What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World

★★★★☆

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Buy this book ~Dec 3, 2012 Books read in 2012

Highlights

It is a useful thing for a teacher to remember, especially a university lecturer, that the students are learning not just from the content of your teaching, but from the privileges that go with the observer standpoint. They get to watch you with detachment, perhaps with amusement. They can listen with sympathy and without.
It’s all there, and so is that elegant and orderly punctuation of those fence posts, which almost seem to be there to remind the reviewer of Charles Olson’s remark that the history of the West is the history of barbed wire.
Paraphrasing haiku, I know, is like explaining jokes; it’s a sort of hopeless enterprise.
“The real history of consciousness,” Brodsky writes, “starts off with one’s first lie.”
So our readers may also reflect that it is absolutely necessary, at least once in every generation, that someone get unhypnotized long enough to let the sense of the absurd crystallize and the grief and rage well up into a howl loud enough for the rest of us to hear.
The sentences have a biblical cadence that is perhaps faintly, grimly parodic. They were written before Gertrude Stein taught writers of American prose to intensify formal effects through repetition, before Ernest Hemingway sent everyone to the school of radical simplification. And this gives her prose a hundred years later some of its delicious, oddly antiquated tang. You can hear in it the deep knowledge of the King James Bible, the love of Shakespearean eloquence, that raffish play with eloquence that occurs when it collides with the mundane world, which gives the prose of Dickens and Melville their distinctive qualities.
I am much more interested in poems than in the nature of poetry in more or less the same way that someone might be more interested in eating than the theory of cuisine.
As Steinberg points out, there was a reason why Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 and devoted most of his State of the Union address in that year to the subject of Peruvian guano. Many planters by then had begun to rotate crops to fix nitrogen in their exhausted soil.
An argument could be made that The Land of Little Rain has survived for a century on the sheer, odd deliciousness of its sentences. It is wonderfully and strangely written, but it has other things to recommend it. It sits in its lineage as the most important book of American nature writing between John Muir’s The Mountains of California (1894) and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949).
She wrote many more books, and several of them are still alive.
[Robinson] Jeffers paced as he worked in the bedroom above the kitchen; other observers report that when Una did not hear the characteristic sound of his shuffle, she would rap on the ceiling with a broom.
The early 1970s were not an especially auspicious time for males to generalize publicly about “woman.”
Hamlet-like squires of liberal tendency trying to gather the energy to act in the face of the immense and profound inertia of the Russian countryside were, if not a stock, a familiar type in Russian fiction,
When I began teaching poetry, one of my doubts about my ability to do it had to do with the fact that I was never not interested in it, and so I didn’t know how to put myself in the place of people who were bored or intimidated by it. My inclination, therefore, was not to go to the students and bring them along from my imagination of some place of trepidation or suspicion, but to assume their interest, and at Berkeley for the most part that’s been a reasonable assumption.
He was imprisoned four times, tortured on a couple of occasions, as a result of which he lost the hearing in one ear, and during his third imprisonment in 1980, when he had been sentenced to life in prison, while in solitary confinement in a cell so pitch-dark he could not see the glint of the coffee can that served as a latrine, he began to make a mental inventory of the faces of everyone he had ever known in his life. It was an exercise in staying sane that drew on his experience of meditation as a young monk, but out of it he conceived a long poem, or series of poems, that would begin in his childhood village and expand to include everyone he had ever met, including figures vivid to him from history and literature. The project has reached twenty volumes. Ten Thousand Lives, from Green Integer Press, is the first full sampling of that work to appear in English translation.
The year before in my freshman year—I make this confession publicly—I had taped above my desk along with other immortal lines a little poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that went something like this:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— It gives a lovely light!
I had by the following year understood that it was deeply uncool to have lines of Millay adorning one’s room and replaced them with something appropriately gloomy by Jean-Paul Sartre, but at that time I took Stevens’s line in more or less the same spirit as Millay’s, as permission to have fun, to live in the spirit of comedy.
There are many ways in which poets can have moral influence. I remember a friend coming home from a party in the 1970s and saying, “God, I’m so relieved. Gary Snyder eats potato chips.” That is one kind of influence; it has to do with the way in which we take accomplished artists, especially those who seem to embody a moral vision, as examples of how to function in the world.
Next: by Robert Bringhurst