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This article is taken from PN Review 251, Volume 46 Number 3, January - February 2020.

Orient und Okzident Brian Morton
Barbara Haus Schwepcke and Bill Swainson (editors), forewords by Daniel Barenboim and Mariam C. Said, A New Divan: A lyrical dialogue between East and West (Ginkgo); Marilyn Hacker, Blazons: new and selected poems 2000–2018 (Carcanet)

‘Orient und Okzident / nicht mehr zu trennen.’ Even at the approaching end (surely?) of the jihadist spasm, even after a sturdy re-reading of Edward Said’s Orientalism, which warned against reifying ‘the East’ as an exotic bazaar, Goethe’s words might seem impossibly utopian, even as a wish. Kipling might seem to offer the more realistic prediction; the twain seem still reluctant to meet. Two centuries after Goethe mused on East and West, forty years after Said’s salutary essay, the world is much foreshortened; Islam and what remains of Christendom are not so much in proximity as intermixed, but often not much better combined than oil and water and sometimes as binary explosive.

Goethe wrote his great West-ōstlicher Divan under the benign influence of the Persian pub poet Hafiz and in correspondence with his late love Marianne von Willemer; the wife of a friend, she became ‘Suleika’ to Goethe’s ‘Hatem’, and may have contributed a couple of lovely lyrics to the East and West winds. In Weimar, Goethe’s last home, there is a monument to the two (male) poets, a pair of chairs carved out of a single piece of granite and disposed facing one another in what still looks like an adversarial rather than companionable or clubby way, as if the world still doesn’t quite know how to interpret Goethe’s late masterpiece and its inspiration. And indeed, it remains surprisingly little known, continually ‘rediscovered’ and then left unread.

The world, when Goethe wrote it, was at war, in Europe but also in America, north and south. Exactly a century later, it was at war again, in what is usually taken, falsely, to be the ‘first’ world conflict. So imprinted are we with the paradigm of the Western Front that we now routinely forget that the First World War (which really was so labelled in 1914; ‘Great War’ might be better reserved for something else) was an episode in the continuing struggle of East and West, its Levantine theatre almost as strategically important as Verdun or Passchendaele. It has a Buchanish feel, this war; Buchan, like Kipling, had his faults, but he knew where the real ‘Great War’, logical extension of the ‘Great Game’, was to be waged.

Goethe, full in his years, preferred to think that cultural conflict could be reconciled. Twenty years ago – so many meaningful anniversaries! – a musical workshop was held in Weimar, 1999’s Cultural Capital of Europe. Edward Said, Daniel Barenboim and cellist Yo Yo Ma were all present and the seeds of a multicultural ensemble were sown. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, heard at this year’s Proms, was in the spirit of Goethe’s poems, whose achievement, according to Said and quoted in the foreword to A New Divan by his widow Mariam, was the creation of ‘an imaginative re-ordering of polarities, differences and opposition, on the basis not of politics but of affinities, spiritual generosity and aesthetic self-renewal’.

That is, of course, exactly what the Divan, and the engagement with Hafiz, had been for Goethe himself. ‘Affinities’ is a word we associate closely with him, because of Wahlverwandstschaften, the scientific novel of 1809 (which I also have in a translation called Kindred By Choice, an apposite title here!). Faust Part One had also just been published. But Goethe’s romantic self-renewal was more fully expressed in verse and Hafiz gave him the freedom to do so.

The West-ōstlicher Divan, for all its grace and ease of reading, still somehow requires strenuous special pleading. Edward Dowden’s 1914 translation seems almost ironically as well as obviously timed given what was happening in Europe, the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire. It had, in turn, depended on the first full translation of Hafiz by Joseph von Hammer, and it has depended since on scholarly imprimatur by Karl Krolow, pre-eminently by Katherina Mommsen in her Goethe und der Islam, and by Peter von Arnim, who died in 2009 before a new translation and meditation on the Divan could be published.

Gingko’s A New Divan is not the first attempt to bring Goethe’s vision up to date, but it is by far the boldest, drawing on the work of contemporary poets in German, Arabic, Spanish, Persian, Italian, French, Russian, Slovenian, Turkish, Portuguese, all presented with a facing English translation like the lobed gingko leaf that Goethe sent to Marianne as a sign of his/their, East’s/West’s ‘one-yet-two’ nature. It also provides the imprint with its name and colophon. Barbara Haus Schwepcke has also published a new set of ‘inspirations’ for the Divan, called Hafiz, Goethe and the Gingko, and a new annotated translation of the Divan itself by Eric Ormsby. Whether this latter supersedes the 2010 edition made by Martin Bidney, a senior comparative lettrist at Binghampton University, with the assistance of the late Peter von Arnim, is partly a matter of taste, though Bidney’s introduction is valuable and von Arnim’s translation of Goethe’s contextual ‘Notes and Essays’ more than useful. What connects the two is that Bidney also writes his own series of poetic meditations on the themes and in the styles and rhythms of the Divan.

Those involved in the Gingko project include names that will be familiar to British readers, including Kathleen Jamie, Lavinia Greenlaw, Robin Robertson and Don Paterson, whose ‘Eleven Maxims from the Book of Ill-Humour’ is a highlight and delight: ‘Read a poem slow enough / With vigilance and care / And you’ll discover lots of stuff / that simply isn’t there’ is one to be pinned on the door of every postgrad lit. seminar in the Western world. More important than the thought, though, is the touch and feel. Goethe wrote with a gnomic ease only matched by his near-contemporary William Blake, an ability to combine simplicity and obscurity in a single trope, and to yoke together heterogeneous ideas without Metaphysical violence.

Genius nodding to genius, Heinrich Heine said that the defining quality of the Divan verses was that they were ‘hingehaucht’ or ‘naturally breathed’; they often expressed rude thoughts in quite ethereal terms, heretical ideas in ecstatic measures that accorded with Hafiz’s exuberant acceptance of experience and Goethe’s own Spinozan belief in nature as all-in-one. And this is very much the spirit of A New Divan. There is little of the familiar Coke-advert handholding in its poems, which are tough, sometimes irreverent, sometimes unexpectedly emotional, even sentimental, but driven along by rhythms and forms, especially that of the ghazal, that admit of no single dominating mood. Adonis’s opening ‘Letter to Goethe’, beautifully translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa, pretty much sums up the mood of the whole, though only a re-reading delivers its quiet smile: ‘The West is behind you, but the East is not before me. // They are two banks of one river.’ Sisyphus, Sinbad, Gilgamesh and Ulysses are all invoked before: ‘One body is ripped limb by limb: / A body that has no East except its name, / A body that has no West except its name.’ Even the seeming idiomatic lapse – ‘limb from limb’ is more usual – seems to work here, as does the rapid shuttering between time-frames. Abbas Beydoun does this even more boldly, putting Suleika/Marianne in the same Gaze as tragic Marilyn Monroe and in the process calling not just on Hafiz but on Saadi, Rumi, Mutanabbi as well.

Djinns and alembics put in an appearance in other poems, as does Auschwitz. Much more than Bidney’s more obviously lyrical approach, the Gingko poets seem to use the Divan not as a bustling street market of imagery but as a lens to look at our times. Perhaps the most remarkable poem of the set, and one of the most strangely beautiful, is Hafez Mousavi’s ‘The Name of that Sad Dove’, translated by Alireza Abiz and Daisy Fried, which seems to bring together Baucis and Philemon (a Darby and Joan who fed the gods) with a modern airstrike, Goethe’s friend Schiller with the now-threatened EU project whose anthem is his (and Beethoven’s) ‘An die Freude/Ode to Joy’, Silesian weavers with Rilke’s panther. It’s a virtuosic performance that doesn’t dwell on its own virtuosity and which even in its more arresting moments (‘the black milk of morning’) seems conversational and companionable rather than ‘poetic’. Let that stand for A New Divan as a whole, but it is as a whole that it needs to be read, a new single poem rather than an anthology, the work of a collective voice, respectful of Goethe but prepared to use his optics rather than merely paying homage.

The West-ōstlicher Divan is unmistakably a work of maturity. The young never evince so much ease. In an introduction to the 1914 Dowden translation, ‘E.D.D.’ – presumably his second wife and widow Elizabeth Dickinson Dowden – says of it that it represents ‘Goethe’s Indian summer of art-life’, and for once that over-used colonial description makes perfect sense. She spoils it a little with a reference to ‘sexagenarian love-making’, but there it is. It’s exactly the mood one senses in Marilyn Hacker’s wonderful new collection, also the product of an Indian summer of poetic life. Blazons consists of new poems, more translations from the Arabic and French (work for which she has been rightly feted), and a set of Apollinaire-like ‘Calligraphies’, some of which have appeared already in PNR [PN Review]. There is boldness as well as ease – this is the word we’re going to have to rely on – in all these poems. Hacker has lived for the last ten years in Paris and ‘Itinerants’ is a sequence of Paris street-scenes, some painted by Utrillo, some acted out by the Mme Hulot we always wanted to see in a starring role, some driven by the not-forgotten spirit of 1968. Hacker weaves together imagistic glimpses with an ongoing story about an HIV half-way house and the campaign against it. She observes the passing show and the wider narrative provided over coffee by Le Monde. ‘Place des Vosges: October’ is a gloriously autumnal perspective on how time and memory and how the years betray. In reply a friend interjects, changing the whole tone of the poem in the way Goethe’s occasional irruptions of violence do, ‘Your friend says, ‘Turncoats sell their arse to the flies / and then complains that history is unjust’.’ Hacker gets the killer last line with ‘For a breath of paradox, you are in the present.’

And so she is. Admittedly, helped with Migralgine. She doesn’t shrink from a brand name here and there, any more than she shrinks from scientific jargons: ‘butyls and titrans’ appear in one of the ‘Calligraphies’, aromatic canisters jostling with winejars, a Goethean touch, perhaps. And she has never, throughout her career, shrunk from the particulars of love-making, sexagenarian or otherwise. In the title poem, ‘Blazons’, perhaps the most virtuosic musical poetry she has ever composed and the most visually intense, there is a reference to ‘Suspicion of the hooded clitoris’ (repeated twice as the end/beginning of two stanzas) and to a memory, someone’s, of multiple orgasms. She does the same thing, though, with the ‘irrelevant’ detail of ‘a scimitar of scar across her chest’, which suggests mastectomy but also transports us East and the cruelties of Timur Lenk which hover behind the Divan. The repeated line prompts an entirely contingent echo of one of Paterson’s cheerfully grim saws in his ‘Book of Ill-Humour’: ‘Don’t forget her, son, / heartbroken as you are; it’s a waste of a good wound / to heal without a scar’. Dundee meets Kesh: embraces.

Throughout her career Hacker has shown a gift, instinctive but evolving, for form. It’s there in Essays on Departure, an earlier Carcanet collection, but it has refined and extended in Blazons, which includes sonnets, villanelle-like Malay pantoums, ghazals and tankas, which are less celebrated than haiku and with a looser beat. Nothing exposes a ‘Western’ artist more than dabbling in ‘Eastern’ forms, but Hacker’s ghazals entirely lack the unconvincing twangs of ‘ethnic’ music that routinely accompany tv shots of Taj Mahal, pagoda or Eiffel Tower. There is, so to speak, no accordion music in her Paris street scenes. Instead, they are robustly multi-ethnic, mingled if not always harmonious. They’re also comfortable with the banal, which may also conceal something more sinister like the cops waiting across the street, or the immigrant woman who may look calm, bored, stoical but who haven’t forgotten dead babies left behind. ‘Ghazal: Across the Street’ engages more closely than any other poem with the question of who ‘you’ refers to. At times it appears to be Hacker; at times, an unnamed or –identified (but not always silent) interlocutor; at times, it can only be us. Which is why, when she begins another ghazal ‘Unmistakable, that consummate style / pierces the incoherence of her late style’, we can only nod and agree. Unmistakable, yes; consummate, absolutely; incoherent, only in the sense that experience is loosely woven and not fused. We need to remember that the derivation of ghazal isn’t just spooning and sweet-talking, isn’t just about the pangs of love, but also relates to spinning yarn. Nobody spins a poetic yarn more convincingly than Marilyn Hacker, even if the narrative is only glimpsed through the slats of a blind and all dazzle beyond it.

It is perhaps remarkable, and perhaps not, that a child of the Bronx, who attended its High School of Science (other notable alumni include [critic] Harold Bloom, [novelists] E.L. Doctorow and Richard Price, latter-day bard Peter S. Beagle, and Hacker’s former husband Samuel R. Delany) should have acquired such a capacious vision. Perhaps only a young woman schooled in Bronx Sci’s brand of metrics could come to show such ease with metrics of another sort. There isn’t a false note here, even when the literal meaning isn’t manifest. The translations, whether from Arabic or French, seem to inhabit a place between ‘literal’ and ‘poetic’, roles very often assigned to different voices in A New Divan.

Both books succeed only because they press back against the current xenophobia as stoutly as Goethe tried to ignore it in 1814. Something of the sci fi strangeness she explored with Delany persists in Hacker’s work, but with the clear implication that ‘alien’ is an extremely relative term, which has metaphysical as well as legal implications. ‘Orient and Occident / Cannot be parted for ever more.’ Perhaps not. ‘Orientalism’ still persists, but it’s a happy occident that these two remarkable books should emerge together in this dangerous summer.

This article is taken from PN Review 251, Volume 46 Number 3, January - February 2020.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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