If he’d lived in the 18th or 19th centuries, or the earlier part of the 20th, Wally Swist might have been called a man of letters. For over 40 years, he’s devoted himself to writing, earning wide praise for his poetry, while living simply to accommodate the financial realities of making a living with a pen (and computer).
“I have led a rather bookish life,” Swist writes in the introduciition to his newest book. “I have willingly, and quite gladly, lived a life of reading books and writing them.”
But if he’s known primarily as a poet, Swist, of Amherst, has written plenty of nonfiction during his career: journalism, essays, book reviews and sometimes the more unconventional treatise, such as a study on the history of retirement in America that he penned for MassMutual, the Springfield insurance company.
In “Singing for Nothing: Selected Nonfiction as Literary Memoir,” Swist, 65, has gathered many of these pieces, including numerous recent ones, to offer a sort of retrospective of his career and the literary life — a guide to his thoughts about writing and the authors who have influenced him, his observations on Eastern religions and cultural trends, and what he learned from managing and working in bookstores. He also includes selected poems that touch on these points.
His hope, he writes, is that his new collection will be “a treasure trove of my own life in books, which I hope is a humble enough offering but also one in which you might revel and find delight…. I am sharing with you the best of my life with books.”
And if nonfiction is something he’s turned to over the years in large part to help him pay his bills, so that he can devote his more creative energies to poetry, it’s also a form of writing that he says “pays tribute to the spirit and to our daily bread, so to speak.”
In an email, Swist said he first began thinking of putting together a collection of his nonfiction about four years ago — part of the process of taking stock of his life as he gets older, he notes — and that “Singing for Nothing” went through a number of drafts before emerging in its current form (the publisher is The Operating System in Brooklyn, New York, whose lead editor, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, challenged him “to push the boundaries of both nonfiction and memoir,” Swist says).
“Singing for Nothing” is both an eclectic and very personal collection of writing. Swist has divided his work into different categories — essays about other poets, for instance, selected book reviews, thoughts on spirituality — and prefaced each with an introduction explaining the origins of the work and its place in his literary life.
These sections of memoir can include some great anecdotes, such as the time Swist wrote a review of “Field Work,” a collection by the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney, a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995, and mailed it to his editor (this was in the early 1980s, when Swist lived and worked in New Haven, Connecticut).
En route to a mailbox, Swist passed a restaurant that had a display of oysters on ice in the front window — and thinking of Heaney’s poem “Oysters,” which opened the poet’s new collection, he returned to the eatery after mailing his review and sat down to a plate of the shellfish.
“Singing for Nothing” is full of these kind of engaging excursions, and it’s a pleasure as well to read a study on the history of retirement that invokes the words of figures as disparate as Cotton Mather, Otto von Bismarck, Anthony Trollope, T.S. Eliot and Eleanor Roosevelt (to name just a few). There’s some droll wit here, too: “Puritan cause célèbre Cotton Mather is known for his stoking the proverbial fires for witch trials but is also, to his credit, one of the first to recommend enforced retirement for the elderly in 17th-century New England.”
One of Swist’s most engaging essays, “The Poetics of Walking,” dates from 2005, a time when he was living at Fort Juniper, the rustic cottage in the Cushman section of Amherst that was once the home of the poet Robert Francis; the cottage was turned into a residence for visiting writers and artists a few years after Francis died in 1987.
In his essay, Swist draws the connections between one of his favorite forms of poetry, haiku, and both the natural world and the world of the spirit — two important inspirations for his own poetry. In its crisp evocation of the simple pleasure of walking through field and forest, the essay seems a good match for the tight focus and Zen of haiku.
“Haiku for me has been a path, a way of life, a vehicle through which I see the world anew daily … [I]ts practice has encouraged me to learn how to look, and to paraphrase the American lyric poet Mary Oliver: ‘the more you look, the more you see.’ ”
“Haiku is also a poetic, and spiritual, discipline of discovering the epiphany of the commonplace,” he adds. For Swist, those connections are best made by “walking out into nature and having the natural world move through me.”
Swist also befriended Robert Francis in the Amherst poet’s last years, and he writes movingly about that relationship in an extended essay he adapted from a lecture he once gave at the Robert Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire, about another friendship: that of Robert Francis and Robert Frost.
It’s a wonderful portrait of poets passing the baton, so to speak — Frost mentoring and inspiring the younger Francis, and Francis doing the same for a young Swist — and of the august Frost, then a professor at Amherst College, sitting with Francis at the latter’s humble cabin, where the two would read and discuss poetry. Frost once made off with a bottle of Francis’ homemade dandelion wine.
Elsewhere, Swist touches on a number of subjects: our anxious modern age; politics (“Post-Election Collective Trauma: How to Manage the Stress of Having an Autocratic President); and the study of geology (a review of John McPhee’s seminal “Basin and Range,” about the terrain of the western U.S.). He also includes a longer piece of past journalism, a portrait of the late Russian-American painter and muralist Rudolph F. Zallinger that he wrote for a Connecticut arts magazine in 1979.
What’s particularly intriguing about this piece — Zallinger was known for his huge mural “The Age of Dinosaurs,” painted in 1947 in the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University — is its introduction. Swist relates that when he first met Zallinger for an interview, the artist placed three huge books, on archeology and anthropology, in his arms and told Swist he’d need to study them first; only then would he be able to ask informed questions, Zallinger told him. Oh, and he wanted the books back in three weeks.
At that point, many journalists would probably have asked their editor for a different assignment, but Swist went home and studied the tomes in the evenings after working at a bookstore during the day. “However much my eyes burned, I felt compelled to educate myself with more than enough backstory to satisfy my new Zen master, Rudolph F. Zallinger,” he writes.
Swist passed the test, as he returned in three weeks with Zallinger’s books and had not one but three interviews with the painter. The resulting article, he says, appeared to be the spur for Zallinger later receiving a prestigious award from Yale, a story he got from the painter’s son, Peter Zallinger.
Singing for nothing? Well, not in this case.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wally Swist’s website is wallyswist.com