Posts Tagged ‘T.S. Eliot’

Great minds wonder: What’s the connection between T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and Beethoven’s Opus 132?

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018
Share

He wanted to get “beyond poetry.”

“Many critics and students have come dangerously close to subscribing to the tenuous proposition that a nearly exact formal analogy exists between the structure of T.S. Eliot‘s Four Quartets and that of Beethoven‘s late string quartets,” wrote Thomas R. Rees in “The Orchestration of Meaning in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets” in 1969.

As if the idea had ever crossed our minds.

However, I’ve since learned that the association of my all-time favorite Eliot piece and the Beethoven late string quartets really is a thing. And not only from Rees. I discovered this article written by Katie Mitchell on the subject way back in 2005, when she and a colleague were developing a performance of Eliot’s masterpiece:

It was only by chance that we discovered – in Lyndall Gordon‘s book on Eliot’s later career, Eliot’s New Life – that the poem was inspired by one of Beethoven’s late string quartets. Once the initial connection had been made between the two pieces, I started to research them both, with a view to working out how to put them together. The idea of an evening that somehow combined a reading of the poem with a performance of the string quartet was born. …

Beethoven composed his string quartet, Opus 132 in A minor, in the winter of 1824-52. He was 54 and recovering from a serious bowel condition from which he had nearly died. As a result, he entitled the central movement “a song of thanksgiving … offered to the divinity by a convalescent”, and the second section of this movement bears the inscription: “Feeling new strength.”

“Feeling new strength.”

Over 100 years later, in March 1931, TS Eliot, aged 47, wrote to Stephen Spender: “I have the A minor Quartet on the gramophone, and I find it quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety, about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.”

Eliot began the Four Quartets in 1935 and worked on it for years, finishing it in 1941. Whereas the composer wrote one quartet, with five movements, the poet wrote four pieces, each divided into five sections. Like Beethoven’s work, Eliot’s poem was triggered by personal suffering, although not of a physical nature. It was probably connected to his separation from his wife, Vivienne, in 1932; her mental illness; and the rekindling of a platonic relationship with his first love, the American university teacher Emily Hale. …

In 1933 Eliot said he wanted to get “beyond poetry, as Beethoven in his later works, strove to get beyond music”.

Intrigued as I was? Read the whole thing here. Rees’s piece is here. Or listen to the A Minor String Quartet here.

Postscript on 10/14: Faithful Book Haven reader Henry Gould alerted us to his own 2009 post at “HG Poetics” on this very subject, here.

“Those who read books own the world.” Lost languages, an Algonquin Bible, the Herzogs, and more

Friday, March 30th, 2018
Share

A stroll down the corridors of Cambridge’s treasure house.

I visited the Old Library at Jesus College, Cambridge, last week. Prof. Stephen Heath gave an enlightening show-and-tell of the library’s incunabula to me and my fellow pilgrims, John Dugdale Bradley and Michael Gioia (Stanford alums, both). He brought out  an astonishing succession of treasures, including Thomas Cranmer‘s Bible, with its triple columns for comparing the original language (Greek, on the pages I saw) to the Vulgate Latin and English.

“What would you like to see last?” he asked me. What could I say? I had no idea what wonders might be in the back rooms. “Surprise me,” I said.

Marvels tucked away in a corner of Cambridge

And so he did. He brought out another Bible, this one from America. It was a 1663 Bible translated phonetically by John Eliot. The Natick dialect of Algonquin had no written form until he gave it one. He inscribed the particular presentation copy under my fingers for his alma mater at Cambridge, Jesus College. Was the Eliot name a coincidence? I remember a prominent New England family that spawned another famous Eliot, also with one “l”. On the other hand, I also knew that spellings of surnames were very fluid even into the 19th century.

When I got back to California, I checked on John Eliot, the Puritan missionary. He is indeed distantly related to T.S. Eliot, from the same Brahmin family in Massachusetts. Both descended from Andrew Eliot, whose family came to America via Yeovil and East Coker, Somerset.

But the Algonquin Bible haunted me for another reason: I recently attended a private screening in San Francisco of photographer’s Lena Herzog‘s Last Whispers, about the mass extinction of languages. I meant to tell her about the Algonquin Bible on my return, but now this blogpost will have to do. Perhaps the Algonquin language, which still has more than three thousand speakers, owes something to Eliot’s efforts.

The coincidences continued: this week, a new friend, Paul Holdengräber of the New York Public Library, sent me the link for his interview several years ago with Lena’s husband, the unconventional filmmaker Werner Herzog. The Q&A, “Was the Twentieth Century a Mistake?”, touches on the same subject – lost languages. (His comments are unrelated to Lena’s project, although their interests on the matter converge.) So here’s a hefty and relevant excerpt from the conversation between the two men:

WH: But, Paul, before we go into other things, I would linger a little on the twentieth century. And one of the things that is quite evident and looks like a good thing in the twentieth century is the ecologists’ movement. It makes a lot of sense, the fundamental analysis is right. The fundamental attitude they have taken is also right, but we miss something completely out of the twentieth century, which is—

Lena Herzog: a lover of language

PH: Culture.

WH: What went wrong in the culture, yes. That is, we see embarrassments like whale huggers, I mean, you can’t get worse than that, or tree huggers, even, such bizarre behaviour. And people are concerned about the panda bear, and they are concerned about the well-being of salad leaves, but they have completely overlooked that while we are sitting here probably the last speaker of a language may die in these two hours. There are six thousand languages still left, but by 2050, only 15 percent of these languages will survive.

PH: So we are paying attention to the wrong things.

WH: No, to pay attention to ecological questions is not the wrong thing, but to overlook the immense value of human culture is. More than twenty years ago I met an Australian man in Port Augusta in an old-age home and he was named “the mute.” He was the very last speaker of his language, had nobody with whom he could speak and hence fell mute, fell silent. He had no one left, and of course he has died since then. And his language has disappeared, has not been recorded. It’s as if the last Spaniard had died and Spanish literature and culture, everything has vanished. And it vanishes very, very fast. It vanishes much faster than anything we are witnessing in terms of, let’s say, mammals dying out. Yes, we should be concerned about the snow leopard, and we should be concerned about whales, but why is it that nobody talks about cultures and languages and last speakers dying away? There’s a massive, colossal, and cataclysmic mistake that is happening right now and nobody sees it and nobody talks about it. So that’s why I find it enraging that people hug whales. Who hugs the last speaker of an Inuit language in Alaska? So it just makes me angry when I look back at the twentieth century, and I’m afraid it continues like that. And we have got into a meaningless consumer culture, we have lost dignity, we have lost all proportion.

“Ah, people. It’s the books that matter!” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

PH: In terms of preserving culture, preserving language, we can think of this library, which has many millions of books underground, seven floors of books, and it goes under Bryant Park.

WH: Paradise.

PH: Paradise, as you called it, but when we were underground, you asked the librarian: “In the case of a holocaust, what would we do with the precious books?” And the librarian was rather anxious about that question. [laughter] No provisions had yet been made, and I don’t know if they’ve been made since your question. But I remember the librarian wondering how to answer it. And he said, “Well, in the case of a holocaust, maybe we will come here.” And you said, “Ah, people. It’s the books that matter!” Do you remember that?

WH: Yes, it sounds misleading in the context of the previous, but please continue. [laughter]

PH: Well, the books are the repository of our memories and our culture. So that these languages that are disappearing as we are talking now have a place where they’re archived, where they’re kept, even if the culture itself has become mute, it still can be studied.

WH: But most of the six thousand still-spoken languages are not recorded in written form. So then they disappear without a trace. That’s evident. But, yes, books, sure, we must preserve them and we must somehow be cautious and careful with them, because they carry our culture—and, of course, those who read books own the world, those who watch television lose it. So be careful and be cautious with the books.

Tom Eliot has formidable forebears.

PH: And what you do with your time.

WH: Yes, but we do have disagreements of what are the most precious ones that we would keep. Of course, you would go for James Joyce immediately, and I have my objections, because I think he’s—

PH: Who would you go for?

WH: Hölderlin. No, I mean James Joyce isn’t really bad, but—

PH: James Joyce is on a trajectory for you—

WH: Which went somewhere wrong—

PH: Somewhere wrong, starting with Petrarch and then going to someone such as Laurence Sterne.

WH:. Yes, Laurence Sterne is somehow a beginning in modern literature, where literature really became modern but also went on a detour and the result—

PH: A detour from what?

Hardcore?

WH: Detour from what, yes—that’s not easy to say, a detour that leads let’s say to Finnegans Wake, where literature should not end up. It’s a cul de sac, in my opinion, and much of James Joyce is a cul de sac, per se. But at the same time that he was writing, there were also people like Kafka, for example, and Joseph Conrad. I have a feeling there is something hardcore, some essence of literature; and you have it in a long, long tradition and you find it in Joseph Conrad, you find it in Hemingway, the short stories, you find it in Bruce Chatwin, and you find it in Cormac McCarthy.

You can read the whole fascinating interview at the literary journal Brick here. But I can’t help but wonder about something else, related to hugging pandas and kissing whales. This may be the very first era in history where there has been so much sentimentality and affection for animals, and comparatively little for babies and children. (This vegetarian cat-lover pleads guilty, at least a bit.) Why is that? And what does that say for the future of the race?

Meanwhile, enjoy this Huron carol, in a language now extinct. Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary wrote this carol in Wendat (Wyandot) sometime before he was martyred in 1649 – fourteen years before Eliot’s Algonquin Bible.

“Where are we going? Home, always back home”: On love, loss, and death…

Thursday, January 7th, 2016
Share
thomas1

Thomas reading Shakespeare’s sonnets in the woods outside Bucharest, 1997.

The poet Edward Hirsch wrote, “Implicit in poetry is the notion that we are deepened by heartbreaks, that we are not so much diminished as enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish–to let others vanish–without leaving a verbal record.”

A dear friend, Thomas Budd, died this week in his native Yorkshire. You don’t lose friends of such longstanding easily. When I met him in 1979 in London, you would not have guessed that he wasn’t a native Londoner, but what’s bred in the bone… After many sojourns abroad, he finally returned a few years ago to West Yorkshire, more specifically, a small village on the south end of the Yorkshire dales called Otley. And that is where his life ended.

“A deeply kind, sincere and quietly beautiful man,” said a mutual friend. Not a bad summary, but one must add that he loved language, and Shakespeare, and poetry, so it right to celebrate his life with them – celebrate even in the sobriety of loss. Circumstances conspired to remind me of him today (as if I could forget) with two poems and a bit of prose.

Dana Gioia inadvertently started it. The Virginia Quarterly Review just published his “Meditation from a Line from Novalis,” with its refrain, “Where are we going? Home, always back home,” a translation of the German line that serves as an epigraph from Novalis:

Whether through genius or incompetence,
His fragments blur together—but into what?
Not quite philosophy or even art,
But the disclosure of some primal secret.
“Love is the final purpose of the world.”

thomas2

At the National Gallery, 2012.

You can read the whole poem here. The German Romantic poet, who proposed a sort of “magical idealism,” is little-known today. “Our life is not a dream but must become one.” Schelling kept watch over him as he died, and, according to this poem, marveled at how joyfully he faced death, even at the terrifyingly young age of 28.

I visited Thomas in Otley in 2013. I’m pretty sure I began to hear the edges of a long-abandoned Yorkshire accent reappear in my all-too-brief stay with him that winter. In voice and manner, however, he still reminded me of that native Londoner Alec Guinness, one of my favorite actors. So it was a pleasant coincidence to find, this morning, that a friend had brought my attention to Guinness’s recording of T.S. Eliot‘s “Four Quartets,” one of my favorite poetic works, on youtube. If you can avoid the grating voice that introduces the quartets (she mispronounces “Dry Salvages,” too), it’s worth a hearing. It’s the same cassette recording I lost somewhere years ago, after I had played and played and played it again, and I had thought never to hear this matchless voice read these words:

… As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. …

“In my end is my beginning.” Now you can hear it, too, in the youtube video below.

Finally, today also, someone brought my attention to these words from Evelyn Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited. Charles Ryder says it to Julia Flyte, about their doomed love (and in the sense Waugh means it, perhaps all love is doomed):

“Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.”

Au revoir, Thomas.

Tobias Wolff: “Literature is a theater of choices, values”

Thursday, September 4th, 2014
Share

TobiasWolffOver at The Boston Review, Stanford student Quyen Nguyen has a fascinating interview with award-winning author Tobias Wolff on vocation and morality – I kept wanting to yell “right on!” as I was reading it, but as I was alone in my house, the impulse seemed rather silly. (We’ve written about Toby before, here and here and here and here, as well as a zillion other places.)  Read Quyen’s interview over here – meanwhile, a few excerpts below:

TW: There’s a certain kind of book that when I read it, I feel like I have company in the world. I wish I had had, when I was younger, a book like This Boy’s Life to read, to know that there were other kids living the kind of life I lived, this oddball existence. So there is a way in which writing can become a companion for people. It has been for me, and I hope that my work does that for others. There’s no doubt that if you parse out my motives, there’s probably a great deal of pure ambition, vanity, competitiveness, all that sort of thing, which does not mean the effects cannot be positive.

He didn't mean to do it.

He didn’t mean to do it.

You used an expression in your email, “conscience-laundering,” and I thought about that. I don’t want to award a kind of nobility to the decisions I’ve made because they’ve probably, in some way or other, been self-serving. But let’s take the case of somebody like Mozart. He probably didn’t intend to change the world, yet can you imagine the world without that music? Can you imagine the world without Chekhov‘s short stories? …

QN: The phrase “conscience laundering” was taken from Peter Buffet’s article, “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.” He defined “conscience laundering” as “feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.” Do motives behind this sort of feel-good charity matter?

TW: If you are talking about a single human being rather than a corporation, I don’t think that it’s possible for a human being to be disinterested. But we have to try, obviously. Have you heard of Joyce Maynard? Joyce Maynard is a novelist. When she was seventeen or eighteen, a freshman at Yale, she wrote a brief memoir in the New York Times Magazine. Precocious, one might think, looking backwards so early. J. D. Salinger read it and wrote her a fan letter. He ended up moving her in with him, persuaded her to give up a scholarship at Yale, used her, discarded her, all with this great theater of purity. He considered himself a very “pure” soul who believed that if you do good, you’re really doing it just to flatter yourself. So he did no good, certainly safe from that sin. You might read a recent Times article by Joyce Maynard, “Was Salinger Too Pure For this World?” in which she writes about this continual exercise, this question of “Is this good thing you’re doing really for yourself?” “Can you escape self-flattery in doing what others would conventionally call a good thing?”

t-s-eliot

“All manner of things shall be well.”

It is a political act to force someone to enter the mind, the spirit, the perspective of another human being.

And I would suggest that if you give food to someone who’s hungry, they don’t give a shit whether you’re doing it for yourself or them. But if Carnegie is working kids at ten cents per hour and then building libraries, well, though the libraries are a good thing we still have to hold him accountable for the exploitation of children.

But it’s a complicated issue and I think we have to live with a little conscience-laundering if that’s what it takes to try to do something that benefits other people. If there’s a sense of self-congratulation for some good we do for others, then we have to live with that. This idea has obviously vexed people forever, this tension between the deed and the motive. In the Four Quartets, Eliot writes, “And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / By the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching.” So he’s obviously grilling himself in this way too. I don’t know if it ever goes away.

***

Wolff

“It is a political act to force someone to enter the mind, the spirit, the perspective of another human being.” (Photo: Sonia Lee)

TW: …Mozart, in what way is he useful? In measurable terms, he is not useful. You can’t even say music uplifts or purifies the soul. As we know, the officers at Auschwitz and other concentration camps liked to make the inmates play Beethoven to them and they would weep while the music was being performed. So you can’t even say that music is necessarily transformative, though it can be.

What I do think is that it’s hard for us to live with ourselves if we don’t feel useful in some way or another. Have you seen that movie The Hurt Locker? There’s a guy who disarms bombs, a highly dangerous job. When he comes home, there is a striking scene of him standing in an American super market, looking at this dazzling array of goods, and he just wants to go back to Iraq. He reads about a bomb going off in the newspaper and he thinks, “I could have saved those people.” He has experienced actually being useful. People like him have this rare experience of having their usefulness made dramatically apparent to them, so they keep going back to give support to others even in this violent, terrible context. We all have a hunger for that sensation of usefulness. It’s a little harder to experience that as a writer, maybe a little easier as a teacher. No doubt society and the cultures we grow up in all elicit this need to be useful, but it’s also something that’s hardwired in us. It’s not necessarily a divinely inspired thing, it may well be an evolutionary adaptation, but it’s there.

***

QN: We are reading bell hooks’ chapter about “Engaged Pedagogy.” What is your pedagogy?

TW: I certainly wouldn’t keep teaching if it’s just recitation of what I know. It’s a cooperative process. When I’m lecturing in the Thinking Matters course, I don’t allow laptops in my class, so people have to look at me. They can write things down. But I’m not giving out information. It’s a conceptual exercise. I’m really trying to get people to challenge me and question me. And I do that sort of thing because I care. I don’t teach literature as a collection of movements, “okay, now we move to the Augustan age.” Literature is a theater of choices, values, and the way in which one’s character takes shape and in turn shapes one’s life. Those are the questions that literature brings to dramatic life, and, I hope, awakens something in my students. Again, I don’t want to award myself a merit badge. It seems natural enough to want to have a kind of communion with others, challenge other people and have them challenge you. It’s more fun to live that way.

***

TW: If this makes any sense, we’re called to different things, in different ways. By saying that, I guess I’m implying a caller. Nature, if you will, calls us to different kinds of things.

Again, read the whole thing here.

Evelyn Waugh vs. the BBC

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013
Share
Evelyn-Waugh

Younger version

Just found this intriguing interview between Evelyn Waugh and John Freeman of the BBC.  It’s the first time I’ve seen him on camera, or heard his voice.  As T.S. Eliot writes in “East Coker,” “It was not (to start again) what one had expected.”  There’s about three or four silly minutes at the beginning of this, “framing” the 1960 interview for us modern viewers, warning us how tetchy Waugh was during this session.  I don’t find him tetchy at all – I do find some of the questions a bit impertinent and testy. Waugh is terse in his answers – “everyone thinks ill of the BBC,” he says cheerfully when questioned – but then, this was his first appearance on TV.  Why did he do it? “Poverty,” he explained succinctly to Freeman.  “We’ve both been hired to talk in this deliriously happy way.”  Enjoy.

Postscript on 10/7:  We received a note from our favorite Polish photographer, Zygmunt Malinowski: “What an enjoyable BBC interview with Evelyn Waugh. Thank you! To me he appeared as  a very pleasant person bombarded by so many personal questions. No wonder some of his answers were short. Besides, he did not seem to appear irritable until the very end. Right in the beginning what intrigued me were the fluid portrait drawings and, to my surprise, at the end Feliks Topolski was credited as the artist. If I remember correctly, one of Topolski’s portraits is hanging in the Polish Instytut of Arts and Sciences in NYC.  Next time I am there I will check what writer he depicted.”

What do Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Philip K. Dick, and Jean-Paul Sartre have in common?

Thursday, September 13th, 2012
Share

Hermann Hesse finds true love

I have a lot of writing to finish between now and Sunday night – I’ll be going at it 24/7.  Meanwhile, you might want to check out Buzzfeed’s “30 Renowned Authors Inspired by Cats.”  There’s also more at Writers and Kitties.

Mark Twain was an obvious choice.  But I combed through to see if they were going to remember some of the world’s most famous cat-lovers.  Colette, for example, who famously said, “Plus je connais les hommes, plus j’aime mes chats.”

Mississippi and J.B. (Photo: Bengt Jangfeldt)

She’s there, along with Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, Philip K. Dick, Hermann Hesse, Edward Gorey, George Plimpton, Jacques Derrida, W.H. Auden, and Jean-Paul Sartre make the cut.  But where’s T.S. Eliot, for goodness sake?

A few other notables were missed.  Where is Joseph Brodsky and his famous cat Mississippi?

I’m not entirely sure Vikram Seth is a cat-lover, but I think he must be.  The gnarly old tomcat Charlemagne, in The Golden Gate, is one of the great literary cats. I could find no photo of him with cats – only this from Delhi Walla, which is as close as I’m going to get tonight.  And since my own copy of Golden Gate is loaned out to a good cause, I found this sole sonnet (the novel is composed of Pushkin tetrameter sonnets), in which the lawyer John is warned of his romantic competition for the heart of fellow attorney Liz.  I like the way these fleet, four-footed sonnets fit onto wordpress better, next to a photograph, without awful line breaks:

Vikram Seth and fan

Ah, John, don’t take it all for granted.
Perhaps you think Liz loves you best.
The snooker table has been slanted.
A cuckoo’s bomb lies in the nest.
Be warned. Be warned. Just as in poker
The wildness of that card, the joker
Disturbs the best-laid plans of men,
So too it happens, now and then,
That a furred beast with feral features
(Little imagined in the days
When, cute and twee, the kitten plays),
Of that familiar brood of creatures
The world denominates a cat,
Enters the game, and knocks it flat.

Charles Bukowski and friend

Speaking of Vikram Seth, let’s take a moment to give equal time to dogs.  I have in mind one that played prominently in Seth’s novel, An Equal Music. It’s St. Augustine’s small white Maltese dog in Vittore Carpaccio‘s Saint Augustine in His Study, in Venice’s Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. It’s from Carpaccio’s mature period – he began it in 1502 and completed it in 1507. It’s one of seven panels he made, still in the Schola, depicting the guild’s patron saints.

On Vikram Seth’s authority, I shlepped to the Schola a decade or so ago. It’s tucked away on one of Venice’s sidestreets and not easy to find.  It was worth it. The schola is dark and mysterious and pure magic. The painting everything he said it would be.

Highly recommended.

.

A saint's best friend...Carpaccio's Augustine in his study

.

Kind of cool: Andrew Sullivan, Czesław Miłosz, the Book Haven and moi

Saturday, February 18th, 2012
Share

"That's me."

Andrew Sullivan‘s “The Dish”  picked up one of our posts over at the Daily Beast.  Not that we noticed.  We were in Paris at the time – but a friend tipped us off today.

It’s not the first time we’ve rubbed elbows.  He kindly picked up our “Orwell Watch” gripe on the much-abused phrase, “I take responsibility for…”  And we wrote about one of his posts about the ideas of René Girard over here.

In the February 5 post, he quotes Czesław Miłosz‘s poem, “At a Certain Age.”  Here’s the unfortunate part, though:  He left off the punchline(s).

Oh well.  As he pointed out, you can read the whole poem here.

And read the post he mentions, “The Final Dwarf of You,” where (as he puts it), I “examine” old age.  As well as Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot.  It’s here.

(Doesn’t really need to be “examined” … rather it something to be endured.  If one is lucky.)

 

“The final dwarf of you”: late-life poems of Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and Czesław Miłosz

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012
Share

Crowd-pleaser

It is bitter cold, dropping below freezing in northern California – but still, a standing-room-only crowd gathered tonight to hear Helen Vendler speak on “Wallace Stevens as an American Poet.”

To be honest, the draw for me was Helen, not Stevens.  She was one of the contributors to An Invisible Rope, and we spent some time together in Kraków last spring.  Stevens is not exactly foreign territory, but I’ve never been attracted enough to make deeper excursions into his poetic terrain.

Then Helen quoted from Stevens’s poem, “The Dwarf,” and I eagerly looked up these incantatory lines later when I got home:

Now it is September and the web is woven.
The web is woven and you have to wear it.

The winter is made and you have to bear it,
The winter web, the winter woven, wind and wind …

It is all that you are, the final dwarf of you,
That is woven and woven and waiting to be worn …

"The web is woven and you have to wear it."

The subject of the poet’s approaching winter holds an increasing fascination for me … well, we are all growing older.  But growing older has been a great surprise – the psychological landscape and vantage points of late summer and autumn are not at all what I had been told or had been expecting.

Helen referred to Stevens’ sense of crustiness and limitation, the disillusionment of approaching old age – the horror and defeat of knowing that change is no longer possible.  But was it ever? Was it ever really?

I wonder, now, whether “progress” and “change” is imaginary even in youth – perhaps our sense of change is merely that we cannot yet detect which way the twig is bent.  Later, with 20-20 retrospection, the years have a certain inevitability to them – partly the illusion of rewriting the past to fit what we now know to be true, partly the result of our decisions.  “Choice” may be no more than whether we pull up the weeds or roses from our gardens, and which plants we water.  Even in old age we have the same choices: the decision, for example, of whether to abandon our vices before they abandon us.

So why do we go kicking and screaming as we are dragged through the first snow?  Obviously, age brings with it strange and bitter medicines of its own. T.S. Eliot put it astringently in “Little Gidding”:

"Then fools' approval stings..."

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
… the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.

The final pill at the bottom of the bottle: a quiet self-acceptance – and with it, a welcome humility.  To return to poetry, isn’t it simply a matter of metaphors?  Why do we choose metaphors of old, unbending, twisted trees – isn’t age, at best, more a distillation, like attar?  The loss of distracting imagination and the fantasy of the infinitely wondrous “me,” the increasing laser-like focus on the one or two things one does well, whether it is writing poems or collecting seashells.  And the gratitude for the time to sustain such efforts – an option that was not given to the peers we buried.

Or, again, another metaphor:  why don’t we describe age in terms of botrytis, the rare “noble rot” of the vineyard, that yields the mellow depth and gentle surprise of late-harvest dessert wines?

"That's me."

Surely Czesław Miłosz knew what I am talking about – his late poems reflect the magic and wonderment of this new territory, and the self-surrender of humility –  a final sense of proportion and graceful humor about “the final dwarf.”

In his late poem, “At a Certain Age,” he admits “We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.”  After exploring several options, from pets to psychiatrists, he concludes:

Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess there what?
That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half-opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: “That’s me.”

On the other hand, there’s also his late-life prose poem, “Awakened”:

In advanced age, my health worsening, I woke up in the middle of the night, and experienced a feeling of happiness so intense and perfect that in all my life I had only felt its premonition. . . . As if a voice were repeating: “You can stop worrying now; everything happened just as it had to. You did what was assigned to you, and you are not required anymore to think of what happened long ago.” . . . The happiness on this side was like an announcement of the other side. I realized that this was an undeserved gift and I could not grasp by what grace it was bestowed on me.

Pablo Neruda: Greatest pick-up artist evah?

Thursday, January 12th, 2012
Share

The conversation erupted on my Facebook page, debating the eternally recurring subject of unjust Nobel awards. It’s recently been revealed that J.R.R. Tolkien had been snubbed by the Nobel committee because his writing wasn’t up to snuff.

Other poor Nobel choices came to mind among my FB friends – the 1971 Nobel to Pablo Neruda over Tolkien?  Or over W.H. Auden, for that matter?  Or Jorge Luis Borges?  Or Vladimir Nabokov?

Another Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz called Neruda “the greatest bad poet of the century,” a much-repeated soundbite that sticks.  Yet Nobelist Gabriel García Márquez called him “the greatest poet of the twentieth century – in any language.” To which one can only reply Osip Mandelstam, W.H. Auden, Marina Tsvetaeva, T.S. Eliot, Czeslaw Milosz.

Our view of Neruda is now inevitably colored by his Stalinist politics.

Apologists say the Stalinists couldn’t possibly have known about the murderous excesses of the U.S.S.R.  Couldn’t possibly have known?  Despite a generation of slaughtered, imprisoned and exiled writers from Russia?  Despite a man-made famine that starved millions?  Despite the writings of Robert Conquest?  If Neruda had any questions, all he had to do was ask Czeslaw Milosz, who defected in 1950.  Instead, he infamously penned a denunciation of Milosz as “The Man Who Ran Away.”

There is nothing so dangerous to us as the thing we do not want to be true, the thing we turn our backs to.

Not bad for a dumpy-looking guy

In time for the 2004 Neruda centenary, Stephen Schwartz (not a literary critic, but a conservative political commentator), wrote in a seminal article that has been cited all over the internet:

There is probably no more chance of halting this current binge of Neruda worship than there is of banishing the cicadas, but, still, the truth does need to be said: Pablo Neruda was a bad writer and a bad man. His main public is located not in the Spanish-speaking nations but in the Anglo-European countries, and his reputation derives almost entirely from the iconic place he once occupied in politics – which is to say, he’s “the greatest poet of the twentieth century” because he was a Stalinist at exactly the right moment, and not because of his poetry, which is doggerel.

So does Neruda’s poetry have a future?

Eternally.  On Facebook, my friend Kevin assured me that Pablo Neruda has enduring market value in the Spanish-speaking world for his … pick-up lines. Not bad for a dumpy-looking guy (see right).

Hard to argue that point – an award-winning film was made on precisely that subject, Il Postino/The Postman.  The plot: nerdy Italian postman wants to pick up pretty girl.  He befriends the exiled Neruda and voilà!  Plagiarism is born in a small Italian village.

As Schwartz himself admitted:

Yes, his work is still plagiarized by teenage boys in Latin America, who see his Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song and figure there is nothing wrong with borrowing from it–just as one poem in the book is itself stolen from Rabindranath Tagore – and presenting its overwrought lines to their girlfriends. But if those boys grow up to be serious writers, they leave Neruda behind.

No luck with the line

But Kevin had a story of his own.  During a summer studying at the London School of Economics, an attractive young Spanish woman caught his eye.  How to attract her attention? His friend Pedro (there were a lot of Spaniards around that summer)  said it was very important to open with a sure-fire line.  Neruda was the ticket.

A dormitory lunchroom discussion of Neruda and the art of line-by-line seduction followed.  The young woman demanded an example of a florid Iberian pick-up line: “Let me hear it.”

Kevin recalled the line Pedro had taught him:  “The sentence would be something like “Oh, cielito mío, que Dios me dió” [Oh, my little heaven, given to me by God].

“It’s the cheesiest thing in the world.  And she said, ‘Wow, that’s really good.’”

Did he get the date?  No.  But he learned his lesson: “That’s how it’s done in España.”

 

The trail of “an Arab and his horse”: Poet Boris Pasternak, artist Leonid Pasternak, and Oxford

Sunday, November 20th, 2011
Share

The poet as a boy, 1898 (Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

The poet Marina Tsvetaeva said that fellow poet Boris Pasternak looked like “an Arab and his horse.”

He does, really.  It’s an amazing, slightly Asiatic face.

I had ample opportunity to gaze at the visage of the Nobel laureate at the Ashmolean Museum, in the inconspicuous Print Room in a secluded corner on the second floor.

Not enough people know the author of Dr. Zhivago – for example, that he was primarily a poet, not novelist – but even fewer know the prominent members of his family.  His father, Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945), was a brilliant painter and friend of the Tolstoys.

In the Print Room, the helpful librarians brought out a large portfolio of the artist’s chalk and watercolor sketches and paintings of his family, of the leading figures of his times, of still lifes and landscapes.  With the white cotton gloves the museum provided, I lifted and examined each in turn, including portraits of Albert Einstein, Rainer Maria Rilke, and others.

I met the Pasternak family during the Pasternak celebration at Stanford last year (I wrote about it here). I was delighted to renew the acquaintance with two of them in Oxford – Ann Pasternak Slater and Catherine Oppenheimer, both nieces of the poet and granddaughters of the artist.  Catherine is an eminent psychiatrist; Ann is professor emeritus of English literature at Oxford (she is currently writing about Evelyn Waugh).

Ann is also a formidable critic, and a matchless champion for Pasternak’s work.  She wrote last year in The Guardian:

As a public speaker he was incomprehensible. His work is notoriously hard to translate. …

Pasternak’s work is also difficult because his mind-set is unpredictably complex, evocatively associative, synaesthetic and polysemous. His vocabulary is exceptionally wide, and his intellect has a pronounced metaphysical cast. In an uncollected letter to TS Eliot, Pasternak explores their shared aesthetic in ambitiously faulty English. Eliot’s art, he writes, like his own, is “a casually broken off fragment of the density of being itself; of the hylomorphic matter of existence . . .” Pasternak became much more accessible in his later work. Doctor Zhivago was suicidally vivid and forthright. The poems that accompany it are translucent.

"The Yellow Tree: Autumn Landscape," 1918 (Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

From his schooldays, Pasternak tells us, Yury Zhivago had dreamed of writing “a book of impressions of life in which he would conceal, like sticks of dynamite, the most striking things he had so far seen”. Doctor Zhivago was that book. It was packed with dynamite and, as Pasternak expected, it blew up in his face.

I talk a little about that explosion here.

I had lunch with Ann and Catherine in the former’s Oxford home, which is almost a museum of their grandfather’s artwork.  (A link for the Pasternak trust is here.) Of course we talked about the translations of the poet (Ann dissed the newest Pevear-Volokhonsky translation in the article I’ve quoted).

Ann describes her uncle’s poetry this way: “Boris’s poetry is formally rich, regularly rhymed, and metrically precise. It is full of delectable assonances, at once musical and wholly natural. My mother’s first priority was to reproduce his aural effects. She did. This difficult demand inevitably exacted its own price. Her English is flawed – it sounds Russian. But it sings, as Pasternak’s poetry does.”

My inevitable question:  Which of the Pasternak translations does she favor?  Her answer: Mother knows best.  (The link, here, also has rare recordings of Pasternak reading his poems in Russian.)

Ann kindly gave me an out-of-print volume of her mother’s translations.  Here’s an example of Lydia Pasternak Slater‘s translation:

Sultry Night

It drizzled, but not even grasses
Would bend within the bag of storm;
Dust only gulped its rain in pellets,
The iron roof – in powder form.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1921-24 (Photo: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

The village did not hope for healing.
Deep as a swoon the poppies yearned
Among the rye in inflammation,
And God in fever tossed and turned.

In all the sleepless, universal,
The damp and orphaned latitude,
The signs and moans, their posts deserting,
Fled with the whirlwind in pursuit.

Behind them ran blind slanting raindrops
Hard on their heels, and by the fence
The wind and dripping branches argued –
My heart stood still – at my expense.

I felt this dreadful garden chatter
Would last forever, since the street
Would also notice me, and mutter
With bushes, rain and window shutter.

No way to challenge my defeat –
They’d argue, talk me off my feet.