Sunday, November 30, 2014

The night is darkening round me

The night is darkening round me
The wild winds coldly blow
But a tyrant spell has bound me
And I cannot cannot go

The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow
And the storm is fast descending
And yet I cannot go

Clouds beyond clouds above me
Wastes beyond wastes below
But nothing drear can move me
I will not cannot go

 —Emily Brontë

Friday, November 28, 2014

Denise Levertov

I've finished reading Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life, by Dana Greene, and will make some comments. The book is well-researched and reasonably (not exceptionally) well-written, but it is not essential to understanding Levertov's poems, which are generally self-explanatory, like most good art. However, given that Levertov was such a talented artist, I wanted to find out more about her history as a matter of personal interest.

Levertov's unusual family background clearly had lasting influence on her development as a poet. Her mother, Beatrice, was a Welsh orphan raised by a Congregational minister and trained as a teacher. She was adventurous and eventually found a position at a Scottish Mission school for girls in Constantinople. Her father, Feivel, was a Russian Jew whose studies convinced him that Jesus Christ was the Jewish messiah and who was subsequently disowned by his family, whose members thought him mad. He changed his name to Paul and met Beatrice in Constantinople when she attended one of his lectures. They married in London in 1911 and he later became an ordained priest in the Church of England, working as Director of the East London Fund for Jews and pastor of Holy Trinity in Shoreditch.

Denise was born in Ilford, Essex in 1923 and grew up there with her parents and her sister, Olga, who was nine years older. Her father led a scholarly life, and he favored Olga over Denise. The girls had no formal schooling, but were generally well-read in the arts from an early age. Denise liked poetry and was inspired by Rilke's Letters about Cézanne. She briefly studied ballet and painting. Olga was a talented pianist and enjoyed the theater. She became passionate about politics and went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War to support the anti-Fascists. While there, Olga fell in love with a married Englishman who already had several children. Soon they were living together and Olga produced four children, which they could not afford. Eventually three of them were sent to orphanages. Olga's character seems to have unraveled, and thereafter the family had little contact with her other than when she sought to borrow money. Apparently she spent almost a year in jail for embezzlement.

During World War II, Denise joined the Civil Nursing Reserve and lived in London, writing poetry in her spare time, and was good enough to have a small book of poems published in 1946 when she was only 23. She also had several boyfriends during this period and became pregnant. The father would not marry her, and she apparently had an abortion on the Continent in 1947. She began corresponding with American poet Kenneth Rexroth, who wished to include some of her poems in an anthology to be called The New British Poets, which was eventually published in 1949. Later in 1947, living temporarily in Geneva with her English friend, Bet, she met Mitchell Goodman, an American from Brooklyn who had graduated from Harvard and was planning to become a labor economist. Goodman was smitten with her, and they married in Ilford on December 2 of that year. In late 1948 they moved to Greenwich Village.

In New York, Mitch Goodman dropped his plans to become a labor economist, and, while living a bohemian life, they initially made a living from assorted jobs and his occasional journalism. On June 11, 1949, their only child, Nikolai, was born. Denise's fortunes gradually improved. Rexroth's anthology provided her with name recognition and brought her into contact with James Laughlin, the publisher of New Directions, who took her on and subsequently published most of her work for the remainder of her career. Furthermore, Mitch introduced her to his Harvard friend, the poet Robert Creeley, who soon became one of her advocates.

It took Denise several years to become accustomed to American poetry and language. At first she followed William Carlos Williams, with whom she corresponded, and they eventually met. Later she developed a strong relationship with Robert Duncan, whom she referred to as "master." By the 1970's she was well established as an American poet, with a busy schedule and temporary or permanent academic positions and readings across the country.

Her personal life was not as sanguine. Mitch turned out to be ineffectual and lazy, and she became the primary breadwinner of the family. For reasons not precisely described by Greene, Denise found her sex life with Mitch unsatisfactory from the beginning, and over the course of her life she sporadically met with a former lover from her London days, even while they were both married to others. Her devotion to her work contributed to neglectfulness as a parent, and as a result her relationship with Nikolai was contentious for the rest of her life.

During the Vietnam War she and Mitch became antiwar activists. Mitch organized an event in which war protesters returned their draft cards to the Justice Department. Subsequently, he, along with Noam Chomsky, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. and Dwight Macdonald became known as the Boston Five during their trial in 1968. Denise wrote antiwar poetry, which drew criticism from other poets, Robert Duncan in particular, damaging her relationship with him. This may have temporarily tarnished her reputation as a poet, but she soon recovered.

By temperament, Denise was tenacious and willing to make sacrifices for the development of her poetic vision, even when others bore the brunt of it. In addition, it is possible that her lack of a formal education induced some stresses. She was bad at arithmetic, never learned to drive and couldn't change a typewriter ribbon or a light bulb, according to Greene. She resisted new technology and wrote all of her poems by hand. Her inflexibility and impatience caused a certain amount of interpersonal conflict throughout her life and career. She resigned from a regular faculty position at Tufts, which was then her primary source of income, because she was uncomfortable with the department's "oligarchic structure." Late in life, Greene notes, "She wrote of her proclivity to selfishness, cowardice, impatience, complacency, sloth, and harsh judgment of others and admitted a sense of pride and feeling of intellectual superiority." She also acknowledged that she was homophobic, which is important when you consider that her closest mentor, Robert Duncan, was gay.

On December 2, 1975, she and Mitch divorced amicably. Mitch later remarried, and Denise continued to provide Mitch and his spouse financial support even when they had their own child. She also continued to support Nikolai financially into his forties, though they were rarely on good terms. In 1990 she moved from Massachusetts to Seattle, where she bought a house that offered a view of Mount Rainier on clear days. Reminiscent of Mont Sainte-Victoire, painted repeatedly by Cézanne, Mount Rainier became a source of inspiration for several poems.  Her stature continued to grow, and she was always in demand for readings and teaching jobs. In 1993, experiencing ill health, she retired from a twelve-year position at Stanford.

During her later years Denise went through an unexpected spiritual odyssey, experimenting with several different churches and religions. Finally she became a practicing member of the Catholic Church. It is not entirely clear to me why she did this, and there is evidence that she herself wasn't clear on it. She had issues with the Church, the most significant being her lack of interest in Jesus Christ. What was of primary importance to her was faith in God. She was still reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead and materials from the local Vedanta Society just weeks before her death from lymphoma on December 20, 1997 at the age of 74.

There are two things that attract me to Levertov. I have always been interested in the wonder of existence, and this is typically expressed through religion or mysticism, which I find ridiculous at a personal level. It is more acceptable to me when approached through science, where it has been a driving force behind the work of people like Einstein, or, more accessibly, through the appreciation of nature and poetry. My current interest in astronomy is a reflection of this. However, Levertov is a rarity among poets, and I know of no others like her. I have recently been reading selections from all of the major American poets, and Levertov is the only one who consistently stands out to me. Frankly, when I read Walt Whitman, Robert Creeley, Charles Simic or Billy Collins, I think that their poems are so basic and obvious that they could only be of interest to an imbecile. If I were them I would not publish. In comparison, Levertov seems to be the only poet to pursue anything of interest at a high level of artistry. Although she doesn't always succeed, she has no real competition.

The other aspect of Levertov that interests me is the trajectory of her career. Many of the circumstances of her early life seem unpropitious, and it is quite easy to imagine her never becoming a poet. If she had married one of her English boyfriends, she may not have come to the U.S., where she developed her poetic style. She may instead have become an unknown British housewife who occasionally wrote poems. Perhaps she would have found a way to express her poetic vision in different circumstances, or perhaps she would not.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Eye Mask

In this dark I rest,
unready for the light which dawns
day after day,
eager to be shared.
Black silk, shelter me.
I need
more of the night before I open
eyes and heart
to illumination. I must still
grow in the dark like a root
not ready, not ready at all.

 —Denise Levertov

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Although the tone of this blog tends to be serious, I have a sense of humor and also enjoy good comedy. The problem is that I rarely find comedic films or plays funny at all, and I've never followed stand-up comedy. There is written comedy, and I used to like reading David Sedaris, but I eventually tired of him. Most of the comedy I've come across has been in film or TV. I liked Woody Allen's Annie Hall, a romantic comedy, but think that comedy in that format is too restricted to be of much interest. I have never thought much of Monty Python, and generally dislike British humor. An exception is A Fish Called Wanda, which is probably my favorite comedy, but it wouldn't have been the same without Americans Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline. Another comedy I liked was Animal House. Fargo was funny, and perhaps the best Coen brothers film, though technically it is a "dark comedy crime thriller." There is also the category of black comedies, which aren't necessarily funny if you think about them, and my favorite there is Dr. Strangelove.

I used to watch Saturday Night Live regularly in the 1970's. It declined significantly in quality from 1980 to 1984, when producer Lorne Michaels was gone, and I stopped watching it then. It picked up again in 1985 when Michaels returned. Shows were inconsistent but often good up until about 1990. I watched it erratically up until about 2000 and have hardly seen it since. I've tried a few times and have always found it abysmally unfunny. However, over the years they've had quite a lot of talent on the show. I'd say my favorites have been Bill Murray, Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman.

In 2010, former Saturday Night Live member Fred Armisen teamed up with Carrie Brownstein for the filming of the first season of Portlandia. It follows a format similar to that of Saturday Night Live, and Lorne Michaels is one of the producers, but it isn't shot in front of a live audience and is filmed around Portland, Oregon. Armisen and Brownstein play a variety of characters in short skits that are sometimes broken up and shown as parts of a single episode. Generally speaking, it is a satire of trendy people who theoretically live in Portland. Portland does have its appeals. It was on my shortlist for retirement locations but in the end lost to rural New England college towns for a number of reasons. In any case, Armisen and Brownstein are incredibly creative by TV standards.

One thing that usually seems missing in American media is social satire. I think it is more common in other countries. Some of the best satire is produced under oppressive regimes, such as the U.S.S.R. under Stalin. For whatever reason, there is a deeply embedded blandness to American culture, and, especially when combined with another powerful force, political correctness, people here find it difficult to voice criticism or otherwise question the choices and behaviors of those around them, no matter how absurd. Portlandia offers empathetic satire, and it is always humorous while still doing a good job at bringing out the oddness, irresponsibility and stupidity of the lifestyle choices that trendy people often make, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.

Although it started with a low budget, after four seasons it has drawn a lot of attention and is now popular with Hollywood insiders. The budget for the fourth year seems much larger, and there are increasing cameos by celebrities. I find the best segments to be among the funniest I've ever seen. I'm not sure whether these links will always work, because the posts may not be legal, but my favorite segment is Art Project, from the third season. I've started season four and found the Social Bankruptcy segment quite amusing; note that it contains a reference to Lorrie Moore. Another thing that distinguishes their better work is an almost philosophical look at modern life. As with any TV production there are duds, but generally I am pleased with the quality up until this year.

Update, November 29, 2014. I've now seen all of season four, and overall it is quite bad. I'm not sure why it has changed for the worse, but it certainly isn't funny. The best episodes tend to be at the beginning of each season.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Free Speech I

I recently became aware of a controversy that arose following a panel discussion organized by Smith College, titled "Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts," which took place on September 22, 2014 in New York City. This panel was formed as a response to protests at Smith that caused Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, to cancel her engagement as 2014 commencement speaker. One of the panelists, Wendy Kaminer, who is a free speech advocate, used the words "nigger" and "cunt" during the course of the discussion. These words were examined by Kaminer in the context of their use in public discourse. As Kaminer explained at the time:

I just, I think there is a very important difference between calling somebody a name and uttering the name in the context of talking about how it's used. And I think it's incredibly important to recognize that difference, because, you know, there are other words and other concepts that are going to make somebody feel threatened and somebody feel disrespected, and somebody feel psychologically unsafe. And if people can't learn to deal with those feelings they really can't function effectively in a free society.

Kaminer's position seems rather innocuous and obvious, yet her use of those words still deeply dismayed some Smith students. According to the interpretation of Jordan Houston, a student at Smith:

What unfolded...left many Smithies feeling outraged, hurt, offended, and betrayed. Assuming the role as a moderator between four Smith panelists, among them being lawyer and social critic Wendy Kaminer '71, President McCartney sat in on what turned from a civil discourse on the idea of "free speech" vs. "hate speech" into an explicit act of racial violence.

Houston's view is an example of the destructive power of political correctness that has taken hold on many college campuses. Fortunately, Kaminer has found many defenders. Overall it would appear that the backlash at Smith by those who labeled Kaminer a racist is seen to reflect badly on Smith College.

As noted in an earlier post, I have grown skeptical of the desirability of the college environment. The juxtaposition of unworldly, ideologically rigid professors with naive undergraduates sometimes leads to ridiculous outcomes. I get the sense that some of these students are more empowered than they ought to be for what little they know. It seems that political correctness has blinded them to the meaning and value of free speech. One would think that a college campus is the last place one would find closed-mindedness and dogma prevalent. In a way, students like Houston are behaving in a manner that confirms their status as members of an elite class that is so far above all others that it can create its own reality, even if that means misrepresenting the reality of those whom they purport to defend.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

I died for Beauty—but was scarce

I died for Beauty—but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room—

He questioned softly "Why I failed"?
"For Beauty", I replied—
"And I—for Truth—Themself are One—
We Bretheren, are", He said—

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night—
We talked between the Rooms—
Until the Moss had reached our lips—
And covered up—our names—

—Emily Dickinson

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Poet's Anecdote

As you may have noticed from my selection of poems, I'm a fan of Denise Levertov. I know a bit about her history but am still in the process exploring it and will write more in the future. For the time being I thought I ought to mention a quote that I recently came across, because it relates to some of my other posts.

For an outsider it is a little difficult to see how the publishing industry works. Like any industry, there is probably a lot of "If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." You have to be chummy with the right people and do them favors. This applied to Denise Levertov as much as anyone else. One of her former students, Mark Pawlak, recounts this conversation he had with her in 1975:

I asked Denise why it is that I have never seen one of her books reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. "About ten years ago," she explained, "they used to regularly ask me to write reviews. I did it for a while but found such reviewing to be making catty remarks about other authors, and that became distasteful to me. I eventually made a pact with myself not to do so any longer and began to turn down the offers from the Times, until they realized what was up and they stopped asking me. I think the editors were offended that I would turn them down because they never once since have run a review of any of my books, which they always used to do.

This is interesting, because even though Levertov is not exactly a household name, she was then and still is recognized as a major poet and regularly appears in anthologies of twentieth century American poets. While it may be obvious to insiders, casual readers of the Times may never realize how biased it can be in the selection of books to review. As an observer of the NYRB, I get the sense that similar activities occur behind the scenes there too. The NYRB seems to seek something that resembles exclusive rights on celebrity writers and public intellectuals, and it then represents them like a record producer so that the author and the publication both glow in unison as icons of the literary elite. In the case of the NYRB, which deals with a much narrower range of writers and books than the Times, there seems to be a specific emphasis on increasing the prestige of the publication. From both the Times and the NYRB, and probably The New Yorker, the reader may get a false sense of the cutting edge. The underlying activities are ultimately those of smarmy businessmen plying their trades. Those who take it all in uncritically are not entirely different from rednecks in pickups who listen to Rush Limbaugh on their radios.

One of the things I like about Levertov's poems is their honesty. As an honest person myself, I have long recognized that there is a price to pay for it.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Woman Meets an Old Lover

'He with whom I ran hand in hand
kicking the leathery leaves down Oak Hill Path
thirty years ago

appeared before me with anxious face, pale,
almost unrecognized, hesitant,

He whom I cannot remember hearing laugh out loud
but see in mind's eye smiling, self-approving,
wept on my shoulder.

He who seemed always,
to take and not give, who took me so long
to forget,

remembered everything that I had so long forgotten.'

 —Denise Levertov

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Immigrant Experience

I promised I would write something about Welcome to Americastan, by Jabeen Akhtar, and here it is. The novel is well written, perhaps in part because Akhtar is an experienced writer of environmental regulations, but I have to say that it was of little interest to me. The story is about a young Pakistani-American woman and her family who live on the East Coast. She and her siblings were raised in the U.S. and are essentially American, while their parents still follow many Pakistani customs and actively participate in the local community of Pakistani immigrants. The protagonist, Samira, was dumped by her boyfriend, who then proceeded to marry her best friend. There is a minor incident in which she is briefly accused of being a terrorist. However, the book is completely apolitical, and offers what seems to be a realistic depiction of a well-assimilated Pakistani family during the current post-9/11 period.

Akhtar's writing is precise, but it mostly skims the surface. The descriptions are detailed and accurate, but not really interesting. All of her characters are conventional - most are boringly so - and there is not much in the way of subtlety to be mined from the text. The novel almost reads like a screenplay for an American film, and I suspect that Akhtar would not oppose a film version. Unfortunately for her, her publisher, Penguin, seems to have determined that the book would not sell in the U.S., and my copy is labeled "For sale in India and Pakistan only." It was shipped from India in fragrant packaging that the mailman thought smelled funny. I would say that Akhtar has potential as a writer, but she seems to be driven more by economic motives than by artistic motives. As an aesthetic experience, Welcome to Americastan was a waste of time for me, though compulsive, indiscriminate readers may still enjoy it.

The book did activate some of my dormant thoughts about ethnicity. This seems to be a popular topic in the U.S. In the novel, Samira's ethnicity has mostly vanished, but, because of her name and physical appearance, it is occasionally forced upon her by others. She is well-educated and does not feel out of place in her milieu. Her parents are also well-adjusted, and are appreciative of the economic opportunities afforded here in conjunction with the possibility of retaining their cultural identity through the local Pakistani community. I sometimes get a kick out of thinking about this, because my family background is extremely ethnic, but in my case this is ancient history that has almost been forgotten.

My mother's mother's father, Bedros, was an Armenian who, at about age 16, fled his village in Armenia when he was warned of an impending massacre during the 1894-1896 period. All of the Christians who remained in the village were killed. He then moved to Athens, where the Greeks discriminated against Armenians, and later married a German woman who was living there. He did not identify with the local Armenians and changed his children's surnames by adding "is" to the end in order to make them sound Greek. My mother's father's father, Mardiros, was a successful Armenian businessman who lived in western Turkey. He saw the 1915 Ottoman massacres coming well in advance and sold his possessions and moved the family to Athens. My mother's parents essentially had an arranged marriage that was set up after consultation with an Armenian priest. Most of this Armenian family history was not in evidence in our lives because my mother grew up in Greece. She went to a German school, and her parents spoke French at home. To complicate matters, she married an English soldier when she was only 21 and lived in England for ten years before we all moved to the U.S. In the U.S. she identified herself as Greek, though she did not participate at all in any local Greek community, if there was one.

The other side of my family, my father's, has long provided me with amusing ways to think about ethnicity. When we arrived here in 1957, we were already in the middle class, hardly

...your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

In fact, our English accents and manners temporarily bestowed upon us a relatively high social status. We didn't feel excluded, though some of us retained a certain amount of skepticism towards Americans and American life. Later on, when I began to think about ethnicity here, I decided that English immigrants may actually face a disadvantage. English people apparently are supposed to become assimilated immediately. If, for example, they are churchgoers, there is the Episcopal Church. As far as I know, there are no communities of recent English immigrants. As it was, we felt a certain amount of alienation, but had no cultural resources on which to fall back. To this day, 57 years later, I don't really feel assimilated, though I don't feel English either. Most other English immigrants I've met also seem neither English nor American. Certainly you get no credit or special attention from other English immigrants for being English. It is barely acknowledged.

From my point of view, ethnic assimilation amounts to little more than ostensibly accepting the local propaganda when you move from one geographic region to another. That could be moving from Pakistan to the U.S. or from Massachusetts to Mississippi. There is a lot that I don't buy into in the U.S. and never will. On this subject I am indebted to Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind. When faced with ideological pressure, one may either take the "Pill of Murti-Bing" or resort to "Ketman." The former amounts to taking a drug to obscure any fears or disagreements one has with a new dominating system and then accepting it completely without criticism. The latter involves the maintaining of a conformist outer face while remaining fully independent and critical privately. Under "Ketman," one submits to external pressures with which one does not agree while retaining a sense of integrity by concealing divergent views from others. This results in a hypocritical disconnection between the outer and inner selves. An excellent discussion of these concepts can be found here. Milosz concentrates on how intellectuals reconcile their ideas with those of a totalitarian system that is imposed on them. While conditions are not quite as severe in the U.S., Western capitalism, particularly in the U.S., shows many similarities to totalitarianism. As a person who did not pursue an intellectual career, the compromises that I've had to make have been minimal. The same cannot be said of many of America's public intellectuals on whom I've commented previously. Needless to say, none of these issues show up in Akhtar's novel, which was never intended to be thought provoking.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Last Hill in a Vista

Come, let us tell the weeds in ditches
How we are poor, who once had riches,
And lie out in the sparse and sodden
Pastures that the cows have trodden,
The while an autumn night seals down
The comforts of the wooden town.

Come, let us counsel some cold stranger
How we sought safety, but loved danger.
So, with stiff walls about us, we
Chose this more fragile boundary:
Hills, where light poplars, the firm oak,
Loosen into a little smoke.

 —Louise Bogan