Adrienne Rich

I don’t mean to claim some instant, magic woke-ness upon reading these books. But Rich offers me a powerful and necessary reminder of the continuous self-reflection required to fight ignorance — one’s own and others’. We need to reread these books, especially now.

Rich never really suffered the indignity common to poets with long careers: merely self-imitative late poems that strain for effects the poet discovered decades ago. But many of Rich’s late poems seem to want to state their politics without grounding them in the life of the body, from which language learns its metaphors. This is a voice edging toward rhetoric, away from poetry, and away from us.

(Craig Morgan Teicher, “Two New Volumes by Adrienne Rich, Game-Changing Feminist, Poet and Essayist,” NYTimes, 12-12-18)

(c) 2018 JMN.

Posted in Quotations | Tagged | Leave a comment

Unsung Heroes, Sung Villains

Hannah Arendt lamented the damage done by translators to some of her favorite German poems. (“Remembering W. H. Auden,” The New Yorker, Jan. 20, 1975 — recently reprinted). As best I recall, she as good as said that trying to translate poetry is foolish.

What I’ve read of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, as well as the prose and poetry of ancient Greece, Rome, Persia and India, is in translation. I owe “War and Peace” to Constance Garnet. I owe “Beowulf” to Seamus Heaney. Goethe, Cavafy, even Chaucer — all translated, for me. You see where this leads: It can’t — and must — be done. Translators — including those who dare to assay poetry — have made, and make, important contributions to world culture.

I spill this thought to see if the cat licks it up: Yes, yes, yes — let’s agree that a masterful poem is ineffable, etc., but even a lyric has some “dross,” a residue of “content” of some sort able to be suggested, if not fully conveyed, in another language after the poem’s unconveyable essences are boiled away, as it were. I hazard that, if the poem is truly well crafted, said content is not a throw-away component to be dismissed highmindedly because other dimensions of the poem have necessarily been forfeited in the exchange. And I agree that even the content of a given poem may be slippery, and interpretations may vary, but bring ’em on — the more the muddier.

Robert Lowell, in his “Imitations,” takes an interesting position on translation. Also a complicated one in its way — so much so that I’d best save mulling it over for another blurp, lest this one turn long.

(c) 2018 JMN.

Posted in Commentary | Tagged , | Leave a comment

“Something Like America”

Wordsworth’s description of “emotion recollected in tranquillity” is sometimes cited as shorthand for what poets refer to as the lyric “I,” the poet’s vehicle for private, meditative reflection. So what becomes of the lyric “I” if poems are not so much reflecting as enacting? I suggest that lately it seems concerned with seeking revelation not in privacy, but in community. Not in the meditative mind but in bustling bodies in shared space, in the transactions our physical selves are marked and marred by. The lyric “I” at this very moment is not alone, like the speaker of Bidart’s “Curse,” who hurls invective into the ether. Rather, it is speaking to a large, shifting, contradictory, multivalent body that is not guaranteed to hear or even to agree. Still, the “I” speaks. It is speaking at once from and to something like America.

(Tracy K. Smith, “Suddenly, Poets Are More Willing To Address Public Concerns. The Poet Laureate Explains Why, And How,” NYTimes, 12-10-18)

(c) 2018 JMN.

Posted in Quotations | Tagged | Leave a comment

Truth in Fiction

My job, fundamentally, is all about people and it’s the individual stories that give me a sense of the issues I need to use my position to influence or change. That’s why I see reading fiction as an indispensable part of the job. I think all leaders in all positions of responsibility should be made to read fiction, because it uses personal stories to bring issues to life, and gives you a window that all of the academic reading or government civil service papers in the world doesn’t allow you.

(Nicola Sturgeon, quoted by Libby Brooks, “Rachel Kushner meets Nicola Sturgeon: ‘I’m so glad I’m a novelist and not a politician’,” The Guardian, 12-8-18)

Posted in Quotations | Tagged | Leave a comment

Profound Word Funk Unlocked

Beats-wise, it’s a little like one of Madlib’s Medicine Show mixes, where grainy, sample-driven productions blurt like a haunted radio searching for a frequency in the past. Soul, funk and disco samples are cut up with blunt safety scissors, leaving bruised edges and loose threads. Some are seemingly heated towards melting point, resulting in beautifully drooping tones like the organ on Cold Summers; others are dried out, like the brittle, chalky piano on The Mint. The influence of J Dilla is clear, particularly the way the late producer seemed to wrap his bass in loft insulation, and pushed the beat slightly off its grid to unlock profound funk.

(Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “Earl Sweatshirt: Some Rap Songs review — powerful, emotional poetry,” The Guardian, 12-7-18)

(c) 2018 JMN.

Posted in Quotations | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Hello, Non-America

The WASP virtues … included a cosmopolitanism that was often more authentic than our own performative variety — a cosmopolitanism that coexisted with white man’s burden racism but also sometimes transcended it, because for every Brahmin bigot there was an Arabist or China hand or Hispanophile who understood the non-American world better than some of today’s shallow multiculturalists.

(Ross Douthat, “Why We Miss the WASPs,” NYTimes, 12-6-18)

(c) 2018 JMN.

Posted in Quotations | Tagged , , | Leave a comment


The art world seems to have closely adopted and followed the ideological footprints of the larger global economy of the past three decades, increasingly participating in the orgy of the creation of wealth and its narrow distribution. But now with the rise of tribalism and nationalism and the bobbing of the ugly head of fascism, can the sleepy, self-indulgent Western art world rise from its slumber, too?

(Shirin Neshat, “When Does Political Art Cross the Line?”, NYTimes, 12-5-18)

(c) 2018 JMN.

Posted in Quotations | Tagged | Leave a comment