Brad Leithauser is a novelist, poet, and essayist. He lives in Massachusetts.

The Thrill of Unfamiliar Voices

Roelandt Savery: Paradise, 1626
A good first book of poetry introduces a name and establishes a claim. A second, if successful, reassures us that the first was no fluke. But what about a third book? This is a question raised by two splendid new third collections, Sarah Lindsay’s Twigs and Knucklebones and Greg Williamson’s …

On Moon River

Johnny Mercer with Louis Armstrong and Maxine Sullivan, each of whom made recordings of Mercer’s songs; illustrations from The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer
Johnny Mercer, perhaps the finest of American popular song lyricists, searched endlessly for usable melodies, caroming from partner to partner throughout his frenetic professional life. He wrote with so many different composers—Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, Henry Mancini, Jimmy Van Heusen, Harry Warren, Richard Whiting—that he wound up essentially solitary. Mercer …

Voices in the Heartland

Lorrie Moore, Madison, Wisconsin, 1999; photograph by Chris Buck
Lorrie Moore’s novels are remarkable for the number of linguistic detours they embark on. Off in the distance, a plot is likely hatching. But its unfolding will patiently have to wait until the characters—nearly all of whom have a penchant for wordplay—have explored the far-flung implications of the language that …

There Once Was an Artist Called Lear…

Edward Lear: Tepeleni, Albania, circa 1848–1849; from Edward Lear in Albania
Nineteen children preceded him into a world that he could never quite take seriously but that hurt and tormented him all the same. The great writer of nonsense poetry Edward Lear, born in 1812, was the twentieth of twenty-one children. The Lear household was prosperous, despite its slew of dependents.

Old Globe

For her big birthday we gave her (nothing less would do) the world, which is to say a globe copyrighted the very year she was born—ninety years before. She held it tenderly, and it was clear both had come such a long way: the lovely, …

Glassed In

Some modern American poets have published novels (Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath). Others have worked hard on novels but never saw them published (Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Clampitt). And still others simply can’t be imagined as novelists. Theodore Roethke, who once declared, “I can become …

The Shadow Man

If you’re a poet fated to be eclipsed, doubtless you could do worse than to have W.H. Auden be the one who stands between you and the light. For one thing, Auden’s surpassing range, both of mode and subject matter, leaves a broad field for maneuvering. For another, his civility …

Lorenz

Now and then he would drop from sight, days at a stretch. No doubt he found his way to drink—some suitcase full of spirits— and, likely, to some paid romance; he knew the poignancy of that from both sides of the street—the dwarfish man …

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

As if for the convenience of poets, the pronunciation is flexible. Ultima Thule. This is Thule rhyming with truly, but you also sometimes hear it as a monosyllable, echoing fool. Truly foolish, in any event, were some of the historical attempts to locate Ultima Thule, which dictionaries define, again with …

Love in a Cold Climate

Kristin Lavransdatter, the Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset’s celebrated trilogy of novels set in fourteenth-century Norway, runs over one thousand pages in the old three-in-one Knopf hardcover I’d picked up secondhand, and I chose to read it slowly, lugging the hefty, handsome volume everywhere. This was more than twenty years ago.

Anthony Hecht (1923–2004)

I caught my final glimpses of Anthony Hecht in Tennessee last July. This was at the Sewanee Writers Conference, where he was a guest of honor. I was one of a panel of five writers and editors come to pay tribute. Each panel member was to present a brief talk …

Zodiac: a Farewell

The great arc of the zodiac Bends like the crown of a tree, Whose branches house, the Greeks discerned, An animal family. They spied a lion, a crab, a ram, Where the Chinese came to see A monkey, a pig, an ox, a rat…

A Passionate Clamor

Of the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins it might be said that he’s difficult only if you try to understand him. A reader might reasonably choose not to. Certainly there are moments—as when you hit a phrase like “Or a jaunting vaunting vaulting assaulting trumpet telling”—whose passionate clamor makes any …

Young Old Soldiers

Smoke yields to further smoke. As the skies clear over Iraq, the smoldering images are gradually absorbed into memory’s archives, where other, earlier, likewise indelible images of combat are stored; the nation’s latest war brings closer its every previous war. Hence, Poets of World War II, edited by Harvey Shapiro, …

Equatorial Triptych

I. Dawn: Spider Webs Thunder running riot through the black foliage… At dawn we straggle out like shaken Shopkeepers fearing ruination, Who’ve lain awake all night shuddering At the breaking sounds of revelry— Struggle out to meet, everywhere, shattering Confirmations: gray cracked panes …

The Awkward Age

He inhabits a domain of consistent characterizations. So set and predictable are the phrases that evoke the people and animals he’s closest to, they come to resemble epithets. The girl he pines after, Marjorie Jones, is the Most Beautiful Girl in the World. His little, long-suffering dog—who “looked like an …

Laxness the Great

In the Fifties, in his fifties, the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness entered a stretch of broad and seemingly easeful creativity. This was an Indian summer whose angling northern sunlight invested the most earthbound objects in his books—stone walls, turf huts, paving stones, spindly trees—with a clement and redemptive glow. A …

Lyrics in the Swamp

In the Swamp, nothing was more squishy and unstable than language. Whenever there were arguments—and the Swamp was rife with clamorous dissension—the source was likely to be words misheard or misspoken, misused or misconstrued. The Swamp was ostensibly the Okefenokee Swamp, but it had far less in common with Florida …

Golden Notebooks

Let’s assume you deplane in a foreign country, in the dead of night, in the dead of winter, and get into a cab. The driver speaks lightly accented but excellent English. You ask about the weather lately and what follows would do a professional meteorologist proud: an avidly comprehensive report, …

Frequent Fliers

That old, airy injunction—Pursue your dream—takes on an almost literal flavor when you peer into the world of the lepidopterist. For butterflies can seem like creatures born no less of the mind than of the earth. They are vivid like dreams, and shifting and balky like dreams, and when like …

Mock Argument

You stood on your rock and I stood on mine,              Eyeing each other, Some twenty feet apart, and wasn’t it fine          That what came between us Was first a purple dottyback, then a pink pack …

A Betting Man

Jule Styne, the Broadway and Tin Pan Alley composer, had a bustling career that ran for more than half a century, before he died, at the age of eighty-eight, in 1994. If he’s known at all among the young today, it’s probably for scattered melodies from his mid-to-late work—like “People,” …

Tough Cookie

W.H. Auden believed that the sonnet’s profound appeal has a physiological basis, that its fourteen-line structure subdivides itself into proportions the brain naturally finds beguiling. It’s as plausible an explanation as any for the unparalleled success of this modest prosodic construct conceived in Sicily in the thirteenth century. “Little song” …

Gaiety Redeemed

Sometime in the early Fifties, Richard Wilbur apparently cut an advanta-geous deal with whatever committee of muses or daemons or egos and ids lies in charge of his poetic inspiration. Freshly thirty at the start of the decade—he was born in 1921—he already had two books behind him, which had …

Let’s Face the Music

The kings of Tin Pan Alley—Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and the rest—were a collegial but competitive bunch. Quick to praise each other’s music and to pay one another generous formal tributes, they dined together, played cards together, occasionally vacationed together—but always kept a sharp eye on the sales …