”Auden’s words are everywhere,” wrote the author of a ”Letter From New York” in The Times Literary Supplement of London. At least a half-dozen major newspapers reprinted ”September 1, 1939” in its entirety. It was read on National Public Radio. It was introduced into hundreds of chat rooms on the Internet. In the Chicago area, the Great Books Foundation and The Chicago Tribune sponsored discussions of it. Students at Stuyvesant High School, four blocks from ground zero in Manhattan, produced a special issue of their school newspaper (which The New York Times distributed to its readers in the metropolitan area) prominently featuring one of the poem’s most familiar lines, ”We must love one another or die.”
Surely, however, it shared the somber honors with Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” which appeared on the back cover of the New Yorker after 9/11.
Praising the mutilated world…
Could the poem for World War I be Philip Larkin‘s MCMXIV? It’s getting a lot of play this month, during the centenary of the beginning of the Great War. The poem was first published in 1964, fifty years after the events it describes, in the collection Whitsun Weddings.
A few words from critics about Larkin that I found along the way: Andrew Sullivan feels that Larkin “has spoken to the English in a language they can readily understand of the profound self-doubt that this century has given them.” X.J. Kennedy wrote that Larkin’s oeuvre is “a poetry from which even people who distrust poetry, most people, can take comfort and delight.” J. D. McClatchy said that Larkin wrote “in clipped, lucid stanzas, about the failures and remorse of age, about stunted lives and spoiled desires.”
XCMXIV is only one remarkable sentence long (mind the punctuation), and describes the enlistment of naïve young men at the war’s outset. Read it, and hear it, in the video below.
It’s been awhile since we heard from our friend Patrick Kurp, who runs the excellent blog, Anecdotal Evidence. It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from pretty much from anyone, hunkered down over a book manuscript as we are. However, he sent me this recent photo to add to our gallery of best book cats. This one is his own feline, Hurricane, who is keeping on top of Polish literature, as you can see below. I recognize two of my own books on the shelf: An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz and Czesław Miłosz: Conversations. It’s nice to be nestled in-between two beloved poets: the Polish Nobel laureate himself, and Adam Zagajewski, via his prose, In Defense of Ardor: Essays and his memoir, Another Beauty. Why such an ominous name for this handsome tabby? Patrick explains that his son Michael, then about four, named him in December 2005, when the furball showed up at the door just a few months after Katrina and Rita. Welcome to our pages, Hurricane! (Photo: Sylvia Wood)
Postscript: Patrick posted about his “Pole Cat” today here. He pointed out that Zbigniew Herbert(who shares the bookshelf) would have approved. Don’t we know it. We visited the poet’s cat a few years back in Warsaw. That’s Herbert’s big cat Szu-szu at right, and Mouszka at left, a later addition to the family by Madame Herbert. Stroking Herbert’s cat made a wonderful frisson of connection with the poet through time.
Tadeusz Różewicz died today at 92 years old. It hasn’t made the Western press yet. He was one of Poland’s greatest poets, of the generation after Czesław Miłoszand Zbigniew Herbert. Miłosz described him as “the most talented among those who began to publish immediately after 1945.”
“By contrasting the scenes of war that he had witnessed with the entire heritage of European culture, he arrived at a negation of literature because it seemed to be no more than a lie covering up the horror of man’s brutality to his fellow man,” Miłosz wrote. Różewicz served in the Poland’s Home Army, loyal to the government-in-exile in London. His older brother Janusz, also a poet, was shot by the Gestapo. I learned this today. Back in 2008, much less was known about this poet.
I tried to arrange a meeting with him during my first trip to Poland that year, but his home was in a remote rural area nearest to Wrocław, and I was far away in Kraków. The attempted meeting was arranged through Maria Debicz. As I recall, he didn’t speak English well, or perhaps at all … that added an extra layer of difficulty to any potential tête-à-tête. I seem to remember that an illness put the meeting out of the picture altogether. Of course I regret now what wasn’t possible then. It will have to be another time. Au revoir, though there wasn’t a “voir” in the first place.
I posted a few Polish articles on my Facebook page, then scoured to find the small, award-winning Archipelago Books volume of his poems, translated by Bill Johnston. I failed, but I found on a dusty shelf on top of a wardrobe, Polish Writers on Writing, edited by Adam Zagajewski, who encouraged the meeting. His nervous, sometimes comically irritable essay is called “Preparation for a Poetry Reading.” It’s a reading the maestro didn’t want to give. One paragraph:
“Poetry has to consummate a given place and time. If it does, it is perfect. How easy it was to create poetry and describe poetry, while it existed. Poets still use this kind of phrase: ‘As long as poetry hasn’t died in me, I can’t be unhappy.’ As if they didn’t understand that there is no ‘poetry.’ They are like children. Worse: They are merely childish. Poetry! If they’re not comparing a fist to an eye, they don’t feel like poets. What empty gibberish: ‘As long as poetry hasn’t died in me, I can’t be unhappy.’ What confidence in oneself and in ‘poetry.’ What if ‘poetry’ died in you a long time ago and you feel happy? Is poetry in you as a kind of foreign body? Poetry? The happy knew where poetry began and ended. Critics could pinpoint the place in a poem where there was poetry. They feel unhappy if they’re not describing poetry. Until you feel unhappy, ‘poetry’ won’t be born in you! That’s better. But there are even poorer poets. They say: ‘Poetry is like a bell’ or ‘Poetry is a moonlit night.’ They make comparisons. They clutch comparisons as a drowning clutches driftwood. They already know what poetry is. So they can create poetry, have poetry in them. They can feel happy. But there is no poetry. They sense this, but they don’t want to touch on the truth. They’re afraid. The old and the young.”
Then a friend, Erdağ Göknar, posted this poem on Facebook, “on the way consciousness gropes to order the world after catastrophe.” Can’t do better than this, at least not today. The fifth stanza alone is worth the price of admission:
In the Middle of Life
After the end of the world
after my death
I found myself in the middle of life
I created myself
people animals landscapes
this is a table I was saying
this is a table
on the table are lying bread a knife
the knife serves to cut the bread
people nourish themselves with bread
one should love man
I was learning by night and day
what one should love
I answered man
this is a window I was saying
this is a window
beyond the window is a garden
in the garden I see an apple tree
the apple tree blossoms
the blossoms fall off
the fruits take form
they ripen my father is picking up an apple
that man who is picking up an apple
is my father
I was sitting on the threshold of the house
that old woman who
is pulling a goat on a rope
is more necessary
and more precious
than the seven wonders of the world
whoever thinks and feels
that she is not necessary
he is guilty of genocide
this is a man
this is a tree this is bread
people nourish themselves in order to live
I was repeating to myself
human life is important
human life has great importance
the value of life
surpasses the value of all the objects
which man has made
man is a great treasure
I was repeating stubbornly
this water I was saying
I was stroking the waves with my hand
and conversing with the river
water I said
this is I
the man talked to the water
talked to the moon
to the flowers to the rain
he talked to the earth
to the birds
to the sky
the sky was silent
the earth was silent
if he heard a voice
from the earth from the water from the sky
it was the voice of another man
I met poet Daniel Rifenburgh ohhhhh… a dozen-or-so years ago. We’ve stayed in touch since. We had an unforgettable June evening together at the West Chester Poetry Conference. We were in a rented car crammed with people, en route from the university to the home of Michael Peich, conference’s co-founder (with Dana Gioia). As I recall, David Slavitt was piled into the car, too. Can’t remember who else … plenty of people pushed into a small vehicle.
Dan was driving – as I recall he was a taxi-driver at that time, so he was pro. Later, he taught at the University of Houston. Now he drives an 18-wheeler flatbed rig, hauling steel out of the Port of Houston. On that particular night, however, he had the misfortune to appoint me as his co-pilot and hand me the maps. We quickly became confused and lost in the suburban Pennsylvania neighborhood, with its winding, pointless streets, but we were having fun, anyway. We may have been the only ones in the car who were. We found the party eventually, and stayed in touch over the years, respectfully addressing each other by title, always – “co-pilot.”
So I was pleased to receive in the mail his newest volume of poems, Isthmus (it was signed – what else? – “To my co-pilot, Cynthia, with admiration and affection”). I was also pleased to hear that we have a mutual friend, Anne Stevenson. Here’s what she wrote about his poems in London Magazine, after recounting a career that included serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era, and working his way through Latin America as a reporter: “Rifenburgh is enjoyable because he ranges at large over many subjects, testing, exploring, reporting, celebrating; he has many moods … Yet, for all his ironic witticisms, Rifenburgh is, au fond, a profoundly spiritual poet, committed, like Hecht and Wilbur, to declaring his seriousness.”
A better way to get around Pennsylvania?
Other supporters include Richard Wilbur, who says his poems “can also stun the reader with a brilliant, slow-fuse image. What governs the movement of the poems is a genius for the speaking voice.” Isthmus is dedicated to Donald Justice, who said Dan’s poems “are terrific: so fluent, so smart, and brimming with charm.” Both Justice and Anthony Hecht figure in the poems, as dedicatees or the source of subject matter or epigrams – and Adam Zagajewski, who taught with Dan in Houston, makes a welcome guest appearance, too. Hecht wrote, characteristically, “These poems are startling in their vividness, skill, their originality and solidity. I find that lines and images resonate long after they have served the purposes of their local contents.”
Dan said I could reprint a poem – but which? Sometimes the first choices are best. When I opened the book, my eyes fell on this one, and I liked it. It grabs me still, though I haven’t read them all, so I can’t claim it’s my favorite yet.
The Fragments of Heraclitus
The name of the bow is life, but its work is death.
. The Fragments
The fragments of Heraclitus,
Compact, trenchant, inscrutable,
Are lovely in their resistance
To analysis. Therefore, from sympathy,
And, being immortal,
They sometimes assume human forms
To attend unnoticed the burials of critics.
They hold by their brims dark fedoras and,
Standing aloof, stolid, anonymous,
Listen respectfully to brief eulogies
While the great world sifts noiselessly
Down through time’s latticework
And the bow named life,
Accomplishing its work, later
Sends them strolling like slow arrows
Away from these shaded gravesites,
Last night – Lenten fare. Stanford’s Schola Cantorum performed Johann Sebastian Bach‘s St. Matthew Passion, widely considered to be the master composition of the entire Western canon. I attended the performance at Stanford’s magnificent Memorial Church with a friend – and with a good many others, too, since it looked to be a sold-out performance.
“Bach thought highly of his St. Matthew Passion. He called it his best work. Alas, few of his contemporaries shared the sentiment. After a performance in St. Thomas Church on Good Friday, 1735, the powers-that-be in Leipzig whispered into Bach’s ear that, as long as he kept that theatrical crap out of the Lord’s House, everything would be all right. He took the hint and applied for a job in Dresden, 70 miles away, submitting his Mass in B Minor as part of his application package. He was turned down. Perhaps that’s because Dresden had high standards and, after all, the Mass in B Minor is considered by many to be only the second greatest composition in Western music. The greatest? For Seiji Ozawa, it is ‘without a doubt, the St. Matthew Passion.’
Bach’s two surviving passions (the other two were lost! Imagine literature without Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet…) fell into oblivion after a couple of performances. They were too hard, too long, too demanding, too operatic for Lutheran sensitivities. Ignoring friendly advice, Mendelssohn re-premiered the St. Matthew Passion 100 years later. By doing so, he invented what we term ‘classical music’ today, i.e., the modern view of a concert hall as both a school and a mausoleum. Music had never before looked to the past. On that day in 1829, Bach became immortal. …
Bach made it very clear he was writing neither for humans nor for posterity. He was writing ‘for God.’ (If I lost 10 children, as he did, maybe I’d be doing the same thing, too.) He never gave in to any pressure to appeal to the local musical tastes. He was a big, tough guy, who was known to brawl in bars in his youth. He was even jailed once. When the local authorities threatened to block his promotion (which they did) if he didn’t “simplify” his music, his only reply to them was a loud ‘Screw you!’ Bach was fearless. But his Leipzig years were not happy ones. He had a much easier life composing for the Court (as the Brandenburg concertos make it very clear). But he chose to move to Leipzig to work for the church and take a huge salary cut. That was his own decision: a very Coltrane-like spiritual awakening. Sure, he was convinced his music was superior, but it’s fascinating to hear his reasoning: ‘My music is better because I work harder. Anyone who works as hard as me will write music that is just as good.’ At least the first sentence is partly true: he did work harder than anyone. It took him one year to write the St. Matthew Passion, and it was performed only twice in his lifetime. It’s humbling to think I’ve listened to it more often than Bach himself.”
Van der Weyden’s 1445 triptych … with supernumeraries.
Humbling for Humble Moi as well. However, I’m ashamed to admit to my barbarism: last night was the first occasion I have ever listened to it, beginning to end, with the libretto in hand. It’s quite an experience, and an exhausting one – not only because it is three-and-a-quarter hours long (actually, longer than that last night).
The composition, with all its interspersed hymns, entreaties, and prayers, reminds me of one of those Flemish paintings a few centuries before Bach – say, the Crucifixion triptych of Rogier Van der Weyden – where an event is witnessed by the painter’s pious contemporaries. Usually the donors, often with supernumerary saints, are kneeling or rapturously praying among the Biblical figures. They are in, but not of, the event. And in their role inside and outside of time, they invite you to join them, in witness. Bach’s Passion forces you back on yourself, to take a position about the music, the ideas, the words you are hearing – and not just to think about them, of course, but to feel them, so the pondering and the pity transform you in the process. (That’s one reason why the program notes’ generic words about how the composition “speaks to us of conscience, courage, compassion, acceptance, and hope” are so impossibly banal.)
What he said.
I’ve always been especially fond of the haunting “Blute Nur,” and to a lesser extent the final bass aria, “Mache Dich.” But in later years, I’ve been especially attentive to the “Erbarme Dich” – not because Yehudi Menuhin called it the most beautiful piece of music ever written for the violin (Bernard Chazelle has lots to say about this aria, too). My reason lies in the words of Adam Zagajewski.
The Polish poet wrote in his Another Beauty: “When asked if European music has a core, that is, if one work or another might be called its heart, B. answered, “Yes, of course, the aria ‘Erbarme Dich’ from Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew.’”
While corresponding with Adam Z. in 2006, I asked him to elaborate, fully expecting him to dodge behind the alias “B.” But he didn’t: “Erbarme Dich – Bach represents the center and the synthesis of the western music. To say, as I did, that this particular aria is the center of western music is a leap of faith, of course. I couldn’t prove it. I love this aria.”
My friend Mike Ross immediately thought of me when he read today’s post from “The Rice History Corner” blog at his alma mater, Rice University in Houston. (I’m flattered.) It features a Czesław Miłosz having lunch at the university’s faculty club with Prof. Ewa Thompson. The Nobel poet recorded a program for KUHT-TV with Thompson and other Houston writers and scholars, and also gave a talk at the University of Houston.
The connection between Miłosz and Houston rang a bell in other ways. Adam Zagajewski arrived on the campus of the University of Houston in 1988, and later launched a program connecting the students in Texas with Miłosz in Kraków. So the link between Miłosz and Houston is stronger than might be supposed.
Meanwhile, in my perambulations around the web, I found Christopher Hitchens‘s “The Captive Mind Now,” words written on Miłosz’s death in 2004, in which he revisits the landmark Captive Mind and “ketman,” and somehow brings Azar Nafisi‘s Reading Lolita in Tehran into the mix, with its dedication from the Polish poet’s “Annalena”:
To whom do we tell what happened on the
Earth, for whom do we place everywhere huge
Mirrors in the hope that they will be filled up
And will stay so?
“The Hitch” concludes: “The long-term achievement of Milosz was to have scrutinized, not just in between but clean through, and well beyond, the party ‘lines’ that claim for themselves exclusive truth. In doing so he shamed the so-called intellectuals who managed the ugly trick of denying freedom to their own minds, the better to visit the same deprivation upon others.”
Sachs is one of the more neglected Nobel prizewinners (she was awarded in 1966), so I was glad for the opportunity to familiarize myself with her life and work at an event last week in the Stanford Libraries’ elegant Bender Room. That, and a few new books (including the collection at left, published last year by Green Integer), should spur at least a small revival of her name. But perhaps, as is so often the case, the revival is already underway and I am confusing cause with effect.
The Berlin-born Jewish poet (1891-1970) fled with her mother after the Nazis took power, and sought refuge in Sweden, with the help of her friend (and eventually fellow Nobelist) Selma Lagerlöf. Always of fragile health, her life was marked by breakdown, paranoia, hallucinations. Her name as a poet pretty much began at 50, with her emigration. She supported herself and her mother with her translations.
The Bender Room event with champagne celebrated the publication of Aris Fioretos‘s Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis: An Illustrated Biography. The Swedish writer Fioretos described Nelly Sachs, in the postwar years, looking up at the crossing vapor trails in the sky and seeing first scissors, then a swastika; she was sure the airplanes were spying on her. He suggested a bit of aural wordplay – “Sachs,” or “sax,” is Swedish for scissors. She continued to write even while in a mental institution.
Axel Englund of Stockholm University said she revered Friedrich Hölderlin. He quoted her line “our bodies still sound with their mutilated music” – pretty much prefiguring Adam Zagajewski‘s “Let Us Praise the Mutilated World,” no?
Someone read these lines of hers:
We stars, we stars
We wandering, glistening, singing dust –
Earth, our sister, has gone blind
Among the constellations of heaven –
He read excerpts from the letters.
The actor/director Andrew Utter, founder of L.A.’s Uranium Madhouse Theater read from her letters. After his reading, he kindly gave me the xeroxed pages he had read. But several days later he faxed me this one, somehow overlooked in the handful he had given me. On the page was this 1958 letter to her “Dear poet and dear person Paul Celan“:
For me it is joy enough to have a few friends, but you understand me, dear poet – I still wanted something else. I still have to accustom myself to joy, too, after so much suffering, and when the Swedish poets awarded me their newly endowed poetry prize, I couldn’t take anything in and became quite confused, that I, a foreign-language refugee, should be given so much honor.
There is and was in me, and it’s there with every breath I draw, the belief in transcendence through suffusion with pain, in the inspiritment of dust, as a vocation to which we are called. I believe in an invisible universe in which we mark out our dark accomplishment. …”
There the fading text on the faxed page disappeared in to the following, unsent page. I wonder what the rest of the letter said.
Celan replied to her of course, with his own poem, “Zürich, Zum Storchen” [Zurich, at the Stork Inn]. Here is a bit of it, in John Felstiner‘s translation:
Our talk was of your God, I spoke
against him, I let the heart
his highest, death-rattled, his
wrangling word –
Your eye looked at me, looked away,
spoke toward the eye, I heard:
really don’t know, you know,
really don’t know
I’ve received another souvenir from Paris, following last month’s talk at the American University on “Old Wine in New Bottles: Literary Journalism as Cultural Translation.” This time the ever-gracious Center for Writers and Translators has added a few sound clips from the workshop session.
They described them this way:
She joined us to discuss the changing face of cultural and literary journalism, touching on Twitter, Polish poets Czesław Miłosz and Adam Zagajewski, her memories of studying with Joseph Brodsky at the University of Michigan, the unexpected heroism of Marina Tsvetayeva‘s husband, and how to review books that don’t exist.
Meanwhile, my correspondence with my charming host for the visit, Daniel Medin, yielded this photo, more flattering (and more true-to-life) than the one I’ve used in earlier posts.
Daniel, by the way, is associate professor of comparative literature at the American University, associate editor of the Cahiers Series (we’ve written about that here), and the European editor of Quarterly Conversation (which I discussed here).
(Special thanks to Madeleine LaRue for coordinating the website effort!)
I missed the news of Wisława Szymborska‘s funeral earlier this month, and only just found this youtube clip of the quiet, secular ceremony that nevertheless attracted more than a thousand people in a Polish winter. According to the Associated Press:
Freezing temperatures and falling snow at the Rakowicki Cemetery in the southern city of Kraków, where Szymborska lived, did not discourage the mourners, including Prime Minister Donald Tusk, writers and actors, from attending the ceremony.
An urn with Szymborska’s ashes was placed in the family tomb, where her parents and sister are buried, to a recording of Ella Fitzgerald, Szymborska’s favorite singer, singing “Black Coffee.” The poet was a heavy smoker and a lover of black coffee.
“In her poems, she left us her ability to notice the ordinary, the tiniest particles of beauty and of the joy of the world,” President Bronisław Komorowski said.
“She was a Krakowian by choice,” said Kraków mayor Jacek Majchrowski in the clip below. “The climate agreed with her, so did the people.”
Krakowian by choice
Adam Zagajewski, a good friend of hers, tried repeatedly to introduce me to the reclusive poet – with no success; her circle in her final years was pretty much kept to the closest friends. She wanted to save her energy for her poems. I’m glad I caught the reading last year, perhaps it was her last.
In the clip, Adam Z. notes that “she survived a horrible war, and lived through two totalitarian regimes, but she didn’t choose to keep silent – she chose a way of expressing herself that never led to pointless chatter – but on the contrary, to intelligent expression.” I don’t trust the voiceover translation. It doesn’t sound like the man who has been shortlisted for a Nobel himself.
Rakowicki Cemetery is a huge place – truly an empire of the dead. I can’t remember how I came to see it, but I remember it seemed out of the way, on the edge of town; it must have been during my first visit in 2008, since the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, where I lived last year, is relatively close. Whatever. John Paul II‘s parents are there; heaps of flowers are still placed on their graves, and candles, too.
And soon we join them. How fast it all goes! It is banal to say so. But one hits at some point in middle age the Great Reversal, where we sees clearly that the way ahead is shorter than the way behind, and that it is only luck or chance that we are still eating, talking, taking out the trash and doing the laundry as if nothing particular were happening. This realization creates a revolution in the brain. One sees that life really is an incessant conversation between the living and the dead – and what one writer called “the tyranny of the living,” “the small, arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking around” is a shortsighted view. Nothing we touch, think, feel, or love is other than a gift from those who came before us, passing on literature, painting, domesticated cats, architecture, silver spoons, flush toilets, witty sayings, lullabies, chocolate éclairs, systems of government, habits of kindness before they, too, close the door of their room and, one by one, check out of this giant, raucous hotel.
What a nice way to celebrate Thanksgiving! My article in the Times Literary Supplement is online today, and not behind a paywall. It begins:
In May this year, the streets of old Cracow were dominated by two names, two events. Czeslaw Milosz’s centenary jostled with Pope John Paul II’s beatification in windows, on banners and billboards, on bookstore shelves, in fliers and leaflets – the pope, perhaps, having the edge over the Nobel laureate, except on the kiosks where Milosz Festival posters prevailed. “It seems to me every poet after death goes through a Purgatory”, Milosz told me over a decade ago. “So he must go through that moment of revision after death.” The “revision”, at this point, is a triumph of twenty-first-century branding and marketing, featuring commemorative books, pens, postcards, blank books, and T-shirts; Milosz’s scrawled signature appears on napkins and even on the wrappers of tiny biscotti.
Few poets have been feted with such rock star exuberance. The “Milosz Pavilion” on Szczepanski Square hosted literary luminaries such as Adam Zagajewski, Bei Dao,Tomas Venclova, Adonis, and Natalya Gorbanevskaya. (Even the reclusive Wislawa Szymborska made a rare public appearance with her colleague Julia Hartwig at the medieval St Catherine’s Church.) Meanwhile, the Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Novum sponsored a week-long scholarly conference with seventy participants from around the world, including the eminent critics Helen Vendler andClare Cavanagh, and some leading Polish scholars. The Jagiellonian Library, farther from the centre of town, exhibited manuscripts, photographs and first editions. The events were attended by thousands. All this year, books have poured from Polish publishers. Most notably, Milosz’s own publisher, Znak, issued two hefty volumes: Andrzej Franaszek’s 1,000-page biography – a bestseller – and a new 1,500-page Collected Poems. A few of the literati complained to me that Milosz was not receiving his due among the younger generation – an honoured marble bust to be dusted off seasonally, but not read or remembered – but I saw plenty of evidence to the contrary.