There are some poets who, no matter how many great poems they write, are always associated with one particular work. That work becomes their signature, the poem that even non-poetry readers know them for. For Seamus Heaney, it was “Digging,” for Gwendolyn Brooks, it was “We Real Cool” (which is actually a work of virtuosic genius, but I digress), and for the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, it appears to be “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”
Of course, “Try to Praise” did get more attention in the press than most poems do: following the September 11th attacks, The New Yorker printed this poem on the back cover of its next issue. The poem was then picked up by several other media outlets, all of them feeling, like The New Yorker, that it spoke to what America was feeling at the moment.
Try to praise the mutilated world. Remember June’s long days, and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine. The nettles that methodically overgrow the abandoned homesteads of exiles. You must praise the mutilated world. You watched the stylish yachts and ships; one of them had a long trip ahead of it, while salty oblivion awaited others. You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere, you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully. You should praise the mutilated world. Remember the moments when we were together in a white room and the curtain fluttered. Return in thought to the concert where music flared. You gathered acorns in the park in autumn and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars. Praise the mutilated world and the gray feather a thrush lost, and the gentle light that strays and vanishes and returns.
[Translated by Clare Cavanagh]
A few writers have commented on what appears to be a trend in Americans’ taste in poetry: after any major political shift or national disaster, Polish poetry becomes very popular. I won’t speculate on what others see in this nation’s poetry, but for me, one of the main things that draws me to Polish poets is their willingness to be dead serious about things that many people generally do not take seriously. Begin with the title of the poem: though some choose to believe that the world is pointlessly cruel and devoid of meaning, Zagajewski goes against that nihilistic grain by describing the world as “mutilated.” It’s a disturbing word, but in a way, it expresses hope too: a thing can’t be “mutilated” if it was not once whole, and if it was whole once, maybe it can be made whole again.
In addition to wholeness, another thing this poem wants is immutability. It seems poets are often distressed by the indifference of nature, wondering how there can be an ultimate good when their cries of pain are met by a planet that simply keeps turning. This speaker, on the other hand, turns that problem on its head: he tries to find solace in a world that is indifferent to human woes, and therefore unchanging: “The nettles that methodically overgrow / the abandoned homesteads of exiles.” Nettles, of course, don’t care about exiles or their homes. They exist only to keep growing, and grow they do. There is an order to their behavior and that behavior remains constant, no matter what happens to the speaker. Like the word “mutilated,” it’s a depressing scenario, but not entirely hopeless: whatever tragedies may befall mankind, at least they can’t keep the world from spinning or the plants from growing. Life can still go on.
One of Zagajewski’s great strengths as a poet is the incredible subtlety of his work, and there’s perfect example of it in this poem. While the speaker is encouraging his listener to think back to happier times, he tells the person to “Remember the moments when we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered.” Such a vague reference, and yet, so evocative of the sort of comfort that this speaker is hoping to get from the world.
It’s impossible to be sure what went on in that room. It appears that only the speaker and his listener really know. Maybe the speaker and listener are lovers and this was their bedroom? Or maybe it’s a dark, dreary sickroom brightened by the sudden intrusion of sunlight? In either case, the result is the same: these two people are suddenly reminded that there is a world outside of them. For the lovers, they get to wake up beside each other and find that their happiness will continue. For the sick person and his/her companion, the sun provides a brief distraction from their worries and fears. The sun causes a break in the private universes constructed by these people—whether those are universes of pleasure or of pain—and pushes the couple out toward a world that is even bigger than the two of them.
And ultimately, I think that’s what this poem wants us to do: to think outside of our own heads for a change. To realize that there is more in heaven and earth than we can dream of. I think all good poetry exists to make us think outside of ourselves and the vision of the world that we’ve come to accept. For me, Polish poets in general and Zagajewski in particular are especially good at doing that.
For several reasons, I stepped away from this blog a little over a year ago, and I don’t expect to return to regular posting any time soon since I’m currently making arrangements to go to school in 2020. But I don’t want to let this space go entirely silent just yet, so here is a write-up of some of my favorite things that I read for the first time in 2019.
Until recently, I’ve read very little fiction in the past couple of years. Other than old standbys like the short stories of Chekhov and Borges, the only fiction that really stood out for me this year was C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.
Unlike a lot of other Christian homeschooled kids, I was never a huge fan of C. S. Lewis’s fiction. Narnia, for various reasons, always seemed overrated to me and his adult-aimed Space Trilogy failed to grab me as well. Even The Great Divorce, which I love as an allegory, is not really much of a novel. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Till We Have Faces, the last work of fiction he published during his lifetime, may be the best book he ever wrote.
Inspired by the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, Till We Have Faces is set against the backdrop of the pagan of empire Glome, where the unattractive princess Orual grows up in self-enforced servitude to her younger, beautiful sister Psyche. So universally loved is Psyche that the people of Glome neglect the worship of their goddess Ungit, and in her wrath, Ungit demands Psyche as a sacrifice to atone for the sin of unfaithfulness. I hope to write a full review some time in the future, but this novel covers a lot of ground thematically, as well as touching on some theological themes that are rather important to me personally. I suspect it will take some time.
Most of my nonfiction reading this year was in the biographical vein—things like Rachael Denhollander’s What Is a Girl Worth? and Martin Mosebach’s The 21—but my favorite was probably Alfred Hitchcock’s memoir in interviews, Hitchcockby François Truffaut. The book is a condensed version of the marathon series of interviews Truffaut conducted with Hitchcock in 1962 (you can listen to most of them here). Beginning with his childhood in England, the interviews cover his entire life and especially his films made in America. Hitchcock is one of my favorite filmmakers, if not my favorite, and so this deep dive into his work and methods is fascinating to me.
I took a sort of break from poetry, and when I returned to it in the last half of the year, I plunged headlong into several volumes at once. Some were enlightening anthologies, like Jane Hirshfield’s Women in Praise of the Sacred and Czesław Miłosz’s A Book of Luminous Things. Others were individual collections, like Writing Poems in the Shadow of Death by indie poet Aaron Everingham and A. E. Stallings’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated Like. Forced to pick just one favorite, I have to go with Don Paterson’s 40 Sonnets. I’ve had quibbles with some of Paterson’s work in the past, but no matter what he’s writing or writing about, he is a brilliant poet, and these sonnets—some experimental, some traditional, all fresh and exciting—helped remind me of why I love poetry so much in the first place.
That’s all for now. Let me know in the comments what some of your favorite books you read in 2019 were. I may not be posting regularly but I promise I read and respond to all comments. 🙂
Hello there! Long time, no see. I apologize for the silence on this site for the past few weeks. I’ve been trying to explore other avenues for my writing, so I haven’t had as much time to write here. But since we are in the last few weeks of 2018, I thought I’d go down the list of my favorite books I read this year. As always, I will pick one from each of the four major genres.
2018 saw some pretty great fiction reads in The Great Divorce and The Invention of Morel, but neither compares to Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. I read his Labyrinthsfirst, and wasn’t half-way done with it before I picked up this collection too. It’s still my go-to book when I can’t decide what to read because its depths are inexhaustible. I keep returning over and over to “The Aleph” and “The Zahir,” but “The Circular Ruins” and “Death and the Compass” are favorites too.
Can I really have only read one play in 2018? And it was Chekhov’s The Seagull? I was crazy about Chekhov last year and that fever spilled over into this year’s posts as well, though it never manifested in an actual review of The Seagull. This is partly because I found the play just a touch boring and partly because it’s so bleak (even for Chekhov) that I was a little shy about inflicting 600 words about it on you, my lovely readers.
I’ve always loved biographies, and Robert K. Massie’s classic Nicholas and Alexandra, about the last tsar of Russia and his family, has quickly become one of my favorites of the genre. While I do believe that Massie’s emotional attachment to the Romanov family may have prevented him from being completely objective, the story is still fascinating, and Massie tells it beautifully.
Along with Borges, another wonderful writer whom I read for the first time this year was the Swedish Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer. The Half-Finished Heaven is a recent collection of his selected poems, translated by his friend and fellow poet Robert Bly.
Because a lot of my favorite poetry tends to be very exuberant and ornate, Tranströmer provided a nice change of pace. His poetry has an austere beauty to it, still and serene like the winter nights which so often provide the setting for his poems. Two of my favorites are “C Major” and “Allegro” (translated here by Robin Fulton).
That’s all for now. If you’ve read any of these books, let me know what you thought of them, and feel free to share some of your favorite books of 2018 in the comments.
It seems remiss on my part that I’ve written nine poem essays for this site so far and not one of them has been about John Donne. After all, Donne is one of my favorite poets, and one of the writers who got me interested in poetry in the first place.
It’s almost as if there are two John Donnes: there’s the—ahem—eager young poet who wrote racy seduction ballads and there’s the sober old minister examining himself and his conscience before a terrifying though merciful God. Even more fascinating than the fact that this contrast exists in the same poet is when the two personalities overlap, as they do in Holy Sonnet XIV, otherwise known as “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. I, like an usurp’d town to another due, Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end; Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue. Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain, But am betroth’d unto your enemy; Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
From the very first word, this poem already has a loud, brash sound that distinguishes it from most of the other Holy Sonnets, and from most sonnets in general: “BATT-er my HEART three-PERson’d GOD.” Not only is he changing the traditional sonnet meter, but the particular word he uses is almost onomatopoeic—it sounds like something or someone being hit.
In an essay on Holy Sonnet XIV, Professor John Alba Cutler notes that the words “knock, breathe, shine” could be viewed as references to all three persons of the Trinity: “the Father knocks at the door, the Holy Spirit is the breath of life, and the Son (pun on ‘sun’) shines.” This sounds like a valid interpretation to me, though my first impression was that “knock” referred to the Son, while “shine” referred to the Father. “Knock,” for me, calls to mind Christ’s words to the backslidden church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation, chapter 3: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (English Standard Version). As for “shine,” the Old Testament is full of passages which describe the face of God as “shining.” To this day, one of the traditional Jewish blessings begins “May the Lord bless and keep you, may the Lord make his face to shine upon you,” repeating the words of Numbers chapter 6. That said, the Son/sun pun does seem like something Donne would write. I do think that either interpretation is valid. The main point that Donne wants to emphasize is that so far the whole power of the Trinity has tried to win him back to God, but through the gentlest means possible.
In line 4, the same operations appear again, but in a more intense form: “That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” Don’t just knock on my door, he says to God, break it down. Don’t just caress me with your wind, blow me over. Don’t just shine on me, burn me with your ferocity. He cries out for a more intense experience of God, even if that experience destroys him.
The next two lines are a little odd in that they combine some unlike imagery: “I, like a usurp’d town to another due, / Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end.” “Usurp’d town” describes Donne’s struggle against sin in terms of war, picturing his soul as a city that the enemy has invaded and occupied. The next line, however, brings to my mind ideas of childbirth: “Labour to admit you.” The new man, the new, holy John Donne, is trying to be born, but cannot while sin oppresses him. Here, the first of many times in this poem, Donne casts himself as a helpless woman and God as the strong man who protects her.
In lines 7 and 8: “Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend / But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.” Here, I think we can see some influence of the Protestant Reformation on John Donne. Donne had been raised in a Catholic family, but by the time he wrote the Holy Sonnets in the early 1600s, he was in the process of converting to the Anglican church, where he would eventually serve as a minister until his death in 1631. One of the main issues that divided Catholics and Protestants was the issue of church authority. To give a very brief summary, the Catholic Church believed that the responsibility for interpreting Scripture and setting church doctrine and practices laid in a combination of the Bible, church tradition, and a rigid hierarchy of priests, deacons, bishops, and archbishops. The Reformers disagreed. According to Reformation scholar Steven Lawson, the Reformers taught that “There are only three possible forms of spiritual authority. First, there is the authority of the Lord and His written revelation. Second, there is the authority of the church and its leaders. Third, there is the authority of human reason.” The Reformers believed that reason was given to men by God so that they could rightly discern his will and learn his commandments. However, they did not discount the possibility that reason too could be corrupted by sin and lead the Christian astray, as Donne writes about here.
Returning to the war imagery of a few lines ago, Donne writes that he is “betroth’d unto your enemy.” Once again, Donne is the helpless woman, carried away like a prize and in need of a rescuer. The last four lines, easily the most famous in the poem, make up a sort of wild, desperate plea to have God take total possession of him, to “imprison” him if need be, and even to “ravish” him:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
It’s a bold choice to write about the Lord Almighty that way, but Donne had his reasons. Pointing to the examples of love poetry found in the Bible’s Song of Songs, he once preached in a sermon, “Solomon, whose disposition was amorous, and excessive in the love of women, when he turn’d to God, he departed not utterly from his old phrase and language, but having put a new, and a spiritual tincture, and form and habit into all his thoughts, and words, he conveys all his loving approaches to God, and all God’s answers to his amorous soul….” Donne believed, like King Solomon, that effusive, even erotic, language was not for the domain of worldly poetry only, but could even be applied to God Himself. If we truly love God beyond all other people and things, then we should not be afraid to express that love in the strongest and most passionate language possible.
And that gets to the heart of one of the main reasons why I love this poem, and Donne’s poetry overall: there is an absolute fearlessness in the way Donne writes. There’s a sense of daring in his form, language, and even in the subject matter. Where other writers may hold the reader at arm’s length, he instead invites us into his heart, into the center of his struggle to overcome sin and accept grace. There’s a vulnerability to what he writes, but also an endlessly inventive wit that is surprising—and maybe a little bit shocking—even today. There is simply no one else like him.
While reading things by and about Jorge Luis Borges, the name Adolfo Bioy Casares comes up fairly often. He was a close friend and collaborator of Borges’s and shared many of his writing interests, among them fantasy literature, adventure stories, and metaphysical fiction. His most famous book, The Invention of Morel, combines elements of all three into 103 brief pages.
Unfortunately, to say all that I want to say about this book requires that I give much of the plot away. So, consider yourself warned.
After being wrongfully convicted of a crime, our unnamed protagonist (sometimes referred to as “the Fugitive”) escapes to a deserted island somewhere around Polynesia. All is very quiet until one day when a boat arrives carrying a group of vacationers. Initially, the main character tries to avoid these people, afraid that they might turn him in to the police. Soon, though, obsession surpasses paranoia when he finds himself falling in love with one of the vacationers, a woman named Faustine. He tries to speak to Faustine and to give her gifts, only to find every time that she behaves as though she can’t see or hear him. After following the group for some time, the Fugitive learns that these people aren’t really people at all: they are projections of people. Morel, the man who organized the trip, is a scientist who has invented what he calls “a new kind of photograph”: a machine that records people and places, with all of their sensory details, in three dimensions, then artificially recreates that particular moment in time. What the Fugitive has been watching is not a group of people on vacation but rather the “record” that Morel took of their vacation, played over and over by machines hidden on the island.
Casares first conceived of this story after becoming infatuated with the American film star Louise Brooks, whose photo adorns the cover of the NYRB edition of The Invention of Morel. He never met Brooks, of course, and he quickly realized that he was not in love with a woman at all but with the idea of her that he saw projected in her films and in the publicity surrounding them. It almost goes without saying that the central fear of the story—that we could mistake mere appearance for reality—is possibly even more relevant in our day than it was in 1940. Not only are we inundated with film and print media just as Casares was, but we also have the internet, on to which people can project any image they wish of themselves or of others.
And it’s not just the folly of mistaking projection for reality that concerns Casares: it’s also the possibility that we could knowingly embrace the projection while discarding its corresponding reality. This idea plays out in Morel when the Fugitive learns Morel’s reason for making the record in the first place. Apparently, Morel was in love with Faustine and she did not return his affection. Because he couldn’t be with her in real life, Morel brought her and all of her friends to the island and recorded them so that he and Faustine could be together forever, at least in appearance.
But it’s more sinister than that: after experimenting with the machines that take and project the “photographs,” the Fugitive finds out that whatever and whoever is photographed eventually disintegrates, like an old wax record played too many times. This means that all of the people from the record of the vacation, including Morel himself, are now dead. Morel knew this would happen before he brought his friends to the island, but he was so in love with Faustine and so obsessed with the idea of existing eternally by her side in some fashion that he did it anyway, without letting anyone know what was going on. He essentially murdered her, and everyone else, so that his fantasy would not have to yield to an inconvenient reality.
It is a very dramatic turn of events, but in its exaggeration, it highlights a very common, very human problem: we don’t like to see what is right in front of our faces. We would prefer to surround ourselves with projections—of what we’ve believed to be true, or what we wish were true, or what others say is true—than to actually face truth. Another drawback of modern media is that it has made it easier than ever for us to wall ourselves off from anything that conflicts with our preferred view of the world. But this is by no mean a problem that technology created. Resistance to what we wish were not true is a part of human nature. It’s only when we make the choice to look outside of our own point of view that we can engage honestly with the world and the people in it.
This is what great fantasy literature does: weaves a spell not so that we can disconnect from the world but so that we can learn to see it more clearly. This is what The Invention of Morel does and why it is such a great novel.
Translators: James E. Irby, Donald A. Yates, John Fine, Harriet de Onís, Julian Palley, Dudley Fitts, L. A. Murillo, and Anthony Kerrigan
Original Language: Spanish
Year of First Publication: 1962
Year of Publication for This Edition: 2007
Number of Pages: 256
Publisher: New Directions
Genre: Fiction and nonfiction
Sub-genre: Fantasy, short stories, essays
Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.
In C. S. Lewis’s memoirSurprised byJoy, he recalls his first time reading Phantastes by George MacDonald and what a huge impact that novel had on him: “it is as if I had been carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new.” Words like that come to mind when I think of Labyrinths. It feels like a sort of Rubicon has been crossed, like I’ll never read any book—and especially not any book of fantasy—the same way again.
One of the things that makes Borges a unique writer is that, similar to John Donne in poetry, he considers thinking to be an aesthetically important act in itself. So where Donne likes to play with the implications of an outrageous comparison, Borges explores the contours of an outrageous idea. What if a man could remember every minute detail of everything he had ever seen? What if the universe was one enormous library? What if a man could create another man by dreaming him into existence? Big, strange, impossible ideas like this occupy the majority of this book, giving it the kind of upside down and utterly new vision of the world that I love to read about.
These stories infinitely reward rereading. It’s only on the second or third time that you start to notice the extremely subtle foreshadowing and the little details that reveal even further depths of the characters and the situations they face. At least one of those rereads should be done with Google (or a pile of reference books, if that’s more your thing) on hand to find out what all of the allusions and references mean. Borges was an incredibly well-read man, practically an expert in English- and Spanish-language literature, as well as having vast knowledge of many more obscure areas of study. Once you begin to unravel some of the references, you uncover yet another layer of meaning to the story. It’s true that many of these stories involve similar themes, images, tropes, and even the same characters sometimes. At the same time, this book has a vastness to it that is inexhaustible.
To point out a few stories that especially stand out to me:
“The Circular Ruins” – It’s one thing to write about creation, hubris, and the limits of human achievement. It’s another thing entirely to make a person feel genuine awe and terror at these things. Loosely based on the myth of Pygmalion, this story concerns a sorcerer who travels to the remote ruins of an ancient temple where he hopes to create a man by dreaming him. It is easily my favorite story in the book.
“Death and the Compass” – Borges’s parody of/homage to the detective fiction genre. Borges was an ardent admirer of G. K. Chesterton, and this story is slightly reminiscent of Chesterton stories like “The Blue Cross.” Of course, the weird metaphysical twist at the end is all Borges.
“The Zahir” – This story concerns a man who falls under the diabolical influence of a mystical coin. It takes part of its inspiration from Tennyson’s “Flower in the crannied wall,” one of my favorite poems, and explores Tennyson’s ideas about God and reality in more depth. I’ve probably reread this one more times than any other story in the book.
Labyrinths is not only stories though: Borges was a prolific essayist and this book collects ten of his essays as well. Not only do these help to give a fuller picture of Borges scope as a writer, many of them also act almost as companion pieces to one or more of the stories. “The Mirror of Enigmas,” for instance, recalls “The Zahir,” while “Valéry as Symbol,” about the French symbolist poet Paul Valéry, brings to mind “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”
Ultimately, I ended up loving the first few stories I read in this so much that I bought Borges’s Collected Fictions and began reading that before I was even halfway done with Labyrinths. I am quite in love with these books now and I plan to remain so.
Translation can be a controversial topic, and poetry translation is even more so. In any act of translation, the obstacles posed by the two languages’ differing histories, cultural contexts, and nuances of meaning can be almost insurmountable. Add to that the fact that the very existence of a poem depends on its being intimately involved with the features of its own language. Sound, rhythm, denotation, connotation, and even the histories of individual words or phrases can all carry meaning. To move a poem from one language to another and keep the poetic aspects of it is nearly impossible. Some believe that it is impossible. I personally prefer to take a more optimistic view: will Baudelaire in English ever be the same as Baudelaire in French? Of course not. Can we hope that some intrepid Anglophone might create for us, if not the same thing, at least something similar to the experience of Baudelaire in French? I think so.
An ideal poetry translator should, as far as he is able, respect the form, sound, and wording of the original poem. At the same time, he should make it pleasant to read as English verse. One translator who succeeded marvelously at that was Richard Wilbur. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States, Wilbur is justly heralded for his original poetry, but he has also translated dozens of poets from French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. He never, to my knowledge, published a book dedicated solely to translations, but scattered throughout his collections are gems like “L’invitation au voyage,” works that, without completely sacrificing lexical and formal fidelity, still capture some of the original’s beauty in English.
Mon enfant, ma soeur, Songe à la douceur D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble ! Aimer à loisir, Aimer et mourir Au pays qui te ressemble ! Les soleils mouillés De ces ciels brouillés Pour mon esprit ont les charmes Si mystérieux De tes traîtres yeux, Brillant à travers leurs larmes.
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, Luxe, calme, et volupté.
Des meubles luisants, Polis par les ans, Décoreraient notre chambre; Les plus rares fleurs Mêlant leurs odeurs Aux vagues senteurs de l’ambre, Les riches plafonds, Les miroirs profonds, La splendeur orientale, Tout y parlerait À l’âme en secret Sa douce langue natale.
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, Luxe, calme, et volupté.
Vois sur ces canaux Dormir ces vaisseaux Dont l’humeur est vagabonde; C’est pour assouvir Ton moindre désir Qu’ils viennent du bout du monde. — Les soleils couchants Revêtent les champs, Les canaux, la ville entière, D’hyacinthe et d’or; Le monde s’endort Dans une chaude lumière.
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, Luxe, calme, et volupté.
My child, my sister, dream How sweet all things would seem Were we in that kind land to live together, And there love slow and long, There love and die among Those scenes that image you, that sumptuous weather. Drowned suns that glimmer there Through cloud-disheveled air Move me with such a mystery as appears Within those other skies Of your treacherous eyes When I behold them shining through their tears.
There, there is nothing else but grace and measure, Richness, quietness, and pleasure.
Furniture that wears The luster of the years Softly would glow within our glowing chamber, Flowers of rarest bloom Proffering their perfume Mixed with the vague fragrances of amber; Gold ceilings would there be, Mirrors deep as the sea, The walls all in an Eastern splendor hung — Nothing but should address The soul’s loneliness, Speaking her sweet and secret native tongue.
There, there is nothing else but grace and measure, Richness, quietness, and pleasure.
See, sheltered from the swells There in the still canals Those drowsy ships that dream of sailing forth; It is to satisfy Your least desire, they ply Hither through all the waters of the earth. The sun at close of day Clothes the fields of hay, Then the canals, at last the town entire In hyacinth and gold: Slowly the land is rolled Sleepward under a sea of gentle fire.
There, there is nothing else but grace and measure, Richness, quietness, and pleasure.
The French language poses some interesting challenges for poetry translators. Not only do the French measure lines differently than we do in English (counting syllables instead of beats per line), they also have far more rhymes than we do. There is a clear and tight rhyme scheme in Baudelaire’s original, but the limitations of English often mean that translators either have to forgo rhyming altogether or else say something strange and unwieldy to get the rhymes to work. (For example, the beginning of Roy Campbell‘s translation of the same poem: “My daughter, my sister, / Consider the vista / Of living out there, you and I, / To love at our leisure, / Then, ending our pleasure, / In climes you resemble to die.”) Part of the brilliance of Wilbur is that he’s able not just to imitate the meter of the original but also to preserve the original rhyme scheme without feeling forced or unnatural.
Of course, this requires that some adjustments be made to the wording. Even so, whatever changes Wilbur makes still strive to match the spirit and the ideas of the original. For instance, an interview he gave in 1988 has him defending his use of the word “kind” in line 3: “Were we in that kind land to live together.” The original French line, translated literally, reads, “Of going there to live together.” There’s no equivalent word for “kind.” Wilbur explains:
What I’ve done there has been to reach down into the rest of the poem where Baudelaire talks about this land which would mirror the soul and anticipate that idea by the word “kind,” which suggests “akin.”
The land is kind not just in that it pleases the speaker but also because it is of the same “kind” as him. A sort of kindred spirit with him. It, in a way, has its own personality and its own soul that seem to complement his. He has the feeling that this is where he truly belongs.
One of the trickier lines to render in this poem is line 6: “Au pays qui te ressemble.” A literal translation of that line could read either “in the country that resembles you” or “in the country that is like you.” Taking the line out of its original context, either translation would work because “ressemble” can refer to similarities either in physical appearance or in character and behavior. So, when translating to English, the question is which sense did Baudelaire mean to use? Or did he want to evoke both? And if he did, how to represent that in English?
Some translators go with the closest etymological cousin of “ressemble,” which of course is “resemble”: “in that land that resembles you” (Keith Waldrop). This, however, flattens the comparison, locking it into the realm of the visual only when there are other, more interesting possibilities available in the French word. That’s why Wilbur’s choice of “image” for “ressemble” is so brilliant: “image” keeps the idea of a shared physical beauty at the fore, but it also suggests a spiritual similarity between the woman and this country. Think of the phrase “he’s remaking [x] in his own image”: this doesn’t mean that x looks like this person, but rather that it now reflects his ideas and values. Similarly, the Christian/Jewish idea that humans bear the “image of God” does not mean that human beings are visual facsimiles of God per se, but rather that they share spiritual attributes in common with him.
So “image” has more to say than “resemble.” If the land “images” the lady, she, like the narrator, is “akin” to it, sharing not just its outward beauty but also its mysteriousness (Wilbur, lines 7-11), its storminess (9-12), and perhaps sometimes its “grace and measure.”
Another Wilburism that especially stands out is at the end of the fifth stanza:
The sun at close of day Clothes the fields of hay, Then the canals, at last the town entire In hyacinth and gold: Slowly the land is rolled Sleepward under a sea of gentle fire.
In the original French, translated as literally as I know how:
The setting suns
Clothe the fields,
The canals, the entire city
In hyacinth and gold;
The world falls asleep
In a warm light.
As you can see, the language, especially of those last couple of lines, is not quite as ornamented as Wilbur’s verse. And yet, I think the ornamentation serves this poem well. Of course, “Sleepward under a sea of gentle fire” is much more interesting and much more memorable than “In a warm light,” but Wilbur never adds to poems unless he believes the addition is justified by the poem itself. In this case, I think we can see that it is.
The first stanza introduces us to a couple in love, but it also gives us reason to wonder what goes on behind the scenes. The speaker has a tender regard for this woman, calling her—in an echo of the Song of Songs—“My child, my sister.” The mention of “treacherous eyes” lets us know that, despite this regard, she has hurt him in someway in the past, perhaps through infidelity. She too must have some cause to be unhappy in the relationship if her eyes are “shining through their tears.”
And yet in spite of this unhappiness, they stay together. The speaker even says that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her: “There love and die.” They don’t want to give each other up, even if the result causes them pain.
So it is a deep love, but not an untroubled one. Passionate, but with the kind of passion that hurts both the lover and the beloved. It is a “sea of gentle fire.” How can fire, so destructive to everything in its path, be “gentle”? How can two people love each other and still make each other unhappy? With this new metaphor, Wilbur touches ever so briefly and elegantly on the paradox inherent in this poem.
That’s all for now. Let me know in the comments what you thought about this poem, and of my analysis of it. If you can recommend me any other pretty French poems (originals or translations), mention those too!
“Growing up in America, I was made to think poetry is useless, that it’s dead or elitist or merely decorative. In Iran, meanwhile, there is no higher art form. Poets aren’t just venerated—they are loved. Everyone seems to have a favorite poet and can recite whole poems by heart. Iranians know that when you memorize a poem it becomes part of you. You carry it with you, even if in fragments, even in another country”: on the work of the controversial Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad.
Finally, I’m currently reading (and loving) Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths so my friend Matthew recommended this to me: a slightly strange and fascinating interview that Borges gave to William F. Buckley in 1977.
I glanced round the bus. Though the windows were closed, and soon muffed, the bus was full of light. It was a cruel light. I shrank from the faces and forms by which I was surrounded. They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities but of impossibilities, some gaunt, some bloated, some glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams; but all, in one way or another, distorted and faded. One had a feeling that they might fall to pieces at any moment if the light grew much stronger. Then—there was a mirror on the end wall of the bus—I caught sight of my own.
And still the light grew.
As I mentioned in last month’s “Bookish Links” post, I’m participating in an online book club started by Joy Clarkson of the podcast Speaking with Joy. Basically, we read two chapters of The Great Divorce every week, Joy posts questions about the chapters on social media, and then we answer them and discuss what we read. Joy has studied this book inside and out, so the discussions she starts and the insight she provides—through her blog and her podcast—are incredibly illuminating. It’s also really fun to study this book with other Lewis fans.
The club is currently up to chapter eight out of fourteen, but since this book is so short and the material was so interesting to me, I decided to read it straight through.
The story begins with our narrator (who, though he is never named, appears to be Lewis himself) wandering around a dreary gray town at sunset. He comes across a group of people waiting at a bus stop and decides to join the queue, if only so that he won’t be alone anymore. When the bus finally comes, it whisks these lost souls away to a new and strange place, one that is larger, brighter, and feels altogether more real than anywhere else they have ever been. The narrator soon finds out that he and his fellow passengers were in Hell before and have been allowed to take a sort of “holiday” in Heaven. They can even stay in Heaven if they want to; the problem is most of them don’t want to. Between their misguided loves, their cynicism, and, most of all, their selfishness, it takes nothing short of a miracle to get these people into Heaven for good.
I think James Motter, a C. S. Lewis scholar, probably summed it up best: “if it is solely entertainment you seek, there are better books. We read [The Great Divorce] instead for the light it sheds on Lewis’s theology.” That’s not to say that the book holds no entertainment or artistic value whatsoever. On the contrary, the ideas Lewis discusses would undoubtedly lose some of their power and clarity if Lewis had stuck to his usual apologetic prose. The imaginative elements in this book are part of the argument. Nevertheless, I do believe that Lewis is writing to explain and educate more than to entertain. Without pretending to give a factual account of what Heaven is like, Lewis instead uses this story as a parable to talk about salvation. The story consists mostly of our protagonist observing interactions between the souls from Hell (he calls them “Ghosts”) and the residents of Heaven—the “Spirits”—who desperately want to bring the Ghosts over to the other side.
So, if you’re looking for a rip-roaring fantasy yarn, this may not be your book. If, however, you are interested in Christian ideas about Heaven, Hell, and human desire, read on.
One of the defining features of Lewis’s Hell is the lack of any sort of community. As the narrator observes when he first joins the queue, even the couples can’t get along with each other for very long and everyone is constantly bickering and sniping at each other. Once the bus ride is underway, we learn from one Ghost—the narrator calls him “the Intelligent Man”—that, typically, the longer a person stays in Hell, the further they remove themselves from their neighbors:
“As soon as anyone arrives, he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing.” [Chapter 2]
Naturally, some residents of Hell have noticed this lack of camaraderie and believe it is a problem. But their ideas for solving it couldn’t be further from the spirit of true community. For instance, the “Intelligent Man” hopes to start a market-based economy in Hell by bringing items back with him from Heaven and selling them. “If they needed real shops,” he reasons, “chaps would have to stay near where the real shops were. If they needed real houses, they’d have to stay near where builders were. It’s scarcity that enables a society to exist. Well, that’s where I come in.” He describes his role in this scheme as that of a “public benefactor,” when his motive is clearly personal economic gain. He’s not as interested in a real community of people who help and care for each other as he is in finding a customer base to make money off of.
Another Ghost the narrator meets on the bus is identified as the “Tousle-Headed Poet,” a former writer and Marxist agitator. He tells the narrator that he’s going to Heaven in hopes of finding “Recognition” and “Appreciation” for his (alleged) talents as a poet, decrying the “appalling lack of any intellectual life” in Hell. He describes his failed attempts to form a writing society in Hell, before assuring the narrator that, of everyone on the bus, he is the only one who will be staying in Heaven permanently. In his mind, he is the only one of them who is sophisticated enough to appreciate Heaven.
So where the Intelligent Man’s main motive for seeking community was based in profit, this poet’s motive is to find a group of people who will praise him and acknowledge his perceived superiority. In either case, their motives stem primarily from love of the self.
And to Lewis, that’s the main problem that these souls need to overcome if they are going to stay in Heaven: they must forget themselves, their works, their sin, and leave everything behind for the sake of God and his love. One really interesting point that Joy has brought up in the course of the book club is how Lewis’s ideas here complement those of St. Augustine in his book City of God. According to Augustine, human beings only exercise two kinds of love: love of God and love of the self. Even when we love other people, we either are loving them “in” God (in such a way that pleases him and draws us closer to him) or we are exercising self-love (loving a person not for their own sake but for what they can do for us). And because it is ultimately our loves that motivate us to act, all of our actions become either a way of serving and drawing closer to God or a way of serving ourselves. “Friend,” a Spirit begs one of the Ghosts once it reaches Heaven, “can you just for one moment think of something other than yourself?” The point here is not to obliterate the self, as some philosophies and religions teach we must do: rather, to enjoy communion with God, God must be foremost in the worshiper’s mind and heart. When we pass out of love of self and into love of God, Lewis says, it is only then that we can find rest and fulfillment.
As Joy has taken the care to highlight during the book club, this story draws on many different sources. The whole idea that “the damned have holidays” was inspired by the ancient theologian Tertullian, who believed that all souls, saved and unsaved alike, will reside in Hell until the Final Judgment. However, he wrote, the saved are sometimes permitted to experience Heaven temporarily, as a means of “refreshing” their souls. Lewis tweaks that idea slightly, instead presenting a situation in which the souls of the unsaved to visit Heaven and given the choice to stay.
Given Lewis’s background has a scholar of medieval literature, it’s not surprising that there are some Dantean influences on the story too. The narrator even has an angelic guide to lead him through Heaven in the form of George MacDonald, a nineteenth-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. MacDonald’s writing was a huge influence on Lewis throughout his career, especially as a young man. In his memoir Surprised by Joy, Lewis credits MacDonald’s novel Phantaseswith “baptising” his imagination so that he could better understand the idea of holiness as presented in the Bible. Lewis even takes a quotation from MacDonald’s sermon “The Last Farthing” as the epigram of The Great Divorce:
No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it—no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather!
Even the title of the book itself has its roots in another author. As Lewis explains in his preface to The Great Divorce, the title was inspired by William Blake’s poetry collection The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. While not necessarily responding to the work directly, Lewis did want to write about the “divorce” of Heaven and Hell, and to describe why they are and must always be considered completely separate entities. “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth),” he writes, “we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”
But in the very next sentence,
I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) has not been lost: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in the “High Countries.”
And that’s another Lewisian theme we see in this book: God as the ultimate satisfaction of all human desire.
I think it would be fair to say that the concept of desire is a dominant theme across Lewis’s work. He wrote about it extensively in Surprised by Joy, and returned to the topic many times throughout the years. He understood the longing that most feel for something bigger than and beyond themselves, and he knew that nothing found on earth could satisfy that longing permanently. And so, while he does often employ reasoned arguments to prove the claims of Christianity, a good portion of his writing—in this and other books—addresses that longing in particular as well.
Lewis was a firm believer that art could be a means of pointing souls toward where they needed to go in order to fulfill this desire. And so, while the book isn’t quite the type of novel I was expecting, it is still very artful. It weaves layers and layers of symbolism and imagery together to try to represent imaginatively what would be much harder to represent conceptually.
A perfect example of this is in the descriptions of Heaven itself. When the Ghosts first arrive in Heaven, they find that the grass is too rigid for their feet to bend it. It actually hurts them to stand on it for too long. They also find that the light in Heaven is so strong that they can see through other Ghosts as if they were pieces of paper held up to a lamp. What all of this is saying is that, compared with sin-stained creation, God is much realer and more solid even than the physical world as we know it. He is saying that with God, things and people become more “solid,” more lasting, as God himself is everlasting.
It’s one thing to try to explain the point that God is the true reality. But in Lewis’s writing, decked as it is in the imagery that he’s known for, it becomes much clearer and much more real to the reader. Lewis doesn’t bypass the imagination for the sake of the brain, he tries to treat both of them at once.
That’s not always something you get from Christian teachers. Many Christians grow up in the belief that Christianity is primarily an affair of the brain, a series of mental apprehensions which eventually lead to the salvation of your soul. There is very little in this brand of Christianity to address the heart, the imagination, the emotions, or the senses. What Lewis presents instead in this book is an idea of faith that encompasses the whole person. “[H]itherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect,” one of the Spirits tells a skeptical Ghost. “I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom.” Lewis believes that God wants the whole person to be saved and transformed—mind, spirit, and body—and so he tries to involve as much of the person as possible, including the imagination and, through his keen sensory descriptions, the body as well.
That’s one of the things that intrigues me about Lewis and his approach to apologetics. That’s why I read this and will keep on reading him for a long time.
Joy Clarkson, of the podcast Speaking withJoy, is running an online book club for C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce! We’re five chapters in already, but the chapters are short so there’s time to catch up. More info here.
“In his oeuvre, ecstatic tones mixed with sober reflection; there was no easy way to classify this poetry—it burst taxonomies. It was not ‘nature poetry,’ it was not a ‘poetic meditation on History,’ neither was it ‘autobiographical lyric’—it was all of those. The ambition of this poet knew no limits; he tried to drink in the cosmos”: Adam Zagajewski on discovering Czesław Miłosz’s banned poetry as a young man in Poland, and why he “can’t write a memoir of Czesław Miłosz.”
On this wine-bowl—beaten from the purest silver, made for Herakleides’ white-walled home where everything declares his perfect taste— I’ve placed a flowering olive and a river, and at its heart, a beautiful young man who will let the water cool his naked foot forever. O memory: I prayed to you that I might make his face just as it was. What a labour that has turned out to be. He fell in Lydia fifteen years ago.
For those unfamiliar with him, C. P. Cavafy (born Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis) was a Greek poet who lived from 1863 to 1933. Despite spending most of his life in Egypt, Cavafy was fascinated by his family’s homeland and his poems are filled with influences from Greek history, mythology, and culture. This particular poem describes an imagined scene from ancient Greece of a silversmith hard at work on a new krater, a type of vessel for mixing wine with water.
It’s important to understand how personal this piece of work is for the silversmith. Herakleides may have requested a scene of a young man sitting next to a river, but it seems unlikely that he would ask for a portrait of the smith’s friend specifically. After all, Herakleides is upper class and this silversmith is just a hired craftsman. They travel in different circles, which means that he likely never even met the young man. In that case, it was the silversmith himself who decided to put the man’s portrait on the bowl.
So, if the task is simply to carve a picture of young man, why did he choose to carve this young man? Obviously, a person likes to keep pictures of the people they love, just to remember them by. But I think there is another reason why he might have decided to do this, one that has to do with the deeper ideas underlying this poem.
One theme that seems to occur often in literature, and especially in poetry, is the idea that art negates death. We see it in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55, where he promises to make his mistress immortal through his poetry, and in Donne’s “The Canonization,” in which the speaker looks forward to the glory and honor that he and his lady will amass for themselves after death thanks to this poem. Going further back to ancient Greece itself, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is often interpreted as the story of the artist’s attempt to achieve immortality through art. I think our craftsman was attempting a similar thing with his bowl. Somewhere in him, there was the hope (however vague it might have been) that, if he could capture the man’s likeness in silver, it would be like capturing a bit of him. Whether anyone remembered the man or not, whether anyone knew his name, this bowl would go on preserving some semblance of him, even after the craftsman and everyone else who knew him was dead.
But the smith can’t do it. His memory is faulty. Like Orpheus on his journey to the Underworld, it’s not the art itself that fails per se, but the person practicing it.
So there is a sort of moral here: don’t make art a god. Though it can help to guard things and people from oblivion, it will never be perfect until the people creating it are. It’s an idea that I think I personally need to be reminded of from time to time, given the fact that so much of my life revolves around writing and poetry. At the same time, this poem speaks to me on a purely emotional level, oddly enough because of its unemotional exterior.
Whether this is the result of my reading him in translation or not, I’ve always gotten the feeling from Cavafy that he can be very dry (in the best sense) and matter-of-fact. There’s a real anguish that’s being communicated here, but not in the torrents of language you might find in, for instance, Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., nor even in the cavalcade of images and metaphors one finds in a piece like Auden’s “Stop all the clocks.” Cavafy’s language is terse. It’s minimal. Until the craftsman addresses “memory” to complain about his unanswered prayer, the poem consists almost entirely of a recitation of facts, a description of outward realities. This affects the experience of reading the poem, but it also affects the way we read the speaker.
Because the grief, and the reaction to the grief, is described here in such brief and vague terms, it frees the reader to bring her own emotions and experiences to the poem. The speaker tells us very little about the deceased and even less about himself. As for the speaker’s own feelings, they are suggested but never overtly described. By leaving the details of the speaker’s emotional state unsaid, Cavafy allows his readers to put some of their own experience into the piece. He makes the poem personal for everyone who reads it.
Of course, this craftsman is not a completely blank slate onto whom the reader can project anything she wants. There are a few clues to who he is and what he’s feeling, and the sparseness of the language is one of them. When I read this poem, short and to-the-point as it is, I get the impression of a speaker who is entirely done. He is worn with grief and has no desire to continue explaining himself to others, as if they deserved an explanation. He avoids talking about anything interior to him, as the focus on outward objects and realities suggests.
And really, that avoidance of interiority gets to the heart of what this poem is about: this speaker looks to external reality as a sort of refuge, both from grief and from forgetting. At the same time that this poem points to the limits of poetry, I think of it as a sort of ars poetica too, explaining why poets—and artists in general—are motivated to make art. And in this case, they make art to honor the things and people they love. To preserve memories and to give those things a physical presence outside of the artist. In a way, he’s trying to do what I try to do every time I sit down to write one of these essays: he wants to externalize his love, give it a shape and a form in the real world so that it no longer exists only in his own head.
So while Cavafy critiques the creative impulse, this poem is not anti-art. True, art will never live up to our ideal for it, but it will stand—for a time—as a testament to what we loved and what was important to us. It might make that thing or person important to others too, if they find that the work satisfies something in them as well.
Before I say anything else, let me make it clear that this post’s headline does NOT mean that I think there is anything wrong with “Those Winter Sundays.” On the contrary, Hayden was a genius and that poem is one of the greats. And because it’s so great, it’s starting to become over-familiar. For this list, I wanted to branch out into a few less famous poems, and highlight some modern work that I think is interesting along the way. Sounds OK? Good, let’s begin.
Like “Those Winter Sundays,” this poem sheds a light on a loving but complicated relationship between a father and a son. Amichai’s poetry often points toward a sort of strained relationship—not necessarily with his father himself but certainly with the beliefs his father gave him and the culture he brought him up in. But in this poem, all of those differences give way to a tenderness that is just as much a part of the son as the Ten Commandments he learned as a child, so ingrained in him now that he can’t help repeating them “like an old tune someone hums to himself.”Continue reading “Six Poems about Fathers That Aren’t Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays””
“In Brodsky’s view, politics was one level of human existence, but it was a low rung. The business of poetry, he thought, is to ‘indicate something more … the size of the whole ladder.’ He held that ‘art is not a better, but an alternative existence … not an attempt to escape reality but the opposite, an attempt to animate it.'”: from The Point, an essay on the great Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, and his “moral responsibility to be useless.”