Posts Tagged ‘Gwyneth Lewis’

Oslo poet Håkan Sandell: “Poetry rejoices even if the culture dies.”

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Sweden’s suave poet. (Photo: Dagfinn Hobæk)

Earlier this week, I discussed the Danish poet Ulrikka Gernes. I met her at the same time I met a very different Scandinavian spirit – breezy, debonair, ever so slightly sardonic, as we chatted at the reception for the gala dinner at Sigtuna’s literary festival. Håkan Sandell is one of Sweden’s leading poets … or is it Norway’s? He writes in Swedish, but lives in Oslo. But really, most of the words are the same, he explained to me; the pronunciation is a bit different, that’s all.

The Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill calls him “a stunning poet.” A mutual friend, the Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis, said, “He’s a modern metaphysical poet, a lover of the world who, while praising it, never stops probing it with his formidable poetic intelligence.”

We met again at the panel discussion he shared with Ulrikka. Afterwards, he gave me a copy of his newest book – as I waited, he scribbled a quick inscription in what appears to be crayon, but what I recall as a very worn pale blue felt-tip (he appears to have signed a lot of books). We corresponded later about the translations in Dog Star Notations: Selected Poems, 1999-2016 (Carcanet, 2016).

“You must remember that the Scandinavian languages are a bit different from English – very musical but also harsher. We tend to flatten out just a little bit in English,” he explained.

Håkan is “one of the chief agents of the renewal of metrical poetry in Swedish,” according to his translator, Bill Coyle. “His most common criticisms of the drafts I have shown him was not that they were inaccurate, but that I hadn’t captured enough of the original’s verse music, that they didn’t sufficiently swing. I hope that the translations included in the present volume do, when all is said, swing.”

The slightly skeptical Swede is optimistic about poetry. As he put it, “Poetry rejoices even if the culture dies.”

Rejoices over the rain on the Faroe Islands,
over rendezvous on the Champs-Elysees at evening.
It rejoices over Japan, over Korea,
over arts refined over a thousand years –
the art of swordsmanship, or of drinking tea.
Rejoices over the poet, that his heart still beats.

Most of his poems are longish, and I looked for a short one to include for the Book Haven. I was sold on his Stanzas to the Spirit of the Age when he told me that he composed each 12-line section (three stanzas, four lines each) during his long walks. Twelve lines is as much as he could remember at a time. That’s an intriguing notion in an era when hardly anyone memorizes anything at all.

I also thought it struck a very different note from Ulrikka’s contemplative poem about an open book in the dark. He added a crisp Nordic bite to a damp Swedish week:

from Stanzas to the Spirit of the Age


I prefer after raucous Saturday nights
to stroll and at the most nudge with my shoe
the shattered glass and blood left after fights,
rather than joining in the party too.

It’s early June but feels like fall to me.
I cried on the street, I miss my daughter so.
Autumn wind stirs the leaves, and from a tree
a flock of black birds glares down, sated, slow.

This happy, fjord-side, ice cream-licking scene
could I decide, would be dark, arctic cold.
Expansive life, a new beginning’s green,
like this, for these, proved more than I could hold.

– Håkan Sandell, trans. Bill Coyle

Save the Wales! Gwyneth Lewis defends a language spoken by 721,700 people.

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

Taking flak (Photo: Keith Morris)

I figure pretty much every language is going to become a boutique language sooner or later.  Eventually English, Spanish, and Mandarin will become boutique, antique, or extinct, swept into the sea of time with Pali and Koro.  It’s dismaying to think that only 40 million people speak Polish, only 7 million speak Czech … and Welsh?

That brings me back to the subject of Gwyneth Lewis, the poet who came all the way down from the Cardiff countryside to hear my talk at the British Academy last month.  Somewhere in the middle of all that brouhaha, we had a Christmas season lunch at the National Café, where I was introduced to a fittingly Welsh “wild mushroom, leek, and glazed salsify stew with chestnut dumplings” as Gwyneth told me about her exploits.

All in all, it had been a good year for Gwyneth.  She won the crown at the Vale of Glamorgan National Eisteddfod. Moreover, according to Wales Online,  “The National Eisteddfod in the Vale of Glamorgan presented an intriguing counterpoint between Gwyneth Lewis’ magical translation of The Tempest for Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru’s Y Storm, and the modern day tragedy of Ma’ Bili’n Bwrw’r Bronco staged by the Wales Millennium Centre in an innovative co production with Theatr na n’Óg. Winners all.”  I can’t pronounce any of it, so I’ll simply reproduce it.

I had meant some time ago to write about Gwyneth’s coronation – but I searched, in vain, for a video clip of the awards ceremony in Welsh, and then for Gwyneth reading anything in Welsh, and finally gave up the whole damn thing.

So I was grateful when her publisher Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books alerted me to her article in The Guardian, “Welsh-language Books Deserve Their Subsidies,” in which she takes issue with a Daily Telegraph article dissing grants given to Welsh writers, under the headline Taxpayer Funds Welsh Authors to Write Books No One Wants.  She ably defends the language spoken by a mere 721,700 speakers (according to a 2011 census), principally in Britain and the Chubut province of Argentina.

Behold the queen!

“Welsh predates English in the British archipelago,” writes the inaugural National Poet of Wales. “If you want to know what cultural despair is, go to the US and see, as I did recently, the bleakness of a Native American poet trying to piece together his tradition from oral sources recorded by a white anthropologist. The rarity of a plant makes its preservation more important, not less.”

She concludes:

On an individual level, the creative economy works indirectly. It’s not a matter of putting in a pound and receiving a set piece of work from it. I’m not speaking here of commercial success (if you want that, become a banker) but of artistic quality. My first book of poems in Welsh, funded by the Welsh Book Council, paid me just over £14. I did consider framing the cheque (as my cousin did the $30 he received for expenses during each of four flights in the space shuttle), but I though it’d be useful for groceries. I publish Welsh poetry in Wales, English-language work with Bloodaxe Books and non-fiction with Harper Collins in London and America. Work in one form has an effect on what I can do in all the others. Therefore, a modest grant for a book of Welsh-language poems has a direct impact on what I can sell, say, in the U.S.

The imagination works by underground streams, proceeds by snakes and ladders. You grow new writers by doing not one thing but many different activities at the same time: promoting critical thinking, publishers whose commercial successes can subsidise fledgling talent and promotional services to expand the reach of high-quality writing like that of Owen Sheers and Rachel Trezise, Deborah Davies, Horatio Clare, Catherine Fisher, Fflur Dafydd, Belinda Bauer and many others.

What followed it was 261 comments, some of them surprisingly vitriolic (some of them had to be removed).  Who knew language could generate so much spit and fire?

And behold, we finally found a video of Gwyneth’s coronation…

Gwyneth Lewis on John Milton and The Twilight Saga

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Gwyneth (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Who matches John Milton in modern letters today – at least in tracing the “drama of democracy right back to its first theological principles?” Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis nominates Stephanie Meyers, author of the Twilight Saga, and Philip Pullman. The Welsh poet Gwyneth finds the Saga to be “a profound meditation on incarnation and its hazards as well as a moving love story.”  A stretch, perhaps.  Can’t say I’ve watched the Twilight Saga, but I find it hard to believe it’s any kind of match for Milton, even in a moment of whimsy.

Gwyneth studied Milton with Geoffrey Hill, and the 17th-century bard became her hero, once she’d read his Paradise Lost: “No one ever lobbied more eloquently for permissiveness combined with the moral discipline not to be deceived by facsimiles of the good.” She marveled at the way he “melded theology with politics and human psychology.”

Her “Letter to Milton” was published in the online summer edition of the U.K.’s Poetry Review. While Milton is “not fashionable at the moment and neither is the epic,” she thinks he’d have much to say about political discourse today, and has a few questions to ask:

Would Milton turn over in his grave? And would that be entirely appropriate?

“You would be interested in the way religion has become a contentious issue at the centre of intellectual debate. I’d like to see your arguments contra Dawkins and, equally, against advocates of Intelligent Design. As Marilynne Robinson (a Calvinistic novelist) has written, ‘Creationism is the best thing that could have happened to Darwinism.’ Your moral clarity on the pitfalls of loose thinking would be of great value to us now.

“So, you’re not forgotten. And if you could speak to us from the dead, I’d have one other question to ask, aside from guidance about contemporary attacks on religious faith, free speech and democracy.This one’s personal: you were married three times and, though an advocate of divorce, you were widowed twice. How does the wife thing work in the afterlife? I’d love to know.”

Read it all here.

Sven Birkerts: serious writing as a “rear-guard mission”

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

"Concentration is no longer a given"

Ted Gioia alerted us to this interview with Sven Birkerts in The Morning News, and it’s too good to miss.

My acquaintance with Sven is born of our common ancestry: We are both former students of Joseph Brodsky, which seems to be an enduring bond with a number of his former students the world over (James Marcus is another one, so is Gwyneth Lewis).

Sven was one of the contributors to Joseph Brodsky: Conversations a decade ago – back in the days before he even had his own email account. According to this interview, there’s been progress: “I started writing on a computer maybe 10 years ago. It was not a direct move—I would still do everything longhand, but then instead of typing I would put it in a computer. Now I actually write on a computer.”

Now he’s a changed man. When interviewer Robert Birnbaum asks him about his future writing, if he planning to do something “wild,” he responds that he wants to write something that “makes sense of this utterly transformed world that we are moving around in. That gives it a kind of identifiable voice.”

He wears three hats: editor of AGNI, head of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and author. He says that “in each of those three areas I am feeling seriously embattled. With the journal, for example, I feel we are fighting an action in the face of diminished attention, and that wasn’t the feel of it when there was more action on that front. With the teaching I really feel like, ‘Boy we have to keep this enterprise alive,’ to keep communicating a buzz around serious writing. Who knows what’s going to happen? So it becomes a rear-guard mission there, too. And with my own writing: definitely.”

I’ve often been criticized (usually by those who live with me) for the size of my library.  Sven managed to formulate the explanation I could never quite manage:

RB: [Umberto] Eco reportedly has a library of 50,000 volumes. I asked him if they are catalogued—which they are not. Nonetheless, he knows where they all are. I asked if he read all of them. He hadn’t but said he had gotten something from all of them.

SB: Yeah, I would sign off on that. I have an unorganized library, but it’s much smaller. Same thing. I find that with me it’s not whether I have read something as much as it has survived my repeated attempts to get rid of it.

RB: (laughs)

SB: And if it has… Things that survive hold such a charge of your own sense of promise about yourself—which is valuable. Or it’s that they hold information that you know according to some obscure scheme is going to become important to you. I think the books that go unread are so important. If I got up and looked at my library and everything was a book I’d read, to me that would be like reading tombstones. I love the agitation, left and right—“Oh yeah, oh yeah.”

RB: I got rid of my vinyl albums. I should do that with books—what an albatross.

SB: Oh yeah. You need your ruins around you.

RB: That would require an enlarged sense of history.

SB: Right, and you have a visibly presented record both of your hopes and your failures. (laughs) It’s all there, kind of mapping you.

Sven is concerned about the role of the book review today, and the disappearance of book review sections … well, aren’t we all? Birnbaum doesn’t appear to “get it” – it’s not so much about the “middlebrow” reader, as it is about supporting a general culture where every educated person participates in literature, if only as a reader. As I’ve often said, as a writer for the Washington Post Book World or the erstwhile Los Angeles Times Book Review, my ideal reader was someone thumbing their way to the stock market page, becoming intrigued by my review, and buying a volume of poetry or essays. Maybe even forgetting the Dow Jones altogether.

RB: It’s not a contradiction but there is a kind of conflict that faces people who create—much of your world is not real. The real world is when you go to the grocery store or gas station. And then you deal with people who are attuned to scrambling to pay their bills and not the wonders of the creative enterprise. And I feel artists and writers have given up on those people, and there is something self-fulfilling about that attitude. Why did newspapers cut their book sections?

SB: It was largely economics.

RB: To cut features that a loyal core of the circulation read? Why would I go to the newspaper if they didn’t write about what I care about?

SB: That’s true, too.  …

RB: Anyway, what is the reviewing engine about today? I joined the NBCC just to see what critics in the aggregate think their mission is.

SB: My sense is what has fallen out in a big way is the great middle that used to be occupied by the dozens and dozens of critics and reviewers you could have named some years ago. They were writing for a host of papers that paid a certain kind of attention to books. And those are the places that have disappeared or are shrinking. … And now, because of this shrinkage, the reviews editors of those places are desperately playing catch up, saying “We have to do something with this because it’s such a highly-touted book.” What doesn’t get attention is the spectrum—not even the B-list, all those quirky books that are not even going to sell 5,000 copies.

RB: Doesn’t it strike you that as a consequence the [book] awards are looking at books from tiny publishers …

SB: Sure. This situation is probably giving them extra permission to look harder there. They are picking books that in a different order of things should have gotten enough attention so that they wouldn’t seem strange when they were put forward. But because of this great void in the middle no one’s ever heard of them, or they’ve been reviewed once or twice.

His mission, as he sees it:

SB: Sure. The question is whether we live in a culture and psychological climate that is made up of people who feel there is a reason to play the game or else made up of a lot of people who have given up. I’d prefer the former.

RB: Conscious people are more affected than unconscious people.

SB: Absolutely.

If this post looks long, the whole tamale weighs in at over 7,200 words. You can read it here.

I only had one middling disagreement with him, when he defends the writer’s craft and the life-of-the-mind thusly: “People don’t think that sitting utterly inert in front of a screen is as hard as laying bricks. They think, ‘Well he’s doing nothing. But that guy over there is sweating.’”

Some coal-miner working 12-hour days underground would love to exchange his lot for “sweating” in front of a computer screen. We should never forget it.

By the by, the interview alludes to being “part 3” of an interview – but I didn’t find parts 1 and 2 online.  But I did find this from Sven, and it’s absolutely priceless in the era of the tweet:  “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won. To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one’s essential position.”

Postscript on 1/8:  Another part of Birnbaum’s interview has been found:  Dave Lull sent us this Part 1, from way back in 2003, here.  Thanks, Dave!


My single night as a Girtonian

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Bastion of sanity in late-Victorian Grim

“I give lessons to Amalie, chiefly in history; she reads a lot and we talk. History is my thing. My Cambridge degree is in history. I’m a Girton girl. If I have any spare time I work on my own notes, which might be a book some day.”

So says the governess Ruth Nibsmith about her young charge, as she conspires with art apprentice Francis Cornish, her partner in intelligence work for the British  in the years leading up to World War II.

Ever since reading those lines in Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone, Girton College has retained an certain cachet for me.  So naturally I jumped at poet Gwyneth Lewis’s invitation to attend the Girton’s annual guest night.

They aren’t “Girton girls,” however, the Welsh poet explained.  The phrase she used often in my brief tour was “Girtonian.”  She herself is a Girtonian, and now the Mary Amelia Cummins Harvey Visiting Fellow Commoner at her alma mater.  She’s currently working on a fascinating verse play about the “lost years” of Clytemnestra, and just published a new collection, Sparrow Tree, this year.

Gwyneth (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Girton College is way out on the outskirts of Cambridge and is decidedly not one of the architectural wonders of the city.  It was built in the 1870s in the grim, late Victorian style – rumor has it that the backup arrangement was for the building to house an insane asylum, if the college plans fell through.  This was England’s first residential college for women – but you never know what high-powered edjucation might do to the wimmen.

To that end, of course, it brings up the theme of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, which tackles the prejudices these early women scholars encountered – that novel, however, was based on Somerville College at Oxford.

Gwyneth took me past the Girton room where Virginia Woolf delivered her landmark talk, later published as A Room of One’s Own in October 1928.

We also visited Hermione, a very early woman scholar, in the Lawrence Room – the Roman-period Egyptian mummy (circa 20-40 A.D.) was found in Hawara, in the Fayum, in 1911.  We don’t know much about her.  She apparently died when she was younger than 25, and she’s identified only as Hermionê Grammatikê,  or “Hermione the literary lady” or “Hermione the language teacher.”

Most reminiscent of Gaudy Night was the formal dinner in the grand, high-ceilinged dining room, presided over by Girton’s glamorous Mistress, the geographer Susan Smith.  (I sat next to her husband at the candle-lit table; he’s early-music cornettist Jeremy West, who will be performing in Berkeley next February.)  Sherry to begin, white wine and red wine courses, a cheese course, a chocolate-and-coffee course, and postprandials by the fire.


I have to take that last bit on faith.  Gwyneth whisked me to the station just as everyone was moving to the fire for more conversation – last train at 11.15 p.m.

Too quickly, alas, to meet the most endearing character of Girton:  Buster.  The once-feral tomcat has been not only adopted by the college, but given some sort of endowment guaranteeing lifetime food and medical care.  Gwyneth says he’s still not above swiping those who become overly familiar.

I’ll have to take that on faith, too.  All I saw was a food dish and his comfortable haunts. Bursar Deborah Lowther kindly provided a photo from her iphone.

Postscript on Nov. 13: Gwyneth kindly sent me the words from the note I saw posted in a hallway, from George Eliot to Emily Davies, the founder of Girton College. The letter, supporting women’s education in the proposed college, is dated 20 November, 1867:

My Dear Miss Davies,

We strongly object to the proposal that there should be a beginning made ‘on a small scale’. To spend forces and funds in this way would be a hindrance rather than a furtherance of the great scheme which is pre-eminently worth trying for. Every one concerned should be roused to understand that a great campaign has to be victualled for.

M.E. Lewes (pen name: George Eliot)

(Gwyneth on camera below)

SiCa Presents: Gwyneth Lewis from SiCa on Vimeo.

“Each step we take is a separate flare into darkness…”

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

odysseyMy review of Gwyneth Lewis’s A Hospital Odyssey in the San Francisco Chronicle today here.  (I’ve interviewed the poet here, and written about her on the Book Haven here.)

From my review:

“Nevertheless, all the distracting and engaging dramatis personae serve only as a scrim for the fey intelligence behind them: the narrator who teases us in a literary hide-and-seek, Onegin-like, from behind the mask of her protagonist. What remains is a voice vibrant, lively and clear as a bell – not looking inward so much as in wonder at the world around her. And, pressed from her lines, a rare vintage of wisdom.”

As always when writing a review, there are little snippets of the book — in this case, it’s a novel in verse — that never quite make it into the final review.  (Given the strict and ever-shortening word limit nowadays, this should hardly come as a surprise.)  So here are three excerpts I would have liked to included:


Gwyneth Lewis

“When love’s so weary it hopes for nothing
it’s at its strongest, though it feels no power.
It pushes, persists and starts its streaming.
Clay relaxes to the touch of moisture,
it gathers force, pushes sand grains over

and, on its way, is fed by everything
It touches, now it’s flowing over,
It surges and begins to sing
words of mercy in the throats of gutters,
thoughts translated into sudden flowers.”

“Peace, Love and Death. Of these three
Peace is the least, the greatest one is Death.
When someone chooses it willingly,
Death includes the others.  It’s the roughest path,
but the kindest.”

“Neither of us will get out of here
alive unless I can re-order time
to a second body of words and rhymes.”