Posts Tagged ‘John Ashbery’

They scatter the dark: three Polish poets in Berkeley

Thursday, April 7th, 2016
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Izabela Morska, Julia Fiedorczuk, and Krystyna Dabrowska. (Photo: Jagoda Glinecka)

If you noticed a slight shimmer in the firmament last week, I know the reason. There was a superb display of talent at Berkeley’s “Scattering the Dark: Celebrating the New Generation of Female Polish Poets,” featuring Krystyna Dąbrowska, Izabela (Filipiak) Morska, and Julia Fiedorczuk. Who better to moderate the reading and discussion than Pulitzer prizewinning Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate and the preeminent translator of Czesław Miłosz?  He hailed the  “three amazingly adventurous poets” and was delighted to extend the “intermittent conversation” between English and Polish poetry.

Bob asked the inevitable question of the three: How did they live in the shadow of the poetry of the 20th century giants and the “huge moral trauma it responded to?” He was thinking of course of Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert,Tadeusz Różewicz, Julia Hartwig.

Krystyna added the lesser known (in the West) Miron Białoszewski to the list, then dismissed the issue: “For my generation, it’s not such a problem. The younger poets are looking for different sources of inspiration,” she said. They also have new historical sources for trauma: the reactionary turn in the country that was once hailed as the champion of post-Soviet democracy and recovery. Her own inspiration tends to be enigmatic, imaginative, and personal, such as this one in the poem “Travel Agency”:

I am a travel agency for the dead,
I book them flights to the dreams of the living. …

She roundly criticized critic Andrzej Franaszek‘s recent 2-page editorial in a major Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, which claimed that people don’t read poetry anymore and addressed the reasons why. He blamed hermetic trends and experiments in language poetry – John Ashbery has been a powerful influence on recent generations of poets – and called for a new poetry based on experience. (I wondered if Franaszek’s role as Miłosz’s biographer had a hand in his p.o.v.: ““Blessed be classicism and let us hope it did not pass away forever,” the Polish poet had said.”)

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Izabela shot with light. Krystyna and Julia center and right. (Photo: Jagoda Glinecka)

Julia was also angry at Franaszek’s editorial, for other reasons: not a single living woman poet was named. She published a spirited reply, suggesting that if Franaszek did not like today’s poetry, perhaps he should not review it.

Izabela said the fictional alter ego “Madame Intuita” is her response to the generation of giants, with its homage to Herbert’s “Mr. Cogito.” Like Miłosz himself, she herself had been an immigrant, though one who had lived in a refugee center and shared utensils with other displaced people:

My whole life’s like learning a second language –
so many immigrant sacrifices but in the end
I can’t get rid of this accent, recognized
everywhere to my annoyance.
And I’d been feeling almost assimilated!
All that effort, and for what?

However, she pointed out today’s poets face hurdles that the yesterday’s giants never knew. To wit: the “acrobatics” to get into the publications were something Miłosz and Herbert never faced. She described the hardscrabble life of the writer, the uncertain income, the rejection letters and the silence that is worse than rebuffs. “I feel like I’m on a trapeze and doing somersaults and hoping I catch the next trapeze,” she said. Such a precarious life is “strange at about thirty, more strange at 40, and kind of odd at 50.” But in that sense, the life of the writer is most universal.

“Failure is the key human experience,” said Izabela, who had been a visiting scholar at Berkeley from 2003-2005. It’s a universal one, because “none of us arrive at the destination,” the imagined empyrean we never reach. She remembered George Orwell, and said this realization is why “poverty became his topic.” I believe that is one reason why Orwell will last.

scatteringFailure is the key human experience, and her words were all the more powerful for being spoken in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, a place where success is both addiction and the drug itself. We trumpet our successes on Facebook, perpetually shine our C.V.’s, and forge ahead in our determined effort to “brand” ourselves and market ourselves. We risk replacing the face with the mask we have created.

It was a magical evening, that ended at Chez Panisse, Miłosz’s favorite haunt. I suspect Miłosz was the presiding spirit of the evening. Berkeley was, after all, his home for forty years, and where he trained a generation of translators.

Most of the poems that were read came from a new anthology Scattering the DarkBut  one, inspired by Miłosz, was not. I cannot do better for my tribute today than include a poem indirectly inspired by him. The one I wanted to use, “Psalm 31,” is under consideration for publication (we’ll send a link to it when it is), but she sent “Psalm 2” as a replacement. After all, said Julia: “the whole cycle rhythmically and poetically alludes to Miłosz’s translation of the Hebrew Psalms.”

Psalm II

for M. M.

some poems cannot be written any longer.
some could not be written until now.
nighttime despair because of the children, drowned
children, hanged children, burned
children, massacred children, toys of children
in the plane wreck, because motherhood
is a life sentence, while despair seeks ornaments
and pleasing shapes, so as to dress up in them,
take shelter in them, be protected;
so best be quiet, I’m saying, so I’m saying: none
of your bones is going to be broken, let’s say,
Blueberry“you shall want for nothing,” let’s say,
“a tree will be planted by the flowing waters” –

(Translated by Bill Johnston)

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Three Polish poets plus Bob Hass. (Photo: Halina Zdrzalka)

Are they overrated? Anis Shivani knocks the famous 15.

Saturday, March 30th, 2013
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Here comes da judge.

“Are the writers receiving the major awards and official recognition really the best writers today? Or are they overrated mediocrities with little claim to recognition by posterity? The question is harder than ever to answer today” – yet the fearless Anis Shivani takes a shot at it in the Huffington Post here.  A few days we wrote about the outspoken literary critic. Did you catch his post on “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers”?  Shivani roams freely among genres, condemning essayists, poets, novelists, journalists, you name it.

He writes:

“The ascent of creative writing programs means that few with critical ability have any incentive to rock the boat – awards and jobs may be held back in retaliation. The writing programs embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness; as long as writers play by the rules (no threatening history or politics), there’s no incentive to call them out. (A politically fecund multiculturalism – very desirable in this time of xenophobia – is the farthest thing from the minds of the official arbiters: such writing would be deemed ‘dangerous,’ and never have a chance against the mediocrities.)

The MFA writing system, with its mechanisms of circulating popularity and fashionableness, leans heavily on the easily imitable. Cloying writers like Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Aimee Bender, and Charles D’Ambrosio are held up as models of good writing, because they’re easy enough to copy. And copied they are, in tens of thousands of stories manufactured in workshops. Others hide behind a smokescreen of unreadable inimitability – Marilynne Robinson, for example – to maintain a necessary barrier between the masses and the overlords. Since grants, awards, and residencies are controlled by the same inbreeding group, it’s difficult to see how the designated heavies can be displaced.

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Collins – resting on his laurels? (Photo: Suzannah Gilman)

As for conglomerate publishing, the decision-makers wouldn’t know great literature if it hit them in the face. Their new alliance with the MFA writing system is bringing at least a minimum of readership for mediocre books, and they’re happy with that. And the mainstream reviewing establishment (which is crumbling by the minute) validates their choices with fatuous accolades, recruiting mediocre writers to blurb (review) them.”

Sounds a lot like what Dana Gioia was saying a couple decades ago in “Can Poetry Matter?”  (The controversial Atlantic article was eventually published in his book of that title in 1992.)  And Dana spared us the tedious little click-through of the line-up of the condemned writers and their photographs.  But still …

Shivani concludes:

“If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism.”

The list of the condemned includes: Amy Tan, Billy Collins, Antonya Nelson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Cunningham, John Ashbery, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jorie Graham, Michiko Kakutani, William T. Vollmann, and Helen Vendler.  Something for everyone.

Read it here.

You may not agree, but feel free to mount your defense in the comment section below.  We’ll be curious to know what you think. Truly.

Meanwhile, it’s proving an exceptionally busy weekend, what with editing interview transcripts, answering a backlog of letters, proofs to review, a visit to the East Coast to organize, and weekend engagements.  See you on Monday.

Kay Ryan wins the Pulitzer Prize: “I would like my work to be weightless.”

Monday, April 18th, 2011
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In praise of lightness: Marin's self-sytled "Sheriff of Emptiness" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Kay Ryan has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.  I wrote about the Marin poet here during a recent visit to Stanford.  I blogged some outtakes from my interview with her eight years ago here. And I’ve written about her elsewhere, too – oh, for San Francisco Magazine, in an October 2004 article, “Let There Be Lightness,” which isn’t, alas, online.  (Postscript on 4/19:  It is online now – here.)

An excerpt from that piece, in honor of the occasion:

A bubble. The foam on a stein of beer. A tulip quivering on a slender stem. A feather, to counterpoise the world’s density, inertia, heaviness.

Lightness is a much underrated virtue, and a much misunderstood one. “Lightness” does not mean being vapid or intellectually shallow. It means looking at the world from a different perspective, with a different system of weights and measures. Marin County poet Kay Ryan—a very quiet writer who is suddenly creating a lot of noise—does exactly that in her poems.

It’s a pickle, this life.
Even shut down to a trickle
it carries every kind of particle
that causes strife on a grander scale….

The lightness of atoms inhabits Ryan’s fey, easy-on-the-ear poetry, which wins her instant fans at her occasional, low-key readings. She explains what she’s after this way: “It’s the object of my life to get things to float. Because I like it. Because it’s a relief. It is relief. It’s freedom. So I would like my work to be weightless.”

But in today’s grim and weighty world, she’s been rebuked with charges of insubstantiality, even frivolity. Library Journal gave Ryan’s 1994 book of poems, Flamingo Watching, a stern “not recommended,” commenting, “Ryan’s cramped syllabics have a monotonous density that too often mistakes sound for sense… these poems are derivative and lacking in substance.”

The winning book

There’s nothing frivolous, however, about the attention Ryan has been getting lately, finally, after decades of writing and six books of poetry, including 2000’s Say Uncle. Within a few months last spring, she won both a $40,000 Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and the $100,000 Ruth Lilly prize from Chicago’s esteemed Poetry magazine.  The award, praising a “singularity and sustained integrity that are very, very rare,” establishes her in an enviably successful firmament that includes Adrienne Rich, Philip Levine, Anthony Hecht, John Ashbery, and W.S. Merwin—heavyweights all.

One thinks of Ashbery’s avant-garde experimentalism. One thinks of the erudite Hecht’s dark and troubled formal verses. One thinks of Rich’s heavy-duty poems on poverty, racism, lesbianism, violence. Or of Levine’s obsessions with working-class life in Detroit, or Merwin’s dreamy, densely imagistic poems, with their long lines. One thinks of millions of poems everywhere, trying to impress you with their suffering and how very seriously they take themselves. Clearly, Ryan is hacking out a path of her own, but with a scalpel, not a machete.

She’s not so much treating serious things lightly as she is turning the world upside down—not being drawn into its heaviness, not letting its heaviness inhabit her. In a sense, she’s been keeping the darkness of the world from extending its territory, which is a signal act of defiance, perhaps more so than that of many “protest” poems. (Witness the leaden dullness of so much of the work in the Poets Against the War movement.) Ryan’s poems may shimmer on the surface— and how is that a bad thing?—but they are compelling in the quiet knowledge they bear.

You can read the rest here.

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Congratulations to Bruce Norris, whose Clybourne Park, won the Pulitzer for drama.  We had the pleasure – and it was indeed a pleasure – of seeing the smart, politically incorrect play a few months ago at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.  The San Francisco Chronicle‘s little man was out of his seat clapping, and Robert Hurwitt had this to say:

The jokes, lobbed like grenades, are more offensive than funny. The reactions to them are hilarious. And revealing. For us, as for the characters in Bruce Norris’ scathingly observed “Clybourne Park,” the only thing more cringe-inducing than a tiptoe around the taboo topic of race is confronting it.

As seen Thursday, “Clybourne” is the kind of trouble-making comedy of manners that tears the lid off good intentions and hypocrisies to amusing and salutary effect. And it’s being performed to discomforting perfection by the ACT cast in the pinpoint-precision stagings of California Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone in his company debut.

Attitudes toward gender, patriotism, marriage, the touchy topic of real estate and various ethnicities come under fire, but race is the elephant in the room. That would be the spacious living room of the house in Chicago’s (fictional) Clybourne Park, which undergoes its own remarkable transformation …