A TANGENT

I grew up in Los Angeles, in a household where a clipped and ironic Northeastern variant of American English was spoken—Upstate wartime Presbyterian propriety on one side, Irish Catholic Depression Southie street on the other, white in both cases.  The class affiliations implicit in this admixture resist concise explanation, as does the effect of my parents’ California migration upon the content of their speech.  Suffice it to say ours was a literate, but not a literary, home, and our speech was idiomatic in character.  

I became a teenager in a sheltered urban environment, and mainstream ’eighties youth culture, whose linguistic expression was slangy and whose subject matter tended toward the margins of society, primed me to receive F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; more important was Less Than Zero, which described my own milieu (its author, Bret Easton Ellis, was ten years older and had grown up a few blocks away).  Clay, the narrator of that novel, became a reference point for me, and it was his status as a disaffected insider that prepared me to appreciate the alluring and difficult poems of Ezra Pound, when my boss, the technical director at the theater where I worked in college, gave me a copy of the Selected Poems.  Pound’s translating kept pace with his poetry, and much of his poetics consists of a theory of both.  In this way his oeuvre expresses a progression in the history of English poetry itself, one that is also seen in the work of Chaucer, Wyatt, Spenser, Dryden, Pope and Johnson, who incorporated translated passages amid lines written directly in English.  

So my sense of Anglophone literature is that it’s unimaginable without the other literatures on which it has depended since the beginning.  The very notion of language is a function of violence, and the exchange of texts follows closely upon commerce in the wake of conquest; yet, although writers of English have often had intimate relations with the cogs and engines of power, those relations have never been anything but fraught: indeed the anglophile writers of other languages who are worth reading have always recognized this, appreciating English-language works and authors for their service to the literary imagination, while also recognizing the condition of English as an instrument of domination (one thinks, for example, of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s essay on Joseph Conrad, Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa’s essay on Jane Austen or George Seferis’ essay on T.S. Eliot).  

Our moment is marked, among other things, by an emulous, and I think mostly distracting, effort to claim the term global for literature, as the descriptor of a genre; whether this attempt will bear on anything more useful than market imperatives remains to be seen.  By contrast, the activities of Asymptote, in its eclecticism and in its emphasis on texts rather than trends, theories or careers, strikes me as a worthwhile site of exchange for literature-lovers of any orientation, and I am glad to be taking part in this project as an Assistant Editor.

Originally published in the Asymptote Newsletter

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