Wednesday, September 17, 2008

the Nobel Prize in Literature

le solitaire Originally uploaded by copyright depuis 1965

it has been said that poetry will never die, because there will always be found people who can find no other way to translate the world than through its lens, but that it will never grow- because non-practitioners will never really embrace it. It has been said that poetry is an insider-art... unlike film or music, which still function largely as spectator-amusements rather than art. Even fiction, which exists today largely as entertainment, and thus a commodity rather than a transcendental work of illumination.

in the public-library, i asked a man with a name-tag "do you have a section for poetry?" and he said: "yes. yes... i think we do. i mean, we must? Just wait (turns and starts walking, me following)... now (looking around)... let me (doubles-back, then seeming certain, steps towards a wall)... over here we have some stuff, it's like... plays and stuff about plays... what's that... called?...
"drama" i offer.
"yes!, drama and poetry-stuff and also... like... other stuff... like... uhh..."
"yes. that's it. right. here it is."
Sure enough, nestled between cooking and self-help, were a few shelves, some 200 books of other stuff. Stuff that clearly wasn't paperback: thriller, horror, romance, sci-fi, or Orpah's bookclub shelf, or cooking, or, even, self-help. And so, I began at the first shelf of the Literature section, which was at my feet, and as i approach these things with too much reverence and too much enthusiasm, i sat on the floor to see what we had. Looking through the volumes i... came... it... yes, i wasn't certain of the name, had it... was... it... she i mean, was she


Something i like to do every so often, since my memory is limited, is read about the Nobel Prize in Literature. There is something thrilling about seeing a list of years, starting at 1901, and a name besides each of them. Often I am surprised by the names I find... other times, by the omissions (Vladimir Nabokov for example, is not a winner). I like most to read the citation, and to wonder if (and this is nothing more than a school-girl's fantasy) one day such a thing could be said about me in any of my endeavors. When I am feeling less egocentric, I ponder the merits of the writer, and think how concisely they have managed to condense a life's work...
1969, Samuel Beckett, Ireland: for his writing, which - in new forms for the novel and drama - in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation. (spot-on)
1948, T.S. Eliot, US/UK: for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry (not a flowery citation, but Eliot is not a flowery writer)


and then I remember why the name is familiar: Wisława Szymborska.

In 1996 a shy, modest woman with 9 published books of poetry to her name was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. There was some commotion over the decision, I actually remember being 13 and coming home from school and watching a brief-news report on the matter, I was still in my school-uniform and sitting on the floor with my dinner in my lap. Salman Rushdie, Arthur Miller, any number of better-known writers had been overlooked, and this quiet woman who lived in Krakow, without ever having written a novel, a play, a book of essays... nothing but these 9 books poems had been awarded this prize. The reaction from the English-speaking-world (which seems to dominate such discussions) was: who?

1996, Wisława Szymborska, Poland: for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.


I suppose even people who don't know me, who perhaps have only a casual association with my writing, will soon find that I must perhaps love poetry. If love isn't obvious, then perhaps: be preoccupied with it... or at very least: attempt it rather frequently. The truth is, dear Readers, I do love poetry, but am rarely thrilled by it. It rarely changes my life. It is a thing like any other, I attended many concerts (when life was more stable), and only infrequently was lifted out of my skin. But when it does happen... you... (__). And it makes reading another 500 poems (or attending another 40 concerts) till you find it again, worth it. If we concern ourselves with poets and not poems, then there are very few incidents:

Flinders University has a lake, and the buildings are all positioned around this lake, like a horse-shoe. At the joining point of the two arms are the main administrative buildings, common areas, cafeteria, library and so on. Up one arm are the Social Sciences, moving from arts/drama (the other stuff) to Economics/Commerce/Law, ending at Psychology and Behavioral Sciences. The other arm, of which midway along, by the lake I was sitting, is: Geology, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics and Engineering together. I was sitting under a tree, and not entirely comfortable, on account of having trespassed into the lives of a colony of ants, who now trespassed up my legs, the contour of the trunk of this tree, and the curves of its roots provided no suitable sitting posture, and finally, as it was sunset, the grass had absorbed a great deal of moisture and was wetting my pants. I was cold. It was a beautiful scene, the red sun leaning over to kiss a green hillside, and I amongst it... cold, being bitten, unable to position myself comfortably... but entirely absorbed in Prufrock and Other Observations.

(see point 4)

Having been walking, and finding Amsterdam by day to be much brighter, more colorful, and sanguine than I had expected, I welcomed a diversion down a shadier looking alley. Sadly, there was no mischief to be found here either. An H&M store (not having those in Israel, I welcomed the find), a jeweler, food food food... a bookstore. Having been engrossed in Flaubert (L'Éducation sentimentale) and consequently, reading too fast, I wanted to find something else, so that I'd have some Flaubert left to read for when I arrived in Paris. (and a few mornings later, I sat on the Champs Elysee, in a coffee shop which boasted opening its doors for the first time at a date in the early eighteen-hundreds. I had a croissant (which are a thing i love very very much about this life) and a hot-chocolate (which are another thing i love very much about this life) and read the chapters on the French Revolution... and Flaubert describes walking down this very street, where i am sitting, and the events that transpired then, moved me now). And so I entered the bookshop. At first, it was a picture book, for adults, about a 10 year old who smokes and curses in French, that took my fancy. I giggled as i read it, and hoped secretly that my children would be hellish little brats that would speak like Woody Allen and hate me (and everything) with profound nihilism and treat everything with unwavering contempt. My giggle aside (and the book being too expensive) I walked towards a rotating stand of Penguin Classics. Neruda, SELECTED POEMS: A BILINGUAL EDITION (which Martha would later curse me for when I'd ask her repeatedly to check various translational points and tell me what the phrases really meant in Spanish).

Several hours later, on a bus headed towards Paris, crawling through wet hills, living dreams, sitting by a massive window splashed with rain so I thought perhaps I was staring at an aquarium... this young man from Chile...
1971, Pablo Neruda, Chile: for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent's destiny and dreams
and really, the only words that I believe can describe Neruda's own are: elemental force

Having fumbled through most of 2007 in one mode of anxiety, desperation, frustration, love-sickness or another related misery, I then found myself fumbling across the continents from October through New Year's (the worst day of them all) and finally through my birthday (where Monz and JBird with a steak, fine company, and first-rate french fries did what they could to assuage my mood). Until at last, by February, with acknowledgment to Martha's (and Courtney's) hospitality, generosity, and air-mattress, managed to pull me violently off the doomsday carousel and land me safely into Seattle's gray, Autumnal, gentle hands. For six-weeks I filled my days with: clam-chowder, daily walks that lasted hours, and a little crumpet-shop across the street from a massive strip club, where they'd serve me a refillable cup of gourmet tea for $1.37, where I'd sit for hours, reading- both my book, and the LCD screen of the strip club.

On the walk home, there were several bookstores to stop by. As Ulysses seemed to grow longer with every chapter I'd finish, heavier with every stroll I'd cling it to my chest, and more laborious with every reference to Socratididion's Epipsychidion, I was not against the idea of some friendly purchases. The last store along the way had a decent poetry section, and step ladders that you could sit on while you read, and a patient salesman who read comics and didn't care in the least about me. Also, it was overrun with cats, who have a most unique quality of sensing that I love them. They twirl around my legs and rub against my shoe and meow at me... and of course, with my allergies... It is a temptation worse than lust (which is not a temptation since i refuse to resist). So. Coughing, sneezing, eyes watering so I can barely see, I manage to make out: David Malouf, Selected Poems 1959-1989. What? What on earth is this doing here? I was familiar with him because I had sat on my mother's leopard skin porno couch (which was opposite my piano- which I'd stare at frequently because the color black of pianos is one of my very very most favorite things in life) and read Neighbors in a Thicket (which is point 2, and an entirely different story... but since it related to the same time/circumstances as point 1, i chose not to tell it). What? What on earth is this doing here? A well-known author in the Antipodes, and once short-listed for the Booker (and Remembering Babylon really is worth a read), but sadly still largely unknown internationally. Heck, I only knew the man because of my 12th grade English teacher's insistence that I continue to read Fly Away Peter because "after chapter 9 when all the war-stuff starts you'll really love it. It's a nightmare"
"i like nightmares."
"i know. so keep reading"
"i hate this nature stuff"
"re-read it in 10 years, I promise you you'll love the nature stuff then too"
"no way dude, i'm totally into cities and urban dehumanization and mechanistic pessimism"
"ha. Ok, so stop with the Schopenhauer for an afternoon and read till chapter 9 ok? After that you'll totally dig this book, I promise."
"i'll tell you what, if you do, then I'll let you in on a secret that will change your life."
"really?, what's the secret?"
"[smiles] his name's Prufrock, but that's all I'm going to tell you about him for now"
"[intrigued] Pru-what?"
"read 9 chapters, then come see me"
"you're a tease you know that?"
"9 chapters Nok-tar! (a sort of phonetic simplification of my last name)"
Not thinking too much about this slim volume of Selected Poems 1959-1989 I payed the man reading a comic $6.00, and he said "dude, you look sick, what's wrong with you?"
"i'm allergic to cats"
"ahh, duudde, that sucks."
"yeah, all good" (give me my change so i can leave)
"boss says we have to keep them"
"a ha"

Staring out of Martha's living room window, an hour's walk, a four minute shower, and a cup of tea (later)...

The shock will come
later, when looking
back we see how struck

we were that things should be
so changed
and still
themselves, when we are not.


I took too many books home from the library. There is something about libraries (which is a thing I love too much about this world), even when I was a child, my father would take me to the library, and after asking several times "are you sure everything's freeeee daddy?", on account of us being poor, I'd run rampaging through the library picking up all sorts of very grown-up books I wouldn't get around to reading for years and years. In the end, dad would say: so what have you got? And I'd take his hand and walk him to the back of the library, where on one of the tables I'd piled into 4 groups roughly 70 books. He'd laugh and say, "10 Q. Pick 10", of which half would inevitably be about dinosaurs, and half Shel Silverstein.

And this day is no different. ___the Glass Menagerie. ___the Best American Poetry 1996. ___JAMES JOYCE: The Poems in Verse and Prose. ___A Short History of Greek Literature. ___Samuel Beckett: The Complete Dramatic Works. ___A Study Guide to the Glass Menagerie. ___My Shining Archipelago (the winner of the 1996 Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition), and, at the bottom of my plastic bag, a thin book titled: Monologue of a Dog, by a lady no one had heard of 12 years ago, who was still good enough to win a Nobel Prize.


the days when special things happen never start out special. Have you noticed? Birthdays, deadlines, days you have EXPECT DISASTER written into your diary pass us by, innocuous. Certain Wednesdays you wake up, feeling worse than when you let yourself fall asleep at 2:53am, at 11:34am, disappointed that the earth didn't just forget about you- let you disappear throughout the twilight hours, and defaulted on you by sunrise. And out of sheer boredom, lassitude, and frustration, you take a green-grocery-bag (because you care about the environment) and throw in a few books. Catch the bus. Order a cup of tea and a muffin (which are one of the things you most love about life) and open the brown book to see what it's all about.


They jumped from the burning floors-
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There's enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They're still within the air's reach,
within the compass of places
they have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them-
describe this flight
and not add a last line.


1 comment:

alexandra said...

whenever i read your writings i am prompted to say something. but i never know what to say. ive always found it difficult to put feelings into words. this blog post makes it no easier.
i guess what would be easiest, and what would comprise all the untranslatable feelings i have is:

i love this.