Posts Tagged ‘“joseph brodsky”’

“Try to wear gray.” One vote for the greatest commencement talk of all time.

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014
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griefMaria Popova over at Brain Pickings offers this candidate for the “Greatest Commencement Address of All Time” – delivered at my own alma mater, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in 1988. She’s very likely right. So it’s worth revisiting, by both of us, as we head into the end of the 2013-2014 academic year, and the beginning of the dreary commencement speech season.  Here are two paragraphs from what she’s excerpted – you read more over here, or better yet go to On Grief and Reason: Essays, as I did, rereading the bits she left out.  (And yes, his paragraphs really are this long).

Try not to stand out, try to be modest. There are too many of us as it is, and there are going to be many more, very soon. Thus climbing into the limelight is bound to be one at the expense of the others who won’t be climbing. That you must step on somebody’s toes doesn’t mean you should stand on their shoulders. Besides, all you will see from that vantage point is the human sea, plus those who, like you, have assumed a similarly conspicuous — and precarious at that — position: those who are called rich and famous. On the whole, there is always something faintly unpalatable about being better off than one’s likes, and when those likes come in billions, it is more so. To this it should be added that the rich and famous these days, too, come in throngs, that up there on the top it’s very crowded. So if you want to get rich or famous or both, by all means go ahead, but don’t make a meal of it. To covet what somebody else has is to forfeit your uniqueness; on the other hand, of course, it stimulates mass production. But as you are running through life only once, it is only sensible to try to avoid the most obvious clichés, limited editions included. The notion of exclusivity, mind you, also forfeits your uniqueness, not to mention that it shrinks your sense of reality to the already-achieved. Far better than belonging to any club is to be jostled by the multitudes of those who, given their income and their appearance, represent — at least theoretically — unlimited potential. Try to be more like them than like those who are not like them; try to wear gray. Mimicry is the defense of individuality, not its surrender. I would advise you to lower your voice, too, but I am afraid you will think I am going too far. Still, keep in mind that there is always somebody next to you, a neighbor. Nobody asks you to love him, but try not to hurt or discomfort him much; try to tread on his toes carefully; and should you come to covet his wife, remember at least that this testifies to the failure of your imagination, to your disbelief in — or ignorance of — reality’s unlimited potential. Worse comes to worst, try to remember how far away — from the stars, from the depths of the universe, perhaps from its opposite end — came this request not to do it, as well as this idea of loving your neighbor no less than yourself. Maybe the stars know more about gravity, as well as about loneliness, than you do; coveting eyes that they are.

***

brodskyAt all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim. Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo — the opposite of the V-sign and a synonym for surrender. No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything; it could be argued even that that blaine-thirsty finger oscillates as wildly as it does because the resolve was never great enough in the first place. After all, a victim status is not without its sweetness. It commands compassion, confers distinction, and whole nations and continents bask in the murk of mental discounts advertised as the victim’s conscience. There is an entire victim-culture, ranging from private counselors to international loans. The professed goal of this network notwithstanding, its net result is that of lowering one’s expectations from the threshold, so that a measly advantage could be perceived or billed as a major breakthrough. Of course, this is therapeutic and, given the scarcity of the world’s resources, perhaps even hygienic, so for want of a better identity, one may embrace it — but try to resist it. However abundant and irrefutable is the evidence that you are on the losing side, negate it as long as you have your wits about you, as long as your lips can utter “No.” On the whole, try to respect life not only for its amenities but for its hardships, too. They are a part of the game, and what’s good about a hardship is that it is not a deception. Whenever you are in trouble, in some scrape, on the verge of despair or in despair, remember: that’s life speaking to you in the only language it knows well. In other words, try to be a little masochistic: without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete. If this is of any help, try to remember that human dignity is an absolute, not a piecemeal notion, that it is inconsistent with special pleading, that it derives its poise from denying the obvious. Should you find this argument a bit on the heady side, think at least that by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill, since a paralyzed will is no dainty for angels.

“The alloy of thought and poetry at a very high temperature”: Bengt Jangfeldt on Regina Derieva

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014
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Bengt Jangfeldt delivered the eulogy last month at the Stockholm memorial for the Russian poet Regina Derieva, “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 had hoped to get an English copy – but it looks like The Guardian beat me to it. Bengt writes in today’s paper:

corinthian

Her most recent book in English (2011)

Of Russian poets born in the Soviet era, the first to speak seriously about metaphysics was Joseph Brodsky, in whose poetry this alloy occurs quite often. Brodsky called Derieva “a great poet”, stressing that her poems are hers “only by name, only by her craft”.

“The real authorship belongs here to poetry itself, to freedom itself. I have not met anything similar for a long time, neither among my fellow countrymen nor among English-speaking poets.” …

To say that I knew Derieva would be wrong. I translated her poetry into Swedish, and helped her to get Swedish citizenship, and we met on several occasions, though rarely in the last few years. Her means of communication was not through personal contact, but through poetry. According to her husband, I was one of the few people she ever confided in; her main interlocutor was God.

Read the rest here, and I include a poem in my earlier piece on her here.  Out of the photos her husband Alexander Deriev sent me, I liked the one above the best. It looks like someone one might see in a Berkeley bookstore. However, I include the 1972 Karaganda photo he favored below. Apparently, it was a favorite photo of the poet’s as well: ”She thought it displayed her wild cat’s inner nature the best. She always, from her early youth, associated herself with a lynx, and her nickname was ‘Lynx.’” In fact, here’s a poem, translated by Daniel Weissbort, that is dedicated ”to my Singaporean friends who believed implicitly that I was a lynx.” And the 1973 photo below that, smelling a lilac … I like it, too.

RD_Karaganda_1972-1

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New Year’s Day and the “gift outright”

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014
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More nights than candles in the bitter Arkhangelsk region.

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky made a habit of writing a Christmas poem every year, and “1 January 1965″ was among the earliest, penned while he while he was serving time in internal exile in Norenskaya, in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia.  In the old Soviet Union, gifts were exchanged on New Year’s Day, and in the Russian Orthodox calendar, Christmas falls on January 6 – hence the date of the poem.

This translation was found among his papers after his death, and later published in the marvelous collection, Nativity Poems:

nativityThe kings will lose your old address.
No star will flare up to impress.
The ear may yield, under duress,
to blizzards’ nagging roar.
The shadows falling off your back,
you’d snuff the candle, hit the sack,
for calendars more nights can pack
than there are candles for.

Remarkably, the English hews very closely to the original rhyme scheme in Russian.  The poet famously favored translations that preserved the original metrical and rhyme scheme. Given his genius for inventive rhymes and complex metrical patterns, it was a maddening task for his translators. He did compromise, however: he was usually willing to change the meaning of a line to preserve the metrics.  You can see how much he’s played with meaning with this earlier, more literal translation by George Kline:

The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same –
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your lone bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

Read the whole poem here – with it’s tip-of-the-hat homage to Robert Frost‘s “The Gift Outright” at the end. Think of it as a New Year’s present to yourself.

Now more than ever, “white on white”: Regina Derieva (1949-2013)

Friday, December 27th, 2013
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Far from home: a Russian in Sweden (Photo: Jurek Holzer / Svenska)

It’s exhilarating to discover a outstanding poet.  It’s also poignant when you first hear about the poet too late. I learned of the existence of Regina Derieva and her death on the same day, when I received a note from her husband, Alexander Deriev, telling me that the poet had passed away on December 11, in Sweden, her lasting home after emigration. She was two months shy of her 65th birthday.  A requiem mass for this prolific writer was celebrated at Katolska Kyrkogården Kapell earlier this week, on December 23; she was buried at Norra Begravningsplatsen, where this very Russian poet joined Sweden’s elite, including Alfred Nobel, playwright August Strindberg, Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson, and Nobel poet Nelly Sachs.  A tribute page for Derieva is here.

Young poet

Young poet

She is the author of twenty books of poems, prose, and essays. Her books in English include Inland Sea and Other PoemsIn Commemoration of MonumentInstructions for SilenceThe Last Island, and Alien Matter. Her work has also appeared in PoetryQuadrantModern Poetry in TranslationSalt, and St. Petersburg Review as well as many Russian magazines. Her work was championed and translated by Daniel Weissbort, another recent death (we wrote about him here and here and here). Said Valentina Polukhina, Weissbort’s widow, “Regina Derieva’s relationship with the world was severe and tender, truthful and tragic; it reflects her own tragic life as well as the tragedies of the country she was born in.”

She was born in Odessa on the Black Sea, in Ukraine now, part of the Soviet Union then. From 1965 until 1990 she lived and worked in Karaganda, Kazakhstan – I understand it’s the back end of the world, a tough little city of labor camps, coal mining, and now, in the post-Soviet era, industrial pollution. She graduated from university with majors in music and Russian philology and literature. Her poetry was not approved by the state, and she was denied publication and guaranteed KGB oversight.  Her work came to the attention of Joseph Brodsky, who first encouraged her to leave the Soviet Union.

The Swedish author Bengt Janfeldt (we wrote about him here and here) gave the eulogy this week – I don’t yet have an English translation. However, Bengt once said this of her: “Like BrodskyTsvetaeva, she is a very bitter poet. She took every thought to its logical conclusion.” He added, “I believe that Regina is quite an exceptional poet, an unexpected poet. Even though it is not a popular thing to say, she is a masculine poet in her style, her philosophical thought.”

Drawing by Dennis Creffield

Drawing by Dennis Creffield

I bought Alien Matter online – the last copy in stock, and a bargain at four bucks.  Les Murray has a blurb on the back cover:  ”Science teaches that eighty percent of the universe consists of dark matter, so called. Regina Derieva learned this same fact in a very hard school. She does not consent to it, though. She knows that the hurt truth in us points to a dimension whee, for example, victory is cleansed of battle. Her strict, economical poems never waver from that orientation.”

I’ve never met Les Murray, but in my background reading it appears the poet and I have many common friends. One of them, the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, reviewed Alien Matter in The New Criterion:

Derieva is, first and foremost, a Christian poet, a worthy heir to the long line of metaphysical poets, be they English, French, or Russian. Without inflated rhetoric or didacticism, her poems reach the very core of the Christian experience—a serious and fearless attitude towards life, suffering, and death. The imagery and syntax of the Gospels and the Prophets is, for her, a natural element—just as apocalyptic presentiments and mystical hope form the axis of her world outlook. She perceives atheism as a foreign language. Still, the religious vocabulary in Derieva’s writing is often juxtaposed with everyday slang and the intonations of prisoners’ songs. This is particularly true of her early poems which might be described as a metaphysics of the totalitarian world, with their constant symbolism of walls, barbed wire, lead poisoning, and torture. They describe a region where “war is forever going on.” The poetic word (and the divine Word) in this inferno “annoys the powers that be because it lives.” One discerns here an echo of Akhmatova’s “Requiem” and of Brodsky’s poetry. Looking for her kin, a reader may also think of Eliot. …  Derieva’s later poetry strives for the inexpressible (“writing white on white”) even more strongly.

Buried in Sweden, here. (Photo Holger Ellgaard)

Buried in Sweden, here. (Photo Holger Ellgaard)

In a 1990 letter to her that Alexander Deriev shared with me, Joseph Brodsky wrote:

“There is a point – literally the point of view – which makes it all the same how one’s life  is going, whether it is happy or nightmarish (for a life has a very few options).  This point is over the life itself, over the literature, and it becomes accessible by a ladder, which has only sixteen steps (as in your poem titled “I Don’t Feel at Home Where I Am”).  For a poem is composed of other things than life, and the making of verses offers more choices than life does. And the closer one is to this point, the greater poet he, or she, is.

You, Regina, are indeed this case – a great poet.  For the poem titled “I Don’t Feel at Home…” is yours only by name, by excellence.  Authentic authorship of this poem is that of poetry itself, of freedom itself. This freedom is closer to you than your pen is to paper.  For a long time, I have not seen anything on a par with your poetry either among our fellow countrymen or among the English-speaking poets.  And I can guess more or less – I can hear – what it cost you to reach this point, the point over the life and over yourself. This is why the joy of reading your poetry is also heartbreaking.  In this poem, you exist in the plane where no one else exists, where no one else can help:  there are no kin and, a fortiori, there are no equal to you.”

Here’s the poem  he praised:

I don’t feel at home where I am,
or where I spend time, only where,
beyond counting, there’s freedom and calm,
that is, waves, that is, space where, when there,
you consist of pure freedom, which, seen,
turns the crowd, like a Gorgon, to stone,
to pebbles and sand…where life’s mean-
ing lies buried, that never let one
come within cannon shot yet.
From cloud-covered wells untold
pour color and light, a fête
of cupids and Ledas in gold.
That is, silk and honey and sheen.
that is, boon and quiver and call.
that is, all that lives to be free,
needing no words at all.

– Translated by Alan Shaw

Daniel Weissbort has a handful of them hereand the Poetry Foundation has his translation of “Days and the Transit System Grind Their Teeth” here.  An interesting post on a Russian literature blog here.

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In defense of the humanities: the joys of critical thinking

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013
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Film  Life of BrianLast month, I published an excerpt from Russian poet Joseph Brodsky‘s Nobel speech. Here’s a bit: “If art teaches anything (to the artist, in the first place), it is the privateness of the human condition. Being the most ancient as well as the most literal form of private enterprise, it fosters in a man, knowingly or unwittingly, a sense of his uniqueness, of individuality, of separateness – thus turning him from a social animal into an autonomous ‘I’. Lots of things can be shared: a bed, a piece of bread, convictions, a mistress, but not a poem by, say, Rainer Maria Rilke. A work of art, of literature especially, and a poem in particular, addresses a man tête-à-tête, entering with him into direct – free of any go-betweens – relations.

“It is for this reason that art in general, literature especially, and poetry in particular, is not exactly favored by the champions of the common good, masters of the masses, heralds of historical necessity. For there, where art has stepped, where a poem has been read, they discover, in place of the anticipated consent and unanimity, indifference and polyphony; in place of the resolve to act, inattention and fastidiousness. In other words, into the little zeros with which the champions of the common good and the rulers of the masses tend to operate, art introduces a “period, period, comma, and a minus”, transforming each zero into a tiny human, albeit not always pretty, face.”

On a lesser scale – and I do want to emphasize the qualifier “lesser” – the same holds true for the humanities in general, and critical thinking.  They provide a powerful antidote to the mob, whether in a democratic  election, or the incitement to murder.  Offhand, I can think of no better illustration than the video clip below.

She never sniveled: Natalia Gorbanevskaya (1936-2013)

Friday, November 29th, 2013
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Free. (Photo: Dmitry Kuzmin)

The Russian poet Natalia Gorbanevskaya declared unequivocally that, for a poet, living in an alien land is “a source of new potency.”

It’s lucky that she thought so, because she really had no choice.  The dissident writer fled the Soviet Union for Paris in the 1970s. And that’s where she died, last night, at 77.  In one of those odd synchronicities, I had been excerpting a poem she wrote for something I was writing – perhaps the first time ever that I had done so. As soon as I finished typing, I clicked to my Facebook page, and the director of the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius, Mikhail Iossel, mentioned  her death in the very top post on my screen.

According to her first translator and champion, Daniel Weissbort, writing in 1974, “Gorbanyevskaya has been a leading civil rights activist, one of the seven to demonstrate in Red Square on 5 August 1968 against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Because of her infant child, she was not tried along with the other demonstrators, and she continued to agitate on their behalf, compiling an account of their trial, Noon (published in England as Red Square at Noon). In December 1969 Gorbanyevskaya was herself finally arrested, and in April 1970 was declared to be suffering from schizophrenia and placed in a psychiatric prison hospital, first in Moscow, then in Kazan, where a course of drug treatment was administered. There has recently been a good deal of agitation in the West about the misuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union as a means of dealing with dissenters, and whether for this reason or for some other, Gorbanyevskaya was released in February 1972.” Red Square at Noon included not only Weissbort’s translations of her poems, but a transcript of her trial, papers relating to her hospital detention, and an assessment by a British psychiatrist of her mental condition, based on evidence then available.

“One might suppose that Gorbanyevskaya verse would reflect her political activity,” Weissbort continued. “It is, on the contrary, intensely personal and non-public. It transcends politics, not accusing, but describing the psychic reality of her situation. One generation, has had the capacity of transmute her suffering into a universal image. The staccato pulse of her work, the near-hysterical shrillness, recall the poetry of that other poet of suffering, the great Marina Tsvetaeva. In Gorbanyevskaya’s love lyrics, the old Russian mystique of regeneration through suffering is evoked (this appears, less intensely, in Yuli Daniel’s poetry too). Physical love becomes an ordeal like Christ’s on the Cross. Gorbanyevskaya has had the immense courage to remain vulnerable. Hers is the poetry of pain, of separation, of isolation, of despair, of threatening disaster, of disaster present.”

In Gorbanevskaya’s 1991 interview, the poet had an upbeat outlook on her flight for survival:  ”I think that we poets are in general enriched by the experience of emigration or exile. Well, if we don’t snivel … that is if we don’t just start to describe the exotica or just start getting nostalgic – in so far as we are submissive to the language, we bring to it everything that we can beg, borrow or steal from other languages. And the language, in so far as it is grateful to us, has yet more to give us in return.”

She never sniveled.  I met Gorbanevskaya in Kraków in 2011. As I wrote here:  ”The poet, by then in her midseventies, was short and unfashionably dressed, with short, grizzled hair and thick stockings. She held the small stub of a cigarette like a defiant wand, its end glowing in the dying day on a sidestreet in Kazimierz. When she spoke to me, in French (Paris has been her home since 1976), her voice was probing and intelligent, her eye contact unflinching. She seemed tough-​minded, durable, and utterly lacking in self-​pity.”

I didn’t know her well, but Daniel Weissbort, who died a few days ago (I wrote about that here), did.  So I’ll let him speak. From his book, From Russian with Love:  ”While I appreciated the opportunity of working with a poetry so different from my own and indeed from the Russian poetry to which I had previously been drawn, I also suspected that I did not have the language adequately to express the agony, even if as a reader I was responsive.” At that time, Joseph Brodsky had just arrived in the West, and Weissbort didn’t realize that he was a friend of the Moscow poet:

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After her release from prison.

“Anyway, as far as I can remember, we were lingering at the front of the Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium, just below the stage, perhaps during an interval at the end of that day’s readings, when Brodsky said to me, apropos of the Gorbanevskaya versions (it surprised me that he was aware of them: ‘If you were to die tomorrow, would you want to be judged by these translations?’

It seemed unlikely that this was a simple inquiry! I must have been somewhat shocked. Not only because we had just met, but also because his remark echoed, if more forcefully than I would have put it myself, my own doubts and anxieties about the whole business of poetry translation, as well as about the whole business of poetry translation, as well as about my Gorbanevskaya versions. Although I had read the account of her trial and, in addition to translating her poetry, had also written about her ‘ordeal’, I doubt whether I had much grasp of its significance. I imagine that Joseph was trying to get across the gravity of a situation when art, in a way, was all you had; that is, he was not merely suggesting that my translations left much to be desired. Though I took what he said as a comment on the translations, I may have received the other message too, since I did not respond as defensively as might have been expected. …. my translations were largely the product of a kind of optimism. That they had their moments was perhaps the best that could be said of them. Still, I realized that, though possibly wrong-headed, Joseph was not being unkind or malicious. Certainly he was not mealy-mouthed, but this helped me begin to see that the context was larger than one simply of translation, the translation of words. My first exchange with Brodsky, thus, took the form of a kind of summons to greater personal commitment. What such a commitment might entail, in his view, was not immediately clear to me, although I already suspected that, prosodically at least, it had to do with formal imitation, the point being that this had a moral dimension.”

Here’s my favorite poem from Red Square at Noon, which I bought in the 1970s.  The 1961 poem has remained my favorite ever since.  In fact, it was the poem I was transcribing when I heard that she had died. In English and Russian:

redsquareIn my own twentieth century
where there are more dead than graves
to put them in, my miserable
forever unshared love

among those Goya images
is nervous, faint, absurd,
as, after the screaming of jets,
the trump of Jericho.

В моем родном двадцатом веке,
где мертвых больше, чем гробов,
моя несчастная, навеки
неразделенная любовь

средь этих гойевских картинок
смешна, тревожна и слаба,
как после свиста реактивных
иерихонская труба.

Update on 12/3:  Obituary from Agence France-Presse/The Raw Story here.  New York Times obituary here.

Joseph Brodsky’s reading list “to have a basic conversation” – plus the shorter one he gave to me

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013
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Reading lots in Ann Arbor, 1972

We had the W.H. Auden reading list here, so now – ta DUM! – we present the Joseph Brodsky list, thanks to Monica Partridge, a Los Angeles writer and a former Brodsky student from Mt. Holyoke, where the Nobel poet taught for years.  With her blog, called The Brodsky Reading Group, she seems to have formed something of a cultus around the list, and with her acolytes she is attempting to work through the whole slog of books. More power to her. I’d heard rumors of such a list before, but never saw the actual artifact.  I include the list below, having spent some time correcting the references and the spellings (always a dangerous thing to do, someone is sure to find a mistake in my rendering). The list he gave her class was handwritten – perhaps he just scribbled it out, errors and all.

weilAt any rate, eventually the list was typed out, errors still intact.  Open Culture has already printed the list here, so you can see for yourself.  On the site, author Jennifer K. Dick‘s contributed her own memories in the comment section:

When I was a student of Joseph Brodsky’s at MHC between 1989 and 1993 for course on Russian Lit and Lyric Poetry, we were distributed a similar list. However, it was not given as a basis for “conversation” at that time, but rather he said that anyone who had not already completed the reading of that list by 18 would certainly never be able to become a great poet, because the list was a basis for that. This, of course, meant that all of us who might have been aspiring authors were already doomed. So, like everything else with him, you had to take it with a grain of salt. He asked us to write poems based on works by Auden and Frost on occasion. He also made us memorize many poems, as Partridge mentions, including many by Auden, Frost, A.E. Housman and most memorably (no pun intended) all of Lycidas by Milton. In his Russian Lit courses, he provided the texts in Russian and retranslated them as he went through and gave close readings of the poems, focusing on work by Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Lermontov, Dershavin, and Akhmatova. One key thing we were told to read were Gumilyev‘s essays, the one on translation is a particular gem.

either_orThough a half-tyrant autodidact prof, he was an invaluable teacher opening up our minds and exposing us to a vast array of authors not traditionally taught in English Lit departments. Yes, I read Milosz too thanks to him – and met him twice before he passed away, and I read Zbigniew Herbert which, during class, brought me almost to tears. But I was also asked by Brodsky to write a paper on a little known poet of the time, Wislawa Szymborska, and her “The Sea-Cucumber” because, as Brodsky said, this was an author worth paying attention to. I suppose he may well have been right (that is meant as humor) given her subsequent Nobel Prize. I feel lucky to have had someone like Brodsky push me to read read read, and this list, a lifetime of reading in the version of it that I have, is certainly a great conversation piece if not the start of some great adventure. It is, as some are, only inviting people to add to it, as he did, until he left this earth.

(It’s worth noting that he couldn’t have read the reading list before he was eighteen anyway, because most of these books weren’t available in the old U.S.S.R., and he became a poet anyway – so take heart.)

shestovI speak with some authority about his reading lists.  Long before the Nobel, he scribbled down a personalized reading list for me, which I kept in my wallet ever afterward.  I’ve pretty much committed to memory, though may be something I’ve forgotten.

And now, for the first time ever in my whole life: I share it with all of you, in no particular order:

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Lev Shestov, Athens and Jerusalem

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Andrey Platonov, The Foundation Pit

santayanaGeorge Santayana, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies 

E.M. CioranThe Temptation to Exist

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Why don’t I produce a photo of this list, as I did with Auden?  Here’s why:  the wallet was stolen from my home in Islington.  It was all the robbers could grab from my flat in the middle of the night because they woke me up and I called out downstairs and scared them off. Probably no more than 12 quid in my wallet. But ohhhh… it’s the reading list I’d rather have back.

Here’s the list – with a few surprises for you on the breakover page, because this is getting loooonnnnggg…

Joseph Brodsky’s Reading List

1.   Bhagavad Gita
2.   Mahabharata
3.   Gilgamesh
4.   The Old Testament
5.   Homer: Iliad, Odyssey
6.   Herodotus: Histories
7.   Sophocles: Plays
8.   Aeschylus: Plays
9.   Euripides: Plays (Hippolytus, The Bachantes, Electra, The Phoenician Women)
10. Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War
11. Plato: Dialogues
12. Aristotle: Poetics, Physics, Ethics, De Anima
13. Alexandrian Poetry: The Greek Anthology
14. Lucretius: On the Nature of Things
15. Plutarch: Lives [presumably Parallel Lives]
16. Virgil: Aeneid, Bucolics, Georgics
17. Tacitus: Annals

THERE’S MORE!

(more…)

R.I.P. Daniel Weissbort, champion of translation everywhere

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013
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Reading at the Ars Interpres Poetry Festival, 2006

Daniel Weissbort is dead. I heard this yesterday from Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books in the U.K., but hadn’t been able to confirm it till I found it posted here, on the website of the influential journal he founded with Ted Hughes in 1965, Modern Poetry in Translation. He continued to edit the magazine until 2003.

Perhaps the major obituaries are yet to come out, but it’s surprising how little a splash major figures in translation make in today’s world, although Weissbort was also a poet of note. I never met him face-to-face, but I know him from once remove; his wife, the Russian scholar Valentina Polukhina, is a colleague, friend and regular correspondent. He would have been 78 this year, and I know he has been ill for some years.

According to the website (which has a page for tributes here):

He was associated with MPT for nearly forty years, and he saw it through its birth as a “scrappy-looking thing – just to keep their spirits up…” (from a letter by Ted Hughes to Daniel Weissbort in 1965) to becoming a periodical of international importance and renown, which published some of the best international poets in the best translations. He was also a translator of poetry and a poet in his own right, and he made it his cause to get Russian poetry better known and better read in the English-speaking world, editing and translating Russian poetry tirelessly, and hosting and leading translation workshops. His most recent translations of the Russian poet Inna Lisnianskaya Far from Sodom were published to great acclaim by Arc Publications in 2005.

mpt3Nicholas Wroe, whose 2001 Guardian interview with Czesław Miłosz was included my volume Czesław Miłosz: Conversations, interviewed Weissbort in the same year.  It was posted on a few Facebook pages:

“Poetry happens everywhere,” writes Daniel Weissbort in the introduction to Mother Tongues, “but sometimes, often, it happens in languages that do not attract attention. We are the poorer for not experiencing it, at least to the extent it can be experienced in translation.”

Although he wasn’t conscious of it at the time, translation had been a part of this poet, editor and translator’s life from the outset. “My parents were Polish Jews who came to London from Belgium in the early 1930s,” Weissbort explains. “They spoke French at home because that was the language they met in, but I was so determined to be English that I’d always answer them in English.” …

It was Hughes’s idea to get as many literal translations of work as possible. “We didn’t want carefully worked, minute things that took forever to produce,” explains Weissbort. “It sounds a bit insensitive now, but we wanted quantity even if it was in quite rough-and-ready translation.” He says that at the moment one of the big debates in translation is between so called foreignisation and domestication. “Domestication looks like something that was first written in English,” explains Weissbort. “Post-colonial theory is very much in favour of foreignisation, seeing domestication as an imperialistic strategy that is opposed to allowing the foreignness to come into the language. I suppose we were foreignisers before it was invented.”‘

Weissbort3Weissbort is also due to publish his own, 11th collection of poems, Letters to Ted, written after Hughes’s death, as well as a memoir of Nobel prizewinner Joseph Brodsky.  (Read the rest here.)

I reviewed the latter volume, From Russian with Love, in a Kenyon Review article called “Uncle Grisha Was Right” – it’s here.  Being a Brodsky translator was a crushing, ego-deflating experience for many, and Weissbort was one of the earliest translators, before he could have taken courage from the tales of other casualties. Weissbort agonizes over the experience, analyzing and doubting himself – something the Russian Nobel laureate never did.  As I wrote: “He [Brodsky] came from a culture that had bypassed Freud and his heirs, where an enemy was an enemy and not just a projection of an inner landscape. He was not, to put it mildly, a man crippled with a sense of his own contradictions. Hence, his attacks could be unambiguous and fierce. As sycophants multiplied exponentially, it became hard, some of his friends say, to tell him the truth—for example, the truth about his abilities to write English verse and translate into it.”

Yet in the end, Weissbort seemed to be unexpectedly buoyed by the experience, and came to a startling conclusion that says as much about the master translator as it does about the poet:

Weissbort__From_Russian“At a commencement address years later, he [Brodsky] spoke of ‘those who will try to make life miserable for you,’ and added: ‘Above all, try to avoid telling stories about the unjust treatment you received at their hands; avoid it no matter how receptive your audience may be. Tales of this sort extend the existence of your antagonists. . . .’

That’s the legacy of the man. But the poetry? Weissbort seesaws and perseverates for pages and pages, and there is much repetition and confusing back-and-forth in time … Yet despite the waffling and self-deprecation, he makes a central, remarkable contention: Weissbort argues that Brodsky ‘was trying to Russianize English, not respecting the genius of the English language, … he wanted the transfer between the languages to take place without drastic changes, this being achievable only if English itself was changed.’

In short, Weissbort invites us to listen to Brodsky’s poetry on its own terms. As he tells a workshop: ‘It’s like a new kind of music. You may not like it, may find it absurd, outrageous even, but admit, if only for the sake of argument, that this may be due to its unfamiliarity. Give it a chance, listen!’”

Update on 12/3:  Guardian obituary by Sasha Dugdale is here.

 

The questionable utility of the dancing bear, or, the future of the humanities

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013
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The role of the humanities in our society

The New York Times has run an article “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,” once again decrying declining enrollment.  I don’t understand why this should come as a surprise to anyone. The humanities are devalued everywhere you look in our society – so why should kids study them?  The humanities are prized only when we can hook them up to consumer interests, make them turn a coin, demand that they entertain us.  There’s always the implicit threat that if we can’t get the bear to dance, the poor old fellow will be put down.

In the world of education, we value humanities only if we can team people onto digital projects that make cool onscreen images or turn them into rap lyrics to make them palatable for the kids. I applaud a lot of these efforts, and appreciate their intent, but they’re rather beside the point.  Coolness and likeability aren’t the reason Ovid was exiled, why Osip Mandelstam died scavenging a rubbish heap in a transit camp, why Reinhold Schneider was slated for trial and probable execution had the Third Reich not fallen first, or why André Brink was banned in South Africa.  And it certainly wasn’t why Joseph Brodsky, when I studied with him, made us memorize hundreds of lines of Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Thomas Hardy, and others – in fact, it made him distinctly unfashionable; some kids fled the class rather than make the effort.  William Shakespeare can be mutilated, but he can’t be tamed.  As one teacher said, after a student had made a snarky, sophomoric comment about Hamlet:  “Mister, when you read Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s not on trial. You are.”  And that is the point.

André_Brink_Portrait

Censored in South Africa (Photo: Creative Commons)

The tacit, self-calming assumption behind our continual cuts in the arts and humanities has always been always that the eternal things are durable, and will survive our neglect.  However, these values must be inculcated and passed on – a baby isn’t born appreciating the subtleties of Piero della Francesco or Raoul Dufy, after all.  Anything that isn’t fed eventually withers.  (I know; I have a garden to prove it.)  I’m told by those who teach that we now have a generation of young people who, in large measure, no longer ponder the terms of their existence or question their reason for being.  Tomorrow is for another pizza, aceing the PSAT, or another video game.  The “Holocaust” is a description of a description of Black Friday sales; the Civil Rights movement has something to do with … what?  Will I be graded on it?  I know, I know – it’s the “same old,” isn’t it?  But a serious study of history, another one of the humanities, would show that civilization is a delicate, perishable thing, appearing and disappearing throughout the centuries, and we can never take its continuance for granted (read Constantine Cavafy, Zbigniew Herbert, or the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam). When we don’t pass it on, we break a fundamental chain of civilization. We’ll pay the price down the road … wait, we already are … but it’s not taking the form we had anticipated.

Reinhold-SchneiderI’m also tired of cheesy efforts to defend the humanities, which pander to the standards of our society, which are themselves a broken fence in need of repair. In any case, he fence is broken, in part, by the abandonment of literature, art, and music as the commitment of a civilized society, rather than a “frill.” I’m not saying a Haydn string quartet will save your life, but what often passes for music when I’m put on “hold” when calling my credit card company might be seen as the shocking invasion of psychological space that it is.  Sloppy thinking is everywhere, and not the province of one political party or the other – and the fact that it is inevitably attributed to the “other” in itself shows what a bad pass we’ve come to (it’s something that might have been corrected with an introductory study of Carl Jung, or René Girard, for that matter). Our political life is riddled with clichés that should be jeered offstage, because it’s a nasty way to use your Mother Tongue.  Technology, which has the power for good, has accelerated our race to the bottom, just as nuclear power, which could rescue nations, propels us toward annihilation.

Rant over.  Whew!  Not to worry!  I’m back on my medication now.  More on this subject in the coming days…from better minds than Humble Moi!  I’ll start with one of them, Michel Serres, of Stanford and the Académie Française.  I’ve featured it before, and recently, but if you haven’t seen it, please listen to his description of the fate of the humanities.  It’s not pretty.

 

Back in the U.S.S.R.: Carl Proffer, Ardis, and an “eleven time zone prison”

Sunday, October 20th, 2013
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The basketball player who bootlegged books … with Brodsky and Ellendea

Last month, the University of Michigan commemorated two of the most remarkable people to cross the campus threshhold: the late Prof. Carl Proffer and his wife Ellendea Proffer Teasley, founders of the exuberant and trailblazing Ardis Publishers, which published the best Russian literature at a time when the Soviet government wouldn’t.  I’ve written about them here and here and here and here, as well as many other places over the last few decades, ever since the time I met them in the erstwhile Ann Arbor country club they had turned into a publishing house (as well as a family home with four kids).  I wasn’t at the September symposium, except perhaps in spirit.  Fortunately, the event left a welter of videos in its wake.  In one of them, Ellendea described, in 27 minutes, the intrepid  venture that was Ardis.

The young Carl Proffer was a longshot for a Slavic scholar, she recalled – a teenage basketball player who was more likely to become a lawyer rather than scholar, someone who never ventured beyond the required reading list. He discovered Russia through a casual interest in Cyrillic, which led him to a mentor – a distinguished Byzantine historian émigré who had been tethered to teaching a first-year Russian language course for the university.  “Then this man, meant for other things, this basketball player with a fancy prose style, fell in love with the literature,” said Ellendea.  That was sophomore year – junior year gave him the Scottish enlightenment and the gifts of persuasion.  He attended St. Andrew’s in Scotland, which runs on a tutorial system, and discovered philosopher David Hume.  “This was an amazing awakening. The basketball player became an intellectual, but not a normal one.”

“He was a person of high risk – captain of the team. … He was afraid of nothing. He could control his temper and his indignation. The rest of us could not; we were very young,” she recalled.  “Everyone he came into contact with went into Russian, too, because he spread the word. His philosophy was spreading the word … He was the first PhD candidate from Michigan. They built the program around him. He became the youngest full professor in 1972.”

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Carl and Ellendea at Ardis

Perhaps the biggest chance he took was with a pretty girl in a miniskirt. “It was easy not to take me seriously if you didn’t know me well,” said Ellendea, who was six years younger.  “He not only took me seriously and married me, but he made me a full partner.”  Every decision was made jointly, and she continued Ardis after his 1984 death until 2002, when Overlook Press acquired Ardis.  She received a MacArthur “genius” award in 1989.

“Carl could type 110 words a minute – that was important. Ardis was built on our bodies.  We used up our energy, and his energy was phenomenal.”  The venture was a dangerous one, and bootlegging manuscripts risked arrest and worse. They faced other dangers in the U.S.:  “We got no money from anyone. We lived on a knife edge – mortgaging our house every year.”

“We walked a razor’s edge, and he was cool,” with an important exception – “and this is where we get to the ‘why’ of Ardis,” she said.

The plight of their friends, the literary heart of Russia, left Carl in “absolute cold, angry outrage – destructive outrage.” She continued, “Our people, they wanted one book, they were writing a monograph and wanted one book on Toulouse Lautrec, they wanted one book on Shakespeare. … They knew so much, so many languages but never left this damn country, which was really an eleven time zone prison … We saw people like us, behind bars, and sometimes they were having to kiss their own chains and say, ‘It’s nothing. It’s great.’ It was no kind of life.  … This was our mood when we come back. We were enraged at what has happened to these remarkable people. Nadezhda Mandelstam with four locks on her door. It’s 1969, but she’s still afraid.  She said, ‘Don’t bring young people to me because they are the worst. They are the informers.’”

She described Soviet-era Russia as “a thin crust over a big volcano of peasant emotion, under the control of the gun and the whip. And that thin crust was a deep, rich, powerful culture to us.  Not just literature – music, art, dance.”

The Proffers dressed up to meet their Russian contacts, but they choose to dress as Americans, not to emulate the proletariat or the Russian intelligentsia, since they were neither.  “We would be American, because the Russians were starting to think, ‘Oh, the whole world is like this.’ Visually, we would contradict that idea.  Because it’s easy to go into despair when you’re in jail for 70 years.”

“I want you to consider the daring, the nerve of him. He had daring, but he never said, ‘Now I’m going to jump from the high dive’ –  he just did it.  We were people of action, that is certainly true. … We were moving very fast because Carl, like [Joseph] Brodsky, did not think he had a long life ahead of him.”

I was there in spirit, and you can be, too – videos of the event are here.