And while we are on the subjects of gardens and the writers who love them I would not rest easily if I did not encourage everyone to pick up a copy of The Wild Braid – A Poet Reflects On A Century In The Garden by Stanley Kunitz. The book, written in his one hundredth year, with the poet Genine Lentine, is an absolutely beautiful reflection not just on the garden itself but on life, loss, death and renewal. It is scattered with poems, prose, conversations between Genine and Stanley, and stunning photography by Marnie Crawford Samuelson. I was quite surprised to discover that reading the book was much like wandering in a well-loved garden in the sense that there was always something new and unexpected to discover. Walking through a conversation between the two poets, stopping to admire a photograph of the poet tending his plants and then, suddenly, oh look over here… a poem in the middle of this page right here, growing just where it should.
Needless to say, this little book is as well tended as the poet’s garden. There is nothing here that should be moved around or weeded out.
Stanley Kunitz was honored and awarded just about every prize for poetry one can think of including the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, A National Medal of the Arts and the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. He served twice as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress and as the U.S. Poet Laureate. He was a teacher at Columbia University, an editor of the Yale Younger Poets, the founder of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and also of the Poets House in New York City. And he was a gardener. He died in 2006 at the age of 100.
All these beautiful photographs are from the book, taken by Marnie Crawford Samuelson.
“Thinking of a new season in the garden feels different from imagining a new poem. The garden has achieved its form; it doesn’t have to be new each year. What it has to do is grow. You’re not going to uproot the entire garden and start all over. The poem is always a new creation and aspires to a transcendence that is beyond telling at the moment when you’re working on it. You know you are moving into an area you’ve never explored before and there is a great difference.”
“I wonder if those birds ever tire of their song –I wonder whether a bird ever thinks, ‘Today I’ll try a new song.'”
I admit I have been lax about reading and reviewing lately so perhaps it’s time to offer an explanation. I have become, finally, a gardener. And it is Spring. And I can hardly take the time to dress after waking to rush from the bed to the garden to see what has happened. Because a garden is a miracle, and no more so than in an unseasonably warm Spring when everything is behaving not as it should but as we hoped for. Today, however, when the sun finally disappeared behind the thick grey curtain of fog and clouds I went indoors and wandered about a bit. I felt, quite honestly, bereft. I tried this and that to amuse myself but it was difficult to start anything when every few minutes I kept rushing to the windows to see if the sun had come out in the garden. Needless to say, it had not.
No worries however, for I soon figured out what to do and picked up a favorite books of mine by the late fiction editor of The New Yorker, Katharine S. White. Everything about this book is wonderful if you love to garden as much as I do. Like any avid gardener Katharine was a reader and collector of garden catalogues and this book consists of her reviews of them, as well as her thoughts in general about the garden. The reviews themselves originally appeared in The New Yorker in the 1950’s and what a surprise it must have been at the time to elevate the seed and garden catalogues of the day in the pages of the magazine. An editor and writer of great note on her own Katharine was also married to E. B. White, who provides a fine introduction to this excellent volume. I highly recommend anyone who takes an interest in the earth beneath us put this book by their bedside to dip into when it is too cold or dark to venture out into the garden itself. It is a truly wonderful volume for the gardener and writer in all of us.
“As I write snow is falling outside my Maine window and indoors all around me half a hundred garden catalogues are in bloom.” — Katharine S. White
I’m just going to admit it. I am a huge fan of Beverley Nichols. Whenever winter wanes and I begin to venture out into the spongy soil I think of the Jazz Age playboy turned gardener, a cigarette in one hand, cocktail shaker in the other, walking down the rows of the chalky and sullen soil he turned into a bit of paradise in Huntingdonshire in the 1930’s. Surely, I think, if he could make a garden out of a stubborn piece of earth I ought to be able to grow a row of veg and a flower or two. And if I can’t, I always have his acid wit to turn to in the gardening memoirs he wrote and that is enough to comfort and amuse me.
For those who don’t know, and I don’t know why many would, Beverley Nichols was a popular British author of plays, mysteries, poems and children’s books when he bought and began to renovate a home and garden in the village of Glatton. He sat down to write about it and in virtually no time produced what is referred to as the Always Trilogy, which is composed of the three books featured here. That anyone could write about a garden with such wit and irony is a constant source of enjoyment and as the trilogy progresses we move from the garden to his home to the village and all its many colorful inhabitants.
A Thatched Roof is the second book in the trilogy. The books have been in almost constant print since their publication but these new editions from the Timber Press are very worth tracking down. If you can’t find them anywhere else, you can certainly find them at http://www.timberpress.com.
It’s always sad to come to the end of a series but don’t despair. Nichols produced a second trilogy between 1951-1956 about his renovation of a Georgian Manor house that is absolutely hilarious.
My prediction? If you become as addicted as I am you will soon find your shelves filling with these fine editions.
“Do you not realize that the whole thing is miraculous? It is exactly as though you were to cut off your wife’s leg, stick it in the lawn, and be greeted on the following day by an entirely new woman, sprung from the leg, advancing across the lawn to meet you.
Surely, you would be surprised if, having snipped off your little finger, and pushed it into a flower-pot, you were to find a miniature edition of yourself in the flower-pot a day later.”