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.



Monday, August 4, 2014

Writing from the Writhe


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 thing.
        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 things’?
        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.
        But he also wrote:

Only the imagination is real!
        I have declared it
                time without end.
If a man die
        it is because death
has first
possessed his imagination.[1]

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,[2] 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...’[3]
        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 that.’[4] 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.’[5]
        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 English.
        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.[6]
        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 others.
        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.

--Lloyd Haft



[1] From the ‘Coda’ section of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.
[2] Cornell University Press.
[3] p. 79.
[4] 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.
[5] from The Complex Vision, London: Village Press 1975, p. xiv.
[6] 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, 1989.