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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.

Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Poem: Wild Clematis in Winter
Link: http://clairenewcastle.blogspot.com/2013/03/wild-clematis-in-winter_23.html


This poem presents an image, and through it, a mood. The starkest details in this image come in the center of the poem:

the earth lying shotten, the sun shrouded off-white,
wet ferns ripped bare, flat as fishes’ backbones

The earth is ‘shotten’, a term normally used to describe herring that have ejected their spawn (which, it seems, decreases their value as food). It is a powerful choice of word, suggesting both the vigor of life (through the suggestion of spawning) and the disconnect of the speaker from this vigor: the speaker can see only the diminished value. This hint comes to full fruition in the next line, when the wet ferns lie on the ground looking like fishes’ backbones. Here the vigor of life has transmuted into death, more befitting the mood.

The poem does, in my view, contain a misstep. The first two lines establish that the scene is a roadside scene, a view from a speeding car leaving the country for the city. To capture this, Hill describes the view as “blurry detail.” This misses the mark. That the view is blurry I could surmise from the fact that the car is speeding, and ‘detail’ is a vague term (suggestive of the viewers’ inability to make out the details themselves), a third hammering home of the point. It is tiresome, and weakens the poem.

Poem: Children’s Games
Poet: Geoffrey Hill


Having no relationship with Hayim Bialik’s poetry, much of the deep meaning of Geoffrey Hill’s “Children’s Games” is forbidden me. But there remains the surface.

The central element of the poem is a tonal shift, the transition from childhood to war. This happens at an overarching level, as we move from the innocence of the children’s games promised by the title to “air foil-fêted / and with zinc clatterings.” But it also happens at a lower level, in the games themselves. Consider:

From laughter to slaughter,
from shul to Sheol,
from Torah to Ahor.
Say Noah-Shoah.

These are actual games, and on the surface very free and childlike. It is the poet’s childishness, his pure delight in words and sounds, delight only amplified by seeing how little a change (adding a letter, say, or rearranging letters) can wreak havoc with meaning—“from laughter to slaughter…”

Very well, but why are we instructing to “Tell Bialik”? Here my unfamiliarity prevents me from delving too deeply. The poem itself only tells us that “he should know.” What he knows, it seems, are these “memory games.” My minimal sleuthing reveals that many of Bialik’s poems involved reminiscence of his childhood, as well as frustration with anti-Semitic violence (and Semitic passivity in the face of it). So there is the hint of a connection, though those more familiar with Bialik will have to draw it out.

Poem: Tu B’Shevat
Poet: Geoffrey Hill


I return again to Geoffrey Hill in the role of interpreter, though perhaps “I cannot well pronounce it / interpreter,” given that my aim shall be merely to put on the table a few pieces of a puzzle whose final shape I see but dimly.

The title of the poem refers to the Jewish holiday, the “new year” for trees. The poem moves from an internal mode (“Returning to my own green winter”) to an external mode (“Not much to go for there” – referring back, I presume, to the first section).

The jumping off point is a hint given in the second stanza of the second section: to the chief musician. This points to Psalms 139 and 140. Each psalm contributes one clue to the poem (that I can recognize).

Psalm 139 first. I quote from the King James Bible:

16. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.

God sees us before we are formed: we are written, past and future, in his book. This is echoed by Hill in the first section:

Returning to my own green winter, dense
invocation and slow-growing charge
unlike anywhere: Hebrew alone will serve

this narrative which is a broken thing—
because I cannot well pronounce it
interpreter, mage, teller of righteousness.

There is the image of growth (appropriate to Tu B’Shevat), the becoming implied in the psalm, and the suggestion is that it is the poet’s own life that is the “narrative which is a broken thing.” The psalm ends with a plea for God to search within the psalmist and root out “any wicked way in me,” and we should read this under the surface of these rather defeated-sounding lines.

Turning to Psalm 140:

11. Let not an evil speaker be established in the earth: evil shall hunt the violent man to overthrow him.

In the poem, the evil speaker and the violent man are unified in the figure of Moshe Dayan:

…………………………………Moshe Dayan,
en route to Suez, praised the flourishing
Palestinian date-harvest,

which was not to the purpose. I salute purpose:
festivals where they strip the vital groves,
attune their joy and wish nobody harm.

Dayan, serving as Israel’s 4th chief of general staff (a politician, thus an evil speaker), urged pre-emptive strikes against Israel’s enemies in the leadup to the Suez crisis (thus a violent man). Hill does not mention this directly, instead focusing on a bit of speech by Dayan, in praise of the Palestinian date-harvest, which is not quite evil but is “not to the purpose.” Purpose is found in festivals (Tu B’Shevat again) that “attune their joy and wish nobody harm.” In this, again, I get a sense of weariness.

Title: Insert Here
Poet: Geoffrey Hill


That is our true state. That is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge or absolute ignorance. We are wandering in a vast atmosphere, uncertain and directionless, pushed hither and thither. Whenever we think we can cling firmly to a fixed point, it alters and leaves us behind, and if we follow it, it slips from our grasp, slides away in eternal escape… (Blaise Pascal)

I take 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. (R. Waldo Emerson)

It is Pascal whom Hill references directly, but Emerson, knowingly or unknowingly, was rewriting Pascal. Thus, knowingly or unknowingly, Hill must make peace with Emerson as well. That is enough by way of apology for my insertion.

Fuit d’une fuite éternelle—no, founded
in eternal light. And then what?

Hill is a fan of false starts, beginnings that must be qualified if not outright denied. Here, too: “Fuit d’une fuite éternelle,” from Pascal, rendered (badly) above as “slides away in eternal escape.” (It is many years since I knew French with any competence, but “flees in an eternal flight” strikes my ear as closer in meaning and sound.) But… “no”… And why not? “…founded in eternal light.”

Quite what this correction entails, I do not know. The Platonic story would have us founded in such light, only to be corrupted by the body. Perhaps Pascal is not sufficiently Platonist (I am no expert in Pascal). Regardless.

A clash of trodden ashes, if clinker
can be called ashes.

Thus enters the body, whose breakdowns are a fond theme of Hill’s, in my limited experience. Ashes to ashes. Humans as the residue of burned coal, the byproduct of some other process. Humans as secondary. Or at least the body as secondary, perhaps not the mind.

This in answer to the question, “And then what?” What comes after our founding in eternal light. This clash of ashes. But there is another image, too, in this aftermath:

……………………… The angular
sun on windows or windshields like swans
taking off and alighting.

I think of Plato’s sun, shining into Plato’s cave, in this case barred by windows or windshields, but perhaps only because I have already put Plato into my brain. I do not draw much specific content from this, only a contrast with the clinker. The product of burning, now the burning itself: a recreation of the movement out of Plato’s cave.

Thus is life, all that follows our founding in eternal light, summarized in two images, together complete. All that remains is to die.

Let me be, says the dying man, let me fall
upward towards my roots.

The root, of course, being the eternal light, to reach which the poet must fall, quite literally, up the page.

I clutch at the poem, but it slips through my grasp, fuit d’une fuite éternelle