Posts Tagged ‘Patrick Kurp’

Robert Conquest a British poet? Not so fast… he had American roots, too.

Wednesday, November 18th, 2020
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Nothing human is alien to Conquest, who died in 2015 at age 98,” writes the inestimable Patrick Kurp in the Los Angeles Review of Books, describing the poet and Soviet historian Robert Conquest. Then Patrick makes a rare misstep when he states: “Let’s remember that he was English by birth but American by choice.”

Actually, Conquest was not only American by choice – his father, Robert Folger Wescott Conquest, was American, a Virginian – so the long residence at Stanford’s Hoover Institution was something of a homecoming for his British-born son Robert Conquest, who also spent some time in Virginia as a child. [Note: Not so fast – the record on Virginia is corrected in a postscript below.] His American roots were further reinforced by his long happy marriage with an American wife, Elizabeth Conquest, who is the editor of his Collected Poems and soon a volume of letters.

He had a poetic homecoming, too, in what Patrick Kurp calls “One of Conquest’s richest, most satisfying poems.”

An excerpt from the article:

“The Idea of Virginia,” 34 four-line stanzas that encapsulate the history of the state and, by implication, the United States. “It lay in the minds of poets,” the poem begins, which Conquest characteristically clarifies: “But the land was also real: rivers, meads, mountains.” Conquest has no pretensions to being a nature poet, but he starts with an Edenic natural world: “Deer and pumas ranged its high plains. Beavers / Toiled in its streams. Bluebird and mocking-bird, / Blue jay, redbird and quail filled branches and air.” He retells the familiar story of John Smith, Powhatan, and Pocahontas without pontificating. The idea of Virginia grows naturally out of English thought:

Haydn, prose, elections, deism, architecture,
Bred the leaders of battle, governance, law.
Washington, Marshall, Madison, Jefferson, Henry
Defended a heightened England from an England lapsed.

He is at home in the world, as poets seldom are. He writes poems for intelligent readers who enjoy formal verse and humor that ranges from the ribald to the wittily rarefied, and who share his interest in particulars. Conquest will be remembered principally as the man who, even before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, exposed the Soviet Union as a murderous tyranny in such volumes as The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968) and The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986). Politics and history, of course, show up with some regularity in his poetry, often in a form that resembles light verse. Here is a stanza from “Garland for a Propagandist”:

When Yezhov got it in the neck
(In highly literal fashion)
Beria came at Stalin’s beck
To lay a lesser lash on;
I swore our labour camps were few,
And places folk grew fat in;
I guessed that Trotsky died of flu
And colic raged at Katyn.

When Conquest reviewed the 1974 appearance in English of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973), he judged it “a truly exceptional work: for in it literature transcends history, without distorting it.” Conquest does something similar.

Another excerpt:

Patrick Kurp

One of the pleasures of his verse is its range of form and subject. Some poets harvest a very narrow field, too often the fenced-in self. Conquest’s poems resemble the late Turner Cassity’s in their appetite for the world and all it contains, pleasurable and otherwise, and in their satirical bite. His poems know things. In 1956, Conquest edited the influential poetry anthology New Lines, informally aligning the poets who came to be called The Movement: Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, D. J. Enright, Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Jennings, and himself. In his introduction, Conquest dismisses the “diffuse and sentimental verbiage or hollow technical pirouettes” of the era’s “New Apocalypse” poets in the United Kingdom, such as J. F. Hendry and Vernon Watkins, and endorses a “refusal to abandon a rational structure.” In “Whenever,” Conquest endorses Wyndham Lewis’s call for “a tongue that naked goes / Without more fuss than Dryden’s or Defoe’s.”

Read the whole article here.

Postscript on April 12 from Elizabeth Conquest:

In point of fact, Bob did not spend time in Virginia as a child.  In Two Muses [the poet’s unpublished memoir], he makes this point:

Elizabeth Conquest corrects the record.

Treated as a normal F.O. member, in 1950 I was sent—as First Secretary—to the UK delegation to the United Nations in New York, attending the minuscule meetings of the Security Council, and the vast swarm of the General Assembly.  This was my first trip to America.  I was there only a month or two.  But I managed to go down for a weekend with my cousin Pleasanton Conquest and his wife Julie in Baltimore—and for a few hours round Washington, including a walk across the Arlington Bridge to stand for the first time on Virginian soil.

All the same, he and his sisters felt themselves to be Virginian: 

We (my parents, my two sisters—Charmian and Lutie—and I) lived in England and France over my childhood. We had American passports and always thought of ourselves as American, though in most ways completely Anglicised.

Not that we thought of it, let alone spoke of it much, but we children were very taken with our Virginian origin.  To us it sounded—and felt—not more aristocratic or anything like that, but somehow all the same superior and exotic.  The only effects of this were inheriting the feeling ‘give-me-the-luxuries-and-I’ll-do-without-the-necessities’, early immersion in ragtime, etc. My father was not, on the whole, interested in the Virginian side of things—born there, but his upbringing in France and later education in Pennsylvania having been entirely from the Westcott side.   We had no contact with our Virginian relatives until my mother started writing to my great aunt Margaret—I suppose in the 1930s—after which they’d come over to Europe and vice versa.

Why do inmates of Soviet prison camps love Proust?

Saturday, May 30th, 2020
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Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Patrick Kurp, who blogs at the matchless Anecdotal Evidence, has some thoughts about the curious attraction of Soviet prisoners to Marcel Proust… this time it’s Varlam Shalamov‘s sequel to Kolyma Tales…

What are we to make of the unexpected fondness inmates of Soviet prisons and labor camps had for Marcel Proust? In 1940, the first book Aleksander Wat read in Lubyanka prison after a bookless year was Du côté de chez Swann, the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. In My Century, Wat describes it as “one of the greatest experiences of my life.” The following year, in a prison camp 200 miles north of Moscow, Józef Czapski lectured his fellow inmates on Proust’s novel, a book he was “not sure of seeing again.” His audience “listen[ed] intently to lectures on themes very far removed from the reality we faced at that time.” And here, in his story “Marcel Proust,” Varlam Shalamov describes the theft in a Gulag camp of Le Côté de Guermantes, the third volume of Proust’s masterwork: “Who was going to read that strange prose, so weightless that it seemed about to fly off into space, a world whose scales were displaced and switched around, so that there was nothing big and nothing small. […] The horizons of a writer are expanded extraordinarily by that novel.”

He would have been surprised…

He and the book’s owner, a paramedic named Kalitinsky, “recalled our world, our own lost time,” but the volume is never recovered. Shalamov’s stand-in portrays himself as a civilized man, an inheritor of the Western tradition who cherishes books, though he knows his values mean nothing in the alternate universe of the Gulag: “You might meet admirers of Jack London in that world, but Proust? It could only be used to make playing cards: it was a heavyweight large format book. […] It went to make cards, cards … It would be cut up and that was it.” Like morality and religion, art means nothing. Only survival counts. The lives documented by Shalamov are Hobbesian: “[S]olitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In 2018, New York Review Books published Donald Rayfield’s translation of Kolyma Stories. With this second volume, Sketches of the Criminal World, we now have all 145 stories written by Shalamov after his 17 years in Stalin’s prison system. …

Read the rest here

Why is light verse in disfavor? The crusade to save it.

Friday, March 29th, 2019
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The man behind “Anecdotal Evidence”

One of our favorite fellow bloggers, Patrick Kurp of the highly (and justly) respected Anecdotal Evidence, has a article on light verse in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It makes a thoughtful, rewarding read, recognizing in particular Light, the biannual journal founded by a retired Chicago postal worker, John Mella.

One of his goals, Patrick writes, was “to salvage verse from what he called the ‘cheerless, obscure, and finally forgettable muck’ of poetry written by and for academics.” The journal was launched in 1992 and has become a modest literary industry of its own, continuing after his death in 2012. It’s all online now, here.

There has long been a prejudice against light verse in such magazines as The New Yorker, that used to champion the wit and wisdom of Dorothy Parker, the sparkle of Ogden Nash. “It’s a shame the sophisticated humor in its cartoons can no longer be found in its poetry, which is fairly dreary and has been for years,” according to R.S. Gwynn (we’ve written about him here and here). “Maybe the magazine is too high-minded to think that poetry can entertain.”

Joe Kennedy, éminence grise

It’s a commonplace attitude, writes Kurp, that light verse “kids’ stuff, doggerel, greeting-card fodder, unhappy echoes of Richard Armour, whose whimsical riffs appeared in Sunday newspaper supplements starting in the Great Depression. Definitions of light verse are notoriously slippery.”

We’ve written about X.J. Kennedy here and here. Kurp calls him “the éminence grise of American light verse.” His poem “The Purpose of Time Is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once” is one of my all-time favorites of the genre, and I tend to repost it everywhere on his birthday. (He just turned 89 on August 21.)

According to A.M. Juster (we’ve written about him here and here), who is quoted in the article: ““Light verse has to deal with the timeless issues the way that Martial, Horace, Swift, Byron, Dorothy Parker at her best, and Wendy Cope do, to have any longevity at all. Just wordplay and/or inside jokes on the issues of the day doesn’t last. Dialect poems, which were also popular in the first half of the 20th century, went almost immediately from funny to the elite to offensive to everyone.”

“Light verse requires polish.”

Athens-based A.E. Stallings, a MacArthur Fellow and translator of Hesiod and Lucretius, recalls her early publication in Light, and her interactions with Mella, “I was often less successful in placing poems I truly considered ‘light’ verse with Light,” she says. “Rather, [Mella] seemed to like darker things with music to them. It was often a place where I would send in things that were quite polished, but perhaps didn’t have the scope or gravitas for a ‘serious’ magazine. But light verse requires a great deal of polish. It can be harder to turn out a perfect squib than a publishable page-and-a-halfer, the typical form around the millennium.” It seems to have paid off: read the moving short poems on the refugee crisis, which seem to draw their conciseness from some of her work in a lighter genre.

Discussing a poem by Barbara Loots, Patrick writes:”Deflation — reducing human vanity to its ridiculous or distasteful essentials — is a frequent strategy of light verse. Loots’s poem starts as the 10-thousandth Robert Burns parody and quickly turns Swiftian and more substantial. Critics risk killing the patient when dissecting light verse (or dissecting any kind of humor), but one can’t imagine Loots’s poem written as free verse.”  Here’s her matchless “Colonoscopy: A Love Poem”:

My love is like a red, red rose.
I know because I’ve seen
the photographs inside of him
projected on a screen:

the petal-like appearance of
his proximal transverse,
his mid-ascending colon
like a rose’s opening purse,

appendiceal orifice,
a bud not yet unfurled —
Oh, what a pleasing garden is
my true love’s inner world!

How very like a red, red rose
his clean and healthy gut.
I love my laddie all the more
since looking up his butt.

René Girard and the Three Stooges

Monday, August 20th, 2018
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It’s an honor when a highly esteemed writer takes on your book. I’ve had several to date, and yesterday brought another: Patrick Kurp of the matchless Anecdotal Evidence blog reviews Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. It’s the lead story over at the University Bookman here.

He begins with the Three Stooges:

Merci, Monsieur Kurp.

In their 1941 short feature In the Sweet Pie and Pie, Larry, Curly, and Moe are ex-cons hoping to marry three wealthy debutantes. The girls have other ideas. They throw a high-society party and bribe the butler to dump a cake on Moe’s head, expecting the Stooges to disgrace themselves. Moe responds with a cream pie to the butler’s face. A matron, recipient of collateral damage, prepares to retaliate when the butler points at Moe and says: “He did it.” The matron replies, “Thank you, but you started it,” and beans him with a pie. Soon the Stooges and guests in gowns and tuxedoes are enthusiastically heaving pies, and René Girard would have laughed and understood the scene perfectly. Once encountered, Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, his essential contribution to making sense of human nature, is irresistible, and helps to explain everything from slapstick, to social media, to the threat of thermonuclear cataclysm. …

He continues with some kind words for the reviewer and her subject:

Haven is a seasoned literary journalist who has devoted books to Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky. She is attracted to the theme of civilization embattled, the persistence of culture, and its defenders in the face of barbarism and indifference. Her study of Girard is neither clinical nor drily academic. It welcomes readers previously unfamiliar with Girard and his work, as well as specialists. It also serves as an hommage. Haven befriended Girard and his family in his later years at Stanford University, an intimacy that provides glimpses of the husband, father, colleague, and friend not immediately available to readers familiar with his thought strictly through his books. Haven draws an attractive portrait of a thoughtful man who, until his death in 2015, was never too self-important to treat others with dignity and respect.

He concludes:

Summarizing Girard’s insights, Haven writes: “We live derivative lives. We envy and imitate others obsessively, unendingly, often ridiculously.… We find it easy to critique the mimetic desires of others, but our own snobbishness and sensitivity to public opinion usually escape our notice. We wish to conceal our metaphysical emptiness from others, in any case, and from ourselves most of all.” As the pies are flying in the Sweet Pie and Pie, Moe pauses and sententiously declaims, “Stop, stop. This has gone far enough. Love thy neighbor.” On cue, five guests, including a pompous U.S. Senator, push cream pies into his face.  

Read the whole thing here. And just for you, Gentle Reader, we include the film clip below:

Letters as “a listening device, a means of silent communion, a snare or net”: wise words from Andrei Sinyavsky

Sunday, June 10th, 2018
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Sinyavsky reunited with the woman who was waiting on the other side.

I’ve been laboring over a text on Russian prosody this weekend, so Russia is clearly still on my mind, even after Friday night’s post on “Eating and (mostly) drinking with Dostoevsky.” However, in an idle moment I turned to yesterday’s post over at  Anecdotal Evidence, and apparently Russia is on blogger Patrick Kurps mind, too.  I didn’t think many others in the West remembered  Andrei Sinyavsky, who wrote under the pen name borrowed from a Russian-Jewish gangster, Abram Tertz (a move that didn’t keep him from getting arrested).

As Patrick explains: “In 1966 he was sentenced to seven years of forced labor for trying to ‘subvert or weaken the Soviet regime.’ That is, he sent a pamphlet and stories to Paris for publication. Totalitarian regimes pay writers the compliment of taking their work seriously. Modern democracies don’t care, and let’s hope it stays that way.” Let’s hope indeed. Sinyavsky was freed in 1971, and emigrated to Paris, where he died in 1997.

Patrick, in turn, was inspired by a web article a few days ago by John Wilson, the founding editor of Books & Culture. Also worth a read.

All this returned me to my own well-worn 1976 copy of A Voice from the Chorus (translated by Kyril Fitzlyon and Max Hayward), with my London phone number scribbled in the front cover. I can’t remember when or for whom I wrote a review. I just remember the book reshuffling my internal dynamics.

These are Sinyavsky’s letters from a labor camp. He was allowed to write to his wife Maria Rozanova only twice a month. The book is poignantly fragmentary – sometimes a sentence or a words overheard in the camp, sometimes the words spill into a mini-essay of several pages. The inside front cover of my book is full of penciled notes for passages I wanted to remember, like this one:

What makes us what we are? It probably all depends on our relationship to surrounding space. A man unconfined in space constantly aspires to go forward into the distance. He is sociable and aggressive, and needs ever new pleasures, impressions and interests. But if he is constricted, cut down to size, reduced to the minimum, then his mind, deprived of forests and fields, creates an inner landscape out of its own immeasurable resources. This is something that monks well knew how to take advantage of. To give away all your worldly goods – is not this to throw out ballast?

Not a man, but a well.

We are not outcasts or prisoners, but reservoirs. Not men, but wells, deep pools of meaning.

But above all these are love letters to the woman waiting for him on the other side, year after year. “I often sit down to a letter not because I intend writing anything of importance to you, but just to touch a piece of paper which you will be holding in your hand…”

And here:

“Oddly enough, all this idle chatter in my letters is in large measure not so much self-expression on my part as a form of listening, of listening to you – turning things over this way and that and seeing what you think about them. It is important for me, when I write, to hear you. Language thus becomes a scanning or listening device, a means of silent communion – absolutely empty, a snare or net: a net of language cast into the sea of silence in the hope of pulling up some little golden fish caught in the pauses, in the momentary interstices of silence. Words have no part in this, except in so far as they serve to mark off the pauses. We use them only to jolly ourselves along as we make our way towards silence, perfect silence.”

Richard Wilbur’s heresy: “elegance, wit, and declaration of faith in the cosmic order”

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017
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A poet of “wit and wakefulness”

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Booksthe matchless Patrick Kurp (who blogs Anecdotal Evidence) writes of the late Richard Wilbur, a poet who favored “wit and wakefulness.”

From “’The Exceptional Man’: Rereading Richard Wilbur”:

Like his mentor, model, and friend Robert Frost, Wilbur has been routinely misunderstood by admirers and detractors alike. To some among the former, he is safe and wholesome, like oatmeal. To his more emphatic critics, Wilbur commits heresy with every act of elegance, wit, and declaration of faith in the cosmic order. In this sense he was a well-mannered outsider, a fugitive from fashion. If Wilbur, who died October 14 at age 96, ever wrote a mediocre poem — one that is perfunctory, careless, egocentric, or empty — I couldn’t remember having read it.

Taking on the “Collected” in one go.

On his death, Patrick decided to take on the poet’s 600+-page Collected Poems 1943–2004 (there have been several small volumes since 2004), cover to cover. “After all, reading a writer attentively is the truest, most respectful act of criticism.” His goal: “to avoid the chestnuts and pay attention to the poems less well remembered.”

He paused at this passage from Wilbur: “The presence of potential rhymes sets the imagination working with the same briskness and license with which a patient’s mind responds to the psychologist’s word-association tests. When a poet is fishing among rhymes, he may and must reject most of the spontaneous reconciliations (and all of the hackneyed ones) produced by trial combinations of rhyming words, and keep in mind the preconceived direction and object of his poem; but the suggestions of rhyme are so nimble and so many that it is an invaluable means to the discovery of poetic raw material which is, in the very best sense, far-fetched.”

Patrick writes:

Note the order in which Wilbur describes composition: “fishing” for rhymes, sorting them, winnowing, rejecting most, all the while remembering the “direction and object” of the poem. A good rhyme isn’t the snap of a lock but a key to open the imagination. The ability to write first-rate poetry, like the gifts for mathematics and music (composition and performance), is a freakishly rare combination of rigor and openness. Few have been so lavishly gifted as Wilbur. Tin-eared critics will dismiss rhyme as handcuffs, something artificial to bind the imagination. On the contrary. When Wilbur likens rhyme to a psychologist’s parlor game, he’s not suggesting repressed memories and the unleashing of buried anguish and guilt. Music goes deeper than that. So melodic are some of Wilbur’s poems, so gracefully arranged, one might be tempted not merely to read his lines but intone them, as in these from “A Black Birch in Winter” (The Mind-Reader: New Poems, 1976): “Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth, / New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth.” Ella Fitzgerald would sing this bouncily, allegro moderato, with light stress on the nouns.

Wilbur once wrote that poems “should include every resource which can be made to work,” and in his best poems, no motion is wasted. They resemble happy athletes: the flab has been trimmed, the muscles are limber. They move with confidence and strength, and they make it look effortless.

Read the whole thing here. It will reward the effort.  So will his blog Anecdotal EvidenceMy favorite in recent days, his excellent mini-essay on historian and poet Robert Conquest is here.

A postscript on Dick Wilbur from the poet R.S. Gwynn: “Being an ‘exceptional man’ is part of Wilbur’s exceptional quality as a poet. Frost had “a lover’s quarrel with the world’; Wilbur had a lifelong lover’s quarrel with the words that make it up. Lovers quarrel to bring their best, sometimes hidden qualities to the fore. Wilbur did the same thing with language.