Pablo Neruda wrote a total of 225 odes. The number stands as a pledge of alliance with a lyrical form he adored. He was also fond of other poetic forms (the sonnet, for instance), but as a practitioner of verso libre, unrhymed poetry, the ode was unquestionably the closest to his heart. He discovered it in his youth, becoming hypnotized by its fresh, elastic, invigorating freedom. His early readings of Horace, Pindar, Ovid, and Catullus left a deep impression on him. And he admired the way Romantics such as John Keats not only addressed universal themes in their odes but humanized those themes by turning them—Love and Psyche, for instance—into interlocutors. Neruda’s odes are his direct, uncensored dialogues with nature. And they are politically charged.
He was the second-worst poet in the English language, not far behind William McGonagall. Born in 1862, he seems to have commenced author, as the saying goes, in his middle fifties, thereafter suffering, or perhaps enjoying, severe graphomania, the compulsion never to leave off writing. Until then he had led a wandering life, abandoning his native London for Australia as a teenager, studying for the church at Sydney University, and working variously as a minister, gold miner, and sheep farmer in many far-flung places. But he settled eventually in Bournemouth and evidently decided that Bournemouth was best.
The boarding houses met with in this splendid seaside town
Are mainly very excellent, deserving their renown.
The residents form usually congenial society,
Although among so many you meet types in great variety.
In this review of Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, the author looks at contemporary literary criticism.
Felski asks what might happen if we looked not “behind the text” but “in front of the text, reflecting on what it unfurls, calls forth, makes possible.” In doing so, she seeks to rehabilitate the validity and importance of what we might call “literary desire”: the force that drives you to reread your favorite book yet again; or to finish that work of genre fiction even when you know the ending; or to press a beloved book awkwardly into a distant acquaintance’s hands in hopes that she, too, will come to love what you love and might one day talk with you about it.
Painting by Brianna Keeper
Today’s needull for my poet friend.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness, –
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
Do Twitter and Facebook spell the end of the critic?
Criticism of any kind is increasingly unwelcome at the digital-age paper. Consider a controversy that flared up in Canada last year. Arthur Kaptainis, who had long been the critic of the Montreal Gazette and more recently had been writing freelance for the National Post, reviewed a Canadian Opera Company production of Rossini’s “Maometto II.” The Canadian Opera asked for a couple of corrections, whereupon the Post took the bizarre step of removing the review from its Web site. Amid the resulting hubbub, a Post arts editor was quoted in an e-mail: “I really hate running reviews for performing arts. They simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content.” The same mantra is heard at culture sections across America. Reviews don’t catch eyeballs. They don’t “move the needle.”
The logic seems irrefutable. Why publish articles that almost nobody wants? On closer examination, some shaky assumptions underlie these hard-nosed generalizations. First, digital data, in the form of counting clicks and hits, give an incomplete picture of reading habits. Those who subscribe to the print edition are discounted—and they tend to be older people, who are also more likely to follow the performing arts. A colleague wrote to me, “The four thousand people reading your theatre critics might be extremely loyal subscribers who press the paper on others. People in power often speak of ‘engagement’ and ‘valued readers,’ yet they still remain in thrall of the big click numbers—because of advertising, mostly.”
Image: Painting by Brianna Keeper
Who would you put in a museum of the best American writers? Hemingway? Kerouac? Bukowski? Note those are all white guys. The author visits a new museum devoted to writers to ponder the question of “who (and what) deserves to be in America’s first museum dedicated to writers?”
Walking through Chicago’s new American Writers Museum a week before it opened to the public, I felt like a cross between that eleven-year-old (wide-eyed, thirstily trying to absorb the canon, inspired by history) and that twenty-one-year-old (tallying up gender and race and queerness on the 100-author “American Voices” wall of fame and doing some quick math).
The museum’s creators faced an impossible task, the same one undertaken perennially by anthologists and English professors: How can we represent four hundred years of American literary history in a way that doesn’t reinforce the unfortunate hierarchies of those four hundred years?
Image: Painting by Brianna Keeper
I recently read this excerpt from “Truth and Beauty” by Robert Flynn in Trinity University Press’ Art at Our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists.
That was when I first got the notion of being a writer. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We didn’t go in much for writing at the country school I attended. We studied penmanship. But we knew what a writer was. A writer was somebody who was dead. And if he was any good he had been dead a long time. If he was real good, people killed him. They killed him with hemlock. Hemlock was the Greek word for Freshman Composition.
The country school I attended was closed, and we were bused to Chillicothe. Chillicothe, Texas is small. Chillicothe is so small there’s only one Baptist Church. Chillicothe is so small you have to go to Quanah to have a coincidence. For a good coincidence, you have to go to Vernon. Chillicothe was fairly bursting with truth and beauty, and my teacher encouraged me to write something that had an epiphany. For an epiphany, you had to go all the way to Wichita Falls.
Read the full excerpt at Robert Flynn’s website