Posts Tagged ‘Adam Zagajewski’

Poems from my co-pilot

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013
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rifenburgh2I 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.”

Antonov An-2

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,

Pacing back cleansed
Into birdsong and light.

“My music is better because I work harder”: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

Saturday, March 23rd, 2013
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johann_sebastian_bach

Don’t mess with him. He messes back.

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.

In my googlings, I found this lively and informative post from Princeton’s Bernard Chazelle at “A Tiny Revolution”:

“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.”

Crucifixion-1445

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.)

zagajewski

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.”

Miłosz at the Faculty Club

Monday, June 11th, 2012
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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.

Zagajewski provided another Houston link

The column is written by the university’s “centennial historian,” who doesn’t give her name.  She has good taste, though:  Patrick Kurp‘s blog Anecdotal Evidence is at the top of her blogroll.  Moreover, she delights in such poets as Zbigniew Herbert and Adam Zagajewski, as well as Miłosz.

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.”

 

Nelly Sachs. Ever hear of her? Nobel poet finds new recognition.

Friday, March 16th, 2012
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Ever hear of Nelly Sachs? I hadn’t, either.

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.

Her biographer

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 Zagajewskis “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
I had
hope:
for
his highest, death-rattled, his
wrangling word –

Your eye looked at me, looked away,
your mouth
spoke toward the eye, I heard:

We
really don’t know, you know,
we
really don’t know
what
counts.

Another souvenir from Paris…

Thursday, March 15th, 2012
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My charming host

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.

The sound clips are on the CWT website here. I share the new site with translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky discussing Nikolai Leskov. (I’ve written about the translating duo here.)

Dynamic duo

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!)

Wisława Szymborska’s funeral on a snowy day in Kraków

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012
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One of Poland's most famous cemeteries

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.

TLS: Czeslaw Milosz around the world

Thursday, November 24th, 2011
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Rock star treatment

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.

The Works

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 and Clare 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.

The rest is here.

The Cahiers Series: “really, really beautiful” – and hand-stitched, even

Monday, September 26th, 2011
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In a world where everything is becoming faster, cheesier, and more functional – when books are no longer tactile, sensual objects, but characters on Kindle – it’s cheering to see anything swimming upstream.  Bonus points if it extols that most underrated of literary trades, translation.

Applause keeps mounting for the Cahiers Series, published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. It’s hard to stay on top of it.  But Daniel Medin, one of my more charming correspondents, has been sending me updates from the American University.

The latest plug is in Friday’s New York Review of Books blog, where Colm Tóibín introduces László Krasznahorkai‘s Animalinside (with illustrations by Max Neumann):

The prose of Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai is full of menace, but it would be a mistake to read the menace either as political or as coming from nowhere. In novels such as The Melancholy of Resistance and War & War, his imagination feeds on real fear and real violence; he has a way of making fear and violence seem all the more real and present, however, by removing them from a familiar context.

Daniel, now an associate professor at the American University (after teaching at Stanford a year or two back), said this:

The allegorical tissue in that text [i.e., Animalinside] is very thick, the “animal inside” a literal and metaphorical thing at the same time – think Herbert‘s Report from the Besieged City, where “a rat became the unit of currency.” We’re in the realm of Kafka and Beckett here, and not just in approach: I believe that Krasznahorkai is a writer of nearly the same magnitude who has the mixed fortune of having been born Hungarian – mixed because of that country’s embarrassment of (literary, cultural) riches on one hand and its linguistic isolation on the other.

Quite a coup for a small series that lives more or less hand to mouth, on uncertain funding. Part of the problem is shipping, which makes U.S. distribution difficult, even for a downright modest price of, say, $15.  Distribution in France is a little problematic, too, since the language is English.  “Every penny goes toward quality of production and keeping down the price,” Daniel writes.

Via the Cahiers Series subscription page you can buy a boxed set of volumes 1-6 (or a boxed set of volumes 7-12) for £51 – “which is approximately $4,000, but like I said, these are really, really beautiful. (Kidding—£51 is only $75 and these are worth every dime),” according to the Three Percent blog.  (Sorry, the blogger got me going for a moment – so I had to try it on you.)

[New updated deal: In addition to having the option of ordering cahiers individually, readers can now select any 6 cahiers for £55 in Europe/£59.50 everywhere else. Check it out here.]

Last year Daniel  told the Three Percent blog: “There are two main justifications for the Cahiers Series. The first is that we publish material that cannot easily be published anywhere else; we can play with form in a way that commercial publishers cannot. The second justification is to make something where the parts, through their relation to each other, add up to more than just that.”

Much more.  Clearly, the project is gaining momentum and some very high-profile attention – for example, from James Wood in the New Yorker here.

Daniel – handsomer than this, really

Daniel also sent me a copy of George Craig‘s Writing Beckett’s Letters. Craig spent 15 years translating the thousands of letters Beckett wrote in French.  It’s chock full of impressive insights, and handsomely produced – hand-stitched, even. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Rhys Tranter did, and said this in the Spectator Book Blog (it’s here and here):

Whilst George Craig’s book is neatly timed to anticipate the next volume of Beckett’s Letters, it is more than just a preview of things to come. To Beckett scholars and enthusiasts, the appeal of this book is obvious, tightly-woven with rare insight and beautiful reproductions. But it is also thoughtful and engaging introduction to the problems of translation, and a testament to the status of correspondence as a kind of art-form. To paraphrase Craig’s description of Beckett and Duthuit’s correspondence, this is a work that abounds in strange, unexpected things.

Prescient words. Daniel has been promoting literary translations in other ways: He’s proud that the first invitation he issued at the American University was to Adam Zagajewski, who read from his latest collection and chatted with his students about his first encounter with Kafka. “An incredibly lucky bunch, they were: Tomas Venclova dropped by the next week and shared his own stories about discovering The Metamorphosis – in Polish!”

We’ll be writing more on the exceptional Cahiers series in posts-to-come.

Can poetry save the world? Zagajewski, Auden: the poets of 9/11

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011
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"Try to Praise the Mutilated World"

Matthew Kaminski of The Daily Beast says that Adam Zagajewski was “The Poet of September 11,” thanks to his poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

Well, not quite so.  That honor belongs to W.H. Auden, with his “September 1, 1939.”  Let’s say that Adam was the greatest living embodiment of that atrocity:

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World” recalls a trip Zagajewski took with his father through Ukrainian villages in Poland forcibly abandoned in the population transfers of the post-Yalta years. “This was one of the strongest impressions I ever had,” he says. “There were these empty villages with some apple trees going wild. And I saw the villages became prey to nettles; nettles were everywhere. There were these broken houses. It became in my memory this mutilated world, these villages, and at the same time they were beautiful. It was in the summer, beautiful weather. It’s something that I reacted to, this contest between beauty and disaster.”

"We must love one another or die"

I have to agree with Adam – and I guess it’s sacriligeous to say it this week – that 9/11 didn’t change my fundamental worldview, which always included a mysterious allowance for evil in human goings-on. He thinks, however, it has changed our collective response to trauma. In “the past in general and not only in Europe,” he says, “the rule was to forget, to move on. There’s a relatively new idea that you have to work on it—that you have to keep everything in our memory. Which I like. It’s changing us. I don’t think people in the mid–19th century were going back to the Napoleonic wars and thinking, ‘We have to work on it’?”

Goodness, I wish that were the case.  The way I see it, memory has all but evaporated.  I was speaking to jazz artist Jim Cullum recently, and he was telling me about classes he taught, filled with bright students – but when he wrote “December 7, 1941″ on the board, they had no associations with that date.

Kaminski says Adam “often purrs his words and speaks slowly” – well, not quite.  In America, we call it a kind of Polish drawl. I  recall someone hesitating to invite Adam as a speaker on a panel because, well … you really never knew how long a sentence from Adam would take.

I like this paragraph from Kaminski’s piece the best:

Polish poets have long thought of themselves as national bards, called to engage with the harsh world around them. “Polish poetry is one of the marvels of 20th-century literature,” wrote former U.S. poet laureate Charles Simic, who cited its “one rare virtue: it is very readable in a time when modernist experiments made a lot of poetry written elsewhere difficult.” Zagajewski says some critics see “something barbarian” in Polish poetry’s emphasis on meaning over syntax or style. “I’ve heard some French poets say Polish poetry is just journalism, because you can understand it.”

 

From the March event at NYC’s 92nd Street Y, which I wrote about here:

The future of book reviewing and one cranky man…

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011
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By "Drew" at "Toothpaste for Dinner" blog

More lamentations on the demise of the book review industry – if it was ever an industry – and the elimination of free-lancers and staff at the once-great Los Angeles Times Book Review (I wrote about that here, and I wrote about the demise of the Washington Post Book World here).

Richard Rayner and Susan Salter Reynolds, evacuees from the L.A. Times Book Review debacle, have been absorbed by the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Once you step past the rubble, the smoking ruins,” Reynolds says, “you see that there are still places for book reviews that care more about readers and writers than bottom lines and bean counters, more about the future than fashion, more about the thrill of reading than the so-called death of the book. The Los Angeles Review of Books is such a place and I am delighted to be a part of it.”  One problem:  It doesn’t pay its contributors. Just like other online sites.

Their editor-in-chief Tom Lutz writes:

Book review supplements have been shuttered at the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere, all for the same reason: the sections were not (and never had been) profit centers. Traditionally, of course, the editorial side of the paper dictated what to cover and the business side figured out how to pay for it. This allowed decisions about what was “fit to print” to operate independently from the courting of advertisers. Zell came to the Times vowing to break down what he called this “artificial wall” between editorial content and advertising sales, a misunderstanding of the most basic precept of ethical journalism. Worse yet, each section of the paper, it was decided, needed to make its own profit or die, like subsidiaries of a company. Since book advertising had never fully supported the Sunday supplements, they were preordained casualties.

Of course, sports sections aren’t asked to support themselves by the advertisements of sports stores or the manufacturers of catcher’s mitts, so this standard has always been unevenly applied.  It’s a shortsighted policy in any case.  As the ever-wise Jeff Sypeck commented on my earlier post about the L.A. Times:

“As I see it, one of the ironies here is that the paper is gutting the section that attracts obsessive readers–not just of book reviews, or books, but potentially the entire rest of the paper. (I’m reminded of your post from earlier this year about how one Washington Post blogger made fun of Donald Hall while the newspaper devoted virtually no coverage to the artists and writers who received the National Arts and Humanities Medals.) I often think that the final obituary for the newspaper business will conclude that, among other causes of death, they chased imaginary audiences of people who otherwise don’t really read instead of catering to the inquisitive, hard-core readers they already had.”

Much is made of how difficult it is to support oneself as a book reviewer.  Heavens,  I’m surprised that they even tried.  During my free-lance days, my book reviewing was my high-profile prestige work, a habit supported by magazine features that paid better.  As Edward Champion puts it so pointedly on the website Reluctant Habits:

"We'll be living in small ghettos..."

The dirty little secret is that freelancers get paid hardly anything. A fortuitous freelancer can count on a sum just under $200 if a review is commissioned by the Dallas Morning News, the San Francisco Chronicle, or the Philly Inquirer. But shouldn’t one expect more from three of the top 50 United States newspapers? If we translate that $200 into labor — let’s say that it takes about fifteen hours to read a book and five hours to write the review — the freelancer basically earns around $10/hour before paying taxes. You could probably make more money working at a touchless car wash. Small wonder that so many, including yours truly, have dropped out of this dubious racket, leaving it to increasingly sour practitioners. Book reviewing has reached a point where those who are left practically have to beg editors to get into a slot. And if book reviewing has become a vocation in which veteran and novice alike must debase themselves for scraps, one must legitimately ask if there’s any real point in such an uncivilized and undercompensated trade carrying on.

A few years ago I asked Adam Zagajewski about the future of poetry poetry-lovers in the world of tweets and sound bites – but his words might apply to book lovers as well:

“We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.”

On a less cerebral note, Harlan Ellison rants on youtube about the about the unpaid labors of writers.  It’s been viewed more than half a million times: