Archive for 2021

“One of the most moving texts I have ever read” – the last letter to Osip Mandelstam

Monday, May 3rd, 2021
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A guest post from Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky on one of the most famous literary marriages in history:

Exactly a hundred years ago, Osip Mandelstam met Nadezhda.

He was a great poet, wrote an epigram against Stalin, was sent into exile, returned, was sent to the camps in 1938 where he soon died.

She led a nomadic life for years, trying to dodge the expected arrest, moving from city to city, taking only temporary jobs (at least one time, in the city of Kalinin, police came for her the day after she fled).She was not allowed to return to Moscow until 1964.

She wrote memoirs which are considered among the most important texts of 20 century witness literature. Her name, Nadezhda, in Russian means “hope.” Her famous book is called Hope Against Hope.Here is the last letter she wrote to her husband – it is one of the most moving texts I have ever read:

22 October, 1938

Osia, my beloved, faraway sweetheart!

I have no words, my darling, to write this letter that you may never read, perhaps. I am writing in empty space. Perhaps you will come back and not find me here. Then this will be all you have to remember me by.

Osia, what a joy it was living together like children – all our squabbles and arguments, the games we played, and our love. Now I do not even look at the sky. If I see a cloud, who can I show it to?

Remember the way we brought back provisions to make our poor feasts in all the places where we pitched our tent like nomads? Remember the good taste of bread when we got it by a miracle and ate it together? And our last winter in Voronezh. Our happy poverty, and the poetry you wrote. I remember the time we were coming back once from the baths, when we bought some eggs or sausage, and a cart went by loaded with hay. It was still cold and I was freezing in my short jacket (but nothing like what we must suffer now: I know how cold you are). That day comes back to me now. I understand so clearly, and ache from the pain of it, that those winter days with all their troubles were the greatest and last happiness to be granted us in life.

My every thought is about you. My every tear and every smile is for you. I bless every day and hour of our bitter life together, my sweetheart, my companion, my blind guide in life.

Like two blind puppies we were, nuzzling each other and feeling so good together. And how fevered your poor head was, and how madly we frittered away the days of our life. What joy it was, and how we always knew what joy it was.

Life can last so long. How hard and long for each of us to die alone. Can this fate be for us who are inseparable? Puppies and children, did we deserve this? Did you deserve this, my angel? Everything goes on as before. I know nothing. Yet I know everything – each day and hour of your life are plain and clear to me as in a delirium.

You came to me every night in my sleep, and I kept asking what had happened, but you did not reply.

In my last dream I was buying food for you in a filthy hotel restaurant. The people with me were total strangers. When I had bought it, I realized I did not know where to take it, because I do not know where you are.

When I woke up, I said to Shura: “Osia is dead.” I do not know whether you are still alive, but from the time of that dream, I have lost track of you. I do not know where you are. Will you hear me? Do you know how much I love you? I could never tell you how much I love you. I cannot tell you even now. I speak only to you, only to you. You are with me always, and I who was such a wild and angry one and never learned to weep simple tears – now I weep and weep and weep.

It’s me: Nadia. Where are you?

Farewell. Nadia

The writing rules I break every day

Friday, April 30th, 2021
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Henry Miller‘s “Eleven Commandments” for a writing regime will daunt most of us. I break a few every day. Somehow I expect he did, too.

A quick post on an extremely busy day, courtesy Rob Sean Wilson.

George Kline wasn’t just Brodsky’s translator, he was a philosopher and one of America’s leading Hegel scholars.

Friday, April 23rd, 2021
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Tomorrow afternoon, at Saturday’s “A Company of Authors” event, I will be speaking about my new book The Man Who Brought Brodsky Into English: Conversations with George L. Kline.

The publication of a book usually invites correspondence, and the emails arrived in my inbox before this book was published. One of the more interesting was from a notable Irish philosopher, William Desmond; his titles are many: David Cook Chair in Philosophy, Villanova University; Thomas A.F. Kelly Visiting Chair in Philosophy, Maynooth University, Ireland; and Professor  of  Philosophy  Emeritus, Institute  of  Philosophy, in Leuven, Belgium.

He knew Kline long before I began corresponding with the unassuming Bryn Mawr scholar: “George Kline was a very good friend of mine over decades from the early 80s, and intellectual companion in relation to my own interests in Russian thought,” he wrote. It is something I note in the introduction to my book: for many of us, George Kline is remembered as the translator of the 1973 Selected Poems – but after his death in 2014, the tributes discussed his his role as a philosopher, with an emphasis on Russian philosophy and religion, and mentioned his Brodsky translations only in passing.

“George’s areas of excellence in philosophy primarily concerned the study of Hegel, works in Russian philosophy and culture, and research in process philosophy, especially Whitehead.” The words are from Desmond’s preface to George L. Kline On Hegel, a posthumous collection of 15 essays “covering forty-five years of work by one of America’s most prominent Hegel scholars,” according to Amazon. The book was published by Gegensatz Press in 2015. “Though this book deals primarily with the first area of study, there are contributions in which the overlap between Hegel and Russian thought, as well as between Hegel and process philosophy, is evident. I knew of his work in all of these areas,” Desmond wrote. Also from his preface: “As a human being, George was a generous, attentive, and engaged person. I was struck by his willingness and ability always to ‘stay in touch,’ even when one did not directly meet him over a long period. If there was something professorial about him on occasion, those who knew him came to appreciate very quickly that there was much more to him, not least a deep, warm, and wise humanity. As a scholar, he excelled in many different spheres of expertise … As a human being, his generosity extended into his academic work, and in my experience, and no doubt in the experience of many more people, he was munificently gracious with the time and the care he offered in support of other scholars.”

According to the volume’s editor Eric v.d. Luft, “Kline was a Socratic ‘midwife’ in the best sense of that term.” He added, “His influence remains subtle but far-reaching, and has met with almost universal respect.”

An excerpt from Luft’s essay:

“Being George Kline’s student was one of the highlights of my life. In a sense, I ‘knew’ him even before I met him. When I was a junior at Bowdoin in 1972-1973, I needed advice about how to choose a graduate school. Professor of Religion William D. Geoghegan spoke with me at length about this problem and – as always – gave me excellent advice. He said that I should not choose a school based on its reputation, its size, or its prestige. Rather, I should pick a professor whose student I would want to be, regardless of whether this person taught at a great, a good, a mediocre, or even a bad school. Going to a great school but suffering under a poor advisor, mentor, or dissertation director would not help me. Geoghegan therefore urged me to delve into the recent journal literature, read as many articles in my chosen field as I could find, and decide which of these authors would be most compatible with my interests. During this conversation he showed me a copy of Christensen’s Hegel and the Philosophy of Religion – which he thought was hideously overpriced – waved it around and slammed it on the huge table in his office among his hundreds of other books – all of which I was sure he had read – and declared: ‘There is only one good article in this whole book, and George Kline wrote it. I think you should consider studying with him.’ He also suggested Louis Dupré, so I applied only to Yale, where Dupré was, and to Bryn Mawr, where Kline was. Yale rejected me and Bryn Mawr accepted me, so my destiny was determined. … With this book, I hope in some small way to honor the memory of Professor Kline and to give something back in return for all he did for me.”

“Kline was the most gracious of gentlemen. He always kept an open mind, did not seek disciples, did not care whether people agreed with him as long as they could cogently defend their own positions, and never, for example, held it against me that I had no interest whatsoever in Soviet studies. He could never say no to any request or favor that any of his friends or colleagues might ask – and this graciousness often got him into trouble with overextension and overcommitment, but he worked like a beaver and thereby produced a prodigious amount of work, both for himself and on behalf of others. As the director of both my master’s thesis and my doctoral dissertation, he devoted much more than the expected time, energy, and involvement to these projects. He and I would spend hours and hours together in his office – sometimes entire afternoons – poring over nuances of meaning that those on the outside might have dismissed as pedantic, but for us were the keys to proper interpretation. We both firmly believed that no one could approach the core of any philosopher’s thought, or grasp it accurately, without studying the text in the original language, and that, accordingly, no translation, even if done with painstaking precision, could ever serve as more than an introduction to any philosophy which had first been expressed in another culture, another set of words, another mode of discourse.”

Geoge Kline on Hegel available here.

“A Company of Authors” this Saturday: Come join me for a discussion of Stanford’s latest books!

Monday, April 19th, 2021
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It’s coming! It’s coming! This Saturday, April 24, at 1 p.m. (PST) Stanford will hold another get-together for authors and their audiences to chat about books – the 18th consecutive gathering hosted by Peter Stansky, a notable author (and Orwell scholar) himself. Although it won’t be an in-person event, you’ll still have an opportunity to buy signed books at a discount from the Stanford Bookstore.

I know what you’re thinking: didn’t we just have a Company of Authors zoom get together? You’re right. That was last October, when I presented my Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy. But that was a delayed rescheduling for the COVID-cancelled spring event. As we all know, time is measured differently in COVID years. This author, personally, is glad to catch up: I have another book to present: The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: Conversations with George L. Kline. (And by next spring – my Czesław Miłosz: A California Life will be out.)

But let’s focus on this event for book-lovers the world over: the 18th Annual “A Company of Authors” Sat, 4/24, 1-5:15 pm PT, via Zoom. Drop in or spend the entire afternoon with distinguished Stanford authors as they share their recently published books. Free and open to the public! Learn more and register here: https://stanford.io/3dLHGqi

Again:

  • When: Saturday, April 24
  • Time: 1:00 pm – 5:15 pm (PT)
  • Platform: Online via Zoom

SCHEDULE

1:00 pm Welcome (Peter Stansky)

1:05 – 1:35 pm The Arts
Peter Stansky, Chair

Marci Kwon, Enchantments: Joseph Cornell and American Modernism
Usha Iyer, Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Hindi Cinema
Shane Denson, Discorrelated Images

1:40 – 2:10 pm The Richness of Writing
Barbara Gelpi, Chair

Daniel Mason, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth: Stories
Maria Cichosz, Cam & Beau
Paul Robinson presenting John L’Heureux‘s The Beggar’s Pawn: A Novel

2:15 – 2:35 pm A Celebration of George Shultz
Larry Horton, Chair

George Shultz and John Taylor, Choose Economic Freedom: Enduring Policy Lessons from the 1970s and 1980s
George Shultz and James Timbie, A Hinge of History: Governance in an Emerging New World

2:40 – 3:20 pm The World of Literature and Photography
Roland Greene, Chair

Valerie Miner, Bread and Salt
Cynthia Haven, The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: Conversations with George L. Kline
Jeannette Ferrary, The Future Is Leaving: photographs from once-upon-a-time
Richard White, California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History

3:25 – 3:55 pm History and Politics
Carolyn Lougee, Chair

Jack N. RakoveBeyond Belief, Beyond Conscience: The Radical Significance of the Free Exercise of Religion and The Cambridge Companion to The Federalist
Terry M. Moe, Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy
Priya Satia, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History

4:00 – 4:40 pm How We Function
Tania Granoff, Chair

Rafael Pelayo, How to Sleep: The New Science-Based Solutions for Sleeping Through the Night
David Eagleman, Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain
James P. Steyer, ed., Which Side of History: How Technology is Reshaping Democracy and Our Lives
Adrian DaubWhat Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley

4:45 – 5:15 pm God, Butterflies, and Britain
Paul Robinson, Chair

Tanya Luhrmann, How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others
Leslie Friedman, The Story of Our Butterflies: Mourning Cloaks in Mountain View
Peter Stansky, Twenty Years On: Views and Reviews of Modern Britain

5:15 pm Closing Remarks (Peter Stansky)

This program is co-sponsored by Stanford Continuing Studies and the Stanford Humanities Center. Special thanks to the Stanford Bookstore. All listed titles are available for sale at a 10% discount from the Stanford Bookstore online for a limited time.

Register here: https://stanford.io/3dLHGqi

Poet Al Young is dead at 81: “He was one of the most gracious writers I ever met.”

Sunday, April 18th, 2021
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Dana Gioia with Al Young at the Sierra Poetry Festival a few years ago.

Poet Al Young, who suffered a massive stroke in February 2019 and never fully recovered, has died at 81. Jazz scholar Ted Gioia recalled, “Al Young was a treasure of the Bay Area cultural scene. I first knew him as a jazz lover who wrote movingly about the music—and I would run into him frequently at clubs and concerts. But he was probably even better known in the literary world, and Young would eventually serve as poet laureate for California. But he was also a teacher, a screenwriter, a novelist, an editor, and a mentor to many. In fact, you couldn’t find a better role model. Every encounter I had with him was an inspiring one.” Young was named California poet laureate in 2005.

Dana Gioia, a recent state laureate himself, had known Young since 1972, when Dana was at Stanford, where Young spent much of his career. Young had been a Jones lecturer in the Stanford English Department when both Gioias were undergraduates. (Young was a Jones lecturer from 1969 to 1979.) “Al Young represented the best in literary life. He was enormously talented in both fiction and poetry, though as he got older poetry came to be his natural means of expression. He was a powerful and persuasive reader with a beautiful bass voice which sometimes broke out in song,” said Dana.

“He was one of the most gracious writers I ever met. People were drawn to his warmth and humor. He inspired people. Eliza Tudor told me that once Al had accepted the invitation to speak at her new Sierra Poetry Conference, she knew the gathering would be successful.”

“I particularly admired Al in his term as California State Poet Laureate. Not many writers have a gift for public service. The role came naturally for Al. He liked to meet people – all kinds of people. He listened to them and laughed with them. He travelled to rural areas of the state that previous laureates had overlooked. He spoke in urban schools where he was a powerful role model of the African American artist. He became my role model for the state laureate. I loved being (and basking) in his company. I’ll miss him.”

Young has received the American Book Award twice, for Bodies and Soul: Musical Memoirs (1982) and The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems 1990-2000 (2002). He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Whittier College in 2009. He is a recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Wallace Stegner fellowships, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.  the PEN-Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction, the PEN-USA Award for Non-Fiction, two American Book Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and two New York Times Notable Book of the year citations.

I don’t ask to be forgiven
nor do I wish to be given up,
not entirely, not yet, not while
pain is shooting clean through
the only world I know: this one.

Postscript on 4/23Berkeleyside published a terrific retrospective on April 21. “Remembering Al Young, a California poet laureate, musician, teacher,” by Frances Dinkenspiel, is here.

An excerpt: “…Young was not as famous as he deserved to be, said Ishmael Reed, a longtime friend, collaborator and fellow writer. Some of that had to do with the fact he lived on the West Coast, far from the star-anointing powers of East Coast critics. ‘He’s probably one of the most underrated writers in the country,’ said Reed, who published The Yardbird Reader, a literary magazine that highlighted contemporary Black writers, with Young in the 1970s. ‘He lived on the West Coast. The people who receive a lot of publicity live in the New York-Washington, D.C. shuttle area. It’s difficult for a writer like Al to achieve prominence with critics who see Northern California as a stepchild of Manhattan.'”

Here’s another: “In 2007, during his term as poet laureate, Young traveled around California, reading his work in 40 rural communities in the Central Valley and mountain areas in 11 days, often accompanied by a musician. For Young, poetry and music, particularly jazz and blues, were intertwined. He frequently wrote while listening to music (he knew so much about music he was almost a music ethnologist, one friend said) and incorporated jazz rhythms into his poems. ‘He wedded poetry and music together,’ said Sharon Coleman, a poet and instructor at Berkeley City College ‘He brought music to poetry in a very integral way.'”

Read the whole thing here.

It’s the “Year of Stepanova” – and the poet has a few things to say about Putin and Russia’s perilous present

Friday, April 16th, 2021
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Feeling alive: Maria Stepanova on the steps of Stanford’s Green Library (Photo: C.L. Haven)

“It is something very intimate, the way we communicate with the dead.”

The Guardian called 2021 “the year of Stepanova” for good reason. Russian poet Maria Stepanova’s new book, In Memory of Memory (New Directions), has been long-listed for the Booker Prize. Given the incandescent reviews, it is likely to be her break-out book in the West, giving her overdue recognition for works that have made her one of Russia’s most recognized writers. The Russian poet and essayist has two more books out this spring: The Voice Over: Poems and Essays (Columbia University Press) and War of the Beasts and the Animals (Bloodaxe).

Entitled Opinions’ host Robert Pogue Harrison interviewed her during her Stanford visit in 2016, and her words are as timely today as they were then. You can listen to the discussion HERE. The conversation began with a discussion of one of her other high-profile roles: she’s the publisher of the online Colta, Russia’s first crowd-sourced journal, which has been compared to a Russian Huffington Post and The New York Review of Books combined.

The conversation focused on the Russia’s “schizoid” treatment of the past and present.

She noted that whether he realizes it or not, Putin is performing a parody of Soviet empire. “The main difference is there is no meaning under Putin’s reign – no inner meaning, no hidden meaning, and no explicit meaning … no brand of an idea,” she said. “And so people are disoriented.”

“We’re living in a country where we have a corpse that has been lying in the Red Square  for almost a hundred years,” she said. “People still think the dead are the best governors.”

“In Russia, nothing is solid. You’re always expecting some ugly turn of reality, in your own biography or in the country’s story. Anything can happen,” she continued. “We are prepared to consider our present state acceptable as long as things don’t get worse.” Media has been replaced by propaganda, and unreliable sources have replaced informed knowledge. “The experts sitting at the roundtable are different kinds of freaks – futurologists, conspiralogists, astrologists, whatever. … Nothing is real.”

What role for poetry? Stepanova sees some positive aspects to the current turmoil: “Now the poetry audience is getting much, much wider – maybe it’s what happens in times of big historical shifts, when people are expecting poetry to give them some kind of an answer – or maybe a question.”

Stay tuned also for Stepanova’s impressive, intensely musical reading of her poem, “The Women’s Changing Room at ‘Planet Fitness.’” (Robert Harrison reads the poem in English.)

I also interviewed Stepanova for the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

About Maria Stepanova

Maria Stepanova was already an important and innovative poet by the time of Vladimir Putin’s accession, but the times called for a tougher, more public role. Today, she is one of the most visible figures in post-Soviet culture – not only as a poet, but as a journalist, a publisher, and a powerful voice for press freedom.

She is the founder of the Colta, the first independent crowd-funded source of information that exists in Russia today. The online publication has been called a Russian Huffington Post in format and style – and also compared to the New York Review of Books for the scope and depth of its long essays.

She is the author of eleven poetry collections and the recipient of several Russian and international awards (including the prestigious Andrey Bely Prize, the Berlin Brücke Prize for the novel, and Joseph Brodsky Fellowship).

You can listen to the conversation HERE. An article about Maria Stepanova’s recent Stanford talk is here

“Even our inner reality is ruled by the dead. They are the inner deities.”


POTENT QUOTES:

“In Russia, the dead are never dead enough.”

“The past never dies. It never goes away. It is still active.”

“We are prepared to consider our imperfect present state acceptable as long as things don’t get worse.”

“The real problem of contemporary Russia is not in our obsession with the past, but in the fear of the future.”

“If you don’t feel like you can belong to a future, then it’s very hard to feel that you can belong to a past.”