Away from all of the intensity of school life, I am having a wonderful time reading at the moment! I have just completed Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s majestic novel of Sicilian life in the second half of the 19th century, The Leopard. It was one of those books that I did not want to finish and spent evenings re-reading chapters because the turns of phrase, the sentence shapes and the images conjured up were so appealing and gave me such a deep desire to enter into them. I had not expected this book to grab me to the extent it did. Before that I read Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, a wonderful collection of stories about how Levi’s youth and identity/destiny as an Italian Jewish man living through the 20th century is seen through the prism of certain elements of the Periodic Table. Again, all of these stories are eminently re-readable, funny, challenging and deeply thought-provoking.
Whilst reading the Leopard I was conscious of the next book on my reading list, and was torn between the desire to re-read the existing book, and hurry on because I wanted to read the next one. And the next one has been a joy. The book, published in paperback last year, is called Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA). I have known of its existence for a year and bought it recently because I thought it would be a good book for dipping into. But no, it is a story between two poets, two essayists, one Christian and one Zen Buddhist, one in Kentucky and one in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California, one a farmer and the other a homesteader. We are lucky to have over 200 letters here, from both sides of the USA, ranging across huge intellectual fields, with discussions of faith and the perspectives offered on the environment, farming, family, gardening, marriage, wilderness, poetry and the experience of writing. I am genuinely not looking forward to it finishing. Reading letters across 40 years of interaction, interspersed with actual visits, poetry readings together and shared perspectives on joint ventures, is like eavesdropping on two courteous gentlemen arguing gently with each other and finding fellowship and deep friendship in this courtesy. Having the conversation over again contains sadnesses, and I don’t want that! So, I am reading slowly, as thoughtfully as possible, trying to link the letters to my knowledge of Berry’s books (I know little of Snyder’s poetry, but will have to acquaint myself) and join in the arguments. These men are friends and they make a friend of the reader too. I have read other correspondences (Chekhov’s letters; Isaac Glikman’s collection of Shostakovich’s letters to him; the long correspondence between Boris Paternak and Olga Friedenburg – his cousin) and they too draw you in to the growing friendships, but this one seems to matter more. There is an immediacy to the writing and I am provoked into seeing which essays and poems Berry wrote at what time – finding out more of the context of his life and what was happening in the world, through the letters.
The book is not really a good introduction to Wendell Berry or Gary Snyder. There are obviously enclosures to many of the letters – manuscripts, poems, magazine articles – that are not published and a series of end notes helps the reader place colleagues, written contributions, publications and events into some sort of helpful context. But to somebody who knows the work of either poet or both, this book is a glorious rehearsing of the main themes of both men’s lives, and every letter stimulates and warms me.
Whatever happened to the sonnets?
It is the end of the week, and there is much to do over the next few days. It reminds me that at this time last week, 3 of the sonneteers that I mentioned in an earlier post received small prizes and much recognition for their work as poets. Their work is illustrated here, and if you are in school, please come and see the other poems that were not placed but which made an equally strong impression on staff, other children and the judges. The acrylic paintings I mentioned in the same post are now on display, and the photographs for our exhibition are amassing on the server ready for printing next week.