Death songs




A “death song” is traditionally sung before or after a death, in commemoration.

In 2014 we lost many important and  well-known writers whom we wish to remember. Many unsung writers died too—writers who were, perhaps, friends, relatives, lovers, acquaintances, lesser lights, forgotten authors. Writers who worked alone, steadily, without much recognition. Writers whose suns eclipsed, whose stars faded. We celebrate them too, as members of our community, whether or not we knew them, whether or not they achieved their goals.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 

Nadine Gordimer • Gabriel García Márquez • Walter Dean Myers

Vicente Leñero • Maya Angelou • Kent Haruf • Sue Townsend

Mark Strand • Carolyn Kizer • Galway Kinnell • Radwa Ashour

Siegfried Lenz • Thomas Berger • Maxine Kumin • Daniel Keyes

P.D. James • Eric Hill • Marsha Mehran • Joe McGiniss

Amiri Baraka • Diann Blakely • Saeed Akl • Michael Shanahan

Ana Maria Matute • Richard Eder • Bel Kaufman • Gil Marks

 Mavis Gallant • Paul Robeson Jr. • Claudia Emerson

Jonathan Schell • Mary Stewart • Jack Agüeros

Elizabeth Jane Howard • Justin Kaplan

Martin Gottfried • Susan Spencer-Wendel

Farley Mowat • Ann Marcus • Joel Brinkley

Shon Harris • Peter Matthiessen • Sherwin B. Nuland

IMG_0904Apologies if I’ve inadvertently omitted any writer you feel strongly about; add a comment below, to inform us all.


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IMG_0299Last May, online magazine The Critical Flame: A Journal of Literature & Culture began a year during which it has been and will be dedicated to the work of “women writers and writers of color.”

Editor Daniel Evans Pritchard says, “…while The Critical Flame may not be a powerhouse of the literary world, we have yet decided to embark on a project that will help our readers, at the very least, perceive and evaluate the literary landscape differently. If there is a cycle of criticism / reviews, book sales, and publishing trends that perpetuates the unjust inequalities we’re seeing today, then CF will act in some small measure to break it.”

That sounds like a very good idea. This is the article that caught my eye: “A Reluctance to Cede Ground: Age and the Writing Life,” by Rosemary Booth. It begins as a review of A Story Larger Than My Own: Women Writers Look Back onTheir Lives and Careers, edited by Janet Burroway (University of Chicago Press), and slides interestingly into a discussion of Maxine Kumin’s work.

You might want to subscribe to the CF e-mail newsletter. And if you want to buy Ms. Burroway’s book, the University of Chicago will be happy to oblige here.



Wait for it, please


The late Stanley Kunitz, poet and two-time poet laureate, was recently quoted in The Writer’s Almanac:  “It is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self.”

The quote appeared to refer to the source of his poetry, and it stopped me cold. Statements like that are so compelling, so authoritative that one is often inclined to believe them, to accept them as truths without carefully considering the content and who’s making the statement. The bright light of talent or celebrity or love can dazzle us enough to make us uncritical of the meaning of such sweeping generalities.

(Wait for it, please.)

It seemed to me that what Kunitz meant was that the dailiness of his life drove him into the deepest recesses of himself.  His assertion might or might not be true for other writers.  A writer might be driven deep by almost anything–politics, sex, music, marriage, parenthood, tragedy, nature, friendship, or any of a hundred other ideas or experiences.

So I thought I’d write about being cautious: Don’t take sweeping generalities about writing too seriously. Don’t believe them too readily. Think carefully before you accept whatever writing advice is being handed out.

And then it occurred to me that I wasn’t being very cautious myself. Had Stanley Kunitz really made that definitive statement? So I looked it up. And yes, he did, sort of, but it was presented to Almanac readers out of context. Context is important.

Here’s what Kunitz actually said, in an interview called “Openhearted: Stanley Kunitz and Mark Wunderlich in Conversation,” printed on the website of the Academy of American Poets. Kunitz, who lived to be 100, was ninety-five at the time of the interview.

It’s hard to speak about one’s self while still in process. Certainly through the years I’ve tried to simplify the surface of my poems. I’ve tried to write more intimately than I did, in a more conversational tone. I have fewer conflicts, perhaps; yet the ones that remain are central to my existence. Since I came to realize, in my middle years, that I was occupying two worlds at once, that of my living and that of my dying, my poems have tended to hover between them. More recently I expressed a desire to write poems that are natural, luminous, deep, spare, “so transparent that one can look through and see the world.” That’s pretty much what I still feel. I recognize that there is a great area of unknowing within me. I try to reach into that chaos of the inner life, to touch those words and images that will help me face the ultimate reality. Such existential concerns tend to make me rather impatient with the particulars of the day. At the same time I am aware that it is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self. There is a transportation, to and fro, between these two worlds. The moment that flow stops, one stops being a poet.

Not a sweeping generality at all, but an exquisitely personal statement.




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