ED I TOR I AL
By ‘exhaustion’ I don’t mean anything so tired as the subject of physical, moral, or intellectual decadence, only the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities – by no means necessarily a cause for despair.
In his 1967 Atlantic essay ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, a personal ars poetica and a celebration of the brittle, essayistic fiction of Borges, the American novelist John Barth declared that the realist tradition was used up. The ‘proper novel’ has, historically, attempted ‘to imitate actions more or less directly, and its conventional devices – cause and effect, linear anecdote, characterization, authorial selection, arrangement, and interpretation – can be and have long since been objected to as obsolete notions, or metaphors for obsolete notions’.
The case for the ‘proper novel’ is still made, not least by novelists who unapologetically continue working in what they believe to be an unbroken tradition that stretches from Defoe and Fielding to – well, to Howard Jacobson, Hilary Mantel, Nicole Krauss. Barth takes as his first epigraph (post-modern writers can’t resist the sound-bites of epigraphs) Borges’s, ‘The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.’ This is a simplified paraphrase of Eliot’s high-Modernist argument in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, which allows to the writer’s will considerable latitude, but also imposes on it an expectation: that he or she will be curious and adventurous, and that certain elements within the tradition are non-negotiable, no matter how various the readers’ takes on them turn out to be.
In 1967 Cecil Day Lewis, by then a safe pair of hands, was appointed Poet Laureate in succession to John Masefield. Charles Causley was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal. Cholmondeley Awards went to (among others) young Seamus Heaney and ‘rising dead’ Norman Nicholson, and among the Gregory Award winners were David Harsent and Brian Patten. Highlights of the year included (plus ça change) books by Kingsley Amis, Alan Brownjohn, Anthony Thwaite, Brian Patten, Roger McGough… It was Edward Lucie-Smith’s finest hour with The Mersey Sound making sales history. In such a context the American-inflected work of Thom Gunn in Touch and Ted Hughes in Wodwo seems to come from quite a different culture, another dimension. Stephen Bann’s international Concrete Poetry anthology made a very small splash (frog/pond/plop). The avant-garde was compelled to seek energies abroad, even though in London, with Fulcrum Press and other small operations, challenging work was published at the margins of a selfsatisfied, exhausted centre.
I was an undergraduate in the United States in 1967 and remember, along with the heady subversions of the Students for a Democratic Society, some exciting publishing events, including Robert Lowell’s Near the Ocean and Berryman’s Sonnets. Beyond my interests at the time were collaborative works by Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett and Joe Brainard, Robert Creeley’s Words, Ed Dorn’s The North Atlantic
Turbine, W.S. Merwin’s The Lice… Further afield, the man we then knew as Edward Brathwaite published Rights of Passage, Judith Wright her transitional volume The Other Half. Writers who, like David Gascoyne, were attentive to France would have been reading new books by Follain, Jabès, Jaccottet, Ponge, Queneau. In Germany Paul Celan (who had three years left to live) published Atemwende and Günter Grass his poems and drawings in Ausgefragt.
1967 was followed by the upheavals of 1968. From the anti-Vietnam War activities of an American undergraduate, I transferred to the now forgotten anti-student-file and antimatriculation demos of a British undergraduate; after the kinds of adolescent anxieties that Philip Roth, remembering Korea, explores in Indignation (2008), this was the world of Lucky Jim (1954).
How long can a culture survive in a state of exhaustion? Looking at the 2011 prize shortlists, Harsent, Brownjohn and others still contend, immortals, joined by newer immortals. One is reminded of the New Yorker advertisement urging readers to ‘buy tomorrow’s antiques today’. And a kind of perpetual scandal is evident, too: Geoffrey Hill, whose main British honour is elective (the Chair of Poetry at Oxford, in the wake of Ruth Padel’s momentary incumbency) is shortlisted and again passed over. Not that it matters to him, but it might matter to poetry readers. A few years ago the judges of a major prize refused to shortlist one of his books because he had dedicated a poem to the late Princess Diana. Certain decorums a contemporary British poet must not transgress, and this was one. Hill called his first Oxford lecture, ‘How ill white hairs become a fool and jester’.
There is occasional, accidental justice, however. Posthumously, R.F. Langley was awarded the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem for ‘To a Nightingale’, which appeared in the London Review of Books. Its precision and pace will be familiar to grateful PN Review readers. It begins:
Nothing along the road. But petals, maybe. Pink behind and white inside. Nothing but the coping of a bridge. Mutes on the bricks, hard as putty, then, in the sun, as metal. Burls of Grimmia, hairy, hoary, with their seed-capsules uncurling. Red mites bowling about on the baked lichen and what look like casual landings, striped flies, Helina, Phaonia, could they be? This month the lemon, I’ll say primrose-coloured, moths, which flinch along the hedge then turn in to hide, are Yellow Shells not Shaded Broad-bars. […]
PN Review 202 NEWS & NOTES
Compiled by Eleanor Crawforth
This issue’s arresting cover image, the collage Napoleon, 2009, features in the new exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, of collages by john ashbery. This is the poet’s second solo exhibition of collages, following his PNR-featured début with the gallery in 2008. The new exhibition continues until 3 December 2011 at 724 Fifth Avenue; visit www.tibordenagy. com for details. A full colour spread of Ashbery collages from the exhibition is projected for PNR 203.
Ashbery was fascinated in his youth by the collage novels of Max Ernst and the partly collaged Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque. He started collaging as an undergraduate at Harvard and has continued the process in his visual and his literary work ever since. Influenced by Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell and, more directly, Joe Brainard, his work combines art-historical and contemporary pop culture references. In May Ashbery received the Medal of Honor of the New York University’s Center for French Civilization and Culture. In November he will be presented with the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
griselda ohannessian, the former President and Publisher of the perennially exciting New Directions, died in August, after long years of Parkinson’s disease. She devoted her working life to New Directions and was a fierce advocate of the press. Among authors she edited and encouraged were Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Antonio Tabucchi, Nina Berberova, Uwe Timm, Shusaku Endo, H.D., Elio Vittorini, Romain Gary, Henry Miller, Gert Hofmann, Stevie Smith, B.S. Johnson, Henry Green, William Saroyan, Mikhail Bulgakov and Raymond Queneau. She discovered H.E. Bates, James Munves, Henri Guiggonat, Carmel Bird and Christoph Bataille; and she mentored younger New Directions editors. Ohannessian also published a memoir, Once: As it Was, evoking in a wry, precise style her remarkable childhood: her father was Schuyler Jackson and her stepmother Laura (Riding) Jackson. Ohannessian’s death sadly coincides with the 75th anniversary of New Directions, a milestone which is being celebrated with events across the United States, with Ferlinghetti reading with Michael McClure at San Francisco’s legendary City Lights bookstore, Michael Palmer and Susan Howe in Boston, and Nicole Krauss, Anne Carson and Paul Auster at the historical Cooper Union in New York.
In their anniversary year New Directions garnered another Nobel Laureate. Swedish poet tomas tranströmer was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature in October. He has been on the list of possible recipients for twenty years, so the announcement is more a relief that justice has been done than a surprise. It would have been a surprise if Bob Dylan had received the award, a possibility widely canvassed at the last moment. Tranströmer’s complete poems in English in one volume is entitled The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems (Bloodaxe is his British publisher). The best-known Scandinavian poet of the post-war period, Tranströmer is also the most widely translated. For many years seriously debilitated after a stroke, he continues to write. He is an avid pianist and has released a recording of classical piano pieces performed with his left hand. Though the largest, this is not the first award he has received; his honours include those almost inevitable preludes to the Nobel, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Bonnier Award for Poetry, Germany’s Petrarch Prize, the Bellman Prize, the Swedish Academy’s Nordic Prize, the August Prize, and a Lifetime Recognition Award in 2007 from The Griffin Trust.
The Iowa Review has launched a remarkable dialogue among leading contemporary translators on the state of the art. Laurence Venuti, a PNR contributor and a translator from Italian, French and Catalan, throws down a very eloquent gauntlet. In his inaugural essay, Towards a Translation Culture, first conceived as a lecture delivered to the annual conference of the American Literary Translators’ Association in October 2010, Venuti draws a bleak image of literary translators facing repeated rejections from commercially minded publishers. ‘The occasional success of a contemporary foreign novelist like Roberto Bolaño or Stieg Larsson is misleading,’ he asserts. ‘The current situation has not really changed enough to indicate any across-theboard upsurge in sales of translations or any expansion of the readership for them.’ He discusses the challenge of getting his translation of the contemporary Catalan poet
Ernest Farrés published (eventually accepted by Carcanet, the award-winning, book-length Edward Hopper). Iowa Review editor Russell Valentino, head of the University of Iowa’s Translation Workshop, has solicited answering essays from, among others, Tim Parks and Luise von Flotow. And there will be blood: Valentino quoted the Review’s onetime advisor Cole Swensen’s observation that translation can often seem a ‘blood sport’, adding that ‘we ask only that swords remain sheathed. Well, the dullest ones anyway, as they tend to make the greatest mess. Otherwise, have at it.’ Members of the literary and translation communities are invited to join the conversation at www.iowareview.org.
The second International Translation Day took place at the Free Word Centre in London in September. Hosted by English PEN and Free Word in association with the London Book Fair’s Literary Translation Centre, the symposium brought together translators, academics, teachers, agents, publishers, booksellers, funders, journalists and NGOs to discuss the state of the ‘translation sector’ and to propose solutions to the challenges it currently faces. Issues discussed included ways of popularising literature in translation; what we can learn from the success of other art forms such as music; the role of schools and universities in producing future translators; supporting the translation of minority languages; and the power of literary festivals. Read the ensuing report at www.englishpen.org. To find out more about English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme or to contribute to the project, contact Emma Cleave, Programme Manager, at email@example.com.
News & Notes