Accessible yet mysterious: that’s my overall impression of Olga Sedakova’s poems in the volume Old Songs, published by Slant Books this month. Published, I should add, in English translation—with each poem printed also in the original Russian. Sedakova published this collection in Russia (actually then the Soviet Union) in the early 1980s, but it’s just now appearing in this English translation by Martha Kelly.
I can’t remember what moved me to pick up David Whyte’s recently revised Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words; but I’m having trouble putting it down. With the Table of Contents a list of common words in alphabetical order—and with a flip-through showing three to ten paragraphs per entry—you might think you’ve got in your hands a sort of dictionary. But you’ve got nothing of the sort.
Novels are my bedtime reading. I especially like very long novels—so that there’s an already familiar world I can re-enter each night. So when I decided to take Swann’s Way off my shelf and up to bed with me, I knew I was in for months of Proust’s unique world created in the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past.
I think the closest close reading I’ve ever come across is the 2014 book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, by political philosopher Danielle Allen. Notice that I didn’t say that this close reading is “in the book.” No, the entire book itself is a close reading.
As I was reading through Richard Michelson’s new poetry collection, Sleeping as Fast as I Can, recently published by Slant Books, I felt I was reading his memoir. Not in a chronological sense—but because so many of the poems narrate or evoke events in his life. As he says in “Literature of the Body,” “But here I am, quiet / as death, writing my life, and sleeping as fast as I can.”
I love Jane Austen’s Emma so much that I re-read it every few years. During my most recent re-reading, I noticed something that I hadn’t quite gotten my mind around previously: this is a novel about how people misread one another. Misreading indeed drives the plot of Emma. Austen’s other novels usually contain a misreading or two—but none make it core to the book as Emma does.
I can’t remember exactly what my sister and I were talking about on the phone when she suggested that I might find it interesting to look into ChatGPT, which went public just this past November. It could have been when I was telling her about this blog, with its focus on literature and language—and she mentioned the OpenAI language models. Whatever the prompt was, I did open a ChatGPT account. I was curious to see what chatting with ChatGPT would be like.
I’m always a bit in awe of poems where the rhymes intertwine. By “intertwine,” I mean that there’s rhyme-linkage between stanzas. (We could just as well call it interlocking or interlacing rhyme.) Of course the locus classicus for intertwining rhymes is the terza rima that Dante invented in The Divine Comedy.
What made me want to return to my favorite childhood book, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women”? Was it when I met my new dental hygienist recently? She introduced herself as “Amy”—which led me to tell her how, as a child, I’d named my newest baby sister “Amy,” because I was reading Little Women when my Mom was pregnant a fourth time.
Recently I pulled some of Lucille Clifton’s poetry off my shelf, because I hadn’t read it for a while—not even since her death in 2010. Opening her books now and browsing in them felt like re-connecting with an old friend. The first thing that always strikes me about Clifton’s poetry is what’s missing: capitalization, punctuation, long and plentiful lines.
So here it is: a quiz game for Close Reading readers. Below are fifteen famous first lines from famous literary works. The sources (the answers) are given below the line of asterisks after the final quote. But DON’T PEEK; it’ll spoil your fun.
It’s the last place I’d have expected to find my Uncle Karl. That’s Karl Shapiro: my mother’s brother, 1945 Pulitzer Prize winning poet who was celebrated in his time, appointed Poet Laureate in 1946-7, editor of Poetry 1959-56, awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1968. But Karl is practically unknown today.
My favorite Fitzgerald novel is The Blue Flower (1995). It’s a historical novel, focused on the life of Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801). Hardenberg—or Fritz, as he’s called by family and friends—became famous when he began publishing under the name of Novalis, the` major German Romantic poet.
Dictionary: “a reference source containing words alphabetically arranged with information about…” (Merriam-Webster)
Lately I’ve been browsing in my 1906 Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia—not an easy task, since each volume weighs in at about ten pounds, so lifting one from the bottom shelf where the volumes reside could be literally back-breaking. Also, the typeface gets so tiny for encyclopedic details that I need a magnifying glass to read them.
I like to memorize poems—to have them in my head to recite while I’m exercising on my indoor bike or taking a brisk walk in my neighborhood. Not surprisingly, I find that short poems with rhyming are the easiest to memorize. So sonnets are ideal. Take Mark Jarman’s epilogue to his collection Unholy Sonnets (2000).
There’s no question that O.K./okay is an American coinage, going back to the mid-nineteenth century. I’ll touch below on the various theories of its origin, but first I want to give some evidence of what Mencken calls its “success.” In fact, without intending any hyperbole, he claims that O.K. is “the most successful abbreviation ever coined, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere.”
It was the disaster in Ukraine that moved me to pull Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie from my shelf. Not having read it since graduate school days decades ago, I recalled nothing about it except its gloom. But that was enough to make it an appropriate companion for current events. Not that Sister Carrie is about war. But it is about violence: the violence with which society oppresses and even destroys individuals. The novel’s dominant color is dark.
Lately I’ve been interrogating some of the hundreds of books on my shelves. To ones I haven’t read in decades — or ever — I ask: Why do I keep you? This was my question to H. L. Mencken’s classic, The American Language. Mencken, a Baltimore journalist, published his first edition of this tome in 1919.
I’m referring to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Sister Juana Inés of the Cross), renowned poet and playwright of her time, who lived in Mexico City (then part of New Spain) in the second half of the seventeenth century. Recently I pulled an old anthology of her writings off my poetry shelf for another project, and she drew me so powerfully into her mind and world that I decided to write this post.
“What might Mary as a contemporary of ours in the 21st Century look like? It is that question that the artworks in this exhibition are intended to answer. The objective? To prompt a different way of thinking about, perceiving, and seeing Mary,…and reflecting on what she might mean to us in our society today so that we might connect to her in a more intimate way.” (Curator’s Statement)