Best Bit of the Week

A summer Friday in blogland is not the time to post anything mentally challenging. So as an experiment I’m going to post the best bit of the week’s reading, in this case, the opening of an essay by Robert Lowell on his friend Randall Jarrell. I’ve already read it myself several times and obliged Mister Litlove to listen to it, too, I think it’s such a delight.

When I first met Randall, he was twenty-three or four, and upsettingly brilliant, precocious, knowing, naive and vexing. He seemed to make no distinction between what he would say in our hearing and what he would say behind our backs. If anything, absence made him more discreet. Woe to the acquaintance who liked the wrong writer, the wrong poem by the right writer, or the wrong lines in the right poem! And how those who loved him enjoyed admiring, complaining and gossiping about the last outrageous thing he had done, or more often, said. It brought us together – whispering about Randall. In 1937, we both roomed at the house of John Crowe Ransom in Gambier, Ohio. Ransom and Jarrell had each separately spent the preceding summer studying Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and had emerged with unorthodox and widely differing theories. Roughly, Ransom thought that Shakespeare was continually going off the rails into illogical incoherence. Jarrell believed that no one, not even William Empson, had done justice to the rich, significant ambiguity of Shakespeare’s intelligence and images. I can see Ransom and Jarrell now, seated on one sofa, as though on one love-seat, the sacred texts open on their laps, one fifty, the other just out of college, and each expounding to the other’s deaf ears his own inspired and irreconcilable interpretation.

The rest of the essay is just as good, and it comes from a wonderful collection: The Company They Kept; Writers on Unforgettable Friendships, edited by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein. It makes me long to write about my friends who are writers, but given they are all alive and kicking (and hopefully for a long time yet), I will have to wait.




22 thoughts on “Best Bit of the Week

  1. What a wonderful passage. I love reading about writers, and this book sounds amazing. I am both nervous and exhilarated thinking about what my writer friends and I would write about each other and our friendships!

    • There’s something about people who write, isn’t there? They are always deep and intriguing! I can warmly recommend this essay collection – I’ve really been enjoying it.

  2. Do they all glow with this sort of warmth or are there some instances where the word ‘friendship’ has been rather more liberally interpreted?

    • Ah, well I’ve only read about a quarter of the essays so far, and they have all been quite tender and charming. But who knows what lies ahead! I’m sure I’ll review it properly in time, but I take longer to read essays than any other sort of writing as I can’t take too many in one go!

  3. What a delightful passage – you say the collection is wonderful, it sounds like it would be a great gift for my mom (which means I could read it too.)

    • Don’t you just love giving that kind of gift? I definitely have an arrangement with my dad whereby we swap the crime fiction we give one another. And I’ve really enjoyed these essays so far.

  4. Lovely stuff.I’ve always had a liking for Lowell, even when I didn’t understand bits, Interesting reading this that he became a ‘confessional poet’, retelling and retailing his life and experiences in wily nets of subterfuge.

    • Ooh! I so want to read those Lowell poems – I’ve had them on my wishlist for ages, and really should track a copy down. And this is a lovely collection, Bookboxed, but probably not so easy to get hold of in a UK library. I’ll review it properly when I’ve finished it, no doubt.

  5. Especially not a Friday the 13th… What a great story. Will you write more about the book?

    And now when we’re all toothless dribbly ancients we’ll be keenly anticipating your book about your friends so you’d better start making notes.

    Have a lovely weekend!

    • I forgot it was a Friday the 13th! Just as well. I am sure I’ll review this properly when I’ve finished it, because it really does have so many quotable bits! Ha and you are so right, I should start my note taking now. Or perhaps I should write my essays and then lock them away in a safe deposit box for posthumous release. Oh I am such a shocking romantic in rainy weather! πŸ™‚

  6. That’s a great quote and a great image. And after trying my hand at Jarrell’s writing, I am not in the least surprised! πŸ™‚ I’d be curious to read that essay myself–may have to look for the essay, too. And boy are you right about Friday’s not being days to post anything to mentally challenging (that’s how my reading goes lately sometimes, too!).

    • ha! You know, I would have been tempted to read Jarrell after this, if I hadn’t tried him so recently and been, well, a tad unsure. This is a lovely collection of essays, a lot of fun to read and I’m sure you’d enjoy it. As for Fridays, well, I seem to be completely useless on them lately, so it’s nice to have an alternative post up my sleeve that isn’t a big review!

  7. I’m sure this is a delightful collection. I wonder if all the friendships are between two writers or if there are some between writers and other friends.

    • As far as I can see, all the essays are writers on writers. But I’ve only read about a quarter so far, so it may be that closer inspection will present other possibilities – but so far, lots of poets!

  8. Oooh, delicious! I love the sound of this, Litlove. I am endlessly fascinated by writer friendships and a whole collection of disclosures sounds like riveting reading to me!

    • It’s such a charming book and so fun. It reminds me of the best sort of friends who will tease you mercilessly but be genuinely loving and sympathetic. Plus, the great thing about an essay is that you can read a whole one in half an hour or so. It does give you a nice sense of accomplishment on days when there’s not much reading time!

  9. Lovely idea this! Please do continue posting the best bits. This one sounds like a very interesting book. Would love to hear more of your thoughts on it.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! I will definitely review this properly when I’ve read it, as it has so many entertaining quotes. Definitely a fun book.

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