Mark Ford’s Selected Poems and a volume of essays, This Dialogue of One, were published last year. He teaches in the English Department at University College London. (May 2015)

Pound: Genius, Confucian, Fascist & Crazy

Ezra Pound, Vienna, 1928; photograph by Bill Brandt
Ezra Pound’s only meeting with his great hero Benito Mussolini took place at 5:30 on the evening of Monday, January 30, 1933. Mussolini’s imposing “office” was the vast Sala del Mappamondo (sixty feet long, forty feet wide, forty feet high) on the first floor of the Palazzo di Venezia in …

Cool, Clinical, and Outrageous

X-ray, Tazz, Algeria
Unless they are subscribers to Harper’s or The New Yorker, admirers of the experimental fiction of Ben Marcus are likely to find themselves somewhat baffled by the four stories that make up the first section of Leaving the Sea—although not, perhaps, as baffled as the uninitiated reader who picked up …

Is Humbert Humbert Jewish?

Vladimir Nabokov, right, with his cousin the composer Nicolas Nabokov, Montreux, Switzerland, 1975
Nabokov’s conception of the artist as quasi-divine inventor means that—as is the case with one of his great heroes, James Joyce—critics tend to find themselves in the role of enchanted hunters looking for clues and connections, spotting recondite allusions, praising the novels’ elaborate artistry, or elucidating labyrinthine patterns. It would take a bold critic to read such a dazzling, seemingly omniscient, and utterly self-conscious oeuvre as depicting the bars of Nabokov’s own cage. Andrea Pitzer doesn’t, perhaps, go quite that far, but she does invite us to step back a little and ponder the oddness of the relationship Nabokov’s writings create between the fictive and the historical.

Shameless and All-Forgiving Joe

Joe Brainard: ‘If Nancy Was André Breton at Eighteen Months,’ 1972; from The Nancy Book by Joe Brainard, published by Siglio in 2008
“If I’m as normal as I think I am,” Joe Brainard reflected in one of his “29 Mini-Essays” from the mid-Seventies, “we’re all a bunch of weirdos.” Painter, cartoonist, collagist extraordinaire, author of the brilliantly original I Remember, Brainard was also the master of the faux-naif aphorism, the seemingly goofy …

‘And the Silken Girls Bringing Sherbet’

T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, 1920s
“It often seems to me very bizarre,” T.S. Eliot wrote, at the age of thirty-seven, to his older brother Henry, “that a person of my antecedents should have had a life like a bad Russian novel.” It’s probably Dostoevsky that Eliot had in mind here, about whom he had decidedly …

The King of Charisma

Alfred Jarry in front of ‘the Phalanstery,’ a vacation home he rented in Corbeil with a number of other writers, 1898
Arthur Rimbaud, in his famous letter of May 15, 1871, argued that a poet could only make himself into a “seer by a long, immense and reasoned disordering of all the senses.” The French poet, playwright, and novelist Alfred Jarry couldn’t have read this letter, which was only published in …

Bolaño: On the Edge of the Precipice

Roberto Bolaño, Paris, 2002
A Roberto Bolaño piece of some four and a half pages collected in The Return begins, “Once, after a conversation with a friend about the mercurial nature of art, Amalfitano told a story he’d heard in Barcelona.” This was written in 1997, six years before Bolaño died in 2003. Like …

Auden Against Conceit

W. H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Stephen Spender during a PEN conference in Venice, 1949
In August 1955, in the middle of his annual summer sojourn on the Italian island of Ischia, W.H. Auden received from Dr. Enid Starkie, the distinguished author of books on Baudelaire and Rimbaud and a lecturer in modern languages at the University of Oxford, a letter inviting him to stand …

Ted Hughes’s ‘Last Letter’

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath on their honeymoon, Paris, 1956
What happened that night? Your final night. So begins “Last Letter,” a poem, or rather draft of a poem, by Ted Hughes published in the October 11 issue of the British magazine the New Statesman. “Last Letter” was clearly intended to take its place in Hughes’s 1998 collection of …

Ted Hughes’s ‘Last Letter’

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath on their honeymoon, Paris, 1956

“What happened that night?
    Your final night.”
So begins “Last Letter,” a poem, or rather draft of a poem, by Ted Hughes published in the October 11 issue of the British magazine the New Statesman. “Last Letter” was clearly intended to take its place in Hughes’s 1998 collection of poems to Plath, Birthday Letters, but it’s also clear that he never managed to finish it before he died on October 28, 1998. I suppose anything a poet as famous as Hughes didn’t get around to destroying before he died is likely to end up in the public domain eventually, and certainly a poem that at last sets out what he was up to on that fatal, freezing weekend of February 9 and 10 of 1963 was not going to languish in the British Library’s archive forever.

Hide and Be Found

John Ashbery: Six O’Clock, 2008
It was “nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,” midway along the journey of our life, that Dante woke to find himself in a dark wood. Since the imaginary date of the opening of the The Divine Comedy is Good Friday 1300, and the poet was born in 1265, that …

‘Innermost Secrets’

Javier Marías, Madrid, 2005; photograph by Ferdinando Scianna
Although published in three volumes, of which this last is by some distance the longest, Your Face Tomorrow is not really a trilogy; it’s a single novel (one that in total runs to 1,260 pages) divided into seven parts that all have oneword titles: “Fever,” “Spear,” “Dance,” “Dream,” “Poison,” “Shadow,” …

Rinse and Repeat

The Zabbaleen left drought-stricken rural Egypt for Cairo in the 1950s. Our unique formula helps condition and smooth damaged hair. They brought their pigs, which they fed with the city’s discarded scraps and peelings. Drench with water, then massage deeply into scalp and roots.

Resurrecting John Donne

The Lothian portrait of John Donne, circa 1595
John Donne preached his final sermon as dean of St. Paul’s in London on February 25, 1631, the first Friday of Lent. “And, when,” his early biographer Izaak Walton records in his Life, to the amazement of some beholders he appeared in the Pulpit, many of them thought he presented …

The Poet and the Wreck

Gerard Manley Hopkins
The single-screw steamer the SS Deutschland, of the North German Lloyd line, set sail for New York from the Ger- man port of Bremerhaven on the morning of Sunday, December 5, 1875. Among the 113 passengers who had boarded the night before were five nuns from the convent of the …

The Myths of Ted Hughes

It was Rudyard Kipling, that fervent chronicler of the British Empire and rapt celebrant of the depths and mysteries of England and Englishness, who first initiated Ted Hughes into the magic of poetry. During Hughes’s third year at Mexborough Grammar School in Yorkshire his English teacher read the class a …

How Yeats Did It

In a recording of his poetry made for the BBC in 1932, William Butler Yeats prefaced his stirring rendition of pieces such as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “The Fiddler of Dooney” by explaining that he would read “with great emphasis upon the rhythm, and that may seem strange …

A Master of Noir

The Spanish novelist Javier Marìas was born in Madrid in 1951. His father Julián Marìas (1914–2005) was one of twentieth-century Spain’s most important philosophers and the author of a history of philosophy that became the standard textbook on the subject in the Spanish-speaking world. Marìas senior was also on occasion …

The Dreams of Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997, in the loft on East Thirteenth Street that he had purchased a couple of years earlier with money raised from the sale of his vast archive to Stanford University. Although his collection of drafts, letters, journals, and photographs had been assessed as worth …

The Call of the Stallion

“Horse latitudes” is a nautical term referring to areas thirty degrees north and south of the equator. Ships sailing these waters often find themselves becalmed, or thrown off course by baffling, unpredictable winds. Paul Muldoon’s new volume of poems, Horse Latitudes, begins with a sequence of nineteen sonnets obliquely concerned …

Our Man in the Underworld

In late 1965, shortly after finishing his second novel, Tlooth, Harry Mathews paid a visit to his friend Fred Warner, the British ambassador in Laos. Accompanying Warner to various embassy functions, he was surprised to find himself cold-shouldered by everyone he met. “What was I doing here?” they would ask.

The Man Who Came to Dinner

The poet James Schuyler (1923– 1991) and the painter Fairfield Porter (1907–1975) met in 1952. Abstract Expressionism was at its most triumphant and seemingly irresistible, with New York poised to supplant Paris as the epicenter of modern art. The experiments of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem …

A Holiday in Reality

“What we have here,” the narrator of the title poem (which is in prose) of Where Shall I Wander declares, “are certain individuals intent on disarraying the public gravitas of things.” For over fifty years now Ashbery has been one of those most adept at revealing how “the public gravitas …

Surprise! Surprise!

The city of white donkeys evoked in the title poem of this exhilarating new collection from the American poet James Tate is an underground metropolis just beneath the earth—or so Polly, one of the book’s teeming cast of more than slightly off-kilter characters would have us believe: the inhabitants of …

Auden Remakes ‘The Tempest’!

The Sea and the Mirror is the most brilliant and unsettling of the four long poems Auden composed during his furiously industrious first decade in America.[^1] It was begun in October of 1942 in the wake of a period of extreme turbulence and distress; and although the sequence is modestly …

Playing with Today

Charles Simic’s collection of autobiographical fragments, A Fly in the Soup (2000), concludes with one of his earliest memories. It is 1942 or 1943, so he is four or five years old. Despite the war, operas are still being performed in Belgrade, and his mother has taken him to a …

At Arm’s Length

Paul Muldoon was born in County Armagh in Northern Ireland in 1951. His father was a farm laborer and market gardener, and his mother a schoolteacher: “She had read one volume of Proust,” he writes in the poem “The Mixed Marriage”: He knew the cure for farcy.[^1] I flitted …

Reproduction

of whatever you are absorbing with your five senses is forbidden, and may provoke nausea, insomnia, loss of balance or blurred vision: it were better you retire, and then attack, hurling weapons and imprecations at the diffident foe. The world averts its gaze, and …