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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

Fast Asleep and Wide Awake

January 27, 2015 | by

But shouldn’t that be the other way around?

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A. Rötting, In the Morning, 1840

Like Thomas Wyatt, who can’t quite let go, I can’t quite let go of that Wyatt poem about what she hath deserved. He says in it that love was not just a dream: “It was no dream, I lay broad waking.” The last two words are an obvious yet pleasantly unfamiliar double-synonym for wide awake.

But what’s so wide about it?

To see the link between alertness and vast side-to-side extent—and why we’re also said to be speedy asleep—the place to start is with awake. The “a-” is a weakened form of the preposition on or in, by the same verbal laziness that turned one into the article an, and then before consonants into a, pronounced “uh.” To go on board or on shore, to be in bed or on a slant, is to be aboard, ashore, abed, aslant, not to mention astern, abreast, ahead (originally nautical as well), afoot, aloof (on the luff side, to windward, steering clear), far afield, run aground. We don’t think of them as contractions of preposition + noun anymore, but many of our location and direction words have this form: afar, amid, atop, athwart, askew, awry, gone astray, and less obviously across, away, apart, around, aside, taken aback.
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There’s a Convention for Everyone, and Other News

January 26, 2015 | by

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H.H. Backer’s Total Pet Expo. Photo: Yvette Marie Dostatni, via Slate

  • On the rise of the medical humanities: Can poetry’s therapeutic effects earn it a place on the doctor’s bookshelf? “Poetry can tell us about human experience, but it does this in its own language and not the more straightforward language of prose. It works by suggestion, but this doesn’t mean that it cannot console, teach, amuse, enlighten, mimic, disconcert and so much more. It can capture—or cause us to reconstruct—experiences and feelings that we might otherwise not be conscious of … Poetry’s use of language is at the furthest extreme from the self-help book, which is often dogmatic, insistent, reductive, bullying even.”
  • How to cheer yourself up when you’re feeling misunderstood: read scathing early reviews of canonical novels, such as this one, by H. L. Mencken, for a certain 1925 classic: “Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby, is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that … This story is obviously unimportant … What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story—that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people.”
  • Yvette Marie Dostatni’s new series of photographs documents the rise of the convention in America: the obsessive subcultures, the hotel conference rooms, the sprawling trade shows. “That's just the culture of the United States: People are looking for places they can fit in for two to three days, a pass to get out of their daily lives. They’re looking for people who are like them.”
  • Is there any hope of preserving or archiving the Internet? “The Web dwells in a never-ending present. It is—elementally—ethereal, ephemeral, unstable, and unreliable … In providing evidence, legal scholars, lawyers, and judges often cite Web pages in their footnotes … but a 2013 survey of law- and policy-related publications found that, at the end of six years, nearly fifty per cent of the URLs cited in those publications no longer worked.”
  • Among a certain kind of “creative” Silicon Valley set, the word maker has taken on a grating ubiquity—you’re not truly innovating if you’re not making something. Does this mean that, say, teaching is not a fundamentally creative pursuit? “I am not a maker. In a framing and value system is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human. As an educator, the work I do is superficially the same, year on year … To characterize what I do as ‘making’ is to mistake the methods—courses, workshops, editorials—for the effects. Or, worse, if you say that I ‘make’ other people, you are diminishing their agency and role in sense-making, as if their learning is something I do to them.”

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True Romance

January 22, 2015 | by

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Byron, meditating on mortality, no doubt.

’Tis time this heart should be unmoved,
     Since others it has ceased to move:
Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
               Still let me love!

My days are in the yellow leaf;
     The flowers and fruits of Love are gone;
The worm—the canker, and the grief
               Are mine alone!

So begins one of Byron’s last poems. Is it an ode to the Greek youth he loved? A general meditation on mortality? Choose your theory. The date, at least, we can estimate with a fair degree of accuracy. In the 1825 Narrative of Lord Byron’s Last Journey to Greece, his friend, Count Gamba, related of the occasion:

This morning Lord Byron came from his bedroom into the apartment where Colonel Stanhope and some friends were assembled, and said with a smile—“You were complaining, the other day, that I never write any poetry now:—this is my birthday, and I have just finished something, which, I think, is better than what I usually write.” He then produced these noble and affecting verses, which were afterwards found written in his journals, with only the following introduction: “Jan. 22; on this day I complete my 36th year.”

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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.

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