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April 16, 2007


I remember the first time I stumbled upon a contemporary poem, and the confusion that soon set in. All of the guideposts and frameworks had been removed, and it was like wanering in a deceptively simple wilderness. One of the things that interests me is how historically framed verse or prose, while filled with allusions, often does not do the complex dimensional work of the most seemingly straightforward contemporary verse (I think of William Carlos Williams, usually, or Frost, or even, God forbid, Philip Larkin, although I know there are better examples) A few years ago I tried to learn Hebrew, and was startled to find how much meaning is compacted into a simple morpheme -- Arabic may be similar in that way. That's how I think about poetry these days, what once were allusions are often now mystical dimensions, not signs that say "this is how educated I am" but rather, "this is how vast." I just ordered my first Heaney volume--the new one, so I'll read along with you.

Thanks a lot for this comment. I am a huge fan of contemporary poetry, and part of that must be because I feel it affirms me, and my own experience, as absolutely valid as well as being a reflection of some universal Truth. Yes, Arabic words are packed with layers of meaning, according to my father-in-law. This discussion is making me realize that even when we don't know the etymology behind an English word, its nuance has a history that is affecting why we choose it. So no matter in what dimension you look at poetry, the vastness is there, and open to us for further engagement - thanks for pointing this out so well in your comment. Tomorrow I'll have some quotes from Heaney that go into this more. Which volume did you order? I'm reading from "Opened Ground" at the moment.

I think she got "District and Circle."

I'm enjoying this investigation. One thing reading original English language poetry has done for me is make me very sad about how much I must be missing when I read poets in translation. A Heaney poem translated into Polish probably sounds good, but I can't imagine it being half as strong as the original.

Gotta run for now. More later.

I ordered Spirit Level. It's on the way. Have you read The Names of Things by Susan Brind-Morrow? Not exactly poetry, but about the way language unfolds into layers and layers of meaning. It's a lovely memoir (I quoted it in Redemption Shoes, "Palamedes invented the alphabet after watching the patterns that flocks of migrating cranes made in flight against the sky…" about her travels in Egypt as a translator of ancient texts.

Oops. Sorry, I thought you'd gotten the most recent.

Well, many poems from the "The Spirit Level" are also included in the "Opened Ground" collection. It's a good book. Maybe we three can do some reading together?

Thanks, Teju. I'd definitely be up for some reading-together. And S., no, I haven't read Susan Brind-Morrow but it sounds like I should...

I think it would speak to you. Your writing style is also similar to hers.

This is a great discussion! It has prompted me to recall an old documentary that I watched on PBS....maybe 15 or 20 years ago....about Elliot. The only concrete thing that I recall is that Elliot believed that after he wrote the Four Quartets he no longer needed to write poetry. I cannot remember why.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.