Archive for May, 2020

Why do inmates of Soviet prison camps love Proust?

Saturday, May 30th, 2020
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Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Patrick Kurp, who blogs at the matchless Anecdotal Evidence, has some thoughts about the curious attraction of Soviet prisoners to Marcel Proust… this time it’s Varlam Shalamov‘s sequel to Kolyma Tales…

What are we to make of the unexpected fondness inmates of Soviet prisons and labor camps had for Marcel Proust? In 1940, the first book Aleksander Wat read in Lubyanka prison after a bookless year was Du côté de chez Swann, the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. In My Century, Wat describes it as “one of the greatest experiences of my life.” The following year, in a prison camp 200 miles north of Moscow, Józef Czapski lectured his fellow inmates on Proust’s novel, a book he was “not sure of seeing again.” His audience “listen[ed] intently to lectures on themes very far removed from the reality we faced at that time.” And here, in his story “Marcel Proust,” Varlam Shalamov describes the theft in a Gulag camp of Le Côté de Guermantes, the third volume of Proust’s masterwork: “Who was going to read that strange prose, so weightless that it seemed about to fly off into space, a world whose scales were displaced and switched around, so that there was nothing big and nothing small. […] The horizons of a writer are expanded extraordinarily by that novel.”

He would have been surprised…

He and the book’s owner, a paramedic named Kalitinsky, “recalled our world, our own lost time,” but the volume is never recovered. Shalamov’s stand-in portrays himself as a civilized man, an inheritor of the Western tradition who cherishes books, though he knows his values mean nothing in the alternate universe of the Gulag: “You might meet admirers of Jack London in that world, but Proust? It could only be used to make playing cards: it was a heavyweight large format book. […] It went to make cards, cards … It would be cut up and that was it.” Like morality and religion, art means nothing. Only survival counts. The lives documented by Shalamov are Hobbesian: “[S]olitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In 2018, New York Review Books published Donald Rayfield’s translation of Kolyma Stories. With this second volume, Sketches of the Criminal World, we now have all 145 stories written by Shalamov after his 17 years in Stalin’s prison system. …

Read the rest here

Want to know what to read this summer? Don’t try these!

Tuesday, May 26th, 2020
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Andy’s a Wagner fan.

Some of you may remember literary agent Andy Ross (we’ve written about him here and here), formerly owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, back when it was bombed by the adherents of the idea of bombing anyone who carried Salman Rushdie‘s books.

Over at his blog, he has has list of Books Not Recommended for Summer Reading. 

Jokes Cracked by Lord Aberdeen. This book  is perhaps the greatest oddity in the history of the printed page. It  was originally published in 1925 and has been long out of print. The author  of the book is either the 4th or 5th Earl of Aberdeen. It is not entirely clear. From the appearance of the dour visage on the cover, one questions whether His Lordship made any significant contribution to the world of Tomfoolery of the late Victorian  period. Indeed, one would question whether the concept of “crack a joke” would even enter the same universe of discourse occupied by Lord Aberdeen.

Foundations of a Complete Science of Knowledge (Grundlage der Gesammten Wissenschaftslehre.) Johan Gottlieb Fichte. Once a towering figure in German Idealist philosophy, now happily  forgotten. Unfortunately for me, when I was 25 and a graduate student in German history, I foolishly picked Herr Fichte’s thought as the subject  for my master’s thesis. I was required to read the entire  660 page work in its original German. The number of expressions in German that I knew at the time was  limited. I believe I could give a pretty  good rendition of: “Wanna go back to my place?” and also “Shut up, you Nazi”.

I will never forget the impact of those first words upon my mind.  (Roughly translated): “X  is in the Ego, and posited through the Ego, for it is the Ego which asserts the above proposition, and so asserts it by virtue of X as a law, and must therefore, be given to the Ego;…”

At the time I was doing considerable experimentation with certain (how shall we say) mind altering drugs and attempting at the same time to win my girlfriend back from a free love commune. Fichte’s immortal words restored my hope and gave a new sense of purpose to my life.

Read the rest here.

“He liked America’s gas stations, roadside bars, endless baseball games.” Adam Zagajewski and others remember Joseph Brodsky on his 80th birthday

Saturday, May 23rd, 2020
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Farrar, Straus, & Giroux remembers his anniversary with four books. (Photo: Ann Kjellberg)

Today, May 24, would have been poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 80th birthday. The commemorations are worldwide. The biggest in the Anglophone world may be the republication of three of his landmark books by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux: his two volumes of essays, Less than One and On Grief and Reason, and a fourth, a new Selected Poems, 1968-1996.

Ann Kjellberg‘s “Beyond Meaning: Joseph Brodsky’s Poetry of Exile” is in the New York Review of  Books here. An excerpt:

Literary executor Ann Kjellberg

“We now live in a time of which Brodsky was an advance scout—a time in which many writers operate beyond their original borders and outside their mother tongues, often, like Brodsky, bearing witness to violence and disruption, often answering, through art, to those experiences, in language refracted, by necessity, through other language. In Brodsky’s time there was a cluster of poets, some from the margins of empire, some, like Brodsky, severed from their roots—Walcott, Heaney, Paz, Milosz, to name a few—who brought with them commanding traditions as well as the imprint of history’s dislocations. We would do well now to attend to their song, standing as they did in our doorway between a broken past and the language’s future.”

If you’re up early in this morning, you might check out the Joseph Brodsky Memorial Fellowship Fund Facebook page, where poet Glyn Maxwell will be discussing his translations of the Russian Nobel laureate at 10.30 a.m. PST.

But for the most part, I have chosen to remember in a very different way. When I saw that Adam Zagajewski had published his own massive tribute in Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza here, I spent an unconscionable number of hours on an otherwise busy day picking through the Polish to learn what he said. It became my own homage for the occasion.

Perhaps someday this long essay will appear in English, and I will be humiliated by my humble offering for you below. Perhaps Polish speakers around the world will send in correction and rebuke for my clumsy effort, assisted by Google. But until then, I’m the best you got, so please enjoy my wholly inadequate translation – and this is only a small portion of the whole, which runs to thousands of words. Excerpts below.

***

He loved bars, baseball, and Chinatown restaurants.

I knew him at his best as a good friend, but also as a follower of high culture, a defender metaphysical impulse in poetry. He was a ruthless enemy of totalitarianism, Soviet and any other, and an opponent of what Nabokov used to describe the words “poshlost,” banality, a lack of taste, smallness. He was able to reconcile his cultural elitism with an enormous fellow-feeling for the American way of life – which is the opposite of elitism. He liked America, including ordinary American gas stations; bars where giant TV screens dominated always, at any time of the day or night, and endless baseball matches. He knew and liked less-than-chic New York neighborhoods in Chinatown, which had his beloved restaurants. …

He loved English, including spoken American. He liked to use American idioms, though it happened that –  as it happens to foreigners – he couldn’t distinguish dead idiomatic expressions from live ones. Idioms live for several years or more then they go to the museum, i.e. to the dictionary, and there foreigners find them. With his arrogance (usually charming) he ignored the difference between “native speakers’ and those who learned the language late – as it happened, he even corrected “native speakers” (I was a witness – of course he was wrong, “native speakers” are always right), and they meekly accepted his correction.

***

I called him from Houston shortly after arrival from Europe. Usually the first days in Texas were difficult, melancholic for me – that’s why I was calling Joseph.  I was hoping for an intimate, friendly conversation (in other words – just gossip). But Joseph didn’t want to hear about my melancholy. He immediately asked me: what do you think about Horace‘s poetry?

He was just writing his essay about Horace. I mobilized myself to quickly remember what I thought of the poems of Horace, and my mood improved.

***

John Willett … told me once story related to Joseph. I remembered her exactly because it seemed fantastic and funny to me.

Adam Z. remembers

John, as already said, had known Joseph for a very long time; in some ways, he was a bit of an exotic character among Joseph’s American friends, where poets, poets, writers, and critics predominated. John was a professional diplomat who began his career in African countries, then worked for the State Department in many other countries, including in Italy or Turkey, and twice in Paris (I use the past tense, because unfortunately this educated, witty, and friendly man is dead). Well, John once told me he would tell me a story, which he didn’t tell anyone. It was like this: Joseph  had a mind that was passionate about a range of different topics, not only literature – e.g., military aviation (he knew everything on combat aircraft of the Second World War; when asked on what route he was flying to Europe he said: Luftwaffe) or the story of famous British spies – the Cambridge Four (who later became the Cambridge Five); anyway he wrote an essay about them.

One of those passions Joseph was the nuclear disarmament issue, the “Missile Gap,” as it was then called – a central issue in the 1980s.

He read all the articles on the subject, knew all about rockets, Pershings, and Minutemen, and on the loading facilities of both sides. He knew what are these rocket varieties were called, as well as their range and power of destruction. And of course he had his own theories.

He told John, who had was between missions lived in Washington – that he would gladly give a lecture at the State Department, in which he would present his concepts about disarmament. For a long time John tried to dissuade Joseph. He told him that, in the State Department, the world’s best experts devote every moment to studying these issues. They knew everything on this subject, and that he, a dilettante – extremely brilliant, but still a dilettante – couldn’t hold any weight in conversation with them, let alone convince them of his theories.

Joseph, however, insisted. And eventually John gave in and it led to a lecture at the State Department, and the great Washington missile specialists came, fresh from determining and calculating the balance of two arsenals.

“Well, how did it go?” I asked John. “You know it didn’t go well,” he replied.

(more…)

The end of Another Look books? “Are quarterly gatherings of quiet readers really too expensive? Or simply priceless?”

Thursday, May 21st, 2020
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Harrison at the Another Look podium.

Needless to say, Tobias Wolff, Cynthia Haven, and I are disappointed. We believe in the vision of founder Tobias Wolff, who eight years ago had the idea to start a book club that would present vibrant, high-caliber discussions of books that deserve “another look,” either because they were published some time ago, or because they didn’t get the attention they deserved.  Tobias intended the program to be Stanford’s “gift to the community,” and so it has been.  We regularly get letters and emails praising and thanking us for our discussions, which we’ve made available in a popular podcast series. We’ve also gotten attention, from The Guardian, Die Welt, Le Monde, The San Francisco Chronicle, and more.  Our meetings typically drew around 180 people per session, but far more people around the world read the books along with us and tuned into the discussions via the podcasts.

Four years ago Continuing Studies, the under the leadership of Charlie Junkerman, generously offered to take over the sponsorship of Another Look from Stanford’s English Department.  Neither Tobias nor I received any financial compensation.  The budget covered the rental of the Bechtel Conference Center, a modest stipend for Cynthia Haven, and the cost of printing the posters and bookmarks.  We cannot thank Charlie Junkerman enough for his wonderful leadership and support. The same goes to Christina Fajardo, Public Programs & Special Events Manager for Continuing Studies.  All three of us are really grateful for their help and support, and I’m sure many of you are as well.

I’m sure that many of you will also ask if there’s anything you can do to keep Another Look going.  I’m not sure that there is, but if you feel strongly enough about it, I recommend that you send an email expressing your views to Jennifer Deitz, Director and Associate Dean for Continuing Studies; and to Dan Colman, Dean, Continuing Studies and Summer Session.  Please also copy Christina Fajardo.  You never know what a strong show of support might do to get Continuing Studies to reconsider their decision to put Another Look in limbo, possibly for good.  Their email addresses are:

Founding director Wolff

1. Jennifer Deitz, Director and Associate Dean, Continuing Studies <jdeitz@stanford.edu>,
2. Dan Colman, Dean, Continuing Studies and Summer Session <dhcolman@stanford.edu>,
3. Christina Fajardo, Public Programs & Special Events Manager, Continuing Studies <fajardoc@stanford.edu>

I for one can’t think of a better way to restore sanity and spirit to our society than by fostering a community of books.  Another Look has shown us just how many people are hungry for it.  It’s been a great run.  Thank you all for having been a part of our reading community

Wishing you safety and good reading,

Robert Pogue Harrison, Director, Another Look

Last night, Clay Lambert, editorial director of The Half Moon Bay Review, posted a tweet with a photo of “unforgettable” books he discovered through the program, and asking a poignant question: “Are quarterly gatherings of quiet readers really too expensive? Or simply priceless?”

It was followed a few hours later by a retweet from Marc Ventresca, a Stanford alum, now at Oxford as an economic sociologist in the Strategy, Innovation and Marketing Faculty at Saïd Business School and a Governing Body Fellow of Wolfson College.

Postscript: Another tweeter, Ksenia Lakovic, has taken up Clay Lambert’s challenge. I hope a few other Another Look aficionados photograph their favorite books from the series. You can read more about them here.

What Can Oedipus Teach Us About The COVID Crisis?

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020
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From the trendy, tony website 3quarksdaily (we’ve written about this bold venture here):

What is worse – coronavirus itself, or the social and economic catastrophe that comes with it?

René Girard, one of the leading thinkers of our era, argued that the biological and social aspects of a plague are interwoven: he points out that historians still debate whether the Black Death was a cause or a consequence of the social upheavals in the 14th century.

The Stanford professor, who died in 2015 at age 91, has been called “the new Darwin of the human sciences,” but he began as a literary theorist. His work, beginning in the 1960s, offered a new concept of human desire: our desires are not our own, he said, but are “mimetic.” As social creatures, we learn what to want from each other.

Imitation leads to competition, which leads to conflict, which then spreads contagiously throughout a community. Eventually, the community targets one person or group to blame for the disorder, someone like Oedipus. The targeted scapegoats are punished, expelled, or in the past, often killed. Girard began in literature, but quickly took on anthropology, sociology, religions, and more. And while he initially wrote mostly about myths in archaic societies, he eventually became an observer of contemporary culture, focusing on rivalry, violence, and warfare today.Towards the end of his life, he wrote about the social ramifications of natural disasters, and plagues are no exception. Certainly our desires and hostilities have proven as contagious as COVID-19, which has in many ways fueled and exacerbated them, and variously targeting presidents, governments, protestors, and the Chinese for blame.

In 2005, Girard met with Robert Pogue Harrison, author of Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age; Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, and The Dominion of the Dead, for a two-part interview on Harrison’s celebrated “Entitled Opinions” radio and podcast series, available on iTunes.

The full transcript is among the interviews included in the Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy, edited by Cynthia L. Haven, published this month by Bloomsbury.

Read the rest here.

Love and equilibrium: Robert Conquest’s new “Collected” is out, and Dick Davis writes about it.

Saturday, May 16th, 2020
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Conquest at work in his Stanford home  (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

On a recent visit with Elizabeth Conquest (outdoors, six feet apart – pandemic style) she told me that her late husband, the eminent historian and poet Robert Conquest, admired the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius – so much so that he carried a slim volume of  Meditations in his knapsack when he went off to war. I was glad to hear it; I had recently written about the Stoic thinker in the Book Haven here, and she had read it and appreciated it. Certainly Bob Conquest had some of the emperor’s superb psychological balance and equanimity.

That’s something Marcus Aurelius had in common with the “Movement” poets of Britain in the 1950s – a group Conquest had founded and championed. The group included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and others. As the poet Dick Davis writes in “Robert Conquest’s Open Eyes” in The New Criterion:

The Movement poets’ preference for an even tone, meticulous description, and a consciousness that is suspicious of its own emotional excesses whether positive or negative meant that a particularly venerable, and until then surely central, kind of poetry became something of no-go area for them. Most of the Movement poets wrote remarkably few love poems, and when love does appear in their poetry it is usually shadowed by irony. There are certainly poems about lust, flippantly cynical, as in Amis’s “Sight Unseen,” or brutally disillusioned as in Larkin’s “Deceptions,” but the revelation of a particular person as life’s be-all and end-all, the coup de foudre that makes the poet literally or at least metaphorically want to fall to his knees … not so much.

Marcus Aurelius’s  Meditations didn’t discuss love, either. And that’s where Bob Conquest parts company with his colleagues and the emperor.

The occasion of Davis’s article, as well as the meeting with Liddie, is the – at last! finally! – publication of Conquest’s Collected Poems with Waywiser Press in London. It’s a beautiful, finely wrought 439-page volume, under the careful editorship of Elizabeth (a.k.a. Liddie) Conquest herself, for she is a gifted scholar in her own right, as well as the poet’s wife.

Conquest is best known for his groundbreaking work as a historian and author of The Great Terror, revealing the extent of Stalin‘s atrocities before the world wanted to know about it. We’ve written about that here. He is also known for his light verse, which the New Criterion article discusses as well. But relatively few have considered him as a poet of weightier verse. I did so in the Times Literary Supplementand so has Dick Davis, a noted translator of Persian poetry. Few poets are more qualified to discuss Bob Conquest’s amorous poems – Dick has written some exquisite love poems himself.

Translator, poet Davis: a pretty good love poet himself

He writes: “The brutality of ‘fighting ideologies’ was the subject that much of his better known historical writing was to be concerned with, and it is also almost present as the context, whether alluded to or left unspoken, of his most personal lyrical verse, whose energy so often seems to be focused on the attempt to find or construct some kind of private haven of escape from, exactly, ‘the fighting ideologies.'”

Davis notes that Conquest “could write short, flip, catty poems about lust” with the best of them, but…

[T]here is a much more benign and fructifying erotic presence in many of his more substantial poems, a sense that erotic feeling is less a trap for the unwary than a welcome source of joy and mutual pleasure, one not to be questioned, at least in the moment that it is experienced.

At a lower level of intensity, it is notable, for example, how many of his early descriptions of foreign landscapes tend to have a young woman in them. There is almost a formula to such poems: a landscape is observed at a moment of tranquility in which the disasters of the public world (war and its desolate consequences, what he calls “the world of politics and rifles,” perhaps echoing E. M. Forster’s “outer life of telegrams and anger”) seem for a moment in abeyance, and this momentary sense of benign peace is concentrated on “a girl” who is with him, or glimpsed in the distance, or even merely imagined. Eros is present, as an undertow, a possibility, but certainly as a benign presence, an intimation of transformative consolation, if not quite of her overwhelming supervening of everything else. It is only one element in a complex scene, but it is the element around which hope and the possibilities of redemption from “the world of politics and rifles” are concentrated. For example, in a poem on being in Copenhagen with a lover, he writes that her presence with him

Liddie Conquest: a gifted scholar, too.

.                    gives the landscape form,
And is the immanence of every art …
A philosophy deriving from the calm
As you move into the center of my heart.

Below, his poem for his second wife  … and after that, a poem that is not about love, but is a  personal favorite (indulge me) about his friend George Orwell. And finally, a poem that will demonstrate why he is known for his light verse – his witty take on Mikhail Gorbachev.

A GIRL IN THE SNOW

for Tatiana Mihailova

Autumn’s attrition. Then this world laid waste
Under a low white sky, diffusing glare
On blurs of snow as motionless and bare
As the dead epoch where our luck is placed.

Till from the imprecise close distance flies,
Winged on your skis and stillness-breaking nerve
Colour, towards me down this vital curve,
Blue suit, bronze hair and honey-coloured eyes.

Under this hollow cloud, a sky of rime,
The eyes’ one focus in an empty mirror
You come towards my arms until I hold

Close to my heart, beyond all fear and error,
A clear-cut warmth in this vague waste of cold:
A road of meaning through the shapeless time.

GEORGE ORWELL

Moral and mental glaciers melting slightly
Betray the influence of his warm intent.
Because he taught us what the actual meant
The vicious winter grips its prey less tightly.

Not all were grateful for his help, one finds,
For how they hated him, who huddled with
The comfort of a quick remedial myth
Against the cold world and their colder minds.

We die of words. For touchstones he restored
The real person, real event or thing;
–And thus we see not war but suffering
As the conjunction to be most abhorred.

He shared with a great world, for greater ends,
That honesty, a curious, cunning virtue,
You share with just the few who don’t desert you,
A dozen writers, half-a dozen friends.

A moral genius. And truth-seeking brings
Sometimes a silliness we view askance,
Like Darwin playing his bassoon to plants;
He too had lapses, but he claimed no wings.

While those who drown a truth’s empiric part
In dithyramb or dogma turn frenetic;
–Than whom no writer could be less poetic
He left this lesson for all verse, all art.

 

 

Psssst! I have a new book out today! Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy – check it out!

Thursday, May 14th, 2020
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What is the sound of one hand clapping? It is the sound of having a book published during a worldwide pandemic! But here we are, and here it is!

Today, May 14, is the official publication date of Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy

You can order from Amazon here or directly from the publisher Bloomsbury here.

French theorist René Girard was one of the major thinkers of the twentieth century. Read by international leaders, quoted by the French media, Girard influenced such writers as J.M. Coetzee and Milan Kundera. Dubbed “the new Darwin of the human sciences” and one of the most compelling thinkers of the age, Girard spent nearly four decades at Stanford exploring what it means to be human and making major contributions to philosophy, literary criticism, psychology and theology with his mimetic theory.

This is the first collection of interviews with Girard, one that brings together discussions on Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Proust alongside the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. Granting important insights into Girard’s life and thought, these provocative and lively conversations underline Girard’s place as leading public intellectual and profound theorist.

That all sounds very official, but trust me: they are interviews you will want to read again and again.

No reviews yet, but here are some of the early reactions:

“A vital book. It gave me René Girard as I’ve never before encountered him in a text: like looking at a diamond from eighteen different sides. Each interview reveals the fecundity of his thought and the brilliance of a mind that was able to probe the human condition in a singular way. It’s full of fire.” –  Luke Burgis, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship, The Catholic University of America, USA and Author of Wanting: Our Secret Economy of Desire

“René Girard was one of the most influential and important thinkers of the 20th century, much of his wisdom was dialogic in nature, and this volume brings together an excellent collection of conversations with him.” –  Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics, George Mason University, USA and Author of the “Marginal Revolution” Blog

Conversations with René Girard is sure to become an indispensable reference for readers interested in Girard’s views on a wide range of topics, including such hot button issues as abortion, eugenics, same-sex marriage, anorexia, Islam, and Europe’s demographic crisis. Cynthia Haven deserves tremendous credit for bringing these interviews, some of them hard to find, together in one volume.” –  George A. Dunn, Centre for Globalizing Civilization, Hangzhou, China

“This collection of interviews with the great French theorist René Girard offers an excellent presentation of his theories on mimetic desire, scapegoating and sacrificial violence, and the power of Biblical revelation. It covers Girard’s remarkable explorations of everything from archaic cultures, to the great works of Western literature, to the crises of the contemporary world. An important book for scholars and the general public alike.” –  Richard J. Golsan, University Distinguished Professor and Senior Scowcroft Fellow, Texas A&M University, USA

“Loss is forever, but so is love.” Poet Kenneth Fields remembers Eavan Boland

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020
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A natural fierceness

“Loss is forever, but so is love,” writes Kenneth Fields in his tribute to Stanford colleague and fellow poet Eavan Boland. It’s in the current issue of Zyzzyva. “Her combination of toughness and tact were unparalleled.” He points out that her poem  “Eviction,” was published in the New Yorker the day she died on April 27, 2020. “She went out strong.”

An excerpt:

He remembers.

Among the many things I love about her was her ferocity. It often came as a surprise because her manner was usually gentle and restrained. But when she needed to disagree or defend her program, she could “get up on her diggers,” an Irishism she loved to use. And everybody listened. When in 1960 Khrushchev took off his shoe and pounded his desk in a meeting at the United Nations, her father, who was president of the General Assembly, got up on his diggers and broke his gavel trying to restore order. So Eavan Boland came by this fierceness naturally.

What remains for me are her tenderness and humor. When Thom Gunn died someone called me with the news, adding, “I hope he went out wailing.” I asked what he meant, and he said, “with drugs and sex.” Well, he did, as a matter of fact, though the account is sad for those of us who loved Thom. When I told Eavan, I said I thought Dylan Thomas may have done more harm than good with “Do Not Gentle into That Good Night.” What’s wrong with going gentle? I asked. She smiled and replied, “Yes. In bed. With yer slippers on.” Thankfully she died in Dublin, not Palo Alto, with her family at her bedside. Close enough.”

Read the whole thing here.

Poet Robert Mezey remembered: “he looked me dead in the eye from across our round table, smiled a little, and said: ‘You don’t feel much, do you?’”

Sunday, May 10th, 2020
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Comfort and solace? Fuggedaboutit.

Poet Robert Mezey has died at 85 – we wrote about that here. His legacy as a poet lives on. So does his legacy as a teacher at Pomona College. One of his students, John Darnielle, founder, writer, composer, guitarist, pianist, and vocalist for the Mountain Goats, and also author of the novels Wolf in White Van (2014) and Universal Harvester (2017), has a tribute, “He Brought Me Here,” over at the Los Angeles Review of BooksIt ends with a great anecdote, and a few observations:

His patience for others was great, but his tolerance for cheap sentiment was not.

So it was that one day I arrived to class with a new poem. Watching the news, there’d been a ghastly story about a father killing his children. Did the young poet think himself up to the task of conveying this horror in quatrains of iambic tetrameter? He did.

In Bob’s class, we’d hand in new poems during the week; he’d print them up so everyone in class could have copies when we next met to read them aloud and discuss them. Proud, I read my poem that attempted to decry the ugliness of the story I’d seen on the news.

He’s grateful “every single day.”

Nobody ever wants to be the first to comment in class, right? So Bob cocked his head, looked me dead in the eye from across our round table, smiled a little, and said: “You don’t feel much, do you?”

Some people want support and encouragement from their teachers, and I get that. I wouldn’t recommend Bob’s approach as a general pedagogical method. But he’d known me since childhood. He knew I’d already had great teachers who’d nurtured my dreams, and he knew I was serious about wanting to write: to make things that reached people, to share the rare air that the greats breathe. By giving it to me straight, he was letting me know: This ain’t it, bud. You know enough about it to be told that this right here ain’t it.

Every single day of my life I am grateful to the poet Robert Mezey, who took my verse seriously enough to hold it to a high standard (and who, per spies in his camp — remember, I grew up with his children — spoke fairly warmly of my work when I wasn’t around to hear it). Every single day. He is gone now, but in any line of metered verse I write — if it’s any good, if its numbers do their job, if the miracle happens and I’m able, through the numbers, to communicate with another person: he’s there. If you know my work and not his, you still know him. He brought me here.

I make bold to borrow from one of the greatest elegies ever penned in saying goodbye to my teacher, without whom I am not nothing — he taught me that, too — but without whom I would be much, much less than I am: Earth, receive an honored guest.

Read the whole thing here.

Dostoevsky’s dream of a worldwide plague

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020
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The great poet Anna Akhmatova wrote of Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The prisoner of Omsk understood everything and gave up on everything.” But did he see our future, too? In Crime and Punishment, René Girard notes: “Raskolnikov has a dream during a grave illness that occurs just before his final change of heart, at the end of the novel. He dreams of a worldwide plague that affects people’s relationship with each other. No specifically medical symptoms are mentioned. It is human interaction that breaks down, and the entire society gradually collapses.” 

From Crime and Punishment (trans. Constance Garnett):

He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices.