Archive for March, 2010

Edward Hirsch and wild gratitude

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Hirsch (Photo: E. Thayer)

Edward Hirsch wears a number of hats:  Some think of him as president of the Guggenheim Foundation.  Some think of him primarily as an essayist, whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, American Poetry Review, and The Paris Review, and the author of a weekly column on poetry for the Washington Post Book World from 2002 to 2005.  My association is entirely different:  While on the faculty at the University of Houston with Adam Zagajewski, he shepherded American students to Poland to acquaint them firsthand with the wellspring of some of the greatest poetry of the 20th century, including making arrangements for the kids to meet Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz.

But if he’s like most poets, Hirsch would rather be remembered for his verse.  On Sunday, the New York Times offered a rather enticing hors d’œuvre for Hirsch’s upcoming visit to Stanford in a review here.

The review, by Peter Campion, discusses the title of Hirsch’s new and selected, The Living Fire, taken from his poem “Wild Gratitude”:

On its surface, the poem seems to be about, well, a guy spending time with his cat. But as he listens to her “solemn little squeals of delight,” he begins to remember the 18th-century English visionary and madman Christopher Smart, who in his most famous poem, “Jubilate Agno,” venerated his own cat, Jeoffry. The memory leads to a chain of associations, and the poem ends in a nearly epiphanic moment:

And only then did I understand51VPHf8OtGL._SX106_
It is Jeoffry — and every creature like him —
Who can teach us how to praise — purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

This passage could stand as an emblem for all of Hirsch’s poetry. Literary and allusive, but also domestic and intimate, as it rises toward praise, Hirsch’s voice resounds with both force and subtlety.

(Vis-à-vis Kit Smart’s madness and eventual confinement in an asylum, see Samuel Johnson: “I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.”)

Hirsch will be coming to Stanford on Monday, April 26.  Stay tuned.

From blog to book…

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

Baker Kline

In a She Writes radio broadcast yesterday: Kami Wicoff interviewed Christina Baker Kline about that formidable topic, creating a dynamite book proposal.  One message came across clearly:  Don’t underestimate the power of the internet.  It’s turned the whole world of publishing upside down.

One obvious example is the blog-to-book phenomenon — tricky to negotiate, because it has to be more than pouring your web content onto the printed page.  And if the blog suffers in the transition, it will hurt book sales, too.  Galleycat describes the negotiations here that resulted in Citadel Press acquiring book rights to

The more high-end of these kinds of transitions won’t involve movie rights.  More scholarly authors actually have to develop an idea, a process that doesn’t lend itself to snippy blog posts.  I wrote about one solution here:

A scholar wants to tease out an idea for a book. He writes a paper. He flies across the state, nation or even world to deliver it for 10 minutes to a roomful of jet-lagged peers. He flies home. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

But how does this time-honored academic cycle survive in the 21st century, when travel budgets are dwindling?

In the humanities, at least, an alternative is surfacing via the net: Arcade.

Roland Greene, head of Stanford’s Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, launched the website in November. Pretty much by word-of-mouth alone, and some nifty technological know-how, it’s now attracting more than 5,000 visitors a day.


Arcade maestro Greene

Arcade provides a venue for scholarly articles, an intellectual network, a public conversation, a digital salon and a sounding board for ideas before they wind up between hard covers. “In my field, it’s really a boon,” said Greene, professor of English and of comparative literature. “There’s nothing like it on the web.”  Read more…

Had a chat with Zach Chandler, web editor for Arcade, over coffee yesterday.  He told me that Arcade does have an advantage over many other blogs:  The site features 30 bloggers, not one.  And each of those bloggers likely has a cadre of students, somewhere.  That’s not even calculating for the cross-traffic the site produces among contributors.  Zach still hopes the Arcade numbers will go up dramatically in the coming months.  (They’re currently at about 5,000 visitors a day.)

Meanwhile, if you want to hear Baker Kline’s webinar about “How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal That Sells” — next Wednesday from 1 to 2 p.m. — check this out.

“A lesson in how couples should get along”

Friday, March 26th, 2010
Joseph and Marguerite Frank

Joseph and Marguerite Straus Frank (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

One of the more memorable images from the recent Pevear and Volokhonsky talk earlier this month:  Joseph Frank, perhaps the world’s leading expert on Fyodor Dostoevsky, listening attentively in the front row, leaning forward, chuckling, hugging his cane, with his wife, Marguerite Straus Frank, at his side.

I caught Joe before his last class with a small group of a  half-dozen or so students, and asked him what he thought of the translation duo’s gig.  “I knew them twenty years ago in Paris.  He was a translator from the French – of Bonnefoy,”  he recalled.  “I saw him on and off during the Paris years.  Suddenly, he showed up as a translator of Russian with a wife.”

The class asked him about his own latest, a condensation of the thousand-page Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time — Mary Petrusewicz was recruited to condense the book, he said, since “I couldn’t bear the idea of cutting it myself.” He recalled it was “the heaviest book at the book celebration.”

What do you think of Steven Cassedy’s Dostoevsky’s Religion? Do you know him?” another student asked.

“Yes, Stephen Cassedy was once my T.A.,” he said, and gave a characteristic cackle.

He remembered the young Irish-American teaching assistant — also the author of To the Other Side: The Russian Jewish Intellectuals Who Came to America and Building the Future, Jewish Immigrant Intellectuals and the Making of Tsukunft — taking the trouble to learn Yiddish.

“I was impressed by that fact, since his name is ‘Cassedy’” — commented the Jewish nonagenarian from New York City.

And Joe disagrees with me, regarding my earlier remarks about the effectiveness of translating in rhyme and meter.  “Rhymes highjack the poetry,” he said.  (Not so:  Think Richard Wilbur.  Think Anthony Hecht.  Think Sir Charles Johnston, who inspired Vikram Seth‘s masterful novel-in-Pushkinian verse, The Golden Gate.)

Joe noted the upcoming Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (can we wait?)  And perhaps Nicolai Leskov is in their future, as they mentioned in a 2007 Barnes & Noble interview:

Barnes & Noble:  Is there any writer in that period in Russia who readers of English don’t know about at all?

Volokhonsky: Well, it’s not that you don’t know him at all. He is known but only a little in the West, and partly owing to the fact that he is very difficult to translate. His prose is so rooted, so bound with the element of Russian language that it really is hard to convey its qualities in English.

Pevear: Do you have a name?

Volokhonsky: Yes, the name! [LAUGHS] Nikolai Leskov. He has been translated. He has been translated, inevitably, very poorly, and his translations go out of print, then someone revives them, and the cycle repeats itself.

Pevear: It’s the same book that keeps moving from publisher to publisher. If he’s known, it’s for the story that is the basis of the Shostakovich opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It’s a great story.

Barnes & Noble: Are you going to rectify Leskov’s neglect in the West?

Pevear: We are going to try.

Barnes & Noble: Is there one book in particular that represents his best work?

Pevear: No. He wrote short stories. Well, he wrote longish short stories. And one big chronicle called Cathedral Folk. Slavist teachers are always in agony, because there’s no Leskov for them to use with their students. For Russians, he’s almost equal to Tolstoy. He’s very high. Some people like him even more.

Volokhonsky: But I think it’s exaggeration.

Pevear: He’s the least Western. He’s the least open to Western influences. He’s very Russian. But he’s an extraordinary writer. We’re going to try.

Back to Joe, recalling the visit of the husband-and-wife translating team:  “I was very impressed with their act,” he said.  “A lesson on how couples should get along.” One might say the same of the Franks, pictured here.

“This Dust of Words”

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

More news from John Felstiner, whose “wreathing” we described two days ago here:

Elizabeth Wiltsee

Elizabeth Wiltsee

This Dust of Words, an hour-long documentary by Bill Rose and based on John Felstiner’s memoir of Elizabeth Wiltsee, will be shown on KQED-TV, Channel 9, this Sunday, March 28, at 6 p.m. — link is here.


John Felstiner

Liz Wiltsee, an English major at Stanford, wrote a brilliant senior thesis with John on Samuel Beckett. After that, her life as an aspiring writer took strange turns with a tragic end. John Felstiner figures as a narrator.

John wrote movingly about his student in article a decade ago, here.

Said editor Kevin Cool:

“Elizabeth Wiltsee turned a corner somewhere that led down a dark, strange path, and she couldn’t find her way back. But her descent into mental illness was only part of her story, a story that Felstiner has attempted to make whole. In his care, she emerges alive and full of expression, a sonnet to the undiminishable beauty of a verdant mind on display.”

Byron’s wreath, today’s poets

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

byronwreathLord Byron died in Greece, 1824.  His body was returned to England by sea on the brig Florida. Mourners lined the streets of London as the black-draped coffin and catafalque went to Great George Street, where it lay in state for a week.

The Greeks of Missolonghi had this laurel wreath (left) made for the coffin — he had been something of a freedom fighter in Greece. The laurel wreath of Byron was eventually returned to the people of Greece.

160  years later, archaeologist and author Patrick Hunt held it in his hands:  “In its old box, all dusty, faded and dried out, yet still intact and said to date from 1824, was this incredible treasure, poetic but real. I will never forget that this box was then placed in my hands.”


Ken Fields, earlier wreathed

So much so that he has reinstated the custom of laurels for his colleagues.  Weaving European laurels from his “Homeric” garden, he wreathed Al Young, then poet laureate of California, in 2007. He followed with British poet and Persian translator Dick Davis, poet Ken Fields, and Pulitzer prizewinning poets W.S. Merwin and  Ted Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate.

Earlier this month,  he bewreathed John Felstiner (right), author of Can Poetry Save the Earth? (NPR discussed the book last April — podcast and story here.)


Dick Davis, another wreathed poet (Photo: Linda Cicero)

“I’ve been reading John’s work for decades, from his Neruda translations and essays on poetry to his articles in the American Poetry Review and many other achievements, so he’s formative to my own growth as a poet,” said Patrick. “He either knows personally or has worked with every other poet who has been recently wreathed in this revival of the classical tradition. Last but not least, he’s been a great encouragement to many poets who hold him in highest esteem.”

Hunt wreathes Felstiner earlier this month

Hunt wreathes Felstiner earlier this month

“John is not only a muse but a kind man,” he concluded.

John looked “historically right” for the occasion, which took place before a joint meeting of two of John’s current Stanford poetry classes, Patrick told a brief history of ancient laureates with laurel wreaths, also about having held Byron’s wreath in Greece in 1984 and how life-changing that event was. “Then I mentioned how this ancient tradition was being revived in some way with modern poets by using the laurel tree in our Homeric garden. Then John was wreathed…”

“I’m a detective. That’s what a biographer is.”

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

The San Francisco Chronicle has a short Q&A with biographer Carol Shloss here.  Carol recently settled a groundbreaking lawsuit against the James Joyce estate, which had been persecuting her for some years (see New Yorker article here).

Not much new in today’s article — but we do learn about her current work-in-progress, Modernism’s Daughters, a trilogy that includes the daughters of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Sigmund Freud.

We also learn that she’s a dachshund lover and a detective novel fan, currently reading Elizabeth George’s Careless in Red.

Dana Gioia to receive Laetare Medal

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Dana Gioia (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Poet Dana Gioia will receive this year’s Laetare Medal award at the Notre Dame University’s 16 May commencement.  Gioia is former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a poet, essayist, translator, librettist, and man of letters.

The Laetare award, instituted in 1883, is the U.S. Catholic Church’s oldest and most prestigious honor. Following the medal’s presentation, Gioia will offer an address alongside the commencement’s main speaker — this year, Brian Williams, anchor of the NBC Nightly News.

Previous  winners include John F. Kennedy, Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, Dave Brubeck, Sister Helen Prejean, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Helen Hayes, and Clare Boothe Luce.  You can read more here.

Gioia’s appointment to the NEA was about the only popular move made by the Bush administration, and one of the few that worked out well. Business Week hailed Dana in 2006 as “The Man Who Saved the NEA.

The award made headlines last year when Mary Ann Glendon declined the honor a month after her selection, and a few weeks before the ceremony.  Because of that, you’d have expected the award announcement this year to have made a little bit more noise.  But hardly a word so far — not even from the usually loquacious New York Times.  A google alert for my own name gave me a heads-up — many of the news clippings so far are citing my 2003 Commonweal article about Dana, which you can read in full here, and so I quickly emailed my congratulations to the poet, who now divides his time between California and Washington D.C.

I met Dana over a decade ago, when I was a free-lance journalist and cold-called him in his Santa Rosa home — a tiny photo of it here, with my profile in 2000.  If awards are given for one of the most generous spirits I know, it should go to Dana, patron saint of free-lance literary journalists looking for good sources and story ideas.  He is even better as a friend.

Linda Cicero’s photo above is from his address at the Stanford University commencement in 2007.  I wrote about that, too, here.

Congratulations, Dana!

“Don’t compare yourself to Tolstoy, young lady!”

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Elif Batuman

Who knew that comp lit scholars take so much abuse?

Elif Batuman (I wrote about her here and here and here) gave a reading of her The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, at Kepler’s Thursday night, and spilled about the angry letter-writers who attack her.  The subject came up as she was reading her introduction, and paused after the passage that gave away the ending of Eugene Onegin.  She apologized to her audience, and then described one correspondent who had written to complain.

“Why did you have to ruin Madame Bovary?” the writer whined. Commenting on Batuman’s well-known expertise in Russian lit, the irate penpal said she expected Batuman to ruin the endings of Russian novels — “that’s your job” — but why the French ones?  “I know you think that everyone has already read it because it was published in 1867, but I personally was doing other things and only got around to it now.”

Batuman, an appealing author with a slightly goofy manner and the self-deprecating slouch tall girls acquire in adolescence (she’s six-feet tall), seem an unlikely target for anyone’s wrath.  But she also recalled a peeved listener at a reading who interrupted when she compared the “horrible traumatic story I wanted to recreate for the reader”  to the episode in Anna Karenina where the heroine thinks she will die in childbirth, but doesn’t — a variant of Chekhov’s warning about the gun that had better go off by the last act.  “Don’t compare yourself to Tolstoy, young lady!” she was angrily admonished.

Explaining books came naturally to Batuman, whose career began, in a sense, with her Turkish mother asking her to tell her what these great novels “meant.”  Although her mother was thoroughly fluent in English, she was haunted by the sense that there was something missing in her understanding of books she read in English.

Batuman, whose book includes a large section on Samarkand, was interviewed by the Uzbek National Radio last week.  “Maybe I’ll get a lot of angry calls,”elif2 she worried.

During the question-and-answer period, she was asked if Russian novel-lovers fall into Dostoevsky-Tolstoy camps, where does she place herself?  Batuman answered that Dostoevsky is the literary equivalent to theater, with “allegory intensified 10,000 times.”  Tolstoy is the stuff of movies, with costumes, elaborate scenery, and orchestral score.  She falls for Tolstoy.  “Tolstoy is girlie — he wouldn’t like my saying that, but he’s not here anymore, any more than the the Uzbeks are.”‘

She was also asked if she is going to write a Russian novel.  “The Russians already did that,” she replied.

But Batuman is thinking about a novel next.  “Maybe see you all in another 15 years!”

“Deliver us from laziness, discouragement, mistranslation…”

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear

The husband-and-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky take their roles as translators with the high seriousness of a calling.  No surprise.

They have made acclaimed translations of Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. David Remnick  featured them in a New Yorker article here.  The translating team’s Anna Karenina was reviewed in the same magazine here; James Wood discussed the Pevear and Volokhonsky War and Peace here.

They also have perfected their road act — as they demonstrated last night in Stanford’s History Corner.  He, the bearded, bear-like master of the double-take; she, the chic and understated matron. They promised us an unbuttoned conversation.  “We’ll yell,” said Pevear.  They didn’t.  In fact, their shtick was well-honed and sophisticated.

And a little bit unbuttoned.  They discussed their problems with publishers’ editors.  “They told us our Tolstoy should be reader-friendly,” she said.

“They feed a text into a machine for ‘readability.’  They said it had too many long sentences,” he said.

“That’s right,” Volokhonsky countered.  “Tolstoy has too many long sentences.”  Volokhonsky recalled an eminent editor who “made us miserable for a very long time.  A year.”

“We crushed her,” said Peavear.

“But it took a year,” she qualified. “We mostly have very good editors.  They keep quiet.”

“To sum it up, our loyalty is with the author, not reader,” said Volokhonsky.

On one point I respectfully disagree with Pevear, who defended their choice for free-verse translations of Pasternak’s poems in the forthcoming (October) Doctor Zhivago.  Disagreeing with Alexander Etkind‘s and Joseph Brodsky‘s insistence on repeating rhyme patterns and metrical schemes, Pevear said that he had opted for “song – something that lives poetically.”

“The search for rhyme distorts all the rest,” he said, making too many translations sound like  “third-rate Tennyson.”  To which I can only argue with two words:  Richard Wilbur.  Well, four words:  Anthony Hecht.  Brodsky’s Nativity Poems has a number of gorgeous translations — from Glyn Maxwell, among others.

Any surprises?  I had not expected the silver hair.  I had seen her as a young Russian beauty, him as the glamorous poet-cum-translator.  This is proof, of course, that I cannot add.  Their Brothers Karamazov was published nearly twenty years ago — that alone would prohibit extreme youth.  (Moreover, the New Yorker article had warned me that they were a mature couple in their sixties.)

Here’s another surprise:  I didn’t know, until the Russian team told me, that St. Jerome, who translated the Hebrew into the  Vulgate Bible, is the patron saint of translators. Valery Larbaud (1881-1957) even wrote an invocation to Jerome, begging that the Croatian saint “deliver us from laziness, discouragement, mistranslation, and the pernicious suggestions of bilingual dictionaries.”

The “Sheriff of Emptiness”

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Kay Ryan (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Kay Ryan, our current U.S. poet laureate, calls herself the “Sheriff of Emptiness.” I wrote about her today here.

I met Kay years ago, through Dana Gioia, another North Bay poet.  We had an interview at Kay’s Fairfax home in July 2004.  I had described the meeting in my notes this way:

“Ryan is waiting for me, but not idly.  She is re-grouting the colorful Puebla-style tiles, on the risers of her entryway.  She is short and solidly built.   In khaki shorts and a black t-shirt, however, she appears scrappier, more muscular than she might appear more fully dressed at her readings.  Her longtime companion, Carol, is in Mexico, and Kay is alone in her brisk, clean house.  She is alone, except for Wally, a pale-colored, ancient cat who is mostly bones and fur  – so old he has lost most of his senses, but not his sense of friendliness, and is nevertheless currently in disfavor.”  [He had urinated on something, as I recall — ED.]

Wally, alas, died soon after my visit.  But my connection with Kay lasted longer.  I remember her recalling her family’s move to the Mojave: “It was hot, it was empty.  I didn’t have any friends.  And it took me awhile to come to like it.  But now I really do feel I have the desert in my blood.”  Much like her poem “Blandeur,” she said,  “ I like the emptiness, I like the lack of features.  I like its featurelessness.  I like how any event is a big event.”

And I remember this comment about her 30-year teaching stint at the College of Marin:

Back to Marin .. you teaching remedial writing?

I teach very basic English skills.

I think the way you described it when I first met you was, “My Friend, the Comma.”

I introduce them to the concept of indenting.  We learn to capitalize certain words, and not capitalize others.  I go up through the paragraph – writing a paragraph with a topic sentence and primary supports.

Who are your students?51VW9lkcaxL._SL500_AA240_

They range from high school students to people in their fifties.  Many second-language students.  Lots of people who got off-course one way or another, through drugs, or through just a variety of difficulties in their life, so they didn’t get basic skills.  I like the people I work with.  I’ve never wanted to teach any advanced courses.  I like the sort of life-and-death teaching.  These are survival courses.  And I don’t like spoiled people.  I don’t like to do for people what they could do for themselves.  These people aren’t spoiled.  They’re not saying, “Entertain me.” They’re here to get what they need to have their gardening business.  Some are going ahead in school.  But for some…to get a job at Long’s.  To be able to write a note at the bank where they work.

I still admire Kay’s respectful and thoroughly practical outlook towards teaching the students who need it most.

Speaking of the desert — here’s the cover of Kay’s new book, out this month:  The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.