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This item is taken from PN Review 216, Volume 40 Number 4, March - April 2014.News & Notes
On 13 January sinéad morrissey , a valued contributor to PN Review since 1994 and since 2013 Belfast’s inaugural poet laureate, was awarded the T.S. Eliot Prize for her latest Carcanet collection, Parallax. Ian Duhig, chair of the judging panel, said: ‘Politically, historically and personally ambitious, expressed in beautifully turned language, her book is as many-angled and any-angled as its title suggests.’ Her first PN Review poem, 118 issues ago, was ‘Wish’:
I’ll stand you by the Mourne Wall
And it will be Easter. Sheep and mist
And a wind that would blow you to
I hang on your every word
But the wind is too greedy, and as
curious as I am.
I have to catch them in flight before they cartwheel down the valley
‘Jesus’ ‘Cold’ ‘Viking’ ‘Afterworld’
And I would become a tent for all the winds of this gully
To keep them off you. Then, blown huge but still
In range, I would hear again your vision of hills.
22 April 2014 marks the centenary of the birth of c.h. sisson , a founding and formative editor of PN Review and one of its key contributors until 1997. In PN Review 217 we will publish a celebration and reappraisal of his writing by younger poets and critics, compiled by Henry King. A C.H. Sisson Reader edited by Charlie Louth and Patrick McGuinness will appear from Carcanet in the autumn.
The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry has been awarded to douglas dunn , who has come a long way from Terry Street and Hull to this eminence which at one time might have been politically obnoxious to him. Professor Dunn (Emeritus, St Andrews) continues to be presented as a protégé of Philip Larkin, though in four decades he has vigorously followed his own lights. Carol Ann Duffy with a characteristic rhetorical sweep spoke of his ‘sparkling, erudite and distinguished body of work’ as ‘one of the grace notes of British poetry’. She went further: ‘He stands deservedly among the greatest poets that Scotland has produced.’ The Queen will present the medal this year, before the Referendum.
The 73-year-old jazz composer and pianist herbie hancock has been named the 2014 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. He will lecture on ‘The Wisdom of Miles Davis’, ‘Buddhism and Creativity’, ‘Innovation and New Technologies’ and other themes during his two-month tenure of this distinguished chair. He has been a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism for much of his adult life. The chair often goes to a critic or poet (Gilbert Murray set the ball rolling; his poetic successors include Eliot [‘The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism’], Frost, cummings [‘six non-lectures’], Muir, Borges, Paz, Miłosz [‘The Witness of Poetry’], and Ashbery [‘Other Traditions’]). International figures in other disciplines have also contributed. Earlier musicians including Stravinsky (1939–40), Bernstein (1972) and Cage (1988–89) have occupied the chair. It is here that Lionel Trilling developed ‘Sincerity and Authenticity’ and Italo Calvino delivered his final work, ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium’.
The painter and friend of poets jane freilicher presented her first solo exhibition in Chicago, appropriately at the spectacular and still new-feeling Poetry Foundation. The exhibition is entitled ‘Painter Among Poets’. A portfolio of her work was included in the January 2014 issue of Poetry magazine. Freilicher was a central figure among the New York poets in the 1950s and 1960s, especially close to John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler. The exhibition includes her celebrated landscapes, cityscapes, interiors and still lifes, works on paper, and a selection of original letters, book covers and photographs. When abstract expressionism was all the rage, Freilicher went her own way, a way of realism at once brisk and out-turned. ‘My poet friends didn’t influence me directly with their work,’ she declared. ‘There’s a sympathetic vibration, a natural syntax – a lack of pomposity or heavy symbolism – and something to do with intimism, an intimate kind of expression.’ According to Kenneth Koch, his friend James Schuyler ‘passed one test for being a poet of the New York School by almost instantly going crazy for Jane Freilicher and all her works’. For more information visit www.poetryfoundation.org/programs.exhibits.
In Istanbul in January the trial of guill-aume apollinaire , or rather of his publisher and translator, for corrupting public morals was suspended. The offending book, The Exploits of a Young Don Juan, is only the latest in a series of trials that test freedom of expression in a country not infrequently under scrutiny for its conduct in the area of human rights. The court suspended the trial of publisher Irfan Sanci and translator Ismail Yerguz for three years, due to a technicality in the Turkish penal code. The defendants and their lawyers were hoping for a full acquittal, not just a suspension of legal hostilities. ‘They tell us not to commit a crime for three years. For them, publishing a book is a crime,’ the lawyer for the publisher declared. ‘We might go to the European Court of Human Rights.’ Sanci vowed to continue publishing the book, though ‘this decision is like the Sword of Damocles over my head’. In 2009 a local court in Istanbul filed a complaint over the book’s ‘obscene content’. It evokes the sexual awakening of a 15-year-old boy. In the end the argument was about ‘literary value’.
In Canada a curious debate is going on in the poetry world and on the web. On the one hand, angry poets declare, the main book-reviewing journals review too few books of poetry by women. On the other, a bad review of a book by a woman is considered by some to be the equivalent to a physical assault. Not only are more reviews needed: they need to be anodyne as well. ‘Does book reviewing have a future?’ Barbara Julian asked in a careful intervention on 19 December 2013. Does the informed and witty hatchet job have a future? Yes, and no; or rather, no, and yes.
The poet and editor sebastian barker died on the morning of 31 January, due to cardiac arrest. After his own poetry, he will be remembered as the editor who brought the London Magazine back to poetic life and helped shape and commemorate a number of unusual and unconventional literary careers – hardly surprising, given that his parents were George Barker and Elizabeth Smart. His last few weeks were, in a sense, idyllic. Two days before his death, at Trinity College, Cambridge, the poems from his new book The Land of Gold (which includes ‘Peruvian Gold’, published in PNR 215) were read by him, his wife, the poet Hilary Davies, Clive Wilmer and Richard Berengarten, before his friends, fans and family. On Thursday Hilary took him to his childhood home near Great Dunmow, the site of the great Cistercian abbey of Tilty, subject of one of his best poems. This was obviously a moving experience: he asked to be buried there. Death, coming as and when it did, appeared in retrospect to be ‘an act of grace’. He had achieved, and seen acknowledged, what he had set out to do. In George Chapman’s words, ‘The work that I was born to do, is done.’
In January josé pacheco (b. 1939), Mexico’s best-loved contemporary poet, story-teller, critic and novelist, a writer deeply indebted to the novelist Juan Rulfo and more obliquely to Octavio Paz, died. Carrying too large an armful of books, he took a fatal plunge down a flight of stairs. He had been at the centre of Mexican and Latin American letters for five decades and achieved every accolade including the greatest, the Premio Cervantes. As a writer, the deep melancholy of his early work, in which he wore the mask of age as decisively as ever Tennyson did, gave way to a spirit more in love with the pleasures of the world and the word. The epigraph to The Pleasure Principle (1972, a collection of stories dedicated to Rulfo) was taken from the fifteenth-century ‘Elegy for the loss of Cordoba and Valencia’ by Abul Beka: ‘In every mountain range / the one thing that won’t change / is change. / Whatever’s pleasure now / is bitterness tomorrow, / and sorrow.’ Earlier books drew on the book of Job, and the priest of Ecclesiastes had a glum acolyte in this melodious melancholic. His longish life brought him into contact with four important generations of Mexican writers, with four phases in the evolution of Mexican politics, art and criticism. He represents a different tradition from Paz, finding sufficiency in the rich culture around him and not requiring the wide travel and exposure of his elder, though he was a fine translator of the classics, of Eliot’s Four Quartets and other suggestive and extending texts. In his obituary notice the Mexican critic Enrique Krauze remembers how Pacheco invented a dialogue with his friend and contemporary Alfonso Reyes. He addresses him as follows: ‘Your whole oeuvre is journalism, doubtless authoritative and of the highest literary quality, but journalism nonetheless.’ Reyes replies, ‘I democratized as far as I could the wisdom of the few… What’s more, Pepe, virtually all literature in Spanish of our time is journalism: Ortega, Unamuno, Azorín… You too were a great journalist.’ From an early age he wrote brilliant, clear, accurate expository essays on a host of subjects and, as Krauze notes, ‘the best contemporary critics educated themselves by means of them’ – not only in their content but, crucially, in their style. For almost forty years, in the magazine Proceso, week in, week out, he took us with him through the literatures of the world.
The Russian poet regina derieva died in December, just two months short of her sixty-fifth birthday. Arc published a generous selection of her more recent work made by Daniel Weissbort, The Sum Total of Violations. She was born in Odessa and until 1990 lived and worked in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. She studied music and Russian philology and literature at university. Her poetry was censored in the Soviet Union and she was under the KGB’s surveillance, achieving publication and readership only after glasnost. Brodsky urged her to go West. She published twenty books of poems and essays, a two-volume edition of poetry and prose appearing in St Petersburg in 2006. She translated the poetry of contemporary American, British, Polish, and Swedish poets into Russian.
andré schiffrin , a radical force in American cultural publishing in the widest sense, and the founder of the not-for-profit New Press, has died at the age of 78. For half a century he was a Jeremiah, loud and louder against the multinational publishing conglomerates which were gathering strength and influence as the units of publishing and bookselling became more monolithic and homogeneous, and a Moses for certain kinds of authors, leading them out of captivity, if not into material prosperity. Books were a serious business, translation was crucial to the health of a culture, and the price of books mattered. His father was a noted French publisher (a Russian émigré, founder of La Bibliothèque de la Pléiade) who escaped the Nazis so that André grew up in a New York literary world that was and remained socialist. He studied at Yale and then at Clare College, Cambridge, where he was the first American editor of Granta. I first knew him as the managing director of Pantheon Books, where he opened his amazing library of publications to a young British publisher with whom he hoped to collaborate. He published Sartre, Grass, Studs Terkel, Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Chomsky, Cortázar, Duras and many others. After almost three decades at Pantheon he was fired after a dispute over the losses he was making (he cannot have been easy to manage from above, though from below he was always the most benign and accessible of men). He did not go quietly, and several colleagues went with him. In 1992, with Diane Wachtell, he founded the New Press, a publisher of books ‘in the public interest’. His abiding, instructive, coat-trailing book is his memoir, The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (2000), still instructive if not entirely dependable. Incidentally, his first bestseller was The Tin Drum.
valentina polukhina , the Russian translator and the widow of Daniel Weissbort, is to be presented with the A.C. Benson medal by the Council of the Royal Society of Literature ‘in recognition of the enormous contribution you have made to contemporary poetry in Russia and the UK, and the relations between poets in both countries’. The Benson medal was established in 1916 by A.C. Benson, and is awarded irregularly to those whom the Society feels have given many years of outstanding service to English literature. It is an honour she deserves for her tireless work on the translation and interpretation of the work of Joseph Brodsky and of many contemporary Russian writers.
Forty-one years ago maxine kumin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Up Country (1973). In February, at the age of 88, she died. Her death elicited expressions of affection and indebtedness from poets of the generations after hers. She stood up for women’s writing when it seemed to matter and was always politically alert. She knew that sometimes the Muse was on sabbatical, but in her case not often. She published almost fifty books in her more than seven decades of writing: poetry first but also fiction, children’s stories and essays. Her close friendship with Anne Sexton, whose suicide in 1974 haunted Kumin for the rest of her days, is a matter of record.
Years pass, as they say in story books.
It is true that I dream of you less.
Still, when the phone rings in my sleep
and I answer, a dream-cigarette in my hand,
it is always the same.
Donald Hall described her poems as ‘very clean. They don’t get soupy. They’re sharp. They’re hard-edged. They’re looking outward toward the world.’ A last collection of her poems, And Short the Season, will be published by Norton later this year.
In January amiri baraka (Everett Leroi Jones), playwright and poet, died at the age of 79. At one time he was a force for liberal reform, at another a radical described by the FBI as ‘the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the pan-African movement in the United States’. Bagpipes, African drums and jazz riffs blended at his funeral at Newark Symphony Hall. Poetry was read, and there were politically inflected tributes. The 1960s were alive and well, the readers employing Baraka’s own ‘fist-shaking tone’. ‘Great spirits do not die, they are energy…agitating our bones to move’, Tony Medina declaimed. Actor Danny Glover officiated at the service with producer-director Woodie King. Baraka helped found the Black Arts Movement in 1965 and left a legacy of community activism in Newark and elsewhere. Tap dancer Savion Glover performed while the poet Sonia Sanchez read a poem by Maya Angelou, a tribute to Baraka. He was New Jersey’s poet laureate in 2002, but his 9/11 poem ‘Somebody Blew Up America’ led to the post being abolished. Baraka wrote essays and made statements that were virulently homophobic and anti-Semitic. Early on he was drawn to the Beats, to Ginsberg and Kerouac, for the change they seemed to promise, but then rejected their model. ‘We want poems that kill’, he wrote in his Black Art manifesto published in 1965, the year he helped found the Black Arts Movement. ‘Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns / Poems that wrestle cops into alleys / and take their weapons leaving them dead / with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland’. Extreme statements are on record, along with his dedicated activity in the civil rights movement. In this he resembled another New Jersey writer, Walt Whitman, who was happy to contradict himself, indeed made a virtue of it. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, another voice from the past, spoke at a wake for Baraka, calling him ‘a curious, creative activist and change agent who never stopped fighting or working for the formula to create social justice’. His durable legacy is his insistence on the spoken word, the oral traditions that survive in urban communities, their expression in rap, hip-hop and slam. ‘All of the oaths I swore were sincere reflections of what I felt – what I thought I knew and understood,’ he said in 1990. ‘But those beliefs change, and the work shows this, too.’
The village of Adlestrop, which edward thomas so memorably remembers in his eponymous poem, is running a poetry competition in association with Cotswold Life ‘to find the best poem which sums up the spirit of the original Edward Thomas verse’. This is the centenary of the poet’s train journey from London to Herefordshire. A station seat and name board survive, relocated to a bus stop. Of the station no vestige remains. The prize of £400 for the winning poem will be announced by the judge, P.J. Kavanagh, on 24 June at Adlestrop Village Hall. Fees from the entries will benefit Adlestrop’s historic Parish Church which needs urgent repairs. For full conditions visit www.adlestroppoem.wordpress.com.
This item is taken from PN Review 216, Volume 40 Number 4, March - April 2014.