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). His most recent book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017.

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 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.

Friday, December 4, 2015

William Carlos Williams: Is less more?

In an earlier post,[1] I went on record saying I am in favor of reading a long poem in radically abridged form. My example was Asphodel, That Greeny Flower by William Carlos Williams. I said the version contained in the 1968 Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams,[2] which entirely omits the second and third ‘books’ of this long poem, retaining only the first book and the Coda, is more ‘incisive’ and more memorably ‘unique’ than the original which is more than twice as long.
            Recently I have had a similar reading experience, again involving a long poem by Williams. This past summer at a used-book store in Madison, Wisconsin, I bought William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems, published by New Directions in 1985 and edited by Charles Tomlinson. Unlike the earlier volume, this edition contains an extensive selection from Williams’ book-length poem Paterson.
            I am calling the selection ‘extensive,’ but this does not at all mean it is anything near the length of the original! The edition of the original I own, the ‘eighth Paperbook printing,’ is some 240 pages long.[3] In Tomlinson’s selected version, Paterson is represented by only 38 pages – less than one-sixth. If we look not at the total number of pages but at the proportional bulk of each of the five ‘books,’ the reduction is even more striking. The fifth book is represented by no more than a single page. The fourth book, comprising 56 pages in the original, again has been cut back to a single page. The third, originally 51 pages, is now two and a half. In other words, the last three books, which together occupied about two-thirds of the original, now make up less than one-eighth.
            It is interesting, but also fruitless, to speculate as to why Tomlinson chose to truncate the later parts so radically. Opinions differ as to whether Williams did the right thing by adding a fifth book long after the first four had already been published; what cannot be denied is that the fifth book alters, re-unifies and refocuses the whole. Williams’ biographer Paul Mariani calls the fifth book ‘an extended meditation on the woman, the counterpoise of the male sensibility...’[4] and goes on to say that its ‘central icon’ is ‘the Virgin holding the Baby.’[5] Absolutely nothing of the kind can be detected in the tiny shard preserved by Tomlinson. Nor is there the least remnant of the (to my mind) superb ending of the original fifth book:

We know nothing and can no nothing
the dance, to dance to a measure
                               the tragic foot.

– in which the ‘foot,’ bringing together the main preoccupations of Williams’ later poetry, undoubtedly refers both to a physiological ‘foot’ involved in a mating ‘dance’ and to a ‘foot’ as the metrical focus of poetry.
            But if I think it’s a shame that Tomlinson’s selection omits the new emphasis on the feminine and the imagination, a question arises: are those elements really prominent in the original text, or have I grown accustomed to seeking and finding them there because of scholarly books I have read about Paterson? If I had not read books like Jerome Mazzaro’s William Carlos Williams: The Later Poems[6] and Sherman Paul’s The Music of Survival,[7] would I naturally have thought the fifth book of Paterson belonged in a group of late contemplative poems which includes Asphodel and “The Desert Music”?
            I’m just not sure. What I am prepared to say without hesitation is that cutting out most of the third book is all to the good. I would say the same for the fourth. In fact, in thinking of Paterson as a whole, I can never forget what Samuel Johnson said about Milton’s Paradise Lost: ‘none ever wished it longer than it is.’
I guess what I am actually doing is reading the fifth book of Paterson not as an integrated text in itself, but as a collection of ‘links’ or ‘tabs’ evoking echoes of related words and ideas which actually occur in other late works by Williams. My interest is not in the continuous text on the printed page, but in these scattered clues which bring in overtones. To me, those overtones compensate for, in my appreciation actually supersede, the frankly less interesting or less good sections of the actual text.
In other words, for a reader like me who prefers memorably ‘incisive’ to bewilderingly bulky....viewing Williams’ work as a whole, it is true that Less is More. But in order to know what less to read, you have to have first read much more...

--Lloyd Haft
December 2015

[2] New York: New Directions. This edition contains an introduction by Randall Jarrell. The selection of the later poems is said to have been made by ‘Mrs. Williams and a committee of editorial advisers.’
[3] New York: New Directions. Though the information given in the front matter on publishing history is formidably complex, I believe myself to have deciphered that this edition as a whole was published in 1963.
[4] Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. New York etc.: McGraw-Hill, 1981, p. 645.
[5] Mariani, p. 708.
[6] Cornell University Press, 1973.
[7] University of Illinois Press, 1968.