Posts Tagged ‘Randall Jarrell’

Poet Elizabeth Bishop: “the loneliest person who ever lived.”

Sunday, March 12th, 2017
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bishop-bookIn case you missed it, The New Yorker has a long feature by Claudia Roth Pierpont, “Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing.” It catalogs precisely how much Elizabeth Bishop lost over the course of a lifetime. In one passage, about her unrequited love for a Vassar classmate, Bishop mulls over that vague word in English, “friend,” that can describe Twitter followers you’ve never met or a man you’ve dropped two babies with: “Bishop confided to her notebook a few months earlier, while suffering over Margaret Miller: ‘Name it friendship if you want to—like names of cities printed on maps, the word is much too big, it spreads all over the place, and tells nothing of the actual place it means to name.'”

An excerpt from the New Yorker article, which discusses Megan Marshall’s new biography, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt),

Bishop began to travel restlessly—France, Morocco, Spain—at about the time she began to publish, in the mid-thirties. She had no real home, after all. At school, she had always hated holidays, getting through in an empty dormitory or as a friend’s appendage or sometimes just staying in a cheap Boston hotel. Her father’s estate provided enough money so that she didn’t need to work, and the Vassar classmate who did respond to her feelings, Louise Crane, was seriously rich. (The Crane family made paper, including the paper used in dollar bills.) Bishop was attractive to both women and men, sometimes too much so for her own good. In 1935, she turned down a marriage proposal from a young man she had strung along (just in case?) since college. He committed suicide the following year, and a postcard he’d sent her arrived a few days later, inscribed “Elizabeth, Go to hell.”

Louise whisked her off to Florida to recover, and she soon discovered Key West. Still a sleepy backwater of an island, it became her regular haven for nearly a decade, long outlasting the relationship with Louise. Bishop was deeply drawn to islands—places where she felt isolated, solitary, safe. Although she continued to spend time in New York, she hated the city’s pressures. Even having lunch with people from Partisan Review (including [Mary] McCarthy) gave her nightmares. She wrote very slowly, often working on a poem for years, and increasing requests for publication only made her aware of how little she had done. Her finest works of the late thirties were two Kafka-like stories that seem to reflect her emotional state: “The Sea & Its Shore,” in which a man toils to keep a public beach free of ever-accumulating papers, working every night, by lantern light, and trying to make sense of the scraps he finds; and “In Prison,” a condition that the narrator anticipates with relief.

And one more excerpt, on the publication of her collection North & South and her relationship with poet/critic Randall Jarrell:

Reactions to the book itself were mixed, but the most influential voices were highly favorable. Moore, wholly ungrudging, wrote a keen appraisal in The Nation, and Randall Jarrell, the most brilliant critic of the time, set the tone for future evaluations with his praise of Bishop’s “restraint, calm, and proportion,” just as she was entering a period when she seemed to be trying to drink herself to death.

Jarrell gave Bishop another important gift when, in January, 1947, he introduced her to Robert Lowell. Tall, handsomely tousled, and six years Bishop’s junior, Lowell charmed her as no one had since she’d met Moore. Indeed, he soon replaced Moore as her most valued friend, even though his first commercial book, “Lord Weary’s Castle,” also published in 1946, beat out “North & South” for the Pulitzer Prize. Throughout their lives, his work was far more celebrated than hers. Yet any competitiveness was softened by his devotion to her writing, by his eagerness (and ability) to help her in material ways—grants, jobs, reviews—and by an aura of romance, which he perpetuated (Lowell gave pretty much everything an aura of romance) and she indulged. Two years after they met, he nearly proposed; he remembered later that she told him, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”

Read the whole thing here.

Seth Abramson dons “Kick me!” sign; makes list of top 200 advocates for poetry.

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013
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Jane-Hirshfield

Jane made the cut.

Seth Abramson is an intrepid man in a country that publishes 20,000 books of poetry each decade, among 75,000 poets (who counts them, and how?) Here’s why: he has issued a list of “The Top 200 Advocates for Poetry (2013)” in the Huffington Post – it’s here, as well as on dartboards across the U.S.  We all love lists, of course, and everyone has an opinion on how they should be done – this one, particularly.  Two hundred is long enough to give the impression that everyone ought to be included, but short enough that not everyone can be. So Abramson’s gesture is akin to wearing a “Kick me!” sign on your back. He begins by almost apologizing: “The poets favored by one reader will invariably not be the poets favored by another; in fact, it’s getting harder and harder to find two readers whose reading interests or even reading lists exhibit much overlap at all. Too many such lists, such as the widely- and justly-panned one recently published by Flavorwire, exhibit obvious age, race, ethnicity, and (particularly) geographic biases.”  We would like to fault him, first of all, for hyphening an adverb that ends in “ly,” which is never done – moreover, it’s dangerous to begin a list by dissing someone else’s. In that way, you’ve made your first enemy already.

Wilbur2

Lifetime achievement, for sure.

He continues for some paragraphs in the same vein: “As a contemporary poetry reviewer who publishes his review-essays in The Huffington Post, I have no special access to knowledge of who is or isn’t doing the most to be an advocate for American poetry (a term I define very broadly) on a national or global scale. While I’m lucky to have access to many more published poetry collections than most poets or poetry readers do, as like any reviewer I regularly receive poetry collections in the mail from U.S. and international publishers, because the list below isn’t intended to detail who’s presently writing the best poetry, but is rather simply a list of who’s doing the best to advocate for American poetry by any and all means (including by writing it, but by no means limited to the authorial function), I’m not in a much better position than others are to generate a list of the most influential poetry advocates in America and beyond.”

Well, sure, I guess.  That said, we were pleased to see a number of friends and colleagues on the list – Kay Ryan, Jane Hirshfield,  W.S. Merwin, Don Share, Ron Silliman, Helen Vendler, Heather McHugh, Allison Joseph, Eavan Boland, Mark McGurl – and nonagenarian Richard Wilbur, a lifetime achievement award, for sure.

hirsch

Where’s Ed?

Abramson qualifies that “the list below is neither exhaustive nor authoritative nor superlative. I have no doubt that I’ve missed a number of important names, due either to forgetfulness or an unconscious bias or simply (and most likely) sheer ignorance of who’s doing what across the vast landscape of American literature. … Those poets and allies of poetry offering contributions to American poetry commensurate with the contributions of the individuals listed below should therefore consider themselves honorary members of the ‘Top 200 Advocates for American Poetry” list as well.’

RSGWYNNThen he issued this invitation: “I strongly encourage readers of this list to contribute their own names to the comment section below the article.”  Needless to say, there were a number of people ready to take him up on the offer, including other friends’ names.  What?  No Edward Hirsch?  What?  No Robert Hass?  And no mention of Dana Gioia, whose work at the NEA was tireless?

Naturally, Humble Moi didn’t make the list – but to my surprise, I did make it in the first few comments in the section afterward, for which I’m grateful to R.S. Gwynn, another friend, who did make the list:

“I’m happy to be listed here (even though I’d like to be known as ‘poet and critic’) but I miss the presence of such names as Alfred Corn, the late Tom Disch, Dana Gioia, Cynthia Haven, X. J. Kennedy, and David Mason, all of whom are (or were in Tom’s case) great advocates.

As a small plug, I’d like to mention that I edited a book of the works of modernist poet-critics some years ago. Its title?  The Advocates of Poetry.

Just for that, here’s a picture of Sam Gwynn’s book, which discusses John Crowe Ransom, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, John Ciardi, and Robert Penn Warren – great advocates of poetry all.

 

Hannah Arendt on times “when there was only wrong and no outrage”

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012
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Light-seeking missile

One of the joys of having office space in a major university library is that, well, you never have to go to the library.  You are already there.

On my way to the stairs I passed a book I had seen footnoted or recommended, somewhere – Hannah Arendt‘s Men in Dark Times.  It seemed to jump out at me from the shelves – so I grabbed the volume and continued on my way.

To posterity

Arendt lived in the long afterglow of the German Enlightenment, so it’s no surprise that this collection of essays, written from about 1955 to 1968 for various publications and occasions, should favor Germans – Lessing, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht.  But there are some surprises, too – her friend Randall Jarrell, Isak Dineson, and Pope John XXIII, among others.

Why the title with its reference to “dark times”? She explains:

“I borrow the term from Brecht’s famous poem ‘To Posterity,’ which mentions the disorder and the hunger, the massacres and the slaughterers, the outrage over injustice and the despair ‘when there was only wrong and no outrage,’ the legitimate hatred that makes you ugly nevertheless, the well-founded wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse. All this was real enough as it took place in public; there was nothing secret or mysterious about it. And still, it was by no means visible to all, nor was it at all easy to perceive it; for until the very moment when catastrophe overtook everything and everybody, it was covered up not by realities but by the highly efficient talk and double-talk of nearly all official representatives who, without interruption and in many ingenious variations, explained away unpleasant facts and justified concerns.

No surprise.

When we think of dark times and of people living and moving in them, we have to take this camouflage, emanating from and spread by ‘the establishment’ – or ‘the system,’ as it was then called – also into account. If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Let there be light.

…even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth – this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn.  Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of the blazing sun. But such objective evaluation seems to me a matter or secondary importance which can be safely left to posterity.”

 

“Fondle them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will…”

Monday, February 20th, 2012
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A shocking moment in a recent conversation:  A professor of my acquaintance said that he’d gotten rid of almost all his books.  Why books, he said, when there’s Kindle?

Sleepless.

Randall Jarrell voiced his misgivings this way: “Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep at night I see the family of the future. Dressed in three-tone shorts-and-shirt sets of disposable Papersilk, they sit before the television wall of their apartment, only their eyes moving. After I’ve looked a while I always see – otherwise I’d die – a pigheaded soul over in the corner with a book; only his eyes are moving, but in them there is a different look.”

I can’t help but feel, still, that Kindle is only one step away from a computer screen, which is one step away from a television screen. In fact, perhaps Kindle may be  closer to the television screen to begin with, since both reading a book and watching TV are essentially passive activities.  So … why does the tactile quality of the book, which at least offers the interactivity of turning the pages, seem so much less deadening than staring at a screen, any screen?  Why does it seem so quietly redeeming?

And why does book addiction seem the most forgivable of compulsions?  Gabe Habash describes his own habit in Publishers Weekly‘s “The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books“:

If book buying addiction wasn’t a real thing, articles like this and this wouldn’t exist, and searching for “book clutter” on Google wouldn’t turn up 18 million results. Most of the articles are about a book lover, searching for obstructed light switches and tripping over wobbly stacks, finally saying “enough” and resolving to trim the fat, these being, more often than not, the library’s duplicates and never-will-reads or already-read-and-didn’t-really-likes.

My library has received its fair share of criticism. I gingerly proposed adding another shelf near the doorway of my roommate’s bedroom door, and I received a pretty impassioned response as a result. When my friend Matt comes over, he likes to engage in a favorite pastime called “You’re Never Going to Read That,” which involves him standing in front of the bookshelves with his chin haughtily tilted up and suddenly pointing at books that he thinks are stupid and that, for the life of him, he can not imagine why I have. “I think I have too many books,” I said once, and he said, “Okay I’ll help you out,” and quickly reached for House of Leaves.

Well, we’ve written about bookshelf porn before, and featured book furniture here and here. The craving for more books links inevitably  to the need for a space to put them in.  So Habash raises a bigger, more philosophical issue, apart from needing more understanding friends than Matt & co.:

But despite the fact that I probably have too many books, despite the fact that I am running out of room, I’m not sold on the notion of purging my library. The reason is this: most of the library consists of books I haven’t read (I did inventory for this article: I’ve read 85 out of the 371 books sitting on my shelves). In “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin shares this anecdote:

And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of all collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”

Sevres stayed in cupboard

I couldn’t agree more.  Why would you want to have in your library only books you have read?  Isn’t the whole point of a library to provide objects for contemplation in your solitary hours, the thrill of new discoveries on an otherwise humdrum rainy day?  And for the writer, a book collection is a research library on Sundays, holidays, and at 3 a.m., and more comprehensive than what scattershot google searches can ever offer. How many sleepless hours have been devoted to thoughtful book browsing!

And should the Big One strike, and the earth shake my shelves around my ears … I die happy.  Until the last battery dies within my flashlight while I hunker in the cave of books, I would contentedly read all those volumes I bought and never got round to finishing – William Anderson‘s Dante: The Maker comes immediately to mind, or Aleksander Wat‘s My Century. But so do many other books that I never even started.  Edith Grossman‘s translation of Don Quixote, for example.

Next?

As Winston Churchill said: “If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them – peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances.”

Perhaps I could even finish his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 1.

Happy 90th birthday, Richard Wilbur!

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011
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Birthday boy (Photo: Stathis Orphanos)

Happy birthday, Richard Wilbur, on your 90th!  Dan Rifenburgh reminded me of the poet’s birthday on Facebook a few days ago, but he didn’t know whether he’d be spending in Cummington, Massachusetts, or Key West.  Either way, he will probably not be celebrating in NYC: I remember a characteristic passage in one his books where he described a brisk walk near his home with a guest: “But my friend from New York, an excellent abstract artist, walks through our Berkshire woods smoking Gauloises and talking of Berlin. It is too bad that he cannot be where he is, enjoying the glades and closures, the climbs, the descents, the flat stretches strewn with Canada Mayflower and wintergreen…”

Richard Woodward in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal called him “our finest living poet.”  Nice to know someone else shares that opinion — I voiced the same thought some months ago here. Here’s what Woodward said:

Richard Wilbur turns 90 on Tuesday, but it’s unlikely that many Americans will stop to pay tribute to our finest living poet. Despite having earned almost every literary award this country has to offer, including a pair of Pulitzers and Bollingens, as well as the title of U.S. Poet Laureate in 1987-88, he has never enjoyed a rapt general following.

I had dinner with Dick Wilbur and his wife Charlotte oh, maybe a decade ago in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  He was as genial as his reputation had suggested, and his obvious, abiding affection for his high school sweetheart, an effervescent and gregarious matron, was charming.  I never made it out for the Key West interview I had envisioned … perhaps there’s still time.

The poet-critic Randall Jarrell said Wilbur “obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing,” but his poems, since Charlotte’s death in 2007, have become increasingly death-haunted.

It’s unusual for poets to be productive so long — conventional wisdom is that they do their best work young, and “dry up” as Thom Gunn told me — but Anterooms: New Poems and Translations, is a marvel.  One poem, “A Measuring Worm,” describes a caterpillar climbing a window screen, hunching his back as he goes:

It’s as if he sent
By a sort of semaphore
Dark omegas meant

To warn of Last Things.
Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,

And I too don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.

Woodward notes, “His productivity, never high to begin with, has slowed with age. He finishes poems at the rate that Antonio Stradivari constructed a violin. ‘I often don’t write more than a couple of lines in a day of, let’s say, six hours of staring at the sheet of paper,’ he told the Paris Review in 1977. “Composition for me is, externally at least, scarcely distinguishable from catatonia.”

David Orr in the New York Times writes of Anterooms that “it would be tempting to say that what we have here is a scanty manuscript that will nonetheless be extravagantly praised because its author is still deeply respected and, hey, isn’t it wonderful that he’s still making a go of it at his age? Tempting, but wrong. The better work in Anterooms, however limited in quantity, is as good as anything Wilbur has ever written, and upholds certain virtues other poets would do well to acknowledge, even if they travel roads different from the relatively straight one Wilbur has followed.” He concludes:

“More than 50 years ago, Randall Jarrell claimed that as a poet, Wilbur ‘never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.’ The observation is invariably quoted whenever Wilbur gets reviewed (far be it from me to break the chain). But to write convincingly about death — and also, as Wilbur has increasingly done, about grief — isn’t a matter of ‘going’ anywhere. It’s a matter of remaining poised in the face of a vast and freezing indifference. And while the strong, spare poems here are unlikely to strike many readers as the illustrious pronouncements of a Grand Old Man — the kind of figure Jarrell had in mind — they are wholly successful in meeting the darkest of subjects with their own quiet light. Which is, surely, a far grander thing.”

Anterooms includes some of two translations of poems by Joseph Brodsky (I still think his translations of J.B. are the best) one poem by Stéphane Mallarmé and an unpublished poem by Paul Verlaine.  Wilbur has always had a affinity for French (his verse translations of Molière are unmatched) — and so was the perfect lyricist for Leonard Bernstein‘s Candide, in the spirit of Voltaire. Composer Stephen Sondheim called Wilbur’s lyrics “the most scintillating set of songs yet written for the musical theater.”  I still occasionally find myself, on a sunny day, humming —

What a day! What a day!
For an auto-da-fé!

See the Lincoln Center’s 1986 version below (or for a real treat, check out Kristin Chenoweth in Candide on youtube).

Postscript: Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence celebrates the birthday here.