Archive for May, 2017

Lonesome George’s lesson: light verse is not always a laughing matter.

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017
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A lonely life on the Galapagos for George (Photo: Mike Weston)

Two friends have the spotlight today: Patrick Kurp, one of our favorite bloggers over at the incomparable Anecdotal Evidence, writes about the poet X.J. Kennedy, who turns 88 this year in the today’s Los Angeles Review of Books. The review, “‘A Sweetness in This Sense’: On X. J. Kennedy’s That Swing: Poems, 2008–2016,” spotlights the latest collection of his poems. Well, we’ve written Joe Kennedy’s thoughts about aging here, on the occasion of one of his previous birthdays. And we’ll most likely have more to say about him after the West Chester Poetry Conference next month, where he will be a guest of honor. 

Here’s what Patrick has to say about Joe, aging, and the light verse for which the poet is renowned:

thatswing“Kennedy’s standing as a poet recalls the late Thomas Berger’s as a novelist. Berger, the author of some of the funniest novels in the language, always denied being a comic writer, because, in our culture, humor is regarded as suspiciously frivolous. But consider the serious humor of Kennedy’s “Lonesome George,” devoted to a giant tortoise, the last of its species, kept in a pen at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos Islands:

No mate for him exists.
.  Last one of his subspecies,
he solemnly persists
.  in turning into feces
eelgrass brown and dry,
.  spine-sprinkled cactus leaves.
Straining to gulp a fly,
.  dejectedly retrieves
blunt head. Dead-ending male,
.  lone emblem of despair,
he slumps on his kneecaps, his tail
.  antennaing the air.
For a long moment we bind
.  sympathetic looks,
we holdouts of our kind,
.  like rhymed lines, printed books.

XJKennedy

Da man.

“Lonesome George, like his author, persists in doing what he does best, and without self-pity. Humor has many timbres and tones, and Kennedy plays with most of them, from the scatological to rarefied wit. Has anyone before him rhymed “subspecies” and “feces”? Kennedy’s gift for concision is a marvel (the meeting of poet and tortoise could easily be a fleshed-out essay or story, and much would be lost), as is the way he bends and shapes his basic iambic trimeter line. In a note to the poem, Kennedy, who visited George in 2011, delivers the punch line: “In June 2012, a few days after this poem appeared in a magazine, George died, leaving no progeny.” Light verse isn’t always a laughing matter.”

Read the whole thing here.

Au revoir, novelist Neil Gordon (1958-2017), who wrote about the purity of conviction, the reality of engagement

Friday, May 26th, 2017
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The writer Neil Gordon has died, after a long battle with cancer on May 19 in New York City.

My acquaintance with him was slight, but memorable. We had a conversation over coffee in Paris, when I was a visiting writer at the American University of Paris, during Neil’s term as dean there.

But I knew another side of him. By one of those odd coincidences that are considered far-fetched when we read them in Dickens, Neil turned out to be the brother-in-law of a longstanding friend, the writer Eren Göknar. Neil was married to Eren’s sister, Esin Göknar, photo editor of the New York Times Magazine, who had cared for him during his final illness. His brother-in-law, Erdağ Göknara translator of Orhan Pamuk, was a recent fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Neil was born in South Africa in 1958. His family emigrated two years later to escape the apartheid government. “His mother, Sheila Gordon, was also a writer, and his father Harley Gordon was a dedicated physician who cared for the underserved all his life,” Eren told me. “Sheila wrote a delightful book about Neil called Monster in the Mailbox, about his waiting and waiting for the monster he bought through a newspaper ad. Remember the ads for X-ray vision glasses in the back of comic books in the ’60s?”

GordonHe was primarily a historical and political novelist. He published four novels, one set in the history of the Holocaust and the state of Israel; (Sacrifice of Isaac) the second about Israel, America, and the arms trade (The Gunrunner’s Daughter); the third about the radical Left in America during the War in Vietnam (The Company You Keep), which was made into a 2012 film with Robert Redford and Shia LaBoeuf. The fourth about the story of the American Left, from the Spanish Civikl War to Occupy Wall Street (You’re a Big Girl Now).

He worked for many years at The New York Review of Books and was the founding Literary Editor of The Boston Review. He spent three years in Paris serving as dean, vice President, and professor of comparative literature at the American University of Paris, where I met him. He returned to the U.S. and taught at the New School.

He wrote: “My courses, whether writing or literature classes, like my novels, focus on the intersection between individuals and the political history that surrounds them; on the representation of lived political and historical experience in fiction; on the mechanics of the sympathetic imagination; as well as on the forms of the literary, political, and cultural essay.”

He has a PhD in French literature from Yale, but he had his academic roots in Michigan, where he took his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and bagged two Hopwood Writing Awards along the way (like Humble Moi), and also met his future wife, Asin.

In 1994, he became the first literary editor of the Boston Review. A couple links to his work there: an essay on John Fante and a moving autobiographical reflection, “The Last Time I Saw Yaakov.”

From Joshua Cohen‘s eloquent tribute, over at the Boston Review:

Neil wrote four very fine novels (Sacrifice of Isaac remains my favorite), all thrillers mixing strong narratives, deeply-researched history, and serious political ambition. Whatever the topic, I always heard Neil wrestling with the same problem: about purity of conviction and worldy engagement. Sometimes he wrote admiringly of the purity, sometimes he worried about its degeneration into fanaticism, and always he was uneasy about the distance it created from the individual lives that ultimately matter (as it had distanced his young German friend Yaakov). So you will not be surprised to hear that Neil’s voice always sounded a little anxious.

Until our final phone conversation in February of this year. Neil was dying of cancer: his medical options had run out and while he was trying to keep his hopes up, he knew that he did not have much more time. What I heard this time was not anxiety but calm gratitude, all focused on the people—largely the people in his family—who had helped to enable him to have such a good life. He was free from worries about purity and survival and filled instead with an affirming sense of acceptance and an unambivalent love. Neil told me that he was, finally and deeply, happy.

He will be missed by many, but most of all his wife Esin, his daughter and son Leila and Jake Gordon, both born in New York City, a sister Philippa, a brother David, and nieces Sophie, Eve, Anne, Leyna and Dillon Lightman.

Joseph Brodsky celebrated in Russia via his friends, Carl and Ellendea Proffer

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017
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Carl, Ellendea, Brodsky copy

Carl and Ellendea Proffer with Joseph Brodsky in Ann Arbor, circa 1974.

Today would have been Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 77th birthday. We’ll celebrate with a note from his friend, Ellendea Proffer Teasley, co-founder of Ardis Books with her late husband, Prof. Carl Proffer of University of Michigan. Ellendea has just returned from another triumphant tour of Russia, where she is being treated like a goddess. The Proffers ran a publishing house that published the best of Russian literature when the Soviet houses did not. Now Russians are turning to her to learn a chunk of their own literary history. She is speaking to standing-room-only gatherings.

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Ellendea speaking at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.

A few months ago she made a tour for Brodsky Among Us, newly published by Corpus. Now she is on tour for the publication of Carl Proffer‘s 1983 Widows of Russianewly translated and published in Russia – and selling very, very well. The book describes the Proffers’ meetings in Soviet-era Russia with the great literary widows of Russia, including Lily Brik and Nadezhda Mandelstam. It also includes Carl’s unfinished memoir of Joseph Brodsky (he died of cancer in 1984). His book being widely quoted on the internet. While others have written about Madame Mandelstam and Madame Brik and others since Carl’s memoir, she tells them, “Read it, to see the character of the man who was so important to your culure.”

Her message: “Do not make idols of people.” In today’s Russia, she told me, Joseph Brodsky is providing a model in how to resist censorship, and even outright oppression. Of course she speaks Russian fluently.

Here’s another bit of good news: Ellendea’s Brodsky Among Usa runaway bestseller in Russia, is in English at last. Here is a blurb on the back cover from an excellent article in The Nation“Ellendea Proffer Teasley, in her short new memoir [Brodsky Among Us] offers a different view of the poet. It’s an iconoclastic and spellbinding portrait, some of it revelatory. Teasley’s Brodsky is both darker and brighter than the one we thought we knew, and he is the stronger for it, as a poet and a person. . . Brodsky Among Us appears to have been written in a single exhalation of memory; it is frank, personal, loving, and addictive: a minor masterpiece of memoir, and an important world-historical record.”  (Let me dissemble no more, gentle reader, it is Humble Moi who wrote the Nation article. You can read the whole thing here.)

I opened the English edition at random, and ran across this passage:

On Joseph Brodsky’s first morning in the United States I came downstairs to find a bewildered poet. He held his head with both hands and said: “Everything is surreal.”

It was surreal for me as well. Here he was in our little townhouse decorated in seventies style—wall-to-wall carpet, a “Mediterranean” couch, and my mother-in-law’s dining set, now used as a conference table.

brodsky-among-us“I got up this morning,” he said, humor mixing with alienation, “and I see Ian sitting on the kitchen counter. He puts bread in a metal box. Then the toast pops up by itself. I don’t understand anything.”

He had arrived at Detroit airport the day before, straight from London and his first meetings with famous British poets. And now he was here in Ann Arbor, which in no way corresponded to his imaginings; he really was like that literary frog who woke up and found he was in the Gobi Desert. Like many émigrés, he had imagined this country to be like his minus all the bad things. Nothing could have prepared him for the strangeness of this town, and the place he would occupy in it.

He later said, he came to be glad that his start was in Ann Arbor rather than New York, because he had time to adapt and get his English up to speed. Nonetheless, the early days were difficult for him, his eye could not get used to the scale of a university town of 100,000 (30,000 of them students at the University of Michigan). Soviet Russia was a centralized universe, with only two cities that mattered. America had many centers of power, and some of them looked like this town. He was intelligent enough to understand that he had entered a culture of low-context. The only thing unifying the diverse world of Americans was popular culture, and even that was weaker than centrally-controlled Soviet propaganda.

Ann Arbor would be Joseph’s home base until 1981; he would come back often even after moving away, always warmly welcomed. Joseph complained to Russian friends in the beginning that Ann Arbor was a desert, but actually it was something far, far worse: it was where he was forced to learn many new things, sometimes against his own inclinations. We taught him how to live independently in America—opening a bank account, writing checks, buying food, driving—and it was hard for him, he had no wife or mother to see to these things. All he had was us, and we were both working full-time, so he had to learn quickly.

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Ellendea interviewed at Moscow art museum.

Teaching Joseph how to drive was a Pninian experience, full of risk and comedy. An epic could be written about the number of people who took him for the driving exam (I think he failed the written test five times); he wanted to cheat but Carl wouldn’t let him—then he was ashamed he had wanted to. He had some spectacular accidents (once he jumped a median strip and ended up facing the wrong way), but he managed not to hurt himself or others.

Ann Arbor was the place he came to the full realization that he would not see his country again. Joseph had left his parents behind and now they were hostages, one of the many reasons he indulged in no direct political activity. (His two children—Andrei Basmanov and Anastasia Kuznetsova, the daughter of the ballerina Maria Kuznetsova)—did not have his last name, so they were somewhat safer.) Joseph missed his family, he was used to living in that tiny room carved off from theirs. On the other hand, he felt freer than he ever had in his life. (I recognized him in Bellow’s comment that only in America did the Jewish sons get to leave their parents’ houses.)

brodskyamongusHe was not cut off from his world in Leningrad: friends and scholars ferried letters, money and presents to them and information and letters back. There was always someone going or coming, including us, and there were many friends in Leningrad checking up on his parents and reporting to Joseph by letter and telephone.

It took Joseph about six months to people his Michigan world—Russians found him, American poets found him, interested graduate students and other professors found him; he found the girls himself.

He was almost never alone, but he experienced the loneliness of a man surrounded by people yet aware that the context has changed. That loneliness had a special flavor made up of longing and disgust, and can be seen most prominently in his “Lullabye of Cape Cod.” I know that Joseph had experienced this sort of loneliness before emigration, but the change sharpened the experience.

The fear that loneliness forced up from his subconscious is most searingly expressed in “The Hawk’s Cry in Autumn”; when I read this poem from 1975, I understood that the poet was the hawk who dies because has flown too high for survival: “what am I doing at such a height?” he asks himself.

Later Joseph gave interviews in which he talked about the years in Michigan as the only childhood he ever had.

birthday cakeIt returned me to his own words on the experience, at a commencement address in 1988: “I’m no gypsy; I can’t divine your future, but it’s pretty obvious to any naked eye that you have a lot going for you. …  you’ve been educated at the University of Michigan, in my view the best school in the nation, if only because sixteen years ago it gave a badly needed break to the laziest man on earth, who, on top of that, spoke practically no English – to yours truly. I taught here for some eight years; the language in which I address you today I learned here; some of my former colleagues are still on the payroll, others retired, and still others sleep the eternal sleep int he earth of Ann Arbor that now carries you. Clearly this place is of extraordinary sentimental value for me; and so it will become, in a dozen years or so, for you.”

Happy birthday, Joseph.

Brodsky&ProffersSan Francisco_1972 copy

The Proffers with the future Nobel poet, San Francisco, 1972.

Victor Hugo and the novel that is “never a downer.”

Saturday, May 20th, 2017
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Not just a pretty face.

One of the more exuberant articles I’ve read recently comes from the pen of Tim Parks, writing in the current London Review of Books, about Les Misérables and David Bellos‘s new book about that doorstopper epic, The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables.’ After reading the article, and perhaps Bellos’s book as well, it is hard to avoid the conviction that the French poet and master-novelist Victor Hugo was completely mad.

Hugo began Les Misérables in his early forties in Paris, when he was already a leading writer and a controversial public figure. He stopped after three years during the 1948 revolution, and began again in December 1860, nine years into his long exile, by then on the island of Guernsey.

Parks notes that Les Misérables is a curiously sexless book. Jean Valjean seems to live without it. And although Fantine apparently had it, it occurs offstage, so to speak, leaving her an impoverished single mother with Cosette. The sexlessness of the novel is at striking odds with the hypomanic Hugo:

In 1845 Hugo, who had always sought favours from whatever monarch was on the throne, was made a member of the Chamber of Peers, something that would enable him – though not his married lover Léonie Biard – to avoid jail, when caught in flagrante in an act of adultery a few months later. As a young man, he had been romantically conservative and insanely jealous, to the point of insisting that his teenage beloved, Adèle, keep every inch of her ankles properly covered. But after his early marriage to Adèle, in 1822, at the age of 20, five children in rapid succession and the realisation that his wife had had an affair with his friend, the critic Sainte-Beuve, Hugo, in 1833, secured himself a lifelong mistress and worshipper in the actress Juliette Drouet, then in 1844 began his passionate seven-year affair with Biard.

The discovery of his adultery exposed Hugo to ridicule around the time he began Les Misérables, a book that opens, we remember, with a long account of a man who having ‘given the best years of his life … to worldly pursuits and love affairs’ becomes a priest, a prelate and ultimately a kind of saint. ‘People joked,’ Bellos remarks, ‘that [Hugo] must be doing penance for his unsaintly behaviour,’ but declares himself sceptical of this ‘moralising approach’ or of any idea that a troubled Hugo might have looked for ‘refuge in an uplifting tale’. Rather, ‘the main impact of the Biard affair’ was to convince Hugo to ‘write about everything except that’. The novel ‘is unusual … for not talking at any point about adultery or even sex’.

Here’s a fascinating passage from the long review about the names of some of the principals in Les Misérables:

The character names are also, we are reminded, brilliantly invented. Bellos ponders the origins of Fantine, the name of the single mother who falls into prostitution: ‘The first syllable is a contraction of enfant, “child”, so the name itself suggests a meaning close to that of “kid girl”.’ Fantine, Bellos points out, had ‘no parents to name her and no formal identity at all’. The name is part of her status as a misérable. Cosette, Fantine’s illegitimate child and later Valjean’s adopted daughter, might be confused with chosette, a ‘small thing’, or nothing in particular. Again it is a sign she is one of the dispossessed. Bellos doesn’t remark on the irony that these names, while elaborately suggesting a blurred identity at the semantic level, are in fact highly idiosyncratic and wonderfully memorable. It’s in this sense that they are so clever. There are any number of Emmas, only one Fantine. The name is for ever associated with Hugo’s novel. Conversely, Jean Valjean, Bellos explains, couples France’s most common Christian name with a surname that amounts to a contraction of ‘Voilà Jean!’, suggesting ‘somebody or other, anybody, a nobody’. ‘It’s as heart-rending,’ he tells us, ‘as a slumdog answering to the name of “Heyou”.’ Some readers may struggle to feel this.

I take issue, however, with Parks’s accusation that the author “loads the dice,” pushing the situations and characters to unrealistic extremes. I’ve known people and events that will match anything in Les Misérables, and coincidences just as unlikely. I agree that the book is “a story of extravagant gesture and irrepressible underlying optimism,” as Parks writes. “Hugo believes in progress. Despite its title, the novel is never a downer.”

Read the whole article, aptly titled “Thunderstruck,” here.

Pardon our silence.

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017
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Temporary offices of The Book Haven.

The Book Haven is not dead, though it hath slept.

After six months of increasing desperation and five successive MacBook Pros, our beloved hard drive finally expired on the surgical table of Quick Fix computer shop on El Camino. We are desperately trying to restore our many, many gigabytes of files, photos, recordings, and more, which were thought to be lost forever.

It is one of our longest silences since the humble beginnings of the Book Haven in 2009. (My goodness! Has it really been eight years?)

Harumph.

He gets the last word, always.

We are now working with stone tools, hastily chiseling out articles, Q&A interviews, and delicately worded emails under a deadline whip, with no access to our history or passwords except with the hard drive built into our gray matter. The Book Haven has briefly, but only briefly, been put on “hold.”

You will hear our cheerful voice again when we are restored to the 21st century. We hope you miss us, and hope you agree with Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing: “Your silence most offends me, and to be merry best becomes you, for out o’ question you were born in a merry hour.” We were, we were.

 

Evelyn Waugh: Was he “the funniest man of his generation”?

Friday, May 12th, 2017
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Yes, but funny peculiar or funny ha-ha? Carl Van Vechten’s portrait of Waugh.

Was Evelyn Waugh “the funniest man of his generation”? His son Auberon said so, and thought the obituaries that neglected that observation missed the point.

His humor had a bite in it. You could take it personally. After Randolph Churchill had what turned out to be a benign tumor removed through surgery, Waugh remarked that it was the only thing about Randolph that wasn’t malignant and they removed it. We find it easier to take when the targets are fictional characters, even if marginally fictional ones.

Joseph Epstein reviews Philip Eade‘s Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited in “White Mischief,” in the current issue of The Claremont Review of Books.

An excerpt:

Comical all Waugh’s novels indubitably are, often riotously so. He may be the only modern novelist in whom one remembers secondary characters and comic bits as vividly as anything else in his books. Who can forget the vicar in A Handful of Dust who continues to give sermons originally written during his time in India, citing tropical conditions and colonial distance, to his congregation gathered in wintry England. Or in the same novel the bit in which the friends of Tony Last’s adulterous wife search out a mistress for Tony to divert his attention from his wife’s betrayal, and one suggests “Souki de Foucauld-Esterhazy,” to which another responds: “He [Tony] isn’t his best with Americans.” Or the prostitute with her out-of-wedlock child who, despite her lowly station, is not above a touch of anti-Semitism. Or in Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder’s quite balmy father; or Anthony Blanche, “ageless as a lizard, as foreign as a Martian”; or the voice of a London hotel receptionist that sounded the note of “hermaphroditic gaiety.” Or Captain Apthorpe in the Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-61) who never travels without his own portable water closet; or, in Scoop, the definition of “the news” as “what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead.”

Another excerpt:

In a Paris Review interview three years before his death, Waugh remarked: “I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.” Precise, pellucid, flawless in usage and deployment of syntax, confidently cadenced, Waugh’s was perhaps the purest English prose written in the past century.

Evelyn Waugh has been viewed as chiefly a comic writer. V.S. Pritchett noted that Waugh was always comic for serious reasons, and Prichett distinguished his earlier from his later books by claiming that the former “spring from the liberating notion that human beings are mad,” while his later ones, especially his war triology Sword of Honour, “draws on the meatier notion that the horrible thing about human beings is that they are sane.” Even these earlier books, though, spoke to a yearning for a steadier, more stable world.

Edmund Wilson considered Waugh “the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since [George] Bernard Shaw,” Waugh himself was just doing what came naturally. He once asked:  “Why does everyone except me find it so easy to be nice?”

 

Who wore it better?

Tuesday, May 9th, 2017
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Nearly four years ago, we planted some columbine seeds, thanks to Nora Munro over at The Belfry.  The occasion was memorable, for the Book Haven hardly ever goes outdoors into the sunshine, let alone in the dirt. We commemorated the occasion with a blogpost, “Digging History,” on July 6, 2013:

belfry

Hers.

“I met Nora through one of my favorite medievalists, Jeff Sypeck, over at Quid Plura.  His link to “où dort la mélancolie” enchanted and intrigued me. Nora is trying to grow as many authentically medieval plants as she can – but the mid-Atlantic weather isn’t helping.  “I still love the flowery fields in mediaeval paintings, and it pleases more than is probably reasonable that this columbine is exactly the same as the ones in Hugo van der Goes‘ Portinari altarpiece of 1476,” she wrote.  Yes, it’s that Portinari family.  The altarpiece was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, an agent for the Medici bank in Bruges, and he’s somehow related to Dante‘s beloved Beatrice.

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His.

“Can you see the flowers in the altarpiece above?  I thought you wouldn’t.  Try looking at the photograph from Nora’s garden right.  Then compare with the enlargement from the Portinari altarpiece at left.  Pretty cool.  So I was thrilled when the envelope arrived from Annapolis a few hours ago with … my own seeds.

The Enclopedia Britannica has yet another version: “The scattered violets indicate Christ’s humility; the columbine flowers represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit with which Christ was endowed at birth. The flowers in the albarello (pottery jar) are in royal colours, for Christ was of the royal line of the Israelite King David.”

“But the big queston is: will they grow?  I’ll let you know how it goes…”

Now the Book Haven is faithfully reporting back to you. They grew. The distinctive columbine leaves have been evident for years. But until this spring – no flowers.

Then… surprise! But perhaps the bigger surprise was that they appear more purple than the navy-blue ones in the painting – or in Nora’s garden.

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Mine.

Could it be from the sunshine, bleaching my delicate flowers to a rich purple hue? (As well as bleaching the leaves to a much paler green?) The Book Haven hopes that our readers can answer this mystery.

Meanwhile, here’s a bit of columbine trivia I culled from the world wide web: Obviously, the name “columbine” comes from the Latin word columba, which means dove. But why, why, why are these little blossoms associated with doves? The answer: when the blossom is flipped over, some imaginative people see a ring of doves drinking in a fountain. That’s why they have often been used in art to represent the dove of peace, the Holy Spirit, or anything else that involves a dove.

Why, then, the formal botanical name “Aquilegia,” which is Latin for eagle? Again the imaginative, perhaps drug-addled, note that the spurs of the blossom resemble an eagle’s talons. The eagle is also cited as a reference to the wing-like petals or the closed bud of the flowers which looks like an eagle’s head.

Same flower. Different bird. Go figure.

 

 

Happy birthday to poet Charles Gullans! “He did political poetry especially well!”

Friday, May 5th, 2017
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Wilkes as seen by Hogarth

Another birthday celebration, coming to us courtesy the Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele:

The poet and translator Charles Gullans was born on this date in 1929. Educated at the University of Minnesota and Stanford University, where he studied with Yvor Winters, he achieved significant notice in the 1950s and appeared in such anthologies of the time as “New Poets of England and America.” Though his classically inclined work fell from favor during the ascendency of the Beats and the Confessionals, he was a popular and productive professor at UCLA and continued to write excellent poems until his death in 1993. He did political poetry especially well, as is illustrated by his poem about John Wilkes, the eighteenth-century Whig politician, journalist, and thorn-in-the-side of George III. (Wilkes once declined an invitation to play cards, remarking that he couldn’t tell the difference between a king and a knave.) In view of this past fall’s election, some readers may find timely Gullans’ suggestion that we should prefer an imperfect political leader to one who is barbaric. The anecdote to which Gullans refers at the end of his poem exists in several versions and may be apocryphal. But it suits the context and Wilkes’ character in any case. Happy Cinco de Mayo! Happy Birthday, Charles Gullans! (The caricature of Wilkes that accompanies this post is by William Hogarth. [Go here for Tim’s birthday tribute to the artist – ED.])

John Wilkes

Lord Bute, whose rant was the establishment,
Had studied and had mastered the appearance
Of public virtue, but his private bent
Was mistresses and whores built for endurance.

The public interest hid his private acts.
His principle, self-interest of the few,
The fool aristocrat, he hated facts,
And any man of strong, contrary view.

But here was Wilkes, the upstart gentleman,
Bourgeois, with an aristocrat’s disdain
Of canting ethics and of rant in one,
Or in the many, whom he hoped to gain.

“I have no minor vices,” though a boast,
Was license to quick, brittle fools to laugh;
Then, teaching what hyperbole may cost,
His wit pursued him like an epitaph.

No hypocrite, his vices all well known,
“Godless, but never womanless an hour,”
Hard and contemptuous, still the man had grown
Hating restriction and abusive power.

Consistency is firmness in each type.
Yet men of principle may simply be—
Hero or saint, coward or guttersnipe—
Persistent in the partial good they see.

Then if defect seems equal in each eye,
Prefer the cynic to the hypocrite.
Despise the Bute who said to him, “You’ll die
Of syphilis or on the gallows yet.”

birthday cakePrefer the Wilkes who looked into that face,
And with the swift inconscience of the bored
Said, “That depends on whether I embrace
Your mistress or your principles, my Lord.”
Charles Gullans (1929-93)

A Stanford story (and winner!) behind this year’s Compass Translation Awards in NYC

Thursday, May 4th, 2017
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Bella Akhmadulina

Akhmadulina: Singing in another language.

Last Saturday, Stanford’s Glen Worthey spent an unusual evening in Manhattan: he was at the Poets House accepting a Compass Translation Awared Second Prize for his translation of a Bella Akhmadulina poem from the original Russian.

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She’ll help next time. Maria Stepanova at Stanford Libraries, photographed by C. Haven.

The poet for next year’s translation competition is another friend: one of Russia’s leading poets (and a recent Stanford visitor) Maria Stepanova, and the first-ever living poet to be featured for a Compass competitions.  Maria has offered to consult on her poetry with any translators who may desire it, “which sounds both fun and daunting,” said Glen.

In addition to loads of new impressions and new friends, Glen returned with a small stack of sample journal issues for himself and the Stanford Libraries, as well as signed copies of Irina’s latest book, and some catalogs of the archive of Mark Khedekel’s fascinating father, Lazar Khedekel, a Suprematist architect-philosopher who was a contemporary and collaborator with Malevich and El Lissitzky in the Vitebsk Art Institute.

Oh, and the poem. Read Glen’s translation below, or listen to Akhmadulina read the poem in the youtube video he made at the bottom of this post:

 

Oh, Runner, Run!

Behold the man, whose race was first begun
So long ago, when light first lit creation;
One cannot count the centuries he’s run:
Run high, run far, toward some consecration,
 .
Some blessed goal.  What triumph might it be
That beckons him to run, to conquer distance?
Behold the man — oh, look at him! and see
Through fogs of time his face’s fine persistence.
 .
Egyptian deserts held him as a slave,
A swarthy outcast, breathless in his fleeing,
Whom death awaited should he cease to crave
To win this race: the essence of his being.
 .
Around him all is motionless and dead.
But he: alive with passion, flexed emotion,
His golden muscles’ movements all embed
Humanity’s own most perfected motion.
 .
Oh, runner, run!  Run, brother; run, my friend!
By force of will your final lap completed,
You run one more, your victory to extend,
To nobly face a future undefeated.
 .
Oh, runner, run!
.
 

NEA? NEH? PBS? We told you so!

Monday, May 1st, 2017
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Donald_TrumpI’ve always maintained that the three most beloved words in the English language are not “I love you,” but rather, “You were right.” So I’m waiting…

Still waiting… Crickets?

When I said that President Trump doesn’t have the ability to eliminate federal agencies, as he suggested by recommending the complete defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, I was challenged. One Facebook friend, a well-known editor, flamed and unfriended me. Others expressed expressed skepticism. Meanwhile, champions of the agencies lobbied fiercely in Washington D.C., where the NEA and NEH  have wide bipartisan support, as I reported here.

Dana Gioia was one of them, and he said to the Sierra Poetry Festival in Grass Valley last month that he was 99% certain all would be well. (More on that event later.)

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The spending bill that Congress is expected to vote on this week includes a promotion for the two agencies:  $150 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and the same for the Humanities endowment. In both cases, that’s a $2-million increase over last fiscal year. No cut in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney had advocated the cuts, saying that it was unfair to take money from working families to support programs such as the endowments and public television.

But it was clear from the outset that Trump’s plan would face trouble in Congress. Most NEA funds go to support community arts groups in all 50 states, with rural, Republican-leaning states topping the lists of spending per person. As a result, arts programs have a strong constituency in Congress, especially on the appropriations committees that dole out spending.

Mulvaney and his allies in the most conservative wing of the GOP have tried to cut money for arts programs in the past with no success.

The deal only lasts through the end of September, and the fight could be renewed for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, but the basic congressional dynamics aren’t likely to change.

Of course, it still has to get voted on, but I refer you to the third paragraph above, and also my earlier report.

What’s that? Oh yes. You’re so very welcome.