Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why Write or Read Poetry Reviews?

Craig Teicher posted an interesting article “What Poetry Reviews Are For (and Up Against)” on Publisher’s Weekly a couple of days ago. As he points out (as have others before him) most poetry reviews are done by poets to be read by other poets. And almost all are positive. Spotting the Snow Leopard in Central Park Zoo is statistically more likely than finding a negative review of a poetry book. So then, as Teicher goes on:

In almost any conversation on the topic of poetry reviews, one question comes up: what’s the point? This question isn’t always asked with the flippant air that actually means “who cares?” Often, people really want to know: what is accomplished by poetry reviews? Do they help sell books? Do they keep the art form in line? Do they spur writers into creating better poetry or kick bad writers out of the halls of Parnassus? Do poetry reviews help readers?

Teicher’s article includes input of three other poet/reviewers—Kevin Prufer, Matthew Zapruder, and Nikole Brown. Prufer says, “The purpose of poetry reviewing is to keep the art of poetry alive.” Zapruder adds, “The most valuable thing about a review of a book of poetry is its potential to deepen the reader’s experience of the work under consideration.” Brown goes on, “The sale of a book, while the obvious goal, isn’t the ultimate aim” of a poetry review, she says, “It’s healthier for a title when that review stimulates public conversation.”

I agree that poetry reviews are part of the conversation about poetry. For many readers, they may be the ONLY part of that conversation and their only exposure to a particular book. I do a few reviews and I read a lot of poetry reviews. Why? For me, reviews help me not only understand what a particular poet is doing, but what poetry is. This is true when I’m reading a review, and even more so when I’m trying to do one.

Another similarly interesting panel/discussion took place in 2000 and was published in Jacket Magazine. Participating this time were critics Stephen Burt, Marjorie Perloff, Michael Scharf and Helen Vendler. I posted a few of their comments below but the discussion in its entirety is worth a read.

Stephen Burt: Poetry criticism might be defined as all the kinds of writing whose immediate effect is to help people read poems—poems that help us, as Samuel Johnson put it, "better to enjoy life or else better to endure it." Though the poems become part of life, as well—"part of the res itself and not about it" (Stevens). Valid tasks for criticism can include line-by-line exegeses; general introductions to formal and intellectual tools; explanations of how poems interact with other parts of culture; refutations of common fallacies or bad arguments; and even jokes. As Randall Jarrell had it, "The best critic who ever lived could not prove that the Iliad is better than 'Trees': the critic can only state his belief persuasively, and hope that the reader of the poem will agree—but persuasively covers everything from a sneer to statistics."

Helen Vendler: I think there's room for many kinds of criticism. There's room for criticism engaged in my circuit with the author, and there's room for criticism that says what the role of poetry is in the larger culture. "The most marvelous bishops of heaven," says Stevens, "are those that made it seem like heaven." And the most marvelous bishops of poetry are those that made it seem so. It's rare to find that volatility and power on the page, as we all know, and we're all looking for it all the time. The fact that there are people who are recognizing poetry, whether east-coast, west-coast, south, or north, seems to me a wonderful thing. It's very nice to be handing over one's own function as a talent scout to the next generation.

Marjorie Perloff: And now I think we've become much too polite in a certain way, and so I'll go back to what Steve said and start a little argument (we might as well, right?). Steve said in his talk, "I like Rae Armantrout, I like Frank Bidart, I like so-and-so." I find myself asking, "Why?" I don't know what that means to like some of those people you listed. I think it's too tolerant. Great art and great criticism have never been tolerant. Was Milton tolerant? Was Goethe tolerant? It's not up to artists and in that case their critics to say "Gee, everything, is great. I like this, and I also like that. And how wonderful that is."

Helen Vendler: I'm often asked why I don't often do negative reviews. Sometimes I've promised to write something and it turns out to be a negative review, but basically I don't want to write about that which doesn't attract me on the page—it's very much like being asked to talk about an incompetent singer. All you can say is the voice has no carrying power, there's no interpretative ability, there's no resonance or timbre, no dramatic excitement. All you can say is things that you miss; that doesn't seem to me an interesting kind of writing to do, I mean life is too short. It's like doing a multiple choice test: timbre, NO; carrying power, NO; interpretative talent, NO; this is just a boring kind of writing to do, whereas when something seems to be succeeding on the page, it's thrilling—and especially when it's something new and you don't know how the poet is making it happen.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Passover Poem for Jerusalem

We enter Passover week here in Israel. I’ll spend Passover Eve, Monday night, at my in-laws in Jerusalem where Shmuel, my father-in-law, will recite the entire “Agada” in Hebrew. Meanwhile, I’ll be feeding my gefilte fish to the dog. The reading of the Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) story, which recites how Moses led the Jews out of Egyptian slavery and to freedom, is a beautiful ritual, one I look forward to even though I am not Jewish. Of course, Moses’ story is also a Christian story, but I enjoy the ritual more for its continuity than for its content, the sense that we are saying the same words said thousands of times before. It makes me feel more human, not Jewish.

Jerusalem is in my mind a great deal, primarily because of the continuing controversy over the building of new Jewish apartments in the predominantly Arab eastern portion of Jerusalem. As most people know, this part of Jerusalem lies inside what the Palestinians hope will be the future capital of a Palestinian country. Most secular Israelis who I know also believe in a shared Jerusalem. But in order to appease right-wing and primarily ultra-orthodox coalition members, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government continues to approve new construction. It is appalling. I am happy that the US government appears to also find it appalling and is vocally letting the Israeli know its displeasure. Despite Netanyahu’s words, Jerusalem is not Tel Aviv.

I don’t want to turn this into a political piece. Here is a short lovely poem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai called “Passover,” which at the end sums up what I think the Israeli government must take as its commandment: “Thou must surely change.”

My father was a god and did not know it. He gave me
The Ten Commandments neither in thunder nor in furry; neither in fire nor in cloud
But rather in gentleness and love. And he added caresses and kind words
and he added “I beg You,” and “please.”
And he sang “keep” and “remember” the Shabbat
In a single melody and he pleaded and
cried quietly between one utterance and the next ,
“Do not take the name of God in vain,” do not take it, not in vain,
I beg you, “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
And he hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear
“Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder.”
And he put the palms of his open hands
On my head wit the Yom Kippur blessing.
“Honor, love, in order that your days might be long
On the earth.” And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later on he turned his face to me one last time
Like on the day when he died in my arms and said
I want to add Two to the Ten Commandments:
The eleventh commandment – “Thou shall not change.”
And the twelfth commandment – “Thou must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and walked off
Disappearing into his strange distances.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Precious Translation from The Poetry Translation Centre

Last month, Poetry Magazine published a lengthy discussion on translation. Two poets and people I admire—Ilya Kaminsky and Adam Kirsch—took somewhat opposing sides in the debate. Kirsch took the more pessimistic stance, claiming the now standard impossibility of translation and that “when you translate the “accidents of life” into the rather featureless dialect of international poetry” there is a risk “of losing the very truth the poem wants to tell us.” Kaminsky, who just co-edited (with Susan Harris) a book of translated poetry from around the world called The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, took the side of translation. While his arguments were more nuanced, he suggested that while there may be good and bad translations of specific poems, translation can yield something akin to the poetic ‘truth’ and sometimes yield a better poem. Most of us who read poetry in translation partake of both points of view (as do probably these two poets, but what a boring conversation that would make!).

In my case, I can only read Rilke, Zagajewski, Milosz, Akhmatova, Cavafy in translation. Even the Hebrew poets I love including Natan Zach, Yehuda Amichai, Dahlia Ravikovitch come to me only, really, in their English translations. But in all cases, I recognize the trade-off. The original music and meter, form and even content, is often sacrificed. Translators must make choices. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Hamutal Bar-Yosef, an Israeli poet, and her English language translator decided to avoid translating any of Bar-Yosef’s more difficult poems (i.e., ones that had difficult form or abstract metaphor) because they felt it would be impossible to do adequate translations. You have only to compare different translations of the same poems to see how it can sometimes work and sometimes not. Hopefully though what is retained (and dare I say added by the translator) replicates, even enhances, what the originating poem intended.

I’m reiterating some of this debate because I came across a very interesting translation project called the “Poetry Translation Centre.” It is a small UK-based outfit that translated only living African, Asian or Latin American poets who have already established a reputation in their own languages and only through collaboration with the poet. Their process is in three steps:

1. They look at the original poem: even if most of us can’t understand a word, it’s always important to hear its music, and to look at how the poet has placed it on the page.
2. The language expert produces a literal translation that’s as close to the original as possible.
3. There’s the long and detailed negotiation that ends with the translated poem.

It is a lengthy process and obviously requires lots of resources though the Centre seems open to the idea of exchanging poems via mail and e-mail. So far, they’ve translated poets from Sudan, Portugal, Tajikistan, Somalia, Kurdistan, India, Argentina, Afghanistan, Turkey, Oman, and many others, including poets from Palestine and one from Israel. On their website, there are podcasts that include readings in both the original language and the translated, and one can purchase chapbooks of the translations.

I am doing a bit of informal translating myself from Hebrew to English of work by Israeli poets Tal Nitzan-Keren and Khaviva Padia. These translations are extremely time consuming and, so far, terrible. They illustrate how far I still have to go in learning this difficult language, and, how difficult the translation project is.

Check out The Poetry Translation Centre website and some of the poets. You can see the poems in their original languages, the literal translations, as well as the finished translated poems. Here is one of the finished poems by Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi translated from Arabic:


Poetry - may you be a green body.
May you be a language
in which I wander
with my wings and my self.
Be the inspiration of my tongue,
so that I may pasture
the tribes of my voice - though they are silent.

and alone, I see
you will not be
a green body.
You were neither
a good master, to be bought,
nor the muse.
My longed for delirium, my memory.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Reading Muller's The Land of Green Plums

I recently finished reading The Land of Green Plums the novel written by 2009 Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller. Muller is Romanian-German and there were several reasons I put the book on my reading list. I’d never read any Muller, or to be honest, heard of her before the Nobel bestowed its prize. I also have a slight aversion to German fiction after living in Munich for a few years and felt it time to move beyond my own pathology (don't ask but it was one of my 2010 New Year’s resolutions). More importantly, my in-laws, now living in Jerusalem, fled pre-Ceauşescu Romania in the early 1960s. Their exit may have been part of what is known as the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between Romania and Israel under which Israel paid Romania hard currency or provided economic assistance for every Jew “allowed” to emigrate. Even for Jews, such a decision must have been difficult as those that applied to leave were labeled enemies of the Communist system, of the country. This resulted in immediate humiliating dismissal from the place of employment and social stigmatisation. My in-laws left businesses, friends, family and came to Israel where a few years later, my husband and his sister were born. Muller herself may have been part of this same program as in the 1960s Ceausescu decided to "sell" not only Jews, but also Romanians of German origin who wanted to return to live in Germany -- The "selling" of people was a unique occurrence in modern history. He considered "Jews, Germans, and oil" the most important export commodities in Romania. For all those reasons, Muller seemed an important writer.

The novel takes place in an unspecified location and time, though it is a large city and sometime during Romanian dictator Ceausescu’s reign 24-year reign. I imagined Bucharest, Romania’s capital, in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The novel is told through the eyes of an unnamed young woman who leaves her small village for college and work. The narrator is of German origin, and may be modeled on Muller herself. We do learn names of several of her friends—Lola, Tereza, Edgar, Kurt, and Georg. Lola, one of the narrator’s roommates, kills herself early in the book. By the end, Tereza, who may or may not be an informant, succumbs to some unnamed disease perhaps cancer, Kurt and Georg are dead, after fleeing Romania, while the narrator and Edgar, who also manage to escape, are living in a state of still-constant fear in Germany.

The language in the book is simple and usually told via the interior monologue of the main character. Thus we often lose track of who is speaking, the action. Muller also uses created metaphors such as ‘heartbeast,’ ‘the eating of green plums’ by police officers, a ‘singing’ grandmother to indicate emotional states. The metaphors are strange, but are very expressive. They make you feel the oppressive atmosphere in a totalitarian regime, one starts to feel persecuted by "harmless men with dogs" walking behind you, one can relate perfectly well to how the characters grow more and more hopeless.

The Land of Green Plums brings to mind absurdist literature in the vein of Camus and Kafka. The novel lacks a traditional plot structure, the characters are ambiguous in nature, and it is basically a study of human behavior under circumstances that are highly unusual. But this is a perfectly valid way of expressing such life in art. To deal with the experience of totalitarianism would appear to demand either a talent for such poetic near-evasion or for absurdist, almost surreal comedy. In Muller’s case, it is the former rather than the latter. Humor, at least here, is not one of her tools. But given the suffering and deprivation Romanians suffered under Ceausescu, including her own, perhaps Muller felt any lightening of the novel’s atmosphere would have been further absurdity.

I admit I have typically turned to the poetic works by Czeslaw Milosz, Durs Grunbein, Adam Zagajewski, Anna Achmatova, Osip Mandelstam as lenses into this type of experience. Muller’s work though cannot be ignored. It isn’t necessarily fun reading, but it is I suppose necessary.

Monday, March 8, 2010

International Women's Day--Today!

Probably most of you don't know this but today is International Women's Day! I admit I didn't  until I tuned in the Bitch Magazine website, where besides having a great name, the site provides interesting essays, commentary on media, politics, the arts as viewed through a women's lens. It also provides useful updates including regarding the aforementioned date. Did you also know that this has been a UN recognized day since 1911? Me either.

Anyway, to mark the day here is very brief excerpt from Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of Women's Rights" written in 1792. And still true, still true...

How many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practised as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility, that consumes the beauty to which it at first gave luster...? How much more respectable is the woman who earns her own bread by fulfilling any duty, than the most accomplished beauty!

Friday, March 5, 2010

How to Make a Bestseller: Poetry as Self Help

A couple of days ago, Michael Berger wrote in the almost always excellent online magazine The Rumpus that if only poets and publishers could leverage the poetic obsession with ‘death’ and ‘loss,’ bookstores would be selling a lot more poetry books. Here’s an excerpt:

Yet if we consider poetry as less a morbid exploration of these bleak realities and more of a redemptive confrontation with them, then poetry will start selling like The Power Of Now or The Secret. Poems, instead of all those smug, unrealistic books on self-deification, will be the signposts directing us down navigable routes through thickets of pain and wastelands of loss.

Good grief, poetry as grief counseling. What’s next, Rita Dove writes “Goodbye Grief,” Tony Hoagland writes “Twelve Steps Backward,” Charles Simic’s “Elegy for the Last Cigarette,” or Marie Howe’s “The Diet Sonnets?” Granted, poetry is often a way in, a way through some of the most complex of human issues. It can certainly console, but it can also uplift, sing, amuse, and dance. Death is certainly one of poetry’s preoccupation, where isn’t it, but there’s also lots of sex, love, infidelity, money won and lost, murder, and lots and lots of mayhem. For me, poetry is compensation for only having one life.

The fiction bestseller lists are dominated by James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, Dan Brown, Harlen Coben, and Nora Roberts. I admit I’ve dived in to a few books by the aforementioned group and, yes, enjoyed them. There is a reason these books are called page-turners. But it is a rare case when anything we might call ‘literary fiction’ finds itself teetering at the top of one of The New York Times bestseller lists. Granted, a number of authors I consider articulate, complex, funny, and capable of writing a sentence with more than one subordinate clause like Jonathon Lethem, Jonathon Franzen, Alice Munro, Joyce Carroll Oates, etc, do sell. They even sometimes make it to the bestseller lists. But the number of books sold by these authors falls far far short of those sold by the highbrow romance publisher Harlequin. I mean how else does a young girl learn about sex?

Most people I know who avoid poetry do so for a whole slew of different reasons including but certainly not limited to lack of familiarity, perceived difficulty, desire for story, escape and entertainment, and, for sure, confusion in the face of the sheer number of poetry books. These are some of the same reasons these same people avoid literary fiction. Moreover, there is probably a reason Billy Collins and Mary Oliver are two of the bestselling poetry writers—they are often amusing, well at least Collins, straightforward and their poems illuminate feelings, and not just grief.

Reading poetry takes practice. I suppose if children were given more books of poetry and less Harry Potter, we’d have more adults reading poetry. That’s not to say that poetry doesn’t provide a beautiful and often helpful lens of loss and suffering. Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do,” Kimiko Hahn’s “Unbearable Heart,” Mary Jo Bang’s “Elegy,” tell what it is to lose a brother, a mother, a child. When I lost my mother, it was to this ‘help’ I turned.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

D.H. Lawrence and His "Ship of Death"

I suppose depression would be difficult enough, but at least most of us are saved from persecution complexes like that suffered by the writer D.H. Lawrence! Though I suppose given his most-famous book Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned and many people considered his work, if not him, pornographic, he wasn't entirely paranoid. Anyway, today is the 80-year anniversary of his death.

On this day in 1930 forty-five-year-old D. H. Lawrence died in Vence, France, of tuberculosis. Lawrence was so scoffing of medical (or any other) science that he refused to name or accept his condition, or to submit to any of the "magic mountain" treatments recommended to him. This fatalism was combined with a belief that he was in the grip of an evil spirit, visited upon him by a lifetime of vilification from misguided critics and an outraged public -- most recently for the banned Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), and for an exhibition of paintings condemned as "filth" by the press and confiscated by the police. "The hatred which my books have aroused comes back at me and gets me here," he told a friend, tapping his chest. "If I get the better of if in one place it goes to another."

But I'd rather remember him for his amazing writing. Here is a fabulous reading of his poem "The Ship of Death," written just months before his own:

Monday, March 1, 2010

Artistic Grief

The New York Times Magazine this week reported that “sadness makes us more aware and attentive.” I.e., there is an evolutionary reason for depression. Or at least some kinds of depression.

The article goes on: The enhancement of these mental skills might also explain the striking correlation between creative production and depressive disorders. In a survey led by the neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, 30 writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were interviewed about their mental history. Eighty percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British writers and artists by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who found that successful individuals were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.

The article brought to mind a poem written by Philip Larkin in 1954 and dedicated to Sally Amis, the third child of Larkin’s lifelong friend Kingsley Amis. In the poem, Larkin runs through the clichéd gamut of wishes for his friend’s daughter—beauty, innocence, love. But, if those things are not possible, then he wishes for her to be dull because, he seems to say, dull might be another word for what we call happiness.

Born Yesterday

           By Philip Larkin

Tightly-folded bud,
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
Not the usual stuff
About being beautiful,
Or running off a spring
Of innocence and love -
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.

But if it shouldn’t, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull -
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.

This written by a poet who critic Eric Homberger called "the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket"—Larkin himself said that deprivation for him was what daffodils were for Wordsworth.

I don’t know. I refuse to believe that creativity and depression are so tightly entwined. Or at least that the treatment of one means the loss of the other. But then I’m only in my sixth week of therapy.