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Happy Birthday, Thom Gunn: The Beloved Writer’s Reading List of 10 Essential Books to Enchant Teenagers with Poetry

“Poetry is of many sorts and is all around us… a rhymed political slogan is poetry of a kind, for example, and the lyrics of a song by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan may be poetry of a very high order.”

Happy Birthday, Thom Gunn: The Beloved Writer’s Reading List of 10 Essential Books to Enchant Teenagers with Poetry

“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” wrote Adrienne Rich in her beautiful meditation on what poetry does. Few of her peers and contemporaries have embodied this poetic potentiality more vigorously than the prolific English-born poet and LGBT icon Thom Gunn (August 29, 1929–April 25, 2004) — one of those artists who never reached a mainstream mass but who elicited, and continue to elicit, a fervent, almost cultish adoration from their circle of loyal admirers. Oliver Sacks worshipped him, titled his own memoir after a line from one of Gunn’s poems, and learned about the nature of creativity from him.

On a recent visit to the unmined archives of the Academy of American Poets — which gave us such gold as that supreme defense of the artist’s right to challenge the status quo and the acutely timely story of the creative community’s courageous solidarity against racial violence in 1968 — I came upon a wonderful Gunn treasure.

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In the fall of 1969, Elizabeth Kray — the Academy’s first executive director and one of the most spirited champions of poetry our civilization has ever had — reached out to Gunn, asking him what books he would insist his students read if he were a high school English teacher.

Three years earlier, Kray had piloted the Poets-in-the-Schools program, under which prominent poets visited New York City public schools in a quest to enchant young minds with poetry. She hoped the effort would engender “a permanent hook-up between the literary community and the persons involved in teaching the young: the teachers and the parents.” The program was an immediate success, and Kray now endeavored to use the book recommendations of the era’s greatest poets as the backbone of a reading list for a city-wide, and eventually nation-wide, reading program.

Letter from Elizabeth Kray to Thom Gunn, 1969
Letter from Elizabeth Kray to Thom Gunn, 1969

Forty-year-old Gunn complied gladly, if with delay. His largehearted response came handwritten, like most of his correspondence, and offered the ten most essential books to inspire a young mind for a lifetime of reading, alongside a beautiful meditation on the many-guised life of poetry beyond its traditional literary form.

Letter from Thom Gunn to Elizabeth Kray
Letter from Thom Gunn to Elizabeth Kray

Dear Betty Kray,

I am sorry to have been so long in answering your letter, in which you ask me for a list of books. I have not listed fiction, as my own reading of contemporary fiction is too random for me to be much help. And my list of poetry is a short one, as I think it will be more useful this way. It would be tempting to list all the twentieth century poets I myself like, but it strikes me that a poet like Wallace Stevens would be difficult to teach well to teenagers, so I have stuck with books about which I am certain.

I think the first aim of someone teaching poetry in a high school should be to continuously demonstrate that poetry is of many sorts and is all around us; that a rhymed political slogan is poetry of a kind, for example, and the lyrics of a song by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan may be poetry of a very high order; that inevitably most people have commerce with poetry in some part of their lives. The book that fist demonstrated this to me was

  1. The Poet’s Tongue (public library), edited by W.H. Auden and John Garrett.

    It is thirty years old, and I believe it is not published over here [in America], but it is in print in England, and is a book I think any high school teacher should get hold of. It is an anthology of all kinds of poetry, from all times, and successfully demonstrates the range and possibilities of poetry.

    The teacher should also get copies of:

  2. The Bob Dylan Song Book (public library), and
  3. The Beatles Song Book (public library) (to be published this month). “Sir Patrick Spens” is a poem not immediately available to most teenagers. But many of them already know and like the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which is a ballad right in the same tradition.

    I think the following could be successfully taught:

  4. Wilfred Owen: Collected Poems (public library)
  5. D.H. Lawrence: Selected Poems (public library) (ed. Rexroth), (Compass Books)

    and even

  6. Ezra Pound: Selected Poems (public library) (New Directions)
  7. The Pound would be less easy to teach than the other two, but there are plenty of poems in it (“The Ballad of the Goodly Fere,” the Cathay poems) that could be much enjoyed by teenage students.

    Of really contemporary poets, I would include the following:

  8. Gary Snyder: The Back Country (public library) (New Directions) and any of his other books the teacher could get hold of.
  9. Allen Ginsberg: Howl and Other Poems (public library) (City Lights) and Planet News (public library)

    These are two poets who can most successfully speak to teenagers (and to a good many others of us). True, there are references to sex and drugs, and I don’t know what school policies may be about these. I think poems about sex and drugs are particularly good for teenagers to read, and if these two poets have to be bowdlerized out of the suggested program then I doubt if the program can be much good.

  10. Sylvia Plath: Ariel (public library)
  11. Ted Hughes: Lupercal (public library) or Selected Poems (public library)

I would hesitate to suggest Robert Bly or James Wright. They are fine poets but I think people under eighteen would have a good deal of difficulty with them.

As I say, sorry to have been so long. Don’t bother to answer this. I am sure you have plenty on your hands.

Love,

Thom Gunn

It might be self-evident to point out, and yet point out I must, that Gunn’s own Collected Poems (public library) belong on any such contemporary list.

Complement with Hemingway’s list of sixteen essential books every aspiring writer should read, Gabriel García Márquez on the twenty-four books that shaped him as a writer, and other notable reading lists by Oliver Sacks, Patti Smith, Carl Sagan, David Byrne, Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Werner Herzog, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, Sam Harris, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Join me in supporting the Academy of American Poets with a donation to ensure the survival of their remarkable archive and their ongoing advocacy of poetry in public schools and public life.

BP

Frida Kahlo’s Illustrious Life, Illustrated

An affectionate homage to one of humanity’s most original and beloved artists.

Frida Kahlo’s Illustrious Life, Illustrated

“Only an artist can tell … what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it,” James Baldwin wrote in contemplating the artist’s struggle for integrity. “Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio,” Teresita Fernández argued half a century later in her spectacular commencement address on what it means to be an artist. “The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote … will also become the raw material for the art you make.”

Few artists have embodied this integration more fully, nor more beautifully, than Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954).

Her singular integration of life, love, and art comes alive in Frida Kahlo: An Illustrated Biography (public library) by writer Zena Alkayat and artist Nina Cosford, part of the lovely Library of Luminaries series that gave us the illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf and that of Jane Austen.

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The concise yet lyrical story follows Frida from her polio-scarred childhood in Mexico, to the nearly fatal accident that inflicted on her a lifetime of physical pain but also sparked her foray into painting, to her intense and complicated romance with Diego Rivera, to her spirited politics, to her creative and critical success as one of the most original and influential artists of the twentieth century. The call-and-response of pain and beauty emerges as the constant chorus of her life while she transforms, again and again, trauma into transcendent art.

Alkayat writes:

At six, Frida fell ill with polio. She was confined to her room for nine months and her right leg withered. To help her gain strength, her father encouraged her to take up sports that were usually reserved for boys.

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A pivotal moment in Kahlo’s life, both physically and psychologically, takes place on September 17, 1925, when 18-year-old Frida is nearly killed in a bus accident that drives a handrail diagonally into her torso, from her left ribs to her uterus. Even the gore of this tragedy has an almost mythic quality to it.

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It is during the anguishing and seemingly endless recovery — to be sure, being bedridden for a month is indeed an eternity of torture for a teenager even without the excruciating physical pain — that Frida picks up painting, initially simply to distract herself. With the help of a mirror affixed to the canopy of her bed, she paints her first self-portrait — a gift for Alejandro, her first big love.

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It takes Frida almost two years to walk again, and by that point she is already making a living as an artist. Her longing for mentorship and professional guidance leads her to her fateful encounter with Diego Rivera, who would become the great and greatly troubled love of her life, and the recipient of her passionate love letters.

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Frida married Diego on August 21, 1929. She was twenty-two, he was forty-two. She looked like a bright, beautiful bird next to the rotund, unattractive Diego. She nicknamed him “Frog-Toad.”

Diego was obsessed with his craft and prized it above all else. He encouraged Frida to devote herself to painting and to explore her own artistic style. But the young bride threw herself into being a good wife. She cooked, cleaned, and entertained.

Every lunchtime, she prepared a basket of food blanketed with flowers and delivered it to the scaffold where Diego worked.

Even as the couple arrived in the United States in 1930, Frida continued to dress in vibrant traditional garb inspired by South Mexico’s Tehuana matriarchs. Every single morning, she took painstaking care with her outfit in a testament to Virginia Woolf’s case for clothing as a vehicle for our identity and values.

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But her wardrobe was also dictated by the demands of her battered body and entailed an arsenal of corsets to support her fractured torso.

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Frida’s life continued to be marked by pain. Her longtime longing for a child was violently severed by two miscarriages, the second of which lasted thirteen days. While still recovering, she was beckoned back home to the dying bedside of her mother, taken by breast cancer. Once again, she turned her trauma into raw material for art — something Marina Abramović articulated beautifully a generation later — and her painting took on new dimensions of expressive depth.

Kahlo’s tireless quest for glimmers of joy included a menagerie of exotic pets she loved dearly, perhaps because they spoke to her own sense of creaturely strangeness.

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The story follows Frida’s life through her increasingly troubled marriage with Diego, their divorce and remarriage, Diego’s dalliances, and Frida’s eventual affairs with both men (including Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky) and women (including jazz icon Josephine Baker). Kahlo was deeply dispirited by her difficult love life, but this tumult of the heart found symbolic expression in her paintings and continued to shape her art, always so intimately entwined with her vibrant interior life.

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Frida’s old spark surfaced again in spring 1953 when a one-woman exhibition was arranged in her honor. Unable to walk on the day it opened, Frida sent her four-poster bed ahead of her and arrived in grand style on a stretcher. Her fans adored her, and the internationally celebrated show did much to cement her legacy as an incomparable artist.

In a sense, the bed became the womb in which Kahlo’s creative genius and legacy were gestated — she learned to paint in bed, met her greatest critical success in bed, and died in bed, in her sleep, the following summer.

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Her death occasioned the kind of collective tragedy of which Borges so memorably wrote — masses of mourners grieved in public, and her final resting place at the Place of Fine Arts was entombed by a bed of red flowers.

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Complement Frida Kahlo: An Illustrated Biography with the beloved artist on how love amplifies beauty, her compassionate letter to Georgia O’Keeffe after her American friend was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, and this very different picture-book about her life and spirit, then revisit the illustrated biographies of other cultural icons: Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, and Nellie Bly.

Illustrations © Nina Cosford courtesy of Chronicle Books; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

Auden on the True Task of the Critic, What It Really Means to Be a Scholar, and Why Malevolent Reviews Are Bad for Character

“The only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.”

Auden on the True Task of the Critic, What It Really Means to Be a Scholar, and Why Malevolent Reviews Are Bad for Character

In the preface of her magnificent nonfiction collection of riffs on books, the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska made a vital distinction between traditional literary criticism and her own approach to reading and writing about books. Noting her disinterest in the former (which Susan Sontag called “cultural cholesterol”), Szymborska wrote of the latter: “I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan, unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation. Sometimes the book itself is my main subject; at other times it’s just a pretext for spinning out various loose associations.”

Long ago, long before I came upon Szymborska’s wonderful sentiment and found in it consolatory resonance with my aversion to classifying my own reflections on books as “criticism,” I wrote an essay for Harvard’s Nieman Reports about the critic as celebrator — about the notion of refining and elevating our shared standards for what constitutes good art by celebrating the most worthwhile examples and refusing to allot the opposite any space in our public discourse; refusing, above all, to expend energy on bile and laceration, however intellectually elegant.

I remembered that old essay recently in encountering a passage from the altogether magnificent The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (public library) by W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) — that trove of the beloved poet’s wisdom on writing, originality, and how to be a good reader, received as a birthday present from a dear friend.

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Auden begins with a definition of the critic’s central animating principle and its singular psychological challenges:

If good literary critics are rarer than good poets or novelists, one reason is the nature of human egoism. A poet or a novelist has to learn to be humble in the face of his* subject matter which is life in general. But the subject matter of a critic, before which he has to learn to be humble, is made up of authors, that is to say, of human individuals, and this kind of humility is much more difficult to acquire. It is far easier to say — “Life is more important than anything I can say about it” — than to say — “Mr. A’s work is more important than anything I can say about it.”

Auden considers six key duties of the critic to the reader, one or more of which each good piece of criticism should fulfill:

  1. Introduce me to authors or works of which Iw as hitherto unaware.
  2. Convince me that i have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
  3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
  4. Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
  5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
  6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

The first three of these, Auden argues, require scholarship — a faculty both demanding and poorly understood. (Incidentally, Szymborska herself — a peer of Auden’s one generation removed — believed that to be a poet is necessarily to be a savage rather than a scholar.) Auden considers what it actually means to be a scholar:

A scholar is not merely someone whose knowledge is extensive; the knowledge must be of value to others. One would not call a man who knew the Manhattan Telephone Directory by heart a scholar, because one cannot imagine circumstances in which he would acquire a pupil. Since scholarship implies a relation between one who knows more and one who knows less, it may be temporary; in relation to the public, every reviewer is, temporarily, a scholar, because he has read the book he is reviewing and the public have not. Though the knowledge a scholar possesses must be potentially valuable, it is not necessary that he recognizes its value himself; it is always possible that the pupil to whom he imparts his knowledge has a better sense of its value than he. In general, when reading a scholarly critic, one profits more from his quotations than from his comments.

(Or, as Montaigne memorably articulated this curatorial aspect of scholarship half a millennium earlier, “I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”)

The remaining three services, Auden argues, require that the critic excel not in knowledge but in insight:

A critic shows superior insight if the questions he raises are fresh and important, however much one may disagree with his answers to them. Few readers, probably, find themselves able to accept Tolstoi’s conclusions in What Is Art?, but, once one has read the book, one can never again ignore the questions Tolstoi raises.

But Auden’s most pressing point deals with the critic’s moral orientation toward malevolence or benevolence. He argues that the former is moot effort, for the public life of art has a built-in self-correction mechanism — bad art perishes over time by virtue of its own badness. The critic’s role, therefore, ought to spring from benevolence and focus on nourishing the roots of goodness rather than weeding out lifeless badness. He writes:

The injunction “Resist not evil but overcome evil with good” may in many spheres of life be impossible to obey literally, but in the sphere of the arts it is common sense. Bad art is always with us, but any given work of art is always bad in a period way; the particular kind of badness it exhibits will pass away to be succeeded by some other kind. It is unnecessary, therefore, to attack it, because it will perish anyway… The only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public.

Auden addresses the most common defense employed by the smug perpetrators of literary savagery (whose high horse, in my book, is a Trojan rationalization for the sheer sadistic pleasure they take in showing off the might with which they can rip another’s labor of love apart):

Some critics argue that it is their moral duty to expose the badness of an author because, unless this is done, he may corrupt other writers. To be sure, a young writer can be led astray, deflected, that is, from his true path, by an older, but he is much more likely to be seduced by a good writer than by a bad one. The more powerful and original a writer, the more dangerous he is to lesser talents who are trying to find themselves. On the other hand, works which were in themselves poor have often proved a stimulus to the imagination and become the indirect cause of good work in others.

You do not educate a person’s palate by telling him that what he has been in the habit of eating — watery, overboiled cabbage, let us say — is disgusting, but by persuading him to try a dish of vegetables which have been properly cooked.

With this, Auden turns to the heart of the loathsomeness of malevolent reviews:

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.

Complement The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, an invigorating read in its totality, with celebrated writers on how to handle criticism, Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, and philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to criticize with kindness.

* If troubled by the gendered language of the era, find levity in Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant commentary on the subject.

BP

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