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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 214, Volume 40 Number 2, November - December 2013.

News & Notes
KOFI AWOONOR, Ghana's greatest poet, died in the Nairobi Westgate Mall attack on 21 September. He had come to Kenya for the Storymoja Hay Festival. Soon after his death, while the siege was still on, a memorial meeting was organised at the National Museum in Nairobi. Teju Cole describes it in a 'Letter from Nairobi' in the New Yorker of 26 September. There were tributes, notably from the young Ghanaian poet Nii Ayikwei Parkes, and the Ghanaian-Jamaican poet Kwame Dawes who edited Awoonor's The Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems, due to be published next year. There were readings of Awoonor's poems, and then, unexpectedly, Cole tells us, 'someone had made an audio recording from the master class that Awoonor had given at the Festival on Friday. And so, in the silence of the auditorium, we listened to about a minute of his final lecture. And there he was, speaking to us in his own voice (how startling its clarity), as though nothing had changed: "And I have written about death also, particularly at this old age now. At seventy-nine, you must know -  unless you're an idiot -  that very soon, you should be moving on."'

Awoonor was born in Ghana when it was known as the Gold Coast. He studied in Ghana, then at the University of London and at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and become a professor of African literature at the University of Ghana. He published his first book of poems in 1964. His work is based in African traditions but he is also steeped in modernism. He established the Ghana Playhouse and managed the Ghana Film Corporation, and for political activism he experienced the Ghanaian prison system from within. He was a diplomat, representing his country in Brazil and then in Cuba, and he represented Ghana at the United Nations. A Nigerian account of his life and death declared, 'It could as well be that he has lived out his own powerful elegiac irony. By all accounts Kofi Awoonor was one of the most vital poetic voices of the 20th century in Africa whose poetry cut a pathway towards the illumination of the inherent power of the modern African imagination. At the core of his early work was Ewe orality -  the proof, as his generation of African modernists sought to give -  that African oral forms had the grace and power of rhetoric or poetic authority. Born in 1935 in Wheta, Ghana, to a Sierra-Leona tailor father and an Ewe mother from near Togo, Kofi Awoonor embodies what we must recognize today as the hybridity of the modern African shaped by the forces of modern migrations and transnationality.' His work is no longer read widely outside Ghana, but 'any African who went through secondary school from the 1960s to the 1980s would have read the poetry of Kofi Awoonor, particularly the famously anthologized "Song of Sorrow" in Donatus Ibe Nwoga's or Senanu and Vincent's anthologies of Modern African poetry.'


The Guardian established the ten most popular poems in English, or rather, in Britain, or rather, the ten most requested poems for the long-running BBC 4 programme Poetry Please (Robert Frost, 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening'; Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 'How do I love thee? Let me count the ways'; Edward Thomas, 'Adlestrop'; Dylan Thomas, 'Fern Hill'; Thomas Hardy, 'The Darkling Thrush'; Matthew Arnold, 'Dover Beach'; Shakespeare, 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds'; Walter de la Mare 'The Listeners'; Christina Rossetti, 'Remember'; Andrew Marvell, 'To His Coy Mistress'). It is a rather wan list, evidence of the unshakeable romantic conservatism of one sector, the largest, of poetry readers in this country. One wonders what an American, Welsh, New Zealand or Jamaican list might look like?

Rudyard Kipling's 'If -  ' has dropped off the list. Was it pushed? In 1995 it was top of the pops by a mile. An American heads the list, a Welshman is at number four, and two women make the grade; all the same, it could hardly be more conventional or characteristic. The producer writes, 'Modernism (and whatever has followed it) remains a strange fruit for many; the most recently published poet on the top 10 list is Dylan Thomas, who was born 100 years ago and wrote more from the lush side of life than most of his contemporaries. The change is more obvious in the sorts of poems (rather than in the poets) that are being requested. The top 10 list is beautifully weathered…'


El Pais on 23 September considered the issue of 'unfinishable books'. One commentator declared, 'For the e-book reader the worst defect of a novel is that it should be slow.' Fiction is a language of celerity. The publisher Anagrama have brought out Daniel Pennac's Como una novela (Like a Novel), declaring the reader's right not to finish a book. Among the most abandoned books Pennac lists Ulysses, Lord of the Rings, Catch 22, Atlas Shrugged and Moby-Dick. In Spain, 55% of e-books downloaded, Kobo reports, are abandoned. There appears to be a correlation between how much a reader pays for a book and the impulse to finish reading it. A book downloaded gratis or for a song has to work harder than one acquired at full price to keep a reader's attention. 'These statistics,' the report says, 'reveal the development of global habits of reading, the distance that separates what we would like to like and what, in truth, we actually like.' The tyranny of immediate literary gratification is exacerbated by the rapid development of digital resources. So far we have not found any credible statistics for the electronic consumption of poetry, though the issue of retaining format remains only partially resolved.


YVES BONNEFOY has been awarded the 2013 Guadalajara Book Fair Award (Premio FIL), a major Latin American literary prize for the best writer in one of the Romance languages. Bonnefoy, elected by a distinguished international jury, is the first Frenchman to receive the award. The poet, philosopher and mathematician, well-known to readers of PN Review, is now ninety. He has dedicated his life, the citation says, to describing 'the majesty of simple things'. He is also a major translator of Shakespeare and Yeats and an original critic and essayist.


The former US poet laureate PHILIP LEVINE has been awarded the $100,000 Academy of American Poets' Wallace Stevens Award for 'outstanding and proven mastery of the art of poetry'. Now 85, he continues to remind readers that his work began when he tried to express what life was like on the automobile assembly line in Detroit, where he started off doing shifts. Carolyn Forché received a 'distinguished poetic achievement' award, and John Taylor a translation fellowship for his work on the Italian of Lorenzo Calogero.


The 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection has been won by MICHAEL SYMMONS ROBERTS  for Drysalter, a book of 150 poems. EMILY BERRY  won the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection for Dear Boy, and NICK MACKINNON won the prize for best single poem for 'The Metric System'.

MARCEL REICH-RANICKI, the most influential, loved and hated modern German literary critic, has died. There was something monumental and authoritative about his pontifical confidence, the Saint-Beauvian resoluteness of his style, his certainty in judgment. His autobiography, entitled simply My Life, is one of those durable testimonies like Canetti's. Michael Hulse commented in PN Review 47 (1986): 'If in Britain we were asked to name one feuilletonist who wielded greater power than any other on the literary scene, we might well find it difficult to answer. In West Germany, however, where for many years one obviously powerful spider has squatted securely at the heart of the literary web, we can instantly and confidently name Marcel Reich-Ranicki. The pope of German literary journalism, Reich-Ranicki commands influence and prestige so great that it is probably no exaggeration to say that, for the past two decades, he has done more to dictate the patterns of literary reception than any other single critic. Of course it is de rigueur to pooh-pooh his judgements, dispute his abilities, dislike his pomp and circumstance, and impute to him base motives and power-mania. None of this at all affects the strength of his position.

'Born in 1920 into a Polish Jewish family, Reich-Ranicki grew up in Berlin but was deported to Poland in 1938 and from 1940 lived in the Warsaw ghetto, from where he succeeded in escaping in 1943. In the post-War period he devoted himself to German literature, settled in the Federal Republic in 1958, and worked his way into prominence as a critic for Die Zeit in the 1960s: his weightier essays of this period are collected in Literatur der kleinen Schritte, which opens with a study of Böll's Ansichten eines Clowns and closes with observations on Wolf's Nachdenken über Christa T. […]His major publications are a study of post-War literature in both Germanies, Deutsche Literatur in West und Ost (new edition, 1983); a collection of essays, Entgegnung, covering new German writing from 1968 to 1979; a further collection, Nachprüfung, on twenty-one writers in the years from Fontane to Klaus Mann; a study of Jewish writing, Uber Ruhestörer; and (as editor) a widely-read five-volume choice of twentieth-century German short stories.'


JOHN HOLLANDER, who died in August at the age of 83, started his poetic career under the aegis of S.J. Perelman, whom he revered as a boy, and of W.H. Auden who chose his first collection for the Yale Younger Poets series. He was a product of Columbia University where he studied with Trilling, Barzun and Mark van Doren and came under the sway of his 'poetic mentor' Allen Ginsberg (whom he resembles only in openness of spirit). He was an active advocate of the poetry he liked, trying to place it with publishers. He himself produced twenty collections of poems. He remained a virtuoso, with the skills and playfulness that go with that category. He will be remembered as an editor, anthologist and essayist who, in the words of the Poetry Foundation, 'influenced generations of poets and thinkers with his critical work, his anthologies and his poetry [… His] eminence as a scholar and critic was in some ways greater than his reputation as a poet. His groundbreaking introduction to form and prosody Rhyme's Reason (1981), as well as his work as an anthologist, has ensured him a place as one of the twentieth-century's great, original literary critics.'


CLAIRE GILMAN has curated a compelling exhibition at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, New York, NY 10013, entitled Pencil Sketches. 'This show brings together Emily Dickinson's original poem manuscripts and Robert Walser's microscripts for the first time in an art museum setting. Although Walser, who was born shortly before Dickinson died, was most likely unaware of her work, both writers were obsessively private as well as peculiarly attentive to the visuality of their texts. Walser wrote in tiny, inscrutable script on narrow strips of paper using an antiquated German alphabet that was long considered indecipherable. Only recently have these scripts been shown to consist of early drafts of the author's published texts. Similarly, Dickinson fitted her multifarious poetic fragments to carefully torn pieces of envelope or stationery, which were discovered among her posthumous papers. (Walser once referred to himself as a "clairvoyant of the small," and this description might apply to Dickinson as well.) In both cases, the form of these texts affects the language itself as both writers crafted their words in response to the form at hand. Rarely in literature has the manner in which words are made been so integral to the way in which they might be read. The Dickinson/Walser exhibition, which proposes the notion that art may be used to make language, is a fitting corollary to Drawing Time, Reading Time, which appears concurrently in the Main Gallery.' Information is available at http://www.drawingcenter.org/en/drawingcenter/5/exhibitions/9/upcoming/501/dickinson-walser/. The exhibition coincides with New Directions' publication of The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems, which complements Robert Walser's Microscripts.

This item is taken from PN Review 214, Volume 40 Number 2, November - December 2013.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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