Reading and Rereading

kosice bookstoreThis is the first of three blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction here.) Of all the examples of fruitful return, rereading stands out as both obvious and splendid. For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed rereading more than first-time reading; in remembering and rediscovering the book (or poem or play), I not only see new things in it but grasp a different whole. For this to happen, the work does not have to present explicit difficulties; I can reread Lorca’s poem “La guitarra” (in his Poema del cante jondo) and find new clarities and darknesses in it, even though nothing seemed to stump me on the first round.

Continual rereading has its own pitfalls; if you never get around to new books, you will limit the rereading itself. To reread a book, you must have read it in the first place; you must put those old favorites aside and take up this bulky thing that you do not yet know. This is my main “reading difficulty”: those stacks of unread books in my good intentions.

Rereading, then, can only accompany first-time reading. But our culture and economy seem tipped toward the latter: the latest book, the book club selections, the titles that everyone is talking about for a short while. Many of these books disappear as quickly as they come, but if they manage to squeeze some fame and sales out of the air, the publishers and publicists will not complain. Publishers do care what comes out of their presses, but they have to prosper too. So they will publish many urban daylilies along with a few bristlecone pines.

One possible measure of literary quality is longevity: how many times, or over how much time, a work can be read with new understanding and pleasure. A few publishers base their entire work on this principle. Library of America “champions our nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s greatest writing in authoritative new editions and providing resources for readers to explore this rich, living legacy.” Thus the Library of America’s work consists not only of republishing but of rereading too–and reading works that have been there for decades or centuries but that we barely acknowledged with a soporific quote.

A spirit of rereading makes room for first-time readings too. When you look back, you make room for those works you missed. Cynthia Haven’s “Another Look” book discussion series, which she founded with Tobias Wolff, focuses on books that deserve more attention than they have received. For many, these books may be first-time reads, but the club’s name, “Another Look,” suggests return. The series kicked off with William Maxwell’s short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow. I had not read it before; although I could not attend the discussion, I purchased a Library of America edition, read it in time for the event, brought it into my life, and now look forward to a third reading.

So returns and rereading can dissolve the highways of popularity and bring newness out of dust. But it is a complex matter. Exclusive rereading (with no new books) and exclusive first-time reading (with no returns) both constrict. Nor is there a perfect proportion; the balance or imbalance may vary. But rereading can offer a strong corrective to a culture bent on “moving on” to the next new thing. What just came out is not necessarily more important than what came out years ago.

Each summer, at the Dallas Institute, my colleagues and I teach literature: epic in the odd-numbered years and tragedy and comedy in the even-numbered years. This year, when returning to King Lear, I admired the scene where Edgar (in the guise of a stranger) pretends to assist his blinded father, Gloucester, in jumping off a cliff but actually saves him. Having attained the make-believe cliff, which actually is nothing, they have the following exchange (Lear 4.6.25-41):

Edgar. Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of th’ extreme verge: for all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright.

Gloucester.                            Let go my hand.
Here, friend, ‘s another purse; in it a jewel
Well worth a poor man’s taking. Fairies and gods
Prosper it with thee! Go thou further off;
Bid me farewell, and let me hear thee going.

Edgar. Now fare ye well, good sir.

Gloucester. With all my heart.

Edgar. [Aside] Why I do trifle thus with his despair
Is done to cure it.

Gloucester says farewell to the world, jumps, “falls,” and is rescued by Edgar in the guise of another stranger, who speaks of his miraculous survival.

Edgar. Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipatating,
Thou’dst shivered like an egg: but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed’st not; speak’st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

I have read and loved this scene many times. But on this reading, Edgar’s aside stood out: “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it.” This may seem an unnecessary explanation; the audience can already guess that Edgar intends to save his father’s life. But Edgar speaks here not of saving a life, but of curing despair; he makes a striking connection between “trifling” with the despair and “curing” it. He invents a lightness, which then surrounds Gloucester’s unfatal fall. “Thy life’s a miracle,” says Edgar–but what makes it a miracle is this very trifling, this creation of precipice, fall, and survival out of level land.

That’s what happens with rereading: it is choreography of words, where the dancers surprise you even after you think you know the whole dance. Rereading holds you up to the book and says, “There’s more, there’s more.”


I took the photo in Košice on May 29.

The Dialogue of Thought with Others

I have not yet read Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, but it will be among my next books. In an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (quoted by Cynthia Haven), Jon Nixon writes, “For [Arendt], thinking was diametrically opposed to ideology: ideology demands assent, is founded on certainty, and determines our behaviours within fixed horizons of expectation; thinking, on the other hand, requires dissent, dwells in uncertainty and expands our horizons by acknowledging our agency. It is the task of education — and therefore of the university — to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible.”

What kind of thinking is this? We talk often about “critical thinking” but don’t define it carefully enough. According to Arendt, it is the “dialogue of thought.” It is both introspective and responsive. Both aspects are essential.

Let me play with this idea a bit. If your thoughts are introspective but without dialogue, you end up in a rut; you have nothing to temper or shake your view of the world. You go around and around with the same thoughts; maybe you negate them, maybe you insist on them, but you get used to seeing them swirl around, clockwise and counterclockwise, the same ones over and over.

If you are only responsive, then you have no response at all; you depend so much on what others say that you cannot understand their words. You seek wisdom but then accept or reject it flatly instead of taking it in. You seek knowledge but apply it without imagination or play. You fear the opinion of others but crave it at the same time.

The life of the mind, the kind Arendt holds up, requires a combination of aloneness and dialogue — but what combination? It is unique for each situation and person; it does not stay constant but must be recalibrated again and again. It breaks apart and comes together. There are moments of clarity and rapport and longer stretches of fumbling. The very search for the right proportions is individual and particular; my thinking will not be like anyone else’s, but its very character makes it capable of dialogue. In other words, to have a life of the mind, one must be prepared for constant and subtle dissent: not the opinionated kind, but the kind that allows for the unusual.

Depend on the opinions of others, and your thoughts become rags, with no firmness or fineness of their own.

Insist on your own opinion, and your thoughts become sticks.

The ideal, though, is not a pair of knitting needles with yarn, although that has its own place. There is no instrument or product here, at least not the kinds that can be delimited. There is only life, and in life there is everything.


contrariwiseMy students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, arrived in big boxes on Friday, and it is beautiful! It has 128 pages of dialogues, essays, letters, diaries, poems, roundtable discussions, questions, commentary, art, and more—on philosophical topics ranging from time to tyranny. (My students’ work has previously appeared in GothamSchools.)

The editors-in-chief (both juniors at the school) defined the journal, insofar as it can be defined. They made creative and editorial decisions, wrote commentary, held contests, solicited work, recruited the cover artist (also a student at our school), examined the proofs, and did more than I can enumerate. The fourteen-member editorial board assisted with the selection and editing of pieces, attended meetings, offered ideas, contributed work, and helped spread the word about the journal. The twenty-five contributors (or thirty, if one counts the honorable mentions) gave us rich material. I provided guidance and support.

To order a copy by mail, please write a check for $10 to Columbia Secondary School and mail it to CONTRARIWISE, c/o Diana Senechal, Columbia Secondary School, 425 W. 123rd St., New York, NY 10027. (The price includes packaging and first-class postage; if you purchase a copy in person, it’s only $5.) Proceeds help us cover printing costs and other expenses. The first issue was funded by donations from generous individuals; the second will rely primarily on sales. Thus, by purchasing a copy, you are not only treating yourself to a wonderful journal but also helping it continue.

This inaugural issue was five months in the making, and here it is. I am honored to have witnessed my students’ inspiration, care, and wit throughout the project—and thrilled to hold and read the book.

Update #1: CONTRARIWISE has a lovely mention on Columbia Secondary School’s Facebook page–as well as a Facebook listing for its May event. We are working on a possible April event as well. See the CONTRARIWISE website for information.

Update #2: CONTRARIWISE has received its first review–on Cynthia Haven’s outstanding blog The Book Haven!

“Thank God There’s Still the Dictionary”

That is an untranslatable line from Tomas Venclova’s poem “Sutema pasitiko šalčiu.” In my translation (in Winter Dialogue and The Junction), the line reads, for the sake of rhythm, “Thank God for the dictionary,” which misses some of the wit. I was never satisfied with my translation of that line, but the alternatives were awkward. In Lithuanian, it’s brilliantly terse and ironic: “Ačiū Dievui, dar esti žodynas.” This poem comes to my mind almost every day, so it seems fitting to bring it up at Thanksgiving.

I enjoy giving thanks but keep them scant when saying them out loud. This entry is much shorter than my thoughts.

I had a beautiful few days at the annual meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, where I gave a talk on Monday. I will be thinking about the event and the conversations for a long time.

A few books have taken up residence in my life: Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking by David Bromwich; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (thanks to Cynthia Haven and, indirectly, Tobias Wolff for bringing it to my attention); and Taking the Back off the Watch: A Personal Memoir by Thomas Gold.

In addition, I have returned to a few favorites, including The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and Reflections on Espionage by John Hollander.

I generally avoid mentioning my students on this blog, as I respect their privacy and try to keep my teaching separate from my writing. But something happened today that clinched my gratitude.

My tenth-grade students are reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou. For today’s lesson, I planned to discuss a few passages involving “confrontation” with the You, such as the one on p. 59 (of Walter Kaufmann’s translation):

When I confront a human being as my You, and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things.

He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.

After we read this and another passage, I had my students listen to Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which has to do, in a way, with such a confrontation and is worth reading for itself.

My students (in one particular section) were full of ideas and eager to talk about the Buber. Then, when I introduced the Rilke poem to them, a few of them lost their certainty. They didn’t understand how a headless torso could see the person or what that might mean.

They grasped that this was an extraordinary encounter–that the statue’s radiance and life exceeded what the person (addressed as “you” in the poem) had known before, and that he had to confront his own partial life. Several students said this in different ways. They understood the meaning of Apollo; they could imagine how a headless statue might radiate from the inside. But how could it see anything?

I told them that one day they might come in contact with something–a piece of music, a book, a painting, or a poem–that seemed to see and know them. (That’s only an approximation of Rilke’s meaning, but I wanted to give them an entry.)

Then one student said solemnly, “I have a poem that does that. ‘Jabberwocky.'”

A Book Club for Overlooked Masterpieces

Cynthia Haven’s blog The Book Haven is one of the richest and most thougthful blogs I have encountered. I love reading her pieces on Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova, Czesław Miłosz, and others. So, it was an honor to see that one of my recent pieces had inspired her to listen to a recording of Tomas Venclova reading his own poetry.

Today, when I visited her blog, I read a post that answered some questions that have been on my mind: How does one draw attention to a book one loves, a book that has been in some way overlooked, and how does one give such a book to others?

Cynthia Haven and Tobias Wolff have found a way to do just that. They created a book club devoted not to the book of the moment, but to overlooked masterpieces. It’s called “Another Look” and will debut on November 12, at Stanford University, with a discussion of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.

I was so happy to read this news that I trekked out to the local bookstore in Park Slope (about two neighborhoods away from me) to purchase Maxwell’s novel, which I have not read. I rarely have room for book recommendations; I read slowly and am severely backlogged. But this was something too special to pass over.

I hadn’t been out since the storm, except to get coffee, so this was my first stretch of the legs in several days, in the midst of tourist-like residents who were taking photos of fallen branches. Fortunately that was the extent of the damage, from what I could tell, in this part of Brooklyn.

The bookstore didn’t have the novel on its own, but it did have a volume of Maxwell’s later novels and stories, which I gratefully seized (and purchased). I came home and read two of Maxwell’s short stories: “The Man Who Had No Friends and Didn’t Want Any” and “A Fable Begotten of an Echo of a Line of Verse by W. B. Yeats.” Now I know I have a treasure in my hands, or many treasures.

I will read So Long, See You Tomorrow by November 12 so that I can imagine the book discussion. What a great thing for Wolff, Haven, and the other participants to do.

Wolff’s own stories need no recommendation from me–but if anyone wishes for a place to start, I recommend his collection In the Garden of the North American MartyrsHis novel, Old School, has been on my mind a great deal lately. I commented on it recently and may say more about it soon.

Enter This Landscape

I recently came upon Cynthia Haven’s blog, The Book Haven—in particular, a post about the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, with a quotation of my translation of his poem “Tu, Felix Austria” (one of my favorites of the translations and of his poems). I continue to read her blog with enjoyment and admiration.

It was in 1988 that I first encountered Tomas Venclova’s poetry. I was a senior at Yale; he was directing my independent project on Russian poetry translation. Knowing that he was a poet, I wanted to read his work (but didn’t want to tell him this). So one day I made a furtive trip into the library stacks. I opened up a volume of his poetry and read the lines,

Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.
Stogų riba sutampa su aušra.
Byloja sniegas, pritaria ugnis.

What did these words mean? At the time, it didn’t matter. I was drawn into the sounds, or what I thought were the sounds. “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

(Later, I learned that they meant, roughly, “Stop, stop. The sentence disintegrates. The border of rooftops coincides with the dawn. The snow proclaims, the fire repeats.”)

Not long afterward, Tomas (or Professor Venclova, as I called him at the time) invited me to translate his poems—not a coincidence, but a great honor. Throughout the project (which resulted in a book, Winter Dialogue, most of which later reappeared in slightly edited form in The Junction), I immersed myself in the original poems, through listening to recordings of them and poring over the Lithuanian. I also had Russian literal translations and Venclova’s notes to guide me along.

The strength and weakness of my translations was that I tried to preserve the sound, rhythm, and form of the original—or, rather, to recast the poem in comparable sound, rhythm, and form. When it worked, it worked splendidly (for instance, in “Tu, Felix Austria,” “Pestel Street,” and “Autumn in Copenhagen”). When it didn’t, it came across as stilted. I don’t regret taking this approach. I do wish, in retrospect, that I had trained my ear to hear the translations in themselves. I always heard the originals behind the translations.

I bring this up because I have been repeatedly remembering the poem “Pašnekesys žiemą” (“Winter Dialogue”) and its opening lines:

Įženk į šį peizažą. Dar tamsu.
Anapus kopų gaudžia tuščias plentas.
Su jūromis kariauja kontinentas—
Nematomas, bet sklidinas balsų.
Praeivis arba angelas sniege
Paliko lengvą užpustytą brydę,
Ir kranto atspindys juosvam lange
Mums primena bevaisę Antarktidę.

In my translation (in The Junction), this reads:

Enter this landscape. Darkness still prevails.
Filled to the brim with voices, though unseen,
The continent takes up arms against the seas.
Across the dunes, the empty highway wails.
A passerby or an angel in the snow
Has left a subtle covered trail behind,
And, in the blackish pane, the seaside’s glow
Becomes the bleak Antarctic in our minds.

In the beginning, the landscape consists of sounds—the voices, the wailing. So, the invitation into the landscape is indeed an invitation into the poem’s sound, much like the invitation that I heard when I first read “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

I love remembering this poem and reciting it to myself. One of my favorite stanzas is the sixth (remember that this is a dialogue):

Po sunkiasvorio debesio tinklu
Tarytum žuvys blizga ankštos aikštės.
˶Ar tu atsimeni, ką sakė žvaigždės?”
˶Šis amžius išsiverčia be ženklų,
Tėra statistika.” ˶Mirties trauka
Sukausto žmogų, augalą ir daiktą,
Tačiau sudygsta grūdas ir auka,
Ir štai tada, manau, ne viskas baigta.”

And in English (the translation takes a few minor liberties):

Beneath the screen mesh of the weighty cloud,
The squares, like fish, are glittering and playing.
“Do you remember what the stars were saying?”
“This century is managing without
A sign; there’s just statistics.” “Gravity
Of death has fettered person, plant, and thing,
But sprouts burst forth from seed and sacrifice,
And then not all is over, or so I think.”

How many people have room to enter a landscape of this kind? Even I don’t have that room in the way I once did. I am cluttered with obligations and concerns. A pile of tests to correct lies in front of me. Emails await my response. But at least I know what it means to enter something like this, and I can do so, up to a point. I know there is more to this poem than I can grasp–a history that I have not lived, a consciousness I have not known, a language that is not mine. All the same, when I listen to it, some of the barriers fall away. I understand something of it, beyond the aspects that I can analyze.

What worries me as a teacher (and what sometimes overwhelms me) is that many students don’t know how to still themselves to enter poetry. (I don’t mean this poem in particular, which probably requires adult understanding.) Many children and adults have a persistent need to make noise—not only out loud, but in themselves. I am not referring to my students in particular. I hear from teachers around the country (and even from professors) that students do not know how to quiet down, in part because adults don’t know, either, or don’t practice it.

I am not recommending that schools start including meditation in the school day, though some schools do. The quiet should come through the very attention to the subject, be it a poem, a math problem, or a historical document. But “should” is one matter; “does” is another. Quieting down takes practice, and given all the buzz around us, it may need a kind of practice in itself, even a simple kind.

Nor am I suggesting suggesting that we have all lost our focus and quiet (or that any of us has lost all of it). Nor do I blame technology for the problem. Technology, after all, gives us audio recordings. I can listen to many more recordings in Russian, Lithuanian, and other languages today than I could a few decades ago. It’s possible to listen to “Pašnekesys žiemą” (and other poems) by downloading the MP3 version of Venclova’s album “Winter Dialogue: Chants from the Holy Land” (for those interested, “Pašnekesys žiemą” begins around 56 minutes and 25 seconds into the recording).

Nor would I say that humanity has ever been fully focused. We need a mixture of focus and distractibility in our lives, and the relationship between them is intricate. Problems arise when we tip too far toward the one or the other, when we forget how to navigate between the two.

What would help, then? Maybe more poetry in the curriculum—where students memorized, recited, discussed, and (sometimes) wrote sonnets, villanelles, and other kinds of verse. This isn’t a fix (what is?), but it would help young people start to listen to language and form.  They would develop a tolerance for poems that they didn’t understand immediately. They would learn to hold things in their minds. Also, memorization is a gesture of a kind. It’s a way of saying, “This is important, and therefore I will preserve it.” Students may not agree immediately (or ever) that a given poem is important. But they will gain something from the gesture.