18 September 2006

Coffee Break

Like Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian, Patti Smith has started an online diary (although the entries don't appear to be archived). Free verse poetry to go with your morning brew.

12 September 2006

My thoughts exactly

Once again, Dan Green nails it:
In my opinion, to value fiction (or film) primarily for its ability to "make sense" through story is to move it even farther away from poetry (itself the fountainhead of all literature) and to align it with--even make it subservient to--all those other areas of inquiry where "understanding" reigns, however intuitive or partial such understanding might be where literature is concerned.
This makes me want to get back to my James Longenbach reading... (And all my other reading for that matter!)

07 September 2006

Ever been had?

Libby Purves explains why the Betjeman hoax is such a good thing for "the whole trade of popular literary biography":
Sometimes it seems from the book pages that modern British readers are far keener to read clever-dick analysis and Hello!-style gossip about great writers than we are to approach their actual works, laying ourselves innocently and humbly open to what they have to say to us. It is good for publishers’ profits but less good for our souls. I was lucky enough years ago to study literature under tutors who demanded that we acquire only the most basic historical context and sketchy personal information about the masters, but who insisted that we knew each text and judged it by its intended meaning, its truth and the skill of its execution.

However good a biography, you still get closer to a writer’s heart and spirit by going back to the works themselves. It really is not necessary to know whether Jane Austen was a virgin, or which of T. S. Eliot’s wives it was who slept with Bertrand Russell. Interesting, but not essential. In youth I learnt much formative wisdom from Howards End before I ever found out that E. M. Forster was gay, or indeed a bloke at all; I read Evelyn Waugh at 12 in an equal state of uncertainty about the author’s gender, and nonetheless revelled in the acid beauty of the prose.

Later, in long university months of studying Paradise Lost, I dutifully checked up on the politics and religion of the time but felt only a passing interest in the fact that the blind poet dictated it to his daughters (and that interest was mainly because my tutorial partner and I had a theory that the damn thing was meant to be six times as long, only the duty daughter sometimes got bored and sneaked out of the room for a nap leaving Milton orating to the cat).
(via Bookninja)

01 September 2006

Sound advice

Wislawa Szymborska counsels would-be poets:
  • “Your existential pains come a trifle too easily. We’ve had enough despair and gloomy depths. ‘Deep thoughts,’ dear Thomas says (Mann, of course, who else), ‘should make us smile.’ Reading your own poem ‘Ocean,’ we found ourselves floundering in a shallow pond. You should think of your life as a remarkable adventure that’s happened to you. That is our only advice at present.”

  • “We have a principle that all poems about spring are automatically disqualified. This topic no longer exists in poetry. It continues to thrive in life itself, of course. But these are two separate matters.”

  • “Rilke warned young poets against large sweeping topics, since those are the most difficult and demand great artistic maturity. He counseled them to write about what they see around them, how they live each day, what’s been lost, what’s been found. He encouraged them to bring the things that surround us into their art, images from dreams, remembered objects. ‘If daily life seems impoverished to you,’ he wrote, ‘don’t blame life. You yourself are to blame. You’re just not enough of a poet to perceive its wealth.’ This advice may seem mundane and dim-witted to you. This is why we called to our defense one of the most esoteric poets in world literature—and just see how he praised so-called ordinary things!”

  • “A definition of poetry in one sentence--well. We know at least five hundred definitions, but none of them strikes us as both precise and capacious enough. Each expresses the taste of its own age. Inborn skepticism keeps us from trying our hand at our own. But we remember Carl Sandburg’s lovely aphorism: ‘Poetry is a diary kept by a sea creature who lives on land and wishes he could fly.’ Maybe he’ll actually make it one of these days?”

  • “In school no time is spent, alas, on the aesthetic analysis of literary works. Central themes are stressed along with their historical context. Such knowledge is of course crucial, but it will not suffice for anyone wishing to become a good, independent reader, let alone for someone with creative ambitions. Our young correspondents are often shocked that their poem about rebuilding postwar Warsaw or the tragedy of Vietnam might not be good. They’re convinced that honorable intentions preempt form. But if you want to become a decent cobbler, it’s not enough to enthuse over human feet. You have to know your leather, your tools, pick the right pattern, and so forth. . . . It holds true for artistic creation too.”

  • “Perhaps you could learn to love in prose.”
(via The Page)

More on the state of things

Frank Kermode on English studies:
Looking back over the field he has dominated for half a century, Kermode's words are unminced. Universities, he says, "are being driven by madmen". And education in general "is being run by lunatics".

The recent A-level and GCSE statistics, I point out, would indicate that at one level, at least, his subject is increasingly popular. "Well," he replies, "I don't know what they call 'English' now. I can understand the attractiveness of it. But I don't hold the view that reading English is a soft option, or at least it shouldn't be. It should be a severe option, restricted to those people who are qualified to do it. I've been out of touch with student life for a long time. But I don't believe that many people nowadays get many visible benefits from studying English. It doesn't do them any harm, of course."

Is he suggesting that English should be re-engineered to be more in line with currently unpopular "hard" subjects - like physics? "Yes. I discovered just today, for example, that it's no longer compulsory at GCSE to take a foreign language. This seems to me to be a monstrous decision." [...]

"Looking back at the study of English in universities over the years the first thing that occurs to me is how very important the subject once seemed. In America the New Criticism - a school led by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren - argued that the close study of poetry was a supremely valuable thing. This was a view that was then accepted generally. And the leading academic literary critics were, in those days, very famous people.

"Think, for example, of Northrop Frye. Frye's is now a name that you never hear mentioned but which was then everywhere. CS Lewis, who is now famous for fairy stories, was then famous for being a scholar. Tolkien too was famous for being a scholar, not for elves and so on. There is no prestige associated any longer with being a good critic. There are people writing now who seem to me likely to be as good as those critics I've been mentioning but they won't be as famous nor as influential. There's some very good scholarship in the subject still going on. There's also an immense amount of rubbish."
(via The Page)