Editor Ben Tate on his trip to Hay Festival

It’s the mother of all literary festivals, and since its establishment in the late 1980s virtually every living writer of consequence has attended. It was here that the late Christopher Hitchens promoted, in turn, both his atheist manifesto as well as his memoir, and it was here that Margaret Atwood appeared just last year for an extended discussion of A Handmaid’s Tale. In 2004 John Updike, before presenting one of his last novels, insisted upon arriving by train ‘because they don’t have trains in Massachusetts’, and famously, and rather awkwardly, Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul were reunited here in 2011 after their long estrangement. It was in 2000 that Gore Vidal made one of his last truly robust public appearances, amusing audiences with his impressions of Ronald Reagan and Spiro Agnew; and Bill Clinton, after peddling his own book here in 2001, referred to it as ‘the Woodstock of the Mind’, though he was thinking more of upstate New York than of West Oxfordshire. This is, of course, the Hay Festival, staged every May in the Welsh market town of Hay-on-Wye, which is perched along the River Wye, and not too far from the southern extension of Offa’s Dyke, the Anglo-Saxon earth wall which more or less demarcates England from Wales. But it’s not for the stunning countryside that the festival is held here. For many bibliophiles, Hay-on-Wye is the very centre of the known universe: it’s the ‘town of books’ for a reason, as there are more than 30 used bookshops tucked into its narrow streets. And it’s such a relatively small place that one could conclude a ratio of one bookshop for every resident.

I had made pilgrimages to the town in the past, primarily to buy books I never intended to read with money I never really had. Last month, however, I visited the actual festival for the first time. And what a spectacle. Although until a few years ago the festival was held literally in the town, it is now of such a magnitude that it’s staged in an open field on the outskirts, in what is really a self-contained city of tents and marquees, with two bookshops on the site and a food hall of overwhelming variety and quality. I was there with a purpose, specifically to see our author Marion Turner, whose new book, Chaucer: A European Life, has been acclaimed as nothing less than a literary milestone. It’s a biography which situates Chaucer within the broadest cultural, political, social, and intellectual context, and by predicating the narrative upon the places in which Chaucer is known to have lived and travelled the author has rendered the subject’s life and work into a tangibly concrete and complicated reality. With helpful instruction from our publicist Katie Lewis, herself an expert hand at Hay, my wife Ginny and I made our way to the festival green room, where we found Katie and author in mid-conversation, and mid-prosecco, just about an hour or so before the early afternoon event. The green room was exactly what one would want it to be. Cake, bubbly and coffee were in generous and complimentary supply, as were various British cultural celebrities: Jeanette Winterson was there chatting with friends before her event; Bettany Hughes, the popular ancient historian, breezed through on her way to a panel on reconciliation in time of conflict; BBC lion Melvyn Bragg was holding court, because he’s Melvyn Bragg and this is the sort of thing he does; and finally there was Stephen Fry, whose presence exerted a kind of gravitational pull on the rest of the room. I had to remind myself that I first knew him as Jeeves more than twenty-five years ago.

Marion was whisked away by a festival official for a debriefing, and then after a quick lunch Katie, my wife and I walked over to Llwyfan Cymru (Wales Stage) for the sold-out event. 800 people crammed under the marquee to hear Marion discuss the book with Jerry Brotton, a professor of Renaissance studies Queen Mary. Brotton was the perfect interlocutor: he never imposed himself upon the proceedings, and his questions were posed just frequently enough to move the conversation naturally from one subject to the next.  Marion, not surprisingly, was effortlessly lucid and engaging, distilling her considerable learning with a youthful and noticeably infectious enthusiasm.  Audience questions, including one from the former manager of Tower Bridge, carried on until the very last minute of the hour-and-a-half event before a throng queued up in the main festival bookshop to buy signed copies.

Princeton’s Hay experience this year extended well beyond Chaucer. Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, talked about the future, and more specifically his wonderful On the Future, and later in the week Jonathan Bate attracted a crowd of 1500 for his talk on How the Classics Made Shakespeare. It’s difficult to get one’s head round a festival like Hay. For more than a week, thousands of readers converge on muddy farmland to see authors both prominent and obscure and to listen, learn, eat, drink, talk and buy books. The scale of it overwhelms and reassures at the same time. We’re fortunate to publish authors who are invited to engage with the public at such an annual gathering, and more literally we’re fortunate to be positioned in such proximity to the ‘town of books’.

Poetry Editor Anne Savarese Celebrates National Poetry Month

National Poetry Month is the perfect occasion for us to celebrate the many poets we have been lucky enough to publish through the years in our two poetry series, both of which began in the early 1970s, and to spread the word about recent and forthcoming poetry collections.    

The Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, currently edited by Susan Stewart, is dedicated to publishing the best work of today’s emerging and established poets. Originality is one of its hallmarks, and its recent titles represent a range of forms and perspectives: Austin Smith’s reflections on the rural Midwest and contemporary America in Flyover Country; Dora Malech’s innovative wordplay in Stet; Myronn Hardy’s variety of voices and locales in Radioactive Starlings; and Miller Oberman’s combination of new work and Old English translations in The Unstill Ones.

Coming soon in the series are two books from established poets: Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2017, by Eleanor Wilner, who received the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry from the Poetry Society of America on April 18th, and The River Twice by Kathleen Graber, the first volume in nearly a decade from the author of The Eternal City (2010), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award.

Another poetry series at the Press, the Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation, provides a forum for first-rate literary work by translators of various backgrounds, working in a variety of modes. The series is deliberately eclectic, with notable titles ranging from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sharrard’s now-classic translations of George Seferis and C. P. Cavafy, to Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems by Wisława Szymborska, translated by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire, to Peter Cole’s anthology The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492.

The most recent book in the series, Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004-2010, by the late Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély, translated by the award-winning Ottilie Mulzet, is the first selection of the three current series editors, Peter Cole, Richard Sieburth, and Rosanna Warren. This fall we will publish Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli, translated from the Italian by Taije Silverman with Marina Della Putta Johnston, and we look forward to new translations under way of poetry in Arabic, ancient Greek, and medieval Galician-Portuguese, among others.

We also salute the many venues that help poetry come alive on and off the page, from the Monday Night Poetry series at KGB Bar in New York’s East Village to The Slowdown podcast with Tracy K. Smith. Outstanding poets and translations await your discovery, in April and throughout the year.

 

Marion Turner on Chaucer: A European Life

More than any other canonical English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer lived and worked at the centre of political life—yet his poems are anything but conventional. Edgy, complicated, and often dark, they reflect a conflicted world, and their astonishing diversity and innovative language earned Chaucer renown as the father of English literature. Marion Turner, however, reveals him as a great European writer and thinker. To understand his accomplishment, she reconstructs in unprecedented detail the cosmopolitan world of Chaucer’s adventurous life, focusing on the places and spaces that fired his imagination.

What compelled you to write a biography about Chaucer that focuses on place rather than chronological events in his life?  

I was trying to find a way to get under his skin. Although we have an extraordinary amount of information about Chaucer—mainly because he was a government servant, and records were meticulously kept—we don’t have personal letters, diaries, recollections, the kind of material biographers of more recent subjects can access. But I realised that I could get into his head—his imagination—by focusing on his environment: the art he saw, the streets he travelled, the kinds of buildings and structures he lived in. He had an extraordinarily adventurous life—travelling to multicultural communities in the Iberian peninsular, being taken prisoner and ransomed in the Hundred Years War, travelling at least twice to Italy, picking up manuscripts on the way, seeing slave markets in Genoa and the art of Giotto in Florence. Some of my chapters focus on actual places, such as Navarre, Vintry Ward in London, or Reims; others on more conceptual spaces such as Peripheries, Thresholds, and the Cage; and others on institutions such as the Inn, the Great Household, and the Abbey. For me, this structure enabled me to get inside Chaucer’s world, to think, for instance, about what it was like to live in a much more public way than we do now. And this structure also allowed me to follow particular themes and threads more organically than a strictly chronological structure would. At the same time, I am interested in the development of his imagination across time—in how he became the poet of the Canterbury Tales—so I did maintain a rough chronology, with the book divided into three parts that each span a phase of his life. One wonderful thing is that many of the places that mattered in Chaucer’s life can still be viewed today—the walls and Tower of London, for instance, or the medieval town of Olite in Navarre. I found tracing his footsteps to be profoundly important as I researched the book.

Why was writing a narrative poem in English so revolutionary in the 14th century? What was particularly challenging about that task, from a linguistic and stylistic standpoint?

People had been writing long poems in English before Chaucer, and indeed there is an unbroken tradition of poetry in English going back to Beowulf and even earlier. But it wasn’t a prestigious language in Chaucer’s day—the prestigious languages were French and Latin, and English was very much the poor relation. Then things started to change, and Chaucer was at the forefront of that change. In the second half of the fourteenth century, Chaucer was part of an upsurge in the production of texts in English—other poets, such as Gower, Langland and the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were also writing in English, religious writers including the female author Julian of Norwich were beginning to write texts, and English was increasingly used in government—for instance in the law courts.

Chaucer was an innovator in what he did with English. At this time, court poets were writing in French, and it was completely new to write a courtly love poem—these were called ditz amoureux—in English. When Chaucer wrote his first long poem, the Book of the Duchess, it was very much in the style of French poets, such as Machaut and Froissart. Chaucer then went into a kind of experimental frenzy—he developed all kinds of new verse forms, and really pushed the boundaries of what English poetry could do. Most notably, he invented the iambic pentameter—the ten syllable, five stress line that became the building block of English poetry, and was used by later poets such as Shakespeare. Chaucer had to borrow a lot of words from other languages, and invent new words, to expand what English could do. He even complains in one short poem about the scarcity of words in English. Indeed, he was so newfangled that he invented the word newfangled!

Clearly, Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most important figures in the English literary canon because of his myriad contributions to the language and the poetic form. Is there anything that readers might find surprising?

So many things. The idea of Chaucer as father of English literature came about after his death, in the fifteenth century, and has gathered momentum ever since then. But in many ways, it really misrepresents him, and makes people think of him as a rather establishment, patriarchal, national figure. One of the things that I want to get across in this book is that he was a great European figure—and that for Chaucer the idea that being English somehow meant not being European would have been crazy. His choice to write in English was very much inspired by what Italian poets (such as Dante and Boccaccio) had been doing—he was part of an international trend to focus on more accessible vernaculars, rather than prestigious, exclusive languages. His life was outward-facing—he travelled a great deal, was multilingual, and in London was living at the heart of global trade networks. You could buy spices from Indonesia in London in the fourteenth century, and Chaucer’s childhood ward had more immigrants living there than any other London ward.

And much of Chaucer’s writing is indeed focused on the importance of allowing different kinds of people to read and to tell stories. In contrast to his sources, when Chaucer wrote a tale-collection he ostentatiously made sure that the tellers were from myriad social groups, and refused to allow principles of hierarchy to dictate the order of the tales. Another great example is his dream poem, the House of Fame, a poem which attacks the idea of the canon, and emphasises that a poet or storyteller can’t only rely on old books—they have to go to the streets, listen to their neighbours’ gossip, find inspiration in life as well as libraries. Literature, for Chaucer, was dynamic and living, and that is one reason why it has survived so well and continues to inspire so many contemporary poets to make their own creations. He’d have loved that!

A particularly disturbing anecdote from the book reveals that Chaucer was very likely accused of raptus, or rape, though this is hotly contested by literary critics who hold that his treatment of female characters made him more sympathetic towards women in general. What does this shred of evidence mean for us as readers, when we’re forced to grapple with the overlap between an important writer’s public and private lives, or between their works of fiction and their reality? 

That’s such a difficult question, and it has many parts to it. I suppose the key question here is what is the relationship between life and works? It seems to me to be very dangerous to assume that because someone shows sympathy to women in their writings, or music, or films, they could not also be personally violent towards them. Whatever Chaucer, or Marlowe, or Ezra Pound did or thought does not, ultimately, affect my judgement of their art. And if we only read works written by people of whose opinions and actions we approved, we’ll certainly be intellectually impoverished. I do think there is a difference if we are talking about people such as Roman Polanski, or Michael Jackson, whose victims are still alive today—a difference in terms of our sensitivity towards and respect for those people. A separate question is whether Chaucer was indeed guilty of this accusation—and that remains an open question, which scholars are still debating, and which I do talk more about in the book. I’m also interested in many aspects of his relationships with women in this biography—in particular his daughter, whom no one has written about before, and his first employer, Elizabeth de Burgh, who dressed him in scandalously tight trousers when he was a teenage page.

What do you hope that readers take away from Chaucer? 

One of the mantras of the Canterbury Tales is ‘diverse men, diversely they said.’ In other words, different people have different opinions. Chaucer himself is profoundly interested in perspective, in the idea that what you see depends on where you are standing—both literally and metaphorically, That’s something that contemporary scientists and artists were interested in too, as men such as Oresme debated about the rotation of the earth, for instance. In the Tales, Chaucer shows us that the same tale can be told in contrasting ways by different tellers; that readers or listeners will interpret stories in varying ways; and that no one interpretation is final or authoritative. I hope that readers will be caught by surprise and interest when they read about the global medieval world, or about Chaucer’s preoccupation with imagining astral flight, or about Chaucer’s role looking after the king’s falcons, or about what it was like to be imprisoned in 1359, or about Chaucer’s journeys amongst Jewish and Muslims communities, to give a few examples. But mainly I hope that each reader finds something that fascinates them, something that maybe challenges a previously-held assumption or belief—but what that is might be different for each reader.

Marion Turner is associate professor of English at Jesus College, University of Oxford.

 

 

 

Miller Oberman: On Mentorship

ObermanWhen I was sixteen, like many teenagers, I worked in a corporate coffee shop in a corporate bookstore; I won’t name them here. In that bookstore I started to read contemporary poetry. I read everything lucille clifton had written and could recite half of it, and I read Split Horizon by Thomas Lux. By chance, I saw in a magazine that he taught a summer workshop at Sarah Lawrence College, and applied. It was the first time I ever printed my poems and put them in an envelope. I was accepted, and my parents let me get on a bus alone to go from Virginia to New York. When I arrived, I was told that the workshop “was for adults,” but I argued my way into Lux’s classroom, and at the end of the week, he suggested I come to school there. I never tested well and wasn’t sure I could get in, but he said to apply and to “shove a note in there that says ‘see Tom Lux about this kid.’” I did. It wasn’t until he died in early 2017 that I realized how common this story is. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of poets Tom taught, helped get into school, found jobs for, believed in.

I had incredible teachers as an undergraduate. Marie Howe sat me down behind her desk and physically taught me how to make line breaks, and I think I have most of her book What the Living Do memorized. Suzanne Gardinier taught me patience and persistence, and that good poets are better readers, and Victoria Redel showed me the freedom in rejecting barriers between genres. But Tom was my first mentor, and the first poet who made me believe I could be one myself.  

Tom was an incandescent teacher. On the first day of class he read us Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” performed it, really, and though I followed almost none of it, it was somehow the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. Perhaps this is because after he finished reading it, he said, in the same tone as he’d read it in: “I would sell every single one of your souls to have written a single line of this poem.” I read it again. And again. Today it reminds me of Tom’s poem, “An Horatian Notion,” from Split Horizon, the book that caused me to apply to the summer workshop in the first place. Tom begins by describing what he sees as the illusion of God-given genius or inspiration, “the gift,” model, which he considers ridiculous. He counters, arguing instead:

 

              You make the thing because you love the thing

              and you love the thing because someone else loved it

              enough to make you love it.

 

For Tom, the removal of the common fantasy of the artistic “bolt of fire” only adds intensity to the process. The poem concludes:

 

              And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded

              toward the earth’s core.

              And with that your heart on a beam burns

              through the ionosphere.

              And with that you go to work.

 

This “heart” burning “through the ionosphere” has everything to do with mentorship. It is how we are made, how we measure ourselves, what we take with us. This is the eternal life art promises—someone loves a thing “enough to make you love it,” and you love it enough to make another love it, and so on. It doesn’t come from heaven, it’s not a bolt from the blue, it comes from our mentors; either on the page or in the flesh. Taking the mystery out of the process doesn’t diminish it: we still get the “core,” the center of the earth and the heart, and the “ionosphere,” as our words travel outwards, above the earth’s surfaces and our own.

Tom died just before my first book, The Unstill Ones came out, and the fact that he read it and wrote about it means a great deal to me. As I did when I was young, I nervously printed the poems and mailed them to him, hoping that when he read it, he would see some of his teaching in my poems in a way that might make him proud. I know that the poems in the book where I see his influence are some of my own favorites. I hear Tom’s voice in my poem “Lies After the War,” because it’s dark and funny at the same time, one of the only poems in the book that attempts humor. And of course, in my poem “Voyages,” which begins with a quote from Hart Crane: “and could they hear me, I would tell them.”

Miller Oberman has received a number of awards for his poetry, including a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a 92Y Discovery Prize, and Poetrymagazine’s John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation. His work has appeared in PoetryLondon Review of Books, the NationBoston ReviewTin House, and Harvard Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Myronn Hardy on Origin: “Birches”

It began with that set of Encyclopedia Britannicas on the tall family room shelves.  Those maroon and navy bound books that had everything in them.  The volumes I often used to lookup random things: cities, countries, animals, historical figures and events.  Those were the books we had in my Michigan childhood home.  Those books and a random one I hadn’t touched until I was six or seven, the thick book with a black dust cover photograph of blurry sun beams passing through heavy boughs of nondescript trees. 

I remember having to hoist myself onto the counter and stretch my arm to its limit just to pull that one book from the high shelf.  Once safe, down from the counter with the book in hand, safe on the gray carpeted floor, I read its cover, The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged.  I opened the book erratically to the poem, “Birches.”  I read it intensely.  I knew what the world “birch” meant because there was a birch in the front yard.  And whenever my parents and I walked through the yard, or other yards or forests, they’d named the trees in it.  Perhaps they wanted me to know their names, to know they had names, histories even.  They wanted me to be aware.

In that poem, Frost refers to ice storms and that ice breaking from those birches as glass.  After a storm, I remembered making the same assertion in my very young mind.  The language in the poem was thrilling.  The way it worked on the page both charmed and perplexed me.  I got up from the floor to ask my mom what was the difference between this form of writing and what I’d seen in those encyclopedias or the newspaper.  She said, “This” she pointed to the poem, “is concentrated.”  She when on to compare it to the pulpy-concentrated orange juice she mixed with water each morning. 

            “So this is pure?” I asked.

            “I don’t know about pure but that’s kind of it,” she said.  I didn’t tell her then, but I felt I’d found something to make, something to attempt to make.  I found myself staring at that birch in the front yard and noticing the strange beauty in its pealing skin.  Somewhere in the process of staring at this tree, and once swinging in its boughs, I realized that that poem and other poems I’d read in Frost’s book, were prompting me to notice or see more profoundly: to notice the small, or what I’d later be told, the “insignificant.”  And that my task, perhaps, was to make that “insignificant” thing momentous, to make it the center.

            This one poem, this one book of poems, that almost fresh awareness of the birch in our front yard, began my seeing, my imagination, my seeing-imagination in poetry.  It began my writing of poetry.  I had no idea but now pondering it, sifting through it, there is the birch.  There are birches. 

            In high school, one of the large boughs of the birch had becoming infected.  The leaves became yellow and dropped in the summer.  Eventually, it had to be removed from the tree to potentially save the whole of it.  Of course, this large bough seemed to be almost half the tree.  I watched that large part being sawed off and helped with its later chopping up and removal from the yard.  I later wrote something about this.  A poem that began with yellow dust billowing from an electric saw as yellow leaves blew about the speaker in August. 

            That image became nightmarish.  It kept repeating itself in dream and I kept writing that poem, kept changing it.  The poem never worked but it marked a moment:  the birch’s almost death, that title of the first poem I remembered reading, and my first real attempting at writing poetry.

            In 2009, a year after my second book, The Headless Saints was published, I received the Robert Frost Poetry Fellowship to attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  A month after that conference, I moved to Morocco where I lived and taught at a university there for nine years.  I didn’t see any birches there. But there were sycamores and cedars.  And I wrote several poems with those trees in them.

             I’ve lived now in Maine for eight months.  Here there are birches everywhere.  And I’ve seen their branches covered with ice.  I’ve been carrying around Frost’s “Birches.” 

            I keep thinking about this idea of return, the space of return.  These groves of birches I walk though almost every day is a return I hadn’t expected.   Perhaps this is the next poem. 

Myronn Hardy is the author of four previous books of poems: Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize; The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Award for Poetry; and, most recently, Kingdom. He divides his time between Morocco and New York City.

On Influence: Robert Hayden in Dakar

After having a conversation about a novel I’ve since forgotten, my undergraduate literature professor at the University of Michigan gave me a paperback copy of Robert Hayden’s Collected Poems.  Perhaps this gesture was to end our conversation as he had a flight to catch or, more effectively, optimistically, this was to preface another: one that would extend more than an hour in an office?  I hadn’t heard of Hayden or his poetry, so I was curious, especially since my professor gave me the book and said, “read” before leading me outside the office, locking the door and exiting the building.

There I was in front of the building, in front of the heavy oak and glass doors waving to a swiftly- moving-wrinkled trench coat and holding that gray book thinking it matched the sky’s grayness, the pavement’s grayness, the grayness of my sweater, the grayness I felt.  My professor didn’t even say, I think you’ll like it.  Or this is a necessary poet, or by reading these poems your poetry may deepen.  I was uncertain he knew I actually wrote, attempted to write, hoped to write.

I went to the café on State Street, ordered a green tea and began reading that book.  There was a progression, a movement in those poems, in myself as I read.  Those stark-glimmering short lines, the longer lines that seemed to float from the page, absorb into the air like sandalwood or the oily spray of clementine peels.  His poems speak to beauty, tragedy, Americanness, African-Americanness, myths both African and Western, the natural world, the personal, urbanity and rurality.  All of these strands stitched into poems where the stitching is invisible, where I surrendered to that language and craft.  I had found a poet to follow, to aspire association.  I had found an imagination to step within, believe, one that would magnify my own. 

I didn’t read the whole book in that café but did in my dorm room that evening.  For a couple of days around campus and to my classes, I wore a silk bowtie in his honor— it ended up not being my style or rather, due to peer pressure, I stopped.  However, I kept the loosened tie on top of my dresser just to remember, to ponder Hayden.

In the following two weeks, I thanked my professor for the book.  He nodded and from there we talked about the poems, specifically their breadth and keen structures.  We talked about Hayden’s beautiful imagination despite his devastating childhood.  He wrote a poem in the voice of an extraterrestrial giving an eyewitness report of America.  What? I said.  My professor responded, “I see you.”  There was silence, a good silence.  He knew I needed those poems.  He knew I needed that book.  He knew I needed to know Hayden. 

He broke the silence to say Hayden had taught at the University for several years, before my time, our time.  But what mattered was he’d been there, and his presence, his energy remained.   

Hayden heightened my sense of possibility as a poet.  That wide imagination could live in the poems I would write.

Years later, I read of Hayden garnering the grand prize for poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal in 1966.  A year later, he attended the ceremony in New York City to receive the award from Senegal’s first president Leopold Senghor.  Langston Hughes was at that ceremony and there asked Hayden to autograph his Selected Poems

I don’t believe Hayden was in Dakar when his award was announced in 1966.  When I traveled to Dakar in 2014, I thought of Hayden.  I wondered how he would have absorbed that city.  How he would have walked in the sun with all of that pink sand on the ground, the light dusting of it on roofs and windshields of parked cars.  I wondered what poems he would have made if he’d see the hustle of that city, the beauty of it and its people, its pace.  I wondered what meal he and Senghor would have had together.  And if, after the tea was poured, they’d read each other’s new poems pulled, simultaneously, from the hidden pockets of their linen blazers. 

But this is just me wondering, imagining.  These poems may be the ones I will, at some point write with my eyes closed to the sun. 

Myronn Hardy is the author of four previous books of poems: Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize; The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Award for Poetry; and, most recently, Kingdom. He divides his time between Morocco and New York City.

Browse Our Literature Catalog 2019

Our new Literature catalog includes one of Jane Austen’s most charming youthful “novels”-in-miniature, a look at how New York’s Lower East Side inspired new ways of seeing America, a compelling history of the national conflicts that resulted from efforts to produce the first definitive American dictionary of English, and much more.

If you’ll be at MLA 2019 in Chicago this weekend, stop by Booths 220-222 to see our full range of recent literature titles.

Most people think Jane Austen wrote only six novels. Fortunately for us, she wrote several others, though very short ones, while still a young girl.

Austen was only twelve or thirteen when she wrote The Beautifull Cassandra, an irreverent and humorous little masterpiece. Weighing in at 465 occasionally misspelled words, it is a complete and perfect novel-in-miniature, made up of a dedication to her older sister Cassandra and twelve chapters, each consisting of a sentence or two. This charming edition features elegant and edgy watercolor drawings by Leon Steinmetz and is edited by leading Austen scholar Claudia L. Johnson.

New York City’s Lower East Side, long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half,” was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. This book takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from this critical site of encounter, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures.

How the Other Half Looks reveals how the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of looking—and looking back—that have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity.

In The Dictionary Wars, Peter Martin recounts the patriotic fervor in the early American republic to produce a definitive national dictionary that would rival Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. But what began as a cultural war of independence from Britain devolved into a battle among lexicographers, authors, scholars, and publishers, all vying for dictionary supremacy and shattering forever the dream of a unified American language.

Jack Zipes: The Rise of Édouard Laboulaye from the Dead

I am not certain when the urge or itch began, but about ten years ago, when I founded the series of Oddly Modern Fairy Tales with Hanne Winarsky, then senior editor at Princeton University Press, I began to “rebel” against the classical well-known fairy tales, not to mention the insipid Disney fairy-tale films. I realized that they had become stale and commodified and had no historical relevance. The fairy tale is a mysterious hybrid genre and has secrets about our past to reveal if you value each tale’s historical idiosyncrasies. As a scholar of these tales, I realized you cannot deal with present socio-political-cultural conditions unless you have a firm grasp on historical transformation. Consequently, all my concerns as a scholar of folklore and fairy-tale studies and, also as a writer and translator of tales, made a huge U-Turn. Indeed, I began to search and research the gaps of the past that we needed to fill and still need to fill to make the present more substantial and pave the way for a better future.

In the particular case of folk and fairy tales, this led me to discover and uncover highly significant writers and illustrators of fairy tales in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since I have always been a library nerd, a used book pack rat, and a flea market junky, it was not difficult for me to sniff out numerous neglected authors and their works. In the course of ten years, I have been fortunate not only to find amazing collections of fairy tales written by Kurt Schwitters, Bela Balázs, Naomi Mitchison, Walter De La Mare, Lafacadio Hearn, but also numerous unusual fairy tales by British writers of the 1930s, workers’ tales of the early twentieth century, and “decadent” French fairy tales of the late nineteenth century. Moreover, the books in the series have been edited by superb scholars and writers such as Maria Tatar, Marina Warner, Philip Pullman, Gretchen Schulz, Lewis Seifert, and Michael Rosen. Thanks to these works – with more to come – we now know that the popular fairy tale did not end and will not end in a homogenized form of happily ever after. Rather, the fairy tale as genre has never ended as a fraudulent happy end, it continues to startle us through diverse and extraordinary versions throughout the world.

The plans for the future include fabulous Japanese fairy tales by Lafcadio Hearn, Chinese stories of the early twentieth century during the onset of communism, Jewish tales by Nister, a somewhat bizarre rabbi, radical fairy tales written by Hermynjia zur Mühlen, an Austrian aristocrat, turned communist, provocative and dazzling Italian fairy tales from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Lisa Tetzner’s fairy-tale novel Hans Sees the World, about a boy’s adventures during the 1929 depression, and Yuri Olesha’s Three Fat Men, which concerns an upside-down world in Russia during the 1930s.

What makes Édouard Laboulaye’s political fairy tales of the late nineteenth century significant for today and for history is that he was truly the foremost writer of political fairy tales in all of Europe. In fact, I know of no other writer or politician in the nineteenth century who used the fairy tale so deftly and ironically to oppose tyranny. In addition, Laboulaye was very much an internationalist. He know many foreign languages and had an extraordinary knowledge of folk tales from oral traditions in Italy, Senegal, Egypt, Estonia, Russia, Germany, Iceland, and other countries, and he adapted them to sharpen their political implications and make them more acute. Furthermore, he was certainly a proto feminist: almost all of his tales have feisty female protagonists who courageously oppose stupid fathers, unjust husbands, and corrupt male courts of power. The major tale in my current collection, “Slap-Bam, or The Art of Governing Men,” is a wonderfully humorous narrative that argues for the importance of women in shaping the politics of a country.

Is such relevance reflected, then, in the nature of our current study of folklore and fairy tales at universities? How is it possible for such a writer like Édouard Laboulaye to escape the eyes of university students and their professors? Although political scientists in France are well aware of Laboulaye’s importance – a recent conference in France was dedicated to his work in jurisprudence and history – I have not read one single essay or book about his work in literature and folklore. Is this the fault of French literary scholars caught in the barbed wire and babble of French critical theory all over the world? Is this the fault of most universities in the world that do not have folklore programs, or which have eliminated them? I am not certain. But I have a certain urge and itch to find out why.

All woman: the utopian feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

by Michael Robertson

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

RobertsonCharlotte Perkins Gilman is best known today for ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), a widely anthologised short story that mixes Gothic conventions with feminist insights, and a chilling dissection of patriarchy that seems as if it might have been co-authored by Edgar Allan Poe and Gloria Steinem. Fewer people know that Gilman began her career as a speaker and writer on behalf of Nationalism, a short-lived political movement inspired by Edward Bellamy’s best-selling utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). She ended it as a writer of her own utopian fictions, including Herland (1915), a playful novel about an ideal all-female society.

What does Gilman’s utopian feminism have to say to us now, when the dystopian pessimism of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is resurgent?

As a young woman, Gilman was drawn to Bellamy’s utopian socialism because of his stance on women’s economic independence; in the society depicted in Looking Backward, every woman and man earns an ‘equal credit’. Bellamy was certain that, from this economic parity, gender equality would follow. Gilman took a different approach. She believed that the realisation of utopia depended on women’s ‘mother instinct’, and advocated what she called the ‘larger motherhood’. As she wrote in her Bellamyite poem ‘Mother to Child’ (1911):

For the sake of my child I must hasten to save
All the children on earth from the jail and the grave.

Her life’s work centred on the concept of what she called the ‘World’s Mother’ – the selfless, nurturing woman-spirit who loves, protects and teaches the entire human race.

During the first decade of the 20th century, following the collapse of Bellamy’s Nationalist movement, Gilman turned to utopian fiction, producing three novels, a novella, and a flock of short stories. All were variations on the same utopian blueprint: the ideal society could be achieved peacefully in a remarkably short time if only women were freed from conventional housework and childrearing (she envisioned a combination of communal living and professional childcare) in order to spread the self-sacrificing ethics of the larger motherhood.

In 1915, she broke this fictional mould with Herland, a utopian fantasy that combines the plot of Alfed, Lord Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) – the discovery of an all-female society – with the conventions of the masculine adventure tale. Three bold young men on a scientific expedition to a remote part of the globe hear tales of a land inhabited only by women, located in an inaccessible mountain range. The men obtain a biplane and pilot it into the mountains, where after landing they soon spy three beautiful young women and give chase. The athletic young women, sensibly attired in utopian bloomers, easily outrun the men, who are captured by a phalanx of unarmed but well-disciplined women who chloroform them and place them under house arrest in a guarded fortress.

At this point, the novel transitions into utopian exposition, with long disquisitions on Herland’s society. Gilman was remarkably indifferent to the typical concerns of utopian fiction: work, politics, government. Instead, she used her fantastical premise to focus on her own interests, such as animal rights. Herlanders have eliminated all domesticated animals because of the cruelty inherent in slaughtering them for food. They are appalled at the idea of separating cows from their calves. Any interference with the natural processes of mothering is abhorrent to them.

Mothering is at the centre of Herland society. The word ‘mother’ or its variants appears more than 150 times in the novel. The women of Herland reproduce parthenogenetically, bearing only daughters, who are raised communally: each child is regarded as the child of all. ‘We each have a million children to love and serve,’ one of the women explains. Gilman evidently felt no need to explain Herland’s economy because it seemed to her so obvious: these ‘natural cooperators’, whose ‘whole mental outlook’ is collective, have no use for the individualism and competitiveness inherent in capitalism. Instead, a motherly state meets every citizen’s basic needs.

Herland depends on Gilman’s interpretation of women’s ‘maternal instinct’, an idea she clung to despite her own disastrous experience as a mother. Following the birth of her only child, a daughter, when Gilman was 24, she was plunged into a horrendous depression, an episode that she drew on for ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. When her daughter was three, Gilman separated from her husband; six years later, she divorced him and gave up custody of their child. Herland enabled her to reconcile the contradictions between her utopian celebration of the maternal spirit and her difficult personal experience. Although every woman in Herland is capable of parthenogenetic reproduction, only an elite is entrusted with rearing children, in a collectivised and professionalised fashion. Gilman’s interest in the topic blended her conviction that women, like men, owed it to the world to work outside the home with her self-exculpating belief that the raising of children is so vital to the future race that it must be entrusted to professionals. Gilman derided the smallness, the possessiveness of the average woman’s conception of motherhood: my children, my family, my home. Herlanders see every child as theirs, the entire population as one family, the nation as home. 

Herland dropped out of view soon after its publication. Gilman had serialised the novel in The Forerunner, her self-published magazine, which folded soon after, and it never came out in book form. The novel was resurrected in the late 1970s by the American scholar Ann J Lane, who edited a paperback edition. Initially, the novel was hailed as a rediscovered feminist classic. Later scholars were more critical. They singled out its gender essentialism, but also the eugenic regime that underlay Gilman’s utopianism: her obsession with improving the strategically undefined ‘race’. Drawing on Gilman’s other writings, they convincingly argued that white racism is central to her utopian project.

Four decades after its rediscovery, Herland no longer seems the purely playful, light-hearted speculative fiction it once did. Nor does its central theme of collective child-rearing seem that different from the gendered regimes animating The Handmaid’s Tale – which, with an unabashed sexist and racist in the White House, serves as a powerful cautionary tale for progressives. Dystopian fiction, however, lacks the visionary inspiration – what the German philosopher Ernst Bloch in the 1950s called ‘the principle of hope’ – that utopianism provides. 

Despite Herland’s time-bound shortcomings, we need its vision of a society without poverty and war, where every child is precious and inequalities of income, housing, education and justice are nonexistent. For all its faults, Herland remains an eloquent expression of the nonviolent democratic socialist imagination. As fully as any work in the utopian tradition, Herland reminds us of the truth of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism: ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Michael Robertson is professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of two award-winning books, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. A former freelance journalist, he has written for the New York Times, the Village VoiceColumbia Journalism Review, and many other publications. Most recently, he is the author of The Last Utopians: Four Late Nineteenth-Century Visionaries and Their Legacy.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain: The Ruined Elegance

poetry
Sze-LorrainIn celebration of National Poetry Month, Fiona Sze-Lorrain has recorded Given Silence from The Ruined Elegance, her collection of poems in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets series. 

 

 

 

 

Given Silence

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. The author of two previous books of poetry in English, My Funeral Gondola and Water the Moon, she also writes and translates in French and Chinese. She lives in Paris.

Austin Smith: Flyover Country

poetry

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Austin Smith has provided recordings of a selection of poems from his latest collection with the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets: Flyover Country

Elegy for Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk. He lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky from 1942 to 1968. A prolific writer, he is best-known for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In addition to his writings on the contemplative life, he wrote about race, social justice, and passivism. In my elegy for Merton, I focus on the strange circumstances surrounding his death. In 1968 Merton left the monastery to travel to India to meet the Dalai Lama and to attend an interfaith conference of monks in Thailand. During the conference he stepped out of the bath one day, grabbed hold of a floor fan and was electrocuted. Ironically, his body was flown back to Kentucky for burial in a plane that also carried the bodies of American soldiers who’d died in Vietnam, a war he’d vehemently spoken out against. I’ve always found the circumstances surrounding Merton’s death strange. Though I don’t mention it in the poem, his last words, upon concluding his talk at the conference, were: “Now I’m going to disappear.” My poem explores the idea of the fan as a stalker, finding him in the quiet Kentucky woods and drawing him to Thailand. But more broadly, the poem is an elegy for a writer and thinker who has had a huge impact on my life.

Into the Corn

Growing up on a dairy farm in Illinois, I have a distinct memory of being afraid of going too far into a field of corn, particularly if the corn was over my head. Though most people, forgivably, think of Stephen King when they think of children and corn, my poem is more connected with folklore surrounding cornfields, based on stories recorded by Sir James Frazier in The Golden Bough. I am particularly interested in this story, which Frazier relates: “Commonly the spirit of the ripe corn is conceived, not as dead, but as old, and hence it goes by the name of the Old Man or the Old Woman. But in some places the last sheaf cut at harvest, which is generally believed to be the seat of the corn spirit, is called ‘the Dead One’: children are warned against entering the corn-fields because death sits in the corn and, in a game played by Saxon children in Transylvania at the maize harvest, Death is represented by a child completely covered in maize leaves.” Upon reading this piece of folklore, I immediately felt a chill in my spine: I resonated deeply with this image of death as a child covered in corn leaves. This story, coupled with my childhood fear that one could go too far into the corn, get lost, and never be found, prompted this poem.

Ode to Flour

When I was growing up my mother baked bread for sale (her catering company was called Grateful Bread). She baked in the farmhouse kitchen, and I remember coming home from school and finding the table and counter covered in flour. My memories of those afternoons conjured this ode. But another catalyst for this poem was a desire I felt to celebrate something simple and perhaps often overlooked. Much of the subject matter in Flyover Country is dark, involving violence, war, environmental degradation. I wanted to write a poem of levity (no bread pun intended), and I mention this desire in the first few lines of the poem. Indeed, it was this urge to praise something that literally made me take up the pen. I remember writing this poem somewhat obliquely, not paying it my full attention for fear that some of the humor and buoyancy of the tone would be lost if I bore down on it too hard, and perhaps it was for this reason that the last line snuck up on me.

Austin Smith grew up on a family dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He is the author of a previous poetry collection, Almanac (Princeton), and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Ploughshares, and many other publications. He teaches at Stanford University and lives in Oakland, California.

Dora Malech on Stet: Poems

poetry

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Dora Malech writes about the unique pleasure of using words to express yourself. Included below are recordings of her reading poems from her collection in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets series: Stet: Poems

While writing Stet, I was drawn to the work of other poets using idiosyncratic constraints to shape and speak to their materials, whether as an ongoing generative device like the anagrammatic poetry of Surrealist Unica Zürn, or as occasioned by the urgencies of a particular poem, in the case of Sylvia Plath. Stet foregrounds its formal elements, particularly the heuristic possibilities of, as Zürn called it, “the old dangerous fever of the anagram.”

While some of the conversations-through-rearrangement in Stet occur between lines, words, and even letters, the poems are also conversing with other writers and thinkers throughout: Ferdinand de Saussure and Johan Huizinga, for example. Plath and Zürn are particularly fraught figures for me in the context of Stet, as both of these women were mothers and writers who ended their own lives. As Stet concerns itself with the possibilities of making and remaking, I mourn for these women who could only make and remake their own lives up to a point, and then no further.

Originally titled “Metaphors for a Pregnant Woman” when it appeared in the Summer 1960 issue of The Partisan Review, Plath’s brief meditation on pregnancy appeared in The Colossus under the less explicit title “Metaphors.” A formal nod to the months of gestation, each of the poem’s nine lines is also nine syllables. Plath is best known as a “Confessional” poet, and her biography sometimes takes center stage in conversations about her work, but to read her poems is to encounter her fierce play of sound and image and her facility with poetic structure—like these syllabic lines—belied by certain posthumous misconceptions.

In addition to my reading of Plath’s own “Metaphors,” the two poems I read here are the sixth and ninth poems in my nine-poem series “Metaphors: After Plath.” This series concludes Stet; each poem is an anagrammatic reworking of Plath’s original.

“Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath

“After Plath: Metaphors VI” by Dora Malech

“After Plath: Metaphors IX” by Dora Malech

Dora Malech is the author of two previous books of poetry, Say So and Shore Ordered Ocean. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, The Best American Poetry, and many other publications. She is assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore, Maryland.