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Music to Their Ears

March 11, 2010 By:
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Let's face it: The literary essay hasn't much currency left these days in the artistic marketplace. The critical review -- a journalistic staple for many decades -- has managed to keep its footing somewhat, even though its existence was threatened recently when certain papers decided to downsize. The review has survived a bit longer than the essay, its "loftier" relative, because it fills a distinct purpose. It may not provide much in the way of depth, but it says "yea or nay" about a piece of art -- a book, film or painting. And so, by leading readers to some items and not to others it rests upon a ballast of pragmatism that may ensure its life span for at least a while longer.

The literary essay, however, is a completely different species. Though it may, in fact, pass judgment on works of art, just like its less lofty cousin, its primary purpose is the elevation of taste, the refinement of sensibility -- at least in the 19th-century sense of the form.

But if literary essays are rare these days, books filled with such items have nearly disappeared from the scene. These types of books, which once filled publishers' catalogues each season, have dwindled in number as readers' tastes have changed, and the Internet age has come to dominate our lives.

Still, a number of writers have managed to hang on by producing this form almost exclusively. One of them is Eliot Weinberger, who has been helped in his pursuits by his steadfast publisher, New Directions, which has also been one of the New York houses that hasn't completely abandoned literary forms that were staples of an earlier age. Weinberger, who is also known as an editor and a wide-ranging translator of poetry, has just published his fifth collection with New Directions, titled Oranges & Peanuts for Sale.

'An Impossibly Inimitable Model'

For those who love the essay, Weinberger's book provides a number of pleasures. To prove that he not only is a devoted adherent to this unpopular venue, the author compounds things a bit by using his first piece to consider a little-known poet who never went out of his way to please an audience, but whose honesty and craft have always been worthy of far greater critical attention.

"Neither pedagogical nor oracular, more preoccupied with questions than answers," writes Weinberger, "George Oppen was nonetheless surrounded by young writers in the 1960s and 1970s as a model -- an impossibly inimitable model -- of how to be a poet in shifting, disastrous and what seemed to be apocalyptic times. He had an aura about him, that of the honorable man trying to speak in the roar of history, much like the aura that has now gathered posthumously around Paul Celan."

For the literary-minded, who know and love Oppen, and his fellow Objectivists -- Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofksy -- Weinberger's insights and formulations will seem like music to their ears.

Weinberger also offers a brief recitation of Oppen's life, with an emphasis on the poet's nine-year exile from America in the wake of McCarthyism. The critic writes: "In 1968, amidst the powerful (and still powerful) overtly political poems being written by Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg and so many others, it was Oppen's Of Being Numerous that, from its opening words, struck me, still a teenager, as the poetry that had captured the interior essence of where we are, who we are, right now:

"There are things 
We live among 'and to see them 
Is to know ourselves'.

"These lines are now philosophical, but they were once political, for then the things we lived among included the first televised scenes of war and the photographs of napalmed children: was seeing them knowing ourselves? Over and over Oppen emphasized that the function of poetry was a test of truth; he may have been the last writer in the West to use the word 'truth' without irony."

A Place Like No Other

A real surprise of this collection is that Weinberger, who appears in most other instances to be a determined modernist, is not afraid to revisit a work from the "old journalism" school -- E.B. White's long essay "Here Is New York," which first appeared in The New Yorker in the late 1940s, and then appeared in book form and was reissued in a lovely little edition in 2002. The new edition got Weinberger thinking about the city and some of its treasured qualities, meditating on how it differs so greatly from what White focused on -- and by extension what he ignored -- in the Manhattan of 1948.

He writes: "New York is a city of outsiders where no one is a foreigner because everyone is a foreigner. In the density of the city, the countless cultures are pressed up against one another, as they are not in more sprawling cities with more demarcated ethnic neighborhoods, and they must negotiate with one another in what is, for many, a second language. Consequently -- though I've often been accused of obstinate chauvinism for saying so -- New Yorkers may well be the most polite people of any major city in the world. New Yorkers have a shipwreck mentality: Things are hard, but it was worse where we came from, and we're all here trying to survive, and possibly make life a little better. It was notable, after Sept. 11, that, unlike the rest of the country, there was no violence against the many tens of thousands of Muslims living here (or against dark-skinned others mistaken for Muslims), nor did New York thirst for military vengeance. Its patriotic fervor -- if one could call it that -- was directed in support of the firemen, policemen and emergency workers. They were 'our' uniformed heroes ... ."

Even more surprising and pleasing is the attention that the essayist lavishes on Robert Alter's recent translation of the Psalms. "New translations of a classic text," writes Weinberger, "are either done as criticism of the old translations (correcting mistakes, finding an equivalent that is somehow closer to the original, writing in the language as it is now spoken), or they are a springboard for trying something new in the translation-language, inspired by certain facets of the original (such as Pound's Chinese or Anglo-Saxon versions, Paul Blackburn's Provençal, Louis Zukofsky's Latin).

"Alter, whose concern is Biblical Hebrew and not contemporary American poetry, is in the former camp. As he explains in the introduction, his project is to strip away the Christian interpretations implicit in the King James and later versions, and restore the context of the archaic Judaism of the half-millennium (roughly 1,000-500 BCE) in which the Psalms were written. His poetics is an attempt to reproduce the compression and concreteness of the Hebrew, 'emulating its rhythms' and 'making more palpable the force of parallelism that is at the heart of biblical poetry.' "

For me, the criterion for the success of essay collections was met time and time again byOranges & Peanuts for Sale: Weinberger sent me in search of new writers and books, things I had not heard of till then but wish I had.

The only weakness I see -- if one can call it that -- rests in the last 50 pages, which are devoted to a number of the writer's political essays. I find them the weakest of the lot, but there are other readers who feel far different than I. In the end, it's all a matter of taste.

Another item of note: Oranges & Peanuts for Sale is a paperback original from New Directions, but the publishers have made it a particularly striking book -- a sign of how much Weinberger is admired for what he brings to the publisher's always distinguished list of books each season.

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