Sunday, August 06, 2006

In the Penny Press! Poems and Nukes!

Here we are again, huddled together as I prepare to bombard you with the very latest in printed trivia!

So let's start with a BANG! In the latest New Republic (how on Earth did I get along all these years without including it in my regular reading? Just LOOK at how many times it's featured here, which is, after all, the Academy Awards of magazine-recognition!). The odious Alice Quinn has published a collection of previously-unpublished Elizabeth Bishop poems, and the New Republic gave it to the mighty Helen Vendler to review. I consider Vendler to be the greatest poetry-reviewer ever to put pen to paper, and never is she more terrifying than in her anger:

This book should not have been issued with its present subtitle of "Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments." It should have been called "Repudiated Poems." For Elizabeth Bishop had years to publish the poems included here, had she wanted to publish them. They remained unpublished (not "uncollected") because, for the most part, they did not meet her fastidious standards (although a few, such as the completed love poem "It is marvellous to wake up together" may have been withheld out of prudence). Students eagerly wanting to buy "the new book by Elizabeth Bishop" should be told to go back and buy the old one, where the poet represents herself as she wished to be known. The eighty-odd poems that this famous perfectionist allowed to be printed over the years are "Elizabeth Bishop" as a poet. This book is not.

It will be argued that Bishop could have burned all these pieces of paper if she did not wish them to see publication (I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts). But burning one's writing is painful, and Bishop kept her papers, as any of us might, because the past was precious to her. Had Bishop been asked whether her repudiated poems and some drafts and fragments should be published after her death, she would have replied, I believe, with a horrified 'No.'

It seems to me a betrayal of Elizabeth Bishop as a poet to print items from the archive in magazines and journals as if they were 'real poems' and not attempts that were withheld by the poet from just such public appearances.

And in conclusion: "In the long run, these newly published materials will be relegated to what Robert Lowell called 'the back stacks,' and this imperfect volume will be forgotten, except by scholars. The real poems will outlast these, their maimed and stunted siblings."


This review has already sparked a storm of controversy - two articles in the New York Times, a spate of planned debates in Poetry magazine ... and of course a REPLY from the odious Alice Quinn, which will no doubt show up soon in the New Republic. Plus, I guarantee you, the TLS will get wind of this and write something - this is just exactly the kind of bandwagon they can't resist. It's not just that Vendler is entirely right - I've been reading her for years, and I've never once known her to be otherwise - it's that she's the proverbial 500-pound gorilla, not some hack from the back benches.

And speaking of the TLS, this week Edward Luttwak reviews two new books on the Cold War and gets off to what I think is a very interesting start:

There is no justification for Cold War nostalgia. The sanguinary threats of truculent preachers, pious murderers and elected fanatics and the variegated violence du jour of fanatical Islam are all small potatoes compared to the peril of nuclear obliteration that attended entire decades of the Cold War. And to think of the unthinkable, even if Islam's true believers were to acquire one or two nuclear weapons and use them, there would still remain a world of difference between the detonation of a bomb or even two by wild-eyed fanatics and of 20,000, 25,000 and 30,000 megaton-yield weapons systematically delivered on target by disciplined military professionals dutifully obeying verified release orders. It was a credibly contrived implacability, along with the undoubted lethality of nuclear weapons, that gave us a Cold War of devastating reciprocal threats instead of the bloody battles of real, non-nuclear wars between the greatest powers.

"Nuclear weapons prohibited the optimism without which few wars have ever been started. If they were used, outcomes only remained unpredictable at the margins, while it was entirely certain that there would be catastrophic consequence. That unprecedented certainty induced unprecendented caution on the part of everyone concerned, even Stalin and Mao, monsters in human form who calmly encompassed the deaths of millions and tens of millions of their fellow citizens, but who behaved as cautiously as ordinary political leaders when it came to nuclear weapons.

That's all probably boring stuff to you, but it was a little revelation to me, since Luttwak's never written that well about anything (I suspect he has a book in the works on the subject). My only quibble is one you can probably see coming a mile away: nowhere in this very long review does President Kennedy get even a brief mention. Which irks me because the one time a "monster in human form" maybe WAS willing to go beyond threats, it was JFK who stared him back away from the precipice. The world came within flimsy hours of nuclear annihilation, and I think it's worth mentioning that it was a Kennedy who saved it. But that's just me...

And there you have it! An oddly SHORT installment, from an oddly light week of periodical reading! Of course, the week hasn't been light at on the book-reading front, but that's an entirely different tedious entry!


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