Archive for August, 2012

No, no, this is the real Emily Dickinson…more photos, more theories

Friday, August 31st, 2012


I have joined the “world’s top thinkers” at last.  A few days ago I discussed the investigation into whether the woman on the left in the portrait above is Emily Dickinson, with her friend Kate Scott Turner at right.  The post received several comments, more tweets, and some other pick-up.

Janet Lewis, as she looked about the time I met her.

Yesterday, the post was mentioned on BigThink, which describes itself as “Blogs, Articles and Videos from the World’s Top Thinkers.”  I’m grateful to the post for something other than the promotion, however:  Thanks to my fellow “linkees” cited in the article, I found the putative portrait of Emily Dickinson, circa 1860, that I had tried to find several times in the past without success.

Here’s why:  Sometime in the 1980s, I made a visit to the Los Altos home of Janet Lewis, the poet, author, and widow of Yvor Winters.  The immediate reason for my interview I cannot recall – in any case, the article was never published, and remains somewhere in my garage on a 5″ floppy, along with the interview notes. I knew too little about the octogenarian writer at the time, but I am glad now I had the opportunity for the meeting, for whatever the reason – and yes, I remember the Winters’s legendary loquat tree.

"a gypsy face"

I also remember gazing up a photo in her kitchen, displayed high on the wall. Janet Lewis followed my gaze, and asked, “Do you recognize who that is?”  I didn’t.  “That’s Emily Dickinson, grown up.”  It was a matchless photo, attentive and sensual.  She told me it was included in the Richard Sewall biography of the poet, and that she had torn it out from the book and put it on her wall.  Years later I ordered the biography online precisely to recover that portrait.  But it had apparently been debunked in the meantime, and removed from later editions.

Now the photo has a new champion, poet Daniela Gioseffi, and author of a new biographical novel about Dickinson. From the comments section of an article about her book she writes (with some light editing on my part – it needs more):

The foreword to my book Wild Nights, Wild Nights, The Story of Emily Dickinson’s Master (at http://www.Amazon. com and explains exactly how I researched the photo to include it. There is no doubt in many Dickinson scholars’ minds that it is Emily Dickinson at thirty years, as the features match when sized against that old 17-year-old photo that every one knows above, when the images are sized alike and put one over the other. What many non-scholars of Dickinson who have not read as fully as I have do not understand is that the well-known photo of her was taken when she was a sickly 17-year-old just arisen from a sickbed. She herself in later years is described by those who saw her a bright-eyed, clear-skinned, attractive and womanly. Yes, she was diminutive all her life, but she described herseld as having “a gypsy face” and this photo fits her own description of herself that her sister Lavinia agreed with.

I want the portrait to be true because I like it, and because it connects me, in an odd sort of way, with Janet Lewis.  To admit such a biased and unscientific judgment in writing, however, risks my removal from a blog for the “world’s top thinkers.” I am in something of a quandary.

"small, like the Wren..."

So let me throw in another red herring – the portrait at right that would date to about the 1850s.  Its defense is here, and the image would appear to fit Emily’s self-description: “[I] am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur – and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.”

And what about the new discovery above?  According to Austin Allen, one of the world’s top thinkers over at BigThink:

Of the two women, Kate is the one with a thousand-yard stare. (She’d been recently widowed.) But look closer at her friend: there’s something peculiar about that gaze. The pupils are asymmetrical, as they are in the known photo—Emily may have suffered from both astigmatism and iritis—but they’re also large, dreamy, and a little amused. Dickinson once compared her eyes to “the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves”; the woman in the picture just about lives up to the simile. …

Look: the mystery woman has even thrown an arm around her friend, a gesture we can hardly imagine the Recluse of Amherst making. If she was on the cusp of crisis, it doesn’t show yet. In my heart of hearts I doubt it’s Emily—that chin just doesn’t match up—but pending further reports on clothing samples, image records, nasolabial folds, etc., I’ll keep believing and disbelieving at once, which, as Emily said, “keeps Believing nimble.”

At least I’ve recovered the photo of “my Emily” at last.

Postscript on 9/5:  Some nice pick-up from the Poetry Foundation here.  I’m not only a W.T.T., but an “amateur sleuth” as well.

“He lived on three hours of sleep and pipe smoke.”

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

There’s lots of talk about online education nowadays, but there are some things online education will never do.  It can’t demonstrate how a man’s learning can ripen into wisdom.

Way back in 1966, Richard Macksey at Johns Hopkins University organized the international symposium that brought French theory to America – more particularly, it brought Jacques Derrida before the American public. “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” also featured prominent post-structuralists Paul de ManRoland BarthesJacques Lacan.  Oh yeah, a young, up-and-coming French thinker René Girard was one of the movers and shakers behind the conference, too.  In fact, he and Martha Girard were the ones who told me about their Johns Hopkins friend in the first place, and directed me to this youtube video, which features a second reason to remember him: he also presides over one of the largest private libraries in Maryland, with well over 70,000 books and manuscripts:

A well-documented bibliophile, Macksey lives in a house that is literally submerged in books, one can’t travel more than a few feet in any direction without running into a bookshelf. Then there is his actual library, rooms of wall-to-wall volumes ranging from the classics to recent fiction. It is in this library, which doubles as a projection room, that Macksey teaches some of his courses. He hasn’t read “yet” all the books he owns, but according to some colleagues, he must have at least a couple of thousand volumes stored somewhere in his head. He recently announced that he will bequeath his 70,000 plus volume collection to the Sheridan Libraries of Hopkins. The shelves of English, Russian, French, German, Italian and Spanish texts, even Babylonian cuneiform, are matched only by his impact on the campus. Discourses exchanged over book-strewn tables with sharp-minded students was Macksey’s method of choice. An acknowledged polymath who can read and write in six languages, Macksey gives the impression that his mind is juggling a million things at once, said Neil Hertz, a professor of English and director of the Humanities Center, who likens Macksey’s thought processes to chain reactions. “The man’s right, he lacks focus…one thing leads him to another and that in turn leads to a third. And, given his astonishing memory, to a fourth, a fifth and so on. This could be a real drag if, say, you rolled down the window of your car at a traffic light to ask Richard directions to some place, while cars behind you began honking 1/25th of the way through his rambling, but no doubt interesting, answer.”

“He lived on three hours of sleep and pipe smoke,” one colleague recalled.  “There’s no topic in the world that bored him,” said another, in the youtube video below (okay, okay, it’s big on Johns Hopkins, but watch it, anyway, just for the books).  He’s published fiction, poetry and translations as well as academic works, in areas ranging from classical literature and foreign films to comic novels and medical narratives–all subjects he has taught at one time or another.

He’s still teaching.


“Distance is the soul of beauty.” Finally. He explains.

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

His thought…

Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz‘s personal secretary Agnieszka Kosińska wrote the concluding essay, “Last Poems and Ars Moriendi,”  for my book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

Here’s the final paragraph, translated by Artur Rosman: “For me, working with Milosz, being with him all day long, was like being locked in a submarine: it was a total submersion in Milosz’s world, coupled with incredible pressure from within and without. Now, six years after his death, I continually test myself against the saying of Simone Weil that Miłosz liked to cite, ‘Distance is the soul of beauty,’ and I try to understand what I saw and heard while working with him.”

I’ve puzzled over Weil’s thought for some time. Then, a few days ago, I found Jonas Mekas‘s There Is No Ithaka: Idylls of Semeniskiai and Reminiscences.  The Lithuanian poet’s collection has a foreword by the Lithuanian-born Miłosz – I don’t think it’s been collected in any of his volumes of essays.  So years after Agnieszka’s comment, the maestro finally offers this elucidation:

…building on hers.

“‘Distance is the soul of beauty.’ This sentence of Simone Weil expresses an old truth: only through a distance, in space or in time, does reality undergo purification. Our immediate concerns which were blinding us to the grace of ordinary things disappear and a look backward reveals them in their every minutest detail. Distance engendered by the passing of time is at the core of the oeuvre of Marcel Proust. Distance in space and awareness that borders with their barbed wire separated him from his country allowed a young Lithuanian to write his Idylls.”

Mekas turns 90 in December, and is better known as an avant-garde filmmaker than as a poet.  “You have the possibility to give light a dimension in time,” he said. Poetry does the same, of course.

Nihilism, rebellion, and the perfect casting for The Brothers Karamazov

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Malkovich ... the perfect Ivan Karamazov?

I’m not familiar with the writings of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, but my friend Artur Rosman posted this on his Facebook page, and I’ve been pondering it now for several days.

Remember the “Grand Inquisitor” segment of Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov?  Long story.  Jesus Christ comes to Seville at the time of the Inquisition and is arrested after performing several miracles.  But just before he does, Ivan Karamazov makes a speech to his brother Alyosha on the intolerable suffering of children:

“And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price. … I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. … And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.”

Always seemed a bit of a put-up job to me.  Berdyaev finally explained why:

Law ... the perfect Alyosha?

“Ivan Karamazov is a thinker, a metaphysician and psychologist, and he provides a deep philosophic grounding to the troubled experiences of an innumerable number of Russian boys – the Russian nihilists and atheists, socialists and anarchists. At the core of the question of Ivan Karamazov lies a sort of false Russian sensitivity and sentimentality, a false sort of sympathy for mankind, leading to a hatred towards God and the Divine purpose of worldly life. Russians all too readily become nihilistic rebels out of a false moralism. The Russian takes God to task over history because of the tears of the child, returns back the ticket, denies all values and sanctities, he will not tolerate the sufferings, wants not the sacrifices. Yet he however does nothing really, in order to lessen the tears, he adds to the quantity of flowing tears, he makes a revolution, which is all grounded upon uncountable tears and sufferings.”

If you don’t have time for the 800-page book, you might try one of the films based on the book.  Like this one, with John Malkovich as Ivan Karamazov, and Jude Law as his brother Alyosha, and Sean Penn as Dmitri Karamazov, and Gerard Depardieu as their murdered father Fyodor Karamazov … whoops!  Movie was never made. I looked for it in vain.  Apparently, the Bernardo Bertolucci film is someone’s pipe dream of ideal casting.

While looking for a film clip telling me about this all-star film, I found this intriguing Russian miniseries by Pervyi Kanal seems to capture the spirit of the thing.

Martin Amis: satire as “militant irony”

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

Getting ink (Photo courtesy Knopf)

Alfred Knopf tweeted this a few days ago, from Martin Amis, who novel Lionel Asbo has been getting a lot of ink of late:

“One definition of satire is that it’s militant irony: It’s irony brought to the pitch where you are actually hoping to bring about change. Irony brushes by a question and leaves you with a thought of it. Satire is meant to be much more vigorous and vehement – the suggestion being that you’re actually wanting to change reality. I don’t attempt to change reality. I would just say that satire is very exaggerated irony and that’s what I deal in.”

I googled, and found that he’d expressed a similar thought, in different ways on different occasions.  I like this one, from a Goodreads interview, which sounds a little less certain:

GR: Goodreads Author Steven Bauer asks, “What do you believe the place of satire is in a society and culture that always seems on the edge of satirizing itself?”

MA: I’ve never been sure what satire is. One of the definitions is that satire is militant irony, which sounds good. The suggestion, though, is that it’s militant and therefore sets the task of bringing about change. I don’t think that satire has actually ever done that. Satire attacks social ill and does it once the injustice has been cleared up, not while the injustice is going on, like imprisonment for debt in Dickens, for instance. I just don’t think that novels have that power. I think novelists are in the education business, really, but they’re not teaching you times tables, they are teaching you responsiveness and morality and to make nuanced judgments. And really to just make the planet look a bit richer when you go out into the street.

"Better than you"

Susan Sontag, I think, expressed the last idea better, from the point of a reader.  In her interview with James Marcus here she said:

“Reading should be an education of the heart … Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too. … But I really do think it’s necessary if you want to have a full life. It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”

Translating Spanish has suddenly become profitable … very profitable

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Man after my own heart...

Proposition #1:  Translation is notoriously unheralded and underpaid.  Proposition #2:  Although Spanish is pretty much the United States’ second language, there’s tons of literature from the Spanish-speaking world that never makes it into English.

With those two statements in mind, this is cool news indeed:

A new award bearing the name of Spanish-born Mexican author, translator and poet Tomás Segovia (1927-2011) has been created to honor outstanding work in literary translation, Mexican cultural officials said.

The prize recognizes translations that “bring the Hispanic literary tradition to other languages,” National Culture and Arts Council, or Conaculta, president Consuelo Saizar said in a press conference Wednesday in this western Mexican city.

The honor carries a cash prize of $100,000 and is financed by Conaculta in partnership with Fondo de Cultura Economica – Mexico’s leading publishing house – and the Guadalajara International Book Fair, where this year’s award ceremony will take place in November.

In alternating years, the award will honor the work of professionals who translate from Spanish into another language and those who translate from other languages into Spanish, Saizar said.

That’s right. This is a hundred thousand smackeroos, which makes it about the biggest literary cash prize anywhere.  “This is an awesome thing,” according to Booktrade, reassuring us that it’s not always about money.

It’s about money.  M.A.Orthofer at The Literary Saloon is over the moon, and rightly so:

Yes, a translation prize that pays out $100,000.

translation prize that merits inclusion in the Wikipedia list of the world’s richest literary prizes.

Sure, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award pays out €25,000 to the translator (into English) — if the winning book is a translation. The American Best Translated Book Award pays out $5,000. But $100,000 ? That is real money, and pretty much unheard of for an annual translation award.

(Of course, in the US the ‘major’ literary prizes — Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle — can get away with paying out between nothing and $10,000 (it’s apparently all about the prestige …).)
Yeah, I’m impressed. And jealous of the Spanish-speaking world, where even in these economically supposedly so troubled times money can be found (with government involvement !) for a prize like this.

I’ve always loved Mexico.  Now I love it more.

Thank you, Tomás Segovia, wherever you are.


Poet Eavan Boland bags PEN prize

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

A winner

I’m on the PEN mailing list, so I got this one hot off the presses last week: Eavan Boland, director of Stanford’s Creative Writing program and one of Ireland’s leading poets, has won a 2012 PEN award for creative nonfiction with her acclaimed collection of essays, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, published last year by W.W. Norton.

PEN Center USA will fete three honorees and give 11 awards in particular genres at its annual awards festival on Oct. 22 in Beverly Hills. Grove/Atlantic Press publisher (and Stanford alum) Morgan Entrekin will receive the Award of Honor; Joyce Carol Oates will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award and CBS correspondent Lara Logan will receive the Freedom to Write Award.

In addition to Boland’s award for creative nonfiction, the other genre awards are given for poetry, fiction, research nonfiction, children’s literature, graphic literature, journalism, translation, drama, teleplay and screenplay.

“I’m really honored to get the award. And especially from PEN, which is an institution that does so much to advocate for writers,” said Boland.

Boland has published 10 volumes of poetry – most recently New Collected Poems (2008) and Domestic Violence (2007) and an earlier collected volume, An Origin Like Water: Collected Poems 1967-87 (1996). She has received the Lannan Award for Poetry and an American Ireland Fund Literary Award. She has published a previous volume of prose, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time.

Joyce Carol Oates at Stanford, with Anne Fadiman and Tracy Kidder

A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet traces Boland’s own development as a poet, and also offers insights into the work of Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop and the German poet Elizabeth Langässer.

Irish author Colm Tóibín named it a “favorite book” in the Irish Times last year, calling it “urgent and wise.” Britain’s Poetry Review called her “one of the finest and boldest poets of the last half century.”

Boland balances two worlds: free-spirited California and Ireland, a land of historical persecution and occupation, with its “painful memory of a poetry whose archive was its audience,” she said in an Academy of American Poets interview.

“I sought out American poetry because of that powerful, inclusive diversity,” she said. “I always remember I’m an Irish poet there, but at the same time some part of my sense of poetry feels very confirmed by the American achievement.”

Is this the voice of Oscar Wilde?

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

Open Culture and Flavorwire have both posted a clip today of the 1900 recording of Oscar Wilde reading “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” but it’s not new.  It’s been kicking around youtube for awhile now.  “Although the recording isn’t great, his voice is definitely audible enough to make out the Irish-born writer’s cultivated accent and his sly, whimsical inflection,” according to Judy Berman at Flavorwire.  I’ve found a cleaner version of the recording – you don’t have to scroll forward 45 seconds through music and photos to hear the scratchy, muffled recording.  The voice is … not quite what I was expecting for this somber work, in which Wilde recalls the horror of  the execution of a Charles Thomas Wooldridge,
who had murdered his wife.  It was written two or three years before Wilde’s own death, in exile and poverty.

Pentonville in 1842

It’s a moving poem, but I wonder what the wife’s version of the events would have been, before and after her throat was slit.  The pity usually goes to the perps; the victims are forever silent.  The horrors of a man facing execution, barbaric as the modern death penalty is, probably had at least a veneer of civilization missing from her killing.

I was introduced to the poem when I was living on Offord Road in Islington, around the corner from Pentonville prison, one of the places where Wilde had been imprisoned.  An English pianist of my acquaintance recited it (as I recall) from memory.  It’s been in my head ever since.

The whole recording is less than a minute, but the quality of the cylinders is such that you might benefit from this crib sheet (the entire poem is, of course, much longer – you can read it here):

In Reading Gaol by Reading Town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In a burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.

No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

Postscript:  Whoops. It appears there is some controversy about the authenticity – the full detective story is here.  We’ll probably never know for sure… is it, or is it not?

“The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once”

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Happy birthday, Joe!

X.J. Kennedy – a.k.a. Joe Kennedy – turns 83 today.  I fished out a 1999 email from him so that I could send off a quick birthday greeting before the day expired on the East Coast.  And I received a quick email reply within an hour or so.  Good to know he’s online and quick on the draw.

Birthdays are, of course, a reminder of time.  What better and more fitting way to celebrate than with one of my favorite poems by him:

And yes, Joe, it’s true.  “Huh?  What happened?”  I’m at that point now.


The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once

Suppose your life a folded telescope
Durationless, collapsed in just a flash
As from your mother’s womb you, bawling, drop
Into a nursing home. Suppose you crash
Your car, your marriage – toddler laying waste
A field of daisies, schoolkid, zit-faced teen
With lover zipping up your pants in haste
Hearing your parents’ tread downstairs – all one.

Einstein was right. That would be too intense.
You need a chance to preen, to give a dull
Recital before an indifferent audience
Equally slow in jeering you and clapping.
Time takes its time unraveling. But, still,
You’ll wonder when your life ends: Huh? What happened?

New FBI files: Was Sylvia Plath’s daddy “pro-Nazi”?

Monday, August 20th, 2012

Before "Daddy": Aurelia and Otto Plath with their daughter Sylvia

I thought not.  But that’s what the Poetry Foundation’s headline says:  “Newly Released FBI Files Corroborate Sylvia Plath’s Characterization of Her Father as Pro-Nazi.”

The files say no such thing – or at least not in the bits and pieces of them that have been described in The Guardian.  One problem with the screaming headline.  The poet’s father Otto Plath died in 1940.  He emigrated from Prussia to the U.S. in 1901, at age 16.  Which means that when he left the Germany, Adolf Hitler was a 12-year-old.  That won’t dissuade an eager reporter:

Scholars of Plath have expressed their astonishment at the newly discovered FBI files, as they were unaware that Otto, a scientist, had even been investigated over alleged “pro-German” sympathies. “My heart literally jumped in my chest,” one of them said.

Of course, “pro-German” is not the same as “pro-Nazi.”  Could it be that the Prussian simply missed the lost land of his childhood, the taste of its native foods and its smells, sights, customs, language?

The files also reveal that he lost a salesman job for not buying Liberty Bonds to aid the war effort, and it is implied that he had a less than wholehearted attitude towards the first world war and America.

Face of the Muse

Whoops!  This was the wrong war.  Could it be that he didn’t want to support the effort against his family and his ancestors in the futile bloodbath known as World War I?

Heather Clark, who is writing a Plath biography, offers a strain of common sense in an article that struggles to make 2 plus 2 equal 7: “She dismisses the suggestion that Otto had Nazi sympathies: ‘He was a pacifist … Maybe [Sylvia] was misremembering, or angry towards him.'”

A pacifist?  That knocks a whole out of the Nazi theory altogether.

If you read between the lines, however, a darker story emerges, and not about Otto:

The FBI files, headed “Pro-German”, recorded that, as an “alien enemy”, Otto lost teaching positions, having graduated from Northwestern College and the University of Washington, Seattle. Later however, he did obtain positions.

In one passage, they noted his “morbid disposition.” In another:

“He has stated … that he will return to Germany after the War, and seems to have assumed a rather pro-German attitude towards [it] on account of losing his positions.” But later they commented he had “a rather indifferent attitude” and mentioned a denial of saying he would go back to Germany after the war.

He also told investigators that his parents came to the US “because of the better conditions” but defended his homeland, saying: “Some things are rotten in Germany, but not all; that the German people and their character is not altogether rotten.”

FBI officers reported “his brooding over the bad luck he is having making a living” due to his nationality and that he felt persecuted.

So apparently he experienced some discrimination for his German heritage.  No wonder he was “brooding.”  We’ve seen a lot of such brooding given the high unemployment numbers today.

Mel Brooks's version in 1968

But Nazi?  This is a horse that won’t run.  It may, however, indicate that he was prone to depression, which may suggest that he did indeed pass on something of a curse to his brilliant daughter.

He was also, of course, posthumously stigmatized by her in “Daddy”:

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You –

The critic A. Alvarez recalls that Sylvia Plath described this poem as ‘light verse’:

When she first read me this poem a few days after she wrote it, she called it a piece of ‘light verse’. It obviously isn’t, yet equally obviously it also isn’t the racking personal confession that a mere description or précis of it might make it sound.

Was it Alvarez or someone else who recalled visiting Plath and a friend, rolling on the floor with laughter as they read the acid verse, days after it was written?  Is it at least theoretically possible that she was angry, grief-stricken, abandoned, mortally wounded – but still found momentary release in black, black comedy?  Over-the-top?  Certainly. Offensive?  Undoubtedly.  It was years before Mel Brooks would make the same kind of material in The Producers.  In this, as in everything else, she seemed to be ahead of her time.

Postscript on 8/21:  Peter K. Steinberg wrote to the Book Haven to identify Clarissa Roche as the Plath pal in the paragraph above who was ROTFL.  Thanks!  And over at Frank Wilson‘s Books Inq., Russ Bowden of Poetry & Poets in Rags made this insightful comment: “Read in light of the Book Haven article, Plath’s poem Daddy seems to make light of and consciously use how her father was mis-characterized, the prejudices against him: Daddy.” Thanks, too!  And Andrew Shields writes to say that the episode reminds him of Franz Kafka reading his story to Max Brod and laughing … about which I know nothing.