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.

My Mother’s Ashes

Before she died, I’d sit with my mother—from a distance; 614 miles to be exact—in meditation. I never told her about this. I visualized her in bed, family portraits hanging on the wall above her head, an oxygen concentrator’s long tube snaking from the living room into the bedroom, the cannula hooked over her ears, its tips resting at the entrance to her nostrils. From the meditation bench on which I sat, eyes closed, I offered her the Priestly Blessings.

When Every Word Tells and Every Second Counts

Among my go-to examples of narrative efficiency is Isak Dinesen’s short story/novella, “Babette’s Feast,” more familiar to many through Gabriel Axel’s 1987 Danish language film adaptation, which is as economical in storytelling as its source. Not an image or action in the film is wasted, while Dinesen’s story is the Platonic form of Strunk and White’s Rule #17: Omit Needless Words.

The Presence of the Past: Q&A with Matthew Porto

The initial impulse for me comes almost exclusively from other writers. I’ll be reading something with a clear mind, which is difficult to do these days, and I’ll be struck by a phrase, an idea, an image, and then I’ll start a draft. That’s how it happens for me. My inner life finds its way into the poems through the medium of other texts, so that I can really call my poetry intertextual.

My Mistake: An Example from Emerson

There’s a mistake I sometimes make in my close reading of literature. In the classroom work I’m doing, or in the essay I’m writing, I tend to interpret the words, lines, and sentences at the beginning and the middle from the vantage point of the end. I know where the poem or piece of prose has concluded, and I project what I have come to know into what I had earlier read.

Art as Experience: Robert Irwin’s “Untitled (Acrylic Column)”

It is hard to describe the works of Robert Irwin. A typical work by Robert Irwin is, for instance, a piece called Untitled (Acrylic Column). Basically it’s a free-standing column of see-through acrylic about fifteen feet high. The column is constructed in a kind of ‘V’ shape so that it doesn’t fall over. Also, stuff happens with the light and with the refractions of vision in that shape.

Against Concepts!

More and more, I think, it’s this tyranny of concepts—the predetermination, pre-editing, and pre-thinking—that seem to plague our literature. Instead of opening the trap door to endless perspectives, endless transfiguration, this book, along with so many, seemed to end where it started.

My Mother’s Prayer Book

The prayer book’s title, Mishkan T’filah, comes from this verse: “And let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). “Mishkan T’filah,” write Rabbis Elyse D. Frishman and Peter S. Knobel, editor and chair of the editorial committee respectively, “is a dwelling place for prayer, one that moves with us wherever we might be physically or spiritually.”