20 March 1978
Dear Sister Mary John—
It was a great joy to have your letter of what seems now to have been just the other day, but was in fact somewhat longer ago than that, and to know that The Art of the Fugue did arrive safely, at last. Of course I’m delighted that you and the others are enjoying it. I understand very well what you say about becoming continually more sensitive to music. I’m sure that living a life of silence does add to that sensitivity, but even in my own noisy existence (relatively speaking), music comes to mean more all the time. There was a period in my life when I tended to shy away from listening to music—I’m still not sure exactly why—but being around Hal, who listens to it every minute he can, even while he’s writing or preparing for class, has changed all that. He knows a great deal more about it than I do (which is ironic, since in grade school he was designated a “listener” and told not to sing with the group—a form of discrimination that has now, mercifully, been abolished from the New York City school system), but listening together tends to sharpen the appreciation on both sides. A couple of Sundays ago, we had the special privilege of listening to a Schubert quartet played by my nephew and three fellow students, in Hal’s own apartment! The occasion turned into a small party, which was even happier than such occasions tend to be when I Hal is the host. Next month David gives his third-year recital, and we’re planning another party to celebrate afterward.
You mentioned, in your previous letter, Arthur Mitchell and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. I’ve never seen the group perform in person, but I did see a television program about the school where the dancers are trained, a year or so ago. The dancing was very fine. Of course I remember Arthur Mitchell himself from the earlier days of what’s now the New York City Ballet. Since I wrote last, Hal and I have been twice to see it. On the first of those evenings, we happened onto a premiere of a new Balanchine work, to the Kammermusik No. 2 (1 think) of Hindemith. It was very exciting, and is still being discussed by the dance critics. The audience that evening was full of dancers, and “Mr. B” himself finally came onto the stage to take a bow—the first time, so far as I can remember, that I’ve seen him do that. On the more recent evening at the City Ballet, along with some newer works there was La Valse, which I first saw with Tanaquil Leclerq, all those years ago, doing the part of the Girl in White, and have seen I don’t know how many times since; and the magic was still there, though what I saw in the ballet itself this time was somewhat different from the other times. I wrote a poem about it which I’m venturing to send, hoping that you won’t be offended by the little excerpt concerning St. Audrey at the beginning (according to my own book on the lives of the saints, her career was entirely given over to piety, quite unlike the dictionary version). In fact, I’ll send a couple of others having to do in one way or another with dancers. Perhaps—though I can’t be sure—they’ll make more sense than the long one about the Jersey meadows. I’m not sure I can clarify that one, but possibly an account of how it came to be written may help. The idea first came to me last spring, when I was making weekly trips to and from Washington, and each time found myself looking with a mixture of loathing and fascination at a scene which I think must have been familiar to you once—the lowlands between the Hudson and the Watchung Ridge, into which the train emerges almost immediately after leaving the tunnel from Penn Station. Eventually, I suppose, the waterways will be filled entirely with a sort of soil—what they call landfill, which always seems to contain a large proportion of compacted garbage. For the time being, there are still fairly large patches of reeds, for which the botanical name is Phragmites—tall, dense, and graceful in their own way, with great tufted plumes that linger through the winter. All the ugliness and waste that seem an inescapable part of urban living appeared to be concentrated in those lowlands—chemical plants, refineries, junkyards—and this made the gracefulness of the reeds somehow precious, and it seemed to me, week after week, that something was there waiting to be said. When I suddenly woke up to the realization that reeds of the genus Phragmites were the ones used in antiquity to make simple pipes, and that such pipes were originally used to accompany elegiac poetry, I seemed to know in a vague way what it was that wanted to be said, or perhaps more accurately that I myself wanted to say—it was to lament the waste and ugliness, and in the process to say something about what poetry might do but somehow doesn’t. I don’t know how successfully I did any of this, but it was satisfying to have gotten some of those things set down. I haven’t read it over lately, and haven’t yet ventured to send it anywhere. —Oh yes, one more thing: the scene in Milburn is a dinner party I went to one weekend, and transcribes fairly accurately what in fact took place—as well as the kind of thing one hears sometime so-called liberals saying these days. —In the meantime, I’ve been writing more poetry than ever before. For a while, even though I had a good deal of work to do, I was writing one or more pieces every day. Lately they’ve come more slowly, but there still seem to be more ideas than I can quite catch up with. And sometime before too long, I don’t yet know just when, one of these new things is going to appear in the New Yorker. This has just happened, and my boss at Dutton is really responsible for bringing it to the attention of the poetry editor there, who’s asked to see more (having also turned down several others); and that of course is an encouragement.
I was greatly interested to hear about your correspondence with the Polish nun, and about her fascination with nineteenth-century English novels and “lost causes.” I’m wondering whether George Eliot would be one of her favorites. Last summer while we were in Maine, Hal read Middlemarch for the first time, and was so eager to talk about it that I re-read it myself. It seemed to me more than ever, in its own sober and patient way, one of the greatest novels ever written. No one has ever written more powerfully of the drama of the inner life or of the complexity of human character (“a process and an unfolding,” she called it). And there is this extraordinary passage which you may know, but having just lately copied it out, I pass it along: “If we had a keen vision of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” —Again thanks to Hal’s company, I’ve come to an appreciation of Dickens that I didn’t always have. I may have mentioned that one winter several years ago we read Bleak House aloud to each other. Last summer we finished Little Dorrit, which in some ways I liked even better. We have Our Mutual Friend and Martin Chuzzlewit waiting for whenever there is leisure to begin a new reading project.
I hadn’t realized how easily one slips into jargon—which is what “spring list,” which you found puzzling, really amounts to. I didn’t even use it correctly; what I should have been talking about was the “fall list”—in less cryptic terms, the books that are scheduled to be published between September and the end of the year. The printing process seems to take longer and longer, with the result that if a book is to be out by September, the manuscript needs to be edited and ready for the printer by January. Hence the rush around the Christmas holidays to get manuscripts that have just come in edited in time. Something like a lull may be about to descend, and it will be welcome. —As for the snowy weather that was reported from New York, I welcomed the first big storm with a certain glee; there’s still a child in me that enjoys watching the snow come down and the prospect of the total disruption that comes in the wake of a blizzard. By the time the biggest snowstorm of the year arrived, and lasted something like thirty-six hours, I was somewhat bored by it all. There was no hardship for me; for some, the cold became a problem. Now, I can report the very first crocuses already in bloom in a Village garden. And I send my very best wishes, as always, for a blessed Easter.