ED I TOR I AL
We will not be allowed to forget that 2012 is the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth. Dickens the editor, the actor, the novelist, the traveller, the campaigner for international copyright. Dickens the self-impersonator, carrying like little bombs the private secrets that might, that did, detonate his reputation. Dickens who is still the English novelist and a great begetter of poets and biographers. Peter Robinson has edited an anthology of contemporary poems devoted to Dickens, due out in the new year. Visitors to http://www.dickens2012.org/ will goggle at the activities surrounding the anniversary, bigger than the biggest Bloomsday, at least in 2012. After that returns will continue to diminish as they have done since the War, revived by occasional television adaptations or biographical flutter.
Dickens’s hectic life as a performer is instructive. Philip Larkin refused to give readings: imagine going around the country impersonating yourself! Better to stay at home and not pretend to become the stable thing that criticism, the media and death reduce you to. Successful writers are pressured to stay the same, successful editors to repeat their successes, successful public performers trot out arias and encores, ‘true to form’. John Ashbery is anxious about constructions of Americanness. Discussing his reception in England, he noted: ‘Americans, if they’re going to be accepted as writers, have to act “like Americans”. They have to be loud-mouthed, oratorical.’ He reflects on Whitman’s widespread acceptance, ‘and they loved Bret Harte, whom nobody reads anymore, just because he came to England and walked around in boots and a cowboy hat. This is an American, so we can, you know, we can understand this, because the Americans are a bunch of Yahoos.’
Henry James (who never sported a Stetson) was puzzled by Harte, how he made his way as an author exploiting the Wild West, its geographies and personalities, a large nature framing the unrestrained impulses of man, to the exclusion of other subject matter. Was Harte’s production the result of integrity of purpose, or did he understand that his market expected this of him? He understands, as Dickens does, instinctively. On Dickens’s death in 1870 it was natural that Harte compose a sweet elegy for his favourite author. ‘Dickens in Camp’ begins way out West:
Above the pines the moon was slowly drifting,
The river sang below; The dim Sierras, far beyond, uplifting
Their minarets of snow.
The roaring camp-fire, with rude humor, painted
The ruddy tints of health On haggard face and form that drooped and fainted
In the fierce race for wealth;
Till one arose, and from his pack’s scant treasure
A hoarded volume drew, And cards were dropped from hands of listless leisure
To hear the tale anew…
It is The Old Curiosity Shop that the young man (yes, it is the author himself) shares with the wild crew of gamblers. It tames them:
The fir-trees, gathering closer in the shadows,
Listened in every spray, While the whole camp, with ‘Nell’ on English meadows,
Wandered and lost their way.
And so in mountain solitudes – o’ertaken
As by some spell divine – Their cares dropped from them like the needles shaken
From out the gusty pine.
The memory transports the poet back in time, and in space leads him to connect with another country and time.
Lost is that camp! But let its fragrant story
Blend with the breath that thrills With hop-vines’ incense all the pensive glory
That fills the Kentish hills.
And on that grave where English oak and holly
And laurel wreaths intwine, Deem it not all a too presumptuous folly,
– This spray of Western pine!
It is well-judged, the clichés firmed up, the sentiment not mawkish and form instinctively efficient. Harte’s popularity grew, and faded; he took a consular post in Germany, then Glasgow, finally retiring to London where he wrote more Westerns with success. Mark Twain disliked him and his use of dialect. It was too much like fiction, even as it pretended to be rooted in places and types Twain knew at first hand. It wouldn’t do.
This last year Twain has been an unexpected bestseller again, while Harte is gone. Even his Condensed Novels and New Burlesques, spoofs of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Cooper, Charlotte Brontë, Conan Doyle, Alexander Dumas, Kipling, Marie Corelli and Hall Caine, have vanished. His choice of Western subject matter and the ways he developed the Western genre show real skill, a transferable skill acquired by others who have crowded him off the map. He chose the West as Dickens chose English settings: they are what he knew, and when he goes beyond them he is no more secure than Dickens is when Martin Chuzzlewit steps into the American swamplands
A reporter asked Kipling what he thought of San Francisco. He replied that ‘it was hallowed ground to me, because of Bret Harte. That was true. “Well,” said the reporter, “Bret Harte claims California, but California don’t claim Bret Harte. He’s been so long in England that he’s quite English.”’ Even Oscar Wilde admired Harte’s wild (far) West of miners and gamblers almost without irony. As we raise a glass to Dickens, spare a thought for Harte, whose day may yet come even as Dickens’s, after the bright lights of his bicentenary, gutters once again.
PN Review 203 NEWS & NOTES
Compiled by Eleanor Crawforth
Colombian poet piedad bonnett received the 11th American Poetry Award from the Casa de las Americas cultural association and Spanish publisher Visor Libros. She was awarded the prize for her book Explicaciones no Pedidas (Unsolicited Explanations). The award is one of Latin America’s oldest and most distinguished literary prizes, honouring poetry, essays, novels and other forms of literary expression.
A rare autograph ted hughes poem dedicated to his publisher Richard Gilbertson was sold at auction by Bonham’s in London on 22 November 2011. Hughes’s 25-line poem, which raised £875, was inscribed in a pre-publication copy of the first edition of Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (Faber & Faber, 1970), with a dust-jacket designed by Leonard Baskin. Concerning his most famous and controversial volume, it begins: ‘Who does not approve…’ and continues, ‘…I admit, Crow is a beast / That sweetens no feast / With flesh or with humour. / But gossip & rumour / Have bitten him bare. / Folly – for a stare, / Error – for an ear, / His wings disappear / From Devon forever. / He will not find better / But peace & rest / And a hidden nest – / Not better, best.’ This extempore poem – typical of Hughes’s book inscriptions for friends – is inscribed ‘To Richard from Ted 6th Oct 1970’, the official publication date of the volume being 12 October. Gilbertson was a bookseller who ran the private press at Crediton in Devon that published, inter alia, Hughes’s Animal Poems (1967) and The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar (1970).
judith wilkinson’s translation of Raptors by toon tellegen (Carcanet, 2011) has won the Popescu Prize for Poetry Translation. Selected from a shortlist of six, Raptors is Tellegen’s poem sequence about a dysfunctional family, in which all the poems except the last begin with the phrase ‘My Father…’. Wilkinson’s is, the judges said, a ‘sustained tour de force’ of translation. Tellegen’s ‘complex, often surreal and always highly affecting poems exhibit an understanding of the power of the story in which the dream-like psychology, the marvellously nuanced telling of a family’s malaise set him apart as an entirely distinctive voice in European poetry,’ wrote judges Sasha Dugdale and Jane Draycott. The Popescu Prize, formerly the European Poetry Translation Prize, is awarded biennially by the Poetry Society for a volume of poetry translated from a European language into English.
The final stage of PN Review’s digitisation is complete. Subscribers can now download pdfs of whole issues, starting with PN Review 1, from www.pnreview.co.uk. All 203 issues (and counting) are available for study and download. This facility means readers can visit archived issues as though they were new-minted, with a sense of each issue’s visual structure, its juxtapositions and confrontations. The magazine is thus wholly alive online. Subscribers can contact firstname.lastname@example.org if they require a reminder of their login details.
Organisers of the conference entitled ‘Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End: Modernism and the First World War’ have issued a call for papers. The international gathering takes place at the Institute of English Studies, University of London, 27–29 September 2012, with a keynote lecture by Adam Piette, author of Imagination at War: British Fiction and Poetry 1939–1945. Contact email@example.com for more information. Ford’s tetralogy was first published as Some Do Not… (1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up – (1926) and Last Post (1928). The ‘Tietjens saga’, as it is sometimes known, has been described by Anthony Burgess as ‘the finest novel about the First World War’ and by Malcolm Bradbury as ‘a central Modernist novel of the 1920s, in which it is exemplary’. W.H. Auden added to the chorus: ‘There are not many English novels which deserve to be called great: Parade’s End is one of them.’ During 2010– 11 Carcanet reissued all four volumes in a landmark publishing project. Edited by Ford experts, these editions provide readers for the first time with reliable texts, detailed annotation and discussion of the novels’ histories. 2011 was also the year that the BBC and HBO embarked on a five-part adaptation of Parade’s End, scripted by Sir Tom Stoppard. The series will star Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Rupert Everett and Miranda Richardson and is to be broadcast in 2012.
A new biography of william carlos williams by Herbert Leibowitz (chapters of which featured in PN Review) has been published in the United States by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. This first life of Williams since Paul Mariani’s in 1981 was welcomed in The New York Times in November as a ‘cranky, unapologetically self-assertive, infidelity-obsessed, interesting and idiosyncratic book’. The title is a quote from Williams: ‘Something Urgent I Have to Say to You’: The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams. Leibowitz, editor and a cofounder of Parnassus: Poetry in Review, considers Williams’s life and work thematically, in chapters on family origins, marriage and love affairs, his six months abroad and the writing of Paterson. ‘Many biographies treat artistic creation as a kind of bloodless version of a Caesarian birth,’ the New York Times review concludes, ‘but Leibowitz is terrific at conveying the confusion, uncertainty and doggedness of the life of the artist intent on discoveries.’
Poet and essayist tomás segovia died in Mexico City on 7 November; he was eighty-four. One of the last surviving Spanish poets whose exile began with the Civil War, he was born in Valencia, went into exile in France, then Morocco, and arrived in Mexico in his early teens. After Franco’s death he returned for a time to live in Madrid, though Mexico remained his homeland. He was widely honoured, a reward for longevity and for the cumulative quality of his writing and its subtle eroticism. In 2000 he received the Octavio Paz Prize for Poetry and the Essay and in 2005 the Juan Rulfo Prize. In 2008 the Federico García Lorca International Poetry Prize was presented to him. He expressed surprise: ‘I am the kind of writer who tends to get forgotten,’ he said. ‘I belong to no current, no country or party.’ The Lorca judges called him a poet of the margins, to which he responded by declaring himself a man from every margin, every alienation. It pleased him to be described by one editor as a German poet, with his unusual clarities. He wrote poems in French as well as Spanish.
Palestinian writer taha muhammad ali died in October. Born in 1931 in the Galilee village of Saffuriya, he fled to Lebanon during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. A year later he slipped back across the border with his family and settled in Nazareth, where he remained. The Saffuriya of his childhood served as the nexus of poetry and fiction focused on everyday experience. Selftaught, he began his writing career late (in 1983) but went on to publish several collections of poetry and stories. Ali wrote in a
News & Notes