Saturday, February 28, 2009

In New York City

Just back from a few days in New York, glad for the chance to get there so soon after returning to the U.S.A. Marilyn Hacker had asked me to teach a couple of her classes at C.C.N.Y. while she was away, something I’ve done before and enjoy.

It was also a chance to see friends and catch up on a city that, like Heraclitus’s river, you can’t ever step into twice, constantly changing as it is. And yet there is a permanent aspect to New York, one that I recall from my earliest years there in the 1960s. Its vertical aspect, its vast underclass, the contrast between riches and poverty, its African-American, Jewish, Latino and generally international flavor. I had good weather, and riding slowly through the streets in a bus I caught again the, I guess, “visionary” aspect of New York in winter, something in the way the light strikes high-rise buildings along the avenues over bare trees; something that seems to incorporate the long history of aspiration motivating so many immigrants to come here, either from other parts of America or from Europe. Not that aspiration was always rewarded. In the city’s story there are so many more broken hearts than lights on Broadway. Nevertheless, if we focus on artistic achievement, New York since the days of Whitman has a wildly impressive record. To have lived long periods in New York, Paris, and London has been my lucky fate. All three did a lot to make me who I am, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc.

Going through Harlem I see that it is now integrated and very upbeat in feeling, not at all the Harlem I first saw back in the day (1965). I may be imagining it, but I sense a new cheerfulness and confidence in the Black population of New York. The results of Obama’s presidency are already evident in the faces of his most ardent supporters. And to think he once spent a year or so in one of Harlem’s old-style tenements, without the least idea that he would one day be President. I wonder if a plaque has yet been placed on it. Of course Bill Clinton’s national headquarters located to Harlem several years ago, and after that it was open season for the gentrifiers. Once again the city blocks between 110th and 135th are a new focus of interest and enterprise.

By coincidence the undergraduate course I was subbing for had ot do with the Harlem Renaissance of the 20s and 30s. It’s an under-researched area of American literary history, particularly where the women poets (Anne Spencer, Mae Cowdery, and Helene Douglas) are concerned, though I’m sure that will change. Former students Karen Clarke and Elise Buchman had asked to sit in on this class and also the graduate seminar in prosody, and that was a plus I hadn’t counted on.

It would be silly to come to New York and not try to see things you can’t get elsewhere, so I made an altogether predictable beeline to the show of late Bonnard paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, about eighty works done after he and his wife Marthe bought a house in the South of France in the mid-1920s. “The Late Interiors” was the show’s designation for these works, all of them indoors, though often looking out onto the garden and the Riviera town of Le Cannet. Of course other artists and writers were working in that general environ at the time, not only Matisse, Picasso, and Colette, but also Americans like Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Gerald Murphy. If only it were possible to make month-long visits to earlier periods. I’d be off the Twenties in a flash. Bonnard’s unfussed presentation of daily French domesticity—simple interiors casually assembled but with bright bowls of fruit and flowers, coffee carafes, patterned wallpaper, printed or embroidered textiles—is just as persuasive as Matisse’s equivalent. The cultic French doctrine of pleasure, often dismissed in Anglo-Saxon or Germanic cultures as mere inconsequential prettiness and therefore not really serious, needs revising.

Nevertheless, I also had a chance to see a work produced under the sign of high seriousness and--there's no other word--tragedy. It’s the recent film Kat├Żn by Polish director Andrzej Wajda, whose reputation was established half a century ago by films including Ashes and Diamonds and Kanal. I saw it at the Film Forum in downtown Manhattan; there's little chance it will get a national release. A fiction film, it is even so based on historical fact—the mass murder, in 1940, by the Soviet military of a group of Polish officers. During the Communist Era, Poland’s Soviet government tried to cover up the event, shifting the blame by adding it to the catalogue of atrocities that the Nazis had actually committed. It’s an unwieldy narrative, touching on several lives only tangentially connected. But the performances are profound and attest to a kind of depth in human experience and response to experience that has more or less been frittered away in the modern West during the last few decades, when the populace at large seems to want live their lives as a sitcom or else a video game.

Another aspect of the film likely to cause embarrassment in an American audience is its unashamed incorporation of Christianity. But you can’t get to first base in grasping the nature of Polish culture unless you understand how important their commitment to religion is. I broached the topic in these e-pages during my visit to Krakow and Warsaw last June. Catholicism is part of the beleaguered Polish national identity, and in recent decades it has been associated, because of John-Paul II, with freedom movements. And there's no inevitable association between Polish Catholicism and Holocaust-denying, which some Poles have attracted fire for engaging in these past twenty years. Also, it needs to be acknowledged that many Christian Poles were also sent to the camps (the background subject for William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice). And I don’t see why it is wrong to commemorate the gentile Poles who died in Auschwitz, all the more considering they were fighting against German occupation. Likewise for the Roma population and gay men. The Nazis were quite lavish as to who qualified for obliteration.

Back to the film. Parts of it are horrifying (we are shown the assembly-line deathblows, each accomplished by a shot in the back of the head at close range). You feel blood-spattered by the time the film ends. The performances are first-rate, and there are arresting visuals throughout. Plus, instead of rock songs, an orchestral score by Penderecki. All told, a shattering experience.

I wandered around in Greenwich Village before seeing the film, passing by a few of the literary sites—the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas committed suicide by alcohol; King Street, where Elizabeth Bishop lived; St. Lukes Place, where Marianne Moore worked as a librarian; Cornelia Street, Auden's first aparmtent when he moved to New York, West 13th, where Edmund White lived in the 1960s, and West 16th, where Hart Crane lived in the 20s. All very familiar from my three decades' residence in New York.

Speaking of Hart Crane, I stopped in New Haven on my return trip to see Langdon Hammer, who was in a class I taught at Yale more than thirty years ago. In addition to teaching in the English Department there, he has edited the Crane letters and has published many critical essays about contemporary poetry. His current project os writing a biography of James Merrill, a complicated undertaking, to say the least. Anyway, we had the chance to catch up a bit during lunch, and I always find him upbeat and stimulating when we touch on topics around the all-encompassing subject of poetry.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Back in the U.S.A.

If only for myself, I wanted to mark this transition. My stay in London (with trips to Morocco and Paris) is now at an end, and I won’t be back for several months It’s been a sparkling and useful visit (leaving aside the six weeks I lost recuperating from the broken foot). Old friends seen again, new acquaintances made, and a reckonable amount of work done. The past two weeks have been conducted under the sign of departure, with goodbyes said to friends like Kathryn Maris, Fiona Sampson, Anne-Marie Fyfe, Mimi Khalvati, Martha Kapos, Ruth Fainlight, James Byrne, Jean McRae, John McCullough, and Anna Robinson. Oh, and Kathryn introduced me to the American poet Linda Gregerson, who is here on her sabbatical, working on Renaissance theater. Special events these past weeks have included seeing the terrific film Milk with my friend Miguel Mansur, a trip to Hastings with Mimi Khalvati, and a talk given by Charles Simic for the Poetry Society. I hadn’t seen Simic for decades, but, even with the inclement weather London has been having, a nearly full house welcomed him at the Bishopsgate Institute hall. I recall that many years ago (in 1970, I think) Richard Howard told me he’d been made the head of a new poetry series at George Braziller (the publishing house). And his first choice for the series was Charles Simic, a name I didn’t know at the time. But Richard gave me a copy of the book, and I saw that something original and distinctive was being done in it. That didn’t mean I predicted that Simic would one day be Poet Laureate of the United States, but that is how things worked out. Actually, he spoke about his two years holding that post, and confirmed what I’ve said here: there is an enormous amount of interest in poetry, witness all the thousands of requests, queries, demands, invitations, debates, and whatnot that came to his door. But I’m aware that these facts will not prevent people from reverting to the old, false refrain: “Nobody’s interested in poetry.”

This doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with writing, but give me a minute. Newscasters have been obsessed this past week with the question of Bonuses for Bankers. Heads of failing banks have been interviewed by British Parliament, and some of them are about to roll. Apparently the same is happening in the U.S.A. For many years, without having a forum for it, I’ve been saying privately that the absurd salaries for CEOs was an abuse, one that, first, unconscionably widened the gap between rich and not rich. Second, that it cut deep into corporate profit; and third, that it was a fraud. Why a fraud? Well, the reason always given for these megasalaries was that a failure to do so would mean the CEO in question would go to another competing corporation and sell his talents to them. But wait a minute. If we concede there is a going rate, a stratospheric average, just who established it? Corporate boards of directors, that's who. If corporations had agreed to put a cap on salaries, there would be no greener pasture to run to. But they've made a tacit agreement not to do this. In this one way, CEOs from competing companies are loyal to each other, I mean, to their category. The salaries are huge because boards of directors vote them huge. That’s in their interest, sure, but not in the interest of the corporation and its profits. It is a scam. Bonuses are only one facet of this larger problem of disproportionate pay. Let’s focus on bonuses, though. Their justification is (in theory) that they stimulate hard work and creativity, leading to greater profit. We’ve just seen that they do no such thing. Several of these chiefs have admitted they have no particular banking expertise. No seasoned and knowledgeable pilot has been at the helm. Hence the financial meltdown from disastrous policies adopted and pursued.

In any case, why should one’s willingness to work hard and think creatively depend on bonuses? Millions of people work hard and think creatively and yet their compensation remains the same. So, why do certain “professions” expect bonuses? Because they can get them, obviously. Putting aside my writing and the payment I received for it, and focusing solely on my teaching (which I did for more than twenty years), I can say I always gave it my best, with no expectation of a “tip” for doing so. The implication of the bonus system is, “If you don’t promise me extra boodle, I’m not going to do good work for you.” I think that is shameful. Nobody ever gave Abraham Lincoln a bonus, or Florence Nightingale, or Marie Curie, or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or Kyle Smith who lays down asphalt on the highway or Mary Brown who works at the daycare center or Private Gillis who got his foot shot off in Iraq. Why are corporate types not willing to work hard (and responsibly) for what is already a vast salary by most measurements, unless it is topped off by still more loot? Sheer greed, cutting into corporate profit and, these days, awarded at the taxpayer’s expense. The only difference between these lazy fat cats and the waiter at the local pizza house who sweats for a tip, is that the sums involved are staggeringly disparate. No, there is another difference: the waiter has no advance assurance that there will be an extra. The CEO does know. The waiter works like a navvy to get that tip. The CEO doesn’t have to, it’s part of his contract. And let's don't even get into the fabled "exit package." O'Neal at Merrill Lynch got one valued at about $140 million in 2007. And others I could name got staggering amounts as well.

Right, but what has all this to do with writing? OK, the sound-bite you hear absolutely everywhere these days—at publishing houses, at arts funding organizations, at magazines, from organizers of reading series—well, all administrative desks involved with writing and publishing is that, because of the “credit crunch,” there is no money to do what the organization under discussion used to do. Funds have been cut and, besides, people can’t afford to buy books or tickets to readings, etc. That is infuriating. It’s not enough that these corporate frauds have wrecked the solvency of our citizens and our government, they are also hindering the production and publication of new literary works (and artworks in other genres). For this they should receive a bonus from the taxpayer? Has the world gone insane? (Answer: Yes.) But can we get sane again and stop paying CEOs these gargantuan salaries? And certainly—certainly!—not pay bonuses to them on top of that.