Wanderlust — by Richard Avedon

Avedon was a poet and we didn’t know it?

Reading photographer Richard Avedon’s 1941 Scholastic Art & Writing award-winning poem Wanderlust on the back page of this month’s Harpers Bazaar was an apropos finale to a marathon magazine-reading session on an overcast Saturday in L.A.

WANDERLUST

You must not think because my glance is quick

To shift from this to that, from here to there,

Because I am most usually where

The way is strangest and the wonders thick,

Because when wind is wildest and the bay

Swoops madly upward and the gulls are few

And I am doing as I want to do,

Leaving the town to go my aimless way;

You must not think because I am the kind

Who always shunned security and such

As bother the responsible of mind

That I shall never total up to much;

I know my drifting will not prove a loss,

For mine is a rolling stone that has gathered moss.

Richard Avedon via npr.org

Richard Avedon via npr.org

Perfection on a Friday by New York Times via Moscow and L.A.

Thank you, John Kaag, and to Breakfast in Moscow for sharing this piece.

The Perfect Essay – NYTimes.com for your reading pleasure below.

The Perfect Essay

Looking back on too many years of education, I can identify one truly impossible teacher. She cared about me, and my intellectual life, even when I didn’t. Her expectations were high — impossibly so. She was an English teacher. She was also my mother.

When good students turn in an essay, they dream of their instructor returning it to them in exactly the same condition, save for a single word added in the margin of the final page: “Flawless.” This dream came true for me one afternoon in the ninth grade. Of course, I’d heard that genius could show itself at an early age, so I was only slightly taken aback that I had achieved perfection at the tender age of 14. Obviously, I did what any professional writer would do; I hurried off to spread the good news. I didn’t get very far. The first person I told was my mother.

My mother, who is just shy of five feet tall, is normally incredibly soft-spoken, but on the rare occasion when she got angry, she was terrifying. I’m not sure if she was more upset by my hubris or by the fact that my English teacher had let my ego get so out of hand. In any event, my mother and her red pen showed me how deeply flawed a flawless essay could be. At the time, I’m sure she thought she was teaching me about mechanics, transitions, structure, style and voice. But what I learned, and what stuck with me through my time teaching writing at Harvard, was a deeper lesson about the nature of creative criticism.

First off, it hurts. Genuine criticism, the type that leaves an indelible mark on you as a writer, also leaves an existential imprint on you as a person. I’ve heard people say that a writer should never take criticism personally. I say that we should never listen to these people.

Criticism, at its best, is deeply personal, and gets to the heart of why we write the way we do. Perhaps you’re a narcissist who secretly resents your audience. Or an elitist who expects herculean feats of your reader. Or a know-it-all who can’t admit that stylistic repetition is sometimes annoying redundancy. Or a wallflower who hides behind sparklingly meaningless modifiers. Or an affirmation junkie who’s the first to brag about a flawless essay.

Unfortunately, as my mother explained, you can be all of these things at once.

Her red pen had made something painfully clear. To become a better writer, I first had to become a better person. Well before I ever read it, I came to sense the meaning of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” And I faced the disturbing suggestion that my song was no good.

The intimate nature of genuine criticism implies something about who is able to give it, namely, someone who knows you well enough to show you how your psychic life is getting in the way of good writing. Conveniently, they’re also the people who care enough to see you through the traumatic aftermath of this realization. For me the aftermath took the form of my first, and I hope only, encounter with writer’s block.

It lasted three years.

Franz Kafka once said: “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” My mother’s criticism had shown me that Kafka is right about the cold abyss, and when you make the introspective descent that writing requires you’re not always pleased by what you find. But, in the years that followed, her sustained tutelage suggested that Kafka might be wrong about the solitude. I was lucky enough to find a critic and teacher who was willing to make the journey of writing with me. “It’s a thing of no great difficulty,” according to Plutarch, “to raise objections against another man’s oration, it is a very easy matter; but to produce a better in its place is a work extremely troublesome.” I’m sure I wrote essays in the later years of high school without my mother’s guidance, but I can’t recall them. What I remember, however, is how she took up the “extremely troublesome” work of ongoing criticism.

There are two ways to interpret Plutarch when he suggests that a critic should be able to produce “a better in its place.” In a straightforward sense, he could mean that a critic must be more talented than the artist she critiques. My mother was well covered on this count. (She denies it, but she’s still a much, much better writer than I am.) But perhaps Plutarch is suggesting something slightly different, something a bit closer to Cicero’s claim that one should “criticize by creation, not by finding fault.” Genuine criticism creates a precious opening for an author to become better on his own terms — a process that’s often excruciating, but also almost always meaningful.

My mother said she would help me with my writing, but first I had to help myself. For each assignment, I was to write the best essay I could. Real criticism isn’t meant to find obvious mistakes, so if she found any — the type I could have found on my own — I had to start from scratch. From scratch. Once the essay was “flawless,” she would take an evening to walk me through my errors. That was when true criticism, the type that changed me as a person, began.

She chided me as a pseudo-sophisticate when I included obscure references and professional jargon. She had no patience for brilliant but useless extended metaphors. “Writers can’t bluff their way through ignorance.” That was news to me — I’d need to find another way to structure my daily existence. She trimmed back my flowery language, drew lines through my exclamation marks and argued for the value of understatement. “John,” she almost whispered. I leaned in to hear her: “I can’t hear you when you shout at me.” So I stopped shouting and bluffing, and slowly my writing improved.

Somewhere along the way I set aside my hopes of writing that flawless essay. But perhaps I missed something important in my mother’s lessons about creativity and perfection. Perhaps the point of writing the flawless essay was not to give up, but to never willingly finish. Whitman repeatedly reworked “Song of Myself” between 1855 and 1891. Repeatedly. We do our absolute best with a piece of writing, and come as close as we can to the ideal. And, for the time being, we settle. In critique, however, we are forced to depart, to give up the perfection we thought we had achieved for the chance of being even a little bit better. This is the lesson I took from my mother: If perfection were possible, it wouldn’t be motivating.

John Kaag is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and former visiting assistant professor of expository writing at Harvard. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Finding Westwind: A Story of American Philosophy.” And yes, Becky Griffith Kaag, his mother and a former high school English teacher, took her editing pen to this essay.

Happy Birthday to a Legend ~ Ms Hepburn

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Happy Birthday to a Legend ~ Ms Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn, who was born on this date in 1929, won her best actress Oscar for the enchanting 1953’s “Roman Holiday,” starring opposite Gregory Peck. And here’s a photo from the film courtesy of AMC. (via Los Angeles Times)

Lost In Translation: Sergey Esenin

The Russian-to-English translator’s job is a tough one. They face a constant dilemma in transforming  melodic Russian verse into rigid English. It’s unfortunate, but many times a bad translation will make the most evocative Russian sentence sound flat and dull.

In my research of Russian literature, I have been reading about Sergey Esenin — one of the country’s most-loved lyrical poets. Born in the country, he moved to the city — Moscow, then Petrograd — and in 1918, formed the Imagist poetry group.The Revolution had an impact on Esenin; he found it hard to adjust to the new way of life, and alcohol and drugs furthered his disillusionment. Over the course of 30 years, Esenin wed four times (American dancer Isadora Duncan was his third wife), becoming a father through marriage and a romantic liaison. All this made for  moving and emotive verse that, while poignant, thrives on masterful composition.

So, what does this have to do with translation? While combing through copious amount of information, I came across a number of English translations of Esenin’s final poem. Stumped, I searched for the original and found no translation to be a match. They were all either too wordy, exaggerated, and/or neglected to honour the poet’s words. I ended up translating the eight lines myself and believe me, it’s hard to balance the literal and the melodious, yet that shouldn’t compromise the poem’s integrity.

THE FINAL POEM

Apparently, this final untitled poem was written in blood. Esenin, who was staying at the Hotel Angleterre in Leningrad, could not find any ink and used his lifeblood to complete the piece. The poem became public around the same time he was found in his hotel room, hanging from a radiator pipe. Whether Esenin committed suicide or not is undetermined. He had been mentally unstable and suffered from a drug addiction, though some attribute his death to the hands of the secret police. Politically, Esenin was out of favour as his “village” poetry clashed with the industrial theories of the Revolution.

Esenin left his legacy in the most beautiful of poetic works that continue to be devoured. I checked Twitter and found that the Russians love nothing more than to share a cup of coffee with Esenin in the spring.

Here’s my translation of this final poem. The original is below if you want to have a go of translating it yourself, or to at least compare with Google translate. If you come across wildly varied versions in either case, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye.

My dear, you are in my heart.

This predestined parting

Promises a meeting in time to come.

 

Goodbye, my friend, without a hand, without a word,

Don’t be sad and furrow your brow in sorrow, –

To die in this life is not new,

But to live, of course, is not newer.

(1925)

До свиданья, друг мой, до свиданья.
Милый мой, ты у меня в груди.
Предназначенное расставанье
Обещает встречу впереди.

До свиданья, друг мой, без руки, без слова,
Не грусти и не печаль бровей, —
В этой жизни умирать не ново,
Но и жить, конечно, не новей.

(1925)

Esenin and Duncan

Esenin and Duncan

 

 

April 14: Remembering Mayakovsky

Our brains were numb; our fingertips, blue. It was past 4pm and getting dark — not unusual for winter in Moscow. Under the bleak sky and nearing the end of our tethers, mum and I were fast losing our sense of direction. We must have shuffled by Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, and Nikolai Tchaikovsky a dozen times each while navigating pathways slicked with ice and snow. We weren’t about to give up though — we’re steadfast and pretty determined. Map or no map, eyes tearing from the cold, we sloughed through the freeze. Until finally — FINALLY! — we spotted it. The Cyrillic writing etched across the top of a red-faced tombstone that read: Vladimir Mayakovsky.

DSC_0186PSI don’t usually spend so much time in cemeteries but this day was different — I was on assignment to find the famous writer, playwright, and poet — Mayakovsky. The Novodevichy Cemetery is the resting place of many literary, cultural, and political figures including Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet actress Marina Ladynina, and the first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yelstin. Located adjacent to the 16th-century Novodevichy Convent, the grave site is one of the city’s top tourist attractions.

DSC_0177PSThe large red-and-black tombstone that forever honours Mayakovsky is deceptive, not only for its camouflaging abilities but because it stands for the Futurist artist who was ultimately shunned by a cause he was so vested in.

As a boy, Mayakovsky acted revolutionary: at 12, he led his classmates in a demonstration; by 15, he’d landed in jail from his association with an underground Bolshevik group, which is where he started to read widely, and write.

At the time of the Russian Revolution, Mayakovsky showed a lack of interest in the classics by Pushkin and Tolstoy, instead dedicating his efforts towards the creation of a New World. He found a voice through theatre, poetry, propaganda, and radio jingles, and went on to be celebrated as “the greatest poet of the Soviet era.” Yet, a decade later, his works seemed to polarize. Reviewers criticised his play, The Bath House, for its (humorous) critique of Soviet bureaucrats, while his artistic retrospective was avoided altogether by the intelligentsia. He feared arrest.

DSC_0189PSOn April 9, “Just five days before his death, Mayakovsky was condemned at a Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) meeting at which his critics demanded proof that he would still be read in 20 years.”* A year later, in 1931, writer Maxim Gorky would head the Writer’s Union, abolish the RAPP, and, with Stalin, formulate the doctrine of Socialist Realism, which embraced an old-world literary aesthetic. To add further fuel, it’s been speculated that Mayakovsky’s lover, Lily Brik, was an agent of Stalin’s secret police — the NKVD.

Mum and I stood shivering in our  boots at the foot of Mayakovsky’s grave, blanketed in snow and surrounded by plastic flowers and a wreath of blood-red roses. We admired Mayakovsky’s profile for a time. I wondered how such a head-strong, intelligent 36-year-old could terminate his life with a bullet? Didn’t he have more to say? Then again, perhaps he foresaw his fate.

Below is the reported suicide note, taken from an unfinished work, probably written in 1929:

As they say,

                     a bungled story.

Love’s boat

                   smashed

                  against existence.

And we are quits

                 with life.

                So why should we

idly reproach each other

              with pain and insults?

To those who remain — I wish happiness.

DSC_0193PSHere are pictures of the site in spring: http://novodevichye.com/mayakovsky/5/

*Natasha’s Dance, by Orlando Figes

Googling Gogol ~ Moscow, Russia

“162 years ago today, Nikolai Gogol burned most of the second part of his novel “Dead Souls” — a grave loss for world literature. Soon after that, Gogol took to bed, refused all food, and died in great pain.” ~ Moscow Times

Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852) began to publish stories in 1828, and by the mid-1830s he had established himself in the literary world and been warmly praised by Pushkin. In 1836, his play The Inspector-General was attacked as immoral, and Gogol went abroad, where he remained for most of the next twelve years. During this time he wrote two of his best-known stories, “The Nose” and “The Overcoat,” and in 1842 he published the first part of his masterpiece Dead Souls. Gogol became ever more religious as the years passed, and in 1847 he fell under the sway of an Orthodox priest on whose advice he burned much of the second part of Dead Souls and soon gave up writing altogether. After undertaking a fast to purify his soul, he died at the age of forty-two. ~ Donald Rayfield is emeritus professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary, University of London.

The photo below, Gogol’s statue, was taken at the Gogol House Museum during my recent trip to Moscow.

DSC_0375PS

 

Inspired: Black and White Photography

marinachetner:

How’s this for inspiration? An oldie but a goodie. Nothing beats a great selection of black and whites!

Originally posted on Marina Chetner:

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” ~ Elliott Erwitt

Torcello in the Venetian Lagoon, Venice, Italy, 1953 ~ Henri Cartier-Bresson

Every day inspiration can be sparked by so many things: a Warholian piece of art; a quote by Paulo Coelho; the dramatic lines of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Today, I was inspired by monochromatic images. I love when a photograph evokes a feeling, and black+whites have a knack of doing that.

Recently I have been paying attention to other elements too; composition, depth of field, lines, expressions, and angles. Reading images in this way encourages me to notice details that I may have otherwise overlooked.

I like this new change. It’s a reminder to look at the world with new eyes. Enjoy the inspiration!

A photograph is usually…

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