Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Afro-Caribbean Women's Surrelism Update: New Translations of Lucie Thésée!

So you're looking for the latest in midcentury Afro-Caribbean women's surrealism?  You've come to the right place!  Well, almost.  You'll need to click over to Circumference: Poetry in Translation to see two new translations of Lucie Thésée's work, "Poem" and "Rapture: The Depths," by Jean-Luc Garneau and the present humble blogger.

More of the translations Jean-Luc and I have been working on appear here and here in Poetry.  There's a little essay about them here, and the New York Times did a little feature on one here.

Friday, April 11, 2014

W.H. Auden and Campiness

If you want to appreciate W.H. Auden, you’ve got to come at him with a good grasp of camp.  At least that's what I say at the start of a brief essay just out in the wonderful At Length magazine, which runs a feature unlike any I've ever seen called "Short Takes on Long Poems."  I've adapted some remarks from the Auden chapter of the book I've been working on, Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself and turned them into an analysis of camp in Auden's early, hilarious, weird charade "Paid on Both Sides," where he camps Freudianism, in no small measure as a means of coming to terms with his own homosexuality (something about which Freud held views that, while not without their redeeming sides, are hardly those that enlightened people in our own time would endorse). Here's how the essay begins:
If you want to appreciate W.H. Auden, you’ve got to come at him with a good grasp of camp, that hard-to-define quality that combines exaggeration, pastiche, transgression, and so many other things (the origins of the term probably lie in the French word camper, and refer to the exaggerated formalities and prescribed behaviors of a 19th century military camp, with all those big salutes, high stepping marches, and all of those epaulets, gold braid, and brass buttons). Camp is essential, for example, to Auden’s first large-scale achievement in verse, the play—or, more precisely, the charade—Paid on Both Sides. Completed in 1928, it appeared first in T.S. Eliot’s Criterion in January 1930, and later that same year became the longest piece in Auden’s Poems, a volume published by Faber under Eliot’s aegis. One can see much in Auden’s play that would recommend it to the author of The Waste Land: like that poem, it gives a clearly modern landscape, and it depicts a struggle between a faltering life-wish and the forces of sterility and death, and even includes a depiction of spring’s life-force faltering, in the manner of the famous opening of Eliot’s poem. One wonders whether Eliot was sensitive to the differences between the two poems, though. There are, after all, reasons to doubt how thoroughly Auden embraced the world-view that seems to pervade his poem. 
That world-view is distinctly Freudian. In 1920, at the age of 13, Auden had discovered Freud via his father’s library, and Auden consumed his works eagerly, along with those of others associated with psychology and psychoanalysis, in the years that followed. His attitude toward psychological theory tended toward the camp—taking the ideas seriously, but at the same time making fun out of them, an activity (as Auden’s friend Christopher Isherwood liked to point out) quite distinct from making fun of them. Auden enjoyed the theories and made much art out of them but self-consciously presented himself as giving them greater credence than he truly did, striking the pose of the dogmatist.

The rest is available here. The issue also includes essays on Alice Notley, John Ashbery, Frank Bidart, Randall Jarrell, and others!

Sunday, April 06, 2014

When Poetry Matters: This Tuesday in Poughkeepsie!

Like all right-thinking people, you're wondering what's going on Tuesday night in Poughkeepsie.  An excellent question!  And I have the answer: I'll be giving the George L. Sommer Lecture on Literature at Marist College at 7:30 in the Nelly Goletti Theater.  It's called "When Poetry Matters," and it will begin something like this:

The title of this talk, which I hope will only detain you for 45 or 50 minutes, is "When Poetry Matters," but since, like most people who've written poems, all I really want to talk about is myself, I've given it a subtitle, so the full, double-barreled name for what follows is "Why Poetry Matters, or: My Slide Down the Slopes of Parnassus."  I think I can get away with this, because one way to talk about the conditions under which poetry matters (whatever "mattering" may mean") is to talk about how I became less of a poet and more of a literary critic — how I slid off the slopes of Mount Parnassus, where poets commune with the true, the good, the eternal, and the beautiful, and landed in a research library, where critics push little carts of footnotes and citations around under the dim and flickering light cast by fluorescent tubes, refreshing themselves only with little plastic wrapped sandwiches and paper cups of terrible coffee from the commissary.  It was better on Parnassus, where we poets lived only on the nectar of the gods. 
Don't get me wrong: I haven't given up on poetry.  Far from it.  It's just that, back when I was writing poetry full time, without the shadow of scholarship looming over me, I began to wonder whether, and how, and to whom, and under what circumstances, poetry actually mattered.  So I decided to investigate the question from a historical, and to some degree sociological, perspective.  Well, the muses are intolerant of this sort of thing, and kicked me down the mountainside.  A decade passed, and here I am with my report...

Hope to see you there!  I mean, a bunch of you.  It's a big theater.