Posts Tagged ‘Dick Davis’

Love and equilibrium: Robert Conquest’s new “Collected” is out, and Dick Davis writes about it.

Saturday, May 16th, 2020
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Conquest at work in his Stanford home  (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

On a recent visit with Elizabeth Conquest (outdoors, six feet apart – pandemic style) she told me that her late husband, the eminent historian and poet Robert Conquest, admired the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius – so much so that he carried a slim volume of  Meditations in his knapsack when he went off to war. I was glad to hear it; I had recently written about the Stoic thinker in the Book Haven here, and she had read it and appreciated it. Certainly Bob Conquest had some of the emperor’s superb psychological balance and equanimity.

That’s something Marcus Aurelius had in common with the “Movement” poets of Britain in the 1950s – a group Conquest had founded and championed. The group included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and others. As the poet Dick Davis writes in “Robert Conquest’s Open Eyes” in The New Criterion:

The Movement poets’ preference for an even tone, meticulous description, and a consciousness that is suspicious of its own emotional excesses whether positive or negative meant that a particularly venerable, and until then surely central, kind of poetry became something of no-go area for them. Most of the Movement poets wrote remarkably few love poems, and when love does appear in their poetry it is usually shadowed by irony. There are certainly poems about lust, flippantly cynical, as in Amis’s “Sight Unseen,” or brutally disillusioned as in Larkin’s “Deceptions,” but the revelation of a particular person as life’s be-all and end-all, the coup de foudre that makes the poet literally or at least metaphorically want to fall to his knees … not so much.

Marcus Aurelius’s  Meditations didn’t discuss love, either. And that’s where Bob Conquest parts company with his colleagues and the emperor.

The occasion of Davis’s article, as well as the meeting with Liddie, is the – at last! finally! – publication of Conquest’s Collected Poems with Waywiser Press in London. It’s a beautiful, finely wrought 439-page volume, under the careful editorship of Elizabeth (a.k.a. Liddie) Conquest herself, for she is a gifted scholar in her own right, as well as the poet’s wife.

Conquest is best known for his groundbreaking work as a historian and author of The Great Terror, revealing the extent of Stalin‘s atrocities before the world wanted to know about it. We’ve written about that here. He is also known for his light verse, which the New Criterion article discusses as well. But relatively few have considered him as a poet of weightier verse. I did so in the Times Literary Supplementand so has Dick Davis, a noted translator of Persian poetry. Few poets are more qualified to discuss Bob Conquest’s amorous poems – Dick has written some exquisite love poems himself.

Translator, poet Davis: a pretty good love poet himself

He writes: “The brutality of ‘fighting ideologies’ was the subject that much of his better known historical writing was to be concerned with, and it is also almost present as the context, whether alluded to or left unspoken, of his most personal lyrical verse, whose energy so often seems to be focused on the attempt to find or construct some kind of private haven of escape from, exactly, ‘the fighting ideologies.'”

Davis notes that Conquest “could write short, flip, catty poems about lust” with the best of them, but…

[T]here is a much more benign and fructifying erotic presence in many of his more substantial poems, a sense that erotic feeling is less a trap for the unwary than a welcome source of joy and mutual pleasure, one not to be questioned, at least in the moment that it is experienced.

At a lower level of intensity, it is notable, for example, how many of his early descriptions of foreign landscapes tend to have a young woman in them. There is almost a formula to such poems: a landscape is observed at a moment of tranquility in which the disasters of the public world (war and its desolate consequences, what he calls “the world of politics and rifles,” perhaps echoing E. M. Forster’s “outer life of telegrams and anger”) seem for a moment in abeyance, and this momentary sense of benign peace is concentrated on “a girl” who is with him, or glimpsed in the distance, or even merely imagined. Eros is present, as an undertow, a possibility, but certainly as a benign presence, an intimation of transformative consolation, if not quite of her overwhelming supervening of everything else. It is only one element in a complex scene, but it is the element around which hope and the possibilities of redemption from “the world of politics and rifles” are concentrated. For example, in a poem on being in Copenhagen with a lover, he writes that her presence with him

Liddie Conquest: a gifted scholar, too.

.                    gives the landscape form,
And is the immanence of every art …
A philosophy deriving from the calm
As you move into the center of my heart.

Below, his poem for his second wife  … and after that, a poem that is not about love, but is a  personal favorite (indulge me) about his friend George Orwell. And finally, a poem that will demonstrate why he is known for his light verse – his witty take on Mikhail Gorbachev.

A GIRL IN THE SNOW

for Tatiana Mihailova

Autumn’s attrition. Then this world laid waste
Under a low white sky, diffusing glare
On blurs of snow as motionless and bare
As the dead epoch where our luck is placed.

Till from the imprecise close distance flies,
Winged on your skis and stillness-breaking nerve
Colour, towards me down this vital curve,
Blue suit, bronze hair and honey-coloured eyes.

Under this hollow cloud, a sky of rime,
The eyes’ one focus in an empty mirror
You come towards my arms until I hold

Close to my heart, beyond all fear and error,
A clear-cut warmth in this vague waste of cold:
A road of meaning through the shapeless time.

GEORGE ORWELL

Moral and mental glaciers melting slightly
Betray the influence of his warm intent.
Because he taught us what the actual meant
The vicious winter grips its prey less tightly.

Not all were grateful for his help, one finds,
For how they hated him, who huddled with
The comfort of a quick remedial myth
Against the cold world and their colder minds.

We die of words. For touchstones he restored
The real person, real event or thing;
–And thus we see not war but suffering
As the conjunction to be most abhorred.

He shared with a great world, for greater ends,
That honesty, a curious, cunning virtue,
You share with just the few who don’t desert you,
A dozen writers, half-a dozen friends.

A moral genius. And truth-seeking brings
Sometimes a silliness we view askance,
Like Darwin playing his bassoon to plants;
He too had lapses, but he claimed no wings.

While those who drown a truth’s empiric part
In dithyramb or dogma turn frenetic;
–Than whom no writer could be less poetic
He left this lesson for all verse, all art.

 

 

Best American Poetry: the movie and a launch on Thursday, Sept. 20!

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018
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We’re on the road (in New York City, in fact), but wanted to let you know about the “Best American Poetry Reading 2018” on Thursday, September 20, at 7 p.m.

The event will take place at the New School’s auditorium (Room A106), the Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall. Series editor David Lehman and Dana Gioia,  guest editor for the Best American Poetry 2018 volume, will headline an all-star cast of poets to launch the volume. I’m told this is an annual rite of fall in New York.

Dana is also former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts and now California’s poet laureate (and always, always a cherished friend). In the video below, he calls his guest editorship  “a privilege and a challenge.”

The book includes poets we’ve written about before – A.E. Stallings, Kay Ryan, Dick Davis, David Mason, Tracy K. Smith, Robin Coste Lewis and more.

We’ve run an excerpt from his introduction, “A Poet Today is more Likely to be a Barista than a Professor,”  here.

Below a sampler of the Thursday event. It was filmed by Dana’s son, Michael Gioia.

“It’s a negative freedom, something like a negative capability type of freedom.”

Friday, October 27th, 2017
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“I love the technical joy and pleasure,” says poet and translator Dick Davis. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Our friend and eminent blogger Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence has a review over at the Los Angeles Review of Books this week – “A Negative Freedom: Thirteen Poets on Formal Verse” (it’s here). The book considers Thirteen on Form: Conversations with Poets, a collection of interviews edited by William Baer. A number of other dear friends – poets, all – are mentioned. And there’s some splendid words about the often-overlooked form of “light verse.”

A moralist at heart

Said Richard Davis, the foremost translator from the Persian into English ever as well as a top-notch poet in his own right, said, “I do love those kinds of poems — light verse as it’s called. I love the technical joy and pleasure that takes place in the writing of such poems, and the hope that those reading them will sense the pleasure that the poet experienced while writing them.”

Patrick Kurp notes that R.S. Gwynn is often labeled a writer of light verse, “a classification at once limiting and dismissive.”

Top blogger Patrick Kurp

He wrote: “Like many formal poets, Gwynn is a moralist at heart, one who favors mockery over sermons. His instincts, if not his politics (which remain unstated in the interview with Baer), are conservative, and the best satires are most often produced by writers of conservative sensibility. Think of Juvenal, Pope, Swift, Johnson, and Waugh.”
According to Sam Gwynn, “[M]y lyricism works best when it’s counterpointed against something else, like irony, for example.” From Patrick’s review:

In “Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses The Norton Anthology of Poetry,” Gwynn assembles a poem consisting entirely of lines from 28 certified poetic war horses. Half the fun is identifying the sources and marveling at the deathless elasticity of iambic pentameter:

All human things are subject to decay.
Beauty is momentary in the mind.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Lucretius fan

MacArthur “genius” Fellow A. E. Stallings, who recently translated Lucretius’s The Nature of Things into rhyming fourteeners, also writes witty, graceful, and profound poems in form. Rhyme, she says, allows her to “say something shocking or something totally unexpected.” In Alicia’s own words:

It’s helpful and effective to have some limitations on one’s choices and even to “give up” some control over the poem. Which, I suppose, is a little scary for some people. To give up some control to the muse, to outer things. I feel there’s almost a sort of Ouija Board feeling about rhyme and meter, where maybe you’re in control, and maybe you’re not. […] Maybe it’s a negative freedom, something like a negative capability type of freedom.

Read the whole review here.

Poetry, passion, politics: translator Dick Davis and the poems of Fatemeh Shams

Thursday, June 16th, 2016
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A poet and a gentleman: Dick Davis at the West Chester Poetry Conference last week. (Photo: Gerry Cambridge)

Poet Dick Davis was staying at the home of Persian scholar Asghar Seyed-Gohrab in Leiden a few years ago. As he headed for bed one night, his host suggested he take a look at a sheaf of poems by Fatemeh Shams. The British poet, who is the foremost translator of Persian literature into English, ever (as well as a gifted poet in his own right), followed his advice.

He was up most of the night. He was hooked. And last week at the West Chester Poetry Conference, we had a chance to hear the collaboration that resulted from a late night in the Netherlands. When They Broke Down the Door: Poems was published a few months ago by Mage Publishers, which also published his translation of the eleventh-century Vis & Ramin (500 pages of rhyming couplets).

Fatemeh_Shams

She’s coming to the U.S. in 2017. (Photo: Mage)

Dick Davis is the translator of another eleventh-century masterpiece, The Shahnameh – well, we wrote about the poet and his translations here – so the poems of this poet, born in 1983, provided an especial challenge: “I usually read medieval Persian poetry, not modern poetry, and the idiom is different, so I had to read them slowly to be sure I was getting everything – even so I’m sure there were things I missed,” he explained to me.

Yet powerful affinities link The Shahnameh with the poems of this 21st century poet. The Persian “Book of Kings” echoes with a “recurrent cry for justice against cruel or incompetent kings,” Dick writes in the introduction. Prison poems begin during the same era in Persia as well – Mas’ud Sa’d (1046-1121) starts the sad tradition, and it continues to this day. Political anger bubbles below the surface in Persian poetry throughout the last millennium.

And so it does with Fatemeh Shams. “It is an association that may at first sight seem counter-intuitive – the privacy of erotic passion allied with the public stance of political protest,” the translator writes, “but the link is of course that both the passion and the politics are subversive of the status quo – of patriarchy that would deny women erotic autonomy, and of political authority that would deny them social freedom.”

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Shams was born in Mashhad, the second most important city in the Iran for Shia pilgrimage (it has the tomb of Imam Reza, the eight Shia Imam). Simin Behbahani was a notable influence, and perhaps encouraged the younger poet to write on contemporary subjects in traditional forms, though Shams is equally at ease in free verse.

As an undergraduate at the University of Tehran, her political involvement led to a warrant for her arrest, and she fled to her hometown Mashhad. Later, while studying in England, the government crackdown on the Green Movement meant that she was effectively an exile. Her sister was imprisoned, and the poet’s eight-year relationship cracked under the strain.

“Her poetry comes most strikingly out of a response to human suffering, that of others and her own, and one of the reasons that politics is so omnipresent in many of her poems is that it is seen as the chief cause of such suffering,” yet “during the dark days of her exile it has been poetry that has saved her, and clearly for her, poetry – despite the political implications of her own verse – is something inward and personal rather than public and propagandistic…”

She is joining the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in January, as assistant professor of Persian.

Three poems reprinted below. (I was going to make it two, but I couldn’t decide among them). The first is the poem about the city of her birth, Mashhad; it’s the poem that opens the collection. The next two … a different kind of suffering.

Mashhad

I come from a town of beheaded closed cafés
from a town of latticed houses
from a town whose old execution square is now called Martyr’s Square
from the meeting place of cigarette smoke and angels’ wings
they’ve named the barracks The Resting Place
which makes no reference to the Restlessness of the Sentries
polluted by two strands of a woman’s hair
two strands!
I come from the town of stubborn singers
from the place of my own martyrdom
Mashhad.

Even If You’re Never to Be Here

I want you in my moments of uncertainty,
Asleep, awake, and in this night of watching endlessly
I want you on cold silent days, I want you in
This wave of pointlessness, this vain futility
I want you season after season in my life
On snowy days, hot days, and spring’s vitality
I want you, I want you every moment of each day
Oh blood that flows within my every artery
I want you even if you’re never to be here
And even if you never give a thought to me
I want you from afar, from near, from everywhere
With all you have and are, wherever you may be.

Overcoat

I curse your gray overcoat
that all at once pours
the smell of your body
and of wanting you,
and the rare expensive scent produced
by that damned company that’s bankrupt now
into my heart
I curse your gray overcoat
not you.

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Postscript: A quick note from poet David Mason: “Dick is a genius. His project is one of the most humane literary projects of our time.” By “project,” he qualified, he means Dick Davis’s whole body of translations – and his own poems, too. We couldn’t agree more.

Stay tuned… more from Philadelphia, coming up soon!

Friday, June 10th, 2016
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The Book Haven has been unusually silent these last few days. We’ve been at the West Chester Poetry Conference outside Philadelphia, attending workshops, panels, and readings with Dick Davis, Dana Gioia, Sir Andrew Motion, Sam Gwynn, and many, many others.

Humble Moi will be on a panel tomorrow morning to discuss Robert Conquest, the late great historian and poet, who died last year at Stanford.

Just to let you know we mean business, the photo below is taken from Thursday morning’s public conversation with Andrew Motion, former British poet laureate and biographer of Philip Larkin. Dana Gioia was his interlocutor (and no, he’s not as unhappy as he looks). Photograph taken by Gerry Cambridge.

DGioia&AMotion copy

Dana Gioia ponders a remark from Sir Andrew Motion. (Photo: Gerry Cambridge)

 

The unstoppable Twain industry … and the Iranian people’s struggle

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010
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"Is He Dead?" on Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Some familiar names surface in the June 4 The Times Literary Supplement — the most recent one to land in American mailboxes.

UC-Santa Cruz’s Susan Gillman comments on the “over-the-top spirit of the Mark Twain industry,” which is working itself up to a fever pitch this year — did you know that there was a petition drive “respectfully requesting Pres. Obama to designate 2010 ‘the year of Mark Twain'”?  I didn’t, either.

Gillman contributes to the “all Mark Twain, all the time” spirit with her lengthy cover piece on the unstoppable Twain industry (with a mention of Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight! which visited here very recently).

Holbrook as Twain

Gillman’s through-line:  “Is He Dead?”  Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s revival of the play of the title, directed by Michael Blakemore in 2008, gets a mention.  So does Twain’s famous line, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”  Gillman writes: “As we return to and repeat his words, it is a joint venture in which we, author and readers together, bring him back to life, again and again.”

Some time ago, I discussed Fishkin’s insightful Library of America Mark Twain Anthology of writers and thinkers on Twain.  I had excerpted Dick Gregory’s essay here, and received a correction from Fishkin herself:  The term “Nigger Jim” never appears in Huckleberry Finn.  Who knew?  Apparently not Norman Mailer, writes Gillman:

“Mailer stepped right into the racial hornet’s nest with his phrase ‘Nigger Jim’, which Fishkin notes was used by Hemingway, Ralph Ellison and others but never by Mark Twain.  African American parents who in 1984 were worried about the reading aloud by teachers and students in classrooms of the word ‘nigger’, which is used many times in the novel, would surely not be comforted.  … Those apocryphal Twainisms just won’t go away … Scholars may tear out their hair over it but Mailer, Ellison and others collected in The Mark Twain Anthology keep the phrases alive.

Fishkin edited the mega-volume The Oxford Mark Twain, but Gillman notes that she got one thing wrong, in every single volume:  “the Editor’s Note in all 29 volumes reverses the birth and death dates: ‘the year 2010 marks the Centennial of Mark Twain’s birth and the 175th anniversary of his death.'”  That’s what second editions are for.

***

Also in the TLS: Dick Davis doesn’t care for Homa Katouzian’s The Persians (Yale University Press).  Davis, the foremost translator of Persian literature into English, ever (as well as a gifted poet in his own right) writes:

“One would be hard put to say anything positive at all about the political culture Katouzian describes as perennial in Iran, and yet the artistic sensibility that produced the great works of Iranian culture, the majority of which were produced in or for a court milieu, was clearly highly civilized, cultivated and humane.  Given hat this sensibility must have come from somewhere, that it cannot have existed in a cultural vacuum, it would seem that we are not being given the whole story.  And even if we restrict ourselves to the modern political sphere, the Iranian people’s struggles to establish a just and representative government, from the moment of the country’s constitutional revolution early in the twentieth century up to the disputed election last June, constitute a record that for its combination of idealism and sheer dogged determination is incomparable anywhere else in the Middle East.  The simultaneous difficulty and necessity of marrying ethics and politics is a major theme of medieval Persian literature, and it is one that still resonates within the culture.”