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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

W. S. Merwin on Sir Thomas Wyatt

September 30, 2014 | by

Sir_Thomas_Wyatt,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

Sir Thomas Wyatt, by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Since it’s both International Translation Day and W. S. Merwin’s eighty-seventh birthday (many happy returns!), today’s a fitting occasion to excerpt this interview from our Spring 2002 issue, in which Merwin discusses his translation of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet “Whoso list to hunt,” from the sixteenth century. His interlocutor is the poet Jason Shinder.

Who so list to hount, I knowe where is an hynde,
   But as for me, helas, I may no more:
   The vayne travaill hath weried me so sore.
   I ame of theim that farthest commeth behinde;
Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde
   Drawe from the Diere: but as she fleeth afore,
Faynting I folowe. I leve of therefore,
   Sins in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.
Who list her hount, I put him owte of dowbte,
   As well as I may spend his tyme in vain;
   And, graven with Diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her faier neck rounde abowte:
   Noli me tangere for Cesars I ame;
   And wylde for to hold, though I seme tame.

W. S. MERWIN: I think this is probably the greatest sonnet Wyatt wrote, and I think it’s one of the greatest sonnets in English. I’ve known it for so many years, but it always startles me with the real strength of passion in it—and irony and freshness of language and the mixture of sensual feeling and bitterness that runs through the best of Wyatt. Take that first line—the whole courtly feeling about the opposite sex, which angers, quite rightly, the feminists—the pursuit of women becomes a kind of predacious pursuit: if hunting is what you want to do, I know a deer who’ll keep you busy. The speculation is that it’s about Anne Boleyn, and it may well be; it's certainly about a very elusive and uncatchable person. [...]

JASON SHINDER: To the modern ear, the language is also unfamiliar and difficult to access. As someone who reads Wyatt in public, how do you approach the poems?

MERWIN: We don't really know what Wyatt's language sounded like, and I’m not an expert on late Middle English and Tudor English. I don’t try to imitate what I think would be exact Tudor English. I don't try to put him into the modern American either. For example, the line “Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde.” I think the e in meanes was still slightly pronounced for Wyatt, so I keep it there. When I read these poems, they run through my mind like a piece of music.

Wyatt’s meter baffled Victorian editors—they tinkered with it until they got it into nice iambic pentameter and made it scan right. But iambic pentameter had little to do with it. My theory is that Wyatt’s meter was influenced by the lute—Wyatt was a great composer of lute songs, and I think he composed verse the way a lutanist would. His work is something in between metrical and syllabic verse. Read More »

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Poems as Animals, and Other News

September 25, 2014 | by

Roeland

Roeland Savery, Paysage de forêt avec animaux, seventeenth century.

  • I suppose I’ve read more dirty books than any man in New England, and I could make the biggest collection of erotica in this country if I wanted to.” An interview from 1930 with the censor for all of New England.
  • Christopher King, whose essay about Alexis Zoumbas appeared here on Monday, has a cameo in the Times Magazine: “King had invited me to visit him at his home in Faber, Virginia, where he keeps his own massive collection of 78 r.p.m. records, decaying discs that could only be experienced there, in person. He asked me what I might like to hear, and when I hesitated, he suggested Zoumbas … in Epirus, King said, these songs live and die in the looks and handshakes and embraces exchanged in their presence.”
  • When Freud, who died seventy-five years ago, was diagnosed with a very malignant form of cancer, he said he wanted to “disappear from the world with dignity,” which meant enlisting his doctor, Max Schur, to euthanize him. “All this was said without a trace of emotionality or self‑pity, and with full consciousness of reality.”
  • “Ted Hughes didn’t just write a lot of poems about animals—about pikes and jaguars and thought-foxes. He thought of poems as animals. ‘They have their own life,’ he wrote in an essay in 1967, ‘ … and nothing can be added to them or taken away without maiming and perhaps even killing them.’ ”
  • An Arizona law against “revenge porn” has the state’s booksellers concerned: it “could be applied to any person who distributes or displays an image of nudity—including pictures that are newsworthy, artistic, educational, or historic—without the depicted person’s consent, even images for which consent was impossible to obtain or is difficult to prove … ‘There are books on my shelves right now that might be illegal to sell under this law. How am I supposed to know whether the subjects of these photos gave their permission?’ ”

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The Favorite Game

September 19, 2014 | by

Leonard Cohen in love.

leonard cohen

Cohen in 1988.

“Desperation is the mother of poetry.”
—Leonard Cohen

Like most people, I remember the first time I had sex pretty well. I can recall the surprisingly adept flirting I carried off beforehand, and the moment of pleasant shock when she kissed me. I remember how we stayed in bed until three the next day and how when we finally got up, faint from hunger, we went to eat at a greasy spoon that had a little jukebox by each table. I have no idea what I ordered, but I do remember that she got a grilled cheese sandwich. In the next year and a half that we were together, I don’t know if she ever ate another one.

We all have memories like that, jumping out of oblivion like buoys in the water. The facts might be fuzzy, but the moments are clear. Leonard Cohen describes such a memory in his first novel, The Favorite Game, published in 1963, when he was twenty-nine:

What did she look like that important second?

She stands in my mind alone, unconnected to the petty narrative. The color of the skin was startling, like the white of a young branch when the green is thumb-nailed away. Nipples the color of bare lips. Wet hair a battalion of glistening spears laid on her shoulders.

She was made of flesh and eyelashes.

Cohen, who turns eighty on Sunday, is exceptionally good at drawing out those moments of sexual crystallization. It’s a skill that, along with his gravelly voice and poems about women’s bodies, has given him a reputation for being a “ladies’ man.” Judging by the adoring crowds at his shows, it’s a reputation he deserves.

Yet it isn’t success with women that accounts for Cohen’s particular vision, even if his fame as a lover may have, over time, borne the fruits of self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather, his work is shot through with fears of physical deficiency and sexual deprivation, loneliness and insecurity. “He could not help thinking that … he wasn’t tall enough or straight, that people didn’t turn to look at him in street-cars, that he didn’t command the glory of the flesh,” he writes of his autobiographical protagonist in The Favorite Game. Decades later, in his 2006 poetry collection Book of Longing, Cohen confessed: “My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke / that caused me to laugh bitterly / through the ten thousand nights / I spent alone.” Read More »

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Come, My Lad, and Drink Some Beer

September 18, 2014 | by

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry.

From James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson was born on September 18, 1709; Boswell wrote this passage in 1777, on the occasion of Johnson’s sixty-eighth birthday.

Thursday, September 18. Last night Dr. Johnson had proposed that the crystal lustre, or chandelier, in Dr. Taylor’s large room, should be lighted up some time or other. Taylor said, it should be lighted up next night. ‘That will do very well, (said I,) for it is Dr. Johnson’s birth-day.’ When we were in the Isle of Sky, Johnson had desired me not to mention his birth-day. He did not seem pleased at this time that I mentioned it, and said (somewhat sternly,) ‘he would not have the lustre lighted the next day.’

Some ladies, who had been present yesterday when I mentioned his birth-day, came to dinner to-day, and plagued him unintentionally, by wishing him joy. I know not why he disliked having his birth-day mentioned, unless it were that it reminded him of his approaching nearer to death, of which he had a constant dread.

I mentioned to him a friend of mine who was formerly gloomy from low spirits, and much distressed by the fear of death, but was now uniformly placid, and contemplated his dissolution without any perturbation. ‘Sir, (said Johnson,) this is only a disordered imagination taking a different turn.’

He observed, that a gentleman of eminence in literature had got into a bad style of poetry of late. ‘He puts (said he,) a very common thing in a strange dress till he does not know it himself, and thinks other people do not know it.’ BOSWELL. ‘That is owing to his being so much versant in old English poetry.’ JOHNSON. ‘What is that to the purpose, Sir? If I say a man is drunk, and you tell me it is owing to his taking much drink, the matter is not mended. No, Sir, ——— has taken to an odd mode. For example, he’d write thus:

“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray.”

Gray evening is common enough; but evening gray he’d think fine.—Stay;—we’ll make out the stanza:

“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray;
Smite thy bosom, sage, and tell,
What is bliss? and which the way?”

BOSWELL. ‘But why smite his bosom, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, to shew he was in earnest,’ (smiling.)—He at an after period added the following stanza:

‘Thus I spoke; and speaking sigh’d;
—Scarce repress’d the starting tear;—
When the smiling sage reply’d—
—Come, my lad, and drink some beer.’

I cannot help thinking the first stanza very good solemn poetry, as also the three first lines of the second. Its last line is an excellent burlesque surprise on gloomy sentimental enquirers. And, perhaps, the advice is as good as can be given to a low-spirited dissatisfied being:—‘Don’t trouble your head with sickly thinking: take a cup, and be merry.’

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“Are You Being Processed?” and Other News

September 16, 2014 | by

processedworld

Detail from the cover of the first issue of Processed World, 1981.

  • The National Book Awards have published this year’s poetry longlist: Louise Glück, Edward Hirsch, and Fanny Howe are among the ten nominees.
  • Technology was supposed to increase our leisure time and enliven our workplaces—that hasn’t really panned out. But in the early eighties, amid all the Pollyannaism of the Bay Area, a magazine called Processed World seemed to foresee all the resentments of the contemporary office drone. “In the writing … one can also find the beginnings of today’s revolt against Silicon Valley and its pernicious mix of libertarian economics, techno-utopianism, and the deracinated remains of the sixties counterculture.”
  • “Fingerprint words”: the words and phrases we overuse to the point that they become our personal trademarks. (Mine are probably foresee, edify, and floccinaucinihilipilification.) The strangest thing about these words is that they’re contagious: “We’re all simultaneously donating to and stealing from those around us. But how do we pick up these linguistic signature words, and what is going on when we notice other people using those words and we feel, well, a certain way about it?”
  • Writers seeking peace, quiet, and old-fashioned American bonhomie: Washington, D.C.’s Politics & Prose is renting a cottage in Ashland, Virginia—a town where “people wave at you from their front porch”—for weeklong retreats.
  • On the performative paintings of Avery Singer: “The gentle sarcasm embedded in her work is usually aimed at art-world stereotypes. Her first solo exhibition at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler in Berlin last year, for example, was a satiric take on the art industry and its conventions. Works with titles such as The Studio Visit (2012), Jewish Artist and Patron (2012) and The Great Muses (2013) play on myths around the romantic figure of the artist. The show was accompanied by a short text by Singer, a fake press release for an exhibition that will never happen.”

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The Fade-out Fades Out, and Other News

September 15, 2014 | by

Photo: Holger Ellgaard

  • “When John Ashbery, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, first learned that the digital editions of his poetry looked nothing like the print version, he was stunned. There were no line breaks, and the stanzas had been jammed together into a block of text that looked like prose. The careful architecture of his poems had been leveled … That was three years ago, and digital publishing has evolved a lot since then. Publishers can now create e-books that better preserve a poet’s meticulous formatting.”
  • Today in academic tiffs: One professor tried to publish a controversial essay avowing that Shakespeare’s works were written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Another professor offered a stern rebuke: “I simply find your reasoning, and your evidence, as unconvincing as those of Holocaust deniers, and other conspiracy theorists.” Finger pointing and harrumphing ensued.
  • Stop-and-frisk is more than just a widely reviled NYPD policy: it’s an opera!
  • Has pop music bid adieu to the fade-out? “The fade-out—the technique of ending a song with a slow decrease in volume over its last few seconds—became common in the 1950s and ruled for three decades. Among the year-end top ten songs for 1985, there’s not one cold ending. But it’s been on the downturn since the nineties, and the past few years have been particularly unkind. The year-end top ten lists for 2011, 2012, and 2013 yield a total of one fade-out.”
  • On the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Charles James retrospective: “The Met seems to be telling us—showing us—that we should view [dress and fashion] as high art. This is not a new argument, of course, but in spite of past scholarly and curatorial efforts, it has never decisively taken hold … James would seem the perfect antidote, and in many ways he is: a great designer who was never a celebrity (few outside the field of fashion have ever heard of him), an inveterate craftsman who was also a genuinely imaginative artist—a sculptor of satin and silk willing to sacrifice everything including profits for the perfect seam … ”

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