T. S. Eliot, “Preludes”

T. S. Eliot, “Preludes” I The winter evening settles down With smell of steaks in passageways. Six o’clock. The burnt-out ends of smoky days. And now a gusty shower wraps The grimy scraps Of withered leaves about your feet And newspapers from vacant lots; The showers beat On broken blinds and chimney-pots, And at the corner of the street A […]

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Thom Gunn, “On the Move”

Thom Gunn, “On the Move” “Man, you gotta Go.” The blue jay scuffling in the bushes follows Some hidden purpose, and the gust of birds That spurts across the field, the wheeling swallows, Has nested in the trees and undergrowth. Seeking their instinct, or their poise, or both, One moves with an uncertain violence Under the dust thrown by a […]

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Robinson Jeffers, “Boats in a Fog”

Robinson Jeffers, “Boats in a Fog” Sports and gallantries, the stage, the arts, the antics of dancers, The exuberant voices of music, Have charm for children but lack nobility; it is bitter earnestness That makes beauty; the mind Knows, grown adult. A sudden fog-drift muffled the ocean, A throbbing of engines moved in it, At length, a stone’s-throw out, between […]

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e e cummings, Two Love Poems

e e cummings, Two Love Poems “in spite of everything” in spite of everything which breathes and moves,since Doom (with white longest hands neatening each crease) will smooth entirely our minds – before leaving my room i turn,and(stooping through the morning)kiss this pillow,dear where our heads lived and were. “since feeling is first” since feeling is first who pays any […]

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20th Century Poetry #19: Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Wednesday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. Louis MacNeice at Wiki, Poetry Foundation […]

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20th Century Poetry #18: T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. T. S. Eliot at tseliot.com, […]

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Dante, Through the Fire

Here’s one of the great moments in poetry: Canto 27 of Dante’s Purgatorio, where Dante passes through the fire, and Virgil crowns him on their way up to the summit of Mount Purgatory. This taken from the translation of Allen Mandelbaum, and the Digital Dante site at Columbia University. *** Just as, there where its Maker shed His blood, the […]

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William H. McNeill – History as Myth

A few years ago, the great historian William H. McNeill died. I still have surprisingly endearing memories of reading his A World History one winter, in the middle crowded New York City Wendy’s, surrounded by high school kids just done with their day, his narrative silencing every one and every thing.  His obituary can be found here. Below is a […]

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20th Century Poetry #17: R. S. Thomas

R. S. Thomas (1913-2000) One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. R. S. Thomas at Wiki, […]

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Ship in Air

Here’s a nice anecdote told twice, first from some anonymous Irish source, and then Seamus Heaney’s version of it in verse. This was the first poem of Heaney’s I ever saw, back in high school when someone showed me the New York Times, perhaps when his book Seeing Things was reviewed there, or when he’d won the Nobel Prize. But […]

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Heaney Comes to Poetry

Here are some of Seamus Heaney’s memories of reading, writing, and poetry, from earliest schooldays to university, all taken from Dennis O’Driscoll’s wonderful book-length interview with him,  Stepping Stones. Yes, my memory of learning to read goes back to my first days in Anahorish School, the charts for the letters, the big-lettered reading books. But I don’t think I showed […]

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20th Century Poetry #16: Vernon Watkins

VERNON WATKINS (1906-1967) One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. Vernon Watkins at Wiki, Poetry Foundation […]

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Robert Pinsky, “The Figured Wheel”

The Figured Wheel, by Robert Pinsky The figured wheel rolls through shopping malls and prisons, Over farms, small and immense, and the rotten little downtowns. Covered with symbols, it mills everything alive and grinds The remains of the dead in the cemeteries, in unmarked graves and oceans. Sluiced by salt water and fresh, by pure and contaminated rivers, By snow […]

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20th Century Poetry #15: C. Day-Lewis

C. DAY-LEWIS (1904-1972) One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. C. Day-Lewis at Wiki, Poetry Foundation […]

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Heaney on Writing

Here’s Seamus Heaney talking about writing, from Dennis O’Driscoll’s book-length interview with him, Stepping Stones: On Inspiration On the week in May 1969 when he wrote “about forty poems”: It was a visitation, an onset, and as such, powerfully confirming. This you felt, was “it.” You had been initiated into the order of the inspired. Even though most of the […]

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What’s a Genius to Do?

It’s been said of Picasso: “At the age of sixteen, he produced two paintings which were of academic perfection…. So what do you do with your life if you’re producing academically perfect works at the age of sixteen? Every step afterwards is an innovation.” Indeed, whether you like where Picasso went or not, it’s undeniable that he never stopped moving. […]

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The Past is Not Dead: There is Only Continuity

from Peter Ackroyd, at the end of his first volume of the history of England: Other forms of continuity are also evident. Modern roads follow the line of old paths and trackways. The boundaries of many contemporary parishes follow previous patterns of settlement, along which ancient burials are still to be found. Our distant ancestors are still around us. There […]

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The Popular Press in 1918 was Garbage Too

From Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, published just over a century ago. Our bad relationship with information and disinformation didn’t start with cable news or Twitter: … Man does not speak to man; the press and its associate, the electrical news-service, keep the waking-consciousness of whole peoples and continents under a deafening drum-fire of theses, catchwords, standpoints, scenes, feelings, […]

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How Alice Munro Chose to Write Short Stories

  from the introduction to her Selected Stories: I did not “choose” to write short stories. I hoped to write novels. When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children, particularly in the days before disposable diapers or ubiquitous automatic washing machines, it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time. A child’s illness, relatives […]

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Go Ahead and Fuck Up

  I’m not sure who the equivalent is for you, but Albert Camus was one of the first authors I found outside of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. The high school teacher who introduced me to him also laid an egg it took years to get over: the apparently insurmountable gulf between “popular” and “serious” literature. Even more than other […]

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History is An Accident

from Peter Ackroyd, at the end of his first volume on the history of England: When we look over the course of human affairs we are more likely than not to find only error and confusion. I have already explained, in the course of this narrative, that the writing of history is often another way of defining chaos. There is […]

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20th Century Poetry #13: Basil Bunting

One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here.   Chomei at Toyama (Kamo-no-Chomei, born at Kamo 1154, […]

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Manet the Mystic

Manet’s 1862 painting The Old Musician is a great human riddle. Just what everybody is doing here, and why they’re gathered together, is a mystery. Yet it’s a puzzle more emotional than academic. Held in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., you can read their page about it here, or the Wiki page.

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Death in Ancient Egypt

Here, Erik Hornung refutes the old cliché that ancient Egyptian religion was “death obsessed,” or that constructions like the pyramids are nothing more that huge tombs. In fact I can think of few religions both more anxious to deny death and affirm, somehow and some way, the continuation of life:   For the Egyptians even death itself cannot call into […]

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5 Elegies by Seamus Heaney

from “Clearances” When all the others were away at Mass I was all hers as we peeled potatoes. They broke the silence, let fall one by one Like solder weeping off the soldering iron: Cold comforts set between us, things to share Gleaming in a bucket of clean water. And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes From each other’s work […]

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New story at Cutthroat: “The Frog”

Many thanks to the editors at Cutthroat (Pamela Uschuk, and fiction editor Bill Luvaas) for publishing my story “The Frog” in their spring issue. It is only available in print (I’ve pasted the first two pages below), and you can subscribe the journal here. The story is part of a larger collection of poetry and fiction called School of Night. […]

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The Religion of Ancient Egypt

A handful of passages from one of the best books on religion I’ve ever read, Erik Hornung’s Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. His eloquence on religious ideas foreign to so many of us today is astounding. As he asks rhetorically at one point: “Did the Egyptians think wrongly, imprecisely, or simply in a different […]

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Jews & Muslims on Pilgrimage Together in the 1300s

From Mark Cohen’s Under Crescent & Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages: An aspect of Jewish-gentile sociability under Islam that seems to lack a counterpart in the Jewish-Christian world is the world of shared popular religious practices… particularly in the joint worship of saints. Here, interdenominational religiosity has its basis in the fact that the Qur’an honors biblical figures […]

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The Melancholy of William Blake

No matter how poor he got, and no matter what of his belongings he had to sell to get by, William Blake always held onto a print of Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 work, Melencolia I; it was found in his workroom when he died. And so it is worth looking in detail, again and again, at anything which an artist and […]

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Martin Luther Reinvents the German Language

When, in 1522, Martin Luther agreed to a staged kidnapping that would keep him safe from Catholic and other authorities, he soon found himself out of danger, but also bored to tears. Hiding out in castle called the Wartburg, near Eisenach, he soon admitted, “I sit here idle and drunk all day long.” Thomas Cahill picks up the story: …this […]

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20th Century Poetry #9: Susan Miles

One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here.   Microcosmos The brown-faced nurse has murmured something unintelligible […]

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Primo Levi’s Hardest Thoughts on the Holocaust

From Primo Levi’s 1986 book, The Drowned and the Saved, remembering the concentration camps: On Levi’s own—and others’—guilt at having survived the concentration camps: At a distance of years one can today definitely affirm that the history of the Lagers [from Konzentrationslager, concentration camp] has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never fathomed them to the bottom. […]

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Scholarly Peace: Muslim, Christian & Jewish Translators in Medieval Spain (essay)

  In the year 949, among the palaces and gardens of Madinat al-Zahra outside the city of Cordoba, a conference was being held. The host was the caliph of al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman III, and his guests were representatives from the Christian emperor Constantine VII, who had just arrived from Constantinople. Only two centuries before, the first Abd al-Rahman had fled […]

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Burned as a Witch in Ireland in 1895

From Frazer’s Golden Bough: In March 1895 a peasant named Michael Cleary, residing at Ballyvadlea, a remote and lonely district in the county of Tipperary, burned his wife Bridget Cleary alive over a slow fire on the kitchen hearth in the presence of and with the active assistance of some neighbours, including the woman’s own father and several of her […]

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20th Century Poetry #5: Edward Thomas

One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. As the Team’s Head-Brass As the team’s head-brass flashed […]

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Sleepwalking into World War One

From Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914: Do we really need to make the case against a single guilty state, or to rank the states according to their respective share in responsibility for the outbreak of war? In one classical study from the origins literature, Paul Kennedy remarked that it is “flaccid” to dodge the […]

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Marc Chagall Struck by Lightning

  The artist Marc Chagall, meeting his wife Bella Rosenfeld in 1909; they were together for the next 35 years: I am at Thea’s, lying on the sofa in the consulting room of her father, a physician. I liked to stretch out that way near the window on that sofa covered with a black horsehair cloth, worn, with holes in […]

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The Great Myths #53: Thor Goes Fishing for the Serpent that Surrounds the World (Norse)

Read the other Great Myths here Long ago the slaughter-gods were eating their hunting-prey in the mood for a drink, before they were full; they shook the sticks and looked at the lots: they learned that at Ægir’s was a fine crop of cauldrons. The cliff-dweller [Ægir] sat there, child-cheerful, much like Miskorblindi’s boy; the son of Dread [Thor], defiant, […]

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20th Century Poetry #4: Laurence Binyon

  One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. Here, with Laurence Binyon’s “Hunger,” is the first […]

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The Hooded Lady of Brassempouy

from Randall White’s Prehistoric Art: The best known of the statuettes from Brassempouy is the 25,000 year-old “dame à la capuche” (hooded lady), carved from the dense, homogenous interior core of a mammoth tusk. She was found immediately below a fireplace and was covered by a small limestone slab. Although she has frequently been imagined to be the broken-off head […]

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William Blake Chooses Eternity

A wonderful paragraph from Peter Ackroyd’s biography of William Blake, where he shows how the poet slowly came to accept that if he was writing for anyone other than himself, it was for posterity; and how he charged ahead nevertheless: His independence meant that he could preserve his vision beyond all taint—and that integrity is an essential aspect of his […]

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Joseph Campbell’s Hero Sets Out

A piece of the beginning and end of The Hero with a Thousand Faces: Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or […]

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20th Century Poetry #3: W. H. Davies

One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. The Rat “That woman there is almost dead, Her […]

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On Beethoven’s Deathbed

Here are two passages from Beethoven’s life. The first finds him on his deathbed, and is recorded in the memoirs of one of his friends. Beset by his final illness, the composer is rejuvenated for the last time by an astounding gift: the complete scores George Frederic Handel. The fact that Beethoven, so close to death, could still express an […]

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