Book Bloggers: An Appreciation

Image by Igor Ovsyannykov.

I’m a bad blogger: while I usually respond to comments on my own site, I often neglect to leave comments on other people’s sites. And that’s not a good thing—a person likes to know when someone appreciates their work, right? So today’s post is all about appreciation for some of my favorite book blogs and bloggers. This isn’t an exhaustive list of all of the blogs I like, just a few in particular that I wanted to highlight.

  • Christopher Adamson from The Golden Echo. Christopher is a PhD candidate studying Victorian literature, but his interests and his writing go far beyond that, into areas of medieval literature, church history, punk rock, and disability issues. His one main topic, though, is the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins (as you might have guessed from his blog’s title). It’s because of this site that I decided to give Hopkins another try after being less than impressed by him in high school. It’s a good site, one that I visit often.
  • Patrick Kurp from Anecdotal Evidence. I probably don’t need to mention this blog because everyone probably reads it already. Still, I thought I’d single it out as one of the rare blogs that A) posts consistently every single day and B) never puts up a bad or boring post.
  • Steven Dodson from Language Hat. This is relatively recent find. Like Anecdotal Evidence, this blog posts nearly every day and it’s always something interesting. Unlike the blogs I’ve mentioned already, this one varies between posts on literature and posts on languages and linguistics. Either way, I love it.
  • Melissa Beck from The Book Binder’s Daughter. Another fairly popular one, and also one of my favorites. Melissa has very eclectic reading tastes: just since I’ve been following her, she’s reviewed correspondence, poetry, philosophy, and plenty of classical literature. Her background in classics gives her extra insight into the works of Greek and Latin literature she reviews.
  • Clarissa from The Stone and the Star. Compared to most, Clarissa’s blog has gotten a lot of notice in the past for her posts on poetry, and rightly so. Not only is she a dedicated student of poetry, both in English and in translation, she’s also a poet and a translator herself: she knows her stuff.
  • Ashok Kara from Rethink. Ashok writes informal but thoughtful essays on the books and poems he loves. His stuff got me interested in writing my own essays on poetry.
  • Marcel from shigekuni. Marcel is a polyglot author who blogs on fiction, poetry, and translation. Having as he does a command of multiple languages (German, English, and French, as far as I know) gives his posts a more global aspect. His is one of the blogs that helped to show me just how narrow my idea of contemporary literature used to be, being limited mostly to what had been written in English.

That’s all for now. Feel free to name some of your favorite bloggers (bookish or otherwise) in the comments!

National Poetry Month 2018

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

In case you didn’t know, April was National Poetry Month in the States. This year, same as last, I decided to celebrate by posting a different poem every day on Twitter. My post collecting all of last year’s poems got a great response, so here I am again with a whole new set of poems!

(There are a few inadvertent repeats from last year. But, as a friend of mine said, some poems are worth repeating.)

April 1: “Lightenings XII” by Seamus Heaney

Though it is technically about Good Friday, I thought it would be fitting to share on Easter too.

From the collection Seeing Things.

April 2: “Spoken For” by Li-Young LeeContinue reading “National Poetry Month 2018”

First Impressions: The Confessions of Saint Augustine

Let the proud deride me, O God, and all whom you have not yet laid low and humiliated for the salvation of their souls; but let me still confess my sins to you for your honor and glory. Allow me, I beseech you, to trace again in memory my past deviations and to offer you a sacrifice of joy. Without you I am my own guide to the brink of perdition. And even when all is well with me, what am I but a creature suckled on your milk and feeding on yourself, the food that never perishes? And what is any man, if he is only man? Let the strong and mighty laugh at men like me: let us, the weak and the poor, confess our sins to you.1

“St. Augustine” by Sandro Botticelli.

I got it in my head about a week ago to start reading the Confessions. I can’t even entirely remember what reminded me of this book that I had heard about for so long but never attempted to read. One day, I’m not thinking about Augustine at all and the next, I have a five Amazon tabs open so I can use the previews to compare some of the major English translations. Like a lot of ancient literature, Confessions is divided into “books.” I have now read four out of thirteen of those books. Whatever the thing was that brought Confessions to my attention again, I’m glad it did.Continue reading “First Impressions: The Confessions of Saint Augustine”

“Like a breath of wind over my soul”: Thoughts on Chekhov’s “The Beauties”

Portrait of Chekhov by his brother Nikolai, 1889.

For a number of reasons, my reading lately has tended away from fiction. Where I used to breeze through a new novel at least every month, now I’m struggling to finish the ones I start. I’m too easily distracted by all the new poetry and nonfiction that I want to read instead. But one fiction author who’s managed to hold my attention all this time is Anton Chekhov. Partly because his works are short, so they don’t take much time away from my other books, and partly because I find he and I are similar in some ways (not many, but some), I’ve gotten more from him than I have from any other fiction writer in a while. Continue reading ““Like a breath of wind over my soul”: Thoughts on Chekhov’s “The Beauties””

Bookish Links — March 2018

Image by Annie Spratt.

 

I hope you’re all well and have a happy Easter tomorrow!

“Glanmore Sonnets, X” by Seamus Heaney

These past two years, I’ve tremendously enjoying taking part in Reading Ireland Month, the annual blog event celebrating Irish literature, movies, music, and culture, hosted by Cathy Brown and Niall McArdle. I’m afraid this year’s contribution won’t match the volume of last year’s, but hopefully you’ll still enjoy this longish essay on one of my favorite Irish poems.

“Glanmore Sonnets, X”
by Seamus Heaney

I dreamt we slept in a moss in Donegal
On turf banks under blankets, with our faces
Exposed all night in a wetting drizzle,
Pallid as the dripping sapling birches.
Lorenzo and Jessica in a cold climate.
Diarmuid and Grainne waiting to be found.
Darkly asperged and censed, we were laid out
Like breathing effigies on a raised ground.

And in that dream I dreamt—how like you this?—
Our first night years ago in that hotel
When you came with your deliberate kiss
To raise us towards the lovely and painful
Covenants of flesh; our separateness;
The respite in our dewy dreaming faces.Continue reading ““Glanmore Sonnets, X” by Seamus Heaney”

Book Review: Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

Year of First Publication: 1967

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2011

Number of Pages: 613

Publisher: Random House

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Biography, history

Find it on the Book Depository. (Disclosure: I’m an affiliate.)


It appears that my interest in Russia is starting to come full-circle. First it was their literature, then their language, and now their history. Olive, one of the most enthusiastic Russophile bloggers I’ve seen yet, highly recommended the work of Robert Massie—and this book in particular—to anyone who is just beginning to study Russian history.

It turned out to be a great recommendation: despite having little prior knowledge of Russian history before the Soviet era, I didn’t find this book at all intimidating or inaccessible. Massie’s almost lyrical prose makes it an even greater pleasure to read. From the very first paragraph, his gifts as a narrator are evident:Continue reading “Book Review: Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie”

Bookish Links — February 2018

Image by Chris Lawton

 

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been updating as frequently. To free up time for other projects, I’ve decided to switch to a biweekly schedule instead of my old weekly one.

See you in March!

Poems for Valentine’s Day

Image by Gaetano Cessati.

It’s become a yearly tradition now for me to post a list of favorite love poems around Valentine’s Day. Lucky for me that Valentine’s Day should fall on a Wednesday this year! Regardless of how you feel about the holiday in general, I hope that you won’t mind looking over some rather incredible poems on the subject of love.

1: “The Greatest Love” by Anna Swir, translated by Czesław Miłosz and Leonard Nathan

In my humble opinion, Anna Swir never got her due. Among her contemporaries in post-World War II Poland, her work was often regarded as distasteful for the frank way in which it deals with sexuality and the female body. These days, she tends to get overshadowed by her more famous countrymen, poets like Miłosz, Herbert, and Szymborska. Here’s hoping that one of these days, she is finally brought out of the shadows.

Like a lot of Swir’s poetry, this poem is very short, and like Swir’s other poems, its brevity is its strength. She understands that some experiences are too powerful and too far beyond human comprehension to do them justice in words and for this reason, she effaces herself as much as possible and tries to let the experience speak through her instead of her speaking for it.

2: “I Loved You Before I Was Born” by Li-Young Lee

Where Swir writes about a love that endures through long periods of time, Lee has in mind instead a love that transcends time—or at least seems to. The speaker readily admits that what he says “makes no sense, I know,” but that doesn’t keep him from feeling as though his love has always existed and will always exist into eternity.

3: “Love” by Ivan Lalic, translated by Francis R. Jones

As in Lee’s poem, the love in this poem is a thing unto itself, a force that is, in a sense, independent of the two people. Unlike in Lee’s poem, however, this speaker knows full well that his love will die with him or with his lover, and it’s that impending disaster—the catastrophe that will end their way of life—that gives the poem a sort of bitter-sweetness: they know it has to end, but the thought of it ending makes it all the more precious.

4: “Six Years Later” by Joseph Brodsky, translated by Richard Wilbur

For me, this poem pairs well with “Love.” To the couples in both poems, their love is all-encompassing and completely changes the way they live their lives. But where Lalic’s poem has a more ethereal feel to it, Brodsky’s brings the focus closer to the here and now, though the poem is no less beautiful for that. While it can seem a bit abstract a times, concrete details like snow, eyelashes, lips, even crumbling wallpaper help the reader to place this couple in time and space. It’s that middle ground that Brodsky finds between the abstract and the concrete that makes this poem work for me, a kind of compromise that all good poems strike. (I might also add that, although most foreign language poems can’t help but become free verse when they enter English, Wilbur has taken great care to translate this one into a regular meter and to preserve the rhyme scheme of the original poem. So, that’s good.)

5: “Your Telephone Call” by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Renata Gorczynski

Here’s another short and sweet one, also by a Polish author. I’ve written about Zagajewski before and the great subtlety of his work—like Swir before him, he knows how to do more with less.

6: “C Major” by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton

In addition to his career as a poet, Tranströmer also had a great passion for music, which can be plainly seen in much of his poetry. Here, the very air seems to play music around the lover in this poem, and the whole world is transfigured by his love.

7: “Motive” by Don Paterson

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Don Paterson is one of the greatest living poets in the world. And while his 2009 collection Rain overall left me feeling cold, there are more than a few gems in it, this being one.

Unlike the other poems on this list so far, this one isn’t so much about love itself as it is about a particular lover: her unknowability and unpredictability. It explores the reality that, no matter how close you are to a person, you never completely understand them. I suppose, in a way, you could say that this poem is about any meaningful relationship.

That’s all for now, but do let me know in the comments what some of your favorite love poems are and what you think of these!

Bookish Links — January 2018

Dostoevsky’s notes from The Brothers Karamazov. Source
  • “His willingness to expose his own process of self-discovery in words and phrases was magical to me—and still is. As an artist, he was the most uncompromising individual I ever met in my life”: the great Mikhail Baryshnikov is currently starring in a one-man show inspired by the poetry of his friend Joseph Brodsky, and the Poetry Foundation interviewed him about it.

The Poets List

I’m always surprised at the ease with which some book bloggers can choose favorites. I find it very difficult to choose just one favorite book, or even one favorite prose writer among the dozens that I read often. Favorite poets, though, is another kettle of fish. After hearing one BookTuber talk about her favorite novel, I realized that, while my list of favorite books or authors is and will probably always be a little hazy, my list of favorite poets is surprisingly clear-cut. I can even rank them, though just a hair’s breadth separates them.

I could spend (and have spent) hours writing about any one of these people, but I’ll try to, as concisely as I can, explain why these three are my favorite poets.

1: Seamus Heaney

Reading Seamus Heaney for the first time marked a sea change for me. Previously, I had—with the exception of W. H. Auden—only read poems 100 years old or older, firmly convinced that all “modern” poetry was post-structuralist crap that was more trouble than it was worth to try to understand. I looked up Heaney after a friend recommended his translation of Beowulf to me. I had never heard of Heaney at this point, and when I read in his translator bio that he had published several collections of poetry, I remember rolling my eyes a little. Oh, another one of those modern poets, I thought. Even so, morbid curiosity led me to look up some of his poems on the Poetry Foundation anyway.

Four years and twelve books later, I have to say that my relationship to poetry is very different, and not just because I’m not engaging in that type of “chronological snobbery” any more. Among other things, reading Heaney changed my ideas about language itself. I was used to talking about the use of “language” in literature and pointing to a specific tone or certain connotations or denotations exploited by the author, but I never really gave much thought to the particular language (perhaps I should say tongue instead) that the poet wrote in: the regional, historical, and social factors that gave rise to his speech. It occurred to me after reading Heaney that, just like the particular words and images themselves, a whole language could be charged with meaning and provide yet another facet with which to reflect the poem’s inner truth.

That then allowed me to better appreciate other poets for whom their mother tongue was an integral part of their identity as poets, particularly Czesław Miłosz.

2: John Donne

I started reading Donne when I was seventeen (an aside for English teachers: if you want teenagers to care about poetry, John Donne is your man). I happened upon this video from a Poetry Out Loud competition of a contestant reciting his “The Canonization.” It was unlike any other poem I had ever read. The rapid-fire show of images and allusions felt like sensory overload, and yet, I loved it. So, I started seeking out other Donne poems. Not only did his strange comparisons and his fast-moving trains of thought continue to delight, but I also found a kindred spirit in his religious poetry. Some Donne fans, I know, tend to think the religious poems are too dark or dour. For me though, at the time, I resonated deeply with Donne’s regret and anxiety in the face of his own sin.

Really, Donne changed my ideas about nearly everything: God, poetry, the body, all of it. The fact that he was willing to embrace subject matter that had previously been deemed “unfit” for poetry showed me how art could encompass all of life and breathe new life into it. His bold declarations of doubt and anxiety regarding his faith, and then his fervent avowal of God’s ultimate power, were a boon to me at a time when I was very doubtful and anxious myself. And his frankness regarding the body in his poetry, and his eagerness to mix the spiritual with the earthly, changed some of the ideas I had previously regarding the place of the physical world in the life of the spirit. In every way, he’s an essential author for me.

3: Czesław Miłosz

Miłosz is the kind of writer I wish I could be, although I know I never will. He has such incredible range in his poetry, taking in the “big picture”—the universal truths underlying the universe and the whole sweeping arc of history—as well as tiny, tactile details of appearance, color, sound, texture. Jane Hirshfield credits him with helping to introduce intellect into modern American poetry—helping make it acceptable for a poet to think out loud in his poems—and I appreciate that aspect of his work too. Like Donne’s metaphysical poems, his embrace of intellect and philosophical themes broadens the horizons of poetry even further.

And then there’s another aspect of his work that I barely even know how to describe: a feeling that I get not just about it, but about everything else after I’ve read it. Adam Zagajewski came close to describing this feeling in a poem titled, aptly enough, “Reading Miłosz”:

Sometimes your tone
transforms us for a moment,
we believe—truly—
that every day is sacred

that poetry—how to put it? —
makes life rounder,
fuller, prouder, unashamed
of perfect formulation.

When I read Miłosz, I get the idea that there’s a whole other dimension to human life—to the life of the mind, the spirit, even of the body—that I didn’t know about before. That sounds very strange, I’m sure, but that’s as well as I can express it.

And there you have it: my three favorite poets of all time. Who are yours? What do think of these three? Let me know in the comments.

Christmas Books

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

It occurred to me recently that, despite getting a ton of books for Christmas, I have yet to mention any of them here. And since it’s likely that some or all of them will show up in future blog posts, here’s an idea of what to expect:

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson Philosophical differences aside, I’m willing to admit that Paterson is one of the best living poets in the world. It was a poem from 40 Sonnets that introduced me to him to begin with, so I’ll be reading these soon.

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby – A veteran screenwriter’s step-by-step guide to becoming a brilliant storyteller. I myself don’t go in much for fiction writing, but I do love literary analysis, and I think Truby’s book will be helpful for learning how to better critique the stories I read.

Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan edited and translated by Pierre Joris – A massive anthology that collects all of the poems from Celan’s last six books and prints them both in the original German and in Joris’s English translations. That’s on top of 200+ pages of commentary by Joris. Although it’s some of Celan’s densest and strangest poetry, I’ve always preferred the late poems to his older work. This has been on my wishlist for a long time. (Also, I just recently found out that it’s out of print now and the cheapest one can buy it for on Amazon is $78. So, I’m really glad I have a copy now.)

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell – Another book that I think will be useful for upping my criticism game. First published in 1947, Hero is a landmark work in mythology studies, describing the trope of the “Hero’s Journey” and how it manifests itself in cultures all over the world.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell – Rilke’s famed correspondence with Franz Kappus, a young Austrian student who wrote to Rilke asking for advice as he embarked on a literary career. I’ve read three of the ten letters and hope to write on it soon. Meanwhile, these letters are making me love Rilke’s poetry even more than before.

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie – This is a joint biography of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and his wife Empress Alexandra. Despite knowing very little about Russian history prior, I got caught up in this book immediately and am now about halfway through. I will definitely review this one later.

Has anyone read any of these? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.

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