Some Practical Advice for Young Poets Considering Exile: Part 2

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The catalyst, the fuse, call it what you like, whatever it is that sets sweeping change into motion, often comes in the form of epiphany, the sudden realization that things are not what they had seemed to be a moment earlier.

At the time this happened to me, I was living in an attic apartment in Paris down the street from the Moulin Rouge in Pigalle (a dismal, seedy neighborhood) in a converted chambre de bonne. It had a nice kitchenette and seemed like the inside of an upside down boat. I had settled down to write after dinner, having pulled up a side table in front of the sofa, opened and loaded my portable Adler with the much-loathed blank sheet of paper, ready to put down, as I always was, the first thing that came into my head. Clackety-clack. One line, two lines, a half page. Then everything ground to a halt.

“Why was I writing in this way and not in another way,” I asked myself.

Maybe this will strike you as banal – it is banal. (In fact, I have learned over the years that banality is the wellspring.) But this was the moment in which my “faith” began to unravel.

Without my coreligionists, my fellow travelers: my teachers, my friends; without that certain quality of air that filled the cultural bubble I’d inhabited during my New York years, where I’d blended reading and writing and talking into an essence, a vehicle, a means forward. Without all that, and with all the newness and the loneliness of my present situation bearing down on me, I broke.

Everything I’d written up until that moment, everything I’d thought about how poetry should be carried forward, that whole linkage between ourselves, as writers, and a certain tradition we’d grown up by, seemed discardable, flimsy, irrelevant and self-indulgent.

It was the moment in which I realized that the construction of a certain discourse that went by the name of “contemporary American poetry” was context sensitive in a way that other discourses were not. It simply didn’t work (for me, at least) outside its own well-established parameters. What seemed perfectly credible in New York came off as gibberish in Paris.

Novels didn’t disappoint in this way, even in translation. Or history, or biography, or memoir, and certainly not the best of contemporary writing on science. Nor did painting, or contemporary classical music. These forms, at their best, transcended boundaries. But contemporary poetry, my own and others, felt increasingly parochial. I felt myself suddenly mourning, not only my own failure, but the failure of American poetry in general.

Of course, identifying one’s own failure with perceived larger failures is one of the first signs that delusional thinking is setting in. In the poet’s case, a more general loss of linguistic bearings (at the macro level, of poethood and tradition) tends to dovetail with the process of writing poetry itself, in which losing one’s language can be a poem-by- poem experience. Since poets, more than other writers, are always faced with the challenge of linguistic reinvention, the whole existential crisis of writing poems in the first place, of loss and overcoming loss, is often imported into the drama, becoming the meta-subject of the poem itself.

After leaving New York, I experienced this loss at both the macro and the micro levels. It took me about three years to learn how to write again. There were a few beacon poems along the way, but when I look back at those years. I see mostly grayness, the slate-colored Paris sky and a series of failures and still births. And yet, paradoxically my ability to incorporate this failure into my poems was a way to continue writing them. 

Over the next weeks, months (we’re talking 1983) as this realization began to take hold, I allowed my living masters (those that actually taught me), John Ashbery above all, C. K. Williams, James Tate, Ann Lauterbach, to somehow escape my general condemnation. But I was already seeing them in a new light, already glimpsing a new way to read them, ways with which they probably wouldn’t have agreed. 

On the other hand, I saw a vibrant health in poetry translated into English (even if it wasn’t well translated). The Russians first of all, and Eastern European poetry (Holub, Popa, Herbert), then Cavafy, Pavese and Pessoa (Pessoa before I even moved to Portugal…thanks to Edward Honig’s translations). My overriding impression was that this was poetry that favored subject matter over self-expression. In fact, in their poetry self-expression was often stripped down, minimalist, anti-poetic, as Nicanor Para would call it. It was grounded in observation of the world and not obstructed by observation of one’s own delicate sensibility. Cavafy looked at himself, in his autobiographical poems, with the same ironic detachment that he used to look at historical figures and the struggles of ancient communities – and yet this didn’t prevent his poems from being intimate. The poet as the center of his own universe was still there, still executive, however toned down. By comparison, the American avant-garde seemed a gifted yet over-straining adolescent. I was, at the time poised somewhere between the New York school and the Language poets - one of my favorite books was Charles Bernstein’s Controlling Interests (1980). I liked the audacity and endless invention. Even though the program (because these poets always came with a kind of ersatz Frankfurt School program) seemed a bit silly, inflated. European poets, as I began to figure out, were not really concerned with “poetics” – poetry was an act of survival, the poem an act of witnessing.

It also could have been the denaturing process of translation itself, which gives us, at best, the husk of poems. But it was the husk I needed, not the grace notes. I needed a new conceptual platform.

 Why?

Looking back on this moment a quarter of a century later it seems quaint: a young writer who had based his whole identity around one of the many ways to be a poet (the New York way in my case) suddenly discovering that this particular way, like wine, didn’t travel well. It was, in short, non-adaptive. It couldn’t possibly process what was happening with my life, not to mention what was happening in Europe at the time. One reason was that the New York style meta-poem, the poem that was, in formal terms, at least in part, a celebration of its own ability to be a poem against all odds, shunned that old equation which said the poet was uniquely fit to observe the world, to be the winnower, to overcome contingency and assemble a narrative. This tradition had been a strong presence in American literature in figures as diverse as Frost, Williams, Bishop, Thoreau. But the American avant-garde in those years was more concentrated on assimilating continental theory than describing suburban hedgerows.

My own problem, at that given moment (which I realize could be taken as a sudden splurge of neo-romantic self-pity) was, in fact, more practical. I was suddenly aware of the fact that I had not really been trained to be a writer at all, so much as some exquisite compiler of verbal obfuscation.

Something fundamental about how poets are perceived by society made me feel embarrassed, presumptuous. Uprooted, as I was, the French language all around me, I was suddenly averse to calling myself that thing that I had staked my whole identity on: poet. I was embarrassed by the fact that poets were not tested, like other writers, in the market place. They lived off grants, on campuses and only expressed their poethood to captive audiences, their students and other poets. The French poets, were the same, they were all but invisible. The French press made a great deal out of its novelists, but poets were hardly on the radar. For all that the world cared, we might as well have been speaking Latin among ourselves, so monastic, so cloistered had we become. I had been protected from this realization while living in New York, since there was never a shortage of poets, readings, and sympathetic types who liked the bohemian ambiance. But this life tended to obscure the extravagant act of introversion that writing poetry in America was, as well as the new theoretical apparatus that underpinned it. 

Without that support system, the production of the kind of poetry that flourished in a particular context, yet not beyond it, and the whole set of characteristics that went with it – indeterminacy, dissonance, the play on register, disjunction, the idiom of camp, the derision of values, the so-called critique of establishment narratives – seemed like outdated ordnance. I wanted to connect with the new friends I was making, but they were unable to read what I was writing, even if some of them were native English speakers, long-time residents in Europe, artists and intellectuals. But mostly I needed to make sense of cobblestones, of a majestic river, of the way an army of sweepers opened the street gutters each evening as this city began to quiet, the round café tables with the inevitable ribbed metal band wrapping around a Formica top, cardboard coasters and bakelite ashtrays, the interior courtyards, and pollarded plane trees.

To return to the original intention of this present set of posts (my presumption of offering practical advice on the option of voluntary exile) I would say that the lessons I took from those early days, when I was still living in Paris, before moving to Portugal, were that one’s initial education in the craft needed to be tested severely if the craft was to be raised to the level of art. De-familiarization, self-estrangement and the abandonment of community were, however harsh, ways to test one’s range as a writer. The immersion in foreign cultures, the learning of foreign languages, and then operating in those languages are for the poet counter-intuitive and to a certain extent self-destructive. Pasternak, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, all refused to leave “mother” Russia, which, in becoming the Soviet Union, threatened to cripple their creative lives. And yet for them mother Russia was as much a state of language as it was a nation of peoples, sovietized or otherwise.

The situation today for English writing poets is perhaps similar, in the sense that our stance is still defensive. 

For the Russian poets after 1917, a great part of their mission was to salvage freedom of expression and the Russian language against the perversity of the political slogan and the bureaucratization of public discourse, not to mention saving their own skins. Young North American poets of the early 21st century must come to understand that the English language has become the global language, and this global idiom comes in two basic forms: hegemonic and co-opted; that is, English has become a language which embodies both power and the struggle against power, both the standardization and the defense of the particular. Historically, this trend emerged out of a postwar American economic boom, which spread to Western Europe through, firstly, the Marshall Plan and became consolidated when both America and Europe were, in the postwar context, simply kept on a nearly full-time war-footing, both economically and ideologically, the latter tending to enforce a polarization between the western consumer class – buying a new car was a patriotic act – and the communist enemy, collectivized and without the freedom to consume. English, following the American model was the preeminent language of consumerism. On a geopolitical level, the Cold War, the continuing American occupation of Europe, the creation of NATO and the implementation of that vast military industrial complex that Eisenhower had warned against all helped to consolidate English as the supranational language of commerce, culture and war. 

Adopting the language of the victors has, to a certain extent, allowed Europe to unionize and live in peace. But, at this point it has gone far beyond that. The only way to understand how English operates in the world today is to leave the metropole and see for yourself how the process is evolving. These days, the best way to see the English language is to look at it from the outside, to hear how the world speaks it, and to learn to speak in their languages, as both a gesture of respect, and for the insight it provides into the relationship between the syntax of a culture and the way that culture manifests itself materially. It is only then that one can begin to understand the forces that have come to form our own contemporary vernacular. Poets no longer create the language of the tribe (there is no longer just one tribe). It is our duty now, since English has become the language of globalization, to continually recycle all of its registers, to shift and shuffle them, to be at once plain spoken and baroque, as need be, to keep the language exercised, lean and honest.     

Originally Published: April 21st, 2009

Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...

  1. April 21, 2009
     Roberto Planos

    Martin, your tenure at Harriet has been wonderful so far. I always look forward to your thoughtful and judicious analyses. Here what I find most interesting is the act of witholding. As someone who lives in New York I often come into contact the tendency to view all poetry through Big Apple-tinted glasses. Of course, the rest of the world must view this as the height of pretention. Just because our lives lack meaning, and are reaching an event horizon of experiment for its own sake, does not mean we have to subject the world to this with our 4,400 books of poems published each year. (cf. Annie's earlier post on Poet's House's annual gala.) \r

    Now don't get me wrong, I thoroghly enjoy many books of poems published each year. The issue at hand is the slackening of the paloric valve. Does "The Alphabet" really have to be as long as it is. Don't we get the point already by page one. It is the American way to view super-saturation as somehow generative of merit. I don't understand. I also don't understand why poetry is demonized when it becomes discriptive (or god forbid driven by imagery). Do we really believe that the gaze is so damn damning. \r


    I would be interested to hear you expand further on the function of decentering oneself, esp. with regards to one's native language. As one witholds one's assent to a dominant tradition, do we simply transubstantiate our beliefs to what we percieve as its opposite or is something else going on. I know this is a crass oversimplification of the issue, but nonetheless

  2. April 21, 2009
     james stotts

    and our duty to test its ability to still make and access meaning, to justify our lives, to practice a kind of irony that has nothing to do necessarily with cosmopolitanism but is suffocated by provincialism, by an anxiety that 'the other' might poison the well.\r

    stagnation on the one hand, and pollution on the other, both make it difficult to raise fluency to another power (to a poetic level).\r

    there is a funny thing that happens when a population is in a bad way, the fittest survivors are sick and pale, underfed and anxious and still very fit, especially vigilant, ready to be introduced to and flourish in a healthy environment or to swim underground through a dark winter, a kind of rhizomatic rigor, a diffuse responsiveness, sensitivity linked to initiative.\r

    mandelstam, interestingly, came to his rootedness and dedictation to specifically russian registers after being educated in germany and at the sorbonne! and learned his highest art as specifically a survival technique while in a third kind of exile, tertium quid: internal exile. his late poetry was a conversation with sanity, mortality, innocence, and empty innovation (i think brodsky called it a 'terrifying acceleration' that occurred in his style).\r

    existence, as it is presented to us in america, a kind of existential stability where faith is fortified through the lack of a need for faith, and systemic ignorance is promoted by unprecedented access to and facilitation of knowledge (right, 'information' technology) is a kind of amazing development which, it would seem to me, opens us up to a great potential capacity for wonder and extra-lyric poetry.\r

    when i first when to paris, as a young boy, there was an almost unstoppable temptation to jump into the abyss. i was almost forced into voluntary exile, then.

  3. April 21, 2009
     Miriam Levine

    Advice for keeping language "lean and honest": avoid these important sounding words: discourse, macro, minimalist, meta-poem, meta-subject, hegemonic. Using these words, as you do in this blog, surely can't be the fruit of your self-imposed exile. Or did they occur to you as you sat in your attic apartment in Paris with a blank piece of paper in front of you?\r
    Miriam

  4. April 21, 2009
     Martin Earl

    Miriam\r

    Thank's for the reality check. Of course these words didn't occur to me in my Paris attic. That was twenty five years ago...they were just coming into the much fabled "discourse" at the time. But you're right, I should try to write more plainly and I'm glad your comment catches me out on this. Back in the early 90's when I was starting to write for Webdolsol (this was the beginning, really, of literary journalism on the web) I drew up a list of words that I wouldn't use, at all costs. A quarter of a century later you've amazingly, even if only in part, reproduced that list. in other words, you've caught me with my pants down. My question to you is how do we avoid this kind of clichéd vocabulary and still say what we need to say? Is it the way we use the words, or the words themselves? After all, they are all totally accepted in today's parlance. Even so, I share your distaste for them. \r

    Martin

  5. April 22, 2009
     Martin Earl

    Roberto,\r

    Thanks for you comment. I’ll be taking up this notion of decentering (language, community, tradition, etc.) in the next post…looking at my own example and that of others. I like your notion of “withholding”. That adds a new dimension to these problems I am trying to puzzle out. I’ll take you up further on this, if you don’t mind. It dovetails with a comment Mairead made on the first thread in this series about “Ireland’s long history of self-imposed exile from the 8th century monks to the writers of the 20th century.” But I hadn’t really made the connection between “withholding” and the “penitence” Mairead speaks of. In terms of Irish writers, Beckett is the severest case. \r
    At any rate, let me think about these things. \r

    I also find your idea of “super-saturation” interesting. I started to work with this in a slightly different context in one of my early posts, “Hives”, and plan to revisit the topic in the future. \r

    By the way, I found nothing in the way of “crass oversimplification” in what you have to say. To the contrary. I’d love to here more from you on this notion of “withholding”.\r

    Thanks again,\r

    Martin

  6. April 22, 2009
     Martin Earl

    James,\r

    I think we are both looking for a term that would describe this thing (place, state of mind) which has, as you say, “nothing to do necessarily with cosmopolitanism” but is “suffocated by provincialism”. You’ve managed to sniff out the fact, certainly, that living abroad is a pretext here, one way (and not necessarily the only one) to get at more essential processes underlying and forming our relationship to poetry. \r

    I’m impressed with your understanding of Mandelstam (and the Russians in general), and envious that you can read him (them) in the original. And I’d love to see you elaborate further on that account, especially what you mean by “empty innovation”. Brodsky is another extremely interesting case. Would you say that his exilic fate was almost diametrically opposed to Mandelstam’s? I was never convinced by Brodsky’s poetry in English, whether translated or later, when he started writing poetry directly in English. On the contrary, his English prose is extraordinary. \r

    Lastly your third paragraph echoes what Susan Sontag said in a 1963 essay on Simone Weil, first published in the New York Review of Books. Here’s the link: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/13783 I’m going to bring this up in Annie’s thread later today.\r

    By the way, your penultimate paragraph is fascinating, and very much worth pursuing. \r
    Thanks as always for your commentary. \r

    Martin

  7. April 22, 2009
     Miriam Levine

    Thanks for your open-minded reply, Martin.\r
    Yours for poetry,\r
    Miriam

  8. April 22, 2009
     james stotts

    i liked the sontag review, though am not so familiar with simone weil, and not that eager to. here's what i would single out: 'Sanity becomes compromise.' i've usually contended that a willingness to believe that anything has any meaning at all requires a modicum of faith, since in a sense we know better. that is almost the same thing to me as saying sanity is a compromise, though perhaps putting them together is even better. it was this first 'epiphany' that helped me to start developing a sort of begrudging tolerance of religions, since i started seeing them as inflated systems of poetic (meaning-making) thought. of course, the difference is an intensive skepticism with which poetry combats cliche, and an irony which reduces wisdom to its essentials, a dust of mostly errata and desiderata. in that sense, it's the opposite of religion, the opposite of 'received' wisdom, and that's where it becomes morally invaluable.\r

    and she singles out dostoyevsky, nietzsche, and kafka for their diseased conviction, for their insight's connection to un-health. these are my heroes. the late mandelstam certainly fits this mold. why they are 'bigots' and truth-averse to sontag is beyond me (excepting dostoyevsky, i guess), but maybe she's really talking about weil.\r

    the superficiality of truth is something that fascinates me, and something i'm not sure if mandelstam would have admitted, quite. what i know is that mandelstam, along with all the other serious russian poets around him, were hyper-attuned to all the avant-gardeisms and experiments of their time. mandelstam, i think, made great use of the apophatic, the expression of silence, the poetics of anti-matter (which, if you remember your quantum physics and venn diagrams, is really just matter going backwards through time, which is exactly what mandelstams do in their allusion to his precursors, esp. dante and ovid), and zaum (nonsense, or trans-sense). when i talk about empty innovation, i'm thinking partly of this, and partly of the way his formalism gave way to a sort of songbird virtuosity (which brodsky noted in his essay on mandelstam, too).\r
    with his arrest and internal exiles, mandelstam suffered a real crisis of confidence, which i think, like the pretext of your isolation in paris, had the effect for him of undoing his poetic preconceptions and making poetry terrifying and almost impossible again, and so his last poems are really remarkable just for existing. he considered capitulating to stalin, attempted suicide, did actually write a poem in praise of stalin and communist russia (though he destroyed it) and you can see in the poems he did write a tortured identification with stalin, which is fascinating and frightening.\r

    i think i read one brodsky poem in english that i liked, his first written originally in english), but his copyrights are pretty well protected on the internet and i don't have any of his work in english on my bookshelf, so i'll just have to pretend that i remember it. the rest of it all is all tied up with his auden obsession and sounds pretty silly, i think because in english his formal techniques and wit became a crutch (his was a sort of injured, latecomer fluency (like my russian, a language i would never attempt to write poetry in)), while in russian all his gifts were perfectly tuned, often enough to write some great poems, anyway.\r
    brodsky's essays are really interesting, and interested in a whole system of poetic morality that casts his interpretations of russian poetry in a strange light and tells us a whole lot about his own writing process, i think. that is, the way he reads his heroes reveals for us a way to read him. and his russian poetry after coming to america is brilliant.\r
    if i were to compare his fate to mandelstam's, the first and major difference is luck--mandelstam was completely silenced and then snuffed out, and brodsky escaped, found international acclaim, easy employment. it let him become a poet much more like, say, bishop with its sort of new-england-centric exoticism and thoughtful nostalgiac reserve. mandelstam's, on the other hand, became necessarily urgent and traumatized. that is, mandelstam's fate caused him to diverge, while brodsky's allowed him to continue on its inviolate trajectory.\r

    i'm envious of your ability to read pessoa as he is, and recently have been trying chris daniels' translations, which i love, though i can't compare. and feel a reverse-envy for those who can't read, say, our shakespeare. to see these strainings across all languages, and all the strange attempts to overcome them (translation, voluntary exile) just to move towards the difficult, meagre, exhausting meaning of life--that's what seems to me the good, as opposed to the bad, which i can't explain, either.

  9. April 22, 2009
     Stan Apps

    Considering the concerns you express here, about the importance of looking at the English language from the outside, and hearing it as people from other countries speak it, you might be interested in Ara Shirinyan's book Your Country is Great. This book compiles language about various countries (culled from the internet) into short poems about the "greatness" of each country. Much of the source language clearly comes from non-native speakers who use English as an international language of commerce, and in this way the book shows one possibility for how to look at English from the outside.\r

    The book is published by Futurepoem Books: http://www.futurepoem.com/bookpages/yourcountryisgreat.html

  10. April 22, 2009
     Jane

    Poetry is innately different, sui generis, and as such I think it is to be expected it is "recived" differently.\r
    Poetry has power and poets are conduits; exile is the natural state of the poet. \r

    Poetry works as prayer does by cloistered religious.

  11. April 22, 2009
     felpham

    Huh?

  12. April 22, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Martin, I was looking forward to the second installment in this series, and it didn't disappoint. That breakdown, that sudden realization of yours -- that your way of writing just wouldn't do anymore -- was moving. Thanks for it. (Also, I hate traveling, so it's fascinating to read about this process of displacement you put yourself through. And I love the image of "the much-loathed blank sheet of paper.") \r

    I would be interested to hear more about these "beacon poems," which, I take it, got you through, or helped light a way, however shakily, forward.

  13. April 22, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Martin,\r

    Just a minor point : it's Edwin Honig.

  14. April 22, 2009
     thomas brady

    Geez.\r

    I went to Paris for love.

  15. April 23, 2009
     Francisco Aragón

    Hi Martin:\r

    I just want to echo what Jason said (it didn't disappoint). I'd be interested to hear what your relationship(s) were with the languages of the countries you have lived in (French, Portuguese).\r

    During the decade I lived in Spain, I felt fortunate to have it (Spanish) under my belt so it allowed me to immerse myself fully. I sometimes felt sorry for those English-speaking expats who only hung out with other English speakers, because it seemed to me that they were depriving themselves (these were people who made little effort to learn the language beyond what was needed to buy a loaf of bread) of the full experience of voluntary exile.\r

    What saved me, if that's the right word, where poetry was concerned, was translation. That is, the practice of translation from English to Spanish. It allowed two things: to gradually become familiar with the traditions in Spanish poetry (from the peninsula), and it allowed me to tinker with them in the English I assigned them.\r

    It was nice to have enough time to explore extensively Spanish poetry beyond Lorca. My time in Spain yielded many treasures which, in the long run, kept me on my toes in English, to over-simplify. That, and a decent poetry section at an English language bookstore in Madrid.\r

    FA

  16. April 23, 2009
     mearl

    Stan,\r

    Thanks so much for putting this reference on the thread. Everyone should follow the link, where you’ll find blurbs by both Marjorie Perloff and Kenneth Goldsmith, who I’ll cite because what he has to say is truer than true: “…this book calls into question: What is local? What is national? What is multicultural? Instead of accepting current notions of language as a medium of differentiation, Shirinyan persuasively demonstrates its leveling quality, demolishing meaning into a puddle of platitudes.” Leveling quality indeed, Goldsmith reduces the Tower of Babel to a strip mall. Much more accurate historically, since skyscrapers were beyond the technological means of the ancients.\r

    Martin

  17. April 23, 2009
     mearl

    James.\r

    Let me cite you at length from your own extensive comment. It’s fabulous stuff.\r

    “the superficiality of truth is something that fascinates me, and something i’m not sure if mandelstam would have admitted, quite. what i know is that mandelstam, along with all the other serious russian poets around him, were hyper-attuned to all the avant-gardeisms and experiments of their time. mandelstam, i think, made great use of the apophatic, the expression of silence, the poetics of anti-matter (which, if you remember your quantum physics and venn diagrams, is really just matter going backwards through time, which is exactly what mandelstams do in their allusion to his precursors, esp. dante and ovid), and zaum (nonsense, or trans-sense). when i talk about empty innovation, i’m thinking partly of this, and partly of the way his formalism gave way to a sort of songbird virtuosity (which brodsky noted in his essay on mandelstam, too).”\r

    This is really a wonderful take on what the Mandelstams are engaged in. (I’m glad you include Nadezhda, Osip’s wife, since it is hard imagine them apart – the myth of her memorizing his complete corpus of poems (is that a myth?) and her memoirs…); the negative recovery of spirituality…did Mandastam actually know about the work of John Venn? How do Venn diagrams direct one backwards? Stained glass, the Notre Dame rosettes? \r

    Of course Brodsky was a generation (or two?) later. You told us in your earlier post that Mandelstam was partly educated abroad. Interestingly Brodsky (different time, fully Sovietized, and perhaps because of humbler circumstances) was not. And yet Brodsky was an Anglophile from the very early on. Auden became his single most important influence of what he imagined a poet’s life outside of Russian might be. One can’t imagine Mandelstam making such a transition (even if he had been able to). Brodsky’s “inviolate trajectory” as you call it, seems more like Nabokov’s in a certain way.\r

    Martin

  18. April 23, 2009
     mearl

    Hi Jane,\r

    I think Felpham (next post down-thread) wants you to expand on things like prayer, conduits etc. I’d like it if you did too. I used to think that exile is the natural state of the poet, as you say. Now I’m beginning to wonder. I’m trying to work through these problems in this series of posts. Thanks for your comment…can you expand on your ideas?\r

    Martin

  19. April 23, 2009
     mearl

    Jason,\r

    I went on ebay the other day (after I wrote that line) to see how much portable Adlers were going for. They’re not cheap, a couple hundred at least. But finding the ribbons, that would probably be very difficult. My mother gave my old Adler to Sam, my nephew. I don’t know what he wanted it for exactly. I think he likes old things. He’s a painter, and went to Chicago Art Institute on a scholarship last year, but got booted out after three months for behaving badly, it would seem. (I thought behaving badly was what you were supposed to do at art school…how times have changed.) They said he could come back when he was ready. He’s still in Chicago. And I wonder if he still has my typewriter.\r

    Martin

  20. April 23, 2009
     mearl

    Thanks Henry….I’ve been reading a lot of Erwin Puts lately, the great scholar of lens construction and Leica historian. http://www.imx.nl/photo/index.html \r
    I got my Erwins and Edwins and Edwards confused. I actually met Edwin Honig in Coimbra years ago. It was a great moment.\r

    I’ve been waiting for you to chime in on what James Stotts has been talking about. \r

    Please do, if you have the time.\r

    Martin

  21. April 23, 2009
     mearl

    Thomas,\r

    I thought that’s what poetry was.\r

    M

  22. April 23, 2009
     mearl

    Francisco,\r

    My sense was, actually, that you were perhaps bi-lingual, or at least close to it…simply from your name, and the way you talked about your experience. \r

    I’m far from it. Several of my friends are fluent in various languages. My good friend Richard Zenith is the most formidable linguist I’ve ever met. He not only taught me the art of translation, but included me right away (we’ve known each other for more than twenty years) in his circle of friends in Lisbon, which was pretty much Portuguese. Early on, I was so cloistered in the University, where all of my colleagues spoke English fluently, that for I while I was in a bit of a language learning rut, which you talk about vis-à-vis your colleagues in Spain. Slowly, as I learned the language, my colleagues started speaking with me in Portuguese rather than English. And soon enough I was given bureaucratic tasks that required that I write in Portuguese. By now I’m linguistically integrated. I speak exclusively in Portuguese with my wife, and most of my friends. I have a lot of correspondence in Portuguese because of my work and my relationship with the literary community here, and I spend a good part of each day translating from Portuguese to English. Though there are some friends that I made back in 1986 when I arrived with whom I still speak in English. And that’s fun for them, as well as for me, since I can go for days without speaking in my mother tongue. It’s funny how language works. Some linguists can keep things compartmentalized. But I can’t. Often when I’m in the States, I’ll start speaking Portuguese spontaneously, especially if I’m surprised. \r

    French was trickier. I’d studied it in school, and can read French (even better now than when I actually lived in France), but it never fit my mouth as well as Portuguese does. It requires a whole different musculature. I can certainly get by though. But when I go to Paris, or Brussels, it takes a few days to bring the French forward, and to store the Portuguese away. One is always mixing prepositions. And there’s also the problem that Portuguese often dispenses with the pronoun and relies simply on the verb conjugation, which doesn’t happen in French, of course. \r

    German…I’ve studied off an on, and my plan is to really learn it. I’ve spent a lot of time in Berlin. It’s one of my favorite cities. And my grocery-shopping, beer-ordering German isn’t bad. If I had the time to devote to it I’m sure it would come quickly; it seems an easier language for English speakers to learn. And the whole language learning game gets easier the more you take on. I studied Latin and Anglo-Saxon quite thoroughly at University. I’m very much in agreement with George Steiner on these issues. The more languages you speak the greater your chances are to broaden your experience of life and to extend your ability to make meaning. A very humanistic approach, and very practical. \r

    Martin

  23. April 24, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Martin,\r

    that's interesting that you met Edwin Honig in Portugal - so glad you mentioned him. For others interested, here's a link to some of Honig's late poems in Jacket, as well as his collected poems volume, which I edited : \r

    http://jacketmagazine.com/16/honig-poems.html\r

    Honig is one of those elusive American figures who gets left out of the chit-chat most of the time, though he had a great impact on many of us, through his teaching, translations, scholarship (he basically introduced Lorca to an American audience, with his New Directions monograph back in the 40s), anthologies (his intro to the Mentor anthology of Major American Poetry - re-issued dozens of times - is still well worth reading) poetry, & general presence. One of the most unusual, many-sided, formidable, & charismatic poet-persons one could ever meet. Enormous leonine (& definitely cat-like, & elephantine) personality.\r

    I'll have to think some more about the Mandelstam discussion! Wanted to say, though, that your very interesting quote from the interview with Geoffrey Hill, quoting Simone Weil's remark about poetry's relationship to politics, by way of the multilayered meaning of its language - this made me think immediately of Mandelstam. Poets under Stalinism, or other forms of tyranny (Pushkin also a good example) have to find ways to "tell it slant" : and this enriches the poetry. They do it in order to survive, but they also do it in order to "one-up" their oppressors - to triumph over them through irony (though the triumph is mostly Pyrrhic, I suppose). But this riddling quality of the imagery - the sense that in reading it you're listening to some complex chord by Shostakovich, rather than an 'artless melody" - that you're listening to an inner conversation which negates time & space (say, Mandelstam or Akhmatova talking to & through Dante & Ovid) - is a riveting & addictive experience - something like riddles & puzzles...\r

    s far as M's "terryfing acceleration", I think Brodsky may have been referring in particular to M's "Verses on the Unknown Soldier", which definitely gets into imagery of realtivity & the speed of light & various other speeds... James' comments on the "apophatic" & silence remind me of what I think is the best study in English, Elena Corrigan's "Mandelshtam's Poetics : a challenge to postmodernism", where she talks extensively about M's grappling in his early work, with "absence" - the blank, non-identity, non-existence, & silence - & how he developed, through a series of essays over many years, a conceptualization of poetry which incorporated this dilemma within a framework of "the poet as reader", the poet as interlocutor. Every deep engagement with poetry, for M. (according to Corrigan) involves a kind of psychic crisis or break, when the reader is caught within the strange world of the poem - but through a kind of journey & "kinship", the poet begins to respond or answer that crisis with new poetry (see "Conversation About Dante", especially). \r

    But I think that by the mid-30s, if not before, Mandelstam understood very well that his poetry was contextualized by his political dilemma. When asked (or baited) by an interviewer for his definition of poetry, he responded : "the poet's sense of being right". This is basically saying that the poet "speaks truth to power" from poetry's own realm of "authority". In terms of Simone Weil's comment : Mandelstam was an expert at that kind of poetic utterance, which operates on many simultaneous levels. Because those late "song-like" lyrics James refers to are saturated with elegiac lament & double (political) meanings - for the waste & destruction not only of his own life, but of Russian culture & people in general.

  24. April 24, 2009
     Henry Gould

    p.s. this is one of my favorite poems of all time. Late Mandelstam, translated by Eliz. & Richard McKane (publ. by Bloodaxe in "Voronezh Notebooks") :\r

    To Natasha Shtempel \r

    I \r

    Limping against her will over the deserted earth,\r
    with uneven, sweet steps,\r
    she walks just ahead \r
    of her swift friend and her fiance.\r
    The restraining freedom \r
    of her inspiring disability pulls her along, \r
    but it seems that her walking is held back\r
    by the charity of a concept:\r
    that this spring weather\r
    is the ancestral mother of the grave's vault, \r
    and that this is an eternal beginning. \r

    II \r

    There are women, who are so close to the moist earth,\r
    their every step is a loud mourning,\r
    their calling is to accompany the resurrected,\r
    and to be first to greet the dead.\r
    It is a crime to demand kisses from them,\r
    and it is impossible to part from them.\r
    Today angels, tomorrow worms in the graveyard,\r
    and the day after, just an outline.\r
    The steps you once took, you won't be able to take.\r
    Flowers are immortal. Heaven is integral.\r
    What will be is only a promise.

  25. April 24, 2009
     james stotts

    i was thinking of the venn diagrams as they were applied to QED, to diagram photons and sub-atomic particles, a science that only got started at the very end of venn's life (wow, it's been a long time since those high school physics classes). and i was sort of meta-critically superimposing this on mandelstam's poetics, because for me it's a pretty simple and useful formulation for considering time's relation to matter (where the opposite of progress is literally and substantively the reverse of time).\r

    things might of been radically different for brodsky if he'd emigrated to palestine, which almost happened except for the intervention of a quick trip to see auden. but as i think we both agree, brodsky's english project was much less successful than nabokov's. nabokov was a lexical genius first of all, and fluent in russian, english, french, and (i think, despite his denials) german--and he was a voracious dictionnaire, studying dictionaries very seriously and studiously. poetically, too, he had an immaculate understanding--of meter and rhythm (which he developed and refined his own system of (scud, anyone?))--but it seems to me it only served him well as a reader and critic. his own verse is impossibly stilted and precious, and his translations, while accurate, do incredible violence to any low-key sensibilities (he would never say 'cry' when he could say 'vociferation' instead). his approach to almost everything was scientific and dispassionate (what nietzsche called the lechery of immaculate perception, and his writing, when it shifts into its ecstatic modes, is always creepy and disturbing in that very sense).\r
    nabokov considered mandelstam a good, but overrated poet. and i don't think he was impressed by auden, either...but i guess i'm getting into a thorny area, since nabokov was so transparently disingenuous when he started insulting the writers that he admired and was influenced by most.\r

    happy belated b-day to nabokov and shakespeare, btw.\r

    i think nadezhda did memorize it all, at least the last notebooks from moscow and voronezh, and in the exact order they were conceived in as books. i'm not a scholar, and i wouldn't know how to verify everything, but her account seems authoritative on most accounts. she actually wrote his poems down, since he composed orally. and i think a lot of other things were done to keep his poety alive, including smuggling manuscripts to different friends and having various visitors memorize or vouchsafe verse for the time it might someday be safely reassembled and maybe published. these famous myths actually became a typical practice, so mandelstam's not the only one. nadezhda isn't unique, either, in that respect. remember dostoyevsky's wife+stenographer. very strange, for a poet whose second book was TRISTIA, to actually compose his own devastating books of exile poetry, in exile to the same part of the world as ovid.\r

    mandelstam's is still the most amazing story out there.

  26. April 24, 2009
     james stotts

    i'd agree with henry 100 percent.\r

    translation of mandelstam is hard, though, because he was so caught up in the integrity of russian syntax, ex influence, which he set out to achieve through linguistic compression, through intensive exploitation of roots--and all this means a very carefully calibrated ambivalence, multivalence. his riddles get wrapped tighter and tighter, until the late poetry when all the ends began to fray and they became explosive (like the unknown soldier verses).\r

    this all reminds me of what it seems he had that so many poets lack, and that's so integrally related to exile: audacity, that when bound to the poetic, requiring courage. a courage that is more than political, which calls the self and expression into question, and i always want to call irony. so many poets reveal exactly what they lack when they display so much cleverness and lets us know just how deep they're willing to go into, say, a search engine (or the stunted search engines of their selves) or algorithm or media noise or anywhere they can find a confirmation of their purpose. silliman just laid this out pretty definitively, when he called quietism any reluctance to name what he is so eager to name--that is, poetry that refuses to seek sense but demands to be 'properly' tagged.\r

    anyway...

  27. April 24, 2009
     james stotts

    let me correct my last point:\r
    *that is--[silliman] prefers poetry that refuses to seek sense but demands to be properly tagged.\r
    he denigrates any poem without an open ending, and yet won't accept a poet that works with an open-ended scheme. this is anathema to my own conception of poetry, and after having looked at silliman's wild flailing criticism for a few months (i only just heard of him), and am ready to consider him for the last time...here.

  28. April 24, 2009
     Henry Gould

    James - for me, the locus classicus on poetic "audacity" : see Christine Perkell, The Poet's truth (Univ of Calif. Press, 1989). An extended meditation on the poetry of Virgil. \r

    Perkell's Virgil (in Georgics & Aeneid) represents the poet's role in culture as ESSENTIALLY audacity : audacity personified. How so? Because the poet dares to "sing the Golden Age" (and its "pity") in the midst of the Iron Age.

  29. April 24, 2009
     Erica Mena

    I'm glad to see the discussion has taken a turn toward translation, because I was initially disappointed by the statement: "It also could have been the denaturing process of translation itself, which gives us, at best, the husk of poems." Especially in light of the conclusion - our responsibility now as speakers of a language of globalization, war and consumerism. \r

    It seems to me that in large part the assumption that nothing of value can move between languages is a result of linguistic monopoly, and an archaic one at that, coming from a previous language of empire and religion, Latin. Replaced by the religion of consumerism and the empire of free market, English supplants Latin but the premise is the same. Translation threatens the supremacy of the language of state, and therefore is classified as at best inferior and at worst traitorous. You mention that you've studied the 'art of translation' - and I do believe it is an art, at least when translating literary works - and so it is even stranger to me that you would reduce it to failed derivative reproduction. \r

    While I accept that there are necessary sacrifices made during the translation process, there are also gains. These gains are not only in the sound, syntax, image and structure of the poem (as they can be, at times) but in the expansion of our horizons as readers and writers, and importantly the de-centering of our native language as the only legitimate producer of culture and art. \r

    Translation, I think, is an inherently subversive act that can throw into sharp relief the bloated egotism of our linguistic assumptions. To use your term, it is through translation that we can perhaps un-co-opt poetic expression.

  30. April 24, 2009
     thomas brady

    "Thomas,\r

    I thought that’s what poetry was.\r

    M"\r

    Is poetry love? Only the really, really good poetry. \r

    Translation is an impediment to love.\r

    I knew a man for whom other languages came very easily. His ability to articulate was such that he could speak French, which he learned in a week, and you could understand him even though you had no French. But he was something of a pedant, and his friends (as it happened, well-known poets, Weiners, Blaser, Spicer) disliked him for his pedantry and his languages. 'Renaissance Man, go home.'\r

    There is a long tradition of poets rejecting the idea of translation.\r

    From the prison of Greek & Latin, from the disorientation created by my foreign friends, I happily escaped into a poetry that nearly resembled my native tongue. \r

    Thomas

  31. April 24, 2009
     james stotts

    it seems to me, if we lived in any european country or any of their many former colonies (excluding the u.s.), what you're describing would fall into a pretty common kind of bourgeois education, even if it wasn't education in any formal sense.\r
    it's romantic, sure (big and little 'r' romantic), but feels a little precious when a poet decides to spend some time on the continent 'finding himself.'\r
    i guess that's one of the things bothering me most when i hear it conceptualized as any kind of exile. in the military and in civil service, they differentiate between service in places like italy and portugal and australia, and 'hardship posts'--e.g., russia, ethiopia, columbia. outside of gov't support, i think it would be hard to make an independent living and to feel secure if you just floated into certain societies.\r
    this also came up when they set up posts in alaska after it first got its statehood. in nome, (even from there, you can't quite see russia!) they had a military hospital where my grandmother moved her whole family from michigan for a year.\r

    brodsky, again: 'The wandering of a Greek portico into the latitude of the tundra is a translation.'

  32. April 25, 2009
     Megan M. Garr

    Hi Martin. Thanks for these posts. You may be interested in some of the writings found in Bordercrossing Berlin and Versal. There's an ongoing discussion taking place via these journals and their communities (as Bordercrossing is no longer publishing), including proposals for new terminology. I've actively taken up the subject from my vantage point here in Amsterdam, as have Jennifer K. Dick in Paris and Alistair Noon in Berlin. Communities in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Geneva, Prague, and elsewhere are specifically addressing in public ways the dislocation that you describe. If you'd like more info on any of this, feel free to contact me directly. Looking forward to reading your next post.

  33. April 25, 2009
     mearl

    James,\r

    Since you’re the last one on thread, let me respond to you first. Several of the comments over the last day or two seem to share concerns. I was impressed with the conversation between you and Henry and I’ll get back to that. But let me take up some of your more skeptical seeming thoughts here.\r

    1) Bourgeois education. If you’ve had one, as I did (no denying it) it seems silly to start slumming. But that’s exactly what I did, especially in New York, living in Spanish Harlem (very few of my friends had the nerve to even visit me – in those days it was an extremely tough neighborhood. I was mugged on a few occasions (I know what it is to feel the cold steel of a blade against my throat, etc.); my apartment was robbed and ransacked four times in three years, and at one point an angry and thwarted thief came back and tried to set the building on fire. He nearly burnt the whole place to the ground. I took all this in stride, since it was all part of a kind of exercise to undo my bourgeois background. Except, the deeper into the city I got, the more danger I courted, the more bourgeois I became. “Finding myself”, as you call it, ended up with my finding out how bourgeois I was. It made me more self-aware, more critical, and clearer about what a fortunate life I’d had and what an unfortunate life my neighbors were having. \r

    2) So, by the time I left for Europe I had already gone through that process. I knew Europe well already, having traveled extensively before deciding to go and live there. I was not planning to “change” as a poet, find my real voice, or anything like that. I felt that part had already become quite fixed. The “preciousness” had been bled out of me. I went partly for economic reasons. I could live in Paris more cheaply than in New York and I was frankly tired of my life in New York. I didn’t want to be around poets any more. I wanted to be by myself, clean up my act, get away from narcotics and alcohol, my family, my girlfriend. But mostly I wanted to write, and my life in New York was getting in the way of my writing. Too many poets were getting in the way; the community of writers was getting in the way. \r

    3) Exile. I thought I was pretty careful in parsing this term in Part 1. I mean, obviously the reason I spent so much time with the categories is because I too am uncomfortable with calling myself an exile, voluntary or otherwise. And at first I didn’t use the term. In fact it was years before I used it. I wish, though, that I had learned to use it earlier. Hence the “Advice” in the title. I don’t have any idea how old you are, but my intention with these posts was to speak to “young” poets, as young as I was when I left the states, and to let them know that there is an alternative, but that it comes at a cost, and sometimes that cost is hard to bear: a much slower moving “career”, solitude and loneliness which is real and the opposite of preciousness, and the difficulty of being alone with your poems. I didn’t have a blog, I didn’t have Internet, I didn’t have cable television, I wrote with a typewriter, a rarely used the telephone, the mails took forever…and on and on. I had to scrabble to make a living. But I was essentially happy, because after the epiphanic experience I described in this post, even though I had to backtrack, even though for a long while I wasn’t writing as well, I was already a better poet. It is my firm belief that poets gain nothing by spending their lives hobnobbing with other poets. Admittedly, I’m writing this blog and trying to engage. But they’re paying me – it’s part of my income. It increases visibility. I hope it helps in getting my poems published. But it runs totally against my nature. It runs against 25 years of pretty serious isolation. The sense of exile really sets in when you realize there’s no turning back. I have spent more than half my life abroad. My only real country is the one I’ve been able to construct in my imagination. I am as foreign in American as I am here in Europe. The only difference is that I am more comfortable with my foreigness here. This is anything but Romantic. And there’s no preciousness at all. On the contrary, I feel an abiding sense of loss, of how irrecoverable the past can be. My attempt here, my message to younger poets is: you WILL change, poetically; your character will harden; the process of immersion in foreign languages will cause your brain work in a different way. Have no illusions about it, or as William Burroughs once put it: know what’s on the end of your newspaper spoon. \r

    By the way, that’s a gorgeous quote from Brodsky.\r

    Thanks for engaging, James. You’re asking important questions. I know you’ve had your own experience abroad, and my sense is that these questions are directed as much to yourself as they are to me.\r

    By, the way, that was a wonderful poem at the top of your blog the other day, “for alyosha’.\r

    Martin

  34. April 25, 2009
     james stotts

    the bourgeois was something you had already covered a little, but, it malingers, you know?\r
    i grew up in a large, poor family. it was an itinerant existence, moving up and down rocky mountain towns with a not completely absentee father. only a few times, we had to accept charity boxes from one church or another (one time, someone came and took our pants size, and a few days later we got a box of non-perishables and several pairs of jeans on our doorstep). mostly, though, there wasn't any real poverty: we were never hungry, never begged on any street. a few times we went without heat in the winter, mostly we never had a car, but besides that the worst thing was wearing hand-me-down clothes (i was the youngest, so i was the third to wear whatever used clothing had started with my brothers, which meant a lot of cut-offs).\r
    i was part of the lucky half of our siblings that graduated high school, and i only barely decided to go to college (in new mexico, state schools are free, paid by a lottery scholarship).\r
    i waited tables at a restaurant starting at 16, because i had to pay make up some classes in summer school, and i saved all the money from working to pay for a trip to new orleans the summer i was 17 (with my mom--it was the first vacation either of us had ever gone on!), and to take a senior trip to paris the next year. i used to know my french. i had specific plans (i had been training pretty seriously for several years then as a juggler, and wanted to be a street performer) to run away then and even packed and was ready to leave in middle of the night. i stayed up all night, and got terrified, and never ran off.\r
    when i came back, though, i couldn't stop moving. my brother and i would borrow any car we could to get out of town and roadtrip--to mexico, canada, we probably circled the country, coast-to-coast border-to-border two or three times in as many years. i was studying russian in college then (my father was a russian linguist for the navy), and i decided to go. my time there was the hungriest i've ever been, i couldn't stop getting into fights with drunks on the trains and in the streets (maybe i shouldn't have been drunk so often).\r
    but that's a life-story, and it's probably better borne out in my poems, anyway.\r
    your own story sounds fascinating. btw, i only first started reading blogs the same time you started writing for HARRIET. there are people, including me, who are waiting to see actual poems come up. i hope they do.\r

    glad you liked the parshchikov elegy, it's probably already a little different (and much improved); i post things, and i edit them just as carefree as if the screen were pen-and-paper. i have a little time every day to write and use the computer, and usually use it the same way, like a caged animal making circles: tinker a little, visit this place and the NY times, repeat, back into the corner.

  35. April 25, 2009
     james stotts

    oh, and i certainly consider myself a young poet, at 26.

  36. April 25, 2009
     thomas brady

    "It is my firm belief that poets gain nothing by spending their lives hobnobbing with other poets."\r

    Martin, don't tell that to Ezra Pound. Let's say Pound had stayed in Philly and earned his living as a professor. We could argue that Modern poetry wouldn't have changed much, perhaps, but Pound's career certainly would have been vastly different.\r

    This raises a couple of questions.\r

    Was there 'a frontier' in Pound's day that no longer exists?\r

    If so, what was that 'frontier' exactly? \r

    Henry Gould went to London with no money or connections in the 70s and almost made his fortune with the Rolling Stones. \r

    Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Pound, and Eliot found an audience and support in London (in all sorts of guises, Poet Laureate, pre-Raphaelite, Bloomsbury, Government, Old World money, Old World aristocracy, radical clubs).\r

    Is this 'frontier' now closed to Americans? Are there no more lands to conquer or experience? Is the 'frontier' now the American University or the Poetry Foundation? Are these the last mountains to climb for the world's poets?\r

    Pound crossed the ocean and 'made his fortune' as a poet. \r

    Is this no longer possible? \r

    And if not, why?\r

    Thomas

  37. April 25, 2009
     mearl

    Thomas,\r

    These are absolutely essential questions. I've bulleted them below, so that I can think about them, and with the hope that others will take them up as well. \r

    Thanks, \r

    Martin\r

    1. Was there 'a frontier’ in Pound’s day that no longer exists?\r

    2. If so, what was that 'frontier’ exactly?\r

    3.Is this 'frontier’ now closed to Americans? Are there no more lands to conquer or experience? Is the 'frontier’ now the American University or the Poetry Foundation? Are these the last mountains to climb for the world’s poets?\r

    4.Pound crossed the ocean and 'made his fortune’ as a poet. Is this no longer possible?\r
    And if not, why?

  38. April 26, 2009
     Megan M. Garr

    I have a few concerns about these questions, actually. They seem to betray an American-centric perspective on the production of poetry; I doubt the majority of the “world’s poets” are interested in climbing the mountains of the American University or the Poetry Foundation, though I’m not quite sure what that would entail (and no offense to either the American University or the Poetry Foundation intended). I’m also concerned with characterizing Europe and elsewhere as a “frontier” to be conquered or even explored, even if from a poetic perspective. \r

    Finally, the questions suppose that the location itself is somehow responsible for the success of the writer, rather than the translocation of the writer over time – which is a more interesting and to my mind more accurate description of the development of writers who have moved abroad. Foreign cities do not necessarily embrace their resident foreign writers, at least not anymore. Grant money has borders. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nowhere else to go where you can improve your writing or get support for it. Long-term residence anywhere abroad (what some of us here are calling “translocality”), as Martin has so beautifully described, sets right in, all the way down to the poetic line, and it is that itself which I would say - and which Martin seems to say - is responsible for a writer's growth when that writer has moved to another country. Martin, your description of your experience writing (or growing back into writing) abroad follows what I would call one of the paths into (contemporary) translocal writing, which could be summarized as awe, dislocation, relocation, and the spanning of multiple locations, identities, cultures to the point of never being quite “home” anymore (or to the point where “home” itself becomes redefined, sometimes internalized, as you have aptly described). This isn’t to say that writing needs a physical move into a foreign country to be translocal, but that such an experience leads to writing with translocal characteristics (e.g. altered, perhaps slightly “off” vernacular, multiple languages within the same text if not line, changed cultural signifiers). And as Martin has hypothesized, it puts your writing (practice) through a test that it needs to reach the “level of art”.\r

    “I would say that the lessons I took from those early days, when I was still living in Paris, before moving to Portugal, were that one’s initial education in the craft needed to be tested severely if the craft was to be raised to the level of art. De-familiarization, self-estrangement and the abandonment of community were, however harsh, ways to test one’s range as a writer.”\r

    This to me seems to be somewhere at the core of “why it even matters in the first place”. But I’m still working out my ideas on this subject (of the “moved” writer, or the translocal writer, or translocal writing itself), and I’m glad to have happened upon this blog. For anyone who’s interested in some of the journals which in some way or another revolve around this very subject, I’ve heard that the new issue of Upstairs at Duroc is coming out soon, as is a new issue of The Prague Revue, and my own journal, Versal, releases its 7th issue at a party here in Amsterdam in May. This brings up a completely different topic, that the “exile” does not have to be completely isolated, as in some cities there’s a great deal of activity.

  39. April 26, 2009
     thomas brady

    Megan,\r

    Perhaps these questions are "American-centric," as you say. \r

    I was thinking more of a *tension* between Old World and New which has ceased to exist since Pound and Eliot returned to the Old World. \r

    I thought my questions were almost more "London-centric," but perhaps they're an "Anglo-American" indulgence.\r

    I remember how surprised I was when my new friend from London, a middle class, tradesman bloke who I met in a bar in Cambridge, MA, had never heard of Shelley. I immediately had a sense, then, that I was more European than this Brit who preferred living in America to his own England.\r

    Most of us who were "English majors" in American universities traced the Greek & Roman Classics to Europe, then to America, and finally, in the 20th century, to the great U.S./London mingling: the migrating of Pound and Eliot, Auden coming over here (and becoming rather boring in the process), the Euro-centric aspect of American modernism, even Whitman's reputation saved by the pre-Raphaelites, the French element of Modernism, the European aspect of Longfellow & Poe, the English Romantic poets so, so important to American English majors, and the Blake 'vision' for Ginsberg...\r

    Perhaps my questions do spring from a postwar, American 'English Major' perspective, which, after all, is huge, a standard and quite uniform university curriculum having given to millions in the U.S what I have described, especially in the era of the GI Bill in the Boomer decades, when English majors were plentiful and were not yet replaced by "Communications" and "Human Service" majors, or, the more specialized Creative Writing degrees, which sounds more like where you are coming from:\r

    "Grant money has borders. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nowhere else to go where you can improve your writing or get support for it."\r

    Because I'm not really talking here about "improving your writing;" I don't think that's what Pound and Eliot, did, per se, when they traveled to Europe. \r

    "Improving your writing" sounds vocational and technical and boring and practical to me, and completely against the spirit of my quesions, though I know of course what you mean. \r

    I'm thinking more of: "meeting Lady Ottoline Morrell" and "taking up a collection to get Tom out of the bank" and "H.D. sleeping with hundreds of lords and ladies" and the mingling of revolutionary ideas and personalities and national and cultural differences and tensions and dangers which seemed so important in the Pound era, but don't seem to really exist anymore in the world of poetry, at least, as something that can be translated into a standard curriculum taught in the classroom, or made into a myth that all can share. \r

    Sure, a poet can fly to Amsterdam today and have a conference and meet interesting people, but that's not really the same thing, is it? \r


    Thomas

  40. April 26, 2009
     mearl

    Henry,\r

    I second that link to Honig at Jacket – I went to read them (http://jacketmagazine.com/16/honig-poems.html) - his is an understated reverence for the human condition, and a very delicate line... \r

    I linked to his collected as well – it looks very fine. (Did you work directly with E.H. on that?) If I were anywhere near a reasonable bookstore I’d jump on it immediately. His Pessoa was one of the books that I read and re-read (lived through) during my first long trip through Europe in 79. (In fact, it’s twenty-seven years overdue at the Brooklyn College Library – I think, next time I’m in Flatbush, I’ll just drop it in the return slot and quickly slip away. The overdue fine could wipe out my retirement fund). \r

    At any rate, I wanted to thank you for the reference to Elena Corrigan’s “Mandelshtam’s Poetics : a challenge to postmodernism”. Other than the primary texts (in English), poems (for me) – the selected, translated by Brown and Merwin, collected prose, etc., as far as criticism, I’ve only read Clarence Brown’s Mandelstam (Cambridge University Press, 1973), out of date, but still a good read. “Speaking truth to power” is interesting in the context of the Annie Finch’s post on Simone Weil. “Truth” is such a ticky subject in our day an age. George Steiner one of the great contemporary scholars of… let’s call it “comparative truth” never goes so far as to admit that it could be resurrected as a viable category. So I come to your statement that “by the mid-30s, if not before, Mandelstam understood very well that his poetry was contextualized by his political dilemma. When asked (or baited) by an interviewer for his definition of poetry, he responded : “the poet’s sense of being right”. This is basically saying that the poet “speaks truth to power” from poetry’s own realm of “authority””. This seems to divide M’s career into halves. As though he’d suddenly realized that lyrical poetry had, because of events, become irrefutably conditioned by the course of history. It seems to me that all the major Russsian poets of this period came to this same conclusion. Dr. Zhivago, a novel that Nabokov rejected for all the wrong reasons, is really the story of that realization. As you say, his later work was, as James Stotts signals above, “saturated with elegiac lament & double (political) meanings - for the waste & destruction not only of his own life, but of Russian culture & people in general.”\r

    Martin

  41. April 26, 2009
     mearl

    Megan,\r

    Thanks for coming into this thread. I’m just so completely pleased to hear from people in Europe. Bordercrossing Berlin and Versal, and the kind of linkage between people in different cities you’re describing in your first post (APRIL 25, 2009 AT 5:20 AM),is VERY interesting news. I kind of figured something like this had to be happening, somewhere. Thanks so much for the sketching in some of the picture. I really would like to learn more about what’s going on. \r
    \r
    Your exchange with Thomas (both of you) is, in my estimation, bringing something entirely new into the house of Harriet. I love the notion of “tanslocality”; it’s much more open and modern and pertinent than any of the definitions I’ve been struggling to come up with. Certainly it seems more fitting than “voluntary exile”, less value laden (or less encumbered by history); a more positive way to look at the experience of writers and artists who are moving about and settling in alternative capitals. Thomas (and he’ll have to respond to this himself) seems to be viewing these issues (US vs Europe, etc) through modernist lenses – the experiences of our most important expatriate writers of a period which probably ended mid-twentieth century. I think I’ve perhaps tended to see it that way myself. Although many European writers continue to take up residence in other European countries (which is quite significant, just as significant for them it is for Americans to go abroad…Peter Handke in France, how many British writers on the continent, Gunther Grass spending large chunks of time in Portugal, Saramago in Spain (albeit off-shore), Tabucchi half the time in Lisbon…the list goes on). But it is less the case during the last thirty years or so that “prominent” U.S, writers leave the States except on sabbaticals or for conferences. They’re not “translocal”…John Ashbery, James Baldwin, Paul Bowles were perhaps the last of a certain generation to live for significant time abroad. Harry Mathews, one of America’s most important novelists, poets, and theorists, is a different case. His fabulous late novels are under-read in America partly because he resists classification, geographically and literarily. \r

    Is Versal a print-only production?\r

    Do you know about Chris Agee’s (he’s an American poet and essayist) fabulous journal, Irish Pages, edited out of Belfast?\r

    Martin

  42. April 26, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Hi Martin,\r

    I'd be happy to send you a copy of Edwin's TIME & AGAIN. If you email me a street address, I can do that.\r

    Yes, I worked on it with Edwin for 2 years or so, in the mid-90s. We tried to find a publisher, for another couple years. \r

    My favorite are the old David McDuff translations of Mandelstam (selected poems, early 70s). Maybe a sentimental favorite. Came upon them on a bookstore shelf in about 1977. Finders keepers.\r

    Yes, I certainly mis-spoke above about Mandelstam's supposed "realization" in the "mid-30s, if not earlier". M. was writing a kind of calibrated, ironic political poetry (like Marvell's Horatian Ode) in the early days of the Revolution (see his poem about the "ship of state"). From there he sort of withered into reality - a reality of both greater complexity & greater emotional immediacy (he was living through Stalin).\r

    But his entire career was a dialogue on 3 simultaneous levels : with poetic tradition (poetry per se); with the ruling regime; and with the Russian people at large. He made it into a game ("in Uglich they are playing knucklebones", as the Czar is led away to his execution "on a sled"). "My sadness is luminous." (Pushkin). "Two sisters, heaviness & tenderness - twin roses, bound in a double wreath".

  43. April 26, 2009
     thomas brady

    I was always a big fan of Heine, who as a German lived in France and had such intense love/hate feelings about both places.\r

    If one reads Van Wyk Brooks on New England, both volumes, on the linguistic mastery of many of those Harvard professors, guys like George Ticknor, or James Lowell who became ambassador to Spain, and countless others who knew dozens of languages fluently, I couldn't believe how ambitious and learned these 19th century American scholars were in terms of languages; today it seems scholars are quite lacking in foreign language fluency by comparison, I wonder if this has hurt us deeply as poets and poet/ambassadors? English is now spoken in so many places. This Empire, this anglo-american english-speaking empire; it's staggering to think of it, really. Has it made us lazy?\r

    When one reads a great line of poetry in another language and comprehends it in that language, knowing it is a wonderful line, even as a 'foreigner,' there's nothing quite like that feeling. But I suppose this can be over-sentimentalized. \r

    Knowing another language helps to depersonalize yourself, helps you to distance yourself from your own language, and I think this is invaluable for poets, for there should be a certain strangeness in language for it to be poetically beautiful, even if the speech in question is 'mundane.' This sort of experience with language really doesn't require that we travel to the country at all. It's almost two different things really: going there and the language.

  44. April 27, 2009
     Megan M. Garr

    Hi all. There's a lot I'd like to respond to, probably more than will fit kindly into these comment fields. I'll stick to a few points:\r

    First, Thomas, thanks for elaborating on the questions that you put forward. What you describe is what I came here with in 2001 - the mythology of my predecessors, and a naive hope to capture some part of it. But Europe in 2001 (when I moved to Amsterdam) was quiet. Even Paris back then. What I helped start here in Amsterdam in 2002 was a response to the fact that there was nothing of any mythology of the expatriate writer left, and we had to start from scratch. More to the point: there were many isolated non-Dutch writers in Amsterdam in 2002, and as I do have faith in literary community (disclosure), myself and others set out to build one. Paris, Berlin, Prague and others have built similar communities since then, and I would say that "Europe" is rather vibrant again. Whether or not it's the stuff of myth (or literary movement) making is up to...well, someone else.\r

    As you pointed out, it's obvious from my previous post that my interest is not so much in the mythology of living abroad as it is in what happens to one's writing when one moves abroad. I'd generally argue that the writing of our literary expatriate greats changed - even improved - after their moves and long-term residences abroad. But I haven't looked at that canon closely from this vantage point, so for now please see this as an hypothesis only.\r

    This segues nicely into your last comment about multilingualism. I agree completely with your assessment that learning another language can have similar effects on one's language/writing as moving abroad. This is one of the reasons why I alluded before to multiple pathways towards translocal characteristics in writing, and that long-term residence abroad is perhaps one of many. Translocality is certainly not new (though the term itself somewhat), but it is arguably a particular characteristic of much literary production today, which is 1) why I am interested and 2) why looking at it in places where it's happening in high concentration (like Europe) may help sketch its outlines.\r

    Moving quickly on to answer some of your questions, Martin: I'm happy to email you a kind of overview of "what is going on", perhaps even post some sample copies your way, including some of the first instances of "translocality" in a literary context. Versal is print-only, yes. I honestly don't want my life to speed up to the pace needed to meet the demands of (what I consider) quality internet publishing, and my editorial team is scattered around the world in constant motion. But I'm headed to Google now to look up Irish Pages; thanks for the note. You can find me on email via versal@wordsinhere.com.

  45. April 27, 2009
     Annie Finch

    Martin,\r

    I savor the tone of your post--as measured and charming as a light rain in Paris--and resonate to its theme (I remember the startled and unrooted and exploratory feeling I had once when, after several weeks in Paris, I found a poem first coming into my head in French!) \r

    But most of all I admire the attentive way in which you respond to every comment. You are a model conversationalist. Salut!

  46. April 28, 2009
     thomas brady

    When I was in Brussells for the first time, having just arrived, sitting around with people I didn't know, eating cheese in a small, antiquated basement apartment, I innocently remarked how 'this is how I pictured Belgium would be,' they took it very badly, rejecting any 'typical view' of their homeland. \r

    I had made them hate their cheese. It was awful. How quickly I had become the ugly American. \r

    As an American visiting Europe I experienced a pride that was very intense, but not a pride of 'here is our country and we live in it,' but 'here is the world and we live in it as uniquely as you.'

  47. April 28, 2009
     mearl

    Erica,\r

    I’m writing this on the train down to Lisbon, so it might not get sent until tomorrow. I still don’t have one of those “everywhere” gadgets. Sorry I overlooked your very important comment in the thread. I was just this afternoon banging letters back and forth with Peter Cole, who was sharply critical of the “husk” sentence, as you were. I told Peter about your comment, which I just came across in the thread again yesterday. Like Peter (who I have known for thirty years, and whose work in translation, poetry and the essay should be a model for all of us) and perhaps like you, I am a professional translator. That is, I make my living by translating. I wish poetry made up a larger percentage of the kinds of things I work on than it does, but the money is in scholarship, theatre, film. That’s still on the lucky side of things. Most translators work on pretty dreary stuff indeed. Anyway, all this just to let you know I sympathize with what you are saying and that I’m not talking through my hat. \r

    You’re absolutely right to point out the inconsistencies in my argument. I think (to come to my own rescue) I could have been letting my professional sense get in the way of my critical and philosophical sense. Professionally, when I evaluate potential work I’m looking at things like profit vs. effort. This tends to push one into heirarchizing texts in a way that has nothing to do with looking at them from a more literary critical perspective, or political or social perspective. As the difficulty increases the profit (a derivative of time margins) decreases. So you can imagine where poetry fits in. But I love to translate poetry. If you have time check out this link: http://www.ou.edu/worldlit/onlinemagazine/2007May/20quintais-earl.pdf\r

    I like your capsule description of the history of linguistic monopolies, and I think you should expand on the place that translation as “art” has in that paradigm. I’m concerned that that you interpreted what I am saying about the translation of poetry as a “failed derivative reproduction”, but I’m beginning to see how you, and Peter Cole, could have come to this conclusion. I need to think about this further. \r

    I think that in your penultimate paragraph (while I agree with you) you don’t sufficiently distinguish between production and literary and political consequences, i.e., “de-centering our native language,” which is essentially, as I say in this post, and in the three posts specifically on translation, a de-centering of ourselves as producers of that language. In other words, the artist, as poet or translator, is looking for a way to extend her own capacities, to find a way to write; the transformation of the language, adding new capital to our literary heritage, is the result of that. We don’t set out to change the language; we set out to change ourselves. \r

    My friend Richard Zenith, who I am on my way to see at the moment (lucky me for counting two of the greatest literary translators of the day among my best friends) considers translation a craft. Peter Handke, the Austrian poet, novelist and playwright considers it an art equal to writing in one’s original language. Who knows if they’re not saying something very similar? But I’m sure your ideas will come up in our dinner conversation tonight.\r

    Martin

  48. April 28, 2009
     mearl

    Thomas,\r

    Thanks for reminding us all of Van Wyk Brooks. That’s a book that I didn’t discover until I actually came to Coimbra. The University library was full of stuff from that period. I read a whole range of things that I probably wouldn’t have read in a more up-to-date library. \r

    Please look up-thread to Erica’s concerns about the “English language empire.” As you call it. You’re absolutely right, the fact that English has become a global language has influenced our capacity to speak other languages. I take this up in my introduction to my English version of Nietzsche and the Metaphysics of the Tragic, Nuno Nabais (Continuum); you can see this at Google Books - Nietzsche and the metaphysics of the tragic - Google Books Result by Nuno Nabais, Martin Earl - 2006 - Philosophy - 204 pages). The issue I bring up there (similar to what your are describing in your comment) is the fact that most of current Nietzschean scholarship is conducted in English and that N. is more widely read in English than he is in German. This has certainly altered the nature of the scholarship. \r
    As to your last statement, I would disagree. It’s impossible to know a country without knowing, even if imperfectly, its language. I love many countries in Europe, but I don’t know them like a know Portugal. For me, I have to be in the country to learn the language. \r
    I would say, though, that there are plenty of ways, to make it strange. You can do it in Pittsburg or in Paris. And I totally agree with you that poets must do that. I think that somehow thinking that one is reduplicating the vernacular and thereby becoming more authentic, an obsession that runs from Wordsworth to Williams, or linking the poetic line to breathing (Olson and Creeley), are pretexts, descriptions after the organic fact of writing. Poetic speech is pure artifice, a blend of a lot of things: pseudo philosophy and music, colloquial speech and biblical pacing; it’s a narrative of what it feels like to be alive expressed in a language which is stretched, whether towards the minimal, or towards the expansive, the gothic or the baroque, but always stretched. As a mimesis of feeling, it has to be. Modern poetry (and for me that can go all the way back to Donne, but definitely kicks in with Shakespeare’s soliloquies and sonnets, utterly controverts Aristotelian plausibility, a quality which Chaucer, for instance still maintains. \r

    Martin

  49. April 28, 2009
     mearl

    Martin\r


    Annie,\r

    Thanks for the encouragement!!!!!!\r

    This little incident, about the poem coming into your head in French as you say (“coming into the head” – that’s nice) is a major preoccupation of mine. I’m always trying to figure out how language is working in the brain. For instance, are different neurons firing and carrying information when we write different things, poetry, letters, commentary; or even when we’re sticking to a form, or writing more openly. I spent a few years after the events that I describe in the post above writing strictly in form (not as inventively as you do in your work, but nevertheless, with meter, rhyme, stanza patterns etc…in fact I wrote a book-length poem in rhyme royal which contained description of landscapes, philosophical passages, even recipes for making crack in your kitchen – crazy stuff. But I found that I could say more, bring a greater variety of material into the poem in the strict setting of the form – seven lines with only three rhymes – than I ever could in a more open approach. After about four years of writing in form I relaxed back into so-called free verse. But it still retained a quality of formalism. \r

    I think foreign languages open up new space in the brain. Brain imaging shows that in multi-lingual children the spaces occupied by different languages are contiguous, while in adults who have learned a second language after, say, 18 or 19, those spaces are separate, as though the mind were looking for a place to store the new linguistic material. When I go to France, as I often do, or Belgium, it takes me several days to push the Portuguese out of the way to get at the French. Sometimes, in the States, in certain situations, or when I’m surprised, I’ll start speaking spontaneously in Portuguese, which of course draws the looks. Sometimes translating I’ll fix a sentence in my head in Portuguese, and then, instead of translating it into English, I’ll start typing out a paraphrase of the original in Portuguese. Sometimes, I’ll be reading something, when I’m traveling, like the inside of a tin of little cigars, and won’t know at first what language I’m reading. It’s all very strange indeed. But I think that moving from free verse to formal verse is somewhat similar to moving from language to language. One of my best friends, a Swedish painter, who grew up in France, lived in New York and now spends half of his time in Berlin, uses different languages for different things. He thinks in French, writes in his diary in Swedish, prefers reading in English, conducts his business in German. \r

    King Charles V of Spain: “To God I speak Spanish, to woman Italian, to men French, and to my horse – German.”\r


    Martin

  50. May 3, 2009
     Terreson

    Well, this may come across as snarky. And I apologize in advance to the article's author, and to the many commentators, if it is taken as such. But I am unclear on exactly the character of the epiphany giving rise to the article's argument. I think it is this: “ 'Why was I writing in this way and not in another way,' I asked myself." To me the answer is simple. It would have been partly a matter of nature, partly a matter of nurture, and, finally, it would have been a matter of choice. Dante chose to work in the vernacular of Florentine Italian. Cummings chose to work in the idioms of Pound and so betraying his first poetic model, Longfellow. And so forth.\r

    The other comment whose sense escapes me is this: "These days, the best way to see the English language is to look at it from the outside, to hear how the world speaks it, and to learn to speak in their languages, as both a gesture of respect, and for the insight it provides into the relationship between the syntax of a culture and the way that culture manifests itself materially. It is only then that one can begin to understand the forces that have come to form our own contemporary vernacular." This strikes me as counter-intuitive. Language is morphological. So to speak, it morphs. And the changes it assumes are environmentally produced. How then is a poet to keep responsive to language if she assumes a position on the outside looking in?\r

    One last thought maybe. In his old man journals, I think it might have been in '33, Yeats commented on Pound's notions concerning the creation of a "universal language of poetry." (A notion pretty Imperialistic when you think about it.) Yeats said the notion was not for him. He said he needed the village, the peasant woman in front of him, the scene, the particular, in order to make poetry. \r

    Terreson

  51. May 4, 2009
     thomas brady

    "He said he needed the village, the peasant woman in front of him, the scene, the particular, in order to make poetry." \r

    Today we need the classroom, the M.F.A. professor in front of us, the modernist poetry text with its particulars, in order to make poetry.\r

    I don't think you were being snarky at all, Tere. I suppose others would respond by saying, well it doesn't hurt to look at language from all directions; just because you look at it from the outside doesn't mean you can't also experience it from the inside, as well. And, in your example, Yeats and Pound are both right; you need 'the village, the scene, the particular,' but you also have to make it universal. But then a poet shouldn't have to think, "Oh, I like this particular, now let me think on how to make it universal," the whole thing should be more unconscious than that. Which is why nobody trusts Poe's "Philosophy of Composition" formula. We don't trust anyone with a formula. But we seem to fall in love with half-formulas, timid, placid, compromising sorts of formulas. Maybe that's a greater problem: blandness. \r

    Thomas

  52. May 6, 2009
     Martin Earl

    Terreson,\r

    Just to respond quickly to two important points:\r

    1. The question of "choice" - nature vs. nurture aside, do you really think poets chose to write in one style or another? This seems to reduce style to a kind of strategy? In my post, I was talking about a sudden realization that the style I was writing in, partly under the influence of my teachers, wouldn't do. It took a few years to start writing in another way.\r

    2. The idea that poets need contact with their language as it evolves has been debated forever. I think some poets do, and some do not. Gertrude Stein didn't - she was happy - in France - to have English all to herself. Likewise Elizabeth Bishop. Yet Pasternak refused to leave Russia which turned into the Soviet Union (much to his own hardship when he was still a young poet) because he couldn't imagine living without the Russian language in his ear. One can't imagine Williams (though he did spend a good bit of time abroad) going to long without New Jersey. I take your point, but I think it has more to do with the particular poet. There are no rules about this and great poets have arisen out of both contexts. \r

    Martin

  53. May 6, 2009
     Martin Earl

    Thomas,\r

    I tried earlier today respond to your comment, but it seems to have gotten lost in the electricity.\r

    I liked the way you put this: "...just because you look at it from the outside doesn’t mean you can’t also experience it from the inside, as well."\r

    Patrick Kavanagh's great poem "Epic" (which I've cited before in this space, though I can't remember where) speaks to your concerns in this comment. Just in case you haven't read it, here's a link:\r

    http://homepage.eircom.net/%257Eodyssey/Quotes/Written/Epic.html\r

    Pound is a very interesting case in all of this. He wrote, as we all know, his Pisan Cantos -some say his greatest poetry - sitting in a cage in a military detention center without any of his usual apparatus criticus and most likely in a state of some disorientation.\r

    Martin

  54. May 6, 2009
     thomas brady

    Martin,\r

    When you talk about a poet’s “strategy” of “style,” I think we have to realize that Gertrude Stein and her fellow High Modernists occupied a different world than poets like you and I. \r

    As you know, with her brother, Leo, Gertrude was at the center of the Modern Painting movement, not only in terms of style, but in terms of influence, generally. Gertrude Stein was taught her automatic writing style by the distinguished philosopher, William James, while she was at Harvard. \r

    All poets who get on the radar consciously do choose a style, one that, in most cases, a mentor suggests to them. \r

    Here’s an example of what I’m talking about in terms of the High Modernists:\r

    Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?” which famously excoriates the academic insularity of contemporary po-biz, exempts the High Modernists from the whole thrust of his critique, holding them aloft as a shining counter-example. \r

    Gioia would agree with you that the Modernists did not reduce style to a “strategy.” I would disagree. I think the Modernists most certainly did, albeit in complex, and naturally evolving ways.\r

    The rise of the workshop, the migration of poetry into the academy, the diminishment of poetry as a popular art, occurred because of conscious actions by the High Modernists–yet Gioia, and Joseph Epstein in his “Who Killed Poetry?” which Gioia imitated, speak of High Modernism as the good old days--before all the trouble. \r

    This is the most blinkered view one could possibly take.\r

    I only bring up Gioia, Martin, because you have used the High Modernists in your example.\r

    If we’re going to talk about “choices” of “style” that get a poet read, then, yes, all poets who have made names for themselves did absolutely make choices to manifest a certain style,’ and, in terms of the High Modernists, like Gertrude Stein or William Carlos Williams, whom you mentioned, I refer not only to the manifesto-ism of High Modernism, but practical choices and strategies, which led poetry in precisely the direction which Gioia found so appalling in his by-now-classic broadside. \r

    In his essay, Gioia uses terms like “clubby” and “coterie” to describe contemporary poetry.\r

    Now, “Can Poetry Matter” cites as a sign of health, the example of the 'Kenyon Review’ publishing, alongside its critical essays, poems by Robert Lowell. \r

    Is it possible Gioia was unaware that Lowell left Harvard to study with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College, and that Ransom ran the Kenyon Review?\r

    John Crowe Ransom, who is not mentioned in Gioia’s essay, was in the thick of High Modernism, not only as founder of the Fugitives and New Criticism, but he was also instrumental in making poetry an academic concern. (See essays such “Criticism, Inc” in which Ransom argues critics must be university-trained.) \r

    Gioia nostalgically swoons over 1940, when there was “but one Writers Workshop,” recently founded at Iowa. What Gioia fails to mention is that Iowa workshop founder Paul Engle had connections to Ransom and the Fugitives (Engle was chosen for the Yale Younger in 1932 by William Alexander Percy, the Fugitive “godfather”). Allen Tate, a Fugitive/New Critic who is praised by Gioia in his essay, founded a Writing Workshop in 1942, at Princeton. \r

    In brief, “Can Poetry Matter” favors those who were busily working towards the very result to which the essay objects.\r

    Gioia makes much of the fact that most published contemporary poets teach creative writing for a living and that contemporary poetry anthologies consist of poets who teach each other. \r

    Then Gioia names “independent” poets like Wallace Stevens, who had “real jobs” as businessmen, and poets like Ezra Pound, who “earned a living with their writing.” Gioia’s point regarding the incestuous nature po-biz may have a certain validity, but his Modernist counter-examples crumble under analysis. \r

    Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, and T.S. Eliot were shaped by the same two professors at Harvard, George Santayana and William James. \r

    Wallace Stevens was a ground floor Imagist, part of the extremely well-connected coterie of Modernists which included Cummings (also at Harvard), Moore, and, of course, Pound. \r

    None of these little magazine poets “earned their living” from writing. The Modernists were subsidized by all sorts of individuals and looked out for one another exclusively.\r

    Gioia’s notion that the public is turned off by poetry today, and yet somehow everything was different when the public was buying up books by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens is a notion that prevents real headway on this whole matter. \r

    Williams, Stevens, and Pound all began as Imagists. They all made that conscious strategic choice based on their affiliation with men like Santayana and T.E. Hulme. Modernism began narrowly, very narrowly, and with a strategy.\r

    If we don't acknowlege this, a truly historical understanding of modern poetry is lost.\r

    There isn’t time to go into the whole story here, but the historical gap in Gioia’s thesis--through which the Modernists march untouched--needs to be sealed up.\r

    The “style” of Imagism, and the subsequent “style” of the New Criticism (T.S. Eliot’s “difficulty” joined together with Fugitive theorists around Ransom), were “choices” every High Modernist poet made, and which every poet made in order to get known. \r

    I’m sorry if this sounds cynical, Martin; and please do pardon the crudeness of my rhetorical sweep--which space constraints made necessary. \r

    Thomas

  55. May 6, 2009
     Don Share

    Anyone read this yet:\r

    http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300124231\r

    Why Poetry Matters, by Jay Parini

  56. May 7, 2009
     Terreson

    Well, Martin Earl, I suppose one could view style as a strategy of sorts, which would make it a means to an end. In the case of Rimbaud, for example, the stylistic (or strategic) means would have been his famous "disorganization of all the senses," right? The end would have been his also famous noption of poet as visionary. Not sure I have ever thought of the matter as a strategic manuever. But I suppose it could be. Rather, I've for long held to something Cocteau said about style. "To cultivate one's thought - to learn to shape and handle it - is to cultivate one's style. Looked at from any other point of view, style merely makes for obscurity and acts as a drag." This strikes me as the more authentic stance, since, more intimate in the morphological way. Anyway, from your description of how you shed old influences for something it took you a while to find, wouldn't this have started with a choice forced on you?\r

    As for item two, the point is taken. I am surprised you didn't pull out the really big gun, when it comes to language-ing means, and example James Joyce in his self-imposed exile. On the other hand, the case could be made that Joyce wasn't standing on the outside looking in. Rather, that he interiorized the language in the same way, and to the same lively extent, he first interiorized the map of Dublin's city streets, then interiorized a certain epic poem, ending up interiorizing the whole of ancient Irish mythology. I guess if I were in your position and an expat this would be something of how I would go after the language.\r

    Terreson