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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 218, Volume 40 Number 6, July - August 2014.

News & Notes
In May Le Monde reported that ziad medoukh, director of the French Department at the Al Aksa University in Gaza, Palestine, a French-language poet and writer who was awarded the 2014 Europoésie prize and the main French prize, and who was supposed to receive the award in Paris on 10 May, was unable to travel due to Israel’s closure of the borders, despite the efforts of the French consulate in Jerusalem. Medoukh is not alone: the seven-year blockade has turned Gaza into a ‘prison à ciel ouvert’.


It is a season of back-slapping and awards. In April the Poetry Society of America presented the 87-year-old American poet gerald stern with the Robert Frost Medal, its highest award. In May the Poetry Foundation announced that the 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which recognises the outstanding lifetime achievement of a living US poet, was awarded to nathaniel mackey, a relative youngster, born in 1947; and the Foundation’s first annual Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism, for book-length works of criticism, went to University of California Press for two books in their Collected Writings of Robert Duncan series: Robert Duncan: The Collected Later Poems and Plays, edited by Peter Quartermain, and Robert Duncan: Collected Essays and Other Prose, edited by James Maynard, which will be reviewed in the next issue of PNR by Aram Saroyan. Poetry editor Don Share, binding the two awards in a neat bow, said of Mackey’s poetry that it ‘continues an American bardic line that unfolds from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to H.D.’s Trilogy to Olson’s Maximus poems, winds through the whole of Robert Duncan’s work and extends beyond all of these. In his poems, but also in his genre-defying serial novel (which has no beginning or end) and in his multifaceted critical writing, Mackey’s words always go where music goes: a brilliant and major accomplishment.’ Also in May, the National Arts Club’s Medal of Honor for Literary Achievement was awarded to john ashbery, whose two-volume Collected French Translations was published by Carcanet (in the UK) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux (in the US) earlier this year. ‘I was thrilled to be asked to celebrate John Ashbery,’ stated Robert Polito, President of the Poetry Foundation. ‘His work eludes all the usual aesthetic categories, and at age 86 he remains so skilled at self-transformation that he still writes like he’s the new kid on the block.’


The Malaga poet maría victoria atencia was awarded the XXIII Queen Sofia poetry prize (2014) by the busy and benign, now dowager Spanish queen herself, fresh from awarding the tennis cup at the Madrid Open. Atencia is the first Spanish poet and only the fourth woman (after the Cuban Fina García Marruz in 2011, the Peruvian Blanca Varela in 2007 and the Portuguese Sophia de Mello in 2003) to have received the award, presented at the University of Salamanca. The jury spoke, in jury-speak, of her work’s dialogue with tradition and her ability to transform the commonplace into the transcendent.


After winning, last year, the National Prize of Cuba for her poetry and fiction, this year reina maría rodríguez was awarded the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. She is the third Cuban writer to receive the award, announced from Neruda’s house, now a museum, La Chascona, where the international jury held its deliberations. Her citation sounds remarkably like that of María Victoria Atencia. Award citations attract big abstractions as windfalls attract wasps.


At the risk of waspishness, we quote from the PN Review online news-page the following report: ‘The 2014 International and Canadian shortlists for the Griffin Poetry Prize have been announced. They include American Brenda Hillman (wife of Griffin Trust Trustee Robert Hass), American Carl Phillips (Griffin Poetry Prize judge 2010), and sometime-Canadian Anne Carson (shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2001, judge alongside Phillips in 2010). Judges Robert Bringhurst (Canada), Jo Shapcott (UK) and C.D. Wright (USA) each somehow read 539 books of poetry, from 40 countries, including 24 translations, seemingly between the annual deadline for submission to the prize (31 December) and the 8 April press release: approximately five and a half books per day. Winning poets in each category will receive CA$65,000, plus CA$10,000 will be awarded to each shortlisted poet, conditional upon said poet attending and participating in the annual readings event, which will take place in Toronto on Wednesday 4 June.’

In the interests of fairness, we added, ‘According to the Griffin website, prize founder and entrepreneur Scott Griffin, owner of the House of Anansi Press – which has over fourteen years produced eight shortlisted books and three winners – no longer takes part in the selection of judges: “To preserve the integrity of the Griffin Poetry Prize.” Griffin Trust Trustee Robin Robertson may not own Jonathan Cape Ltd, but he is poetry editor and has published books by both Bringhurst and Carson (including the UK edition of her shortlisted book, Red Doc). We await further connections between the trust, the judges, the poets, and their publishers with anxious optimism.’

The wait is over. The Canadian award has gone to Anne Carson, the international prize to Brenda Hillman. ‘One of the criticisms of the Griffin Prize in recent years,’ an interviewer suggested to Carl Phillips, ‘has been what’s seen as a certain coziness: judges becoming nominees, nominees being connected to trustees, etc. You yourself, obviously, have served as judge, and are now nominated for the prize. Are such overlaps inevitable within the relatively small world of poetry? Or do they concern you?’ Phillips responded: ‘I do believe these overlaps are inevitable. It’s hard, for example, to be named to a panel of judges and not know some of them, because it is precisely because of their prominence that they have been asked to judge something. Actors tend to know each other, as do sports figures – I think that comes with any field. The only thing worth being concerned about is if there is clearly nepotism, insider dealings, etc. Familiarity with others in one’s profession doesn’t have to mean a compromise of integrity.’


The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry has been awarded to the Bangalore-born poet vijay seshadri, whose parents took him to the United States when he was five. 3 sections, his most recent book of poems, was recognised as a ‘compelling collection […] that examines human consciousness, from birth to dementia, in a voice that is by turns witty and grave, compassionate and remorseless’. Seshadri used to work at the New Yorker and now teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence in Yonkers, New York. No stranger to prizes, he has been a familiar figure in American poetry for two and a half decades. The New Yorker described him rather implausibly as ‘a son of Frost by way of Ashbery’. He did have the good fortune of knowing and being mentored by Richard Howard. He makes poetry ‘out of the commonplace, a phrase that sounds clean, uncluttered, and suggests a whole complicated experience’.


The Jamaican poet mervyn morris O.M. has been named the new Jamaican poet laureate for the next three years. He is the first Jamaican laureate for half a century. His Selected Poems, I been there, sort of, was published by Carcanet in 2006. Morris has a mission: to ‘promote reading and Jamaican literature, with an emphasis on poetry, to undertake public poetry events to stimulate a greater appreciation for Jamaican poetry, promote poetry as an art and medium for entertainment and for recording and disseminating cultural heritage, and generally celebrate and propel Jamaican poetry to new heights’.


jürgen becker, now over eighty, has been awarded the 2014 Georg-Büchner Preis, the most coveted German-language literary award. An eclectic writer on the fringes of contemporary German writing, Becker said he was agreeably surprised to receive the honour. General response was surprised, but not altogether agreeably. Becker, a modernist in the 1960s and 1970s, wrote ‘prose texts’, narratives, radio pieces, and later long prose poems, and book-long poems with ellipses at start and finish, slices as it were, incorporating political observation and comment. He is in the Enzensberger zone, but without Enzensberger’s generous wit. His work has little to do with Büchner in spirit. It has been suggested that this year’s choice was deliberately uncontroversial after recent, riskier choices, but to be uncontroversial proved controversial. He is not in the class of Herta Müller or Durs Grünbein, two much younger writers chosen in recent years. On the other hand, he is not Sibylle Lewitscharoff, whose hectic views on sex, masturbation, artificial insemination and surrogacy have been much in the news, and whose voice was described in the Guardian as ‘the decadent moaning of a powdered intelligentsia’, or Martin Mosebach, whose Catholicism was expressed in a call for the revival of the blasphemy laws. Becker’s prize pedigree began with the Peter Huchel Prize in 1994, followed by the Uwe Johnson (2001), Hermann Lenz (2006) and Günter Eich (2013) prizes.


For the first time in its history, Yale University will have a Professor of Poetry. To commemorate his graduating class’s fortieth reunion, CI Capital Partners founder and CEO frederick iseman has given three million dollars to endow a namesake professorship devoted to the teaching of poetry. Iseman said, ‘I wanted to put a stake in the ground to show support for the humanities at Yale.’ The Professor will teach poetry from any literary period, covering works that were written in any of eight languages, including English, Latin and Ancient Greek. Candidates may be poets or poetry scholars.

Romanian-born poet nina cassian, who exiled herself to the United States in the 1980s after writing poems satirical of the Ceauşescu regime, and who (like Brodsky) ended up writing poetry in English, died in April. She was eighty-nine. She published children’s books, film criticism and as many as fifty books of poetry, the first in 1947. Her translation into Romanian of ‘Jabberwocky’ was her ‘party piece’. Her work was also published in the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly. She translated into Romanian work by Shakespeare, Brecht, Yannis Ritsos and Paul Celan. Her poem ‘Purity’ celebrates an achieved epiphany: ‘Amazing solitude. / Only me and my cigarette, / and this tiny dragonfly / painted in Moldavian monastery blue.’ It concludes, ‘And I am clean, / like the poem I’m writing.’


The much-loved and immensely prolific poet maya angelou died on 28 May at the age of eighty-eight. Her memoirs run to almost 1200 pages in the Modern Library single volume reissue, a book which, in a moving tribute to the poet, Elizabeth Alexander, herself a poet and professor at Yale, could not put down. ‘She was a girl who was raped and did not speak for years after, so cognizant was she of the power of words as to believe they could actually make things happen. And so, with words, she rendered not only her own life visible but also nothing short of a history of black social movements in the second half of the twentieth century and the participation of a woman, and women, who helped make it happen, against a million odds.’ It was with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that she found her readership, and she retained it through a varied and memorable series of later publications and in particular her memorable public recitations. She prepared a way, Alexander says, for ‘the boom in black women’s writing, and the success of writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor and Toni Cade Bambara, among many others’. She wrote for recitation, ‘in the old-fashioned sense of recitation in black churches and schools and around kitchen tables […] it was understood that poetry emerged from the body and needed to make sense in the open mouth, as song’.


In an interview in PN Review in 1991, Czesław Miłosz spoke of the Polish poet and anti-poet tadeusz rozewicz as an influence to be acknowledged and resisted. ‘I respect Rozewicz very much, but he belongs to what Polish critics defined as a generation of “the contaminated by death”. I guess I have been trying to overcome despair and, for that reason, I am not very pleased when critics try to keep me in that phase of my literary work.’ Rozewicz died in April at the age of ninety-three, having outlived Miłosz himself, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska and other figures in the dazzling twentieth-century galaxy of Polish poets. He was from the ‘first generation’ and survived to see three generations emerge, along with the new Poland, the new Europe. He also, unlike his poet brother Janusz who worked with him in the Polish underground Home Army and was executed by the Gestapo in 1944, survived the Second World War. He was first recognised as a poet, then as an innovative playwright and screen-writer. His New Poems in translation was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008. A perennial Nobel nominee, he was an unsettler of genres and introduced the absurd and the grotesque into his stage and poetic work. His dramatic characters, Liberation declared, are ‘bereft of stable identity, convinced of the death of God and the paltriness of man’. In PNR 26 (1982) Adam Czerniawski translated three of his poems, one about his brother’s death, another about the process of writing a poem, conscious of ‘waspish critics who pass / through this room / read the manuscript / of the unfinished / poem / with distaste’.


John Lucas writes: John Hartley Williams was a poet of remarkable range and inventive energy. Born in 1942, he was a student at Nottingham University in the early 1960s, but had little sympathy for the prevailing modes of that decade. Perhaps for this reason, his first full collection, Hidden Identities, did not emerge until he was 40, by which time he was living and teaching in Berlin, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. Five years later, in 1987, came Bright River Yonder. A PBS Recommendation, the collection showed him to be a poet whose major influences were not so much English as continental European and American. Baudelaire and Rimbaud (of whose ‘Bateau Ivre’ he made a daringly adventurous translation), Breton, Aragorn, Sorescu (whom he also translated), Enzensberger and Ed Dorn were among a wide range of poets he valued.

As for English poets, it was the nay-sayers he especially cherished: Byron the satirist, Clough, Louis MacNeice, half-forgotten figures such as Nicholas Moore and Rosemary Tonks, and, among contemporaries, Ken Smith and Matthew Sweeney. He admired them for their formal adventurousness and sheer unpredictability. These were the qualities which made poets worthwhile, as they did the jazz musicians he loved: Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Eric Dolphy. But he also bowed the knee to Louis Armstrong, the great genius of the early period of jazz, whose prodigious skills as well as exuberant creativity exemplified for Williams what art should aspire to.

Canada, which appeared in 1997, and which earned him the first of his two shortlistings for the T.S. Eliot Award (it was also a PBS Choice), is really three books in one, ranging from narrative poems and unrhymed sonnets through to prose poetry, and including a good deal of (edited) automatic writing. Williams was a master of the prose poem who could and did write immaculately crafted sestinas, and the formal variety of Canada is to be found in most of his fifteen collections of poetry. He was well-suited to co-author with Sweeney the handbook Teach Yourself Poetry, first published in 1996, and now in its third edition. He and Sweeney further combined on a ripely comic spoof crime novel, Death Comes for the Poets (2012), in which a number of contemporary poets meet what might be called condign ends. The fun of guessing the originals is sharpened by the cod anthology at the novel’s close.

In mid-April, three weeks before his death, he came to London for the launch of The Golden Age of Smoking, his last collection. A collection of his short fiction will be published early next year.


Richard Swigg reminds PN Review readers that all the poems Charles Tomlinson recorded at Keele – every poem in the volumes from The Necklace to The Vineyard Above the Sea, together with his three separately recorded readings of selections with commentary, his conversations with Paz and Hugh Kenner, and a video of a reading – are now freely available online from the University of Pennsylvania site, PennSound (http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Tomlinson.php). Jacket 2, the online magazine, has simultaneously published the letters of Tomlinson and George Oppen, 1963–81, under the title ‘Addressing One’s Peers’ (http://jacket2.org/feature/addressing-ones-peers).


Black Huts III, ‘A Festival of Writing, Music & Film’, will take place in Hastings Old Town between 29 October and 2 November. Participants will include Timothy Neat, Nicholas Johnson, Helen Macdonald, Patrick McGuinness, Susan de Muth, Peter Manson, Tom Leonard and Tom Pickard. For information contact atetruscan@aol.com.

This item is taken from PN Review 218, Volume 40 Number 6, July - August 2014.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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