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Index: Principal Articles

Duties of care in the study of literature.

Alex Wong: ‘To be able to enter into an emotional and ideological world not one’s own, and then to be moved by it, to come to respect it, to empathize with that mode of thought and feeling—whether aesthetic, sentimental or moral—must be, I take it, one of the most important processes involved in the study of old books. It is especially important when the book in question at first seems particularly alien. What I am talking about (knowing that I am saying nothing new) might be described as an engaged, humane, historical awareness, the goal being an expansion of sensibility in which process those foreign things (the works of art) are assimilated.’

Octavio Paz in Cambridge, 1970.

Richard Berengarten: ‘In the act and process of reading Octavio, whether his prose or verse, my experience is that I am breathed on by a larger, more oxygenated air, so that whatever may be the othernesses that constitute my ‘I’ (subliminal, hidden, unnoticed, potential, dormant, discarded, dismayed, disarrayed …) which, together with my ‘I’, compose the multiple folia of my Self itself – these all get gathered and re-gathered into an opening of lungs and horizons, into a fuller, richer and more acute alertness of the senses to harmonies and dissonances; to the unique minutiae tucked and pleated throughout panoramas and the panoramas resident and resonant in minutiae. ‘

Fear and loathing in the Royal Festival Hall.

Anthony Howell: ‘There is a lack of breadth that still dogs the selection process, I think as a direct result of prize-winners apotheosising into judges. In the end it all begins to feel samey. There are far too many “of”s – usually attached to death, love, or something equally gloomy, and so the poems not only feel samey, they feel doomy. Again and again we were urged to confront the death of a loved one or our own death. Surely there is more to poetry than a maudlin sense of nostalgia for those no longer with us?’

Writing to Shakespeare.

Bonnefoy: ‘…you’re standing in a corner of the theatre. It’s cold, and a wind seems to be blowing. You’re talking to several men, young and old. One of them will be Hamlet; another, Ophelia. Do you have an idea to explain to them? No. Hamlet is being written here, at this very moment, in the sentences that come to you, that take you by surprise. It’s virtually an improvisation, over several days divided between your table—I don’t know where—and the stage: a text, certainly, but one you cross out off-the-cuff, as when you understand—for example, at this very instant—that your future Hamlet doesn’t grasp all that well what you’re trying to tell him.’

Words ‘dreadful as the abortions of an angel’.

Anthony Howell: ‘I would identify this as “illuminated writing”. Readers may find it “over the top” (but that is what is being described). It’s as if Dylan Thomas were to find himself storming Hill 50. This might be thought an unfashionable, adjective-laden style these days, when writing such as Edith Sitwell’s is so often vilified (at least in “aware” poetry circles). But no one can take away from her poem “Still Falls the Rain” its right to be considered one of the great expressions about the suffering brought about by war (specifically the air raids of 1940). ‘

Against Mysticism.

Oliver Elton: ‘We must cherish the hope that one day the bitter experience and illusory vision which are at the root of official mysticism may tend to die out, at any rate in the West. The process may be as long as the step from primitive idolatry, and meantime the regular mystics and their dispensaries must hold a regarded place. But science now forces us to think in long periods of time. ‘

Picturing language.

Jaime Robles: ‘There is a certain point when changing from verbal art to visual art that the artist’s concerns shift. Both poetry and visual art have physical and material presences; poetry in the orthography of letters, the breaks of lines and placement of words on the field of the page. This, however, is not its primary material manifestation, which is instead aural. Rhythm, metre and the pyrotechnics of sound are poetry’s primary physical reality. It is within this aural world – whether spoken out loud or heard in the reader’s interior voice – that poetry’s meaning is given and apprehended. These are the material concerns of poetry and, like those of visual arts, they focus and concentrate in the body. To accept the idea of our world being limited to or by our words is to deny the body’s sensual experience of the world. Language is a slow phenomenon relative to the body’s perception, experience and understanding of the world.’

The poet and the dictionary.

Alan Wall: ‘Geoffrey Hill’s poetic career has been mediated through his engagement with the dictionary. And that dictionary is first and foremost the OED. There is no greater dictionary in the world, and its making constitutes one of the great intellectual events of the twentieth century, though it started life in the nineteenth. There had never been anything like this before. Now the language itself has become the documented labyrinth of its own manifold meanings. Now history can be traced uttering itself thus and thus in one mutating word after another. The thought of a poet writing in English who would not grow excited turning the pages of the OED, or clicking on the electronic version, is so dismal that one wishes such a personage an even smaller readership than modern poets normally manage to acquire.’

The Bedouin of St Katherine.

Hilary Gilbert: One of the oldest monasteries in Christendom is guarded by a tribe of mistreated Arabs: ‘Bedu are barred from the Armed Forces. Education is poor or non-existent: 44 per cent of Bedouin adults have had no education at all, compared with 7 per cent of Egyptians, and professional Bedu are almost unknown. Many lack electricity and accessible water. With healthcare poor, unaffordable or absent, and a heavy-handed security presence, Bedu feel with good reason that their country is failing them.’

Venice and the theatre of memory.

Hoyt Rogers: ‘Venice teaches us that history is never dead: the humblest portico affords us a proscenium composed of centuries—but not as an album of faded recollections, settled and done. The theatre of memory unveils its meaning only when we behold it as a vital, breathing gospel of the present.’

City for sale.

Robin Saikia: ‘Venetians themselves contributed vigorously to the new hell: magnificent palaces and houses were carved up into rentable apartments or cut-price alberghi; restaurants began to serve cheap, anaemic and barely edible versions of local cuisine; the cost of everything from coffee to public transport was set at astronomic levels in the sure knowledge that the dazed visitor was faced with no option but to pay up; commercial premises in Rialto and San Marco were and are progressively sold or rented to the highest bidders, most often the Chinese; the Venice Carnival, in the eighteenth century a spectacular and beautifully-styled piece of civic theatre, has become a sorry example of gimcrack design and disappointing events: a perfect example of a hit-and-run operation designed to remove money from unwary tourists. It comes as no surprise that for over twenty years, in the wake of this vandalism, there has been a deadening sense of paralysis and resignation in the city.’

A Venetian’s view of Venice.

Michele Casagrande: ‘Energetically, many want to change things, yet in everyday life the city’s rhythms would seem to be too slow—extremely light-hearted, but fundamentally lazy. The attitude can be expressed through reactions like the following: Living in such a marvelous city, a center of attention for the entire world, why should anyone want to leave? Why should anyone want to move away from a place that can offer very high earnings to people who are basically manual workers, such as gondoliers and taxi drivers?’

2D or not to be.

Alexander Zubatov: ‘In a stifling orthodoxy, a bit of rebellious cursing and vulgar behavior are healthful antidotes, but in a polity where everyone is cursing unceremoniously and unapologetically, refusing to curse and to be vulgar and being willing to condemn those who do are the kinds of acts of rebellion we need if we are to entertain any hope of putting the brakes on our rapid descent into cultural mediocrity.’

Anthony Rudolf’s literary Wunderkammer.

Harry Guest: ‘The important thing is that silent conversations is a gloriously entertaining and a most rewarding publication. To share the reading experiences of such a poet-scholar-translator-editor-critic is a rare privilege and this book is worthy to be spoken of in company with Montaigne’s Essays, Evelyn’s Diary and Stendhal’s Vie de Henry Brulard.’

The year-end bedside reading table

Anthony Howell: ‘What makes a poet readable? There cannot be a formulaic answer. This is the problem with the standard model so lauded by our Oxbridge elite – as anally compressed as Ian Hamilton, with a closed form, forever ruled by the dictates of significance and economy, and very tightly organised on the page. ‘