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This item is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

News & Notes
Queen’s Gold Medal 2020

In mid-December The Queen approved the award of Her Majesty’s Gold Medal for Poetry to David Constantine. He is the 51st recipient of the award instituted by King George V in 1933 at the suggestion of the then Laureate John Masefield. The Medal Committee commended Constantine this year on the basis of his eleven books of poetry, notably Collected Poems (2004), which spans three decades of his work. The Committee is chaired by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, who himself received the Medal for 2018.

David Constantine made his debut in 1980 with A Brightness to Cast Shadows. His publisher, Bloodaxe, was in its second year. Forty years later, they published his eleventh collection. ‘Above all,’ said Simon Armitage, ‘David Constantine is a “humane” poet – a word often used in connection with his work, as if in noticing and detailing the ways of the world he is doing so on behalf of all that is best in us. For over forty years he has shaped a body of work that stands in comparison with that of any of his contemporaries, not just at home but internationally, navigating and negotiating that space between everyday events and their metaphysical or spiritual “otherness”.’

Rimbaud’s Remains

In recent months controversy has surrounded the final resting place of Arthur Rimbaud’s bones. Up until now they have been safely lodged in a family plot in the provincial cemetery at Charleville-Mézières, surrounded by his blood relations. Why are his remains not in the Pantheón, with other great French poets, intellectuals and political leaders? Surely it is because of his irregular, maudit relations with Paul Verlaine! President Macron rejected the idea of Rimbaud’s remains desecrating the Panteón. The petition launched in September 2020 and signed by thousands of admirers was presidentially rebuffed. The ‘lay temple’ will not be desecrated. ‘I do not wish to contravene the will of the deceased’s family,’ said the President. (One of Rimbaud’s great-great-nieces had opposed the move.) The poet died in 1891, so clearly the family’s feelings are a delicate consideration.

The petitioners, including leading politicians and intellectuals, wanted to introduce Rimbaud and Verlaine together in an eternal union, to ‘dust down’ the temple and to honour ‘the bohemian, poetry, and two great homosexuals’. Given the history of their relationship, such a reunion might not have been entirely welcome to them. And some critics of the mischievous petition pointed out that the Pantheón represented all those elements of establishment culture which the truly Bohemian most despises. To introduce the quondam lovers together, others argued, would be ‘an Americanisation’, a capitulation to ‘identity politics’ which ‘produces hives’ in some sectors of French culture. But then the petitioners, seeing Rimbaud surrounded by members of the family from which he fled and which after his death worked to pervert the importance and direction of his oeuvre, were moved to righteous pity. ‘We must free him from there!’ they declared. The petitioners do not intend to give up: ‘the hour of a new Pantheón, closer to the French people, more representative of the French people, will inexorably arrive’.

Philippe Jaccottet

Stephen Romer writes: The death of the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet at the age of 95 on 25 February marks the end of a generation of poets whose major figures – Yves Bonnefoy, André du Bouchet, Jacques Dupin, and Jaccottet himself – came to maturity in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. René Char, of an earlier generation, was in many ways their chef de file.  Char chose to live in relative retirement in Provence, and all four of his fils spirituels either did so permanently or had hideaways in rugged areas of the South.  It was Char also who in the 1950s and 60s invited Martin Heidegger to Provence to speak on the pre-Socratics , in the famous ‘Rencontres sous les marronniers’. The relation of those philosophers to the elemental was a lasting resource for the French poets, seeking to reconstruct place and meaning.  Jaccottet, with these others, and with Paul Celan,  was also associated early on with the Galerie Maeght and its house journals. The painterly aesthetics of Miro, Morandi, and most especially of Alberto Giacometti were as crucial to these poets as were, in a different way, the pre-Socratics.

In 1953, Philippe and his young wife the artist Anne-Marie Haesler, moved permanently to the village of Grignan in the Drôme, to the north of Mont Ventoux.  Jaccottet was the first of the group to break away from the capital, and he did so, as he explained in interviews, to escape overheated intellectual debate – these were the early years of structuralism, the linguistic turn, Tel Quel – that left him feeling more uneasy than ever about his own aims and beliefs.  Jaccottet was all his life a seeker and a quester, and the attitude he adopted early on – his second major collection was entitled L’Ignorant (1956) – was of modesty and spritual humility: his default position was agnostic, but an agnosticism porous to glimpses of the transcendent, rigorously monitored, and always organically related (as Coleridge might say) to the phenomena of nature.

The classic poem or poetic prose by Jaccottet seems to operate according to a process of tentative forward descriptive movements, almost of pentimenti, in which an object perceived, frequently an aspect of the natural world, the kingfisher, the oleander, the robin or, famously, the cherry tree in bloom at the bottom of a ravine, is subjected to a series of comparisons, sometimes in similes of baroque complexity, which disturb the commonly received idea of this poet.  These are then summarily discarded, or picked up and applied again, but differently. The approach is apophatic, and proceeds according to a negative theology, a stripping away of everything that can be deemed external to the perceptual task in hand. It is this persistent worrying away at the object, this indefatigable mania for exact description that recalls Francis Ponge, a man whose art would seem on the face of it to be the opposite of Jaccottet’s.

What sets Jaccottet apart has to do with tone, the persistent rappel à l’ordre, the fear always of getting above himself, of saying too much.  Hence, in a brief, beautiful late text, Couleur de terre (2009), the aging poet is granted a moment of absolute grace when contemplating a patch of earth, a path leading into the woods – ‘a sort of « revelation », if one wishes (if one must) granted, offered to the old and ignorant man that one is’. It is undoubtedly his lyrical attention to landscape – which has its own inquiring rigour – that has made Jaccottet the most widely read and appreciated of these poets in the English-speaking world.  He has been well served by poet-translators like Derek Mahon, David Constantine, Mark Treharne, John Taylor, Tess Lewis and Jennie Feldman.  

Paradoxes abound when one considers the life and career of Philippe Jaccottet. Born in Moudon in the Suisse Romande he was the most French of Swiss poets.  For a writer of ‘scrupulous meanness’, threatened at every moment by silence and aporia,  is collected works form an impressive bulk, as the bible-paper Pléiade edition of 2014 devoted to him attests.  Only two other poets have been honoured by a Pléiade in their own lifetimes, Saint-John Perse and René Char.  Jaccottet was in fact a tireless man of letters; a copious anthologist, essayist and reviewer, his writings on art are only now about to appear from Le Bruit du Temps, the publishing house run by his son, Antoine. He was also a prodigious translator, of Hölderlin, Rilke, Musil, but also of Homer, Mandelstam, Gongora and Leopardi.  

Barbara Köhler

Evelyn Schlag writes: Barbara Köhler had green fingers as a gardener and, by extension, as a poet. She dug in the recesses of the German language, harked back to their etymologies and uncovered hidden meanings. She was also a kind of (and kind) betrayer, telling her readers about the mysteries of word families. By adding a pronoun or changing a case she created new idioms, as in her most famous poem about German unification, Rondeau Allemagne of ١٩٩٤: ‘Ich harre aus im Land und geh ihm fremd.’ That ‘ihm’, a dativus ethicus, includes the emotion of a strong belonging as well as disillusion. Hers was a very intimate relationship with language. Her volume Blue Box has this epigraph: ‘I am talking to language. Sometimes it answers. Other times somebody else does.’

It comes as no surprise that she would translate Gertrude Stein. Tender Buttons are resurrected as ‘Zarte knöpft’, not simply Zarte Knöpfe. She takes the liberty of converting German grammatical categories by supplying the cores of words with prefixes and suffixes they have never had. In her own texts (which she considered untranslatable) she used English words because they yielded new associations, thus ‘movie’ in a German text simultaneously means film, cinema and movement. ‘Newspaper’ is a nice contrast to the German Altpapier, (waste paper, scrap paper), which in effect are mostly stacks of old newspapers.

In Niemands Frau (Nobody’s Wife), her take on the Odyssey, she tells the story from a female perspective and foregrounds the women’s experiences. Her distrust of philosophers such as Lacan is visceral, she once confessed to getting a belly-ache from his sentences but admitted it might be a problem of translation.  She had an unerring sensibility for the mechanisms of political speech when language is abused as an instrument of power. Political speech always wants to suggest consent, claim majority, isolate dissent.

Barbara Köhler was born in Burgstädt, East Germany, in 1959. She worked in textile production and in an old people’s home before studying at the Johannes R. Becher Institute of Literature in Karl-Marx-Stadt/Chemnitz. Her first collection of poetry, Deutsches Roulette, was published in 1991. From 1994 onwards she lived in Duisburg, collaborating with visual artists in text-space installations, teaching as Writer-in-Residence at, among other places, Warwick. She was awarded the prestigious Clemens von Brentano Prize and the Peter Huchel Prize. On January 8th she died at the age of ٦١.

Mahmud Kianush

Giles Goodland writes: I first encountered Mahmud Kianush though his books. I had moved to a leafy corner of West London, and browsing in the local library, found an unusually full representation of his work, all published by Rockingham Press. Intrigued, I emailed the publisher. A day later I was sitting with Mahmud drinking strong coffee in what would become our regular meeting place on Pitshanger Lane.  He turned out to be the best possible conversationalist, lively, quick-thinking, obsessed with poetry’s relation to the Big Themes. He had rejected the Islamic teachings he had been brought up with. Such was his dislike of theocracy, he did not let me use the word ‘Iranian’. But he never rejected the rich tradition of Persian poetry.

Born in 1934 in Mashhad, he soon moved to Tehran. He became a well-known poet of a modernist slant, and became estranged from the expectation that he write poetry pleasing to the masses or the state. Perhaps sensing the coming crisis in his country, he took early retirement from the civil service and settled in London with his wife Pari Mansour, also a writer and translator, and their two children, in 1976.  There he formed a close connection with the BBC’s Persian section, and wrote and edited prodigiously, translating Steinbeck, Lawrence, Césaire, Beckett, Fugard, Lagerkvist, Lorca, Cavafy and others into Persian, and many Persian poets into English, editing anthologies, and writing his own poetry both in English and Persian.

As the years passed, he became frailer. Still immaculately dressed, he started using a Zimmer frame. At the beginning of 2020, he was diagnosed with leukaemia. In spring, his wife Pari died of Covid. From that time, he was only animated by the idea of putting together his final book, but was discouraged by the news that his Rockingham editor had ceased publishing. We could not meet for coffee, but by phone and email we assembled his last book, The Journey, now published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press. A rigorous editor to the end, the book went through several changes. In our last conversation he was still worried about a single missing line-space. While in hospital for his cancer, he contracted Coronavirus, and died on the 12th of January.

He will be missed very much by his two children, Kaveh and Katy, and by myself, his son in poetry, as he described me, and by Joanne Arnott, his daughter in poetry.

Colin Falck

Paul McLoughlin writes: After gaining first degrees in PPE and in philosophy, psychology and physiology at Magdalen College, Oxford in the 1950s, Colin Falck (1934–2020) helped Ian Hamilton and others to found the influential poetry magazine the Review in 1962, acting as deputy editor for its duration, and going on to be poetry editor of The New Review. It might be said that while not seeking the limelight, Falck provided the philosophical framework that enabled Hamilton to espouse and support a new kind of imagism, one that paid the closest attention to allowing poems to reveal the nature of reality. I learned from Martin Dodsworth that Frank Kermode was highly impressed by a 1968 Falck essay in the Review, ‘Poetry and Wittgenstein’. In 1988, he was awarded a PhD in Literary Theory at the University of London. He worked in various British and American universities. Most of the latter were in the universities’ London Programmes, but also included York College of Pennsylvania.

Falck contributed poems and reviews to early issues of PN Review (including three poems and a review of Peter Jones’s ‘Imagist Poetry’ to Poetry Nation One in 1973) and went on later to provide articles on Robinson Jeffers (1987) and Edna St Vincent Millay (1992), two ‘unfashionable’ poets, editing Selected Poems for both for Carcanet.

In Myth, Truth and Literature: Towards a True Post-Modernism (1989; 1994) Falck mounted a sustained assault on the language theories of Saussure, Derrida et al. Taking his cue from German Romantic Philosophy and, particularly, Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, he railed against insistences that found no room for the meaning-creation, the ‘probing­into-obscurity’, that he took to be the defining characteristic and raison d’etre of language. In the hands of Saussure, he believed, language became, in Shelley’s words, ‘dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse’ and facilitated ‘the now almost universal tendency to value literary criticism or literary theory on a level with, or even above’ literary art itself. It also led to the immersive academization of poetry. Camille Puglia hailed the book as one that ‘reveals the future of literary criticism’. In American and British Verse in the Twentieth Century: The Poetry that Matters (2003), Falck asks ‘Why is it that almost no one can quote more than a few words from any American or British poet since (say) Robert Lowell or Philip Larkin?’ Edna St Vincent Millay was not taught at universities because her work was deemed to contain nothing that needed deciphering or unfolding in seminar groups and was therefore regarded as too simple to bother with. And Robinson Jeffers was similarly rejected because the poet’s views on man and the natural world were deemed unpalatable, but both remained very fine poets. What was needed if poetry were to save itself from its ‘current’ self was a ‘Middlebrow Revival’. This was not an argument against complexity, rather it was opposed to self-regarding verse that took readers into the poet’s mind and made no attempt to show what it felt like to be alive in the world. Poetry, in short, needed ‘to re-connect with the lives of ordinary educated people’, and poets to learn again how to make their lines ‘sing’.

Falck’s own poetry was published in two early pamphlets (under the imprint of the Review); a first full collection with Carcanet, Backwards into the Smoke (1973), two further collections for Stride (1992 and 1997) and finally a near-posthumous volume from Shoestring Press just before he died. He was instrumental in helping other poets on their way, through the Hampstead Poetry Workshops that began in Thurlow Road in 1985 and continued until he was unable through illness to attend. Declan Ryan’s fine poem, ‘i.m. Colin Falck’, reveals much about the flavour of the group’s meetings. Over the years its members included the likes of Hugo Williams, Jo Shapcott, Ruth Padel, and Michael Donaghy: the list stretches on with any number of other poets who deserve mention. It is difficult to recall any who were less than accomplished. The range and approaches of its poets are a testament to Falck’s inclusiveness. An old battered foolscap manila envelope was where all attending placed copies of their own anonymous poem. Each person in turn would take one such poem out of the envelope, distribute it, read it aloud, and it would be discussed. This ‘anonymity’, such as it was, meant even the brightest of stars had to endure an occasional mauling. Each discussion ended, as Ryan’s poem does, with Falck asking, ‘Any more angles on this one?’ At which point the poet would reveal their identity. The envelope (the original from 1985), surely deserves to be preserved in an archive somewhere. It is a significant artefact in the recent history of British and Irish poetry.

Joan Margarit

Bloodaxe Books announced: The Catalan poet Joan Margarit (1938–2021), who had been suffering from cancer, died in February.

One of Spain’s major modern writers, he was born in 1938 in Sanaüja, La Segarra region, in Catalonia. An architect as well as a poet, from 1968 until his retirement he was Professor of Structural Calculations at Barcelona’s Technical School of Architecture, working for part of that time on Gaudí’s Sagrada Família cathedral.

He first published poetry in Spanish, but after four books decided to write in Catalan. From 1980 he began to build his reputation as a major Catalan poet. As well as publishing many collections in Catalan, he published Spanish versions of all his work, and over the past twenty years gained recognition as a leading poet in Spanish. The melancholy and candour of his poetry remind readers of Thomas Hardy, whose work he translated.

He received many of the main awards available to Spanish writers, including in 2019 the Reina Sofía Prize for Ibero-American Poetry, the most important poetry award for Spain, Portugal and Latin America, and in the same year the Cervantes Prize.

Jean Valentine

The American poet Jean Valentine, winner of the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, died on 29 December. She was 86. Her characteristic poetic structure – taut, clear free verse images culminating in an emotional thrust – a minimalism reduced to cliché by some of the popular Instagram poets who have followed in her wake – earned her many readers in her six-decade career, and over an impressive library of fourteen collections. Seamus Heaney evoked her manner: ‘rapturous, risky, shy of words but desperately true to them’. Each stanza of the poem builds to a climax, and the final poem is a succession of precisions, cumulative and stripped of context. ‘Mother and Child, Body and Soul’ (the two pairings juxtaposed, without conjunctions) begins: ‘Child/ You’ve boarded me over like a window or a well.’ This startling image is returned to after a life story rendered in three brief stanzas: ‘And this child, this/ window in my side,/ boarded over all my life,/—how can I take the boards off, in this wind?/ I will break if I bend...’ Window, or well? Mother, or body? Child, or soul? The New York Times obituary spoke of her economy, images ‘so concise they could seem like fragments. It was the immediacy of emotion she was after, and she often found it in dreamscapes.’ Alice Quinn, who loved her poems and often printed them in the New Yorker, said, ‘She was brilliant at evoking the power of love and the endlessness, the indwelling aspect of eternity that we feel.’

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Peter Pegnall writes: There was both more and less to this centenarian poet than meets the eye. He was a tall, imposing figure, whose impeccable manners lent greater force to his presence. At the same time, he relished farce and absurdity, in his later years resembling part of a comedy routine with his dear fellow communist, Jack Hirschman, diminutive, sporting an heroic moustache and a Stetson. Lasting so long is a measure of the man’s good judgment, his canny business sense, his courage and lack of apocalyptic delusions.

As a bookseller, he navigated The City Lights Bookshop through years of turbulence, social and financial. He had met George Whitman in Paris in the late 1940s and witnessed the establishment near Le Pont Neuf of Le Mistral, far more than just a bookshop, a café, a temporary lodging house for scribblers, a beating heart of Bohemia and simply a quiet place to read and talk. Ferlinghetti followed this example and opened ‘The City Lights’, a tribute to Chaplin and a reflection of its owner’s battle against the authoritarian and the pompous. It is amazing that both Shakespeare and Company (the inherited name of Le Mistral) and City Lights survived and thrive. It goes without saying that independent bookshops can be the life blood of writers, those solitary sociable animals, often hopeless with money and marriage. Ferlinghetti was not unaware of his need for an anchor: in 1971, the distinguished librarian Nancy Peters assumed administrative and financial responsibility. A risk taker, Ferlinghetti was also a realist.

As a publisher, he devised the Pocket Poets, four by six inches, just the right size and price for the lonesome hobo, the penniless dissident. The list of poets is astonishing: Carlos Williams, Lowry, Burroughs, O’Hara, Rexroth, Levertov, Prévert, Patchen, Duncan and, most significantly for the future of the publishing house, Ginsberg. It was the botched prosecution of Ginsberg’s Howl in 1957 that gave the book and its publishers the most effective publicity they could have wished. Howl remains the most successful of City Lights’ texts, with more than fifty reprints. Ferlinghetti’s sense of history was confirmed by his letter offering Ginsberg publication: ‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career’, consciously echoing Emerson’s endorsement of Walt Whitman. He went on to ask, ‘when can I expect the manuscript?’

Despite being seen as a godfather of ‘The Beats’ Ferlinghetti denied membership. Many movements achieve identity retrospectively, but there is a special validity to Ferlinghetti’s insistence. To begin with, he was a successful scholar, a fluent linguist, a skipper on a submarine chaser during D-Day action and a lifelong pacifist as a result of witnessing the aftermath of the bomb at Nagasaki. All this from a boy born in Yonkers whose father may have died before his birth and whose mother spent most of her life in an asylum. A tough as well as a sensitive man, then, who was never especially taken with narcotics or dope. He dropped a few tabs but was by no devotee of astral adventures or self-destruction. His long life was not a matter of chance.

His poetry and his political convictions were also very much his own. His sense of irony was acute, without vitiating sincerity or force. His Autobiography is an often hilarious ‘Essay on an American’, full of literary allusions and topographical detail. He really doesn’t let himself off the hook:

(I have) seen the Cities of the Plain
And wallowed in the wilds of Westchester
With its roving bands of natives
In stationwagons.
I have seen them.
I am the man.
I was there.
I suffered

‘The Cities of the Plain’ in Genesis are Sodom and Gomorrah and Westchester is a picture book rural suburb of New York. The Clintons live there now; so did Billy Collins, so wild west it is. And how this poet raises an eyebrow.

A lifetime campaigner against the motor car and all its depredations, his assaults can be brilliantly mordant:

on the nickelodeon a cowboy ballad groans
‘got myself a Cadillac‘ the cowhand moans.
He didn’t get it in Cuba, baby’
(one thousand fearful words for Fidel Castro)

The poems defy categorisation: often rhetorical, but also tender, lyrical, visual, wry, surprising. There is much to be said for that Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I’d like to suggest that he is a still kicking refutation of Robert Frost’s self-satisfied little squib: ‘I never dared be radical when young / For fear it would make me conservative when old.’

Ferlinghetti dared. Rock on, Larry.

This item is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

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