To Purify the Language of the Tribe

by Sydney Lea

The French poet Stephane Mallarmé once opined (and T.S. Eliot would echo him in his magisterial Four Quartets) that poetry’s objective was to “purify the language of the tribe.” I’ve been thinking about that lately—less, though, in response to any poetic text than to a wonderful prose one, Henry Beston’s Northern Farm (1949), a chronicle of seasonal life in and around the house that the author and his wife shared on Lake Damariscotta in Maine.

Anyone who has ever considered her- or himself in the least a naturalist writer knows Beston’s classic The Outermost House; by her own account, for example, this was the only book that directly influenced Rachel Carson’s composition of Silent Spring, itself so influential. Yet I was ignorant of Northern Farm until it turned up on a shelf at my late, wonderful mother-in-law’s house in western Massachusetts. Much of the author’s prose simply stuns me, and I am in sympathy with many of its tendencies. Consider the following:

“One of the greater mischiefs which confront us today is the growing debasement of the language. Our speech is a mere shadow of its incomparable richness, having on the one hand become vulgarized and on the other corrupted with a particularly odious academic jargon. Now this is dangerous. A civilization which loses its power over its own language has lost its power over the instrument by which it thinks.”

Amen, said I to myself as I pondered these assertions…a response that among other things surely proves, as I must acknowledge, how men and women of an age like mine have always thought and will always think the world nowadays is going to hell. But.

But think of automobile ads, just for one indicator. What is meant, say, by “Chevrolet, an American revolution”? Was it General Motors that impelled Washington across the Delaware in that cold, crucial winter? Or “Love– it’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.” Did Dante drive an Outback? Or, astoundingly annoying, “Guts. Glory. Ram,” as though to own a pickup truck were an exaltation. There are myriad other examples in other domains, of course, but you see where I’m headed.

This is the sort of thing that Beston called vulgarization. Loathsome though it be, however, it can’t compare to a passage like the following, painstakingly and agonizingly constructed by a professor—Lord, help us—of English at a prestigious university; some years back, it justly won a Bad Writing Contest originated by Professor Denis Dutton:

“If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”

Contemporary literary theorists such as our professor here have pointed out that words never bear more than an oblique relation to what they are meant to signify. (To arrive at this conclusion, evident to any poet or fiction writer within the first day or so of trying out her art, the intelligentsia must have invented a reader so dumb or so rapt as perhaps to have seen a written word like “hamburger” and then tried to eat it.) But it is unclear to me exactly what the obfuscatory words just cited may refer to, even obliquely. Harumph. I was raised and educated to believe that lucidity in expression was a virtue, not a sign of simplism.

In reading Henry Beston, in relishing his straightforward yet lyrical style, it occurred to me—hardly for the first time—that alienation from the tangible world, including the alienation of language from that world, is, as he says, dangerous. I am more and more convinced that the farther we get from our physical realities, the more radically we make the (false) distinction between our bodily and spiritual lives, the more we pay for it.

We can turn to—well, blather, the kind evinced, in my opinion, by the unreadable prose of the English professor just quoted, though his is only an instance, and sadly not an overly extreme one, of the argot used by the academic theorists who have carried the day in our humanities departments. These tend to be men and women who speak so densely and abstractly—and all but exclusively to one another—that their language bears no palpable relation to the world of people who live in very different circumstances. Theory among the academicians, I surmise, is so motivated by their need to say something new (an imperative that would have baffled, even alarmed, the scholars of antiquity, by the way) that I can’t help supposing they must themselves at times feel suspicion of their own assertions.

Here’s Henry Beston again:

“When I am here by myself…, I read the agricultural papers and journals which have been put aside in the kitchen cupboard for just such a solitary night. I never read (these) without being struck by the good, sound, honest English of the writing, by the directness and simplicity of the narratives…Whether the topic be tomatoes or ten-penny nails, their writers know how to say things and say them well.”

But wait: I am not mounting an argument for simplism any more than Beston is; I scarcely regret that Emily Dickinson, for instance, was not a poultry farmer. I am simply reiterating my claim that disembodiment, alienation from our physical and natural world, results not in higher thinking but in impoverishment or obfuscation or, again, blather. This seems to me even truer for poetry than for most modes of discourse. I’m put in mind of Ezra Pound’s claim, which, granted, is only a half-truth, even if the true half is deeply compelling: “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”

Speaking of which, could anyone, as poet, fictionist, or practitioner any other sort of language, be more eloquent than Beston in this passage from Northern Farm?

“A gold and scarlet leaf floating solitary on the clear, black water of the morning rain barrel can catch the emotion of a whole season, and chimney smoke blowing across the winter moon can be a symbol of all that is mysterious in human life.”

Yet there are greater dangers than mere inanity, and I fear they grow ever more acute in a technologized age. Blather can offend, and even wound, to be sure, but not so much as certain modes of cool calculation. The drift into disembodiment allows us to imagine the victims of military attack, for example, as statistics, not as living and breathing organisms, to look at citizens as parts of this or that voting bloc, not as individuals with their own idiosyncratic virtues and flaws.

Blather, that vicious cool, or—what? I guess the word that comes to mind is creepiness. On a recent trip to our Maine cabin, my wife and I picked up a Bangor paper at the village store. In its so-called family section, a young woman who had just borne her first child described how she was going to chronicle the little girl’s early years. The first thing she did was to open a Facebook account for her daughter, which would be waiting for her when the time came. She likewise established an email for the child, to whom she had been writing e-notes every two weeks. There were other cybernetic measures she meant to take, but I have mercifully forgotten them by now.

I am no Luddite, mind you. I have become more dependent on the Internet than I’d have dreamed even a decade ago. At the same time, just as we did our children, my wife and I have lately been savoring our little grandchildren, six of them now. This involves not only the (wearying) fun of frolicking, at a playground, in the woods, on the living room floor or wherever, more than snuggling close to them as we read bedtime stories and entertain their wonderful comments and questions. It also involves giving baths, wiping chins and bottoms, feeding and cleaning up after them– all those physical gestures, pleasant and otherwise, that go into close human interrelationships.

Emailing the kid before she can read a word? That is creepy, right?

Or am I just a superannuated, sentimental old fool?

The truth lies doubtless somewhere in between. Wherever it may lie, out my window just now, I see a small grebe diving under the surface of our pond and re-emerging, making small ripples that clash mildly with the wind-driven wavelets. The duck’s behavior seems enough, when I get right down to it, to make a day.

AGNI Monkey

author photo Big Falls_PHOTO Sydney Lea, a former Pulitzer finalist, founded and for thirteen years edited the New England Review. His thirteenth collection of poems, Here, is due from Four Way Books this year. Likewise, in fall of 2018, Vermont’s Green Writers Press will publish The Music of What Happens: Lyric and Everyday Life, his collected newspaper columns from his years (2011-15) as Vermont Poet Laureate. In spring of ‘18, GWP has just re-issued his collaborative book of essays with former Delaware laureate Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

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Recycling Neruda

by Stephen Kessler

The cardboard slipcases of the three-volume Obras completas and the four-in-one Libro de las odas have been through a lot since I bought them in Madrid in 1976 at one of those dilapidated bookstalls across from Atocha, had them wrapped in layers of brown paper by the ladies in the basement of Correos who expertly, with just string and hot wax, would prepare your package, not even a box, for the voyage to California, and unwrapped them intact at home in the Soquel hills a few weeks later.

Since then they have survived several moves and have not been left behind for the next residents or sold or donated like so many others, and up on the coast the carpenter ants found the uncoated cardboard just the tasty texture for their paper hunger, and the old glue in the cases’ corners was coming loose in places, and if you picked one up it would start to come apart in your hands.

Today, when I was moving some books around, their decrepitude was evident, so despite what should have been a sentimental attachment to such seminal items in my library, and despite the faded photos on the cases’ backs of the great poet I once admired so much and loved so much that I learned to translate on the training wheels of his odes—despite or perhaps because of his iconic stature, the only Hispanic poet anyone knows besides García Lorca, the brand name everyone recognizes and adores no matter how much of the poetry reeks of self-congratulation and communist bromides and pride in his prodigious gift and gloating about his great sex with Matilde—I decided I’d had enough reverence for the old man and my small way of smashing his icon was to throw those cardboard slipcases, photos and all, into the blue recycling bin alongside the driveway.

The red leather Obras and green leather Odas look better, less dust-encased, less artifacty, less iconic, more accessible, more readable. But I have read quite enough Neruda, much as he meant to me in my twenties, and amazing as the Residencia en la tierra poems remain, so much stronger and more imaginative and more authentic in their alienation than the political speechifying of the later years and his voice-of-the-people persona. Those commitments to justice and revolution may have been for him historically necessary but they didn’t do his poetry much good and have set a bad example for the kind of finger-pointing agitprop and feel-good righteousness widely practiced today across a land politically contaminated by the most grotesque presidency this country has ever suffered. Poetry may be one way to address this crisis, but who is listening?

Neruda’s most lasting work will be the early love poems, the existentially angst-soaked surrealism, a few of the odes, and Canto general, greater than Pound’s Cantos as “a poem containing history,” when Pablo’s political vision was fresh and embodied in narratives and had not congealed into slogans. I keep him on my shelf as a marker along the way and an occasional point of reference, a poet worth revisiting from time to time, but mostly a father figure, as Whitman was to Pound, whose authority it is time to question—just as I have long since rejected Pound. As Whitman wrote, “Who learns my lesson best learns to destroy the teacher.”

That’s why I’ve recycled the rotting slipcases of the Obras and the Odas, and why those books look better now on the shelf beside the equally important Borges and Aleixandre and Vallejo and Paz and Cernuda, not to get into the poets in other languages. I’m sick of old Pablo being the only name out of the mouth of anyone who learns I’m a translator—I’ve translated him, but so what, so has everyone else. He was promiscuous with his permissions, permissive with conflicting translations, and posthumously Carmen Balcells, his Barcelona agent (and practically everyone else’s in Hispanic literature), bargained hard for every new lucrative edition of even his most marginal work, which even he, who published prodigiously, didn’t choose to publish when he was alive.

But the Neruda brand has legs, and even though he was bald and built like Alfred Hitchcock, so he doesn’t have the glamour of García Lorca or Frida Kahlo, nor their tragic stories, he sells like Coca-Cola on a hot day in the tropics, and all his various publishers hear the cash registers ringing in his verses like perfect rhymes.

Down in the blue bins the cardboard slipcases are mingling already with the cereal boxes and office paper and empty bottles and plastic containers, Pablo’s picture mashed indifferently against the rest of the remnants the truck will come to pick up later this week, crashing us awake before dawn as it dumps the plastic barrels into its maw.

Why does it feel so good to recycle Neruda?

AGNI Monkey

SK photo by Christina WatersStephen Kessler’s most recent book is Garage Elegies, to be published this spring by Black Widow Press. His translations of Luis Cernuda have received a Lambda Literary Award, the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, and the PEN Center USA Translation Award. His version of Neruda’s “Heights of Machu Picchu” appears in Machu Picchu, a book of photographs by Barry Brukoff. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, where he writes a weekly column in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Card, deNiord, and Lavers: New Work up at AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—a story by Maisy Card, and poems by Chard deNiord and Michael Lavers. Check it all out!

 

AGNI MC“Let’s say that you are a 69-year-old Jamaican man called Stanford, or Stan for short, who once faked your own death. You have never used those words to describe what you did before. At the time you’d thought of it as seizing an opportunity placed before you by God, but today you have gathered all of your female descendants in one house, even the daughter who has thought you dead all these years, and decided that today is the day that you will tell them the truth: You have spent the last twenty years of your second life living in a brownstone in Harlem, running a West-Indian grocery store.”

from the story “The True Death of Abel Paisley” by Maisy Card

 

 

AGNI cd“He was already flying with invisible wings
in his chair, staring ahead as I wheeled him
into the hall.”

from the poem “The Lake” by Chard deNiord

 

 

 

 

AGNI ML“One hardware warehouse, one mink farm
gagging the clouds, one curling rink, one park,
its kept swan floating like a plastic bag.
What could be simpler?”

from the poem “Field Work” by Michael Lavers

 

 

 

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On Fear

by Carolyn Guinzio

demonHere are two frightening things I’ve seen: a moth with a demon on its back and a bee with an alien on its back. I should say what looked like an alien and a demon. But they both inspired a different sort of response than the “eyes” on moth wings or the cartoonish menace of a face on the underside of a spider—things I’ve admired for their form-meets-function impressiveness. The demon and alien instead resembled classic depictions of our deepest fears manifested.

alienWhere do artists, writers, and filmmakers find their ideas of what terrifying things should look like? Are they inventing something, or rather showing us something that already exists, something we can’t see in ourselves? The artists who deal in demons and aliens interact with fear in an obvious way, but it informs so many aspects of our lives and work in more subtle ways as well.

How much of what we create and do is inspired by fear? In my own work, it’s very much involved—A fear of what the self is without writing, of failing to conduct an idea successfully from my mind to whatever form I think it needs, of losing my hold on what it is I’m trying to say. Fear of incoherence, mediocrity, or subconscious thievery. There’s a saying that photographers document what they fear losing, and I remember thinking, I must fear losing everything. But without fear, I would never write at all, and I suspect I’m not alone in this. Sometimes fear is evident in the work itself: of pain, loss, grief, fear of time moving forward or time standing still. Sometimes it’s buried in the process and is the thing that gives the work its heat.

Not long ago it was discovered that the praying mantis has learned to hunt hummingbirds on the feeders people hang in their back yards. This was around the time I was photographing a mantis and experiencing an eerie chill as it kept swiveling its head around to watch me while I tried to find a good angle. It seemed to be calculating whether there was anything to be gained by my nearness. An irrational fear of annihilation prompted me to move along, but not before I got my photograph. Sometimes we have to hold the lens steady in the face of terrible things to get the image we want.

mantisWriters move through the world both running away (from silence, for instance) and on the hunt, and there is fear on both sides of the equation. The work a writer makes can be a layer between them and their environment—like a killdeer flapping a fake broken wing to keep the cat from noticing the nest. We want something other than the self to hold the gaze, but conversely, the whole enterprise is about connection. We will use whatever is at our disposal in the hope of distracting, entertaining, moving, delighting, making some sort of a tether between our work and a reader. The loss of the tether, the drifting into oblivion, is the worst fear for some. For others, it’s the oblivion in which no sound is worth making, or none can be heard. Whatever our own particular fear may be, we carry it with us, our constant companion, looking out from our backs at whatever tries to stop us on our way.

AGNI Monkey

Carolyn Guinzio photoCarolyn Guinzio‘s fifth book, Ozark Crows (Spuyten-Duyvil, 2018), is a sequence of visual poems. Originally from Chicago, she has lived just outside Fayetteville, Arkansas since 2002. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

Trains

by Rick Bursky

Trains are the most literary form of travel, other than walking, of course. Old automobiles come close, only close. As much as I love airplanes they’re thin in literary emotion. There was a time ships were literary. That time has sailed, pun intended.

Somewhere in a box, perhaps at the bottom of the hallway closet, there’s a photograph of Patrick R. Ballogg on a train. We were travelling from Vicenza, Italy, to Garmish, Germany. It was a long time ago. Patrick is smiling. A bottle of Tanqueray on the table beside him. I was sitting opposite. Soft winter light illuminates the side of his face. I haven’t seen the photograph in years but seem to think a young woman is sitting next to him. Trains. Another young woman sat next to me, and like me, is not in the photograph. Trains.

Trains muscle their way through distance. Trains are best experienced at night. I should have mentioned it earlier, but electric trains are not as high on the literary ladder of resonance. The exception are subways when the train struggles through a tunnel and the lights go out.

George Stephenson was born in 1781, on June ninth. Years later he invented the steam locomotive engine. He named his first one “Blucher.” It pulled eight loaded coal wagons weighing thirty tons four hundred and fifty feet at four miles an hour. The men who shoveled the coal must have been buried with the black dust of that day.

Men working on railroads seldom go to hell once they die. Yes, some are horrible, sinful people, so there is no explanation for this. Nor for the reason that Frank Sinatra collected model electric trains. Actually had a cottage devoted to them on his Rancho Mirage property.

Moonlight pulls the smoke from steam engines at night. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.

I’ve never written on a train. I have on an airplane but it wasn’t a very good poem. I often think of taking a journey on a train just to revise that poem. The fact that more poets have died on trains than airplanes is not preventing this. Other things are. Destinations are often a triggering event for travel, trains. In my version of the world they are not a requirement.

Every time a ship sinks there will be a train crash in nine days within eleven hundred miles of that ship’s port of departure. Harold L. Watson convinced me that this is a proven fact. He spent many years as an executive in railroad companies and was in three emergency meetings to discuss precautions after a ship sank. Railroad companies try to keep this secret. But when I told Harold L. Watson I was writing about how trains inform poetry he thought it would be a fitting way for the public to learn of this danger. Poetry has always been good for this sort of warning. A thought from me, not Harold L. Watson.

AGNI Monkey

BurskyRick Bursky‘s most recent book, I’m No Longer Troubled By The Extravagance, is out from BOA Editions. His next book, Where the Ocean Spills Its Grief, is also forthcoming from BOA. His poems have appeared in many journals including Field, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Conduit and Iowa Review. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Crossing the Bridge: A Reflection on the Drue Heinz Literature Prize

by Anthony Varallo

Drue Heinz, the philanthropist who endowed the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize (administered by the University of Pittsburgh Press), passed away this month at the age of 103. This essay was written in honor of her memory and the work she did to support the arts.

When I first heard the news that I’d won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, I was driving over a bridge. My family and I were shopping for groceries and needed to cross the cable-stayed bridge that connects our side of Charleston, SC to the other, more affluent suburbs, when my wife handed me my cell phone, and said, “You got a message from someone at the University of Pittsburgh Press.” I did. It was an editor with good news about the collection I’d submitted. I called back. The editor and I talked for a few moments, me steering with one hand, the phone in the other, me saying things like “Thank you” and “Are you sure?” and “Really?” and “I can’t believe it,” as cars passed ahead of me.

I was being honest: I couldn’t believe it. My collection, Out Loud, had already lost a dozen other contests, had even lost the Drue Heinz twice before, in fact, an event that led me to tell my wife that I had given up on the book, really, that it was time to move on from short stories—who wants to read those anyway?—to the novel. I was ready for that. Or at least I thought I was, until I won the prize, and then I remembered, in what seemed an instant, that I loved short stories, and enjoyed writing them more than anything else. So it was a pleasure (and sometimes the opposite) to sit down with those stories again, as the Pitt Press prepared the manuscript for publication, and remember what I’d enjoyed about writing them, why I wrote in the first place, what I was trying to do in my fiction, and why I’d sent the collection out into the world. Winning the Drue Heinz helped me remember what I loved about writing: the act of making something out of nothing, after much labor, the blank page no longer blank.

There were other pleasures, too. A reception and reading with prize judge Scott Turow, who, along with the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, handed me an envelope with the prize check inside, with its thrilling amount, a gold mine compared to the usual short story rate of pay of two contributor’s copies in a slightly torn, slightly damaged envelope. I kept the prize envelope for years. A few weeks after the reading, I was also invited to introduce Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richard Russo as the featured speaker for the Drue Heinz Lecture Series—a tradition for Heinz winners—where I stood in front of the largest audience I’ve ever addressed, and said a few words, all while trying to summon an expression that said please don’t notice that this is the largest audience I’ve ever addressed. Later, one of the event coordinators invited Richard Russo and me to spend some time alone to discuss writing, a request from Drue Heinz herself, to which Richard Russo and I happily complied. I asked Mr. Russo how he wrote his most recent novel, the incredible Bridge of Sighs, and he gave me some wonderful insights that I still carry with me to this day.

There were so many other great things about winning the prize, like working with everyone at the University of Pittsburgh Press, giving readings across the country, or getting a literary agent at long last, but one of the best rewards happened several months after publication, when an elegant and exotic-looking envelope arrived in my mailbox, complete with a Scottish return address and stamp: a letter from Drue Heinz. Ms. Heinz, then in her nineties, wrote to tell me how much she enjoyed reading my collection and wished me well in my future writing projects. I couldn’t believe she had taken the time to write to me, such a thoughtful and unexpected act. I felt grateful to be part of Drue Heinz’s legacy, fortunate to receive her generosity. I still have that letter today.

AGNI Monkey

varallo_2Anthony Varallo’s most recent story collection is Everyone Was There, winner of the Elixir Press 2016 Fiction Award.  He is the author of three previous collections: This Day in History, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award; Out Loud, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize; and Think of Me and I’ll Know (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press).  Currently he is an associate professor of English at the College of Charleston, where he teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and serves as the fiction editor for Crazyhorse. See what he’s published in AGNI here.