Archive for ‘literature’


“River, I’ve never seen the sea…”

As the teacher in my household prepares to steer her ninth-graders through tricky literary currents, she’s revisiting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; I’ve hopped aboard and joined her on the raft. I read Twain’s novel when I was 14, but returning to it more than three decades later has been a revelation. I hadn’t expected to find that the natural focus on slavery and race had obscured Twain’s other related ideas.

I’m probably the last adult reader to notice what makes it such a rich and challenging book: the perfect ease of the narrative voice, the tender passages about life on the river, and the wrenching moments when Huck starts to comprehend Jim’s humanity. And holy crow, Huck Finn is an epic catalog of the deficiencies and absurdities of the antebellum South: family feuds of long-forgotten origin; the poisonous grafting of codes of honor to lawlessness and mob violence; and grifters peddling phrenology, cynical revivalism, and mutilated Shakespeare to yokels who fully deserve to be conned. I can’t be the first person to imagine that the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? owes far more to Huck Finn than to The Odyssey for its episodic mythologizing of Southern culture.

What leaped out at me the most, though, is Twain’s full-on satire of people who take their entertainment way too seriously. I’ve written before about the chapter in Life on the Mississippi where the state capitol in Baton Rouge ignites Twain’s rant about the South’s destructive obsession with the Middle Ages:

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it. It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things—materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

[…]

By itself the imitation castle is doubtless harmless, and well enough; but as a symbol and breeder and sustainer of maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world has seen, it is necessarily a hurtful thing and a mistake.

Twain is sincere in his loathing of romanticism, but in Life on the Mississippi he’s too blunt and unfunny about it to sound like anything but a crank. In Huck Finn, published two years later, he more effectively vents his ire through the excesses of Tom Sawyer, whose mania for tales of adventure tests the patience of his more practical friend:

We played robber now and then about a month, and then I resigned. All the boys did. We hadn’t robbed nobody, hadn’t killed any people, but only just pretended. We used to hop out of the woods and go charging down on hog-drivers and women in carts taking garden stuff to market, but we never hived any of them. Tom Sawyer called the hogs “ingots,” and he called the turnips and stuff “julery,” and we would go to the cave and powwow over what we had done, and how many people we had killed and marked. But I couldn’t see no profit in it.

One time Tom sent a boy to run about town with a blazing stick, which he called a slogan (which was the sign for the Gang to get together), and then he said he had got secret news by his spies that next day a whole parcel of Spanish merchants and rich A-rabs was going to camp in Cave Hollow with two hundred elephants, and six hundred camels, and over a thousand “sumter” mules, all loaded down with di’monds, and they didn’t have only a guard of four hundred soldiers, and so we would lay in ambuscade, as he called it, and kill the lot and scoop the things. He said we must slick up our swords and guns, and get ready.  He never could go after even a turnip-cart but he must have the swords and guns all scoured up for it, though they was only lath and broomsticks, and you might scour at them till you rotted, and then they warn’t worth a mouthful of ashes more than what they was before. I didn’t believe we could lick such a crowd of Spaniards and A-rabs, but I wanted to see the camels and elephants, so I was on hand next day, Saturday, in the ambuscade; and when we got the word we rushed out of the woods and down the hill. But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer-class at that. We busted it up, and chased the children up the hollow; but we never got anything but some doughnuts and jam, though Ben Rogers got a rag doll, and Jo Harper got a hymn-book and a tract; and then the teacher charged in, and made us drop everything and cut.

I didn’t see no di’monds, and I told Tom Sawyer so. He said there was loads of them there, anyway; and he said there was A-rabs there, too, and elephants and things. I said, why couldn’t we see them, then?  He said if I warn’t so ignorant, but had read a book called Don Quixote, I would know without asking. He said it was all done by enchantment. He said there was hundreds of soldiers there, and elephants and treasure, and so on, but we had enemies which he called magicians; and they had turned the whole thing into an infant Sunday-school, just out of spite. I said, all right; then the thing for us to do was to go for the magicians. Tom Sawyer said I was a numskull.

Huck and Tom argue about wizards and genies, and Huck decides to test his friend’s claims. It’s one of many times when he tries on the world-views of others as he struggles to work out his own:

I thought all this over for two or three days, and then I reckoned I would see if there was anything in it. I got an old tin lamp and an iron ring, and went out in the woods and rubbed and rubbed till I sweat like an Injun, calculating to build a palace and sell it; but it warn’t no use, none of the genies come. So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday-school.

Of course—spoiler alert for time-traveling readers from the 1880s—Tom Sawyer plays a huge role in the climax of Huck Finn when he agrees to help free Jim from imprisonment in a shack. Tom and Huck could easily break him out in a moment, but the liberation has to happen on Tom’s convoluted terms. Day after day, Tom draws out Jim’s captivity by insisting on all the elaborate trappings of a swashbuckling adventure novel: a secret tunnel, a coat of arms, snakes and rats, a rope ladder baked in a pie—there’s even talk of sawing off Jim’s leg even though he could free himself from his chain simply by lifting the leg of his bed.

Many readers find the whole episode tedious and cruel, but the cruelty is the point. It would be easy to see the better-educated, middle-class Tom Sawyer as a lovable scamp who just wants others to share his bookish whims, but in Huck Finn he embodies a trend that Twain found troubling: the triumph of fantasy over reason and reality. Whatever the character meant to him elsewhere, Tom Sawyer is a figure of dangerous foolishness here. Wouldn’t Twain glower disapprovingly at the emergence of fandoms so all-encompassing that they inspire cosplay, cultural squabbling, and vicarious reinterpretations of history? He might have said that what our geeky age has wrought from harmless escapism will someday prove harmful to people who won’t play along. I guess we’ll see.

Jim is held captive for far longer than he needs to be because of storybook romanticism. You could see the whole Civil War in that, if you want.

“And everything under the sun is in tune…”

We hardly need any more books in our house. They’re shelved in the guest room, stacked in the bathroom, tucked under tables, and stowed in my trunk. I try to discourage people from sending me books, even if they look pretty good; my backlog is immense. But last spring, when a stranger from Pittsburgh contacted me to tell me about the epic he’d written, I almost filed away his email without replying, yet something about his good-natured mix of modesty and erudition told me to give him a more thorough look. I’m glad I did; Tim Miller has joined a select group of quirky poets who feel called to contend with a neglected form, the book-length narrative poem, and what he does with it is brilliant.

To the House of the Sun is no dainty chapbook; it’s 33 books long, a 600-page tome illustrated with woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer and annotated to the hilt. On the surface, it’s the story of Conrad, a young Irish man in Savannah during the Civil War who wanders north, in love with a ghost, losing himself in a quest for personal vengeance but finding peace and wisdom beyond his imagining. To say more about Conrad’s involvement in the war, the famous figures he encounters, and where his quest really takes him would spoil the strange, sprawling plot. But like other poems in the epic tradition, Tim Miller’s book is about more than its narrative. Its diction and tone help tell a richer and more universal story, one that begins with vivid purpose:

In the second year of our War:
in the fourth month:
on the twelfth day of the month,
as I stood on the sands of Savannah facing the sea,
a voice breathed into me—
    & my song ascended to be sung:
        my poem came down from its own mouth:
    & these new words were my life:

& before the end, I wound my way around the mountains: I found my way to the hidden road, where the sun rises: & I created for us all a dwelling out of danger, here & in heaven, & the underworld:

& here, I will write & inscribe & show:
here, I will make a place to see it,
    the Book & the Day:
here, I will make a place to watch,
    the light beside the sea:
here, I will make the ground to know,
    of a place in the shadows:
here, I will make a place to live in the dawn:
here, I will bring a voice back
    that will stand us all upright:
    make us all unbroken by grief:
    unstricken by cares—
    that will raise up low spirits:

& she was the beginning & the end of my song,
& my stand on the shore.

To the House of the Sun evokes millennia of faith, storytelling, and scholarship simply by committing to its orthography: from its first lines, it looks like the typed-up notes of a young scholar seized by inspiration as he transcribes and translates a cryptic inscription. Look closer, though, to see the designs of a careful poet: these lines mark where the singer’s words intersect time; alliteration evokes a sense of place (“the sands of Savannah facing the sea”); and psalmic repetition gives them incantatory power, affirming poetry’s roots in enchantment. This could be Gilgamesh, King David, or Hildegard of Bingen, and Miller honors that ageless mysticism here. To the House of the Sun sounds and feels like an ancient text, layered with fragments of sources and traditions, a pastiche that takes familiar poems and scriptures and stories and weaves them into something inspiring and fresh.

I don’t know how else to give a sense of To the House of the Sun but to share a few representative passages. Here’s a slave describing how he stole children’s copybooks and taught himself to read:

& when I didn’t have one I looked at the board fence:
I looked at the brick wall:
I looked at the sides of carriages:
I looked at the storefront windows,
all covered with words to unlock:

& my family are long gone from here, so I’ve never feared getting sold away from anybody. & words were all I had—and as long as I could smile as we passed from Corinth to Athens & know what those names meant, they couldn’t take a thing from me. & that’s real freedom: that’s more freedom than jumping up North where all they want is to send me back to Africa. I’d rather take a beating down here than their pity & a boat fare, up there:

    when a freed black man can walk a Southern street &
      whistle at a white woman & not be
        hanged or cut up or beaten
        or weighed down with stones & thrown in a river—
      & when a freed black man can walk a Northern
street without being accused of taking every white man’s job—
      & when the President himself doesn’t assume living among us is impossible—
That’s when it’ll get so much better. Until then we’ll always be an object to you people—& my own mind is enough in the meantime.

[ . . . ]

I recognize the starts in the sky, & that’s a privilege the wealthy can’t own. Do what you can not to be owned, is all.

Here’s a battlefield chaplain, telling his story:

I was walking through a hospital when a man came yelling after me: & he tells me what he’d been through: & I went off to the edge of the woods with him: & I sat on a cracker-box, & heard his confession—& he jumps up after & yells Oh Father, I feel so light!

& not to tell you what he confessed, but what others did too, that they’ve been godless for years—they’ve wandered & done what men do, even while married: & it’s this War that gave them their God back: this War, & the distance from their wives & families, that showed how much they depended on both—or not, showing sometimes how little love they know anymore.

And here’s one of many agonized stories from the wounded and dead:

    & there was the one with the violets:
    & his ribs & insides were just sitting out:
    & he looks at me all embarrassed,
    & he starts babbling about some girl:

& we were good friends, but I never knew about this girl: & it hurt him so much, this secret: & I hate to think of her back home, hearing he’s dead, & having no one to talk to about it, forever. & she’ll keep the pain, for sure—it won’t ever go away.

Clearly this isn’t the Civil War of TV movies or weekend reenactors or even poignant Ken Burns fiddle-whispers. What Conrad sees is overwhelming: Miller wants to humble you with the unfathomable number of lives affected by the war. There are so many stories here—sometimes rendered in just a few words or a handful of lines—about tortured black men, murdered prisoners, doomed soldiers seeking solace in prostitutes, mothers in mourning, baffled ghosts, even a priest who can summon water from the earth. For all I know, Miller’s approach may be unprecedented in Civil War fiction. There are no stock characters or cartoon souls; everyone gets a distinctive few lines, a defining moment, an acknowledgement of their fleeting humanity set against the infinite. In that sense, To the House of the Sun is a work of literary realism. It’s as if Miller means to challenge Walt Whitman’s insistence in the 101st chapter of Specimen Days:

Such was the war. It was not a quadrille in a ball-room. Its interior history will not only never be written—its practicality, minutiæ of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested. The actual soldier of 1862–’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his fierce friendship, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp, I say, will never be written—perhaps must not and should not be.

Sharing Whitman’s desire to see the war clearly and in all its complex ugliness, Miller imagines futures beyond Whitman’s ken, with the privilege of hindsight:

How will any of us talk of this War when it’s over? Should the North win, will a man in Pennsylvania really feel so much pride, when going down to Virginia—or will a Virginian really feel satisfaction when walking Northern streets, should the South win?

That’s how it is now—
how it has to be now, for the newspapers & the public:
they’ve got to make generals divine & their soldiers into heroes:
    & the dates of the battles:
    & the ground:
    & how the weather was—these things matter now—
but will they in the future: will we only focus on the understandable bitterness of our mother’s brother & our father’s uncle & our family’s old hometown—or will we find something better to do with all the memories; & will we rise somewhere in the air, where we can forget ourselves, finally:
    & forget what our families did:
    & forget what was done to them,
    & instead see them all as God might, forgiven?
Or will the making of peace be like moving two mountains, for these people?

To the House of the Sun soberly acknowledges the vastness of history: the brother of Conrad’s friend “was not wounded so a black man might be freed: & the wounded soldier on either side doesn’t die or recover for the sake of a Union only, but for something in the far future we’ll never know.”

As To the House of the Sun progresses, the smoke and blood of the Civil War recede, giving way to a series of dizzying visions, a revelation that blurs Blake, Eliot, the Bhagavad-Gita, Celtic myth, and a whirlwind of mystical traditions into a statement about the place of each of us in the divine. But as trippy and transcendent as his poem can be, Miller doesn’t want it to be obscure. To the House of the Sun is a hefty book, 620 pages in all, but more than 250 of those pages are reference: meticulous notes, lists of sources, and a compelling 20-page defense of his borrowing and adapting from cultural and religious traditions that range from the Bible to Confucianism, from Christian saints’ lives to Arthurian legend. In my notes, I initially wrote “not necessary – why include all this?”, but I get it now. Miller isn’t trying to impress us with his erudition; he wants us to share his inspiration. “In the end, there was no reason not to allow the notes to become a kind of anthology of world literature,” he writes in a candid note, “and I figured that, anyhow, someone put off by a six hundred page poem would not be any more comfortable with a four hundred page poem. The opportunity to do this can happen only once, and it seemed best to do so with both feet on the gas.”

And even though Miller’s poem is full of heartbreak and loss, his Whitmanesque love for creation, his passion for the fine details of every life, are reason for universal hope:

This is the final goal, perhaps an impossible one, that of somehow suggesting a sense of awe for the entire world, for everything we do, for everything we experience, of injecting real meaning (as opposed to mere irony or ego) into everything we do. This is the real reason for all the borrowing—to refer not to a text or some words, but to situations in the human life that are basic, meaningful, and even holy, whether now or thirty-five thousand years ago.

I can’t write a proper review of To the House of the Sun. Dear reader, you already know if you’re inclined to relish a 33-book epic set during the Civil War, inspired by the world’s great religious and literary texts, and offering prophetic glimpses of the divine. I loved it, not only because it’s proudly noncommercial and defies everything that’s trendy right now in entertainment, poetry, and the culture at large, but also because it offers a hard, humane vision that tries to disturb and inspire you into wanting to be better than you are. Reading and writing are not, by themselves, moral acts, and we often ascribe more virtue to them than they deserve, but To the House of the Sun is proof that a lifetime of the right kind of reading really can lead to enlightenment—and sometimes, a genuine act of creation.

[Read more excerpts of To the House of the Sun on the publisher’s website, explore Tim Miller’s blog Word and Silence, and buy the book on Amazon: select new seller “S4N Books” to get an autographed copy from the publisher at half price.]

“Don’t blame the sweet and tender hooligan…”

When the journal Able Muse lands in my mailbox twice a year, I’ve typically torn through the cardboard and gotten to skimming before I’m back inside the house. As usual, the summer 2016 issue rewarded my exertions, opening with a piece that’s as solid as grapeshot in the wall of a clifftop villa: “It’s Time to Talk About Lord Byron Again,” Amit Majmudar’s overview of Byron’s Letters and Journals: A New Selection, published last year by Oxford University Press. Majmudar, a diagnostic and nuclear radiologist who’s also the current (and first) Poet Laureate of Ohio, has penned what’s ostensibly a review essay, but his immersion in the English poetic tradition makes it one heck of an inducement to revisit Byron’s sprawling corpus and his almost pointlessly preposterous life.

The precision that makes Majmudar a good poet lends a special shine to his prose. Here’s one of several passages that share the delight of a satisfied reader where other reviewers would dutifully summarize:

Byron’s Letters have what you find in the letters of few other poets: Tumult. He sought drama, and drama sought him. A future Prime Minister’s wife, jilted, cuts herself for his sake. A few months later, he’s sleeping with his half-sister. White-water torrents, adultery in Italy; gonorrhea, malaria, indigestion. We read of him stripping off his coat and boots to keep Shelley, who was unable to swim, from drowning in a storm (he managed to pull the poet to shore in the end after vigorous bailing). Random gunshots sound a hundred feet from his door, after which he carries a dying policeman into his room to bleed to death. Enough action for one life, perhaps. Only then he sets off to expel the Turks from Greece.

I loved this bit, too:

What with the prolific poetizing, the bisexual vortex of his bed set amid the smells and noises of a small zoo, the international fame, the international infamy, the looks, and the wealth, he must have struck people as a monster of nature, possessing a kind of preternaturally intense life-force.

[. . . ]

The promiscuity at the time did wax operatic, if only opéra bouffe, complete with shouting matches between the weeping cuckold and defiant adulteress, whilst the foreign interloper buttoned his breeches. In 1817, one of Byron’s mistresses moved into his house uninvited and refused to leave, even after her husband, her relatives, the police, and Byron himself begged her to go home. (He ended up employing her as a housekeeper-with-benefits; apparently she performed excellently in both her duties, reducing his daily expenses by half.) To gauge how sordid Byron got in those years, we need only go to the Letters of his neighbor and fellow exile, Percy Bysshe Shelley—who, for all his atheism and his shared contempt for British moral cant, was horrified to hear Byron haggle with Italian parents over the price of their daughter.

Majmudar writes wittily about Byron’s nigh-unbelievable adventures, as a fellow poet should, but he offers the benefit of a different expertise. As a doctor, he can’t help but mention, as few critics could, the modern connection between extreme promiscuity and suicidal depression, and that Byron’s hypersexuality was not atypical of what our age witnesses in a childhood abuse survivor—which, among so much else, he was.

Majmudar’s essay is 13 pages long. I’ve cited the bits that got a laugh out of me, but the rest is both a finer and more concise introduction to Byron than I ever got in college, covering not only his life and his erratic evolution as a poet but also his recent critical standing and international legacy. Apparently his poems translate congenially. Yet there’s one thing this titan of vitality was powerless to do: commend his spirit to the here and now. “We have had no Byronic poet for a few generations now, and we are the duller for it,” Majmudar laments, suggesting that poetry would do well to jog out into the dunes once in a while and shake the solemnity off its paunchy, pasty frame. Byron, he says, reminds us “it is possible for poetry to get written in the downtime between pleasure seeking and politicking, cussing and whoring and seeing (and saving) the world.” More of us can stand to hear this, and I liked that Majmudar embeds his exhortation in an example of what a strong review should be: proof that reading the book is a good, rousing start.

“And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people…”

When I taught Beowulf, the Kalevala, and Balkan poetry, I would ask my students if America had an epic. We would brainstorm stories that were epic in scope, but we concluded that the United States didn’t seek its identity in just one national story. Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped good poets from writing epics for hypothetical Americas: first Frederick Turner’s wild 1985 epic poem The New World, the tale of North America 400 years in the future, and his follow-up epic about the terraforming of Mars; and then Marly Youmans’ moving and mystical Thaliad, a 2012 epic about a group of children who rebuild civilization after a fiery apocalypse. I loved both books—and I’m pleased (and surprised) to add another hypothetical-America epic to the list.

The Epic of Clair is about—well, I’ll let the opening of the poem declare its plot and purpose, since it does so with charming, perfect clarity:

Heavens, help me tell the story about
that girl-runner who saved her parents’ house
and beat her own anxiety problems
by running messages for the witches
after the oil economy’s collapse.

Yes—it’s an alternate 2008, only the wealthy have electricity and cars, and suburbanites with a knack for backyard gardening now face food raids by hungry marauders. The teenage daughter of a laid-off English teacher in a run-down corner of St. Paul, Minnesota, faces the collapse of her neighborhood, her household, and even her social life—until the end of the world turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to her, and she proves to be one of the best things ever to happen to her disintegrating city.

The Epic of Clair is short—too short—so I don’t want to write a full review of it, lest I spoil its many clever surprises, especially the secrets of the Twin Cities’ nigh-omnipotent witches. I will say, though, that its author, Maryland teacher E.C. Hansen, really hears the language of teenagers: it’s demotic, but with the loftiest aspirations. (The full, redundant title of the book—The Epic of Clair: An Epic Poem—conveys what my middle-aged memory recalls as the naive and pretentious nobility of the teenage mind.) “Rosy-fingered Dawn” even shows up, literally, as a wealthy, boy-crazy teen with her hands in “a bag / of red, spicy cheese curls—the best!” Hansen serves up epic similes drawn directly from such teen experiences as the state cross-country championship; his characters quote that staple of ninth-grade English, Romeo and Juliet; and the poet himself gleefully mocks the young-adult vogue for glittery, tragic vampires.

Sometimes The Epic of Clair feels as if it were even written by a teen, no doubt because Hansen’s students inspired it. “I wanted to invent a future so much better than the popular titles on the store shelves—dystopian science fiction, miserable memoirs, vampire novels—ever allowed them to expect,” he explains on the acknowledgements page. Good for Hansen for defying horrible marketing trends; kids need stories in which something matters other than impulse and emotion. Clair learns that adult responsibility is worlds better than teen melodrama—imagine that!—and the practiced skills that earn you sports trophies or a high-school writing prize may point you to your far-off purpose after all.

Throughout the poem, Clair helps human ingenuity prevail in the face of cultural, technological, and economic collapse, and Hansen suggests that erudition and education can lead to a more civilized form of warfare in which nobody dies. The world he creates always teeters on the edge of atrocity, and violence does erupt, but I found myself wondering if Hansen’s depiction of mostly peaceful chaos, which flatters the Twin Cities, is plausible. Now I’m not sure it matters. The Epic of Clair is a generous poem about decency and grace—about being generous to neighbors, unreliable friends, strangers, and even enemies. I hope I never find out if this epic poem accurately portrays human nature, but I’d rather live in the world E.C. Hansen hopes would arise than in most of the likely alternatives. The Epic of Clair would be a fine teaching tool for high-school kids—but it also usefully reminds the rest of us that youthful optimism is a devastating weapon all its own.

“In the thunder crash, you’re a thousand minds, within a flash…”

[Poet Christopher Logue died in 2011 without completing his eccentric and riveting adaptation of The Iliad—but as of last week, all of the published volumes plus the new bits he was working on are finally available between one set of covers. Logue was a remarkable storyteller; you can get a sense of knack for using modern poetry to its fullest from this post I wrote in 2011 after seeing a rare staging of part of “War Music” at a tiny theater in New York City.]

For half a century, autodidact and occasional actor Christopher Logue has rallied all the gimmicks of modern poetry to craft a loose, idiomatic version of Homer’s Iliad. “[I]t’s some of the best poetry being written in English today,” wrote Jim Lewis at Slate in 2003, “and it should be read widely and with great pleasure by anyone still interested in the art of verse.” For a few more days, New Yorkers have a rare chance to see Logue’s Homer come to life: With the poet’s approval, director Jim Milton has adapted the first 70 pages, “Kings,” for two actors on a mostly-bare stage. The production, at the Workshop Theater through April 3, is a wild, addictive hour that does remarkable justice to its source.

Literally irreverent, Logue frees himself from the tyranny of the Homeric text through one curious advantage: his ignorance of ancient Greek. Instead, he’s basing his still-unfinished poem on English translations published between 1720 and 1950. His Homer—currently collected in three separate volumes—includes scenes that aren’t in the Iliad; at one point, he cribs a passage from Paradise Lost. Sensitive to the distinction between scholarship and artistry, Logue calls what he’s doing an “account,” not a translation—and if that makes classicists cringe, they’re missing the point.

Known for his gleeful use of anachronism—like his description of Ajax, often cited by reviewers, as “[g]rim underneath his tan as Rommel after ‘Alamein”—Logue deploys evocative modern language to create quick, crisp snapshots. Here’s Agamemnon’s line-up of champions from All Day Permanent Red, a slim volume of battle poetry published in 2003 with a title nicked from a Revlon ad:

Nestor, his evening star.
Ajax, his silent fortress. Good—even on soft sand.
Odysseus (you know him), small but big.
Fourth—grizzled and hook-tap nosed—the king of Crete,
Idomeneo, who:
“Come on!”
Would sign a five-war-contract on the nod.

Logue’s Homer resounds with cries of war, but he also crafts domestic scenes with a deftness that other poets should envy. In “The Husbands,” an exchange between Zeus and a petulant Athena neatly reveals the condescension that defines their relationship:

The armies wait.

“Dearest Pa-pa, the oath said one should die.
The Trojan was about to die. He did not die.
Nobody died. Therefore the oath is dead.
Killed by a Trojan. Therefore Troy goes down.”

Drivers conducting underbody maintenance.

“Father, You must act.
Side with the Trojans, Greece will say,
Were we fools to believe in His thunder?
Why serve a God who will not serve His own?”

And giving her a kiss, He said:

“Child, I am God,
Please do not bother me with practicalities.”

When battle calls, Logue can craft a scene as thrilling as anything in 300, combining heroic deeds with colloquial diction while never undercutting the tone, as in this passage from “Patroclea”:

The air near Ajax was so thick with arrows, that,
As they came, their shanks tickered against each other;
And under them the Trojans swarmed so thick
Ajax outspread his arms, turned his spear flat,
And simply pushed. Yet they came clamouring back until
So many Trojans had a go at him
The iron chaps of Ajax’ helmet slapped his cheeks
To soft red pulp, and his head reached back and forth
Like a clapper inside a bell made out of sword blades.
Maybe, even with no breath left,
Big Ajax might have stood it yet; yet
Big and all as he was, Prince Hector meant to burn that ship:
And God was pleased to let him.

Now either you like this sort of thing or you don’t. I happen to love Logue’s knack for trotting out modern gimmickry not for its own sake, but in the service of narrative— and while Logue finds humor in his ancient source, he never treats Homer like a joke. Both Homer and Logue understand, from different angles, the maddening mindset of warriors. Jim Milton concedes its relevance, too; it’s why his adaptation of “Kings” is so good.

Milton is also lucky to have two nimble actors on his stage. Dana Watkins switches effortlessly between Zeus, Odysseus, Hector, and even a hammy Hephaestus, but he’s at his best as a furious, choked-up Achilles who’s never more than half a slight away from homicide. J. Eric Cook is funny as a shrill Hera and a rash, tipsy Thersites, but he’s also weirdly touching as Thetis, Achilles’ mother. His Agamemnon is unremarkable, but perhaps deliberately so, as Logue’s text renders him a slick politician before his homesick army:

“Thank you, Greece.
As is so often true,
Silence has won the argument.
Achilles speaks as if I found you on a vase.
So leave his stone-age values to the sky.”

Although Cook doesn’t look like a warrior king, he imbues the character with the smiling certainty of a psychopath. Logue’s text helps. As the Trojan Anchises later asks, “Indeed, what sort of king excepting theirs / Would slit his daughter’s throat to start a war?”

Seeing Logue’s Homer performed by two Americans makes clear that the text might be better declaimed by actors with droll British diction; once or twice, Cook and Watkins seemed too busy recalling Logue’s lines to give them their full weight. Still, both actors possess powerful, well-trained voices, and they and the director draw from a deep well of vocal tricks and physical gestures to make this production brilliantly audience-friendly. Before Thursday night’s performance, I heard a couple in front of me whisper that they had no idea what they’d gotten themselves into, but as soon as Watkins and Cook took the stage, they were beguiled. As Logue himself put it, “[i]t was so quiet in Heaven that you could hear / The north wind pluck a chicken in Australia.”

Unfortunately, “Kings” is tantalizingly brief. The show, which clocks in at 75 minutes, ends with howls of war just as the audience is dying to see (even though they know) how it all plays out. I hope the empty seats in the tiny Workshop Theater don’t dissuade director Jim Milton from further adapting Logue. Drearily, the Poetry Foundation can use its $185 million boon to build a $21 million headquarters and publish reams of mediocre verse, but a staging of Logue can’t fill 65 seats in midtown Manhattan. That says less about Logue than it does about the mannered insider-ism of the poetry scene, and Logue himself knows it.

“[N]one of my contemporaries seem to be interested in the things that interest me, such as fast, clear, several-stranded narrative, action, character, violence,” Logue told the Paris Review in 1993. His contemporaries are missing out. If you’re near New York, you have nine days to get to the Workshop Theater, see “Kings,” and hear how poetry sounds with a mouth full of blood.

“Driving ’round the city rings, staring at the shape of things…”

“While contemporary poets tend to sneer at the riddle as a genre, riddles continue to be a guilty pleasure for the public, particularly for millions of lovers of Tolkien and Rowlings,” writes poet A.M. Juster in Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles, a new translation of the work of a seventh-century abbot and monk who certainly knew better. Committed to shoring up Christianity in Anglo-Saxon realms, Aldhelm composed the Aenigmata, a collection of 100 Latin riddles. Layered in allegory, these deceptively simple poems provided pleasure in their own right but could also kindle profound conversations about the omnipresence of God. As Juster points out, Aldhelm “accomplished something that had not been done before: he lured readers closer to an unfamiliar God with literature infused with warmth, wit, and wonder.” Few non-scholars have read Aldhelm’s riddles, but Juster is eager to bring the Aenigmata to new audiences with what he hopes is a “fair yet fun” translation that “gives nonclassicists a faithful literary version of Aldhelm’s masterpiece that mimics the many joys of this text.”

Juster first tackles Aldhelm’s challenging preface, a preposterous 36-line double acrostic. In the original, the first letters of each line spell out, in Latin, “Aldhelm composed a thousand lines in verse,” while the last letters of each line spell the same message—in reverse. “I duplicated the acrostic,” Juster writes, “but freely admit that duplicating both the acrostic and the telestich [the end-of-line acrostic – J.S.] was too much for my poetic bag of tricks.” Only a jerk could hold this “failure” against him, especially since he offers intriguing theories about why (other than the thrill of the challenge) Aldhelm composed a double acrostic in the first place. Juster suggests that Aldhelm means to out-Irish the Irish, who loved these kinds of linguistic and textual games, while perhaps further tweaking them by satirizing ancient satires, something they lacked the primary sources to do.

These musings, apparently Juster’s own, may open interesting new doors for scholars of Anglo-Saxon verse—but this speculation shouldn’t scare off modern readers who don’t give a fig about academic debates. Juster has a light, lovely touch and a masterful command of tone—both honed, I suspect, by his classical know-how and his commitment to form and lucidity in English verse.

Although Latin hexameters possess a languid dignity that English pentameter can’t quite capture, Juster does a terrific job of paying tribute to Aldhelm’s style. When he can, he echoes the monk’s fondness for alliteration and internal rhyme, and he follows Aldhelm by usually avoiding enjambment—that is, Aldhelm tends to stop each line at its end to form a complete syntactic unit. In one of his few major concessions to the modern ear, Juster adds end-rhyme, a decision I heartily endorse.

Aided by a technically adept translator who cares about creating a good poem in the target language, Aldhelm can still amuse and intrigue readers more than thirteen centuries on. Here’s Riddle 2:

Cernere me nulli possunt prendere palmis;
Argutum vocis crepitum cito pando per orbem.
Viribus horrisonis valeo confringere quercus;
Nam, superos ego pulso polos et rura peragro.

No one can hold me in his palms or sight:
I scatter sudden clatter far and wide.
I want to hammer oaks with mournful might;
Yes, I strike sky and scour countryside.

Juster captures the sense of Aldhelm’s original, but look at what he’s done to polish this gem of his own. He interlaces three dense sets of assonance and rhyme: scatter, clatter, and hammer; no, hold, and oaks; and sight, wide, might, strike, sky, and side. Alliteration between these groups further knits together all four lines: sky, scatter, and scour; mournful and might; and sudden, sight, and side. To appreciate Juster’s artistry, you don’t need to be a poet. You don’t even need to be fluent in English. Recite it; feel how its complex structure rolls off the teeth and tongue with pleasing, elemental ease.

If I wanted a threatening letter from the University of Toronto Press legal team, I’d reprint the two dozen “Juster Aldhelms” I most enjoyed. Two will have to suffice. This one, which is easy to solve, shows off Aldhelm’s ability to combine astrology, etymology, natural history, and perhaps a Biblical allusion:

Dubbed “scorpion” by Romans of the past,
I walk wet beaches of the foaming ocean
And cross the seafloor with a backwards motion,
And yet high Heaven’s decked out when I rise,
Along with twelve red stars, into the skies,
Which makes the oysters, scared of stones, aghast.

Some of Aldhelm’s riddles will baffle modern readers, but those who know a little about ancient scribes may figure out this one:

I got my start from honey-laden bees,
And yet my outside part has grown from trees;
Tough leather made my shoes. An iron spike
Now cuts my gorgeous face and wanders like
A plow that’s carving furrows into rows,
But lays down fruitful seed from Heaven’s field
Where, from vast harvests, countless bounty grows.
Alas, cruel arms destroy the holy yield!

Page after page, lovely little poems enshrine silkworms, serpents, scales, leeches, spices, celestial bodies, bubbles, a pillow, the Minotaur—all of which embody, as Juster convincingly argues, Aldhelm’s “insistent vision that close attention to the mysteries of our pedestrian world can lead us closer to the mysteries of God’s world and God Himself.” Aldhelm’s riddles all have answers, but they stir greater, more challenging questions—especially Riddle 90, a tiny, four-line heartbreaker about a woman giving birth to twins for which there’s no easy answer in any age.

Of course, Juster’s book isn’t just a translation; with its 3:4 ratio of text to endnotes, it’s also one-stop shopping for anyone who wants a fresh introduction to the scholarship on these riddles. Juster is famously fond of light verse, so his endnotes, while perfectly professional, are far from a snooze. In the notes for Riddle 8, he points out that “[t]he word dominam (‘mistress’) suggests here a slaveowner, not a participant in amorous adventures.” When explaining the history of Biblical mistranslation that inspired the legend of the ant-lion, the hybrid spawn of an ant and a lion, Juster fans himself in mock relief that “the mechanics of such unions are, thankfully, unclear.” He calls out one scholar who “savages” these riddles through politicized, hyper-sexualized “forced overreading”; Aldhelm, he insists, composed his unicorn and lighthouse riddles “blissfully unaware of Freudian psychology.” And when Juster suggests that Aldhelm may see the peppercorn as a metaphor for the relationship between the body and the soul, he is content to allow that “[p]erhaps sometimes pepper is just pepper.”

The notes to Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles are rich in obscure lore. Juster brings to light the wonderful belief that goat blood could dull a diamond, and he identifies “what may be the first example in British literature of a joke at the expense of the French.” There’s even a charming bonus poem: Juster’s own translation of “Eucheria’s Impossibilities,” which he bills as “the oldest extant humorous poem in Latin by a woman.” Juster even taught me a new Old English term, the word for a dung beetle, tordwifel—literally, “turd-weevil.” If I were translating the poems of an Anglo-Saxon monk, I’d sure as heck encourage that philological novelty to scuttle through my endnotes pages too.

As a writer and researcher who relies on many books like this one, I could register a complaint or two. I would have liked a more thorough indexing of the terms and proper names that pop up in the notes, and sometimes I wanted more background than the notes provided. (Don’t tempt me with the promise of insight into Scylla’s “canine name” only to send me hunting for an article in an Italian e-journal.) Still, my gripes are minor, and I’d rather bestow kudos upon the University of Toronto Press for making sure that those of us who’d never spring $65 for the hardcover version of Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles could immediately enjoy the paperback or Kindle editions for less than $30.

Riddles may be dismissed as trifles today, but Aldhelm reminds us that a clever poet can use them to make a sophisticated case for a wondrous and joyful coherence in the world. This is the first translation of his riddles meant to be read for pleasure, and I hope it will be. In Juster’s hands, Aldhelm is once again serious fun.

“But down in the underground, you’ll find someone true…”

Robert E. Howard was supernaturally prolific. In just 12 years, he dreamed up Conan the Barbarian while cranking out millions of words for pulp magazines—not only sword-and-sorcery stories but also horror yarns, cowboy tales, historical fiction, boxing stories, and hundreds of poems, all from his childhood bedroom. The brawny Texan killed himself at 30, so he never knew the shadow he cast across popular culture: both co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons cited him as an influence; his work continues to inspire novels, comics, and movies; and fans still embrace his unrepentant manliness.

Atop this ever-growing hoard of Howardiana, Marly Youmans places Maze of Blood, a novel that’s many things Howard wasn’t—quiet, patient, meditative—even as it celebrates his humanity by treating the pulp writer as an artist in his own right. (Disclosure: After I reviewed Marly Youmans’ book Thaliad on this blog in 2013, she and I became Facebook friends and occasional correspondents.) Youmans draws on sources well-known to Howard’s fans—a memoir by his girlfriend and an engaging 2007 biography—to create a new character in Conall Weaver: the son of a country doctor and a clingy mother, a perpetual dreamer of his own past lives, a successful writer whose neighbors see only an indolent oddball.

Howard wouldn’t have liked Maze of Blood; the novel is propelled not by a straightforward plot or by swashbuckling action but by subtle, non-linear vignettes that gently peel away the layers of Conall Weaver’s mind. Still, Youmans does Howard justice, taking him more seriously than many people close to him ever did. When Conall’s girlfriend wonders “why a tale has to have so much thrashing about in it . . . as though a story were a Mexican jumping bean, and inside is some horrible larval thing that’s trying to get out,” Youmans portrays their clash as the latest failed connection in a fervent life:

“But hardly anybody ever stumbles on a buried city or a labyrinth. Nobody ever finds magical snakes sneaking through the ground. Nobody ever tries to steal somebody’s soul.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It seems to me like rattlesnakes are always magically underfoot in Texas. And I don’t know about you, but these gourd-headed people are always sneaking around, trying to find and steal my soul. They want to bottle it up somehow, so that I can’t get out. And labyrinths? Labyrinths are funny places. A job at the five-and-dime can mean being shut up in a too-symmetrical labyrinth, needing to find a way out. A family tree can look like a drawing of a maze, all disorderly and full of dead ends and hushed-up horrors. Even a prairie or a desert can be a labyrinth, if you look at it right. Lots of people are caught in one and can’t find their way out, or don’t like the only path out. Maybe I’m one of those people.”

Maybelline made a gesture as if throwing off unrealistic dilemmas.

Maze of Blood is an implicit defense of fantasy. The escapism it inspires isn’t frivolous; it’s rooted in the true lives—the true needs—of writers and readers alike.

What I appreciate most about Maze of Blood is that Marly Youmans doesn’t treat the troubled writer as a testosterone-addled buffoon, nor does she let his strange, fierce attachment to his mother overshadow his complex inner life. Instead, she’s sensitive to the possibility that he’s a kindred spirit in the arts, an inspired storyteller stuck in the absolutely wrong place and unable, emotionally or intellectually, to escape. But what if Howard/Weaver had managed to ramble far beyond his tiny Texas town? Maze of Blood suggests that his frustration was necessary: it fueled the passion that excited his readers and earned him a most peculiar renown. The whole wide world might never have lived up to the deeds of the hairy-chested warriors in the gleaming Valhalla of his mind.

That conflict—living in two worlds, but feeling unwelcome in one and detached from the other—is central to Youmans’ understanding of who Conall Weaver actually is:

His own townspeople would have asked in astonishment and offense, “When did we fail to laud you? When did we ignore and scorn your prophecies? When did we forget to make a wreath of laurel and place it on your head?” They might have laughed, reeling back and forth, slapping their thighs at the idea that Doc’s punkinheaded boy expected even the least acknowledgement of his poems and stories—as though those high-colored, feverish dreams could find a place among farmers and shopkeepers, oilmen and cowboys.

“Listen to this,” one might have said, picking up a poem: “Condemned like Lucifer to rage and fall, / These poems spark like shooting stars / That plumb the pitched infinities of all / That can appall the heart, or else enthrall / The soul with tales that close in grief and scars, / For wars and Venus both belong to Mars.”

“No dark infinities around these parts,” another would reply. If they saw him, one might call out, “Hey, Sparky, set any stars on fire lately?”

Perhaps it was best that nobody knew…

Haunted by doubt, Conall reels from the disparity between his real life and his virtual existence; he is both doomed to failure and destined for fame. Getting past the well-known irony of Robert E. Howard’s life, Marly Youmans takes an uncommonly humane approach, uniting both halves of the pulp-fiction legend to show how dissatisfaction and heartbreak inevitably get tangled up in artistry.

Although I’ve never been overly keen on Howard’s yarns, I do have a soft spot for his poetry—he earned a place on my fantasy and science-fiction syllabus in 2009—and his pointlessly abrupt death unnerves me. I suppose writers or artists whose loved ones don’t quite understand the things they create or why they create them all feel the hammer of Howardian doubt inside their own skulls. “No one could make him hold fast to a hope for a long life of stories and books and family,” Youmans writes. “No one could make him believe that the future of a young man named Conall Weaver was worth the living.” Behind that plain resignation is a swirl of cosmic inspiration, mental illness, and accidents of fate, where an artist is called to be too many things: a curse, a blessing, and a warning to the rest of us.

* * *

Related “Quid Plura?” posts of yesteryear:

November 2011: a review of The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, “the poet laureate of restless boys.”

March 2013: a review of Thaliad, Marly Youmans’ epic poem about seven children who survive a fiery apocalypse.

* * *

UPDATE (11/18/2015): Howard biographer Mark Finn gives a thumbs-up to Maze of Blood, and Marly Youmans explains in a blog comment what drew her to the subject.

“And with this crutch, its old age and its wisdom…”

“It was a pleasant group of roof and bower, of spire and tree to look upon from the city, towards sunset, when every window-pane flung back the lustre of a conflagration; and magnificently did it strike upon the eye of the liegeman as they sat at their doors, at that hour, gazing upon the glorious river and its tranquil banks.”

That’s St. Mary’s, the first capital of Maryland, reimagined more than a century after its demise by John Pendleton Kennedy: popular Whig politician, Secretary of the Navy under Millard Fillmore, friend of Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, and a novelist who never quite found his audience.

Three years ago, I checked out Kennedy’s little-read 1832 novel Swallow Barn, which offers a leisurely visit to an antebellum Virginia plantation sodden with pseudo-chivalry. I was curious to see if his 1838 historical novel, Rob of the Bowl: A Legend of St. Inigoe’s, has medieval echoes of its own. It does, faintly—but it also sets the mood for a two-hour drive out of Washington to the wild, quiet end of the St. Mary’s Peninsula. Maryland was founded as a Catholic colony there along the St. Mary’s River between the Potomac and the Chesapeake, and while the original settlement is long gone, you can still explore the lovely Historic St. Mary’s City, a sprawling living-history site that demands more than a day—especially when you’re propelled by a novel that almost no one else living has read.

It’s 1681, and times are tense: Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore, Proprietary Governor of the colony of Maryland, stands accused of favoring his fellow Catholics. Protestants insist that atrocities committed by the Piscataway Indians are actually the work of Catholics in disguise, and they’re lobbying the crown to hand over the colony to the Church of England. Drama! Politics! Violence! But Kennedy squanders it all to chase less genteel ghosts: The first third of Rob of the Bowl follows an exploratory mission to the haunted cottage of a murderous fisherman, a hovel of the damned that the locals call the Wizard’s Chapel.

“I would have the inquiry made by men who are not moved by the vulgar love of marvel,” Lord Baltimore declares, putting his faith in a ragtag band—a Dutch musketeer captain, an English innkeeper, a Flemish woodsman, and a taciturn Native American—who set off on an adventure right out of a 1980s Dungeons & Dragons module. An Episcopalian who admired his Catholic forebears, Kennedy was opposed to slavery, helped repeal an anti-Jewish law, and supported Irish Catholic immigrants; the Wizard’s Chapel story is his explicit memorial to Marylanders’ historic enthusiasm for coexistence and cooperation.

But with that out of the way, most of Rob of the Bowl is indulgent romance. Captain Cocklescraft—a crass pirate fostered by Captain Morgan himself—challenges Albert Verheyden, the chivalrous, lute-playing secretary of Lord Baltimore, for the affections of Blanche, the daughter of the local customs official. On page after page, the wilds of St. Mary’s ring with the revels of traders, wenches, cavaliers, and rogues, including the title character, Rob Swales, a mysterious amputee who slides across sandy beaches in a large bowl strapped to the remnants of his legs. In 17th-century Maryland, it’s still the Middle Ages: the locals celebrate their patron saints’ holidays, hold a tournament, clutch relics, and reminisce about visiting Old World shrines. Unfortunately, the weird characters aren’t very rich, the likeable characters don’t feel seriously imperiled, and fateful tensions between Catholics and Protestants await a sequel Kennedy never wrote. Rob of the Bowl is a stroll through a living-history museum, one that’s full of welcoming souls who want to edify and amuse you, but the plot they abide in is frozen in time.

Working hard to immerse 19th-century readers in the late 17th century, Kennedy opens each chapter with snippets of verse from the 17th and 18th centuries, and he forces his characters to use period language (including my favorite Elizabethan exclamation: “ads heartlikens!”). At one point, a Dutch doctor at Lord Baltimore’s court speaks in a meticulously rendered accent—”Vell, vell, dere is noding lost by peing acquanted at once wid de people of de house”—on and off for sixteen tedious pages, only to be superseded by his even less comprehensible assistant: “Goot beoplish! dish is de drice renowned and ingomprbl Doctor.” I laughed; hopefully Kennedy meant me to.

If parts of Rob of the Bowl now come off as sillier than the responsible, civic-minded Kennedy deserves, it’s partly the fault of our age; Kennedy has written an unapologetically earnest book packed with sincere observations. Here’s his narrator explaining one character’s quick turn toward penitence:

When age and satiety have destroyed the sense of worldly pleasure, the soul finds a nourishment in the consolations of religion, to which it flies with but slight persuasion; and however volatile and self-dependent youth may deride it, the aged are faithful witnesses to the truth, that in the Christian faith there is a spell to restore the green to the withered vegetation of the heart, even as the latter rain renovates the pastures of autumn.

And here’s Albert, smitten by Maryland:

With my own free will I should never leave this sunny land. These woods are richer to my eye than pent-up cities; these spreading oaks and stately poplars, than our groined and shafted cathedrals and our cloistered aisles: yes, and I more love to think of the free range of this woodland life, these forest-fed deer, and flight of flocking wild fowl, than all the busy assembling of careful men which throng the great marts of trade.

Rob of the Bowl didn’t sell well, but the novel is a heartfelt tribute to old-timey Maryland, and its jumble of romantic tropes includes a concession to life’s transience:

They are gone! Like shadows have these men of might sunk on the earth. They, their game, their wigwams, their monuments, their primeval forests,—yea, even their graves, have flitted away in this spectral flight. Saxon and Norman, bluff Briton and heavy Suabian inherit the land. And in its turn, well-a-day! our pragmatical little city hath departed. Not all its infant glory, nor its manhood’s bustle, its walls, gardens and bowers,—its warm housekeeping, its gossiping burgers, its politics and its factions,—not even its prolific dames and gamesome urchins could keep it in the upper air until this our day. Alas, for the vaulting pride of the village, the vain glory of the city, and the metropolitan boast! St. Mary’s hath sunk to the level of Tyre and Sidon, Balbec and Palmyra! She hath become trackless, tokenless.

I have wandered over the blank field where she sank down to rest. It was a book whose characters I could scarce decipher.

Reading John Pendleton Kennedy today is more poignant than I’d expected. Oh, the book isn’t good, but its author’s peculiar giddiness humanizes every page: his face in shadow, beaming in the lamplight as he dreams up a bygone world and then conjures a cabinet of Toby Mug characters to inhabit it. He dearly wants to make 17th-century Maryland real, to raise old St. Mary’s from its grave, to remind us that those who came before us drank, fought, laughed, prayed, and loved. I came away believing only that the obscure author himself did all of those things—but when even whole cities can crumble and rot, that’s a relic well-found after 200 years.


(Partially rebuilt chimney bases of the Leonard Calvert House, Historic St. Mary’s)

“But Lorca’s corpse, as he had prophesied, just walked away…”

How did art become irrelevant? Michael J. Lewis’s answer to that question in Commentary magazine made the rounds of social media last week. It’s an exhaustive overview, and a political one, edged with fine anger, a reminder that the arts used to be merely elitist, not ruthlessly hermetic.

So I was startled to open the latest issue of the literary magazine The Dark Horse and find “Poetry as Enchantment,” an essay by former NEA chairman Dana Gioia that makes many of the same points Lewis makes, but solely about poetry, and with a far more subdued tone. Defending poetry as a universal human art with roots in music, charms, and incantations, Gioia recalls that not long ago, it was ubiquitous and widely enjoyed. I remember that too: my grandfather was a machinist with a grade-school education, but he could rattle off snippets of verse that I now know were the work of Longfellow, Joyce Kilmer, and the (utterly forgotten) Sam Walter Foss.

What happened? Gioia argues that poetry was too well taught. The New Critics imposed reason, objectivity, and coherence on it. “Learning” poetry was reduced to dissection and analysis, then demonstrating your fluency in each new school of critical theory:

For most students, writing a critical paper does not inspire the same lifelong affection for poetry that memorization and recitation foster. When analytical instruction replaces the physicality, subjectivity, and emotionality of performance, most students fail to make a meaningful connection with poetry. So abstracted and intellectualized, poetry becomes disembodied into poetics—a noble subject but never a popular one. As the audience for poetry continues to contract, there will come a tipping point—perhaps it has already arrived—when the majority of adult readers are academic professionals or graduate students training for those professions. What is the future of an art when the majority of its audience must be paid to participate?

No one intended the decimation of poetry’s audience or the alienation of the common reader. Like most environmental messes, those things happened as accidental by-products of an otherwise positive project.

Gioia literally marketed Kool-Aid as an executive at General Foods—who can ever forget his award-winning “fear in a handful of dust” campaign?—so when he became NEA chairman in 2003, he wanted measurable results:

We decided to start with a program that could be executed quickly on a large scale without a huge investment. What we conceived was a national poetry recitation contest for high school students that would begin at class level, and then move on to school, local, state, and national competitions. We successfully tested the idea in Chicago and Washington, D.C., but when the agency tried to expand it, the arts education officials in the 50 states initially refused to adopt it.

The state arts education experts had four major objections to the program. First, they believed that students hated poetry. (Am I wrong to suspect that this assumption suggests that the experts themselves disliked poetry?) Second, they maintained that memorization was repressive and stifled creativity. Some of them added that memorization victimized minority students since standard English was not spoken in their homes. Third, they unanimously felt that competition had no place in the arts. There should be no winners or losers. In arts education, everyone should win. Finally, there was a general feeling among the educators that poetry was too intellectual for the average student. It was not an accessible art.

Just how wrong were those “state arts education experts”? Gioia found that kids raised with hip-hop took to poetry when it became about hearing and reciting rather than reading and analyzing; they loved competing; “problem kids” turned out to be great at it; and immigrant kids have turned out to be around half of all winners each year.

Gioia is too gracious to gloat. About his detractors, he says only this: “The administrators and arts consultants were openly astonished by the program’s popularity.” I wonder why they doubted him: His longtime championing of old-fashioned formalism? His corporate background? His presumed political affiliation? It’s a dreary state of affairs when ignorance is the most charitable explanation.

Someone recently quipped on Facebook that it’s actually a great time to be a poet, because when an art has zero social cachet, the people who do it out of sheer love don’t have to wonder if others are into it for the wrong reasons. That may not be forever true: Gioia’s Poetry Out Loud program has already engaged 2.5 million high-school kids, and books like the Disney Channel poetry anthology are bracing their younger siblings. What if channeling rap fandom into national recitation contests actually entices the corpse of poetry to sprout and bloom some year? Relevance would uproot academia; it wouldn’t be kind; it would set poets slogging through swamps of conflict and commerce, not noticing how many more people had finally learned that they’re meant to talk about what Gioia calls “mysteries that lie beyond paraphrase,” their inheritance as human beings.

“The spheres are in commotion, the elements in harmony…”

Poetry rarely springs from scientific marginalia—but Diane Furtney’s 2014 collection Science And is, amazingly, an answer to a Richard Feynman footnote:

[F]ar more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

So here is a book Feynman just might have praised: 80 pages of poems composed in an idiom of Furtney’s own devising, “radically enjambed, off-rhymed, non-metrical couplet[s],” formal poetry that, like the natural world, doesn’t always seem formal. I’m reluctant to call this book “science poetry,” which wrongly suggests gimmickry or lack of artistry, when it’s a wonderful and frequently successful experiment—and, in its imagery, downright radical. By seeking inspiration not in the usual stale and shallow allusions but in geology, radiation, epigenetics, and quantum physics, Furtney reminds us that poetry ought to offer the infinite depth of a fractal.

Still, most of the poems in Science And are not specifically about science; this mind-bending material simply gives Furtney fresh ways to write about familiar subjects. Looking at computer models that show it’s theoretically possible to turn a hollow sphere inside out without creasing or breaking it, she crafts a metaphor about a troubled sibling relationship: “curved parallel lines, each in / loves motion, which has to exclude reverse, / and that meet on the far side of the universe.” Elsewhere, a cruel father reminds us that evolution isn’t just about endurance, but also, chillingly, about endings:

But, because time

moves in a straight line through us, the justice
of biology, of development, is

that every action, with or without thought,
reorganizes and delimits what can be brought

into the future, including one’s ability to know it.

[…]

By his sixties, none of his children would consent

to emplace him in the future; none
of the four would have a child. His horizon

finally, at eighty-seven, gripped
his identity like a mummy’s wrap,

his self-absorption so complete, so assiduous,
there was no need—tending his needs—for anyone else

to give him an invested thought. “Justice”
does not have to be hoped for; it is ubiquitous

and emergent.

Elsewhere, a note explains that the poem “A Man, a Boy, a Stick, a Goose with Goslings” was inspired by serotonin and norepinephrine, chemicals that help us with memory and open us to new emotional reactions, but the poem itself isn’t a neurobiological study; instead, it’s a thoughtful and disquieting narrative about what children learn from their fathers, the complex irrationality of human parenting compared to the behavior of our fellow animals, and the cycles we’d break if we could. Other poets would turn an encounter between goose and human families into something romantic and trite, but Furtney adds a hint of biochemistry; she wants us to marvel at what wildly intricate creatures we are.

In the spirit of classic science fiction, Furtney asks “what if?” and invites us into her thought-experiments. “The Ark” compares skeptics of space exploration to a Roman shrugging off the invention of a grain harvesting machine; “Some Generations” brings a rare warmth to futurism, insisting that even as humanity tinkers with genetics and explores the stars, we’ll remain a flawed, ambitious, quixotic race:

But we are young, just some generations
from the white winds and little, worked stones

of the Pleistocene.
And we have time. At fourteen

billion years, the universe is crisp
and fresh, and we’ve changed down to the grist

and have immensities
of more green time for change. It may be

one of your descendants—deft,
confident, reliable in emotional depth,

able at seventy to learn Chinese
or Navajo in just three weeks,

seriously ill maybe twice
in a two-hundred-year life, spliced

without breaking genes to inhibit,
a little, our recidivist

midbrain conflicts and maladaptive
selfishness; better, then, at love

but incomplete still, like all
the sprawling future…

“The Good” asks us to imagine the trial of a woman charged with murder for opening a vat of genetically engineered “almost-finished tissue” that was supposed to become a new breed of humans destined to colonize a distant, icy planet:

As prosecutor, I’d claim any deed

that levels our spiral staircase or props it
to go nowhere on one world, is the opposite

of good, is a form of murder
of our past as well as our future,

while an act that adds to the molecular good
allows two things: species adulthood

and a destiny worth the name.

Fond of pondering the personal within the cosmic, Furtney leaves the defense to us—with the sly, unsettling reminder that the defendant has two non-hypothetical children of her own.

There’s unabashed humor in Science And, too. In “Cells,” Furtney wonders, as Philip K. Dick might have before her: What if the chair at a coffee house had a chip that made it sufficiently aware of you to anticipate your order? If it could crack jokes and be civil and entertaining, wouldn’t it be far more pleasant than that ignorant, fussy, scientifically illiterate woman at a local ceramics exhibition?

Furtney is the only poet in the world who would use 42 couplets to bring readers on a tour of the Carbinoniferous Period of the Late Paleozoic—and why not? Science And makes clear that poetry can complement illustration, sculpture, prose, and other creative forms in showing us a place where oxygen was one-third of the air and damselflies with three-foot wings alighted near ten-foot ferns. Of course, Furtney is also the only poet who, with stark, unromantic beauty, could imagine lovers united eternally—and literally!—as particles swept up in a supernova:

And one glowing day,
my love, when the sun is blowing away

and a similar if warmer breeze
has begun to rotate its long, slender keys,

we and other blue-star particles
will loosen in our Tinkertoy mesh and travel

into wider space again
—stay close to me, I’ll stay close if I can—

arcing out in ionized light,
freebooting amidst bits of this white

moon, en route to our heirs…

The poems in Science And read like the ghazals of a Martian expat. They’re difficult, intricate, and baffling; they also capture a full spectrum of invisible emotions belied by a cramped term like “science poetry.” Diane Furtney finds delight and solace in thinking, wondering, making connections; in her poetry, we are small, but not insignificant. Through her efforts to craft what she calls a “poetry of reality,” she shares a mystic’s openness to the infinite, and I hope she won’t be taken aback if I suggest that she offers an alternate route to the heavens where mystical poets hope to abide: a universe of amazement, revelation, and truth.