The wrap: poetry in the news (w/e 8 May 2013)

A handwritten poem by Oscar Wilde has sold for over four times its estimate at auction – fetching just over $100,000 (roughly $2,500 per line) – making it one of the most valuable poems ever written by an Irishman. Born on the same date that Wilde died, Alex Dimitrov – founder of a queer poetry salon in NYC called Wilde Boys – is Doing It Ruthlessly and All the Time, while patron saint of poetry, James Longenbach, is busy singing The Virtues of Poetry.

newspaper-icon-thumb10559428A handwritten poem by Oscar Wilde has sold for over four times its estimate at auction – fetching just over $100,000 (roughly $2,500 per line) – making it one of the most valuable poems ever written by an Irishman. Born on the same date that Wilde died, Alex Dimitrov – founder of a queer poetry salon in NYC called Wilde Boys – is Doing It Ruthlessly and All the Time, while patron saint of poetry, James Longenbach, is busy singing The Virtues of Poetry. Tony Hoagland thinks Twenty Little Poems Could Save America, but James MacManus thinks nothing could’ve saved Baudelaire from the Black Venus who betrayed, bankrupted and bewitched him into drug addiction. On Jerusalem Day, Yehuda Amichai was remembered with a poem comparing the city to a carousel, while translators of Dan Brown’s forthcoming novel – borne of his deep reading of Dante’s Commedia – toiled in a circle-of-hell of their own. The multitude of sham Dante tie-ins, including Jonathan Black’s Secret History of Dante – which will expose hidden codes, connections to the mysterious Knights Templar and “a 2,000-year-old conspiracy” – has some people (ok, me) dreaming of a galaxy far, far away … while NASA, hoping to take poetry to a new frontier, has put out a call for 17-syllable haiku for Martians.

The wrap: poetry in the news (w/e 2 May 2013)

A British scholar finds Vita Sackville-West’s poem to her mistress, Violet Trefusis, when it falls out of a book, while a Canadian poet constructs a found poem from reviews of books by women in major publications (but switches the pronouns to male). Par exemple: “Much of his novel seems held together with a kind of teary hormonal paste”. In Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, Professor Daisy Fried proclaims “The Poetess has long felt that women’s equality should be founded in the notion that a woman is no worse than a man” and proceeds to declare Charles Bukowski “our greatest living poetess“.

newspaper-icon-thumb10559428A British scholar finds Vita Sackville-West’s poem to her mistress, Violet Trefusis, when it falls out of a book, while a Canadian poet constructs a found poem from reviews of books by women in major publications (but switches the pronouns to male). Par exemple: “Much of his novel seems held together with a kind of teary hormonal paste”. In Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, Professor Daisy Fried proclaims “The Poetess has long felt that women’s equality should be founded in the notion that a woman is no worse than a man” and proceeds to declare Charles Bukowski “our greatest living poetess”. Appalachian Elegy, legendary-feminist bell hooks’ new book of poems, honours the first-people in her native state of Kentucky, while the first known Native American literary writer, Bamewawagezhikaquay (Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky), is remembered on the last day of National Poetry Month. On Poetica Spike Milligan’s poem “Manic Depression at St Luke’s Wing, Woodside Hospital Psychiatric Wing, 1953” opens: “The pain is too much, a thousand grim winters grow in my head, in my ears the sound of the coming dead”, while the working papers to “Sheep in Fog” reveal how Sylvia Plath arrived at the poem’s grim end: “They threaten 
/ To let me through to a heaven /
 Starless and fatherless, a dark water”. A Washington Post critic fears Charles Simic’s whip-smart metaphors are wielding less of a bite, but a professor of economics explains conceptual poets peak early, and experimental poets peak late. Meanwhile a book of cat-themed poetry – I Could Pee On This – swishes its tail on the NPR best-seller lists, amid self-help books and memoirs, while a bemused editor curates a gallery of insouciant feline poems.

Past Wraps:

w/e 25 Apr 2013

The roy davids collection: portraits of poets

My wish list of photographs I’d like to buy at Bonham’s The Roy Davids Collection. Part III. Poetry: Poetical Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets. Estimated cost AU$18,050 = Stein: $800; Millay: $2,000; Dylan: $3,200; Moore: $3,200; Sitwell: $1,200; Jeffers: $2,400; Betjeman: $1,800; Baldwin: $700; Beckett: $2,750

My wish list of photographs I’d like to buy at Bonham’s The Roy Davids Collection. Part III. Poetry: Poetical Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets.

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Estimated cost AU$18,050

Stein: $800; Millay: $2,000; Dylan: $3,200; Moore: $3,200; Sitwell: $1,200; Jeffers: $2,400; Betjeman: $1,800; Baldwin: $700; Beckett: $2,750

This year’s miles franklin is all woman

Well this is curious. Women outnumbered men on the Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist by 4:1, and now the judges – for the first time in the Award’s 57-year history – have turned out a shortlist that is 100% female. The all-female shortlist comes less than two weeks after the inaugural Stella Prize of $50,000 for a book by a female Australian author was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds. The Stella, which retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin felt she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer, was created in indignant response to the all-male shortlists the Franklin served up in 2009 and 2011.

milesWell this is curious. Women outnumbered men on the Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist by 4:1, and now the judges – for the first time in the Award’s 57-year history – have turned out a shortlist that is 100% female:

The all-female shortlist comes less than two weeks after the inaugural Stella Prize of $50,000 for a book by a female Australian author was awarded to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds.

The Stella, which retrieves the given-name Miles Franklin felt she needed to suppress in order to be taken seriously as a writer, was created in indignant response to the all-male shortlists the Franklin served up in 2009 and 2011.

But any point of distinction the Stella Prize sought to make has not eventuated. In fact the 2013 Stella and Franklin shortlists look remarkably similar.

Not only are both lists composed entirely of women, but Tiffany and de Krester appear on both. And while first-time novelist Romy Ash fell off the Stella shortlist, she has held her ground in the Miles Franklin.

But in what appears to be a blatant – but not unwelcome – effort to muscle its way back to Australia’s top dog literary prize, this year the Miles Franklin has increased its cash prize by $10,000 to $60,000.

And Miles Franklin shortlisted authors needn’t feel pressured to follow Carrie Tiffany’s generous lead in returning $10,000 of her Stella Prize win to share equally among her shortlisted comrades.

In another new initiative, Miles Franklin shortlisted authors will be awarded $5,000 in prize money by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, a long term partner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It’s a win-win situation, for Australian women authors at least.

Speaking on behalf of The Trust Company, which manages the estate of the late Miles Franklin, Simon Lewis congratulated all the shortlisted authors:

The shortlist demonstrates how strong Australia’s pipeline of female literary talent really is, as witnessed with last year’s Miles Franklin winner, Anna Funder, as well as by the growing number of first time female authors included in the long and shortlists in recent years.

“We look forward to announcing yet another outstanding Australian female literary talent on the 19 June as the 2013 Miles Franklin Award winner,” Mr Lewis said.

Since the Miles Franklin Award began in 1957, a woman has won only 14 times. This year the count creeps up to 15.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Ambiguous agnes: hannah kent’s burial rites

Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

A novel that can be summarised in a single, captivating sentence is a publisher’s dream. Not that ease of marketing is a reliable measure of excellence. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), for instance – which could be described as ‘the story of a mother who dies before taking her son to visit a lighthouse, and later a woman completes a painting’ – achieved classic status despite an unpropitious précis. Woolf’s genius aside, it is difficult to imagine a sentence like that sparking an international bidding war of the kind that erupted last year over Hannah Kent’s first novel. Burial Rites – ‘the story of the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland’ – reportedly netted Kent a considerable advance.

Burial Rites by Hannah KentA novel that can be summarised in a single, captivating sentence is a publisher’s dream. Not that ease of marketing is a reliable measure of excellence. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), for instance – which could be described as ‘the story of a mother who dies before taking her son to visit a lighthouse, and later a woman completes a painting’ – achieved classic status despite an unpropitious précis. Woolf’s genius aside, it is difficult to imagine a sentence like that sparking an international bidding war of the kind that erupted last year over Hannah Kent’s first novel. Burial Rites – ‘the story of the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland’ – reportedly netted Kent a considerable advance.

Kent’s novel has immediate appeal. Beyond the ghoulish fascination of beheadings, it taps into the prevailing hunger for historical fiction. Based on a true story, its cast of characters would seem implausible, were they not based on real people: Agnes Magnúsdóttir (1795–1830), a housekeeper who struggles, like Thomas Hardy’s Tess, against harsh and indifferent fates; Natan Ketilsson (1792–1828), a Rasputin-like herbalist and farmer who is Agnes’s employer and sometime lover; and Rósa Gudmundsdóttir (1795–1855), another of Natan’s lovers, who also happens to be one of Iceland’s most famous poets of the early nineteenth century.

Behind Agnes’s execution lies a double murder and a complex love triangle. This much is known: on a spring night in 1828, Agnes woke a neighbouring household to tell them that the Illugastaðir farmhouse was on fire. Natan and his friend Pétur Jónsson, she said, were trapped inside. Unfortunately for Agnes, the fire was quickly doused and it became clear that the two men had been stabbed before the blaze. Agnes was arrested, along with an avaricious farmhand named Fridrik and his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Siggi, who was later sent to a Copenhagen textile prison. Agnes and Fridrik were beheaded by Natan’s brother on a small hillock in Húnavatnssýsla on 12 January 1830.

Kent has built her narrative around a small trove of historical documents associated with the murders: a public notice announcing an auction of Natan’s valuables (variously a cow, a few horses, sheep, a saddle, a bridle, some plates), a list of Agnes’s assets (among odds and ends, ‘an old blue skirt with a blue bodice of plain-woven wool, with a red collar and eight silver buttons’), extracts from the Supreme Court trials of 1829, and various contemporaneous eyewitness and character testimonies.

There is also an Icelandic Burial Hymn and an extract from the Laxdæla Saga, whose protagonist, Guðrún, laments: ‘I was worst to the one I loved best.’ Especially powerful is the exchange between Agnes and Skáld-Rósa. Although married and living with another man at the time, Rósa loved Natan passionately and reportedly bore him two children. In June 1828, following the murders, Rósa aired her heartbreak in a vindictive poem addressed to Agnes:

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming
he who gave my life meaning
and thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

Agnes, who was herself educated and literate, responded in verse:

This is my only wish to you,
bound in anger and grief:
Do not scratch my bleeding wounds,
I’m full of disbelief.

Agnes’s shock is palpable, yet the precise source of her disbelief is unclear: is it triggered by her grief at the death of the man she too loved, by an accusation of a crime she didn’t commit, or by fear at her impending death? It is the task of the novelist to decide.

Agnes and Fridrik were not permitted Christian burial rites: their heads were exhibited on sticks as warnings, and their bodies buried on site without markers. Nearly two hundred years later, Agnes now shares a modest grave with Fridrik in the churchyard at Tjörn. During the relocation of their remains, fragments from Agnes’s dress – she had dressed in her finest for her final moments – were found among her bones. They are exhibited in Iceland’s national museum, along with the axe that was sent to Iceland especially for the executions. It was used only twice.

Kent’s instinct for story is on bright display in Burial Rites. Over the years the murder case has been the source of much discussion in Iceland. Several books have appeared on the subject, and in 1995 a film entitled Agnes appeared by director Egill Eðvarðsson. Not that this would preclude yet another Holly-wood remake of a Scandinavian film.

Kent’s skill in driving the twin narratives of the murders and the executions to their ghastly inevitabilities demonstrates that she is a writer of great promise. Burial Rites is not a particularly challenging read, and it leans heavily on devices associated with genre fiction. But it does challenge the idea that Agnes is, as one source described her, ‘an inhuman witch, stirring up murder’. In the author’s note, Kent states that she wrote her novel ‘to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman’. But Burial Rites is more than thisit is a love song to a woman who lived and loved with the odds stacked against her.

Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Originally published in Australian Book Review (May 2013).

Lest we forget: binyon’s ode of remembrance

First published in The Conversation

On an autumn day in 1914 Laurence Binyon sat on a cliff in North Cornwall, somewhere between Pentire Point and the Rump. It was less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war, but British casualties were mounting. Long lists of the dead and wounded were appearing in British newspapers. With the British Expeditionary Force in retreat from Mons, promises of a speedy end to war were fading fast. Against this backdrop Binyon, then Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, sat to compose a poem that Rudyard Kipling would one day praise as “the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language”.

laurence_binyonOn an autumn day in 1914 Laurence Binyon sat on a cliff in North Cornwall, somewhere between Pentire Point and the Rump. It was less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war, but British casualties were mounting. Long lists of the dead and wounded were appearing in British newspapers. With the British Expeditionary Force in retreat from Mons, promises of a speedy end to war were fading.

Against this backdrop Binyon, then Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, sat to compose a poem that Rudyard Kipling would one day praise as “the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language”.

For the Fallen”, as Binyon called his poem, was published in The Times on 21 September 1914. “The poem grew in stature as the war progressed”, Binyon’s biographer John Hatcher observed, “accommodating itself to the scale of the nation’s grief”.

Nearly a century on, Binyon’s poem endures as a dignified and solemn expression of loss. The fourth stanza – lifted to prominence as “The Ode of Remembrance” – is engraved on cenotaphs, war memorials and headstones in war cemeteries throughout the English-speaking world. Recited at Remembrance services in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the poem serves as a secular prayer:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

These lines, situated at the heart of the poem, lay out an argument for consolation in which the dead are immortalised in the memory of the living.

Binyon died on 10 March 1943, and his ashes were scattered on the grounds of St Mary’s Church in Aldworth. His name is commemorated on a stone plaque in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, alongside 15 fellow poets of the Great War. Wilfred Owen – who died in action at age 25, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice – provided the inscription: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

the handwritten “ode”

BINYON, LAURENCE (1869-1943) AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT OF THE IMMORTAL FOURTH STANZA OF HIS POEM 'FOR THE FALLEN',Earlier this month, “an autograph manuscript of the immortal fourth stanza”, signed by Laurence Binyon, came up for auction at Bonhams. The manuscript is a mere four lines, written in Binyon’s hand, on a single octavo page of ruled notepaper. The header contains a YMCA symbol and the imprimatur of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Small letters at the foot instruct: “To economise paper, please write on the other side, if required”.

Binyon did not date the manuscript, but he likely penned it before the war ended in 1918. The BEF notepaper adds a particular poignancy, as the poem was written to honour British soldiers who died on the Western Front – many of whom Binyon, as a volunteer medic, would have served alongside.

controversies

Every year, after ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia receives scores of letters about “The Ode”. The issue of greatest concern, according to the DVA, is whether the last word of the second line should be “contemn” – meaning to despise or treat with disregard – or “condemn”. Both words fit the context.

Despite all official versions of the poem using “condemn”, some people have suggested this usage is a typographical error.The British Society of Authors, executors of the Binyon estate, is adamant that “condemn” is correct. Likewise the DVA assures: “Binyon was very precise in his use of words. There is no doubt that had he intended ‘contemn’, then it would have been used.”

The condemn/contemn issue is considered a distinctly Australian phenomenon (oddly, the Academy of American Poets uses “contemn” in its publication of “For the Fallen”). Perhaps now, with confirmation coming from Binyon’s own hand, the issue may be put to rest.

But that’s not the only anomaly. In the Bonhams manuscript, Binyon has used an alternative construction of the famous second line. Instead of “weary” he uses “wither”, which echoes Enobarbus’s compliment to Cleopatra – “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” – in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”, so TS Eliot posited in The Sacred Wood. “For the Fallen” might be uneven in quality, but in turning his theft “into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn”, Binyon proves himself to be a great poet.

the sale

Bonhams expected Binyon’s manuscript to fetch around £5,000, but the poem once again exceeded expectations when an unnamed buyer parted with £10,000 (AU$15,000) for the honour of holding history in his or her hands.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The wrap: poetry in the news (w/e 25 apr 2013)

In Los Angeles, a Harvard poet wondered ”Is this too loud, is this too soft, am I going on too long?” while Sharon Olds put the ideal of her husband to rest and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Anne Carson published a poem composed using a random integer generator in the London Review of Books, and James Franco released a poem on the occasion of his 35th birthday. Bollywood heartthrob Farhan Akhtar penned a poem after hearing a five-year-old girl in Delhi had been raped and tortured by her neighbour. Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer penned “the worst poem of all time“ in her musings on the younger Boston Marathon bomber. Historians noted 397 and 189 years have passed since Shakespeare and Byron, respectively, died of fevers.

newspaper-icon-thumb10559428In Los Angeles, a Harvard poet wondered “Is this too loud, is this too soft, am I going on too long?” while Sharon Olds put the ideal of her husband to rest and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Anne Carson published a poem composed using a random integer generator in the London Review of Books, and James Franco released a poem on the occasion of his 35th birthday. Bollywood heartthrob Farhan Akhtar penned a poem after hearing a five-year-old girl in Delhi had been raped and tortured by her neighbour. Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer penned “the worst poem of all time” in her musings on the younger Boston Marathon bomber. Historians noted 397 and 189 years have passed since Shakespeare and Byron, respectively, died of fevers. The only known poem by Winston Churchill, “Our Modern Watchwords“, failed to sell at an auction at Bonhams. The priest who found Malta’s earliest poem died at age 97, and Irish rare-book collector Rick Gekoski prayed that the poem James Joyce wrote as a little boy – “Et Tu, Healy” will never be found.