What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Michael Hofmann's "Where Have You Been?"

This is just a quick note to say how much I’m enjoying Michael Hofmann’s new essay collection, Where Have You Been?. Hofmann isn’t a New Yorker writer. But his dazzling, delicious book connects with the magazine in several interesting ways. For example, it contains two excellent essays on Elizabeth Bishop, who contributed more than fifty poems and five short stories to The New Yorker. In “Bishop/Lowell Correspondence,” a review of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Hofmann catalogues the differences between the two poets:

Bishop is acute, Lowell obtuse; Bishop sensitive, solicitous, moody, Lowell dull, sometimes careless, rather relentlessly productive; she is anxious, he when not shockingly and I think genuinely self-critical, insouciant; she is open to the world, whereas with him—and this is an understatement—"sometimes nothing is so solid to me as writing"; her poems in her account of them are fickle, small-scale, barely worth pursuing—and how many of them seem to get lost in the making—whereas his are industrial-scale drudgery and then quite suddenly completed.

At one point, Hofmann says, “Bishop likes strong Brazilian coffee, Lowell drinks American dishwater coffee (or tea, sometimes he's not sure).” In comparing Bishop’s and Lowell’s letters, Hofmann pulls no punches; he likes Bishop’s better: “Bishop is so prodigal with sympathy, attention, interest; Lowell, by contrast, seems to endow even people quite close to him (even Elizabeth Bishop, as we will see) with very little reality. It comes down to something like focal length—his is about a foot.”

For a kinder view of Lowell’s letter writing, see Dan Chiasson’s "Works On Paper" (The New Yorker, November 3, 2008),  in which he calls Lowell’s recovery letters “among the most brilliant letters ever written, for the simple reason that the writing of them operates against such tragic stakes.”

Another piece in Hofmann’s collection that links with The New Yorker is “James Schuyler.” Schuyler contributed at least a dozen poems to The New Yorker and was the subject of a wonderful essay, called “Whatever Is Moving,” by longtime New Yorker poetry editor, Howard Moss. Hofmann mentions Moss’s piece in his essay. Regarding Schuyler, Hofmann says he is “at once a painterly poet, descriptive and objective, and at the same time he uses all the subliminal, microbial quirks of language.”

A third New Yorker connection came to mind when I read Hofmann’s piece on Zbigniew Herbert. The New Yorker published a number of Herbert’s poems, including the John and Bogdana Carpenter translation of "Mr. Cogito on a Set Theme: 'Friends Depart,' " (June 28, 2004), which Hofmann quotes, using the Alissa Valles translation. Hofmann rips Valles’s translation of Herbert, calling it, among other things, “slack, chattersome, hysterical, full of exaggeration, complacency, and reaching for effect.”

And fourthly, reading Hofmann’s absorbing piece on Max Beckmann, I recalled Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker review of Saint Louis Art Museum’s “Max Beckmann and Paris” ("The French Disconnection," March 8, 1999; included in Schjeldahl’s 2008 collection, Let’s See), which contains this memorable description of Beckmann’s great Quappi in Blue: “In Quappi’s bone-white face, her red lips assume a sweetly wry expression while visually exploding like a grenade.” Hofmann, in his “Max Beckmann," also notes the detonative character of Beckmann’s work. He says, “In its drama and clutter and burstingness, it regularly challenges the very idea of what can be done in a painting.”

All of these connections are worth exploring further. Where Have You Been? is a rich, spirited collection. I’m enjoying it immensely.

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