Friday, 6 December 2013

Spitalfields, Yesterday and Today

Hawksmoor's Christ Church, Spitalfields
London is a second home to me, engraved in consciousness as much as New York and Paris are.  I’ve been moving between the three points of that triangle a good part of my adult life.  So here I am again, a projected stay of nearly four months, and happy with the prospect. At present I’m staying with my friend the poet Mimi Khalvati, which makes being here especially homelike. She has a pretty dwelling in Stoke Newington, Hackney, the rooms filled with mementos from Iran, which she left at age six when she came to England.  Her first professional career was as an actor in theatre, but in mid-life she charted a different course and eventually became one of Britain’s leading poets.  We first met in 2005 and is now one of my closest friends here.

I had errands to do around Liverpool Street Station yesterday and once they were done decided to walk over to Spitalfields, quite close by. I first got to know the district in 1986, when I was staying in London on a Guggenheim fellowship. What led me to seek it out was the Peter Ackroyd novel Hawksmoor!, a fictional treatment of the life of the 18th-century neoclassical architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. Christ Church, Spitalfields, one of his best designs, is a dominant neighborhood landmark, along with the old Spitalfields Market. Spitalfields also made a quantum leap in notoriety when Jack the Ripper (with the help of a knife) claimed it as his turf during the shadowy era of “the other Victorians.”   

Back in 1986, a mutual friend effected an introduction to an American named Dennis Severs, who had lived in London for nearly two decades, one of the pioneers celebrated for reclaiming the Spitalfields environ from the dereliction it had fallen into.  Dennis loved London as few people have ever done and had a fantastically detailed knowledge of the city, since he had begun working as a tour guide shortly after he first arrived.  Eventually, he bought a house at 18 Folgate Street and filled it with old furniture and décor gathered from hither and yon. A year or so before I met him, he’d developed a sort of theatrical presentation, using the four floors of the house as his set. He invented a narrative about an émigré Huguenot family come to London after Louis XIV’s Edict of Nantes expelled all Protestants from France. The Huguenots who settled in Spitalfields were silk weavers and, in time, became prosperous Londoners. Dennis’s narrative took the family through several generations, each floor embodying the evolution in their fortunes, while incidentally summarizing concurrent changes in British society and politics. Recorded texts, changes in lighting and even a few kinetic effects helped move the narrative along.  (I didn’t forbear back then to mention to Dennis that there were a few mistakes in his recounting of history, but he shrugged that off and reminded me that theatre is fiction.) Somewhat incongruously, the top floor was a sort of résumé of Dickens A Christmas Carol. But that popular codicil assured the success of Dennis’s nightly show, and certainly it was in accord with the atmosphere of old Spitalfields.  Less than ten years after I met him, Dennis died of causes related to HIV infection.  I assumed that his house would be dismantled and sold, but, during my walk around Spitalfields, I came to 18 Folgate, and saw twin Christmas trees outside the door and a notice in the window, giving times when the house could be visited. So in one form or another, his work remains with us. I’ll try to come back and see what is currently being shown there. The old door-knocker in the shape of a sphinx's head still exerts a pull. Let me also mention that Dennis appears in a long poem of mine titled “Eleven Londons,” which was recently published in The Battersea Review.  Here’s the online link if anyone is curious.

There are also a couple of Spitalfields scenes in my 1997 novel Part of His Story, which is also set in London and has a past/present structure that might remind some readers of Dennis’s theatrical piece. To state the obvious, writers draw on hundreds of sources when composing any new work.

Continuing the Spitalfields stroll, I peeped in at Verde & Company, a tea-shop on the ground floor at the corner of Brushfield and Gun Streets.   The building is one of the “period” structures that still remain, and at some point it was bought by Jeanette Winterson, who founded the shop.  It has a green awning from which depend a dozen baskets in different shapes.  Small tables inside accommodate a few clients who can enjoy an hour of conversation over tea and pastry. The effect of quaintness is strong--a quality that used to be common in London but has now become pretty scarce.  Needless to say, Spitalfields has been invaded by large modern structures in steel and glass.  The old iron market is surrounded by designer boutiques, but at least the central part, open to the air, is the site of a daily Marché aux Puces, London-style, with all sorts of tat, vintage finery, collectibles, and crockery on offer.

Close by, the imposing edifice of Christ Church, which hasn’t changed. In Spitalfields you find the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. Looking at all the recent Modernist architecture and smart shops that have sprung up, you also see the Future. Up to you to choose which you prefer.  For me the Present will do, even if it isn’t yet a Christmas Present.            

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Death of a Naturalist

Like so many others, I was saddened to hear of Heaney’s death this past summer. I knew that Heaney had recovered from a serious stroke a couple of years earlier, and indeed he looked thinner and rather more fragile than the young man I first met back in, I believe, early spring of 1978. The occasion was a reading he gave at Yale. He wasn’t well known in the States then. Probably less than forty people made up the audience. Heaney read several sonnets from the “Glanmore” sequence, one of his loveliest. Then, in view of the fact that no one had arranged a post-reading reception, it seemed natural and cordial for the Resident Fellow to invite him and some of the audience to have a drink at Silliman College. I recall shaking the hand of this vigorous, hesitant man with prematurely gray hair nearly down to his shoulders, wearing jeans and a plaid cotton shirt. He had trouble meeting my eyes, and I don’t think he was fully comfortable in those surroundings—but then who could blame him at that stage of the game?
     The next meeting came perhaps five or six years later, when I was living in New York. He had given a reading at the 92nd Street YMHA, at the invitation of Grace Schulman, who was the director of the Poetry Center. Grace had people to her place down in Greenwich Village after the event. By now Heaney was a famous poet, confident, relaxed, wearing a suit, and surrounded by admirers. With him was his wife Marie, who I think was glad to have someone to talk to while fans monopolized her husband. I found Marie unaffectedly down to earth, patriotic about her origins in the North of Ireland, with a sharp eye and wit, not to mention being lovely to look at. I forget the stimulus for it, but at some point Heaney was led to recite one of Wyatt’s best known poems, “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind.” It was in that era that the current revival of interest in Wyatt began—and may that revival endure. I knew by then that it was a near certainty Heaney would one day be tapped for the Nobel. There was no mistaking his ability and the aptness of awarding the prize to a poet from Northern Ireland. And perhaps it was just such a certainty that convinced me to make no attempt to stay in touch in the years after. Besides, sincere admiration isn’t by itself a basis for a long-lasting association. I could always meet him on the page, and that was the main thing. News of his personal life came to me from people we knew in common, and (strange thing among poets) I never heard any reports of nastiness or arrogance where Heaney was concerned. He was admired as poet and as human being. 
     In my book Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007, his work is discussed at some length.  After the piece was commissioned and published, he went on to publish several more books, so needless to say my essay doesn’t cover his career; but I think it remains a useful starting point.  There is always much to say about Heaney's poems. A sequence titled “Clearances” (from The Haw Lantern) gives a moving portrayal of his mother and recounts her death; and “Squarings,” from the next book, which does much the same for his father. Of course an elegy eulogizes the deceased, but it is also a dry run for the elegist’s own eventual departing this life. Both sequences have that aspect. In The Human Chain, his most recent book, Heaney moved a step closer to confrontation with mortality in a brief sequence titled “Chanson d’Aventure”, which describes being driven in an ambulance to a distant hospital.  Directly after this, the book’s title poem describes the manual labor of heaving sacks of meal onto a trailer, an action Heaney turns into a metaphor for the final unloading of our mortal coil. He realizes he would no longer have the strength to do such heavy work, labor characterized in the poem as, “A letting go which will not come again./Or it will, once. And for all.” 
     To state the obvious, Heaney was preparing himself. And it may be that in advance of this final admission to hospital, he already knew what his last words were going to be. Isolated from Marie in an emergency bay, he text-messaged to her the Latin phrase “Noli timere”, that is, “Fear not”.  He was sending a variant on Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene, spoken in the garden on the Sunday of the Resurrection: “Noli me tangere”. This is usually translated as, “Do not touch me”, but a rather more accurate translation would be, “Do not hold on to me”. What’s being recommended in the gospel account is a letting go. Heaney would agree with the instruction, I think, (the phrase is included in the Wyatt sonnet mentioned above), and he added his own reassurance that there is no need to be fearful. The death of a naturalist is indeed natural, part of the human cycle and also part of the “human chain.”  The “natural man” has been put off and is now replaced by his writings, which continue to excite, instruct, and reassure his readers.  The letting go has now taken place. It is once, and it is “for all”. All of us.   

Attending the funeral, Bono and Alison Hewison

Friday, 27 April 2012

London, Trieste, Duino

Arch of Riccardo, Trieste
Duino Castle, seen from the east
Entrance to Duino Castle

The second week of April, I left Cambridge and made a journey down to Trieste, in the extreme northeastern corner of Italy. It’s in the region known as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, just south of Slovenia and northwest of Croatia.  Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War, a history that makes it noticeably different from other Italian cities, but also one that establishes a link with several large Hapsburg capitals elsewhere. There is a family resemblance between Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Trieste, seen primarily in the large scale of the public buildings, especially those flanking Piazza dell’Unitá, the main square. In more residential areas, houses and large common dwellings are often stuccoed and painted light colors—ochre, terracotta, tan, and what I call Maria Theresa yellow, the color used for Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna and many other parts of Maria Theresa’s empire.
          My hotel was in the old medieval quarter not far from Piazza Unitá, a place of narrow twisting streets that gradually climb up to the Cattedrale di San Giusto, which overlooks Trieste.  This neighborhood was until recently a slum but has been renovated, at least partly. My first walk took me up toward the Cathedral, past a Roman arch known as the “Arco di Riccardo,” to which a later building was attached as if by super-glue. (The Roman name for the ancient city was Tergestum.)  Farther on, I reached the excavated Roman theatre, which sits there unperturbed a few yards from one of the city’s modern thoroughfares. You’d have no trouble imagining plays by Terence or Plautus being staged there. More like reverie than experience (and still more in retrospect) to stand there in the sprinkling rain and gaze at those wet stones.

Next morning cleared, and I took a bus out to the little town of Duino, roughly ten miles southwest of Trieste.  This was a local, not express bus, one that went up into the hills above the city, in the region known as the Karst (Italian, Il Carso), a vast stretch of limestone wilderness, where trees never grow tall, and farming is as hardscrabble as it gets. But little hamlets appear along the way, with semi-rural Italian life going on as one might expect. Eventually, the road moves back toward the coast and you arrive at the town of Duino. The Castle sits on a promontory, a little limestone spur of the Karst that thrusts out into the Bay of Duino in the Adriatic, about three hundred feet above the water.This is one of the castles belonging to the Czech branch of the Thurn und Taxis family.  A little more than a hundred years ago, Rilke became acquainted with Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe (her birth name is usually appended to the title). She was his hostess at the Castle and elsewhere, for which reason his Duino Elegies mention her as his patroness.  At some point I will have to write an introduction to my translation of the Elegies, and I was certain that seeing Duino Castle would give me some useful details for that.   

 The picture above shows the entrance. I decided to wander a bit in the park before going inside. To the right of the castle, there’s a small rectangular pool with central statuary—cherubs at play around a single spout of water.  Down from this, stone steps take you to a less formal part, and I could see winding paths under shade trees that probably go all the way down to the water. But the public isn’t admitted there. Box hedges, an early lilac, birds clattering in the trees. On the stone balustrade, at each landing, sculpted urns held limestone fruit in the familiar way.  Back up to the path to the “Belvedere,” my feet crunching on little pebbles.  You’re soon on the side of the Castle that fronts the sea, where you find a small terrace with stone balustrade.  Absolutely rapturous vistas out onto the Bay of Duino; and to the west, the Rocca, where ruins of the older castle stand—a few walls and arches, nothing more.  Cypresses and other trees thickly planted.  Water a color somewhere between jade and bottle glass.  Greyish-white cliffs, the last outpost of the Karst.  A stone table is protected from visitors by a chain and four steel poles, with a sign saying that the Duino Elegies were written here.   But if I’m not mistaken the first inspiration came when RMR was walking down below, close to the water, on a day in late January 1912.  The bora (north wind) was blowing fiercely in his ears and the opening question of the sequence suddenly came to him.  I went over the opening in my mind, in German and in English, trying to change the noonday of April 12, 2012, into a lasting personal memory.  Above the terrace was the newer part of the Castle, finished in stucco and painted, again, in Maria Theresa yellow.
        I came into the Castle courtyard, paved in irregularly shaped stones, and then went up a few steps to enter the public rooms.  First, the dining room, which had a table set up as though dinner would in a few moments be served there.  The Torre e Tasso (Italian form of the family name) armorial china, Venetian glasses, two bulky silver candelabras, the table backed by a painted screen, with pictures of the obligatory parrot on it. The ceiling and walls had ornamental plaster, white against lemon yellow, the familiar rococo scagliola patterns.  Savonnerie carpet, seventeenth-c. Dutch still lifes at the center of the wall panels, their black backgrounds somewhat at odds with this light and airy room. On from there to the Salotto Verde, furnished much as you’d expect, with ancestral portraits on the walls, little glass-fronted cabinets holding fans and objets de virtú.  And then the Salotto Impero, where it’s believed Emperor Leopold of Austria signed over the Castle to the Thurn und Taxis family.  Walls painted a red-clay color, with more portraits and vitrines containing family memorabilia.  On to the bedroom of the Principessa, modest enough with its single bed sans canopy.  But lovely views out to to the sea and sunlight.  This connected to an enfilade, the first side room being a handsome library, not to be entered, but allowing you to see the shelves and their morocco-bound contents, plus a few volumes out for display.  These included Marie von T. and T.’s children’s book, The Tea Party of Mrs. Moon, for which RMR provided, at her request, a tepid comment. (He had his integrity: In one instance he refused a prestigious prize, attached to money, offered by the Austrian government.)  Several other rooms along the way, all containing rare old instruments the family collected.  Further  memorabilia, for example, a telegram from Eleonora Duse, with only the words “Duino! Duino! Duino!”  The envelope of a letter addressed by RMR to the Principessa Marie.  A photocopy of the first page of the First Elegy in RMR’s handwriting.  Several photographs of the poet that Princess Marie called “Il Serafico,” referring obviously to RMR’s angels.  You climb up to the next levels in the dwelling by means of an elliptical spiral staircase, the stone steps jutting out without any support except the cantilver of their attachment in the wall. A wrought iron balustrade protected mounters from falling, and as they climbed their hand would rest on a rail covered in red velvet, with intermittent brass finials at each turning.  Looking up or down, you get the chambered-nautilus effect of the winding stair as it moves through several levels.  Not bad for the country seat of provincial nobles who weren’t all that rich. To complete my tour I climbed the family’s eponymous tower, an old square structure entered through the courtyard.  The view of the Adriatic, the town, and the Karst hills northward is indescribable so I won’t make an attempt.

Seeing Duino was the main purpose of the visit, but there was also Trieste itself that deserved exploration. In the following days, I found notable sites for James Joyce, for Italo Svevo, and for Umberto Saba, all writers associated with the city.  Joyce’s brief prose work Giacomo Joyce is set in Trieste, the only work of his to use a non-Dublin setting.  But the city is essential and pervasive in the work of Saba and Svevo, and the latter was Joyce’s closest friend during his Trieste years. I’m sure there’s a PhD. thesis there if it hasn’t already been done.
      As a coda, I will mention visiting the tomb of J.J. Winckelmann, erected in the lapidary garden adjoining the city’s antiquities museum.  A German by birth, Winckelmann became one of the most prominent classical scholars of his era, a pioneer in the study of Greek sculpture.  His classical education was furthered by long residence in Italy, where he could study original manuscripts and works of art.  Not coincidentally he took a classical view of homosexuality, based on Greek and Roman texts and his own orientation. That was one factor that must have prompted the essay Pater wrote about him in The Renaissance.  He died in Trieste in 1833, and his monument has been a local attraction since that time.       

Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Cambridge, London, Grantchester

Clock tower, Trinity College
Since last writing I’ve continued with the Rilke translation project and have drafts of four of the elegies now. Of course the final version will have to wait until I’ve done the whole series, after which I’ll go through all of the Elegies again, to make adjustments.  Translation is not easy.  However, don’t assume I never leave my study. I do, either for events in Cambridge or to go to London. Most recently I went down to participate in the launch of issue 26 of The Wolf magazine, which has a poem of mine in it.  I went into town early and caught the matinee of the National Theatre’s new production of Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, which I’d never seen staged.  Some of the acting was too broad or sit-comish, but there was plenty to like in the piece. 

The launch was held at The Poetry Place in Covent Garden, with James Byrne hosting the evening.  The readers were, in order, Sophie Meyer, Michael McKim, Helen Moore, Ruth Padel, Giles Goodland, and myself.  Lots of people came and there were some excellent readings. I always enjoy performing for The Wolf because the audience is so expert, you don’t have to do a lot of explaining.  It happened that Marilyn Hacker was in town that day to judge a prize, so she came to the event and then joined us after for dinner.  It had been a while since we’d seen each other, so there was a good bit of catching up to do. She is prospering, making plans to go to Turkey with a group of American poets and then to Tripoli for the first Libyan international literature festival, organized by Khaled Mattawa.

To continue the international theme, I will mention that I’ve become acquainted with a poet from China named Iok Foung Lin. She is a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall this year and in fact is my next-door neighbor.  Iok Foung is from Macau, a city with an interesting history and, like Hong Kong, was recently placed under the Chinese sovereignty.  She has published three books of poems, and is working on a history project while at Clare Hall. We’ve had some good conversations about our respective nationalities, and I was reminded again how much easier it is for poets from different countries to be friendly than for the countries themselves.

Another Visiting Fellow I’ve spent time with is Thomas Glave, a fiction-writer and essayist who teaches at SUNY Binghamton.  After having several conversations in the dining hall over the past month, we made a plan to walk to Grantchester, a village about five miles south of Cambridge.  Cambridge has had glorious spring weather here this year, with daffodils, cherry blossom, and all sorts of flowering shrubs.  So the walk across Grantchester Meadows, with the slow-moving Granta flowing through them, was lovely.  Once arrived at Grantchester, we found the Old Vicarage, where Rupert Brooke was a lodger for a couple of years. A commemorative bronze statue of him stands in front of the house, currently owned by the novelist Jeffrey Archer.  Not far away is The Orchard, a place where you can have tea and, if the weather is fine as it was that day, have it outside.  Exactly what we did, with a view of flowering trees and a stretch of countryside. The Orchard distributes a little brochure recounting the history of how the place came to be what it is and informs you that earlier customers have included most of the Bloomsbury set, not to mention Brooke’s “Neo-Pagan” friends.  Through half-closed eyes you could look around and half imagine you’d been transported back to those days. To feed the illusion, I’ll add a few lines from Brooke’s “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,” which was written during a fit of homesickness in a Berlin café where RB was at the time, almost exactly one hundred years ago:

I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . 

On the grass at the Orchard, Grantchester

Monday, 12 March 2012

Cambridge, Poetry, Translation, Transatlantic Bridge

Writing here I have to overcome the feeling that I could be elsewhere, involved in something more instructive or fun. Because Cambridge offers a world of things to do—lectures open to the public, concerts, book fairs, evensong with highly trained choirs at the various college chapels, not to mention conversations with Clare Hall fellows or Faculty members of other colleges.  There is also the distraction of London, less than an hour away by train.  I’ve been down several times, attending events such as the Sebald Lecture on translation, given this year by Sean O’Brien. The event, held at London’s King’s Place, also featured the awarding of several translation prizes, including one that Banipal magazine offers for the best Arabic-to-English book of the year. The 2012 prize went to Khaled Matawa for a volume of selected poems by the Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis, who now lives in Paris.  At the reception afterwards, I spoke to Khaled briefly, both of us remarking that we hadn’t seen each other since a first meeting at the U. of Indiana Bloomington, nearly two decades ago.  Since that time he has become an internationally known poet and translator.  He is also the organizer of a literary festival to be held in Tripoli this spring, to which my friends James Byrne and Marilyn Hacker have been invited.  (Marilyn, not incidentally, was tapped for the international Argana poetry award, granted by Morocco’s Bayt Achir, i.e., the House of Poetry, earlier this year.)

Here in Cambridge I attended last month a poetry evening organized at Corpus Christi by poet Richard Berengarten, who used to be known as Richard Burns, back in the years when he organized the Cambridge International Poetry Festival.  After ten years as its director, he stood down and concentrated on his own work and has since published several distinguished volumes, my own favorite titled The Blue Butterfly, which is based on facts surrounding the mass murder of Serbian citizens in the Second World War.  Guest poets at the Corpus evening were Anne Stevenson, Angela Leighton, and Clive Wilmer.  Anne I met twenty-five years ago and then didn’t see again until last year’s TS Eliot Prize ceremony, when she chaired the judges’ panel (see the March 21, 2011 entry for this blog).  Dr. Leighton is a member  of the English Faculty here and is counted as one of Cambridge’s leading literary figures.  Clive Wilmer has just published a collected poems with Carcanet and is currently preparing an edition of Thom Gunn’s poetry.  All three poets read effectively and answered our questions afterward.    

I’ve explored most of the older colleges now, seeing many impressive buildings, for example, the chapel at Pembroke, which was Wren’s first design as well his masterly library at Trinity.  I also spent some time in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, where all his books are kept, including the celebrated diaries. And visited Kettle’s Yard, the former private house of Jim and Helen Ede. Ede, for many years director of the Tate, donated his house and the artworks it contains to the town of Cambridge, and it is on every visitor’s list of things to see here.  The artworks include drawings and sculptures by Gaudier-Brzeska, David Jones, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Ben Nicholson.  The arrangement of the house itself and its furnishings also have an appeal.  I’ll just sum up and say I feel perfectly settled in at Cambridge now, and consider it one of my favorite places in England.  Yes, it is daunting to list the stellar names of former graduates and scholars who have passed through these gates—Erasmus, Marlowe, Milton, Newton, George Herbert, Gray, Smart, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Darwin, AE Housman, Bertand Russell, Lytton Strachey, J.M. Keynes, Wittgenstein, E.M. Forster, Jane Harrison, Crick and Watson, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and others I haven’t mentioned.  But many of those figures also reported themselves equally daunted, so one should simply accept the feeling as an integral part of the spirit of the place.

This entry began by mentioning a translation event, and this is a good point to bring in a related effort of my own. I’m not speaking of the Duino Elegies now, but instead a little ebook that I recently published as the first in a series that Thethe Poetry blog is launching. My book isn’t a poetry collection but instead an introductory study of the differences between British and American English, meant to be useful to both nationalities.  Most of the pages are devoted to listing vocabulary differences and also idioms, but there are extensive sections on pronunciation, grammar, spelling, and punctuation—plus a fairly sizable offering of slang.  The audience for the book?  Travelers to both countries, teachers and readers of poetry and fiction from both, students of English as a Foreign Language, linguists, and actors preparing roles in the other idiom. You can read the book’s introduction on Amazon if you follow this link: ( or, for British Amazon,  both of them marketing it as a Kindle book. But it is also available in Nook format at B&N (   Happy trails.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Cambridge and Clare Hall

King's College Chapel, from across the Cam.
Since last writing, I've come to Britain and to Cambridge--specifically, to Cambridge's Clare Hall, where I will be a Resident Fellow until June.  Clare Hall, founded in the 1960s, has a program of accepting fellows from the world over, scholars or artists who work on a special project during their residency. In my case, I'll be completing a new translation of Rilke's Duineser Elegien. It's a project I've contemplated a long time, never up to now finding the circumstances or occasion to begin it. The reason I didn't simply propose writing new poems or fiction is that I'm not able to guarantee in advance that I will produce new writing of my own.  Sometimes a period of three or four months can pass during which I don't feel compelled to write.  And I never force myself to do it if I don't feel that drive to get something down. A sufficient number of dutiful, uninspired works already exist, and there's no point in adding others.

I was met at Heathrow by James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar, who drove me directly to Cambridge.  Sandeep is also a Resident Fellow at Clare Hall, doing research at the Newnham College archive for a biography of the British Modernist poet Hope Mirrlees.  Last year an edition of Mirrlees's poetry that Sandeep edited was published by Carcanet, so the biography is the next logical step. Also, her first book of poems will appear in March with Shearsman publishers. James has been named the Poet in Residence at Clare Hall and meanwhile is teaching poetry workshops in London, while continuing to edit The Wolf and write his own poetry.  Not knowing anyone else in Cambridge, I was glad that they would both be here during my residency, and in fact we see each other every week.  I had been in correspondence with Professor D K Midgely of the German Faculty before arriving, and had lunch with him last month at St Johns College, where he is a Fellow. A bonus of being here is that you have the opportunity of seeing the various colleges at considerably less than the usual tourist speed.  Cambridge amounts to a trove of brilliant architecture from several centuries, a sort of library of architectural styles from the 14th right up to the 21st century.  Above, I've added a picture of King's College Chapel, which is the signature structure representing the University.   Several of the older colleges have "backs" that go down to the River Cam, crossed by bridges also of architectural interest. 

I've been down to London once, attending the TS Eliot Prize festivities.  The reading for it was held at Royal Festival Hall on January 16, with the eight shortlisted candidates each appearing for ten minutes.  Sean O'Brien was the only poet I knew personally, though I knew the work of most of the others.  They read to an audience of 2000, a figure that will have to be swept under the carpet by commentators who continue to insist that "no one cares about poetry."  We can assume that for every person attending there are fifteen or twenty who wish they could have attended. Many poets were among the audience. I sat with Mimi Khalvati, who has appeared in this blog before now. There was also time for brief greetings to Ruth Padel and Fiona Sampson.  

The actual award ceremony was held the following night at the Haberdashers Union headquarters in the City, not far from Smithfield Market.  A luxurious modern building with handsome paneling and large rooms, reminding us how profitable the clothing industry is. There were about two hundred guests at the party, I would estimate.  One reason I attended is that I knew it would be a convenient way to re-establish contact with poet friends.  Apart from Kathryn Maris (who was putting me up in London), I had lively conversations with Don Paterson, Sean O'Brien, Elaine Feinstein, Maurice Riordan, Ruth Fainlight, Katy Evans-Bush, and Dennis O'Driscoll. Dennis and I got acquainted through correspondence as long ago as the 1980s but had never met face to face.   He was one of the panel of judges for the prize and when I mentioned I didn't know John Burnside (the favorite for the prize, according to bookmakers), Dennis took me up to him.  I found him a thoroughly likable person, a bit on the shy side, but then he was waiting to hear the prize outcome.  Other people I met included Bernard O'Donoghue, Imtiaz Dharker, Gillian Clarke (also one of the prize judges), Neil Astley, Carol Ann Duffy, Daljit Nagra, Esther Morgan, Michael Symmons Roberts, John Dugdale, and Kathleen Jamie. Quite a field of fair folk, including a good portion of the most-discussed poets in Britain today.  Eventually the prize was announced: and the favorite won.  I haven't read Burnside's book yet (I will), but there didn't seem to be any carping afterwards, so apparently the prize was deserved.

Returning to Cambridge, I can say that my stay is well launched. I've begun making the acquaintance of other Clare Hall Fellows, meeting as we do for lunch in the College dining room every week day.  One of these is the gifted American prose writer Thomas Glave, who will be here for an entire year. Everything looks promising, and in fact I now have in hand a translation of the First Elegy.  On to the Second.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Peaceful Assembly and the Poets' Corner

James Baldwin

I went to New York again early in the month to participate in the ceremony whereby James Baldwin was inducted into the Poets’ Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights. 

This was my first New York neighborhood (I enrolled in graduate school at Columbia in 1965), and the Cathedral, like all the environs thereabouts, is a familiar reference point to me.  Sunday mornings in those years, I used to take walks in Harlem, at a time when things were quiet.  There’s a poem about those walks in my book A Call in the Midst of the Crowd. Harlem in 1965 was quite different from what it is now.  It’s easy for me to imagine James Baldwin as a boy venturing into Morningside Park, looking up at the vast unfinished cathedral overlooking it, and wondering what went on there. Knowing what I do about him, I’m certain that he came to have a look inside, though I can’t quite imagine what he must have thought about it.

On the other hand I take it for granted that he sympathized with the students at Columbia University who in May of 1968 went on strike and occupied Columbia’s Low Library to protest university plans to annex part of Morningside Park and build a gym there.  It was an egregious, imperial move to take away part of a park that residents in west Harlem used every day.  CU said it would open the gym to non-university residents, but we will never know if the plan would have been put into effect because the project was abandoned in the face of student and community opposition.  Unfortunately, this came only after Grayson Kirk, CU’s president, had ordered the buildings cleared of occupying students, a raid performed by the NYPD with no restraint at all.  During clearance, large numbers of students were hit repeatedly with nightsticks or truncheons, including my friend the poet David Shapiro. It happened that I was on my Fulbright year in Paris when this occurred, so I wasn’t part of it, except as an appalled observer from across the Atlantic.  Instead, I had the May uprisings in Paris in that same spring to live through.  Details about both events can be found in the long narrative poem Notes from a Child of Paradise (1984), which retells my life in the years 1965 to 1969.                                                                                                                                                                                                    

David Shapiro in Kirk's Office, May 1968

To return to Baldwin and the Cathedral: he was as an adult awarded the Cathedral’s Centennial Medal in 1974, and in December of 1987, his funeral was held there.  Induction into the Poets’ Corner would seem to be the next logical step. Marilyn Nelson was appointed the Cathedral’s Poet in Residence in 2011 and earlier this year asked me to serve a five-year term as one of the electors for the Poets’ Corner, which I was glad to do.  Baldwin was chosen as this year’s new “poet,” though poetry is only a minor part of his oeuvre as a writer. The Corner includes novelists (indeed, our most famous) as well as poets. A brief inscription from the inducted writer is always placed under the name, and the electors settled on this for Baldwin: “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”  Then plans were made for an induction and a celebration on November 6th and 7th.

The event on Sunday the 6th was a liturgical service, with the Cathedral choir singing arrangements of the spiritual songs, “A Balm in Gilead,” “Deep River,” and “Steal Away to Jesus.”  There were prayers, a psalm, and congregational hymns.  The poet Jericho Brown read, I read (the conclusion of his essay “Notes of a Native Son), and David Leeming, Baldwin’s biographer, spoke about the author, whom he knew personally, in general terms. The inductee’s great-nephew Trevor Baldwin spoke feelingly about his famous relative, then we had a brief homily-eulogy from the Dean of the Cathedral, James Kowalski, as well as words of greeting from Marilyn. At the end we processed to the rear of the church to the side chapel where the Corner is, and Marilyn unveiled the inscribed stone. Flashbulbs went off, and then the choir sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and it was over.  Elizabeth Macklin, whom I’d invited to the ceremony, came up, and I introduced her to Marilyn.  Quincy Troupe was there and introduced himself, but I reminded him we’d met at the Writing Division at Columbia many years ago. I spoke briefly to Cynthia Zarin and then to Jaime Manrique, but each had to rush off to other events. Then someone introduced me to Patricia Spears Jones, whom I’d only known through Facebook before. Ceremony completed, we walked over to the Cathedral House where there was a buffet dinner for all participants.

The celebration the following night was smaller, unassisted by the choir and unliturgical.  Dean Kowalksi participated but only briefly.  Readers/speakers were Sharan Strange, Patricia Smith, Thomas Sayers Ellis, myself, Quincy Troupe, and Dr. James Cone, a professor of religion. Also, Marilyn, who read Baldwin texts to the accompaniment of a vibraphone.  We weren’t seated in the choir and everything was conducted with less formality than on the previous evening.  At rthe conclusion, an amplified recording of Baldwin singing the hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was played in the transept and a professional singer chimed in with her responsive asides as his voice resonated through the building. A haunting moment.  Afterwards, I spoke to Patricia Smith, whom I hadn’t met face to face before, only online, but we had a good-humored “live” conversation. My friend and host in New York Walter Brown came with me for the buffet meal at Cathedral House afterward.

I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see the new rooms for the Met’s collection of Islamic art and found amazingly beautiful examples of art in ceramic, metal, weaving, painting, wood and stone sculpture, glass, and calligraphy.  Though I can’t read Arabic, the wonderful varieties of Arabic script fascinate me, and I have a special liking for Kufic. It’s worth noting that the proscription against representation was often ignored in the history of Islamic art, so that we have the beautiful renderings of people and animals in the small Mughal paintings.  Someof the rugs, too, go beyond abstract geometry and give us stylized animal figures.  Islam is a flexible tradition, historically incorporating a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices, and that remains true today.
While I was in town I visited Zuccotti Square again, glad to see that Occupy Wall Street was in good shape.  This was only a few days before participants were banned from staying there overnight, and since then I’ve been distressed that police efforts to restrict or disperse demonstrations in New York and elsewhere have become violent.  Teargas, pepper spray, and unwarranted use of what they now call “batons.”   All of this has become epidemic, and it must stop.  I wonder if authorities realize that any person who is gassed or beaten by police becomes radicalized for life.  Also, any demonstrator who witnesses brutality like this.  During the past couple of weeks, riot police have themselves in effect rioted, particularly in Oakland at on the campus of UC Davis.  A smear campaign sponsored by conservative interests has tried to depict the demonstrators as lazy, spoiled youth, espousing unsanitary conditions, drugs, and free love.  The reality is very different, but when mud is slung, some of it always sticks, influencing he conduct of law enforcement officers.  Many policemen have working class backgrounds, and class anger can be stirred up among them if the hot-button libels have been previously planted in their minds.  (But how can any police officer, no matter how angry, feel justified pepper-spraying the face of an 84-year old woman, as happened ten days ago?) I saw these same developments back in the 1960s. It’s all depressingly familiar. Dr. King’s civil rights movement was libeled and suffered repressive action from misguided law enforcement, as well as vigilante attacks.  He persisted and eventually lost his life. There is also the horrifying instance of the Kent State killings, carried out, incredibly enough, by the National Guardsmen.  To engage in peaceful assembly is a risky undertaking, not to be undertaken lightly in a country where violence is taken for granted.  But as Baldwin reminded us, “Artists are here to disturb the peace.” And not artists alone, but all people concerned with social justice in a climate where it has been forced to take a back seat to the national addiction to wealth, no matter the cost of that pursuit to social cohesiveness, fair dealing, and responsible freedom.