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Posts Tagged ‘poems’

The Post-Šalamunian Period

January 22, 2015 | by

Remembering Tomaž Šalamun.

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Salamun at the Spier Poetry Festival, 2014. Photo: Retha Ferguson

I had written to tell Tomaž Šalamun he’d changed my life—thanks to him, I’d begun to put down roots in a new continent, and met the woman I was going to marry. I had at least assumed I could take him out to dinner on his next visit to the U.S. The letter went unanswered for a couple of weeks and then a reply materialized in my inbox. “With my last strength I greet you,” he wrote, dictating the letter to his wife, the painter Metka Krašovec, “enjoy the States, I think this is the best place for you.” Five weeks later, on December 27, 2014, Šalamun passed away in his beloved Ljubljana.

I had only met him once, at a festival on a wine estate outside Stellenbosch in 2013, but he had made an immediate and lasting impression. It took me a few days to shape my speechlessness into an answer. “He is calm and patient,” Metka assured me in her postscript, “and he accepted his death the moment he found out about his cancer.” I had assumed he was all but immortal, sustained by the unfettered vitality that electrified all of his poems. After all, this was the man who beat Lucretius up his ass, thought killing smelled good, stuffed Mitteleuropa with shine and “cut off [her] claustrophobic head with a clasp knife”; who paused halfway through a poem to wonder how he would make love that day, “will I be like a pasha, a conquistador, will I/tremble, amazed and quiet?” It was thus greatly distressing to learn he’d spent the last three months of his life suffering from such vertigo that it left him unable to read, write, or walk by himself. I had sensed a hint of frailty during our time in South Africa. During a weekend at a farm on the banks of the Berg River, our host had offered to take us on a ride through his holdings, and although I’d seen Tomaž eye the horse somewhat longingly, he’d excused himself saying he’d hurt his back, but didn’t tell us how. I wish he had: as Christopher Merrill informed us in his elegant tribute, Tomaž injured himself tobogganing down the Great Wall of China. Of course he had. Read More »

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Vegetable-snake Undersea Beings: A Belated Correction

January 20, 2015 | by

Ginsberg in May 1965. Photo: Engramma.it

When The Paris Review interviewed Allen Ginsberg for our Spring 1966 issue, he expressed a sense of conflict about hallucinogens. He treasured their effects on consciousness—“you get some states of consciousness that subjectively seem to be cosmic-ecstatic, or cosmic-demonic”—but his body was having trouble tolerating them. “I can’t stand them anymore,” he said, “because something happened to me with them … After about thirty times, thirty-five times, I began getting monster vibrations again. So I couldn’t go any further. I may later on again, if I feel more reassurance.”

Thomas Clark conducted that interview in June 1965; the issue was on newsstands the following spring. A year later, though, in June 1966, Ginsberg sent The Paris Review the following letter, which recently resurfaced in our archives: Read More »

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Stanisław Barańczak’s “This Is Not a Conversation for the Telephone”

January 5, 2015 | by

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Barańczak in a photo from Ostatni wiersz z Widokówki z tego świata, 1988.

I’ve been thinking today of Stanisław Barańczak, the Polish poet and translator who died last month at sixty-eight. He was known for flouting state censors with poems that mocked the euphemistic language of communism, and his work was seditious enough that in the seventies he was barred from publishing in Poland, though he continued to publish underground. By the early eighties, his politics had cost him his job as a professor in Poznan, and he decamped to the U.S. to lecture at Harvard. In a famous speech he likened life as a dissident to breathing underwater, with a nod to a science-fiction story by Stanisław Lem:

Bubbling sounds were the only acceptable means of communication, the official propaganda emphasized the advantages of being wet, and occasional breathing above water was considered almost a political offense—although everyone had to do it from time to time …

I wonder what Barańczak would’ve made of the new PEN International report, published this morning, on writers and government surveillance. It suggests that free expression around the world—even in the U.S., where what we’ve come to call “content producers” aren’t in the habit of fearing violence from the state—is in some ways more embattled now than it’s been since the Cold War.

It’s worth reading the report in full, though it will make you gnash your teeth and hurl invective at various institutions, chiefly the NSA. (And why shouldn’t you? You’ve already got their ear.) PEN International polled 772 writers from fifty countries, with some classified as “free,” some as “partly free,” and some “not free.” But those gradations hardly matter, it seems, when it comes to freedom of expression. Of the respondents, 75 percent in free countries, 84 percent in partly free countries, and 80 percent in not free countries said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried about surveillance. Some were so worried that they were afraid to say how worried they were:

As a final indication of the way the current “surveillance crisis” affects and haunts us, I should say that I have had serious misgivings about whether to write the above and include it in this questionnaire. It is clear to me from the information I have given you that my responses to the questionnaire, and presumably also therefore this statement, can be traced back to me. It may be that this information will be hacked by security agencies. Surely anyone who thinks thoughts like these will be in danger—if not today, then (because this is a process) possibly tomorrow.

Read More »

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On the Slaughter

December 31, 2014 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

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A political poem’s ironic new life.

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Bialik at around age thirty.

ON THE SLAUGHTER

Heaven—have mercy.
If you hold a God
(to whom there’s a path
that I haven’t found), pray for me.
My heart has died.
There is no prayer on my lips.
My hope and strength are gone.
How long? How much longer?

Executioner, here’s my neck:
Slaughter! You’ve got the ax and the arm.
The world to me is a butcher-block—
we, whose numbers are small
it’s open season on our blood:
Crack a skull—let the blood
of infant and elder spurt on your chest,
and let it remain there forever, and ever.

If there’s justice—let it come now!
But if it should come after I’ve been
blotted out beneath the sky,
let its throne be cast down.
Let the heavens rot in evil everlasting,
and you, with your cruelty,
go in your iniquity
and live and bathe in your blood.

And cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!
Vengeance like this, for the blood of a child,
Satan has yet to devise.
Let the blood fill the abyss!
Let it pierce the blackest depths
and devour the darkness
and eat away and reach
the rotting foundations of the earth.

Political poems lead strange lives—they often wither on the vines of the events they’re tied to. Old news gives way to new, and the whole undertaking starts to seem, well, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. For many and maybe most American readers, “poetry and politics just don’t mix.”

But sometimes they do. Quite violently.

On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking home together from their West Bank yeshivas. They were murdered—most likely within hours of being taken—and, eighteen days later, after an extensive search, their bodies were discovered under some rocks in a field near Hebron. Israel mourned, and raged. Emerging from a cabinet meeting convened just after the corpses were found, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his condolences to the families and quoted the great modernist Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik: “Vengeance … for the blood of a small child, / Satan has not yet created.” He went on in his own words: “Hamas is responsible—and Hamas will pay.” For good measure, the Prime Minister’s office tweeted the lines as well.

As anyone who hasn’t lived atop a column in the Congo for the past seven weeks knows, a series of violent, retaliatory acts followed. Israel carried out mass arrests on the West Bank, killing six in the process; a Palestinian teenager was beaten and burned alive by a group of Jews; throngs of Palestinians destroyed tracks and stations on the Jerusalem light-rail line; Jewish gangs shouting “Death to the Arabs!” rampaged through Jerusalem in search of victims—and found them; some thirty-five thousand Facebook users “liked” a page called “The People of Israel Demand Revenge”; Hamas fired rockets by the dozen into Israel from Gaza; Hamas officials warned that “the gates of hell” would open if Israel attacked in retaliation for the killings or the shelling. Read More >>

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Boudoirs of the Future

December 8, 2014 | by

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Schwartz, date unknown.

Delmore Schwartz was born on this day in 1913. The below is from a letter he sent to his publisher, James Laughlin of New Directions, on May 8, 1951; it’s extracted from a series of their correspondence published in our Summer 1992 issue. A few years after this letter, in 1953, Laughlin dissolved his business relationship with Schwartz, who had succumbed to neurosis and paranoia, early signs of which are visible here. By the early sixties, Schwartz had cut off nearly all his friendships and started to drink heavily. He died in 1966.

I have decided not to be a bank clerk, after all, since I would probably be paralyzed by the conflict between my desire to steal money and my fear of doing so.

It was pleasant to learn that you expected our correspondence to be read in the international salons and boudoirs of the future. Do you think they will be able to distinguish between the obfuscations, mystification, efforts at humor, and plain statement of fact? Will they recognize my primary feelings as a correspondent—the catacomb from which I write to you, seeking to secure some word from the real world, or at least news of the Far West—and sigh with compassion? Or will they just think I am nasty, an over-eager clown, gauche, awkward and bookish? Will they understand that I am always direct, open, friendly, simple and candid to the point of naïveté until the ways of the fiendish world infuriate me and I am poked to be devious, suspicious, calculating, not that it does me any good anyway? And for that matter, what will they make of your complex character?

It develops that the jukeboxes in bars now have an item entitled Silence, which costs a nickel, just like Music. This can only lead to drunken disputations between those who want Silence and those who will be goddamned if they can’t have a little Music with their beer.

The Giants, after losing eleven straight and thus preventing me from buying the newspaper for eleven days, defeated Pittsburgh twice in three days, which made me reflect on the fact that I have been a Giants rooter for thirty years: the expense of spirit in a waste of games.

Yours,

Delmore

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Is There a Vespa?: An Interview with Michael Hofmann

December 4, 2014 | by

Hofmann, Michael (C) Thomas Andenmatten

Photo © Thomas Andenmatten

Michael Hofmann’s first collection of poems, Nights in the Iron Hotel, came in 1984, and in the ensuing thirty years he has translated more than sixty novels from the German and published five more poetry collections, along the way collecting numerous prizes for his work. He is the editor of an anthology, Twentieth-Century German Poetry, and in 2002 published a collection of critical essays, Behind the Lines. (This is far from a comprehensive accounting.) The thirty essays in his new collection, Where Have You Been?, visit a range of poets, novelists, and artists of the last hundred years, including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Thomas Bernhard, Kurt Schwitters, and Frederick Seidel.

Hofmann’s essays are intense inquiries: he tunnels deeply, engages profoundly, and whether or not he likes what he’s read or seen, his essays ennoble the work under review. There’s a sense of humor, even joy, electrifying the enterprise. Of course, his criticism can pulverize, too—Günter Grass and Stefan Zweig are destroyed in Where Have You Been?—but most of Hofmann’s selections tend toward the form of one reader grabbing another’s sleeve and shouting, Come on now, this way! You’ve got to see this!

Though Hofmann doesn’t keep a computer at home—“usual Luddite setup,” he said at one point—this interview was conducted over e-mail. On a couple of occasions, he wrote from a stand-up terminal in a municipal library.

You’ve written that contemporary American poetry is “a civil war, a banal derby between two awful teams.” In Britain, it’s “a variety show.” These are grim assessments.

Discouraging, isn’t it? It’s just a fact that there are never very many poets around at any given time. I think poetry is always one or two poets away from extinction anyway. If it’s any comfort, it’s not a living tradition—it doesn’t depend on being passed from hand to hand. It could easily go underground for a couple of decades, or a couple of centuries, and then return. People disappear, or never really existed at all, and then come back—Propertius, Hölderlin, Dickinson, Büchner, Smart. Poetry is much more about remaking or realigning the past than it is about charting the contemporary scene. It’s a long game. Read More »

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