Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

“Poetry is the only hope”: Voznesensky remembered

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

Voznesensky, with an attitude

Andrei Voznesensky died on Tuesday, June 1, at the age of 77.  The New York Times obituary is here.

Voznesensky’s heyday was in the 1960s, when he was, with Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the “officially left-wing” poet, allowed to tweak the Soviet masters, but only to a point.  They were intended to be proof that the Soviet powers allowed “freedom of speech” — but again, only to a point.  The two were famous for their theatrical readings to the masses, who filled sports stadiums to hear them.

The real star power, at that time, was meanwhile, shovelling manure in the far north — Archangelsk, near the Arctic Circle, where he was serving time after a show trial that described him a parasite on the state.  Joseph Brodsky went on to get a Nobel prize.  Of course, Voznesensky had the wisdom not to haul off and sock KGB agents, as Brodsky had … but still…

Brodsky’s umbrage against the dynamic duo of Voznesensky and Yevtushenko wavered in intensity over the years.  As with all mentors who shape one’s tastes and sensibilities, I’ve inherited his prejudices along with his predilections.  Death, as always, provides an opportunity to review both.  Easy to judge others’ reactions to a totalitarian regime when one is sitting on one’s bed with a computer on one’s lap, the California sunshine streaming in through a window.  Frankly, I don’t think I have Brodsky’s guts.  Voznesensky knew how to negotiate his survival.  It doesn’t always command respect, but it certainly commands my sympathy.

In Solomon Volkov’s questionable memoir, Conversations with Joseph Brodsky, Volkov draws out Brodsky’s opinions (Brodsky offhandedly says he had memorized 200-300 lines of poetry from each, despite his distaste; his memory was phenomenal), and gets this comment:

These boys were throwing stones in the officially sanctioned direction, knowing they’d land half a step ahead of the ordinary guy, who went nuts over it! That’s their entire historical role.  All this is very simple, banal even! Yevtushenko and Voznesensky had friends in the Central Committee of the Party all along the way — second, or third, or sixteenth secretaries — so they were always more or less in the know about which way the wind would blow tomorrow.

In Brodsky: A Personal Memoir (I reviewed it in the Kenyon Review here), Ludmila Shtern defends her friend Voznesensky against her other friend, Brodsky. She recalls  Voznesensky insisting on meeting her in Italy, although “Soviet émigrés were considered ‘untouchable’ by the Soviet government and any contact between them and Soviet citizens while on business trips could destroy a citizen’s career … When people were getting their permissions to go abroad, they were always warned by the KGB about avoiding émigrés in no uncertain terms, and they took these warnings seriously.”  Visits involved a great deal of risk and subterfuge:

Despite all these troubles he spent the evening with us, read his poetry, and even offered to take some letters and clothing back to our friends in Moscow.  We went to the flea market and bought enough used clothes to fill a whole suitcase.  To each piece I attached a note saying who was supposed to get what.  The suitcase came with a broken zipper, and when Andrei took it from a luggage claim in Moscow, it opened and all these dresses, blouses and shirts fell on the floor.  Andrei was crawling on the floor picking it up under the malignant cameras of journalists and reporters.  The next day one of the Moscow papers ran a big picture of this scene with the following caption: ‘The poor famous Soviet poet bought half of Italy.’

The Stanford University Libraries, by the way have Voznesensky’s papers; they were acquired six years ago.  They already have Yevtushenko’s papers — and Hoover has the papers Boris Pasternak, Abram Tertz (Sinyavsky), and others (I recently wrote about the extraordinary Pasternak collection here.)

Perhaps it’s the post-heyday years that say the most about the man.  From the New York Times:

In 1986 he published “The Ditch: A Spiritual Trial,” a work of prose and poems that centered on a German massacre of Russians in the Crimea in 1941 and the plundering in the 1980s of their mass graves by Soviet citizens. Mr. Voznesensky, tackling a subject long suppressed by the authorities, made clear that most of the 12,000 victims were Jews and implied that the looting of their bodies was tolerated for that reason.

At a poetry reading two years later, he took written questions from the audience. “All of you are Jews or sold out to Jews,” one note said. Another said, simply, “We will kill you.” Mr. Voznesensky read the unsigned notes aloud and demanded that the authors identify themselves. His challenge was met with silence.

In the 1990s Mr. Voznesensky disclosed a reluctance to go abroad. “I cannot leave the country,” he said in an interview with The International Herald Tribune in 1996. “I belong to the people. Now that they are in terrible trouble, they need me.”

“Poetry is the only hope,” he added. “Even if you do not believe it, you have to do it.”

POSTSCRIPT:  Tim Rutten writes the Los Angeles Times obituary here.  Bestest quote:  “We are born not to survive but to put our foot on the accelerator!”

In a word, “blarf!”

Friday, June 4th, 2010

New York Times article yesterday on “flarf”: “A novel form of digitally-inspired poetry, often generated from the results of the Internet search engines.”

Here’s the description in the Wall Street Journal:

Oooh yeah baby gonna shake & bake then take

AWWWWWL your monee, honee (tee hee)

If those lines sound like utter nonsense, it’s because they are. They belong to the world’s first “flarf” poem. Penned a decade ago as a lark, it has spurred an experimental poetry movement that’s become surprisingly popular.

Marjorie Perloff

While it started as one poet’s attempt to write the worst possible poem he could manage, flarf has since been published in that preeminent arbiter of tastes, Poetry. Fifteen flarf books have been published, and a 400-page anthology is due out soon.

One lit critic appears to be taking it seriously:

“Flarf is a hip, digital reaction to the kind of boring, genteel poetry” popular with everyday readers, says Marjorie Perloff, a poetry critic and professor emeritus of English at Stanford University. “You used to find it only in alternative spaces, but it has now moved into the art mainstream.”

I didn’t know that any kind of poetry nowadays is “popular with everyday readers,” so I guess that’s good news.  But so far I have to agree with the sole comment on the New York Times blog, from Laura in Santa Barbara:  “Blarf!”

Don’t look for her poems at

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Trained as a blacksmith, Elihu Burritt became a world traveler, a consul to England (appointed by Abraham Lincoln) and a reader of 50 languages – including Sanskrit.  All the languages were self-taught.  He opposed slavery.  He was an advocate for world peace.

Taylor Graham, an indirect descendent of his, has written more than 100 poems about him.  Sounds like an unpromising hobby for a 65-year-old woman?   Not so.

“Graham has worked outside the official world of poetry, and she has never been given anything like the attention she deserves,” said Dana Gioia, former head of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Dana knows her from way back:  When Dana was editor of Stanford’s literary review, Sequoia, he published one of her poems:  “Although it was a challenging and disturbing poem, it was so good that I knew we had to publish it,” he said.

Read the rest of the story at the Sacramento Bee here.  But for her poems?  Don’t try amazon — she’s not listed.  Try here instead.

Elihu Burritt

I happened to have on my bookshelf Dana’s anthology, California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, and I can see what he meant.  “Challenging” and “disturbing” indeed — “Pieces of Henry” is about a serial killer.  I thought to quote “Chances,” but it is so short and tightly constructed that I can’t cite it without bringing the copyright hounds tearing after me.

The intro to her two poems describes her recent work in a “horror and traumatic fantasy” genre.  It’s obviously not her only genre.  Think of the Elihu Burritt poems.

Or her poems about animals. She’s worked with search-and-rescue dogs in Alaska.  In El Dorado County, she is active in protecting bluebird nesting areas.

Ed Hirsch: “If only I could sweat this much at the gym”

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Edward Hirsch

By any standard, Edward Hirsch is a bigshot in the literary world.  So what a pleasant surprise that he doesn’t act like one!

The award-winning poet, author of the best-selling How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, MacArthur “genius” fellow, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in NYC, is actually a modest, gentle, and affable kind of guy.  Or so he seemed at last week’s reading at the Humanities Center, followed by a discussion in the Terrace Room the next day.

“It was not (to start again) what one had expected…”  For one thing, the accent was vintage Jewish Chicago — land of Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld.  The facial features were large and friendly, and the boyish grin usually a few seconds away.

At the Monday night reading, he received fulsome praise from Eavan Boland, before coming to the podium and joking, “I feel understood.”

The 45-minute wide-ranging reading, largely from his new The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, included poems about the electric green couch that he inherited and shuttled from house to house, city to city; Christopher Smart and his cat Jeoffry; his disillusionment and anger with God (and vice versa); Czesław Miłosz; and one poem, “In Memoriam: Paul Célan,” which concluded:


Lay these words on the dead man’s lips
like burning tongs, a tongue of flame.
A scouring eagle wheels and shrieks.
Let God pray to us for this man.

“If only I could sweat this much at the gym,” he said afterwards.

And then there were the questions and answers.

Question from Tobias Wolff: “The couch.  I want to know more about the couch.  Aside from its color, was it comfortable?”

Hirsch: “You can always tell a fiction writer. No wonder they need the whole page … No one ever asked me about the couch.”

Question: “About the books you were reading on the green couch, you were reading a lot of philosophy.”

Hirsch: “Are you upset with me for that?

Question: “Ah, yeah.”

Hirsch praised Martin Buber, and noted the “ancient battle between philosophers and poets – and we’re right.”

Question: “How do you know when your poems end?”

Hirsch interpreted this question as:  “Your poems to seem to just stop.”

“You’re working through something in a poem,” he said, and need to “come to some satisfactory conclusion.”

Sometimes, he said, he hadn’t “had the chops to make it conclude, haven’t had the emotional material…”

Question from Nicholas Jenkins: “The past is a huge theme in your poetry … I wonder whether you have a vision of your future as a poet.”

Hirsch: “You ought to be a professor!”

Prof. Jenkins: “It didn’t work out.”

Hirsch said he wanted his future to include “the largest possible embrace in terms of the world” …  “suffering and joy, agony and exultation.”

Question from John Felstiner: He flagged  “In Memoriam: Paul Célan,” as “standing out almost completely —  the reach and the surprise.”

“How does that sound to you?”

Hirsch: “That sounds swell.”

“Every so often you write something that shocks you. This is the gift of writing properly, and it still startles you.”

Question: The questioner raised the subject of God in Hirsch’s poem, specifically “A Personal History of My Stupidity,” a poem that begins with traffic and ends with:  “I did not believe in God, who eluded me.”

Hirsch: “I’ve thought about God – about why and how I’m still angry at him for no longer existing.”

“I can’t give you a full answer to my struggles with belief.  I don’t feel I have been gifted with belief, but I haven’t given up the longing.”

“What you might be hearing is a deep quest in me for something transcendental. … a longing for something else, and a critique of that longing.”

“It’s the poetry of a yearner – does that seem fair?”

In that spirit, two supernatural events occurred during the evening and the Tuesday discussion that followed the next day:

The first occurred during the Monday reading, as he discussed a 2001 trip, sponsored by the State Department on the fifth anniversary of Joseph Brodsky’s death, that took him to the Russian poet’s place of internal exile, Archangelsk.  “I was shocked about how cold it was!” said the native Chicagoan, who knows something about cold.  Suddenly, the lights flickered briefly.

“Those Soviets still have a lot of power,” he said, and recovered quickly, just as the lights did.  “If only I’d been reading James Merrill, I could have mistaken it for contact.”

The contact occurred instead the next day, during his Tuesday presentation.  In addition to extolling one of his favorite philosophers, Buber, he praised Pascal: “I love Pascal!” His microphone began to hiss with static.  “Whenever I say this, he gets my microphone. ‘If you love me so much, why are you Jewish?'”

Celebrating Mark Twain, with or without Halley’s Comet

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

twainFor most famous dead people, we celebrate the anniversary of births rather than deaths, unless they’ve been assassinated or canonized.  This year, we’re making an exception for Mark Twain.

Or perhaps not:  While it’s the 100th anniversary of his death on Wednesday, this year also marks the 175th anniversary of his birth.  “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835,” he famously said in 1909.  “It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.  It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.  The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that.”

In any case, at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, April 21st, Shelley Fisher Fishkin will share excerpts from The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works, which she edited for the prestigious Library of America series, at the Stanford Bookstore. (Zachary Baker will read a brief selection by Maks Erik that he translated for the book, in Yiddish and English.  Cintia Santana will read her translation of José Martí, in Spanish and English.)

The book is unexpectedly addictive, including writing from Marina Tsvetaeva, George Orwell, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, William Dean Howells, William James, Helen Keller, Ursula LeGuin, Norman Mailer, Somerset Maugham, H.L. Mencken, Barack Obama, Eugene O’Neill, Franklin Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, Lionel Trilling, Gore Vidal, Richard Wright and others.


Twain’s “Is He Dead?” at the Cinnabar Theater this month

For my money, I like Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s essay:  “The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises,” she writes.

Twain would appreciate the attention, under any terms.  Fame enough for the man who said: “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”  Twain, who called himself “the most conspicuous man on the planet,” also said: “If it can be proved that my fame reaches to Neptune and Saturn, that will satisfy me.”

This year has also seen another performance of the play that Fishkin, author or editor of 33 books about Twain, rescued from oblivion and produced on BroadwayIs He Dead? just finished a 3-week run at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater.

Another book to celebrate this year: Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travel Writings, edited by Roy Blount Jr., also from the Library of America.

Fishkin summarized the forever appeal of the journalist-turned-novelist for the Philadelphia Inquirer recently:  “He learned to tell the truth, and he learned to tell a fantastic tall tale.  Both stood him in good stead as a reporter and as an American writer.”



W.S. Di Piero

The hour-long Fishkin reading leaves plenty of time to hike to over to the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall for a 6:30 reading by poet, translator and essayist W.S. Di Piero.

According to David Kieley over at Bookslut:

“…W.S. Di Piero reads like a cop. In his charcoal suit, burgundy shirt and silver tie, he looked a lot more like his South Philadelphia roots than his current home of San Francisco. His speech was punchy and accented, his commentary sparse and to the point. A few times during the reading I closed my eyes and laughed at the ease with which I could pretend that Al Pacino was reading me a poem.

I don’t mean to rag on Di Piero; it was the sense that he felt cornered at the podium that made him seem sincere and relieved my fear of literary pretense. So let’s trust that he still is W.S. from the block, even if he’s “mixing it up” in a teaching gig at Stanford, because his book, like his persona, is all about finding the shepherd in sheep’s clothing.”

A few words from the poet himself:


“Take away whatever you want,

but deliver me to derangements

of sweet, ordered, derelict words.

A film about Anna Akhmatova…

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Akhmatova's famous portrait by Nathan Altman

Some time ago, I read Anatoly Nayman’s Remembering Anna Akhmatova — or at at least I started to.  My reading was interrupted by commissioned review, but I had read enough to understand that I had run across that rare phenomenon: in Akhmatova, Nayman had found someone whose every word, gesture, or action was of utmost importance, and must be recorded.

So when Elena Danielson, Hoover Archivist extraordinaire, told me that Helga Landauer’s  A Film About Anna Akhmatova was being shown at Wallenberg Hall on February 4, I was keenly interested.

Unfortunately, I was also in a wheelchair at the time, and the weather was miserable and the parking far away.  Elena told me later that even in the torrential rain, the auditorium was packed.


Akhmatova's funeral: Brodsky at right, with Nayman behind him. Rein is at left.

I can see why.  Helga, a Moscow-born writer and filmmaker who lives in downtown Palo Alto, kindly sent me a DVD.

The same urgency comes across in the film, which features unusual footage of pre-revolutionary Russia, as well as Nayman’s testimony.  As Joseph Brodsky said of Nayman’s book, it’s “chief virtue … is the intensity of the author’s attention to his subject.” The film also features, unforgettably, Akhmatova reading her own poems.

Nitpicking:  some of the clips are used somewhat repetitively.  And unless I missed it, there’s no explanation of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in the soundtrack — it was one of Akhmatova’s favorite pieces of music, and became so for her protégé Brodsky as well.  Better translations of Akhmatova’s poetry into English are available than the ones used here.

The film takes a birth-to-death approach to Akhmatova’s life, rather than focusing on Nayman’s firsthand experience of Akhmatova in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  He was, after all, on of Akhmatova’s famous Pleiad, her “magic choir” — including poets Yevgeny Rein and Dmitry Bobyshev as well as Nayman and Brodsky (Nayman does show a few of Brodsky’s photos from the time — as I recall, the only mention of the Nobel laureate). Irena Grudszinska Gross, writing of the importance of literary friendships in the careers of young poets in Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky: A Fellowship of Poets, notes that the cloudless period of this net of friendships lasted five years —  “In this history of literary friendships, it will endure forever.”

Well, if one wishes to be filled in on that part of the picture, one can always find his book.

The film also includes some memorable formulations from Nayman, a poet himself — I think particularly of his remark that poetry is the process by which word becomes law.

A trailer is here.