Louis Menand’s piece, “The Defense of Poetry,” in last week’s New Yorker both described and illustrated the effect of pop-culture journalism on poetry criticism. What the books under review all exhibit, though Menand himself never expresses this directly, is a certain contemporary maleness substituting for critical attitude. Described as “erudite but caj, geeky and hip, alienated and savvy,” Menand summarizes the approach as “Brooklyn.” While Menand writes about the difficulty of such a critic keeping “his or her balance” on the “high-low tightrope,” he never actually points out that none of the acrobats (Robbins, Lerner, Zapruder, Orr) in question are actually women. Oddly, the New Yorker’s own Pauline Kael (whose topic, of course, was mostly cinema) is identified as the “Jedi Master of this mode of criticism,” though that tokenism seems oddly anachronistic, given that she’s been dead now for seventeen years.
The more pertinent point of reference, as Menand goes on to note, is rock-and-roll writing from the age of New Journalism. Such casualness derives from all-boy chemically-fueled discussions of liner notes and readings of Rolling Stone interviews. This is not all a bad thing (drug-use can produce excellent poems -- e.g. Coleridge, De Quincy, Baudelaire ), but the approach’s gendered nature needs to be acknowledged. We ourselves have always had the distinct impression that many of the poets and poetry critics under discussion were in their early twenties unsuccessful as actors and indie band members; failing to be handsome or charismatic enough for those careers, they opted out for the poetry reading and online blog. Hence springs such voices’ embrace of the pop song as fully equivalent to the poem, an opinion recently validated by the Swedish Academy.
Such writers don’t pretend to be the cultural critics of yore; Irving Howe, they’re not. Instead literary critics have become commentators, as on a news show, delivering their own book-world spin. Our own “takeaway” from the his piece is the deleterious effect such writing has been on usually careful thinkers and stylists such as Menand. Following a mushy paragraph on the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, Menand goes all the way back to that proto-hipster Philip Sidney and his despair at poetry being the “laughing stock of children.” But as with the other contemporary defenders under discussion, in the end we are returned to the present day and Menand’s own history, “I started out as a poet, too, but I eventually realized that whatever my poems were expressing, it wasn’t me.” Menand’s summation, to put it mildly, underwhelms. Not only does he self-gratifyingly conclude, by inference, that poems carry no qualities more meaningful or long-lasting than a pop song, in the end they’re really no different than “putting words in the right order” on a postcard. After proposing that poets are just like other kinds of writers, he finishes up his fifteen columns with this: “The reason people write poems is the reason they write. They all have something to say.”
Though it was made back in 2007, we highly recommend José Luis Guerin's In the City of Sylvia. An experience closer to music than that of a film, the movie has no real plot and no fixed characters. It is simply “about” time spent in Strasbourg. Admittedly, memories of our own youthful travels and “touristic” exiles in France were implicated in our emotional response to the film; but any viewer’s history, and shifting memory of that narrative, would likely be drawn into the compact story of a young foreigner’s attempt to recapture lost connections. Something like distant cafe music or a troublingly familiar perfume, erotic desire is presented as a form of ephemeral madness.
For those familiar with its former home in Merion, the reconstructed Barnes Collection in downtown Philadelphia is a surreal experience. The original building’s rooms have been reproduced exactly within a contemporary shell on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a location that is considerably easier to visit than suburban Merion. In some sense, the move doesn’t matter, in that the extraordinary collection of paintings is still mostly comprised of the “real thing” and remains a joy to behold. But while the eccentricity of Dr. Barnes’s arrangement is intact, the masterworks’ new context felt to us somehow like only a step or two away from “virtual reality.” We found it all quite discomfiting.
“Even a fox / knows one big thing / at the end of the hunt,” writes the brilliant Anthony Rudolf in his European Hours. The book is subtitled a “collected poems” but it is decidedly not that. Instead the book’s selections gesture towards Rudolf’s wide-ranging contributions to literature (as a publisher, as a writer of prose, as a translator, as a critic...); his beautifully written poems resonate with the sometimes discordant notes of a person deeply in tune with a life of letters -- as well as one well aware of the obligations of historical memory. The wise-cracking gesture to Archilochos (and Isaiah Berlin) provides just one example of the sureness of Rudolph’s intellect and ear.
Perusals of summer’s online discussions and postings suggest that elitism has become the literary world’s #1 concern. Priority is given to “accessibility,” as though by law each literary text needs to make allowance for ramps and dedicated parking. And while we generally applaud such regulations in the social and political sphere, it continues to be our belief that literature is the one place where there should be no such strictures or quotas. In this time and place, or so it seems to us, serious artists of all stripes are working under extraordinary “handicaps.”
Received ideas as to the class implications of literary style have also now entered far into the territory of wrongheaded writing advice. “A sense of entitlement is not how you...reach [readers],” we are told, “hunger & humility make the difference.” Our reaction? Tell that one to the perennial best-selling Dante Alighieri. What is being proposed here has nothing to do with writing; the two options presented are simply alternate forms of social pose as applied to the publishing marketplace -- --the topic, by no coincidence, of the books and blog of the above quoted “author” consultant. The issue under discussion is not literature but self-marketing.
Yale Review has announced the retirement of its longtime editor Sandy McClatchy. The future of the venerable periodical (as well as numerous literary journals these days) is somewhat in question. And so it is a particular honor for LongNookBook’s Senior Editor Mary Maxwell to appear in the current July issue. We ask ourselves: Where in the future would such an essay on the sonnets of Walter Benjamin and the Baudelaire translations of Richard Howard find a home? The relationship system of which editor and poet McClatchy has been an integral part is something quite more than that of professional “network. “ As Maxwell writes in Yale Review’s pages: Howard’s translations are indisputably the work of a poet, which is something that simply can’t be said for Carl Skoggard’s English versions of Benjamin’s sonnets. But then, what is it that makes a person a poet? To create good poems, obviously one needs an ear and a subject; the poetic vocation itself is considerably harder to define. Thinking of Benjamin and Baudelaire, I extrapolate that it involves a life’s work determined to reveal “a world of secret affinities.“
Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam has returned from returned from the Pompidou in Paris to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A "painting in ten parts," based on Alexander Pope's translation of Homer's Iliad, and completed in 1978, the work evokes incidents from Homer's epic poem in Twombly's characteristic synthesis of words and stylized images. The ten large canvases follow one another much like a developing narrative, though the human figure, as well as any specific battle actions, remain completely absent. Instead the qualities of named Greeks and Trojans are recalled in graffiti-like verbal and or painterly gesture. It is all very Roman, rather than Greek, we would observe, very much a product of the Italian city Twombly for many years called home.
One of the great adages of the painter Janice Biala went something like this: “You don’t have to make an effort to be contemporary. Whatever style you choose, abstract or figurative, in oil or with acrylics, whether you like it or not, every brushstroke of yours will mark you in time.” At LongNookBooks, we have found that this equally applies to literary style, especially when it comes to poetic translation. Is there a more succinct way to document developments of 20th-century poetry that to look at translation approaches to classical lyric? Such a study also says a lot about the knotty matter of influence: Despite the dull deviations of one hundred years of “complete” classroom versions, from H.D. to Mary Barnard to Jim Powell to Anne Carson, the most successful translations of Sappho concretely exhibit themselves as belonging to the century of Pound.
Whatever the legal outcome of James Comey’s Senate testimony, it’s increasingly obvious that the President’s dynamic of interpersonal relations betrays his long association with organized crime. And, indeed, what is Vladimir Putin but a state-funded mobster? The “obstruction of justice” approach to impeachment may not fly, but Robert Mueller and his team are proceeding on another track. And while there is little doubt that we are dealing with “high crimes” in the White House, the immediate cause for Trump’s eventual resignation will come from his other forms of lawbreaking.
Trump likes to pretend he doesn’t scare easily but even he must be aware he’s facing a fatal nemesis in Michael Dreeben. Taking his lead from Watergate’s “deep throat,” Mueller’s hiring of a team of Treasury agents suggests that he is indeed “following the money.” And so just as Eliot Ness got Al Capone through prosecution of tax fraud, we have no doubt that Trump and several of his colleagues will end up in prison for comparable reasons. Otherwise, following a coup of "you're fired!"s, America might well end up as a Mafia State, with Rudolph Giuliani appointed as director of the FBI.
How are we to cope with the current political climate? One answer, culled from centuries of literature, is to return to our gardens. “Like a wandering vine, the subject of garden-making winds through the shelves of books and boxes of archives” in Yale’s Beinecke Library. And like a life-affirming bouquet, “Happiness: The Writer in the Garden” is the result of a particularly thoughtful culling. As the exhibit’s curator notes, “writers of all dispositions seem to agree that the work of shaping the natural world into manageable plots brings particularly rewarding forms of joy and satisfaction.”
Given our own geographic location here in New England, we took special note of the displayed words of Edith Wharton: “To one who has fought for years the gales of the Rhode Island sea-coast, and the late frosts and burning sun of the Massachusetts mountains, who has watched the sight of painfully nursed “colour-effects,” and returned in the spring to the blackened corpses of careful sheltered hemlock hedges and box borders.. there is a foretaste of heaven in the leisurely progression of the French summer.”
And so with Wharton's Pavillion Colombe and the Paris Agreement in mind, we are thinking of the world’s climate in both its literal and figurative dimensions. Just now it feels like everything is up for grabs. So as the weather warms up, we are looking, as we would advise others to, at the colors of our late spring lilacs, azaleas and rhododendrons. For as Wharton wrote, there is something about temperate seasons “where the picture stays in its frame... that creates a sense of serenity in the mind inured to transiency and failure.”
One of the great perks of living on Outer Cape Cod is the opportunity to visit the remarkable modernist homes scattered between ocean and bayside. This spring the Cape Cod Modern House Trust opened two structures for public visits: the 1970 Kugel/Gips house, designed by Charlie Zehnder and the 1960 Hatch cottage, designed by Jack Hall. Both are evidently inspired by the work of master architects Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff and Charles Jencks (all of whom also built summer homes nearby).
The recently published Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape is the definitive, photograph-packed guide to these buildings, though we at LongNookBooks retain a special affection for the smaller A Chain of Events: Modernist Architecture on the Outer Cape, which came into being as the catalogue for a 2006 show of the same name at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. There is something about the physical form of this well-written gem of a volume that beautifully evokes the concomitantly homemade and sophisticated quality of the movement’s almost primitively constructed “dune shacks.” Author and architect K. Michael Hays nicely summarizes the structures’ pervading ethos as a form of “aesthetic materialism.”
It’s hard to describe in words how these inspiring buildings integrate interior and exterior experience, a difficulty which makes site visits such as offered by the Trust so crucial to an understanding of the meanings of the architecture. For the first wave of émigréarchitects, the home created in their American refuge became, as Breuer himself wrote, a “center of emotional faith.” Or as Mary Maxwell wrote in Cultural Tourism’s “Marcel Breuer”: Design not / as mere decoration but a mode of interpretation, thinking through / post-industrial society, acknowledging the interdependence of humans // and their environment. On a candlelit deck, distinctions between indoor / and out dissolve in the duck. Beyond where the electric lights dare to / extend, brutal monsters from childhood fairy tales are still lingering.
The challenge unspoken but implied by Alexander Theroux’s 650-page Collected Poems is “Let them ignore this!” But lo and behold, that’s exactly what the rank-closing poetry community has done since the 2015 volume appeared from Fantagraphics. The work is consistently excellent as well as consistently “incorrect” in the manner of Frederick Seidel. But a list of periodicals where many of the lyrics originally appeared is long and distinguished. (Mary Maxwell, in fact, was responsible for one of them being published in Provincetown Arts when she served as poetry editor there in 2005; it was Guy Davenport who’d drawn her attention to Theroux’s presence on the Cape.) Some of Theroux’s public-relations problems have evidently been brought about by his own behaviors; even now he’s the subject of an academic sexual misconduct lawsuit dating back thirty years. But as he has truly written in his own “Epitaph”: “He was envied by les pauvres / Who kept him from public recognition, / Never mind fame. / Such is the malignity of dwarves.”
Recently enjoying a 2012 bottle of Lytton Estate Mataro, we fondly recalled our visit that very year to Sonoma’s Ridge Vineyards. John Olney, nephew of the late (and much beloved by us) Richard Olney, took us on a tour of the Lytton Spring facilities. (As an aside, we here note that Richard Olney will feature in Justin Spring’s forthcoming The Gourmands' Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy).The varietal Mataro is usually blended by the younger Olney in Ridge’s Lytton Springs offering, but 2012 merited a separate bottling, with 15% Petite Syrah adding “structure and dark fruit.” The result is immediately delicious but also encouraging of deep thoughts.
In short, the bottle is something of a rarity. As we pondered its depths, we couldn’t help observing that our experience of the wine market is analogous to how we read poetry. What we like doesn’t correspond to what others greet with social media effusions: Out there are a lot of over-rated formalized fruit bombs; syrupy Malbecs to go with Wall Street steaks; baby-shower white wines with no discernible character at all; and hipster-labeled grape juice that really does taste like it might have fermented in a Brooklyn garage. These too common experiences, in short, are pretty close to how we would describe the poetic work of many of our contemporaries. There are still some profound and wonderful works being made available, but it takes a kind of disciplined willfulness to ignore the hype surrounding what really should be identified as undrinkable.
A publishing conference in Boston we attended this past weekend confirmed two fundamental problems related to the literary marketplace: First of all, the independent publisher’s most serious competition is not “the big five” but “monetized distractions” (Twitter, Netflix, Candy Crush) as one moderator so eloquently, and quite chillingly, put it. Secondly, we observed once more that there seem to be far more aspiring writers than readers of literature, and even these individuals aren’t buying books. At a large circular table of fiction aspirants where we were seated, not one was familiar with, let along had read, the works of either of the conference’s keynote speakers. Most were looking at their cellphones even as the the hyper-articulate Aleksandar Hemon and Claire Messud spoke of the novel’s urgency in a time of constant informational access.
Barry Levinson’s 2014 The Humbling, based on the Philip Roth novel and with a screenplay by Buck Henry, feels like a Mike Nichols project. (It would make a great triple feature with The Graduate and Catch-22.) Despite the bitter misogyny beneath Roth’s story, there’s a kind of acid truth to all the characterizations. We can see why not everyone was enthusiastic about the film; you either find Charles Grodin’s straight-man silences hilarious or you don’t. The movie’s humor is as black as the kohl crayon the actor played by Al Pacino applies to his eyes as he prepares to go (disastrously) onstage.
We love New York’s Albertine bookstore and reading room, which occupies the first two floors of the former Payne-Whitney mansion on upper Fifth Avenue. A project of the French embassy’s Cultural Services, the Italian Renaissance structure alone would provide reason for a drop-in. Its entrance foyer -- with the now-obligatory security desk -- boasts a replica of Michelangelo’s Young Archer; the original sculpture is on loan to the Met. Given the shop’s carefully curated tables and shelves, it’s easy to overlook steps leading to an upstairs salon complete with ceiling painting of the constellations, stars and planets. Couches and a coffee table complement a children’s corner. In short, books are only one element of a visit’s pleasure.
But it was downstairs that we bought our copy of Richard Howard’s Like Death, just published by New York Review of Books books. It’s a translation, of course, of Guy de Maupassant’s Fort comme la mort, the French novel after which Ford Madox Ford said he modeled The Good Soldier. It has been said that by doing so Ford wrote “the best French novel in English.” But we think Richard Howard’s prose comes in at a close second. His are simply exquisite sentences, whose composition cannot be wholly credited to the French master: “When they neared the lawn they heard the breathing of the cows which, now awake and scenting their enemy, were raising their heads to look. Under the trees, farther on, the moon was dripping among the branches a shower of fine beams that seemed to wet the leaves and reached the ground in little yellow pools along the road.”
The shaky scaffolding of “The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin” at New York’s Jewish Museum is structured by the various sections (“convolutes”) of the great writer’s unfinished masterpiece. In actual practice none of the artworks or textual quotations in the show have anything to do with the impulse of Benjamin’s project. In addition to our theoretical objection to the exhibit’s falsely applied principles, in practice nearly every piece forced into the curator’s theoretical framework feels dead on arrival. Merely an excuse for coterie payback and self-promotion, the show is a profoundly dispiriting experience. Is it really possible that the concept of “appropriation” has become morally neutral? In this new world, there’s no reason to be ashamed of thievery; conceptual art has become a kind of cannibalistic grave-robbing.
Happily, in the light-filled exhibit room just next door may be found Charlemagne Palestine’s tender-hearted “Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland,” an enthusiastically silly installation paradoxically full of profound feeling. The various stuffed creatures, according to the artist, are “shamanic representations of the soul.” Benjamin, a sensitive observer of childhood’s spiritual tendencies, would have been in complete agreement about the auratic mode embodied by the faces of these toy Ursidae. Full of a “desire to make light of an unbearable,” as he himself put it in his essay “Old Toys,” we ourselves felt a kind of regressive escapism as we entered the teddy-bear “craziness.” With such a sense of gratitude were we liberated from the horror of Benjamin’s desecration by Palestine’s world of play.
We joined in mourning the late Robert Silvers at this year’s Paris Review Revel, just as the last issue of the New York Review of Books edited by him was appearing on the newsstand. Silvers, of course, was an integral part of both periodicals; like relatives at the holiday celebrations of second cousins, editors and contributors regularly appeared on the pages of both. While the exact editorial future of the NYRB remains somewhat in question, the Paris Review finds itself in the midst of an muscular revival. Both “papers” (as Silvers referred to his projects) continue to play crucial parts in our own reading and writing lives.
It wasn’t until we saw “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow” at the Metropolitan Museum that we could put our finger on the correct word for certain Broadway productions these days. After a raucous evening attending Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 we were at a loss at how to describe the experience. Literally everything comes at you (bags of pierogies, play-along maraca eggs, wandering chorus members shouting in your face) while the self-descriptive sung War and Peace narrative moves the activated audience toward the title’s strobe-lit astronomical conclusion. Such immersive encounters are very much like those of a seasonal fair or traveling circus, full of acrobatics and freakishness and even an updated lesbian chanteuse (i.e. Sonya). Despite all this, Josh Groban’s self-hating Pierre does somehow ends up transformed and transforming; during its last moments the sideshow is redeemed. As with Seurat’s delicately articulated trombonist, we find ourselves powerfully identifying with the lone figure performing in the glare of the over-bright footlights.
Albert Goldbarth’s latest offering, The Adventures of Form and Content, is a sort of “flip-book.” Its format would be nothing more than a gimmick if it weren’t also an allusive throwback to the tactile potentialities of paper, ink and glue; the poet remains committed to the analog medium. It’s an eccentric collection (making it typically Goldbarthian) with occasional pieces treating certain matters comprising one half; when the reader flips the volume over, more of Goldbarth’s “kitchen-sink” essays may be found running the other way. In both cases the paired upside-down approaches repeat a disclaimer by the self-proclaimed “Luddite”: “No computer was used in the research for, writing of, or submission of these essays.” Like Siamese twins, form and content (as well as much poetry and well-written prose) are joined at the book’s spine.
To our ears American accents as performed by British actors tend to have a slightly “off" quality. Particularly grating are those found in BBC comedies, such as The Durrells in Corfu. Most cringe-worthy is the stereotypical businessman, played loudly New York or harshly Midwestern, a received portrayal that teeters on the cusp of offensive. Our reaction is one we have when we hear recordings of ourselves: Do we really sound like that?
American productions fare better. Mattthew Rhys’s accent on The Americans has something a little “foreign” in his emphases, but this is wholly consistent with the Russian-born character. Dominic West in The Afffair is completely credible. Damien Lewis on Homeland, it seemed to us, was also pitch-perfect. (In Billions, he was a bit less so; at times his accent was a near-burlesque of New Jerseyese.) The voice of Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange, by contrast, was unplaceable and irritating. Was it intentional -- and meaningful -- that he sounded less and less American as his character became increasingly heroic?
The Boston Opera House is a fantastic throwback to Boston’s vaudeville days. The various mirrored lobby levels lend a sense of theatrical excitement to any evening, even before the stage curtain goes up. We were there recently for Boston Ballet’s premiere of William Forsythe’s Artifact. We were up for it; we wanted to shake up New England traditionalists; we longed to be challenged and intrigued. But in the end, to be perfectly honest, we just didn’t get it. Forsythe’s abstract and algorithmic movements, though apparently inspired by Balanchine, lacked any sense of feeling or intellectual motivation. The company’s dancing was for the most part technically excellent; the choreography was elaborate, mature and ambitious. “Step inside,” Dana Casperson directed us at the program’s start. Yet as much as we tried, we just couldn't make it through that door.
We recently heard a terrific pep talk by Harvard’s Gina McCarthy, one-time head of the beleaguered EPA during the Obama administration. While acknowledging the issue of climate change as most pressing,McCarthy argued that one of the current administration’s other policies that might have comparable impact on our nation’s quality of life is the imminent threat to our National Parks. An advocate for “No Child Left Inside” even before she joined the federal government, McCarthy spoke energetically of the need for all children to spend a substantial portion of their days outside. The daily experience of nature is fast becoming a luxury, and its lack will have disastrous long-term consequence. Since this is not strictly an “environmental” issue, but one of universal public health, it seems to us that such a common-sense approach to public policy might be one many Republicans should be able to support. Commitment to the National Park Service should be the starting-point for an across-the-aisle coalition of resistance to current White House denizens.
Martha Graham’s Primitive Mysteries was well-performed by her eponymous company at the Joyce, but we had the distinct sense that the dancers just didn’t get it. What was missing was the piece’s mystical drive, as a religious event is supposed to be taking place on the stage even as we watch. Graham’s dance is not the re-enactment of a ritual, but the revelatory act itself in performed reoccurrence. As audience members what we endured instead was a kind of ethnographic distance. High modernism has become as foreign as archaic Cretan bull dances.
Returning to New York City to see a Broadway show is a curious experience. Times Square is certainly not the dicey locale we remember: We’ve become aliens in what we once thought of as our homeland. Instead we found ourselves feeling like unpaid extras in a television commercial, being directed to cross the human vehicular traffic again and again. We even joined the masses funneling into Hamilton, to which we’ve come so late its premise and songs are over-familiar. For us, the time there marked a distinct cultural moment, if not exactly a theatrical one. To be clear, we would have been among its greatest enthusiasts if we’d seen it at the Public Theater back in 2015, for it’s undoubtably triumphant in expanding the possibilities of the American musical. But though we wanted to leave the theater ebullient, we just couldn’t, an inability the result of the politics of the moment. It’s not the show that’s tired, it’s us.
Watching a DVD of Alfonzo Cuarón’s 2006 Children of Men. contemporary viewers experience cinema as prophetic nightmare. Based on a 1992 novel by P.D. James, the film is set in the future, though its 2027 feels terrifyingly close to our present 2017. In the director’s dystopic vision, refugees are hunted down and placed in concentration camps; civilians live in war-zone conditions, subject to terrorist events attributed to revolutionaries but actually instigated by the government; art ministries fight to save religious masterpieces from mobs and iconoclasts. James’s original story was a kind of Christian allegory; with humankind having become infertile, hope is manifested in a single pregnant female. Cuarón narrates the progress of his anti-hero (played by Clive James) in documentary style, filling astonishing long single-shot sequences with Battle of Algiers grittiness. Whether a viewer regards the film’s ending as hopeful or not, Cuarón’s film needs to be seen as a warning against history’s ever-threatening cycle of police-led and counter-revolutionary violence.
Yesterday we heard Jordi Savall’s Hesperion XXI perform a program of “Musica Nova 1500-1700: Venetian Influences in Musical Europe,” a kind of follow-up to the “La Serenissima: Music and Arts of the Venetian Republic” festival just finishing at Carnegie Hall and other New York venues. The performances were as excellent as anticipated, but what we were most struck with were the observations made by Savall during the pre-concert interview.: Sixteenth-century Venice was a tolerant and secular state, as well as the “origin” for the “new” music that found its way to France, Spain, Germany and England, carried there by an fully international cadre of musicians and composers. Therefore, classical music as we know it wouldn’t exist without the period’s astonishing diaspora of traveling artists. Our “takeaway,” immediately relevant to the future of our own republic, is this: The continued circulation of cultural riches requires fluid borders.
Though the late, lamented Harry Mathews was included in several significant anthologies (Padgett and Shapiro’s An Anthology of New York Poets; David Lehman’s Oxford Book of American Poetry; Waldman’s Out of This World Poetry Project collection), it was astonishing to us that his New York Times obituary made no mention of the great writer’s poems, despite his early presence and importance to the New York School. This is particularly disappointing given how fully contemporary Mathews's lyrics are at this very moment; though some date back fifty years, stylistically they could be easily swapped with the work of numerous younger, currently lauded poets. And though in 1992 Carcanet published his A Mid-Season Sky: Poems 1954-1991, years ago it was long past time a Mathews Collected Poems should have appeared in America. Now that his oeuvre is truly complete, some New York publisher really needs to get moving!
What greater pleasure is there than to share an enthusiasm? Here’s one of ours: the singer and composer Theo Bleckmann. His interpretations of a wide (and wild) variety of music are more than somewhat unorthodox; he has a less than perfect voice, which is part of its appeal; and the sheer volume of his recorded output can be overwhelming and therefore off-putting. Among such offerings are “covers” of Kate Bush, Guillaume de Machaut, and Charles Ives. All this acknowledged, we cherish our stack of Bleckmann collaborations from Winter and Winter. One CD we listen to with friends quite often (as it’s conversation-friendly) is his Schumans’s Favored Bar Songs, what we would term as selections from the “Great International Song Book,” complete with background noise of small talk, clinking glasses, and appreciative applause. But perhaps the best introduction to this remarkable artist is Bleckmann’s simply titled, Love Song, a sampler meant to be savored and passed around.
We are mesmerized by The Young Pope, which we are watching in haunting alternation with the live news coverage of CNN. As a media commentator, asking whether any of the show’s narrative sounds familiar, describes the series: “An inexperienced leader who trusts only in himself and wins a surprise election to one of the most powerful positions on Earth, then vows to do away with established traditions, isolating himself from the people with divisive rhetoric?” The Young Pope’s creepy opening credits (filmed through the disturbingly aestheticized lens of director and writer Paolo Sorrentino) runs with the guitar prelude to “All Along the Watchtower.” An evening of television brings us back to the apparent relation between the series and our current political situation; and so, in answer to the question, "What should we do?," we answer with Dylan’s immortal words: “Let us not talk falsely now. The hour is getting late.”
The other day we found ourselves in the basement of the Harvard Book Store, and there spread before us, like the feast of our dreams, was a set of remaindered New York Review of Books books. Does anyone really need a college education when the NYRB classics are so affordable? We could easily spend the rest of our days going through the publisher’s list. Forthcoming titles making us salivate include Maupassant’s Like Death, translated by Richard Howard; Sybille Bedford’s A Favorite of the Gods with introduction by Daniel Mendelsohn, and Elise Partridge’s last poems. So many of our favorite volumes are newly available, we’re tempted to re-read them, but this would mean we wouldn’t have time for all those slightly less familiar names that beckon the gluttonous: We still haven’t read Henry Green, Vicky Baum, William Dean Howells, Benjamin Fondane, Rebecca West ... The NYRB list makes us aware of just how hungry (and poorly read) we really are.
After the debacle of the November election, here’s the strategy we’re newly re-embracing: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. These days reverse snobbery and anti-intellectualism are our among our most serious adversaries. At a time when serious literature, classical music and conceptual art (as but three examples) are objects of Trumpland mockery, the concomitant political reality is that among those institutions dismissed by “real America” as unnecessary playthings of the “cultural elite” may be listed the EPA, the ACLU, and Planned Parenthood. A true social meritocracy, of course, is still the ideal and, in our opinion, achievable through a renewed commitment to (non-vouchered and non-chartered) public education. But in their attempt to avoid appearing snooty, American cultural figures mistakenly continue to bend over backwards to be appear populist and inclusive in ways that have turned out to be self-defeating.
As Albert Murray, one of our culture’s most eloquent exponents, has put it, the greatness of America is in the uniqueness of its fine art as an “extension, elaboration, and refinement of the vernacular into a higher level...Culture can be separated into three levels, folk—pop—fine, and the last is where the masterpieces come; that’s the ultimate definition of a culture.” Tied as is it to the market, pop art will continue to thrive under a Trump administration. At this crucial moment it is folk art and high culture (most urgently in the latter’s experimental and avant-garde forms) that need active and articulate support. Again, here’s Murray: “What art provides is the most fundamental human equipment for existence. It provides images, representative anecdotes, emblems that condition us to confront what we must confront, and it disposes us to do what we must do, not only to fulfill ourselves but also to survive as human beings in a given place, time, circumstance, and predicament.”
As the New Year approaches, we’ve had a sudden realization of just how much of the last one was spent binge-watching boxed sets of television series’ DVDs. An alternate world to day-to-day life, our escapist evenings provided a parallel universe of stresses belonging to wholly imaginary people.This past year we went through The Wire, Justified, The Good Wife and Deadwood — these added onto the more recent,The Knick, The Affair, The Leftovers , Mr. Robot, The Americans and House of Cards. One of the oddest parts of the whole experience was how the same set of actors would weave in an out of the various casts, so that there was something dreamlike about going from one teleplay to another.
These innumerable hours in front of the TV screen were full of political intrigue, sexual confusion, legal troubles, professional antagonisms and family tensions — all brought about in well-acted and well-dressed melodrama. But in the end we have to admit we perhaps most enjoyed it when such soap-opera scenarios were ludicrously placed into pseudo-historical or fantastic contexts, such as in Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful and Black Sails. It’s embarrassing to confess, but we found this last series (in which a neurotic pirate captain played by Toby Stephens struggles with the psychic responsibilities of colonial-era leadership) as emotionally compelling as anything in the “real life”
We viewed the Metropolitan Opera “Live” in HD’s L’Amour de Loin on a Saturday afternoon, one week after than the actual simulcast. We enjoyed the music and the libretto; we were intrigued by what we could make out of Robert Lepage’s dramaturgy; and we very much appreciated the female presences of composer Kaija Saariaho and conductor Susanna Mälkki. But “loin (distance)” seemed the operative word. With a not very good sound system and (despite the hype) a not very good picture, it was a little like watching the matinée from the very back row of the opera house. This struck us as a particularly bad deal, given that the movie ticket charged by our local theater cost more than one of the actual seats in the Met’s Family Circle. On the other hand, the poise and intelligence shown by the two Scandinavians in their “up-close” intermission interview more than made up for the price of admission. The Met’s publicity department is right to make a very big deal about the long-delayed presence of women in charge of a HD production’s musical score.
Speaking of Alexander Calder (see Nov. 28 post below), we also spied on the shelves of the Gagosian shop a Cahiers d’art whose retro fifties cover made us think it was a reproduction of an early issue of the French revue. Something even more interesting than that, it’s a contemporarily edited review that includes new contributions as well as offerings from the archive. This particular issue (2015, number 1) focuses on Calder, and it’s a gem. In addition to some excellent discussions of Calder’s oeuvre, the oversized paperback volume includes some wonderful early (1930) paintings. It also presents still photos of the artist by Agnès Varda of the artist performing his circus, as well as a priceless 2014 interview with her speaking of the experience. As a special insert, it reproduces on special Japanese paper a collotype print from a 1954 copper etching plate. It also contains an André Masson poem, The Studio of Alexander Calder (with sculpture photos taken by Herbert Matter), whose lines recalled for us our recent experience of the new “Calder Tower” at the National Gallery in Washington: “But a carousel of little crimson moons thrills me / It brings to mind a translucent circus.”
This past fall we stopped by the Gagosian’s Madison Avenue Gallery to see “Remembered Light,” Sally Mann’s haunting photographs of Cy Twombly’s Lexington studio. And then in the gallery bookshop we came across a most wonderful accompanying book, Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint by Mary Jacobus. It’s a source of amazement to us that this Princeton University Press offering did not show up on more“best books of 2016” lists. Among other things, this beautiful volume should be received as an important artifact of Poundiana, manifesting as it does the afterlife of that poet’s work as an presence in contemporary American painting.
There is a charming appropriateness to the location of the Berggruen Paul Klee Collection on the fifth floor of the Met Breuer. Looking out the gallery windows over city rooftops, the visitor has the momentary sense of having travelled up to the household nursery. The show is titled “Humor and Fantasy,” and it does provoke a quiet amusement; Klee shares a temperamental bent with Calder. Klee’s figures also have much in common with children’s books; his odd creatures with human characteristics arrive from myth or fairy tale and inhabit otherworldly cities and landscapes. And while the paintings on canvas do have an ominous power, Walter Benjamin preferred Klee’s works on paper. We understand what Benjamin means, for these evoke childhood’s poignant pellucidity, a happy/sad quality of colored tissue paper dissolving in water.
Readers of this newsletter may have been given the mistaken impression that we have a low opinion of journalism. We do often distinguish between the work of literary writers and that of journalists, but the qualification shouldn’t be taken as a general put-down of the Fourth Estate. And yet the media humiliated itself this election season. We don’t hold print or electronic journalists wholly responsible, as their influence has been overtaken by a set of telegenic imposters. We watched a whole set of evening “news shows” in recent months, infuriated by individuals of various political persuasions whose authority to speak on matters at hand was, to put it mildly, highly questionable, among them the fiendish “political strategist” Jeffrey Lord. When were such people handed the mike with rhetorical impunity?
One problem has been our culture’s blurring of news and entertainment. We can hear someone like the sophistic Lord saying, “But surely the average citizen can tell the difference between fact and fiction!” When Wolf Blitzer or Donna Brazile appear as themselves in movies and on TV shows, however, the line between actor and pundit dissolves completely. Under the circumstances it’s not surprising that viewers and voters were confused. There are diverse ways of interpreting facts, and even the best-intentioned politician has cited questionable data to support his or her position, but when someone is on the air stating an out-and-out lie, it’s up to network “anchors” to distinguish truth from dangerous dissimulation. Yet after television journalism’s critical failure on this point -- in what increasingly strikes us as an interesting spin on the “all Cretans are liars” paradox -- even Democratic political commentators continue to argue that responsibility for a Trump presidency should not be laid at the media’s feet.
After the last week’s election, our initial reaction was that there was nothing to be said. Others, rightly, have compared the political moment to the end of the Roman Republic, the Spanish Inquisition, the era of HUAC, etc. For us, what immediately follows is the fact that among the first to be persecuted were certain individuals (Ovid, Galileo, Dalton Trumbo) who, while not explicitly political in their writings, were definitely working at cross-purposes with the new tyranny’s social agenda.
Initiatives to jettison the National Parks, to abandon strategies addressing climate change, and attempts to reverse a woman’s right to legal reproductive choice -- all these have already begun. And so it falls to the “cultural elite” (the universities, private foundations, arts organizations) to counter the drift to “populism.” We scare quote both these abstractions, because we hold received ideas about their nature in bitter disdain. Excellence does not acknowledge ethnicity or social class and the majority does not always choose in its own best interests.
In our opinion, the losing side’s first task is to defend the humanities. We don’t call upon our readers to attend to this essential responsibility as a form of interim hopefulness. History, in this case, provides a reliable guide to the survival of earth’s inhabitants. The outcome of the election rested on the failure of American education. If so moved, the artistic and academic community should certainly join the protests now expressing themselves across the country. But we must remember that our most powerful medium of counterattack will always be the arts and sciences themselves.
On the eve of the national election, we have a few thoughts to share about the federal government. At the National Gallery in Washington one recent weekday morning, among nearly empty galleries, we had a brief conversation with one of the young guards. He’d previously served in the Armed Forces, worked for the NSA for a few years, and was now sharing with us his delight at his current occupation. We agreed with him about the incredible permanent collection and we joined him in his enthusiasm for the new installations in the East Wing’s towers. Afterward, walking through room after room of masterpieces, all we kept thinking about was how happy we were about this use of our nation’s shared resources. We love how the entrance-free experience contradicts one of contemporary America’s most persistant falsehoods — the Trumpian premise that what doesn't “make money” must not be valuable.
In what was once a movie revival house oft-visited by us, we recently heard Kristian Bezuidenhout play the fortepiano at Carnegie Hall’s subterranean Zankel auditorium. The program was mostly Beethoven and concluded in a rendering of the composer’s Pathétique. Yet despite the music’s familiarity, the piece was not as it is usually heard on a concert-hall Steinway. After the intermission, following two early rondos and the Piano Sonata No. 7, the pianist thoughfully described the earlier keyboard instrument’s distinct qualities. Bezuidenhout’s commentary and performance had much in common; both were elegant, sincere and completely convincing.
Too many awards are now given to those who’ve already won numerous (we might even say, excessive) accolades. We’re not just thinking about this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, but also recent years’ MacArthur “Genius” Grants. We had the idea that such generous prize purses were originally intended for those working outside the usual cultural bureaucracies and academic contexts. Instead, the MacArthur Foundation evidently works in tandem with these institutions so that a majority of the recipients are already quite famous, even outside their respective specializations. Certainly those well-known to the critical community are in some sense “pre-approved,“ but we miss the daring of previous decades.
We also think there is some confusion about fame and populism among those currently serving on boards and award committees. The MacArthur website is ludicrously concerned with “Media,” with photos of its fellows available for download, multiple opportunities for interviews given, as well as “cheat sheets” on the fellows’ work for nonliterate reporters. We’ve also heard about recommendations (and quasi-regulations) provided to winners themselves as to how to interact with the press. We find all this intensely depressing, as in the past the whole idea of “genius” — or so we once thought — was that it didn’t have to explain or defend itself.
We weren’t happy back in 2000 when the Library of America’s two-volume American Poetry: The Twentieth Century included song lyrics. It’s not that we believe that the works of Americans such as Cole Porter and W.C. Handy are not great art. We also hope it’s not, as an unconscious form of snobbery, that we consider popular forms as less worthy than “high culture.” But we continue to make a distinction (here keeping the Library of America’s complete list in mind) between journalism and the literary essay, even while we acknowledge the line between the two is often a fine one. A similar distinction holds for poem and song; while a shared vocal impulse forms an essential element of both, this doesn’t mean they’re the same thing.
As staunch book people, we consider the category of literature to be comprised of verbal works whose primary medium of expression is the page. Of course there’s a long tradition of lyric that first made itself known through performance (the vers of the troubadours, as but one example), but those works have now been incorporated into the literary canon wholly independent of their musical components. And so it’s a belief about the fundamental “book nature” of literature that underwrites our gripe about this year’s Nobel Prize given to Bob Dylan. The diminution of the published word in the public’s consciousness -- in our view, the diminishment and devaluation of the literary life -- is no longer simply underway. It’s now been given the Swedish Academy’s formal stamp of approval.
If “sexual vulgarity” can be praised (as we read in an online review of a recent collection) as a “necessary poetic category,” then perhaps Donald Trump’s current mode of political expression is more rhetorically valid than we realized. From the perspective of a recent visit to still-Fascism-recalling Europe, the man looks like another familiar tyrannical buffoon (Mussolini, Franco, Hitler), ludicrous yet nervous-making. We know that enemy, or so we smugly thought. Reading literary discourse such as quoted above on our return to the States, however, has made us even less confident as to the possibilities for reasonable political discussion. What gets the most attention is what wins. In national politics as in literary criticism, there are times when it does appear that our country has completely lost its footing.
It was initially nervy for the Spanish Rosalía de Castro to write in her native Galician in the mid-nineteenth century, but her choice acquired posthumous boldness under the anti-regionalism of Franco. The much beloved poet’s work remains imbued with a quality best captured by the Portuguese word saudade, a distinct form of nostalgia for a loss that has become replaced by the presence of newly powerful affection. The lover, paradoxically, becomes grateful for the experience of mournful longing. Visiting the abandoned Romanesque churches in the countryside surrounding her Santiago birthplace this fall, we found ourselves under Rosalía’s spell: The bells are forever /muted. With such regret /breezes informed heaven/of their absence!
What we most appreciated in “Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Permanent Collection” was its acknowledgement of real artistic “community,” a nonvirtual system that perhaps only becomes truly evident with the perspective of decades. The first two rooms struck us as especially masterful examples of museum curation. According to the show’s description, “some of these groupings concentrate on focused periods of time, while others span the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to forge links between the past and the present.” The curators go on to make the point that “this sense of connection is one of portraiture’s most important aims, whether memorializing famous individuals long gone or calling to mind loved ones near at hand.”
We found ourselves especially moved by the context of the new building, a literal and figurative structure that gestured backward to the institution’s creation by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The opening wall formed a collage of photographs and drawings representing vocationally and personally related figures of early modernism. Drawn from the visual arts, music and dance, the set implied a still-little-known narrative of personal relations and forms of artistic support. A Walker Evans photograph of Lincoln Kirstein hangs next to a Paul Cadmus drawing set below a photograph of Ezra Pound’s Paris colleague, the dancer Michio Ito; across the room, the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby’s friend James Schuyler is painted by Fairfield Porter -- just the recorded dialogue between those eight figures would make a thick tome! This and much more is all facilitated by the presence of sculptor Gertrude herself. There she is in person, painted by Robert Henri as the consummate Greenwich Village saloniste she would become, shockingly moderne for 1916, reclining in silk pajamas among her talented colleagues. It seems to us that these two spaces of the meat-packing district museum, for the run of the show at least, have turned themselves into Gertrude’s immortal boudoir.
Among the pages we regularly visit (online and off), the personal essay which is not a promotional vehicle for the author’s forthcoming book is becoming an endangered species. We recognize that every writer has at least two jobs these days -- author and publicity agent. To some extent this may have always been the case, but the additional requirements of an electronic “platform” have contributed an additional set of writerly burdens. In fact, the absence of our newsletter for the last year was a result of our staff’s need to focus on writing itself -- that is, producing actual matter for forthcoming titles. Next spring a companion volume to Nine Over Sixes will be appearing just in time for a summer launch. At this point in the book’s gestation we should be thinking about who might receive first copies (perhaps even a set of the two linked volumes?); who might review the collections; where we might arrange a series of readings or interviews about the very interesting form and content of these groundbreaking poems. At the minimum our poet should be pitching and placing a personal “think piece” (ideally with attractive author photo) tangentially related to the book’s subject matter. It’s not that we can’t or won’t do these things, but we feel it’s a kind of white flag, a surrender to the cult of personality. What is being promoted is not the book but the person. The stand-alone work of literature seems to be an increasingly rare bird.
As a rule we despise it when the word “poetic” is used in marketing to describe something (sports, fashion, design) that is decidedly unlyrical. But we couldn’t possibly object to the artist Varujan Boghosian being identified as a “Visual Poet,” the title of the Fine Arts Work Center’s annual auction and tribute this past August. In the tiny rooms of FAWC’s Hudson D. Walker Gallery, the Boghosian exhibition formed a sublimely succinct presentation of the artist’s verbal eye. On these walls were hung chosen examples of Bogohosian’s mixed media responses to (and active interpretations of ) beloved poetry; some works even incorporated actual lines into their construction, Kunitz, Roethke, Frost, Joyce, Hopkins, Dickinson -- all were sincerely “appropriated.” We paraphrase from the excellent description in the auction catalogue describing the artist’s task as creating “new syntheses and conditions of meaning from reclaimed forms.” Exactly. This observation, we would add, is also not a bad description of the project of contemporary poetry’s more authentic practitioners.
Besides providing nature’s unique meeting of sand and sea (bay and ocean both), summer on the Outer Cape offers comparably amazing cultural encounters. Within the course of a week in August we enjoyed the Borromeo Quartet’s performance of Schubert and Shostakovich as part of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival; a few days later at the Payomet tent there was the Cuban jazz pianist Harold López-Nussa; and in between there was the the Harbor Theater’s original faux-Chekov play The Kritik, which was an entertaining and thoughtful take on the impossible task of “constructive” drama criticism. And while no one show in either Wellfleet or Provincetown made very much of a case for any given concept or artist, the two new GAA galleries in both towns have introduced some freshly unexpected forms of excellence to the over-familiar local arts scene.
A year has come and gone since our last posting here at the newsletter. As anyone who has followed these ruminations on the arts would expect, the loss of poets Christopher Middleton and Yves Bonnefoy in the interim was especially strongly felt at LongNookBooks. While both were the subjects of international tributes, the American literary world hardly made note of their passing. In our opinion this lapse is indicative of a failure of our nation’s literary “community,” a somewhat hazy entity which seems to function solely as a system of personal networking. The LitHub site, put together by a consortium of commercial publishers, has made gestures toward a larger conception but is often highjacked by individual contributors’ inevitable self-congratulation and self-promotion. It’s hard for us here not to give in and do the same, particularly given what we’ve felt to be our own small but distinctive mark on the world of arts and letters.
The forthcoming Paris Review anthology, The Unprofessionals, was just announced with a public relations pitch that sounds pretty good at first but quickly reveals itself to be (as is most PR) fantastically false: “At a moment when it’s easy to see art as another product—and when writers, especially, are encouraged to think of themselves as professionals—the stories, poems, and essays in this collection have no truck with self-promotion. They turn inward. They’re not afraid to stare, to dissent, or even to offend. They answer only to themselves.” Though it’s hard to know exactly what work will be included in the anthology (the table of contents is being kept under wraps), the few author names released include some of the most professional poets we can think of -- one, as a matter of fact, a former poetry editor of the Paris Review itself. Another less visible yet highly connected poet (who once worked in the editorial department of Farrar, Straus & Giroux) has already announced his inclusion on his self-named webpage, a site chockful of blurbs, prize announcements and links to interviews. If this kind of thing is typical of “unprofessional” writers, we cringe imagining what exactly (blackmail? poison?) the anthology editors would consider truly careerist behavior.
The origin of “The Voice of Sulpicia and Others” recital last Thursday at the Wellfleet Public Library was Mary Maxwell’s dissatisfaction with the reception of her renderings of the Roman poet Sulpicia (published as “After Sulpicia” in An Imaginary Hellas, LongNookBooks, 2012). Over the course of the last twenty years, when her translations were first published, the five elegiacs of the only female Latin poet whose work is extant has been increasingly acknowledged among classicists. Yet Sulpicia’s existence has been barely noted by scholars of “Women’s Writing,” let alone by the “community” of contemporary female poets. Setting these lyrics to music (by composer Jessica Krash) in the form of an art-song cycle was a collaborative attempt to have this important woman’s voice literally heard once again.
Between Krash’s solo piano works and the composer’s musical settings of the medieval Cantigas d’Amigo, Maxwell read from her translations of the female troubadour, Beatrice of Die. As Maxwell has noted in a number of talks and presentations, there do remain a few scholars who continue to insist that the Sulpicia poems could not actually have been written by an aristocratic Roman; such experts argue that not only was such sexual frankness not allowed in Augustan society, Sulpicia’s sensibility is not consistent with “typical” female literary expression. But as Maxwell asks, then how and why did the twelfth-century Beatrice manage to “get away” with her similarly racy lyrics, works universally accepted as among the finest examples of Occitan song? The possibility of a continuous line of female lyric as a forgotten part of the European poetic tradition (with major works such as Sappho’s lost or suppressed) continues to haunt the literary imagination. It is not surprising to us that the Wellfleet audience was so deeply moved by soprano Emily Noel’s emotional performance of “Sulpicia’s Songs,” with its final echoing plea, “Let it be known!”
Anthony Rudolf describes Christopher Middleton as “the most significant British poet to be found on that important frontier between the mainstream and the experimental.” Though the most serious readers of poetry in English speak of him with awe, Middleton’s is hardly a household name in poetry’s current domicile. And it’s not like his work is hard to find. Poems in a recent PN Review include a version of Baudelaire’s “Le Flacon.” Describing the sense of a powerful perfume, Middleton transmutes the French lines into “it twists, it turns in the commotions / of air, with both hands thrusting a dizzied / and defeated soul to the very lip / of an abyss the human atmospheres obscure...”
Middleton is not only a superb poet and translator (we’ve praised him more than a few times here in the LNB newsletter), but he’s also a requisite essayist. If from the Distance: Two Essays (published by Rudolf’s Menard Press in 2007) has an introduction by the insightful Alan Wall. As Wall writes, “If the reality of the phenomenon he is observing is one of fragmentation, then Middleton leaves it thus, respecting its condition, rather than sentimentalizing the broken reality into a spurious whole.”
This imperfect sense, true to the experience of reading a foreign language as well as to certain poetic encounters, seems to us to permeate Middleton’s oeuvre like the dusky scent of iris. The second essay in the book, for example, is less a translation commentary than a tentative walk-through a difficult late lyric of Hölderlin. It remains up to the reader to go back to the German and revisit it. Middleton’s poems similarly return us to life's pained beauty, as though it were a beautifully printed vellum page, or better yet, a garden whose plantings need to be seen over and over again in order to be understood and appreciated.
We missed the Provincetown Arts party this year. On our return from Italy, however, we were delighted to see in the current issue that The Longnook Overlook was prominently featured in the magazine’s “Buzz” column. Alongside a cover photo of the “niftily designed paper utopia,” the Overlook was described as a volume that “dances nimbly on tiny barroom tabletops and across acres of ballroom floors, blending contemporary culture and sophisticated Old World vitality in one splendidly readable package.” Many thanks to the Provincetown Arts editors for this warm welcome home!
Interaction with works of art is not encouraged at Milan's Fondazione Prada. What is displayed is kept at a distance, both literally and figuratively. What the place is most like, unsurprisingly, is a very expensive conceptual boutique where prices are not shown. “If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be here,” seems to be the message. “Serial Classic,” a temporary exhibit of Roman copies of Greek sculpture for example, had various statues placed atop elaborate plexiglass and wood structures. The effect was decidedly commodity fetishistic with sexual meanings such figures don’t usually express.
But throughout the institution all kinds of things are set at a discomfiting angle. The structures themselves are confusing, with galleries whose entries are known only, like a cultish secret, to the guards; many other doors remain locked or are hard to open. The genderless watchers assigned to each room are themselves appareled in top-buttoned gray and black, lending a distinctly penitentiary quality to the converted factory. The very creepiest elements of the permanent collection (a Man Ray Venus torso wrapped with cord, a Damien Hurst aquarium, a Louise Bourgeois installation, even a small Eva Hesse) actually seem to pale in comparison with their disturbing contexts (an abandoned cistern, a “haunted” tower, a still-forming grotto).
The interiors are designed with weird combinations of materials, as though an overcoat were made of both tire rubber and mink. Parts of the industrial building have been given extravagantly luxurious finishes: One tower has been covered in gold leaf; a set of steps has what look like platinum railings; while dried-blood-colored carpet of ebony-walled movie theater (laid beneath velvet recliners) is so thick that it’s effort to walk across. (The highly appropriate film being shown was Roman Polanski’a My Inspirations.) Other surfaces are chicly left raw. Painted grills function as bathroom doors; a steel trough functions as a bathroom sink.
The resulting experience is not merely dreamlike, but slightly nightmarish. The Bar Luce (designed by film director Wes Anderson) should have been charming with its pink and green furnishings, pinball machine and jukebox. Consistent with the sensibility of its creator, it’s the perfect setting for perpetually spoiled adults. And we really did enjoy ourselves; the cocktails were excellent! But just as when as we queasily departed from a Saturday afternoon double feature of horror (say, The Fearless Vampire Killers and Rosemary’s Baby), we found ourselves heading back to the city center with an aesthetic version of those teenage sugar headaches.
Some find the ringing of village church bells maddening; others take comfort in their regular tolling. Either way, their pitched marking of the hours neatly divides each night and day. One analogous function of metered poetry is to remind readers of time’s passing. An intensely experienced poem reaffirms not only the importance of “living in the moment” but also suggests a kind of peripheral awareness of the measured nature of mortal days. Something of churchbells' alternate effects of irritation and affirmation, or so certain readers have told us, can be found in the rhythmic reminders dividing the lines of Nine Over Sixes.
Last week we visited Expo Milano 2015, whose stated motto is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” As far as its architectural offerings, we especially admired the opening “Pavillion Zero,” with its nod to Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, though there were many, many astonishing structures throughout the exposition. Some of these fantastically designed buildings showcased specific countries (from the incredible Palazzo Italia to the festive food shacks presented by Holland); some represented institutions or even corporations; a handful of others presented transnational “subject clusters” such as “Cocoa and Chocolate.”
The foodie theme of this contemporary “world's fair” was underwritten by the premise that though cuisine is a projection of culture, it has a uniquely intimate relation to nature. Therefore many exhibits at Expo Milano placed great emphasis on issues of sustainability and indigenous methods of agriculture. But because so many of these visual arguments used breathtakingly high-tech methods of exposition, there seemed to us to be an inherent conflict between such exhibits’ stated goals and their means of thematic expression. Despite its cutting-edge and energy-saving methodologies, the Expo obviously came about in large part as result of corporate money, industrial methods and commercial enterprise. And so, though we did very much enjoy our afternoon (Czech beer, Swiss chocolate, Israeli frozen yogurt), we couldn’t quell our doubts about such large-scale environmentalist propaganda -- whose "green" premise we nevertheless wholeheartedly embrace. In the end, to be perfectly honest, the whole thing struck us as an enormous (albeit informative) food court.
One cultural attribute that has come into focus more sharply on our European travels is the American tendency to judge poets by their personal behaviors and political opinions rather than by the excellence of the work itself. In some sense this form of judgement is a version of “political correctness,” though as a national phenomenon it long preceded the catch phrase that came about as a critique of the university. We are especially dubious about “social service” poetry — texts whose primary function is to express the perspective of returning soldier, the sexually abused, the imprisoned and the disenfranchised. It is our opinion that art should not necessarily be obligated to draw attention to, let alone compensate for, the failures of government programs and legislative measures. What is called for in these instances is political activism.
Elsewhere in the world there is less requirement that a poet be a source of political wisdom or a practitioner of ethical behavior. Papers presented at this summer’s Ezra Pound conference at Brunnenburg, for example, attempted to make the argument that the poet was fundamentally “green.” But as Charles Altieri rightly pointed out in his talk, there is an essential contradiction between the impulses of High Modernism and contemporary environmentalism. Certainly that difficult hero of Pound’s Cantos, Sigismondo Malatesta, embodies a kind of willfulness which, to put it mildly, valorized the human over the natural. He was unscrupulous and murderous, but this "furtherer of humanism" (as Jakob Burckhardt viewed him) did build the Tempio Malatestiano Right or Wrong? In a phrase we hate in other contexts, we can only observe, “It is what it is.” But the truth remains that “good” or “nice” people don’t necessarily write poetry worth reading, while certain problematic individuals have been among the indisputable masters of the art.
We’ve been reading Ezra Pound’s translation of Enrico Pea’s Moscardino, published in 2005 by Archipelago Books. As has been noted, it is a less than perfect volume (for example, the narrator’s nickname is translated by Pound as “Buck” with no explanation of it as a rendering of the book’s Italian title), but it is nevertheless a fascinating suggestion of what Pound might have written had he attempted narrative prose. The original book’s material has been described by Massimo Bacigalupo as a “wild, primal world,” which is as much a description of a particular Tuscan context as a more universal psychic locale. But as evidence of his misunderstanding of certain subtleties of nonliterary Italian, the 1941 date of this attempt at American linguistic equivalency suggests to us a more ominous example of Pound’s tendency to interpretive error. His “misreading” of Italian politics, of course, would have considerably greater consequence than his lifelong tendency to textual willfulness.
Discussion of who should appear on stamps and currency is usually of little interest to us. But as we travel through Italy, seeing how poets, painters and sculptors are honored and remembered, we believe Americans need to be reminded of art’s resistance to the vicissitudes of time. In centuries to come, what American name will remain familiar to all? One prediction: Walt Whitman. For while we deeply admire Melville, Dickinson and O’Hara (or Whistler, or Rothko, or Calder), we are most certain that it will be Whitman’s presence that is least likely to fade. Not only do we hear him in much contemporary European poetry, we see him in one of America’s most admirable exports, a valuation of the individual self (experienced through the lens of sensual and sexual identity) that, of necessity, precedes recognition of shared humanity. Sometimes it takes distance — both linguistic and geographic— to see such cultural realities clearly. With all respect to Ulysses S. Grant, let's replace him with Whitman on the fifty-dollar bill.
We had the great privilege to be taken down to the vaults of Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library a few months ago. Though our visit took place back in the deep snowdrifts of winter, we haven’t forgotten what a heated thrill it was to see a First Folio up close, out from behind glass. We looked at a Second Folio belonging to a Spanish House of the Jesuits, with offensively lascivious lines blacked out. We viewed a Quarto of Romeo and Juliet printed without the author’s name, as at the time of its production the play was far more famous than Shakespeare himself. We held the notated prompt book from a production of Hamlet starring John Barrymore. But perhaps the most moving object was the tiny pocket volume of Shakespeare’s poems, signed by its owner Walt Whitman. That we were able to hold this in our own hands, actually touching the great poet’s signature, was truly one of the most extraordinary sensations of our lives.
We unexpectedly found ourselves last month at Harvard’s Memorial Hall. Technology-based art installations have a tendency to leave us cold, but not in the case of artist Brian Knep’s “Deep Wounds.” Created as a consideration of “the universal and complex challenges of conflict transgression and reconciliation,”the interactive experience brilliantly integrated the intellectual and the emotional, bringing the American Civil War back to contemporary consciousness. The smooth surface of historical knowledge was torn asunder by the reality of individual loss, as each living footstep across the stone floor opened onto a dead soldier’s name. We’re not sure exactly how Knep managed this feat of movement-sensitive imaging, but with the opening and closing of one stylized grave after another, the pain of both Union and Confederate losses was movingly re-enacted and re-experienced.
In her reading at Chelsea’s Bowery Gallery last week, Mary Maxwell made a few observations about her sense of the sometimes agonistic relation between spoken and written poetry. It’s become a widely received idea that a “good” poem is one that plays well in a reading context, with laughs or appreciative nods from an audience indicating lyrical “success.” A number of contemporary writing teachers have even proposed such feedback as a test of poetic excellence. Given their tendency to write easy-listening verse, we certainly understand why many poets would propose such a standard; for them, immediate accessibility is all. But a poet’s audience may not be that of her contemporaries; it takes time for certain works to make their way (literary history certainly supports this alternate narrative, with Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein as two tellingly diverse examples). For one thing, some kinds of poems do need to be seen in print to be fully understood. Or what at first may seem difficult or inaccessible to the ear can become in time, paradoxically, a preferred style. Despite the poet’s concerns that her new work might be fundamentally “page poetry,” for her book’s publisher the enthusiastic reception given by the Bowery Gallery audience to the initially unfamiliar forms of Maxwell’s Nine Over Sixes was especially heartening.
We were very happy to see that one of the winners of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Grants was a new rendering of Gaston de Pawloski’s New Inventions and the Latest Innovations, to be published by Wakefield Press. It’s embarrassing that only recently did we become aware of the full extent of the Wakefield list. And it’s in nearby Cambridge to boot! It’s as though, unbeknownst to us, someone especially lively and literate had been living next door.
It also turns out “he” is often hilariously shocking in his observations. The design of the “Handbooks” series, elegantly pocket-sized volumes with place-marking gatefolds, is charming. But it’s their ribald and continental content that merits attention here; in short, these are some of the funniest books we’ve ever encountered. We name a few favorites: Charles Fourier’s The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy; Balzac’s Treatise on Elegant Living and his The Physiology of the Employee; Pierre Mac Orlan’s A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer.
The best portions of Pierre Louys’ The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners for Use in Educational Establishments are too lewd to quote. His Pybac, as the back cover accurately describes it, is “possibly the filthiest collection of poetry ever published.” Each poem of the series, composed in Alexandrines, begin with the phrase, “I do not like to see...” What follows are rhymed descriptions of sexual perversion we think even Sade couldn’t have imagined.
We suspect we are not the only ones to find this comic oddity amusingly prescient of Georges Perec's I Rememeber; Wakefield has also brought in their “Imagining Science” series the great Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. This melancholic inventory of three days on the Place Saint Sulpice has been masterfully translated by Marc Lowenthal. The book succeeds at what much conceptual poetry is currently failing to achieve, the sublime banality of experience captured through catalogue.
Other Wakefield titles deserving the highest level of critical attention include Paul Scheerbaart’s The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention; René Daumal’s Pataphysical Essays; and Jean Ferry’s The Conductor and Other Tales. It’s incredible to us that this last book (part of “The Library of Cruelty” series, published in 2013) appeared with so little fanfare. Film buffs (Ferry wrote screenplays for Bunuel, Malle, Clouzot) or enthusiasts of Raymond Roussel (about whom Ferry wrote three books as well as the brief “Raymond Roussel in Heaven” included in the collection) should have certainly paid notice. We deeply regret that are not in a position to write proper reviews; all we can do is thank Wakefield for making these fantastic volumes available to English readers.
While there’s something deeply disturbing about forced coherence (cultural theory based on strict applications of historical materialism, as one example), we find the current taste for the half-baked comparably unsettling. In too many collections of “essays,” analysis has been replaced by autobiography and recollections of personal trauma. We’re not sure the “meaning” achieved at the end of such volumes extends beyond the understanding of their creators; to be crude, it feels highly onanistic. Collage has its uses, and in creative (as opposed to critical) endeavors, there’s even a place for “randomization.” But is it really fair to throw unfinished efforts (sometimes literally!) into a box and let the reader try to figure it out? There’s great beauty in the idea of the archive, we admit. That sections from a journal, for example, can be assembled with interesting effect is inarguable. But the present rage for the memoir presented in fragments has become brutalizing. After considerable time and effort slogging through such volumes, it's become evident to us that -- like a jigsaw puzzle picked up at a thrift shop -- several crucial pieces have gone missing.
John Ashbery, who mentioned that he was reading the Selected Poems in a recent interview, is only one among a group of distinguished advocates for the British poet Nicholas Moore. We haven’t made our way all the way through that remarkably hefty volume, though we note with admiration the excellent introduction by Mark Ford. To be frank, we really first came to know Moore as the author of Spleen, first published by Anthony Rudolf’s Menard Press.
It is one of our most favorite books. Moore’s introduction to his translations of Baudelaire’s “Je suis comme le rois...” is full of irascible acuity; it confirms one of our private convictions that irritation may, in fact, be the true mother of creativity. (For example: “The more violent the contradictions of belief in the world the more necessary, I believe, is an astringent wit, and a bite at things that need biting.”) Annoyed by the premise of The Sunday Times 1968 translation competition (judged by George Steiner), Moore proceeded to provide thirty-one versions of the target text, all submitted under different names and addresses hilariously provided at each lyrics’ close.
But the translations’ introduction is so full of truth and good sense on the paradoxical relation between translation and poetry, we are compelled to quote further: “A poem is the result of translating any subject matter, seen or heard or read or felt, smelled or tasted, imagined or perceived, into poetic terms; and not only into poetic terms, but into the particular terms of the poet who writes it.” Or this: “Language, whether or not it is a built-in physical grammar with which man is endowed by his inheritance, is virtuous precisely because it can’t 'communicate'; it can only indicate; the communications people have with it are ipso facto imperfect, and precisely because of this lend their lives interest and value they would not otherwise have. It is precisely the fact that each man within the limits of his own society and culture speaks his own language that makes him human.”
It would be quite easy to dismiss the work of Jean-Michel Othoniel as merely beautiful. His “Secret Flower Sculptures” exhibit this winter at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, delightful helixes of blown glass and metal, for example, had something of the quality of oversized jewelry. And though you might not know it at first, given how immediately appealing his sculptures are, Othoniel is a very bookish and somewhat esoteric artist. We are taken by his articulate and thoughtful book, L’Herbier Merveilleux, an English translation of which we found in the Gardner gift shop. It is, among other things, a kind of botanical curriculum vitae: My obsession with the hidden meanings of flowers, and with their symbolism, is not only a key to reading old paintings, it is also a way of looking at the world -- and an expression of my desire to see the marvels that surround us. Also on display at the Gardner were water-color sketches for his “Water Theater Grove,” the first permanent contemporary art exhibit at Versailles. These fountain sculptures, opening to the public just this week, were inspired by yet another book discovered by Othoniel at the Boston Public Library, Raoul-Auger Feuillet’s The Art of Describing Dance. We much look forward to seeing Othoniel's new “water ballets,” as well as revisiting his Kiosque des Noctambules on the Place Colette, the next time we’re in Paris.
When we find a book truly dreadful, our response is usually the result of great disappointment. Such is certainly the case with Claudia Keelan’s book of translations, Truth of My Songs: Poems of the Trobairitz. It’s not only jarring but occasionally nauseating how the sensibility of the originals (on the left-hand pages) bears no relation to what Keelan provides on the right; she appears to be counting on the fact that few of her readers will know any Occitan. In principle we understand her attempt to make these lyrics contemporary, and the working premise that these were the “pop songs” of their day isn’t terrible.
But there’s no justification for attributing J Lo song-stylings to the elegant and skilled Beatrice de Die: “Baby, your value / is seen by all who see / and so I’m asking please, / stay and take care of me.” Or to put in the mouth of Garsenda de Forcalquier, and then her lover Gui de Cavaillon, lines such as: “You so blubber in my lover junk, / so don’t go slow to my nose worth. / Then you’ll blubber in the grassy cover, / because I’m phew with snotty hurt... Your upper town-town skanks my stutter, / your stanky rank-rank burns my butter,” etc.
We appreciate the enthusiasm of Keelan’s introduction, but she is misinformed when she writes that the women troubadours were “the first sustained, cultural instance of women’s writing.” Though not much of their work is extant, the archaic and classical Greek tradition included not only Sappho but also Corinna, reputed teacher of Pindar. There are also indications that the trobairitz were familiar with Latin lyricists, some of whom wrote in the voices of women; the works of the Roman Sulpicia, however, would have been attributed to Tibullus. For some reason Keelan believes all the women troubadours were “teenagers” (as was, in fact, Sulpicia), this even though they were almost all married women.
While we admit the fascinating culture of twelfth-century Southwest France is quite complex, Keelan makes an especial hash of it (re: her summary of the Cathar heresy). We’re even almost OK with her over-politicized interpretations and invocations of Ghazala Javed and Pussy Riot. “As the Republican party continually strives to regain control of women’s bodies in the US,” she writes, “... the trobairitz’s powerfully defiant poems remind us that the his in history has been questioned for centuries.” Again, OK, but while their aristocratic performed songs are a lot of things, it’s just not possible to characterize them as “proletarian critique.” They are the opposite of coarse. In the end, it is our opinion that Keelan most betrays the the lyrics of the trobairitz by making them so ugly. What a lost opportunity.
At LongNookBooks we like to think of ourselves as good readers. Difficulty doesn’t put us off. As most literary enthusiasts of our generation we read the first wave of continental theory the way many contemporaries tried psychedelics -- with a kind of reckless openness to new experience. But we’re at a loss to understand most of what we read on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blogs these days. Verbal muck is the best way we can describe it, even when we (think) we agree with the writer’s opinion. Maybe “Politics and the English Language” is viewed as a retrograde text these days, but the implications of such lack of clarity for poetry (if not also politics) deeply troubles us. Astonishingly clumsy and misguided formulations of “featured bloggers” regularly drop a theorist’s name (Arendt, Barthes, Bataille, Benjamin... all the way to Zumthor) as legitimization, though rarely with a specific quotation or reference. We assert with some certainty that such thinkers would be aghast at the misapplication of their ideas. And then there are the reviews and interviews of contemporary poets (endless, endless) who speak and write with a incomprehensibility once associated with the sensations of a very bad trip. Anyway, we post these observations as a warning to those contemplating a crossing of Harriet’s desert quicksand...
We were greatly amused by Michael Dirda’s “Freelance” piece in the April 10the TLS. We, too, were curious about the bestselling title, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. For one thing, it’s a pretty little book; it goes without saying that its design was clutter-free and the layout of its chapters highly organized. Important points are conveniently set in boldface type. And, after a quick perusal of Kobe’s thesis, we were indeed inspired to toss out the socks that no longer “sparked joy.” But like Dirda, we hit a wall when it came to the matter of books. For one thing, we are living proof that “sometime” does not mean “never.” It is true that we are unlikely to re-read our entire collection of poetry volumes; and to be perfectly honest, some of them (over-promising first-books, for example) rather do give us a feeling of dread; but we glance at the majority of others for purposes of a melancholy pang or joyous pleasure nearly every day. We couldn’t possibly give up our section of cultural history; Wikipedia is no replacement for that. Art books are art; not having those would be like living in a house without windows. And while there’s a lot of great literature we have yet to read (most of Tolstoy, for example), our attitude is that we’re not dead yet. The truth is that the only shelf we find it easy to empty is, in fact, the one packed with self-help books like this one by Marie Kondo.
For us the “take-away” from the British television seriesWolf Hall is “control your narrative.” For those whose Tudor history was first drawn from A Man for All Seasons and Anne of a Thousand Days, the TV characterizations of the two Thomases, Moore and Cromwell, came at first as a bit of a shock. But then we were deeply amused and fascinated at how the roles of scoundrel and saint can be so effectively reversed. Through rhetoric and that lawyerly slight-of-hand known as plausibility, history becomes a fresh drama; and everyone knows entertaining fiction trumps dull fact anytime. Henry the Eighth as an athletic dolt in need of Viagra -- it’s completely credible in this context. And then there’s the face and demeanor of Mark Rylance, whose poker-faced sad-dog eyes are truly hypnotic. We suspect Wolf Hall’s dramatic premise wouldn’t hold up once we got to Wife #3 and beyond, but as to what can happen to anyone’s life in the hands of an imaginative biographer, it makes for quite a cautionary tale.
The snows are almost completely melted here on the Outer Cape, revealing once again the gray-green geography of the National Seashore. We think of Dryden’s translation of the Georgics, where Virgil’s Latin lines become, “And happy too is he, who decks the Bow’rs / of Sylvans, and adores the Rural Pow’rs.” Virgil’s observation also serves as the epigraph for Nine Over Sixes, though his words (fortunatus et ille deos qui novit agrestis) are translated somewhat more literally by Mary Maxwell: “A lucky poet is one who’s had acquaintance with the country gods.” Maxwell will be reading from her new book at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge on April 17 at 7pm.
At LongNookBooks we’ve always been advocates of the "composed" book, where a page’s layout and its linguistic content are inseparable elements. Our latest publication, Mary Maxwell’s Nine Over Sixes, began as such a concept. The poetry collection’s visual manifestations do not merely complement the book’s verbal expression; textual design and textual denotation are fully integrated as part of the volume’s reading experience. We would even go so far as to argue that the book’s paper and ink form an essential part of its expression.
On the eve of its official publication date, we try to imagine pitching such a manuscript to a conventional publisher, arguing for the “meaning” of the cover’s pearlescent cover stock and pewter foil engraving. Even if we managed to talk the business staff into it, we suspect that the logistics of such a venture would not be likely to go smoothly. The book’s eccentric use of differently shaded typeface to express certain rhythmic effects, for one thing, would likely end up as a traditional production editor’s nightmare. And though we acknowledge that, given its self-contained pages, Nine Over Sixes might make an very interesting e-book, a digital format would completely undermine the project’s conceptual impetus. We are extremely grateful to be able to be in a position to produce such a starkly beautiful and distinctly non-virtual “product.”
We’re crazy about VistaVision (the film process that had its heyday in the nineteen-fifties), though it’s a somewhat tangled love affair. We find ourselves completely enamored by the intensity of the colored image in films such as White Christmas, To Catch a Thief and The Trouble With Harry. We know perfectly well that The Court Jester, Funny Face and the Doris Day The Man Who Knew Too Much are not great films, but we can’t stop ourselves from watching these, if only for their hallucinatory effects. The almost abstract setups in The Gunfight at OK Corral, for example, with Kirk Douglas surprisingly outperforming Burt Lancaster, have the raw power of a painting by De Chirico. There are some indisputable masterpieces among the VistaVision catalogue, of course. There’s North by Northwest and its amazing tableau of textures (the panels of the Oak Bar, Cary Grant’s suit fabric, the stone base of the modernist getaway of the evil James Mason, to name just three). And then there’s The Searchers, which has the force of a communal dream, its heart- and eye-wounding presentation rawly dramatizing our nation’s racial palette.
Maybe it’s because we wandered into Gagosian’s Chelsea location somewhat by accident only a week after the show’s opening, but we were completely floored by the “In the Studio: Paintings” exhibit we happened upon that evening. Expecting to find more of the kinds of twentieth-century works we’d visited on the neighborhood’s surrounding snow-filled streets, we were stunned to encounter Chardin, Daumier, Eakins and Hogarth alongside Guston, Rivers, Rauschenberg and Dine. This wasn’t a iron-doored gallery anymore; this was a pop-up museum. We honestly don’t know how curator John Elderfield managed to pull this off; just the pair of Picasso “Atelier” (shown together for the first time in the U.S.) would have usually merited a blockbuster show with hefty admission fees and long lines. But there was even more jaw-dropping free stuff (Giacometti! Rivera! Matisse!) on loan in Gagosian’s themed space. Even the tone of the press-release description of this extraordinary event (it read: “The subject of the artist’s studio in works of art is a very large one with a long history”) had a quality of casual absurdity, of cummerbunds worn with high-tops. The experience was sort of like finding oneself sharing a discount store's communal dressing room with a group of elegant and famous patricians.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Metromaniacs provided an entertaining respite from late winter snow. David Ives’ translation and adaptation of Alexis Piron’s eighteenth-century farce La Métromanie was performed by the DC company at the level of a very good university production, with a standout comic turn by Amelia Pedlow as a dizzy poetry Innamorata. All things considered, the company managed pretty well with the couplets penned by the brainy Ives -- a writer better known for his Venus in Fur, among other original plays. (We did keep thinking to ourselves, however, “Where is Brian Bedford when you need him?”) But none of playwright’s distichs were truly elegant. In fact, the surfeit of clumsy rhymes became a self-conscious joke, one of several gags that grew a bit tired. Ives’ version of the farce (which was essentially about amateurish poetasters) ended up as a pointed reminder of the brilliance of Richard Wilbur’s translations of Molière. The production’s program handily explains to its audience that the “metromaniac is someone so obsessed with poetry they eschew all other pursuits”; it is evident that the prolific Ives has not so committed himself.
In his embrace of sonic variety, John Zorn is a model of artistic daring and generosity. Integrity is not a word often associated with the avant-garde these days, but it applies to Zorn’s vision. We like to think that his record label, Tzadik, has inspired some of our own enterprises. We listen to his recordings a lot, but we can’t keep up with his projects; we wonder if anyone really could. Some of the more recent CDs we’ve added to our collection (all them with Zorn hosting and/or collaborating alongside an incredible set of guest musicians) include In the Hall of Mirrors, The Dream Membrane, Myth and Mythopoeia; The Mysteries; Music and Its Double; and The Concealed. As these titles suggest, Zorn is into some deep stuff, and though much of it is way beyond the likes of us, we enjoy the regular sensation of pleasurable bafflement these discs provide. We have been particularly drawn to compositions that “riff” on the life and work of poets such as Blake and Rimbaud; and we particularly recommend his somewhat atypical On Leaves of Grass for long-drive listening. Here the poet’s “Body Electric” is transposed for urban vibraphone and Whitman’s musings are channelled into present-day background meditations, all-night wheels turning without pause like circular breathing.
We didn’t really think we’d like New York City Ballet’s reprise of Harlequinade. We knew we’d enjoy the all-Balanchine performance’s opening Square Dance with music by Corelli and Vivaldi. But the great choreographer’s revisiting of of Petipas’s Commedia dell-arte ballet with music by Drigo? Frankly, it sounded like a bit of a snore. But even though the first act’s setting-out narrative did sometimes remind us of why we’re not fans of most full-length ballets, the wholly “pointless” second act was fantastic, complete with a series of children’s parades supplied by students from the School of American Ballet. In both acts Tiler Peck as Colombine fulfilled every requirement we hold as necessary for a true “ballerina”: Her technical exactitude perfectly corresponded to the emotional sincerity of her character. Full of love for the ardent Harlequin (danced by the oft-airborne Joaquin de Luz), Peck/Colombine was first charmingly coy and then she was heartbreakingly tender. In the end, the happy union of the two lovers was not just deeply moving but completely enervating -- something very much like the experience of love itself.
There’s no question that the time frame required for a proper perspective on excellence in the arts makes it difficult for any individual practitioner to persevere. In the face of misunderstanding or silence, it takes a lot of backbone for any writer not to give in and produce work certain to provoke immediate interest and acclaim. Poems particularly require more than a year for a critical readership to make a solid judgment about their “quality” and “longevity.” As a result, poetry “best books of the year” are especially meaningless; and “best poetry of the decade” becomes a category only slightly more valid. The traditional cycle of annual prizes simply doesn’t work for volumes of poetry, which is why cautious judges lean toward Selected collections for such honors (and also why we have a surfeit of current Selected on the shelves of bookstores). The bestseller model of mainstream publishing just doesn’t work, as serious poetry (like literary fiction, we might add) needs to stay available on a backlist for twenty years or so. Maybe such works should actually grow more expensive with each year; like fine wine, literary consumers should “get in” early, knowing that carefully crafted art increases not only in its value but in the pleasure it will give to its owner.
Recent real-life events in Copenhagen seem to have been prophesied by our binge viewing of the ten-episode television series, Bron-Broen (The Bridge). (An American version of show, which we didn’t follow, was shown last year on FX.) A well-written police procedural about a joint Swedish-Danish police investigation into the doings of a “Truth-Terrorist,” the series’ first season follows the violently despicable doings of an individual who is apparently attempting to use his actions to draw attention to issues of social inequality, immigration and homelessness. It turns out that he’s just twisted, with a personal vendetta against one of the police officers involved. The show is about a lot of things (differences in the temperaments of Danes and Swedes, for example), but in the end, it makes a point we agree with: Whatever the political, religious or social motivations they present for their actions, terrorists are just very troubled individuals, nothing more than psychopaths and criminals with unjustifiable agendas.
An alternate title for Jed Perl’s Art in America: 1945-1970 could have been Stylistic Excellence in Mid-Century American Prose: A Reader. The Library of American volume is like a museum containing room after well-lit room of both familiar and unfamiliar treasures, a series of galleries displaying artworks of greatness and beauty whose existence as an impeccable collection was long presumed to be only a rumor. Some of these pieces (Edwin Denby’s, Susan Sontag’s, Hilton Kramer’s) are familiar to anyone fairly well-read in the period's art history, but other newly discovered sentences literally took our breath away. Among Perl’s offerings, here’s Lincoln Kirstein on the sculptor Elie Nadelman’s “Femmes-Bébés”:
They are flowers from the folk-lore of cities; the vision of theatre, circus, opera, ballet, which boys who live in the provinces, and who have only seen pictures, or posters, know must be the living magic of white nights on the boulevards or on Broadway... If one is willing to follow through Alice’s deep door, this tiny world comes alive: the dancers dance; the naked bodies are transparently clothed in jeweled spangles, in feathers and womanliness; the curls seem faintly gilded coils and snakes; the tiny rose-bud faces gleam with pouting and provocation, suffused in their tidy, morbid glamor, and despite any definition, they remain mysterious relics of the practice of glamorous cults in our huge nocturnal towns whose meaning we sense but cannot say.
Or here's James Agee (coincidentally, a lifelong comrade of Kirstein’s) on the urban subjects in the photographs of Helen Levitt:
These are pastoral people, persisting like wild vines upon the intricacies of a great city, a phantasmagoria of all that is most contemporary in hardness of material and of appetite. In my opinion they embody with great beauty and fullness not only their own personal and historical selves but also, in fundamental terms, a natural history of the soul, which I presume also to be warm-blooded, and pastoral, and, as a rule, from its first conscious instant onward, as fantastically misplanted in the urgent metropolis of the body, as the body in the world.
Or here’s the great James Baldwin on his lover, the painter Beauford Delaney:
There was a window in Beauford’s house in Clamart before which we often sat -- late at night, early in the morning, at noon. This window looked out on a garden; or, rather, it would have looked out on a garden if it had not been for the leaves and branches of a large tree which pressed directly against the window. Everything one saw from this window, then, was filtered through these leaves. And this window was a kind of universe, moaning and wailing when it rained, light of the morning, and as blue as the blues when the last light of the sun departed.
Raphael Rubinstein’s The Miraculous was not what we expected. From what we’d read we’d somehow gotten the idea that the book was “about” artistic anonymity. And though it’s true that the fifty prose pieces describing various conceptual art projects did refrain from identifying their creators, it was actually easy enough to check the provided index for the names of the artists involved. What we instead took from the book was a visceral sense of how tentative the whole project of art actually is. One “chapter” described a performance artist who failed in his attempt to cross the Atlantic in a tiny boat with limited food and water, as he hoped to survive through an encounter with “the miraculous.” That’s how the experience of creating art can seem -- daring, optimistic, and most likely, pretty hopeless. Success, in any of its definitions, feels completely fortuitous.
We want to make clear we think it’s a terrific little book. That gap between our expectations for Rubinstein’s concept and our reading of it, however, has made us wonder -- first, about certain reviews of his book that take a more more cynical and "trickster" view of his enterprise than we do, and secondly, about how the artists themselves feel about the manner in which Rubinstein has framed some of their projects. Just as the author might find our brief summary of The Miraculous highly reductive, the subjects of his descriptions might well take exception to the way they’ve been reduced to a page or two. It’s unsettling to realize that when we write of our sincerest emotional connection to an artwork like The Miraculous, we ourselves may misunderstand, or even distort, the creator’s intentions. At such times, our sense of the potential for failed expression is almost overwhelming.
Something the pianist Ian Watson said last week (just before his performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #12 in A-flat major at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center) got us thinking about, of all things, cheese. As Watson attempted to describe the difference between the fortepiano he was playing and the “creamy” sounds of modern instruments, our minds wandered to the whole idea of auditory tastes and expectations. No one needs to make a case for the haunting, almost animal, vocality created by gut strings, especially when they’re played by the amazing cellist Guy Fishman, who joined Watson for two other Beethoven works. The fortepiano was, to be honest, a harder sell.
But Watson’s adjective set our thoughts wandering onto how the pleasures of the familiar play such a part in both cuisine and music. One reason we’ve come to enjoy much “historical performance” is that it forces of us to reconsider many of our assumptions about how classical music “should” sound. It’s not that any one approach is better or worse than the other; like varied and piquant offerings of the cheese course, they’re just different. Sometimes it feels to us that too many contemporary performers think louder and faster equals better; but honestly, a handful of performances of early music with “authentic” instruments have been borderline unpleasant. But as we’ve already said, though we couldn’t entirely get on board for Watson’s fortepiano, Fishman’s classical cello-playing (particularly his renderings of Beethoven’s Magic Flute variations) was as energetic and revelatory as any “new” music we’ve encountered.
The recent James Laughlin bio by Ian S. MacNiven, "Literchoor Is My Beat," reminds us of our own encounter with the publisher in the late seventies. Just as the book presents him, Jas was handsome, generous and courtly -- as well as something of a rake. We would describe MacNiven’s consistently dull prose as very much a “revised version” of the familiar tale. (There are lots of significant personal and professional details left out; for example, we’d love to know more about how exactly May Swenson came to be an editor at New Directions in the early sixties. And there’s an astonishingly novelistic narrative embedded among the acknowledgements; after the deaths of their respective spouses, MacNiven is now married to the New Direction’s vice-president, Peggy Fox, who “nominated” him to write the biography.)
Reviewers of the book have tended to focus on the “character flaws” (i.e. philandering) exhibited by Laughlin. But for us this seems beside the point. The fact is that the man was a real person who treated those he encountered as something other than commodities; he paid no attention to either accountants or marketing experts. There’s a considerable element of noblesse oblige about all this, certainly. And as far as his own poems, when they were taken seriously by some we respected, we remained silent about our own belief that it was a matter of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” redux. But what an emperor! His rule was a remarkable, if imperfect, era of editorial enlightenment. There are many who would argue that a span of 20th century literature running from 1936 to 1997 might be (with appropriate nods to Barney Rosset and others) justifiably labeled the “Dynasty of New Directions.” Though it only ended twenty years ago, to us it feels like a far more distant era.
Though numerous seasons of Person of Interest have come and gone, the show only became familiar to us through a recent month of binge-watching what’s available on DVD. For us, much of the various episodes' interest has been their location shooting in NYC’s downtown. Many street corners are eerily familiar; in fact, the brick structure housing our once-local swimming pool serves as an exterior stand-in for the series’ police station. The show’s locale is not exactly the NYC we knew in bygone days, of course. For one thing, actual Manhattan streets are more intensively policed and therefore safer -- at least for its well-heeled residents.
Perhaps due to our middle-aged ex-urbanite status, Person of Interest struck us as positively futuristic. The show’s initial "science fiction" premise that everyone is “under watch” seemed an entertaining stretch. But as we worked our way through the discs, the closer the fiction plausibly came to overlap with reality. The endless unfurling of crimes anticipated and prevented has almost convinced us that the near-universal surveillance underwriting the show’s concept may be partly responsible for “the new New York,” a mall-like entity of security and consumerist existence. We’re not the first to note that the part of the city in which we used to live has developed into a stage set for those who write code. And so we ourselves have become another pair of walking clichés, full of analog nostalgia for our former neighborhood’s creative residents, quirky individualists who had nothing but distrust and disdain for both the military and metropolitan officials.
Our New Year’s resolution is this: We’re going to read more real books and spend less time online. Not only are we pretty sure we’re going to be using our fading intellects more effectively, we also announce this intention as a kind of protest to the end of the paper form of The New Republic. Going through a stack of recent issues in preparation for recycling (pulling tagged pages, putting them in Whole Foods’ brown paper bags) was not merely deflating but nearly tragic; it marked the end of an era.
We’ve always felt a strong personal bond with the publication. Mary Maxwell’s first published poem appeared there; the event was not just a simple matter of “getting in print,” but of joining an implied republic of letters. Despite the occasional rightward political shift of the “front of the book” in recent decades, there remained an inalterably progressive tinge to its cultural pages; we always thought of figures such as Malcolm Cowley or Irving Howe as intellectual uncles. Just in these half-dozen issues sent to the recycling bin, there were so many great pieces by regular contributors such as David Thomson or Jed Perl. In the very last, special anniversary issue, there was a terrific short piece on the unsung hero Harris Wofford. Where will we look now for note of the likes of Harris Wofford?
Even before the curtain fell, evidently the staff had a distinct sense of their doom. Leon Wieseltier’s send-off on the anniversary issue’s last page may now be read as an eloquent challenge to Chris Hughes and the publisher’s decision to move exclusively online: Describing Whitman’s poem, “Passage to India,” which served as inspiration for the magazine’s ship emblem, Wieseltier writes: “The poem enacts an ascent from the technological to the spiritual. Whitman’s affirmative abandon has the ironic consequence of providing a critical context. He ‘sings’ technology and then puts technology in a lesser place, and denies it an ultimate authority over human existence. This is the itinerary of the ship. May it also be our own.”
Though we’re no longer members, we still receive regular updates from the MLA about its digital “Common,” where computational approaches to literary studies are particularly touted. Accessible textbases and shared publication platforms are creating new and highly problematic issues for scholarship; all kinds of practical and ethical issues related to collaborative efforts are presenting themselves. What will be the role of the individual in complex digital systems?
New approaches to the teaching of literature also are being proposed, as those with recent degrees are encouraged to expand their job search beyond exclusively academic contexts. Another set of options, a fresh set of paying students, may be found outside of institutional settings. This new field is being called “service learning,” where community-based classrooms give “lessons” on nonliterary subjects (human rights, as one example) through the reading of various cultural texts.
The MLA suggests that such teaching can make literature more immediately “useful.” We ourselves are leery of that potentially Orwellian word “useful” in this context; this new point of references in determining the “value” of literature (with its implication of “practicality”) we find more than a little alarming. Call us cynics, but the idea strikes us as useful in only one sense: “Service learning” is a potential new form of employment for recent graduates in the humanities.
As a holiday gift to ourselves, we’ve purchased a new TV with the capacity to watch 3D movies. What we were most excited to view again and again was Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. And while it is incredible to have “access” to the Chauvet finds, the film itself was something of a disappointment, with our contemplation of three-dimensional art that’s 30,000 years old offset by the director’s closing pseudo-philosophical soliloquy on albino crocodiles. But of course that’s the advantage of seeing the film at home; with our fast-forward and -back, we can just go directly to the incredible painting and skip over the various explanations and lectures.
Despite the direction of Hitchcock, we found Dial M for Murder a curiosity rather then any kind of cinematic breakthrough, though the travel-back-in-time apartment interior is fun. The more recent Gravity is great if you want to know what it’s like to be floating in space or stuck in a doomed rocket with a smug-faced George Clooney. The Wizard of Oz seems to us a new movie entirely, though maybe there’s too much “reality,” too much detail. The experience is analogous to what would happen if you could magically return to a “happy” childhood holiday -- but with your adult knowledge of of child abuse, bigotry and alcoholism all too evident among your beloved relatives.
We’ve been trying hard not to make too much of bad reviewing. In matters of taste, our attitude remains, “To each his own.” But we have to make note of the astonishingly stupid discussion by Martin Riker of the recent translation of Georges Perec’s Je me souviens that appeared in the November 28 Wall Street Journal . It’s true that we haven’t read the English version by Philip Terry, recently published by David Godine. But clearly we don’t have to in order to see how Riker has failed to understand what he is reading. Comparing Perec’s book to its source of inspiration -- Joe Brainard’s own terrific I Remember -- Riker operates under some deeply misguided notions about the nature of Perec’s equally wonderful enterprise. He does note that Perec’s version draws “upon a cultural history almost entirely unavailable to non-French readers.” But he opines that Perec’s entries “lack the spark and energy of a mind remembering.” This is nonsense and only exposes Riker’s own aesthetic and referential failures. Riker writes that Brainard’s is a “nuanced, pointillist self-portrait,” while Perec’s comes off as “an experiment or exercise.” (And this critical observation comes from someone who opens the WSJ piece with an admission that he uses the I Remember process as a warm-up exercise in his own writing classes!) If Riker were one of our MFA students, we’d give him a C- for his blandly undergraduate, all-nighter-scented comparison. For us, such an evaluation is like complaining that the paintings of André Derain don’t look enough like those of Fairfield Porter.
In his “Bookends” column in the November 23 issue of the Sunday NYT Book Review, Adam Kirsch really muffed it. We were both surprised and disappointed in Kirsch’s failure to engage with any real profundity the question of Shelley’s assertion that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” While it’s a big subject, and so one not easy to whittle down into the allotted space, the usually astute Kirsch really could have done better. It’s true that the Book Review editor phrased the issue as “How has the social role of poetry changed since Shelley?” but we don’t think Kirsch should have taken the false bait.
The tack we would have followed would have been to note that the principle of written law is based on shared concepts of right and wrong. The earliest textual source for the idea of justice can be traced to authors of not legal or religious texts but imaginative literature, the realm of myth. From the poet’s point of view, the Biblical “God” or the Classical “gods” as administrators of law are characters in an ongoing human epic written by humans. With societal and cultural changes, the form of these narratives alter, but poets still engage in defining and redefining ideas of fairness and right social behavior. In more recent centuries, poets like Byron or Goethe have been crucial “carriers” of changing ideas of social and political organization, promoting sometimes radically democratic ideals of equality and civic responsibility. In terms of poets as “role models” of just thinking, in our own era, we point to poets such as Paz or Milosz. But more fantastic mythography (the popular Tolkien, as one example), which may not seem “political” at all, remains profoundly influential.
Instead Kirsch succumbs to a weak lament for the contemporary poet’s lack of “confidence” and “irrelevance.” Kirsch writes of the great Romantic poets “derided by Britain’s critical establishment as foolish and eccentric,” as though this social reception has not proven itself to be wholly insignificant. “Public discourse” wasn’t what Shelley was talking about anyway; the “politics” to which he referred was across rather than within any given epoch. And though Kirsch’s counter-proposed “poetry of witness” is an admirable pursuit, it’s no substitute for the power and influence of the imagination.
An interesting assortment of publications from Pressed Wafer arrived in the mail a few weeks ago. Under the direction of Bill Corbett (previously of Boston but now of Brooklyn), the publishing company is consistent only in its formal inconsistency; it's perhaps the unexpected range of its book, card and offprint designs that we've most come to appreciate. We especially responded to W.S. DiPiero’s translation of Fulvio Testa’s lovely A Memoria / By Heart, a small booklet that is essentially a scan of the original’s 2012 watercolor and handwriting. Unnumbered pages narrate the painter’s first awareness of absence, and then of artistic solitude and self-recognition, followed by the transfiguration of experience that ensues: “All at once I began to notice the effect the light created on that landscape of hills and valleys.” Writes Testa at the volume’s conclusion: “I believe that every time I make a picture, I relive, without being aware, that encounter with the light and shadow.”
The long-delayed opening of the renovated Harvard Art Museums has rightly been greeted with considerable fanfare. Maybe the space of the Calderwood Courtyard seemed to us a little spare the afternoon we visited, as an early winter day darkened into evening on Quincy Street. We didn’t attend one of the big gala openings, with their live performance, cocktails and gallery talks. Instead, by the time we got there, the cafe was already closed and the gift-shop clerks were already making their after-work plans. Even the light-based “restorations” of the sublime Harvard Rothkos were about to be turned off. (Why that installation is not being made a permanent exhibit is a mystery to us.) But the newly joined collections of Fogg, Sackler and Busch-Reisinger, are truly wonderful, with rooms leading off the courtyard, over to new views of the Cambridge campus, then back again to the nearly gravitational pull of the building’s multi-level cloister. We’re really looking forward to many return visits in the the coming seasons and semesters.
We recently received a copy of Eight Begin: Artists’ Memories of Starting Out, edited by Ada Katz. Focusing on artists of the “10th Street” galleries dating from the fifties and early sixties (the Tanager, as one example), the volume contains a set of 1974 interviews edited into a fascinating series of monologues. Published by the Colby Museum of Art and Libellum books, these conversational texts serve to remind the currently market-oriented art world of the enormous impact of those shoestring-budgeted collaborative galleries. As Katz (yes, that Ada) writes of a group of artists (Bladen, Dodd, Drummond, Held, King, Pearlstein and Sugarman) that included her husband Alex: “They came to Manhattan by chance or to go to art school after World War Two. They all remained by choice, finding an emotional, intellectual, and social life in ‘downtown’ New York into which they seemed to fit.” As editor Katz argues, this important group narrative of a certain time and place has “lessons to impart to those who wish to find ways to make art outside the existing mainstream.”
We’ve always been a little vague about the exact nature of the blurb. We know that it’s rarely spontaneous; it’s become something quite close to a form of strategized public relations. What’s actually said, of course, is of less importance than the name attached to it; it’s a kind of public recommendation. But is a requested compliment never sincere? Do book-cover declarations have more weight than private, unprompted expressions? On both points, we think not, even though we find ourselves in an ironic position as far as the matter of name-dropping. As readers of this newsletter are well aware, the whole idea of the The Longnook Overlook: A Review of the Arts was to leave out author names entirely, so that the works included could, at least initially, “speak” for themselves. And yet the actual names of real people who’ve written to express their admiration of the book are extremely impressive. Frankly, we’re sorely tempted to drop them here.
Instead we’ll quote a few of them anonymously, identifying their authors only as astonishingly accomplished (and, we’ll admit it, prestigious) poets, editors, translators and scholars. Most sincerely, we’ve been moved as well as thrilled by those who’ve written to us of their responses: “The Longnook Overlook is quite a stunning and ambitious achievement.” (That correspondent informed us of the fascinating tidbit that James Merrill was also a huge fan of the filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti.) Another wrote: “Everything is of interest. And, of course, the approach, really a great idea! And the volume is beautiful to behold and hold.” And then there’s this opinion which we can’t stop ourselves from sharing: “I especially favored ‘Racketeers’ (which is dead-on, and should be reprinted in the AWP Chronicle -- if not read aloud in Congress for the Record).”
“Re[Framing] Provincetown: Animating History Through Sharing” closes at the end of the month. This PAAM “show” was part outdoor installation, part film series, and part collaborative community enterprise. Shoulder-high frames were placed around town, with captured current perspectives and vintage photographs of the same locale set side by side. At the Art Association itself, some wonderfully unpretentious documentaries made by Sun Gallery director Yvonne Andersen were on view. (The comfy couches and coffee tables provided an especially homey touch.) Andersen’s films were full of people we’ve seen around town (fifty years older, of course!), so that we had the distinct sense of engaging in time travel back to the fifties and sixties. How fantastic to see a the works and persons of a young Lester Johnson, Mimi Gross, Red Grooms, Alex Katz, et al.! The third part of the project is still in the process of being put together, as townspeople and visitors are called upon to contribute their own photographs and memories of this remarkable place; a communal table full of scrapbooks-in-progress as well as a recording booth have been provided for this purpose. The whole exhibition was a wonderful concept, beautifully executed by the architectural firm of Tsao and McKown. By actively encouraging the past and present to remain in fruitful conversation, this engaging museum event manages to accomplish the demanding “work of memory,” the “artistic job” for which cultural institutions such as PAAM were created.
Last week we attended the Sunday Concert Series in the Renzo Piano designed performance space at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. The marvelous British singer Mark Padmore sang a program of art songs, accompanied by American pianist Jonathan Biss. The first half of the concert was comprised of two song cycles by Robert Schumann. After the intermission these were followed by “Boyhood’s End” by Michael Tippett and “La Bonne Chanson” by Fauré. All the renderings were skilled, intelligent and thoughtful, but the first set of songs made the greatest impression on us. It was evident that a lot of thought had gone into these. Last year Biss organized and performed a series of concerts focusing on the influence of Schumann, whose work he calls “deeply poetic, fragile, obsessive, evocative, whimsical, internal.”
Not to discount the subtle modulations of Padmore or the interpretive ballast provided by the piano, but finally it was Schumann who entranced us. It was almost spooky the way the “maiden” subject of Heine’s “Liederkreis” lyrics could be heard in the music; her echoing voice, embedded within the score, provided something like a whispering counterpoint to the male singer’s lament: “Each morning I get up and ask: / will my sweetheart come today? / At evening I sink down and lament: / today, too, she stayed away.” How did the composer do that, create the sense of the living and the dead in musical dialogue? Schumann had an ear for the feminine (we attribute this to his relationship with Clara), a distinctive tone that in this lieder seems to pass through death itself like a ghost through a wall: “Here, then, are songs which once, wild / as a stream of lava gushing from Etna, / burst from the depths of my soul, / showering many flashing sparks around.”
The title of Rebecca Solnit’s excellent cover article in the October Harper’s is “Silencing Women,” but it might equally have been entitled “Discrediting Women.” Though for the most part the essay discusses women’s experiences speaking up about sexual crimes and professional misconduct, we must note that the pattern of undermining a female accuser is hardly limited to situations involving physical violence or workplace harassment. A woman who dares to point out chauvinistic attitudes in a public forum encounters a similar reaction: “Not uncommonly, when a woman says something that impugns a man ... the response will question not just the facts of her assertion but her capacity to speak and her right to do so... Even now, when a woman says something uncomfortable about male misconduct, she is routinely portrayed as delusional, a malicious conspirator, a pathological liar, a whiner who doesn’t recognize it’s all in fun...”
At the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh we were deeply touched by the exhibit “Maggie’s Centres: A Blueprint for Cancer Care” at the Heinz Architectural Center. Koolhaas, Gehry, Hadid -- numerous big names in contemporary architecture have joined in collaboration with interior and landscape designers in this remarkably ambitious project. Only as we read more about these wonderfully diverse examples of structures and landscaping did we realize we knew exactly who the late Maggie Keswick had been: She was, among other things, the author of one of our favorite books, The Chinese Garden. Off the page she was equally amazing. What she writes of her experiences battling breast cancer (included in A View from the Front Line available for free download at the maggiescentres.org website) is a model of courage and practicality.
Maggie was also the wife of the architect Charles Jencks, whose work as an architectural historian we came to know as undergraduates. Perhaps as a result of his connection to the tradition of modernist architecture on the Outer Cape, we confess we now think of him as a sort of relative -- well, at least as a fellow Outer Cape Codder. His family has long ties to the area (his father Gardner was a pianist and composer and his sister is the sculptor Penelope Jencks). We are also very great admirers of several of his more recent books on gardens: The Garden of Cosmic Speculation and The Universe in the Landscape.
While those two books inspire a certain amount of abstract speculation, the gardens Jencks and daughter Lily have designed for the Maggie’s Centres also engage in the work of philosophy; they remind patients not to allow “the joy of living to be lost in the fear of dying.” For us the Pittsburgh exhibit showed definitively the impact design can have on “quality of life,” how both interior and exterior spaces may have truly therapeutic qualities. We quote from the Carnegie website: “As healthcare in the US undergoes unprecedented levels of scrutiny over issues of cost, delivery, best practices, and outcomes, Maggie’s Centres offers a fascinating glimpse into the value of supplementary approaches to medical care.” Charles Jencks himself will be giving a talk at the Carnegie Museum on October 28. We hope this is the first of many opportunities for Americans to become acquainted with this extraordinary “blueprint” for cancer care. Perhaps there is a real possibility that such structures and approaches to treatment might soon be implemented here on our own shores.
Having been stung recently for speaking out about the lingering bias against women on social networks, we very much appreciated the September 29th issue of The New Republic, especially its cover story on feminism (“It has conquered the culture. Now comes the hard part.”). The dialogue between Judith Shulevitz and Rebecca Traister covered a lot of territory. We weren’t crazy about the “email exchange” format, but we got the point: Few working women have time to articulate the practical complexities of the current political situation, let alone formulate a strategy. And though we hate to admit it, we have to acknowledge the magazine’s editorial decision that, given our internet age of instant-opinion-gratification, a traditionally structured essay on feminism was likely to go unread.
But for us the really important piece in the magazine was a short article by Jessica Nordell about the experience of transgenders in the workplace, documented by sociologist Kristen Schilt in Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality. The experience of male-to-female trans people, we bitterly observe, corresponds to what many female-born encounter every day. A Stanford biologist (from Jonathan to Joan) nicely summarized her Tiresian wisdom: “Men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.” Transwomen also quickly learn that to proceed professionally in a “take-charge” and “aggressive” manner can be “detrimental to your career.” Alternate examples are perhaps even more illuminating: One transgendered female-to-male scientist is told by his supervisor that work presented at a conference is “far superior to his sister’s” (the colleague not knowing that Barbara and Ben are, in fact, the same person). Bias, as Nordell notes, is incredibly hard to demonstrate; transgendered individuals, however, are “uniquely qualified to discuss the difference between how men and women experience the workplace.”
Picking up volume after volume of the false and overfamiliar in the poetry aisle of the Harvard bookstore this past weekend, we were stopped dead in our reading tracks by the poems collected in Roberto Bolaño’s The Unknown University. We recalled Dwight Garner’s review in the NYT last summer which had described them as “larval”: “Very often they read like juvenilia — the unrhymed free verse of a man who was equal parts poet and poet manqué, a word-drunk literary drifter still finding his voice.” Not only was Garner wrong, he was wrong and influential; his bad call had even scared us off. While we acknowledge that these may not be for the average NYT poetry reader (used to poems as slack as suburban sprawl or trendy as late-night blogging), it’s disheartening for true poems like these to be dismissed so off-handedly in the newspaper of note. And so we’ve been surprisingly moved by our encounters with Bolaño’s originals, even more cutting than the still-pretty-sharp Englishing of Laura Healy facing-page translations. In all fairness to Garner, there does remain within this posthumous collection the distinct scent of the bottom of the great writer’s drawer. But what a drawer! We ourselves like to imagine having the chance to tell him face to face what we think of his works, encountering him in the afterlife company of Guiraut de Bornelh, Frank O’Hara and Ernesto Cardenal.
We stopped off in New Haven last week to catch the last day of the “Contemporary Art/ South Africa” exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery, especially wanting to see the paintings and installations of William Kentridge whose projects have become increasingly important to us. But the entire show was wonderful: In quick summary, it presented black and white artists, black and white subjects, in mostly black and white media. Though there’s no question that photographs and film lend themselves to the art of witness, making political realities immediate and irrefutable, the works displayed also transcended that immediate historical subject. We were particularly taken by The Ash Man by Diane Victor, a portrait created with ash on paper much like charcoal or pencil, yet full of mortal resonance, form and content intertwined. And the Kentridges did not disappoint. When it becomes impossible to recreate an art experience in words, an artist is on to something. And so we will simply describe his What Will Come as a “cold-rolled steel table and cylinder with anamorphic projection.” Though a limited video of it is available on YouTube, it’s a work that defies any form of reproduction.
Lately we’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of measured value, being most immediately struck by the absurdity of the test score (SAT, AP, MCA) as an indicator of knowledge or accomplishment. We are all increasingly being reduced to a set of shared numbers (FICO, blood tests results), with apps that track our footsteps, our heartbeat, our dream states. Literary criticism is also being translated into such a digit, with online listings tending to borrow five-star restaurant models (GoodReads) or athletic performance methods (BookScore.net) rather than The Wine Spectator’s system of “test” grades.
But within our temperamental resistance to the “scaling” of art lies a paradox: Poetry, after all, is measured language (meter as a system of relative stresses, or patterns of vowel length, or “straightforward” counted syllables). We propose this metrical definition of poetry to distinguish it from prose (verse being defined as written language that uses the end-line turning or reverse, i.e. enjambment, as its central formal feature). The written line of poetry is the transcripted version of words articulated through the winged chariot of counted time. All forms of art, of course, function in time and space, yet the mystery is how they somehow defy and transcend those measured limits.
According to our website’s editing program, over the course of the past two years we’ve written over 25,000 words for this newsletter. As writers who have (on occasion) been paid for our literary work, word count has always struck us as a somewhat bizarre reference for monetary compensation. For us, word count almost marks the distinction between what we consider “real” writing and something closer to paid journalism (with all due respect to that most admirable enterprise).
Maybe it’s that we associate it with the distinction between “work” and “play,” with art inhabiting that no-man’s land between the two. (We don’t consider the Common App essay a literary genre; it’s an arduous job, plain and simple.) Obviously with our income-resisting projects, we are having trouble growing up. The paid assignment seems an extension of the term paper, the time clock another version of required coursework.
On the other hand, such limits can be thought of (and embraced as) received forms. For whether an actual authority figure is involved or not, any artist of necessity takes up the challenge of a given tradition. The predecessor functions as both boss and teacher. Yet as with a maturing child’s relationship with her parents (a sometimes painful dynamic of resistance and collaboration), for this ongoing process of an artist finding her own way in the world there is no final grade -- let alone a promotion or a raise.
One of the editorial concerns behind the composition of The Longnook Overlook is the relatively low value placed on works by female artists, particularly (but not exclusively) the literary and critical writings of women. The topic, as outlined in “A Few Words from the Editors,” is one to which we’ve returned again and again in this newsletter: “The expectations assigned to gender continue to be extremely problematic. The disparity between works published by men and women writers, especially in the field of cultural criticism, seems to us especially shameful.” It’s a thematic that can be detected throughout the collection’s imaginative and nonfiction elements -- as well as in its centerpiece display of drawings by Serena Rothstein: Gender and sexual orientation should play no part in the estimation of artworks.
Underwriting the entire project was the idea that the best way to guarantee women’s writings get a fair reading is for them to be offered anonymously. Our initial hypothesis that works published by a man are given more respect than those signed by a woman remains unproved, though the query in the form of a publication has certainly been an interesting experiment! In any case, the feedback so far has been pretty spectacular, with praise coming from some very distinguished readers: “A splendid literary review!”; “A lovely piece of bookmaking”; “The poems and stories are delightful”; “I love it!” Though we suspect this will not be the last word on the whole matter, our position is that the Overlook’s contributions speak for themselves. The name (or gender) of their author is a trivial matter.
The Longnook Overlook is hardly the first publication based on the premise of anonymous submissions and/or contributors. Anon Poetry Magazine has been on tumblr for a couple of years now; the first issue of The New Anonymous is now online; while Guest Room has announced itself as “the first literary journal to operate with complete anonymity.” The Overlook, we feel the need to explain, is something else entirely. First of all, the named editors take full responsibility for our choices, errors and omissions. Taking on such a role has only increased our respect for the editing and production of that extinction-approaching species, the paper periodical. Secondly, the editors knew exactly who wrote each of the volume’s contributions. And thirdly, the project is not virtual. Its ink-laced pages comprise a fully tactile thing, a beautiful object to be held in the hand or placed on a table. In the end, there’s really nothing new or unique in any of this. On the contrary, the editors have operated out of a form of personal nostalgia: “We fully acknowledge that the printed literary journal is all but outmoded as a form of publication. Simply put, there are considerably less expensive modes of production and distribution. Consider these pages then, an homage to the past.”
At LongNookBooks we’ve never explicitly asked ourselves the question, “Who are our intended readers?” though the answer would have been something like “people like ourselves,” meaning mostly friends and colleagues with whom we share interests and enthusiasms. But this summer we had the wonderful surprise of being introduced to two of our readers (a pair of fellow Longnook Beach devotees) who stopped by the office to tell us how much they’d particularly enjoyed our newsletter. And yes, as hoped, this articulate and accomplished couple were (or so we’d like to think at any rate!) very much “people like ourselves.” What a pleasure it was to talk with them! Commercial writers are often asked by their publishers to consider their market, to take into account issues of supply and demand. In such instances, of course, the larger the target audience the better. Do we know how lucky we are to be able to write and publish exactly the kind of things we ourselves would like to read, even though our present readership is relatively minuscule? You bet we do.
It’s a critical truism that “the canon” needs to be revised with each generation. Here at LongNookBooks we find ourselves still meeting resistance to the idea of a significant tradition of women’s poetry. Just because texts have been lost or suppressed doesn’t mean they didn’t exist or that their influence is not even now still felt. One could start with Sappho and her lost poems (we are left with only the names of many of her female contemporaries); there are the classical Latin women poets (though with only the lyrics of the teenage Sulpicia extant); there are the “anonymous” lyrics of the early middle ages; there are the church intellectuals and mystics such Hildegarde of Bingen or Heloise; there are the accomplished female troubadours like the Countess of Die.
All these lead to supreme lyricists such as the 16th century Louise Labé (Senghor declared her “the greatest poetess ever born in France’) whose Love Sonnets & Elegies have been newly translated by Richard Sieburth and published by NYRB/Poets. Sieburth is a felicitous choice for several reasons. His informed translations are wonderfully clever in ways consistent with Labé’s formal practice and temperament. But Sieburth’s intimate familiarity with the poet Maurice Scève provides a second boon. A French scholar recently declared Labé’s ouevre a “hoax” perpetuated by Scève and his colleagues; in his afterward Sieburth definitively rebuts such attention-grabbing “poetess denial” -- a version of which, not coincidentally, also haunts Sulpicia studies.
Labé’s sonnets and elegies are simply great, and Sieburth’s facing-page renderings beautifully elucidate them for English ears and eyes. This little book marks a significant milestone for a tradition of European lyric that has run now for over a millennium. It’s way past time for the Anglo-American literary community (and not just members of departments of Women’s Studies) to take “minor” practitioners like Sappho, Sulpicia and and the sublime Louise Labé into their accounting.
Last week we attended a performance by the Emerson String Quartet at Wellfleet’s First Congregational Church, one of a series of concerts organized by the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. First on the program was Haydn’s String Quartet in G Minor followed by the “Serioso,” a late-middle Beethoven string quartet. After the intermission came Mozart’s Quintet for Strings and Clarinet. The evening went well beyond issues of “virtuosity” or even cerebral “interpretation”; it was more like a musical conversation where a set of very articulate and accomplished participants make observations ranging from the wryly amusing to the insightful to the sublime. Maybe it was due to the relaxed context of the Cape during the summer, but to us it was as though five familiars of “the classical style” sat down on the beach, picked up their instruments and began to play; there was no posturing or grandstanding. Mozart’s clarinet riffs (performed by Jon Manasse) at times had a tender, almost thirties cabaret quality that made us think of the great Hanns Eisler. And from a certain perspective, this makes perfect sense -- after all, both Mozart and Eisler were peripatetic sons of Austria. We were reminded of what Virgil Thomson once observed of Eisler’s “graceful and delicate taste” (which could equally describe the music of Mozart): “He uses no heaviness, makes no insistence... [and] his rhythm is invariably alive.”
We’re not usually big fans of themed anthologies (Poems for Weddings, Poems for New Parents, Poems for Recovery), but we’ve found yet another of our strong prejudices brought into doubt with the surprisingly deep (and even racy) Poems for Gardeners, edited by Germaine Greer and first published by Virago in 2003. It’s a physically charming book, without illustrations save for the botanical peony on its paper cover (which is then embossed on the hardcover’s fabric binding); the volume has an almost prayer-book quality due to its red ribbon bookmark. Its design seems to draw inspiration from D.H. Lawrence’s “Red Geranium and Godly Mignonette”: “As if the redness of a red geranium could be anything but a sensual experience / and as if sensual experience could take place before there were any senses...But imagine, among the mud and the mastodons / god sighing and yearning with tremendous creative yearning, in that dark green mess / oh, for some other beauty, some other beauty / that blossomed at last, red geranium, and mignonette.” Or then there’s David Constantine’s “The Wasps”: “The apples on the tree are full of wasps; / Red apples, racing like hearts. The summer pushes / Her tongue into the winter’s throat.”
As an independent publisher, LongNookBooks is in the unusual position of being able to function outside the mainstream commercial marketplace. Taking this separation a step further, we’ve decided that the distribution of The Longnook Overlook will take place completely hors commerce. (Free copies will be available through the website, though we ask, on the honor system, that a suitable donation be made directly to a nonprofit arts foundation or institution.) One justification for our decision (nearly as experimental as the volume’s premise) was this: We question whether the concept of supply and demand should be applied to literature, let alone art. Artworks are something quite other than a tradable commodity within a free market system.
We recently attended a panel with the title, “What is the function of art criticism?” There was a lot of handwringing from both panelists and members of the audience on the difficulty of making a living as a visual artist. There were even some audience proposals as to an art review’s “purpose,” as well as observations about the practical dynamic between criticism and the market. But in our opinion, there should be no such relation; that critics have regularly been in cahoots with dealers doesn’t make it OK. Our answer to the evening’s question is quite simple: The function of criticism is to draw attention to excellence. Whether praise may or may not create “value” should have no part in a serious discussion among creators and critics; the issue of price is a matter better left to Amazon and fine-art investment advisors.
And so, at least according to that evening’s closing implication, it falls upon the consumer to support the arts. (Buy books! Buy paintings!) Of course, purchase does provide vital income. Yet this action alone (even with generous publisher and dealer advances) only reinforces the market model -- that the things that are good are those that get purchased. Any observer can see the flaw in this “best-seller” system of judgment. After all, it takes years for important work to get produced; encouragement as well as financial support is required far ahead of exhibition or publication. Especially in the current context swollen by MFA-made goods (as well as recent graduates’ self-marketing and self-promotion), decades may pass before the truly excellent finds its audience (let alone a purchaser).
How to underwrite the creation of art (government subsidies, private foundations, academic stipends), we’re not exactly sure. Tax credits for nonprofits and corporate giving (as progressive as the principles behind them are) have a limited effect. Arts institutions do what they can, but they also find themselves needing to prove themselves “successful” by turning a measurable profit. Any administrator who publicly insists that “popularity” and “excellence” are independent standards runs the risk of being spurned as an elitist. As “undemocratic” as it may sound, we ourselves are beginning to think there’s a fresh case to be made for the old-fashioned arts patron. The arts in America require something closer to a gift economy, subject to a completely different system of value. And so in that spirit, beginning in August, we will offer The Longnook Overlook gratis to anyone who requests a copy.
This week we celebrate two years of the newsletter, a July anniversary coinciding with the annual Provincetown Arts publication party. Since this year’s issue marked the centennial of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, it was especially appropriate that last Friday’s event took place in PAAM’s galleries. Given the building’s extraordinarily successful renovations (which elegantly bridge traditional and modernist aesthetics) our only criticism of the magazine is that the two world-renowned architects, Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, should have been featured on the cover! Many other familiar (and even famous) faces gathered in the museum’s Hans Hofmann gallery; these included some of the current issue’s younger contributors alongside an amusingly diverse group of locals and visitors. Compared to many at the gathering, we’re relatively recent interlopers onto Provincetown’s cultural scene, yet we’re extremely happy to call the Outer Cape both our home and our community. Look for our Longnook Overlook ad on page 118 of the new issue!
We believe the idea of formal meaning applies not only to poems but to books themselves. For example, the elongated size and shape of An Imaginary Hellas, Emporia and Cultural Tourism were intended as an homage to Athenaeum’s poetry volumes. Atheneum’s Harry Ford published many wonderful poets, but especially meaningful to us are Richard Howard’s collections, his earlier productions lined up like a set of tall brothers on our bookshelf. We are very sorry to miss Howard’s reading and tribute sponsored by the Poetry Society of America next week in Bryant Park. As poetry editor of The New Republic, Howard was responsible for Mary Maxwell’s first poetry publication; he would later place her work again in Paris Review and Western Humanities Review. An Imaginary Hellas was originally chosen by Howard to be published in the University of South Carolina’s James Dickey Poetry Series. Though he is now relegated to the role of elder statesman, the range of Howard’s writing confirms his enduring reputation as a remarkable critic and translator. His poetry in particular remains wildly undervalued -- this despite Maxwell’s energetic advocacy in a Raritan piece published some years ago. At her 2001 essay’s conclusion, she called for a carefully edited “Richard Howard Reader, a limited incorporation of the many corridors of his literary career under one roof” combining poems and prose alongside examples of some of his translations from the French. The two traditionally shaped volumes of Selected Poems (containing only original work) and Selected Prose (absent any selections from the crucially important Alone With America) brought out by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2004 provided an almost acceptable substitute. A new collection of poems, A Progressive Education, will be published by Turtle Point in October.
Perhaps the most fascinatingly overlooked film of Alberto Cavalcanti is his 1955 adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Herr Puntila and His Servant Matti, starring the incredible Curt Bois, with music by Hanns Eisler. Brecht called the movie “the only faithful screen adaptation of my work,” though Cavalcanti was initially terrified of working with the notoriously difficult Brecht. Those interested in the history of documentary film should note that the project was put together by Joris Ivens! A few years later there is discussion of Cavalcanti making a film of Brecht’s Les Visions de Simone Machard (Eisler had composed music for a theater version), but financial support from a French production company was withdrawn over concerns about the blasphemous treatment of Joan of Arc. A late collaboration with composer Darius Milhaud (to star Michel Simon) similarly failed to gain backing. Much, much more on these topics (as well as many others) will be found in The Longnook Overlook, available to all at the first of August.
Cavalcanti’s wartime Went the Day Well? (with a screenplay by the director’s friend Graham Greene) has recently resurfaced and been embraced as a British film classic. “Cav”’s contribution to the 1945 omnibus Dead of Night is, however, perhaps his best known work as a director. In this unforgettably creepy episode, Cavalcanti directs Michael Redgrave as an unbalanced ventriloquist in a disturbing relationship with his independent-minded dummy. The director’s other postwar commercial ventures made in the UK are, however, as excellent as they are unknown, particularly the noir thriller They Made Me a Fugitive, starring Trevor Howard. Why Cavalcanti’s career has remained in the shadows all these years is something of a mystery. As “Alberto Cavalcanti: An Annotated Catalogue Raisonne of his Life and Work” concludes: “Comparison of the reception accorded [him and the now much-lauded Thorold Dickinson] in the British Isles confirms my suspicion that what is truly 'problematic' about Cavalcanti is that he wasn’t British.”
It was extremely gratifying for The Longnook Overlook editors to receive the film writer David Thomson’s congratulations for the volume’s page proofs. Thomson (author of A Biographical Dictionary of Film, etc.) of course, would be familiar with Cavalcanti’s experimental work (the 1926 Rien que les heures) as well the Brazilian-born filmmaker’s early collaborations with Jean Renoir. "Cav" would direct Renoir’s first wife Catherine Hessling in several films; their six-year-old son Alain would also appear with his father in Cavalcanti’s La p’tite Lilie. On that same set, Renoir will meet his second wife, the 18-year-old Dido Freire, whom Cavalcanti was looking after at the request of her Brazilian father. Cavalcanti will then appear in a bit part in Renoir’s 1928 silent The Little Match Girl; Renoir will play the big, bad wolf in Cavalcanti’s 1929 Little Red Riding Hood.
The balance of this month’s newsletter will be devoted to the filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti. The subject of the longest piece inThe Longnook Overlook, Cavalcanti’s oeuvre has yet to be adequately catalogued let alone fully appreciated. We were reminded of Cavalcanti’s extraordinary range once again by notice of the show of the New Zealand artist Len Lye, “Motion Sketch,” at NYC’s Drawing Center. We weren’t able to see the exhibit or attend the lecture by curator Gregory Burke, but we can only hope that Lye aficionados might have been made aware of the lecture given by Cavalcanti in Brussels in 1947 (and reprinted that year in Sight and Sound), “Presenting Len Lye.” It was Lye who dubbed his boss“Cav,” and “Cav” who gave Lye his first animation work in 1935 at London’s General Post Office film unit, producing documentary shorts such as Lye’s breakthrough Rainbow Dance and Colour Box (both shown this spring in New York). The word to describe Lye’s work, said Cavalcanti, was “Experiment,” playing with film’s possibilities of color and rhythm. What he said about Lye could also have been said of himself: “There is no dilettantism about him and no false virtuosity.”
Packing up materials for recycling this past week, we found ourselves going through two full years of The New York Review of Books. Zipping through one table of contents after another, we were once again struck by the unhappy evidence: Only one in five of the magazine’s contributors are female. How can this continue to be so? There is now the real possibility of an American woman president (slowly our Republic catches up with Western Europe on that score), and perusal of the news on any given day confirms that things in most fields have improved, with so many leaders (in technology, business, media) now women. This phenomenon is even explored in Marcia Angell’s article “The Women at the Top” in the NYRB‘s March 20 issue.
But in our own fields of art and literature, we continue to observe a kind of barstool patter that remains vaguely hostile to women’s voices. It’s not only a tonal issue on social networks but a fact of women’s near-absence from informal “panel” discussions. Digital platforms are mostly hot air, of course, but there remains a jokiness that suggests to us an understood, fraternity-type bond. One thread we encountered recently was on the high percentage of female students in poetry workshops (two out of three being the proportion informally bandied about); someone posited that more than half of poetry MFAs are female. This is a considerably less rigorous accounting than VIDA’s pie charts, of course, but if this in any way reflects reality, why should anyone celebrate when only half of poems published in any given literary periodical are written by women?
It’s evident that men still have an enormous advantage when it comes to literary publication, let alone awards and hiring. Certainly some kind of attrition is occurring after women’s graduation from degree programs; we’re fairly sure an analogous phenomenon among the underprivileged or cultural minorities would cause an uproar in politically conscientious publications like the NYRB. Certainly the proportion of women teachers in both academic fields and creative writing programs needs to be reckoned in relation to student numbers. But to return to our initial point, save for a handful of regular big names (Joyce Carol Oates, Helen Vendler, Janet Malcolm ) we must content ourselves with the occasional appearance of the terrific Zoe Heller in the NYRB. And while we know there are plenty of uber-competent (if not super-polite) female critics out there, we also can also anticipate the response such observations would provoke on Facebook: “Oh, for God’s sake, girly-whip, loosen up!”
We love Jody Gladding’s Translations from Bark Beetle even though it makes us feel somewhat too acutely the traditional book’s inadequacy. And though Milkweed Edition’s horizontally laid-out volume literally turns the usual collection of lyrics on its side, it doesn’t function primarily as an example of “visual poetry.” It’s also not simply a paper transcription of Gladding’s art installations (poems originally incised on feather, stone, glass, etc.) The book does include photographs illustrating the poet’s translations from and collaborations with found elements, but these are included as explanatory materials rather than as the book’s matter itself. Her poems’ fundamental medium remains language. Yet Gladding’s terrain of existence is not only speech as we usually define it, but the quiet eloquence of things themselves, the untranslated dialects of nature. (By contrast, culture’s articulations seem ludicrous: “A closely watched measure of risk sentiment is the volatility index.”) As Gladding explains it, the language of bark beetle (whose written form may be seen in graphite rubbings) does not distinguish between nominative “I” and “we,” nor between the accusative “me” and “us,” nor between either of these first-person forms and the second-person “you.” We are all ourselves nature, Earth’s increasingly violated self, forms of being that are always in the process of “becoming some kind of other.” In Gladding’s version of nature’s original texts (with which, as a professional translator, she admits she “takes some liberties”), the written line marks “what was// from / what / was // not.” To us, Gladding’s phrase provides a haunting suggestion of poetry’s origins, a creative impulse that both encompasses and ultimately transcends human experience.
The imminently forthcoming Longnook Overlook is dedicated to Harry Mathews. Though Mathews is certainly one of the most “overlooked” writers of his generation, the pun implied by our volume’s title was unintentional. And yet it remains a source of continued amazement to us that Mathews, one of the most important living American writers, is better known in France than in the States. For the benefit of our uninitiated compatriots, we’ll do a quick run-down of his résumé: A first-generation member of the New York School, with a trio of colleagues (Ashbery, Koch, Schuyler) he founded and edited the journal Locus Solus. Mathews was the first American member of Oulipo and dear friend of the immortal Georges Perec. Je me souviens came about when Mathews introduced the great French author to Joe Brainard’s I Remember. Mathews’ own The Orchard, a collection of his recollections of Perec, is easily the most moving of the three “I remember” works -- and that’s saying quite a lot. He was first married to the sculptor Niki de Saint-Phalle. His current wife is the French novelist Marie Chaix. His own novels include Cigarettes, Tlooth, The Conversions, as well as idiosyncratic nonfiction works such as his exercises in style, Singular Pleasures and Country Cooking from Central France. One of our favorite books is My Life in CIA, which either is or isn’t nonfiction. (Our sense is that the book is an imaginative reworking of the experience of various fellow American expatriates such as the late Peter Matthiessen.) And then there are the poems. It’s hard for us to come up with the name of a better prosodic musician, that is, a living American with a more perfect ear. Some of Mathews’ best poems were included in the Carcanet New York Poets II anthology, edited by Mark Ford and Trevor Winkfield. Carcanet also published A Mid-Season Sky: Poems 1954-1991 (whose content was chosen by the infallible David Kalstone). And we thank Winkfield and The Sienese Shredder for their CD of Mathews reading from more recent poems attached to that journal’s first issue. His most recent volume of poems is The New Tourism (2010), a compact collection in which these lines of “In Praise of Heinrich Heine” may be found: “Starbursts should light up this moment, the child / Be jealous of nighttime and its laughing yellow listener!”
Just as adults make new friends (electronic or otherwise) through socializing with friends of friends, we became introduced to certain writers through the generous impulses of their publishers. In America our first such “host” was, of course, New Directions. From there we were led to the whole “stable” of Black Sparrow. And then there was North Point Press, followed by Counterpoint, followed by Shoemaker and Hoard. Others (off the top of our heads) that have been important to us include the little Jonathan Cape editions; Dalkey Archive Press; the wide-ranging Ecco Press reprints; the beautiful books still put out by David Godine; and the ongoing Green Integer series. All these lists, it seems, were built up through the determined tastes and colleagues of one person -- whether that be James Laughlin, Douglas Messerli, Daniel Halpern or Jack Shoemaker. There are a few newer publishers from whom we still regularly cull new acquaintances: Archipelago; Pushkin; Seagull; and the terrific division from Yale University Press, The Margellos World Republic of Letters. That heading captures for us exactly the country in which we we truly reside, an international literary commonwealth first made known to us through books.
We’ve said it before, but here it is again: One of the hardest things for a serious poetry reader is to keep up with new work without being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it. It doesn’t help that there just isn’t much true literary criticism out there for “general readership” of any kind. There’s still the scholarly review (academic works for specialists published by university presses) and there’s plenty of literary journalism (five paragraph reviews and “what I’m reading” lists). But with the demise of paper periodicals (NYRB, TLS, LRB feel increasingly like relics of the past), the argot-free “think piece” (placing work in formal, biographical or historical context) grows rarer and rarer. A considered review of poetry collections requires independent reading experience (recent graduates tend to sail on their own -- or their professors’ -- enthusiasms); what we think of as “real” criticism is both difficult to write and even harder to get published. And so instead we have blurby blogs and “aggregate” sites of shared opinion and information. These and “panel discussions” have become the replacements for serious judgements. Such substitutes make a lot of noise, but they contain so much snow-balling puffery of friends and colleagues, it’s impossible to take any of their opinions seriously.
A number of years ago we were in correspondence with the late Guy Davenport. That he was encouraging of our interests and projects meant a very great deal to us. When more recently we mentioned his letters to a fellow literary personality, Davenport’s kindness was dismissed with a peremptory, "Oh, Guy was like that." As a consequence, we were especially taken with Wyatt Mason’s introduction to the republication (Margellos World Republic of Letters/Yale University Press, 2013) of Henri Michon’s Masters and Servants. It turns out that Davenport was responsible (with generosity consistent with what we observed) for Michon’s first appearance in English, suggesting the San Francisco publisher Mercury House for Mason’s 1997 translation. Given the number of Michon’s works that have since arrived in English (most recently in Jody Gladding’s rendering of Rimbaud the Son), all we can say is this: Thank the literary gods that "Guy was like that."
The first act of Red Velvet was superb. Produced by Tricycle Theatre at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, Lolita Chakrabarti’s play tells the fascinating “true” narrative of the 19th century African-American thespian Ira Aldridge. The historical Aldridge (played by the extraordinary British actor Adrien Lester OBE) performed, among other things, the role of Othello at Covent Garden in 1833. (For twenty years he toured Europe, receiving kudos from crowned heads in Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Saxony, St. Petersburg....) What we loved about the play, however, had less to do with Aldridge’s extraordinary personal and historical circumstances (the focus of the play’s second half) than with the play’s dramatic treatment of theater itself. We were enthralled by director Indhu Rubasingham’s presentation (dressing rooms being part of the production’s setting); we were also intrigued and entertained by the various characters’ dialogues on the possibilities and purposes of actorly expression. In the playwright’s version of events, the American introduced a radical “naturalism” to his interpretation of Shakespeare. (By way of contrast, the existing stylized norms of Edmund Kean are presented by the supporting cast with uproarious effect.) But this “revolutionary” change of performance style was only the beginning of the great actor’s problem. What Aldridge’s London audiences objected to was their fixed belief that the actor’s portrayal of Othello’s violent nature wasn’t acting: He was just “behaving” like a Black man. And so in the end, the play becomes political; it is about something more than the “narrow” world of theater. A being who is capable of conscious art -- this seems to us to come very close to a working definition of what it means to be human.
The lack of critical filter for online poetry has been an ongoing challenge for some time. This month at Poetry Foundation's Harriet, however, we’ve experienced even more intensely the sensation of randomly generated “stuff," being thrown at us. Harriet has arrived at new lows of incomprehensibility and inarticulateness, so much so that the blog's own willful ignorance is worn as a badge of honor. "Authenticity" of feeling is now indicated by free-associating admissions of pointlessnes such as, “I’ve been asked (and paid) to blog but I really have nothing to say!” followed by mind-mending double-talk praising the work of unknown colleagues.
Such digital noise-making makes it easy to miss some important things -- Robert Hass’s “Modernists:The Women,” in Literary Imagination, for example. It’s not so much that anything in particular Hass has to say is truly news (that Stein, Moore and H.D. form the backbone of American Modernism). But the reading that he gives of certain of their lyrics, combined with the fact that it’s Robert Hass making the case for their significance, is, well, simply great. The effect of women’s education at the turn of the century (Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr, among other institutions) remains fertile ground, hardly turned over. And it is something of an understatement when Hass observes, "It must have been complicated, the experience of young women who were growing into poets among men in those years.” As one of Harriet's National Poetry Month bloggers might respond in a post, "Duh, Yeah!"
As we begin our spring garden tasks, we remember a great book we came across completely by accident in a Cape bookstore two years ago. One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown looks like a coffee-table garden book, which, on one level, it is.(Certainly there are some really beautiful photographs of Welty’s house and garden, now a museum, by Langdon Clay.) One purpose of the book is to show Welty as a serious gardener and to narrate the part gardens played in her life and upbringing. Another function is to record the restoration of Welty’s Jackson, Mississippi home. A third, quite fascinating aspect of the volume is social history: Among other things, Welty and her mother are seen as representatives of two generations of “garden club” members; the fundamental optimism of early twentieth century America is shown through images and language culled from seed catalogues, advertising and journalism. While all of these intentions are nicely accomplished by the authors, for us, the volume’s most fascinating aspect, tucked in the middle like a secret walled enclave, is an incredible snippet of literary biography.
For as the book details, in 1942 Welty met and fell in love with the dashing John Robinson, a flyer for the American Air Force and involved in military intelligence. As Robinson was himself a “talented writer and sophisticated gardner,” much of their wartime correspondence was on the subject of flowers. By the war’s end, however, Welty was 37, and as the book puts it, “past impatience into desperation.” Though she spent periods of time with Robinson in San Francisco and Florence, it took five more years more for Welty to accept that there would be no marriage. Because Welty destroyed his letters in the 1970s “to protect his privacy,” we can only infer that by 1952 or so Robinson had come to accept his homosexuality, settling in Italy with a man twenty years his junior. But because the great love of Welty’s life and the period of her passion for gardening overlap, One Writer’s Garden becomes an essential book for her serious readers. Not only does it contribute to our understanding of that central period of Welty’s life, it suggests something about the autobiographical “meanings” of flowers in her fiction.
Gardening is an expression of perseverance, an active form of hope. For example, when the main character of The Optimist’s Daughter (whom Welty tellingly portrays as a widow) returns to her parent’s home and encounters her family garden’s survivors, she greets as old friends certain hardy perennials that were also favorites of Welty’s own mother: irises, daffodils, roses and camellias. (One poignant survivor of Welty’s actual garden is a particularly beautiful camellia plant given to her by Robinson. The genus was one for which the two shared an especial passion.) Or as she observed to her then-sweetheart in a wartime communication: “It is a still morning, rains every day. I think with pleasure and comfort of my little plants and the roses are growing and blooming. When it is just a little cooler and they all come out the way do in fall, I will miss you then... There is a chance you might see the flowers come up in spring -- there is the feel of dirt for you, and what it does, it makes your hopes seem matter of truest fact. Well, flowers are older than war.”
For many years now we’ve embraced the impossible person of James McNeill Whistler as affectionately as we’ve viewed his drawings, paintings and etchings. But given the nature of the art world (a society whose professional behavior has always had something in common with the fatal procedures of The Hunger Games), who couldn’t view with renewed admiration the author of a volume entitled The Gentle Art of Making Enemies? We picked up a copy of Daniel E. Sutherland’s Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake at New York’s doomed Rizzoli bookstore last month. It turns out that Whistler’s life (which began in Lowell, Massachusetts) contained even more art-world scandals than we’d realized, only one of which was the figurative head-butting of his rich patron, the shipping magnate Frederick Leyland.
Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, currently on view at MASS MoCA, is a recreation of Whistler’s famed and infamous Peacock Room, commissioned by Leyland in 1876. Here Whistler’s defiant gesture is re-imagined as “a space collapsing in on itself, heavy with its own excess and tumultuous history.” Intended to be a warning about our own “Gilded Age” and the “relationship between art and money,” it is indisputably an ambitious installation. But while we appreciate Waterston’s nightmarish concept, we remain unsure about what exactly it wants to say about Whistler as an artist. Whistler may have been conceited and eccentric (he was nearly contemporary in his energetic modes of self-promotion), but he was both serious and sincere in his pursuit of art. Yet at the time he was painting his teal-colored shutters, it should be noted, the artist was most likely having an affair with Leyland’s wife. By the time that scandal had subsided, the unpaid but party-throwing Whistler found himself deeply in debt. His ego thus forced into a corner, he made the tactical error of suing John Ruskin for accusing him of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” And so begins another monumental chapter in Sutherland’s biography, as well as Whistler’ lifelong enemy-making enterprise.
The imagination, the inner life of heart and mind, should have the legal status of a sanctuary. Voluntary abandonment of privacy (online journaling such as Facebook, tumblr, etc.) now takes its place alongside the involuntary; the presence of CCTV, cell phone “wiretapping” and surveillance drones is eerily constant. One of the great paradoxes of the current Orwellian age is how the disappearing right to withdraw (living off a a literal or figurative grid) has been accompanied by crumbling rights of expression, most especially on “non-normative” religious and sexual topics. Widespread internet surveillance (as PEN research recently confirmed) is even affecting how fiction and nonfiction writers approach research on certain controversial topics. Yet despite the intended (and even well-meaning) purposes of such policing (as when, for example, a violent fantasy is the expression of an actual intention), there is an obvious peril in such censorship. For artists especially there remains the absolute necessity to speak up and defend not only free speech but the life of the imagination itself. We admit that not a few of our own encounters with certain such expressions (whether via literary works, through visual art or on social media) have been deeply disturbing. But such manifestations of the inner life -- of private fantasies, if you will -- must remain free from legal censure; they cannot be subject to political control or oversight. In a true democracy there can be no such thing as a thought crime.
Circumstances have introduced us to the world of luthiers and fine string instrument sales, a realm of uncertain provenances and relative values that has more in common with the fine art market than we’d ever have supposed. After months of research and hands-on playing, destiny led us to the work of the contemporary cello maker, Marten Cornelissen. Cornelissen is a craftsman of the old school. You won’t find a website for his workshop, and Google will only lead you to a 1978 article about him entitled, “Undiplomatic Violin Maker Interviewed.” His wife Cornelia, however, published a children’s book about his work in 1995 entitled Music in the Wood that charmingly narrates an instrument’s creation, black-and-white photographs documenting one particular cello’s life story from European forest to Belgian concert hall.
We’ve also been reading Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, a book that begins with the author’s recollection of an argument he had with his teacher, Hannah Arendt, about the distinction between man as animal laborans or homo faber. In some sense, his book is an extended discussion of what Sennett wishes he had said to Arendt back in 1962. Among its wide-ranging topics is included a description of the workshop and legacy of the famed luthier Antonio Stradivari, whose “secrets died with him.” As it happens, the Cornellissen cello, whose sound we now have the daily pleasure to hear, is modeled on the famed Stradivarius, the Countess of Stanlein, once owned by the great Bernard Greenhouse. Greenhouse, who also owned a Cornellisen as his second instrument, himself played “our” instrument for the luthier when it was newly made.
Sennett (who himself plays the cello) argues that the model of the craftsman (a category that includes the poet and the mother as well as the musician and his instrument maker) may serve as a guide to ethical behavior, providing insight into “how to conduct life with skill.” This leads back to issues of political philosophy, to Arendt’s concerns in the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the trial of Eichmann. For as Sennett warns, even the most well-intentioned human pursuits have their own set of pitfalls: “The craftsman often faces conflicting objective standards of excellence; the desire to do something well for its own sake can be impaired by competitive pressure, by frustration, or by obsession.” Thinking of excellence in relation to the contemporary literary scene, we think Sennett is especially on target when writes about the “demoralizing consequences of competition.”
We finally watched Margarete von Trote’s Hannah Arendt (just out on DVD). As a rule, we despise movies about real people, most especially thinkers and writers (the truly dreadful Hemingway and Gelhorn, for example with David Straithorn as John Dos Passos), so we were surprised we didn’t end up hating this. Of course we cringed at the film’s personification of Mary McCarthy (and the false accents of almost all the American characters), but -- maybe this is because her actual person is less familiar to us -- we couldn’t despise the “character” of Arendt. A movie isn’t really the place to debate the actual arguments presented in Eichmann in Jerusalem -- that’s way too complex and problematic an issue for the medium -- but we did come away with a new sense of the humanness of a flawed individual, a woman who was both arrogant and brave in her insistence on the moral obligations of a thinking person. As a political philosopher, does Arendt really deserve to be such an object of scorn, as hated as Heidegger himself? These days she’s become subject to handed-down versions of what she (in our opinion, mistakenly) wrote for the general audience of The New Yorker; in the film’s interpretation of one her most controversial propositions, Arendt’s argument was that the insidiously “unthinking” and morally undermining tendencies of Nazi ideology even affected the behavior of certain Jewish leaders; her intention wasn’t one of assigning “blame” or “responsibility,” to them. At any rate, this is how the film’s Arendt explains herself to a classroom audience sympathetic and wide-eyed students.
This winter we found ourselves watching much, much more television than in past seasons. The truth is that many series (both American and European) are far superior to not only a lot of current films but (as a recent NYT Book Review “face-off” proposed) give even the better contemporary novels a run for their money. As a result, we’ve devoured whole seasons of TV in one sitting; we’ve also handily consumed boxed sets made up of several years of programming over the course of a few nights. Like others to whom we’ve shared our dark secret (dark being the correct adjective with which to describe our favorite shows), we confess we’ve gone on week-long binges, huddled under blankets while our after-dinner cave is lit up by the flickering images projected by the DVD player. Four of our favorites -- Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Borgen, The Americans -- seem to us to have a common subtext if not “true theme.” For us they portray something about modern marriage, about the tensions between impersonal career obligations (methamphetamine production, parliamentary forms of government, spying) and the human responsibilities of each spouse. “Traditional” marriage comes across as something of a sham, as a nefarious front, as a legal form of emotional and professional enabling. Of course, it may just be seasonal affective disorder, but we’ve come to view marriage as an even blacker subject than politics, drug dealing or Cold-War espionage.
One consequence of this winter’s weather was a blocked-up chimney, black soot settling on our library as well as on the tentative layouts of various forthcoming LongNookBooks titles. And we thought to ourselves, how easy it is to forget the necessity of keeping your volcanos swept out! The allusion, of course, is to The Little Prince, and the image came to mind as a result of the current Antoine de Saint -Exupéry exhibit at the Morgan Library. (Spring will soon once again make us painfully aware of the Cape’s invasive species, reminding us also of the disastrous consequences of not staying ahead of the baobab trees... ) The Morgan exhibit tells several stories at once, all of them fascinating in their way. One display narrates the brief history of the adapted book as an early film project of Orson Welles, with special effects by Walt Disney. (Welles claimed that Disney stormed out of their meeting declaring "There is not room on this lot for two geniuses!") Another vitrine outlines the publisher as hero; it displays the bracelet the pilot was wearing when he crashed, its silver engraved with “Reynal and Hitchcock” (the pair who brought out the book posthumously in the US in 1943). Another real-life subplot is Saint X’s warm friendships with various hosting Americans, making the book, in some sense, very much a “New York Story.” Does the author’s relation to Silvia Hamilton limn a love story beneath the fable? Undoubtedly it’s also a wartime tale, with its dedication to a Jewish friend then held by the Nazis. But finally, it’s also a story of translation, as the volume is the most widely translated text from the French. With all these elements set out in one room (beneath photographs, first sketches and early handwritten drafts hung on the walls), we come away with the distinct feeling that the history of The Little Prince remains a story incompletely told. There remains for us something beautifully mysterious and unsettling about the author and his book, as well as about the backstory of its creation.
We are in awe of the effortful art of illusion. On a recent Sunday morning in Manhattan we finally joined a backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera House, something we’ve wanted to do for a very long time. We did have had some idea of the enormity of the building (at ground level, after all, the theater stretches all the way back to Amsterdam Avenue), though the buried verticality of the areas surrounding the stage was unexpectedly impressive. We visited dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces (for ABT in the summer), the rather messy property shop; we examined sets under construction for the coming season (Merry Widow will feature a balustrade); we were shown some of the wigs and costumes arranged for the Met’s upcoming tour to Japan. We confess we touched the sleeve of Placido Domingo’s coat for Andrea Chénier. Because the Met is a repertory house with constantly changing productions, the back halls we visited were filled with the trappings of both new operas and those of recent seasons; costumes were here stored in lockers and cabinets, or on wooden shelves piled with ordinary shoeboxes or even magic-markered Tupperware. The logistics of all this are truly Herculean: Building-size elevators carry Aida’s styrofoam tomb, Rusalka’s plastic lake and Turandot’s towering ping-pong ball headdress several stories up or down as required. In the end, we experienced much of the same humbled astonishment we felt after visiting the Warner Brothers lot in Los Angeles a few years ago: How is it that so much of what we love best is in fact the least real?
Are we becoming as crankily outdated as the editors of the TLS? Some days we feel that way, as it’s becoming impossible to stay afloat the current poetry scene. Not only are there tidal-waves of new work being presented online, there’s also the backwash of lossy discussion about what’s now out there. With one easy keystroke a “text” is born which theoretical approaches can readily be made to justify. Little of this secondary material could be described as sharp-edged criticism; besides the jargon-larded logrolling, it’s mostly comprised of YouTube readings and interviews with fresh-faced authors, poets who have an endless capacity for self-explanation and self-presentation. The graduates of poetics programs now join the MFAs, and they just keep coming. It’s like that scene in World War Z where myriad Zombies climb over a barrier the prescient have built to protect what remains of humanity. But once the living dead find their way up a ladder, there’s no way to keep them out; no matter what falls in their path they pour themselves into compressed files and across our laptop screens, mindless in their determination to -- what exactly? -- turn the last of us also into Zombies? We try to keep an open mind (and acknowledge that at least some of this innovative work is as sincere as it is over-constructed), but for what ultimate purpose are most of these “new poetries” taking hold? To us it appears that their driving purpose is attention of any kind, with the ultimate goal of more traditional publication, employment and celebrity: Scramble over the other Zoets if you must, but be among the first to to get over that damn wall!
We recently paid an early-morning visit to the Morgan Library where we were able to commune in silence with Leonardo’s extraordinary study for the angel in his Virgin of the Rocks. We’d always read of this “most beautiful drawing of all time,” and must agree that on some ideal aesthetics “best list,” it does indeed deserve placement near the very top. The reason we feel this, we said to ourselves in the museum’s climate-controlled hum, is that the face’s knowing expression corresponds exactly to our imaginary of the “angelic,” a quality neither masculine nor feminine but some kind of composite of those two realms of beauty. From there we descended to “Visions and Nightmares: Four Centuries of Spanish Drawings,” where, among other things, Goya’s deafness found visual expression in political blackness. More darkness was exhibited around the corner in “Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul,” though what we encountered there was not terror so much as the writer’s unshakable melancholy -- which was surely not unrelated to the vocational frustrations of a very great poet. It was so sad we almost couldn’t bear it. But how we would have loved to hear Paul Auster’s talk-interview about “Edgar Poe” (as he’s known in France)! Auster’s talk was to revisit a paper he’d written years ago, the beguiling notes for which were included in the Morgan exhibition.
This past summer we found ourselves at The Charles Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. The exhibit being shown was “Gardens and More,” a small collection of the artist’s watercolors of flowers -- which sounds like a dull subject, but it was actually quite “dazzling.” As Demuth wrote in an unpublished short story: “All the objects in the garden took from the light, for the moment, some of its color and quality and added them to their own. When the young man began to paint, all things seemed to him to glitter and float in golden liquid.” The museum is housed in the artist’s childhood home on Lancaster’s East King Street, his mother Augusta’s brick-lined garden still out back and well-tended by the informed museum staff.
It’s somewhat hard to picture this Demuth as the same artist who created I Saw the Figure Five in Gold, his later “Precisionist” painting whose familiar image appeared just last year on a U.S. postage stamp. That work was a response to his friend William Carlos Williams’ poem, “The Great Figure,” and its lines: “I saw the figure five / in gold / on a red / firetruck...” We’d forgotten all this until we saw the same image last month in “Demuth’s American Dream” at the Gary Indiana “Beyond LOVE” show at the Whitney, understanding the allusion (for the first time, we admit) of the word “Bill” in both paintings. We also saw (as we’d been told) how Demuth’s 1928 “American product” anticipates Pop Art works such as those of Indiana. And since Gertrude Stein was also a good friend of the peripatetic Demuth (he spent time in Provincetown as well as Paris), there’s a nice circularity to the inclusion of Indiana’s costume designs for Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All in the Whitney show; that quiet little room provided a delicately impressive respite from the visual loudness of the rest of the exhibit.
We were at Tibor de Nagy gallery not to view the works of Jess Collins but to take great pleasure in Richard Baker’s “Holiday,” quite delightfully set up in the gallery’s smaller side room. We confess our contrasting reaction to Jess’s disparate works arranged in Tibor’s main space was that it all seemed muddled rather than visionary. But the experience did send us down to Grey Art Gallery’s “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle,” which was completely fascinating. The familiar collages, put into perspective, did there seem like the breakthrough works they are. We didn’t read Holland Cotter’s NYT review until after we got back to the Cape, but we found ourselves in agreement with much of his response to the show, especially his conclusion that the artistic coterie “was an end in itself.” And as far as own own perspective on the NYU exhibit, we couldn’t help but think that certain Duncanesque aspects of the sixties -- especially his circle’s serious engagement with cinema -- may be traced back to H.D., only one of the truly significant women figures tangentially referred to or included in the “Opening of the Field.”
We ate up Solo, William Boyd’s James Bond novel, like perfectly prepared fast food -- a brioche-bun burger with a heart of foie gras. Though more often than not he was limited by his having to sound like Ian Fleming, Boyd nevertheless managed to write a quite good novel. Some of the most absurd (yet Flemingesque) touches include a recipe for vinaigrette, with which Bond dresses his own salad at an American steakhouse. And frankly, Boyd’s Bond has more of a political conscience than is consistent with Fleming’s cold-war figure. Set in an imaginary country in late-sixties West Africa, the book feels more like Graham Greene than Ian Fleming -- though from a reader’s point of view, this is no cause for criticism. The narrative construction of the book, for one thing, is better than anything than Fleming could have managed. Maybe in the end it’s a little too pat (though all too consistent with post-war politics) that Spectre has been replaced by international oil companies. But we still enjoy seeing Bond predictably bring down (at least some of) the world’s bad guys.
The motivation for Mark Rylance’s Richard III was the self-hatred of the professional comedian. Or such was the idea we came away with after the first scenes of his recent performance at the Belasco Theater. It’s true that as the lovestruck teenager girl Olivia in Twelfth Night Rylance had made us laugh out loud, but we were unprepared for the audience guffaws that initially greeted Rylance’s Richard. We found it quite disconcerting that such a monster could provoke anything like levity. Unlike Oliver’s slithery character on film (in retrospect one almost has a sense that the cutthroat thespian was playing a version of himself), Rylance’s Richard provokes disgusted pity for the late-night monologuist along with a more traditional Machiavellian horror. It may not be a “definitive” interpretation of Shakespeare’s stunted monarch, but it’s also not one we will soon forget.
One of the best presents we received this year for Christmas was the big, thick collection of Malcolm Cowley’s letters, brought out by Harvard University Press and entitledThe Long Voyage. The literary journey was long because the life was long. If the book only provided the backstory to Exile’s Return, the letters would be more than worthwhile, but they do much more: The volume provides an additional fifty years of American literary history not readily found elsewhere. We had always heard about Cowley’s friendship and editorial assistance to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Crane, Cummings and Dos Passos -- but who knew about Kerouac and Ken Kesey? And it’s been far too easily forgotten that Cowley’s editing of The Portable Faulkner (at a time when almost all the novelist’s works were out of print) was followed four years later by his being awarded the Nobel prize. An early translator of Valéry and Gide, Cowley also made sure that the first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was reprinted in 1959. And, of course, he himself was a poet. In an interview he once said, “The writer’s trade is a long, laborious but lovely occupation of putting words into patterns.” In his poem “Blue Juniata” the ever-struggling Cowley put his definition into practice, forming with words “a music / made visible, a monument of air.”
And so, besides those we’ve already mentioned in the newsletter, what were some of our favorite books of poetry this year? Because we’re always a little behind in our reading, not all the most memorable volumes came out in 2013; but certainly this year’s Hugo Claus collection, Even Now, is worth drawing attention to, especially since it came and went with little critical fanfare. Selected and translated by David Colmer, this elegant Archipelago Books edition takes the #1 position on our theoretical “best” list. As a taste of Claus’s temperament, here are the opening lines of his 1961 poem, “N.Y.”: Over the rippled asphalt, through the steam / billowing from the grates, / three Black warriors carry a pink summer evening gown / like a senator’s wife. The writer’s Stoic death in 2008 by euthanasia (he was suffering from Alzeimer’s), though legal in his native Belgium, caused some controversy. Cees Nooteboom’s funeral-oration afterword, which closes the book, movingly marks the felling of a great Dutch oak: "Suddenly there’s an opening in the forest, a place where light can penetrate and feed new growth."
We’re sorely tempted to propose our own year-end compilation of the worst books of poetry we’ve seen on more than a few “best books of 2013” lists. Perhaps we’d note them here if we’d actually managed to make it all the way through their pages; this past year we stood stunned in several NYC bookstores’ poetry aisles, shaking our heads in wonder at some of these volumes’ dreadfulness. We do need to observe, however, that the lists on which some of these books found themselves didn’t hold up to the most nominal scrutiny. Though a few added “full disclosure” statements acknowledging personal and professional affiliations, it was astonishing how many of these lists’ authors could also be found on the acknowledgement pages of their “favorite” poets. It would be much better -- and no shame -- to state outright: “These are some of the books my friends and colleagues published this year.”
The Dickinson “sketches” at the Drawing Center have gotten a lot of attention. Once again, the recluse shows herself a prophetess! But we were also enthralled by Robert Walser’s handwritten texts which, though different from Dickinson’s in their writerly impulses, do suggest a comparable obsession with the physical feel and placement of words created by sharpened pencil. We’re not sure whether such “drafts” truly constitute a visual art; to us the“text-object” aspect of the two writers’ work is more a product of contemporary curatorship than a matter of artistic intention. And the curatorial language at the Drawing Center is particularly meaningless, full of nonsensical double talk about “modernism’s longstanding effort to purge art of narrative association in favor of material and conceptual self-sufficiency.” We would also argue with Claire Gilman’s assertion that “rarely in literature has the manner in which words are made been so integral to the way in which they might be read”; the history of literature is far too long for the accuracy of such an expansive statement (illuminated manuscripts, as just one point of significant reference). Still, the Drawing Center’s combined back and front rooms (“Drawing Time, Reading Time”), as well as the fantastic William Engelen music installation in the basement (“Falten”), present a richly diverse “works on paper” experience.
As longtime admirers of Martha Clarke, we weren’t surprised by the wonderfully poetic qualities of her staged version of Colette’s Chéri which we saw in previews at the Pershing Square Signature Center in NYC. Sarah Rothenberg’s onstage performance of her own compilation of piano music that comprised the show’s score was as fine as anticipated. And though we were somewhat mixed in our response to Amy Irving’s bitter rendering of the character of Charlotte, the performances of dancers Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri were both impeccable and moving. What came as a shock, even though we knew perfectly well what was coming, was the piece’s brutal conclusion. The finale stunned us into a silence that lasted long after the play’s final bows and applause.
Speaking of Robert Pinsky, among the holiday books we’d recommend as gifts to aspiring poets is his thoroughly engaging Singing School. We must admit that our first thought when the book came out was: “Uh oh, not another ‘Favorite’ anthology!” But though some of the material was familiar (we recognized once again that the germ for a number of Pinsky’s choices and comments may be found in his studies with Yvor Winters), we were very happily surprised by his inclusion of certain women poets (Aphra Behn, the undervalued Louise Bogan, May Swenson, et al.). And we really like how the undated works of Cavalier poets and Elizabethans (again, both men and women) converse with contemporaries. We defy anyone to read aloud the dialogue between Yeats and Pound without being moved by powerful alternations of tenderness and hilarity. We almost understand David Orr’s verbal perturbations about the book in the Times Book Review; how indeed does one explain a creative writing professor who argues that the most valuable way to learn to write great poems is to read, alone, the work of masters? This seems to us a reasonable thesis, but it’s apparently somewhat controversial, for it rubs against the “workshop-training” grain of recent MFA degree-carrying poets. Without saying so explicitly, Pinsky seems to acknowledge the depressing sameness of the poetry currently being published: “A reigning style can feel tyrannical: the assumptions behind it so well-established that there seem to be no alternatives.” To us it appears that the Laureate has become sneakily subversive, hiding in plain sight: “There are no rules.”
All summer we both read and heard about Hothouse, the history of Farrar, Straus & Giroux as penned by Boris Kachka. Now, several months into the fall season, we’ve finally had an actual look at its pages. Given its subject, what surprises us most about the book is how breezily, and rather badly, it’s written. For longtime admirers of Farrar, maybe it’s too much like watching sausages being made; there’s a lot here we really don’t want to know. Hothouse ends up being mostly a book of gossip about Roger Straus, a figure who comes off as a bit of a womanizing clown. And while it’s inarguable that he overshadowed and underpaid his stable of distinguished editors, he did, after all, bring aboard Robert Giroux.
Perhaps Farrar’s “real” history might better be gleaned from Fifty Years, published in 1996 hors commerce for the publishing house’s fiftieth anniversary. It’s an excellent anthology, with an impressive list of books published from 1946 as an epilogue. The hard-to-find volume also includes a small sampling of FSG’s poetry list; a memorable reading (introduced by Straus himself) of and by some of the house poets took place the year of Fifty Years’ publication at New York’s Town Hall. Poets’ Night, a recording of that evening, preserves Robert Pinsky forceful channelling of Louise Bogan: Come, drunks and drug-takers; come, perverts unnerved! / Receive the laurel, given, though late, on merit; to whom and wherever deserved. // Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue, / Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is deathless. And it isn’t for you.
We’re even lucky during the off-season with the quality of the artists who visit the Cape. We felt especially fortunate to attend the open rehearsal of the Cape Cod Symphony this month, an evening which included a run-through of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major by the charismatic Amit Peled. The cellist has longstanding connections to the Cape, as the young Israeli came to Wellfleet some twenty years ago to study with the late Bernard Greenhouse. We’ve had the pleasure of hearing Peled perform in the context of quite different venues on the Cape, and though he doesn’t lack the technical exactitude required of professionals these days, what makes his playing so moving is its distinctively human quality. After working with Greenhouse, Peled has said, “I realize it never ends -- this journey to look for your voice.”
My heart is in my / pocket, wrote Frank O’Hara fifty years ago, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy. The new NYRB collection of Reverdy poems, edited by Mary Ann Caws, nicely fills 21st-century pockets. The English versions are a mixed lot, though a number of distinguished names (John Ashbery, Lydia Davis, Marilyn Hacker, Richard Howard, Ron Padgett, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Sieburth, Rosanna Warren) are listed among their translators. (Special thanks to Bill Berkson for “passing on” the version of “Chair Vive” by Frank O’Hara!) Since the originals are presented en face, any unevenness doesn’t much matter; even those readers with the most basic French are able to encounter Reverdy’s actual words and music. Pierre Reverdy the recluse remains a personality without much of a biography (save for a liaison with the suspect Coco Chanel), a fact that has made him somewhat hard to market: “Let me never be well-known,” he is said to have prayed. We're especially grateful to Caws for O’Hara’s translation of this (as described by Octavio Paz) “secret poet for secret readers”: Lock on the heart that’s breaking / A silk thread / A plumb-line / A thread of blood / After waves of silence / Those kinky black signs of love
It seems the Janice Biala retrospective, “Vision and Memory” at the Godwin-Ternbach, was doomed to disappear with nary a critical trace. We have to admit that it’s a major pain to get out to the Queens College museum (with no easy way there via public transportation from Manhattan), yet it remains more than a shame that so few critics made note of it. And though Tibor de Nagy’s gallery “Biala and Brustlein” had some nice canvases, the size of the museum’s downstairs exhibition space really allowed Biala’s larger works to open up fully, like uncorked wine or fresh-cut flowers in water. Her “strong and silent” figurative works easily stand up to those of male colleagues like Arthur Dove or Milton Avery. And her lesser-known abstractions and collages placed in the museum’s balcony (some shown in previous Tibor shows) are magnificent. There are those (ourselves included) who believe Biala was a better painter than her brother, Jack Tworkov. This is inarguably a show that should have traveled elsewhere.
Since we saw Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy in previews a few weeks ago, we’ve been a bit surprised by the great reviews it’s getting. To be honest, the Roundabout-Old Vic play was a bit boring, being, as the French put it, so correct. Roger Rees went through his paces, expertly and sometimes movingly (especially in a crucial scene with his doomed-to-be-a-spinster daughter, played by the excellent Charlotte Parry), though the upshot of Rees’s performance at the bounding curtain call was that he’s not yet the old man he appears to be in the drama. What was quite good about it all was, oddly enough, the production’s complete staginess. We found ourselves admiring the stylized lines of certain performances (Michael Cumpsty’s well-meaning cricket oaf), the dramaturgical equivalent of the ethically motivated stiff upper lip -- which is, in a way, the play’s subject. It’s an Edwardian period piece that echoes something of the ethos of Britain’s noble behavior in the Second World War, the time of its creation. The play was an odd but interesting choice for David Mamet to make into a movie in 1999; while the Anthony Asquith version from 1948 relied on the fundamental goodness revealed in the eyes and voice of the great Robert Donat. It was something of Donat’s rendering of the charismatic barrister Sir Robert Morton that we most yearned for in the current production.
New York’s art critic Jerry Saltz admits he doesn’t really like Balthus; his comments in an issue some weeks ago suggest to us that he doesn’t really understand the painter either. Like most viewers, Saltz gets caught up in the subject matter of Balthus’s paintings. Theres no avoiding the artist’s fixation on young girls, which expresses itself in blatantly sexual and sometimes sadomasochistic terms. The Balthus photography show at Gagosian, exhibiting polaroids of the artist’s last teenage model, only complicates the matter. It doesn’t help that Gagosian’s gift shop offers for purchase an oversize “coffee-table” book reproducing these images for an exorbitant sum. Expensive erotica such as this further commodifies Balthus’s art, even though these rather clumsy polaroids were intended as studies for paintings at a point when Balthus was losing his ability to sketch. We could go on a long diatribe here about the transformation of his painting into a kind of kinky “gold bullion,” as an “alternative investment market” for Wall Street, but it would restate the obvious.
For us the work of Balthus is really “about” the obsessiveness of the artistic enterprise and the fundamentally erotic nature of creation. The Metropolitan Museum “Balthus: Cats and Girls,”curated by Sabine Rewald, shows how the painter plumbed his own psychic archaeology. (His personal life included a possible blood relation to Rilke, who was at one time his mother’s lover) Through the illustrated childhood narrative exhibited at the Met show, he turned the death of his kitten Mitsou into an epic tragedy. The tauntingly remote cat came to represent both himself and the figure of the beloved, there and not there. Art inspires desire; desire demands knowledge; art uses eroticism as a mode of self-knowledge.
We’re hardly the first observers to note how his works belong to a tradition of religious painting. In purely formal terms the spherical forms of his pubescent girls echo the Madonnas of Piero. The fresco tones of Young Girl at a Window recall the Italian primitives. As a study in ecstasy, the twisted pietà of the intentionally scandalous The Guitar Lesson (not included in the Met show) might be described as a girlish version of Bernini’s Saint Theresa. Balthus knew perfectly well that viewers would be shocked by the sight of a young girl being fondled by an aggressive Lesbian figure (mimicking in her posture the attentions of Michelangelo’s holy Mother). The cagey Balthus intended to court controversy and he got exactly what he bargained for: Notice and sales.
We are inconsistent in our polemics. Given our posting on September 23, you’d think we’d be thrilled that a woman has won this year’s Nobel prize in literature. Instead (despite the Onion’s mockery on the subject), we believe John Ashbery should have been chosen as this year’s winner. Actually, no, we take that back: Ashbery is beyond prizes. Even the Nobel seems like a flimsy tribute. This is not only a matter of Ashbery’s poetic and critical oeuvre, spectacular in quality and volume; there’s also the not inconsequential issue of his influence. Even if every one of his poems somehow disintegrated into thin air, Ashbery’s literary presence would remain in the way poets (and not only American ones) have come to write. With all due respect to Alice Munro, if the Swedish Academy is looking for literary “greatness” (someone like Picasso who in his lifetime has formed a point of reference for the art’s practitioners), the poets’ choice is Ashbery.
It’s very hard to find adequate terms with which to praise perfection. And as the great Morton Feldman once put it, “The tragedy of music is that it begins with perfection.” But musical experience can end that way, too, as at the final curtain of the Cosi Fan Tutte we saw last week at the Met. Both the heart-rending young singers and the lovely Watteau-like production were everything Mozart lovers could ask for, though James Levine’s conducting was ultimately responsible for the performance’s sublimity. How can musical wisdom be both profound and frivolous? We ourselves don’t have a clue, but Levine has cracked the comic opera’s Masonic secret.
Last week’s “Live from the NYPL” reading (which we were unable to attend) was described as “three generations of poets” coming together “to trace the arc of modernism in poetry.” John Ashbery joined Timothy Donnelly (co-editor with Ashbery of last year’s Three Poets and professor at Columbia School of the Arts) with their junior colleague Adam Fitzgerald (Columbia MFA, New School instructor and co-curator of the “John Ashbery Collects” show currently at the Loretta Howard Gallery; here Donnelly will also be giving a spontaneous "non-lecture" on October 19 in an Ashbery event hosted by Fitzgerald). The NYPL evening was introduced by Robert Polito, former director of the New School writing program and new head of the Poetry Foundation. We acknowledge that this trio suggests one possible modernist line of descent continuing through Columbia and the New York School. But another “arc” we’d like to see sketched is the one springing from H.D.; this grouping would currently include Anne Carson, Susan Howe, and Maureen McClane. Or there’s the “arc” reaching from Gertrude Stein to, say, Susan Wheeler and Brenda Shaughnessy. With all due respect to Messieurs Ashbery and Co., to us the evening smacks of “patriarchal hegemony.” With all the professional links between the three, the program provides evidence of the continued effectiveness of what was once known as “Old Boy” networking.
Following up on last week’s posting, and the subject of weird coincidences, we were a little startled to see Adam Kirsch’s discussion of Rachel Wetzsteon at Poetry Foundation. But we were also very sad to read the comments of the site’s readers, some of whom appeared to have never heard of the (not-so) late poet. We’ve always believed the more first-rate work is praised and remembered, the better; the initial online responses to Kirsch’s discussion only makes us feel this all the more strongly.
The New Yorker has had summer connections to the Outer Cape for a long time. For many years (long before our arrival here) Philip Hamburger was a regular Wellfleet fixture, and we ourselves have happily encountered various of the magazine’s associates either on Longnook Road or the beach itself. We confess we’ve even suspected that the cartoonist Sempé has “our” beach as his point of reference for numerous of his New Yorker covers, though this must surely be coincidence. Yet Longnook’s distinctive drop down to the water does seem to us to appear in several of his depictions of solitary beach-goers in various states of meditation or delight.
This summer a new set of signs arrived at the top of the overlook, warning (among other things) of the presence of Great White sharks. And so, naturally, we were enthralled by Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker article on these fascinating (and terrifying) creatures. Among our neighbors opinions were divided as to whether the new signs increased safety or tourism (the town even put the image of a shark on its beach stickers). In any event, it was a very busy summer, with Longnook’s parking lot more crowded than we’ve ever seen it. The Cape’s car traffic is now easing up, though we still hear work-centered conversations outside our windows, that very particular dialogue of visiting urbanite cyclists and joggers. But this is as we’ve seen it before: Week by week, as the weather grows cooler the crowds grow thin -- until soon enough it’s just us and the seals.
We were impressed by both contributions to the newly instituted “Bookends” feature in the back pages of the NYT Book Review. Zoe Heller and Adam Kirsch, writers we much admire, are by no means merely “professional” in Virginia Woolf’s sense; these are two people who most definitely qualify as literary artists and have much better things to do with their laptops. But they hardly took opposite positions on the subject of rigorous reviews. We were struck by the extraordinary coincidence of the same topic being similarly approached (and followed by extensive critical analysis) in the Longnook Overlook’s “The Race of Rachel Wetzsteon,” a heartfelt yet not entirely laudatory summation of the late poet’s career. The first paragraph starts somewhere where the “Bookends” columns leave off:
Writing the truth about a contemporary poet’s work without causing some form of psychic injury is impossible. Given the relative closeness of the poetry world, the author under review is likely to be an acquaintance -- or at the very least, the friend of a friend. As a result there are almost always repercussions to a negative opinion... But more problematic than such damage is the fact that any poet-critic’s objectivity is called into question by the process of serious criticism; her vocational honor is at stake. One racehorse, in effect, has been called upon to comment on the abilities and track record of a competitor.
And on the issue of serious literary criticism (and the unlikelihood of it finding its way into the pages of the Sunday NYT), we couldn’t help but be reminded of something Allen Tate wrote of the “prejudgement” of the commercial publishing marketplace in 1936:
[Criticism] asks the reader to take a post of observation, and to occupy it long enough to examine closely the field before him. This, one supposes is dogmatism, but it is arguable still that dogma in criticism is a permanent necessity: the value of the dogma will be determined by the quality of the mind engaged in constructing it. For dogma is coherent thought in the pursuit of principles. If the critic has risen to the plane of principle and refuses to judge by prejudice, he will... grant enormous variety to the specific arts. For it must be remembered that prejudice is not dogma, that the one has no toleration of the other. If prejudice were dogma, the New York Times Book Review would be a first-rate critical organ. It allows the narrowest possible range of artistic performance along with the widest latitude of incoherent opinion and of popular success -- simply because it uses, instead of principle, prejudice.
Coming up on us all next week is the twelve-year anniversary of 9/11. This may partially explain why at her poetry reading (with Toby Olson) at Truro’s Meeting House just two weeks ago, Mary Maxwell’s tragedy-inflected poems from Emporia were especially well received. “World Trade,” a moving recollection of that shared date and “where you were when it happened” was met with the poignant silence of shared recall. Though Maxwell herself commented at length on the autobiographical origins of her prose poems’ distinct forms, a complementary perspective on the work may be found in the pages of the forthcoming Longnook Overlook:
[Emporia’s] justified verbal-visual quadrilaterals (set within the framing paper rectangle) allude to two sets of twin buildings: the Parson-Souders department store of Maxwell’s childhood and lower Manhattan’s doomed Trade Towers. These sets of structures inescapably shadow the entire enterprise; the text blocks become paired iconic referents for both the poetic “topic” and the embedded subject of 9/11.
How much we’ve enjoyed Richard Baker’s shows at the Albert Merola Gallery in Provincetown. For us, his more recent preoccupations reflect an artistic community and culture we missed in historical actuality but still think of with a kind of imaginary nostalgia, a “coterie” that includes but extends beyond the “New York School” of poets and painters. Last year we were especially charmed by his “reproductions” of Penguin paperbacks, recording the intellectual concerns of a certain time and place. For us these volumes’ simple designs and familiar orange plucked a moving note of casual high-mindedness. This year we were touched by the worn quality of certain of his art book paintings, flaws that indicate use -- and therefore love -- of the books’ subjects. Record albums from the sixties have been added to Baker’s mix, evoking the sound and social culture of a particular past. Their distinctive combination of seriousness and insouciance is exactly right, perfectly in keeping with a certain O’Hara artistic legacy.
We extend our congratulations to Don Share for his new position as head honcho at Poetry. Looking at the summer issue, however, we are troubled by the triple coincidence of David Orr poems in the current issue, Orr’s review of James Longenbach in this last Sunday’s NYT Sunday Book Review and a Longenbach poem listed alongside Orr’s own in the same Poetry table of contents. We have a thought: Since a prohibition against incest is not an irrational tabu, maybe something comparable should be put into place for poetry. Inbreeding produces monsters. As poetry “consumers,” we find such overlaps oppressive. Too much of the limited review space in various “publications of note” is filled with discussions of the work of poetry editors. And we see way too many of these editors’ poems among the pages of the magazines to which we subscribe. We note here that these contributions are (and this is being generous) not always of the highest caliber. We don’t mean to suggest anything nefarious in all this. It’s a social-professional network like any other, with various exchanges taking place among like-minded colleagues and their publications. But maybe it’s not a bad idea to institute an informal ban on reviews by poetry editors of other poetry editors, as well as some kind of moratorium on periodical publication of these poet-editors’ poems themselves. Obviously this would mean having to wait for the books of some very fine poets, but after all, few of these really “need” a list of magazine or journal credits at this point. Off the top of our head, besides Don Share, in this category might be found Henri Cole, Major Jackson, David Yezzi, Joshua Weiner, Bruce Bond, Paul Muldoon, Robert Pinsky, Timothy Donnelly, and J.D. McClatchy, but there are lots more -- even a few women’s names, like Saskia Hamilton. Of course, the previous list doesn't take into account contributing, advisory, emeritus and assistant editors (Christian Wiman, Meghan O’Rourke, Dan Chiasson) or those (like Rebecca Wolfe, Jeffrey Yang, Jill Bialosky or Jonathan Galassi) who serve as poetry editors at book publishing concerns. Well, as we said, it's a thought.
We actually never met the late filmmaker Chris Marker, though our paths almost crossed a few times in Paris, due to acquaintances there held in common. But especially after spending time with Immemory, a fascinating interactive CD-ROM brought out by the admirable Exact Change, we have a continued sense of his pseudonymous person (the name the Frenchman gave himself could be translated with the supra-linguistic symbol “X”). As Marker’s website quotes Montaigne: “All the world knows me by my book, and my book in me.” Yet (as many have noted) Marker’s works (La Jetée or Sans Soleil, for example) are almost impossible to categorize. Given that his was, above all, the project of memory, we would don him as “a multidisciplinary poet.” He described himself as a collector of “bricolage.”
Something equally true might be said of the poet Susan Howe -- as well as of her Sorting Facts; or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker. In the course of this “film essay” (first published in 1996), Howe comes to identify herself as also working in a “poetic documentary form.” Republished this year by New Directions in their reincarnated “Poetry Pamphlets” series, the book’s subject is of immediate interest to us, though we question how much actual insight Howe really has into Marker’s films. We do end up knowing something about the admirable Howe’s impulses and processes, but these aren’t really all that consistent with Marker’s oeuvre. Marker was a rigorous thinker, even though his “experimental” methods (now fifty years old) were "untraditional." By contrast, Howe’s nineteen-part compilation form doesn’t feel like a form; it feels like a compilation. The trendy randomness of her prose montage (treating the cinema of Vertov and Tarkovsky in its scattershot unfolding) appears to be a “conceptual” choice for the first of a proposed series of hybrid works written by poets. Rather than read, it strikes us as a book to be referred to and talked about.
We missed the anniversary of our newsletter, begun last year on July 9, but then it’s been a busy year for us. The Longnook Overlook is currently circulating in page proofs, and the response to both the concept and various individual contributions has been enthusiastic. The final form of the Overlook (with an 16-page insert of four-color reproductions) is now due to come out in early 2014. Also in the works for next year is a memoir of Richard Olney; then after that, still in the process of compilation, are Mary Maxwell’s essays and talks, delayed due to the fact that she keeps writing and giving talks that need to be included in the book collection. This past month, for example, she published “Questions and Comments from the Audience” (on a performance of Anne Carson’s Antigonick) in Arion. And next month she’ll be giving a lecture in conjunction with the “Biala: Vision and Memory” exhibit at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum. The talk, entitled “The Summer at Benfolly,” will revisit the 1937 intersection of Allen Tate, Ford Madox Ford, Janice Biala and Robert Lowell (among others) at Tate’s farm in Tennessee.
We had an amusing experience this past week at the Dia Beacon cafe while waiting for the exhibits to open up. On the cafe’s paper napkin was printed a list of contemporary artists -- Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner, et al. Reading down the roll-call of male names, we grew increasingly infuriated and were on the verge of filing a protest at the admissions desk when we spied the name Louise Lawler and the title “Birdcalls” in the lower right-hand corner. Out in the gallery garden we laughed out loud at Lawler’s 1972 sound installation. For among the carefully maintained flowers and manicured shrubs (designed by the great Robert Irwin), the napkin-litany of male names had been reduced to a series of hilarious bird calls: “Beuys. Beuys. Beuys.” Was this a reference to the classical myth of Philomela, transformed into a nightingale and doomed to cry out the name of her oppressor in birdcall? We don’t know for sure, but our chuckling at the possible allusion was bitter nonetheless.
After visiting the rather scary Louis Bourgeois sculptures upstairs at Dia, we remembered seeing a video of a Bourgeois sound project at “Les Papesses,” a fascinating (and sometimes a bit terrifying) exhibition we saw at the Palais des Papes and the Collection Lambert in Avignon. What an amazing group of women artists! Works of Camille Claudel, Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Jana Sterbak and Berlinde de Bruyckere (the last two providing the scariest elements) were arranged among the halls of the medieval palace as well as the neo-classical Collection Lambert. The payoff, for us, was the gorgeous Kiki Smith installation in the Lambert’s lower spaces. The work was enchanting, a paradise to balance the creepy hellish quality of much of the work across town. Words cannot do justice to the magical loveliness of the experience, nor can the photographs compiled in the (nevertheless worthwhile) exhibit catalogue do much more than recall something of the pieces actually seen. We also very much appreciated Smith’s artist statement, “To Follow the Path of My Work”: “I do not see that my experience is particularly unique or separate from others. Each person is given a vantage point; each person is given an opening into, or an aspect of, consciousness. A work is successful when it holds profound meaning (sometimes just temporarily) and retains enough space so that others can find their own experience with it. I think what art does socially is give image to the complexity of our lives.”
Given our recent travels and interests, we were especially impressed by Neal Ascherson’s piece in the July 18 London Review of Books, “Marseille, 1940-43.” As someone tartly observed, “2013 is not the first year that Marseille was European Capital of Culture. The first time was in 1940.” For it was in that pivotal year that a mind-bending constellation of refugees found themselves in the southern capital, “jostling for a room in a cheap hotel or a place in a consulate queue.” Among these refugees’ names could be found some of European culture’s most famous: Heinrich Mann, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, Alma Mahler, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst.... The list, as they say, goes on and on. A number of these male refugees also found themselves held as “enemy aliens” at Les Milles, a tile factory located on the outskirts of Aix converted into a detention camp. The camp has recently opened as a “site-mémorial” containing explanatory exhibits and vast spaces that once held thousands upon thousands of miserable inmates. Most of these detainees ended up at Drancy and beyond; a crucial few witnesses (like Lion Feuchtwanger) survived and found their way to the United States. (Two thousand of these rescues were as a result of the heroic interventions of American Varian Fry.) But though much of the history described is familiar, the place (as depressing as it may be) also preserves an uplifting narrative of personal and artistic survival. In captivity music was written and performed; drawings were made and exhibited; poetry and stories were written and read aloud to fellow prisoners. Most astonishing, and moving to us, is the physical evidence of the “Catacombs,” the German detainees’ recreation of a Berlin cabaret in a tile furnace. A restored mural on the wall of what was the camp-guard’s canteen (probably painted by Karl Bodek who perished at Auschwitz) is a visual parody of the Last Supper; a painted couplet on the room’s facing wall makes light of starvation: “Si vos assiettes ne sont pas très garnies, puissent nos dessins vous calmer l’appetit.” Where does resistance to tyranny and injustice find its origin? This is the unanswerable question that Les Milles asks its visitors. In any case, such evidence as we found in the place itself makes us wonder whether gallows humor may not be, after all, the truest expression of the human spirit.
We attended a couple of memorable outdoor music events during our recent trip to France. Perhaps most dramatic was the gratis performance of Rigoletto arias (from the Aix music festival production) presented on a specially constructed stage at one end of the Cours Mirabeau. The acoustics weren’t great; the singers had to battle with the vespas, sirens and swallows; and the London Symphony Orchestra musicians’ instruments went in and out of tune in the summer humidity. But it was still a great experience, shared with a wonderfully diverse audience of music lovers under the Aix’s famous plane trees. Another evening (alongside with a considerably smaller audience) we heard a Haydn and then a Britten string quartet played by the Quatuor Navarra in the courtyard of the 18th-century Hotel Maynier d’Oppede. Once again, a gliding chorus of swallows seemed to take particular delight in its ability to interrupt the musical proceedings. Back in the days when we lived on the Upper West Side, on similarly hot summer evenings we enjoyed the very different dynamic of Lincoln Center Out of Doors in the company of taxis and pigeons. Now in Truro, we especially appreciate the amazing variety of first-rate music presented at the Payomet, its tent set up among a backbeat of crickets at the old Air Force base. And then, of course, there are the free bandstand offerings available every Thursday evening on the town green, where summer tourists and locals listen and watch excited children plumb their last reserves of physical energy as the skies grow dark, dancing themselves to exhaustion after a long day at the beach.
At the Fondation Maeght we saw a rather contrived show put together by the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy entitled “Les aventures de la vérité.” Even before we arrived in Saint-Paul de Vence the supposed tension between philosophy and painting seemed to us a rather misguided premise for an art exhibit. And sure enough, almost all the works were chosen in relation to their “subject matter,” as ways of working out the curator’s dubious theses. From the point of view of those who love painting, much of the selection struck us as genuinely imbecilic; but then again, arranged within the confines of conceptual “stations,” few of Lévy’s choices stood any chance of being appreciated for their formal impulses. We can’t imagine how a philosopher might respond to such a display, though we’re pretty sure any rigorous thinker would recognize the texts of the accompanying coffee-table book as a lot of epistemological mumbo-jumbo. Though it was frustrating not to have access to the permanent collection, there was still the Josep Lluis Sert buildings and surrounding grounds (the Giacometti courtyard, the Miro ceramics and fountains, the gorgeous Calder, etc.). The whole ensemble (the brainchild of André Malraux) comprises one of the most beautiful places we’ve even encountered. Especially in the summer, wandering through multi-leveled rooms and outdoor spaces, the visitor experiences a revivifying dynamic between man-made and natural forms.
As a sort of reversed experience, in the shockingly uninteresting new Musée Départemental Arles Antique (basically an Ikea store full of exhibits) we were wowed by an extraordinary temporary exhibit, “Rodin: The Light from Antiquity.” Room after room displayed Rodin’s amazing work interspersed with a remarkable assortment of classical sculpture. Some of these pieces were from Rodin’s own collection while others were there as a result of spectacular loans. Somehow the Vatican copy of the monumental Laocoon from Versailles was transported to Arles, as was the Diadumenos from the British Museum. Even the “Venus of Vienne” and the “Venus of Arles” were borrowed from the Louvre, as though on a family visit “back home.” With the enormous sculptures still in our sense memories, we’ll be reading the accompanying book with its discussion of the “l’éloquence de la chair,” for many months to come. This was a show, rather than the Maeght nonsense, that will remain for us an authentic “adventure in truth.”
Our visit to the modernist Villa Noailles in Hyères was free, due to an exhibit of contemporary design taking place there. Even though we were considerably more interested in the place itself than in the displays and objects for sale, we were very happy to have a chance to explore the villa’s rooms, courtyards and gardens. “A heliotropic house, overlooking the bay, the villa celebrated a new lifestyle which favoured body and nature,” as the excellent descriptive handouts informed us. Designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens in 1923 on commission from Marie-Laure de Noailles and her husband Charles, the villa became a center for an amazing constellation of artists, filmmakers and musicians. At the Aix “Atelier” exhibit, we had a chance to view Man Ray’s Les Mystères du Chateau du Dé, which was filmed at the villa. Marie-Laure was herself accomplished poet (and model for painters such as Picasso, Balthus, Giacometti, et al.), as well being a patroness for an extraordinary roster of artists such as Cocteau, Bunuel, Dali, Leiris, Poulenc, Weill, Auric and even a young Ned Rorem.
Thanks to a French tradition of private patronage and government support of the arts, numerous such “villa” experiences that were once the preserve of an “elite” are now available for public viewing. The Villa Noailles is only one example of a a private refuge now open to the likes of us. We were also fascinated by the Villa Kerylos in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, a turn-of-the-century “recreation” of a classical Greek home built by the archaeologist Theodore Reinach, now belonging the Institut de France. Even more incredible is the nearby Villa Ephrussi in San-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. A visit to this most elegant of homes was once unobtainable to any but acquaintances of the Rothschilds. Anyone now willing to pay the moderate admission fee (and who can afford to be on the French Riviera in the first place) can enjoy a lovely lunch in what was once was the villa’s conservatory and wander about the house and grounds, experiencing something of the lifestyles of the very rich -- without any of the cost of such a property’s upkeep. The relative penury of “tourist class” has its own kind of freedom.
Marseille-Provence has been chosen this year as the “Cultural Capital of Europe,” “a creative hub that will be set up in companies, institutions, non profit organizations and hospitals allowing local, European and Mediterranean artists to discover fields not usually associated with contemporary creation.” The whole province has been transformed into a series of interconnected exhibits, conceptual installations placed in non-contemporary venues (the elegant Pavillion Vendome in Aix, the Cistercian Abbey of Silvacane, as only two examples.) But the most important art exhibit of the season is the spectacular “Le Grand Atelier du Midi,” mounted at two locations. Half of this extraordinary show is at Marseille’s Palais Longchamp-Musée des Beaux-Arts (“From Van Gogh to Bonnard”) while the other portion can be found at the Musee Granet in Aix (“From Cézanne to Matisse”). Most of this art is quite familiar through book reproduction and therefore not unexpected (save for Bonnard’s nearly abstract door at Le Cannet, which we found hypnotizing). In some sense the shows are all about color, keeping in mind what Cézanne said, “When the color achieves richness, the form attains its fullness also.” But how great to see Dubuffet included, with his “celebration of the soil” of nearby Vence. Or the the very compositional qualities of Picasso’s Village méditerranean, painted at Mougins in 1937. Or the hill-town and building-based abstractions of Nicolas de Stael and Bram van Velde. For us the show is really “about” such subjects -- the landscape, architecture and window views of Provence and the Riviera. There’s something really wonderful about seeing such artworks sur place, hanging on a wall just down the autoroute from St. Paul, Mont Sainte-Victoire or L’Estaque (the hills or water more often than not seen by us from our car window).
One of our most favorite books is Give My Regard to Eighth Street: The Collected Writings of Morton Feldman, edited with an introduction by the late B.H.Friedman (Exact Change, 2000). Feldman is, of course, a wonderful composer, but he was also a great “character” of the New York art world. It makes perfect sense he was good friends with Frank O’Hara; they shared a freewheeling yet laser-sharp critical sensibility that remained (at least in their writing) miraculously full of good humor. We especially love what Feldman has to say about painting. He took into account what friends such as Philip Guston and Mercedes Matter had to say about their art but didn’t just repeat their opinions and observations. We can sometimes “hear” them, but they’re always indirectly quoted through Feldman’s unmistakable voice and the no-nonsense sensibility of his New York identity: “Until the fifties, the overall trend of American painting was chiefly preoccupied with capturing a certain ethnic, regional flavor, the art itself being a conceptual shortcut to this. Even an artist like Dove seems to come to art somewhat like a gentleman farmer. He has genius, but it’s still a sort of landed-gentry genius.”
The “Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light” show seemed out of place at MOMA, striking us initially as considerably more belle époque than modernist. The series of exquisite displays was too much for us to process at the time, and so we’ve been studying the marvelous accompanying 270-page book with more than a little regret we hadn’t looked more carefully at what was presented in New York. Both the discussion and the volume’s illustrations fill us with an almost religious awe -- after all, what cathedral surpasses the Bibliothèque Nationale? The material takes us to Paris, to a Paris on the cusp of modernity, the late nineteenth-century looking back (as well as at its fascinating self) but charging prophetically forward all the same. The “traditional” and “occasional” poems of Proust (just collected by Penguin in a parallel text format) have something of the same feel. And though we like some of the translations (chosen by the editor Harold Augenbraum) better than others, the originals are always right there for us. In fairness, attempting to translate the internal echoings of a Proustian sonnet is not unlike trying to describe the varying olfactory developments of wine or perfume over the course of an hour. The book’s best English versions are, unsurprisingly, by Richard Howard. His rendering of Proust’s poetic portrait of “Antoine Watteau” begins, “Twilight staining faces under the trees / with its blue cape, its dubious mask, / the dust of kisses round exhausted mouths... What’s vague is tender now, what’s near, remote.”
The Claes Oldenburg exhibit at MOMA is an oversized pleasure - there’s a wonderfully pure enthusiasm to his early creations, an art created out of what’s found and seen on downtown streets. There’s nothing pompous about what’s actually on view at the museum, though for us the institutional context threatened to ruin everything; it was like a collection of beautiful city birds trapped inside a large white cube. Despite all that, we admired the touching silliness of the “Mouse Museum” set within MOMA’s escalatored caverns, a collection within a collection, complete with its own requisite long line to get in.
The fascinating opening scene from Uncle, a theater piece about the great actor Michael Chekhov (nephew of the playwright) in the forthcoming Longnook Overlook, is only one provocation for our renewed appreciation of the stage actor’s vocation. Three recent theater experiences in New York City gave additional cause. As much as we admired Christopher Lloyd’s efforts in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, we were also absolutely certain that Brecht himself would have hated Duncan Sheik’s musical settings of Auden’s lyrics: “Tawdry” (as he described the choreography suggested by the great Anna Sokolow for his LA production of Galileo) is the word we suspect he would have used -- and similarly unfairly -- to identify the production’s musical interludes. And though we were more than a little uncomfortable with its “Broadway” singing and performance, so contrary to Berliner Ensemble approaches, we were forced to respect the performers for their sweaty energy. Comparably effortful, though with different effect, was the middle-aged clowning of Bill Irwin and David Shiner in the very funny vaudevillian Old Hats. (We especially appreciated the wryly retro female contributions of singer and songwriter Nellie McKay). Oddly, both theatrical offerings involved extensive audience participation, an aspect of contemporary theater-going which never fails to fill us with dread. A third play, Richard Foreman’s Old Fashioned Prostitutes at the Public, became even more of an “event” than expected, as two-thirds of the way through the proceedings, the building’s fire alarm went off. At first it was hard to determine whether this was accidental or not (given the Ontologic-Hysterical Theater’s typical flashing red lights and booming voices), but as hundreds gathered outside on the sidewalks of Lafayette Street, real-life anxiety quickly segued into a kind of street-fair levity. Soon enough we returned to Foreman’s manifestation of the “art experience” (both that of the creator and the consumer). It was understandable that none of the actors were quite able to return to the intensity of their pre-alarm performances. Nevertheless we remained stunned by the focus of Rocco Sisto. You couldn’t really call this “acting” as we usually think of it. The needs of his “part” were such that Sisto exhibited the vocal range of grand opera in consort with a perfectly timed physicality one associates with the most demanding dance choreography. His “Samuel” was hilarious and terrible and very moving. As abstract and “difficult” as the brilliant Foreman’s play might be, it all seemed perfectly true to the disturbing violence of our emotional (and occasionally, as with the fire alarm episode, social) lives.
We have to admit that our favorite “periodical” is technically a sales letter: It is the one thing arriving in the mail that we open immediately to see what the latest issue contains. For many years (since 1974, in fact) the Kermit Lynch newsletter was authored by the wine retailer and importer himself (a number of “vintage selections” have been collected in the volume Inspiring Thirst, published in 2004 by Ten Speed Press), though these days a range of admirable contributors makes up the wine company’s monthly brochure. We were genuinely thrilled to meet with Lynch and his wife, the photographer Gail Skoff, in Berkeley this past spring to discuss our next LongNookBooks project, a monograph on the food writer, Richard Olney. The preface to Lynch’s 1988 classic Adventures on the Wine Route (reprinted by North Point) was written by Olney. Referring to a trip they took together in the mid-seventies visiting French vignerons, Olney writes “If it was my pleasure to be able to open a few doors on that trip, it has been Kermit’s to open a great many more for me in the years that followed.” That’s how we feel about the Kermit Lynch newsletter and the wines he and his staff propose therein: Every month presents us with a new set of experiential doors beckoning to be opened.
Re-reading Jim Powell’s Substrate (published by Pantheon in 2009) this past week, we were once again reminded that great poetry needs time to be digested. We confess we failed to appreciate the book fully when it first came out; undoubtedly our recent trip to California has added to our appreciation of Powell’s poems. Still, it seems incredible that in the four-year interim since the book’s publication we’ve come across so few references to what is indisputably one of the best collections in many years. At such moments it seems to us that the critical reception of poetry has turned into a version of our childhood’s Fourth of July diving contest, a competition in which the big, immediate wet of the belly flop and the cannonball nearly always won over the swan dive. Powell’s lyrics are not just “well-written” (with the subtlest splash on entry into the water); they gracefully express the complex interpenetrations between cultural and natural history with a balanced understanding. Powell’s ideal “Habitat” is both a botanical and civic realm, where “the city’s trust in its identity [is]/ secure enough to allow / its opposite a place and share.” And though the environmental and historical issues his poems traduce are of the greatest concern and ethical weight, his narrative stance leads -- rather than drags -- its reader to moral judgements. Powell can be severe, but he’s not self-righteous. California (through the documented voices of both its natives and visitors) seems to be “speaking itself” into form. That such a fine book should go without proper acknowledgement is unfortunate, but then again Powell has been awarded the company of the muses, a prize not handed out every calendar year.
While we were away last month we missed the first postings of Bill Berkson’s blog at Harriet. It strikes us as ironic that at the time we were actually passing through San Francisco but were unable to check in with him, much to our regret. But Berkson’s heartening online observations about implicit collaboration resonated with us. Certainly the affirming presence of Berkson himself has been a lodestar for many poets and artists besides ourselves. (As just one example, no one who’s picked up the MOMA In Memory of My Feelings hasn’t been deeply affected by the extraordinary postscript to that volume.) But it’s painful how often we miss things. Part of the problem, we point out in our defense, is the surfeit of voices and images to which we now have access. We fear we are growing inured to the subtle and the genuine. Even here we perceive ourselves falling into the habit of excessive self-recording -- “journaling” as some have put it. Berkson (in a very atypical curmudgeon mode) quotes O’Hara himself complaining about the redundant “all-too-circumstantial” poems out there. But even though we find ourselves worn down, we’re nevertheless reinvigorated when someone like Berkson points us toward work with which we might not yet be familiar. We’re also grateful for his reminders about “word-and-image amplitude” and how interactions with poems and paintings really do serve to enrich (as Brecht puts it) each “person’s capacity for experience.”
Catching up on the month’s magazines, we note that the “Deep Thoughts” essay in the April 14 NYT magazine marked a new low in poetic commentary. It’s not just that we found the piece’s closing proposal of “what the best poetry does” incredibly depressing. It’s not simply that we disagree with its author on matters of taste; there’s no reason to make the rather obvious point here that some readers are not satisfied by “personal” poems of “hyacinths and biscuits.” But due to the essay’s shifting modes of sincerity and sarcasm, it’s not clear to us whether the essay’s thesis -- proposing Jack Handey’s satire as a model for contemporary poetry workshops -- was being made in all seriousness or retro jest. In any case, we couldn’t get ourselves to laugh. (We almost regretted we’d given up recreational drugs, remembering the happy stoned hilarity with which we originally greeted Handey’s midnight offerings on SNL.) What bothered us most -- in addition to all this aesthetic muddle -- was the the author’s casual reference (with the dismissive wave of one hand) to “an elite Modernist tradition that doesn’t much care if it attracts a wide audience.” This implied conflation of popularity and democratic impulses (a fatally flawed received idea if there ever was one) is especially troubling, since we continue to take seriously the idea that the poet may be, indeed, “the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” We think poetry (even, or perhaps especially, humorous verse) can and should deal with ideas, particularly when it comes to issues of social justice. The whole misunderstanding about “elitism” stems from willful ignorance of the historical fact that the very concept of democracy did not start out as a “popular” idea. Nor was Spinoza’s “radical equality” met with widespread enthusiasm. The abolition of slavery and the American woman’s right to vote were both hard sells, pushed and shoved into law in large part by a coterie of New England beanheads. Italian Fascism, on the other hand, successfully managed to gain the people’s support. Analogously, the artist has to realize that her position to society may well be one of marginality and cultural resistance. It’s not that she doesn’t care about the size of her audience; it’s that she has to accept that her work may not be widely appreciated, taking, as it may have to, a discomfiting approach or position. That “elitist” poet Dante Alighieri did something truly revolutionary by writing in the Italian vernacular (an act nearly as momentous as the invention of the printing press or the translation and widespread transmission of scripture) even while some of his religious and political beliefs do not correspond to our own conceptions about democracy. Fortunately the crucial relation between the imagination and the future of liberal societies will continue to be the work of (some) poets, those who aspire to the creation of poems that do more than “access something honest and eye-opening by way of surprise.”
Up now for a few weeks at the Calliope Reading Series website (and therefore repeated ad infinitum through search engines) is notice of Mary Maxwell’s poetry reading on April 21 in West Falmouth. Though by now it’s already taken place, the occasion continues to live on in our age’s electronic version of aboriginal dreamtime. Several publication notices of Mary Maxwell’s poetry books have also been posted in print and online in recent weeks -- in the Author’s Guild newsletter, among Arion’s books received, at the Bryn Mawr alumni website. Such announcements give a certain officialness to the poet’s presence. The "person" has become a Googled name, a face thumbed up or down on Facebook, the title of a Wikipedia entry, or an entity of letters repeated over and over through HTML code. Following Kenny Goldsmith’s axiom, “If it doesn’t exist on the internet, it doesn’t exist,” postings of an event or publication have become more real or “meaningful” than any actual reading or work presented. Literally and figuratively, at this historical moment not only is there a constant open mic, it has become heresy to suggest that this may not be a good thing. Because everyone is composing (or more exactly, "patchwriting" and "appropriating") their own poems, few are really listening to anyone else; they are too busy waiting for their turn to express themselves. In the current cultural environment, it’s very hard for the solitary poet to hear her own voice, let alone continue to have faith in the existence of any such presupposition. “Get on board! Get on board The Poetry Train!” our laptop calls from the inbox and linked sites of Poetry Foundation, Poetry Society of America, Academy of American Poets, Mass Poetry Festival, PEN, Poets & Writers, Poetry Project, PennSound, etc. etc. We prefer not to, as Bartleby would say, even though we acknowledge that if we don’t go along for the ride, it shall well be as though we were never here in the first place.
We were sorry to be out of town for this past Friday’s FAWC/Acme Fine Arts fundraiser in Boston. We first met the Work Center’s new director Michael Roberts years ago at a PEN event years ago in NYC and were happy to be reintroduced to him in Provincetown this last winter. Online images from the “Interiors” Acme show especially appealed to us, concerned as we have been for some time with the idea of the studio interior as a projection of an artist’s concerns, both formal and social. In relation to the painting of Serena Rothstein, we naturally thought of the 1957 “Blue Studio” cover image of the catalogue, Discourse in Paint, published in conjunction with Rothstein’s 2008 PAAM show. The Acme show’s interest in “how the introduction of the figure (portrait or self-portrait) animates the interior” equally applies to Rothstein’s studio self-portraits. As Mary Maxwell observed in Discourse in Paint, “A recurring subject in Rothstein’s work beginning in 1955, her Paris atelier can be viewed not only as a source of identity and security but also a sort of stand-in for the working self.” “If the motif of the studio functions as a kind of projected interior landscape,” Maxwell continued, “then a related (and correspondingly recurring) thematic in Rothstein would be the self-portrait.”
On a recent tour of colleges, we found ourselves visiting the Princeton and Bard art museums on consecutive days. We joked that the two institutions could be viewed as educational opposites on several levels. Yet in both art collections there were things we loved as well as things we hated. At Princeton we were entranced by “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” and horrified by the parade of capitalist, patriarchal elders ensconsed in the adjoining main hall. But then again, there were those incredible Soutines we’d only seen in reproduction and the excellent “1913: The Year of Modernism.” At Bard curatorship took priority over creation, and though we fully appreciate the idea of meaning created by collection, contextualization and juxtaposition, much of the jargon-larded commentary accompanying the exhibitions matched the Princeton portraits in their self-satisfied pomposity. (It made us appreciate anew the curating behind the “Inventing Abstraction” show we visited over the winter at MOMA.) Despite moving moments at both university collections, there was something depressing about these paired experiences. We used to find ourselves most at home in art museums of all sizes and varieties, but neither of these institutional contexts made us terribly comfortable.
Though there’s no substitute for live dance, there are certain films that give a perspective traditional stage productions can’t. Wim Wender’s Pina, for example, which we’ve been watching with more than a little fascination on DVD, shows us things we completely missed when we first saw Bausch’s choreography thirty years ago seated way up high in the rafters of BAM. Book encounters about dance can also be great experiences. Errata Editions’ reprint of Alexey Brodovitch’s 1945 Ballet photographs (with text by Edwin Denby) is a breathtaking experience (and it’s only one title of their admirable Books on Books series). Speaking of these photographic images of a particular moment of Franco-Russian dance, Denby observes: “What strikes me about the many anonymous dancers, as I turn the pages, is the natural look they have in action. They look spontaneously absorbed in their moves as those brightly leaping and darting basketball players whom you see on a sports page ... They are as natural and animated as a crowd of boys and girls coming jabbering out of high school or crossing Times Square at dusk.” One of our favorite collections of dance writing is Robert Gottlieb’s eccentric anthology, Reading Dance, which contains reviews, interviews, recollections and even recipes (Sir Frederick Ashton’s Kedgeree), though most particularly a dialogue between Denby and Jerome Robbins. In a related vein, in the forthcoming Longnook Overlook will be found “Masculine Dance and the Movie Musical.” This interview replicates something of the ballet-goer’s excited lobby conversation, full of passionate responses to things such as West Side Story, fierce opinions that to our ears echo Denby’s Brodovitch observations of seventy years ago: “Cross a poet and an athlete and you get a dancer. There is no art form that requires more physical effort, both in preparation and performance. The psychic cost of great poetry is roughly commensurate with the endured pain of the professional dancer.”
Though spring comes late to Longnook hollow, after a last snowfall it’s finally arrived with imminently blooming hyacinths and the appearance of the first jonquils’ tubular stems. The air smells different; it could even be said to have its own earthy green perfume. We are reminded of some of the aromatic subtleties of “The Art of Scent” exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design this past winter in NYC, with its elegantly curated fragrances blended by “olfactory artists.” The transcription of taste and smell into words is one of the great literary challenges. Bu no one had a better “nose” (or “eye” for that matter) than the great Colette. From “Colette’s Cut Flowers” in the forthcoming Longnook Overlook, here is a translation of the writer’s seasonally apt description of the daffodil known in French as the “Grande Jeannette”: Her entire corolla is a sturdy snare for fragrance made innocent by those efficacious rans which the cold defeats but that the sun of March reawakens.
Jed Perl’s Magicians & Charlatans is extraordinarily solid in both form and content. Essay collections often have a vaguely “pre-owned” quality, so that magazine writing’s second round can read like a set of hand-me-downs. But not this book. Its essays were constructed like a fleet of working boats, some as elegant as a fitted yacht, others as sturdily effective as a trawler. Instead of once-admirable vessels now permanently docked in the port of book publication, these stimulating pieces continue to do the apparently thankless task of cultural criticism. Every page has a phrase worth quoting, though Perl’s review of Martin Duberman’s biography of Lincoln Kirstein and his “crankily Mandarin love affair with the twentieth century” is especially packed with apt sentences. Such an observation might make Perl’s excellence sound like it’s a matter of mere style. But in fact, his verbal facility stems not only from an almost painfully sensitive understanding of art, but from an informed awareness of the inner and outer life from which great works are generated. His valuations are never without justification. We can certainly see why Perl’s book has not been widely reviewed: What critic’s observations could rise to the quality of the work under discussion? Eakins Press has matched Perl’s elegant prose with a sublimely devised, paving-stone-weight volume. Its design and typography are credited to Howard Gralla. We never would have guessed that the color of an ampersand could carry so much meaning.
In the world of academic publication there is a very specific legal term for the use of another person’s research without attribution. And though it can be infuriating to see the appropriation of lesser-known literary authors (either a work’s subject or its formal approaches) passed off as “original” creation, when such a thing does occur, any sincere practitioner will try to remain as liberal as possible in order to allow for art’s open exchange -- which in the ideal is always something of a communal give-and-take. But a slightly different (and considerably more troubling) kind of authorial suppression can also occur, a phenomenon the art critic Mira Schor has identified as “whitelisting,” A “whitelist” cannot be composed by one person (such unattributed appropriation would constitute an act of traditional plagiarism); instead it happens when someone’s published work is used in shared discourse but no collective of professional “colleagues” makes direct acknowledgement of that person or the significance of her work. This suppression of the proper name (which may admittedly be at times unconscious) occurs for ideological reasons, for reasons of professional rivalry, or as a result of other more complex cultural forces. It has traditionally been a particularly effective method of silencing women’s voices. As Schor puts it:
Thus, the nonconformist point of view can be taken out of history. Even if you speak, you are denied voice. You are not acknowledged at the level you are critiquing. Just as in the schoolyard, in the ABCs of romantic engagement, ignoring someone is an easy way to deploy power...[whitelisting is] an effective [tactic] if you were interested in power to begin with, have arrogated it to yourself, and convinced others you have it.
For lovers of the traditional book, electronic text-replacements (i.e. e-readers, webpages and online magazines) can be cognitively demanding and aggressively unintuitive. Design concepts meant to improve access to information and resources serve only to confuse and impede it. Even the re-designed paper New Republic has fallen prey to such approaches. The magazine had an historic opportunity to mine its own tradition of mid-century modernist thinking and create a new kind of journalistic document; instead it has allowed itself to fall back on a “new normal” that finds its design origins in the old Spy magazine, with “separated-at-birth” type visuals and Don’t Make Me Think presentations replacing serious cultural analyses. We can’t help but feel the same way about over-informing websites, their electronic pages cluttered by links and advertising. “Reading” has most definitely been redefined. We well know that this new universe has almost wholly replaced other forms of literary experience so that, as Johanna Drucker in “Reading Interface” (published in the most recent issue of PMLA) has rather thickly articulated it, “we live in a material and symbolic domain of actualized encounters, the boundary spaces of interface relations, through which we imagine our lives into being and give knowledge its forms of expression.” Since it’s our belief that human beings need relief from theoreticalized existence, we intended the design of the LongNookBooks site (admittedly an electronic construct) to provide an alternate “symbolic reality,” something more like a conversation that might take place at a quiet art gallery or during a walk along a deserted beach. What we’ve attempted is to create is not a forum for self-aggrandizement or professional networking, but a relevant way of sharing our passion for -- and engagement with -- the domain of art and ideas.
This afternoon Mary Maxwell gave a talk as part of the Queens College MFA Program’s “Trends in Translation” speaker series. Maxwell’s discussion stemmed from her abiding interest in “the female voice” in the Western poetic tradition and drew on her own translations of the Roman poet Sulpicia and the Provençal poet Beatrice of Die. Translations of the works of other women poets incorporated into her three poetry collections include versions of the anonymous chansons de toile, a hymn of Hildegarde of Bingen, and her own version of one of the Psalms translated by the Countess of Pembroke (sister of Sir Philip Sidney). Her Queens lecture will be included in a collection of some of her talks and essays to be brought out by LongNookBooks in 2014. A list of these may be found elsewhere on this website:
A number of the essays can be currently accessed on JSTOR or at the website-archives of the journals and magazines themselves.
Who is Harriet? The reference at the Poetry Foundation website is, of course, to Harriet Monroe, first editor of Poetry. But increasingly we at LongNookBooks wonder just who it is who comprises the “Harriet Staff,” collective author of the unsigned postings at the Harriet blog. Despite the attempt to “emotionalize” its online presence with Monroe’s first name, Poetry Foundation and its electronic network of linked forms has become an impersonal institutional behemoth. To say it is an influential -- or more exactly, powerful -- force in the poetry market would be an understatement. We are reminded of the dialogue between Octavio Paz and Cornelius Castoriadis in the collection Postscript on Insignificance (translated and published in 2011 by Continuum). Speaking of the increased conformism of western society and the “faceless inhuman power” of its “institutional bearers,” Castoriadis observes:
There is no conspiracy, but everything conspires in the sense that everything radiates together, everything radiates in the same direction...We no longer worry about knowing if what we produce serves whatever purpose it may be but solely about knowing if it can be sold (and not even about this, because if we produce it, we will make sure, by way of advertising, that it can be sold).
Castoriadis said some things... which touched me profoundly. The first... is that we have reduced (modern society has reduced) the meaning of all values to their economic value. So, in order to renew society, it will be necessary to undertake a critique. The remedies are not solely of an economic character; they have a character that is more profound, moral, or spiritual, whatever you want to call it.
After the interlocutor Alain Finkielkraut asks just who within contemporary society might undertake such a critique, Paz recalls the student movements of 1968 and observes:
Sometimes, in listening to our students or in reading the inscriptions on the walls, I thought of William Blake, of André Breton, of a lot of poets from the nineteenth century -- the romantics -- and from the twentieth century who were rebelling as Baudelaire had done. They were not making denunciations in the name of a class, nor in the name of an economy. What was in play was something completely different: the position, the place of the human person in society, I would say. I think that modern society eliminated values, the very center of the creativity that is the human person.
The current irony of a personless institutional voice (funded by the profits of Lilly pharmaceuticals) speaking on behalf of Poetry would surely not have been lost on either the poet Paz or the philosopher Castoriadis.
Another Stefan Zweig book published by Pushkin Press we’ve been reading is a translation of his The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche. First published in 1925, it comes as something of a surprise that this temperate book was written by the author of emotional fiction such as Letter from an Unknown Woman. As a matter of fact, given its subject, the book’s approach first struck us as excessively measured. The figure of Goethe, introduced in Zweig’s preface, becomes a contrasting point of reference, as in Zweig’s view, the poet Goethe transcended the self-destructive, daemonic personality within himself. Goethe’s example was clearly the one young Zweig hoped to follow. But the even, determined and long-lived career was not to be Zweig’s own fate. Though the ostensible premise of the book is that all three German writers were equally in thrall to “primordial chaos,” Zweig spends most of his pages on the unhappily journeying Hölderlin. It’s hard not to feel in this some presage of Zweig’s own unhappy, wandering end, subject to forces both political and psychic. What will follow in Zweig’s own life saves our initial sense of the book as having perhaps a touch too much of the typical biographer’s self-satisfaction. Yet Zweig’s distancing himself from the daemonic imparts an ironic (and unspeakably sad) aftertaste to his closing sentences: “It is through a study of tragical natures that we become aware of profundity of feeling. Only because there are some whom no yardstick can measure do the rest of us realize our possibilities of greatness.”
Lotte Reiniger should figure prominently in the list of female visual artists whose influence has not been fully acknowledged. In the forthcoming Longnook Overlook, Reiniger makes an appearance in the journal’s career survey of Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti, as Reiniger worked with “Cav” on a number of documentaries for the GPO film unit. She also collaborated with her friend Jean Renoir on several projects (contributing, for example, the royal “shadow play” to his 1937 La Marseillaise). Not only was her early masterpiece The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) the first full-length animated film, her animated fairy tales that followed were clearly precursor and inspiration for more commercial productions, such as Walt Disney’s 1939 Snow White, widely cited for its “screen innovations.” The BFI (British Film Institute) online biography for the German-born artist is excellent. And though her work is not well known here in the states, as mentioned below, portions of Achmed were shown as part of the Société Anonyme exhibit at the Yale Art Museum.
Lack of talent or ability isn’t the most depressing thing in an artist: falseness is. Sometimes art comes across as false because it depends on effects (and applause), taking too much into account audience response. In dramatic contrast to a number of breathy, over-emotional poetry presentations we’ve had to endure in recent years, there wasn’t a single fraudulent moment in the Sprague Hall performance of the pianist Radu Lupu last week. In place of a marketable style, Lupu proceeded through the music with a nearly impersonal integrity In direct engagement with the Debussy Preludes or the Four Impromptus of Schubert, the music was an authentic dialogue between musician and his instrument. The concert made us think of lines from a wonderful Robert Walser poem, beautifully translated from the German by Christopher Middleton and just published by Christine Burgin/New Directions in a charming hardcover, pocket-ready form. Walser’s poem is titled “Chopin”: "He played as if he did so wholly/by himself, society/and solitude were to him the same,/yet in the tumult of the world/he gave perhaps his uttermost,/and his playing was so beautiful/because it pleased him to be granted/the right to do so."
Middleton is himself, of course, the real thing, his lines ringing absolutely true as a result of his careful scholarship as well as his own abilities as a poet. (See our note below for December 10.) His Walser poems are nothing like certain pseudo-translations getting published these days, renderings described beneath their titles as “after” rather than “translated from” since the author has no actual knowledge of the target poet’s language. Based on previous translations, these “new” versions either make no improvement on their predecessor or -- even worse -- willfully add sentiments and meanings absent in the source text. Inhabiting a shady area between original expression and not, such translator-poseurs pretend to manifest the sensibility (or historical experience) of poets whose work they are merely exploiting. We are sadly reminded of what the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet said of the issue (quoted by Nathaniel Tarn in the introduction of his own 1967 translations): “I don’t believe that translating poetry is possible. But I wouldn’t really mind if a translator turned my verse into prose provided he didn’t attempt to alter what I originally put down.”
One book we received as a Christmas gift that we’ve particularly enjoyed is Alex Katz’s Invented Symbols: An Art Biography, published by Charta Books. It’s a casual memoir, with article-like chapters edited by his son, the poet and critic Vincent Katz. It has the feel of recorded talk because that’s what it is, but it’s good talk. (The voice of Vincent could be heard on the audio commentary to the MFA show this past year.) Now at Yale, curated by Robert Storr, is another more modest show titled Katz x Katz. In addition to oversized flowers to be viewed from outside through the gallery’s side window (reversing the natural context), many of the show’s larger images might at first appear to reproduce magazine society photos or paparazzi shots of an art opening. Yet the almost Roman frieze-like quality of Twelve Hours has a gravitas that undercuts its billboard-like first impression. A relatively “modest” yellow interior recalls the domesticity of Bonnard. With the grinning face of Edwin Denby presiding over the 32 Edgewood space, for us the show manifests an idea of artistic coterie. This is something rather like an “ideal” family, this presence of colleagues who provide artistic support and inspiration as well as personal affection. From this perspective, Katz’s art cannot easily dismissed as “superficial,” for it reveals something profound about certain social aspects of the New York art world. In this context Katz’s work strikes us as especially meaningful and moving. As the painter himself has commented on the poetry of his friend Frank O’Hara:
His optimism about being alive is stronger than any poet’s I can think of. He makes the time period he lived in vivid, as well as the many other time periods to which he refers. I think he extended himself further out emotionally than his friends. I would love to be able to make an art with these qualities.
At a visit to the newly renovated Yale Art Museum (full of fantastic new spaces and connections between the three buildings), we were particularly taken by the quality of its collection of modern and contemporary art. Also on view was a special exhibit on the history of The Société Anonyme, Inc., works collected by Katharine S. Dreier (with the advise of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray) and transferred to Yale in 1941. In some real sense, the Société, founded in 1920, served as experimental predecessor to MOMA. It presented not just painting and sculpture, but provided venues for Dada “events,” concerts and films (such as the important filmmaker Lotte Reiniger, whose influence on contemporary artists such as Kara Walker can be readily observed among the Yale galleries). Dreier (not unlike the Whitney women discussed just below) was yet another remarkable woman important to 20th century art. A small exhibit drawn from the Société holdings, “Radical Visions Practically Applied: Women’s Innovations in Abstraction, 1915-1937,” showed interesting work by artists and filmmakers whose names are still anything but familiar. We noted the continued obscurity of women artists and patrons in the history of art, a phenomena sadly analogous to the “anonymity” of the truly influential artist in his or her time.
During our late November visit to Tatzu Nishi’s “Discovering Columbus” exhibit high above Columbus Circle, we saw a copy of Flora Miller Biddle’s The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made on the bookshelf of the explorer’s living room. It was fun to imagine Chris perusing Biddle’s volume of “historical memoir” (if there were such a genre in which to file this fascinating book) as the leaves of Central Park went through their changes and Central Park West made preparations for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Was the book’s presence a sly reference on Nishi’s part to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s colossal sculpture of Columbus in Palos, Spain? In any case, coming across the 1999 book made us recall another more recent memoir by Biddle (for nearly twenty years, president of the museum her remarkable grandmother founded ). Though not without its own historical interest, Biddle’s more personal Embers (Plumley Press, 2011) relates the legacy of her Whitney and Vanderbilt forebears in the most engaging terms, with an approach that is both thoughtful and candid.
Jed Perl begins his “best” of the year list (online at The New Republic) with Jacques Bonnet’s observation about art books, about how the reproduced images “come one after another or echo one another, all with their cargo of art works.” After Perl recalls some of the year’s most memorable exhibits and catalogues, he quotes an observation John Ashbery made about the influential Raymond Roussel: “A great example forces one to try to do something completely different.” Perl then concludes,
And so in the arts in 2012 we were always looking for the difference, but also for the echo of what had come before.Those echoes of art’s past are especially strong in a beautiful cycle of poems by Mary Maxwell -- in her new book Cultural Tourism (LongNookBooks) -- concerned with artists and writers whose lives intersected with the landscape and history of Cape Cod...Maxwell inhabits with easy yet never glib precision that mysterious zone where art and life meet. Her words about Hofmann resonate at the end of 2012, as they would at the end of any year in the visual arts: “... Transformation / even death, requires patience, perseverance and acceptance of unknowable / outcomes. Nature is not bound by what we see.”
Next year’s The Longnook Overlook: A Review of the Arts is now editorially complete, and preliminary print production is just beginning. Besides a splendid selection of poems, drama, fiction and translation (the occasional verse of Max Ophuls, for example), the journal will also present a diverse array of critical writing on subjects such as Colette and perfume, “masculine dance” in the fifties film musical, James Levine’s tenure at the BSO, the Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti, and the career of the late poet Rachel Wetzsteon.
With the holiday season in full swing, we are thinking about books as gifts, and therefore (given our obsession) about books about books. In this category we would be very happy to receive The Best of Both Worlds: Finely Printed Livres d’Artistes 1910-2010, published two years ago by Godine in consort with New York’s Grolier Club. This beautiful volume takes as its first epigraph the declaration of Joseph Blumenthal: “The art of the book unites two of man’s most cherished goals. The preservation of knowledge is linked with presentation of the noblest poetry and prose in form consistent with the significance of the words.”
Another enterprise that wonderfully manifests that mandate is The Cahiers Series, brought out by Sylph Editions in association with the Center for Writers and Translators at the Arts Arena of the American University of Paris. A boxed set contains their first eight productions: The first volume made available Richard Pevear’s Translating Music (a translation of Pushkin followed by a talk on translation); subsequent cahiers included work by Murial Spark, Lydia Davis, and Alan Jenkins. Our personal favorite is #6, Text on Textile by Isabella Ducrot (which presents not only Ducrot’s text, but her textile artwork alongside the poetic commentary of Patrizia Cavalli). The most recent in the slipcase (#8) is a selection of Paul Muldoon’s translations and poems entitled When the Pie Was Opened. The series, brilliantly fulfilling its intention to publish work that does not “fit neatly within the narrow categories dictated by most booksellers and publishers,” is edited by Dan Gunn.
The last twenty pages of Just Look at the Dancers,Christopher Middleton’s most recent collection of poetry, is a series entitled “Monostichs.” As Middleton himself notes, a monostich is really a one-line (usually end-stopped) poem; Middleton’s poems here are made up of a series of connected monostiches such as “Manet crushed his parents into a confining space.” As even that meaning-packed line suggests, a lot is going on in these pages: For if each line projects an entire poem, each poem feels more like a book, and the series ends up with all the narrative and emotional impact of an epic. It’s hard to describe exactly what happens in these poems (dedicated to Middleton’s father), but suffice it to say it’s analogous to a visually demanding yet rewarding work of cinema, both innovative and traditionally well-crafted. Given their depths of intellectual understanding (historical, aesthetic, spiritual), this is not the work of a young man; yet in their exhilaratingly untethered pinball-machine impulses, these poems can feel like the inspired work of a young contemporary:“Books ignored, words abused, personal memory wilts. // The gadget does things for and against you,” or “Coherences of poetry and painting are victories but still we soldier on.”
As Mary Maxwell became a member of PEN in 2012, three LongNookBooks publications will be displayed at PEN American Center’s New Members/New Books party to be held at powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn this Wednesday.
On another of our recent visits to New York City we encountered some memorable art: the Daniel Brush exhibit at the Museum of Design and Art, entitled Blue Steel Gold Light, showed the artist’s ink on paper abstractions alongside his extraordinary creations in precious metals and diamonds: “These works are a record of my breathing, a record of time, and an acceleration of being on and in the work.” The beautiful accompanying catalogue published by the museum is additionally a work of art. Also seen: in the Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca’s exhibit, Diarios, at The Drawing Center huge rondels, created as tabletops of collage, record “the ebb and flow of life inside and outside the studio.” And in the gallery’s the back room was found José Antonio Suárez Londoño’s The Yearbooks, visualized recordings of things seen -- theater or books read. Drawing as notation or an nonelectronic blog, these are responses rather than “illustrations” to Kafka, Patti Smith’s poems, or the journals of Delacroix.
For those with a passion for the “bricks and mortar” bookstore, Cambridge’s Grolier Book Shop has a nearly legendary status. In the New York of our own bygone days, there was once the comparably legendary Gotham Book Mart, Books & Co, Pomander Bookshop, Hacker Art Books, etc. -- all locations that have since passed into the mists of cultural history. The Strand alone remains, albeit updated with an elevator. New York has a few newer excellent entries (Soho’s McNally Jackson, among others) that still provide the experience of discovery and encounter with voice and eye, of picking up and putting down actual volumes of writing and visual art. But while we wholeheartedly acknowledge the ease with which the rare book can now be located online, the idea of the bookstore can’t really be recreated at a website. Even the best blog is not a substitute for the overheard conversation; the chat with the proprietor as to who’s stopped by or about what’s going on in the publishing community; what fellow habitués might currently be reading.
Once again we watched a New York City disaster on the television, ex-New Yorkers no longer “there.” Images of Hurricane Sandy showed familiar streets flooded, the inundation of Chelsea galleries with Hudson River water rather than a weekend’s human overflow from the High Line. We observed once again from a distance the vulnerability of “downtown.” That phrase of place was once related to a sense of self now attached to a neighborhood considerably more commercial -- it’s gone from an adverb to an adjective -- a style rather than what we still like to think of as our former “lifestyle.”
LongNookBooks is very pleased to have Mary Maxwell’s three books of poetry available for sale at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge. A nexus for Harvard stylistically diverse undergraduate poets such as Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Donald Hall and Charles Bernstein, it remains the place to encounter contemporaries such as William Corbett, David Ferry and Robert Pinsky. Celebrating its 85th anniversary under the direction of Ifeanyi Menkiti, it is still a vibrant meeting place for readings and signings.
On a recent visit to New York, we found ourselves at the “new” Poets House at Battery Park City. A familiar haunt in its previous location on Spring Street, the library and exhibit space is now just a stone’s throw from the World Trade Center site, now being noisily rebuilt. It remains a location still painful for former New Yorkers to visit. The prose poetry of Emporia is, in part, one woman’s attempt to process her experience of that world-altering event referred to as “9/11”:
Three numbers as a point of reference. Date as vehicle expressing something larger, ambiguous as a living language, tenor varying depending on context. With this convulsive, discontinuous memoir, awkwardly processing. Ghostly twinned forms as backdrop to her life and times. Before and after.
Just at the top of the Poet House staircase there is a small but fascinating exhibit about Betty Cray who, along with Stanley Kunitz, was one of the founders of organization. As Cray had also been director of 92nd Street Y in the sixties, on display is a series of fascinating “po-biz” correspondence (Auden, Lowell, et al.) proposing and arranging a number of now-historical events.
Travel books have long been a favorite genre here at LongNookBooks. Among the series we have admired are the Picador Travel Classics (which included Sybille Bedford’s A Visit to Don Otavio) and the National Geographic Directions (W.S.Merwin’s The Mays of Ventadorn, among others). Most recently we came across the Atlas Pocket Classics’ 2008 boxed set on travel in France: James Fenimore Cooper’s Gleanings in France, Robert Louis Stevenson’s hilarious Travels with a Donkey and Edith Wharton’s A Motor-Flight through France. This series of hardcovers (sized for reading with one hand) seems to us especially charming. Edited by James Atlas, with an introduction by Diane Johnson, the books’ menu-like covers perfectly suit the publisher’s enterprise, a literary excursion redolent of our own French sojourns.
Though versions of Mary Maxwell’s translations of the Roman poet Sulpicia were first published in the 1995 anthology, Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry, LongNookBooks was happy to publish updated versions in Maxwell’s poetry collection, An Imaginary Hellas. As John Burt noted in the most recent Literary Matters, Maxwell gave a talk on her translations at the 2012 ALSCW conference held at Claremont-McKenna College. In her discussion (which also touched upon other translations of the “female voice” reprinted in Cultural Tourism)
Mary Maxwell discussed how the poetry of Sulpicia gave a powerful turn to the literary and social dilemmas which entangled the female lyric voice, caught sometimes between modesty and frankness, by giving her poetry a bold sexual declarativeness that must have been especially striking in performance.
It’s official: Cultural Tourism is in the running for a Pulitzer Prize! Well, actually, as true as this statement may be, it’s not quite as impressive as it might at first appear: What has occurred is that LongNookBooks has entered the title in the 2013 Pulitzer Prize competition, overseen by the Pulitzer Prize Office at Columbia University. Nominated finalists, chosen by a committee appointed by the Pulitzer Board, will be announced in the spring along with the year’s winner. LongNookBooks firmly believes Mary Maxwell’s Cultural Tourism deserves serious consideration as “a distinguished volume of original verse by an American author.”
Though there are a number of independent publishers whose works we read and admire (The New York Review series of reprints and children’s books; Green Integer’s poetry titles, as well as Douglas Messerli’s PIP Anthologies; the astonishing volumes that keep being brought out by Zone Books), the lovely paperbacks brought out by Pushkin Press have lately dominated our bedside reading stacks. No one needs to be told about the sublimity of Stefan Zweig, but we are newly grateful to Pushkin Press for their rainbow-colored set of his novellas and short stories (mostly translated by Anthea Bell).
Poetry reviews are an increasing rarity in the general press. Today’s NYT magazine feature on Stephen Burt suggests more attention is perhaps being paid to the critics than to the poets. It’s a tough time for books of poetry to get the attention they deserve. As LongNookBooks publisher David A. Keller has written in a cover letter accompanying a set of review copies:
Given the sheer volume of poetry being published just now, both in print and electronically, I know how difficult it is to keep up with, let alone review, what is being offered. Under such circumstances it is perhaps understandable that the ambitious poems and translations of An Imaginary Hellas (reflecting the female voice’s historic struggle for literary expression through one girl’s passage to motherhood) or the engaging prose poetry of Emporia (ending in homage to the poet’s years in Manhattan) were for the most part overlooked. But with the book publication of these works alongside Cultural Tourism, it is my hope that Mary Maxwell’s poems might now receive the critical acknowledgement they deserve.
The cover of Mary Maxwell’s Cultural Tourism (set side by side with the works of Thoreau and Millay) was featured on the poster for yesterday’s reading at Truro Treasures’ “Prose & Poetry Night” at the First Parish Truro Meeting House. Maxwell read from “Hans Hofmann,” her portrait of one of Truro’s permanent residents.
At LongNookBooks for some years now we’ve admired Seagull Books. Though we’re aesthetically inclined toward the “matched set” (the visual consistency of Gallimard folio paperbacks, for example), the varied designs of Seagull are a real pleasure to book lovers. We first came across the press when we picked up their translation of Theodor Adorno’s essays on music (Night Music, translated by Wieland Hoban, 2009) at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. Whether it was the feel of the paper, the translucent and sparkling book jacket whose design was picked up by the foil-imprinted endpapers, or the humble yet passionate tone of the translator’s introduction -- for all these reasons, we literally couldn’t put it down. Last year the press published another translation masterpiece, Cees Nooteboom’s Portrait of an Other, written in 1993 in collaboration with the German artist Max Neumann and translated by David Colmer. We thought such a production would not soon be matched, and yet, Seagull has just published Stephen Romer’s translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s L’Arrière-pays, complete with reproductions of the Italian paintings referred to in Bonnefoy’s hallucinatory poetic prose. All three books are priceless examples of how the greatest works of literature do somehow manage to find readers through the visionary perseverance of their translators and publishers.
The official publication date of Cultural Tourism is tomorrow, though a number of “advance copies” have been circulating over the summer. Word-of-mouth response on the book has been excellent, with a number of Mary Maxwell’s fellow poets already choosing their favorites: New York School aficionados express admiration for “The New York School of Beauty” (i.e. “the Jimmy Schuyler poem”); Francophiles have responded to “A Song of Max Jacob”; women poets are in a particular position to appreciate, “To Frederick Seidel, An Old Man.”
A nearly full house turned out for Mary Maxwell’s poetry reading at the Wellfleet Library last Wednesday evening (August 22). Librarian Elaine McIlroy introduced, quoting Guy Davenport’s observation that
Mary Maxwell’s criticism is so beautifully done, so alive, informed, and intelligent that I’m envious of her craft. Each paragraph has something new, while charmingly continuing… She is literary – admirably – without any hint of being a Literary Scholar.
The open-house fundraiser this past Wednesday (August 15) for the Truro Meeting House was so old-fashioned that it might have been a scene from a Frank Capra movie inhabited by energetic and civic-minded Yankees. (The celebration began and ended with the ringing of the Paul Revere-cast bell.) The historic building, a beautiful early 19th century church (the First Congregational Parish of Truro), is in need of restoration. Surrounding grounds comprise a graveyard where, among others, Hans Hofmann is buried. The painter’s final resting place is described in Cultural Tourism’s “Hans Hofmann”:
to yet another world, his final granite composition remains set down upon
a Truro hillside where he lies dreaming between his two childless wives.
Yesterday’s publication party for Cultural Tourism at the LongNookBooks home was attended by 70 or so poetry and pizza enthusiasts. Fantastic wood-oven pizza was prepared and served by Pizza Barbone of Hyannis, a meal chosen in honor of the book’s poem, “To Dante Alighieri”:
On the crowded shores of Lake Garda, Dante
they’ve named a pizzeria
after your Commedia...
... And yet,
what communion is more divine
than pizza porcini with truffled grana
and a glass or two of Bardolino?
John Kelly’s show at the Julie Heller Gallery in Provincetown opened last Friday (July 10) on a particularly rainy summer evening. Tucked in a corner of what was once the Provincetown Playhouse box office, the stylistically ranging series of self-portraits only give an introductory suggestion of Kelly’s performance genius. From Cultural Tourism’s “John Kelly”:
Face as blank page or
canvas, expression shifting with wet oil-paint mutability, changeable as
social gesture and gender categories.
On August 3 was the opening of the Paul Resika show at Berta Walker Gallery, where the great painter’s “Creation Series,” was the initial inspiration for Cultural Tourism’s “Paul Resika” poem:
gallery is a windowed aquarium where viewers swim through acrylics...
Long Point: An Artists’ Place is also up at PAAM, just next door to the Robert Motherwell exhibit. Long Point Gallery was a collaborative gallery (1977-1998) whose members included Motherwell, Judith Rothschild, Varujan Boghosian, Sidney Simon and Fritz Bultman, among others. (It was Bultman who’d arranged for Hans Hofmann’s wife Miz to come to America, as noted in Cultural Tourism’s “Hans Hofmann.”) A particularly wonderful Paul Resika painting hangs at the end of the big room.
On July 20 was the opening of the fantastic Robert Motherwell: Beside the Sea show at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. Motherwell’s forceful images (“One might say that the true way to ‘imitate’ nature is to employ its own processes”) recalls lines from Cultural Tourism’s “Robert Motherwell” poem:
Wielding expensive brush against bone’s blankness, the
albino whale is attacked with the sword of a samurai or caped toreador.
The Wellfleet Marketplace Weekly Book News describes Cultural Tourism as
an intelligent yet accessible new collection of poetry from Truro’s LongNookBooks. The middle section of the volume recalls Outer Cape residents who have left their mark on the cultural life of this sandbar -- Edna St. Vincent Millay, Norman Mailer, Edmund Wilson, Blanche Lazzell, Mary McCarthy and Edward Hopper among others. Look for it in our Local Authors section.
Cultural Tourism is also now available for purchase at Tim’s Books in Provincetown.
Everyone who’s anyone on the Outer Cape seemed to be at the party on July 6 at PAAM to celebrate the new issue of Provincetown Arts. The magazine contains an ad for Cultural Tourism, as well as a note in the magazine’s “Buzz” column;
Mary Maxwell’s new collection of poems, Cultural Tourism, contains a series a verbal portraits of Outer Cape resident past and present (such as Millay, Lazzell, Breuer, Mailer, Motherwell, Resika). “As in certain special European locales,” she writes of the areas’s remarkable roster of artists and writers, “those who have committed themselves to a life of the imagination seem to have remained here as its perpetual inhabitants.” Trained in Classics at Columbia, Maxwell recently returned from Claremont McKenna College, where she gave a talk of Roman erotic elegy at the 2012 ALSCW conference. Given her view that art exists “outside of mortal time,” it’s no surprise that poems in Cultural Tourism address Catullus and Virgil as though they were contemporaries and actual contemporaries, such as performance artist John Kelly, as though they were already immortal. Mary served as Poetry Editor of Provincetown Art’s 2005 issue.
LongNookBooks is an enthusiastic supporter of Truro's Payomet Performing Arts Center. Look for our ad for LONGNOOKBOOKS.com in this season’s program.