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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 If all goes well, I’ll have read all of both (except perhaps for the unpublished poems) by the end of 2018.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.

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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.

 

It occurred to me to make a list of books I think I might like to read in 2017, though I cannot call this list a “plan.” I will be very surprised if I read everything on here, or even most. But it will be interesting, at least for myself, to compare at the end of the year my expectations with the reality.

Poetry

Homer – Iliad (tr. Lombardo)
Homer – Odyssey (tr. Lombardo)
Virgil – Aeneid (tr. Lombardo)
John Milton – Paradise Lost
Robert Frost – Collected Poems (Library of America)
Geoffrey Hill – Broken Hierarchies (parts of it)
John Peck – Cantilena (finish)
19th Century American Poetry vols. 1 and 2 (Library of America)
4+ as yet unchosen books of contemporary poetry

Other

Fernando Pessoa – The Book of Disquiet 
Yuriko Saito – Everyday Aesthetics
Abraham Lincoln – Speeches and Writings (2 vols.; Library of America)
Ulysses S. Grant – Memoirs
Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America
Wu Yubi – The Journal of Wu Yubi
Willa Cather – My Antonia; O Pioneers
Witold Gombrowicz – Diary (tr. Vallee)
Herodotus – The History (tr. Grene)
Wilfrid Thesiger – Arabian Sands

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.

I have been continuing to read John Peck’s Cantilena, albeit in a halting, haphazard fashion, now starting again for a few days, now leaving it aside for a week or weeks. It is a difficult book to know just how to read. There are two basic methods of reading it, let us call them deep reading and surface reading.

At a very basic level, the book presents two challenges to the reader. First, it contains a dense network of references to anything and everything, most of which the reader will need to look up to grasp. Second, even once these references are hunted down, it is still difficult to trace out the particular action of each individual canto—some more than others, of course. In deep reading, I confront these challenges head on, looking up every reference, struggling with every canto until it is reasonably understood.

But here a new set of challenges arises. Deep reading of that sort is tremendously time consuming. Were I to devote an hour each day to this book, reading it in that fashion, it would likely take me somewhere between six months and a year to finish it. Furthermore, there are connections between the different cantos, connections that will likely go unrecognized when the connected cantos are read weeks apart. Deep reading thus privileges local understanding over getting a feel for the whole of the work.

Enter surface reading, in which I lightly graze over the surface of the text, not worrying too much about local meaning, grasping merely what one can. Even here, I try to read each canto twice, sometimes more if they are especially arresting. I focus on the sound, and try to sense (or “undersense” as the introduction by Nate Klug explains) what connections between cantos I can. In this way, I progress through the book at a reasonable pace, but it is bewildering, and I feel generally lost.

Thus I worry that there is, ultimately, no good way to read this book. But I am motivated to continue every time I come across such beautiful lines as these:

…………………I shall be loud among the loud
but slur among her sands, and crowd
to the plunge between them, and cleanse, and begin to gnaw.