Friday, 23 December 2011

Nobel Laureates

My first encounter with a Nobel laureate was receiving my filmmaker son Michael’s gift of “The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer” (translated by Robert Bly”, Graywolf Press, 2001). (Michael had just made a documentary film of Bly’s career as a poet.) But I'll save this latest Laureate till last.

My first Nobel serendipity occurred in summer 1967. When teaching in London, I wanted to expand my International English course with the lively poets of Northern Ireland. So I organized a class trip to the Belfast Festival. Since all the students couldn’t afford the trip, I asked the BF management if they could ask a Belfast poet to recite a chrestomathy of their new writers so I could tape the reading for the students back in London. “Sure, no problem,” he promised.

The next day, a rural-looking handsome man (with cow shit still on his boots?) introduced himself as “Seamus Heaney”, Faith and Begorrah, an Irish enough name. He started reading his peers’ stuff, Paul Muldoon, James Simmons et al. Good enough, but not worth a trip to Belfast; then Seamus read his own “Digging” about his grandfather’s and father’s skill with spades, working the peat of their land, concluding that he would emulate his forebears with his pen. It remains to this day my favorite lyric in all of English lit!

Heaney spoke later about invitations to America he had received from Harvard and UC, Berkeley. I asked him to let me take him on a weeklong romp along the Eastern coast. He vaguely promised, and I forgot about our scheme until 1970 when the National Council of Teachers of English was holding it annual convention in Atlanta. He decided to come!

First I had him read at Trenton State, a blue collar commuter school where I had first taught in college, 1956-7, because three Trenton English professors liked my 4C’s talk, ”Liberace and the Future of Cultural Criticism”, a rant about confronting Pop Cult in the English classroom instead of whining about. They loved it, assuring me that’s the way they already did it at Trenton. When I got a Penn Carnegie grant in 1957 to create a new course in Popular Culture in their department of American Civilization, I talked them into hiring a Mick from Rhode Island, Fred Kiley, as my successor. Seamus and Fred hit it off from their first minute together, from Fred's experiences in the Battle of the Bulge to their shared working class aspirations to upward cultural mobility.

The next day, after showing him the high spots of Philly, we went to the Jewish Cultural Center downtown to see a TV documentary from Belfast which featured his ambivalent posture in the Troubles between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. He had been too busy writing to see it at home. The next day we took the train to Washington so he could sign in at the Poetry Center at the Library of Congress. Next door was the Supreme Court where, dazzled by the coffered ceiling, he whispered like an altar boy in the sacristy,”Is this where they made that decision about segregation? “Yes, Seamus. This is that place!”, my eyes watering.

The next day we flew to Columbia, S.C, because he wanted to socialize with visiting poet James Dickey. James was a dick that day, and wouldn’t be seen! No matter, Morse Peckham, a former colleague of mine at Penn, gathered together the mostly gay English Department of the University of South Carolina, for an unforgettable evening. Nah,nah, James Dickey!

Finally, we bused to Atlanta where I put him up at the fanciest hotel in town. He loved it. And though the audience for this “unheard of Poet” was disgracefully small, he flew off to Berkeley after three days of NCTE. And I’ve been a fan of his ever after, especially when was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995.

My second Nobel Prize encounter was not so Noble. When Gunter Grass visited Weimar shortly after the controversy over his Nazi affiliation in World War Two, I had just come back from Göttingen (where his publisher is based) after shooting pictures of his art on display there, he agreeably committed to an interview the next day. I met him for breakfast coming down the stairs of the Hotel Elefant where all the celebs wrangle for the Goethe suite! He canceled breakfast on the spot due to unforeseen complications and booked for the next day. Alas, he left a no show note at the front desk and asked me to call on the morrow.

No way! I mimeoed a rap on his knuckles for manners unworthy of a Nobel Laureate and (humourously) conceded I better understood the fascist accusations he was currently encountering. We are both 84. At 17, we both joined the war, me in the U.S.Navy as a radar technician, and he in Wehrmacht, as a grumbler in training. I just noticed with a sneer that he grumbled in a Berlin speech that abolishing the volunteer Army was a bad political move. (Some hotshots never learn!)

So my record on Nobel encounters: one elegant win; one messy fumble. Heh, could be worse. Seamus could have had a cold that day in Belfast, and canceled! No Wild Week along the Atlantic Coast. And then there is Tranströmer! A winner in many ways.

Heh, you think Philip Roth’s got the waits for that illusive Swedish Coronation? Think of this year’s winner, a sweet Swede named Tomas Tranströmer, a 80 year old who lost his speech and gifted pianist’s right hand in 1990 through a stroke. (He is so endearing to his fans that several Swedish composers blessed him by writing pieces for his left hand!) Meanwhile his wife fielded the traditional Nobel press hoopla.

My interest there is very special. My son Michael made one of his first films about the Minneapolis poet Robert Bly who is the most important translator of Tranströmer’s poetry into English, “The Half-Finished Heaven” (Graywolf Press, 2001.) Therein Bly contends “Tomas Tranströmer has a strange genius for the image; images rise seemingly without effort on his part. The wide space we feel in his poems perhaps occurs because the four or five main images in each poem come from widely separated sources in the psyche. His poems are sort of a railway station where trains that have come enormous distances stand briefly in the same building. One train may have some Russian snow on the undercarriage, and another may have Mediterranean flowers fresh in the compartments, and Ruhr soot on the roofs.”(p.ix.)
One such poem has tourists from all over the world relishing the graces of a “simple” Romanesque church.

Romanesque Arches
Tourists have crowded into the half-dark of the enormous
Romanesque church.
Vault opening behind vault and no perpective.
A few candle flames flickered.
An angel whose face I couldn’t see embraced me
And his whisper went all through my body.
“Don’t be ashamed to be a human being, be proud!
Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly.
You’ll never be complete, and that’s as it should be:”
Tears blinded me
As we were herded out into the fiercely sunlit plaza.
together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Herr Tanaka and Signora
within each of them vault after vault opened endlessly. (p-xxi.)

It’s no surprise to learn that the man who here juxtaposes infinity with humdrum tourism was a psychiatrist whose career was counseling imprisoned juvenile delinquents. Once at a public reading someone asked him if his work had influenced his poetry. He replied that he prefers to be asked if his poetry influenced his work! Scuttlebutt had it that he was very compassionate with his charges.

I liked “April and Silence” (p.95) for its ambiguous reactions to spring.

Spring lies abandoned.
A ditch the color of dark violet
Moves alongside me
Giving no images back.

The thing that shine
Are some yellow flowers.

I am carried inside
My own shadow like a violin
In its black case.

The only thing I want to say
Hovers just out of reach
Like the family silver
At the pawnbrokers.

“Black Postcards” consider the doleful.(p.83.)

The calendar all booked up, the future unknown.
The cable silently hums some folk song
but lacks a country. Snow falls in the gray sea. Shadows
fight out on the dock.
Halfway through your life, death turns up
And takes your pertinent measurements. We forget
The visit. Life goes on. But someone is sewing
the suit in the silence.

This Nobel literary casino plagues the wishes of the literati. Tranströmer is the first Swede to get it since 1974. In the last ten years there have been 8 Europeans. American potentials often grumble about the leftist slant of the Committee. 103 candidates have made the grade since the literary prize began in 1901. Maybe a Swedish graduate student will do a political analysis!

(If Bly’s translating skills appeals to you, you can order the film about him at

No comments: