Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Philip Fried and the mendacity of words

Monday, May 4th, 2015
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poetryreview2Over the weekend, my occasional correspondent Philip Fried, editor of the Manhattan Review (we’ve written about him here and here and here), dropped me a note. He’s rightly chuffed with the new review that’s just come out for his Interrogating Water (Salmon, 2014), which just appeared in The Poetry Review, journal of the British Poetry Society. In her review, poet Carol Rumens considered Phil’s book alongside Martha Kapos‘s The Likeness (Enitharmon).

I liked the final paragraph the best:

Fried’s poems demonstrate that whatever is made of language is open to contamination, morality included. As the soldiers in ‘Moral Helmets’ are advised, “coming soon is a Moral Positioning System/(MPS) to align your firefight decisions/With four or five of the major world religions”. But, through their heightened awareness of the mendacity of words, the poems find authenticity, and document a vision of morality almost as a superior form of politics. The nuances of Wilfred Owen‘s ‘Draft Preface’ comes to mind. “Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.”

Hannah Arendt: thinking vs. evil

Friday, May 1st, 2015
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arendt3In her last, unfinished book, The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt returned to the subject of her earlier Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil. She concluded that the besetting sin of Eichmann “was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness.”

In the Time Higher Education Supplement, Jon Nixon discusses Arendt, the role of universities, “worldly thinking,” and amor mundi:

The Eichmann case raised a crucial question for Arendt: “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?” Arendt’s question arose in large part from her experience of totalitarianism, but also from her experience of political oppression under 1950s McCarthyism in the US and more generally from the ideological battle lines that defined the Cold War. She also viewed with increasing concern the unthinking consumerism and the assumption of ever increasing affluence that fuelled the American Dream prior to the stock market crash of 1973 and the oil crisis that followed later that year. Neither Hitler’s Nazism nor Stalin’s communism had, it would seem, exhausted the full potential of totalitarianism. So, the question remained urgent and pressing even within the heartlands of the democratic superpower of which she was now a citizen.

The Life of the Mind provides a tentatively affirmative response to that question: in so far as the activity of thinking requires us “to stop and think”, it may condition us against evil-doing. But this last work also raises – by implication at least – a more difficult question: could the activity of thinking not only condition us against evil-doing but predispose us towards right action? Here Arendt’s response is less clear, partly because it hinges on her suspicion of “pure thought” and partly because the final and crucial section of The Life of the Mind remained unwritten. What is clear is her insistence that without thinking that reaches out in dialogue to others there can be no informed judgement, no moral agency and no possibility of collective action – no “care for the world”.

Education was, for Arendt, an expression of that care – “the point at which”, as she wrote in her 1954 essay on “The Crisis in Education”, “we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it”. Education provides us with a protected space within which to think against the grain of received opinion: a space to question and challenge, to imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives, to reflect upon ourselves in relation to others and, in so doing, to understand what it means to “assume responsibility”. She had observed at first hand how such opinion can solidify into ideology. For her, thinking was diametrically opposed to ideology: ideology demands assent, is founded on certainty, and determines our behaviours within fixed horizons of expectation; thinking, on the other hand, requires dissent, dwells in uncertainty and expands our horizons by acknowledging our agency. It is the task of education – and therefore of the university – to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible.

Read the whole thing here. It’s worth thinking about as we redefine education and the humanities in collective and consumeristic ways. It’s also worth pondering as we head inexorably into an election season already riddled with clichés, banality, repetition, and derivative thinking.

His English: Ann Kjellberg on Brodsky’s self-translations

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015
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She ought to know.

A week or so ago, we posted on Ellendea Proffer Teasley‘s terrific new memoir Brodsky Among Us (it’s here) which is a bestseller in Russia. One person, however, took exception to our criticism of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s translation of his own works from Russian into English. Her opinion is worth a read. Ann Kjellberg is the late poet’s literary executor and the editor of Brodsky’s Collected Poems in English. She is also the editor of the magazine Little Star. Here is what she had to say:

Poetry, having so little purchase in our reading life, deserves not to be approached on the defensive, but a few recent books that consider the work of Joseph Brodsky from a world perspective have once again raised the question of how effectively he has rendered himself for us in English, and it seemed like a good moment to look a little more deeply into the matter. Brodsky was born in 1940, in Leningrad, and came to the United States as an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union in 1972. By his death in 1996 he had translated many of his own poems into English, a language in which he had by then taught and written for nearly half his life. Coming from the hand of their author, these works fall somewhere between wholly subsidiary translation and original creation. Whether their language is poetically autonomous or too distortingly shaped by its Russian consanguinities has been debated since Brodsky first spoke up in the literary culture of his adoptive land.

To understand the terrain, a few words about Russian prosody are in order. The Russian language allows up to three unstressed syllables in a single word, in contrast to English, which normally follows an unstressed syllable with a stress. This fact allows Russian tremendous metrical versatility. Whereas English poetry is overwhelmingly iambic, Russian poetry spreads equally among many metrical forms, using many other combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables besides the iamb. Furthermore, as Russian is a highly inflected language, word order is permeable, and rhymes are very plentiful, allowing for a proliferation of complex musical schemes in its very young poetic tradition. Formal expression is very, very rich in Russian poetry and an integral part of the poetic experience. This flexibility has also allowed for a very full tradition of formal translation from other languages. Part of the reason Boris Pasternak’s translations of Shakespeare were said to rival the original is that Pasternak had such a plenitude of means at his disposal. The fact that many great literary practitioners (including Brodsky) were driven into translation as a safe literary occupation during Soviet times further enriched the translated canon in Russian, influencing Brodsky’s own perception of the possibilities of formal literary translation.

brodsky-collectedBrodsky, who received very little institutionalized education and came of age entirely outside the Soviet poetic establishment, was recognized early by his peers as a prodigy of poetic forms. It was his ear that singled him out among the swarm of young aspirants that formed around his mentor Anna Akhmatova, not his wit or his philosophical acumen. Many now regard him as the greatest innovator of Russian prosody since its forms were stabilized in the nineteenth century. He is particularly known for his expansion of the dol’nik, a looser form that cross-breeds accentual-syllabic verse with its wilder accentual cousin. For Brodsky, the musical dimension of a poem was inextricably wound into its semantic heart: the forms had coloration and value, as keys do for composers and tints for painters. He often spoke of the greyness or monotony of certain feet (the amphibrach, for instance) as an antidote to poetic grandstanding: such plays of self-effacement against assertion are very important in his work. Rhyming and metrical problem-solving are also essential to the wit of his poems, which again inflects poetic authority with impishness and deeply colors the poems’ tone. He used the pacing of poetic forms contrapuntally against the plotting and logic of his poems. The forms themselves—their shading, their pathos, their modulation of energy, their inherent proportionality—were absolutely inseparable for him from the poems and from his practice as a poet.

Furthermore, as he wrote powerfully in an essays on the translation of Osip Mandelstam (“Child of Civilization,” Less Than One), for a poet of Brodsky’s generation formal values carried a larger than musical meaning: they were a living link to the values of civilization for which poets toiled secretly in hidden rooms and basements, a whispered voice echoing from the past, an embedded conversation with their peers in books and abroad whose commitment to purely aesthetic values were ridiculed by the reigning Soviet orthodoxy. To perfect the musicality of one’s verse was to scorn the Soviet command that art hew to utilitarian ends; if a poem could be said to have a literal, exportable “meaning,” then that was precisely its least valued dimension.

Such was the import that the poetic forms carried for Brodsky and his fellow émigrés, like stowaways in their literary luggage.

By contrast, when Brodsky arrived in America in 1972, formal poetry was at a low ebb. Traditional forms were equated with loathed authority generally, the influence of the beats was pervasive and converging with continentally inflected, surrealist tendencies that would feed into the work of John Ashbery and the language poets, and the powerful generation that included Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath was moving toward a more personal, idiosyncratic line. Brodsky quickly took up the cause of form in poetry, both championing the practitioners he most admired and struggling, in his own verse, to render what he had already learned of its possibilities. Richard Wilbur wrote the new arrival a plaintive letter thanking him for his defense of Wilbur’s work and alluding to how demoralizing it was to write formal verse in such times. Brodsky’s heraldic defense of formal verse was at the time conflated with his predictably anti-Communist political views and seen as representing a general, disreputable conservatism.

This trend has reversed somewhat, or at least fragmented. We now have a more eclectic musical environment for poetry, for reasons perhaps similar to those reviving figurative painting and tonal musical composition and realist fiction. Yet Brodsky’s own influence is surely visible here. Brodsky, like W.H. Auden, harkened back to Thomas Hardy as a formative presence, and most contemporary poets would recognize a broad stream in our poetry extending from Hardy and Auden through Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Brodsky, and Les Murray, to Paul Muldoon and Glyn Maxwell and Gjertrud Schnackenberg, for example. Many poets who do not write squarely in the formal tradition are more likely to visit it than they were in 1972.

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His mentor.

Yet the legacy of that period of formal quiescence remains very much with us. Few American readers can read verse musically with any sophistication. The notion is still widespread that there is a binary division between “formal” and “free” verse—whereas much of the best of what is read as free verse is in fact deeply colored by forms (often shadows of iambic pentameter or echoes of the syllabic lines of Moore and Bishop), and there is a big difference, for example, between verse that follows a colloquial or spoken line and verse that treats language as a found object. Similarly, “formal” poetry is not just conservative poetry that adheres to old structures, but is an evolving medium that grows and develops and constantly makes new means available to the artist. The rhymes and meters of Muldoon alone should be sufficient to make the case that form can be modern.

Brodsky’s effort to enliven and expand the formal repertoire in English, which met with considerable resistance at the time, can surely now be judged a success. Yet critics continue to argue that the specific musicality of Brodsky’s English verse is too infected by “foreignness.” I think this suggestion deserves more scrutiny.

The English language is perhaps the most permeable on earth, and has been subject to external influences almost since its origins. Our own sacrosanct forms are borrowed from the French and Italian. Many of our greatest poets have struggled to infuse English poetry with the music of classical antiquity, for example. There is no reason why this process should stop now, or why our poetry might not continue to be renewed and refreshed through foreign engagements. The notion that to accuse a poet’s intonations of foreignness is sufficient to dismiss them seems unfounded, and unnecessarily to limit the potential resources available for the growth of our verse.

Let us return to the example of Brodsky. A master of an artistic medium comes to us from another language. He embraces our culture and our verse. He dedicates much of his short life to struggling mightily to rewrite his own work so that it can be read and understood by his compatriots. (This in contrast with Nabokov, an oft-mentioned comparison. Nabokov not only grew up speaking English in his aristocratic Saint Petersburg household; he abandoned composition in Russian to become an English-language writer. Brodsky remained primarily a Russian poet, crossing over into English and crossing back and embracing a bilingual literary career.) Should we reject this effort on the grounds of unfamiliarity alone? Or should we perhaps consider that Brodsky brings us important news that might enrich our tradition, which is currently suffering from an undeniable diminution of means? Should we consider whether the challenges that Brodsky’s English verse offer us may themselves be an indication of how our language and our receptivity have contracted? Might it be worth searching for the inner cadences and harmonies in what at first seems startling to us? Or asking ourselves how an apparent violation of convention might create a more muscular or versatile poetic medium?

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A firm position on verse. (Photo: By Anefo / Croes, R.C.)

Here I speak mostly of Brodsky’s formal invention, because the case against his English verse is often tied to the case against formal translation generally. But readers should remember that Brodsky is a difficult poet in any language. Working with him on translations I frequently had occasion to see how he transformed a line that had been proffered by a translator not only with deeper music but deeper thinking—for him the two were intimately entailed. In a recent review in Tablet, Adam Kirsch remarks that some “unpoetic” literal translations of some of Brodsky’s work that appear as examples in a recent book sound “poetic” to him. But we cannot think that the “poetic” is a single category, a switch that can be turned on or off. There is a danger that we will accept translations that appeal to our notion of the “poetic,” or that satisfy our expectations of poetry, without questioning whether they even approach the author’s intellectual grist. Thus, like Alice, we go down a narrower and narrower literary hall.

In this vein, it’s worth considering the frequent case against Brodsky that his English is “unidiomatic.” We should reflect on the prejudices embedded in this judgment. When did being “idiomatic” become a decisive attribute for poetry? Our own language has a particular history of returning to its colloquial roots. From Chaucer, to Shakespeare, to Wordsworth, to Auden, our great poets have recalled us to the spoken line. But other traditions have developed differently. Many poetries have a high or courtly style and a colloquial style that poets draw into strategic conflict. Brodsky himself was often accused by Soviet critics of mixing high and low. Other poets have innovated by disrupting or vexing expectation, creating a new or idiosyncratic rhetoric. By keeping the spoken and the colloquial so central to our tradition, we may have deafened ourselves to the beauty and value of innovations like these.

Indeed, Brodsky used to complain that the criticisms leveled against him for his work in English were precisely the same as those leveled against him by his Russian detractors. One difference may be that challenging orthodoxies goes down more easily in literary circles when the orthodoxies are Soviet.

Ease of digestion is at a premium in our speed-reading culture. We seem more often than not to look for reasons not to address ourselves to challenging work. However, given that contemporary Americans are raised with so little education of the poetic ear, and that the number of students of Russian (and other languages) diminishes by the hour, we might hesitate before calling for the reprocessing of work by an acknowledged genius to suit our local tastes. Brodsky’s poems in English come to us double-refracted, as it were, through his own aesthetic character. They are spun once, in the original, and then spun again, just for us. We get his difficult message double-distilled. We inhabit his precise self-placement in one civilization, lifted up and dropped into a completely different one. It is a tall order. We can find reasons to avoid it. The routines of translation give us a chance to recast the problem into a Brodsky who goes down more easily. But that may not be the Brodsky we need.

(For a comprehensive study of Brodsky’s English and Russian prosody see Zakhar Ishov, Post-Horse of Civilisation [2008].)

 

“And the winner is …”: a few thoughts on this year’s “A Company of Authors”

Sunday, April 26th, 2015
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mediciThere really wasn’t a winner … or rather, there were only winners. The annual “A Company of Authors,” which we previewed here, is like the Dodo’s Caucus Race: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Alright, alright … there are no prizes, either, but everybody really does win.

That said, John L’Heureux‘s presentation of his latest, The Medici Boy, was clearly one of the highpoints of an afternoon that was full of them (some said it was the best “Company of Authors” year evah). So much so that I began taking notes against my better instincts – my home is cluttered with wads of papers filled with unused notes, whatever will I do with them? L’Heureux said that we know little about the origins of Donatello‘s bronze David, unlike most of his works that we can pin to an approximate date and a commission. Not so with this mysterious work, which L’Heureux called “a revelation.”

I was the last moderator on the final panel of the long afternoon. Hence, by the time I staggered out into the Stanford Humanities Center lobby where the Stanford Bookstore was selling copies of the featured books, much buying and selling had already taken place. However, one book had vanished entirely. You guessed it. L’Heureux’s The Medici Boy was suddenly a Stanford best-seller. No surprise, perhaps. The Washington Post said of the book and its author: “His luminous prose, swift narrative, love of art history and cool eye for human weakness make this one a pleasure to read.”

Although I had arrived too late to purchase a copy, there had been a small bonus book added to each purchase, and one or two left over. So in the spirit of the Caucus Race (“all shall have prizes”), I got a free copy of Dikran Karaguezian‘s Conversations with John L’Heureux, published by Stanford’s CSLI Publications in 2010 – and with an excellent introduction by Tobias Wolff, too. Here’s what L’Heureux said about The Medici Boy five years ago:

lheureux“Way back in 1999 on my first trip to Florence I had the good fortune to visit the Accademia and the Bargello on the same day, which meant I got to see Michelangelo‘s David in the morning and Donatello’s David in the afternoon. They provided me with a good close-up contrast. I was astonished at the Michelangelo – it’s vast and overwhelming – and I was embarrassed by the Donatello. I didn’t know where to look. The statue is so unashamedly naked. And erotic, with an eroticism that is quite calculated, I think. It asks to be looked at. It asks to be touched. I knew absolutely nothing about Donatello at that time, but one look at the David convinced me that Donatello knew exactly what he was doing and went ahead and did it anyway. …

“I concluded first that there’s a story here. That whoever modeled for this David meant more to Donatello personally than the models for Saint George or Saint Louis. Donatello gives the statue an audacity, a sexual defiance, that I’m sure he captured from the model. It’s not superimposed. It’s there in the boy posing for him. And their relationship, I concluded, was by its nature designed to break his heart. …

Q: It sounds as if you must have done a lot of research for this book.

“Actually research for this thing is an endless process. I never really intended to write the book even though I began keeping notes for it as early as 1999. I thought of it as a project for my old age, something I could keep noodling away at right up to the moment of my death … or my being sent doddering and drooling to Casa Sayanara … and when people would ask, ‘Are you working on a new book?’ I would reply, ‘Oh yes, a long term project on Donatello.’ And then I’d leave a pile of notes and nothing more at my death, but I’d have been able to kid myself that I was still at work.

miloszTruth be told, I have the same misgivings, that at my death my survivors will find only piles and piles of confused and disorganized papers and notes. So I was relieved that the bookstore also carried a few books by some of the panel moderators at “A Company of Authors” – and Humble Moi was among them. So at least one series of efforts will not be entirely lost to time. The featured book was one of my earlier efforts, Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations. While I can’t say that the small stack of my book flew off the shelves, the pile was slightly shorter when I left, which was gratifying.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: “I feel that the greatest asset that my part of Europe received in the history of the twentieth century, the privilege of our being the avant-garde of inhumanity, is that the question of true and false, good and evil, became operative again. Namely, good and evil, true and false have not been discovered through philosophical discourse, but empirically, like the taste of bread.”

 

 

“A Company of Authors”: meet the writers this Saturday at Stanford’s cozy literary fête!

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015
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Stanford poet Ken Fields (left) chats with Peter Stansky. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Every year it happens – and every year we announce it. Peter Stansky, the benevolent and erudite spirit who presides over “A Company of Authors” at Stanford (the emeritus history prof is also author of The Unknown Orwell, The First Day of the Blitz, and Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil War) has once again organized the cozy literary fête, now in its twelfth year. The event will happen this Saturday, April 25, from 1 to 5 p.m. Once again, an amazing group of Stanford writers will be discussing their recently published books. Each author will make a brief presentation, answer audience questions, and be available for conversation and book signing.

The authors who are scheduled to be speak include Richard Cottle (Stanford Street Names), Allyson Hobbs (A Chosen Exile), Maria Hummel (Motherland), John L’Heureux (The Medici Boy), Doug McAdam (Deeply Divided), Peter N. Carroll (From Guernica to Human Rights: Essays on the Spanish Civil War and Fracking Dakota: Poems for a Wounded Land), Michele Dauber (The Sympathetic State), Adrian Daub (Four-Handed Monsters), Jewelle Gibbs (Destiny’s Child), Janice Ross (Dangerous Dances), Kathryn Gin Lum (Damned Nation: Hell in America), Irvin Yalom (Creatures of the Day), Deborah Rhode (What Women Want), Marianne Constable (Our Word is Our Bond), Ann Packer (The Children’s Crusade), Alexander Nemerov (Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus & Howard Nemerov), Benjamin Stone and John Mustain (The Tanenbaum Collection), and Tom Kealey (Thieves I’ve Known). Many have appeared on the Book Haven before.

Not least of this year’s attractions: you will have a chance to meet Humble Moi, who is willing to sign your programs and flyers. If you consult the program below, you will see that I will be chairing the very last of the panels, “Truth Through Fiction and Memoir.”

Did I mention that the event is great fun? Drop in, or indulge yourself by spending the entire afternoon in the company of these bright, entertaining, and stimulating writers. Stanford Bookstore, one of the event’s annual co-sponsors, will sell books at a 10 percent discount, and authors will sign copies. Light refreshments will be served. And it’s all free!

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The book that’s rocking Russia: Ellendea Proffer’s Brodsky Among Us is a bestseller

Monday, April 20th, 2015
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Carl Proffer snapped a photo of Joseph Brodsky with Ellendea outside Leningrad’s Transfiguration Cathedral in 1970. (Photo copyright: Casa Dana)

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, has inspired a number of memoirs since his death. One big one was missing, until a few weeks ago.

Ellendea Proffer Teasley‘s Brodsky Among Us is now in its third printing, although it was released only last month in Russia by Corpus, one of the largest publishers in Russia. Reviews have been laudatory – and the book quickly shot to the top ten at the main Moscow bookstore, Moskva. The author is now on her triumphant tour of Russia, giving talks, media interviews, book signings, press lunches, and photo ops. With her late husband, Carl Proffer, she co-founded the avant-garde, U.S.-based Russian publishing house Ardis during the Cold War. Together, they brought Brodsky to America.

brodskyamongusThe literary acclaim has caught Ellendea off-guard. Russians generally like their poets stainless, and her memoir is as candid as it is affectionate. Her Brodsky is brilliant, reckless, and deeply human. “I did not expect the response I’m getting,” she wrote to me. “It is so moving to me. They understood exactly what I was doing, and they are grateful that it’s not more myth-making.”

While I have been encouraging her to write a memoir for years, I had not seen enough of her writing to anticipate what such a work would look like. Frankly, I did not expect anything of this caliber – an engaging, compulsively readable text that is bodacious, graceful, seamless. Perhaps I should not have been surprised: five years after Carl’s untimely death in 1984, she received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in her own right. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she has kept a low profile; this book marks her powerful comeback as a major figure in Russian literature.

The Proffers befriended Brodsky (1940-1996) in Leningrad. When the U.S.S.R. gave him the heave-ho, the couple miraculously secured an appointment for the unknown foreigner as poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan, which launched his career in the West. In Brodsky Among Us, she writes of the first encounter in the present tense, as if it were still replaying in her head, over and over:

“The most remarkable thing about Joseph Brodsky is his determination to live as if he were free in the eleven time zone prison that is the Soviet Union. In revolt against the culture of ‘we,’ he will be nothing if not an individual. His code of behavior is based on his experience under totalitarian rule: a man who does not think for himself, a man who goes along with the group, is part of the evil structure itself.

Joseph is voluble and vulnerable. He brings up his Jewish accent almost immediately; when he was a child his mother took him to speech therapy to get rid of it, he says, but he refused to go back after one lesson. He is constantly qualifying whatever he has just said, scanning your reactions, seeking areas of agreement. He talks about John Donne and Baratynsky (both poets of thought) then says da​? to see if you agree. (Later he would use Yah? this way in English.) This is part of his social courtship pattern. Of course there is another Joseph, the one who doesn’t like you, and that Joseph – whom we rarely see, but are often told about – is insolent, arrogant and boorish. I am reminded of what Mayakovsky‘s friends said about him – that he had no skin.”

She explains the combativeness later, “He needed his enemies; resisting them – and the state – had formed his identity.” Hence also his careerism, his relentless (and astonishingly successful) social climbing among the New York City literati: “If you had fame, you had the power to affect a culture; if you had fame you were showing the Soviets what they had lost,” she wrote.

Much of the current Russian attention is not just on Brodsky, but on the Cold War legacy of Ardis itself, given that censorship levels in Russia are returning the nation to the 1970s. Journalist Nikolai Uskov, who has visited the Ardis archives at the University of Michigan, is working on a big book about the courageous publishing house that operated out of an Ann Arbor basement.

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On Russian TV with Ksenia Sobchak (Photo: Casa Dana)

I met Ellendea back at the University of Michigan in the 1970s and visited her and Carl at the former country club that had become the Proffer family home and base of operations. Together, the Proffers published the best Russian literature at a time when the U.S.S.R. wasn’t. As I wrote a dozen years ago:

The competition was admittedly limited: Soviet publishers were hamstrung in what they could print; they weren’t publishing much that was new, let alone groundbreaking. The emigre YMCA press in Paris (which published Solzhenitsyn, among others) and Possev in Germany had a religious or political bent, a bias that often alienated younger writers. Samizdat was one alternative: haphazard, handwritten or mimeographed, and highly perishable.

Then there was Ardis. With its related venture, the innovative Russian Literature Triquarterly, Ardis brought Western readers to Russian writers. Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Velimir Khlebnikov, Mikhail Bulgakov, even Anna Akhmatova were relatively little known in the era before Ardis set up shop; their works were suppressed, their names and reputations were inevitably jumbled with a plethora of lesser, officially approved writers.

Her memoir is likely to cement the Ardis legacy in the best possible way. Brodsky Among Us is compelling, polished, pitch-perfect. She captures his restless self-reinvention, the bluster, the belligerence, the boorishness – while never losing sight of his tenderness and generosity, the reason so many, including Susan Sontag as well as the author, forgave him everything. This is, above all, a loving memoir.

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Signing books at the Dostoevsky Library (Photo: Casa Dana)

Brodsky Among Us is about as flawless a book as one could expect. I wished it wouldn’t end. I found myself marking passages I wanted to return to, sentences I wanted to remember. It’s short, but it’s not a bad idea to leave the reader wanting more. I suspect she leaves out all the right things. While some Russian readers have noted the book’s understatements and omissions, I know that she was anxious, first and foremost, that the poet’s oeuvre not be overshadowed by the anecdotes.

Recently, Russian government has attempted to appropriate its rejected poet. Brodsky’s words were featured in the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a startling move to reclaim the writer who would not have survived had he stayed, and may not have thrived under today’s Russian regime, either. Brodsky never returned to his beloved Petersburg. Why? In part, Proffer writes, because he didn’t believe anything had really changed. She writes: “Joseph had many stated reasons for not going back. He said different things, depending on his time and mood, so all one can really trust are his actions. He did not return to his native country when he could have. I know a few of his reasons: one was the iron conviction that return would be a form of forgiveness … Exile was so difficult that it was hard to believe one could just go back as if it had not cost you anything. As Americans descended from immigrants, we are familiar with this phenomenon: sometimes you love your country but it doesn’t love you back. This loss becomes a part of your new identity.”

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Ellendea on air at Radio Echo Moscow (Photo: Casa Dana)

The back cover of Brodsky Among Us has an attention-grabbing quote, but out of context one that sounds misleadingly harsh. Here are the paragraphs that goes around that quotation, which addresses the poet’s posthumous revision:

“There is a Brodsky stamp in America, and there is an Aeroflot plane named after him. I don’t want there to be a museum for Joseph, I don’t want to see him on a stamp, or his name on the side of a plane – these things mean that he is dead dead dead dead and no one was ever more alive.

I protest: a magnetic and difficult man of flesh is in the process of being devoured by a monument, a monstrous development considering just how human Joseph was.

Joseph Brodsky was the best of men and the worst of men. He was no monument to justice or tolerance. He could be so lovable that you would miss him after a day; he could be so arrogant and offensive that you would wish the sewers would open up under his feet and suck him down. He was a personality.

The poet’s destiny was to rise, like his autumn hawk, into that upper atmosphere even if it was going to cost him everything.”

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Eminent translator Viktor Golyshev, Ellendea Proffer Teasley, and critic Anton Dolin at standing-room only event. (Photo: Casa Dana)

When Proffer, who had relocated to southern California, sold Ardis to Overlook Press in 2002, I wrote about the transition in the TLS, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review was so eager to republish the piece they tracked me down to a secluded beach in Ocho Rios to get my permission to reprint tout de suite. Those were the days when newspapers still had cutting-edge book review sections willing to take a risk, the LATBR foremost among them. In 2015, publishers are looking at markets, not enduring legacies, and book editors don’t take too much interest in what happens beyond their shores. C’est dommage.

Here’s why this story is important here, now: most of his poetic career was in the U.S., not Russia. Previously published memoirs by Lev Loseff (I wrote about it for Quarterly Conversation here) and Ludmila Shtern (I wrote about it in the Kenyon Review here) are greatly illuminating, but shortchange his American life. The American story is one the Russians didn’t know, and the one that we haven’t told, spotlighting the auto-didact’s wondrous, rough-and-tumble self-reinvention, admittedly marred by the ambitious, ill-advised self-translations that would have torpedoed a lesser genius. He became the first foreign-born U.S. Poet Laureate. He taught generations of American students – including this one. Those of us who knew him will never forget him – those who didn’t, especially, need this book. Although the champagne corks are popping in Russia, most of Brodsky Among Us takes place on this side of the world – it’s an American story, about an American career. He is one of us.

Brodsky&ProffersSan Francisco_1972 copy

Brodsky Among Them: The Proffers & the poet at Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco, 1972. (Photo copyright: Casa Dana)

 

“I tricked myself to write”: Philip Glass discusses his new book on home turf

Saturday, April 18th, 2015
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Philip Glass with Ira Glass at Barnes & Noble, Uniion Square, NYC. 3/6/2015

Cousins: Ira Glass interviews Philip Glass at Barnes and Noble in NYC. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

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The latest word from the big city on the Atlantic, from our roving reporter/photographer Zygmunt Malinowski (he’s written for us before here and here and here and here, and lots of other places):

Philip Glass, considered to be one of the best contemporary composers, is part of the New York City fabric. He is a quintessential New Yorker who had his start in the New York downtown scene of the 1970s.

So I was pleased when I picked up a local paper for a subway ride recently, and learned he would be appearing locally, at Barnes & Noble on April 6, to discuss his new autobiography, Words Without Music. I had photographed Czeslaw Milosz for his book launch of Roadside Dog, the same sort of event at the same venue.

Philip Glass at Barnes & Noble, Uniion Square, NYC. 3/6/2015

Time for a close-up. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

Glass’s first opera, Einstein on the Beach, a collaboration with Robert Wilson, catapulted him to fame in 1976. He had honed his craft in Paris, where he was inspired by avant-garde theater and Samuel Beckett plays. He went to India in 1966, and encountered refugee Tibetans and Buddhism. Eventually, he would write the score for Martin Scorsese’s 1997 film about Dalai Lama, Kundun, using the repetitive Tibetan cymbals and horns as a motif.

At Barnes & Noble, the 78-year-old composer was accompanied by his cousin Ira Glass, who was also his interlocutor for the event, as well as the host and producer of NPR’s “This American Life.” The organizers warned me that the photo-op would be short, but I still had enough time to get a good close-up as he posed in front of bookstore’s logo. The overflow event, on the bookstore’s top floor, featured a large panel of Moby Dick graphic and Gulliver’s Travels. The green panel behind the center table blocked the large windows and view of city buildings, a photographer’s minor disappointment at a great event.

“Before age 41 I had a day job, I was moving furniture and things like that,” Glass told his cousin. “This is very common in our country, artists, dancers …have a day job … I thought I was successful. I had an ensemble, I went on tours. I was traveling in Europe and America.” However, even after the Einstein on the Beach triumph at the Metropolitan, he returned to his day job, driving a taxi. Soon afterwards he received a lucrative commission from Netherlands.

He claimed that it is still hard to write and sometimes he has to throw away what he started and start over. One of the ways he described it is that writing music is like “looking out the window at buildings on a foggy morning, and after a while you can see a [an outline of] a window.” Then he has to figure out a way to describe it in music. Rather like writing, in fact.

Nowadays, he particularly likes “offbeat music, especially music from other countries and music from 30s and 40s.” His tastes are omnivorous, he likes all music, and said that he has heard “some awful playing but young people are doing wonderful things.”

The written questions from the audience were randomly selected at the end of the session.

Q: Is it best to write music when you are heartbroken?

Glass: No. To me music is continuous like an underground flow…

Q: What music do you listen on a subway?

Glass: The other day, symphony music … that I composed. When we have a Tibet concert I listen to everybody. [Glass is the artistic director of annual Tibet House benefit concert at Carnegie Hall.]

Q: It’s hard to sell music.

Glass: The question should be who wants music [i.e., dancers and others need music.] Find someone your age…theatre needs music. One of the things that goes on today is collaborative. No one says you will make money; you do it because you love it. This is what we call vocation, from Latin word ‘vocare’ [to call, to name, to invoke]

Glass recalled that when he was young he set aside a period of time to compose. “I sat at the piano between 10:00 and 1 in the morning waiting for what would happen. I tricked myself to write. At first it was difficult and finally I wrote music to pass the time. Now I write anytime I want to. Now there is a feeling of anticipation, of satisfaction to come. Writing now has become joyful, but it was not like this when I was younger.”

 

Philip Glass books; Barnes & Noble; Uniion Square; NYC. 3/6/2015

In prose, not music. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

 

 

Langston Hughes and his thousands of letters

Thursday, April 16th, 2015
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hughesI haven’t read much of the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, but I adore the man already, after reading Arnold Rampersad‘s engaging, straightforward introduction to him in the new Selected Letters of Langston Hughes. The new Knopf volume is the first comprehensive selection of his correspondence, edited by Rampersad, winner of the National Humanities Medal (we’ve written about him here and here and here) and David Roessel, with Christa Fratantoro.

Hughes and I both have a complicated relationship to the world of letters. As he put it, it’s not the writing, but the “getting down to writing” that’s the problem. Here’s the first paragraph of Rampersad’s introduction:

“Who knows better than I,” Langston Hughes once wrote to a friend, “what letter writing entails?” Certainly he knew much about letters. With a crowded life that put him in touch over the decades with thousands of people, the mail was crucial to starting and keeping friendships and to doing business. He admired people who answered letters promptly. His friend Carl Van Vechten, for example, received a flood of mail but usually answered each piece on the day it reached him. Hughes was not so disciplined. In fact, at one point he called himself “the world’s worst letter writer.” Another time, he confessed to stuffing away a swelling pile of answered pieces. “Two drawers are full,” he noted, “so I’m moving my sox over.” All the same, he wanted to be a faithful correspondent. “I leave you now,” he ended a letter in 1944, “to consider the stack of mail on top of mail piled on the bed. I cannot take my rest until I unpile some of it.”

I can sooo relate. Rampersad continues:

Later in life, living near one of the noisier sections of Harlem, he wrote through the night, when the brownstone row house he shared was likely to be quiet. Then, at three or four or five o’clock, or even later, he sat at his typewriter and pounded out letters (more than thirty on many nights) that went all over the world. This was in addition to writing the poems, novels, short stories, plays, autobiographies, histories, translations, opera libretti, song lyrics, children’s books, and newspaper columns, as well as editing anthologies and other volumes, that made so many people long to be in touch of them.”

As early as 1923, Hughes wrote an early letter to Countee Cullen, “Certainly it is very kind of you to offer to read my poems for me at the library and very beastly of me not to have written a single line since returning from New York.” He was already behind in his letter-writing. But that was the least of his problems.

About two decades ago, I remember reading the letters of Katherine Mansfield, and the dominant theme of the letters was: money. Constantly short of cash as she coughed the last of her life in resort towns to relieve her tuberculosis, as she wrote, wrote, wrote … letters, diaries, short stories. Francs, dollars, yen … At least that seems to be one eternal part of the equation, and Hughes was no exception.

Did you ever try livin’
On two-bits minus two?
I say did you ever try livin’
On two bits minus two?
Why don’t you try it, folks,
And see what it would do to you?

A winner

Thousands of letters, and he edited them.

The new volume opens with the early beseeching letters to father in 1921, after he published his first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” in a national magazine. The humiliating financial exigencies were an ongoing condition. He wrote to his publisher Blanche Knopf, from a Mexican house above a pear orchard in Carmel Valley as he wrote his long (and somewhat premature) autobiography in 1939: “The house is entirely my own for work, and as remote and quiet a place as one would want to find, so I shall not be interrupted. I am sorry the manuscript is not ready to send you now, as I had hoped it would be, but it is going along splendidly and is two-thirds finished, so a month more of steady work should get it done. However, my difficulty at the moment is this: having turned down all lectures for this fall and put aside everything else in order to get the book done, my sources of income have temporarily ceased – and I find myself with an eviction warning from my New York landlord if I do not come through with the August rent. Which is bad enough, but not quite as bad as being unable to employ a typist to assist me in preparation of a final draft – some five hundred pages – which I shall shortly have ready to have recopied. So much as I dislike to do it at this stage of the game, I am writing to ask you if it would be possible to now allow me an advance of $200.00 on the book…” He lived in a time, you see, when $200 was more than a spit in the bucket.

Some things don’t change, even with fame. He wrote to Van Vechten in 1955: “What I was about to write you abut you about yesterday was (and is) to ask you if by any chance you’ve got a spare hundred lying around loose anywhere you could lend me for a month. Brokeness suddenly descended upon me unawares and my stenographer’s last check bounced. Turned out I was $1.48 short! … I don’t mind being broke myself, but typists live more hand to mouth than author, and I don’t want to get more than a week or two behind with her…” Working on a film project in 1940, he wrote that he had been “entangled in that unprofitable thing known as the show business,” adding that “in this charming democracy of ours there seems to be no place for Negroes to live in Hollywood even if they do work out there occasionally.”

Thousands of letters. We’re grateful they haven’t disappeared over the years – including letters to Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ezra Pound, Wole Soyinka, Rev. Martin Luther King. Although, in a 1936 letter, he wrote, “I seem to be out-doing even myself as the world’s worst letter writer,” his correspondence is so huge that it could easily fill a score of large volumes. But then, he saved everything. “I guess I never throw anything away ever,” he admitted.

Can’t write? Failing your exams? You, too, can be a great philosopher! Derrida did it!

Monday, April 13th, 2015
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derrida-shakespeare

A colleague in Southern California alerted me to the current exhibit at the University of California at Irvine: Through Discerning Eyes: Origins and Impact of Critical Theory at UCI. The new exhibit, which runs through mid-September, spotlights the personal papers of many famous thinkers, such as Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Edward Said, and J. Hillis Miller, housed in UCI Libraries Special Collections and Archives’ Critical Theory Archive. But the showstopper seems to be the paper above from Derrida, which is appearing in the social media. The essay on Shakespeare, written in English, received a 10 out of 20.

In case you can’t read the diagonal handwriting in red across the top by the anonymous grader, it says this: “In this essay you seem to be constantly on the verge of something interesting, but, somewhat, you always fail to explain it clearly. A few paragraphs are indeed totally incomprehensible – Probably this essay would have been good with just a little more work in it. As regards language, your English is not idiomatic enough (if generally correct). My advice is: read a lot of English, pen in hand.” I have my questions about the writing of the grader, frankly. “but, somewhat, you always fail…” Huh? And his English is not idiomatic enough? And what good does it do to read a lot of English with a pen in your hand?

Derrida

Loser.

On the facing page, “quite unintelligible” is scribbled over an entire paragraph. I don’t know about Derrida being “unintelligible,” but it is barely legible, at least in this tiny image. The exam is dated 1950 – Derrida would have been 19 or 20 years old, and he was in the “khâgne” – educational preparation for one of France’s grandes écoles.

During these years, according to the exhibit, “Derrida met many individuals who have played an important role in his life, including Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Deguy, Louis Marin, and his future wife, Marguerite Aucouturier.” “By the end of 1952,” the description continues, “he had gained admittance to the Ecole normale supérieure.” That’s a big deal.

According to the Critical Theory website, on one occasion when Derrida failed his entrance exam, a juror remarked: “Look, this text is quite simple… You’ve simply made it more complicated and laden with meaning by adding ideas of your own.” He later failed his initial license exam for philosophy. “An exercise in virtuosity, with undeniable intelligence,” one juror wrote, “but with no particular relation to the history of philosophy…Can come back when he is prepared to accept the rules and not invent where he needs to be better informed.” Failing is commonplace on these rigorous exams. Derrida failed several times before passing – but the comments were brutal.

The New York Review of Books writes that during one exam, Derrida “choked and turned in a blank sheet of paper. The same month, he was awarded a dismal 5 out of 20 on his qualifying exam for a license in philosophy.”

The moral of the story? According to Jack Cade in the comments section: “How many Jaques Derridas get rejected and discouraged by, essentially, the hegemonic systems of thought that are in every discipline? Read, judge, and grade more generously. Not easier, just wiser.”

Asian megastar Agnes Chan in South Sudan: “Their future is our responsibility.”

Saturday, April 11th, 2015
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Spreading the love: Agnes in South Sudan

I received a note from Asian megastar Agnes Chan, author of about 60 books and Japan’s high-profile ambassador for UNICEF (I’ve written about her before here and here). She wrote: “I am in South Sudan on a UNICEF mission. Fighting continues in several areas. Displaced people, malnourished children, lost lives and bleak prospects. Decades of war makes this resource rich country an aid dependent state. Needless fighting must stop already. The children are adorable and their future is our responsibility.” Could I blog her note and photos? “It will be great to let more people know about the situation,” she replied.

Here is a description of the visit form the author, singer, journalist, and humanitarian (who also holds a Stanford PhD), according to a report from Yambio in South Sudan:

Ambassador, Agnes Chan says UNICEF will reach out-of-school children in all 10 states, targeting approximately 400,000 children whose schooling has been interrupted by the conflict in South Sudan to return to their studies this year.

She said that children have started joining schools while others still need awareness and support to go to schools.

Ms. Chan stated that UNICEF and the Government of Japan will continue to support South Sudan.

“We will continue supporting children’s education in South Sudan urging the people to make good use of facilities to making sure that children are educated well,” she noted.

She thanked Western Equatoria Government for being devoted in helping women, children and the youth in life skills.

Ms. Chan in her meeting with the State Governor, Bangasi Joseph Bakosoro appreciated his leadership and the entire government for keeping and promoting peace in the State.

“It is not easy but the people of this state are committed to maintaining peace in the area because peace is a very important tool, that for any country to do well for its citizens there must be peace,” Chan said.

More photos below:

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