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 fl├óneur 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: CoffPoetry@aol.com


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: www.thewolfmagazine.co.uk.

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.