I'm not sure I understand the concept of 'closeness' in Tomas Tranströmer's poems, but in attempting to get near I am confronted by the distance between what I gather in and what they offer up. The gap between the gift and my receptivity – how far I find myself from what is being said, so limpidly, and what I understand – is a paradoxical limitlessness. I'm being shown simplicity but it looks, to me, like illimitable complexity. In that way, a poem is like a smile or a shrug, a beckoning or a barrier: how you take the gesture makes of it the certainty it never had when it was proffered. Retroactive causation, perhaps: the moment you decide that you know something about ambiguity that it doesn't know about itself is the moment it becomes what it might never have been.
"The sick boy," in After the Attack (in Robert Bly's translated collection The Half-finished Heaven) sits "with his back toward the painting of a wheatfield... At the far end of the field a man." And what of him? "... his face in shadow... / He seems to look at the dark shape in the room here". Is the dark shape in the reader's room, the narrator's, or the boy's? Or is it the reader, narrator or boy themselves? Regardless, the man "has come nearer" ("as / though to help"). Tranströmer says "No one notices it." But everyone who reads notices. Indeed, every reader has been told. Perhaps just the boy doesn't notice, but he is not everyone. The man in the field, the stranger, is close, closer now than at the start of the poem (and the poem, we presume, commences after the titular attack) – he moves as the poem moves, he moves through it. Always closer, now the poem is over.
How does this proximity play out in The Couple? "They turn the light off... and they sleep... It is dark and silent." But in their beds, in a hotel, in a city, in the dark, the surrounding houses "come nearer... They stand packed and waiting very near, / a mob of people with blank faces." This is threatening – mobs always are. And we can't begin to know what this mob is thinking, what it wants. Its proximity is no aid to understanding, indeed its closeness is what is so threatening; the closeness makes thinking about what they are thinking about more troubling than if they were a less exigent threat. The mob presses close, but we don't know why; and always closer, as the poem closes.
I'm not sure I understand the concept of 'closeness' in Tranströmer's poems, but I'm threatened by it. Threatened that the man whose "broad hat leaves his face in shadow", or the houses that might steal closer to mine in the middle of the night, know more about my sickness than I do. Like "a man [who] goes so deep into his dream / he will never remember he was there / when he returns again to his room" (Track).
In Kyrie Tranströmer writes "At times my life suddenly opens its eyes in the dark." When this happens, what do you see? Darkness. A darkness, perhaps, not as jet as when your eyes are closed. If you are lucky. What, then, do you know? That you are not alone; that what you see is not all there is. That you are not alone and that the knowledge is no comfort. Knowledge, it would seem, is simply knowing that the threat has come just that little bit closer.
I'm not sure I understand the concept of 'closeness' in Tomas Tranströmer's poems, but in attempting to get near I am confronted by the distance between what I gather in and what they offer up. The gap between the gift and my receptivity – how far I find myself from what is being said, so limpidly, and what I understand – is a paradoxical limitlessness. I'm being shown simplicity but it looks, to me, like illimitable complexity. In that way, a poem is like a smile or a shrug, a beckoning or a barrier: how you take the gesture makes of it the certainty it never had when it was proffered. Retroactive causation, perhaps: the moment you decide that you know something about ambiguity that it doesn't know about itself is the moment it becomes what it might never have been.
Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was the most influential of twentieth-century literary and social critics in America, a journalist in the biographical tradition of Johnson, Arnold and Sainte-Beuve, who energised the magazine columns until the 1960s. A Princeton graduate and friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the much-published Wilson was editor at Vanity Fair (1920- 21) and then The New Republic. He also reviewed for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.
Wilson's blind spot is said to have been poetry. Worse, in an infamous essay from 1934 he wrote of it as a 'dying technique'. At the same time, he wrote occasional poetry himself and contributed some necessary and judicious work on the Modernists in Axel's Castle (1931) and on Civil War poetry in Patriotic Gore (1962), a monumental study of the literature and character of that time, as well as some significant essays in his collections The Shores of Light (1952), Classics and Commercials (1950) and The Bit Between My Teeth (1966). These are the books his reputation lives by and where his contribution to the poetry of his time is remembered. MORE...
Of the Subcontract is a collection of poems about computational capitalism, each of which was written by an underpaid worker subcontracted through Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk service. The collection is ordered according to cost-of-production and repurposes metadata about the efficiency of each writer to generate informatic typographic embellishments. Those one hundred poems are braced between two newly commissioned essays; the whole book is threaded with references to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Wolfgang von Kempelen, and the emerging iconography of cloud living.
Of the Subcontract reverses out of the database-driven digital world of new labour pools into poetry’s black box: the book. It reduces the poetic imagination to exploited labour and, equally, elevates artificial artificial intelligence to the status of the poetic. In doing so, it explores the all-too-real changes that are reforming every kind of work, each day more quickly, under the surface of life.
More on Nick Thurston's new book, Of the Subcontract, over on the information as material website.
Recent article on Greek poet Cavafy is a nice case in point. It takes three translations of “The City”, one of his most well-known poems, from Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard, Rae Delven and Daniel Mendelsohn, and gives them each a spin. For me, it's hands down Delven:
You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other –
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.
Franco "Bifo" Berardi's The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (part of Semiotext(e)'s excellent Intervention Series) is a perplexing text – often perplexingly bad, it has to be said. But beneath the autonomist reworking of a post-Foucauldian politics, and amidst the ruinous post-poststructuralist neologisms, a truth is trying to fight its way out. Infuriatingly, in such an often wooden (and when not wooden, wooly) essay, that truth is about poetry – the poetry intrinsic to all language that isn't tied to instrumental use, the poetry we see when language unmoors itself from crude referentiality.
When language is reduced to information exchange it loses its ironic potential; when language tries to describe those things that lie beyond language – love, hope, another possible world – its failure to pin things down ambiguously reveals its human success:
Poetry is language's excess: poetry is what in language cannot be reduced to information, and is not exchangeable, but gives way to a new common ground of understanding, of shared meaning: the creation of a new world.
Poetry shows that language cannot be counted upon – not least that it can't be counted on simply to count. When it is showing, it is always telling: as language's excess, it can never quite account for itself. Language's imprecision, its limitless lability, is precisely what proves it is fit for purpose. Fit to indicate hope, fit to hint at what the dream meant or might mean. Language fails at simplicity, and by failing succeeds: a cast iron definition of love wouldn't help anyone make love or know they were in love. Poetry shows us language is defined by what it cannot quite name.
Somewhere in Bifo's book something like this is trying to be articulated. And for that reason alone (helped along by some nice riffs about capitalist time and precarity) I commend it to the House!
This evening of "politics, poetry & the fictions of modern love... with Danny Hayward, Jennifer Cooke, Reina van der Wiel and Felicity Allen" looks interesting (more at parasol-unit.org), particular the talk by Danny Hayward (How to be Dominated, or, Night Thoughts on Poetry and World History):
The talk will attempt to specify a category of writing that wishes not only to contest the ownership of the category of the popular, but which wants actively to ownthat category. In its first parts it will offer a polemical history of its central category for the previous two centuries of capitalist development, from Schiller via Wordsworth to Brecht, before proceeding to a more speculative discussion of contemporary writing that wishes to seize (and not merely to gain) popularity from the interests for whom popularity is a synonym of turnover. Setting itself in equal opposition to Adorno's view of "high" and "low" culture as two torn halves that will not be added together, and the profitable therapeutics of anything goes, the talk will argue that a contemporary communist popular culture can only function as a comedy of domination instated at the level of syntax, prosody, and narrative. Broadly speaking, the talk will claim that the poetic writing, if it wishes to maintain some relation to historical development, must learn how to work with its own domination.
Herbert Rosendorfer was born in Germany in 1934 and died in 2012. His first novel Der Ruinenbaumeister (1969) was a critical and commercial success, and is regarded by many critics as one of the masterpieces of German twentieth-century fiction. It was published in English by Dedalus in 1992 as The Architect of Ruins. This was followed by Stephanie in 1995, which was shortlisted for the Shlegel-Tieck Translation Prize. Letters Back to Ancient China is the most commercially successful of his novels and in Germany has sold over two million copies. Mike Mitchell's translation was awarded the Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize in 1997. Dedalus published Grand Solo with Anton by Herbert Rosendorfer in 2006.
We’ve shared our enthusiasm with you before about Peter Manson’s new and long-awaited translations of Mallarmé’s The Poems in Verse (Miami University Press 2012), which have just been reviewed at The Guardian.
David Wheatley writes: “This is an exceptional translation, ranking alongside John Ashbery’s Rimbaud, Mark Ford’s Roussel, and Michael Hofmann’s Durs Grünbein.” High praise!
From the Poetry Foundation.
One never knows what to expect from the up-and-coming French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux. I certainly didn’t expect his second book-length work to be a “decipherment” of Stéphane Mallarmé’s enigmatic final poem, Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Throw of Dice Will Never Abolish Chance). Still less did I expect it to be so absorbing and thrilling. The Number and the Siren is an erudite work of literary criticism, tackling one of the most difficult of modern poets...
Meillassoux’s study, breaking from the general studies and understandings of Mallarmé’s brilliant poem, posits that the poem itself can literally be deciphered, that meaning exists not exclusively in the blatant language or form of the poem itself, but rather that meaning is embedded, coded, within the work.
Also, an excellent take over on speculativeheresy:
First, though, I would like to reflect on the strangeness of the book. Adam and others have already remarked that the trajectory of Meillassoux’s work has been anything but predictable. Perhaps this should be less surprising than it is, since the thesis concerning absolute contingency put forward in After Finitude was taken very seriously by Meillassoux. There is no sufficient reason for anything and so why should we have expected his nihilism to play out as every other nihilism has? Indeed, this term, though seemingly embraced in The Number and the Siren, may not really be apt for a description of Meillassoux’s work. While there is a certain void lying at the center of his philosophy and while the privileging of primary qualities in After Finitude seemed to suggest a kind of scienticism, already we could see there a certain humanism at work. Limiting the law-like powers of Nature (with the capital-N intended) in order to make room for human salvation.
Me, or is there a fair bit of Mallarmé about at the moment?
A new edition of Stéphane Mallarmé: The Poems in Verse (from Miami University Press), Ranciere's Mallarme: The Politics of the Siren (from Continuum) and Roger Pearson's Stéphane Mallarmé: "blending a biographical account of the poet’s life with a detailed analysis of his evolving poetic theory and practice" (Reaktion).
So, that batch of good stuff, and now (Continental) philosophy's most favoured young Turk, Quentin Meillassoux, has entered the fray with The Number and the Siren (Urbanomic, the good folk who brought you Nick Land's collected effusions):
A meticulous literary study, a detective story à la Edgar Allan Poe, a treasure-hunt worthy of an adventure novel - such is the register in which can be deciphered the hidden secrets of a poem like no other. Quentin Meillassoux, author of After Finitude, continues his philosophical interrogation of the concepts of chance, contingency, infinity and eternity through a concentrated study of Mallarmé's poem Un Coup de Dés, patiently deciphering its enigmatic meaning on the basis of a dazzlingly simple and lucid insight with regard to that 'unique Number that cannot be another'.
Unfolded, Anne Carson’s book length poem Nox is nearly 1000 inches long – or wide, to be exact.
An accordion-fold book housed in a clamshell box, Nox is a single collage-like poem composed of dictionary entries, snapshots, scraps of paper, postage stamps, written memories, and other texts in which we see Carson as she copes with the death of her brother, as she tries to comprehend “the smell of nothing,” “the muteness,” and the meaning of memories scattered across a lifetime. Just as the physical book unfolds and then collapses back into itself, the unifying structure of Nox is the unfolding and collapsing of a short poem by the Roman poet Catullus. Nox opens with the poem – known as Poem 101 – in Latin. As you turn each page or further unfold the book (whichever way you choose to read Nox), you are confronted with the individual dictionary entries for every Latin word in Catullus’ poem. As the dictionary entries mount up and you realize that Carson is working toward an English translation of the poem, these entries induce a kind of literary vertigo. Each Latin word has multiple definitions that can be wildly different from each other, if not seemingly contradictory. The net effect is to make the reader reel from the endless English permutations possible from sixty-three Latin words.
Via sebald.wordpress.com, and one of my current reads...
Since W.G. Sebald’s sudden death in 2001, the cult of the Britain-based German writer has spread fast. Known for his exquisite prose works that, in their combination of the real with the fictional, push at the limits of what novels can be, he is considered one of the foremost German writers of his generation. He was also a poet.
Across the Land and the Water brings together a selection of the poems he never published in book form, if at all. Translated by Iain Galbraith, the volume sketches out a life on the move. Stretching over 37 years, the volume includes poems that Mr Galbraith found jotted down in Sebald’s archives on scraps of paper, others written on menus, theatre programmes or headed paper from hotels. They emerge on trains or at the “unmanned/station in Wolfenbüttel”, Sebald covertly observing fellow commuters as he evokes the differing landscapes shuttling past.
Unlike his epic, vertiginous prose, these poems are often condensed and sparse. And yet they contain many of the themes that would obsess Sebald throughout his writing life. The poet spent his later years in Britain, working at the Universities of Manchester and East Anglia. Preoccupied with memory, desire and the ghostliness of objects, Sebald can evoke in one poem the faded glamour of “a forgotten era/of fountains and chandeliers” or a “turn-of-the-century/frock-coat and taffeta bow” while in another he will speak of an “ugly/tower block” or “moribund supermarkets”. This shift between differing eras could seem forced or artificial. And yet Sebald manages such movement with a lightness of touch. Indeed, the driving force behind his work is a search for the past, for the forgotten or overlooked: “I wish to inquire/Into the whereabouts of the dead.”
Paul Celan is a limitless poet; a poet who requires our full attention, and our quiet patience. His dense, recondite work has challenged readers since the 1950s. His poetry keeps giving because, in truth, at first, it gives so little... For obvious reasons he sees through a glass darkly, but his shadow-drenched lens seems to disconcert and distort so much at first that we can't get a foothold on exactly what his poetry means.
But then we realise something. Celan's words are limpid, but appear so only if we adjust our expectations, allow his words to adjust our expectations: only if we are prepared to listen. Celan’s exactness clashes with what we think of as exact: the everyday is not exact, it is a cliché; realism requires vertiginous originality. But how can one be exact about what is truly unspeakable? One can only write knowing that one approaches and approximates, and that language fails you the while; you run after exactness, but the world gets away and your words fail. Beckett taught us about this failure because he knew failure and writing were synonymous.
I have a post over on the Carcanet blog, Celan and the Demand of Reading, written as a response to Correspondence: Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs which I've recently been reading, and thoroughly recommend.
It is a rather slight piece, for sure, but not too shoddy, I hope. For a much fuller recent post on Celan, let me direct you again to Stephen Mitchelmore's superb essay on The Meridian: Final Version–Drafts–Materials, by Paul Celan.
Sylph Editions was established in 2006. It came about as a natural expansion of our design studio, which specializes in book design and frequently works with other publishers. The events that led to the setting up of the press clearly illustrate the main objectives and ideas. It began with the artist Jila Peacock. She had produced a spectacular silkscreen, hand-printed book with ten shape-poems from Hafez, the great 14th century Persian master. She approached us to turn her limited edition book (50 copies) into a more readily available publication. We were happy to do this, but obviously the book needed an appropriate publisher. We approached many prospective publishers along with Jila at the London Book Fair but no one seemed to have the necessary imagination to turn this into a commercially viable book. This was very much a tipping point for us; we realised there are many such worthy projects out there that fail to materialize – all they need is a certain kind of vision. Jila’s limited-edition book was being exhibited at the British Museum as part of the Word into Art exhibition. The British Museum is fortunate to have its own independent bookshop, which, unlike corporate chains, was happy to stock our book. During the exhibition it became their best-selling non-British Museum publication. This gave us the impetus to carry on. What we wanted to do, and believe we’ve done since then, is publish books that marry text and image – or as we like to put it ‘image and text conceived as one’ – while also paying attention to the book as a physical object...
Poetry, ladies and gentleman: an expression of infinitude, an expression of vain death and of mere Nothing.
These were the first words I read from The Meridian, a speech given by Paul Celan on October 22nd 1960 in the German city of Darmstadt on reception of the Georg-Büchner-Prize, as quoted by Maurice Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster, translated by Ann Smock. The excess of specification is deliberate. On a provincial train twenty years ago I read the words in the dizziness of discovery and recognition. At that time it was fragment of a speech not readily available in full – at least not available to me – found in amongst the dizzying fragments deconstituting Blanchot’s own work. Blanchot understands this enigmatic juxtaposition to mean that “the final nothingness ... occupies the same plane as the expression which comes from the infinite, wherein the infinite gives itself and resounds infinitely.” This would then afford poetry an extraordinary lightness as its social weight evaporates...
Nice: Jenny Attiyeh's recent conversation with Helen Vendler about "blasphemous poet" Emily Dickinson, over on thoughtcast.org.
Larkin once wrote of MacNeice in the New Statesman: ‘When we were young... his poetry was the poetry of everyday life, of shop-windows, traffic policemen, ice-cream soda, lawn mowers, and an uneasy awareness of what the newsboys were shouting. In addition he displayed a sophisticated sentimentality about falling leaves and cigarette stubs: he could have written the words of These Foolish Things. We were grateful to him for having found a place in poetry for these properties.’
From Joe Moran's blog...
Great to see that Love’s Work, by my old teacher Gillian Rose, has just been reissued by NRYB Classics (with a short introduction by Michael Wood, and with Geoffrey Hill's In Memoriam: Gillian Rose as postscript):
Love’s Work is at once a memoir and a work of philosophy. Written by the English philosopher Gillian Rose as she was dying of cancer, it is a book about both the fallibility and the endurance of love, love that becomes real and lasting through an ongoing reckoning with its own limitations. Rose looks back on her childhood, the complications of her parents’ divorce and her dyslexia, and her deep and divided feelings about what it means to be Jewish. She tells the stories of several friends also laboring under the sentence of death. From the sometimes conflicting vantage points of her own and her friends’ tales, she seeks to work out (seeks, because the work can never be complete – to be alive means to be incomplete) a distinctive outlook on life, one that will do justice to our yearning both for autonomy and for connection to others. With droll self-knowledge (“I am highly qualified in unhappy love affairs,” Rose writes, “My earliest unhappy love affair was with Roy Rogers”) and with unsettling wisdom (“To live, to love, is to be failed”), Rose has written a beautiful, tender, tough, and intricately wrought survival kit packed with necessary but unanswerable questions.
One of the enduring mysteries of American literature are a series of three letters drafted by Emily Dickinson to someone she called “Master.” The letters—written between 1858 and 1862—were never sent, and were discovered shortly after Dickinson’s death in 1886. No one knows to whom they were intended. Perhaps the Reverend Charles Wadsworth (they had a correspondence, none of which survives), or Samuel Bowles, the editor of a newspaper in Springfield and a family friend, or a professor named William Smith Clarke. Or perhaps they are not to a person at all, but to God. Or the Devil. For nearly twenty years I’ve taught Dickinson and the Master Letters in my early American literature course, always hoping to come closer to the source of the mystery. Instead, just the opposite has happened. The mystery has deepened. The more I study them, the more we hash them out in class, the longer the shadows grow and deepen over their meaning...
The work of German poet Frederich Hölderlin (1770-1843) has inspired countless poets and philosophers, from Paul Celan to Rainer Maria Rilke to Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. Despite the international renown and respect his hymns and elegies have since earned for their lyric style and innovative approach to Greek myth, his work was not widely celebrated during his lifetime. Diagnosed with a severe case of hypochondria at a young age, he was beset by mental illness for much of his life, living the final decades in the care of a carpenter. Though the details of Hölderlin's life inspired the acute awareness of the lonely human condition that is at the center of many of his poems, there has previously been no serious biography of his life. In Hölderlin, well-known German writer Peter Weiss finally brings to the page the life and times of one of Germany's greatest poets. Weiss explains that he was motivated 'to describe something of the conflict that arises in a person who suffers to the point of madness from the injustices, the humiliations in his society, who completely supports the revolutionary upheavals, and yet does not find the praxis with which the misery can be remedied'. The resulting biography is a powerful celebration of the intense and influential poems of Hölderlin and the life behind them.
The reputation of Stephen Crane’s prose masterpieces ought never obscure his singular contribution to American poetry. Just as Crane’s novels and sketches helped usher in a new mode of impressionistic realism, Crane’s poems are like no one else’s before or since, extraordinary harbingers of the poetic revolution of the early twentieth century. In The Black Riders (1895), War Is Kind (1899), and the best of his uncollected poems, Crane forged his own idiom: abrupt, compact, sharply visual, and brutally indifferent to the niceties of late Victorian verse. These spontaneous utterances—Crane said they came to him “in little rows, all made up, ready to be put down on paper,” sometimes five or six a day—seem now like a prophetic blast of the modernist era that was to follow, as Crane achieves what editor Christopher Benfey describes as his aim in his poetry: “to identify the truth about human existence as he conceives it, a truth that is difficult and austere, and rescue it from what he perceives to be competing and overly facile versions of it.”
In tones alternately sardonic and rueful, Stephen Crane’s poems, although small in scale, address immense problems of cosmic justice and the purpose of human life. They are not quite like anything else in American poetry: uncompromisingly harsh, gnomic, deliberately anti-poetic, and shot through with unforgettable phrases and perceptions. Christopher Benfey’s edition collects all of Crane’s poems and provides an introduction illuminating their biographical and cultural context.
New Stephen Crane: Complete Poems just out with the Library of America. (Read an exclusive interview with volume editor Christopher Benfey (PDF, 65K); read an excerpt, In the desert (PDF, 31K); read an excerpt, Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind (PDF, 36K))
Thanks to Mr Mitchelmore (whose new Tumblr blog of Resonance is very worthy of your time) and to the geoffreyhillzinger blog for bringing my attention to this astonishing podcast of Geoffrey Hill's inaugural lecture on the Keble College website (or use this direct link to the podcast itself).
In a brilliant lecture, Hill quotes Philip Sidney's (1554 – 1586) Defence of Poetry ('since our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it') and brings our attention to the 'radically perjured' nature of poetry. What poetry needs is readers who will read with the care of an R.P. Blackmur and a Lionel Trilling, readers who know, along with Eliot, that poetry is 'twisted and posed' and yet that it always 'adds to the stock of available reality'
Anyway, you don't need a gloss from me, you need to listen to it!
If you want to see Hill in action, this bit of guerrilla filming on YouTube gives a flavour.
And this quote from an interview at The Paris Review is a further wonderful example of Hill's humour and intelligence:
Interviewer: What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.
Geoffrey Hill: Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations... resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.
So much for difficulty. Now let’s take the other aspect—overintellectuality. I have said, almost to the point of boring myself and others, that I am as a poet simple, sensuous, and passionate. I’m quoting words of Milton, which were rediscovered and developed by Coleridge. Now, of course, in naming Milton and Coleridge, we were naming two interested parties, poets, thinkers, polemicists who are equally strong on sense and intellect. I would say confidently of Milton, slightly less confidently of Coleridge, that they recreate the sensuous intellect. The idea that the intellect is somehow alien to sensuousness, or vice versa, is one that I have never been able to connect with. I can accept that it is a prevalent belief, but it seems to me, nonetheless, a false notion. Ezra Pound defines logopaeia as “the dance of the intellect among words.” But elsewhere he changes intellect to intelligence. Logopaeia is the dance of the intelligence among words. I prefer intelligence to intellect here. I think we’re dealing with a phantom, or as Blake would say, a specter. The intellect—as the word is used generally—is a kind of specter, a false imagination, and it binds the majority with exactly the kind of mind-forged manacles that Blake so eloquently described. The intelligence is, I think, much more true, a true relation, a true accounting of what this elusive quality is. I think intelligence has a kind of range of sense and allows us to contemplate the coexistence of the conceptual aspect of thought and the emotional aspect of thought as ideally wedded, troth-plight, and the circumstances in which this troth-plight can be effected are to be found in the medium of language itself...
Details of the upcoming Logic of the World event, celebrating Robert Kelly's 75th birthday, and his fifty years teaching at Bard College, on Saturday May 7th at 32 Second Avenue, New York can be found on the Logic of the World 'blog'. Expect talks, readings and performances by Vyt Bakaitis, Carey Harrison, Michael Ives, Pierre Joris, Nicole Peyrafitte, Peter Lamborn Wilson and many more. All are welcome.
The shortlist for the Poetry Society’s Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry has been announced (Martin Figura for Whistle; Kaite O’Reilly for The Persians; Christopher Reid for Song of Lunch; David Swann for The Privilege of Rain; Katharine Towers for The Floating Man).
This is the second year of the award, and the £5,000 prize is donated by Carol Ann Duffy, funded from the annual honorarium the Poet Laureate traditionally receives from HM The Queen."
The Ted Hughes Award pages of the Poetry Society’s website can be found at: poetrysociety.org.uk/
Interesting post over on Named Tomorrow about the troubadors and how thinking about them can help us think about the work of Jacques Roubaud (with whom there is a fascinating interview over on Bombsite):
In the collection of essays The Troubadors: An Introduction, edited by Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay, Stephen G. Nichols argues that, though there are indeed some salient features of the troubadour lyric which support modern ideas about troubadours by harmonizing with the modern conception of the artist (such as a ‘high seriousness’ of style and the distinctly individualized voices of the poets), the traditional conception of a continuous and homogenized school of poetry is more than a little misleading in its development from ‘early troubadour’ Guilhem de Peitieu, through the golden age of the ‘classic period,’ and then on to the end of the tradition in the 13th century (more...)
If Gertrude Stein is ‘the mother of us all’ then Ezra Pound is our father. A strange couple, for sure, but essential to anyone coming into poetry in the second half of the 20th century with the intention to do more than write the traditional neo-romantic lyric. For me, Pound was there first – or rather right after I had found the Beat writers, Kaufman, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs. His importance was immediately immense, and at least twofold. Starting to read the Cantos I realized that poetry was a life’s work of total dedication, not something one could do on rainy weekends when moved by the spirit. Pound also immediately made clear that a learned poetry, a poetry that includes not only history, but also various sets of knowledges, was not necessarily a boring ‘academic’ poetry. The range of his work was liberating. Everything from everywhere could enter the field of writing, to be energized into that multifaceted, multilayered construct called a poem. Amazing!
Under the Dome: Walks With Paul Celan by Jean Daive (translated by Rosmarie Waldrop) "is an intimate testimony of the poet’s last, increasingly dark years before his suicide. The book tells of the friendship of the author with Paul Celan, their collaborations translating each other, their walks, their conversations, their tensions, their silences, and, discreetly, of Celan’s crises and final suicide in 1970:"
Part memoir, part prose-poem, the book blurs the time of these encounters (1965 -1970) with the present of the author writing, 20 years later, on a Mediterranean island. He thinks and writes about Celan, about the women that led him to the poet, about other encounters that take place under the sign of Celan: Tarkovsky, Marcel Broodthaers.
Encounters, shared conversations, looks, dialogues, silence, angers, rebellion. Paris: the Luxembourg Garden, the Square of the Contrescarpe. And, finally, the questions: who are we, and how can we read the unreadable world.
Christopher Reid will be reading from The Song of Lunch, A Scattering and perhaps others at the Wapping Project bookshop, London, E1W 3SG, this Thursday, 4 March, at 7.30. The space is small; to ensure a place, email firstname.lastname@example.org (via SonofaBook; thanks Charles!)
For those needing some poetry reviews in their lives, the February 2009 issue (number 23, don't you know!) of Gently Read Literature is now up online.
It is not only in Hamlet that Shakespeare presents us with the travails and terrors of madness: it is a recurrent theme in very many of his plays. (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest... well, actually, every play of his that I know some little about reflects on madness in some way; I understand that Shakespeare uses the words 'mad' and 'madness' more often in Twelfth Night than in any other work, so doubtless I should focus my attention there soon.) Sadly -- and this has happened to Dickens too, I think -- Heritage stops us seeing Shakespeare for the troubling and unsettling writer that he manifestly is: "The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say." The times are ever-troubling; and it is always the time to speak in a heartfelt way against the present's deadening cant. These are not sane times; Lear is as untimely as it has ever been.
Shakespeare was writing when what constituted the written English language, what constituted the very tools which he went on to fashion into the best ever expression of those tools, was still particularly unsettled. And how he wields words seems to reflect a view of the self that suggests that what constitutes the self -- fashioned on the stage merely by the playwright's words, of course -- is itself ever-unsettled. Shakespeare’s language is an erratic, antic, fizzing brew which captures, and expresses existentially, a particular take on the non-fixity of the human state. He is a poet not of an age, but for all time because time is written into the ambiguity -- the play -- of his writing, and into the ambiguous, uncertain, unanchored, disarranged characters he sets before us. His language moves -- his characters move -- as we move as time moves...
Fools, as numerous readers have noted, are wont to be wise, and kings can often be very foolish. If he had been fully in his right mind, Lear, surely, should have known that his daughters, Goneril and Regan, were far from virtuous, were far from the ideal caretakers for his Kingdom in his dotage. That is, unless we are to presume that they became so particularly venal only after being gifted a share of their Father's estate -- which pushes our credulity too far, I think, but does reinforce the idea that once Lear's madness is large in the land, other madnesses will be loosed and liberated. Lear's unquieted state is apparent, if not at the absolute moment he begins to divide his Kingdom, certainly at the instant he forgets the previous dutiful, loving nature of his favourite and youngest daughter Cordelia; he certainly fully loses control when her lawyerly response ("I love your majesty According to my bond; nor more nor less") mocks and highlights his frankly ridiculous decision to divest himself of "of rule, Interest of territory, cares of state". (Cordelia, of course, is not quite herself at this juncture either; two suitors await in the wings when she says: "when I shall wed, That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry Half my love with him, half my care and duty.") There is madness in the air, then, as soon as we began to read or watch the play. The moment Gloucester believes of Edmund that his other son Edgar could ever conceive of his murder, we know for sure that the mayhem that has infected Lear's brain will flow through the whole of his realm.
It has been a commonplace since at least Foucault wrote his History of Madness that the pathologising medicalization of several morbid unhappinesses has robbed us of access to the kind of Foolish wisdom that attempts to support Lear and his friends throughout the play in counterpoint to Lear's own self-destructive, but occasionally self-illuminating mania. When a king shows himself a fool it is time for his Fool to show wise counsel. This Foolish, supportive wisdom is echoed in the subplot in which Edgar disguises himself as Tom of Bedlam and guides his now cruelly blinded father to a limited form of spiritual rebirth at Dover Cliff.
My grandmother who died, aged 97, three years ago, quite mad from dementia and the attendant ravages of age, was central to my upbringing -- "The oldest hath borne most: we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long." She is central still to my moral universe. Her socialistic dictum, that you can only sleep in one bed, the concomitant of which is that those who have more than one bed declare themselves to be embedded in excess, remains core to my worldview. Her degenerative illness manifested itself in many tragic and demeaning ways, but two strange Shakespearian wisdoms arose: she confused family members (I was often thought to be my father, and vice versa); and she disremembered the trivial and the everyday whilst clearly recalling events from 50, 60 and even 70 and more years ago. The pattern, I'm sure, is familiar to everyone with elderly and infirm parents or grandparents. Time's tyranny was now, with her, differently manifest. And, of course, came at a high and often distressing, sometimes comic cost.
I do not believe in ghosts, but during my own recent weaknesses, my grandmother has been fully in my thoughts. So fully that I've smelt her cooking in my flat and, on my pillow, the distinctive, beautiful scent of her face and hair -- a memory which must come from my own now distant childhood. I have, in truth, felt much closer to her than I did during the long years of her failing mental and physical health.
Lear is certainly not a play only about madness, it is, speaking colloquially, a mad play. It is such a beguiling work because it is a bit all over the place. Sometimes, Shakespeare's poetry takes him so far into the human that he feels timeless, but many aspects of Lear can't help but foreground the Jacobean. The messy nature of the play, however, also underscores something very human -- humans are not neat! Their emotions, their desires, their hopes and fears are messy, ridiculous, unfounded, grandiose, illogical, perverse. Their madness sometimes allows them to see the world's madness, sometimes reflects that madness, and sometimes is merely an awful, lonely, destructive vortex...
A kind of order is restored to Lear's domain at the end of the play. But the order comes at a terrible human cost, and the order is itself contingent: Lear dies, whilst humbled and grief-stricken, still haughty and half-mad; his favourite Cordelia dead in his arms; Gloucester is blind; and, of course, Goneril, Regan and Edmund's corpses litter the stage. Humankind cannot bear very much reality and is ever loath to admit that death has undone so very many. We are not only born astride our own graves, but arrive wailing into an overcrowded cemetery: "When we are born, we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools." Learning to live with ghosts isn't an option but an essential life skill. Lear leaves an unstated, dying curse in the air: this is ever his kingdom, and we are never out of it.
It is often quite obvious why a particular text speaks to us in a particularly powerful way at a particular time in our lives. As with anything human, however, the reasons might be obvious, but they are not always clear or clearly linear. We might be sad and look to something uplifting; or we might seek to find consolation in something that mirrors our melancholy.
I have no wish to parade the details of my own recent, continuing and sometimes crippling grief here, but I have been thinking a lot about why certain texts have touched me so profoundly of late and why others have left me cold -- left me, that is, how they found me and offered me no way out of my grief nor any way into themselves with the concomitant comfort that that might gift.
My grief has been all the usual and varied colours of sadness and madness. It has been searing, voluptuous, numbing. I foresaw that it would be -- I have been unhappy, unsettled, unbalanced before (who has not?). I did not foresee that, this time, for much of the time that I was most antic and most lost, most peculiarly undone, I would have taken from me (I would, I suppose, take away from myself) that which had always been of such solace to me. Quite simply, I could not read.
The chapter and verse of what caused this unsettling self-loss, all the tawdry trivia that led me to lose one of the things that has always been one of the anchors by which I keep myself tethered and focussed, are of no importance. But I lost much, not least my home (not my house, this is not a tale of financial woe, corruption or swindling) and my "girls" (my beloved dogs, who now live away from me and with my family) and more besides. These are quotidian losses: people lose more than I lost everyday. Indeed, my loss is hardly fully loss: it is a subtraction of excess tied to a form of self-imposed internal exile. These are slender removals, unrare ravages, commonplace catastrophes. They are, in truth, unworthy of comment or further delay.
Moving away, I presumed a royal road, if not to health, at least to non-grief. I hoped some enforced quiet would allow time for restorative reflection and, almost the same but not wholly synonymous, time for reading. But I could not read. I could not settle. I could not sit still. I could not read. (I could, as ever, drink -- and drink I did.) Later, when I could settle, when I could sit still... still, I could not read. I became adept at staring into space. I hadn't realised it was such a skill. I did not realise that it could become something so exceptionally honed. I never imagined it could be preferred over anything and everything; most especially, over reading. But sitting still and staring is not a story. So I shall move past my unmoving, and move on.
In early December, I picked up a cheap paperback copy of "Hamlet". I'd never read "Hamlet" nor even seen it performed. The play has such cultural weight that a presumption of familiarity is attributed to anyone who might by considered by others to be "well read" (or some such). But the play -- the play that Harold Bloom calls a "poem unlimited" -- had almost wholly passed me by.
I'm not sure why I picked it up. I'm not sure why of the countless books in my book-lined, book-overloaded little flat, this tatty copy of "Hamlet" suggested itself as the book that might awaken me to books. But it did. And it did so insistently. You will all, I'm sure, know the outlines of the story of "Hamlet" better than I did. And, surely, unconsciously, half-consciously, I knew that something in the story of Elsinore's Prince would unsettle my settled misery, would unencumber me of grief's sometimes comforting carapace, would make me aware that my own madness was merely the mildest confusion, a pale mania, cousin to mourning but a distant relation worthy of consideration but not the insistent indulgence I had been giving it.
Hamlet runs ahead of Hamlet. And the rest of the players are, at least, two steps further behind. Why does the Prince overmourn a father it seems likely that he loved dutifully and diligently but not excessively? The Fool Yorick gave him more love as a child than did his uxorious, unfatherly father. It was Yorick who played with him ("He hath borne me on on his back a thousand times") and Yorick who received the child Prince's tender love ("those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft"). And why does the Prince bait and berate Ophelia? Unable to love her, it seems, and able only to play with her feelings (played, perhaps, and perturbed, for sure, by his own feelings) and then able to put on a play for her, Claudius and the court, a play that seems to suggest that our several performances of our own, presumed self-same selves are always aware of an audience and are doubly inauthentic -- to our never self-same selves and to those hypocrite lecteurs ever beyond and baying.
Hamlet is a study in the negotiation we each make with the (in)authenticity of our self, and our grief, and with what that self loses even as it becomes more madly itself via the very losses it witnesses and articulates. Further, we witness the loss that articulation itself is -- and non-articulation too: Ophelia's madness leads to her early ruination and death, and to one of the play's most beautiful set-pieces in Gertrude's speech about her drowning. We witness ambiguous double-binds and, binding, rooted ambiguity.
In my own minimal madness, I read "Hamlet" and I heard Hamlet call. Heard him speak to himself, of himself and half-realise he could hardly keep up with even that utterly, definitionally, self-limiting performance. I realised, along with Hamlet, lesserly, that my own disquiet was perforce undone by its (limited) creativity and coherence: the coherence of my incoherence mocked my incoherence. But, better, more simply, I read. I sat still and I read. And I read some more.
It turns out that almost every other line in "Hamlet" one already knows. The play reads like a sourcebook to all that has been written since. Bloom suggests that Shakespeare invented the human (a sense of the secular, self-questioning subject). I doubt that. Hamlet uninvents the (notion of a) coherent self even as the most fully human character the stage has ever seen steps forth -- at the birth of subjectivity, Hamlet, our extreme contemporary, shows the subject to be a kind of fiction. Hamlet validates and allows for the self's self-incoherence; the undoing of the self is the self's own self-making. My local madness will pass. Our general madness will not. Something comforting therein is almost claimed.
Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation with Raoul Vaneigem over at Info Exchange:
HUO: Today, more than forty years after May ‘68, how do you feel life and society have evolved?
RV: We are witnessing the collapse of financial capitalism. This was easily predictable. Even among economists, where one finds even more idiots than in the political sphere, a number had been sounding the alarm for a decade or so. Our situation is paradoxical: never in Europe have the forces of repression been so weakened, yet never have the exploited masses been so passive. Still, insurrectional consciousness always sleeps with one eye open. The arrogance, incompetence, and powerlessness of the governing classes will eventually rouse it from its slumber, as will the progression in hearts and minds of what was most radical about May 1968 (more...)
Tonight, Thursday 1st October, at 7.00 p.m. at the Calder Bookshop (opposite The Young Vic; 51 The Cut, London SE1 8LF), Robert Chandler will be talking about his recent, short biography of Alexander Pushkin. Robert will talk about what he learned while writing his book, and also read passages of Pushkin's poetry and prose in English.
From Steven Fama's blog the glade of theoric ornithic hermetica (don't blame me for the daft name!):
... despite, or maybe because of it ambiguous character given its prose, and somewhat occult status, Cities – a most fantastic work by Robert Kelly – ought to be celebrated as poetry, and more widely read. And thus the mission here today, in the glade: to show and tell a bit about Cities and its prose poetry, and perhaps encourage some to go out a find it (more...)
Steven suggests that Robert's Cities is hard to find -- the limited edition is, but the piece was reprinted in A Transparent Tree which should be a little easier to get your hands on.
Interesting news via Booksurfer: "Cambridge University Library have launched a fund-raising campaign to acquire the archive of First world War poet Siegried Sassoon's personal papers. These include a draft of the controversial anti-war statement A Soldier's Declaration. The archive is comprised of seven boxes of material, among which are 'Sassoon's journals, pocket notebooks compiled on the Western Front, poetry books and photographs, love-letters to his wife Hester, and letters sent to Sassoon by writers and other distinguished figures'."
The Soldier's Declaration, made in July 1917 was "an act of wilful defiance of military authority. Sent to his commanding officer, it states his refusal to return to duty and his belief that the war, which he "entered as a war of defence and liberation", had become "a war of aggression and conquest" which was being "deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it."
The declaration was subsequently read in the House of Commons on July 30, and caused a storm which only abated after fellow officer Robert Graves persuaded the authorities to send Sassoon to Craiglockhart Hospital for the treatment of shell-shock.
The power of Sassoon's statement resonates as powerfully now as when first written:
I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
Every year, as the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature approaches, partisans of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer hold a collective breath, hoping against hope. A win for their man is unlikely for a number of reasons. One is the residual fallout from 1974 when the Swedish Academy gave the prize to two of its own members, Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson. Both were fine writers, but the appearance of nepotism was impossible to avoid. No Swede—no Scandinavian—has won the prize since. There’s also the unfortunate fact that the choice of recipient often seems guided as much by politics as by literary considerations. Tranströmer is not an apolitical poet, but there is nothing about him—no confinement by the state, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Joseph Brodsky, no sense that he speaks for his people, like Heaney or Walcott, no rabid opposition to the United States, as with Pinter—to excite the more narrowly political (more...)
There are poets and there are Poets and the process we know as canonisation makes the former into the latter. It is part of the fun of part of the role of critics and other readers to argue, over time, why the range and skills and strengths of one particular poet should give them a leg-up into the Big League. The ongoing BBC poetry season (which I blogged about last week) has, inevitably, focussed on major writers like Arnold, Donne, Milton, Plath and Wordsworth. These writers are known far beyond poetry reading circles -- and sometimes not even for their poetry (fame is a by-product of canonisation, or is that the other way around?) and so presumably are thought to guarantee some kind of audience. But one name that was new to me (so I presume to others too), and was a surprise to see featured, was Lynette Roberts.
The BBC gloss her thus:
She only published one full collection of poems and her work has been almost forgotten, but her vivid, modern, hot-blooded writing about a Welsh village and her time there during the Second World War reveals an extraordinary woman and a brilliant poetic voice who Robert Graves described in the 1940s as "one of the few true poets now writing." Roberts was brought up in a wealthy family in Argentina but married a writer from Carmarthenshire in 1939 at the outbreak of war and spent the next nine years living in poverty in a Welsh-speaking village. She involved herself in every aspect of village life and despite being accused of being a spy found a fierce passion for the local people and the landscape.
In Owen Sheers' television programme the focus was on Roberts' life and on Poem from Llanybri "an invitation to the young soldier poet Alun Lewis to pay her a visit" to the small village where she lived. She was published by Faber (her first collection, Poems, appeared in 1944 when she was thirty-five) when decisions about poetry there were decided by T.S. Eliot -- a major poet, if ever there was one. He admired her voice; according to Patrick McGuinness's excellent long introductory essay to her Collected Poems the fact that her work "communicated before it made sense" was testament to its strength. Roberts might be a forgotten poet nowadays, but Eliot's interest in her work, the praise of Graves, the fact that Wyndham Lewis drew her portrait and that Dylan Thomas was best man at her wedding suggest that she was once very well regarded. The canonisation process is not a scientific one: good poets get left out.
Of course, it shouldn't worry -- or surprise -- us that the canon creaks and leaks. And finding our own paths to minor writers is far more satisfying than passively consuming the greats. Historically, women haven't faired so well at getting full recognition of their writing talents, and Roberts marooned herself in a Welsh-speaking Welsh village in Wales and wrote in a Modernist style. And then after the war she all but dried up. So, you know, it's her own fault that I hadn't heard of her until last week!
But I have heard of her now and her sense of place, her focus on nature, her ordered prosody with its moments of free enquiry, and her joyous radicalism are all seducing me:
Where whimbrels, redshanks, sandpipers ripple
For the wing of the living. Under tin of earth
And wooden boles where owls break music:
From this killing world against humanity,
Uprise against, outshine the day's sun.
I'm enjoying the BBC poetry season in a fairly uncommitted, pretty kneejerk and vague kinda way. I'm glad that they are doing it, I suppose, and I've been happy to see Owen Sheers talking about Sylvia Plath and (some of) Simon Schama talking about John Donne, and I'm looking forward to Armando Iannucci's progamme on Milton. But I'm afraid that the opinons of Griff Rhys Jones, Michelle Ryan, Alex James, John Sergeant and Cerys Matthews on matters poetical are not something I can bring myself to care very much about, and the whole event has the kind of middlebrow, middle class feel that always seems to surround poetry and will put off as many people as it will, doubtless, inspire. GRJ's wide-eyed enthusiasms and his constant gurning particularly annoy me; is there no room at all, across the whole network, for some serious academics to talk seriously about serious poetry? No? Just the gurning? Right, there you are then!
Nonetheless, poetry is in the air, and my current re-reading of Plath, Eliot, Wallace Stevens and naughty Ruth Padel's useful 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem has, I'm sure, been stimulated by the Beeb's propaganda. Whilst it is right for the Beeb to remind us that poetry can be fun and that poems aren't difficult and dense puzzles that only initiates can fathom and unlock, the programmes have also correctly highlighted the fact that poets pay especial care to and with the language they use, how they place one word against another, and how they go about achieving, in such a concentrated form, a maximum of meaning and emotional punch. Whilst it is good, then, to remember how enjoyable and entertaining poetry can be, we're also being reminded that to get the most out of a poem you need to read it carefully.
This has led me to think: what does it mean to read carefully, to read with care? And what would it mean to read prose is such a way? What would we gain from reading prose as we should read poetry, from reading prose poetically?
The word care comes from the Old English caru or cearu meaning "sorrow, anxiety, grief", but to care for someone or something is to shield them from such, or to accept that they are in such a state, in their "bed of sickness" afflicted by "mental suffering" and requiring our solicitous "protection, preservation or guidance." Being full of cares has morphed, in the word carefully, to being full of care for (care for those who are themselves full of cares). To read carefully is, then, to read solicitously, painstakingly (taking on board the pain, taking on its weight, taking it away from the poem and into our own care), slowly, anxiously desirous of understanding the full weight of meaning of each word. It is the opposite of reading instrumentally, as a means to an end, as merely the means to get to the end of the book, to find the answer but not to observe, to respect, to hold in view and to care for the question that the text always is and is always posing.
Reading carefully is awareness of the cares of words; our habitual carelessness, when reading, shows us that reading's ethical dimension is one that poetry's own intricacy can help to highlight. Reading poetry can help us become better readers especially, perhaps, when and if we remember to read prose poetically. Maybe, then, it is just about worth enduring Gryf's gormless gurning to be reminded of this.
My friend the poet and publisher Micheal Schmidt once told me that he liked poetry that was made up of simple words. "Sex, love, food... the vital things are simple words," he said to me (or something like that). I took his point, and certainly agree that it isn't obscure vocabulary that makes e.g. the late Beckett such a vital (and challenging) read. But should we always eschew the arcane? And is it arcane to write "arcane" when I could have written "difficult"? Wrong to have written "eschew" when I could have said "avoid"? It surely isn't always sesquipedelian ostentation to use the multisyllabic when the monosyllabic would have fitted almost as well - is it? (Surely only a sesquipedelian ever invokes the term sesquipedelian.) Isn't the abstruse sometimes the more accurate? The recondite might not be as recognisable, but it might be the more rigorous; simple might simplify to the point of becoming wrong, complex might be confounding but absolutely correct (now, is "absolutely correct" a pleonasm? Oh, bother!) Isn't the move from "fitted almost as well" to "fitted exactly" the move from a basic to more a complex vocabulary? Well, not always, for sure...
Beckett's Proust was written in 1931, when he was 25 years old, and exhibits the sort of language use one might expect from a precociously gifted academic rather than a poet. The poetry of the later work, when Beckett showed us impotence, futility, loss, has shorn its lexicon of flash, academic jargon: Worstward Ho is far, far from simple, but its difficulty doesn't arise from tricky terminology. His prose, now, is exactly as Michael would like it: simple words directing us towards vital things (and non-things, of course: to the unsayable). Still, between the baby-language of the modern media and the blistering, elementary severity and clarity of Beckett, there does lie a place where being wordy is surely just about ok. I'd guess that even Michael would want me to know the difference between disinterested and uninterested, whilst expecting me to be neither with regard to sex, love, food... and poetry.
Mick Imlah, poetry editor at the TLS, whose own volume of poetry, The Lost Leader, won the 2008 Forward prize for best collection and was shortlisted for this year's TS Eliot prize (won yesterday by Jen Hadfield), has died, aged 52:
The Lost Leader was only the second collection of poetry from Imlah, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in December 2007. His first volume, Birthmarks, was published in 1988 — a full 20 years earlier — to critical acclaim: reviewing it in the Times Literary Supplement, Neil Corcoran described him as "a poet of striking originality and cunning, a genuinely distinctive voice in the murmur and babble of the contemporary". (More...)
Isaac Rosenberg (1890–1918) "was born in Bristol on 25th November 1890, the son of Barnett and Anna Rosenberg, Lithuanian Jews who had emigrated to Britain a few years before. In 1897, in search of better-paid work, the family moved to the East End of London, but their financial difficulties continued. After a brief period at St Paul’s School, St George’s-in-the-East, Isaac was sent to the Baker Street Board School. Here he exhibited a talent for drawing and writing which his sympathetic headmaster encouraged. He also discovered English poetry, which he read with huge excitement." (More...)
Rosenberg was resolved to subject the experiences of the War to a kind of symbolic transfiguration. He wrote in the Autumn of 1916, ‘I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting; that is, if I am lucky enough to come through all right, I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary new conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on.’ For most of the poets who fought in and wrote of the First World War, experience at the front served to tear apart the inherited forms and conventions of Romantic poetry, giving them access to a new harshness and documentary directness, though only rarely impelling them into wholly new poetic languages. Rosenberg too was forced into a new kind of poetry, perhaps even in a sense forced altogether out of the conception of poetry with which he had entered the War. Rosenberg was determined that his life’s work was to be in the following through of epic conceptions and he spent the years before the War bricking himself up in an impossible, unachievable poetic posture. In fact the poetry that he discovered, or was discovered in his situation, was to be a poetry of snatchings and spasms and fragments, of pouncings and fallings short rather than followings through, which it took the savage tedium and distractedness of war to force out. (More...)
My friend Pierre Joris has "been working on finishing/revising/preparing [his] translation of the variorum edition of Paul Celan's Meridian Speech." Pierre is going to post "a few excerpts over the next 3 or 4 weeks" -- so keep an eye out for them. Up on his blog last week he has posted a jpg showing "some fragmentary rewriting around what poetry does..."
Berlin-Hamlet is the sixth volume of poetry by Szilárd Borbély (b. 1964), universally regarded by the Hungarian literary world as one of the leading figures in the first generation of authors to emerge following the end of Communist rule:
To read Berlin-Hamlet is an experience akin to strolling through one of the phantasmagoric shopping arcades described in Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk – yet instead of window displays boasting the remnants of 19th-century European optimism, we pass by disembodied scraps of written text from the far more ghostly realm of early 20th-century modernity: primarily Franz Kafka, yet also including Benjamin himself, or such Hungarian authors as Attila József or Erno Szép. Paraphrases and reworked quotations from the vanished worlds of Europe in the last years before the cataclysm, particularly the German-Jewish intellectual sphere, appear in sharp juxtaposition with images of post-1989 Berlin frantically rebuilding itself in the wake of German unification (more...)
Most poetry in the modern age has retreated to the private sphere, turning its back on the political realm. The two intersect only in such absurd anomalies as the poet laureateship. But whereas Andrew Motion does his bit to keep the monarchy in business, one of the greatest of English poets played his part in subverting it. John Milton, who was born in Cheapside 400 years ago today, published a political tract two weeks after the beheading of Charles I, arguing that all sovereignty lay with the people, who could depose and even execute a monarch if he betrayed their trust (more...)
If you do happen to venture out into the mean streets tomorrow and are anywhere near Manchester then you should know that Clarity or Death!, a new collection of poems by Geoffrey Hill-expert Jeffrey Wainwright (author of the excellent and very useful introduction to poetry Poetry: the Basics and the very fine Acceptable Words: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill), is being launched, Thursday 9th October at 6.30pm, in Lecture Theatre 7, Geoffrey Manton Building, Manchester Metropolitan University. (The event is free, introduced by our pal Michael Schmidt, but for more information please email: email@example.com.)
Lots of new and interesting stuff up at Gently Read Literature, but I'm not sure the blog format really works that well with what they are doing. A good, old-fashioned website would be a better way to go, I think.
Robert Bernard Hass reviews Peter Stanlis's Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher (via Books, Inq.):
On Robert Frost’s 85th birthday, Henry Holt and Company, Frost’s lifelong publisher, threw a party in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria and invited the eminent critic Lionel Trilling to deliver the keynote address. Widely regarded at the time as the champion of high modernist culture, Trilling stunned Frost’s friends and supporters by confessing that he had long disregarded Frost as a purveyor of rural pieties and had only recently begun to admire him for the “Sophoclean” horror he saw in the poems. "I regard Robert Frost as a terrifying poet," he announced. "The universe he conceives of is a terrifying universe." In the wake of the controversy his address instigated, Trilling sent a letter to Frost apologizing for any discomfort his remarks had caused. "Not distressed at all," Frost wrote back. "You made my birthday party a surprise party." Frost then concluded his letter with a sentence that would prove prophetic: "No sweeter music can come to my ears than the clash of arms over my dead body when I am down" (more...)
Apropos the publication of his play Conversation in the Mountains (which Pierre Joris described here on RSB as "absolute awful drivel"), TEV asks John Banville "What first inspired you to write about the meeting between Celan and Heidegger?"
Well, I’ve always been fascinated by the thought of these two extraordinary figures encountering each other—the philosopher who had been a Nazi, the poet whose parents had been destroyed in a Nazi work camp—at the famous “hut” in the Black Forest. The meeting took place on July 25th, 1967, the day after a reading by Celan in Freiburg which Heidegger had attended. The conversation in the hut was not recorded, and neither man gave an account of it. Hans-Georg Gadamer, the philosopher, later reported that Heidegger had told him that “in the Black Forest, Celan was better informed on plants and animals than he himself was.” Besides the flora and fauna, did they talk about the war, about Nazism and Heidegger’s refusal publicly to account for, much less apologise for, his membership of the Party? I could not resist speculating (more...)
Blanchot translator Lydia Davis interviewed by Jason McBride at the Poetry Foundation:
Many of Lydia Davis’s best stories involve problems of language, its insufficiencies and irregularities, how lives can be undone—or remade—by a preposition or pronoun. A sound. Punctuation. Misunderstandings pivot on the misapplication of an adjective or the absence of one. Quite literally, tenses make people tense. The page-long story “A Mown Lawn” was included in Best American Poetry 2001. Its opening lines: “She hated a mown lawn. Maybe that was because mow was the reverse of wom, the beginning of the name of what she was—a woman.”
Davis is almost as well known for her translations (of, among others, books by Michel Leiris, Maurice Blanchot, and Marcel Proust) as for her fiction. William Gass has described translation as reading (“of the best, the most essential, kind”), but for Davis it’s the obverse, a kind of writing: “everything but the invention.” The work of translation is indeed, on one hand, very Davisian labor, a way of creating and engaging with entirely new problems of language as well as new solutions (more ...)
Ooh, more poetry! FSG are running a month-long poetry blog. Highlights include:
- an all new couplet composed by Robert Pinsky and available for download as your ringtone (which strikes me as bonkers!)
- a whole week devoted to poetry in translation, with posts from many of FSG's award-winning translators
- more original audio recorded exclusively for the blog by Frank Bidart, Les Murray, August Kleinzahler, Yusef Komunyakaa, and more
- free, downloadable broadsheets appropriate for brightening up even the most boring cubicle
Declaring 2007 the Year of the Poem, editor Paula Green likens good poetry to any other good gift - something you fall in love with even though it may not be what you thought you wanted. The 25 poems showcased here range from the fiercely personal to the resolutely political with many finding new ground in old mysteries-identity, mortality, distance-along the way. On the basis of this collection, 2007 was clearly a year rich in 'good gifts'.
Best New Zealand Poems has been published annually by the International Institute of Modern Letters since 2001. It aims to introduce readers (especially internationally) to leading contemporary New Zealand poets and to showcase the vitality and range of current writing.
The 79-year-old "poet, publisher, designer, essayist [and] iconographer", and champion of the avant-garde, Jonathan Williams has died. Our thoughts at this sad time are with his partner of forty years, the poet Thomas Meyer.
Jonathan is remembered by Pierre Joris, Mark Scroggins, Ron Silliman, John Latta and citizen times (links originally collected at wood s lot) -- and also in the obituary in our own comment block by Jeffery Beam.
A discussion of poetry's value over on Bookninja:
“Those who want poetry to make things happen forget the last line of [Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats]: that poetry is itself a way of happening.”
As the world’s politicians and corporations orchestrate our headlong rush towards eco-Armageddon, poetry may seem like a hopeless gesture. But if Seferis and Heaney are right, poetry can at the very least be “strong enough to help”.
I think “strong enough to help” is wrong. “Strong”, here, is wrong. Perhaps better would be: weak enough to give pause.
I'm thinking here of something reminiscent of Rowan Williams’ description of God as a nine-year-old spastic child: “This is the solitude of truth, the solitude, finally, of God: God as a spastic child who can communicate nothing but his presence and his inarticulate wanting.”
Not poetry versus nothing, then, but poetry as nothing, the very weakest of glimmers, barely there yet still lambent. Not enough to steer by, for sure, but just enough to recognise that the darkness is not quite all-conquering.
Lola the puppy is at the vet's (getting spayed, god bless her). Stupidly, I'm quite frantic with worry, but the nervous energy at least means I'm cracking on with lots of work...
I've just posted a great interview up on The Book Depository with Janet Gezari, author of the excellent Last Things - Emily Bronte's Poems.
And -- in addition to The Official ReadySteadyBook.com Fanclub -- I've also created the Editor's Corner on Facebook group so you can stay up-to-date with what is posted on my Book Depository blog, Editor's Corner, what reviews I've recently added to The Book Depository site and what is going on behind the scenes at The Book Depository (a facelift for the website if you're curious to know ... and soon -- yay!)
The Mountain *7 blog has fallen for Elizabeth Bishop:
I do seem to have rather fallen for Elizabeth Bishop recently - and not just for the spare warm wisdom of her poetry. After reading a small piece about her somewhere I went looking; and in the gaps between these three anecdotes and in the poem at the end there is something quietly beautiful, worth finding.
For more Bishop, do take a look at the lovely essay, Elizabeth Bishop: Why Is She So Good?, that the poet Anne Stevenson wrote for me for ReadySteadyBook a little while ago:
Bishop herself, in an essay called Writing Poetry is an Unnatural Act (brought to light in the recently published Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box) defined three qualities she most admired in the poetry she loved: accuracy, spontaneity and mystery. Quoting Coleridge, she argued that the best poetry conveys “the most fantastic thoughts in the most correct and natural language”, opposing it to “the tiresome practice of conveying the most trivial thoughts in the most fantastic language.”
Jeremy Noel-Tod briefly reviews Snow Part/Schneepart and Other Poems (1968-1969) by Paul Celan (translated by Ian Fairley) over in the Telegraph (thanks Steve!)
A more colloquial Celan might be imagined - and has been, in America, by Pierre Joris. But the consistent texture of these translations makes for a very satisfying volume to read whole, as Snow Part's psychodrama progresses from privation and sexual surrealism to public poems for troubled times (1968) and, finally, hi-tech apocalypse: "In the entry hatches to truth / the scanners are praying."
This is a great volume but, for me, we need Hamburger's, Fairley's andPierre's translations. Taken together, they help us to read a fuller, truer Celan than we would have in English with just one version.
Mention of Pierre is timely: he very kindly sent me some of his recent publications a couple of weeks ago and I need to report back on them. I'll do that in the next week or so.
The great Michael Hamburger (best known for his translations of Friedrich Hölderlin, Paul Celan, Gottfried Benn and W. G. Sebald) died yesterday, probably due to a heart attack. As soon as I know more, I'll add to this -- wikipedia has more details about the poet, but no details as yet about his death.
Guest Judge Robert McCrum praised the winner saying, "Michael Hofmann's startling, and occasionally magical, rendering of Durs Grunbein's Ashes for Breakfast, a new collection from one of Germany's contemporary masters. A vindication of the translator's alchemy, Hofmann's versions do not smell of the lamp. They look like poems that want to be poems. As translations they feel voluntary, unforced."
Some believe the dream comes from the gods. Some believe that the dream comes from the ancestors. Some believe that dreams come from a part of the dreamer’s self usually remote or removed from consciousness. Some believe that dreams are scraps of memory and fantasy, remnants of the day. All of these beliefs are probably true enough in their ways, and certainly all have been productive of creative and analytic results. Scriptures and assassinations, benzene rings and orphic odes arise from dreams.
What if the dream is something else as well? Not individual, not a message from God or from the archetypes or from the soul. We hear Freudians speak of the language of dream, but what if dream is language, is language the way language is language: systematic, intentional, focused on saying something. What if dream is above all, exactly as language is, social. This is the aspect of the dream that is seldom considered, dream as arising from the speaking back into a community, a community of native dreamers (so to say).
It was to examine the idea that a dream seeks an intended audience outside the dreamer, that the Annandale Dream Gazette was founded years ago. The dreamer dreams towards someone—and that someone is within the community. Thus two goals are achieved by harvesting the night’s dreams and publishing them: the dream may find its intended hearer, and we may gradually come to learn the nature and shape of the community itself, the community into which one dreams.
So: the dream is public. The dream is social. The dream is communication. The dream intends to speak to you. These are the notions to investigate.
A New Zealand Poet Laureate Award is to be established to recognise writers who have made an outstanding contribution to New Zealand poetry (via scoop.co.nz; thanks Bill):
"Poetry is an important part of New Zealand art and culture," said National Library Minister Judith Tizard. "In funding this new award, the Labour-led government is acknowledging the value that New Zealanders’ place on poetry and literature as a part of our national identity," Judith Tizard said.
The New Zealand Poet Laureate Award will be established and administered by the National Library of New Zealand. A Laureate will be selected biennially and receive an award of $50,000.
The Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize "aims to honour the craft of translation, and to recognise its cultural importance." The shortlist for the prize was announced a week or so back; the winner will be announced on the 6th June. Let us hope Michael Hofmann wins for his work on Durs Grunbein's Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems.
Pierre Joris's Nomadics blog is back after a couple of months of silence with details of a new book of poems from Pierre called Aljibar. (For those interested, it can be purchased directly from the publisher, Editions PHI, or, starting in late June, from the Canadian co-publisher, Editions des Forges, or, directly via Ta'wil Productions.)
A few months before his death, Paul Celan described Schneepart as his 'strongest and boldest' book. A response to the turbulent events of 1968 - the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the attempted assassination of a student leader in Berlin - the collection is haunted by images of earlier violence and resistance in a dark European century: the hanging of anti-Hitler conspirators in 1944, the shooting of Rosa Luxembourg in 1919. These are poems of an Ice Age, their terrain the clarity of the limestone alp with its subterranean presence of caves and abysses.
Snow Part is the first translation of Schneepart to be published in English. Its seventy poems were written between December 1967 and October 1968, and published in 1971, a year after Celan's death. To this volume, Ian Fairley adds some twenty posthumously published poems closely linked to Schneepart.
Paul Celan was born in Romania in 1920. In 1938 he visited France as a medical student, returning home in 1939 to study Romance languages and literature. The family was deported in 1942; Celan's parents died in a concentration camp and Celan was conscripted into a series of labour camps until 1944. He escaped, survived a period in a labour camp and eventually settled in Paris where he taught and wrote. After the war he emigrated to Bucharest, where he worked as a translator. He escaped to Vienna in 1947, and settled in Paris in 1948, the same year in which his first collection of poetry was published. In 1958 Celan was awarded the Bremen Literature Prize, and in 1960 the Georg Büchner Prize. He committed suicide in Paris in April 1970.
Via Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence:
The poet-translator Michael Hofmann reviews The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, by Zbigniew Herbert, in the May issue of Poetry. Hofmann idolizes Herbert but eviscerates his latest translator, Alissa Valles, and addresses the question of why John and Bogdana Carpenter, Herbert's longtime translators, were not given the task. Here's a sample of Hofmann's rage:
"Alissa Valles's Herbert is slack, chattersome, hysterical, full of exaggeration, complacency, and reaching for effect. The original (I'm quite sure) is none of those things. This Collected Poems is a hopelessly, irredeemably bad book. The only solution to its problems would be a bulk reinstatement of the old translations. These things matter so much; it would be nice if they made a difference."
Hofmann goes on to say:
"New translation" is never the infallible trump that publishers sometimes wish (do they ever believe it?) when they are driven to play it. Old translations hang around, even when they are notionally superseded or replaced, even when they have been discredited, which again is manifestly not the case here. Constance Garnett's Tolstoy, Scott-Moncrieff's Proust, Edwin and Willa Muir's Kafka, H.T. Lowe-Porter's Thomas Mann—all have their adherents. Notable instances in poetry would include the Rilke of J.B. Leishman or C.F. MacIntyre, and the Cavafy of Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherard. As the song has it, the first cut is the deepest.
The Welsh poetry pamphlet imprint, Rack Press, which was relaunched in January 2006, with pamphlets by John Barnie, Richard Price, and Nicholas Murray, issued three new pamphlet titles earlier this year which are selling well*. These are Eight by Five, epigrams from Peter Dale; Clockwork Scorpion, an excellent first collection from Hazel Frew, and Inconsequences a sequence by Dai Vaughan who is perhaps better known for his innovative fiction. There are still a few copies left and pamphlets can be ordered from firstname.lastname@example.org
*"selling well" in the British poetry market means that a tiny print-run is not being left on the publisher's hands!
Although Christopher Middleton's If From The Distance: Two Essays is Menard's last solo book, I am pleased to say that we have come to an arrangement with Shearsman Books whereby some out of print Menard books will be reprinted in association with them. It is possible there will even be one or two new books. But after 38 years and 160 books, the time has come to move on.
Just prior to publishing their "last solo book", Menard published a second and revised edition of Anthony Rudolf's book on Piotr Rawicz, Engraved in Flesh. (Rudolf's edition and revised translation of Rawicz's masterpiece Blood from the Sky was published by Elliott and Thompson in 2004.)
Photo: Franz Larese, Erker-Galerie, Easter 1971, Burano, Italy
Penn Sound have made available all of Ezra Pound's known recordings.
As you may have noted, April is National Poetry Month over in the US. Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux have launched a National Poetry Month blog called The Best Words in their Best Order. They promise:
... a lot of great stuff planned for the month, including newly recorded audio from many of FSG's frontlist poets. Posts this week include Seamus Heaney, reading both his own poem and one by Ted Hughes; Thom Gunn (recorded in 1996) reading Elizabeth Bishop; and alternate cover art for Frederick Seidel's recent collection Ooga-Booga. Derek Walcott, Paul Muldoon, Yves Bonnefoy (reading in French!), Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and C.K. Williams are all to come.
Alice is the author of Woods etc. and Dart. She is a past recipient of the Forward Poetry Prize and The Eric Gregory Award, and has been short-listed for the T.S. Elliot Prize. She was named one of the Poetry Book Society's Next Generation poets in 2004. This event is hosted by the Writing School, is open to the public, and is free of charge to students and staff of MMU, £5 (£3 concessions) to the rest of us.
A 30th birthday celebration of Manchester-based poetry publisher Carcanet Press (The Sunday Times Millennium Small Publisher of the Year in 2000) and its Editorial and Managing Director, the poet and critic Professor Michael Schmidt FRSL OBE, will take place at 7.30pm tonight at The Grand Gallery, The National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park South, New York. Hosted by the Poetry Society of America, the event will feature an incredible programme of readings by John Ashbery, Eavan Boland, Mark Doty, Marilyn Hacker, Stanley Moss, Kei Miller, Paul Muldoon, Maureen O'Hara, Marie Ponsot, John Peck, Susan Wheeler and David Yezzi. Admission is $10 / $7 for PSA members and students. Visit poetrysociety.org to book tickets.
T.S. Eliot remix MP3s (via disquiet). No. Really:
A 30-minute segment of a piece that Janek Schaefer performed one month ago, on January 20, as part of the Sound:Space sonic arts symposium in England, has been uploaded as the latest entry in the Gene Pool Podcast series of the Digital Media Centre. It achieves its meta state through simple means. A man's voice is heard so that each phrase is spoken first into one ear, then the other, and perhaps a third. That the man is saying things like "present in time future" and "what might have been is an abstraction" and, ultimately, "footfalls echo in the memory" gives the repetitions additional meaning. The poem, of course, is T.S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton." In time, an additional element is introduced, chiming background synthesis that nestles the stanzas (MP3).
For a more raw take on this layering, download the version on Schaefer's audioh.com website (MP3). In that edit, which is just over three minutes, nothing is heard but the voice, playing out thanks to three separate tone arms on his single, ingenious Tri-Phonic Turntable. More info at sound-space.info and digitalmediacentre.org. Full text of Eliot's poem, if you weren't encouraged to memorize it during school, at tristan.icom43.net.
You probably all caught this earlier in the week, but FYI: John Haynes has beaten Seamus Heaney, amongst others, to win the Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) for poetry with his Letter to Patience (published by the small Welsh independent Seren, who coincidentally are my Publisher of the Week over at The Book Depository) set in a small mud-walled bar in northern Nigeria at a time of political unrest. Haynes' collection will now appear on the shortlist for the main award, which will be announced next month.
The Manchester-based poets Linda Chase and Matthew Welton will be appearing at Manchester Metropolitan University on Thursday 18th January 2007. Admission is £5.00 (£3.00 concessions; free to students and staff of MMU) and the venue is: Lecture Theatre 6, Geoffrey Manton Building (opposite the Commonwealth Aquatics Centre on Oxford Road, Manchester city centre, UK).
Linda Chase grew up on Long Island in commuting distance of New York City. She has been a stage costume designer, a Tai Chi teacher and is currently an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. She co-ordinates the Poetry School Manchester and in 2004 started the Arts Council funded Poets and Players performance series. Her first collection These Goodbyes was published by Fatchance Press in 1995, and two further titles have been published by Carcanet: The Wedding Spy (2001) and Extended Family (2006).
Matthew Welton was born in Nottingham and currently lives in Manchester. He is course leader for the Creative Writing degree at Bolton University, editor of Stand magazine, and a director of the Manchester Literature Festival. His first collection, The Book of Matthew, won the 2003 Jerwood-Aldeburgh prize.
This event is hosted by the Writing School and is open to the public. A selection of Linda's and Matthew's books will be available to buy before the reading from our special Blackwell's stall. Get your copies signed by the poets.
A couple of weeks ago, a reader wrote asking me where JM Coetzee took the quote "little enough, less than little" from in his novel Disgrace. It sounded like a corruption of Beckett to me, but I didn't know. Well, I'm informed today that the Coetzee line is taken from (inspired by) 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature-winner Wislawa Szymborska's The End and the Beginning. Her lines read:
Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
As for Wislawa Szymborska, I'm afraid I got nothing! Shamefully, I'd never heard of her until my correspondent suggested to me that she was probably the source of Coetzee's quote. Faber have a Poems - New and Collected, 1957-97, Norton have Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska, so one of these will no doubt be my next stop. If anyone reading can tell me more, shoot.
Nonrequired Reading is unlike conventional collections of reviews in that the books she chooses, with few exceptions, are unabashedly unliterary. For decades Szymborska has written about books for newspapers in her native Poland, but she chooses her subjects from the sad stacks of rejects that accumulate in a book editor’s office – popular science and how-to books, celebrity biographies and volumes with titles such as The Encyclopedia of Assassinations, Wallpapering Your Home and The Private Lives of Three Tenors. Szymborska says she tried writing conventional reviews: “…that is, in each case I’d describe the nature of the book at hand, place it in some larger context, then give the reader to understand that it was better than some and worse than others.” Then, happy woman, she realized she had little interest in or gift for such writing.
At school, if another child encouraged me to do something stupid, doubtless a teacher would upbraid me by saying something like, "Well, if Charlie told you to put your hand in the fire would you do it?" Of course, one was supposed to be chastened: no, certainly one wouldn't place one's hand in a fire on Charlie's behest. And, yes, I'll admit, what I've just done was probably almost as stupid: I'll consider myself rebuked. Sorry, Miss.
As I've got older, however, there are one or two people whose judgement I trust so implicitly that, yes, if they told me to put my hand in the fire, I just might.
Peter Hawkins' knowledge of and passion for Dante shines through every page of this elegantly written book. He writes, moreover, with passion and precision. This is not only a superb introduction to Dante, but a work which will move and enlighten those thoroughly steeped in a poet who remains, seven centuries after his death, still very much our contemporary.
Well, last week was a good one. A real challenge to write those long pieces each day for the Poetry Foundation (the permalink to my pieces is, as yet, only to Monday's article and it seems to have killed the warm comments I got too! Hopefully, the PF folks can get this remedied asap). I think, in the New Year, I'll try to do the same here on RSB. Not on a daily basis, mind, I couldn't keep that up, but I'll at least try to get in a weekly essay of about 1000 words. What would make most sense is tying the essay together with one of my Books of the Week, but, seriously, I'm just not that organised.
Sorry! More self-pimping: my "guest-blog" spot at the Poetry Foundation continues. Yesterday, I had a piece on Roy Fisher, and later today a post on Tomas Tranströmer should see the light of day. I'll have more to say about Robin Robertson's new versions of Tranströmer's The Deleted World (Enitharmon) here next week (I likes it!) In the meantime, please read the Poetry Foundation stuff -- and please leave comments! Thanks!
All this week I'll be "guest-blogging" at the US Chicago-based Poetry Foundation. I'll be writing a longish (7/800 word) piece each day in their Journal (not sure about an individual RSS feed -- I'll check). My first piece, on Elizabeth Bishop, should be up later today. (I'll update this post when it goes live.)
Update: it's up!
Further update: the Journal's RSS feed
To celebrate the (UK) publication of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts and Fragments, edited by Alice Quinn (Carcanet), there will be an Elizabeth Bishop Celebration on Friday 24th November (in Manchester Central Library, Committee Room 2nd floor 1-2pm -- the event is free).
Michael Schmidt will talk about Bishop and her work, there will be audio recordings of Bishop reading, and Manchester writers (like me!), students and fans of her work will contribute by reading some of her poems aloud to the gathered masses.
Jonathan Ellis offers evidence for a redirection in Bishop studies toward a more thorough scrutiny of the links between Bishop's art and life. The book is less concerned with the details of what actually happened to Bishop than with the ways in which she refracted key events into writing: both personal, unpublished material as well as stories, poems, and paintings. Thus, Ellis challenges Bishop's reputation as either a strictly impersonal or personal writer and repositions her poetry between the Modernists on the one hand and the Confessionals on the other.
Although Elizabeth Bishop was born and died in Massachusetts, she lived a life more bohemian and varied than that of almost all of her contemporaries, a fact masked by the tendency of biographers and critics to focus on Bishop's life in the United States. Drawing on published works and unpublished material overlooked by many critics, Ellis gives equal attention to the influence of Bishop's Canadian upbringing on her art and to the shifts in her aesthetic and personal tastes that took place during Bishop's residence in Brazil during the 1950s and 1960s. By bringing together the whole of Bishop's work, this book opens a welcome new direction in Bishop studies specifically, and in the study of women poets generally.
Philip Oltermann reviews Ashes for Breakfast by Durs Grünbein (translated by the wonderful Michael Hofmann; the Faber version reviewed here only has the English translations, the FSG edition comes, more satisfyingly, with the German originals on facing pages and is much the better for it). Oltermann has mixed-feelings about the collection, but seems just about generally positive:
In English, Grünbein in public-intellectual-mode is as much of a mouthful as in the German - but the more colloquial passages never quite seem to get off their teutonic stilts. At times, Hofmann's phrases ring with the triumphalism of the accomplished bilinguist rather than with their proper music ... This is not to say that Ashes for Breakfast isn't an overall success. When the teeth of Hofmann's vocabulary grip into the material of Grünbein's ideas, these poems can develop an irresistible emotional pull. Greetings from Oblivion City has the popular appeal of a Radiohead lyric, Portrait of the Artist works as a riveting, veiled historical epic and In the Provinces is a stoically comic cycle of five poems about different species of roadkill.
The Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard took a mordant glee in outraging his countrymen. The Austrians have a name for such troublemakers. Bernhard, they said, was a Nestbeschmützer, a man who fouls his own nest. But for Bernhard, the nest had already been fouled, and long before ... The poems are quiet, almost whispery in tone, displaying none of the virtuoso antics of the prose: no glittering cascades of insult, no manic swerves from tenderness to savagery. The shock comes from their unabashed religious fervor. Though they sound like prayers "to the unknown God," they are, nevertheless, prayers, by turns meditative, anguished, and almost perversely devotional.
(Thanks to Dave Lull for the link.)
Jeffrey Wainwright (author of the excellent Acceptable Words: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill) writes to tell me that Roy Fisher is reading at Manchester Metropolitan University (in the Geoffrey Manton Building, on Oxford Road, Manchester, opposite the Aquatics Centre; £5/£3 concessions) this Thursday coming at 6.30pm:
Roy Fisher was born in Birmingham in 1930 and is not only one of England’s senior poets but one of the very best. He has published many books of poetry in a wide variety of forms and formats. His work includes major long poems such Wonders of Obligation and the epic-scale works A Furnace and City. His interests and influences range through American modernism, painting and jazz – he has been a professional jazz pianist – and his myriad subject-matter includes the subtlest of transitory perceptions, the post-industrial world and the foibles of the contemporary arts scene. In all his topics and styles he is witty and acute. Asked to describe his perfect reader he replied: "she would be a woman who would nose around the back of a row of lockup garages to see what she could see, without making a song and dance about it". His collected poems The Long and the Short of It: Poems 1955-2005 is published by Bloodaxe Books. This reading, his first in the North-West for many years, will be a major occasion.
Very short notice I know, but today, between 1-2pm, in the Committee Room, 2nd Floor, Manchester Central Library (in partnership with Bloodaxe) there is a free poetry reading featuring Clare Shaw and Jackie Kay.
I won't be at the poetry, but tonight I will be over at Manchester's Common bar, attending the midweek Licktronica event, where the superb Helios will be playing live. Helios's new CD Eingya is gorgeous, wonderful, fabulous ... As is just about everything else on the peerless Type label.
From Eleanor (at Carcanet):
The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. has launched a wonderful new Walt Whitman website, to coincide with their current exhibition, One Life: Walt Whitman, a kosmos ... [includes an] online gallery of Whitman portraits ... [and] fascinating recordings of the poet reading America and Leaves of Grass.
Local poets, including Matthew Welton, Linda Chase, Barry Wood, Michael Schmidt [and me!], will read their favourite O'Hara poems to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the poet's death in 1966. There will also be a video screening of O’Hara reading his poem Lana Turner has Collapsed, from the Channel 4 series Modern American Poets, produced by Colin Still.
I'm reading The Critic which has me in the highly enviable position of being able to say penises in public: "You lurk there / in the shadows, meting out / conversation like Eve's first / confusion between penises and / snakes." What will me poor mam say!?
Carcanet publish O'Hara's Selected Poems and 'Why I'm Not a Painter' and other poems. O'Hara's work also features alongside that of John Ashbery, James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch in The New York Poets: An Anthology.
The magazine which John Ashbery described as "the most informative and entertaining poetry journal in the English-speaking world," the ever-excellent PN Review, is thirty years old. Andrew Motion, the British Poet Laureate, recently recalled having his first poems published in the magazine as a student in 1975, and praised PN Review's remarkable history as one of the most engaged and intellectually rigorous literary magazines of our time.
The Arvon International Poetry Competition 2006 is now open. The competition has been running for twenty-five years and first opened in 1980 with Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin amongst the judges. There is no restriction on line length or subject -- all poems are welcome. The deadline is September 15th 2006. Entries cost £7 for the first poem and £5 for each poem thereafter. Prize money ranges from £500 to £5000. I'm always rather wary about competitions that you have to pay to enter, but the money raised, I'm told, goes towards Arvon's grants for writers programme.
Last Thursday, I mentioned that I'd been reading Louis Zukofsky's Prepositions + : The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky. Wanting to read more, I asked the good folk at Johns Hopkins University Press if they could send on to me Zukofsky's Complete Short Poetry and his magnus opus A. They've just got back to tell me: "Unfortunately, the Zukofsky books went Out of Print in February." That's rubbish! Readers who want to read more thus only have the recent Library of America Selected Poems. I'll seek this out (it is in a box somewhere; half-lost since the recent move) and review it asap.
This, The Discourse of Nature in the Poetry of Paul Celan: The Unnatural World by Rochelle Tobias, is, according to Henry Sussman, a "major achievement in the study of Paul Celan's poetry, above all in the field of close exegesis and the cultural ethics and politics implicated by close reading" and it looks very interesting:
Paul Celan has long been regarded as the most important European poet after 1945 but also the most difficult owing to the numerous references in his work to his personal history and to a cultural heritage spanning many disciplines, centuries, and languages. In this insightful study, Rochelle Tobias goes a long way to dispelling the obscurity that has surrounded the poet and his work. She shows that the enigmatic images in his poetry have a common source. They are drawn from the disciplines of geology, astrology, and physiology or what could be called the sciences of the earth, the heavens, and the human being. Celan’s poetry borrows from each of these disciplines to create a poetic universe — a universe that attests to what is no longer and projects what is not yet.
This is the unnatural world of Celan's poetry. It is a world in which time itself takes physical form or is made plastic. Through a series of close readings and philosophical explorations, Tobias reflects on the experience of time encoded and embodied in Celan's work. She demonstrates that the physical world in his poetry ultimately serves as a showcase for time, which is the most elusive aspect of human experience because it is based nowhere but in the mind. Tobias's probing interpretations present a new model for understanding Celan's work from the early elegiac poems to the later cryptic texts.
Last night, I read Charles Bernstein foreword to Prepositions + : The Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky (Wesleyan University Press -- Prepositions is part of The Wesleyan Centennial Edition of the Complete Critical Writings of Louis Zukofsky).
Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978) was one of the Objectivist poets, a group of second-generation, mainly American Modernists (Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Lorine Niedecker and the British poet Basil Bunting) who emerged in the 1930s heavily influenced by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams (the only poet to be published as both an Objectivist and an Imagist poet). Bernstein's essay is only very short, but it’s a useful piece for situating Zukofsky. In it he quotes Zukofsky's famous statement that:
... a case can be made out for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words a and the: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve. Those who do not believe in this are too sure that the little words mean nothing among so many other words."
Zukofsky's provocation made me think, again, about language, poetry and truth: issues far too big to say much of worth about here and now. But the care with which a good poet tends to language, even to the tiniest words, is instructive. Between the definite article and the indefinite article there is an entire universe; infinity lies between a and the.
I attended a wonderful lecture last night, given by Michael Schmidt on Coventry's finest son, the poet Philip Larkin. I'm not a huge fan of Larkin, but Michael did a wonderful job at almost persuading me to reread him properly. Next Monday (3rd July), Michael will be giving another lecture, this time on the Poets of the New York School (see the Carcanet anthologies The New York Poets (John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler) and New York Poets II: from Edwin Denby to Bernadette Mayer). The lecture will take place at the Tai Chi Village Hall (behind the house at 163 Palatine Road, Manchester, UK; £7, £5 concessions). To reserve places, email Linda Chase.
RSB contributor (and my good friend), the poet, publisher, academic and critic, Michael Schmidt has been awarded the OBE: "For services to Higher Education and to Poetry". Huge congratulations Michael!
A fascinating read this (originaly presented at the Princeton Conference on Magic and Cinema back in March): ADAMAGICA: Magic and Iconolatry in Film by the poet Robert Kelly: "Magic is what the mind comes back to time and time again to right itself."
For those interested to know more about Robert ... well, you can wait until our forthcoming interview or -- and I'd advise this for now -- you can read this wee extract from an interview with Robert in the Modern Review (the site says this is just an excerpt from the 44-page interview in the magazine itself, but I've not seen a copy of it yet): "So that’s what poetry could be. All the pleasures I had from reading, fantasizing, learning, music: all in this one strange thing, this alien, incomprehensible, but immensely sensual event."
I don't know the work of Donald Hall. Indeed, until yesterday, I'm not sure that I had even heard of him. Certainly, the name hadn't stuck. Anyway, the New England poet succeeds Ted Kooser, a Nebraskan writer, as the new US poet laureate: "Solitude, ritual, and a work ethic that matches the granite of his New Hampshire home. These are the elements that frame the poetics of Donald Hall, who was named the 14th poet laureate of the United States on Wednesday, June 14, 2006." (says Arthur Allen):
The position has existed since 1937, from 1937 to 1985 as “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress,” and from 1986 on as “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.” Poets appointed by the librarian of Congress have included Robert Lowell,Elizabeth Bishop, Conrad Aiken, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, and Joseph Brodsky.
And the recently departed Stanley Kunitz. He was the 10th laureate, I believe. Publisher Norton were kind enough to send on a copy of The Collected Poems which I'll get around to reviewing some time soon I hope.
When I interviewed the philosopher Simon Critchley a wee while back he mentioned the poetry of Geoffrey Squires. Diligent as I am, I wrote to his publisher Wild Honey Press to get a review copy of his Untitled and Other Poems but, frustratingly, they never responded to my email. (I note today that Geoffrey's Twenty-one Poems was published by our friends at the Menard Press, but that was back in 1980, so that collection is no doubt well out of print. I'll check.) Anyway, Geoffrey has just written to let me know that a new long poem of his, Lines, has recently been published as a free downloadable ebook by Shearsman.
There is an interview with Edward Hirsch over at his publisher's website (Harcourt). I started reading Hirsch's Poets Choice (one of my Books of the Week) last night and it really is a lovely book. Chunky and nicely produced, Hirsch gives a bit of an introduction to each of his chosen poems and then presents the poem itself. I'm always a sucker for a bit of a context to anthologised poetry; and Hirsch does a good job here.
Sylph Editions have just sent on a copy of the absolutely gorgeous, sumptuously produced book: Ten Poems from Hafez (translated by Jila Peacock). Lovely to see such a fine edition of medieval Farsi poetry.
Hafez (d. 1390) is Iran’s premier and most quoted lyric poet. His status in his own country, and his universal appeal, can be compared with that of Shakespeare in the English-speaking world. The painter and printmaker Jila Peacock has chosen ten love poems from Hafez and following the footsteps of the great Islamic calligraphers, has produced ten shape-poems that sit by her own translations from the Persian. Accompanied by Robert Hillenbrand’s erudite introduction and a foreword by Parvin Loloi, this book is an exceptional achievement, a celebration of the marriage between word and image.
James Reidel's translation of Thomas Bernhard's poems In Hora Mortis / Under the Iron of the Moon (PUP) is out any moment now. Franz Wright, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, endorses the book thus:
Already recognized as a champion of neglected genius, Reidel continues his admirable project by providing American readers with the early verse works of the modern prose master, Thomas Bernhard. This is a beautiful and necessary book. The translations themselves immediately strike me as both accurate and inspired, and are accompanied by a highly readable and erudite introduction which vividly brings to life the young Bernhard and his efforts (alongside older contemporaries such as Krolow, Eich, Bachmann, and Celan) to recreate for literary and moral purposes the great language the Nazis destroyed.
Frustratingly, I can't get hold of a review copy of Alice Quinn's Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box (uncollected poems, drafts and fragments by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop) published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux for love nor money!
You'll recall, that there has been much fuss about the book recently (mostly due to Helen Vendler's comments which our very own Michael Schmidt rejected in his editorial for PN Review no.169) so I am very keen to read and review it.
Never mind: the good folk at Bloodaxe have sent on their Elizabeth Bishop: Poet of the Periphery, which you'll note is one of my Books of the Week (along with Douglas Oliver's Arrondissements), which looks like it will quench my Bishop thirst just for now.
Issue three of Signals, the contemporary poetry magazine, is out now featuring new work by Sarah Law, Peter Riley, Peter Robinson, George Szirtes and including an interview with Andrew Duncan. Also features a review of Geoffrey Hill's A Treatise of Civil Power.
American War Poetry spans the history of the nation. Beginning with the Colonial Wars of the eighteenth-century and ending with the Gulf Wars, this original and significant anthology presents four centuries of American men and women-soldiers, nurses, reporters, and embattled civilians-writing about war.
American War Poetry opens with a ballad by a freed African American slave, commenting on a skirmish with Indians in a Massachusetts meadow. Poems on the American Revolution follow, as well as poems on “minor” conflicts like the Mexican War and the Spanish-American Wars. This compact anthology has generous selections on the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnamese-American War, but it also includes an unusually large offering on American participation in the Spanish Civil War. Another section covers four hundred years of conflict with Native Americans, ending with poems by contemporary Indians who respond passionately and directly to their difficult history. The collection also reaches into current reaction to American involvement in Latin America, Bosnia, and the Gulf Wars.
I mentioned Douglas Oliver's Whisper "Louise" about a month or so back here on the blog and now Edmund Hardy is proposing a "week-long series of posts on the work of Douglas Oliver by divers contributors" to be hosted over at intercapillaryspace from Monday 24th July to Sunday 30th July. Hopefully, I'll be contributing. Contact Edmund if you're interested in writing a post or want further information.
Douglas Oliver information: see John Hall's review of Whisper 'Louise' at Jacket. Books in print: Whisper 'Louise' (Reality Street); Arrondissements (Salt); A Salvo for Africa (Bloodaxe); Penniless Politics (Bloodaxe) and Selected Poems (Talisman House).
The American poet Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) has died, this Sunday just gone. Lots of references and links over at wood s lot.
For a writer whose working life spans thirteen Presidents and perhaps as many literary zeitgeists, Kunitz's steadfastness is all the more extraordinary. No poet of stature has proved less quixotic or less profligate, and it's hard to think of many who have paced themselves so well. Few have been as resistant to the long poem and the epic conception, those bogeys that have devoured so many American poets, and perhaps only the famously fastidious Bishop showed any greater immunity to fever dreams of productivity. It would be a mistake, however, to equate this reticence with diffidence. What Kunitz's work lacks in glamour and commotion it compensates for in serious and decisive purpose. That no shelf will ever groan under Kunitz's collected poetry is a measure of his daunting ambition as well as of his scrupulous restraint.
Always a pleasure when an issue of Poetry magazine lands on the mat. The April issue has just arrived here (as you'd expect, it takes a wee while to get over here to sunny Manchester!) and is a special Translation issue in celebration of America's National Poetry Month. New translations of Stéphane Mallarmé, Bertolt Brecht, Wislawa Szymborska, Jorge Luis Borges, Rainer Maria Rilke, and others by Seamus Heaney, Richard Wilbur, Michael Hofmann, Aleksandar Hemon, W.S. Merwin, Dana Gioia, A.E. Stallings, Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky, Marilyn Hacker and Carolyne Wright. Each translated poem is accompanied by a small (couple of hundred words) article by the translator explaining how and why they've made the decisions they've made when re-wording and re-working the original work. It's really fascinating stutt and there is some wonderful poems collected here. Reminded me of the very fine issue of Agenda (Translation as Metamorphosis; Vol.40 No.4) that came out back in 2004.
Tim Morris's Wallace Stevens: Poetry and Criticism has just arrived from the excellent Salt. In his introduction, Morris states that there are a surfeit of books of Stevens criticism, and almost apologises for his effort. Well, from the first few pages that I've read (it only landed chez RSB yesterday), it seems pretty solid to me. The only other Stevens criticism I've read is Helen Vendler's Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire which is as good as you would expect from the Grand Dame of American poetry criticism, but it's the The Letters of Wallace Stevens that, for me, offer the most insight.
I should have mentioned this yesterday: on Monday, all the 2006 PEN Literary Award Winners were announced. The PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, judged by Pierre Joris, went to Wilson Baldridge for his translation of Recumbents by Michel Deguy (Wesleyan University Press), a book I've championed before on RSB.
In his citation, he writes: “Recumbents is a work whose rhetorical and philosophical complexities make a successful translation a true tour de force. Exquisitely balancing poetic sensibility and philosophical insight, Wilson Baldridge has accomplished this feat through superb craftsmanship, an accurate ear for the complex music of the French original, and the depth of scholarship indispensable for the project. With its wide-ranging annotations, comprehensive introduction, and an afterword by Jacques Derrida (also translated by Baldridge), this bilingual volume is everything a poetic translation should be."
I have always felt that much of the best poetry is funny. Who can read Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” for instance, and not feel welling up inside a kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh? I suppose there has got to be some line where one might say about a poem, “That’s too much nonsense,” but I think it is a line worth tempting. I am sure that there is a giggly aquifer under poetry.
Both Ken Edwards, publisher behind Reality Street Editions, and Pierre Joris have brought to my attention to a very sad state of affairs: Arts Council England North East has withdrawn all funding from Colpitts Poetry - with immediate effect.
Colpitts boasts an unbroken tradition going back to 1975 and has claims to be considered one of the most important live-reading venues in the UK. This blow has come entirely without warning just as we were preparing to celebrate happily the culmination of our thirtieth-anniversary year, and obviously we feel galled that the tree, instead of being garlanded, now has the axe swinging around its base ready to bring thirty years crashing to the ground. But as poets who've read there have attested, it is a living history and not some abstract "heritage" that powers Colpitts as a vital space in which poets perform, promote and sell their work, network, collaborate and test their ideas in the company of a receptive and alive audience. Colpitts is its poets and its audience as much as its venue and its organisers, and this decision if allowed to stand will hit hard, by no means just locally. But it will also hit the region hard if Durham loses its place on the poetry map -- we're not exactly over-blessed with arts provision and funding in the area between Tyne & Wear and the Tees
[P]oets -- average income £7K per annum! -- have long since sold most of their books at readings rather than in bookshops, yet now they are to be further denied this opportunity in the North-East, denied the income that comes from giving readings, and denied audiences that are their lifeblood -- not just in an economic sense but in the sense that it's through communication and creative exchange with an audience that poets are able to try and strengthen their work, to the enrichment of both parties.
The Colpitts committee (Jackie Litherland, Michael Standen, Jo Colley, Patty O'Boyle, Ian Horn and Michael Ayton) have decided to fight this decision and have asked that word be spread. For more information, email email@example.com. To oppose the decision please email:
Please copy into your email firstname.lastname@example.org (Gary is Head of Literature at London HQ).
The has been much fuss recently over Helen Vendler's comments, in The New Republic, concerning Alice Quinn's Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box (uncollected poems, drafts and fragments by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop). I like Helen Vendler. I like her uncompromising, New Critical perspective and the rigour of her reading, but she is wrong to see Alice Quinn's book as a "betrayal" of Bishop. Michael Schmidt, in his editorial for PN Review no.169, says:
Readers of Bishop’s poetry are interested in the poems, in how they work, in how they came about. It is an arrogation on Vendler’s part to speak for the poet who, in leaving her papers to an archive, spoke with sufficient, quiet eloquence, herself. To limit access to Bishop’s working, to reserve the progressive spectacle of her creative process to academic scrutiny, to preserve it from the poet’s common readers, is a very high-church thing to do.
Intercapillary Space is a new collective poetry blogzine mixing material "written by regular contributors with other pieces invited or submitted." One such regular contributor is Edmund Hardy whose name you may recognise as the author an excellent review of Gert Hofmann's Parable Of The Blind which I recently linked to. Also worth reading is Melissa Flores-Bórquez's recent IS post "A Nocturnall": Donne, Monk, Josipovici.
Matchbox is a new Manchester-based poetry magazine. Each issue is devoted to one poet and contains some of their poems, and a free gift, in a matchbox. The first issue is by Togara Muzanenhamo whose new collection, The Spirit Brides, will be coming out this summer from Carcanet. The matchboxes are available now, in Manchester, in Blackwell's, the Cornerhouse, Herbivores Cafe, The Basement and via subscription through the Matchbox website. Future issues are to include Bill Griffiths, Ray DiPalma, Lisa Jarnot and Peter Inman.
My Poem of the Week this week is the often anthologized No Swan So Fine, first published in 1932, by Marianne Moore (1887-1972). The poem suggests that a china swan, symbolising art, has outlasted and outlived Louis XV of France ("The king is dead.") Now, I was going to attempt a quick reading of the poem (as I did last week with John Burnside's Septuagesima), but I don't think I'll get a chance. Anyway, this below, by Pamela White Hadas, does a very tidy job:
No Swan So Fine asserts that there is no live swan, "no swan, / with swart blind look askance / and gondoliering legs, so fine" as the china one among its finely sculptured and polished flowers in the Louis XV candelabrum. The last half-line of the poem reads, simply and abruptly, "The king is dead." A way of life that went along with the king's life is also dead. The swan is alive only insofar as art is, but dead in its extravagant finality of form. Insofar as kings represent unprogressive ceremony and permanent superfluity, the swan and the king share a fate. The poem is a compression of an important ambivalence toward animals petrified as art. This swan appeals to Marianne Moore with its delicacy, elegance, and perfection; it appeals more than a live swan with "gondoliering legs." Yet, attractive as it is to her, she must admit that it is dead; it represents, more than a way of life, a royal fatality. The attraction is vital and fatal.
Poet Thomas Meyer's Coromandel is now online. (And a CD is available from Brown Roux, 17 Stuyvesant Street #16, New York, NY 10003, for $15 US dollars (including p&p).)
Start in the middle. Speak to the heart. Touch the quick flesh of words. Explore the bardo of the instant. Bring the present moment suddenly, startlingly, to life. Thomas Meyer does that: he wakes us up to ourselves, and makes us wonder why we had been so long asleep. Coromandel is an urgent message from another world – but which one? The deities within us speak and become words on a page: swooning, we follow.
For those of us who only read fluently in one language the epigraph, in Spanish, at the head of John Burnside's poem Septuagesima, is the second hurdle we face after the title of the work itself. Septuagesima is the name given to the third from last Sunday before Lent in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. Known among the Greeks as Sunday of the Prodigal, the title is taken from the Gospel of Luke's famous The Parable of the Prodigal Son, (chapter 15, verses 11-32), which customarily is read on the day. Understanding this, we are immediately tuned to the fact that this may well be a religious poem or a poem where knowing some of the religious connotation or background or resonance of the title is probably of some importance. A poet is not going to choose such a title, and append such an epigraph, carelessly.
Jorge Guillén y Álvarez (1893–1984) was born in Valladolid in Spain and was a member of the so-called Generation of '27 poets. The quote in the epigraph is from Guillén's poem Dawn. In English translation it would read something like: "Names. / Above, below they cover the essence / of things." These words set the theme of the coming poem and are echoed both right at the start of Burnside's verse ("the day before Adam came / to name the animals") and towards the end ("before the names, / beyond the gloss of things).
The first tercet of Septuagesima again tells us that God is in the house - "I dream of the silence / the day before Adam came". And the second stanza's "God's bright fingers" fully confirms the hint of the title, whether we know anything about Burnside's faith or not, that this is indeed a religious poem. The poet dreams of the earth's silence before God had made mankind, way before the events of the Fall. Looking out onto "a winter whiteness" he wonders would that time then be in any way like this time now. Is this light, bright silence in any way like the silence "before Adam"? If it is (and the hint is that it is "like this, perhaps"), what does that tell us?
We read that the "gold skins" of the newly created, at the time of their newness, were "still implicit with the light". The poet seems to be suggesting that the creatures of creation were themselves formed out of this (Divine) light and the "gold" brings our attention to how precious that creation is. I find myself reminded of William Blake's God reaching down, out of the clouds, almost pure light. Perhaps, in times of quiet contemplation, we can get "beyond the gloss of things" by seeing in the day's quotidian light the very Divine light from out of which it was separated? "[B]eyond the gloss of things" is the Divine. And it is all around us; a patina on our fellow creatures; an ever-present companion - who, asked TS Eliot, "is the third who walks always beside you?"
Philsophers have long argued about how to discover the thing itself, language being a bridge to the thing described but, finally, a barrier to it: language merely refers. Burnside suggests that we are "sometimes / haunted by ... the forms / we might have known / before the names". Before the corruption of language, just after God first separated the light from the dark, before the animals were named, the forms of things simply were. In their quiddity, their thing-ness still "haunts" us (note the repetition of "haunting" and "haunted"). But why "haunt"? It seems an oddly non-Christian word (ghosts and ghouls haunt, not the Christian God).
We are sometimes "haunted by the space / we fill". As when we enter a huge, cavernous church or, more simply, just a cave. And sometimes haunted "by the forms / we might have known": the people we might have become or loved; the paths not taken. At the very least, "haunt" suggests the supernatural. It brings our attention to the unnaturalness of God, perhaps even to something frightening about Him. But, despite this one word, the tone of the poem is not fearful, nor fearsome. Burnside dreams "of the silence" before Man was made, and before Sin came. Echoes of those days "before the names", before our Creation and so before our separation from God, can be felt in the light shining now, today, any day, which, finally, is our reassurance: light's silence always speaks of God.
My new favourite poetry book, first published by Bantam in 1966, and sadly out of print as far as I can tell, is Modern European Poetry. Edited by Willis Barnstone (with the assistance of seven other experts in their respective fields - Patricia Terry, Arthur S Wensinger, Kimon Friar, Sonia Raiziss, Alfredo De Palchi, George Reavey, Angel Flores), and six years in the making, this is an astonishing anthology of modern French, German, Greek, Italian, Russian and Spanish poetry which contains poems by every important European poet, including Nobel Prize-winners Pasternak, Quasimodo, Seferis and Aleixandre. "The work of virtually every European poet in the languages represented was considered before the final selection was made." Does anyone make books this well any more? An amazing resource. (Brought to my attention by Michael Hamburger in the introduction to his The Truth of Poetry: Tensions in Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the 1960's.)
For Gerard Manley Hopkins there was Heaven-haven, when a nun takes the veil, and perhaps a poet-priest seeks refuge, but for Philip Larkin there is no heaven. There is Hull, and that is where Larkin, largely free of metropolitan London’s seductions, finds his poetry and his poetics.
One of my Books of the Week this week is Antony Hasler's translation of Georg Heym's Poems (Libris). Heym (1887-1912), who died tragically young, has always been in the shadow of Georg Trakl, who was born in the same year as him. Whilst understandable, this is a real pity. Michael Hofmann has called Heym an "authentic prodigy" (when he reviewed this very volume) and Rilke praised him privately. Hofmann argues, "of the German expressionists (Benn, Trakl, Van Hoddis, Stadler and others) - the modern generation that arrived just before the first world war, whose equivalent in England I suppose would be the imagists - Heym is much the most literary and, on the surface, the most conventional." This, you'll note, does nothing to lesser the pleasure of reading him. For more on Heym, Patrick Bridgwater's Poet of Expressionist Berlin: Life and Work of Georg Heym (from the wonderful Libris, who also publish Heym's The Thief and Other Stories) is your best place to start.
In 1943, with Greece in the grip of a crippling famine and groaning under Nazi occupation, Gatsos published his major work, the epic poem Amorgos. Written in one night of intense, concentrated effort, Amorgos was a surrealist stream-of-consciousness, a profoundly mysterious and magnetic incantation, a paean of despair and hope, celebratory and bitter, whose seismic cultural influence reverberates to this day. Much admired by the Nobel laureates Odysseus Elytis and George Seferis (both published by Anvil), it reshaped the Greek poetic tradition but, amazingly, was Gatsos's only work.
Gatsos was born in the village of Asea in Arcadia, likely on December 8, 1911 (though some accounts hold 1914). He spoke several languages and studied at the School of Philosophy in Athens.
The legendary Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis adapted a portion of Amorgos in a rembetika song and Gatsos soon became the premier lyricist in Greek popular music. Working with friends like Hadjidakis, Nana Mouskouri, and Mikis Theodorakis (who adapted Odysseus Elytis’s Axion Esti), Gatsos spearheaded the renaissance of Greek popular music in the postwar era. Well versed in English, French and Spanish, he translated poetry and plays by Lorca, O’Neill, Strindberg, Lope de Vega, Genet and Tennessee Williams into Greek. He died in Kifissia in 1992.
RSB interviewee Ken Worpole takes a look at Ian Hamilton Finlay’s world: "The landscape artist Ian Hamilton Finlay created an extraordinary fusion of sculpture, inscription and philosophy in his Little Sparta garden."
Ian Hamilton Finlay, who died at the age of 80 on 27 March 2006, was one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century. His output was marked by intense political controversy.
His early works, poetry and short stories, developed in the early 1960s into an engagement with the world of concrete poetry, an artistic form first popularised in Brazil, though Finlay's variant was self-generated and contemporaneous (like that of his Scots compatriot Edwin Morgan, whose 1966 poem observed of his friend "you give the pleasure / of made things"). Some of this was exhibited at an international exhibition of concrete poetry at the Brighton festival in 1967, where I first saw it, and it made an immediate impact then – principally one of delight.
Remiss of me not to have linked to this earlier (and prompted to do so now because of the ever-useful The Page): RSB interviewee, poet, novelist, literary historian, translator, founder of Carcanet Press and Professor of Poetry at Glasgow University Michael Schmidt's 2006 StAnza Lecture What, How Well, Why?
My latest obsession is German poet Peter Huchel. You may have noted that Anvil Press's bilingual edition of his selected poems, translated by the marvelous Michael Hamburger, The Garden of Theophrastus, is one of my Books of the Week. (Actually, that's the second Anvil book in a row: last week it was Nikos Gatsos's Amorgos). And I'm eagerly awaiting Libris's In Time of Need to land. This is a "conversation about Poetry, Resistance and Exile" between German poet, and friend of Peter Huchel, Reiner Kunze, and Huchel's French translator Mireille Gansel, which addresses, to some extent, Hölderlin's question, "What use are poets in time of need?" I will be reviewing In Time of Need for PN Review next month. Reiner Kunze's work in English translation is, sad to say, well out of print.
Published on Tuesday, but only in the US for now, is A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe (not that that means you can't buy it very easily from anywhere!) This is the "largest and richest volume of poetry by [Fernando] Pessoa available in English, featuring poems never before translated alongside many originally composed in English." The poems are translated by the unlikely-named Pessoa expert Richard Zenith (translator of the wonderful, eccentric and baggy The Book of Disquiet and who edited and translated The Education of the Stoic: The Only Manuscript of the Baron of Teive). Zenith provides a useful introduction and notes and good information on Pessoa's "heteronyms". "There is nobody like Pessoa" is something WS Merwin once said, by the way. But, you now, I could've said that!
The US-based Poetry magazine was founded by Harriet Monroe in 1912 when "American poetry remained stuck in the twilight of the nineteenth century and an exhausted Romanticism inherited from England." Poetry is still going strong, not least because of a considerable bequest, worth more than one hundred million dollars, from the pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly to the Poetry Foundation (Poetry's parent body) and is currently edited by Christian Wiman (who a couple of years ago made some controversial— and by that I mean wrong-headed — comments about Wallace Stevens). Why all this? Yesterday, I mentioned that I've set up an exclusive subscription deal for RSB readers to PN Review. Well, you lucky things, a similarly great deal for RSB readers will soon be offered by Poetry magazine. You'll have full details in about a week.
According to the BBC, Poet Roger McGough has "pulled out of a gala concert to welcome Condoleezza Rice to the city, amid protests by anti-war campaigners." Anti-war campaigners, including the Merseyside Stop the War Coalition, are expected to protest outside the event in Liverpool on the 31st March.
I noticed this pretty extensive online archive of Paul Celan poems, translated by Michael Hamburger the other day, but I didn't explicily link to it. Useful.
(Blimey! RSB readers have already managed to bring down the Celan site! Geocities only allow 4Mb an hour bandwidth, so pulling the site down is fairly easy: here's an alternative link to the same Paul Celan poems.)
I mentioned yesterday, Ellis Sharp's article The Complicity of Paul Celan. Ellis is a fine, high-minded writer whose blogging is always intelligent, often excoriatingly so, and well-argued. I'm not sure that he quite right, however, to direct his ire towards Celan. Or, better, I'm not sure whether Celan's poetry can be read as instrumentally as Ellis reads it, taking the lead from Celan biographer John Felstiner, as an endorsement of the state of Israel and thus as direct evidence of what Ellis calls Celan's "complicity in oppression and injustice."
Ellis cites Denk dir ("It’s a cryptic, elusive poem, like most of Celan’s verse," he rightly cautions). Introducing it, he says it "appears to be a direct response to the Six Day War" [my emphasis]. He follows Felstiner's (biographically reductive) reading throughout despite saying, later in his piece, something which I would agree with: "Felstiner’s book is both classically orientalist and Zionist in its attitudes."
At the beginning his essay, Ellis retells the famous anecdote, one which exemplfies an archetypical moment of misinterpration, whereby, after Celan's meeting with Heidegger (recently so disatrously dramatised by John Banville), Heidegger thrills at the poem (Todtnauberg) that Celan has left him. Heidegger, who knows how willfully, how blindly, sees no rebuke in Celan's ambiguous, yet sad, pointed, accusatory poem.
Certainly, as Steve says, "Celan has a critical aura of protection about him" and one "cannot read his long account of the poet's brief relationship to Israel without unease." And I'm grateful to Ellis for this essay. That the author of such an exceptional oeuvre made mistaken political judgements is indeed "worthy of discussion", but that Celan remained in Paris, writing recondite, intricate works should further caution us against condemning him as a mouthpiece for Zionism. Celan did support Israel; regardless, it is exceedingly difficult to drag his poetry into unambiguous support for anything: I don't think even Celan can be allowed to do that. Certainly, his biographer's politics shouldn't be allowed to flatten his opaque, cryptic, beautiful words.
I neglected to mention that Michael Schmidt's excellent editorial to PN Review no.168 is now online here at RSB. Schmidt seems to be one of the few critics around who has noticed how self-laceratingly, blackly funny the poet Geoffrey Hill is. And how bawdy too! Certainly, Hill is a far more approachable writer than the severe, arcane, opaque oracle he is sometimes painted as:
From its dedication to the Italian poet Eugenio Montale to its impassioned dialogue with the novelist, publisher and poet Cesare Pavese, who committed suicide in 1950, there is a fascinating erotic current. And the book is marked by Hill’s peculiar brand of humour, Old Testament and merciless and true, not least when he reflects on himself.
The Lake District National Park Authority have set up a website to monitor when the first daffodils blossom in the Lake District! The Petal Peek bulb watch has been created so that visitors will know exactly when the flowers that inspired William Wordsworth are spotted for the first time in 2006. The main flowering of daffodils is expected in late March.
My two Books of the Week this week are Michael Hofmann's small selection of Robert Lowell poems (Faber and Faber) and Jeffrey Wainwright's helpful and very readable essays on poet Geoffrey Hill, Acceptable Words (Manchester University Press). I hope to be speaking with Professor Wainwright about his book, here on RSB, very soon.
Although a tad literary in terms of sentence construction, I think both Young Adam and Cain’s Book are extremely good pieces of prose. I also like much of Trocchi’s occasional writing such as Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds. He was a very good writer, but definitely flawed as an individual. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to describe Trocchi as a tosser when it comes to thinking through the drug scene around him, and the way he liked to get other people, and particularly beautiful young women, hooked on smack. That said, while my mother was involved in Trocchi’s drug scene for years, he wasn’t responsible for her getting into skag. Regardless of what you think of him as a man (and I don’t think much), you can’t knock his skill as a writer. Your phrase flawed hero pretty much sums him up.
Yesterday (thanks Pierre), Charles Bernstein's wrote:
Barbara Guest died last night in Berkeley. I got the news this afternoon from her daughter Hadley. For now, I want to recast some remarks I made on the occasion of Guest receiving the Frost Medal of the Poetry Society of America in 1999:
I want to thank Barbara Guest for a lifetime of poetry for which we, as readers, have been unprepared - to thank her for continually testing the limits of form and stretching the bounds of beauty, for expanding the imagination and revisioning - both revisiting and recasting - the aesthetic. For we are still unprepared for Guest: she has never quite fit our pre-made categories, our expectations, our explanations. She has written her work as the world inscribes itself, processurally, without undue obligation to expectation, and with a constant, even serene, enfolding in which we find ourselves folded.
Poet Barbara Guest (1920-2006) has died (on Wednesday, I believe). I don't have any more details than that (but there are more links over at wood s lot). When I do, I'll update this post - what we do have is a nice appreciation of Guest by Ron Silliman. (Guest's most recent book was the lovely Red Gaze [Wesleyan University Press].)
Pierre reproduces the verse, below, from Biography:
A single seeming blinded object
a sentence a voice
then the rushing. Sound rushing
away from its disability
there's a note selective.
Passage without a pen
through the hurricane
whorl shell Shade
Fictions dressed like water.
Manchester blogger Conscious and Verbal gets it about right when s/he says, of Geoffrey Hill's poetry reading, which Hill gave in Manchester last night, that it was, "serious, funny, heart breaking, daft. All those things." Hill is a wonderful communicator and the reading, superbly attended (two or three hundred people, I would guess), was nicely structured with Hill reading a couple of poems from each of his collections. The reading was introduced by Professor Jeffrey Wainwright whose Acceptable Words: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill is just out from Manchester University Press. (For those afraid of poetry, Wainwright's Poetry: The Basics does the primer/intro job very nicely.)
Out in March, in Faber's Poet to Poet series, is Michael Hofmann's choice of Robert Lowell (1917-1977) poems. Lowell's Life Studies, published in 1959, is seen as a decisive turning point in American poetry, a turn to the confessional and autobiographical which, I'd argue, has not, recently, served poetry that well (how many sub-Plath emotings do we need?) As Hofmann says in his excellent introduction, Lowell was controversial throughout his writing life - and remains so. Faber published Lowell's massive Collected Poems in 2003. (More on Lowell at Modern Amercican Poetry site. Some useful links at learner.org too.)
Geoffrey Hill will read his poetry tonight at Manchester Metropolitan University at 5.30pm (Lecture Theatre 3, Geoffrey Manton Building, Rosamond Street West, Off Oxford Road, Manchester city centre). Presented by the MMU Writing School and Carcanet poet Jeffrey Wainwright, this is a rare opportunity to hear Hill read in the UK, marking the recent publication of his new collection, and recent RSB Book of the Week, Without Title (Penguin). Admission is free; no advance tickets necessary. For more information contact Jeffrey Wainwright. Hill's Selected Poems is being reissued by Penguin in June.
Not a simple poet, and not for everyone, by any means. Moral, Anglican, traditional (hidebound, some might suggest), Hill can easily be off-putting. He wins us over on the strength of his verse - he has a fine ear for the English language - and the rigor to which he subjects his ideas ... His subject matter is often obscure, but there are rewards there for the reader willing to work with the text ... It is poetry that provokes thought and that lingers.