Archive for February, 2013

Ezra Pound on video: “Late, very late I have known sadness.”

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

A handsome interlocutor

The American poet Ezra Pound in 1967, interviewed by the Italian film director, poet, journalist, philosopher Pier Paolo Pasolini – who reads the aging poet’s poems (and beautifully).

There’s a little discussion of the Pisan Cantos, written in 1945 when Pound was held for treason in an American military detention center near Pisa, after his pro-Fascist wartime broadcasts to America. He was imprisoned for  weeks in a wire cage open to the elements. Pound had a nervous breakdown.

Pasolini asks him about the music at the end of Pound’s Second Pisan Canto: “What music is it?”  Pound replies: “The birdsong of Clément Janequin, written for choir. Francesco da Milano transcribed it for the lute, and Gerard re-transcribed for violin.”  If that doesn’t make one long for Renaissance France, I don’t know what would.

The “Lewis” in the video is the painter Wyndham Lewis, Pound’s his great friend.

Still confused about Les Misérables? Another chance to get it straight.

Monday, February 25th, 2013

Or the hottest?

Last night’s Oscar awards ceremony brought Victor Hugo‘s Les Misérables into the limelight again – but we’re still startled by how many moviegoers are confusing the events of 1832’s failed uprising with the more renowned 1789 French Revolution.  So let’s take the opportunity to remind you that there’s a mini-history at the Book Haven here. We’re up to 36 comments and counting.

And when you get that sorted out, we’ll start telling you about the 1848 revolution.  And then the 1851 coup d’état by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. And then the destruction of the last Napoleonic empire between 1870 and 1871.  It goes on and on.  With all the brouhaha, it’s a wonder they could manage an empire at all … oh, that’s right, they couldn’t… It does go some way to explaining the insane decision to sell off a third of the North American continent in the Louisiana Purchase. They were distracted.

Meanwhile, enjoy this Oscars ceremony Les Misérables medley.  And Aaron Tveit as Enjolras above at right, the coolest revolutionary ever.

“Aus Anstand”: A little ditty that carries a long story

Sunday, February 24th, 2013
"Aus Anstand."

Her finest moment.

I remember decades ago, back in Ann Arbor, Joseph Brodsky whistled “Lili Marlene,” and asked me if I recognized the song. I didn’t.  How many would of my generation?  He, of course, had been a toddler during the Siege of Leningrad, and retained a lifelong fascination with World War II.

The song came up again today, in a conversation I had this morning with George Klinewho mentioned how much the Nobel poet had liked the song.  Naturally, it’s been running through my mind today, and so I looked up a little of the song’s history.

The catchy sentimental tune was written in 1915, by Hans Leip, a schoolteacher who had been conscripted into the Imperial German Army.  The song survived into World War II.

Joseph Goebbels tried to put a stop to it.  But  Axis soldiers all over Europe kept asking them to play to play the sweet, sentimental ditty again, and Goebbels had to relent.  The tune was used to sign-off the broadcast at 9:55 p.m., and the soldiers waited to hear it.  The soldiers on both sides, as it turned out.

The British soldiers in north Africa adopted it from the Germans, and both sides listened to it again and again.  But none sang it better than the German actress Marlene Dietrich.

While  in London, Nazi officials had offered her big contracts if she would agree to return to Germany as a ffilm star for the Third Reich.  The actress, staunchly anti-Nazi, turned them down flat.  She applied for U.S. citizenship instead.

She had a great career, before and after the war, but she said her finest moment was during the World War II.  She sang for U.S. soldiers, and she also sang for German POWs. She performed for Allied  troops on the front lines in Algeria, Italy, England, and France – and she even went into Germany,  with Generals James Gavin and George Patton, putting herself in danger within a few kilometers of German lines. When asked why she had risked her life to sing,  she famously replied, “aus Anstand” — that is, “out of decency.”

I’d never heard the English version before.  It’s below.  The husky, lilting German is below that.  See which you like best.  And see if you can recognize the language of the third version, recorded in 1943 (but not, alas, by Marlene…)

“America’s Sweetheart”: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mary Pickford, and plummy vowels

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

“We were very tired, we were very merry…”

Okay, okay, I admit it.  I was absolutely smitten with Edna St. Vincent Millay as a young teenage girl.  I would wander a quarter-mile down Lone Pine Road in the isolated outskirts our tony neighborhood, head into the woods and loudly recite Millay’s sonnets of disillusioned love to the cattails, red-winged blackbirds, and the frozen pond.  And it made me feel grand.

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t feel too embarrassed.  No less than an eminent authority than Richard Wilbur wrote, “She wrote some of the best sonnets of the century.”

Too bad I didn’t have a recording of her voice.  I didn’t know about “her resonant voice with its clipped consonants and plummy vowels” – that might have intimidated me into a little more sense and silence.

Kate Bolick writes about the pin-up poet of the 1920s in “Working Girl” over at  Bollick informs me that I was not the first.  As a young woman at Vassar, Millay “threw herself into campus cultural life, starring in plays, publishing poems, and cultivating her already magnetic personality into a persona that proved irresistible to a captive pool of young women ripe for seduction.”

Here’s one secret they didn’t know:  She was named after a hospital. Her mother, who raised three daughters alone, was a sort of itinerant nurse, and had some reason to be grateful to St. Vincent Hospital.  Voila!   So all you have to do to get a classy sounding name is head for the nearest emergency room.  (Wouldn’t work for me.  Nearest hospital is Stanford University Hospital.  Cynthia Stanford University Haven doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)

The Millay girls grew up poor, and the plucky girls were alone for days and had to look after each other.  One day in winter, I recall reading, the pipes broke, flooded the floors, and froze.  The girls ice-skated throughout the house.

Bolick writes:

America’s other sweetheart.

There certainly wasn’t any money for college, so after Millay graduated from Camden High School in 1909, she stayed home writing poems and confiding her dissatisfactions to her journal. It was during this period that she drafted the epic, 214-line “Renascence,” which uses the topography of that little coastal burg—the mountains and bay islands and apple trees—to dramatize one woman’s spiritual oppression and mystical rebirth. Maine can get forbiddingly grim in winter, and it’s tempting to imagine the young poet sick with thinking she’ll never leave that godforsaken place, desperate to get out of the house at least, heroically pulling on her boots, trudging through the freezing slush, and eventually winding up at the local five and dime, idly flipping through a movie magazine. The year is 1912. There’s a big spread on the latest hit, The New York Hat, starring “America’s Sweetheart” (actually Canadian) Mary Pickford. It’s a silly film, about a girl and a hat. But what Millay sees is her more-or-less reflection. She and Pickford were born the same year. Like Millay, Pickford was barely over five feet tall and rarely exceeded 100 pounds, with a winsome face and masses of hair—“luminous tenderness in a steel band of gutter ferocity,” as one film critic put it. Millay pays for her hot cocoa and hurries back home, seed planted; soon enough, she’ll send that fetching portrait to the editor of the Lyric Year poetry contest.

That little scene is an invention, of course—I made it up. But there’s something potent in the idea of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Mary Pickford shining at opposite reaches of the same celestial firmament. In the 1910s, women were entering the public sphere in greater numbers just as the publishing and entertainment industries were gaining momentum, to mutually beneficial effect. Pickford, too, was raised in poverty by a single mother, and used her beauty and acting talents as her ticket out, inaugurating one of modern America’s most enduring fairy tales.


Millay is commonly thought to be the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (in 1923).  Not so, says Bolick. “In fact, she was the third. But who beyond poetry scholars remembers Sara Teasdale and Margaret Widdemer?”

I do sometimes.  Sara Teasdale, anyway …

It is not heaven: bitter seed
Leavens its entrails with despair
It is a star where dragons breed:
Devils have a footing there.

The sky has bent it out of shape;
The sun has strapped it to his wheel;
Its course is crooked to escape
Traps and gins of stone and steel.

It balances on air, and spins
Snared by strong transparent space;
I forgive it all its sins;
I kiss the scars upon its face.

Whoops. That’s Elinor Wylie, the third in the troika of American lyric poets of the period, with Millay and Teasdale.  Somehow Wylie and Teasdale have a tendency to blur in my mind, and sometimes Millay joins them.

Read the rest of Bolick’s piece here.

And listen to the pronunciation of “merry” and “ferry” in the poet’s reading of “Recuerdo” below. Wow.

More Gombrowicz: “Only phenomena capable of a ruthless life have the right to exist.”

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

“Terribly Polish.” (Photo: Bogdan Paczowski)

A week after Witold Gombrowicz arrived in Buenos Aires in 1939, Germany invaded Poland.  He couldn’t go back.  Thus began two decades of South American exile.

He began his Diary some time later, in 1953, and continued writing till his death in 1969. According to Ruth Franklin writing in the New Yorker:  “In the diary, Gombrowicz describes himself as ‘Terribly Polish and terribly rebellious against Poland.’ Gombrowicz rebellion was primarily targeted at what he came to call ‘form.’  … Though his diary project was defined by the search for self, he was not yet ready to thrust himself into it. Later, the diary grew more adventurous, branching into increasingly personal territory and experimenting more with the form and structure of his entries. Gombrowicz’s quest to save Polish culture from its own admirers becomes a favorite theme of the diary. … His exhibitionism begins in mild form, with an almost sheepish account of his daily routine. … But soon the diarist moves into the darker corners of his personality.”

And then Ms. Franklin describes precisely the incident I described in my previous post, which I had found when I first opened the book at random –  “Gombrowicz, Argentina, and a restroom on Callao Street, 1955.”  So what are the odds in a 783-page book?

Here’s an earlier diary entry from 1954, more under the rubric of “Terribly Polish and terribly rebellious against Poland.”

In Poland the tower of a too aristocratic culture crashed and everything there, except for the factory chimneys, will become dwarfed in this and the next generation. Should we, the Polish intelligentsia in exile, shrivel up because of this? This is strange but true: even though we have been suspended in a void, even though there will be fewer and fewer people capable of understanding us, we must continue to think in an unsimplistic and unprimitive way, in a way that is in keeping with our level, just as if nothing at all had changed in our situation. We must simply because this is natural in us and nobody should be more stupid than he is. We must realize ourselves completely and speak our bit out to the last letter, because only phenomena capable of a ruthless life have a right to exist.

Gombrowicz, Argentina, and a restroom on Callao Street, 1955

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Do it, do it, do it. (Photo: B. Paczowski)

If there had not been a seminar at Stanford a few weeks ago, in preparation for The Collected Works’ production of Witold Gombrowicz’s Princess Ivona, had not Lillian Vallee come to speak … well, I might never have found out about the Yale University Press’ new 783-page edition of Gombrowicz’s Diary, translated by Lillian.  (The New Yorker, last summer, called the translation “heroic” – how did I miss all this?) Now I have it.  I opened it at random.  Here’s Gombrowicz in Argentina, 1955:

Should I tell or not? A year ago, more or less, the following happened to me. I stopped in a café on Callao Street to use the bathroom. … All kinds of drawings and scribblings were on the walls.  Yet the unconscious urge would never have assailed me, like a poisonous dart, if I hadn’t accidentally fumbled across a pencil in my pocket. The pencil turned out to be an ink pen.

Enclosure, isolation, the certainty that nobody would see, some sort of stillness … and the murmur of water whispered: do it, do it, do it. I took out the pencil. I wet the tip.  I wrote on the wall, high up so it would be hard to erase.  I wrote something quite vulgar in Spanish like:

“Ladies and gentlemen, please comply …
S–– not on the toilet seat but straight in its eye!”

I hid the pen. Opened the door. I walked through the whole café and mingled with the crowd on the street. And the graffito remained.

From that time on, I exist with the awareness that my graffito is still there.

I hesitated to disclose this.  I hesitated not for reasons of prestige but because the written word should not serve to spread certain … manias.  But I won’t hide the fact that never would I have dreamed that such things could be this … electrifying … and I can hardly refrain from reproaching myself. I wasted so many years without tasting this inexpensive and risk-free delight.  There is something in this … something strange and intoxicating … resulting most likely from the horrible openness of the graffito, which is there on the wall, in union with the absolute secrecy of the perpetrator who cannot be found out. And also because this is not at all on the level of my work. …