Monthly Archives: December 2016

I flatter myself that there might be some interest in those books that made an impression on me this past year. I read seventy-four books in total. Recreational reading primarily consisted of poetry and philosophy, while my academic life led me to read a number of books ranging over history of science, philosophy of science, and biology. These latter I do not include here, though many were excellent. I offer below only those about which I have something to say, focusing on books of poetry, though I include some others of interest. Many are left out simply because I had no particular comments to make about them, even though I enjoyed them very much. Within the sub-categories, books are listed in the order read.


Omar Khayyam, Ruba’iyat (trans. Avery and Heath-Stubbs) — For a time after reading this, I wrote ruba’iyat of my own, which are published on this blog here (the thirteenth is, in my view, the strongest). That it encouraged me to such activity is the highest recommendation I can give it. The translation is literal, which means that occasionally the poetry is lost, but the irreverent joy of the poems comes through as clearly as one could wish.

Pindar, Odes (trans. Bowra) — This book gave me great pleasure, and I will likely read it again in 2017. Pindar’s victory odes begin with the athletes whose immortality they ensure, but they expand to cover the entirety of that great question of being human. They celebrate human achievements, offer moral caution as to our limits (they are didactic with none of the flaws of didactic poetry), and question our place in the universe. Bowra’s translation offers to the reader such fine English wordcraft that I could read it, not as a degraded copy of an inaccessible original, but as I would any English poem, delighting in vivid descriptions and striking turns of phrase. In my own poetic work, Pindar ranks among my strongest influences.

Virgil, Aeneid (trans. Mandelbaum and Fitzgerald) — I need not say too much about this, as I have already written about it at length on this blog. Here I will only express my approval of both the Mandelbaum and Fitzgerald translations, both of which I prefer to the Fagles (the first translation I read). In reading each, I routinely had the following experience. While reading Mandelbaum, I came across an especially wonderful passage, went to check the corresponding passage in Fitzgerald, and thought, “Mandelbaum is clearly superior.” While reading Fitzgerald, precisely the same happened, only now Fitzgerald seemed the superior. (This may have even happened for the same passages.) Both are full of delights.

Virgil, Georgics (trans. Wilkinson) and Eclogues (trans. Ferry) — While I very much enjoyed both of these works (as evidenced here), I will want to read these works in other translations to get to know them better (I own the Ferry translation of the Georgics). Until then my relationship to them will remain subsidiary to my love for the Aeneid. At the same time, they capture aspects of life that the Aeneid does not, and so round out Virgil’s output nicely.

Geoffrey Hill, Without Title — This was my first exposure to Geoffrey Hill (who died while I was reading it), and thus far still my only serious engagement with his work (though I hope to dig much deeper in 2017). It was an often rewarding, often frustrating experience, but on the whole I felt that his poetry justified the difficulty. Behind the verbal wizardry and knotty syntax is real feeling, worth the effort of excavation. My thoughts on individual poems in the volume can be found here.

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red — I read this, took a week to recover, and immediately read it again. The only reason I haven’t read it a third time is that my copy is currently on loan to a friend. I had previously read Plainwater and more or less enjoyed it, but largely felt that it escaped me. Autobiography of Red convinces me I will have to revisit it, for this “novel in verse” fairly explodes with descriptions that are both startlingly unexpected and perfectly precise. (No easy feat: much of the early American poetry I have been reading is reasonably precise, but only because tame, while much of the contemporary poetry I read manages to be unexpected—or at least to convince me that it wanted to be unexpected—at the cost of failing to convey much of anything at all.)


Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena — Kafka was a strange, wonderful man, and I delighted in being made privy to the oddball intensity of his relationship with Milena. Reading this book is like watching a Wong Kar-Wai film: Franz and Milena’s relationship is full of the kind of unique rituals and concerns that characterize relationships in Wong’s films (especially Chungking Express and Fallen Angels). For my own part, little gives me more pleasure, makes me feel more deeply that there is life to be found among humans, and that this life is good.

Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn — Literary criticism, in my view, has two aims: to make us better readers, and to make us better writers. This is a book that helped me to become a better reader. Brooks is an admirable close reader of poems, and that is what this book is, first and foremost. It is also, somewhat more incidentally, a polemic in favor of the view that what the poem says cannot be captured without loss in any other form than the poem itself. As a general defense of the “new criticism,” the book is not persuasive: the position it stakes out is obviously correct, but only because it is not very bold, and the position it attacks as its contrast is very nearly a strawman (though perhaps accurate enough at the time). But what does that matter? The criticism in this book is what determines its value, and the criticism is remarkable.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity — I read this with a friend (who for her part read some of Emerson’s essays on my recommendation). Both of us noticed the similarities between Emerson’s and de Beauvoir’s ideas, only where Emerson spoke of self-reliance and conformity, de Beauvoir preferred to use the language of freeing oneself from oppression. Our discussion of this was interesting: I preferred Emerson, her de Beauvoir. She suggested, I think correctly, that this likely stemmed from certain differences in our experiences: my life has been relatively privileged and comfortable, allowing conformity in various forms to stand as one of my greatest obstacles, while she has very recently freed herself from a much more material form of oppression.

Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, 1837-1861 — It is often said that Emerson’s notebooks are his true masterpiece. I do not think this is correct: the composition of his essays brings the scattered moods of his notebook entries into striking juxtapositions that the notebooks alone cannot match. But it might be fairly said of Thoreau, whose deliberately composed works I enjoy only from a distance. The notebooks, by contrast, bring me close to the man and his enviable solitude. With Thoreau (and Emerson), I share a faith that this solitude can be mitigated by friendships that span centuries, between people who have never met. To facilitate such friendship is one of the highest purposes of writing, and Thoreau’s journal (at least, the selection presented here) serves precisely that noble end.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World — My stated purpose, on beginning to read this, was to mine it for poetic material. It has certainly furnished that: I can think of at least three poems I wrote this year that would have been impossible without this book. But leaving such selfish uses aside, the book documents a journey through an environment harsh beyond measure. As a picture of human life in such an environment, it is valuable even to those who do not see it as a quarry to be mined.

Yoshida Kenkō, Essays in Idleness — The opinions of a miscellaneous man who lived half a world away several centuries ago, well expressed. This book is a treasure trove, by turns funny and wise. No more needs to be said.

Kamo no Chōmei, Hōjōki — Imagine Thoreau’s Walden, only dramatically condensed (my copy is but 18 pages), and, instead of presenting a definite vision of how life ought to be, rather turning inward to frank self-criticism: Chōmei sought to lose his worldly attachments by living a simpler, more isolated life, only to find himself attached to that very simplicity and isolation itself.

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop — My experience of this book, and the high regard in which I hold it, are well expressed in this post I wrote about it. Cather conjures up a world with this book, and that feat, more than any particular story told (though there is a story), lies at its heart.

William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs — I know little about the civil war or about the controversies that attached to Sherman’s policies. I do not know if, considering his actions by their consequences, he should be thought a good man or a bad. But, reading his memoirs, I grew greatly attached to him, the way he carried himself. In great events, one must choose, one way or the other—thus he says, and so he does. In one of the passages that most struck me in Thoreau’s journal, Thoreau condemns the one who fails to occupy any ground. Sherman occupied ground in every sense, and was willing to defend it.

I have been continuing to read John Peck’s Cantilena, albeit in a halting, haphazard fashion, now starting again for a few days, now leaving it aside for a week or weeks. It is a difficult book to know just how to read. There are two basic methods of reading it, let us call them deep reading and surface reading.

At a very basic level, the book presents two challenges to the reader. First, it contains a dense network of references to anything and everything, most of which the reader will need to look up to grasp. Second, even once these references are hunted down, it is still difficult to trace out the particular action of each individual canto—some more than others, of course. In deep reading, I confront these challenges head on, looking up every reference, struggling with every canto until it is reasonably understood.

But here a new set of challenges arises. Deep reading of that sort is tremendously time consuming. Were I to devote an hour each day to this book, reading it in that fashion, it would likely take me somewhere between six months and a year to finish it. Furthermore, there are connections between the different cantos, connections that will likely go unrecognized when the connected cantos are read weeks apart. Deep reading thus privileges local understanding over getting a feel for the whole of the work.

Enter surface reading, in which I lightly graze over the surface of the text, not worrying too much about local meaning, grasping merely what one can. Even here, I try to read each canto twice, sometimes more if they are especially arresting. I focus on the sound, and try to sense (or “undersense” as the introduction by Nate Klug explains) what connections between cantos I can. In this way, I progress through the book at a reasonable pace, but it is bewildering, and I feel generally lost.

Thus I worry that there is, ultimately, no good way to read this book. But I am motivated to continue every time I come across such beautiful lines as these:

…………………I shall be loud among the loud
but slur among her sands, and crowd
to the plunge between them, and cleanse, and begin to gnaw.

Poem: A Jelly-Fish
Poet: Marianne Moore

Visible, invisible,
a fluctuating charm
an amber-tinctured amethyst
inhabits it, your arm
approaches and it opens
and it closes; you had meant
to catch it and it quivers;
you abandon your intent.


This is an astonishing poem, a striking marriage of form and content. Let us begin with form. The poem is written in alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines, capturing the languid expansion and contraction of the jellyfish itself. Moreover, the order of the lines switches, from 4/3/4/3 for the first four lines to 3/4/3/4 for the last four lines, with the result that the first half has a generally contracting movement, while the latter half has an expansive movement. This fits with the content, which begins focused on the jellyfish itself, then expands outward to include the person captivated by its beauty.

All this would be mere cleverness were it not for the sheer beauty of the poem. First at the level of language: “an amber-tinctured amethyst” is, for instance, a masterpiece of a line, with wonderful repetition of sounds. The enjambment gives the poem a constant forward motion, but does not rush things. It also disguises the rhyme, allowing it to serve as a quiet accent rather than as a bold, attention-grabbing note (which latter would disrupt the languor of the poem). The choice to describe the attempt to capture the jellyfish by saying that the arm “approaches” is perfectly well-sounded, fitting the dramatic action into, again, a thoroughly languorous poem.

The payoff is the description of the “hunter” seeing the jellyfish quiver at the arm’s approach and abandoning the intent to catch. We are left to imagine the precise reason why. I read it as a recognition of shared life even across anciently diverged phyla. It is a delicate, tender moment in a delicate, tender poem, capturing at once both the unity and the mutual otherness of these two creatures.


Marianne Moore was famous for revising her poems. I possess a copy of her Complete Poems (Penguin), which was curated by Moore herself and so contains the revisions that she endorsed. (The volume The Poems of Marianne Moore, also from Penguin, appears to contain the unrevised versions of many of her poems.) It is interesting to discover that there is an earlier version of “A Jelly-Fish”:

Visible, invisible,
A fluctuating charm,
An amber-colored amethyst
Inhabits it; your arm
Approaches, and
It opens and
It closes;
You have meant
To catch it,
And it shrivels;
You abandon
Your intent—
It opens, and it
Closes and you
Reach for it—
The blue
Surrounding it
Grows cloudy, and
It floats away
From you.

Though clearly an ancestor of the revised version, this is almost a wholly other poem. The biggest reason is the extra material at the end, which entirely changes how what precedes it is to be read. Whatever recognition is suggested by “You abandon / Your intent,” this suggestion is undone by the hunter reaching for the jellyfish a second time. The beauty and delicacy of the former moment is eliminated. Further, the looser form and plethora of line breaks in this version simply fail to capture the languid motion of the jellyfish altogether. The last four lines, for instance, are all dimeter, and the lack of variety doesn’t evoke the floating motion. I also find “shrivels” to be harsh in a way that “quivers” is not. It disrupts the mood while actually (or so it seems to me) relating the jellyfish’s “fear” less compellingly. In short, in this form, it is simply a less beautiful poem, in meaning and in content.

If I had to summarize the difference between the two versions, I think I would have to say that the original version feels true, while the latter feels like a poem. That is, the extraneous “addition” in the original feels like something narrated because it actually happened. But, of course, life is rarely so perfectly poetic as poetry requires. Poetry takes life and betters it through selection, through eliminating all that does not serve the poetic purpose. I do not know if the original version of “A Jelly-Fish” tells a true story—the point is that it feels like it does, because what else other than fidelity to real events could motivate that ending? It is nice to see both the early and late forms of the poem, if only as a stark illustration of the power of eliminating needless detail.

When I was in high school, writing dreadful poetry, when I thought of sonnets as 14-line rhymed poems with ten syllables per line, I used to develop odd rhyme schemes. I wasn’t going to be constrained by Shakespeare and Petrarch, damnit. This is an embodiment of my younger self’s unserious attitude toward poetry, seeking greatness through pointless invention rather than simply learning my craft.

Happily, Washington Allston’s sonnets marry a similar playfulness about rhyme schemes with a level of craft my younger self wholly lacked. The Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry includes nine of his sonnets (plus one 15-line pseudo-sonnet). Here are their rhyme schemes:


They are mostly variants on the Shakespearean sonnet (at least insofar as they end with a couplet), only with the occasional Petrarchan quatrain or heroic couplet. But the third is basically two Petrarchan sestets bridged by a heroic couplet, and the eighth is a Petrarchan octave with a sestet of Allston’s own devising.

But enough about the rhyme schemes—are the poems any good? I think so. Most are reactions to various works of art that he admired (think Keats on Chapman). Here, for instance, is Allston on Peligrino Tibaldi’s Aeolus:

On Seeing the Picture of Æolus by Peligrino Tibaldi, in the Institute at Bologna

Full well, Tibaldi, did thy kindred mind
The mighty spell of Bonarroti own.
Like one who, reading magic words, receives
The gift of intercourse with worlds unknown,
’Twas thine, decyph’ring Nature’s mystic leaves,
To hold strange converse with the viewless wind;
To see the spirits, in embodied forms
Of gales and whirlwinds, hurricanes and storms.
For, lo! obedient to thy bidding, teems
Fierce into shape their stern, relentless lord;
His form of motion ever-restless seems;
Or, if to rest inclined his turbid soul,
On Hecla’s top to stretch, and give the word
To subject winds that sweep the desert pole.

Allston praises Tibaldi for the way in which he captures Aeolus’ motion even in rest, and suggests that Tibaldi is able to do so because of a heightened perception of the “viewless wind” that lies behind the visible motion of leaves. (On this point, the poem pairs well with “Project” by A.R. Ammons.)

The octave sets this up nicely. It is not overly impressive on its own, though it reads well. Where the poem really succeeds is in the sestet, for here, to make his praise of Tibaldi believable, Allston must himself capture Aeolus. I think he succeeds, starting with his bold decision to enjamb line nine (“teems”) and then begin line ten with a trochaic substitution (“fierce into shape”). Aeolus is thus thrust abruptly into our “view”. The metrical substitution serves to make “teems” believable.

The sestet continues to impress from there. I find the move from “relentless” to “restless” evocative. And describing his soul as “turbid” plays nicely off the earlier description of the wind as “viewless,” suggesting that invisibility need not imply a lack of complexity. No, Aeolus’ inner life is as murky and unmanageable as anyone’s.

All in all, then, it is a fine sonnet, and one I have come to enjoy even more through writing this.

His other appreciations of specific paintings similarly succeed. I’ll look at just one other:

On the Group of the Three Angels Before the Tent of Abraham, by Raffaelle, in the Vatican

Oh, now I feel as though another sense
From Heaven descending had inform’d my soul;
I feel the pleasurable, full control
Of Grace, harmonious, boundless, and intense.
In thee, celestial Group, embodied lives
The subtle mystery; that speaking gives
Itself resolv’d; the essences combin’d
Of Motion ceaseless, Unity complete.
Borne like a leaf by some soft eddying wind,
Mine eyes, impell’d as by enchantment sweet,
From part to part with circling motion rove,
Yet seem unconscious of the power to move;
From line to line through endless changes run,
O’er countless shapes, yet seem to gaze on One.

Here is a case where I think the unconventional rhyme scheme aids the meaning of the poem. Specifically, I think it replicates in the experience of reading this poem something like Allston’s experience of seeing the painting, namely the combination “Of Motion ceaseless, Unity complete.” The first four lines are set apart, both a complete rhyme unit (ABBA) and a complete sentence. But, the next four lines, though also a complete sentence, introduce two unresolved rhymed (CCDE). This leads us past the period onward into the next part of the poem. Moreover, within these four lines, all but the last are enjambed, meaning that the heroic couplet does not stand as a compact unit, but bleeds into the rest of the quatrain. The final six lines are then a single sentence, carrying us onward to the end. The whole poem (except a little bit the first quatrain) feels like a complete unity, yet a unity that moves ceaselessly, over which our eyes “From part to part with circling motion rove, / Yet seem unconscious of the power to move.”

And I will end by leaving, without further comment, Allston’s 15 line pseudo-sonnet:

A Word: Man

How vast a world is figured by a word!
A little word, a very point of sound,
Breathed by a breath, and in an instant heard;
Yet leaving that may well the soul astound,—
To sense a shape, to thought without a bound.
For who shall hope the mystery to scan
Of that dark being symbolized in man?
His outward form seems but a speck in space:
But what far star shall check the eternal race
Of one small thought that rays out from his mind?
For evil, or for good, still, still must travel on
His every thought, though worlds are left behind,
Nor backward can the race be ever run.
How fearful, then, that the first evil ray,
Still red with Abel’s blood, is on its way!

It is frustrating to be given only a selection of Washington Allston’s “The Sylphs of the Seasons” in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry, since it is the strongest poem in the compilation thus far. The basic premise is that each of the seasons argues to the narrator its charms, and he is then to choose his favorite from among them. (If any information is given about who this narrator is, it is not included in the selection.) The selection includes the case for Autumn and for Winter. The poem is written entirely in eight line stanzas with an AABCCCB rhyme scheme, the A and C lines in iambic tetrameter, the B lines in iambic trimester. It can get a little wearying, but Allston mostly wields it competently, and I admit to some friendliness simply on the grounds that he didn’t use heroic couplets.

The poem has the same commitment to moralizing that has been present in so many of these selections. Here, for instance, is the Sylph of Autumn:

‘Twas I, when thou, subdued by woe,
Didst watch the leaves descending slow,
To each a moral gave;
And as they mov’d in mournful train,
With rustling sound, along the plain,
Taught them to sing a seraph’s strain
Of peace within the grave.

I am not much moved by this, I think because I have no sense of who the narrator is. (I stress that I do not know if this is the fault of Allston or of John Hollander, who made the selections for this volume.) Because the narrator is faceless, this moral appears as universal. To see this in the leaves becomes the universal experience of autumn. But the moralism of nature is always more personal than this. Nature needs the aid of individual experience to put on such garb, and the poem (or selection) lacks that necessary element. So it lacks some credibility.

But there are portions I enjoy, as these three stanzas spoken by the Sylph of Winter:

Though Autumn grave, and Summer fair,
And joyous Spring demand a share
Of Fancy’s hallow’d power,
Yet these I hold of humbler kind,
To grosser means of earth confin’d,
Through mortal sense to reach the mind,
By mountain, stream, or flower.

But mine, of purer nature still,
Is that which to thy secret will
Did minister unseen,
Unfelt, unheard; when every sense
Did sleep in drowsy indolence,
And Silence deep and Night intense
Enshrowded every scene;

That o’er thy teeming brain did raise
The spirits of departed days
Through all the varying year;
And images of things remote,
And sounds that long had ceas’d to float,
With every hue, and every note,
As living now they were:

The crucial moment is in the second stanza: the enjambment of the third line. The spillover, the way it is not contained within the natural boundaries of the form, accentuates the mystic power of Winter’s ministry. As it happens, I think Allston is wrong here: the appeal that Winter makes to us is precisely through our senses. The austere minimalism of the winter landscape does not bring our senses to “sleep in drowsy indolence.” Just the opposite—it invigorates them. It is rather more the messy abundance of spring that is likely to berate my senses into a stupor. But no matter: that small moment of poetic craft makes the falsehood believable.

The poem ends on a disappointing note, with the narrator failing to choose between the seasons:

“Oh blessed band, of birth divine,
What mortal task is like to mine!”—
And further had I spoke,
When, lo! there pour’d a flood of light
So fiercely on my aching sight,
I feel beneath the vision bright,
And with the pain I woke.

Such tepid indecision, combined with the “reveal” (which may not be such in the context of the full poem) that it is all a vision, undermines what is good in the words of the Sylphs.