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Posts Tagged ‘sonnets’

Staff Picks: Pop, Rock, and Bear Hock

August 29, 2014 | by

From Barry Guy's Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

From Barry Guy’s Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

John Swartzwelder has written more Simpsons episodes than any other writer (fifty-nine in total). He’s also one of the most eccentric writers in the business: one story goes that “when he could no longer smoke in restaurants, he bought his favorite booth from his favorite diner and had it installed in his home.” Since leaving The Simpsons in 2003, he has self-published a novel each year, all of which are available on his Web site. After reading his first novel, The Time Machine Did It, I’m not surprised that Swartzwelder is the same person who introduced now-classic Simpsons characters such as Cletus Spuckler, Stampy the Elephant, and the three-eyed fish Blinky (who has now become a symbol among pundits for nuclear waste and wildlife mutation). The novels are pure screwball, honoring the comedies of the Marx Brothers and Preston Sturges as Swartzwelder dismisses any narrative rule for laughs. In The Time Machine Did It, a private detective named Frank Burly (“to give prospective clients the idea that I was a burly kind of man ... and who would be frank with them at all times”) finds himself traveling through time for a supposed multimillionaire who wakes up one day to find that everything he owns is gone. The plotline includes a homemade time machine and a town taken over by criminals, but why the novel works is the simple fact that it never takes itself too seriously. “On an impulse I mooned most of the 1950’s as I went by. I don’t know what makes me do these things. I guess it’s just part of my charm.” —Justin Alvarez

In outline, it reads like something made up by Roberto Bolaño: an Austrian writer crosses America, wracked by nightmares and visions and pursued by his mysterious, estranged wife. Peter Handke’s 1972 novella Short Letter, Long Farewell helped inspire the American “road movies” of Wim Wenders, and if Bolaño didn’t know the book, there is a strong family resemblance. As the critic Wayne Koestenbaum put it, the two writers share an “ability to sound sane (though vacant-souled) about insane circumstances,” whether these involve a desert sunset or a restaurant serving bear hock à la Daniel Boone. —Lorin Stein

That Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is, in part, a transmutation of birdsong into lines of music has oddly come up several times over the past month, in the course of putting together the Fall issue and elsewhere. At the same time, I’ve found myself returning periodically to Music & Literature’s impressive fourth issue to gaze at the work of British composer Barry Guy, whose graphic scores are translations of sensory experiences relating to literature, painting, and architecture and visual reflections of movement, energy, and pitch. So it felt like the stars had fully aligned when I read Christian Wiman’s “translations” of Osip Mandelstam, from a small collection called Stolen Air. Instead of faithfully translating Mandelstam’s poems, Wiman has created versions of them: though some closely resemble the originals, others, he says, are “liberal transcriptions” and “collisions and collusions” between the two poets. Wiman sought to get at the sound of Mandelstam’s language, its music, without having any knowledge of Russian but feeling buoyed by Mandelstam’s notion of a poet’s “secret hearing.” And so we get silvery, jostling lines like “I love the early animal of her, / These woozy, easy swings” and “Better to live alluvial, / Better to live layered downward, / To be a man of sand, of hollows, shallows / To cling to sleeves of water / And to let them go—” —Nicole Rudick Read More »

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Banal Sentimentality; Tackling Tolstoy

February 10, 2012 | by

Hi,

I’m planning a trip to Southeast Asia later in the year, and I’m looking for fiction set in the countries I’ll be visiting. For the most part I've managed to find books that fit the billGraham Greene’s The Quiet American for Vietnam, André Malraux’s The Way of Kings for Cambodia, and Christopher Kremmers Bamboo Palace for Laos. But I'm really stuck on Thailand. Theres The Beach by Alex Garland, which Ive read and wasnt a huge fan of. Aside from that all I can seem to find are some fairly nasty-looking crime novels. I’d prefer something slightly more on the literary side of things if possible, whether fiction or nonfiction.

Thanks (and kap koon kah).

John Burdett’s not your speed, eh? In that case, I recommend Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork. Set in Chiang Mae and in the jungles of northern Thailand, it tells the story of an anthropologist and a family of American missionaries battling over the hearts and minds of an animist village. No less an authority than Stephen King raved about it in Entertainment Weekly:

This is a great story. It has an exotic locale, mystery, and a narrative voice full of humor and sadness. Reading Fieldwork is like discovering an unpublished Robertson Davies novel; as with Davies, you can’t stop reading until midnight (good), and you don’t hate yourself in the morning (better).

King didn’t like the title (“Berlinski tells us the editor hung that says-nothing title on the book. The guy should have stuck to editing”). As the editor in question, I may be biased—but I promise it’s the book you want.

Bon voyage!

Dear Lorin,

Perhaps you can assist me with a delicate matter. Having lately fallen in love, I find I have been inspired to address to my particular Phoebus Apollo a string of flamboyant sonnets, which, although they genuinely come from the heart, are, I suspect, really terrible. True, they scan quite well and, of course rhyme, but in their slightly banal sentimentality they make John Betjeman seem highbrow. So, mindful of the possibility that such a dubious body of work might someday come to light, is it better, do you think, to run the risk of being labeled as an awful poetaster who’s heart is in the right place, or disconcerting Phoebus Apollo by engaging in ruthless self-censorship?

Daphne

Dear Daphne,

Why not take a page (a very famous page) from Sir Philip Sidney?

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show
That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite—
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

As Sidney writes, a love sonnet needn’t be good—just induce a modicum of pity. Your limitations can only be a strength. Read More »

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A Week in Culture: Peter Terzian, Part 2

September 30, 2010 | by

This is the second installment of Terzian’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

DAY FOUR

8:00 A.M. Help the convalescent Caleb into a car-service limo to JFK, where he’ll board a flight to Rochester. This afternoon he gives his Melville lecture. We’ll rendezvous in Albany, where I grew up and where my father still lives, tomorrow: Caleb will fly in from Rochester in the afternoon, I’ll drive up from Brooklyn with Toby in the evening. On Saturday morning the three of us will drive to a rented cottage in Deer Isle, Maine, for a belated summer vacation. “Pack sweaters,” we are told by just about everyone.

8:57 A.M. Shave with Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” playing in my head. Sometimes I try to trace a seemingly random song in my head to its origin—a stray thought, a phrase in a book, something overheard—but I fail with this one. I haven’t been lying in any burned out basements lately.

9:27 A.M. On the subway, read Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy1—I’m toggling back and forth between this and Poser on my commute. There are a lot of animals in Bedford’s autobiographical novel, which is set in fin de siècle Berlin, and sometimes she holds back the fact that they’re animals. In one section, we’re told that a new character, Robert, is in the kitchen breaking plates, and two pages later he climbs into a young girl’s lap—Robert, we discover, is actually a monkey. In the passage I read today, the narrator describes the irritable donkey she had as a child who is “fond of music full of brass, and it was for her benefit that the gramophone was set a-trigger at tea-time under the lime tree.”

12:58 P.M. Take the subway on my lunch break to Chelsea, to see an exhibit of new work by David Shrigley at Anton Kern Gallery. This is the second time I’ve seen this show. I went to the opening two weeks ago with a couple of friends, but split off to talk to David, whom I interviewed last year for a travel article about the Glasgow arts scene, then had to rush through the gallery to catch up. David is tall and gentlemanly. The Glasgow trip was my last travel story, and I’ve been feeling misty-eyed about it lately. I told David that Glasgow was my favorite city, and he said, “Well, that’s ridiculous2.” Today I want to spend more time with the show, when it’s less crowded. The centerpiece is a row of ten pairs of empty black ceramic boots3. A row of his funny drawings lines the walls, and hanging outside the building is a desperate-looking placard that says, “IT’S ALL GOING VERY WELL NO PROBLEM AT ALL.” There’s also a wall with small, protuberant digits beneath a model of the word God. My favorite thing here, though, might be a sculpture of a rib cage set on the floor in a circle of light from the skylight above, which I find inexplicably moving.

1:34 P.M. Think about how I don’t think about Pavement when I’m not reading encomiums to Pavement shows.

7:05 P.M. Get my hair cut at Whistle, a salon in the East Village. “Um … so do you know this actor Andrew Garfield?” Will, my haircutter, does! I come out with a modified, less actorly updo.

9:04 P.M. Caleb calls. The lecture was a success, the people at Geneseo lovely.

10:05 P.M. What to read over a week in Maine? First, the books I’m halfway through: A Legacy, Poser. Then some magazines: the new Paris Review, the new London Review of Books with a piece about creative-writing programs by Elif Batuman I’ve been hearing about, last week’s London Review with the Alan Bennett story I never finished. And now comes the joy of selecting un-begun books from the shelf. I settle upon three short ones, as I had intended: two New York Review Books Classics—James Schuyler’s Alfred and Guinevere, one of Caleb’s favorites, and Maria Dermoût’s The Ten Thousand Things, which my friend Jeff Rotter has praised in a Facebook post; and Colm Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing, in a tiny hardcover Bloomsbury Classic edition with a hand-painted cover. I’ll bring The Oxford Book of English Verse, of course, for romantic reading over breakfasts studded with wild Maine blueberries. And then the big question: to bring Ulysses or leave it behind? For vacation, shouldn’t I pack “pleasure” reading? But Ulysses gives me great pleasure—the kind of pleasure found in difficulty4. But shouldn’t I bring books that don’t require entire other books of annotation? I end up voting in favor—a quiet Maine cottage seems like the right place for a distraction-free geek-out. Read More »

Annotations

  1. Shockingly out of print.
  2. He had a point—we were at a big, fancy art gallery in New York, after all.
  3. $28,500 a pair.
  4. Caleb has no such ambivalence—he’s packed The Faerie Queene.

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