Roving thoughts and provocations

Poetry and Utopia

Charles Simic

Mitchell Funk/Getty Images

I was standing, one lovely May afternoon, on the corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City, waiting for a friend who was late. I had spent the previous hour in a bookstore in the neighborhood that was famous for stocking up on the latest literary magazines and poetry books, turning the pages and reading a poem here and there. Waiting at the busy intersection, it suddenly occurred to me that if the old Greek poetess, Sappho, could see what I’m seeing now, she would not only understand nothing, but she would be terrified out of her wits.

Getting Them Dead

Francine Prose

Anjum Naveed/AP Photo

After reading the article that appeared under the headline “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will” in the May 29 New York Times, I couldn’t talk about much else. I found myself wanting to analyze it, as one might dissect a literary text, to better understand how it produced its effect on the reader: in my case, shock and awe, tempered by consolatory flickers of disbelief. Like literature, the story resists summarization, partly because the Times reporters, Jo Becker and Scott Shane, employ detail, word choice, diction, and tone to direct and influence the reader’s response without, on the surface, appearing to do so—and to make a familiar narrative seem new.

The Miseducation of Mitt Romney

Diane Ravitch

Mario Tama/Getty Images

On May 23, the Romney campaign released its education policy white paper titled “A Chance for Every Child: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Restoring the Promise of American Education.” If you liked the George W. Bush administration’s education reforms, you will love the Romney plan. If you think that turning the schools over to the private sector will solve their problems, then his plan will thrill you.

Which Wisconsin?

Lorrie Moore

Corruption seems to surround Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who faces Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in Tuesday’s recall election. Walker has a criminal defense fund already in place and rumors of indictments are in the air, regarding both his time as Milwaukee County Executive and his current use of state moneys. But many people in self-contradictory Wisconsin, the home of both the Progressive Party and of Joe McCarthy, may not care very deeply about the charges against Walker. There can be a begrudging provincial respect for someone in the national eye, as well as for the out-of-state billionaires who have helped fill Walker’s campaign coffers with $31 million—an unprecedented amount in Wisconsin political history.

The North West London Blues

Zadie Smith

The Victorian Society

What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell.

When Westerns Were Un-American

J. Hoberman

filmforum.org

With the escalation of the Vietnam War, every Marxist intellectual, it seemed, wanted to write a Western. The most notable was Franco Solinas (1927–1982), a teenaged partisan and longtime member of the Italian Communist Party, journalist for the Communist newspaper L’Unità, and author. Solinas worked on four Spaghetti Westerns—all included in a three-week-long series at New York’s Film Forum that begins June 1—contributing to this wildly commercial and equally disreputable mode as decisively as director Sergio Leone or composer Ennio Morricone.

Putin’s Propaganda Man

Amy Knight

Viktor Bogorad/Moscow Times

Though he was inaugurated only weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin already faces serious challenges to his administration. Judging from a controversial cabinet appointment that Putin made last week, one way the Kremlin may try to combat growing opposition is to revive a traditional Soviet-era weapon—propaganda. The person running the propaganda machine will be the new Minister of Culture, 41-year-old Vladimir Medinsky, who some Russian commentators have already dubbed the Russian Goebbels.

Before the Nazis: A Ukrainian City’s Contested Past

Philippe Sands

Sony Pictures Classics

Tucked away in the far western corner of present-day Ukraine, the city of Lviv defies expectations. Far smaller than Kiev, it was a closed city during the Soviet period from 1945 to 1991, and even today remains relatively little known. Yet in the early twentieth century, it was home to a roughly equal number of Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews and as a result the city played a special and largely unrecognized part in shaping our modern international system of human rights. I have been spending time in Lviv, exploring its remarkable but largely unknown legal history.

Finding Zen and Book Contracts in Beijing

Ian Johnson

baike.baidu.com

Few people in the West have heard of Bill Porter, a translator of Chinese poetry and religious works whose works in print rarely sell more than a thousand copies each year. For most of the past decade, he says, his annual income has hovered around $15,000. Several of his books humorously thank the US Department of Agriculture—for providing food stamps that have kept him and his family going. But in China, Porter’s writings about Chinese hermits have recently gained him hundreds of thousands of readers, book contracts, and celebrity status, thanks to a small but growing new publishing culture for foreign authors.

When Poetry Gets Under the Skin

Henri Cole

Civitella Ranieri Foundation

In this podcast, Henri Cole reads from his recent book of poems, Touch (2011), and talks about his search for what he calls the “essentialness of emotion.”

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Sasha Weiss: You liken the self to a needle pushing in a vein.

Henri Cole: We live in a time where, in the last decade or two, there was a drift away from the essentialness of emotion, because of the fashions of poetry … and so I wanted my book to sort of focus on the essentialness of piercing the skin—poems should have fear, wonder, grief, desperation, triumph, some element of these emotions in them.