"Love is a thing called Joe" by the author’s daughter

People shake their heads when I mention her name, though she was widely celebrated in academic circles; after all, here is a female Nobel laureate–one of just sixteen women to have been awarded that honor in the category of literature.  She did for modern poetry what Shakespeare did for redefining the interplay of dramatic action with poetry and verse.  She has written poetry that is transformative . . . possibly DNA altering. Like Odysseus she was the woman of spiritual “twists and turns”, of nuance, composing poetry with gravitas and humor.  She towers above us, as much for her humility as for her talent.  She has been–to me–a teacher, guide, and a conscience.  She left quite a void since her death in 2012.  Reading her attentively is like studying the cosmos.

An astonishing 20th century talent, this Brazilian author (who left this world in 1987) had a penchant for capturing reality with economy, startling clarity and finesse. Fortunately, has a short bio for interested readers and even a sample poem: “Souvenir of the Ancient World.”  Wonderful.  However, I recommend you go all in and buy one of his books.


We all know Margaret Atwood, a meteoric Canadian talent who needs no introduction, and I will confess to being a great fan of her poetry. Morning in the Burned House had a profound impact on my way of seeing the world, and even now, 25 years after it was originally published, I continue to pick it up and revisit quiet masterpieces like “Bored” over and over.  (And thank you MA for signing my copy!)

I’ll bet you didn’t see this one coming, but why not? Master improviser (improvisateur in French, sounds much more refined), educator, and a major presence in the jazz avant garde, listening to Mr. Marsalis’ music is an easy way for artists like myself to get in the creative zone, though sometimes he’s so good you are liable to lose your train of thought. While I like his original compositions, my favorite works are his renditions of standards, especially anything composed by Sidney Bechet.  I have watched his Jazz in Marcia 2009  two dozen times this year, and will likely log another three dozen viewings before the year is out.  You can find the video here:

Possibly not as well known among the casual jazz listening set as the other “greats”, Mr. Gordon had a unique style and like Mr. Marsalis was also an accomplished inproviser, particularly with respect to his handling of standards.  I particularly enjoyed this atmospheric Jazz Icons video shot in various locations in Europe between 1963 and 1964.

And now, dear cognoscenti, a real masterwork, Huntington Cairns’ anthology of Western masterpieces, The Limits of Art. It is quite simply a nonpareil collection of poetry and prose selected by–as Mr. Cairns puts it–“competent critics” each of whom endorse a particular work that they believe represents the acme of literary perfection.  Each selection is presented either in part or in full, accompanied by the corresponding critical commentary, which is arguably as much fun to read as the original work. You can buy it in one volume, though it was originally a three volume set: 1) From Homer to Chaucer; 2) From Villon to Gibbon; and 3) From Goethe to Joyce.  Hint: You can still find the old volumes dirt cheap on ebay and other used book sellers.  Find it new at the link below on Amazon, though in my opinion the original three volume set is much more romantic.

Originally published in 1957, this volume includes interviews with many of the great writers of that era, including Forster, Faulkner, Frost, Pound, Eliot, Hemingway, Mailer, Ginsberg, Pinter and others.   As it states on the back cover, “For many years the Paris Review interviews have been justly famous for giving deeper insight and understanding of the creative process.  In this selection . . . writers discuss what they think of their own, and other people’s work, their lives and the problems of writing in the contemporary world.”  Do you need inspiration?  Find it at Goodreads:

Have you heard of Lydia Davis?  If you are looking for fiction with the strangeness of two-headed sheep that is both oddly compelling and familiar, frequently startling, occasionally disturbing, and always creative and unique, look no further.  Here is a thoughtful interview with this one of a kind American icon:’t_for_everybody/

Now here is a writer who is perhaps one part Lydia Davis, two parts Kafka, and three parts completely unique.  Polish writer (1904-1969) and winner of the Prix Formentor (if you’re like me, you might have to look that up).  When searching for words to describe his short stories and novels, I find the descriptions of other reviewers enlightening: “startling, amusing, alarming, seductive, repulsive, bizarre, lucid, outrageous, gifted, original.”  What more could an adventurous reader ask for?  I particularly enjoyed his collection of short stories, Bacacay, and you might too.  His work reminds me of the power inherent in unique associations, raw individuality, and risk taking.  Here is a link to his books and a few words about the author.

One of the great sopranos of the 20th century, Maria Callas, aka La Divina, was another nonpareil artist who died too young, in her case just 53 years old, leaving the world in the kind of silent contemplation that follows a magnificent storm.  I recommend her Casta Diva sung at the Palais Garnier 1958 (sadly I was not born, and consequently, old enough to have had a shot at catching that performance, a tragedy that will haunt me, much like missing the great Pavaroti’s Christmas at Notre-Dame Nöel À Notre-Dame, 1978).  If you need inspiration, never mind the sordid details of her personal life; just listen to her sing.