Our New Year’s resolution is this: We’re going to read more real books and spend less time online. Not only are we pretty sure we’re going to be using our fading intellects more effectively, we also announce this intention as a kind of protest to the end of the paper form of The New Republic. Going through a stack of recent issues in preparation for recycling (pulling tagged pages, putting them in Whole Foods’ brown paper bags) was not merely deflating but nearly tragic; it marked the end of an era.
We’ve always felt a strong personal bond with the publication. Mary Maxwell’s first published poem appeared there; the event was not just a simple matter of “getting in print,” but of joining an implied republic of letters. Despite the occasional rightward political shift of the “front of the book” in recent decades, there remained an inalterably progressive tinge to its cultural pages; we always thought of figures such as Malcolm Cowley or Irving Howe as intellectual uncles. Just in these half-dozen issues sent to the recycling bin, there were so many great pieces by regular contributors such as David Thomson or Jed Perl. In the very last, special anniversary issue, there was a terrific short piece on the unsung hero Harris Wofford. Where will we look now for note of the likes of Harris Wofford?
Even before the curtain fell, evidently the staff had a distinct sense of their doom. Leon Wieseltier’s send-off on the anniversary issue’s last page may now be read as an eloquent challenge to Chris Hughes and the publisher’s decision to move exclusively online: Describing Whitman’s poem, “Passage to India,” which served as inspiration for the magazine’s ship emblem, Wieseltier writes: “The poem enacts an ascent from the technological to the spiritual. Whitman’s affirmative abandon has the ironic consequence of providing a critical context. He ‘sings’ technology and then puts technology in a lesser place, and denies it an ultimate authority over human existence. This is the itinerary of the ship. May it also be our own.”
Though we’re no longer members, we still receive regular updates from the MLA about its digital “Common,” where computational approaches to literary studies are particularly touted. Accessible textbases and shared publication platforms are creating new and highly problematic issues for scholarship; all kinds of practical and ethical issues related to collaborative efforts are presenting themselves. What will be the role of the individual in complex digital systems?
New approaches to the teaching of literature also are being proposed, as those with recent degrees are encouraged to expand their job search beyond exclusively academic contexts. Another set of options, a fresh set of paying students, may be found outside of institutional settings. This new field is being called “service learning,” where community-based classrooms give “lessons” on nonliterary subjects (human rights, as one example) through the reading of various cultural texts.
The MLA suggests that such teaching can make literature more immediately “useful.” We ourselves are leery of that potentially Orwellian word “useful” in this context; this new point of references in determining the “value” of literature (with its implication of “practicality”) we find more than a little alarming. Call us cynics, but the idea strikes us as useful in only one sense: “Service learning” is a potential new form of employment for recent graduates in the humanities.
As a holiday gift to ourselves, we’ve purchased a new TV with the capacity to watch 3D movies. What we were most excited to view again and again was Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. And while it is incredible to have “access” to the Chauvet finds, the film itself was something of a disappointment, with our contemplation of three-dimensional art that’s 30,000 years old offset by the director’s closing pseudo-philosophical soliloquy on albino crocodiles. But of course that’s the advantage of seeing the film at home; with our fast-forward and -back, we can just go directly to the incredible painting and skip over the various explanations and lectures.
Despite the direction of Hitchcock, we found Dial M for Murder a curiosity rather then any kind of cinematic breakthrough, though the travel-back-in-time apartment interior is fun. The more recent Gravity is great if you want to know what it’s like to be floating in space or stuck in a doomed rocket with a smug-faced George Clooney. The Wizard of Oz seems to us a new movie entirely, though maybe there’s too much “reality,” too much detail. The experience is analogous to what would happen if you could magically return to a “happy” childhood holiday — but with your adult knowledge of of child abuse, bigotry and alcoholism all too evident among your beloved relatives.
We’ve been trying hard not to make too much of bad reviewing. In matters of taste, our attitude remains, “To each his own.” But we have to make note of the astonishingly stupid discussion by Martin Riker of the recent translation of Georges Perec’s Je me souviens that appeared in the November 28 Wall Street Journal . It’s true that we haven’t read the English version by Philip Terry, recently published by David Godine. But clearly we don’t have to in order to see how Riker has failed to understand what he is reading. Comparing Perec’s book to its source of inspiration — Joe Brainard’s own terrific I Remember — Riker operates under some deeply misguided notions about the nature of Perec’s equally wonderful enterprise. He does note that Perec’s version draws “upon a cultural history almost entirely unavailable to non-French readers.” But he opines that Perec’s entries “lack the spark and energy of a mind remembering.” This is nonsense and only exposes Riker’s own aesthetic and referential failures. Riker writes that Brainard’s is a “nuanced, pointillist self-portrait,” while Perec’s comes off as “an experiment or exercise.” (And this critical observation comes from someone who opens the WSJ piece with an admission that he uses the I Remember process as a warm-up exercise in his own writing classes!) If Riker were one of our MFA students, we’d give him a C- for his blandly undergraduate, all-nighter-scented comparison. For us, such an evaluation is like complaining that the paintings of André Derain don’t look enough like those of Fairfield Porter.
In his “Bookends” column in the November 23 issue of the Sunday NYT Book Review, Adam Kirsch really muffed it. We were both surprised and disappointed in Kirsch’s failure to engage with any real profundity the question of Shelley’s assertion that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” While it’s a big subject, and so one not easy to whittle down into the allotted space, the usually astute Kirsch really could have done better. It’s true that the Book Review editor phrased the issue as “How has the social role of poetry changed since Shelley?” but we don’t think Kirsch should have taken the false bait.
The tack we would have followed would have been to note that the principle of written law is based on shared concepts of right and wrong. The earliest textual source for the idea of justice can be traced to authors of not legal or religious texts but imaginative literature, the realm of myth. From the poet’s point of view, the Biblical “God” or the Classical “gods” as administrators of law are characters in an ongoing human epic written by humans. With societal and cultural changes, the form of these narratives alter, but poets still engage in defining and redefining ideas of fairness and right social behavior. In more recent centuries, poets like Byron or Goethe have been crucial “carriers” of changing ideas of social and political organization, promoting sometimes radically democratic ideals of equality and civic responsibility. In terms of poets as “role models” of just thinking, in our own era, we point to poets such as Paz or Milosz. But more fantastic mythography (the popular Tolkien, as one example), which may not seem “political” at all, remains profoundly influential.
Instead Kirsch succumbs to a weak lament for the contemporary poet’s lack of “confidence” and “irrelevance.” Kirsch writes of the great Romantic poets “derided by Britain’s critical establishment as foolish and eccentric,” as though this social reception has not proven itself to be wholly insignificant. “Public discourse” wasn’t what Shelley was talking about anyway; the “politics” to which he referred was across rather than within any given epoch. And though Kirsch’s counter-proposed “poetry of witness” is an admirable pursuit, it’s no substitute for the power and influence of the imagination.
An interesting assortment of publications from Pressed Wafer arrived in the mail a few weeks ago. Under the direction of Bill Corbett (previously of Boston but now of Brooklyn), the publishing company is consistent only in its formal inconsistency; it’s perhaps the unexpected range of its book, card and offprint designs that we’ve most come to appreciate. We especially responded to W.S. DiPiero’s translation of Fulvio Testa’s lovely A Memoria / By Heart, a small booklet that is essentially a scan of the original’s 2012 watercolor and handwriting. Unnumbered pages narrate the painter’s first awareness of absence, and then of artistic solitude and self-recognition, followed by the transfiguration of experience that ensues: “All at once I began to notice the effect the light created on that landscape of hills and valleys.” Writes Testa at the volume’s conclusion: “I believe that every time I make a picture, I relive, without being aware, that encounter with the light and shadow.”
The long-delayed opening of the renovated Harvard Art Museums has rightly been greeted with considerable fanfare. Maybe the space of the Calderwood Courtyard seemed to us a little spare the afternoon we visited, as an early winter day darkened into evening on Quincy Street. We didn’t attend one of the big gala openings, with their live performance, cocktails and gallery talks. Instead, by the time we got there, the cafe was already closed and the gift-shop clerks were already making their after-work plans. Even the light-based “restorations” of the sublime Harvard Rothkos were about to be turned off. (Why that installation is not being made a permanent exhibit is a mystery to us.) But the newly joined collections of Fogg, Sackler and Busch-Reisinger, are truly wonderful, with rooms leading off the courtyard, over to new views of the Cambridge campus, then back again to the nearly gravitational pull of the building’s multi-level cloister. We’re really looking forward to many return visits in the the coming seasons and semesters.
We recently received a copy of Eight Begin: Artists’ Memories of Starting Out, edited by Ada Katz. Focusing on artists of the “10th Street” galleries dating from the fifties and early sixties (the Tanager, as one example), the volume contains a set of 1974 interviews edited into a fascinating series of monologues. Published by the Colby Museum of Art and Libellum books, these conversational texts serve to remind the currently market-oriented art world of the enormous impact of those shoestring-budgeted collaborative galleries. As Katz (yes, that Ada) writes of a group of artists (Bladen, Dodd, Drummond, Held, King, Pearlstein and Sugarman) that included her husband Alex: “They came to Manhattan by chance or to go to art school after World War Two. They all remained by choice, finding an emotional, intellectual, and social life in ‘downtown’ New York into which they seemed to fit.” As editor Katz argues, this important group narrative of a certain time and place has “lessons to impart to those who wish to find ways to make art outside the existing mainstream.”
We’ve always been a little vague about the exact nature of the blurb. We know that it’s rarely spontaneous; it’s become something quite close to a form of strategized public relations. What’s actually said, of course, is of less importance than the name attached to it; it’s a kind of public recommendation. But is a requested compliment never sincere? Do book-cover declarations have more weight than private, unprompted expressions? On both points, we think not, even though we find ourselves in an ironic position as far as the matter of name-dropping. As readers of this newsletter are well aware, the whole idea of the The Longnook Overlook: A Review of the Arts was to leave out author names entirely, so that the works included could, at least initially, “speak” for themselves. And yet the actual names of real people who’ve written to express their admiration of the book are extremely impressive. Frankly, we’re sorely tempted to drop them here.
Instead we’ll quote a few of them anonymously, identifying their authors only as astonishingly accomplished (and, we’ll admit it, prestigious) poets, editors, translators and scholars. Most sincerely, we’ve been moved as well as thrilled by those who’ve written to us of their responses: “The Longnook Overlook is quite a stunning and ambitious achievement.” (That correspondent informed us of the fascinating tidbit that James Merrill was also a huge fan of the filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti.) Another wrote: “Everything is of interest. And, of course, the approach, really a great idea! And the volume is beautiful to behold and hold.” And then there’s this opinion which we can’t stop ourselves from sharing: “I especially favored ‘Racketeers’ (which is dead-on, and should be reprinted in the AWP Chronicle — if not read aloud in Congress for the Record).”
“Re[Framing] Provincetown: Animating History Through Sharing” closes at the end of the month. This PAAM “show” was part outdoor installation, part film series, and part collaborative community enterprise. Shoulder-high frames were placed around town, with captured current perspectives and vintage photographs of the same locale set side by side. At the Art Association itself, some wonderfully unpretentious documentaries made by Sun Gallery director Yvonne Andersen were on view. (The comfy couches and coffee tables provided an especially homey touch.) Andersen’s films were full of people we’ve seen around town (fifty years older, of course!), so that we had the distinct sense of engaging in time travel back to the fifties and sixties. How fantastic to see a the works and persons of a young Lester Johnson, Mimi Gross, Red Grooms, Alex Katz, et al.! The third part of the project is still in the process of being put together, as townspeople and visitors are called upon to contribute their own photographs and memories of this remarkable place; a communal table full of scrapbooks-in-progress as well as a recording booth have been provided for this purpose. The whole exhibition was a wonderful concept, beautifully executed by the architectural firm of Tsao and McKown. By actively encouraging the past and present to remain in fruitful conversation, this engaging museum event manages to accomplish the demanding “work of memory,” the “artistic job” for which cultural institutions such as PAAM were created.
Last week we attended the Sunday Concert Series in the Renzo Piano designed performance space at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. The marvelous British singer Mark Padmore sang a program of art songs, accompanied by American pianist Jonathan Biss. The first half of the concert was comprised of two song cycles by Robert Schumann. After the intermission these were followed by “Boyhood’s End” by Michael Tippett and “La Bonne Chanson” by Fauré. All the renderings were skilled, intelligent and thoughtful, but the first set of songs made the greatest impression on us. It was evident that a lot of thought had gone into these. Last year Biss organized and performed a series of concerts focusing on the influence of Schumann, whose work he calls “deeply poetic, fragile, obsessive, evocative, whimsical, internal.”
Not to discount the subtle modulations of Padmore or the interpretive ballast provided by the piano, but finally it was Schumann who entranced us. It was almost spooky the way the “maiden” subject of Heine’s “Liederkreis” lyrics could be heard in the music; her echoing voice, embedded within the score, provided something like a whispering counterpoint to the male singer’s lament: “Each morning I get up and ask: / will my sweetheart come today? / At evening I sink down and lament: / today, too, she stayed away.” How did the composer do that, create the sense of the living and the dead in musical dialogue? Schumann had an ear for the feminine (we attribute this to his relationship with Clara), a distinctive tone that in this lieder seems to pass through death itself like a ghost through a wall: “Here, then, are songs which once, wild / as a stream of lava gushing from Etna, / burst from the depths of my soul, / showering many flashing sparks around.”
The title of Rebecca Solnit’s excellent cover article in the October Harper’s is “Silencing Women,” but it might equally have been entitled “Discrediting Women.” Though for the most part the essay discusses women’s experiences speaking up about sexual crimes and professional misconduct, we must note that the pattern of undermining a female accuser is hardly limited to situations involving physical violence or workplace harassment. A woman who dares to point out chauvinistic attitudes in a public forum encounters a similar reaction: “Not uncommonly, when a woman says something that impugns a man … the response will question not just the facts of her assertion but her capacity to speak and her right to do so… Even now, when a woman says something uncomfortable about male misconduct, she is routinely portrayed as delusional, a malicious conspirator, a pathological liar, a whiner who doesn’t recognize it’s all in fun…”
At the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh we were deeply touched by the exhibit “Maggie’s Centres: A Blueprint for Cancer Care” at the Heinz Architectural Center. Koolhaas, Gehry, Hadid — numerous big names in contemporary architecture have joined in collaboration with interior and landscape designers in this remarkably ambitious project. Only as we read more about these wonderfully diverse examples of structures and landscaping did we realize we knew exactly who the late Maggie Keswick had been: She was, among other things, the author of one of our favorite books, The Chinese Garden. Off the page she was equally amazing. What she writes of her experiences battling breast cancer (included in A View from the Front Lineavailable for free download at the maggiescentres.org website) is a model of courage and practicality.
Maggie was also the wife of the architect Charles Jencks, whose work as an architectural historian we came to know as undergraduates. Perhaps as a result of his connection to the tradition of modernist architecture on the Outer Cape, we confess we now think of him as a sort of relative — well, at least as a fellow Outer Cape Codder. His family has long ties to the area (his father Gardner was a pianist and composer and his sister is the sculptor Penelope Jencks). We are also very great admirers of several of his more recent books on gardens: The Garden of Cosmic Speculation and The Universe in the Landscape.
While those two books inspire a certain amount of abstract speculation, the gardens Jencks and daughter Lily have designed for the Maggie’s Centres also engage in the work of philosophy; they remind patients not to allow “the joy of living to be lost in the fear of dying.” For us the Pittsburgh exhibit showed definitively the impact design can have on “quality of life,” how both interior and exterior spaces may have truly therapeutic qualities. We quote from the Carnegie website: “As healthcare in the US undergoes unprecedented levels of scrutiny over issues of cost, delivery, best practices, and outcomes, Maggie’s Centres offers a fascinating glimpse into the value of supplementary approaches to medical care.” Charles Jencks himself will be giving a talk at the Carnegie Museum on October 28. We hope this is the first of many opportunities for Americans to become acquainted with this extraordinary “blueprint” for cancer care. Perhaps there is a real possibility that such structures and approaches to treatment might soon be implemented here on our own shores.
Having been stung recently for speaking out about the lingering bias against women on social networks, we very much appreciated the September 29th issue of The New Republic, especially its cover story on feminism (“It has conquered the culture. Now comes the hard part.”). The dialogue between Judith Shulevitz and Rebecca Traister covered a lot of territory. We weren’t crazy about the “email exchange” format, but we got the point: Few working women have time to articulate the practical complexities of the current political situation, let alone formulate a strategy. And though we hate to admit it, we have to acknowledge the magazine’s editorial decision that, given our internet age of instant-opinion-gratification, a traditionally structured essay on feminism was likely to go unread.
But for us the really important piece in the magazine was a short article by Jessica Nordell about the experience of transgenders in the workplace, documented by sociologist Kristen Schilt in Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality. The experience of male-to-female trans people, we bitterly observe, corresponds to what many female-born encounter every day. A Stanford biologist (from Jonathan to Joan) nicely summarized her Tiresian wisdom: “Men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.” Transwomen also quickly learn that to proceed professionally in a “take-charge” and “aggressive” manner can be “detrimental to your career.” Alternate examples are perhaps even more illuminating: One transgendered female-to-male scientist is told by his supervisor that work presented at a conference is “far superior to his sister’s” (the colleague not knowing that Barbara and Ben are, in fact, the same person). Bias, as Nordell notes, is incredibly hard to demonstrate; transgendered individuals, however, are “uniquely qualified to discuss the difference between how men and women experience the workplace.”
Picking up volume after volume of the false and overfamiliar in the poetry aisle of the Harvard bookstore this past weekend, we were stopped dead in our reading tracks by the poems collected in Roberto Bolaño’s The Unknown University. We recalled Dwight Garner’s review in the NYT last summer which had described them as “larval”: “Very often they read like juvenilia — the unrhymed free verse of a man who was equal parts poet and poet manqué, a word-drunk literary drifter still finding his voice.” Not only was Garner wrong, he was wrong andinfluential; his bad call had even scared us off. While we acknowledge that these may not be for the average NYT poetry reader (used to poems as slack as suburban sprawl or trendy as late-night blogging), it’s disheartening for true poems like these to be dismissed so off-handedly in the newspaper of note. And so we’ve been surprisingly moved by our encounters with Bolaño’s originals, even more cutting than the still-pretty-sharp Englishing of Laura Healy facing-page translations. In all fairness to Garner, there does remain within this posthumous collection the distinct scent of the bottom of the great writer’s drawer. But what a drawer! We ourselves like to imagine having the chance to tell him face to face what we think of his works, encountering him in the afterlife company of Guiraut de Bornelh, Frank O’Hara and Ernesto Cardenal.
We stopped off in New Haven last week to catch the last day of the “Contemporary Art/ South Africa” exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery, especially wanting to see the paintings and installations of William Kentridge whose projects have become increasingly important to us. But the entire show was wonderful: In quick summary, it presented black and white artists, black and white subjects, in mostly black and white media. Though there’s no question that photographs and film lend themselves to the art of witness, making political realities immediate and irrefutable, the works displayed also transcended that immediate historical subject. We were particularly taken by The Ash Man by Diane Victor, a portrait created with ash on paper much like charcoal or pencil, yet full of mortal resonance, form and content intertwined. And the Kentridges did not disappoint. When it becomes impossible to recreate an art experience in words, an artist is on to something. And so we will simply describe his What Will Come as a “cold-rolled steel table and cylinder with anamorphic projection.” Though a limited video of it is available on YouTube, it’s a work that defies any form of reproduction.
Lately we’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of measured value, being most immediately struck by the absurdity of the test score (SAT, AP, MCA) as an indicator of knowledge or accomplishment. We are all increasingly being reduced to a set of shared numbers (FICO, blood tests results), with apps that track our footsteps, our heartbeat, our dream states. Literary criticism is also being translated into such a digit, with online listings tending to borrow five-star restaurant models (GoodReads) or athletic performance methods (BookScore.net) rather than The Wine Spectator’s system of “test” grades.
But within our temperamental resistance to the “scaling” of art lies a paradox: Poetry, after all, is measured language (meter as a system of relative stresses, or patterns of vowel length, or “straightforward” counted syllables). We propose this metrical definition of poetry to distinguish it from prose (verse being defined as written language that uses the end-line turning or reverse, i.e. enjambment, as its central formal feature). The written line of poetry is the transcripted version of words articulated through the winged chariot of counted time. All forms of art, of course, function in time and space, yet the mystery is how they somehow defy and transcend those measured limits.
According to our website’s editing program, over the course of the past two years we’ve written over 25,000 words for this newsletter. As writers who have (on occasion) been paid for our literary work, word count has always struck us as a somewhat bizarre reference for monetary compensation. For us, word count almost marks the distinction between what we consider “real” writing and something closer to paid journalism (with all due respect to that most admirable enterprise).
Maybe it’s that we associate it with the distinction between “work” and “play,” with art inhabiting that no-man’s land between the two. (We don’t consider the Common App essay a literary genre; it’s an arduous job, plain and simple.) Obviously with our income-resisting projects, we are having trouble growing up. The paid assignment seems an extension of the term paper, the time clock another version of required coursework.
On the other hand, such limits can be thought of (and embraced as) received forms. For whether an actual authority figure is involved or not, any artist of necessity takes up the challenge of a given tradition. The predecessor functions as both boss and teacher. Yet as with a maturing child’s relationship with her parents (a sometimes painful dynamic of resistance and collaboration), for this ongoing process of an artist finding her own way in the world there is no final grade — let alone a promotion or a raise.
One of the editorial concerns behind the composition of The Longnook Overlook is the relatively low value placed on works by female artists, particularly (but not exclusively) the literary and critical writings of women. The topic, as outlined in “A Few Words from the Editors,” is one to which we’ve returned again and again in this newsletter: “The expectations assigned to gender continue to be extremely problematic. The disparity between works published by men and women writers, especially in the field of cultural criticism, seems to us especially shameful.” It’s a thematic that can be detected throughout the collection’s imaginative and nonfiction elements — as well as in its centerpiece display of drawings by Serena Rothstein: Gender and sexual orientation should play no part in the estimation of artworks.
Underwriting the entire project was the idea that the best way to guarantee women’s writings get a fair reading is for them to be offered anonymously. Our initial hypothesis that works published by a man are given more respect than those signed by a woman remains unproved, though the query in the form of a publication has certainly been an interesting experiment! In any case, the feedback so far has been pretty spectacular, with praise coming from some very distinguished readers: “A splendid literary review!”; “A lovely piece of bookmaking”; “The poems and stories are delightful”; “I love it!” Though we suspect this will not be the last word on the whole matter, our position is that the Overlook’s contributions speak for themselves. The name (or gender) of their author is a trivial matter.
The Longnook Overlook is hardly the first publication based on the premise of anonymous submissions and/or contributors. Anon Poetry Magazine has been on tumblr for a couple of years now; the first issue of The New Anonymous is now online; while Guest Room has announced itself as “the first literary journal to operate with complete anonymity.” The Overlook, we feel the need to explain, is something else entirely. First of all, the named editors take full responsibility for our choices, errors and omissions. Taking on such a role has only increased our respect for the editing and production of that extinction-approaching species, the paper periodical. Secondly, the editors knew exactly who wrote each of the volume’s contributions. And thirdly, the project is not virtual. Its ink-laced pages comprise a fully tactile thing, a beautiful object to be held in the hand or placed on a table. In the end, there’s really nothing new or unique in any of this. On the contrary, the editors have operated out of a form of personal nostalgia: “We fully acknowledge that the printed literary journal is all but outmoded as a form of publication. Simply put, there are considerably less expensive modes of production and distribution. Consider these pages then, an homage to the past.”
At LongNookBooks we’ve never explicitly asked ourselves the question, “Who are our intended readers?” though the answer would have been something like “people like ourselves,” meaning mostly friends and colleagues with whom we share interests and enthusiasms. But this summer we had the wonderful surprise of being introduced to two of our readers (a pair of fellow Longnook Beach devotees) who stopped by the office to tell us how much they’d particularly enjoyed our newsletter. And yes, as hoped, this articulate and accomplished couple were (or so we’d like to think at any rate!) very much “people like ourselves.” What a pleasure it was to talk with them! Commercial writers are often asked by their publishers to consider their market, to take into account issues of supply and demand. In such instances, of course, the larger the target audience the better. Do we know how lucky we are to be able to write and publish exactly the kind of things we ourselves would like to read, even though our present readership is relatively minuscule? You bet we do.
It’s a critical truism that “the canon” needs to be revised with each generation. Here at LongNookBooks we find ourselves still meeting resistance to the idea of a significant tradition of women’s poetry. Just because texts have been lost or suppressed doesn’t mean they didn’t exist or that their influence is not even now still felt. One could start with Sappho and her lost poems (we are left with only the names of many of her female contemporaries); there are the classical Latin women poets (though with only the lyrics of the teenage Sulpicia extant); there are the “anonymous” lyrics of the early middle ages; there are the church intellectuals and mystics such Hildegarde of Bingen or Heloise; there are the accomplished female troubadours like the Countess of Die.
All these lead to supreme lyricists such as the 16th century Louise Labé (Senghor declared her “the greatest poetess ever born in France’) whose Love Sonnets & Elegies have been newly translated by Richard Sieburth and published by NYRB/Poets. Sieburth is a felicitous choice for several reasons. His informed translations are wonderfully clever in ways consistent with Labé’s formal practice and temperament. But Sieburth’s intimate familiarity with the poet Maurice Scève provides a second boon. A French scholar recently declared Labé’s ouevre a “hoax” perpetuated by Scève and his colleagues; in his afterward Sieburth definitively rebuts such attention-grabbing “poetess denial” — a version of which, not coincidentally, also haunts Sulpicia studies.
Labé’s sonnets and elegies are simply great, and Sieburth’s facing-page renderings beautifully elucidate them for English ears and eyes. This little book marks a significant milestone for a tradition of European lyric that has run now for over a millennium. It’s way past time for the Anglo-American literary community (and not just members of departments of Women’s Studies) to take “minor” practitioners like Sappho, Sulpicia and and the sublime Louise Labé into their accounting.
Last week we attended a performance by the Emerson String Quartet at Wellfleet’s First Congregational Church, one of a series of concerts organized by the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. First on the program was Haydn’s String Quartet in G Minor followed by the “Serioso,” a late-middle Beethoven string quartet. After the intermission came Mozart’s Quintet for Strings and Clarinet. The evening went well beyond issues of “virtuosity” or even cerebral “interpretation”; it was more like a musical conversation where a set of very articulate and accomplished participants make observations ranging from the wryly amusing to the insightful to the sublime. Maybe it was due to the relaxed context of the Cape during the summer, but to us it was as though five familiars of “the classical style” sat down on the beach, picked up their instruments and began to play; there was no posturing or grandstanding. Mozart’s clarinet riffs (performed by Jon Manasse) at times had a tender, almost thirties cabaret quality that made us think of the great Hanns Eisler. And from a certain perspective, this makes perfect sense — after all, both Mozart and Eisler were peripatetic sons of Austria. We were reminded of what Virgil Thomson once observed of Eisler’s “graceful and delicate taste” (which could equally describe the music of Mozart): “He uses no heaviness, makes no insistence… [and] his rhythm is invariably alive.”
We’re not usually big fans of themed anthologies (Poems for Weddings, Poems for New Parents, Poems for Recovery), but we’ve found yet another of our strong prejudices brought into doubt with the surprisingly deep (and even racy) Poems for Gardeners, edited by Germaine Greer and first published by Virago in 2003. It’s a physically charming book, without illustrations save for the botanical peony on its paper cover (which is then embossed on the hardcover’s fabric binding); the volume has an almost prayer-book quality due to its red ribbon bookmark. Its design seems to draw inspiration from D.H. Lawrence’s “Red Geranium and Godly Mignonette”: “As if the redness of a red geranium could be anything but a sensual experience / and as if sensual experience could take place before there were any senses…But imagine, among the mud and the mastodons / god sighing and yearning with tremendous creative yearning, in that dark green mess / oh, for some other beauty, some other beauty / that blossomed at last, red geranium, and mignonette.” Or then there’s David Constantine’s “The Wasps”: “The apples on the tree are full of wasps; / Red apples, racing like hearts. The summer pushes / Her tongue into the winter’s throat.”
As an independent publisher, LongNookBooks is in the unusual position of being able to function outside the mainstream commercial marketplace. Taking this separation a step further, we’ve decided that the distribution of The Longnook Overlook will take place completely hors commerce. (Free copies will be available through the website, though we ask, on the honor system, that a suitable donation be made directly to a nonprofit arts foundation or institution.) One justification for our decision (nearly as experimental as the volume’s premise) was this: We question whether the concept of supply and demand should be applied to literature, let alone art. Artworks are something quite other than a tradable commodity within a free market system.
We recently attended a panel with the title, “What is the function of art criticism?” There was a lot of handwringing from both panelists and members of the audience on the difficulty of making a living as a visual artist. There were even some audience proposals as to an art review’s “purpose,” as well as observations about the practical dynamic between criticism and the market. But in our opinion, there should be no such relation; that critics have regularly been in cahoots with dealers doesn’t make it OK. Our answer to the evening’s question is quite simple: The function of criticism is to draw attention to excellence. Whether praise may or may not create “value” should have no part in a serious discussion among creators and critics; the issue of price is a matter better left to Amazon and fine-art investment advisors.
And so, at least according to that evening’s closing implication, it falls upon the consumer to support the arts. (Buy books! Buy paintings!) Of course, purchase does provide vital income. Yet this action alone (even with generous publisher and dealer advances) only reinforces the market model — that the things that are good are those that get purchased. Any observer can see the flaw in this “best-seller” system of judgment. After all, it takes years for important work to get produced; encouragement as well as financial support is required far ahead of exhibition or publication. Especially in the current context swollen by MFA-made goods (as well as recent graduates’ self-marketing and self-promotion), decades may pass before the truly excellent finds its audience (let alone a purchaser).
How to underwrite the creation of art (government subsidies, private foundations, academic stipends), we’re not exactly sure. Tax credits for nonprofits and corporate giving (as progressive as the principles behind them are) have a limited effect. Arts institutions do what they can, but they also find themselves needing to prove themselves “successful” by turning a measurable profit. Any administrator who publicly insists that “popularity” and “excellence” are independent standards runs the risk of being spurned as an elitist. As “undemocratic” as it may sound, we ourselves are beginning to think there’s a fresh case to be made for the old-fashioned arts patron. The arts in America require something closer to a gift economy, subject to a completely different system of value. And so in that spirit, beginning in August, we will offer The Longnook Overlook gratis to anyone who requests a copy.
This week we celebrate two years of the newsletter, a July anniversary coinciding with the annual Provincetown Arts publication party. Since this year’s issue marked the centennial of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, it was especially appropriate that last Friday’s event took place in PAAM’s galleries. Given the building’s extraordinarily successful renovations (which elegantly bridge traditional and modernist aesthetics) our only criticism of the magazine is that the two world-renowned architects, Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, should have been featured on the cover! Many other familiar (and even famous) faces gathered in the museum’s Hans Hofmann gallery; these included some of the current issue’s younger contributors alongside an amusingly diverse group of locals and visitors. Compared to many at the gathering, we’re relatively recent interlopers onto Provincetown’s cultural scene, yet we’re extremely happy to call the Outer Cape both our home and our community. Look for our Longnook Overlook ad on page 118 of the new issue!
We believe the idea of formal meaning applies not only to poems but to books themselves. For example, the elongated size and shape of An Imaginary Hellas, Emporia and Cultural Tourismwere intended as an homage to Athenaeum’s poetry volumes. Atheneum’s Harry Ford published many wonderful poets, but especially meaningful to us are Richard Howard’s collections, his earlier productions lined up like a set of tall brothers on our bookshelf. We are very sorry to miss Howard’s reading and tribute sponsored by the Poetry Society of America next week in Bryant Park. As poetry editor of The New Republic, Howard was responsible for Mary Maxwell’s first poetry publication; he would later place her work again in Paris Review and Western Humanities Review. An Imaginary Hellas was originally chosen by Howard to be published in the University of South Carolina’s James Dickey Poetry Series. Though he is now relegated to the role of elder statesman, the range of Howard’s writing confirms his enduring reputation as a remarkable critic and translator. His poetry in particular remains wildly undervalued — this despite Maxwell’s energetic advocacy in a Raritan piece published some years ago. At her 2001 essay’s conclusion, she called for a carefully edited “Richard Howard Reader, a limited incorporation of the many corridors of his literary career under one roof” combining poems and prose alongside examples of some of his translations from the French. The two traditionally shaped volumes of Selected Poems (containing only original work) and Selected Prose (absent any selections from the crucially important Alone With America) brought out by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2004 provided an almost acceptable substitute. A new collection of poems, A Progressive Education, will be published by Turtle Point in October.
Perhaps the most fascinatingly overlooked film of Alberto Cavalcanti is his 1955 adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Herr Puntila and His Servant Matti, starring the incredible Curt Bois, with music by Hanns Eisler. Brecht called the movie “the only faithful screen adaptation of my work,” though Cavalcanti was initially terrified of working with the notoriously difficult Brecht. Those interested in the history of documentary film should note that the project was put together by Joris Ivens! A few years later there is discussion of Cavalcanti making a film of Brecht’s Les Visions de Simone Machard (Eisler had composed music for a theater version), but financial support from a French production company was withdrawn over concerns about the blasphemous treatment of Joan of Arc. A late collaboration with composer Darius Milhaud (to star Michel Simon) similarly failed to gain backing. Much, much more on these topics (as well as many others) will be found in The Longnook Overlook, available to all at the first of August.
Cavalcanti’s wartime Went the Day Well? (with a screenplay by the director’s friend Graham Greene) has recently resurfaced and been embraced as a British film classic. “Cav”’s contribution to the 1945 omnibus Dead of Night is, however, perhaps his best known work as a director. In this unforgettably creepy episode, Cavalcanti directs Michael Redgrave as an unbalanced ventriloquist in a disturbing relationship with his independent-minded dummy. The director’s other postwar commercial ventures made in the UK are, however, as excellent as they are unknown, particularly the noir thriller They Made Me a Fugitive, starring Trevor Howard. Why Cavalcanti’s career has remained in the shadows all these years is something of a mystery. As “Alberto Cavalcanti: An Annotated Catalogue Raisonne of his Life and Work” concludes: “Comparison of the reception accorded [him and the now much-lauded Thorold Dickinson] in the British Isles confirms my suspicion that what is truly ‘problematic’ about Cavalcanti is that he wasn’t British.”
It was extremely gratifying for The Longnook Overlook editors to receive the film writer David Thomson’s congratulations for the volume’s page proofs. Thomson (author of A Biographical Dictionary of Film, etc.) of course, would be familiar with Cavalcanti’s experimental work (the 1926 Rien que les heures) as well the Brazilian-born filmmaker’s early collaborations with Jean Renoir. “Cav” would direct Renoir’s first wife Catherine Hessling in several films; their six-year-old son Alain would also appear with his father in Cavalcanti’s La p’tite Lilie. On that same set, Renoir will meet his second wife, the 18-year-old Dido Freire, whom Cavalcanti was looking after at the request of her Brazilian father. Cavalcanti will then appear in a bit part in Renoir’s 1928 silent The Little Match Girl; Renoir will play the big, bad wolf in Cavalcanti’s 1929 Little Red Riding Hood.
The balance of this month’s newsletter will be devoted to the filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti. The subject of the longest piece inThe Longnook Overlook, Cavalcanti’s oeuvre has yet to be adequately catalogued let alone fully appreciated. We were reminded of Cavalcanti’s extraordinary range once again by notice of the show of the New Zealand artist Len Lye, “Motion Sketch,” at NYC’s Drawing Center. We weren’t able to see the exhibit or attend the lecture by curator Gregory Burke, but we can only hope that Lye aficionados might have been made aware of the lecture given by Cavalcanti in Brussels in 1947 (and reprinted that year in Sight and Sound), “Presenting Len Lye.” It was Lye who dubbed his boss“Cav,” and “Cav” who gave Lye his first animation work in 1935 at London’s General Post Office film unit, producing documentary shorts such as Lye’s breakthrough Rainbow Dance and Colour Box(both shown this spring in New York). The word to describe Lye’s work, said Cavalcanti, was “Experiment,” playing with film’s possibilities of color and rhythm. What he said about Lye could also have been said of himself: “There is no dilettantism about him and no false virtuosity.”
Packing up materials for recycling this past week, we found ourselves going through two full years of The New York Review of Books. Zipping through one table of contents after another, we were once again struck by the unhappy evidence: Only one in five of the magazine’s contributors are female. How can this continue to be so? There is now the real possibility of an American woman president (slowly our Republic catches up with Western Europe on that score), and perusal of the news on any given day confirms that things in most fields have improved, with so many leaders (in technology, business, media) now women. This phenomenon is even explored in Marcia Angell’s article “The Women at the Top” in the NYRB‘s March 20 issue.
But in our own fields of art and literature, we continue to observe a kind of barstool patter that remains vaguely hostile to women’s voices. It’s not only a tonal issue on social networks but a fact of women’s near-absence from informal “panel” discussions. Digital platforms are mostly hot air, of course, but there remains a jokiness that suggests to us an understood, fraternity-type bond. One thread we encountered recently was on the high percentage of female students in poetry workshops (two out of three being the proportion informally bandied about); someone posited that more than half of poetry MFAs are female. This is a considerably less rigorous accounting than VIDA’s pie charts, of course, but if this in any way reflects reality, why should anyone celebrate when only half of poems published in any given literary periodical are written by women?
It’s evident that men still have an enormous advantage when it comes to literary publication, let alone awards and hiring. Certainly some kind of attrition is occurring after women’s graduation from degree programs; we’re fairly sure an analogous phenomenon among the underprivileged or cultural minorities would cause an uproar in politically conscientious publications like the NYRB. Certainly the proportion of women teachers in both academic fields and creative writing programs needs to be reckoned in relation to student numbers. But to return to our initial point, save for a handful of regular big names (Joyce Carol Oates, Helen Vendler, Janet Malcolm ) we must content ourselves with the occasional appearance of the terrific Zoe Heller in the NYRB. And while we know there are plenty of uber-competent (if not super-polite) female critics out there, we also can also anticipate the response such observations would provoke on Facebook: “Oh, for God’s sake, girly-whip, loosen up!”
We love Jody Gladding’s Translations from Bark Beetle even though it makes us feel somewhat too acutely the traditional book’s inadequacy. And though Milkweed Edition’s horizontally laid-out volume literally turns the usual collection of lyrics on its side, it doesn’t function primarily as an example of “visual poetry.” It’s also not simply a paper transcription of Gladding’s art installations (poems originally incised on feather, stone, glass, etc.) The book does include photographs illustrating the poet’s translations from and collaborations with found elements, but these are included as explanatory materials rather than as the book’s matter itself. Her poems’ fundamental medium remains language. Yet Gladding’s terrain of existence is not only speech as we usually define it, but the quiet eloquence of things themselves, the untranslated dialects of nature. (By contrast, culture’s articulations seem ludicrous: “A closely watched measure of risk sentiment is the volatility index.”) As Gladding explains it, the language of bark beetle (whose written form may be seen in graphite rubbings) does not distinguish between nominative “I” and “we,” nor between the accusative “me” and “us,” nor between either of these first-person forms and the second-person “you.” We are all ourselves nature, Earth’s increasingly violated self, forms of being that are always in the process of “becoming some kind of other.” In Gladding’s version of nature’s original texts (with which, as a professional translator, she admits she “takes some liberties”), the written line marks “what was// from / what / was // not.” To us, Gladding’s phrase provides a haunting suggestion of poetry’s origins, a creative impulse that both encompasses and ultimately transcends human experience.
The imminently forthcoming Longnook Overlook is dedicated to Harry Mathews. Though Mathews is certainly one of the most “overlooked” writers of his generation, the pun implied by our volume’s title was unintentional. And yet it remains a source of continued amazement to us that Mathews, one of the most important living American writers, is better known in France than in the States. For the benefit of our uninitiated compatriots, we’ll do a quick run-down of his résumé: A first-generation member of the New York School, with a trio of colleagues (Ashbery, Koch, Schuyler) he founded and edited the journal Locus Solus. Mathews was the first American member of Oulipo and dear friend of the immortal Georges Perec. Je me souviens came about when Mathews introduced the great French author to Joe Brainard’s I Remember. Mathews’ own The Orchard, a collection of his recollections of Perec, is easily the most moving of the three “I remember” works — and that’s saying quite a lot. He was first married to the sculptor Niki de Saint-Phalle. His current wife is the French novelist Marie Chaix. His own novels include Cigarettes, Tlooth, The Conversions, as well as idiosyncratic nonfiction works such as his exercises in style, Singular Pleasures and Country Cooking from Central France. One of our favorite books is My Life in CIA, which either is or isn’t nonfiction. (Our sense is that the book is an imaginative reworking of the experience of various fellow American expatriates such as the late Peter Matthiessen.) And then there are the poems. It’s hard for us to come up with the name of a better prosodic musician, that is, a living American with a more perfect ear. Some of Mathews’ best poems were included in the Carcanet New York Poets II anthology, edited by Mark Ford and Trevor Winkfield. Carcanet also published A Mid-Season Sky: Poems 1954-1991 (whose content was chosen by the infallible David Kalstone). And we thank Winkfield and The Sienese Shredder for their CD of Mathews reading from more recent poems attached to that journal’s first issue. His most recent volume of poems is The New Tourism (2010), a compact collection in which these lines of “In Praise of Heinrich Heine” may be found: “Starbursts should light up this moment, the child / Be jealous of nighttime and its laughing yellow listener!”
Just as adults make new friends (electronic or otherwise) through socializing with friends of friends, we became introduced to certain writers through the generous impulses of their publishers. In America our first such “host” was, of course, New Directions. From there we were led to the whole “stable” of Black Sparrow. And then there was North Point Press, followed by Counterpoint, followed by Shoemaker and Hoard. Others (off the top of our heads) that have been important to us include the little Jonathan Cape editions; Dalkey Archive Press; the wide-ranging Ecco Press reprints; the beautiful books still put out by David Godine; and the ongoing Green Integer series. All these lists, it seems, were built up through the determined tastes and colleagues of one person — whether that be James Laughlin, Douglas Messerli, Daniel Halpern or Jack Shoemaker. There are a few newer publishers from whom we still regularly cull new acquaintances: Archipelago; Pushkin; Seagull; and the terrific division from Yale University Press, The Margellos World Republic of Letters. That heading captures for us exactly the country in which we we truly reside, an international literary commonwealth first made known to us through books.
We’ve said it before, but here it is again: One of the hardest things for a serious poetry reader is to keep up with new work without being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it. It doesn’t help that there just isn’t much true literary criticism out there for “general readership” of any kind. There’s still the scholarly review (academic works for specialists published by university presses) and there’s plenty of literary journalism (five paragraph reviews and “what I’m reading” lists). But with the demise of paper periodicals (NYRB, TLS, LRB feel increasingly like relics of the past), the argot-free “think piece” (placing work in formal, biographical or historical context) grows rarer and rarer. A considered review of poetry collections requires independent reading experience (recent graduates tend to sail on their own — or their professors’ — enthusiasms); what we think of as “real” criticism is both difficult to write and even harder to get published. And so instead we have blurby blogs and “aggregate” sites of shared opinion and information. These and “panel discussions” have become the replacements for serious judgements. Such substitutes make a lot of noise, but they contain so much snow-balling puffery of friends and colleagues, it’s impossible to take any of their opinions seriously.
A number of years ago we were in correspondence with the late Guy Davenport. That he was encouraging of our interests and projects meant a very great deal to us. When more recently we mentioned his letters to a fellow literary personality, Davenport’s kindness was dismissed with a peremptory, “Oh, Guy was like that.” As a consequence, we were especially taken with Wyatt Mason’s introduction to the republication (Margellos World Republic of Letters/Yale University Press, 2013) of Henri Michon’s Masters and Servants. It turns out that Davenport was responsible (with generosity consistent with what we observed) for Michon’s first appearance in English, suggesting the San Francisco publisher Mercury House for Mason’s 1997 translation. Given the number of Michon’s works that have since arrived in English (most recently in Jody Gladding’s rendering of Rimbaud the Son), all we can say is this: Thank the literary gods that “Guy was like that.”
The first act of Red Velvet was superb. Produced by Tricycle Theatre at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, Lolita Chakrabarti’s play tells the fascinating “true” narrative of the 19th century African-American thespian Ira Aldridge. The historical Aldridge (played by the extraordinary British actor Adrien Lester OBE) performed, among other things, the role of Othello at Covent Garden in 1833. (For twenty years he toured Europe, receiving kudos from crowned heads in Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Saxony, St. Petersburg….) What we loved about the play, however, had less to do with Aldridge’s extraordinary personal and historical circumstances (the focus of the play’s second half) than with the play’s dramatic treatment of theater itself. We were enthralled by director Indhu Rubasingham’s presentation (dressing rooms being part of the production’s setting); we were also intrigued and entertained by the various characters’ dialogues on the possibilities and purposes of actorly expression. In the playwright’s version of events, the American introduced a radical “naturalism” to his interpretation of Shakespeare. (By way of contrast, the existing stylized norms of Edmund Kean are presented by the supporting cast with uproarious effect.) But this “revolutionary” change of performance style was only the beginning of the great actor’s problem. What Aldridge’s London audiences objected to was their fixed belief that the actor’s portrayal of Othello’s violent nature wasn’t acting: He was just “behaving” like a Black man. And so in the end, the play becomes political; it is about something more than the “narrow” world of theater. A being who is capable of conscious art — this seems to us to come very close to a working definition of what it means to be human.
The lack of critical filter for online poetry has been an ongoing challenge for some time. This month at Poetry Foundation’s Harriet, however, we’ve experienced even more intensely the sensation of randomly generated “stuff,” being thrown at us. Harriet has arrived at new lows of incomprehensibility and inarticulateness, so much so that the blog’s own willful ignorance is worn as a badge of honor. “Authenticity” of feeling is now indicated by free-associating admissions of pointlessnes such as, “I’ve been asked (and paid) to blog but I really have nothing to say!” followed by mind-mending double-talk praising the work of unknown colleagues.
Such digital noise-making makes it easy to miss some important things — Robert Hass’s “Modernists:The Women,” in Literary Imagination, for example. It’s not so much that anything in particular Hass has to say is truly news (that Stein, Moore and H.D. form the backbone of American Modernism). But the reading that he gives of certain of their lyrics, combined with the fact that it’s Robert Hass making the case for their significance, is, well, simply great. The effect of women’s education at the turn of the century (Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr, among other institutions) remains fertile ground, hardly turned over. And it is something of an understatement when Hass observes, “It must have been complicated, the experience of young women who were growing into poets among men in those years.” As one of Harriet‘s National Poetry Month bloggers might respond in a post, “Duh, Yeah!”
As we begin our spring garden tasks, we remember a great book we came across completely by accident in a Cape bookstore two years ago. One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown looks like a coffee-table garden book, which, on one level, it is.(Certainly there are some really beautiful photographs of Welty’s house and garden, now a museum, by Langdon Clay.) One purpose of the book is to show Welty as a serious gardener and to narrate the part gardens played in her life and upbringing. Another function is to record the restoration of Welty’s Jackson, Mississippi home. A third, quite fascinating aspect of the volume is social history: Among other things, Welty and her mother are seen as representatives of two generations of “garden club” members; the fundamental optimism of early twentieth century America is shown through images and language culled from seed catalogues, advertising and journalism. While all of these intentions are nicely accomplished by the authors, for us, the volume’s most fascinating aspect, tucked in the middle like a secret walled enclave, is an incredible snippet of literary biography.
For as the book details, in 1942 Welty met and fell in love with the dashing John Robinson, a flyer for the American Air Force and involved in military intelligence. As Robinson was himself a “talented writer and sophisticated gardner,” much of their wartime correspondence was on the subject of flowers. By the war’s end, however, Welty was 37, and as the book puts it, “past impatience into desperation.” Though she spent periods of time with Robinson in San Francisco and Florence, it took five more years more for Welty to accept that there would be no marriage. Because Welty destroyed his letters in the 1970s “to protect his privacy,” we can only infer that by 1952 or so Robinson had come to accept his homosexuality, settling in Italy with a man twenty years his junior. But because the great love of Welty’s life and the period of her passion for gardening overlap, One Writer’s Garden becomes an essential book for her serious readers. Not only does it contribute to our understanding of that central period of Welty’s life, it suggests something about the autobiographical “meanings” of flowers in her fiction.
Gardening is an expression of perseverance, an active form of hope. For example, when the main character of The Optimist’s Daughter (whom Welty tellingly portrays as a widow) returns to her parent’s home and encounters her family garden’s survivors, she greets as old friends certain hardy perennials that were also favorites of Welty’s own mother: irises, daffodils, roses and camellias. (One poignant survivor of Welty’s actual garden is a particularly beautiful camellia plant given to her by Robinson. The genus was one for which the two shared an especial passion.) Or as she observed to her then-sweetheart in a wartime communication: “It is a still morning, rains every day. I think with pleasure and comfort of my little plants and the roses are growing and blooming. When it is just a little cooler and they all come out the way do in fall, I will miss you then… There is a chance you might see the flowers come up in spring — there is the feel of dirt for you, and what it does, it makes your hopes seem matter of truest fact. Well, flowers are older than war.”
For many years now we’ve embraced the impossible person of James McNeill Whistler as affectionately as we’ve viewed his drawings, paintings and etchings. But given the nature of the art world (a society whose professional behavior has always had something in common with the fatal procedures of The Hunger Games), who couldn’t view with renewed admiration the author of a volume entitled The Gentle Art of Making Enemies? We picked up a copy of Daniel E. Sutherland’s Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake at New York’s doomed Rizzoli bookstore last month. It turns out that Whistler’s life (which began in Lowell, Massachusetts) contained even more art-world scandals than we’d realized, only one of which was the figurative head-butting of his rich patron, the shipping magnate Frederick Leyland.
Darren Waterston’s Filthy Lucre, currently on view at MASS MoCA, is a recreation of Whistler’s famed and infamous Peacock Room, commissioned by Leyland in 1876. Here Whistler’s defiant gesture is re-imagined as “a space collapsing in on itself, heavy with its own excess and tumultuous history.” Intended to be a warning about our own “Gilded Age” and the “relationship between art and money,” it is indisputably an ambitious installation. But while we appreciate Waterston’s nightmarish concept, we remain unsure about what exactly it wants to say about Whistler as an artist. Whistler may have been conceited and eccentric (he was nearly contemporary in his energetic modes of self-promotion), but he was both serious and sincere in his pursuit of art. Yet at the time he was painting his teal-colored shutters, it should be noted, the artist was most likely having an affair with Leyland’s wife. By the time that scandal had subsided, the unpaid but party-throwing Whistler found himself deeply in debt. His ego thus forced into a corner, he made the tactical error of suing John Ruskin for accusing him of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” And so begins another monumental chapter in Sutherland’s biography, as well as Whistler’ lifelong enemy-making enterprise.
The imagination, the inner life of heart and mind, should have the legal status of a sanctuary. Voluntary abandonment of privacy (online journaling such as Facebook, tumblr, etc.) now takes its place alongside the involuntary; the presence of CCTV, cell phone “wiretapping” and surveillance drones is eerily constant. One of the great paradoxes of the current Orwellian age is how the disappearing right to withdraw (living off a a literal or figurative grid) has been accompanied by crumbling rights of expression, most especially on “non-normative” religious and sexual topics. Widespread internet surveillance (as PEN research recently confirmed) is even affecting how fiction and nonfiction writers approach research on certain controversial topics. Yet despite the intended (and even well-meaning) purposes of such policing (as when, for example, a violent fantasy is the expression of an actual intention), there is an obvious peril in such censorship. For artists especially there remains the absolute necessity to speak up and defend not only free speech but the life of the imagination itself. We admit that not a few of our own encounters with certain such expressions (whether via literary works, through visual art or on social media) have been deeply disturbing. But such manifestations of the inner life — of private fantasies, if you will — must remain free from legal censure; they cannot be subject to political control or oversight. In a true democracy there can be no such thing as a thought crime.
Circumstances have introduced us to the world of luthiers and fine string instrument sales, a realm of uncertain provenances and relative values that has more in common with the fine art market than we’d ever have supposed. After months of research and hands-on playing, destiny led us to the work of the contemporary cello maker, Marten Cornelissen. Cornelissen is a craftsman of the old school. You won’t find a website for his workshop, and Google will only lead you to a 1978 article about him entitled, “Undiplomatic Violin Maker Interviewed.” His wife Cornelia, however, published a children’s book about his work in 1995 entitled Music in the Wood that charmingly narrates an instrument’s creation, black-and-white photographs documenting one particular cello’s life story from European forest to Belgian concert hall.
We’ve also been reading Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, a book that begins with the author’s recollection of an argument he had with his teacher, Hannah Arendt, about the distinction between man as animal laborans or homo faber. In some sense, his book is an extended discussion of what Sennett wishes he had said to Arendt back in 1962. Among its wide-ranging topics is included a description of the workshop and legacy of the famed luthier Antonio Stradivari, whose “secrets died with him.” As it happens, the Cornellissen cello, whose sound we now have the daily pleasure to hear, is modeled on the famed Stradivarius, the Countess of Stanlein, once owned by the great Bernard Greenhouse. Greenhouse, who also owned a Cornellisen as his second instrument, himself played “our” instrument for the luthier when it was newly made.
Sennett (who himself plays the cello) argues that the model of the craftsman (a category that includes the poet and the mother as well as the musician and his instrument maker) may serve as a guide to ethical behavior, providing insight into “how to conduct life with skill.” This leads back to issues of political philosophy, to Arendt’s concerns in the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the trial of Eichmann. For as Sennett warns, even the most well-intentioned human pursuits have their own set of pitfalls: “The craftsman often faces conflicting objective standards of excellence; the desire to do something well for its own sake can be impaired by competitive pressure, by frustration, or by obsession.” Thinking of excellence in relation to the contemporary literary scene, we think Sennett is especially on target when writes about the “demoralizing consequences of competition.”
We finally watched Margarete von Trote’s Hannah Arendt (just out on DVD). As a rule, we despise movies about real people, most especially thinkers and writers (the truly dreadful Hemingway and Gelhorn, for example with David Straithorn as John Dos Passos), so we were surprised we didn’t end up hating this. Of course we cringed at the film’s personification of Mary McCarthy (and the false accents of almost all the American characters), but — maybe this is because her actual person is less familiar to us — we couldn’t despise the “character” of Arendt. A movie isn’t really the place to debate the actual arguments presented in Eichmann in Jerusalem — that’s way too complex and problematic an issue for the medium — but we did come away with a new sense of the humanness of a flawed individual, a woman who was both arrogant and brave in her insistence on the moral obligations of a thinking person. As a political philosopher, does Arendt really deserve to be such an object of scorn, as hated as Heidegger himself? These days she’s become subject to handed-down versions of what she (in our opinion, mistakenly) wrote for the general audience of The New Yorker; in the film’s interpretation of one her most controversial propositions, Arendt’s argument was that the insidiously “unthinking” and morally undermining tendencies of Nazi ideology even affected the behavior of certain Jewish leaders; her intention wasn’t one of assigning “blame” or “responsibility,” to them. At any rate, this is how the film’s Arendt explains herself to a classroom audience sympathetic and wide-eyed students.
This winter we found ourselves watching much, much more television than in past seasons. The truth is that many series (both American and European) are far superior to not only a lot of current films but (as a recent NYT Book Review “face-off” proposed) give even the better contemporary novels a run for their money. As a result, we’ve devoured whole seasons of TV in one sitting; we’ve also handily consumed boxed sets made up of several years of programming over the course of a few nights. Like others to whom we’ve shared our dark secret (dark being the correct adjective with which to describe our favorite shows), we confess we’ve gone on week-long binges, huddled under blankets while our after-dinner cave is lit up by the flickering images projected by the DVD player. Four of our favorites — Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Borgen, The Americans — seem to us to have a common subtext if not “true theme.” For us they portray something about modern marriage, about the tensions between impersonal career obligations (methamphetamine production, parliamentary forms of government, spying) and the human responsibilities of each spouse. “Traditional” marriage comes across as something of a sham, as a nefarious front, as a legal form of emotional and professional enabling. Of course, it may just be seasonal affective disorder, but we’ve come to view marriage as an even blacker subject than politics, drug dealing or Cold-War espionage.
One consequence of this winter’s weather was a blocked-up chimney, black soot settling on our library as well as on the tentative layouts of various forthcoming LongNookBooks titles. And we thought to ourselves, how easy it is to forget the necessity of keeping your volcanos swept out! The allusion, of course, is to The Little Prince, and the image came to mind as a result of the current Antoine de Saint -Exupéry exhibit at the Morgan Library. (Spring will soon once again make us painfully aware of the Cape’s invasive species, reminding us also of the disastrous consequences of not staying ahead of the baobab trees… ) The Morgan exhibit tells several stories at once, all of them fascinating in their way. One display narrates the brief history of the adapted book as an early film project of Orson Welles, with special effects by Walt Disney. (Welles claimed that Disney stormed out of their meeting declaring “There is not room on this lot for two geniuses!”) Another vitrine outlines the publisher as hero; it displays the bracelet the pilot was wearing when he crashed, its silver engraved with “Reynal and Hitchcock” (the pair who brought out the book posthumously in the US in 1943). Another real-life subplot is Saint X’s warm friendships with various hosting Americans, making the book, in some sense, very much a “New York Story.” Does the author’s relation to Silvia Hamilton limn a love story beneath the fable? Undoubtedly it’s also a wartime tale, with its dedication to a Jewish friend then held by the Nazis. But finally, it’s also a story of translation, as the volume is the most widely translated text from the French. With all these elements set out in one room (beneath photographs, first sketches and early handwritten drafts hung on the walls), we come away with the distinct feeling that the history of The Little Prince remains a story incompletely told. There remains for us something beautifully mysterious and unsettling about the author and his book, as well as about the backstory of its creation.
We are in awe of the effortful art of illusion. On a recent Sunday morning in Manhattan we finally joined a backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera House, something we’ve wanted to do for a very long time. We did have had some idea of the enormity of the building (at ground level, after all, the theater stretches all the way back to Amsterdam Avenue), though the buried verticality of the areas surrounding the stage was unexpectedly impressive. We visited dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces (for ABT in the summer), the rather messy property shop; we examined sets under construction for the coming season (Merry Widow will feature a balustrade); we were shown some of the wigs and costumes arranged for the Met’s upcoming tour to Japan. We confess we touched the sleeve of Placido Domingo’s coat for Andrea Chénier. Because the Met is a repertory house with constantly changing productions, the back halls we visited were filled with the trappings of both new operas and those of recent seasons; costumes were here stored in lockers and cabinets, or on wooden shelves piled with ordinary shoeboxes or even magic-markered Tupperware. The logistics of all this are truly Herculean: Building-size elevators carry Aida’s styrofoam tomb, Rusalka’s plastic lake and Turandot’s towering ping-pong ball headdress several stories up or down as required. In the end, we experienced much of the same humbled astonishment we felt after visiting the Warner Brothers lot in Los Angeles a few years ago: How is it that so much of what we love best is in fact the least real?
Are we becoming as crankily outdated as the editors of the TLS? Some days we feel that way, as it’s becoming impossible to stay afloat the current poetry scene. Not only are there tidal-waves of new work being presented online, there’s also the backwash of lossy discussion about what’s now out there. With one easy keystroke a “text” is born which theoretical approaches can readily be made to justify. Little of this secondary material could be described as sharp-edged criticism; besides the jargon-larded logrolling, it’s mostly comprised of YouTube readings and interviews with fresh-faced authors, poets who have an endless capacity for self-explanation and self-presentation. The graduates of poetics programs now join the MFAs, and they just keep coming. It’s like that scene in World War Z where myriad Zombies climb over a barrier the prescient have built to protect what remains of humanity. But once the living dead find their way up a ladder, there’s no way to keep them out; no matter what falls in their path they pour themselves into compressed files and across our laptop screens, mindless in their determination to — what exactly? — turn the last of us also into Zombies? We try to keep an open mind (and acknowledge that at least some of this innovative work is as sincere as it is over-constructed), but for what ultimate purpose are most of these “new poetries” taking hold? To us it appears that their driving purpose is attention of any kind, with the ultimate goal of more traditional publication, employment and celebrity: Scramble over the other Zoets if you must, but be among the first to to get over that damn wall!
We recently paid an early-morning visit to the Morgan Library where we were able to commune in silence with Leonardo’s extraordinary study for the angel in his Virgin of the Rocks. We’d always read of this “most beautiful drawing of all time,” and must agree that on some ideal aesthetics “best list,” it does indeed deserve placement near the very top. The reason we feel this, we said to ourselves in the museum’s climate-controlled hum, is that the face’s knowing expression corresponds exactly to our imaginary of the “angelic,” a quality neither masculine nor feminine but some kind of composite of those two realms of beauty. From there we descended to “Visions and Nightmares: Four Centuries of Spanish Drawings,” where, among other things, Goya’s deafness found visual expression in political blackness. More darkness was exhibited around the corner in “Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul,” though what we encountered there was not terror so much as the writer’s unshakable melancholy — which was surely not unrelated to the vocational frustrations of a very great poet. It was so sad we almost couldn’t bear it. But how we would have loved to hear Paul Auster’s talk-interview about “Edgar Poe” (as he’s known in France)! Auster’s talk was to revisit a paper he’d written years ago, the beguiling notes for which were included in the Morgan exhibition.
This past summer we found ourselves at The Charles Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. The exhibit being shown was “Gardens and More,” a small collection of the artist’s watercolors of flowers — which sounds like a dull subject, but it was actually quite “dazzling.” As Demuth wrote in an unpublished short story: “All the objects in the garden took from the light, for the moment, some of its color and quality and added them to their own. When the young man began to paint, all things seemed to him to glitter and float in golden liquid.” The museum is housed in the artist’s childhood home on Lancaster’s East King Street, his mother Augusta’s brick-lined garden still out back and well-tended by the informed museum staff.
It’s somewhat hard to picture this Demuth as the same artist who created I Saw the Figure Five in Gold, his later “Precisionist” painting whose familiar image appeared just last year on a U.S. postage stamp. That work was a response to his friend William Carlos Williams’ poem, “The Great Figure,” and its lines: “I saw the figure five / in gold / on a red / firetruck…” We’d forgotten all this until we saw the same image last month in “Demuth’s American Dream” at the Gary Indiana “Beyond LOVE” show at the Whitney, understanding the allusion (for the first time, we admit) of the word “Bill” in both paintings. We also saw (as we’d been told) how Demuth’s 1928 “American product” anticipates Pop Art works such as those of Indiana. And since Gertrude Stein was also a good friend of the peripatetic Demuth (he spent time in Provincetown as well as Paris), there’s a nice circularity to the inclusion of Indiana’s costume designs for Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All in the Whitney show; that quiet little room provided a delicately impressive respite from the visual loudness of the rest of the exhibit.
We were at Tibor de Nagy gallery not to view the works of Jess Collins but to take great pleasure in Richard Baker’s “Holiday,” quite delightfully set up in the gallery’s smaller side room. We confess our contrasting reaction to Jess’s disparate works arranged in Tibor’s main space was that it all seemed muddled rather than visionary. But the experience did send us down to Grey Art Gallery’s “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle,” which was completely fascinating. The familiar collages, put into perspective, did there seem like the breakthrough works they are. We didn’t read Holland Cotter’s NYT review until after we got back to the Cape, but we found ourselves in agreement with much of his response to the show, especially his conclusion that the artistic coterie “was an end in itself.” And as far as own own perspective on the NYU exhibit, we couldn’t help but think that certain Duncanesque aspects of the sixties — especially his circle’s serious engagement with cinema — may be traced back to H.D., only one of the truly significant women figures tangentially referred to or included in the “Opening of the Field.”
We ate up Solo, William Boyd’s James Bond novel, like perfectly prepared fast food — a brioche-bun burger with a heart of foie gras. Though more often than not he was limited by his having to sound like Ian Fleming, Boyd nevertheless managed to write a quite good novel. Some of the most absurd (yet Flemingesque) touches include a recipe for vinaigrette, with which Bond dresses his own salad at an American steakhouse. And frankly, Boyd’s Bond has more of a political conscience than is consistent with Fleming’s cold-war figure. Set in an imaginary country in late-sixties West Africa, the book feels more like Graham Greene than Ian Fleming — though from a reader’s point of view, this is no cause for criticism. The narrative construction of the book, for one thing, is better than anything than Fleming could have managed. Maybe in the end it’s a little too pat (though all too consistent with post-war politics) that Spectre has been replaced by international oil companies. But we still enjoy seeing Bond predictably bring down (at least some of) the world’s bad guys.
The motivation for Mark Rylance’s Richard III was the self-hatred of the professional comedian. Or such was the idea we came away with after the first scenes of his recent performance at the Belasco Theater. It’s true that as the lovestruck teenager girl Olivia in Twelfth Night Rylance had made us laugh out loud, but we were unprepared for the audience guffaws that initially greeted Rylance’s Richard. We found it quite disconcerting that such a monster could provoke anything like levity. Unlike Oliver’s slithery character on film (in retrospect one almost has a sense that the cutthroat thespian was playing a version of himself), Rylance’s Richard provokes disgusted pity for the late-night monologuist along with a more traditional Machiavellian horror. It may not be a “definitive” interpretation of Shakespeare’s stunted monarch, but it’s also not one we will soon forget.