a poet on ‘memory’

I don’t think I can speak at sufficient length about the importance to the poet of avoiding or ignoring Kodak moments. If a poet seeks to make or keep memories, how will she ever know which ones contain true power, which would assert themselves on their own? Perhaps her very definition of memory would change if she didn’t get her Kodak moments developed. Maybe memory would not hold individual scenes at all; maybe it would have no detail; maybe it would not rise up–the pines of that morning in Yosemite scraping the interior of her skull; maybe it would be nacreous, layered regions of pleasure and attraction in the mind. Any sense of tint in the depth of the gleam would arise so slowly as to be imperceptible. I am speaking of the memory that might result from repetition. I am interested in the long ways of knowing, where the mind does not seek strangeness. We must be less in love with foreground if we want to see far.

from Synthesizing Gravity by Kay Ryan

Memory does not do our bidding, even when we are most intent on fixing a moment or an experience in our memory. Perhaps it’s just as well. Perhaps we should struggle less to make “perfect” memories. Perhaps we should fret less about all that we can’t remember. We must be less in love with foreground if we want to see far.

A word I’m pleased to learn: “nacreous” meaning lustrous, as mother-of-pearl. Nacreous gleams of memory, a wonderful image.

the writer’s duty according to Doyle

…I am emboldened to say a few words as to my own conception of the art of fiction. That conception is that our treatment may be as wide as the heavens and as broad as the earth, if it does but attain the essential end of interest. All methods and schools, romance and realism, symbolism and naturalism, have the one object in view – to interest. They are all good so far as they attain that, and all useless when they cease to do so…You are right to make your book adventurous, you are right to make it theological, you are right to make it informative or controversial or idyllic, or humorous or grave or what you will, but you must make it interesting. That is essential – all the rest is detail.

But there comes the obvious retort. ‘You say “interesting” – interesting to whom?‘ The difficulty is not really a great one. The higher and more permanent work has always been interesting to all. The work which is the cult of a clique, too precious for general use, must be wanting in some quality. We know cases where obscurity of style has retarded the recognition of really great writers – but obscurity of style is not a virtue, and they were great in spite of it….If you were to make a list of the works of fiction which have proved their greatness by their permanence and by the common consensus of mankind, you would find that no narrow formula would cover them…the only point which they have in common is that each of them holds the attention of every reader.

It is just this power of holding the attention which forms the art of story-telling…It is imagination – and it is the power of conveying imagination. But we do not know what imagination is, and so all our definitions and explanations become mere juggling with words.

And still critics are found to write, ‘The book is interesting, but we confess that we are unable to say what useful purpose it serves.’ As if interest were not in itself the essential purpose!…[to help escape life’s troubles through] the window of imagination which leads out into the enchanted country…The life of a writer of fiction has its own troubles, the weary waiting for ideas, the blank reaction when they have been used, worst of all the despair when the thought which had seemed so bright and new goes dull and dark in the telling. But surely he has in return some claim to hope that if he can but interest his readers he fulfils the chief end of man in leaving others a ittle happier than he found them.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

from the Author’s Preface in The Glorious Hussar, The Best of the Exploits and Adventures of the Brigadier Gerard (originally published in 1902 Smith Elder edition of his work)

on the writing life

I started writing a book…I was able to concentrate and became for some time a sort of gargantuan ear that listened to murmurs and echoes and whispers, far-off voices that filtered through the walls. But I never became a real writer. Life always managed to elude me. I’d only ever find its tracks, the skin it sloughed off. By the time I had determined its location, it had already gone somewhere else…

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work, completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand. You can only barely see from that writerly cellar the feet of passersby, hear the rapping of their heels. Every so often someone stops and bends down and glances in through the window, and then you get a glimpse of a human face, maybe even exchange a few words. But ultimately the mind is so occupied with its own act, a play staged by the self for the self in a hasty, makeshift cabinet of curiosities peopled by author and character, narrator and reader, the person describing and the person being described, that feet, shoes, heels, and faces become, sooner or later, mere components of that act.

from Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

still more on books and reading

(he) did not camp near the soporific letter nor contort himself with a foul translation characteristic of rustics, but by right of victory carried the meaning as if captive into his own language.       St. Jerome on translations by Hilary the Confessor


I remember clearly how we read back then.  The whole ecstasy of that youthful reading, it wasn’t reading, but galloping, racing through books.  We sought out the racehorse of action, direct speech, short, muscular expressions.  We hated the ritardandos, the descriptions of nature, who needed them…               Now I feel the need to stop, like an old man winded by climbing up a slope he used to take in three bounds.  The hidden pleasures of slowness.  I love to linger long over some “It was a pleasant May morning, the birds were shouting with song, the dew glowed beneath the sun’s soft rays…”

from The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov    translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel


more on books and reading

the act of reading makes it appear to us for the time that we have lived another life – that we have had a miraculous enlargement of experience       Henry James


…three aspects of the experience of reading fiction: language, the world, and the extension of our sympathies toward other selves.  

We don’t read ‘in order’ to benefit in this way (experience more reality) from fiction.  We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on – because it is alive and we are alive.       James Wood


Paradoxically, at the same time as being able to be more self-indulgent by escaping into a world where no one can reasonably expect us to do anything, we have the luxury of putting ourselves and our needs, wants, and fears aside for a while; by being more selfish in a book, we become less self-ish.         Ann Morgan

on books and reading

(from Zama, the Governor questions a clerk in his office.)

What are you writing?…A book?  Make sons, Manuel, not books… then the clerk, in a respectful tone, deeply convinced of his own words, said “I want to realize myself in myself.  I don’t know what my children will be like.”  The governor hesitated…”Books? Ha, Ha!  Worse than children.” …(Manuel) managed to say, “Children realize themselves, but whether for good or ill we do not know.  Books are made only for truth and beauty.”  “That’s what you believe, what authors believe, but readers don’t see it like that,” came the ready retort.       Antonio di Benedetto


…like no other human creation, books have been the bane of dictatorships…the history of reading is lit by a seemingly endless line of censors’ bonfires.       Alberto Manguel


One writes only half the book; the other half is with the reader.                                            Joseph Conrad



Two poems by Li Bai

From historical sources, myths and stories, and the poetry of Li Bai and his contemporaries, Ha Jin conjures a vivid personality in a richly detailed world a millennium past.  The Banished Immortal, A Life of Li Bai draws us into the life of an extraordinary artist in the turbulent middle years of the Tang Dynasty.  Li Bai never achieved the official recognition that he sought but his poetry was widely admired and loved.  The nickname “the banished immortal” suggests it is so excellent that he must be a heavenly personage, banished to earth for some misdeed.

This short poem was chosen for the UN stamp set commemorating World Poetry Day.

Reflection In A Quiet Night

Moonlight spreads before my bed.

I wonder if it’s hoarfrost on the ground.

I raise my head to watch the moon

and lowering it, I think of home.

Another poem written for his uncle, a conscientious low-ranking official discouraged by court corruption.

Song For Accompanying Uncle Hua on Xie Tiao’s Tower

Yesterday, having left me, couldn’t be pressed to stay.  

Today, still disturbing me, makes me more upset.

The long wind is sending the autumn geese far away,

And viewing them from this high tower, we should drink more.

Your essays are fresh and strong like those of the Han dynasty

While my poetry resembles Xie Tiao’s in vigor and beauty.

We both have lofty spirit, thinking of soaring

To the sky to grab hold of the clear moon.

I draw my sword to cut water, which won’t stop flowing,

And I raise my cup to douse my sorrow, which grows stronger.

Ah, life is such a sad thing that tomorrow

I will undo my hair and sail away in a little boat.




The opening of Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto  translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen

       I left the city and made my way downriver alone, to meet the ship I awaited without knowing when it would come.                                                                                                             

     I reached the old wharf, that inexplicable structure.  The city and its harbor have always been where they are, a quarter-league farther upriver.                                                                  

     I observed, among its pilings, the writhing patch of water that ebbs between them.

              A dead monkey, still whole, still undecomposed, drifted back and forth with a certain precision upon those ripples and eddies without exit.  All his life the water at forest’s edge had beckoned him to a journey, a journey he did not take until he was no longer a monkey but only a monkey’s corpse.  The water that bore him up tried to bear him away, but he was caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf and there he was, ready to go and not going.  And there we were.                                                                                                                                        

There we were: Ready to go and not going.

In a nightmare/vision Zama sees horses in the street trample a small girl.

I withdrew.  My boots dragged in the dirt; I could not lift my feet.  Had my arms been longer, my fingernails, too, would have been encrusted with red earth…I know nothing more.  Night, my benefactress, came to my tired body.

Later, Zama goes with a military detachment into the jungle.

The sun was a dog with a hot, dry tongue that licked and licked me until it woke me up.