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Monthly Archives: December 2017

With any luck, I’ll be moving in mid-2018, so it’s not the best time to be accumulating books. My main aim, then, is to work through some of the many, many unread volumes currently occupying my shelves. Knowing myself, this resolution will go about as well as most resolutions made around this time, but here’s a prospectus for my 2018 reading premised on optimistic assumptions. I’ll cover only poetry, though undoubtedly I’ll read other things as well.

One of my long-term goals is to familiarize myself with the American poetic tradition, beyond the obvious names. To that end, I’ve been reading the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry (2 vols.)—see here for my reflections. I’ve still only barely made a dent in the first volume. In 2018, I’d like to make substantially more progress.

Another ongoing project I’ll be continuing is John Peck’s Cantilena, which I began in August 2016, only to set it aside for other reading in 2017. (It’s a demanding book.) But in 2018, I will finish it. I will.

I’d also like to delve further into two contemporary poets whose work I’ve loved. Anne Carson’s Nox and Glass, Irony, and God are sitting unread on my shelf; by the end of the year they’ll be sitting read on my shelf. (I may re-read Plainwater while I’m at it.) Similarly, having loved her recent book Debths, I purchased Susan Howe’s The Nonconformist’s Memorial. I’ve made some brief forays into it, but haven’t read it properly. That’s coming, too.

Leaving the land of the living, I’d like to spend some time with the recently dead. Both of John Ashbery’s Library of America volumes are in my possession. I’ve read about 2/3 of the first, and none of the second. If all goes well, I’ll have read all of both (except perhaps for the unpublished poems) by the end of 2018. Going back a bit in 2017 deaths, I also have The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948-2013 lying around, unread, as well as Walcott’s Omeros. And, stretching all the way back to summer 2016, Geoffrey Hill’s collected, Broken Hierarchies, calls to me (I’ve read Without Title and little else by him; see here).

I love Virgil, and spent much of 2017 reading various translations of his Aeneid (Lombardo, Ruden, and Ferry). In 2018, I’ll expand out into some of the other great Roman poets, starting with Horace’s Odes and Epodes (tr. Shepherd) and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (tr. Mandelbaum).

2018 will also be the Year of John. I recently had a poem of mine described as a “metaphysical poem.” It might be good if I knew what that meant, so I’ll read that greatest of the metaphysicals, John Donne, whose Complete Poetry and Selected Prose (Modern Library) I conveniently own. And John Milton’s Paradise Lost was among my delusions about what I’d read in 2017. That didn’t happen; it will in 2018. Finally, John Berryman’s The Dream Songs will also find itself read before the year’s end.

Miscellaneous note

For the curious, my three most-read posts of the past year were:

[1] This post detailing my first encounter with the work of John Ashbery, written shortly after he died (why it was most-read should be obvious).

[2] This detailed analysis of William Carlos Williams’ “Between Walls.”

[3] This post considering the role of ambiguity in Virgil’s Aeneid, book 4.

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Among the functions of the Iliad is to preserve the names of those who fought valiantly in the Trojan war, and thereby to give to them the eternal glory they had earned. So it is intriguing to come across this passage, in the middle of book 17.

Around the corpse they kept pressing hard
With sharp spears and killing each other.
Some Greek would say from his bronze mask:

“Friends, there’s no point in returning
To the hollow ships. It would be better
For the black earth to swallow us here
If we’re going to let the Trojans haul him
Back to the city and win all the glory.

Or some Trojan would say:

“Friends, even if we’re all fated to die
By this body, don’t take a step back.

These words would lift everyone’s strength.” (17.424-35, tr. Lombardo)

The corpse is that of Patroclus. Hector has killed him and stripped him of Achilles’ armor (which he was wearing). The Greeks and Trojans are now fighting to gain possession of his body. On both sides, we see the soldiers rallying themselves with the thought that glory is worth the price of death, and that shame is a fate worse than death.

What is curious is that these speeches are anonymous, spoken by “some Greek” and “some Trojan.” Why? For one thing, this allows the poet to suggest that many soldiers give speeches along these lines. But the reason, I think, goes deeper. There is a basic tension in the Iliad. It is, on the one hand, a story about a relatively small number of central heroes, flanked by a few more minor characters noteworthy enough to be named. Yet, on the other hand, it is also a story of war, of a fight between large masses composed of individuals who cannot all be named and honored.

In making these speeches anonymous, the poet seems to acknowledge this tension, to acknowledge that, for most of those seeking glory in war (at least glory of the sort the poets can offer), they will fail, whether or not they survive. They will remain anonymous, recognized only by the actions typical of “some Greek” or “some Trojan.”

In Book 12 of the Iliad, as the Asius and his troops storm a Greek wall, soldiers on the wall throw stones to repel them. Homer describes it as follows:

……………………The stones fell like snow

Down to the ground, falling, falling, like flakes
A cold wind from the shadowy clouds
Drives thick and fast upon the bountiful earth.
(12.162-65; tr. Lombardo)

This is an astonishing simile, and provides insight into the general manner in which Homer’s similes operate. Though they begin from a conspicuous, generally visual similarity, they gain their power and poignancy from their operation on other levels. In this instance, there are at least four salient movements in the comparison.

The first movement is the obvious similarity that sparks the simile: the stones fall thickly from the wall, like snow. By a natural extension of the simile, we arrive at an implied hyperbole: the stones cover the ground to the point where the earth is invisible. We may likewise imagine the stones thick enough to seriously obscure the Trojan soldiers’ vision.

But this perception of similarity soon gives way, and we are struck by the stark differences between the two scenes. There is something calm and peaceful about the snow-covered earth, however thickly the snow falls. We imagine the earth devoid of action, tranquil—completely unlike the conflict between Trojans and Greeks.

This second movement gives way in turn, however, to the third. We realize that Homer has called attention to the fact that the earth is bountiful. Yet we see it in a snowstorm, in winter, when its productive function is at its lowest point, and we still await the rebirth of spring. Winter, though the most beautiful season, is also the harshest, and its association with death suits it for comparison with war.

But this, too, moves in the opposite direction. Winter is only a temporary cessation of the earth’s productive function. In directing our attention toward that function, Homer invites a contrast with its other function: as the permanent resting place of the dead. The Greek stones render the earth—the bountiful earth—a graveyard.

In the end, the simile does not resolve itself one way or another. The stonestorm is and is not like a snowstorm. The visual similarity provides the opportunity to be struck successively by both sides of the comparison. I might note that, of the four motions described above, I felt only the first two during the regular flow of reading. Only when I stepped back and began to dwell on the tension between those two did the third and fourth reveal themselves. This is one reason why I like Lombardo’s choice to set off Homer’s similes in italics: it encourages one to spend with them the time they require to bloom.

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.

 

In certain respects, Richard Henry Dana’s “The Dying Raven” is the most interesting poem I’ve so far encountered in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry. It’s the first unrhymed poem in the volume, a longish blank verse piece, and while most lines end with some form of punctuation, it does have some noticeable enjambments. As a result, it doesn’t feel quite as trapped in the past as the poems that precede it, at least at first.

Unfortunately, as a poem, it’s a dull piece. It begins well enough, with a description of the raven’s call as a promise of spring to come—a spring that has come, and is lovingly described. If not especially remarkable, it’s at least a refreshing change of pace. But it doesn’t sustain itself. There are any number of flaws—breathlessness (“Preacher to man’s spirit! / Emblem of Hope! Companion! Comforter!”) and redundancy (especially in the passage alerting us that the raven is now dead)—but the one that really undoes the poem is that it’s emotionally flat. Nowhere is this more apparent than this passage, which follows some musing on the cause of the bird’s death:

I needs must mourn for thee. For I, who have
No fields, nor gather into garners—I
Bear thee both thanks and love, not fear nor hate.

It’s completely bloodless, and it comes right where the poem ought to be reaching its zenith. After this, the poem descends into moralizing, and then it ends. There’s the material here for a good poem, but it’s weighed down by the dross, and the poem as a whole is a failure.