Of wisdom, splendid columns of light waking sweet foreheads, I know nothing
but what I’ve glimpsed in my most hopeful daydreams. Of a world without end, amen,
I know nothing, but what I sang of once with others, all of us standing in the vaulted room.
But there is wisdom in the hour in which a boy sits in his room listening
to the sound of weeping coming from some other room of his father’s house,
and that boy was me, and he listened without understanding, and was soon frightened by how the monotonous sobs resembled laughter.
All of this while noon became vast day, while sunlight and the clock gave birth to melancholy,
before the days grew vacant, the sun grew terrible, the clock stopped, and melancholy gave up to grief.
All of this in a dead hour of a dead day, among doors closed for nap or prayer.
Who was weeping? Why? Did the boy fall asleep? Did he flee that house? Is he there now?
Before it all gets wiped away, let me say, there is wisdom in the slender hour which arrives between two shadows.
It is not heavenly and it is not sweet. It is accompanied by steady human weeping, and twin furrows between brows,
but it is what I know, and so am able to tell.
As I wait impatiently for Li-Young Lee’s latest poetry collection The Undressing to come out in February, I’ve been revisiting some of his older work. Rose, published in 1986, was his first book and contains some of my favorites of his poems, among them “From Blossoms” and “Irises.” I didn’t give much thought to “Epistle,” the collection’s opening poem, the first time I read it, but this time, I found it much more compelling. Even the title alone is evocative: the word “epistle” is so seldom used these days outside of a religious context (the Epistles of St. Paul, and so forth) that it’s hard to divorce it from the idea of something timeless. At the same time, “epistle” is just another word for a letter, the intimate correspondence of the writer to his reader. By calling this poem an “epistle,” Lee identifies it both as an address to all people, meant to convey truth, and as a more intimate experience, that of the writer sharing his own unique vision with his readers on a one-to-one basis. If a poem is good, it should be for all times and all people, but also for the individual.
This ties into the main theme of the poem, namely the growth of a young person as he tries to learn about the world. In the opening stanzas, the speaker is thinking of a church, where he used to pray (“… a world without end, / amen”) and sing hymns, with “all of us standing in the vaulted room.” The later stanzas, however, find him in his father’s house, listening to someone weeping in another room. One experience is public, shared with others and performed similarly by countless millions all over the world. The other is unique and private: he might have been the only one in the house that day, and the only one who could hear that weeping. And yet in both experiences, there is wisdom. These two forces—religion and his family’s grief—are the two wellsprings from which his wisdom comes, and therefore, the source of the wisdom that is to be found in his poems. Something specific and private, without the validation of any outside authority, becomes the means of granting him some truth.
I think that’s what poetry—and literature more broadly—tends to do: bring the personal and temporal in contact with the universal and the eternal. The father’s rising early to light the fireplace and polish the shoes is a first lesson in what it means to truly love a person. A bird flying becomes a sort of messenger from God. And in countless love poems, the beloved or the love itself becomes a way of understanding and internalizing truth.
So what was the truth that the speaker gleaned from his experience of another person’s grief? He doesn’t say in so many words. Only that “It is not heavenly and it is not sweet. / It is accompanied by steady human weeping, / and twin furrows between brows”. I like that he leaves that hole in his story, so that the reader, if so inclined, can fill it in with his own ideas or his own experiences. It becomes yet another way of deepening the intimacy between writer and reader. Now, the reader is not only a passive observer in this situation, but an active participant as well. That’s one of the things I love about Lee, the regard he has for his readers. He understands that they, like him, are seeking wisdom and he encourages them to take part in his journey toward it.
These lists just keep getting longer! Per usual for this time of year, here’s a list of classic literary paraphernalia that was released or rediscovered for the first time in 2017. I’ve tried to make this list as complete as possible, but if you know of any other previously “lost” works that were found or published last year, let me know in the comments.
This collection of eighteen short stories was compiled by the Fitzgerald estate and published last April by Simon and Schuster. Gathered from the Fitzgerald archives at Princeton University and from papers belonging to the Fitzgerald family, none of these stories have been published previously, according to the book’s editor, Anne Margaret Daniel.
When his daughters were young, Twain, like any good novelist daddy, used to make up fairy tales to tell them at bedtime. Today, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine is the only one of them that survives in written form. Twain himself never wrote the fairy tale’s ending, so when Doubleday acquired the story early last year, they enlisted the husband-and-wife team of Philip and Erin Stead to finish and illustrate the tale, about a poor boy who goes on an adventure to save a kidnapped prince.
4: The only known video footage of Marcel Proust
This past February, in an edition of the academic journal Revue d’Études Proustiennes, Canadian professor Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan announced that he had recovered the only surviving video footage of the famous French author from the archives at Canada’s National Cinema Center. The film was captured at the 1904 wedding of Élaine Greffulhe, the daughter of Proust’s close friend (and the inspiration behind one of his characters) the Countess Greffulhe. In the film, we see guests descending the steps of the cathedral where the wedding took place. Proust is believed to be the young man walking by himself in a gray suit and a black bowler, or as this French article calls it, a melon hat.
5: Letters and drawings by J. R. R. Tolkien
While these letters and drawings, all of which are housed in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, were not “lost” to scholars, they have never been published before. They will appear this summer in a book titled Tolkien: The Maker of Middle Earth and will include Tolkien’s correspondence with some of his more famous admirers, among them W. H. Auden, Iris Murdoch, and Joni Mitchell.
6: A letter from W. B. Yeats
In 1904, the American photographer Alvin Coburn visited London, where he met Yeats at a dinner party. Enraptured by the impromptu poetry recital that Yeats gave at the party, Coburn asked Yeats if he could recite again while Coburn photographed him. The result was the photo on the right, which Yeats liked so much he used it as his author photo in his next collection of poems. In March of last year, the letter Yeats wrote to Coburn thanking him for the photo was discovered by PhD student Jack Quin in the library of the George Eastman Museum in New York.
7: Notes from “Shakespeare’s first critic”
I’ve always said that the British version of Antiques Roadshow is better, and this just proves it for me: a man from Berkshire, England appeared at the Roadshow with a small notebook that he said had been in his family for several generations. The experts on the show were able to date the book to the early 1600s and found that it contained the author’s notes on and reactions to some of William Shakespeare’s plays. No word yet on what exactly this 17th century critic wrote about the Bard, but, since little or no contemporary criticism of Shakespeare was thought to exist previously, the book is promised to be invaluable in the realm of Shakespeare studies.
8: Unpublished letters from Sylvia Plath
In March 2017, an antiquarian bookseller named Ken Lopez made waves in the literary world when he put a huge cache of materials belonging or relating to Sylvia Plath up for sale. Lopez had acquired these materials from Harriet Rosenstein, a literary scholar who, at one time, had been writing a biography of Plath. In addition to the taped interviews and interview notes that Rosenstein had accumulated, there were dozens of letters from Plath to her friends, including several letters to her former psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Barnhouse. These letters set the literary internet on fire for a few weeks in April, as Plath claims in them that her husband Ted Hughes beat her, causing her to miscarry their second child. A few of these letters appear in Letters of Sylvia Plath, the first volume of which was published last October, while others were completely new finds for researchers and scholars.
9 & 10: “To a Refractory Santa Claus” and “Megrims” by Sylvia Plath
While working on These Ghostly Archives, a book about Plath’s unpublished work, Plath scholars Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg discovered two previously-unknown poems by Plath on a sheet of carbon paper in the archives at Indiana University. These are two early works, written in November of 1956, five months after Plath married Ted Hughes. “To a Refractory Santa Claus” recounts the beautiful Spanish landscapes where she and Hughes spent their honeymoon, while “Megrims” deals explicitly with the experience of illness, both physical and mental.
11: A draft of a Ted Hughes poem, deleted from Birthday Letters
As the Guardian article linked above notes, at the same time Crowther and Steinberg were trying to extract those two Sylvia Plath poems from a mess of typescript, they also found a third poem written by Ted Hughes. This untitled piece was originally intended for his book Birthday Letters, his last full-length collection and the first to openly address his relationship with Plath. Like many of the poems that finally did make it into Birthday Letters, this piece deals with the grief and remorse that Hughes experienced following his wife’s suicide.
12: “Thoughts on Poverty, Misery, and the Great Revolutions of History” by Hannah Arendt
It seems little is known about this essay, originally titled “A Lecture” and found among some papers belonging to Arendt. If it was a lecture that she actually gave somewhere, no one knows where or when. All I’ve been able to find out is that it was written between 1966 and 1967 and was printed for the first time this year at The New England Review and Literary Hub, where you can read it now. This essay will also appear this month in a book titled Thinking without a Bannister: Essays in Understanding.
13: “The Christian in the Modern World” by T. S. Eliot
This one was hard to research too, since The Times Literary Supplement seemed to be the only publication talking about it and I don’t have a subscription to them. If you have one, you can read the lecture here.
Last summer, the Maurice Sendak Foundation announced that a complete picture book by Sendak and his frequent collaborator Arthur Yorinks had been found among Sendak’s papers. According to Lynn Caponera, the president of the Foundation, the illustrations had originally been comissioned in 1990 by the London Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Rikadla, a piece based on a series of Czech children’s poems. About ten years later, after another composer asked to use the illustrations in her show, Sendak revisited the pictures and decided to put them into a book, which he co-wrote with Yorinks. Though a complete draft was written, the authors’ involvement with other projects prevented them from getting it to print. The book is set for release through HarperCollins this September.
15: Bob Dylan concert videos recorded by Allen Ginsberg
During his famous 1965 tour, Bob Dylan was accompanied at least at a few stops by Mr. Ginsberg and his new video camera. The films that Ginsberg shot, which include parts of Dylan’s concerts and some of their backstage chit-chat before and after the shows, were acquired by Standford University in 2015, but until last year, few knew of their existence. They finally got some attention last summer, when an anonymous Youtuber posted the recordings to his channel, only to take them down again a few weeks later. The music magazine Spinnoted a few of the high points of those conversations between Ginsberg and Dylan if you care to take a look.
At one time, George Oppen was thought to be a rising star in American poetry. Having received enthusiastic praise from such poets as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, his first book, Discrete Series, seemed like the start of a brilliant career. But with the coming of World War II, Oppen began to devote more of his life to political activism and did not write any more poetry until the 1960s.
Or did he? Researcher David Hobbs went to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University hoping to find letters that would give him some insight into the writing process behind Discrete Series. Instead, he found a whole manuscript that Oppen had sent to Pound, who then shared it with the poet Louis Zukofsky. The manuscript was published last August. You can read a few of its poems here.
17: An entry from the diary Flannery O’Connor kept in college
Last November, the arts journal Image ran a special issue containing previously-unpublished entries from Flannery O’Connor’s journals. The entries were written in about 1944, before O’Connor became a recognized author, so they reflect her hopes for and fears about her future career. You have to buy the issue to read all of the entries, but a portion of one was republished by Cynthia Haven on her blogThe Book Haven.
18: Five short stories by Kurt Vonnegut
In its October 2017 issue, The Atlantic ran “The Drone King,” a previously-unpublished Kurt Vonnegut story. This and four other unseen stories were recovered from the archives at Indiana University by Dan Wakefield, a friend of Vonnegut’s, and Justin Klinkowitz, a literary scholar studying Vonnegut’s work. All five of these stories were published last November in the new Complete Stories of Kurt Vonnegut.
19: John Donne’s secret satirical paper
Late in 2016, Matthew Payne, the Keeper of Muniments at Westminster Abbey, was going through a large box containing unsorted Latin manuscripts from the abbey’s library. He recognized one paper as a spoof of a library’s catalog, but couldn’t identify its author. A few minutes searching Google (seriously) told him that this was the “Catalogus Librorum Satiricus” (in English, “The Courtier’s Library”), written by John Donne. The document consists of a list of fictional book titles and their synopses, all of which are either crude jokes or wisecracks directed at powerful officials in the church or government. The document is believed to date back to 1603 or ’04. At that time, Donne was working as a lawyer, having lost his previous post with the government after he married his boss’s niece Anne Moore without her family’s permission. A paper like this, which Donne circulated secretly to a small cabal of fans and patrons, probably would have landed Donne in jail, if not on the gallows. The document was publicly displayed at Westminster Abbey in November of 2017, which is why the press didn’t report it until last year.
20: “It’s All Right—He Only Died” by Raymond Chandler
And lastly, magazine editor Andrew Gulli takes what’s now his usual spot on this list, having discovered in 2017 a lost short story by Raymond Chandler. “It’s All Right—He Only Died” was found in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and published last October in Gulli’s magazine The Strand. Written late in Chandler’s career, the story takes a slightly different tack from most of Chandler’s other work: instead of a detective story, “He Only Died” is a social realism piece about the challenges that the poor face in getting healthcare.
“We believed that poetry, the opposite of propaganda, should encourage people to think and feel for themselves: it should appeal to their ‘generous instinct,’ as MacNeice said in the violent 1930s”: the New Statesmanrecently published this lecture by Northern Irish poet Michael Longley on the Troubles and the poetry that came out of it.
If you’ve been on BookTube recently, you probably heard about the “12 Days of Litmas,” created by Adrian at Stripped Cover Lit. Unfortunately, I didn’t find out about it until it was already underway, at which point I thought it would be awkward to join in when I would be two days behind everyone else. So instead, we close out the year at Book Geeks Anonymous by answering each of Adrian’s 12 prompts today.
Like a lot of the people who participated in the 12 Days of Litmas, I had to look up a piece of flash fiction specifically for this challenge. It turns out that this past summer, The New Yorker ran a whole series on flash fiction, which is where I found “I Don’t Need Anything from Here” by László Krasznahorkai. It reads a little more like a prose poem than a short story, but it’s beautiful, and filled to the brim with that sense of sehnsucht that I love.
Day 3: Your favorite short story
“White Nights” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. At just over 20,000 words, it’s probably too long to be considered a “short story,” but it is one of my favorite pieces of short fiction. I love it because it’s about introversion and daydreaming and the difficulties that arise in trying to form meaningful connections with our fellow humans, all topics that interest me very much. I also love the main character for his selflessness, in that he was willing to lose the woman he loved because he knew she would be happier with someone else. Those sorts of love stories aren’t very common, but they’re some of my favorites.
Day 4: Your favorite novel
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, because it (along with some other works) is one of the books that helped me fall in love with literature in the first place. But that’s getting into the Day 6 challenge.
I notice a theme between a lot of my favorite poems: they are often about the tension between the spiritual and the temporal. When I first read this poem, I saw it as a lament on the world’s hostility to anything higher than itself, and it may very well be that too. On rereading it, though, I wondered if maybe the obstacle the speaker faces in his spiritual life is not the world but himself. “I keep on / killing mosquitoes,” not “mosquitoes keep on biting me.” He is the one interrupting his prayers, not the mosquitoes. He lets something small keep him from something infinitely more important. So maybe there’s a duality there: the world and everything that goes with it can be obstacles to spiritual change, but they can also become excuses for our own weakness. Anyway, those are things I like to think about, so I like reading about them in this haiku too.
Day 6: Your story with literature
This sounds cliché, but it’s true: I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember. When I was little, I used to read everything I could find: board books, flyers in the mail, my mom’s baby name book, everything. In grade school, I was fascinated both with American history and the ancient world, so most of my reading as a child was nonfiction on one of those two topics. I read fiction too, because it was fun, but I didn’t really start thinking about it as “literature” until my junior year of high school. We were studying poetry, but, since I had such a small repertoire of poetry behind me, all this talk of meter and assonance and producing certain “feelings” in the reader didn’t really make sense to me. Finally, I was assigned one poem that stood out: “Methought I saw my late espoused saint” by John Milton. I didn’t understand everything in it, but my heart was touched by the pathos of it, while my brain was intrigued by that paradoxical final line. To me, it was a completely new way of writing. I then started reading other poetry from around the same period: Jonson, Shakespeare, and of course, my now-beloved John Donne. From there, I just became more and more curious and started sampling poets from all over the world and from all time periods.
Falling in love with poetry, I think, set me up to fall in love with literature more broadly. The next year in school I was assigned Hamlet. This was the first truly great work of fiction I had ever read (after trying and failing to read Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen as a young girl) and finally, I realized that there was something bigger going on in literature than just entertainment or “self-expression.”
Day 7: Your own writing
You’ve already read it! I’ve tried to write in other forms (poetry, short stories. One time, I thought I might be able to write a novel.), but I always come back to essays. As I mentioned in the Day 6 challenge, nonfiction was my first love and it’s the type of writing I most like to do.
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original. Whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how many times it’s been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
I find my worst writing happens when I’m trying to give it “flair” or make it stand out. If I just write down exactly what I mean to say, it always comes out better. This writerly advice of Lewis’s has saved me from more than a few bad essays.
Day 9: Your favorite quote on literature
From a letter by Franz Kafka to his friend Oskar Pollak:
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
I fully believe that there’s no point in reading unless it makes you somehow better than you were before: more knowledgeable, more empathetic, or wiser. I think a book that doesn’t leave you changed, at least in some small way, wasn’t really worth reading in the first place. As a result, I’ve grown quite fond of this quote from Kafka and its imagery, which to me, evokes a struggle against complacency.
Day 10: Your favorite nonfiction writer
C. S. Lewis. Not only is he my most-owned author, he’s also my favorite Christian apologist. Even when handling complex philosophical or theological issues, he’s able to write accessibly without ever giving the impression of talking down to his readers. He anticipates and answers criticism and questions and takes care to make his meaning as clear as possible.
Day 11: Your go-to books when you’re “not feeling it”
Adrian purposely left this prompt wide open so that everyone could come up with their own definition of “not feeling it.” For my part, I want to talk about the two authors I read when I’m just generally out of it, either bored, or depressed, or worried that I’ve run out of things to say: Seamus Heaney and John Donne. They are my favorite and second-favorite poets respectively and I never come away from their poems without feeling like my love of poetry and language has been in someway rekindled. If I had to choose specific books as favorites, I love Heaney’s Selected Poems: 1966-1987and the Penguin Classics edition of Donne’s Complete English Poems.
Day 12: 5 reading goals, 5 writing goals, and 5 blog goals
How about three for each?
1: Finish at least two Dostoevsky novels in the next year, probably Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. (I spent 2017 dithering away in the short stories. No more!)
2: Don’t buy so many new books. At least, not until I’ve read more of the books I have already.
3: Read books in French. My vocabulary and reading comprehension are not yet up to speed, but they hopefully will be soon.
1: Try to broaden the number of topics on which I can write extensively and confidently. Right now, it’s just literary criticism and personal essays involving literature. I want to try writing about other media and current events too.
2: I want to get published somewhere. It doesn’t have to be a big site or magazine: I just want people who don’t know me to read something I wrote and be enthusiastic about it.
3: I want to try to write a play. Granted, I have no one who wants to produce or act in a play, but the writing could be fun.
1: More long-form pieces. (You’re welcome/I’m sorry.)
2: I want to post book reviews more often. Maybe two per month every month as the minimum.
3: I’m thinking about branching out more into the blogging world. I intend to keep this blog updated into the foreseeable future, but I’ve also thought about starting other blogs, maybe one about films and/or one about the music I listen to.
And with that, we complete the 12 Days of Litmas. I’m glad Adrian put this together, because it was so much fun seeing his and everyone else’s responses.
Hello, all. I’m sure you’re super busy this week. I am too. That’s why I’m just dropping in to say Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and please read this poem. Christina Rossetti is always great, of course, but I’ve especially been enjoying her Advent poems lately.
“Christmas Eve” by Christina Rossetti
Christmas hath a darkness Brighter than the blazing noon, Christmas hath a chillness Warmer than the heat of June, Christmas hath a beauty Lovelier than the world can show: For Christmas bringeth Jesus, Brought for us so low.
Earth, strike up your music, Birds that sing and bells that ring; Heaven hath answering music For all Angels soon to sing: Earth, put on your whitest Bridal robe of spotless snow: For Christmas bringeth Jesus, Brought for us so low.
At night, when the carriers passed under her windows in their carts singing the “Marjolaine,” she awoke, and listened to the noise of the iron-bound wheels, which, as they gained the country road, was soon deadened by the soil. “They will be here tomorrow!” she said to herself.
And she followed them in thought up and down the hills, traversing villages, gliding along the highroads by the light of the stars. At the end of some indefinite distance there was always a confused spot, into which her dream died.
— Madame Bovary, Part I, Chapter 9
I follow a lot of literature-related blogs and accounts on social media, and one of my favorites is Karen Swallow Prior’s Twitter account. In case you don’t know of her, she’s a professor of English at Liberty University, as well as an author, having written two books and several essays for publications like Christianity Today and The Atlantic. The first of those two books, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, is a sort of literary memoir, a love letter to the books and authors that made her who she is. Madame Bovary is featured prominently in that book, and is often mentioned in some of Dr. Prior’s other essays as well. Eventually, my curiosity got to the point where I had to read it. Currently, I’m at Chapter 8 of Part II. Here are just a few preliminary thoughts I wanted to write down:
Because Dr. Prior’s writing tended to focus most on the moral arguments in this book, I half-expected it to take a very straightforward, even bordering on didactic, tone. So I was a little surprised by the dreamy, Romantic sound of some of the narration. Take for example this passage, describing Emma Bovary’s depression when a man she had fallen in love with moves to another city:
Everything seemed to her enveloped in a black atmosphere floating confusedly over the exterior of things, and sorrow was engulfed within her soul with soft shrieks such as the winter wind makes in ruined castles. It was that reverie which we give to things that will not return, the lassitude that seizes you after everything is done; that pain, in fine, that the interruption of every wonted movement, the sudden cessation of any prolonged vibration, brings on. [Part I, Chapter 8]
This choice of language, and the tone of the story overall so far, give me the impression that, though the writer knows full well that Emma is wrong, he can still, in a way, understand her longings. He’s not indulgent, but he’s not completely cold either. This makes the story better, I think, because it helps to humanize Emma. Going in, I was afraid the main character would make this book unbearable with her unremitting selfishness. The selfishness comes through loud and clear, but at the same time, so does the hope for an extraordinary life (not a bad desire in itself necessarily) and her love of beautiful things (also not bad if taken the right way). She has the same basic desires as everyone, although she goes about fulfilling them in the wrong way, ultimately leading her to lose everything. Flaubert, of course, is not defending his heroine—rather, he treats her as a real, complicated human being instead of just a component to a moral argument. I like authors like that, in whose books their respect and compassion for their own characters is plain to see.
As we near the end of 2017, I thought I’d take this Wednesday to look back over a few of the books that I especially loved this year. Just like last year, I’ll be choosing one work from each of the four main genres.
This year’s big fiction project was Anna Karenina, and though I’ve enjoyed it immensely, since I’m picking favorite books and not best books, I’m going to go with Ivan Turgenev’s First Love. Turgenev lacks Tolstoy’s wordiness and supplies a kind of imaginative lyricism that you don’t get as much of in Anna. You can read my full review of it here.
I only read one play this year, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and although it’s one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, I have no problem calling it my favorite play of 2017.
Honorable mention must go to Dennis O’Driscoll’s collection of interviews with Seamus Heaney (review here): it’s essential for anyone interested in Heaney’s poetry. In the end, though, my favorite nonfiction book of the year was Andrzej Franaszek’s biography of Czesław Miłosz (review). I love a well-written biography, especially when it’s about one of my favorite writers. As it turns out, Miłosz’s life is pretty fascinating even if you haven’t read his poetry, seeing as he was so unfortunate as to be involved in most of the worst crises of the twentieth century.
This is a tough one: Kaveh Akbar published his first full-length collection Calling a Wolf a Wolfthis year, and although I haven’t reviewed it yet, I did read it and it was terrific. I also read a lot of older poetry this year and, in terms of enjoyment and surprise, I think I’m going to have to call Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessamy favorite poetry book that I read this year (review). Though he doesn’t shy away from darker themes and material, Kaminsky has this sense of wonder about him, child-like in a way, that (with notable exceptions) you don’t always find in modern poetry.
That’s all for now. Let me know in the comments what your favorite books of 2017 were.
“When a poem comes, I feel it physically. I feel a burning in my temples and I feel a tightening in my throat. I know it’s very weird. Something is coming that can be a poem and I have to see if I can get it into words”: The BBC interviews Dana Gioia about his work space and how he goes about composing a poem.
The man I am writing about is not famous. It may be that he never will be. It may be that when his life at last comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. … But it may be that the way of life that he has chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature. [pg. 3-4]
At the center of this story is a young man named Larry Darrell. Following his service as an airman in the First World War, he returns to his old life as the adopted son of a prosperous Chicago doctor and the fiancé of Isabel Bradley, his childhood friend and one of the most eligible young ladies in the city. American industry is booming and Larry’s friends, particularly Isabel, can’t wait for him to take his place in it. Henry Maturin, a successful stock broker, has even arranged a well-paying job for him in his firm. But Larry isn’t so interested in going to work at the moment. The things he saw and did during the war have left him plagued by questions about life, death, and the universe itself. In order to answer these questions, he plans to lead a life of study and contemplation, to the horror of Isabel and her family, for whom money and status predominate over virtually everything else. After ending his engagement, Larry begins a quest for truth that takes him across the globe and back.
Maugham begins this novel telling us that all of the events and people in it are real, just with the names changed and the dialogue fictionalized. To what extent this is true I do not know, although Maugham does write himself into the cast as the first person narrator through whose eyes we view the entire story. Certain points of the story, and especially of Larry’s life, apparently were drawn from Maugham’s own life as well, such as Larry’s stay in India to seek enlightenment at the feet of the swamis.
The Trouble with Larry
There’s a lot to love about Larry: his generosity, his wit, his love of wisdom. Most of all, I love his refusal to compromise his convictions. I love that he won’t allow himself to be forced into the vain and vapid life that Isabel and others urge him to pursue. That’s what drew me to this book in the first place: the young protagonist who rejects the world’s materialism in exchange for truth which can’t be bought or sold. There’s just one thing that really bothers me about Larry: his story seems too idealized.
For one thing, barring his arguments with Isabel early in the book, Larry encounters almost no external resistance on the path he’s chosen. He has plenty of money stashed in the bank, so he’s not pursuing education under the threat of poverty and hunger, and he has no friends or family to whom he is beholden, so he’s free to spend ten years doing basically whatever he wants. This makes for a nice story, but not an exceptionally powerful or compelling one. I think it would have given Larry’s story more interest if he had had to struggle just a bit more on his “path to salvation.”
Besides that, Maugham takes care to stress throughout the story, in a number of ways, how unlike the rest of the world Larry is. His aloofness, his secrecy, his habit of packing up and leaving with little or no warning—they all serve to tell the reader over and over that Larry is special and not like the dull, greedy, unoriginal people around him. The character of Maugham too is pretty convinced that Larry is a saint who’s going to change the world one day, and he doesn’t mind saying so. All in all, Larry sounds just a little too good to be true. I probably would have enjoyed this book more if he had been treated more like a flesh-and-blood being instead of some kind of mythical creature.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy this book, though. In addition to Maugham’s beautiful prose, the rest of his characters are intriguing in their own ways. Isabel, for instance, turns out to be a kind of villain, but one you can still feel for. While Larry is seeking his fulfillment in study and spiritual experience, all Isabel asks is nice clothes and a fashionable home. It becomes apparent almost immediately that she and Larry will never see eye to eye, but that doesn’t mean that she stops loving him, even after she marries Henry Maturin’s son Gray. Eventually, her passion for Larry and her despair at not being with him begin to lead her down a dark road.
Isabel’s uncle Elliot Templeton regularly steals the show as well. Elliot, through whom Maugham meets Isabel, Larry, and the rest of the cast, made his fortune selling art and dedicates his life to being one of the smart set, going to all the right parties, learning and spreading the best gossip, etc. He’s ridiculous enough to be funny, but his vanity masks a very generous and caring spirit.
That’s all for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed my nitpicky thoughts on this novel. Let me know in the comments if you’ve read it, what you thought, and where I went wrong in my critique.
Hi everyone! Sorry there’s no regular blog post today. Between Thanksgiving preparations and some other projects I’ve been working on, I wasn’t able to get a post done in time. Instead, this is just a quick note to say I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving tomorrow and I am very thankful for all of you. Thanks for reading, commenting on, and sharing my posts. It means a lot to know that people are enoying the things I put out.
Thanks to Clarissa Akyroyd for pointing me toward this article from Cordite Poetry Review. It’s a little on the long side, but very good, so definitely check it out if you have the time. In case you don’t, the article deals mainly with the presentation of translated poetry in academia and the biases that prevent critics and academics from taking it seriously. The author, Johannes Göransson, describes academics as having a sort of idealized vision of what a poem should be, one that, to them, precludes the poem’s truly existing in other languages. This mindset, he says, arises from two concerns: first, that of “faithfulness” to the original text, and second, that students and younger poets will lack the necessary background knowledge to understand translated poems in their proper social and historical context.
Of course, there’s no denying that a poem’s form is often significantly changed in the process of translation. (For an idea of how much a poem can change between two languages, read this article by Ann Kjellberg on Joseph Brodsky and the features of the Russian language that make Russian poets so hard to translate.) There will always be rhymes discarded, rhythms flattened, and wordplay that is lost. True, a valiant translator can find ways to preserve the music of the original in another language, but then often the literal meaning is changed. There isn’t really anything that can completely take the place of the original. But does this mean that we have nothing to gain from translations? I don’t think so, for reasons I will explain in a moment.
It’s also true that cultural difference adds another layer of complexity to foreign poetry. Even after the words themselves have been translated, you might still be left with cultural and historical references that lose their significance once they leave their own borders. Even trickier from some readers is trying to get inside the head of a poet whose upbringing, worldview, and system of values may be very different from their own.
In a way, though, that’s the point: we read poetry for many reasons, but one of the most important is so that it can broaden the horizons of our minds, instead of couching us in what is already safe and familiar. There’s “too much world”1 for us to take it all in by ourselves: we need other points of view, as many as we can get, if we want to form a fuller picture of ourselves and of existence. Reading translated poetry gives you that, while also giving you a glimpse into what is common between all people. It sets a people apart while also illuminating the things that transcend culture, creed, ethnicity, race, and time.
It confuses and slightly alarms me that the prejudice against translated poetry would be so strong in academia. More than ever, academics claim to be concerned with diversity, so it’s strange that, when it comes to non-English poetry, some of them will actively discourage diversity. Context and respect for other cultures are important, and as readers, we should want to increase our understanding of the world by learning (even if it’s only a little bit) about the cultures and time periods whose literature we read. But the concern about “improper influence,” as the article calls it, shouldn’t be allowed to suppress the poetry it claims to protect. Otherwise, we say to the rest of the world that only people who are like us have anything worthwhile to say to us. We deny the coherence of human nature in favor of a linguistic tribalism.
1 From “The Separate Notebooks” by Czesław Miłosz, translated by Renata Gorczynski and Robert Hass, Selected Poems: 1931 – 2004 by Czesław Miłosz published by HarperCollins, 2006.
Long, long ago, not long after I started this blog, I published a list of authors whom my favorite authors had pointed to as influences on their work. It was just lists of names, nothing more than that. So today, I’d like to update and expand upon some of those entries, guided by the words of the writers themselves.
The fact of the matter is that the most unexpected and miraculous thing in my life was the arrival in it of poetry itself—as a vocation and an elevation almost. I began as a school teacher in Belfast in 1962. I taught for one year in St. Thomas’s Secondary Intermediate School. I had a good degree in English at Queen’s University and felt that I had some literary possibility, but I had no real confidence. . . . My pseudonym at Queen’s, in the magazines where I published, was Incertus—Latin for uncertain—I was just kicking the ball around the penalty area, not trying to shoot at the goal. Then in 1962 the current began to flow. I remember taking down Ted Hughes’s Lupercal from the shelves of the Belfast public library and opening it at “View of a Pig,” and immediately going off and writing a couple of poems that were Hughes pastiches almost. The first one was called “Tractors”; I remember a line that said “they gargled sadly”—which pleased me a lot at the time. So I sent it out to the Belfast Telegraph—not the greatest literary journal in the world, but even so, it published that poem. And that was of immense importance because I knew no one at the paper, which meant that the thing had been accepted on its own merits, such as they were. [From The Paris Review‘s “Art of Poetry” series.]
On first discovering Gerard Manley Hopkins as a student in Catholic school:
It was a matter of sensation, little ricochets and chain reactions within the nervous system. Like “As tumbled over rim in roundy wells / Stones ring” or “rose-moles all in stipple upon the trout that swim; / Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings.” I once said it was like getting verbal gooseflesh. And, naturally enough, when I wrote my first poems as an undergraduate a few years later, I wrote in Hopkins-speak.
What you encounter in Hopkins’s journals—the claustrophobia and scrupulosity and religious ordering of the mind, the cold-water shaves and the single iron beds, the soutanes and the self-denial—that was the world I was living in when I first read his poems.
So yes, you’re right that it wasn’t simply a matter of the phonetics taking over, it wasn’t just the fireworks in phrases like “shining from shook foil.” It was the fact that the height and depth of Hopkins’s understanding matched my own. [From Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, pages 37 and 38.]
R. S. Thomas
When I read him first, I enjoyed the self-conscious element in the writing—very artful versification, slight affectation of direction, a touch of Crowe Ransom fastidiousness. But what made him especially attractive was the fact that a potential dandy was being suppressed by a very strict, very frugal censor. And then there was the sheer familiarity of his subject matter in those Welsh hill-farm poems. . . . He got very far as a poet, a loner taking on the universe, a kind of Clint Eastwood of the spirit. Every bit as unsmiling as Clint, but in either case you couldn’t be sure there wasn’t really a wild comedian lurking in there somewhere. [Stepping Stones, pages 112 and 113.]
C. S. Lewis
G. K. Chesterton
It was here [in an army hospital during World War I] that I first read a volume of Chesterton’s essays. I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors. It would almost seem that Providence, or some “second cause” of a very obscure kind, quite overrules our previous tastes when it decides to bring two minds together. Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love. I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. His humor was of the kind which I like best—not “jokes” embedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure) a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humor which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the “bloom” on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly. For the critics who think Chesterton frivolous or “paradoxical” I have to work hard to feel even pity; sympathy is out of the question. [Surprised by Joy, pages 190-191]
Read almost any interview with Ray Bradbury and you’ll probably find at least a dozen mentions of writers whose work he loved. One of his favorite ideas to return to was “the train,” which he described in an interview with The Paris Review in 1976 (republished here):
Bradbury: A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am. But it burns with a high flame. I’ve had my “literary loves,” too. I like to think of myself on a train going across midnight America conversing with my favorite authors, and on that train would be people like George Bernard Shaw, who was interested in everything, interested in the fiction of ideas. He himself on occasion wrote things that could be dubbed “science fiction.” We’d sit up late into the night turning over ideas and saying, “Well, if this is true about women in 1900, what is it going to be in the year 2050?”
Interviewer: Who else would be on that train?
Bradbury: A lot of poets. Hopkins, Frost, Shakespeare. And then writers like Huxley, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe.
Interviewer: How has Wolfe helped you?
Bradbury: He was a great romantic. When you’re nineteen, he opens the doors of the world for you. We use certain authors at certain times of our lives, and we may never go back to them again. Wolfe is perfect when you’re nineteen. If you fall in love with Shaw when you’re thirty it’s going to be a lifetime love. And I think that’s true of certain books by Thomas Mann as well. I read Death in Venice when I was twenty, and it’s gotten better every year since. Style is truth. Once you nail down what you want to say about yourself and your fears and your life, then that becomes your style and you go to those writers who can teach you how to use words to fit your truth. I learned from John Steinbeck how to write objectively and yet insert all of the insights without too much extra comment. I learned a hell of a lot from John Collier and Gerald Heard, and I fell madly in love with a number of women writers, especially Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter. I still go back and reread Edith Wharton and Jessamyn West—The Friendly Persuasion is one of my favorite books of short stories.
Or sometimes, he didn’t need the prompting of an interview to come up with a list of favorite authors. From his essay collection Zen in the Art of Writing:
You have your list of favorite writers; I have mine. Dickens, Twain, Wolfe, Peacock, Shaw, Molière, Jonson, Wycherly, Sam Johnson. Poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Pope. … Think of all these names and you think of big or little, but nonetheless important, zests, appetites, hungers. Think of Shakespeare and Melville and you think of thunder, lightning, wind. [“The Joy of Writing,” pages 3-4]