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This item is taken from PN Review 250, Volume 46 Number 2, November - December 2019.

News & Notes
Ciaran Carson · David Wheatley writes: Ciaran Carson died on 6 October, three days short of his seventy-first birthday. He was born and died in Belfast, a city that looms monumentally over his work. Carson’s father was a postman and polymath, and made Irish the language of the home; his sense of linguistic in-betweenness left an enduring mark on the future poet. A first collection, The New Estate and Other Poems, appeared in 1976, but it was The Irish for No (1987) and Belfast Confetti (1989) that made Carson’s reputation. Their most famous poems, including ‘Dresden’, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘John Ruskin in Belfast’, are written in long, languorous lines that owe something to Ginsberg and C.K. Williams, but just as much to the speech rhythms of Irish storytelling or traditional sean-nós singing. With Breaking News (2003), he abruptly changed his style, espousing a staccato short line reminiscent of the Objectivists, and as also seen in On the Night Watch (2009) and Until Before After (2010). Translation was a constant, from the versions of Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Rimbaud’s sonnets, in The Alexandrine Plan to versions of The Táin, Dante’s Inferno, and Rimbaud’s Illuminations (improbably desublimated from prose back into verse). As director of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast, his influence on younger colleagues and students was immeasurable. In prose too he was prolific, in unclassifiable meditative works such as The Star Factory (1997) and Fishing for Amber (1999). Carson was honoured with both an Eliot Prize (1993) and a Forward Prize (2003), and deftly avoided the occasional fate of honourees of descending into a self-repeating and toothless old age. His loss has been mourned extravagantly by the Irish poetry community. A posthumous collection, Still Life, is a series of ekphrastic poems, summarising a life’s passionate engagement with the visual world.

David Wheatley will contribute a longer appreciation to a future PN Review.

Ireland Professor of Poetry · The Irish president Michael D. Higgins announced in September that Frank Ormsby was to become the next Ireland Professor of Poetry. Ormsby follows in the distinguished footsteps of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, starting at the end of October and serving until November 2022. The Ireland Chair of Poetry was estalished in 1998 when Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ormsby declared, ‘the professorship of Irish poetry is unique. It has done more than any other initiative to raise the profile of poetry in Ireland in the last 20 years, both as a recognition for established poets and a golden opportunity for younger emerging poets. The collaboration of three universities and both arts councils is a bold venture and I am honoured and thrilled to be part of it.’

John Montague was the first Ireland Professor of Poetry from 1998 to 2001 and was followed by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill in 2001; Paul Durcan; Michael Longley; Harry Clifton; Paula Meehan; and Eilean Ní Chuilleanáin.

Nanos Valaoritis · Evan Jones remembers the Greek poet:
L’été dernier, mon ami Nanos Valaoritis a bien voulu
consigner pour moi les observations qu’a appelées la
trouvaille de la très belle pierre
— André Breton

The poet Nanos Valaoritis has died. Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1919, he published his first poems in the mouthpiece of the Greek ‘Generation of the 30s’, Τα Νέα Γράμματα [New Letters], at the age of 18, alongside poets like George Seferis (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1963), and Odysseus Elytis (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1979). In 1944, he fled war-torn Greece and arrived in Egypt, where Seferis was in exile with the Greek government. Procuring letters of introduction to Cyril Connolly and John Lehmann, he travelled to London, where Lehmann introduced him to Stephen Spender who in turn introduced him to T.S. Eliot and Louis MacNiece. Valaoritis then found a job working with MacNiece and Dylan Thomas at the BBC on various radio programmes (he supplied any foreign accents needed). Living in London for nine years, he strengthened the relationship between Modern Greek poetry and the Anglo-Modernists; his work included the first book of translations of Seferis in English, The King of Asine (1948), with Bernard Spencer, and an important essay on Greek Modernism published in Connolly’s magazine Horizon (1946).

In 1954, he moved to Paris, and there interacted with the post-war surrealist group, including André Breton, Benjamin Péret and Joyce Mansour. He returned to Greece in the sixties, advocating the avant-garde, but his efforts were cut short by the military coup in 1967. This time, Valaoritis travelled to the US, taking a position at San Francisco State University. He taught creative writing and comparative literature there for twenty-five years, coming into contact with all of the major figures on the west coast, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg.

Returned to Greece in the 2000s, Nanos published – poetry, novels, studies. In 2012, his Homer and the Alphabet, a reading of the texts of the Iliad and Odyssey as acrophonic, Oulipian endeavours, examined in detail the correspondence between the twenty-four books of each epic and the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet.

I first met Nanos in the Spring of 2007. His home in Kolonaki was in an old building, with a fenced-in elevator in the foyer. He greeted me at the door of his second-floor apartment, welcomed me in and, over a cup of tea, began to talk. The details I’ve given above are a shortened version of the stories he told, but there were more: anecdotes about Eliot and Breton, the New Apocalyptics and les poètes électriques. I am not doing justice to his knowledge and interests, his humour, his limitless energy (he was eighty-six at the time and preparing a lecture on Wilhelm Reich to deliver at the University of Athens). After hours of talk, the afternoon turned into evening, I suggested I’d get going; he loaded a bag with books and joked about the ‘weight of culture’ as he handed it to me. That was Nanos: generous, humorous, substantial.

Menard Press turns 50 · Menard Press, which started life as a journal in 1969 with an issue devoted to Michael Hamburger, and which has been a small but fascinating producer of unexpected books of poetry and, in particular, translation, is celebrating its jubilee. In addition to literary texts – original and translated poetry, original and translated fiction, art and literary criticism – the press has published essays on the nuclear issue (by Sir Martin Ryle and Lord Zuckerman, among others) and works and testimonies by survivors of Nazism, including the first English edition of Primo Levi’s poems.

Menard Press inherited F.T. Prince from Fulcrum Press in 1975; other senior poets on the list are Brian Coffey and Nicholas Moore. Translations of Nerval, Mallarmé, Rilke and Mandelstam also feature, and Sylvia Plath’s translations of Ronsard and one of Elaine Feinstein’s selections from the work of Marina Tsvetaeva. Menard has published studies of Charles Reznikoff, Fernando Pessoa and Primo Levi, Octavio Paz’s intellectual autobiography Itinerario and Geoffrey Dutton’s account of his garden in Scotland, Harvesting the Edge. Tony Rudolf has also been a close friend of PN Review and a regular contributor and advocate.

Al Alvarez · Tony Roberts writes: Al Alvarez died at the age of ninety on 23 September. A fearless critic and essayist, poet, rock climber and poker player, he seemed to thrive on a certain outsider status. From a wealthy London family of Sephardic Jews, he turned his back on the academic life, despite having gained a first in English at Oxford. Instead he took to America, to literary journalism, and then in his late twenties became a freelance writer.

Having proved an influential poetry editor for the Observer (1956-1966), Alvarez extended his reputation with the Penguin Modern European Poets series, from 1967. Over the years there followed at least twenty non-fiction books, including the provocative anthology The New Poetry (1962) and the cult classic, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (1972).

Although Alvarez encouraged the early work of Gunn, Hill, Hughes, Plath, Porter and others; his anthology, The New Poetry, scandalised. There he championed Lowell, Berryman, Sexton and Plath as a snub to the ‘gentility’ of British verse, which he later wrote ‘didn’t seem an adequate response to a century that had spawned two world wars, totalitarianism, genocide, concentration camps and nuclear warfare’ (Where Did It All Go Right?).

Also problematic was the controversy over The Savage God, a book which explored cultural attitudes to suicide, opening with a long detailed piece on Plath’s. Hughes responded furiously and, though Alvarez was to point out that he had neither sensationalised nor criticised Plath, the account was inevitably intrusive.

Alvarez admired American poetry, asserting that ‘modernism has been predominantly an American concern’ (The Shaping Spirit). He felt indebted to the country, revelling in the energy he found at Princeton, where he delivered the Gauss Seminars in 1958. His admiration for poetry ‘on the friable edge between the tolerable and intolerable’ (The Writer’s Voice) led Alvarez to champion European poetry, particularly that written under the most Orwellian circumstances.

He was later to tone down his position on risk. In a piece for The New York Times in 1972 – after Berryman’s suicide – he wrote, ‘For years I have been extolling the virtues of what I have called extremist poetry, in which the artists deliberately push their perceptions to the very edge of the tolerable. Both Berryman and Sylvia Plath were masters of the style. But knowing now how they both died I no longer believe that any art – even that as fine as they produced at their best – is worth the terrible cost.’

A highly talented and independent spirit, Al will be missed.

‘A Poem against Injustice and Corruption’ and its consequences · Radio Farda reported on 6 October that ‘a poetry reciter’ (presumably a performance poet using traditional verse forms, and also a ‘sonneteer’) in Iran was sentenced to six months in prison for performing a ‘poem against injustice and corruption, discrimination, abusing power and stealing public funds’. Hossein Jannati was not unknwn to the establishment, having performed before Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the past. He has been charged with ‘propaganda against the regime’, and a higher court confirmed the verdict on 5 October. Posting on Instagram, Jannati was unrepentant. He declared he would not be silenced on issues of ‘oppression, injustice, abuse of power and religion’. The verdict related to a recital at the university of Isfahan.

On Instagram he recalled that his father consoled him: ‘God is greater than the Sultan.’

Günter Kunert (1929–2019) · Michael Augustin writes: I wouldn’t be able to say how often during the past thirty years or so poor Günter Kunert saw himself confronted with my Radio Bremen microphone, how often he happily read brand new poems for my various literature programmes and how often I had the unbelievable pleasure of drawing from the overflowing barrel of his personal memories.

The son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, Günter Kunert had survived the holocaust in the inner city of Berlin while many in his family were deported and murdered in the German concentration camps. After the Hitler years he stayed on to live and write in the Eastern part of the city. Two writers who couldn’t possibly represent more opposite characters – Johannes R. Becher and Bert Brecht – were charmed by young Kunert and did what they could to help him make a start as a writer.

After he and his first wife Marianne, accompanied by seven cats, had turned their backs on repressive East Germany in 1979 the couple settled in an old former school-house right in the middle of nowhere – in Kaisborstel, way up in the countryside of Schleswig-Holstein. He simply wanted to live without neighbours after years of Stasi scrutiny and twenty-four-hour surveillance. The big city had become too suffocating for the free spirit he was. From now on he would look across a field all the way to the horizon when sitting at his desk: nulla dies sine linea!

One thing which always fascinated me about Günter was his stunning ability to combine melancholia with humour. His humour, I believe, served him as a bulletproof vest, which throughout his life allowed him to fire back at his many adversaries. Wolf Biermann once called him a ‘jolly pessimystic’ (sic!) which sounds far more accurate to me than ‘The Kassandra of Kaisborstel’, another label stuck on him (which he truly seemed to enjoy) due to his sceptical view of the world and his fellow humans. He had no illusions about mankind which he always saw in the process of going down the drain. Good to know we have his poems – something to cling on to as the flood rises.

The Scottish Poetry Library in crisis · Those of us who have loved the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh have been appalled at the recent controversy surrounding its management. Four honorary presidents, the former Scots Makar Liz Lochhead, Douglas Dunn, Michael Longley and Aonghas MacNeacail, resigned in a joint letter saying they were ‘deeply unhappy’ with its current management and governance. Former staff have added their voices to the growing protest at the regime of the current director and the ‘toxic work environment’ that has overtaken what was a happy and well-run Scottish national resource. Thirteen members of staff (and it is a small, specialized staff) have resigned since the appointment of the current director Asif Khan three years ago. This 100% turnover has been described as ‘disastrous and wholly indicative of systemic management failures’. The former employees felt ‘obliged to speak out to preserve the SPL’s reputation and future’. Their concern is not new: one year after Khan’s appointment twenty of Scotland’s leading poets expressed concern about the library’s hierarchy and described it as a ‘scene of unhappiness’. Jackie Kay, the current Scots Makar, and Carol Ann Duffy were among signatories of a letter expressing a ‘real sense of concern’ about the library’s direction and management. It was set up in 1984 and moved into handsome purpose-built premises near the Scottish Parliament twenty years ago.

Michael Mott · Just as PN Review 250 was going to press, Tony Roberts wrote: Michael Mott, who has died at 89 in Decatur, Georgia, was a distinguished poet, biographer and novelist (as well as an inveterate raconteur and gracious host).

Born in London, Michael’s father was an English solicitor, his mother a sculptor from Denver, Colorado. He moved to America in 1966 to act as poetry editor of the Kenyon Review. A Guggenheim Fellow, Michael was twice Writer-in-Residence at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. He completed a best-selling biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, before retiring from teaching in 1992.

Michael won the Allen Tate Prize in Poetry in 2002 and, over the years, published eleven collections of poetry, including the prize-winning The World of Richard Dadd (2005).

The two-headed Nobel Prize · On 10 October the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk and the Austrian writer Peter Handke were announced as recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2018 and 2019 respectively. The 2018 decision was delayed after a sexual scandal and the resignation of the Swedish selection committee. That scandal has been displaced by another.

Tokarczuk’s award seemed unexceptional: the novelist is clearly a substantial figure and the relative unfamiliarity of her oeuvre in Anglophone countries was more a judgement on them than on the selectors. The Academy celebrated Tokarczuk ’for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life’.

On the other hand, the selection of Peter Handke set in train an entirely new scandal. Handke, the Academy declared, received the award ‘for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience’. Many authors were quick to condemn the selection. Salman Rushdie, Hari Kunzru and Miha Mazzin were prompt to voice their alarm. In 1999 Rushdie chose Handke as runner-up for ‘International moron of the year’ for his ‘series of impassioned apologias for the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milošević’. Handke attended and spoke at Milošević’s funeral in 2006.

His debut with a novel and a play was in 1966. ‘More than fifty years later, having produced a great number of works in different genres, 2019 Literature Laureate Peter Handke has established himself as one of the most influential writers in Europe after the Second World War,’ the Academy announced. ‘The peculiar art of Peter Handke is the extraordinary attention to landscapes and the material presence of the world, which has made cinema and painting two of his greatest sources of inspiration.’

The President of American PEN said she and the body over which she presides were ‘dumbfounded’ by the award to ‘a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succour to perpetrators of genocide, like former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. We reject the decision that a writer who has persistently called into question thoroughly documented war crimes deserves to be celebrated for his “linguistic ingenuity”. At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this. We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.’

As PN Review 250 went to press, German PEN had yet to make a statement. There is no Günter Grass to turn to for a decisive judgement on the judgement.

Etheridge Knight · Jim Kates writes: The Indianapolis poet Jared Carter introduced Etheridge Knight to me – or, more accurately, passed Knight along. Etheridge was a brilliant poet, a delightful companion, and an exuberant, unapologetic freeloader. He stayed with me in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, several times while he taught at the nearby Dublin School and participated in rehabilitation at a nearby facility, Beech Hill. From time to time his lover, Liz McKim, came out from Boston to join us.

Etheridge and I had northern Mississippi in common. He was originally from Corinth, while I had spent time in Panola County. He claimed I made the best grits he had ever tasted. ‘I just follow the instructions on the box,’ I told him. Those winter days, Mississippi felt far away.

Jaffrey then was a very white New Hampshire town still dealing with Klan recruitment – I’d had a small fire-bomb set off at my house when I’d moved in a few years earlier. One January day Knight went out for a walk – and he came back all excited:
‘Jim, the Challenger exploded!’
‘How do you know?’ I asked.
‘A man came up to me on the street and told me.’

My first reaction: ‘A strange white man spoke to you on the street?!!’ That was more newsworthy to us than the shuttle disaster.

Etheridge had struggled with addiction ever since his military service in Korea. When I wasn’t looking, he emptied my liquor cabinet, down to the sweet liqueurs. But he was never, in my presence, visibly drunk or otherwise impaired, and it wasn’t something we mentioned explicitly.

When he wasn’t staying with me, we sometimes talked by telephone:
Me: ‘Eth, how you doing?’
Him: ‘Fine, man, eleven days now, eleven days!’
Me: ‘So, how are you?’
Him: ‘Thirteen days – thirteen days! Going well.’
Me: ‘How are you?
Him: ‘Fine.’

What we conversed about together was poetry. One of his most brilliant poems, ‘Ilu, the Talking Drum’, intersected with my own experience of learning about African drumming at Wesleyan University. He delighted also in the impromptu discipine of haiku/senryu. I don’t have any of his at hand (I think he published some of these) but I do have a couple of my own contributions to the mix, and they resonate for me in our common language:
Stove cold. Two days’ news
to get it sucking again.
Thank you, Mr. Bush.

You ask how I am.
I say my most recent poem
and ask how are you.

Etheridge left me with a handsome broadside of one of his most beautiful and heartfelt poems, ‘Circling the Daughter’. It had an error in it. The line, ‘A flower is moral by its own flowering’ had been misprinted ‘A flower is mortal by its own flowering’ and – against my protest – he struck out the ‘t’ by hand. The poem resonated with both readings.

The last I saw Knight, he had risen from a hospital bed to participate in a benefit reading with Robert Bly and Sharon Olds at Sanders Theatre, Cambridge. Etheridge didn’t like to say he ‘read’ poems, he always talked about ‘saying’ them; and, with his first recitation, he brought down the house. Every ‘saying’ was followed by enthusiastic applause. Bly, who followed Knight in the program, was clearly upset that his own poems were not similarly appreciated, but met the usual polite silence of a reading.

A poem I had written for Knight (‘Letter to Etheridge’) turned out to be valediction after his death in March 1991, although not intended as such:
Your black drumbeats no longer stretch these white yankee walls.
In the upstairs room your smoke hangs in the air
as if you’d been Old Scratch on a business trip
breathing in and breathing out, leaving a brimstone souvenir
straight from the belly, or carrying it like riding dust
clung to your accustomed clothing
and shook down.

You took the electric heater, good,
and a pair of warm winter boots
abandoned by a former tenant
who made his own bargain with this climate.
He’s married now, a place of his own under the sun,
a fine car, and all the grits he can eat –
except he don’t eat grits.

You travel light enough to fly, brother.
You left your summer duds in collateral,
secure as far as I’m concerned from barter
(even those shoes that pinch your wide feet)
until you settle.
They’re here, safe as houses.
And I’ve still got my soul

and a bottle of good Irish whiskey.
There are some devils loose in the world
the whippoorwill can’t whistle away.
Mr. Miles writes from Mississippi:
he made his crop but still might lose his farm.
In the long war between cold and warm,
cold is winning.

Harold Bloom · Andrew Latimer writes: ‘You must choose. Either there are aesthetic values or there are only the overdeterminations of race, class and gender.’ One cannot have one’s cake and subvert it, argued Harold Bloom, the eminent American literary critic, who has died aged eighty-nine. Bloom, the author of more than forty works of criticism, will be remembered, somewhat patronisingly, as a larger-than-life Johnsonian character who was known to devour whole novels in one hour and propound absolute truths from ‘The Chair’, the well-filled seat from which he occupied an increasingly elevated yet tenuous teaching position at Yale University. Above all, he will be remembered as divisive. His reputation as a controversialist, established in the 1973 study of poetic agons, The Anxiety of Influence: A Poetic Theory, was cemented with The Western Canon: The Books and School of Ages (1994). Bloom’s canon was condemned as an ‘act of ethnic and sexist oppression’ by his critics – those he termed the School of Resentment. Though he remained unapologetic about the book’s argument, he did express regret at having appended a list of canonical works to The Western Canon at the publisher’s behest. Such a list reduced Bloom’s canon to a prescriptive list of stable, distinct works; but at its heart, it is a record of interconnected creative acts of literary genius. Choosing which to pursue and which to ignore is not only vital to the work of literary criticism, he argued, it is also a part of that creativity. ‘You must choose’, and whether we choose to continue to engage with Bloom or not, his legacy remains, first and foremost, one of humanity – with Shakespeare at its core: ‘Bloom isn’t asking us to worship great books,’ wrote Adam Begley in The New York Times, ‘he asks instead that we prize the astonishing mystery of creative genius.’

David Rosenberg will contribute an essay on Harold Bloom and his legacy to a future issue of PN Review.

This item is taken from PN Review 250, Volume 46 Number 2, November - December 2019.

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