Difficult criticism

I have a list of books to read, yet I am often reading something else. Something I have stumbled on in the library or on a friend’s site or bookshelf…

The most recent of these is Rosanna Warren’s Fables of the Self, a book of essays on lyricism in poetry that has a distinctly classicist bent. It’s an odd book, though, because there are tightly-controlled, scholarly critical essays in here and also memoir; the book closes with a journal witnessing her father’s dying. I’ve found the personal pieces thought-provoking and often lovely. I’ve found her criticism scholarly and difficult.

The fault is mostly mine: I have very limited background in classicism. No Latin, no ancient Greek, few readings of the classic writers even in translation. By the classic writers I mean such early Western poets as Horace, Virgil, Catullus, Theocritus, Ovid, Sappho, Euripides (but also Dante, Milton, etc.). These are foundational works, but they did not act as my foundation for poetry or poetics; I studied them later in my readings of poetry–and not in a scholarly way. Warren kindly offers translations for all of the original dead language passages she quotes, so she understands that her audience may be less familiar with the texts than she is. Nevertheless, I find this book quite difficult to read, since I am always stopping to look things up or re-read a paragraph and make certain I am following her exposition or argument.

It is challenging to me to read a discussion of, say, Mark Strand’s poetry that uses Horace’s odes or the poems of Alcaeus to demonstrate the thread of the pastoral that appears in Strand’s work. Yet by reading these essays, I learn about the alcaic lyric stanza and can pursue more on that topic if it interests me. I can go to Horace knowing a little more what to expect (as I only know his most famous/familiar georgics). I’m reminded of being in my 20s and reading Proust (yes, all the way through); I kept taking notes on what else to read…Racine, for example…as those allusions appeared in the novel. As a result, I got quite an education–if a rather eccentric, autodidactic one–in classic French literature and art and music. Then I read Hugo and Flaubert and Baudelaire. My life would be less rich if I hadn’t been moved to pursue those references beyond the text.

Similarly, I am likely to be reading more of the classical literature, and perhaps to understand it a bit better (as to how it relates to contemporary life and art) thanks to Rosanna Warren.

When the going gets tough, the tough get reading!