Thursday, 22 September 2016

Prophet and Loss - What Marx means in a world that has made peace with capitalism.

Does Karl Marx still matter? It’s a question most readers of a new biography of Marx would ask—even if they are already steeped in the contentious scholarship about (or the perpetual ideological skirmishes within) the radical left. What relevance can his life and work have in a world where nearly every socialist party long ago made its peace with capitalism, and at a time when his writings are read far more by academics than by the workers he longed to liberate? Even Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a “socialist,” just wants to force the governing and economic elites to treat wage earners and consumers more fairly. He wants a new New Deal, not a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The decline of Marx’s influence does not seem to worry Gareth Stedman Jones. At many points in his new book, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, he even seems to welcome it. That may appear an odd stance for a distinguished left-wing historian of Britain, best known for his studies of the Victorian-era working class; Stedman Jones was, for almost two decades, a member of the editorial board of New Left Review—the most prominent and sophisticated venue for Marxian thought in the English-speaking world. Yet he has come to believe that the “dogmatic assumptions” of many Marxists inhibit “the writing of good history.” His study is thus a prolonged exercise in scraping off the dogma to get at the unvarnished figure, the Marx who died before he could turn into an “ism” both esteemed and reviled.

Stedman Jones maintains that the iconic image of Marx, created soon after his death in 1883, ignores historical context and a good deal that his work got wrong. The “forbidding bearded patriarch and lawgiver, a thinker of merciless consistency with a commanding vision of the future” worshiped by leftists was, in Stedman Jones’s view, a flawed theorist and failed revolutionary socialist, who overlooked the significance of the democratic revolution he was actually living through. What’s more, as a political refugee in working-class London who was rarely healthy, he struggled constantly to keep his children nourished, housed, and well-educated. He was also an arrogant soul who took criticism of his work as something like an act of war. “The aim of this book,” writes Stedman Jones, “is to put Marx back in his nineteenth-century surroundings,” shedding “posthumous elaborations of his character and achievements.”

Most of the biography is devoted to a careful, occasionally pedantic evaluation of what is useless in Marx’s work and what remains of value. Stedman Jones provides lengthy examinations of his subject’s battles with other radical thinkers, his painstaking labors on Capital, and his ongoing quest to locate and rev up engines of change, to put an end to the exploitation of man by man and lay the foundation of a classless society. Stedman Jones includes just enough details of Marx’s personal life to justify labeling the book a biography instead of purely a study of his ideas and their consequences. Stedman Jones dutifully quotes the man he calls “Karl” complaining about his chronic liver disease and carbuncles, and continually pleading for financial support from Friedrich Engels, his sometime collaborator and ever-faithful friend.

Marx’s spouse and daughters also make intermittent appearances, revealing a formidable yet tragic family history. During the American Civil War, Karl’s daughter Eleanor, then ten years old, “wrote to Lincoln, appointing herself his political adviser.” Later, she would become a leading Socialist and feminist, who translated Ibsen and Flaubert into English. But Eleanor’s renown did not lift her from despair at the acts of an unfaithful lover. At 43, she committed suicide by poisoning herself. For her part, Marx’s wife, Jenny, wrote reviews for a major German newspaper and organized a group of Londoners who read Shakespeare out loud to one another. Yet three of her children died very young, and like her husband, she was often plagued by protracted ailments. A hidden resentment may have exacerbated her poor health: Jenny probably knew that Karl had fathered a son with their longtime housekeeper. But if she ever spoke of it, that detail has never been recorded.

Read more >>>

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Philosophy, the Sartre blend: uncovering the birth of existentialism

On YouTube there is a three-minute clip of the funeral of Jean-Paul Sartre. The funeral took place on Saturday 19 April 1980 and the television coverage from which the clip is taken follows the journey of the hearse from the hospital where Sartre died to Montparnasse Cemetery, where he was to be buried – a distance of about three kilometres. Along the way, the hearse moves through a staggering number of people. The commentator says that there are 50,000 mourners in total, 30,000 on the streets leading to the cemetery and another 20,000 at the cemetery itself. When the camera pans out, you can see how extraordinarily packed the streets are; when it homes in on some of the faces, you notice that many of the mourners are young, in their early twenties. If you did not know whose funeral it was, you would guess a famous actor or actress, a rock star, or some such popular public figure as Diana, Princess of Wales or Winston Churchill. It would never occur to you that what you were seeing was the public reaction to the death of a philosopher.

It is often remarked that this shows the difference between French and British culture, because it is unimaginable that so many people in this country would be so deeply affected by the death of an intellectual. But, in fact, it is a pretty unusual event anywhere and at any time. It is said that when Kant died, the whole of Königsberg turned out to pay its respects, and there were big crowds at Voltaire’s funeral in Paris, too. In Russia, the funerals of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy attracted huge numbers of mourners. However, these occasions of mass public grief on the death of a writer or intellectual are few and far between. What is shown by the crowds that lined the Boulevard du Montparnasse to catch a glimpse of Sartre’s hearse is not something about France, but something about Sartre in his own right, something that demands explanation. Why were so many people drawn to him? Why did he matter to so many?

For Sarah Bakewell, the answer lies in the peculiar appeal, and the timeliness, of the philosophy that he espoused: existentialism. In her wonderfully engaging and readable book At the Existentialist Café, she traces the history of the existentialist movement through the lives, personalities and thinking of its leading members. In addition to Sartre, these included his lover Simone de Beauvoir, his friends Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and his main philosophical influences, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

The book is a joy to read. Bakewell shows enormous skill in bringing to life not only the leading figures, but also the times and places in which they lived, their ideas and their works. There is an awful lot of research packed into it which extends far beyond the literary and philosophical writings of her chief protagonists. She deftly places those writings in their political, social and historical context, often by considering the films, books, fashions and trends that formed their cultural backdrop. In many ways, hers is a study not of a particular philosophical movement, but of the ideas that shaped the art, literature and politics of the 20th century. Yet all this knowledge is carried ­remarkably lightly, and the book does not, for one moment, get bogged down or become a chore to read.

Another feature of At the Existentialist Café that makes it enjoyable is the author’s occasional mention of her personal engagement with the work of her subjects. The jacket blurb tells us that “Sarah Bakewell was a teenage existentialist, having been swept off her feet by reading Sartre’s Nausea, aged 16”, and in the book she tells us that she has watched the online clip of his funeral “a dozen or more times, peering into the low-definition images of the many faces, wondering what existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre meant to each of them”. One feels that, had Bakewell been in Paris at the time (which was just a year after her teenage introduction to Sartre’s work) she would have been one of those mourners, because, she writes, “Sartre’s books changed my life, too.”

Read more >>>

Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee

JM Coetzee is my favourite living author. I need to say this at the outset to offer some context to the battle I fought with The Schooldays of Jesus, his 13th novel. I spent three happy years writing my PhD on Coetzee, and my love for his early work survived meeting the man in person (like a wet weekend in Grimsby) and a run of several baffling “novels” (since his Man Booker-winning Disgrace in 1999) which seemed bent on stripping away all of the satisfactions we look for in fiction.

The Schooldays of Jesus follows on the heels of its predecessor, The Childhood of Jesus. In that novel, we met Davíd and Simón, arriving memory-less in a Spanish-speaking city named Novilla. Novilla was a vast refugee camp operated on the most enlightened and benevolent lines – people were fed, housed and found employment; children were educated (although Davíd fought all attempts to make him conform). With a subtle touch, Coetzee conveyed how sinister the passionless world of Novilla was, where humans were treated as objects to be measured, ordered and controlled. As Simón put it: “You know how the system works. The names we use are the names we were given there, but we might just as well have been given numbers. Numbers, names – they are equally arbitrary, equally unimportant.”

Eventually, Simón, Davíd and Davíd’s mother, Inés, fled Novilla, heading for a town called Estrella. It is here that we pick up the story in the second novel in the series, with Simón and Inés arguing over how best to educate the six-year-old Davíd. Finally, after the intercession of three wealthy sisters, Davíd is sent to the local Academy of Dance, run by a Juan Sebastián Arroyo and his elegant wife, Ana Magdalena (many of the names in the book are obscurely significant). The education at the Academy is unusual – students learn maths by “dancing down” numbers – and yet Davíd, who’s a precocious and exasperating child, appears to flourish, forming a particularly close bond with Ana Magdalena.

Estrella is as blandly well-meaning as Novilla before it. The front page of the town’s newspaper features “an elderly couple with a gigantic cucurbit from their garden. It weighs fourteen kilograms, says the report, breaking the previous record by almost a kilogram. On page two a crime report lists the theft of a lawnmower from a shed (unlocked) and vandalism at a public toilet (a washbasin smashed)”. Against this banal backdrop, a real crime takes place. Dmitri, a creepy guard at the town’s museum, murders Ana Magdalena. It is Davíd who finds the body.

If The Childhood of Jesus was about Davíd leading Simón to a point where he could no longer endure the smothering goodwill of the state, this novel finds Simón questioning the extent to which his own internal landscape has been resculpted by the stultifying amiability of his adopted land. He attends Dmitri’s trial, where the judges do everything they can to mitigate the offence, leaving the murderer raving in the dock, assuring them of his genuine ill will. In Dmitri, Simón finds a model for real feeling. When the judges ask for a recess in order for the suspect to cool down, Simón has the first of a series of revelations. “Allow our passions to cool, he thinks: what passion do I feel except a passion of irritation?”

The Schooldays of Jesus is delivered in language stripped of all ornament and affect. There are few metaphors, little description, nothing lovely to snag the mind as we move forward through the story. There is, though, the regular clang of cliche: Simón knows the city “like the back of his hand”; the news of Dmitri’s relationship with Ana Magdalena “will spread like wildfire”; the three sisters greet Simón “stony-faced”. The prose, as we have come to expect from Coetzee, is not the point. And yet when Simón starts to attend a writing class, it is the austerity of his own language that brings home to him how devoid of real feeling his life has become. “Dmitri has on several occasions ridiculed the way I speak, which strikes him as overly cool and rational,” he writes. “Dmitri believes that the style reveals the man… he would call me a passionless man.” In the light of this new self-knowledge, he resolves to change. “I want to become a different person.”

Read more >>>

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Stein Way

Gertrude Stein exploited every freedom in language she knew about and when she reached the end of her list she invented some more.
Gertrude Stein set many of the best passages of her writing into extremely deep and confusing labyrinths such that when I read them I feel found though I am still lost.
Gertrude Stein would seem to be convention’s prodigal but in fact she is convention’s most loyal child man or woman because knows more than anyone about convention because she was constantly standing just this far from it.
Gertrude Stein had her own life and during it she wrote what she called someone else’s Autobiography and this is one definition of novelist.
Gertrude Stein was called by Alice B. Toklas “Mr. Cuddle-Wuddle.”
Gertrude Stein wrote many long and many short sentences that come alive when they are read aloud and she took a Master’s Degree in Paragraphy and she spelled very well and she was unsuccessfully courted by punctuation and she took a faint but playful interest in lines.
Here are two short poems by Gertrude Stein and then a passage from her prose masterpiece Tender Buttons and another passage from her lecture on Punctuation and when you are done with these you should listen to a recording of her reading her short poem “Matisse” which is available at PennSound.
Please read more of Stein’s work thank you.
Two Short Poems and the Finale of Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein
Ir
Re
Sis
Ti
Belle
21      excerpted from Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Faded
I love my love with a v
Because it is like that
I love my love with a b
Because I am beside that
A king.
I love my love with an a
Because she is a queen
I love my love and a a is the best of them
Think well and be a king,
Think more and think again
I love my love with a dress and a hat
I love my love and not with this or with that
I love my love with a y because she is my bride
I love her with a d because she is my love beside
Thank you for being there
Nobody has to care
Thank you for being here
Because you are not there.
And with and without me which is and without she she can be late
and then and how and all around we think and found that it is time to cry she
and I.
From Tender Buttons (the finale):
A light in the moon the only light is on Sunday. What was the sensible decision. The sensible decision was that notwithstanding many declarations and more music, not even notwithstanding the choice and a torch and a collection, notwithstanding the celebrating hat and a vacation and even more noise than cutting, notwithstanding Europe and Asia and being overbearing, not even notwithstanding an elephant and a strict occasion, not even withstanding more cultivation and some seasoning, not even with drowning and with the ocean being encircling, not even with more likeness and any cloud, not even with terrific sacrifice of pedestrianism and a special resolution, not even more likely to be pleasing. The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.
From “On Punctuation”:
There are some punctuations that are interesting and there are some punctuations that are not. Let us begin with the punctuations that are not. Of these the one but the first and the most the completely most uninteresting is the question mark. The question mark is alright when it is all alone when it is used as a brand on cattle or when it could be used in decoration but connected with writing it is completely entirely completely uninteresting. It is evident that is you ask a question you ask a question but anybody who can read at all knows when a question is a question as it is written in writing. Therefore I ask you therefore wherefore should one use the question mark. Beside it does not in its form go with ordinary printing and so it pleases neither the eye nor the ear and it is therefore like a noun, just an unnecessary name of something. A question is a question, anybody can know that a question is a question and so why add to it the question mark when it is already there when the question is already there in the writing. Therefore I never could bring myself to use a question mark, I always found it positively revolting, and now very few do use it. Exclamation marks have the same difficulty and also quotation marks, they are unnecessary, they are ugly, they spoil the line of the writing or the printing and anyway what is the use, if you do not know that a question is a question what is the use of its being a question. The same thing is true of a quotation. When I first began writing I found it simply impossible to use question marks and quotation marks and exclamation points and now anybody sees it that way. Perhaps some day they will see it some other way but not at any rate anybody can and does see it that way.
So there are the uninteresting things in punctuation uninteresting in a way that is perfectly obvious, and so we do not have to go any farther into that. There are besides dashes and dots, and these might be interesting spaces might be interesting. They might if one felt that way about them.
Read more >>> 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The stark moral world of Georges Simenon

The author of about 500 books, most of them written in less than a fortnight, including nearly 80 Inspector Maigret volumes and over 100romans durs or “hard novels”, Georges Simenon began keeping notebooks in 1960, when he was nearing 60 and beginning to feel old. The three volumes that are published here run from June of that year up to February 1963. By December 1969, when he wrote the preface to the book, he was able to declare: “I have not felt old for a long time. I no longer feel the need to write in notebooks, and those that I did not use I’ve given to my children.”

Why Simenon wrote the notebooks when he did is not entirely clear. At first, they may have been intended principally as family reading. He writes that he wanted to show his children their father as he really was – an ordinary human being with normal human foibles. He also mentions that he was finding it increasingly difficult to achieve the concentration required to produce his novels: whereas he used to write them (the popular novels, at least) in three or four days, then 12 a year (at the time of the Maigrets), then six a year, “Now it is down to four.” Incredibly, Simenon may have been suffering from a form of writer’s block. Producing the notebooks may have served to distract him from this condition.

But the thoughts recorded here serve another purpose. These notebooks contain his most explicit account of his goals and methods of writing and of the view of human beings that his work expressed. As he puts it:
Like the great naturalists, I would like to focus on certain human mechanisms. Not on grand passions. Not on questions of ethics or morality. Only to study the minor machinery which may appear secondary. That is what I try to do in my books. For this reason I choose characters who are ordinary rather than exceptional . . . the naked man in contrast to the clothed man.
In Simenon’s stories, the appearances of everyday life are costumes that are quickly discarded. The catalyst may be an unexpected event, or an impulse that seems to come from nowhere. Either way, what emerges is the bare human animal.

In The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (1938), a quiet clerk for a respectable Dutch shipping company discovers that his boss has looted the firm in order to fund an affair. Having lost his life savings, the clerk boards a train to Paris, contacts his boss’s mistress, goes on a wild spree and (almost by accident) commits a murder. In Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1945), the prosperous protagonist leaves his business, wife and family without warning, exchanges his expensive suit in a second-hand clothes shop for a shabby anonymous outfit, and disappears into the demi-monde. M Monde has no clear idea why he leaves his life behind:
He had not thought about it beforehand . . . He was following a preordained plan, for which he was not responsible. Nor had he taken any decision the day before. It all came from much further back, from the beginning of things.
Some of the best examples of what is commonly described as crime fiction – the novels of Patricia Highsmith, for instance – are studies in character which show why the protagonists act as they do by probing their states of mind. In Simenon, human beings are the sum of their impulses and behaviours; there is no enduring self behind the façade of habit. No one authors their own life; the belief that they are responsible for their actions is an illusion.

“My very first Maigrets,” Simenon writes, “were imbued with the sense, which has always been with me, of man’s irresponsibility. This is never stated openly in my writings. But Maigret’s attitude to the criminal makes it quite clear.” Simenon would have dismissed any suggestion that his romans durs were novels of ideas. He believed that ideas count for very little in human life. But the idea – or fact, as he would have called it – of human irresponsibility is at the centre of nearly everything he wrote.

That is one reason why Simenon’s work does not belong in the genre of crime fiction. In the romans durs, criminal acts are important only in signifying a final break with society. Even in the Maigrets, the question is not why a crime was committed, but how the person who committed the crime departed from a settled routine of living, and the detective resolves the conundrum by imaginatively entering into the life of the suspect. Identifying the criminal is rarely the principal focus of the story, though this fact has been obscured for English readers by the uneven quality of the versions of those Maigrets that have been available to date, in some of which the endings were altered in an effort to make the novels more closely resemble crime fiction. The new and freshly translated versions of Simenon’s novels that Penguin is publishing give us, for the first time, the opportunity to read them as he wanted them to be read.

Read more >>>

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The other Schlegel

Roger Paulin’s monumental biography of August Wilhelm Schlegel is a rescue mission. Now one might not think that Schlegel needed rescuing. His name is familiar in the English-speaking world from the ­Schlegel–Tieck translation of Shakespeare (1825–33). Schlegel himself translated seventeen of the plays, with help from his then wife Caroline; the rest were translated by Dorothea Tieck (daughter of the Romantic author Ludwig Tieck) and the diplomat Wolf Graf von Baudissin. The translation has given its name to the Schlegel–Tieck Prize, which is awarded annually by the Society of Authors (in partnership with the TLS) for the best translation from German published in Britain. 

Schlegel has many other claims to fame. With his younger brother Friedrich, he edited the periodical Athenäum (1800–02) in which they defined the concept of Romanticism. Of his copious critical works, the lectures on European drama that he delivered in Vienna in 1808 were translated into many languages. It was through them that the language of German philosophical criticism reached Coleridge and hence the English-speaking world. From 1817, as a professor at the University of Bonn, he devoted himself increasingly to the study of Sanskrit and became one of the founders of German Indology.

So why the need for rescue? The audience for Schlegel’s lectures at Bonn included Heinrich Heine, who at the time intensely admired Schlegel and dedicated three sonnets to him. Schlegel, for his part, had gone out of his way to advise the young, unknown Heine on his poetry. Later, however, in his polemical essay The Romantic School, Heine wrote a cruel, malicious, but memorable caricature of Schlegel, and many readers of German literature first encounter Schlegel in Heine’s sketch. Schlegel appears here as a fop, as a critic narrowly obsessed with metrics, as the submissive companion of Germaine de Staël, and as someone whose second marriage was ruined by his physical deficiencies.

Schlegel’s well-known association with Staël was certainly of the utmost importance to him. In 1804, Staël, encouraged by Goethe, engaged Schlegel as a tutor for her children and an intellectual companion for herself. They were never lovers: that role was filled by Benjamin Constant, at least until 1809, when he made an initially secret marriage to Charlotte von Hardenberg. Schlegel was, in Paulin’s words, “abjectly devoted” to Staël, but such a fascinating personality could easily inspire devotion. The long section of the biography where she takes centre stage is fast-moving and hard to put down.

As an outspoken opponent of Napoleon, Staël was banished to the family mansion at Coppet, on Lake Geneva. There Schlegel educated her children – he once took young Albert on a walking tour through German-speaking Switzerland. They retained a lifelong affection for him. Staël, bored and restless, hired a theatre in Geneva and staged a number of plays by Voltaire and Racine, with herself, Schlegel and Constant in leading roles. She also travelled extensively with what is here called her “cavalcade”.

In 1812 Staël set off for Sweden with Schlegel and her new lover, John Rocca. Staël’s husband, the obnoxious Baron Erik Magnus Staël von Holstein, now dead, was Swedish, her children were therefore Swedish citizens, and she hoped to get employment for her sons in the Swedish service. To get to Sweden without passing through territory controlled by Napoleon, however, it was necessary to go through Russia, and so Staël and Schlegel were among the last foreigners to see the old Moscow before it was burnt (as we remember from War and Peace) to save it from French occupation. Once in Stockholm, Staël used her many connections to bring Schlegel into contact with the Prince Royal, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who employed him as a pamphleteer writing against Napoleon.

Thanks to Staël, therefore, Schlegel had a more adventurous life than most scholars. It may be that she was more important to him than either of his wives. His first wife, Caroline Böhmer, née Michaelis, was the widowed daughter of an eminent professor at Göttingen, where Schlegel studied. They married in 1796 and lived in Jena, where Schlegel obtained a professorship, and where Romantic writers gathered round the journal Athenäum. Their marriage soon cooled, however; Caroline – emotionally devastated by the death of Auguste, her eldest, and only surviving child from her previous relationships – transferred her affections to the philosopher Schelling, and divorced Schlegel in 1801.

Schlegel’s second marriage was even briefer and more disastrous. After Staël’s death in 1817 had freed him from her thraldom, he seems to have longed for children of his own. In 1818, quite suddenly, he married Sophie Paulus, twenty-two years his junior, the daughter of a distinguished theologian in Heidelberg. The Paulus parents intervened to prevent Sophie from following her husband to Bonn, where Schlegel had just obtained his chair, and accused Schlegel of various unspecified underhand dealings. They also spread a rumour that Schlegel was impotent, an allegation that came to Heine’s ears and contributed to the malice of his pen portrait. From 1818 until his death in 1845, Schlegel was celibate, obliged to live for his studies.

These studies now centred on ancient India. His study of Indian literature was the culmination of a lifelong preoccupation with world literature. His work on Shakespeare is only part of his varied activity as a translator. He was the first German to translate Dante into verse (previous translations of the Divine Comedy had been in prose). He translated a large body of poetry from Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. And he introduced Germans to the great Spanish dramatist Calderón by translating five of his plays, which aroused enthusiasm among Goethe and the Romantics.

Schlegel also attempted poetry of his own. Although Paulin describes most of it as “correct, learned – and soulless”, he lets us make up our own minds by giving us the full text of a rather impressive fifty-six-line poem in ottava rima, “Dedication of the Tragedy Romeo and Juliet”, in both German and English. Paulin’s rendering, which sensibly preserves the metre but not the rhymes, is good enough to make one wish that he would do more translating. Schlegel’s only attempt at dramatic verse, a neoclassical play inspired by Euripides’ Ion, was staged at Weimar in January 1802, but was a complete flop. This was the occasion when Goethe rose in his box and commanded the audience: “Man lache nicht!” (No laughing!).

Comparative literature was then in its infancy, having arguably begun with Voltaire’s Essay on Epick Poetry (first published in English in 1727). Schlegel is among its great pioneers. He undertook a comparison (written in French) between Euripides’ Hippolytus and Racine’s Phèdre, claiming that the former was much better. This comparison, however, was undertaken in bad faith. Schlegel did not in fact admire Euripides, and was only using him as a stick with which to beat French classical drama. And classicism had to be downgraded because Schlegel, especially in his Vienna lectures, offered a new history of European literature focusing on Romanticism. Romantic literature, beginning in the Middle Ages, represented a fusion of pagan and Christian, North and South; its high points included not only the Divine Comedy but also the Nibelungenlied, in which a pagan story is Christianized by incorporating the notion of divine retribution.

Read more >>>

A Life Written in Invisible Ink - Adrienne Rich

I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslateable language in the universe
—“Planetarium”

Adrienne Rich was, without question, the unofficial poet laureate of 20th-century American feminism. Over the years, as she evolved from a stereotypical “daddy’s girl” and a precocious disciple of W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens into an aesthetic, critical, and political pioneer, she became a prophet for both the women whose causes she championed and the country whose flaws she lamented and whose transformation she envisioned. Many critics thought her crotchety or, worse, “strident,” while she herself sometimes said that she spoke from a marginalized perspective. Even women who might have been sympathetic to her ambition complained about her. Two éminences grises of The New York Review of Books castigated her feminism: Susan Sontag dismissed it as “a bit limited,” and Elizabeth Hardwick fretted that she “deliberately made herself ugly and wrote those extreme and ridiculous poems.” Yet during her lifetime, Rich won countless prizes, including a National Book Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, the first Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Bollingen Prize, and the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. When she died at 82, in 2012, Margalit Fox, who composed her New York Times obituary, aptly characterized the ambiguity of her position, describing her as “a poet of towering reputation and towering rage.”

“Towering rage”—no one would have expected such passion from the preternaturally expert 20-something who won the Yale Younger Poet’s prize in 1951 for a first book tellingly titled A Change of World, which arrived with a commendation from W. H. Auden that is still infamous. Her poems, declared Auden, who had chosen them for the distinguished Yale series, were “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them.” A few years later, in patronizing words on her next volume, The Diamond Cutters, Randall Jarrell made things worse, writing that the author of the book seems “to us a sort of princess in a fairy tale.” That the young woman responsible for these two collections was a serious student of English and American verse tradition with an extraordinary verbal gift and an impressive command of prosody—the kind of formal skill especially admired in the ’50s—makes these remarks seem especially odd today, when we inhabit a literary world that has been significantly altered by, among others, the powerful author of A Change of World. Yet it is from the midcentury American culture whose implicit assumptions about gender and genre were arguably defined by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique that Rich journeyed toward her major accomplishments, achieving stature through, in her own words, “a succession of brief, amazing movements / each one making possible the next” (“From a Survivor”).

Rich’s life, like her writing, was marked by dramatic metamorphoses, changes that reflected, even while they influenced, the world that was radically changing around her. Her growth, observed the poet-critic Ruth Whitman in 1975, was “an astonishing phenomenon to watch: in one woman the history of women in our century, from careful traditional obedience … to cosmic awareness, defying the mode of our time.” Like Yeats, the poet she most admired when she was an undergraduate, Rich evolved from phase to phase as, increasingly, she elaborated the politics of her aesthetic in essays that can be read along with her poems as both manifestoes and glosses. In prose and verse, she herself remarked on these transformations, sometimes almost with wonder. A dutiful child, she was homeschooled for some years by a strict pianist mother, who taught her to play Bach and Mozart, and more overwhelmingly, by a scholarly pathologist father who set daily literary tasks for her and her sister. “I think he saw himself as a kind of Papa Brontë,” she once wrote to the poet Hayden Carruth, “with geniuses for children.” (Her unpublished letters to Carruth appear in “The Wreck,” an article by Michelle Dean in the April 3, 2016, issue of The New Republic.)

But beneath a veneer of decorum, the stubborn poet had begun to stir. In secret, she confided to Carruth, she “spent hours writing imitations of cosmetic advertising and illustrating them copiously,” and “mercifully,” she recalled in print, she “discovered Modern Screen, Photoplay, Jack Benny, ‘Your Hit Parade,’ Frank Sinatra,” and other icons of popular culture. Worse still, though from her father’s perspective she was “gratifyingly precocious,” she confessed in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution that she had “early been given to tics and tantrums.” Even in the years when Auden and Jarrell were captivated by her command of versification (“I was exceptionally well grounded in formal technique,” she herself admitted in What Is Found There, “and I loved the craft”), she was “groping for … something larger.” Her first act of overt rebellion against Papa Brontë was to marry “a divorced graduate student.” Then, as she sardonically noted in Of Woman Born, she began to write “ ‘modern,’ ‘obscure,’ ‘pessimistic’ poetry,” and eventually she had “the final temerity to get pregnant.” Another young woman poet who visited Cambridge at this time discerned what Auden, Jarrell, and perhaps even Rich’s father had failed to grasp. Sylvia Plath was fiercely rivalrous toward Rich, but in her journal she described her, with some respect, as “all vibrant short black hair, great sparkling black eyes and a tulip-red umbrella: honest, frank, forthright and even opinionated.”

When Plath encountered her, Rich had ostensibly settled into marriage and maternity. Her husband, Alfred Conrad, a Harvard economist, was simpatico and reasonably supportive. Yet soon enough the young poet began to rebel against the implications of her own decision to bear children in her mid-20s. In Of Woman Born, another classic text of  ’70s feminism, Rich examined with unusual frankness the anxieties and ambivalences of maternity. Though she confided that she loved her sons deeply—and was evidently close to them throughout her life—she argued that “every mother has known overwhelming, unacceptable anger at her children.” And at her husband. For like Plath, Rich was slowly skidding toward a marital breakup. Unlike Plath, she survived the pain. Instead, seven years after Plath gassed herself in a London oven, leaving two children for Ted Hughes to raise, Alfred Conrad drove in a rented car to the family’s Vermont country home and shot himself, leaving his wife with three young boys and a weight of grief that went for many years unwritten.

Inevitably, biographical pressures shaped the work of both Rich and Plath. Though each fictionalized or screened personal crises in sometimes evasive or obscure metaphors, each might be said to have lived what Keats once called a life of allegory, “a life like the scriptures, figurative.” But because Rich outlasted Plath for so many years, she was able through the “amazing movements” at which she herself marveled to become a feminist warrior for yet further change. And many of her readers, especially those of us who were poets and feminists, detected the revolutionary urge even in her most elliptical texts. We knew that traditional marriage hadn’t worked for her, as it hadn’t for Plath, and that she had begun writing with passion and precision not only about the problems of patriarchal culture but also about lesbianism as personal desire and political decision. But what exactly, many must have wondered, had happened and how was life dramatized in art?

Read more >>>