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Showing posts from February, 2017

Elizabeth Bishop's Art Of Losing

The first of Elizabeth Bishop’s losses was her father, who died when she was eight months old. The second loss was more protracted: Bishop’s mother, shattered by her husband’s death, suffered a series of breakdowns. Sometimes loving in her behavior, sometimes violent, she went in and out of mental hospitals and was finally committed permanently, when Elizabeth was five. At the time, in the spring of 1916, the little girl was living with her mother’s family in a tiny town in Nova Scotia, a comforting place where she had often stayed before. Like many uprooted children, she had vivid memories: the pictures on the pages of the family’s Bible, the rhyme that her grandmother made when shining her shoes (using imaginary “gasoline” and “Vaseline”), and, when she was six, being taken away—“kidnapped,” she felt—by her father’s far more prosperous family, to live in their large and loveless house in Worcester, Massachusetts. It seemed then that she had lost a country, too. Although she was born…

Horrors of Waugh

In 1958, while on military training in Cyprus, Auberon Waugh accidentally shot himself in the chest with a machine gun. He was nineteen. Over the next ten days he fought for his life, having lost a lung, two ribs, part of his hand and his spleen. His mother Laura flew out immediately to be by his side. His father, Evelyn, preferred to remain at home. “I shall go out to travel home with Laura if he dies”, Waugh wrote detachedly to his friend Lady Diana Cooper. In the event, this was unnecessary; Auberon was brought back to England and installed at the Queen Alexandra Military hospital. Even so, it was a further week before Waugh managed to go and visit his son. By this point, Auberon had developed a chest infection due to a back abscess and again feared that death was near. “Dear Papa”, wrote Auberon on what he thought would be his deathbed. “Just a line to tell you what for some reason I was never able to show you in my lifetime, that I admire, revere and love you more than any man in…

Be brave - Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch (1919–99) was—unlike most modern writers—intelligent, nice, and good. Her physical beauty seemed to reflect the inward beauty of her soul. In person, she was observant, responsive, and acute, as well as serene and the mistress of herself. She had a great deal of love to give and was loving to the world in general. Born in Dublin, she was educated by high-minded bohemians at Badminton School, near Bristol. The influential headmistress shared a bedroom in Iris’s dormitory with another woman, but was also a “moral guide” who discouraged intimate friendships among her girls. Nonetheless, she gave an imprimatur to Iris’s lifelong propensity for lesbian affairs with various butch types, including her best friend and an unnamed temptress who threatened her marriage.

In 1938, at Oxford, where she earned a first-class degree in classics, Iris joined the Communist Party to express her solidarity with sufferers. Even someone as bright as Iris could, by adhering to the party line (whi…

Unhappy Endings - Carson McCullers

We’re in the closing moments of Carson McCullers’s 1946 novel “The Member of the Wedding.” The setting: a well-worn kitchen in a small Southern town during the Second World War. There’s little in the room: a chair, a stove. Everything else has been packed up—everything, that is, except the memories of the two women in the room, as they supervise the noisy comings and goings of movers. They are Berenice Sadie Brown, a middle-aged colored housekeeper, and Frankie Addams, a thirteen-year-old motherless white girl who has grown up in the house under Berenice’s charge. A year ago, McCullers writes, Frankie felt like “an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.” Her fears—which were largely existential; no mere adolescent quirks, these, since Frankie serves as McCullers’s stand-in—dominated her home. Then she fell in love with the romance—or her idea of the romance—between her brother and his fiancée, her “we of me,” as she called them. Berenice tried to warn Frankie…

Shipwrecked: looking for God in The Ancient Mariner

Charles Lamb once told a story about having Thomas De Quincey to supper. Lamb was Samuel Coleridge’s oldest friend and De Quincey was Coleridge’s greatest fan, so their talk naturally centred on the poet. While De Quincey badgered his host for information about his hero, Lamb, to allev­iate his boredom, pretended to mock “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, a poem he in fact greatly admired. (“I was never so affected with any human Tale,” Lamb wrote; on first reading Coleridge’s ballad, he had been “totally possessed with it for many days”. In response to Wordsworth’s complaint that the mariner had no character, Lamb explained to him that the trials undergone by the seafarer both “overwhelm and bury all individuality or memory of what he was”, erasing “all consciousness of personality”, “like the state of a man in a Bad dream”.) On this occasion, however, to wind up De Quincey, Lamb described the sailors who died aboard the mariner’s ship – Coleridge’s “many men, so beautiful” – as noth…

Why are ‘doomed’ poets considered the only good ones?

In Deaths of the Poets two living examples of the species, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, retail the closing moments of close on 30 poetical lives, ranging from Thomas Chatterton to Robert Frost, Lord Byron to Rosemary Tonks, John Clare to Thom Gunn. Why? Because they feel the influence on ‘our’ generation (Farley was born in 1965 and Symmons Roberts in 1963) of the ‘confessional’ American poets, several of whom cast a solemn glamour over their calling by killing themselves — John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. Because they think that a shrinking appetite for poetry itself, and an unflagging curiosity about the most dramatic elements in poet’s biographies (of which death must count as one), is bound to turn the end of a life into a ‘lens’ through which we view everything that came before it. And because they suppose that there’s an ‘association between poets and mortality’, since a lot of people think if poets are any good they must be ‘doomed’ — not to mention melanch…

Voice from the Asylum - Ezra Pound

Among the bombings that marked the beginning of 2017, one took place on New Year’s Day at the CasaPound bookshop in Florence, an outpost of the Italian neo-fascist or ‘alt-right’ CasaPound movement, which takes its name and inspiration from the American poet Ezra Pound. As Daniel Swift points out in the ‘CasaPound’ chapter of The Bughouse, in December 2011 ‘a CasaPound supporter went on a shooting spree in a market in Florence and killed two Senegalese traders and wounded three more’. He also notes links between Pound and the American neo-fascist and white supremacist John Kasper, suspected of orchestrating the bombing of a high school. On trial in Florida, Kasper, a disciple of Pound who visited the poet regularly, ‘held a copy of Mein Kampf in one hand’. Swift’s book does not draw connections between Pound and American ‘alt-right’ campaigners of our own day, but it might be easy to do so. An article on the ‘alt-right’ website Radix, dated 31 December 2016, begins, ‘The United States …

John Ruskin Taught Victorian Readers and Travelers the Art of Cultivation

Nearthe dawn of the twentieth century, a young Englishwoman named Lucy is visiting an ancient church in Florence, unsure of what she is looking at, or how, exactly, to see it. She doesn’t have her Baedeker, a popular travel guide, and is feeling lost without it. “She walked about disdainfully,” we learn, “unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.” The woman unsure of her own reaction to a lovely church without consulting “Mr. Ruskin” is Lucy Honeychurch, the heroine of E. M. Forster’s celebrated 1908 novel, A Room with a View. The reference to “Mr. Ruskin” might be lost on many modern readers, although Forster obviously felt no obligation to explain it when he wrote his story. The man in question, John Ruskin, had died eight years earlier, in 1900, but his memor…

The Disgraceful Lowlands of Writing - Franz Kafka

In 1917, one of Franz Kafka’s few readers sent him a letter. It was a rare taste of recognition. This reader, Dr. Siegfried Wolff, wanted something. Not an autograph, a signed book, or a manuscript page. He wanted answers. He had bought a copy of “The Metamorphosis” for his cousin, who passed it to Wolff’s mother, who passed it to another cousin. None of them could figure out what it meant. Dr. Wolff read the story for himself and came away equally confused. “Only you can help me,” he wrote to Kafka. “You have to, because you are the one who landed me in this situation. So please tell me what my cousin ought to make of ‘The Metamorphosis.'” The supplicating Dr. Wolff came at the head of a long line of readers who would be stymied by Kafka’s stories. Not having Kafka around to pester for answers, many of the perplexed wrote their own guides. Perhaps no modern author has initiated such a frenzy of interpretation with so slender and fragmentary a body of work. Three unfinished novels,…

The passions of Elizabeth Bishop

“I’m not interested in big-scale work as such,” Elizabeth Bishop once told an interviewer. “Something needn’t be large to be good.”

True to this statement, Bishop spent her career producing finely designed, precisely executed poems, elegant and exquisite miniatures, few in number and subtle, albeit significant, in their impact. Her work brought acclaim and awards, and since her death in 1979, her reputation has continued to climb. But during her life, she often felt insecure about her career, and there is no denying that next to the flamboyant, larger-than-life personalities that tended to dominate American poetry in the second half of the 20th century, Elizabeth Bishop often struck one as — the characterization is practically mandatory when discussing this poet — a modest figure.

At the head of this pack of outsize personalities was Robert Lowell, with whom Bishop had an intimate and complex relationship, a friendship that included romantic elements despite the fact that she preferred …