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.