November 13, 2015

"Two Publishers: A Conversation between Polish Publisher Jerzy Illg and Douglas Messerli in Korea" | essay by Douglas Messerli on his discussions with Illg

two publishers: a conversation between polish publisher jerzy illg and douglas messerli in korea

Although many, if not most of the writers I publish think of me primarily as a publisher, I think of myself as a poet, fiction writer, critic, and memoirist who is also a publisher. I love publishing, to which the 400-some books I have published to date attest. But my heart is in the process of writing, not in the art of publishing; indeed if I had a great amount of money (or even any money to spend on publishing) I would pay someone else to do everything except making the initial selection.

These feelings were apparent when I was invited as an author to the 2010 World Writers' Festival in Seoul, Korea. Similarly, Polish publisher, Jerzy Illg, whose Znak press publishes much of the writing of Czesław Milosz and Joseph Brodsky, felt delighted to be there as a poet—even though he had published just one thin book.
     We both recognized that we (and perhaps some of other writers as well) were there only because of Ko Un's suggestion. Both of us publish Ko Un. But that didn't diminish the joy of being featured so prominently in banners and placards throughout the city and on the campuses of Dankook University. And I think we both admired each other's essay more than the writings of some of the prominent international writers and critics included in the event.
     Both of us also shared a sense of humor about the conference, whose seriousness was, in some small way, subverted by the "continually reincarnated" boy-genius, who we both agreed Ko Un is, a man with the force and energy of eternal youth, accompanied by the attendant freshness of thought. Despite their roots in traditional Korean writing and their relationships with Western narrative, Ko Un's poems are full of an energetic spirit that break out impulsively with dissociative images and sounds. He is, consequently, both a traditionalist and an experimenter, in the Modernist sense of that word. 
     Although Jerzy seemed to take himself less seriously than I as a poet, we both shared a kind of mad passion for literature, and, consequently, for much of our lives we felt driven to become publishers. Despite the fact that Jerzy worked for a much larger and financially sounder publishing house, I felt, in the fact that for many years he suffered under the Soviet repression (a much harsher environment than my penniless one) that as an independent publisher he was one the few people I had met in a long time who could truly comprehend just how lonely and difficult (logically impossible) it has been to publish all the books I have without money and hardly any staff. Talking with Jerzy I suddenly felt very old and tired, but perhaps it was just the beer we were drinking that made me feel that way. Both of us enjoyed drinking, and were delighted to find the small bar where we chatted for several hours. 
     There we discovered, through those shared "difficulties," that in some profound sense we understood each other—not that we felt sorry for ourselves; we had both chosen, even if by accident, our roles. And both of us expressed our love and pride in our endeavors. We agreed we still love what we do—at least most days! Each of us, in our own different way, has lived a remarkable life, he as a close friend and ally to Miłosz, Brodsky, and others (he is the Polish publisher, for example, of Mario Vargas Llosa, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature while we were visiting Seoul), I with a whole array of very different figures described in these pages. Accordingly, we felt a deep rapport. 
     Hearing Jerzy's descriptions of his youth when he joined an atelier in a Polish industrial town with no connections to culture, and where several evenings each week a woman sat reading the German texts of Hermann Hesse, studies of Eastern religion, and numerous other writings, translating them into Polish as she read—texts, totally unavailable in Polish, that revealed completely new worlds to him—brought tears to my eyes.
     "When I first traveled to the West, to England," Jerzy continued, "I went into a bookstore and found, to my amazement, row upon row, in many editions, of my now beloved texts. I was astounded. There they were, in all their glory, waiting on the shelf for a people who no longer needed to care for them, while for me they stood upon those shelves as sacred artifacts. My wife was furious with me because I could not bring myself to leave that spot." 
      "How disappointed I was," continued Jerzy, "when I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I was attending an editors seminar at Stanford University—an excellent series of courses—and called Ferlinghetti, out of my love of Ginsberg and the Beats, to ask if could meet him. Finally, he agreed, and I went quite expectantly to the famous City Lights bookstore. 
     "After introducing myself, he growled out, 'What are you doing at a dreadful place like Stanford?' I tried to explain the wonderful things I was learning, but he waved it away. 
     "I switched topics, attempting to ask him about the important events surrounding Ginsberg's Howl, its censorship and the trial. 
     "'That's old business,' he grumped. 'Let's talk about something more contemporary and important!' 
     "'What do you think is more important?' I innocently asked.'
     "'I've just gotten back from San Salvador,' he pronounced, 'where the rebels are successfully overtaking the government....'
     "'I'm sorry,' I responded, 'but I've lived years under Communist repression, and I do not sympathize with this.' 
     "He called me a Rightist. 'Tell me,' I came back, 'has there ever been a Communist or Marxist government that has lived up to its utopian claims? Look at Cuba or North Korea, etc. etc.' 
     "Needless to say, there was no more conversation between us. I feel saddened that one of my former heroes, who fought against government censorship, was now promoting governments that surely would not allow a Ginsberg, a Miłosz, a Brodsky, or any other poet I loved." 
     I have my own problems with Stanford, given what I know of the English Department and its negligent treatment of Gilbert Sorrentino and Marjorie Perloff, and when Jerzy began to praise the Hoover Institute, I reminded him that it had once been the home of Condoleza Rice. But I comprehended Jerzy's outrage and his dismissals of "correct" thinking. His perspective was simply more profound than Ferlinghetti's, an outsider's interpretation of reality. All of which reminded me that when it comes to international issues, an ignorance in world affairs is shared by both the right and the left. In order to understand another culture, one had to begin with humility, accepting one's stupidity along with any supposed insights. 
     Perhaps that's why, despite our vast aesthetic differences, Jerzy and I got on so well. I don't know how he felt, but I found in him a new friend.

Seoul, South Korea, October 7, 2010

November 11, 2015

"The Madness of the Tongue" | essay by Douglas Messerli on a Jerome Rothenberg reading for his anthology Barbaric Vast & Wild

the madness of the tongue
by Douglas Messerli

Jerome Rothenberg and John Bloomberg-Rissman, editors Barbaric Vast & Wild: A Gathering of Outside and Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present (Boston, Massachusetts: Black Widow Press, 2015)

They’re mad, O gods,
                       keep their madness from my tongue!
Siphon a pure spring
                       through my sanctified lips,

From “On Nature: Fragment 4” by Empedocles of Akragas

It certainly does not seem like it was six long years ago that I read with others at the venerable Venice, California poetry center, Beyond Baroque, in celebration of Jerome Rothenberg’s and Jeffrey C. Robinson’s anthology Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic & PostRomantic Poetry. Yet reading from Jerry’s most recent continuation of his presentation of international outsider poets, Barbaric Vast & Wild: A Gathering of Outside and Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present, I realized that in the interim, during which Jerry and his wife Diane have traveled across the continents, that I only seen him perhaps two to three times.

      For all that, except for perhaps a slight diminution in height, Rothenberg seems unchanged, as always a kind of chuckling gnome with lit-up eyes, as if he might secretly be taking pleasure in something he ought not. Reading everything from Mother Goose lyrics and a selection from Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart to a selection from his own “A Further Witness, for Anselm Hollo,” Rothenberg reiterated his incredible ability to bring poetry off the page into the performative space of a room, however large or small. Were the Beyond Baroque audience just a little larger, particularly given the energy of Jerry and, even if am slightly patting myself on the back, the rest of the evening’s performers.


Will Alexander, as always preferring longer, more narrative works, read from Empedocles of Akragas, “On Nature: Fragments 1-10,” Egyptian, Pyramid Texts (“The Dead King Hunts & Eats the Gods”) and Mayan works of the 17th century.
       Somehow he made these ancient works his own, displaying how his own surrealist-inspired cultural responses belong to the bardic tradition upon which Jerry and his co-editor have attempted to focus in this new anthology.

Christine Wertheim briefly described the work Shea Zellweger, consisting mostly of models and charts, before presenting a quite remarkable performative reading of one of the curing poems of the shaman Mexican María Sabina. Her reading seemed to me to be a quite faithful to the kind of trance-like quality of the selection from “The Mushroom Velada.” Rothenberg writes in the commentary notes about this poem:

A major Wise One (=shaman) among the Mazatecs of Oaxaca, Mexico, María Sabina received her
poems/songs through use of the psilocybe mushroom at all-night curing sessions (veladas): a practice going back to pre-Conquest Mexico and witnessed by the Spanish chronicler who wrote: “They pay a sorcerer who eats them [the mushrooms] and tells what they have taught him. He does so by means of a  rhythmic chant in full voice.” The sacred mushrooms are considered the source of Language itself—are, in Henry Munn’s good phrase, “the mushrooms of language.”
   The selection presented here departs from the more extended, even “grandiloquent” language of some of the Chants, relying in part on techniques of fragmentation and the use of non-sematic sound (meaningless syllables, humming, clapping, whistling, etc.) The session itself goes on for a whole night, with many of the images, “self”-namings, etc. established early and repeated throughout in full or fragmented form.

    Rothenberg was slightly aback by my selection of three poets, Ko Un, Larry Eigner, and Robert Musil—the first two of whom I had published—because of their more modernist and less bardic tendencies. But, as I pointed out to the audience, since I myself did not belong to the bardic tradition and had come to poetry quite late, diving only into new end of the pool, so to speak, I had simply been unable to imagine how to read some of the other, often longer, works. I had certainly been attracted to reading composer Harry Partch’s Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California, but that entailed both reading and singing, and I had not had the proper time to devote to learning the music and performing it without instrumentation.

I read two Ko Un poems, “Beggars: Husband and Wife” and “The Widows of Chaetjŏongji,” from his Ten Thousand Lives, published in now 30 volumes, which purport to dedicate poems to everyone the poet has ever met in his life.
     The selections from “Air the Trees” by Larry Eigner allowed me to dramatically convey their spatial relationships and the poet’s overall sense of fragmentation as poetic expression.
      I found the second narrative-like “microscript” by Robert Walser, far more difficult to read, precisely because of its zany, disjointed tale which, I am sure, in the original German (written in the original in a tiny miniaturized Kurrent script, the German form of handwriting preferred until the 20th century) played with various accents mocking the social standing and self-approbations of the Good Mr. and Mrs. Brown in his opposition and harmonization to Mr. and Mrs. Black.
     Beforehand, Jerry, Diane, Christine, Will, Pablo, and I, along with the Rothenberg’s friend, noted sinologist John Solt, enjoyed Thai food (my pumpkin curry was excellent) at a nearby little restaurant, Wirin. I only hope that it doesn’t take another six years before I can again so enjoy the Rothenberg’s company.

Los Angeles, November 10, 2015

August 14, 2015

Aaron Shurin (USA) 1947

Aaron Shurin [USA]

Aaron Shurin was born in New York City in 1947 and spent his teenage years in Los Angeles. In 1965 he attended University of California, Berkeley during its most intense years of counter-culture upheaval and political protest. There he met and began to study with Denise Levertov, who became a mentor and friend, and fostered his interest in poetry. At the same time, he began to form a bond with the city of San Francisco, where he participated in 1967’s “Summer of Love,” and entered the city’s already-active gay life, with its dialectic of sexual exploration and political struggle. The two strands of poetic practice and gay identity would form a lifelong braid in Shurin’s work.

After a few years on the East Coast (where he helped found the writing group and literary press The Good Gay Poets) Shurin returned to San Francisco in 1974. That city continued to be his proving ground for investigations of poetic process, gender theory, and gay identity. (His first book, The Night Sun, was published in 1976 by the radical journal and press, Gay Sunshine.) Soon after his return, he met the Poet Robert Duncan in a chance encounter on a Market Street trolley. Duncan became a close friend and major influence, and when, in 1980, Duncan became pat of the faculty of the Poetics Program at New College of California, Shurin enrolled. He studied there with Duncan and Diane di Prima, also already a friend and mentor, and in 1982 became the first graduate of the program. He began his career as a teacher soon after, and for thirty years taught writing at colleges and universities across the City: at New College, City College, San Francisco State, and the University of San Francisco, where for a dozen years he directed the MFA Writing program.
     His poetry began to find new shape in the Bay Area’s radical poetry community of the 1980s, in collaboration and contention with Language poetry, New Narrative Writing, and hermetic and visionary traditions re-kindled at New College. Questions of gender, subjectivity, and identity were given formal expression, and in talks and essays Shurin began to formulate a “post-modern Romanticism” that combined the transcendent sensuality of lyric poetry and the social registrations of narrative prose. Various collage methodologies re-cast his poetry into lush mosaics, fractured and sustained by dashes, ellipses, and wandering pronouns, housed for more than twenty years in the shape of prose poems. At the same time, living in the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, Shurin began to write personal essays, once again uniting poetic texture and the structures of prose in an attempt to register the factual and emotional complexities of the epidemic. Published as Unbound: A Book of AIDS (Sun and Moon Press), the essays marked the beginning of Shurin’s interest in prose writing, and led to the narrative and autobiographical meditations of King of Shadows (City Lights). Shurin also published a short work on narrative theory, Narrativity in 1990 (Sun and Moon Press). More recently he has published a book of literary essays and talks, The Skin of Meaning: Collected Literary Essays and Talks (University of Michigan Press, 2016).
      Shurin’s honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, the Gerbode Poetry Prize, the Bay Area Art Award in Literature, a San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Artist’s Grant, and two California Arts Council Literary Fellowships. He lives in San Francisco, where he is Professor Emeritus in the MFA Writing program at the University of San Francisco.


Woman on Fire (San Francisco: Rose Deeprose Press, 1975); The Night Sun (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press,1976); Toot Suite (San Francisco: Rose Deeprose Press, 1978); Giving Up the Ghost (San Francisco: Rose Deeprose Press, 1980); The Graces (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1983); Elsewhere (San Francisco: Acts Books, 1988); A’s Dream (Oakland, California: O Books, 1989); Into Distances (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1993); Codex (Buffalo: Meow Press, 1997); The Paradise of Forms: Selected Poems (Jersey City, New Jersey: Talisman House, 1999); A Door (Jersey City, New Jersey: Talisman House, 2000); Involuntary Lyrics (Richmond, California: Omnidawn, 2005); Threshold (with Helen Douglas) (Scotland: Wee Productions, 2007); Citizen (San Francisco: City Lights, 2012); The Blue Absolute (Brooklyn: Nightboat Books, 2020).

To read "Then" by Shurin, go here:

For a selection of two other poems, click at the sites listed below:

August 9, 2015

"Answering the Sphinx" | essay by Douglas Messerli on Antin's I Never Knew What Time It Was

by Douglas Messerli

David Antin, I Never Knew What Time It Was (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
I told my friend David Antin the other day that I had a bone of contention with his new book, i never knew what time it was. For the several days I was reading it, whenever I went into the room where I had last left his book and glimpsed the cover, I immediately began singing the Rodgers and Hart song. That song began to haunt me, in fact. I couldn’t remember the actual lyrics, so I would begin with “I never knew what time it was / Till there was you…” and make up the rest… “What a strange time it was / so long without you,” each time creating new lyrics. For those who have a memory for lyrics, of course, the song actually begins with the phrase “I didn’t know what time it was / Till I met you.” and continues, “Oh, what a lovely time it was, / How sublime it was too!” So both David (perhaps intentionally) and I had gotten the lyrics wrong. How appropriate for a book that is very much about memory, about what one thinks one remembers in relationship to whatever the actual “reality” may be.

Reading David’s book, moreover, called up my own memories of David and his readings. I witnessed two of these pieces in their oral performances: “california — the nervous camel” at one of Paul Holdengräber’s cultural forums at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — where I also served as unofficial photographer of the event — and “time on my hands,” performed at CalArts.

     Accordingly, I spent some time, after reading these works, attempting to remember them in their oral manifestations — which seemed to me quite different from the written documents. This is inevitable, I suspect, when attempting to remember what was said during a hour-long event. In short, I experienced a sort of fracture between event and document, a sort “crack in time,” if you will, which my memory had to bridge. I have known David and his wife Eleanor now for about 25 years, moreover, and during that long period my personal memories of these and numerous other performances I’ve witnessed have become intertwined with their personal lives and the several events I shared with them.

For example, after reading “california — the nervous camel”— the title of which arose, apparently, from the travels of a San Diego couple to Egypt, where the couple’s camera had captured the fall of a woman from a camel who’d been given contrary orders (“get up,” “go down”) by the camel driver — I could not quite comprehend this image within the context of what David was saying about the region. It was a wonderful image and sounded perfect as a metaphor for the desert lands of Southern California, but I grew uncertain whether California was like the camel because of the rolling earthquake-like temblors, the indecisiveness of its citizens or leaders, the quick rise and fall of its cultural interests and/or economy, or the constant shifts in its values. The metaphor presented a series of possibilities, all of which were of interest. Just as I had reinvented the lyrics of the standard ballad, I made a new meaning of David’s image. I chose a much more personal meaning for the metaphor, picturing the author himself as the “the nervous camel”— albeit with one hump, that marvelously domed head that anyone who’s seen him cannot forget.

     When I first visited California, I stayed with the Antins, who lived, as they do today, near San Diego. I remember them picking me up at the train station and the three of us beginning a series of conversations that would continue seemingly nonstop during the two days of my visit. As he drove up the sandy paths to their then somewhat isolated home, David, speaking, seldom seemed to attend to the road, which terrified me! Between the continued movement of his hands and the almost complete inattention of his eyes upon the road, I was amazed we reached their house safely.

     Later he took me to the beach — as he reminds me it must have been the more isolated Solana Beach rather than the popular La Jolla beach — where I recall, with fondness, our remarkable discussion as we walked along the Pacific (in what must be one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world), the bald pate of his head glistening in the afternoon sun. We returned to the house and friends stopped by, friends who were introduced not just by name or vocation, but through extensive descriptions of their intellectual achievements and their current subjects of research. Such intense conversation is highly exciting, but also exhausting, and I was almost relieved to hit the bed. From my room across the way from their bedroom, however, I could hear David and Eleanor continuing the day’s discussions long into the night. I realized that, in a sense, language never quite stopped in the Antin’s house. Just as Eudora Welty had described the constant rhythm of the cotton gins as defining the life of the Fairchilds in Delta Wedding, so did the sound of voices define the Antins. It is easy for me, accordingly, to project the image of David as the nervous, one-humped camel of California, attempting to display the beauty of the landscape while discussing the narrative theory of my PhD dissertation which I was currently writing as we shuffled across the sand in a constant state of indecision between the enjoyment of space (sitting down to rest) and intellectual pleasure (moving forward with our ideas).

     One might note that David was born into just such a world. As he describes his early life in his recent book-length conversation with Charles Bernstein: “My earliest family memories were living with my grandmother and my aunts — all beautiful women — living in a great old house in Boro Park. …People kept coming from all over the world to visit, to play cards or chess and to tell stories and argue in a handful of European languages about people and facts and politics. …And my grandmother presided over the entire household in a droll, mischievous manner. This is the household I most remember. It was noisy, cheerful and gay, and a world away from the austere prison of living with my mother, which happened only once in a while.”

     It is no wonder that Antin has spent a lifetime now “talking,” talking in public about the past and family, the present and ideas, philosophy and reminiscences. Although Antin has long been determined to separate his “talking” from fiction or story, and has doggedly argued that his work, with its intense use of poetic devices, is poetry, one must admit—as David does finally in this new volume — that his is a life of storytelling as intense—if not as encyclopedic — as Scheherazade. Indeed, it is the life-saving necessity of Scheherazade’s Thousand and One Nights, a necessity growing out of desire — in her case the desire to survive — that most distinguishes Antin’s storytelling from other, more normative, patterns.

     These, in fact, are the very subjects of this new book: How does one remember? How does one understand life within the constant flux of time? How does one frame meaning when it constantly shifts? Or, to put it in the context of “the nervous camel,” how does one live in a place that is simultaneously rising and falling, beginning always anew by destroying the old? Naturally, one cannot help tumbling from time to time.

     In exploring these ideas, however, Antin does not simply weave fictions — at least the kind of fiction most people understand by the word. For Antin’s talking is as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it presents.

     The long California piece, for example, is a strange kind of love story. Well — it might be seen as a love story, although we have no evidence, no plot details that allow us any certainty. “california — the nervous camel” is about many things, but at its heart is a narrative about two couples, friends of the Antins, who seemingly do everything — except travel on vacation — together: Jack and Melissa, Richard and Alexandra. When Jack is killed in a car accident, Richard’s behavior radically changes:

Richard never seemed to recover from jacks untimely accident

his life changed completely after that he moved out of his house

and into the servants quarters behind it he stopped going to concerts

and openings where alexandra appeared alone he started spending

more time at the clinic in mexico and even that wasnt enough for

a while he literally disappeared …but when he came back to

san diego he gave up his practice left the house to Alexandra and

took up an entirely new career….

In Antin’s “story,” in which the characters are not overtly psychological, the reader/listener has no way of knowing what Richard is really feeling. Perhaps the death simply reminded him, as many men are reminded at his age, of his own mortality; perhaps he merely suffered a kind of mid-life crisis. Yet we feel, given the extensiveness of his withdrawal from his previous life, that the two men may have had a deeper relationship than the narrative itself presents, that perhaps their friendship might have been a gay one.
     As with living beings, however, there is no discernable “plot,” we have no clear motivating action, just the events, the narrative of his acts. Antin has presented us with a story that, just as in my confusion of the work of art and the person, creates a sort of “crack in time” which the individual perceiver must fill with a significance of his own imagination. For Richard the face of the “nervous” camel, as it settled back into its relaxed state, appeared as a sphinx, an inscrutable beast demanding an answer to its impossible riddle, which is perhaps what Antin really means by his comparison of California to the camel. Clearly it is an image that might also help to describe Antin’s art. For what the cracks or hollow spaces of Antin’s “stories” force the reader to encounter is precisely that: the riddles of life.

     In the title piece, Antin’s father-in-law undergoes a stroke and is able to speak only one word that sounds as if it might be from his native language, Hungarian: zaha. “zaha zaha he said zaha shaking his head and repeating it over and over zaha zaha to anything we had to say.” The Hungarian dictionary has no word remotely like it, and David is puzzled by the repeated word: is it a command? a desire? a person? something or someone he loved?

     A Hungarian friend, a violinist, suggests it’s an inverted word, haza, which means homeland. But even this “answer,” if it is one, explains little. What does a dying man who has spent most of his life as a displaced Hungarian painter and poet in La Jolla mean by repeating “homeland?” As Antin notes:

…he was thinking of his homeland and of course Budapest
is no longer his budapest and keckemet is no longer the little
town where his father painted the interiors of churches but
he was looking for this one place that he was sure never ever
to find again

The reader/listener can only imagine, can only fill in this “crack in time” with his own imaginative responses.

     Something similar to the riddles at the heart of David’s “stories” occurs also on their larger structural level. In the more constrained form of commercial fiction it is plot that carries forward the events. In other words, it is a pattern of narrative continuity that allows the specific events of a tale to occur at regular intervals to this: Unhappy with her life, Jane takes a vacation to a small village to visit her friend Sally. There she meets an old friend Richard, a handsome man, who is still in love with her. Jane refuses the old friend’s advances, but as she finds herself growing fond of him once again, she discovers that Sally, who has always hated Jane’s husband, has secretly invited Richard to the town. At first she feels betrayed, but gradually comes to understand just how mistaken she has been in marrying her husband, a man whose affections she accepted just to goad her mother and father. Suddenly, comprehending that her life has been lived in emptiness, she seeks out her old friend’s love. But having been spurned twice, he has left the little country village. She follows him to the mountains, but he has moved on, and she is forced to return to her husband and family with the realization that true love will never be possible again. (If you don’t like my hastily constructed plot, substitute the plot of almost any Henry James novel).

     What Jane does in the little tourist town, the beautiful coat she wears as she again encounters Richard, what the town looks like, what she says to her acquaintances, the memories that overcome Jane in the little village — these are pearls on the string of the previous paragraph’s somewhat banal story-line, that, apparently, retain the attention of certain kinds of passive readers.

     In Antin’s writing the strings have all been cut; his “tales” have no true beginning, no middle, no necessary end. Rather, they are structured by a sense of rhythm, most often linked by philosophical meditations or ideas, closing only when a literary narrative presents a parallel image of the ideas about which he has been talking.

     For example, in “the noise of time” Antin begins with a discussion of an essay he’d read in The Nation on Robert Morris, an essay that disappoints the author and happens to mention the Hegelian aphorism that “an artwork is the embodiment of some truth.” Antin finds it difficult to perceive something as tangible as a piece of art or an artwork as a receptacle for abstract concepts, propositions or ideas. Perhaps the closest an art work can come to the embodiment of an idea, he suggests, is in the form of a machine, as an example of which he drolly proposes a mousetrap, a killing machine set up to act in a certain way when the mouse licks the peanut-butter. But what if the mouse prefers jelly, or the spring on the trap was not properly wound, or a whole myriad of other events intervene? Will the machine-of-art still hold its truths? Perhaps the “truths” only work under certain conditions.

     Abandoning this possibility, Antin humorously explores another, slightly violent image: perhaps making art is more like bowling. The ideas are the pins toward which one propels the work of art, the ball of art hitting some of them, leaning against others. But the author admits he is a terrible bowler and most of his balls reach only the gutter. How does one then get at ideas through art? How does something mean?

     Ultimately Antin argues that, for him, a work of art is something in which ideas go running in all directions, sometimes to be lost, sometimes accidentally crossing paths with others. He presents two narratives to prove his point about how ideas are lost or are transformed into other things. Having just purchased a copy of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s essays, The Noise of Time, he is struck with the translator’s use of the word “noise” in the title, since in Russian shum is used to evoke the sound of repetitive or abrasive events, “the rustle of leaves,” “the roar of the sea,” “the pounding of the surf,” “the clamor of a crowd,” etc. Translating Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Vladimir Nabokov renders the word as “hubbub.” Why has this translator, Clarence Brown, translated the word as “noise?” Perhaps, argues Antin, Brown was influenced by the period in which he was translating, when “noise” came to be understood as entropy, “the growing disorder that affects all ordered systems over time the frictional forces that reduce all directed energies to forms of disorder sooner or later as we go from more orderly universes to more disorderly universes given enough time.” I am personally somewhat skeptical about this explanation for the translator’s choice, but certainly anyone aware of the association of the word “noise” with “entropy,” would find the title much richer, as Antin argues, than Mandelstam might ever have imagined in his use of shum. And that is Antin’s point. Time and its myriad changes alter the way in which we interpret things, even how we interpret. 

     A more convincing example is a discussion he has with the critic Leo Steinberg about a passage of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Steinberg uses the passage as a proof of Shakespeare’s genius: “His head sat so tickle on his shoulders that a milkmaid might sigh it off an she had been in love.” For Steinberg, the choice of the word “tickle” so close to a dark moment when the hero is in danger of losing his life, is proof of the bard’s monumentality. Antin, however, is suspicious. Perhaps the word “tickle” meant something other in Shakespeare’s day than the light rubbing under the arms, something we have forgotten. Looking it up later in the OED, Antin finds that indeed it had been used in a fifteenth century text to describe rocks “that stood tickle in a stream,” rendering passage perilous. His inclination is to write Steinberg, telling him of the discovery, that the older meaning has simply been lost in “the noise of time.” But he resists doing so, knowing that he would simply take away Steinberg’s great delight in the “strange” usage of the word. In short, the “truth” of the meaning is of less interest than the reinterpretation of it

     This “story’s” final narrative event concerns the same father-in-law he describes in his title piece. Antin’s then teenage son Blaise and the poet from Hungary enjoyed one another’s company, played tennis together, discussed literature and even, apparently, the older man’s “Schnitzlerian” love life in the old days of Budapest and Vienna, which must have reflected his present sexual loneliness, with which Blaise could probably sympathize, coming as he was into his full adolescence. But Blaise was about to go away to college, and desiring to give his grandfather a special gift, he and a friend came up with the idea of setting him up with a hooker, which they planned to do with what they perceived to be the quite generous sum of $150. All the hooker had to do is to pretend to accidentally encounter the gentleman and seduce him. “you don’t have to say a lot,” the boys explained, he may just show you his paintings and “recite some poetry to you.” They tried several street girls but found no hooker willing to take on the job, not if they had to listen to poetry!

     What Antin reveals in this wonderful narrative is the absolute worthlessness of poetry and art as a container for good ideas. The gap between generations has been bridged by his son’s and his father-in-law’s friendship, but what I have called “the cut in time” has irreparably severed the art from its would-be perceivers, for the art — and whatever truths it may bear — has no currency in the world of these women of the street.

     In this “talk,” as in almost all of Antin’s “stories,” there is no true plot, but a series of events or narrative incidents that can only be comprehended — if they can truly be comprehended — through the reader’s/listener’s imagination, his desire to make meaning and determination to answer the sphinx.
     Isn’t that, of course, what all great art, all great poetry and fiction depends upon — the willingness of the author to invite the reader into the text and the reader’s reciprocation? After all, Scheherazade would not have been able to relate her remarkable stories if the Caliph had refused to listen.

Los Angeles, July 25, 2005

Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, Vol. 3, no. 2 (April 2006)

and from My Year 2005: Terrifying Times (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006).


July 30, 2015

Endre Ady (Hungary) 1877-1919

Endre Ady [Hungary]

Endre Ady was born on November 22, 1877 in Érmindszent, part of the Austria-Hungary empire, and, now, the village of Szatmár Satu Mare County in Romania. His family was an impoverished Calvinist family of formerly noble position.
     Ady attended the Calvinist College in Zalău between 1892-1896, publishing his first poem, in the city newspaper, during his last year of college. He continued his studies, majoring in law, at the Reformed College in Debrecen, becoming a journalist upon the completion of his education.
   His first book-length publication was Versek (Poems), published in 1899. Bored by living in Debrecen, represented later as a symbol of provincial backwardness, Ady moved to Nagyváard (today Oradea, Romania). There is continued as a journalist, but also found a community of like-minded thinkers, publishing another collection of poetry in 1903. In August of that year he met Adél Brüll, a wealthy married woman living in Paris but, when she met Ady, was visiting her home town. She quickly became his muse, whom he called Léda, and he followed her back to Paris, revisiting that city 7 times between 1904 and 1911.
    There he discovered the work of Baudelaire and Verlaine, poets who highly influenced his own writing. Returning from his first visit to Paris, where he stayed for over a year, Ady moved to Buadpest, where he began writing for the newspaper Budapest Napló (Budapest Journal), where he published 500 articles and numerous poems.
    Early in the century Ady became aligned with the radical group Huszadik Száad (Twentieth Century), and published his third book of poetry, Új versek (New Poems), which became a landmark work, often describes as marking the birth of modern Hungarian poetry. The following collection, Vér és arany (Blood and Gold) but brought him critical acclaim and financial success.
     In 1906 Ady returned to Paris, leaving his position at the Budapest Napl, but returned again to Hungary. Using the former EMKE café as a base, Ady founded a literary group he titled “A Holnap” (Tomorrow). The circle published not only Ady’s work but other major Hungarian poets, including Mihály Babits, Gyula Juhász, and Béla Balázs. Many attacked the new anthology for containing erotic poems and for work that represented what some Hungarians felts was unpatriotic work. 
    Although Ady championed these writers, he disliked his name being automatically linked with other newcomers. Satirizing these “upstarts” who jumped upon his bandwagon, Ady wrote a short tale, “The duk-duk affair.”

Throughout these years Ady edited the important Hungarian journal, Nyugat (West), pushing for literary and political change, but also wary of some of what he saw as Western faults.
     Having contacted syphilis, he spent much of 1909 in sanitariums. Political chaos was also on the horizon, and he saw the possibility of a revolution. His continuing affair with Léda now became a burdensome commitment, and in 1912 he broke up with her.
     In 1914 he met a 20-year-old woman, Berta Boncza, with he had been corresponding since 1911. The couple married in 1915, and he wrote many poems to her in which he called her Czinszka. 
     With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, Ady saw that a world war was fast approaching. Although his friends seemed enthusiastic about the impending battles, he worried deeply for his country’s future, expressing many of fears in his last poem, “Üdvözlet a győzőnek” (“Greetings to the victorious”) 
     Syphilis had so weakened his aorta that he was now near death. The Vörösmarty Academic, an organization of modern writers, elected him their president, but he was unable to deliver his opening speech. He died in Budapest on January 27, 1919 at the age of 41.


Versek (1899); Még egyszer (1903); Új versek (1906); Vér és arany (1907); Az Illés szekerén (1909); Szeretném, ha szeretnének (1910); A Minden-Titkok versei (1911); A menekülő Élet (1912); Margita élni akar (1912); A magunk szerelme (1913); Ki látott engem? (Budapes: Nyugat Irodalmi és Nyomdai Részvénytársaság, 1914; Budapest: Athenaeum, 1922); A halottak élén (1918); Az utolsó hajók (1923)


Poems, René Bonnerjea, trans. (Budapest: Dr. Vajna and Bokor, 1941); Selected Poems Eugene Bard, trans. (Munich: Hieronymus, 1987); Poems of Endre Ady, trans. by Anton N. Nyerges (Buffalo: University Press of America/The State University at Buffalo Program in Soviet and Eastern European Studies, 1969).


An angry angel beat the drum on high
Sounding the alarm on this sad Earth,
At least a hundred youths went mad
At least a hundred stars fell
At least a hundred veils were rent:
It was a strange,
Strange summer night.

Our old beehive burst into flame,
Our best colt broke his leg,
I dreamed the dead came back to life,
Our good dog, Brutus, went astray
And our servant, Mary the mute,
Burst into loud song
On that strange,
Strange summer night.

The worthless swaggered like heroes
And true men lay low
And finicky robbers went out to rob:
On that strange,
Strange summer night.

We knew that men were feeble
And bankrupt in love:
Even so, it was weird
The living and the dead on the turning wheel.
The Moon was never more mocking:
Never were men punier,
Than on that night:
That strange,
Strange summer night.

Dread bent over souls
with gleeful spite,
The hidden fate of his forebears
In every man dwelt deep,
Drunken Thought, Man’s once proud lad,
Heading to that grim and bloody wedding feast,
Was now lame and naught:
On that strange,
Strange summer night

I believed at that time, I thought
Some neglected God
Would come to life
And deliver me to death
And now, I live here,
Transfigured by that night
Waiting for God. I remember
That world-destroying,
Dreadful night:
That strange,
Strange summer night.

--Translated from the Hungarian by Elizabeth Csicsery-Rónay

©2014, 2015  by Elizabeth Csicsery-Rónay