Archive for April, 2011
This week I had intended to publish the follow-up to my last post, about Derek Walcott. But Holy Week has been its usual drama queen self, and no matter how I try to air out my religious sensibility, I’m always brought to my knees by its rapturous tragedy. Consequently, another poet has been knocking about in my skull, clamoring to be heard: the lyrical and tragic-eyed Odysseus Elytis. So, Walcott can wait another week.
For some reason, I always associate Easter with Greece. I love to prepare Greek food for the feast. Two years ago, I made an enormous lamb pie baked in a crust of Greek bread (We ate it all week. Making moderate amounts is difficult for me). Sam makes tzoureki, a Greek braided bread, not unlike Jewish challa, with red-painted Easter eggs baked into the pleats.
This year, Easter dinner will be, not Greek, but Italian, featuring a rustico casserole of cubed lamb tossed with herbs, garlic, tomatoes and Parmigiano-Reggiano, layered with thinly sliced new potatoes. I probably won’t be able to resist trading out the third cup of water the recipe calls for to be added before putting it into the oven with with wine. As crusty as the potatoes will get, and as meltingly tender the lamb, Elytis, in spirit, is scowling at these plans. What his country suffered at the hands of the Italians during World War II, the humiliation of foreign occupation, mass killings, rapes and starvation, would likely cause my cooking this year to catch in his throat. His experience as an officer in the heroic Albanian Campaign that resisted the Italian invasion of Greece became the genesis of the poem that marked the turning point in his career: Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign (1945). In a letter to the translator Kimon Friar, Elytis wrote of its origins:
‘A kind of “metaphysical modesty” dominated me. The virtues I found embodied and living in my comrades formed in synthesis a brave young man of heroic stature, one whom I saw in every period of our history. They had killed him a thousand times, and a thousand times he had sprung up again, breathing and alive. His was no doubt the measure and worth of our civilization, compounded of his love not of death but of life. It was with his love of Freedom that he recreated life out of the stuff of death.”
And so he wrote this magnificent cycle, fourteen stanzas, in honor of this imagined, composite, fallen soldier. Without a trace of club-footed allegory, Elytis produced one of the most evocative Easter poems I know. Here is the final stanza in Friar’s translation.
Now the dream in the blood throbs more swiftly
The truest moment of the world rings out:
Greeks show the way in the darkness:
For you the eyes of the sun shall fill with tears of joy.
Rainbow-beaten shores fall into the water
Ships with open-sails voyage on the meadows
The most innocent girls
Run naked in men’s eyes
And modesty shouts from behind the hedge
Boys! There is no other earth more beautiful
The truest moment of the world rings out!
With a morning stride on the growing grass
He is continually ascending;
Around him those passions glow that once
Were lost in the solitude of sin;
Passions flame up, the neighbours of his heart;
Birds greet him, they seem to him his companions
‘Birds, my dear birds, this is where death ends!’
‘Comrades, my dear comrades, this is where life begins!’
The dew of heavenly beauty glistens in his hair.
Bells of crystal are ringing far away
Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow: the Easter of God!
Odysseus Elytis, made a Nobel Laureate in 1979, died in 1996. This year, he would have turned one hundred. Many regard him as the greatest Greek poet of the 20th century. Greece is making a great fuss over him this year, and as his birthday, November 2, approaches, I will almost certainly be publishing more posts on him. But for now, this Easter greeting.
This morning I told Sam I was going to be writing a post on Derek Walcott. “I don’t understand why he’s considered so great,” he said. “With the exception of that one poem about the birds, the poems of his I’ve come across have seemed so specifically about the Caribbean. What does he have to say to an ordinary guy living in Denver?” Sam is one of the most avid readers of poetry I know, actually much more skilled at it than I, so his question warrants a serious attempt at a response.
I’ll begin by mentioning another poet altogether: Three years ago I had the opportunity to meet Mark Strand. For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Strand is one of America’s preeminent poets. Born in 1934, he is a member of what I would call a golden generation of American poets born between 1920 and 1940 which includes W. S. Merwin, Philip Levine, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons, Amy Clampitt, Galway Kinnell, Adrianne Rich, and Charles Simic, all of them born between 1920 and 1940. There were great poets before them, and there are many fine younger poets at work now, but something in America’s water between the two world wars yielded an unprecedented effulgence of poetic genius.
At 75, Mark Strand radiated upon those of us gathered his pronounced Clint Eastwood brand of handsomeness, the kind that insists on reminding you of its owner’s age. How much trust does one allot for the work of a tall handsome poet? On the one hand, physical beauty makes no difference at all. Only the words matter, the words, how they are arranged, and to what end. On the other hand, one can’t help wondering what tangled vines it helped clear for him from the universal jungle’s narrow and precarious path. As if to illustrate, he told a personal anecdote that could not have happened to just anyone. He told a story about meeting Auden:
During Strand’s time as a student at Antioch University, W. H. Auden visited the campus, and the privilege fell to him to usher the great poet around. At the end of the day, Auden, Strand, his wife, and a friend went to the friend’s apartment for a glass of brandy. Only problem, the friend had but three glasses. It was decide that Wystan Hugh and Mark would share a glass. The brandy was poured. Auden took a sip. Then, from the opposite side of the glass, Mark took a sip. Auden rotated the glass to sip form where Mark’s lips had been. Mark turned the glass, seeking an unsullied portion of the rim, whereupon Auden again placed his lips on the same coordinates. And so it went, Auden’s lips pursuing, Strand’s pursued. All around the glass.
A story like this holds several thrills. First, there is the delight in the way the mind makes meaning. It is the delight a poet takes in raising the mundane to the level of, if not truth, than at least wit. Marvelous, isn’t it, that something as archetypal and untamed as the erotic chase can be channeled into a few drinks from a brandy glass. The world seems better for this, more beautiful. Or at least more manageable.
W. H. Auden
Then there is the pleasure of its subject: It is a story about Auden for God’s sake! One of my first poetic idols. So this is how, in one instance, the great man operated without paper and pen. And there I was, mere feet away from someone who had known him. My narcissism positively quivered in the reflected glow.
Finally, it was Mark Strand, one of America’s finest, doing the telling. Mark Strand, to whom Harold Bloom gives over a loving section of his new book, The Anatomy of Influence. The story humanized him, as it humanized Auden. It humanized him, but how glamorously! Before winning the Pulitzer Prize, before becoming Poet Laureate, this man shared an escapade, if only small-scaled and symbolic, with the man who wrote The Shield of Achilles. Me? Today, I ate an egg sandwich.
I asked Mr. Strand which poets he loved the most. “Derek Walcott.” Not a moment’s hesitation. In his opinion, Derek Walcott is the greatest living poet in English (a position that I would argue once belonged to Auden). “His use of language is…Shakespearean.”
By coincidence, I had recently purchased Walcott’s Selected Poems (2007). I had sniffed at it, read some poems, read lines or stanzas from others. But, taking Strand’s cue, I decided to dive in and read it from cover to cover.
I was not a Walcott virgin. Back in 1992 or 1993, after he won the Nobel Prize, I went straight to the Denver Public Library and checked out his volume, The Fortunate Traveler (1981). I copied out some of the poems (I’ve always loved doing this), including what became, and remains, one of my favorites, “The Season of Phantasmal Peace”. It is the “poem about the birds” Sam cited as the exception to his general impression of Walcott’s work. Not surprising. It is one of the high points of poetry in English. It begins: “Then all the nations of birds lifted together/the huge net of the shadows of this earth/in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,/ stitching and crossing it.”
When I got to the section from The Fortunate Traveler in Selected Poems, I discovered that the very first poem in this section, entitled “Piano Practice”, is dedicated to none other than Mark Strand! At one and a half pages, it is what would be for most poets a poem of medium length. For Walcott it is positively concise. It begins with three wonderful lines: “April, in another fortnight, metropolitan April./A drizzle glazes the museum’s entrance,/like their eyes when they leave you, equivocating spring!”
On a hunch, I reached for my copy of Strand’s New Selected Poems, flipped through the pages. I knew it had to be there. Sure enough. There, on page 243, from his 1998 volume, Blizzard for One, was, in seventeen lines of iambic hexameter, “The View”, for — Derek Walcott.
More on Walcott, Strand, Auden, and a go at Sam’s question in my next post.
King Gustavus V of Sweden presenting the Nobel Prize to Pearl Buck in December, 1938
The woods in Robert Frost’s mind were particularly snowy on that day in 1938 when Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize. ”If she can get it, anyone can,” he famously declaimed in rather artless iambic tetrameter, stating more succinctly than anyone to follow an opinion which has ever since dogged both the author and the orchard keepers of that peculiar Northern grove of literary reputations. Buck herself knew what a problematic choice she was, and the weight of this knowledge lead her to a gracious humility (of which she evidently cured herself in later years). In an interview with the New York Times she bowed to Theodore Dreiser as the more deserving author and acknowledged feeling “diffident in accepting the award.” In her acceptance speech she said, “I can only hope that the many books which I have yet to write will be in some mearsure a worthier acknowledgment than I can make tonight.” It all must have been a bit much for her; as Peter Conn, her most eloquent contemporary apologist, points out, she went from being unpublished and unknown to winning the Nobel Prize in less than ten years. It strikes me as both touching and a little melancholy that this most popular of American writers felt compelled to make public statements like crossed index fingers raised against a tide of negative opinion.
Of course, not all opinion was negative. When The Good Earth, her famous tale of a Chinese farmer’s perseverance in the face of crushing odds, was published in 1931, it found an acutely well-primed audience. America was plummeting down the steep slopes of the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s monumental contribution to the literature of perseverance, was not published until 1939, which means that The Good Earth was the brightest literary beacon on the horizon for most of America’s darkest hour since the Civil War.
Her admirers, from the Nobel Committee to the Chinese American author, Maxine Hong Kingston, have lauded her for being the first writer to bring China to the attention of the West. Kang Liao, author of Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Bridge Across the Pacific, goes further, saying that her books were valuable, not only to Americans, but “to us Chinese in learning about ourselves and particularly about the majority of the Chinese people, the peasants and farmers of whom we had little truthful and realistic representation in literature until after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.” Historian James Thomson rather more extravagantly called her “the most influential Westerner to write about China since thirteenth century Marco Polo.”
But out of the chorus of her defenders’s voices, variously pitched – earnest, sometimes aggrieved, sometimes rather missionary – a curious lacuna arises: They can’t quite get around to praising the writing itself. Some make a virtue of this by disowning the problem. In an essay cagily entitled “Who’s Afraid of Pearl S. Buck”, Jane Rabb takes up her sling against literary academics, a perennially heroic enterprise, and not without some justification. She writes, “After the Second World War, literary scholars favored the New Criticism, a close analysis of texts independent of history and biography, an approach no more suited to Buck’s writing than its convoluted successors, Structuralism and Deconstructionism.” American educator, historian, and literary critic Oscar Cargill charged that, “To reflective Americans outside the [literary] fraternity… the prize seemed well given as a reminder that pure aestheticism is not everything in letters. If the standard of her work was not so uniformly high as that of a few other craftsmen, what she wrote had universal appeal and a comprehensibility not too frequently matched.” That “few other craftsmen” comes across as a pricy concession paid for on credit. Cargill was the author of notable books on both Eugene O’Neill and Henry James, a Nobel laureate and a writer who should have been, neither noted for their “appeal and comprehensibility”. He clearly understood Buck’s shortcomings and all but says “Let’s not go there.”
In his book, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography, Peter Conn uses Elizabeth Janeway’s New York Times review of Buck’s 1952 novel, The Hidden Flower, to bring in the feminist critique. I quote at length Conn’s quoting of the author of Man’s World, Women’s Place:
“Always widely read,” Janeway wrote, “and at one time the object of critical study, Pearl Buck is…relegated today to some amorphous anteroom of writing halfway – or more – between serious literary effort and best-sellerdom.” Criticism which placed high value on “the private struggle of a human mind with its interior world,” had no tolerance for Pearl, who dealt in busy plots and created characters that behaved like types. Even more damaging, Pearl’s “bias toward morality and toward a belief in order and in generosity,” made her seem merely naive in the eyes of what Janeway called the “intellectual critics,” who mistrusted love and preferred squalor to transcendence.
Janeway’s tone is sympathetic, but defensive and slightly baffled – Although she wants Pearl’s work to be taken more seriously, she isn’t quite sure how to make the case. In the end, she resorts to a rudimentary feminism, identifying Pearl’s importance with her female redership: ”[I]t is too bad that Miss Buck’s audience is, par excellence, the audience that is ignored by contemporary critics of writing[:] the American middle-class woman who reads novels.” (p. 329).
So, if Pearl Buck’s reputation has fluttered downward from literary icon to one of the names most frequently raised against the Nobel and its process of selection, the fault, according to her arbiters, lies not with her frequently leaden pen and the hassle-free moral universe her character’s inhabit, but with those who value their opposites: facetted writing serving moral complexity. Their arguments take fertile points of inquiry, such as the strong appeal she had for middle-class women, and turn them into smoke bombs, obscuring the issue of her shortcomings and making it all about the anti-feminist elitism of her critics. The charge is not only unfounded but wrong-headed that someone who prefers, say, the high-wire act of The Adventures of Augie March, or the suspiration of time and meaning’s elusivity evoked by the very language of To the Lighthouse, ipso facto “mistrusts love and prefers squalor to transcendence,” and are therefore ill-dispossed to give Buck a fair reading.
Better, wouldn’t it be, to disentangle the issues, make separate files, as it were. In one file we place her rich biography – daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in a Chinese backwater, growing up speaking Mandarin before speaking English, founder of the first international inter-racial adoption agency, her ins and outs with the Chinese government, her difficult relationships with various men. In a separate pile we place her singular role as mouthpiece of the East to the West, the first to really define China for American and European readers. In a third file we address Janeway’s fascinating and somewhat touchy claim that she was primarily a “woman’s writer.” (How fun it would be to make about ten sub-files out of that one, one of which would be her emergence on the roster of America’s most remarkable and influential women.) In a fourth, we put the unavoidable fact that her prolific output is highly uneven, that her writing is clearly not that of a first-rank literary artist, and an investigation into why this is so by, yes Ms. Rabb, looking at the texts themselves.
When we step beyond the barracks of both her defenders and detractors, she all at once ceases to be a two-dimensional figure, a commodity useful to various agendas, and emerges as a fascinating writer, worth investigating on her own terms. The only question remaining is one to be answered by individual readers: Does her cultural and historical moment provide sufficient reason to spend time with her books, or is life too short to read her at the risk of missing Chekhov, or Proust?
- 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature (5)
- 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature (3)
- American laureates (7)
- Asian laureates (1)
- British laureates (2)
- Brodsky, Joseph (1)
- Buck, Pearl S. (3)
- Chinese language laureates (1)
- Elytis, Odysseus (3)
- English language laureates (16)
- Garcia Marquez, Gabriel (2)
- Golding, William (4)
- Hemingway, Ernest (1)
- Le Clézio, J. M. G. (1)
- Mahfouz, Naguib (1)
- Milosz, Czeslaw (3)
- Mistral, Gabriela (1)
- Mo Yan (2)
- Morrison, Toni (3)
- Müller, Herta (2)
- Naipaul, V. S. (1)
- Nobel Cinema (1)
- Nobel Knowlege Literature Quiz (4)
- Nobel Prize for Literature (11)
- Novelists (21)
- Novels (9)
- Poems (13)
- Poets (14)
- Sholokhov, Mikhail (1)
- Should have won (2)
- Symborska, Wislawa (1)
- The Prize should go to… (4)
- Tranströmer, Tomas (3)
- Walcott, Derek (4)
- White, Patrick (3)
- You weren't going to forget about ___ were you? (4)
Literary web sites and blogs