Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Metaphor, Masks, Coding

Everyone knows Yeats’s preference for “the quarrel with ourselves” as a source of poetry superior to the rhetoric made from “the quarrel with others.” I’ve said several times in print that I prefer poems that are straightforward to poems that wear a “mask.” So it occurs to me to quarrel with myself on this theme, to perform what Chairman Mao called “autocritique.” I doubt the result will be poetry, but it may bring some clarity to a subject poorly demarcated and seldom well thought out.

I’ve noticed that people are more likely to cooperate with a directive placed indirectly than directly. A direct recommendation or command is likely to be resisted. But if the suggestion is indirect, is coded, there’s a greater chance of a positive response. Hence the advertising industry’s “hidden persuaders.” Keats’s rejection of poems that “have designs on us” doesn’t reference specific titles, but we can all think of examples of texts that seem coercive, seductive, or designed to foster complicity. In truth, almost every poem has this aspect, but the degree varies. Rarely does the poet “spit in the eye” of readers and attempt to alienate them. And even this can sometimes be analyzed as an elaborate, reverse-psychology method of commanding assent. And make no mistake: reading isn’t a purely pacific process but instead a species of sparring or outflanking, an effort to neutralize the resistance that we all bring to any phenomenon, actual or broadcast or written, that we encounter. In view of all this, indirect suggestion is probably a cleverer way of securing reader endorsement than straightforwardness.

Any art, and certainly poetry, will include a ludic or game-playing dimension. Decipherment is fun and challenging in the same way that the Times crossword puzzle is. The poem that just lays all the cards on the table doesn’t offer us the Scrabble-Chess-Go component of a conscious art and won’t stimulate as much adrenaline as those games do.

Constructing “masks” and devising metaphors able to suggest a subtext requires ingenuity; and ingenuity deserves praise, even if it isn’t quite in the same league as magnanimity.

The reality is that many writers have things they urgently wish to convey and yet dare not out of fear that their concerns will be ridiculed or condemned. Indirection allows them to communicate their sense of a topic while providing an escape clause. If ridicule or condemnation is aimed at the subtext of a coded work, authors can always evade and say, “That’s not what I meant. You’re reading things into it.” Of course the disguise is less courageous than going for broke, but it isn’t realistic to rely on courage in human affairs, given that it is the least widespread of all admirable qualities.

In countries where censorship is the rule and imprisonment a possible consequence of publishing texts critical of the regime, masked or metaphoric treatments of political topics is the only safe way to take them up. Meanwhile, there are laws against libel everywhere, and coded communication allows for the expression of libelous sentiments, yet without the risk of prosecution.

Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.” Why “least himself when he talks in his own person”? I suppose what Wilde means is that the public persona is tidied up for public consumption. If you meet strangers on the street, chances are they will behave in a friendly fashion. But if they get behind the wheel of a car, the relative anonymity thereby provided frees them to behave as aggressively and rudely as they like; and if they like being aggressive and rude so much, that must be who they really are. The true person hidden away is like the picture of Dorian Gray, not nearly so presentable as the man who shows up for tea in his morning coat. Using masks allows us to present ourselves as we actually are; it gives an unidealized portrait of our actual natures, something we generally have difficulty discovering, either to ourselves or to others. And if one value of art is to awaken us to truth, then masks are a convenient avenue to the truth about self. Considering this dark side, we could adapt Eliot’s comment and say, “After such self-knowledge, what forgiveness?” But without self-knowledge, we don’t know what needs forgiving. Better first search out the truth, and then see about the forgiveness problem afterwards.

Finally, for all that metaphoric texts point us toward a partly concealed meaning, they can never do so with 100% accuracy. There will always be room for interpretation and doubt. Readings of a truth told “slant” will vary from reader to reader. Hence the text takes on the aspect of an oracle, vague, suggestive, not fully circumscribed by semantic boundaries. The poem becomes a Rorschach test, its weird, tortoise-shell symmetries productive of multiple responses, according to each observer. Engaging in this process we become like those who, as described by Horatio, listened to and tried to interpret Ophelia’s disjunctive glossolalia (Hamlet, IV, 5): “They aim at it,/And botch the words up fit to their own thought.” And this vague, cloudlike, metamorphic kind of textual encounter is for many readers the esthetic experience, one that outweighs all others, even the apprehension of memorable lines like, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Solstice and Holly

We got about two feet of what St. Francis called “Brother Snow” last night, just in time to welcome the year's shortest day. When the world turns white everyone is reassured by any color remaining, which must explain why evergreens figure so prominently in homes and churches this time of year. My particular favorite is holly, partly because of the unusual form of the glossy leaves and partly because of the extra of its red berries. The plant was sacred to the Druids and associated with ceremonies for the winter solstice. The property of holly leaves to resist dying in cold weather puts it with other evergreens like ivy and the conifers that offer steadying remembrances in what French poets referred to as “la morte saison.”

Among Henry VIII’s poems is one about holly, focusing once again on its enduring green as a way to suggest the permanence of love in adversity.

Green groweth the holly, so doth the ivy
Though winter blasts blow never so high,
Green groweth the holly.

Clearly the pre-eminent color of the Renaissance in England was green, and we can think of other examples besides the lovely song “My Lady Greensleeves” where it appears. That tune was adapted for a well-known carol, almost as familiar as “The Holly and the Ivy,” a text that sounds as though it could have been written by Henry as well, considering its references to the running deer and the crown. But the origins of this carol are uncertain. In any case, here is a good rendition of it:


At some point after I met Holly Stevens (in New Haven, around 1977, I believe), it occurred to me to wonder why her poet father had given her that name. Its similarity to “holy” is obviously one answer, but I also remember seeing the holly tree planted (shortly after Holly's birth) outside the house on Asylum Avenue in Hartford, where the Stevens family had lived. So the tree itself mattered to the poet, at least enough to give his daughter this name. One of his best-known poems is “The Snow Man,” an austere meditation giving us the concept of the “mind of winter,” the only sort of consciousness equipped with enough fortitude to contemplate the nothingness of bare, unrelieved reality and not be crushed by it. Other operations of consciousness (and other poems) could bring into the wintry mind the green of the imagination (in Stevens, imagination is most often associated with that color) and if green, why not an evergreen? So there is a figurative aspect to the name he gave to his only child, a name epitomizing his own hopes as a human being and as a poet.

As for Holly herself, she was a forthright, likable person, reserved but steady, and a respected member of the literary community in New Haven during the years when I lived there. I recall going out to her house in Guilford, not far from Long Island Sound. On the walls of her sitting room hung several of the 20th-century French paintings her father had collected (bought sight unseen, by transatlantic order placed with an agent), including the still life he took as the point of departure for his poem “Angels Surrounded by Paysans.” The painters were not famous names; the only one I recognized (and only just) was the Breton (later, Paris-based) artist Pierre Tal-Coat. Nevertheless, to see images that had fired Stevens’s desire to write was impressive and even moving.

Holly had had a period of rebellion from her parents, marrying a man they didn’t like and meanwhile working in a wartime factory—her reasons quite defensible, I’d say. But after Stevens’s death, she became the curator of his literary legacy, editing posthumous collections of his works and sorting out his archive, which she placed with the Huntington-Hartford Museum in San Marino, California. The Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale might have seemed a more fitting repository to most observers, but Stevens was a Harvard man, and in those years the Beinecke couldn’t compete with other institutions interested in acquiring poets’ papers. Years ago I gave a reading at the Huntington Museum and had the chance to see a few of the Stevens holdings. It’s easy to laugh at bardolatry, whether the bard in question is Shakespeare or other poets of unusual stature. Still, there’s no getting around the strange sensation stirred by seeing a holograph copy of a poem or letter written by a poet you revere. I felt as much when I saw one of Keats’s letters at the Beinecke. “This living hand…” as he says in a memorable poem.

If readers can absorb a huge shift of literary scale then I will mention the fact that about two decades ago I deposited my own archive at the Beinecke, the transfer negotiated by Patricia Willis, who may be known to you as the Marianne Moore scholar and editor of Moore's works. I no longer had room to store the two dozen boxes accumulated and began to be afraid that things might be lost in the frequent moves that characterized my life, then and continue to do so. The papers will be safer there than any place I can think of. A safe haven in New Haven’s ivied university. That’s my view of a library: as a protective greenhouse where the leaves and folios don’t wither, even if they’re not holly or ivy or spruce or pine. An alternative to the Snow Man's "nothing that is.”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Letter from Sam Hamill

In response to the appeal described in the previous blog entry, Sam Hamill has sent the following letter:

Dear Friends, Colleagues, Compañeros:

Gray and I have been very deeply moved by your generosity and expressions of solidarity.

It is welcome news that Gray has been pronounced cancer-free and that I am in good enough shape to postpone any further angioplasty or stent implants for at least a few months. In the spring, we will put our house on the market and hope that it sells and that we can find a smaller home in Anacortes, close by doctors, hospitals, and without the burden of a mortgage.

I am still altogether capable of giving readings and lectures, but my steadily declining hearing makes it all but impossible to teach conventional writing workshops. For public conversations I often need a “hearing-ear person.” I am presently planning a weekend in Chicago in April, and will return to Vietnam (with Joiner Center colleagues) in May, and to the Joiner Center (at UMass, Boston) in June. These odd gigs and paychecks are all we have to counter exploding medical and prescription expenses. We thought we could get by on our modest pension from Copper Canyon Press and Social Security, but ever-increasing medical costs combined with skyrocketing property taxes have been devastating.

Now that we have crossed this particularly rugged mountain, I hope to resuscitate a writing (and possibly translating and editing) life. I have all of you to thank for this possibility—otherwise, Gray and I would both be wrestling with checkbooks and credit plans and the saddles they place on our wilder (healthier) imaginations.

To realize that we have such friends in the world is at once humbling and exhilarating. Our gratitude is eternal.



Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thanks to All Contributors

I didn't post anything here about the appeal Marilyn Hacker and I worked on to raise some funds for Sam Hamill and Gray Foster after both had faced serious medical problems and expenses, but I'll mention it now. The onset of Sam's illness came a few months before he was eligible for Medicare, and Gray is still not eligible. Sam, who with Tree Swenson many years ago founded Copper Canyon Press, was publisher there until a few years ago. In addition to producing widely respected volumes of poetry, and translations from Chinese and Japanese, he has taught writing workshops intermittently, and we recall as well that he inaugurated the Poets Against the War initiative beginning in 2002, its website still up and running. Nowadays hearing impairment prevents him from continuing to teach, and clearly what he should be doing is his own work, health permitting.

Anyway, in mid-November Marilyn and I launched an appeal, and there has been a wonderful show of support for Sam and Gray. Two institutions came forward, there was a benefit reading in Cambridge, and 102 individual donors sent checks. Marilyn and I are grateful to them and can report that the result has made things much less precarious for Sam and Gray. Here is the list of donors.

The Poetry Foundation
The Fund for Poetry
Benefit reading organized by Dan Wuenschel in Cambridge, MA

Individual contributors

W. Yake and J. Barreca
Dan Wuenschel
Franz Wright
C.D. Wright
Eleanor Wilner
Doretta Wildes
Afaa Michael Weaver
Anna Warrock
Laurie Wagner-Buyer
Sophia Wadsworth
Tino Villanueva
Michelle Valladares
Valerie Trueblood
Ellen Tabios
Yerra Sugarman
Michael Spence
Larry Smith
Jordan Smith
Brenda Skinner
Grace Schulman
Willa Schneberg
Walter Schiff
Mark Schafer
Bruno Ruhland
Stanley Rubin
David Romtveldt
Bertha Rogers
Hilda Raz
Donna Pridmore
Robert Pinsky
Britt Peter
Lee A. Perron
Eunice and Vincent Panetta
Thomas O’Leary
Naomi Shihab Nye
Sheila Nickerson
Emily Tan Lin Neville and Bert Stern
Marilyn Nelson
James Moore
Ifeanyi Menkiti
Askold Melnyczuk
D.H. Melhem
Heather McHugh
Kathryn Maris
Stefi and Fred Marchant
Douglas Manson
Richard and Angela Mankiewicz
Elizabeth Macklin
Liza Lowitz
Adrian Louis
Jeanne Lohman
Frances Lindsay
Rachelle K. Lerner
David and Jan Lee
Dorianne Laux
Yehia Lababidi
Caroline Knox
Bill Knott
Kenneth Knabb
Judith Kitchen
Stephen Kessler
Nancy Kassell
Fady Joudah
Bonnie Jones
Donna Hollenberg
Bob Holman
Michael Hogan
Jane Hirschfield
James Henle
Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman
Joy Harjo
Ian Haight
Marilyn Hacker
Donald Gutierrez
David Groff
Samuel Green
Carol Gordon
Daniela Gioseffi
Celia Gilbert
Daniel Gerber
Harris Gardner
Geoffrey Gardner
Kim Garcia
John Adele Foley
John Fitzpatrick
Ruth Fainlight
Kevin Cutrer
Jerry Costanzo
Alfred Corn
Martha Collins
Yvette Christianse
Elizabeth Carter
Mary Frances Carney
Deborah Buchanan
Sarah Browning
Henry and Joan Braun
Linda Bierds
James Bertolino
Gerald and Denise Bergman
Margo Berdeshevsky
Judith Bebelaar
Jennifer Barber
David Barnhill
Bob Baldock

Because my administrative and typing skills aren't the best, there may be mistakes, and I would appreciate it if any were pointed out. In any case, it has been a lift in spirits to do this, and Marilyn and I thank you all.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Poetry, Aesthetic and Moral

Though I went again to New York this month and again engaged in pursuits that might be interesting to report here, to vary the texture of the blog I think I will focus instead on an article by D.H Tracy in the current (December 2009) Poetry. In his essay, titled "The Moral and Aesthetic, Recently," Tracy is taking up the issue of aesthetics and ethical content in poetry, his point of departure, poems by Frederick Seidel and Robert Hass, but also citing poems by Adam Kirsch, Anne Winters, and one of mine titled "Coventry."

The ethical aspect of poetry, its role in shaping character, was considered a given in the classical period, but Tracy believes it didn't resurface in the Western tradition until Shaftesbury. I think it comes earlier, explicitly in Jonson, who spoke of "the impossibility of a man's being a good poet without having first been a good man." Nor can the ethical aims of 17th century religious poets like Donne, Milton, Crashaw, Vaughan and Herbert be overlooked. But perhaps Tracy is referring to critics, not poets, when he makes this observation. (Incidentally, I've read articles by Tracy for several years now and find him one of the best of the younger critics, well read in the tradition, judicious, and in command of an elegant and elevated prose style.)

So then does poetry have an ethical dimension that is at one with its aesthetic nature? I see no reason why it can't. Begin by observing that "aesthetic" derives from Latin and Greek aisthesis, which simply means "sensation." An anesthetic is a chemical that deprives you of all sensation, especially pain. Yet an art that consists solely of pleasurable sensation is experienced as somehow lacking, at least, by most readers. "Oh, for a life of sensation rather than thoughts," Keats exclaimed in one of his letters. But he never attained to that, and we're glad he didn't. What he did attain was a poetry filled with sensations, but, in addition, thoughts a-plenty, so that he is immeasurably more than the figure Yeats imagined as a young man with his nose pressed against a sweetshop window.

By the late 19th century the battle lines were drawn on this question, with Arnold on one side claiming an ethical role for poetry, which he called "a criticism of life," and on the other, the Esthetic School, notably Pater, Wilde, and George Moore, who argued that art had no obligations to fulfill, no social function to perform, except to embody to perfection the canons of art itself. This view has been epitomized as "Ars gratia artis," a post-classical Latin tag coopted with enormous economic irony by MGM Pictures. Closely examined, though, the phrase "art for art's sake" has almost no meaning. It is quickly deconstructed, beginning with the notion that art is a conscious entity, separate from human subjects, a Platonic Idea that expects things to be done for its sake. Art is made for people, not for Art, whoever he might be; and people have many needs and expectations, including the desire that the import of experience be clarified so that human beings are given the insights and means to choose more vitally and effectively.

But a poetry that consists of a series of commandments hasn't generally won an audience of adherents. It is almost true that, given modern habits of self-assertion and antinomianism, bald injunctions demanding good behavior are likely to be met with anger and negative obedience. Hence the recommendation that we avoid "didactic" poetry, often phrased in reviews as a sneer at "preaching." We might also recall that a culture's sense of "good behavior" changes over time and that much of what might be praised as good behavior in 1859 would now be ridiculed or despised. I sense that even Marianne Moore doubted she'd got away with the line, "So he who strongly feels, behaves."

On the other hand, we believe Flannery O'Connor means it when she says that for her art is best when "the author's moral sense coincides with his aesthetic sense." What she doesn't tell us is how to manage this, I mean, apart from the implicit lesson of her fiction itself. One clue might be Willliams's "No ideas but in things," which can be revised for our context here as, "No moral insights detached from observation and sensation." Ethical inferences must be arrived at after considerable observation, the resulting emotions, and then reflection on them; if presented to us pre-cooked, we are likely not to accept ethical directives. All the more, considering that these are most likely going to cost us something, maybe our very lives. (Or the ethics we arrive at may, on the contrary, help us realize we've been wasting our lives in a pointless, destructive conformity to moral norms we don't actually believe in.) Anyway, we like to feel that the author didn't begin with a priori moralities, but arrived at them after undergoing a series of direct, concrete experiences, their significance, and significance for decision, emerging only gradually. "In dreams begin responsibilities," according to Rilke. If the poem is insufficiently perceived and dreamt, it might not lead us toward any sense of responsibility--indeed, may (if only temporarily) turn us against any sense of obligation at all.

As for the poem "Coventry," I'm not certain that it has any persuasive ethical power; I don't know how I would go about determining whether it did. But since Tracy's article appeared, I've had queries about it, especially among my Facebook friends, who are intrigued by the excerpt and interested to see the whole poem. Which, meanwhile, is found in a book (titled Autobiographies)now out of print. Given that I control the rights to it, I've decided to make the poem available--along with the (ethical) request that no one circulate it without asking permission. There is one more reason: the excerpt quoted by Tracy in has a couple of errors. These are minor, but of course for poets, "God is in the details," and we always insist that the text be printed as we wrote it. See below.


Even if not sent there, some would go
just to visit a byword for banishment, or
nod and smile at Tudor cottages
verifying their age among highways
athrottle with the local Jaguar—
nine centuries ago the route of (do
they know for certain?) Godiva’s midday ride
through narrow, cobbled streets. Still there, and nude,
a statue on a civic pedestal,
she serves as patron for the recent mall.

St. Michael’s ruin has no plans to recover
from the blitzkrieg fires of 1940,
visibly content with its roof of sky,
a brownstone sheepfold with fence of ogives,
tracery drained of blood-red or river-
blue glass. A few steps north, in autumn sun,
the adjunct modernist cathedral proves
by inscription that Britten’s sharp baton
rode lightly above the War Requiem
as, borrowing the tenor of Peter Pears,

Wilfred Owen back from the fields of France
grafted his words onto the older hymn
under the eyes of a merciful giant.
The clash of arms turned music of the spheres
to counteract a deadly expedient
how many thousands now cannot denounce.
Black swallows rise and circle as bells chime
the congregants inside at Evensong,
as if war’d been a roughhewn cornerstone
in the edifice of Common Market peace.

Et lux perpetua luceat eis:
Owen, Britten, Pears, all three moved out
of earshot to that other Coventry,
attendants of the blessed lady, prompted
perhaps by music’s blinding insights. Is it
because an icon forfeits all privacy
that every bystander at last is tempted,
eye at keyhole or shutter?—this means you,
Peeping Tom, and I, and you, oh,
on fire to see the last thing we will ever see.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

New York Friends and Thom Gunn

It’s the familiar paradox: when your days actually do bear retelling, i.e., when you’re out there doing things and seeing people, you don’t have time to write about them. I haven’t added to these pages because my two weeks in New York (plus a weekend in East Hampton) didn’t leave me a free hour. I got into town on October 15th, staying on the Upper West Side with Karen Clark and Jonathan Bernstein, who invited friends James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar to dinner that first night. James is spending 2009-2010 in New York, enrolled in the MFA program at NYU and Sandeep is doing post-doctoral research on the British modernist poet Hope Mirlees. After so many encounters in London, meeting them in New York added a new thread to the text of our friendship.

Next day Karen and I went to see the Blake exhibition at the Morgan Library, which might sound like an exercise in déja vu, after the Tate Britain. The difference is that the Tate’s prints are on permanent display and therefore have to be kept behind thick plate glass in semi-darkness. At the Morgan the prints were well lit and right there on the wall, allowing for up-close inspection. Given that many of the works are small, the pleasure of focusing on detail was magnificent. Also, quite a few items included were drawings, watercolors, or holograph mss. from the museum’s holdings, including the Job watercolors, which are among Blake’s most successful. There were a few works as well by Blake’s contemporaries or followers, the group that called themselves “the Ancients.” For example, Fuseli and Samuel Palmer. To be immersed for an hour in early English Romanticism is an experience not easily described or matched.

It was only a short walk from there to the CUNY Graduate Center, the plan being to attend a reading from Michael Montlack’s My Diva anthology, which includes an essay I wrote about Billie Holiday. Michael hadn’t known I was going to be in New York and already had a full slate of participants (Mark Doty, Wayne Koestenbaum, Christopher Murray, Jason Schneiderman, and Richard Tayson); but, when I said I would attend, he asked me to read at least a short poem. The choice seemed obvious: “Billie’s Blues,” which includes some comments about my “diva,” arguably the greatest jazz singer of the 20th century. I’d never actually met Michael face to face, and the event also was an occasion to renew friendship with Wayne Koestenbaum, whom I hadn’t seen for nearly two years. I made appointments to meet both Michael and Wayne for the following week.

From there I took a cab to the New School to join Marilyn Hacker for the annual awards ceremony and dinner of the Academy of American Poets. Marilyn had flown in from Paris just to attend, as Chancellors of the Academy are generally expected to do. We had a few minutes to catch up before proceedings got underway. She’d received her first copy of her new book, titled The Names, most of whose poems I’ve read with enormous admiration as they were written and published. We found a seat down front in Tischman Auditorium, and, while people were milling around, I had a chance to speak to Jean Valentine (this year awarded the Wallace Stevens Prize), Frank Bidart, and Kay Ryan, whom I’d seen only once before, several years ago, when we were both participants in the West Chester writing conference. The ceremony went like clockwork, each award accounted for in an introduction, then followed by readings from the recipients. Afterward, drinks and snacks were served in the hall outside, and I spoke to several poet friends I hadn’t seen for a while, Marie Ponsot, Carl Phillips, Rita Dove, and David Baker, for example. It was a chance to exchange news—to me one of the main reasons for attending events like this. The reception was followed by dinner at the Café Loup, and Marilyn and I, by the luck of the draw, were seated at the same table as Tree Swenson, Director for the Academy and an extraordinarily intelligent and friendly person, whose work for the Academy deserves special commendation. After our dinner Marilyn, Marie and I took a cab uptown together and summed up what we’d seen and heard during the evening.

After my weekend in East Hampton with Walter Brown, one of my oldest and closest friends, I came back to New York and stayed in his loft in SoHo (described in blog entries for March 2008). The following week I devoted to revisiting favorite places around the city, seeing friends (Jaime Manrique, Michael Feingold, Elizabeth Macklin, Michael Montlack, James Byrne, Ben Downing, David Shapiro, Wayne Koestenbaum), and having a look at three special exhibitions at the Met Museum: Robert Frank’s photographs for The Americans, a ravishing assembly of Watteau paintings having to do with music and theatre, and a blockbuster show of American paintings billed as American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life 1765-1915. Many familiar pictures in the latter show, including Eakins’s homoerotic picture The Swimming Hole, which I first saw many years ago at the Amon Carter Museum in Texas. One Winslow Homer painting in the show I’ve often admired for its handling of color and chiaroscuro depicts African-Americans celebrating carnival; Homer is one of the few 19th century artists to depict African-Americans in non-stereotypical ways. And our greatest water-colorist.

I saw one more Met exhibition, in the company of David Shapiro and his wife Lindsay. In the Asian wing, it gathered works by the 18th c. Chinese painter Luo Ping, juxtaposing to them works by his mentor Jin Nong and others by his family members. Luo Ping belonged to the group known as the "Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou," and his images justify the designation. David knows a whale of a lot about classical Chinese art and gave me a running commentary about it as we strolled among the vitrines. He has a particular liking for the “scholar’s rocks,” bizarrely shaped but natural mineral formations used as objects for reflection in Chinese culture. But David’s conversational style is digressive, so he also spoke of music (he plays violin expertly) and friends like John Ashbery, Meyer Schapiro, Jasper Johns, and Kenneth Koch, for all of whom he provides a special perspective. When you have as much learning as David, it’s only natural that the abundance will spill over in conversation. We went for coffee afterward, whereupon David presented me with several of his lovely and, I guess, “eccentric” collages. Not sure what I’d done to deserve them, I was nevertheless touched, and pause here to look them over again.

I had been invited by a poet named Alex Dimitrov to attend a meeting of a group of young gay poets he formed and named "the Wilde Boys." It was held at the apartment of Tom Healy, whom I remembered from his days in the MFA program at Columbia. I was glad to see Tom and again and to hear that he had just published his first collection, titled What the Right Hand Knows. (Tom gave me a copy and now that I've read it I can recommend it as one of the most startling and original first books I've seen in a long time.) Among the guests were pals David Groff and Mark Bibbins, not seen for a couple of years and both prospering. It was also interesting to meet John Stahle, editor of the magazine Ganymede and a poet himself. The younger poets I didn't know but found them all bright and sophisticated, a whole new crop of talent that clearly will soon be publishing their first books. It made me wish there had been an equivalent group when I started out, but gay poetry in those years (excepting Duncan,Ginsberg, and Gunn) was mostly marginalized and unmistakably a career disadvantage. I'm glad the current generation doesn't have to confront the poorly concealed hostility we had to put up with back in the day.

On October 28th, I participated in an event celebrating the poetry of Thom Gunn, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. The coordinator of the event, Joshua Weiner, is the editor of a recently published collection of critical articles about Gunn, titled At the Barriers, where an essay of mine about Gunn and existentialism appears. All the program participants had in fact contributed to the book—Joshua Weiner, Wendy Lesser, Robert Pinsky, Tom Sleigh—with the exceptions of Elaine Equi and Robert Polito. I enjoyed talking with everyone before and after the program, when we all went to dinner (again, at the Café Loup, which seems to be the preferred venue this year). I had a long conversation with Alice Quinn, now the Director of the P.S.A., whom I first met when she was an editor at Knopf, an early architect of their celebrated poetry series. During the years when she was poetry editor for The New Yorker, she was also my colleague in the Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia. One achievement of hers from that time was to plan a program of poets from England, Ireland and Scotland, in collaboration with the magazine and the Writing Division. It brought poets over that I hadn’t known about beforehand, and I count the event as one of the factors that led to the decision to go and live in Lonfon. One of the poets invited was Thom Gunn. In fact, it was the last time I saw Thom. To conclude this blog, I will append the comments I made for the PSA program. The poems of Thom’s I read after presenting the comments below were “The Hug,” “The Vigil of Corpus Christi,” and “The Girls in the Next Room.”


Remembering Thom

The example of Pound, Eliot, Auden, Hughes, Plath, and Thom Gunn suggests that results are likely to be good when American poets go to live in Britain or British poets come to live in the United States. Thom Gunn has meant many things to me, and his expatriate courage is one of the reasons that during the last decade I’ve lived in London as much as I have. I say “courage” because of course home may decide to take offence when you go away, and you sometimes find that away’s welcome is mixed. It’s not a choice for the faint-hearted, and Thom was certainly not that.

I first met Thom in October or possibly November of 1982. At that time I was living, with J.D. McClatchy, at James Merrill’s apartment on East 72nd Street in New York. Thom and I had begun a little correspondence—letters on my side, postcards on his. Possibly you remember his poem “Interruption,” in which he says, “I manage my mere voice on postcards best.” When he wrote that he was planning to be in New York, I asked him to drop by for a drink. I knew what he looked like from book-jacket photographs, plus one drawing that depicted him in a tank top, a clothing choice that would be startling even now, twenty-seven years later. He struck me as handsome in a craggy, unadorned mode; he wore jeans, a leather jacket, and of course no tie.

I wouldn’t say he was so very warm during that first meeting, though certainly keen-witted. It might have had something to do with the fact that we were in Merrill’s apartment; they weren’t friends, though I think he had a qualified admiration for Merrill. It was a reserve that could plausibly be extended to anyone he perceived as being a follower of his very famous American contemporary. We exchanged comments about not much in particular that I can recall. He asked at one point where the toilet was, and I gestured toward a door off the next room. Although he closed the door, while he was there I could hear him whistle a little melody, not one I recognized, but spirited and quite in tune. And then he left.

Exchange of letters (on my side) and postcards (on his) continued. And then in Oct. of ’84, I had a reading date at Berkeley so I proposed meeting in San Francisco the day before. The suggestion was accepted. I’d always been a fan of San Francisco, ever since my first visit in the summer of ’69, in the aftermath of its years as epicenter of the “Counter-culture.” I took a bus from the place I was staying in the mission District, went along Haight Street past Ashbury and Fillmore, all the Victorian gingerbread painted in Flower-Power colors, liquidambar trees trimmed perfectly spherical along the sidewalks. And the signature fog hanging in the air. A turn up Cole Street, past Parnassus, Waller, and Alma to number 1216, where I rang the bell. Steps bounded down the stairs and Tom threw open the door. He was suntanned and offered a closed-mouth smile, with creases at the cheek, his black hair salted with white. His voice had an original timbre, breathier and higher in pitch than you might expect, and American-tinted British in accent.

He said we should hurry out to a restaurant directly before it closed. We took a five-minute walk to an unpretentious café with ferns levitating at the window, sat down, placed our orders, and gazed at each other. I noticed he wore a delicate gold earring and looked a little heavier than he’d been two years earlier; but I on the other hand had been working out regularly and was quite fit, as didn’t escape his sharply observant dark eye. Truth to tell, Thom and I were never altogether easy with each other, both of us a little intimidated, I think, though the reason for that is hard to state. Imagine a couple of tom cats circling each other, intrigued but wary.

After lunch we walked back to his place, entered, walked up a flight of stairs. A series of rooms opening on something like a central atrium. His partner Mike Kitay had assembled a collection of commercial graphics, metal signs and posters advertising soft drinks and whatnot. These were displayed along the walls instead of the usual cutting-edge paintings expected in poets’ digs. In the bedroom was a glass case filled with pop figurines—comic-strip characters and American folk heroes like, say, Paul Bunyan or Billy the Kid. We sat and talked for a while, but the previously mentioned wariness prevented conversation from getting confessional, though it was cordial enough. Thom said he’d be in New York the following month and we promised to meet.

But in fact we didn’t. I don’t recall any further meetings except for a public encounter when Thom came to participate in a celebration of British, Irish, and Scottish poetry that The New Yorker co-sponsored in the late 1990s with the Graduate Writing Program at Columbia, where I was teaching.

If I’d lived in San Francisco, I think we’d have been close. But I didn’t and that was that. I reviewed one of Thom’s books in the years following and suspect he didn't much like it, never mind that the comments were favorable. I can imagine him feeling I was too young and unseasoned, that I hadn’t yet earned the right to praise him; which was plausible enough. Meanwhile, the year he won the Brandeis Poetry Prize, he was unable to attend the ceremony in Boston, and I was asked to accept the award for him. I recall sending him a letter about the event, concluding with a tercet in iambic dimeter that went this way: “Isn’t it fun,/Being a pun/For Thompson Gunn?”

I had a few more postcards from him and faithfully read whatever he published, even the blurbs he gave younger poets, some of which provoked a puzzled “What?” from me. I speculate that Thom was a soft touch where his friends or even acquaintances were concerned. He also gave me a comment for my book Autobiographies, one sure to have been equally puzzling to my fellow blurbees. Thom had unpredictable taste, one that could make room for Fulke Greville, Ben Jonson, Mina Loy, and Robert Duncan. I like it that he was unpredictable, hard to pin down. He had the courage of his convictions and his convictions could change. I wish, how I wish, he were here now.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Backward Glance to Summer

During the latter part of my stay in Newcastle, things began to pick up speed. I took a trip down to London to see Mimi Khalvati, with whom I had lunch near her place in Stoke Newington. That same week, I spent some time with James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar, too, in fact, they put together a sort of joint birthday dinner for us, with guests Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon, plus Nina Zivancevic over from Paris with her son Vladimir. It was something of a going-away party since James and Sandeep’s plans were to New York in early September to live for a couple of years, Sandeep pursuing her postgraduate research and James enrolling in NYU’s MFA program.

Back in Newcastle I began to get to know poets living there or nearby. Sean O’Brien (one of the most praised poets now publishing in the U.K.) and his partner the literary agent Gerry Wardle were especially kind to me. Sean has won all the major British poetry prizes, but surprised everyone this year by bringing out his first novel, titled The Afterlife, which I saw favorably reviewed in several papers. It’s a dark fable (also, bitingly funny), the story of several aspiring Cambridge poets in the 1970s, whose lives epitomize the confusion and anomie of that decade. I asked Sean if he planned to write a second novel, and he assures me that he does. So much for the notion that poets can’t write fiction--Hardy, Lawrence, Blaise Cendrars, James Dickey, and Margaret Atwood all cases in point, and I might as well let Alfred Corn be the caboose for this distinbguished train.

Sean and Gerry took me on an excursion to the Northumbrian coast one bright early-August morning, an unforgettable day that managed to crowd in many sights, including a visit to Ashington’s coal-mining museum, where, among other things, I was shown paintings of the “Ashington School.” They were a group of coal miners (or “pit men”) who in the 1930s had been given art instruction by a progressive painter named Lyon, who came up from London to the industrial sector of Northumbria. His pupils mounted an exhibition to some acclaim and began to be collected, not really incredible if you recall the progressive politics that characterized British cultural life in the Thirties. Besides, the paintings have a lot of originality and appeal. More about the painters follows farther on.

From Ashington we drove to the coast, stopping in the pretty town of Alnmouth for lunch. On the sand beach there you see Farne Island with its lighthouse and a beautiful expanse of light blue sea. When we continued on the road we saw Alnwick Castle (used for the Harry Potter films), Bamburgh Castle, ancient seat of the Percys (vide Hotspur in Henry IV), and finally the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, the cradle of Celtic Christianity in Northern England. I’m not going to attempt in a blog to register the full impact that seeing these things made.

We turned inland and drove through the moors north of Newcastle to get me back to my place, where we toasted our day with a drink from my balcony thirteen floors above the Tyne. I saw Sean and Gerry once more for lunch before leaving Newcastle, and we plan to meet again when I return.

Through an email introduction made by Anne-Marie Fyfe, I also met the poet Colette Bryce, whose refreshing recent book Self-Portrait in the Dark I’d been reading. Colette came over for a drink, bringing with her the poet Paul Batchelor, who besides publishing well-received volumes of poems wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the Northumberland poet Barry McSweeney. I’d actually met Paul four years earlier, when he came to a reading I gave for the Proudwords Festival in Newcastle. But it was a pleasure to see him again, now fully fledged as a poet.

I made a daytrip to Whitby, which I’d never visited, to see Kennedy Fraser, an old New York friend (English by birth) who divides her time between New York and this small seacoast town that has a special history. Begin with the fact that the earliest surviving poem in Anglo-Saxon was written there by the shepherd Caedmon and that St. Hilda, the abbess of Whitby, flourished during the same period. We had good weather and made a tour of some of the sites, including the ruined abbey, the old church, and the graveyard made famous by the opening chapters of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But the awful traffic and swarms of tourists firmed up a recent resolve never to visit such places except in the off season.

Through James Byrne, I was put in touch with Toby Martinez de las Rivas, a young poet who lives in Gateshead with his Italian wife and child. Toby’s grandfather, a Basque from Bilbao, came to England during the Spanish Civil War and married and Englishwoman. Though he grew up in southern England, Toby is now a proud Northerner, which leads me to the reflection that nearly everyone who lives in the North of England is or becomes a staunch partisan of the region. Apart from its gorgeous landscapes and architecture, a long rich history that includes Roman garrisons and Hadrian’s Wall, constant invasions from Northmen and Scots, Celtic monks and saints (e.g. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede), the interest of shipbuilding and coal-mining industries, and many resident poets, how can local pride be explained? But no further explanation than those facts is really needed. While there, I felt the strong magnetism of Northumbria and certainly plan to stay there again. Anyway, Toby has yet to publish a book, but he was chosen to number among the new poets whose chapbooks have ben published by Faber, and he has already won prizes.

In mid-August I met kind and charming Valerie Laws, poet and playwright also concerned with the matter of the North. We made a day trip out to Hadrian’s Wall and to the excavated Roman settlement Vindolanda, which Hadrian is believed to have visited shortly before the wall project was begun. Reconstructed Roman dwellings have been added to the site, including a little temple dedicated to the nymphs of the water source that ran through Vindolanda. Even without the archeological attractions, the site would have visitors, beautiful as it is. Its rolling fields offer vistas of nearby mountains, the slopes on the day we visited pale purple with heather.

I had an arrivederci final dinner with Paul Attinello (musicologist and writer who teaches at the U. of Newcastle) and then went down to London the first week in September, where I stayed in East Dulwich with my friend Paddy Navin, the actress. Paddy called up other actor friends and we had a reading of the play about Robert Lowell (in 1949) that I drafted during the summer. A revealing experience to hear your text performed by other voices. I hope to set up another such reading when I go to New York in October. Paddy and I saw the NT production of Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters, a play based on the story of the Ashington coal miners described above. Some topnotch performances, especially from Christopher Connel, who played the miner/painter Kilbourn. I also saw the NT’s Mother Courage in a new translation by Tony Kushner. Fiona Shaw gave a star turn in the title role, a heroic two-and-a-half-hour embodiment of Brecht’s excruciating narrative, under Deborah Warner’s direction. It will sound as though I’m a theatre addict (in fact, I may be), but I also saw the ENO production of Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre in a startling realization by the Barcelona troupe La Fura dels Baus, one feature of which was an enormous effigy of a crouching woman out of whose body characters emerged at different points during the narrative. Also attending were Adam Mars-Jones and Keith King, the three of us joining up to discuss what we’d seen after and to catch up on our respective past months.

Other events: I atended the launch of James Byrne's and Clare Pollard's new Bloodaxe anthology, Voice Recognition, a gatheirng of poets who haven't yet published a book. It was held at King's Place and featured twelve of the anthologized poets, including Toby Martinez de las Rivas, who apart from reading beautifully made the startling decision to dedicate one of his poems to me. The book has all the earmarks of success and performs its prospecting and introductory function very well.

I'd been invited by Katy Evans-Bush to participate in her reading series, held at a cafe in Stoke Newington. Three other American-born poets read, including Joseph Harrison, in London on a Guggenheim. We had never met before nor did I know about Waywiser Press, for which he is the American editor. But now I do.

Mimi Khalvati attended the reading, and a few days later she and I had a laughter-filled evening over dinner at a little Turkish restaurant in Spitalfields, preceded by a stroll around that out-of-the-way old neighborhood. I first got to know the neighborhood more than twenty years ago when an American friend, a longtime resident in London named Dennis Seaver, introduced me to it. (Dennis has since died, I’m very sorry to say.) He owned a house on Folgate Street, an old dwelling that he had turned into “living theatre,” a sort of architectural narrative involving the fortunes of an old Huguenot family, specialists in silk weaving, that had come to London shortly after the Edict of Nantes (which exiled Protestants from France). Each floor of his house dealt with a different generation of the family he had invented. Not absolutely accurate from the standpoint of history, it was even so an enthralling experience, casting a spell not easily forgotten, as you see. Mimi and I also walked up to Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, which figures in Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor, a strange historical fantasy I read back in the 80s, when Spitalfields had just begun to attract artist gentrifiers. The old Market is now lined with boutiques, Christ Church restored and cleaned, and the whole ambiance is more upscale than it was twenty years ago.

On my last day in London I was to meet George Szirtes for a drink but for some reason my phone failed to deliver the confirming message (a chronic problem all during the last few days of my stay), so we didn’t manage our rendezvous after all; it will have to be postponed till next spring. But Paddy and I went out for a sumptuous Indian dinner at a place nearby, and the London stay came to an end.

I’m in Rhode Island for a few weeks and, in fact, a few days after arrival gave a reading on the 24th at the University of Rhode Island, where my friend the poet Peter Covino teaches. In the audience were Sandeep Parmar and James Byrne, up from New York, where, as mentioned above, they will be living this year. Also, Jason Roush (see the blog for April 12) came down from Boston, a convenient occasion for a reunion after my four months away. The reading done and books signed, we all went out to dinner, joined by Peter’s partner Tim, Mary Cappello and her partner Jan Walton (both on the faculty at URI). A certain flush of excitement stirred up during the reading carried over into our dinner, which takes its special place among memories of other high-spirited gatherings organized around the bardic vocation, an unquenchable Olympian flame to which poetry’s adepts bring so much enthusiasm and dedication.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Teaching Writing

My summer is going well. I’ve had two visitors. First, James Byrne came up for a couple of days and then a week later, Mimi Khalvati. Because neither had ever been to Newcastle, I played one of my favorite roles, as tour guide. Things seen and done included a look at the temporary exhibition at the Baltic Museum for Contemporary Art showing works by artists who could be construed as having been influenced by Darwin—a timely topic. Also, a visit to the permanent collection of the Laing Art Gallery in the city center, which includes canvases by Gauguin and John Martin, the Blakean painter of sublime subjects that might be said to involve Wordsworth’s “beauty and terror.” We also ferreted out medieval remnants of the old city, for example, the Castle Keep, with its four crenellated towers and the Black Gate, which sounds suitably Gothic, though the name probably comes from a Mr. Black who once lived there. James Byrne particularly wanted to see the Morden Tower (built into the city wall in the western part of town) because of its association with contemporary poetry. Bunting first read Briggflatts there and later readers included Creeley and Ginsberg. Newcastle’s Chinatown is close by, perhaps because the 13th-century ramparts reminded Chinese immigrants of their own Great Wall. Another echo of that would also be Hadrian’s Wall, which begins not far west of Newcastle, a remnant from the Roman occupation of Britain that embodies some of the mystique of ancient parapets. During my first visit to Newcastle in 2005, I went out to Hadrian’s Wall and began shortly after working on a poem titled “Hadrian,” which appeared here in PN Review and can be found in their online archive, if you’re a subscriber. It’s an impressive structure along some stretches and goes west all the way to Carlisle.

New subject: Because of a recently published and widely reviewed book by Mark McGurl titled The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of the Creative Writing School, the topic of creative writing schools is being discussed again, though I’m not sure the attack and defense positions have made any points not familiar to us already. McGurl restricts his discussion to fiction, leaving aside poetry and non-fiction; and he comes down in favor of the phenomenon by citing a number of successful graduates of MFA programs, including Flannery O’Connor. I think we can safely say that O’Connor is a permanent figure in American literature, but it’s too soon to guarantee that some of the more recent successes McGurl mentions prove his point. They may or may not have lasting value. Nor do we have any testimony from these successes (to my knowledge), confirming that they regarded their courses as a help.

I only took one creative writing course, and that was in short story when I was an undergraduate at Emory. The teacher was H.E. Francis, who published several collections of stories and edited a little magazine called Poem, which I believe is still going, though I haven’t checked. I never had a poetry-writing class, and I’m not sure that I had even heard of the Iowa School back in the 1960s, or, a bit later, the Graduate Writing Program at Columbia, founded by Stanley Kunitz. And since I hadn’t heard of them, it never occurred to me to apply to them. So I will never know if such a program would have helped me or not. My substitute was the freely offered comment that friends made, beginning with Edmund White, whom I met in 1966 before he had published fiction. And then Richard Howard and David Kalstone. And then James Merrill and John Hollander. I don’t think I properly appreciated at the time what an enormous service was being done, given that no payment was involved. But now I do. I’ve taught poetry writing classes off and on since 1977 (but only one fiction-writing class). This was only occasionally full-time employment, I was never tenured faculty; which may explain why I didn’t suffer from burnout.

Flannery O’Connor, when asked whether she thought creative writing courses discouraged young writers answered, “Not enough of them!” So one argument against such programs is that they annually unleash hundreds of merely competent writers onto the marketplace, flooding it, and making the task of sorting out the topnotch from the middling much harder. It also gives magazine editors a lot more work, since all these new writers constantly submit (and submit the same work to multiple publications simultaneously). I really don’t think it is humanly possible for editors to read huge stacks of unsolicited mss. with anything like close attention. That is a problem. I would estimate that the beginning writer who has no literary contacts and hopes to be discovered by sending in unsolicited work to a magazine has practically zero chance of success. So, apart from the course content, one value writing programs can have is to serve as a first screening: the instructors who find good students can then recommend them to editors or other professional associates. Of course job descriptions don’t list this task as a professional duty, yet I think most teachers undertake it voluntarily.

But what about the actual course instruction? Is it really helpful? Harmful? There’s no way to avoid the banal answer: some students are helped and others are harmed, depending on individual temperament of the student and the quality of the teaching. (I’ve already written here a little about teaching creative writing and the students I’ve had. See the blog for February 23, 2008.) Certainly there are harmful teaching styles, for example, the teacher who wipes the floor with student work, the critical assessment amounting to nothing more than a sneering dismissal. Nearly as bad is the teacher who smilingly accepts all entries with “That’s just wonderful, keep writing.” It wins popularity for the teacher, but is valueless as instruction.

In my opinion the teacher who tries to coerce students into writing exactly the way she or he does is harmful, particularly if she or he plays favorites, rewarding the close imitators with lots of praise, high marks, and out-of-class social interaction from which the non-imitator is excluded. (And of course if social interaction turns into a sexual relationship or even the offer of one, that is harmful, indeed, unethical.) I’m aware that it isn’t possible for a writer actively engaged in developing an oeuvre and winning an audience for it to regard all approaches to literary composition with equal favor. But the teacher should not insist on overriding an approach that she or he regards as substandard, beyond pointing out its disadvantages and acquainting the student with alternatives. Once that has been done, to demand conformity with the teacher’s personal style is coercion, not fine arts instruction. The arts are not like math and science; no proofs are available. We have a few guidelines, but the rest is an interpretation of experience, it is taste and educated guesswork. On the other hand, students ought to familiarize themselves with the teacher’s writing before enrolling. If it is clear there are no shared aesthetic perspectives at all, then working together will not be easy and possibly not very helpful.

I question the value of writing programs that consist entirely of workshops. Some of the courses should involve reading from contemporary poetry, in more than one language tradition, and of course poetry from earlier periods. At Columbia, I taught many literature courses, the MFA equivalent of “Physics for Poets.” That is, students were not required to write MLA-style essays, but instead to see what plunder they could make off with when reading the assigned texts. Usually no more than one or two informal papers were required per term, just as a way to see what class members were getting from their reading, and what sort of critical skills they were developing. Needless to say the professor in question also learned a lot in the process. I won’t say workshops never taught me anything, they did; but certainly I learned more from the literature courses I taught. Continuing my own education wasn't of course the basis for my salary, only a fringe benefit. Primarily, these courses were the means of bringing to students’ attention artistic resources and authors they were unaware of.

In the workshop format, the teacher can convey to students what sort of audience expectations greet new work published in our era, and, clearly, these expectations differ from what they were a century ago or even fifty years ago. This might sound too obvious to mention; but, occasionally, I got students who hadn’t read anything written after, say, 1925, and wrote accordingly. The sense of audience expectations is conveyed by the instructor, but also by fellow students when the workshop format is used. And there are normally some differences in the instructor’s sense of what is valuable and the other class members’. Fairly often a student will rise up in indignation and say, “I don’t care what audience expectations are, I already know how I want to write!” Which is fine but leaves unanswered the question of why a genius would ever enroll in a course of instruction to begin with. Though not in every case, usually the instructor’s preferences are more conservative than the students’. He or she has probably read quite a lot more than the class members, and long ago worked through the excesses associated with juvenilia. Just as there are some students who haven’t read anything published after 1925, there are others who have read nothing (slight exaggeration) published earlier than two years ago, a disadvantage that cries out to be repaired.

Given that universities have for a long time now offered courses in visual art and in music composition, without anyone’s objecting, it’s hard to understand why some writers and critics anathematize writing courses. Is there really any intrinsic difference in the nature of the creative process in art, music, and literature? Obviously, you can’t teach—what to call it?—inspiration, but you can equip aspiring writers with basic compositional skills (including prosody), expand or refine their sense of what a subject is, and perhaps develop critical faculties, so that students can rush to the circular file when necessary.

Of course employing notable writers as teachers is a left-handed way for universities to serve as patrons for contemporary literature. Yet I doubt that motive is foremost in the decision to set up writing programs, which, to university administrators, are generally regarded as nothing more (or less) than cash cows. The idea that poets might gain a living by teaching poetry was first proposed, I believe, by Leopardi, in his Zibaldone (or notebook). He imagined an Academy where aspiring poets came to consult acknowledged masters concerning their mss. and paid for the opinions offered. But the project wasn’t realized till more than a century later. Well, then, does teaching help the writer-teachers? It helps them not to starve, which, given the current national indisposition to support literary artists with a regular stipend (as is done, for example, in the Netherlands), is a real value. But teaching, especially full-time teaching, may harm writers, gobbling up their time. Still worse, it may actually overwhelm them with boredom and disgust for the whole process of literary composition, whose results can come to seem like an industrial product, not the pure elixir drawn from the fountain of life that first drew them to writing.

As said before, I only rarely taught full-time and didn’t suffer burnout. My sense is that teaching, apart from paying the rent, improved me as a writer. I learned from the literature courses I taught, but also from my students as well, who sometimes opened new avenues for me I might not otherwise have bothered to explore. On the other hand, as tuition costs began to skyrocket, I began to worry that it was a serious imposition on students to crush them under the heavy debt of student loans incurred for the MFA degree, which is null as a credit toward employment unless also accompanied by solid publications. Obviously, only a few of the students were going to become full-fledged writers, with a long list of publications and steady income. I did notice that some got places in arts administration or arts funding, or found posts as editors of magazines. (Among former students who are now editors, I can name Ben Downing, Gabriel Fried, Timothy Donnelly, Susan Schultz, Ravi Shankar, and David Yezzi.) On the most general level, I don’t question that writing courses help class members be better readers, and I wish that more people realized the value thereof. Being the chief isn't the only worthwhile goal in life: being a member of the tribe is a noble and honorable estate. It also seems likely that most MFA candidates will acquire the habit of reading new works of imaginative literature as these appear, a solid cultural value. (It would be interesting to know what percentage of the readership for contemporary literature is made up of former writing students.) But the tuition costs and resulting debts began to climb to terrifying levels, at least in some universities. So conscience was eased when I gave up regular teaching. I do occasional workshops, where the tuition isn’t stratospherically high, and that satisfies my wish to work at the classroom context. Sometimes people seem shocked when I say that all I do is write. But writing is (and in truth, always was) a full-time occupation.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

London to Newcastle

Before leaving London the first week in June, I crowded in lots of events—dinner at Adam Mars-Jones’ in Herne Hill with his partner Keith King; attending the launch of Cahal Dallatt’s excellent new book The Year of Not Dancing at the Troubadour Café, a program where other poets, including the gifted newcomer Maura Dooley, read; coffee with Sandeep Parmar, while James Byrne was in Belgrade receiving a poetry prize; spending an afternoon strolling around Hampstead with Mimi Khalvati; and having coffee with Anne-Marie Fyfe in the Embankment Gardens.

Also, I paid my invariable visit to the Tate Modern, lingering in the “Poetry and Surrealism” galleries; saw one art exhibition, the Kuniyoshi prints being shown at the Royal Academy, and two plays at the National Theatre. The first was Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, at the Olivier, with Nonso Anozie as Elesin, the “horseman of the king,” and Claire Benedict as Iyaloja, the “mother of the market,” and Giles Terera as the Praise Singer. The director Rufus Norris had the inspiration to cast all the roles, even the British colonials, with black actors, the latter roles played in “whiteface.” Which could suggest that underneath the externals, we are all Africans, an idea well supported if you consider the origin of the species Homo sapiens is African. Anyway, it was a vigorous evening, with ample, Brechtian crowd scenes in the market, singing, drumming, dancing, and satiric upbraiding of fools. To say it was an indictment of colonialism is correct but doesn’t sum up the various psychological forces involved. It is a mysterious work and I’d like to see it again.

The second play was Ted Hughes’s version of Racine's Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren, with Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus and Margaret Tyzack as Oenone. The translation seemed good, the only problem being that I have quite a few of the French lines in my head, and could hear them when Hughes’s English equivalents were spoken, which became the source of a dissonance probably not too many in the audience had to deal with. I’d say most of the performances were good (and this was the first preview), though tending to go over the top. Mirren may have been away from the stage too long to feel altogether comfortable there, especially in something so grand as Phèdre. I liked Dominic Cooper, partly because some of his working class flavor infiltrated the performance, and partly because he has an angry intensity that he is able to draw on when apt for the lines. Of course the audience laughed at several points, which is inevitable for classical tragedy in our ironic era. But Nicholas Hytner probably shouldn’t have had Hippolytus vomit into a fountain basin on the stage-left wall after hearing Phèdre’s avowal of love. This provoked the loudest laughter of the evening. On the other hand, when she is giving us a portrait of her despair, Mirren smiles a lot, which is quite effective, marking out as it does that strange no-man’s-land between tragedy and comedy that we all know only too well. The production is also sited in an in-between time-space continuum, not archaic Greek nor yet modern but a mixture of the two. The same for the characters’ names, some of which keep their French form, others adopting the familiar anglicizations of classical names.

Departure: I came to Newcastle (strictly speaking, one should add the suffix “upon Tyne” to the name) on the fifth of this month settling in a short-term rental I found only at the last minute. I’m on the 13th floor of a high-rise building, next to the river and directly across from the Baltic Museum of Contemporary Art on the south bank of the Tyne, in the borough of Gateshead. The Museum is the result of a makeover of a flour mill built there in the 1950s and can be compared to the Tate Modern, though it only hosts temporary exhibitions. The current one has to do with the influence of Darwin on contemporary art, which is timely, given his bicentenary. Another spectacular feature of this part of town is the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, designed by Christopher Wilkinson and influenced by Calatrava’s harp-like creations. A huge parabolic arc connected to a pedestrian walkway by eighteen cables, it has an unusual feature: it can be tilted back so the walkway is lifted while tall ships pass under. The hoist occurs every day at noon, and sometimes twice. I watched it on Sunday and found the spectacle impressive. Across the river are other postmodern buildings, and, all in all, the quays of the city make a handsome, welcoming public space. Also on the Gateshead side is the ultramodern Sage Gateshead concert hall, designed by Norman Foster, a long, rounded, flowing structure in reflective glass, containing three separate performance halls. This week the Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Thomas Zehetmair, has been giving a series of four performances of 20th-century music. I’ve attended two extraordinary programs so far, the first featuring Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, and the second, Stravinsky, Messiaen, John Cage, and Stockhausen. The Cage work was his notorious 4’33, which asks the performer to sit at a piano without playing anything for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. I’d never heard (seen) it done, so I have no way of commenting on the relative excellence or inferiority of this rendition. Certainly it’s not true to say the point of the work is silence because after about ten seconds the spectators begin making various noises. This time there were coughs, nose-blowings, barely suppressed giggles, and whatnot. You might think the audience would have responded to programmed silence with “the sound of one hand clapping,” but, no, there was a real explosion of applause, as though to compensate for the unbearable absence of audio that preceded it. In the modern era, only Quakers and Buddhists welcome silence. For nearly all others, it is experienced as a deathlike void and must be filled. So I must be Quaker or Buddhist.

The city center, sometimes called Grainger Town, features the gorgeous Grey Street, lined with wonderfully varied neoclassical buildings as it mounts and curves up to Eldon Square, where a monument to Charles, Earl Grey, dominates. Yes, this is the Prime Minister for whom the popular bergamot-flavored tea was named. His statue stands atop a very tall fluted classical column, rather like Nelson's in Trafalgar Square. For reasons unknown to me, Newcastle didn’t much follow the vogue for Neo-Gothic architecture in the Victorian period. Instead, you get 19th-century neoclassical style, which is rather rare until the fin de siècle when many Beaux Arts masterpieces were constructed in Paris and New York.

But there are many medieval architectural survivals in Newcastle, including remains of the old city wall and the eponymous castle, first built in wood by William the Conqueror’s son and then later rebuilt in stone. In the Morden Tower part of this structure, Basil Bunting, a proud native Northumbrian, first read to the small public gathered there in 1965 his long poem Briggflatts. I was first introduced to Bunting’s poem by Jonathan Williams, who appears in this blog for March 2008, when I spoke of him on the occasion of his death. Jonathan was Bunting’s publisher in America. When I came to visit Jonathan at his summer home in the dales of Cumbria thirty years ago, he drove us up to see the Quaker meeting house at Brigflatts (that is the correct spelling, though not Bunting's). We didn’t push on to Newcastle, and I didn’t then know Briggflatts had debuted there. In 1966 it appeared in Poetry (Chicago) and launched Bunting’s reputation as a modern master.

Partly because the poem mentions the semi-legendary warrior king Eric Bloodaxe, one of the U.K.’s most important poetry publishers, located in Newcastle, took his epithet for their name. (Non-U.K. readers may or may not be familiar with Bloodaxe Press, which has a large and important number of poets in its catalogue.) Newcastle University, too, has in recent years marked out a place for itself on the poetry map by inviting leading poets like Sean O’Brien and W.N. Herbert to join their faculty. So no one should fear I will be a fish out of water up here, far from London and its cultural abundance. The truth is, I wanted to get to know the North a little better, and the process is well underway.

I have one friend in Newcastle, Paul Attinello, an American who teaches in the Musicology department at the U. of N. I mentioned staying with him here back in December, which is when I conceived the plan of coming to Northumbria for the summer. We’ve had a pleasant reunion, attending the concerts together, and I expect to see him many times during my stay, which is now begun and will continue until early September. And several London friends have promised to come up for a visit as well. Maenwhile, I've begun drafting some new work.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reviews and Objectivity

The book review seems to be the topic of the moment, maybe because online discussion of new books has partly supplanted reviewing in the print media. Tonight in New York the National Book Critics Circle has planned a roundtable discussion of the topic. A young poet named Jason Guriel prefaced a recent review (in Poetry) of three books with a justification of writing negative reviews and received a long letter in response to it further examining the question of negative reviews. This became the subject of a long exchange of comments on Poetry’s “Harriet” blog. The debate was then picked up by an online magazine called Mayday, which invited guest comment on the topic; their online forum was in turn linked by the blog of Magma magazine here in the U.K. So clearly it’s a subject that excites enormous interest, no doubt because book reviews can affect the careers of both reviewer and reviewee; and we live in an era where career is everything. We might wish that the practice of the art of poetry itself was the main attraction for anyone drawn to it, but, considering the public rewards of being a successful poet nowadays (high-paying teaching posts, prizes in excess of $100-thousand, lucrative reading fees) that wish is clearly quixotic. The following comments are informal, composed at random, and necessarily incomplete.

The conventional wisdom about reviews in the fine arts is that the worst review is no review. To gauge the value of a review, get out the tape measure and see how many inches of column it occupies. It doesn’t matter what is said. A pan can interest readers just as much as a puff. The author’s name recognition increases, and that is all that matters in terms of material success.

But surely the conventional wisdom is too simple. A rave review in The Sunday Times Book Review or Poetry can lead to copycat raves elsewhere and then to the awarding of a prize. There is a high correspondence between prize-winning and favorable reviews in the Times and the New York Review of Books. If the reviewer is a person with great prestige, like Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom, a review can form the basis for lifelong career prominence.

Fairness and objectivity are the stated goals of review editors, leading to questions like “Do you know the author?” (always asked at the Times) and “Has the author ever reviewed a book of yours?” This is admirable but doomed. Almost everyone in the poetry world knows, with varying degrees of closeness, everyone else. The insistence on impartiality also ignores literary history, which gives us Coleridge’s ecstatic reviews of Wordsworth as well as his qualified praise of the same; or Jarrell’s rave about his best friend Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle or Bishop’s (also a close friend) North & South; and the list goes on (add your favorite examples). One of mine: When Chester Kallman’s first collection of poems appeared, W.H. Auden, his partner of thirty years prefaced a highly favorable review with these words (which I'm robably not remembering exactly): “The fact that I have been in a close association with this author for three decades shouldn’t prevent me from doing a little log-rolling.” Honest? Yes. Objective? No.

Putting aside the question of possible damage done to the career of someone attacked in a review, Auden said we shouldn’t write negative reviews because it was bad for one’s character. I can see what he means. Because it is so easy to find fault, we can lull ourselves into feelings of superiority over not only the poor scribbler we’re mopping the floor with but also humanity at large. We can become absurdly vain about our ability to find funny one-liners that skewer a poem or its author. In fact, we can become so entertaining (almost everyone loves satire) that we get more and more assignments in ever more prominent forums, writing reviews that are much sought out for their satiric readability, not for their ability to clarify aesthetic goals of the authors in question. We can build a whole career on cleverly phrased pans, but if we are poet-critics our poetry books probably won’t meet with the same success. Other reviewers will avoid writing about them for fear of reprisal. Since prize committees are composed of poets and quite possibly poets whose work the savage reviewer has trounced, the latter won’t win prizes. So it’s easy to imagine the case of a young poet who started out with the high ideal of doing something comparable to Keats or Geoffrey Hill and then, after a decade of reviewing dabbled in only as a sideline, ending up as a celebrated reviewer-satirist; but meanwhile never discussed as a poet and largely unread as one. So perhaps it’s a paradoxical kind of success.

To return to objectivity, it can only exist in relative terms in the field of the arts. To appreciate any work of art, you must greet it with a kind of welcome, with sympathy and a disposition to appreciate. This can arise from many sources, especially friendship with the artist. It can also come from a reputation of greatness that precedes the first encounter with a given work. It can also be created in the mind of a reviewer who knows the author is in a position to give him or her a leg up in the world. By the same token, the readiness to dislike can precede a first reading of the work, either because of personal antipathy to the author or to the artistic circle or social or ethnic category to which she or he belongs; or because the author has often been negatively reviewed before. Also, it’s possible to give a bad review because you are aware the disparagement will please someone with power and patronage to dispense: they may decide to dispense some of it to you.

Those reviewers who want to approximate objectivity must do two things: they have to quote generously from the text being reviewed and they have to construct arguments that are plausible, based on common sense and fresh insights into the nature of verbal communication. It’s good to adduce opinions about the art of poetry (or about experience) stated by generally admired poets and critics in support of a point of view. What's thoroughly lame is a bald, “I love this” or “I hate this.” Opinion divorced from demonstration is nearly useless, even when stated with vehemence. That is why short reviews are nothing more than notices of publication. They shouldn’t be taken seriously as reliable appraisal because they can neither quote at length nor argue in detail. Wait, there’s a third thing that helps us trust a review: the reviewer must write well. A sloppily written review implicitly calls into question the validity of the reviewer’s judgments about others’ writing. I won't go so far as to say no one should review who hasn't published a book, and yet a published book is a credential more than usually valuable because we can read it and form an independent opinion of the capacities and biases of the author.

We always focus on the problem of objectivity of reviewers, but the discussion should move back one domino in the whole process and mention the decisive role of the book review editor. It’s so obvious, no one states it: assigning or not assigning a book is a kind of review. Because, remember, the worst review of all is the one never written or published. I doubt that the decision on which books to review can be any more objective than the eventual review itself. It is based on considerations similar to those involved when the review actually comes to be written, and we should recall that more than half of book review editors are writers, too, and themselves interested in publishing, being reviewed, and rewarded.

A dismissive review can throw formidable obstacles in the path to acceptance and admiration. But the same is true of a failure to assign books by a given author. Indeed, as a means to hinder, it is probably more effective. A negative review at least makes known the book’s existence. Readers may be prompted to read a book despite sharp critiques. But if they don’t know it exists, they won't look for it, won't read it, and can't arrive at any opinion about it, positive or negative. Book review editors have more influence on the fate of books than any single reviewer. Letters to the editor expressing dissatisfaction about negative assessments of books are very common. I don’t ever recall seeing a letter to an editor criticizing him or her for failing to assign a book. But the principle of accountability, in a society attempting to align itself with justice and fair dealing, applies to everyone.

Glancing back over the above paragraphs, I see that much of it touches on what could be described as venal behavior. Unfortunately, the history of literature shows that such behavior is common. And the answer to the natural question, "How do people who behave that way live with themselves?" clearly has to be, "Oh, very easily." Perhaps once in a while a spark of self-knowledge is struck by something seen or read, but the task of extinguishing it is pretty quickly handled, by alibis and ad hominems of one sort or another.

I think we'd also have to say that book reviewing is, in the universal sum of things, not so important after all. Very few book reviews are reread, and they do not in the long run determine the continued admiration or disapproval of authors, e.g. Melville (panned) and James Gould Cozzens (puffed). They are ephemeral. Still, here, as well as in contexts immensely more crucial, I like to call to mind what the great Jewish sage Hillel wrote: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?"

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Since yetserday's post, Ruth Padel has given up her appointment to the Oxford Chair of Poetry. In view of the critiques that have been made, and the loss of the prize, I feel the debt should be put paid, and she shouldn't continue to be hounded. Besides, it's good to remember Shakespeare's "Unless this general evil they maintain:/All men are bad, and in their badness reign."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

London and Controversy

This blog having just been named as one of the top 100 poetry blogs by Online University Reviews, I feel I ought to post something today. It was good to see other blogs I read mentioned as well—Ed Byrne’s, Mark Doty’s, Paul Lisicky’s, Sandra Beasley’s, for example, and I’ve begun to explore others on the list that I didn’t know about. Also, I don’t see why they omitted Joan Houlihan’s or Terry Hummer’s, and even Reginald Shepherd’s, despite the fact that Reginald died in September. It has been carried forward some time after his death by his partner and, anyway, what he wrote there before his death is worth rereading.

I arrived in London last Wednesday and first off saw James Byrne in his new Hampstead digs, and then a few days later again at a dinner party he gave with Sandeep Parmar. Somehow unpacking and jet lag haven’t prevented me from seeing people and attending events. Mimi Khalvati and I attended the celebration of the poetry of Yehuda Amichai at the National Portrait Gallery, the participants including Elaine Feinstein, Ruth Padel, Ruth Fainlight, Alan Sillitoe, Danny Abse, Yvonne Green (the organizer), and Hannah Amichai, widow of the late poet. She was impressive and attractive—warm, level, direct. This emerged during questions after the readings. One that interested me was the relationship between Mahmoud Darwish and Amichai. Darwish admired Amichai’s poetry and said so. They were associates for a while until Amichai interpreted one of Darwsh’s poems as being against the State of Israel. After which, Amichai said he couldn’t appear on the same platform. This puzzled me because Darwish never denied the legitimacy of Israel’s statehood. Just because you are for the Palestinian people doesn't mean you can't be for the continuance of Israel. What Darwish opposed was the refusal of right of return to those who had to to leave their homeland during the disruptions of the transition, and the reduction of large numbers of Palestinians to second-class status in the new state. Not to mention the harassment of checkpoints and the bulldozing of houses and the imprisonment of anyone even suspected of dissidence. As for the ensuing war, the most general kind of humanitarian guidelines as established by international law, irrespective of where war occurs, couldn’t possibly condone what happened. Heads of state and military officers make decisions that ultimately the civilian has to pay for. At this point it’s futile and destructive to try to say who is right and who is wrong. Blockading an entire region is wrong and from time to time depriving it of water, electricity, and food is wrong; firing rockets on civilian targets is wrong, the same as saying you intend to destroy a sovereign state; making settlements on land not recognized by the U.N. as belonging to you is wrong; suicide bombings are wrong; using phosphorus weapons is wrong; preventing the wounded or ill from getting to a hospital is wrong; shutting down peaceful gatherings is wrong; and refusing to negotiate is wrong. The only important issue now is how to bring the violence to an end and to establish viable, peaceful government. That issue should override any prideful clinging to punctilio and protocol. Clearly the people at large want the strife to end. If no move is being made to end it, then it’s the leaders who have to accept the blame. Because the peace and safety not only of the Middle East but the entire world depends on speedy resolution of the conflict, then the world at large should exert pressure on the leadership to put a stop to rhetoric and get down to negotiating.

I seemed to have arrived in the U.K. during scandal season. The misdeeds of MPs who misappropriated public money for private purposes has been so much discussed that there’s nothing to add here. On the other hand, the scandal surrounding the Oxford Poetry Chair is still recent enough to bear examination. I was angry when I heard that Derek Walcott had withdrawn his candidacy for the position because of a history of suits involving sexual harassment in years past had been cited as a reason not to appoint him. I don’t like the following analogy, but it is all I can think of to point up the issues. Compare Walcott to the convicted offender who serves his time and is released. Once he has “paid his debt to society,” this person should be allowed to make a new life for himself. If he isn’t allowed to, he will either harm himself or others. If we don’t believe in rehabilitation, then we have to hand out life sentences only. The smear campaign against Walcott was like convicting someone in advance of a crime not yet committed. Note, too, that the Chair of Poetry doesn’t involve courses and evaluation of students but only public lectures. It’s fair to say that Walcott in one of the three most important living English-language poets. Add to that the non-negligible fact that he has African ancestors—non-negligible in an era when Britain is trying to make up for the injustices of the colonial period. He would have been a brilliant choice. (I can’t help wondering, incidentally, if African ancestry didn’t turn against Walcott here. Overt or subtle, sexual predation of students among white professors is as common as student cheating on exams. But a black professor who attempts this is going to be called to account much more quickly and severely.)

Certainly Ruth Padel is one of the leading poets in the U.K. There were many good reasons for appointing her Oxford Professor of Poetry quite apart from the fact that she was a candidate who hadn't been involved in sexual harassment suits. It’s not a minor consideration that she would have been the first woman to hold the post. Her recent book about the life of her ancestor Charles Darwin would have made the appointment timely not only because of purely calendrical facts but also because we live in an era when fundamentalists are challenging Darwinian theory. Any reminder, any prestige conferrable, any fact that can weaken the fundamentalist case, wherever we find it, is welcome.

But her candidacy has come a-cropper because she at first denied she had anything to do with the smear campaign. Two emails to newspapers now show that she did. To overly aggressive lobbying tactics we have to add a public lie. I think this is intensely sad. First, because it attests to a lack of confidence that personal merit alone was sufficient reason for being appointed. (And in a tradition where women have been discouraged from believing in themselves, we can understand how this might be.) And, second, because it has been the source of pain and perhaps career damage for two poets.

And what happens now? Will the Chair be offered now to Walcott? If offered, will he accept? Will it go to another poet, and if so which poet? Should be interesting to see.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Leaving Ledig House

A little backtracking. As described in the previous blog, the procedure at Ledig House is for residents’ arrival and departure to be staggered. So Amy Waldman and David Machado left, and after that, Christian Haller, and Dy Plambeck. But then new people came: Rob Schouten, a poet and critic from the Netherlands; Kaspar Schnetzler, a novelist from Switzerland; Alex Halberstadt, a writer of non-fiction who was a class member in a poetry course I taught in the Graduate Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia, I think about ten years ago. And just a few days after, Chloe Aridjis left, and Joanne Wang arrived. Joanne, originally from Beijing, is now living in New York and working as a translator. Xu Xiaobing, the Chinese novelist whom Joanne recently translated, was scheduled to arrive at the same time but, finally, was denied permission to travel, which is too bad.

The international character of Ledig House sharpens your perspective on what it means to be a writer outside the U.S.A. in the 21st century. Among the short-term visitors to L. House was Taslima Nasrin, who had to leave Bangladesh fifteen years ago because of her controversial publications about the difficulties women have to face in Bangladesh. Since then Taslima has lived the life of an exile in Sweden, Germany, France, India, and now New York, where she has a fellowship from N.Y. U. to do her work. But she would like to return to Bangladesh, her home, and the place where she feels there is a lot of work to do. That same weekend we had the fiction writer Ma Thida, on a fellowship at Brown this year, but expecting to return to Myanmar at the completion of her stay. She was imprisoned there for six years on the sole basis of her publications. I found both women (who have medical degrees, incidentally) formidable in their courage and commitment to basic freedoms that Americans take for granted. I mentioned Abiye Teklemariam in the earlier blog. He received the news that several people he knew in Addis Ababa have been arrested, and that the outlook isn’t good—which raises questions about his own return to his homeland. All of this can make being a writer working in modern Western-style democracies seem very easy indeed, with our freedom to say anything we like (and be unread or ignored), our comfy teaching posts, our well-paid reading tours, and (blush) our subsidized stays in artists’ colonies. But of course we know that there are things we can do to help others in countries where circumstances are riskier.

Other weekend visitors have included Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan, who now directs Bard’s Chinua Achebe Center for African Culture. Before doing that he founded a literary magazine in Kenya called Kwani?, which was innovative in several ways. For example, it published what is probably the first short story by a Kenyan dealing with gay themes. Also up from Bard that same evening was Gabi Ngcobo, South African, who is doing a graduate degree there in curatorial studies. We had a lively conversation about contemporary South Africa (whose post-apartheid constitution guarantees gay civil rights, by the way), and the recent inauguration of Jacob Zuma, about whose government-in-formation there is a lot of discussion.

We also had visitors from the publishing world: Jill Schoolman, who is the publisher of Archipelago Books. Almost everything Archipelago brings out is translated from other language traditions, which of course sets them apart from the bulk of contemporary American publishing. Jill is extraordinarily nice, and it’s instantly clear how dedicated she is to getting important foreign-language works to an American readership, which tends to fall behind in this area. We had one literary agent, Jen Auh, who works at the Andrew Wylie agency and happens to represent Alex Halberstadt. Finally, a night's visit from Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich, who run the Ugly Duckling Presse [sic] in Brooklyn, also mainly concerned with translated work, poetry in particular.

As for the writing, my main reason for being here, it went sailing along, with only a few days when the anchor dragged. I’ve written several new poems, done some translation, and gone through the ms. of a new collection of poems and unmistakably improved it, adding, dropping, rearranging. And, finally, I have a draft of my two-act play about Robert Lowell.

Weather was unusually changeable. Though we had sun most days during the latter part of April, days were on the chilly side. And then mid-month the temperature suddenly jumped to the high eighties, a heat not recorded locally for April since the 1920s. It rushed up the flowering of the apple trees and the lilacs, but also their leafing, so the blossoms were quickly crowded out by foliage. Then things got cooler, and back we went to the expected cloudy, damp springs of the Hudson Valley.

I gave a reading in Hudson at Carrie Haddad Gallery, an event that was arranged by Bill Sullivan. My co-reader was Star Black, who came up from New York just for the day. We were both still upset at the news that our friend Darragh Park, whom I hadn’t been in contact with for a long time, had died by his own hand a few days earlier. Darragh was a painter, whom I met more than thirty years ago through John Ashbery. I used a painting of his for the cover of my second book, a New York cityscape, and among the best of those he did in that decade. Apparently he’d lost his eyesight and had become dependent on others. His death is understandable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t regrettable. Star dedicated her reading to him, which seemed right. Other friends in the audience were the poet/art-critic Carter Ratcliff and his wife Phyllis, Karen Clark and Jonathan Bernstein, who drove up from New York, and Brooks Peters, who now lives across the river in Athens and whom I first met when he was a Yale undergrad back in the 70s.

It’s been a spring with a lot of sad news, beginning with deaths from the H1N1 flu, both here and abroad. And then, the poet Deborah Digges. Though I wouldn’t claim a friendship, I did meet her once, just after her first book came out, and liked her. Opinions differ on whether her death was a suicide, but in either case, a terrible thing. Equally hard to come to terms with was the death of Craig Arnold, whom I didn’t know but whose poems I’ve read. Exploring a volcanic island off the coast of mainland Japan, he fell into a deep ravine, a shock his family and friends haven’t yet recovered from.

Finally, I had an email post from Langdon Hammer the first week of the month saying that my friend Eleanor Perényi had died, at the age of 91. (In the blog describing my visit to Budapest last June, I speak of our friendship.) The immediate cause was a brain hemorrhage, and at least things went very quickly. A sad event that had an effect on my last week at L. House. We won’t see Eleanor’s like again.

I’m beginning to feel that television has been following the same track as this blog. Last June, when I was in Warsaw, I wrote here about the heroic figure Irena Sendler, a nurse who rescued 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. One evening during my residency, I turned on the TV and there was her story on something called “The Hallmark Hall of Fame.” Well done, gripping, and at moments hard to watch. And then, this past February when I was in New York, I wrote about seeing Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn, a story based on the Soviet slaughter of more than two thousand Polish officers shortly after Soviet troops occupied Poland. Another night I randomly went through several channels and happened on a documentary about the period following the Nazi-Soviet pact, which once again told this terrifying story.

I realize the above paragraphs are shadowed with sadness, but I don’t want that to alter the fact that I had a stimulating and productive month at Ledig House, with the non-negligible bonus of making several new friends. Let me close with a brief mention of a dinner the painter Stephanie Rose gave in Hudson during my last week. Guests were the novelist and poet Jaime Manrique, Bill Sullivan, Carter and Phyllis Ratcliff, and Al Roberts, who collects paintings and curates shows for the Albany Institute of History and Art. I spoke of a commission from the Gulbenkian Foundation to translate fado (Portuguese popular song), something that my friend Mimi Khalvati arranged. So Stephanie played a disc of Amalia Rodrigues, the classic performer of fado, while we had our meal. Raised glasses, jokes, eye catching an eye, laughter, quiet moments of reflection, warm goodbyes.

Tomorrow I fly to London.