By the Book: What’s occupying writers nowadays

10/27/2011 2:00 AM |

There is a wonderful new website called OccupyWriters.com that has an ever-lengthening alphabetical list of writers who are in support of Occupy Wall Street and a few meditations on the protest by several of them. On the list, each person is identified as the writer or editor of just one work, which is leveling, democratic and much easier to digest than complete bibliographies.

Of the meditations, I very much liked the first of “Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance”: “If you work hard, and become successful, it does not necessarily mean you are successful because you worked hard, just as if you are tall with long hair it doesn’t mean you would be a midget if you were bald.”

Lemony Snicket, also known as Daniel Handler, is the author of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” a marvelous group of 13 dyspeptic books for literate children and their adults.

Other offerings include those by poet Anne Waldman, who writes most copiously; the novelist Francine Prose, who writes most movingly; and another writer (one who would be down there in Zucotti Park himself if he were still alive), who provides the best quote. In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman says: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
That’s how you feel when you are there in the park: large and Whitmanesque with a poetic view of the huge diversity of humanity. It could make you cry, like Francine Prose, or dance to the beat of the drum circle, or go visit the library that is set up in one corner of the park. When I was there for the second time, all seven lined-up folding chairs were occupied by people reading donated paperbacks and the name-tagged librarians were busy sorting books into different categories, just like in a brick-and-mortar library. A library is not a building, it is a state of mind, a place where librarians do their work, a place where books and ideas are shared.

The number 13 reminds me of one of my favorite poems, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. It seems new and shiny as a penny every time I read it, despite that it was first published in 1917. My mother recently rediscovered some favorite poetry books and spent several days reading and enjoying poems she hadn’t read in decades. People often think they don’t like to read poetry, even when they are avid readers of other forms. Poetry seems “hard,” which is odd since it’s really a way of playing with words.

A poet was the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s short poem “Slow Music” contains a stanza that made me think of our Long Island Sound beaches, like 67 Steps in Greenport:
I come too seldom down to the sea. But now I have come among good-sized stones with peaceful backs. The stones have been gradually walking backwards out of the sea.

“Preludes,” another of his poems, says: “Two truths draw nearer each other. One moves from inside, one moves from outside, and where they meet we have a chance to see ourselves.”

The Nobel Prize in Literature is not a popularity contest. Many Americans, including myself, had never heard of Tomas Tranströmer before he won the prize. Most of the Swedish writers we know are the writers of dark mysteries, nordic noir, like Stieg Larsson and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series or Henning Mankell with his Inspector Kurt Wallander. But the Nobel Prize will mean that some people will search out and read some of Tranströmer’s poetry and perhaps discover that reading poetry is not so “hard” and maybe they will find something there to play with.

One American writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature back in 1954 was Ernest Hemingway. He turns up as a character in a terrific new book by William Kennedy called ‘Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.’ William Kennedy is best known for his Albany cycle of novels, which includes “Legs,” “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game” and “Ironweed.”
Much of this new novel also takes place in Albany, on the day in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. But we get to know our hero, Quinn, when he is a young journalist in Cuba in 1957, having encounters and interviews with Hemingway and Fidel Castro among real historical characters, and beautiful women and jazz pianists among the fictional characters. It is a splendid novel, a novel with a great jazz soundtrack underneath the sprawl of characters and ideas. Kennedy is such a pro (so far he’s won a Pulitzer and a MacArthur) that he is like a seasoned performer up on stage. He makes you, the audience, the reader, feel relaxed and able to listen, because you know you are in the hands of an expert and he will not let the balls drop or embarrass himself — or embarrass you.

Far, far from the prizewinners and the pros of prose are the sign-makers of Zucotti Park. Who knows what jobs, if any, they have in “real” life or whether or not they’ve won any prizes ever. It doesn’t matter. They find some cardboard, some markers or paints, and they choose some words, their own or someone else’s. Maybe they find the words they want at the makeshift library, which is collecting an archive of used signs for posterity. Maybe they find them in a book. Some are funny, some profane, some simple, some full of numbers, some poetic and some truly tragic. They are large. They contain multitudes. Walt Whitman would be proud.

Long live the people’s poetry!

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.