August 2010 Archives

In the American Grain


William Carlos Williams's essay collection—or long prose poem—or piece of imaginative nonfiction—call it what you will, In the American Grain attempts to inhabit some of the great personalities of American history, in a bid to explore the underpinnings of the collective American psyche. Williams approaches his subjects, who range from Viking cast-out Eric the Red, through Columbus and Daniel Boone and finishing up with a brief sketch of Abraham Lincoln, from a variety of angles, including quotations from primary sources, real or imaginary debates between contemporary (1920s) speakers, fictionalized monologues in the style of the subject's time and place, and poetic dissertations on the ongoing demons of our New World society.

I know a common opinion is that the "point" of a "review" is to give an impression of whether one liked a book or not. So I'll be up front about this: I'm really not sure whether I hated In the American Grain, or whether I quite liked it. I spent most of the duration of the book arguing with Williams, either spluttering with pen in hand, or grudgingly admitting his points—sometimes even cheering him on. The time I wasn't spending thus, I was appreciating the stylistic breadth of the book, and by extension, of American history and literature. All in all, there could be worse ways to spend a reading interlude than locked in debate with an opponent like Williams.

First, the things that I wholeheartedly enjoyed about the book: as noted, Williams makes use of many primary sources throughout In the American Grain, and incorporates them in different ways: sometimes he quotes directly from them; at others, he refers to them in supposed conversation, in yet other cases, he adopts the "voice" of the ship's log, religious treatise, diary, or autobiography in question and uses it in his own monologue on a subject. In a move reminiscent of The Waste Land, there is no clear marker to let the reader know when Williams is quoting verbatim and when he is mimicking a historical voice, so I'm not sure where I should congratulate him on good collage-work, where on good composition, and to what extent the division between those two doesn't even matter. Whether Williams's role is primarily that of a composer or an editor, though, the end result is a chewy combination of prose styles that captures the changing texture of American letters through the centuries. Some of my favorite bits from this milieu, just to give a sense of the variety here:

The opening sentences of the book, in the voice of Eric the Red:

Better the ice than their way: to take what is mine by single strength, theirs by the crookedness of their law. But they have marked me—even to myself.

From the chapter on Sir Walter Raleigh:

O Muse, in that still pasture where you dwell amid the hardly noticed sounds of water falling and the little cries of crickets and small birds, sing of Virginia floating off: the broken chips of Raleigh: the Queen is dead.

O Virginia! who will gather you again as Raleigh had you gathered?

From Cotton Mather's monologue:

The New Englanders are a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devil's Territories; and it may easily be supposed that the Devil was exceedingly disturbed, when he perceived such a People here accomplishing the Promise of old made unto our Blessed Jesus, That He should have the Utmost parts of the earth for his Possession.

I am very drawn to stylistic experimentation, and I admire Williams's project here. He's trying to establish the history of American speech, American thought, as distinct from that of Europe. In one of the conversational sections, he claims that Americans don't realize

that there is a source in AMERICA for everything we think or do; that morals affect the food and food the bone, and that, in fine we have no conception at all of what is meant by moral, since we recognize no ground our own. [...] And that we have no defense, lacking intelligent investigation of the changes worked upon the early comers here, to the New World, the books, the records..."

By examining, even inhabiting those same books and records, Williams hopes to provide himself and his readers with a sense of the very historical ground they are already unknowingly occupying.

But the focus on books and records also creates a methodological problem for Williams, or at least exaggerate one to which he is already prone. Because who, in pre-Revolutionary America, LEFT books and records? Why, it was the the educated white men (and a few educated white women, with whom Williams does not concern himself). Williams's emphasis on primary sources means that he privileges those who operated in a mode of writing down their experiences—which means that, for example, as much as he attempts sympathy for the American Indian, his take on the Native presence in the New World is woefully ethnocentric and romanticized—in a way that's, ironically, very Rousseau-esque, very European. Similarly, his attitude toward women and the feminine is bizarrely male-centric, especially considering that he's happy enough to name-drop such contemporary American female artists as H.D., Bryher, and Gertrude Stein when he mentions his six-week trip to Paris. Normally I'm pretty good at considering an author's work in the context of his time, but for some reason, possibly because Williams's big goal here is to advance a particular view of American history, I was roused to ardent disagreement with him. It was passages like this, on Daniel Boone:

There must be a new wedding. But he saw and only he saw the prototype of it all, the native savage. To Boone the Indian was his greatest master. Not for himself surely to be an Indian, though they eagerly sought to adopt him into their tribes, but the reverse: to be himself in a new world, Indianlike. If the land were to be possessed it must be as the Indian possessed it. Boone saw the truth of the Red Man, not an aberrant type, treacherous and anti-white to be feared and exterminated, but as a natural expression of the place...

or this:

The land! don't you feel it? Doesn't it make you want to go out and lift dead Indians tenderly from their graves, to steal from them—as if it must be clinging even to their corpses—some authenticity...


So much about these passages rub me the wrong way. I know it's only fair to look at Williams in context; the 1920s was a pretty bleak time for Native American/white relations. Still a decade away from the relatively enlightened tenure of John Collier as head of the Office of Indian Affairs, the United States Government was busy convincing the American public that the Indians were morally corrupt heathens who should be deprived of their remaining land and have their liquid property "put into trust"—aka stolen. The counter-argument advanced by well-meaning liberals was that the Indians, once a mass of noble savages, were now on the verge of an inevitable extinction (Williams says that "almost nothing remains of the great American New World but a memory of the Indian"), and that, instead of killing off the remnants of them for sport like the frontiersmen were doing in the West, white folks should look to the romantic past for lessons to be learned from this bygone race of "natural," "primitive" people. (Yet if the Abenaki disappeared before 1922, why do they currently have a website?) Indians became the desirable "other" in the progressive imagination, everything white men were not: natural, authentic, in harmony with their surroundings, untouched by cultural repression. Because Williams hates the Puritans, because he hates their refusal to "touch," their fear of contamination, their sexual frigidity, their artifice, he imagines a homogeneous mass of Indian civilization to which none of these things apply. It is easier to imagine these things, of course, if one never has to come into contact with an actual Indian, who might, being human, have her own complex set of hangups and cultural standards.

And so Williams himself becomes an example of the Puritanical refusal to reach out and touch the "other." He romanticizes, most of all, white men who have been close to the Indians: the priest Rasles, who lived with the Abenaki, Kentucky frontiersman Daniel Boone; Texas governor Samuel Houston, who "descended" to live with the Chippewa until his "reascension" into white society. But no Indian subjectivity is on offer here, no Indian biography told. "They" are not "us"; they are not the story of America. Williams does not attempt to inhabit Metacom, Tecumseh, or even Moctezuma in the same way he inhabits Columbus or Franklin, just as he never attempts to voice a woman for longer than two sentences. He idolizes white male individuals who are able to live among the natives, who have opinions about them, who have sex with them, and thinks it the most noble thing imaginable when white individuals refrain from killing native ones. But he very seldom presents a native person as an individual: the only times he does (Moctezuma and Jacataqua) they're either submitting to white authority or freeing a white man from the sexual prudery of Puritanical white women. And let's not get started on the fact that his primary problem with the Puritanical repression of white women is that they're no longer able sexually to satisfy white men. Or actually, let's.

Women—givers (but they have been, as reservoirs, empty) perhaps they are being filled now. Hard to deal with in business, more conservative, closer to earth—the only earth. They are our cattle, cattle of the spirit—not yet come in. None yet has raised benevolence to distinction. Not one to "wield her beauty as a scepter." It is a brilliant opportunity.

Watch me run to cash in on this "brilliant opportunity" to be a "cow of the spirit."

I mean, I'm no fan of the Puritans' sexual mores and white supremacist doctrines, don't get me wrong. And Williams's sentimental belief in the noble savage is certainly preferable to the opinion that all Indians should be killed as soon as possible, or that decent women should be devoid of sexuality. But the way he uses the Indians and women (and later, "all the negroes [he] has known intimately") as a crow-bar between himself and the Puritan ideology is extremely problematic to me. The frustrating thing, and one reason I have a hard time forgiving him these faults, is that he seems smarter than that, too smart and too cosmopolitan to fall victim to these predictable traps. He knows Stein; he knows Joyce; he knows Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier and H.D. He occasionally dances so close to acknowledging the subjectivity of women and people of color, and yet he always steps back from the brink. In the "Jacataqua" section, for example, in the midst of passages like the one quoted above, he says this:

She is a low thing (they tell her), she is made to feel that she is vicious, evil—It really doesn't do anything save alter the color of her deed, make it unprofitable, it scrapes off the bloom of the gift—it is puritanical envy. When she gives, it will probably be to the butcher boy—since she has been an apt pupil and believes that she is evil, believes even that her pleasure is evil.

For just a moment there, we see a human being convinced of her own malignancy, worn down by a sexual double-standard. But Williams then quickly springs back to his main concern, lamenting the effects of American white female frigidity on white American men. And white EDUCATED men at that, given his contempt for the butcher boy, which is a little ironic considering how many more people got educated in early America than in England due to those pesky Puritans and their mandated free public schools. Basically, his attitude reads, "It makes me so ANGRY that white American women are so frigid and can't sexually satisfy white American men!! The poor white American men are going CRAZY for lack of sexual satisfaction! (And incidentally, I guess it sucks that white American women have been taught that they're dirty whores, but mostly) it's just tragic that lack of sexual generosity is keeping white American men from realizing their true potential!" The destructive effects of Puritanism on the human psyches of the women in question (terrorism), or on the native peoples (genocide) is never as important to Williams as the inconvenience to white American men.

I know it's unrealistic to apply modern political mores to works from the past, but other folks in the 1920s were doing so much better than this. Hell, for my money Longfellow did better than this all the way back in 1855 with the "Song of Hiawatha." And that's disappointing in a book that promises so much in its style and its premise.


In the American Grain was our August pick for the Non-Structured Book Group; join us in September for Tómas Eloy Martinez's Santa Evita.

In Utopia


I've been having a hard time lately getting into novels. I've tried realist and absurdist, whimsical and heavy, and every time period from the Renaissance to the 21st century—nothing seems to fit my mood. Even A.S. Byatt's Possession, which I can tell would normally be un-put-downable for me, is proving only moderately enthralling in my current fiction funk. Luckily, I finally figured out what I AM in the mood for: nonfiction! Not just any nonfiction, but the kind of smoothly-written, thoroughly-researched book that inspires me to utter exclamations like "Really!" and "No way!" and read passages out loud to whomever might be present. All of which description J.C. Hallman's In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise fulfills perfectly. What a relief to pick up a book and be immediately engaged, rather than wondering what's wrong with me for not connecting with it.

My late-summer malaise aside, Hallman's book is fascinating and unerringly entertaining. In it he interrogates the idea and cultural history of the utopia—from Thomas More through Charles Fourier and beyond. He discusses the fundamentally literary, and often non-literal origins of the idea: most actual utopian schemes that real people have attempted to put into practice have owed a debt to utopian novels—in many cases, including More's novels that were not intended to be taken seriously in the first place. Having studied Utopia in my senior seminar in college, and spent quite a while with More, I very much enjoyed revisiting his difficult-to-pin-down philosophical style. As Hallman writes early in his book, "the history of the world since 1516 is a protracted history of not getting the joke of Utopia. Even scholars disagree about the extent to which More was kidding when he penned his faux travelogue-treatise—it's plain that certain parts are jokes, and plain that other parts are more or less serious, but much of the book falls into the no-man's-land between those two extremes. Its history, though, is one of being taken completely seriously by many of its readers, even to the point where Spanish missionaries in the New World attempted to replicate its supposedly ideal society among the Native Americans, interpreting More's jokes as the direct voice of God. I thought Hallman was particularly insightful in speculating about WHY Utopia was often taken so seriously, particularly in Italy:

A compilation from 1561 demonstrated clearly that the joke had been lost: Utopia was listed alongside seventeen other societal systems, a few of which happened to be real. More's perfect commonwealth tickled no Italian funny bone because it was just another layer set atop a utopian spirit already well established in Italy. For years Florence had been thought a perfect system, and by the 1500s Venice had been an ongoing republic for eleven centuries, without internal strife and without ever falling to foreign rule. Now, borrowing More's template, utopias were written starring Venice as unironic protagonist.

All of which brings me back very pleasantly to college, reading Jacob Burckhardt's chapters on Florence and Venice from his famous The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy against Utopia—and it now occurs to me, somewhat belatedly, that Burckhardt's depictions of Venice could actually be subtly influenced by More's Utopia, even as More was quite probably inspired to create Utopia in the first place by the reality of Renaissance Venice. The whole broad utopian project is scattered with this kind of double-reverse: at one point, Hallman discusses a utopian novel inspired by a real-world utopian settlement, which was in turn inspired by an earlier utopian novel.

But, as fun as these metatextual discoveries are, they do not make up the bulk of Hallman's book. As his title suggests, he instead gives us six main chapters, each taking on a different modern-day utopian experiment. In the process, he makes the point that "utopia" need not be a place: true, it could be a return to an edenic wilderness like that envisioned by the advocates of "Pleistocene Rewilding" (Chapter 2), a long-lived hippie commune (Chapter 3), or an uber-modern techno-city built by a contracting firm on land back-filled by the Koren government (Chapter 6) but it could just as easily be the act of journeying aboard a massive cruise ship that becomes home to its inhabitants (Chapter 4) or even a gustatory philosophy like the Slow Food movement (Chapter 5). Hallman immerses himself in each of his six subjects, traveling around the world and linking these modern-day phenomena into an ongoing history of the many stages and facets of utopian thought.

One of the techniques I found particularly effective in his book was the simultaneous integration of historical backgrounds with contemporary case examples: Hallman uses each chapter to explore a different aspect of the history of utopias, so there's no big information dump at the beginning of the book before getting into specifics. Not that historical backgrounds are necessarily dull (far from it!), but Hallman does a great job at weaving the past and present together into an ongoing discussion of the pros and cons of utopianism, and why it's both ridiculous and necessary. After all, he points out, as wacky as it is to look back on many utopian notions of the past—and it's often VERY wacky, as in the excellent late Futurist exhortation

To work, my aeropainters and aerosculptors! My aeropoetry will ventilate your brains like whirring propellers!

—there are also many things we now consider "normal" that were once viewed as crazy utopian schemes, such as free public school systems and a bicameral legislature. Hallman argues that while too many failed experiments and abuses of power perpetrated in the supposed service of the "greater good" have caused the very idea of utopianism to fall out of favor, it actually represents something on which he doesn't want to give up: the hope that human society has the capacity to improve itself.

Another aspect of Hallman's book I appreciated was that he frankly acknowledges his own reactions to each of the modern-day utopias he visits. This was welcome, not only as an acknowledgment that all authors have some bias, but as an example of the point that one person's utopia is another's dystopia. Hallman explores this idea explicitly in the final chapter (which deals with a nascent town of gun-enthusiasts out in the Nevada desert), but long before then I had started thinking about it. When Hallman writes about his growing (and then waning) enthusiasm for the Twin Oaks community, for example, for the freedom of abandoning regular showers and monogamy, living in 100 square feet of personal space and sunbathing naked while topless women worked in the vegetable garden, it makes me think about what my own utopia might look like—because that is most definitely not it. Twin Oaks was founded in Virginia in 1967, and I couldn't help but wonder if the fact that I live in the millennial Pacific Northwest might contribute to my lack of enthusiasm for the freedoms of Twin Oaks—it's totally legal to walk around naked in Portland if you want to, and people do it fairly frequently. Similarly, I know plenty of folks in non-traditional, non-monogamous romantic relationships; if that kind of thing appealed to me (which it doesn't), I would hardly need to give up my personal space and private property in order to follow my dreams. Which, of course, marks the difference between me and the Twin Oaks people, for whom the lack of private property and the emphasis on community-wide decision-making is presumably a check in the plus column, rather than a horrible nightmare. It was interesting to read an account from an outsider to whom the whole idea appealed much more than it would to me, and good to be reminded that different people have very different notions of how an "ideal society" would look and feel.


Thanks to the author for sending me a review copy of this book. I very much enjoyed it!

Now that I've finally realized that my current reading mood lists toward nonfiction, I'll probably be picking up a lot more of it in the coming month—I started the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir's memoir last night, and have fascinating-looking studies on disgust, female comic-book heroes, and famed early blues artist Memphis Minnie on my shelves, so there are plenty of choices!

Père Goriot


A quick note before I get started: am I the only one whose primary association with Balzac is the Hermione Gingold character in The Music Man? I used to love the way she pronounced the word with such disgusted relish. DIRTY BOOKS!

And now, on with the dirty books.


Wikipedia tells me I am hardly the first person to notice the similarity, but as I read Balzac's 1934 novel Père Goriot (translated by Burton Raffel) I couldn't help thinking of it as an early-19th-century French reworking of Shakespeare's King Lear. In the title role is Monsieur (or disrespectfully Père, meaning something like "old" or "Gramps," but also literally "father") Goriot, successful but retired pasta manufacturer who dotes shamelessly and selflessly on his two shallow daughters, Anastasie and Delphine, to whom he can refuse nothing and who have been gradually bleeding him dry for decades. In a sort of combined Kent/Cordelia role is the novel's main character, Eugène Rastignac, a young man recently relocated from the country who aspires to the cutthroat world of Paris high society, meets Goriot in the process, and becomes his somewhat-unlikely champion. An Edmund-like turncoat is present as well in the form of Vautrin, a shady but seductive character who lodges in the same dump as Goriot and Rastignac.

Balzac's Comédie humaine (1799-1850) was apparently one of the first instances of the "roman fleuve": a set of linked novels which share a fictional world (think William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, or Louise Erdrich's North Dakotan Ojibwe reservations), and in which readers encounter the same or interrelated characters in multiple novels, from multiple perspectives. In my opinion, several of the most interesting things about Père Goriot, which comes mid-way through the cycle both in terms of composition and chronology, were related to it being part of a larger endeavor. To take one example, Balzac's treatment of Rastignac: it would be easy to write Eugène as either the young naif who becomes utterly self-involved and ends up jilting everyone he used to love (à la Pip in the middle part of Great Expectations), or as the only character pure of heart, who rejects or remains immune to the corruption of Paris society (à la Dobbin and Amelia in Vanity Fair). To his credit, Balzac does neither. Instead, he has Eugène feel the heady thrill of being wealthy in Paris, and lets him pursue that goal in a pretty cold-blooded manner, while simultaneously retaining some sense of principle and self (he doesn't give in to Vautrin's promises of easy money, nor abandon Goriot when it would be convenient to do so). There is a level of ambiguity here, an acknowledgment that people can act and feel in contradictory ways simultaneously, that impressed me.

Balzac even sets up some situations that seem obvious signposts to mark Eugène's fall into debauchery: Rastignac borrows money from his mother and sisters, for example, in order to finance his impersonation of a wealthy young gadabout, and I was sure we would see him gamble all his sisters' pocket money away and disappoint his mother by applying for ever more funds. Instead he pays them back almost immediately, even if the money to do so does come from dubious sources and even if he loses it all again afterward. He can believe himself genuinely in love with a woman while also being conscious of wanting her fortune. He is allowed to keep some promises to himself while reneging on others; retain some principles while blithely throwing others away. Even at the novel's end, this ambiguity remains: Rastignac can be quite affected by Goriot's tragedy, and at the same time never waver in his own pursuit of money and power.

In a similarly "doubled" way, Balzac drops hints about the man Eugène will become: he will be rich; well-clothed; powerful; known for his cutting turns of phrase; he will be all of these things, but in this particular novel he's none of them. I think the roman fleuve format probably allowed Balzac this leeway—the hints about Rastignac's future career would serve as publicity for future novels—but I found the technique oddly compelling within this single volume, as well. It struck me as a subtler version of the flash-forwarding of which modern authors like Rushdie and Irving are so fond, giving an idea of the scope of a character's future life with just a few strokes of the pen.

[I]n his tailor, Eugène had found a man who understood the genealogical function of the trade, a man who realized that, when he played his cards right, he might well become a basic link between a young man's present life and his future one. And Rastignac, deeply grateful, had in turn made this fellow's fortune with one of those deftly phrased remarks at which, later on, he so excelled:
      "I myself," he'd said, "am personally acquainted with two pairs of trousers, made by his hands, which brought about marriages worth twenty thousand francs a year."

As the above quote suggests, this novel has much to offer someone who, like me, is interested in the relationship between clothes and identity. People in Père Goriot are forever revealing, concealing, and transforming themselves with costume: Goriot's pathetic rags, Rastignac's mortgaged finery, Vautrin's wig, Anastasie's ruthlessly procured spangled dress. In many cases, as with Vautrin and Rastignac, the clothes are a blatantly false claim, or at the very least a pledge for the future: they are pretending to be what they are not, sometimes in the hope of making the pretense a reality. This fear of artifice creates an interesting tension with some of Balzac's other claims about clothes, however, such as this description of the landlady Mme. Vauquer: short, everything about her seems to embody her pension, just as her pension invokes her image. You can't have a jail without a jailer, the one is unimaginable without the other. This tiny woman's pallid flabbiness stems directly from the life she leads, just as typhus comes from the foul effluvia in hospitals. Her flannel petticoat, hanging out beneath her outer skirt, cut down from an old dress, its cotton quilting protruding through the slits in the frayed, splitting material, is like a summary of the salon, and the dining room, and the garden; it proclaims the kitchen; it warns you what the lodgers will be. Given her presence, the whole spectacle is complete.

Here we have an appearance, including items of clothing, that "stems directly from" the life led, developing organically in a way that reveals Mme. Vauquer's character rather than obscuring or misrepresenting it. She is such an integral part of her environment, in fact, that the one is unimaginable without the other—an interesting contrast with characters like Eugène and the Goriot sisters, who use clothing very consciously to ensconce themselves in an alien environment. What most intrigued me about Balzac's approach here is that neither way of life seems particularly privileged, morally: Mme. Vauquer and Anastasie are equally petty and despicable, despite the one's fakery and the other's quality of naturalness. Nor is a lack of artifice necessarily less threatening to those around the artificer: while the liar Vautrin does pose a threat, Rastignac is actually more dangerous to his cousin and the Goriot women before he learns how to dissemble. I can understand why upright turn-of-the-century Iowans like those in The Music Man might feel uncomfortable with this kind of moral laxity, but personally I quite admired Balzac's ability to accept ambiguity and contradiction.


Père Goriot was my sixth book for my Personal TBR Challenge.

To clarify...


THIS is what I meant in my post about Petrarch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, AS Byatt can say it better than I:

"There are poets," Beatrice wrote in her Finals paper, "whose love poems seem to be concerned neither with praise nor with blame of some distant lady, but with true conversation between men and women. Such is John Donne, though he may also revile the whole sex in certain moods. Such might have been Meredith if circumstances had been happier. A brief attempt to think of other 'love' poets who expect reciprocity of intelligence must persuade us of the pre-eminence of Randolph Henry Ash, whose 'Ask and Embla' poems present every phase of intimacy, opposition and failure of communication, but always convince the reader of the real thinking and feeling presence of her to whom they are addressed.
(Possession: A Romance)

Reciprocity of intelligence: what a thrilling phrase.

In any case, I'm not anti-romantic; I just don't find it romantic to be made into an idealized object (or, conversely, make anyone else into an idealized object). I don't find it romantic to be stalked or called a "goddess" or any of the rest of it, but instead to be an equal partner in a true conversation. Which is lucky, since that's what I've got.

I'm finding Possession predictably delightful thus far. Also trying to put together a post on Honoré Balzac's Père Goriot in the next few days.


Photo credit: Chris Trotter

The Poetry of Petrarch


With you, dear Internet, I can be brutally honest: I was not in the market for a volume of Petrarch's poetry. Beyond the few sonnets I had read in classes scattered throughout my liberal arts education, this master of the early Italian Renaissance did not make the short list, or even the long list, of poets I intended to investigate further. No, I must admit that I was entirely seduced by Dean Nicastro's lovely cover art, which graces the new David Young translation of Petrarch's Canzoniere, put out by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Despite the Harold Bloom blurb marring the back of this beauty, the grace and simplicity of laurel leaves on marbled cream conquered my heart—much like Petrarch's own was conquered upon spying Laura that fateful day in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon. Luckily, unlike Petrarch, I didn't have to pine and moan in solitude; I could buy this pretty prize, bring it home, and ravish it at my leisure.

Which has turned out to be an extremely slow leisure indeed. I've been making my way through these poems since February, my friends, and am only spurred on to finish off the last twenty pages and write it up because people I told about it back then are starting to look at me funny when I meet them in the virtual street. It's not that I haven't been enjoying them, but it's an odd kind of enjoyment, and it's made me realize that I do not read poetry at the same pace, or in the same way, as prose, nor should I try to force myself into doing so. Poetry, after all, is so condensed—a professor of mine once defined it as "language under pressure"—maybe it shouldn't be consumed at the same rate a novel would be, at least not by me.

That said, there is a certain novelistic quality about reading all 366 of the Canzoniere in order. Although each sonnet, sestina, or ballata seems to dwell in exactly the same emotional space as the one before it, a slow progression does take place as the years gradually unfold and the speaker's relationship to his own unrequited love evolves. The early poems give us a man struck by the full force of new infatuation; as it becomes clear that he will never successfully woo his lady (Laura was, unfortunately, already married), he struggles with anger and resentment, which alternate with attempts at acceptance and religious feeling. Every year that passes is marked with an "anniversary" sonnet, so the reader knows when the speaker has loved Laura for six, ten, eighteen years. The speaker's emotional landscape dips and crests; it is marked by such momentous events as a few words exchanged with Laura in public square, or a moment when she allows him to touch her hand. At times he rues the day he ever saw her, and at others affirms she alone gives his life meaning. He is beginning to face the prospect of growing old together (yet apart), when he begins to experience ominous forebodings, and indeed, Laura's sudden death soon strikes him a tremendous blow. The "ominous foreboding" sonnets were some of the poems I found the most interesting, full of atmospheric feeling:

My lady used to visit me in sleep,
though far away, and her sight would console me,
but now she frightens and depresses me
and I've no shield against my gloom and fear;

for now I seem to see in her sweet face
true pity mixing in with heavy pain,
and I hear things that tell my heart it must
divest itself of any joy or hope.

"Don't you recall that evening we met last,
when I ran out of time," she says, "and left
you standing there, your eyes filled up with tears?

"I couldn't and I didn't tell you then
what I must now admit is proved and true:
you must not hope to see me on this earth."

The image of a ghostly Laura delivering the line "Don't you recall that evening we met last, / when I ran out of time...?" strikes me as deliciously Gothic, an impression that only grows when, thirty poems further on, he perceives her spirit returning to the mortal world to haunt and console him. As the narrator continues to struggle with grief and draw toward his own death, one realizes what a dynamic and really quite modern character study the Canzoniere, as a whole, make up.

That said, there are also difficult things about reading Petrarch, and at the top of that list for me was the simply overwhelming influence that the man has had on every lyric poet who followed him. Like all game-defining works, the original sometimes comes to seem as tiredly clichéd as all its successors. At times I could imagine myself into a world before Shakespeare, before Milton, before Dickinson and Eliot, and begin to grasp the hugeness of Petrarch's accomplishment and influence, as in the poems against which Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" sonnets were likely reacting ("A lady much more splendid than the sun"; "her golden hair was loosened to the breeze"), or #190, the likely inspiration for Sir Thomas Wyatt's great "Whoso list to hunt" sonnet. But at other times I failed to make the imaginative leap back to the fourteenth century, and Petrarch's verses came off somewhat stale as a result. True, there were many, many gorgeous lines and passages, ones that reached out and grabbed my language-loving heart:

Below the foothills where she first put on
the lovely garment of her earthly limbs ... (#8)

I walked along beloved riverbanks
from that time on ... (#23)

diamond perhaps, or maybe lovely marble
all white with fear, ... (#51)

that god you follow leaves you pale and wan ... (#58)

she leads a mob of armored sighs around,
this lovely enemy of Love and me. (#169)

that same evergreen I love so well,
despite the ways its shadows make me sad. (#181)

I live in fear, in a perpetual war,
I am no longer what I was ... (#252)

My soul, caught up between opposing glories,
experienced things I still don't understand:
celestial joy along with some sweet strangeness. (#257)

the snares and nets and birdlimes set by Love ... (#263)

But there was no one poem that sustained this kind of arresting, tactile energy that is the heart of poetry to me. Having read the Canzoniere is, I find, intellectually rewarding but not emotionally exhilarating.

And to be honest, I think part of the reason for that is simply my lack of sympathy for the massive project of amorous angst and sentimentality that Petrarch, probably never suspecting what a can of worms he was opening, nevertheless touched off in Western culture. To put it bluntly, it takes a lot for me to love a work about self-loathing and unrequited love. I don't believe in true love at first sight, or in some kind of courtly ideal of valuing one's life at nothing in exchange for a glance or a handkerchief. I have a high capacity for making allowances for a writer's time and place; I do well with Chaucer and Homer and the author of Beowulf. But in Petrarch I felt I was meeting the well-spring of a set of ideas against which I actively rail on an almost daily basis, and I couldn't quite get past that. Love as self-destruction is just not an idea I can tolerate, especially when paired with the veneration of the beloved as an object. These ideas may remain insanely popular in our culture, but they're not romantic; they're tremendously harmful. They are (excuse the expression) jacked. the fuck. up.

The way a simple butterfly, in summer,
will sometimes fly, while looking for the light,
right into someone's eyes, in its desire,
whereby it kills itself and causes pain;

so I run always toward my fated sun,
her eyes, from which such sweetness comes to me,
since Love cares nothing for the curb of reason
and judgment is quite vanquished by desire.

And I can see quite well how they avoid me,
and I well know that I will die from this,
because my strength cannot withstand the pain;

but oh, how sweetly Love does dazzle me
so that I wail some other's pain, not mine,
and my blind soul consents to her own death.

I mean, it's a lovely and well-crafted poem from a technical point of view, but speaking as a pragmatist, No! No blind souls consenting to their own deaths! No casting yourself as a helpless moth drawn to the flame! No, good sir! I'll restrain myself from an analysis of the sonnets in which Petrarch deconstructs Laura into her component body parts, venerating at one moment her hand, at another her eyes, as if they were disconnected entities. Suffice to say, my appreciation of the cycle suffered due to my dislike of the now-persistent tropes Petrarch pioneered all those centuries ago.

Nevertheless, I certainly did enjoy these poems to an extent, and I'm glad I read them all, since one of my favorite things about the volume was witnessing the slow progression and growth of the speaker's character. I'll just be sure to read some, I don't know, Seamus Heaney or something next, to cleanse my poetic palate.


(The Poetry of Petrarch is my first book toward the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Challenge.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography