It’s a truism in the poetry world that the big New York publishers don’t support poetry. The exception is W.W. Norton. I was thinking about this recently when I noticed that three books of poems stacked together on the corner of my desk were all published by Norton. (It’s oddly lovely the way objects collocate into meaningful constellations.) The books on the desk are: Alice Fulton’s Barely Composed, Kimiko Hahn’s The Narrow Road to the Interior, and my old grad school friend Marilyn Chin’s Hard Love Province. Another collocation: All women. I don’t tend to read books of poems straight through, so I have been leafing & loafing through these three books from Norton, with great pleasure & enthusiasm. Not only is Norton publishing poetry, it is publishing very good poetry indeed.
I only came to know Hahn’s work recently, while looking at everything I could find by contemporary writers having to do with Basho. The book is in the form of a journal, shifting from prose to poetry. Of the three books, Hahn’s presents me with the most problems, formal & emotional. It’s not easy for me to get a purchase on Hahn’s forms–she seems to bend Basho to the breaking point–nor on the emotional tenor of the work: the writer turns Basho’s subtle monochrome into high-chroma abstractions. Where Basho is personal, Hahn is confessional. (The great American “confessional” poets of the mid-twentieth century were very important to me as both reader & writer.) The voice speaking in Hahn’s Narrow Road is ruthlessly honest & difficult. But not likable. Sometimes hectoring, sometimes confessional, it is also, like Basho’s voice, caught between the extremes of home & travel–both poets ill at ease sitting still while understanding, too, that movement from place to place does not solve the problem of how to live.
Marilyn Chin’s poems are more accessible than Hahn’s, at least in terms of syntax & lexicon, both of which are more stripped down in Hard Love Province than in Chin’s earlier work. (We were both students of Donald Justice, whose insistence on precision & surface clarity influenced a generation of students with widely differing styles.) Chin, like Hahn & Fulton, happily mixes high & low diction, the intellectual & the confessional, the confrontational & a capacious & compassionate generosity. In reading through Hard Love Province (right next door to Hard Luck Province?), what I feel most acutely is a wild & sometimes violent series of mood swings–from tender to angry. The tenderness tends to be directed at particular persons, whereas the anger is more general, more “political.” Continue reading
Did Albert Camus find inspiration for his most famous character, Meursault, in the figure of that errant nincompoop Julien Sorel from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black? I cannot be the first to notice this genealogical line of descent, but I can’t remember ever having seen it remarked upon. (Not that I am anything like a scholar of the French novel.) Camus wrote in 1955, “I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” Julien’s problem is that he sees the nature of the game but cannot keep himself from being caught up in it. In any case, both characters face execution by the guillotine with courage, both have been read as modern Christ figures (Sorel is the son of a carpenter!) Both commit their crimes with a pistol & in a state of what we would now I think call derealization.
At the end of an interview in Slate, the critic James wood said something that resonated with my own experience:
I’m always amazed anew that there are quite so many atheists in this country, and that they are quite so completely fanatical. That is to say, if you are unwise enough, as I have been, to write a sort of plague on both their houses type of piece, in which you are mildly critical of certain elements of the new atheism as well as being fairly obviously critical of religiosity, you get no quarter from the atheistic camp. That always sort of surprises me. There really is no space for any—I won’t say middle position because it isn’t a middle position. I’m a nonbeliever. But that there is no tolerance for the remotest whisper of rational discourse about the fact of religious practice, about the existence of religious practice, is dismaying to me.
I read Winds of War & War and Remembrance three decades ago on the recommendation of my friend & colleague Stanley Hodson. They struck me as good history and good fiction at the time, and I’ve recently listened to the audiobook versions of the novels narrated by Kevin Pariseau–all 102 hours. I still find them so. Does anyone ever compare these novels to War and Peace? Both are panoramic narratives of families & individuals caught up in the tidal forces of historical events, yet I have the sense that Wouk’s books are commonly thought of as “popular” (as opposed to “literary”) fiction. Is this the case? If so, why? I can’t read Russian, so I cannot evaluate the beauties of Tolstoy’s prose, but the translation I’m familiar with, by Anthony Briggs, doesn’t seem qualitatively superior to Wouk’s prose in his pair of novels.
I was particularly impressed, this time through the narrative, with the dialogic inclusion of excerpts from a (fictional) memoir by a fictional German general, Armin von Roon, imprisoned after the war for war crimes, “translated” after his own retirement from the Navy by the novels’ main character Victor Henry, who occasionally responds to von Roon’s interpretation of events in “translator’s notes.” The excruciatingly drawn out tragedy of errors that takes Natalie Jastrow Henry & her uncle, a popular Jewish historian of Christianity, from the Italian hill town of Sienna to Auschwitz functions as a kind of danse macabre in counterpoint to the heroic struggles of the Allies against the Axis.