Category: literature

Sixth Friend: Vachel Lindsay, “Factory Windows are Always Broken”

I hope you brought a gift, because today is this friend’s birthday – Vachel Lindsay turns 138 years old today, having been born in Springfield, Illinois in 1879. Mr. Lindsay was quite popular early in his career, but his popularity began to decline later in his life and, unfortunately, has waned more since then. He started out selling self-published work on the streets, in New York in 1905 and during treks across the country on foot in 1906, ’08, and ’12. He caught a break when Poetry Magazine, at the time still new and already influential in the literary world, published “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” in 1913, and “The Congo,” which we’ll get to shortly, in 1914. Once his popularity took off, his tours and public performances were very successful, but his fame peaked early. His fortunes declined until, in 1931, he committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol.

Though his reputation never reached the heights of the mid- to late-1910’s, Mr. Lindsay has never been forgotten, either. Friend and fellow poet Edgar Lee Masters wrote a biography of him a few years after his death, and he still shows up in anthologies of American literature. One thing that may work against him is that his most famous poem, “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race,” also happens to be of the sort that requires a trigger warning these days, and was also fairly controversial even in his own lifetime. It’s not the one I memorised for the Hundred Friends project since it’s far too long, but it’s interesting enough that I’ll go ahead and excerpt a bit:

I. THEIR BASIC SAVAGERY

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
     A deep rolling bass.
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able,
Boom, boom, BOOM,
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
I could not turn from their revel in derision.
THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,
     More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.
Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.
     A rapidly piling climax of speed & racket.
And “BLOOD” screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors,
“BLOOD” screamed the skull-faced, lean witch-doctors,
“Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
Bing.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,”
A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
     With a philosophic pause.
From the mouth of the Congo
To the Mountains of the Moon.
Death is an Elephant,
Torch-eyed and horrible,
     Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre.
Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies,
BOOM, kill the Arabs,
BOOM, kill the white men,
HOO, HOO, HOO.
Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
     Like the wind in the chimney.
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
Listen to the creepy proclamation,
Blown through the lairs of the forest-nation,
Blown past the white-ants’ hill of clay,
Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play: —
“Be careful what you do,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
     All the “O” sounds very golden. Heavy accents very heavy. Light accents very light. Last line whispered.
And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.”…

Read More Sixth Friend: Vachel Lindsay, “Factory Windows are Always Broken”

Fifth Friend: Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”

Today, we’ll meet a friend who every American reader will likely already know as the only good New Englander (well, maybe not quite the only, but close), Mr. Robert Frost. Few Americans made it through high school without reading “Mending Wall,” “The Road Not Taken,” or “Nature’s First Green is Gold.” For good reason, too. It’s not hard to see why Mr. Frost’s popularity has endured, as he’s one of the few modern poets to write mostly traditional verse, though his early work is more noticeably Modernist. So, his poems are generally aesthetically pleasant, but still thoughtful, and without the intense introspection that turns off some readers, and certainly without the degenerate form of introspection, the narcissism that marks lesser writers.

Now, for this project I’m using “Fire and Ice,” which I’ve actually memorised previously. In fact, it’s short and with such a strong rhyme scheme that I memorised it essentially by accident, simply after reading it several times:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

I’ve always liked the understatement and dry delivery of this one, but I’m not sure how much we’re supposed to read into this poem or if it is, in fact, completely tongue-in-cheek. I suppose one could use the poem to make a ham-fisted point about the destructiveness of greed and hate, but that reading is rather too obvious for me, and a writer of Mr. Frost’s calibre would, I expect, find a more subtle way of expressing that. So, I’ll keep it short this time, and let this poem stand for itself.…

Read More Fifth Friend: Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”

Edgar Allan Poe and Engineering Poetry

There’s no better time than October to revisit Edgar Allan Poe, and since I already covered his short stories last year, this year I thought we’d move on to his poetry. Unfortunately, we risk doing so at some thematic loss. Yes, his short stories are mostly horror, and so is his most famous poem, “The Raven,” but most of his poetry doesn’t really fit that category. Some of it’s still morbid, though, as beautiful young women have the same astonishing mortality rate here as they do in the stories, but to keep things seasonal I’ll focus on his most popular work.

Before diving in, though, it’s worth considering how Poe approached poetry. He describes at some length in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” not only his general theory of what a poem should seek to accomplish, but illustrates it by describing how he wrote “The Raven.” The whole thing is worth reading, but there are a couple main points relevant here. First, he says that when he begins writing, he “prefer[s] commencing with the consideration of an effect.” In his short stories, that effect or impression is typically horror; in “The Raven” Poe says that the poem’s province is beauty, and melancholy the tone.…

Read More Edgar Allan Poe and Engineering Poetry

Brief Thoughts on Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why

I just finished listening to the audiobook version Harold Bloom’s 2001 book, How to Read and Why. I often enjoy books about books, and since I’m occasionally asked for advice on how to jump into literature and Bloom seems to be a well-respected writer, I thought it’d be worth giving a shot. Overall, it’s good and I’d recommend it, but with some conditions and, for most people, not before a couple other works in the genre.

The main part of the book goes through various representative works in poetry, short stories, novels, and plays, with Bloom outlining some of the main structural and thematic points, and discussing the value of the work and author in question. Most of this is fairly standard literary criticism, but Bloom is clearly very well read, thoughtful, and engaging. The selection is, overall, rather conservative, which is fine. It’s hard to go wrong with Austen, Hemingway, Wordsworth, and Faulkner, for instance. His selection is weighted toward English literature and Shakespeare is the oldest author included; this excludes a great deal of foundational Western literature, but since How to Read and Why is targeted to beginners, it is reasonable to focus on well-known, easily available works, and avoid the potentially sticky issue of translation. I haven’t read many of the works included, but the only one I’d object to is Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the only “affirmative action” selection, despite Bloom’s praise for the book.

One thing I especially appreciate about Bloom is his dismissal of academic fads, the idea that authors must be political activists, and the like. He writes in the Introduction:

Ultimately we read – as Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson agree – in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests. We experience such augmentations as pleasure, which may be why aesthetic values have alwasy been deprecated by social moralists, from Plato through our current campus Puritans. The pleasures of reading are selfish rather than social. You cannot directly improve anyone else’s life by reading better or more deeply. I remain skeptical of the traditional social hope that care for others may be stimulated by the growth of individual imagination, and I am wary of any arguments whatsoever that connect the pleasures of solitary reading to the public good.

Accordingly, Bloom takes each author on the author’s own terms, avoiding reading modern fashions into the texts, and focuses on what each author offers to the reader as an individual.

That’s all well and good, and Bloom so far sounds broadly Conservative. However, one quickly gets the impression that he’s simply a Liberal who’s been left behind as the rest of the Left moves forward faster than he has. For example, he has the silly habit of using “she” as a gender-neutral pronoun, and when discussing romantic relationships between characters feels it necessary to specify “heterosexual.” Also, though I don’t think he’s a Freudian, he still talks about sexuality in a way that makes me suspect that the discredited psychologist is lurking around somewhere.

Also, he offers a number of opinions that I’m reluctant to criticise at any length, not having read his full arguments, but that are, frankly, rather dubious. One of the more famous examples is his assertion that William Shakespeare “invented the human,” as we now think of humans. He discusses this in depth in another book, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, but I find it hard to believe that this work would reward the time I put into it (though I am open to recommendations).

Finally, the audiobook is narrated by John McDonough, who does well and navigates the proper pronunciation of international authors’ names admirably (at least, as far as I can judge such things).

So, is How to Read and Why worth picking up? There are certainly benefits to it, especially for those looking to get started with a serious study of literature but want something less dry and systematic than Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s How to Read a Book, or less idiosyncratic and specific to poetry than Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. I prefer these latter two, and Adler and van Doren will still be my go-to recommendation, but Bloom will do just fine for a more casual starting-point.…

Read More Brief Thoughts on Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why

Fourth Friend: John Milton, “Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How my Light is Spent”

If you’ve been on social media for any significant length of time, you’ve probably seen a meme purporting to show books typical for each of the three major branches of Christianity. For Catholicism, it has Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, for Eastern Orthodoxy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and for Protestantism, Joel Osteen’s Become a Better You. It’s funny, yes, but it also annoys me a little. For one thing, though I hate heresy and consider their revolt against the Church the greatest catastrophe of the past several centuries, I do have some sympathy for Protestants. I live in the American South, after all, which despite a significant Catholic presence is still a fundamentally Protestant place. Many of my friends belong to one of those denominations, and when I think of Protestants I first think, not of the despicable Luther and Calvin or the dopey Osteen, but of my Baptist grandfather, who in the last decade or so of his life approached his church with full sincerity, and collected an impressive library of different editions and translations of Scripture, comparing each and considering the commentaries of various theologians.

Also, it offends my sense of fairness, because there have been many great works of Protestant literature. I don’t think any come to the level of The Divine Comedy, but Protestants can claim no lesser artists than Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Donne, and indeed most great English authors from the Elizabethan era onward. Bl. John Henry Newman went so far as to say that the English literary tradition is fundamentally Protestant. Now, that was already debatable when he said it in the 1852, and it has become even more so since then, but I ultimately do agree with him and it’s hard to argue that there isn’t some truth to it.

Read More Fourth Friend: John Milton, “Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How my Light is Spent”

Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus

When writing about Tales of Mystery and Imagination, I mentioned that Edgar Allan Poe is an unusual member of the literary canon because of the types of stories he wrote, mostly horror. When thinking of comparable works, two come to mind right away. One is Dracula, by Bram Stoker. However, though Stoker’s vampire might be the most famous icon in horror, his work seems most influential in pop culture, rather than literature. Also, the novel kinda sucks (er, no pun intended). It reaches a climax too early, and was written in the horrid epistolary format, a style that has long since gone out of style, and good riddance.

Dracula’s only competitor for greatest horror icon is Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster, which brings us to a second work comparable to Poe, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley. Again, it’s most influential in pop culture, so much so that just as it’s hard to think of Dracula without thinking of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, it’s hard to think of Frankenstein without imagining Colin Clive or Peter Cushing, or the monster apart from Boris Karloff. In literature, it’s an early prototype of both horror and science fiction; not exactly the most respected genres, but nonetheless, certainly worth something. It’s also very much in the Romantic mode, which may be a strength or a weakness, depending on the reader’s taste for melodrama. Most importantly, though, unlike Dracula it’s a genuinely good novel.

Read More Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus

Third Friend: John Donne, “Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud”

Our next acquaintance is with John Donne, who lived about a century before Alexander Pope, having been born in 1572 and passing away in 1631, and like Pope his family’s Catholic faith caused him some trouble early in his life. Interestingly, his mother was a direct descendent of St. Thomas More, and though he was able to study at Oxford and Cambridge, he couldn’t receive a degree there because his religion prevented him from swearing a required oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth. Unfortunately, he did not have More’s constancy, and after traveling in Italy and Spain for a few years, left the Church and became an Anglican sometime while working as a secretary for Sir Thomas Egerton. Disappointing, but I won’t doubt his sincerity given his reputation among those who knew him. He would eventually join the Anglican priesthood, despite feeling himself unworthy, after years of urging from his friends and even from King James I. He did suffer about ten years of hardship, though, because of his relationship with Anne More, who he secretly married because he knew he wouldn’t receive her father’s permission, which in those days was career suicide.…

Read More Third Friend: John Donne, “Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud”

Second Friend: Alexander Pope, “A Little Learning”

After our brief visit in Japan, we come home to the English-speaking world to see one of our most famous poets, Mr. Alexander Pope. Though he did achieve financial stability and a good reputation during his lifetime as a respected poet and accomplished translator, his early life was difficult due to health problems (specifically, turberculosis of the spine, as well as being trampled by a cow as a child). Also, he was born in 1688, the same year as the “Glorious” Revolution, so he and his family were subject to the anti-Catholic legislation passed shortly afterward. For example, he was barred from attending university and so had to make due as an autodidact. This doesn’t seem to have held him back too much intellectually, though, and so he should serve as an inspiration for autodidacts everywhere.

The poem I’ve memorised is actually a selection from a longer work, An Essay on Criticism, but it’s probably the most famous part of that essay:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir’d at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc’d, behold with strange surprise
New, distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleas’d at first, the tow’ring Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
Th’ eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But those attain’d, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen’d way,
Th’ increasing prospect tires our wand’ring eyes,
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!


Well, we have the rhymed couplets that Mr. Pope is known for. This form was very common at the time but has long since fallen out of fashion, which honestly is fine with me since they’re a little boring. Also, they made this selection oddly more difficult than I expected – rhymes make memorisation easier in general, and memorising the couplets was simple enough, but each stands almost on its own, so the hard part was tying them all together in one unit and in the right order. In other words, rhymes help one to form sets of lines into “chunks,” so for example a rhyme scheme of abba gives you a four-line chunk. Unfortunately, couplets give a set of a mere two lines.

In any case, the poem itself is relevant to all autodidacts like Mr. Pope. When we study anything of substance, it’s easy and tempting to settle for a merely surface-level understanding of the subject. However, this is a dangerous attitude to take. We come away with a few facts, but no real understanding, and what facts we have are easily confused or forgotten. To quote another author, Bl. John Henry Newman, “Confused, inaccurate knowledge is no knowledge. It is the very fault we find with youths under education that they use words without meaning, that they are wanting in precision and distinctness, that they are ignorant of what they know and what they do not know.” I’ve covered some similar thoughts from Cardinal Newman previously.

I thought this would be an appropriate poem to cover early on because, as discussed in the introductory post, the best way to “drink largely” when attempting to understand a poem is to commit it to memory. So, whether you’re joining me in the study of poetry or if you’ve taken on another subject, remember to “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring!”…

Read More Second Friend: Alexander Pope, “A Little Learning”

First Friend: Fujiwara no Masatsune, “Hyakunin Isshu 94”

The first friend we’re making in the Hundred Friends project is Fujiwara no Masatsune, a Japanese poet and editor who lived 1170-1221. His picture and this poem is on the card to the right, and you can read a little more about both over here, if you like.

As I mentioned in the introductory post, this will mostly be an English project, but since the idea came from the Japanese anthology Hyakunin Isshu, I thought it would be appropriate to begin with a poem from that collection. This is the ninety-fourth poem in that book, and in Mostow’s translation goes like this:

Fair Yoshino,
the autumn wind in its mountains
deepens the night and
in the former capitol, cold
I hear the fulling of cloth…

Read More First Friend: Fujiwara no Masatsune, “Hyakunin Isshu 94”

Making One Hundred Friends, or: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Poets

Two years ago, I wrote about an excellent little book called the Hyakunin Isshu, a Medieval Japanese poetry anthology of one hundred poems, specifically five-line tanka, each by a different poet. At the time, I started wondering if, perhaps, I could memorise that many poems. If that sounds overly ambitious, keep in mind that this is something people actually do for a game called “karuta,” which is a card-matching game based around the poems. So, it’s certainly feasible, but I’m unsure about memorising the Hyakunin Isshu specifically. As much as I love the book, I do like some poems more than others, and besides, I’d like to write about the experience as I go. Each of the hundred poems, though, has already been covered, and covered very well, at this excellent blog.

Besides, as much as I admire Japan, I’m also a good patriot and so do ultimately prefer the literature of my own people. Could I make an English Hyakunin Isshu? The idea has stuck with me this long, and after memorising a couple of poems recently I remembered how much I enjoy doing this. So, after floating the idea on Twitter, I’ve decided to go ahead with this project.

Now, the closest equivalent to tanka we have would be the sonnet, but I soon decided to branch out a bit. I’m going to be spending a lot of time with these poems, and putting together a hundred of these was already a challenge, so though the sonnet would ultimately be well represented, I’m not restricting the list to them.

Regarding language and the poets’ countries of origin, I consider this an English project, though I also included a few Frenchmen since, contrary to what geographers may tell you, Britain is not an island, as well as one Japanese as a nod to the project’s origin. Furthermore, since this is supposed to be a set of standards, I was generally conservative in my selections; some of these are very well-known, almost cliché. That’s fine, because they deserve their reputation, and one benefit from this project will be a greater familiarity with the most notable poems in the language. Several of these are the types that make one think, “Oh, so that’s where that saying comes from!”

I prioritised poets from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, though the ultimate range is quite broad and other eras are well represented. Of course, some worthy poets are left out simply because I didn’t have room, or they didn’t have any suitable poems. A few of these are already quite a bit longer than is probably wise.

Me being me, I also favoured Cavaliers over Puritans, and Southerners over Yankees.

I should mention that I did get quite a bit of help in selecting these poets, as one can see from this thread where I announced the project. Joshua Jennings, always trustworthy in literary matters, contributed the most, but I also received suggestions from Arthur Ownby, Testis Gratus, Amy Mellein, Egon Maistre, and Fredrik Andréasson. Ezra Pound’s book ABC of Reading provided several of these, as well.

I am including some poems I’ve already memorised, so I do have a head start. Still, I’m unsure how long this will take. My goal will be one or two poems per week, but they vary so wildly in length that it’s hard to predict how this will go. Nonetheless, when it comes to reciting poetry, my ability is second only to Humpty Dumpty.

One final note, for those wondering about the “hundred friends” title. It comes from a comic called Chihayafuru, which is based on the karuta card game mentioned above and is how I first learned of both the game and the poems. I wrote about it a few years ago. In any case, when the protagonist first begins with the game and has to memorise all of the poems, her coach tells her to think of it as making a hundred new friends. The metaphor between a poem or poet and a friend is one that has stuck with me. As one can imagine, there’s no better way to really learn and understand a poem than to commit it to memory. Beyond that, though, there’s a deeper connection that’s difficult to describe, but it’s just what Confucius was getting at when he encouraged his students to study the Book of Odes, because the poems “will stimulate your emotions, broaden your observation, enlarge your fellowship, and express your grievances.” Some of my posts on these poems will be longer than others; some may offer a bit of analysis, others will basically just be “here’s a poem I think is worthwhile,” but I hope to be able to explain this better as we go on.

I also hope to encourage you to make some new friends of your own.…

Read More Making One Hundred Friends, or: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Poets