"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Review You Won't Finish of a Book You Won't Read

It's been since about last Thanksgiving that I wrote about books. I've read a lot since then, slowly making a dent in my lifetime reading list (see here), but there hasn't been anything that's really noteworthy. That is, until yesterday.

Yesterday, I started reading the Canti of Giacomo Leopardi and I ended up reading the entire thing in one sitting. The more one reads, the less likely it is that one will find something surprising and delightful, so it's always a treat to find just the book one wants when one wants it, completely by accident. A complete online translation is available here.

The Canti is a series of poems, written over many years, which work better as a whole than separately. While each poem has its one or two perfect phrases, no one poem is the type that would fit in an anthology and be the one poem for which the author is remembered. The mood of the poems tends to be unremittingly bleak, yet hopeful - a strange tension which results from Leopardi's struggle with what would today be seen as an existential crisis. He writes about how one loves another only to find that it's some ideal one really loves, not the actual person, and people die, but one continues to love that ideal. He writes about the vanity of all pursuits in a style reminiscent of Ecclesiastes. His attitudes are sometimes wrenching; in a poem written on the occasion of his sister's wedding, he writes that in their society "you have the choice only to raise your sons to be wretched or to be craven. Choose the former."

Fun guy. Hope he didn't make a toast at the wedding! Given his belief that women are ignorant (see the poem "Aspasia"), he probably didn't think his sister would be able to understand him, anyway.

His idea seemed to be that by writing, he could work his way out of the problems of the world as he saw them. Though he would die, his words could give him immortality. Though the world was dark and ugly, he could create beauty by describing that world. From what I gather, he believed that the ancient poets had seen the world and its troubles and did not feel the despair that modern (19th century) society did, but instead rejoiced and he wanted to recreate that freeing feeling for himself; I disagree with that basic premise, but it may have worked for him to some degree. The author died of cholera at the age of 38.

Last year, I read the works of Weldon Kees again (actually, four times). Kees must have been influenced by Leopardi, the two of them are so similar. While Kees could fill one with horror at the mundane, Leopardi convinces one that there is some magic behind the despair, that there is a Providence at work that we cannot fathom. Kees will forever be a minor poet of his generation, but Leopardi was a genius for all time.


Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

You're 50% incorrect (so far). Because I finished this review. As for reading the book? Maybe. I'll wait for the movie, first.

The view that the words of a poet could confer a kind of immortality was pretty common ... among poets, at least. Not sure if anyone else bought it. W. Shxpr's most famous sonnet concludes:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

MY poems, sez Shakey, make Summer itself look like a dog turd by way of comparison - because Summer comes to an end. (Shakespeare made this same basic claim in quite a few places.)

Then, of course, you have W. Allen, who famously said he didn't want to achieve immortality through his works ... he wanted to achieve it through not dying.

Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

I should also note that Shakespeare's claim is weirdly involuted and pomo on quite a few levels; because he says, in essence, I won't insult you by writing a poem comparing you to Summer because Summer, let's face it, sucks. Instead, I will compare you to this very poem I'm writing because IT is immortal; and, by doing that, I have succeeded in writing a poem that fails in any way to talk about YOU, but instead ends up being about itself' and so in the end, I'm praising my own poem, not YOU at all.

And that is how you'll become immortal: By making a cameo in a sonnet whose sole purpose is to refer to itself as a conferrer of immortality on itself.

As I said ... tres weird.

Jean said...

I don't know why, but the title of you post triggered this - did you see that there huge cookbook being released in March? Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking by Nathan Myhrvold - 2400+ pages long!

Gretchen said...

Actually, this sounds quite interesting. I'll be impressed if I get around to reading it, but the themes of loving the ideal rather than the person and making sense of the world, creating beauty, through writing are ones that always appeal to me. Perfect for poetry.