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This item is taken from PN Review 222, Volume 41 Number 4, March - April 2015.

News & Notes
The Nicaraguan poet, priest and revolutionary ERNESTO CARDENAL celebrated his ninetieth birthday in January. His later poetry abounds in scientific material: the language of science complements scripture and is a form of revelation and praise, bringing the believer as prayer does ‘close to the creator’. To mark his birthday a selected poems entitled Ninety at Ninety has been published. Cardenal took part in the Sandinista struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, starting in the 1950s. His cause triumphed, but soon he distanced itself from the new order, as from the Catholic church where his liberationist stance was not approved by John Paul II or Benedict XVI with their conservative reformulations. He gives public readings, one recently in the great palace of Bellas Artes in Mexico City where the audience acclaimed the diminutive presence in the great performance space. He wore his now familiar long poncho, not the white cassock of his early priesthood, and his trademark black beret. Just over three decades earlier, kneeling on the tarmac in Managua to receive Pope John Paul II, he was not blessed: the pontiff aimed a furious index finger at him, the gesture caught in a photograph. He was denied the right to celebrate the sacraments. He spends his days among science books and admirers.

IMTIAZ DHARKER was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2015, the first woman of Asian origin to be so honoured. Born in Pakistan, she moved with her family to Glasgow when she was a child and grew up there. ‘Then she eloped with a Hindu,’ her publisher Neil Astley recounted, ‘and went to India, whereupon her family disowned her.’ A second marriage brought her back to Britain. Her second husband, Simon Powell, who died in 2009, organised the Poetry Live! programme which brought live poetry events including readings by Carol Ann Duffy, Gillian Clarke, Simon Armitage, John Agard, Grace Nichols, Jackie Kay, Daljit Nagra and Dharker herself to thousands of GCSE students around the country.

The 2014 Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award was presented to University College Cork librarian JOHN FITZERALD. Fitzgerald, previously unpublished, was a surprised as well as a surprise choice. ‘I wasn’t into publishing anything, mainly because I did not think it was up to standard.’ His first collection of poems, Leaving My Husband, has been shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award 2015.

When the International Poetry Prize Ramon Ivan Suarez Caamal, the chief poetry prize in the state of Campeche, Mexico, was awarded this year, scandal ensued. In the past the award has gone to poets from all over the Republic, though no actual international poets have prospered. But for the last two years, when the prize has been under the aegis of Carlos Vidal Angles of the Cultural Secretariat of the town council of Calkini, where the prize is awarded, the award has gone exclusively to writers from the state of Campeche, close friends of the reduced jury. This, the newspaper El Campechano affirms, proves a conspiracy by a cabal. The old selection method, which entailed a larger, more diverse and dispersed jury, had been wrongly discarded. ‘As a citizen of Calkini I raise my voice in protest against this highway robbery committed by those traders of literature,’ said writer and historian Carlos Fernández Canul.

On 14 January MICHAEL CAINES posted a Times Literary Supplement blog in which he seemed to smell a rat, or a mouse – something rodenty – in the award of this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize to DAVID HARSENT for his collection Fire Songs. It was fifty years since Eliot’s death and this was the fifth time Harsent had been shortlisted. The three judges were Helen Dunmore (chair), Sean Borodale and Fiona Sampson. Fire Songs triumphed over 112 other books because of its ‘technical brilliance and prophetic power’ – Caines asked parenthetically ‘(how can they be sure about that latter quality, I wonder?)’. Caines rightly stresses that the stakes are not small. There is the prize money of £20,000, up £5000 on last year, and, in the longer term, publicity and celebrity of a bankable kind. Harsent’s previous major award, of the Griffin Prize, had a larger purse (C$65,000), 481 entries from 37 countries, and only two judges, one of whom was Fiona Sampson. ‘Who says lightning – or good fortune – doesn’t strike twice, even in dark and dangerous days?’ Caines asks. He sets out to join up dots in which ‘interested readers’ may infer a shape. Harsent has been since 2013 a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton. One of the judges praised his book in August of last year, commencing her encomium with a treacherous adverb which is then repeated: ‘Truly significant poets continue to challenge their readers from book to book. Some – like W.B. Yeats, Czesław Miłosz and even R.S. Thomas – go on to have “late great” flowerings. David Harsent may not be at the “late” stage yet [at 72 he may be, the editor interpolates], but with every book his stature as a truly significant writer becomes more undeniable.’ In 2011 the same judge-reviewer, in the same paper, began her piece on Harsent’s Night with the words, ‘Truly significant poets write like no one else, and David Harsent is both sui generis and unsurpassed.’ The TLS notes in the echo the ‘unfortunate ring of the circular or self-fulfilling, as in: likely to win big prizes.’ Sansom had ‘used the same paper as a vehicle for praise of that earlier Harsent collection, Legion, and his translations of Yannis Ritsos, so is nothing if not consistent in her views.’ One-time editor of Poetry Review, she ‘has herself been praised as “sui generis” by none other than David Harsent’ and has since 2013 been Professor of Poetry at the University of Roehampton. But we were reassured by the Poetry Book Society who organise the award that the final decision of the judges was ‘clear and unambiguous’ (if not unanimous). Jeremy Noel-Tod noted Samson’s ‘clearly very sincere’ admiration for Harsent. ‘Having reviewed his latest book, Fire Songs, warmly in the Independent she also made it one of her Books of the Year in the same newspaper.’ He added, invoking Eliot, ‘it is part of the business of the critic […] to see literature steadily and to see it whole’. He noted ‘a danger of becoming so impassioned in advocacy of a particular cause that it loses the authority of objectivity, or even has an inverse effect – just as we sometimes fail to read the book that a friend insists we borrow’.

Australia’s first Professor of Poetry and Poetics, appointed in 2011, BARRY SPURR has resigned from the chair at Sydney University after a series of remarks in emails were brought to light by the website New Matilda. In these messages women were described as ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’, Tony Abbott as an ‘Abo-lover’ and Aboriginal people as ‘human rubbish tips’. Professor Spurr is a Sydney- and Oxford-educated academic, adviser to the government on curriculum issues, and an expert on T.S. Eliot, about whom he wrote Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Eliot and Christianity. He was the longest-serving member of the Department of English (appointed in 1976) and was a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators. He has written on Donne, Milton, and on the Virgin Mary. He wrote a popular book on Studying Poetry. Lytton Strachey’s prose attracted him quite as much as liturgical language. His emails, he said, were nothing but ‘linguistic play’, and that he was competing with a colleague in political incorrectness of expression. The emails, written over two years, called Nelson Mandela a ‘darky’, the university’s female chancellor ‘an appalling minx’, and the ‘modern Brit’ was ‘the scum of the earth’. The emails were sent from his university email address. Chris Graham, New Matilda editor, ‘couldn’t give much of a bugger’ about the Professor’s resignation. ‘Can you imagine how a female student, an Asian student, a Muslim student or, God forbid, an Aboriginal student might feel sitting in a lecture theatre listening to Professor Spurr wax lyrical about the power of Judeo-Christian literature?’

YITZHAK LAOR was awarded the Landau Prize for Poetry, one of Israel’s major poetry awards. The board of the Landau Foundation has decided to recall the prize, following public protests that relate to unproven allegations of sexual assaults on women, and for his political views. One member of the selection committee resigned when Laor was chosen, and the panel disbanded. More controversially, perhaps, the award was challenged by the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel which objected to ‘Laor’s radical left-wing views’. The poet contributes opinion pieces regularly at Haaretz. Apart from the one member who resigned, the selection committee stood by its decision, which was based, it declared, on the quality of the poetry itself, the stipulated and sole criterion.

ERIC KORN, a close friend of though not a contributor to PN Review in its early years, a microcosmographer, the natural heir of Sir Thomas Browne, of Earle and Overbury, the Encyclopedists and other broadly, deeply and generously informed men, has died. A contemporary of Oliver Sacks and Jonathan Miller at St Paul’s School, he was best-known as a permanent contestant (with Irene Thomas, as elegant and gracious as he was gruff) in Round Britain Quiz, where he would sometimes hold up the answers to his opponents to give them a fighting chance. Even though they had the answers, they did not know how to arrive at them and his generosity was a little taunting. National Service at the Joint Services School for Linguists saw him learning Russian alongside Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn. His Bibliophile column in the Guardian was informative and wild-witted; the honed, wry, outrageous, wily pedantry of his ‘Remainders’ column in the TLS, collected in an eponymous Carcanet book in 1989, is a durable legacy. A collection was published by Carcanet Press in 1989. Michael Frayn remembered one defining sartorial aspect of the man. ‘He was attached to an elderly and exhausted clip-on bow-tie, which was not quite so firmly attached to him as he was to it. In some Malayan or Philippine restaurant one night, while he was explaining Mazdaism, or Gertrude Stein, or wave-­particle duality, the tie lost its faltering grip on reality and fell into his soup. Without pausing in his disquisition or even glancing down he fished it out, shook off the soup and clipped it back on his collar.’

The Polish poet STANISŁAW BARAŃCZAK died on Boxing Day 2014. He was sixty-eight. In Poland in 1979 he was forbidden to publish or perform his work in public: he had helped to establish the Workers’ Defence Committee. Solidarity was some way off. He kept writing. In 1981 he left Poland and taught for almost two decades at Harvard, then fell ill with Parkinson’s disease. In Poland his reputation survived and grew. The Polish minister of culture Małgorzata Omilanowska spoke of his death as a ‘great loss to Poland’s culture. He paid a great price for his views, for his unwavering attitude. He dedicated his whole life to literature, to poetry. His work will always be an important part of Poland’s culture.’ Robert Pinsky described the poems as ‘distinguished by their copious intelligence and their generosity, an Eastern European sense of the world’s madness, and a humane spirit of hope.’ He translated and adapted Shakespeare, Donne, Dickinson, and from the Russian Joseph Brodsky into Polish.

The Slovenian poet TOMAŽ ŠALAMUN died on 27 December. Well known on the international reading circuit, he was a responsive, ambitious writer, though his work was always on a carefully restrained scale. He was seen as a prominent Eastern European avant-gardist, and he had been in trouble with the authorities in Slovenia for his editorial work and spent a brief spell in jail – long enough for it to become a crucial detail in his biography. At the University of Ljubljana, where he studied art history, poetry fell on him, he said in 2004, as ‘stones from the sky’. He was a prolific writer, with some forty books of poetry to his credit, the first published in 1966. His chosen antecedents were largely American – O’Hara, Ashbery and Simic among them. Ecco Press in New York published The Selected Poems of Tomaž Šalamun in 1998. Row! was published by Arc in 2006.

On 12 December the celebrated Pashto poet and ghazal singer IKRAMULLAH GRAN, generally known as ‘Gran Baba’, died. Gran pioneered the modern Pashto ghazal and may be seen as an indirect influence on our contemporary Anglophone ghazal writers. Born in 1941, he had a difficult childhood and his schooling stopped at the eighth grade, yet he made his way into Pashto literature. He worked all his life as a farmer in his village and composed poetry as he worked. He wrote three books, two of poetry and one of short stories. Living in poverty, he could only afford to publish one of his books. ‘He did not plead to any department or private organisation to have his book published,’ his son said. ‘Now that he is gone, his work is admired by Pukhtuns from across the world.’ His work has a strong political colouring; there are also traditional elements, romantic and religious, which give it a wide appeal. Several of his poems have been set to music by Pashto singers.

In Iraq there is another crackdown on what is described as folk poetry, an activity rooted in popular verse which has much in common with political poetry and song. The poetry – not poems, since the texts are unstable and change in response to audience and event – is in colloquial, not Koranic, Arabic. Some of it has Islamic State in its rhetorical sights. It is promoted through radio and television and on social media, so that it can seem to carry official sanction. Purists see it as corrupting the linguistic medium, and radicals believe it is being deployed once again by the state to advance its own ends, as in the time of Saddam Hussein, when it served the interests of power, not of the people, during the Iran–Iraq war. Large sums were paid for poems celebrating war, battles, heroes and leaders: a tradition of celebratory rather than resistant war poetry was revived, even as the war went in darker and darker directions.

The first of the two villanelles MARK STRANT contributed to PN Review in 1994 ends:

The things our vision wills us to contain,
The life of objects, their unbearable weight.
This melancholy moment will remain,
And always the tower, the boat, the distant train.

Strand has died at the age of eighty. He had been the American poet laureate, a critic and anthologist, teacher and collaborator, a Pulitzer Prize-winner (1999, for his collection Blizzard of One), always finding his own way and making his own terms. He talked to the Paris Review about death in 1998. ‘I feel myself inching towards it. So there it is in my poems. And sometimes people will think of me as a kind of gloomy guy. But I don’t think of myself as gloomy at all. I say haha to death all the time in my poems.’ And now he has death’s reply, but not before his humanising voice has inscribed a number of resonant and durable poems.

JANE FREILICHER, a painter at the heart of the New York School of poets, a close friend of James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, whose cityscapes, landscapes and still lives, figurative art of a resistant and unique character that unemphatically epitomises her world, has died at the age of ninety. She began with abstractions in the 1940s but by the end of the decade she had moved to the figurative zones she was to make her own. For Schuyler in 1958 she was ‘a poet’s painter who may yet become the public’s painter’. John Ashbery, a close friend for six decades, has said, ‘Her pictures always have an air of just coming into being, of tentativeness that is the lifeblood of art.’ At seventy-three, reflecting on the seeming sameness of her themes and subjects, she remarked, ‘Every flower has its own cosmology, its own relationship to the foliage, to the air around it.’

In December RALPH MAUD, advocate and editor of Dylan Thomas and Charles Olson, a Green Party candidate and partisan, died in December just short of his eighty-sixth birthday. As one of the founding English professors at Simon Fraser University in 1965, Maud became increasingly interested in Pacific Northwest Aboriginal culture. He taught Indian Oral Tradition and the poetry of Charles Olson, understanding the continuum that included both. He grew up in Yorkshire and took his BA and doctorate at Harvard. Teaching in Buffalo, he edited The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas held in manuscripts in the library. He remained a devoted Thomas editor and was hostile to what he believed were deficient editions. At the State University of New York at Buffalo he got to know Olson and became one of his leading advocates.

ROD MCKUEN, hoarse ‘King of Kitsch’, musician, poet and performer, whose voice became so familiar in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the best-selling poets in American history, has died in Beverley Hills at eighty-one. His Academy Award-­nominated song ‘Jean’ for the 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie will be remembered by some readers. He was unabashedly sentimental (his advocates would say ‘feelingful’), and in earnest, and those who disliked poetry sometimes liked his work, his voice and conviction. ‘I mean, people are really all we’ve got. You know it sounds kind of corny, and I suppose it’s a cliché, but it’s really true; that’s just the way it is.’ He wrote songs for which Jacques Brel provided the music, among them ‘Birthday Boy’, ‘A Man Alone’, ‘If You Go Away’ and ‘Seasons in the Sun’. His other Oscar nomination was for ‘A Boy Named Charlie Brown’, title track for the movie Peanuts. Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Dolly Parton and Chet Baker recorded his material.

Evan Jones writes:
The poet ELISE PARTRIDGE has died. Diagnosed with colon cancer last February, she passed away on 31 January at the age of 57 in Vancouver. I knew Elise best through her quiet, clear-sighted lyric poems, and via email exchange over the past five years. She was not one to talk about herself. I succeeded in interviewing her for an online magazine, but the interview took well over a year, Elise travelling between New York, Vancouver, Florida, and all the while sending me touching messages to explain her slow response time. We finished the interview a few months before her diagnosis.

In 1977 she studied with Roberts Lowell and Fitzgerald at Harvard; she was a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge. Once, she recalled, visiting Manchester years before I moved here, she spent hours in the local Waterstones perusing the Carcanet books. She moved with her husband, Stephen Partridge, to Vancouver in 1992, following his appointment as a lecturer in English at UBC.

In 2001, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recovered, and the experience brought out some of her finest poetry: ‘Chemo Side Effects: Memory’, ‘First Days Back at Work’. These are painful, telling pieces. In the Washington Post, Robert Pinsky wrote that Elise’s poems ‘achieve an ardent, compassionate and unsentimental vision’. Yes, all that, but also a reticence. Like Elizabeth Bishop’s, Elise’s poems are both autobiographical and reserved. But as Stephen Burt pointed out, that comparison only goes so far: ‘She has learned detail-work, and patience, from Elizabeth Bishop, but she has made other virtues her own: riffs on familiar phrases open startling vistas and even her love poems get attractively practical.’

Two of her recent poems appeared in the last issue of PN Review and a small selection is included in an anthology I co-edited, Modern Canadian Poets (2012). University of Chicago Press published her first two Canadian collections together in one book in 2008, the wondrous Chameleon Hours. Her new collection, The Exiles’ Gallery, will be published by House of Anansi Press in Toronto later this year.

In December, she wrote that a package was on its way to Manchester: gifts for my ten-month-old daughter. The package arrived with a short letter. ‘I hope I get to meet you, Marion & Ioanna before too long!’ it finishes. I wrote to thank her, asked cautiously about her health. This was just a few weeks ago. So much has changed. 

This item is taken from PN Review 222, Volume 41 Number 4, March - April 2015.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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