The Grace of Accuracy: Robert Lowell and the Structure of Illumination

The poetic bookends which span thirty years of Robert Lowell’s life’s work, the first poem of Lord Weary’s Castle, “The Exile’s Return,” and the last poem of Day by Day, “Epilogue,” have a lot to say to us today. Considered together, they shed light not only on Lowell’s development as a poet, but also on what it means to be possessed by a religious-artistic vision.

Mixing and Matching in Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth”

In Commonwealth, Patchett does her storytelling in a way that captures how things in our own lives jumble in our minds. She has managed in this novel to create, in a most engaging way, a story—no, multiple stories—that feel uncannily true to the ways that we experience life.

The Poem as Lantern: Q&A with Leslie Williams

Some readers have asked: who is the you? I hope it’s not greedy to have “you” mean multiple things! First it speaks to the reader, the “you” who’s invited into the book. In some of the poems “You” addresses the Divine. And in other poems the “you” is addressed to the friend, a character in the book. Finally, “Matters for you Alone”: not only meant for a single person, but also for someone literally by himself: a solitary reader.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 73, and Empson

It’s a pleasure to reread and analyze this first quatrain of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, looking at it and listening to it, the puzzles it generates and the questions it raises, and I am tempted to proceed to the rest of the sonnet. But in this post, I have another purpose, and that’s to quote and pay tribute to William Empson’s interpretation of the line about “choirs” in chapter 1 of his 1930 masterpiece of literary criticism, Seven Types of Ambiguity.

“This Encircling Compassion”: A Goy Puts Me Back in Mother’s Arms

Mother is gone, but compassion is still here. “[T]his encircling compassion,” Brian Volck calls it, rachamim, in his as-of-yet unpublished poem “A Goy’s Guide to TANAKH Hebrew: Rachamim.” Tanakh is the acronym for Torah (The Five Books of Moses), which with Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings), are the three major parts that make up the Hebrew Bible.

Gardening, Death, Infertility: The Poetry of Ada Limón

For my birthday, my sister sent me The Carrying, the 2018 collection of poems by Ada Limón, current U.S. Poet Laureate. I hadn’t read Limón’s poetry before, and found that getting to know it was very moving. The poems drew me into themselves, into the depths of Limón’s recurrent joys and concerns.

Indian Court Painting and an Eclipse

I was meeting my mother at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My mother is both a great lover of art and completely unpretentious about it. Often, she simply stands in front of objects of art and smiles. We found ourselves in an exhibit entitled Indian Skies: The Howard Hodgkin Collection of Indian Court Painting. We were both suddenly astonished. I don’t know why exactly. I do know why un-exactly. The paintings are extraordinary.

Travels in New France

For me, as an author of fiction who takes inspiration from a historian like Francis Parkman, perhaps the most salient of Parkman’s features is his prose style. Few can match his cadences and powers of description. The ability to describe a scene vividly is an underestimated and for the most part a modern virtue of the prose writer; in an age of screens it has fallen into abeyance.

Day One: Close Reading Dickinson

Students know lots of poems—songs from Disney films, lyrics written by Taylor Swift and other popular composers and performers, songs from Broadway musicals, hymns sung at church, Beatles tunes, rap and hip-hop…. But that’s not the same thing as the poetry that students are assigned to read and write about in college courses.

Impulse and Repetition: On Two Poems by Robert Frost

The “impulse” of the title is everything. The wife’s breaking of the branch echoes Dante’s breaking of a branch in Inferno’s Forest of the Suicides. This hints that the wife’s impulsive divorce—a finality “besides the grave”—is a kind of suicide, the marital bond slit like a wrist. Frost knew instinctively what psychiatry research has established: Most people who commit suicide think about it for ten minutes or less beforehand. It is an impulse.

Finishing Reading

Not finishing books is a recurrent habit in my life. I quit William Gaddis’s JR after only a few pages, which makes sense, but quit The Brothers Karamazov around fifty pages from the end, which doesn’t. As I write, I have been reading Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings since November 2016. I got a hundred pages in on a red-eye back from San Francisco, then quit until August of 2018, when I was on a vacation in a house with no WiFi.

Living Traditions

It’s not a good time for “organized religion.” “Nones” now comprise the largest single group in the American religious landscape. The dominant narrative seems less one of accelerating secularization than growing disillusionment with institutions and the communal practices they sustain. All the more interesting, then, when thoughtful writers breathe new life into ancient traditions of prayer, learning, and discipline. Two talented poets—one already well-known; another who soon will be—have new books that go against the contemporary grain.

Praying a Poem

For decades I had read and studied poetry. After all, my doctorate had been in literature. But I’d previously read in order to analyze, as I had intended to do that day in the hammock in order to write the review. Was it the hammock’s swaying suspension, its relaxing of my bodily and mental tautness, that released me into poetry’s expansive, prayerful space?

Heloise and Abelard

Abelard and Heloise proceeded to fall in love. They came together ostensibly so that he could tutor her. But actually what happened was a torrid love affair. This affair was discovered and for various complicated reasons led to trouble, as can happen in the case of torrid love affairs. The trouble got so bad that Heloise’s family intervened, by hiring a bunch of thugs to waylay Abelard and castrate him.

Who are You Becoming? Q&A with Timothy O’Malley

Fr. Giussani does what great thinkers do: he gets to first principles. It strikes me that what has been forgotten about liturgical renewal is that it was intended to help us live worshipful lives in the world. That’s what he invites us to throughout: it’s not about liturgical reform first but a liturgical way of living.

Identity Theft and the Angel of Death

On a bench overlooking Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island, I listened to my brother describe the situation and lay out the options: Mom’s not drinking or eating. The end is near. We can continue with hospice at Brookdale, the assisted living place where she’d been living for the last year, or we can have her moved to a residential hospice center where they are better equipped to provide all the care available to keep her comfortable.

In Search of Northernness

I pick books that I know exhibit a strong sense of place, and sometimes I choose to read something because I know it has to do with a certain city, country, region, climate, or landform. Recently I’ve been reading some literature that I’ve selected for what I can only call—to borrow a concept from quantum mechanics—its geopoetic entanglement. As I work on writing a novel set in the region of the upper Great Lakes, I’ve been looking to read literature set in a similar region.

Robert Frost’s “Mowing”

For me and my students, the modern poetry course picks up interest and energy when the syllabus brings us to Frost. Students are drawn to his diction, setting, and mood. The irony that comes alive in the classroom, however, is that Frost turns out not to be easy at all. The lines, with their meter and rhyme, are so immediately alluring that we might not perceive how enigmatic they are.

Spinning and Looping with Rowan Williams

If you are or can become a patient reader, Rowan Williams’s The Edge of Words is then not like a dancer en pie spinning on a single ever-elusive “point,” but whirling like a dancer along a discursive path towards the destination announced in the title: towards the “edge of words.”

Matthew Porto’s Moon Grammar Poems

Matthew Porto’s debut poetry volume, Moon Grammar (just published by Slant Books), is an intriguing collection. In three Parts, titled “The Angel,” “The Wanderer,” and “Endings,” Porto engages biblical narratives, travels in space and time, and finalities. All in all, Moon Garden’s poems give us a unique entry into what human life is about: its astonishments, its darknesses, its mysteries.