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This item is taken from PN Review 228, Volume 42 Number 4, March - April 2016.

News & Notes
Jaan Kaplinski

The Estonian writer and philosopher Jaan Kaplinski has been awarded the 2016 European Prize for Literature. Born in Tartu in 1941, Kaplinski studied linguistics at Tartu University and started his poetic life under the influence of Shelley and Lermontov, from which he recovered to write his distinctive verse, and to translate texts from various languages into Estonian. His works in English include the novel The Same River (Peter Owen), poetry translations with Harvill (London), Laurel Press (Canada), and a Selected Poems (2011) from Bloodaxe which has published his poetry for more than a dozen years.


T.S. Eliot Prize

Sarah Howe, who has contributed poems and an essay on Jorie Graham to PN Review, was awarded the 2016 T.S. Eliot Prize in January. Sarah’s Loop of Jade was the first ever début collection to win, from a shortlist that included Mark Doty, Tracey Herd, Selima Hill, Tim Liardet, Les Murray, Sean O’Brien, Don Paterson, Rebecca Perry and Claudia Rankine. Sarah held the Harper-Wood Studentship at St John’s College, Cambridge in 2012. She was born in Hong Kong to a Chinese mother and an English father and moved to England when she was nine. She used the Harper-Wood to revisit her birthplace and consider her mixed heritage. The judges’ decision was unexpected and generally welcomed. The chair of the judges, Pascale Petit, praised the book’s ‘startling exploration of gender and injustice through place and identity, its erudition, and powerful imagery as well as her daring experiment with form’. Sarah also won the 2015 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. She is currently on a writing Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard.

Private Eye portrayed her victory as a plot. Oliver Thring interviewed the poet in the Sunday Times and rewarded her candour with slighting asides. ‘It is entirely dismissive’, the Guardian agrees. Thring is not the ideal interviewer for her, impatient with difficulty and with an opportunist’s eye, not a reader’s ear. The Twittering that followed his piece compelled him to Tweet, ‘This gentle interview with a leading young poet has led various deranged poetesses to call me thick, sexist etc.’ The ugly side-show to the happy outcome of the Eliot Prize reveals how certain attitudes – to education, gender and race – continue to distort judgment and taint discourse.


Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry

The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, 2015, was awarded to Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s Makar. The Queen would be well advised to deal gingerly with the author of Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987), a poet of strong political convictions, described by her old friend the Poet Laureate as having brought ‘a new kind of poetry performance to the stage’ with ‘her own feisty, female voice, mixing old Scots with new Scots [...] and she did this with a galvanising spirit and vitality that helped to change the landscape of British poetry.’ The BBC made clear the process of selection. The Poet Laureate chairs ‘a panel of experts chosen by the Poet Laureate at the time’. The discussions are in camera, the membership of the panel not announced.


Pablo Neruda

In late December the streets of Santiago, Chile, witnessed a giant inflatable Pablo Neruda – twenty metres long and four metres high, his enormous face smiling, his hands gesturing – floating above the buildings, leading a colourful parade with more than six hundred participants, with music and recitals to memorialise the life and work of the Nobel laureate. He floated like an overweight figure from a Chagall painting over Recoleta, Independencia and Santiago. The poet’s balloon was accompanied by other balloons: an enormous dove, a figurehead, books, conches and butterflies. At fifteen ‘stations’ – the poet having died shortly after the Pinochet coup toppled Salvador Allende – the procession paused to enact, meditate, sing, dance… At the Municipal Library a sculpture of Neruda was unveiled. The procession ended, appropriately, in the Plaza of Peace, facing the Cementerio General.


Ahmad Zahid Hamidi

In Malaysia, on 5 December, the Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi closed the sixth Pangkor Poetry and Folk Song Festival in a dinner speech urging poets to produce songs and poems relevant to the young generation. ‘Many of those from Generation X’, he said, ‘do not appreciate’ what was on offer. ‘We have to read their minds and create something more relevant and futuristic.’ He proceeded to read a poem of his own, to ‘thunderous applause’, the New Straits Times says, though the diners were not all from Generation X. Five hundred poets and musicians participated in the Festival, some from as far afield as Indonesia and Singapore.


C.D. Wright (1949–2016)

‘I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it... sometimes I weary of it. I could not live without it. Not in this world. Not in my lifetime.’ C. (Carolyn) D. Wright died suddenly on 12 January at her home in Rhode Island. She was born in Mountain Home, Arkansas, in 1949, and attended Memphis State University and the University of Arkansas. She wrote more than a dozen books of poems, winning with her 2010 collection One With Others (Copper Canyon Press) the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was a National Book Award finalist. She was honoured with several awards and fellowships and in 2013 was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. ‘It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free,’ she said, ‘and declare them so.’ In ‘Our Dust’ she wrote,


I was a poet of hummingbird hives along with
redhead stepbrothers.
The poet of good walking shoes—a necessity
in vernacular parts—and push mowers.


Anne Waldman called Wright ‘one of our most fearless writers, possessed with an urgency that pierces through the darkness of our time. […] Hers is a necessary poetics, on fire with life and passion for what matters.’ She is survived by her husband, the poet Forrest Gander, and their son Brecht.
 

Delmore Schwartz

In PN Review 226 we published John Ashbery’s ‘The Heavy Bear: Delmore Schwartz’s Life versus his Poetry’. This essay, the New York publisher New Directions advises us, will ‘serve as an introduction to our forthcoming collection Once and For All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz’. Meike Chew adds, ‘Schwartz’s star has really faded over the decades which saddens everyone here at New Directions. He was one of our very first authors. With this collection we hope to reinvigorate his legacy and introduce him to new readers.’ More information is available on http://www.ndbooks.com/book/once-and-for-all-the-best-of-delmore-schwartz/


Francisco Xavier Alarcón (1954–2016)

Francisco Xavier Alarcón, the prolific Chicano author of poetry books for adults and children, died in January. He was born in California, grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, then returned to attend California State University at Long Beach, taking an MA from Stanford. His poetry is marked by fascination with mythology, the Nahuatl language, Middle American history, and his gay, Latino perspectives. He received the 1984 Chicano Literary Prize, the 1993 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award, and a Fred Cody Lifetime Achievement Award from the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association in 2002.


Kazuo Kawamura (1933–2015)

Kazuo Kawamura, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Kanto Gakuin University in Yokohama, died on 26th November 2015 at the age of 82. He pursued the study of Shelley and Dante life-long and was co-director with colleague William I. Elliott of the Kanto Poetry Center. They founded Poetry Kanto and translated some fifty-five collections of the poet Shuntaro Tanikawa, whose New Selected Poems were published by Carcanet in October of 2015.


Mangesh Padgaonkar (1929–2015)

The Times of India reports the death of Marathi poet Mangesh Padgaonkar. He was eighty-six. He received a state funeral. Best known for his love songs, Padgaonkar collaborated with Vinda Karandikar and Vasant Bapat in the 1960s, making poetry popular among Marathis. The three men read and performed throughout the country, keeping their distance from political and rising bourgeois interests. The establishment mourned his death, however: his was a loved voice. His publisher declared, ‘Padgaonkar never believed in penury, which we Indians associate with poets. He was always nattily dressed and loved a glass of whiskey after a reading show.’


Irving Weinman (1937–2015)
contributed by James Sutherland-Smith

On the 26th of October 2015 intellectual life in Britain became significantly poorer following the death of Irving Weinman of a heart attack at the age of seventy-eight. I first met Irving at the old Poetry Society in Earls Court Square where we were both participants in one of the then equivalents of open-mic evenings called Poetry Round and at the rigorous invitation-only Poets’ Workshop, the London progeny of the Group which had George MacBeth and Alan Brownjohn, Carol Rumens, James Berry and Judith Kazantzis as members. Irving and I were also habitués of Farida Majid’s literary salon in Cadogan Square, which included Fleur Adcock, Gavin Ewart, George MacBeth, Ian Robinson, Andrew Waterman and John Welch among others. Irving and I became close friends and I was often his and his first wife, Zoe’s, guest at their palatial apartment in Holland Park. Irving worked as a lecturer in English at Maryland University in Britain teaching American servicemen stationed on bases in Britain.

His parents were well-to-do Romanian Jews who had come to America via Paris before the Second World War. Those of Irving’s relatives who remained perished in the death camps. His parents settled in Boston and he grew up in an intellectual liberal household where four languages were commonly spoken, his mother being proficient in no less than seven. After a school education from which he emerged with a gift for science and great skill as a jazz pianist he went to MIT, but after his first degree he took a second degree in literature. He participated in workshops with Anne Sexton and may even have been taught by Robert Lowell, whom he knew well. He was particularly close to Anne Sexton until he left for Europe with Zoe. He continued to study at Trinity College, Dublin before moving to London where he taught and Zoe modelled. They were a fashionable and well-connected couple. So when Rudolf Nureyev defected Irving and Zoe sheltered him in their flat. They may have also played a role in the defection of Natalia Makarova. Irving, a very handsome man, once told me that he’d managed to deflect the inevitable pass from Nureyev without causing offence. Irving and Zoe also gave shelter to the defecting novelist Anatoli Kuznetsov and to Harry Fainlight after his mental breakdown following his love affair with Allen Ginsberg.

From the early 1980s for the following twenty years Irving divided his time between England and Key West with his new partner and later wife, Judith Kazantzis. He wrote fiction, including three detective novels of which the best, Virgil’s Ghost, is a minor classic. They made him money and were critical successes. There were two further novels which were received less well partly because they never shook off the trappings of the genre in which he had begun. He and Judith were at the centre of a thriving intellectual colony in Key West which included Leonard Bernstein, John Malcolm Brinnin, Harry Mathews, James Merrill and Richard Wilbur. In 1983 he co-founded the Key West Literary Workshop, which is now a major literary event in the United States. In the last decade of his life he and Judith settled in Lewes in Sussex, the home of a number of writers. He produced a guide to writing fiction and at the time of his death was at work on short stories based on his family, a number of which are located in pre-war Romania.

He was a considerate and generous reader of my early work even putting up some of the money to print my first collection of poetry from the Many Press. When I tried to repay him a few months after it was published he refused to accept my money. Later the Many Press published Irving’s chapbook, Storm Warning, his only collection of poetry although there are two poems in Farida Majid’s Thursday Evening Anthology which collected poems read at her salon.

His death has deprived Anglophone literature of a great champion and practitioner, a loss made greater by the fact that his modesty about his life and achievements did not alert a publisher into persuading him to write his memoirs.


Aleš Debeljak (1961–2016)
Patrick McGuinness writes from Ljubljana:

The Slovenian poet and cultural critic Aleš Debeljak died on 28 January in a road accident. He was fifty-four. Born in Ljubljana in 1961, he first distinguished himself as a Yugoslav junior judo champion, a sport he abandoned because of injury. He was publishing poetry from the mid-1980s, and studied comparative literature at the university of Ljubljana before pursuing graduate studies in the United States. His first book of poems, with the classic cold war title Dictionary of Silence, appeared in 1987, and marked him out as a writer out step with official culture.

He published a further eight books of poems and fourteen books of essays, including the 1994 Twilight of the Idols: Recollections of a Lost Yugoslavia (published in 1995 in English by White Pines Press, translated by Michael Biggins). It is a moving, occasionally culturally (but not politically) nostalgic exploration of a shared artistic culture, written as the Yugoslav war raged, and testifies to the breadth of his sympathies at a time when reaching for extremes – of anger or resignation – would have been easier.

He had returned to Slovenia from the United States in 1990, and witnessed the ten-day war of 1991, one of the triggers of the Yugoslav war, when he worked with foreign media covering the clashes between the newly-declared Slovenian republic and the Yugoslav army.

His poetry blends the personal (the voice is always human, unmistakably unified, though always changing tone and timbre) with the political and historical. It is a cliché to say that poetry blends the personal and the collective, but Debeljak’s skill lay in asserting the poet’s individuality by emphasising, not downplaying, what he shared with the people and the place that made him. As he said in an interview, ‘I cherish and relish and celebrate the multi-layered existence that is myself. That self would not have been what it is without the Yugoslav experience.’

Though he was a professor of cultural studies at Ljubljana, a penetrating but unshowy public intellectual, an editor and translator (he translated John Ashbery into Slovenian), it is as a poet that his loss is most felt, not just in Slovenia but in the neighbouring republics of the former Yugoslavia, where his belief in a republic of letters in an age of amnesia and resentment, symbolises the best of what the one-time state had to offer. He established a journal dedicated to keeping open the lines of communication between intellectuals and thinkers of every country of ex-Yugoslavia, and he is mourned across their borders.

His most recent book to appear in English is the 2009 Smugglers, which came out in 2015 from BOA editions in a fine translation by the American poet Brian Henry. The book is full of precise recollections of places – the streets and scenes of Ljubljana – filtered through personal and collective memory that amount to a sort of haunting of the present, being a ghost in one’s own here and now. Brian Henry is exact when he describes Debeljak as the city’s ‘medium’ more than its ‘flâneur’. ‘Lightbulb’, one of the last poems of Smugglers, begins:


It is not magnificent, but from where I’m standing my world is quite generous. Teachers without schools and translators from languages only fish still know have taken their usual table. In an unilluminated


lightbulb, under thin glass, two are already a crowd.


The poem ends: ‘A full hand, open eyes: / we are brittle and hard like paper on the run from embers’.

Debeljak was married to the American writer Erica Johnson Debeljak, who survives him with their three children.


Laurence Lerner (1925–2016)
contributed by Gabriel Josipovici

I don’t think I ever told him, but one of the reasons I applied to the newly-formed University of Sussex in the winter of 1962 was that Larry was teaching there. In those days you couldn’t open a weekly like The Listener or The New Statesman without finding a poem or a review in it by Larry. He had also, I discovered, recently published a volume of poetry, Domestic Interiors, a novel, The Englishman, and a book of literary criticism, The Truest Poetry. If Sussex are happy to employ someone like that, I thought, then it’s the place for me.

And indeed it was. Larry was only one of a galaxy of brilliant and individual minds assembled by David Daiches in those early years. Gãmini Salgãdo had rejoined Larry from Queen’s University, Belfast, and Stephen Medcalf arrived at the same time as I did to rejoin his old Merton friend, Tony Nuttall. Larry was always at the centre of any gathering, talking, arguing, endlessly quoting (he and Stephen seemed to have an uncanny ability to remember whole poems verbatim, and not just in English). The quip went in those days that it was no wonder the University of Sussex was able to attract the best students since it included luminaries with such names as Supple, Lively and Lerner.

Larry was born in South Africa in 1925 of a Jewish Ukrainian father and an English mother. He attended schools in Cape Town and then the University of Cape Town. On a camping trip in 1945 he met Natalie, and they both promptly won scholarships to Cambridge, where Natalie studied for a PhD and Larry (typically) for a second BA. They married in 1948, and, after a spell at the new University of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), they returned to Britain and Larry found a job at Queen’s, Belfast, where Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane were among his students. Attracted by the interdisciplinary nature of the new University of Sussex, he applied and was taken on in the University’s second year, 1962. In the course of his many years at Sussex, though, he was frequently absent, taking up temporary teaching posts in France and Germany (he wanted to be able to speak and read the languages, and soon did), the USA and Canada. By 1985, disliking the increasingly antagonistic politics of the era, he joined his friend and fellow-poet Donald Davie at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee. On retiring from there in 1995 he moved to Lewes, teaching more than ever on various adult education courses, walking the Downs with his friends and taking an active role in the Quaker community.

I once asked Larry why, since he was such a fine poet, he did not devote more time to it. If I did nothing else, he replied, I would probably not write poetry either. Certainly his manifold activities did not seem to stand in the way of his poetry: eight further volumes followed Domestic Interiors, all full of well-crafted, highly intelligent, often funny and often moving poems. Never flashy, he was, like Edwin Morgan, the master of many forms: dramatic monologues such as the brilliant and disturbing ‘The Merman’ and ‘Written from Ypsilanti state hospital’; ‘Movement’ poems such as one of his favourites, ‘Strawberries’; and formal experiments (though he would never have called them that or thought of himself as an experimental poet) like the poems that make up his book A.R.T.H.U.R., ostensibly written by a machine. Though in later life he liked to assert that he no longer wrote poetry, only verse, there are a few poems he sent me but never published which I cherish, such as the subtle and hilarious ‘Let’s Play Philosophy’, which begins: ‘I’ve often wondered if we humans can / Explain just why the universe began.’ It reaches a climax with                 


                                                    Perhaps
Thinking is just the way the brain cells lapse
When things go wrong. Nobody understands
Why we can only walk on feet, not hands,
Why ears can’t see and eyes can’t hear, or why
The price of living is you have to die.


Sadly, and, to me inexplicably, he seemed to go out of fashion when he moved to the States. He returned to England to find the friends who had been poetry editors of magazines and publishing houses had died or retired and a new generation in place who did not know him and were not interested in what he had to offer. I wonder if he made much of an effort to get his work published. I suspect not. But I feel it’s a shame and I hope very much that one of these days we may see a Selected Poems of Laurence Lerner on the shelves. Such a volume would only confirm what all his admirers know, that his best work is among the best in the English language in the second half of the twentieth century.

This item is taken from PN Review 228, Volume 42 Number 4, March - April 2016.



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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