Showing posts from October, 2012

François Jullien's "In Praise of Blandness"

I found François Jullien's In Praise of Blandness last summer in the great architecture and design bookstore in Bras Basah Complex, where I brought GH to buy art supplies. I have read Jullien's The Impossible Nude years ago with a great deal of interest while I was working on the poems for The Book of the Body. In Praise of Blandness examines not just Chinese art, but also Chinese philosophy, ethics, music and poetry for a common denominator called dan, which Jullien translates as fadeur, and his English translator Paula M. Varsano translates as blandness.

In his Prologue, after acknowledging the difficulty, in fact, the undesirability, of defining blandness, Jullien describes the word thus, at the same time summarizing the movement of thought in the book:

Blandness: that phase when different flavors no longer stand in opposition to each other, but, rather, abide within plenitude. It provides access to the undifferentiated foundation of all things and so is valuable to us; it…

Lois Potter's "The Life of William Shakespeare"

I enjoyed Lois Potter's The Life of William Shakespeare tremendously. Subtitled "A Critical Biography," the book looks at all the works by the Bard not only as literary artefacts but also as living process. On the poems, she observes the pressures on an ambitious young man aspiring to make his mark on literary London. On the plays, she is particularly acute on Shakespeare and his collaborators. She is also sensitive to how the plays were written or adapted to capitalize on star actors and boy performers. Different audiences, whether at the theaters or the Inns of Court or the royal palaces, accounted for different versions of the plays. Publication of the plays were economic and political decisions, and not just literary ones. The process of producing the work was messy, contingent, opportunistic, and it is a testament to Potter's writing that she is able to bring a clarity of form to her mastery of detail. One useful device is to begin every chapter with a quotatio…

Between Ecstasy and Truth

TLS October 19 2012

from Llewelyn Morgan's review of Stephen Halliwell's Between Ecstasy and Truth: Interpretations of Greek poetics from Homer to Longinus:

Homer's works were already, alongside everything else, a meditation on poetry's power to transform the pain and impermannence of mortal existence into kosmos, a lasting order or design. An overarching theme of Halliwell's discussions is the tension repeatedly diagnosed by Greek thinkers between poetry's capacity to transport its audience to another psychological place and its claim to offer insight into the truths of this existence, the "ecstasy and truth" of his title. Homer himself fails, ultimately, to square these two principles, and Halliwell arrestingly ties Homeric poetics to the figure of the Muse, an embodiment of poetry transcendent and beautiful, but representing a resolution only truly achievable on a divine plane, and only glimpsed by mortals.  *  However we choose to think about it,…

The ART of Modeling

My very good friend Andrew Howdle, who works from Leeds, UK, has a beautiful portfolio of photographs and drawings out at Dimension Magazine. Titled cannily "The ART of Modeling," the work is as much about seeing the model Arnold Aziza as showing him off. "Arrival," a professional-looking fashion shot, reminds us of the various meanings of the key word in the title: "Model (N) a new system of seeing (1593); an exemplar (1693); a person drawn by an artist (1873); (V) to wear clothes for a fashion display (1904).

The work looks better than much of what GH and I saw in Chelsea during our gallery hop yesterday. Alexander and Bonin showed the "Airmail Paintings" of Eugenio Dittborn, a Chilean artist. According to the press release, the collages on lightweight fabrics that could be folded and mailed to friends circumvented the constraints of working under Pinochet's dictatorship. The format was formally and politically resonant but the collages themse…

Julith Jedamus's poem "Belle Tout"

Belle Tout, also the title of the second poem in Jedamus's book The Swerve, is a decommissioned lighthouse located on a cliff at Beachy Head, East Sussex. The poem opens by describing it as "Beautiful, futile," adjectives which immediately make me associate the lighthouse with Art. Why is the Art-Lighthouse beautiful and futile? Because it gives "a flash, then darkness." Its beauty lies in its transient brilliance, its futility lies in its incapacity to provide steady illumination. It is also "Cliff-/bound, cliff-threatened." High Art must risk falling over the edge: the cliff is its natural environment. So far, so good.

Then the poem makes a leap that I find hard to follow. The poet, who has been addressing the lighthouse directly in the second person, describes its face as "minatory," or threatening. It led men "not to safety but their graves." This accusation is accurate historically, for Belle Tout, situated so high that mists …

Vertical Roads

With EN, I saw the dance performance "Vertical Road" at the Rose Theater on Wednesday. Choreographed by London-born Akram Khan, to music by Nitin Sawhney, the performance was disappointing. It began with someone behind the curtain shaking it and it ended with the curtain falling down, an act of revelation that just did not materialize. The movements were uninspired, at one point featuring a dancer moving two others around like marionettes by waving his hand over their bodies. Supposedly inspired by the Sufi tradition and the Persian poet Rumi, it slotted some whirling dervish moves into a grammar dictated by modern dance. As EN put it, the production exoticized itself. The eight dancers, assembled "from across Asia, Europe, and the Middle East," was a politically correct version of multi-culturalism. The production was an object lesson in how not to do fusion.


The Takács Quartet was serenely brilliant last night at Alice Tully. In superbly balanced and blended p…

Julith Jedamus's "The White Cliff"

RB and I are reading Julith Jedamus's The Swerve together over at PFFA, and posting our comments on the same thread.

Born in Boulder, Colorado, Jedamus moved to the UK and has lived in London for sixteen years. It's fitting for her debut collection to open with a poem that tries to situate her American speaker in the English landscape. "The White Cliff," as of Dover, is as iconic of England as Mount Rushmore is of the United States, at least since Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach." It is, however, the physical feature that one sees while boating over from France, not while arriving by boat over the Atlantic. It is certainly not the Heathrow airfields, the more likely sight to greet the eyes of a new immigrant of the end of the twentieth century. As such, the white cliff is more literary than literal, more symbolic than actual. This literariness is appropriate because the poem is about the symbolism of England. The form of the poem also highlights the …

Paul Lewis plays last Schubert piano sonatas

The air in Alice Tully last night was thick with anticipation. The concert, of the three piano sonatas that Schubert wrote in the last summer of his young life, was sold out. Paul Lewis strode onto the stage, bowed, sat down and immediately struck out the first notes of Sonata in C minor, D. 958. The articulation of the phrases was crisp but not chilly; sensitive but not sentimental. Billed as a poet of the piano, he displayed the expressiveness suggested by the moniker but also a quality less commonly associated with it, that of intelligence. Modeled on Beethoven's sonatas, D. 958 is heroic in its aspiration. Lewis gave its grandeur its due. I was holding my breath throughout the performance.

Sonata in A major, D. 959, the next work on the program, was played even better. The restlessness, the anger, the resolution of the music spoke more clearly than D. 958 of an individual and refined personality. I heard Schubert hesitate and think, choose and continue. Paul Lewis was playing…

On Completism

TLS October 12 2012

from Graeme Richardson's review of Elizabeth Jennings: The Collected Poems, edited by Emma Mason:

A weighty Collected Poems can be many things: a monument to greatness, like a Pyramid; or a record of significance, like a Presidential Library. It may be the retiring poet's carriage clock; it may be their concrete overcoat. A poet's complete works, handily gathered, should ensure they continue to be read. But the typical Collected might not help with that: unless every piece was a masterpiece, the good can be buried in the indifferent, repetition can dilute what in small doses is powerful and original, and what was a well-practiced craft starts to look automatic.  Completism might be justified if a poet lived so tumultous a life that changes of place or mind might need to be tracked. That is not the case with Elizabeth Jennings. She was born in 1926 in Lincolnshire, her family moved to Oxford in 1932, and in that city she spent most of the rest of her lif…

The Meringoff Awards

The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers announces four awards of $2000 each, in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and high school student writing. Only one entry is accepted from each person. All entries should be previously unpublished. The entry must be postmarked not later than December 1st 2012. The winner will be announced towards the end of December, 2012. There is no entry fee for current members of The Association of Literary  Scholars, Critics, and Writers. For everyone else membership in the ALSCW is required, which is $32 for students and $37 for all others — all members will receive the annual three issues of our literary journal/magazine Literary Imagination, and our newsletter, as well as being able to attend our conferences and local gatherings—see ALSCW website ( for details about how to join the ALSCW.

•For the Meringoff Poetry award, each entry can be one poem, or a group of poems that add up to no more than 150 lines. The judge for the poetry …

What to do in and around NYC

The last three weekends were busy ones. S and R drove up from D.C. to stay with us overnight on September 29. We went up to the roof of the Met and enjoyed the glittering autumnal view there. Then we had a very nice dinner at le Paris, which I strongly recommend.

Columbus Day weekend began on Friday with drinks with DW. We hadn't seen each other for a long time, and the time at Suite Bar passed very pleasantly, so pleasantly that we both wondered afterwards why we were not meeting more often. Then on Saturday, dinner with P and J at Spring Natural Kitchen on the UWS because J wanted to try its organic cooking. Dinner was a success. It was so easy to be with them, so relaxing. 
On Sunday G and I went to Philly for the day. We both loved the new Barnes Foundation building, designed by Tod Williams. I was mesmerized by the Matisse dance mural but liked "The Joy of Life" much less than I thought I would. I had the unwanted feeling that the Picasso works in the collection wer…

Writing "Straits Times" Part 2

Once in a while the paper would trumpet that a news article was by its own correspondent. Most of the time, however, the paper paraphrased other news sources, such as the Evening Standard or the China Morning Post, and cited them by name. In "A Peculiar Ban in China.--Cigarettes and Torches" (March 11, 1929, 17), the paper quoted directly a correspondent of the North China Daily News. So my quotation of The Straits Times is really a quotation of a quotation: another way of looking at the writing of history.

So far (Oct 1928 - Mar 1929) the news articles were not organized in any sections like International, Home or Sports. On page 17, news about China might be juxtaposed with an opinion on the English public school; a review of a new edition of the Bible might find itself next to municipal news. The front pages of the paper were given over to advertisements completely. Commercial and shipping statistics were given prominent place.

The initials in a person's name I count …

Started Writing "Straits Times"

Last weekend I started work on my book based on the prime number of 17. It will be a history of Singapore written according to Oulipian rules. I take the 17th word on the 17th page of The Straits Times and put the words together to form a poem. The Straits Times (ST) is Singapore's main English daily broadsheet newspaper. It was started by an Armenian, Catchick Moses, and launched on 15 July 1845 as an eight-page weekly. Since the earliest edition of the paper had only eight pages, I cannot begin my history at the beginning of the paper. I will begin, instead, in media res, so to speak, not at the so-called founding of Singapore by Stamford Raffles, not at the proclamanation of independence from the British, nor at the establishment of a newspaper by Moses. The beginning will be owned by no one, except accident.

But the beginning of my history is not without logic. Of course it made, and still makes, sense to publish a newspaper in multiples of four pages. Two sheets of newsprint …

"Wisdom in Withdrawal"

Tara Safronoff reviews Michelle Cahill's book of poems Vishvarūpa in Kin Poetry Journal. Having read the book, I find the review fair-minded in its judgments and alert to the liminal spaces in the poetry.

These poems seek wisdom in withdrawal, in the near-absence of self, in a retreat from the world (in a dream, in a poem) that allows one to see things in their fullness.... More.

Stoics and Their Critics

TLS September 28 2012

from Noel Malcolm's review of Christopher Brooke's Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and political thought from Lipsius to Rousseau:

If you were an educated person in early modern Europe, some elements of Stoicism were in your intellectual bloodstream. You might have possessed only the vaguest ideas about the original Stoic philosophers Zeno or Chrysippus, but the works of Cicero and Seneca had been drummed into you in the schoolroom, and much of the stock wisdom of the age, circulating in commonplaces and sententiae,  was drawn directly or indirectly from their writings. Virtue, not pleasure, provides real happiness; a virtuous life is lived in accordance with reason; true virtue has no need of external goods; the wise and virtuous man is truly free; and so on.


The Stoics' dismissal of pity (as a weakness and indeed a vice) was hard to square with Christian ethics, and their cult of suicide was quite unacceptable. The notion that all vices were equally b…

Thow Wei Xin on the Merlion anthology

Just read Thow Wei Xin's 2010 review of Reflecting on the Merlion: An Anthology of Poems, edited by Edwin Thumboo and Yeow Kai Chai. He made many just comments on individual poems, but what was more striking was the call for deeper exploration to establish who we are.

Ultimately, Reflecting on the Merlion is perhaps the most useful for collecting the previously scattered poems on the Merlion in a single volume, thus serving as a guide to what has gone before, revealing which sentiments and expressions have become conventional and clichéd, and encouraging future poets to think more deeply and originally about issues of identity and how the Merlion—problematic, yet emblematic—can participate in such considerations.  Or, to borrow one last time from the Greeks: don't just be Penelope picking at a shroud. Be Telemachus: make your sacrifices, pour your libations to the everlasting gods, and set forth on deeper waters to establish who you are.
He sent me a link to a personal note th…