Posts Tagged ‘Robert Hass’

Brenda Hillman, Anne Carson win Griffin Awards in Toronto!

Thursday, June 5th, 2014
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carson

Two-time winner.

The Griffin Awards were announced in Toronto a few hours ago, and we’re happy to see familiar names on the lists.  Canadian poet Anne Carson, recently a Stanford guest (we wrote about her here and here)  became the first two-time winner of the $65,000 award, one of the most lucrative poetry prizes in the world, for her latest collection Red Doc.  The Berkeley’s Brenda Hillman was awarded the international prize, also worth $65,000, for her ninth collection, Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire. The jury had praised the collection as “a unique work. Its letters are on fire.”

In her acceptance speech, Brenda said that the world requires “more poetry and fewer weapons.” She had the guts to show it during the recent Occupy protests, when she and her Pulitzer prizewinning husband Robert Hass were roughed up by the police (I wrote about it here). The shortlisted poets gave a reading last night  at Koerner Hall in Toronto – a video of the readings from the shortlisted poets below. Brenda is about 36 minutes into the video, Ann Carson is at about 1.51.

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Brenda goes international.

Here’s part of the reason for excitement for me: the Griffin Poetry Trust considers poetry in translation in its awards as well. It was a pleasure to hear Polish poetry again, recited by one of Poland’s best new poets, Tomasz Różycki – I was pleased to have a chance to meet him in New York three years ago. Stanford Stegner fellow Mira Rosenthal is the translator for his collection Colonies (Zephyr Press). You can see both at about 1.03 on the video below. See if you love the sound of Polish as much as I do. The book has already received a “notable translations of 2013″ recognition from World Literature Today.

Other finalists for the Canadian prize were Sue Goyette for her fourth collection, Ocean, and poet and novelist Anne Michaels for Correspondences, a collaboration with the artist Bernice Eisenstein.

colonies-cover-imageThe other finalists for the International prize were Carl Phillips for Silverchest and Rachael Boast for Pilgrim’s Flower. All the finalists, including both winners, received $10,000 for taking part in the shortlist readings.

Adélia Prado was this year’s recipient of the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry’s Lifetime Recognition Award – Bob Hass read a few of the Brazilian poet’s poems at about 1.40 on the video. (I’ve written about Bob here and here and here.)

Colonies is also on the short-list for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Award, which will be announced next week, June 13-14 in Oxford, UK. The book is also on the long-list for the PEN Poetry in Translation award.  The short-list for the PEN will be announced on June 17 in New York City. We’ll let you know how it goes.

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griffinpoetryprize on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free

Louise Glück: “I wanted my books to seem worlds.”

Thursday, February 6th, 2014
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Accustomed to silence (Photo: Gasper Tringale)

Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Hass has called her “one of the purest and most accomplished lyric poets now writing.” For that reason and others we were pleased to learn Louise Glück has a new collection of poems coming out this fall, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).  She is a Pulitzer Prize winner, too, along with just about every other honor in the poetry world – including a prestigious Bollingen Prize, given biennially for a poet’s lifetime achievement.

Glück, a Mohr visiting poet at Stanford, gave a reading from the new volume earlier this week – but you can also find some of the poems in the current issue of American Scholar.  ”I wanted my books to seem worlds,” she said. If the reading was any indication, she’s succeeded in her quest.

The question-and-answer period afterward was short. In fact, it was confined to a single question about how long it took her to put together this collection of poems. The poet admitted she writes “very volcanically.” Each volume is followed by long silence – two years before the newest one, for example. It’s not a fun kind of silence. She described it as “a silence of anxiety and terror that my mind has been emptied and there would be life, but no more work. That sort of silence.”

“The summer was just rapture for me. Now is the plummet to the floor.” Eventually, “like the Wright Brothers, you go three inches off the floor.”

Tomas Venclova speaks at the EU about his mother tongue and an “eccentric, capricious city.”

Friday, October 18th, 2013
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Tomas in Vilnius

I met Tomas Venclova in his role as a poet, and it is primarily as a poet he is known.  However, he has a lesser-known role as a champion of Lithuanian culture, literature, and above all language. His work in that arena is as impressive as his poetry – and he had a chance to show it at the European Union yesterday and today, in Brussels and Luxembourg, where he was speaking.  I asked him if I could share some of his remarks, which he had sent to me. “Mais oui!” he replied.

I’ve blogged so much about Vilnius and Lithuania – try here and here and here and here and here. But it’s a wonderful country and during my most recent visit, traveling from Warsaw to Vilnius, I gained a deeper appreciation of its wildness and mystery, of its old superstitions and myths, and the enchantment of  its jewel-box capital, aptly symbolized, on its coat of arms, by Saint Christopher wading through the mud of history.

The Lithuanian language has has kept many archaic features of ancient languages such as Sanskrit or Ancient Greek, and is spoken by about 3.2 million people. Yet, as Tomas pointed out, it’s in better shape today than Gaelic – “now, it is not just the official state language, but also the language of schools, universities, press and other media, as well as of very good theaters. Even before World War I, Lithuanian literature in Vilnius had built quite a reputation, though during the two interwar decades, when the city was annexed to Poland, it was often dismissed as inferior.”

Marvelous Vilnius, a Jerusalem claimed by two nations, the Lithuanians and the Poles, is “the perfect and sacred city which had been lost in the whirlwinds of history,” he said.  The city, which at times almost a religious space, “is often said to be mysterious and magic, eccentric and peculiar, the inspiration of myths and poetry. A particularly strong connection between the city and its surroundings is also very characteristic to it, allowing poets to see Vilnius as a pastoral place with ‘wild’ but idyllic nature intruding into the city center and adorning its baroque décor. … The text of Vilnius is composed of smaller texts, written in different languages, sometimes rich in code-switching, as for instance the seventeenth-century dramas, where Lithuanian and Belarussian cues are interwoven with Polish ones.

“But there is more than just linguistics involved here. Most varied cultural discourses overlay one another, letting competing myths sprout from the primeval mythological trunk. The national identity of many residents of Vilnius is similarly complicated: the same person can simultaneously belong to several cultures, which is why she or he sometimes stands aloof from the rest of society, suffering from an inner conflict.”

Two of the Polish language’s greatest poets were born and reared in Lithuania: Czesław Miłosz in the 20th century and Adam Mickiewicz in the 19th – and Miłosz was a close friend of the Lithuanian-language poet.  Venclova’s talk wasn’t short on his friend:

vilnius3“Czesław Miłosz, the greatest Vilnius poet of the twentieth century, also started his career in the interwar period … The life of Vilnius-Wilno (at that time, annexed to Poland) did not change much from Mickiewicz’s to Miłosz’s times; the city and its suburbs were populated by the same provincial Polish gentry, known as szlachta, the memories of the free masons’ lodges were still alive, and the great University, closed by Tsarist Russia in 1832, was reopened in 1918. Thus, the budding poet could readily feel he was entering a larger tradition. But for Miłosz, Vilnius was not a sanctuary to visit on a pilgrimage; nor was it a place asking for a particular literary genre to record its magnificence, namely, the poetic Baedeker, much exploited by the lesser poets of the time. Miłosz was not a regional but a European poet, as was Mickiewicz. According to him, the Mickiewicz tradition marked a revolt, a disagreement with reality as well as the prospect of exile. But for him, too, Vilnius-Wilno was a sacred city. Finding himself in exile in 1950s, he denied feeling nostalgic: he wanted to start anew and to build his poetic tower without looking back. Yet his texts soon acquired a double perspective: he would depict the city of his youth through the prism of his new French and American experiences, reviving the details of the past life with heartfelt love and skill, and contrapuntally comparing Vilnius to his new surroundings. He recreated the city spaces in the Proustian manner: his city is idealized because of his physical and temporal distance, but the picture is realistic enough and devoid of unnecessary sentimentality. In the cycle Miasto bez imienia (City without a Name) published in 1969, as well as in other poems, Milosz was approaching what he himself called apocatastasis, the revival of purified, primordial reality. He was greatly, probably mainly, interested in the language of that reality. In this, an obvious example and archetype for Milosz was Mickiewicz, but also the Lithuanian Konstantinas Sirvydas, the author of the seventeenth-century dictionary, to whom Miłosz devoted his beautiful poem ‘Philology.’

 ”The peak of this poetry is manifest in the poems written after the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, when Miłosz could return to it. Nostalgia acquires a new shape: 52 years later, Vilnius looks like a city of the dead and Lithuania is some ‘other space’ described in metaphysical categories. At the same time, nothing has disappeared from the landscape of Vilnius: Miłosz sees the same ‘forests of brown gold’ in October, when the weather, again, is like wine, and the familiar hills and twisted baroque gables whisper that everything passes but are also witnesses to the permanence of the world, resurrected in human memory.

vilnius2“Miłosz and his companions were interested in the history and culture of the ethnic communities which had their own right to the city, namely, the Lithuanians, the Belarusians and the Jews. Together with a friend, he translated the works of the Lithuanian poet Kazys Boruta and wrote reviews of twentieth-century Lithuanian literature, his lifelong interest. In some ways he considered himself a Lithuanian who wrote in Polish; I remember how happy he was when Lithuanian translations of his poems were published before the Polish originals.”

“Miłosz possessed some knowledge of Lithuanian, just as Yeats possessed some knowledge of Gaelic,” he said – but that’s a bit of an overstatement. Miłosz was born among Lithuania’s Polish-speaking gentry, and didn’t bother to learn the language, even though he had a ethnically Lithuanian grandmother. Robert Hass said he began learning the language instead when Miłosz was in his 80s. Why bother so late?  “Because I think it might be the language of heaven,” he confessed to Hass.

vilniusDespite attempts to make Vilnius a truly national city, Tomas said, “the Lithuanian capital has remained what it had always been―complex and multidimensional, a continent in miniature. But this is a fragile condition, and we are responsible for it.”

“The creation of our continent and our civilization has always been a duty, an uncertainty, and a risk. I don’t know of any place in Europe that better lives up to this risk than Vilnius―a perpetual peripheral area and borderland, an eccentric, capricious, erratic city with a unique past that violates all the rules of logic and probability.”

 

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.

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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.

 

A novelist? “He knows no obligations of honor.”

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012
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Joseph and Marguerite Frank, chuckling in their apartment. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Another sunny autumn day in Palo Alto.  And yes, California’s reputation for non-seasons notwithstanding, there were buckets of crisp red and orange and yellow leaves everywhere.

I spent the late afternoon chatting at a Stanford cafe with Marguerite and Joe Frank, the preeminent Dostoevsky scholar of our era, and the author of a big, thick, multi-volume biography.

Joe was in a wheelchair, wearing a black baseball cap that had “Crime and Punishment” embroidered in white Roman type across the front – a souvenir from a film crew. The longtime Paris denizen told me the cap was a good way to ferret out the Americans in France; they react to the title. Meanwhile, Marguerite advised me where to find Romanesque architecture in southern France next month.

Conversation inevitably turned Slavic.  Joe recalled Czesław Miłosz‘s visit to campus, some years ago.  The Polish poet thought highly of the Dostoevsky scholar – and said so in his address.  Miłosz taught Dostoevsky at Berkeley for years, but why is a little of a mystery.  Robert Hass told me a decade ago:  “Some of us asked him if he’d read Flannery O’Connor, and he said no. Had he read so-and-so? ‘No.’ And finally he said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with the novel.’ That’s a different way of thinking.”

It wasn’t the only different way of thinking on the subject of Dostoevsky.  I was reminded me of something I found this morning, while doing some reading for my upcoming talk on Miłosz at the British Academy.  From the Paris Review interview with the poet and Robert Faggen:

 

Without honor?

INTERVIEWER

Since then you have been uninterested in writing novels. You seem to have a quarrel with the genre. Why?

MILOSZ

It’s an impure form. I taught Dostoyevsky at Berkeley for twenty years. A born novelist, he would sacrifice everything; he knows no obligations of honor. He would put anything in a novel. Dostoyevsky created a character in The Idiot, General Ivolgin, who is a liar and tells stories—how he lost his leg in a war, how he buried his leg, and then what he inscribed on the tombstone. The inscription is taken from the tomb of Dostoyevsky’s mother. There you have a true novelist. I couldn’t do that.

Who collaborated, who resisted in wartime Paris?

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012
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Teamwork: Joseph and Marguerite Frank (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I ran into Marguerite and Joseph Frank a week or so ago in the Coupa Café. He was in a wheelchair, recuperating from a fall, and both were enjoying the sunshine.

They were also reveling the recent publication of Joe’s new collection of essays, Responses to Modernity: Essays in the Politics of Culture (Fordham). They promised to send me a copy of the book – and so they did.

Here’s what Frederick Brown, author of Zola, had to say about the book: “Joseph Frank, noted for his monumental biography of Dostoevsky, is a critic of great cultural breadth, securely grounded in philosophy and in the literatures of America, Europe, and Russia.  Responses to Modernity shows him at his best. What it does especially well is survey the intellectual life of France and Germany before and after World War II in the brilliant works that emerged from Europe’s dark night, in the patter of ideological barkers inviting young minds to part the curtain and enter their tents, in the story of those who fought shy of radical creeds and of those who couldn’t resist the lure of primitivism.”

I spent about an hour rambling through its pages the other night, enjoying Joe’s amiable, wide-ranging, and intellectually graceful style (he turns 94 sometime this year, by the way). He tackles the Bucharest triumvirate of Eugène Ionesco, E.M. Cioran, and Mircea Eliade in one essay, such figures as Jacques Maritain and Yves Bonnefoy in others.

Coupa in springtime.

I paused on this paragraph on the German occupation of France, in an essay on Herbert Lottman‘s The Left Bank:

“Lottman’s chapters on the German years of the Left Bank are the best of the book because they synthesize so much little-known material and succeed in clarifying a stretch of history that has remained relatively obscure.

“One learns, for example, that the entire French publishing industry collaborated with the Germans in one way or another, and all accepted the restrictions imposed by occupation authorities – such as the banning of all anti-German works, and of course books by Jewish authors.

“Collaboration was made easier by the sympathetic Gerhard Heller, the German officer then placed in charge of French publishing, who admired French culture, deplored Nazi excesses, and often helped his French literary friends out of tight spots. Is it Heller who records in his diary – published in France several years ago, and which enjoyed a succès d’estime – that he wept when the brilliant, gifted, and viciously anti-Semitic Robert Brasillach, the editor of the clamorously collaborationist Je Suis Partout, advocated sending French Jewish children to concentration camps along with their parents.

“Just who collaborated and who was in the resistance is often difficult to determine; Lottman states that a case could be made out, with equal plausibility, for the thesis that everybody collaborated as well as for the one that everybody resisted.  For most of the Left Bank notables, “resistance” consisted of little more than writing occasional articles for the clandestine press that gradually sprang into being or, what was slightly more dangerous, helping in its production and distribution.”

Alone.

Czeslaw Milosz, of course, defected in France, and during those war years, had translated Maritain’s On the Roads of Defeat, an important attack on collaborationism.  He had been thoroughly immersed in French culture since his youth – I wondered what he thought about what he saw in postwar Paris.

I remember Robert Hass telling me, about the war years, “Oh, no, but the French didn’t experience what Czeslaw experienced. It was a society that essentially collaborated. The Poles thought existentialism was an improbable bad faith doctrine coming out of a collaborationist culture. They just never bought it.”

Then, the defection – I describe his fear and loneliness and total isolation when he took refuge in to the Kultura offices in Maisons-Laffitte here.

Robert Hass: A new meaning for “beat poets”

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011
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“None of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning.”

When former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer prizewinning poet Robert Hass went to visit Berkeley’s Occupy movement, it was mostly from curiosity. He had heard that thousands of UC-Berkeley students, staff, and faculty protesting a proposed 81 percent tuition hike were “beaten viciously” earlier in the day.  “I didn’t believe it. In broad daylight? And without provocation?” He went to see for himself. And you can see him at about 1:13 in the KTVU video here.

I don’t know much about the Occupy movement; I’m mistrustful of large crowds of any kind.  But I do know Bob Hass, a gentle presence who has been personally kind and generous to me.

So when the Berkeley professor, who turned 70 last March, gets beaten by police with billy clubs, it’s hard to be of two minds about it. Ditto if they push and knock down his slender wife, the poet Brenda Hillman.  Here’s the way the Bob explained the episode in a New York Times oped:

Hillman

“I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. … If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines. …

O'Brien

“We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. … I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, ‘You just knocked down my wife, for Christ’s sake!’ A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging.”

This passage is vintage Bob:

Langan

“My ribs didn’t hurt very badly until the next day and then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed that the bruises weren’t slightly more dramatic. It argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.”

In Berkeley, of all places.  A place where the police should have known better. This month’s events looked more like Tiananmen Square than the home of the Free Speech Movement.

To paraphrase George Orwell, or rather to quote Jesse Kornbluth at the Huffington Post paraphrasing George Orwell: When I see a policeman with a club beating a man on the ground, I don’t have to ask whose side I’m on.

Here’s Celeste Langan being dragged by the hair:

Tomas Tranströmer: The dark horse who is no dark horse

Friday, October 7th, 2011
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Shrinking

So the Nobel Literature sweepstakes had a happy ending this year: By now, everyone knows that Tomas Tranströmer at last took home the prize.  It’s enormously gratifying that someone of this heft and stature has bagged the prize, but a lot of my friends and colleagues are saying:  “Who?”

It is, as the Associated Press noted, not really a surprise:

The Nobel Prize in literature was awarded Thursday to a psychologist who used his spare time to craft sparsely written poems about the mysteries of everyday life — commuting to work, watching the sun rise or waiting for nightfall.

Tomas Tranströmer, Sweden’s most famous poet, had been a favorite for the prize for so many years that even his countrymen had started to doubt whether he would ever win.

The Nobel judges are understandably reluctant to reward one of their own, a fellow Swede.

I’m not terrifically familiar with his oeuvre, though I like what I’ve I read so far.  Since I’m currently on the road, I took his The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems with me – one of those books I bought but never really had a chance to do much more than thumb through.

“His poems have a kind of stark, piercing inwardness that’s very striking,” said Robert Hass, who edited Transtromer’s “Selected Poems.”

“There are lots of poems written about driving back and forth to work, poems about dawn, poems about dusk. He gets those moments in life, those ordinary periods of change.”

So few of the articles have quoted any of his poetry.  So how about this, the last stanza of “Morning Birds”:

Fantastic to feel how my poem grows
while I myself shrink.
It grows, it takes my place.
It pushes me aside.
It throws me out of the nest.
The poem is ready.

 

 

Jack Foley’s “chronoencyclopedia” – California poets and poetry in 1,287 pages

Sunday, July 24th, 2011
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Altogether, Jack Foley has written 1,287 pages on California poetry – and that’s only 65 years of it, from 1940-2005. It’s a feat that would not go unremarked in an earlier era – say, five years ago. But at a time when book review sections are folding left, right, and center  …  crickets.

Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line, Poets & Poetry, volumes one and two,  published last March by Pantograph Press, is a “chronoencyclopedia scene” describing, as Jack says on his title page, “the twentieth century in all its confused and troubled eloquence.”  Jack spent a decade documenting the writers, poems, and events in a tumbling, giddy present tense, from the first page when Kenneth Rexroth, in 1940, “invents the culture of the West Coast,” according to Robert Hass.

That’s the moment, writes Jack, when “California’s image had changed. The state had moved out of its early provincialism and had begun to take its place in the nation as a whole.”

According to the product description on amazon:

People, ideas, and stories appear, disappear, and reappear as the second half of the century moves forward. Poetry is a major element in this kaleidoscopic California scene. It is argued about, dismissed, renewed, denounced in fury, asserted as divine, criticized as pornographic. Poetry is as Western as the Sierra foothills, and the questions raised here go to its very heart. Beginning with the publication of Kenneth Rexroth’s first book, this all-encompassing history-as-collage plunges us forward into the 21st Century. California authors keep generating massive anthologies in an attempt to tame the chaos of California, to pretend it isn’t there. Yet there it is—staring them in the face like a great bear, alive, hungry and more than a little dangerous.

What could be more Californian?

Jack was introduced to me about a decade ago by Dana Gioia, who is acknowledged as a motivating force in getting the project launched.

The Oakland-based poet and critic has a radio show, “Cover to Cover,” aired on Wednesdays at 3 p.m. on Berkeley station KPFA (it’s available at the KPFA web site – see here).  His column, “Foley’s Books,” appears in the online magazine The Alsop Review.

“Heaven is the third vodka” — Czesław Miłosz

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011
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One...

So far the events celebrating the Czesław Miłosz centenary have been marked by a special warmth and conviviality, almost like a family reunion – but nowhere was that impression more pronounced than at last Wednesday’s event at Wheeler Hall at the University of California, Berkeley.  No surprise.  Berkeley was the poet’s home for four decades.

Thanks to the notorious Berkeley parking — a university parking lot meter that would not take cards, not take bills, and, once I got about three dozen quarters, wouldn’t take those either (nor return them) – I arrived about 45 minutes late.

Adam Zagajewski was saying “Has he grasped the totality? … Well, yes.”

“It’s in ruins, because totality is in ruins, but it’s still a totality.”  I wasn’t quite sure what the “it” was – the world?  the Nobel laureate’s oeuvre? — nor did I get more than the gist of what he was trying to say, having missed the context, but it was vintage Zagajewski, so I pass it on.

“The world does not belong to any single poet,” said Adam.

Two...

Robert Hass was the emcee for the event, and commented on Miłosz’s stunning memory, and also on the unusual and sometimes dark connections it made.  A singing of “happy birthday” would remind Miłosz of the crematoria at Auschwitz, and crematoria might remind him of strawberry jam.

Berkeley is also the home of the poet’s son, Anthony (or Antoni) Milosz.  I met him once before, several years ago at the San Francisco memorial organized by poet Jane Hirshfield, but the resemblance to his father did not strike me nearly so forcefully then.  On Wednesday evening, it gobsmacked me.

Toni has translated his father’s last poems (Wiersze ostatnie was published by Znak in 2006), to be published with the paperback selected this fall as Selected and Last Poems.

The younger Miłosz said that he was aiming at “sound translation,” and felt too often translations of his father’s poems “intellectual content dominates.”

He noted the rhythm of his father’s work, and that, among musical instruments, Miłosz favored the bass and drum – “though he claimed to like the harpsichord and more refined instruments.”

“My father’s poetry is immensely direct,” he said, adding that directness pits it against current trends.

He read his father’s late poem “In Honor of Father Baka,” which he described as “funky, short-lined” poems in the baroque manner.  It’s wry and mysterious – and I am looking forward to the November 15 publication.

Peter Dale Scott reiterated the claim that Czesław Miłosz was “perhaps the greatest poet of our time,” and called him  “a poet of radical hope” in a way “not seen since Schiller and Mickiewicz.” Miłosz saw poetry as “a home for incorrigible hope” — another feature of his work that was “in marked contrast to the times.”

Peter ranked Miłosz with poets from Dante to Blake, the poets who were “enlarging human consciousness.”  He discussed Miłosz’s poem, “Dante,” which concludes:

“The inborn and the perpetual desire
Del deiformo regno – for a God-like domain,
A realm or a kingdom. There is my home.
I cannot help it. I pray for light,
For the inside of the eternal pearl, L’eterna margarita.”

Miłosz, said Peter, was “obsessed with the need to reach the ‘second space’ – the world of paradise and perfection beyond this world we inhabit.”

Peter called Miłosz a “leading visionary of his time, looking into the open space ahead.”

Jane Hirshfield noted that for Miłosz, “everything was I and Thou, everything was personal.”

Most of the evenings speakers at the front of the room arrived via literature, said journalist Mark Danner. “I come here through real estate.”  (That’s not quite true; he was Miłosz’s friend for several years before he bought the poet’s house on Grizzly Peak.)

He described the roughstone chimney and the roughstone path of the house that has been compared to a cottage from a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale.  He also remembered “Czesław’s deer.”  ”The deer populate the place,” even though Miłosz would chase them away from the garden they viewed as a salad bar.

Bingo! (But it's not Żubrówka...but would you notice by the third round?)

One morning he recalled seeing more deer on the lawn than he had ever seen before – over a dozen, as he recalled.  Bob Hass’s voice was on his answerphone – “Mark, I don’t want to leave a message on a machine…” Miłosz had died in Krakow.

Mark thumbed through a book Miłosz had inscribed to him, and was startled to read the reference he had apparently forgotten, the inscription “in the name of all generations of deer.”

Bob Hass’s wife, the poet Brenda Hillman, recalled the Monday translation sessions Bob shared with Miłosz — sometimes spending the session working on a single line.  Bob recalled Miłosz appearing on their doorstep, with the command, “Vodka, Brenda!”  A bottle was always in the freezer, waiting. I hope it was Żubrówka.

Brenda was, for a time, interested in the knotty issues the Gnostics raised, and asking Miłosz, “What is heaven?  What is it like?”  To which the poet replied:

“Brenda, heaven is the third vodka.”