Three Poetic Pieces I Read in 2020

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Currently, I’m about half-way through Quintilian (35–100 AD), who is teaching me rhetoric, and while reading him, I recalled this passage that had previously read from Ernst Robert Curtius (1886–1956):

The reading of the poets recommends itself not only through the delight and refreshment which accompany it; it inspires the mind, gives sublimity to expression, and teaches the orator to influence the emotions of his audience. To be sure, it must not be forgotten that poetry* is close to epideictic (not to forensic) oratory….

*Quintilian uses the neutral expression “hoc genus” (X, 1, 28), which is presumably to be completed by “eloquentiae.” Or is it used absolutely? Ordinarily he says “poetae.” Only once (XII, 11, 26) does the word “poesis” appear, and it is extremely rare elsewhere in Latin. Horace has it once (Ars poetica, 361), but in the meaning “poem.” Poetica or poetice is also rarely “poetry.” Neither Roman antiquity nor the Latin Middle Ages had a current word for poetry.

(Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter (European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages), trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1953; Seventh Printing, 1990) p. 437)

I find comfort in that last line, because I get very uncomfortable trying to critically understand or analyze what we in 2021 call “poetry.” Yes, Coleridge’s definition of “the best words in the best order” is a good start, but hardly takes us (those of us who did not grow up reading, writing, reciting, translating poetry) very far toward understanding or appreciating the medium—particularly what contemporary poets are trying to do in and with the form.

A lot of modern poetry (post 19th century) I just don’t get. (I hear little rhythm in much of Yeats.) But here are three strong poems that caught my eye and ear this past year. I don’t want to quote from them, because to do that would affirm Walter Benjamin (1892–1940)’s theory that to quote a text is to interrupt its context. (“What is Epic Theatre?” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, (New York:Schocken Books, 1968) p.151).

Three strong poems recommended by Bookbread:

I strongly encourage any and all readers to check out these powerful works.

Commentary on Proust – No. 2

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Commentary on Proust – No. 2

“There was no time for memory.”

–Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1947)[1]

For critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Proust’s involuntary memory is not based neither on one’s experiences nor the cues that trigger such involuntary memory. Instead, Proust’s involuntary memory is much closer to the act of forgetting.[2]

Benjamin also maintains that Proust’s asthma contributed to his long, windy sentences:

Proust’s syntax rhythmically, step by step, enacts his fear of suffocating. And his ironic, philosophical, didactic reflections invariably are the deep breath with which he shakes off the crushing weight of memories.[3]

Victor E. Graham (1965):

One of the fundamental aspects of Proust’s style is his use of metaphor or images. He believed that beauty or truth can only be expressed obliquely and this is why he used clusters of images or strings of morphemes to focus on the truth by a sort of stylistic convergence….[4]

Robert Soucey (1967):

Proust felt strongly, however, that books should not be approached as if they provided definitive answers to all life’s questions, as if they were Holy Writ….[5]

Proust believed that reading as a spur to day-dreaming was one of literature’s most vital functions….[6]

There is no glorification of speed-reading in Proust; for one thing, it would allow no time for day-dreaming….[7]

Proust suggests that good reading rather than being an escape from reality is a means of experiencing it more fully, a means of sharpening one’s intellectual and emotional awareness of life. In this, the act of reading is not unlike the act of creating. [8]



[1] Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. NY: Random House. 1953. (1947.) “Chapter 18” 294.

[2] Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. NY: Schocken Books. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. 1968. “The Image of Proust” 202.

[3] Benjamin, “The Image of Proust,” 213–14.

[4] Graham, Victor E. “Proust’s Alchemy.” Modern Language Review. Vol. 60, No. 2. (April 1965.) 197–206 at 199.

[5] Soucy, Robert. “Proust’s Aesthetic of Reading.” The French Review. Vol. 41, No. 1. (October 1967.) 48–59 at 49.

[6] Soucy, “Proust’s Aesthetic of Reading” 50.

[7] Soucy, “Proust’s Aesthetic of Reading” 50.

[8] Soucy, “Proust’s Aesthetic of Reading” 59.



Fun and Philosophy with Martin Buber

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What’s not to like about Martin Buber? Walter Benjamin, Walter Kaufmann, Gershom Scholem, Franz Kafka, Leo Strauss et al answer that question in Benjamin Ivery’s interview with Dominique Bourel in The Forward:

Buber is often between two fields. He writes too well to be a philosopher, and that unsettled people.

Read it all here.