A poem of mine, “Sallies,” is in the 9 February 2023 issue of the New York Review of Books. It’s the first one by me ever published somewhere other than on this blog, I’m pretty sure.
On Being Insulted by Literature
[An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]
Should you keep reading a book if it insults the kind of person you are? In the old days the answer was: if it’s good, yes, you’re supposed to. Good as in of high literary quality. Nowadays, though, you’re free not to. You’ll still be considered a serious reader even if you put it down. It’s up to you.
A couple of months ago, I started to read Frederick Seidel’s Selected Poems, having liked poems of his that I had run into in magazines over the years, and having long heard him highly praised by friends. I thought I should see what the fuss was about. The persona of every Seidel poem was born into money, is passionate about riding Italian motorcycles, and is a libertine. Knowing this much about him had long put me off. I suspected he was going to be like James Merrill but straight and dickish—a suspicion that wasn’t entirely wrong. He writes lines like “I live a life of laziness and luxury,” and “I want to date-rape life.” A kind of provocativeness that trusts the reader to be in on the joke is part of his act. He’s sort of goofy, though, too, and his style is part Edward Lear (surrealist and singsongy), part Robert Lowell (crystallized and confessional), two poets I’m very fond of. Yes, Seidel brags about his Ducatis, his Huntsman suits, and his women, but he doesn’t come off as trying to make the reader envious. (Or maybe he is trying to make the reader envious and it doesn’t work on me because I don’t happen to covet any of those things? I’m going to try to stay open here to the possibility that my aesthetic reaction is a merely personal one, for reasons that will hopefully become clear.) He seems, rather, to be trying to synthesize and then bottle a sort of perfume, an attar of his pleasures, which is the kind of condensation of lived experience into language that I think of lyric poems as being for. Also, there’s something a little manic and fatal about his effort. There’s an undertone of desperation, a suggestion that his go-for-brokeness is somehow on account of having no choice, of having access to no other, more ordinary means of consolation. (And his poem, “The Blue-Eyed Doe,” about his mother’s lobotomy, is probably where one might start looking for the source of that desperation.)
In short, it turns out I quite like Seidel’s poems. But only a few pages into his Selected, reading a long poem titled “Sunrise,” I was stopped cold by these lines:
A gay couple drags a shivering fist-sized
Dog down Broadway, their parachute brake. “Why
Robert Frost?” the wife one pleads, nearly
In tears; the other sniffs, “Because he
Believed in Nature and I believe in Nature.”
The wife one. Okay. Well, what do I do with that?
It’s worth noting, before going any further, that a Black reader of Seidel will meet a similar challenge. Seidel is famous for having written bluntly, in poems such as “Bologna” and “Boys,” of the way his childhood self perceived the Black men who worked for his family. Indeed, in “Boys,” Seidel doubles down on the problem, and his narrator recalls one of those Black men as “probably a homo,” apostrophizing him thus: “Ronny Banks, faggot prince, where are you now?” There’s arguably a defense in the retrospective aspect of the poems about Black men: the poems are trying to recapture a perception that the poet had as a child, not a perception he necessarily still has today. Because the gay couple and their toy dog are perceived in the present tense, however, no such out is available.
Reader, I had feelings! My first, once I understood what Seidel meant by “the wife one,” was not very sophisticated: What a dick. On second thought, though, I remembered nights I had spent in gay bars in Manhattan, in my twenties, watching endlessly repeated video clips of two straight Black comedians, Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier, doing impressions of sissy film critics. I had had mixed feelings about the skits even at the time, but they were sometimes very funny, and they seemed to be taken to heart by almost everyone around me in the bars, perhaps because we gays back then felt a kind of hunger for representation in the mainstream, even for mocking representation. Maybe, in fact, a mocking representation was something we were especially hungry for, because mockery shone its spotlight on the elements of gay identity that were most stigmatized, elements that then seemed beyond the pale of a tolerant liberal understanding.
Seidel’s poem was written at least a decade before the “Men on Film” skits. Maybe he wrote the line having in mind a gay reader of an earlier era who would appreciate being sent up, in the way I remember appreciating “Men on Film”? That’s very possible. In his poem “Fucking,” Seidel recalls drinking at “Francis Bacon’s queer after-hours club” and being saluted by one of the regulars, who shouted, “‘Champagne for the Norm’! / Meaning normal, heterosexual.” That suggests a sort of interpellation across the border of stigma: You’re not one of us, but we recognize that you came to our turf. Hi, Norm! I’m convinced, perhaps irrationally, that there really was a gay couple who had an argument as they walked down Broadway with a small dog, and that Seidel noticed them, overheard them, and remembered them. I believe Seidel was paying attention, in other words, and attention is a gift. Mostly.
But but but. The phrase “the wife one” sounds to me like a straight man’s psychic shorthand, not like an attempt to borrow the voices that gay men use to talk about themselves, not even like an attempt to borrow in the parodic way of Wayans and Grier. I just don’t think a gay man would say “the wife one” except in jesting reference to the way the straight world sometimes perceives us. Not because it’s not respectful (gay men of my generation, left to our own devices, do not tend to treat ourselves qua gay with all that much respect), but because it’s not, by and large, the way gay couples work, in my experience. Sometimes it is the case that one partner in a couple is more effeminate than the other, but it seems to happen just as often, and probably more often, that both or neither are effeminate. The interaction and allocation of sex roles, gender roles, economic roles, and other social roles inside a gay relationship is just not as straightforward as a phrase like “the wife one” suggests (any more than the phrase accurately captures such matters inside a straight relationship, I suspect). A phrase like that simply isn’t useful. To cite just one complication: in his book Out of the Shadows, the psychotherapist Walt Odets notes that sometimes, for the sake of keeping a relationship in equilibrium, “a partner who holds the balance of power outside sex may be more sexually passive and receptive.”
So I don’t think this is a case of a straight writer borrowing a gay self-deprecation. I think what we have here is the appearance in a poem of a straight’s deprecation of gays. Which doesn’t mean there’s no ironic distance between Seidel the poet and Seidel the straight man (as it were)—between the Seidel who’s observing himself perceive and the Seidel who’s doing the perceiving. This is a defense that won’t convince some readers, but I think in a poet of Seidel’s sophistication, such an irony is always present, and I think it may be the strongest defense possible: this is who he was, and how he was, at the moment of this perception, and it’s impossible to capture perception fully while filtering it.
How badly is a defense needed? How terrible is it, really, to say “the wife one”? If you’re in a gay marriage, and you’ve never been asked by a straight man which of you is the wife, then you are luckier than me. I survived just fine, but I have to say I didn’t like it much. On the other hand, if you’re in a gay marriage, and you’ve never talked, fought, or joked, inside the safety of it, about which of you is behaving more as the wife, at a given stage of your relationship, then you are farther above the fray than I will ever be. In these jokes, arguments, and negotiations, though, I think what’s being hashed out is how to balance two careers, and how to divide the responsibilities for a shared household. The debates are about whether one person is feeling obliged to more often take the role of homemaker, not about whether one person is more womanly. (Gender isn’t a zero-sum game the way doing the dishes is, and at the end of the day, there isn’t, or shouldn’t be, anything offensive about describing a man as effeminate.) In other words, nothing is at stake that would be legible to someone who saw you and your husband walking down the street.
What were the gays in Seidel’s poem arguing about? Was “the husband one,” to coin a phrase, planning to ask for a Robert Frost poem to be read at his funeral? Was he planning to write a book or an article about Robert Frost? Was he merely claiming Frost as his favorite poet? In any of these cases, why would his partner “plead” for an explanation, “nearly in tears”? I think the reader is meant to find humor in the idea of a gay resident of New York City espousing Frost because of a shared belief in nature. Which I get. The canonical lines about gays and nature are Oscar Wilde complaining that “Nature is so uncomfortable. Grass is hard and lumpy and damp, and full of dreadful black insects,” and Frank O’Hara insisting that “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” But Peter and I had a friend read a Frost poem at our after-wedding get-together, and I defy even Jonathan Franzen to take better bird photos than I do.
I’m not sure I’ve walked in a wide enough circle around this problem yet. Did I feel insulted? Yes, a little, I guess. Do I care? I put Seidel’s Selected down for a while, but later I went back to it. I’m on my guard a little with Seidel now, but I should probably have learned long ago to be on my guard with every writer. I seem willing to forgive F. Scott Fitzgerald, say, for writing of a “pansy” character in Tender Is the Night that “he was so terrible that he was no longer terrible, only dehumanized.” Being dehumanized is worse, I think, than being called “the wife one.” I’m aware that I could pretend to care more than I do, in order to have an axe to swing. I sometimes wonder if, as a general public appreciation of literary qualities per se has weakened—as a willingness to make distinctions of literary value in public has declined—it has become more and more tempting to take up an axe. There are days when it seems like the only blades that still cut are those with a social or political edge. On the other hand, it would probably be a mistake to pretend I don’t care at all, to fake transcendence. A critic I didn’t agree with about much once warned me against accepting “the phantom bribe of straight culture,” and while I suspected him of issuing the warning in order to try to scare me off the middle ground that I wanted to occupy, I knew exactly what he meant. One aspires to catholicity as a reader—one wants to be broadminded even in the face of narrowmindedness—but one doesn’t want to be a pushover. I think my personal verdict would be to recommend that people read Seidel but not blink the moments like the one I’ve written about here, which are, after all, a deliberate part of his persona, and of the membership he claims through his poetry in a sort of freemasonry of the bad and wild (which more than a few gay men, of my generation anyway, have also felt they belonged to).
The Translation Game: Thomas Mann and Du Fu
[An issue of my newsletter Leaflet]
In The Three-Cornered World, a novel by Sōseki, the Japanese novelist I wrote about last week, a painter aims to “separate and discard the scratchy sand of human emotion to discover the pure gold that lies beneath it.” In an endnote, Sōseki’s biographer relates this principled aesthetic detachment to a similar idea put forward by the hero of Thomas Mann’s story “Tonio Kröger”:
For the fact is: all healthy emotion, all strong emotion, lacks taste. —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. David Luke
The observation has some truth in it, and I like the astringency, even if it’s also true that no great art can be made without strong emotion. It’s the sort of insight it makes sense to put in the mouth of a fictional character. I think what I like in novels is strong emotion that’s resisted, frustrated, constrained, or otherwise dragged against. In any case, the quote prompted me to think that I should really read “Tonio Kröger” one of these days, and I took down off the shelf the copy we have in the house, which turns out to give a different translation of the passage:
For a strong and sound feeling has no taste—and that's that. —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Joachim Neugroschel
This didn’t quite land, to my ear. It almost sounded as if the person sampling strong feeling had come down with COVID-19 and lost the use of his taste buds. “And that’s that” seemed a little flip, too. I was wandering into what my husband and I call the Translation Game, which is when you become obsessed with which version of a classic text is the one to read. Ideally, one player tracks down parallel passages and reads them aloud while player two, eyes closed or averted, renders a verdict. (On my ancient blog, I once played multiple solo rounds on the various translations of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.)
I was able to find two more renderings of the sentence:
For every healthy and strong emotion, that is beyond doubt, is tasteless. —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Bayard Quincy Morgan
Slightly awkward. “That is beyond doubt” is supposed to be an interjection, judging by the way it’s rendered in the rival translations, but where it’s placed here, it could easily be mistaken for a clause qualifying “strong emotion,” that is, as saying that strong feelings that are beyond doubt are tasteless. Another problem: “is tasteless,” in English, approaches in meaning “is offensive,” and saying that emotion gives offense seems to me a less subtle argument than saying it lacks taste.
For sound natural feeling, say what you like, has no taste. —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Helen Lowe-Porter
This doesn’t quite work, either, because it seems possible that what’s being argued is that strong emotion is flavorless, which hardly seems likely to be what Mann (or Kröger) meant. I award this round to David Luke (which doesn’t necessarily mean that Neugroschel, Morgan, or Lowe-Porter wouldn’t win on another passage).
A couple of months ago, a review in the New York Review of Books by Madelein Thien led me to David Hinton’s translations of the classic Chinese poet Du Fu (or Tu Fu). As Thien explains, translating Chinese poetry into English is more or less impossible because of “the incommensurability of Chinese (logographic) and English (alphabetic) written systems.” Between the ideograms that make up a verse of written Chinese poetry, visual resonances are possible that just can’t occur in English. “The dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface,” Thien writes. Chinese verbs don’t have tenses, and Hinton claims that the pronoun “I,” in an English translation of a classic Chinese poem, is almost always a translator’s interpolation. It seems that translators have to prune away some of a classical Chinese poem’s ambiguity to have any hope of making English out of it—which means there can be radical disparities, from translation to translation, in what the same poem seems to mean on a literal level.
To suggest the polysemy that can’t be translated, Hinton deploys an elliptical, compressed English that sometimes left my prosaic mind stuck on the problem of what exactly was happening. Here, for example, are the closing lines of his version of a poem by Du Fu that he titles “New Year’s Eve”:
Dawn, the fortieth year of my flight into dusk light's over. Who changes, who even slows this dead dazzling drunk in the wings of life we live? —Tu Fu, "New Year's Eve," tr. David Hinton
Hinton explains in an endnote that in China, a person’s age ticks up at New Year’s rather than on his birthday. So the feeling of renewal that people around the world associate with the New Year may be combined in China with the regret about lost youth and the pride in survival that an American usually associates with birthdays. That clarifies the mood, a little. But is the “drunk” in the last line a drunk person or an episode of drunkenness? What are the “wings of life we live”? Why is someone thinking about changing or slowing down a drunk (or an episode of drunkenness)?
In my puzzlement, I put down the book and went online, where I found an essay about Kenneth Rexroth’s reworkings of Chinese poetry that printed both a 1945 Rexroth version of the same poem and Rexroth’s probable source (he didn’t know much Chinese), a more literal translation by Florence Ayscough in 1929. Here’s Ayscough’s rendering of the lines:
At bright dawn my years will bridge four tens; I fly, I gallop towards the slanting shadows of sunset. Who can alter this, who can bridle, who restrain the moments? Fiery intoxication is a life’s career. —Tu Fu, "A New Year Vigil at Tu Wei’s House," tr. Florence Ayscough
Though “my years will bridge four tens” seems pointlessly quirky, the line “Fiery intoxication is a life’s career” is heady and absolute. And Ayscough conveys the emotional logic of the closing lines more clearly than Hinton does: in her version, the poem’s speaker sees himself as in decline, as falling—the setting sun has put him in mind of this—and there’s a parallel between his wish to halt the setting of the sun, which will mark him as a year older and that much more of a lost cause, and his wish to halt his own decline. Thus the exhilaration of the last line, which damns the torpedoes.
Here’s Rexroth, meanwhile:
Soon now In the winter dawn I will face My fortieth year. Borne headlong Towards the long shadows of sunset By the headstrong, stubborn moments, Life whirls past like drunken wildfire. —Tu Fu, "New Year's Eve," tr. and adapted by Kenneth Rexroth
I like this a little less than Ayscough, actually. Her bridge of “four tens” is more sensibly rendered as “my fortieth year,” but the whole question of whether to halt, or try to halt, the sunset and/or one’s own decline has been lost in translation. Rexroth’s version of the poet has made up his mind to a future of ecstasy and decay. He’s almost looking forward to it.
The most scholarly translation I could find is by Stephen Owen:
Tomorrow I pass my fortieth year, evening light slants too low for a meteoric rise. Who can continue to stay so constrained?— utter drunkenness will be the rest of my life. —Tu Fu, "New Years Eve at Du Wei’s Home," tr. Stephen Owen (poem 2.11)
In his notes, Owen argues that Du Fu’s reference to his fortieth year “echoes Confucius’s dictum that one should get established in one’s thirties,” and that the opposition between the slanting evening light and a now-impossible meteoric rise in the second line here is a symbolic way for the poet to convey that “it is too late in my life to rise swiftly.” I didn’t get any of this career anxiety from Hinton, Ayscough, or Rexroth. All versions, however, seem to oppose the sun’s downward setting to an upward motion that the poet has been attempting. Tomorrow morning the sun sets on forty years of my upward striving, is maybe the paradoxical idea.
It’s striking how completely Owen’s understanding of the rhetorical question in the penultimate line reverses that of the other translators. Their versions ask who wants to (or can) halt the decline of the sun and the poet; Owen’s asks who can bear to be held back from decline. There must be an ambiguity about subject and object in the original. Or maybe a touch of humor? Something like, Drink up, fall down—who will stop, or could even stand to stop, the career of a lifetime?
Owen is also chaster with imagery than the other translators. There’s a sunset in his version, as there is in everyone’s, but there’s a bird in Hinton, and there’s fire in Ayscough and Rexroth. Are they reading the Chinese characters differently, or emphasizing different resonances in the same characters? The answer is probably yes, and my final verdict on this round of the Translation Game is that the best translation of Du Fu is two or three of them.
My novel Overthrow had a cameo in the New York Times Book Review’s Paperback Row column this weekend, because it’s coming out in paperback on Tuesday, in a new forest-green-on-mustard colorway.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know, but the novel is about mind-reading, homosexual love, the internet, graduate school, friendship across the color line, the problem of political sovereignty, and the fate of poetry under late capitalism. Please buy a copy from Books Are Magic, McNally Jackson, Greenlight, Word, Powell’s, Book Passage, or Book Soup, if you haven’t already got the hardcover! Viking/Penguin has links to other booksellers on its website, and there are links to the reviews on my blog. The paperback comes with new blurbs from Astra Taylor, director of What Is Democracy? and Examined Life, and Anna Wiener, author of Uncanny Valley, for which I’m very grateful.
In other news, heads up, there’s going to be longish, sci-fi-ish short story by me in a near-term-future issue of n+1, so renew your subscription now. And a regular-length short story of mine, also not quite realist, will appear online at The Atlantic soon.
Please don’t take away from this news the impression that I’m the sort of person who has been able to be productive during the pandemic. All this writing was done in the before-times (in a manic phase that was accompanied by a dread that something terrible was about to happen). Since the lockdown I’ve been mired in a slough, and the only thing I seem able to do is take pictures in Prospect Park. So here, gratuitously, are a couple of deep cuts from last week, not previously released on my blog or on Instagram. An alternate shot of a great blue heron:
And an outtake of a green heron:
The algal bloom maybe very loosely rhymes with the paperback’s color scheme?
- Kate Bolick on writers’ houses (NYRB): “Standing in Millay’s study, surrounded by her books, I knew how comfortable it would be to sit in her armchair reading all day—and felt a pang to realize that, of course, the most recent volume there was published in 1950; our libraries stop when we do.”
- Hermione Hoby on Sylvia Townsend Warner (Harper’s): “The women’s conjugal intimacy is suggested by Sophia sitting up in bed beside Minna and eating a biscuit in order to marshal her thoughts. Minna encourages her to have another. It all feels very English.”
- Amia Srinavasam on gender and pronouns (LRB): “The singular ‘they’ has been in use for more than six hundred years. The OED cites its first recorded use in 1375, in the romance William and the Werewolf: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche … þei neyȝþed so neiȝh.’ ”
- Thomas Meaney on Trumpism after Trump (Harper’s): “What was needed was ‘class warfare’—or perhaps more precisely, a war within the elites—to ensure that the future remained Trumpian and did not revert to the globalist highway to nowhere.”
- Christian Lorentzen on J. M. Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy (Harper’s): “What the reader will remember will be the pleasures available to anyone: the deadpan humor, the swoons of their melodramatic thriller plots, and the beguiling weirdness of the world Coetzee has constructed.”
- Frances Wilson on the bedroom talk of writers in couples (TLS): “Other people’s intimacy is always disturbing, and never more so than when it involves the use of animal names.”
- Charles Petersen on adjunct torture porn (NYRB): “When a Victorian poetry professor calls it quits, so, at many institutions, does her entire subfield. Who wants to know they will be the last person to teach a seminar on Tennyson?”
- Paul Elie on Flannery O’Connor (New Yorker): “All the contextualizing produces a seesaw effect, as it variously cordons off the author from history, deems her a product of racist history, and proposes that she was as oppressed by that history as anybody else was.”
- James Campbell on Ralph Ellison’s letters (TLS): “ ‘I am a writer who writes very slowly,’ Ellison would admit to one correspondent after another as the years rolled by.”
- Abigail Deutsch misses her laundromat (TLS): “Sometimes these women yank my belongings out of my hands; sometimes they’re gentler, and take a cooperative approach.”
- Giles Harvey on Jenny Offill’s Weather (NYRB): “It is an audacious and, as it turns out, slightly misbegotten project, like painting a house with a toothbrush.”
- Patricia Lockwood on having coronavirus (LRB): “‘Jason’s cough is fake,’ I secretly texted a friend from the bathtub, where I couldn’t be monitored. ‘I … don’t think his cough is fake,’ she responded, with the gentle tact of the healthy. ‘Oh it is very, very fake,’ I countered, and then further asserted the claim that he had something called Man Corona.”
Bolton’s “Palinode,” glossed
[After reading the poem, click on any verse to unroll an annotation. (Click again to hide it.)]
by Edmund Bolton
Sources: The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Bolton’s “Theorello,” Bolton’s “Hypercritica,”, the text of “A Palinode” as printed in Englands Helicon.