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.

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