Archive for October, 2017

Éric Chevillard: “The writer I am was put on earth to foil the plans of the novelist I had hoped to be.”

Sunday, October 29th, 2017

Éric Chevillard, born in the Vendée in 1964, is one of France’s most inventive writers. The new issue of Music & Literature – and if you don’t know that tony publication, you should – has a whole section on the postmodern novelist, who is published by the legendary Éditions de Minuit.

From an introduction by Oliver Bessard-Banquy and Pierre Jourde (translated by Sandra Smith): “Éric Chevillard has devoted his entire self to writing. Few writers have so entwined their lives with literature. At the age of twenty-three he published his first work, Dying Gives Me a Cold. He would never have another profession. Until recently, he refused all public appearances, and has since consented to only a select few gatherings. In a world that demands communication above all else, Chevillard seems to strive to perpetuate the image of an uncompromising writer … Nor is it a question of keeping a haughty distance: if there is a distance, it resides mainly in irony, in an all-pervading humor.”

From an interview in the same issue, “Exhausting the Form,” Jourde asks:

Would you define yourself as a novelist? Is the novel the form in which you’re most comfortable? More broadly, do questions of form matter much to you?

I’ve finally come to understand that the writer I am was put on earth to foil the plans of the novelist I had hoped to be. The writer I am wants nothing to do with the novelist. He thumbs his nose at the novelist, lampoons him, sets fire to his surroundings and pours sugar in his gas tank. He suspects the novelist of wanting to restore to fiction the particular order of reality that suffocated him and drove him to write in the first place. He has no desire to revert to what he strove so determinedly to resist, much less to revive it himself. Hence, a battle between the writer and the novelist. But the novelist is necessary for the writer, of course – as the emblem of a traitor, as the enemy to be vanquished, as the incarnation of all he detests and all he rebels against, without all of which he ultimately couldn’t exists. The novelist I pretend to be is a character invented, for the sole purpose of being obliterated, by the writer I am.

Would you say that there is always a tension in your novels between the fragments and the whole?

An inevitable tension, in that I still haven’t figured out how to fit a digression into an aphorism, these being the two apparently contradictory forms toward which my prose naturally inclines. But this opposition can, at times, be resolved: a story can come together suddenly in the phrase that concludes it, or, conversely, a wild unfurling might result from a brief, solemn utterance. Like a dissertation already contained in two lines on the topic.

Another Q&A in the same issue, “An Unquiet Place,” this time by Anne Diatkine, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman, includes this question.

Do you need a room to write?

Perhaps even a matryoshka doll of rooms, a room within a room within a room. Like Proust’s nested rooms, the one he withdraws into in order to evoke the one his childhood self-occupied, the one from which the entire book proceeds. In a sense, Prous never left his room. We’re born in a room, we make love in a room, and ideally we’ll even die in a room. A room isn’t just a place to rest or a refuge for a frightened animal. Why wouldn’t one write better in a room than anywhere else?

The Q&A with Jourde is one of the online offerings here. Other online offerings here. And read a profile of the author over at Quarterly Conversation here.

“It’s a negative freedom, something like a negative capability type of freedom.”

Friday, October 27th, 2017

“I love the technical joy and pleasure,” says poet and translator Dick Davis. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Our friend and eminent blogger Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence has a review over at the Los Angeles Review of Books this week – “A Negative Freedom: Thirteen Poets on Formal Verse” (it’s here). The book considers Thirteen on Form: Conversations with Poets, a collection of interviews edited by William Baer. A number of other dear friends – poets, all – are mentioned. And there’s some splendid words about the often-overlooked form of “light verse.”

A moralist at heart

Said Richard Davis, the foremost translator from the Persian into English ever as well as a top-notch poet in his own right, said, “I do love those kinds of poems — light verse as it’s called. I love the technical joy and pleasure that takes place in the writing of such poems, and the hope that those reading them will sense the pleasure that the poet experienced while writing them.”

Patrick Kurp notes that R.S. Gwynn is often labeled a writer of light verse, “a classification at once limiting and dismissive.”

Top blogger Patrick Kurp

He wrote: “Like many formal poets, Gwynn is a moralist at heart, one who favors mockery over sermons. His instincts, if not his politics (which remain unstated in the interview with Baer), are conservative, and the best satires are most often produced by writers of conservative sensibility. Think of Juvenal, Pope, Swift, Johnson, and Waugh.”
According to Sam Gwynn, “[M]y lyricism works best when it’s counterpointed against something else, like irony, for example.” From Patrick’s review:

In “Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses The Norton Anthology of Poetry,” Gwynn assembles a poem consisting entirely of lines from 28 certified poetic war horses. Half the fun is identifying the sources and marveling at the deathless elasticity of iambic pentameter:

All human things are subject to decay.
Beauty is momentary in the mind.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Lucretius fan

MacArthur “genius” Fellow A. E. Stallings, who recently translated Lucretius’s The Nature of Things into rhyming fourteeners, also writes witty, graceful, and profound poems in form. Rhyme, she says, allows her to “say something shocking or something totally unexpected.” In Alicia’s own words:

It’s helpful and effective to have some limitations on one’s choices and even to “give up” some control over the poem. Which, I suppose, is a little scary for some people. To give up some control to the muse, to outer things. I feel there’s almost a sort of Ouija Board feeling about rhyme and meter, where maybe you’re in control, and maybe you’re not. […] Maybe it’s a negative freedom, something like a negative capability type of freedom.

Read the whole review here.

What literature teaches us.

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

The meeting of Aeneas and Dido, as portrayed by Sir Nathaniel Dance

I’m always making the case for literature, and readers of the Book Haven know my argument that a great deal of our predicament today follows from our abandonment of great literature in our schools, our public conversations, and our thinking. An excellent column from Scott Esposito makes the same argument, with a new twist, over at Lithub, “How the Oldest Stories Can Give Us the Best Perspective.”  It opens:

An oddly postmodern thing happens right near the beginning of Virgil’s ancient classic the Aeneid. Having fled Troy in defeat from the Greeks, and destined to found the great Roman civilization, a defeated, beleaguered Aeneas and his men wash up on the northern coast of Africa near Carthage. Before long Aeneas locates the bustling port city, eventually stealing into the magnificent temple of Dido the queen. As he is acquainting himself with the surroundings he discovers an elaborate depiction of the very war that he is a refugee from:

Wondering at the good fortune of the city,
And admiring all the things the makers had done,
The workmanship of what was told on the walls,
Suddenly he saw depicted there,
One after another, the scenes of the Trojan War,
Famous through all the world . . .
Aeneas stopped, and weeping at what he saw,
Said, “Is there, Achates, anywhere on earth
That does not know the story of our trouble?”

He started it.

Imagine it: the catastrophic war that has wiped your home off the face of the Earth is now the stuff of legend, famous clear across the entire known world. The beloved comrades you watched die as you struggled to defend your homeland are now wrought exquisitely into the walls of a queen’s temple. You even see your own self, fighting the war you have just fled from. It is a curiously modern moment: Aeneas sees the horrific reality he has just escaped as a story told by foreigners a thousand miles away, not so different from, say, a refugee from Venezuela, or Yemen, or Syria, or Myanmar escapes to a more stable nation, only to see the story of her nation’s escalating tragedy—and maybe even herself—broadcast on CNN.

He describes how the Homeric tale winds its way through Western literature, from Virgil to the works of Dante and beyond (though he misses Derek Walcott’s Omeros), and offers this takeaway:

This column began with a war in the Middle East that storytellers began recounting 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, and we have followed it to North Africa, Rome, Italy, Spain, and Britain—and all the way to Borges clutching his bilingual copy of the Divine Comedy in Argentina in the early 1940s. I find this one of the greatest things about the literary tradition: it works on the longest timescales of human history, and it easily perforates borders. Literature conducts ideas across continents and through time with a startling efficacy: in the case of the Trojan War, it has traveled all throughout the world and back to the dawn of recorded history. Literature is the medium that is most conversant with humanity’s master narratives, the one that has done the most to form them and make them so indispensible and famed.

Practicing what he preaches

He proposes the “Virgil test”:  “if an artisan were carving this story into a palace wall half a world away, which incidents would make the cut? Which developments in this critical American saga would make it into the grand narrative of these years that may one day be passed down through the ages? Which things would we want to see if, like Aeneas, we happened to suddenly discover this story being told far away? And which developments are just noise, things that sap our energy and attention but that ultimately are not worth so much fuss?”

Read the whole thing here.

 A triumph for Sándor Márai’s little-known classic Embers

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

Another Look director Robert Harrison, with founding director Tobias Wolff

If you felt a slight tremor in the earth on Wednesday, October 18, the epicenter was at Stanford’s Encina Hall. The Another Look book club took on Sándor Márai‘s Embers – and the whole room rocked!

The event was close to a record-breaker, with about two hundred participants – not bad for an off-the-beaten track Hungarian novel (and only equaled by Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God).

Sándor Márai’s taut and mesmerizing novel, published in 1942, opens in a secluded Hungarian castle, where an old general awaits a reunion with a friend. It is 1940, and he has not appeared in public for decades. The long-estranged companions talk all night – or rather, the general talks, as the evasive visitor listens to the general discuss love, intimacy, honor, betrayal, and a beautiful, long-dead wife.

The novel is set against the backdrop of the disintegrated Austro-Hungarian empire, and shares the melancholy wisdom of its narrator: “We not only act, talk, think, dream, we also hold our silence about something. All our lives we are silent about who we are, which only we know, and about which we can speak to no one. Yet we know that who we are and what we cannot speak about constitutes the ‘truth.’ We are that about which we hold our silence.”

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He was joined by renowned author and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English at Stanford, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s Dean for Religious Life at Stanford.

Toby Wolff, Another Look’s founding director, opened by praising the courage of author Márai to sit down and create a remarkable novel about an all-night conversation – two men meet, but only one of them talks, and they persevere till dawn. The end. A daunting creative challenge that Márai pulls off magificently.

We were happy to see a lively Hungarian contingent in the audience, too – including the Hungarian Consul General for the Bay Area. And boy, did the Hungarians have a different take on the book – they praised Carol Brown Janeway‘s translation, but said that the richness of their native tongue is AWOL. And while Márai is little known west of the Danube, they assured us his books are everywhere in Budapest.

The podcast is here. And all photos, as always, are by by loyal Another Look aficionado David Schwartz.

Is Henry David Thoreau a philosopher, too? Andrea Nightingale votes yes.

Friday, October 20th, 2017

“He thought you could be awake every day.”

“He wanted to hear the language of the earth…”

This year our nation celebrates the bicentennial of Henry David Thoreau. But few of the commemorations have considered Thoreau as a philosopher, focusing instead on Thoreau as a champion of civil disobedience and the author of Walden.  Los Angeles Review of Books’ new Entitled Opinions channel fills the gap here.

Thoreau the philosopher? It’s a tough sell, according to Stanford Prof. Andrea Nightingale, who teaches a course on Thoreau and is the featured guest for this episode. Philosophers don’t consider Thoreau one of their tribe because “he didn’t mount arguments.” She continued: “Then and now, intellectual labor has always been privileged over manual labor. For Thoreau, you needed to learn things with your hands. You needed to get your hands dirty… I think manual labor is part of his philosophy in a very significant way.”

Nightingale and Robert Harrison discuss a common phrase in Walden: “to be awake,” which Thoreau took in a spiritual sense as a state of being. For him, it involved a deep sense of attunement to the natural world, in what Thoreau called an “infinite expectation of the dawn.”

Potent Quotes

“Your metaphysical desire can have an infinite object which is God. If you let go of that, your unlimited desires just want more and more and more.”

Harrison at the mic (Photo: L.A. Cicero)


“Thoreau found in nature an infinite manifestation of something deep and fulfilling – and it kept expanding and getting more vibrant.”

“He wanted to hear the language of the earth. … He was very interested in the wind in the trees – one way in which nature is publishing a set of ideas.”

“He thought you could be awake every day.”

“His point of course was to learn how to dwell on the earth in this mode of vibrancy.”

Check out the whole interview here.

Nightingale the philosopher

By the way, Nightingale writes and teaches Greek and Roman philosophy and literature – but she also teaches a course on Thoreau. And she has written on the philosophy and literature of ecology as well. Nightingale, a frequent Entitled Opinions guest, is the author of Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy and Spectacles of Truth: Theoria in its Cultural Context (both with Cambridge University Press) and Once out of Nature: Augustine on Time and the Body (University of Chicago Press).

And read more about Robert Harrison’s thoughts on Thoreau here.

Robert Harrison’s acclaimed “Entitled Opinions” radio show gets a makeover

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017


Robert Harrison as DJ (photo: L.A. Cicero)

From Stanford Report:

Robert Harrison‘s radio show Entitled Opinions has devoted fans all over the world – from Australia to China, Mexico to Russia. One blogger called the intellectually powered interviews, broadcast from KZSU (90.1 FM) and available for free download on iTunes, “one of the most fascinating, engaging podcasts in any possible universe.”

The Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature, who is also an acclaimed author and regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, has recorded more than 200 conversations since 2005, featuring some of our era’s leading figures in literature, philosophy, science, and cultural history, including Richard Rorty, René Girard, Peter Sloterdijk, Shirley Hazzard, Orhan Pamuk, Colm Tóibin, Marilynne Robinson, Paul Ehrlich, Michel Serres, Hayden White, and Abraham Verghese. It also provides an international platform to Stanford faculty.

But until very recently, the website still used the ancient html format created for the French & Italian Department website, with its long, unmemorable URL. Searching for past shows was clumsy and often impossible. Visitors had to scroll down through a seemingly endless chronological list of past episodes to find what they were looking for.

Among the guests: Pamuk

Harrison was beginning to worry about how to ensure that the program remain available in the future – it’s goldmine for scholars, as well as average listeners who “don’t consider themselves observers or listeners, but full-blown participants in the conversation.”

Meanwhile, journalist Cynthia Haven, who works with Harrison on Stanford’s Another Look book club, was trying to make the high-caliber broadcasts available to an even wider audience. Together, they found solutions.

A generous donation from outgoing Stanford president John Hennessy helped fund a redesign for the website, making it more searchable and up-to-date, with a new URL anyone can remember: . Moreover, the show has forged a new alliance with The Los Angeles Review of Books. The Entitled Opinions channel on the journal’s website is boosting each featured episode by thousands of viewers. The channel also offers summaries of the conversations – another first for the show.

Among the guests: Girard

“Robert Harrison’s interviews are always incisive, smart, interesting. We are so excited to have Entitled Opinions as a new channel at the Los Angeles Review of Books,” said Managing Editor Medaya Ocher. “He has a devoted following around the world but we wanted to make sure that these conversations reached an even broader public. We’ve loved listening to his show over years and it’s a privilege to host these exceptional interviews on our site.”

In another move to preserve Entitled Opinions, the university librarian is now archiving Entitled Opinions as an important part of Stanford’s cultural legacy and history, even as more episodes are being added.

What keeps Harrison going? His fans, he said. A young woman recently wrote, “I am finally getting my oxygen in the barren and orthodox land of Pakistan where lunacy rules and religious fundamentalism along with brutal patriarchy destroys all the critical and creative potential in every thinking person.”

Another listener added: “your show accompanied me through pretty stressful times of intense military and political conflicts in Israel, when heavy objects were falling from the sky on both sides of the border and people were saying pretty dreadful things about other people. … The shows certainly helped me remain sane.”

Said Harrison, “When you look at the whole archive, it’s a lifeline to a world of intellectual ideas.”

We’ve describe the genesis of the changes – but two essential names must be mentioned in its implementation: the heroic Vittoria Mollo, who worked tirelessly to get the new website up and running, and academic technology specialist Michael Widner, who effected the redesign.

Last call for Sándor Márai’s Embers: We’ll explore lies, betrayals, secrets, and honor on Wednesday, Oct. 18!

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017


Little-known Hungarian author

Last call for Sándor Márai‘s taut and mesmerizing Embers, published in 1942. The novel opens in a secluded Hungarian castle, where an old general awaits a reunion with a friend. It is 1940, and he has not appeared in public for decades. The long-estranged companions talk all night – or rather, the general talks, as the evasive visitor listens to the general discuss love, intimacy, honor, betrayal, and a beautiful, long-dead wife. “We are our secrets,” he says.

The autumn “Another Look” event at Stanford will discuss Márai’s superb novel. The discussion will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 18, at the Bechtel Conference Center.

Haven’t got the book? There’s still time: go to Stanford Bookstore on the Stanford campus, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, or Bell’s Books in Palo Alto. It’s a quick read, as are all the Another Look books.

The novel is set against the backdrop of the disintegrated Austro-Hungarian empire, and shares the melancholy wisdom of its narrator: “We not only act, talk, think, dream, we also hold our silence about something. All our lives we are silent about who we are, which only we know, and about which we can speak to no one. Yet we know that who we are and what we cannot speak about constitutes the ‘truth.’ We are that about which we hold our silence.”

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by renowned author and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English at Stanford, and Jane Shaw, Stanford’s Dean for Religious Life at Stanford. Wolff is founding director of Another Look, and of course many of you will remember Jane Shaw from our discussion of J.L. Carr‘s  A Month in the Country.

For Another Look newcomers, a map for the Bechtel Conference Center is here. The nearby Knight parking structure, underneath the nearby Graduate School of Business, has plenty of room for free parking (see here for a map). In addition, parking is available on Serra Street and in front of Encina Hall itself.

The Another Look book club takes on books that have been forgotten, neglected, or simply haven’t received the attention we think they merit. Again, all books are short, so they can be read in a few sittings.

All our events are free and open to the public – and please bring your friends! Come early for best seating.



The most perfect poet in the English language: Richard Wilbur is dead at 96

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

Au revoir to a gracious soul.

I had dinner Richard Wilbur at the West Chester Poetry Conference, where he was a guest of honor, about 16 years ago. He was attending with his beloved wife, Charlotte. He was as genial and charming as his reputation had suggested, and his obvious, abiding affection for his college sweetheart, an effervescent and gregarious matron, was charming and heartwarming.

I had intended to make a long interview with him at a future date, but other work and other projects intervened, and I never made it out for a Key West rendezvous (or Cummington, Massachusetts, his other home) that I had envisioned … and now I never will.

Dick Wilbur died peacefully last night at 10:45 p.m. with his family at hand. He was 96. No one can take his place. No one comes even close.

Richard Woodward in The Wall Street Journal a few years ago  called him “our finest living poet.” He was hardly alone. Poet and historian Robert Conquest told me that Dick Wilbur was his favorite American living poet. Excellent taste, and it coincides exactly with my own (here). But his death will likely go largely unremarked, except among the people who know his worth. As Woodward added, “Despite having earned almost every literary award this country has to offer, including a pair of Pulitzers and Bollingens, as well as the title of U.S. Poet Laureate in 1987-88, he has never enjoyed a rapt general following.” (He also one the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Prize in 2006.) More people are likelier to know his work in as a translator – his translations of Molière are unmatched, and probably unmatchable.

Woodward added, “His productivity, never high to begin with, has slowed with age. He finishes poems at the rate that Antonio Stradivari constructed a violin. ‘I often don’t write more than a couple of lines in a day of, let’s say, six hours of staring at the sheet of paper,’ he told the Paris Review in 1977. “Composition for me is, externally at least, scarcely distinguishable from catatonia.”

The poet-critic Randall Jarrell famously said Wilbur “obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing,” Similarly, Jay Parini wrote that, in this poem, one of two in “Two Voices in a Meadow”: “Wilbur aspires to a Blakean intensity, with his casual lyricism achieving a kind of perfection rarely found among his contemporaries.” It’s a short one and easy to memorize, so you can carry it around with you. I recommend it.

The Wilbur wedding, 1942

However, his poems, since Charlotte’s death in 2007, had become increasingly death-haunted. David Orr wrote in the New York Times: “More than 50 years ago, Randall Jarrell claimed that as a poet, Wilbur ‘never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.’ The observation is invariably quoted whenever Wilbur gets reviewed (far be it from me to break the chain). But to write convincingly about death — and also, as Wilbur has increasingly done, about grief — isn’t a matter of ‘going’ anywhere. It’s a matter of remaining poised in the face of a vast and freezing indifference.” While his recent poems “are unlikely to strike many readers as the illustrious pronouncements of a Grand Old Man — the kind of figure Jarrell had in mind — they are wholly successful in meeting the darkest of subjects with their own quiet light. Which is, surely, a far grander thing.”

Back to that dinner years ago at West Chester. Many have wondered if envy and resentment played a role in the … well, if not neglect, the subdued acclaim for this perfect poet, perfectly married, and living a rich and happy life with every possible award short of the Nobel. The dinner had ended by then, and the Wilburs were getting up to leave. With a merry look, Charlee answered … I can’t recall what exactly, the words will come back to me eventually … but something to the effect of “tough luck on them!” And they walked away, arm in arm.

When I heard the news today from Dana Gioia, among my first thoughts was that he would be back with Charlee at last.

From “For C.,” for his wife Charlotte. He compares their long union to the brief encounters where “bright Perseids flash and crumble”:

We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share
The frequent vistas of their large despair,
Where love and all are swept to nothingness;
Still, there’s a certain scope in that long love
Which constant spirits are the keepers of,

And which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart …

Well, you can read the whole thing here.
Postscript: The New York Times just put up a beautiful obituary here.
Postscript on 10/16: Two great comments from our regular Book Haven readers I’m including below:
Jeff SypeckSad news–but what an earthly legacy. I like to think that his influence is at least part of the reason the ninth-graders at our local high school are one again learning the formal aspects of poetry, and certainly any poet who emphasizes form owes him gratitude. But I also appreciate how Wilbur exemplified something I’m increasingly seeing among professional (but by no means famous) artists I meet: that one need not wallow in self-destruction to create humane and beautiful work.
Sam Gwynn: For many years he was an Episcopal lay reader. He wasn’t showy about his faith and rarely wrote religious poems; there is one hymn and others that touch on metaphysical subjects. “One the Marginal Way,” one of his most impressive lyrics, reveals him to be a Christian Darwinist who believed (or hoped) that there was a “vast motive” in nature working for good. His greatest fear was nuclear war, the subject of “Years End” and “Advice to a Prophet.” He was no mystic, but he has many links to the tradition of American transcendentalism. As Jeff notes, he kept his head when many seemed to be losing theirs. I knew him for almost 50 years, and he was always the same–courtly, courteous, and civilized. He showed a lot of us how to live as both a person and as a poet.
Another postscript on 10/16: And a new letter just came in:

Peter Grudin: Thank you for this absolutely accurate summary of just who Richard Wilbur was. Allow me to add the following.We have lost the best American poet since Robert Frost, the best translator of French — well I cannot think of anyone comparable. To call him a virtuoso and his verse “polished” and “urbane” is to damn with faint praise. Maybe we should call Milton “sonorous” and Mallarmé “puzzling.”

Richard Wilbur was a true poet. He wrote verse, poems in strictly measured language with a command of rhyme rarely approached since Browning. His genius was contrary to the prevailing fashion. Well, that was true of Dickens once and true, for that matter, of J. S. Bach. I have heard too much of what fashion has to say, enough from those poets and critics who belittled Wilbur. The times, it seems, were out of step with his genius. But that will change. This man wrote poetry in its truest richest sense, its inner energy just contained within the strength of its form.

As for translations, well, I have read Wilbur’s translations of the great Molière, and there are not a few moments when the translation is better than the original. His wit is remarkable, best illustrated by his elegant and very funny OPPOSITES.

What’s the opposite of riot?
Lots of people keeping quiet.

He is gone, and I wonder just how completely he held on to the faith that emerges even in his last poems:

Dreams, which interweave
All our times and tenses, are
What we can believe: Dark they are, yet plain,
Coming to us now as if
Through a cobwebbed pane
Where, before our eyes,
All the living and the dead
Meet without surprise.

. .

On the centenary of the Russian Revolution: what was it like before it was a fait accompli?

Friday, October 13th, 2017

Bolsheviks on the Red Square, 1917

Spiked Review has thrown a spotlight on 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, an anthology of prose and poetry, edited and often translated by Boris Dralyuk, executive editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. 

His book “does something remarkable for an event seen all too readily in hindsight. As Dralyuk himself puts it, 1917 aims to capture the experience of the revolution among those for whom it was yet to be a fait accompli. We see that for some, it was a source of trepidation, to others, inspiration. But to all, it was unfolding, its destination uncertain.”

From the interview with Boris Dralyuk:

spiked review: Do you feel that many of these writers and poets – the big names like Mayakovsky or Pasternak excepted – have been unfairly neglected outside Russia? And perhaps even inside Russia, too? And, if so, why do you think this is?

Funny Girl: Nadezhda Teffi

Boris Dralyuk: You’re quite right: many of the authors in this anthology have been neglected. The reasons for this neglect are not too difficult to surmise. Writers who fled Soviet Russia out of hostility to Bolshevik rule – and, often enough, fear for their lives – preserved their freedom of expression, but at great cost. Literary stars like [Nadezhda] Teffi – a great humorist whose work had won the admiration of both Nicholas II and Lenin – found themselves writing almost exclusively for an isolated émigré audience. Paris became the capital of the Russian emigration, but many French intellectuals perceived members of the Russian colony as unfashionably conservative and retrograde; to their minds, the émigrés were, in Nabokov’s words, ‘hardly palpable people who imitated in foreign cities a dead civilisation, the remote, almost legendary, almost Sumerian mirages of St Petersburg and Moscow, 1900-1916’.

There was far more interest in translations of new Soviet works than in the melancholy scribbling of Russians who had split off from the march of history, consigning themselves to oblivion. I quoted Nabokov, who saved himself from oblivion by switching languages. Few of his fellow émigrés could manage that transition. They had to wait, on the one hand, for Soviet censorship to collapse, and, on the other, for translators to take up their causes. Teffi won back her Russian readers after 1991, and it is only in the past decade that Anglophone audiences were exposed to sparkling translations of her prose; Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France, Irina Steinberg, Anne Marie Jackson, and Clare Kitson have ushered in a proper Teffi renaissance in English, and I was grateful to feature two of this master’s pieces, in Rose France’s translation, in 1917. Anyone interested in the great variety of prose that Russians produced in emigration between the wars should pick up Bryan Karetnyk’s brilliant anthology Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky, which was released by Penguin Classics earlier this year.

But it isn’t only émigré writers who have suffered from neglect. Ironically, some of the authors who were most enthusiastic about the October Revolution – the true believers – had been most thoroughly effaced from Russian literary history. I’m thinking of the poets associated with the Proletkult, or ‘proletarian culture’ movement, whose verse from the first years of Soviet rule radiates fiery conviction. In subsequent years, as Soviet economic and literary policy shifted, this conviction gave way to disillusionment. I include the work of three Proletkult poets in my anthology. The dates of their deaths – 1937, 1937 and 1941 – say a great deal. Mikhail Gerasimov and Vladimir Kirillov were both arrested and executed at the height of Stalin’s purges, and Alexey Kraysky died during the blockade of Leningrad. Their work was suppressed or simply forgotten for decades.

Read the rest here


Four poets, two versions of Orpheus

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

Greville, for purposes of comparison.

Thom Gunn once wrote a letter of reference for Edgar Bowers, and he evidently said afterward that the experience made him feel like Philip Sidney recommending Fulke Greville.” So Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele opens his “Two Versions of Orpheus” in the summer issue of the Yale Review. One thing the Gunn and Bowers shared: a deep grounding and love for the Renaissance poets, including of course Sidney and Greville.

We’ve written before about Gunn here and here, and about  Bowers here and here, and even a little about Fulke Greville here, and Tim Steele here and here and here, among other places. 

But that’s all in pieces. Tim’s essays are always thoughtful, erudite, and insightful, and this long piece is one of the best of them – and it begins with Gunn’s anecdote, which frames the essay.

You can read it for yourself, but if you don’t know either of the poets, who studied with Stanford’s Yvor Winters, here’s your introduction, which gives you a taste for the whole:

Gunn: a panther tattoo and an earring.

Even in the personal impressions they produced, Gunn and Bowers differed in ways that Sidney and Greville did. Just as Sidney was the cynosure of his era, Gunn was a rock star in the poetry world of the second half of the twentieth century. Tall and handsome, he combined courtly good manners – he was in person very thoughtful and considerate of others – with an appealingly piratical air. He wore an earring long before it was a common fashion accessory for men. On his right arm, he had a tattoo of a panther that he got in 1962 from Lyle Tuttle, the San Francisco artist who later did Janis Joplin’s tattoos and who tattooed the Allman Brothers with the mushroom design that has remained the band’s logo to this day. If Paolo Veronese painted Sidney, artists like Don Bachardy and Robert Mapplethorpe drew or photographed Gunn. The dust jackets of some of his books carry their portraits of him. Seeing these, many of us feel that, yes, this is the way a poet should look.

Counterpoint: Sidney as fashionplate.

Bowers was just the opposite. Reluctant to call attention to himself, he dressed in a quietly tasteful Brooks Brothers manner, and with his understated charm could have passed for the kind of cultivated civil servant that Greville became for Elizabeth and James I. Though a wonderfully intelligent and lively conversationalist, he had no artistic airs. As devoted as he was to poetry, he sometimes said, as Dick Davis recalled in a memorial essay on Bowers in Poets & Writers (2000), that one is a poet only when one is writing a poem. Further, he thought that the poet’s main responsibility was to write well and to produce the best individual poems he or she could, and he believed that it was ruinous to poets to imagine that they were more special than other people or had creative spirits that automatically conferred value on whatever they wrote. He worried that his contemporaries judged poets more by their appearance than by their work, and on one occasion during a literary dinner in Florence, his suspicion received ironic confirmation. One of the other guests, not realizing that Bowers had good Italian, remarked within his hearing that he obviously was not a real poet, in view of how well groomed he was. Such thoughtlessness irritated Bowers, but he recognized that it reflected the zeitgeist and resigned himself to the situation as best he could.

Bowers was a Brooks Brothers guy.

While on the subject of the folly of judging merely on appearances, I should add that Gunn, despite his outlaw image and his genuinely wild side, conducted his writing life with extraordinary meticulousness. Those who visited him at his house on Cole Street in San Francisco have noted how neatly he kept his room and library. As is shown by his notebooks and diaries archived at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, he was also an inveterate maker of to-do lists and was continually mapping out writing projects, quite a few of which he relinquished simply because there was not time enough in one life to do them all. Moreover, he maintained careful and extensive records of his publications and public appearances. In an essay in The Threepenny Review (2005), Wendy Lesser conveys the powerful impression produced by the thoroughness of this documentation.


After Gunn’s death the previous year, and at the request of his longtime partner Mike Kitay, she and August Kleinzahler inspected Gunn’s study: ‘‘We found drawers of file folders containing every draft of every poem he had ever published, all sorted into book-manuscript order and each clipped to the finished, printed version of the poem; and we found schedules of every reading he had given for the past four decades, each with the list of poems to be read that night.’’

In contrast, Bowers possessed, in spite of his conventionally tasteful wardrobe and exquisitely poised intellect, the kinds of quirks and crochets we tend to associate with the artistic temperament. As he confessed in a 1999 radio interview with Troy Teegarden’s Society of Underground Poets, he was ‘‘very disorderly.’’

Read the whole thing here