This Week in Literary History: March 22-28

Recognizing the birthdays of Robert Frost, Mario Vargas Llosa, and more

Billy Collins Doesn’t Know Where He’s Going

By Corinne Weaver

Poet Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the U.S., readily admits that he doesn't know where he's going when writing a poem. Collins believes the poem, if it's meant to be a success, knows where it's going. 

"Sometimes a first line will occur, and it goes nowhere; but other times--and this, I think, is a sense you develop--I can tell that the line wants to continue," Collins told The Paris Review

But despite the self-determining nature of the poem, Collins must have everything just so when he writes it. "I write with a Uni-Ball Onyx Micropoint on nine-by-seven bound notebooks made by a Canadian company called Blueline," he said. 

And Collins decries using a computer when writing poetry because he feels a screen shapes a poem. "I write with a pencil, always longhand," Collins said. "I make a mess and scratch things out. A pencil seems very fluid." 

The poet breathed some of that theme into a handful of his poetry. For example, this excerpt from his piece, "The Chairs That No One Sits In":

The trouble is you never see anyone
sitting in these forlorn chairs
though at one time it must have seemed   
a good place to stop and do nothing for a while. 

Although Collins taught poetry for several years, he dismisses some of the more classical structures of poetry. He urges novice poets to read John Milton but encourages them to avoid writing about only what would sound good in a poem. It's a lesson Collins learned himself. 

"I would put on my poetry goggles when I wrote, and I would see only these so-called poetic things I should write about, and the rest of my life was very disconnected from that," Collins said. 

Collins's later poems reflect this rejection of the hierarchy of subjects. These poems' topics range from cigarettes to Cheerios, always expounding on some hidden fragment of beauty behind the piece's focus. Here's part of Collins's poem, "Cheerios:"  

Why that's as old as the hills,
only the hills are much older than Cheerios
or any American breakfast cereal,
and more noble and enduring are the hills,

And while Collins may not know where he's going when writing a poem, he knows he won't stay long. "The poet is more someone who just appears," he explained. "You know, a door opens, and there's the poet! He says something about life or death, closes the door, and is gone. Who was that masked man? I like that kind of sudden appearance." 

Billy Collins

  • Born on March 22, 1941, in New York City, N.Y.

The Metaphors, Paths, and Contradictions of Robert Frost

By Andria Kennedy

"Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, 'grace' metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere." 

These words came from the American master of poetry, Robert Frost, and they define his work better than any other description. Contained within vivid depictions of the natural world, readers have found countless meanings and messages. The man was a true master of the metaphor - even if the general public views him as a champion of the New England countryside.

Of course, there's no doubting his connection to Vermont and New Hampshire. Despite his origin in San Francisco or his professional start in England, Frost holds sway over the northern Atlantic region. Even T.S. Eliot (who didn't always see eye-to-eye with his contemporary) acknowledged that truth. 

"I think there are two kinds of local feeling in poetry," Eliot said. "There is one kind which makes that poetry only accessible to people who've had the same background, to whom it means a great deal. And there is another kind which can go with universality: the relation of Dante to Florence, of Shakespeare to Warwickshire, of Goethe to the Rhineland, the relation of Robert Frost to New England."

But there's more within Frost's poetry than quaint orchards, reclaimed farmhouses, and mown fields. The natural wonders found around Frost's many New England homes served as a framework for the self-reflection he undertook through his words. As Joseph Brodsky states, "Nature for this poet is neither friend nor foe, nor is it the backdrop for human drama; it is this poet's terrifying self-portrait."

Robert Frost pushed the metaphor to its furthest reaches. While many children continue to memorize the lines of Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," they overlook the larger battle of indecision disguised within the poem. Frost spoke not of simple paths, but choices in life left behind, regrets lost in the dust of memory. It's a deft hand, and there's self-introspection where the track "bent in the undergrowth." 

Not many people understood Frost or the driving force of his personality. As he wrote in a letter, "I began life wanting perfection and determined to have it. It got so I ceased to expect it and could do without it. Now, I find I actually crave the flaws of human handiwork. I gloat over imperfection." 

Which path did the poet take, one wonders? And which did he walk away from?

Unfortunately, metaphors lose their magic in the real world. Robert Frost often projected an aloof persona to the general public. And when Lawrance Thompson published his three-volume biography on Robert Frost in 1970, he painted a picture of a monster who left a "wave of destroyed human lives," to quote Helen Vendler. The public recoiled at images of egotism, cruelty, and jealous behavior hidden under the veneer of a wizened gentleman.

Readers responded similarly in 2013 when Joyce Carol Oates published her short story, "Lovely, Dark, Deep" in Harper's Magazine. The tale picks up where the controversial biography left off, creating an image of a bitter, racist old man. When challenged, Oates responded that critics had misinterpreted her words - or perhaps, her metaphor. "[The story] is really about the sensation-mongering, 'malicious' personal and biographical accusations that are made against a poet. Poetry and life should have nothing to do with each other."

When Robert Frost took up his stance on metaphor, he never foresaw his story's direction. Proud of his place in American poetry, he spoke with an eye towards his craft. And with a strong following to this day - biography and short story notwithstanding - his words continue to have an impact. They reach people who see the messages within and those who savor the idyllic paintings without.

Robert Frost

  • Born on March 26, 1874, in San Francisco, Calif.

  • Died on Jan. 29, 1963, in Boston, Mass.

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That Time Mario Vargas Llosa gave Gabriel García Márquez a Black Eye

By Andrew Sanger

Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez: Two South American authors, Nobel Prize winners, and former friends who swore to never speak to one another again. What caused such a dramatic falling out? Why did Vargas Llosa give García Márquez a black eye outside of a movie theater in Mexico City? There is still some mystery over why their decades-long friendship ended, but how it began is a much simpler story. 

Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian novelist, essayist, professor, and former politician. His work spans a range of genres, from comedies to murder mysteries, but all share the quality of his profoundly personal and politically-conscious style. 

García Márquez, the legendary Colombian novelist, was nine years Vargas Llosa's elder and ran in similar literary circles. The two struck up a friendship, bonding over a shared admiration for William Faulkner's work. They also found that they had more in common than just their taste in writers. Both came from difficult family backgrounds and had strained relationships with their fathers. 

García Márquez and Vargas Llosa got along well for many years, admiring one another as friends and artists. Vargas Llosa even wrote his doctoral thesis on García Márquez’s work, which he titled "García Márquez: historia de un deicidio (or, García Márquez: Story of a Deicide)." However, the two had at least one significant difference: politics.

Vargas Llosa was a notably left-leaning figure in the early parts of his public life. From the early 1960s to the early 1970s, Vargas Llosa was a vocal supporter of Fidel Castro and was vocally pro-communism. However, in the mid-1970s, Vargas Llosa's politics shifted to the right, and he no longer supported Castro's regime. García Márquez, on the other hand, remained staunchly liberal.

Their political differences may have driven a wedge between the former friends, with things coming to a head on Feb. 12, 1976, at a movie theater in Mexico City. García Márquez approached his friend, but instead of an embrace, Vargas Llosa punched García Márquez in the face.

Neither of the writers ever publicly revealed what led to Vargas Llosa giving García Márquez a black eye, but two things were abundantly clear: Vargas Llosa had a killer right hook, and the two were no longer on speaking terms. (Interestingly, it wasn't until 2007 that a picture of García Márquez surfaced online in which he's sporting the black eye he received from Vargas Llosa.)

Whether politics ended the friendship between Vargas Llosa and García Márquez is still debated. Some close to the two men say the feud had to do with another classic crux for friendships: romance. In this account of the story, Vargas Llosa had recently started a fling with another woman, leaving his bereft wife, Patricia, to seek out her friend García Márquez for comfort. That's not to imply that García Márquez, who was himself happily married, did anything other than helping her through a marital rough patch, but suffice it to say that Vargas Llosa was rather unhappy to hear that the two were spending time together. And that's why, some say, Vargas Llosa decked García Márquez in a Mexico City movie theater in 1976. 

Regardless of which version of events is accurate, the fact remains that these two great novelists, once friends, never spoke again. García Márquez died in 2014. The two eventually reached a professional truce later in life, though, when Vargas Llosa consented to have a part of his thesis reprinted in a special edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude

After García Márquez passed away, Vargas Llosa was once again asked to elaborate on the two's tragic friendship. Once again, he refused. Instead, Vargas Llosa decided to reminisce on their good times, saying, "I was sad when he died, it was like the death of Julio Cortázar or Carlos Fuentes. They weren't just great writers, but also great friends. To discover that I am the last of that generation is sad."

Mario Vargas Llosa

  • Born on March 28, 1936, in Arequipa, Peru.


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Billy Collins

Robert Frost

Mario Vargas Llosa

Notable Literary Births & Events for March 22-28

March 22

  • Billy Collins

  • Louis L'Amour

  • Nicholas Monsarrat

  • James Patterson

  • Leslie Thomas

March 23

  • Louis Adamic

  • Josef Čapek

  • Roger Martin du Gard

  • Thakin Koda Hmaing

  • Kim Stanley Robinson

  • Frank Sargeson

  • Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

  • Ahdaf Soueif

  • Gary Whitehead

  • Virginia and Leonard Woolf start Hogarth Press (1917)

March 24

  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti

  • Matilda Joslyn Gage

  • Donald Hamilton

  • Silas Hocking

  • Tabitha King

  • Olive Schreiner

  • Mary Stolz

March 25

  • Toni Cade Bambara

  • Susie Bright

  • Kate DiCamillo

  • Penelope Gilliatt

  • Stephen Hunter

  • Flannery O'Connor

  • Paul Scott

  • Mary Webb

March 26

  • Élémir Bourges

  • Gregory Corso

  • Vine Deloria, Jr.

  • Robert Frost

  • A. E. Housman

  • Erica Jong

  • Natsuhiko Kyogoku

  • Jacqueline de Romilly

  • Hwang Sun-won

  • Patrick Süskind

  • Bob Woodward

  • Tennessee Williams

March 27

  • Michael Aris

  • Shūsaku Endō

  • Dick King-Smith

  • Roland Leighton

  • Charles Mackay

  • Heinrich Mann

  • Henri Murger

  • Louis Simpson

  • Thorne Smith

  • Marie Under

  • Alfred de Vigny

  • Stefan Wul

  • Lajos Zilahy

March 28

  • Nelson Algren

  • Byrd Baylor

  • Marc Brandel

  • A. Bertram Chandler

  • Iris Chang

  • Marianne Fredriksson

  • Maxim Gorky

  • Bohumil Hrabal

  • Jayne Ann Krentz

  • Mario Vargas Llosa

  • Benjamin Percy

  • Everett Ruess

  • Jennifer Weiner

  • Lauren Weisberger