Wednesday, December 31, 2008

In London for New Year's Eve

Back from my travels to a city that feels more and more like home.

It’s normal on this date for people to slip on the backward-facing mask of Janus and try to sum up the year. Certainly there was no shortage of remarkable events in this one, many of them recorded and sent out on these electronic pages. Not the private side of things, which involves other people and therefore isn’t legitimately available for public posting. But I see a steady moving away from disappointment to something more reassuring. And enough travel for several years all rolled into one.

As so often happens, I failed to mention what was probably the most sublime moment for me in all of 2008. It came during the flight this past October from Casablanca to Madrid, just after the conclusion of the Darwish celebration. In bright morning sun our jet made its way north toward Spain some distance west of the African coastline. Eventually the coast began to curve away from the jet a little, and at that point appeared several mountains, which could only be the beginning of the Atlas range. We drove farther north, and suddenly there it was, a passage of shimmering, bluegreen water between Ceuta and the Spanish mainland, the Straits of Gibraltar—for the classical world, the gateway to the unknown. The Pillars of Hercules, where Atlas found a foothold atop a mountain on either continent, assuming a stance strong enough to hold aloft the entire weight of the sky. And of course the Strait was also the legendary path to Atlantis, as well as the channel (in the fiction) through which Dante’s Ulysses sailed westward toward the sunset of his life. All of this seen from a mile up in the sky.

About a decade ago I visited Gibraltar and climbed its famous peak, though I didn’t find Atlas’s footprint. From there I had my first glimpse of Africa, whose earth and air and inhabitants I’ve now in fact encountered. If 2008 had so many exhilarating moments in it, what will 2009 bring? For one thing a new President of the United States, who will be in office when I return.

When the bells ring out the Old and ring in the New Year, don't, Powers That Be, let the sound be hollow. Let's have a good year for a change, give peace a chance in 2009.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

From France to England

Before I left Paris, I had dinner with a former student, Tim Bradford, and his wife Tamara and their two boys Tristan and Dmitri, up near Place Pigalle, where I hadn’t been in many years. The neighborhood keeps the feeling of Paris of former days, before it became so sleek and designerish. Walking to Tim’s place I passed a revue theater called “Madame Arthur,” where drag performances are held, the theater taking its name from an old song the famous belle époque singer Yvette Guibert used to sing. (You may remember posters of her produced by Toulouse-Lautrec.) A lively evening with the Bradfords, catching up on our respective projects. Tim’s at work on a postmodern novel involving deportation of the Jews from the Vélodrome d’Hiver during the Nazi occupation, for which he received a grant two years ago. They’ll stay on until the summer before returning to the States.

I left Paris on the 20th and took the Eurostar to London, spending a night there at James Byrne’s in West Hampstead. He, his partner Sandeep Parmar, and I went out for an Indian meal, as a kind of sendoff for Sandeep who was flying early next morning to see her parents in Boston. News of the blizzard there made us all wonder, though, and I haven't heard how the flight went.

Next morning I caught a train to Newcastle to spend a couple of days there with my friend Paul Attinello, who teaches in the music department at the University of Newcastle. We met many years ago in Los Angeles, when I was visiting at U.C.L.A. American, but cosmopolitan, Paul has taught in Australia and Hong Kong and now for several years in Newcastle. It’s a town I like, based on an earlier visit three years ago when I participated in the Newcastle Festival of Gay and Lesbian Literature. It was during that stay that I went to see Hadrian’s Wall, one of the things that led to the writing of the poem about Hadrian mentioned earlier in this blog.

I enjoyed this second visit, which gave me a chance to hear what Paul is doing. He’s a specialist on the Darmstadt School of music, has written about Mauricio Kagel, and now is working on a book about music and the AIDS epidemic, which promises to be fascinating.

From Newcastle I took the train again to Chesterfield where my friend Vilna Kembery picked me up and drove me to Edensor, the little village attached to Chatsworth. Built in the 19th century according to designs of Joseph Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame), Edensor is a picture-perfect gathering of stone cottages, each different and all appealing. I met Vilna six years ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she was visiting and I was teaching; we’ve been in touch ever since, and no one could be a more cheerful and thoughtful host. This is my third stay in Edensor, and each visit we go over to see the house and its park, incontestably one of England's best. The weather today is bright and unseasonably warm and we had an invigorating walk in the park, kindly invited by Vilna’s great friend Elizabeth Cavendish, whom I met on an earlier visit. Each time we see each other, we speak about John Betjeman, who was her devoted admirer for several decades and wrote poems such as “The Cockney Amorist” with her in mind. I mentioned having seen a photograph of them both in a recent collection of letters written to each other by the Mitford sisters (one of these is her sister-in-law, Deborah, who spearheaded so many changes at Chatsworth and made it fiscally viable). She had heard about the book but hadn’t seen it and said she would look for it. We also spoke about politics, which interests her keenly, and we concurred that the American Presidential election had come as an enormous relief for all of us. I also agree with her that the war in Afghanistan is doomed, and that despite the tragic consequences of abandoning it, we absolutely have to. No foreign power has ever been able to win against the Afghanis in their own rugged terrain. One of the factors that ended the Soviet regime was their own costly and failed effort to conquer Afghanistan. But will the President-elect change his mind on that topic?

Vilna and I are spending quiet days here in Edensor through Christmas, after which I’ll return to London.

Friday, December 19, 2008


I’m winding up my séjour in Paris returning on the 20th to England. The last few days have been filled with memorable events—the Emil Nolde show at the Grand Palais, for example. Nolde wasn’t a painter I knew well, partly because so few of his works are found in the big collections. Most in the show were from the Nolde Stiftung in the small German town of Seebülle. He belongs to the ferment of that period one hundred years ago when German and Scandinavian artists were working to produce works with a Northern European sensibility, which can be eerie and dark. Think of Munch, of the Vienna and Berlin Secessions, and the Dresden group known as Die Brücke (The Bridge). Nolde was shaped by all three, a reciprocal impact, one assumes.

Speaking of bridges, I made a little detour to the Mirabeau Bridge, thinking it might add something to my sense of the meaning of Apollinaire’s poem. I’ve often wondered why he chose it as the site of his lyric, rather than one of the more central and better known bridges like the Pont Neuf. It is far from the center of things, to the southwest of the Paris known to visitors. You can say that the name itself is part of the charm, since the etymology suggests something like “looking at the beautiful.” But I think there’s more. Once you’re on the bridge, you’ll naturally move to its north side and gaze up toward the Eiffel Tower and a the center city. When you do, you’ll notice the Pont de Grenelle, about a quarter-mile to the north. Not a celebrated bridge, it has even so an interesting feature: just south of it on a little island is a smaller reproduction of the Statue of Liberty, which of course France donated to the United States in the 1880s. More than any other French poet of the 20th century, Apollinaire was influenced by American culture, the poetry of Whitman in particular. American inventions had been startling the French since the beginning of the latter part of the 20th century—electric light, the telephone, gramophone, automobile, cinema. American culture ca. 1900 was the culture of the new. And Apollinaire’s great poem “La Chanson du Mal Aimé” begins with the observation that the poet has grown tired of the Old World, except for that part of its culture enshrined in Catholicism, which the poet finds evergreen. You might say that religion is what is most Polish about Apollinaire, the only part of his maternal heritage that he made use of. As “La Chanson du Mal Aimé” is a lament based on his unrequited love for Annie Playden, “Le Pont Mirabeau” is an elegy for his love affair with Marie Laurencin. Transience is figured in the flow of the Seine and in the passage of hours, days, months and years. Apollinaire posits some sort of permanence, despite change, in the refrain’s repeated phrase, “je demeure.” Time passes, water flows, but the bridge and the poet remain.

It is a modern bridge of cast-iron construction and it includes on both sides two groups of heroic statuary made of iron. The presence of these figures, which look out over the water, would perhaps explain the lines “Tandis que sous/Le pont de nos bras passe/Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse.” The poet imagines that the water has grown weary of the eternal gaze of the statues, a trope symbolizing the inevitable antagonism between transience and immutability. Finally, the poem is a consideration of—a negotiation between—the claims of permanence and change. Each stanza of the poem is different, and yet the refrain concluding each is the same, repeating its observation that time passes and yet the speaker remains. And surely this view of things reflects the attitude of the city of Paris as well, always eager for new fashions, new architecture and design, new technologies, and aesthetic perspectives; yet still fiercely protecting its historical, artistic, and architectural legacy. Paris changes, as Baudelaire remarked in “Le Cygne,” even if his heart hasn’t changed. And yet a certain aspect of Paris remains the same, instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever spent time here. A commitment to the classics, to a language that is correct (though enlivened by new idioms), to pleasure, and to reasoned reflection. Robert Lowell in “Beyond the Alps,” referred to Paris as “our black classic,” which is partly accurate. Yet, since his poem was written, all the old Gothic and neoclassical buildings (beginning with Notre Dame) have been steam-cleaned and made to look new again, including, now, the Pont Neuf (the New Bridge), which is the city’s oldest.

I had a chance to review this old-new Paris during a two-mile stroll two days ago, starting from Pont Alexandre III along the quais all the way to the Île de la Cité, then the Île St. Louis, and finally the Marais. The ultimate goal was Margo’s apartment, where I had tea with her, the American poet Ellen Hinsey, and her husband Mark Carlson. The latter have lived and worked in Paris for two decades. The venerable tradition of American artists living in Paris (Henry James, Edith Wharton, Julien Green, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Janet Flanner, James Jones, Edmund White, Diane Johnson—well, I could go on) is alive and well.

Marilyn Hacker also embodies this old Franco-American artistic alliance, having written many vivid poems with Parisian or French provincial settings. When I saw Marilyn again, she was in the company of Claire Malroux. Both poets have translated each other, as well as other poets in their reciprocal traditions. As such they constitute a fitting example of the cultural symbiosis I’ve spoken of. Not for nothing does Miss Liberty look down from the Pont de Grenelle toward the Mirabeau Bridge.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Paris and Bayeux in the Big Season

Quick summary of events. I attended a private reading arranged by Marilyn Hacker’s friend Marie Étienne for the poet and novelist Hédi Kaddour, who presented his new novel to a small group of writers assembled at Marie Etienne’s apartment on the rue de Turenne. Among these were some I knew—Margo Berdeshevsky, Claire Malroux, and of course Marilyn. New to me were Hédi Kaddour, born in Tunisia, immigrant at an early age to France, and now thoroughly Parisian, with an attractive voice and an elegant personal bearing. I knew about but had never met Marilyn’s friend Linda Gardner, who several years ago retired from editorship of The Women’s Review of Books and settled in her favorite city. There was also Gabrielle Althen, whom I hadn’t met though I had read her complex and refined poems; and Paul Rossi, a critic and the partner of Marie Étienne, whom I instantly liked. Kaddour read for about ninety minutes to a polite and attentive audience, many of whom had incisive critiques to offer afterward. The novel is a braiding of three separate strands: a minimal fictional narrative, a personal journal, and a series of critical reflections on authors and filmmakers. Which I guess means it should be classed as a “metafiction.” I was struck by the fact that the authors he commented on I happened to like myself—Flaubert, Colette, and Racine (in particular his Bérénice, usually overlooked but very beautiful). It’s hard to imagine a similar evening taking place successfully anywhere but in Paris.

This past weekend I spent in Normandy, in the little town of Bayeux. Of course the famous tapestry is there. (Actually, it’s not a true tapestry but instead a band of embroidered linen, 70 meters long, 1000-year-old ancestor of the comic strip.) I’d always wanted to see it and this was my chance. We’re often disappointed when we see something after years of anticipation. But not this time. It’s a magnificent work, and all done with needle and thread.

It was good to have a break from the frenetic Parisian run-up to Christmas, which is now as jarring and abrasive as in any other capital city. You could say that indulgence in Christmas rituals has increased in inverse proportion to actual Christian belief and practice. Which goes some way toward explaining why Jewish and Muslim families also celebrate it nowadays. Santa is folklore, not religion, and he has the special advantage of fitting in perfectly with a consumerist approach to things. Also, the enshrining of childhood as the quintessential, most adored phase of a modern life. After age twelve, it’s all downhill. Ask our angry and disaffected teenagers, who almost overnight have to learn how to live without the feeling that they are the center of the universe. Christmas gives everyone the opportunity of regressing to the golden age. A grateful economy does everything it can to inspire that regression. Before 1950, the French never made much of Christmas. There was the Saint Sylvestre feast on December 24, which involved midnight mass and le réveillon, but gift-giving was put off till New Year’s, where a typical étrenne (holiday present) was a cone of marrons glacés (glazed chestnuts). There’s a wonderful essay by Claude Lévi-Strauss (who recently celebrated his 100th birthday), in which he analyses the Santa Claus figure from the viewpoint of cultural anthropology. The essay begins with an anecdote about the church fathers of a large provincial city some time in the early Fifties deciding to burn an effigy of Le Père Noël on the square in front of the cathedral. That would never happen now. Christmas is part of the carnival spirit that has swept the globe, inflating not only Mardi Gras but also Halloween (which in the past two decades has become a big deal in Europe, too), New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter. All of these are good for sales, obviously, but no one has yet explained why advanced Western societies are so addicted to carnival. My guess: It’s an escape from depression, which is also epidemic in our culture. But then, why is everyone so depressed? Boring, yet stressful jobs; failed marriages; envy of those with more money and possessions; aging in a culture that only cares about youth. Finally, it’s just not as much fun to be an adult as a child. Toys “R” Us, and it’s painful to have to stop being one. But you can inhabit the toy universe again next week, if you do the legwork, like the one hundred thousand people I see every night raiding the shops on the Champs Élysées.

That was a long digression. All I was going to say was that the French provinces offer a welcome alternative to the near-hysteria of the capital this time of year. I went to see the Bayeux tapestry but found the cathedral and the timber-frame houses of the town an almost equal attraction. I’d thought there would be a chance to go the Normandy coast about ten miles away, which was the site of the D-Day invasion, but we had rain so I just stayed in town. It’s just as well, I had some restorative downtime. Now I’m in Paris again, and have four more days before returning to England.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


When traveling, you don’t have time to record (or not in detail) all you are doing. Quick summary: Marilyn Hacker arrived this past weekend and immediately invited Margo and myself to dinner, which gave us a chance to exchange news and think of projects. Monday Marilyn and I attended an interview-reading given by Vénus Khoury-Ghata. It was a pleasure to renew acquaintance with her. A Lebanese poet and autofiction writer, she has just published a new collection titled Les Obscurcis.

I saw an exhibition at the Jeu de Paume devoted to the life and work of the American photographer Lee Miller, who was a few years ago the subject of a revelatory biography by Carolyn Burke. In addition to Miller’s startling pictures were portraits of her made by other photographers, including Man Ray and Steichen, and a film about her life. All of this is an avenue to the artistic ferment of Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, a period of inexhaustible fascination. I didn’t know, for example,that she played the Muse figure in Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un poète. Another aspect of her life was the war photography she did in London during the blitz and on the front once the Allies invaded Europe. She was with the troops that liberated Dachau, and the photographs she took at that moment are the most horrifying she ever made. It’s good that interest in this less well known figure is being revived.

The Musée Maillol, in addition to its permanent collection is currently showing works by a primitive painter named Séraphine Louis (known to art historians as Séraphine de Senlis), who lived and worked a century ago in that cathedral town in the provinces. A new film by Martin Provost (titled simply Séraphine and starring the Belgian actress Yolande Moreau)) tells her story, how she worked as a housecleaner and painted in her free time, her paintings eventually discovered by a visiting German art critic named Uhde. But it’s not a triumphalist narrative, instead it involves mental illness and confinement in a hospital at a period when treatment of the insane was cruel and ineffective. I saw the film first on my own, and then Margo and I saw the show.

Apart from these activities, I fill my day with long strolls through the streets of Paris, absorbing sights familiar and new. One such stroll took me to the Île St. Louis and past a little hotel on rue St. Louis where Ann Jones and I stayed forty-one years ago while we were looking for an apartment to live in during my Fulbright year. (Why did we choose a hotel on the Île St. Louis? Well, it’s quieter than other parts of town, centrally located, and, according to Proust’s novel, it’s where the character Swann lived, which gives it a certain literary aura.) Edmund White and I stayed in the same hotel three years later after a drive we took together from Rome to Paris. In the Eighties, he took an apartment on the island, I believe on rue Poulletier, and when I came to Paris during the decade he lived here, I again stayed in the little hotel, though by then it had been renovated and looked much smarter than it did in the Sixties. As I’ve suggested before, a visit to Paris is layered experience for me, memory on top of memory, and I hope it doesn’t too much resemble archeology when I write about it here.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Paris and Memory

This is being written in Paris in the apartment belonging to Marilyn Hacker in the Marais neighborhood. I’ll be staying here until she arrives from New York this weekend. It’s a pleasant and comfy place, and of course I’ve been reading some of the books lining the walls, especially volumes of new French poetry and fiction. Marilyn knows a number of contemporary French poets, in fact, has translated several—most recently Marie Etienne’s King of a Hundred Horsemen, which won the Robert Fagles translation prize a year ago. Other French poets she has translated include Venus Khoury-Ghata, Claire Malroux, Guy Goffette, Emanuel Moses, and Hédi Kaddour. It can't be long before she will be commended by the Légion d’Honneur?

I was let into the apartment by my friend Margo Berdeshevsky, whose first book But a Passage in the Wilderness appeared with Sheep Meadow last year. Margo has had several distinct but interrelated lives: As a little girl she first came to live in Paris for long stretches while her father worked here. As an adult she enjoyed a successful career on the stage in New York but eventually put acting aside. For many years she lived in Hawaii--and that is where we first met, back in the 1990s, when I gave a reading and workshop at a cultural center on Maui. In addition to writing, she makes beautiful double-exposure b&w photographs, related to her poems in their aesthetic of ambiguity and multiple sourcings.

We had dinner that first evening at an unfussy, old-Paris restaurant on the quai des Célestins, and I was reminded that Paris has resisted (not always successfully) the rush to sweep out the old and ring in the new. Parisians do not insist that every establishment they frequent look as though it were designed tomorrow. Not every surface needs to be scrubbed and polished to a high gloss; materials can be of an older vintage than plate glass and concrete; gilt and red velvet plush are permitted. As for dwellings here, a few go back to the fourteenth century and are still being lived in. Each succeeding century has an increasing number of architectural representatives, at least until you get to the twentieth, when conservationists began to halt the tearing down of old structures for replacement by the new. No doubt the last major overhaul Paris allowed--under duress--was the one Malraux undertook in the late 1960s. In fact, it occurred here in the Marais. I was living in Paris on a Fulbright Fellowship that year, and I recall the shock Parisians felt as the work began.

Memories of a city that I have known intimately, and revisited more than a dozen times since my first residence here four decades ago, have naturally come flooding in since I arrived. (See this blog for the month of May, which recalls the insurgency of that era.) An idea that I’ve been turning over in my mind is this: Paris as the Capital of Memory. The theme was important to Baudelaire in poems like “Moesta et Errabunda,” “Le Cygne,” and “Recueillement.” Proust constructed an entire novelistic epic on the phenomenon of involuntary memory. And Apollinaire’s beautiful “La Chanson du Mal-Aimé” includes this ravishing stanza:

Mon beau navire ô ma mémoire
Avons-nous assez navigué
Dans une onde mauvaise à boire
Avons-nous assez divagué
De la belle aube au triste soir

Recollection is also the basis of his “Le Pont Mirabeau,” a lyric at once searing, musical, and nostalgic, where what is summoned up from the Seine under the Mirabeau Bridge is the conclusion of a love-affair with Marie Laurencin. We tend to think of French literature (and Paris) as overwhelmingly concerned with eros and love, an estimate that's accurate provided one understands that the French have a melancholy view concerning love’s chances in a fallen world. It is almost always blocked by social convention, destroyed by circumstance, or worn away by time. And what better setting for this theme than the grey city of Paris, whose classical and Beaux-Arts architecture shows so well in the pearl-grey light of its winter months? In the French tradition, consolation for love's disappointments is found in religion or in art; or in memory, as it is enshrined in art. Or not at all.

This afternoon, as soon as the rain stopped, I took the métro up to the Butte Montmartre and wandered about for while, though the irregular cobbles of that up-and-downhill quarter were contraindicated for a foot not quite yet healed. I found some of the haunts of the artistic avant-garde of a century ago—Le Lapin agile, Le Consulat, Le Billard de bois (used by Van Gogh as the subject of his picture La Guinguette)—and the site of the “Bateau Lavoir,” where Picasso lived for nearly a decade in a state of near-starvation. Which didn’t prevent him from painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon before moving on to the colossal fame that awaited him. What else? Well, the little vineyard of Montmartre is still in operation, producing, I imagine, no more than fifteen cases of wine annually. And the Place du Tertre is there, spoiled by tourism, as you might expect. It was there that Louis Renault drove his first automobile 110 years ago, on December 24, launching one form of modernity and more problems than he could ever have dreamed of. All of France and the rest of the globe is now in thrall to oil, so that the descendants of Renault's machine and its foreign conterparts can function. And, oh, is the globe heating up!

I walked to the Sacre Coeur (church of the Sacred Heart), from whose steps you get the most impressive view of Paris’s spires, domes, and high-rises (with the possible exception of the Tour Eiffel, but that involves long waits, a steep admission fee, and the risk of acrophobic seizures). I had planned to recite Baudelaire’s “Recueillement” to myself, thinking its brilliant verbality and profound evocation of memory might take my mind off an aching foot. But who could possibly concentrate? There was too much noise, teenagers yelling about nothing in particular, buskers hawking their second-hand covers of pop songs, tourists barking instructions to family members they were downloading into their digital cameras. I’ve noticed this phenomenon at other sites that might qualify as sublime. People just don’t know how to handle the awe they’re in danger of feeling, and so they try to dispel it with trivial pursuits and deflationary comments. Too bad. But I caught sight of a couple of others like myself, silent, gazing, sifting through memories that the cityscape and late light stirred in them. My unknown companions, bound together by the unstated freemasonry espoused by those who can accord to an elevated moment its proper weight; who don’t need to experience their lives as a sit-com and aren't afraid of strong feelings.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

London Today

I’ll be away from London for several weeks, and maybe that’s why it seems a good moment to say something about a vast city that almost successfully escapes description. A friend in the States recently wished me a good time in “merrie olde England,” which was kind but jolted me into an awareness that not so many Americans realize that London differs from Dickens’s depiction of the city (stylized to the point of inaccuracy even for the time when the novella first appeared) in A Christmas Carol. Several things to consider: London is a world metropolis whose only peers are New York, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, and Tokyo. As for the composition of its population, it is the world’s most diverse. Apart from the descendants of the earliest inhabitants (we can expand the definition by saying that includes the Scots, Irish, Welsh, and Cornish) it has attracted new citizens from the former Empire or current Commonwealth—from Canada, from the West Indies, from Australia, New Zealand, India, the Middle East, from Hong Kong, Singapore, Nigeria, well, the list goes on. Besides that, laws governing the European Community allow citizens from all E.C. nations to live and work in Britain. Therefore all European languages are commonly spoken on the street in London. Every world cuisine is represented in its restaurants, and shops of every ethnicity can be found somewhere in the city.

Culturally, Britain has as much as anyone could desire: in contemporary visual art, several world-class artists are producing major innovative work, for example, Lucien Freud, Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Anthony Gormley, Sam Taylor-Wood, Paula Rego. And the stage: Partly because it is state subsidized and partly because of a tradition that extends back to the Renaissance and Western culture’s greatest dramatist, theatre in London is stronger than in any other city, both in the standard repertory and in works by new playwrights. The Nobel isn’t often conferred for achievement in drama, but Harold Pinter has received it. London has two opera houses, with the most celebrated performers appearing at Covent Garden, and a more unusual repertory (including newly commissioned works) at the English National Opera. Music performances take place every night at a wide variety of venues such as Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican, Wigmore Hall, and the new venue King’s Place discussed here a month ago. Dance is strong both at the Royal Ballet and then Sadler’s Wells for more contemporary work, plus fringe events elsewhere. And if we turn to pop music, it’s clear that the U.S.’s only real rival in that area is Britain. In fact, there are some of us that tend to prefer British rock to American, exception made, still, for African-American artists.

British literary culture is a national preoccupation, one sign of which is the huge readership for London’s several daily papers, to which Manchester’s Guardian must be added because it is read in every city in the U.K. Magazines, literary quarterlies, and little magazines are found in numbers that would seem hefty even for a country with a much larger population than Britain’s. When a new novel appears, within a couple of weeks of publication it gets reviews in at least half a dozen publications, followed not long after by consideration in publications appearing at wider intervals. The British Arts Council funds magazines, literary festivals, workshops, and individual artists, not only in London but throughout the U.K. Given the intensity of the interest in literature, it’s no wonder that this relatively small country has produced many of the world’s most widely read contemporary authors. There’s no need to round up the usual suspects, we all know who they are.

But there is one topic related to poetry I want to pause over. There used to be an idea that British poets and American poets were twain, that neither could understand the other. The stereotypical American poet wrote shapeless personal narratives in leaden language about terrible things undergone, like child abuse, marital violence, drugs, alcohol, madness, and suicide. The stereotypical British poet wrote nicely composed poems using meter, rhyme and verseform about topics such as nature, pleasant domestic recollections, and exalted moments drawn from cultural history. British and American poets might both adore Latin American poetry, but they couldn’t understand each other. Nonsense. There are temporary barriers to perfect comprehension—differing vocabulary and references to day-to-day phenomena that don’t have counterparts in the other culture, but these are soon mastered. Many American poets (like Marilyn Hacker or Annie Finch) use traditional prosody, and, meanwhile, only a minority in the U.K. do. There are many experimental British poets, especially the group associated with Cambridge U., and British publication now reflects the ethnic diversity of its population. Younger British poets are irreverent, slangy, often working-class in tone and subject matter, uninterested in using polite means of expression. I’m not sure where nowadays you would find merrie olde England, but certainly not in London and not in British poetry.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gay Poetry in Britain

Moving to matters literary, I want to reflect a bit on the scarcity of poetry involving gay male experience here in the U.K. There are several prominent lesbian poets, forthright about their lives to varying degrees. I’m going to hold off giving their names, just in case they’d prefer not to be part of this discussion. The situation with gay male poetry, though, is very different. Two decades ago Jeremy Reed wrote poems with gay subject matter, but no longer seems to, or else doesn’t publish them. Since Reed, I know of only one book-publishing poet (Gregory Woods) who uses that subject matter in his work; but he is not famous. It might be helpful to hear him give an account of his experience. A few years ago Magma magazine (to its credit) assembled an issue on the theme of gay poetry, and Woods was queried about his publishing history. Here’s the link:

His account of what happened isn’t at all encouraging, but it sounds plausible, based on my experience. I’ve noticed that, when books by gay males are reviewed by straight males, the latter do everything in their power to make sure the reader understands that the reviewer isn’t gay. The easiest way to do this is to deplore the subject matter. Not much better is, “Although I’m not myself gay, I can understand…etc.” I’ve even seen, “When I showed this poem to my wife, she said… etc.” Whatever else these dodges mean, they suggest that the stigma of being gay, even in countries where homosexuality has been decriminalized, is enormous. On the other hand, I know straight men who are sometimes mistaken for being gay and who find it amusing or flattering, in any case, no big deal. But that’s not the situation with most, and you have to wonder what secret fears and insecurities make some individuals so touchy about the topic. Oh, and the other fact to take note of is that straight women reviewers are almost always less damning when they review gay male poets.

The issue also comes up outside the realm of reviewing; it affects publishers’ acceptance of the work. My friend Mimi Khalvati told me the story of a gay poet (whose name I will leave out, since I don’t know if he’d like being mentioned). He was associated with an important poetry magazine, published gay poems and poems on other topics in many other magazines, won prizes, gave readings, etc. He tried for ten years to get a book published, to no avail. Eventually, he gave up trying. That is too bad.

At the Chroma magazine party mentioned a couple of blogs back, I met a young poet who received one of the annual prizes given by the magazine. His name is John Mccullough. He has published two pamphlets, won prizes, and has appeared in many magazines, as well as The Guardian. Some of his poems involve gay subject matter, but not all. He has decided, though, not to censor himself nor to worry about public acceptance, which strikes me as courageous and admirable. In an e-mail exchange, he said:

“I hope that the British poetry world is ready for a first collection with lots of poems featuring gay speakers - most successful poets have written them after already having proved their poetic worth with other successful collections rather than trying to prove it with poems which investigate gay history and such. Sometimes I don't know if maybe I should be moving away from it and trying to be relevant in other ways. I hope that love is something which transcends gender and that my love poems are sufficiently universal. I know that gay poems comprise less than half of what I write but I don't want to be tidied away into the drawer labelled 'gay poetry - for gay people' - it's even tinier than the one labelled 'poetry'.”

John’s comment about the “universal” appeal of poetry reminds me of something I read in an essay by a very prominent British gay male poet in whose work you can’t find any evidence of the nature of his sexuality. (And he is not a political conservative, in fact, is sited on the far left of the political spectrum.) He was discussing love poems written in the second person rather than the third, and noted that this allowed the reader of whatever gender to identify with the poem’s speaker—as presumably some of them couldn’t do if the pronouns were gendered. In fact, this poet uses the approach himself; all his love poems are written to “you,” never about “him.” And yet I don’t find the argument convincing. “Upon Julia’s Clothes” is written in the third person, and I’m able to identify with the speaker instantly; it’s quite a sexy poem. Just as easily I can identify with Wyatt’s “Whoso list to hunt” or his “They flee from me who sometime did me seek.” And I'm aware that straight women readers also respond to these poems. Further, I know some straight men who read Cavafy’s poems about men and find them fully engaging. But, obviously, not all do.

When you consider that British (and Irish) fiction includes gay male authors who are celebrated (Alan Hollinghurst, Colm Toibin, Adam Mars-Jones, Jamie McNeill), you have to wonder what forces here operate against gay male poetry. I should point out, too, that the American poet Mark Doty has a considerable following in the U.K., and that Thom Gunn, during his lifetime, was almost universally admired here. So there’s no automatic and incontrovertible rule saying gay themes cannot interest the British readership. (That's assuming of course that the work has literary merit apart from its non-routine subject matter.) My guess is that if more poetry book editors were women, we’d see more books by gay male poets. That isn’t the situation right now, but perhaps it will change. For John Mccullough’s sake, I hope it will, and for others’.

Monday, November 24, 2008


The pages here dealing with the recent election reported European euphoria about our new President. Americans living abroad also experienced this, but in a different key, some part of which had to do with being freed from the burden of embarrassment (or shame) concerning government in the home country. We could feel we were a progressive nationality again, no longer despised by most of the world.

Now that the shouting has died down, it’s time to look at a negative political theme that surfaced on the fourth of November. California voters passed (though not be a huge margin) Proposition 8, a measure overturning a court decree earlier in the year that had legalized marriage between people of the same sex. Two other states (Arizona and Florida) passed bans against gay marriage and one other a ban against adoption by gay parents. There are, obviously, no Federal guarantees or protections for gay marriage or gay civil rights in general. From the standpoint of marriage (or civil unions), this puts the U.S. in the rear guard of progressive legislation, behind the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Gay civil rights are of course guaranteed throughout the E.U., just as they are in the government constituted in South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

The reason commonly given for the U.S. failure to remain at the forefront of progressive legislation in this area is the power of fundamentalist Protestant sects and the Roman Catholic church in our country. To which we should now add the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), who spent huge sums of money on TV ads during the months before Election Day to persuade Californians to pass Proposition 8. This was done in contravention to Federal law, which prohibits churches or any tax-exempt institution from engaging in political activism. And I gather that legal briefs are being prepared to challenge the Mormons’ right to tax exemption on the basis of their direct intervention over the past months.

But does Christian religion really account for disapproval of gay people and opposition to their civil rights? In Roman Catholic doctrine, abortion is a more serious sin than homosexuality, but no state nor the Federal government outlaws it. Biblical prohibitions against same-sex relations are mostly limited to Levitican law (which Christians are not required to follow) and one or two ambiguous statements made in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Jesus never mentions homosexuality or abortion. On the other hand, in more than one instance, he castigates divorce, and the Roman church has fallen into line with this prohibition—though of course annulment can provide a loophole for practicing Catholics who want to get out of a destructive marriage. But certainly neither state legislatures nor Federal law would ever institute a ban on divorce. And among the fifty-plus percent of couples who have divorced in America, millions must be Catholic or fundamentalist.

So I don’t think the widespread prejudice against gay people is really based on religion. Religion is used merely as a justificatory screen for personal uncertainties and fears. We should also note that many atheists are thoroughly homophobic and opposed to gay rights. The explanation has to lie in human psychology and the near-universal template of the nuclear family: Dad, Mom, and a couple of siblings. Anything that disturbs that template introduces insecurity and stirs up emotions of fear and fear disguised as anger. The populist objection to same-sex couples is expressed as, “It was Adam and Eve--right?--not Adam and Bruce.” That’s about as far as the reasoning goes; in other words, reason isn’t in the picture at all.

The term “marriage” did not always have a religious meaning. Atheists have freely married in civil ceremonies for a very long time. To go back in history, we discover that marriage was primarily a legal entity, set up to regulate exchange of property and guarantee lineage. In the Roman church, marriage was not a sacrament until the 13th century. Before then, it was rather looked down on. Except for the high nobility, marriages were not permitted inside church sanctuaries. In his Epistles, Paul devalued marriage in favor of celibacy but conceded, “It is better to marry than to burn.” If the religious right of the past few decades has decided to regard marriage as primarily a religious rite and to reinforce its religious status through law, then the federal and state government should have nothing to do with it, in keeping with the Constitutional principle of separation between church and state. If marriage belongs only to religion, then, as far as government is concerned, all unions between people of whatever gender should be regarded simply as civil unions. “Marriage” would become the property of our various sects, which could then decide who is qualified for it according to their own canon. Such is now the case in France, where men and women sometimes enter into civil unions without proceeding to religious marriage. So long as the legal rights adhering to civil unions between people of the same sex are indistinguishable from those attached to religious marriage, then I see no objection to civil unions for gay people. Government should also recognize that for state purposes, marriages between men and women are civil unions and nothing more, and legally demote marriage’s definition to a purely religious meaning as is the case with “baptism,” which has no legal status or force. But if government continues to apply the term “marriage” to unions between men and women, it should also be applied to couples of the same sex. The argument that marriage deserves special regard because it is designed to assure proper rearing of children instantly falls apart when we note that millions of married couples have no children, either by choice or for biological reasons. I don’t think that even fundamentalist extremists would deny that those couples are married. There is also the fact that many gay couples have adopted children or are bringing up children of one of the spouses in a process of joint parenthood.

The reasoning above will not convince those who don’t reason, I know. I don’t expect gay civil rights to be instituted overnight. Education is needed, and the schools have to do their part in this and not be swayed by fundamentalist objections. But at the private level gay people will also have to take action, first, by being forthright about their identities and speaking to those who don’t understand sexual difference and therefore fear it. Some of the most rapid changes of heart occur when homophobes discover that a family member belongs to the minority they have been vilifying.

Nearly forty years ago, I interviewed the celebrated British philosopher A.J. Ayer. Among the things I asked him about was his view on contemporary philosophy’s engagement in political issues. He said that it could play a part and cited his own activism with respect to the legality of sex between people of the same gender. He was heterosexual and the change wouldn't especially benefit him. But he had unusual powers of mind and therefore could see past the unreasonable objections to sexual variance. I’m not sure how many people besides gay historians will recall that the U.K. passed the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults, as late as 1967. Ayer’s activism deserves part of the credit. He worked for its passage not because it would improve his own condition but because justice and reason required it. It must be that the same spirit of reason and fair play has led the U.K. to make gay civil unions legal in its domain. And this brings me to a question already raised in earlier entries of this blog: Given that no legal disabilities attach to homosexuality in Britain, and that its society is largely secular, why is there so little public expression of gay experience here, and specifically in poetry? But this blog is already too long, so I will postpone that question for a day or two and wait to see whether readers want the question explored before writing further.

(On a personal note: I no longer have to use crutches, my foot is nearly well.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Travels with Charley

“Charley” is the name I’ve given to the stick (crutch) I never go anywhere without these days. Yes, it seems I've reached the third part of the Riddle of the Sphinx, and become a creature who goes on three legs. Someone asked me why I hadn’t mentioned the foot injury in this blog. Actually, I did mention it a while back but didn’t make much of the topic because the barebone truth is people don’t like hearing about ailments. Anyway, said foot is on the mend, and, in my usual way of trying to turn drawbacks into advantages, I’ve been making mental notes (possibly useful later on in some piece of writing) about public response to disability, even if what I’m dealing with right now doesn’t really qualify as that. As you're hobbling along, some people race in front of you with perfect aplomb and may even jostle you, though just possibly they don’t see the crutch. As for public transport, I notice that young women usually stand and offer you a seat. Almost no men do, proving once again that women are nicer than men. Some people are kind, some people look fearful, and some angry. Larkin’s “The Old Fools” is worth rereading in this context.

The above suggests that I haven’t kept to my rooms. Right. I have to go out, limping or not, otherwise the walls start closing in on me. I even taught a class for Kathryn Maris, who is in the Creative Writing department of Morley College in South London. And I attended a party for Chroma magazine (edited by a man named Shaun Levin), which publishes lesbian and gay prose and poetry. The magazine’s annual prizes were given out by the guest of honor, Sarah Waters, an author I very much admire, particularly her London-during-the-blitz novel Night Watch. Its lesbian characters are fully realized, and one of them is an ambulance driver, which is a reminder that women have risked and continue to risk their lives in wars that male leaders initiate. I spoke briefly with Sarah Waters and was impressed by her serenity, naturalness, and warmth. Appropriately, today is Remembrance or Armistice Day, and I was startled to see on BBC this morning that Britain numbers three survivors from the First World War, men well over a hundred years old. Although, if you survived the trenches, what can't you survive?

Last night I went to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End to hear Mark Lawson interview Seamus Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll (whom I used to correspond with back in the late 80s, before he had become known), on the occasion of the publication of a book of interviews O’Driscoll conducted with the great laureate from the North of Ireland. It was a house packed all the way up to the rafters, further evidence that no one cares about poetry. All ages, sorts, and conditions attended and applauded wildly at the conclusion. I wonder what it’s like to be the object of so much adoration; probably intimidating, but not altogether disagreeable. Heaney led things off with some prose poems, then Lawson put a series of questions to both participants; and finally Heaney read a few poems, including an impressive recent one based on the gospel account of the paralysed man who was lowered by his friends on a pallet through the ceiling of a room where Jesus was speaking, a room too crowded for them to enter any other way.

I knew that Heaney had recovered from a minor stroke a couple of years ago, and indeed he looked thinner and rather more fragile than the young man I first met back in, I think, the spring of 1978. The occasion was a reading he gave at Yale. He wasn’t well known in the States then. Perhaps only forty people made up the audience. At that time I was living with J.D. McClatchy at Silliman College, in one of the suites of rooms allotted to faculty who were willing to serve as Resident Fellows for the Yale’s colleges, a responsibility McClatchy had briskly signed on for. I believe Heaney read several of the “Glanmore” sonnets, one of his loveliest sequences. Anyway, considering no one had arranged a reception, it seemed natural to invite him and some of the audience to have a drink at Silliman after the reading. When he came in, I recall shaking the hand of a vigorous, hesitant man with prematurely gray hair nearly down to his shoulders, wearing bluejeans and a cotton shirt. I don’t think he was fully comfortable in those surroundings, and who could blame him? Harold Bloom, who sometimes attended Yale poetry readings, didn’t attend that one; it was only later that he got to know and admire Heaney’s poetry.

The next meeting came perhaps five or six years later, when we were living in New York. Seamus (the first name seems to suit this least arrogant of poets) had given a reading at the 92nd Street YMHA, at the invitation of Grace Schulman, who was the director of the Poetry Center. Grace had people to her place down in Greenwich Village after the event. By then Seamus was a famous poet, confident, relaxed, and surrounded by admirers. With him was his wife Mary, who I think was glad to have someone to talk to while fans swarmed around her husband. (That was often my role in those years, speaking to the wives of the artists, a practice it seems that Alice Toklas automatically fell into when famous visitors came to call on Gertrude Stein.) I found Mary unaffectedly down to earth, patriotic about her origins in the North of Ireland, with a sharp eye and wit, not to mention being very beautiful. Theirs would seem to be that very rare thing in the lives of poets, a thoroughly happy marriage. (Richard and Charlee Wilbur, and Robert and Ellen Pinsky are other examples that come to mind, along with Anne-Marie Fyfe and Cahal Dallat here in London.) I forget the stimulus for it, but at some point Seamus was moved to recite one of Wyatt’s best known poems, “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind.” It was roughly at that moment that the current revival of interest in Wyatt began—and may that revival endure. I knew by then that Seamus would one day be tapped for the Nobel, there was no mistaking the ability. And perhaps it was just such a certainty that added to my reluctance to attempt to stay in touch in the years after—not that sincere admiration always suffices as a base for a long-lasting association. If I’d had enough brass to pursue the connection, there would probably have been some kind of response. I see many writers acting out their notion that being sharp and condescending is a sure sign of greatness, but Seamus’s example is enough to give the lie to that notion.

Anyway, I could meet him on the page, and that was the main thing. He's one of the few contemporary poets I've read in entirety. It's a piece of luck that we have that work in a time that isn't especially favorable to poets and poetry.

It suddenly strikes me that I haven’t mentioned the availability, beginning ten days ago, of the new collection of critical essays (see the column to the right). What jogged my memory is that one of the essays deals with Heaney’s poetry. Besides Heaney, there are essays on Wordsworth, Virginia Woolf, Auden, Bishop, Derek Walcott, Thom Gunn, Anthony Hecht, Adrienne Rich, Larkin, Marilyn Hacker, Derek Mahon, and one on poems involving travel. Worth the detour, I think.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Turning Point

When people preface a statement with the phrase “Words can’t express…” you know you’re going to hear quite a few words, and this won’t be an exception. I snapped awake at four A.M. London time last night to see where the election stood and got the news that Obama had just gone past the 270 electoral votes needed to win. A huge weight slid off mental shoulders, a weight built up over the eight groaningly awful years when the U.S.A. had been pushed into a terrifying decline by leadership incompetent and unethical to a point words can’t express. These were years when I got out of the country whenever I possibly could, ashamed of what my nationality had come to stand for in the global picture. Two stolen elections, an intransigent monopartisan Prez, WMD’s, the fictional “yellow cake,” the preemptive invasion of a sovereign nation against the will of the U.N., Abu Ghraib, the endless occupation, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and thousands of Americans killed or maimed for life, the Patriot Act I and II, phone-tapping, people detained at Guantanamo without habeas corpus or access to counsel, the refusal to sign Kyoto Accords and simultaneous undermining of environmental regulations at home, the Enron implosion, the Administration’s “outing” and dismissal of Valerie Plame, the politically motivated dismissal of legal personnel by the Attorney General, scandals revealed and then buried by the press, the abandonment of the poor of New Orleans devastated by hurricane and flood, the gutting of social programs, the showering of tax breaks on billionaires, financial deregulation and the unleashing of greed and resulting credit collapse in the financial sector… words cannot express. And it's drawing to a close, hallelujah!

BBC coverage gave me a picture of the wild mood of relief and celebration in America. Yet what comes as a delightful surprise is the exhilaration I’ve seen over here. The U.K. and all of Europe are jumping up and down and cheering. It’s as though Obama had been elected President of the World. Which, in an odd way, he has been. I find this humbling. The truth is, much of the globe deeply admires and enjoys the good things that U.S.A. has brought to the global table. It’s quite clear that people everywhere hope the President-elect can restore to full operation the America that they like and have emulated throughout the 20th century. It’s not just Americans who wanted America back. BBC channels were interviewing all sorts of people here for their reactions, and one incident reported was that a black child walking down Oxford Street, when he heard the news, said, “I’m going to be the first black Prime Minister!” Which means that Obama’s example has become a focus of aspiration not only for Americans but for people of color all over the world. Fixing historical pivots or turning points of any kind are always a bit arbitrary, but maybe we can say that today marks the end of the long, inhumane colonial imposture, based on the concept of a superior white overlord and an inferior dark underling.

When the January inauguration takes place, it will be almost exactly 400 years since the first Africans were brought as captives to North America. The story of their slow, agonized liberation is one of the great epics of modern history, to be placed beside other struggles of a like character, such as the emancipation of the Jews of Europe, the varied peoples of India, of Southern and Northern Ireland, and former colonies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. An epic deserves a resounding conclusion, and that conclusion comes with the new Administration. Although. We should know in advance that there will be some disappointments, Obama will not manage to do everything we might want him to do. He is a human being, not Superman, and from the Bush Administration he inherits the biggest governmental and economic disaster since the Hoover years. I intuit that he is more Centrist than Left. He has Congress to deal with, fifty fractious states, and a judicial branch mostly put in place by the previous Republican Administration—facts that for good or ill limit his influence. But his value as a symbol is unquestionable. The change he will bring will come partly by the decisions he makes, but also simply by his historical identity. Being a redemptive symbol is no small thing. If an African-American can be President, why not a woman, why not a Jew, why not a Native American, a Latino, an Asian, and why not a gay person?

If we turn to the arts, this may be the best moment to advance a theory that has been on the back burner of my mind for several years now. When the government of a nation is as terrible as ours has been for eight years, the arts necessarily suffer. During the Bush years American artists lost their confidence. The fiction that America and its cultural productions stood for freedom and justice was exposed as a fraud. Most artists thrust their heads safely in the sand and produced art that made no reference at all to what has been going on, winning for themselves some sort of sponsorship from the right wing, and at the same time a pitiable irrelevance. Others—the minority—responsibly tackled the problem of making art and witness, imagination and criticism, somehow coincide. We have a few glowing examples of an engaged art made in the past eight years. But here’s the painful paradox: for whatever reasons based in human psychology, art whose prime motive force is didactic doesn’t inspire complete and unqualified assent. Art is most itself when it praises and when it consoles. How, during the last eight years, could American artists find much to praise in America and to console us for what it had become? Perhaps, perhaps, a new era is being ushered in, when it will be possible not to feel shame and anguish about our nationality, or at least not so much as to prevent us from working well and rediscovering the confidence that made American cultural productions as bold, original, strongly constructed, and liberating as they have been for nearly two centuries. I heartily hope it will be so. Words cannot express how much I hope it will be so.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Evaluating the Poets

In the previous post I mentioned James Fenton, whose value as a poet is well known; but possibly some readers may not be aware that he is a learned and brilliant writer about visual art (mainly in a series of essays for The New York Review of Books); and among the English-language poet-critics writing about poetry, I’m inclined to think he is the best. Confirmation can be found in a collection of essays published several years ago in a book titled The Strength of Poetry, which includes studies of Wilfred Owen, Larkin, Marianne Moore, Bishop, Plath, Lawrence, and several having to do with Auden, who is no doubt the figure that most influenced Fenton himself. Reading these essays, it dawns on you again that being a poet and writing poetry are impossible assignments—I mean, that poets are faced with problems that can’t be neatly and sensibly and permanently solved. Fenton touches on the issues that made poetry difficult for the figures discussed, issues connected to nationality and/or politics, gender, sexual orientation, poetic style, and mental or physical health. It seems that sooner or later a poet will do, say, or write something judged truly terrible, and punishment won’t be long in coming. The public imposes a very high moral, political, and aesthetic standard on poets, demands that no suburban life could ever fulfill, certainly. And it does seem that poets don’t for the most part make balanced choices. If not dogged by mental illness, most suffer from at least mild neurosis (even the strict rectitude of Moore has its disturbing side, when you reflect that she always lived with her mother, until the latter’s death, and never formed a love-relationship with anyone else). More commonly, twentieth century poets suffer from alcoholism, which sometimes leads to suicide, as with Berryman, or relatively early death, as with Thomas, Auden, Lowell, and Bishop. I haven’t taken a close census, but it seems clear that the majority of poets’ marriages or long-term relationships are broken off after a few years and affairs seem to be quite common even during the course of lasting marriages.

Personal problems and writing would be difficult enough in themselves, but once an author has actually produced good work in manuscript, there arrives the excruciating problem of how to bring it to a public. Here beginneth the long and grueling struggle with magazine and then book editors, the years of incomprehension and rejection, at least for work that departs from standard expectations. I’m not sure that even the sterling virtues of Moore helped her avoid disdain for contemporaries that were successful because unoriginal or only original. Then, when publication does materialize, it lanches another nightmare, the slow and often ill-considered response of reviewers and critics, who can stop a career in its tracks, and not always for the purest of reasons. Magazine critics are underpaid and sometimes an underlying resentment at the unfair working conditions of the critical profession is taken out on the book assigned. And there are many obstacles to fair and objective assessment. Men critics may have it in for women or women for men or straight for gay or vice versa. Critics who are friends of a writer belonging to one faction may blast a writer belonging to another—if in fact those critics aren’t themselves poets with factional loyalties. A critic who has ever slammed a writer isn’t likely to change his mind later on; doing so amounts to an admission of fallibility, and that is a no-no in professional circles. Actually, vendettas can go on for decades.

As for favorable responses, the specter of horse-trading or one-hand-washing-another is so endemic to the literary world that it is completely taken for granted, and I don’t see how such practices could ever be reformed, given that the numbers of people involved are rather small, and that for good or ill almost everyone knows everyone else. And how does one solve this dilemma: I am to award a prize to a book this year, and, meanwhile, one of the candidates is a friend of mine, whose book I believe to be the best by far among the contenders. I am in no doubt at all about this. So do I disqualify that book merely because the author is my friend? The choice is between "conflict of interest" and perjury. If we must perjure and this choice is going to be the universal rule, I think we can expect that writers will soon avoid establishing friendships with other authors. Out with Coleridge and Wordsworth, with Forster and Woolf, with Moore and Bishop, with Bishop and Lowell—all of whom advanced each other’s case in public. Still, it would be refreshing if now and then a writer praised a known enemy in print, or a prize controlled by one faction were awarded to an author belonging to another. I search my memory and don’t find more than a couple of instances of such a thing in the past thirty-five years, a dismal statistic. In French literature of the early 20th century, a much discussed concept was l'acte gratuit, the "free act," one not controlled and determined by mere reason or self-interest. Several French writers, notably Gide, tried to achieve such "free acts." But when it comes to contemporaray literature, what we see is the most robotic exercise of self-interested choice. Participants are career-machines and, with electronic predictability, react in ways designed to maximize personal advancement. After all, it's the capitalist way.

So there it is, the inconvenient life of the poet. My advice to those starting out? If you can possibly choose another pursuit or profession, do so immediately! There are Sunday painters, so why not Sunday poets? It’s not worth ruining your life trying to be the next laureate. Enjoy writing for itself. Unless of course you just can’t help it and, no matter what, have to suit up and get out there on the path to public acclaim.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Excursions, Renewals

To pick up the thread again, the reading described in the last entry proceeded according to plan, the only subtraction being that Penelope Shuttle couldn’t come after all. But the rest of us did our bit and the audience did theirs.

We’ve had mostly sunny weather in London, on the cool side, but then autumn is my favorite of the Vivaldi four. Golden plane-tree leaves spinning through air and ornamenting the pavement like Asian lacquer work. I would have been able to enjoy it more if I hadn’t tripped on an irregular stretch of that pavement, taken a tumble, and cracked a metatarsal in my foot. Which has meant that the unstoppable flâneur has had to call a halt and put at least one of his feet up.

But I do make an occasional excursion. Seeing that the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum was about to close I hobbled down there this Sunday and went though it at my new pace (snail’s). I admired a portrait bust of the young man from Hispania who would be emperor, seductive with curly sideburns and features reminiscent of Goya portraits. Also striking was a nude statue of him as Mars, once he’d assumed his title. He was the first emperor to have a nude representation of himself as one of deities of the Roman pantheon. As for the building of that name, his renovation thereof was one of the subjects dealt with, and the thesis that the Pantheon dome influenced later buildings like Haghia Sofia and Florence’s Duomo was given an extra boost by referencing the dome of the Round Reading Room of the British Museum itself, under which the exhibition was assembled. Also, it was refreshing that the organizers didn’t flinch about the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous but reported it for what it was. They even included the B.M.’s Warren Cup, a silver wine goblet with representations of male-on-male clinches to substantiate how accepted a part of Roman life homosexuality was. Not that the Romans had a word for it. They didn’t classify themselves according to sexual labels. Desire sometimes brought them to someone of the opposite sex and sometimes to their own, as is the case with all higher mammals, especially the primates. The fuss about this natural phenomenon begins with the advent of Christianity, and not even immediately then. By now the situation has no become almost hysterical, where it seems some men would rather be convicted of murder than become known as having felt desire for another man.

There were portrait busts of Hadrian’s wife Sabina and useful information about her, but she still remains an unfocused figure in my mind. I hadn’t been aware that she was with Hadrian during the journey to Egypt during which Antinous drowned. One of the stunning items in the show is a statue of the mourned youth as Osiris, since his drowning coincided with Egypt’s annual rituals around the death-by-water of Osiris. Eliot specialists: Has anything been made of this in critical analyses of The Waste Land?

A new display at the B.M. was a series of five sculptures under the overall title “Statuephilia,” though the significance eludes me. Perhaps the stateliest was Anthony Gormley’s metal man with an airplane-sized wingspan. And no doubt the most pop was Marc Quinn's solid gold statue of Kate Moss in a pretzel-like yogic posture. If the work turned out not to be important and resaleable, at least you could always melt it down for the gold, which would have appreciated during the interim. I wonder if Quinn took his cue from the Damien Hirst diamond-studded skull exhibited two years ago; the price tag wasn’t so much greater than the value of the component diamonds. Buying it, you'd be hedging your bets; and it was bought. Hirst was also one of the “Statuephilia” sculptors, still hung up on skulls, to judge by his entry, a thoroughly mindless work titled “Cornucopia.” It put numbers and numbers of repro skulls splashed with multicolored acrylic on the shelves of the ground-floor library of the B.M. Clever: but is it really? No, it’s even emptier than his nasty embalmed animal slices of a decade ago. We’ve just seen the banking and mortgage bubbles burst, and perhaps we’re on the eve of something similar with Hirst, a silly artist if there ever was. (Add Tracey Emin to the list, too. Among the YBA’s only Rachel Whiteread really has much to say.) Since the 1990s, contemporary visual art has become besotted with irony, taking it to lengths so enormous they can only be described as sentimental. Jeff Koons has a lot to answer for.

Another excursion your temporarily disabled blogger made was to attend the launch of a new anthology of poems about astronomy and the heavens, edited by Maurice Riordan and the astronomist Jocelyn Bell Burnell). It's called Dark Matter, which is odd, considering that what we most perceive about the night sky is light. But the poetry audience being what it is, a broodingly portentous title would obviously be more of a draw than something to do with radiance and starlit awe. The event was held in the Astronomy Library of Burlington House (home as well to the Royal Academy of Art), a handsome, book-lined room with a spiral staircase up to shelves on the higher level.

The readers for the evening included two astronomists and the poets Kathryn Maris (whom I wrote about here in September) and Jamie McKendrick, an excellent poet who lives in Oxford. The anthology includes poets and old and new and I think can be ordered online. A fringe benefit of attending the event was seeing Maurice Riordan again, whom I first met here in London three years ago. Mimi Khalvati was there, shocked to see me leaning on a crutch, and also Anne-Marie Fyfe, who already knew about it from the Wolf reading on the 20th. A nice surprise, too, was seeing James Fenton, whom I caught sight of across the room in conversation with the poet Nick Laird (included in the anthology with a poem about the concept of the black hole). I went up and, aware this was an unanticipated context, spoke what was probably startling hello, followed by my name. I got to know James several years ago when I spent a month at Wroxton College near Banbury, with almost daily commuting from there to Oxford for library research or raids on Blackstone’s. But I hadn’t seen him for a while, and it was interesting to exchange capsule updates about that interim. He lives on an attractive farm outside Oxford, with one of the most ravishing gardens you’ll ever find anywhere; and travels a good bit to literature festivals worldwide or to New York, where he has a place of his own.

So that brings us up to date.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Poetry Event

I’m participating in a poetry event this coming week and wanted to post the details:

LONDON - Monday, October, 20th, 8pm, The Troubadour, 263-7 Old Brompton Road. Coffee House Poetry hosts The Wolf Showcase. 8 poets, featuring…Penelope Shuttle, Alfred Corn, Nina Zivancevic, Niall McDevitt, Fiona Curran, Sandeep Parmar, Siddhartha Bose and Ahren Warner. Hosted by James Byrne & Anne-Marie Fyfe.

Tickets £6 concessions £5. For information, advance booking, season ticket & mailing list enquiries contact Ann-Marie Fyfe on 020-8354 0660 or e-mail:


This is the same venue where I read for the evening of American poetry hosted by series director Anne-Marie Fyfe back in June. But the occasion is different. I’ve mentioned James Byrne (editor of The Wolf) here before, and as I write this the circumstances of our first meeting float to the surface of memory. It was a poetry reading, just about three years ago. Not him coming to hear me, the other way round. My friend Yvonne Green asked me to go with her and to hear and meet an interesting new poet. And that was James. Since then we’ve been steadily in touch, and I’ve published a couple of things in his magazine. So if you’re in striking distance, come to the event on Monday and learn about some of the people published in The Wolf. More information about James Byrne and the magazine can be found at the website:

Monday, October 13, 2008

Essay on Thom Gunn

For fans of Thom Gunn's poetry, there's an essay of mine about the influence of Existentialist philosophy on his early poetry, available at the Kenyon Review online. It was commissioned for a new collection of critical writings about Gunn edited by Joshua Weiner and is due out early in 2009. Here's the link:

Saturday, October 11, 2008

To Morocco and Back

The celebration of the life and work of Mahmud Darwich was a splendid success. Because we are both in London, Amjad Nasser and I traveled together, picking up a connecting flight in Barcelona to Casablanca. There we were met by the charming Mohammed Benniss, a poet who teaches at the University Mohammed V in Rabat; he had engaged a driver for the hour-plus trip to our hotel in that city. Tourists going to Morocco often skip Rabat, which is odd considering how interesting a city it is—the capital, situated on the Atlantic, the center of government, and the residence of the Moroccan king Mohammed VI.

I saw nothing of his palace except its enclosing wall, but I did take a long walk to see other sights on my first morning; for example, the Tower of Hassan, which looks like Seville’s Torre Giralda, the reason being that they were both built in the same era under the same empire. Impressive, too, is the Casbah of the Uddayas, a former fortress that now encloses a garden, with a terrace tea house looking out over the Bouregreg River toward the ocean. I felt that the inevitable wall between tourist and resident was breached a little when I explored the labyrinthine alleys of the Medina, the market sector of town. Not in the crafts part of it, which is there mainly for tourists, but the open food markets, where Rabat’s non-rich people shop. Great heaps of produce everywhere, fruit, vegetables, chickpeas—also, stacks of mint and coriander, used in so many North African dishes. Lots of homeless cats wandering about, surviving I don’t know how, just as they do in Rome.

The Darwich event was held in a Moorish-style hall in the Faculty of Literature at the University. A crowd gathered in the courtyard outside and then filled up the house. The university president, Dr. Boutaleb Joutei was there and the Minister of Culture, whose name I didn’t get. That was a problem when I was introduced to other participants—I mean, I couldn’t always decipher their names, and I take it for granted they weren’t certain about mine, either. Of those reading in Arabic, of course there was Amjad Nasser and Mohammed Benniss, but as for the others, I only got the name of one. Why? Because when I spoke to him afterward I asked him to write it down. That was Jalal El Hakmaoui, who explained (we spoke in French) that his generation of poets had abandoned the grand rhetorical style and subjects of an earlier generation in favor of something more down to earth and daily, and this partly under the influence of American poetry.

The international aspect of the event was filled out by a reading in Spanish by Federico Arbos Ayuso, of the Instituto Cervantes in Rabat; in French by the Parisian poet Lionel Rey; in German by Klaus Reichert of the Deutsche Akademie in Frankfurt; and in English by the unaffiliated but sincere Alfred Corn. I read three poems from Fady Joudah's translation The Butterfly's Burden. Author introductions were made by an attractive young woman poet named Ouidad Benmoussa. I have to say that during the nearly two-hour-long program, the audience seemed rapt. And speaking to people afterward in the courtyard, I heard nothing but praise and enthusiasm. Once again, that inexplicable fact: People outside of North America and Europe are passionately interested in poetry, whereas in our countries it’s fashionable to be a little condescending to that particular form of loomcraft. After all, there’s no money in it. Definitions of civilization vary.

I found the old-style Franco-Arab manners very appealing. Nothing was ever rushed, people showed regard for each other; courtesy and measured deference were the rule. That might not be true in Casablanca or Tanger, but it was true in Rabat. We were driven to a restaurant in an old quarter of town, the name of which I’m not sure of. It was a high-ceilinged Moorish room with an elaborate domed ceiling supported by slender stone columns. Our waiters were striking in appearance, not only because of the varied genetic origins they attested to, but also because they wore pre-modern clothes. I hope it doesn’t sound like “Orientalism” to wish there might be some way to save the traditional dress of Morocco for most people, letting others who have to engage in business and administration adopt our plain, colorless, dull Western outfits. (Actually, in the Medina I saw quite a few men wearing djellabas and many women in headscarves and ankle-length dresses.) One of the things I liked about the late 1960s is that people, even males, could wear bright colors, embroidery, ornamental accessories, etc. Now we’ve all gone back to the gray suits, blue blazers, and striped ties of commercial correctness. Only Catholic or Anglican churchmen can wear magenta robes. Well, and Indian women here in London often wear saris, whose color provides relief from the overwhelming, gray, black, white, tan, navy blue, and dull green everyone else has been taught to favor.

I was seated next to Klaus Reichert, a soft-spoken cultivated man who took a degree in English-language literature and who has a special liking for Emily Dickinson and Robert Creeley. It also turned out that he knew (and published) Paul Celan, which gave me a chance to ask questions about a poet I love and have translated. Also at table were Dr. Boutaleb Joutei, an intelligent, good-humored man with nothing of the dull functionary about him. Others at our table were Federico Arbos, Ouidad Benmoussa, and of course Mohammed Benniss. We had a delicious Moroccan dinner, completed by fruit and sweet pastries.

At the hotel again there were warm goodbyes, and then the lightning-quick visit was mostly over. Amjad and I were driven back to Casablanca airport next morning for our Iberia flight. So I really saw nothing of Casablanca, but I'm told it is just a huge modern city with little of the traditional Moroccan charm. (Which brought to mind the moment in the film Casablanca, when the character Rick is asked why he came to the city in the first place. "I came for the waters." "But, monsieur, there are no waters in Casablanca." "I was misinformed.")

Check-in went smoothly, but unfortunately we had to pick up a connection at Barajas airport outside Madrid. No one told us there was a two-hour difference in the time zones. I thought there was just one, with the result that we dawdled a little and missed the connection. Another three-hour wait in the dead zone of a modern transportation hub. I hadn’t been through Barajas since it was remodeled. It is this huge megaport that requires miles of walking between terminals, and its moving conveyor belts and airport train really seem like an imposition rather than assist. It's also, like all new airports, a vast shopping mall, which no doubt adds to the distance pedestrians have to cover. Let’s face it: air travel has become an excruciating nightmare, what with passing security and immigration every time you make a connection, crowded flights with cramped seating, and no extras of any kind. Iberia doesn’t so much give you a glass of soda for free. When oil prices peaked last summer the airlines screamed, raised ticket prices, and dropped all the amenities. Now that the barrel price of oil is below $100 again, do we see any relief for the passenger? No. Business is business; squeeze the client for every penny you can get.

Just how deeply our civilization is in the grip of business and those who conduct it became luridly apparent during the last two weeks of banking news and tobogganing stock market prices. How did it happen? Well, think about it: a worker in finance, if he wants to keep his job, needs to show financial growth for his “product.” And if he doesn’t really have it, he has to fake it in his bookkeeping techniques. How does he get away with it? Because the Republicans deregulated financial practice. With the results that we’ve just seen. Do you suppose people are now ready to stop worshiping the Great God Business and turn their attention to experience that is really valuable? And by the way, all those billions of dollars wiped out on the world stock markets had to go somewhere, it wasn’t just hot air. Where, exactly, did those billions go? Who got away with the money?

Thursday, October 2, 2008


In haste: I'm nearly packed. It's my last night in Kennington-Walworth, cradle of Charlie Chaplin and so many others.

No sooner do I unpack in my own flat in Belsize Park, then I must repack and leave on Monday for a journey to Rabat, Morocco. I've been invited by the university there to participate in an international celebration of Darwish. This sounds exciting, to understate.

Apparently, an official at the Nobel Foundation said today that no American writer was good enough to be awarded the prize. We were too parochial, out of touch with the world at large. It's interesting to glance back at the previous American winners: Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, I.B. Singer, Bellow, Toni Morison. First observation to make is: no poets. No Frost, Wallace Stevens, no Marianne Moore, no W.H. Auden, no Robert Penn Warren, no Robert Lowell, no Elizabeth Bishop, no John Ashbery, no Adrienne Rich. (Granted Eliot was born in the U.S.A., but he became a British citizen and more an English than an American poet. Granted, Milosz and Brodsky held American citizenship, but their poems were written in Polish and Russian, not American English.) Clearly any one of the American poets just named could hold her/his own with the likes of, say, Jaroslav Seifert or Rabindranath Tagore. All our Nobels are novelists, and with the exception of Faulkner or Morison, a bit on the popular side. But then Europe has only ever been interested in our semi-primitives; they feel that Europe does the complex, refined thing better than we do. A typically literate Frenchman will have read Erskine Caldwell and Allen Ginsberg, but not Henry James or Wallace Stevens. But as is so often true, the Salon des Refuse's often looks better than les Accepte's. Non-Nobellians include the names above, Rilke, Colette, Stein, Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, Borges, Pavese, Julien Gracq, Moravia, Georg Trakl, Tennessee Williams, Nabokov, Zbigniew Herbert, Larkin, Michel Tournier, Tomas Trastromer, Yehuda Amichai, and Mohammed Darwish, whom I will be celebrating next week.

Adam and Keith invited me on Wednesday to come with them to the opening day of Kings Place, the first new music venue to be built in London since the Barbican twenty-five years ago. It's a handsome modernist building on York Way--I suppose part of the general renovation of King's Cross, which used to be so dreary but now has the new St. Pancras and the new terminal for the Eurostar trains. The halls for music are on the lower level and the main level has cafe's and a restaurant, all very posh. In a month or so both The Guardian and The Observer will move into offices on the upper floors. We heard a chamber music concert given by a group called Endymion, works by York Bowen and Schoenberg-Webern. Very good music, excellent performance, and perfect acoustics. A month-long festival is underway and I will no doubt attend other performances when I return from Morocco.

After the concert, I went with Keith King to his own King's Place, a studio down in Camberwell, where he makes his ceramic sculptures in clay and then fires them. Human figures, less than life-size, more males than females, usually nude or with little clothing. After firing he paints them, just as classical Greek sculptors used to transform their Platonically white marble into polychrome. But Keith's figures are often swimmers with their swim togs on, which brings it all up to date. Anyway, they are executed with an eye to the small significant detail that arrests the eye. He also does bas relief casting, a complicated process that I'm particularly intrigued by. I think an earlier blog mentioned an article I published a year ago in the Hudson Review about the bronze Ghiberti doors for the Florence Baptistry. It's reassuring that the tradition is still going on.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Translation Prize Ceremony

The first month of my stay here has rushed by with a speed that would, if I’d let it, push me toward clichés about time’s winged chariot and comparable proverbs. On Friday I move to my new place in Belsize Park. I’ve had Mimi Khalvati to dinner here, then Adam Mars-Jones and Keith King. Mimi was recently awarded an Arts Council grant, which will give her a sabbatical from teaching and allow her to complete a new book of poems. Adam says the next installment of the mega-novel whose first part Pilcrow appeared last spring will be coming out in September 2009. Keith is producing his art works in ceramic. An amateur London historian he tells me that the area I'm now staying in was once London's primary quarter for the stabling of horses, including Iliffe Yard, which these windows overlook. There are now no more horses, but I feel surrounded by energy and originality.

The translation prizes for 2008 were awarded last night at Queen Elizabeth Hall, with winners in Arabic, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Greek. Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS, presented the prizes, but his participation also included some good-humored dispelling of what Eliot once called "the depressing highbrow effect." He'd also arranged to distribute copies of the current issue to the audience, its pages as usual containing articles you want to read as son as you see the subjects.

I’d been invited to attend the evening by Samuel Shimon and Margaret Obank under the auspices of Banipal magazine, which administers the Arabic translation prize. I looked forward to seeing Fady Joudah, whose translation of three Darwish books under the title The Butterfly’s Burden was this year’s winner. It was published by Copper Canyon Press in the U.S.A. and Bloodaxe Books here. Actually, there was a less formal prize celebration this past Saturday at a pub in Holborn, where Margaret, Simon, and Fady greeted me warmly and also welcomed James Byrne, who came with me. The whole evening had a spirited, Middle Eastern family feeling, and, in fact, I was introduced to Fady’s mother and father, who had flown over from Tennessee in order to attend. I met several Arab authors, including Amjad Nasser and Aamer Hussein, and I was glad to see Mimi (who knows Farsee but not Arabic) at the party, and the American poet Margo Berdeshevsky, who came over from Paris just for this event. Margo and I first met about fifteen years ago when she signed up for a poetry workshop I gave at a cultural center in Maui, and we’ve seen each other in New York a couple of times since then. Her first book But a Passage in the Wilderness was out last year with Sheep Meadow.

Fady read very movingly from Darwish in both Arabic and in his translation. Also, with eloquence and reined-in passion, Amjad Nasser recited from memory a Darwish poem. Hearing the sounds of that language, I reflected on what could be called its “epic” history, given that Arabic has traveled to so many parts of the world and formed the basis of so many high points in civilization. (My own special favorite moment is the golden age of El Andalus, where Christian, Jewish, and Arab cultures coexisted peacefully and were able to influence each other in surprisingly productive ways.) Samuel recounted how he began learning Arabic at an early age (his first language was Assyrian or Aramaic) but didn’t make much progress until he began reading Darwish, whose poems more or less guided him toward a deeper understanding of the language.

I mentioned that Copper Canyon has published The Butterfly’s Burden in America, and I’m proud to say they have also just brought out the new edition of The Poem’s Heartbeat, as well as the paperback edition of Contradictions, both findable on Amazon and B&N.

For Jewish friends, Lshanah tovah, happy 5769!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

One-Sided Representation

Sorry to have been a slacker about writing for this site. Events have been crowding in, and things will get even more complicated (though I hope fun), so I better prove I’m still here while I can.

Among the many cultural events offered this month in London, two have evoked a lot of commentary. Matthew Bourne, choreographer of the transvestite Swan Lake and a dance version of Edward Scissorhands, was back at Sadlers Wells a couple of weeks ago with an updated ballet on Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, where little blond Dorian is a metallic hustler on the make. The other event is Tate Britain’s massive Francis Bacon retrospective. Works by gay artists in the limelight, hmm, so far so good. But maybe this is a convenient moment to raise a question that has always puzzled me: Why do the most celebrated works about gay experience invariably show bizarrerie, edge, nastiness, violence, and doom? (I’m going to put aside the issue of art depicting lesbians because I’m not fully qualified to comment.) The range of contemporary gay experience is very wide, from yeoman farmers to suburban MDs to high-ranking commanding officers. But over and over, the wild-side or downright repulsive aspect of gay experience is used as subject matter: psychopathic killers (How many works has Jeffrey Dahmer inspired? I’ve lost count, but they include, get this, lyrics for a musical written by Thom Gunn); mortal illness and suicide; sex addicts, S&M devotees, and betrayers (Even Tony Kushner's excellent Angels in America includes a scene where a man leaves his dying partner’s hospital bed and goes out to the park for an anonymous quickie with a leather clone; prison rape and sexual slavery in the slammer; transvestites (by far the most popular with straight audiences because cross-dressers are always represented as being harmlessly funny, in fact, endowed with hearts of gold, which is by no means the case in general; molesters of the underage, especially priests (meanwhile, the majority of such cases are between so-called adult men and little girls); wife betrayers, woman haters, and even gynocides (cf. Hitchcock’s Psycho); barflies, steam-bath wraiths, “cottagers,” or disco bunnies; or just lonely, pitiful miserabilists, unable to be straightforward about their sexuality. The message is clear: If you want to be successful using gay subject matter, paint a nasty picture, and you’ll be exalted as prophetic—also, as the height of fashion. (And, covertly, as a valuable discourager for a “lifestyle” the majority barely tolerates and whose disappearance they would applaud.)

Am I exaggerating? Add to the works mentioned above these savoury masterpieces of the cinema and television screen: Rope, The Boys in the Band, Visconti’s The Damned, I, Claudius, Naked Lunch, Oz, Queer as Folk, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Paris Is Burning, Will and Grace, any number of episodes of Law and Order, Brokeback Mountain, Amores Perros. The typical gay work of fiction ends in a murder and/or a suicide, sometimes hopeless alcoholism or addiction. In the Eighties, a variant was death by AIDS-related causes. Cut from the sheet-draped remains, and down comes THE END with a triumphalist thump. Of course I’m not saying that these subjects should never be dealt with. I’m asking why only the extreme and negative can become the subject of a work about gay experience. “Oh, well, you can’t make works of art about happiness.” No? There are in fact many such, about happy loves between men and women, family life, the achievement of various kinds of liberation (especially the subjects drawn from African American experience). Where is the gay Much Ado about Nothing, Pygmalion, The Thin Man? The gay North by Northwest? Where is the gay Bill Cosby Show? The gay One Hundred Years of Solitude? As for somber or tragic narratives, there could be stories involving gay people where the central crisis had nothing to do with sexuality, but some purely external problem, like war, poverty, a natural disaster, or the death of a beloved (non-gay) relative. I would love to see a film about gay experience in contemporary Africa or Brazil or Lebanon, involving people at the bottom of the economic ladder. I would love to see a TV special on gay health workers (nurses, MDs, psychotherapists, heads of clinics in developing countries). As for the predator padres, they’ve had plenty of coverage. What about the gay priests who never harmed any child, who were self-sacrificial and beloved of their congregations? For example, the gay priest who was killed while administering to the injured during the bombing of the World Trade Towers. If we turn to history, we’ve had a lot about Wilde. Why not something now about Edward Carpenter or Magnus Hirschberg? The British Museum currently has a show about the Emperor Hadrian, so why not a film based on the Yourcenar novel? Why not a film about Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson? Give the murderers a rest for a while!

To return to the intro to these pages: I think Francis Bacon is overrated. Begin with his subjects. Who isn’t tired of sex being represented as though it mostly resembled a thick rasher of porcine muscle and fat writhing in the saucepan over what must be hellish heat. Or if not that, decomposing cuts of mutton. It must all have seemed a lip-smacking bit of sensationalism in the late Fifties and early Sixties when Bacon made his first splash--an emetic sneak-peek into the arcane world of johns and rent boys. By now all the chic shock has worn off and we’re left with pictures whose color is haute boutique or smart spa, whose use of picture space is banal (including the silly line-drawing cubic schemas that pretend to be an important compositional feature but never prove they are); and design organization that makes nothing active of blank swathes of solid paint. Can’t we just say it? Bacon was a gay man in a time when even consenting adults could be imprisoned for their private lives; he was an addicted alcoholic and had other psychological problems; his partner committed suicide. That is all sad and regrettable and mostly not his fault. No doubt he regarded his work as a way to exorcise personal demons. But that is not necessarily a value for us. This is not major work. Opinion stated. Thanks for your attention.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


There’s a scene in Martin Amis’s novel The Information, where the narrator, a hitherto unsuccessful novelist named Richard Tull, has a meeting with a high-powered literary agent who’s considering adding him to her client list. She says:

“‘Now. Writers need definition. The public can only keep in mind one thing per writer. Like a signature. Drunk, young, mad, fat, sick: you know. It’s better if you pick it rather than letting them pick it. Ever thought about the young-fogey thing? The young fart. You wear a bowtie and a waistcoat. Do you smoke a pipe?’”

When I first read this, I groaned at the pitiless accuracy. In an era when no one has time to make judicious assessments, the thumbnail literary sketch rules. “Oh, yeah, W., he’s the fat queen bee pornographer, isn’t he?” “Oh, right, X, he’s the retro-traditional guy, I’ve heard of him.” “Oh, sure, Y, he’s the radical politico, yeah.” “Ah yes, Z, she’s the Frenchified poet, isn’t she?” “Oh, A., he’s the adultery guy, right?” “Oh, B., absolutely, she’s the doyenne of the ghost and vampire cult.” “Oh, C., sure, he’s the infectious illness bard.”

Is it just me, or do other people see this sort of typecasting as ludicrous? William Shakespeare: “Oh, you know, the toadying monarchist.” “No, the revolutionary.” “No, the sly agnostic.” “No, the crypto-Catholic.” “No, the misogynist.” “No, the feminist.” “No, the ‘Life is a dream-play’ guy.” “No, the first realist playwright.” “No, the comedic-romance wizard.” And so on.

Why does the public need to pigeonhole? Because it’s a way to avoid having to make a close and accurate assessment of a body of work. It’s a way of not coming to terms with internal variety and even contradiction. It’s a way to hold off any strong impression works or art in their entirety might make, in effect, to disempower them. While we're on pigeonholes, let's turn to its counterpart, the columbarium (from Latin columba, "dove"). Ashes of deceased relatives or friends are often placed in a columbarium, metaphorically, a dovecote. And pigeons have their counterpart to these man-made communal nests. In the realm of metaphor, pigeonholing is an act of murder, the imposition of a narrow, even stereotypical identity on something much more fluid and diverse.

Nor is this merely a literary phenomenon. I didn’t see Madonna’s recent Wembley show, but apparently one number in it stages four or five of her earlier incarnations (schematically represented), to which she sings a wail of dismay, protesting “That’s not me now!” In other words, she realizes she’s been thumbnailed, trapped in an iconic image her fans formed a long time ago. Not even one of the most famous performers on the planet has the power to crack the shorthand version of herself that’s current. But then, could believers in the Greek or Roman pantheon ever have allowed Venus to become Minerva, or Vulcan to become Apollo? The popular mind needs fixed, stable icons.

Of course there are those that can’t wait to get pigeonholed. Why? Because it’s good market strategy, as the passage from Amis suggests. Product recognition is very, very important for sales. Once I’ve got my little formula down, I can do it to death, and people will always know anything I put out there is a work by Moi. Market, market, everything is the market. Sincerity is such a mistake.

So how do we fit that strategy in with this week’s stock market meltdown? Maybe the market approach to existence is ultimately doomed to failure, what if? The strangest fact of all is that our current right-wing Republican government has gone into the business of nationalizing financial institutions: Bear Stearns, Fanny Mae, Freddie Mac, and now AIG. We were wrong, then, to thumbnail the Republicans as rabid, free-market tigers. They are benevolent Socialists—at least where the finance industry is concerned.