Letters Between Poets
Exquisite, a beautiful, too brief collection of letters between two poets, written over a period of 18 months, bringing something special to each others lives at a time when they both needed it, she knowingly, he, not realising he was living his last months of life throughout this correspondence which comes to such an abrupt end.
“I am overwhelmed sometimes and feel a great deal of wonder at words, just simple words and how deeply we can touch each other with them, though I know that most of the time language is the most abused of all human abilities or traits.”
As you may know, if you follow my reviews, I recently read Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir which I loved, followed by her well known novel Ceremony which was exceptional and set me off looking for more of her work.
As I mentioned in my review of the memoir, my original purpose in reading Silko, was not by reputation. I had never heard of her. I was looking for a work of creative non-fiction with a nature writing slant, something that could evoke the landscape and the culture of Tuscon, Arizona. If this book I had imagined existed, it would be the ideal birthday present for a special friend. And it certainly did exist, I discovered The Turquoise Ledge; as Silko and those who understand the way of the shamans will appreciate, it was as if I dreamed it into being!
My friend is also a writer and her most prolific and preferred writing practice is the letter; yes, that disappearing art of epistolary literature arising from the hand-written form. When I saw there was a slim collection of letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and a poet named James Wright (1927 – 1980), (frequently referred to as one of America’s finest contemporary poets), I knew it must accompany the memoir.
The correspondence is written when Silko is 31 years old and Wright is around 51. They had planned to meet in the Spring of 1980, mentioned in letters of Oct/Nov of the previous year, not knowing he would be gone before then.
They discuss her novel, his poetry, language, his travels, her adventures with animals, their speaking engagements, their mutual challenges and experiences as university professors, and soon begin to share more personal feelings, as she acknowledges the tough time she is having and he shares his own experience, expressing empathy.
“I realize many wonderful things about language – “realize” in the sense of feeling or understanding intuitively: I realize such things most often when I am greatly concerned with another person’s feelings. I think such realization is one gift which human beings may give each other. I’m not much good at analysis or scholarly efforts with language, probably because I don’t value them as much as I value understanding, which is informed by that which is deeply felt before it is examined.”
Having already read about the snakes, lizards, parrots and numerous other animal life that live in close proximity to her, it was natural for me to see that in her letters, she sometimes shared an anecdote about one of these non-human characters who feature often in her memoir. In one she writes an entertaining piece about her mean rooster.
There are all kinds of other rooster stories that one is apt to hear. I am glad I have this rooster because I never quite believed roosters so consistently were as the stories tell us they are. On these hot Tucson days, he scratches a little nest in the damp dirt under the Mexican lime tree by the front door. It is imperative for him that the kittens and the black cat show him respect, even deference, by detouring or half-circling the rooster as they approach the water dish which is also under the lime tree. If they fail to do this, then he jumps up and stamps his feet, moving sideways until they cringe. This done, he goes back to his mud nest.
Silko opens up to Wright quite early on, letting him know how grateful she is to have this correspondence, a distraction from recent events that occupy her mind, he is more reserved initially, until she shares her grief openly and he responds in kind, taking their letters to another level, a kind of healing balm to the harsh reality of life.
This is one of the most moving, insightful and entertaining collections of letters I’ve ever read, born of a mutual respect & admiration, a sharing of poetry, storytelling & increasingly personal heartache, soothed by the knowledge that the other too carries their pain & grief of current situations that are outside their control.
This correspondence came at a time in Silko’s life when she couldn’t talk or share much with those closest to her, James Wright, her (senior) intellectual contemporary and brief confidant filled that void and they’ve left us this beautiful literary gift.
Leslie Marmon Silko is a poet, essaysit and novelist. James Wright won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his “Collected Poems.” Above the River: The Complete Poems appeared more than a decade after his death.
They met only twice. First, briefly, in 1975, at a writers conference in Michigan. Their correspondence began three years later, after Wright wrote to Silko praising her book “Ceremony.” The letters begin formally, and then each writer gradually opens to the other, venturing to share his or her life, work and struggles.
The “New York Times” wrote something of Wright that applies to both writers– of qualities that this exchange of letters makes evident.
“Our age desperately needs his vision of brotherly love, his transcendent sense of nature, the clarity of his courageous voice.”
Not having read his poetry, I read some of his works online and this one poem resonated well with their correspondence. Click on the link below to read:
Claire, that poem – it’s wonderful. I was right there with him. And now, after reading your review I must read more of his work and that of Silko.
Wasn’t the poem great Jill, so evocative, I loved it and wanted to share something of the poet, I now have a few more Silko’s to read, so expect to see more reviews of her work in 2019!
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From your previous two reviews, I suspect this might be a gem too and am not disappointed! Thank you for highlighting Silko and Wright’s beautiful work – I’m looking forward to reading more of their writing.
Thank you Liz, I have loved all that I have read and have more to read, the letters really are a gift, I’m so glad my friend’s bday inspired me to get them, and happy that she understands I had to quietly read them before wrapping them up!
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As a lover of words, exchanged letters in particular, I so appreciate your introducing these marvelous people to us. I will treasure these books.
Thank you Florence, I trust you will enjoy this collection as much as I did.
This sounds amazing. I love letters and letter writing and have several books of letters. I will have to get this. Thanks Claire.
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I do too Fransi, I have a small collection of them, but this is the briefest and possibly the saddest, and yet what a gift that his wife and Silko have given to us all.
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Thank you for sharing a little about this book. A friendship through letters is always fascinating to me.
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This was a brief but poignant friendship Deb and a beautiful collection. It makes me wonder if we will see collections like this in the future.
I have been following your reviews of Silko’s work with mounting excitement, Claire, but this little volume really does sound like the icing on the cake. What a joy!
I almost used that saying Sandra, but I’m thinking memoir, novel, letters, that could be cake, icing and cherry! 😊🍰
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Thanks for the introduction Claire, this sounds wonderful. Love reading authors’ letter collections, especially when the book includes both sides of the conversation.
Hi Claire, I will set a month aside this year so I can read Leslie Marmon Silko in the same order you did and of course The correspondence between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright.
Thank you for your reviews which will enhance my reading.
There will be more to come Sylvie 🙂 I have three more titles to explore, Storyteller which she was working on while corresponding with James Wright, and is full of photos. It delves deep into her experience of the storytelling tradition recreating ancient stories in prose and poetry, of her own family and of the archetypal characters of the Native American tradition.
I also have another novel Gardens in the Dunes, which is doubly intriguing because it is an adoptive story of a girl severed from her roots and heritage who finds her way back. And the finally a book of essays Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit said to be “ful lof luminous insights and sharp, uncomfortable truths”.
It feels good knowing I have still to read. And to know you’ll be joining me in getting to know her work.
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