Archive for December, 2015

Is France on the verge of a nervous breakdown? A report from the land of 182 billion kisses a year.

Monday, December 28th, 2015
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Home sweet home

Whew! It’s still there.

Remember when we wrote about Marcia de Sanctis‘s award-winning 100 Places to Visit in France? Remember our happy talk about Marilyn Yalom‘s acclaimed How the French Invented Love? Here is its opposite. Jonathan Miller offers a more curmudgeonly take on all things French. France: A Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Gibson Square Books) offers many reasons why the nation is going to the dogs, and you’d best stay home and avoid adding to its problems.

The British author is long familiar to me, long before the days he was a columnist for the London Times. Back at the Michigan Daily at the University of Michigan, he was one of the gods a class or two before me. During a return visit to Ann Arbor in September, we met again at the upstairs editorial room of 420 Maynard – where the old teletype machines for AP, UPI, and Reuters once clattered through the night. (His fierce advocacy made the Daily one of the early American adopters of London-based Reuters.)

He told me about his book, and he told me about his life in France. Then he sent the volume to me on his smartphone. It begins this way:

“I recently made an appointment to visit my lawyer. I was told to ignore the sign on the front door announcing that the office was on strike. It was a national day of action protesting proposed reforms to the legal profession. Instead I should knock discreetly at the side entrance and someone would let me in. The office was pretending to be on strike, while conducting business as usual. In France, not everything is always as it seems. In a country where people claim to be revolutionaries but are terrified of change, boast of their social model while condemning young people to mass unemployment, and claim to be the best cooks in the world, while a million people a day eat at McDonald’s, there is much that is paradoxical, even psychotic.

“When I bought my starter chateau in France 15 years ago, equipped with rusty O-level French, I was seduced by the beauty of the country, discouraged by the difficulty of communicating effectively with French people and understanding French media and political, economic and social discourse, and entranced by the otherness of everything.

miller1And so the story begins. In 2014, the village of Caux overwhelmingly elected him to their local council. The first problem was kissing: “Who to kiss, how many times, when? When I was elected to my local council, with 10 male members and nine women, it was apparent that all the men were required to kiss all of the women at the start of every meeting. Some of the men, who had known each other a long time, also kissed one another. In our part of France, three kisses are the norm. Hence, before any business could be transacted, at least 270 kisses were exchanged. The maths are fuzzy but one can estimate that the population of France (65 million), each kissing, say, 10 times per day (this is just a guess), could collectively be kissing up to 3.5 billion times a week, exchanging some 182 billion kisses a year.”

Inspired by Ambrose Bierce‘s Devil’s Dictionary, Jonathan began an alphabetical list to catalogue the faults of the charming French.

Houellebecq

Sells too many books. (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

Where to begin? The acclaimed author Michel Houellebecq? “He is hated by many of the French literati because he sells so many books.” Bernard-Henri Lévy? “The global brand of French public intellectual,” he wrote, noting that “Houellebecq, his frenemy, has written of BHL: ‘You dishonour even the white shirts you wear. An intimate of the powerful who, since childhood has wallowed in obscene wealth, you are… a philosopher without an original idea.’”

Thanks to Jonathan, I find that I have already made too many social mistakes to count:  “If kissing is reserved for people who you already know, poignée de main (shaking hands) is ubiquitous and you will shake hands with anyone with whom you have even a passing acquaintance. Walking through my village to the bakery in the morning, I will shake hands with up to a dozen people. Failure to observe this ritual can be taken as an insult. Arriving at work, it is customary to shake everyone’s hand. I find this custom extremely agreeable as it establishes a direct and human contact that is a formal recognition of mutual respect. It is typically accompanied by the phrase comment allez vous? (how are you?) or more informally, comment ça va? (how’s it going?). … The handshake must always be accompanied by eye contact. Those who you do not know must also be acknowledged. At the very least, you must offer a bonjour (good day). If you ask a conductor at a railway station for directions without prefacing your question with a bonjour, he or she is likely to be insulted.”

Lévy

Try navy blue. (Photo: Itzik Edri)

“These rituals are indispensable social signals. When I am in England I reflexively shake hands with many people who do not expect it, evidence, I suppose, that I am going native. It goes the other way, too. Marie-Jo, a French friend who has lived for 20 years in England, tells me she once asked an official at the Gare du Nord for advice, forgetting the obligatory bonjour, and could tell at once that the official was distressed. ‘I felt ashamed,’ she later admitted. ‘It was as if I had ignored his humanity.’”

I am an American, however. We cut to the chase. Humanity be damned. I fear that after all my faux pas I will be turned away at the border.

Lest one think that the author has soured on the nation, his Vive la France! at the end will suggest that he won’t be leaving his chateau anytime soon. Quietly tucked away in the acknowledgements, he salutes the “glorious countryside surrounding Caux.”

“Walking the flanks of the ancient volcanos among the endless vines, the orchids, the wild fennel and the abundant fig trees, has been inspirational and therapeutic.” Yeah, he’s going to stay. And I’ll be back. The rest of you? Either cancel your plane tickets or pucker up.

A Christmas Carol: Dickens and Nietzsche and Freud – oy vey!

Thursday, December 24th, 2015
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marleyWhat better way to celebrate Christmas than with a secular Turkish-American writer discussing Charles Dickens‘s A Christmas Carol, in light of modern (Jewish) Freudian psychotherapy?

Elif Batuman tried explaining the relationship of the book to her therapist, but he didn’t get it: “The Ghost [of Christmas Past] in particular reminded me of someone, with his kindness and spookiness, the way he said almost nothing, except to repeat back to Scrooge his own remarks. A few days later, I figured it out, and told my therapist: the Ghost reminded me of him. He didn’t reply, only smiled gently, in a way that I interpreted to mean, ‘I’m an Israeli Freudian, please don’t make me talk about A Christmas Carol.'”

She explains:

At first, it seemed strange to me that such a Jewish discourse should be anticipated so plainly by a Christmas story—one written a decade before Freud was born. But when I thought about it more, it started to seem less strange. Freud read and admired Dickens; his first gift to his fiancée, in 1882, was a copy of David Copperfield. Why wouldn’t he have read A Christmas Carol, which is so much shorter? O.K., he was Jewish, but he was secular. He had a Christmas tree. When I was little, my parents also bought a tree every year, and we would put presents under it, and it was a little bit magical, even though we weren’t Christian. Wasn’t that a big part of Freudianism: that magic is often displaced, but never destroyed?

Sigmund_Freud

Was he just recycling Dickens?

Read the “The Ghosts of Christmas: Was Scrooge the First Psychotherapy Patient?” in the New Yorker here. She describes the darker side of Christmas and Dickens’s dystopian world, but some argue that the classic Christmas story It’s a Wonderful Life does the same thing. According to Wendell Jamieson of the New York Times, the movie portrays “a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.” Well, we wrote about that a few Christmases ago here. This theme was picked up in the mock poster below, which is making the Facebook rounds.

Dante_Giotto

Was Dickens just recycling him?

On the other hand, was A Christmas Carol as a Victorian spin on Dante Alighieri’s much older tale?

“First of all, both main characters begin in a dark wood—vividly illustrated as such in the Comedy and similarly rendered in chimney tops, alleyways, and dense fog in the Carol. The Pilgrim and the Miser have lost their way. Hence, they are taken on a mystical journey for the sake of their reclamation: Dante through Hell, Purgatory, & Heaven; Scrooge through the Past, Present, and Future. The three beasts that Dante meets before his journey begins (leopard, lion, and wolf) function similarly to the omens that Scrooge encounters on Christmas Eve: the hearse, the transformed door-knocker, the ringing bell.”

Read more about that here.

Whatever spin you put on the day, the Book Haven wishes you a Merry Christmas!

miserablelife

Rescued from oblivion: selected poems from the early and late Dunstan Thompson

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015
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thompsonHere at last is Dunstan Thompson‘s Here at Last Is LoveIt’s been a group effort to get this slim volume published. Author Gregory Wolfe, California poet laureate Dana Gioia, Thompson’s longtime companion Philip Trower, and others have rescued the poet from oblivion.

Thompson (1918-75) was an American poet who had risen to fame in the New York literary scene of the 1940s. After his wartime experience, he all but disappeared in a remote Norfolk village called Cley. His poetry was no longer sought after and published. The problem was, as Dana Gioia wrote, that there were two Dunstan Thompsons: the poetry of early Thompson of the 1940s is “expansive, ornate, dramatic, and confessional.” The later poetry is “austere, urbane, controlled, and quietly confident.” (I’ve written about Gioia’s essay, “Two Poets Named Dunstan Thompson,” which is now the afterword of the book, here.)

According to Kevin Prufer, co-editor of Dunstan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Late American Master: “Here, for the first time, Gregory Wolfe draws draws poems from the poet’s entire writing life, including his harrowing, erotic wartime poetry and his almost entirely unavailable, more reflective work of maturity. In doing so, he brings to new audiences the work of an essential mid-century poet…”

Greg Wolfe, the book’s editor, has written a graceful introduction to this small volume (128 pages), but this commonplace sentence is the one that stopped me. It describes the poet’s life in rural Norfolk: “A steady stream of visitors – British and American – came to Cley. Thompson’s Harvard friend Billy Abrahams came for many visits along with his partner, the writer Peter Stansky.” Could there be two literary Peter Stanskys in the world, I wondered?

Naturally, I wrote Stanford’s Orwell scholar, Peter Stansky, right away to clear things up. He replied within an hour or so: “Many visits is an exaggeration. The first I remember fairly well, and we may have gone a second time. Dunstan was a contemporary of Billy’s at Harvard and one of his closest friends.  Dunstan had gone to England as a soldier during the war and may not have come back to the U.S.A. except briefly, but I’m not sure of that. If so, Billy would have seen him in New York after the war.

“I met Billy in 1961 and some years after that we went to England to work on Journey to the Frontier. We went to see Dunstan and his partner Philip Trower, a very nice Englishman and writer. Dunstan who had been, I believe, a rather irreverent poet had now become a devout Catholic and Philip had converted.  We had a very jolly time but I can’t remember much in particular. I bravely swam in the sea. We ate and drank well. They took us to Houghton, the great Norfolk Walpole house, where we were shown around by the Marchioness of Cholmondeley [that would be the former Sybil Sassoon, cousin to the poet Siegfried Sassoon]. Philip had been at Eton with her son.”

“Little did I know that years later after her death I would write her biography [i.e., The Worlds of Philip and Sybil (2003)], so in retrospect, it was terrific that I had met her. I have a feeling that we may have visited a Catholic English shrine at Walsingham.  The main point was for Billy and Dunstan to talk about the old days. They may have been somewhat wild, although I don’t remember anything specific mentioned,” he said.

“Billy remained in touch with Dunstan, though I don’t think either were good correspondents. It was very touching that on Dunstan’s death, he left Billy his Bulova watch, some books including, I think, an early edition of Byron I have somewhere and, most wonderfully, he very kindly left me specifically a print by Paul Nash, an artist I much admire that I have on my walls.”

Peter Stansky also gave Dana Gioia several books that Dunstan had inscribed to Billy Abrahams. The Stanford Libraries printed a selection of Abraham’s poems to commemorate Peter’s donation of Abrahams’ papers to Stanford.

The title poem is, as Greg notes, a short “shape poem” called “On a Crucifix”:

See
Here at last
Is
Love.

443px-Geertgen_tot_Sint_Jans_002It’s one of the last poems in the volume. In keeping with the season, here’s Thompson’s short “Fragment for Christmas,” another poem from the very late Thompson:

.

Dear Lord, and only ever faithful friend,
For love of us rejected, tortured, torn –
And we were there; who on the third day rose
Again, and still looks after us; descend
Into each wrecked unstable house; be born
In us, a Child among Your former foes.

Berkeley poet Chana Bloch: “There’s no point in wanting to be a different kind of a writer than you are.”

Saturday, December 19th, 2015
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Chana Bloch-Peg SkorpinskiWe’ve written about Berkeley poet Chana Bloch before (here), but it’s been a few years since I spoke with her at the university, so I was happy to get an update at the “Talking Writing” website. Poet and translator Bloch, who has just released a “new and selected” Swimming in the Rain this year, was a longtime professor at Oakland’s Mills College. This first question (or rather, a comment, really) caught my eye – I’m constantly chastising myself because I’m not the fastest, most prolific, most profound writer in the English-speaking world. Apparently I’m not alone. Then I was caught by her list of favored poets.

Excerpt from her Q&A with Carol Dorf:

TW: I’m a slow writer.

CB: Slow is not necessarily bad. There’s no point in wanting to be a different kind of a writer than you are, though I must admit I’ve envied poets who are quicker, more prolific. I myself rarely stay with my early drafts. I tend to go over and over a poem—revising, distilling, trying to get at the essence.

TW: Most of your poems are brief lyrics. How do your longer sequence poems function compared with those that represent a single moment?

CB: I tend to write very short poems. Most of them fit on one page. Sometimes, a group of those poems asks to be stitched together. For example, I wrote a number of poems about my experience of ovarian cancer in 1986 that were then published in various journals. At some point, I realized that, by bringing them together in a sequence I called “In the Land of the Body” (from The Past Keeps Changing, Sheep Meadow Press, 1992), I could offer differing perspectives on the experience: that of my then-husband, our children, the radiologist, the surgeon.

TW: Which poets have been especially important to you?

swimmingInTheRainCB: George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Yehuda Amichai, Tomas Tranströmer, Elizabeth Bishop, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, Charles Simic, Gerard Manley Hopkins—not necessarily in that order.

George Herbert was an early influence. In grad school, I fell in love with his work. We made a very odd couple. I was a Jewish girl from the Bronx, and he was a seventeenth-century Anglican minister. But his poetry was about the inner life, and that drew me. There was a human depth in his poems that I found very appealing. He wrote about the self with an unsparing candor—about his irresolution, his inner contradictions. And I loved the music in his poetry.

I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation about his work, and then a book—Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible (University of California Press, 1985)—about how he transforms the biblical sources in his poetry. Seeing him take a verse from the Bible and combine it with something from his life was like watching a mind in the very process of creation.

Read the whole thing here.

Happy birthday, Jane Austen! Here’s how she’s like the Beatles.

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015
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austenLos Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele celebrates Jane Austen’s birthday today. Let’s join him:

If any writer put in the work, it was Jane Austen, who was born on this day in 1775. From age 11, she wrote tirelessly, trying out different genres and styles, coming at her subjects from every conceivable angle. But she didn’t break into print until she was 36, and her career as a published author was compressed into the six years between 1811 and her death in 1817. She may remind us of the Beatles, who spent countless hours rehearsing and performing in clubs, and then burst on the scene in 1962 and ran the table for eight glorious years before breaking up. Another parallel between Austen and her musical countrymen is that both drew heavily on available models while producing work that was utterly fresh and magical—work that sounded, as Ray Charles said of the Beatles, like nothing you’d heard before. (The Beatles absorbed such influences as R&B, the skiffle craze, music hall standards, Chuck Berry, and Brill Building Pop, while Austen synthesized the psychological intimacy of Samuel Richardson, the clever satirical plotting of Henry Fielding, and the watchfulness of Fanny Burney.)

Discerning readers recognized immediately that Austen had enlarged and transformed English fiction. Walter Scott, the reigning king of the novel, confided to his diary, “That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.” He added, “The big Bow-Wow strain [the novel of adventure] I can do myself like any now going; but [she has] the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment.”

Happy, birthday, Jane! (At right, a watercolor of Jane, at the age of 28 or 29, by her sister Cassandra.)

Stanford says farewell to French theorist René Girard on Jan. 19

Monday, December 14th, 2015
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Memchu

Meet you there. (Photo: King of Hearts/Wikipedia)

A memorial service will be held Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 2 p.m. in Stanford Memorial Church for the renowned French theorist René Girard, who died in November at age 91. We have written about him so many places on the Book Haven, it is hard to know where to begin, but you might try here and here and here and here. He was one of the 40 immortels of the prestigious Académie Française, and one of the leading thinkers of our era – a provocative sage who bypassed prevailing orthodoxies and “isms” to offer a bold, sweeping vision of human nature, human history and human destiny. According to Stanford’s Hans Ulrich “Sepp” Gumbrecht, “Despite the intellectual structures built around him, he’s a solitaire. His work has a steel-like quality – strong, contoured, clear. It’s like a rock. It will be there and it will last.” We couldn’t agree more.

rene-girard

Au revoir, René.

He will be missed by many – in fact, already is missed by many. It’s bound to be a crowded event, but there is always room for one more. The Stanford Memorial Church is one of the easiest places to find on the Stanford campus – you can see it as you drive down the campus’s landmark Palm Drive. The century-old building has been called “the University’s architectural crown jewel.”

Parking? That’s another matter. Arrive early.

Read his full obituary here.

Happy birthday, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn!

Friday, December 11th, 2015
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solzhenitsyn4Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born today, December 11, in 1918.

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

From The Gulag Archipelago

– Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (Dec. 11, 1918 – Aug. 3, 2008)

Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel lecture: “Evil kept a watchful eye on us.”

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015
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Svetlana Alexievich gave her Nobel lecture yesterday in Stockholm. Excerpts from “On the Battle Lost”:

Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think – how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don’t appreciate it, we aren’t surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk … I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.

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“I am a human ear.” (Photo: Elke Wetzig)

The road to this podium has been long – almost forty years, going from person to person, from voice to voice. I can’t say that I have always been up to following this path. Many times I have been shocked and frightened by human beings. I have experienced delight and revulsion. I have sometimes wanted to forget what I heard, to return to a time when I lived in ignorance. More than once, however, I have seen the sublime in people, and wanted to cry.

I lived in a country where dying was taught to us from childhood. We were taught death. We were told that human beings exist in order to give everything they have, to burn out, to sacrifice themselves. We were taught to love people with weapons. Had I grown up in a different country, I couldn’t have traveled this path. Evil is cruel, you have to be inoculated against it. We grew up among executioners and victims. Even if our parents lived in fear and didn’t tell us everything – and more often than not they told us nothing – the very air of our life was poisoned. Evil kept a watchful eye on us.

I have written five books, but I feel that they are all one book. A book about the history of a utopia …

Theodor W. Adorno

In shock.

Varlam Shalamov once wrote: “I was a participant in the colossal battle, a battle that was lost, for the genuine renewal of humanity.” I reconstruct the history of that battle, its victories and its defeats. The history of how people wanted to build the Heavenly Kingdom on earth. Paradise! The City of the Sun! In the end, all that remained was a sea of blood, millions of ruined human lives. There was a time, however, when no political idea of the 20th century was comparable to communism (or the October Revolution as its symbol), a time when nothing attracted Western intellectuals and people all around the world more powerfully or emotionally. Raymond Aron called the Russian Revolution the “opium of intellectuals.” But the idea of communism is at least two thousand years old. We can find it in Plato‘s teachings about an ideal, correct state; in Aristophanes’ dreams about a time when “everything will belong to everyone.” … In Thomas More and Tommaso Campanella … Later in Saint-Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen. There is something in the Russian spirit that compels it to try to turn these dreams into reality.

***

Right after the war, Theodor Adorno wrote, in shock: “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” My teacher, Ales Adamovich, whose name I mention today with gratitude, felt that writing prose about the nightmares of the 20th century was sacrilege. Nothing may be invented. You must give the truth as it is. A “super-literature” is required. The witness must speak. Nietzsche‘s words come to mind – no artist can live up to reality. He can’t lift it.

Logo_of_the_Nobel_prizeIt always troubled me that the truth doesn’t fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There’s a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world. Dostoevsky thought that humanity knows much, much more about itself than it has recorded in literature. So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history. I am often told, even now, that what I write isn’t literature, it’s a document. What is literature today? Who can answer that question? We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. Everything overflows its banks: music, painting – even words in documents escape the boundaries of the document. There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other. Witnessеs are not impartial. In telling a story, humans create, they wrestle time like a sculptor does marble. They are actors and creators.

Dostoevskij_1872I’m interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven’t had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened. We are afraid of doing that, we’re not up to coping with our past. In Dostoevsky‘s Demons, Shatov says to Stavrogin at the beginning of their conversation: “We are two creatures who have met in boundless infinity … for the last time in the world. So drop that tone and speak like a human being. At least once, speak with a human voice.”

That is more or less how my conversations with my protagonists begin. People speak from their own time, of course, they can’t speak out of a void. But it is difficult to reach the human soul, the path is littered with television and newspapers, and the superstitions of the century, its biases, its deceptions.

Read the whole thing here.

Best Christmas carol ever? Christina Rosetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Sunday, December 6th, 2015
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A guest post from Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele, on a Christmas theme:

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Tim Steele

When in 2008 the BBC asked choirmasters in the United Kingdom and United States to name their favorite Christmas carol, Harold Darke’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” topped their list. The poem first appeared in 1872 in a holiday issue of Scribner’s Monthly, which had asked Rossetti for a contribution appropriate to the season. Though she never collected the poem in a book, her brother William included it in the edition of her Poetical Works that he published in 1904, ten years after her death. The poetry-loving Gustav Holst recognized the poem’s choral possibilities and in 1906 did a setting of it that some prefer to Darke’s, which dates from 1911.

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She was troubled. (Photo: Lewis Carroll)

For all its lovely directness, “In the Bleak Midwinter” reflects Rossetti’s troubled religious faith. An Anglo-Catholic influenced by Calvinism and Adventism, she found God the Father terrifying and remote but identified with the humanity and suffering of Jesus. In describing the nativity, she mentions the attendant celestial spirits but stresses the earthier elements of the scene—the tangible milk and love that Mary gives her child and the comforting companionship of the animals in the stable. This attraction to natural manifestations of divinity may remind us of Emily Dickinson, who was Rossetti’s nearly exact contemporary and of whose work Rossetti was an early champion. (Both poets were born in the bleak, midwintery December of 1830—Rossetti on the 5th, Dickinson on the 10th—though Dickinson died in 1886, eight years before Rossetti.)

Below is the text of Rossetti’s carol, plus a performance of it in Darke’s setting.

“A Christmas Carol”

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow has fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter,
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Throng’d the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,—
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

– Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894)

BREAKING NEWS! California’s new poet laureate is Dana Gioia, former NEA chair!

Friday, December 4th, 2015
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Dana-Gioia-with-cat

Happy about the new job: Dana with Doctor Gatsby. (Photo: Star Black)

I’ve wondered why Dana Gioia has never been California’s poet laureate. After all, he is a genuine California native, born in Hawthorne, a gritty little burg outside L.A. As former National Endowment for the Arts chair from 2003 to 2009, as a leading poet who has won a number of awards, as a provocative critic, and as a champion of poetry (and indeed all the arts), who could better serve in the role?

Wonder no more: Gov. Jerry Brown today announced the appointment of Dana, who is the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.

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Champion of Poetry Out Loud

Dana just sent me an email to let me know of his appointment. His statement to the Book Haven:  “I’m honored by this appointment. It’s hard for me to describe how much I love California. My life has taken me to many other places – Boston, New York, Washington – but in every case there came a point when I decided to quit and come back home. I can’t imagine anything more meaningful than to represent my art in my place.”

The office of the California poet laureate was created in 2001 to inspire an appreciation for the art of poetry throughout the state. During his two-year term, Gioia will provide public readings in classrooms, board rooms and other places. What else does he plan to do? I asked him: “It would be very easy to spend my time as laureate in a few big cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. But California is a big and diverse state. Most of it is rural. I want to visit as much of the state as possible. I especially want to focus on the high schools and public libraries. Those are the great civic institutions of literacy.”

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Stanford’s 2007 commencement speaker (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

We’ve written about Dana before: read about his last collection of poems, Pity the Beautiful here, and on his recent essay about poet Dunstan Thompson here, and on whether America is getting dumber here, and a few words on his mentor Elizabeth Bishop here, and on receiving the Laetare Medal here, among other places.

“Dana will bring the voice of a native son of California to his new role,” Craig Watson, director of the California Arts Council, said in a statement. “And he’ll also help our state’s young people learn to explore and develop their own voices — just as he did when he created the Poetry Out Loud high school recitation program while at the NEA — a program which has greatly impacted California’s young people for ten years.”  (We wrote about Dana and Poetry Out Loud here.)

His newest collection of poetry, 99 Poems: New & Selected will be out in March.

He two-year appointment succeeds Juan Felipe Herrera, who is now the U.S. Poet Laureate. Now, I’ve always wondered why Dana Gioia wasn’t made the U.S. poet laureate…