Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Goncourt Journal

I'm reading Pages from the Goncourt Journal. It's wonderful stuff – racy, prurient, snobbish, vindictive, funny, profound, etc etc. The range of tone and purpose is breathtaking. I want to quote at length – there's a beautiful passage early on in which the brothers comfort their cousin, who is in unrequited love, while looking after a vomiting prostitute in a hotel room at 4am – but the whole book, which is already a selection by the translator Robert Baldick, is worth quoting, and all I have time for now is these two nuggets on Napoleon, which manage to be both inane and deadly serious:

Charpentier told me today that according to Constant Napoleon was in the habit of rolling his excrement into balls between his fingers: a habit which bears a curious and horrifying resemblance to the similar cases, symptomatic of insanity, noted by Dr. Trelat.

Sainte-Beuve saw the first Emperor once: it was at Boulogne and he was urinating. It is, so to speak, in that posture that he has seen and judged all great men ever since.

Friday, June 26, 2009

'A powerful and passionate syntax'

Last night I was reading Seamus Heaney's essay on Christopher Marlowe (in The Redress of Poetry, the collection of his Oxford lectures). Heaney makes a good case for the brilliance of 'Hero and Leander', reiterating Pound's argument that Marlowe's technique anticipates pretty much all of the technique of the eighteenth-century satirists. It's quite convincing – not just the use of heroic couplets but their deft comic handling and understated gravitas. Heaney quotes a section of 'Hero and Leander', then comments that 'the verse here is like a thick cable being paid out wittily by an intelligence that is nevertheless the very opposite of thick-witted.' (That sentence is a great example of how Heaney's critical prose can be simultaneously lucid and cramp-inducing, as the brain tries to resolve the syntax and sense of a claim that has already seduced it.) Here's the bit he quotes:

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is overruled by fate.
When two are stripped, long ere the course begin
We wish that one should lose, the other win.
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots like in each respect.
The reason no man knows; let it suffice
What we behold is censured by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?

Heaney goes on to discuss the poem's virtues in some detail. And because the verse is comic and the tone (apparently) light, those virtues might not be obvious, so I'm glad to have them elucidated. And yet I can't help preferring, still, the macho, bulldozing blank verse of the plays. This is the passage from Tamburlaine that Heaney quotes:

The thirst of reign and sweetness of a crown,
That caused the eldest son of heavenly Ops
To thrust his doting father from his chair,
And place himself in the imperial heaven,
Moved me to manage arms against thy state.
What better precedent than mighty Jove?
Nature, that framed us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wandering planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us to wear ourselves and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Poetry and Translation journal issue

I've guest-edited an issue of the academic journal Working Papers on the Web, on the subject of 'Poetry and Translation'. There are excellent articles on dialect as translation in the work of Luigi Meneghello; early modern women writers and translation; and the ethics of translation in late 20th-century American poetry. There's also an article of mine on (un)translation in Michael Hofmann’s poetry.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tom Chivers' The Terrors

Tom Chivers. The Terrors. Nine Arches Press, 2009.

Tom Chivers' exuberant, coherent and original pamphlet The Terrors is mostly in prose. The likely stumbling block for potential readers, the formal premise, is also its main strength. A series of emails sent to the inmates of Newgate Prison 1700–60? You wonder whether such a tenuous thread (sorry about the mixed metaphor) is strong enough to suspend your disbelief from. But it is. I'd envisaged trying to forget the incongruity of 21st-century medium and 18th-century matter, but in fact it always remains before your eyes, insisting on its own strangeness and aptness simultaneously. The net result is rather like the mock-epic: London then and now inform each other, and the pamphlet invites us to think of the two milieux as equivalent. The method is introduced gently via a 'Guide to Email Etiquette', similar to the ones we've all seen a thousand times except for the irruption of historical material:

Don't overuse the exclamation mark.
Be concise and to the point.
Don't reply to spam.
Don't gape at Puppet-shews.
Don't talk about the Press.
Don't excavate the ragstone.
Do not request delivery receipts.

And so on. It's a neat introduction, because it evokes the themes of money, crime and hack writing which we (I, anyway) associate with the 18th century, particularly 18th-century London, via a contemporary form. The first email, which follows, applies the idea to spam; and in the next Chivers gets into his stride; the fascination with food and sex, and the exuberant attitude to language, seem to belong to both the centuries:

Watch a shank of lamb lip off the bone as a woman stepping from her dress. This steaming viand, in its scrambled mess of lentils (puy), requires your total 100% concentration. I give you 'The Huntsman's Supper', or some other peasant chic moniker.

The method's difficulty is in the balance of contemporary and historical idiom, the mixing of 'thee' and 'wistful maidens' and 'danc'd' with 'whatever' and 'hate mail' and the parenthetical 'LOL' . On the whole Chivers manages it very well; and it needs and demands the reader's sympathy. If you're determined to cavil at it, you can – there's an air of the costume drama wafting around in the background – but that would be to miss the clowning, grave, Hogarthian point.

Of course the common theme to all these emails is death, the expected death of the inmates. Death is 'the end of speculation', and the prison is 'an island' or indeed anywhere, the inmates anyone. But more vivid are the routes they have taken to reach the gaol, their crimes: William Dodd is imagined haunting the shopping centre 'in hair-shirt, shell-suit, Nikes'; he is a ghost proper and/or he haunts the contemporary London criminal. The email format allows a brief narrative sketch of an inmate, an angle. 'I tried to map the city, how it all connected', but far from a map, we're given discrete moments and vistas. The partiality and incompleteness militate against a systematic or programmatic line. The most explicitly political contemporary connection comes with a mention of an 'orange jump-suit' and the 'drone of Boeings slowly stacking in the air above', but this head-on aspect closes almost as soon as it opens. This is for the best, since like all satire The Terrors is ambivalent about its subjects; its moral force is both complicated and reduced by its interest in the criminals and lurid details ('I attach the evidence of your crimes in high res jpegs'). But we didn't come for a sermon, after all.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Me and the Dead

Katy Evans-Bush. Me and the Dead. Salt, 2008.

Not only reviewers and endorsers but also the blurb of Me and the Dead proclaim its transatlantic marriage of styles, so I suppose we have to take it seriously. And it is discernible in the poems' yoking of contrary forces, for instance in 'The Bog of Despair', where a New York Poets-y focus on the minutiae of everyday cosmopolitan life (it starts, 'We'd lunched on Greek salad and coffee') is the vehicle of a quite traditionally English elegy (for, obliquely, Keats, and more generally and directly those who died young). But I'm not sure that this geographical view is the most useful one – it makes the cosmopolitan element more noticeable, and I rather prefer the poems where it is less prominent.

But Katy Evans-Bush's style does, well, contain multitudes. On the one hand she is interested in high culture and the classics (there are two or three opera poems in here, and a version of Catullus X which switches the point of view to the girl, to winning effect), in elegance and rhetorical formality. On the other, the poems are mainly chatty, and interested in the immediacy of life, whether in its urban context or elsewhere.

The rhetoric is manifest in the use of conceits, for example in 'To My Next Lover' and the first poem in the book, 'The Only Reader' whose formality and lyricism and slightly uncharacteristic lack of contemporary reference give it a timeless aura – dangerous to aim for but worth having if it turns up:

As the Canada goose honks serenely, unaware
Of foreign towns below him – as only the sky
Has meanings and tones – where foreign people gaze
through open doors at his leaf-and-cloud-coloured flight,
And the Amherst woods carried with him as he goes,
And the air momentarily clearer where he was[.]

There's also an apostrophe to a dish, which is half a Grecian urn poem and half a meditation channeled through an object. The collision of colloquial tone with high rhetorical form is particularly successful here. Its effect depends partly on accumulation, but quoting may give you a flavour (notice the bathos in the second of these quatrains, which both punctures and underwrites the rhetoric):

Dish, you're my talisman,
my lucky charm, my incantation, my potion,
my memento mori – that is, of the death of my heart –
you're my past, my future, my darling Valentine.

You arrived as a surprise,
a kind of benediction, given away
impulsively my my friend Helen. What I love
is the medallion image at your bottom[.]

The book's variety is impressive: as well as elegy, monologue, conceit and apostrophe, we find found poems, a list poem/sound poem, a really tight prose poem ('An Operation in New York'), narratives and epistles and family dramas. Many of the poems I like less are about relationships, although one of these,, 'The Crash (a Love Letter)', I like a lot. The voice is urbane, quick, difficult to get hold of (the book forms a coherent whole, but not in the monolithic way some poets are blessed, or cursed, with). My favourite poem here is 'The Escape Artists', an odd and original meditation on parenthood, growing up and the imagination:

You don't need a tour of the whale,
its pink sitting rooms and corridors drizzling with damp,
to show you someone lived there
and what they made of it. You've seen the sword
furled in the umbrella stand.
And that metallic plate hanging over your fireplace:
wasn't that once a dragon's scale?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Naipaul, exile and love

On the whole I prefer VS Naipaul's reflective novels, rather than those more closely concerned with character and plot. The latter are the famous ones, from the Dickensian comedy of Mr Biswas to the Booker Prize-winning seriousness of In a Free State. In the end, the characters of these books just aren't that likable, and I wonder if this is not a coincidence.

I'm reading The Mimic Men, a book whose narrator is certainly a character and not merely an authorial mouthpiece. But Ralph Singh's reflections on history and landscape do reflect Naipaul's recurring preoccupations. There's a passage early on in the book which I think reveals something essential not only to his thought but to his writing too. Singh says:

I have seen much snow. It never fails to enchant me, but I no longer think of it as my element. I no longer dream of ideal landscapes or see to attach myself to them. All landscapes eventually turn to land, the gold of the imagination to the lead of the reality. I could not, like so many of my fellow exiles, live in a suburban semi-detached house; I could not pretend even to myself to be part of a community or to be putting down roots. I prefer the freedom of my far-out suburban hotel, the absence of responsibility; I like the feeling of impermanence.

Of course this speaks clearly of the book's central concern (and a central concern of post-colonial literature in general), the difficulties faced by the post-colonial subject searching for his identity. But it also hints at a key condition of Naipaul's writing, the fact that he writes from such a position, without a 'home' landscape in any easy sense. His great qualities as a writer are his detachment and pitilessness in recording the world, including himself, the landscapes he has lived in and the ideals he has tried to espouse. He explicitly mentions this detachment as an enabling condition of his writing in The Engima of Arrival, where he talks about being able to see, as an outsider, things that the native inhabitants of a place cannot see (and in the end he feels like an outsider to all his landscapes). In a review Salman Rushdie criticised The Enigma of Arrival for being the record of 'a life without love, or one in which love has been buried so deep that it can't come out'. I can't agree with the gist of Rushdie's review, or with the paragraph from which that line is quoted, in which he seems to conflate Naipaul's life and work. But I suspect that there is a grain of truth in the idea that Naipaul's work is essentially loveless: lacking a home, it also lacks the cpre emotion of home. And while in human terms this is indeed a tragedy, it is also the sort of flaw that makes possible great, original writing.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Horizon Review

Horizon Review is now looking for submission for its third issue; they're looking for poetry and short fiction. They also run reviews, but I think they've got enough for this issue already. Submission guidelines here. In particular, the editor Jane Holland wants more submissions from women. 

Old books, new pleasures

Watching the BBC Arena programme on Eliot the other night made me go back and read his poems - mainly 'Four Quartets', and 'Ash Wednesday', since it figured so prominently in the programme (partly, no doubt, because it offers such a useful way of talking about his religious conversion). Eliot's so thoroughly canonical now – part of the terrain – that it's easy to forget about him; but rereading his later work I was not only reminded how good it is, but also how musical, and how strange – unashamedly religious, direct poetry. The fourth section of 'Ash Wednesday' moves between image and portentous maxim with, well, a religious confidence and majesty and cadence (confidence in spite of the doubt that motivates and moves in Eliot's work):

Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and in knowledge of eternal dolour

Of course there are things to criticise here, but mainly because Eliot's canonical status makes us querulous. The repetition of a line or phrase is used throughout the poem, and is familiar from 'The Waste Land' and elsewhere; but that's because Eliot made it famous. And the boldness of the images and symbols ('Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour') may seem reductive, in the same way that critics have considered the rhetoric of Ted Hughes' Crow reductive. But the complaint against Crow is bound up in its myth-making religiosity; and since Eliot's poem is explicitly religious, I'm not sure it's quite to the point to criticise it on this score. It varies from the school of the precise, nuanced image, but here Eliot is specifically looking for something vague, blank and, as a result, unearthly.

And the poem isn't without precise images. In the previous section Eliot writes of 'a slotted window bellied like the fig's fruit'. That really struck me, because I've been wanting to use the image of an oriel window for a while now, and couldn't find a way to make it work. Then Eliot comes along and shows me: it's simple, back-to-basics stuff – just find a wonderful image...

I also picked up from my bookshelves my copy of Ken Smith's Wild Root, which I can't quite remember acquiring and certainly have never read much of before. More fool me. It's great. I'm still discovering the work, but one thing that strikes me is that one thing Smith shares with Eliot's later work is a willingness to be simple and direct. See how, in the first poem in the book, the lineation works with the syntax to make simple sentences beautiful:

The other hald of the conversation
has flown off in a jetplane
to the country of her own tongue.

And maybe she'll come back to me
or maybe not or maybe she was all a dream
I had in the blue garden in the dusk.

As I say, I'm still finding my feet in the book, but already I've spied some ghost poems that tickle my fancy, and a poem on hats dedicated to John Hartley Williams – and that's got me thinking of his work, for instance the famous, wonderful 'Lament for the Subotica-Palic Tramway'. Good old books!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Plus ca change?

I see that the notorious scam site has gone bust and apparently been taken over by Lulu. Great news... or is it?

The new site seems to me to be pretty much a rebranding of the old. For example:

'When you win we’ll send you a certificate for you to print and hang on your wall to remind everyone of your accomplishment - along with a cash prize.'

Notice the 'when' – not 'if'.

I understand that Lulu is about self-publishing, so they can legitimately claim that they're providing the facilities for people to share their poetry, not providing editorial judgments. But that claim is undermined by the talk of prizes and winning. Even if they aren't intending to mislead people, it seems pretty daft to take over a scam site domain name, then put in place a similar business model without adequately distinguishing it.