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opinionated commentary on literary matters - from the complete review
11 - 20 November 2002
(Not much) more on Gabe Hudson | NYTBR notes
go to weblog
Geoffrey Hill reading | Donna Tartt on NPR
Continuing Tartt-mania | Miami Book Fair International
We review The Secret History ... | Tom Paulin disinvited
The next Paulin reading ... | New Mulisch review | Updates: Fukuyama - Vargas Llosa | 100 days of blogging
Louis Couperus and Pushkin Press
Poetry windfall | More Paulin commentary
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20 November 2002
Poetry windfall | More Paulin commentary
Poetry, everyone says, doesn't pay.
There's practically no money to be made in it, and only very few poets can subsist off their poetry-earnings.
Now there's been something of a shake-up in the United States, and one wonders what the consequences will be.
Ruth Lilly (an Eli Lilly heir) is apparently bequeathing a large amount of money to Poetry magazine.
(See, for example, this article in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle.)
The number being bandied about in newspaper headlines is 100 million dollars, while an article in yesterday's issue of The New York Times quotes Poetry editor Jay Parisi saying: "Nobody knows exactly how much it will be, but let's say were [sic] comfortably into the nine figures".
The money gives Poetry an endowment on par with that of a decent-sized liberal arts college.
It makes it one of the wealthiest publications in the United States (and the world).
One could completely mismanage these funds and still earn a yearly income off of them that is many times over the cash-flow currently being generated and spent by Poetry.
Poetry is a very illustrious magazine.
Celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, it is certainly prestigious and esteemed.
(See the official website for additional information.)
However, it only has a monthly circulation of 12,000.
That is very impressive by poetry standards, but absolutely insignificant by any other measure.
(Not that one can really compare, but note that the complete review currently gets more than that many unique visitors weekly .....)
One wonders what kind of distorting effect this incredible windfall will have.
No one in the poetry business can compete with this -- no publishers, no other organizations, nobody.
Which might not be such a good thing.
One wonders whether spreading the money around might not have been more productive .....
The newspaper articles aren't exactly clear on who gets what.
Poetry is published by the so-called Modern Poetry Association (note the not-so-poetic names that run that place ...), and presumably they will administer the funds.
Note also that the Modern Poetry Association is registered as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization -- meaning that gifts such as Ms.Lilly's generally aren't quite as altruistic as the headlines suggest: there are huge tax benefits for individuals and estates that "give" away money to these -- meaning, of course, that such "gifts" are in reality heavily subsidized by taxpayers who have no say in the matter.
(Pity the poor for-profit poetry magazine that has to compete against Poetry now, too -- in supposedly capitalist America the market is supposed to decide, but somehow an organization registered as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit with a hundred million in the bank gets more breaks than someone who is trying to make a real business out of poetry.
So much for capitalist ideals .....)
(Update (27/11/2002): A Chicago Tribune story by James Warren (17 November) gives more details about the bequest and also notes: "With so much funding from one source, tax laws will require the Modern Poetry Association to become a private operating foundation rather than a so-called 501c3, its current tax-exempt status conferred to qualifying political and cultural institutions and interest groups. It is applying to change its name to the Poetry Foundation, but it will still be able to receive tax-deductible contributions.")
Stephen Kinzer's article in yesterday's issue of The New York Times also states:
Unlike many philanthropists, Ms. Lilly does not seek publicity.
Many recipients of her largess are not even aware of her involvement.
If Ms.Lilly doesn't want her name on anything, we're curious to know why Mr. Parisi's institution offers both the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (named long before the really big bequest was made).
And we wonder what those other institutions were thinking when they named the Ruth Lilly Medical Library, the Ruth Lilly Health Education Center, the Ruth Lilly Shade Garden, the Ruth Lilly Law Library, and so on, ad close to infinitum.
There's no doubt: she gives out a lot of money, and maybe she really doesn't want her name on anything -- but please do note that it seems to be plastered on close to everything .....
"She doesn't want her name on anything, and I doubt she's ever cut a ribbon," Mr. Parisi said.
Well, we're curious to see what happens now.
Small-time poetry is suddenly very big-time indeed.
The riches come in an odd way -- certainly not earned by the Poetry-folk in the good old capitalist way.
(Funny how America is often willing to look the other way, mouthing that the market should decide but in fact letting influential individual market players control things instead and completely disregarding the capitalist rules when it suits it.)
But it's hard to begrudge the people at Poetry the money, however they come by it.
It's been a worthwhile magazine for many of its nine decades; one hopes the money doesn't ruin it.
But we don't envy them the huge responsibility of handling all that cash, and trying to put it to good use.
More Paulin commentary
We recently mentioned poet Tom Paulin's troubles at Harvard -- and then his lack thereof elsewhere.
Here an article -- approving of Harvard's eventual decision --, from the unlikely Arab News (Saudi Arabia's English daily !), written by John R. Bradley.
Bradley admits to having made Paulin's acquaintance -- and not exactly having been overwhelmed:
He struck me then, as I know he struck many of his undergraduate tutorial students who were my friends at the time, as a second-rater and a phony
(That personal attack -- buttressed by the claim of wide-spread (though, of course, anonymous) agreement -- is a nice touch.
And since he doesn't exhort anyone to murder Paulin he can accurately claim not to be stooping to Paulin's level ....)
Interesting also his conclusion:
By refusing Paulin a platform, Harvard has achieved two positive results.
It has set a precedent, which should also apply to Arab haters.
And it has, incidentally, smashed a little cell of the Western academic mafia.
Ah, yes: the precedent.
Which is, of course, something Harvard (and others) should consider ... as it is sure to be invoked soon enough against other speakers.
(Note that Bradley makes nothing of the fact that it was Harvard that offered Paulin the platform in the first place.
Or that Paulin will be appearing on his next platform tomorrow (at Notre Dame, as we noted).)
19 November 2002
Louis Couperus and Pushkin Press
Louis Couperus and the Pushkin Press
For a few years now a small London publisher, Pushkin Press, has been (re-)publishing small books by notable, generally European authors -- Stefan Zweig, Italo Svevo, Arthur Schnitzler, and the like -- that were first published about a century ago.
The nice little volumes have attracted our attention on a number of occasions.
(They are now also being distributed in the US, readily available in some bookstores and via Amazon.com and the like.)
Absent still, however: much review coverage.
A rare exception was a Times Literary Supplement review by John Bayley (29 January 1999) though he didn't cover too much.
He did, however, enthuse:
Pushkin Press are to be warmly congratulated on this modest and yet altogether original and desirable publishing enterprise.
Their books are small, handy and produced in excellent taste, innocent of blurbs, quotations and any other gaudy publishers' paraphernalia.
We are similarly impressed, and we were pleased to finally get around to reviewing two Pushkin Press volumes ourselves -- short novels by much-neglected Dutch author Louis Couperus (1863-1923).
The books in question: Ecstasy (see our review) and Psyche (see our review).
Pushkin Press published the books in the original (nearly century-old) translations -- which seems appropriate.
Indeed, one wonders what contemporary translators would make of Couperus' language (he can get carried away on occasion ...).
Couperus counts as fairly obscure -- though it is notable that these works (like most of his writing) were translated into English fairly soon after their original Dutch publication.
And as Julian Evans wrote in The Independent (14 July 2002) (and then essentially repeated in The Guardian (20 July 2002):
Dutch literature has not always been so disregarded in Britain.
When the married homosexual novelist Louis Couperus -- Holland's answer to André Gide -- visited England before the First World War, he was received both by Prime Minister Asquith and the Opposition leader.
One can hardly see Blair or Hague entertaining a desire to speak to any European novelist.
One might wonder if, perhaps, it wasn't the "homosexual"-aspect (rather than the "novelist"-aspect) that ... attracted Asquith and the Opposition leader, but no: Couperus was widely and well received as an estimable author.
On that trip he also met with, among others, George Moore, George Bernard Shaw, Stephen McKenna and Edmund Gosse.
(Note that Couperus was apparently married to a woman (Holland wasn't that liberal back then, after all), so he wasn't the most convincing of homosexuals in any case.
Note also that his middle name was "Marie Anne", which makes one wonder what his parents were thinking ... though since he was their eleventh child perhaps they had simply run out of boy-names.)
In a profile of the author in the Times Literary Supplement (30 January 1998) Caroline de Westenholz writes
There has always been a certain embarrassment about Louis Couperus in the Netherlands.
Such languid fin-de-siècle posing will never be accommodated in the practical, petit bourgeois Dutch approach.
The reason that Couperus has been all but forgotten in the English-speaking world is largely due to the lack of recognition of his literary importance in his own country.
Lack of availability of the texts is, of course, also an issue.
Fortunately, Pushkin Press offers two of them -- and at least one more (The Hidden Force) can be found (try Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk if your local bookstore doesn't have it).
(We hope also to review The Hidden Force for you before the year is out.)
Ecstasy is a period-piece-curiosity -- an ultra-fin-de-siècle experiment of modest success.
Psyche, however, is a real find -- the decadent style actually working here to very good effect, the story both affecting and engaging.
We can certainly recommend: give one or the other -- or some other Pushkin Press title -- a try .....
18 November 2002
The next Paulin reading ... | New Mulisch review
Updates: Fukuyama - Vargas Llosa | 100 days of blogging
The next Tom Paulin reading ...
As we mentioned last week, Tom Paulin was invited to read at Harvard and then disinvited.
So what now ?
Well, his reading schedule apparently does not ease up.
Next up: Paulin reads at the University of Notre Dame on Thursday, 21 November (at 19:00).
Funny, but there hasn't been so much fuss.
Funny, but Tom Gross' inflammatory article (as justified as his points may be) in the National Review (12 November) makes no mention of the Notre Dame appearance -- only the Harvard one.
Why, we wonder, is that ?
We haven't found too much Notre Dame comment (despite the fact that the eighth-ranked Fighting Irish had the week off, surely leaving students, alumni, and fans free to ponder other weighty matters ...) -- though there is an official news release warning that there is a Controversial poet to speak at Notre Dame (and even mentioning the Harvard disinvitation).
Also of note: Paulin recently read at Princeton University (4 October).
We couldn't find any reports on that event -- which suggests that there were no protests (at least no news- and note-worthy ones), and certainly no efforts to disinvite the poet.
But: is it just a coincidence that in those same days The Daily Princetonian reported (7 October) that College presidents decry anti-Semitism, noting:
More than 300 college presidents have endorsed a controversial statement condemning intolerance of and intimidation toward Jews. But the statement (...) does not carry the endorsement of President Tilghman.
The Princeton president is apparently no Larry Summers, eh ?
So, again, we ask not so much about the merits of this case but, regarding Paulin's planned Harvard appearance and the reaction thereto: why the big deal there and then -- and such little deals everywhere else ?
But maybe things will heat up at Notre Dame towards the end of the week -- after all, the Fighting Irish's next opponent, Rutgers, is a pathetic 1-9 -- hardly worth much pre-game attention.
Protesting poetry readings or lectures sounds like a viable tailgating alternative .....
(In any case, it will be fun to see how a Catholic institution such as Notre Dame handles this, as compared to the theoretically non-denominational Harvard .....)
New Mulisch review
The newest review at the complete review is of Harry Mulisch's Het theater, de brief en de waarheid.
Yes, that's right, it's not available in an English translation (yet ? ever ?) -- as is the case for so much of Mulisch's work .....
(We only have ten titles by him under review; four of these have not yet been translated into English (and some that have are probably impossible to find -- good luck getting your hands on The Stone Bridal Bed !).)
Het theater, de brief en de waarheid was the 2000 "boekenweekgeschenk" -- the traditional annual short work commissioned from an illustrious author (like Mulisch) that is given away as a Dutch book-week promotion.
Reportedly 768,000 copies were distributed -- all in the (relatively) tiny Dutch market.
We actually have three other boekenweekgeschenk-titles under review -- two of which even have been translated into English:
For more boekenweekgeschenk-titles, see this page
Updated reviews: Posthuman Fukuyama and Vargas Llosa in paperback
We try to update our reviews (or rather: the links on our review-pages) with some regularity, but especially with new titles we sometimes neglect them after the initial rush of reviews.
So, for example, Francis Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future (published about half a year ago): updating our review over the last week we found 30 (!) new review links -- some of which we should probably have found sooner.
(We know that users rely on us to lead them to reviews such as those from Spectrum ("The Journal of the Association of Adventist Forums") or from the Weekend Australian .....)
Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat has been out a bit longer -- and is now available (in the US) in paperback.
Our updated review page adds a mere 23 new review links -- but also a number of review summaries and quotes.
(One or two more who weren't so impressed -- but we're still amazed at how much praise this not-so-well-written book received and continues to receive.)
100 days of blogging
The complete review's literary weblog, this Literary Saloon, has now been up for a hundred days.
So far, so good, we figure.
User-interest hasn't quite kept pace with the rest of the site, steadying at about 70 or so unique visitors a day (more on weekdays, considerably less on weekends).
(See these Saloon-statistics -- though note that this counter tends to overcount unique visitors (unable to always differentiate them from repeaters).)
We're a bit surprised to find that, even on the best days, still less -- and usually far less -- than five percent of visitors to the complete review find their way to the Saloon.
Geographically, the Literary Saloon seems to attract a slightly more American audience than the rest of the site.
The counter doesn't completely accurately reflect countries of origin, but gives a fairly good idea.
Forty-five separate countries can be identified according to it -- with some unusual results:
Taiwan is the fifth most popular identifiable country of origin.
All 23 visits from all of Africa come from South Africa.
Among the 45 countries are the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
There have only been 7 visitors from all of South America
(Note, again, that these are not particularly reliable statistics.)
(Update (21/11/2002): a reader informs us that we are perused as far afield as Antarctica !)
Referrers split with about three-quarters of visitors arriving via website-referrals (a large majority of those from somewhere else at the complete review) and one-quarter from search engines.
(Note that this counter does not appear to recognize many search engines as such.)
Several outside links have provided considerable traffic: Bookslut, splinters, Open Brackets, and wood s lot.
Always amusing also to see what visitors were looking for.
The most popular search engine query remains, bafflingly, "Nell Freudenberger" -- though our (far more extensive) Orlando Figes-Rachel Polonsky coverage also attracted considerable interest.
Through the first 100 days there were 201 separate entries.
We're still not quite sure about the link versus commentary mix (whether we should have more of one or the other), but it's presumably in the nature of a weblog to be a very mixed bag.
Anyway, we hope you continue to enjoy it.
15 November 2002
We review The Secret History ... | Tom Paulin disinvited
We review The Secret History ...
Among the newest additions to the complete review: a review of a Secret History.
No, sorry, despite all our recent Donna Tartt-commentary, it's not her famous first.
What we reviewed instead is C.K.Stead's recent novel, The Secret History of Modernism -- along with two of his earlier works of fiction.
It's the first we've read of Stead, and we enjoyed all three books.
The clever, sure writing reminds us of Gilbert Adair -- with a touch more nostalgia (and less creepiness).
Though he's emphatically "literary" -- a long-time professor of English, no less -- he's much less so than we expected.
Even a book with the obviously challenging title of The Secret History of Modernism (not too many casual bookstore browsers who will even consider whether that might not be the read they've been looking for) is really quite straightforward.
In a review in The Spectator John de Falbe is even more enthusiastic:
C. K. Stead is challenging, fun, urbane and brilliant. Read him.
We'd certainly be interested in reading more by him -- there's poetry galore, theory, and quite a few more novels.
Problem is, of course, that they are hard to come by.
Harvill publishes a handful of the fiction (and libraries hold at least The New Poetic), but most of it isn't readily found as far from the antipodes as we are.
But we'll keep an eye out for him in future.
Tom Paulin disinvited
Poet Tom Paulin was scheduled to give the Morris Gray Lecture at Harvard University this week.
He did not do so.
News stories about this are already popping up all over the place.
See, for example :
(Note the different spins in the headlines alone !)
The Harvard University English Department (who were both the sponsors and the disinviters) offers this explanation:
By mutual consent of the poet and the English Department, the Morris Gray poetry reading by Tom Paulin, originally scheduled for Thursday, November 14th, will not take place.
The English Department sincerely regret the widespread consternation that has arisen as a result of this invitation, which had been originally decided on last winter solely on the basis of Mr. Paulin's lifetime accomplishments as a poet.
"Mutual consent" ?
The fuss -- and reason for the disinvitation -- were some remarks about Israel and Israeli settlers that Paulin made in an interview with Omayma Abdel-Latif in Al-Ahram Weekly (issue of 4 -10 April 2002).
Apparently what Paulin said there way outweighed "Mr. Paulin's lifetime accomplishments as a poet" and made him an inappropriate figure to give what even the English Department describes as a "poetry reading".
(Pity the fools who think art and politics can be kept and considered separately .....)
The timing of the furor is, of course, interesting.
As noted, the interview was published in April.
It is now November.
Apparently news does not always travel fast.
At least not to Harvard's ivy gates: it's not like nobody had noticed elsewhere.
Already 17 April Rod Liddle asked Can Tom Paulin be serious ? (in The Guardian).
And there were protests: see, for example, Paulin heckled by student (in the 2 May Oxford Student).
Indeed, poor Paulin complained a few months ago: 'I feel like a leper' says Oxford poet in anti-Semitism row (James Morrison in The Independent, 4 August).
Things heated up at Harvard and in the US with a strident piece by Tom Gross in the National Review (12 November), Welcome Voice ?.
(At least Gross provides a link to the controversial interview -- something disappointingly few commentators on this whole affair do.)
Once people made a fuss about some of these remarks (some of which certainly sound pretty outrageous) Harvard was easily pressured into telling Paulin he was not welcome.
Harvard's student-newspaper, The Crimson, offers a number of useful articles detailing events (and giving opinions):
Religion, settlement policy, calls to violence ... it's hard to say much of anything about these without stirring passions and controversy (which is why we try to avoid taking a position here).
We do, however, feel an obligation to remind readers of the difference between anti-Israel statements (which Paulin's certainly were) and anti-Semitic statements, which seem something quite different (though surprisingly many people seem to have a strong interest in blurring the distinction and conflating the two).
We also suggest that readers don't rely solely on newspaper reports and quotes from Paulin's interview but rather read his statements for themselves.
(We also feel an obligation to say that he said some incredibly stupid things -- one assumes in a fit of angry passion, but still: he's old enough to know better and not let himself be drawn out like this.)
The English department at Harvard is, of course, free to invite and disinvite anyone they wish.
However, they did so here in a manner which we find very deplorable.
Paulin's statements were well-known, and if these were a problem (as one could argue they were -- though we still have no idea what relevance they could have when considering whether or not to have a poetry reading) then this issue could have been dealt with discretely and diplomatically many months ago.
Protesters naturally had no interest in things being handled in such a way: it's so much more fun (and there's so much more press coverage) if the screams of anti-Semitism are only raised at the last minute, when the hapless contemptible poet is at the doorstep.
A spineless English department (and a meddling university President) then made things even worse.
All in all: a situation that was badly handled by all involved.
Finally, to get a better idea of Paulin's religious stance, why not have a look at Patricia Horton's A 'Theological Cast of Mind`: Politics, Protestantism and the Poetic Imagination in the Poetry of Tom Paulin (Literature and Theology, XVI/3 (August 2002)), which "considers Paulin's ambivalent attitude to Protestantism, his recognition that it is repressive and authoritarian as well as radical and transgressive" ?
14 November 2002
Continuing Tartt-mania | Miami Book Fair International
Continuing Tartt-mania (and hoodoo)
Donna Tartt's The Little Friend continues to get a great deal of coverage -- as does the author.
The reviews are piling up -- we have links to over thirty already on our review page -- and we aren't even bothering with most of the author-profiles.
(For someone who sells herself as such a forbidding recluse Tartt sure does manage to get around .....)
The reviews continue to split pro and contra.
Among recent ones we find such ready-for-the-paperback blurbs as: "The Little Friend is a timeless book, masterful in sweep and detail alike" (so says Marta Salij in the Detroit Free Press) to the let's-leave-that-out-of-the-publicity-material quotes like Max Watman describing it as: "a tedious, overwrought, ill-conceived non-story" (in this month's issue of The New Criterion).
(Watman also reviews several other books in the same piece, including Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (see also our review); he finds it "sometimes dull", but then decides "considering its topic, dullness is a kind of genius".
That excuse apparently didn't hold for Tartt.)
Watman also finds: "The reader will look in vain for a sense of humor, for Tartt’s tongue has never met her cheek."
Meanwhile, however, Laura Miller, in her recent review (in Salon), claims: "And some novelists, a very few, just have the hoodoo. Tartt is one of them."
(This is apparently praise.)
For more, just follow the links on our review page: we try to link you to every review we can find (and since we can even send you to the one at Gender Agenda ("the magazine of the CUSU Women's Union") we think we're doing a decent job of it.)
Also of possible interest: a Tartt-event at Square Books today -- a reading (apparently to be broadcast at Thacker Mountain Radio -- try tuning in over the Internet) at 17:30, followed by a signing at 18:30.
Miami Book Fair International
The Miami Book Fair International runs 17-24 November.
On the official site they feature a quote from "Author, Tom Wolfe", claiming:
Miami Book Fair International is the literary Mecca of the Western World
That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it's still a big show with a considerable amount that's of interest.
Check out their Confirmed Authors List for the many who will be appearing.
(Unfortunately we couldn't find the corresponding "Unconfirmed Authors List" on the site, so we can't tell you who else might be showing up .....)
12 November 2002
Geoffrey Hill reading | Donna Tartt on NPR
Geoffrey Hill reading at the 92nd St. Y
A month ago I reported on a Jonathan Franzen - Jeffrey Eugenides reading at the 92nd St. Y in New York.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a Geoffrey Hill reading there.
A difficulty with Hill -- besides the difficulty inevitably ascribed to his poetry -- is the veneration and acclaim he receives.
The 92nd St. Y publicity material shows some restraint in what quotes were used, but there's still Harold Bloom maintaining Hill is "the strongest British poet now alive" and Donald Hall looking into the future, certain that "Geoffrey Hill will remain the monumental English poet of the latter twentieth century."
These aren't carefully selected words of high praise; there's more to be found at many turns.
Consider: A.N. Wilson not restricting himself to poetic judgement: "I think Geoffrey Hill is probably the best writer alive."
Or Nicholas Lezard: "Let us make one thing clear: Geoffrey Hill is the greatest living poet in the English language."
The praise is, admittedly, almost always tempered by the warning of how difficult and even impenetrable the verse itself is (and there are also those critics who won't credit Hill with near as much as Bloom, or Wilson or the others -- see also our Geoffrey Hill page for more quotes about him).
So Hill is generally put on a pedestal -- but it is a fearsome pedestal, the superlatives (coupled with the claim of daunting verse) apparently leaving most wary to even approach it.
That seemed to be the case yesterday.
Geoffrey Hill doesn't often read, and this New York appearance was a rare opportunity to hear him in person.
How disappointing then that so few took advantage.
Whereas the Franzen and Eugenides event was all crowded bustle, the hall packed, the Hill reading was a less lively -- and far less popular -- affair.
Season-ticket holders -- not all quite sure what they were in for -- seemed to make up most of the audience (and many others, clearly, skipped the event).
But there were a few who were thrilled to find themselves there (and others, one hopes, who were won over).
David Yezzi, director of the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd St. Y responsible for the evening, wrote an enticing introduction in the 7 November issue of The New York Sun, asking: "Is Geoffrey Hill Our Greatest Living Poet ?"
The small circulation paper (like this humble Literary Saloon, which also forewarned you of what you could be missing) apparently didn't reach enough people who wanted to find out -- though I still wonder if it isn't that very question (and the other superlatives tossed about the poet) that scare the audiences off.
I would have wished Hill a bigger audience, but as long as I was there I was pleased enough.
Dressed all in black Hill looked properly severe.
He began at the beginning, reading "Genesis", written five decades back and the first poem in his collected poems.
The patient recitation contrasted with how I've always thought of Hill's poems -- especially the later ones, something like Speech ! Speech ! being almost all rush and torrent.
(It's also how I have always enjoyed them, almost tumbling over the words, caught up in the overwhelming flow (often gasping, and flailing for any hold -- most breaking away as soon as I think I have one).)
As it turned out, Hill was reading from what he noted was a particularly uncorrected proof, requiring a great deal of revision even as he read.
As it turned out as well: it made no difference: Hill is a deliberate, steady reader, and the poems were all delivered at this same easy pace -- a welcome moderation of the texts for me.
Amusingly enough, however, Hill made a point of saying he believed his poems should be read fast (and recommending that one not stop to look up every reference).
Hill read a number of pieces from Speech ! Speech ! (see our review), noting that while the recent volume, The Orchards of Syon (see also our review) seemed to be more popular he continued to feel a particular "affection and loyalty" to the darker volume.
Of particular interest: his mention that Honoré Daumier's sculptures (not just the drawings) were a great influence.
I wasn't aware of Daumier's sculpting work, but a quick look at what one finds on the Internet shows what Hill might have seen: check out these small pieces of Dupin, d'Argout, Guizot, Fruchard, Cunin, de Podenas, the very different Ratapoil, as well as this small picture of a whole collection.
Several times, between reading some of the poems from Speech ! Speech ! and The Orchards of Syon, Hill addressed the issue of difficulty he so often finds himself charged with.
He doesn't appear to be particularly pleased to be typecast as a difficult poet, but seems to have accepted it.
He made a variety of points about it -- including claiming that he himself doesn't get all the references (which got a laugh, and which he can get away with -- but which really isn't that funny, suggesting as it does wilful obscurity for obscurity's sake; he gets away with it presumably because no one really believes him).
He defended difficulty, maintaining that poetry (or any art) has "no obligation to be instantly accessible" -- and suggesting there are dangers when it is.
(I ... don't disagree, but it's a more complicated claim and needs more consideration (and elaboration) than he was able to provide in these circumstances.)
He also he said he didn't have the "slightest interest in being an intellectual poet" (which, I note, doesn't preclude him from nevertheless being one ...).
It was particularly pleasing to hear that Hill continues to be productive, with not only a book of essays promised for next year but also another poetry collection.
The new book, also due next year, is Scenes from Comus, dedicated to composer Hugh Wood.
Bits have already appeared in Stand (no excerpts online, just a bit of introduction ...) and London Magazine.
Hill describes it as (like Speech ! Speech !) a 120-stanza work.
Sections I and III each consist of twenty in tercets, the middle section a mixed bag of eighty.
He explained he was also specifically trying here to write a "poetry of plain statement"; the excerpts he read suggest some change from what is found in his past few collections, though it is too little to get a good impression.
Much of it, he also explained, was written over a very productive Thanksgiving holiday spent in a very dark Iceland -- leading to some Icelandic imagery creeping in (which he acknowledges "will cause trouble").
Scenes from Comus specifically refers to Hugh Wood's symphonic cantata (opus 6) of the same name.
It is based on Milton's Mask -- exactly the sort of clarity Hill says he is striving for in his sequence.
Wood's work was written in the early 1960s, but has only recently been recorded (Sir Andrew Davis, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra).
For additional information about Wood and this work, see:
Hill closed the reading with two poems from Canaan (see our review).
An interesting, successful evening.
Hill expressed some reluctance about commenting on his work as he read (as he repeatedly told the audience he had been advised to do), but fortunately chose to do so.
He avoided most specifics, but managed to convey a great deal, demonstrating that the specifics -- especially those obscure references -- aren't what is central to his poetry.
They can't be discounted -- they are, even, integral -- but for an impression and a first feel for the verses they don't have to be the stumbling blocks so many like to see them as.
One hopes that, at least, was a lesson many in the audience could take home.
Donna Tartt on NPR
A reader made us aware of the online-availability of a lengthy interview with Donna Tartt at NPR.
More convenient than the radio -- listen at your leisure !
11 November 2002
(Not much) more on Gabe Hudson | NYTBR notes
(Not much) more on Gabe Hudson
A few days ago we wrote at some length about Gabe Hudson's much-repeated lie that he had received a letter from the President calling his new book (Dear Mr. President) "unpatriotic" and "ridiculous" and "just plain bad writing.".
The Hartford Courant was taken in -- though they were hardly the first or only ones -- and finally 'exposed' Hudson's falsehood.
Hudson 'explained' that his (false) claims were meant to be satirical .....
There's been surprisingly little follow-up.
Among the few acknowledgements of these events: clicking on Hudson's site -- http://www.gabehudson.com leads to this article from the 7 November Hartford Advocate popping up (which describes the Courant getting fooled).
Perhaps this is also meant as satire ... ?
Elsewhere on the Hudson site there is no acknowledgement of his misdeeds (or his attempt at satire, if you prefer), and the letter writing campaign page still makes the claim that Hudson did, in fact, receive a letter from the President.
(The McSweeney's site also appears, at this time, to make no mention of Hudson's lie.)
Otherwise: short discussions at Editor & Publisher (8 November) and brandhast (entry of 7 November), and a fair number of comments at MetaFilter (in a thread that seems to go slightly off track) are, along with a few minor mentions, pretty much all we've come across.
We're surprised there has not been more to-do about it.
Outraged (as well as supportive) readers haven't had much to say -- nor have the interviewers and publications who were duped.
Possibly everybody thinks this is no big deal .....
The New York Times Book Review notes
Just a few notes on this week's The New York Times Book Review (10 November):
In our recent crQ article, How Sexist are We ?, we noted an apparent sex-divide between non-fiction and fiction books (or at least those receiving review-coverage in major publications).
This week's Book Review suggest we may be on to something.
There are full-length length reviews of seven non-fiction books: the books were all written by men.
There are full-length length reviews of five fiction books: four of the five books were written by women.
Yes, the sample is statistically too small to count for much of anything (and the Books in Brief section -- if one counts those as reviews -- restores some fiction-parity), but it is still a striking discrepancy.
Figes (and that whole to-do)
Orlando Figes' Natasha's Dance gets reviewed, by Serge Schmemann -- and he can't resist making mention of the TLS-review by Rachel Polonsky (much discussed in these pages):
In his native England (...) Natasha's Dance has stirred some controversy, particularly over a sharply critical review in The Times Literary Supplement.
That may be the inevitable fate of an academic who undertakes a popular history.
The impression one gets from Schmemann's summing-up of the Figes-criticism is that Figes simply ran "into accusations of oversimplifying."
But that's not really what either Polonsky (or T.J.Binyon) went at Figes about.
See our summing-up of the controversy in our The Year in Reviews-piece for a bit more detail
Franzen and the pop critics
We mentioned a few days ago that Jonathan Franzen's How to Be Alone was reviewed in The New York Times by ... one of the Times' reviewers (Janet Maslin) with a less than literary pedigree.
Now comes the Sunday review of the book -- and it's by A.O.Scott ("a film critic for The Times" is how she is described on the review-page).
Both Scott and Maslin do deal a lot with literary stuff for the Times, but it's interesting to see how Franzen is seen now as more a pop (than literary) phenomenon, his books -- at least not the non-fiction -- not handed off to the more literary folk at the Times (Kakutani, Eder, etc.)
(In last week's Book Review Scott was also the one who reviewed Donna Tartt's The Little Friend .....)
(See, of course, also our review of Franzen's book.)
And speaking of Tartt
Donna Tartt's The Little Friend (see our review) debuts solidly at number 8 on the Times' bestseller list -- one that also finds Umberto Eco's Baudolino hanging on (at number 15) for a second week (something, we admit, we find quite surprising).
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