– Daniel Bourne
Published first in Poet’s Bookshelf II:
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, tr. Aylmer Maude
Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal
Czeslaw Milosz, The History of Polish Literature
James Wright, The Collected Poems
Elizabeth Bishop, The Collected Poems
Sharon Olds, The Gold Cell
Louise Glück, Descending Figure
Robert Hass, Praise and Human Wishes
The Generation of 2000, ed. William Heyen
Henry David Thoreau’s Pencils
I have a vague memory of a passage from the work of German philosopher Karl Jaspers that I came across in a “Greatest Hits of Philosophy” type anthology during my early undergraduate days. Jaspers, much less dire of a voice to me then than Heidegger or my first true love at the time, Friedrich Nietzsche (the tragic Nietzsche that Eugene O’Neill discerned and absorbed in Mourning Becomes Elekra or Lazarus Laughed more than the social scourge that George Bernard Shaw channeled into Man and Superman), said something along the lines of that the truly great are individuals only known to you, that they are great in your life though perhaps completely unknown to others. That is why this idea of what would be on my “poet’s bookshelf” is so appealing to me. Here is a chance to show what spurred my early steps into poetry, what made me wake up to poetry. It’s no one else’s story, and I can’t make any claims about the importance of these works beyond their profound effect on me. Moreover, I’m going to stretch the notion of “book” to include other types of prisms through which I’ve been refracted into something different from what I was before. Not only would I include a novel — Tolstoy’s War and Peace — but also a tiny unopened package of pencils from the Thoreau pencil company, which I fondled from time to time as I worked in the vault of the Lilly Library at Indiana University from 1976 until 1985, at which time I took off for Poland on a Fulbright fellowship for translating younger Polish poets.
- War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
I grew up on a 180-acre farm in southeastern Illinois in Wynoose, a four-corners burg with a small store and two churches. My house was about a half-mile to the east, and the Little Wabash River bottoms were located about a mile to the south. Many times a year the river would flood all the roads to the south, but in general there weren’t many roads out of the place at any time. The nearest bookstore was located in a chicken hatchery store in Olney, the county seat, a town of about 8000 located fifteen miles away. When you walked in the door, if you turned to the left you would get all your poultry-raising needs fulfilled — from baby chicks to chicken meal and heat lamps. If you turned to the right, there were several rows of used paperbacks to browse, mostly Louis L’Amour westerns and Harlequin Romances. But there were also a number of discards, probably books sold off by survivors of the local community college’s comp courses as soon as the semester ended, sporting titles such as Jane Eyre and The Moonstone. It was a limited universe, but enough to survive.
And then I encountered Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I don’t know why I ended up pulling it off of the shelf of my high school library, a little room that served about 170 students in grades 9-12 and whose librarian, Mrs. Lutz, once hid the latest issue of Look magazine because there was a woman in a swimsuit on the cover. “I’m not a prude,” Mrs. Lutz declared, “but enough is enough.” But from the moment I started reading — “Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes” — I couldn’t put it down. One thing that attracted me to the book was Tolstoy’s ability to talk about both the national and the individual, the political and the personal. Although I’ve come to question Tolstoy’s own views very much, his sensibility, both lyric and panoramic, has very much stuck with me.
And I also became very much aware of translation, and, through that, how wording affects the way a reader apprehends a work. In hindsight, I was so lucky to encounter Aylmer Maude’s translation first. Not only did Maude know Tolstoy, and the translation of War and Peace for him was largely a labor of love, but Maude was also unusually sensitive to the process of translation — that choices needed to be made and that Tolstoy himself had to deal with issues of translation in the initial publication of the novel in Russia. Indeed, when Tolstoy turned in the manuscript to his publisher, he was told that there was too much French-talk. For Tolstoy, it was a matter of authenticity. Virtually all of the Russian nobility at the time of the Napoleonic invasion spoke French, not Russian. His publisher, however, pointed out that his readership was Russian, and that he needed to make the work more accessible. For one of the few times in his life Tolstoy compromised, though there was still a lot of French and other European languages sprinkled in, which Maude dutifully preserved in the original while providing the English in a footnote. In general, Maude’s generous provision of translated dialogue, historical commentary and other contextual tidbits made each page just a little bit non-linear, a tiny bit messy. Sometimes the book reminded me of the old polyglot commentaries where the central text didn’t get very far from page to page. Instead, it was a tiny window surrounded by a textual stain glass of extensive notes leading off in all directions, the marginalia becoming the main.
But the most important thing is that as I approached the end of the novel, I grew sad. My time in this world was fast coming to a close. Meanwhile, my family had ignored my weeks of obsession with the book, or were puzzled by it — or, even exasperated because I probably should have been doing chores instead of having “my nose in a book.” At school, I would catch my English teacher anxiously looking on, wringing her hands at whether she should say something or not. Then I finished the book. Sure enough, my teacher materialized with yet another Tolstoy novel — Anna Karenina. Hrummph, I said to myself. “All happy families are alike. Unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” I read to the end of the first chapter. “Hrummph,” I said again. I gave the book back to her.
I had already pronounced War and Peace the greatest book in the world. I would no longer need to read another book. Instead, I only needed Tolstoy and his novel. I would compose a great work of music, employing both classical music and the latest in folk-rock, to do homage to the novel and its characters. Of course, all of this was folly. I did start to read other books, and soon read through Anna Karenina and went on to more novels not just by Tolstoy but also Dosteovesky, and soon found my way to Chekhov’s short stories and plays as well. It was my year of Russian literature, and I must admit to this day I feel I am much more deeply imprinted on the Russian “canon” than I am on the English/American one. It was what I first saw when I hatched from the egg.
But an even more momentous thing happened while I was reading War and Peace. My father was found to have colon cancer, and the cancer cells had metastasized. As I lay by his bedside after the surgery, and when complications brought him back into the hospital, I fantasized about the talks we should have together, weighted with the recognition not just of impending death but the ferocity of life right now, of my love for him. Basically I wanted both him — and me — swaddled within the universe of War and Peace. I wanted metaphoric language there along with the beeping panels and invading tubes. I wanted us to talk, to discover, redeem and reconcile what was happening with something mythic and profound.
But instead I followed the doctor’s advice not to talk with him as someone dying, and this silencing festered and spread within me, until it popped out in the first “real” poems I wrote, after I turned to poetry in my early twenties, after I had graduated from Indiana University. In a way, by then I was beyond War and Peace, but in another way I would say that I had absorbed what was necessary, what was crucial. Robert Hass writes in Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry:
Poems take place in your life, or some of them do, like the day your younger
sister arrives and replaces you as the bon enfant in the bosom of the family; or
the day the trucks came and the men began to tear up the wooden sidewalks and
the cobblestone gutters outside your house and laid down new cement curbs and
I read War and Peace when I needed to, right before and during that time when my own old world became ripped up and ploughed under. Without it, I don’t think I would ever have become a poet. By the time I started writing those poems in The Household Gods about my father, his cancer, his equally tragic loss of his farm and his self-identify, I was on to reading David Justice and Philip Larkin, Mona VanDuyn and John Ashbery, Czeslaw Milosz and Anna Akhmatova. Nonetheless, I still retained that desire to talk to my father at last, to walk with him into that world of language I had first encountered in Tolstoy. Those poems in the book were — if not that conversation with him — at least my recognition of my failure back then as well as my ongoing fury at not having been braver than I was. And, years later, after I had already spent time in Poland (the Slavic land I ended up voyaging to rather than Russia) I had a dream in which I was speaking with my dad about the weather, a common topic on our southern Illinois farm. We were speaking in Polish, however, and at last it felt like he was giving me his benediction.
- Fleurs du mal, Charles Baudelaire
But another fact of that time is that — for better or worse — I became interested in literature not through work in English but in other languages. Along with my immersion in Russian (though only in translation), I ended up majoring in comparative literature with a concentration in French and German. I ended up reading Pierre Ronsard as well as Andrew Marvell, both of whom I liked very much. Above all, though, I remember being struck by Charles Baudelaire and his metaphoric landscape — whose specific, often highly physical images set off great rings of thought in my mind à la the proverbial big rock thrown in a still pond. Basically, I was just feeling the language and its images in ways that I just could not appreciate when I read Eliot or other more recent English-language poets whose work would greatly rock my boat once I found them a few years later.
I also came to note and savor how some things could not be translated into English, how languages existed separately, with very shaky bridges between them. For example, in “Rêve parisien,” one of Baudelaires poems in Fleurs du mal, he uses the imperfect past tense, which in French is shorter than the past perfect, to portray just through the tense itself how the world of his imagination, the world “là-bas,” or “out there beyond,” is so much more beautiful and refined. Then the clock strikes, and he is brought back to the sordid physical world around him, filled with ugly clutter. For a second, the verb tense changes to the similarly more cluttered past tense that needs a “helping” verb: “J’ai vu l’horreur de mon taudis.” Of course, in English, everything is the opposite. Our static past tense requires the helping verb: “the Ganges were pouring out the treasures of their urns,” whereas the active tense is briefer. Of course, the verb tense here, whose meaning plays behind the words like a deep, sustained bass, just can’t be translated. In fact, to preserve the verb tense choice would get everything ass-backwards. Of course, such non-semantic choices exist in English, and I’ve come to notice them. But, this poem in Fleurs du mal is where one of my first realizations about how there is more going on in poetic language than word choice and line-break.
Above all, though, I owe to Baudelaire, if not my awareness of how much of poetic experience involves connection-making (that “this” relates to “that”), then a vocabulary with which to describe this process. His notion of “correspondances” is very important to me, that the world is writing letters to itself and the poet just steams open the envelope. And, because a connective vision requires a similarly connective language, this pursuit of such “correspondances” can serve as argument as to why metaphor and simile are primal rather than merely ornamental. It is a way of reconciling the people and the stones, to jump over into a paraphrase of William Carlos Williams (who probably should be on my list as well). It is another way at getting at Williams’ exhortation of “no ideas but in things,” Eliot’s objective correlative, or Lowell’s bloodied abstractions. It’s what rocks there behind the bumper sticker version of “show, not tell” in creative writing classes all over America. In hindsight, I might even make a cautious case for Baudelaire trumping all of these English language poets in that he pre-dates them by decades, but why? Above all, it’s important to me that in my own experience as a reader he showed up when he did.
- The History of Polish Literature, Czeslaw Milosz
I went to Poland in the Summer of 1980 in the hopes of accompanying a girlfriend of Polish descent as she rediscovered her roots there. The plan was to go there as a “native speaker” lecturer for a summer English language program at the polytechnic institute in Wroclaw. But Ruthie’s father suffered a massive head injury in a car accident, and she ended up not going. I was much more smitten with her than she was with me, and it has been a major irony of my life that it was I who ended up going to Poland instead of her and that, although our relationship was over by the time I returned from Poland two months later, I have ended up spending a good part of my writing life translating Polish poetry and prose into English.
I came to Poland having just started Artful Dodge magazine one year before. Except for the magazine and writing a few poems, I hadn’t done much. What I did bring with me to Silesia, however, was an introduction to Eastern Europe born out of my earlier interests in Russian history and literature, and an itch to translate. But my only languages were French and German, and, ridiculously of course, I thought that everything in those languages worth translating had already been done.
I landed in the middle of history, the rise of the Solidarity Trade Union and the beginning of the end (or at least one of the beginnings of the end) of the Cold War era. The first strikes occurred in Gdansk on the Baltic coast about two days before I entered the country on July 4th, and, by the middle of my second month in Poland, there were strikes everywhere (including the Wroclaw Opera House), the Soviet army was contemplating whether to invade (luckily it didn’t — or couldn’t), and I was not only learning Polish but also becoming increasingly engaged in Polish literature and poetry, especially in how important history was to literature and vice versa. I had found a cause.
I returned from Poland at the end of August 1980 truly bitten by the Polish bug. I entered the MFA program at Indiana while also embarking on Polish language classes, then returned to Poland during martial law — this time to Warsaw University — on a graduate exchange fellowship between Warsaw University and Indiana University (one of the few institutions to preserve its ties with Poland during the martial law period). After this stay during 1982-1983, I returned to Poland for a two-year Fulbright during 1985-1987 and have returned there for shorter stays several times since.
I have also ended up translating a number of Polish poets, especially the political poet Tomasz Jastrun (whose blend of iconic image and iconoclastic wit makes his work accessible as well as interesting), as well as more complex poets such as Bronislaw Maj, Krystyna Lars and Zbigniew Machej. Others before me have talked about how the process of translation has enriched their own poetry — the close reading, the challenge of breaking apart and then reassembling the linguistic puzzle in the adopted language, the various decisions about what must not be abandoned or the despair at realizing something has to be left behind. It is a kind of workshop, and perhaps there are some elements that you can discover in this other language that can then show up in your own writing. Poetry often involves some kind of risk, some sort of attempt to see what you can get away with. What is a poem anyway? In Polish, as in many other languages, the conventions and strategies at times can be quite different, so why not attempt this strange thing that works so well in Polish within my own poetry and in my own language as well.
And what has drawn me to Polish poetry is not only in its gaze towards history (again, this combination of the personal and the political, the lyrical and the panoramic), but the way that its imagery can sometimes imbue the inanimate world with the human, an animism that shows up in other Central/Eastern European art as well. I think of Nikolai Gogol’s “Nose,” or the flight of household objects — like so many domestic angels — in the ecstatic art of Marc Chagall. There, surrealism is not an outré intellectual assertion in order to shock the bourgeoisie, it comes out of everyday contact with truly Byzantine bureaucracy à la Franz Kafka, or out of connection with sensibilities that tap deep into cultural roots imbedded in pre-Christian Slavic folk tales. Here is an excerpt from “Family Myth,” by Polish poet Rafal Wojaczek, translated by Frank Kujawinski and published in the Spring 1981 issue of Artful Dodge:
That is a sausage.
That is my edible mother.
She hands on a nickel hook
And smells of smoke. . .
In English, I’ve seen this same fusion of the animate and inanimate in Charles Simic’s poetry, which can be seen even in the titles of several of his early collections — Return to a Place Lit by A Glass of Milk, or Somewhere Among Us a Stone Is Taking Notes — but this of course comes from Simic’s own Slavic background. I also remember when in the early ’80s I attended the Indiana University Writers Conference. I had signed on for a workshop with Dave Smith, who I was certain would love my poetry. Didn’t my poem “The Tongue Is All That Keeps on Going” offer long lines as his did? (I had been enamored of long lines ever since I first encountered them with the Beats and thought them great for making a poem surge and swerve at all the right moments). And weren’t his poems highly yet idiosyncratically narrative? But, when he read my work, he was less than enthused. “America already has one Charles Simic,” he sighed. So there!
But what book would I choose for my shelf to represent all this? Although Simic certainly deserves to be there, as does Bronislaw Maj’s Wspólne powietrze or countless books by Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz, Adam Zagajewski or several other Polish poets (either in English or in translation), I would in the end choose Czeslaw Milosz’s The History of Polish Literature, which I discovered soon after my first return from Poland. Milosz, whose receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature coincided roughly with the rise of Solidarity as well as the naming of Polish priest Karol Wojtylla as Pope John Paul II, represents for me the way in which this one particular country and culture “on the edge” of Europe became a center of international regard during the 1980s. And, during my first explorations of this complicated terrain, I had gladly immersed myself in Milosz’s book, his connection of the various texts to the historical and cultural background around them as well as the printing of the poems in both Polish and English, so that my eye and ear and mind could dart back and forth between them. I realized that there was something important going on here and that I needed to attend to it.
- The Collected Poems, James Wright
All that said, probably reading James Wright has influenced my poetry just as much. Long before I set foot in Ohio to take up my job here at the College of Wooster, I first came to know Wright’s Ohio. One of my first acts after moving to Wooster was to head for Martins Ferry down on the River to seek out Wright’s grave and pay homage. Dumb me. He wasn’t buried there. But it still occasioned a pilgrimage. To an Illinois flatlander, even the topography was exotic. While I was searching for the cemetery, a local pointed with his finger and said the graveyard was “one hill over.” I had to drive back down the steep slope I was on to Route 7, then up the next incline. Although there was no grave, there was an amazing vista, a portrait of a James Wright poem, the slow snake of the river and the hard slab of rooftop. Bridge and forest. Barge and cliff. Rust and grease.
But the poems. The long titles and concrete anchoring in place that helped his metaphoric scaffolding rise up even higher. His own interests in European poetry — and translating it — that helped him to say “goodbye to the poetry of calcium.” The compression of his own language into imagery that makes distinctions between the metaphoric and the literal unnecessary. His positioning of himself in the stands in the Shreve High football stadium that sparks “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” He is no poet as scourge, towering up above it all and judging. He too is a participant, in the stands, caught along with everyone else in this on-rolling wheel of exuberant gallop and then deterioration and rupture. Or, the lyric dialectic of his poem “Two Hangovers,” the desire for oblivion in the first part (“Ah, turn it off) and the vision in the second part that despite his bent for self-destruction, “the branch will not break.”
- The Collected Poems, Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop is the poet who makes the “organic” versus “fixed form” poetry argument superfluous. The obvious answer is that both are important and necessary, and EB’s poetry shows us this. There’s also that wonderful poem, “The Map.” I’ve always been fascinated with maps myself, since even before I learned to read, so I was already a sucker for this poem, but it’s also the way that Bishop is able to gaze at the textual world as if it were real that has truly stayed with me. (It’s something I admire in Robert Hass as well.) Again, we’re dealing with connectedness, the ability to transfer and transform something beyond. Moreover, I admire Bishop’s own interests in other languages, other lands. Her poetry is one of exploration, whether it be Brazil or a fish, whether she be reading a misprint in the newspaper or washing the hair of her beloved.
- The Gold Cell, Sharon Olds
Right after that writers conference in the early ’80s, I showed my professor and mentor Roger Mitchell the very same poems that had under-whelmed Dave Smith. I received a very different reaction. True, Roger had been bitten by the Polish bug as well, and had lived in Poland on a Fulbright in his graduate school days. But he especially liked “The Tongue Is All That Keeps Going,” about a Polish friend of mine who had emigrated from Wroclaw to Winnipeg and had started dreaming in English. But Roger also favorably mentioned its sense of line, which for me was a breakthrough because for some time Roger had been constantly questioning my long, often enjambed line-breaks. He hadn’t much use for Sharon Olds and her sense of line, either, he had once told me when I tried to use her as justification.
But I could hear Sharon Olds’ line-breaks from the first moment I encountered her work. Even those lines ending in “the” seemed just right, the “the” like a slingshot ready to throw mind and eye and ear into the next line and image. It was a mental syncopation, a coiling of rhythm and plot. (I might be wrong, but I don’t think SO’s line-breaks are even so controversial nowadays, and I have probably grown more cautious and conservative myself because I note a lot of work around me — especially poems I read for Artful Dodge — seems not just arbitrary in the writer’s use of enjambment, but as if to him or her enjambment is somehow de rigueur.)
Another thing that struck me was Sharon Olds’ use of motif, the way her poems built upon themselves, certain images circling back at the end like an innocent, offhand comment you make to a relative or lover that years later gets slung back at you in the course of an argument. It is as if that image has been stewing and fuming all this time.
- Descending Figure, Louise Gluck
Equally exhilarating to me was the poetry of Louise Glück. But whereas Olds’ lines seemed to swoop and surge, Glück’s involved the slightest flicker of emotion, dire and dark and depressed. In the midst of this pared down pain was the revealed bone of her metaphors, expressing the various tippings of the universe towards darkness or light — dead and dying children, or other children emerging into language as if it were a sacred and terrifying rite.
- Faith and Human Wishes, Robert Hass
Here I am cheating, but I can’t really choose between Robert Hass’ Faith and Human Wishes. Faith offers “A Heroic Simile,” which every time I read it takes my breath away with its various alternate universes. À la Bishop, Hass enters a world of text and literary convention, then makes it into a living, breathing world of its own, while at the same time recognizing himself as the ultimately impotent god unable to alter the doomed fate of his wood-cutter characters (shades of Pirandello). Then, all of a sudden, yet not disconnectedly, we’re walking out of a movie house with an equally complicated universe of remorse and alienation intimated — that there is as much distance between the couple walking out as there has been between the text and the outside world. I also like “The Yellow Bicycle,” which seems so much like a constructivist painting, where each panel doesn’t seem to go with any of the others, yet there is a recognizable logos perched on the edge of paraphrase.
But, above all, there is “Mediatations at Lagunitas;”
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
Quite simply, I feel that “Meditations. . .” is the most accomplished poem of our age. It is not just about our continual falling from innocence, perhaps our most profound myth of all, but also about breaking down all the old barriers between mind and flesh, how words are tactile and tangible, while the body is ephemeral and abstract.
But I also admire Hass’ experimentation in Human Wishes with lines so long that many of them create visual blocks on the page, but still seem to preserve an architectural integrity of dramatic motion, of sound and rhythm. I also admire his prose-poems, which often involve mixtures of the textual and the human observer, as well as his knack for talking about historical subjects in a lyrical, ruminative way, especially his capturing in “Rusia en 1931” of how unsympathetic Eastern European and Latin American writers have been towards each other, despite their similar geopolitical situations. But, above all, I admire how Hass is able to engage in imagery that seems so specific, so lyrical (witness his own influences from Japanese poetry), but also resonates so effortlessly and vividly with a greater cultural background. It’s as if Hass is able to carry so much of Western Culture on the back of his Asian-inspired imagery, where less is always more. He is probably our best cultural calligrapher of all.
- The Generation of 2000, William Heyen, Editor
Again I’m cheating, but I must insist on The Generation of 2000, not only because it includes the vast majority of the poets (and poems) I have come to love from the generation before me, but also introductions to the selected work written by the poets themselves. William Mathews, Ai, Tess Gallagher, Charles Simic, Norman Dubie, Albert Goldbarth, to name just a few. . .
- Henry David Thoreau’s Pencils
If there were some way to get the entirety of Lilly Library’s collection on my shelf, I’d do it. But failing that, I’d go with Henry David Thoreau’s pencils, though, of course, even that would land me in the hoosegow.
As I mentioned earlier, I worked at Lilly Library, the rare book library for Indiana University, for many years. It was like a second education for me, and it was probably handling Ezra Pound’s literary journal The Exile or the mimeographed pages of the late 1960s journal Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, that led to my own folly of starting Artful Dodge. There was a copy of the Gutenberg Bible there (or, at least the New Testament part with only a few pages missing ) as well as the working scripts of StarTrek. Down in the basement in the Manuscripts Division — the Marines of the Library with even tighter security than up in the Book Department — they housed Sylvia Plath’s paper dolls, which only very special people ever got to view or touch. But it was decided that Sylvia Plath’s own collection of books from college would be housed in the Book Dept., and I was the one asked to shelve them. While opening up some of the dust jackets to put protective Mylar covers on them, I noticed that someone (Sylvia?!) had made various x’s next to books in the publisher’s standard list of “Which Books Would You Like to Read?” printed on the jacket’s inside. Did anyone ever notice this before?
But perhaps the most fascinating thing I ever held in my hand while working at the Lilly Library was a packet of pencils produced by the pencil company owned by Henry David Thoreau’s father. (Thoreau not only worked there for a bit, but was instrumental in working out the various amounts of clay that would make up the best type of “lead.”) HDT determined that various amounts of clay were the key ingredients in pencils. While I worked there, I often thought about writing a long poem about someone like me, who, working alone in the stacks one day, would decide to break the tiny fragile paper wrapper, sharpen one of these pencils, and start writing and writing. When he finished with one, he’d go to the next, and so on. Of course, I never told any of my colleagues at the library about this idea. They probably would have fired me as a security risk. Of course, in the real world, even breaking the wrapper would have not only dropped the value of the pencils thousands and thousands of dollars, but destroyed a part of our cultural story as well.
But still that image: something that is valuable because it has not been written with, because it is still in potentia. I may just write that poem yet, pick up that pencil from that early poet of the woods and write my way through all the books that surrounded me in Lilly as well those that make up the textual forest around me now. I follow some trails, I bushwhack and stumble and lie down to rest. There’s so much wilderness and wildness, and I want to see it all.