“You may be familiar with Robert Bridges, who served as England’s Poet Laureate. But chances are, you are unfamiliar with the work of Digby Mackworth Dolben, a school friend of Bridges’s who died at only nineteen. An eccentric and a zealous Anglo-Catholic, long after his death Dolben continued to exercise a compelling hold over his circle, which included Gerard Manley Hopkins.”
I hope to some day read the Collected Works of Mirtha Dermisache (Argentina, 1940–2012).
Image: Mirtha Dermisache, Carta, 1970
No one reads Vachel Lindsay (1879–1931) these days, though were he around he’d probably prefer to read his poems to you himself. Lindsay believed in dramatizing his writings, referring to it sometimes as “singing poetry” and other times as “Higher Vaudeville”. He can be considered one of the progenitors of our slam-poetry and performance art.
He was born in Springfield, Illinois into a family devoted to the Cambellite sect of Christianity. He tried his hand at visual art but was told by painter Robert Henri that he was more of a poet. Soon after Lindsay was trying to peddle his poems to dubious passersby in the street. He saw his purpose on earth to preach his “Gospel of Beauty” to the people.
His fame rose in the 1910s due in large part to his ecstatic public recitals. He gained notice from the likes of William Butler Yeats and the then-nascent Poetry Magazine. Robert Frost said of him: “Some of these poets seem to get in a corner and gnaw their fingernails and try to get a dark corner, you know, and try to go crazy so they will qualify. There’s none of that in Vachel. He was just crazy in his own right; he did some of the strangest things.”
He paid tribute to many prominent people of his day, including Lincoln:
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (In Springfield, Illinois)
It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down,
Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.
A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.
He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long,
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.
His head is bowed. He thinks of men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why;
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.
The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.
He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free:
A league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.
It breaks his heart that things must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?
—from Congo and other poems (1915)
Lindsay caused a lot of controversy with his most famous poem, “The Congo” for its racism and for romanticizing “the noble savage.” He never understood the criticisms and spent considerable time defending himself against detractors like W.E.B. Debois. Listen to him reading “The Congo” and other poems here.
As with many poets he had a hard time making a steady living. He crisscrossed the country performing his poems to pay down his considerable debts in his last years until he lapsed into despondency and committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol.
His last words were, “They tried to get me — I got them first!”
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No one outside Australia reads Peter Kocan, and even in Australia his past often overshadows his literary achievements. In 1966, when Kocan was a 19-year-old factory worker, his history of mental illness came to a head with a determination to be remembered for murdering someone important. He chose Arthur Calwell, leader of Labor, the more left-leaning of Australia’s two main political parties, who was campaigning in the run-up to a federal election.
Calwell had just finished addressing a Sydney rally against conscription for the war in Vietnam, and was leaving in his car. When Kocan approached him Calwell began to wind down his window, assuming the young man was a well-wisher. Instead, Kocan produced a gun and pulled the trigger.
Australian politics and crime novelist Shane Maloney writes:
The bullet, fired from a sawn-off rifle, shatters the window of [Calwell’s] car, spattering him with broken glass and bullet fragments. His would-be assassin drops the gun and runs away. He is chased, caught and overpowered without further incident. […] The Opposition leader, in shock and bleeding from the face, has narrowly escaped death. Deflected on impact with the window, the bullet has lodged in the lapel of his coat. The gunman is declared criminally insane, sentenced to life imprisonment and incarcerated in a psychiatric prison. His victim sends him a letter of forgiveness and returns to the election campaign, in which national security is a major issue. When Labor is thrashed at the polls, he is compelled to cede the leadership to his younger, charismatic deputy. […]In the asylum, a fellow inmate introduced [Kocan] to the works of Rupert Brooke. He began to study literature, philosophy and history, and to write poetry. Two of his collections were published while he was still locked up, and his subsequent work draws on his experience of psychosis and imprisonment. [via]
“The shooting logic was in the air at the time,” Kocan has explained, referring to the assassinations of Ngo Dinh Diem, John F. Kennedy, Hendrik Verwoerd and Malcolm X. “Unfortunately, we are creatures who pick up on what’s around. If it had been a different era, my actions may have been different. Insofar as I had any thoughts about what would happen after the shooting,I assumed I’d be cut down in a hail of bullets.”
Released in 1976, Kocan continued to write poetry, and also began writing a fictionalised version of his life in the brilliant novellas The Treatment (1980), The Cure (1983) and the novel Fresh Fields (2004). These books have earned him numerous awards, including two from the News South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and one from the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards—all premiers who belonged to Calwell’s Labor Party.
The Social Workers (a poem by Peter Kocan)
Hyenas will encourage a stampede
To see which ailing zebra falls behind.
They’re nature’s social workers, and inclined
To feel most altruistic when they feed.
From the publisher’s page for City: Bolshevik Super-Poem in 5 Cantos:
Manuel Maples Arce was born in 1898, and studied law in Mexico City. He was a judge and later Secretary General of the Government in the city of Xalapa, state of Veracruz, under the controversial revolutionary General Jara. During this same period he became the central figure in the Stridentist Movement, a very ambitious avant-garde group that flourished under General Jara’s protection. Composed of a small group of poets and visual artists (especially engravers and printmakers), Stridentism bore resemblence to both Futurism and Dada, as well as many similar groups throughout Latin America, but was much more radical, politically, and came much closer to the realization of many of their goals, since they effectively were the government in Xalapa for a brief period in the 1920’s. General Jara was eventually deposed and murdered and the group dispersed. Maples Arce went on to become a diplomat, serving as the Mexican ambassador first to France, then Canada. He continued writing poetry as well as essays and criticism. His collected poems was published in Mexico in 1971. Maples Arce died in 1981.
André-Marcel Adamek (1946-2011) is the pen name of one of Belgium’s finest contemporary storytellers. The author of more than fifteen books of fiction, poetry, and teleplays, he also holds several patents, and has been a cruise ship steward, a toymaker, a paper wholesaler, a goat farmer, an editor, and a ghost writer. His awards include the Prix Jean Macé, the Prix triennal du roman, the Prix du Parlement de la Communauté française, and the Prix Rossel, Belgium’s top literary prize. His sweetly postapocalyptic fable “The Ark” appeared in the January 2011 issue of Words Without Borders.
No one reads Robert Herrick (1868–1938) any more. Even fewer read his novels than read the lyric poems of his 17th Century namesake. Despite his cherubic countenance Herrick wasn’t a particularly happy man and saw his lot in life in stark terms—
“In Search of One’s Soul”
The image of man toiling up desolate windswept heights, with some unknown destination, unrealized aim. As the journey progresses the scene has grown wilder, sterner, more desolate, less distracting, less peopled, and less cumbered…[H]e is more and more definitely conscious that his pursuit is necessary, inevitable, and that its sole consolation is that at each stage he finds himself strong enough to rise and resume the toilsome way, without enthusiasm or emotional delight, perceiving more clearly that the road will be increasingly lonely, severe, and the end defeat… The reward? Somewhere, somehow, around some dark, forbidding cliff he will come face to face with himself, entire, complete.
Herrick was a prolific and well-respected novelist in his day, turning out some thirteen titles in a realist, social-commentary vein. Praised by the likes of William James, he was described as a less-vitriolic Upton Sinclair. He arrived in Chicago in 1893 amid World’s Fair fever and was professor of English at the University of Chicago from its inception until he quit abruptly in 1923, feeling like he didn’t get his due from the university. He settled scores with William Harper (who helped found the University and recruited Herrick away from Harvard) and other perceived and real enemies in his prose. His relationship with Chicago was also somewhat ambivalent:
“Chicago is an instance of a successful, contemptuous disregard of nature by man. Other great cities have been called gradually into existence about some fine opportunity suggested by nature, at the junction of fertile valleys, or on a loving bend of a broad river, or in the inner recesses of a sea-harbour, where nature has pointed out, as it were, a spot favourable for life and growth. In the case of Chicago, man has decided to make for himself a city for his artificial necessities in defiance of every indifference displayed by nature.”—from The Gospel of Freedom (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1898)
After leaving Chicago he turned away from academia and literature. In 1935, he was appointed as a Secretary to the United States Virgin Islands, finding respect and a measure of peace in those sunnier climes.
Herrick was suggested to me by local treasure, Paul Durica, proprietor of the Pocket Guide to Hell.
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Daniel Levin Becker is the youngest member of the Oulipo, a writing group or secret society or “bunch of nerds” who employ constraints in the construction of elaborate—whether apparent or not—literary works. The Oulipo, an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which translates into something like “Workshop for Potential Literature,” includes many eminent (and/or obscure) members among its ranks: Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, and Anne Garréta, among others.
Many Subtle Channels (Harvard University Press, 2012) is Levin Becker’s history of the group and his role within it. It’s unique among its kind: an accessible, intelligent, and often funny examination of a phenomenon that has more often been treated academically. While there are other good works on the Oulipo in English, Many Subtle Channels offers the most human account of the benefits of potential literature. I find it hard to imagine a more ideal introduction to the group.
Stephen (SS) recently talked to Daniel about constraints, potential, and picketing zipper factory employees.
One of the more charming characteristics of Many Subtle Channels are the footnotes scattered throughout the text. You mentioned that your publisher… suggested… that you cut several. Are there any excised notes you particularly care to share with the world?
Ooh, what an offer. (I have a project in the queue—where it’s probably of more use to everyone than in any sort of incarnation—called “Index of murdered darlings,” consisting entirely of things I was compelled, by my editor or by better judgment, to excise from MSC.) I was actually trying the other day to find an early footnote about the supposed “pirate translations” of the essay in which Calvino breaks down the algorithm he used for If on a winter’s night a traveler, and could find no trace of it anywhere. Weird! Anyway, here are three:
42 That’s right: Perec was an anticipatory plagiarist of Salt-n-Pepa.
207 Flarf is also related, temperamentally if not officially, to Spoetry, the art of composing poetry based on input from spam email text. Although Flarf and noulipo dovetail thanks to their mutual interest in “conjunctive/accumulative” procedures, the former is decidedly more surrealist than oulipian or post-oulipian, insofar as it surrenders a great deal of the control to outside circumstances. Google is a good generative device, but one is not in control of the algorithms it uses, unless one is very, very high up on the totem pole at Google—and this eliminates from Flarfian experiment the essential possibility of opening the hood to mess with the engine.
218 Paris is, however, a French city, which means at least a few of the businesses on any commercial street are bound to have some kind of awful pun for a name, hearty wordplay being as natural to the French as casual racism—which doesn’t make Paris that much more oulipian but does make the Oulipo much more Parisian. (This is, for the record, Mathews’s answer whenever anyone asks him whether the Oulipo is inherently French: it’s inherently Parisian. He pronounces the word to rhyme with derision.)
Can you tell us a little bit about how the Oulipo is constituted? How does one become a member of the group? How does one avoid becoming a member (or being a member after one is inducted)?
One becomes a member first by attending one of the Oulipo’s monthly meetings as a guest of honor and presenting whatever it is of one’s work that dovetails with oulipian interests, then by being unanimously elected by the group. One can avoid becoming a member very easily: by asking to be a member and thereby becoming permanently ineligible for membership. After one is inducted one cannot quit or be kicked out; the only official way to leave the group is to commit suicide for no purpose other than to leave the group, and to do so in the presence of a notary. A few people have distanced themselves from the group’s activities by just sort of ceasing to participate, but they’re still officially considered members, just inactive ones. This includes dead members.
Throughout the book, you offer several ways the Oulipo has been defined. Is there a definition that’s more apt than others? Have you formulated your own response to the inevitable question of “So what is the Oulipo, exactly”?
I usually go with some variation of “a research group of writers and scientists whose collective subject of inquiry is the literary potential of mathematical structures.” Sometimes—okay, often—I replace “research group of writers and scientists” with “bunch of nerds.”
No one reads Wendy Walker’s The Secret Service (1992), a spellbinding and disorienting spy-novel/gothic fantasy (to narrow it down to two broad and non-exhaustive categories) that nearly defies description.
The premise of The Secret Service is simple, at least in the barest retelling: set in England in 19th century, a continental conspiracy is uncovered that if revealed will disgrace—and quite possibly ruin—the British royal family. The secret service of the title are called to unravel the plot, a task seemingly made easier by a recent discovery that enables agents to transform themselves into objects—in this case: a wine goblet, a bronze statue of Thisbe, and a rosebush—to infiltrate the conspirators’ ranks. As with all remarkable fiction, Walker’s plot at this, the simplest, point turns back upon itself, digresses, and passes into realms familiar to readers of Calvino, Poe, Borges, and Dickens.
The book’s flavor is perhaps best hinted at by lists; lists that tantalizingly allude to the infinite while always falling short even of the object they hope to describe. Henry Wessells writes:
The novel is filled with strange erudition, sensuous descriptive language, broken glass, crackpot science, gruesome technology, unexpected turns, and a succession of stories within stories…
And Douglas Messerli, who published the book in the now-defunct Sun & Moon Classics series, describes it in terms that remind one of a modern Metamorphoses:
Walker’s world is a world of mystery, castles, architectural wonders, secrets, changelings, doubles, madness, terrorism, and death—in short, as she herself prefers to characterize this work, she is writing in the tradition of Gothic fiction, horrible and terrifying in its revelations. If her writing style outshines even her inventiveness of story, these two work in tandem to create themes that for some may be even more overwhelming. For Walker’s world is also one of eternal change, constant alteration where humans and landscape morph into one another and, in so doing, transform experience into a series of encounters dangerous for those who prefer tranquil stasis.
Image: Cezanne, Still Life with Bottles
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No one reads Paul Carroll (1926–96). Carroll was a poet now best remembered for the writers he championed. He was an editor at Chicago Review and a founder of the Poetry Center of Chicago. When Chicago Review refused to continue publishing excerpts of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in 1958, Carroll resigned along with fellow editor Irving Rosenthal and founded Big Table in order to promote Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others. Kerouac came up with the name: Big Table occurred to him, Carroll recalled, when Kerouac found a note he had written himself: “Get a bigger table.” The first issue of the magazine was seized by the Post Office for containing obscenity in the locked-down ’50s.
Poet Paul Hoover told K. C. Clarke (as part of an appreciation of Carroll by those who knew him) that even as a tenured professor at UIC, where he founded the writers’ program, he was also driving a cab. “He was driving these people around, and they didn’t care about his subject, Pablo Neruda, so he stops the car and said, ‘Get the fuck out.’ That seemed to be the kind of guy he was.”
His wife, Maryrose, described their life in a 2004 interview [PDF}:
He had an ABSOLUTE passion for poetry.
When we lived in our loft, a factory building not too far from Lincoln Park, when he wasn’t teaching, he would go out on his bike and ride through the park, and make stops, to jot down notes about the weather, the trees, or a dead fish. When he came home the pieces would go into a first stew, and usually he would get up late at night, at 2:00, 3:00 o’clock in the morning, and he would be working again, on poetry. And whether these poems were published or not he kept on writing, rocking and rolling with the words.
“Song After Making Love” (published posthumously in 2008)
Sometimes I want to be a cloud
drifting like a barnacle goose or a galleon
into the winter home of God
The green of these trees
the grass green as oxygen
the green of my excited heart
Shadows of bird between the bones
blood feels sweet
as if moving in maple trees
a part of me is grass
I close my eyes
at the same time full
like a galaxy in daylight
Carroll was suggested to me as a subject by Thomas Sloan, Professor Emeritus in Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His knowledge of lost and forgotten bits of history are rivaled by few people I know.
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No one reads Francis Poictevin (1854–1904). Alastair Brotchie, from the 1994 Atlas translation of de Gourmont’s Book of Masks:
The mysterious and gnomic works of Poictevin…record a quest which ended in disaster: his mental collapse in 1894, and confinement in an institution until his death. He continued writing even then, but he was forgotten, except by a few friends, and these manuscripts have never been published. His books, which are not novels, nor travel diaries, nor récits, but some intermediate form, appeared with perfect annual regularity between 1882 and 1894. In them Poictevin contrived to chronicle a psychological and spiritual journey by means of observations of the external world: they are perfect demonstrations of Symbolism, everything here is symbol clothed in the skin of appearance. With hindsight his obsessive and repetitive observation of detail, verging on synesthesia, can be seen to foreshadow his illness.
A Christian mystic and hyper-aesthete, Poictevin shared these characteristics with his close friend Huysmans, but applied them to his works in a unique way….He has never been translated into English.
De Gourmont (circa 1898):
The author of Tout bas and Presque would have been able, like all the rest, to arrange his meditations into dialogues, to order his sentiments into chapters cut at random into slabs of lines, to insinuate into sham-living characters a few animated gestures and have them convey, through noticeable genuflections upon the flagstones of a known church, the efficacy of an unacknowledged creed: in short to write “Mystical Novels” and to vulgarise for the “literary journals” the practice of mental prayer. By this means his books would have acquired some popularity, which he certainly lacks, because, if few writers are so esteemed, few, among those of evident talent, are less well known and less seen in the bookshops…
[Images: top, Poictevin by Vallotton; bottom: Francis Poictevin by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1887]
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No one reads the Aged-Angler of Desolate Lake.
Dingbo Wu, from his introduction to Science Fiction from China:
…modern Chinese science fiction really began in 1904 with the serialization of Yueqiu zhimindi xiaoshuo (Tales of Moon Colonization) in Portrait Fiction. It is a novel of approximately 130,000 words written in Chinese by Huangjiang Diaosuo (Aged-Angler of Desolate Lake). The author’s real name remains unknown. The story describes the settlement of a group of earthlings on the moon.
“Yueqiu zhi Mindi Xiaoshuo” [“A Tale of Moon Colonists”]…written by the pseudonymous and never-identified Huangjiang Diaosuo, might be described as a picaresque Edisonade in which exiles from modern China tour the world in a hot-air balloon, trying new Inventions, encountering strange races and customs, and eventually reaching the Moon. However, its title is cunningly ambiguous, eventually revealed as a fear that the superior lunar civilization is sure to conquer the Earth, and that, inevitably, some superior race elsewhere is sure to conquer them in turn.
China’s earliest original science fiction was Yueqiu Zhimindi Xiaoshuo (月球殖民地小說 “Lunar Colony”), published in 1904 under the pen name Huang Jiang Diao Sou (荒江釣叟 “Secluded River’s Old Fisherman”). The story concerns Long Menghua, who flees China with his wife after killing a government official who was harassing his wife’s family. The ship they escape on is accidentally sunk and Long’s wife disappears. However, Long is rescued by Otoro Tama, the Japanese inventor of a dirigible who helps him travel to Southeast Asia searching for his wife. They join with a group of anti-Qing martial artists to rescue her from bandits. Deciding that the nations of the world are too corrupt, they all travel to the moon and establish a new colony.
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You’d be forgiven for not reading Jean-Pierre Martinet, as he is only now, twenty years after his death, beginning to move from the literary fringes to cult status in his native France—and possibly beyond. With the translation of his novella The High Life (Wakefield Press, trans. Henry Vale), we now have an opportunity to discover Martinet in English.
There seems no better introduction to Martinet than the following statement he wrote for a dictionary of contemporary French literature, a sentiment that serves well as a credo for many of our unread writers:
Starting from nothing, Martinet’s career followed a perfect path: he ended up nowhere.
The High Life is a slim novella about poor, fumbling Adolphe Marlaud, a clerk in a funeral parlor who attempts to “live as little as possible so as to suffer as little as possible,” but who, like many who so defy the gods, is led directly into the kind of complications he sought to avoid: in this case, into the arms of his obese and obscene concierge, an unforgettably vile and lascivious woman. A bizarre love affair (of sorts) follows and ends with inexorable tragedy.
Martinet exists somewhere in the desolate region carved out by Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Jim Thompson, bleak and hard-bitten, but with traces of dry humor:
Madame C was very fond of reading. She often opened up the mail of the building’s residents.
The strangeness of our sexual relations had put me off a bit in the beginning, of course, but then I ended up taking some pleasure in them. You get used to anything.
The High-Life is also reminiscent of the Czech writer Hermann Ungar’s overlooked classic depiction of “sexual hell” (in Thomas Mann’s words), The Maimed.
With only a handful of novels to his almost-forgotten (or never remembered) name—including his masterpiece Jerome, which has been compared to the aforementioned Celine, as well as Samuel Beckett and Dostoevsky—we hope there’s more Martinet in store for English-language readers.
(Photo by Eugene Atget)
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