Sunday, 30 August 2015

First Contemplation

Alice Spawls reminds us that, besides poetry, Elizabeth Bishop's other great love was painting:
Throughout her life Bishop remarked that she wished she had been a painter and in her letters more often enthused about art and artists than writers, once telling Robert Lowell that he was the one living poet she could bear to read. Yet it was only when an exhibition of her paintings was organised in 2011 that those who don’t pay attention to the credits of book-cover artists (Bishop’s paintings adorned three of her collections) discovered that she did indeed paint, even if she didn’t consider herself a ‘painter’. The 40 or so surviving works inevitably drew comparisons with her poems. They are mostly small, 8 x 10 inches or less—the size of an exercise book, painted with gouache or watercolour on thin paper and torn around the edges or beginning to disintegrate. Their scenes are quiet and usually peopleless: a tea set, a lamp, an empty room, flowers, buildings. Many were given as gifts, others are records of places and things. A lifelong stipend from her father (he died not long after she was born) allowed Bishop to travel and she would complain if she came across something she admired and didn’t have her paint box. Though her paintings are of settled scenes rather than fleeting moments, their freshness suggests a desire to preserve the first contemplation.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Trust in the Daemon

Harriet blog invited writers to identify female poets "of intense, even transformative value." Stephen Burt picked Louise Bogan:
It seems almost incontrovertibly true that the practice of poetry requires a kind of irrational commitment, a belief that whatever you find in the language, and whatever you find in yourself, matter in ways that other people cannot or do not or do not yet understand—you can call it, if you like, a trust in the daemon, or a faith in the language, or a devotion to something no one can quite name. And it seems true as well that you can’t make good poetry—except by accident—unless you think hard and patiently, sometimes with all the learning you can find, about what you’re writing, about what you’re rewriting, and about what other people wrote before you were born. If you are looking for a poet, a critic, a writer whose lifework contains both truths—who found the hot and the cold, the knowable and the unknowable, and who respected both—you could do a lot worse than to read all the poems and at least some of the prose brought into the world by Louise Bogan, who came from a hard early life amid mill towns in Maine to become the author of several handfuls of perfect, and frightening, epigrammatic and lyric poems; she was also, for decades, the in-house poetry critic at the New Yorker, explaining as best she could the poetry that she felt was best (and was modern) to readers for whom it was all (still) new.

Nobody in the history of American poetry has come closer to the effects created by W. B. Yeats: sometimes these effects made her imitative, but sometimes they made her terrifically memorable. Some of her poems (including a self-lacerating one called “Women”) addressed gender directly; many of them addressed what she took to be a woman’s (a cisgender straight woman’s, in today’s terms) attitudes towards romantic and erotic love. Bogan brought her critical gifts to her poetry, but she knew that without passion and weirdness—without the capacity to surprise yourself—those gifts were not enough: if you want to shock your students, or your teachers, or yourself, try her four-line advice to aspiring writers, “Several Voices Out of a Cloud.”

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Going Long

Sharon Thesen provides a fascinating run-down of the long poem's seemingly limitless range and abilities:
Long poems are often stories, explorations, or accounts of one sort or another; and in this way long poems participate in the prose tradition of writing; indeed, many long poems are written in prose stanzas or prose sentences—I’m thinking of writers like Daphne Marlatt, Roo Borson, Sarah de Leeuw. Long poems can be poems about stories. They can fictionalize the “I” of the poem, as in persona poems; and use unreliable narrators, such as Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid. While not being narrative poems as such, in the epic sense, most long poems do engage narrative as a mode or energy that propulses them forward, as in filmic montage. There is something filmic, performative, and theatrical about the long poem, which also collects the long poem into the traditions of ritualistic verse drama, itself deconstructed in Poet’s Theatre texts popular among the American language poets. In Canada, Patrick Friesen’s work comes to mind; in England, Alice Oswald’s. Indeed, her book length poem Dart is I think one of the most astonishing and satisfying book-length poems—a poem about a river and those who live with it, beside it, on it, in it. She researched for years, interviewing and recording the voices of the riverside dwellers—fishermen, trappers, farmers, kids, vagrants, and others. The long poem’s capaciousness and adaptability extends to its use of genres such as biography and investigative journalism deploying historical documents. The American poet Ed Sanders, who writes what he calls “investigative poetry,” has written verse biographies of Allen Ginsberg and Anton Chekhov, as well as verse biographies of the year 1968 and of the history of America. These are fascinating because of Sanders’ typically engaged, lyric, subjective, opinionated voice. In a similar way, Nourbese’s Zong “documents” the massacre, in 1781, of 150 African slaves who were thrown overboard as surplus cargo during transport to England. Inarticulacies and silences render the unspeakable unspeakable; as does Sakiklar’s Children of Air India with its imposition of redactions, its incompletenesses, its rumours. This is like detective work, forensic work upon cultural memory.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Sunday Poem


I am all that is wrong with the Old World,
and half of what troubles the New.

I have not seen Spain or the Philippines,
Holland or Indonesia. In the other room,

my grandfather nods off in front
of Wheel of Fortune. I have seen his Japan

in photos—the last good suit he wore,
grey, tailored in Kyushu. Believe

Pat Sajak is a saviour: he divines new riches
like water hidden from a dowser’s

willow switch, trembling through
unfamiliar territories, proffered

like a makeshift cross. The same strange
faith should be proof enough

of my current crisis. There was a game
we once played. I’m in it now.

The wheel turns, strobes its starlight
across another centrifuge, that spinning globe,

a kid’s finger skimming its surface,
waiting for it to stop. This is where I’ll live.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Critical Talk

James Wood's recent Slate conversation with Isaac Chotiner has made news because of his admission that he might have come down too hard on David Foster Wallace. But the exchange was fascinating for other reasons as well. Here are five of its best moments:

On how Wood's jump to The New Yorker in 2007 influenced his criticism:
There was no doubt for me that when I moved from the New Republic to the New Yorker, from a smaller magazine to a larger magazine, that I had to rethink a little about the way I was going to write. And indeed that was part of the attraction of the change. Small magazines partly survive on militancy. And that’s very important. And there might be a part of me that would want the New Yorker to be more militant, and to have something more of the small magazine pugilism, but I was aware that my approach to writing criticism would change, and I was happy for a change. There was a sense of repeating myself, of digging deep into the same groove again.
On the use of "passionate re-description" as a critical strategy:
I was trying to talk about the larger tradition of literary criticism and literary journalism. Henry James said “The critic’s life is heroically vicarious,” or something like that. We might have our doubts about the heroism, but that “vicarious” is absolutely right. You are living vicariously but you also serve a function for the reader who might never read the book you’re writing about. And that’s where a long quotation of the kind that would seem inert in a properly scholarly paper comes into its own. I certainly see a connection here between writing and teaching. I do find that in the classroom—and students will say this to me—that the simple act of reading, spending half the class reading passages out loud, and bringing them alive, is its own pedagogy. It is actually half the business of making the thing comprehensible.
On what bugs him about John Updike's reviews:
The redescription in Updike’s criticism is obviously of a high order, and [of] a certain kind of generosity, too—that’s to say, he was a very patient and hospitable quoter of other people’s texts. But I always felt that there was a certain kind of ungenerousness in Updike’s work, too. The maddening equilibrium of his critical voice—never getting too upset or too excited—enacted, I always felt, a kind of strategy of containment, whereby everything could be diplomatically sorted through, and somehow equalized and neutralized, and put onto the same shelf—and always one rung below Updike himself.
On the difference between British and American literary journalism:
The British tradition was always rich, traditionally rich, in newspapers and therefore short-form criticism. When I was growing up, the Observer’s main fiction reviewer was Anthony Burgess, who was writing once a week at 900 or 1200 words max.... In America it was the other way around. The newspapers here weren’t especially interesting sources of criticism. But the place was absolutely rich in magazines and small magazines, and it was a place where long-form journalism was flourishing. And so I think it’s not surprising that you get these two very different traditions.
On what happens when a critic ages:
With criticism I think the odds are that you should get better and better because a lot of it is about the slow appreciation of knowledge. Much of being a critic is simply the comparative business. I’ve had to spend 30 years reading and writing about books to get close to having theories about the novel. I feel I’m always anxious about generalizing because I don’t quite know enough, and the counterexamples will spring out from the bushes and ambush me. But there’s no doubt that there’s a certain confidence to be had from feeling that you have some grasp on the tradition, and that things are beginning to make sense. And look at a critic like Frank Kermode. He was handing in his last reviews to the London Review of Books two weeks before he died and it was as good as anything he had written in the last 30 years of his life.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Needless Foreignness

The task of bringing into English the first volume of Éric Plamondon’s 1984 trilogy forced Dimitri Nasrallah to confront his own ambivalences toward translation:
I’m always a little let down when, in reading a literary translation, I come across a passage that appears, in its new language’s context, to be little more than a carbon copy of the original. This in itself, I feel, is a difficult idea to translate, but anyone who’s read literature in translation must surely be aware of the vague discrimination I’m referring to: a sense that though specific words have been dutifully rendered into English, some deeper and arguably more significant import of the thought process has been left behind in the original language, creating a needless foreignness to the narrative.

Of course, translation is the conflicted act of overcoming and preserving that foreignness. I hesitate to use a more prevalent word like exoticism in this case, which strikes me more as a trending perception (or merely a misperception) of what a distant reader’s imagination perceives to be the attractions of a book’s source culture. The foreignness I have in mind has more to do with hegemonic values that exist in cultures, society-specific patterns of thought and rationalization that rise up into the way an author writes, unconsciously. What is a translator to do with these undercurrents that suffuse the language but are not ably represented by the word, when a language and its idea threaten to separate?

(illustration by David Plunkert)

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Sunday Poem

1er Palais Royal

A foreign city in a foreign language:
Errors you will find your way around
Less by misconstruction of an image
Idiomatic as the underground
Than by reference to the lost and found
Out-of-date semantic luggage
And archaic sentimental slang which
Used to mean so much. Take care of the sound!
Dog-eared volumes of experience rebound ,
Sense can take care of itself. Abandoned baggage,
I sought to celebrate you, not confound;
Apart from the smarts you brought me, grand dommage,
A throne’s stowaway, you still astound
The razor’s edge dividing youth from age.

Xe Gare du Nord

Haunted by arrivals and departures ,
The desperate farewell of handkerchiefs,
This dingy greenhouse architecture nurtures
An exotic growth of greetings, griefs
And brief encounters under iron arches
Overlooked by smutty petroglyphs.
Having said goodbye to make-beliefs
And all a single backward glance can purchase,
Through the unsympathetic crowd one searches
Among reunions, tears and tiffs
And unfamiliarity that tortures
The traveller with interminable ifs
For those extraordinary features
Familiarity enfiefs.

XIVe Observatoire

Obvious from the Observatory,
After the abdication of the moon
Heaven explicates a bedtime story
Full of incident and interest, humane
Like anything significant to man,
The everlasting, transitory
Celestial phenomenon
In all its superannuated glory,
A roman fleuve that one is seldom sorry
To see abridged by dawn. The stars remain
Secure in their orbits, never in a hurry,
Worlds superior to yours and mine,
Dispassionate, explanatory,
Suggesting more than they can ever mean.

From The Essential Daryl Hines (selected by James Pollock, Porcupine's Quill, 2015)