Tag Archives: American Literature

Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt: Some Concluding Thoughts

My life, like everyone else’s in the world, has been completely upended this week. I’ve had to learn how to move all of my classes online and I’ve pretty much stayed in my house for the past week. The worst part about this has been my inability to focus on reading. But on the bright side my husband, daughter and I are safe at home and enjoying each other’s company and we are both still very lucky to have jobs. I have found my friends on Twitter, especially those in the literary community, to be particularly soothing at this time. Naveen from Seagull Books has reminded us many times that it’s the books that will save us. Just today he wrote, “Yes. We need compassion. And that old fashioned love for everyone around us. So yes. Books.” I decided to ease my anxiety by forcing myself to concentrate on what has been one of my favorite books since last spring, Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets which I finally finished last night.

Lives of the Poets, at nearly 1,000 pages, is an impressive survey of more than 300 English language poets spanning the last 700 years. Each of the 64 chapters, which proceed in chronological order, have brief biological sketches of poets including their places of birth and their educational backgrounds. What is astonishing about the book is the cumulative nature of poetry and how Schmidt connects poets and generations of poets together. Schmidt lays out his intentions for his survey of these poets in the second chapter:

Poems swim free of their age, but it’s hard to think of a single poem that swims entirely free of its medium, not just language but language used in the particular ways that are poetry. Even the most parthenogenetic-seeming poem has a pedigree. The poet may not know precisely a line’s or a stanza’s parents; indeed, may not be interested in finding out. Yet as readers of poetry we can come to know more about a poem than the poet does and know it more fully. To know more does not imply that we read Freud into an innocent cucumber, or Marx into a poem about daffodils, bu that we read with our ears and hear Chaucer transmuted through Spense, Sidney through Herbert, Milton through Wordsworth, Skelton through Graves, Housman through Larkin, Sappho through H.D. or Adrienne Rich.

This book has had two very personal effects on me which I will focus on in my post. First, Michael Schmidt has made me feel more grateful than I have ever been to have studied classics and have degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek. One of the most obvious threads that emerged for me in the course of reading this book is how much the English language poets have drawn on the materials, language, themes, etc. of the ancient poets. From the earliest instances we have of English language poetry through the 20th century there is a robust tradition of poets using ancient sources. Some of the ones I’ve discovered have been profound and have further enriched my study and teaching of classics.

One of my favorite discoveries in Schmidt’s book is Chapman’s poem “Ovid’s Banquet of Sense.” I have long been familiar with Chapman’s translations of Homer, but he is a brilliant poet when he is composing his own verses. “Ovid’s Banquet of Sense” is a description of the Roman poet’s feast of senses that is triggered when he see Corinna bathing naked in her garden. Chapman explains that Corinna is a pseudonym for Julia, the Emperor Augustus’s daughter, who has walked into the courtyard where she proceeds to bath, play the lute and sing, all of which Ovid observes hidden by an arbor. His first sense that is stimulated by her is his sight:

Then cast she off her robe and stood upright,
As lightning breaks out of a labouring cloud;
Or as the morning heaven casts off the night,
Or as that heaven cast off itself, and show’d
Heaven’s upper light, to which the brightest day
Is but a black and melancholy shroud;
Or as when Venus strived for sovereign sway
Of charmful beauty in young Troy’s desire,
So stood Corinna, vanishing her ‘tire.

Oftentimes poets don’t necessarily dedicate an entire poem to writing about a classical theme, but instead weave allusions to ancient myths into their poems. Another favorite discovery from Schmidt’s book is the poet The Earl of Surrey and his poem “When Raging Love” is an excellent example of this type of classical allusion:

When raging love with extreme pain
Most cruelly distrains my heart;
When that my tears, as floods of rain,
Bear witness of my woeful smart;
When sighs have wasted so my breath
That I lie at the point of death:

I call to mind the navy great
That the Greeks brought to Troy town,
And how the boysteous winds did beat
Their ships and rent their sails adown,
Till Agamemnon’s daughter’s blood
Appeased the gods that them withstood.

And how that in those ten years’ war
Full many a bloody deed was done,
And many a lord, that came full far,
There caught his bane, alas, too soon,
And many a good knight overrun,
Before the Greeks had Helen now.

Then think I thus: since such repair,
So long time war of valiant men,
Was all to win a lady fair,
Shall I not learn to suffer then,
And think my life well spent to be
Serving a worthier wight than she?

Therefore I never will repent,
but pains contented still endure:
For like as when, rough winter spent,
The pleasant spring straight draws in ure,
So after raging storms of care
Joyful at length may be my fare.

And one more example of poets using classics, and another favorite discovery from Schmidt, is the Australian poet A.D. Hope. This is an example of a poet using a myth as a springboard in order to expand the voice of a character that we don’t hear from in the original, ancient sources. In his poem “The Return of Persephone” Hope gives us this myth from Persephone’s point-of-view:

Gliding through the still air, he made no sound;
Wing-shod and deft, dropped almost at her feet,
And searched the ghostly regiments and found
The living eyes, the tremor of breath, the beat
Of blood in all that bodiless underground.

She left her majesty; she loosed the zone
Of darkness and put by the rod of dread.
Standing, she turned her back upon the throne
Where, well she knew, the Ruler of the Dead,
Lord of her body and being, sat like stone;

Stared with his ravenous eyes to see her shake
The midnight drifting from her loosened hair,
The girl once more in all her actions wake,
The blush of colour in her cheeks appear
Lost with her flowers that day beside the lake.

The summer flowers scattering, the shout,
The black manes plunging down to the black pit —
Memory or dream? She stood awhile in doubt,
Then touched the Traveller God’s brown arm and met
His cool, bright glance and heard his words ring out:

“Queen of the Dead and Mistress of the Year!”
— His voice was the ripe ripple of the corn;
The touch of dew, the rush of morning air —
“Remember now the world where you were born;
The month of your return at last is here.”

And still she did not speak, but turned again
Looking for answer, for anger, for command:
The eyes of Dis were shut upon their pain;
Calm as his marble brow, the marble hand
Slept on his knee. Insuperable disdain

Foreknowing all bounds of passion, of power, of art,
Mastered but could not mask his deep despair.
Even as she turned with Hermes to depart,
Looking her last on her grim ravisher
For the first time she loved him from her heart.

The second side effect of reading Schmidt’s book—something that I honestly didn’t think would ever happen—is that I’ve actually begin to appreciate and enjoy American poetry. The only American poetry I had read at any length are those assigned to me in my classes at school and university. But I’ve been reading Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, e.e. Cummings, Laura Riding, John Berryman, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, and Frank O’Hara, just to name a few. Schmidt has single-handedly managed to give me a new understanding of the poets of my own country while putting them in the larger context of the history of English language poetry.

Finally, it has taken me months to read Lives of the Poets, not because it is a difficult text. In fact, as one can tell from the quote I shared at the beginning of the post, Schmidt’s writing is engaging and his sense of humor comes through quite often. But I kept pausing to read more of the poems he mentions and I have ordered an obscene amount of poetry in the last several months. So a bit of a warning if you read this book—you will be tempted to buy loads of poetry books. But can one ever really have too much poetry, especially in these trying times?

10 Comments

Filed under American Literature, British Literature, Poetry

Don’t Talk So Much: Convalescent Conversations by Laura Riding

I started reading the wonderful poetry of Laura Riding after I discovered her in Michael Schimidt’s book Lives of the Poets.  And I realized that I had two of her prose books published by Ugly Duckling Presse sitting on my bookshelves.  Convalescent Conversations was first published in 1936 by Seizin Press, which she ran with Robert Graves, under her pseudonym Madeleine Vara.  It is a short novel with two central characters, Eleanor and Adam, recovering from unspecified illnesses, in the same nursing home.  They are both in their 30’s, single, and from the same social class.  When their nurse wheels them both out onto the same veranda every day for some fresh air, they find lots of things to talk about.

Riding’s  experimental piece of writing is described as having no real plot, which, I think, best showcases the brilliance of her talent.  Her characters are charming, humorous, fussy, and philosophical so there is no need for a traditional plot.  We don’t miss it.   The only real twist, if we can even call it that, is when Eleanor and Adam seem to be developing romantic feelings for one another, even though they vehemently resist this idea.  Their conversations range in topics from politics, to marriage, to sex, to religion, to language.  Eleanor seems to be the guiding force of the first eight chapters.  Riding gives her the most interesting and profound pieces of the dialogue.   When discussing the topic of beauty, for instance, Adam asks, “But have women a secret—a real secret?” to which Eleanor responds with a humorous and astute argument:

Indeed they have! And they know how to keep it. They keep it so well that men think they can master it just by sleeping with them. It’s like with some mysterious island, say the Island of the Hesperides, where the golden apples grow. The apples aren’t real golden apples, merely symbols that it’s a pretty wonderful island. But Hercules kills the dragon and steals the apples and brings them home, thinking he’s conquered the secret of the island. Every man is a sort of Hercules and sex is just a tour to foreign places. He kills the dragon, brings home the fruit, and thinks he knows it all.

The dialogue also veers into very serious topics, which read like a Platonic dialogue, in which Adam is the one who brings up conventional wisdom and Eleanor plays the role of the true philosopher like Socrates and disputes these conventional ideas.  Riding sometimes even sets up the text to look like a Socratic dialogue with characters’ names inserted into the text.  In their discussion on religion Eleanor starts with, “I don’t have ideas or pictures about God. God to me is a name—a name for all the most important things that nobody can define, and not the right name.”  Adam responds, “You mean things like truth and goodness and reality?”  Which question brings forth from Eleanor one of her longer arguments:

Yes, things like that—all the impressive ideas that people don’t believe in privately, but only in groups. Or perhaps privately they believe in them a little. Then you throw a lot of people together and they believe in such things in a big way. That’s what churches are for: you get people together and add up all the fractions of belief or interest that each one has in things which don’t bother them very much in their daily lives—and the answer is ‘God’. But no single person has more than a fraction of interest, and so the combined feeling isn’t very strong—only louder; like when a schoolmaster gets the whole class to recite a poem because no single boy recites it with much enthusiasm. He gets more volume from the class as a whole, but not more enthusiasm.

In the last few chapters, a new invalid is introduced into the mix, a Mrs. Lyley who quickly realizes that Eleanor and Adam have developed feelings for one another.  She too, has astute and philosophical observations about life and relationships that she shares with her younger friends: “But don’t you believe that when two people are thrown together and find themselves in sympathy they owe it to—well, to each other—not to draw apart again? I mean, it’s like finding something nice in the street that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone—it’d be sinful to kick it aside and pass on. Like a rose: you’d take it home and put it in water. I know I would.”

Mrs. Lyley invites Eleanor and Adam to finish their convalescence at her country home, but with the condition that they must fall in love with one another.  Eleanor is especially resistant to the whole idea and overthinks this generous proposal.  Adam finally steps in with the right arguments to convince her to take up Mrs. Lyley’s offer.  He suggests they hold hands and call one another ‘darling’ and brings up the topic of love:

Eleanor: Have I ever said I loved you?

Adam: No, but I love you. And I couldn’t possibly love you unless you loved me.

Eleanor: Well, I couldn’t possibly love you unless you loved me. So that makes just the conversational deadlock you pride yourself this isn’t.

Adam: Oh, but it isn’t a deadlock. If I say I won’t go out to-morrow unless it’s fine weather, and you say you won’t go out to-morrow unless it’s fine weather, that’s not a conversational deadlock, but an identical expression of an identical hope. And the chances are that the weather will be fine, and that we’ll go out together. Or stay indoors together if it’s not fine.

Eleanor: Don’t talk so much.

The other Riding book I have yet to read, which is also part of Ugly Duckling Presse’s Lost Literature Series, is entitled Experts are Puzzled, which, after sampling her prose, I am also very much looking forward to reading.

My friend Tony has also written a wonderful review of this book at his blog: https://messybooker.wordpress.com/2019/01/21/convalescent-conversations-madeleine-vara-laura-riding/

4 Comments

Filed under American Literature

Words form, interpretations: Love and I, Poems by Fanny Howe

Fanny Howe’s latest collection of poems, Love and I,  arrived in the mail this afternoon and I have spent some time reading and thinking about it.  Her poems have a constant sense of motion which is particularly fitting for her thoughts on love.  I’ve always felt that love—romantic, familial, platonic, etc.—is never something that can be static.  We either move forward in love by putting effort into fostering it, tending to it, even expanding it.  Conversely it also takes effort to forget it by sabotaging it, resisting it and ignoring it.  My favorite poem in the collection has a brilliant title that captures Howe’s thoughts on love, memory and motion.  Philophany is taken from two Ancient Greek words, philos, “love” and the verb phan, to “think,” “deem,” “suppose.”

Philophany

The clatter of rain has a personal meaning.
This is the time to meditate or write down your dreams.
But the lover can do neither, can only wander
From room to room trying not to spill what’s so precious.

Around the lover are myriad sounds.
Thoughts shine through like water.
Forms, shapes, colors, stations are glorified in the morning.
Indecipherable, almost transparent.

Fear of loss takes root in the blood of the lover.
Words form, interpretations.

Miracles: no one there where someone was.
Someone here where no one was.

The stars that shine are sparks and coal.
As if to show experience purifies existence.

Experience was everything to me.
(This is what the uneducated would say.)

Every word must come from my acts direct.
But I know the difficulty too.
Who will believe what I do?

I’m very interested in reading more Fanny Howe.  Her back list of poetry, essays and novels is overwhelming.  Please let me know if you have any favorites of hers as a good place to start.  I’m interested in reading all three genres.

 

16 Comments

Filed under American Literature, Poetry

How Always Alone: Nothing but the Night by John Williams

Published in 1948, Nothing but the Night is John Williams’s, little known about, first novel.  It takes place over the course of a single day in the life of twenty-three year old Arthur Maxley who has suffered a very traumatic experience in his childhood.  When we first meet Arthur, he is alone in his apartment—he is most often alone—and after a night of solitary drinking and reading is just waking up from a dream.  The story is intense and suspenseful from the very beginning as Williams slowly reveals the tragedy Arthur has suffered in his early life.  By slowing down time in his narrative, we are given a realistic glimpse into Arthur’s fractured and damaged mind.  For instance, Arthur forces himself to get out of bed and take a walk in the park, but never actually makes it to the park because he goes into at a seedy diner.  The vivid and startling description of his breakfast is a clue that Arthur is truly suffering:

From the chipped blue plate, the egg stared up at him like a knowing, evil eye.  At first, he was amused by the fancy; but as he stared longer and as the yellow eye glared back at him, he became acutely uncomfortable.  He blinked rapidly.

And still the yellow pupil stared senselessly at him from its greasy white orb.  He reached for the bottle of Tabasco sauce and poured a bit of the fiery red liquid on the eye.  As if it were suddenly irritated beyond all endurance, the white surrounding matter became alarmingly bloodshot and developed a network of liquidly shifting veins, changing the vacant expression into something almost frightening.  It looked up at him reproachfully, as if in great agony.

With an effort, he tore his gaze away and forced his lids down to cover his own eyes and he shook his head vigorously from side to side.  He tried to laugh at himself.  These fancies…Why did he allow them to take hold of him?  It was only and egg, a simple thing, and for a moment his imagination (it was only his imagination) had made him think that…

Throughout the course of his ordinary day, Arthur is on edge and easily startled by what appear to be the simplest things.  Two events in particular, though, trigger flashbacks to that fateful day in Arthur’s childhood—a letter and a visit from his father.  Williams slowly builds up to revealing Arthur’s tragic memory at the very end of the book which, I thought, was rather unexpected.  The dramatic suspense and Williams’s depiction of the loneliness of mental illness are the strengths of this book.  No one can truly understand Arthur’s suffering, even if he were able to put it into words.  A brief distraction with a lovely woman at a nightclub only highlights Arthur’s abiding sense of being alone.  He thinks he is happy for a fleeting moment, but then his intrusive thoughts come flooding back to him:

And again the desire to convey to her his utter contentment overwhelmed him.  But there was the barrier, always the barrier of words; and that which he now felt was beyond words, deeper and more meaningful.  He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, and said nothing.

For at the moment he realized that this understanding which he so desired was a thing that must come from between them, inviolate and alone, unasked and unacknowledged.  And he thought for a moment that he had discovered the secret.

This was the thing that drew men and women together: not the meeting of minds nor of spirits, not the conjunction of bodies in the dark insanity of copulation—none of these.  It was the tenuous need to create a bond, a tie more fragile than the laciest ribbon.  It was for this that they strived together, ceaselessly and always really alone; it was for this that they loved and hated, gathered and threw away. For only the little thread which they could never test for the fear of its destruction, for only the delicate thread which they could never secure for fear of breaking it in two.

How alone we are, he thought. How always alone.

The three books of Williams’s that I have read—Stoner, Augustus, and Nothing but the Night—are all very different stories.  I would advise not to go into this short novel expecting any of the narrative elements that are in his other two books.  What is similar, however, in all three novels is the author’s brilliant and mesmerizing way he uses language; there is something about Williams’s style of writing that completely absorbs me and draws me into these different worlds he creates.

(I read the Vintage edition published in the U.K., but NYRB Classics is also reissuing this book later this year.)

 

15 Comments

Filed under Classics, Literary Fiction, New York Review of Books

A Certain Amount of Daring: Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to read my first Jane Bowles story, there was a rather strong, positive reaction to her writing.  But the comments I received about Two Serious Ladies still did not prepare me for reading this story.  This short novel, in fact her only one, is enigmatic, humorous, surprising, even shocking and sad all at the same time.  Truman Capote’s description of the story, I think, sums it up best:

Voyaging for the first time into Two Serious Ladies, I was immediately disoriented.  I did not know what to make of this object at all.  There was no discernible narrative strategy.  There was no way of explaining or analyzing the processes at work.  Interpretation was useless.  The vistas were dispiriting, the food foul, the wind always howling.  Her people were mournful, impulsive, and as erratic in their peculiar journeys’ flights as bats.  They were often drunk.  They thought continuously, obsessively, but had no thoughts exactly, no helpful method of perceiving the world or their positions in it.

Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield, the two serious ladies, spend very little time together as they are casual acquaintances.  Each has her own distinct story, but what fascinated me about both of them is their attempt to live on their own terms and find their own versions of happiness.  I found them a bit crazy but also rather brave.  Mrs. Copperfield is dragged to Central America by her adventurous husband; we get the feeling that she stays with him out of a sense of duty, even fondness or nostalgia, but she would much prefer to be off on her own.  And that’s exactly what she does.  In Colon she stays at a seedy hotel, makes friends with a prostitute, and drinks way more gin than she ought to.  At the end of the story she tells Miss Goering, “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years.  I know I’m as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.”

Miss Goering is horrified by Mrs. Copperfield’s new outlook on life, but perhaps she is frightened by those qualities which she recognizes in herself.  When the story begins she is a spinster living alone on her family’s home in upstate New York but she slowly gathers a rather strange entourage of people around her.  I found Miss Goering’s narrative to be the most surprising.  What oftentimes begins as a humorous description of her adventures quickly turns melancholy; twice she is invited by men back to their apartments and on both occasions nothing turns out as one would expect.  She is different from Mrs. Copperfield in that she seems to be on a mission to save herself and the strange men she meets from some sort of sin.  Her last words in the novel are mysterious and disconcerting: “‘Certainly I am nearer to becoming a saint,’ reflected Miss Goering, ‘but it is possible that a part of me hidden from my sight is piling sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield?’ This latter possibility Miss Goering thought to be of considerable interest but of no great importance.”

I am very eager to read Bowles’s letters which I am impatiently awaiting to arrive in the mail.  I suspect, from what little I know about her life and from reading this book, that I will find among them humor, sadness, loneliness and a lot of drinking.

16 Comments

Filed under Classics, Literary Fiction