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Brief bio sketch
Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).
He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.
Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.
After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) is one of my favorite poets. He
is also one of my favorite people, which is of course not at all the same
Or...is it? In the long
run, do I re-read his poems because I am inspired by his person, or do I
semi-idolize the person because of what he wrote?
I admire the man and
his poems for the same reason: a particular quality of transcendence which for
me is present in both.
What? (I hear every
sophomore saying)...Williams transcendent? Didn’t he write ‘no ideas but in
Yes, he did. And that
notion, badly misunderstood, has been repeated ad nauseam and put poorly into
practice by writers of the kind of poems that I call Fact Sheets – the endless,
uncontemplative (and I would say not-worth-contemplating) passages of mere
description that make so much twentieth-century American poetry so dull.
Not only the words are transcendent, or are about transcendence.
Williams himself while writing them was already ‘transcending’ a series of huge
health setbacks of the heart attack-stroke-cerebral hemorrhage kind. Normally
we do not expect a survivor of strokes (that’s right, plural) to be still
capable of writing poetry at all, let alone writing what many think is his
finest and most lasting work. But Williams did it. As I see it, there was
something in him that still wanted so badly to write those late poems that even
serious paralysis could not deter him. And the result was so successful that
scholars ever since have been studying and analyzing the ‘variable foot’ or ‘triadic-line’
form, characterized by very short lines, in which he wrote them.
Not long ago I ran
across what was for me an intriguing added perspective on this. In his very
well-thought-out 1973 book William Carlos
Williams: The Late Poems,
Jerome Mazzaro surmises that it was not despite
but because of the strokes that
Williams wrote in this form: ‘Since the conscious discovery of the line
coincided with a recovery from a cerebral attack, there is some reason to
connect the two...the new line may well have been devised to compensate for the
physical effects of the strokes which made it difficult for the poet to return
his gaze quickly to the left margin of a page. The staggered margins of the
triadic line were almost imperative as a corrective...’
This idea – that the
form in which Williams expressed his soaring thoughts, which later attracted
all manner of highfalutin scholarly analysis, was in fact due to the mere
mechanics of bodily disability – reminds me of a parallel case, again involving
one of my very favorite writers.
John Cowper Powys
(1872-1963) has often been called one of the greatest 20th-century
novelists in English, but to me he is one of the all-time great writers of
Autobiography in the true sense. What I mean is that he writes real
auto-BIO-graphy, i.e. an account of his life,
not just the surface living of it. This is exactly what is so lacking in so
many books of the ‘autobiography’ or ‘memoirs’ type. I call them Laundry Lists
because their authors evidently think they are doing enough simply by
screen-dumping an accumulation of facts – ‘and then I went there and then I did
Who cares about all the theres and thats if they never turned out to mean something to somebody?
If I began giving
examples of ‘transcendent’ quotes from Powys’ works, the list might never end.
There is something in the whole tenor of his writing that somehow lifts you
right up out of the workaday chair. But if we must have an example, let it be: ‘...everything
which the mind touches is modified and changed by the mind.’
As for Powys’ writing
style, again many things might be said, but the one feature everybody agrees on
is his penchant for writing very long sentences. As Brahms is the master of the
long phrase in music, Powys is the supreme practitioner of the long sentence in
This feature, like
William Carlos Williams’ ‘triadic’ form, has not escaped medical diagnosis by
an admiring biographer. One of the most ‘remarkable’ (I’ll just say) books
about Powys is the study written in Flemish by Ernst Verbeek, a former
professor of psychiatry at Ghent University in Belgium.
I doubt Verbeek’s book
is very well known even in the tiny countries where Dutch or Flemish is read.
My own copy was discarded by a major public library two years after its
publication in 1989, and it seems not to have been translated into English. For
a while Verbeek was investigating epilepsy in relation to psychiatric symptoms,
but his work in that field was not uncontroversial. Besides the biography of
Powys, he wrote a number of other ‘pathographies’ – studies of writers from a
medical and psychiatric angle – on Samuel Johnson, Rimbaud, and Tolstoy among
Verbeek [pp. 147, 208]
cites evidence, which I personally find impressive, to show that Powys suffered
from a chronic epileptic disturbance. One symptom of this was his ‘long, rambling
sentences’. Fortunately, though Verbeek takes a medical view of Powys’ ‘pathology,’
he is anything but denigrating or skeptical of Powys as a writer. On the
contrary, the tone of his book is almost adulatory. The result of reading Powys
is, he says on the last page, a sense of ‘spiritual cleansing.’
Let’s be thankful that
in this world there are not only Fact Sheets and Laundry Lists preying on our
attention and trying to distract us from the very thought of anything better. There
are also a few good Pathographies. What we learn from them is that we need not
rack our minds trying to figure out exactly how to transcend. Our body itself
cries out for transcendence, and in doing so it supplies us with, prompts us to
use, whatever for us are the ways and means. For Williams, a shorter verse line
which cuts away what was trying unduly to possess us. For Powys, a ‘rambling’
sentence which by its very length inaugurates a new time frame, sets a new
stage, lets us see right out beyond the hedges.
 From the ‘Coda’ section of Asphodel,
That Greeny Flower.
 A superlative example of the opposite extreme, a
hyper-contemplative autobiography in which you really have to work hard to
discern what a few of the facts of the life actually were or might have been,
is C. G. Jung’s.
 from The Complex Vision, London: Village Press
1975, p. xiv.
 Ernst Verbeek, De goden
verzoeken: John Cowper Powys, zijn persoon en zijn werk [Tempting the Gods:
John Cowper Powys, His person and his work], Assen/Maastricht: Van Gorcum,