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Tag: T.S Eliot

Writers On Writers

Anthony Powell_Beryl Bainbridge_Jack Kerouac_Virginia Woolf_William Blake_Ernest Hemingway_William Faulkner_ Rebecca West_William Shakespeare_John Updike

“Important novelists often say that writing a novel is hard. I think Anthony Powell said it was like conducting foreign policy—that you have to be prepared to go and do it every day no matter how you feel.”
James Salter

“Beryl Bainbridge understood the absurdity of life and how humour lurks in even the most tragic situation.”
Deborah Moggach

“Jack Kerouac influenced me quite a bit as a writer . . . in the Arab sense that the enemy of my enemy was my friend.”
Hunter S. Thompson

“There was a period in my early career that was determined by the images of women writers I was exposed to—women writers as genius suicides like Virginia Woolf.”
Margaret Atwood

“Blake’s poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry.”
T. S Eliot

“In writing She Came to Stay, I was certainly influenced by Hemingway insofar as it was he who taught us a certain simplicity of dialogue and the importance of the little things in life.”
Simone de Beauvoir

“I find Faulkner intolerably bad.”
Evelyn Waugh

“Rebecca West’s novel The Fountain Overflows taught me a lot.”
Andrea Barrett

“Every year or so I read Shakespeare straight through.”
P.G. Wodehouse

“Updike is a master of effortless motion — between third and first person, from the metaphorical density of literary prose to the demotic, from specific detail to wide generalisation, from the actual to the numinous, from the scary to the comic.”
Ian McEwan

Sources: Bartleby, The Independent, The Paris Review, Wikiquote

West’s World by Lorna Gibb

West's World by Lorna Gibb

William Shaw – long-time editor of The New Yorker – once prophesised that Rebecca West would have a “lasting place in English literature”. Sadly, today, she is largely forgotten except among those with an avid interest in either feminism or books or a combination of both. In her time, however, West was a ubiquitous literary figure, revered and feared in equal measure due to her formidable intelligence and forthright opinions. Speaking during a routine interview, for example, West once described T.S Eliot as a “poseur,” proclaimed she held no admiration for E.M Forster due to his nonsensical novel about India, deemed that George Bernard Shaw had a “poor mind,” said W.B Yeats “boomed like a foghorn” and quipped that Somerset Maugham “couldn’t write for toffee”. This, of course, made for some very titillating copy but there was much more to West than acerbic apothegms. Rebecca West – born Cicely Isabel Fairfield – was a force of nature; wilful, obstinate, exacting, highly influential and successful, she was also a woman of vertiginous contradictions. “A uniquely talented personality, West was showered with rewards and tributes for her novels and journalism during her lifetime,” writes Lorna Gibb in her new biography of the early feminist icon, “Sadly her eclecticism was her undoing; her writing could not be categorised into those pigeon holes so beloved by the literati.” Gibb is an acutely conscientious biographer who goes to painstaking lengths to document the precariously momentous rise of her subject, whose seditious temperament and intrepid nature was evident from early childhood.

While at George Watson’s Ladies College, West was described by the headmistress as having “difficult and radical views” which stemmed from a longing for equal rights for women, and a proactive approach to attain them. Gibb notes, however, that while deeply sympathetic to the Suffragette Movement West also enjoyed the drama surrounding it, which eventually led her to the stage. It was then, after several very average forays into acting, that she became involved with the Fabian Society and began mixing in the same social circles as H. G Wells. The infamous intertwining of their lives and their subsequent tidings is something that Gibb explores throughout the book, focusing considerately on the affair which West dismissed in later life as being wholly uninteresting. This statement, however, smacks of defensive flippancy and Gibb does well to contradict her subject’s proclamation by unravelling their torturous, passionate, dizzyingly intense, mutually stimulating and destructive love affair that changed both their lives. West bore Wells an illegitimate son – Anthony – whose childhood, Gibb explains, was one of “isolation and rejection…bewilderment and great loneliness”. The couple’s domestic life was highly unstable and conducted entirely as an open secret, their son sent away to boarding school at the tender age of three, to guard against gossip and proliferating murmurs of impropriety. Gibb writes assiduously of the difficulties posed to the couple by Wells’ marriage, by the outbreak of war, by West’s tempestuous nature and her lover’s infidelities, by her mounting aversion to domesticity and his growing dependence.

It is through her examination of West’s personal life that Gibb chronicles her subject’s development as a novelist, journalist and a zealous political activist. West’s immersion in various causes, her prolific output and her thriving social life was a direct result of domestic problems with her son, her possessive older lover and her fruitless love affairs, including one with Max Beaverbrook, John Gunther, Tommy Kilner and Steven Martin. Despite her manifest admiration for West, Gibb remains objective throughout the book, portraying its heroine both at her worst and her best, as a neglectful mother and a brilliant writer, as a whimpering paramour and vivacious companion, as a generous friend and a woman of guts and conviction. We get to see various sides to West, which Gibb uncovers page by page, in a bid to give us a clear picture of this now obscure writer, who once yielded tremendous power. West’s World is an intriguing book, carefully researched and written, it reads like a comprehensive account of both West’s personal and professional achievements. But it is also a work whose writer boldly includes the more ridiculous and amusing aspects of human nature, pertaining to her subject’s life and all those who entered it. Gibb documents, for example, an incident when in a bout of rage Wells accused his long-time friend [George Bernard] Shaw of being an “ass”. And another instance when Ford Madox Ford’s wife, Violet Hunt, prompted by impending madness, flung her lace-trimmed knickers out of the balcony. She also comprises less notable but no less humorous bon mots such as when Virginia Woolf likened West’s first novel, The Return of the Soldier, to an “over-stuffed sausage” or when Zelda Fitzgerald threw the biggest party of her entire life in West’s honour, which the latter failed to attend due to logistical glitches.  These diversions, however, do not detract from the gravitas of the work but rather add to it a very humane quality which makes West’s World both an insightful and exciting book.

One of the most germane and considered aspects of the biography is West’s familial relationships, among them that with her sisters, her son and her husband, Henry Maxwell Andrews, with whom she felt an affinity due to a mutual sense of social inferiority. Not only that Gibb suggests that West initially saw Henry as a refuge from her troubled past and married him as a sign of “gratitude”. Unlike her relationship with Wells, West’s marriage was more or less solid. Speaking of it once during an interview, she said it had been the most important thing in her life. But the union was by no means an entirely happy one, due to incessant difficulties with Anthony, Wells’ interference and Henry’s chronic philandering, the strain of which rendered the couple’s sex life non-existent. While West’s personal life was always troubled her career prospered, bringing her together with other literary notables such as Anaïs Nin, with whom she formed a friendship bordering on a love affair, Woolf whom West admired but found condescending as she did the whole Bloomsbury set and D.H Lawrence whom she deemed an “angel”. And yet despite her growing reputation, her accolades and tireless work ethic, West faced continuous sexism, which prompted her to famously retort that people thought her militant and a feminist simply because she expressed sentiments that differentiated her from “a doormat or a prostitute”. Gibb touches on this in the book, noting the various unsolicited sexual advances toward West, but never really explores the adversities they presented. She does, however, point out that the only two male contemporaries to offer congratulations to West after she was made a Dame were Eliot and Noel Coward.

But for West sexism was an on-going battle, which often manifested in covert criticism of her work as it did after her coverage of King George VI’s funeral. “If one is a woman writer,” she wrote in reply, “there are certain things one must do – first; not be too good, second, die young, what an edge Katherine Mansfield has on all of us; third, commit suicide like Virginia Woolf. To go on writing and writing well just cannot be forgiven.” Sadly this sentiment still rings true today, particularly in regard to West’s own work, which is now largely overlooked and ignored. But in her time, West was considered among the best political and social commentators, her book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon deemed a definitive account of political travel writing. Her reputation, however, as Gibb explains at the start of West’s World, has suffered greatly due to her “eclecticism” and the fact that she had once been Wells’ mistress. It is difficult to gauge the merits of these two very different writers or try to ascertain the superior of the two, but rather better to concentrate on the facts which Gibb does here. West’s World gives us a well-rounded if somewhat rudimentary picture of Rebecca West as she was – taking into account both the positive and the negative – but it doesn’t consider what her having been might mean today, or how it influenced women’s history. Rebecca West was a writer of great strength, wit and intelligence who rose through the ranks from fairly humble beginnings at a time when social status, money and class determined everything.  It would be wrong to deify her for she was a woman of many failings but it would also be wrong to speak of her as a *woman first and a writer after at least in terms of her work and her legacy, which is something West’s World aims to highlight.

*”I’m a writer first and a woman after.” Katherine Mansfield

The Paris Review | Rebecca West

Publisher:  Macmillan
Publication Date: March 2013
Hardback:  304 pages
ISBN: 9780230714625

Richard Burton: An actor with a scholarly appetite for learning

In November 1966, Richard Burton turned 41. “I don’t seem to feel physically any older and tend to think ‘well thank God’ that’s another year gone,” he wrote a couple of days after his birthday, “I’ll change my refrain later when I’m 60. If I reach that age.” Sadly, Burton died in 1984 aged 58. But he did leave behind 450,000 handwritten words in a series of notebooks and journals, which have been meticulously gathered together into a single definitive volume of Diaries spanning from 1939 to 1983. The majority of these collected musings, which commence in earnest in the 1960s, chronicle his passionate but destructive relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, following their adulterous whirlwind romance on the set of Cleopatra (1963). Occasionally, the entries are annotated by Taylor herself and even when they’re not she’s ever-present on the page and in Burton’s everyday thoughts and contemplations. His diaries provide a very candid look at the couple’s volatile married and professional lives as well as their travels, interests, passions and temperaments. They also comprise frank and spirited accounts of Burton’s carousing, his ambivalent feelings toward his own talent, his caustic impressions of the film industry and its personalities, his role as a doting father, his scholarly appetite for learning and avid interest in literature.

Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins on 10th November 1925 in a small village of Pontrhydyfen, Neath Port Talbot, Wales, to a coal miner father and a barmaid mother. He was the twelfth of thirteen children and grew up in a working class Welsh-speaking household. “I have been inordinately lucky all my life,” Burton wrote at the peak of his career, “but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth”. Shortly after the couple’s scandalous romance began Burton divorced his wife at the time, Sybil Williams, and Taylor ended her marriage to Eddie Fisher (“a gruesome little man and smug as a boot,” according to Burton). The couple tied the knot nine days after Taylor’s divorce was finalised in 1964. For the next 10 years, they jetted around the globe “surrounded by publicity and paparazzi” celebrating their love and their glamorous lifestyle. In his most tender moments, Burton lavished Taylor with boundless love, affection and gifts. “She is a wildly exciting lover-mistress,” he wrote early on in their marriage, “she is shy and witty, she is nobody’s fool, she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography…she is clement and loving, Dulcis Imperatrix, she is Sunday’s child, she can tolerate my impossibilities and my drunkenness, she is an ache in my stomach when I am away from her, and she loves me!” But he also recorded the violent clashes of their discordant tempers and their explosive rows, which would arise at any given moment in public and in private. “In the middle of the early night Elizabeth and I exchanged insults,” Burton wrote on 2nd August 1967, “in which I said she was not a ‘woman but a man’ and in which she called me ‘little girl’. A couple of months later Burton raged: “Am in a violent temper. E, as usual, has to combat everything I do or say in front of the children.” And even a couple of years later in 1971 while on a visit to Rome, Burton wrote: “I had a quarrel with E so vivacious that I went for a long walk to cool my anger.”

The ups and downs of their relationship were many and frequent, and eventually led to divorce in 1974, remarriage in 1975 and another divorce in the following year. Judging by Burton’s diaries, however, he could never quite believe his luck when it came to Taylor. “My God she’s a beauty,” he wrote after an evening out in 1968, “sometimes even now, after nearly 8 years of marriage I look at her when she’s asleep at the first light of grey dawn and wonder at her.” There was also a playful element to their relationship, which the diaries auspiciously chart. “E anxious that I write about her here so here goes,” Burton teased in 1967, “She is a nice fat girl who loves mosquitos and hates pustular carbuncular Welshmen, loathes boats and loves planes, has tiny blackcurrant eyes and minute breasts and no sense of humour. She is prudish, priggish and painfully self-conscious.” One of many ways Taylor would retaliate would be by telling Burton in graphic detail the delights of over-eating kippers, for example, and the joy of their repeating. “She is the only person, certainly the only woman who will tell you, details of the internal working of her body,” Burton wrote in September 1971, “She knows it appals me which is why perversely she enjoys telling me. Liz la Perverse.” The diaries reveal Burton’s impeccable observation skills and an abundant interest in books, places and people. The intimacy of the medium allows him to emerge as a fully rounded human being – and a man quite different from his public persona – who readily confronts the challenges of life lived in the public eye. Burton disliked the spotlight and never fully grasped the fascination with celebrity. “Why do they do it?” he once wondered after being accosted by fans, “I never gaped at anybody in my life and much as I admire certain famed people, Churchill and various writers – R. S Gwyn and Dylan Thomas, T.S Eliot, Spender, Greene, MacNeice etc etc I have never asked for an autograph.”

As the above suggests, Burton was a voracious reader and spent a lot of his free time immersed in a book. “I read P.G Wodehouse’s’ latest Do Butlers Burgle Banks? in one sitting,” he noted in an early entry, “it’s exactly the same as all the others. He’s still mining the same vein of gold, but it’s as effortlessly entertaining as ever.” A little later in life, Burton developed an appreciation of poetry, boasting that it was “a magnificent thing to discover poetry in middle age”. He took a particular interest in Dylan Thomas and W.H Auden, with whom he was once invited to read. He later remarked: “Auden has a remarkable face and an equally remarkable intelligence.” Burton wrote of his fellow actors with equal shrewdness. “Marlon’s immorality, his attitude to it is honest and clean,” he notes of Brando, for example, “he is a genuinely good man I suspect and he is intelligent. He has depth…Very little misses him as I’ve noticed.” Amid numerous pages of descriptions of writers, actors, politicians and people in general, Burton comments on important world events – the UK general elections, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the moon, Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, Russian spy Oleg Lyalin defection, the disgraceful death of Nelson Rockefeller and so on. Most of the entries, however, are of a more personal nature and document Burton’s insecurities, vanities, disappointments, drinking and eating habits which he tried to curtail and control throughout his life. “Being (relatively) sober for the last three or four days I have learned a great deal,” Burton wrote in July 1969, “drink, for instance, is a great anodyne. I had forgotten how boring people are. I’d forgotten how afraid people are. I’d forgotten how boring I am. And how all of us lead lives of quiet desperation, and bugger you Thoreau.” 

There is no artifice with Burton – a true Welshman – but occasionally his frankness is somewhat unpalatable as it is, for example, when he documents Taylor’s intimate medical ailments. There is a fine balance between openness and indiscretion and occasionally – even if very occasionally – Burton misses the mark. But his love for Taylor never comes into question, as even in their later years after numerous suspected infidelities, brutal cattiness and decades of turbulence Burton remains firm in his feelings, confessing on paper in late 70s that he loves her still, “mindlessly and hopelessly”. The later entries in the volume are sparse and laconic and bear little resemblance to Burton’s intelligent, revelatory, witty and fascinating ruminations of his heyday. Surprisingly, it seems that much of his unhappiness was a result of his profession. “Very edgy and cantankerous” he wrote in 1966, “no doubt the prospect of working tomorrow is the reason. Always the same before I start a job.”  This sense of anxiety and insecurity plagued him throughout his career. “Off to work,” he wrote in 1971, “in case I hadn’t mentioned it before I hate my work.” This was reportedly due to the fact that he felt he had wasted his talent by working for Hollywood rather treading the boards in London. “My lack of interest in my own career, past present or future is almost total,” he declared in  August 1971, “all my life I think I have been secretly ashamed of being an actor and the older I get the more ashamed I get.” Burton’s Diaries were bequeathed to his last wife, Sally Hay, whom he married in 1983, a year before his death. She gifted them to Swansea University in 2005. They have been thoughtfully compiled and edited by Professor Chris Williams, and give a rare and exclusive look into the life of Richard Burton – the man.

Publisher: Yale Books 
Publication Date: September 2012
Hardback: 704 pages
ISBN: 9780300180107

Writers On Writers

“To read Patrick White is to discover an extra taste bud.”
Nicholas Shakespeare

“The whole of English Lit at the moment is being written by Anthony Burgess. He reviews all new books except those by himself, and these latter include such jeux d’esprit as A Shorter Finnegan’s Wake and so on….He must be a kind of Batman of contemporary letters. I hope he doesn’t take to poetry.”
Philip Larkin

“James’ repressions and evasions are many, varied and exhausting.”
Camille Paglia

“By saying Simone Weil’s life was both comic and terrible I am not trying to reduce it, but mean to be paying her the highest tribute I can, short of calling her a saint, which I don’t believe she was.”
Flannery O’Connor

“I had always had grave doubts about Eliot’s taste and, indeed, intelligence.”
Anthony Burgess

“Céline’s personal and artistic honesty are of a piece. If he made mistakes, grievous mistakes, in his life, as a novelist he remained true to himself and to his art.”
John Banville

“Behind every Chesterton sentence there was someone painting with words, and it seemed to me that at the end of any particularly good sentence or any perfectly-put paradox, you could hear the author, somewhere behind the scenes, giggling with delight.”
Neil Gaiman

“No one, it seems to me, can hope to equal Augustine. Who, nowadays, could hope to equal one who, in my judgment, was the greatest in an age fertile in great minds.”
Petrarch

“In regard to absurdism, Samuel Beckett is sometimes considered to be the epitome of the postmodern artist … In fact, he is the aesthetic reductio ad absurdum of absurdism: no longer whistling in the dark, after waiting for Godot, he is trying to be radically silent, wordless in the dark.”
William Desmond

“If the English hoard words like misers, the Irish spend them like sailors; and Brendan Behan … sends language out on a swaggering spree, ribald, flushed and spoiling for a fight.”
Kenneth Tynan

Sources: The Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, Wikiquote

Seminal Lines

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

The Waste Land – T. S Eliot

Phil Baker: The skilful biographer

In his eponymous study of William S. Burroughs (published by Reaktion Books in their Critical Lives series) Phil Baker skilfully chronicles this most controversial and illustrious counterculture figure’s life from his boyhood in Show-Me-State St Louis, Missouri; through to his galliard years in Europe; his days as a junky on the streets of New York; his spell in Mexico City; his nomadic roving in Morocco and South America; to his senescence and eventual death in Kansas in 1997. Burroughs died a cult icon, a figure of worldwide acclaim with a status akin to that of a rock star. And almost two decades after his death, he still remains as fascinating as his auctorial prose, which shifted nebulous boundaries between fact and fiction. The fescennine nature of his work, and the attempts to censor it, has also generated considerable interest in the man himself. Chronicling the early years, Baker notes that Burroughs was almost exclusively attracted by the unorthodox and the occult. Excited by the sight of a maid smoking opiates young Burroughs said to himself: “I will smoke opium when I grow up.” True to his word he first tried drugs (chloral hydrate) while still at school. Burroughs didn’t like school, preferring to spend time on Market Street, “the skid row” of his adolescent youth.

Burroughs’ early experience of “tattoo parlours, novelty stores [and] hock shops” came to constitute the ambiance of much of his prose. But his chief impetus to write was actually literature. Baker notes that aged 13 Burroughs “encountered the book that was to have the greatest effect on his writing… the autobiography of a criminal, Jack Black’s 1925 You Can’t Win.” Speaking of it later, Burroughs remembered being “fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming house, pool parlours, cat houses and opium dens.” Due to his idiosyncratic interests, Burroughs came to be viewed as an outsider and this sense of exclusion not only characterised his early life but also followed him when he went to Harvard in 1932 to study English Literature. Despite the odds firmly stacked against him, he received “a good education.” Baker explains: “He attended George Lyman Kittredge’s then famous Shakespeare lectures, learned a great deal of Shakespeare by heart, and took a course on Coleridge’s imagination with John Livingstone Lowes, author of the classis study The Road to Xandau.” He even “saw T.S Eliot give one of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures”. And yet despite complete immersion in academia, Burroughs felt compelled to explore the underground subculture of New York City, Harlem nightclubs and sex. Burroughs was unpopular at Harvard; he kept a ferret in his room and a “gun, against regulations” once narrowly escaping a lethal accident.

After leaving Harvard in 1936, Burroughs travelled to New York where he was introduced to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Joan Vollmer. Burroughs and Vollmer became lovers in 1945 and were soon living together as common-law husband and wife. Joan was later famously a victim of one of Burroughs’ most notorious capers. “I guess it’s about time for out William Tell act,” Burroughs reportedly said to Vollmer after an evening out in Mexico City. “Joan was fairly drunk and she giggled as she balanced a glass on her head,” Baker writes, “Burroughs took aim at the top of the glass and fired, with the shocking sound of the gun indoors. A moment later the glass was one the floor but still unbroken…There was a small blue hole in Joan’s forehead, four or five centremetres to the left of the centre. Joan died on the way to the hospital. Burroughs was detained by the police and later sentenced to two years suspended, minus 13 days. According to Baker “Burroughs never stopped turning the event in his mind. He even thought of trying to write something about it but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was afraid…not so much of finding the ‘unconscious intent’ but something altogether wider.” Burroughs recorded his own feelings in a journal, saying: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I never should have become a writer but for Joan’s death. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control.”  This need was indeed evident both in his life and in his work. During this period Burroughs was travelling a lot, he “was changing. His politics were mellowing; he stopped using the word ‘Liberal’ as a term of abuse…His comic talents were sharpening.” Not only that, Burroughs was also experimenting with yage, a drug that made everything “writhe with a peculiar furtive life.” He later recalled that it was like “space-time travel,” something he had longed for but hadn’t previously found.

In 1953, Burroughs returned to Mexico City but unable to settle went back to St Louis and later to stay with Ginsberg in New York. The two became embroiled in a sexual relationship, which ended abruptly and saw Burroughs leave for Tangiers, a place where “fact merges into dream, and dreams erupt into real world.”  Burroughs was missing Ginsberg and in a letter to Kerouac wrote that “the withdrawal symptoms are worse than the Marker habit. One letter would fix me.” In absence of the epistolary panacea, Burroughs was getting fixed on Eucodol and a young Spaniard, who was to become his lover for the next several years. Quietly dissatisfied with his new life, lonely and sequestered, Burroughs felt old (now in his 40s) and just as alone as he had done in his teenage years. He saw himself move through the world “like a ghost” who would end up as a “crazy old bore somewhere in a bar”.  Burroughs’ addiction to Eucodol was also spiralling out of control. He was injecting every two hours and “could now spend eight hours staring at his shoe, periodically sticking a needle into his grey fibrous flesh.” These details of an addict’s lifestyle later made it into his work, which had come to a halt until he fled to London in 1956 to seek help. Clean, he went back to Tangiers and began writing, fuelled by inspiration that came like a “great black wind through the bones.”

Two years later, Burroughs followed Ginsberg and his new lover Peter Orlovsky to Paris. By February 1958, Burroughs was once again developing a drug habit by way of Codethyline. While in Paris, Ginsberg and Burroughs went on a pilgrimage to meet Louis-Ferdinand Céline and “walked straight into a Celine novel”. It was from him and his “style telegraphique” that the Beats “took their free use of dots” to capture the spoken word effect. Among other notables, Burroughs also met Jaques Stern, “a millionaire, French junky intellectual, crippled by polio” whose prose fragments were later inosculated with Burroughs’ cut-up prose most notably in The Soft Machine. Burroughs also became better acquainted with Brion Gysin, a “regally smooth artist” whom he first met in Tangiers. His interest in the “irrational occult” deepened due to Gysin, who replaced Ginsberg in Burroughs affections, and the new lover fortified for Burroughs the belief in “super-surreal consolidation of reality and dream.” The following year, Burroughs began to experience numinous visions and “paranormal occurrences were coming so thick and fast he could barely get them down on paper.” At one point he reportedly saw “his own hand turn completely inhuman, thick, black-pink, with white tendrils growing out where the fingertips had been.” He also took to crystal ball gazing and saw “flying saucers like flat fish full of black fuzz”. Burroughs was writing Naked Lunch and Ginsberg was trying to get it published, which he did. The work made Burroughs both famous and infamous. He later recalled seeing a review in which “they had a picture of me in a suit, saying ‘He has the appearance of a Protestant minister or a banker, but actually he’s very subversive, dedicated to subverting all decent values.” Oppugning rather than subverting, perhaps, but Burroughs’ prose is so multidimensional, so full of anacolutha and fragmentations that it is often susceptible to misinterpretation. Naked Lunch is hostile and brutish yet it is also a considered and intricate study of the human condition.

Not long after, Gysin came up with the cut up technique which “would dominate Burroughs’ work for the next decade.” By 1960, the cut up method produced two collaborative efforts. One between the key Beats, Minutes to God, and the other between Burroughs and Gysin called The Exterminator. Around this time Burroughs took to travelling again, and while in Paris met Samuel Beckett. Although interested in Burroughs, Beckett was less enthused about the cut-ups, remarking of the method: “That’s not writing, that’s merely plumbing.” He did, however, compliment Naked Lunch, telling Burroughs: “Our despair is total. Total! That’s what I felt in Naked Lunch and why I like it.” Later, Burroughs travelled to London where he became involved in barmecidal spiritualism and new mind-altering-substances, including pilocybin and DMT which resulted in grotesque visions of “green boys with purple fungoid gills” and “white ovens”. Burroughs was well received in Britain but his reputation and the sales of Naked Lunch were going agley in New York. By 1963, the book was deemed obscene by the courts due to too “many baboons” and insurrectionary ideas. It was perhaps Burroughs’ provocative lifestyle as well as prose – the drugs, the ostentatious degradation, contempt for convention and law – that many middle class Americans found an effrontery. As Baker says, Burroughs’ prose landscape was “an unmistakable place, with its penny arcades and vacant lots, China blue skies, 1920s movies, a smell of woodsmoke and piano music down a city street, train whistles, frayed light from a distant star, rose wallpaper and brass bedsteads, ginger haired boys with red gums, deformed fish snapping lazily at jissom on the surface of a black lagoon, and lesbian agents with penises grafted on to their faces, sitting outside a cafe in white trench coats, drinking spinal fluids from alabaster cups.” That was Burroughs and it was decidedly not America.

By 1966, after a stint in New York Burroughs was back in London. He was growing stranger and more paranoid as the decade went on, becoming increasingly superstitious and developing an interest in Scientology, which he later abandoned for politics. By 1968, Burroughs was metamorphosing into “a revolutionary thinker, dreaming up left-field guerrilla tactics for the overthrow of society.” He became more erratic during his public appearances talking about: killer whistles, camel endorphins as painkillers and the abandonment of one’s biological brain. Burroughs’ time in London was rather troubled and “he hated the licensing laws and the British class system.” For him, London was a grey city full of bad service. Depressed and largely alone except for an occasional “dilly boy,” Burroughs was visited by Ginsberg. Dismayed by the state of affairs, Ginsberg arranged a teaching post for him in New York City Collage and Burroughs left London in 1974. He found New York to be “one of the most polite cities” he had ever inhabited. While there, he met a young man called James Grauerholz. The two became lovers, but soon the affair dissipated and Grauerholz took on a role as Burroughs’ manager, using his experience of “organising rock gigs to give Burroughs a financially viable career in live performances.” By now in his 60s Burroughs was “becoming one of the world’s foremost celebrities, lionised by rock stars,” hanging out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Joe Strummer and Mick Jagger. But he was also surrounded by parasites and sycophants, and fed up with the lifestyle decided to move to Kansas in 1981.

With London, New York and Paris behind him Burroughs preoccupied himself with his interest in firearms and spent many an afternoon “blasting away at targets and refreshing himself with vodka and Coke.” His emotional coenaesthesis was finally dispelled by a new found love for animals, cats in particular. “Burroughs’ cats reminded him of people he had known,” writes Baker, “He felt them as autonomous, struggling, mortal beings, and he found again the sense of essential contact that he had always sought in relationships.” He even had a sticker on his front door in case of emergencies, alerting people that there were cats inside that must be saved. This paints a very different picture of “the sheep killing dog” and the “insane German philosopher in exile” that Burroughs was often portrayed as. Most of his later work revolved around his renewed interest in “occult style astral travel” and mystical devices, documented in Bodies of Light, Western Lands and Education: A Book of Dreams. Some thought the old man was going senile, but Baker says “many of Burroughs’ beliefs are easily paraphrased in psychic terms, but this doesn’t explain their cultural significance or why varieties of the same paranoia were central to the work of several American writers in the same era, including Hunter S Thompson, Thomas Pynchon and Philip K Dick.” Perhaps they were all onto something. In the last couple of decades, Burroughs remained en vogue, appearing on television and in film as “filth flder par excellence”. Highly cherished in his adopted home-town as a lovable “old gink” he trudged on into old age, wryly attributing his longevity to “healthy living.” He also said he no longer felt lonely or unloved because he had “his familiars,” his friends and his cats. So in the end the most unpopular boy from St Louis had actually found something he had been looking all his life, the “most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE.”

Hart Crane: A visionary poet and “a nephew to confusions”

Hart Crane’s tombstone bares a succinct epitaph, which reads: “Lost at sea.” This is both true in a figurative and literal sense, as most of his life Crane felt at odds with the world; and on 27th April 1932, aged 32, while on-board the steamship SS Orizaba heading back to New York from Veracruz, Crane jumped overboard into the glacious Gulf of Mexico waters.  His body – never recovered – rests somewhere in the bathypelagic depths of the ocean, his marble headstone in his native Garrettsville, Ohio. Crane left behind a slender oeuvre and a miscellany of uncollected essays, verses, reviews and translations. His first poetic offering, White Buildings (1926), was received with genuflections from both his friends and some of the most notable cultural arbiters of 1920s America, including Waldo Frank, Malcolm Cowley, Yvor Winters and Allen Tate. Crane’s premature death has made his legacy into a romantic apologue, disregarding the grody and macabre details of his life. In truth, Crane was chronically manic, creatively congested, often stupendously drunk, prone to episodes of bellicose frenzy and deeply troubled by his homosexuality. He spent his life scrambling for money and love, the latter mostly in cheap one night hotels with brutish sailors and stevedores. He drank in Village speakeasies and Brooklyn waterfront dives to ameliorate the guilt of his sexual misadventures. And sometimes, in between “rings of tumult” and the “immaculate sigh of stars” he wrote poetry. In time, however, his writing became secondary to the protracted, yet unrelenting, process of self-annihilation.

Harold Hart Crane was born on July 21st 1899 to an affluent Cleveland sweets manufacturer. He dropped out of school in his teens and cajoled his parents into sending him to New York, where he hoped to make it as a writer. Ambitious to unsurpassable degree, aged 17 Crane assuredly declared that he would “be one of the foremost poets in America”. Described by his friend Edward Dahlberg as a stocky, virile male with a Jovean square face, mizzling, foggy eyes, gun-metal grey hair and a smouldering, amorous mouth,” Crane soon made an impression on the New York literary set and  was published in some of the leading underground journals of the day.  I first discovered Crane through Robert Lowell who proclaimed him to be the “best writer of his generation”. Intrigued by Lowell’s veneration I picked up a copy of Crane’s Complete Poems & Selected Letters & Prose in a small indie bookshop. The hardback edition comprises most of the poet’s output, including his thoughts on Modern Poetry and the role of the poet, which he says “must be, as always, self-discipline towards a formal integration of experience.” By this virtue, a great deal of Crane’s work is therefore intelligible only to Crane himself. But reading his verses I remembered something T.S. Eliot once said, namely that “what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author”.  This interpretative framework has always, if sometimes unwittingly, shaped my relationship with poetry but never more so when reading Crane.

After the publication of White Buildings, Crane began work on his second collection, The Bridge (1930), inspired by the famous Brooklyn monument which he saw every day from his boarding-house window. He laboured on the poems for the next several years, sustaining himself on occasional goodwill of eleemosynary acquaintances. Yet, beleaguered by chronic paucity and the inability to bring the collection to a close Crane left for Paris. His stint in the French capital was cut short after he got himself into a bar brawl and thus had to return to New York. There he eventually finished the collection, which pays homage to the modern city through inspired evocations of tyrannically imposing structures and the onset of industrialisation. The last poem in the collection called Atlantis epitomises the overall feel of The Bridge, particularly in the fourth stanza when Crane says: “Sheerly the eyes, like seagulls stung with rime—/Slit and propelled by glistening fins of light—/Pick biting way up towering looms that press /Sidelong with flight of blade on tendon blade/—Tomorrows into yesteryear—and link/What cipher-script of time no traveller reads/But who, through smoking pyres of love and death/Searches the timeless laugh of mythic spears.” The reception of the book – which shows influence from various poets such as Eliot, Walt Whitman and Percy Bysshe Shelley – was an encouraging and momentous one, as many praised its prosperous marrying of both 19th and 20th century poetic tradition. Unfortunately, by this time Crane’s “bright logic” and creative prowess was waning. His erratic behaviour, unremitting need for attention and money repelled many of those who had uncompromisingly stood by him. And yet, despite the odds Crane managed to earn himself a name among his contemporaries as a visionary poet of the Machine Age, who sought to discover a “complete synthesis of human values” in new forms.

Contrary to critical opinion, some of my favourite Crane poems are those written early on in his career. One such example is Exile, where the poet laments a separation saying: “My hands have not touched pleasure since your hands, –/No, — nor my lips freed laughter since ‘farewell’/And with the day, distance again expands/Voiceless between us, as an uncoiled shell.” Another is Voyages, from his first collection, which already shows Crane’s knack for externalising the emotional and combining the modern with the archaic (Take this Sea, whose diapason knells/On scrolls of silver snowy sentences/The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends/As her demeanours motion well or ill/All but the pieties of lovers’ hands), and Carmen de Boheme , which is beautifully observational especially in the following lines: “Sinuously winding through the room/On smokey tongues of sweetened cigarettes/Plaintive yet proud the cello tones resume/The andante of smooth hopes and lost regrets /Bright peacocks drink from flame-pots by the wall/Just as absinthe-sipping women shiver through/With shimmering blue from the bowl in Circe’s hall/Their brown eyes blacken, and the blue drop hue.” While Interior is simple yet striking (“Wide from the world, a stolen hour/We claim, and none may know/How love blooms like a tardy flower/Here in the day’s after-glow”) as is Postscript (“Though now but marble are the marble urns/Though fountains droop in waning light and pain/Glitters on the edges of wet ferns/I should not dare to let you in again/Mine is a world foregone though not yet ended -/An imagined garden grey with sundered boughs/And broken branches, wistful and unmended/And mist that is more constant than your vows”). The book, containing all of Cranes’ verses, charts his creative development offering the reader a chance to fully appreciate Crane’s evolving futuristic lyricism segueing into robust iconographic images of urban modernity.

A lot of Crane’s strengths lie in his prescience and wild-eyed prophesying about mankind’s progress. His weaknesses stem from these same strengths, which at times seem out-dated. A general overview of the poet’s troubled existence and his work seems to suggest that he was lost at sea in life as well as in death. And yet, Crane managed to leave an infinitesimal, but important, mark as someone who was a visionary and as he himself once said nephew to confusions” both in regard to his personal life and his overall artistic vision. The latter made clear in Crane’s essays and reviews gathered in the book. In one particular instance, writing of fellow poet Maxwell Bodenheim and his collection of poetry, Minna and Myself, Crane notes: “I think that many of these poems will endure though they will probably not be widely popular for the principal reason that they are too distinguished – too peculiar.” A fair and accurate estimation and one which coincidentally also applies to Crane himself.

E.E. Cummings: Someone who “always wrote poetry”

One of my colleagues – an avid reader of poetry – recently asked me why E.E. Cummings was never referenced by the Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg. I think, as I explained to him, it is probably because his verse is more often than not regarded as frivolous. And yet, in truth, Cummings wrote quite solemn poetry. Posterity has had fun with his legacy, which is somewhat unfortunate. Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 14th October 1894, to parents of old New England stock. Cummings once described his mother, Rebecca, as “the most amazing person” he had ever met and someone who had a judicious facility to “to understand how people really felt.”  Speaking of his father, Edward, Cummings said he had loved him with a love which was in fact “worship” but noted that later it turned into one which incited “battle” as he realised his father’s shortcomings. A Harvard sociologist and later a Unitarian minister, Edward Cummings died in a locomotive-automobile accident in 1926. Cummings  was greatly affected by his father’s death, despite the growing schism between them, and later celebrated his life in a poignant expression of filial veneration called my father moved through dooms of love (“through sames of am through haves of give/singing each morning out of each night/my father moved through depths of height”). The poem is perhaps one of Cummings’ most explicitly sentimental ones in dealing with affirmative love (“because my father lived his soul/love is the whole and more than all”) as typically his themes revolve around the difficulty of love and the hardship of understanding  it as “the mystery of mysteries”.   

Speaking about his craft Cummings once stated, “I did not decide to write poetry – I always wrote poetry.”  It is thought that he began as early as 1904, while still at Cambridge Latin High School. Strongly encouraged by both his parents, Cummings pursued his interest in writing when he enrolled in Harvard in 1911 to study Classics and Literature. Four years later, he graduated magna cum laude, staying on an additional year to earn his MA in English. Cummings published his first poem in The Harvard Monthly in 1912, and within a year was elected to serve on its editorial board. During this time he studied leading 19th century English poets such as John Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Percy Bysshe Shelley, thus much of his early work was derivative of his idols. He later discovered the works of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and the modernist thinkers inspired him to take a new and  more progressive direction, including typographical wordplay, which eventually became his pennon. In 1925 a critic by the name of William Russell Clarke berated Cummings’ collection, XLI Poems, saying: “To say that Mr Cummings is a modern would be adding insult to injury. He is a supermodern – a super supermodern. His poetry is so new – so dazzlingly green and uripe and so amazingly unreconcilable with anything – that to attempt to interpret it is as useless as would be the measuring of the Indian Ocean with a tape line. If there is method in his madness, the method is not obvious.”  Incredibly scathing in retrospect, but yet today it seems subversively praiseworthy of Cummings’ originality and daring radicalism.

Cummings is someone I discovered later in life. I sometimes wonder how the discovery came about but have no recollection. Whenever I think of him, however, the poem that springs to mind is always one and the same, i carry your heart with me. It is the latent romantic in me that knows the poem by heart and swoons every time, upon recollecting the following lines: “here is the deepest secret nobody knows/(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud/and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows/higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)/and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart/i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)”. There is something immeasurably beautiful in the notion of everlasting devotion, which keeps one forever in someone’s heart unbeknown to the person or the world at large. In another poem, of the same theme, i love you much(most beautiful darling), Cummings simply says if everyone could feel the same about a beloved, as he does about his then “everyone certainly would (my most beautiful darling)believe in nothing but love”. A lot of Cummings’ poems on the subject matter resonate with distant echoes of Keats and the Romantic tradition, presented above with a modern take reflecting both the poet’s ingenuity and influences.

In his playful and more frivolous moments Cummings wrote lighter verse epitomised by the likes of may i feel said he (“cccome?said he/ummm said she/you’re divine! said he/ you are Mine said she”), the boys i mean are not refined (“the boys i mean are not refined/they go with girls who buck and bite/they do not give a fuck for luck/they hump them thirteen times a night”) and Me up at does (“Me up at does/out of the floor/quietly Stare/a poisoned mouse/still who alive/is asking What have i done that/You wouldn’t have”). Cummings moved to New York in 1917 after securing employment with P.F. Collier, a company that published a magazine called Collier’s Weekly. It also had a commercial book distribution service, where Cummings worked. The fledgling poet described the work as “warming the chair for three and four hour intervals” thus in between his duties scribbled verse and read newspapers. On one such occasion after reading that William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, had died Cummings wrote Buffalo Bill’s. A poem which is both an elegy and a plangent confrontation: “Buffalo Bill ‘s defunct/who used to/ride a watersmooth-silver/stallion/and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat/Jesus/he was a handsome man /and what i want to know is/how do you like your blueeyed boy/Mister Death.”  A short time after that, and two weeks into his job, Cummings quit, and the rest became documented in his poetry and a flurry of biographies that followed his death of a stroke on September 3rd 1962, at the New Hampshire Memorial Hospital.

Irrespective of the general opinion about him, Cummings always made me contemplate the topics which I would not have done without him such as when he said in but if a living dance upon dead minds  that “love everywhere exploding maims and blinds/(but surely does not forget, perish, sleep cannot be/photographed, measured; disdains/the trivial labelling of punctual brains…/-Who wields a poem huger than the grave?/from only Whom shall time no refuge keep/though all the weird worlds must be opened?” And opened they were, in a way that no other poet opened them and no other contemporary had the courage to. So, for that reason and many besides I will always remember Cummings as someone who wrote candidly, as someone who dared to use the word “fuck” in poetry, as someone who was an impertinent disciple and ploughed his own furrow but also as someone who penned something I only felt once towards another captured in the following lines: “your slightest look easily will unclose me/though i have closed myself as fingers”.

T.S. Eliot Giveaway Results

Everyone who left a comment/tweeted over the past week had his name entered into “Random Integer Generator” at http://www.random.org to select a winner. The chosen number was matched to a name and the winner is:

Jhfrudd

Congrats! Please email me with your details so I can dispatch your prize.

Thanks to all who entered,

Dolly

T.S. Eliot Giveaway!

I am giving away a brand new copy of T.S Eliot’s Let Us Go Then, You and I: Selected Poems. To enter, just follow these simple steps:

– leave a comment naming your favourite Eliot poem
– subscribe to my blog
– follow me on twitter @dollydelightly
– tweet @dollydelightly with the key word “Eliot”

I will select a winner using http://www.random.org.

With Love & Squalor,
Dolly

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