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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.

Book: A Boy’s Will
Poet: Robert Frost
Text: at archive.org (PDF)


I read Robert Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, at perhaps the perfect time. As the title suggests, the poems here come from a specifically youthful perspective (though Frost was not himself young when he published it). And this means a certain combination of doubt and braggadocio, of exuberance and overeagerly embraced sadness, that I recognize—not so much in myself (though they are not wholly absent) but in the person I was between, say, 18 and 22. (I am 26 now.) Why is this the perfect time? I cannot wholly enter these poems, yet I remember the version of myself that could, and as I read, I am reading not just the poems but also my past, with my own combination of enthusiasm and nostalgia.

Here, for instance, is the first poem of the volume, “Into My Own”:

Into My Own

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew–
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

The narrator romanticizes isolation, and regrets a world that does not afford it. It is not that he is isolated (the trees are, after all, the merest mask of gloom, no more), but that he imagines that he might become so. And if he did (the youthful hope)—and if he did, others would find him “only more sure of all I thought was true.” The youth feels his precarious position, feels the blows of an external world that would bend him to its demands, and protests against this corruption by dreaming of escape.

This recourse to such dreams, I know well. I look on it now with a more mature (I do not say ‘mature’ without qualification) eye, recognizing that this fantasy is something effete, unreal—mere dream in just the way the trees are the merest mask of gloom. Yet this is not an unkind judgment: I begrudge neither myself nor Frost’s youth our vanities.

Sorrow, like isolation, is equally romanticized by the youth, as in “My November Guest”, the volume’s third poem:

My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Where the last poem is easier to “dismiss” (that is not quite the right word) as merely a youthful fancy, this poem sticks, by which I mean that I still find myself able to enter into it somewhat naïvely, and make myself the speaker. The speaker who formerly dreamed of physical isolation now (I imagine) finds himself still in society, but nonetheless isolated, and so sorrowful. (In my own case, at least, the dream of physical isolation is often a wistful hope to escape the isolation I so often feel in crowds.) And yet he embraces this sorrow, and finds that in its own way it enhances the beauty of a certain sort of gloomy day. (On this point, Frost is entirely correct.)

What makes this poem something more than mere youthful faux-misery is the youth’s guile, as seen in the last stanza. It is not just that the sorrow makes the days beautiful, but that Sorrow, personified, praises them. And even though he has come to understand her praise, he hides this from her, does not let her know that he has been persuaded, so that she will continue to praise the “bare November days.” It is this image of the youth struggling with his sorrow, trying to outwit her and to subvert her to his own benefit, that escapes youth. I, at least, have not found the need for such guile to diminish with age. (But then, I am not old.)

One last poem to illustrate what I find so rewarding about this volume:

Love and a Question

A Stranger came to the door at eve,
And he spoke the bridegroom fair.
He bore a green-white stick in his hand,
And, for all burden, care.
He asked with the eyes more than the lips
For a shelter for the night,
And he turned and looked at the road afar
Without a window light.

The bridegroom came forth into the porch
With, ‘Let us look at the sky,
And question what of the night to be,
Stranger, you and I.’
The woodbine leaves littered the yard,
The woodbine berries were blue,
Autumn, yes, winter was in the wind;
‘Stranger, I wish I knew.’

Within, the bride in the dusk alone
Bent over the open fire,
Her face rose-red with the glowing coal
And the thought of the heart’s desire.
The bridegroom looked at the weary road,
Yet saw but her within,
And wished her heart in a case of gold
And pinned with a silver pin.

The bridegroom thought it little to give
A dole of bread, a purse,
A heartfelt prayer for the poor of God,
Or for the rich a curse;
But whether or not a man was asked
To mar the love of two
By harboring woe in the bridal house,
The bridegroom wished he knew.

The poem and its beauty speak for itself. What I want to point out is simply what I take to be an important element of it: that the narrator is not married. I suppose I do not know this, but the emphasis on isolation in the volume suggests it. In any event, if we accept that the youth is not married, then we are forced to conclude that this poem is sheer imagination: the youth is inventing the scene of his wedding night, and is worried that it will be interrupted by the various sorrows he feels. As someone who is happily married, I can say that the fear is a justified one. The sense of isolation can strike even when one is among the closest and most trusted of friends.

Reading the poem, I get a sense of self-absorption on the part of the youth. I say this without judgment (lest I be judged). The bride is left in the background, neglected, while the youth is occupied with his care. Even though he says he “wished he knew” whether or not to admit this guest, he does not really have a choice: he has already invited him in, has neglected his bride for the sake of his care.

What we get with this poem, therefore, is a youth imagining a scenario about which he knows little firsthand (marriage) and placing into that scene a character—the only character—about whom he knows a great deal (himself). The result is a mix of fancy and realism, not exactly accurate, but believable enough, and a reasonable fear. It is this mix that so attracts me to the poem. The youth still knows little enough of the material realities of life to invent these realities after his own image, and so we learn the contours of that image—as does he.

 

Poem: ‘Out, Out—’
Poet: Robert Frost
Link: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/53087


At the outset, I must acknowledge a debt to several friends with whom I read and discussed this poem tonight. The insights (if such they are) I recount below are as much theirs as mine.

I first encountered this poem well over a year ago now, but only this evening did I quite grasp it. On the surface, the poem tells the grim and brutal story of a boy’s injury and death. As a telling of that story, it is gripping and horrifying, well told, and a good poem. But in fact that is merely the occasion for the real poem.

What is the real poem? Start with the title: ‘Out, Out—‘. This is an allusion to Shakespeare’s famous “out, out, damned spot,” from Macbeth, famous because it expresses so concisely and yet so forcefully Lady Macbeth’s overpowering guilt. This title clues us in that the narrator of this poem is not some outside observer who just happens to know what has happened. No, the observer is someone who was involved in that day’s fateful events, and who feels he could have prevented it from happening.

Once this is recognized, small cracks in the objectivity of the storytelling start to show through. When the narrator says, “Call it a day, I wish they might have said,” we can now recognize the thin illusion of distance that the “they” creates. For the narrator really meant, “I wish I might have said.” It is doubly depersonalized, changed to the third person for one, changed to the plural for two. This same “they” recurs throughout, but now we know better.

The scene in Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth makes her famous, despairing cry is, as I recall it, hardly subtle. She proclaims her guilt openly. Frost’s poem captures a rather different kind of guilt. The narrator is not a murderer. He is not even morally culpable in any real sense. What could he reasonably have been expected to do differently? Nothing, of course. But that doesn’t stop the brain from imagining what might have been done differently.

Because it is a different sort of guilt, it calls for a different kind of expression. The narrator tries, with every trick he has, to suppress it. Had he fully succeeded, there would be no poem. But he fails, and his failure is the poem’s success.

Poem: Out, Out–
Poet: Robert Frost
Link: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/238122


A quiet metrical armada haunts
Frost’s haunting poem, fleet lurches in time
That ripple o’er the smooth surface of sound,
Faint echoes of a meaning else disclosed.
Hark: as the saw stretches to greet its mark,
A double iamb lights on the boy’s hand,
Or seems to light – perhaps it welled up from
The hand itself, and could not but roost there.
This violent pause, this vicious, snarling halt,
How it rattles the ear, startles the tongue!
And listen for the shift in breath: the lope
Of lines that hold each pause apart gives way
To labored heaves. The poor boy puffs in puffs.
His heart stutters in stutters. Cruel author;
Unfeeling God! You torture the child so.
Listen, too, for the muted rhyme that skulks
About the close, the hint of beauty lurking
In the midst of death and disregard.
And mid this lack of care, the final lurch,
Or rather, regularity: for the last
Of wretched wrenches is no wrench at all.
The others, as they turn to their affairs,
Must leave the dead to death. See: there he lies,
A bed of iambs houses the unstressed dead.

Title: Mowing
Author: Robert Frost
Link: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/237916


I thought I would say a bit more about the ways in which Robert Frost turns the sonnet form to his advantage in “Mowing”. I neglected to mention, in my initial thoughts, an intriguing way in which Frost plays off reader’s expectations in the final two lines. This feature of the poem is worthy of discussion.

The Shakespearian sonnet ends with a heroic couplet, which, properly executed, makes for a pithy, punchy finale. It invites the poet to condense the first twelve lines into a moral, often of a satirical nature. The couplet is ripe for generalizing but, even if particular, it still has the feeling of a punchline, as in these lines from Shakespeare’s first sonnet:

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

“Mowing” simultaneously has and lacks a couplet. The rhyme scheme of the final two lines is FG, so it is not a true heroic couplet. Nonetheless, the first twelve lines consist of two sentences of six lines apiece, while each of the final two lines is a sentence of its own. There is thus the trace of the couplet structure. Moreover, line thirteen has the feel of a Shakespearian couplet: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” Here is the moral to be drawn from all that came above, and we await its completion in the following line.

This expectation is frustrated, however, for the next line drops us back into the scene of mowing as it draws to a close. The scythe finishes its whisper and leaves the hay to make. The lack of rhyme (within the couplet, I mean) only enhances this disconnect. This is the masterstroke that makes the poem, for Frost with this move takes us out of the general and back to the particular, back to the fact just praised. The poem does not reward us with intellectual contentment of an empty sort (now I have grasped the point; I may be done here). It forces us to embody its moral if we are to enjoy it. At the same time, the narrator is further effaced, for the generality of line thirteen is a contribution of the narrator and not of the scythe, and in that regard is something extraneous.