- Just when you think the book is making a comeback—just when you think reading might actually be cool again, with indie bookstores finding their footing and e-book sales plateauing—you hear that McDonald’s is putting books in their Happy Meals, and your heart sinks. As USA Today reports, “the fast food chain will offer children’s books instead of typical prizes through February 15,” thus ensuring that young customers react with disappointment and outrage at the sight of a book where a toy should rightfully be, beginning, in these malleable minds, an inexorable and probably lifelong association between books and frustration.
- Michelle Dean looks at Robert Lowell’s tempestuous marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick, characterized by an unlikely fusion of abuse and respect: “Though they were married for twenty-three years, their union was worn down by Lowell’s nearly annual hospitalizations for manic depression, his endless philandering, and his alcoholism. At the end of it, almost on a whim, he left her for the writer and ‘muse’—always a loaded term, that—Lady Caroline Blackwood. Then he took Hardwick’s alternately furious and anguished letters to him and folded them, without her consent, into a full-length book of poetry, The Dolphin. This artifact of her humiliation won a Pulitzer … Lowell nonetheless believed that women were his intellectual and artistic equals. He spent most of his life behaving accordingly even as he treated his wives and mistresses so terribly, in romantic terms, that it was almost operatic.”
- Rebecca Mead rereads Sexual Politics, Kate Millett’s seminal 1970 feminist text: “While Millett was publicly cast in the polarizing role of polemicist, there is often in her tone the cool, controlled archness of the literary essayist, a role she might easily have inhabited had the times not called upon her to do otherwise. The book is suffused with a strain of very dark, angry humor, an aspect of Millett’s writing that seems to have been barely noticed—or was perhaps invisible—upon publication. Take, for example, the way she dispatches Freud’s injunction that appropriate sexual development calls for an evolution from clitoral to vaginal orgasm. She calls this ‘a difficult passage in which Freud foresaw that many women might go astray. Even among the successful the project has consumed so much of their productive youth that their minds stagnate.’ If Sexual Politics has endured, it is not just because so much of the political work it recommends remains undone, but also because it is an astringent pleasure to be in the company of Millett on the page.”
- In August 1915, a Jewish businessman was lynched in Marietta, Georgia. He’d been convicted of murdering a thirteen-year-old girl who worked at his National Pencil Company factory, and as Christopher King writes, his story attracted a firestorm of media attention, coming to symbolize the politics of the era: “In truth, he was killed neither by a man nor by the force of men. He died in the raging flames of hatred and the resulting smoke which obscured the impartial vision of justice. A murder, a botched and terribly obfuscated trial, and a tinder box of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, and ‘white rights’ in post-Reconstruction Atlanta had resulted in yet another murder, the creation of the Anti-Defamation League, and the first strong resurgence of a then-dormant Ku Klux Klan since the group had disbanded in 1869. In this time, frame-ups, coercion, forced confessions, bribery, and political corruption came into sharp focus for the ‘grift-ridden’ people of Atlanta. And it was all set to music.”
- “Office Space” is a new exhibition—yes, it’s named after the movie—at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts that takes on all the fun new forms of alienation to have arisen in office life this century: “To believe that there is an omnipresent workplace hierarchy to critique or within which to succumb often gives more credit to management strategies than they might deserve, as these strategies can have comparatively shorter life spans than pre-existing structures of affective labor … The soft power of the workplace is constantly inculcated by exterior power structures, as much as these power structures are—and already have been, in turn—informed by the dispersal of capital. But honestly, who is really still capable of leaving their work at work?”
Confessional poetry and The Twilight Zone.
Who wants to be a confessional poet?
Those we’ve saddled with the label—Lowell, Berryman, Snodgrass, Sexton, et cetera—usually react to it with frustration, if not outright hatred. That should come as no surprise. Most poetic movements are met by some degree of disapproval, or at least discomfort. Writers are practically obliged to deny this critical tendency: how dare we readers, critics, English students, reduce entire books, careers, or generations to a singular term. Maybe writers resent words like confessional, imagist, or even Romantic because they inevitably blur a poet’s individual edges into something bland, familiar, and more easily shared. Or maybe the anxiety stems from the fact that labels like this often hover over living writers like tombstones, as critics prepare to title their chapter in literary history.
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
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
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
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.