Muriel Spark

Perhaps it is that particular literary quality, her poet’s rigorous understanding of what another modernist, D. H. Lawrence, called “the jump of words along the line”—when set against the easy-to-read “Miss Jean Brodie,” with its mass-market appeal—that has confused her Scottish and British readers for so long. Was she serious, or in the blockbuster business? It’s a perfect example of Scottish antisyzygy, a mind-set that holds within it two completely opposite ways of being… Where does she belong? For readers who like their writers straightforward, that they may more easily describe their art, Spark is a challenge: a split self of a woman who spells, like all Dr. Jekylls and Mr. Hydes, nothing but trouble… She created novels that are laugh-out-loud funny, while turning the mind to the gravest, deepest concerns of human life: Why are we here? What is our purpose? What do we know?

(Kirsty Gunn, “How Muriel Spark Came Home to Scotland,” The New Yorker, 12-19-18)

(c) 2018 JMN.

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Taking (Fish) Stock From Bronchial Purgatory

Coming off a debilitating relapse of bronchitis I can say the following: These are the days of Catalonia — a month’s worth plus well-lapsed a fortnight — in which I’ve had cockles (berberechos), mussels (almejas, mejillones) and a crustacean called cigala, variously translated as “crayfish,” “Dublin Bay prawn,” “Norway lobster,” “langoustine” — who knows what the thing is? My daughter loves them. A plateful of cigalas yields, with much work, enough protein to fit on a cracker. I’ve had squid (calamar), cuttlefish (sepia), octopus (pulpo), monkfish (rape), cod (bacalao), hake (merluza), sardines and anchovies (sardinas, anchoas), and flounder (platija). It bears mention that none of this bounty came from a can or freezer.

(c) 2018 JMN.

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*Affectedly Quaint

Following Dr. [Donald] Knuth’s doctrine helps to ward off moronry. He is known for introducing the notion of “literate programming,” emphasizing the importance of writing code that is readable by humans as well as computers — a notion that nowadays seems almost [*]twee. Dr. Knuth has gone so far as to argue that some computer programs are, like Elizabeth Bishop’s poems and Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” works of literature worthy of a Pulitzer.

“I am worried that algorithms are getting too prominent in the world, It started out that computer scientists were worried nobody was listening to us. Now I’m worried that too many people are listening.”

(Siobhan Roberts, “The Yoda of Silicon Valley,” NYTimes, 12-17-18)

(c) 2018 JMN.

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There’ll Always Be an England

Persons from the UK had a bit of fun with the NYTimes in responding to a query concerning “crimes” to which they had been victim in their native land. The following tweet, among others, appeared in The Guardian in mid-December:

Once I accidentally queue-barged a man in a supermarket. I apologised profusely for not realising they were in a queue. They then apologised for making a big deal about nothing. I then apologised for their apology. Then someone behind us apologised for asking us to move up.

There it is: assault by apology, a tort of courtesy. The low-hanging fruit here, linguistically, is “ ‘queue-barged’ a man.” The phrase “queue-barge,” new to me, is vastly superior to its USA equivalent “break in line” (“I broke in line in front of a man”). The felonious welter of apologies pursuant to the primary infraction is secondarily ravishing. It reminds me of the “thank you”s I had to endure in passing through the Heathrow security check: “thank you” for stepping a bit this way; “thank you” for holding my wallet during the body scan; “thank you” for raising my arms slightly during the scan; “thank you” for retrieving my personal effects; etc. etc. etc. At the end of the 10-minute ordeal I was exhausted from saying “you’re welcome.”

(c) 2018 JMN.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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