Posts Tagged ‘Anne Stevenson’

Poet R.S. Gwynn on Ted Hughes: “Mysticism and hormones are a deadly combination.”

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017
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Sam the Man.

After my post a few days ago, “Was Sylvia Plath a Battered Wife?” discussing new revelations, or interpretations of revelations, about poet Sylvia Plath –  thanks to a new article at Lit Hub by Emily Van Duyne – my friend R.S. “Sam” Gwynn and I exchanged a few messages on the subject. The first was a comment on the post itself, then we messaged each other on Facebook.

We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but I find his views refreshingly level-headed, on this and many other subjects. And our conversation turned also to our mutual friend, the poet Anne Stevenson, who called Plath “the fiercest poet of our time,” and author of a controversial biography of Plath. From Sam:

I recently read Jonathan Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes. He was a fairly despicable man and, after his first two books, not much of a poet–England’s James Dickey. But to take Plath at her word in letters to her former therapist raises other questions. Plath’s letters to her mother, collected many years ago in Letters Home, are full of proven exaggerations, omissions, and outright lies. Thus, I doubt that we will ever find out what exactly went on in that torturous marriage. Still, if Emily Van Duyne thinks that Hughes was “knighted by the Queen,” her credentials as a biographical commentator are definitely not “beyond dispute.”

Anne, a pretty good poet herself.

He said that he burned one volume of her journals, written during the last months of her life, so that their children would not see them; I don’t blame him for that, especially after a poem like “Edge.” He also claimed that another volume had been lost; perhaps it will eventually turn up, perhaps not. He edited the poems for Ariel in such a way that Plath, who was relatively unknown at her death, became posthumously famous; this did no permanent harm as Ariel was later re-edited along the lines of Plath’s own manuscript. I would not say that his point-of-view has prevailed; Van Duyne’s article is just one of many examples of the “pro-Plath” side, and defenders of Hughes have become increasingly rare. Rough Magic, which I found fairly bizarre, is one example of a biography that sets the blame on him. He seems at heart (if you can call him that) an increasingly silly mystic as he aged. He also had way too much testosterone. Mysticism and hormones are a deadly combination.

I think I’ve read most of the biographies of both of them – a morbid fascination. I think Anne [Stevenson]’s the best of the batch, even if it was heavily overseen by Olwyn Hughes.

We had a couple of long chats (very difficult with her hearing at the time) but I decided to leave Plath as the elephant in the room; I’m sure she’d had enough questions about the bio. Plath was what we used to call a “curve-wrecker”– the perfect student who did everything by the book to end up in first place. She was about as sexually liberated as one could be before the pill and could stand her ground with any of the boys she knew before Ted. I think it was a classic case of both meeting their match at first, but the complications of marriage and children fell more heavily on her, as it did on many women of her time. Portraying her as helpless in any way except as a victim of her mental problems is probably a mistake. I’m sure she could give as much as take in a relationship.

There is a strange contradiction in many women critics of Plath. On the one hand, they see her as the vengeful spirit of “Lady Lazarus” but on the other as victimized. Maybe you can have both, but they’re hard to reconcile.
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The Hopwood Awards: still giving hope (and bucks) to young writers after 84 years

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015
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Presiding deity of the Hopwood Room, Andrea Beauchamp (Photo: Humble Moi)

In my day, the University of Michigan’s Avery Hopwood Award was considered a major prize for young writers. It is even more so today – what with students winning multiple awards (two awards was once uncommon), and with supplemental bonuses that resulted in one lucky student bagging $33,000 earlier this year. Those kinds of sums defray an awful lot of tuition costs. It also pays for a lot of tea and cookies, which the Hopwood Room still dispenses regularly during the fall and winter quarters on Thursdays.

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Living it up: Hopwood with Spanish dancer Rose Rolanda, 1924.

I used to feel a little glow of pride when I entered the Hopwood Room. It was my room, after all! But would it still be in the same place decades later? I was happy that I recognized Angell Hall immediately (one of the few buildings I recognized), walked up the front stairs to the door, and up stairs inside, and instinctively turned to the right. There it was, a few steps away a on the left side of the hall. And it looked … exactly the same. “Welcome to the time warp,” announced Andrea Beauchamp, assistant director and ongoing presence of the Hopwood program.

She said the room has been deliberately kept that way. She fought off attempts to replace the worn carpet “with Oreos crushed into it” with a drab new carpet that had a “standard dentist’s office” look about it. She wanted to keep the charm, books, and dark-wood ambiance, and she succeeded. Even the big round table covered with every literary journal imaginable still dominated the room – including some journals I have contributed to over the years since I left town, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Kenyon Review, the Georgia Review among them.

Arthur Miller and I won two Hopwoods, award-winning Anglo-American poet Anne Stevenson (I’ve written about her here and here) won an astonishing three. According to the website:

The program was endowed by Avery Hopwood, a popular American dramatist and member of the Michigan Class of 1905. Mr. Hopwood bequeathed one-fifth of his considerable estate to the University of Michigan with the stipulation that it be used to encourage creative writing among students. During the years that have passed since the first Hopwood Awards were made in 1931, we have been able to award a cumulative total of well over $3,000,000 to more than 3,200 gifted writers. Former winners include Arthur Miller, John Ciardi, Mary Gaitskill, Robert Hayden, Lawrence Kasdan, Jane Kenyon, Frank O’Hara, Marge Piercy, Edmund White, and Nancy Willard. …

For former director Nicholas Delbanco’s remarks on the history of the program and the legacy of Avery Hopwood, written for the New York Times in 1998, see this PDF.

I had stayed in touch with Andrea over the years, feeding tidbits to the Hopwood newsletter. I had kept up with her for so long that I rather expected her to be a wizened old lady of a zillion years rather than the smart and vibrant woman in the photo above. I had apparently conflated her with her predecessor, “Sister Hilda,” a nun who had a PhD in English and arrived from an obscure and dwindling order to manage the program. Had I read the Hopwood newsletter more faithfully, I would have known that the beloved sister died in 2004, at 92, and served enthusiastically and tenaciously from 1971-1981. I would also have known she did her dissertation on that much-married diehard Puritan John Milton. She must have had quite a kick to her, which I hadn’t suspected as a student.

But the Hopwood program has kept up with Stanford, too. Andrea warmly recalled recent visits from our newest National Medal of the Arts winner Tobias Wolff and Irish poet Eavan Boland. Well, you can read excerpts from Eavan’s inspiring talk at the Hopwood Awards ceremony last spring here.

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Congratulations, once again, to Dana Gioia!

Saturday, January 25th, 2014
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Dana at Stanford in 2007 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Once again, Dana Gioia has a new honor: This time, the Sewanee Review has just announced that he will receive this year’s Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry.

Previous winners have included Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, W.S. Merwin, Anne Stevenson, Donald Hall, X.J. Kennedy, and others.

Dana, known for his poetry, criticism, and arts advocacy, holds the newly created Judge Widney Chair in Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.  He’s also a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and has received a number of honors in recent years, including the Laetare Medal. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here and, oh, perhaps a zillion other places.

His most recent collection is Pity the Beautiful – we’ve written about it here, and I’ve published excerpts from the volume, also here.  Writing in Best American Poetry, David Lehman stated unequivocally:  “I have no hesitation in declaring it to be his finest to date . . . These poems in which sentiment is refined by technical prowess, and simple words combine to make music and meaning merge marvelously and memorably.”

Pity-The-BeautifulI love all the Gioias – including those I have never met (his parents, for example) – so perhaps my favorite passage from the announcement is this one:

Gioia’s poetic philosophy—particularly his belief that poetry should “touch on those things that are central to people’s lives”—can be traced back to his childhood in Los Angeles, where his Sicilian father and Mexican mother raised him. He remembers that his mother, who, he says, received no education beyond high school, recited poems to him by heart and read others from a “crumpled old book that had belonged to her mother.” Because of this, Gioia says, “I have never considered poetry an intrinsically difficult art whose mysteries can be appreciated only by a trained intellectual.”

The awards ceremony will take place February 19 at the University of the South in Sewanee.  David Mason will give a lecture on Dana’s work on the 18th.

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.”

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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.

“The fiercest poet of our time”: Anne Stevenson on Sylvia Plath

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013
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Anne Stevenson

Beleaguered biographer

The fur is already flying after the publication of Terry Castle‘s controversial New York Review of Books piece on Sylvia Plathas I predicted when I wrote about it hereElaine Showalter tweeted that it was “hatchet job of the year,” among other tweets. And Joyce Carol Oates weighed in with her own angry tweets.  The mysterious Jackson-area blogger known as “Thus Blogged Anderson” has a post here. There’s more to come.

Terry mentioned a friend of mine,  Anne Stevenson, in passing.  Ted Hughes’ sister, Terry writes, “has been a polarizing figure in Plath studies—not least (according to her enemies) for having browbeaten Anne Stevenson, who wrote the only ‘authorized’ Plath biography, Bitter Fame: The Life of Sylvia Plath (1989), into promoting mainly the Hughes family view of Plath. (Stevenson, to be sure, emphasized Sylvia’s mania and shrewishness and, yes, presented Ted Hughes as perhaps more sinned against than sinning.)”

The New Yorker‘s Janet Malcolm, author of Silent Woman, the highly acclaimed study of the Plath estate and scholarship about Plath, had a slightly different opinion. Malcolm lauded Stevenson, saying hers was “by far the most intelligent and the only aesthetically satisfying” Plath biography.

I had a long interview with Anne in Durham over a dozen years ago, before she was the inaugural winner of the Northern Rock Foundation Writer’s Award and bagged a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award and the Neglected Masters Award from the Poetry Foundation of America. The interview was published online in The Cortland Review here

Said Anne:

“But I will say this about Sylvia Plath: she always tucked that pocket of air between herself and her poems. Her poems are powerful because she was essentially an artist before she was a woman or an American or anything else. When she wrote, she had this wonderful hard-headed objectivity. It was when she wasn’t writing that she betrayed herself. But we can agree with Olwyn Hughes [Ted’s sister and Plath’s longtime literary executor] that as an artist, she’s unassailable. That’s why her poems are so powerful; they are much more, very much more, than self-expression. They express the agony of betrayal as well as any poems I’ve ever read. They are wonderful, but the gap between the girl and the artist was enormous. To me, her talent was so much bigger than her personality, it must have been very difficult to carry all this power of language and yet, in the end, realize it couldn’t save her.”

Then this exchange:

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“the pure gold honey bee”

AS: Yes.

CH: And Lucas Myers‘ is so anti-American.

AS: No, I don’t think he was, really.

CH: Oh, he says some pretty offensive things.

AS: Yes, maybe he was trying to be more English than the English.

CH: T.S. Eliot had already won that prize. But I think those accounts gave Bitter Fame a flavor. It gave an inevitability to Sylvia Plath’s story—she does seem a sort of Daisy Miller through it all. Even Hughes’s Birthday Letters reveals a remarkable amount of national stereotyping: “You were a new world. My new world. So this is America,” “long, perfect American legs,” “your exaggerated American grin,” “an American girl, being so American.” One wonders: Did he see her?

AS: Of course, he wasn’t in any way a stereotype of southern England. He was very, very much a product of Yorkshire, and that’s another complication. I’ve always had the highest respect for Ted as a poet and a man because he never kowtowed to the establishment. He didn’t become an academic; he wasn’t ambitious, except to write poetry; he wasn’t ambitious for position. I think he was pleased to be asked to be poet laureate, but he wasn’t working at it. He certainly didn’t work at literary politics at all; he had nothing to do with that; he was horrified by it. And I’d have to say Sylvia, too, was of a mind with Ted. They both were dedicated—seriously dedicated—artists, but, of course, their very dedication and their lack of self-knowledge… I don’t think Ted knew himself at all in those early days, and Sylvia seems to have absorbed advice from everybody: from Ted, from [Plath’s therapist] Ruth Beuscher as a young child, from her mother, so it was awfully hard for her to find herself, and I think she did have a—how do you put it now? A weak sense of identity? I did, too, when I came to England. So you go to everybody for advice and take it from everybody you respect, and then they betray you. How very Henry James. It is Henry James. It struck me right away that Sylvia’s was a Jamesian story.

CH: You wrote three poems for Sylvia Plath. Were they written at the time you were writing the biography?

AS: Yes. Yes.

CH: So those poems are your own say?

AS: That was my own say. I think they more or less say what I had to say.

CH: They’re wonderful. …  The one where you call Plath “the pure gold honey bee” and “the fiercest poet of our time”? …

AS: I don’t know. Oh dear, every time I think about Sylvia Plath I groan. I’m so tired of the whole saga!

CH: I’ll bet you are. It will all be coming out again with the new journals, the revelations from Emory University [where Hughes’s papers are archived], and with the biographies of Ted Hughes, by Elaine Feinstein and Diane Middlebrook.

AS: They’re welcome to do what they do. I’ll never write another biography about a living person.

CH: And yet, you yourself have written: “Writing a biography of Sylvia Plath convinced me that poetry today is at a turning point. Nostalgic wistfulness, individual self-pity, political idealism, angst, fury, vindictiveness, all the emotional magnets of the Romantics, are, in the last analysis, fictions. They have been replaced in poetry, in the twentieth century, chiefly by abstract experiment with language, which, of course, is starvation fare for poets.” So where is the balance between subjectivity and objectivity?

AS: One has to maintain a distance, an air pocket between the poet and the poem—a pocket of objectivity. The poem isn’t an expression of what you could say better in ordinary language, or in theoretical language.

 

Poet Anne Stevenson: “We are losing contact with language…”

Friday, May 24th, 2013
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Her 17th century cottage near Llanbedr, during my 2009 visit.

Anne Stevenson turned 80 in January – and the occasion whizzed past without my noticing it.  So it was a pleasure to be reminded of my neglect by the Times Literary Supplement this week, in an article by Thea Lenarduzzi  I was also unaware of Anne’s newest “probably my last” collection, Astonishment. I wrote about Anne a dozen years ago, here, and have had the pleasure of visiting her at both her residences, in Durham, and more recently staying in Wales, where she lives with husband Peter Lucas in a 17th century cottage near Llanbedr.

“One has to maintain a distance, an air pocket between the poet and the poem—a pocket of objectivity. The poem isn’t an expression of what you could say better in ordinary language, or in theoretical language,” she told me in 2000.

“I do believe that writing poetry is not something everybody needs to indulge in. Encouraging more and more people to express themselves and, above all, to publish poems or put them on the internet, does tend to thin the blood—of literature, I mean. People forget how to read. They forget that you need to develop a strong degree of attention to read intelligently the poetry of, say, Auden or Yeats, or even Roethke and Elizabeth Bishop. You need to be sensitive to all the sounds, rhythms, echoes, et cetera, that constitute a poem to know what’s going on in it. If nothing is going on except the promulgation of some one-dimensional idea or personal experience, if the so-called poem is nothing but a cut-up piece of not-very-interesting prose, then it isn’t poetry at all. It’s not asking anything of the reader, except perhaps fellow-feeling or sympathy.”

Anne Stevenson

“A pocket of objectivity”

Not surprisingly, she is still a woman of strong opinions.  From the TLS piece:

More overtly underwhelmed by the possibilities of mixed media was Stevenson. “There’s an awful lot of poetry about”, she said, emphasizing one word in particular. “And with 9,000 teachers of Creative Writing in US Colleges, turning out ten protégés each . . . you’re bound to bring the standard down”. With characteristically wry humour she questioned that age-old obsession with “doing something ‘new’” (“it’s terribly hard to do anything new, you know”), which operates at the expense of more self-probing verse (not to be confused with the “Words about words about words to pamper the ego / Of some theoretical bore”); and “Do It Yourself Poetry” built in ignorance of proper craftsmanship (with no sense of rhythm, form, heritage ). “We are losing contact with language . . . . I wouldn’t even begin to talk about the visual arts, ‘Conceptual Art…’” (that carefully placed emphasis again, a glint in her eye, and a laugh: “I am eighty, you know!”).

“I’ll just throw all of that in”, Stevenson quipped before bringing the evening to a close with a reading of her most recent poem, “An Old Poet’s View from the Departure Platform”, its final stanza running thus:

“I gaze over miles and miles of cut up prose, / Uncomfortable troubles, sad lives. / They smother in sand the fire that is one with the rose. / The seed, not the flower survives.”

Oh, and this will keep me in my place: she says ““Blog is the ugliest word I ever heard …”  Read the whole thing here.

Donald Hall laughs at death

Thursday, September 1st, 2011
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Brush with fame, brush with death

Donald Hall‘s newest collection, The Back Chamber, arrived in my mailbox the other day.

I was at the University of Michigan during the years Hall was teaching, but I never crossed paths with Ann Arbor’s preeminent poet (by that time, Anne Stevenson had returned to England and was only a legend there). The small university burg is where he met and married poet Jane Kenyon.

In the postwar years, he spent a lone year at Stanford, but that was enough to fall under the spell of Yvor Winters.  Long before my day, however.

I would meet the poet finally at the West Chester Poetry conference in Pennsylvania, about a decade ago.  And a few other occasions since – even interviewed him once.

By that time, the former U.S. poet laureate had already survived metastasized colon cancer, against the odds.  As he was recovering, Kenyon succumbed to leukemia.  In his famous poem of mourning, “Kill the Day,” he wrote: “How many times will he die in his own lifetime?”

Now he’s 82 years old.  I wrote about his receiving the National Medal of Honor in Washington earlier this year.

I remembered all these brushes as I leafed through the new volume.  He defeated death once, perhaps many times, and now he mocks it in “Apple Peaches,” riffing on the jump rope rhyme:

Apples, peaches,
Pumpkin pie.
How many years
Until I die.

Here are two of his variations:

Hostess Twinkies,
Wonder Bread.
How many springs
Until I’m dead?

The New York Times,
Le Monde, Der Sturm
.
How many breaths
Before the worm?