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Showing posts from 2017

‘The rhymes are sometimes poor’ - Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold published New Poems – in which “Dover Beach” makes its first appearance – 150 years ago. It was his last substantial collection of verse, his farewell to the art. In the remaining years of his life he collected and re-collected his poems, and added a few minor pieces; but the poetry had all but dried up, and he re-trenched as a writer of tendentiously brilliant prose: religious controversy, cultural commentary, and literary criticism. W. H. Auden, always fascinated by the business of repression, analysed the phenomenon in his mercilessly clinical sonnet about Arnold who, he wrote, “thrust his gift in prison till it died”. Arnold himself saw it more as a desertion, the pity of which was not so much being unable to write poems any more as remembering that one could, once. As epigraph to New Poems he set a sad little quatrain, which in later printings he would call “The Persistency of Poetry”:

Though the Muse be gone away,
Though she move not earth today,
Souls, erewhile who …

The loneliness of Elizabeth Bishop

In 1974, Elizabeth Bishop seemed to have all the things a poet could want: a teaching position at Harvard, a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a first-look contract with The New Yorker, which almost always decided to publish her work. And yet she was inconsolably unhappy. “When you write my epitaph,” Bishop said to the poet Robert Lowell, “you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”

That year, things only got worse. Bishop’s longtime lover, the Brazilian heiress Lota de Macedo Soares, had committed suicide in her presence in 1967, and her much younger current lover, Alice Methfessel, 31, with blond hair and dazzling eyes of “blue blue blue,” had recently jettisoned Bishop to become engaged to a man. Bishop’s sadness was bottomless: Alcohol could saturate the pain, but never take it away. The trappings of success were preferable to those of failure, but the older and more eminent that Bishop became, the more desperate and needy she grew as well. “Yesterday brought …

Rushdie’s New York Bubble

Whether by design, chance, or oracular divination, Salman Rushdie has managed, within a year of the 2016 election, to publish the first novel of the Trumpian Era. On purely technical merits this is an astounding achievement, the literary equivalent of Katie Ledecky lapping the Olympic field in the 1500-meter freestyle. The publishing industry still operates at an aristocratic pace; Egypt built the new Suez Canal in less time than it typically takes to convert a finished manuscript into a hardcover. As a point of comparison, the first novel to appear about September 11, Windows on the World, by the French author Frédéric Beigbeder, was not published until August 2003. Yet less than eight months into the administration, Rushdie has produced a novel that, if not explicitly about the president, is tinged a toxic shade of orange.

Trump poses a risky temptation for novelists, especially those writing amid the shit torrent of his presidency. As political journalists have discovered, the volum…

Saving Orwell

“It was a bright cold day in April,” said Richard Blair, “and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Blair is seventy-three and the son of George Orwell. To witness him stand at a lectern and read the opening line of his father’s great final novel, 1984, is to experience a sense of completion, an equation solved.

We were in Senate House, now part of the University of London, for 1984 Live. For the first time in the United Kingdom, the book was to be read aloud publicly from start to finish. It had been estimated that it would take sixty or so readers—well-known journalists, academics, actors, activists—thirteen hours, that Orwellian number, to get from the bright cold day to the gin-scented tears.

The event was being staged as part of the University College London Festival of Culture and organized by the Orwell Foundation, a charity celebrating the author’s work and values. Its director, Jean Seaton, explained that the idea had come “last summer, just after Brexit, but before Trump. The wor…

Rabindranath Tagore, by Ezra Pound.

THE APPEARANCE OF “The Poems of Rabindranath Tagore”1 is, to my mind, very important. I am by no means sure that I can convince the reader of this importance. For proof I must refer him to the text. He must read it quietly. He would do well to read it aloud, for this apparently simple English translation has been made by a great musician, by a great artist who is familiar with a music much subtler than our own.

It is a little over a month since I went to Mr. Yeats’ rooms and found him much excited over the advent of a great poet, someone “greater than any of us.”

It is hard to tell where to begin.

BENGAL IS A nation of fifty million people. Superficially it would seem to be beset with phonographs and railways. Beneath this there would seem to subsist a culture not wholly unlike that of twelfth-century Provençe.

Mr. Tagore is their great poet and their great musician as well. He has made them their national song, their Marseillaise, if an Oriental nation can be said to have an equivalent …

Whitman and the American Revelation

A literary scholar named Zachary Turpin at the University of Houston has discovered and published two previously unknown books by Walt Whitman during the last couple of years, but, like Columbus, he has been reluctant to recognize the implications of what he has found, and his principal commentators, some of them, have displayed the same reluctance, and, as a result, the full significance has not yet emerged. It is an astonishing discovery, though. It throws a brilliant and revealing light on the culture of the United States at its most beautiful and adorable—or, if my enthusiasm is getting out of hand, I would say, at least, that it halfway solves a large and enduring and central mystery of American literature.

Whitman thought of himself as the national poet of the United States, and it is reasonable to conclude that, for a good many people, he is, in fact, the national poet, as shown by an infinity of Walt Whitman High Schools, shopping malls, street names, auditoriums, and housing p…

A Walk in Willa Cather’s Prairie

In Webster County, Nebraska, the prairie rolls in waves, following the contours of a tableland gouged by rivers and creeks. At the southern edge of the county, a few hundred feet north of the Nebraska-Kansas border, is a six-hundred-acre parcel of land called the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. Cather spent much of her childhood in Red Cloud, six miles up the road, and for many people who love her writing, and perhaps for some who don’t, the Cather Prairie is one of the loveliest places on earth. You park at the top of a hill and follow a path down to a gulch, where a creek widens into a pond. At the bottom, you no longer see traces of modern civilization, though you can hear trucks on Route 281 as they clamber out of the Kansas flats. The land here was never plowed, and with careful cultivation it preserves the prairie as Cather roamed it, in the eighteen-eighties—an immemorial zone of grass, trees, birds, water, and wind. You can picture one of Cather’s pioneer women—Alexandra Bergso…

The Necessity Of Judgement - Montaigne

When faced with a biography that could as well stop a door as fill a shelf, one’s first question is always, “Does the subject merit this exhaustive treatment?” There are a few historical characters about whom one wishes to know everything, but not very many. One would like to know, for example, what Hitler or Stalin had for breakfast, even though such information would add nothing to one’s historical understanding and in effect be perfectly useless. Of most authors, however, a biographical essay suffices, and indeed requires more real intellect to write well than a lengthy recitation of every known fact about its subject. Stefan Zweig (who wrote a book about Montaigne) used to say that the art of writing was more in knowing what to leave out than what to put in, and his first drafts were often six times longer than his final version.

At first sight, Michel de Montaigne, who after all wrote a book of a thousand pages both about and to please himself, might be thought unworthy of minute …

"The era of world literature is at hand" - Goethe

On the afternoon of 31 January 1827, a new vision of literature was born. On that day, Johann Peter Eckermann, faithful secretary to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, went over to his master’s house, as he had done hundreds of times in the past three and a half years. Goethe reported that he had been reading Chinese Courtship (1824), a Chinese novel. ‘Really? That must have been rather strange!’ Eckermann exclaimed. ‘No, much less so than one thinks,’ Goethe replied.

A surprised Eckermann ventured that this Chinese novel must be exceptional. Wrong again. The master’s voice was stern: ‘Nothing could be further from the truth. The Chinese have thousands of them, and had them when our ancestors were still living in the trees.’ Then Goethe reached for the term that stunned his secretary: ‘The era of world literature is at hand, and everyone must contribute to accelerating it.’ World literature – the idea of world literature – was born out of this conversation in Weimar, a provincial German town …

“Time to Plant Tears” - Elizabeth Bishop

Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast is actually two books bound in the same cover. Both are interesting, but one is much better than the other. The first “book” is a compelling new biography of Bishop, who is now widely considered the most important American poet of the mid-20th century. Using a wealth of new material, including the poet’s letters to her lovers and psychoanalyst, Marshall has crafted the most intimate and accurate biography yet available. Anyone interested in Bishop’s life and work will need to read this moving and often revelatory new account. 

The second “book” consists of seven short memoirs by Marshall that surround each chapter of the formal biography. These sections purport to provide personal perspective on Bishop—Marshall was once her student at Harvard—but are essentially sketches of the biographer’s own life. Accounting for one-sixth of the book’s total length, these reminiscences often have little to do with Bishop and weigh down the …

A Poet for the Age of Brexit - A. E. Housman

Great poets fall into two categories: those whose public personas are of a piece with their work, and those whose personalities seem to contradict their work. If you met, say, Lord Byron, you would have no doubt that this was the man who wrote “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” Byron was as dramatic, world-weary, and scandalous in a drawing room as he was on the page. By contrast, if you were introduced to T. S. Eliot, you might have trouble making the connection between this buttoned-up bank clerk and the nightmare enchantment of “The Waste Land.” The patron saint of this latter type—the poet whose poetry is conspicuously at odds with his or her person—would have to be Alfred Edward Housman, the author of A Shropshire Lad and a writer who became, over the course of the 20th century, a kind of tutelary genius of Englishness.

The 63 lyrics in that book, first published in 1896, have a purity of speech and intensity of feeling that lent the collection the aura of a classic from the moment of …