Langston Hughes – domestic pariah, international superstar



Throughout his career, Hughes was eager to mentor and promote the work of writers abroad.
Library of Congress

Jason Miller, North Carolina State University

A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the inspiration behind Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” and an uncompromising voice for social justice, Langston Hughes is heralded as one of America’s greatest poets.

It wasn’t always this way. During his career, Hughes was routinely harassed by his own government. And the nation’s literati, balking at his subversive politics, tended to overlook his work.

But the opposite was true abroad, in places like France, Nigeria and Cuba, where Hughes had legions of devoted readers who were some of the first to recognize the promise and power of the poet’s words. In my new book, “Langston Hughes: Critical Lives,” I trace Hughes’ budding international stardom, and how it clashed with the hostility he faced back home.

Building a fan base

Growing up in America, Hughes had experienced racism firsthand. As he matured as poet and writer, he started looking beyond America’s borders, curious to learn more about how racism impacted different cultures.

Between 1924 and his death in 1967, Hughes made trips to places as varied as Italy, Russia, England, Nigeria and Ghana.

During a visit to Cuba in 1930, Hughes met a young Cuban poet named Nicolás Guillén. Hughes had already successfully written dozens of poems inspired by the 12-bar structures, cadences, rhymes and subject matter of blues music. Over the course of several late-night dinners at Lolita’s restaurant in Havana, Hughes encouraged Guillén to do the same with his home country’s music.

Within days of Hughes’ departure, Guillén started writing poems making use of Cuba’s “son tradition,” a form of popular dance music. This was a key moment in the development of an artist who would go on to become Cuba’s national poet.

Hughes was also the only figure of the Harlem Renaissance who traveled to Africa. After several trips to the continent, he became determined to promote the work of his African peers – writers like Bloke Modisane and eventual Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka. So in 1960, he edited his anthology “African Treasury,” which introduced many in the West to some of Africa’s greatest writers.

In countries like Nigeria, Hughes needed no introduction. In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, dozens of Hughes’ poems had appeared in the country’s newspapers and journals. After Nigeria elected Nnamdi Azikiwe, its first native governor-general, in 1960, Azikiwe concluded his inaugural by reciting Hughes’ poem “Youth.”

When Hughes returned to Ghana and Senegal later in the decade, he was greeted like a superstar. Scores of his admirers trailed him in the streets of Dakar, much in the way sports heroes are hounded by children for autographs.

By the 1960s, Hughes’ works were being translated into Russian, Italian, Swedish and Spanish. But the first scholarly study of his poetry appeared in France. Literary critic Jean Wagner’s 1963 book “Black Poets of the United States” highlighted the talents of Hughes as both a poet and activist. Devoting over 100 pages to Hughes, Wagner noted that African Americans would never “produce a more fiery bard” who was simultaneously “one of the community refusing to stand apart as an individual.”

As the first black writer in the United States to make his living solely by writing, Hughes ultimately galvanized scores of emerging writers and poets in Europe, Africa and South America. To them, Hughes represented a critical Western link to other people of color around the world. He was also an exemplar of the jazz and blues music they so revered. As a testament to Hughes’ popularity abroad, it was Venezuela – not the United States – that sought to nominate him for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960.

Making enemies at home

Back in America, Hughes certainly had his admirers, especially among the African American community. But most establishment figures – in politics, in the media and in law enforcement – viewed him as a menace.

As Hughes’ international fame grew, he was being denigrated as a subversive and a communist by his own government. Hughes had been under FBI surveillance since at least 1933, after he had traveled to Russia. Meanwhile his adamant calls for justice in the Scottsboro case of 1931 – when eight young black men were falsely accused of raping two white prostitutes – earned him the ire of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hughes’ piercing critiques of capitalism didn’t help his cause, either. Hoover would go on to wage a personal vendetta against Hughes, building a 550-page file on him that highlighted poems like “Goodbye, Christ” as evidence of his communist sympathies.

Then, in 1953, Hughes was called to testify before Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who wanted to use Hughes’ previous support of communist causes and his supposedly subversive allegiances to target suspected “reds” in the State Department.

The man who was exalted by political leaders overseas, who found himself elbowing his way through throngs of adoring crowds abroad, was attacked as “un-American” by McCarthy’s Senate Subcommittee.

Poet and author Langston Hughes speaks before the McCarthy Committee in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 1953.
AP Photo

Hughes was understandably conflicted about his native country, and he explored this ambivalence in poems such as “Let America Be America Again”:

    Let America be America again.
    Let it be the dream it used to be.
    Let it be the pioneer on the plain
    Seeking a home where he himself is free.

    (America never was America to me.)

That last line still resonates for many Americans – for those who have never known a golden age, nor tasted the nation’s promise of dreams, justice and equality for all.

How long, Hughes wondered in “Harlem,” would we have to wait? And what was the cost of kicking the can down the road?

  What happens to a dream deferred?

  Does it dry up
  like a raisin in the sun?
  Or fester like a sore—
  And then run?
  Does it stink like rotten meat?
  Or crust and sugar over—
  like a syrupy sweet?

  Maybe it just sags
  like a heavy load.

  Or does it explode?

Interestingly, Hughes had ended the first draft of this famous poem with the lines, “or does it atom-like explode / and leave deaths in its wake? Does it disappear / as might smoke somewhere?”

Writing on Aug. 7, 1948, the poet was keenly aware of what had happened only three years prior when nuclear bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

To me, this perfectly encapsulates Hughes’ international appeal. The poet sympathized with those who had felt the harshest wrath of American power and politics. His intended audience was never just his fellow Americans who were grappling with fear and anxiety; it was anyone who had suffered great and devastating loss – an anguish that knows no language or borders.

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Jason Miller, Professor of English, North Carolina State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Friday essay: a real life experiment illuminates the future of books and reading


Andy Simionato, RMIT University and Karen ann Donnachie, RMIT University

Books are always transforming. The book we hold today has arrived through a number of materials (clay, papyrus, parchment, paper, pixels) and forms (tablet, scroll, codex, kindle).

The book can be a tool for communication, reading, entertainment, or learning; an object and a status symbol.

The most recent shift, from print media to digital technology, began around the middle of the 20th century. It culminated in two of the most ambitious projects in the history of the book (at least if we believe the corporate hype): the mass-digitisation of books by Google and the mass-distribution of electronic books by Amazon.

The survival of bookshops and flourishing of libraries (in real life) defies predictions that the “end of the book” is near. But even the most militant bibliophile will acknowledge how digital technology has called the “idea” of the book into question, once again.

To explore the potential for human-machine collaboration in reading and writing, we built a machine that makes poetry from the pages of any printed book. Ultimately, this project attempts to imagine the future of the book itself.

A machine to read books

Our custom-coded reading-machine reads and interprets real book pages, to create a new “illuminated” book of poetry.

The reading-machine uses Computer Vision and Optical Character Recognition to identify the text on any open book placed under its dual cameras. It then uses Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing technology to “read” the text for meaning, in order to select a short poetic combination of words on the page which it saves by digitally erasing all other words on the page.

Armed with this generated verse, the reading-machine searches the internet for an image – often a doodle or meme, which someone has shared and which has been stored in Google Images – to illustrate the poem.

Once every page in the book has been read, interpreted, and illustrated, the system publishes the results using an online printing service. The resulting volume is then added to a growing archive we call The Library of Nonhuman Books.

From the moment our machine completes its reading until the delivery of the book, our automated-art-system proceeds algorithmically – from interpreting and illuminating the poems, to pagination, cover design and finally adding the endmatter. This is all done without human intervention. The algorithm can generate a seemingly infinite number of readings of any book.

The poetry

The following poems were produced by the reading-machine from popular texts:

deep down men try there

he’s large naked she’s even

while facing anything.

from E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey

how parties popcorn

jukebox bathrooms depressed

shrug, yeah? all.

from Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction

Oh and her bedroom

bathroom brushing sending it

garter too face hell.

from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s

My algorithm, my muse

So what does all this have to do with the mass-digitisation of books?

Faced with growing resistance from authors and publishers concerned with Google’s management of copyright, the infoglomerate pivoted away from its primary goal of providing a free corpus of books (a kind of modern day Library of Alexandria) and towards a more modest index system used for searching inside the books Google had scanned. Google would now serve only short “snippets” of words highlighted on the original page.

Behind the scenes, Google had identified a different use for the texts. Millions of scanned books could be used in a field called Natural Language Processing. NLP allows computers to communicate with people using everyday language rather than code. The books originally scanned for humans were made available to machines for learning, and later imitating, human language.

Imagine infinite readings of the books we already have.
Unsplash, CC BY

Algorithmic processes like NLP and Machine Learning hold the promise (or threat) of deferring much of our everyday reading to machines. History has shown that once machines know how to do something, we generally leave them to it. The extent to which we do this will depend on how much we value reading.

If we continue to defer our reading (and writing) to machines, we might make literature with our artificially intelligent counterparts. What will poetry become, with an algorithm as our muse?

We already have clues to this: from the almost obligatory use of emojis or Japanese Kaomoji (顔文字) as visual shorthand for the emotional intent of our digital communication, to the layered meanings of internet memes, to the auto-generation of “fake news” stories. These are the image-word hybrids we find in post-literate social media.

To hide a leaf

Take the book, my friend, and read your eyes out, you will never find there what I find.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Spiritual Laws

Emerson’s challenge highlights the subjectivity we bring to reading. When we started working on the reading-machine we focused on discovering patterns of words within larger bodies of texts that have always been there, but have remained “hidden in plain sight”. Every attempt by the reading-machine generated new poems, all of them made from words that remained in their original positions on the pages of books.

The notion of a single book consisting of infinite readings is not new. We originally conceived our reading-machine as a way of making a mythical Book of Sand, described by Jorge Luis Borges in his 1975 parable.

Borges’ story is about the narrator’s encounter with an endless book which continuously recombines its words and images. Many have compared this impossible book to the internet of today. Our reading-machine, with the turn of each page of any physical book, calculates combinations of words on that page which, until that moment, have been seen, but not consciously perceived by the reader.

The title of our early version of the work was To Hide a Leaf. It was generated by chance when a prototype of the reading-machine was presented with a page from a book of Borges’ stories. The complete sentence from which the words were taken is:

Somewhere I recalled reading that the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest.

The latent verse our machine attempts to reveal in books also hides in plain sight, like a leaf in a forest; and the idea is also a play on a page being generally referred to as a “leaf of a book”.

Like the Book of Sand, perhaps all books can be seen as combinatorial machines. We believed we could write an algorithm that could unlock new meanings in existing books, using only the text within that book as the key.

Philosopher Boris Groys described the result of the mass-digitisation of the book as Words Without Grammar, suggesting clouds of disconnected words.

Our reading-machine, and the Library of Nonhuman Books it is generating, is an attempt to imagine the book to come after these clouds of “words without grammar”. We have found the results are sometimes comical, often nonsensical, occasionally infuriating and, every now and then, even poetic.

Now that machines can read, will we defer the task to them?

The reading-machine will be on display at the Melbourne Art Book Fair in March and will collect a Tokyo Type Directors Club Award in April. Nonhuman Books are available via Atomic Activity Books.The Conversation

Andy Simionato, Lecturer, RMIT University and Karen ann Donnachie, Independent artist / Lecturer (adjunct), RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Do authors really put deeper meaning into poems and stories – or do readers make it up?



Many books, like ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ contain symbolism.
Dmitriy Os Ivanov/Shutterstock.com

Elisabeth Gruner, University of Richmond

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com.


Do authors really put deeper meaning into poems and stories – or do readers make it up? Jordan, 14, Indianapolis, Indiana


One of my favorite novels is “Charlotte’s Web,” the famous story of a friendship between a pig and a spider.

I often talk about this novel with my students studying children’s literature. At some point, someone always asks about “deeper meaning.” Is it really a story of, say, the cycle of death and rebirth? Or the importance of friendship? Or the significance of writing?

Or is it just a story of life in the barn, with talking animals?

In a way, it doesn’t matter. Because every writer is also a reader, and that means that whatever a writer puts into a story probably came from somewhere else, whether it’s another story, or a poem, or their own life experience.

And readers, too, will bring their own experience – of other stories, other poems and life – and that will direct their interpretation of what they absorb. We can see one example of this if we look at the spider in “Charlotte’s Web.”

The meaning of character

That spider, Charlotte, is based on a real spider. We know this because E.B. White drew pictures of spiders, studied them and made sure to be as accurate as he could when he wrote about them.

‘Charlotte’s Web’ by E. B. White.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

But, to a reader she may also represent Arachne, the talented weaver who challenged the goddess Athena and was changed into a spider for her pride. Or she may be the “noiseless patient spider” of Walt Whitman’s poem, who flings out thread-like filaments as the poet flings out words.

She may also be the spider who weaves “the silken tent” of Robert Frost’s poem. Maybe we’ll think about how the spider, like a human storyteller, generates something seemingly out of nothing, which makes her web miraculous.

Each of these spiders symbolizes different things. When we read about her, then, we may think of all those other spiders. Or we may just think about the spider we saw on our own front porch that morning, weaving her own web.

As the writer Philip Pullman said, “The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind.”

The reader is in charge

What Pullman is suggesting, then, is that it’s up to readers to make the meaning they want out of the stories they hear and the books they read.

It’s a powerful statement: We are in charge.

This doesn’t mean that anything goes. Meanings come from context, from convention, from older stories and from previous usage. But it’s up to us to interpret what we read and to make the case for how we’re doing it.

Or, as the novelist John Green writes of his books, “They belong to their readers now, which is a great thing – because the books are more powerful in the hands of my readers than they could ever be in my hands.”

What we do with the books we read matters, Green tells us. It’s up to us to make the meaning and up to us to decide what to do with that meaning once we’ve made it.

Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.The Conversation

Elisabeth Gruner, Associate Professor of English, University of Richmond

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Remembering Robert Burns has never been straightforward



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Gerard Lee McKeever, University of Glasgow

The memory of the Ayrshire-born Scottish poet Robert Burns has always been complicated, especially in Dumfries, the town where he died in July 1796. In the years following his untimely demise at the age of 37, literary tourists including Dorothy Wordsworth and John Keats visited this market town in south-west Scotland in search of their hero. What they found, however, was a vision of Burns and of Scotland itself that seemed out of place, difficult to comprehend and yet intensely personal.

Burns’s own relationship to Dumfriesshire was enigmatic from the start. When he arrived to take up the tenancy of Ellisland farm in the summer of 1788, he declared himself in a “land unknown to prose or rhyme”. But Burns’s view of the region would evolve many times. By August of the same year, he was commemorating the Nith Valley’s “fruitful vales”, “sloping dales” and “lambkins wanton”, and had already written back in October 1787 that: “The banks of Nith are as sweet, poetic ground as any I ever saw.”

Dumfries, where Burns died in 1796.
Shutterstock

Burns composed some of his best-known work during these years, including what many consider his masterpiece, Tam o’ Shanter. And yet a shift in focus from poetry to songwriting – as he worked to collect, revise and compose lyrics for collections of national song – changed the sense of both place and personality in his writing. In his earlier years, Burns’s poetry had often been intensely self-reflective, rooting a version of himself in the Ayrshire landscape where he was raised. Now, his persona receded into the background due to the inherently communal nature of folksong.

At the same time, Burns’s employment as an excise officer and his eventual poor health in Dumfries would lead 19th-century commentators such as the historian Thomas Carlyle to accuse the town of wasting the poet’s talents through a lack of patronage. That underestimates Burns’s agency as a member of the lower middle class, who took pride in supporting his family independently. Yet still, what emerged was a lingering sense of the Ayrshire Burns as the true Burns, where the Dumfries Burns was only a tragic, diminished echo of himself.


Shutterstock

Poetic pilgrimage

In 1803, Dorothy Wordsworth set off from the Lake District on a tour of Scotland in the company of her brother William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Among key items on their itinerary was a pilgrimage to Burns sites in and around Dumfries. Yet the poet’s memory would not be easily reckoned with.

In her tour journal, Wordsworth quoted Burns’s own A Bard’s Epitaph – “thoughtless follies laid him low, | And stain’d his name” – to underline the moral failings of a poet already famous for his love affairs and heavy drinking. She wrote:

We could think of little else but poor Burns, and his moving about on that unpoetic ground.

Burns proved an inescapable but difficult presence in Dumfries for Wordsworth. He became representative of a south-west Scotland that defied easy comprehension: neither quite “the same as England” nor “simple, naked Scotland”.

Further north at Ellisland farm, Wordsworth remembered catching a view back home to “the Cumberland mountains”. The idea was taken up by her brother in a poem originally titled Ejaculation at the Grave of Burns, in which William imagined himself and Burns as the hills of Criffel and Skiddaw staring at one another across the Solway Firth. Yet the dead poet remained out of reach, leaving these tourists to their personal musings about Dumfriesshire in the terms of tragedy: a visit to Burns in 1803 was already seven years too late.

Keats made a pilgrimmage to Burns’s grave.
Shutterstock

If anything, the situation was even more pronounced in John Keats’s account of his 1818 walking tour, in which Dumfries shoulders much of the blame for the tragic story of this “poor unfortunate fellow”. Keats would find himself disgusted at the tourism industry that had already sprung up at the poet’s birthplace further north in Ayrshire.

But when confronted with the spectacle of Burns’s death, Keats apparently struggled to make much sense of Dumfries at all. Performing a kind of theatrical bewilderment in On Visiting the Tomb of Burns, he wrote that the town seemed “beautiful, cold – strange – as in a dream”.

Memory and imagination

It is difficult to overstate the impact of Burns’s legacy in south-west Scotland, for better or worse. His influence on following generations of poets in the region could be both inspiring and suffocating, while civic pride in his memory took on new forms in Dumfries as elsewhere throughout the 19th century, not least in the extravagant centenary celebrations in 1859.


Shutterstock

Today, when the poet’s birthday is marked on January 25 around the world, many different and contradictory versions of Burns will be remembered. In their complex responses to Dumfries, where the poet’s death has often seemed more tangible than his birth, early literary tourists like the Wordsworths and Keats show that this is nothing new.

After all, the role of a national poet – a vehicle for our thoughts and dreams – underlines how much of both memory and geography is the work of the imagination.The Conversation

Gerard Lee McKeever, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Glasgow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Holocaust poetry and the reclamation of many identities



In the Living Quarters by Bedrich Fritta portrays Terezín (Theresienstadt) ghetto where early Holocaust poetry was written.
Wikimedia

Marian de Vooght, University of Essex

The first Holocaust poems were written 90 years ago, when the full extent of the horror was yet to be known. Starting in the 1930s, those first works foreshadowed the catastrophe that was soon to come. As the second world war erupted and the Nazi killings began, people continued to write poetry that recorded direct experiences of persecution and lamented the murder of loved ones.

While many writers of Holocaust poetry are Jewish, there are those who belong to other groups targeted by the Nazi regime. Including those who were perceived to have disabilities, Roma and Sinti people, political and religious opponents and homosexual men.

Writing poetry of the Holocaust has often been a way to reclaim identity, as writer and translator Lou Sarabadzic puts it:

Victims of the Holocaust are not the Other in these lines, but rather the authors, the ones we listen to, the ones expressing emotions.

As such, they continue to be written today as people continue to reckon with the memories and impact of the Holocaust.

Diverse backgrounds

Published in 2019, Poetry of the Holocaust: An Anthology brings together poems from 19 languages that were previously unavailable in English. The translations in this book are followed by the original texts. These include poems in languages not normally associated with the Holocaust, such as Norwegian and Japanese, and from places like Argentina, Denmark and South Africa.


Author provided

Holocaust poetry in the 1930s and through the war wrestled with the incomprehensible reality its writers were facing. The earliest poems in Europe responded to the foreboding of the fascist regime and its politics of elimination.

In 1932, the German poet Eduard Saenger wrote in reaction to the sinister change of atmosphere that he was witnessing in his country:

A silent wind sends fear through the land / with an edge like the howling of wolves.

Like Saenger, many wrote poems warning of the approaching dark times and also in reaction to specific events, like the book burnings of May 1933 and Kristallnacht in November 1938.

During the war, the poems documented life in ghettos, prisons and concentration camps. They spoke of mass shootings and of seeing neighbours deported.

Writing in the Terezín (Theresienstadt) ghetto in the early 1940s, the Czech teenager Dagmar Hilarová expressed the desire to die rather than undergo further humiliation and torture:

Like a bird with wounded wings / To lie down, / And not to wait for morning.

Poems written in concentration camps were memorised or hidden, often later found by others. Sallie Pinkhof wrote a poem in Bergen-Belsen in 1944, in which he mocked the state of his body:

What a hoot / these loose-fitting tendons / and bones in my foot!

Pinkhof did not survive but his poems were preserved by fellow camp inmates. An anonymous poem found in the Zigeunerlager (Gypsy Camp) of Auschwitz-Birkenau opens with the wish:

Do not wake me from my dream, / so the world need never know / how they treat a Roma.




Read more:
Nazis murdered a quarter of Europe’s Roma, but history still overlooks this genocide


After the war

For many the horror of the Holocaust is both lifelong and unspeakable. As the memory and impact of the catastrophe continue to be felt by survivors, their children and people touched by its reverberations, poems continue to be written about the Holocaust to express what is almost beyond words. Dutch poet Chawwa Wijnberg (2001), whose father was executed by the Nazis:

Always present is the unsaid / the unsaid / that rips the wound open

Silence is a recurrent theme. Rita Gabbai-Simantov, a Sephardic-Turkish poet who lives in Greece and writes in Ladino, Judaeo-Spanish, about Thessaloniki – “old Saloniki” – and its wiped-out Jewish community (1992): “As you walk, your companion / will be silence”.

After her visit to Auschwitz, the Lithuanian poet Janina Degutytė recorded in 1966 the enduring silence of the people who were deported from her country and murdered:

Lips gasp for air … / The only sound is the rustling of golden leaves, / The rustling flow of time: which was – is – will be …“.

Later poetry also gave voices to persecuted groups who were previously unrepresented. In 1995, French writer André Sarcq was the first to express the fate of gay men who for decades after the war, in France and elsewhere, could not speak about their experience in concentration camps. This was because homosexuality continued to be outlawed and they felt, in Sarcq’s words, like “the rag of a pool of souls”.

The poet Janina Degutytė wrote a poem about Lithuanian victims after visiting Auschwitz in Poland.
Szymon Kaczmarczyk/Shutterstock

Poetry of the Holocaust continues to be written in our time. A striking example is the poem by Angela Fritzen, a journalist who has Down’s syndrome. Written after visiting an exhibition in Bonn, Germany in 2016, the poem is about the fate of people with disabilities during the Nazi era. “To have strength” is how Fritzen ends her deeply felt poem.

Holocaust poetry is a rich and diverse genre that continues to be added to. Both the older and the contemporary poems need readers, because Holocaust poetry is about communication. The poets felt the need to share their pain and it is vital that readers take the chance to empathise with what they have been through. By way of reflecting on the experience of others we recognise what it means to be human.

The translators of the quoted lines of poetry in this article are: Jean Boase-Beier (Saenger, Fritzen, Sarcq), Anna Crowe (Gabbai-Simantov), Maria Grazina Slavėnas (Degutytė), Marian de Vooght (Pinkhof, Sarcq) and Philip Wilson (Hilarová).The Conversation

Marian de Vooght, Visiting Fellow, Department of Government, University of Essex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

UWA Publishing has helped take Australian poetry into the world. Its closure would be catastrophic for poets



Some of the many poetry books published in recent years by UWA Publishing.
UWA/Shutterstock

John Kinsella, Curtin University

I start with a disclaimer: I am a UWA Publishing poet. I have published a book of poetry with them (as well as a novel), and have two books forthcoming with them in 2020 — The Weave, a collection of poetry co-written with Thurston Moore, and an edited and introduced volume, The Collected Poems of C.J. Brennan, the great, Sydney-dwelling, symbolist poet (1870-1932).

Now, with UWAP on the verge of being shut down, partly through what I and many others see as a misguided sense of what constitutes an interface between universities and the broader public, the fate of these books is unclear.

The University of Western Australia has proposed that “UWA Publishing operations, in their current form, come to an end” to be replaced by an open-source digital publishing model. The jobs of its employees and director Terri-ann White would likely be “surplus to requirements”. In a statement released late last week it said

Current publishing works already in train this year and next year are expected to continue, as will consultation on innovation that will assist UWA Publishing to adapt to the demands of modern publishing, with options to examine a mix of print, greater digitisation and open access publishing.

But even if contracted books are published, the closure of this publisher would be catastrophic for Australian poetry. It would be as if those books didn’t exist as something connected to a future vision of writing with purpose and community. It’s a way of killing a humanistic, inter-cultural conversation. It ignores the people who do so much to make these conversations happen.

Many voices

UWAP, especially since 2016, publishes many poetry books a year — a very unusual act of creative support and belief. Its dynamic list includes such essential voices as Ania Walwicz, Candy Royalle, Peter Rose, Quinn Eades, Kate Lilley, David McCooey, and so many other voices of the now, along with collected and selected “greats” like Francis Webb, Lesbia Harford, and Dorothy Hewett.

Yes, I speak here from the inside, as an author. Yet I also speak from the outside as a reader of poetry, and with the incredible feeling of loss I get as a reader, at this ill-thought out proposal.

UWAP publishes many “big name” writers and scholars, but also many marginalised voices and/or voices that might find it hard to publish through purely market-driven publishing houses. It is part of the country’s literary and scholarly collective conscience.

Poetry is an active ingredient of social justice not only in what it can say and talk about, but in the way that it places language under pressure, and questions how expression is used in general discourse, and why. Words of oppression are so easily accepted — poetry questions the uses and “deployment” of language.

UWAP, under Terri-ann White, is part of a clutch of poetry publishers in Australia — and there are not many — who make a commitment to poetry beyond the canonical, and with a strong sense of the need to enact this scrutiny of language. What is said in poetry is seen to matter, and I believe it does.

I will never forget speaking to the late Fay Zwicky in 2017, in her last weeks, about her forthcoming Collected Poems (UWAP, edited by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin) and her discussion of proofs and the book itself. A life’s work — one of the great bodies of poetry produced in Australia.

Zwicky had published volumes of poetry with other vital publishers in the Australia poetry community, University of Queensland Press and Giramondo. And then the collation of a life’s work — a big project that required so much attention and goodwill. It was clearly necessary, if not essential, to her.

One of the many titles on the UWAP list that had a remarkable effect on so many readers, and which I noted in the Australian Book Review’s 2018 Books of the Year feature, was a collation of Lisa Bellear’s poetry — Aboriginal Country. As I said then, “the emphatic, committed voice of this remarkable Goernpil woman, feminist, poet, photographer, and activist shines through.” Not to have had access to Bellear’s work is unimaginable now we have encountered it gathered in this way.

There is huge engagement in seeing such a work through to press. It was edited (by Jen Jewel Brown), supported and seen onto the shelves via UWAP. An act of belief and support, among many such acts in a given year; all necessary.

Vitally, UWAP’s poetry list effectively manages that seemingly complex interaction between local work and that from the rest of the country. It seems too often assumed that a WA publisher will necessarily only publish WA work. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a total believer in local publishing, but there’s also a strong necessity for a publisher that brings many localities together, as Magabala Books in Broome does with Australian Aboriginal writing.

UWAP publishes poets (and writers in general) from all over the country, and brings in some overseas titles as well. Terri-ann White actively takes her lists to readers and publishers outside Australia, and is an energetic and steadfast voice in international publishing for her authors, and for Australian and world literature.

To close UWAP would be a damaging of shared difference, of making community and discussion out of diverse voices.

While I have had the good fortune over the years to publish with some of the major poetry houses around the English-speaking world, I am especially proud and excited when a book of mine is selected for the UWAP list.

Shutting down UWAP would sever many ties and disrupt many conversations just begun, or prevent other conversations, especially of conscience, ever taking place.The Conversation

John Kinsella, Professor of Literature and Environment, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2019 TS Eliot Prize Shortlist


The link below is to an article taking a look at the shortlist for the 2019 T. S. Eliot Prize for poetry.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/17/ts-eliot-prize-shortlist-jay-bernard-sharon-olds-anthony-anaxagorou

Why French poet Charles Baudelaire was the godfather of Goths



The poet in a picture by Gustave Courbet.
Wikimedia Commons

Nick Freeman, Loughborough University

Goths are typically regarded as being on the fringes of society – members of a subculture which finds beauty in the darker elements of human experience. And while their dress code is much imitated – and celebrated – over Halloween, they have a proud history that stretches far beyond a seasonal horror festival.

In fact, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) could easily qualify as the template goths (and other bohemians) aspire to. He often dressed in black, dyed his hair green, and rebelled against the conformist, bourgeois world of mid-19th century Paris in both his personal life and his art.

His first collections of poems, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), was prosecuted for offending public morals, challenging its audiences with its startling treatments of sex, Satanism, vampirism and decay. No wonder his words would one day be set to music by The Cure.

Aside from his writing, Baudlaire’s dissolute life was a checklist of boho credentials. He fell out with his family. He went bankrupt. He pursued reckless sexual experiments and contracted syphilis. He developed a drug habit. He associated with artists, musicians, writers and petty criminals rather than “respectable” people.

He outraged his family by having a mistress who was mixed race and probably illiterate. He refused conventional employment and made a precarious living as a writer, critic and occasional art dealer.

He wrote poetry which was prosecuted for obscenity and was adored by like-minded souls throughout Europe while being hated, even feared, by “straight” society. And then he died young, after years of serious illness and addiction, at the age of 46.

Baudelaire, photographed by Étienne Carat in 1863.

Baudelaire was also a dandy, clean-shaven in an age of whiskers and dressed immaculately despite squalid domestic circumstances. Never ostentatious, he wore sombre black in mourning for his times.

Considering nature to be tyrannical, he championed everything which fought or transcended it, while being, like many of his contemporaries, overtly misogynistic. “Woman is natural. That is to say, abominable,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, he recognised how both genders were trapped within their fleshly prisons and urged resistance to such incarceration through costume and cosmetics, recreational sex, drugs and alcohol.

Baudelaire sounds like many later writers, actors and rock stars, but it is unfair to suggest his cultural importance resides only in his delinquent mannerisms. What makes Baudelaire so significant, and so relevant today, is his recognition in Les Fleurs du Mal, his prose poetry, and essays, that the urbanised, industrial and increasingly godless modern world is radically different from any earlier epoch.

Artists responding to these new conditions of existence cannot cling to outworn traditions. They need instead to cast off convention and rethink their relationship to their culture and surroundings.

Baudelaire’s translations of Edgar Allan Poe brought the American writer to a new audience – and the morbidity of many Baudelaire poems suggests the two men were kindred spirits. In Une Charogne (A Carcass, 1857) for example, he recounts finding a woman’s maggot-infested body, cataloguing her obscene decay in hideous detail before telling his lover that one day, she too will be rotten and worm-eaten.

Like his contemporary, Gustave Flaubert, Baudelaire felt stifled and alienated by the bombastic hypocrisy of Napoleon III’s Second Empire. He despaired at the gulf between public morality and private vice, and was sickened by the rise of bourgeois respectability, the protestant work ethic, and the sweeping modernisation of Paris itself.

Disdaining realism’s preoccupation with appearances, his writing examined the mental states his surroundings produced: boredom, an aggressive self-lacerating melancholy, and ennui – the listlessness and depression which left sufferers joyless and blasé.

He depicted himself as being like the king of a rainy country gripped by an unending despair, prematurely aged, impotent and sorrowful with no clear cause. “Life is a hospital,” he wrote, “in which all the patients are obsessed with changing their beds. One would prefer to suffer beside the fire, another thinks he’d recover sooner if placed by the window.”

A series of unfortunate events

More than 150 years after his death, Baudelaire remains a challenging figure – not least for his sexual attitudes. Nevertheless, his influence is undeniable. T.S. Eliot hailed him in The Waste Land (1922), borrowing his line: “Hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frère!” (Hypocrite reader, my likeness, my brother), for his dissection of the post-1918 world.

More recently, English author Angela Carter’s Black Venus (1985) gave a voice to Baudelaire’s mistress, Jeanne Duval, who rages at how “his eloquence denied her language”. And How Beautiful You Are, by Gothic rockers The Cure (1987) adapted his prose-poem Les Yeux des Pauvres (The Eyes of the Poor).

Baudelaire’s rich musical heritage is being currently documented by the Baudelaire Song Project. His notion of the “flaneur”, the aimless urban idler, influenced the German philosopher Walter Benjamin and the explorations of modern psychogeographers. His presence even lurks in the young adult fiction of Lemony Snicket, where the Baudelaire children suffer a series of unfortunate events.

Meanwhile, black remains one of the uniforms of teenage disaffection from London to Tokyo, shaping the subcultures of the past four decades. Baudelaire’s existential anxieties and refusal to capitulate to the forces of conformity make him a continued inspiration.The Conversation

Nick Freeman, Reader in Late Victorian Literature, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2019 Longlist for US National Book Award for Poetry


The link below is to an article reporting on the longlist for the 2019 US National Book Award for Poetry.

For more visit:
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/announcing-the-longlist-for-the-2019-national-book-award-for-poetry/

Ode to the poem: why memorising poetry still matters for human connection



Committing poetry to memory is so much more than a rote exercise.
Taylor Ann Wright/Unsplash

Veronica Alfano, Australian Catholic University

Memorising poetry was once common in classrooms. But it has, for the most part, gone out of style. There are good reasons for this.

Memorisation can clash with creativity and analytical thought. Rote learning can be seen as mindless, drone-like, something done without really thinking about why we’re doing it and what the thing we memorise might mean.

In other words, it can be counterproductive to learn a poem by heart without understanding its content, knowing anything about its author or historical context, or asking what specific aspects of its language make it powerful and appealing.

Literature instructors tend to focus more on showing students how to conduct careful textual analysis than on having them reproduce poetic lines word-for-word. Analytical skills are crucial, and educators should continue to emphasise them.




Read more:
Hooked on the classics: literature in the English curriculum


But there is great value in memorisation as well. Internalising a poem need not be a rote process. Done right, in fact, it is an intellectual exercise that illuminates the structure and logic of the text.

Nevermore, evermore, nothing more

A teacher might prompt his or her class to reflect on which patterns of sound (such as rhyme, meter or alliteration) serve as memory aids, asking how these patterns interact with the narrative arc of the poem.

Let’s imagine a student sets out to memorise Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

Here are two lines from that poem:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me–filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before

Someone searching for memorable patterns in the language would probably pay close attention to Poe’s internal rhyme: “uncertain” gives us “curtain,” and “thrilled me” prompts “filled me”.

But that same student might also struggle to keep the exact phrasing of the stanzas’ final lines straight, given that all eighteen of them conclude with “nevermore”, “evermore” or “nothing more”.

Most of us will at some point grapple with unhealthy fixations or paranoid fears.
kalpesh patel/Unsplash

This could generate a conversation about the role of repetition in the poem – for instance, perhaps it reflects the obsessive and confused mindset of Poe’s speaker.

Students tasked with memorising poems are often required to speak them aloud as a test of mastery. This, too, has its benefits. Reciting a poem can provide a deep and visceral understanding of its linguistic strategies (think of all those rustling “s” sounds in “silken, sad, uncertain”).




Read more:
Victorian women poets of WW1: capturing the reverberations of loss


And when saying the poem aloud, you can hear another consciousness speaking in the cadences of your own voice. Counting out the beats of each line, you may feel the poem’s metrical pulses in your tapping fingers and toes.

In this way, the poem becomes an embodied experience and not merely a printed object.

A rich mental resource

True, reading a poem aloud rather than memorising and reciting it can have similar effects to all those above. But performing that poem without the distracting mediation of the page helps incorporate it more thoroughly into mental life.

In doing so, you can enact the way in which many poems – even as they give voice to a sensibility outside our own – also appeal to us precisely because they seem to articulate our unuttered thoughts and feelings. Reciting a poem without reading it can make it feel like it’s just you talking, not necessarily somebody else.

Memorising poetry provides a rich mental resource of beautiful phrases.
Daniel Hansen/Unsplash

Few of us have dealt with an ominous raven perching in our chambers, but most of us will at some point grapple with unhealthy fixations or paranoid fears.

Memorising poetry, then, is also a kind of long-term investment. To take a poem with us so we can truly know it, we must know it by heart.

When we commit poems to memory, we internalise a voice that may comfort or inspire us in the future. We create a rich mental resource that lets us summon compelling, evocative, finely-crafted language at exactly the moment when it is most relevant to our emotional lives.

Such language both illuminates and is illuminated by our experiences. Christina Rossetti’s “A Birthday” begins with these lines:

My heart is like a singing bird

Whose nest is in a watered shoot;

My heart is like an apple-tree

Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit.

For a school child who learns Rossetti’s poem, such metaphors may not be particularly meaningful. But if she carries those lines in her mind over the years, they are likely to take on fresh significance.

If later in life she falls in love or has an intense spiritual experience, they may help her articulate her feelings to herself. Perhaps on a snowy day she will think of Charles Wright’s words: “Things in a fall in a world of fall […]”.




Read more:
Friday essay: garish feminism and the new poetic confessionalism


Perhaps the arrival of a child will remind the former student of Sylvia Plath’s “Love set you going like a fat gold watch”.

Understanding our own sentiments through someone else’s words can provide a thrilling sense of connection, of shared humanity across time and space.

There are certain intellectual advantages to having a wealth of information at our fingertips at all times. But the vast resources that smart phones provide can’t make the beauties and insights of poetic language part of our everyday perspective on the world and fine-tune our emotional vocabulary in the process.

For that, we must still memorise.The Conversation

Veronica Alfano, Research Fellow, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.