Category Archives: Study

Borges in His Poetry

BY ALASTAIR REID

Borges in His PoetryTo talk or write about Borges has almost as disturbing an effect as reading him, for we are at once drawn into his disquieting dimension, the creating and fixing of which is his greatest accomplishment as a writer. The mind is made to quiver over tangible paradox. The effect of reading him hangs on beyond the written word, as a kind of vertigo (the Spanish word is asombro). I like best Leonard Michaels’s summing up of him as “a master of controlled estrangement”, for it underlines this effect, which Borges wears like an aura. We are not allowed to escape his ironies, for they are ours as well. For him, language—most of all in its ultimate refinement, literature, whether it be prose, poetry, or essay—is the supreme irony, in that it attempts to contain and perpetuate ideas and perceptions, an attempt which, by its nature, must inevitably mock both reader and maker.

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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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van gogh’s ear iv – david gascoyne, surrealism and the vanishing muse

By Darran Anderson

van gogh_s earA great deal has been written down the ages about the poetic muse: what it is, where it comes from and how to channel it. Most of this has been utter drivel, hyperbole to canonise poets as something akin to divine saints or soothsayers: the Mystic Megs of the literary world. A more interesting question arises when you consider not why or how the muse arrives but why, for some, it disappears? The writers who have it and lose it, the one-hit wonders, the child actors turned Baby Jane. Those who pissed away their inspiration through comfort, lost it through simple misfortune or had it stolen from them by madness.
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A case in point is the late David Gascoyne whose poem And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis ranks alongside Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, the paintings of Conroy Maddox and Emmy Bridgwater and the visions of William Blake and Lewis Carroll as one of the greatest of that rarest of things; English Surrealism. A writer who connected briefly with genius and wrote a poem so monumental it casts a long shadow over everything else he wrote or failed to write. To say that Gascoyne struck lucky is unfair given the skill with which he constructed his poems but his legacy is one that suggests true inspiration is a fleeting mercurial thing.

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Robert Lowell at 100: why his poetry has never been more relevant

Lowell’s confessional work of the 1960s marked a sea change in American letters – then he fell out of favour. But on the eve of his centenary, his work offers an urgent political message in a time of Trump

Robert_Lowell‘I was born under the shadow of the Dome of the Boston State House,” wrote the poet Robert Lowell, “and under Pisces, the Fish, on the first of March, 1917.” With his aristocratic background – all the inherited furniture and ancestral portraits surrounding him as a child, as he recalled in the memoir 91 Revere Street – perhaps it’s no surprise, reading Lowell 100 years after his birth, that he was often preoccupied with the passing of time. “Thirty-one / Nothing done,” he writes in 1948. A decade later: “These are the tranquilized Fifties, / and I am forty.” In the elegiac Grandparents, he stands over his late grandfather’s billiards table and contemplates his own “life-lease”.
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Lowell is best known for his fourth collection, Life Studies (1959). He abandoned the tight metrical forms of his earlier work for free verse, helping him articulate his experiences and the turbulence of postwar America. Radiant and unsettling, Lowell examines his parents’ unhappy marriage, his responses to their deaths and his bouts of manic depression, in a pioneering style of confessional writing (“the C-word,” as Michael Hofmann put it). His psychological insights are as sharp as the “locked razor” of Waking in the Blue; in the magnificent Skunk Hour, his clarity pierces the night: “My mind’s not right.”
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Rime without reason

KELLY GROVIER

Rime without reasonMalcolm 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”.
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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.

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Listen to Ian McKellen read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Looking at Larkin

An LRB Podcast with Seamus Perry and Mark Ford

Looking at Larkin

Seamus Perry and Mark Ford discuss the work of Philip Larkin, drawing on articles from the archive of the London Review of Books, by Alan Bennett, Barbara Everett, John Bayley and others.

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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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Extracting the Woodchuck

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.
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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.
Extracting the Woodchuck

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Shakespeare, Dickens, Wren, Austen, Hardy, Turner: in praise of … the English

Eileen Battersby marks St George’s Day with a kaleidoscopic celebration of our noisy neighbour’s contribution to world culture

Eileen Battersby

Shakespeare, Dickens, Wren, AustenToday is believed to be Shakespeare’s birthday, or so 18th-century biographers decided as his baptism took place on April 26th. April 23rd is most certainly the date upon which he died in 1616, aged 52, having produced a body of work which almost single-handedly defines literature.
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Any nation, rampaging imperialism aside, which can claim William Shakespeare is entitled to feel rather self-satisfied. By dying on his birthday he confirmed an innate flair for exits as well as entrances. Shakespeare was the complete showman: he knew about stagecraft, made clever use of historical sources, knew the art of spinning a great yarn and how to entertain an audience and could challenge the emotional range of all actors (and continues to do). Shakespeare remains the test of any serious actor.
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His feel for imagery is second to none. Shakespeare was a poet blessed with theatrical flair and a rare understanding of the social hierarchy and most particularly he was a psychologist, attuned to the vagaries of human nature. As if that was not enough to be celebrating, today is also St George’s Day. Ironically it is not a public holiday in England. In fact St George, depicted through the ages on horseback slaying a dragon, probably never even saw one. Many countries acknowledge a St George. Yet he is England’s national saint.

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A final reminder that on this Thursday, April 27 we will be reading and discussing poetry and other literature about, or inspired by, Shakespeare, his works and characters.

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Anne Sexton’s lost tapes

By Kelsey Osgood

Anne_SextonIn early March 1966, poet and public-television presidium Richard O. Moore traveled to the buttoned-up Boston suburb of Weston, Massachusetts, to interview the poet Anne Sexton at the home she shared with her husband, Kayo, and young daughters Linda and Joy. The interview was to be a cinéma vérité–type glimpse into the life of the increasingly famous poète maudite, who just a year later would be awarded the Pulitzer for her second collection, Live or Die. Sexton’s star had been on the rise since the 1960 publication of her first book, To Bedlam and Partway Back, which focused on her psychiatric hospitalization and subsequent return to a degree of normalcy (hence “partway”). Throughout the interview, later aired on San Francisco television station KQED, Sexton presents her home life to the viewer: she reads her work, comforts her daughter, cajoles her camera-shy husband to join her on film, and contemplates death. At one point, she puts on a Chopin record, Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 23. Sexton melts at the opening notes; her demeanor, hitherto coquettish, becomes euphoric. She closes her eyes, arches her neck, and bites her lip as if she’s seducing someone or being seduced. The camera travels down her long, pale arm, which swings just slightly to the beat.
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“I’ll tell you what poem I wrote to this,” she says to Moore, smirking. “‘Your Face on the Dog’s Neck.’ Makes no sense, does it? A love poem.” As the music crescendos, the frenetic camera homes in on Sexton’s eyes, which she closes as she exclaims, “Oh, it’s beautiful!” Her joy is overwhelming and carnal and more than a little disturbing. “It’s better than a poem!” she says. “Music beats us.”

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We will be reading and discussing the poetry of Anne Sexton on July 27.

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