Weissbort, Daniel

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Nationality: British. Born: London, 1 May 1935. Education: St. Paul's School, London, 1948–52; Queens' College, Cambridge, 1953–56, B.A. (honors) 1956, M.A. Family: Married Jill Anderson in 1961 (divorced 1979); two daughters and one son. Career: Director, Albion Knitwear, London, 1957–61. Advisory director, Poetry International, London, 1970–73; director, Carcanet Press, Oxford, later Cheadle, Cheshire, and Manchester, 1972–80. Visiting professor of comparative literature, 1974–75, since 1975 director of translation workshop, since 1980 professor of English and comparative literature, acting director of international writing program, 1986, and chair of comparative literature, 1987, University of Iowa, Iowa City. Member of the Poetry Society General Council, London, 1972–74. Co-founding editor, with Ted Hughes, Modern Poetry in Translation, London, 1965–83. Member of the Executive Board, American Literary Translators Association, 1982–86. Awards: Arts Council bursary, for translation, 1971, 1972; University of Iowa writing fellowship, 1973; Glatstein memorial prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1978; National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowship, 1981; Arts Council literature award, 1984. Agent: John Johnson, 45–47 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R OHT, England. Address: Department of Comparative Literature, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52242, U.S.A.



The Leaseholder. Oxford, Carcanet, 1971.

In an Emergency. Oxford, Carcanet, 1972.

Soundings. Manchester, Carcanet, 1977.

Leaseholder: New and Collected Poems 1965–1985. Manchester, Carcanet, 1986.

Inscription. New York, Cross-Cultural Communications, 1990.

Fathers. Newcastle, Northern House, 1991.

Lake: New and Selected Poems. New York, Sheep Meadow Press, 1993.

Nietzsche's Attaché Case. Manchester, Carcanet, 1993.

Eretskelev (Dogland). Jerusalem, Carmel Publishing House, 1994.

What Was All the Fuss About? London, Anvil Press Poetry, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1998.


Editor and translator, Natalya Gorbanevskaya: Poems, Trial, Prison. Oxford, Carcanet, 1972.

Editor and translator, Post-War Russian Poetry. London, Penguin, 1974.

Editor and translator, with John Glad, Russian Poetry: The Modern Period. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1978.

Editor, Translating Poetry: The Double Labyrinth. London, Macmillan, and Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1989.

Editor, The Poetry of Survival: Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe. London, Anvil Press Poetry, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Editor, with Max Hayward and Albert C. Todd, 20th Century Russian Poetry: Silver and Steel: An Anthology, selected by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. New York, Doubleday, 1993.

Translator, The Soviet People and Their Society, by Pierre Sorlin. London, Pall Mall Press, and New York, Praeger, 1968.

Translator. Guerillas in Latin America: The Technique of the Counter-State, by Luis Mercier Vega. London, Pall Mall Press, and New York, Praeger, 1969.

Translator, Scrolls: Selected Poems of Nikolai Zabolotsky. London, Cape, 1971.

Translator, A History of the People's Democracies: Eastern Europe since Stalin, by François Fetjö. London, Pall Mall Press, 1971.

Translator, The Rare and Extraordinary History of Holy Russia, by Gustave Doré. London, Alcove Press, 1972.

Translator, Nose! Nose? No-se! and Other Plays, by Andrei Amalriki. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1973.

Translator, with Anthony Rudolf, The War Is Over: Selected Poems, by Evgeny Vinokurov. Cheadle, Cheshire, Carcanet, 1976.

Translator, From the Night and Other Poems, by Lev Mak. Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ardis, 1978.

Translator, Ivan the Terrible and Ivan the Fool, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. London, Gollancz, 1979.

Translator, Missing Person, by Patrick Modiano. London, Cape, 1980.

Translator, The World about Us, by Claude Simon. Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1983.

Translator, with Tomislav Longinovic, Red Knight: Serbo-Croatian Women's Songs. London, Menard/Kings, 1992.

Translator, with Anthony Rudolf and Audrey Jones, Theme & Version: Plath & Ronsard, by Yves Bonnefoy. London, Menard Press, and Berkeley, California, SPD, 1995.

Translator, Selected Poems: Translated from the Russian, by Nikolai Zabolotskii. Manchester, Carcanet, 1999.


Critical Studies: By Paul Oppenheimer, in American Book Review, 13(2), June 1991; by David Malcolm, in Polish Review, 38(1), 1993; by Michael Beard, in North Dakota Quarterly, 61(1), winter 1993.

Daniel Weissbort comments:

Writing poetry, for me, is trying to find a language I lost before birth. This is an obscure enterprise, to say the least, and I have discovered few guides. For me, writing poetry is indispensable to listening rather than the other way round. I have written here and there and feel I have some acquaintance now with my proper topography, but only some. Whereas others—the poets I most admire in our times, poets I have even translated, those of the first postwar generation of Middle Europe—write of what most concerns us, of our history, our mythology, of the fate of humankind and of this planet, I cannot see much beyond the space that opens up, again and again, around my head. But the language I reach for perhaps shares something with theirs. In recent years I have come to feel that my situation between languages, as it were, is beginning to resemble a country in its own right.

*  *  *

Daniel Weissbort aims at expressing himself through a type of poetry that approximates most closely to normal human speech. Over the years he has gradually perfected a method of writing that edits out all consciously "poetic" elements from his verse. Weissbort's style is shorn of elaboration in favor of a blunt, matter-of-fact utterance that comes as near as is possible to speaking thoughts aloud. Yet behind the apparent artlessness of his work lie a strong poetic intelligence and an organization and structure whose details are not always immediately evident to the reader.

Weissbort's is the poetry of unease, depicting as it does the vain struggles of the poet-narrator to impose an orderly routine on the continually threatening chaos of his life and the world about him. He is a prolific editor and translator of Russian literature, and his early collections—The Leaseholder, In an Emergency, and Soundings—tend at times to portray him as a character out of Goncharov or Dostoyevsky, a sad, ineffectual figure with his gloomy drinking bouts, low self-esteem, and the forebodings that dog his brief moments of happiness. Guilt and loss are presented as recurring themes, and love itself is seen as fragile and elusive, not entirely to be trusted. Even in the ecstasies of physical passion Weissbort is still painfully aware that he remains separate and apart: "With each caress I lose you more / —pleasure's no guarantee at all—." Writing, it seems, serves him as an escape, an unreal ordering of experience in which, unlike life, he feels at home. Initiated into love and its pain, Weissbort looks back ruefully to his unattached innocence and finds himself writing comfortably in the absence of his beloved. Safety of this kind, however, cannot endure for long. Relationships and responsibilities break in upon him, disrupting his illusory calm and the poems he describes as "fantasies of growing up."

Leaseholder, a collection of Weissbort's poems from 1965 onward, blends work from the earlier volumes with later productions and reveals a stronger character than its predecessors. The Weissbort encountered here is less prone to self-pity and despair; he is a mature man who has met and survived the constant attacks of life to make it into his second half century. All the same, he remains vulnerable and introspective, his poems continually stressing man's essential fragility in a hostile universe, the helplessness of the well-meaning individual confronted by the complexities of love, loss, and death. In "Rehearsal" the restraint of his lines emphasizes the pain of a remembered incident that prefigured eventual separation: "You leave. The thunderous prison silence/ of your absence swallows up all sound. / I rehearse, abruptly shut the door, / and you rehearse not looking round." Elsewhere he laments the loss of parents and friends, contemplating the void they have left and struggling to accept the fact that they are dead. Broodings on the terrifying finality of death haunt Weissbort's poems, the last part of Leaseholder concentrating on the gradual decline of his beloved mother. Forced to witness the slow disintegration as she loses her ability to communicate, then her sanity, and eventually her life, the poet explores in unsentimental but moving words the tragic nature of her death and his close spiritual identification with her: "She was a kind of me, although / she didn't know it as I did. / And so, as I watched her breaking down, / it was as if I watched myself." The death of his mother is the creative force behind many of the later poems, Weissbort torn between incomprehension of the terrible reality—he speaks to her through the coffin as she is carried for burial—and bitter resentment at being left alone.

Threatened himself by reminders of his own mortality, Weissbort recalls the cancer operation that almost killed him, a piece of bone excised for "the right to move on." Observing the world, he finds tokens of death and loss everywhere; the felling of a tree, an empty house, separation of lovers, or children growing up—all are noted as aspects of the same lurking malaise. This said, he handles the trauma and unease with a certain amount of detachment, avoiding the lure of self-pity as he sets down thoughts and experiences in his pared, unliterary style. Insight into his motives is keen and perceptive, and he is able to assess his own work with objectivity: "I tried to write aphoristically / without embellishment. / Now pithiness does not become me." His Jewishness, an understated but significant element in his writing, surfaces with sad recollections of his childhood in Britain and in his idealized vision of America in "A Dream of Tall Buildings." In "Pity the Poor Racist" Weissbort uses a gentle, self-mocking irony to ridicule his would-be enemy, revealing at once the murderous stupidity of racism and the sad, flawed natures of its adherents: "Pity him … that he was not able to erect barriers, / that diversity became a creed, / that the idea of universal refuge instead of refuge for the elect / prevailed … oh, pity him, though he / is without pity."

The loss of loved ones and a continuing examination of the self and its relationship with others inform the poems of the later collections. In Fathers Weissbort recalls his conversations with his long dead parent and the feelings of constraint and distance that held them apart from each other, and he speculates ruefully on his own flawed role as a father to his children. The wistful memories of "What He Told Me" and "Suddenly over the Lake" and the overwhelming, unexpected emotion of "All You Needed" are effectively contrasted with the murder of a marauding bat in "Defending," and the grim vision of age and decay is experienced in "Sanatorium."

Some of these poems, together with earlier collections, reappear in Nietzsche's Attaché Case, where they are imaginatively used afresh as part of longer narrative works. "Lake" has Weissbort questioning the meaning of his life in an extended poem that incorporates the memories of "Suddenly over the Lake," from Fathers, while "What He Told Me" and other poems are brilliantly reworked in "The Gate," in which the author explores his feelings for both his parents with a moving honesty. In his later collection What Was All the Fuss About? Weissbort gathers poems written over the previous ten years. Individually and as a unit, they show him digging even deeper into everyday experience, past memories and dreams. His understatement is remarkable, matched by the wonderful immediacy of his writing, which details the thoughts and feelings of a given moment almost as it arrives. "A Fool Rises!" sees him pondering the decline of his body, while in "Taking His Name" he admits his lack of religious faith. Whether contemplating the passing flight of a bumblebee, listening as the fridge outpaces his heartbeat in the night, or analyzing the aches and pains of approaching old age, Weissbort hooks the reader's attention with his short, hard-hitting verses.

While aware of his Jewish heritage, Weissbort remains suspicious of utopias and of religious beliefs that result in aggression. "Tribes" condemns the sanctified violence in the Middle East ("and finally the beatitudes are sung / over rivers flowing with blood"), and in "What Fools!" the poet presents the Promised Land as "a land lit by a fearful dawn, / a gulag-land." In spite of this, biblical images continue to appear in his work, most ironically as he recalls the death of Mr. Wathen, the teacher who changed Weissbort's name as being "too German" ("Mr. Wathen raised his brolly and strode / confidently into the Finchley Road. / / Like Moses crossing the Red Sea, I thought.") Death and our response to its ever present threat remain at the center of his work, in his recollections of his father's death and in the poignant clutch of poems in memory of his late mother. Himself forced to confront the threat of cancer and a lifesaving operation, Weissbort examines his work and its meaning in "Born Again" and "I'd Like to Talk of This and That." The latter poem best sums up the essence of his writing. Weissbort would like to write about politics and history but instead must articulate "what I'm feeling, / what I'm feeling right now, for example, / about my continuing existence. / / It seems that to define that feeling / is the least I can do." At the time of writing, one suspects that it is something he does better than anyone else.

Weissbort's poetry probes deeper than most, and his vision is both acute and honest. If some of the revelations are painful, they also are rewarding, and they confirm his position as an important, innovative stylist.

—Geoff Sadler