Posts Tagged ‘Jane Hirshfield’

Dana Gioia’s archives go to Huntington, Stanford – including “tens of thousands” of letters!

Monday, April 20th, 2020
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Dana Gioia’s books, manuscripts, libretti are now at the Huntington Library.

Dana Gioia is a man of letters in the time-honored sense of the term, influencing our culture as a poet and essayist, but also as a translator, editor, anthologist, librettist, teacher, literary critic, and advocate for the arts. His correspondence was extensive, and it went on for decades. Hence, his archive is a treasure trove, and though he has had offers from other institutions to acquire it, he wanted his papers to stay in California. Now it will. He has donated his substantial archive to the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, which announced today it had acquired the papers of the poet and writer who served as the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003–09 and as the California Poet Laureate from 2015–19.

Dana Gioia in L.A. with friend, Doctor Gatsby (Photo: Starr Black)

It is the second large donation he has made in the last year. Last August, he gave to Stanford the large archive of Story Line Press, which he co-founded. The papers are the central archive for the New Formalism movement. The archive includes a number of people who have spent time at Stanford, including Donald Justice, Donald Hall, Christian Wiman, Paul Lake, Annie Finch, and of course Dana himself, among others. Stanford Libraries already holds the archive for The Reaper, so this is a natural pairing with that irreverent journal.

The larger Huntington archive includes correspondence with many of the major poets and writers for the last several decades, including Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Ray Bradbury, Rachel Hadas, Jane Hirshfield, William Maxwell, Thom Gunn, Edgar BowersKay Ryan, Robert Conquest, Julia Alvarez, Thomas Disch, Cynthia Ozick,  Donald Davie, Anthony Burgess, John Cheever, J.V. Cunningham, and even some musicians, such as Dave Brubeck. It also includes his own books, manuscripts, and libretti. “Even after I pruned my correspondence, there is a lot of letters – in the tens of thousands,” said Dana.

“When I told my brother Ted that I had made the donation, he commented that I wanted my papers to be at the Huntington because our mother took us there as children. ‘You’re probably right,’ I said. I  still remember seeing the elegant manuscript of Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’ there nearly sixty years ago. It was my first glimpse into that enchanted kingdom by the sea called poetry.”

The Huntington picked up 71 archival boxes last December – the first part of his donation. Then Dana Gioia had a more urgent task: the next day he flew back to northern California home, which sustained fire damage during last year’s Kincade wildfire.

From the Huntington release:

The archive documents Gioia’s work as a poet through fastidiously maintained drafts of poems and essays from his books, which include five books of poetry and three books of critical essays. He is one of the most prominent writers of the “New Formalist” school of poetry, a movement that promoted the return of meter and rhyme, although his arts advocacy work situates him in a broader frame.

The archive en dishabillé, as Mary Gioia helps organize.

“In his correspondence, you see a writer who has been willing to engage the young and old, the esteemed and emergent—anyone who wants to critically discuss poetic form, contemporary audiences for poetry, and the importance of literary reading during decades when popular culture has become increasingly visual and attention spans have fractured,” said Karla Nielsen, curator of literary collections at The Huntington. “We are delighted that Dana has entrusted his papers to The Huntington, where his collection fits perfectly. He is a local author—he grew up in a Mexican/Sicilian American household in Hawthorne—and even as he attained international recognition as a poet and assumed the chairmanship of the NEA, he remained loyal to the region and invested in Los Angeles’ unique literary communities.”

“I’m delighted to have my papers preserved in my hometown of Los Angeles, especially at The Huntington, a place I have loved since the dreamy days of my childhood,” said Gioia.

While the range of correspondents in the collection is broad and eclectic, the sustained letter writing with poets Donald Justice, David Mason, and Ted Kooser is particularly significant.

Gioia’s work co-editing a popular poetry anthology textbook with the poet X. J. Kennedy from the 1990s to the present will interest scholars working on canon formation during those decades when the “culture wars” were a politically charged issue.

A portion of the materials represent Gioia’s work as an advocate for poetry and the arts at the NEA and as the California Poet Laureate. This work is integral to his career and will be important to scholars interested in the place of poetry and the role of reading for pleasure within greater debates about literacy and literary reading at the beginning of the 20th century. … At The Huntington, Gioia’s archive joins that of another businessman poet, Wallace Stevens; that of a very different but also quintessentially Los Angeles poet, Charles Bukowski; and those of two other New Formalist poets, Henri Coulette and Robert Mezey.

Tens of thousands of letters and much more – now at the library his mother Dorothy Ortiz took Ted and Dana Gioia to visit as children. Dana remembers the Poe manuscript of “Annabel Lee.”

A new poetry anthology for the fires, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes that shape California life

Sunday, March 8th, 2020
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On Friday, a slim book arrived at my Stanford mailbox in a brown envelope with a neat, small, handwritten address written on it. I wasn’t expecting Molly Fisk‘s California Fire & Water: A Climate Crisis Anthology to be such a trim endeavor, but here it is, weighing in at a compact 190 pages for $15. It’s a reminder that an “anthology” need not always be a staggering door-stopper to make its point. The book was supported by a Poets Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, funded by the Mellon Foundation, and packs 143 poets into, including some heavy hitters – Gary Snyder, Brenda Hillman, Jane Hirshfield, Kim Addonizio, Juan Felipe Herrera, and even a page for my humble self, as well as poet-teachers, poet laureates from all over, and students of all ages.

Editor Molly Fisk, an American Poets Laureate Fellow, explains the rationale behind the volume in the preface: “If you don’t experience a disaster yourself, it can be hard to imagine it. Photos and video are shocking, but they don’t hijack your nervous system the way reality does. And they only last a few minutes. One thing I’ve learned about disasters is how far-reaching the consequences are and how long the effects last.”

So when Molly was Nevada County’s poet laureate in the Sierra foothills, she took matters into her own hands: “When I saw a new grant that asked me to address something important to my community, of course I thought of wildfire.” So did most of the contributors, it appears – fire seems to dominate the table of contents. But not only.

Fisk: honored poet of the Sierra foothills

She continues: “Fire is not the only trouble we’re up against, so I broadened the lesson plan scope to include any kind of climate crisis our state has seen: floods, mudslides, smoke, drought, coastal erosion and sea level rise, refugee populations.”

UCLA’s SA Smythe in the foreword wrote that the book is a compendium of voices “working to make meaning of their lives and futures amid ongoing climate crisis … this book is a soothing gesture of solidarity, an outstretched arm in the wake of helplessness that can befall those of us confronting the harsh reality of a planet engulfed in flames. How can we continue to navigate a life in extremis? We bring together our memories and cobble together our defenses – ancestral and contemporary, coalitional and creative – to ward off the fires, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes that persist and shape our lives today.”

I was very pleasantly surprised to see a poem by a longtime friend, Kate Dwyer – not a narrow escape from catastrophe, but a rueful take on a wet springtime in Nevada County:

 

Spring as Adversary

Mid-month it rained so hard
the daffodils lay down and did not get up again.
The apple trees pelted us with blossoms,
death by wet confetti.
I emptied the rain gauge 6 times in 3 weeks.
And a sinkhole the size of a battleship
swallowed the parking lot at the tire store.
It took no prisoners.
Still, after 5 years of drought,
we dared not complain.
I put on my rain suit for the 64th day in a row
and tried to be grateful that
I would be soaked through before
the dog walk was over.

                                        – Kate Dwyer

“A poet of this world”: Jane Hirshfield remembers W.S. Merwin

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019
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In Hawaii together: W.S. Merwin’s wife Paula Dunaway snapped the photo.

Former U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin died on March 15. He was 91. He was the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, among other honors. I knew him slightly, so I have stepped aside for others to speak. Here’s one of them, Marin poet (and friend) Jane Hirshfield, who has provided today’s guest post, with attention to their common Buddhism outlook:

The last time I saw William Merwin was in late March-early April, 2016, when I went to read for the Merwin Conservancy’s Green Room series in Maui. His wife Paula was still alive, and I was able to see them three times in the house William had built decades before with his own hands; to walk through the palm trees he’d planted, now fully grown; to see the nursery with new, young palm trees waiting to be planted.

Famously handsome. (Photo: Dido Merwin)

One screen-walled outbuilding was William’s zendo, a meditation room that resembled the nearby toolshed, except that in place of trowel and shovel there were two very small Buddha figures, some rocks, a few incense bowls. A low block of rough-cut wood served as altar. A hand-made clay water pitcher was set just off to one end, as if the one-flavored water of the Lotus Sutra’s teaching might be poured from it whenever needed. As if confident that here, thirst could be simply, straightforwardly addressed, within gathered rain and the poet’s hand-created, permeable concentration.

William was almost completely blind by then, yet still poured the tea Paula had made, asking only for a little guidance to know where my upheld cup was. His superb memory allowed him to move through the long familiar spaces and our conversations’ various rooms with equal ease. One of his beloved chows was still alive, keeping near. The Merwins offered me a tin of organic bug balm to keep at bay the mosquitoes. What William’s eyes could no longer take in, it seemed to me, radiated instead outward from them: the world’s wonder, along with – and just outweighing – its suffering.

William’s poems and example have travelled with me all my life as a person and poet. His openness and his ability to bring into some of his poems what is felt as beyond any saying yet somehow is said. His rigor and his ability to bring into other of his poems his clear-eyed perceptions of the failings of our culture, civilization, and species. His translations were without border, and his compassion without limit. When we first met, at a Dodge Festival, we were sitting next to each other in the big white tent of those days, each of us unable to take our eyes off a nearby seeing-eye Golden Lab. In later years, William would sometimes phone me to talk about Zen and its unfolding in each of our lives—we both wanted practice to be a thing deeply background, not foreground, and perhaps I am wrong to mention it here; yet we both appeared in the PBS documentary, The Buddha, and so I do— as much as of poems, other reading, ideas. Paula was part of these conversations as well, bringing her own steady wisdom and practical affirmation of the centrality of love and human connection in their shared life.

William is sometimes described as a poet of the numinous and absence. But he was a poet of this world, which he loved, cultivated, and restored. The poems continue to hold it all, just as each planted tree in France and in Hawaii does, just as that small, empty, open, still-waiting-to-serve water pitcher does.

William, with so many others this first day of your death, an anniversary now knowable, I thank you.

Jane Hirshfield: two new books and the mysterious nature of fado

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015
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Jane in Marin (Photo: Adam Phillips)

Jane in Marin, writing. (Photo: Adam Phillips)

“At a certain stage, I realized a life is written in indelible ink.” Jane Hirshfield made an appearance at Kepler’s Books on Tuesday evening – and I know just what she means.

“Certain doors close,” she said. “It’s too late to be a bronco rider” – not that she ever wanted to be, she quickly added.

I’ve tried explaining this realization to friends. It’s not that there won’t be big surprises, new beginnings, unexpected turns, but I know I’ll never be a neurosurgeon – not that I wanted to be. Or an astronaut. When one enters the harvest period of life, one will reap not only as but where one has sown – a lifetime of planting fields of wheat won’t yield cabbages and thyme. A life with a pen … or a computer screen … means one won’t be a ballerina. This is hard to explain to the young ‘uns, for whom life and hope and joy is a world of almost endless possibilities – they may have ten children, or none. And everyone of them can still be a president. Yet I think today’s youth suffers greatly from unlimited possibility, and the uncertainty and burdens it brings – especially in modern Western culture, where we task our children with the creation of a whole life by the time they’re twenty or so.

There is a profound peace in doing the chosen thing well, and continuing to pick the fruit from efforts long made. It’s akin to the ideas percolating in a poet’s head and verse – “It changes, but only more into the person.” We become more and more ourselves. I’m happy to know my Zen friend Jane is a fellow traveler to the same psychological city. As she writes in the last line of one of her poems: “There was no other life.”

That realization permeates her new collection, The Beauty (Knopf), in such poems as “Perspective: An Assay,” “My Life was the Size of My Life,” “In My Wallet I Carry a Card,” “My Sandwich,” as well as “A Cottony Fate,” quoted above. (The Beauty was named a “best book of the year” by Amazon.)

“Good art is a truing of vision, in the way a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly,” she writes in the preface of Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Knopf), a book of essays published at the same time as The Beauty (it was named by Publishers Weekly a “pick of the week”): “It is also a changing. Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, and thinks in altered ways. Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means? Some hunger for more is in us – more range, more depth, more feeling; more associative freedom, more beauty. More perplexity and more friction of interest. More prismatic grief and unstunted delight, more longing, more darkness. More saturation and permeability in knowing our own existence as also the existence of others. More capacity to be astonished. Art adds to the sum of the lives we would have, were it possible to live without it. And by changing selves, one by one, art changes also the outer world that selves create and share.”

beautyDuring a conversation at Kepler’s with poet Ellen Bass, she said finds poetry easier than prose – she has had eighteen years between volumes of essays; not so with writing poems, although “it’s not like I’m knocking them out like pancakes,” she said. While she considers herself a private person, and not at all a confessional or autobiographical writer, she said her poems are “completely nude portraits – but at the level of an X-ray.”

“Poems are not about expression. Poems are about making a discovery – not about what you really know and feel,” but rather weaving a basket that will carry “unknowable things.”

“Life is an unsolvable mathematical problem – and a lot of the wonderful and technological way of looking at things,” she said, trains us for a life in which there is “a single, correct answer.” If you’re working on the rings for a Challenger spacecraft, for example, “there is one correct answer and you better get it right.” But will it tell you why you want to travel to Mars in the first place? Can we get to the root of human aspiration and sorrow? Why can’t we have both?

“Why can’t we find the astonishment? Why can’t we find the precision?” she asked. She spoke of the opening poem of her new collection, Fado” – which is a Portuguese song of longing and loss and the sea and (she learned later) the word also means “fate.” She described the perplexing process of its creation, “I have no idea where the fado singer comes from. Why is the woman in a wheelchair? She was completely unlimited by her situation.” As for the quarter and dove the or trickster finds on the girl, “Even if you know it’s a trick, it’s still a dove. It flies off. You can buy something with the quarter.”

Precision and uncertainty, uncertainty and solace: “There’s a way to feel alright with that, and not be undone by that.” At “Fado”‘s end, “what trembles in the pan has something of the uncertain. That’s what a poem does.”

.

Fado

tenwindowsA man reaches close
and lifts a quarter
from inside a girl’s ear,
from her hands takes a dove
she didn’t know was there.
Which amazes more,
you may wonder:
the quarter’s serrated murmur
against the thumb
or the dove’s knuckled silence?
That he found them,
or that she never had,
or that in Portugal,
this same half-stopped moment,
it’s almost dawn,
and a woman in a wheelchair
is singing a fado
that puts every life in the room
on one pan of a scale,
itself on the other,
and the copper bowls balance.

My amazing Miłosz legs

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014
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legs3Can poetry matter? At a time when poetry is put on subway signs and the backs of buses, in a desperate attempt to show its relevancy to our times, I decided to vote with my feet. Or rather with my legs.

Okay, okay … I know it was a bit naff. But when I saw poet Molly Fisk‘s Facebook post about a woman in Israel who makes Emily Dickinson tights, I knew I had to have a pair. But given a choice among poems to choose … with myself as a sort of billboard… what could I do?

The international package arrived a few days ago from “Coline” in Netanya – elegantly wrapped and tied with a red ribbon. Black letters on dark gray tights, in a photo taken by my artiste daughter, Zoë Patrick. (Here’s the link for Coline’s magic tights – here.)

What did I choose? Who else but Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz! It’s poet Jane Hirshfields favorite poem, and soon became one of mine – she reads and discusses the poem in the video below. Not the usual thing to have on one’s legs, admittedly but it’s a great poem for the middle-to-the-end of life, and a great poem as we roll into a California winter. So here’s what’s written on my legs (translation by Robert Hass):

Winter

The pungent smells of a California winter,
Grayness and rosiness, an almost transparent full moon.
I add logs to the fire, I drink and I ponder.

“In Ilawa,” the news item said, “at age 70
Died Aleksander Rymkiewicz, poet.”

He was the youngest in our group. I patronized him slightly,
Just as I patronized others for their inferior minds
Though they had many virtues I couldn’t touch.

And so I am here, approaching the end
Of the century and of my life. Proud of my strength
Yet embarrassed by the clearness of the view.

Avant-gardes mixed with blood.
The ashes of inconceivable arts.
An omnium-gatherum of chaos.

I passed judgment on that. Though marked myself.
This hasn’t been the age for the righteous and the decent.
I know what it means to beget monsters
And to recognize in them myself. …

 

Read the rest here. Or listen to Jane below:

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.

 

Jane Hirshfield, “the youngest and last of Czesław’s American poet-friends”

Sunday, October 14th, 2012
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Some time ago, the Book Haven wrote about California poet Jane Hirshfield‘s appearance at Kepler’s (we’ve also written about her here).  Jane and I came together over Czesław Miłosz a dozen years ago, when I interviewed her about her friendship with the Nobel poet for California Magazine. Two books and many articles later, after I have crossed the world tracing Miłosz’s journeys and speaking about him during Rok Miłosza, it was pleasing to find Jane’s elegant post about him on the Library of America blog “Reader’s Almanac” this week, as she remembers “Czesław Miłosz, (California) Poet.” (We’re also grateful to Jane and LOA for the mention of An Invisible Rope, in which Jane was one my contributors, and also for the hat tip to the Book Haven.)

Here’s an excerpt from Jane’s piece:

In late 2002, at ninety-one and returned to Poland from his long self-exile (ten years in Paris, then forty as professor and poet in Berkeley), Miłosz wrote this small poem in his notebook:

I pray to my bedside god.
For He must have billions of ears.
And one ear He keeps always open to me.
(tr: Anthony Miłosz)

Reading this in English eight years after the poet’s death, I was struck by its curious “bedside.” A translator’s note explains: the original adjective means “near-at-hand,” “handy.” The Polish words for a first aid kit, a home-library reference book, and hand luggage all use some form of podręczny. This would, then, be not the distant and fearsome God of Judgment, but the rescuing one who knows every sparrow that falls, and the poem points toward a fully-felt fulcrum of balance: its god is local and large, intimate and immense, able to carry in a small, household form something vast, life-saving, and essential. Even the typography holds dual vision: the “g” of “god,” is lower-case; the pronoun is “He.”

All those years ago, when I first spoke to her on the phone, she told me how she had initially befriended the Polish poet.  At a large outdoor gathering, the hostess approached Jane and suggested she introduce herself to Czesław Miłosz and his wife Carol.  Everyone was intimidated by him, and so these gatherings could often be lonely affairs. Jane described it in An Invisible Rope:  “I was, I believe, the youngest and the last of Czesław’s American poet-friends.  I met him only after he had already turned seventy-five, when we were both invited to a group picnic on Angel Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay.  Not long after, he invited me to dinner after translating one of my poems into Polish.  He showed me how largely it is possible for a person to live, even in old age, rapacious for knowledge, experience, and –though it is not a term he would use – the understanding of wisdom. His investigation of good and evil was not conceptual but personal and pressing.”

And so her journey began – just as it began for me a dozen years ago, when I inadvertently became the last person in the U.S. to interview Miłosz (without warning, he returned to Kraków forever a few months after my California Magazine profile).  Jane does her best to describe the impression, and does it much more eloquently than I can in this midnight blog post:

“Perhaps I am trying to sketch here a premise too complicated for such a brief form as this virtual Library bookshelf. But Miłosz, a poet of almost incalculable range, continually reminds us also that poems, and poets, live in the small, in the local and comic recognition, in the living and perishing real. We do not, cannot, live in general; even exile takes place in a place, a deck overlooking a Bay, on which a poet with extravagant eyebrows turns the pages of a New Yorker for its cartoons. We breathe the air that is near to us, scented with redwoods and lemons, or with the exhaust of refineries, power plants, airplanes, wars. If a poet in exile continues writing, he or she will be sustained by that air and that place, and will become of it.”

Then she cites the poem that I know is her favorite … or at least one of her favorites (can there ever really be a favorite?)  She also reads and discusses the same poem, “Winter,” in the video below:

Leonard Nathan: At the end, still himself, says poet Jane Hirshfield

Monday, September 12th, 2011
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"Finely woven intelligence"

I “met” the poet and translator Leonard Nathan in 2000 – actually, it was a telephone interview, hence the quotes.  I never had the privilege of meeting face-to-face with one of Czesław Miłosz‘s earliest translators, and the man who translated Anna Swir into English by the Nobel laureate’s side.

After our short interview, we kept in email touch over the years.  I told him about my plans to compile the essays for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and he contributed his previously unpublished memoir.

Some time afterward, I got a phone call from him out of the blue.  He saw my name on a his phone list, and wondered if I was a photographer – or who, actually, I was.  He was his usual chipper and polished self, but I had already lost a mother to the early onset variety of Alzheimer’s in 1988, and the odd and cheerful phone call struck a familiar chord.

During her reading of her latest collection of poems, Come, Thief, at Kepler’s tonight, my friend Jane Hirshfield described how Leonard Nathan had been very open about his disease, calling Jane before she had even noticed anything amiss to warn her he would be having good days and bad days.

Jane told the story of visiting him in a nursing home when he was in a more advanced stage of the disease.  When she asked what to expect, she was given a “dire, dire” description of his condition.

She was instead amazed at “how much he was still the eloquent, educated, finely woven intelligence he had always been.” Even as his mind deteriorated, he would be endlessly discussing Beaumarchais, or any of his other literary preoccupations.

So she wrote this poem for him, “Alzheimer’s”:

A good day for Jane

When a fine old carpet
is eaten by mice,
the colors and patterns
of what’s left behind
do not change.
As bedrock, tilted,
stays bedrock,
its purple and red striations unbroken.
Unstrippable birthright grandeur.
“How are you,” I asked,
not knowing what to expect.
“Contrary to Keatsian joy,” he replied.

“I couldn’t come up with a line like that on a good day,” said Jane.

(By the way, it was otherwise a good day for Jane today:  Garrison Keillor read her “I Ran Out Naked in the Sun” this morning on “The Writer’s Almanac” – it’s here.  Her “Three-Legged Blues” is here, with a blues musical setting by Kay Ryan‘s brother-in-law, David Fredrick Lochelt, here.)

Dana Gioia in WLT: “It’s better to be noticed than ignored”

Sunday, August 21st, 2011
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"Fame gives you the freedom to pursue your interests" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The new September issue of World Literature Today is out, including an interview with poet, and former NEA Chairman, Dana Gioia. The Q&A was conducted by WLT‘s managing editor Michelle Johnson (who was also my editor for the July/August article on eminent Polish poet Julia Hartwig).

Not online, alas – but here are a few excerpts:

On fame:

I try to accept the good and the bad with equanimity.  As Oscar Wilde observed, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” I have been lucky to have enjoyed a degree of celebrity across my career, and the experience has taught me a lot about the nature of contemporary fame. Notoriety requires you to be simplified, usually into a neat and tidy headline. First, I was widely discussed as the “businessman-poet.” Then I became notorious as the ringleader of the New Formalists.  Soon thereafter I became famous as the literary maverick who wrote “Can Poetry Matter?” Then I became a public figure as the champion of arts and literacy who ran the National Endowment for the Arts. Each of these reputations contained an element of truth and a simplification. But it’s better to be noticed than ignored, and properly used, fame gives you the freedom to pursue your interests as a writer.

On his legacy as one of the proponents of “New Formalism”:

It’s easy to forget how odd things were back in the 1970s. Form and narrative were almost universally denounced as dead literary modes. They were considered retrograde, repressive, elitist, antidemocratic, phallocentric, and even (I’m not making this up) un-American. It was impossible to publish a formal or narrative poem in most magazines. One journal even stated its editorial policy as, “No rhyme or pornography.” Poems wee supposed to be free-verse lyric utterances in a confessional or imagistic style. I’m happy to say that journals and presses are now open to formal or narrative poetry. This is a direct result of the so-called “Poetry Wars,” the long and loud debates over these issues that lasted from the early 1980s through the 1990s. …

I had no interest in making rhyme and meter the dominant aesthetic. What I fought for – and one really did have to fight back then – was for the poet’s freedom to use whatever style he or she felt was right for the poem. I can’t imagine a poet who wouldn’t want to have all the possibilities of the language available, especially the powerful enchantments of meter, rhyme, and narrative. I never saw the movement as a rejection of modernism. Why throw away the greatest period of American poetry?

What’s next?

America's mystical composer gets National Medal of Arts

I am most eager to work with artists I admire unreservedly. Collaboration depends upon talent – the pairing of two talents that inspire each other. Morten Lauridsen, who seems to me one of the greatest living composers, wants to create a work together. That is very exciting. Helen Sung and I are going to write a jazz song cycle. The composer William Bolcolm has suggested doing a musical setting of my narrative poem “Haunted” for a pianist and an actor. Lori Laitman is writing a song cycle using my translations of Montale’s love poems. Paul Salerni and I have sketched out a dance opera. I also have a third opera subject in mind, but it is still in the early stages. But, of course, the important thing is to keep writing poems.

The article also included a poem from his forthcoming collection Pity the Beautiful (2011, Graywolf), titled “Finding a Box of Family Letters.” I thought it sounded familiar.  Indeed, it was. He read it to me a year ago, over wine at his house in Santa Rosa, at the same time he read “Haunted,” which I very much look forward to hearing with Bolcom’s musical setting.  The poem made a very strong impression on me then, and also when it was published in the Hudson Review some time later.

Some time ago, Dana sent me a DVD of Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna – please, please go find it, if you haven’t heard it.  He’s largely unheralded in the MSM, but is perhaps the most popular choral composer in the U.S.  Moreover, Lauridsen has been called “”the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic.”

By the by, the magazine also has an essay by Jane Hirshfield, on American poetry.  Haven’t read it yet.

“The Wolf Who Ate Books”: Michnik, Vendler, Hirshfield, and others remember Miłosz

Monday, May 16th, 2011
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Aleksander Fiut in foreground, Michnik in striped shirt, Vendler in back (Photo by my Droid)

Jane Hirshfield recalls that Czesław Miłosz lived in a “storybook” cottage on Grizzly Peak in the hills of Berkeley.  But to describe the fairy tale that took place within the cottage, you’d need a new character, a new story – “The Wolf Who Ate Books,” she suggested.

In the elegant and newly revamped Szczepanski Square, the Miłosz Pavilion – a strange, science fiction-y formation of hemispherical  tents and tunnels – hosted a range of activities during the Czesław Miłosz centenary festival. One spotlighted reminiscences with, as well as Jane, scholar Aleksander Fiut, Gazeta Wyborcza editor Adam Michnik, poet Tomas Venclova, leading critic Helen Vendler, and poet Adam Zagajewski. As with so many of the events, Znak publisher Jerzy Illg hosted.  Here are a few of their memories:

Michnik recalled Miłosz trying to meet him at a very particular Bulgarian restaurant in Paris, where Miłosz spent the lonely, tormented decade following his lonely defection from Communist Poland.  “Then Miłosz said a sentence I would remember for the rest of my life:  ‘I wanted to meet you here, because here, in the 1950s, very often I kept feeling I would commit suicide,'” he confided to his friend.  Michnik recalled his famous essay of the time, “Nie” [No], where he explained his defection to the world.  It opened: “What I’m going to tell now could well be called a story of a suicide…”

He also remembered Miłosz’s triumphant return to Poland in 1981, with the heady rise of Solidarity.  “It was a time of euphoria, carnival – it was our victory,” he said.

Miłosz was more cautious.  He told Michnik, “The atmosphere feels like just before the Warsaw Uprising. Please be careful.” Tanks rolled into Warsaw and martial law was declared a few months later.

Tomas Venclova recalled when Stanisław Lem was rumored to be up for the Nobel prize.  “I don’t care about the Nobel prize,” Miłosz told him, “but if any other writer gets it, I wouldn’t be too happy.”

A 21st century monster of hemispheres and tunnels (from my Droid)

Aleksander Fiut traveled with Miłosz to Stockholm for the 1980 Nobel.  On the way to the event, in a chauffeur-driven limousine, Miłosz was hungry.  Where did they stop?  He told the chauffeur to pull into McDonald’s.  “Her facial muscles didn’t even move,” Fiut recalled.

Jerzy Illg recalls the poet at 90, looking deeply into a vodka and a piece of herring – two of his favorite things.  “Happiness is accessible,” he declared finally. Illg had him write that down and sign it. “It’s a valuable security paper I hold,” Jerzy reflected.

Jane met both Carol and Czesław at a Bay Area picnic, where the hostess urged her beforehand to chat with the Miłoszes, since many were too intimidated to be social.  So, unfortunately, was Jane.  It was as if, she said, she had been told, “Please go talk to Yeats.  Please go talk to Shakespeare.”

Jane also recalled the death of Miłosz’s much-younger wife Carol, in 2002.  At the memorial service in Berkeley, she remembers Miłosz sitting erect, “evidence of decades of unbearable loss being carried.” She spoke to him afterward, and “for three seconds he completely broke down.”

“I never held a grief that large in my arms,” she said.