Posts Tagged ‘Wallace Stevens’

When literary tête-à-têtes ends in fisticuffs…

Monday, March 26th, 2012
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The subject of the fistfight: Lewis and Tolkien

It’s not often that two guys having a literary discussion end up by hauling off and whacking each other. And yet  it happened in the city of my alma mater, after several hours of serious drinking:

A 34-year-old Ann Arbor man was sent to the hospital with a head injury after another man punched him on Saturday during a literary argument, according to police. … the man was sitting on the porch with some people he had just met, talking about books and authors.

The 34-year-old man was then approached by another party guest, who started speaking to him in a condescending manner. An argument ensued and the man was suddenly struck in the side of the head, suffering a cut to his left ear …

The injured man – who was smacked so hard his glasses flew off and a lens popped out – was treated at a local hospital.

The story jumped from Ann Arbor to The Guardian, whose blogger, Sam Jordison, telephoned Michigan to get the scoop:  “The details remain sketchy, but the prominent rumour around town is that the men were disputing the relative merits of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.”

Virgil says: Don't watch. Don't listen.

Then Jordison shares his own self-satisfaction and his derision of his betters (Henry James, for example, is “the old windbag”) – apparently, he never loses a fight and is always right, just like the rest of us.  (It is the one thing we all have in common.) Then he asks a question:

But all this does make me wonder whether anyone else has experienced book-based violence. Have you had a literary argument so heated that you’ve only been able to resolve it with blows? Or could you imagine doing so – or at least losing your cool? And what’s your tipping point? If, for example, I were to inform you that J.M. Coetzee‘s Disgrace is a clever book for people who don’t like to think, would you hold it against me? And how do you like to annoy other book-lovers?

Here’s a few.

Mailer, Gore

Mad men: Mailer, Gore

There’s the time Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal. “As usual, words failed him,” quipped Vidal.

And two Nobel laureates ended a friendship when Mario Vargas Llosa socked Gabriel García Márquez – story recounted here and here.

Then there’s the fistfight between Ernest Hemingway and Wallace Stevens, confirmed by others but recounted by Hemingway in a February 1936 letter:

"Nice Mr. Stevens" and Hemingway

Nice Mr. Stevens. This year he came again pleasant like the cholera and first I knew of it my nice sister Ura was coming into the house crying because she had been at a cocktail party at which Mr. Stevens had made her cry by telling her forcefully what a sap I was, no man, etc. So I said, this was a week ago, ‘All right, that’s the third time we’ve had enough of Mr. Stevens.’ So headed out into the rainy past twilight and met Mr. Stevens who was just issuing from the door having just said, I learned later, ‘By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I’d knock him out with a single punch.’

So who should show up but poor old Papa and Mr. Stevens swung that same fabled punch but fertunatly missed and I knocked all of him down several times and gave him a good beating. Only trouble was that first three times put him down I still had my glasses on. Then took them off at the insistence of the judge who wanted to see a good clean fight without glasses in it and after I took them off Mr. Stevens hit me flush on the jaw with his Sunday punch bam like that. And this is very funny. Broke his hand in two places. Didn’t harm my jaw at all and so put him down again and then fixed him good so he was in his room for five days with a nurse and Dr. working on him. But you mustn’t tell this to anybody.

The winners

Then there’s the time that Desmond Leslie punched journalist and theater critic Bernard Levin in front of 11 million viewers over an article Levin had written about his wife, the actress Agnes Bernelle. The incident occurred the TV show That Was The Week That Was in 1962.

I am forced to come to the conclusion that book-lovers are a quarrelsome lot, not so much from these incidents as from some of the unsupported character assassination in the reader replies (though they did tip me off about where to find the best fights). Basta! What is it in us that likes to watch a fight?  As Virgil says to Dante in the Inferno: “To hear such wrangling is a joy for vulgar minds.” It’s one reason the Inferno has always been more popular than the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. Something to remember when one indulges in the “Comments” sections.

The two who come out best from the whole mess are … those two tweedy Oxford dons, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Lewis, in particular, was generous and self-sacrificing to an extreme, and though the two men disagreed, they remained gentlemen and friends.

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

Saturday, February 18th, 2012
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"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
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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.

The bashing of Helen Vendler

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011
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Has she been "slimed"?

The internet has been warmed this week by the fires between Harvard critic Helen Vendler and former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove.  The upshot: Vendler didn’t like Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, and Dove didn’t like that Vendler didn’t like it.  Angry letters have been pouring in against Vendler.

Vendler’s Nov. 24 article in the New York Review of Books, “Are These Poems to Remember?” notes: “Multicultural inclusiveness prevails: some 175 poets are represented. No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as ‘elitism,’ and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom. … Which of Dove’s 175 poets will have staying power, and which will seep back into the archives of sociology?” Why only six pages for Wallace Stevens, and no more than the single poem from James Merrill?

Vendler takes particular aim at Dove’s introduction:

“She denigrates Frost’s ‘Design’ and ‘Acquainted with the Night,’ for instance, as ‘blunt and somewhat smug,’ calls Eliot ‘a sourpuss retreating behind the weathered marble of the Church,’ and says that Elizabeth Bishop ‘somehow managed to chisel the universe into pixilated uncertainties.’ Merrill, whose ‘formal verse placed him squarely on the side of the poetry establishment,’ is said to have shed ‘the jeweled carapaces of formalism in favor of the rules of the Ouija board.’ Can Dove think that a poet of Merrill’s depth can be confined to the putative space of a vague ‘poetry establishment,’ or that placing poets on one side or another of such an assumed ‘establishment’ says anything about their abilities? And as a poet herself, she must know better than to refer metaphorically to formal verses as ‘jeweled carapaces’: carapaces belong, after all, to insects and tortoises. Such cartoonish remarks are not helpful to the understanding of poetry. …

She stands by her review.

These are the kind of passages that makes every writer cringe.  Who among us can throw the first stone?  Haven’t we all written hastily, sloppily sometimes?  On the other hand, that’s exactly what critics are for: to spank us when we do.

Dove responded in a 1700-word letter.  She could have done it more effectively with far fewer words.  She has some good points to make. Taking on Vendler’s comment,  “Did Dove feel that only these poems [five early poems by Stevens] would be graspable by the audience she wishes to reach? Or is it that she admires Stevens less that she admires Melvin Tolson, who receives fourteen pages to Stevens’s six?”

Ah, here we go, totting up pages of poetry rather than the poems themselves. Tolson is represented by two poems (actually, one poem and one section of a book-length poem); Stevens by six. Should Tolson be denied representation because he writes long poems? As far as the selection of early Stevens goes, my original choices included several middle-period poems, but rights problems prohibited their final inclusion. I can’t expect Vendler to know this, and though it is a sad comment on the deplorable state of the American reprint permissions process, I accept responsibility for the resulting omission. However, in juxtaposing a great Anglo-American poet with a great African-American one, Vendler immediately draws unsubstantiated conclusions that fit her bias.”

But then Dove goes too far.  She accuses Vendler of racism, and stoops to attack the critic rather than the criticism. Finally she foams: “I would not have believed Vendler capable of throwing such cheap dirt, and no defense is necessary against these dishonorable tactics except the desire to shield my reputation from the kind of slanderous slime that sticks although it bears no truth … she not only loses her grasp on the facts, but her language, admired in the past for its theoretical elegance, snarls and grouses, sidles and roars as it lurches from example to counterexample, misreading intent again and again.”

Vendler’s response is short: “I have written the review and I stand by it.”  It’s not a “cheeky” reply, as The Atlantic Wire wrote.  It’s professional.  And The Atlantic is also wrong in asserting that “what they’re really fighting about” is “each other’s credentials.”

Largely, the two women have a different idea of what anthologies should do, and it’s a discussion worth having.  Is Vendler looking for a “Top Ten,” Dove asks?  Truly, there is a lot to be said for favoring a minor, relatively unknown poet who lights a fire in a few souls over some widely accepted canonical poets. How to balance the worrying, risky – and inevitably biased and unfair – process of winnowing against the easy out of letting 175 flowers bloom?

Also, Vendler is reacting to a literary world where poets often have an eye to classroom sales. Bashing off a quick anthology with a breezy introduction is a cash cow for an otherwise poorly remunerated profession.  I’ve seen some shamefully sloppy stuff from some very prominent poets – they get away with it because their names are big.

Fortunately, James Fenton at the London Evening Standard takes a more even-handed p.o.v., and slaps down political correctness and Penguin, too, while he’s at it:

The best thing Dove could have done was shut up and let people draw their own conclusions. Vendler is known to “bear, like the Turk, no rival near the throne”. Perhaps this was just another example of territoriality.

Excepting that it wasn’t. In most, though not in my opinion all, of her criticisms, Vendler put her finger on blatant weaknesses, although she ignored the most obvious weakness of all: nothing by Sylvia Plath, and nothing by Allen Ginsberg. Dove explains in her introduction that her permissions funds did not run to such expensive poets, and she says to the reader: “For these involuntary gaps, I ask you to cut me some slack.”

This is just not good enough, and the fault here is largely with Penguin for not seeing the difficulty Dove was in and coming to her aid. A small publisher might plead for the reader’s understanding over such omissions. A large one has to decide whether it is prepared to stump up the money to do the job properly.

Fred Viebahn offered this tidbit in the comments section of the London article, pointing out Dove’s words in the Dec. 2011 edition of The Writer’s Chronicle: “… the worst offender by far [demanding outrageous fees] was the publisher of Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg, whose ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude resulted in none of this house’s authors being included … Negotiations dragged on literally until the day when the anthology went into production; seeking common ground, I offered several solutions, including reducing the overall number of poems … while meeting their exorbitant line fees … The answer was nothing less than shocking: All or nothing. In other words, if I didn’t pay the same high line fees for all their poets as well as, unbelievably, take all the poems I had initially inquired about, I couldn’t have Ginsberg nor Plath … Pleas from upper Penguin management and even from one of the affected poets, who declared his willingness to forgo royalties, fell on deaf ears; the day before the anthology went into production, [the publisher of Plath and Ginsberg] withdrew all pending contracts and declared the negotiations closed.” He adds that  paying more for some permissions would have violated agreements with other publishers that did not permit to “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

He ought to know. He’s Rita Dove’s husband.

Helen Vendler will be speaking on “Wallace Stevens as an American Poet” at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 17, in the Stanford Humanities Center. The event is free and open to the public.

Voilà! Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence

Saturday, August 27th, 2011
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Voilà!  The Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence has been launched.  I attended the dedication ceremony this afternoon, way up in  forested hills around LaHonda, Skyline, and Woodside.  (I wrote about the venture earlier, here.)  Got mightily lost, too.

"Above all, radiant" (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Renowned chemist, novelist, and playwright Carl Djerassi, Diane Middlebrook‘s husband, assured the 50 or 60 gathered in the brilliant August day about the “green” nature of the four new domiciles built in memory of the gifted and groundbreaking biographer, who died in 2007.  The Djerassi Resident Artists Program currently hosts about 60 artists a year.  The spare new residences, overlooking the hills, will add a few more.

The 87-year-old Djerassi read a poem written by the person who had been the second oldest resident ever – Janet Lewis, the wife (and by then widow) of legendary Yvor Winters.  She was 90 at the time – two years younger than the composer who holds the record in the program. The poem Carl read,  “Landscape near Bear Gulch Road,” had been written during her residency.

Carl recalled his wife worked only on ambitious projects.  When her cancer diagnosis gave her only months to live, she turned to her personal brand of therapy, he said – that is, “to immerse yourself totally in intellectual work.”  Middlebrook tackled a biography of Ovid,  which, “though unfinished, has been published posthumously in portions as ‘A Roman in his Prime’ in the Norton Critical edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and as ‘Ovid Is Born,’ in Feminist Studies,” according to the program’s website. I had wondered what happened to it.

Until today, I wasn’t aware that Dana Gioia, Diane’s student, had published the author’s only collection of poems, Gin Considered as a Demon, in 1983, when he was editing a series of chapbooks for Elysian Press.  He waved the volume at the gathering.  He also waved the battered paperback of Wallace Stevens‘s poems that he had studied with Diane way back in 1971.

He described Diane Middlebrook as “above all, radiant.”  Such people are rare, he said: “in the warmth, enlightenment, and clarity of their presence we discover ourselves.”

Dana read Stevens’s “Final Soliloquy.”  But Diane’s daughter, Leah Middlebrook, read a rapt and haunting poem that Dana had composed at the Djerassi home-in-the-hills, “Becoming a Redwood.”  It concludes:

Something moves nearby. Coyotes hunt
these hills and packs of feral dogs.
But standing here at night accepts all that.

You are your own pale shadow in the quarter moon,
moving more slowly than the crippled stars,
part of the moonlight as the moonlight falls,

Part of the grass that answers the wind,
part of the midnight’s watchfulness that knows
there is no silence but when danger comes.

As 9/11 anniversary approaches, litcrit’s Marjorie Perloff speaks out on American insularity

Friday, August 19th, 2011
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No comfort in Whole Foods Market

I’ve had a chance to finally go through Marjorie Perloff‘s “Language,” which has been open on my MacBook Pro forever…well, at least since August 7, when it was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Perloff, one of the preeminent lit critics and a champion of the Language Poets and other avant-garde movements, takes on the changes in the nation since the events of 9/11.

In her essay, she argues that an event that should have made us more attuned to the outside world haa, paradoxically, made us more inward instead:

A new worldview

“The very language of the decade expresses our anxiety about the outside world. Talk of the ‘third world’ and ‘emergent nations,’ expressing as it does a first-world confidence and sense of control, has given way to the ubiquitous ‘our planet,’ as in, ‘saving our planet.’ …”

“When most Americans talk of saving our planet, they have a myopic view: They mean the environment they witness every day, with its SUV-clogged freeways, plastic-bottle glut, and absurd excesses of electricity and water consumption. In this context, a session at Whole Foods Market may feel comforting, but what about those places on the planet where there is not enough electricity to speak of excess or where there are no paper diapers to clog landfills? Better not to think about them, and to focus on such issues as childhood obesity (Michelle Obama‘s cause) or the relative effectiveness of the various sunscreens on the market.”

Time to look outward again

She concludes:

“Perhaps, now that a decade has gone by since 9/11, it is time for us once again to look outward. The increasingly tedious discourse of self-reflection—based on the assumption that we are the leaders of the ‘free world’—must give way to a more accurate sense of who and where we are in relation to the developing nations and cultures in our ‘global’ backyard. Language study—not just of ‘foreign’ languages but also of our own—will help us to deal with the reality that, as Wallace Stevens put it, ‘we are not / At the center of the diamond.’”

I don’t find her final argument terrifically convincing. “We are not the center of the world” has been the mantra of President Obama, but so far I don’t see Brazil or South Korea or even China stepping up to the plate of “world leader,” though their economies may be (comparatively) booming and their populations swelling.  Perhaps the role of “world leader”itself is one of the 21st century’s early retirees, and there are no cops on the beat anymore.

She quotes Stevens, but W.H. Auden makes a more foolproof bet:

"I told you so"

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.