Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Donald L. Emblen 1918-2009

I was saddened to learn this morning that Don Emblen, my first creative writing teacher, died on Friday April 24.

When I was compelled by a lack of resources to attend Santa Rosa Junior College for the first two years of my college education, I made the best of it by hanging out at Don's office. In my whole career as a student, he was one of the two teachers who made the biggest impression on me.

We disagreed about almost everything, and I'm sure he found some of my opinions horrifying, but there was some overlap in our Weltanschauungen. He introduced me to one of his favorite poets, feeling sure that I would love him too. That was Robinson Jeffers, and he was certainly right about my reaction. He had carried Jeffers' Tamar, Roan Stallion, and Other Poems with him throughout his Navy service in World War II.

More than probably anyone I know, Don followed his curiosity wherever it led. He got interested in Peter Mark Roget, father of the Thesaurus, and wrote the first biography of him. He got interested in new Swedish poets, learned Swedish, and translated a bunch of them. When he became interested in Japanese poetry, he taught himself Japanese, translated some more, and taught in Japan.

He claimed to have written over 4,000 poems, but he published none that I know of in conspicuous places. Often he printed them himself in his cluttered-but-neat garage workshop.

When he "retired" (people like him never retire!) he began publishing a newsletter called The Reader's Rejoinder, consisting of letters written to him by his many friends about whatever they were reading. He completed exactly 250 issues, the last being issued posthumously and arriving here last week.

He was in the midst of rereading The Brothers Karamazov (Volkhonsky trans.) when death overtook him at age 90. His wife, Linda, was reading the Constance Garnett trans. at the same time, and when one of them got ahead of the other, he or she had some trouble not giving away what happened next in the story.

He will be missed by a great many people.

I will try to post one of his poems later today.


Anonymous said...

are you yourself versed well enough in Russian Lit to have a preference among translators? Constance Garnett has done most of the classics but opinion differs widely over her ability and fidelity, people no less esteemed than Conrad thinking her prose perhaps even an improvement and others, specifically Nabokov, thinking Conrad laughably quaint for thinking so

Lester Hunt said...

I don't know Russian, but I do have opinions on that. From what I gather, Garnett is better than we often give her credit for. Her translation of "Note from the Underground" is the best-reading one I have seen. It's actually funny, and the humor I think is a very important aspect of that work, which doesn't come through so well in other translations I've seen. Hers is the only trans. of that one that I have assigned in a class.

On the other hand, the literary quality of her translations can itself be a problem. Dostoyevsky, unlike Tolstoi, had to make a living from his writing and consequently it often had to be written in a great hurry. Constance, I am told, often makes him sound more smooth and suave than he is. Of course, that's one respect in which you may not want authenticity.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I, too, could disagree with Don and chafed at some of his ideas. But he respected me and my poetry - which kind of amazed me - and was an active advocate, encouraging me to submit work to the campus literary magazine and apply for English Dept scholarships (he scolded me when he thought I'd included work in my application that wasn't my best - and I got the idea he convinced the others on the scholarship committee that I was worth the investment). A sweet man, but not a softie!

Lester Hunt said...


I'm glad you brought that up. I didn't talk about what sort of teacher he was. He had a profound patience that was second nature to him. I showed him, for advice, the first poem I ever wrote. To this day I blush to think that I showed that thing to someone with judgment and good taste, someone who was probably hurt by aesthetic badness as others are pained by being stuck with pins. Ah, youth! Anyway, he was very gentle as he turned me in the right direction, suggesting ways to avoid my more glaring literary vices.

Anonymous said...

One thing's for sure: BK translations can be strikingly different. For example, compare Pevear-Volokonsky and Ignat Avsey (whom I prefer) on two early sentences, at the start of Bk I, Chap 4:

P-V: "First of all I announce that this young man, Alyosha, was not at all a fanatic, and, in my view at least, even not at all a mystic. I will give my full opinion beforehand: he was simply an early lover of mankind, and if he threw himself into the monastery path, it was only because it alone struck him at the time and presented him, so to speak, with an ideal way for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness towards the light of love."

Avsey: "I should explain at the outset that this young man, Alyosha, was no fanatic and, at least in my opinion, no mystic either. Let me make myself clear: he was simply a youthful philanthropist, and if he had chosen the monastic way of life, this was only because at the time that alone had captured his imagination and, as it were, offered his parched soul the true path from the darkness of worldly evil to the radiance of love."

Except for Avsey's unfortunate choice of "philanthropist" for "lover of humanity", I think that his translation, on the whole, is more vivid and rhythmically natural than P-V's. Of course I'm leaving out questions of accuracy; it may well be that Avsey, like Garnett, has improved on the original. - But come to think of it, what other textual evidence is there that Alyosha's soul is "parched"? And would P-V really slight an obvious desert image like that? It would be interesting to see how Garnett does those sentences (I don't have a copy). Is there someone in the house who knows Russian? (Damn tower of Babel!)

Lester Hunt said...

Here are the sentences from the Garnett version:

"First of all, I must explain that this young man, Alyosha, was not a fanatic, and, in my opinion at least, was not even a mystic. I may as well give my full opinion from the beginning. He was simply an early lover of humanity, and that he adopted the monastic life was simply because at that time it struck him, so to say, as the ideal escape for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness to the light of love."

I haven't had time to look at it carefully, but it strikes me as better-written than either of the other two (which as I say doesn't mean it's better). Also, rather shockingly, P-V reads like a revision of CG.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think you're right: P-V and CG are very close, with the "music" going to CG, I think. PV's double "at all" in the first sentence makes it really emphatic that Alyosha was neither a fanatic nor a mystic, and that's good I guess, but it makes the line read awkwardly. "Even not at all..."? I'm please to see that my "translation "of Avsey's "philanthropist" as "lover of humanity" is CG's as well. Finally, it looks as though Avsey's "parched" is an outright invention, and I think that might cross the line (even though the association of monasticism with the desert has a very strong basis in the tradition). Looks like I'm going to have to get a copy of CG! Somewhere a long time ago I picked up the idea that Granett's translations are over-elegant and inaccurate, but judging by this snippet anyway, I seem to have picked up a prejudice. Thanks for the correction.

Susanna Jade Angolani said...

I had put my 250th copy of the Reader's Rejoinder under some papers and just found it tonight. I read with expectant sadness that my dear friend of 22 years had passed. He lasted longer than most, was active and curious until his last breaths. That's so terrific. My mother, and so many, lie in comas for weeks or even years before death, unaware of themselves or their soul's journey. Don was totally aware and cognizant of life's mysterious and wondrous secrets. He will be remembered with joy and love. I have many of his publications and even got to work in his garage Clamshell Press years ago. I had written a nice letter to him last December, learned of his stay in the hospital in February, and tonight about his death in April. He has been a huge influence on my life and writing. As I told him in December (very serendipitous as we hadn't talked in several years) he will remain in my Heart forever. I will post some of his poems on my blog. He never did warm up to the internet. I would've liked to see him in here.

Windhorse Blessings to my dear dear friend.

Lester Hunt said...

Dear Susanna,

Thanks so much for you beautiful comment. I'm very glad to have it here.

When you've posted your poems, please come back and leave the URL if the site is not easy to find. I'm not sure I've located it yet.

Pinky Patina said...

I remember Don Emblen as one of the three editors of LOON magazine, out of Santa Rosa Junior College. At least eight issues of this little poetry magazine appeared from about 1973 to about 1978. I'm pretty sure a few of Don's poems were in there. I still have my contrib copies and treasure them, as I do the notes Don used to send, always giving good advice, always rejecting the bad, the mediocre, always selecting only my very best work. I'm deeply glad he lived such a long and rich life -- he deserved it!

Lester Hunt said...

I, too, subscribed to Loon and still have all my copies. It was well edited and beautifully made.

lambradley said...

I was just googling my most influential teachers, and I found your post. I, too, was at SRJC when I didn't know where else to be, and Don was my first English teacher there. Loved him so much. I was fortunate enough to hear him read some of his work recently in Petaluma at a library gathering of Sonoma County poets laureate. So sad to hear he is gone, but so happy to hear he lived a life full of what he loved. Thank you for sharing your memories.

lambradley said...

I have a book of Don's poems in my poetry basket in my 8th grade English classroom. So fun to introduce young adolescents to Don's work.

Lester Hunt said...

I'd imagine his work is a good choice for young readers. It's pretty straightforward. No word salads, no obscure references, and so on.

Willie Smith said...

Gosh, I haven't been to this site in 3 years or something... Mr. Hunt, I see you say you have all the issues of LOON? Fantastic! I have all of my contrib copies except the first issue, which I seem to have lost, as well as my original of my humble contribution to that issue. I hate to lose a poem, I write so many that are worthless, only about one every three years that is a keeper. I remember Mr. Emblen saved that one for me by pointing it out as much better than most of the drek I was sending LOON at the time, back in 72-73. Do you have that first issue? My nom de plume at the time was William R. Smith and the poem was something about noseeums and loggers in the Passtime Tavern... is it still there perchance?

Lester Hunt said...

Willie -- Not sure. I'll try to find time to look for it when I go to the office tomorrow.

Willie Smith said...

Lester -- Thanks kindly, hope you turn it up, would be a trip down memory lane, certamente! I also must say I enjoyed the exchange on your blog about Constance Garnett and BK, fascinating to compare translations like that; for my money, I agree, Constance takes the prize, but I'm prejudiced, since it was her translation of BK I read as a teen, and it doubtless scarred me for life. I also agree with Galileo, yes, it does move. But I'm glad he only muttered that remark, as had he insisted aloud he might have also, along with Saint Bruno, fallen victim to an Inquisition Wienie Roast. And thanks again for posting that memorial to Donald Emblen; I never met him in person, knew him only through the mail (there were only snails in those days); but his comments and incisive eye helped me immensely.

Regards, Willie (I came across as "Pinky Patina" in my comment of a few years ago because I didn't have a blog of my own back then and was consequently (unbeknownst to me) using my wife's business blog ID).

P.S. I also tried emailing this to you, but I think the email was a "no-reply" so you likely did not get it. Forgive me if I am duplicating; I'm not a luddite, but I am a befuddled little old man and am more than somewhat cybernetically challenged.