For National Poetry Day: Eavan Boland’s Eurydice Speaks

Niccolo dell’Abate. The Death of Eurydice. c.1552-71. Oil on canvas.

One of my favorite passages of poetry in all of Latin Literature is the Orpheus and Eurydice story in Vergil’s fourth Georgic. After his wife’s tragic death, Orpheus’s love for Eurydice sends him to the depths of the underworld to retrieve her. But when he breaks Hades’s one stipulation, that he cannot look back at her on their journey out, she is lost to him once again. Ovid also includes his own version of the myth in the Metamorphoses. I have been dipping in and out of Eavan Boland’s poetry for the past week and her use of myth as inspiration for her poems has resonated with me. This piece, inspired by the Eurydice myth, gives her a voice (the focus of the myth is usually on Orpheus) and is a particularly striking reflection on loss, recognition, memory and reunion.

How will I know you in the underworld?
How will we find each other?

We lived for so long on the physical earth—
Our skies littered with actual stars
Practical tides in our bay—
What will we do with the loneliness of the mythical?

Walking beside ditches brimming with dactyls,
By a ferryman whose feet are scanned for him
On the shore of a river written and rewritten
As elegy, epic, epode.

Remember the thin air of our earthly winters?
Frost was an iron, underhand descent.
Dusk was always in session

And no one needed to write down
Or restate, or make record of, or ever would,
And never will,
The plainspoken music of recognition,

Nor the way I often stood at the window—
The hills growing dark, saying,

As a shadow became a stride
And a raincoat was woven out of streetlight

I would know you anywhere.

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Laying a Foundation: Kafka The Early Years by Reiner Stach

I have chosen to read Stach’s three volume biography in chronological order which is not the order in which they were published. The Early Years was the last volume in the series to be brought forth because, as translator Shelley Frisch points out in the preface, Stach was waiting to access materials from the Max Brod literary estate which, due to a legal battle in Israel over the rights to these materials, had not previously been seen by scholars. It is challenging to deal with the early years of anyone in a biography due to the lack of primary sources such as letters and diaries. What five-year-old is keeping a journal? But the scope of Stach’s biography is broad so that, in addition to the limited details about Kafka’s formative years, he includes a short history of the Hapsburg Empire, the bilingual city of Prague, Jewish migration from Eastern Europe, and the intellectual circles in Prague before World War I, etc. Sometimes it feels as if Kafka is only lingering in the background of this biography, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

An excellent example of Stach’s wide-ranging interests is his research and discussion of Kafka’s jobs in the insurance industry. It is well-documented and known from his letters and diaries that Kafka did not like his profession and oftentimes found it dreary and depressing. The only real goal he had as far as finding a profession was that his office job not encroach very much on his free time. In addition to providing the details of how Kafka came to work at two different insurance companies, Stach describes the fledging business of insurance and how the government begins to require reluctant business owners to buy something they think is needless. In addition, Stach makes keen observations about the insurance that had to be provided for the growing number of motorists; these new companies are overwhelmed by this new demand for insurance and how they go about dealing with car insurance is an amusing piece of Stach’s narrative. Even though he found it boring and dismal work, Kafka was quite good at his job and the skills he learned in law school which he used to write many a persuasive and thorough report impressed his supervisors.

And, of course, Stach begins to explore Kafka’s early literary interests; there are a few passages, for instance, concerning the development of Kafka’s earliest stories, “Descriptions of a Struggle” and “Wedding Preparations in the Country.” Stach also lingers on the point that Kafka was reticent to share any of his works in progress with his friends. Stach points out that Kafka began keeping a diary around 1909 and he uses this diary as a private place to practice his craft. Stach ends this volume with an analysis of this important primary source and piques our interest for a more in depth discussion of Kafka’s work in the next two volumes of the biography:

Kafka’s diary—he himself called it that—is a vestibule of literature, with its doors wide open toward the reality he experience, which is often authenticated with names and dates, and toward the artistically controlled fiction that evolves into works of literature. Kafka would spend innumerable hours of his life in this vestibule, as well as writing countless letters that also originated right there, in a zone in which the biographical element was transformed into literature, and neither psychology nor aesthetics enjoyed the sole right of access. It was not Kafka’s early literary works, but rather his diary entries of those years that attested for the first time to his exterritorial status and spirited him away, line by line and once and for all, from all “Prague Circles.” For the moment, though he kept that status to himself, in a secret writing school of an utterly different provenance with only a single pupil, whose progress was not verifiable. How would he have been able to explain to his friends what was going on in his notebooks?

Finally, my favorite pieces of Stach’s first volume—ones that will no doubt stay with me as I continue reading—are the endearing and personal details he includes about the young Kafka: he loved the cinema, one of his favorite pastimes was swimming, he had a droll sense of humor and he had body dysphoria which contributed to his shyness and, at times, anti-social behavior. Stach also describes how Kafka was initiated into the world of women, love and sex. In his early twenties he has a girlfriend named Hedwig to whom he writes some innocently, adorable letters. And like other young men of his time, Kafka was not above visiting prostitutes to satisfy his urges. The relationship which seems to have made the most lasting impression on young Kafka was with a woman he met while on vacation in the summer of 1905 at a sanatorium in Zuchmantel. But even Stach cannot track down or tease out the details of this affair—we will never know who this woman was and how she and Kafka become so close. I am actually glad that none of details of this relationship survive and that this part of his life remains private and is known only to Kafka and this mysterious woman.

I have been reading Kafka’s Letters to Friends and Family from the years 1905 to 1910 alongside Stach’s biography as they both cover the same time period. One of the most magnificent outcomes from reading even just the first volume of this biography is that Stach has given me a greater understanding, respect and admiration of the Kafka that one finds in his letters. As I read volume two, I will continue reading Kafka’s letters and also begin the diaries.

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Kisses Come in Several Kinds: Jean-Luc Nancy Parodies Catullus

Catullus and Lesbia. Nicolai Abildgaard. 1809. Oil on canvas.

In one of his latest collections to be translated into English, Jean-Luc Nancy’s Expectations  explores the topic of literature and how it intersects with philosophy.  The essays in the book are divided into four categories: Literature, Poetry, Sense, and Parados.  Written over a period of thirty-five years, the themes covered in Expectation are some of Nancy’s favorites that he revisits throughout his career—Reasons to write, narrative, body as theater, Blanchot, etc.

My favorite part of the book is the last section entitled Parados, the Ancient Greek word for the piece of a tragic performance which is sung by the chorus as it enters the stage.  Parados can literally be translated as an “entrance” and this is exactly how Nancy uses texts as an inspiration for writing his own poetry.  He says about his compositions in this section of the book: “They arise, in all cases, from a specific request inviting me, directly or indirectly, to engage with literature.  Or to act as if I had.”

Nancy takes as his parados (entrance) what are arguably the Roman poet Catullus’s most famous Carmina,  5 and 7—the “kisses” poems—for writing this little gem I share today.  I have read it several times over the course of the last week and I see and feel something different—various memories are conjured up—every time I read it.  He takes a simple expression like a kiss and, in what is a deceptively simple poem, he calls our attention to such different contexts (cultural, familial, intimate) in which we have experienced this gesture (translated beautifully by Robert Bononno):

 

Let him kiss me with his mouth’s kisses
Thus sings the song of songs
Thus his mouth sings and enchants itself
As his demand so his expectation
Not kisses from another mouth
Except from the one she calls

The mouth of the other who loves her
She alone who knows
How to kiss with the kiss of her desire
For in her mouth is held
Completely breath soul perfume
and from her mouth exhaled
The thought the soft weight
Of clinging of joining of
Drinking eating believing oneself

Osculum the little mouth
That advances and arranges the gathered border of two lips
Perhaps quickly on another’s cheek or lips
Kiss kissed surprise surprised
Stolen stolen in this furtive kiss
So soft from the beign so light
Pulp airborne puff
And touch mouth

Visus Allocutio Tactus Osculum
Traced from the linea amoris
Later coming to Coitus
Gift of mercy
Where all mouths are joined
Kiss and kiss one another
Touch and touch one another
Put to bed and put one another to bed

Kisses come in several kinds
Osculum, Basium, Suavium
Kiss of a friend, child, parent
Kiss of peace, of decorum
Or foamy caress
That swells beneath the tongue

Kisses by the thousand like sand
In Libya or grains of wheat
Scattered to the lines of Catullus.

They resonate in several tongues
Their clicks go Kuss, kiss, kyssa
Κυνεω was the Greek name
Sounds like an adoration
Προσκυνεω
Almost a silent Φιλεω
But always mouth addressed
Exclamation of lip and fever
Breath always scent aroma
Breath moved by the soul
That tastes and breathes your own—
Oh, kiss me with your mouth’s kisses.

*Some notes that might help with the Latin and Ancient Greek: Osculum is the Latin, neuter, singular diminutive for mouth, so a “small mouth” is used for the word kiss; basium is the Latin word that Catullus uses to describe the passionate kisses he wants from his lover;  suavium is the neuter, singular form of the Latin adjective meaning ‘sweet’, so suavium is used for kiss to mean a “sweet thing.”  κυνεω is the Ancient Greek word for “I kiss” and Προσκυνεω, which is taken from the verb “I kiss” is “to worship” with the connotation of a respectful kiss.

The book is really worth purchasing for Nancy’s thoughts on literature and philosophy; unfortunately I have not captured his extraordinary prose in this post.  For my more extensive thoughts on some of his other books take a look at my posts on Coming and Listening.

For my translation of Catullus Carmen 5 please see this post (a warning that my interpretation of this poem is not the standard “Carpe Diem” one that is found in textbooks—I received a lot of comments and complaints about my non-traditional reading of this poem):  https://thebookbindersdaughter.com/2016/12/29/let-us-live-and-let-us-love-my-translation-and-interpretation-of-catullus-poem-5/

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Educating Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach

The first volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka, entitled The Early Years, is mesmorizing.  It is not easy to make a biography about the formative years of any human being—birth, family life, education—interesting, but Stach most definitely achieves this through a variety of techniques.  He incorporates the complex history of the city of Prague, including its Czech, German and Jewish aspects, into this story of what is arguably its most famous inhabitant.  Since it covers Kafka’s childhood there is, naturally, a discussion of his education at German language elementary, middle and high schools, a topic about which I feel compelled to comment.

What struck me about Stach’s discussion of education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Prague is that the issues and struggles that students, teachers and families were facing are still being confronted today.  Kafka was an anxious, shy student who was constantly terrified of the litany of tests and exams that were always required of him.  Stach, however, is very careful in not making grand, sweeping generalizations about the educational system in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or even about the city of Prague itself.  Like any reasonable education,  Stach argues, a plethora of factors will affect a student’s success including a pupil’s attitude, the teachers’ attitudes, the learning environment and the support from home.  Stach writes:

But how did the humanistic high schools in “old” Austria actually work?  Was such a destructive, or at least demotivating pressure to preform engendered here systematically; did the fault lie with the educational system itself or with the inability or ill will of individual teachers who appointed themselves judges?  That is a matter of debate even among those who attended these schools.  Experiences at school leave a deep emotional mark on children, especially in the sensitive years of puberty, and even in retrospect they seem strongly tinged by a student’s individual circumstances.  It would be difficult for a former star pupil to empathize with the situation of other pupils whose lesser achievements could not shield them from pedagogical harassment.  The same was true of pupils whose educational experiences enjoyed encouragement from their own families and who could not begin to picture a father like Hermann Kafka, for whom only report cards counted.  And many of the pupils later looked to their school days with rose-colored glasses: Cheery anecdotes remain in their memories and are happily recounted; humiliations, fears of failure, and the torments of pointless cramming for tests, on the other hand, are often suppressed or go unmentioned for the sake of self-respect.

Stach’s observations about education are issues that I think about and that consume me on a daily basis.  Our current educational system is filled with high stakes, standardized tests that inflict a great amount of anxiety on students.  Every time a new test is implemented, or a standard test is altered, this anxiety escalates even more.  But how else, the powers-that-be argue, will we know if a school/student/teacher is successful?  Or what other way is there to judge whether or not a student should be admitted to a certain college or university?

The details in Stach’s biography are stunning, but they are presented in such a way that we are not overwhelmed or bored with them.  Facts and statistics about Kafka’s life—he had 8 hours of instruction in Latin and classics per week—are altered with personal anecdotes from Kafka’s own letters and diaries or those of his friends and contemporaries; Stach quotes Kafka’s latter to Felice in which he includes a story about his Latin teacher, Emil Gschwind, who was “the most influential authority during Kafka’s high school years..”:

Children should not be pushed into things that are utterly incomprehensible to them. Although we should bear in mind that even this can bring out very good results in some instances, such results are completely unpredictable. I am reminded of a teacher who often used to say, as we read the Iliad, ‘Too bad that one is obliged to read this with the likes of you. After all, you couldn’t possibly understand it, even if you think you do, you don’t understand a word of it. A person has to have experienced a great deal before being able to understand even a bit of this.’ At the time, these remarks (delivered in the tone of voice he always used, of course) made a far greater impression on the insensitive youth that I was than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. This impression may have been far too humiliating, but it was a crucial one all the same.

Like Kafka’s teachers, I must give assessments and follow a curriculum—but I’ve learned along the way that I can control the experience that students have in my classroom. When I first started teaching my laser focus was to pound declensions and verb tenses and Latin grammar into my students’ heads. (It’s really embarrassing to think of my first few years of teaching.) But as I had more interaction with students and developed in my career it suddenly dawned on me that in a year or two or ten the students are not going to remember first declension or the subjunctive! This thought forced me to reevaluate what my purpose is in teaching what people call a “dead language.”

My philosophy of teaching shifted greatly when I started thinking about students in a broader context. Yes, my pupils still have to learn verb conjugations and vocabulary, they still have to translate Catullus and Ovid and Vergil, but it is worth the time if we have had a good discussion about Homer or the Roman Empire or Epicurean philosophy. Or, better yet, they like it when I talk about music, football, or the myriad of issues important to a teenagers at any given time. They like it when I greet them with a smile, ask how things are going with them, and reward them with stickers on their stellar papers.  And I do understand that many of my colleagues disagree with this approach and view education more narrowly. But, as Lucretius points out, it is easier to swallow bitter medicine if one rubs a little honey on the edge of the cup.

It has been a good yet difficult experience for me to constantly be asking what kind of a long-term impact I have on my students.  My influence over them as an educator in the formative years of their lives is a great responsibility; my hope is that even years from now they will have an appreciation for classics and an ancient language and that they will remember a positive feeling they had when stepped into my classroom. But this is a tall and overwhelming goal to achieve when so many other factors come into play, as Stach perceptively notes in his descriptions of Kafka’s education. How can I reach that child, like Kafka, who is anxious, shy, nervous?  Today, in particular, was a tough day. But I will go back tomorrow and try again.  I would certainly be horrified to find myself the subject of a such a dreadful story as that which Kafka relates about his Latin teacher!

Reading Kafka, even a biography of Kafka, ought to come with a stern warning about the self-reflection that will be a result.

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One Final Dante Post: A List of Helpful Resources

For my last post on the Divine Comedy I thought I would share of list of various resources—-translations, essays, books, etc.—that I found helpful and a joy to read along the way.

Translations:

The Divine Comedy, translated by Robin Kirkpatrick, Penguin: I started out with this translation, but I found it tedious and at times downright inaccessible.  But I still list it because the notes that go along with the text are excellent.

The Divine Comedy, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Everyman’s Library: I have always loved Mandelbaum’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses so I switched from Kirkpatrick to this translation and found it much more accessible.  I’ve read that it is also very close to the Italian—he doesn’t take much poetic license, which is the exact reason why I like his Ovid so much.

The Divine Comedy, translated by John D. Sinclair: This was recommended by a fellow reader on Twitter and I am so glad I bought the complete set.  I will use this prose translation the next time I do a complete reread of Dante.  It also comes with the Italian text.

Dante in English, Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds, eds., Penguin: This book is a nice way to sample different translations of Dante.  It also includes selections from different poems that have been inspired by the Divine Comedy

Vita Nuova, translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:  This is Dante’s poem about Beatrice and I actually read it before the Divine Comedy.  It greatly enhanced my reading of Paradise in particular.  This has been reissued recently by NYRB.

Dante: De Vulgari Eloquentia (Cambridge Medieval Classics), translated by Steven Botterill:  This is an essay, written in Latin by Dante, on literary theory.  It contains the Latin text as well as an English translation.  A crazy rabbit hole I followed because I was curious about Dante’s Latin text.

Books:

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw:  A very informative book in which each chapter is a discussion of a different theme or thread in Dante—Friendship, Power, Life, Love, Time, Numbers and Words.

Reading Dante (The Open Yale Courses Series) by Giuseppe Mazzotta: This was one of my favorite resources, especially for understanding Paradise.  It is more like an extended commentary and helps to unpack the historical and theological ideas of Dante.  I also bought a copy that was signed and inscribed by the author that said, “May you continue on your own journey” which I thought was a very nice find.

Dante A Very Short Introduction by Peter Hainsworth:  Exactly what the title says, a very brief introduction at 115 pages.  I especially like his emphasis on how Dante is still relevant in the modern age.

Dante A Brief History by Peter S. Hawkins:  An excellent overview of Dante’s life and work.  This one has some very good black and white illustrations.  I especially appreciated Hawkins’s chapter on Beatrice.

Dante: Poet of the Secular World by Eric Auerbach:  An excellent discussion of the overall structure of Dante’s works that argues he was the first great realist writer.  This has been reissued by NYRB.

Introductory Papers on Dante: The Poet Alive in his Writings by Dorothy Sayers:  This, with the two books listed below, is a three volume collection of lectures given by Sayers on Dante.  And excellent, helpful introduction to Dante.

Further Papers on Dante: His Heirs and His Ancestors by Dorothy Sayers:  This volume contains essays that compare Dante to other authors who explore similar themes in their writing.

The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement: On Dante and Other Writers by Dorothy Sayers:  This one comes with a fabulous bonus essay describing Sayers’s learning Latin from the age of six and why she thinks learning Latin is so valuable.  All of her points about learning Latin are still relevant today, I will be sharing this with my own students.

Essays:

The Cambridge Companion to Dante, Rachel Jacoff, ed.: As with other books in the series, this Cambridge Companion contains essays on a wide variety of topics covering the Divine Comedy, the Vita Nuova, Dante’s Theology, Dante and Florence, Dante and the classical poets, etc.

“Conversation with Dante” by Osip Mandelstam: a beautiful moving essay about the Divine Comedy.  The essay is included as part of Mandelstam’s Selected Poems published by NYRB.

“Dante Now: The Gossip of Eternity” by George Steiner: I actually found the Mandelstam essay because Steiner references it in his essay.  This essay is included in his book On Difficulty.

Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays, John Freccero, ed.: A nice collection of some of the most famous essays written about Dante in the 20th century.  It includes a copy of Mandelstam’s essay.

The Poets’ Dante: Twentieth Century Responses, Peter S. Hawkins, ed.:  A collection of essays by some of the most important 20th century poets including Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, and Heaney among many others. (I did a previous post with a couple of quotes from this book.)

Dante Comparisons (Publications of the Foundation for Italian Studies, University College Dublin), Eric Haywood, ed.:  I know this is sort of an odd and obscure book to have searched for, but it promised an essay about Dante, Catullus and Propertius! In two previous posts I noted some of the similarities between sections of the Vita Nuova and the Divine Comedy and Catullus’s poetry so I was thrilled to find this unique collection of essays that covers this very topic.

Ancient Resources:

The Aeneid, Vergil: As I mentioned in my first post on Dante, an appreciation for the Aeneid will greatly enhance any reading of Dante.  I honestly don’t know how anyone could read The Divine Comedy and not be compelled to read Vergil as well.  My favorite translations are Robert Fagles, David Ferry and Robert Fitzgerald.

The Metamorphoses, Ovid: Dante actually makes more references to Ovid than to Vergil.  The two commentaries I used were very thorough with explaining Dante’s references to Ovid.  But reading Ovid’s epic poem will also greatly enhance one’s understanding of many parts of the Divine Comedy.  My favorite translation, as noted above, is Mandelbaum.

Achilleid, Statius translated by Stanley Lombardo:  I fell down a long, winding rabbit hole by reading and translating Statius, an author whose work I have not picked up in 20 years.  The Achilleid is a beautiful, unfinished epic that describes Achilles as a boy before he goes off to fight in Troy.  It is really not necessary to read any Statius to understand his role in the Divine Comedy even though this Roman poet guides Dante at the end of Purgatory and into Paradise.

Thebaid, Statius, translated by Jane Wilson Joyce:  This poem, about the destruction and havoc that Oedipus’s sons cause one another while battling over who will rule  Thebes, is long, lugubrious and dense.  Statius likes to go into great detail about obscure mythological names and references.  When I first translated this 20 years ago in a Silver Age Epic course in graduate school, I did not have the patience for it.  This time around I did find some stunning passages that I truly enjoyed.  But there is still a lot of very dense material that, at times, can be incomprehensible.

Pharsalia, Lucan:  I also translated this in my Silver Age Epic course and really fell in love with Lucan’s underappreciated work.  Since Dante mentions Lucan as being among the ancient poets in limbo I decided to revisit a few of my favorite passages—his description of Pompey and the witch scene.  The Loeb translation of this epic is very good.

Websites:

A series of lectures by Yale Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta.  If you don’t want to read his book I cited above, you can watch his series of lectures: http://www.openculture.com/2017/01/a-free-course-on-dantes-divine-comedy-from-yale-university.html

Digital Dante from Columbia University.  This was a great resource for looking at the Italian text and commentaries for the Divine Comedy.  This site includes illustrations of the Divine Comedy and readings of it  as well as a good historical timeline of Dante’s life: https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/

Finis.

Please let me know in the comments if there are other resources that I should add to my list.

I was feeling lost for several days when I finished Dante.  But I have decided on a new reading project that I am very excited about: Kafka!

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