Category Archives: History
By Troy Jollimore
At 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.
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.
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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by Jonathan Ellis
American 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’,  so sick was she of requests to republish it).
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’.  While other poets disagreed with this assessment – notably Alicia Ostriker, who characterised Bishop in 1987 as one of those ‘poets who would be ladies’  – 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
Malcolm Guite has made an intriguing literary discovery, one that has eluded critics for over 200 years: the inspiration for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epoch-defining poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. But this is no ordinary scholarly find. To be accepted, Guite’s revelation requires a particular frame of mind, or what the Romantic poet himself called a “willing suspension of disbelief”.
Guite contends that the true source for the Mariner’s arduous odyssey – from degradation to redemption after committing the cosmic crime of killing the albatross that had guided his imperilled ship through the Antarctic mist and ice – was, in fact, the physical, spiritual and psychological torments that Coleridge himself would suffer in the years and decades after he wrote the poem when he was just twenty-five years old. It is Guite’s belief, not that the poet lived his poem after composing it between the autumn of 1797 and spring of 1798; rather, that Coleridge’s work is based on mysterious foreknowledge of his future self. Line by line, symbol by symbol, Guite painstakingly traces the ghostly congruities between the Mariner’s ordeals and its author’s own subsequent travails.
Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound’s friendship spanned continents—and ideologies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Robert Frost’s “doubleness,” revealed in his letters—and poems.
by ADAM KIRSCH
IT’S NOT OFTEN that a poet is famous enough to become the target of character assassination 50 years after his death. But in November 2013, a half-century after Robert Frost died, Harper’s Magazine published a withering attack on his legend, in the form of a short story by Joyce Carol Oates. The story, “Lovely, Dark, Deep”—its title drawn ironically from one of Frost’s most famous poems, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”—describes the attempt of a young woman, Evangeline Fife, to interview the aging Frost in 1951. But the Frost on display here is so odious that the interview soon turns into a confrontation, then an inquisition. After commenting nastily on the poet’s physical appearance—”his torso sagged against his shirt like a great udder”—Oates gives us a Frost who makes lecherous comments, and lies about his past, and trashes other poets, and fails as a father and husband, and displays an overall arrogance and meanness that make him entirely loathsome. The story ends with Frost collapsed on the ground, almost murdered by his interviewer’s contempt.
Oates’s story appears so entirely hostile to Frost that the reader starts to wonder about its real meaning. Does Oates, in fact, want us to share Fife’s anger at the old poet? Are all the accusations she hurls meant to be taken at face value? Or is this episode, perhaps, a dramatization of the cruel and inhumane ways that posterity treats great writers, especially when it comes time to write their biographies? After all, it was none other than Joyce Carol Oates who wrote critically, in 1988, about the rise of “pathography,” a variety of literary biography “whose motifs are dysfunction and disasters, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.” Such an approach to a writer’s life, Oates observed in The New York Times Book Review, can answer every question except the most important one: “How did so distinguished a body of work emerge from so undistinguished a life?”
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An early reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing the poetry of Robert Frost on May 25. Please bring your own choice of a poem by Frost, and if you wish, post it first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. Please see the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.
In January 1961 I came to London and started looking for a job. I’d graduated the previous June and been told by the person in charge of women’s appointments that the best I could hope for was a job as a typist. In March I started work at Faber, as the advertising manager’s secretary. Faber was T.S. Eliot’s firm: my father was very impressed. I shared an office with two other secretaries, one of them Eliot’s. She was called Angela, not Valerie: Valerie had married Eliot four years before, in 1957. (We all know now that she’d decided to marry him long before she first came to Faber, but some people knew even then that she kept a pair of white shoes in a drawer in her desk to wear when he summoned her to his room.)
I had some bad moments with him. I hadn’t been there more than a few months when he caught me looking out of the window onto Russell Square. I had my back both to my colleagues and to the door, and I was saying: ‘Look at all those lucky people in Russell Square doing bugger all.’ My colleagues were silent and when I turned round I realised why: Eliot had come into the room and was glowering at me. I might as well have been tearing at the grapes with murderous paws. After I’d graduated to blurb-writing he showed all the directors a blurb I’d written, saying: ‘Surely we can’t publish this.’ It was for Ann Jellicoe’s play The Knack and I’d said that the knack in question was the knack of getting girls into bed. Once, early on, I pointed out a discrepancy between two printings of one of his early poems – I can’t remember which. I was quite proud of myself. He said it didn’t matter.
Another reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing more of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our March session. On March 23 we will focus on “The Dry Salvages” and “Little Gidding.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.