Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Getting the news from poetry: William Carlos Williams

Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams
 in their early years

                                                      It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                              yet men die miserably every day
                                                      for lack
of what is found there.

Near the end of his life, William Carlos Williams wrote these words in his long, final love poem, Asphodel, That Greeny Flower. In an unprecedented historical moment like the present, poetry might seem like the last thing anyone needs to stay alive. And yet....And yet...

Poetry could be defined in many ways but one thing it isn't is the collections of words spewed forth by Trump or by Jerry Falwell Jr. or by Sean Hannity. Or throw in Putin, Bolsonaro, Duterte or any other 21st century autocrat who mangles language on his way to destroying so much else. Nothing such people say is ever worth remembering. Read Williams' lines and think of that toxic phrase "fake news," and how dictators throughout the world are now using it. Wasn't the plague now devastating our societies branded for weeks as fake news by Trump, Bolsonaro and all the other little Trumps  throughout the world?

But sometimes words are put together in a particular order that can outlast many lifetimes, for example the words of Sappho or Akhmatova, Li Po or Rumi, or in his better moments a doctor from Paterson, New Jersey named William Carlos Williams.

Dr. Williams was fortunate in his friendships. He met Ezra Pound at Penn and forty years later led the fight to free the crazy/fascist poet from the mental hospital into which he was thrown in 1945. He was also a good friend of the poet H.D. (If you don't know her, you should.) And he was a friend and early mentor of the young Allen Ginsberg who grew up in Paterson.

Parallel with his lifelong career in medicine (he was chief of pediatrics at Passaic Hospital for decades) Williams was a major poetic innovator whose style influenced many succeeding generation of poets. He focused on images  with a rare intensity, as in his well known The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Williams is associated with the early 20th century poetic movement known as Imagism and a line from his book-length poem Paterson is often cited: "No ideas but in things." In fact, Williams was not so interested in ideologies or abstractions of any kind. Practicing medicine probably intensified his focus on actual physical reality and he admitted he had no patience for the very intellectual style of his far better known contemporary T.S. Eliot, author of The Wasteland.

In 1923 he published a collection entitled Spring and All, which gained considerable recognition, and he continued to publish through the following decades. I like the simplest ones best, such as this poem that could be found taped to your refrigerator:

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably saving
for breakfast.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Williams was not all sweetness and light. He was clearly unhappy with his wife but he stayed married, writing love poems to her and to all the women with whom he had affairs. Picture the poet/doctor in this poem:

Danse Russe

If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists above shining trees,
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks,
against the yellow drawn shades,

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

Not everything he wrote was great. He was not Akhmatova whom I can read over and over, finding something new every time. I have never been able to get more than a few pages into the book-length Paterson, of which he was so proud. He was no Sappho whose every fragment evokes visions from the imagination. Much of Williams' stuff just goes on and on and on. Why then do I take the time to read him, especially now? It is because of the conflicted love poems that he never stopped writing even at eighty when he was near death after a stroke and a heart attack. That's when he wrote the long poem from which I took the quote about news and poetry. Here's some others;

            There is something
               something urgent
I have to say to you
            and you alone
                  but it must wait

while I drink in
           the joy of your approach
                    perhaps for the last time


             We danced
                   in our minds
and read a book together.
               You remember?
                   It was a serious book.


             It is ridiculous
What airs we put on
             to seem profound
                    while our hearts
gasp dying
              for want of love.

Here's some lines from his poem Rain:

Unworldly love
that has no hope
                            of the world

                            and that
cannot change the world
to its delight

and from his Ivy Crown:

Daffodil time
                 is past. This is
                                  summer. summer!

the heart says,
                and not even the full of it.
                                   No doubts

are permitted -
                though they will come
                                   and may

before our time
                overwhelm us.
                                  We are only mortal

but being mortal
                can defy our fate.
                                   We may

by an outside chance
                 even win! We do not
                                     look to see

jonquils and violets
                 come again
                                     but there they are,

                the roses!

Williams' experimenting with stepped-down lines can seem dated, and at times confusing. He could simply write too much that is forgettable.  And yet, and yet are still jewels to be found in his poetry, as there are in the poetry of his friend, the great fool Ezra Pound. More on him later.

     Williams and Pound in old age

      Both Pound and Williams appear in my novel, In the Forest of Tombolo



Monday, March 30, 2020

Another poetic companion for a time of social isolation: Sappho

Of all the poets of the Greco-Roman world, Sappho is the only woman whose name we know and whose words (at least a few of them) have come down through the centuries to us. Even this well known image of a female writer from a fresco at Pompeii is probably not her. ( Raddato, C. (2015, May 02). "Sappho" fresco, PompeiiAncient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/image/3840/) 

The fact that her poems exist almost entirely in fragments can be attributed not just to the erosion of time but also to the hostility of early and medieval Christians to the love for women which suffuses her work. As everyone knows, her home island of Lesbos gave its name to the  love she celebrated.  During the nearly thousand years of classic civilization that followed her, Sappho's poetry was traditionally performed by young women. References by other classic authors point to the existence far more of her poetry than the approximately 700 lines we have today.

Little is really known for certain about her life, beyond that she lived in the Sixth century BCE and was deeply involved in a community, or perhaps a school, of women and that she was a devotee of Aphrodite.  There is plenty written about her on the net, including the ancient legends about her life. I like the concise version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

There is so much about Sappho that makes her an ideal poetic companion in this time of social isolation. She appears to be the world’s first lyric poet, the first to write as herself and to express her own emotions. She doesn’t hold back, and her fragments that have inspired many poets to write their own responses to the few words that she utters. We tend to love her and to think that we know what she intends to say, or at least that’s how I see it.

Of course, the monks who copied over the ancient Greek manuscripts and preserved them for coming generations hardly felt that way. Most of the existing fragments that we have came down in works of rhetoric which quoted her as an example of style or diction. Or sometimes she was quoted as an example of sin. Other fragments were found  in more recent times recycled into the kind of cardboard mummy wrappings used in Egyptian burials during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods in Egypt.

The go-to book for the original Greek fragments is the dual language Loeb Classic of Sappho and Alcaeus. The translations are literal but are essential to get a sense of her meaning. My attempt to learn ancient Greek stopped at the ability to pronounce her words in the most faltering way. What I do like to read are the many wonderful efforts at rendering her ancient words into new songs.

My favorite is Anne Carson’s fairly recent If Not, Winter .  Here’s some of her translations:

You will have memories
because of what we did back then
when we were new at this

Yes, we did many things then — all

And then there are some poems of which only a single phrase survives, like:

You burn me


as long as you want

Anne Carson has great respect for Sappho’s original text, broken though it is, and gives us many poems which preserve the missing parts via ellipses:

] frequently
] for those
I treat well are the ones who most of all
] harm me
] crazy
] you, I want
] to suffer
] in myself I am aware of this

I also like the late Mary Barnard’s translations of Sappho from 1958. She captures the plain spoken nature of Sappho’s speech but works around the broken and missing parts of the text to create a smoother, but perhaps less accurate, flow. Here’s a sad one which also supports the idea that Sappho ran a kind of boarding school for girls on Lesbos:

We put this urn aboard ship
with this inscription:

This is the dust of little
Timas who unmarried was led
into Persephone’s dark bedroom.

And she, being far from her home, girls
her age took new edged blades
to cut, in mourning for her
these curls of their soft hair.

There are many others who have attempted translations of Sappho,including Will Barnstone, who is pretty good. And then there’s my two very free translations of a couple fragments which appeared in 2003 in a long defunct literary magazine:

Sappho to Atthis
Inspired by fragment 49 of Sappho, Loeb Ed., 1994

Trembling woman growing old
dreaming of love in the darkening woods

The silver leaves that fluttered like the fluttering
of your heart beneath my trembling hands

The red berries that we picked like the red
of summer’s blood upon your lips and tongue

Sappho to Gongyla
Inspired by fragment 52 of Sappho, Loeb Ed., 1994

My face was hot. My need was strong.
I saw you lifting your arms at the edge of the sea.

Did you truly expect to touch the sky?

You did not glance in my direction.
You did not hear me breathing as I breathed your name.

When the moon sets, I will still be here counting the stars.

In this time when we are told every day that it could kill us to get physically close to another human being, I think that we ought to read (and maybe write) love poems and remember that sooner or later we won’t be afraid to hold each each other’s hands and to kiss each other.

(There are several older books on Sappho and her poems at Project Gutenberg)

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Poetry in a time of social distance: Anna Akhmatova

After writing mostly historical fiction for the past fifteen years, I returned to writing poetry six months ago. Now as an unprecedented crisis grips the entire world, it seems - to me, at least - that only poetry offers an accessible pathway forward. My last serious burst of poetry - in response to another but entirely personal crisis -  was around twenty-five years ago and I published a number of those poems in small literary magazines. The poetry collected in Equivocations & Mistranslations is from those years and earlier, all of it before 2007.

Writing poetry  is impossible without knowing and loving the poetry that came before us and is contemporary with us. Writing poetry, I would even say, is primarily a response, however indirect, to poetry that we encounter. Poets of the past are our companions in the project.

For me the most important such companion in recent days of officially mandated isolation has been Anna Akhmatova. For those who don’t know her, Anna Akhmatova (accent on second syllable) is one of the most beloved Russian poets of the  Soviet era. Unlike her fellow poets who died in the gulag like Osip Mandelstam or took their own lives like Vladimir Mayakovsky and Marina Tsvetaeva, she endured decades of personal pain and official disgrace to survive under Stalin. She never gave up writing even when she had to burn many works to keep them from being found by the secret police.

Akhmatova grew up in privilege, raised at Tsarskoye Selo, the tsar’s summer village outside of Saint Petersburg,  and was first recognized as a poet in the intellectual circles of the pre-war capital. Her earliest published poetry was inspired by her difficult marriage to the poet Lev Gumilev who did everything to discourage her from writing.  Here’s a poem from that period in her life:

“Heart’s Memory of Sun...”

Heart’s memory of sun grows fainter,
sallow is the grass;
a few flakes toss in the wind
scarcely, scarcely.

The narrow canals no longer flow,
they are frozen over.
Nothing will ever happen here,
oh never!

In the bleak sky the willow spreads
its bare-boned fan.
Maybe I am better off as I am,
not as your wife.

Heart’s memory of sun  grows fainter.
What now? Darkness?
From this very night
winter unfolds.

-Kiev, 1911

This translation is by Max Hayward and the wonderful Stanley Kunitz. My Russian is terrible but I always read her in dual language versions to get some sense of the original sound. Here is my translation of another of her early poems which appeared in the Prentice-Hall Anthology of Women's Literature in 2000:

Red Winged Birds

   After Akhmatova

I hear always the sad voices
of summer
passing like red winged birds
over the high grass

where peasants gather
skirts lifted, blouses open.
If only the old voices would linger
in the evening air!

I cannot recall your loving words
or hurried kiss
as night comes down
in the place where we once lived

innocent as children,
and happier.

Gumilev went off to war and was executed in 1921 for plotting against the new Bolshevik regime. In the relatively mild dictatorship of the early 1920s, Akhmatova continued to be published but this openness was gone with Stalin’s consolidation of power in the mid 1920s.

Akhmatova made the decision to stay in Russia when so many fled to western Europe in those years. I particularly like her poem of 1924 about this decision, in which she likens herself to Lot’s wife who was warned not to look backward lest she be turned to a pillar of salt!

“Lot’s Wife”

And the just man trailed God's shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
"It's not too late, you can still look back

at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed."

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

(also from the Kunitz/Hayward translations)

As Soviet Russia fell deeper into the nightmare world created by Josef Stalin, the dictator found a perfect way to control the beloved poet. He had her son by Gumilev repeatedly arrested and released based on how docile she became. Under this pressure, she did write some doggerel praising the dictator in the sickening fashion that he loved.

“Requiem,” one of her most moving poems, was secretly begun in the 1930s and continued over three decades. Parts were published during the period of relative liberalization under Khrushchev but  it did not appear in its entirety in Russia until the Gorbachev era. It is without doubt the greatest poetic response to the  “Great Terror” imposed by Stalin.

The poem begins as she is standing in long lines outside the NKVD prison, hoping to communicate or send a parcel of food to her son whose only crime was that he provided the ideal hostage for Stalin to keep his mother obedient to his wishes.

This is the beginning of the poem, as translated by Judith Hemschemeyer:

No, not under the vault of alien skies,
And not under the shelter of alien wings —
I was with my people then,
There , where my people unfortunately were.

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror , I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone recognized me . Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear:
“Can you describe this?”
And I answered, “Yes, I can.”
Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.”

A very good reading of an English translation of the entire Requiem can be found on YouTube.

Near the end of her life, Akhmatova was permitted to travel to Britain and Italy, revisiting scenes of her early life when she was able to meet poets and artists, notably Modigliani, before returning to Russia just before war and tyranny descended for long,bleak decades. The following is my own very free translation of one the poems she wrote in response to this last trip to western Europe:

    After Akhmatova

Although this land is not my own,
I will remember its inland sea
and the waters that are so cold,

the sand as white
as old bones, the pine trees
strangely red where the sun comes down.

I cannot say if it is our love,
or the day, that is ending.

Anna Akhmatova chose to be a witness to the immense suffering of her people, and maybe that's why I find her reassuring to read now. Sometimes, all that we can do is to witness and to remember.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Equivocations and Mistranslations

Poetry collected from another era, a world before the Pandemic. Full of love's equivocations and many mistranslations of such 20th century poets as Pablo Neruda, Anna Akhmatova, Antonio Machado, Cesar Vallejo, Paul Celan and others. Also, work inspired by figures as disparate as Sappho and Saint John of the Cross. 

Admiring the Mist Near Lumberville

I admire the mist
that concentrates in hollow places.
I walk in the fields
when it begins to rain.

The trees are cold and damp.
The hillsides are terribly steep.
A man was killed once
when a branch came crashing in a sudden storm.

I am aware that landscapes
can be dangerous.
I enter them with caution.

You are my entire life.

Heat Lightning At Montauk

How you feel about oceans and storms
is why we are waiting, alone

in the dark
as heat lightning flashes

from cloud to cloud
in the pregnant air.

The storms within you
like those in the clouds

are as silent to me
as the thunder, the rain

falling indifferently
over the sea.

Possibly in Another World

Possibly in another world the streets are less noisy.
Here in this world my heart has become faithful to you.

You point out the bills I have not paid.
You bring good things home from the store.

I praise God with every drink of water.
I suggest that you eat more vegetables and fruit

We walk together in various places.
Once we saw the machinery of ancient canals.

The wind from across the inlet was especially warm.
Our footprints were the ones that went into the water.

There were always hills to which I could raise my eyes.
I can imagine us walking upon those hills.

We Drank Something Difficult to Name
after Paul Celan’s “Die Jahre Von Dir Zu Mir”

We drank something difficult to name
and lived in the house of forgetting.

Your eyes were the color of skies,
your long hair like many autumns.

I ate strawberries from your mouth,
I breathed air from your lungs.

And finally I saw you, sister,
in that overwhelming light.

It is of our love that I am speaking.

In These Wandering Hours
       After Ramon Jimenez’ “En Estas Horas Vagas”

In these wandering hours
that surround the night

the sky grows red,
old histories reappear.

No matter how many years
have passed

the memory of your eyes
opens my arms

in the middle of the street.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Free downloads of historical novels inspired by Upstate New York history

In this time of the corona virus epidemic when so many of us are confined to our homes, I wanted to make available free downloads of the Kindle version of five my novels. They are all appropriate for high school students as well as adults. Relying on Amazon guidelines, the books below will be available at no charge  for five days each from now into the middle of April. Each is closely based on the historical record of figures from our local history who were maligned and misunderstood in their own times.

March 22 to March 26, 2020

Neither Rebel Nor Tory is the story of Hanyost Schuyler who grew up near Little Falls, NY among the Mohawks and who was regarded as "feeble minded" by his white neighbors. His affinity with Mohawk culture allowed him single-handedly to cause the British and their allies to break off the siege of Fort Stanwix in 1777. The novel also features a close look at the Battle of Oriskany and the role played by Hanyost's uncle, Nicholas Herkimer.

March 27 to March 31, 2020

The River That Flows Both Ways is the story of Harmen van den Bogaert, the first European to visit the Mohawk heartland in the 17th century. An explorer and surgeon, he played a central role in building the relationship between the first people and the Dutch settlers at Fort Orange, now Albany.
Later, his same-sex relationship with his African slave Tobias came to the attention of the Calvinist Dutch authorities and he fled to refuge among the Mohawks, only later to perish in another escape attempt. His story is told in the voice of Matouac, a Mohican boy taken as a servant by Bogaert.

April 1 to April 5, 2020

Roxy Druse and the Murders of Herkimer  County is based on a notorious murder case which attracted national attention in 1880s. Roxy Druse was convicted and hung at Herkimer for killing and dismembering her husband on an isolated farm in Jordanville, NY. Although branded as "a female fiend" by the press, this novel paints a more sympathetic picture of Roxy Druse, told in the voice of an actual journalist of the time, W.H. Tippett. The volume also includes Tippett's own history of the Druse and many other murders in Herkimer County.

April 7-11

The True History of Joseph Smith is a re-telling of the life of the Mormon prophet through the eyes of his sister Sophronia. She is very devoted to him as a boy and, like the rest of the Smith family, is in awe of his cleverness. As he grows into adolescence, she learns to make excuses for each new act of fraud, or perhaps imagination, which he initiates. Although she tells her granddaughter, who is the audience for her narrative, that she completely believes all of her brother's stories about visions and angels and golden books, the very details she chooses lead to less generous interpretations.

Every character and incident is patterned closely on the historical record of the remarkable young man from Palmyra, New York.

April 12-16

The Red Nurse is a story of the 1912 textile strike in Little Falls, New York through the eyes of one of its leaders, the public health nurse M. Helen Schloss. The strike by the largely female workers burst out in response to wage cuts and soon drew in the leading radicals of the age. Mayor George Lunn of Schenectady led his socialists to support the women while Big Bill Haywood and Carlo Tresca came with the far more radical International Workers of the World. When the professional and male organizers were jailed, Helen Schloss and IWW organizer Matilda Rabinowitz led the strikers to an arbitrated vistory.