A workshop with Lewis Hyde

Above: A poem by Wang Wei (c. 700-761). The title has been translated as “Deer Park.”


Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of taking a writing workshop with one of my heroes, Prof. Lewis Hyde. Hyde has an excellent show up right now at the Japan Society called “Oxherding,” and the workshop was presented in connection with that show. The show notes describe the project:

The product of a collaborative meditation by two internationally known artistic visionaries, Max Gimblett and Lewis Hyde, oxherding is based on the Song-Dynasty Chinese “Oxherding Series,” a Zen Buddhist parable of self-discovery comprised of pictures and verse. A contemporary American set of perspectives on this greatly venerated Buddhist text, the exhibition includes six collaborative artist books, a series of 10 sumi ink paintings by Max Gimblett, and 10 poems in Chinese and three English versions translated by Lewis Hyde.

Hyde has shared his translations on his own website here. He explains the process of translating the poems using methods of varying length and correspondence to the original:

Each Oxherding text will appear in three different English versions: a “one word ox” which sticks slavishly to the Chinese (one word per character), a “spare sense ox,” which puts each Chinese syntactic unit into a simple English sentence, and an “American ox” (or “fat American ox”) which takes considerable liberties while trying to be faithful to my intuitions about the meaning of the series.

Though we had not been told in advance about the nature of the workshop, after seeing the show I guessed it would focus on the nuances and challenges of translation, and indeed it did.

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"At present, U.S. copyright protects an individual’s work for his or her lifetime, plus 50 years; corporations with works ‘made for hire’ hold rights for 75 years. Under [Sen. Christopher] Dodd’s proposal, at the end of each of these terms, the rights to an additional 20 years would be publicly auctioned, the proceeds going to build an endowment dedicated to the arts and humanities." Sen. Christopher Dodd reads into the Congressional Record an article by Lewis Hyde from the L.A. Times on the so-called “Arts Endowing the Arts Act,” which auctions off copyright extensions on fading copyrights (like Mickey Mouse), in order to build an endowment for new arts and humanities work in the future.


Daniel B. Smith has written a lengthy profile of Lewis Hyde for this week’s New York Times Magazine. In addition to delivering an endearing (and enduring) profile of Hyde and his practice (a favorite phrase: “I worked on how I work”), the article traces Hyde’s development as a poet in Minnesota, his work as an alcoholism counselor at the Cambridge City Ward, his travels to Cuernavaca to meet Ivan Illich, and, most interesting to me, his writing and the initial public reception of The Gift: “Hyde worked on The Gift for seven years, barely scraping by, spending long months hunting through obscure folk tales for narratives that reflected what he came to call ‘the commerce of the creative spirit.’ When the book was finally published, the critic Martha Bayles castigated it in The New York Times for naïvely ‘esp[ying] a noble savage in every struggling artist’—a critique that was echoed elsewhere. Yet the artistic community immediately embraced Hyde’s work. A bevy of poets, including Robert Pinsky, Donald Hall and Gary Snyder, published a group letter in The Times responding to Bayles’s review and praising Hyde’s ‘search to regain the unity of economic, aesthetic, social and religious life.’ Bill Viola, the pioneering video artist, remembers New York artists in the 1980s excitedly exchanging dog-eared, marked-up copies. ‘In a society that mostly talks about money,’ says Margaret Atwood, who keeps a half-dozen copies of The Gift on hand at all times to distribute to artists she thinks will benefit from it, ‘Lewis carved out a little island where you can say, “Life doesn’t always work that way.”’” I routinely give copies of The Gift to friends as well, but I love the idea of exchanging it with notes. (Hyde would call this “giving increase.”) Last but not least, Smith shares that Hyde is at work on a follow-up (of sorts) to The Gift, which focuses on the idea of the commons from its development in medieval times to its arrival in America. An abstract and 11-page PDF excerpt is available (free) on Hyde’s website here.


"I always quote a guy called Lewis Hyde who wrote about primitive cultures where there’s an exchange of gifts that cannot be kept but have to be passed on. And the passing on of gifts is a device to prevent people from killing one another, because they all become part of a single experience. And [Hyde’s] leap of imagination occurs when he says this is what artists do. Artists provide that gift to the culture, so that people have something in common. And I think that all of us who identify with the role of artists in history want our work to serve that purpose. Certainly as much as we want to work to sell product. (Although not everybody feels the same way.)" Milton Glaser, from this wonderful short film by Hillman Curtis from a few years ago. I never knew Glaser had read Hyde when I compared his thinking on design ethics to Hyde’s book in my essay "Form-giving," but of course now it makes perfect sense why the two are so beautifully in sync. Perhaps an even bigger coincidence is that I just happened to stop by Glaser’s office the day Hillman Curtis was shooting there, and you see me for a moment in the film as I shake Glaser’s hand just after he finishes saying this quote.


You’ve got to read this NYT piece on entrepreneur Philip M. Parker to believe it. Parker has written and published some 200,000 books via Amazon.com—making him the most published person on the planet—using computer algorithms to mine publicly available information. Among Parker’s current projects are books of poetry, crossword puzzles, and, of course, romance novels. This latter genre reminds me of the opening sentence of Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift, where Hyde writes, “At the corner drugstore my neighbors and I can now buy a line of romantic novels written according to a formula developed through market research.” Parker is more succinct. Referring to the nature of the algorithm used to write the steamy books, he says, “There are only so many body parts.”

Bad-Boy Critic Takes on Vampire Economy

Hyde Portrait

Above: The author Lewis Hyde at home.

No doubt familiar to L&UL readers by now, one of my favorite books is Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. (Here are at least five posts so far: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]) Published in 1983, it is now being issued in a 25th anniversary edition by Vintage. This article by Jeffrey MacIntyre of the New York Observer, while it wanders a bit in the middle, does come to a satisfying conclusion on the book’s significance:

Though it’s always enjoyed a small cult following and word-of-mouth circulation […], The Gift was generally overlooked when it was first published. But what once puzzled critics about Mr. Hyde’s ambitious and complex thesis looks prophetic today. He shines particularly in anticipating the issues of culture in the age of the Internet. The radical democratization of access to media of all forms, from the print newsstand to blogs, from user-pay Radiohead album downloads to the long tail of Amazon’s back catalog, has irrevocably shifted our sense of the cost as well as the shelf life of art. It’s now cheaper than ever, in most cases, to produce and disseminate art—as well as to curate, discuss and appreciate it. Mr. Hyde’s central idea about art’s social function—that the consumption (and enduring value) of art ultimately transcends any commercial transaction—is looking increasingly like an idea tailor-made for our present moment.

The 25th anniversary edition’s subtitle has been changed from Hyde’s slightly awkward original “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property” to the closer (but blander) “Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.” The cover has been changed too, redesigned here by Angus Hyland in the UK and here by Mark Abrams in the US. I admire both of these designers’ work, but unfortunately both covers lose Hannah Cohoon’s iconic apple basket in favor of clichéd graphic hearts. I fear that Hyde’s opening observation has come true:

At the corner drugstore my neighbors and I can now buy a line of romantic novels written according to a formula developed through market research. […] Even the name of the series and the design of the cover has been tailored to the demands of the market.

Happily, the 25th anniversary edition also includes an expanded prologue and afterword by Hyde, both of which are valuable. (A PDF of the afterword is on Hyde’s own website here.) Like his introduction to the book, Hyde’s prologue deals with the marketing of books themselves, and particularly how it was difficult in the beginning for The Gift to find support from book merchants because its contents couldn’t be summed up in, as Hyde writes, “ten words or less.” By the end of the prologue he proposes a ten-word summary line anyway, which I think is fantastic: “Bad-boy critic takes on vampire economy.” The poetry of Hyde’s tagline reminds me of this little book by Eva Weinmayr of headline placards written for the Evening Standard. It’s another book that’s full of poetry and well worth picking up.


Two great things from writer Jonathan Lethem: 1) "The Promiscuous Materials Project," in which Lethem offers “stories are for filmmakers or dramatists to adapt. They’re available non-exclusively—meaning other people may be working from the same material—and the cost is a dollar apiece,” and 2) a monumentally important essay entitled "The Ecstasy of Influence," nearly all of which (spoiler alert) Lethem “stole, warped, and cobbled together” from other sources. Both projects are heavily indebted to what I think is one of the most important books of the last few decades, Lewis Hyde’s The Gift (for which Angus Hyland of Pentagram has just designed a new cover). More about The Gift in my essay "Form-giving."


New Yorker card

The Gift came, as gifts often do, without my asking for it. Its cover flashed up on my computer screen by way of an Amazon.com server that drew upon a collective memory of what customers like me had already purchased when I logged in one afternoon looking for a particular book on Shaker design. The cover, probably designed in part by The Gift’s author, Lewis Hyde, caught my eye because it featured a drawing that Hyde, who is an English professor at Kenyon College, credits inside as “Basket of Apples.” The drawing, however, is more properly credited as “A Little Basket Full of Beautiful Apples” and was made 150 years ago by a self-taught Shaker woman named Hannah Cohoon, who would have called it a “gift drawing.” I had first seen it several days before, in an article from The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik on the Shakers titled "Shining Tree of Life," where he describes both the drawing and the circumstances of its making:

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The Financial Times reviews and revives Lewis Hyde’s tremendous book, The Gift.