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.

 

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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.

In Book VII of the Aeneid, Aeneas sends a few of his men on a diplomatic mission to speak with King Latinus, with the aim of convincing him to allow them to settle there peacefully. Latinus asks them,

“What are you seeking? What is it that has brought you
Across the cerulean waters to our shore?
Is it that you have lost your way, or was it
Tempests acting upon you (for we are told
That this has happened to many upon the deep),
That you have entered in, between our river’s
Banks, and harbored your fleet within our port?
Do not refuse our welcome. Remember that we
Latins are of the race of Saturn, who
Following in the ways of our ancient father,
Need no external laws to obey or be
Forbidden by; we act of our own free wills.” (7.265-76; tr. Ferry)

Perhaps picking up on this reference to the unfettered will, the emissaries stress that no error has brought them to Italian shores: they have chosen to go there:

When the old king had finished speaking, then
Ilioneus said these words: “O king, illustrious
Descendant of the line of Faunus, it wasn’t
A black storm of winter nor was it surging seas
That drove us this way, nor was it that we mistook
A reading of the stars or of a coastline.
We came of our own free will… (7.286-92)

This insistence is interesting, because it stands in direct contradiction to something Aeneas himself said earlier in the book, on not just one but two occasions. The first comes in book four, when he attempts to placate Dido after telling her he must abandon her. (I’ve previous written about this scene here.) There, he says:

“And now the messenger of the gods, whom Jove
Himself has sent to me, has come down here
Upon the blowing winds—I swear, it happened—
It was full daylight when I saw him coming
Toward me, coming through the walls, and with
My very own ears I drank in what it was
That the messenger of Jove was sent to tell me.
So you must cease your protestations now.
I go not to Italy of my own free will.” (4.499-507)

And, in book six, he again tells Dido (her shade, this time) that his leaving her was not a free action:

Tears fell from his eyes and he spoke tenderly,
And lovingly to her: “Unhappy Dido,
Is it true, what I was told, that you were dead,
And with a sword had brought about your death?
And was it I, alas, who caused it? I
Swear by the stars, and by the upper world,
And by whatever here below is holy,
I left your shores unwillingly. (6.625-32)

We have, then, an interesting discrepancy. Aeneas’ men appear to view the journey to Italy as a chosen destiny, while Aeneas himself more than once insists that it is forced upon him against his will. What explains this?

One might offer a deflationary explanation of the difference, on two fronts. First, in discussing free will, Ilioneus and Aeneas are actually drawing subtly different contrasts. For Ilioneus, the Trojans have come to Latium out of free will as opposed to out of miscalculation or the overwhelming power of, say, a storm. Here it is noteworthy that it is precisely a storm that drove the Trojans to Carthage. His point is that they aimed deliberately at that destination, and intend to stay there. In that respect, he is perfectly correct.

Aeneas, meanwhile, denies that he goes to Italy of his own free will because he draws a contrast between his desire (to stay with Dido in Carthage) and his destiny (to found a new settlement in Latium). In this case, too, what he says is true—though in this case it’s complicated, since he does also desire the destiny that has been promised to him (I discuss this further in the earlier post linked above). There is, nonetheless, a substantial part of his will that would, if given the chance, stay in Carthage, and he goes to Italy only because this part of his will is fettered by destiny.

A second way of deflating the difference is to recognize the pragmatics of these utterances. None is a bare statement of fact: each has a definite social purpose. Ilioneus seeks Latinus’ favor, and therefore has an interest in presenting the Trojans as self-possessed. Aeneas, by contrast, is attempting both to placate Dido and to escape judgment—both hers and his own—for abandoning her. Thus he seeks to distance himself, as much as possible, from his evil act.

Both of these deflationary readings—which are compatible and indeed reinforce one another—are undoubtedly true. They do not, however, give the complete story, and we miss out on a major aspect of the Aeneid if we rest content with them alone. What we miss is this: even though Ilioneus’ and Aeneas’ claims are, strictly speaking, compatible, since they rest on different notions of free will, they nonetheless do capture a real difference in perspective. Ilioneus identifies wholeheartedly with the decision to settle in Latium. Aeneas does not.

To see why this is, consider Aeneas’ first speech to his men—not the first in time, but the first we encounter in the poem. Aeolus has, at Juno’s behest, unleashed a storm on the Trojans, and this has driven them to Carthage. Several ships appear to be lost, and it falls on Aeneas, as leader to the Trojans, “to ease their sorrow” (1.263):

“O my companions, O you who have undergone
Together with me, worse things than thise before,
The gods will bring this also to an end.
You who were there so close to Scylla’s frenzy,
Right in under her howling wailing cliffs,
And experienced the Cyclops throwing rocks,
Remember how brave you were. Be of good cheer,
Send fear away. Perhaps there will come a time
When you will remember these troubles with a smile.
Through many perils, through whatever mischance
We may encounter, our journey is toward Latium,
Where Fortune offers us a peaceful home.
There Troy will rise again. It is ordained.
Therefore endure, and expect a happier time.”
These were the words he used, though sick at heart;
His face simulates hopefulness and he
Endeavors to suppress his deep distress. (1. 264-80)

Here we see Aeneas attempting to cheer his followers, promising to them what the gods have promised to him. But it is a simulation, and to give this speech he must “suppress his deep distress.”

This shows Aeneas serving in one of his crucial roles in the Aeneid: he is a buffer. It is his job, as leader of the Trojans, to absorb all the doubts and uncertainties of the journey to found a new home, and in doing so to shield his followers from those doubts. Only in being forced to serve as such a buffer does Aeneas become the complicated man I love, the man both severed and inseparable from his fateful decisions.

Tonight, I finally got a chance to see Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in a theater, rather than merely on my computer. I first watched the film back in college—it was, I think, the film that sparked my serious interest in film as an artistic medium—and find that now, seven or eight years later, my perspective on it has substantially changed, though my love for it hasn’t.

On previous viewings, I identified most with the Stalker, even though, as an atheist, my beliefs aligned most with the Writer (at least, the beliefs he expressed in his early laments about the boringness of natural law and of triangles). And I took this to be the attitude of the film: its commentary on society is expressed fairly directly through the Stalker. Even now, I think it is probably true that Tarkovsky himself finds his views most reflected in those of the Stalker. On this viewing, however, I came to see more critique of the Stalker within the film.

The first indication that the Stalker is not above reproach is the film’s opening scene, in which he is shown reducing his wife to tears, to the point where she ends up writhing on the floor. There is a basic disconnect, a basic selfishness that is revealed here. My younger self was inclined to forgive it because I saw the private importance, to the Stalker, of his trips to the Zone (the source of his wife’s grief). Today, while I may still forgive it, though less thoroughly than before, I am more struck by the Stalker’s inability to connect with another human being, an inability that carries throughout the film.

In the Zone, the Stalker tells the Writer and the Scientist about his mentor, Porcupine. Porcupine’s brother died in the Zone, and shortly thereafter, Porcupine hanged himself. Before doing that, however, he entered the room in the Zone that satisfies one’s inmost desires, and was rewarded with a large sum of money. While the Writer’s musings throughout the film are largely comical and spiritually empty, his take on Porcupine is, I think, entirely accurate. Porcupine entered the room hoping to help his brother, but this was a superficial desire: ultimately, he wanted money more, and the room gave him what he truly desired. It was his inability to live with that piece of self-knowledge that drove him to suicide.

The Writer makes this point in response to the Stalker’s claim that his motivation in taking people to the Zone is to bring them happiness: that the meaning in his life comes from aiding others in this way. But this rings hollow: he goes to the Zone for himself. Bringing others is only an excuse. This is not to say that he does not want to desire to help others, but the overwhelming sense I get from the film is that this is an abstract desire, and not what really drives him. And so, while he says he cannot enter the room himself because it is not the proper role for a stalker, I am inclined to agree with the Writer that it is actually fear that keeps him from entering: fear of what he will discover about himself.

In stark contrast to this stands the wife. At the end of the film, we see her having overcome her distress, taking on a very nurturing role toward the Stalker. As he wonders who he can take to the Zone in a world where all have lost the ability to believe, she offers to go with him, and the viewer can feel the genuineness behind her offer. The empathy she displays is not a trickle-down effect of an abstractly believed ideology, but a spontaneous result of her love, despite everything, for her husband. I come away from this thinking that, while it may be true that the Stalker is one of God’s fools, it is the wife who seems the model of humanly attainable happiness—happiness, as she well knows, intermixed with a good helping of sorrow, but happiness nonetheless. In a film where every other adult character is, in his own way, overcome with despair, in her the vigor of life has not yet been snuffed out.