At the start of the year, I wrote up a few delusions about what I might read this year. For the first half of the year, I made reasonable progress on it. The second half of the year, however, largely diverged from my expectations. From that list, I completed only two books, both by Willa Cather (O Pioneers! and My Ántonia), and began Lombardo’s Iliad. Beyond that, my reading has simply gone in other directions. Here is a report of some of the more memorable books I’ve read.
John Ashbery. For some time now, I’ve had Ashbery’s first Library of America volume sitting on my shelf, having picked it up at the local used bookstore on a whim. I never gave it a look, however, until he died earlier this year. For whatever reason, I had convinced myself that I would not enjoy Ashbery. It is hard, with hindsight, to imagine what that reason might have been. Ashbery’s poems feel like elaborate illusions, like trick rooms that give the appearance of coherence but which, looked at from a different angle, prove fragmentary. What makes them work is the joy Ashbery finds in trying to grasp an ungraspable world. Where Emerson took “this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers, then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition,” Ashbery thinks it handsome indeed. Of all my new discoveries this year, Ashbery is the one who has made the strongest impression on me. I began with Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, but then I read the volume from the beginning up through Houseboat Days (including reading Self-Portrait again). I’ve taken a break for a while, but will return soon, and the second Library of America volume is waiting on my shelf. Further thoughts here, here, and here.
Richard Wilbur. I’ve had Wilbur on my shelf for even longer than I’ve had Ashbery, having received his collected poems as a gift some ten years ago. I read a few when I first got the volume, but I was not yet ready (I was in my mid-teens). So he, too, had to die to be read. Reading him now, I find his craft undeniable, and every so often he’ll turn in a stunner of a poem. These poems work because they hint at more than is set down on the page. Most of the time, however, Wilbur strikes me as shallow: however finely crafted, his poems offer little food for thought. The poems then seem like mere (if beautiful) ornaments. Wilbur is at his worst in his overtly political poems, in which his didactic moralism (in favor of bland centrism) drowns out any other charms the poems might have. The results, as seen in poems like “On Freedom’s Ground” and “For the Student Strikers,” are dreadful. Happily, it is worth suffering through them to get to his best.
Robinson Jeffers. Jeffers is an interesting case. At the behest of a friend who has been recommending “Apology for Bad Dreams” to me for some time, I bought a short collection of Jeffers’ poems (from Vintage). The volume covers his entire career, though it includes only a small fraction of his voluminous writing. It’s a good introduction to Jeffers, for a perhaps surprising reason: it is half astonishing, half terrible. Moreover, these halves are pretty cleanly separated: I marked 17 of the first 25 poems in the volume as poems I’d like to revisit; of the remaining 33 poems I marked only 4 (and at least one—“Skunks”—was out of pity: only half of the poem was good). What happened? In his early period, Jeffers’ poems gave voice to a hard, lofty disdain: disdain that was chiseled into beautiful form. But, starting around 1941, Jeffers settled into this voice, collapsing into didacticism with only the shadow of his earlier elegance. Why does this make this volume a good introduction? Because the second half of the volume throws the first into sharp relief. The poems in the second half contain the same elements as the earlier poems, but these elements are ill-arranged and ill-proportioned. Their failure makes the delicate balancing act the early Jeffers achieved starkly apparent. Now that I know, however, my next volume of Jeffers will be the first volume of his collected poems.
Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’ve loved Hopkins for quite some time, but only for a select few poems. This year, I finally read the core of his work (Poems 1876-1889) straight through. In the end, I think Hopkins remains a poet whose reputation is rightfully stake on a handful of his best poems: the volume was uneven, with plenty of poems that ranged from unremarkable to simply bad. But, at his best, Hopkins was the most dazzling wordsmith in the English language. One of his sonnets begins with what is the finest single line I know: “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.” That line is nothing less than a miracle (the rest of the poem is also magnificent). The poems in which he confronts his depression are… I’ve spent minutes trying to think how to end that sentence, and the best I can come up with is “accurate.” They are, but this undersells them. If you have ever felt what he describes in those poems, the recognition they prompt is chilling.
Susan Howe. I read a handful of new poetry books in 2017, but only Susan Howe’s Debths made a strong impression (see here). I tend not to be sympathetic to “experimental” poetry unless I can feel the way it creates meaning. Howe certainly meets that test. The two collage poems in the book cleverly and effectively capture the stream of consciousness: the interplay between its shifting center and frayed periphery. It is a difficult book to summarize, but I cannot recommend it highly enough. (By contrast, the other new release I read from the publisher New Directions,—Nathaniel Tarn’s Gondwana—was a joyless work, complete with Tarn’s needless entry into that needless genre of poetry that fabricates Emily Dickinson’s sex life.)
David Ferry. Easily my most disappointing read this year. The Aeneid is my favorite book, and I was looking forward to this translation, having enjoyed Ferry’s version of the Eclogues. (I own but haven’t read his translation of the Georgics.) But Ferry’s translation is, overall, a failure. A simple example shows why. Ferry takes Virgil’s three word “Audentes fortuna iuvat” (roughly, “fortune favors the bold”) and turns it into, “Fortune comes to the aid of the audacious.” This temptation to use eight words when four will do runs throughout his rendition of the Aeneid, and it sucks the joy from the epic. There are exceptions—his treatment of Allecto in book seven is marvelous, harnessing repetition to make her terror vivid—but, mostly, it just doesn’t work. Of the six translations of the Aeneid I’ve read (Ruden, Lombardo, Fitzgerald, Mandelbaum, Fagles, Ferry), it’s the worst.