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This item is taken from PN Review 269, Volume 49 Number 3, January - February 2023.

News & Notes
PN Review apologises for misspelling the name of Anne Serre on page 33 of PNR 268.

Evan Jones writes: The poet Charles Simic died on 9 January 2023 at the age of eighty-four. He was born in Belgrade, Serbia, in 1938, and wrote vividly on a range of topics, not least the war years of his childhood and the immigrant life in the United States. His mode was a sort of tuned-down surrealism – simple, clear language that dodged expectations even as it was being pinned in the poem. In this, Paul Éluard and René Char were his masters. But, like many of his generation (including Mark Strand and Charles Wright), he also looked towards South American surrealism and magical realism, which grounded his work in the everyday. Much admired, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1990, for his seminal book, The World Doesn’t End, and was appointed the fifteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 2007, during the presidency of George W. Bush. He taught at the University of New Hampshire. A rare sort of outsider figure, whose foreign birth, multilingualism and European interests aligned him with those critical of American nationalism and canonicity, Simic offered what became a popular alternative to the dominant modes of his era. The opening of his poem, ‘Eastern European Cooking’, tells much about his allegiances:
While Marquis de Sade had himself buggered –
Oh just around the time the Turks
Were roasting my ancestors on spits,
Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther.
The poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger died last November. He was ninety-three. He contributed to PN Review directly, in a poem he himself translated (‘The Frogs of Bikini’, in 1985) and others translated by Michael Hamburger. Having been reviewed in it several times, he is part of the formative culture of our magazine. He became one of Germany’s most controversial and eminent poets, never quite settling down – as editor, as essayist, he was a provocative presence, causing his readers to think. He never stopped thinking himself, moving from a Marxist to a more open and liberal position and a poetry that took no hostages. Like Orwell, to whom he has been compared, he is always unexpected.

His introduction to English readers came with a Penguin Selected Poems in 1968 and Bloodaxe followed up with the enormous dual-language Selected Poems of 1994, followed by two later collections in English translation, Kiosk (1995/1997) and Lighter than Air: Moral poems (1999/2002). His New Selected Poems was published by Bloodaxe in 2015.

David Wheatley writes: Though sometimes associated with the New York School and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, Bernadette Mayer, who has died at seventy-seven, was one of the great mavericks of modern US poetry. Born in Brooklyn in 1945, Mayer achieved early prominence with Memory (1971), based on a roll of film shot every day, for which she eventually produced 1,100 photographs and six hours of recorded poetry. In the 1980s, she was the director of the St Mark’s Poetry Project, building its influential reading series with a generous donation from The Grateful Dead. Mayer published prolifically: her more than thirty books of poetry and prose include Midwinter Day (1982), Two Haloed Mourners (1998), Poetry State Forest (2008) and Works and Days (2016). Written in the 1970s and published in 2022, her letters to her artist sister Rosemary offer an invaluable insight into the New York avant-garde scene of the time. Her association with the second generation of the New York School made her a contemporary of Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman and Ron Padgett, and like theirs hers is an art of the stylised but celebratory quotidian. Her poems are also frequently very funny. The sonnet ‘You jerk you didn’t call me up’ ends with an interactive invitation: ‘To make love, turn to page 121 / To die, turn to page 172’. To enter the world of Mayer’s work is to feel a rush of multiplying possibilities. A Bernadette Mayer Reader appeared as long ago as 1992, but how her oeuvre might translate into the format of a Collected Poems remains to be seen.

Marilyn Hacker writes: The American poet Naomi Replansky died on 5 January at her home in Manhattan. She was 104 years old. In mid-December, she had given what she called a ‘farewell poetry reading’ in the community room of the apartment building where she lived, attended by friends and extended family. Inevitably, many of her close friends and supporters of her work were no longer there to be present: Grace Paley, Philip Levine, Marie Ponsot. Her oeuvre fills a medium-sized book, but it is not slight.

Naomi (she was a friend) was born in the Bronx in 1918, to a second-generation American couple: some of her mother’s livelihood was earned giving English lessons to newly arrived immigrants. She was writing poetry by the time she was ten, as many children are – from what remains of it, verse that was already addressing issues of social justice, inspired, in one instance, by having seen Fritz Lang’s dystopian Metropolis.

Naomi graduated from high school and began university studies at Hunter College in Manhattan, then a school for women, with free tuition, but left before graduation to start work. Over the years she worked as a lathe operator, a stewardess, a computer programmer when computers were novel, a medical editor.

Her first collection, Ring Song, appeared in 1952, when she was in her thirties. It also contained poems written during the two previous decades. While it received some critical praise, it was savaged in the San Francisco Chronicle by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which apparently discouraged Naomi from publishing for many years. Ferlinghetti championed the work of Marie Ponsot – va savoir. During the same decade, the US State Department revoked her passport, evidently because of her leftist activism.

Naomi, who was fluent in German since childhood, met Bertolt Brecht in Los Angeles where she lived in the 1950s. She translated the play Saint Joan of the Stockyards into English, as well as poems by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. She returned to New York and, in the mid 1980s, met the literary scholar Eva Kollisch who taught comparative literature at Sarah Lawrence University. It was a mutual coup de foudre, and they were a couple for the next forty years. They were married in 2009.

Replansky never abandoned metre and rhyme, which put her out of the mainstream of American poetry, or at least of American poetry with a leftist political consciousness, for many years. Gwendolyn Brooks was shamed out of writing sonnets and quatrains by the Black Arts Movement. I wonder if Naomi would have written more in Ireland or in England where the confusion of content and form was less the case?  No, it is not ‘a fascist act’ to write a sonnet. Still, it was poets and editors from the American feminist and lesbian movements who helped bring Naomi’s work back into print and readers’ hands in the last decades, at least in part because of the celebration of a late life lesbian union in poems written in the past thirty years.

Naomi Replansky’s Collected Poems was published by Black Sparrow/David Godine in 2012, and  received the William Carlos Williams Award  of the Poetry Society of America.

In the poem ‘About Not Writing’ she says:
Now, strangely, I draw breath
Well past my ninetieth
What’s begun is almost done
Still I must brood upon
The much that I sought
The little that I wrought
Till time brings its own
Lockjaw of stone.
John Lucas writes: The poet Richard Kell, who was born in Cork in 1927, has died in Durham, a few years short of his centenary. His reputation was established in 1962 with the publication of the widely praised Control Tower, for which he became associated with the Movement poets. Misleadingly, given that Kell’s rhythmic suppleness, adventurous rhyming and his discreet pleasure in employing a wide tonal and verbal range mark him out as possessing merits different from the poets of New Lines. And Kell’s ‘This Be the Converse’, in his 1993 collection Rock and Water, is a by-no-means flippant response to Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’. (‘Life is no continental shelf, / It lifts and falls as mountains do’).

Kell knew what he was talking about, having experienced the dreadful death of his wife, Muriel, whose accidental drowning he writes about in a sequence of poems called ‘Heartwood’, included in The Broken Circle (1981). By then he had become a senior lecturer at Newcastle Polytechnic, having moved there from his teaching post at the Polytechnic of Isleworth, and he was to remain in the environs of Newcastle and Durham for the rest of his life, writing and reviewing. (This included a lengthy stint for the Guardian.)

I first met him in 1996 at a Poetry and Small Press Festival in Newcastle and we got on well enough for him to send me not long afterwards a signed copy of his Collected Poems 1962–1993, published by Lagan Press. So when I began to pay regular visits to Durham to see my good friend Anne Stevenson, I also dropped in on Richard, and in 2004 I published the first of six collections to be put out by Shoestring Press. This was Letters to Enid, addressed to Enid Radcliffe, with whom he continued to live until increased frailty made that impossible. The Letters, in rhyming couplets, cover a wide variety of subjects and are managed with a graceful aplomb in some respects reminiscent of the ‘familiar’ poets of the eighteenth century.

Taking a Break (2008), dedicated to ‘My friends when relaxing’, which followed, is a substantial pamphlet of narratives in limerick form (130 of them), plus a defiant apologia in which the poet notes that ‘Most lovers of humour revere / The memories of Dodgson and Lear / And those who write verse / Entertainingly terse – / Or endeavour to write it, as here…’ Auden would have nodded approval.

Kell was also an admirer of MacNeice, as is evident from his substantial collection of 2014, Old Man Answering, which runs to 130 pages and in which he more than justifies the claim, in the Dictionary of Irish Literature, that he himself is ‘utterly a virtuoso’. He went on writing good poems almost to the end, some of them to be found in what proved to be his final collection, The Whispering Sky (2020), in which he salutes Verlaine, puts the boot into ‘that pious bore’ Shelley, and awaits death with an agnostic’s laconic acknowledgment that ‘Bach and Milton… were ultimately trash: / we all end up as skeletons or ash.’

Gregory O’Brien writes: With Basho and Roberto Bolaño in attendance but keeping their distance, and the ghost of James K. Baxter putting in a sporadic appearance, the essentially self-styled poetry of Geoff Cochrane (1951–2022) has been one of the recurring surprises and revelations of New Zealand literature over the past three decades. By the time of his death in November, he had published thirteen collections with Victoria University Press and gathered a passionate, if not exactly numerous, readership. To his wry amusement, he collected a few awards along the way and was much anthologised (he featured in the 2009 Carcanet/VUP anthology Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets).

Often miniaturist, at other times diaristic, Geoff’s poems are, at once, beautifully rounded yet sort-of-abandoned. In his best verse, as in his life – he was a diabetic, ex-alcoholic, council-flat-dwelling chain-smoker – everything hangs by a thread, as in ‘An Ambulance’:
Between hospital and zoo
asterisks of rain fall audibly
on the many old tin awnings.
Through cool blue air arrives
a siren’s pure ambulance. Someone
is dying of too much afternoon,
of fennel and cats and clothes props
As well as avoiding The Bottle, Geoff shunned computers, cell phones and all forms of motorised transport. One of Wellington’s great pedestrians, he spent his days traversing the city on foot. On the suburban flatlands of Kilbirnie I usually encountered him. Among the topics of recent discussion: the fact that both our fathers worked on and around (but seldom flew in) flying boats during the War, our shared asthmatic condition (‘I’m wheezing like a wrecked harmonium’ he wrote in one poem) and the literary life, whatever that might amount to. Such vitality, such ennui. The footpaths of Wellington will never again know the unmistakable music of his heels, late morning, advancing library-wards.

Rehman Rahi, the celebrated Kashmiri poet who promoted and preserved the Kashmiri language and concentrated his efforts on the poetry of the language, died at his home in Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city. He was ninety-seven. For him the language was the core of Kashmiri identity. He published a dozen books of poetry and prose and received India’s highest literary honours. ‘He is credited with restoring the language spoken by more than six million people to the realm of literature, lifting it out of the shadow of Persian and Urdu, which once dominated the literary scene in Kashmir, a disputed territory that straddles India and Pakistan.’ He won many awards, including the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, and in 2007 the Jnanpith Award, India’s top literary prize, becoming the first Kashmiri to do so.

Rahi grew up speaking conversational Kashmiri, but the language had been removed from schools – the Indian government saw it as subversive. In the 1950s, he attended a poetry reading in the village of Raithan in central Kashmir. A Kashmiri poem was greeted with tremendous applause. Rahi went on stage and read his work in Urdu, then the region’s official language. ‘No one understood it,’ he told the New York Times. ‘That day I started learning Kashmiri.’

John Greening writes: Any poet approaching their centenary loses some readers, but Ruth Bidgood’s was once a familiar name – especially as a woman poet in the 1970s, which was when her first three collections appeared. If bookshops outside Wales were more likely to stock Pitter or Fainlight, at home she was popular and would eventually be honoured by the Welsh Academy and Aberystwyth University as well as feature in the prestigious Writers of Wales series. A glance at her 2004 New & Selected (from Seren, like much of her work) reveals preoccupations not dissimilar to Gillian Clarke’s, with something of R.S. Thomas (for whom she wrote the elegy ‘Bereft’). Although she was not a confident Welsh speaker, Welsh themes – people and especially places – dominate her collections from The Given Time (1972) to Time Being (2009) and all the late pamphlets.

Born near Neath in 1922, Ruth Bidgood read English at Oxford before joining the ‘Wrens’ as a decoder – chiefly in Alexandria – and later worked on Chambers’s Encyclopaedia. But her poetry, when it emerged (in Coulsdon, which she left for Wales after a marriage breakdown), would need no encyclopaedia and little deciphering: accessible, economical, with spiritual reach, it offered an unforced lyricism and a variety of voices, finely crafted though formally unambitious. She could be anecdotal but not confessional, keeping herself in the background, preferring to look closely, to speculate and remember, elegizing landscapes, recalling the folklore of hawthorn or a fifth-century legend. There is the occasional celebration of ‘now’: a ‘Church in the Rain’, an ‘Earth Tremor’ or eclipse, a watched hare, a ‘Sheep in the Hedge’ (‘that woolly maniac would hate you / if she had any consciousness to spare / from panic’). R.S. Thomas found his bright field; Bidgood catches one that’s ‘an odd shape’ and ponders its history. Indeed, she produced some admired local histories, but it is the poetry that distinguishes her. She died late last year.

The Somali people are known as ‘a nation of poets’. In modern times Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame (known popularly as Hadraawi) was the best loved. He has died in Hargeisa, capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland, at the age of seventy-nine. It is reported that tens of thousands attended his funeral. Many travelled from across the region, including Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said: ‘Hadraawi’s death is felt in every Somali household’. An editor declared, ‘Somalia has fallen apart; the nation has fragmented into pieces. The only things keeping us together are our language, our religion and Hadraawi.’ The poet Bill Herbert who worked with Hadraawi said, ‘He had an unshakeable moral core and spoke for the people on behalf of the people with the authority conferred on him by the people’.

John McAuliffe writes: Editor and critic Dillon Johnston has died in St Louis. He established Wake Forest University Press in 1975 to bring Irish poetry to North American readers, and would publish US editions of Thomas Kinsella, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Michael Longley, John Montague and many others. When Johnston took up a post at Washington University, he remained with the press as Advising Editor. Johnston was also instrumental in Wake Forest University’s acquisition of the archive of the leading mid-century publisher of Irish poetry, the Dolmen Press. He was the author of Irish Poetry after Joyce and Poetic Economies of England and Ireland, 1912–2000, and the inspiration for the anthology The Shack: Irish Poets in the Foothills and Mountains of the Blue Ridge.

The death of John Digby late last October has been reported by his widow Joan. John was born in ١٩٣٨. He left school at fifteen and spent five years as a keeper at London Zoo. The Structure of Bifocal Distance, his first collection of poems – described as ‘a triumph of vision’ by Nathaniel Tarn – appeared in 1974. He began to make collages in the early 1970s. Sailing Away from Night, poems and collages (Anvil in England, Kayak Books in the USA), was published in 1978, and To Amuse a Shrinking Sun in ١٩٨٥. With his wife he wrote The Collage Manual, an illustrated guide to the work of contemporary collage artists, published in 1985 by Thames & Hudson. He lived in Oyster Bay, New York.

When this year’s Forward Prizes were announced in Manchester, it was the first time, amazingly, that a major literary prize ceremony has taken place outside London. The winners on the night were Kim Moore’s All the Men I Never Married (Seren) for Best Collection, Stephanie Sy-Quia’s Amnion (Granta) for Best Debut, and Nick Laird’s ‘Up Late’ (Granta Magazine) for Best Poem.  

Prize sponsor William Sieghart announced a new category for the 2023 Prizes, ‘best new performance or a new poem to camera’. The new prize will allow ‘for self-submission [and will] set a cap on submissions in the first year at 2500. These will be sifted into a longlist of 200 for judges to review.’ Even with this caveat, and possibly fearing a free-for-all, a footnote adds further conditions, on which the hardworking ‘sifter’ will presumably adjudicate: in order to submit, ‘performers must have a track record of working in the form that must fit at least two of the following criteria: feature in or regular performance in a spoken word/open mike night; 2 years of developing your practice outside a formal educational context; working with a mentor/workshop leader to develop your practice; and/or significant prizes, fellowships or residencies to allow you to develop your creative work.’

The host venue in Manchester, Contact Theatre, shares its birthday and University of Manchester origins with PN Review, and has been praised by Owen Hatherley as ‘freakish… a friendly apparition… bursting at the seams with ideas and weirdness’. Its CEO, poet and playwright Keisha Thompson, welcomed the in-person and online audience and referred to one of the theatre’s anniversary celebrations, which locked poet Georgie Brooke in to the Theatre for fifty hours during which time they composed a new, optimistic and somewhat Keatsian poem, available in print and on YouTube: ‘Isn’t that what Contact means? / Thinking what we feel is ours alone, / until another hand reaches out, and grips.’

King Charles III awarded the King’s Gold Medal for Poetry 2022 to Selima Hill, especially for her selected poems, Gloria (2008), published by Bloodaxe, whose poets have taken the last three royal medals. She was preceded by Grace Nichols and David Constantine.

This item is taken from PN Review 269, Volume 49 Number 3, January - February 2023.

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