One of the derivations proposed for the name Canada is a Portuguese phrase meaning 'nobody here.'
-- Northrop Frye (in The Modern Century, 1967)
Compare to Gertrude Stein, "There's no there there," on Oakland. -- DL
One of the derivations proposed for the name Canada is a Portuguese phrase meaning 'nobody here.'
-- Northrop Frye (in The Modern Century, 1967)
Compare to Gertrude Stein, "There's no there there," on Oakland. -- DL
Henry James and Edith Wharton often went "motoring" together. Wharton wrote about one such trip in A Motor-Flight Through France (1908). Here, she describes an experience with James while traveling in England:
From A Backward Glance by Edith Wharton
The most absurd of these episodes occurred on another rainy evening when James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. […] While I was hesitating and peering out into the darkness James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. ‘Wait a moment, my dear—I’ll ask him where we are’; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.
‘My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer—so,’ and as the old man came up: ‘My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.’
I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: ‘In short’ (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), ‘in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right) where are we now in relation to…’
‘Oh, please,’ I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, ‘do ask him where the King’s Road is.’
‘Ah—? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?’
‘Ye’re in it’, said the aged face at the window.
(after Henri Michaux)
Life is a labyrinth, and so is death,
A labyrinth without end, said the Master of Ho.
The slave remains in chains.
Prometheus is born again to suffer again.
One prison opens onto another,
Corridor onto corridor.
The river feeds its tributaries.
The river and its tributaries are a labyrinth,
And the man who believes he can shuffle off his coil
And live to tell the tale
Is the card shark who shuffles the deck
The centuries also live underground, said the Master of Ho.
-- David Lehman
This was my birthday present from Cheryl and John, who hosted a fabulous birthday dinner party for me in the garden here. It's a feast of colors and flavors, as is my stay here. Cheryl Fortier is the Director of Moulin a Nef, the artist colony where I'm staying.
artisanal soap shop in town
One of the four artists staying here left today, so it was a little bit sad. In the morning, I walked into town with Yona Harvey, the other American poet in residence here, and we stopped in the soap shop, where the proprietor makes all the soaps as well as eau de toilette, with every possible scent. I bought the violet one because it smelled just like the candies of my youth that my son now also likes.
Here are the four of us: Aurelien Morrisse (French painter), Michelle Acuff (sculptor, visual artist, who left today), Yona Harvey (American poet), and moi (NY poet who would rather use color than words). I am hoping, perhaps, in a later post to talk about their work.
It's also the 56th anniversary of the day Nasser took control of the Suez Canal, which began the Suez Canal Crisis, which led to the expulsion of the Jews from Egypt, not least of whom was Edmond Jabes, beloved poet/philosopher, who moved to Paris. Would he have become the writer he became had he remained in Egypt? Would the taste of exile be so palpable in his work?
Color, eau de toilette, and exile. These are the three moods of the day.
I suppose I came here because even these brief sojourns elsewhere are the way I, like many artists, can, in a self-imposed exile, receive the word in the desert. For Jabes, the Jew was the quintessential outsider, the "foreigner of foreigners."
at the base of the clock tower in Auvillar, in homage to Marcabrun
Auvillar is the birthplace of Marcabrun, a troubadour poet born around 1100, who is famous for writing a song that was used as inspiration during the Crusades, in which Jews as well as Moslems were massacred.
So my stay here continues to be rife with contradiction. As it turns out, the Garonne may be off-limits for swimming because of all the pesticide run-off. To be continued . . .
My father, the author of the name that stands in ironic counterpoint to my olive-skinned, decidedly Mediterranean face, the Hennessy in all of my colonial and cosmological confusion and a devout non-believer himself, was studying psychology through out my childhood. By the time he got his Ph.D., just as I was leaving for college, my mother had also taken up the couch and eventually they were both studying down in the mines at the New York Psychoanalytical Institute. The complete works of Sigmund Freud, and next to them the complete works of daughter Anna, occupied the most prominent spot in the house, the mantel over a useless fireplace. We all grew up knowing very well how we "felt" about everything—even before we actually felt it. There was no way we could march unconsciously through all of those Oedipal dramas, my four sisters—each an Electra—and I. We were steeped in myth.
Your ancestors may not have spent time on quite the same merry-go-round of religious belief as my Sicilian forebears (see yesterday’s post,The Moody Temple), but we’ve all grown up with Freud on the mantel. Oedipal is prominent in our lexicon.
My favorite character from mythology is Pan, the Falstaff of the ancient world. Despite his great comic timing, you could say that Pan was a bit of an Oedipal wreck. Funny, though, to say that Pan had Oedipal problems: Oedipal, that is, in the contemporary shorthand. But he didn’t want to kill his father, Hermes, and there was no danger of his sleeping with his mother, Dryope—she wouldn’t let him anywhere near her.
Hermes had tricked the mortal shepherdess Dryope into marrying him: after she refused him when he came to her as a god, he transformed himself into a goatherd and seduced her that way. Pan’s “birth-defects,” the goat-legs, wonky ears, and horns, were a cosmic joke—retribution for Hermes’ cunning. Pan had a face that even a mother couldn’t love, and Dryope skipped out, furious at Hermes, disgusted by her son. If nothing else, Hermes had a sense of humor. He found the baby Pan delightful. He gave the boy music lessons and launched his career as a solo artist.
So why call Pan’s problems Oedipal?
According to Freud, “(Oedipus’) destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that that is so” (4:262; Vol. 4 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Hogarth Press). But Freud butchers the myth of Oedipus here. This wasn’t Oedipus’s fate at all. Even my father the Freudian would agree.
About ten years ago he and I had an interesting conversation. I was teaching a class called “Metamorphoses: Myths and Modern Literature” at Boston University; the next day I was going to begin our discussion comparing Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Greek, a late-twentieth century revision by the playwright Steven Berkoff. At the end of Berkoff’s version, full of wild and ranting Cockney logomania, Eddy and Wife (Jocasta) decide to stay together. As for blinding and exiling himself, Eddy says, “Bollocks to all that. I’d rather run all the way back and pull back the sheets, witness my golden-bodied wife and climb into her sanctuary, climb all the way in right up to my head…”
Dad clucked at that, calling it the obvious irony.
But for the nihilistic anti-hero Eddy, buzzing and fucking his way through working-class London, that ending is inevitable.
"Machinery will have so much Americanized us, progress will have so much atrophied our spiritual element, that nothing in the sanguinary, blasphemous or or unnatural dreams of the Utopists can be compared to what will actually happen."
That statement was written 150 years ago by Charles Baudelaire in an unfinished work published posthumously in 1887, 20 years after his death, and translated by Richard Howard in a little book called Intimate Journals. Merely change the word "machinery" to "technology" and it sounds fairly accurate.
Compare it to this contemporary aphorism by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Lebanese, educated in French schools in Lebanon and at the University of Paris as well as in the U.S.) from his recent aphorism collection The Bed of Procrustes:
"The book is the only thing left that hasn't been corrupted by the profane: everything else on your eyelids manipulates you with an ad."
I only realized how strong the pull of the marketplace is when even I was tempted to allow ads on my personal blog Whirlwind in order to make some money. Thus far, I have resisted the call.
I came to France (and the Basque Country) to continue my work on aphorisms. And, of course, I felt I should read some collections by the French, especially since it seems, according to Alfred Corn, that the French were the ones who began to treat aphorisms as witty, pithy statements.
The problem I have with some of Baudelaire is that he is so often interested in shocking us out of our bourgeois propriety. And that is the most dated and least shocking thing about him. As when he starts off on the first page, declaring:
"Love is a liking for prostitution. There are no pleasures, not even noble ones, whose origin cannot be traced to prostitution. . . . What is art? Prostitution."
Are you beginning to yawn?
"Commerce is essentially satanic."
Only a deeply religious man could seek to offend the pious by talking of Satan. (moi)
[Though, now, since I have had a night without internet service and thus time to ponder, I wonder if Baudelaire wasn't right after all: that even my contemplation of allowing ads on my site wouldn't be a kind of prostitution. . .]
In a future post, I'll talk about one of my favorite French aphorists, Edmond Jabes, an Egyptian Jew by birth.
I'll leave you with one sketch for an aphorism (an aphorism for me encompassing the personal "horizon," which is part of the etymology of aphorism, as in setting boundaries [see my little essay ])
Today on my bike, I rode by Avenue Monplaisir, but I knew if I stopped, I would not find it. Is that my fate: to knowingly (or, perhaps, unknowingly) be passing my pleasure by?
Psalm on Sifnos
One does not want,
O Lord, to heap
Up by still waters
Of words a cairn
But hopes to attend
A small covert
Whose leaves salty
Will shed light over
A thickened plot.
One wants at last
To cede the field
And mastic tree,
To olive and stone,
Stones in the fruit,
Seed in the stones.
Like this poem by Stephen Yenser, a straight-razor-witted fellow Hellenophile I got to know on a visit here several years ago, the island is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. From the ferry, Sifnos looks denuded, its smooth volcanic peaks all sun firing across a yellow skull. Disembark, though, and you begin to see that flora here is cunning, vines shifting along every available crack in stone, tamarisks lining the beach, olive trees low and orderly up on the terraces digging their roots deep.
The people living here are pretty clever too; over the last five thousand years they’ve developed an architecture and agriculture to survive in style. Their houses are all clean lines and square angles, a series of unfolding cubes, thick-walled to be cool in summer, warm in winter, and painted uniformly white, shutters a limited variety of blue, green, brown, and pink. The blue and white domes of churches—one for every day of the year, one for every sixth Sifnian—speckle each inhabited hillside. Shrubs, vines, and fruit trees surround the buildings: lemons, limes, oranges, figs, pomegranates, mimosas, almonds, cascading bougainvillea, shady grape arbors, banks of flowering capers and night-blooming jasmine, enormous geraniums, and on and on. Beyond the limits of each town there are farmers’ fields, orchards, and pastures, chickens pecking, goats grazing, the odd cow, pig, or sheep poking, donkeys, horses and mules performing their tasks or stalling in attitudes of sublime passive aggression.
And of course there is the sea. Visible from virtually every inch of this island. It’s kind of blue.
Our arrival on Sifnos was a happy accident. In the summer of 2000, we found ourselves between apartments—Sabina Murray, Nicholas, our first child, two years old at the time, and I. In September we were to move into free housing on the campus of Phillips Academy, Andover, where Sabina would serve as writer-in-residence for three years, but until then we had nowhere to go. We looked into summer sublets and seasonal rentals in Boston, Maine, southern New Hampshire, the Jersey Shore, all places near friends or family, but found nothing we could afford. It was actually cheaper, in the last years of the drachma, to go to Greece for a couple of months, than to stay in any of those local places. We moved around the Aegean that summer, but Sifnos was our favorite spot and we continue to return there when we can.
Our apartment on Sifnos abuts the grounds of the chapel of Panagia Ouranofora, once a temple to Apollo, the god from whom our town, Apollonia, the island’s capital, takes its name. Lengths of marble column and fragments from the walls of the temple have been integrated into the more modestly designed church, and ancient marble blocks still provide a few of the long steps up from the steno, the path that cuts between a block of terraced white Cycladic houses and Mamma Mia, the popular Italian restaurant next door.
I feel deeply moved by this site; I’m at home here.
Last week I was wandering around the giant warehouse of a bookstore on the rue de Rennes called the FNAC, and in a fit of nostalgia I found myself face- to-face with the “Literary Criticism” section. It was a sad moment. On a whole floor bursting at the seams with novels from every continent, histories of every century, sociology, religion, political theory, and you-name-it---and in the country that has inspired countless budding literary critics the world around….Literary Criticism got two small book cases. They looked embarrassed, those two minuscule towers wedged between two other bookcases labeled “Biography” and “Literary History” (and literary history turned out to mean textbooks designed to prepare French students for their various state exams). This Literary Criticism section was nothing to shout about. It had some recent editions of Blanchot, a translation of David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction; books by the 17th century scholar Marc Fumaroli, and almost everything by Antoine Compagnon, a brilliant writer, but alone on that shelf in thinking about how criticism has evolved and what it might mean today. Also, mis -shelved but inviting, Eric Fottorino’s exposé of his years as writer and editor in chief at Le Monde: Mon tour du "Monde". Some good books, some great books, some enervating books, but they added up to nothing-- no sense of a movement, no collective energy.
All of which made me reflect on the state of literary criticism in general. The last big thing in France, before cognitive science at least, was called “genetic criticism.” By comparing manuscript variants of masterpieces on their way to being published, genetic critics hoped to discover something really interesting about literary creation. These genetic critics had the following intuition: Maybe what the French theorists meant in the 1970s when they announced the death of the author was not so much that the author was dead but that the book was alive! And if you could get as close as possible to whatever set of choices constituted the making of a book, you would have committed an essential act of criticism—and gone one better than interpretation.
You have to be a pretty serious nerd to love genetic criticism. Whereas Michael Gorra has taken the same insights as the genetic critics, the same scholarly finesse, and created a book that is an adventure from beginning to end. His meditative and deeply pleasurable Portrait of a Novel : Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece cured my melancholy over the state of criticism by page xxiv—and I hadn’t even started the first chapter. I’m reading galleys, and his book is going to be published at the end of August. Dear Reader, order it!
Gorra has invented a genre that ought to catch on among literary critics in search of a method: the biography of the novel. It’s not obvious what the biography of a novel should entail, but the first thing Gorra does is to show us James’ Portrait of a Lady as it has always been for him—a living, breathing miracle. There are the essential things, beautifully done…. Where James was when he wrote Portrait of a Lady, his state of mind, his family and friendships, the places he traveled and how they expanded his vision, his drive, his talent, his limits and his secrets. He revisits the trampled ground of James’ “sources,” rejecting the literal-minded source hunting that made people like Barthes and Blanchot want to kill off author studies in the first place.
Here’s one of a thousand sentences I love in Portrait of a Novel; it’s about the way James channels his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson’s Venice suicide into a rush of short stories-- “The Altar of the Dead,” “The Beast in the Jungle,” “The Jolly Corner, and “The Friends of the Friends.” :
A solitary man, a sympathetic woman: it’s as though James were shaking the dice of character, and rolling them again and again; different combinations of the same two pieces, chronicles of could-haves and should-haves and even second chances.
Gorra has found a tantalizing structure that allows him to go back and forth between James’ life, the scenes of his writing, and the development of his characters-- especially Isabel, the centerpiece--who all emerge here as they should: more real than their sources. There are places in Portrait of a Novel where Gorra gets so close to the making of Portrait of a Lady, he actually crosses over from literary history into the interior of James’s consciousness. The interior world that Gorra imagines, and that we come to inhabit, is so plausible, so true to life, that his Portrait of a Novel becomes a novel—a masterpiece of critical imagination.
Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. 384 pages. W.W. Norton. August 2012.
Greetings from Sifnos, Greece, an island in the Western Cyclades, quiet sibling to the flashier and better known Santorini and Mykonos. Before I arrived this summer for my tenth return trip, like everyone else I was worried about the economy. How were my friends and acquaintances here handling the Draconian austerity measures Germany insists on imposing? Would Greece quit the Eurozone, default on its loans, return to the drachma? Part of me certainly hoped so: to this outside observer, the currency switch in 2002 had always seemed much better for the rich, worse for the middle and working class, another way for the wealthy to loot the country—as their American fellows do. (Don’t tell me about Greeks evading taxes until Mitt Romney, who may be our next president, releases his tax records.) In 2002, prices of everyday goods and services soared to fit the Euro, but wages for workers stayed low, still tied to drachma rates.
The tourism industry took a hit then, too, as fewer middle class Europeans could afford the hotel rates and meal costs, the hikes in airfares and airport security fees. Athens and the islands were quieter. Even the backpackers from the Antipodes and North America stopped coming in their high-spirited droves, seeking out cheaper beach spots in Turkey and Vietnam.
While international tourism had begun to pick up again in the last ten years, Sifnos is close enough to Piraeus—three hours by high speed ferry—to be popular with Greeks, especially wealthy Athenians. Last summer you noticed their absence, despite the many French (more posey swan-dives from the rocks, less bouzouki-driven pop music, no p.d.a.) who seem to be trying to take their place. Clearly it wasn’t this clan of French who coined the phrase joie de vivre. Although I felt positive about sticking to my plan to return to Greece, no matter what happened in the election on June 17th and its aftermath, part of me worried I’d fill with self-reproach: What kind of opportunist takes a vacation in a country on the brink of fiscal collapse?
But I find instead that as you move away from Athens, particularly Syntagma Square, ground zero for the protests against the austerity measures, people are reluctant to talk to visitors about the suffering. Even my good friend Helena, who is sorting out her mother’s finances, came home from a meeting with the tax officer mostly keeping mum. She did say that she’ll try to sell some property, that the real-estate tax hikes are ridiculous, impossible to meet. But what’s really killing everyone right now is the fee schedule for electric service, which takes a page from the loan shark’s book: every six months everyone—no matter how little electricity one consumes—has to pay a “connection fee”; collecting revenues through utilities is yet another way to make the working and middle class pay, another way to avoid the graduated income tax—which puts the burden on the rich. Helena mostly hinted at this with a series of small jokes and ironic nods, and I filled in the gaps. Hardly what we’d call in New Jersey, where I grew up, complaint.
Greece will survive. Chin up. The sense I get in the Cyclades is that after more than four thousand years of negotiation, of colonizing and being colonized, withstanding attacks from within and without by Ionians, Samians, Minoans, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, Nazis, bankers and every other form of pirate, they must be right to be if not optimistic then stoic. That hasn’t stopped me from asking questions, of course.
From all of the news articles I’ve read lately, three documents have helped me understand the political/economic situation in Greece these days, and here they are:
Arianna Huffington’s New York Times editorial from May 13, 2012, “Greek Tragedy”:
(Huffington makes clear that the Greeks refuse to mortgage the future of their children, so the austerity measures will never be acceptable to most of them. Read this article and then consider our willingness, in the United States, to allow our children, our young people, our college students, to go fifty, one hundred, even two hundred thousand dollars into debt before they receive their degrees.)
John Lanchester’s New Yorker Comment from June 18, 2012, “Greece vs. the Rest”
The third document is an email I received from an old friend who, among other things, is a Hellenic Studies professor:
“The situation in Greece is unbelievable and I avoid Athens at all costs. I just moved back to the US after living in France for four years, during which time I went to Greece often -- but for most trips I flew direct from Paris to Crete and didn't stop in Athens at all; I gave a lecture at the U of Athens a year ago and the only people on the streets after 10pm were junkies and homeless immigrants (many whole families). Nothing really good is being written on "the crisis" in English, partly since it's breaking news and partly since the English press is just reporting from afar (and mainly just replicating the AP wire version of events). One of the grimmest aspects for me is the rise of the Golden Dawn, the fascist right wing party that used to exist mainly in the Diaspora (it was really strong among Greek Americans in Astoria) but now is popular in Greece, too. There is a strong xenophobic thread in all Greek society and it isn't at its best right now. In my view (which is the minority one) they should get out of the Euro, exit the EU, and figure out how to be less dependent on tourism. But I don't think any of that is going to happen.”
François Hollande was calm and presidential on French television yesterday. Speaking of his function rather than his person, he suggested that the President of the Republic must soothe, conciliate, and compromise. In a world where denial is the common currency, the way he explained the French economic disaster was reassuring: “There are three figures that everyone needs to keep in mind: national debt at 90% of the GDP; unemployment at 10%; a deficit of 70 billion euros.”
What it will take to balance the budget? Not austerity, but rather “l'effort juste.” Words still mean a lot in this country, words and symbols. "L'effort juste", “effort with justice”, means that cutbacks will aim to be fair. No sales tax increase for example. There’s an echo too, that my inner French student wants to hear, of “le juste milieu”: just the right balance. Hollande has taken a 30% salary cut and so will the heads of the state owned enterprises.
And indiscreet tweets from his entourage? “It will not happen again”-- cela ne se reproduira plus. His most demanding listeners bristled when he referred to his partner by her first name --“Valérie.” Wasn’t this too personal for a president who wants to keep the private private? True, a note of tenderness slipped into his voice, personal tenderness. But I can’t imagine him having said “Madame Treirweiller.” This is territory deeply foreign to Americans, we who are used to our politicians with spouses attached to their coattails. Deeply foreign and instructive. There’s a lot of talk about a “normal” presidency: no hyped up schemes, no bling bling, no constant changes of course. FDR in 1933.
And so around midnight, French men and women, and a few assorted beasts, gathered on the widest streets in viewing distance of the Eiffel Tower to watch a fireworks display that was effortful, not austere. I made my way to the avenue de Breteuil with other wanderers; it’s never as jammed with people as the Trocadéro or the rue saint Dominique. Still, I always remember how Henry Miller described it in Tropic of Cancer: “that open tomb of an Avenue de Breteuil which at ten o’clock in the evening is so silent, so dead, that it makes one think of murder or suicide, anything that might create a vestige of human drama.” Last night, from 11:30 to 12, the streets were packed and the people were silent, hypnotized by the shimmering iron lady and her multi-color crackle and pop.
Finally, is it my imagination, or are Jack Russell Terriers everywhere in Paris since The Artist won an Oscar? Pictured here is a Jack Russell with his companion, a wire haired fox terrier. Uggie from The Artist and Milou from Tintin watching the fireworks on the Avenue de Breteuil, Paris, July 14, 2012.
After my lecture at the Glycines, a university professor talked about what Camus means to Algerians today. What she said may have been familiar to everyone in the room, but it was completely new to me:
“It’s true that Camus was banished for a long time, by critics, readers, etc. I don’t think it’s The First Man that brought him back. It was the situation, the terrorism we experienced in the period we call our civil war (1990s). A lot of Algerians realized then that there might be a parallel, that they were in fact a little like those French Algerians from before, from the 1950s and 60s—Algerians whose stature as Algerians wasn’t being recognized. And so they started to reread Camus from that perspective. Those Algerians in the 1990s recognized themselves in Camus—whose Algerian dimension was denied, whether it was in his novels, in his refusal to take a position or in the positions he did take— the constant vacillation, the hesitation, the not being able to figure out what is going on or take a clear position. Since we were experiencing those same hesitations, we read him again in a new way. There were a lot of bridges. I remember how we felt threatened in our Algerian identity [by Islam fundamentalists]: what, we were supposed to leave Algeria now? We’re as much Algerians as they are! It was a scandal! Also there was the question of exile: people were leaving the country and they were criticized. Had they done the right thing? Did they have a choice? That new identification still doesn’t mean that Camus has finally been accepted as an Algerian writer. Last year there was a kind of triumphant cancellation of a caravan that was supposed to tour the country with readings of Camus. But that project was almost immediately cancelled, for reasons no one understood. There was a lot of opposition. And that was shocking.”
She reminded the audience that Feraoun, the father of Algerian literature, quoted Camus’ The Plague in the epigraph of his first novel, Le Fils du pauvre.
It’s going to be impossible to convey in this blog what it felt like listening to N* .speak about literature. I learned later that her husband had been murdered during the dirty wars, one of 100,000—and that she had never left Algeria. Afterwards I thought, if it had been an American event, she might have stood up and told her whole life story and not said much about Camus. And instead, here, Camus was a way of thinking about real life.
Am writing from my room in the Glycines study center, where the sound of honking cars and screaming people is keeping me awake at 2 am. Tomorrow, if all goes according to plan, the fronds on the several miles of palm trees planted along the highway into town from the airport that have been wrapped tight against their trunks, will finally shake their booty.
In this country where a liter of gas costs less than a mineral water, there is too much to say and not always a good way to say it. Here was the running joke at dinner tonight, in an outdoor restaurant high above the monument to martyrs: so what does France really have to show for its fifty years of independence ?
A friend who plans to spend Christmas and New Year's in Greece files this report on that beleaguered and financially challenged nation, the ancient homeland of Periclean democracy, Sophoclean tragedy, Ariostophelian comedy, the Parthenon (left) and Doric architecture (the model of the neo-classical facades that the great capitalist financiers favored), Plato, Aristotle, Achilles, Odysseus, Penelope, Orestes, Electra, Oedipus, Antigone, Teiresias, and the goddess Athena. -- DL
There are at least two ways of looking at the presidential election in Greece on June 17. The most obvious is that the election of New Democracy's Antonis Samaras (30% of the vote) was a complete disaster in that it basically extends the policies that led to the current crisis, and this despite the fact that Samaras's platform was indistinguishable from the Pasok platform (13% of the vote) until it became obvious that the Syriza antibailout platform (27% of the vote) was too popular to simply dismiss. This in turn led to references from New Democracy about "amendments" to the current bailout program, which has done so little for Greece, the rest of Europe, and the world. However, to my knowledge, no specific amendments have been proposed. . . .
Syriza and its candidate, Alexis Tsipras, have a more sanguine view, one exemplified by the parties in Athens on Sunday night when Syriza learned it had come in a fairly close second -- and articulated by Tsipras a few days later in an interview with Reuters (during which, incidentally, he made no reference whatever to the chortling heard from the G7 summit when those august heads of state learned that Samaras had won the election. That chortling was echoed, no doubt, by the EU finance ministers in Luxembourg last Friday). Tsipras and his party believe that the bailout program is doomed and that the new government doesn't have a chance of staying in power. Syriza is ready to take over and reject the bailout, and Tsipras expects this to happen soon rather than later. Anyone who thinks he's being overly optimistic would do well to study the map of Greece in the Wikipedia entry for the June 17th election in Greece, remembering always that capital Athens is more like New York than Washington and that no Greek feels any further from what is happening to his or her country than any other Greek. It's a result of living on 6,000 islands.
Yes, it will take Greece a long time to recover, but — longer than it took to recover from the Venetian and Turkish occupations? From the savage civil war after World War II? I doubt it. These are tough people who know in their hearts that it's better to be a truly sovereign state than to be bullied and slandered by Angela Merkel, not to mention the European Central Bank and the IMF. That map of Greece in mind, it can only be a matter of time before Greece defaults on its debt, drops the euro, and starts printing and coining drachmas. Samaras might conceivably keep his job is if he were moving in that direction. But his backers (I almost wrote "his bankers") wouldn't like that, he wouldn't like that, and besides, Tsipras is already there.
Which do you favor, the Epicurious recipe or Mark Bittman's in The New York Times?
A friend is going to the south of France, and our conversation prompted my recollection of this wonderful soup as served in Vence and other such places in the alpes maritimes just north of Nice. -- DL
In the beginning of the film Napoleon Dynamite, the credits come up as a collage of weird culinary Americana – ketchup and tater tots, mustard and corn dogs, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, cheeseburgers and mayonnaise, nachos studded with black olives. Plate after plate appears on a background of maroon shag rug, then baby-blue carpeting, then avocado green linoleum, and so forth. Blast from the past, bomb shelter fare, served in rooms decorated in a similar idiom.
Set in Preston, Idaho, where writer-director Jared Hess grew up, Napoleon Dynamite comes right out of the Mormon Corridor, the so-called “Jell-O Belt,” that spans a certain area of America’s Intermountain West. It sort of radiates outward from Salt Lake City, Utah, reaching deep into Idaho and into Wyoming, very slightly into Colorado, trickling a little ways down through Arizona and then hopping by patches all the way down to certain parts of Southern California. This exceedingly beautiful part of America includes the surreal red rock deserts of Moab and Monument Valley, the sublime limestone cliffs of Zion and St. George, the lava-rich soils and aspen forests of the Grand Escalante, the eerie stillness of the Great Salt Lake, the rangey splendor of the Wasatch and Uintas, the windy high plains and ranchlands around Rock Springs and Laramie, the stubborn fields and pastures of Idaho all the way up through the formidable Grand Tetons. It’s dominated by some of the most beautiful and various and mysterious country in the world. The poet James Galvin, who has a ranch in Wyoming, has at times written about this land, the people who live there, its weather and its other weathering forces – a different portrait, perhaps, than Napoleon Dynamite. He writes in “Ponderosa,”
came down like knowledge, but the tree did not explode or burn.
Caught the jolt and trapped it like a mythic girl.
Its trunk was three
lightning couldn’t blow the ponderosa into splinters,
And couldn’t burn inside without some air.
A week went by and we
Forgot about it. But lightning is a very hot and radiant girl.
Heat bled out to bark, the tree burst into flame that reared into
Silence under a cloudless sky.
There does seem to be something about the land in this part of the world that inspires mythic thinking, or at least otherworldly thinking. The enigmatic rock formation from the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the bundle of hexagonal basaltic columns known as Devil’s Tower, an ancient volcanic plug (the volcano around it long since worn away) rising out of the flatlands of eastern Wyoming.
Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
Much of this land was hard to settle, and harder still to scrabble a living out of. So much so that a lot of it remains very sparsely inhabited. Indeed, southern Utah was considered so barren and unnecessary (and its mostly-Mormon and otherwise Native American population so “Other”) that the U.S. government wasn’t too bothered about the fact that radiation and radioactive debris from nuclear testing in Nevada was blowing all over it – something Rachel Marston has been researching and writing about for some years. By some accounts, Uncle Sam even encouraged the smallish population living around St. George at the time to go out of doors and watch the sky change from the nuclear tests, as the sometimes snowflake-sized ashes drifted into their towns, clinging to their clothes and curtains and porch furniture. (Did the government know what the effects would be?) Being, as a culture, generally trusting of authority, they did. And a whole generation of “downwinders” suffered quietly together with the massive, unusual tumors and other forms of cancer that ravaged their communities.
Southern Utah, an arroyo near Monument Valley
Sometimes, people settled this land because it was so barren, so desolate, so ignored and so ignorable. In this same area of southern Utah, for instance, you’re more likely to run into individuals who belong to an FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints) polygamist community. Some friends and I have rented a house near Zion in the past couple of summers, where you might just run into a group at the local Walmart or Costco, dressed in Laura Ingalls Wilder prairie garb, buying slats of boxed macaroni and cheese. Much is being said about polygamy in the media these days, thanks in part to HBO’s Big Love and well-curated “reality” spin-offs like Sister Wives. Most of what I know about polygamy comes from people who self-identify as victims of it, and I cannot do their stories justice here, so I will not elaborate except to say that, like anything, it’s not like they show it on TV. For some information about an aspect of polygamist culture and practice that few people, even in Utah, have considered, watch Jennilyn Merten’s amazing documentary, Sons of Perdition.
Rumor has it that polygamist culture games the government’s entitlement programs, since second and third (and subsequent) wives are, according to the relevant tax documents and applications forms, single mothers with a pack of kids and no job or income whatsoever. Except that, if the polygamist lifestyle is anything like it appears to an outsider such as myself, they do in fact need those food stamps, and it’s not a scam. I honestly just don’t know.
But when we were at a grocery store outside of Washington, Utah, near the Nevada/Arizona/Utah border, and these women in long, high-necked and high-waisted gingham dresses were buying up the milk and the powdered soup and popsicles, we were standing in line behind them with tilapia and garlic and all of the mixings for strong margaritas. And before I turned my attention to the prairie garb or the fact that one of them with three small children could not possibly have been eighteen, or whether they all might be married to the same patriarchal oddball, I thought: “I’m kind of glad I’m not eating dinner at their house.”
Zion, Utah’s first National Park (1919) in southern Utah (in August)
For awhile, I rode a Greyhound Bus every-other weekend from Salt Lake City to Laramie, Wyoming, through some of the most stridently tough and unpleasant territory in the Jell-O Belt. Interstate 80 roughly traces other historically significant travel routes in the Western United States: the Oregon Trail across Wyoming and Nebraska, the California Trail across most of Nevada and California, and except in the Great Salt Lake area, the entire route of the First Transcontinental Railroad. You meet a lot of interesting characters on the bus, before you learn to board with your headphones already in your ear-holes and pretend not to be able to speak English. Or Spanish. Or at all. Of the various people who might sit next to you, the most desirable seat companions are a toss-up between college kids (also be-headphoned) and truckers deadheading back to Indianapolis or wherever they’re based. In the latter case, they will cheerfully pronounce that the stretch of I-80 from SLC to Denver is the absolute stupidest leg of highway ever laid down – subject to constant closures, and as often as it’s for snowstorms, it’s for unbelievably high-speed winds. Trying to drive a little Honda along that road is one thing – the wind blows so hard it seems to get under the wheels, so you’re almost aeroplaning from the lift and drag. But the same wind fills up its cheeks and blows over tall semis, passenger busses, and as I once saw (blood and feathers all over the road), a long trailer full of chickens.
Click here to read Jamie Katz's brilliant feature on Donald Keene, the Western world's leading interpreter of Japanese literature, a Columbia professor for more than seventy years. On a visit to Japan in 1990, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Professor Keene, who, in addition to discussing everything from Basho and linked-verse to the merits of a traditional Japanese breakfast, taught me the two key rules of pronouncing Japanese and made my two-week stay go a lot more smoothly than would otherwise have been the case..With his books and anthologies, Keene taught an appreciation of Japanese culture to generations of students, not only at Columbia, his home base, but the world over, In April 2003 he was awarded a medal of honor from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I wrote the inscription, appropriating the tanka as an appropriate form:
To Donald Keene we
owe much of what we know of
Japan's verse and prose.
In shadow of rising sun
stood the lean tree unobserved.
Then Keene could be heard:
in accents lucid and keen
he rendered the scene.
And the bare branch of winter
burst into cherry blossom.
Here's an excerpt from Katz's feature in the current Columbia College Today. -- DL
Keene’s approach to teaching and writing bears the imprint of his freshman Humanities instructor, Mark Van Doren ’21 GSAS. “He was a scholar and poet and above all someone who understood literature and could make us understand it with him,” Keene writes in Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan. “Van Doren had little use for commentaries or specialized literary criticism. Rather, the essential thing, he taught us, was to read the texts, think about them, and discover for ourselves why they were ranked as classics.”
The experience of taking the College’s general education courses was “incredible,” Keene says, and he fondly remembers the great teachers he encountered as an undergraduate. Among them were the “learned and gentle” classicist, Moses Hadas ’30 GSAS; Lionel Trilling ’25, ’38 GSAS and Jacques Barzun ’27, ’32 GSAS, who led Keene’s Senior Colloquium; and Pierre Clamens, a French instructor “who was very stern, but gave everything to his students,” Keene says.
His chief mentor, however, was cultural historian Ryusaku Tsunoda, a pioneer of Japanese studies at Columbia whom Keene often refers to, simply, as Sensei. “He was a man I admired completely,” Keene says, “a man who had more influence on me than anyone else I can think of.”
As a senior, Keene enrolled in Tsunoda’s course in the history of Japanese thought. Fifty years later, in a CCT interview (Winter 1991) with David Lehman ’70, ’78 GSAS, Keene remembered: “The first class, it turned out I was the only student — in 1941 there was not much pro-Japanese feeling. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a waste of your time to give a class for one student?’ He said, ‘One is enough.’
Stacey asked us to post our gift recommendations for the holiday season. But if I do that, people will know what they're getting from me. So instead, I thought I'd help out you generous souls and offer a suggestion or two for me, in case you were stumped.
I want a cruise to the Titanic.
As reported in an article in today's issue of The New York Times and in honor of the April 2012 centennial of the sinking, Deep Sea Expeditions is offering their customers the opportunity to participate in one of the last cruises and dives to the most famous shipwreck in the world. The 12-13 days cruise costs $59, 680 and includes the following: " [a] dive on MIR submersible for scientific expedition tour of the RMS Titanic wreck; accommodations aboard the support ship; one night accommodations in St. John's; orientation meeting; three meals daily (starting with breakfast on Day 2 and ending with breakfast onboard the support ship on disembarkation day); activities within the program: lectures, briefings, slide/film shows; baggage handling, amenities/gifts, personal video memento." It does not include transportation to the ship or your bar tab.
(This is not their most expensive package. They also offer the "20,000 Leagues Under the Atlantic" cruise, which follows the adventures in Jules Verne's book across the North Atlantic, lasts 35 days, and includes 15 Mir dives. Price tag: $375,000.)
I will take lots of pictures for you and bring you a souvenir baseball cap from the ship. Also, you can be sure nobody else will have gotten me the same thing. Finally, you won't have to wrap it.
Just an idea. I'd also like a Snuggie if that's easier.
Todd Swift's work is as playful as serious work gets to be. Nothing is labored; the poet's pleasure principle matches that of his readers. He has a swift wit capable of savage laceration. He sneaks in crafty literary allusions when you don't expect them and is far from a gullible traveler.
An outsider even at home, he stands at an unusual tilt to the universe. Being a Canadian in London in the year 2011 is a different proposition from being an American in Paris in 1950, but it has its own charms and perils. In an image that suggests the broad historical and wide geographical context for these poems, the peripatetic poet suspects that wherever he goes, "Fear [will] set up its beachhead / Turning a sandy honeymoon into D-Day."
"England is Mine" is an arresting title. It reminds me a little of "England Your England" (Orwell), "England Made Me" (Graham Greene), and W. H. Auden's question in "The Orators": "What do you think about England, this country of ours where nobody is well?" Swift's title also benefits from the homophone that is its last syllable: "England is mind." To write about England as imagined and then as found is a romantic project, and for all the comic energy in his poems, Swift is a romantic poet, writing in the shadow of Yeats ("we were the last romantics") on the one side and Thomas Hardy and Philip Larkin, the poets of disappointment, on the other.
The exemplary title poem begins by donning Larkin's bicycle clips "down the hill to Hull" and progresses through quaint images (Pimm's, the "Hardy-grey" sky, Jack the Ripper, and bobby's your unarmed uncle) to arrive at an idea of "England" that owes as much to preconception and illusion as to invention or perception.
In disjunction Swift finds a certain poignancy. The word "Go" begins one of his poems but is separated by a line space and a parenthesis from "the cherry blossoms" -- as if the poem were ruefully aware of Edmund Waller's "Go, lovely rose" as an antecedent, an irresistible anachronism.
In another mode entirely, Swift makes empathetic use of the first-person-plural:
Employed or freelance we stand alone
Enjoying June tea and this promised sun,
Because inside is darker, dustier and more about
What's been than what's to come.
Swift loves words and they love him back. When I read his poems, I feel like pulling out my notebook and writing a poem. Every time. He proves that inspiration is contagious
The thing about Rome that gets to me the most (and I’m sure this is “the thing about Rome” for a lot of folks) is the way the ancient, archaeological city and the living, modern one sit so seamlessly cheek-by-jowl with one another. The first time I saw the city, I burst into tears. This second time was no different. I’ve never seen anything like Rome for the utterly overwhelming feeling of accretion, of layers, of mosaic, that it has. It’s humbling, and it’s awesome, and it’s heartbreaking.
And the thing about having your heart broken is that parts of it can wander off in different directions.
The first real poem I ever wrote – at least, the first one I’d call “mature” whatever that means (David, you’d have heard me read it in the Glascock competition back in ’92!) was about a kaleidoscope. It was an actual kaleidoscope – and an exorbitantly fine one, I must note, polished brass and a double wheel of beautiful stained glass shards – that I’d gotten as a birthday gift for The Boy Who Died. He was a physics-minded creature and seemed to get a kick out of optical tricks, but the gift was also symbolic (in a ham-handed, adolescent way, perhaps), a way of saying that I knew all the broken stuff inside him coalesced into something exceptional and gorgeous if you knew how to look at it. At his family’s house after the memorial service I don’t mind admitting I ransacked his old bedroom looking for that kaleidoscope, but it wasn’t there. I have no idea what he did with it. He had ascetic tendencies, kept few possessions – a sentimental knickknack from me, I realized, was probably not on his list of essentials. But I always did wonder where it ended up, and that was partially what prompted the poem. But writing it made me realize that breakage and accretion and mosaic were going to be lifelong companions of mine in poetry writing.
My favorite church in Rome – not counting the Pantheon, which is inarguably in a class by itself – is the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. It’s very, very old; the original structure dates back to the 300’s, and the current one, built on the old foundations, mostly dates to the 12th century. Santa Maria has a markedly different feel than the Renaissance and Baroque period Catholic churches. It’s Medieval. It has more Byzantine features, and the detail and sheer multitude of intricate, fascinating mosaic elements is staggering. Its interior columns are repurposed from the Baths of Caracalla, and its portico is plastered with fragments of ancient carved marbles. Everything in that church is made up of tiny fragments of other things, meticulously put together to form a seamless whole, one that tells a story, one that directs you to feel a certain way when you step inside. It is, in short, a poem. I don’t know how many times I went back to it, and each time it was the same and yet totally different; I saw things I hadn’t seen before, the place was refracted again and again through my own shifting kaleidoscope of experiences and feelings. I felt lifted up; I felt history as a crushing weight; I felt loss, liberation, a longing for home and a longing to never have to leave. I wasn’t raised in a Catholic family and so had no childhood experience with which to freight my reading of this place. And yet there was an overwhelming sense of a program, a story. I doubt I will ever understand how an accumulation of stone pieces stuck together in the 1100’s can feel as alive as that place.
I don’t know how many miles I walked through Rome in the two weeks I spent there. It was a lot. Probably three or four on a relatively sedentary day. And I never stopped thinking about breakage and rebuilding, and breakage and rebuilding. Everything about that place is mosaic, broken pieces forming a more meaningful whole. Basalt. Travertine. Porphyry. Onyx. Empty lots casually strewn with things that popped up when someone tried to level land for a new building: fractured columns, pieces of an older, buried city, marble sculpture fragments, Corinthian capitals, severed stone heads, plaques with partial inscriptions in Latin. The Boy’s suicide note, such as it was, fragmentary, oblique – had been in Latin. I don’t exactly know why – a dead language, ha ha; or a code meant for someone else. No matter, an unanswerable question. A piece. Like the ancient walls, like the ruins being overtaken slowly by nature, nightshade growing up through cracks in the travertine; glittering dust – hematite, mica – that might have been part of some elegant ancient display of dominion and wealth. (“When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe/ than ours…”.) Even Rome’s streets are piecemeal, literally cobbled together. By the end, I could look at anything and see a mosaic tile – plane tree leaves floating in a fountain; the high waxing moon, martins skimming the Tiber for insects, bark scales on an umbrella pine on the edge of the Palatine, a piece of a broken beer bottle in an alleyway, pigeons trawling the Campo for bits of meat. All of it distinct, all discrete, and all part of the same picture.
I write poems, largely, by this method, I’ve come to realize. I often find a line I think belongs in ne poem shows itself to be part of something else. I collect materials, break them apart, put them back together. Spin the kaleidoscope: something forms, morphs, you glimpse symmetry, then collapse. Leverage accident. Harness breakage. Build something new on the foundations of something ancient. Sculpt. Shatter. Use the pieces. Re-use is a form of double-entendre. Enjambment. Build by breaking. Take the tiny pieces and use them to show the big picture. Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty. Everything connects, nothing disappears. But it breaks. And I guess that’s What I Learned On My Summer Vacation, my brethren. That everything breaks and something big is riding on whether you can be at peace with the pieces.
Rome. July. Swelter. Godfather of the Bad Hair Day, ruination of all clothing, even linen. The Italians are the undisputed masters of linen, and you know why: it’s the only fabric with a snowball’s chance in hell of breathing in this weather. Pliny the Elder claims in his Naturae Historia that the ability of flax to be spun into linen cloth was discovered by the mythological character Arachne. Pliny, as I have learned, does not care for fact-checking, though, being Italian, he does seem to get his T’s crossed and I’s dotted on the subject of winemaking.
In my craft lecture for the UW poetry group, I’ve been asked to touch on Pliny, in the spirit of the presiding genuis of Keats who haunts the program: notions of Truth and Beauty and how they play out in an “encyclopedia” full of “facts,” some of which are documentably facts and some of which are… well… not – but may possess a strange poetic beauty of their own. I find myself with a dissertation on the history of natural history that pits Pliny against Ovid’s Orpheus, the Golden Voice, Ultrapoet, Uberbard, the Greco-Roman rock star. In the tacky webs of taxonomy and the growing divergence of myth from science over the centuries, I’ve concluded that Ovid’s Metamorphoses (fable! Myth! Poetry!) outstrip Pliny’s encyclopedia – in terms of their ability to articulate scientific truth, mind you – like a Ferrari with the pedal to the floor against a pea-green Plymouth Duster.
Anyway, we’re on this Baroque church deathmarch, and I’m walking next to Richard Kenney, and talking about wine. My husband’s visiting. The night before, for our anniversary, we’d treated ourselves, despite cost and season, to a bottle of Brunello de Montalcino, a luxury we never afford ourselves at home. Kenney’s eyes pop in a way that makes me assume he doesn’t either. I’m going on about how it had tasted, like saddle leather and tobacco, dried cherry, vanilla, roses. “I don’t understand,” I say, “how it is that wine has the ability to transform itself into anything. It can taste like anything on earth, except maybe grapes. There is something mystical to me about that.”
“Well, you really are Ovid’s girl, aren’t you?” Rick laughs.
I’d never thought about it like that, but yes, this is why I love wine. It is its metamorphic ability, its transformative power, a natural magic its ventriloquism, its essential poetry. The way it can mimic, hit at, suggest, almost any flavor you can think of. It’s bottled metaphor.
Italian wines hold a special fascination for me, because they seem more local, more specific, more tied to place and personal experience than wines from just about anywhere else I know of. Italy is the largest (in volume), and one of the oldest, winemaking regions on earth. They grow something like 800 grape cultivars, and you will never see most of them unless you stumble into the random village where they happen to be cultivated. In California we import a decent number of Chiantis, and it’s not uncommon to see a varietal Sangiovese, a Rosso di Montalcino, a Valpolicella, Barbera or Pinot Grigio even in a supermarket. But there are wines so obscure and so specific to their locality – sour-cherry Umbrian Ciliegiolos, pepper and rosepetal Ruchés from Piedmont, Neapolitan Lacryma Christi, beeswax and sea-breeze whites grown only in the Cinque Terre – that they give the French notion of terroir an entirely new layer. Wines that make you come to them. Wines that lash themselves so tightly to the circumstances of their creation and your experience of them that they become metaphoric in the literal sense of transporting.
After the Brunello conversation I wanted to bring something special to the next cocktail hour, and asked a knowledgeable enoteca man for his most smashing, miraculous Brunello. He chided me in English that you don’t drink Brunello in heat like this. “I know, I know,” I said. “It’s winter wine. I know that. It’s a gift. Tell you what – send me off with a nice white too, something for drinking tonight.”
He smiled. “Well if you want something as heavy as Brunello but something like you’ve never tasted before – you want this.” He handed me a bottle of something deep and dark and purple, something light wouldn’t get through. A Lagrein, a small-production varietal in the part-German Alto Adige region, hard to find, he said, even in Rome. The label bore a single word: Porphyr. It was perfect: we’d been marveling at the porphyry in the church mosaics, their intense color, somewhere between jasper and oxidized blood.
My memory of that wine is of an instant of sheer happiness. I recall dust and violet and dried blueberry and fig, and that – especially, perhaps, for a bunch of writers – there was something about it that was like consuming ink. People tasted it and broke into smiles. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted. It was gorgeous. The wine is indeed a hard one to come by, with two places in the US that sell it. I sometimes think of splurging and ordering from a place in New York City, but I’ve always been afraid that, separated from its little moment, it would disappoint, that the magic would be gone.
Then a few nights ago I was in a local restaurant that keeps a surprisingly eclectic and thoughtful selection of Italian wines. Most are expensive and only available by the bottle, but on this night the server mentioned that their by-the-glass special was a Ribolla Gialla, an acidic golden Friulian wine I’d come to know as a common offering in cafes and pizzerias around central Rome.
I took a sip, and I swear to you I tasted it – I mean I tasted the afternoon heat draining upward from the basalt cobblestones of the Campo De’ Fiori, I tasted the sound of gulls crying, I tasted bronze and exhaust and travertine and still air and the glowering gaze of Giordano Bruno precisely as I had experienced them drinking a glass of this same wine at an outdoor café on a hot afternoon when I felt spent and sad and unable to articulate any of it and stared at the point of my pen on my notebook until I couldn’t any more. The wine said it for me anyway, so I ordered another glass and watched the swifts circle. Drinking a metaphor as a metaphor for drinking in an experience. Who says what goes around doesn’t come around?
Writers: how many poems do you have memorized? Did you set out to memorize them? Was it demanded of you by a teacher? Did you just read them so many times they became imprinted on your amygdala? When you recite those poems – if you ever do; muttering verses to yourself while you run the vacuum or pulling out a stageworthy rendering of “Ozymandias” to astound tipsy computer programmers at your spouse’s company holiday party – what do you feel? This is not a rhetorical question. I want to know.
This summer I had the good fortune to be invited as a guest scholar to the University of Washington’s summer creative writing session, a month-long poetry intensive run out of the University’s outpost in central Rome. The students were primarily undergrads, many of them science majors or otherwise new to creative writing, taking advantage of an opportunity to nail down a humanities requirement under felicitous circumstances. The program was both rigorous and flexible, with students responsible for attending various lectures, workshops and outings, critiquing one another’s drafts, and generally living the life of the literary expatriate with as much appetite and verve as possible.
One of the program’s requirements was that each student had to memorize, and correctly recite, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” If they messed it up they had to do it again. Recitations were heard before workshops, at villas and museums, at the end of lecture periods or whatever time presented itself, but we all heard those lines recited, confidently, hesitantly, shyly or with an oratory aplomb Ian McKellen would envy, more times than I can count.
At first I thought: wow, what a quaint, funny, old-school thing to do. It almost seemed like a kind of fraternity hazing ritual. You wanna be a poet, eh? Prove it. URN it. (Sorry, that just slipped out.) But as I listened, time after time, in the ruined groves of Hadrian’s Villa and the echo-riddled entryway of a palazzo with a gravity-defying Boromini spiral staircase, in classrooms and gardens, to those 19th century rhymes, to Keats’s unfaltering, surefooted metricality, something started to happen to me. I knew this poem, had never memorized it, but it’s hard to get through even a rudimentary education in literature without “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, that is all / Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” The poem, which I doubt I’d given much thought to since my early teens, was so familiar that it was strange to realize that if I were called upon to recite it, I’d fall on my face.
Anyway, hearing the endless iterations of “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss / Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/ For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” – well, the first thing that hit me was something like: easy for him to say, he died at twenty-six. But following on the heels of that was something about why it is inherently important -- cognitively? Emotionally? -- to memorize.
Of course, the earliest tradition of poetry was oral, Bardic – intended for public recitation and passed down by memorization. But it does something for us even in an age where it’s the page, not the lyre, that rules, and where rhyme and meter, tools that no doubt contributed to your ability to retain childhood nursery rhymes, have been subject to derision for decades. The very word “rote” connotes ideas that are largely anathema to us. Something servile, something mindless.
Memorize a poem and you’ll quickly learn that the act is anything but mindless, and anything but servile. There is some kind of primal magic that occurs when a matrix of beautiful or meaningful or harrowing words becomes fused with your consciousness. I saw it. I saw it again and again, on the faces of the Keats reciters, for some of whom this was almost certainly the first time they had ever been made to memorize a poem. Even on the faces of the workshop leaders, who do this every flipping year and who murmured along, time after time, eyes half-closed, larynxes silently keeping pace as they mouthed those words to themselves. It was mastery. And it was elation. Memorized poems are something extraordinary, I suspect, part prayer, part talisman, part party trick and part acknowledgment of something fundamentally human, a shared history, a common origin.
I “know” many poems, pieces of them, stray lodged lines or stanzas, fragments that haunt, uneradicatable bits. But memorized to the point where I could recite them on demand? Not that many. Thom Gunn’s “Tamer and Hawk.” James Merrill’s “About the Phoenix” and “The Victor Dog.” Large sections, but certainly not the sequential entirety, of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam. Cavafy’s “Ithaka.” Frost’s “The Most of It” and “Directive.” Yeats’s “When You Are Old” and “The Two Trees.” Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Ballad of William Sycamore” because it’s the one poem my father memorized and he recited it so often, and with such a mystical air about him, that I couldn’t help but absorb it.
And after this summer, if I ever slip a single syllable of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” someone will need to promptly involve a neurologist.
Poet Frank Giampietro has collected a wonderful group of memorized and recited poems, which you can hear at www.poemsbyheart.org . Each poet gives a brief explanation of why they memorized the poem, and then recites. There are recordings by Alan Shapiro, Claudia Emerson, Robert Pinsky and a host of other wonderful voices (Greg Brownderville’s recitation of Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse” is particularly chill-provoking). Check it out.
And consider this: what does it mean when a piece of writing gets so far under your skin that it becomes part of you? What does it mean to master the words of a master? What do you know, after memorizing a poem, that you didn’t know before?
Not a rhetorical question. I’ve been pondering this since July and I don’t have answers. Why memorize? I’m certain that, cognitively, psychically, it changes you. Why, and how, are probably up for debate, and are likely personal.
Beauty is Truth; Truth Beauty. That is all….
by Kunwar Narain
Translated from the Hindi by Lucy Rosenstein
Water falling on leaves means one thing
Leaves falling on water another.
Between gaining life fully
and giving it away fully
stands a full death-mark.
The rest of the poem
is written not with words –
Drawing the whole of existence,
like a full stop,
it is complete at any point ...
My poetry class in Bangladesh has taken root: water falling on leaves. I did not know what to expect, or maybe it's more accurate to say I did not know what I was expecting. My students come from five countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Vietnam.
For many, poetry was their 5th-choice writing seminar. The first day, I asked them to repeat in unison the following refrains: Poetry is for everyone! Poetry is not a secret code! Poetry can change people's lives! They complied, but I sensed some lingering hesitation. I took it as a personal challenge: I would make them believe.
That was my first mistake. You can't make someone believe. I soon found out that all the challenge and all the power to believe or disbelieve lies within them, and among them. Tangling with words in a second (or often third or fourth) language, seizing with bare hands the clay of unfamiliar forms and conceits, first in what they read, and then in what they write -- that is their work, not mine.
looking at New York again, in the high white February sunlight, the childishly euphoric climate; looking down Second Avenue, where herds of vehicles go charging one way all day long disappearing into the sky at the end like on a prairie; looking up a side of skyscraper, a flat and flat and a long and long, and the air drops down on your head like a solid. Like a solid too the air that slices down between two neighbor skyscrapers. Up in the winder sunlight the edge of such a building far up is miraculously intense, a feeling like looking at Egyptian sculpture. Down in the streets the color, the painted colors are like medieval color, like the green dress of the Van Eyck double portrait in the National Gallery, intently local and intently lurid. And New York clothes -- not a trace of charm, dressing is ritualistic like in Africa (or the Middle Ages); the boys are the most costumed; dressed men and women look portentously maneuverable; one set looks more dry-cleaned than the other, and those count as rich. New York is all slum, a calm, an uncomfortable, a grand one. And the faces on the street by day: large, unhandsome, lumped with the residue of every possible human experience, and how neutral, left exposed, left out unprotected, uncommitted. I have never seen anything so marvelous."
from "A Letter on New York City's Ballet" by Edwin Denby (Dance Writings and Poetry, Yale University Press, 1998)
What am I doing in January, you ask? Why, I'm teaching a poetry workshop in Kenya. As Robert Frost, who clearly did not have my good fortune, would say, you come, too! The dates are January 2-11, 2012, and the trip is offered though the MFA in Creative Writing program at Stony Brook Southampton. That means you can take this trip for credit. You can also apply as a curious outsider. The idea here is to gather an ecclectic bunch, including creative minds in fields other than poetry, to write some poems, learn a little Swahili, take a few field trips and hang out with very interesting people (more on the full cast of characters to come).
Most of your ten days will be spent at the Turkana Basin, a mecca for fossil-seeking types in the northern part of Kenya. Situated on the banks of the Turkwel River, on the west side of the Lake Turkana, the Turkana Basin Institute was founded by world renowned paleoanthropologists Richard and Meave Leakey as the preeminent facility to study the origins of modern man. The institute is affiliated with Stony Brook. With 7 million years of fossil record under your feet, channeling the human experience has never been so visceral. The terrain is extraordinary. The energy of neighboring villages is a far cry from the tourist traps of southern Kenya. Turkana is an isolated oasis where culture, creativity and life converge.
Plus Richard Leakey will be there and has promised a talk on the evolution of language. Other faculty from my program--in creative writing, theater, film and visual arts--will be there too, mostly so that they can brag about swimming in the Turkwel River. While in Nairobi, our point of departure, we'll take a day safari to Nairobi National Park.
The poetry workshop will focus on strategies that came to us through the oral tradition. We'll attend to the sounds a poem makes, and explore the connections between sound and memory, aiming for an unforgettable experience.
Eating, sleeping and cocktails are included in the package. Warning: while the food's excellent and the accommodations perfectly adequate, there's no air conditioning and it is HOT there. This is not for the delicate of constitution, nor is it for strict vegetarians. But if the adorable Richard Leakey can do it, so can you.
And how much does this cost? The Curious Outsider rate is $2,930.00 and includes 2 nights in Nairobi, the safari, the round trip flight from Nairobi to Turkana Basin, 8 nights at the Institute, excursions to an archeological site (i.e., time travel to 5 million years ago) and to Elive Springs, and cultural exchanges with neighboring Turkana villages. To get graduate-level credit for the Turkana Basin Writing Workshops, you will need $3,422.00 if you are studying in the fine state of New York or $4,208 if you're not. Again, the dates for this extravaganza are January 2-11, 2012.
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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.