Posts Tagged ‘“joseph brodsky”’

The Great Kvetch, or, why kids are turned off by literature

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015
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harrison

“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Read Anna Karenina for answer.

We’ve had some tremendous defenses of literature in the Book Haven pages over the years: Susan Sontag, in an interview with James Marcus, said (here): “Reading should be an education of the heart … Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. … It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”

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There are better photos of him online. Really.

Joseph Brodsky went even further in his Nobel lecture (here), famously saying, “There is no doubt in my mind that, had we been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth. It seems to me that a potential master of our fates should be asked, first of all, not about how he imagines the course of his foreign policy, but about his attitude toward Stendhal, Dickens, Dostoevsky. … As a form of moral insurance, at least, literature is much more dependable than a system of beliefs or a philosophical doctrine.”

Lots of selling. Buying? Not so much. I haven’t read that much about why kids don’t read, why lit classes are dwindling. By gum, this is the best thing I’ve read on the topic. Gary Saul Morson writing in Commentary calls the problem the “Great Kvetch” among university professors. Slavist Morson is something of an expert on the topic: he teaches the largest class at Northwestern University – on Russian lit, of all things – for 500 kids. Nor does he teach the easy stuff: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are on the syllabus, and he devotes another course entirely to War and Peace, attended by 300.

Here are three reasons he gives. Reason #1 is the Wikipedia Delusion. Excerpt:

“I once delivered a paper in Norway on Anna Karenina, and a prominent scholar replied: ‘All my career I have been telling students not to do what you have done, that is, treat characters as real people with real problems and real human psychology. Characters in a novel are nothing more than words on a page. It is primitive to treat fictional people as real, as primitive as the spectator who rushed on stage to save Jesus from crucifixion.’ Here is the crux of it: Characters in a novel are neither words on a page nor real people. Characters in a novel are possible people. When we think of their ethical dilemmas, we do not need to imagine that such people actually exist, only that such people and such dilemmas could exist.”

downton2

The heartburn wasn’t just his.

Reason #2, or … why I hated Downton Abbey. Or, “Why don’t the women in Sense and Sensibility just go out and get jobs?” Excerpt:

“In this approach, the more that authors and characters shared our beliefs, the more enlightened they were. This is simply a form of ahistorical flattery; it makes us the wisest people who ever lived, much more advanced than that Shakespeare guy. Of course, numerous critical schools that judge literary works are more sophisticated than that class on Huckleberry Finn, but they all still presume the correctness of their own views and then measure others against them. That stance makes it impossible to do anything but verify what one already believes. Why not instead imagine what valid criticisms these authors would advance if they could see us?”

Reason #3, and here’s Exhibit One: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, in which the editors “paraphrase a key tenet of the dominant movement called ‘cultural studies,’ which has set the critical agenda”:

“Literary texts, like other artworks, are neither more nor less important than any other cultural artifact or practice. Keeping the emphasis on how cultural meanings are produced, circulated, and consumed, the investigator will focus on art or literature insofar as such works connect with broader social factors, not because they possess some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values.”

austen

Why don’t they all just get jobs?

I don’t know about you, but they deserve jail time for making “artwork” plural. Morson politely overlooks that, and summarizes the argument this way: “If elements of popular entertainment illustrate social forces better than Pope or Proust do, then they should (and sometimes do) constitute the curriculum. The language of ‘production, circulation, and consumption’ is designed to remind us that art is an industrial product like any other and supports the rule of capital no less, and perhaps more insidiously, than the futures market.”

In short, “When you read a great novel, you put yourself in the place of the hero or heroine, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become your bad choices. You wince, you suffer, you have to put the book down for a while. When Anna Karenina does the wrong thing, you may see what is wrong and yet recognize that you might well have made the same mistake. And so, page by page, you constantly verify the old maxim: There but for the grace of God go I. No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as that direct sensation of being in the other person’s place. … Empathy is not all of morality, but it is where it begins. … It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to be someone else.” Sounds like a recommendation for Tolstoy‘s Resurrection to me.

judelaw

Can’t wait.

Why is all it important? If you aren’t sold so far, try this:

“The more our culture presumes its own perspective, the more our academic disciplines presume their own rectitude, and the more professors restrict students to their own way of looking at things, the less students will be able to escape from habitual, self-centered, self-reinforcing judgments. We grow wiser, and we understand ourselves better, if we can put ourselves in the position of those who think differently.

Democracy depends on having a strong sense of the value of diverse opinions. If one imagines (as the Soviets did) that one already has the final truth, and that everyone who disagrees is mad, immoral, or stupid, then why allow opposing opinions to be expressed or permit another party to exist at all? The Soviets insisted they had complete freedom of speech, they just did not allow people to lie.”

Read the whole thing here. He’s currently working on a study of The Brothers Karamazov. Can’t wait.

MOOCs be damned! Antoine Raybaud, and how the best learning takes place.

Sunday, July 5th, 2015
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Monemvasia

Room for three, please. (Photo: Ingo Mehlng)

Online learning and MOOCs are all the rage. Pardon me if I restrain my enthusiasm. Though I have dear friends that swear by the merits of taking classes in front of an Apple screen, for me, that’s not how the best learning takes place.

edelstein(2)

Don’t worry. He has better vacations now.

You can learn from books, you can learn from great poetry – those can be done in silence, in one’s own room.  We learn from experience – that’s where what we learned from books burns in; or doesn’t. But a vital catalyst for learning is knowing learned people. The “Aha!” that comes when we realize, “I want to be like that.” Not necessarily that. But something like that. More like that than what I was. It’s a direction rather than goal. That “Aha!” comes from classroom discussions, office hours, reading all the recommended reading and casually mentioned reading. These teachers or mentors model better ways of thinking, better ways of feeling, better ways of being in the world. Sometimes it comes from a grade-school teacher, or an aunt or uncle, or it can happen at any point in one’s life. Poet Dana Gioia has told me about the influence of Elizabeth Bishop when he was at Harvard. Steve Wasserman has written of the influence of Susan Sontag‘s friendship on on him as a young man. I was fortunate to have Joseph Brodsky as a student in Ann Arbor, and much, much later Czeslaw Milosz – and very late in life, René Girard, too. I consider myself very lucky in that regard – but so do the others; anyone, really, would know the difference. Like having a great dinner at Chez Panisse versus looking at photos of food in Gourmet magazine.

That brings me to my friend Dan Edelstein‘s most recent essay in Inside Higher Education. He knows the process of initiation well:

raybaud

“Beaked nose, broad smile”

“In the summer of 1996, I spent two weeks driving around Greece with my girlfriend and my undergraduate adviser. We argued all the time: me and my girlfriend; me and my adviser; my girlfriend and my adviser. One stop was particularly memorable for its unenjoyableness. We spent a day and a night at Monemvasia, a fortified Crusader town on a massive rock off the coast. The whole time, my adviser berated me to learn more about the extensive history of the place and turned his nose up at my girlfriend, who wanted to find a nightclub on the island.

“To be fair, my adviser was not actually on the trip. He was in my head, or rather, I had internalized him. I couldn’t have a conversation without hearing him remark on the substance (or lack thereof) of my comments. He haunted my relationships and my thoughts. I carried him everywhere, like Anchises on my shoulders.”

The third party had a name – Antoine Raybaud, 1934-2012. Dan studied with him in Geneva.

brodsky2I didn’t have to take his classes. Still, a tiny group of us kept on coming back. Despite the hardships, Raybaud’s classes were mesmerizing. He interpreted texts like a magician, making meaning appear where we could only see words. The seminars became less painful, as Raybaud slowly warmed to us. But he never relented in his expectations. Every single paper I submitted to him, from my first essay to my final thesis, he made me rewrite. Once, on my way to his office, I bumped into him in the hallway; he glanced at the first few paragraphs of my assignment, then handed it back, saying, “Allez, refaites-moi ça.” (“Do it over.”) I went home and spent hours trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Eventually I rewrote the entire paper; even I could tell that it turned out much better.

Natacha, Bernard and I were his last students; he retired the year we graduated. His last seminars were luxurious: we spent six months, just the four of us, reading “Un Coup de Dés.” During that last seminar, it became clear we were initiates. We had come close to being broken, but had broken through.

This was akin to what the Russian Nobel laureate told his Columbia class, including Harper’s editor James Marcus: assigning a short paper for class, he warned them “Assume that this may be the last thing you write. … Don’t forget, you could get hit by a car after you hand it in. Keep that thought in mind.” While it would have been “grandiose nuttiness” from anyone else, he concluded that Brodsky was extending his own “high seriousness about writing to his students,” few of whom deserved it. (I tell the story in the introduction to my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations.)

You can read about Antoine Raybaud in Geneva, and Dan’s ill-fated trip to the Greek island here.

Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities

Online hero

Postscript on 7/6: One regular reader has chimed in already, and reminded us to temper our language, especially when posting at the end of a long day. From Margaret Watson: “Living in a small town off the coast of Maine, my opportunity for educational experience is minimal. But happily for ten weeks this spring I was involved in a very active group with Eavan Boland and Ten Pre-Modern Women Poets from Stanford (your “place”). I learned an enormous amount not only from her guidance and knowledge but also from the Stegner Fellows at Stanford who introduced us to the “modern” approach to poets as it is happening today. Then we could participate with either an essay or a poem written in the way of the poet of that particular week. Being introduced to these poets of the past is fodder now for a long time to come. No, I couldn’t be there, but in my heart and mind, I was.”

Another honor for poet Tomas Venclova – keep ‘em coming.

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015
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t.venclova

Terrific poet in a little-known tongue.

One of our favorite people has bagged another honor: earlier this month, one of Europe’s most eminent poets, Tomas Venclova, was awarded for “creative fidelity to the values which comprise the foundation of European civilization.”  The ceremony took place at the Ossoliński National Institute, one of Poland’s oldest scientific libraries and research centers.

In his talk, the Lithuanian poet praised the previous prize laureates: “I have followed in the footsteps of people much greater than myself, such as Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Stanisław Szuszkiewicz, Sergei Kovalev, Václav Havel, Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus and Zbigniew Brzeziński,” he said. (Personally, I’m not so sure about the “greater than himself” part.)

He also paid homage to the prize’s namesake, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a Polish journalist and war-time resistance fighter who was an emissary between the Home Army and the Polish Government in Exile in London. After the war in Communist Poland, Nowak-Jeziorański headed the Polish Section of Radio Free Europe. “Unfortunately I never met Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, although I know he was an emblematic figure in the history of Eastern Europe and global society,” said Venclova. “A politician and solider, journalist and social worker, a diplomat who was a paradigm of fidelity to his beliefs.”

Venclova himself is one of the five founding members of the Lithuanian Helsinki group, whose poetry in the disfavored Lithuanian language could be circulated only in samizdat. His dissident activities attracted the perilous attention of the Soviet authorities, and in 1977 he was forced to emigrate. He taught for many years at Yale University. His poetry has been translated by Czesław Miłosz into Polish, and by Joseph Brodsky into Russian. A selection of his poetry, translated into English by Ellen Hinsey, is at the Poetry Foundation here.

His previous honors include the Gloria Artis and Order of Merit Polish honours, as well as honorary doctorates from universities in Kraków, Gdańsk, Toruń, Lublin and the Lithuanian centres of Klaipeda and Kaunas. All that said, he is too little recognized in the West. So we think there should be more honors, west of the Danube. We have written about him here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Congratulations, Tomas!

100 reasons to go to France – Wednesday at Stanford bookstore!

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015
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Francophile (Photo: Ron Haviv)

Francophile (Photo: Ron Haviv)

Marcia DeSanctis and I met the modern way – in cyberspace, over her previously unpublished interview with Joseph Brodsky. Now I’ll meet her face-to-face – and you’ll have a chance to meet her, too, at the same time.

She’ll be speaking at the Stanford Bookstore at 6 p.m. tomorrow – that’s Wednesday, June 10, 2015. The subject is one dear to her heart: France. Her 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go is for the serious Francophile – well, we wrote about the book here, in a post titled “We’ll always have Paris: 100 reasons to go back, right away.”  The award-winning author draws on years of travels and living in France to lead you through vineyards, architectural treasures, fabled gardens and contemplative hikes from Biarritz to Deauville, Antibes to the French Alps.

Marcia is a former television news producer for ABC, NBC and CBS News and has written for the New York Times, Vogue, and others: her book quickly hit the New York Times Travel Best Seller list shortly after its release last November. As I wrote a few months ago:

After a quick glance through, I began scribbling notes, picking quarrels, marking passages with stars, brackets, exclamation points, or question marks in the margins. The book is addictive, like crack, and I could see I wasn’t going to get much done unless I hid it somewhere in the midst of my piles of books and papers. And so it waited.

(Photo: Ron Haviv)

Marcia is a former television news producer for ABC, NBC and CBS News and an accomplished journalist (we’ve also written about her here), and she hardly needed a boost from me: the book quickly hit the New York Times Travel Best Seller list shortly after its release last November. Not bad, considering it was published by a small, off-the-beaten-track house. Coincidentally, the publisher is in Palo Alto – Travelers’ Tales, an imprint of Solas House.

The book abounds with solid advice on where to shop, where to go for a long afternoon walk, where to find the best wines, and where to eat, eat, eat. Typical of her advice on the latter: “Some of the best meals I’ve ever had in France have been haphazard affairs, slapped together with a quick trip to the Marché d’Aligre near the Bastille – ripe Rocamadour cheese and saucisson aux noix, bread, and a salad of mâche trucked in that morning from the Loire Valley. It’s important to dine like this in France … while uncorking a decent Beaujolais from the corner store…

Dostoevskij_1872

He’s waiting, Marcia.

As for her own story, she writes on her website here: “I graduated from Princeton, where I studied creative writing with Russell Banks but majored in Russian language and literature. I still love those writers and wish I had the attention span to read Dostoevsky’s collected works again. … Moscow is still one of my favorite places on earth.”

I’m with you on Moscow, Marcia. As for the attention span, that’s what the internet will do to you.

Comedians1-500x500Postscript on 6/11:  Marcia DeSanctis is on the road again … but what is she reading? “When I travel, once I’ve rounded up my documents and stuffed the carry-on to bursting, the last thing I pack is a book. I slip whatever I have chosen between my change of clothes and my blanket, and close the zipper. I appreciate that e-books have, for some people, erased the need to make an absolute decision on what single piece of literature will accompany them on a journey. But on the road, I prefer a tactile, 3D, lick-my-finger-and-turn-the-page hard copy, the kind I’ve toted around for decades, stealing sentences in cafes, train stations and hotel beds all across the planet.  For me, a book is a well-considered traveling companion…” Read her discussion of her travel reading in today’s Tin House. It’s here.

 

 

“No place in the world for me”: Brodsky’s birthday fêted with an unpublished interview and more

Sunday, May 24th, 2015
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Josef_Brodsky

The poet in Ann Arbor, a year after emigration.

Today would have been Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 75th birthday. This weekend, there’s a celebratory conference in Saint Petersburg. Some of the presents arrived early – for example, Elisabeth Markstein‘s interview with the poet in The BafflerMarkstein died in 2013, and although the interview was published in Russian in Colta shortly  afterwards, this is its first appearance in English.

In her book, Moscow Is Much More Beautiful than Paris: Life Between Two Worlds (and thanks to Kurt Leutgeb for bringing the book to my attention), the award-winning translator and author describes how news of the emigration began with a phone call while she was getting her hair done: ”I sat, my head with curlers sticking out all over, under the dryer hood with dear Mrs. Luise. ‘Telephone for you!’ I crept out from under the hood. ‘Hi, Markstein?’ The voice spoke Russian. ‘It’s Joseph Brodsky here.’ He has had to emigrate, he says. Could we pick him up from the airport today right away? It was the 4th of June, 1972. ‘Of course. We will be there.’” Markstein recalls their first meeting at the home of scholar Efim Etkind:

marksteinI had met Joseph Brodsky a few years before at the Etkinds’ place in Leningrad. I was there with our daughter Mirli; she must have been three years old. I had put her to sleep on a couch in the living room. (No one would expect that a Soviet university professor had a guest room!) So: Brodsky came in, beaming with happiness because on this day his son was born. We all congratulated him. Mirli could not think of sleep after this and flirted with Joseph. He, in a good-natured way, flirted back.

The trip to the airport was unnecessary. Brodsky’s publisher [Carl Proffer] came from the States to meet him. We didn’t connect with Joseph until that evening. He was confused, despairing, full of longing for his homeland. He had left his country, because even after his trial and the resulting banishment, the KGB was after him tirelessly. While still in Leningrad, before the flight, he had written a letter to Brezhnev, then the Soviet arbiter over the fate of men. Many people criticized Brodsky for this, accusing him of being craven and servile. But me, I was so moved by the letter, which had been published in a newspaper—a proud and at the same time helpless pleading. A significant poet begged for mercy from an completely senile Kremlin lord. For that reason, I’d like to quote a few sentences from it: “It is bitter for me, to leave Russia. I was born and grew up here, I lived here and am indebted to this country for everything that is in my heart. All the bad things that have happened to me, my country generously compensated me with good things, and I never felt myself to be disadvantaged. Not even now. I ask you to give me the chance to continue my existence on the Russian soil and in Russian literature.” To be published in Russia—Brodsky’s only wish. A pure fantasy. The few things of his that had appeared in print would be removed from the Soviet libraries, like the books and translations of all other involuntary emigrants.

The late Carl Proffer, who founded the Russian publishing house Ardis with his wife Ellendea Proffer, shared his own memories in her indispensable Brodsky Among Usrecently published in Russia, where it skyrocketed to #2 on the bestseller list (we wrote about its debut here): “It was Sunday, June 4, and the flight arrived more or less on time at 5:35. As the bus approached from the plane I saw Joseph in the window, and he saw me. He gave a V-for-victory finger flash. Downstairs at the window there was a ten-minute delay when one of his two bags was lost, the first of a series of mechanical details that would slow everything down for days. As Joseph emerged and we embraced, I discovered that a Viennese with strong ties to Russia, Elisabeth Markstein, and her husband were also there to meet him. He and I took a cab together; his repeated reactions were one of nervousness, saying, ‘strange, no feelings, nothing,’ a bit like Gogol‘s madman. The number of signs made his head spin, he said; he was puzzled by the vast variety of cars of different makes. He said there was so much to see that he couldn’t see (he repeated this for several days).” brodskyamongusBrodsky and Proffer had dinner with Heinz and Elisabeth Markstein that evening, and they discussed the Brezhnev letter. Carl Proffer’s memories: “Markstein said he should publish the letter, but Joseph said ‘No, it was a matter between Brezhnev and me.’ Markstein asked, ‘And if you publish it, then it’s not to Brezhnev?’ And Joseph said, yes, precisely. The Marksteins were very kind, and they offered the services of their young daughters to show us both around Vienna. But for the most part we were on our own, and since for the first time we were spending a great deal of time together alone, we talked a lot, especially at night.” (The Brezhnev letter, or one version of it, is included in the new Stanford collection – I wrote about that here.) Ellendea continues the story: “The shock of arrival converted to anger in Joseph: as the two men walked around Vienna, Joseph began spontaneously condemning entire groups of writers (especially Evtushenko and Voznesensky) and dissidents in general. These were things he had said before, but now it was with a kind of hysterical intensity and much more profanity.” In the Baffler interview, he attacks some of his closest friends and colleagues left behind in Petersburg. This then, was the context for his remarks. Several readers have commented on his surprising hostility – it may be one reason why the interview remained unpublished. But this interview is fascinating for many other reasons – really, almost all the Russian poets interviews are worth reading and rereading (that’s why I recommend my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations – it’s terrific, and not because of me). From the Markstein interview:

EM: Do you consider yourself a Soviet poet?

JB: I object rather strongly to all definitions except Russian, because I write in Russian. Still, Soviet would be correct. Whatever its accomplishments and crimes, it exists, and in it I existed for thirty-two years. And it did not destroy me.

EM: I’m glad you brought this up. There are émigrés, and Soviet citizens too, who try to deny its existence, pretend it’s not there. But how can you? The Soviet Union is a historical and cultural fact.

JB: A cultural fact. Exactly. So many Soviet artists drew their inspiration not from divine intervention but from the idea of resistance. That is something to consider, with gratitude even. True, I unexpectedly found myself in the position where one can feel grateful. While you actually live there . . . I’m not sure what it is, what is wrong with my nervous constitution, but when I lived there, I couldn’t quite raise myself to anger or to hatred. Anger, yes, but never hatred. I always remembered, you see, that the regime and its manifestations were individual, ordinary people. I couldn’t give it a single face. For a resistance fighter, for a questing dissident, such emotion is death. Therefore, I’m not a fighter. An observer, perhaps.

brodsky7The Viennese Markstein spent her childhood in Switzerland, Moscow, and Prague. She was expelled from the Communist Party and barred from the Soviet Union in 1968 (according to German Wikipedia) when she was discovered smuggling letters of Alexander Solzhenitsyn out of Russia. She was appalled by the Soviet invasion and apparently said so. She continued that line of thought with the poet:

EM: In Czechoslovakia in 1968, in some cities during the first seven days of Soviet occupation, or maybe it was just one city, there was a slogan, “Remember that you are people of culture.”

JB: This is precisely what ruined their cause.

EM: How so? I believe they had won more ground than was expected.

JB: I really don’t think so. They behaved like schoolchildren. They decided that the principles they were defending, that somehow they had discovered a new way of defending those principles. But in fact, if you really want to enforce them, if you don’t want them to remain just empty words, bubbles in the air, then the only way to do it is by shedding blood. Otherwise, all you will get is a better or worse form of slavery. Once you start talking freedom, how you deserve it, how you want it, how it’s been denied you, how you refuse to remain a slave, you’ve got to take up arms. There is no other way to fight a slave-master. True, they did disgrace the Soviet Union, but pragmatically speaking . . .

EM: I used to think that death is preferable to life on one’s knees. But now I’m not so sure. I’m beginning to think that any life is better than death.

JB: True. But still, the question is, what should we remain alive for? Man is not a rock, he can’t exist just for his own sake. There’s always the “what for.” I understand that here, in the West, I won’t find the answer. Because when I look around, I don’t understand what people live for. My impression is that they live for the sake of shopping. That human life exists for the sake of shopping. The only solution is to stay on the margins, to not get too involved—in shopping, I mean. If I had grown up here, I don’t know what I would have become. This is a very disorienting feeling. I just don’t understand what it’s all for. It must be a very Russian, very totalitarian idea that something so good must come only as a reward, not as a given.

Read the rest here. In her memoir, Markstein notes: “Brodsky continued his flight to London. I never expected letters from him. At the end of 1972, we received a postcard from Venice with greetings for us and the girls for Christmas and the New Year. ‘Imagine: All washed up on these shores. Because there is no place in the world for me.’ I translate intentionally literally, because only then is the pain audible. Still, Venice soon became Brodsky’s favorite city – and where he, it so happened, wanted to be buried, on the Island San Michele. Years later Brodsky was again in Vienna, but didn’t call on us. What does that mean? It confirms for me once more that poets definitely must be egocentric.”

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The Proffers with Brodsky in San Francisco, 1972 (Photo courtesy Casa Dana)

His English: Ann Kjellberg on Brodsky’s self-translations

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015
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kjellberg

She ought to know.

A week or so ago, we posted on Ellendea Proffer Teasley‘s terrific new memoir Brodsky Among Us (it’s here) which is a bestseller in Russia. One person, however, took exception to our criticism of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s translation of his own works from Russian into English. Her opinion is worth a read. Ann Kjellberg is the late poet’s literary executor and the editor of Brodsky’s Collected Poems in English. She is also the editor of the magazine Little Star. Here is what she had to say:

Poetry, having so little purchase in our reading life, deserves not to be approached on the defensive, but a few recent books that consider the work of Joseph Brodsky from a world perspective have once again raised the question of how effectively he has rendered himself for us in English, and it seemed like a good moment to look a little more deeply into the matter. Brodsky was born in 1940, in Leningrad, and came to the United States as an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union in 1972. By his death in 1996 he had translated many of his own poems into English, a language in which he had by then taught and written for nearly half his life. Coming from the hand of their author, these works fall somewhere between wholly subsidiary translation and original creation. Whether their language is poetically autonomous or too distortingly shaped by its Russian consanguinities has been debated since Brodsky first spoke up in the literary culture of his adoptive land.

To understand the terrain, a few words about Russian prosody are in order. The Russian language allows up to three unstressed syllables in a single word, in contrast to English, which normally follows an unstressed syllable with a stress. This fact allows Russian tremendous metrical versatility. Whereas English poetry is overwhelmingly iambic, Russian poetry spreads equally among many metrical forms, using many other combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables besides the iamb. Furthermore, as Russian is a highly inflected language, word order is permeable, and rhymes are very plentiful, allowing for a proliferation of complex musical schemes in its very young poetic tradition. Formal expression is very, very rich in Russian poetry and an integral part of the poetic experience. This flexibility has also allowed for a very full tradition of formal translation from other languages. Part of the reason Boris Pasternak’s translations of Shakespeare were said to rival the original is that Pasternak had such a plenitude of means at his disposal. The fact that many great literary practitioners (including Brodsky) were driven into translation as a safe literary occupation during Soviet times further enriched the translated canon in Russian, influencing Brodsky’s own perception of the possibilities of formal literary translation.

brodsky-collectedBrodsky, who received very little institutionalized education and came of age entirely outside the Soviet poetic establishment, was recognized early by his peers as a prodigy of poetic forms. It was his ear that singled him out among the swarm of young aspirants that formed around his mentor Anna Akhmatova, not his wit or his philosophical acumen. Many now regard him as the greatest innovator of Russian prosody since its forms were stabilized in the nineteenth century. He is particularly known for his expansion of the dol’nik, a looser form that cross-breeds accentual-syllabic verse with its wilder accentual cousin. For Brodsky, the musical dimension of a poem was inextricably wound into its semantic heart: the forms had coloration and value, as keys do for composers and tints for painters. He often spoke of the greyness or monotony of certain feet (the amphibrach, for instance) as an antidote to poetic grandstanding: such plays of self-effacement against assertion are very important in his work. Rhyming and metrical problem-solving are also essential to the wit of his poems, which again inflects poetic authority with impishness and deeply colors the poems’ tone. He used the pacing of poetic forms contrapuntally against the plotting and logic of his poems. The forms themselves—their shading, their pathos, their modulation of energy, their inherent proportionality—were absolutely inseparable for him from the poems and from his practice as a poet.

Furthermore, as he wrote powerfully in an essays on the translation of Osip Mandelstam (“Child of Civilization,” Less Than One), for a poet of Brodsky’s generation formal values carried a larger than musical meaning: they were a living link to the values of civilization for which poets toiled secretly in hidden rooms and basements, a whispered voice echoing from the past, an embedded conversation with their peers in books and abroad whose commitment to purely aesthetic values were ridiculed by the reigning Soviet orthodoxy. To perfect the musicality of one’s verse was to scorn the Soviet command that art hew to utilitarian ends; if a poem could be said to have a literal, exportable “meaning,” then that was precisely its least valued dimension.

Such was the import that the poetic forms carried for Brodsky and his fellow émigrés, like stowaways in their literary luggage.

By contrast, when Brodsky arrived in America in 1972, formal poetry was at a low ebb. Traditional forms were equated with loathed authority generally, the influence of the beats was pervasive and converging with continentally inflected, surrealist tendencies that would feed into the work of John Ashbery and the language poets, and the powerful generation that included Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath was moving toward a more personal, idiosyncratic line. Brodsky quickly took up the cause of form in poetry, both championing the practitioners he most admired and struggling, in his own verse, to render what he had already learned of its possibilities. Richard Wilbur wrote the new arrival a plaintive letter thanking him for his defense of Wilbur’s work and alluding to how demoralizing it was to write formal verse in such times. Brodsky’s heraldic defense of formal verse was at the time conflated with his predictably anti-Communist political views and seen as representing a general, disreputable conservatism.

This trend has reversed somewhat, or at least fragmented. We now have a more eclectic musical environment for poetry, for reasons perhaps similar to those reviving figurative painting and tonal musical composition and realist fiction. Yet Brodsky’s own influence is surely visible here. Brodsky, like W.H. Auden, harkened back to Thomas Hardy as a formative presence, and most contemporary poets would recognize a broad stream in our poetry extending from Hardy and Auden through Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Brodsky, and Les Murray, to Paul Muldoon and Glyn Maxwell and Gjertrud Schnackenberg, for example. Many poets who do not write squarely in the formal tradition are more likely to visit it than they were in 1972.

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His mentor.

Yet the legacy of that period of formal quiescence remains very much with us. Few American readers can read verse musically with any sophistication. The notion is still widespread that there is a binary division between “formal” and “free” verse—whereas much of the best of what is read as free verse is in fact deeply colored by forms (often shadows of iambic pentameter or echoes of the syllabic lines of Moore and Bishop), and there is a big difference, for example, between verse that follows a colloquial or spoken line and verse that treats language as a found object. Similarly, “formal” poetry is not just conservative poetry that adheres to old structures, but is an evolving medium that grows and develops and constantly makes new means available to the artist. The rhymes and meters of Muldoon alone should be sufficient to make the case that form can be modern.

Brodsky’s effort to enliven and expand the formal repertoire in English, which met with considerable resistance at the time, can surely now be judged a success. Yet critics continue to argue that the specific musicality of Brodsky’s English verse is too infected by “foreignness.” I think this suggestion deserves more scrutiny.

The English language is perhaps the most permeable on earth, and has been subject to external influences almost since its origins. Our own sacrosanct forms are borrowed from the French and Italian. Many of our greatest poets have struggled to infuse English poetry with the music of classical antiquity, for example. There is no reason why this process should stop now, or why our poetry might not continue to be renewed and refreshed through foreign engagements. The notion that to accuse a poet’s intonations of foreignness is sufficient to dismiss them seems unfounded, and unnecessarily to limit the potential resources available for the growth of our verse.

Let us return to the example of Brodsky. A master of an artistic medium comes to us from another language. He embraces our culture and our verse. He dedicates much of his short life to struggling mightily to rewrite his own work so that it can be read and understood by his compatriots. (This in contrast with Nabokov, an oft-mentioned comparison. Nabokov not only grew up speaking English in his aristocratic Saint Petersburg household; he abandoned composition in Russian to become an English-language writer. Brodsky remained primarily a Russian poet, crossing over into English and crossing back and embracing a bilingual literary career.) Should we reject this effort on the grounds of unfamiliarity alone? Or should we perhaps consider that Brodsky brings us important news that might enrich our tradition, which is currently suffering from an undeniable diminution of means? Should we consider whether the challenges that Brodsky’s English verse offer us may themselves be an indication of how our language and our receptivity have contracted? Might it be worth searching for the inner cadences and harmonies in what at first seems startling to us? Or asking ourselves how an apparent violation of convention might create a more muscular or versatile poetic medium?

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A firm position on verse. (Photo: By Anefo / Croes, R.C.)

Here I speak mostly of Brodsky’s formal invention, because the case against his English verse is often tied to the case against formal translation generally. But readers should remember that Brodsky is a difficult poet in any language. Working with him on translations I frequently had occasion to see how he transformed a line that had been proffered by a translator not only with deeper music but deeper thinking—for him the two were intimately entailed. In a recent review in Tablet, Adam Kirsch remarks that some “unpoetic” literal translations of some of Brodsky’s work that appear as examples in a recent book sound “poetic” to him. But we cannot think that the “poetic” is a single category, a switch that can be turned on or off. There is a danger that we will accept translations that appeal to our notion of the “poetic,” or that satisfy our expectations of poetry, without questioning whether they even approach the author’s intellectual grist. Thus, like Alice, we go down a narrower and narrower literary hall.

In this vein, it’s worth considering the frequent case against Brodsky that his English is “unidiomatic.” We should reflect on the prejudices embedded in this judgment. When did being “idiomatic” become a decisive attribute for poetry? Our own language has a particular history of returning to its colloquial roots. From Chaucer, to Shakespeare, to Wordsworth, to Auden, our great poets have recalled us to the spoken line. But other traditions have developed differently. Many poetries have a high or courtly style and a colloquial style that poets draw into strategic conflict. Brodsky himself was often accused by Soviet critics of mixing high and low. Other poets have innovated by disrupting or vexing expectation, creating a new or idiosyncratic rhetoric. By keeping the spoken and the colloquial so central to our tradition, we may have deafened ourselves to the beauty and value of innovations like these.

Indeed, Brodsky used to complain that the criticisms leveled against him for his work in English were precisely the same as those leveled against him by his Russian detractors. One difference may be that challenging orthodoxies goes down more easily in literary circles when the orthodoxies are Soviet.

Ease of digestion is at a premium in our speed-reading culture. We seem more often than not to look for reasons not to address ourselves to challenging work. However, given that contemporary Americans are raised with so little education of the poetic ear, and that the number of students of Russian (and other languages) diminishes by the hour, we might hesitate before calling for the reprocessing of work by an acknowledged genius to suit our local tastes. Brodsky’s poems in English come to us double-refracted, as it were, through his own aesthetic character. They are spun once, in the original, and then spun again, just for us. We get his difficult message double-distilled. We inhabit his precise self-placement in one civilization, lifted up and dropped into a completely different one. It is a tall order. We can find reasons to avoid it. The routines of translation give us a chance to recast the problem into a Brodsky who goes down more easily. But that may not be the Brodsky we need.

(For a comprehensive study of Brodsky’s English and Russian prosody see Zakhar Ishov, Post-Horse of Civilisation [2008].)

 

Postscript on 5/15: Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s Work in Progress blog republished this post. Read it (again) here!

The book that’s rocking Russia: Ellendea Proffer’s Brodsky Among Us is a bestseller

Monday, April 20th, 2015
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Carl Proffer snapped a photo of Joseph Brodsky with Ellendea outside Leningrad’s Transfiguration Cathedral in 1970. (Photo copyright: Casa Dana)

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, has inspired a number of memoirs since his death. One big one was missing, until a few weeks ago.

Ellendea Proffer Teasley‘s Brodsky Among Us is now in its third printing, although it was released only last month in Russia by Corpus, one of the largest publishers in Russia. Reviews have been laudatory – and the book quickly shot to the top ten at the main Moscow bookstore, Moskva. The author is now on her triumphant tour of Russia, giving talks, media interviews, book signings, press lunches, and photo ops. With her late husband, Carl Proffer, she co-founded the avant-garde, U.S.-based Russian publishing house Ardis during the Cold War. Together, they brought Brodsky to America.

brodskyamongusThe literary acclaim has caught Ellendea off-guard. Russians generally like their poets stainless, and her memoir is as candid as it is affectionate. Her Brodsky is brilliant, reckless, and deeply human. “I did not expect the response I’m getting,” she wrote to me. “It is so moving to me. They understood exactly what I was doing, and they are grateful that it’s not more myth-making.”

While I have been encouraging her to write a memoir for years, I had not seen enough of her writing to anticipate what such a work would look like. Frankly, I did not expect anything of this caliber – an engaging, compulsively readable text that is bodacious, graceful, seamless. Perhaps I should not have been surprised: five years after Carl’s untimely death in 1984, she received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in her own right. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she has kept a low profile; this book marks her powerful comeback as a major figure in Russian literature.

The Proffers befriended Brodsky (1940-1996) in Leningrad. When the U.S.S.R. gave him the heave-ho, the couple miraculously secured an appointment for the unknown foreigner as poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan, which launched his career in the West. In Brodsky Among Us, she writes of the first encounter in the present tense, as if it were still replaying in her head, over and over:

“The most remarkable thing about Joseph Brodsky is his determination to live as if he were free in the eleven time zone prison that is the Soviet Union. In revolt against the culture of ‘we,’ he will be nothing if not an individual. His code of behavior is based on his experience under totalitarian rule: a man who does not think for himself, a man who goes along with the group, is part of the evil structure itself.

Joseph is voluble and vulnerable. He brings up his Jewish accent almost immediately; when he was a child his mother took him to speech therapy to get rid of it, he says, but he refused to go back after one lesson. He is constantly qualifying whatever he has just said, scanning your reactions, seeking areas of agreement. He talks about John Donne and Baratynsky (both poets of thought) then says da​? to see if you agree. (Later he would use Yah? this way in English.) This is part of his social courtship pattern. Of course there is another Joseph, the one who doesn’t like you, and that Joseph – whom we rarely see, but are often told about – is insolent, arrogant and boorish. I am reminded of what Mayakovsky‘s friends said about him – that he had no skin.”

She explains the combativeness later, “He needed his enemies; resisting them – and the state – had formed his identity.” Hence also his careerism, his relentless (and astonishingly successful) social climbing among the New York City literati: “If you had fame, you had the power to affect a culture; if you had fame you were showing the Soviets what they had lost,” she wrote.

Much of the current Russian attention is not just on Brodsky, but on the Cold War legacy of Ardis itself, given that censorship levels in Russia are returning the nation to the 1970s. Journalist Nikolai Uskov, who has visited the Ardis archives at the University of Michigan, is working on a big book about the courageous publishing house that operated out of an Ann Arbor basement.

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On Russian TV with Ksenia Sobchak (Photo: Casa Dana)

I met Ellendea back at the University of Michigan in the 1970s and visited her and Carl at the former country club that had become the Proffer family home and base of operations. Together, the Proffers published the best Russian literature at a time when the U.S.S.R. wasn’t. As I wrote a dozen years ago:

The competition was admittedly limited: Soviet publishers were hamstrung in what they could print; they weren’t publishing much that was new, let alone groundbreaking. The emigre YMCA press in Paris (which published Solzhenitsyn, among others) and Possev in Germany had a religious or political bent, a bias that often alienated younger writers. Samizdat was one alternative: haphazard, handwritten or mimeographed, and highly perishable.

Then there was Ardis. With its related venture, the innovative Russian Literature Triquarterly, Ardis brought Western readers to Russian writers. Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Velimir Khlebnikov, Mikhail Bulgakov, even Anna Akhmatova were relatively little known in the era before Ardis set up shop; their works were suppressed, their names and reputations were inevitably jumbled with a plethora of lesser, officially approved writers.

Her memoir is likely to cement the Ardis legacy in the best possible way. Brodsky Among Us is compelling, polished, pitch-perfect. She captures his restless self-reinvention, the bluster, the belligerence, the boorishness – while never losing sight of his tenderness and generosity, the reason so many, including Susan Sontag as well as the author, forgave him everything. This is, above all, a loving memoir.

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Signing books at the Dostoevsky Library (Photo: Casa Dana)

Brodsky Among Us is about as flawless a book as one could expect. I wished it wouldn’t end. I found myself marking passages I wanted to return to, sentences I wanted to remember. It’s short, but it’s not a bad idea to leave the reader wanting more. I suspect she leaves out all the right things. While some Russian readers have noted the book’s understatements and omissions, I know that she was anxious, first and foremost, that the poet’s oeuvre not be overshadowed by the anecdotes.

Recently, Russian government has attempted to appropriate its rejected poet. Brodsky’s words were featured in the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a startling move to reclaim the writer who would not have survived had he stayed, and may not have thrived under today’s Russian regime, either. Brodsky never returned to his beloved Petersburg. Why? In part, Proffer writes, because he didn’t believe anything had really changed. She writes: “Joseph had many stated reasons for not going back. He said different things, depending on his time and mood, so all one can really trust are his actions. He did not return to his native country when he could have. I know a few of his reasons: one was the iron conviction that return would be a form of forgiveness … Exile was so difficult that it was hard to believe one could just go back as if it had not cost you anything. As Americans descended from immigrants, we are familiar with this phenomenon: sometimes you love your country but it doesn’t love you back. This loss becomes a part of your new identity.”

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Ellendea on air at Radio Echo Moscow (Photo: Casa Dana)

The back cover of Brodsky Among Us has an attention-grabbing quote, but out of context one that sounds misleadingly harsh. Here are the paragraphs that goes around that quotation, which addresses the poet’s posthumous revision:

“There is a Brodsky stamp in America, and there is an Aeroflot plane named after him. I don’t want there to be a museum for Joseph, I don’t want to see him on a stamp, or his name on the side of a plane – these things mean that he is dead dead dead dead and no one was ever more alive.

I protest: a magnetic and difficult man of flesh is in the process of being devoured by a monument, a monstrous development considering just how human Joseph was.

Joseph Brodsky was the best of men and the worst of men. He was no monument to justice or tolerance. He could be so lovable that you would miss him after a day; he could be so arrogant and offensive that you would wish the sewers would open up under his feet and suck him down. He was a personality.

The poet’s destiny was to rise, like his autumn hawk, into that upper atmosphere even if it was going to cost him everything.”

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Eminent translator Viktor Golyshev, Ellendea Proffer Teasley, and critic Anton Dolin at standing-room only event. (Photo: Casa Dana)

When Proffer, who had relocated to southern California, sold Ardis to Overlook Press in 2002, I wrote about the transition in the TLS, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review was so eager to republish the piece they tracked me down to a secluded beach in Ocho Rios to get my permission to reprint tout de suite. Those were the days when newspapers still had cutting-edge book review sections willing to take a risk, the LATBR foremost among them. In 2015, publishers are looking at markets, not enduring legacies, and book editors don’t take too much interest in what happens beyond their shores. C’est dommage.

Here’s why this story is important here, now: most of his poetic career was in the U.S., not Russia. Previously published memoirs by Lev Loseff (I wrote about it for Quarterly Conversation here) and Ludmila Shtern (I wrote about it in the Kenyon Review here) are greatly illuminating, but shortchange his American life. The American story is one the Russians didn’t know, and the one that we haven’t told, spotlighting the auto-didact’s wondrous, rough-and-tumble self-reinvention, admittedly marred by the ambitious, ill-advised self-translations that would have torpedoed a lesser genius. He became the first foreign-born U.S. Poet Laureate. He taught generations of American students – including this one. Those of us who knew him will never forget him – those who didn’t, especially, need this book. Although the champagne corks are popping in Russia, most of Brodsky Among Us takes place on this side of the world – it’s an American story, about an American career. He is one of us.

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Brodsky Among Them: The Proffers & the poet at Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco, 1972. (Photo copyright: Casa Dana)

 

Slavic scholar and translator George Kline (1921-2014): memorial reading in NYC on Saturday

Thursday, January 15th, 2015
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In 1974...

In 1974…

His death was as quiet and unassuming as his life. I learned within a few days that preeminent Slavic scholar George Kline of Bryn Mawr died on October 21 in Anderson, South Carolina, but was hesitant to say anything, not wanting to be the one to break the news to common friends and colleagues, and wishing to defer to the family to make the first announcement. Perhaps everyone else felt the same, for the news seemed to spread very slowly. I sensed, perhaps mistakenly, that he wouldn’t have wanted to make a fuss.

I had known of George for many years – his translation of Joseph Brodsky‘s Selected Poems, with its distinctively artsy purple-and-green portrait on Penguin’s “Modern European Poets” cover, was the book that made the Russian poet’s reputation in English. George was among those early champions who had smuggled his poems out of the U.S.S.R., and helped bring the future Nobel prizewinner to the West after the Soviet Union booted the poet out in 1972.

I met George sometime during my work on Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. George was ruthlessly meticulous and ceaselessly patient and helpful. And when my book came out, I received congratulations, praise, and a precise list of minor errors and typos in the final volume, for correction in a second edition. I learned that anyone who wrote about Joseph Brodsky anywhere in the world could expect a such a letter. It was George’s trademark, and I don’t recall a time when he wasn’t right.

brodskybookI spoke with him a few weeks before his death, and suspected he hadn’t long to live – his beloved wife Ginny had died in April, and he seemed unenthusiastic about the task of living without her. We had some work to finish together, but both of us had other pressing deadlines – after his death, I learned how extensive his commitments, at 93, were. I knew him primarily in his work as translator, but he is, perhaps, better known as the patriarch of Russian philosophy scholarship in the U.S., and widely published on Spinoza and Hegel as well. He continued his encyclopedia entries, his revisions, his collaborations, his articles, his mentoring. Many speak of his generosity, kindness, and fundamental decency – I had a chance to experience all firsthand.

He had frequently mentioned Irina Mashinski as a colleague and friend. After his death I was pleased to find her on Facebook, and she told me of the welter of projects they were working on together that, like mine, would be interrupted by his passing. Everyone seems to have a similar story – he was working tirelessly until the last few weeks. What will we do without him?

brodsky7Anyway, here’s one show that will go on, thanks to Irina and others: at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 17, the fourth annual Compass Award Ceremony, as well as the launch of the Volume 4 of the Cardinal Points Journal, will take place at the the Elizabeth Kray Hall of Poets’ House in New York City (10 River Terrace in New York City – fond memories of the Zbigniew Herbert evening there four years ago).  The evening will be dedicated to to the memory of George and also poet Nina Cassian (1924-2014), both “esteemed Cardinal Points friends and authors.” George is still listed on the panel of judges for the Compass Translation Award website here.

StoSvet Literary Project, MadHat Press and Russian-American Cultural Center are sponsoring the evening, which will be hosted by Irina, as well as Alexander Veytsman and Alex Cigale. The readings will include Polina Barskova, Alexander Cigale, Sibelan Forrester, Andrey Gritsman, Betsy Hulick, Slava Polishchuk, Larissa Shmailo, Alla Steinber, Alexei Tsvetkov, and Alexander Veytsman.

cardinalThe winners of the 4th Competition – the last competition in which George was a judge – include Laurence Bogoslaw (Minnesota, 1st Prize); Igor Mazin (Virginia, 3rd Prize); and Eugene Serebryany (Cambridge, Massachusetts) and Misha Semenov (Princeton, New Jersey), sharing honorable mention.

Before the degrees from Columbia, the years at Bryn Mawr, before the hundreds of articles and reviews, George served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II as a navigator and bombardier in B-24s, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. Below is the photo of the young couple, looking forward to their lives together after the war – George sent it to me a few weeks after Ginny’s death. The wartime hero was one aspect of George’s otherwise scholarly life that fascinated Joseph Brodsky, who had been an infant during the terrible Siege of Leningrad. So he asked George about his wartime experiences and liked to wear his air corps hat, for fun. …

Even now I wonder, what would George think of what I am writing right here, at this moment? Part of me will wait for the letter that will never come, the prompt correspondence in the tight, cramped handwriting, offering thanks, praise, and errata.

Klines

 

Poet Melissa Green: Virgil would still be proud

Sunday, November 16th, 2014
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Father, I’m drowsy in April’s humming sun and think
A girl the color of autumn kneels at the Squanicook’s bank,
Who is the river’s daughter, dressed in driven skins,
Who knows a cedar wind at Nissequassick brings
The school of alewife, herring, yellow perch ashore.

– from the Squanicook Eclogues

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Then…

In 1991, Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky was asked what American poets he admired. Of the two or three he shortlisted, he mentioned Melissa Green for “tremendous intensity and tremendous intelligence.” He continued: “In the case of Ms. Green, I think it’s a tremendous facility. She’s a tremendous rhymer. There’s a collection of hers called Squanicook Eclogues, wonderful eclogues, I think. Virgil would be proud of those. Tremendous rhyming, tremendous texture.”

Then she disappeared. Her 1987 Squanicook Eclogues, which received awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets, looked to be a solo product of a brilliant woman. Then, a decade later, a memoir of mental illness, Color Is the Suffering of Light, then, a decade after that, another collection of poems, Fifty-Two (try finding it anywhere, just try), and now, the next installment of her memoirs, The Linen Way, excerpted in the current Parnassus.

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… and now.

For my money, my favorite passage is a description of her Boston University class with Nobel poet Derek Walcott, which, in fact, brings back memories of his Russian friend’s classes. Walcott made his students memorize “Lycidas” – a suggestion that was met with “tittering and mumbled derision – most of the students seemed to resent having to memorize such a long, boring poem.” Here’s a sample of Walcott’s classroom style:

“His first class was held at 236 Bay State Road, in a shabby second-floor room with an unvarnished floor, empty bookshelves, and a dozen wooden armchairs crowded into it. Though bleak, this was also the room where Robert Lowell had taught Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck. Walcott walked in wearing a casual sport coat, without books or papers, and sat down. Cordially, he spoke about how the workshop was going to be run. He wanted us to read a lot, and we would look at our own poems only part of the time. He then gave us five minutes to write down the names of ten of our favorite poems. I quickly made a list: the Iliad, the Odyssey, ‘The Seafarer,’ DanteInferno [why not the Purgatorio? or Paradiso? – ED.], Paradise Lost, all of Shakespeare‘s sonnets, all of Donne, Herbert, Keats, John Clare, and Robert Browning. Finally, I added ‘The Schooner Flight.’”

linenway“When I lifted my head, the other students were looking puzzled, chewing the ends of their pens in some combination of aggravation and disbelief. Walcott went around the room and asked us to read our lists aloud. Most of the students said nothing – it seemed they couldn’t call to mind a single poem. When Walcott came to me, my heart sank into my shoes. By naming ‘The Schooner Flight’ among my favorite poems, I would look like the biggest kiss-up ever born. I read my list, and when I looked up I saw that a line had been drawn in the sand between me and the other students.

“On the occasion of our first student-teacher conference, Walcott sat behind a large, empty desk. When I entered the room he looked me up and down with an exaggerated leer, which seemed more of a friendly joke than an insult. I sat and handed him my poems, my heart thumping so loudly I thought he could surely hear it. He set the poems aside and smiled at me, his sea-green eyes bright and congenial.

‘What can I do for you?’ he asked.

I cleared my throat and blurted out, surprising myself, ‘I want you to teach me everything you know.’

His eyes widened, and he grinned. ‘You’re hungry, aren’t you, Emily?” he said. “Or should I call you Sylvia?’”

squanicook“Illness married me,” she later wrote. Soon after the publication of her first collection – “I could say ‘my head spun,’ but the world also spun around me; my sense of self became frangible, and I felt my mind and body crumble. I spent the next eleven months in the locked ward of a psychiatric hospital, shattered and suicidal. I remember the sound of the long key chains the staff all wore, clinking and turning locks.”

Her memories of her friendship with Joseph Brodsky, who befriended her during the difficult years, shows a more tender, caring side of the exiled poet: “As a lifelong insomniac, I am often awake in the middle of the night, and Joseph sometimes called at an ungodly hour to read an English-language poem he’d just written. … At other times, he called just to talk. He would ask what I was doing or reading or working on, and I would find myself sitting on the kitchen floor, twisting the telephone cord, chain-smoking, and talking into the wee hours. He never said goodbye, but rather, ‘Tender kisses on both your cheeks.’ I’d sign off just as Jimmy Durante did, but substituting the name of Joseph’s lovely cat for Mrs. Calabash: ‘Good night, Mississippi, wherever you are!’”

An interview with her at Rosa Mira Books here. Hear her read her poems at the Ottoman Estate here. And about twenty of her poems over at Agni here.

I’ve already ordered a copy of Squanicook Eclogues. And if anyone knows where I can find a copy of Fifty-Two, please drop a line. Meanwhile, I’ve a sudden urge to memorize “Lycidas.” All of it.

Writ on water: Regina Derieva in this week’s Times Literary Supplement

Thursday, October 9th, 2014
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derieva4I’ve written about the Russian poet Regina Derieva since her death last Decemberhere and here.  According to our mutual friend, the prominent Swedish author Bengt Jangfeldt, she was a poet “who in her best poems achieved that true metaphysical quality which, according to T.S. Eliot, is the alloy of thought and poetry at a very high temperature.” I have been fascinated by this utterly unique and uncompromising poetic voice since I learned of the poet’s existence, a few days after her death, from her husband. Now I am thrilled to announce that her papers have come to Stanford. I tell the story in this week’s Times Literary Supplement:

The Russian poet Regina Derieva was born on the Black Sea in Odessa, and enjoyed the shifting rhythms of the sea: “Water is the ideal apparel. However many times you get into it, it’s the same”. Her passion for water was shared by her epistolary friend, Joseph Brodsky, who grew up alongside St Petersburg’s canals and spent as much time as he could in Venice, where he is buried on the cemetery island of San Michele. Derieva, whom Brodsky called “a great poet”, viewed a very different landscape, however: from the age of six, she lived obscurely in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, “perhaps the most dismal corner of the former Soviet Union – once the centre of a vast prison camp universe, later just a gloomy industrial city”, according to the distinguished Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. For him, Derieva’s precise, epigrammatic poems limn “the concentration camp zone, where space is turned into emptiness, and time turned into disappearance”.

A few days after Derieva’s sudden death last December at the age of sixty-four, I received a letter from her husband, Alexander Deriev, and our ensuing correspondence eventually led to the Stanford Libraries’ acquisition of this astonishing poet’s archive. A single cardboard box postmarked Märsta, Sweden, is all that remains of a long and productive literary life, augmented by a few files of unpublished manuscripts, photographs, letters and drawings Deriev brought with him to California in his backpack.

There is a reason for the paucity of papers in a lifetime that should have left a mountain of them. Derieva’s life encompassed the upheavals of the past century, but she added an idiosyncratic twist: at each fork in the road, this outcast among outcasts made a choice – and that choice, or as often necessity, took her even farther from the pack.

I’ll have more about her in future posts – but meanwhile, please read the rest of the story in the TLS here.