Daily Archives: 17 September 2010

Eliot Weinberger, list virtuoso

Eliot Weinberger, Oranges & Peanuts for Sale (New Directions 2009)

Eliot Weinberger is a poet, translator (most eminently of Octavio Paz from Spanish and Bei Dao from Chinese), literary critic (though he denies it), essayist (one of his essays – perhaps more accurately classified as a prose poem – was published in Heat Nº 5), anthologist (his 1993 anthology American Poetry Since 1950 was a bestseller in Mexico), editor. This book collects 28 pieces written on commission and first published between 2001 and 2009: introductions to other people’s books and to his own poetry translations and anthologies, reviews, magazine articles, contributions to anthologies and talks given at conferences. He ranges far and wide, and is always interesting, often illuminating, sometimes funny. Topics include EB White, Emily Dickinson, Susan Sontag, the changing face of Chinese poetry in the US since Ezra Pound, China in 2005, the failure of US literati, poets in particular, to engage politically under Reagan, the relationship of photography and anthropology (they’re siblings), a number of poets I’ve not heard of who are now high on my To be Read list, translation (I will never trot out the phrase traduttore traditore again), George Bush, the Iraq War, Barack Obama. And there are a couple of pieces – one on the colour blue, another on peanuts and oranges – that approach an abstract condition.

Weinberger is a great list maker. Often when I come upon a list in a piece of prose, I’m tempted to skip, feeling that it’s enough to know that many and various things were packed into the car, or growing in the garden, without having to read the name of every one of them. Weinberger’s lists don’t tempt in this way: he’s a list virtuoso, delighting in what he calls ‘strange conjunctions’. The longest piece in this book, ‘Things I Heard about Iraq in 2005’, delivers literally on the title, listing news reports, rumours, quotes and statistics, a paragraph (mostly beginning ‘I heard’) per item, and few paragraphs longer than 10 lines, without analysis, commentary or argument. The effect – partly a result of sheer accumulation, partly of masterful juxtaposition – is devastating.

Most of the lists in this book are integrated into more conventional essays. Take, from many possible examples, this list of biographical detail on David Rafael Wang, scholarly collaborator of William Carlos Williams:

Wang, also known as David Happell Hsin-fu Wand, was born in China – a direct descendent, he claimed, of Wang Wei – escaped to the US after the revolution, and became surely the only Chinese-American who was both a neo-Nazi white supremacist (and a member of the seedier circles around Pound in St Elizabeths) and a Black Panther (in Oakland in the 1960s). Among other things, he was also a stodgy professor, active in the academic bureaucracy; a bisexual boxing and martial arts fanatic who had long talks about poetry with Muhammad Ali; a poet (‘in the Greco-Sino-Samurai-African tradition’) and friend of many of the Beat and Black Mountain poets; a translator of Hawaiian and Samoan oral poetries, included in the Rothenberg Technicians of the Sacred anthology; and a possible suicide (at a MLA convention) who some people believe was murdered.

Let me try for a list of my own.

In ‘Postcard from China’, describing the familiar types found at poetry festivals, surely with himself in mind: ‘the polymath, equally at home discussing the latest American poetry or Shang Dynasty numismatics.’

In ‘Where Was New York’, a trenchant criticism of E B White’s version of that city: ‘New York is a city of outsiders where no one is a foreigner because everyone is a foreigner.’

In ‘Kenneth Cox’, quoting Cox describing Allen Upward, but could easily be describing his own effect on the reader: ‘an almost continuous sense of intellectual elation.’

In ‘Susan Sontag’ – a non-hagiographical tribute written after her death: ‘A famous writer with numerous friends and varied interests, she became, as is often the case, bogged down in ephemera and favours: speeches, statements, responses; program notes for performances of dance, theatre and opera; short texts for art catalogues; something on grottoes for House and Garden; something on Don Quixote for the Spanish Tourist Board.’

In ‘Anonymous Sources (A Talk on Translators & Translation)’: ‘cultures that do not translate stagnate, and end up repeating the same things to themselves.’ And later in the same essay, after explaining that the verses of the Quran known in English as the Satanic Verses, are known as gharaniq (the birds) in Arabic, so that when the title of Rushdie’s book was translated literally into Arabic it was generally read as meaning that some or even all of the Quran was written by Satan, which would be blasphemy enough, whatever was in the novel itself:

[T]he Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, an Islamic scholar, was stabbed to death in his office at Tsukuba Unversity in Tokyo. As far as I know, Rushdie has never made an extended comment on Hitoshi Igarashi. It would take another kind of novelist – Dostoevsky perhaps – to untangle the psychological, moral and spiritual meanings and effects of the story of these two: the man who became the most famous writer in the world at the price of what seemed, for some years, to be life imprisonment, and the anonymous man who died for a faithful translation of an old mistranslation, paying for the writer’s mistake.

He talks about ‘identity politics and its nerd brother, theory, who thought he was a Marxist but never allowed any actual governments to interrupt his train of thought’. He describes The New Yorker as having a style whose sentences are pathologically rewritten ‘until every article, whether a report from Rwanda or a portrait of a professional dog-walker, sounds exactly alike, driven by domestic similes and clever turns of phrase that mix colloquial speech with unexpected similes.’ I could go on, but you get the idea.

Not every piece in the collection is brilliant – one or two struck me as clever-dicky or obscure. On the whole, though: Best. Birthday Present. Ever.

WordPress automatically generates a list of possibly related posts, but so much in this book touches on things I’ve blogged about recently, I thought I’d compile a small list of my own. I’ll write his essay title, then my blog post title:

• ‘The United States of Obama’ – The Book Group’s Race of a Lifetime
• ‘Inventing China’ and ‘The T’ang’ – Shambhala Chinese Poetry
• ‘Postcard from China’ (‘in China, the US is Little Brother’) – Quarterly Essay 39: China Powers On
• ‘Poetry Is News’ – Narkiness and Trouble (both Jennings and Weinberger decry ‘theory’ – one of them is more entertaining than the other)