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This item is taken from PN Review 190, Volume 36 Number 2, November - December 2009.News & Notes
The 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the Romanian-born German novelist and poet HERTA MÜLLER in October. She was praised by the Nobel judges for depicting the ‘landscape of the dispossessed’ with ‘the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose’. Müller received death threats in her native Romania after she refused to become an informant for the secret police during Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime. Although she left her native country over twenty years ago and now lives in Berlin, Müller revisits the theme of oppression, dictatorship and exile in her novels, essays and poems. Little of her poetry and only four of her fifteen works of fiction have been available in English, most of them out of print at the time of the Prize. Those translated include Herztier (published in English as The Land of Green Plums), Atemschaukel (Everything I Possess I Carry With Me) and Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt (Martin Chalmers’s translation of which, The Passport, is published by Serpent’s Tail). Her selection was not without controversy. A grumpy-looking Günter Grass declared himself ‘very satisfied’ at the selection. He had backed Amos Oz for the prize. The lead critic for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, known as The Pope of German letters, contacted by phone for a reaction, declared: ‘Ich will nicht über die Herta Müller reden. Adieu.’ (‘I don’t want to talk about Herta Müller. Goodbye.’) Elsewhere he declared, ‘It had to be a woman this year.’ Harold Bloom snorted with disbelief: he hadn’t even heard of her. Yet there can be no doubt of her importance and centrality. One of our Austrian correspondents writes, ‘She is working with undercurrents of language, she can write and speak sentences - short, simple ones - that make you wonder how you could have overlooked what language is capable of. Her style reminds me of what Ilse Aichinger demanded: schlechte Wörter, bad words, in German related to schlichte Wörter, simple words.’
DON PATERSON received the 2009 Forward Prize for Best Collection for Rain, in a Faber and Picador dominated shortlist which included Peter Porter, Hugo Williams and Glyn Maxwell. Australian EMMA JONES (currently poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust) received the Best First Collection prize for The Striped World, achieving a double win for Faber in the publisher’s eightieth anniversary year. ROBIN ROBERTSON robertson won Best Single Poem for ‘At Roane Head’ (published in the London Review of Books), commended by judges for its disturbing images and echoes of Synge. The prizes were presented at Somerset House on 7 October in a ceremony not without incident: head judge Josephine Hart unwittingly announced that the judges had ‘chosen’ Siân Hughes’s The Missing for Best First Collection, prompting premature celebrations from the author and her Salt supporters, before going on to list all six writers on the shortlist (Hughes went home empty-handed). Hart then mispronounced Robin Robertson as ‘Robert Robinson’, a.k.a. the octogenarian Brain of Britain quizmaster.
New York’s Poets House, one of the largest open-access collections of poetry in the United States, has a new centre on the banks of the Hudson River. Founded in 1985 by the poet Stanley Kunitz and the arts administrator Elizabeth Kray, the fifty-thousand-volume library and reading room occupied a loft in SoHo until December 2007. Since then it has been closed while the library’s new home, in Battery Park City (10 River Terrace at Murray Street), was under construction. The new eleven-thousand-square-foot space, which includes an original Calder mobile and a room for children, is twice as large as the SoHo venue. Poets House reopened with a celebration featuring the poets ubiquitous, grinning Billy Collins, Marie Ponsot, Mark Doty and others. Visit poetshouse.org for details of the collection and events.
SAM GARRETT has won the 2009 Vondel Translation Prize for his English version of Ararat by Frank Westerman (Harvill Secker). The ‹5,000 prize is awarded by the Society of Authors every two years for the best book-length translation into English of an important Dutch or Flemish work. Francis R. Jones received an honourable mention for his translation of What It Is, a selection of poetry by Esther Jansma (Bloodaxe). The prize will be presented on 11 January 2010 at Kings Place in London, along with a number of other translation prizes.
In a rare moment of inarticulacy, the Today programme’s JAMES NAUGHTIE was rendered speechless at the apparently dismal state of poetry education in British schools. Naughtie was interviewing Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, and the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, on National Poetry Day. Naughtie was clearly shocked by Palmer’s statistic that well over 50% of primary school teachers in Britain could name no more than two poets, and some could name none at all. ‘Perhaps we should have a moment’s silence after that,’ suggested the presenter.
Also on National Poetry Day, it was announced that T.S. ELIOT has been voted the Nation’s Favourite Poet in an online public poll which some have criticised for reducing poetry to the status of ‘Strictly Come Versifying’. Writing in the Glasgow Herald on 10 October, Ian Bell challenged the efficacy of such initiatives to ‘popularise’ poetry: ‘Don’t have a national day; don’t have a vote: let people come to the stuff unhindered, preferably by accident… A National Not Reading Dan Brown Day might be more useful, or at least a National Not Ruining Poetry for the Class Day. Every little helps.’ Bell ends his poetic treatise by facetiously suggesting that effectively giving poetry an ‘ASBO’ would do more to engage the attention of Britain’s youth than any well-meaning BBC or Arts Council-led initiative: ‘Better still, why not make the reading of verse illegal? This is a dissenting art, after all, not some cultural heirloom. So ban poetry now, and stand well back.’
JEAN VALENTINE, HARRYETTE MULLEN AND LINDA GREGG have received major annual awards from the Academy of American Poets. Jean Valentine was awarded the $100,000 Wallace Stevens Award for ‘outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry’. Harryette Mullen received the 2009 Academy Fellowship and Linda Gregg Receives the $25,000 Lenore Marshall Prize for 2009’s outstanding book of poetry for her collection All of It Singing (Graywolf).
Musical legend JULIE ANDREWS has compiled a poetry anthology with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. This gathering of Andrews’s ‘most loved’ poems, songs and lullabies is the latest addition to the ‘Julie Andrews Collection’ (published by Little, Brown) and comes with an accompanying CD. A few of Andrews’s ‘favorite things’ include poems by Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, as well as ‘classics’ by children’s author Sheldon ‘Uncle Shelby’ Silverstein and Sound of Music songwriting duo Rodgers and Hammerstein. In addition, readers will be glad to hear, the book contains several poems written by Andrews herself.
Prompted by Oliver Dixon’s memoir of John Heath Stubbs in PNR 189, Gordon Wharton writes: I first met ‘Stubbsy’ (as he was frequently referred to) in the early 1950s, at a pub opposite Knightsbridge Barracks in London. He was still partially sighted then, so could get around reasonably well, but was prone to the occasional mishap. One day, in the company of John Waller (a rather forgettable poet), Doone Beale (aka Lady Marley of Marley Tiles fame) and me, he was holding forth very entertainingly at the long bar, when mistaking it for a glass ashtray, he stubbed out his cigarette on Lady M’s patent leather handbag, which she had unwisely planted on the counter. She forgave him, of course. Who wouldn’t have? John is sadly missed by all who knew him at whatever stage of his career. Of that one can be certain.
Writer and ‘rock-and-roll poet’ JIM CARROLL has died in New York at the age of 60. A rebellious figure in the wake of Rimbaud and Burroughs, Carroll is best-known for chronicling his wild youth in The Basketball Diaries (adapted into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio in 1995). He was a literary prodigy who at the age of twelve began a diary documenting his dual existence as star basketball player at an élite Manhattan private school and emerging teenage heroin addict and male prostitute. When extracts from The Basketball Diaries appeared in the Paris Review when he was just sixteen, he acquired a cult reputation as ‘the new Bob Dylan’. During the late 1960s and early 1970s the young Carroll was taken under the wing of the poet Ted Berrigan, who introduced him to Burroughs, Dylan, Kerouac and others. It was through the East Village artistic circles centred around the St Mark’s Poetry Project that Carroll discovered the work of Ginsberg and O’Hara, both important influences on his work. He also found his way to Andy Warhol’s Factory, worked as a studio assistant for the painter Larry Rivers and lived with Patti Smith and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe during a frenetic period he described in Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971-1973. Inevitably, given his striking looks and punk connections, Carroll went on to enjoy a musical career that proved more lucrative than his slim body of poetry (Patti Smith encouraged him to turn his poems into lyrics and Keith Richards helped secure him a record deal). Drug addiction may have prevented Carroll from reaching his literary potential, but writing clearly remained central to his life. His three poetry collections are Living at the Movies (1973), The Book of Nods (1986) and Fear of Dreaming (1993).
Paul McCloughlin remembers Brian Jones:The English poet Brian Jones has died at his home in Normandy aged seventy. A great admirer of that other very English poet with a Welsh name, Edward Thomas, he first came to prominence in the late nineteen-sixties when Poems (1966) and A Family Album (1968) were published by Alan Ross’s London Magazine Editions. Sales were unusually high for a young poet and Jones was suddenly and bewilderingly staring at celebrity. The poetry milieu was not for him, however, although he enjoyed the company of other writers. He moved away from London to Canterbury, eventually settling in Normandy with Noëlle, his French-Algerian second wife.
Born in 1938 in Islington, Brian Jones grew up in West London and attended Ealing Grammar School, where his contemporaries included Tony Harrison and Douglas Dunn. After an early scholarship to Cambridge, Jones embarked on a career in Adult Education that included teaching creative writing in psychiatric units and prisons (Jones believed in the poet’s ‘responsibility’ to speak for those who have, as it were, no voice). The attraction of Jones’s first two collections lay in the way in which he converted the personal and domestic into telling verse. His students readily recall his interest in what Jones wittily referred to as ‘poetic li(v)es’; yet his lyrics steadfastly avoided the ‘confessional’. Established early on, his perennial themes - distance, purpose, history, separation, solitariness (what Michael Longley called ‘the darker areas of the mind’) - would inform later poems about Thatcherite Britain and the break-up of his first marriage.
In 1980 Carcanet Press published the first of three collections, The Island Normal, described by Michael Schmidt in a letter to Jones as ‘the most interesting collection by a British poet that has reached us for some time’. The Children of Separation appeared in 1985 and Freeborn John in 1990; the latter was to be his final collection, although later poems appeared in Poetry Review, London Magazine and PN Review. Jones’s tendency towards the reclusive has contributed to his relative critical neglect. His steadfastly secular (though no less profoundly spiritual) voice was not that of Hughes or Heaney or Geoffrey Hill, and consideration of his work alongside theirs might usefully add another dimension to the critical discussion of post-war British poetry.
This item is taken from PN Review 190, Volume 36 Number 2, November - December 2009.