Monthly Archives: November 2018

What Do Our Oldest Books Say About Us?

On the ineffable magic of four little manuscripts of Old English poetry


What do our oldest books sayThere are four original manuscripts containing poetry in Old English—the now-defunct language of the medieval Anglo-Saxons—that have survived to the present day. No more, no less. They are: the Vercelli Book, which contains six poems, including the hallucinatory “Dream of the Rood”; the Junius Manuscript, which comprises four long religious poems; the Exeter Book, crammed with riddles and elegies; and the Beowulf Manuscript, whose name says it all. There is no way of knowing how many more poetic codices (the special term for these books) might have existed once upon a time, but have since been destroyed.
Until last week, I had seen two of these manuscripts in person and turned the pages of one. But then I visited “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War,” a new show of artifacts at the British Library in London. It’s a vast exhibition, covering the art, literature, and history of the people whose kingdoms spread across Britain between the sixth and the eleventh centuries. The impetus for the show came from the library’s 2012 acquisition of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the “earliest intact European book,” in the words of the show’s catalog.
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by Philip Larkin

Solar-LarkinSuspended lion face

Spilling at the centre

Of an unfurnished sky

How still you stand,

And how unaided

Single stalkless flower

You pour unrecompensed.
The eye sees you

Simplified by distance

Into an origin,

Your petalled head of flames

Continuously exploding.

Heat is the echo of your

Coined there among

Lonely horizontals

You exist openly.

Our needs hourly

Climb and return like angels.

Unclosing like a hand,

You give for ever.

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Seamus Heaney: as seen from Russia, Hungary, Poland and Mexico

Four translators reflect on their experiences of bringing the poetry of Seamus Heaney to new audiences in their native language

Seamus Heaney as seen from RussiaFour long-standing translators of Seamus Heaney’s poetry gathered in Dublin yesterday [April 25, 2018] to celebrate Heaney’s poetry in translation to mark the opening of a new home for the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation.
The event featured readings of Heaney’s poetry in Russian, Hungarian, Polish and Mexican Spanish by Heaney’s translators and paid tribute to Heaney’s contribution to literature as a writer and translator, and also acknowledged the poet’s strong support of the development of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation. A partnership between Trinity’s School of Languages Literature and Cultural Studies, Literature Ireland and the Dalkey Archive Press, the centre fosters and promotes literary translation, bringing the best of international literature to Irish readers and the finest of Irish literature to readers around the world.
Sinéad Mac Aodha,  Director, Literature Ireland, commented: “Literature Ireland, the organisation for promoting Irish literature abroad, is a proud and active partner in the Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation. Working closely with publishers and translators from around the world, our aim is to build a profile and a deep appreciation for Irish literature from Beijing to Buenos Aires, Cairo to Chennai. Since our establishment in 1994, we have funded over 2,000 translations of Irish books into over fifty languages. In a world that needs open minds more than ever before, 36 Fenian Street will open a door to the exciting possibilities of literary translation and cultural exchange.”
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The Carrying

Ada Limón

The CarryingThe sky’s white with November’s teeth,

and the air is ash and woodsmoke.

A flush of color from the dying tree,

a cargo train speeding through, and there,

that’s me, standing in the wintering

grass watching the dog suffer the cold

leaves. I’m not large from this distance,

just a fence post, a hedge of holly.

Wider still, beyond the rumble of overpass,

mares look for what’s left of green

in the pasture, a few weanlings kick

out, and theirs is the same sky, white

like a calm flag of surrender pulled taut.

A few farms over, there’s our mare,

her belly barrel-round with foal, or idea

of foal. It’s Kentucky, late fall, and any

mare worth her salt is carrying the next

potential stake’s winner. Ours, her coat

thicker with the season’s muck, leans against

the black fence and this image is heavy

within me. How my own body, empty,

clean of secrets, knows how to carry her,

knows we were all meant for something.

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W.H. Auden on Writing, Belief, Doubt, False vs. True Enchantment, and the Most Important Principle of Making Art

“We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny.”


W.H. Auden on Writing, Belief, DoubtLong before there was the Internet, there was the commonplace book — a creative and intellectual ledger of fragmentary inspirations, which a writer would collect from other books and copy into a notebook, often alongside his or her reflections and riffs. These borrowed ideas are in dialogue with the writer’s own imagination and foment it into original thinking. Over long enough a period of time — years, decades, often a lifetime — the commonplace book, while composed primarily of copied passages, comes to radiate the singular sensibility of its keeper: beliefs are refined, ideas incubated, intellectual fixations fleshed out, and the outlines of a personhood revealed. (Brain Pickings is, in an unshakable sense, a commonplace book.)
Partway between medieval florilegium and modern-day Tumblr, the commonplace book has been particularly beloved by poets, whose business is the revelation of wholeness through the fragmentary. Among the most devoted and masterful practitioners of the art of the commonplace book was the poet W.H. Auden(February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973), who published his in 1970 as A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (public library) — a collection of quotations and reflections, arranged alphabetically by subject, beginning with Accedie and ending with Writing.

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Donald Justice

THE TELEPHONE NUMBER OF THE MUSESleepily, the muse to me: “Let us be friends.

Good friends, but only friends. You understand.”

And yawned. And kissed, for the last time, my ear.

Who earlier, weeping at my touch, had whispered:

“I loved you once.” And: “No, I don’t love him.

Not after everything he did.” Later,

Rebuttoning her nightgown with my help:

“Sorry, I just have no desire, it seems.”

Sighing: “For you, I mean.” Long silence. Then:

“You always were so serious.” At which

I smiled, darkly. And that was how I came

To sleep beside, not with her; without dreams.
I call her up sometimes, long distance now.

And she still knows my voice, but I can hear,

Beyond the music of her phonograph,

The laughter of the young men with their keys.
I have the number written down somewhere.

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Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Galassi

AgaveI’m not useful and not beautiful,

I have neither happy colors nor odor;

My roots eat into cement,

And my leaves, which are edged with needles,

Watch out for me, as sharp as swords.

I’m silent. I speak only my plant language,

Hard for you, a man, to understand.

It’s a tongue that’s out of use,

Exotic, since I come from far away,

From a cruel country

Full of wind, of poisons and volcanoes.

I waited many years before expressing

This very tall, despairing flower of mine,

Ugly, woody, rigid, but aimed at the sky.

It’s our way of shouting,

I’m going to die tomorrow. Now do you hear me?

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Literary Witches: An Illustrated Celebration of Trailblazing Women Writers Who Have Enchanted and Transformed the World

From Sappho to Toni Morrison, an homage to writers who have wielded the power of the mind in language with uncommon virtuosity.

By Maria Popova

Literary Witches“The absence of the witch does not invalidate the spell,” Emily Dickinson wrote. So great writers bewitch us with their work long after they have absented themselves from the world. The enduring bewitchment of thirty such titans and trailblazers of the written word, Dickinson herself among them, is what author Taisia Kitaiskaia and artist Katy Horan honor in Literary Witches: A Celebration of Magical Women Writers (public library) — a lovely compendium of impressionistic sketches, fusing biographical facts with flights of the invocational imagination to celebrate such enchantresses of literature as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Octavia Butler, Sappho, Audre Lorde, Anaïs Nin, Gertrude Stein, Flannery O’Connor, Anna Akhmatova, Toni Morrison, and Emily Brontë — women born “before they invented women,” as Ursula K. Le Guin put it in her brilliant unsexing of literature.

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Speech: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”


Speech “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”(from Macbeth, spoken by Macbeth)

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

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From “The Duino Elegies”: The Ninth Elegy

by Rainer Maria Rilke

(translated by A. S. Kline)

From “The Duino Elegies” The Ninth ElegyWhy, if it could begin as laurel, and be spent so,

this space of Being, a little darker than all

the surrounding green, with little waves at the edge

of every leaf (like a breeze’s smile) – : why then

have to be human – and shunning destiny

long for destiny?….

               Oh, not because happiness exists,

that over-hasty profit from imminent loss,

not out of curiosity, or to practice the heart,

which could exist in the laurel……

But because being here is much, and because all

that’s here seems to need us, the ephemeral, that

strangely concerns us. We: the most ephemeral. Once,

for each thing, only once. Once, and no more. And we too,

once. Never again. But this

once, to have been, though only once,

to have been an earthly thing – seems irrevocable.
A final reminder that we will be reading and discussing Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Duino Elegies on November 22. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for more information.

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