Posts Tagged ‘Hollis Robbins’

“Poets form each other”: Hollis Robbins on the African-American sonnet

Friday, August 7th, 2020
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Sonnet fan Robbins.

We’ve written about Hollis Robbins before, here and here, but only in her connection with the late great Prof. Richard Macksey of Johns Hopkins University, who died last year. Now we have a chance to blow our ever-so-tiny horn about her new book, Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition, published this summer with the University of Georgia Press. 

Robbins, the Dean of Arts and Humanities at Sonoma State University, writes in her introduction about this intriguing subject:

Ralph Ellison argues, “while one can do nothing about choosing one’s relatives, one can, as an artist, choose one’s ‘ancestors.’ African American sonnet writers have clearly seen in the sonnet tradition a literary past that speaks to the black experience, a past involving shackles, desire, protest, memorial, the possibility of play and subversion, and a long genealogy of practitioners… Few scholars ask why white poets write in the sonnet form; the answer comes best from sonnet-writers themselves: the sonnet is the valued coin; the sonnet is permanence; the dead leaves of the past are ever present to be overwritten, signified upon, contended with.

She notes that Harold Bloom, scholar of influence, claims that every poem “is a misinterpretation of a parent poem.” “Poets form each other, which means, in practical terms, that strong young poets must ‘wrestle’ with their poetic forebears in order to ‘clear imaginative space’ for fresh new poetry.”

Robert Hayden knew a thing or two about sonnets.

Here’s one example from the Jamaican poet Edward Baugh. He shares an ancestor with James Baldwin. Remember Shakespeare’s sonnet 127?

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.

Here’s Baugh’s rejoinder, in his 1965 poem, “There’s a Brown Girl in the Ring”:

When I speak of this woman I do not mean
To indicate the Muse or abstract queen
But to record the brown fact of her being,
The undiluted blackness of her hair
And that I lightly kissed her knee
And how her feet were shy before my stare.
It may be that I praise her memory here
Because she is indeed but allegory
Of meanings greater than herself or me
Of which I am instinctively aware;
But may such meanings never be a care
For that fine head, and may my glory be
That blood and brain responded well to slim
Shy feet and smoothest knees and most black hair.

Another indispensible sonneteer and his poem: Robert Hayden’s sonnet “Frederick Douglass,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1947:

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to our children,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered—oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the needful, beautiful thing.

There goes a Johns Hopkins landmark: Dick Macksey’s magnificent home for sale!

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020
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His personal library. Part of it.

Hollis Robbins, Dean of the School of Arts & Humanities at Sonoma State University, tweeted a sad tweet last night. What a loss for Johns Hopkins University! We’ve written about the legendary Johns Hopkins polymath, Richard Macksey, Professor of Everything, here and here and here and here, and, well in Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardThe French theorist and Macksey were longtime colleagues.

Dick Macksey died last July, and now his home has been stripped of its magnificent personal library and its future is in the hands of realtors. Weep for it! Weep! Weep! Weep!

The library was a marvel for Johns Hopkins students, and Dick Macksey invited them into his home to teach and share his books. As I wrote about the photo above:

Behold the 70,000-volume personal library of retired Humanities professor Richard Macksey of Johns Hopkins University. He has sometimes claimed that his collection includes an autographed copy of Canterbury Tales and a presentation copy of the Ten Commandments. Unlikely, but I wouldn’t rule it out. More demonstrably, he has Marcel Proust‘s copy of Swann’s Way, and many first editions of William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and others.

But what is a home without it’s heart? I’ll tell you what it is:

Dick Macksey at home with friends.

“This stately Italianate Renaissance residence is situated on a well landscaped double lot boasting a private walled courtyard and secluded walled garden. Exquisite detail and proportions abound throughout. Lovely 30 foot entrance hall with distinctive “double-staircase” and palladian door to terrace, 36 foot living room with fireplace, handsome built ins, and access to terrace. Inviting dining room with fireplace and access to terrace. 12 sets of stylish arched french doors on first floor, 5-6 bedrooms, 3.5 baths. 26 foot library with fireplace and 14 foot ceiling. Take advantage of this rare urbane opportunity slip away.”

Well, as Hollis Robbins says, without the books, it’s just a house. But what a beauty it is nevertheless. You can look at more photos of it here. No price is listed. Are you surprised?

Below, the video of the home. Close your eyes, and imagine the books. Imagine it crammed with books.

Postscript on 7/9: It seems that everyone has a Dick Macksey story. Here’s one from Steve McKenna: “I actually attended a grad class in that house. I was 22. If you hadn’t read everything, he could be…hard to follow. So when I got lost, I would just scan book spines. He was a bit like Borges’ Funes the Memorious. Macksay held court in his library. He would begin by asking us what we’d just read, and would launch into a two-and-a-half hour disquisition that might go from Borges to Derrida to Catullus to Goethe to Hart Crane and always to … Proust (to which all roads returned for him, and from whom all roads also departed) … you didn’t come away with the sense that it was madness, just that he was moving on a level so stratospherically above us that we were idiots. But the shelves were amazing.”  Martha Reineke added: “Reflecting on what that home was, with the amazing books and conversations over so many years, makes the realtor video even more poignant. A house is never emptier than when its shelves are bereft of books.”