Zachary Small revisits Frank Stella’s Moby Dick paintings.

My dissertation director, the poet and critic Robert Rehder, was a good friend of Stella’s. He visited him in his studios while Stella was working on the Moby Dick paintings and decided to start a series of poems titled after chapters in Moby Dick. You can read about that day here and how the Moby Dick poems turned out to be more about Corminboeuf, a small town in Switzerland where Robert lived with his wife and daughter. He also makes a few comments on the American poetry scene, which are probably still relevant: “Most of the poets I talked to or heard were reading their contemporaries, almost exclusively other Americans. They were doing this, however, with virtually no sense of nationality—the Americanness of the work was of no particular concern—but with, perhaps, a strong unconscious sense of cultural solidarity. Few people had heard of Peter Porter and Les Murray, for my money, two of the best poets writing, and even fewer had read them. While I was there the only two British authors who read in Iowa City were David Lodge, who seemed like a visitor from another planet, and Lord Acton, a professor in the Law School who had written a book about unusual American legal cases. If Heaney, Brodsky and Walcott were widely known, it is because they live in the United States and are established on the poetry scene there. If anyone was reading older poets (those published before 1950), they kept very quiet about it. There was an obsession with the contemporary and the new, especially among the workshop students.”

Speaking of American poetry, I was sad to learn this morning that the poet Tony Hoagland has passed way.

Allen C. Guelzo writes about the high price of the First World War: “Given that almost 8 percent of the American population was (like my great-grandfather) either German-born or the offspring of German parents, and another 4.5 percent Irish, who had every reason to sympathize with the 1916 Irish uprising against British rule, the United States might have felt little incentive to take the Allies’ side. But Woodrow Wilson saw the Central Powers as the minions of military and monarchical despotism, and his crusader temperament pushed hard toward sympathy with the Allies, especially after a German submarine inadvertently killed 128 Americans in the torpedoing of the British ocean liner Lusitania in 1915. Still, not even Wilson could nudge the country into outright war until the German empire threw off all restrictions on submarine attacks in February 1917 and began sinking American ships without notice. And even then, 50 members of the House of Representatives voted against the war resolution Wilson presented on April 2, 1917. But once in, Americans were all in. ‘There was a crusading spirit in the air,’ recalled one new recruit in the spring of 1917, ‘bands were playing martial music on the courthouse squares.’ Newspapers hawked stories of German atrocities and pictured the German emperor, Wilhelm II, as ‘the Beast in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, who wanted to conquer the world.’ Recruitment posters (led by James Montgomery Flagg’s frowning Uncle Sam) confronted young men with the demands “I want you for u.s. army” and ‘Uphold our honor, fight for us.’ Those more hesitant would be drafted under the Selective Service Act of 1917. After three years of watching the Great War from the sidelines, Americans ought to have been better prepared for taking up arms. They weren’t. The Army’s tactical doctrine showed no sign of any of the brutal lessons being taught in the trenches in France about machine guns, barbed wire, and poison gas. The country would soon learn otherwise ...”

John Wilson reviews a new book on the relationship between time and geology. This world “contains so many earlier ones, all still with us in some way—in the rocks beneath our feet, in the air we breathe, in every cell of our body.”

Andrew Motion reviews Philip Larkin’s letters to his mother: “When Anthony Thwaite published Larkin’s Selected Letters in 1992, he baulked at the size of the correspondence with Eva and decided not to include any of it. When I published my biography of Larkin in 1993, I had space to quote only from a sufficient number of the letters to give a clear sense of the relationship they express. This means that Booth’s edition offers the first panoramic view of the correspondence, and even this is (necessarily) incomplete. By his own account, some 4,000 of Larkin’s letters and cards to his mother survive from the period 1936–1977. He has chosen 607 of them, adding a handful of the surviving replies from both parents, and also a small number of the few surviving letters to Larkin’s sister Kitty. The good news is, Booth is an efficient editor and provider of footnotes: this is the last significant collection of papers relating to Larkin’s life that needs to be published. In addition, the sheer scale of the correspondence reminds us that Larkin — although curmudgeonly (and worse) in all sorts of ways — was also capable of great kindness. Whatever else the letters demonstrate, they embody (with a few exceptions) a remarkably sustained show of devotion, for which Eva was clearly grateful.”

How Kit Kat conquered Japan.

Essay of the Day:

“What is, and should be, the relationship between religion and politics?” In The Nation, Ursula Lindsey looks to the work of Naguib Mahfouz for an answer:

“I met Naguib Mahfouz once. It was in the winter of 2006, and I’d been living in Cairo for three and a half years. The writer Gamal Al-Ghitani, an old friend of Mahfouz’s, provided me with an introduction to one of his weekly gatherings. I went to a Holiday Inn in the suburb of Maadi. The hotel faced the Nile across four lanes of traffic. There was a metal detector at the front door. Ever since he was nearly killed by a young fundamentalist in 1994, Mahfouz no longer frequented the downtown cafés where he had met friends and fellow writers for half a century.

“It was a small group; I can’t remember any names. There must have been a few of Mahfouz’s old friends and a few new admirers such as myself. Also in attendance was a well-known Cairo character, a middle-aged American who favored white suits and who claimed, for decades now, to be writing Mahfouz’s biography.

“Mahfouz was 94 then. He was enveloped in an overcoat that was too big for him and made him look like a small, wizened, sympathetic turtle. He was nearly blind and deaf, and one of his companions sat right next to him and yelled into his ear. His right hand was contracted into a claw, a consequence of the attack 12 years before, when a young man approached him while he was sitting in a car, reached in, and stabbed his throat. Because of the way Mahfouz, already elderly, was sitting hunched forward, the would-be assassin just missed his carotid artery.

“That evening at the Holiday Inn, Mahfouz had a Turkish coffee and a single cigarette. His pleasure in these rituals, and in the give-and-take of conversation, difficult as it had become for him, was evident. He was surrounded by those who respected him and held him in high regard; everyone strived to amuse him, and when he laughed, long and hoarsely, his small, bony face lit up and turned boyish. I think he asked me who my favorite writers were, and told me he admired Shakespeare and Proust. At one point he asked me if I thought his novel Children of the Alley was ‘against religion’? This was the book whose allegorical retelling of events from the Bible and the Quran had been deemed blasphemous and had led to the assassination attempt.

“Flustered, I answered no, I didn’t think the book was against religion. I won’t forget his wry, slightly disappointed smile. I wish I had said something more honest or more interesting, such as ‘Even if it is, I don’t care.’”

Read the rest.

Photo: Valdres

Poem: Bill Coyle, “Day Is Fairest as It Wanes”

Get Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.