One of the best presents we received this year for Christmas was the big, thick collection of Malcolm Cowley’s letters, brought out by Harvard University Press and entitledThe Long Voyage. The literary journey was long because the life was long. If the book only provided the backstory to Exile’s Return, the letters would be more than worthwhile, but they do much more: The volume provides an additional fifty years of American literary history not readily found elsewhere. We had always heard about Cowley’s friendship and editorial assistance to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Crane, Cummings and Dos Passos — but who knew about Kerouac and Ken Kesey? And it’s been far too easily forgotten that Cowley’s editing of The Portable Faulkner (at a time when almost all the novelist’s works were out of print) was followed four years later by his being awarded the Nobel prize. An early translator of Valéry and Gide, Cowley also made sure that the first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was reprinted in 1959. And, of course, he himself was a poet. In an interview he once said, “The writer’s trade is a long, laborious but lovely occupation of putting words into patterns.” In his poem “Blue Juniata” the ever-struggling Cowley put his definition into practice, forming with words “a music / made visible, a monument of air.”
And so, besides those we’ve already mentioned in the newsletter, what were some of our favorite books of poetry this year? Because we’re always a little behind in our reading, not all the most memorable volumes came out in 2013; but certainly this year’s Hugo Claus collection, Even Now, is worth drawing attention to, especially since it came and went with little critical fanfare. Selected and translated by David Colmer, this elegant Archipelago Books edition takes the #1 position on our theoretical “best” list. As a taste of Claus’s temperament, here are the opening lines of his 1961 poem, “N.Y.”: Over the rippled asphalt, through the steam / billowing from the grates, / three Black warriors carry a pink summer evening gown / like a senator’s wife. The writer’s Stoic death in 2008 by euthanasia (he was suffering from Alzeimer’s), though legal in his native Belgium, caused some controversy. Cees Nooteboom’s funeral-oration afterword, which closes the book, movingly marks the felling of a great Dutch oak: “Suddenly there’s an opening in the forest, a place where light can penetrate and feed new growth.”
We’re sorely tempted to propose our own year-end compilation of the worst books of poetry we’ve seen on more than a few “best books of 2013” lists. Perhaps we’d note them here if we’d actually managed to make it all the way through their pages; this past year we stood stunned in several NYC bookstores’ poetry aisles, shaking our heads in wonder at some of these volumes’ dreadfulness. We do need to observe, however, that the lists on which some of these books found themselves didn’t hold up to the most nominal scrutiny. Though a few added “full disclosure” statements acknowledging personal and professional affiliations, it was astonishing how many of these lists’ authors could also be found on the acknowledgement pages of their “favorite” poets. It would be much better — and no shame — to state outright: “These are some of the books my friends and colleagues published this year.”
The Dickinson “sketches” at the Drawing Center have gotten a lot of attention. Once again, the recluse shows herself a prophetess! But we were also enthralled by Robert Walser’s handwritten texts which, though different from Dickinson’s in their writerly impulses, do suggest a comparable obsession with the physical feel and placement of words created by sharpened pencil. We’re not sure whether such “drafts” truly constitute a visual art; to us the“text-object” aspect of the two writers’ work is more a product of contemporary curatorship than a matter of artistic intention. And the curatorial language at the Drawing Center is particularly meaningless, full of nonsensical double talk about “modernism’s longstanding effort to purge art of narrative association in favor of material and conceptual self-sufficiency.” We would also argue with Claire Gilman’s assertion that “rarely in literature has the manner in which words are made been so integral to the way in which they might be read”; the history of literature is far too long for the accuracy of such an expansive statement (illuminated manuscripts, as just one point of significant reference). Still, the Drawing Center’s combined back and front rooms (“Drawing Time, Reading Time”), as well as the fantastic William Engelen music installation in the basement (“Falten”), present a richly diverse “works on paper” experience.
As longtime admirers of Martha Clarke, we weren’t surprised by the wonderfully poetic qualities of her staged version of Colette’s Chéri which we saw in previews at the Pershing Square Signature Center in NYC. Sarah Rothenberg’s onstage performance of her own compilation of piano music that comprised the show’s score was as fine as anticipated. And though we were somewhat mixed in our response to Amy Irving’s bitter rendering of the character of Charlotte, the performances of dancers Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri were both impeccable and moving. What came as a shock, even though we knew perfectly well what was coming, was the piece’s brutal conclusion. The finale stunned us into a silence that lasted long after the play’s final bows and applause.
Speaking of Robert Pinsky, among the holiday books we’d recommend as gifts to aspiring poets is his thoroughly engaging Singing School. We must admit that our first thought when the book came out was: “Uh oh, not another ‘Favorite’ anthology!” But though some of the material was familiar (we recognized once again that the germ for a number of Pinsky’s choices and comments may be found in his studies with Yvor Winters), we were very happily surprised by his inclusion of certain women poets (Aphra Behn, the undervalued Louise Bogan, May Swenson, et al.). And we really like how the undated works of Cavalier poets and Elizabethans (again, both men and women) converse with contemporaries. We defy anyone to read aloud the dialogue between Yeats and Pound without being moved by powerful alternations of tenderness and hilarity. We almost understand David Orr’s verbal perturbations about the book in the Times Book Review; how indeed does one explain a creative writing professor who argues that the most valuable way to learn to write great poems is to read, alone, the work of masters? This seems to us a reasonable thesis, but it’s apparently somewhat controversial, for it rubs against the “workshop-training” grain of recent MFA degree-carrying poets. Without saying so explicitly, Pinsky seems to acknowledge the depressing sameness of the poetry currently being published: “A reigning style can feel tyrannical: the assumptions behind it so well-established that there seem to be no alternatives.” To us it appears that the Laureate has become sneakily subversive, hiding in plain sight: “There are no rules.”
All summer we both read and heard about Hothouse, the history of Farrar, Straus & Giroux as penned by Boris Kachka. Now, several months into the fall season, we’ve finally had an actual look at its pages. Given its subject, what surprises us most about the book is how breezily, and rather badly, it’s written. For longtime admirers of Farrar, maybe it’s too much like watching sausages being made; there’s a lot here we really don’t want to know. Hothouse ends up being mostly a book of gossip about Roger Straus, a figure who comes off as a bit of a womanizing clown. And while it’s inarguable that he overshadowed and underpaid his stable of distinguished editors, he did, after all, bring aboard Robert Giroux.
Perhaps Farrar’s “real” history might better be gleaned from Fifty Years, published in 1996 hors commerce for the publishing house’s fiftieth anniversary. It’s an excellent anthology, with an impressive list of books published from 1946 as an epilogue. The hard-to-find volume also includes a small sampling of FSG’s poetry list; a memorable reading (introduced by Straus himself) of and by some of the house poets took place the year of Fifty Years’ publication at New York’s Town Hall. Poets’ Night, a recording of that evening, preserves Robert Pinsky forceful channelling of Louise Bogan: Come, drunks and drug-takers; come, perverts unnerved! / Receive the laurel, given, though late, on merit; to whom and wherever deserved. // Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue, / Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is deathless. And it isn’t for you.
We’re even lucky during the off-season with the quality of the artists who visit the Cape. We felt especially fortunate to attend the open rehearsal of the Cape Cod Symphony this month, an evening which included a run-through of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major by the charismatic Amit Peled. The cellist has longstanding connections to the Cape, as the young Israeli came to Wellfleet some twenty years ago to study with the late Bernard Greenhouse. We’ve had the pleasure of hearing Peled perform in the context of quite different venues on the Cape, and though he doesn’t lack the technical exactitude required of professionals these days, what makes his playing so moving is its distinctively human quality. After working with Greenhouse, Peled has said, “I realize it never ends — this journey to look for your voice.”
My heart is in my / pocket, wrote Frank O’Hara fifty years ago, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.The new NYRB collection of Reverdy poems, edited by Mary Ann Caws, nicely fills 21st-century pockets. The English versions are a mixed lot, though a number of distinguished names (John Ashbery, Lydia Davis, Marilyn Hacker, Richard Howard, Ron Padgett, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Sieburth, Rosanna Warren) are listed among their translators. (Special thanks to Bill Berkson for “passing on” the version of “Chair Vive” by Frank O’Hara!) Since the originals are presented en face, any unevenness doesn’t much matter; even those readers with the most basic French are able to encounter Reverdy’s actual words and music. Pierre Reverdy the recluse remains a personality without much of a biography (save for a liaison with the suspect Coco Chanel), a fact that has made him somewhat hard to market: “Let me never be well-known,” he is said to have prayed. We’re especially grateful to Caws for O’Hara’s translation of this (as described by Octavio Paz) “secret poet for secret readers”: Lock on the heart that’s breaking / A silk thread / A plumb-line / A thread of blood / After waves of silence / Those kinky black signs of love
It seems the Janice Biala retrospective, “Vision and Memory” at the Godwin-Ternbach, was doomed to disappear with nary a critical trace. We have to admit that it’s a major pain to get out to the Queens College museum (with no easy way there via public transportation from Manhattan), yet it remains more than a shame that so few critics made note of it. And though Tibor de Nagy’s gallery “Biala and Brustlein” had some nice canvases, the size of the museum’s downstairs exhibition space really allowed Biala’s larger works to open up fully, like uncorked wine or fresh-cut flowers in water. Her “strong and silent” figurative works easily stand up to those of male colleagues like Arthur Dove or Milton Avery. And her lesser-known abstractions and collages placed in the museum’s balcony (some shown in previous Tibor shows) are magnificent. There are those (ourselves included) who believe Biala was a better painter than her brother, Jack Tworkov. This is inarguably a show that should have traveled elsewhere.
Since we saw Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy in previews a few weeks ago, we’ve been a bit surprised by the great reviews it’s getting. To be honest, the Roundabout-Old Vic play was a bit boring, being, as the French put it, so correct. Roger Rees went through his paces, expertly and sometimes movingly (especially in a crucial scene with his doomed-to-be-a-spinster daughter, played by the excellent Charlotte Parry), though the upshot of Rees’s performance at the bounding curtain call was that he’s not yet the old man he appears to be in the drama. What was quite good about it all was, oddly enough, the production’s complete staginess. We found ourselves admiring the stylized lines of certain performances (Michael Cumpsty’s well-meaning cricket oaf), the dramaturgical equivalent of the ethically motivated stiff upper lip — which is, in a way, the play’s subject. It’s an Edwardian period piece that echoes something of the ethos of Britain’s noble behavior in the Second World War, the time of its creation. The play was an odd but interesting choice for David Mamet to make into a movie in 1999; while the Anthony Asquith version from 1948 relied on the fundamental goodness revealed in the eyes and voice of the great Robert Donat. It was something of Donat’s rendering of the charismatic barrister Sir Robert Morton that we most yearned for in the current production.
New York’s art critic Jerry Saltz admits he doesn’t really like Balthus; his comments in an issue some weeks ago suggest to us that he doesn’t really understand the painter either. Like most viewers, Saltz gets caught up in the subject matter of Balthus’s paintings. Theres no avoiding the artist’s fixation on young girls, which expresses itself in blatantly sexual and sometimes sadomasochistic terms. The Balthus photography show at Gagosian, exhibiting polaroids of the artist’s last teenage model, only complicates the matter. It doesn’t help that Gagosian’s gift shop offers for purchase an oversize “coffee-table” book reproducing these images for an exorbitant sum. Expensive erotica such as this further commodifies Balthus’s art, even though these rather clumsy polaroids were intended as studies for paintings at a point when Balthus was losing his ability to sketch. We could go on a long diatribe here about the transformation of his painting into a kind of kinky “gold bullion,” as an “alternative investment market” for Wall Street, but it would restate the obvious.
For us the work of Balthus is really “about” the obsessiveness of the artistic enterprise and the fundamentally erotic nature of creation. The Metropolitan Museum “Balthus: Cats and Girls,”curated by Sabine Rewald, shows how the painter plumbed his own psychic archaeology. (His personal life included a possible blood relation to Rilke, who was at one time his mother’s lover) Through the illustrated childhood narrative exhibited at the Met show, he turned the death of his kitten Mitsou into an epic tragedy. The tauntingly remote cat came to represent both himself and the figure of the beloved, there and not there. Art inspires desire; desire demands knowledge; art uses eroticism as a mode of self-knowledge.
We’re hardly the first observers to note how his works belong to a tradition of religious painting. In purely formal terms the spherical forms of his pubescent girls echo the Madonnas of Piero. The fresco tones of Young Girl at a Window recall the Italian primitives. As a study in ecstasy, the twisted pietà of the intentionally scandalous The Guitar Lesson (not included in the Met show) might be described as a girlish version of Bernini’s Saint Theresa. Balthus knew perfectly well that viewers would be shocked by the sight of a young girl being fondled by an aggressive Lesbian figure (mimicking in her posture the attentions of Michelangelo’s holy Mother). The cagey Balthus intended to court controversy and he got exactly what he bargained for: Notice and sales.
We are inconsistent in our polemics. Given our posting on September 23, you’d think we’d be thrilled that a woman has won this year’s Nobel prize in literature. Instead (despite the Onion’s mockery on the subject), we believe John Ashbery should have been chosen as this year’s winner. Actually, no, we take that back: Ashbery is beyond prizes. Even the Nobel seems like a flimsy tribute. This is not only a matter of Ashbery’s poetic and critical oeuvre, spectacular in quality and volume; there’s also the not inconsequential issue of his influence. Even if every one of his poems somehow disintegrated into thin air, Ashbery’s literary presence would remain in the way poets (and not only American ones) have come to write. With all due respect to Alice Munro, if the Swedish Academy is looking for literary “greatness” (someone like Picasso who in his lifetime has formed a point of reference for the art’s practitioners), the poets’ choice is Ashbery.
It’s very hard to find adequate terms with which to praise perfection. And as the great Morton Feldman once put it, “The tragedy of music is that it begins with perfection.” But musical experience can end that way, too, as at the final curtain of the Cosi Fan Tutte we saw last week at the Met. Both the heart-rending young singers and the lovely Watteau-like production were everything Mozart lovers could ask for, though James Levine’s conducting was ultimately responsible for the performance’s sublimity. How can musical wisdom be both profound and frivolous? We ourselves don’t have a clue, but Levine has cracked the comic opera’s Masonic secret.
Last week’s “Live from the NYPL” reading (which we were unable to attend) was described as “three generations of poets” coming together “to trace the arc of modernism in poetry.” John Ashbery joined Timothy Donnelly (co-editor with Ashbery of last year’s Three Poets and professor at Columbia School of the Arts) with their junior colleague Adam Fitzgerald (Columbia MFA, New School instructor and co-curator of the “John Ashbery Collects” show currently at the Loretta Howard Gallery; here Donnelly will also be giving a spontaneous “non-lecture” on October 19 in an Ashbery event hosted by Fitzgerald). The NYPL evening was introduced by Robert Polito, former director of the New School writing program and new head of the Poetry Foundation. We acknowledge that this trio suggests one possible modernist line of descent continuing through Columbia and the New York School. But another “arc” we’d like to see sketched is the one springing from H.D.; this grouping would currently include Anne Carson, Susan Howe, and Maureen McClane. Or there’s the “arc” reaching from Gertrude Stein to, say, Susan Wheeler and Brenda Shaughnessy. With all due respect to Messieurs Ashbery and Co., to us the evening smacks of “patriarchal hegemony.” With all the professional links between the three, the program provides evidence of the continued effectiveness of what was once known as “Old Boy” networking.
Following up on last week’s posting, and the subject of weird coincidences, we were a little startled to see Adam Kirsch’s discussion of Rachel Wetzsteon at Poetry Foundation. But we were also very sad to read the comments of the site’s readers, some of whom appeared to have never heard of the (not-so) late poet. We’ve always believed the more first-rate work is praised and remembered, the better; the initial online responses to Kirsch’s discussion only makes us feel this all the more strongly.
The New Yorker has had summer connections to the Outer Cape for a long time. For many years (long before our arrival here) Philip Hamburger was a regular Wellfleet fixture, and we ourselves have happily encountered various of the magazine’s associates either on Longnook Road or the beach itself. We confess we’ve even suspected that the cartoonist Sempé has “our” beach as his point of reference for numerous of his New Yorker covers, though this must surely be coincidence. Yet Longnook’s distinctive drop down to the water does seem to us to appear in several of his depictions of solitary beach-goers in various states of meditation or delight.
This summer a new set of signs arrived at the top of the overlook, warning (among other things) of the presence of Great White sharks. And so, naturally, we were enthralled by Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker article on these fascinating (and terrifying) creatures. Among our neighbors opinions were divided as to whether the new signs increased safety or tourism (the town even put the image of a shark on its beach stickers). In any event, it was a very busy summer, with Longnook’s parking lot more crowded than we’ve ever seen it. The Cape’s car traffic is now easing up, though we still hear work-centered conversations outside our windows, that very particular dialogue of visiting urbanite cyclists and joggers. But this is as we’ve seen it before: Week by week, as the weather grows cooler the crowds grow thin — until soon enough it’s just us and the seals.
We were impressed by both contributions to the newly instituted “Bookends” feature in the back pages of the NYT Book Review. Zoe Heller and Adam Kirsch, writers we much admire, are by no means merely “professional” in Virginia Woolf’s sense; these are two people who most definitely qualify as literary artists and have much better things to do with their laptops. But they hardly took opposite positions on the subject of rigorous reviews. We were struck by the extraordinary coincidence of the same topic being similarly approached (and followed by extensive critical analysis) in the Longnook Overlook’s “The Race of Rachel Wetzsteon,” a heartfelt yet not entirely laudatory summation of the late poet’s career. The first paragraph starts somewhere where the “Bookends” columns leave off:
Writing the truth about a contemporary poet’s work without causing some form of psychic injury is impossible. Given the relative closeness of the poetry world, the author under review is likely to be an acquaintance — or at the very least, the friend of a friend. As a result there are almost always repercussions to a negative opinion… But more problematic than such damage is the fact that any poet-critic’s objectivity is called into question by the process of serious criticism; her vocational honor is at stake. One racehorse, in effect, has been called upon to comment on the abilities and track record of a competitor.
And on the issue of serious literary criticism (and the unlikelihood of it finding its way into the pages of the Sunday NYT), we couldn’t help but be reminded of something Allen Tate wrote of the “prejudgement” of the commercial publishing marketplace in 1936:
[Criticism] asks the reader to take a post of observation, and to occupy it long enough to examine closely the field before him. This, one supposes is dogmatism, but it is arguable still that dogma in criticism is a permanent necessity: the value of the dogma will be determined by the quality of the mind engaged in constructing it. For dogma is coherent thought in the pursuit of principles. If the critic has risen to the plane of principle and refuses to judge by prejudice, he will… grant enormous variety to the specific arts. For it must be remembered that prejudice is not dogma, that the one has no toleration of the other. If prejudice were dogma, the New York Times Book Review would be a first-rate critical organ. It allows the narrowest possible range of artistic performance along with the widest latitude of incoherent opinion and of popular success — simply because it uses, instead of principle, prejudice.
Coming up on us all next week is the twelve-year anniversary of 9/11. This may partially explain why at her poetry reading (with Toby Olson) at Truro’s Meeting House just two weeks ago, Mary Maxwell’s tragedy-inflected poems from Emporia were especially well received. “World Trade,” a moving recollection of that shared date and “where you were when it happened” was met with the poignant silence of shared recall. Though Maxwell herself commented at length on the autobiographical origins of her prose poems’ distinct forms, a complementary perspective on the work may be found in the pages of the forthcoming Longnook Overlook:
[Emporia’s] justified verbal-visual quadrilaterals (set within the framing paper rectangle) allude to two sets of twin buildings: the Parson-Souders department store of Maxwell’s childhood and lower Manhattan’s doomed Trade Towers. These sets of structures inescapably shadow the entire enterprise; the text blocks become paired iconic referents for both the poetic “topic” and the embedded subject of 9/11.
How much we’ve enjoyed Richard Baker’s shows at the Albert Merola Gallery in Provincetown. For us, his more recent preoccupations reflect an artistic community and culture we missed in historical actuality but still think of with a kind of imaginary nostalgia, a “coterie” that includes but extends beyond the “New York School” of poets and painters. Last year we were especially charmed by his “reproductions” of Penguin paperbacks, recording the intellectual concerns of a certain time and place. For us these volumes’ simple designs and familiar orange plucked a moving note of casual high-mindedness. This year we were touched by the worn quality of certain of his art book paintings, flaws that indicate use — and therefore love — of the books’ subjects. Record albums from the sixties have been added to Baker’s mix, evoking the sound and social culture of a particular past. Their distinctive combination of seriousness and insouciance is exactly right, perfectly in keeping with a certain O’Hara artistic legacy.
We extend our congratulations to Don Share for his new position as head honcho at Poetry. Looking at the summer issue, however, we are troubled by the triple coincidence of David Orr poems in the current issue, Orr’s review of James Longenbach in this last Sunday’s NYT Sunday Book Review and a Longenbach poem listed alongside Orr’s own in the same Poetry table of contents. We have a thought: Since a prohibition against incest is not an irrational tabu, maybe something comparable should be put into place for poetry. Inbreeding produces monsters. As poetry “consumers,” we find such overlaps oppressive. Too much of the limited review space in various “publications of note” is filled with discussions of the work of poetry editors. And we see way too many of these editors’ poems among the pages of the magazines to which we subscribe. We note here that these contributions are (and this is being generous) not always of the highest caliber. We don’t mean to suggest anything nefarious in all this. It’s a social-professional network like any other, with various exchanges taking place among like-minded colleagues and their publications. But maybe it’s not a bad idea to institute an informal ban on reviews by poetry editors of other poetry editors, as well as some kind of moratorium on periodical publication of these poet-editors’ poems themselves. Obviously this would mean having to wait for the books of some very fine poets, but after all, few of these really “need” a list of magazine or journal credits at this point. Off the top of our head, besides Don Share, in this category might be found Henri Cole, Major Jackson, David Yezzi, Joshua Weiner, Bruce Bond, Paul Muldoon, Robert Pinsky, Timothy Donnelly, and J.D. McClatchy, but there are lots more — even a few women’s names, like Saskia Hamilton. Of course, the previous list doesn’t take into account contributing, advisory, emeritus and assistant editors (Christian Wiman, Meghan O’Rourke, Dan Chiasson) or those (like Rebecca Wolfe, Jeffrey Yang, Jill Bialosky or Jonathan Galassi) who serve as poetry editors at book publishing concerns. Well, as we said, it’s a thought.
We actually never met the late filmmaker Chris Marker, though our paths almost crossed a few times in Paris, due to acquaintances there held in common. But especially after spending time with Immemory, a fascinating interactive CD-ROM brought out by the admirable Exact Change, we have a continued sense of his pseudonymous person (the name the Frenchman gave himself could be translated with the supra-linguistic symbol “X”). As Marker’s website quotes Montaigne: “All the world knows me by my book, and my book in me.” Yet (as many have noted) Marker’s works (La Jetée or Sans Soleil, for example) are almost impossible to categorize. Given that his was, above all, the project of memory, we would don him as “a multidisciplinary poet.” He described himself as a collector of “bricolage.”
Something equally true might be said of the poet Susan Howe — as well as of her Sorting Facts; or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker. In the course of this “film essay” (first published in 1996), Howe comes to identify herself as also working in a “poetic documentary form.” Republished this year by New Directions in their reincarnated “Poetry Pamphlets” series, the book’s subject is of immediate interest to us, though we question how much actual insight Howe really has into Marker’s films. We do end up knowing something about the admirable Howe’s impulses and processes, but these aren’t really all that consistent with Marker’s oeuvre. Marker was a rigorous thinker, even though his “experimental” methods (now fifty years old) were “untraditional.” By contrast, Howe’s nineteen-part compilation form doesn’t feel like a form; it feels like a compilation. The trendy randomness of her prose montage (treating the cinema of Vertov and Tarkovsky in its scattershot unfolding) appears to be a “conceptual” choice for the first of a proposed series of hybrid works written by poets. Rather than read, it strikes us as a book to be referred to and talked about.
We missed the anniversary of our newsletter, begun last year on July 9, but then it’s been a busy year for us. The Longnook Overlook is currently circulating in page proofs, and the response to both the concept and various individual contributions has been enthusiastic. The final form of the Overlook (with an 16-page insert of four-color reproductions) is now due to come out in early 2014. Also in the works for next year is a memoir of Richard Olney; then after that, still in the process of compilation, are Mary Maxwell’s essays and talks, delayed due to the fact that she keeps writing and giving talks that need to be included in the book collection. This past month, for example, she published “Questions and Comments from the Audience” (on a performance of Anne Carson’s Antigonick) in Arion. And next month she’ll be giving a lecture in conjunction with the “Biala: Vision and Memory” exhibit at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum. The talk, entitled “The Summer at Benfolly,” will revisit the 1937 intersection of Allen Tate, Ford Madox Ford, Janice Biala and Robert Lowell (among others) at Tate’s farm in Tennessee.
We had an amusing experience this past week at the Dia Beacon cafe while waiting for the exhibits to open up. On the cafe’s paper napkin was printed a list of contemporary artists — Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner, et al. Reading down the roll-call of male names, we grew increasingly infuriated and were on the verge of filing a protest at the admissions desk when we spied the name Louise Lawler and the title “Birdcalls” in the lower right-hand corner. Out in the gallery garden we laughed out loud at Lawler’s 1972 sound installation. For among the carefully maintained flowers and manicured shrubs (designed by the great Robert Irwin), the napkin-litany of male names had been reduced to a series of hilarious bird calls: “Beuys. Beuys. Beuys.” Was this a reference to the classical myth of Philomela, transformed into a nightingale and doomed to cry out the name of her oppressor in birdcall? We don’t know for sure, but our chuckling at the possible allusion was bitter nonetheless.
After visiting the rather scary Louis Bourgeois sculptures upstairs at Dia, we remembered seeing a video of a Bourgeois sound project at “Les Papesses,” a fascinating (and sometimes a bit terrifying) exhibition we saw at the Palais des Papes and the Collection Lambert in Avignon. What an amazing group of women artists! Works of Camille Claudel, Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Jana Sterbak and Berlinde de Bruyckere (the last two providing the scariest elements) were arranged among the halls of the medieval palace as well as the neo-classical Collection Lambert. The payoff, for us, was the gorgeous Kiki Smith installation in the Lambert’s lower spaces. The work was enchanting, a paradise to balance the creepy hellish quality of much of the work across town. Words cannot do justice to the magical loveliness of the experience, nor can the photographs compiled in the (nevertheless worthwhile) exhibit catalogue do much more than recall something of the pieces actually seen. We also very much appreciated Smith’s artist statement, “To Follow the Path of My Work”: “I do not see that my experience is particularly unique or separate from others. Each person is given a vantage point; each person is given an opening into, or an aspect of, consciousness. A work is successful when it holds profound meaning (sometimes just temporarily) and retains enough space so that others can find their own experience with it. I think what art does socially is give image to the complexity of our lives.”
Given our recent travels and interests, we were especially impressed by Neal Ascherson’s piece in the July 18 London Review of Books, “Marseille, 1940-43.” As someone tartly observed, “2013 is not the first year that Marseille was European Capital of Culture. The first time was in 1940.” For it was in that pivotal year that a mind-bending constellation of refugees found themselves in the southern capital, “jostling for a room in a cheap hotel or a place in a consulate queue.” Among these refugees’ names could be found some of European culture’s most famous: Heinrich Mann, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, Alma Mahler, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst…. The list, as they say, goes on and on. A number of these male refugees also found themselves held as “enemy aliens” at Les Milles, a tile factory located on the outskirts of Aix converted into a detention camp. The camp has recently opened as a “site-mémorial” containing explanatory exhibits and vast spaces that once held thousands upon thousands of miserable inmates. Most of these detainees ended up at Drancy and beyond; a crucial few witnesses (like Lion Feuchtwanger) survived and found their way to the United States. (Two thousand of these rescues were as a result of the heroic interventions of American Varian Fry.) But though much of the history described is familiar, the place (as depressing as it may be) also preserves an uplifting narrative of personal and artistic survival. In captivity music was written and performed; drawings were made and exhibited; poetry and stories were written and read aloud to fellow prisoners. Most astonishing, and moving to us, is the physical evidence of the “Catacombs,” the German detainees’ recreation of a Berlin cabaret in a tile furnace. A restored mural on the wall of what was the camp-guard’s canteen (probably painted by Karl Bodek who perished at Auschwitz) is a visual parody of the Last Supper; a painted couplet on the room’s facing wall makes light of starvation: “Si vos assiettes ne sont pas très garnies, puissent nos dessins vous calmer l’appetit.” Where does resistance to tyranny and injustice find its origin? This is the unanswerable question that Les Milles asks its visitors. In any case, such evidence as we found in the place itself makes us wonder whether gallows humor may not be, after all, the truest expression of the human spirit.
We attended a couple of memorable outdoor music events during our recent trip to France. Perhaps most dramatic was the gratis performance of Rigoletto arias (from the Aix music festival production) presented on a specially constructed stage at one end of the Cours Mirabeau. The acoustics weren’t great; the singers had to battle with the vespas, sirens and swallows; and the London Symphony Orchestra musicians’ instruments went in and out of tune in the summer humidity. But it was still a great experience, shared with a wonderfully diverse audience of music lovers under the Aix’s famous plane trees. Another evening (alongside with a considerably smaller audience) we heard a Haydn and then a Britten string quartet played by the Quatuor Navarra in the courtyard of the 18th-century Hotel Maynier d’Oppede. Once again, a gliding chorus of swallows seemed to take particular delight in its ability to interrupt the musical proceedings. Back in the days when we lived on the Upper West Side, on similarly hot summer evenings we enjoyed the very different dynamic of Lincoln Center Out of Doors in the company of taxis and pigeons. Now in Truro, we especially appreciate the amazing variety of first-rate music presented at the Payomet, its tent set up among a backbeat of crickets at the old Air Force base. And then, of course, there are the free bandstand offerings available every Thursday evening on the town green, where summer tourists and locals listen and watch excited children plumb their last reserves of physical energy as the skies grow dark, dancing themselves to exhaustion after a long day at the beach.
At the Fondation Maeght we saw a rather contrived show put together by the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy entitled “Les aventures de la vérité.” Even before we arrived in Saint-Paul de Vence the supposed tension between philosophy and painting seemed to us a rather misguided premise for an art exhibit. And sure enough, almost all the works were chosen in relation to their “subject matter,” as ways of working out the curator’s dubious theses. From the point of view of those who love painting, much of the selection struck us as genuinely imbecilic; but then again, arranged within the confines of conceptual “stations,” few of Lévy’s choices stood any chance of being appreciated for their formal impulses. We can’t imagine how a philosopher might respond to such a display, though we’re pretty sure any rigorous thinker would recognize the texts of the accompanying coffee-table book as a lot of epistemological mumbo-jumbo. Though it was frustrating not to have access to the permanent collection, there was still the Josep Lluis Sert buildings and surrounding grounds (the Giacometti courtyard, the Miro ceramics and fountains, the gorgeous Calder, etc.). The whole ensemble (the brainchild of André Malraux) comprises one of the most beautiful places we’ve even encountered. Especially in the summer, wandering through multi-leveled rooms and outdoor spaces, the visitor experiences a revivifying dynamic between man-made and natural forms.
As a sort of reversed experience, in the shockingly uninteresting new Musée Départemental Arles Antique (basically an Ikea store full of exhibits) we were wowed by an extraordinary temporary exhibit, “Rodin: The Light from Antiquity.” Room after room displayed Rodin’s amazing work interspersed with a remarkable assortment of classical sculpture. Some of these pieces were from Rodin’s own collection while others were there as a result of spectacular loans. Somehow the Vatican copy of the monumental Laocoon from Versailles was transported to Arles, as was the Diadumenos from the British Museum. Even the “Venus of Vienne” and the “Venus of Arles” were borrowed from the Louvre, as though on a family visit “back home.” With the enormous sculptures still in our sense memories, we’ll be reading the accompanying book with its discussion of the “l’éloquence de la chair,” for many months to come. This was a show, rather than the Maeght nonsense, that will remain for us an authentic “adventure in truth.”
Our visit to the modernist Villa Noailles in Hyères was free, due to an exhibit of contemporary design taking place there. Even though we were considerably more interested in the place itself than in the displays and objects for sale, we were very happy to have a chance to explore the villa’s rooms, courtyards and gardens. “A heliotropic house, overlooking the bay, the villa celebrated a new lifestyle which favoured body and nature,” as the excellent descriptive handouts informed us. Designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens in 1923 on commission from Marie-Laure de Noailles and her husband Charles, the villa became a center for an amazing constellation of artists, filmmakers and musicians. At the Aix “Atelier” exhibit, we had a chance to view Man Ray’s Les Mystères du Chateau du Dé, which was filmed at the villa. Marie-Laure was herself accomplished poet (and model for painters such as Picasso, Balthus, Giacometti, et al.), as well being a patroness for an extraordinary roster of artists such as Cocteau, Bunuel, Dali, Leiris, Poulenc, Weill, Auric and even a young Ned Rorem.
Thanks to a French tradition of private patronage and government support of the arts, numerous such “villa” experiences that were once the preserve of an “elite” are now available for public viewing. The Villa Noailles is only one example of a a private refuge now open to the likes of us. We were also fascinated by the Villa Kerylos in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, a turn-of-the-century “recreation” of a classical Greek home built by the archaeologist Theodore Reinach, now belonging the Institut de France. Even more incredible is the nearby Villa Ephrussi in San-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. A visit to this most elegant of homes was once unobtainable to any but acquaintances of the Rothschilds. Anyone now willing to pay the moderate admission fee (and who can afford to be on the French Riviera in the first place) can enjoy a lovely lunch in what was once was the villa’s conservatory and wander about the house and grounds, experiencing something of the lifestyles of the very rich — without any of the cost of such a property’s upkeep. The relative penury of “tourist class” has its own kind of freedom.
Marseille-Provence has been chosen this year as the “Cultural Capital of Europe,” “a creative hub that will be set up in companies, institutions, non profit organizations and hospitals allowing local, European and Mediterranean artists to discover fields not usually associated with contemporary creation.” The whole province has been transformed into a series of interconnected exhibits, conceptual installations placed in non-contemporary venues (the elegant Pavillion Vendome in Aix, the Cistercian Abbey of Silvacane, as only two examples.) But the most important art exhibit of the season is the spectacular “Le Grand Atelier du Midi,” mounted at two locations. Half of this extraordinary show is at Marseille’s Palais Longchamp-Musée des Beaux-Arts (“From Van Gogh to Bonnard”) while the other portion can be found at the Musee Granet in Aix (“From Cézanne to Matisse”). Most of this art is quite familiar through book reproduction and therefore not unexpected (save for Bonnard’s nearly abstract door at Le Cannet, which we found hypnotizing). In some sense the shows are all about color, keeping in mind what Cézanne said, “When the color achieves richness, the form attains its fullness also.” But how great to see Dubuffet included, with his “celebration of the soil” of nearby Vence. Or the the very compositional qualities of Picasso’s Village méditerranean, painted at Mougins in 1937. Or the hill-town and building-based abstractions of Nicolas de Stael and Bram van Velde. For us the show is really “about” such subjects — the landscape, architecture and window views of Provence and the Riviera. There’s something really wonderful about seeing such artworks sur place, hanging on a wall just down the autoroute from St. Paul, Mont Sainte-Victoire or L’Estaque (the hills or water more often than not seen by us from our car window).
One of our most favorite books is Give My Regard to Eighth Street: The Collected Writings of Morton Feldman, edited with an introduction by the late B.H.Friedman (Exact Change, 2000). Feldman is, of course, a wonderful composer, but he was also a great “character” of the New York art world. It makes perfect sense he was good friends with Frank O’Hara; they shared a freewheeling yet laser-sharp critical sensibility that remained (at least in their writing) miraculously full of good humor. We especially love what Feldman has to say about painting. He took into account what friends such as Philip Guston and Mercedes Matter had to say about their art but didn’t just repeat their opinions and observations. We can sometimes “hear” them, but they’re always indirectly quoted through Feldman’s unmistakable voice and the no-nonsense sensibility of his New York identity: “Until the fifties, the overall trend of American painting was chiefly preoccupied with capturing a certain ethnic, regional flavor, the art itself being a conceptual shortcut to this. Even an artist like Dove seems to come to art somewhat like a gentleman farmer. He has genius, but it’s still a sort of landed-gentry genius.”
The “Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light” show seemed out of place at MOMA, striking us initially as considerably more belle époque than modernist. The series of exquisite displays was too much for us to process at the time, and so we’ve been studying the marvelous accompanying 270-page book with more than a little regret we hadn’t looked more carefully at what was presented in New York. Both the discussion and the volume’s illustrations fill us with an almost religious awe — after all, what cathedral surpasses the Bibliothèque Nationale? The material takes us to Paris, to a Paris on the cusp of modernity, the late nineteenth-century looking back (as well as at its fascinating self) but charging prophetically forward all the same. The “traditional” and “occasional” poems of Proust (just collected by Penguin in a parallel text format) have something of the same feel. And though we like some of the translations (chosen by the editor Harold Augenbraum) better than others, the originals are always right there for us. In fairness, attempting to translate the internal echoings of a Proustian sonnet is not unlike trying to describe the varying olfactory developments of wine or perfume over the course of an hour. The book’s best English versions are, unsurprisingly, by Richard Howard. His rendering of Proust’s poetic portrait of “Antoine Watteau” begins, “Twilight staining faces under the trees / with its blue cape, its dubious mask, / the dust of kisses round exhausted mouths… What’s vague is tender now, what’s near, remote.”
The Claes Oldenburg exhibit at MOMA is an oversized pleasure – there’s a wonderfully pure enthusiasm to his early creations, an art created out of what’s found and seen on downtown streets. There’s nothing pompous about what’s actually on view at the museum, though for us the institutional context threatened to ruin everything; it was like a collection of beautiful city birds trapped inside a large white cube. Despite all that, we admired the touching silliness of the “Mouse Museum” set within MOMA’s escalatored caverns, a collection within a collection, complete with its own requisite long line to get in.
The fascinating opening scene from Uncle, a theater piece about the great actor Michael Chekhov (nephew of the playwright) in the forthcoming Longnook Overlook, is only one provocation for our renewed appreciation of the stage actor’s vocation. Three recent theater experiences in New York City gave additional cause. As much as we admired Christopher Lloyd’s efforts in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, we were also absolutely certain that Brecht himself would have hated Duncan Sheik’s musical settings of Auden’s lyrics: “Tawdry” (as he described the choreography suggested by the great Anna Sokolow for his LA production of Galileo) is the word we suspect he would have used — and similarly unfairly — to identify the production’s musical interludes. And though we were more than a little uncomfortable with its “Broadway” singing and performance, so contrary to Berliner Ensemble approaches, we were forced to respect the performers for their sweaty energy. Comparably effortful, though with different effect, was the middle-aged clowning of Bill Irwin and David Shiner in the very funny vaudevillian Old Hats. (We especially appreciated the wryly retro female contributions of singer and songwriter Nellie McKay). Oddly, both theatrical offerings involved extensive audience participation, an aspect of contemporary theater-going which never fails to fill us with dread. A third play, Richard Foreman’s Old Fashioned Prostitutes at the Public, became even more of an “event” than expected, as two-thirds of the way through the proceedings, the building’s fire alarm went off. At first it was hard to determine whether this was accidental or not (given the Ontologic-Hysterical Theater’s typical flashing red lights and booming voices), but as hundreds gathered outside on the sidewalks of Lafayette Street, real-life anxiety quickly segued into a kind of street-fair levity. Soon enough we returned to Foreman’s manifestation of the “art experience” (both that of the creator and the consumer). It was understandable that none of the actors were quite able to return to the intensity of their pre-alarm performances. Nevertheless we remained stunned by the focus of Rocco Sisto. You couldn’t really call this “acting” as we usually think of it. The needs of his “part” were such that Sisto exhibited the vocal range of grand opera in consort with a perfectly timed physicality one associates with the most demanding dance choreography. His “Samuel” was hilarious and terrible and very moving. As abstract and “difficult” as the brilliant Foreman’s play might be, it all seemed perfectly true to the disturbing violence of our emotional (and occasionally, as with the fire alarm episode, social) lives.
We have to admit that our favorite “periodical” is technically a sales letter: It is the one thing arriving in the mail that we open immediately to see what the latest issue contains. For many years (since 1974, in fact) the Kermit Lynch newsletter was authored by the wine retailer and importer himself (a number of “vintage selections” have been collected in the volume Inspiring Thirst, published in 2004 by Ten Speed Press), though these days a range of admirable contributors makes up the wine company’s monthly brochure. We were genuinely thrilled to meet with Lynch and his wife, the photographer Gail Skoff, in Berkeley this past spring to discuss our next LongNookBooks project, a monograph on the food writer, Richard Olney. The preface to Lynch’s 1988 classic Adventures on the Wine Route (reprinted by North Point) was written by Olney. Referring to a trip they took together in the mid-seventies visiting French vignerons, Olney writes “If it was my pleasure to be able to open a few doors on that trip, it has been Kermit’s to open a great many more for me in the years that followed.” That’s how we feel about the Kermit Lynch newsletter and the wines he and his staff propose therein: Every month presents us with a new set of experiential doors beckoning to be opened.
Re-reading Jim Powell’s Substrate (published by Pantheon in 2009) this past week, we were once again reminded that great poetry needs time to be digested. We confess we failed to appreciate the book fully when it first came out; undoubtedly our recent trip to California has added to our appreciation of Powell’s poems. Still, it seems incredible that in the four-year interim since the book’s publication we’ve come across so few references to what is indisputably one of the best collections in many years. At such moments it seems to us that the critical reception of poetry has turned into a version of our childhood’s Fourth of July diving contest, a competition in which the big, immediate wet of the belly flop and the cannonball nearly always won over the swan dive. Powell’s lyrics are not just “well-written” (with the subtlest splash on entry into the water); they gracefully express the complex interpenetrations between cultural and natural history with a balanced understanding. Powell’s ideal “Habitat” is both a botanical and civic realm, where “the city’s trust in its identity [is]/ secure enough to allow / its opposite a place and share.” And though the environmental and historical issues his poems traduce are of the greatest concern and ethical weight, his narrative stance leads — rather than drags — its reader to moral judgements. Powell can be severe, but he’s not self-righteous. California (through the documented voices of both its natives and visitors) seems to be “speaking itself” into form. That such a fine book should go without proper acknowledgement is unfortunate, but then again Powell has been awarded the company of the muses, a prize not handed out every calendar year.
While we were away last month we missed the first postings of Bill Berkson’s blog at Harriet. It strikes us as ironic that at the time we were actually passing through San Francisco but were unable to check in with him, much to our regret. But Berkson’s heartening online observations about implicit collaboration resonated with us. Certainly the affirming presence of Berkson himself has been a lodestar for many poets and artists besides ourselves. (As just one example, no one who’s picked up the MOMA In Memory of My Feelings hasn’t been deeply affected by the extraordinary postscript to that volume.) But it’s painful how often we miss things. Part of the problem, we point out in our defense, is the surfeit of voices and images to which we now have access. We fear we are growing inured to the subtle and the genuine. Even here we perceive ourselves falling into the habit of excessive self-recording — “journaling” as some have put it. Berkson (in a very atypical curmudgeon mode) quotes O’Hara himself complaining about the redundant “all-too-circumstantial” poems out there. But even though we find ourselves worn down, we’re nevertheless reinvigorated when someone like Berkson points us toward work with which we might not yet be familiar. We’re also grateful for his reminders about “word-and-image amplitude” and how interactions with poems and paintings really do serve to enrich (as Brecht puts it) each “person’s capacity for experience.”
Catching up on the month’s magazines, we note that the “Deep Thoughts” essay in the April 14 NYT magazine marked a new low in poetic commentary. It’s not just that we found the piece’s closing proposal of “what the best poetry does” incredibly depressing. It’s not simply that we disagree with its author on matters of taste; there’s no reason to make the rather obvious point here that some readers are not satisfied by “personal” poems of “hyacinths and biscuits.” But due to the essay’s shifting modes of sincerity and sarcasm, it’s not clear to us whether the essay’s thesis — proposing Jack Handey’s satire as a model for contemporary poetry workshops — was being made in all seriousness or retro jest. In any case, we couldn’t get ourselves to laugh. (We almost regretted we’d given up recreational drugs, remembering the happy stoned hilarity with which we originally greeted Handey’s midnight offerings on SNL.) What bothered us most — in addition to all this aesthetic muddle — was the the author’s casual reference (with the dismissive wave of one hand) to “an elite Modernist tradition that doesn’t much care if it attracts a wide audience.” This implied conflation of popularity and democratic impulses (a fatally flawed received idea if there ever was one) is especially troubling, since we continue to take seriously the idea that the poet may be, indeed, “the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” We think poetry (even, or perhaps especially, humorous verse) can and should deal with ideas, particularly when it comes to issues of social justice. The whole misunderstanding about “elitism” stems from willful ignorance of the historical fact that the very concept of democracy did not start out as a “popular” idea. Nor was Spinoza’s “radical equality” met with widespread enthusiasm. The abolition of slavery and the American woman’s right to vote were both hard sells, pushed and shoved into law in large part by a coterie of New England beanheads. Italian Fascism, on the other hand, successfully managed to gain the people’s support. Analogously, the artist has to realize that her position to society may well be one of marginality and cultural resistance. It’s not that she doesn’t care about the size of her audience; it’s that she has to accept that her work may not be widely appreciated, taking, as it may have to, a discomfiting approach or position. That “elitist” poet Dante Alighieri did something truly revolutionary by writing in the Italian vernacular (an act nearly as momentous as the invention of the printing press or the translation and widespread transmission of scripture) even while some of his religious and political beliefs do not correspond to our own conceptions about democracy. Fortunately the crucial relation between the imagination and the future of liberal societies will continue to be the work of (some) poets, those who aspire to the creation of poems that do more than “access something honest and eye-opening by way of surprise.”
Up now for a few weeks at the Calliope Reading Series website (and therefore repeated ad infinitum through search engines) is notice of Mary Maxwell’s poetry reading on April 21 in West Falmouth. Though by now it’s already taken place, the occasion continues to live on in our age’s electronic version of aboriginal dreamtime. Several publication notices of Mary Maxwell’s poetry books have also been posted in print and online in recent weeks — in the Author’s Guild newsletter, among Arion’s books received, at the Bryn Mawr alumni website. Such announcements give a certain officialness to the poet’s presence. The “person” has become a Googled name, a face thumbed up or down on Facebook, the title of a Wikipedia entry, or an entity of letters repeated over and over through HTML code. Following Kenny Goldsmith’s axiom, “If it doesn’t exist on the internet, it doesn’t exist,” postings of an event or publication have become more real or “meaningful” than any actual reading or work presented. Literally and figuratively, at this historical moment not only is there a constant open mic, it has become heresy to suggest that this may not be a good thing. Because everyone is composing (or more exactly, “patchwriting” and “appropriating”) their own poems, few are really listening to anyone else; they are too busy waiting for their turn to express themselves. In the current cultural environment, it’s very hard for the solitary poet to hear her own voice, let alone continue to have faith in the existence of any such presupposition. “Get on board! Get on board The Poetry Train!” our laptop calls from the inbox and linked sites of Poetry Foundation, Poetry Society of America, Academy of American Poets, Mass Poetry Festival, PEN, Poets & Writers, Poetry Project, PennSound, etc. etc. We prefer not to, as Bartleby would say, even though we acknowledge that if we don’t go along for the ride, it shall well be as though we were never here in the first place.
We were sorry to be out of town for this past Friday’s FAWC/Acme Fine Arts fundraiser in Boston. We first met the Work Center’s new director Michael Roberts years ago at a PEN event years ago in NYC and were happy to be reintroduced to him in Provincetown this last winter. Online images from the “Interiors” Acme show especially appealed to us, concerned as we have been for some time with the idea of the studio interior as a projection of an artist’s concerns, both formal and social. In relation to the painting of Serena Rothstein, we naturally thought of the 1957 “Blue Studio” cover image of the catalogue, Discourse in Paint, published in conjunction with Rothstein’s 2008 PAAM show. The Acme show’s interest in “how the introduction of the figure (portrait or self-portrait) animates the interior” equally applies to Rothstein’s studio self-portraits. As Mary Maxwell observed in Discourse in Paint, “A recurring subject in Rothstein’s work beginning in 1955, her Paris atelier can be viewed not only as a source of identity and security but also a sort of stand-in for the working self.” “If the motif of the studio functions as a kind of projected interior landscape,” Maxwell continued, “then a related (and correspondingly recurring) thematic in Rothstein would be the self-portrait.”
On a recent tour of colleges, we found ourselves visiting the Princeton and Bard art museums on consecutive days. We joked that the two institutions could be viewed as educational opposites on several levels. Yet in both art collections there were things we loved as well as things we hated. At Princeton we were entranced by “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” and horrified by the parade of capitalist, patriarchal elders ensconsed in the adjoining main hall. But then again, there were those incredible Soutines we’d only seen in reproduction and the excellent “1913: The Year of Modernism.” At Bard curatorship took priority over creation, and though we fully appreciate the idea of meaning created by collection, contextualization and juxtaposition, much of the jargon-larded commentary accompanying the exhibitions matched the Princeton portraits in their self-satisfied pomposity. (It made us appreciate anew the curating behind the “Inventing Abstraction” show we visited over the winter at MOMA.) Despite moving moments at both university collections, there was something depressing about these paired experiences. We used to find ourselves most at home in art museums of all sizes and varieties, but neither of these institutional contexts made us terribly comfortable.
Though there’s no substitute for live dance, there are certain films that give a perspective traditional stage productions can’t. Wim Wender’s Pina, for example, which we’ve been watching with more than a little fascination on DVD, shows us things we completely missed when we first saw Bausch’s choreography thirty years ago seated way up high in the rafters of BAM. Book encounters about dance can also be great experiences. Errata Editions’ reprint of Alexey Brodovitch’s 1945 Ballet photographs (with text by Edwin Denby) is a breathtaking experience (and it’s only one title of their admirable Books on Books series). Speaking of these photographic images of a particular moment of Franco-Russian dance, Denby observes: “What strikes me about the many anonymous dancers, as I turn the pages, is the natural look they have in action. They look spontaneously absorbed in their moves as those brightly leaping and darting basketball players whom you see on a sports page … They are as natural and animated as a crowd of boys and girls coming jabbering out of high school or crossing Times Square at dusk.” One of our favorite collections of dance writing is Robert Gottlieb’s eccentric anthology, Reading Dance, which contains reviews, interviews, recollections and even recipes (Sir Frederick Ashton’s Kedgeree), though most particularly a dialogue between Denby and Jerome Robbins. In a related vein, in the forthcoming Longnook Overlook will be found “Masculine Dance and the Movie Musical.” This interview replicates something of the ballet-goer’s excited lobby conversation, full of passionate responses to things such as West Side Story, fierce opinions that to our ears echo Denby’s Brodovitch observations of seventy years ago: “Cross a poet and an athlete and you get a dancer. There is no art form that requires more physical effort, both in preparation and performance. The psychic cost of great poetry is roughly commensurate with the endured pain of the professional dancer.”
Though spring comes late to Longnook hollow, after a last snowfall it’s finally arrived with imminently blooming hyacinths and the appearance of the first jonquils’ tubular stems. The air smells different; it could even be said to have its own earthy green perfume. We are reminded of some of the aromatic subtleties of “The Art of Scent” exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design this past winter in NYC, with its elegantly curated fragrances blended by “olfactory artists.” The transcription of taste and smell into words is one of the great literary challenges. Bu no one had a better “nose” (or “eye” for that matter) than the great Colette. From “Colette’s Cut Flowers” in the forthcoming Longnook Overlook, here is a translation of the writer’s seasonally apt description of the daffodil known in French as the “Grande Jeannette”: Her entire corolla is a sturdy snare for fragrance made innocent by those efficacious rans which the cold defeats but that the sun of March reawakens.
Jed Perl’s Magicians & Charlatans is extraordinarily solid in both form and content. Essay collections often have a vaguely “pre-owned” quality, so that magazine writing’s second round can read like a set of hand-me-downs. But not this book. Its essays were constructed like a fleet of working boats, some as elegant as a fitted yacht, others as sturdily effective as a trawler. Instead of once-admirable vessels now permanently docked in the port of book publication, these stimulating pieces continue to do the apparently thankless task of cultural criticism. Every page has a phrase worth quoting, though Perl’s review of Martin Duberman’s biography of Lincoln Kirstein and his “crankily Mandarin love affair with the twentieth century” is especially packed with apt sentences. Such an observation might make Perl’s excellence sound like it’s a matter of mere style. But in fact, his verbal facility stems not only from an almost painfully sensitive understanding of art, but from an informed awareness of the inner and outer life from which great works are generated. His valuations are never without justification. We can certainly see why Perl’s book has not been widely reviewed: What critic’s observations could rise to the quality of the work under discussion? Eakins Press has matched Perl’s elegant prose with a sublimely devised, paving-stone-weight volume. Its design and typography are credited to Howard Gralla. We never would have guessed that the color of an ampersand could carry so much meaning.
In the world of academic publication there is a very specific legal term for the use of another person’s research without attribution. And though it can be infuriating to see the appropriation of lesser-known literary authors (either a work’s subject or its formal approaches) passed off as “original” creation, when such a thing does occur, any sincere practitioner will try to remain as liberal as possible in order to allow for art’s open exchange — which in the ideal is always something of a communal give-and-take. But a slightly different (and considerably more troubling) kind of authorial suppression can also occur, a phenomenon the art critic Mira Schor has identified as “whitelisting,” A “whitelist” cannot be composed by one person (such unattributed appropriation would constitute an act of traditional plagiarism); instead it happens when someone’s published work is used in shared discourse but no collective of professional “colleagues” makes direct acknowledgement of that person or the significance of her work. This suppression of the proper name (which may admittedly be at times unconscious) occurs for ideological reasons, for reasons of professional rivalry, or as a result of other more complex cultural forces. It has traditionally been a particularly effective method of silencing women’s voices. As Schor puts it:
Thus, the nonconformist point of view can be taken out of history. Even if you speak, you are denied voice. You are not acknowledged at the level you are critiquing. Just as in the schoolyard, in the ABCs of romantic engagement, ignoring someone is an easy way to deploy power…[whitelisting is] an effective [tactic] if you were interested in power to begin with, have arrogated it to yourself, and convinced others you have it.
For lovers of the traditional book, electronic text-replacements (i.e. e-readers, webpages and online magazines) can be cognitively demanding and aggressively unintuitive. Design concepts meant to improve access to information and resources serve only to confuse and impede it. Even the re-designed paper New Republic has fallen prey to such approaches. The magazine had an historic opportunity to mine its own tradition of mid-century modernist thinking and create a new kind of journalistic document; instead it has allowed itself to fall back on a “new normal” that finds its design origins in the old Spy magazine, with “separated-at-birth” type visuals and Don’t Make Me Think presentations replacing serious cultural analyses. We can’t help but feel the same way about over-informing websites, their electronic pages cluttered by links and advertising. “Reading” has most definitely been redefined. We well know that this new universe has almost wholly replaced other forms of literary experience so that, as Johanna Drucker in “Reading Interface” (published in the most recent issue of PMLA) has rather thickly articulated it, “we live in a material and symbolic domain of actualized encounters, the boundary spaces of interface relations, through which we imagine our lives into being and give knowledge its forms of expression.” Since it’s our belief that human beings need relief from theoreticalized existence, we intended the design of the LongNookBooks site (admittedly an electronic construct) to provide an alternate “symbolic reality,” something more like a conversation that might take place at a quiet art gallery or during a walk along a deserted beach. What we’ve attempted is to create is not a forum for self-aggrandizement or professional networking, but a relevant way of sharing our passion for — and engagement with — the domain of art and ideas.
This afternoon Mary Maxwell gave a talk as part of the Queens College MFA Program’s “Trends in Translation” speaker series. Maxwell’s discussion stemmed from her abiding interest in “the female voice” in the Western poetic tradition and drew on her own translations of the Roman poet Sulpicia and the Provençal poet Beatrice of Die. Translations of the works of other women poets incorporated into her three poetry collections include versions of the anonymous chansons de toile, a hymn of Hildegarde of Bingen, and her own version of one of the Psalms translated by the Countess of Pembroke (sister of Sir Philip Sidney). Her Queens lecture will be included in a collection of some of her talks and essays to be brought out by LongNookBooks in 2014. A list of these may be found elsewhere on this website:
A number of the essays can be currently accessed on JSTOR or at the website-archives of the journals and magazines themselves.
Who is Harriet? The reference at the Poetry Foundation website is, of course, to Harriet Monroe, first editor of Poetry. But increasingly we at LongNookBooks wonder just who it is who comprises the “Harriet Staff,” collective author of the unsigned postings at the Harriet blog. Despite the attempt to “emotionalize” its online presence with Monroe’s first name, Poetry Foundation and its electronic network of linked forms has become an impersonal institutional behemoth. To say it is an influential — or more exactly, powerful — force in the poetry market would be an understatement. We are reminded of the dialogue between Octavio Paz and Cornelius Castoriadis in the collection Postscript on Insignificance (translated and published in 2011 by Continuum). Speaking of the increased conformism of western society and the “faceless inhuman power” of its “institutional bearers,” Castoriadis observes:
There is no conspiracy, but everything conspires in the sense that everything radiates together, everything radiates in the same direction…We no longer worry about knowing if what we produce serves whatever purpose it may be but solely about knowing if it can be sold (and not even about this, because if we produce it, we will make sure, by way of advertising, that it can be sold).
Castoriadis said some things… which touched me profoundly. The first… is that we have reduced (modern society has reduced) the meaning of all values to their economic value. So, in order to renew society, it will be necessary to undertake a critique. The remedies are not solely of an economic character; they have a character that is more profound, moral, or spiritual, whatever you want to call it.
After the interlocutor Alain Finkielkraut asks just who within contemporary society might undertake such a critique, Paz recalls the student movements of 1968 and observes:
Sometimes, in listening to our students or in reading the inscriptions on the walls, I thought of William Blake, of André Breton, of a lot of poets from the nineteenth century — the romantics — and from the twentieth century who were rebelling as Baudelaire had done. They were not making denunciations in the name of a class, nor in the name of an economy. What was in play was something completely different: the position, the place of the human person in society, I would say. I think that modern society eliminated values, the very center of the creativity that is the human person.
The current irony of a personless institutional voice (funded by the profits of Lilly pharmaceuticals) speaking on behalf of Poetry would surely not have been lost on either the poet Paz or the philosopher Castoriadis.
Another Stefan Zweig book published by Pushkin Press we’ve been reading is a translation of his The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche. First published in 1925, it comes as something of a surprise that this temperate book was written by the author of emotional fiction such as Letter from an Unknown Woman. As a matter of fact, given its subject, the book’s approach first struck us as excessively measured. The figure of Goethe, introduced in Zweig’s preface, becomes a contrasting point of reference, as in Zweig’s view, the poet Goethe transcended the self-destructive, daemonic personality within himself. Goethe’s example was clearly the one young Zweig hoped to follow. But the even, determined and long-lived career was not to be Zweig’s own fate. Though the ostensible premise of the book is that all three German writers were equally in thrall to “primordial chaos,” Zweig spends most of his pages on the unhappily journeying Hölderlin. It’s hard not to feel in this some presage of Zweig’s own unhappy, wandering end, subject to forces both political and psychic. What will follow in Zweig’s own life saves our initial sense of the book as having perhaps a touch too much of the typical biographer’s self-satisfaction. Yet Zweig’s distancing himself from the daemonic imparts an ironic (and unspeakably sad) aftertaste to his closing sentences: “It is through a study of tragical natures that we become aware of profundity of feeling. Only because there are some whom no yardstick can measure do the rest of us realize our possibilities of greatness.”
Lotte Reiniger should figure prominently in the list of female visual artists whose influence has not been fully acknowledged. In the forthcoming Longnook Overlook, Reiniger makes an appearance in the journal’s career survey of Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti, as Reiniger worked with “Cav” on a number of documentaries for the GPO film unit. She also collaborated with her friend Jean Renoir on several projects (contributing, for example, the royal “shadow play” to his 1937 La Marseillaise). Not only was her early masterpiece The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) the first full-length animated film, her animated fairy tales that followed were clearly precursor and inspiration for more commercial productions, such as Walt Disney’s 1939 Snow White, widely cited for its “screen innovations.” The BFI (British Film Institute) online biography for the German-born artist is excellent. And though her work is not well known here in the states, as mentioned below, portions of Achmed were shown as part of the Société Anonyme exhibit at the Yale Art Museum.
Lack of talent or ability isn’t the most depressing thing in an artist: falseness is. Sometimes art comes across as false because it depends on effects (and applause), taking too much into account audience response. In dramatic contrast to a number of breathy, over-emotional poetry presentations we’ve had to endure in recent years, there wasn’t a single fraudulent moment in the Sprague Hall performance of the pianist Radu Lupu last week. In place of a marketable style, Lupu proceeded through the music with a nearly impersonal integrity In direct engagement with the Debussy Preludes or the Four Impromptus of Schubert, the music was an authentic dialogue between musician and his instrument. The concert made us think of lines from a wonderful Robert Walser poem, beautifully translated from the German by Christopher Middleton and just published by Christine Burgin/New Directions in a charming hardcover, pocket-ready form. Walser’s poem is titled “Chopin”: “He played as if he did so wholly/by himself, society/and solitude were to him the same,/yet in the tumult of the world/he gave perhaps his uttermost,/and his playing was so beautiful/because it pleased him to be granted/the right to do so.”
Middleton is himself, of course, the real thing, his lines ringing absolutely true as a result of his careful scholarship as well as his own abilities as a poet. (See our note below for December 10.) His Walser poems are nothing like certain pseudo-translations getting published these days, renderings described beneath their titles as “after” rather than “translated from” since the author has no actual knowledge of the target poet’s language. Based on previous translations, these “new” versions either make no improvement on their predecessor or — even worse — willfully add sentiments and meanings absent in the source text. Inhabiting a shady area between original expression and not, such translator-poseurs pretend to manifest the sensibility (or historical experience) of poets whose work they are merely exploiting. We are sadly reminded of what the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet said of the issue (quoted by Nathaniel Tarn in the introduction of his own 1967 translations): “I don’t believe that translating poetry is possible. But I wouldn’t really mind if a translator turned my verse into prose provided he didn’t attempt to alter what I originally put down.”
One book we received as a Christmas gift that we’ve particularly enjoyed is Alex Katz’s Invented Symbols: An Art Biography, published by Charta Books. It’s a casual memoir, with article-like chapters edited by his son, the poet and critic Vincent Katz. It has the feel of recorded talk because that’s what it is, but it’s good talk. (The voice of Vincent could be heard on the audio commentary to the MFA show this past year.) Now at Yale, curated by Robert Storr, is another more modest show titled Katz x Katz. In addition to oversized flowers to be viewed from outside through the gallery’s side window (reversing the natural context), many of the show’s larger images might at first appear to reproduce magazine society photos or paparazzi shots of an art opening. Yet the almost Roman frieze-like quality of Twelve Hours has a gravitas that undercuts its billboard-like first impression. A relatively “modest” yellow interior recalls the domesticity of Bonnard. With the grinning face of Edwin Denby presiding over the 32 Edgewood space, for us the show manifests an idea of artistic coterie. This is something rather like an “ideal” family, this presence of colleagues who provide artistic support and inspiration as well as personal affection. From this perspective, Katz’s art cannot easily dismissed as “superficial,” for it reveals something profound about certain social aspects of the New York art world. In this context Katz’s work strikes us as especially meaningful and moving. As the painter himself has commented on the poetry of his friend Frank O’Hara:
His optimism about being alive is stronger than any poet’s I can think of. He makes the time period he lived in vivid, as well as the many other time periods to which he refers. I think he extended himself further out emotionally than his friends. I would love to be able to make an art with these qualities.
At a visit to the newly renovated Yale Art Museum (full of fantastic new spaces and connections between the three buildings), we were particularly taken by the quality of its collection of modern and contemporary art. Also on view was a special exhibit on the history of The Société Anonyme, Inc., works collected by Katharine S. Dreier (with the advise of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray) and transferred to Yale in 1941. In some real sense, the Société, founded in 1920, served as experimental predecessor to MOMA. It presented not just painting and sculpture, but provided venues for Dada “events,” concerts and films (such as the important filmmaker Lotte Reiniger, whose influence on contemporary artists such as Kara Walker can be readily observed among the Yale galleries). Dreier (not unlike the Whitney women discussed just below) was yet another remarkable woman important to 20th century art. A small exhibit drawn from the Société holdings, “Radical Visions Practically Applied: Women’s Innovations in Abstraction, 1915-1937,” showed interesting work by artists and filmmakers whose names are still anything but familiar. We noted the continued obscurity of women artists and patrons in the history of art, a phenomena sadly analogous to the “anonymity” of the truly influential artist in his or her time.
During our late November visit to Tatzu Nishi’s “Discovering Columbus” exhibit high above Columbus Circle, we saw a copy of Flora Miller Biddle’s The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made on the bookshelf of the explorer’s living room. It was fun to imagine Chris perusing Biddle’s volume of “historical memoir” (if there were such a genre in which to file this fascinating book) as the leaves of Central Park went through their changes and Central Park West made preparations for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Was the book’s presence a sly reference on Nishi’s part to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s colossal sculpture of Columbus in Palos, Spain? In any case, coming across the 1999 book made us recall another more recent memoir by Biddle (for nearly twenty years, president of the museum her remarkable grandmother founded ). Though not without its own historical interest, Biddle’s more personal Embers (Plumley Press, 2011) relates the legacy of her Whitney and Vanderbilt forebears in the most engaging terms, with an approach that is both thoughtful and candid.