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.

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?

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.

Homer’s Iliad Afresh

I’ve always preferred The Odyssey to The Iliad—preferring adventurous peace to adventurous war. But when I heard good things about Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Iliad, I decided to buy it. I wasn’t sorry. I’d say that Wilson’s translation is a perfect balance between common speech and the grandness appropriate for this story of great heroes.

Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting

Among my favorite activities are writing, reading, and knitting. So when my sister told me about an essay collection with the aptly punned title, Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, I of course bought it immediately. Here were three of my top pastimes all together: I could read what well-known writers wrote about their knitting experiences.

The Intriguing Poems of Olga Sedakova

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.

David Whyte’s Words

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.

Revisiting Proust: Strolling Through Luscious, Long, Winding Sentences

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.

Close Reading “The Declaration of Independence”

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.

Poetry as Memoir and More

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.”

A Novel of Misreadings: Jane Austen’s Emma

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.

Chatting with ChatGPT

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.

Intertwining Rhymes

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.

Revisiting Little Women

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.

Lucille Clifton: Paring Down Poetry

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.

Opening Sentences

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.

From Pulitzer Prize to Islamic Horizons

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.

Penelope Fitzgerald, Novalis, and The Blue Flower

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.

Circling Through a Sonnet

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).