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.

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.

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.


At the start of this year, I wrote up some delusions about what I might read in 2017. Now that the halfway point is past, I am in the mood to find out how I have done.

Here is what I have read from that list, with associated posts:

Homer – Odyssey (Lombardo, trans.) – post
Virgil – Aeneid (Lombardo, trans.) – posts (collected)
Robert Frost – A Boy’s Willpost
Fernando Pessoa ­– The Book of Disquietpost1, post2, post3, post4, post5
Wu Yubi – The Journal of Wu Yubi – [no posts]
Henri Cole – Nothing to Declare – [contemporary poetry] [no posts]

Not altogether terrible, though certainly less than half of what I predicted. As I knew would happen, my reading took me down other rabbit holes. I give the highlights below; the full list would be a bore.

Pessoa’s succulent nihilism brought me to read A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe (Zenith, trans.), the Penguin Classics collection of his poetry. Whereas The Book of Disquiet is all in one voice (that of Bernardo Soares), the poetry here is in four voices: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. Of these, I felt the closest kinship with Reis, the melancholy Epicurean, whose compact odes find joy even in their resignation. Reis works in bulk: no single poem stands out, but together they form a powerful collection. In contrast, de Campos is a poet of the single poem, most especially the dazzling “Maritime Ode,” which defies description. At 31 pages, it is too long to leave here, so I leave instead the much more compact “Ah, a Sonnet…”—also by de Campos:

Ah, a Sonnet…

My heart is a mad admiral
Who quit his life at sea
And remembers it little by little
At home, pacing, pacing…

With this motion (the mere thought
Of which makes me shift in my seat)
The seas he once sailed still toss
In his muscles bored of inactivity.

Nostalgia’s in his legs and arms.
Nostalgia pours out of his brain.
His boredom turns into raving.

But if, for God’s sake, the heart
Was my theme, why is this poem dealing
With an admiral instead of with feeling?

I can never read enough translations of Virgil’s Aeneid, so, a couple months after finishing up Lombardo’s fine rendition, I began Sarah Ruden’s, which I think may be my favorite of the five I have read (Ruden, Lombardo, Fitzgerald, Mandelbaum, Fagles). It is a line-by-line, mostly blank verse translation—the sort of thing that will either succeed or fail on a large scale. It is hard to imagine such an attempt being middling. Ruden’s, happily, succeeds. Her lines are terse and forceful, and lack the somewhat stiff grandiosity that occasionally characterizes the blank verse translations of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum. The compact lines serve Virgil better than the loose lines of Fagles, and she avoids Fagles’ tendency toward being too colloquial. Lombardo’s translation is the freest (though highly musical), and makes a nice pairing with Ruden.

The introduction to the Lombardo translation was written by W. R. Johnson. It was sufficiently insightful that it induced me to buy Johnson’s book Darkness Visible, a classic work of Virgil scholarship. Johnson’s book does exactly what I ask for from a book of criticism: it makes me a better reader. Johnson’s central concern in the work is to elucidate the way in which the world of the Aeneid constants hovers around darkness and chaos, always threatening to fall fully under their sway. He shows this by comparing passages in Virgil to passages in earlier authors, especially Homer. He convincingly demonstrates that where Homer’s passages are characterized by brilliant clarity, Virgil’s re-envisionings of these same passages make them deliberately, carefully murky. Thus Virgil captures a world beyond our comprehension and beyond our control. I had sensed this in my reading of Virgil—it is a major part of why I prefer Virgil to Homer—but I could not have articulated it without having read Johnson. I cannot recommend Darkness Visible highly enough.

Leaving behind poetry, I have been reading a number of the classics of Chinese Philosophy: Confucius’ Analects (Chin, trans.), the book of Mengzi (Lau, trans.), and the book of Zhuangzi (Palmer, trans.). Confucius and Mengzi make a nice contrast. Where Confucius is flexible, emphasizing situationally appropriate conduct (guided but not rigidly determined by the rites), Mengzi is rigid, the sort who might never talk to you again if you bow to him the wrong way. Even if I disagree with Confucius about the general shape of his program, I can feel the deeply humane impulse behind it. In Mengzi that impulse is more difficult to find. But I should be fair to Mengzi. Especially near the start of his work, Mengzi develops certain interesting philosophical themes. Concerning, for instance, the motivation to be ethical, he attempts to start from our natural sympathy for friends and families and to extend this as far as possible. This, I think, is a more plausible solution to the problem of moral motivation than that of the Mohists, who begin with universal love as an imperative. And, as Republicans in the Senate work to savage our healthcare system, Mengzi’s stern moral stance seems especially apt: “Is there any difference between killing a man with a knife and killing him with misrule? There is no difference.”

The real treasure, however, is Zhuangzi, whose laughter still resonates today. He is a relentless puncturer of pretensions, and as pretense is an eternal temptation of the human soul, Zhuangzi will never cease to be relevant. The book that accrued around his name is a hodge-podge, a collection of vignettes and perspectives that do not resolve into any single clearly articulable theme. One imagines Zhuangzi would not have it any differently. I leave, from this work, the following beautiful passage. I might have chosen any number of others.

Words are like the ebb and flow of the wind-blown seas: the purpose of them can become overwhelmed. The wind and seas are easily stirred, and what was attempted can be swamped and lost. (ch. 4)

Enough said about where I have been. Where am I going? I have no interest in predicting the remainder of this year in detail. I will only sketch a few paths that lay within my sight.

I have been reading, with great pleasure, The Poetics of the New American Poetry, a collection of commentaries on the aim and nature of poetry by American poets associated with the volume The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (which I have not read). The volume captures the ferment that surrounded the birth and development of vers libre, both their negative program of throwing off the shackles of forms that were imposed a priori and their positive programs, which were many and resist easy summation. I imagine that I will, upon concluding this volume, be drawn to further explore the poetry of this period, of which I have little firsthand experience. Already, H.D.’s Trilogy, The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca, and Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems lie before me, and Bunting I have even begun. His “Villon” is a marvelous poem. Perhaps I will write about it here.

On a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I returned home with a number of used books (I visited at least eight bookstores in my six-day trip). Among these was Jay Garfield’s translation of and commentary on Nāgārjuna’s The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. I find the Buddhist notion of emptiness intriguing and appealing, and what I have read of this volume already suggests that it may tally with conclusions I have independently reached in my professional work in the philosophy of science. Such concordance may prove to be nothing in the end, but I am sure I will enjoy finding out, one way or the other.

On this same trip I also acquired a copy of Susan Howe’s new book, Debths. It is a short book (though >100 pages, much of each page is white space), and I have already made a first pass through it. But it will require more time. I expect I will be writing about it, one way or another, so I will not say more here. Happily, this will get me closer to meeting my goal of reading four works of contemporary poetry.

And beyond that? My shelves overflow with unread books—perhaps I will make some dents in this. I will not speculate as to the precise locations of these dents.