Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based freelance writer

Category: Reading

Keats and Yeats Are on Your Side

I’ve got great news that is great news only to me: cleaning up my work area this afternoon, I found an index card I’d long thought lost. The card had appeared in a book (I don’t remember which book) I’d bought at a yard sale or a library book sale or in a used book store. On the index card was taped a passage cut from a photocopied page of something—a newspaper story, a magazine article, an academic paper; something. It was a note on the life of the poet John Keats. He’s one of those poets I’m sure I read in AP English, but don’t remember particularly, and so having an index card fall into my lap that told of his view on life did not at first mean much to me beyond the distinct small thrill of encountering something left by a previous reader of this book.

But the more I read the passage, the more wonderful it seemed. I thought it would make for a great blog item, something others might enjoy, and then I lost it. I hadn’t memorized the text, and so I couldn’t really Google it.

Anyway, today I found it, and here it is:

Keats

If the type is too small for you, here’s what it says:

Keats believed that life was given for him to find the right use of it, that it was a kind of continuous magical confrontation requiring to be met with the right answer. He believed that this answer was to be derived from intuition, courage, and the accumulation of experience. It was not, of course, to be a formula of any kind, not a piece of rationality, but rather a way of being and of acting. And yet it could in part be derived from taking thought, and it could be put, if not into a formula, then at least into many formulations. Keats was nothing if not a man of ideas. [Emphasis added — I.H.]

And here I’ve found the passage online. It’s from Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves, edited by John Rodden, and the passage is from a Lionel Trilling essay on Keats. The “I.H.” who adds emphasis in this passage is Irving Howe, in a New Republic piece “On Lionel Trilling: ‘Continuous Magical Confrontation,'” published in 1976.

What to say, really, about the content of the passage? You don’t need to know or like Keats, I don’t think, to find something beautiful and inspiring in Trilling’s description of how Keats lived his life.

Anyway, that’s my story. I’ll be putting the card somewhere safe this time.

New Favorite Paragraph (a Facebook Note, Rescued from Facebook)

From You Can’t Win by Jack Black. (No, not that Jack Black.) If you’re interested in hobo hygiene, read on. If you like liberal use of quotation marks, friend, read on:

“The ‘Johnson family’ became so numerous that a ‘convention’ must be held. In any well-ordered convention all persons of suspicious or doubtful intentions are thrown out at the start. When a bums’ ‘convention’ is to be held, the jungle is first cleared of all outsiders such as ‘gay cats,’ ‘dingbats,’ ‘whangs,’ ‘bindle stiffs,’ ‘jungle buzzards,’ and ‘scissors bills.’ Conventions are not so popular in these droughty days. Formerly kegs of beer were rolled into the jungle and the ‘punks,’ young bums, were sent for ‘mickies,’ bottles of alcohol. ‘Mulligans’ of chicken or beef were put to cooking on big fires. There was a general boiling up of clothes and there was shaving and sometimes haircutting.”

(This is part two in a series of items posted in the little-loved “Note” feature within Facebook, now rescued for posterity and, hopefully, a larger audience.)

Football Mailbag Item Demonstrates Something about the Varied Nature of Humankind

I am a habitual reader of Peter King’s “Monday Morning Quarterback” column on si.com; in fact, it often disrupts my Monday morning routine when I’m not able to dive into writing before the new column is posted. It’s Monday, and there’s a new column up, but I want to draw attention to an item in last week’s “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (a follow-up column with additional items, stuff pertaining to that week’s Monday night game, and a reader mailbag) before it’s lost on the internet forever.

I don’t really have anything to say about this or to add to what King writes. It’s just . . . interesting. Here goes:

“WELL, THIS IS AN INTERESTING TAKE. ‘I apologize for the rant but after seeing Arian Foster from the Texans looking like a baby bird getting fed by its mother when getting water I couldn’t hold it back anymore. I’m tired of watching football player standing there and letting someone squirt water in their mouths both on and off the bench. I know there are going to be a lot of reasons (time, face mask etc…) put out there. But for me those can be left at the door. Might as well turn in your man card if you need someone to squirt water in your mouth. Not sure why this bugs me so much. Am I the only one?’
— From Murray Galbraith, of Shawnigan Lake, British Columbia

“I believe so.”

Grammar Heroics

Apologies in advance for the bragging nature of this post. Sometimes, though, we surprise ourselves, and we have something of an obligation to let the world know about it.

Two grammar-related exploits to relate:

First, several weeks ago, I was meeting with two writers about a comedy project. It was our very first meeting and we were laying out plans for how things would work, how often we’d meet, etc. One writer proposed “bi-weekly meetings”; i.e., twice a week. The second writer frowned and said that he thought bi-weekly meant every other week. The first writer chuckled mirthlessly and said no, he was quite sure bi-weekly was twice a week. The second writer was coiled up and ready to strike when I intervened.

“Boys, boys,” I said. “Stop this quarreling. ‘Bi-weekly’ is an auto-antonym. It means one thing and its opposite.* You’re both right.”

They were thunderstruck and looked at me with perfect awe evident in their countenances. I nodded solemnly, as if to say, Yes, it’s true in answer to their unspoken question. “I’m a copyeditor,” I said to the second writer, by way of explanation for my pharisee-like authority on this matter. (I had already discussed that with the first writer, the organizer of this project. We were at a coffee shop and while waiting to order drinks I’d spotted a typo on the shop’s menu and remarked drolly, “You can’t turn off the gift.” (That he did not laugh at all was, in retrospect, probably a sign that our partnership was destined to go nowhere.))

The second feat of grammatical derring-do is more typographical in nature. I’ll make the point by simply reproducing a bit of text I wrote recently (in a fiction project):

Jessup touched his elbow. The contrast between Jessup’s fervent eyes and the rest of his face, blotted out by gauze and medical tape, was both funny and unsettling. “I told those people, ‘Whenever you make a mistake, when you pull a real doozy and you’re feeling low, that’s God tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “Listen up. I’ve got work for you.”’”

Relevant/exceptional part bolded. Did you get that? Can you handle it, America? A quote within a quote within a quote. Triple-nested quotations, resulting in this grammatically sound line of five (almost) identical characters: “‘”! I’m sure someone somewhere has gone bigger, but that’s not what it’s about for me. It’s got to be organic, you know?

Anyway, a couple of feats I needed to crow about. Please forgive me for wasting your time with these.

*It occurs to me now that “bi-weekly” might not qualify as a strict auto-antonym (list of examples here) because “occurring twice a week” and “occurring every other week” are not actually opposites, just different frequencies. But those guys don’t need to know that, and hopefully they’ll never find out.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh

(That is, Happy St. Patrick’s Day!)

A pair of songs in honor of the day, both from The Pogues, one of my favorites. First, a nod to Irish folklore:

And next, an homage to the Irish immigrant experience (which I’d say St. Patrick’s Day is really about):

I find “Thousands Are Sailing” pretty powerful stuff. Particularly moving are the lines around the 4:28 mark: “Wherever we go, we celebrate / The land that makes us refugees / From fear of priests with empty plates / From guilt and weeping effigies.” It seems a nice summation of the Irish experience in leaving home for America.

Finally, name-checked in “Thousands Are Sailing” is the Irish writer Brendan Behan. (Pogues songs are fascinating to me in part because they are so densely referential; they could benefit from footnotes a lot of the time. Listen again to “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn” and count all the names of people and places dropped in there. It’s staggering and adds a richness to the lyrics that more than offsets the occasional mystified feeling I get listening to the Pogues.) I’d thought Behan was an old-time Irish hero, a la Michael Collins or Wolfe Tone, but ah, not so. He’s a writer who wrote in English and Irish, and is the author, most famously, of Borstal Boy, a memoir.

I just started Borstal Boy yesterday, but man. It is already giving me chills. Here’s the opening:

Friday, in the evening, the landlady shouted up the stairs:

“Oh God, oh Jesus, oh Sacred Heart. Boy, there’s two gentlemen to see you.”

I knew by the screeches of her that these gentlemen were not calling to enquire after my health, or to know if I’d had a good trip. I grabbed my suitcase, containing Pot. Chlor, Sulph Ac, gelignite, detonators, electrical and ignition, and the rest of my Sinn Fein conjuror’s outfit, and carried it to the window. Then the gentlemen arrived.

Behan, 16, has just arrived in London with orders to carry out a terrorist bombing. He’s taken to prison, which is grim, and a lonely prospect for a 16-year-old:

As I stood, waiting over the lavatory, I heard a church bell peal in the frosty night, in some other part of the city. Cold and lonely it sounded, like the dreariest noise that ever defiled the ear of man. If you could call it a noise. It made misery mark time. (pg. 9)

Ah, there is nothing like Irish writing when it’s good. (On that point, see here.) I’m looking forward to the rest of the book more for the casual bits of poetic prose that are all but guaranteed, much more than the sure-to-be-dire story of Behan’s time in a “borstal”—an English reform school.

Anyway, Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh, everybody. Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh

Best of 2011

To mark the passing of another year, I’m going to present lists of the books and movies I most enjoyed this year. For now, the lists are without links and without (much) comment. The only eligibility criterion is that I read the book or saw the movie this year.

Favorite Books of 2011:

Angle of Repose
by Wallace Stegner

The Killer Inside Me
by Jim Thompson

Abbott Awaits: A Novel
by Chris Bachelder

Venus Drive: Stories
by Sam Lipsyte

Volt: Stories
by Alan Heathcock

A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan

The Ask
by Sam Lipsyte

Ironweed
by William Kennedy

The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick DeWitt

Ablutions: Notes for a Novel
by Patrick DeWitt

The Line of Beauty
by Alan Hollinghurst

Born to Run
by Christopher McDougall

Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World
by Donald Antrim

As is true of the movie list, there are lots of good books I didn’t quite like enough at the time to annotate with a red star. I remember also really liking John Brandon’s Citrus County, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, The Sea by John Banville, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Richard Price’s The Wanderers, and, most recently, Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams. For me the notable thing this year is discovering one writer I’d never previously heard of—Patrick DeWitt—who’s now a favorite, and breaking through with another writer—Sam Lipsyte—who I’d previously dismissed (based, I think, on his being represented in an anthology of younger American writers by the story “I’m Slavering,” which even on re-reading in Venus Drive didn’t do much for me).

Favorite Movies of 2011:

Winter’s Bone

The Warriors

Candyman

13 Assassins

Tabloid

Hobo With a Shotgun

Drive

Bridesmaids

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Yikes! Not the most distinguished crop of films this year. I’m surprised, looking over the list, at the films I didn’t star (my notation for having liked a movie), especially compared to those that I did. I remember liking The Fighter, Cedar Rapids, Certified Copy, Hoosiers, Moonstruck, Paper Moon, Meek’s Cutoff, Submarine, The Town, and (since I saw it yesterday) War Horse
quite well. But I’m going to honor whatever I was thinking and feeling at the moment that I entered each of these titles into my list, and exclude top-10 fare like Submarine, War Horse, and Certified Copy even as Hobo with a Shotgun makes the list. What can I say? I’m large; I contain multitudes.

(This is the second year I’ve kept these lists and I’m somewhat pleased to note that this year saw fewer abandoned books. I don’t mind abandoning books I’m not enjoying (as mentioned here), but it’s nice to see that I liked most of these well enough to continue with.)

What a Game of Eschaton Looks Like

I’ve remained on the fence way too long re: The Decemberists, the rock band that I should, on paper, like a lot more than I do. (They wrote a song about Myla Goldberg, author of Bee Season; they brought in Gillian Welch to sing on their most recent album; and they are generally pretty literary and wordy without being too unbearably pretentious about it (at least most of the time).)

This new video, for “Calamity Song,” has got to put them over the top with me. Directed by Michael Schur, who works on the fantastic Parks and Recreation, “Calamity Song” depicts a game of Eschaton from the David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest (which I’ve written about here). The New York Times wrote a piece giving the full background.

Eschaton is a game that the students in Infinite Jest‘s fictional Enfield Tennis Academy play on an expanse of multiple tennis courts, nets removed. It’s a game of apocalyptic global warfare, with students forming blocs like REDCHIN (Red China) and SOUTHAF (South Africa). They take turns lobbing tennis balls, representing so many megatons of explosives, across the court to hit targets in other nations. The accumulating damages, measured in military destruction and civilian casualties, are tallied by a student who works a computer on wheels, continuously calculating the effects of, say, a direct hit on a major metropolitan center in the middle of ONAN (Organization of North American Nations).

Read the rest of this entry »

Review of “Abbott Awaits” at Hot Metal Bridge

I wrote a book review of Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits and it’s up at Hot Metal Bridge (which is also up to lots this summer: you should check out the winners of their fiction and non-fiction contests).

Shorter review of Abbott Awaits: it’s good. Oh man, it is really good. Probably my favorite novel this year, and up there for the past five years. I like Bachelder’s stuff a lot: U.S.! and, to a lesser extent, Bear v. Shark, are precisely written, fun, and thoughtful books. But Abbott Awaits is a leap into a new category for Bachelder. I explain and justify all of this in the review, so rather than babbling more about how much I liked the book, go check it out.

(Also, just read as implied here notes of embarrassment and apology over having not updated the blog in about two months. As it happens, I’ve been busy, the sort of busy where there’s plenty to report but little time or inclination to report it. I wish I could say it will be the last time, but who knows. Anyway, look for more frequent dispatches in the near term.)

On the angry post-rejection e-mail

I’ve never done it. Roxane Gay, editor of PANK, makes me glad I’ve resisted. Great piece that helps to put things in perspective. I’m simultaneously surprised to hear so many writers do this, and also not at all surprised. I recently strongly considered writing back to a journal, “Are you sure?” But that came more from a spirit of joking and wanting to see what, if anything, the editor would say, than from anger. Tucked within the piece is a lot of great, necessary advice for writers on how to deal with rejection. At one point, Gay cites her own rejection rate in Duotrope as being up around 78%. She makes her own point about it, but my first reaction was something like jealousy: surely mine is somewhere in the nineties. Point being, you’re succeeding as a writer if only eight out of ten submissions are rejected. As Gay notes, that’s just the nature of the game. The sooner you acclimate yourself to that, and make rejection the expected outcome of submitting, the better off you will be.

Update: Probably could have seen this coming, but the comments section under the above-referenced blog post has turned into something of a shit show, as they say. The person whose angry post-rejection e-mail to Roxane inspired the post has stepped forward in comments—though not really, as he’s writing under the name “Donny”—to reiterate his points. Which as you might guess, are pretty insipid. Read it if you like car wrecks and that sort of thing. I haven’t seen the comparison show up yet in the comments section, but the whole thing reminds me of this authorial flip-out, which I pontificated on here.

New Stories at Used Furniture Review

I have not one but two flash-fiction pieces up at Used Furniture Review, a great and classy online lit mag that is worth your time. I’m pleased not only to publish them, but for them to appear together, as they’re both what we might call “math lit”: experiments with the number of words in a sentence and the number of sentences in a paragraph or section. It’s a fun limitation to play with, and these are the rare pieces where I was pleased with the result.