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This item is taken from PN Review 208, Volume 39 Number 2, November - December 2012.News & Notes
The adage that poets are the most highly sexed beings on the planet is demonstrated once again, as a trove of a hundred love letters between former Poet Laureate SIR JOHN BETJEMAN and a little-known mistress has been made public. Betjeman, who said towards the end of his life that his one regret was 'not enough sex', spent his later years conducting not one but two long-term affairs. 'The buck-toothed scourge of Slough' - as he is described by the Daily Express magazine (31 August 2012) - was a lifelong ladies' man, engaged three times before getting married. It was public knowledge during his lifetime that he maintained a love triangle involving his wife Penelope and his mistress Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of the Duke of Devonshire and lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret. But five years ago it emerged that Sir John had a second intimate relationship for two decades with Margie Geddes. 'I long to be in your arms and comforted and able to talk to you for hours alone,' he wrote to her; of him she wrote: 'He was a highly sexed man, practically to his death.'
Betjeman follows in a distinguished line of lusty poets. Byron need hardly be mentioned here; Swinburne's and Rochester's debaucheries are documented; Robert Burns dedicated 'Welcome to a Bastard Wean' to his first-born. In recent times the womanising ways of Dylan Thomas and the hedonistic sexual experimentation of the Beat poets has contributed to their entertainment value. Philip Larkin, despite declaring that the beginning of sexual intercourse 'in nineteen sixty-three [...] was rather late for me', juggled three concurrent mistresses. That well-rehearsed excuse that good poetry requires personal experience in matters of 'the heart' seemed to be borne out by research conducted at the University of Newcastle and the Open University, which found a link between a person's level of creativity and their number of sexual partners. The study suggested that creative people 'act on more sexual impulses and opportunities, often purely for experience's sake, than the average person'. However, poet and president of the Poetry Society Roger McGough scoffs at this, counter-claiming that if poets are highly sexed, it's because they are given more licence. 'Writing is about searching for and expressing the inexpressible, and the opposite sex is drawn to that,' he says. 'They sense a sensitivity of nature that may or may not be there. Some poets get away with behaviour that wouldn't be tolerated in other people. They are let off by it: there's an idea that the poet needs his muse, so he's forgiven. Really it's nothing to do with the value of poetry.' In any case, it seems to have worked for Betjeman. 'Darling Margie,' he wrote, 'I fear you are bound to haunt my mind for the rest of my life. I like this haunting. I feel I can rest in you and depend on you.' The letters will be on show from 27 October at Tom Brown's School Museum in Uffington, Oxfordshire, where the poet once lived.
JORIE GRAHAM won the 2012 Forward Prize for Best Collection for P L A C E (Carcanet) on 1October, the first American woman to be awarded the prize. Graham, who received the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for The Dream of the Unified Field, was chosen from a shortlist that included Oxford Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill to take the £10,000 award, announced three days in advance of National Poetry Day. The Forward judges, who included Leonie Rushforth, Alice Oswald and Ian McMillan, described P L A C E as 'powerful, never predictable' and 'a joy' to read, and expressed their hope that her win for her twelfth collection would bring her 'startling' poetry to a wider British readership. Receiving the prize, the Harvard Professor thanked the judges for having 'honored American English alongside these other forms of our miraculous language', praised her competitor Geoffrey Hill, who has 'taught me so much, deeply, over the years', and said that she was 'delighted' to accept on behalf of the international 'community' of poets: 'May we hear each other, may we listen to each other, in these urgent times.' Interviewed by the Guardian's Nicholas Wroe shortly after her win, she compared the health of British poetry favourably with that of the United States, likening it to 'a kind of canary down the mine. Very few cultures in the history of humanity have survived if their poetry disappears. The fact that it is astonishingly healthy in the UK should reassure people who, just as in the US, are worried about the culture. But with a poetry culture as vivid and alive as it is in the UK, your canary seems to be doing OK in your mine. Our canary is running out of breath and croaking a little.' Jorie Graham's P L A C E is on the shortlist for the T.S. Eliot Prize, to be announced on 14 January.
One organisation which might disagree with Graham's pessimistic assessment of contemporary American poetry is the Academy of American Poets, which has granted its annual awards. San Francisco-born GARY SNYDER received the $100,000 Wallace Stevens Award for 'outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry', and BRENDA HILLMAN received the $25,000 Academy of American Poets Fellowship for 'distinguished poetic achievement'. Academy of American Poets Chancellor Sharon Olds said of Hillman's poems: 'Linguistically, spatially, politically, emotionally, Brenda Hillman's brilliant poems are some of the most thrilling poems we have.' Hillman lives in California with her husband, the poet Robert Hass.
Poetry magazine is celebrating its centenary with an anthology of poems from its 100-year history. Founded in Chicago by Harriet Monroe in 1912 and published by the US Poetry Foundation, Poetry is the oldest monthly poetry journal in the English-speaking world. The magazine established its reputation early by publishing the first important poems of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, H.D., William Carlos Williams and others. Over subsequent decades the magazine, and latterly its accompanying podcasts, have given writers and readers a monthly dose of what its editors Christian Wiman and Don Share call 'mastery and mystery'. In compiling the centenary anthology, The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (University of Chicago Press), Wiman and Share trawled through 'some 300,000' poems. Poems which made the final cut include 'Fever 103' by Sylvia Plath, 'Pig Song' by Margaret Atwood and 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' by T.S. Eliot, as well as 'On Visiting a Borrowed Country House in Arcadia' by relative newcomer A.E. Stallings and 'Sweeping the States' by Chicago native Jacob Saenz. 'We didn't want to publish Poetry magazine's greatest hits,' says Share. 'What we wanted was to give people a reading experience. More than something chronological or didactic, we wanted something people could read and enjoy - people who don't know anything about poetry as well as people who know a whole lot.' Visit www.poetryfoundation.org for more information.
NGUYEN CHI THIEN, a Vietnamese dissident poet who spent nearly thirty years in Communist prisons and labour camps in his native country, has died at the age of 73 in California after a long illness. One of the foremost poets of contemporary Vietnam, he was mentioned as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The author was called 'the Solzhenitsyn of Vietnam' for the poems he wrote opposing the Communist government, and for his prolonged imprisonment, including torture and solitary confinement. It was not isolation that was hardest to endure, Thien said afterwards, nor being chained naked in the cold of his cell, nor the hunger; it was the utter lack of access to the written word that broke him (New York Times, 7 October 2012). Of the 700 poems he wrote in prison, '70 to 100 would be considered masterpieces in our language,' said one of his translators, Nguyen Ngoc Bich.
His persecution began in 1960, after he attempted to correct a piece of revisionist history in front of a class of high-school students. By the 1980s and '90s, his case had become an international cause célèbre, taken up by Amnesty and PEN International. His best-known work, Flowers of Hell, published at great personal cost during one of his rare periods of freedom, appeared in English in the United States in 1984 and has been translated into many languages. He was a vital figure in a culture in which poetry is considered paramount among literary genres. 'It's so paramount,' stressed Thien's translator, 'that until the end of the nineteenth century and even at the beginning of the twentieth century, probably 95 per cent of Vietnamese literature was in the form of poetry. We have history books that are written entirely in poetry.'
Does poetry have something to teach the business world? SIMON BAINBRIDGE, a Professor of Romantic Studies at Lancaster University, believes it does; in fact, he sees Wordsworth as something of a management guru for our age. Since 2007 Bainbridge has taken open-minded entrepreneurs on a tour of the Lake District landscapes that inspired Wordsworth's poetry. Rather than simply enjoying the view, Bainbridge's students learn, through 'practical exercises', how to apply the lessons of Wordsworth's life and works to their businesses. Bainbridge told the Times Higher Education Supplement (9 August 2012) that he uses Wordsworth to show the value of collaboration and of gleaning input from others (the poet's relationships with Coleridge and with his sister Dorothy are examples), as well as to advocate the skills of memory and reflection. He explains: 'There has been a big turn in management studies towards reflection, and Wordsworth is the great poet of reflection. He also has a deep sense of how we are shaped by the past, and how the most challenging moments are often the most developmental.' (Bainbridge does admit one snag in using Wordsworth as a business tool: the fact that the poet himself was 'critical of out-and-out capitalism and the focus on the bottom line.') Bainbridge said he hoped the programme would make managers 'more reflective about what they do and why'. He isn't the first to sell the lessons of literature to the business world. The Paris-based company Theatre & Management provides customised 'Shakespeare in Business' courses. Modules include ' The Merchant of Venice and Effective Decision Making', 'The Tempest and Managing Resistance to Change', and 'King Lear and Succession Planning'. The latter sounds particularly pertinent: as John Lundberg on the Huffington Post points out, 'It's safe to say that if you end up betrayed, insane, and with all of your children dead, you did NOT plan your succession well.'
Israeli poet and songwriter HAIM HEFER, one of the last surviving voices of the movement for Israeli independence, has died at the age of 86. Polish-born, he arrived in Israel as a young man and was part of the 'heroic generation' of Zionists. Naturally he was a satirist also. The New York Times (20 September 2012) called him 'a quintessential Israeli who helped forge a national identity in contemporary Hebrew'. He was part of the European Israeli population, famously attacking the culture of the Moroccan Jewish immigrants and exacerbating division. He detested Shimon Peres and Binyamin Netanyahu. 'He joked in his later years about his impending death and his search for a suitable burial plot,' the New York Times reported. 'He said he was finally persuaded by his fellow members of Ein Hod, an artists' colony in northern Israel, to be buried in its cemetery on a hilltop with a pleasant sea breeze.'
Bloodaxe Books remember Louis Simpson (1923-2012): We are sorry to report the death of the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet LOUIS SIMPSON. He died on 14 September at his home in Stony Brook, New York. He was a leading figure in American letters for more than half a century. Born in Jamaica in 1923, the son of a lawyer of Scottish descent and a Russian mother, he emigrated to America at the age of 17. His 1963 collection At the End of the Open Road won a Pulitzer Prize. In 2010 Bloodaxe published a retrospective of Simpson's work, Voices in the Distance: Selected Poems, the first selection of his work to appear in Britain for more than 25 years. In connection with this publication, Pamela Robertson-Pearce filmed Louis Simpson at his Long Island home in September 2008, in what was to be his last 'public' appearance; visit www.bloodaxebooks.com to view the film clip. Writing in the Guardian in September 2011, Andrew Motion chose Louis Simpson as his favourite contemporary poet, describing his work as 'absolutely compelling in its mixture of intensity and relaxation'.
Canadian poet, translator and editor DARYL HINE has died at the age of 76. Hine was known for his mastery of difficult poetic forms and for his interest in philosophy and the classics. Born in British Columbia, he studied at McGill University in Montreal before completing a PhD in comparative literature at the University of Chicago. Hine published work in Poetry magazine during the 1950s and 1960s and was its editor from 1968 to 1978. He published more than a dozen books of poems during his lifetime and received several awards for his translations of writers including Homer, Hesiod and Ovid. His final collection, A Reliquary, will be published in spring 2013 by the Canadian press Fitzhenry & Whiteside. A remembrance by his editor Evan Jones will appear in a forthcoming issue of PNR.
John Lucas remembers Harry Chambers: Lamenting Harry Chambers' recent death to Lawrence Sail, I suggested that the word 'convivial' might have been invented with him in mind. Yes, Lawrence said, 'those increasingly unsteady and ultimately slumbrous sessions of jazz, booze, good food and chat about poetry!' I suspect that this is how many will recall hours spent in Harry's company. Born in 1937 in the small mining town of Eastwood, D.H. Lawrence's birthplace, there was something of the broad acres about him, a bucolic joviality that called to mind Dickens's John Brodie or T.E. Hulme's 'ruddy moon lean[ing] over a hedge / Like a red-faced farmer', an allusion that might not have displeased him, given that he retained from his schooldays a fondness for French Symbolist poetry, and in later life would often recite whole poems of his favourites, Rimbaud and Verlaine.
But Larkin was his hero. The compilation Larkin at Sixty, published under the Peterloo imprint, remains an important document for all students of Larkin (and those of us who admire Charles Causley will also be grateful for Harry's equally useful compilation Causley at Seventy). He shared Larkin's passion for jazz of the early period and, like Larkin, had no great interest in modernism of any sort; but his literary sympathies were mainstream, broad rather than narrow. He began his publishing ventures - career would be quite the wrong word - when he was a young lecturer at a college of FE in Belfast, where he became aware of the early work of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, samples of whose poems he published as Phoenix Pamphlets. Peterloo Poets began life when he moved to Manchester, and from there it migrated in the late 1970s to Cornwall, where Harry, having taken very early retirement, moved into an old farmhouse in Liskeard with his second wife, Lynn, and their daughter, Hannah. By the time the press came to an end, after some thirty-seven years, Harry had published getting on for 250 books. These included all the work of U.A. Fanthorpe, whose first collection Harry published when she was 50, and who, despite increasing fame and the inevitable offers from larger houses, remained loyal to her first publisher. Among many other poets of genuine distinction the press took up was William Scammell, who shared Harry's love of tennis, and with whom Harry spent an ecstatic day trawling through the photographic archives at Wimbledon in preparation for Bill's The Game: Tennis Poems. Harry also took great pleasure in publishing John Whitworth's Sex and Tennis and Death.
But then it's fair to say that he took pleasure in the work of all the poets he published, and equal pleasure in ensuring that each collection was well printed and encased within attractive covers, and it must have been a great sadness to him when in 2009 he was forced to wind up the press. Never much of a businessman, Harry seemed to work his way through grants with the gusto he displayed in consuming good food and drink, and after his wife's death in 2000 the overheads on the converted chapel they acquired in 1996 in Calstock, a village on the Cornish side of the Tamar to which they had moved some years earlier, and which served as the press's headquarters, became increasingly difficult to manage. An MBE awarded to him in 2010, 'for services to poetry', no doubt softened the blow of leaving Calstock, and in York, where he moved to be near his sister, he soon located good local pubs, restaurants, and jazz clubs, slowed but never daunted by increasing problems with mobility. Last year he made his way on crutches to Hull for the launch of Maurice Rutherford's And Saturday is Christmas: New and Selected Poems (Shoestring Press), determined to help celebrate the work of a poet first published by Peterloo. We agreed to meet in a pub where in earlier times he had supped beer with Larkin. Harry was appalled to discover that it had been turned into a ghastly 'vertical' drinking joint: fake leather, canned music and fruit machines. 'Thank God for the "Blue Bell",' he said, naming his favourite pub in York. Thank God for Harry, many of us must now be feeling.
This item is taken from PN Review 208, Volume 39 Number 2, November - December 2012.