Sunday, April 23, 2017

1913: Apollinaire

Pablo Picasso: Potrait of Guillaume Apollinaire (1913)

on 7 September 1911, Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested and imprisoned as a possible accomplice in the theft of the Mona Lisa, as well as some Egyptian statues, from the Louvre in Paris. He was released after a week, but only after implicating Pablo Picasso (also called in for questioning, but not arrested). The statues, later recovered, had actually been stolen by the poet's former secretary, Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret.

As for the Mona Lisa itself, the actual thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, was not arrested till 1913, when he tried to sell the stolen painting in Florence. He had expected to be rewarded for his patriotism in returning 'La Gioconda' to Italy, but in fact the director of the Uffizi, to whom he entrusted it for 'safekeeping,' had him arrested for theft. The painting was returned to France at the beginning of 1914.

1913 was a vital year for Apollinaire. He published his masterpiece, Alcools [Alcohol], a selection of his best poems from the past two decades. He also published his classic work Les Peintres Cubistes, one of the first systematic attempts to theorise the aesthetic practice of such painters as Picasso, Georges Braque, Marie Laurencin, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp.

Louise Faure-Favier (1870-1961)

Judging from the poem below, written as a letter to his friend and fellow-writer Louise Faure-Favier in July 1913, he was in his usual state of heart-sick turmoil at the time. It's tempting to see, in the storm with which his poem ends, some kind of presentiment of what was going to happen to Europe over the next few years.

Certainly he wouldn't have been the only one to have been troubled by strange dreams and visions in this last year of peace. Carl Jung, in his autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1962) has left on record the strange dreams he was plagued with in the winter of 1913-14:
In October, while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood. This vision last about one hour. I was perplexed and nauseated, and ashamed of my weakness.
Nor was he the only one. In 1914, the painter Giorgio de Chirico painted Apollinaire in silhouette, with (as the Guardian puts it) "what looks like a target drawn on his cranium":

Giorgio de Chirico: Premonitory Portrait of Apollinaire (1914)

Apollinaire was hit in the head by shrapnel in 1916, while sitting reading in the trenches (he had enlisted in the French artillery at the outbreak of war). Despite a brain operation, he was weakened by his wounds, and died in the great Spanish 'flu epidemic at the end of the war.

As he lay dying in his hospital bed, he could hear the crowds outside chanting: "À bas Guillaume" - Down with Guillaume. They meant Kaiser Wilhelm, who was on the point of abdicating just before the German surrender, but to the poet himself, it seemed the final irony. It was 9 November, 1918. He died just two days before the Armistice was signed.

(after Apollinaire)

Sea’s edge
summer’s end
gulls fly
waves leave behind
glass blobs
of jellyfish
ships pass
on the horizon
wind dies in the pines

sun sinks
behind the islands
bruises the sand
the sea
darkens to purple
you fool
shout your fear into the storm



And here's a rather more literal version of the same poem:

Je suis au bord de l’océan sur une plage
I am at the edge of the ocean on a beach
Fin d’été : je vois fuir les oiseaux de passage.
at summer’s end: I see the birds of passage fly.
Les flots en s’en allant ont laissé des lingots :
The receding waves have left ingots:
Les méduses d’argent. Il passe des cargos
silver jellyfish. Freighters pass
Sur l’horizon lointain et je cherche ces rimes
on the far horizon and I look for rhymes
Tandis que le vent meurt dans le pins maritimes.
while the wind dies in the coastal pines.

Je pense à Villequier « arbres profonds et verts »
I think of Villequier's "deep, dark trees"
La Seine non pareille aux spectacles divers
the Seine unequal to the diverse shows
L’Eglise des tombeaux et l’hôtel des pilotes
the church of tombs and the pilots' hotel
Où flotte le parfum des brunes matelotes.
where the aroma of brown stew floats.

Les noirceurs de mon âme ont bien plus de saveur.
The blackness of my soul has far more taste.

Et le soleil décline avec un air rêveur
And the sun goes down with a dreamy air
Une vague meurtrie a pâli sur le sable
a bruised wave pales on the sand
Ainsi mon sang se brise en mon cœur misérable
while the blood breaks in my miserable heart
Y déposant auprès des souvenirs noyés
lying down next to my drowned memories
L’échouage vivant de mes amours choyés.
the living wreck of my cherished loves.

L’océan a jeté son manteau bleu de roi
The ocean has thrown off its royal blue robe
Il est sauvage et nu maintenant dans l’effroi
it's wild and bare now with the fear
De ce qui vit. Mais lui défie à la tempête
of living things. Defiance in the teeth of the storm
Qui chante et chante et chante ainsi qu’un grande poète.
which sings and sings and sings like a great poet!

[23 juillet 1913]

- Guillaume Apollinaire. 'Je suis au bord de l’océan...' Poèmes Retrouvés. Oeuvres poétiques. Ed. Marcel Adéma & Michel Décaudin. Préface d’André Billy. 1956. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 121 (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1966): 734.

Pablo Picasso: Portrait of Apollinaire (1918)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Finds (7): Modern Poetry (c. 1938)

We were up in Orewa on Tuesday, enjoying the nice weather and trying to persuade ourselves that we were still on holiday. Part of the celebrations always include looking through any vintage and op shops that happen to present themselves: in this case the local Hospice Shop.

The more glamorous books were all up on the shelves, but there was a scruffy old sack labelled 'classics' to one side of them, and this is the one treasure I found in there, among all the old hymnbooks and school editions of Shakespeare and Wordsworth.

The dustjacket was a bit ripped, but the book was otherwise in fairly good nick, perhaps because it had once belonged to the Vice Consul of the United States, a certain Clarence J. McIntosh (he'd signed his name inside, as well as using an official stamp). It cost me one dollar.

So what's the attraction of this ancient, outmoded anthology of 'Modern Poetry'? it does, to be sure, constitute a kind of survey of how the field looked in 1938, but why should that be of any particular interest?

Don't you just love that little picture of 'Random House' itself? There's a reassuring solidity about their books, as if they come from a world which still - however vaguely - made sense. It was, after all, 1938.

Here's what the blurb has to say:
The dominant note of this collection of modern poetry is excitement. Here all the rules of the conventional anthology are abandoned and the chief emphasis is given to the dynamic quality and content of present-day verse. Representative poems by the greatest epic and lyric poets of the past twenty-five years in America and England are included, as well as folk-songs of the Negro, acid light verse, modern humor and satire, choruses from the experimental theatre, and even the sound-track of the pioneer movies. The result is an anthology of extraordinary vigor.
Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? And the editor himself, Selden Rodman, appears to have had an interesting time of it - judging by his wikipedia page, at any rate. He only died in 2002, having written a whole slew of books about Haiti, Latin America, poetry, and a range of other subjects.

Look again at that list of 'representative' poets on the cover, though:

Robinson Jeffers -- T. S. Eliot -- Edna St. Vincent Millay -- James Joyce -- Stephen Spender -- W. H. Auden -- D. H. Lawrence -- Robert Frost -- Hart Crane -- Dorothy Parker -- Paul Engle -- Vachel Lindsay -- Ezra Pound -- Carl Sandburg -- C. Day Lewis -- Archibald MacLeish -- Kenneth Fearing -- Stephen Vincent Benét -- Elinor Wylie -- John Masefield -- A. E. Housman -- Amy Lowell -- Josephine Johnson -- Bartolomeo Vanzetti -- William Butler Yeats -- Edwin Arlington Robinson -- Malcolm Cowley -- Horace Gregory -- Frederic Prokosch -- E. E. Cummings -- Wilfred Owen -- William Rose Benét -- Muriel Rukeyser -- Louis MacNeice -- Wallace Stevens -- AND OTHERS
Among the 'others' included in the anthology but not mentioned on the cover are: Marianne Moore (with two poems], and William Carlos Williams (with one). Imagine not mentioning either of those two today!

All the British 'MacSpaunday poets' are there: Auden, Spender, MacNeice and Day Lewis, but not Hugh MacDiarmid (one poem) or Roy Campbell (also one).

There is one New Zealander - or sort of: Lola Ridge (one poem). No Australians or Canadians have managed to sneak in, however.

Christiana Spens: Lola Ridge (2014)

That's no great insult, though - of the other Americans included, but not mentioned on the cover, we have Conrad Aiken, Edgar Lee Masters, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate. Delmore Schwartz is the only one of the younger generation of poets who would come of age in the 40s (Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren, Kenneth Rexroth) to make it in.

I guess the real fascination for me is all those 'big names' (at the time) who have fallen almost entirely out of favour. The Benét brothers, Stephen and William, for instance - not to mention the latter's wife Eliinor Wylie. More of her later. That craggy old misanthrope Robinson Jeffers - the almost equally gloomy East Coast equivalent Edwin Arlington Robinson. My old friend John Masefield. Edna St. Vincent Millay (though she does seem to be making a bit of a comeback these days). Kenneth Fearing (who he?). What on earth is Vanzetti (of Sacco & Vanzetti fame) doing there?

I have a great affection for a number of these poets. Considerations of abstract merit - let alone 'importance' - seldom enter into my desultory poetry reading. I do love a long verse narrative, and a lot of these poets specialised in them.

In fact, so much did I enjoy reading the two Elinor Wylie poems included in here - I'd heard of her, but not really read her before - that I've gone off and ordered her collected poems and collected prose - she wrote novels as well, it appears - on! If that isn't Quixotic, I don't know what is.

Anyway, here's a more-or-less complete list of the entire table of contents (I couldn't be bothered writing out all of the titles of the poems included, but the actual authors are all here):
Part One

Marianne Moore, 'Poetry'
Thomas Hardy, 'Afterwards'
Lewis Carroll, 'Jabberwocky'
John Masefield, 'from Reynard the Fox'
A.E. Housman, [3 poems]
Walter De La Mare, 'The Listeners'
Robert Bridges, "Johannes Milton, Senex'
Rupert Brooke, [2 poems]
Elinor Wylie, 'Wild Peaches' & 'Castilian'
Edna St. Vincent Millay, 'Moriturus'
Robinson Jeffers, [3 poems]
James Joyce, 'I Hear an Army Charging upon the Land'
Dorothy Parker, [2 Poems]
Marianne Moore, 'The Monkeys'
D.H. Lawrence, [3 poems]
Arthur Guiterman, 'On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness'
Gerard Manley Hopkins, [4 poems]
Amy Lowell, 'Little Ivory Figures Pulled with String'
W.B. Yeats, [5 poems]

Part Two

Carl Sandburg, 'Who Can Make a Poem of the Depths of Weariness'
A Group of Negro Songs [8 poems]
W. C. Handy, [2 poems]
Edwin Markham, 'The Man with the Hoe'
Sarah N. Cleghorn, [2 poems]
Edgar Lee Masters, [3 poems]
Edwin Arlington Robinson, [3 poems]
Robert Frost, 'Two Tramps in Mud Time' & 'The Fear'
Vachel Lindsay, [6 poems]
William Rose Benét, 'Jesse James'
Bartolomeo Vanzetti, 'Last Speech to the Court'
Malcolm Cowley, [2 poems]
Lola Ridge, 'The Legion of Iron'
Stephen Vincent Benét, [2 poems]
Josephine W. Johnson, 'Final Autumn'
Roy Campbell, 'The Serf'
Paul Engle, 'from America Remembers'
Pare Lorentz, 'from The River'
Carl Sandburg, [4 poems]

Part Three

Archibald MacLeish, 'A Poem Should Be Palpable and Mute'
Ezra Pound, [3 poems]
E.E. Cummings, [5 poems]
T.S. Eliot, [4 poems]
Walter James Turner, 'In Time like Glass'
Wallace Stevens, 'Peter Quince at the Clavier' & 'The Mechanical Optimist'
Hart Crane, [6 poems]
John Crowe Ransom, 'Here Lies a Lady'
Conrad Aiken, 'Prelude LXI'
Allen Tate, 'Idiot'
James Palmer Wade, 'A Hymn to No One Body'
Archibald Fleming, [2 poems]
Horace Gregory, [2 poems]
E. B. White, 'I Paint What I See'
Frederic Prokosch, 'The Conspirators'
Archibald MacLeish, [6 poems]

Part Four

Kenneth Fearing, 'These Are the Live'
Wilfred Owen, [7 poems]
Kenneth Fearing, 'Dirge'
Louis MacNeice, [2 poems]
C. Day Lewis, [2 poems]
James Agee, [2 poems]
William Stephens, [2 poems]
Ogden Nash, [3 poems]
Stephen Spender, [5 poems]
William Carlos Williams, 'The Yachts'
Eunice Clark, [2 poems]
Alfred Hayes, 'The Death of the Craneman'
Selden Rodman, [2 poems]
W.H. Auden, [6 poems]
Edwin Rolfe, 'Definition'
Oscar Williams, [2 poems]
S. Funaroff, 'Of My Deep Hunger'
Hugh MacDiarmid, [2 poems]
Delmore Schwartz, 'For One Who Would Not Take His Life in His Hands'
Muriel Rukeyser, [6 poems]
One of the most fascinating things about this list is to compare it with the contents of the second, postwar (1946), edition of the anthology. There were a lot of additions (as well as a few subtractions - Rupert Brooke has gone, but then so has Wilfred Owen). Here are the newbies:
Robert Graves -- Louise Bogan -- Siegfried Sassoon -- Kay Boyle -- Thomas Wolfe -- Reuel Denney -- Babette Deutsch -- Mark Van Doren -- Edith Sitwell -- Jean Garrigue -- Ruth Pitter -- John Peale Bishop -- Edmund Wilson -- Robert Penn Warren -- John Wheelwright -- R. P. Blackmur -- Kenneth Rexroth -- William Empson -- Jose Garcia Villa -- Robert Fitzgerald -- Kenneth Patchen -- Dylan Thomas -- George Barker -- Dunsten Thompson -- Ralph Gustafson -- Lawrence Durrell -- Roy Fuller -- Ruth Herschberger -- William Abrahams -- Sagittarius -- Laurie Lee -- William Meredith -- Randall Jarrell -- Hubert Creekmore -- Alun Lewis -- John Manifold -- Sidney Keyes -- John Betjeman -- Robert Lowell -- Demetrios Capetanakis -- Thomas Merton -- Karl Shapiro
One thing you can't fault Rodman on is his industry. He was determined to keep up. His prescience in selecting Robert Lowell and Thomas Merton among the new American poets is impressive. For the rest, his selection of WWII poets (Alun Lewis, Sidney Keyes) isn't bad, considering how little time there had been to process the verse of the war years. No Dylan Thomas, no Keith Douglas, but I suspect that just shows that it took a bit of time for their merits to filter through.

Elinor Wylie (1922)

Rodman attempts some knotty questions - 'Is Modern Poetry Difficult?' - in his preface (as well as 'What Makes it Obscure?' and 'Does Propaganda cancel It?') All in all, there's a pleasing New Deal optimism about his view of the future:
Our younger poets have taken the first step. They are beginning, as I believe the last part of this anthology will indicate, to fuse the naturalistic and symbolic in a new synthesis. They know that neither science nor sociology can be rejected. (45)
Well, bully for them! He goes on to explain that:
Poetry is the greatest of the arts because everyone can - and does - practise it. The ad-man and the gag-man, the housewife and the corner-grocer are latent poets.
But then he goes and spoils it all by saying, in his next sentence: 'Especially is the poetry of Carl Sandburg great for this reason.' Hmmm. Dunno about that. Rodman's touching faith in this idea of recording 'the poetry in the common speech, attitudes and aspirations of the people' culminates in his claim that:
That is why we have the paradox of the most original and indigenous American art in the anonymous outpourings of the oppressed Negro. That is why I have included the words of some of their songs. (45-46)
I guess our alarm bells may be ringing at this point in his argument. There's something so smug and patronising about that use of the word "outpourings' rather than simply 'songs' (or 'poems', for that matter). For its time, though, I think this decision of Rodman's was a brave one. It certainly attracted a good deal of attention, and (as it turned out) was the beginning of a lifetime's interest in the folk art of the Caribbean and elsewhere.

The question of tone when one is exploring the polemical writing of the past is a tricky one. On the one hand he clearly distinguishes these 'outpourings' from the consciously crafted poems of the other authors - there is no Langston Hughes in either the 1938 or 1946 versions of his anthology, for instance.

On the other hand, there's little doubt that Rodman is sincerely moved, and sincerely admiring of these great songs - as indeed we are today - so perhaps we can cut him a bit of slack, and try and avoid what E. P. Thompson once called the 'enormous condescension of posterity.'

All in all, pretty good value for one buck, I'd say!

Selden Rodman: The Miracle of Haitian Art (1974)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

'The Island is full of noises': i.m. Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott

I was scrolling around on facebook the other day when I found a post by our own great Pacific writer and poet Albert Wendt mentioning the recent deaths of two artists who had helped to shape his "heart and mind and imagination": Chuck Berry and Derek Walcott. Certainly I like Chuck Berry - who doesn't? But Derek Walcott: that really did hit home.

For quite a few years now I've been finishing the poetry section of my introductory Creative Writing course at Massey with a poem by Derek Walcott. I first encountered his work in the 1980s, when I was studying in the UK, and I still have the audio recording I made then of a dramatised reading of his long poem-sequence "The Schooner Flight" on BBC radio.

I still think that poem is his masterpiece. I enjoyed Omeros and many of his other long poems, but the voice of Shabine the sailor as he criss-crosses the Caribbean, moving in and out of islands and history with equal ease, seems to me to combine all his poetic virtues into one small compass.

Here's the part of the poem I read out to the stage one students:

from Fight with the Crew

... Had an exercise book,
this same one here, that I was using to write
my poetry, so one day this man snatch it
from my hand, and start throwing it left and right
to the rest of the crew, bawling out, ‘Catch it,’
and start mincing me like I was some hen
because of the poems. Some case is for fist,
some case is for tholing pin, some is for knife –
this one was for knife. Well, I beg him first,
but he kept reading, ‘O my children, my wife,’
and playing he crying, to make the crew laugh;
it move like a flying fish, the silver knife
that catch him right in the plump of his calf,
and he faint so slowly, and he turn more white
than he thought he was. I suppose among men
you need that sort of thing. It ain’t right
but that’s how it is. There wasn’t much pain,
just plenty blood, and Vincie and me best friend,
but none of them go fuck with my poetry again.

That last line always gets a gasp: poetry is seen as such a weak, flowery thing by so many people who aren't very familiar with it - but it's serious business to those who live by it, and Derek Walcott was definitely one of them.

Here's my own list of the books I have by him. It's not complete by any means, but I think I have most of his work, with the exception, maybe, of some of his - many - plays:

Derek Alton Walcott
(23 January 1930 - 17 March 2017)

  1. In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960. 1962. London: Jonathan Cape, 1972.

  2. Another Life. Cape Poetry Paperbacks. London: Jonathan Cape, 1973.

  3. Another Life: Fully Annotated. 1973. Ed. Edward Baugh and Colbert Nepaulsingh. 2004. London & Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2009.

  4. The Star-Apple Kingdom. Cape Poetry Paperbacks. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980.

  5. Poems 1965-1980: The Castaway and Other Poems; The Gulf and Other Poems; Sea-Grapes; The Star-Apple Kingdom. 1965, 1969, 1976, 1980. London: Jonathan Cape, 1992.

  6. The Fortunate Traveller. London: Faber, 1982.

  7. Collected Poems 1948-1984. London: Faber, 1986.

  8. Three Plays: The Last Carnival; Beef, No Chicken; A Branch of the Blue Nile. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1986.

  9. The Arkansas Testament. 1987. London: Faber, 1988.

  10. Omeros. 1990. London: Faber, 1991.

  11. The Odyssey: A Stage Version. London: Faber, 1993.

  12. The Bounty. London: Faber, 1997.

  13. What the Twilight Says: Essays. 1998. London: Faber, 1998.

  14. Tiepolo’s Hound. 2000. London: Faber, 2001.

  15. The Haitian Trilogy: Henri Christophe; Drums and Colours; The Haitian Earth. 1948 & 1984. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

  16. The Prodigal: A Poem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

  17. Selected Poems. Ed. Edward Baugh. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

  18. White Egrets: Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

  19. Maxwell, Glyn, ed. The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

I don't really know what else to say about him. He won the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1992, and lots of other awards and distinctions too. Read his work for yourself. But (if you'd like to take my advice) you should start with those early books, In a Green Night and The Star-Apple Kingdom: above all, start with "The Schooner Flight."

In a sense, Walcott had already written his own epitaph in that poem. They're probably his most famous and most quoted lines:

I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation …

"Either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation." There's a rather more full-dress version of this idea in his book of essays What the Twilight Says, which I find - if anything - even more moving. The essay itself is entitled "The Muse of History," and it inevitably calls to mind Walter Benjamin's famous lines on "The Angel of History":
The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Here's Derek Walcott's version:

I accept this archipelago of the Americas. I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper "history," for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive, my memory cannot summon any filial love, since your features are anonymous and erased and I have no wish and no power to pardon. You were when you acted your roles, your given, historical roles of slave seller and slave buyer, men acting as men, and also you, father in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship, to you they were also men, acting as men, with the cruelty of men, your fellowman and tribes­man not moved or hovering with hesitation about your common race any longer (than my other bastard ancestor hovered with his whip, but to you, inwardly forgiven grandfathers, I, like the more honest of my race, give a strange thanks. I give the strange and bitter and yet en­nobling thanks for the monumental groaning and solder­ing of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another, and that was my inheritance and your gift.

Monday, February 06, 2017

My New Massey Course on the 1001 Nights

Bronwyn Lloyd: Arabian Nights bookcase (3/2/17)

In three weeks from now, my new paper 139.329: Advanced Fiction Writing will be starting at Massey Albany (where I teach), as well as in an extramural version for distance students.

The most innovative aspect of this course is that it's centred firmly on the Arabian Nights - or, rather, on the almost infinite variety of fictional techniques on display in that work (if it is a work, that is, rather than just an eclectic anthology of stories collected over the centuries by different compilers in different languages and cultures).

How exactly am I proposing to do that? Well, if you're curious, you could do worse than check out the following link to the (publicly available) course website: That will give you a pretty good overview. If you're really interested, of course, we're always open to new enrolments. (After all, as an old Linguistics Professor told the idealistic young J. R. R. Tolkien when he first arrived at university, "What is a university, lad? It's a factory. And what does it produce? It produces fees").

For those of you who are bit less passionate about the subject, I thought it might be best here to reprint a kind of q-&-a interview I did on the subject with the Canadian-Sikh Indian writer Jaspreet Singh when he came to stay with us a few months ago. He was particularly intrigued by the large bookcase full of all the different translations and versions of the collection which we have in our living room.

Given his upbringing in North India, in Kashmir and New Delhi, Jaspreet preferred to use the Persian form of the title, Hazar Afsaneh [Thousand Tales], rather than the more familiar Arabic Alf Layla wa Layla [One Thousand Nights and a Night].

Bronwyn Lloyd: Arabian Nights bookcase [close-up] (3/2/2017)

Hazaar Afsaneh [The Thousand Nights]:
An Interview by Jaspreet Singh

John W. MacDonald: Jaspreet Singh (2008)

[Jaspreet:] Who introduced you to Hazaar Afsaneh as a child? How old were you? Where were you based?
[Jack]: You know, it’s quite hard to say. I suppose it must have been my father. At any rate he was the one who bought the beautifully illustrated editions of Aladdin and Sinbad the Sailor which I remember poring over with such attention. I still have one of them now:

The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor. Retold by Shirley Goulden. Illustrated by Maraja. London: W. H. Allen, 1964.
I suppose that puts it back well before the age of 10 or so. We were already in the house in Mairangi Bay. All my siblings were born and brought up there.

When did the Nights become an incurable obsession?
I think that they really took over – from being one of many other bookish interests – after I’d finished my PhD thesis and was utterly sick of the subject matter of said subject of study (books about South America in European literature). So that would put it around 1990: 25 years ago.

Ah, well, you make a good point. It was while I was in Tahiti, studying French, in 1978, at the age of 16, that I bought my first substantive copy of the Nights (or, rather, arranged to have it given to me as a birthday present: they’d bought me another book which I already owned, and offered to exchange it. I – somewhat cheekily, in retrospect – asked to be allowed to swap it for the two volume Classiques Garnier edition of Galland’s Mille et Une Nuits.) I read virtually every word of it in French, then, long before I owned it in English.

Do you have a name for the bookshelf? Hazaar Afsaneh (1000 Stories) bookshelf?

Bronwyn Lloyd: Glass-fronted bookcase (2/2/17)

Just the Arabian Nights bookshelf, I suppose. Before that they were scattered all over the place: the main ones in that glass-fronted bookshelf I inherited from my grandmother.

When exactly did you start seeing your growing collection as a separate bookshelf?
I suppose, probably, when I was living in Palmerston North in 1991. I already owned a number of editions in various languages, and the sheer bulk of them was beginning to make it difficult to house them.

Strange, the bookshelf is only a few meters away from the room where you first read 'Sindbad the Sailor' and 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves'!!! Talk a bit about this.
Yes that’s right. Of course, it’s true to say that if you stay in or around the same house for a very long time, it goes through a number of evolutions in your mind. That far-off house of my childhood is harder for me to remember than some of its more recent incarnations: the house my mother and father grew old in together, after all of us had left to the four corners of the globe.

Nevertheless, there is something strange about literally being in the same place – again. Comforting on the one hand, but also somewhat disconcerting. It doesn’t seem to fit with the peripatetic nature of the modern world.

Memory/Story of the 'last' book you acquired for the bookshelf? The first 3 books (now part of the bookshelf)?

I think that the latest book I inserted into the bookshelf (every one that goes in means that another one has to go out now) was a beautiful little copy of Dr J. C. Mardrus’s The Queen of Sheba: Translated into French from his own Arabic Text. Translated into English by E. Powys Mathers (London: The Casanova Society, n.d. [1924]). I bought it in the Browns Bay market (of all places!) Mardrus’s turn-of-the-century version of the Nights is – though wildly inaccurate – extremely entertaining, and the English translation of it is in some ways even more stylish than the original (Powys Mathers was a far better poet than Dr. Mardrus).

The first three books I got for this bookcase were, I would imagine:

  • Les Mille et Une Nuits: Contes arabes traduits par Galland. Trans. Antoine Galland. 12 vols. 1704-17. Ed. Gaston Picard. 2 vols. 1960. Paris: Garnier, 1975. (bought in Tahiti in 1978)

  • Burton's Translation (1885-88)

  • The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments. Trans. Richard F. Burton. 1885. Decorated with 1001 Illustrations by Valenti Angelo. 3 vols. New York: The Heritage Press, 1934. (bought in Auckland sometime in the early 80s)

  • Lane's Translation (1839-41)

  • The Thousand and One Nights; Commonly Called The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. Trans. Edward William Lane. 3 vols. 1839-41. Ed. Edward Stanley Poole. 1859. London: Chatto, 1912. (the first two volumes I found in one shop; the other, a couple of years later, in another – the coincidence has always intrigued me …)

But is it really a 'book'? What kind of a book is the 1001 Nights?

It’s more the assertion of a book than an actual book. Certainly there was (or must have been) a Persian collection called the Hazar Afsaneh, which almost certainly predated Islam. It doesn’t survive, however. What does survive is a tiny scrap of manuscript from the ninth century AD, which seems to be part of a translation of the frame-story of the Nights – though probably not quite as we know it. After that there are various not-entirely-consistent references in Arabic reference books around the turn of the millennium, and finally the Galland ms. – a fourteenth-century, 3 vol manuscript of the (so-called) “Syrian” version of the Nights. This is the oldest extant text and was – interestingly – also the first one to be translated more-or-less in full.

After that, after the Nights had become the rage of 18th century Europe, the pressure to find a “complete” version of the collection became overwhelming. It was possibly in response to this that the (so-called) “Egyptian” text was put together – it’s also known as “ZER” ("Zotenberg’s Egyptian Recension”) after the scholar who first identified it. It was a version of this text which was first printed in Cairo in 1835, and it was a variant of it which was translated by Lane, Payne, and Burton, the three most significant English translators.

In other words, it has no identifiable author, dates from a variety of eras, originated in a language and tradition different from the one with which it’s now identified, and has an endlessly varied table of contents. All that really makes it a book is the central idea of Scheherazade telling stories for her life to the tyrannical King Shahryar. In other word, a fictional character constitutes its main authority for being (a little like the Bible, perhaps, which similarly rests its status as a book on the fiction of “divine inspiration”: i.e. having God as its author) …

Galland's Translation (1704-17)

Storytelling techniques?
These are very interesting, and repay much study. While it’s true to say that it’s more of a library than a single book, nevertheless the central core of stories already present in the Galland ms.: “The Fisherman and the Genie,” “The Porter and the three ladies of Baghdad,” and the “Tale of the Hunchback” establish a set of conventions which, while gradually adulterated in much of the rest of the collection, give us our notion of an “Arabian Nights tale.” The Chinese box effect of tale within tale within tale is part of it (what Todorov calls “l’homme récit”: the person who is the story they have to tell); also the supernatural atmosphere of magic and enchantment, particularly the ubiquitous presence of genies and magicians alongside scenes from everyday life; also the convention of Haroun Al-Rashid’s boredom, which leads him to undertake visits to the seedier quarters of his own city; also the highly eroticised encounters between beautiful youths and maidens; also the cliffhanger convention of ending each story at a dramatic point each morning in order to take the serial up the next night; also the highly ritualised and repetitive language employed to maintain our interest (there are hundreds of poems embedded in the stories, also: each one quoted by a character as a kind of reflection on the situation they find themselves in). Is that enough?

Djinn or Gin?
The French word génie, which Galland used to translate the Arabic word “Djinn” (plural “Djinni”) of course really means “spirit” – hence its use as a loanword in English for a “genius” (great spirit). “Gin” in the sense of a gin-trap, yes indeed: since once I fell into this particular pit I quickly realised there was no obvious way out. As for other kinds of gin, I’ve always been more of a wine and beer man myself …

Will your bookshelf continue to grow?
I’d like to say no, but I fear that the real answer is probably yes.

What is unique and unusual about this bookshelf? Books absolutely essential? Books you are proud of? Trophy books? Books you would like to add? Books you would like to discard? Books you have given away?
Books you have tossed aside? Thrown away?
Books you would like to steal?
Books others would like to steal from your collection?

I suppose I treasure most the books I’ve had longest: the 1934 3-volume “Heritage Press” edition of Burton; my first complete 16-volume set of Burton’s Nights, that French edition of Galland I bought in Tahiti almost 40 years ago.

Ideal Hazaar Afsaneh bookshelf?

Well, that would include a complete copy of John Payne’s 1882-89 translation as well as my complete Burton (1885-88). It would include Henry Torren’s 1938 attempt at a complete translation (which he abandoned after one volume). It would also include a copy of the 4-volume 1839 MacNaghten Arabic edition of the Nights, as well as the 1835 Bulaq edition. I’d also like a copy of Weber’s three-volume Tales of the East (1812).

What does your mother think about it? Your partner? What would your father say? Your ancestors?
I think they all think (or would think, in the case of those no longer with us) that I’m quite mad on the subject.

The mind, and impulses, of a collector?
Strange, certainly. One can contemplate the assemblage with perfect satisfaction without it having any appreciable contact with the rest of your life. If the whole thing suddenly disappeared, would one be any worse off?

Have you read your entire collection?
No, not really. There are many versions of the Nights I haven’t read, as well as a lot of the associated collections. I proceed by fits and starts.

The number of times you've read the Nights? When and where and how?
It took me a number of starts to get to the end of the Burton edition, and as I worked my way through some of the more arid regions of the 16 volumes, I think at times I was impelled only by the desire to prove Borges wrong (he said it was impossible to get to the end of that version).

For instance, is it possible to read Hazaar Afsaneh in the kitchen?
I question whether I could read any book in the kitchen.

Do you prefer reading during day or night?
I used to be able to read any time of the day or night. Now I only really read first thing in the morning, over coffee, and last thing at night, before going to sleep. Sometimes I have a bit of a read in the middle of the day, in the guise of a siesta.

Did someone ever read them aloud to you? Did you?
No, I’m not sure that I’ve ever really experienced that outside movies and audio books, which isn’t quite the same thing.

Illustrators of the nights?
There are so many! Edmund Dulac, Marc Chagall, Kay Nielsen, Maxfield Parrish, and – going back a bit – the beautiful illustrations of William Harvey from the original edition of Lane …

Edmund Dulac: Arabian Nights (1907)

Maxfield Parrish: Arabian Nights (1909)

Marc Chagall: Arabian Nights (1948)

William Narvey: Arabian Nights (1839-41)

Translations of the nights?
Translators of the nights?

Some swear by the German translator Littmann; others (Marina Warner, for example) by the 3-volume French Pléiade translation of Bencheikh and Gabrieli; some like Malcolm & Ursula Lyons recent complete Penguin translation; personally, my adherence is still to Burton, for all his eccentricities. Joseph Campbell was a great fan of John Payne’s translation. For sheer entertainment, I think I would read Powys Mathers’ English version of Dr. J. C. Mardrus’ belle infidèle turn-of-the-century French translation.

The Lyons' Translation (2008)

A landmark: indispensable, never to be superseded.

Talk a bit about your blog.
I put up the blog ["Scheherazade's Web"] because I couldn’t face the task of editing and reconciling all the various essays I’d written (and published, or read at conferences) about the Nights at various times into a single rational text. Instead, I just plonked them all online, together with a lot of the supplementary materials I’d collected. It seems to provoke a lot of correspondence from isolated Nights fanatics in far-off places.

Did the Nights inspire your own writing?

Jack Ross: EMO (2008)
Cover illustration: Emma Smith

It has had a certain influence, yes: one of my novels, EMO, has a character in it who has written a book about the Nights, said book being my own projected, half-written book about the Nights. It also comes up in quite a few short stories.

Do you recall ever dreaming about the 1001 Nights?
I’m not sure that I do, though I have had many dreams where I was in a second-hand bookshop making all sorts of amazing discoveries in the stacks …

Did you ever dream about your Hazaar Afsaneh bookshelf? About a paradisiacal library of sorts?
No, my dreams tend to be much more suffused by anxiety than that.

Borges and the Arabian Nights?
Well, I wrote an essay about that, as well as various other twentieth-century interpreters of the Nights (John Barth, Andras Hamori, Abdelfatto Kilito) – I even translated his poem on the subject (both are on the blog).

The whole world is within this bookshelf? Not W. G. Sebald's 'Rings of Saturn' but Jack Ross' 'Rings of Arabian Nights'?
In a sense, yes, though I’d hate to be condemned to read only the Arabian Nights for the rest of time. There are other stories, however all-encompassing this one collection has come to be.

Thoughts about Marina Warner? A. S. Byatt? Salman Rushdie?
All have been inspired by the Nights – none know quite so much about it as they think. Quite superficial thoughts about it keep on coming up again and again in their work. Rushdie, of course, has been more inspired by the Kathasaritsagara [Ocean of the Streams of Story] than by the Nights themselves. Warner failed to write the book she could have written on the subject. Byatt has done some nice, rather mannered, imitations of it.

Why are Non-Western books about the Nights not very popular in the West?
Interesting question. It’s true that Mahfouz and other Arabic novelists (especially female ones) who’ve been inspired by it are not widely read – but then, I’m not sure that any contemporary Arabic writing - most unjustly - is very much read in the West!

New Zealand Maori and Pakeha and the 1001 Nights?
I think that would be for Maori writers to say. If they see value in its structures and formulae, it would be very interesting to hear in just what way.

Do you recommend the Arabian Nights Encyclopedia?
Very much so. An indispensable work.

Freud, et al.?
I guess Freudian readings of the central Shahryar / Sharazad dilemma are pretty frequent and (some of them) pretty persuasive. But then I’ve always been rather a fan of Freud as a literary critic.

Edward Said, et al.?
He has little to say about it directly, but I imagine it would strike him as a particularly egregious piece of Orientalist clap-trap – in its larger cultural overtones, at least.

Future of Hazaar Afsaneh?
I think the Academic mill has only just begun to grind away at it. I hope they don’t succeed in crushing its appeal altogether.

Future of your bookshelf?
I like to fantasise about presenting it to some appreciative institution, but I doubt that will ever happen. Sooner or later, I fear, it will be dispersed into a second-hand bookshop somewhere and hopefully continue to fertilise and inspire future bookworms like myself …

Early Copies of Lane's Translation (1839-41)


Kay Nielsen: Scheherazade (1922)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Black Swan

Photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd (23/1/17)

rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno.
- Juvenal (CE 82)

I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters
- Ern Malley (1943)

On Monday night I looked out the bedroom window only to see a full-sized black swan wandering around our front yard. As you can see, she (or he) was quite imposing: raising both wings in frustration at not being able to find a way out through our fence - it does have exits, but these were probably not apparent in the semi-twilight - it seemed to dwarf everything around it.

So what you do when you see a black swan? Curiously enough, the question had arisen before, many years ago, when two of them landed on the roof of our garage, and sat there, apparently exhausted, for hours. My father got very agitated and rang the zoo and various other people, none of whom had anything useful to suggest. Eventually they just flew away.

The same thing happened on this occasion. The last time we saw it, the swan was making itself a nest in the hydrangeas. When I looked out later that night, it seemed to have disappeared. Certainly it was gone by next morning, leaving no signs of its presence beyond this picture. I don't think it particularly appreciated the flash photography (you can actually see the whites of its eyes), but we didn't have the courage to go out and try to chivvy it away - they can apparently break your arm with a single blow from their beaks!

Some strange things have been happening around the place lately. A couple of weeks ago a large black painting fell down in the middle of the night. That wasn't so surprising in itself, as the string it was hung on probably wasn't strong enough for its weight. But what was odd was the strange set of hairline scratches in the oil paint at the upper left-hand corner.

There's no obvious way these could have been caused by the fall (it was still upright when we went to check it), and they certainly weren't there when it was hung. It's hard to imagine what could have caused them. Thick oil paint is fairly resistant, and you'd have to press your fingernails on it pretty hard to get anything resembling that effect. It looks more like a set of pins have been dragged across it.

Then there was the plastic soapholder. This used to have a magnet so it could hold up a piece of soap with a metal circlet embedded in it. We don't really use it anymore, so it came as a bit of a surprise to find the front of it broken off and lying in the middle of the bathroom floor. Neither of us could remember touching it, letting alone knocking bits off it, and it's too high off the ground to be reached by a cat.

A week or so later the same piece of plastic (which Bronwyn had binned in the meantime) was found in the middle of the same bit of floor. Did someone dig through the rubbish, extract it, and plant it back where it had been? If so, why? With what conceivable motive?

So, all in all, the black swan seemed like the last straw.

But what, you may be asking, is the emblematic significance of black swans? Traditionally, of course, they represented something impossible (the first-century Latin satirist Juvenal speaks - in the line quoted above - of something resembling "a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan" - in other words, something so rare as to be non-existent). A black swan stood for a contradiction in terms. Until, that is, they were actually first sighted by Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh in Australia in 1697.

As a totem animal, the website Wildspeak explains that the black swan:
will only appear when right and appropriate, and cannot be forced to visit you, commune with you, or share messages with you. Black swan is a proud animal guide / energy to visit, and will not dignify those who do not respect it with its presence. It will often require offerings ...

Black swan can be a clear communicator, and will often 'converse' with those who visit it. It can be a stern teacher, has a very strong spirit, and can be a persistent guide (i.e. one that doesn't just appear once and disappears, but sticks around sometimes for many decades). In journeying, swans are often found on islands in the middle of lakes, and using this as a starting point for a visualising (i.e. crossing such a lake to the island) can be very helpful.
The wikipedia page "Black Swan Theory" sees it somewhat differently:
The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.
In other words, the actual discovery of black swans after they had been assumed for so long to be impossible can be seen as a model for any such rewriting of history after the event.

So what is the significance of this black swan, and the - possibly related - strange and unsettling events which have accompanied it? "Black swans indicate deep mysteries within us that are longing to be set free to express themselves creatively," argues the astrology site "What's Your Sign?"

Then again, maybe it just got lost on its way to Lake Pupuke.

In any case, it was - to be honest - quite an awe-inspiring encounter. We await further developments with interest, mixed with a little apprehension ...

Black Swan (2010)

Friday, January 20, 2017

Inauguration Day: January 2017

President Donald Trump (Rolling Stone: 20/1/17)

Trump said

... and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.

– Robert Lowell, "Inauguration Day: January 1953"

that he could stand
in the middle of Fifth Avenue
and shoot someone
and not lose any voters

it’s, like, incredible!
what he was touching on
was the phenomenon
of fandom

and it was no mirage
there really were
sufficient boneheads
dumb enough to vote

for that buffoon
no matter how outrageously
he talked
how stupid his ideas

we used to laugh
at countries where soap opera stars
could win a seat in parliament
because they loved them so

who’s laughing now?

Or, for a rather different take on the event, you could try "Pibroch of the Domhnall", composed by "celebrated" American poet Joseph Charles McKenzie of the (self-styled) "rhyming, rhythmic, and rapturous" Society of Classical Poets ...