Archive for December, 2020

Dana Gioia, Sam Weller on Ray Bradbury @100: “Bradbury never went to college — that’s one reason why he was so original.”

Tuesday, December 29th, 2020
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Dana Gioia and friend (Photo: Starr Black)

We’re in the last days of the Ray Bradbury centennial. The influential science fiction writer was born on August 22, 1920, and died eight years ago in Los Angeles. Bradbury’s biographer Sam Weller interviews poet Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, about the author of  Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, and others in today’s Los Angeles Review of Books“Bradbury never went to college — that’s one reason why he was so original. He was not indoctrinated in the mainstream assumption of the superiority of the realist mode. He educated himself,” said Dana.  (Thanks to jazz scholar Ted Gioia for the heads-up about this Q&A.)

When was the first time you met Ray Bradbury in person?

I never met him until he came to Washington to receive the National Medal of Arts. No science fiction writer had ever won the National Medal. I felt it was important to honor areas of American creativity previously ignored. (We eventually awarded medals to an animator, literary translator, set designer, comic book artist, graphic designer, electrical guitar pioneer, and cartoonist — while never neglecting the traditional fine arts.) Ray was the first of these new honorees. The first time I spoke to him was the phone call informing him about the medal. He was effusively delighted. His doctors told him not to come. Ray came anyway, in his wheelchair, with three of his daughters and yourself. He loved every moment. He was like a kid at Disneyland.

This began a friendship that lasted until the end of his life. I continued to visit Ray when he was on his deathbed. He couldn’t read any longer, so I would read to him. We had a long and affectionate relationship.

Do you have a favorite moment or favorite memory of Ray?

My favorite memory of Ray came from a science fiction convention at the University of California at Riverside. Not the convention itself but trying to get to it. Ray was the keynote speaker. He asked if I would introduce him. The speech was scheduled in a huge building at the center of campus. But there was no direct way to get Ray’s wheelchair into the building. Every entrance had high steps designed for 18-year-old college students. Our faculty hosts eventually took us around back to the service entrance by the garbage dumpsters. I pushed Ray through a series of underground corridors until we got to a huge elevator, which had been designed to bring trolleys up from the food service kitchen.

“No science fiction writer had ever won the National Medal.”

We went up a floor or two, and a group of guys from the food service came in with their packed trolleys. They were all young Mexicans speaking Spanish. They noticed this old man in a wheelchair. The professors all froze up. They felt uncomfortable. But these were the sort of guys I grew up with. I turned to them and asked in my lousy Spanish if they knew who this man was. They shook their heads. Then I told them he was “el escritor famoso, Ray Bradbury.” My hosts looked at me as if I were crazy. But then the guys shouted, “Ray Bradbury!” Every one of them knew who he was. Then they crowded around to get his autograph.

Wow. Great story.

The moment strikes me as the best measure of Bradbury’s fame. Can you imagine the same reaction, indeed any reaction, to Saul Bellow or John Updike? These immigrant workers, whom American intellectuals consider beyond the compass of literature — you know all the social, cultural, and racial barriers that exist — were part of Ray’s audience.

And Ray was delighted to meet them. He chuckled and signed napkins and order slips. He had a global audience. He spoke to people novelists don’t usually reach. That is something that we should honor. Bradbury had an imagination that invited people in. I’m one of them. I know I’m not the only writer of my generation who feels Bradbury made a fundamental contribution to my intellectual and literary formation.

Read the whole thing here. And you can watch Steve Wasserman interview Ray Bradbury for Truthdig here.  They discuss the history of book stores, science fiction novels and how the newspaper should teach us to love life.

Joseph Brodsky wrote an annual Christmas poem. Why did he do it?

Thursday, December 24th, 2020
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A Christmas card from the Brodsky Foundation features “Anno Domini” and Martin Schongauer.

My favorite Christmas card this year has a poem on it. The Joseph Brodsky Foundation usually doesn’t disappoint – not even in the year of COVID, which has put a damper on the season, as well as on its Christmas cards. This year’s greeting features Martin Schongauer‘s 1475 engraving and the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 1968 poem, “Anno Domini,” in the Russian. Can’t read Russian? You can read Daniel Weissbort‘s translation of the poem in The Iowa Review here. Or you could buy a copy of Brodsky’s Nativity Poemsa superb collection of eighteen of the poems he wrote annually, as a sort of birthday greeting. The collection is translated by a number of first-rate translators, including Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney.

The Russian poet said the annual discipline pretty much began when he began to write poems seriously. He tried to write a poem for every Christmas – even though the Jewish poet called himself an atheist. “I liked that concentration of everything in one place – which is what you have in that cave scene,” he explained. But that’s not all of it, either. He once facetiously described himself “a Christian by correspondence.” I suspect he was only half joking.

Why did he do it? Here’s the way  himself explained it in an interview with Peter Vail, included in the book:

I’ll tell you how it all started. I wrote the first Nativity poems, I think, in Komarovo. I was living at a dacha, I don’t remember whose, though it might have been Academician [Aksel] Berg’s. And there I cut a picture out of a Polish magazine, I think it was Przekrój. The picture was Adoration of the Magi, I don’t remember by whom. I stuck it on the ceramic stove and often looked at it in the evenings. It burned later on, the painting, and the stove, and the dacha itself. But at the time I kept on looking and decided to write a poem on the same subject. That is, it all began not from religious feelings, or from Pasternak or Eliot, but from a painting.

His fellow Nobelist, the Polish poet Czesław Miłoszgave me his own explanation twenty years ago: “If we cannot return to the stable world of the past, at least we can have some respect for some stable points. Brodsky would write every Christmas a poem – on that event, on the birth of Jesus.  This is a sort of piety, I should say, for the past, for some crucial points in our history.”

“Anno Domino” returned me to Nativity Poems tonight, on Christmas Eve. As I recall, I return to this volume every Christmas … my own “stable point.” From Richard Wilbur’s translation of 25.XII.1993:

… For miracles, gravitating
to earth, know just where people will be waiting,
and eagerly will find the right address
and tenant, even in a wilderness.

John le Carré on George Smiley: “Insofar as I am capable of self-love, I love him.”

Wednesday, December 16th, 2020
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Smiley had been his “secret sharer.” (Photo:Francesco Guidicini)

John le Carré, born as David Cornwell – and perhaps even better known as George Smiley, his literary invention – died of pneumonia last weekend in Cornwall at age 89. (We wrote about that here.) The former Cold War intelligence agent wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been called the greatest spy novel ever written, as well as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and many others. Bryan Appleyard interviewed him for the Sunday Times in 2017. An excerpt:

Does David Cornwell — better known as John le Carré — admire George Smiley, his most celebrated spy? “He is the best of me, the most rational — I admire his commitment to his task and his sense of responsibility to humankind. Insofar as I am capable of self-love, I love him.”

Smiley was born in 1961, in Cornwell’s first novel, Call for the Dead. He was a spy himself at the time — hence his need for a pseudonym — and he says he carried Smiley around in his diplomatic baggage. “I finished another little book about him [A Murder of Quality, 1962], then I wanted something big for him. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was sort of spun round for him. I gave him a job as the observing eye, the painful eye of conformity to operational necessity.”

Alec Guinness as the perfect George Smiley

Smiley has always been his “secret sharer”, “an unannounced companion with whom I am sharing the experience, an imaginary figure”. And they share one big, sad secret. “I suppose what Smiley and I have in common is that we find it difficult to remember happiness.”  It’s not something that comes naturally to me, I have to work on it. I do experience fulfilment with my children and my grandchildren.”

Now Smiley is back in Cornwell’s latest novel, A Legacy of Spies. The news was a sensation because, first, he is not alone in loving Smiley — everybody does — and, second, he once said he had finished with him. Now he knows they’ll be together until the end.

They are roughly the same age — Cornwell will be 86 in October. “Smiley and I have caught up in age and in attitude.” This is harmless cheating. A pedantic reading of the books would suggest Smiley is somewhere between 102 and 111. But pedants tend to miss the big picture, so here it is.

***

“That book [The Spy Who Came in from the Cold] was written in a kind of blind anger when we were all being thrown away, so I wanted to look at it again now and see what might have happened. Spies have children, and children they don’t even tell you about. They have bigger concerns than they actually reveal.”

The blind anger that, in The Spy, created the doomed Alec Leamas and his lover, Liz Gold, was matched by a new rage that led to A Legacy of Spies. “I wrote it in a bit of a frenzy through Trump and Brexit. I despise the whole Brexit operation, as Smiley does. One government after another blamed Europe for its own failures because they never invested in the concept of a united Europe.

In A Legacy, the past returns thanks to a legal action brought against MI6 over the events surrounding the deaths of Leamas and Gold. Public exposure threatens the now glitzy, tight-suited inhabitants of “Spyland Beside the Thames”, the agency’s “shockingly ostentatious new headquarters” in Vauxhall. Peter Guillam, once Smiley’s deputy, is called back from retirement (though there is no such thing in MI6). …  Smiley moves in and out of the action in the past before, finally, appearing in the present. Guillam asks him what all their work had been for. England? No. Europe.

“I think his whole genesis in life — his private dream, as he now expresses it — is the salvation of Europe. That was, for him, the battlefront of the Cold War — for him, that was where the soul of Europe was being fought for. So, when he looks back on it all — or I do, if you like — he sees futility.”

In A Legacy of Spies, poor Peter Guillam seems to show that, like it or not, once in, you are never out. It makes one wonder about David Cornwell, but, then again, it makes one wonder about oneself.

After all, none of this is just about spying. “I perceived,” he said at one point, “in the real world a reflection of the secret world.” We are all Alec Leamas or Bill Haydon, and, like Cornwell, some of us are Smiley — always secretive, always on call.

R.I.P. John le Carré: Recalling Soviet Russia, the KGB, and a fateful lunch with Joseph Brodsky in a Chinese restaurant

Sunday, December 13th, 2020
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Novelist John le Carré, a.k.a. David Cornwell, at the German Embassy, 2017

Author John le Carré died of pneumonia last night in Cornwall at age 89. The former Cold War intelligence agent wrote Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been called the greatest spy novel ever written (as well as a shelf of other books). I loved it for sentences like these:

“There are moments which are made up of too much stuff for them to be lived at the time they occur.”

“Somewhere the path of pain and betrayal must end. Until that happened, there was no future: there was only a continued slide into the still more terrifying versions of the present.”

“Haydon also took it for granted that secret services were the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.”

Although the news is only a few hours old, lots of obituaries are up already – the Guardian’s is here. I didn’t know him, and never read a novel besides the first. But one of the things I remember him most for is that he was at a Chinese restaurant in Hampstead with Joseph Brodsky when the Russian poet won the Nobel in 1987. He said of his friend: “My enthusiasm for him and my admiration for him were of course in the first instance not so much  poetical but political. I loved the cuts, the courage that he displayed in 1964” – that is, during his Leningrad show trial.

Sentenced to internal exile near the Arctic Circle, 1964

Here are his memories of that event, as told to Valentina Polukhina, in her Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries:

Yes. I was with him at that moment. I took him to the Chinese restaurant, which is gone now; I’ll show you where it was. It was a lousy little restaurant anyway, but it was quite good food and I used to go there. When I invited Joseph for lunch, he said ‘yes’, I think for two reasons: first, Rene Brendel [wife of the pianist Alfred Brendel] would not let him drink, not much, not as he liked to drink, and also of course he was killing time while he waited to hear the news. I had no idea of this. I actually didn’t know that the Nobel Prize winner was at that moment being selected … and then Rene Brendel appeared in the doorway. She is big, German, tall, lots of authority, still speaks with a slight German accent, and she said, ‘Joseph, you must come home.’ And he said, ‘Why?’ He had two or three large whiskies by then. And she said, ‘You have won the Prize.’ He said, ‘What prize?’ And she said, ‘You have won the Nobel Prize for Literature’. I said, ‘Waiter, a bottle of champagne’. She she sat down and accepted a glass of champagne, and I said to her then, ‘How do you know?’ She said, ‘The whole of Swedish television is waiting for Joseph outside the house’. I said, ‘Well, you know, there are three or four candidates; they may be outside every door. We need more than this before we can drink champagne in comfort’. Joseph’s publisher, Roger Straus, was in London, so Rene telephoned him at his hotel, and he confirmed that he had received official word from Stockholm that Joseph has got the prize. So, we drank the champagne. Joseph didn’t like champagne, but accepted it as a symbol. He wanted more whisky, but Rene said he must come home.  …

More … on the U.S.S.R.

Can you recognize a KGB man inside or outside Russia?

It was easy to recognize them in Russia in 1987, because those who were put alongside me had the veneer of Western manners and spoke unnaturally good English, and made fatal mistakes, like trying to talk like sophisticated Europeans. It’s very funny when somebody pretends that he knows whiskies or something like that. I don’t know whiskies, but I know this man doesn’t.

We seem never to be able to produce a realistic portrait of each other. Another fatal mistake that Western writers make in trying to depict a Soviet person.

And vice versa. I just wonder how Joseph saw the rest of his writing life, where it was going to take place. What was the grit in the oyster. Where would he get his aggravation from?

… If you didn’t know Joseph at all, what would you have made of him after reading the essay ‘A Collector’s Item’ [about British spy Kim Philby]? Is it written by a poet, a university professor, a philosopher or an amateur-psychologist? Are his analyses of the phenomenon correct, profound or superficial?

I was fascinated that Joseph got into the spying business, because it raises all the literary questions: who am I? To what am I responsible? Where do my loyalties lie? What is the true me? You are deliberately contrasting behavior with emotion. You may detest being in my company but I would never know, because the courtesy of our existence tells otherwise. You may be reporting me to the new KGB, I will never know. In a sense, the Russians knew more about psychology before Freud than ever since.

Because it was a matter of survival.

Yes, it was a matter of survival and their literature was so perceptive. They have by instinct a greater understanding of human nature than can ever be given by a scientist. I think, Joseph probably knew more about me than any analyst would after 20 years.

… If Rainer Maria Rilke is right, that Russian is sharing a boundary with God, then Russians are paying the price for the privilege.

I met in Russia so many wonderful people. Every encounter in all four visits has been so electrical, so unpredictable. You just never know whether you are going to walk into a palace or a thief’s tent. I was shocked when I went in 1987 for the first time and took my own interpreter, which disconcerted everybody; then we went again in 1993 and I couldn’t believe that Estee Lauder had replaced GUM in Red Square. The capitalization of Russia is as disconcerting to me as it is for Russians. Money is utterly mysterious. It seems to be in all the wrong hands.

You also perhaps notice that the KGB and the Party knew where the money was and is.

Nobody else does.

“The last time we saw Wisława Szymborska”: Poet Anna Frajlich remembers an ambulance, a corkscrew, and collages at Christmas

Saturday, December 12th, 2020
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We’ve written about award-winning Polish poet and writer Anna Frajlich. Now she has a brand new book out with Academic Studies Press. The Ghost of Shakespeare, edited by Ronald Meyer and translated by Timothy D. Willliams, takes its name from her essay on Nobel Prize laureate Wisława Szymborska, but also considers other major Polish writers of the twentieth century – Zbigniew Herbert, Czesław Miłosz, and Bruno Schulz among them. The book includes her memories of her exile from Poland in 1969, her subsequent life in New York City, and her American career as a scholar and leading Polish poet of her generation ever since.

Below, her recollection of her last memories of Szymborska, on November 22, 2011. “I would surely have forgotten the date if it were not for Skype, which keeps a precise record,” she said. She listened to the voicemail recording of the Nobel poet’s secretary Michał Rusinek, her secretary, or “First Secretary” as she called him, but Szymborska picked up the phone as she was recording a message. She continues:

The matter about which I was calling was rather absurd. The previous May we had been over to her place for dinner. For years, whenever we visited Kraków, she would invite us for dinner, always with some interesting company. It was an exceptionally merry evening; Wisława served us herself, leaving the men the task of uncorking the wine. During one such endeavor the corkscrew broke, and they were forced to somehow get the cork out without it. So when we got back to Warsaw, my husband and I bought a corkscrew, wrapped it in bubble wrap and sent it to Kraków. In the second half of November the corkscrew arrived in New York with the note “Return to Sender. Unclaimed.” That was the reason for my call. And that was our last conversation.

After a quick greeting, she said she had to go, because an ambulance was coming; I believe she called it an “R,” using the old twentieth-century term, but I can’t be sure on that point. She told me what had happened, but I’ve since forgotten. I even heard the ring of her buzzer, at which point we said our goodbyes.

Anna remembers a lifetime in letters…

In early 1996, I managed for the first time to work up the courage to write to her from New York. The Manhattan Theatre Club, knowing that she was on the short list for the Nobel Prize, proposed that I prepare an evening of Szymborska’s poetry, including narration to be read by me with the poems. A few months later, I received a moving letter, dated April 20, 1996:

Dear, Sweet Pani Anna! Thank you for this program and especially for your narration, which moved me enormously Instead of writing your own poems, you devote your energy to other people’s. But at the same time, you have demonstrated that my poems are not “other” to you, and for that reason I feel overjoyed, like the recipient of the most lavish present imaginable. I have one question, though: when did Polityka publish an accolade of “The Joy of Writing”?—I knew nothing of this and only learned about it from you.

The letter ends with a warm invitation, “because our next meeting shouldn’t be by chance, should it?”

A few months later Wisława Szymborska was awarded the Nobel Prize. …

We were guests in Wisława’s home for the first time three years later. It was an unforgettable evening: the other guests were fascinating, the food served by the poet herself was tasty, and we had the traditional Szymborska raffle, conversations and laughter. The guests included Dorota Terakowska, her husband Maciej Szumowski, Stanisław Balbus, Leszek Szaruga. Wisława suggested she and I switch to the informal form of address, “ty,” and told my husband she would follow suit with him the next time we met. When the next time came, she was surprised to still be on formal terms with him; she opened the cognac we’d brought, and we finalized the matter.

Even before that, I had begun to receive her magnificent, sparkling collages at Christmas time. From then on, Wisława always found time for us when we came to Kraków. She attended my readings, a fact which elicited some amazement, since she was known for rarely being seen at such events. We now would mostly meet at her place, but then go out for lunch in a restaurant. She never let anybody treat her; instead, she would treat the two of us and a few other people as well.

I tried to talk Wisława into coming to the United States, where numerous institutions were interested in hosting her. In response I received a gentle refusal: “Aniu, do you really see me doing all that traveling? I would be like a one-legged woman in the States, mute, since I don’t know the language. I would live in a state of constant stress, starting before the trip, then during and after. So even though you are there, and a few other kind souls, I’m not coming” (February 3, 2005).

“The absurd is the most essential ingredient in reality.”

Two years later: “I still haven’t even gotten around to thanking you for the French book—how do you feel about the translation? And at the same time you’ve sent me a new surprise—your students’ essays about my Grandpa … Good God, could my dear old Granddad ever have imagined that he was going to be read by American college students? And by such gifted readers to boot? Life is truly strange, but of course you know that” (April 4, 2007).

Even in these fragments, we see Wisława Szymborska precisely as she was in life—direct, down-to-earth, immensely witty, thoughtful and warm, with an undeniably strong personality. In one of the miniature letters that she mostly wrote on the back of her famous collages, she noted: “Sometimes I think the absurd is the most essential ingredient in reality” (October 24, 2003). That belief comes across in many of her poems as well.

The last time we saw her was in May. She was cheerful, elegant, serving every course herself; she placed me next to her and ordered me to do something I was passionately fond of doing, so: I talked. This time, for some reason, we didn’t take any pictures. In the drawer of my desk I have a mirror that I won in the famous Szymborska raffle that night, and on my shelf, in its sealed envelope, lies the corkscrew.

Was Nobel author Albert Camus murdered? New book in English says yes.

Monday, December 7th, 2020
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Was Nobel writer Albert Camus murdered by the KGB? We’ve written before about the mystery that surrounds his death at 46, and we’ve written before about Giovanni Catelli, too, the author of a book about the subject … in Italian.  His book, The Death of Camus (Hurst), will finally be out next month in English.

David Coward, currently writing a biography of Rétif de la Bretonne, writes in the Times Literary Supplement:

Albert Camus spent Christmas 1959 at his house in the Vaucluse with his family and his publisher, Michel Gallimard. After New Year, instead of returning to Paris by train with his wife and children, he decided to get a lift with Gallimard, a fan of fast cars, and his family, in their 4.5 litre Facel Vega HK500. Camus saw his family off at Avignon station on January 2 and set off the next day with the Gallimards. They stayed the night near Macon, set off again on January 4, lunched at Sens and, an hour or so later, crashed at high speed into one of the plane trees lining a straight stretch of road. Camus was killed outright, Gallimard died a few days later but Mme Gallimard and their daughter survived. There was little traffic at the time but someone remembered that the car was travelling fast and “waltzing” just before impact. Another witness recalled that the speedometer was stuck at 145 kph, though a third swore it read zero. Mme Gallimard said that something seemed to “give way” under the vehicle just before the crash.

For Giovanni Catelli, Camus’s death was no accident, but a political assassination. His book, first published in Italy in 2013, starts with the assumption that sets the tone: “Fate doesn’t conspire against a man just like that – that’s something men do”. So which men did it? Camus, voice of reason and Nobel prizewinner, certainly had enemies. French nationalists believed he had sold out to the Algerian rebels who, in turn, thought he was too moderate in his support for their struggle. The right resented his Resistance credentials, the left thought he had betrayed the cause. His criticism of fascist regimes riled Spain and his hostility to Soviet interventions in East Berlin and Hungary, plus his championing of Boris Pasternak, displeased Communist Party hardliners everywhere.

In Prague in about 2010, Catelli found a “crystal clear clue” which revealed unambiguously that Camus had been murdered by the KGB. The clue was a passing mention in the memoirs of the poet and translator Jan Zábrana (Cély život, A Whole Life, 1992) who had been told by a well-informed, well-connected but, alas, unnamed man that agents had placed a device inside a tyre of Gallimard’s car which would blow it at a pre-set high speed.

“He certainly had enemies…”

Having nailed the modus operandi, Catelli set about identifying Zábrana’s informant. The trail was cold and the suspects dead, but Zábrana had mentioned Dmitri Shepilov, the Russian foreign minister whom Camus had criticized in the Franc-Tireur in 1957 for his role in the invasion of Hungary. Surely he had a motive for silencing his tormentor? Catelli demonstrates that Shepilov and his agents had form in this department, though his list of KGB murders all involved poison. But he fails to explain why Shepilov waited three years before giving the order nor how, by then, he had the power to do so. In 1959 he was a lowly archivist in Kyrgyzstan, where he had been sent after trying to unseat Khrushchev.

Coward’s conclusion: “Catelli intrigues but does not convince.”The whole article is here. Is it just another of the modern world’s conspiracy theories, then? You can also read The Guardian‘s take on Catelli’s book and Camus’s death (and it’s not behind a paywall) here. An excerpt:

“The accident seemed to have been caused by a blowout or a broken axle; experts were puzzled by its happening on a long stretch of straight road, a road 30 feet wide, and with little traffic at the time,” Herbert Lottman wrote in his 1978 biography of the author.

Catelli believes a passage in Zábrana’s diaries explains why: the poet wrote in the late summer of 1980 that “a knowledgeable and well-connected man” had told him the KGB was to blame. “They rigged the tyre with a tool that eventually pierced it when the car was travelling at high speed.” …

Catelli has spent years researching the validity of Zábrana’s account. In his book, he interviews Zábrana’s widow Marie, investigates the KGB’s infiltration of France, and includes secondhand testimony from the controversial French lawyer Jacques Vergès. Catelli was contacted by Giuliano Spazzali, an Italian barrister, after the book’s publication in Italy. Spazzali recounted a conversation he’d had with the late Vergès about Camus’ death.

“Vergès said the accident had been staged. It is my opinion that Vergès had more evidence than he cared to share with me. I refrained from asking,” Spazzali told Catelli. “Discretion is the best attitude when a hot topic rises unexpectedly. I didn’t investigate any further, and yet I remember how Vergès was certain that the staged accident was schemed by a KGB section with the endorsement of the French intelligence.”

At the conclusion of the book, Catelli hopes his work will bring forth more evidence, “before the waves of time come to lay waste to the sandy, frail traces of what happened.”

(And read the review in L’Inactuelle here.)

Elizabeth Bishop’s class at Harvard: “She wanted us to see poems, not ideas,” says Dana Gioia

Tuesday, December 1st, 2020
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Harvard’s Kirkland House: they studied in the basement, among unwanted couches and broken bikes.  (Photo: Wikipedia)

A university student should have at least one unforgettable teacher during his or her formative years. So it was with poet Dana Gioia. In 1975, he began his last year as a graduate student in English at Harvard. He faced a choice: taking Robert Lowell‘s class on 19th century poets, or a relatively unknown Elizabeth Bishop teaching “Studies in Modern Poetry.” She rarely attracted more than a dozen students – but she attracted this one, who would go on to be chairman of the NEA. The class dwindled down to five, four of them undergraduates by the second meeting. But the friendship of the poet and the poet-to-be endured. After each class, he walked with “Miss Bishop” to their respective quarters, since they lived in the same direction from Harvard’s Kirkland House.

The story is one of several told in Dana Gioia’s new book Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Lifeout in January with Paul Dry Books. Also included in the collection are accounts of John Cheever, Robert Fitzgerald, James Dickey, and more. The publisher, too, has a story: he was a stock options trader, and a successful one, but the Harvard grad had a secret yen to be a publisher (read that story here). The Stanford Publishing Course convinced him to have a go.

Back to the class in the basement of Kirkland House: Elizabeth Bishop was new to teaching and it showed. “I’m not a very good teacher,” she began. “So to make sure you learn something in this class I am going to ask each of you to memorize at least ten lines a week from one of the poets we are reading.”

“Memorize poems?” one of the dismayed students asked. “But why?” Miss Bishop’s reply was modest and sincere. “So that you’ll learn something in spite of me.”

The class final at the end of the term, in Dana’s own words: “Our final examination surprised even me. A take-home test, it ran a full typed page (covered with the hand-scrawled corrections that by now were her trademark) and posed us four tasks unlike any we had ever seen on a college English exam. Furthermore, we were given exact word lengths and citation requirements, as well as this admonition as a headline: ‘Use only your books of poems and a dictionary; please do not consult each other.'”

The final hurdle of the test was this, in Bishop’s words:

Now, please try your hand at 24 lines of original verse; three poems of eight lines each, in imitation of the three poets studied, in their styles and typical of them. (In the case of Lowell, the style of Lord Weary’s Castle.) I don’t expect these pastiches to be great poetry! – but try to imitate (or parody if you prefer) the characteristic subject-matter, meter, imagery, and rhyme (if appropriate).

We may not have consulted each other about the answers to this test, but, walking out of Kirkland after the last class with the final in our hands, we could not help talking about the questions. Miss Bishop had gone off to her office, and we were alone.

“I can’t believe it,” one of the undergraduates moaned. “We have to write poems.”

Someone else offered the consolation that at least everything else on the exam was easy.

“Yeah, but we still have to write poems.”

***

His conclusion: “By this time, I had realized that, for all her fumbling disorganization, Miss Bishop had devised – or perhaps merely improvised – a way of teaching poetry which was fundamentally different from the manner conventionally professed in American universities. She never articulated her philosophy in class, but she practiced it so consistently that it is easy – especially now, looking back – to see what she was doing. She wanted us to see poems, not ideas. Poetry was the particular way the world could be talked about only in verse, and here, as one of her fellow Canadians once said, the medium was the message. One did not interpret poetry; one experienced it. Showing us how to experience it clearly, intensely, and, above all, directly was the substance of her teaching. One did not need a sophisticated theory. One needed only intelligence, intuition, and a good dictionary. There was no subtext, only the text. A painter among Platonists, she preferred observation to analysis, and poems to poetry.”