Posts Tagged ‘“joseph brodsky”’

Remembering Joseph Brodsky: “a whole and almost molecular engagement with poetry”

Monday, September 7th, 2020

“Nothing of this man’s thinking was held back…”

Peter Filkins has an excellent retrospective, “Words Preserved Against a Day of Fear,” on Russian Nobel Poet Joseph Brodsky, with plenty of anecdotes, in a recent edition of The American Scholar But then, I’m a fan of the genre. Filkins was a student at Columbia in the early 1980s. He describes a class this way:

There, in what can only be described as the Soviet glumness of Dodge Hall, Brodsky would hold forth for two hours each Tuesday. Hardy, Frost, Cavafy, and Auden were the main fare, as well as Wilfred Owen, Osip Mandelstam, and Marina Tsvetaeva. Brodsky was not the most elegant of classroom managers, to say the least. His method mainly consisted of asking a question for which he clearly had the answer, and then proceeding to quietly reply to any student response with either “Garbage” or “Pretty good.” (I once received a “Pretty good—in fact, that’s awfully good!” at which point it felt as if the heavens would burst into chorus.) Described this way, Brodsky’s method sounds like a nightmare, and I’m sure for some it was, but for many of us the performance was mesmerizing.

Not a “failed poet”… not a boxer, either.

From three to five P.M. on those darkening fall afternoons, we felt that we were not so much in the presence of a poet, and certainly not an academic or a scholar, as of poetry itself. Nothing of this man’s thinking was held back, and it seemed as if he were making his case for poetry to the spheres rather than to a roomful of graduate students. Yes, he could be rude, and no, none of us ever got our essays back with any kind of useful comments, if we got them back at all. And he could be wrongheaded (his case for reading Frost’s “Home Burial” as a tragic rendering of Pygmalion’s love for Galatea seemed a stretch) or even flat wrong (Brecht and Neruda are not second-rate poets—they were just Marxists; Nabokov is not a “failed poet,” just a fellow genius of a different stripe). But once you found your way past the manner, you got to the matter: a whole and almost molecular engagement with what poetry can be, why it matters, and why it is the very manna of thought and feeling when read seriously.

This kind of gravitas remains the central attraction of Brodsky’s verse. He pegged poetry as “the supreme form of human locution in any culture,” representing “not even a form of art, but our anthropological, genetic goal, our linguistic, evolutionary beacon” (from his essay “An Immodest Proposal”). Although these ideals might seem too lofty for the marginalized art of poetry to bear up under today, they were at the core of what he felt to be his charge as a teacher. Agree with him or not on any particular poet or poem, there was no ignoring what he handed over freely to his class, and what he cites elsewhere in the same essay, namely, that poetry “is the only insurance available against the vulgarity of the human heart.” Reading poetry, “you become what you read, you become the state of the language which is a poem, and its epiphany or its revelation is yours,” and the same could be said for his teaching.

Underlined

I’ve published the reading lists that Joseph B. gave people, and the one he gave me,  here. But Filkins got a different one. Here’s the story:

That same night after his aria on Frost, as we walked out of Dodge Hall, I had the audacity to ask if he might want to go for a drink. “Let’s try it!” he offered, and before I knew it, I was sitting at a table in a bar across the street, waiting for Brodsky to collect our drinks and wondering, what the hell am I going to say now? Wisely, I started with the only thing I could think of: “What should I read?”

Nodding his head in approval, he asked for pen and paper, and there in a little notebook I carried around he scribbled down a list: Edwin Arlington Robinson, Weldon Kees (underlined), Ovid, Horace, Virgil, Catullus, minor Alexandrian poets, Paul Celan, Peter Huchel, Georg Trakl (underlined), Antonio Machado, Umberto Saba, Eugenio Montale (underlined), Andrew Marvell, Ivor Gurney, Patrick Kavanagh, Douglas Dunne, Zbigniew Herbert (underlined), Vasco Popa, Vladimir Holan, Ingeborg Bachmann, “Gilgamesh,” Randall Jarrell, Vachel Lindsay, Theodore Roethke, Edgar Lee Masters, Howard Nemerov, Max Jacob, Thomas Trahern, and then a short list of essayists: Hannah Arendt, William Hazlitt, George Orwell, Elias Canetti (underlined and Crowds and Power added), (Temptation to Exist added), and finally the poet Les Murray added in my own hand after he suggested it. The sheet of paper, roughly the size of an iPhone but, as Brodsky would say, with far more and far greater information stored within it, remains tucked away inside my copy of A Part of Speech to this day.

Read the whole thing here.

Warsaw poet Julia Hartwig: “You never know when you need to pull out your pen and stop being silent.”

Saturday, August 1st, 2020
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“If humanistic values ​​cease to be important to us, the future of the world is fragile.” Photo: Mariusz Kubik/Wikipedia

Czesław Miłosz called her “the grande dame of Polish poetry.” Celebrated journalist Ryszard Kapusciński called her “one of the foremost poets of the twentieth century.” Yet Julia Hartwig (1921-2017) is too little known in the United States, where she spent some years. (I’ve written about her before, here and here and here and more.)

It’s three years since she died. New York librarian and salonnière extraordinaire Izabela Barry remembers her by publishing a 2006 interview she did with the poet, which was published in Polish here. A few excerpts in English below:

Is it easier for a poet to translate other poets?

I am deeply convinced that poetry should not be translated by anyone except poets. This is a task for poets because only a poet can penetrate into the structure of a poem, enter its atmosphere, read the second intentions of the poem. The poet has richer access to the poem. I believe that the most successful translations are made by poets. Therefore, I boldly started translating poems, because I believed that I have a greater right to do so, and at the same time I stick to the principle of translating only poets that I like or love.  I’ve managed to continue this way until today, with the possible exception of when we were preparing an anthology of American poetry with my husband, Artur Międzyrzecki. That book was the result of several years of work and is almost entirely translated by us. In that case, it was necessary to translate many poets.

I have the impression that in your poetry you distance yourself from the political situation, you do not touch current events. It seems that since martial law, you have abandoned this sphere in favor of writing about events not directly related to our political lives.

Her 2008 book in English.

Not necessarily. Recently, a few of my poems have appeared in which I “deal with” great poets who turned out to be anti-Semites. Besides, I had some issues with that and called Miłosz, who said: “We need to expand the space of poetry.” These poems are included in my last volume of poetry, which is about great American and English poets who are not very famous in this respect. It amazes me, because I have always thought that great minds should be great in every way. Of course, I am very interested in the situation in Poland, I never run away from it. I maniacally read daily newspapers and know perfectly well what I don’t like, and mostly I don’t like what is happening at the moment. Poetry, on the other hand, is never a direct response to topicality. If I take part in the internal discourse that bothers the nation, I am looking for something that is really deep and important. And I hope that what is happening in Poland at the moment is temporary. But, of course, I can be wrong. You never know when you need to pull out your pen and stop being silent.

In your memoirs, you write a lot about Zbigniew Herbert, about your friendship with him. You probably noticed that there are many larger and small political groups in Poland that try to appropriate Herbert and make his work a banner for their own activities, which Herbert – it seems to me – would not necessarily have supported or accepted.

He was our great friend. We knew him back when he was a very charming young man. He was a frequent guest in our home. When we were in America, the Herberts had just come back and they lived in our house. There was even a very funny situation when television reporters came to interview Herbert, and he was talking with them in our apartment, sitting at our table, and our friends were surprised to recognize this interior. So you can see that our relationship was really close.

As for his views, there has been a great deal of misunderstanding, because Herbert was surrounded by people who should not have had access to him in difficult times. This happened when he was weak and sick, at a time when he tried to cut himself off from his former friends, declaring that they had political views that were too leftist. It was very sad for all of us. We never anticipated such a situation. In this, Herbert’s wife, Katarzyna Herbert, who brought a lot of order to these matters, was of great help. She gave an extensive interview to Jacek Żakowski in Gazeta Wyborcza and assessed the condition of Herbert and the people around him very fairly. She was very upset that his friends had been hurt by being in such a painful situation.

With Szymborska in 2011, Kraków

In an essay about Herbert, I wrote that the most terrible thing is that the “directives” in his poetry began to sicken me. It’s terrible to say that, because “The Message of Mr. Cogito” is a very beautiful poem, but I can’t really read it anymore, mainly because it is used so much by the right, and in the most extreme, very unpleasant way. I do not think that Herbert would be pleased that the contents of his poems were placed under every banner. This is the danger that awaits the poet: trivialization. This poem is difficult to listen to, because everyone recites it and everyone refers to it. Poetry is lost and the poet himself is lost. After all, poetry is an absolute reflection of personality, and certain interpretations work to its detriment.

There are many moments in your American poems that touch me personally as an immigrant. Yet you have never had the status of a full immigrant, someone who does not intend to return to his or her homeland.

Four years of absence from the country is a particular experience, naturally limited in some ways, and incomparable compared with the feeling of a man who does not intend or cannot return home. We left because of a difficult situation, but when our friends pressed us to come back, we did immediately and were very happy to do so. Our best work was created after we returned from America, because it took on new horizons, it became more rounded. America entered our consciousness, but also Poland through it.

My own 2011 interview with her in “World Literature Today”

I regret that my volume American Poems (2002) is relatively unknown. I don’t know why this is, because my other books have been much discussed, and this one has been left a bit aside. Perhaps I’m wrong, because during one of my last meetings at the PEN Club I read a few poems from it and the listeners bought out the stock immediately. American Poems amused them, because there is a lot of humor, light, greenery, the city, and at the same time a some healthy nostalgia. It describes people, Americans, who interested me immensely. This collection expresses all my affection for America.

A volume of your poems translated into English is being prepared here in America…

Yes, Bogdana and John Carpenter, who are translators, have already sent me the texts of a new book that will appear here, I hope. I have looked through the whole thing and I think that they are very good translations. Of course, the poet will always find something small, and the Carpenters were grateful to me for my comments. I believe that this is a great opportunity if the poet has the opportunity to check the language of the translation. Miłosz always co-translated his poetry, he had a very good eye and hearing, he always claimed that he was happy to be able to participate in the translation process. Virtually all of his poems published in English are translated under his supervision. Sometimes you can destroy a poem in translation and we won’t even know it.

And can poetry – I ask naively – save the world?

This is not a naive question. Miłosz talked about it in [his 1945 volume] Ocalenie. I, too, have tried to ask myself what poetry is worth if it cannot save anything. But … we don’t know whether or not it can. Joseph Brodsky believed that it could. He was so convinced that I could only admire his faith. After all, he saw, perhaps even more deeply than others, what was happening and what the modern world is like. He was not a naive man, he closely watched the present day, yet he believed that poetry had a great task ahead of it. He even said such things that if a nation does not read poetry, it is in danger of totalitarianism. These are very harsh words, and vague of course, but you’d have to dig into what it really means. And it means that if humanistic values ​​cease to be important to us, the future of the world is fragile.

Read the whole thing in Polish here.

Joseph Brodsky’s 80th birthday, and the day he arrived late for his talk at the Commonwealth Club

Monday, June 29th, 2020
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On California Street, San Francisco (Photo by Grisha Freidin on https://thenoiseoftime.blogspot.com/2020/01/an-afternoon-with-joseph-brodsky-in-san.html?m=1

On May 24, Joseph Brodsky would have turned 80 years old. You know that. I wrote about it already, here. But someone else beat us all to it: Grisha Freidin, Stanford Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures emeritus, made his eightieth birthday post in January on his blog The Noise of Time. The month of death was momentarily confused with the month of birth. Perhaps this post will be the final word. He writes:

On the way back to his room, I asked him to pose for me and my new Pentax camera, with my favorite wide-angle lens. The son of a photographer, he appreciated the camera, played with it a little and took a few shots (none came out well). He and I loved the quirky fog city, traversed it on foot on many occasions, and had a warm spot for its jerky cable car, especially for the fact that it was totally legit to ride on its footboard. An unquestioned taboo in Russia, it gave us a frisson to avail ourselves of a harmless San Franciscan libertinism. I was able to take this shot just as a cable car was crossing behind him.

Then they realized he was half an hour late leaving for the Commonwealth Club – and that’s not counting traffic. No one arrives late at the August Commonwealth Club – not if you’re scheduled to speak. The Russian poet arrived forty minutes late. Everyone had waited. 

This year Joseph would have turned 80. I miss him as much as a quarter century ago when I first learned of his death. I had recently mailed him a pair of Soviet Navy undershirts — they were all the rage among boys in our childhood — wishing him and his wife happy sailing together. He was touched and sent me a post-card with a poem, in English. The verse was addressed to me and invoked my book about our other favorite Joseph, Osip Mandelstam (A Coat of Many Colors). The very language of the poem alluded to an underlying motif in our friendship: the love of English we shared and our life-long dedication to the cause of making it our own. Our friendship, in fact, may have begun back in the 1960s in Moscow over a discussion of Auden’s poetry. He began reciting “Memory of W. B. Yeats” in his vatic baritone, and I finished it for him in my own Muscovite high-pitched voice.

Read the whole thing here. Bonus prize: you get to see the post card with the poem Joseph Brodsky wrote to him on it.

What future for literature? Thinking fondly of “The Book People” in Farenheit 451

Saturday, June 20th, 2020
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Oskar Werner meets with The Book People in “Farenheit 451”

I don’t go to movies often, but at some point in a few decades ago I saw François Truffaut‘s Farenheit 451, based on Ray Bradbury‘s dystopian novel of a future where books are banned and “firemen” destroy any they find.

I don’t remember much of it (lots of it seemed fairly incoherent), but the final scene was remarkable to me. And, perhaps, prophetic. We couldn’t anticipate then an era where books could be burned or banned again – now we can. The world where they are little regarded outside academia is already here. Joseph Brodsky, as always, put it well: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

Truffaut’s ending for Farenheit 451 puzzled many people when it came out in 1966. It doesn’t for many people who remember the Cold War world, when Anna Akhmatova had her friends memorize her poems, and then burn them. Memorizing allows you to become what is memorized; it becomes so internalized that it is forever a part of you.

Adam as always…

What is the answer? Adam Zagajewski told me years ago, when I asked him about a world that now longer turns to great literature, and specifically poetry, as it attempts to come to grips with the world and the self. What future for literature? “We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.”

In his introduction to Edward Snow’s translations of Rainer Maria Rilke. he elaborated:

“We have a new sorrow today: after the terrible catastrophes of the twentieth century, after the disasters that entered both our memory and imagination, we tread gingerly at the point where poetry meets society; “Don’t walk beyond this line,” as the sign on every jetliner’s wing warns us. And yet the central issue for us is probably the question of whether the mystery at the heart of poetry (and of art in general) can be kept safe against the assaults of an omnipresent talkative and soulless journalism and an equally omnipresent popular science—or pseudo-science. It also has a lot to do with the weighing of the advantages and vices of mass culture, with the influence of mass media, and with a difficult search for genuine expression inside the commercial framework that has replaced older, less vulgar traditions and institutions in our societies. In this respect, it’s true, poets have less to fear than their friends the painters, especially the successful ones, who, because of the absurd prices their works can now command, will never see their canvases in the houses of their fellow artists, in the apartments of people like themselves, only in vaults belonging to oil or television moguls who don’t even have time to look at them. Still, the stakes of the debate and its seriousness are not very different and not less important than a hundred years ago.”

There will be a future, for books and for reading them. See Ray Bradbury’s notion of it in his 1953 novel, Farenheit 451. Or watch Truffaut’s ending in the video clip below. (And let me know which book you would become… I’m curious…)

 

“He liked America’s gas stations, roadside bars, endless baseball games.” Adam Zagajewski and others remember Joseph Brodsky on his 80th birthday

Saturday, May 23rd, 2020
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Farrar, Straus, & Giroux remembers his anniversary with four books. (Photo: Ann Kjellberg)

Today, May 24, would have been poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 80th birthday. The commemorations are worldwide. The biggest in the Anglophone world may be the republication of three of his landmark books by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux: his two volumes of essays, Less than One and On Grief and Reason, and a fourth, a new Selected Poems, 1968-1996.

Ann Kjellberg‘s “Beyond Meaning: Joseph Brodsky’s Poetry of Exile” is in the New York Review of  Books here. An excerpt:

Literary executor Ann Kjellberg

“We now live in a time of which Brodsky was an advance scout—a time in which many writers operate beyond their original borders and outside their mother tongues, often, like Brodsky, bearing witness to violence and disruption, often answering, through art, to those experiences, in language refracted, by necessity, through other language. In Brodsky’s time there was a cluster of poets, some from the margins of empire, some, like Brodsky, severed from their roots—Walcott, Heaney, Paz, Milosz, to name a few—who brought with them commanding traditions as well as the imprint of history’s dislocations. We would do well now to attend to their song, standing as they did in our doorway between a broken past and the language’s future.”

If you’re up early in this morning, you might check out the Joseph Brodsky Memorial Fellowship Fund Facebook page, where poet Glyn Maxwell will be discussing his translations of the Russian Nobel laureate at 10.30 a.m. PST.

But for the most part, I have chosen to remember in a very different way. When I saw that Adam Zagajewski had published his own massive tribute in Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza here, I spent an unconscionable number of hours on an otherwise busy day picking through the Polish to learn what he said. It became my own homage for the occasion.

Perhaps someday this long essay will appear in English, and I will be humiliated by my humble offering for you below. Perhaps Polish speakers around the world will send in correction and rebuke for my clumsy effort, assisted by Google. But until then, I’m the best you got, so please enjoy my wholly inadequate translation – and this is only a small portion of the whole, which runs to thousands of words. Excerpts below.

***

He loved bars, baseball, and Chinatown restaurants.

I knew him at his best as a good friend, but also as a follower of high culture, a defender metaphysical impulse in poetry. He was a ruthless enemy of totalitarianism, Soviet and any other, and an opponent of what Nabokov used to describe the words “poshlost,” banality, a lack of taste, smallness. He was able to reconcile his cultural elitism with an enormous fellow-feeling for the American way of life – which is the opposite of elitism. He liked America, including ordinary American gas stations; bars where giant TV screens dominated always, at any time of the day or night, and endless baseball matches. He knew and liked less-than-chic New York neighborhoods in Chinatown, which had his beloved restaurants. …

He loved English, including spoken American. He liked to use American idioms, though it happened that –  as it happens to foreigners – he couldn’t distinguish dead idiomatic expressions from live ones. Idioms live for several years or more then they go to the museum, i.e. to the dictionary, and there foreigners find them. With his arrogance (usually charming) he ignored the difference between “native speakers’ and those who learned the language late – as it happened, he even corrected “native speakers” (I was a witness – of course he was wrong, “native speakers” are always right), and they meekly accepted his correction.

***

I called him from Houston shortly after arrival from Europe. Usually the first days in Texas were difficult, melancholic for me – that’s why I was calling Joseph.  I was hoping for an intimate, friendly conversation (in other words – just gossip). But Joseph didn’t want to hear about my melancholy. He immediately asked me: what do you think about Horace‘s poetry?

He was just writing his essay about Horace. I mobilized myself to quickly remember what I thought of the poems of Horace, and my mood improved.

***

John Willett … told me once story related to Joseph. I remembered her exactly because it seemed fantastic and funny to me.

Adam Z. remembers

John, as already said, had known Joseph for a very long time; in some ways, he was a bit of an exotic character among Joseph’s American friends, where poets, poets, writers, and critics predominated. John was a professional diplomat who began his career in African countries, then worked for the State Department in many other countries, including in Italy or Turkey, and twice in Paris (I use the past tense, because unfortunately this educated, witty, and friendly man is dead). Well, John once told me he would tell me a story, which he didn’t tell anyone. It was like this: Joseph  had a mind that was passionate about a range of different topics, not only literature – e.g., military aviation (he knew everything on combat aircraft of the Second World War; when asked on what route he was flying to Europe he said: Luftwaffe) or the story of famous British spies – the Cambridge Four (who later became the Cambridge Five); anyway he wrote an essay about them.

One of those passions Joseph was the nuclear disarmament issue, the “Missile Gap,” as it was then called – a central issue in the 1980s.

He read all the articles on the subject, knew all about rockets, Pershings, and Minutemen, and on the loading facilities of both sides. He knew what are these rocket varieties were called, as well as their range and power of destruction. And of course he had his own theories.

He told John, who had was between missions lived in Washington – that he would gladly give a lecture at the State Department, in which he would present his concepts about disarmament. For a long time John tried to dissuade Joseph. He told him that, in the State Department, the world’s best experts devote every moment to studying these issues. They knew everything on this subject, and that he, a dilettante – extremely brilliant, but still a dilettante – couldn’t hold any weight in conversation with them, let alone convince them of his theories.

Joseph, however, insisted. And eventually John gave in and it led to a lecture at the State Department, and the great Washington missile specialists came, fresh from determining and calculating the balance of two arsenals.

“Well, how did it go?” I asked John. “You know it didn’t go well,” he replied.

(more…)

Happy birthday to the Book Haven! We’re ten years old!

Saturday, November 30th, 2019
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We began on November 19, 2009. And we’ve been going ever since. For years we’ve anticipated this special tenth anniversary (alright, alright, we’re eleven days late; we’ve been busy).

What did we imagine? We had envisioned champers and brie and little pink cakes! We had hoped for international acclaim and cybercards and cyberroses … oh well, why bother? Instead: one solitary woman at a computer, cranking out books and articles (and even the occasional blogpost) faster than any reasonable person should.

However, the occasion of our tenth anniversary was not entirely unmarked. The Book Haven has made it’s debut appearance in The Smithsonian Magazinewith this paragraph in the current issue, on a subject we know startlingly little about. It generated a scholarly query last week in my inbox, so it’s good to know our July 11, 2018, post is getting some attention

The end result, according to a blog post by Stanford University’s Cynthia Haven, was a masterful collection of 1,299 gouaches, 340 transparent text overlays and a total of 32,000 words. One painting finds the artist cuddling in bed with her mother; another shows a seemingly endless parade of Nazis celebrating Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Germany’s chancellor while swastikas swirl above their heads.

Maybe next year?

Read more here.

What else has happened, since we last wrote about ourselves, five years ago, here? Some time ago, we hit a record high of 45,000 hits in a month. However, gone are the days when we used to wake up in the morning, pull the laptop out from under the bed, and compulsively check our numbers on Google Analytics. We have our following, and we get our bouquets and our punches … and our letters. Like this one a few days ago, from the U.K.: “I am just writing a very quick thank you for introducing Edna St Vincent Millay to me. I had been searching for Sara Teasdale and found a wonderful article written by you at The Book Haven. If it wasn’t for your article I wouldn’t  have found and fallen in love with Edna.” We’re glad you did, sir!

This year alone: We’ve posted on the controversy surrounding the Stanford University Press here and here. After the death of the notable Johns Hopkins polymath and bibliophile Richard Macksey, we were quoted in The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun and wrote about his passing here and here and here. We’ve forged a partnership with The Los Angeles Review of Books to create an Entitled Opinions channel, as well as a series of articles.

Books, books, books. We’ve written about many books. We wrote about our debut in Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Nation, plus reviews of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. (Too many to list – put it in the Book Haven search engine). Plus… we were named a 2018-19 National Endowment for the Humanities public scholar, the inaugural Milton Cottage resident, and oohhh, so much more.

Sorry, maybe for 2020.

The Book Haven broke the national news of President Trump‘s plans to scuttle the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts – but other media outlets were close on our heels. We memorialized fallen greats at Stanford, many of them friends: Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank and theater director and Brecht protégée Carl Weber, French intellectual Michel Serres and Milton Scholar Martin Evans, and of course, the French theorist René Girard. And, this month, another cherished friend, the French scholar Marilyn Yalom.

The Book Haven has taken you to Bergen, Sigtuna and Stockholm, Kraków and London, Warsaw, Paris, and Avignon, among other locales.

We’ve described how we brought about the acquisition of Russian Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky Papers at Stanford, and our debut on Russian TV … and later the acquisition of Russian poet Regina Derieva‘s papers.

We’re still here. So many excellent blogs and online journals have folded – Elegant Variation, House of Mirth, Bookslut – and journals, too, such as Quarterly Conversation and Smart Set. We’re still here, and looking forward, in six weeks time, in joining you for the brand new decade for all of us.

C’mon, December, we’re ready to take you on – to the end of the year and beyond. Our vision going forward is 2020.

Happy birthday to us! Long may we live!

Australian poet Les Murray is dead at 80: “The deadliest inertia is to conform with your times” – and he didn’t.

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019
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With the Russian poet Regina Derieva in Stockholm, 2007 (Photo: Tomas Oneborg)

The Nobel evaded him, and now he shall never get it, though he was considered among the greatest poets of our era. The Australian poet Les Murray died peacefully yesterday at 80. In 2012, the National Trust of Australia classified Murray as one of Australia’s 100 living treasures, but he was much more than that, from the beginning.

David Mason – a new Australian

David Mason, writing in today’s First Things: “Murray grew up in dire poverty on a farm with no electricity or running water, and always felt exiled from the privileged classes. Largely self-educated, at university he was so poor he ate the scraps he found on plates in the cafeteria. Profoundly asocial, he once called himself ‘a bit of a stranger to the human race.’ He also suffered at times from debilitating depression, and was bullied in school for being bookish and fat. Yet he transformed his sense of personal injury to a poetic voice of rigor and flexibility, humor and empathy, and enormous formal range. He was a generous anthologist and editor as well as an essayist, poet, and verse novelist. ‘It was a very great epiphany for me,’ he once said, ‘to realize that poetry is inexhaustible, that I would never get to the end of its reserves.’”

We had mutual friends, among them Alexander Deriev, whose wife was the late Russian poet Regina Derieva, and the poet Dave Mason himself, who is now an Australian poet by choice rather than birth. He had corresponded with Murray, who published some of his poems (presumably in the Australian Quadrant, where Murray was poetry editor) but they never met face to face.

Here’s another treat: if you want to know something about him, you might go to this soundcloud 1985 PEN recording of Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, and Richard Howard in conversation with Murray. I’m still listening to it…

“The body of work that he’s left is just one of the great glories of Australian writing,”said his agent of three decades, Margaret Connolly. “The thought that there will be no more poems and no more essays and no more thoughts from Les – it’s very sad and a great loss.”

David Mason, writes: “Murray deserves to be ranked among the best devotional poets—from Donne and Herbert to Eliot and Auden—but his work has an earthiness and irreverence of its own, a tragic sense of human life and a Whitmanesque sympathy for the lives of animals. His wordscapes and landscapes were local, Australian, with everything that distinction signifies—including the transported convict’s sense of justice and the nation’s thoroughly multicultural heritage. His art wasn’t bound by pieties, political or otherwise, because he understood the position of poetry—and of language itself—in relation to reality.”

Faced with the theological question “Why does God not spare the innocent?,” Murray replied in a quatrain that is perhaps one of his best known poems, perhaps because of, rather than despite, its economy of words:

The answer to that is not in
the same world as the question
so you would shrink from me
in terror if I could answer it.

Les Murray, Daniel Weissbort and Alexander Deriev having meal after the Ars Interpres Poetry Festival. Stockholm, 2004.

David notes that the poem, called “The Knockdown Question,” is a minor epigram in the Murray oeuvre, “but it partakes of the same theological experience as Eliot’s Four Quartets. Murray was not always so blunt.”

David Malouf told the ABC that Murray was “utterly unorthodox” and described his work as “undoubtedly the best poems anybody has produced in Australia.”

“He knew that he could be difficult — nobody pretends that he wasn’t — but he was always difficult in an interesting way.”

He told the Paris Review:  I’m a dissident author; the deadliest inertia is to conform with your times.”

For Joseph Brodsky, on the 23rd anniversary of his death

Monday, January 28th, 2019
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From “Elegy for John Donne” (1963)

Like some great bird, he too will wake at dawn;
but now he lies beneath a veil of white,
while snow and sleep stitch up the throbbing void
between his soul and his own dreaming flesh. …

Man’s garment gapes with holes. It can be torn,
by him who will, at this edge or at that.
It falls to shreds and is made whole again.
Once more it’s rent. And only the far sky,
in darkness, brings the healing needle home.

… Sleep soundly, do not fret
your soul. As for your coat, it’s torn; all limp
it hangs. But see, there from the clouds will shine
that Star which made your world endure till now.

(trans. George L. Kline)

 

An Oxford scholar ponders Joseph Brodsky, memory in Stanford’s archives.

Friday, August 24th, 2018
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Last June, I got an email from an Oxford scholar, working on a dissertation about Joseph Brodsky and memory. He wrote that he would be visiting the Stanford archives. Could we meet for coffee or lunch?

Sure, I said. But why don’t we start at the Brodsky archives at Stanford’s Special Collections and the Hoover Library & Archives, where he was doing his research? Book Haven readers will remember I shepherded one archive to Green Library, via the poet’s close friend, Ramūnas Katilius in Vilnius (I tell that story here), the other important collection came to Hoover through the efforts of archivist Lora Soroka via another close friend of the Russian Nobel laureate, Diana MyersI wrote about the collection for The Hoover Digest here. But I had an ulterior motive in my suggestion: it’s always fun and revelatory to see these collections through the eyes of others.

He stayed in touch. (Nationaal Archief)

He pored over both. What did he appreciate most of all? Oddly enough, the postcards – a perspective I don’t remember anyone considering before. With postcards, he said, the exiled poet was able to stay in touch with the friends he left on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and let them know what he was doing, where he was traveling, and what he was seeing. It was a sort of early “Instagram.” The number of postcards he sent reached their zenith in the 1970s, and then began to taper off.

Did time and distance dampen friendship? Not at all, he said. International phone calls became cheaper, and eventually email displaced written correspondence. Moreover, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians could travel all over the world, and meet Joseph in London, Paris, Rome, New York, or Venice.

As for myself, I liked the cryptic aperçus he would occasionally drop in letters, notes, and yes, postcards: “Shadow and light turn us into human beings,” or “Movement is the victory over emptiness.” Perhaps too offhand to be overthought, but still … a few sparks thrown off from the Catherine Wheel of his genius.

We ended each day with coffee and conversation at the Stanford Bookstore, hours and hours of talk about Russian writers, Oxford, Stanford, the humanities, the future, the past, and of course, always, Joseph Brodsky.

One of the top six writers of the 20th century? Stalin didn’t think so.

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018
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The Soviet FD locomotive, featured in “Immortality” (Photo: LHOO/Peter van den Bossche)

Who was the greatest writer of the 20th century? Not many would put Andrey Platonov in the top half-dozen. But Nobel prizewinning poet Joseph Brodsky did.

“I squint back on our century and I see six writers I think it will be remembered for.  They are Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, William Faulkner, Andrey Platonov and Samuel Beckett…. They are summits in the literary landscape of our century … What’s more, they don’t lose an inch of their status when compared to the giants of fiction from the previous century,” he said. Gorky, Bulgakov, and Pasternak might have seconded the vote for Platonov. Unfortunately, Stalin called him scum.

He ended his days sweeping streets.

According to The Irish Times literary critic Eileen Battersby writing eight years ago: “The poet Joseph Brodsky divided the world into those who had read Platonov, and so merited the title of readers, and those who had not, and thus were dismissed outright as lesser mortals. For Brodsky, Platonov ‘simply had a tendency to see his words to their logical – that is absurd, that is totally paralysing – end. In other words, like no other Russian writer before or after him, Platonov was able to reveal a self-destructive, eschatological element within the language itself.’”

At the time I first heard about him, however, I don’t think The Foundation Pit had been published in English yet. But now you can read Platonov’s short story “Immortality,” which Platonov published in 1936, breaking years of silence and official censure. (This short story was published an editorial saying the author had overcome his “grave, creative errors.”) The story is an experiment in social realism, but perhaps the best of that misguided genre had to offer – and, as the son of a railway worker, it perhaps borrows a bit of his own history.

It begins:

After midnight, on the approach to Red Peregon station, the FD locomotive began to shout and weep.1 It sang in the winter darkness with the deep strength of its hot belly and then began to change to a gentle, weeping human breathing, addressing someone who was not replying. After falling briefly silent, the FD again complained into the air: human words could already be discerned in this signal, and whoever now heard them must have felt pressure on his own conscience because of the engine’s torment—helpless, heavy rolling stock hung on the maternal hook of her tender and the station’s approach signal was signaling red. The driver closed the last steam cutoff—the signal was still an obstinate red—and gave the three toots of a complete stop. He took out a red handkerchief and wiped his face, which the winter night’s wind was covering all the time with tears out of his eyes. The man’s vision had begun to weaken and his heart had become sensitive: the driver had lived some time in the world and travelled some distance over the earth. He did not curse into the darkness at the fools in the station, though he was going to have to take two thousand tons, from a standstill, up the incline, and the friction of the locomotive’s metal wheel rims would draw fire from the frozen rails.

The selfless hero of the story is the station chief Emmanuil Semyonovich Levin. His housekeeper approaches his room to wake him up:

The telephone above her boss’s bed was silent; her boss also slept and his body, accustomed to brief rest, was gathering strength, quickly, hurriedly—his heart had stilled in the depth of his chest, his breathing had shortened, supporting only a small watchful flame of life, each muscle and each tendon was secretly tugging, struggling against monstrosity and the creases of daytime tension. But in the darkness of a mind abundantly irrigated with blood, one quivering spot still gleamed, shining through the half-dark of eyes half-shuttered by lids: it was as if a lamp was burning on a distant post, by the entry switch of the main track coming out from real life, and this meek light could be transformed at any moment into a vast radiance of all consciousness and so set the heart to run at full speed.

The translators are Lisa Hayden and the matchless Robert Chandler. (And read Chandler’s fascinating discussion of Platonov in The Guardian here.) Read Platonov’s “Immortality” in its entirety over at E-flux here.