Favorite Books of 2018

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.

Favorite Fiction

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 Labyrinths first, 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.

Favorite Play

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.

Favorite Nonfiction

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.

Favorite Poetry

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.

Holy Sonnet XIV: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” by John Donne

Painting of the young Donne, c. 1595. Artist unknown.

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: Continue reading “Holy Sonnet XIV: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” by John Donne”

“L’invitation au voyage” by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Richard Wilbur

Title page to the first edition of Les fleurs du mal with notes by Baudelaire.

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.

Wilbur in the 1960s.

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.

First, here’s the poem as originally published by Baudelaire in Les fleurs du mal: Continue reading ““L’invitation au voyage” by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Richard Wilbur”

Bookish Links — June 2018

Man on a Bus by Alex Iby.
  • Joy Clarkson, of the podcast Speaking with Joy, 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.”

“The Bowl-Maker” by C. P. Cavafy

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.

[Translated by Don Paterson]

This is a krater. Yes, it’s tin and bronze instead of silver. But it’s beautiful, isn’t it?

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. Continue reading ““The Bowl-Maker” by C. P. Cavafy”

Six Poems about Fathers That Aren’t Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

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.

1: “A Letter of Recommendation” by Yehuda Amichai

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””

Bookish Links — May 2018

Image by Kate Ilina.
  • “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.”

 

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 Lee Continue reading “National Poetry Month 2018”

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”

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.