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.


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.

A bit of a slow month, but here’s what I read this March:

John Ashbery. I spent several days near the start of this month in a retirement home in Iowa City—not, as you might imagine, the most enthralling place. But I was able to use the opportunity to read, in fairly concentrated doses, both Shadow Train and A Wave, Ashbery’s 11th and 12th books. The former consists entirely of four-by-fours: sixteen line poems split into four stanzas of four lines apiece. Ashbery often shines in long poems, which are naturally suited to his kitchen sink approach, but here the enforced brevity suits him well. The best pieces here are finely honed daggers—“Paradoxes and Oxymorons” and “Farm Film” especially—and overall it is among his most consistently rewarding volumes. A Wave is even better. It’s Ashbery’s best book so far, from the mixed feelings of “At North Farm” to the self-querying of the title poem. Though it’s been some time since the last installment, I do intend to finish what I started with my series of posts exploring “A Wave” in depth.

Denis Diderot. I found the Penguin Classics edition of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream in my local used bookstore and snatched it up. When a discussion group to which I belong decided to discuss the meaning of the Enlightenment today, I took the opportunity to read this volume. I was amply rewarded. In contrast to the stultifying, dogmatic optimism being peddled under the name of the Enlightenment by the likes of Steven Pinker, Diderot reminds us of the movement’s skeptical core and of the intellectual excitement of thinking through new ideas for oneself. Rameau’s Nephew is hilarious, a dialogue in which it is relentlessly unclear which character, if either, speaks for the author, as a genial moralist comes face to face with a thoroughgoing comic nihilist. For my money, though, it’s D’Alembert’s Dream that’s the real gem here. In it, Diderot—through the figure of the dreaming D’Alembert—works out the consequences of a fully secular, materialistic understanding of the world. As a reader, I could feel the intellectual ferment, the froth of thought. It is a useful solace in an age where the public face of atheism—for all it calls itself “skepticism”—is rank dogmatism that recommends offloading all the business of one’s thinking to approved experts. Diderot shows us a better way.

Stanisław Lem. My wife very kindly bought me Lem’s Solaris. I’m rather a fan of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (it’s between him and Yasujiro Ozu for my favorite), and while Solaris is one of his lesser films, that speaks more to his other films than to Solaris itself. Lem’s book is the basis of the film, so I knew roughly what I was in for, but Tarkovsky took enough liberties with it that it was a new experience. It’s an enjoyable book, but a deeply flawed one. It reminded me why I tend not read sci-fi: the writing is simply not very good for much of the book, especially at the beginning. What’s more, I found that the book consistently raised issues that it left frustratingly unresolved—not so much in terms of plot (though there was some of that) than in terms of the philosophical issues the plot raises. My issue is not with ambiguity itself, but with the fact that Lem did not probe the issues deeply enough to at least clarify the contours of this ambiguity. For instance, the appearance of the “visitors” raises deep issues of realism and idealism: what would it be to encounter not the external world but a world limited by our ideas—ideas that, of course, always fall short of reality. But Lem never satisfactorily addresses this. Most aggravating for me, though, was the mythology of science that ran through the book. I’m currently a graduate student studying philosophy of science, and I simply did not recognize anything of the human activity I study in Lem’s descriptions of the science surrounding Solaris. I hope to write a more extended post on this, so I’ll save the details for later.

As usual, I am in the middle of many books. In addition to continuing to wade through Tsong Khapa’s Ocean of Reasoning, I’ve been reading Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. As far as poetry is concerned, I’m working my way through John KeatsSelected Poetry (Oxford World Classics) and Frank O’Hara’s Selected Poems (Borzoi). I’ve also been working my way through Hackett’s collection of Karl Marx’s Selected Writings.

Here are some remarks on books I read/completed in February.

Jack Gilbert. A local poetry reading group picked Gilbert’s collected poems as their book for February 2018 (the previous month was Peter Reading). Gilbert’s poems obsessively explore loss and the problems of living in a world where loss is omnipresent. They exist in the uncomfortable space between a yearning for solitude (“Going Wrong”) and the need for (fragile, fraught) human connection (the many poems regarding his variously lost lovers). The meeting to discuss this book is tonight; I hope to write something more extended about Gilbert following that.

David Bentley Hart. A friend of mine, who is an admirer of Hart’s, very kindly sent me this collection of essays, many of them book reviews, titled The Dream-Child’s Progress. Hart is an Orthodox Christian; I am avowed atheist, and so it is high praise for me to be able to say that I found this book fun to wrestle with. Hart is sensitive to the riches of the world’s many cultures, religious or otherwise, thinking it a properly Christian attitude to expect that people will have found truth wherever they have put the effort into looking—though of course he believes that Christianity is privileged in this regard. He is most interesting to me when he discusses the history of Christianity and of interpretations of Christian doctrine. He makes no attempt to make early Christianity palatable to contemporary sensibilities, instead actively emphasizing how radically different it was from anything we see today. This is problematic, as he recognizes, but he openly admits to not knowing the solution. I find him weakest in his discussions of atheism—his sympathetic attitude towards the riches of human thought do not, unfortunately, extend so far. He admires atheists such as Nietzsche and Leopardi, but seems to think that any more humane atheistic viewpoint is a hopeless endeavor. The limitation here lies in Hart, not in atheism itself, whatever his protestations to the contrary. Still, despite this shortcoming, he is an engaging writing and a bracing thinker, and I very much enjoyed this book.

Fernando Pessoa. I’ve written about Pessoa before, primarily regarding his prose in The Book of Disquiet. But he is a phenomenal poet as well. I had previously read the Penguin collection of his poetry, A Little Larger than the Entire Universe (tr. Richard Zenith). This month, I read another collection, Fernando Pessoa & Co. (also translated by Zenith), which overlaps the former at a few points, but is largely distinct. Both books have largely the same format: a selection of poems from all four of Pessoa’s poetic heternoyms: Alberto Caiero, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. As before, I found Reis’ taut, sad, Epicurean odes the most consistently satisfying, though each has something to offer. But I hope Zenith shall one day produce complete editions for each persona. I find that Pessoa shines less in the individual poem than in the entire body of work of a persona. So to read intermittent poems from, say, Caiero’s A Keeper of Sheep feels like viewing mere fragments of a distant whole. Among the options available now, I recommend A Little Larger than the Entire Universe as the superior, especially for de Campos.

John Ashbery. Ashbery’s greatest talent, I think, is to take my thoughts (your thoughts, whoever’s thoughts) and to return them to me more beautiful than he found them. As We Know opens with a 100-page double monologue called “Litany”, which includes the following lines that exemplify that talent perfectly:

Just one minute of contemporary existence
Has so much to offer, but who
Can evaluate it, formulate
The appropriate apothegms, show us
In a few well-chosen words of wisdom
Exactly what is taking place all about us?

Who indeed? As usual with Ashbery, As We Know is filled with poems that slide from beneath our grasp—the “lubricity” of objects that Emerson called “the most unhandsome part of our condition.” Ashbery, however, finds what is handsome in it.

Ron Amundson. Over the past few months, I’ve had the good fortune to re-read Amundson’s philosophical history of evolutionary developmental biology, The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought with a group of evolutionary developmental biologists. This book has been hugely influential on my academic work, and while I often disagree with it strenuously, it has shaped and continues to shape my understanding of the problem space. To get working biologists’ perspective on it has been a delight, and has helped me to clarify both my admiration and my dissent.

I am, as usual, also in the middle of a number of books. I am continuing to make my way, slowly, through Tsong Khapa’s Ocean of Reasoning, and I am now supplementing it with a similarly slow meander through Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. A while back, I began reading Henry David Thoreau’s collected essays; I have recently picked that back up again. In terms of poetry, I’ve moved on to Ashbery’s Shadow Train, and I’ve also started Oxford’s version of KeatsSelected Poems. In addition, I recently picked up a volume of Octavio Paz’s The Poems of Octavio Paz (New Directions) in my university’s bookstore—I may begin that soon. I’ve been making my way through a collection of Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy (ed. Tiwald and van Norden) and am nearing the end, and I’ve started reading Mark Wilson’s just-published book Physics Avoidance, a fascinating study of the behavior of scientific concepts (a follow-up to his previous, equally interesting book, Wandering Significance).

Here are some remarks on some of my January reading.

Anne Carson. I received, as a holiday gift, Anne Carson’s Nox. I’ve previous read Plainwater (which I don’t remember well) and Autobiography of Red (which I loved). Nox is a different beast than either, a replica of a memorial volume Carson made for her brother upon his death. Two storylines are interwoven here: first, the story of Carson’s enigmatic brother, who disappeared to Europe at a fairly young age and, second, the “story” of Carson’s attempt to translate Catullus’ poem for his dead brother. Strange and moving resonances emerge from this. For the translation, Carson presented the Latin, then a series (spread throughout the book) of guides to translating each individual word, then, at last, her translation. The translator’s task was thus presented as one of selection, of taming the myriad possibilities the words offered into a single coherent English poem. In contrast, Carson attempted to portray a full portrait of her brother using only sporadic and oddly distributed information—nearly the opposite task. It is a wonderful, beautiful book.

Peter Reading. I read the first (of three) volumes of Peter Reading’s collected poems, published by Bloodaxe. As I explained in a recent post, I did not care for the book. Happily, however, I read it as part of a local poetry reading group, and I came away from our discussion with a bit more sympathy for Reading’s project. Not that I like it, but I was able to see more compassion in his work than I had previously, and less jadedness. To be sure, jaded inhumanity dominates the book, but I did come to see efforts of a struggle against it, on Reading’s part, and an element of admiration for those who don’t succumb to it.

Kurtis Hagen. Hagen is a philosopher, not a poet, and I had the pleasure of reading his excellent study of Xunzi’s philosophy, straightforwardly titled The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction. Hagen argues for a constructionist reading of Xunzi, according to which Xunzi does not see the Way as a fixed inheritance from the ancient sage kings, but inheritance it is our job to actively re-fashion to fit the world as we find it. On this reading, Xunzi fully digested Zhuangzi’s skeptical and relativistic insights about the nature of language and value, but saw how they could be used to promote Confucian ends. Hagen not only makes a compelling case for his interpretation of Xunzi, he makes Xunzi’s philosophy itself compelling. (A friend and I wrote about Xunzi and the logical empiricists here, largely basing our interpretation of Xunzi on Hagen’s work.)

C.L.R. James. On the recommendation of a friend, I read James’ The Black Jacobins, a magnificent history of the slave revolt in Haiti in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Beyond being a riveting (if often horrific) story, James is concerned to support a few general points. First, he offers a reading of history according to which structural (especially economic) forces dominate, but in which there is limited room for individual agents to shape the course of history at key points. Second, he suggests that racial prejudice is fairly superficial. What really matters are economic interests: if the interests of two races align, racial prejudices can be forgotten rather quickly. It is an interesting thesis, of obvious importance today in thinking about the proper role for identity politics. James makes a compelling case in this instance; whether the more general thesis is right, I do not know.

In addition to the above, all of which I’ve completed, I’m also in the middle of a few other books, about which I hope to have more to say later. After Peter Reading, the local reading group is doing Jack Gilbert’s collected poems. So far, I love his work. I’ve also picked up John Ashbery again, picking up where I left off with As We Know. Lastly, I’ve begun Tsong Khapa’s massive Ocean of Reasoning, a thorough commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakārikā. It is scholastic as hell, expanding Nāgārjuna’s taut verses into extended, labored arguments. None of this is a criticism—the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness is a fascinating (and I would say eminently plausible) metaphysical view, and it deserves this sort of thorough treatment.