Posts Tagged ‘Alfred Corn’

Must we really “love one another or die”? A few words on Auden’s “September 1, 1939”

Friday, September 1st, 2017
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September 1, 1939, is the day Nazi Germany invaded Poland. W.H. Auden famously wrote a poem to commemorate the occasion. “September 1, 1939” begins:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

The poem was taken up after 9/11, and appeared under thumb tacks and refrigerator magnets throughout the nation. But the last lines of the second stanza got special scrutiny in the new century. Was it referring to eternal truths? Or claiming the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I justified the new invasion? Writing in the New York Times, Peter Steinfels asked: “One suspects that these characterizations would earn sharp rebukes if expressed in a poem titled ”September 11, 2001.’ More important, would a contemporary version of the 1939 poem be found guilty of what has come to be labeled ”moral equivalence’? Was Auden shifting moral responsibility from totalitarian evildoers to past misdeeds by those under attack and to a universal human egotism in which everyone was more or less equally complicit?”

Headline: “Bandit invasion of the German army without declaring war on the lands of the Republic of Poland”

I would argue that to state a human principle, based on observation, is not to say that it is justifiable, admirable, or advisable. It is simply to say that it happens. Look at the Middle East. Look at the reprisals and mutual blame among factions in our national politics. Or between Putin and Trump. Or everyone in the world and North Korea. Tit for tat is a universal principle. But can it be reversed? Even on a small scale in our political sphere, will kindness cause a reciprocation of kindness? Can turning the other cheek become contagious? Unlikely. It takes forethought, intention, and forbearance. Retaliation requires only impulse.

A number of posts on Facebook to commemorate the occasion and the poem. From the poet and friend Alfred Corn: “One of the building blocks of Auden’s poem is the idea that ‘The buck stops here.’ Those to whom evil is done 99.9% of the time do evil in return. But a better choice is to repay evil with good. To break the cycle of vengeance rather than perpetuate it. A radical proposal, departing from all natural and normal responses. And yet on those occasions when it has been adopted, the results were redemptive. Not easy. Takes practice. Worth it.”

The penaultimate stanza of the poem:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

There’s the rub: Auden withdrew the poem from several collections because the last line struck him as glib. We don’t die, do we? But there are so many ways to die, and so many ways to live, and six years after the poem was written, a couple big bombs over Japan convinced many of us we must live or die as a species.

In an essay, “The Normal Heart Condition According to Auden,” included in We must love one another or die : the life and legacies of Larry Kramer, Alfred Corn wrote:

Alfred Corn: an optimist?

If this poem engaged Larry Kramer so much that he chose to title two of his dramatic works with phrases drawn from it, we can also note that he is not alone in his admiration. It is one of the few Auden poems that ‘the common reader’ (that endangered species) can be counted on to recognize, and its apologists include Joseph Brodsky, who has written persuasively about its meaning and importance. The famous line from stanza eight, ‘We must love one another or die,’ has become proverbial, often quoted by people who have no idea where it comes from. A strange irony is that Auden himself, within a few years after the poem’s composition, came to dislike it. In his first Collected Poems, published in 1944, he reprinted ‘September 1, 1939’ minus the eighth stanza, which must have disappointed readers who were looking for what they regarded as its profoundest line. In later collections of his poetry, Auden dropped the whole poem and always refused permission for its inclusion in new anthologies; it was not reprinted until after his death, in the volume noted above. Auden decided that the famous line about love and death was untruthful; he remarked, in public and in private, that we are all destined to die, whether or not we love each other. 

It takes only a moment’s reflection to recognize this as a misinterpretation of the line’s actual meaning. In a poem whose point of departure is the date on which Nazi Germany invaded Poland and set into motion the Second World War, we are clearly meant to understand that the opposite of love is killing; that, if we fail to love, inevitably we’ll perform acts of violence. Auden could have revised the line and made its real meaning more explicit by saying, ‘We must either love or kill each other,’ but that revision wouldn’t fit the iambic trimeter in which the poem was written, nor would it rhyme with any other line in the stanza. No doubt Auden could have found some other workable solution, but he didn’t attempt to do so (apart from simply excising the stanza in its first reprinting).”

You can read the whole poem here.

Translator Beverley Bie Brahic remembers Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016)

Thursday, July 7th, 2016
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yves-bonnefoy

The poet…

Yves Bonnefoy, who was generally regarded as France’s pre-eminent poet of the postwar era, as well as its leading translator of Shakespeare and a wide-ranging art critic in the spirit of Baudelaire, died on Friday in Paris. He was 93.” So begins the New York Times obituary. You can read the rest of it here. He published many major collections of verse, several books of tales, many studies of literature and art, and an extensive dictionary of mythology.

I think I prefer this comment from friend and poet Alfred Corn: “I had one meeting with him in New York, on the occasion of the U.S. publication of his monograph on Giacometti, in preparation for a review I did of it. A cool, self-possessed, silvery manner, his French speech elevated and polite. Any chummy effort at ingratiation was clearly not his intention, as it would have struck him as mere mauvaise foi. His surname in itself precluded that.”

presenthourIn a statement, French President François Hollande called Bonnefoy “one of the greatest poets of the 20th century” and praised him for “elevating our language to its supreme degree of precision and beauty.”

He was a close friend of several of my friends. One of them, Canadian poet and translator Beverley Bie Brahic, was his translator as well, of his collection, The Present Hour.  She’s also a poet in her own right: her poetry collection, White Sheets, was a finalist for the Forward Prize and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her other translations include Guillaume Apollinaire:The Little Auto, winner of the Scott Moncrieff Prize, and Francis Ponge: Unfinished Ode to Mud, a finalist for the Popescu Prize for Poetry in Translation.

The Book Haven asked her to send us a few personal reflections on the great French poet. Here’s what she wrote:

 I began translating Yves Bonnefoy, for my own enrichment, about ten years ago and, if I recall correctly, with what is still my favorite book, Début et fin de la neige. I was drawn by the haiku-like sequence of New England poems, such as this one:

The Apples 

And what to think
Of these yellow apples?
Yesterday, they astonished us, waiting so, naked
After the leaves fell.

Today they charm,
Their shoulders so
Modestly stitched
With a hem of snow.

…and his translator. (Photo: Leslie Roth)

Translating these poems from Snow (the collection is available in Emily Grosholz’s fine translation, Beginning and End of the Snow) with their simple but resonant images gave me intense pleasure and led me to other books, and eventually to Bonnefoy’s study on a hillside in Montmartre: I came with translations and a sheaf of questions, and left with more translations, enthusiastically published by Naveen Kishore and his marvelous international enterprise, Seagull Books.

However many times I made the journey to Montmartre I usually found Bonnefoy more interested in talking—about California, where he had taught, Provence, whose landscapes figure prominently in many of his poems, or Italy and its paintings—than in puzzling over the fine points of translation of books that were by then behind him. His confidence was empowering. The author of many essays on translation, he understood that something must always be sacrificed in a poem’s move from one language to another, and he supported the translator’s freedom to adapt the source text, though he could be a stickler for details. One kind of frog was not another kind of frog! He was less interested, it seemed to me—perhaps because the problem had arisen too often—in the translation of philosophical terms such as “evidence” (tricky) than in pinning down the precise kind of rock that figured in a poem set in Provence.

Bonnefoy was a philosophical poet, but one who could catch the present moment with all its sensuousness in a sonnet as limpid as this one from The Present Hour (Seagull Books, 2013):

Low Branches 

Instant that wants to endure, but how
Wrest eternity from the branches
Protecting the table where light
And shade play on my white page of this morning?

Two trees, and around them the grass,
Then the house, then time, then tomorrow
Opening to oblivion, that already dissipates
Yesterday’s fruit fallen close to the table.

Over there is far. Though mostly
Here and now are what’s out of reach;
Easier to go into the future

Taking, for later, some pieces
Of this ripe fruit, by whose grace
Blue and green merge in the night of the grass.

Favorite quote from The Paris Review, 1994: “We are deprived through words of an authentic intimacy with what we are, or with what the Other is. We need poetry, not to regain this intimacy, which is impossible, but to remember that we miss it and to prove to ourselves the value of those moments when we are able to encounter other people, or trees, or anything, beyond words, in silence.”

Seth Abramson dons “Kick me!” sign; makes list of top 200 advocates for poetry.

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013
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Jane-Hirshfield

Jane made the cut.

Seth Abramson is an intrepid man in a country that publishes 20,000 books of poetry each decade, among 75,000 poets (who counts them, and how?) Here’s why: he has issued a list of “The Top 200 Advocates for Poetry (2013)” in the Huffington Post – it’s here, as well as on dartboards across the U.S.  We all love lists, of course, and everyone has an opinion on how they should be done – this one, particularly.  Two hundred is long enough to give the impression that everyone ought to be included, but short enough that not everyone can be. So Abramson’s gesture is akin to wearing a “Kick me!” sign on your back. He begins by almost apologizing: “The poets favored by one reader will invariably not be the poets favored by another; in fact, it’s getting harder and harder to find two readers whose reading interests or even reading lists exhibit much overlap at all. Too many such lists, such as the widely- and justly-panned one recently published by Flavorwire, exhibit obvious age, race, ethnicity, and (particularly) geographic biases.”  We would like to fault him, first of all, for hyphening an adverb that ends in “ly,” which is never done – moreover, it’s dangerous to begin a list by dissing someone else’s. In that way, you’ve made your first enemy already.

Wilbur2

Lifetime achievement, for sure.

He continues for some paragraphs in the same vein: “As a contemporary poetry reviewer who publishes his review-essays in The Huffington Post, I have no special access to knowledge of who is or isn’t doing the most to be an advocate for American poetry (a term I define very broadly) on a national or global scale. While I’m lucky to have access to many more published poetry collections than most poets or poetry readers do, as like any reviewer I regularly receive poetry collections in the mail from U.S. and international publishers, because the list below isn’t intended to detail who’s presently writing the best poetry, but is rather simply a list of who’s doing the best to advocate for American poetry by any and all means (including by writing it, but by no means limited to the authorial function), I’m not in a much better position than others are to generate a list of the most influential poetry advocates in America and beyond.”

Well, sure, I guess.  That said, we were pleased to see a number of friends and colleagues on the list – Kay Ryan, Jane Hirshfield,  W.S. Merwin, Don Share, Ron Silliman, Helen Vendler, Heather McHugh, Allison Joseph, Eavan Boland, Mark McGurl – and nonagenarian Richard Wilbur, a lifetime achievement award, for sure.

hirsch

Where’s Ed?

Abramson qualifies that “the list below is neither exhaustive nor authoritative nor superlative. I have no doubt that I’ve missed a number of important names, due either to forgetfulness or an unconscious bias or simply (and most likely) sheer ignorance of who’s doing what across the vast landscape of American literature. … Those poets and allies of poetry offering contributions to American poetry commensurate with the contributions of the individuals listed below should therefore consider themselves honorary members of the ‘Top 200 Advocates for American Poetry” list as well.’

RSGWYNNThen he issued this invitation: “I strongly encourage readers of this list to contribute their own names to the comment section below the article.”  Needless to say, there were a number of people ready to take him up on the offer, including other friends’ names.  What?  No Edward Hirsch?  What?  No Robert Hass?  And no mention of Dana Gioia, whose work at the NEA was tireless?

Naturally, Humble Moi didn’t make the list – but to my surprise, I did make it in the first few comments in the section afterward, for which I’m grateful to R.S. Gwynn, another friend, who did make the list:

“I’m happy to be listed here (even though I’d like to be known as ‘poet and critic’) but I miss the presence of such names as Alfred Corn, the late Tom Disch, Dana Gioia, Cynthia Haven, X. J. Kennedy, and David Mason, all of whom are (or were in Tom’s case) great advocates.

As a small plug, I’d like to mention that I edited a book of the works of modernist poet-critics some years ago. Its title?  The Advocates of Poetry.

Just for that, here’s a picture of Sam Gwynn’s book, which discusses John Crowe Ransom, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, John Ciardi, and Robert Penn Warren – great advocates of poetry all.