –”

True enough. Naturally, death becomes poets, and they do it well (didn’t Sylvia Plath write that she did dying well?).

Look: Find me a poet who hasn’t written about snow and I’ll find you the coordinates of an humid, equatorial country.

I met my wife on a snow day, when my classes were cancelled, 10 years ago this week.


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Filed under Literary Criticism, Media, Music, On Writing

Rabbit’s At Rest

The Early Stories

The Early Stories

Lorrie Moore’s splendid little piece, “The Complete Updike,” on the NY Times op ed page on Jan. 28, 2009, reminds me that there are writers and there are super writers. John Updike (1932-2009) was in the super category.  The only other American author I can think of  — top of the head — who belongs in that category is Philip Roth.

Updike’s famous and enormously under-rated little dictum of ‘three finished pages a day is a whole lot harder than it sounds. Try it. For a week. See if your three pages look finished or merely typed.

Updike had the eye-memory coordination that allowed him to describe almost anything in precise detail. Try it sometime, writers. See if your description of objects and actions and faces turns out vivid or pedestrian. See how many times you ask yourself, “What is that thing called?”  Like Flaubert — whom I’ve barely read, but who’s widely considered the first great master of realistic fictional detail — Updike made the world of things and people and places come alive. Sex, of course. (“The Transaction.” Couples. ) Places. His prose could rise to the high diction, the sweet music of poetry. He broke your heart describing the way the Maples told their children that they were going to get divorced. He “got” big cities, small town, farms, suburbs, exurbs, malls and airline waiting terminals. He got New York and Shillington, Pennsylvania, and Miami Beach. He got young jerks (as does the wonderful Richard Ford). And he got old fools: variations on the jerky sides of Updike. His avator, the depressive tumler Jewish novelist Beck, got to interview his “real” self, the suburban WASP star novelist John Updike.

The Nobel Committee is no more infallible that the Pope.  The committee failed to award the great and learned and graceful and often profound Updike the prize he deserved. Thirty years ago, when I interviewed Henry Miller, I asked him why he’d never won a Nobel. He told me that someone on the committee thought he was a pornographer. Miller said he didn’t care — but he could have used the cash.

In my eyes — and I’m certain in the eyes of so many of our great authors (see Lorrie Moore’s touching op ed in the NY Times) — Updike was in every way a Nobel Prize winner. But the prejudice against American authors — that they’re somehow less worldly or more provincial than, say, authors from New Zealand or South Africa (I adore Coetzee) or Portugal. It’s just plain silly and condescending, no less than it was when the British snubbed Melville’s Moby-Dick in the 1850’s because whale oil is identified as the substance anointing a king. How absurd an objection, and one I can imagine that would have amused Mark Twain.

Maybe Updike’s snub will be good news for the other American literary giant, Philip Roth. I had the good fortune to be his student at UPenn in a world lit class in the spring of l965. He knew verimsilitude. He explained what Tolstoy was doing when he showed us Vronsky’s muscularity, and when he averted his eyes from Anna’s sex scene. He wanted to cast Groucho as the lead in Kafka’s The Castle. He duck-walked into class, although probably just one time. (It has been more than 30 years since.)

I was editing a magazine called Mankind (I know — no one’s heard of it) when Saul Bellow’s Nobel was announced in 1976. I immediately called his office in Chicago. His secretary said he was home, and that he’d cut himself shaving. Bellow’s prize made me proud. I was 30-something, but so what? I felt like a fan, which I was. Which I am. Which I have always been. Which I always will be.

So maybe the Nobel snobs in their stubborn snubbery will do what sports referees do when they’re hectored by furious coaches for missing a call. That coach’s team seems to always get the next call. Maybe it’ll be that way for American authors. For ever since before Washington Irving, American writers were tarred with the prejudice that this is a country of provincial rubes, and it’s therefore no great shakes to write a novel about this cultural backwater.

Say, World. I know you were watching when Aretha sang at the Obama inaugural. How about a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T for our authors?

Well, I’ve got three words for you, World:  The Great Gatsby.

I’ve got a list of authors for you, Sweden: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow, Morrison, Updike, Roth.

You want poets, World? You want a piece of me? Whitman, Dickinson, Pound, Frost, Stevens, William Carlos Williams.

So here’s to you, Mr. Updike. Rabbit is finally at rest.

(The NY Times featured a videotaped conversation with John Updike in October 2008.)


Filed under Literary Criticism, On Writing, Personal Essays

Newspapers Die, but Not Graceful News Writing

To answer those who continue to make the silly claim that graceful writing has somehow been obviated by the Internet or by streaming video; and to rebut those who argue that news writing somehow lacks the creativity of other kinds of prose, here is Exhibit A: The lede from “After Splash, Nerves, Heroics and Even Comedy” by M. Wilson & R. Buettner in The New York Times, January 17, 2009:

“Some passengers screamed, others tucked their heads between their knees, and several prayed over and over, ‘Lord, forgive me for my sins.’  But a man named Josh who was sitting in the exit row did exactly what everybody is supposed to do but few ever do: He pulled out the safety card and read the instructions on how to open the exit door.”

US Airways Flight 1549 —  which a four-year-old girl said had turned into a boat —  never sank, unlike most of the nation’s daily newspapers. And if the Times itself goes under, in the words of an old folk song, it will be sad when that great ship goes down.

As for another prose winner, there’s Peggy Noonan’s moving column in today’s Wall Street Journal about the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Media, On Writing

B+ for Obama, A for Lincoln

In the Saturday, January 9, Weekend Wall Street Journal, novelist Jonathan Raban rates the writerly gifts of US presidents. And while Obama gets high marks for the literary excellence of Dream of My Father, Raban says Obama’s no Lincoln.  The Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural — these are classics that stand equally with Moby Dick and the best poems in Leaves of Grass.

Here’s a sample of Raban’s take:

He’s a good — even exceptionally good — writer, but his best sentences still pale beside those of the president he echoes and alludes to in almost every speech. It’s not, I think, an exaggeration to say that Obama is the most able writer to win the presidency since Lincoln. But so far Lincoln’s grasp of homely metaphor, the scathing clarity of his logic, his capacity to make the gravest subject yield material for comedy, leave Obama in the dust. It’s not just the great prose-poems of the Gettysburg Address and the two inaugurals; it’s the wonderfully lucid — and funny — prose of Lincoln on the stump that stops the reader in his tracks, as no president has done before or since. Here he is, in New Haven, Conn., on March 6, 1860, speaking on the bitterly contentious subject of the introduction of slavery to Western states yet to be admitted to the Union, like Kansas and Nebraska (transcript from the New Haven Daily Palladium):

If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. [Laughter.] I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. [Applause.] Much more, if I found it in bed with my neighbor’s children, and I had bound myself by a solemn compact not to meddle with his children under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone. [Great laughter.] But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide! [Prolonged applause and cheers.]

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Filed under Literary Criticism, On Writing, Poetry, Political Communication, Politics