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Anne Carson

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.

Poetry

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.)

Other

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.

Poem: Autobiography of Red
Poet: Anne Carson


Let me begin, not with Carson, not even with poetry, but with the visual arts. When I walk through the contemporary section of the local art museum, I come away dissatisfied, and I think I am coming to know why. For too many of the works, their meaning (as indicated by the the short blurb hanging on the wall beside them) rests on certain symbols or techniques of creation that are said to have a certain resonance, that are to be read in a particular way. The trouble I run into comes when, as so often, these preferred interpretations get their privilege by stipulation, and not by earning it. But if the meaning must be stipulated to be grasped, it is not present at all within the work. It is merely externally, arbitrarily imposed.

The great work of art—in any medium—creates a network of significances that primes its perceiver to react in appropriate ways. It makes its meanings manifest. If some symbol is to be associated with a particular mood, that association must be established diligently before it can be drawn upon. It is possible, of course, that this significance could be established generally in a manner external to the poem (I think of the “talent” in Milton’s sonnet on his blindness), but if significances that do not predate the work are needed, they must be brought out from within the work.

Now we have arrived at Carson’s book, for it excels at precisely this. Beginning with the Stesichoros fragments (translated loosely—to put it mildly—by Carson herself) and their associated “critical apparatus,” which together a partial, gappy network, a string of images connected by fine gossamer, almost invisible, Carson goes on to flesh these out in a novel context, building new connections as she goes. This shapes the subsequent reading, so that when crucial images arise I know how to respond without being told.

Many examples might be given; I will give just one. The color red plays a central role in the book, being closely associated with Geryon’s perception of the world, and perhaps his world itself (the world itself?). This is worked out for some time before other colors enter (as indeed they must, for Geryon, despite carefully separating internal from external beginning at an early age, still loves in a world with more colors than just red). So, too, is the theme of wrongness, as when the babysitter reads Geryon a book with her “wrong voice”—that is, her voice that is not that of Geryon’s mother.

These two themes—the primacy of red, and the issue of wrongness—come together when Herakles (Geryon’s lover-killer) dreams of Geryon:

…the reason I called is to tell you
about my dream I had a dream of you last night. Did you. Yes you were this
old Indian guy standing on the back porch
and there was a pail of water there on the step with a drowned bird in it—
big yellow bird really huge you know
floating with its wings out and you leaned over and said,
Come on now
get out of there—and you took it
by one wing and just flung it right up into the air whoosh it came alive
and then it was gone.

Geryon’s response to being told of this dream:

Yellow? said Geryon and he was thinking Yellow! Yellow! Even in dreams
he doesn’t know me at all! Yellow!

Had Herakles known Geryon, the bird would, of course, have been red. So the color yellow has now been associated with wrongness. It has also, somewhat more implicitly, been associated with the impasse that exists between human minds, the difficulty (impossibility) of truly communicating oneself to another and thus of truly knowing and being known by another.

So when, a few chapters later, Geryon meets a philosopher (who studies the skeptics), and this philosopher is first identified as “yellowbeard,” we should be alert. In all likelihood, there is something “wrong” about him. In some way or another he and Geryon will fail to connect, as is indeed the case. To give just one instance of his wrongness, consider his treatment of Pascal in a lecture that he gives and which Geryon attends:

Un poco misterioso, the yellowbeard
was saying. From the ceiling glared seventeen neon tubes. I see the terrifying
spaces of the universe hemming me in. . . .

the yellowbeard quoted Pascal and then began to pile words up all around the terror
of Pascal until it could scarcely be seen—
Geryon paused in his listening and saw the slopes of time spin backwards and stop.

Carson, having carefully established the resonances of the color yellow earlier in the book, can freely draw upon them here, and does so to tremendous effect. It is also worth noting that the issue of sight and blindness, though I have not discussed them, been of major issue in the book, starting, again, with Stesichoros, who reputedly was struck blind by Helen upon slandering her in a poem, then had his sight restored upon taking it back. It is these layers of meaning that give the poem its unity and its life.