Category Archives: Biography

ALAN BENNETT: THE TIME I SAW T.S. ELIOT ON A TRAIN PLATFORM

Alan Bennett Keeping OnFrom Keeping On Keeping On, by Alan Bennett

The Legendary Playwright On His Brush With The Great Poet

T.S. Eliot I only saw once, some time in 1964. It was on the old Central Station in Leeds, long since demolished, which was the terminus for the London trains. I was with Timothy Binyon, with whom I had been at college and who in 1964 was a lecturer in Russian at Leeds University and was also teaching me to drive. In the early 1960s there had been a long overdue attempt to reactivate the slot machines which all through the war years and after had stood empty and disconsolate on railway platforms, a sad reminder of what life had been like before the war. Now briefly there was chocolate in the machines again and cigarettes too; it had taken 20 years but austerity was seemingly at an end. One beneficiary of this development was a rudimentary printing machine to be found on most mainline stations. Painted pillarbox red it was a square console on legs with a dial on the top and a pointer. Using this pointer, for sixpence or a shilling one could spell out one’s name and address which would then be printed onto a strip of aluminium which could be attached to one’s suitcase, kitbag or whatever. Astonished to find such a machine actually working after decades of disuse, Binyon and I were printing out our names watched by a friendly middle-aged woman who was equally fascinated.
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It was at this point the train came in and after most of the passengers had cleared there came a small procession headed by the friendly lady, whom I now recognized as Mrs. Fletcher, a customer at my father’s butcher’s shop, followed by her daughter Valerie pushing a wheelchair with, under a pile of rugs, her husband T.S. Eliot; all accompanied by a flotilla of porters. It was only when this cavalcade had passed that the person we were waiting for made her appearance—namely the current editor of the London Review of Books, Mary-Kay Wilmers, who at that time worked for Faber and Faber and whose titular boss Eliot had been.
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T.S. Eliot died early the following year. Timothy Binyon, having produced a definitive biography of Pushkin, died in 2004 and now Valerie Eliot has died. I only met her a couple of times, though was persuaded to attend her funeral if only because, through her family coming to our shop, I had known her longest—if in some respects least. What Valerie Eliot did do, though, was to send me the notes her husband had made on the inside of his program after their visit to Beyond the Fringe:

An amazingly vigorous quartet of young men: their show well produced and fast moving, a mixture of brilliance, juvenility and bad taste. Brilliance illustrated by a speech by Macmillan (Cook), a sermon (Bennett) and an interview with an African politician (Miller, who otherwise reminded us of Auden). Juvenility by anti-nuclear-bomb scene, anti-capital-punishment scene and the absence of any satire at the expense of the Labour Party. Bad taste by armpits and Lady Astor speech (?). Still, it is pleasant to see this type of entertainment so successful.

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Today’s Birthday: Robert Bringhurst

Robert BringhurstRobert Bringhurst was born October 16, 1946, in the ghetto of South Central Los Angeles. He was the only child of a migratory family, raised in the mountain and desert country of Alberta, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and British Columbia. He spent ten years as an itinerant undergraduate, studying physics, architecture and linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, philosophy and oriental languages at the University of Utah, and comparative literature at Indiana University, which gave him a BA in 1973. He had published two books of poems before entering the writing program at the University of British Columbia, which awarded him an MFA in 1975.
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From 1977 to 1980 he taught writing and English literature at UBC, and for some years after that made his living as a typographer. He has also been poet-in-residence and writer-in-residence at several universities in North America and Europe.
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He has lived in Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, France, Peru, Panama and Japan, as well as the UK, the USA and Canada, and has published translations from Arabic, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, Navajo and Haida. Since 1985, his linguistic work has concentrated increasingly on Native American languages, especially those of the British Columbia coast.
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Bringhurst is first and foremost a poet, but he has published a substantial quantity of prose, invading the domains of art history, typography, linguistics, classical studies and literary criticism, without the least sign of respect for disciplinary boundaries. His book The Elements of Typographic Style (2nd ed., 1996) is now a standard text in its field. His Black Canoe (2nd ed., 1992) is one of the classics in the field of Native American art history, and The Raven Steals the Light, which he cowrote with Haida artist Bill Reid (reissued in 1996 with a new preface by Claude Lévi-Strauss) is among the most popular books in Canada in the field of Native Studies.

(Source: The Canadian Literature Archive)

See also: Selected Poems by Robert Bringhurst.
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On October 26th, 2017 from 5:00 PM  – 6:30 PM, at the Coach House, Green College, UBC, 6201 Cecil Green Park Road, Vancouver, Robert Bringhurst and his wife, Canadian poet Jan Zwicky, will present THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD: POETRY AND ECOLOGY.  See the EVENTS PAGE for details.

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Seditious verses of the royal Master of Music

One of Britain’s most influential composers and a favourite of the royal court, Sir Arnold Bax had another life as a would-be Irish nationalist poet, writes Petroc Trelawny

Seditious verses of the royal Master of MusicSir Arnold Bax wanted to die in Glencolumcille, Co Donegal. “I fancy that my last vision in this life will be the still brooding, dove-grey mystery of the Atlantic at twilight,” he said. He was seduced by the remote settlement, the savagery of the sea in winter, the rugged cliffs that stretch away from the houses, the live music he heard in Paddy John McNelis’s pub.
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Trad players were gathering outside another pub when I visited the Co Donegal village last month, recording a BBC radio documentary. Bax’s beloved beach was filled with sunburnt families, many of them day-trippers from Derry and Belfast whose journeys had been much simpler than his tortuous route via the Donegal Light Railway. The heat was breaking records, the sea absolutely flat, but it was not hard to imagine the potential fury of the waves, crashing hundreds of feet up the face of Glen Head. The natural beauty, and the sympathetic welcome Bax received from the villagers ensured that he returned year after year, later writing: “I came to know the people as I never knew any other community.”

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Read “A Dublin Ballad: 1916” by Dermot O’Byrne

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Listen to “Tintagel”, by Arnold Bax (1883-1953)

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Love Story That Was a Challenge to Tell: ‘Reaching for the Moon,’ a Film About Elizabeth Bishop

By LARRY ROHTER

A Poet_s Tempestuous Romance in BrazilIt’s not unusual, especially these days, for a film to have a lengthy gestation period. But “Reaching for the Moon,” a new drama about the tempestuous love affair between the American poet Elizabeth Bishop and the Brazilian landscape architect Carlota de Macedo Soares, has, by any standard, been an exceptionally long time in the making.
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Though the movie opened Friday [Nov. 8, 2013], its origins date to 1959, when the Brazilian film producer Lucy Barreto was invited to a luncheon at Samambaia, the mountain estate near Rio de Janeiro where Bishop and Macedo Soares lived. Prominent Brazilian poets and politicians were among the guests, and the house itself was decorated with paintings and sculpture by renowned artists, but it was the hostesses who left her with her most vivid memory.
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“What impressed me was the intimacy and complicity between the two of them,” Ms. Barreto recalled recently. “At times, one would be on one side of the room and the second on the other side, in different conversations. But one would look at the other with a half-smile, and you could see they were in constant communication. It was something very special, and I never forgot it.”

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We will be reading and discussing Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry on September 28. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems thus far.
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Please note that for the September 28th session only, we will be meeting in the mezzanine meeting room.

 

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‘I seem to spend my life missing you’

The correspondence of two giants of American poetry has all the sadness, comedy and truth of love, says Peter McDonald

Bishop and LowellLike another Elizabeth and Robert before them, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were in love; but they had more formidable obstacles to cope with than Elizabeth Barrett’s and Robert Browning’s comparatively tame encounters with Victorian respectability. For one thing, they were not lovers, in the conventional sense: Bishop’s homosexuality was unswayed by Lowell’s heterosexual charms. Also, for almost all of their 30-year relationship, the two located themselves far apart, with their own partners and wives, Bishop for much of the time in Brazil, and Lowell in Boston, New York and, towards the end, in England. Potentially the worst obstacle was the fact that they were the two best American poets of their time, something clear enough to each of them (and to plenty of their contemporaries). What wasn’t quite so clear then was that Bishop was also a very major poet by comparison with Lowell: Bishop herself seems not to have known this – or maybe did not want to know it – while Lowell, in his more lucid critical moments, could see its truth. For all of this, the two poets kept up a close relationship of mutual care and affection, delighting in one another’s vicarious company, over three decades of correspondence. Humanly, and not just artistically, that correspondence is vital.
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Letters between poets, when they concern poetry, can seem like a game of tennis – the serve of an ars poetica, and the volley of some contrasting take on it – in which the intensity of the competition doesn’t always make up for the predictability of the match. Although Bishop and Lowell do write about their own and others’ poetry magnificently on occasion, it’s not at the heart of their correspondence as a subject; the letters are centred on their lives, the places they find themselves and the other people they love – centred, too, on the development of their own feelings for one another.

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We will be reading and discussing Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry on September 28. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems thus far.

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ELIZABETH BISHOP’S MISUNDERSTOOD “BRAZIL”

By Benjamin Moser

ELIZABETH BISHOP_S MISUNDERSTOOD “BRAZIL”Half a century has passed since the Life World Library was launched, in 1961. Today, its volumes languish in Internet bookstores, begging for takers at less than a dollar. They are cheapened by their age, their association with the mass-market Time Life brand (“Mysteries of the Unknown,” “Home Repair and Improvement”) and its suburban, middle-brow readership, though that might be too strong a term: one wonders how many people actually read these picture books. But the Life World Library was once wildly popular, and not without ambition and quality, as the author of the volume on Brazil proves.
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This was no less than Elizabeth Bishop, who, by the time she came to write it, had been living in Brazil for a decade. Her eccentric aristocratic spouse, Lota de Macedo Soares, gave her entrée to the highest political and artistic circles: in the twentieth century, no foreign visitor of similar rank was as well-placed, or stayed as long (fifteen years). Because Brazil was everywhere in her work, and because the Life World Library contains her longest statement on the subject, the book has been granted a degree of scholarly attention seldom lavished on its fellows.
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Making it even more intriguing are the clouds of censorship that swirl above it. These are emphasized by Lloyd Schwartz, the editor of “Prose,” a collection of Bishop’s writing, which appeared last year. Bishop “famously disliked how the editors changed what she wrote,” Schwartz says. Moreover, her original final chapter was “completely different” from the published chapter, which “deals with what the United States and Brazil have in common, and in it she praises Brazil’s more effective way of dealing with issues of race.” Schwartz therefore chose to publish a version “taken mainly from her own typescript at Vassar.”
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We will be reading and discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems thus far.

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One Long Poem

HEATHER TRESELERElizabeth_Bishop-2[Elizabeth] Bishop’s confessional peers made it easy for her to be miscast as a cautious dowager. In the late 1950s and ’60s, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton, among others, boldly capitalized on the mid-century zeitgeist of domestic rebellion, writing poems that explored alcoholism and suicide, incest and infidelity, nuclear bombs and non-nuclear families—subjects that many Americans still regarded as taboo. By contrast, Bishop’s poems had a “Cordelia-like” quality, as Seamus Heaney described it: a sense that secrets were held in abeyance or dimly glossed as she rendered natural tableaux, ekphrastic meditations, and impersonal love poems, offering the reader startling moments—“the little that we get for free, / the little of our earthly trust”—without the full, wearying poignancy of what it took to arrive at them.
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Bishop indeed avoided what she termed “the tendency . . . to overdo the morbidity” that became common as confessionalism—or Robert Lowellism—came into vogue, spearheaded by her close friend and correspondent. Lowell’s Life Studies was published in 1959, offering portraits of his Beacon Hill childhood and bipolar episodes, his dread of Eisenhower, and his drunken nights with Delmore Schwartz and a taxidermied, rum-pickled duck. A few years later, Sexton, Lowell’s student, electrified the Boston poetry scene with her rock band and poems about suburban despair—thrilling audiences with her well-dressed rebelliousness, chthonic verse, and lean good looks. The poetry reading had not been so sexed up since W. H. Auden had read at Harvard in his scuffed-up bedroom slippers.
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Bishop did not approve. Writing to Lowell from her expatriate residence in Brazil in 1960, she asserted that Sexton’s poems “had a bit too much romanticism and what I think of as the ‘our beautiful old silver’ school of female writing. . . . They have to make quite sure that the reader is not going to mis-place them socially, first.” Aware of how a poet might capitalize on gender, class, and family name, Bishop largely steered clear of autobiographical conceits and political critique in her first collection, North & South (1946). Later, as her poems engaged more directly with the plights and pleasures of the individual, they never showed up with a bassist, a menstrual cycle, or an aristocratic clan primed for desecration. Alongside the confessionals’ striptease, Bishop appeared reliably clothed.
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We’ll be reading and discussing the poetry of Anne Sexton on July 27 and that of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28.

 

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Czeslaw Milosz: One of the most fascinating poets of the past 100 years

By Troy Jollimore

Czeslaw Milosz-100-yearsAt 4 in the morning on Oct. 9, 1980, Czeslaw Milosz’s phone rang. The caller was a Swedish journalist who informed him that he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. “It can’t be true,” Milosz said, and hung up and went back to sleep.
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This, at any rate, is the story Milosz told later. Most likely it isn’t true. But there is at least a grain of truth in it: Many people, not just Milosz himself, must have thought, “It can’t be true” on learning that the 69-year-old Lithuanian-born poet and author, who since the early 1960s had been laboring in obscurity as a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, had suddenly been transformed into a celebrity by winning the most prestigious literary prize on the planet.
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In America, he was practically unknown as a writer; most of his work had never been translated into English. In Poland, his writings had been banned for decades, ever since his 1951 defection to the West, which followed several years during which he worked as a diplomat for the Soviet-controlled government that had run the country since the end of World War II. There were those in Eastern Europe who remembered him, some with antipathy, labeling him a traitor, others with fondness and admiration. His work circulated, unofficially and in often in small, hand-produced formats, despite the efforts of the Polish regime to squelch it.
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Elizabeth Bishop and Modern American Poetry

by Jonathan Ellis

Elizabeth Bishop and Modern American PoetryAmerican poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was one of the most praised poets of her generation. Yet she was never the most read or respected at the time. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965) both sold more copies than any of her collections, while Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) continues to take the critical plaudits as the key work of poetry for most post-World War II readers. Lowell was godfather to the Confessional poets. His gift was somehow to fuse the radical themes of Beat writers like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac with the formal ingenuity of poet-critics like Randall Jarrell and Allan Tate. As a teacher at Harvard in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, he also acted as an informal mentor to a new generation of younger poets, including Plath and Anne Sexton. Bishop’s influence, on the other hand, took time to make itself felt and is still something of a well-kept secret. While each of her four collections of poetry gained recognition from her peers in the form of various fellowships and prizes, this acclaim did not immediately translate into much academic interest or popular success. At the time of her death there was just a single critical book on her work, a short introductory study by the poet Anne Stevenson. Poetry readers knew her, if at all, as the author of the much-anthologised piece, ‘The Fish’ (Bishop called it ‘that damned Fish’, [2] so sick was she of requests to republish it).
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Much has changed since the 1980s. Bishop, rather than Lowell, is the poet new writers usually cut their teeth against. She is a favourite poet of authors as diverse as Thom Gunn and Paul Muldoon, Jorie Graham and Louise Glück, Lavinia Greenlaw and Jo Shapcott. In fact, poets have been instrumental in raising Bishop’s profile, as well as providing some of the most acute and intelligent assessments of her work. Adrienne Rich’s 1983 review of Bishop’s Complete Poems is central to this. It was one of the first feminist readings of Bishop’s life and art, connecting ‘her experience of outsiderhood’ with ‘the essential outsiderhood of lesbian identity’. [3] While other poets disagreed with this assessment – notably Alicia Ostriker, who characterised Bishop in 1987 as one of those ‘poets who would be ladies’ [4] – it laid the groundwork for women poets’ re-reading of Bishop in the 1990s as a more sensual and sexual writer than had previously been thought. The poetry of Deryn Rees-Jones in England, Caítriona O’Reilly in Ireland, and Sandra McPherson in America, all owe something to Bishop’s understated, almost invisible, focus on the human body.

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An early reminder that we’ll be discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28

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The Circuitous Path of Papa and Ezra

The Circuitous Path of Papa and EzraErnest Hemingway and Ezra Pound’s friendship spanned continents—and ideologies.

By ALLEN MENDENHALL

Ernest Hemingway, fresh off his marriage to Hadley Richardson, his first wife, arrived in Paris in 1921. Paris was a playground for writers and artists, offering respite from the radical politics spreading across Europe. Sherwood Anderson supplied Hemingway with a letter of introduction to Ezra Pound. The two litterateurs met at Sylvia Beach’s bookshop and struck up a friendship that would shape the world of letters.
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They frolicked the streets of Paris as bohemians, joined by rambunctious and disillusioned painters, aesthetes, druggies, and drinkers. They smoked opium, inhabited salons, and delighted in casual soirées, fine champagnes, expensive caviars, and robust conversations about art, literature, and the avant-garde. Pound was, through 1923, exuberant, having fallen for Olga Rudge, his soon-to-be mistress, a young concert violinist with firm breasts, shapely curves, midnight hair, and long eyebrows and eyelashes. She exuded a kind of mystical sensuality unique among eccentric highbrow musicians; Pound found her irresistible.
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Pound was known for his loyalty to friends. Although he had many companions besides Hemingway—among them William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Robert McAlmon, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Pablo Picasso, Wyndham Lewis, T.E. Hulme, William Carlos Williams, Walter Morse Rummel, Ford Madox Ford, Jean Cocteau, and Malcolm Cowley—Hemingway arguably did more than the others to reciprocate Pound’s favors, at least during the Paris years when he promoted Pound as Pound promoted others.
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Pound was aware of Hemingway’s talent for publicity: he and Hemingway had combined their genius to promote Eliot’s The Waste Land. Hemingway introduced Pound to William Bird, an American reporter who arranged to publish an autobiographical piece about Pound’s childhood. Bird was instrumental to the eventual publication of Pound’s A Draft of XVI Cantos. Pound, for his part, secured for Hemingway a position as assistant editor of The Transatlantic Review. Their relationship matured into something symbiotic and mutually beneficial.

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