The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Lowell’

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 »

3 COMMENTS

Talking Tate: A Fake Oral History

November 19, 2014 | by

allen tate

Photo: Library of Congress

There’s no Writers at Work interview with Allen Tate—who was born today in 1899—but his name seems to pop up in nearly everyone else’s. By my count, he has cameos in nineteen of our interviews; he shuffles onstage to offer an apercu or to help someone or to drink or to be carried down a flight of stairs. And then he leaves.

Tate ran in many circles, in part because his teaching allowed him to move around so much. At one point or another he crossed paths with an astonishing number of his fellow writers: Robert Penn Warren and Robert Lowell, most prominently, but also Randall Jarrell, John Gould Fletcher, John Crowe Ransom, John Berryman, and Andrew Lytle. His walk-ons in The Paris Review interviews testify to his influence not just as a poet but as a friend. If you read these mentions of him in succession, as a kind of patchwork oral history, you get a strangely gratifying secondhand sense of the man, as if someone had painted his portrait based only on a description. Let’s give it a try— Read More »

2 COMMENTS

Robert Lowell’s “Epilogue”

September 10, 2014 | by

Robert-lowell-by-elsa-dorfman

Photo: Elsa Dorfman

If you write, and you are not a journalist, and you don’t write fiction, people want to know why. These are hard questions to answer. Sometimes one admires fiction too much to attempt it. Sometimes one lacks the gift for invention. No one gets at the particular challenges of the fact/fiction relationship—or indeed, the exigencies of the creative process—better than Robert Lowell. Especially the poem “Epilogue.” Lowell’s work may be a monument to unapologetic narcissism (an artistically necessary narcissism, defenders could say, or at the very least indivisible from either his genius or his illness) but here, it seems to me, there is only enough self to propel the project at hand. If you listen to him read it, he sounds downright humbled by the weight of creative challenge. As a friend pointed out, it is interesting that his stepdaughter should title her memoir—so full of his destructive recklessness—Why Not Say What Happened? After all, this poem is more introspective, less destructive, than so many others. That is for her to say, of course. In a way, it’s the best memoir title in the world. Read More »

Comments Off

For the 1 Train Dead

August 28, 2014 | by

Robert-Lowell

Robert Lowell at home.

New Yorkers like to affect jadedness in the face of celebrity; we yawn, we stare fixedly in the other direction, we scorn star-struck tourists  And yet today, I had a celeb sighting so exciting I reacted like a middle-schooler at a taping of Total Request Live.

I had just entered a pleasantly empty subway car, only to discover the cause of its emptiness—a broken AC—too late. I was cursing my luck and considering an illegal dash between cars when I saw him. There, across the aisle, and under a Poetry in Motion poster, was Robert Lowell. To the life: the patrician features, the distinctive nose, eyes that had known suffering and pain as well as realms of genius invisible to the normal run of mortals. He was not a man in the first blush of youth; this was “Day by Day”–era Lowell. He was wearing a rumpled linen jacket and tie. Of course he was.

All thoughts of changing cars having fled, I took a seat directly opposite and stared. There was no question about it: this was Robert Lowell. Maybe a ghost. At the very least a relative. He could certainly have made a good living as a Lowell impersonator, traveling the world and reciting confessional poetry with a Brahman inflection. Well, a living, anyway.

I waited for my chance. I didn’t want to strike too soon, but on the other hand I couldn’t live without knowing. Best-case scenario, he’d break into “Life Studies.”

I timed it carefully. When we were one stop away from my point of departure, I planted myself in front of him. “Excuse me, sir?” I said, my voice quavering. He looked up. His eyes were very, very sad. “Has anyone ever told you how much you look like Robert Lowell?”

For a horrible moment, the lack of comprehension on his face was such that I thought he might not speak English. But then he said, “Robert who?”

There were two French tourists watching the proceedings with interest. Maybe they didn’t realize that other cars were air-conditioned.

“Robert Lowell, the poet,” I said. “It’s a compliment. He was an excellent poet! And handsome! I mean, he had his problems”—I said this in case he should look up his biography and think I had been less than forthcoming—“but who doesn’t?”

“Oh,” he said. “Thanks, I guess.”

I turned my back and stared at the doors for what felt like an eternity. It must have been a hundred degrees in there. Frankly, I thought, if that guy wasn’t Robert Lowell, and either mentally ill or supernatural, it was really weird that he was sitting in this sweltering car. Frankly, it was irrational.

Comments Off

Lonely Thinking: Hannah Arendt on Film

May 30, 2013 | by

hannah_large

In 1963, The New Yorker published five articles on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi chief of Bureau IV-B-4, a Gestapo division in charge of “Jewish Affairs.” Written by political thinker and Jewish activist Hannah Arendt, the articles and ensuing book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, unleashed what Irving Howe called a “civil war” among New York intellectuals. While some reviews cursed Arendt as a self-hating Jew and Nazi lover, the Jewish Daily Forward accusing her of “polemical vulgarity,” Robert Lowell termed her portrayal of Eichmann a “masterpiece,” and Bruno Bettelheim said it was the best protection against “dehumanizing totalitarianism.” Across the city, Arendt’s friends chose sides. When Dissent sponsored a meeting at the Hotel Diplomat, a crowd gathered to shout down Alfred Kazin and Raul Hilberg—then the world’s preeminent Holocaust scholar—for defending Arendt, while in The Partisan Review Lionel Abel opined that Eichmann “comes off so much better in [Arendt’s] book than do his victims.”

In the years since that fiery time, Eichmann in Jerusalem has remained something to condemn or defend rather than a book to be read and understood. I therefore had some fears when I heard that German director Margarethe von Trotta was making a film about Arendt’s coverage of the trial. But Hannah Arendt accomplishes something rare in any biopic and unheard of in a half century of critical hyperbole over all things Arendt: it actually brings Arendt’s work back into believable—and accessible—focus.

The movie opens with two wordless scenes. The first depicts the Mossad’s abduction of Eichmann. The second follows a silent Hannah Arendt as she lights, and then smokes, a cigarette. Around her, all is darkness, and for a full two minutes, we watch her smoke. Played with passionate intensity by Barbara Sukowa (who won a Lola, the German Oscar), Arendt ambles. She lies down. She inhales. But above all, we see the cigarette’s ash flare brilliantly in the dark. Hannah Arendt, we are to understand, is thinking.

Although Arendt’s work follows numerous byways, one theme is clear: in modern bureaucratic societies, human evil originates from a failure not of goodness but of thinking. Read More »

15 COMMENTS

House of Poesy: At the Grolier Poetry Book Shop

February 26, 2013 | by

2344815284_eef84104c5The Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is both a misnomer and an anomaly. It has long dedicated itself to the task of promoting the reading and writing of poetry and has, for eighty-five years, served as a niche for poets the world over. While its reputation has bloomed over the years, thanks largely to word-of-mouth praise, it has never fared well financially, partly due to competition from larger stores and the Internet, partly because poetry has never been popular with the masses, and partly because its founder seems to have done everything in his power to ensure that his store not be turned into a business.

Located on Plympton Street in Harvard Square, the Grolier occupies just 404 square feet of space and is dwarfed by the neighboring Harvard Book Store. A white square sign with meticulous black lettering juts out near the top of the store entrance. The font size decreases from top to bottom, much like on an eye exam chart, and one can just make out, at the very top, a finely done illustration of three cats (or is it the same cat?) dozing, grooming, and turning their backs on the viewer.

Upon ascending a small flight of steps, one is greeted by the sight of an abundance of colorful spines—approximately fifteen thousand—neatly arranged against nearly every flat surface of the shop. These volumes are neatly balkanized into several categories, including anthologies, used, African-American, early English, Irish, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Indian, Latin, classical Greek, Japanese, Korean, East European, Spanish, and Catalan.

Above the towering shelves are approximately seventy black and white photos (many courtesy of the photographer Elsa Dorfman) of poets and other members of the literati for whom the Grolier has served as a meeting place for well over half a century. Among the Grolier’s most illustrious visitors, most of whom are smiling or gazing sagely and serenely ahead in the photos, are T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, e. e. cummings, Marianne Moore, James Tate, Donald Hall, and Helen Vendler.

Off to one side at the front of the store sits a lean shelf of chapbooks and a donation jar; a small note says that the chapbooks have been generously donated by the author and that monetary contributions to the shop would be greatly appreciated. Directly across this bookcase is the cash register, propped up on a desk and flanked by sundry items, including bookmarks, promotional literature, pamphlets, business cards, and commemorative pens. On the wall right adjacent to the register hangs a certificate from Boston Magazine honoring the Grolier as the best poetry store of 1994. Read More »

20 COMMENTS