1. Vidal asks us rhetorically, “When was the last time a poet made enough noise to be threatened with censorship?” The U.S. government has no reason to censor anyone for expressing widely accepted ideas in a marginalized art form. Our government censors, or puts on a watchlist, only those who express support for a contrary worldview. This was once the case for Communism, back when Communism was felt to be a threatening worldview; today it is the case for jihadi Islam, because that is felt to be a threatening worldview. Basically no poet or writer in our society has a problem with democracy, or women’s rights, or freedom of speech, or freedom of religion; writers do not have to be censored because they aren’t really dissenting. They are simply pushing for better/fairer/kinder versions of capitalism and democracy: More rights, fewer bombs. Our political system is well-equipped to absorb this kind of agitation; any Daring Poetic Utterance is likely to have been more directly and angrily expressed already, on a blog or in a newspaper editorial. Today’s truly daring political poet would write against the prevailing notions of the day regarding equality and peace. That’s the kind of poem that would court media blowback—not some well-meaning, right-thinking free verse screed about police brutality or racial inequality.

    Amit Majmudar, "Political Poetry" (via)

    (I recommend the whole article—remarkably sensible.)

  2. Goodreads Review Round-Up & Fall Teaching

    I miss the old Internet days when one just had a blog (or a livejournal!) and it all went there: the pretty pictures, the book reviews, the ancient quotations veiling political fears, the notes on pedagogy, etc.  But we must adapt to this multi-platform age if we want to continue to promote every aspect of our lonely lives to strangers.  

    So here, if you want to follow along as if reality were just one big MOOC, are .pdfs of my fall syllabi for Readings in the Graphic Novel and Introduction to Poetry.  Happy first day of school, kids!  

    And here, if you even care, are a month’s worth of Goodreads reviews (I also read William Giraldi’s excellent new novel, Hold the Dark, but didn’t review it as I’m writing a review-essay on Giraldi for Rain Taxi; the Woodrell and Hannah below are there as background reading for my Giraldi essay since he’s counted them among his influences—I am now an admirer of Woodrell’s and not much of an admirer of Hannah’s):

    Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

    Barry Hannah, Ray

    Vergil, The Aeneid (trans. Sarah Ruden)

    Sam Alden, It Never Happened Again: Two Stories

    Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone

    Gayl Jones, Corregidora

    Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality

    Euripides, The Bacchae and Other Plays

    Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle

    I think that’s all I have to share for now, unless the hackers turn something up in “the cloud.”  Have a good day, gentle reader!

  3. Appalled now by her fate, poor Dido prayed
    For death; she wished to see the sky no longer.
    Other things also drove her from the daylight:
    Her gifts on incense-burning altars rotted,
    Horrible to describe: wine turned to black
    And filthy gore the second that she poured it.
    No one was told. Her sister did not know it.
    There stood inside her home a marble shrine
    To her late husband: there she worshiped him,
    Spreading white fleece and hanging holy wreaths.
    She thought she heard his voice there, echoing, calling.
    When the night’s darkness covered all the earth,
    She listened to a lone owl on the rooftree
    Whose song of death kept trailing into sobs.
    Many grim warnings of the long-dead seers
    Panicked her too. In dreams a fierce Aeneas
    Chased her. She raved in fear or was abandoned,
    Friendless, forever walking a long road,
    Seeking her Tyrians in a lifeless land.
    It was like Pentheus seeing bands of Furies,
    And a pair of Thebes, and a sun split in two;
    As in a play the son of Agamemnon
    Runs from his mother’s torches and black snakes
    While vengeful demons lurk outside the door.
    Madness and grief filled her defeated heart,
    And she chose death.
    Vergil, The Aeneid (trans. Sarah Ruden)
  4. CHORUS:
    You who in earnest ignorance
    Would check the deeds of lawless men,
    And in the clash of spear on spear
    Gain honour—you are all stark mad!
    If men, to settle each dispute,
    Must needs compete in bloodshed, when
    Shall violence vanish, hate be soothed,
    Or men and cities live in peace?
    Euripides, Helen (trans. Philip Vellacott)
  5. (Art, to state it beforehand, for I will come back to it sometime in greater length—art, in which precisely the lie hallows itself, in which the will to deception has good conscience on its side, is much more fundamentally opposed to the ascetic ideal than is science: this was sensed instinctively by Plato, this greatest enemy of art that Europe has yet produced. Plato contra Homer: that is the complete, the genuine antagonism—there the “otherworldly one” with the best of wills, the great slanderer of life; here its involuntary deifier, golden nature. An artist’s subservience in the service of the ascetic ideal is therefore the truest corruption of the artist there can be, unfortunately one of the most common: for nothing is more corruptible than an artist.)
    Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (trans. Clark and Swensen)
  6. For pride like that we here must pay the fine;
    Nor yet should I be here, but that contrition
    Turned me to God while the power to sin was mine.

    O empty glory of man’s frail ambition,
    How soon its topmost boughs their green must yield;
    If no Dark Age succeed, what short fruition!

    Once Cimabue thought to hold the field
    In painting; Giotto’s all the rage to-day;
    The other’s fame lies in the dust concealed.

    Guido from Guido wrests our native bay,
    And born, belike, already is the same
    Shall chase both songsters from the nest away.

    A breath of wind—no more—is earthly fame,
    And now this way it blows and that way now,
    And as it changes quarter, changes name.

    Ten centuries hence, what greater fame hast thou,
    Stripping the flesh off late, than if thou’dst died
    Ere thou wast done with gee-gee and bow-wow?

    Ten centuries hence—and that’s a briefer tide,
    Matched with eternity, than one eye-wink
    To that wheeled course Heaven’s tardiest sphere must ride.

    Dante, Purgatorio XI (trans. Dorothy L. Sayers)
  7. So when the stair had dropped, long flight on flight,
    Away beneath us, then did Virgil turn
    On the top step and fix me with his eyes,

    Saying, “The temporal fire and the eterne
    Thou hast beheld, my son, and reached a place
    Where, of myself, no further I discern.

    I’ve brought thee here by wit and by address;
    Make pleasure now thy guide—thou art well sped
    Forth of the steep, forth of the narrow ways.

    See how the sun shines here upon thy head;
    See the green sward, the flowers, the boskages
    That from the soil’s own virtue here are bred.

    While those fair eyes are coming, bright with bliss,
    Whose tears sent me to thee, thou may’st prospect
    At large, or sit with ease to view all this.

    No word from me, no further sign expect;
    Free, upright, whole, thy will henceforth lays down
    Guidance that it were error to neglect,

    Whence o’er thyself I mitre thee and crown.”

    Dante, Purgatorio XXVII (trans. Dorothy L. Sayers)
  8.                                                         “I am
    Guido Guinizzelli, purifying myself
    already because I repented before the end.”

    As the two sons became during the sorrow
    of Lycurgus, when they saw their mother again,
    I became, without rising to their expression,

    hearing my father and the father of others
    my betters and whoever has come to use
    sweet graceful rhymes of love say his own name,

    and without hearing or speaking I walked on
    a long way, thoughtful, gazing at him,
    but because of the fire went no closer.

    When my sight had feasted enough upon him
    I offered my self at once to his service
    with that earnestness that makes others believe.

    And he to me: “You leave a mark so deep,
    through what I hear, and see clearly, in me
    that Lethe cannot wash it out nor fade it.

    But if it is the truth which you have promised,
    tell why it is that your face and speech
    make it apparent that you hold me so dear.”

    And I to him, “The sweet song of yours
    that so long as our present words endure
    will make precious the ink in which they were written.”

    "Oh brother," he said, "the one at whom I am pointing
    with my finger,” indicating a spirit before him,
    “was a better workman in the mother tongue:

    verses of love and stories of romance,
    he was peerless in all of them, and let the fools babble
    who believe that the Limousin writes better.

    They attend fashion rather than the truth.
    and in that way they make up their opinion
    before they give heed to art or reason.

    That was the way many did with Guittone,
    shout after shout all giving the prize to him
    until the truth overcame most of them.

    Now if so vast a privilege is yours
    that you are free to walk on to the cloister
    in which Christ is the abbot of the college,

    recite to Him there a Paternoster for me,
    insofar as we need one in this world
    where the power to sin is ours no longer.”

    Then, it may be to make room for another
    who was close to him, he vanished through the fire
    like a fish going into the deepest water.

    I moved forward a little toward the one
    who had been pointed out and said to him
    that my wish had made a welcome for his name.

    Freely he began to speak to me:
    “Your courteous question gives such pleasure to me
    that I will not and cannot conceal myself from you.

    I am Arnaut who weep and go singing.
    With anguish of mind I see my old folly
    and with joy see before me the hoped-for day.

    Now I beg of you by that power
    that is leading you to the top of the stair,
    while there is time remember how I suffer!”

    Then hid himself in the fire that refines them.

    Dante, Purgatorio XXVI (trans. W. S. Merwin)
  9. Most poets have given up on epic as a grand narrative… but to me the lyric has two options left, personal or impersonal truth of our emotional lives… but most of it has been done. What I seek is something more expansive, the epic frame of comic intelligence, an Aristophanean galaxy of comic parody and critique bounded and framed by the contours of ancient Epic battles of tragic heroism and the ethical judgments of the Biblical prophets… yet, within a more equitable and ironic universe of posthuman / transhuman comedy of Shakespearean plenitude…
  10. To read ‘Paradise Lost’ through Keats’s eyes is to see it in part as a poem of Shakespearean characterization, but chiefly as a poem of luxuriant and opulent description, full of growth, change, ripening, delectable sweets, and golden profusion.
    Helen Vendler, qtd. by Brad Leithauser
  11. Wendell Clausen, who belonged to the last generation of great Latin philologists, once gave us graduate students an indignant speech about the status of Roman civilization. Yes, it could be harsh, he said, but why did no one ever cite the Athenian atrocities of the Peloponnesian War to claim that they throw a shadow over Classical tragedy, when the same people assert that the Romans’ brutal reduction of Carthage in the mid-second century B.C. throws a shadow over even the greatest Roman literature?

    Professor Clausen also could have taken on ably those who scoff at Roman literature as derivative, and painted the Romans as beefy jocks, grunting over the imported glories of Homer and allowing only a jingoistic, contrived imitation of him in Vergil’s Aeneid. One of the outrages of this characterization is the denigration of twentieth-century Modernism it entails. The Romans brilliantly adapted, elaborated, deepened, and individualized—they thought their way through books, in an age less dependent on public performance and alive to the possibilities urged by the Alexandrian Library in Egypt and the scholarly post-Classical Greek literature that had risen around it.

    Professor Clausen also might have noted that the much-sneered-at Roman narrow-eyedness and hard-nosedness created for writers a more stable, continuous, and unified culture in which to develop their various arts. We can more confidently speak here of a single literature and trace intricate developments from generation to generation, instead of having to make abrupt jumps between cities, islands, and even continents that had much less in common. Students of Ancient Greek may delight in the variety of dialects and the only jaggedly related genres, but the benefits of rock-solid centralization gleam in—as a particularly precious example—the works of the late-first-century-B.C. Roman poet Horace.

    This son of a freedman, working obscurely in the central Roman bureaucracy, came to the attention of the first Emperor Augustus through the latter’s meticulous system of conscription for literary patronage. Horace (after relatively mediocre early efforts) found, through Augustus’s cultural collaborator Maecenas, personal, material, and political support for perhaps the most sublime lyric poetry in history, which drew on Greek lyric traditions that differed greatly in quality as well as in form and subject matter. At the same time, it drew on a previous Roman generation’s sometimes awkward, sometimes touching experiments on the basis of these foreign works. Horace also evolved native Italian satirical and epistolary traditions to almost queasy aesthetic heights. Horace could exist as Horace because of that quintessential Roman skill: management.

    Yet Horace, like most other Roman authors, is comparatively seldom read, studied, and taught in English.

  12. I have always wondered about the origin of literal translations. Nowadays we are fond of literal translations; in fact, many of us accept only literal translations because we want to give every man his due. That would have seemed a crime to translators in ages past. They were thinking of something far worthier. They wanted to prove that the vernacular was as capable of a great poem as the original. And I suppose that Don Juan de Jáuregui when he rendered Lucan into Spanish, though of that also. I don’t think any contemporary of Pope thought about Homer and Pope. I suppose the readers, the best readers anyhow, thought of the poem in itself. They were interested in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and they had no care for verbal trifles. All throughout the Middle Ages, people thought of translation not in terms of a literal rendering but in terms of something being re-created. Of a poet’s having read a work and then somehow evolving that work from himself, from his own might, from the possibilities hitherto known of his his language.

    How did literal translations begin? I do not think they came out of scholarship; I do not think they came out of scruples. I think they had a theological origin. For although people thought of Homer as the greatest of all poets, still they knew that Homer was human (“quandoque dormitat bonus Homerus,” and so on), and so they could reshape his words. But when it came to translating the Bible, that was something quite different, because the Bible was supposed to have been written by the Holy Ghost. If we think of the Holy Ghost, if we think of the infinite intelligence of God undertaking a literary task, then we are not allowed to think of any chance elements—of any haphazard elements in his work. No—if God writes a book, if God condescends to literature, then every word, every letter, as the Kabbalists said, must have been thought out. And it might be blasphemy to tamper with the text written by an endless, eternal intelligence.

    Thus, I think the idea of a literal translation came from translations of the Bible. This is merely my guess (I suppose there are many scholars who can correct me if I make a mistake), but I think it is highly probable. When very fine translations of the Bible were undertaken, men began to discover, began to feel, that there was a beauty in alien ways of expression. Now everybody is fond of literal translation because a literal translation always gives us those small jolts of surprise that we expect. In fact, it might be said that no original is needed. Perhaps a time will come when a translation will be considered as something in itself. We may think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portugese.

    Sometimes I have attempted a rather bold metaphor, but have seen that no one would accept it if it came from me (I am a mere contemporary), and so I have attributed it to some out-of-the-way Persian or Norseman. Then my friends have said that it was quite fine; and of course I have never told them that I invented it, because I was fond of the metaphor. After all, the Persians or Norseman may have invented that metaphor, or far better ones.
    Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse
  13. Now in the epic—and we might think of the Gospels as a kind of divine epic—all things could be found. But poetry, as I have said, has fallen asunder; or rather, on the other hand we have the lyrical poem and the elegy, and on the other we have the telling of a tale—we have the novel. One is almost tempted to think of the novel as a degeneration of the epic, in spite of such writers as Joseph Conrad or Herman Melville. For the novel goes back to the dignity of the epic.

    If we think of the novel and the epic, we are tempted to fall into thinking that the chief difference lies in the difference between verse and prose, in the difference between singing something and stating something. But I think there is a greater difference. The difference lies in the fact that the important thing about the epic is a hero—a man who is a pattern for all men. While, as Mencken pointed out, the essence of most novels lies in the breaking down of a man, in the degeneration of character.

    This brings us to another question: What do we think of happiness? What do we think of defeat, and of victory? Nowadays when people talk of a happy ending, they think of it as mere pandering to the public, or they think is a commercial device; they think of it as artificial. Yet for centuries men could very sincerely believe in happiness and in victory, thought they felt the essential dignity of defeat. For example, when people wrote about the Golden Fleece (one of the ancient stories of mankind), readers and hearers were made to feel from the beginning that the treasure would be found at the end.

    Well, nowadays if an adventure is attempted, we know that it will end in failure. When we read—I think of an example I admire—The Aspern Papers, we know that the papers will never be found. When we read Franz Kafka’s The Castle, we know that the man will never get to the castle. That is to say, we cannot really believe in happiness and in success. And this may be one of the poverties of our time.
    Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse
  14. Ember hesitated, then dialled fluently. The line was engaged. That sequence of small bar-shaped hoots was like the long vertical row of superimposed I’s in an index by first lines to a verse anthology. I am a lake. I am a tongue. I am a spirit. I am fevered. I am not covetous. I am the Dark Cavalier. I am the torch. I arise. I ask. I blow. I bring. I cannot change. I cannot look. I climb the hill. I come. I dream. I envy. I found. I heard. I intended an Ode. I know. I love. I must not grieve, my love. I never. I pant. I remember. I saw thee once. I travelled. I wandered. I will. I will. I will. I will.
    Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister
  15. I still make plans to live forever: there are too many critical questions still to be raised. Most of them can never be settled, which is the best reason for raising them. Who needs a smooth technique after hearing Hopkins’s praise “All things counter, original, spare, strange”? Well, everyone does, because what Hopkins does with the language depends on the mastery of mastery, and first you must have the mastery. And how can we write as innocently now as Shakespeare did when he gave Mercutio the speech about Queen Mab, or as Herrick did when he wrote “Oberon’s Feast”, or even as Pope did, for all his show of craft, when he summoned the denizens of the air to attend Belinda in Canto II of The Rape of the Lock? Well, we certainly can’t do it through ignorance, so there goes the idea of starting from nowhere. Better to think back on all the poems you have ever loved, and to realize what they have in common: the life you soon must lose.