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A journey into the hearts and minds of three poets #tsvetaeva #pasternak #rilke @nyrbclassics

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Letters: Summer 1926 by Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva and Rainer Maria Rilke
Edited by Yevgeny Pasternak, Yelena Pasternak and Konstantin M. Azadovsky
Translated by Margaret Wettlin, Walter Arndt and Jamey Gambrell

I have been on something of a roll with Russian poets recently, and in particular with my exploration of the work of Marina Tsvetaeva. Renowned for her verse, she also wrote prose, letters, diaries, a play – truly a multi-talented genius. Her “Moscow Diaries” made absorbing reading during #’WITmonth and I was impelled to send for a nice new NYRB Classics version of this collection – a grouping of letters between Tsvetaeva, Pasternak and Rilke over a short period of time in Summer 1926. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I had an old Oxford World Classics version from many moons ago, but splashed out on the new version because the old one is tatty. However, it was the right thing to do, as the NYRB edition is significantly expanded from the Oxford edition, with extra material and essays, as well as additional pictures. Nevertheless, these do suffer from not being in a plate section but simply on ordinary book paper and so I’ll most likely keep both!

All my “interests in history”, my absorption in actuality, in fact all to which I have been disposed lately, has been shattered to pieces by Rilke’s letter and Marina’s poem. It’s as if my shirt were split down the front by the expansion of my heart. I’m punchdrunk. Nothing but splinters all about me: there are kindred souls in this world – and how extraordinary they are! (BP)

In 1926 the three poets concerned were in different parts of the world. Pasternak was in Soviet Russia, struggling to work, dealing with his wife’s ill-health and no doubt failing to cope with the demand of Soviet Realism. Tsvetaeva was in exile in France with her husband and children, suffering from poverty and alienation from her fellow emigres. Rilke was in Switzerland and entering a final, fatal illness. Pasternak and Tsvetaeva had not met for years; Rilke was something of a poetic god as far as they were concerned, and he was rumoured to be already dead. However, chance (in the form of Pasternak’s painter father, Leonid) intervened. The latter had been friends with Rilke in the past, and hearing that he was alive and well wrote him a letter. He mentioned his poet son, whom Rilke had heard of and spoke of in his reply to his old friend. The effect of Boris was shattering, as he had had a brief encounter with the elder poet when he was a child; and to find that his hero knew of his work was stunning. At the same time, Boris had read Marina’s latest poem “Poem of the End” which had sparked an intense response, and he had written to her about her work and the effect it had had on him. Pasternak junior wrote to Rilke, thanking him for his response, mentioning Tsvetaeva (who also revered Rilke) and asking the older poet to send Marina some of his books. Thus the scene was set for an intense, complex and emotionally charged three-way correspondence which took place over that summer.

What survives of the correspondence and supporting materials has been pieced together in exemplary fashion by Yevgeny and Yelena Pasternak (son and granddaughter of Boris) along with Konstantin M. Azadovsky. The long introduction is in its own right a remarkable piece of work which puts the poets, their lives and work brilliantly into context; but in framing the highly charged letters of the poets they do an exemplary job.

Life is a railroad station; soon I will set out – for where? I will not say. (MT)

I long to devour the whole gigantic globe, which I have loved and wept over, and which surges all about me, travels, commits suicide, wages wars, floats in the clouds above me, breaks into nocturnal concerts of frog music in Moscow’s suburbs, and is given me as my setting to be cherished, envied and desired. (BP)

Needless to say, this was not always an easy correspondence, and there was plenty of scope for disappointment, misunderstandings and high (as well as low!) emotions. Pasternak seems to have been affected most by the correspondence and events; seizing on Tsvetaeva’s poetry and her letters, he seems to regard her as something between muse, soul mate and poetic inspiration and declares himself not only spurred on to write, but willing to run away to her. The language used by all three poets is the language of lovers (although they do not meet), and Boris in particular repeatedly professes his love for Marina. Somehow, all three poets click on a high, exalted level, and the epistolary encounters and declaration of love were of profound importance to all three poets. Rilke himself seems delighted to have discovered like minds – that constant search for a soul mate, for someone who understands, runs through the letters – and enters into the correspondence with an uncustomary frankness.

The revelation which you are for me and will forever remain suddenly arose before me as it had numberless times before. (BP)

However, things are not all plain sailing. There were delays in the receipt of letters, the difficulties of explaining one’s meanings, and the difficulties of dealing with the quotidian alongside the imagined and the emotional, all of which caused problems and misunderstandings. Pasternak, in particular, has emotions like a rollercoaster and regularly plummets from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair. When he declares himself willing to come to Tsvetaeva and for them to take off to visit Rilke, he seems prepared to abandon all in search of this dream, and the intense emotional and intellectual infatuation seemed to inform his life and work during that period. Poetry is all, and for Pasternak in particular, Marina personifies the poetic muse.

I loved you as in life I had only dreamed of loving, long, long ago, loving to eternity. You were beauty in the absolute. (BP)

By Max Voloshin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That high level of intensity is never going to be sustainable in the real world; and as the summer wore on, Tsvetaeva in particular was beset with money worries, the fact that the émigré community regarded her with suspicion and the realities of daily life as a mother of two children. And then, of course, at the end of the year Rilke’s fatal illness came to its inevitable conclusion. Boris and Marina had never managed to make the journey to see him, and when they finally met many years later much water had flowed under the bridge and their lives had already gone through irreversible changes. Tsvetaeva would commit suicide in 1941; Pasternak died in 1960 of cancer. Their poetic legacy, however, lives on stronger than ever.

Across all the worlds, all the nations, along all the roads
Always the two doomed never to meet.
(Rilke)

“Letters: Summer 1926” is a rare and unprecedented glimpse into the minds of three poets at differing stages of their career; the insight it gives into their thoughts on poetry, their ways of working and their beliefs is priceless and it reveals an incredible intensity of feeling between Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Rilke. The tragedy is that they never met, although part of me thinks that might be safer and that they might have found a real, human encounter to be a little less cerebral than their correspondence.

What we began with remains unalterable. We have been placed side by side – in what we do with our lives, in what we die with, in what we leave behind. That is our destiny, a decree of fate. It is beyond our will. (BP)

The letters and commentary are enhanced in this edition with two essays by Tsvetaeva on Rilke, translated by Jamey Gambrell (who also rendered the poet’s “Moscow Diaries”). They’re essential reading for anyone with an interest in Marina as they shed much light on her beliefs and also her émigré life.

Do you know what I want – when I want? Darkness, light, transfiguration. The most remote headland of another’s soul – and my own. Words that one will never hear or speak. The improbable. The miraculous. A miracle. (MT)

The position of Pasternak and Tsvetaeva in the world of letters is not in doubt nowadays; Rilke I think tends to be more known for his only novel “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”; however examples of all three poets’ work appear throughout the book which gives real insight into their conversations about their art. “Letters…” is an absolutely fascinating, engrossing and moving read, and I came out of it wanting to read nothing but works by the three poets for the next month of so (alas, ain’t going to happen…) One book I *do* have which I would like to spend some time with, however, is Pasternak’s “Safe Conduct”; this is referenced repeatedly through “Letters…” and when I popped online to check it out, Amazon informed me I’d bought a copy back in 2013. Handy that…

A glimpse into the heart and soul of a poet as intense and detailed as this is rare; “Letters: Summer 1926” is essential reading for anyone who loves even one of the three poets, but I also think it would be fascinating for anyone who wants to see the agonies a poet goes through to create their art. Emotionally draining, but vital…

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The power of words #bannedbooksweek #russia @shinynewbooks

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This week is Banned Books Week, an initiative focusing attention on the pernicious practice of forbidding the act of reading certain volumes. It’s a practice that exists all over the world, often enforced by restrictive regimes but also in so-called free countries where despite the right to free speech being enshrined in their laws, certain religions or beliefs seek to restrict access to works they believe evil or immoral. Needless to say, as an extreme bibliophile, it’s not something I approve of, so I was pleased to be able to provide a piece for Shiny New Books in their BookBuzz section. And here’s the kind of thing I talk about:

Yes, needless to say, I’m on about the Russians again… However, I think it’s fair to say that not only have Russian writers suffered over the centuries from one repressive regime after the other (regardless of the political viewpoint of those regimes); they’ve also understood the power of words and literature, finding ingenious ways round the censor or just “writing for the drawer”.

The little heap above is just some of my banned Russians. Yes, there are multiple copies of most of the titles, but I can justify that – honest, guv! The “Master and Margarita” copies are all different translations; so are the Zamyatins. The two Solzhenitsyns are radically different versions, with the bigger version being the later unexpurgated version. I have no excuse for the Dr. Zhivagos as they’re all the same version, but they are very pretty….

Anyway, my piece is over at Shiny here, so do pop over and have a read of my ramblings about the vagaries of being a Russian writer. And read some banned literature this week, and resist to the end the banning of books! 🙂

“We command reverence for the rights of poets” – #mayakovsky #borisdralyuk @InsertBlanc

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Slap in the Face – Four Russian Futurist Manifestos
Translated by Boris Dralyuk

I got very squeally and excited last month when I finally treated myself to a copy of a lovely little book/chapbook/pamphlet/whatever you call it which brought together several pieces of writing involving my beloved Mayakovsky! “A Slap in The Face of Public Taste” was the manifesto of the Russian Futurist movement, first published in 1912; and it’s from that piece of writing that this collection takes its title.

The Russian Futurists were a group of poets and artists who adopted the Futurist movement of Marinetti which “espoused the rejection of the past, and a celebration of speed, machinery, violence, youth and industry; it also advocated the modernization and cultural rejuvenation.” There were a number of sub-groups and one called Hylaea issued “Slap”, which was signed by David Burlyuk, Aleksandr Kruchenykh, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Viktor Khlebnikov. I’d come across “Slap” before in my readings of Mayakovsky, but never the three following manifestos, with the final one “A Drop of Tar” being from December 1915 and signed by Mayakovsky alone.

“Slap” is a fascinating collection of words, showing the gradual development of the Futurist artists over the years, and Dralyuk translates the manifestos with the verve and originality with which Mayakovsky and co wrote them. They were determined to break down the constraints surrounding their art, jettisoning all that had gone before, and declared that Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky should be tossed overboard “from the steamship of modernity”. That kind of thinking was symptomatic of the Futurist movement, although some (Mayakovsky in particular) introduced a political element which might well have been missing from the work of some of those poets and artists more interested in formal experimentation.

Entertaining as the manifestos are, much of the appeal of this book comes from the extra material included. For a start, it’s a lovely thing in its own right; printed in colour on quality paper, “Slap” is heavily illustrated with images by Mayakovsky, Goncharova, Larianov, Burlyuk and others, as well as reproductions of the covers of the original journals in which the works appeared. Innovation was at hand everywhere, with one journal even having a wallpaper cover!

The icing on the cake, however, is the conversation reproduced in the back of the book between translator Boris Dralyuk and Saul Alpert-Abrams. The discussion is fascinating and erudite, throwing much light on the futurists’ poetry as well as giving useful context if the reader isn’t familiar with the period. Interestingly, they draw comparisons between translation and issuing a manifesto, and it’s fair to say that both are optimistic acts!

I haven’t come across the publisher Insert Blanc Press before but laudably they seem to focus very much on experimental literature. Here, they’ve produced a fascinating, beautiful and instructive object which I’m so pleased to at last have on my Mayakovsky shelf!

P.S. Did I mention it’s bilingual?? I can’t read Russian but I love looking at the cyrillic! 😀

The richness of a poet’s vocabulary is his justification

Eleanor Marx is *Not* Fine…. #eleanormarx #feminism #marxism

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I had a lovely trip to London at the start of the summer break with my BFF J. (and you probably recall the book shopping and the results of that lack of control…); and part of the visit involved dropping in to the British Library to see a little display of Karl and Eleanor Marx items. Karl, of course, I first read decades ago when I picked up The Communist Manifesto, with a little trepidation, and was relieved to find I didn’t feel thick and it made perfect sense. His daughter Eleanor had I think been on my radar long before that; I stumbled across the Russian Revolution when we studied it at school, and around that time there was a BBC drama based around Eleanor’s life which I watched. This obviously focused on the dramatic and romantic side of her life, and it seems to often be the tendency that people remember the scandal and her suicide rather than her achievements.

Anyway, I spent some of my time in London mooching around bookshops (nothing new there…) trying to see what Eleanor Marx books might be available. As I said at the time, there was a massive biography from Verso that was originally published by Virago in two volumes; but it was humongous and I couldn’t really justify it (or, indeed, carry it…) However, a visit to lovely left-wing bookshop Bookmarks (which was shamefully attacked by right-wingers not long after) revealed a small but perfectly formed volume called “A Rebel’s Guide to Eleanor Marx” by Siobhan Brown. Part of a short series of guides published by Bookmarks themselves, it seemed the ideal way to find out more about Eleanor. Well, maybe…

The book is 57 pages long and sets out to reclaim Marx’s politics from her personal life. On the plus side, it’s concise, puts her life in context, gives a good outline of her work and acts as an excellent introduction to Eleanor Marx’s achievements. She was living in interesting times: much of the life and work of the Marxes was informed by events in France; the Paris Commune of 1871 had a profound effect on left-wing thinking in Britain, and Eleanor translated a first person account by Propser-Olivier Lissagary, amongst other things.

She was very much ahead of her time with her anti-imperialistic outlook and her recognition of the political division between working-class and middle-class feminists with their differing focus and needs. However, I’m not sure I concur with her assertion that women’s interests were best served by them taking part in a working-class revolution alongside men and not one of their own; if that was the case, I think we wouldn’t have needed the Suffragettes and the various waves of feminism that recurred through the twentieth century. I’m afraid I don’t agree that all men of any class are necessarily going to agree to live, work, earn and revolt on equal terms with women – even in the twenty-first century. But that’s just cynical old me.

By Grace Black (National Portrait Gallery, London) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Rebel’s Guide…” was interesting in many ways, and it gave me a strong sense of the world and events Marx lived through, and occasionally her part in them; but the problem was I got no real sense of the woman herself, and the book was too wide-ranging in its focus, not really pinpointing her achievements enough for my liking. There was a tendency to set the political scene, relate the events of the time (and these were all fascinating) and then mention Marx’s involvement as almost an afterthought. I can understand the need to redress the imbalance of coverage only being of Marx’s personal life, but this went so much in the other direction that she appeared a little ghost-like in her own book, popping up here and there to become involved in the action but not really taking on enough of a presence.

So I enjoyed “The Rebel’s Guide…” for what it told me about the political and social world of Marx’s time and for the outline of her active life that it gave me; but I think I will have to look further to see if I can find something else that will give me a more wide-ranging look at Eleanor Marx’s life and work. This was an interesting little book, but not quite what I expected to read! 😀

Penguin Moderns 13 and 14 – A woman’s life and a dog’s eye view

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The next two books in my reading of the Penguin Modern boxed set are from very disparate writers; but the books are both intriguing and in some places moving. Both are authors I’m very familiar with and yet it was a delight to spend time with them again – that’s one of the joys of reading my way through the set sequentially!

Penguin Modern 13 – Till September Petronella by Jean Rhys

By G88keeper [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Rhys should need no introduction here; best known for “Wide Sargasso Sea”, her prequel to “Jane Eyre”, she was a fine writer with a focus on the lives, loves and loneliness of women. This Modern contains four pieces: “The Day They Burned the Books” (be still, my beating heart!!!), the title story, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel” and “I Used To Live Here Once”. The stories have been very cleverly chosen (and the more I think about it, the more clever it is) to span the range of a woman’s life, from childhood in the Caribbean in the first story, to the inevitability of the finality of life at the end. All are beautifully written, often with an aching sense of melancholy, and Rhys is just brilliant at capturing atmosphere.

Once I went there with Eddie to borrow The Arabian Nights. That was on a Saturday afternoon, one of those hot, still afternoons when you felt that everything had gone to sleep, even the water in the gutters. But Mrs. Sawyer was not asleep. She put her head in at the door and looked at us, and I knew that she hated the room and hated the books.

The title story is the longest, telling of what might be regarded as a typical Rhys heroine; drifting, unfocused, almost passive most of the time and reacting to the men around her rather than taking control of her life. Petronella is out of place in most settings, as it seems was Rhys herself, and it’s hard not to worry about her and be cross with her in the same breath! “Burned” is an episode from childhood and Rhys conjures the setting and the milieu in which she grew up beautifully. Of course, the subject matter is one guaranteed to reduce me to a quivering jelly; at least one books survives, and the title is significant. “Rapunzel…” is heartbreaking, and the last story, only two pages long, has an incredible emotional punch.

I think I’ve only read Rhys’s novels so far, but on the evidence here her shorter works are just as good. Must dig in the stacks and see if any of the books of hers I have are short stories…

Penguin Modern 14 – Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka

By Atelier Jacobi: Sigismund Jacobi (1860–1935) (http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/news/2008_july_02) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kafka is again an author requiring no introduction, and I read “The Castle”, “The Trial” and “Metamorphosis” back in the day (well, the 1980s…); I’ve also written about some more recent Kafka reads here on the blog, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seriously read a lot of his shorter works (though I do have a big book somewhere!) “Investigations of a Dog” was written in 1922 and published posthumously (as was the bulk of his work) and it’s an intriguing little tale.

The story is narrated by the titular canine, and we see the world entirely from his perspective – and it’s a very different one from ours indeed. The dog’s investigations try to make sense of his world, in particular attempting to work out just where the food comes from. And as you read on, you realise that the dog doesn’t actually seem to have any real awareness of what the humans around him are and that they’re feeding him… So the poor creature attempts to apply rational and pseudo-scientific methods to his investigations but fails to get to grips with anything. It’s an interesting premise and could almost be read as allegorical; I’ve often heard it postulated that human understanding is limited by the range of our perceptions and there could be any number of ‘higher’ beings around us that we just can’t see.

So an intriguing story, although perhaps a little long for the subject matter; the point was made about halfway through so Kafka could maybe have been a bit more concise and still conveyed his meaning. Nevertheless, it serves as a reminder that I have plenty of Kafka on the shelves which could do with dusting off! 🙂

*****

Penguin Moderns 13 and 14 were an enjoyable pair, and both have had the effect of sending me back to books I already own and haven’t read (of which there are far too many). Maybe I should schedule a regular shelf shuffling exercise just to remind myself of all those volumes waiting to be opened… 😀

“Dusk excites the mad.” #Baudelaire #Paris

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Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire
Translated by Martin Sorrell

I’ve touched briefly on the French author Charles Baudelaire on the Ramblings in the past; but despite having several of his books lurking, it’s decades since I dipped into his poetry. The “Selected Poems” you can see on the pile in the picture has been with me since the 1980s, when I first began to really explore literature, but the rest of the volumes have arrived gradually over the years. I’ve meant to go back to his work many times, but it was reading “Orphic Paris” which gave me an attack of French Poetry (as those who follow me on social media might have seen…) Baudelaire was a constant touchstone in Henri Cole’s Paris and I thought it was about time I got down to actually reading some CB…

Dreams, always dreams! And the more the soul is ambitious and discerning, the greater the distance between dream and the possible.

“Paris Spleen”, a pretty little Hesperus Press volume that I’ve had for quite some time, contains 50 short prose pieces by Baudelaire which are considered just as revolutionary as his poetry was. His best-known work is the poetry book “The Flowers of Evil” (Les Fleurs du Mal), and apparently the pieces in “Spleen” often correspond with the poems in the former volume, almost considered as prose versions of the verse; I can’t really comment on that as yet, as it’s a looong while since I spent any time with “Flowers…” However, I think “Spleen” stands on its own as a marvellous work and could well be a good introduction to Baudelaire for those new to him.

The fifty pieces range in length and subject matter; some are no more than half a page, some stretch to four or more; and they’re anything from fables and allegories to poetic pieces of prose exploring Baudelaire’s thoughts, dreams and beliefs in all their variety. There is a streak of dark melancholy running through the work and a recurring motif of autumn; which is often a particularly bittersweet time of year and indeed time of life. It’s perhaps worth recalling that “Spleen” was published posthumously, and the dating of each piece can range over several years, as if Baudelaire revisited the pieces regularly to refine their final form.

She loves with autumn love, as though approaching winter were lighting a new fire in her heart, and the servility of her tenderness is never a burden.

“Paris Spleen” is not a jolly read, that’s for sure; Baudelaire was not a happy chappie and he has a dark view of humanity which is in places reminiscent of Poe. However, I’m very fond of Poe’s darkness and found myself equally drawn to Baudelaire’s spleen. (The fact that Baudelaire was a pioneering translator of Poe may have some relevance here…) Nevertheless there is great beauty and melancholy in his writing, and these vivid pieces linger in the mind. For example, one section tells of the narrator being brought face to face with an old and redundant circus performer; seeing this surplus member of humanity, Baudelaire predicts a destitute and useless old age for himself – which, for better or worse, he never reached, dying at the age of 46. The language is often heightened and melodramatic; there are tales of meeting with, and losing your soul to, the Devil; and love never goes well for our Charles…

…an exquisite autumn sky, one of those from which hosts of memories and regrets descend..

However, an additional element which needs to be born in mind is the time and place in which Baudelaire was living. The nineteenth century saw Paris being pulled to pieces and rebuilt and the descriptions of the city in these poetic vignettes often reflect this. One of the best-known pieces is “The Eyes of the Poor” (which you can find online easily, and which I’m sure I’ve read before). Although the story shows the impossibility of real communion and understanding between humans, an important element is the changing city. The poor characters are shown as being witness to changes taking place which are not for them, in their poverty, and this resonated strongly with my recent reading of “City of Light” for Shiny New Books, which of course covered the razing and rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann. Modernity is creeping into the world and that’s reflected in these stories, with so many of the characters appearing to be out of date and unneeded.

… the intoxication of Art dulls the terror of the void better than anything else…”

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862 – Public Domain

“Paris Spleen” is translated and introduced by Martin Sorrell (who I believe has translated a number of French authors of this era) and I was interested to compare his rendering of what is possibly Baudelaire’s best known piece from this collection. No. 33 is here rendered as “Be drunk” and advises us to be in a permanent state of intoxication – whether from wine, poetry or virtue, it doesn’t seem to matter! (Poetry for me, please!) I’ve seen this translated as “Get drunk” and I think on the whole I prefer “Be drunk” as it kind of implies a permanent state, rather than something which has to be constantly refreshed!

… what does eternal hellfire matter to someone who for one second has known an infinity of joy?

Somehow, Baudelaire made perfect reading for a wet, dull Bank Holiday Sunday (yes, I’m that behind with my posts…) His writing is intense, beautiful, dark, evocative and melancholy, and his imagery memorable – well, he’s a poet writing prose, so it would be, wouldn’t it! I hadn’t realised he had such a reputation as an essay writer until I did a bit of online research and remembered I had a Penguin Great Ideas volume of his prose knocking about too. So I think I might be spending a bit more time in the company of this melancholy man in weeks to come – pass the absinthe, please!

“Evenings lit up by burning coals” (Baudelaire) @nyrbclassics @colehenri #paris

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Orphic Paris by Henri Cole

That serendipitous book thingy’s been happening to me again. I was browsing the NYRB catalogue, and my eye was caught by the title of this one; and as someone who’s always been captivated by the thought of Paris, a look at the blurb was enough to convince me I should read it. Henri Cole is a poet, and a winner of numerous awards for his writing; he’s also taught widely and has been poetry editor of the New Republic. Yet in my ignorance I’d never heard of him (I’m *not* well-read in modern poetry if I’m honest); and the loss has been mine.

Poetry is a language that doesn’t shut us out; it should give the opposite experience.

“Orphic Paris” is Cole’s love-letter to a city he lived in, its denizens, and any number of poets; but so much more than that. I’ve seen it described as a kind of literary commonplace book, and it certainly combines a number of literary forms to paint its picture. It’s a beautiful collage of a book – photos, memories, stories, musings, poetic fragments, pieces of his own verse – all building up an image of the Paris Cole lived in and loved. The text is not limited to Paris alone, however; Cole explores his family background (his mother was a French Armenian, his father an American, and he was born in Japan) and the parts dealing with his relationship with his family are some of the most touching in the book. He also explores the connection that other authors have had with Paris and poetry, and the ghosts of Elizabeth Bishop, Baudelaire, Stein, Hemingway, Plath and Rilke, to name just a few, hover beautifully over the narrative. Baudelaire in particular is a regular touchstone, a writer connected to the heart of Paris.

I want to write poems that are X-rays of the soul in moments of being and seeing. This includes the ghastly, the insane, and the cruel, but also beauty, Eros, and wonder. In short, a poem is like a portrait. It is an artist’s most profound and expressive response to life.

The loose structure of the book allows Cole to meditate on all number of subjects; from his deep friendship with author James Lord to his thoughts on the art of writing poetry. The former are moving; the latter illuminating; they did much to enlighten me about the power I often feel poetry has over me and why I’ve responded so strongly to books, and also to people who use words well. The book ranges wide and free, stopping here and there on subjects such as AIDS, the introduction of same-sex marriages in France and the changes to values Cole has seen since he was a young man in the 1970s and 1980s. The latter aspects recur in the section dealing with the symbolism of roses as a flower and also their colour, tied in with sadness at the coming of HIV and its consequence.

Poetry is different from fiction. Poetry is not a lie that tells the truth. A poem must burn with a truth-seeking flame and be a small symphony of language, too.

Cole’s musings on Plath I found to be particularly thoughtful, and one section of the book focuses on bees, using their activity as an analogy for the work poets do. Plath, of course, drew heavily on beekeeping imagery, and I found myself pondering on the way some poets burn bright and then burn out. Of the seminal influence of Plath and the personal nature of her work, Cole comments perceptively:

I believed then, and I still do, that a poem is organized violence. Like Baudelaire, Plath extended the boundaries of the lyric, taking the reader deeper into the shadows of her sorrow during the final weeks and months of her life. Even today, in certain quarters, she is trivialized and dishonored because of the confessional nature of her poems.

Needless to say, the language is quite beautiful and evocative throughout; I suppose by definition, the prose of a poet will of course be poetic. The book is eminently readable, full of wisdom and wearing Cole’s love for the city on its sleeve. The small images, some taken by Cole and some from other sources, enhance the narrative – particularly when dealing with the poet’s family. And the Orphic connection? Well, for me Cocteau and his spellbinding film “Orphee” have always been inseparably linked to Paris; and both the classical Orpheus and Cocteau’s character were poets. I couldn’t helping thinking that Cole’s literary flaneuring was carrying on a great tradition…

To look inward and explore the darker corners of the soul is one of the functions of lyric poetry.

“Orphic Paris” is a gem of a book, and I’m so glad I stumbled upon it. The words are hypnotic; the pictures evocative; and the book invokes the spirit of Paris beautifully. Cole’s narrative builds to a beautiful, lyrical crescendo where he pours out what he loves about Paris and it’s extraordinarily moving. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the book is actually being released directly in the UK, as the NYRB catalogue states there are no UK rights. Fortunately, however, you can buy it from online sources (as I did!) and so you can get your own copy of this wonderful book, which I really urge you to do!

Photo by Nicolas Vigier, Public Domain

As for Henri Cole’s poetry, I’m going to make a point of going off to explore it; he has a website with some wonderful examples, and if his poetry speaks as strongly to me as this book did, I may have to end up with a dedicated shelf… 😀

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