Brodsky’s Venice

15 Apr
Colleoni statue with bird, evening.

Colleoni  (he of the three testicles) and bird, evening.

I have long admired the poetry of Joseph Brodsky – although with reservations – since hearing him read at Cardiff’s County Hall alongside Derek Walcott (a veritable pairing of poetic satyrs). Before travelling to Venice last Friday I purchased his Watermark, to see what he had to say about the city, where he spent a four-week vacation from his job as a U.S. college professor every winter for seventeen years. In the past I have read Jan Morris’ famous book on Venice, which I loathed, and Peter Ackroyd’s Venice: Pure City, which by contrast I enjoyed very much, and I approached Brodsky’s essay with trepidation. One hundred and thirty pages of large double spaced print, it is published as Penguin Modern Classic, though how it qualifies for this status is quite beyond my comprehension. It is a minor work by a once significant poet, who was the youngest ever recipient of a Nobel Prize (he was 47), perhaps awarded as much for his status as political opponent to the USSR – this was 1987 – as for his literary achievements. Early in the book, we accompany the young Brodsky on his first arrival at the city’s railway station, where he is to be met by a woman for whom he harbours amorous thoughts (his sentiments are not reciprocated). Then this: ‘The boat’s slow progress through the night was like the passage of a coherent thought through the subconscious.’

When I first read that line I thought it sounded interesting, but something nagged at me, because a thought does not really become coherent until after it has passed through the ‘subconscious’. But I didn’t wish to be unnecessarily antagonistic, so let it go. It sounds pretty, after all. Then some pages on, another nice passage: ‘The fog is thick, blinding, and immobile. The latter aspect, however, is of advantage to you if you go out on a short errand, say, to get a pack of cigarettes, for you can find your way back via the tunnel your body has burrowed in the fog; the tunnel is likely to stay open for half an hour.’ A nice conceit, I thought, which complements the earlier line well – but why spoil it with the literalism of that ‘likely to stay open for half an hour’, which sounds like the answer to a request made of a pub landlord.  And here: ‘Every surface craves dust, for dust is the flesh of time, as a poet says, time’s very flesh and blood.’ My response to ‘Every surface craves dust’ was one of admiration, even if it is what “a poet” says (irritating, as we want to know which poet), but why ‘flesh and blood’? Dust is flesh, but not blood. Dust is decidedly bloodless, and dry. Dried, desiccated flesh.

The essay is self-regarding and repetitive (not a woman enters these pages without Brodsky’s lecherous gaze resting on her, however peripheral her appearance). Then there is the prose: I realise English was not Brodsky’s first language, but there is too much in this short essay that is merely confusing: describing unenthusiastic meetings with the ex-pats he comes across in the city, he begins to fantasise about ‘some local solicitor’, and inevitably, as it is Brodsky, ‘his secretary’ (yawn): “Disparity of pursuits compromised by tautology of net results, if one needs a formula, that is.” Pardon me?

And this, of Pasiphaë, the mother of Ariadne and Phaedra, who famously enjoyed the attentions of a bull while sheathed in a cow-outfit: “perhaps she yielded to those dark urges and did it with the bull precisely to prove that nature neglects the majority principle, since the bull’s horns suggest the moon. Perhaps she was interested in chiaroscuro rather than in bestiality and eclipsed the bull for purely optical reasons?” What?!

And so on. I don’t wish to disparage the dead, but this is a very meagre piece of work, and is by no means a ‘Modern Classic.’ As a book set in Venice it comes ahead of Hemingway’s catastrophic Across the River and into the Trees, but not by a long way.

Perhaps it is a warning though. If you travel to Venice, be careful what you read. I have been to the city six or seven times, but it is only in the past few years that I have become interested in the literature about the city, from Casanova, who spent a while locked in upper reaches of the Doges’ Palace, to Régis Debray, who loathed the place and saw in it a reflection (and the source) of all the evils of Western Capitalism. On this last visit I dipped into Hugo Pratts’ Secret Venice of Corto Maltese, which came highly recommended from a friend. I was not familiar with the graphic stories, but you don’t really have to be to enjoy the itineraries around the city’s less visited corners that this anti-guide book offers, describing seven walks that lead you off the beaten track, into hidden nooks and across secret portals. Don’t take it with you around the city, but jot down a few notes first, otherwise you will end up like the perennial Venice tourist, leaning on the parapet of a bridge, trying to figure out why the map of the city you hold in your hands does not correspond to the physical actuality of the place around you.

Perhaps the best book about Venice is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which does not set out to be a guide at all, except for the imagination.

 

Below San Zaccharia, Venice.

Below San Zaccharia, Venice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on a first visit to Delhi

30 Mar

I like vultures. No, let me start again: I think they are vile creatures, but they are a useful reminder of our mortality, and of what might happen if we are careless enough to die in a public space at which these birds are attendant. During my brief stay in Delhi last week I had the opportunity to do very little apart from attend the First Sabad World Poetry Festival, where I was surprised (as a very minor poet) to be representing the United Kingdom – as opposed to my usual country of affiliation, Wales – alongside George Szirtes, a poet I have long admired. But, to return to my point, on the one opportunity that we were allowed out on a coach trip organised by our hosts (Sahitya Akademi, an offshoot of the Indian Ministry of Culture), I took five or six photos on my iphone in the fading light, and in two of these I inadvertently snapped vultures in flight (see below). Was this foreshadowing?

Delhi_Humanyun's tomb

Humanyun’s tomb with vulture, Delhi.

 

Qutub Minar tower, with vulture, Delhi

Qutub Minar tower, with vulture, Delhi

For an account of the festival itself, I can do no better than refer readers to George Szirtes’ website, where he gives a pretty full (and generous) account of what went down, especially in his analysis of the differences between the performance-oriented oral traditions of poetry and the page-oriented, European style of a one-to-one encounter between poet and reader:

“The oral tradition is rooted in the following: the community, the concept of the many and the sharing of an essentially conservative, traditional and ritualist space. The voice is public. It is heard by any within earshot. It moves into the individual’s space and occupies it, asserting its confidence in shared communal values. It can talk of private matters . . . but it does so on hallowed public ground. There is an implication of physical proximity, a swaying or flowing. The collective is greater than the individual. The poet performs a priestly role, mediating between the mass and the transcendent.

The page tradition depends on the one-to-one contract between writer and reader. The book is, most of the time, read silently and reorientated as voice in the reader’s imagination. The loud and the public are suspected of being rhetorical intrusions, acts of demagoguery, The poem is a meditated space that creates an internalised physicality that may produce a faster heart-rate, tears, finger tapping and so on but within the confines of individual sensibility. It values the individual more highly than the collective. It is to some degree, or so I suspect, an extension of the protestant sense of God as someone addressed directly without mediation. Inevitably I think of Rembrandt’s self-portraits or of the monasticism of Mondrian’s abstractions.”

I recommend anyone interested to read the whole account, and indeed to subscribe to George’s blog, which he does not call a blog, but ‘News’.

Other than attend many poetry readings, some of them good, others exceptionally dull, other still (my own session, in fact) infused with the kind of spontaneously robust anarchism at which India excels, I took notes, and I ‘networked’, but I saw very little of Delhi. There was not time. My one free day, I managed to spend shopping and chasing up an exchange dealer on the black market. I did however make several observations. I realise that none of these will be of much interest to practised India wallahs, and may even appear naive or disingenuous, but they are first impressions. The first was that I am unaccustomed to, and dislike, the sense of obligatory self-abasement or servitude imposed on the vast majority of Indians, which results in you, the European visitor, being treated with ridiculous and unearned deference. A second was that I had mistakenly expected the understanding and speaking of English to be of a higher level, especially in the service industries. But I realised after a short while that proficiency in English is pretty much limited to the professional middle classes. Taxi drivers and waiters by no means routinely speak or even understand English, as the following sample illustrates:

Blanco: Can I have a large beer please?

Waiter: Yes sir. Is that being small or big?

The third thing was vultures, which I have mentioned, and a fourth was the hell that is shopping. I will never again enter a shop in Delhi to buy anything more complicated than a packet of fags. Stress levels unacceptably high. Several people at once attempt to sell you goods you do not want, and at quite exorbitant prices, unless one is prepared to haggle, which after a couple of sleepless night, I was not. Fifth, and finally, I have always tried to avoid poverty tourism, for which reason I never went to India when most my friends did, back in the 1970s. As the Sex Pistols noted, there has always seemed to be something immoral about holidays in the sun – even under the convenient guise of the gap-year experience – when the great majority of a country’s residents live in a state of abject poverty. I know there are more ethical approaches to travel nowadays, and I attempt to follow them as best I can, but India, I fear, with its lasting resonances of Empire, will always be a difficult place for a British visitor.

On a more positive note, I mentioned in my last post the musicians from Rajasthan, who played for us last Sunday evening. I was transported by their music into a zone of almost perfect bliss. It would have been worth the airfare just to listen to them, never mind the poets. Unfortunately the sound quality of my video does not do justice to the music, so I am just posting a couple of pictures instead.

Delhi_musicians

Delhi_band 1

 

Lorna Shaughnessy, George Szirtes, Moya Cannon

Lorna Shaughnessy, George Szirtes, Moya Cannon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Necrophiliacs of the written word

25 Mar
The sacred cow of poetry

The sacred cow of poetry

 

So what is poetry anyway? A rather perplexing question put about more than strictly necessary at the Sabad World Poetry Festival, which I have been attending in Delhi. On the first day, after a long haul from the airport through the dense traffic, noise, onslaught of colour and intense odour that is India, I arrived at the festival site, hosted by Sahitya Akademi and the Indian Ministry of Culture, and sat in the festival hall listening to a man sing. After he had sung his poem, or his song, they gave him a lovely bunch of yellow flowers. In fact, as I discovered, they give everyone a nice bunch of flowers (mine, on Sunday, were peach roses, which almost went with my shirt). Everyone was in a jolly good mood, what with the abundance of flowers and all. There were poets from all over the world, and especially from the subcontinent. I met up with George Szirtes from the UK, and Moya Cannon and Lorna Shaughnessy from Ireland, both of whom I have met before, and various other poets I have encountered over the past few years at festivals of this kind, including Sudeep Sen and (for the first time) the fine Indian poet Ranjit Hoskoté.  There is a dancer on the second night and a sublime group of musicians from Rajasthan on the third. But I am perplexed throughout by the recurring question of ‘what is poetry?’ I mean, who really cares? One rather cool suggestion in the opening speeches (which I missed, en route from the airport) was “witnessing, wandering and wonder”. Another, which I prefer, offered to me by Moya Cannon, in a slightly different context (but which still rings true) was the opportunity to indulge our negative capability. Someone raised the point that a recent article in the Washington Post – which cites a poet who shares Blanco’s name – had pronounced poetry dead, for once and for all. Bravo, I say. That makes us so-called poets the ghouls of literature. Don’t you love that idea? Or am I merely misquoting Don DeLillo, writing of the novel, another allegedly ‘dead’ form? Either way, poet or novelist, we are obviously the necrophiliacs of the written word.

 

 

 

 

Hanif Kureishi and the ongoing but tedious debate on Creative Writing courses

9 Mar
"It’s a real nightmare trying  to make  a living  as a  writer". Er . . .right, mate.

“It’s a real nightmare trying to make a living as a writer”. Er . . right, mate. I’ll take your word for it (but not your course).

 

As someone who makes his living from the teaching of creative writing I watched warily as the Hanif Kureishi story from the Bath Literature Festival unfolded last week. I had really begun to think that the argument about ‘whether you can teach creative writing’ was dead in the ground, but I was wrong. And the tremors that began in the staid and elegant streets of Bath have even rippled over the South Atlantic.

This morning I receive an email from Jorge Fondebrider in Argentina with a link to Ñ, the magazine supplement to the newspaper Clarín, and the most important cultural weekly in the country. The article suggests that ‘Kureishi’s bitter declarations belong to the hateful species of writers who go to literary festivals in order to spend their time complaining about how much they hate having to do publicity for their books.’ Indeed, perhaps Hanif was bored, and wanted to get something off his chest, or just rile someone. And that’s understandable, although not very professional. But he certainly knew that his outburst would get him publicity for his new novel, The Last Word. I don’t wish to add to that publicity, but do feel the need to make a contribution, as I am getting tired of the argument he has resurrected. Kureishi has frequently been outspoken in a heavy-handed, bombastic way and he is a didactic writer – which to my mind is at odds with being a good novelist. But he has also –and this might come as a surprise to many – written extremely lucidly on the practice of creative writing.

What shocked most people about Kureishi’s rant was the sheer, brazen hypocrisy of it all. Here is someone who makes his living from an activity that he evidently despises – much as he appears to despise the students he teaches – and yet is content to pocket the salary that accompanies this fruitless endeavour, without any consideration for either the people who have paid big fees to study at the university where he teaches (Kingston) or the consequences for the rest of us in having to pick up the broken crockery after this moribund and incredibly tedious domestic turbulence, once again. I am not even convinced how much of Kureishi’s polemic was for real, nor do I really care. The fact is that we have all had thoughts like Kureishi’s on a bad day, but we get over it. The evidence, as Tim Clare’s entertaining response to Kureishi: Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Not If Your Teacher’s A Prick is that many people get quite a lot from a Creative Writing course. From my own experience (I teach at Cardiff University) I would venture that MA students are not so naïve as to expect to make it into the upper zones of the literary stratosphere simply by gaining a qualification in Creative Writing. Most of them would accept that we, their tutors, cannot ‘teach them to write’, but that we can make them aware of certain techniques and strategies by which they can help themselves towards becoming better writers. Most of them would also accept that real talent – whatever that is – is rare (though whether the figure of 99.9% figure cited by Kureishi is relevant or not, I rather doubt: it reeks of the old prejudice about ‘genius’ and a ‘God-given gift’, or the equally defunct and baffling notion of inspiration from the muse). Those who do succeed (whatever the measure of success), and who possess a modicum of talent, begin with a strong urge to write – which often takes on the characteristics of an obsession – and they persevere through rewriting and rewriting until they get a result. Much as I suspect Kureishi did.

One of the modules on the Cardiff MA, taught by a colleague (Shelagh Weeks), is  ‘The Teaching of Creative Writing’ (Module SET203). The assessment comes in the form of a 3,000 word essay, submitted after the students have spent some weeks working with aspiring writers in schools and with our own undergraduates. Here is a sample quotation:

‘Some students have considerable phantasies about becoming a writer, of what they think being a writer will do for them. This quickens their desire, and helps them get started. But when the student begins to get an idea of how difficult it is to complete a considerable piece of work – to write fifteen thousand good words, while becoming aware of the more or less impossibility of making significant money from writing – she will experience a dip, or ‘crash’ and become discouraged and feel helpless. The loss of a phantasy can be painful, but if the student can get through it – if the teacher can show the student that there’s something good in her work and help her endure the frustration of learning to do something difficult – the student will make better progress.’

In marking this, I would have pointed out the clumsy repetition of ‘considerable’. Nor do I much care for ‘the more or less impossibility’, but the argument being made seems sound enough.

In fact, the piece was written by Hanif Kureishi and published in issue 37 of The Reader (Spring 2010). Much more helpful than the Kureishi who tells us that creative writing courses are simply a waste of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An inexplicable addiction

6 Mar
Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis

A joy to find this passage in the Freelance slot of last week’s TLS, written by the wonderful Lydia Davis:

“In spite of having translated during most of my life, I still don’t really understand the urge. Why can’t I simply enjoy reading the story in its own language. Or, on the other hand, why can’t I be content to write my own work in English? The urge is a kind of hunger; maybe the polite word would be appetite – I want to consume the text, and reproduce it in English . . . Or is translation merely a less demanding or anguishing mode of writing? The piece exists already in the other language, beautifully conceived and formed; now I will have the pleasure of composing it in English, without the uncertainty involved in inventing it. Or is it acquisitiveness? I want to take over something that does not belong to me, and by writing it in English, claim it. I don’t have a completely satisfactory answer. The desire to translate may be something of an inexplicable addiction.”

 

 

 

Etymology of vagabondage

27 Feb
Leatherman

The Leatherman (ca. 1839–1889) was a vagabond famous for his handmade leather suit of clothes, who traveled a circuit between the Connecticut River and the Hudson River, roughly from 1856 to 1889.

Taken to task by a reader over the complicated etymology of vagabondage, I realise the need for another post on the subject.

In an earlier post I referred to the cirujas of Buenos Aires, otherwise known as cartoneros, those nocturnal seekers-out of trash bins, whose primary task is to find materials for recycling (plastic, cardboard, paper etc). Cartoneros are a sub-category of ciruja, a professional scavenger of all types of object for which a use or purpose can be made. That is why I likened the ciruja to a kind of street alchemist, seeking out base metal to transmute into gold. But I can see, as I was chided, that there is nothing especially poetic about this.

Whereas with the linyeras, there is. The definition of linyera given in my dictionary of  lunfardo (Buenos Aires slang) is: “Persona vagbunda, abandonada y ociosa (idle), que vive de variados recursos (living off a variety of resources).” The word originally comes from the Piedmontese linger, which meant “a posse of tramps”. These fit the more romanticized notion of the classical vagabond, moving around the country (or the globe) without direction or purpose, usually associated in North America with the hobo, whose preferred means of travel was jumping trains, an occupation which was until not so long ago manageable in Europe also, but which has now become as obsolete as hitchhiking.

One still sees a posse of tramps drinking from bottles or flagons in any French town or city. These, of course, are clochards. A clochard or clocharde is a person “without fixed domicile, living from public charity and handouts.” The term clochard allegedly means ‘one who limps’ from the Late Latin cloppus (lame), but I have also heard that the term comes from the ringing of a bell (cloche) which in earlier times – when most cities in France were fortified – signalled that it was time for the indigent and poor, who could not afford lodging in town, to leave the city and go sleep in a field or a barn. To my mind, a clochard is somewhat different from a vagabond. A clochard might not venture from a known neighbourhood, while for a vagabond, the world is his lobster (sic).

According to French Wikipedia “Des vagabonds célèbres ont existé, par exemple GandhiNietzscheLanza Del Vasto, et d’innombrables philosophes-vagabonds.”

To be continued. Any contributions welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus ça change

22 Feb

Selfservatives

 

I don’t usually post about politics, but I spotted this on Facebook, and thought it worth sharing.

As we hear more every week about waves of parasitic immigrants and social security scroungers who ride on the back of ‘hardworking families’ et cetera, it is nice to be reminded that these are not the only ones to play the system.

On a related theme, I came across a letter in The Independent the other morning, in which Barry Richards of Cardiff took the Tories to task for not paying interns. Apparently the Conservative Party is “trying to be a responsible employer”. As Mr Richards remarks in his letter:

A “responsible employer” would show care for its employees and ensure that they receive a fair wage capable of supporting a decent standard of living. But then the Tory ethos, from the aristocracy and landed gentry through to today’s stockbroking, City elite has always been to build wealth and power off the backs of other people’s work at the lowest cost possible.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose . . .

 

 

 

 

 

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