Posts Tagged ‘A.M. Juster’

“At home that was sacred – I had to speak Spanish.” Dominican/American poet Rhina Espaillat remembers a bilingual childhood

Wednesday, July 14th, 2021

Bilingual spirit

Rhina P. Espaillat was born in the Dominican Republic. Her family left the troubled Caribbean island state during the period when dictator Rafael Trujillo slaughtered thousands. Her father and uncle were already in Washington as diplomats, and could not return to the Dominican Republic. It would be years before the family was reunited in the U.S. Her first poems were published in Ladies Home Journal when she was in high school.

In this interview for Plough, she recounts her bilingual upbringing and how she taught poetry in New York City schools, She has translated Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur into Spanish – but I appreciated her discussion of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whom she calls the first great poet of the continent.

The occasion for the interview: Plough is launching a new poetry competition, the Rhina Espaillat Poetry Award. Plough’s poetry editor, A. M. Juster, a poet who knows a thing or two about translation himself, conducted the interview with the poet, who turned 89 this year. An excerpt:

One of your most popular poems is called “Bilingual/Bilingüe.” Could you tell about its inspiration and evolution?

Poet Juster conducts the interview

That poem came out of reality in the apartment of my parents, where I was permitted to speak English outside the door, but not inside; my father wanted me to be bilingual. He said, “She’s got to be part of the world, so Spanish in here, English out there.” I used to come home from school and say, “Let me tell you what the teacher said today,” and he would say, “No, no, mi hija, dímelo en español, en castellano.” I would say, “I want to tell you exactly the way she said it,” but he was very firm. At home that was sacred – I had to speak Spanish.

So “Bilingual/Bilingüe” sort of fell together – it had to have a little Spanish in each of the couplets, but by the end the Spanish no longer has parentheses around it: by that time we’re joined in it.

Tell people about Sor Juana.

Sor Juana is one of my saints. I adore her because she was so daring, so smart. In seventeenth-century Mexico, it was not a good idea for a woman to be that smart because she was surrounded by guys who thought that women should have a place in the kitchen. She didn’t want the kitchen. She became a nun not because she had a tremendously powerful calling, but because she wanted her privacy. She wrote a great many religious pieces that are outstanding, and she did her duties as a nun, of course. But she also wrote the most passionate love poetry.

Vain? Not likely.

She wrote Latin poetry too, which is much harder to compose because the prosody is so different.

But she did it. What’s more, she even wrote poems in Nahuatl. She studied philosophy and music and science; she was far ahead of her time.

The Inquisition got so annoyed with her that it sent word through one of the archbishops that she had better be very careful because she was becoming vain – by that they meant she published her poetry. They frightened her and said, “The only way you are going to get through this safely is to get rid of your scientific instruments and all your books.”

So she got rid of everything. She got into her old clothes, took care of sick nuns, then promptly got sick herself and died in her forties.

The other Cruz is Saint John of the Cross, Juan de la Cruz, and I adore him. What he did was to write, quite literally, love letters to God because in his poems he becomes the soul, which of course has to be female. The soul in his poems is always a woman very much in love with her husband who misses him all of a sudden. It’s absolutely enchanting.

Read the whole thing here.

Was Milton embarrassed? “He doesn’t say which poems make him squirm.”

Saturday, March 13th, 2021

At an early hour on a Saturday, January 9, I tumbled out of bed to listen to poet and classicist A.M. Juster talk about his translation of John Milton‘s short Book of Elegies, published by the Paideia Institute. (We wrote about his translations of Maximianus here.) Mike Juster has the chops for it: long ago, he graduated magna cum laude from Roxbury Latin School. He was only a few years younger then as the Milton who wrote the elegies.

These Latin elegies were youthful efforts, and most poets dismiss what they later consider juvenilia. Milton was no exception. You can tell because the older Milton writes a postscripted poem to the collection that begins with an apology for the younger self who wrote the poems. “He doesn’t say which poems make him squirm,” Juster said. “You can see from his use of the word ‘nequitiae’ — which I’ve translated as vileness — that he’s making some pretty harsh judgments about his own work. It’s definitely a kind of defensive preemptive strike.”

Translator of Maximianus, too.

“These are primarily poems that were written while he was an undergraduate, and by the time that he’s pulling the poemata together, he’s probably 36. Now most of us have some embarrassment in middle age about our teenage poetry, but I think that this sort of half vague apology may be a little bit more complicated.”

His “apology” from the untitled postscript:

From a perverse persistence and contrariness,

I once made pointless trophies to my vileness.

At the time of the elegies, he’d been kicked out or “sent down” from Christ’s College, Cambridge. We don’t know exactly why. As Juster explains in the introduction, Milton’s strict tutor, the bishop-to-be William Chappell, may have beaten him for an infraction. Milton was overjoyed to be sent home.

To bear a callous master’s threats and other things

Repugnant to my nature does not please me.

If this is “exile” – back again with household gods

And seeking welcome leisure free of care –

I have not shunned the label, nor protest my lot,

And gladly celebrate my exiled state.

“Then it gets more interesting. Elegies 1 and 6 are epistolary poems to the great love of John Milton’s life: Charles Diodati.” Was the bard gay? Don’t jump to conclusions. Juster continues: “I think he was just a lonely young man who had one strong friendship that started in grammar school, and that he never formed such a bond again with other men or his three wives. In these two elegies, you see a warm even wryly funny Milton. The formal prose adopted in almost all his other work is dropped, and you see him I think fairly clearly as he was at the time.”

“This Milton surprises even scholars. He tells Diodati about his many trips to the theater, but most scholarly opinion until fairly recently discounted this observation and assumed that they were secondhand based on the older Milton’s contempt for theater. Only with the discovery that Milton’s father was a part owner of London’s Blackfriars Theater plus the discovery of Milton’s heavily annotated first folio of Shakespeare did most scholars accept the truth was more complicated than they had believed.” [Curiously, I attended last month the Milton’s Cottage Annual lecture, “Re-reading Milton Re-reading Shakespeare” on precisely that topic. Let’s hope the zoom discussion goes online soon. – CH]

“Milton clearly had extensive firsthand knowledge of the theater, just as he told us in this elegy. The language of these elegies should also knock some comfortable assumptions about Milton.”

“Too often we see Milton as inevitably destined to be an epic poet, but there’s in fact really nothing in the Book of Elegies that would reinforce that view. Not only did he use Ovid‘s elegiac couplets instead of Virgil‘s dactylic hexameter, he compares the two great poets and comes down — perhaps jokingly, but still — on the side of Ovid as the greater of the two. Well, pursuit of poetic greatness in Latin poetry necessitated an eventual epic, and of course Milton knew that. The young Milton clearly reveled in the language and imagination of its mythology and romance to a greater extent than the battle scenes from the Aeneid. Milton also repeatedly looks to Ovid by adopting and adapting imagery from Tristia and presenting himself as an exile.”

You can get the short bilingual Book of Elegies, published by the Paideia Institute here.

Was John Milton less dour than we imagine? He may have been a fun kind of guy.

Wednesday, January 13th, 2021

Poet and translator A.M. Juster reviews Nicholas McDowell’s Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton in The Los Angeles Review of Books:

As a young teenager, John Milton set out in a fiercely determined way to become not just a successful poet, but a poet the literary world would regard as a peer of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch. He organized his life around this goal with a demanding plan that required close reading of a prodigious number of texts — an approach that would puzzle today’s burgeoning guild of poets, who too often spend a few years in MFA programs learning about erasure poetry, liminality, and their depressing professional prospects. Even before matriculating at the University of Cambridge at the age of 16, Milton wrestled with whether greatness required him to write in Latin or in English, and for many years his uncertainty about this question caused him to hedge his bets by writing in both languages. …

Nicholas McDowell’s erudite Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton helps us understand why and how Milton pursued poetic glory. He lays out in clear prose what we know of Milton’s family life and education, and he describes in detail the intense curricula at St Paul’s School and the University of Cambridge, which focused on fluency in languages, both modern and ancient, along with critical approaches to literature, history, theology, and other disciplines. He also shows us that Milton’s teachers and professors were adamant that the lives of Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch demonstrated that wide and deep reading in the humanist canon is a necessary precondition for success as a true poet.

McDowell’s judicious weighing of the historical evidence relating to the young Milton’s religious and literary development serves as a welcome reminder of a common flaw in Milton scholarship, the tendency to paint a reductionist portrait of the mature Milton and then to fit the younger Milton into that same narrow interpretive frame.

Juster makes some unusual connections between Milton and theater – and concludes that, after all, the author of Paradise Lost might have been a fun kind of guy:

My only criticism of this admirable biography is that I would have liked to have seen the author push a little harder against certain scholarly misconceptions. … Not long ago we learned that Milton’s father — with whom he was close — had been part-owner of the Blackfriars Playhouse. Last year, Jason Scott-Warren identified extensive annotations (including proposed improvements) in a Shakespeare First Folio as those of Milton. It is time for scholars to look harder at the plays performed at his father’s theater (some of which were edgy for the time) and to determine if any of the language or ideas from plays performed there echoed through Milton’s work.

I would also have liked to have seen more pressure-testing of the standard portrayal of the young Milton as almost as dour as the later Milton. “Miltonic humor” might seem as unpromising as a Bill Clinton lecture on the virtues of chastity, but Milton seems to have been popular in his Cambridge years, and he even acted as the master of ceremonies for a student satirical event known as a “salting.” His epistolary elegies to his best friend, Charles Diodati, demonstrate his capacity for amiable teasing, but there is also a subversive wit in his other Latin poetry. Did this sense of humor evaporate, or are there satirical traces we have not noticed in the later works because we braced ourselves for grimness?

McDowell ends this book shortly before Milton’s doomed marriage to his first wife, but in the last paragraph adds that “the second half of Milton’s life is the story of how this gleaming vision of the poet’s powers became darkened, but not overshadowed, by the experience of revolution.” I take that assertion as a promise of a second volume — which is great news for lovers of this great poet.

Read the whole thing here.

William Jay Smith was the first Native American poet laureate – and we’re still waiting for the Library of Congress to acknowledge it.

Sunday, December 29th, 2019

The late Choctaw poet William Jay Smith: why is he being disrespected?

Last July, the Book Haven questioned the announcement that Joy Harjo is the first Native American poet laureate. But the blogpost was soon forgotten in the general acclamation on Harjo’s appointment.

The problem is the truth: William Jay Smith, a poet of note, claimed Choctaw heritage, and wrote about his Native American heritage, including long poem on the Trail of Tears. It didn’t seem right, however worthy Harjo is as a successor to the poet laureate title, for her predecessor’s eminent reputation be thrown into the dustbin so that we could falsely claim yet another “first.” (Apparently, there was a time when even the Library of Congress acknowledged and honored Smith’s heritage, as we pointed out with some screenshots in our own post. But the Library of Congress changed its mind. Why? They won’t tell us.)

Forgotten first

Poet and translator A.M. Juster took the matter farther, and he’s written about the experience this month in the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

He briefly wondered if he had made a mistake in writing of Smith as a Choctaw poet:

… I checked two reliable sources known for their fact checking, the Poetry Foundation and The New York Times, which both identified Smith as Native American. I became even calmer when I discovered, with some help from friends at Eratosphere, an online poetry workshop and discussion group, that the Library of Congress had itself identified Smith as “of European and Choctaw ancestry.”

I felt an obligation to notify the Library promptly, which I did. The first contact person had never heard of Smith and transferred me to another person who had not heard of Smith. That person took my name and number, but did not call back.

I too read some of the social media talk and the Eratosphere posts, and was dismayed by the tendency to dismiss or downplay Smith’s heritage, posthumously. After all, he died in 2015 and can hardly defend himself.

Juster got no answers.

Juster wrote a letter to the Library of Congress, asking: 1) had it decided that Smith is not a Native American; 2) if so, what was the standard for this decision, the evidence that supported it, and who made the decision; 3) was this decision made before the Harjo announcement or afterwards? And finally, he asked: 4) is the Library of Congress aware that its website has described Smith as being “of European and Choctaw ancestry” for 15 years?

In the LARB, he writes:

Almost surely the communications department believed that it could tough its way out of the mess it created based on the fact that so many Americans believe — falsely, but in good faith — that they have Native American heritage. Such issues are often resolvable, though, and I decided to try to resolve the question of William Jay Smith’s heritage by hiring an expert in Native American genealogy, Dr. William T. Cross.

Dr. Cross’s research confirmed that everything William Jay Smith claimed about his Choctaw heritage was correct. Rebecca Moshulatubbee King was the oldest daughter of Chief Moshulatubbee and married Samuel Jake Williams. One of their seven daughters, Catherine Permilia Williams, married Samuel Roswell Campster in 1850, and then gave birth to George Washington Campster in 1863. In 1913 George Washington Campster’s daughter, Georgia Ella Campster, married William Jay Smith Sr., the father of our Poet Laureate.

Harjo (Photo: Creative Commons)

Standards for tribal nation membership vary, but the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma simply requires lineal descent for membership, so William Jay Smith would have been fully eligible for membership if he had applied. There can be no doubt about Smith’s good faith in claiming that he was part Choctaw; at that time the benefits of such a claim would not offset the prejudices that it would generate. Nonetheless, the future Poet Laureate enthusiastically embraced his Choctaw heritage at an early age; it filtered into his poetry at least as early as the 1950s, when in “A Trip Across America” he repeated these lines:

Riding the powerful polished rails
Over abandoned Indian trails…

More than four decades later, he would do much more.

In the article, Juster wisely suggests that Harjo organize a conference to honor Smith’s legacy (and, we might add, by doing so honor her own). So what have we heard from the Library of Congress? Crickets.

Kind of disgraceful if you ask me.

Emily Dickinson desecrated in biopic, George Eliot reworked in a novel.

Monday, November 18th, 2019

Will the real Emily Dickinson stand up? And hurry.

Can’t we just leave her alone? Poet A.M. Juster (we’ve written about him here and here) is not amused by the new re-creations of the life of Emily Dickinson. And he says so in the current issue of The Commentary, where he writes: 

“’Tis the season for digging up and desecrating Emily Dickinson. First came last year’s Wild Nights with Emily, a flimsy film starring Saturday Night Live alum Molly Shannon, which the Washington Post said threatened “to reduce the writer’s life to the punchline of a literary version of Rodney Dangerfield.” Now the perpetrator is Apple TV’s 10 half-hour episodes of its strange new series, Dickinson.”

I haven’t seen it, and for good reason. I avoided it. Mike Juster was not so wise, but we share a common grievance:

Definitely not this.

Read the whole thing here.

Over at the Financial Times  reviews a fictional retelling of the author of Middlemarch and her vexed love life:

In this compelling fictional reworking of George Eliot’s later life, her second husband John Cross orders champagne on his wedding night with the words: “I want the best, because I have the best. I am married to the best.”

But by the time we reach their honeymoon in 1880, towards the end of the novel, Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s tender and haunting study suggests that for those who are acclaimed as the best, the most brilliant and most visionary, relationships can be fraught with misunderstanding.

Was it only men? Hardly. her charm apparently transfixed women as well: 

Not that she was short of female companionship. In Love with George Eliot recreates with touching, sometimes excruciating, precision the devotion that Evans inspired and expected from other women. “Nearly worshipful” is the look that her adoring friend Maria Congreve gives her, while poor Edith Simcox, the feminist writer who fell hopelessly for Evans and assiduously kept the George Eliot flame burning for years after her idol died, is consumed for the rest of her life by her “hungry love”.

Read the whole thing in the Financial Times here.

Maximianus dropped down the memory hole – but now he’s back in time for the holidays.

Sunday, December 16th, 2018

Bravo, Mike Juster!

A few days ago, we wrote about a new translation of Theophrastus. Today we write about another ancient you may not have heard of: Maximianus, the last breath from Roman poetry. The complete Elegies of Maximianus is newly translated into English by A.M. Juster (we’ve written about him here). John Talbot’s review appears in The Weekly Standard – one of the few print venues left for those writing about books (and who wish to be paid decently for it), and it’s now about to go belly-up.

An excerpt:

The very last great moment in all of ancient literature comes as a surprise twist—a single line of Latin poetry that transforms a bawdy comic scene into a strange, tragic vision of the end of the cosmos. There then follow just 54 more lines of verse, after which Roman poetry itself comes to an end. You’d think that this last remarkable flicker from the ashes of antiquity would be famous. But both the author, the 6th-century Roman poet known to us as Maximianus, and his Elegies—just 686 lines of verse traditionally divided into six interrelated poems—have dropped almost completely from memory. Who has even heard of him?

This needs to change, starting with the remarkable passage I mentioned. The scene: Our poet, Maximianus, on a diplomatic mission from Italy to Byzantium, finds himself alone with a bright young Greek thing. He falls for her, and she’s willing, but he is not the young stallion he once was. When she bewails his repeated failure to rise to the occasion, he naturally takes it personally. Whereupon she delivers a startling retort: Nescis / Non fleo privatum set generale chaos. That is (in my own translation): “You’ve missed the point. It’s not your particular condition I’m bewailing—it’s the progressive dissolution of the universe as a whole.” What for Maximianus is simply one humiliating instance of later-life detumescence is, for the rather more alert and intelligent girl, something else altogether: a moral and intellectual apprehension of universal entropy. From the failure of Maximianus’ virility she generalizes on a cosmic scale and goes on to envision, in a speech that reads like a bleak parody of Lucretius, the eventual extinction of “the human race, the herds, the birds, the beasts / and everything that breathes throughout the world,” all of which depend on the procreative impulse.

Her sudden realization surprises her as much as it does us. It’s the moment when youth comes “for the first time,” as one critic puts it, “face to face with…the blankness of annihilation.” Yet this stark vision arises from a low comic situation, and that’s a key to its power. I doubt that Maximianus is a greater writer than Swift or even Samuel Beckett, but the satire is Swiftian and the Greek girl’s laconic observation, compacting mundane human irritation with cosmic existential despair, could have been uttered by an Estragon or Vladimir.

Read the whole thing here.