Literary Lives: 2018 National Book Festival

Literary Lives: 2018 National Book Festival

everyone, it’s 4 o’clock and I come from radio, so
we start right on time. I actually don’t come from
radio, but I like to say that. You guys look great. Is this a poetry crowd or
is this a biography crowd? Thank you for being here. My name is Terence Samuel. I am the deputy managing
editor at NPR and I am doing this moderating
this panel because I stole it from other more qualified
people. People who knew more about
moderating panels and know more about poetry, but I wanted to
do it because this is the kind of panel I would have gone to. And, so, I am with you and
we’ll see how these guys perform today. So, you are at a panel
on literary lives and before we go any
further we were supposed to be one moderator
and three authors. Fiona Sampson is not with
us, because she is in London at the bedside of her husband who has been hospitalized
in London. So, we send her our thoughts and
prayers and we’ll try to honor that by having a
great discussion. I promise you that this
is going to be fantastic, because how could it not be? Let me do some quick
introductions. On my right, Mark Eisner, author
of “Neruda, a Poet’s Coin.” I’m looking at the board. And what I think has
developed is that we get to have a great discussion about
poetry and why poet’s important and biographies are important. And on my life, Kay
Redfield Jamison, who is — how can I say it, legend?>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: No.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: She says no. Everybody says yes. You guys win. Again. And let’s
just jump right in. Because we are talking about
two kind of amazing poets. And the thing that
struck me going in is, poetry is like this hugely
precise measured thing where you pay incredibly
important attention to the language and structure
and I think what we get from both of these books
is the question of how on one hand a sense
of revolution and on the other a sense
of kind of instability, both mentally can
create this amazing art and this beautiful thing. So, I’m going to begin by asking
the question I have, which is, when you read poetry and
particularly these two poets, Robert Lowell and Neruda, you
spend a lot of time reading and rereading just to get
some sense of what it means. And here comes these two
books which basically insist that what you have to
do is ask the question, what is it about what’s not in
the poem that matters as much as what is in the poem? So, I’m going to put that
question out and ask either — Mark, you can go first.>>MARK EISNER: Thank you,
both of you, first of all and everybody out here. I think in terms of my book
and what I wanted to do, besides the whole — there’s
three different things about my book that I wanted to
address in terms of the life of Neruda and there’s also
very interesting parallels between the forces of
whether the revolution and also the mental
illness with Robert Lowell, but to look at both
his life, his poetry and then his political
activism, revolution, both on and off the page and if
anything I think would help in what people have responded
to somewhat with my book, is that the poetry itself
by looking at the life and for Neruda the political
activities that he did that affected the poetry,
you get the context. You understand what he was doing
while he was writing that poem, that when we just opened up a
book without a big introduction, we’re not sure about
exactly whether it’s event “Twenty Love Poems”
or the “Canto General” or all different
types of his thing. So if anything, I think
putting that context as you were convoluting to,
to be abler to understand that poem on a brighter sense. Where — also when you
read it sometimes it’s nice to not know the context as well,
just like a song or something.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: Okay.>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON:
Yes, I think in the case of Robert Lowell, as you say,
is it very difficult poet to read — or I would
say a lot of his poetry, quite a bit of his poetry
is not that difficult, but much to read
was very difficult. So you have to spend
a lot of time and there’s never been a
time when I didn’t feel like it was worth the while
having spent that time. Writing a book about him
for me was a labor of love. He and I had not much in common,
except having the same illness. And when I was 17 I had my
first bipolar breakdown, my English teacher in
high school gave me a copy of Robert Lowell and said, “I
think you might like his work.” And I have lived with it sense and had the opportunity
finally to write about him. And what you find
in his work is — I mean, his mental illness does
not define him, but what he did with his mental illness
does define him. He had enormous personal
courage, enormous discipline. A great art and he
brought all that to bear and I think a remarkable
life’s work.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: so, here’s
my one question about poetry in particular and
these two poets. When you read these books you
get a sense of complete kind of chaotic tumultuous upheaval. I mean, maybe that’s the word,
upheaval in both these lives and then you read the poetry and
it is so incredibly structured and beautiful and how do you get
— what is the bridge from this and in your case,
you make the case that this may actually
be related and the one may actually
cause the other. How do you get from this
tumults to this beautiful thing?>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON:
I think first and foremost by the art itself, but
also huge discipline. Again, I think there
are a lot of people who have perhaps great
talent and great upheaval, but aren’t’ able to bring it to
bear and make it into great art and I think what defined Lowell
was he worked really hard. He woke up in the
morning working, he went to bed at night working. He said he created
when he was manic and that is certainly
true up to a point. He created a lot of
chaos and lot of words that didn’t make much sense. Took a few of them
and when he was normal and depressed he worked and
worked and worked some more. So, I think there’s no way to overstate how much raw
discipline the man had, both in that and in his
life and his relationship. It was chaos, his
life was chaos.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: But
you also made the case that there is some causation
relationship between creativity and the kind of mental illness that Lowell suffered is
beyond this particular poet.>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON:
Yes, in some people, there’s certainly
an accumulating, very large literature, including
recent studies of hundreds of thousands of people
looking at that relationship, that suggests a very much
increased rate of bipolar for example in people
who are highly creative, not just in the arts, but in the
sciences and business as well. Clearly you don’t’ have to have
a mental illness to create. I mean, it’s rather that some
people what they do with it and what they generate is
beholden to their illness. But, as I say, if he had only a
bad mental illness and genius, he would not have been
able to do what he did. It was the work and
concern and love of art. I mean, he loved his
art, he loved poetry.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: Mark, in the case of Neruda you
have a slightly different kind of dynamic where here you
have a revolutionary poet, I mean, Lowell was intentionally not political. Walked away from it. Refused to go to the White House
when he was invited in 1964, I think, by President Johnson. Here you have like an
intentionally political poet who actually when did write
about politics and revolution, in some ways in the English
speaking world is known mostly for his poems about
love and sensuality and explain that to us.>>MARK EISNER: It’s a
very interesting question about what comes to an audience,
especially the love poems that are the most famous
were published in 1924, so we’re talking about
almost a 100 years later. And it’s what speaks to us. I think there’s something
about love poems that speak to us universally. Everybody has those feelings
at one point or another or at all times that
they can relate to. There’s also on the political
side, right now I think a lot of people are responding to
some of his political poetry that he wrote in resistance to,
for instance, Franco in Spain, when it was the first time that he really became
a political poet, that has more resonance now, than it might have
had 20 years ago. In a way there is a
universality of Neruda’s poetry and that’s why people
read a lot of him. But I think there’s something
about the distillation of the human emotion, kind
of went back to that question that you asked, why the poetry. Is that it distills the
emotions and there’s kind of nothing a little more
powerful than for a whole, as you were saying, kind
of the whole popular thing. Whether it’s Taylor Swift
saying — dedicating an album. I know you’re a Swifty, so
you got that smile there.>>TERENCE SAMUEL:
He can admit it. I admit to nothing.>>MARK EISNER: But, you
know, Taylor Swift admits — not admits, she states
on her couple of albums ago album Red was
inspired by Pablo Neruda. But then you also have, you
know, he was Stalin and Marxist and all this other stuff
and a million other things. But it’s that — I think there’s
something about the love poetry, just maybe like music, it’s the
love songs that get us the most.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: So,
the assessment of both of these poets is that they’re
going to be read forever. You know, somebody said
about Lowell, “You know, as long as the English language
exists, he will be read,” and clearly Taylor
Swift is reading it. Which brings me to
my question — which brings me to my
question about today. I mean, this crowd to me is like
studding, because they’re here to hear us talk about poetry. Which in my mind is this really
precise kind of like super kind of overthinking of the
way we use language. And today we spend our
time thinking about Tweets. And I mean that in just
the way I just said it. We’re thinking about Tweets. It is not a reference
to anything else. So, my question is, If you transported these
two poets to the modern, how would they kind of
function in this current time, because I think in terms
of ideas and expression, clearly they’re timeless, but
in terms of how we use language and how we relate to
language and what we kind of like yearn for,
do you have any sense of how these two
guys would function. And after this we can talk
a little about reading. You can go first.>>MARK EISNER: Well,
I think Neruda in terms of our current political
climate right now in the 19 — in the 19 — right
before he died, in the couple years before he
died, where it wasn’t just a lot of people around the world, during the United States had
some problems with Nixon, but there was definitely more
acute problem or difficulty because Nixon was
involved with what set up to be the ’73 Pinochet coup. And he wrote a book
about Nixon [inaudible] and whether he would say
that about Trump or not, but I think he would
be writing about that. I don’t think he
would be writing about love poems right now. He would be writing
about on the forefronts. He also did a lot of
stuff off of the page and to maybe extend
this a little, he after the Spanish
Civil War he took some — what people call a
heroic act and was able to bring Hispanic
refugees back to Chile where only Mexico
and Chile were taken. And Ariel Dorfman in a recent
hot bed for the New York Times where they just had a — and Chile had an election
where it based the campaign on the right was based on
xenophobia and anti-immigration. And he said, one of the big
things of the piece was, “Where are the Nerudas
of today?” But that speaks to the poetry that he would be reacting now
I think, just as he reacted to Nixon and how he stood up to
other people throughout his life and once he had his political
awakening after Spain.>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON:
I think one of the most interesting
things about Lowell and one of the things that
was most consistent in interviewing his
friends and family, was that Lowell existed
throughout history perhaps from the same Twittering,
Tweeting aspects of the current administration,
is an Historic sense. Lowell lived in history. He would talk about Rome
as if he were a Roman. He would talk about
France and medieval France as if he were living there. So, his imaginative capacity
should live in another era and with another people
and with another philosophy was staggering. Everyone who knew him, I
mean, that was just an aspect of his imagination that
people commented upon. So, I think the odds
of his sitting down Twitter now
things, would be minimal. But I also think
that he would be — he sat in jail during a
certain part of World War II out of political — out of
being a conscientious objector. But he also was probably — or
was part of the leading edge of the artists against
the Vietnam War. So he had a very strong sense of being an American whose
going way back before the revolutionary war of
fighting the wars of America and objections to those
he thought here unjust to people he thought
were unjust. So I would say he would
be politically ready, he wrote a fair amount
of political material, but I think he also had this
just great grasp and love of history and a feeling
of part of history.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: I’m going
to ask you to read something in a second right after
I ask you to — who — you asked the question,
who are the Nerudas today and do we need them to be poets or can they exist
somewhere else?>>MARK EISNER: I’ve
actually been — yeah, I think the Nerudas
of today there’s — there’s everybody, all
the teenagers in Florida, I’m forgetting the name
of the high school.>>Parkland.>>Right, Parkland, the people who left the shoes
on the Capital here. It’s all the poets
that are writing, it’s the people who
are coming here. We don’t need one Neruda,
we need everybody or lots of people, poets,
artists, activists, people who are going
to show up to vote. It doesn’t have to be a Neruda.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: Kay you
were talking about Americans and their sense of
history, I think you want to read something that –>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: Yeah. If I — from here or this way? Woops.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: Is
that going to work? Oh, actually, you
know, good from here.>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON:
Probably not. Okay. Sorry. Story of my life
being [inaudible].>>TERENCE SAMUEL: It’s
poetry, we have structure.>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON:
I just wanted to — my husband and I were very
moved by watching the service for Senator McCain this morning. The tradition, the
American tradition I think of protesting courage, and I
just wanted to read a little bit about Robert Lowell, who was
first and foremost considered by himself and others
an American poet, but he was also a man of
great personal courage. And he had one of the worst
forms of bipolar illness that I’ve seen in somebody — a clinician and somebody who
studies this particular illness. He had a devastating form, he was in the hospital
20 times with mania. Very very bad form the illness. And each time came back. And he felt that way about
himself and he felt that way about his country, so I
just want to say – his wife, the great writer, Elizabeth
Hardwick, had said to him, “You are a great
American writer. You have told us who
we are, like Melville, you have brought all the
cultured England and, of course even American, other
countries have something, to bear on us, our land, on your
past, your people, your family. You are not an English writer,
but the most American of souls. The most gifted in finding
the symbolic meaning of this strange place.” “You drank America,” wrote
Seamus Heaney in his elegy for Lowell, “Like the
heart’s iron vodka.” For the union dead,
book about — his poem about Massachusetts
regiment, black regiment that fought in the Civil War. For the union dead is
the tribute of Lowell to his country, like himself, a
place of mind and hard to know. “I love my country because
it’s mine and all I know,” Lowell wrote when
he was 30 years old, of George [inaudible]. I think our culture can
stand comparison with others of the last 150 years. It’s better than most probably. And, of course, we have
Roman virtues, energy, and even clarity of a kind. But there are times, oh,
yes, there are times, when one trembles and wonders if a people have ever
been so dehumanized. America could be a violent
godless place, but it was wild and beautiful in
their rebellion. It was a country that
believed in something better. It was ambitious, vast,
restless and it was his. “Where’s America, he
asked, I’ve had it about me for 50 remembered years. It streams through my eyes.” ” The color of his blood
was American,” he said.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: Wow. [ Applause ] And that’s just about the part. Before you — you know, Lowell was very American,
very personal. In some ways not just
American, but very New England. He was — he was original
poet who kind of blossomed into this amazing thing. And Neruda was different and
the same in that, you know, we don’t know about southern
Chilean the same way, but, you know, he kind
of looked at the — the way that Lowell was kind
of internal and inward looking in some ways, Neruda was
constantly kind of looking at the world and the physical
world in a very sensuous way and it’s interesting to me that
in almost the same way kind of blossomed into this
kind of global reputation.>>MARK EISNER: Yeah,
I mean, definitely. It just almost — in somewhat of
a reverse, but very similar way of Lowell in New
England and America, Neruda was so identified,
but was also so much — Chile was so much a part of him, but at the same time
Latin America, kind of the greater exterior
region of his country, he –>>TERENCE SAMUEL: and at
times very anti-American.>>MARK EISNER: In Latin
America, I mean, he wrote a book that basically laid out — I
mean, I was talking last night to a Chilean friend and — two Chilean friends and
they’re basically like, “We see America still through
this book, “Canto General,” which he wrote in 1950,
where he laid out — it’s kind of his own
interpretation of the history of the Americas, but
there’s still this identity through his poetry, you know,
at least these are somewhat, you know, intellectual — if you want to use
that word, type people. But there’s this idea that
he created through his words, that people reflected and that
even in interviewing people in Chile and other places,
that they say they connected, for instance, through “Canto General” one basically
a constructor worker said, “This is how I was able to see,
this is the history not told by the conquisitors, but by the
people that were Conquisted.” Sorry, the Spanish gets
a little bit stuck. But you got that hopefully.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: Conquered.>>MARK EISNER: Conquered. Thank you. but, yeah, and then, you know, his global vision actually
started really when he went to Spain and had the Spanish
Civil War and that opened up the whole global anti-fascism
things and then there was that — him with Latin
America, but also like you said, there was the United States
of America and his working against the policies that
so effected Latin America and Chile, especially
in the end.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: is there
something you’d like to read?>>MARK EISNER: I think with
that on that theme that — we’ll keep it with at, but yeah.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: Okay. We’ll keep it moving. So, let’s go to this question. Why, at this point,
is poetry important?>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON:
I think that poetry is — at this point, at one
reason I would say, in addition to the usual
reasons for poetry, is because it is difficult. Is there’s something to be
said for having to work hard at something in order
to be rewarded with the wisdom and beauty. And just the act of having to
struggle to understand lines or rhythms or a particular
pattern, is not such a bad sort of thing. In this day and age or
probably any day and age, but particularly in
this day and age. I spent a lot of time on
college campuses and a lot of material is a little
predigested in a way, and I think it’s good
to really be able to get in and understand it. But it’s beautiful and it’s
extraordinary and people who are great poets see the
world and I think human nature and psychology and love
and struggle and suffering and all the things that
are meaningful in life, see them in a way that brings us
pass you to understanding things in a different sort of way. I think it’s a great blessing. I think it can be hard, I
mean, obviously, I mean, when I said I was going to
do a book on Robert Lowell, there was this kind of
look like, what on earth. But, you know, and then
it was ungluing to me. My husband’s a cardiologist
and Johns Hopkins and he would read
something and understand it about half the time that I did and I thought, what
am I doing this. But, you know, it
was a wonderful thing to have to struggle. Even with poems I thought
I knew pretty well. It was so worth it.>>MARK EISNER: I think
that all forms of art and creative expression
are always needed and will always be needed. I think maybe right now in terms
of if we’re looking at the terms of the questions why right now, I think in these turbulent
times, not just politically, not just here and what’s
happening in this city or elsewhere, but all over the
world, and with also Twitter and everything else, there’s
something about the power of poetry and the
distillation, how it’s able to distill emotions and
thought in a way and convey it to the reader in a way that’s
got this ability to kind of shoot this potent arrow of
emotion or thought in a way that a twitter can’t, other forms of art might
not, an article might not. and that’s why I think even just
reading the poetry, just as much as reading or experiencing
other art forms in ways in creative outputs, but
there’s something that I think about that distillation
of the emotion or the political message,
which are one and the same, is so important and
that poetry is a way that that can be
transferred to the reader in a very impactful way.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: Kay,
you have written about — I mean, in this book
in particular, about kind of the relationship
between illness and creativity. But it’s also a book about
kind of heritage and — I mean, the book
begins not with Lowell, but with his great
grandmother, right, I think. And, so, often we think
of these biographies, the thing that they illuminate
is, yes, the life of the person and how they get from
person to artist, but — and the time, your book
give us this kind of sweep that says it’s not just
Lowell, it’s not just, you know, post war poetry, but
it’s this kind of family that goes back to, you know,
Plymouth Rock and brings us up to essentially the Civil
Rights Movement and Watergate. And my question is, what did you
come away thinking about kind of the man and their
purpose of the work?>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: Well,
first I think he was someone who was — it wasn’t just
the history of the world that he went in and out of, it was the history
of his own family. And I deliberately started my
book with his great grandmother in Cambridge, Massachusetts
as she was about to — from this great old house
that’s now the president’s house at Harvard, as she was being
taken to the insane asylum. And I did that partly because
you can say an illness is genetic, which means it’s — it doesn’t mean that
much to people. but if you see how this
illness relentlessly goes on in this pedigree,
this family jut — generation after
generation after generation and that this woman who was
living this wonderful life and seemingly so, abject misery,
that this kind of psychosis and mental illness respects
no social class, no anything. And Lowell was fascinated
by that and drawn to it of how did people
survive suffering? How did — what role did
love play in all of that. And I think that he was
very much a New Englander and he respected and draw from
the New England writers in a way in which I don’t know any
other writer to make it so obviously clear that
his intellectual heritage and his heritage of
character was New England. But I was interesting
in writing a book, not just about his
illness and his art, but also about his character. Because one of the things that
you see time and again in life, of course, is somebody
can be dealt a bad hand or a bad illness. And have very different reaction
as to how to play those cards. And Lowell played an incredibly
interesting hand of great genius of privilege and devastating
disease of enormous suffering that he had himself and
he caused to others. And he did the best
that he could with it and that’s what I was
most interested in. I went in admiring Lowell, I came out really
really admiring him. Because I guess I
had no real sense — his daughter was kind
enough to give me access to his psychiatric
records to track them down, and his medical records, and I had no idea how bad his
illness was or how long he spent in mental hospitals, how
long he spent in depression when he came out after his maze. And somehow he had to get back
and teach, he had to get back and write, he had to get
back into his relationships, he had to make all of the
apologies that one has to after one’s been manic. He did all those things as
best he could and I admired him for that ad above all
he kept to his art. And that was important
to him above all else. He had a true north
start that he followed.>>TERENCE SAMUEL:
Neruda was kind of driven in a different way. He was political and
revolutionary and kind of created a language for
people to talk about revolution in Latin America in some ways. At the same time, he
went back and forth about whether he was right
about what he believed. And kind of questioned that, while constantly kind
of doing the work.>>MARK EISNER: Yeah. If I could just go back a
little bit to follow onto that and then maybe go that,
onto your question.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: Absolutely.>>MARK EISNER: It struck me
what a lot of people don’t know about Neruda is that as a
child all the way until he got to Spain and the Spanish Civil
War and got into that world which — where he really
became alive for the first time when he was about 26 or 30, he
was at times very depressed, almost manic, some of the
letters that Lowell wrote to [inaudible], it was like
Neruda writing to this one — I mean, it was almost
like, you know, when he was like 12 years — or
16 years old, these outrageous, almost manic letters like. And there’s so many
similarities for that thing. And then at age 30
I even asked — tried to ask Neruda’s
psychiatrist, how could he just —
because he wasn’t — it didn’t seem like
he was bipolar, then all of a sudden he
switched and was, you know, just had bad moods,
like we all had.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: To the
sense that books saved him.>>MARK EISNER: That books
saved him, that words saved him, that experience saved him,
how the chemical stuff changed in his mind, but something did. But going back to the
writing he always kept — there was the writing,
the language, even before the political
language, but this hermeticism that now, like, “Residence on
Earth,” which is considered one of the greatest books of
Spanish or any, you know poetry of the early past century,
it was through him trying to express a lot of what
was going on in his mind that he was — that
was during when he was in the far east mainly,
and just totally emerged in this deep depression
and also using some opium and other things that
he was trying to escape. But he kept going
because of the art, because he needed
to publish his book. Partly on the ego, party of
his drive, and partly one of the reasons I call my book,
“The Poet’s Calling,” it’s just like that, that was
his north star. I’ve got to write for myself, but also because
this is what I do. so, and the political — yeah, I think we all question our
politics and whether we’re right or wrong and he also assumed
a role almost as a spokesman, he even in the Heights of
Machu Picchu talks about — assumes himself, says, “speak
my voice, speak your blood through my voice,” as
if he’s a spokesman for these Incan slaves. So, he has this role
and that’s even where the Stalinism comes in,
so to question that is kind of questioning everything
he believed in. You can’t do it privately,
kind of in his head, because then he’s
throwing everything out and all his comrades
out with him by questioning that publicly.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: We are 15
minutes away from the end. And, so, we’re going to
take some questions shortly. But let me ask one more and
it is a Neruda question. Is there any way we have
a poet Neruda without kind of the Spanish Civil War and
the Chilean coup and resolution. Is he a poet without
the revolution?>>MARK EISNER: Back to one
of your first questions, so, it’s the “Twenty Poems of
Love,” which he wrote — published when he
was 19, in 1924. And that’s, you know,
20 years, 30 years, 40 years before all of that. Problem with Neruda though
is we know it, obviously, that half of it, the political
part, would not be part of that, but there’s still so much
more to him and that, as we were talking before, that’s what’s almost
resonating more. Pablo Neruda the figure,
Pablo Neruda the icon, no. But would his poetry — that which has become one of
the bestselling books of poetry in the past century, “Twenty
Love Poems,” would that live on without everything
else he did? I can’t say. But it’s the thing
that’s living on the most, going back to the
original question.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: and here’s
my little political question. He is very personal,
speaks in a way, I mean, he’s be great on Twitter now.>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON:
That’s a wonderful idea.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: and he
chafes against all of this kind of tradition that —
this family he grew up in and he’s rebelling and, you
know, he becomes Catholic and he goes back and — but
he never actually engages, from what I can tell, in kind of like the politics
of the day, you know.>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: Well,
he had that more, very much so. Yeah.>>TERENCE SAMUEL:
Vietnam, he — right. How did he manage
to like escape, kind of like the bigger
political questions?>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON:
I’m not sure he did. I think that he would say that
there was a part of his writing that was always very political,
so that he was very caught up in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as in the
anti-Vietnam Movement. And he would say his best poem
was actually a poem that was from his abolitionist,
he had a long line of abolitionist relation
and that was a poem that was deeply rooted in the views toward the Civil
Rights Movement of the 60s, as well as the Civil War
of the United States. So, I would think he did — he was not perhaps
as overtly political, but he was pretty political
in a lot of his views. He was personal. He’s remarkable as
personal as you might think. I mean, from my point of
view, if you read him — to read him about his
illness he certainly writes about his illness and he
writes beautifully about — he writes a lot of things
very very personally. But he writes quite
impersonally at times as well. Quite dissectively
about society.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: Questions. There are mics.>>My — sorry.>>TERENCE SAMUEL:
Over here first.>>Let the lady take it first.>>Hi, I have two
questions actually, please. My first is for Mr.
Eisner, if you’re familiar with the book called, “The Neruda Case,”
by Roberto Ampuero.>>MARK EISNER: Yes, actually.>>Which is a fictionalized
version — or fictionalized story that
involves Neruda’s life, I was wondering how accurately
you thought Neruda was portrayed in that fictionalized work? And my second question
is for both of you, when we have fictionalized
versions of well-known writers, do you think that
that’s a good thing to help just get
their stories out or do you think there are
inherent dangers in doing that?>>MARK EISNER: In terms of,
“The Neruda Case,” I’ll have to confess it’s been so
long since I’ve read it. Actually I kind of — a
friend of mine translated it, Carolina De Robertis,
who’s a great writer, if any of you are
looking for a book. So, I can’t really
speak to the accuracy of that or how it ties in. His case with Cuba was
very complicated, so, some of those complexities
do come up. But it was such an
extremely and fascinating, because of the whole communist
Cuba and him throwing — you know, and the way he
voted or fought for — Neruda fought for
revolution through democracy, which is what happened
with [inaudible] where Cuba was obviously
was a different situation. In terms of the general
question, you know, it keeps coming up, because
there’s a movie now about 2 or 3 years ago called, “Neruda,”
by the Larrain brothers, with Gael Garcia Bernal,
I actually was able to see a rough cut of that kind of in the making while they were
here filming the Jackie movie, while I was writing
this biography. So, here’s — in that
movie, as they call it, almost market it
as an anti-biopic. So, I mean, not just
fiction, but, like, you know. And it was very difficult
to read that or to watch that while I was trying to
be so accurate and truthful. And whether it’s a service
or disservice, I can’t say. I do believe, personally, as much as I respect
the film makers, that some of their
portrayals were not accurate and give the public a portrayal
that I don’t feel is right and kind of — especially
about some of the characters. So, I don’t know if
you have some more.>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: I
think it’s just going to happen. I mean, and you know, depends on
how well it’s done and I think in the case of Lowell,
Lowell seems to have pulled very
strong positive feelings and very strong negative
feelings from people. Mostly very positive,
certainly from the people who knew him well, who
loved him a great deal. There was a play a
few years ago about — based on the letters
of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop
called, “Written in Air.” Written in Air? No. Yeah. Anyway,
that was quite good. I mean, but even there
you can say, “Okay, well, maybe one wouldn’t
emphasize this or that, but to me it was just wonderful that Sarah Ruhl took
two great writers and brought them to life. You know, you don’t have to
agree with the portrayals. I mean, I think like
you, I think it’s painful if you spend a lot of time
with somebody in libraries and talking to people who
knew the person and so forth, it’s a little difficult
to see them yanked through the fictional
mode, but that’s, you know, I think it’s a different way
of writing and understanding.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: Over here.>>Mark, I am an
Indian poet diplomat and a great admirer of Neruda. I want to mention this passage
from his autobiographer, which I’m sure as
a writer of a book on Neruda you would
have paid attention to. It’s a very small passage. “One morning I decided to go
for all and grabbed by her by the wrist and
looked her in the face. There was no language
I could speak to her. She allowed herself to
be led by me smilelessly and soon was naked upon my bed. Had extremely slender waist,
full hips, the overflowing cups of her breasts, made her exactly like the thousand
year old sculptures in the south of India. The encounter was like
that of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes opened
throughout and moved. She was right to
regard me with contempt. The experience was
not repeated.” Was Neruda a rapist?>>MARK EISNER: In
that situation in my book I call it a rape. There was just a paper that came
out, I’m not trying to whatever, but it said that I was the
first one in all the biographies to call it for what it was,
which was a rape or a violation, however you want to define it. It’s a little tricky,
I’m not going — well, I was just about
to say, “I’m not going to define what a rape is and what it isn’t,”
but I call it a rape.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: You did.>>MARK EISNER: Exactly, I did. So, it’s actually gotten in
terms of the review and kind of the discourse in the
narration of what’s come out of this book, or after the
publication a lot of people say, “I can’t read Neruda because
he’s a rapist anymore. Or I can’t read him anymore
because he’s a rapist.” And I think if you see — I was actually just trying in
that time to find the passage where I talk about after
the rape and how he sees her as stone as he talks about,
as, you know, a statue. And that was this difficult
time when he was in the Far East and depressed and he
took that attitude. But it’s also very complex
in terms of the, you know, why we writing the poetry is
there is a lot of context. Not to invalidate how bad that
was and how awful an experience and how, you know, shameful and
that’s why I wrote about it. I could have skipped that. That passage was from his
memoirs, which came out in 1972. And now they’re saying
I’m the first person to call it what it
is, it was a rape. But there is a lot
that goes on to it. Why he wrote it, he was the
only one who wrote about it, there was no witnesses, he
didn’t have to write about it, his wife kept it in there. But it’s very complex. But, yes, he raped that woman. He described — at least he
describes that he wrote it, whether or not that
was even true.>>MARK EISNER: You… He wrote it, you wrote it, so I guess answers the
question — answered. Over here.>>Over here.>>MARK EISNER: I think
we’re going back –>>TERENCE SAMUEL: Somebody. Go ahead.>>Yeah, let me ask about a
different aspect of Neruda. You know, Neruda —
Alastair Reid used to say — talk about, “The Great
Tablecloth, and the poem, “The Citizen,” in the
book, “Estravagario.” As examples of his magnificent
political poems, poetry, and the reason I mention that is because of the language
of those poems. And sort of the prejudices
one has in one’s mind when one hears the
term, political poetry. And when thinks of
jargon and so on. So, I’m wondering if you could
reflect on the contribution of Neruda, the language in which
he writes his political poems. Now, I agree, of
course, he wrote a lot and there are weaker
poems, stronger poems, but could you talk about how — well, if you could
make the argument that Neruda very proudly
makes political language in poetry sing and move and
stir people to the direction.>>MARK EISNER: Okay. Yeah, no, I think
exactly, I mean, that’s one of the great
things about Neruda and his political poetry was
how he was able to express only in its very simple way, like the
poem, “The Great Tablecloth,” which is basically let
us spread this tablecloth so everybody can eat. It’s almost like a slogan,
but it becomes poetry. And nobody should be, you
know, nobody should eat alone, nobody should be hungry, that they all come
to this tablecloth. Or even his ode, which followed
that, which are “The Ode to the Onion,” “The
Ode to the Artichoke,” but they all have these
political messages, but are so simple. And even one of his
first poems from Spain, “I Explained Some Things,”
he’s just explaining things, but he does this in a little — he ads the poetry
that gets to you. In the short time we have right
now that’s basically, you know, I could talk a lot
more about that. But it’s simple, but with
that little twist of poetry that really get to you.>>TERENCE SAMUEL:
It’s the power. We’ll take one more.>>In relation to the
topic of mental illness and the connection
between it and creativity and with Lowell specifically,
you mentioned how he had to work so hard for him to overcome
his hospitalizations and his episodes of mania and
everything, so I was wondering if you believed that that hard
work and effort that he had to take to overcompensate
for the disabilities that his illness caused him was
what really enabled his creative genius and his success? Or is it something about
the mental illness itself that was able to, like,
steer him that way?>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON:
Again, it’s really complicated. I think one of the things that’s
been really extensively studied is the relationship
of mania to changes in the way people respond and
use words and the repetity and the originality of
the words that they used. So, if I give you the word onion
and ask you to come up with as many associations to
that word onion in a period of a minute, there are national
norms that could say, okay, how many did you come up with and how original
were your responses? And mania, people when — sorry, there’s just this
blinding light here — in mania –>>TERENCE SAMUEL:
Don’t look over there.>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: — tend to come up with
many more responses and many more original
responses. Now, in the case of Lowell that
kind of boldness, originality, speed of thinking, eruptive
temperament, boldness and real recklessness, along
with this incredible genius to begin with and along with this incredible
intellectual history and learning and literature
and history and biography and all the things that he
loved and studied so well, that when those combined they
made a uniquely original mind and poet. So, what Lowell described
and what his doctors in the hospital described or what his colleagues described
is this pattern of coming up with — generating all sorts
of thoughts and ideas and images when he was manic
in the hospital. And then when he got well, as he
got well, putting them together, getting rid of the ones that
were useless and just gibberish and cultivating and
developing the ones that were helpful to him. And, of course, he wrote
a lot when he was well. I mean, it wasn’t just
that he was creating things when he was manic. But he felt very strongly
that the mania was generative in the way he wrote
and the way he thought. And the people who knew
him best felt that way. And his doctors actually wrote
quite a bit about it in tract of his history and his
history of writing and so forth and you could certainly see
it in his writing pattern.>>TERENCE SAMUEL:
We’re going to take one, because we have one minute left.>>Okay, thank you. Dr. Jamison, this is a
question out of my ignorance in art and creativity. The thing is, when you look
at Van Gogh’s paintings, like the Starry Night,
is that art because of his mental illness
and what does it say about me if I see the same
thing he sees and likes that painting more
than the others?>>KAY REDFIELD JAMISON:
Right, right. I think it’s very hard to make
a direct correlation one to one between — I mean, for example,
the case of a Lowell poem, it was almost — if you took
the drafts of his poems, the original ones and then
you saw the published poem, there’s sometimes there
would be just one line that would be shared in common. So, in poetry Lowell was a
famous reviser, he revised and he revised and he revised,
more than almost anybody. In the case of Van Gogh
it’s probably more direct and more immediate and I think
people do respond to something that fundamentally, again,
bold, original, powerful, straight from the heart, but
also great genius and somebody who just pursued his art
absolutely single mindedly.>>TERENCE SAMUEL: Thank you.>>Thank you. [ Applause ]

local_offerevent_note October 11, 2019

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