Category: poetry

La Vita Nuova (75 Books LXVII)

Writing about Dante’s non-fiction Monarchia not once, but twice on this blog, and once at length on the main site, made me want to revisit his poetry. I haven’t had time to tackle The Divine Comedy this year, but was able to get through the fairly short La Vita Nuova over Christmas weekend, when not visiting with my kinsfolk.

La Vita Nuova is a bit of an odd work; the poetry makes up the centrepiece, but the work as a whole is autobiographical, and concerns Dante’s relationship, such as it was, with Beatrice. His love for Beatrice is famous, and plays a large part in The Divine Comedy, but as intensely felt as it was for Dante, from the outside not much seems to have come from it. They never really do anything together, barely so much as even a short conversation, and Dante deliberately hides his love for at least the first part of this story. If anything, the style of the book reminds me of the Hyakunin Isshu, which I just wrote about, in that it’s essentially a collection of occasional poems that Dante wrote capturing or commenting on moments with Beatrice, her friends, love in general, and so on. Basically, as the hundred poets would write a tanka as almost a matter of course whenever something subjectively interesting happens, Dante does the same but typically in sonnet form.…

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One Hundred Leaves (75 Books LXVI)

There are only two groups of Americans who are likely to know about the Hyakunin Isshu, literature enthusiasts who’ve taken an interest in Japan, and fans of the comic and anime Chihayafuru. I’m certainly the former and like the latter enough to have imported the French edition, so Frank Watson’s One Hundred Leaves: A New Annotated Translation of the Hyakunin Isshu seemed like a must-have to me.

If you’re not in either of those groups, the Hyakunin Isshu is an anthology of one hundred poems, each by a different poet, compiled by poet and critic Fujiwara no Teika around 1237. For readers, myself included, who don’t have a lot of experience with Japanese poetry, Watson does offer a few things to help us out. There’s a short introduction on appreciating this style of poem, annotations explaining the intricate wordplay that characterises these works, and a “literal” translation of each poem to supplement the main translation. He also includes the original versions, both in Japanese script and English transliteration, for those who either know a little Japanese or want to read them out loud. Finally, he also provides a painting from traditional Japanese art to complement each poem. Unfortunately, a few aspects of the presentation do fall short of the ideal. The pictures are in black-and-white with no indication of the title or artist, and it’s sometimes hard to see what the picture has to do with the poem it ostensibly illustrates. Not all poems have annotations, either; some stand on their own well enough not to need much explanation, but it would be nice to at least get a short biographical note about the writers. The annotations also get a little repetitive; for example, he explains several times that the image of “wet sleeves” indicates wiping away tears.…

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“All I Ever Want to Write About” – Dylan Thomas on Mortality

While telling a friend about a new poem he’d been working on, Dylan Thomas commented that he would use the title “Deaths and Entrances” for both the poem and the collection “because that is all I ever write about or want to write about.”* Though Thomas did, of course, write about several other topics, he did use mortality as the topic of many of his poems. His treatment of the subject, though, changes drastically over the course of his career, beginning with satire and moving through anxiety, resistance, and finally a graceful acceptance.

Thomas’s first major poem to deal with the topic of death is “After the Funeral.” Like many of Thomas’s poems, this one was inspired by an actual event, in this case the funeral of his aunt, Ann Jones. It was written gradually between February 1933 and March 1938, and because of its shift in attitude during the writing process and because it is a relatively early poem is an ideal place to start for considering Thomas’s changing treatments of mortality.

The first part to be written, roughly the first third of the poem, treats the funeral almost sarcastically, and focuses on the hypocrisy of the mourners. Thomas describes their expression of grief hyperbolically, making them appear ridiculous with their “mule praises, brays” and “salt ponds in sleeves,” and a “desolate boy,” possibly Thomas himself, “who slits his throat” in grief. Even the deceased is not treated much better, described bluntly and without any sentimentality or romanticising as “dead, humped Ann.” The satire may be interpreted as a precursor to his later rejection of the appropriateness of traditional funeral practices, but the mourners’ actions so far are more vaudevillian than anything else.

However, the tone of the poem soon changes abruptly. Even though the proceedings are “magnified out of praise” and thus inappropriate for Ann, in the very next line after the parentheses the narrator proclaims himself to be “Ann’s bard,” which has very romantic, traditional connotations, and as though the narrator viewed himself as a knight in shining armour. The style of the rest of the poem is almost Romantic, with references to nature (“meek as milk,” “ferned and foxy woods”), and more elevated language as he creates a “monumental / Argument of the hewn voice” in honour of Ann. In moving from “dead, humped Ann” to this more admiring treatment, he turns from satire to elegy, as though he changed his mind halfway through the poem on whether traditional religious ceremony is appropriate for the ugliness of death.…

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Long Thoughts on a Short Verse

The first thing most people notice when they read Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is how amazingly short it is – just two lines, plus a title. By making the work so brief, Pound successfully denies the reader a sense of closure or fulfillment after finishing the poem, which emphasizes the work’s implication of the anonymity and listlessness of the people in the titular metro station. Although Pound certainly could have made the work longer and more developed, the work is ultimately strengthened by denying the reader any development of its central idea.

The primary result of Pound’s denial of closure in “In a Station of the Metro” is the sense that the poem is just a passing observation of a morning commuter. First, one should notice that the full poem consists of a sentence fragment. This gives the impression that the work is incomplete, that the writer has either just started or just now had the inspiration to write. This effect is significant to the poem’s theme because it implies that even the poet does not have the time or motive to fully develop what sounds like a very promising start to a work.…

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“For a Few Thousand Battered Books” – Ezra Pound and the First World War

This post is a revised version of an essay I wrote a few years ago; I’m posting it here in honour of Pound’s upcoming birthday. Please forgive its length – I’ll go back to my normal style shortly after this. For now, think of it as a preview of the literature-focused website I mentioned working on in last week’s post.


Though many poets write about social, political, and economic issues, few have made such matters as integral to their work as Ezra Pound. Literary criticism would always form a large part of his prose work, like ABC of Reading, but he wrote at least as much on economics and politics, like ABC of EconomicsJefferson and/or Mussolini, and segments of Guide to Kulchur. Even in his poetry, references to historical figures like John Adams and Sigismundo Malatesta outnumber artists.

The apparent catalyst for Pound’s concern with socio-economic matters was the First World War. Prior to the war, most of his writing deals directly with encouraging a revival of the arts, and poetry in particular. After the war, beginning with Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, he began to seriously consider the war and its causes, and his conclusions on the nature of and relationship between politics, economics, and the arts would shape his poetic and prose output for the rest of his career, especially in his epic poem The Cantos.…

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

Last summer, I decided to brush up my knowledge of Classical literature by reading a few Greek authors. Last week I decided to read The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is older by around a millenium, because I always like to go one step beyond.

I read Maureen Gallery Kovacs’s translation, and she provides a lot of supplementary material, including an introduction to the composition and history of the text, a glossary of proper names, many footnotes, and summaries of each “tablet.” The annotations and summaries come in handy, because as the introduction explains, much of the Epic is lost. In fact, Kovacs uses a few different versions of the Epic to fill in gaps in the “Standard Version.” Now, Kovacs’s translation was published in 1989, so perhaps newer editions have more of the work restored. Either way, though, these gaps generally do not create a serious obstacle to understanding. Kovacs is able to provide a probable description of what happens in the lacunae. More often they’re simply nuisances. For example, when Gilgamesh confronts the demon Humbaba, we get the initial threats, dialogue, and some of the action, but then suddenly Gilgamesh has captured Humbaba. How did he accomplish this, exactly? There’s no way to know.…

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Impressions of ‘The Iliad’

Just this afternoon I finally finished Homer’s The Iliad, translated by Robert Fitzgerald. “Finally,” partly because I should probably have read it years ago, and partly because it took me a solid two months to get through – slow going, even at the more relaxed reading pace I’ve adopted since graduating university.

So, I thought I’d share a few impressions from the epic. For one, like The Odyssey, it began in media res, in the ninth year of the Trojan War. Unlike The Odyssey, it also ended in media res. I thought that may happen as I neared the end, since there were several events I know happen during the war that there simply wasn’t room for in the volume I held, but I didn’t expect it to just… stop.

Akhileus struck me as mopier than I expected. One of the most famous heroes in Western literature spends the vast majority of the poem moping in his tent. I’ve heard enough synopses of The Iliad to know that Akhileus was a moody one, but I expected to see more of the poem’s best-known character. He did make up for it when he finally did emerge to fight, and seemingly single-handedly turned back the Trojan army.

If Akhileus came across as too moody for my taste, though, the other heroes carried the epic brilliantly. The poem is more action-heavy than I expected – in fact, most of the book describes combat, and Homer spares no detail in describing who killed whom and how. Homer uses (and Fitzgerald translates) his language beautifully. His metaphors were always vivid, though perhaps a bit repetitive with some imagery. He describes men as  lions and cattle, for example, several times.

I also liked the multitude of speeches, though I did find it hard to imagine how some of these men found time to stand and talk during battle. I also noticed that apparently when a Greek wanted to propose something, he first had to set forward his credentials by giving his family history, and acknowledge the credentials of his fellows. An inefficient mode of speech, perhaps, but impressive nonetheless.

Overall, I really enjoyed the epic, though I do prefer The Odyssey. It’s something I needed to read eventually, but I’m always glad to read a classic and see immediately why it’s held in such high esteem.…

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Memorizing Poetry

As promised, Serious Business.

In order to improve my memory, impress chicks, and maybe even learn something, I’ve begun memorizing poetry. During the summer, I committed the entirety of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” to memory, in addition to several other poems over the past seven months or so. Namely, Edgar Allen Poe’s “El Dorado,” Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert,” Ezra Pound’s “A Pact” and “In a Station of the Metro,” and Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” Right now I’m working on Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

The process is surprisingly easy. Just going a couple lines at a time, memorizing even a longer poem like “The Hollow Men” isn’t too difficult, so long as one is willing to invest some time in the process and repeats the learned material with some regularity. Shorter poems, especially highly metrical ones like “El Dorado,” take very little effort at all.

To what end this endeavour? On a practical level, it’s a workout for one’s memory, and helps me remember portions of works that I have not even tried to commit to memory. Having a ready body of works memorized also allows one to take advantage of any opportunities for a (perhaps overly) clever reference in the course of conversation.

Of course, spending so much time with a poem also aids understanding. I feel that I understand “The Hollow Men” better now than I did when I first began memorizing it, simply because I have dealt with it so much. The structure of these poems also becomes much clearer.

In short, it’s an engaging, beneficial exercise, and a big hit at parties

Nerdy parties, anyway.…

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On Reading the Cantos

Ezra Pound is one of those poets who tends to intimidate people, and as I finish up reading A Draft of XXX Cantos I can certainly see why. I imagine he would have been okay with that, though. Judging from his ABC of Reading, he was what you might call a “poet’s poet.” He didn’t seem to have much patience for the lazy student of poetry, though in both the ABC and the Cantos he does help the student – the truly interested student – where he can, at least in his own way.

For example, on first opening the Cantos, one notices how there seems to be little connection between different passages. Worse, these passages tend to make use of many historical and literary figures, some well-known and some obscure, and though the primary language of the poem is English, he even throws in an assortment of other languages.

So, what the hell’s going on? First of all, don’t panic. Just read. In the ABC of Reading, Pound places more stress on what he calls “melopoeia,” the sound of the language, than on “phanopoeia,” the meaning of the language. If the reader can at least appreciate the sound of Pound’s work, then he already understands a great part of the Cantos.

As for the meaning, it helps to be widely read. The Odyssey and the Divine Commedy are referenced often. Reading Pound’s ABC of Reading is also a great primer for the Cantos, since he introduces the reader to his own philosophy of writing and reading poetry, and also gives examples of works he considers especially worthwhile in the Western literary tradition.
Luckily, all of Pound’s references can be traced to specific people and characters from history and literature, as opposed to, say, Symbolist poets who sometimes give few hints for what they’re talking about. Furthermore, whenever an idea is especially important, Pound will expound on it for a while before moving on, which at least helps hint what parts of the Cantos the reader ought to focus on, and also gives some additional material to work with.

Also of importance is what Pound refers to in ABC as the “ideogrammic method.” In short, this involves juxtaposing two or more images or ideas to convey another idea. He draws this from his study of Chinese ideograms, where more complex characters are formed by combining simpler characters.
So, in the first section of the first Canto, Pound presents a translation of the Odyssey. Why? The Odyssey is by Homer, the oldest epic poet in the Western tradition, and the section he translates was, at the time, thought to be the oldest part of the Odyssey. The ideogrammic method comes in because he translates it into Anglo-Saxon verse form, the oldest form of poetry in the English language. What’s the ideogram? That he intends to make use of the Western literary tradition in this poem, and will be going back to the oldest parts of this tradition.

See? That’s not so hard, is it?

Okay, yeah it’s still pretty tough, but that’s what annotated editions are for……

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‘Tis Better to be Brief

One thing that I’ve learned in the last year is the power of brevity.

Now, I’ve known this, to some extent, ever since I read The Elements of Style back when I first got interested in writing in middle school, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I realized just how condensed a written work can be. I refer you to Ezra Pound’s famous “In a Station of the Metro.”

Here’s a poem that consists only of two lines and a title. Not only that, but the two lines aren’t even a proper sentence – there’s no predicate. One can say, literally, that nothing happens in this poem. Personally, I was somewhat puzzled by this poem when I first encountered it, and remained so until last year when I had to write an essay on a work of my choice, and chose this poem.

That nothing happens is almost certainly intentional. This is an example of imagist poetry, which, as one might guess, emphasizes the importance of imagery in a poem over high-sounding, elaborate language and flowery description. “Metro” is an extreme example, but that Pound is able to convey any idea at all in a single image is remarkable.

So, what is that idea? My guess is that the poem is an ironic statement on the hectic environment of a metro station. Go to a big-city subway, and see how many people come and go. Quite frenetic, right? Yet, not only does this poem not really describe the action, but as stated above literally nothing happens. There is also a contrast between the people in the crowd and the man-made setting against the natural images used to describe them. The irony is great, and the poem ends up much more powerful and memorable than if Pound had taken the more traditional route and described the metro in longer, more elaborate verse.…

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