In May 2018, I read a fair amount; here are some reflections on my reading.

A longish trip out west in the back half of this month, much of which was spent on a bus, saw me complete May Swenson’s Collected Poems (Library of America). I bought this volume on the strength of her poem “Bleeding”. After reading the totality of her published work (plus a generous selection of her “uncollected” work), “Bleeding” remains her single finest poem, a harrowing picture of domestic violence, presented as a conversation between a knife and a cut. But her body of work contains a wealth of riches, peaking with her fourth book, Half Sun, Half Sleep. Toward the end of her career, her poems start to take on the appearance (accurate or not) of straight-out-of-life descriptions, and I become less interested, though every volume has a few poems I’ll remember. And the strange, extended exercise of “Banyan”, the final poem of her final book (In Other Words), is a triumph. A mix of prose and poetry, it ruminates on the purpose of life by telling a story that (surreally) glides between the realistic and the surreal. In another context, I described Swenson’s poetry as “concrete poetry that liquifies in the mouth”—I can’t do better here.

My neglect of Wallace Stevens up to now mystifies even me. I’ve owned his The Collected Poems (Vintage) for some time, and I’ve known without a shadow of a doubt that, whenever I did get around to working through it, I would love it. I know this because the works of his I have read present abstract reflections with effortless beauty and striking imagery—present abstract reflections in gorgeously concretized form. He’s also quietly hilarious, when he wants to be. This is more or less what I strive for in my poetry, so I find in Stevens a kindred voice. At last, I’ve started working through Stevens’ corpus systematically. This month I read Harmonium, Ideas of Order, and The Man With the Blue Guitar, each delightful in its way.

The depressing thing about loving a book that you can only read in translation is knowing that you are held at bay from much of the original. But there is a happy complement to this: the possibility of reading the book in numerous translations, seeing it each time in a new light. This I’ve been doing with Zhuangzi, beginning with Palmer’s (mediocre) translation, then moving on to Graham’s translation (which is tied to a heavy-handed but compelling reconstruction of the text), and finally, this month, Brook Ziporyn’s translation (Hackett). Though not complete, it contains all of the Inner Chapters and generous selections from the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters. Other work I’ve read by Ziporyn has had a gratingly portentous style (see his SEP article on Tiantai Buddhism), but he approaches Zhuangzi with a lighter hand, and I found his translation a delight to read. It was also interesting to note places where his interpretation differed from Graham’s, and to consider the implications of these differences (which were sometimes substantial). In addition to reading Zhuangzi himself, I also read Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul D’Ambrosio’s Genuine Pretending, a book that attempts to position Zhuangzi’s philosophy as an alternative to the western dialectic of sincerity and authenticity. They argue that the Ruists presented an ethic of sincerity, to which Zhuangzi responded with a philosophy of genuine pretending, of being able to (genuinely) adopt whatever form is necessary in a given situation without identifying it with a fixed self to which one must be authentic. It’s a compelling take on a major strain running through the Zhuangzi.

Along with Swenson’s LoA volume, my main reading on my trip out west was Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, a look into court life in 10th century Japan. As she says in a section on “worthless things”, her aim is to record what is there to be recorded. She does not neutrally present it, however. The book is in effect a guide to taste: what is delightful, what is irritating, what causes regret, what nostalgia, etc.—a guide to the appropriate reactions to things. How much it reflects her individuality and how much merely the norms of the time is difficult to tell, and at times it seems to move between them. Regardless, the book is a treasure, endlessly charming, often funny, sometimes poignant. Though in many ways ridiculous to modern eyes, Sei takes her world with full commitment, and that enables the reader to enter into the book with ease, despite its strangeness. It is a delight to encounter a foreign way of life in this manner.

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Supposing you were interested in hearing me read a few poems of mine, you could do so here (I’m Aaron Novick). The poems read are:

  1. (sonnet variant)
  2. Glint
  3. “So priketh hem nature in hir corages”
  4. Dialogue
  5. Ephemera
  6. Poem for John Ashbery

There is no satisfaction in poetry greater than the immaculate final line that brings a poem to its inevitable conclusion. Illustration: May Swenson’s “Ocean, Whale-Shaped”:

Ocean, whale-shaped, rocking between the dunes,
in the gateway of their great naked knees,
horizon chafing a tame sky,

your vast back purple, your shoreward side
wallowing blue, fretted with racing foam,
green, then diamond your fin flashes on sand.

Glazed monuments of the wind, the dunes,
their sprawling limbs Olympian lift and fall
to slopes and platforms seeming hard as bone,

but footsteps scar their flanks like snow;
their white bodies shift,
are shunted by you, blue-black, boisterous whale—

and whittled, are rewhittled by the wind
unsatisfied with any shape or perpetuity.
The land, the sand we tread is not the steady

element our feet believe.
Indelible ocean, humped beside the sky,
you unsubstantial we can’t grasp or walk on,

you pry at these gates and break them when you will—
overwhelming whale of water, mover and shaper,
over and over carving your cradle here.

Take a moment, first, simply to linger over the sounds of this last line. It is a masterpiece of subtle transformations. It begins with outright repetition (“over and over”), but this soon shifts to the consonance of “carving”, which picks up both the “v” and the “r” sounds. This is transformed in turn when we reach “cradle”, which rearranges the “car” of “carving”, echoing it with modification. The short “a” grows long, leading us directly into the culminating word, “here”. This brings us back to the start, to “over and over”, but, once again, the initially short “e” re-appears as long: “-er” to “-ere”. Underlying this play of sounds and holding it all in place is the falling rhythm, which alternates dactyls and trochees until it at last lands on the final stress: / – – / – / – – / – /. The line thus parcels out into three neat units:

over and over / carving your cradle / here

The line resembles a Pindaric ode in miniature: strophe, antistrophe, epode. It is a perfect whole, worth savoring entirely independently of its meaning. But let us look at it in the context of the full poem.

I read the poem as a love story, of sorts: as a polyamorous love story between ocean, wind, sky, land, and people. It shuttles between multiple scales and perspectives. There are the humans who walk on the dunes, and who instinctively (in their feet), believe them to be a “steady // element”. But they are not. They are reworked on all sides: by these very same feet (“footsteps scar their flanks like snow”), by the wind (“are whittled, are rewhittled by the wind”), and by the ocean (“overwhelming whale of water, mover and shaper”).

That brief phrase—“overwhelming whale of water”—deserves careful attention. By this point, in the penultimate line of the poem, we seem to have reached the culmination. While there are multiple agents and perspectives in the poem, people and wind and dunes and sky, the ocean dominates it. The poem opens with the “ocean, whale-shaped”, and as we near the end this is re-affirmed as the ocean is described as “overwhelming”. It overwhelms the poem just as it overwhelms the dunes.

We have, however, not reached the culmination in seeing the ocean as overwhelming. The very next word gives us yet another transformation: the ocean is an overwhelming whale. We are, very suddenly, brought back to the poem’s smallest scale, the animal. A whale is, to be sure, a very large animal, but it is an animal nonetheless. Over the course of the poem, the ocean has transformed from something merely “whale-shaped”, something like but not quite a whale, into a whale, without qualification. The simile has become a metaphor. Why?

In making the ocean an animal, Swenson gives it needs, desires. And it is here that the last line comes in: “over and over carving your cradle here.” The sea, great “mover and shaper”, is carving out its home, is making a world into which it fits. (To use the phrase du jour, it is constructing its niche.) This great, overwhelming presence, so vast and unlike us, suddenly comes to seem vulnerable—comes to seem like us.

Some highlights from my April reading:

May Swenson. A while back, I bought May Swenson’s collected poems (Library of America), entirely on the strength of her poem “Bleeding”. I’ve finally started making my way through the rest of her oeuvre. Thus far I’ve read her first two books, Another Animal and A Cage of Spines. Already in these early works she mixes a playful use of sounds with careful attention to how the poem appears on the page, not always successfully, but often. (See, for instance, “Stony Beach”, which I wrote about here.) At times the language-play gets in the way of the poem, but at her best—“Stony Beach”, “The Garden at St. John’s”, “Another Animal”, “Secure”, “Sunset”, “The Cloud-Mobile”, “Seven Natural Songs”, “Ornamental Sketch with Verbs”, “The Day Moon”—she makes a claim to be one of the great American poets. I look forward to seeing where she went from here.

John Keats. More than anyone, Keats shows that it only takes a handful of great poems to make a reputation. In reading his Selected Poems (Oxford World Classics), the vast majority of what I encountered left no impression on me. But then the famous poems—“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, etc.—come along, and the source of his reputation is immediately apparent. I also discovered a number of poems previously unknown to me, such as this surprisingly disturbing one:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is
I hold it towards you—

Arthur Schopenhauer. I picked up Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms in my local used bookstore for $3.75. It was one of my better finds there. I’ve previously read The World as Will and Representation, but the scope of that work can make it difficult to really see the broad overview of his thought. Essays and Aphorisms rectified that—I wish I had read it before The World as Will and Representation (which I may now want to revisit). The core of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is his pessimism, the view that (a) existence has no intrinsic value, (b) the suffering on earth outweighs the pleasure, and (c) pain is the substantive state, and pleasure the negative state (in the sense that it is the mere absence of pain). The upshot of Schopenhauer’s pessimism was that we ought to be nicer to one another, more forgiving. I found this short selection of Schopenhauer’s thought extremely useful for placing myself in relation to his work, for seeing exactly where my disagreements lie.

And, lastly, this month, I read an interesting pair of books about the philosophy of Thomas Kuhn: Bojana Mladenović’s new book, Kuhn’s Legacy, and an older book by Paul Hoyningen-Huene, Reconstructing Scientific Revolutions. They work well together. Mladenović’s book stresses Kuhn’s epistemology, tying it to the American pragmatists. She makes a strong case that he still has much to say for contemporary philosophy of science, and that the initial uptake of his ideas was substantially misguided (in particular, the common tendency to take him as an irrationalist). Some aspects of the Kuhn she presents I find unpersuasive (especially the notion of scientific progress she attributes to Kuhn), but on the whole it’s effective. Hoyningen-Huene’s book complemented hers nicely, as he focused in great detail on Kuhn’s metaphysics. With admirable clarity, he excavated the commitments behind Kuhn’s enigmatic comments on world change during scientific revolutions, helping me to see where I do and do not find Kuhn’s views plausible.

Over the past few days, I read May Swenson’s first book of poetry, Another Animal. Having just written about Ashbery’s use of an extended “ocean of language” metaphor, I cannot resist also writing about Swenson’s take on a similar theme, in her poem “Stony Beach”. Here is the poem:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Stony Beach

. . . . . . . . . . . . . The sea like Demosthenes’ mouth
. . . . . . . . . . . . champs upon these stones
. . . . . . . . . . . whose many stumblings make him suave
. . . . . . . . . . The argument molded monotonously by all his lips
. . . . . . . . . in a parliament of overlappings
. . . . . . . . is vocal but incomprehensible because never finished

. . . . . . . Listen listen there is nothing to learn from the sea
. . . . . . Listen he is lucid in sound only
. . . . . convinces with broken phrases that wizardly
. . . . the waves round out a rune over riddling stones

. . . Beginning again and again with a great A
. . a garbeled alphabet he lisps and groans
. The insistent eloquence of echoes
has no omega

The sea is likened immediately to Demosthenes, the famous Greek statesmen and orator. Importantly, he is said to have overcome a speech impediment by forcing himself to speak with stones in his mouth. Thus, in the first two lines, we are presented with a sea that is attempting to say something but struggling to say it. Swenson captures the repetitiousness of these exercises with some choice alliteration (on ‘m’) and consonance (on ‘l’)—“The argument molded monotonously by all his lips”—as if the poem itself (or at least this line) were the sea speaking.

Whereas Demosthenes went on to great success, his exercises having worked to great effect, with the sea it is different. His voice is a “parliament of overlappings” (what an image!) that never quite becomes comprehensible because it is never finished. “Listen listen there is nothing to learn from the sea”, the second stanza tells us, and indeed there is nothing to learn from these exercises, whose content doesn’t matter. They are “lucid in sound only”. The last line of the stanza confirms this by exemplifying it: “the waves round out a rune over riddling stones”. Once again we get the impression that the sea is speaking, that the poem is the sea’s practice.

It is fitting, then, that the third stanza sees both the sea and the poem “Beginning again”—beginning and always beginning, never finishing. “The insistent eloquence of echoes / has no omega”. Meaning, oration, is never reached.