Archive for September, 2020

A.E. Stallings on Aeschylus’s “The Persians” in the TLS: “The ghost scene alone must have seemed a dangerous necromancy.”

Sunday, September 27th, 2020
Share

Alicia Stallings’s fashion statement at the Greek theater in Epidaurus. (Photo: John Psaropoulus)

We wrote about Athens-based poet A.E. Stallings’s off-the-cuff remarks when she attended the National Theatre of Greece’s production of Aeschylus‘s The Persians in the ancient Greek theater of Epidaurus on July 25.

The play is Aeschylus’s The Persians, circa 472 B.C., about the Persian-Greek war. The playwright himself had participated in the crucial battle it describes, so he knew what he was talking about. It is not only the oldest surviving Greek play, but Aeschylus’s most powerful antiwar statement, praising the freedom of the individual and the wisdom of democratic norms.

Now she’s written at length about the experience in the current Times Literary Supplementand, for the time being, it seems to be out from behind they paywall, here

You can start with our excerpt below, where the poet describes what the production meant to Greeks:

Taking a snooze in the sun (Photo: John Psaropoulus)

Aeschylus had fought in the battle: some of the messenger speech is arguably an eyewitness account. When I think about what that first production must have been like – Aeschylus conjuring up on stage not only Xerxes, the man who had recently razed the city, but the ghost of his father, Darius, in front of an audience for whom this was a raw and recent memory (many would have been veterans), and just below the Persian-destroyed temple on the Acropolis, I get goose-bumps. The ghost scene alone must have seemed a dangerous necromancy. …

We recognized acquaintances from Athens sitting at the café, despite their masks. “Of course the play could not be more topical”, one asserted, indicating recent provocations of the Turkish president, Erdoğan, in the Eastern Mediterranean. On the night we were at the play, in late July, the Greek military was on high alert. The presence of the prime minister and his entourage (one lady in a sequined “evening” mask) added to the nationalist energy in the air.

The tragedy plays differently to Greek and non-Greek audiences. Reviews of the live-streamed production in the Guardian (subtitled “a triumph of empathy for a time of Covid-19”) and the New York Times praised the production for its timely lessons on hubris and its message of empathy. But for the overwhelmingly Greek audience present, thrilled to be out of doors at a production at all after a long lockdown, and potentially on the brink of war, the play was rousingly patriotic. The image of Greece as a scrappy little country punching above its weight, taking no orders from kings and exerting its naval prowess to push back against a larger threatening power, was as appealing as ever.

When Queen Atossa (widow of King Darius and mother of Xerxes) interrogated the chorus about the battle and the nature of the victorious Greeks, the exchange felt like a kind of catechism of Athenian democracy. “What Monarch do they have; who leads the army?”, she demanded to know of the Greeks. When the Chorus responded, “No one, they are not slaves; no one gives them orders”, the crowd erupted in applause, as perhaps the first audience did.

Later, in the messenger speech, he describes how, as the Greeks bore down, they burst into the chant: “Go, sons of the Greeks, and liberate the fatherland!” This was another moment the audience was waiting to applaud enthusiastically. The play, produced in a modern Greek translation by Theodoros Stephanopoulos, translates this line by alluding to poet Rhigas’s “War Song”, popular from the time of the Greek war of independence, a poem which Byron translates as “Sons of the Greeks, Arise!” The war song is sometimes called the Greek Marseillaise, and if it sounds strikingly close (both can be sung to the same tune), that may be because the Marseillaise is also consciously imitating the Greek of Aeschylus. Sitting there, I imagined Aeschylus being pleased that his anthem to liberty was still sung lustily millennia after his death.

Read more here.

Canadian novelist Robertson Davies: “Sin is the creation of meaning or intent where none was planned.”

Thursday, September 24th, 2020
Share

I recently came across The Paris Review 1989 interview with the Canadian novelist and man of letters Robertson Davies. The interview took place in front of an audience at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York City three years earlier. No surprise it was a sold-out appearance – Davies, who died in 1995, was always a popular reader, lecturer, and interview subject. As the interviewer Elisabeth Sifton noted, “The robust presence of this ‘wizard of the North’ … came as no surprise: a filled-out broad chested figure, clad in slightly old-fashioned clothes (that evening he wore his signature leather waistcoat, all the better looking for age, beneath a well-cut jacket), with an easy erect carriage, a deep, skillfully modulated voice, fine straight nose, luxuriant white beard and hair.” 

A couple excerpts: 

You once wrote, “All the critics in this town are the bastard children of Scotch parents.”

Yes, critics have this nanny quality, but they vary enormously. Some are friendly and kindly, and are interested in your work and take it seriously, but the ones who get under my skin are the academic critics whose whole training is to detect faults. They call them “flaws.” I call them “flawyers,” which they do not like. I one time nailed one of these people and said, “Tell me of a novel that you know that is free from flaw. Now how about War and Peace?” “Oh, infinitely flawed.” “What about Remembrance of Things Past, Proust’s great novel?” “Oh, a mass of flaws.” I think it would be splendid if we could get a committee of these wonderful people to write a flawless novel, but they won’t do it and I question whether it would reach publication. The opposite. Sin is the creation of meaning or intent where none was planned. A Ph.D. candidate wrote of World of Wonders that its hero was christened Paul, and that his life story exactly paralleled that of Saint Paul! I said mildly that this had not occurred to me. He replied, with an indulgent smile, that many things appear to the critical reader of a book which have eluded the attention of the author, and that this gave the book “resonance” – for me, the resonance of a dull thud. It is extremely disagreeable to be treated as a sort of idiot savant who must be explained to himself and to his readers.

***

Many of your readers and reviewers are dazzled by how much you know about everything, by how much they can learn about so many things in your novels – some of it quite arcane and special, some of it information that perhaps we should all know but don’t. Mary McCarthy once argued eloquently that the novel is among other things a conveyor of a huge amount of social and cultural, as well as psychological and philosophical, information and truth. You can learn to make strawberry jam by reading Anna Karenina, as she said. Do you like the idea of instructing your readers on all that lore about gypsies or cellos or art forgery or Houdini, to name a few subjects quite randomly.

Well, you see, the actual fact is that I don’t. I saw a few things, I provide a few details, but if I may be permitted to say so, I work on the Shakespearean plan. Everybody says, ‘Oh, Shakespeare must have been a sailor. Do you notice how in the beginning of The Tempest people cry, ‘Man the bowsprit,’ or ‘Split the binnacle,’ or whatever it is. He must have been a sailor.” Others say, “No, no, he must have been a lawyer. Remember in The Merchant of Venice he has a scene in a law court that is quite like a law court.” “No, no, no, Shakespeare must have been a soldier because he has a place where Henry V cries, ‘Follow your spirits and upon this charge,/Cry God, for Harry, England and Saint George.” It’s all hooey. Shakespeare had a few telling details which he injected into his plays that made them seem realistic, and I have the same in my novels. I don’t know a very great deal about anything. Indeed, the areas of my ignorance are fantastic in their scope. But you know, I have one remembrance which has a bearing on this. When I wrote Fifth Business, there were some scenes in it which took place in the First World War, the experiences of a Canadian soldier. I say virtually nothing about the war except that there was a great deal of mud, that there were a lot of horses who might panic, and that most of the time it was infinitely boring. That is all. But you know, one man said to me, “Where were you during the war?” and I said, “Well, frankly, after I got here I was in the cradle.” But he had fought in France and he said that it was just like that. He asked, “How did you know it was like that?” If you have the kind of imagination a novelist needs, you have a notion of why it was like that. You do not need to write endlessly about what kind of sidearms somebody takes when he goes on a night raid and that kind of thing. That creates boredom.

Read the whole thing here.

On Stalingrad: Vassily Grossman’s “astonishingly, disturbingly different” account of World War 2

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020
Share

Peter Hitchens has a fascinating discussion of Vassily Grossman‘s Stalingrad over at First Things here. An excerpt:

Now comes the rather ­curious publication of a wholly new English edition of ­Grossman’s Stalingrad, a book that, unlike Life and Fate, was officially published in the U.S.S.R., but in several different formats. One of the most fascinating things about it—and this is not meant to denigrate the book itself—is the explanation at the end of the text of how it changed from edition to edition, reflecting the several different eras of repression, thaw, and renewed freeze in the Kremlin. As a novel, it is a great mess. It has even less structure than Life and Fate. It often seems to be a collection of distantly related short stories, dodging about from character to character in a way that often left me in need of an index. It is also quite obviously an incomplete version of the events of Life and Fate, viewed from another direction.

Nonetheless, the book is very much worth reading. Grossman was a brave and—where possible—honest reporter of a terrible war about which we in the English-speaking countries know far too little. Take these words of his about Stalingrad that (­without attribution to him, because he was a Jew and his talent could not be admitted) are incised on the furious, ugly memorial to that terrible battle. They say of the soldiers of the Red Army:

An iron wind lashed their faces but still they marched forward. And once more a feeling of superstitious terror gripped their foe. “They are attacking us again. Can they be mortal?” Yes, we were mortal indeed and few of us survived. But we all carried out our patriotic duty before Holy Mother Russia.

If you have any feeling for this sort of thing, you cannot fail to be moved by these words. And they are a good sample of Grossman’s emotive description of war. We have our version of the vast 1939–45 conflict that convulsed Europe and later the world. The Russians have theirs, and it is astonishingly, disturbingly different. American readers might need to imagine a huge and victorious German Army pouring eastward from California, thrusting the snouts of its tanks right up to the western bank of the Mississippi—and then being broken at the last possible moment by a berserk American stand at Minneapolis, at enormous cost. British readers have no such possibility. For if the Germans had got ashore in our small island, that would have been that, whatever we might like to boast.

In fact, if the Germans had won at Stalingrad, Britain would almost certainly have had to make terms with Hitler, a prospect so dismal most of us cannot even contemplate it. No wonder the British reader holds his breath and hopes for a Soviet triumph as he reads Grossman’s account of the Stalingrad battle. We cannot begin to conceive of having had the people and riches of a great part of our homeland under a bigoted and merciless foreign conqueror, while we still fought on in the land that was left to us, retreating and retreating and retreating until we had to stand or die. This was the case for the Russians.

Grossman said of his work as a war correspondent that he spoke “on behalf of those that lie in the earth,” and there is no doubt that he performs that duty.

Read the rest here.

“Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas”: Walter Benjamin’s 13 writing tips

Saturday, September 19th, 2020
Share

“The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses” is part of his 1928 treatise One-Way Street, one of only two books published in his lifetime. This 13 tips were posted on Twitter recently and I thought I’d share them. It reminded one tweeter of a sign that read: “The worst words you ever write are far better than the best words you never write.” Another remembered an old, established writer I heard on NPR back in the 1980s: “Write through your mediocrity. Keep writing… right on through it.”

But these are far more enigmatic. If some of them sound flakey, don’t dismiss them offhand. Sit with them awhile. As Morgan Meis wrote: “They are often elusive texts that can take years of reading, over and over again, before the mists begin to clear. What, for instance, is Benjamin really talking about in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility?” Is it a theory of art and historical change? Is it a political manifesto about the revolutionary potential of film? Is it a long lament about the loss of that magical quality “aura?” The more you read the essay (in its various versions), the harder it is to decide just what Benjamin is saying. But it is impossible to dismiss the essay altogether. The ideas contained within it have a way of staying put in your mind, festering there. That was Benjamin’s special talent, to elude and to linger.

“This makes for a writer who has baffled interpreters for a couple of generations since his suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Some are convinced that Benjamin was primarily a Marxist. Some think of him as a cultural critic. Others detect the sensibilities of a religious mystic. Many see an aesthete, the last of the great European flâneurs. Not all of these interpretations are mutually exclusive. But some of them are, which makes Benjamin among that elite group of major intellectual figures about whom almost no one completely agrees. An accomplishment in itself.”

R.I.P. poet Anne Stevenson (1933-2020): on writing poems with “something like a pulse”

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020
Share

A woman with “a whim of iron.” Photograph © Carrie Hitchcock

When I saw my friend Anne Stevenson‘s poem “How Poems Arrive” in The Guardian some days go, I had planned to ask her permission to republish it on the Book Haven. I was delayed, and as it turns out, delayed too long. Anne died yesterday, at 87. The poem I had intended to republish as a celebration of her, is now “In Memoriam.”  The British American poet died Monday morning, presumably at her home in Wales. The only obituary to date is in The Telegraph, behind a paywall. [Update: Anne’s publisher tells me she died in her Durham home after a brief illness.]

I spent a week at the 17th century home in rural Wales, where she lived with her husband, Peter Lucas. I wrote about it here. She was an alumna, as I am, of the University of Michigan. But we met in Durham, where I visited her beautiful flat near the Norman-era citadel and cathedral on the River Wear. Later, I published a long Q&A with her over at the Cortland Review

An excerpt:

CH: In your rather crusty on-line response to Poetry Society of America’s “What’s American About American Poetry?”—a questionnaire sent to 300 American poets—you said there was “Too much talk, too much hype, too much putative democracy, too much ignorance, too much self-indulgence, too much encouragement, too much follow-the-leader conformism, too much self-consciousness, too much seek-to-establish-your-identity, too much theory of language, too much academic anxiety, too many writing programmes, too many king-and-queen-making critics, too many competitions (mediocrity assiduously crowning mediocrity); enfin, too many poets.”

Would you care to elaborate?

AS: Too often when I read new poetry, English or American, it all sounds alike. There are few individual voices. And the poems tend to be one- or two-dimensional, ignoring subtleties and nuances. Plop, plop, plop—in the indicative mood, allowing for few shadings or innuendoes. You don’t have to say everything you mean in a poem. In America, especially, there is too much earnestness around and very little word play. Get the words right, and the earnestness will take care of itself.

Nowadays, of course, “creativity” is a fashionable word. I once heard Hugh McDiarmid say outright, “Don’t encourage them; discourage them.” I tend to agree. I sometimes wonder if workshops actually do much good. Everybody’s so afraid of hurting each other’s feelings. Good criticism means you have to hurt people’s feelings. Poetry isn’t just a matter of learning technical tricks. Since most of the poetry people bring into workshops is personal and sloppy, applying “group technique” to it encourages a negative approach. I mean, you learn primarily what not to do: not to overuse adjectives, not to fall back on cliches, not to be sentimental, and so on. Unfortunately, this communal process of cleaning poems up and polishing them for publication results too often in just what you’d expect: processed poetry that lacks individuality and passion, or as Frost put it, “That Wildness whereof it is made.”

And then, the social categorization so ubiquitous today is destructive: women, race, class, age groups. Elizabeth Bishop remarked to me once that if you don’t stay well away from the gray world of ideology and theory, you will never become a poet. Emily Dickinson—not a bad thinker, you’ll agree?—developed her ideas through an acute awareness of what was around her in the world, whether it was a fly or a flower.

Her home near Llanbedr in Wales

CH: Why do you think there are there so many poets today?

AS: Because they are given jobs—academic jobs in creative writing! I admire Dana Gioia in the way I admire Wallace Stevens because I, too, believe that if you’re good at writing poems, that’s something you do for love. As Frost wrote, poetry is both a vocation and an avocation. Dana, I realize, does lots of organizing and journalism to make a living, but he began as a businessman-amateur. You should say somewhere in the course of this interview that, in my view, Dana has done a great deal for poetry in America by single-handedly taking meretricious power-seeking by the scruff of the neck and shaking it, and, boy, did it need shaking! Perhaps now, though, he should think about quitting the battlefield for a while and go back to his plough. That’s one trouble with the American way of success—you get going on one of these high-flying swings and you can’t jump off. It’s amazing to me: I never would have been able to maintain the kind of schedule Dana does. Here I am, exhausted today after a single reading in Grassmere last night.

You’re going to have a hell of a job putting this interview together. But I hope you’re at least making some sense out of my mutterings.

[Stevenson goes to a bookshelf, gets a copy of 1998’s Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop.] You know, I think this book is better—at least it means more to me—than Bitter Fame. As you know, I was impressed and influenced by Elizabeth Bishop far more than I was by Sylvia Plath. Goodness, Bitter Fame was a struggle! After writing it, I became disillusioned with the so-called poetry scene both in England and in the States—so much commercial betting and marketing goes into it, so much taking up with this poets’ group or that.

CH: You have decried “poetry’s decline in the greater, sacred world of what matters.”

AS: In the long run, I suppose one has to say that, these days, poetry isn’t important to most people. Then you see that it actually is important, but to comparatively few. First you have to understand how little—materially—it matters. Like any art, the real stuff comes about through our human confrontation or quarrel with ourselves as Yeats said, but in later life, serious poets have to find and explore that “sacred world of what matters” pretty much for themselves.

Dana and friend (Photo: Starr Black)

Dana Gioia has dedicated poems to others. It’s nice to see that, in The Guardian, Anne dedicated a poem to him. Here’s what she had to say about the process of poem-writing: “So writing a poem is like conducting an argument between your unconscious mind and your conscious self. You have to get unconsciousness and consciousness lined up in some way. I suspect that’s why working to a form, achieving a stanza, and keeping to it—deciding that the first and third and fifth lines will have to rhyme, and that you’re going to insist on so many stresses per line—oddly helps the poem to be born. That is, to free itself from you and your attentions to it and become a piece of art in itself. Heaven only knows where it comes from! I suppose working out a form diminishes the thousands of possibilities you face when you begin. And once you’ve cut down the possibilities, you can’t swim off into the deep and drown. Well, it’s a very, very strange process.” Read my whole interview here. Read the poem below, from her 2020 collection Completing the Circle (republished with permission from Bloodaxe Books):

How Poems Arrive
For Dana Gioia

You say them as your undertongue declares,
Then let them knock about your upper mind
Until the shape of what they mean appears.

Inaccurate emotion – as intense
Like love, they’re strongest when admitted blind,
Judging by feel, feeling with sharpened sense
While yet their need to be is undefine
As action sponsored by adrenaline –
Feeds on itself, and in its own defence

Fancies its role humanitarian.
But poems, butch or feminine, are vain
And draw their satisfactions from within,

Sporting with vowels or showing off a chain
Of silver els and ems to host displays
Of intimacy, or blame, or joy, or pain.

The ways of words are tight and selfish ways,
And each one wants a slot to suit its weight.
Lines needn’t scan like this with every phrase,

But something like a pulse must integrate
The noise a poem makes with its invention.
Otherwise, write prose. Or simply wait

Till it arrives and tells you its intention.

Robert Conquest’s Collected Poems in the TLS – “In all senses, he was: ‘A Man of the World.'”

Sunday, September 13th, 2020
Share

Conquest at work in his Stanford home (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Poet Lachlan Mackinnon’s review of Robert Conquest‘s Collected Poemsedited by his wife Elizabeth Conquest, is up in the Times Literary Supplement – and for the time being, you can read the whole thing here.  Although a poet long before he became a historian, it is for the latter that he is best known. He is the author of The Great Terror (1968), a groundbreaking exposing the extent Soviet atrocities at a time when they were largely denied in the West. He wrote a dozen books about the Soviet Union. The Stanford poet died at 98 in 2015.

A few excerpts, starting from the beginning:

Robert Conquest edited New Lines (1956), thereby launching, almost accidentally, what became known as the Movement. This did him no good at all. If the Movement poets shared a common persona, it was that of a disgruntled university employee in a provincial city who bristled with lower-middle-class resentment. This was unfair to many of them, but particularly to the half-American Conquest, whose poetry is enviably unconcerned with the issues of class which troubled other Movement writers. Where Philip Larkin deplored poets’ resorting to the “myth-kitty”, a phrase suggestive of unearned or inherited wealth, for Conquest the “myth-kitty” was a fund held in common. Allusion came naturally to him, as when he ended his sonnet “Guided Missiles Experimental Range” (1955) with the missiles’ “target-hunting rigour”:

And by that loveless haste I am reminded
Of Aeschylus’ description of the Furies:
“O barren daughters of the fruitful night”.

***

The most exciting early poem, though, is “In the Marshes” (1947), which won Conquest a Festival of Britain Prize in 1951. It looks at lives in a Bulgarian village during the period from just before the alliance with Germany and the rising of partisans to the communist front government of 1945 and its removal by Stalin, and draws on the poet’s time as a liaison officer with Bulgarian partisans late in the Second World War. In the village we find Ilya, a student preoccupied with his lost love Stoyanka and translating Laforgue. Meanwhile,

In a small but handsome house beyond the village
Lives Professor Mantev, former Minister of Trade
And now in exile.

A girl “dreams of love” while in a hut “By the canal Pirov the lock-keeper / Holds the secret meetings of the party branch”. Professor Mantev is unperturbed by the “accident in the lock” of two days before, which left “Brown blood floating on the scummy water. / This happens occasionally”.

His Texan wife.

In this highly politicized context “Brown” must make us wonder whether the deceased was a Nazi and was murdered. “This happens occasionally”: Conquest catches exactly the slightly know-it-all tone of a young intelligence officer in very unfamiliar territory, anxious to please his superiors.

***

And finally, the poems to his beloved Texan wife, Elizabeth “Liddie” Conquest:

Travel was one of Conquest’s abiding subjects. At the end of his first, 1955, volume we find a kind of round trip in the tonally and formally varied “Sunset under Vitosha”, “Lamartine at Philippopolis”, “Pliska”, “Aegean”, “Messemvria at Noon”, “By Rail through Istria” and “In the Rhodope”. In the ten-page “Coming Across” (1978), the poet and his female companion drive from Florida to California with some diversions, one into Mexico. The zest of the poem is infectious, with “Interstate 10” as its refrain: “Once more we turn southward / Through white Cajun townships / On long, dark, still bayous. / The Bayou Teche leads us / Under intricate live-oaks / And then we are back upon / Interstate 10”. The poem is a vivid picture of places and time as it pretends to freewheel through its bouncy two-stress lines. In “The Idea of Virginia” (2009), Conquest wrote a rich essay-poem about the ideas behind the United States, yet he could almost burlesque his transatlantic sensibility in “Winter Welcome to a West Texan” (2009): “So here you are, lovely: / Arroyos of Kensington / With pekes for coyotes, / Green street-lamp saguaros, / Swirls of fog twisting / Like sidewinders over / The desert macadam”.

Again, read the whole thing here. While you can.