UTTERANCE

June 15, 2019

Sitting over words
very late I have heard a kind of whispered sighing
not far
like a night wind in pines or like the sea in the dark
the echo of everything that has ever
been spoken
still spinning its one syllable
between the earth and silence

W.S. Merwin

When I was young, I was a passionate reader of Sartre. I’ve read the American novelists, in particular the lost generation — Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos — especially Faulkner. Of the authors I read when I was young, he is one of the few who still means a lot to me. I have never been disappointed when I reread him, the way I have been occasionally with, say, Hemingway. I wouldn’t reread Sartre today. Compared to everything I’ve read since, his fiction seems dated and has lost much of its value. As for his essays, I find most of them to be less important, with one exception perhaps—“Saint Genet: Comedian or Martyr,” which I still like. They are full of contradictions, ambiguities, inaccuracies, and ramblings, something that never happened with Faulkner. Faulkner was the first novelist I read with pen and paper in hand, because his technique stunned me. He was the first novelist whose work I consciously tried to reconstruct by attempting to trace, for example, the organization of time, the intersection of time and place, the breaks in the narrative, and that ability he has of telling a story from different points of view in order to create a certain ambiguity, to give it added depth. As a Latin American, I think it was very useful for me to read his books when I did because they are a precious source of descriptive techniques that are applicable to a world which, in a sense, is not so unlike the one Faulkner described. Later, of course, I read the nineteenth-century novelists with a consuming passion: Flaubert, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Hawthorne, Dickens, Melville. I’m still an avid reader of nineteenth-century writers.

As for Latin American literature, strangely enough, it wasn’t until I lived in Europe that I really discovered it and began to read it with great enthusiasm. I had to teach it at the university in London, which was a very enriching experience because it forced me to think about Latin American literature as a whole. From then on I read Borges, whom I was somewhat familiar with, Carpentíer, Cortázar, Guimaraes Rosa, Lezama Lima—that whole generation except for García Márquez. I discovered him later and even wrote a book about him: García Márquez: Historia de un decidio. I also began reading nineteenth-century Latin American literature because I had to teach it. I realized then that we have extremely interesting writers—the novelists perhaps less so than the essayists or poets. Sarmiento, for example, who never wrote a novel, is in my opinion one of the greatest storytellers Latin America has produced; his Facundo is a masterwork. But if I were forced to choose one name, I would have to say Borges, because the world he creates seems to me to be absolutely original. Aside from his enormous originality, he is also endowed with a tremendous imagination and culture that are expressly his own. And then of course there is the language of Borges, which in a sense broke with our tradition and opened a new one. Spanish is a language that tends toward exuberance, proliferation, profusion. Our great writers have all been prolix, from Cervantes to Ortega y Gasset, Valle-Inclán, or Alfonso Reyes. Borges is the opposite — all concision, economy, and precision. He is the only writer in the Spanish language who has almost as many ideas as he has words. He’s one of the great writers of our time.

Mario Vargas Llosa
Interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell and Ricardo Augusto Setti
Paris Review Fall 1990

look all round me

April 21, 2019

I have read your poems with my door locked late at night and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea: and here I often found myself waking up from a reverie with the book open before me. I love all poetry, and high generous thoughts make the tears rush to my eyes, but sometimes a word or a phrase of yours takes me away from the world around me and places me in an ideal land surrounded by realities more than any poem I ever read.

Bram Stoker

Letter to Walt Whitman February 1872

The only writers who have any peace are the ones who don’t write. And there are some like that. They wallow in a sea of possibilities. To express a thought, you first have to limit it, and that means kill it. Every word I speak robs me of a thousand others, and every line I write means giving up another.

Stanisław Lem

Hospital of the Transfiguration

I am in the path of Blake, but so far behind him that only the wings on his heels are in sight. I have been writing since I was a very little boy, and have always been struggling with the same things, with the idea of poetry as a thing entirely removed from such accomplishments as ‘word-painting,’ and the setting down of delicate but usual emotions in a few, well-chosen words. There must be no compromise; there is always only the one right word: use it, despite its foul or merely ludicrous associations; I used ‘double-crossed’ because it was what I meant. It is part of a poet’s job to take a debauched and prostituted word, like the beautiful word, ‘blond,’ and to smooth away the lines of its dissipation, and to put it on the market again, fresh and virgin. Neuburg blabs of some unsectarian region in the clouds where poetry reaches its highest level. He ruins the truth of that by saying that the artist must, of necessity, preach socialism. There is no necessity for the artist to do anything. There is no necessity. He is a law unto himself, and his greatness or smallness rises or falls by that. He has only one limitation, and that is the widest of all: the limitation of form. Poetry finds its own form; form should never be superimposed; the structure should rise out of the words and the expression of them. I do not want to express only what other people have felt; I want to rip something away and show what they have never seen. Because of the twist in myself I will never be a very good poet: only treading the first waves, putting my hands in deeper and then taking them out again.

Dylan Thomas
Letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson 15th October 1933

soul set in motion

March 23, 2019

For a poem is a mental affair: for its reader as much as for its author. ‘Her’ portrait is the poet’s state conveyed through his tune and choice of words;  a reader would be a fool to settle for less. What matters about ‘her’ is not her particularity but her universality. Don’t try to find her snapshot and position yourself next to it: it won’t work. Plain and simply,  a love lyric is one’s soul set in motion. If it’s good, it may do the same to you.

Joseph Brodsky
section IX of Altra Ego,
On Grief and Reason

Poems arise. I can’t say I’m going to write a poem now. I always have four or five on the go, a phrase or a sentence with richness. Unlike with a novel, or a biography, where the story carries me along, in a poem you must be more passive. Anna Akhmatova talked about waiting for the Muse to come, but for me it’s not so grand. The poem just rises. I catch a few words and write them down in a little notebook when I travel, and on the computer, at home, but in the end I always write poems by hand. I can do it anywhere, in trains, or travelling.

How do I know a poem is alive and good? It’s like jazz – you always know.

Elaine Feinstein
Interview by Vivian Eden for Haaretz

Poetry is eternity

March 5, 2019

Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism – to the blending and fusion of separate objects. It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death, and through death to continuity. Poetry is eternity; the sun matched with the sea.

Georges Bataille
Eroticism: Death and Sensuality

almost a nonlanguage art

February 19, 2019

Poetry is not just an outpouring of feelings into words; diaries are good places for that. Nor is it use of words merely to convey information, as newspapers are purported to do. OK, so we all know that poetry’s medium is words — but don’t be fooled by that “fact” into thinking that poetry is made of words. “Pure poetry,” poet Russell Edson says, “is almost a nonlanguage art.” I think of poetry as a right-brain activity, using image, sensory gatherings, spatial impressions, free associations, music, and creative perception, and only casting its line into the language lake on the left to fish out the words to articulate it. If you read it only for the words (information, feelings, experience) it will not awaken and inform your full feelings and experience but will frustrate you in its seemingly mad illogic and leaps.

Alice B Fogel
Strange Terrain

like listening to a lesson

February 16, 2019

You know what? When I read a poem, I don’t expect to get it. I go through a process much like listening to a lesson on a foreign language. The first time through, I just listen, letting it wash through me, not trying to make sense of it, and it is, well, Greek to me. The second time, I begin to make connections between the unfamiliar Italian (it never really was Greek) and the English I already know—a word or phrase here, a context there. Next I might try pronouncing the sounds myself. Each time, usually, I feel more, know more. I may get a little excited thinking I’m onto something. Little by little, it enters me, until finally I realize I in turn have entered it. Meraviglioso! I’m speaking Italian!

Alice B Fogel
Strange Terrain