The Daily

On the Shelf

All the Fun of Poetry Without All Those Poems, and Other News

June 16, 2015 | by

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Kenyon Cox, An Eclogue, 1889.

  • Ben Lerner stares into the mire of futility and falsehood that is poetry: “What if we dislike or despise or hate poems because they are—every single one of them—failures? … The fatal problem with poetry: poems. This helps explain why poets themselves celebrate poets who renounce writing.”
  • While we’re on poets and failure—in the midthirties, W. H. Auden entered into an auspicious if unlikely collaboration with Benjamin Britten. Here’s how that went: “Britten wrote his first opera, and I my first libretto, on the subject of an American folk hero, Paul Bunyan. The result, I’m sorry to say, was a failure, for which I was entirely to blame, since, at the time, I knew nothing whatever about opera or what is required of a librettist. In consequence some very lovely music of Britten’s went down the drain, and I must now belatedly make my apologies to my old friend while wishing him a very happy birthday.”
  • Sixty years on, J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man “remains a hilarious and upsetting portrait of postwar Ireland and the American GIs who showed up there, with the prerogative and the wherewithal to carouse and copulate on a level that the locals did not appreciate.” And what of its author? He remains … obstreperous, a new interview suggests. “When I return to the kitchen, I see that Donleavy has put on a funny pink bucket hat. He tells me he never allowed any changes to his manuscripts, nor is he particularly inviting of second readers or the like.”
  • What’s your very favorite thing? If you answered “art fairs,” congratulations—you can’t throw a rock without hitting one. (Also, you are probably very wealthy.) You could be at an art fair right now, in fact, in beautiful Switzerland, instead of reading this. Art Basel “is one of at least 180 international art fairs held each year, up from only fifty-five in 2000 … The art calendar is so packed with them that there is increasing talk of ‘fair fatigue’—visitor and exhibitor saturation.”
  • Airports are such liminal spaces—and are so widely loathed—that we risk losing them to history. Who is documenting the airports? Who will remember them? Andrea Bruce is one of twenty photographers who took pictures of the airports she passed through in April. “Each time she let security scan her ISO 400 film with x-rays. Though the TSA claims that airport x-rays do not affect film of that speed in the United States, the repeated exposures to radiation left some of Bruce’s photographs with what she describes as ‘a faint, ghostly wave.’ ”

Your Very Own Celestial Clock, and Other News

June 15, 2015 | by

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The gilt cover of Matisse’s Ulysses, from 1935.

  • John Berger is eighty-eight, and still seeing—which isn’t to commend him for having retained his eyesight, but to say he’s still an acute observer. “I live enormously through my eyes. The visible is simply a very important part of my experience of being in this world … my own story doesn’t interest me. There’s a risk of egocentricity. And to storytellers, egocentricity is boring.”
  • “The world made this book true while I was writing it, which of course is the paranoid’s greatest fantasy.” The deeply surveilled world of Joshua Cohen’s new novel, Book of Numbers, seemed improbable, if not impossible, before the Snowden leaks. Now the book is positioned not as a techno-dystopian fable but as an aspirant to that lofty title, “The Great American Internet Novel.”
  • Our London editor, Adam Thirlwell, on Wayne McGregor’s new ballet, Woolf Works: “The mystery arises through a pragmatic attention to physical detail … a truth recognized subtly in the way a choreographer describes making a ballet on a dancer. The dancer is the ballet’s pivot. For there Ferri was. She wasn’t Mrs. Dalloway, or Virginia Woolf. Nor was she Juliet. Or rather, she could allude to all of these—she contained multitudes—but the allusions were only flourishes. Really, she was only herself, and that was everything.”
  • Meanwhile, Anne Washburn’s new play, 10 out of 12, is set entirely in the vicinity of a thespian’s nightmare: a tech rehearsal. It is, in essence, a play about figuring out how to stage a play: “Washburn stakes out the tech rehearsal as her territory, a hitherto unexplored subgenre of backstage drama as far as I know, and uses its technology to subtle effect. Washburn’s play, drawn from tech rehearsals of her own shows and listening in on others, provides a fairly faithful reproduction of this ugly task. All of the action and dialogue, which are meant to appear spontaneous and random, are carefully set forth in the 142-page script. Her clever idea is to have the audience listen in on headsets, tuned to the same channel that the tech crew is using to talk to one another while the work continues.”
  • What to do with those sixteen thousand bucks you have under the mattress: buy a rare 1935 edition of Ulysses with etchings by Henri Matisse. “Matisse’s mythical Nausicaa design is embossed in gold on the front cover of the edition, displaying four shapely nudes enclosed in a sphere with Roman numerals forming a celestial clock.” (As if Matisse would have included nudes who weren’t shapely.)

Still Flaming After All These Years, and Other News

June 12, 2015 | by

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Frederic Lord Leighton, Flaming June, 1830–1896.

  • Everyone holds up Anna Karenina as a milestone for realism—“We are not to take Anna Karénine as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life,” Matthew Arnold wrote—but Janet Malcolm raises an eyebrow at all that. “The book’s ‘astonishing immediacy’ is nothing if not an object of the exaggeration, distortion, and dissimulation through which each scene is rendered … If the dream is father to imaginative literature, Tolstoy may be the novelist who most closely hews to its deep structures.”
  • Now at the Frick Collection: Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June, an iconic Victorian painting whose subject’s well-developed right thigh set the world on fire. “The beautiful woman asleep in some archaic past was a recurrent motif in Victorian art … The figure of the languid woman is more than just an object of erotic desire. She’s the opposite of the rationalist, ever-striving, murderously competitive spirit—once conventionally thought of as distinctively masculine. She embodies a yearning to relax, to retire from the fray and take pleasure in just being alive.”
  • Jenny Diski is dying of lung cancer, and facing the illness the only way she knows how: in prose. “A marvel of steady and dispassionate self-revelation, Diski’s cancer essays are bracingly devoid of sententiousness, sentimentality or any kind of spiritual urge or twitch … they also testify to an inner life of undiminished hyperactivity.”
  • Nesh, gloaming, cochineal, swamm, clart: writers pick their favorite words. “The chosen words are mostly regional, often monosyllabic, and frequently richly onomatopoeic: the natural poetry of the heterogeneous English-speaking tongue.”
  • In which Orson Welles dabbles in pornography: in a pro-bono gig for the picture 3 A. M., the filmmaker “wound up editing a hard-core lesbian shower scene that he couldn’t resist cutting in Wellesian fashion with low camera angles and other trademark flair.”

Who Does This Alice Think She Is, Anyway? and Other News

June 11, 2015 | by

An illustration by John Tenniel for The Nursery “Alice,” 1890.

  • Alice, of Wonderland fame, has osmosed right on into the culture and found a life of her own; we no longer need to read Lewis Carroll’s books to feel that we know her. But we should read Carroll—there’s a certain amount of drift between his Wonderland and the one we think we understand. “Conversations about what is real, what is possible, and how rubbery the rules that govern such distinctions turn out to be abound in the tales of Alice. Yet they are sold as children’s books, and rightly so. A philosopher will ask how the identity of the self can be preserved amid the ceaseless flux of experience, but a child—especially a child who is growing so fast that she suddenly fills an entire room—will ask more urgently, as Alice does, ‘Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.’ Children, viewed from one angle, are philosophy in motion.”
  • This Saturday marks Yeats’s sesquicentennial, an occasion celebrated easily enough by reading his poems—but why not read his plays, which are always given short shrift among his work? In a way, they anticipated Beckett: “What happens in a Yeats play can be startling. Purgatory, for example, verges on the lurid. Its material is the rough red wine of sex and violence: a woman’s lust for her groom and their son’s murderous determination to extirpate her sin in blood. Yeats’s genius is to distill that red wine into a fine but heady spirit, a short, incredibly potent theatrical essence that goes straight to both the head and the guts.”
  • Since Jerry Seinfeld declared, earlier this week, that he no longer plays college campuses because they’re “too P.C.”—such a taboo-buster, that Seinfeld, with his wry observations!—many have asked if comedy is in jeopardy. They often lean on the same tired rhetoric about laughter’s potential as a “unifying force”; why? “Comedy isn’t supposed to be anything, except what the comedian tries to make it—harmless, mean, political, dirty, dumb. You wouldn’t say that music or fiction are ‘supposed’ to be anything; so why do we saddle all comedy with a curative democratic mission? Too often we view comedy as a craft, a service brought to us by cheerful comfort-workers, more than the work of serious artists. Thus, when they don’t comfort us, we want to complain to the manager.”
  • “I can remember in the Fifties when Goatman would come by, up near Arab, Ala. The first time I ever saw him we were picking cotton in the fields near Arab and he was coming down the road. You could hear him coming a mile away with all the bells and all the pots and pans rattling. People would come by and say, ‘Goatman’s coming! Goatman’s coming!’ We’d all rush to the end of the cotton row to watch Goatman go by.” That’s Ansel Elkins, quoting her father in a new interview about her poems and the South.
  • Chinese publishers routinely censor their translations of Western books—and the West just as routinely greets this news with a small shrug. “As the anecdotal evidence started to accumulate, it became clear that though cuts tended to be surgically precise, they were also extremely common. Only rarely was there outrage. Many were fatigued by the idea of having to police all their overseas editions. With international publishing, they argued, something is always going to get lost in translation. Many had simply decided to not worry about it.”

Opium for the Masses, and Other News

June 10, 2015 | by

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Image via the Library of the New York Academy of Medicine.

  • Vincent Musetto, a New York Post editor who wrote “the most anatomically evocative headline in the history of American journalism”—HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR—has died at seventy-four. “But however lauded it became, it was not Mr. Musetto’s favorite among the many headlines he wrote for the paper. That honor, he often said, went to one composed the next year: GRANNY EXECUTED IN HER PINK PAJAMAS.”
  • Let’s pause to remember the golden era of American pharmaceuticals—the turn of the twentieth century, when patent medicine was ubiquitous and any old ailment could help you score some heroin. “If it doesn’t actually cure your cold, the high dose of cocaine might trick you into thinking otherwise.”
  • Yesterday marked the 350th anniversary of the Great Plague of London, which claimed some seventy thousand lives. The diary of Samuel Pepys provides a rich account of the events: “From the moment he saw the red crosses on that boiling June day, through September when the death rate peaked at 7,000 a week, and until January 1666 when it began to wane, Pepys chronicled the plague’s progress through narrow alleys and grand mansions. He tells of the pest-houses and pest-coaches, and how the Lord Mayor forbade citizens from going out after dark so that the sick could ‘go abroad for ayre’ and funeral corteges pass through without infecting the healthy.”
  • In happier anniversaries: Clueless, everyone’s favorite “adaptation” of Emma, turns twenty this summer; a new oral history tells us how “as if!” and “way harsh” entered the lexicon.
  • Who doesn’t love a good pair of sparring meteorologists? In the nineteenth century, one William Redfield had developed a momentous theory of whirling winds, and he was the toast of weathermen everywhere until some hotshot named James Espy tried to derail him. “Not only was Espy’s prose bold, it also had a pompous edge. Academic discourse was governed by the same strict code of gentlemanly civility that dominated intellectual society, from politics to religion. At times Espy seemed waspish and condescending.”

Man Versus Machine, Part 1,000,000,001, and Other News

June 9, 2015 | by

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In 1959, the Mark 1 Translating Device produced its first automated Russian-to-English translation. The Mark 1 was demonstrated for the public at the IBM Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.

  • With machine translation growing ever more sophisticated, we may as well revive the old is-translation-an-art-or-a-science question—and ask if machine translation imperils human translation. “What mostly annoys human translators isn’t the arrogance of machines but their appropriation of the work of forgotten or anonymous humans. Machine translation necessarily supervenes on previous human effort; otherwise there wouldn’t be the parallel corpora that the machines need to do their work … In a sense, [Google’s] machines aren’t actually translating; they’re just speeding along tracks set down by others. This is the original sin of machine translation: the field would be nowhere without the human translators they seek, however modestly, to supersede.”
  • When we read, we often recognize—The Death of the Author be damned—a personality behind the page, even when we don’t want to; our opinion of this shadowy presence is compartmentalized from the rest of the reading experience. “Even when I know nothing about a novelist’s life I find, on reading his or her book, that I am developing an awareness of the writer that is quite distinct from my response to the work … I might be attracted to both work and author, but in different ways … Literary genius is the ability to draw readers into one’s own world of feeling, with all its nuance and complexity, and to force them to position themselves in relation to you.”
  • In 1910, Apsley Cherry-Garrard accompanied Robert Falcon Scott on his doomed Terra Nova Expedition to Antarctica. The latter froze to death; the former returned and did what every survivor must: he wrote a book about the experience, The Worst Journey in the World. Now Jason Novak, who has drawings in our new Summer issue, has made some illustrations to accompany one of the book’s bleaker passages. “If the worst, or best, happens, and death comes for you in the snow, he comes disguised as sleep, and you greet him rather as a welcome friend than as a gruesome foe.”
  • Today in privilege: a young, straight, white, male poet bemoans his status as a young, straight, white, male, and another young, straight, white, male says, Hey, man, it’s okay to write as a young, straight, white male, because, like, “Every human has a unique perspective.”
  • John Aubrey and John Soane: two men, two singular approaches to paper. “After his death in 1837, Soane’s elaborate will instructed his executors and trustees to open a series of containers revealing the family secrets at preordained intervals. The last of them, his bathtub, was opened in 1896: the contents included papers which revealed further grim episodes in Soane’s family battles and a set of false teeth.”