Tuesday, May 31, 2005


Bad blood, translation panel, The Wounded Surgeon

I celebrated Memorial Day by hanging around the apartment in my bathrobe, reading an old New Yorker I found under the sofa cushion (which made me very skeptical about Mike Bloomberg's West Side stadium boondoggle: the floor and ceiling alone are supposed to run the taxpayers $600 million.) By the late afternoon my mood was ugly. But now I'm back, firing on all pistons, and the first thing that caught my attention was this fraternal spat, brought to you live from the Hay-on-Wye festival. Turns out that Christoper and Peter Hitchens have been giving each other the silent treatment for nearly four years, ever since P suggested that C was a Stalinist in the British papers. Not so! argues C. Despite some delicate therapeutic maneuvering on the part of the moderator, the brothers don't really kiss and make up--in fact they have to be bullied into actually looking each other in the eye at the end of the exchange. But the report does include this priceless bit of audience participation:
Female audience member: Excuse me. I'm not usually awkward at all but I'm sitting here and we're asked not to smoke. And I don't like being in a room where smoking is going on.

CH (smoking heavily): Well, you don't have to stay, do you darling. I'm working here and I'm your guest. OK. This is what I like.

IK: Would you just stub that one out?

CH: No. I cleared it with the festival a long time ago. They let me do it. If anyone doesn't like it they can kiss my ass.

Meanwhile, in The New York Sun, Gary Shapiro offers some extended coverage of last week's translation panel at Housing Works. The nattily attired reporter (who no longer wears that porkpie hat with a business card stapled to the brim) clearly took better notes than I did. There's much more info on the fiscal realities of literary translation. There's also a bonus quip from Dennis Loy Johnson, who responded to questions about how a small publisher could make up for the whole, revenue-slaying enterprise by revealing yet another of his cottage industries: "We’re selling cupcakes outside."

Finally: I picked up Adam Kirsch's The Wounded Surgeon, which had been sitting on the floor of my office for the past two weeks. My inspiration, I freely admit, was the poke in the eye David Lehman gave the author in this week's New York Times Book Review. Having enjoyed some of Kirsch's essays, I couldn't believe the book could be quite that bad. Well, it is...problematic. And as Lehman suggests, the real flaw is Kirsch's thesis, which deploys not just a straw man but a platoon of straw men--enough for an entire haystack. Kirsch's argument: despite the "confessional" label, Lowell, Berryman, and Plath never treated poetry as a glorified Dictaphone, never transcribed their experiences directly into verse. The problem is that nobody really believes this in the first place. Nor does the opposite, New Critical assertion--that the poems are hermetically sealed off from the life--hold water. Caught between these absurdities, Kirsch trots out T.S. Eliot's tired riffs on impersonality and the objective correlative. Are we really going to pretend that "Skunk Hour" or The Dream Songs represent "an escape," as Eliot put it, "from personality"? Get out of town! As for the porous membrane between life and art, let Lowell speak for himself, in his letter of July 2, 1976 to Elizabeth Hardwick, where he discusses his Selected Poems:
Autobiography predominates, almost forty years of it. And now more journey of the soul in my new book. I feel I, or someone, wrote everything beforehand. If I had read it at twenty would I have been surprised, would I have dared go on?
When Kirsch isn't grinding his anti-confessional axe, he makes some intelligent points about Lowell, Bishop, and Randall Jarrell (he's especially perceptive about the repressed current of sexuality in Jarrell's best work.) It's too bad the book itself comes off as such a rear-guard action.

The Hitchens' Hay festival story is precious. I liked the transcription where we are paranthetically told the Hitch "smokes heavily" as he is enages in the acrimonious exchange with the female non smoker.
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