Category: lines written

“When I forget how to talk, I sing.”

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Jeff Tweedy, “She’s a Jar.” My new mantra, it seems. Usually you choose the mantra but this one chose me. It’s from the second song on Wilco’s album Summerteeth, a song I’ve probably listened to 100+ times over the years. I know every word. But somehow this one time this one line hit me and hit me hard. Incredible how you can hear a thing over and over and over and it never gets you, or you never get it. And now I can’t get it out of my head. It’s following me and it feels good.

Lines Written: Robert Graves, A.E. Housman

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The truth is that only gold ore can be turned into gold; only poetry into poems.


A.E. Housman’s test of a true poem was simple and practical; does it make the hairs at one’s chin bristle if one repeats it silently while shaving?


Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.


Perhaps not the most practical quotes, but beautifully enigmatic.

Lines Written: Virginia Woolf

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In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jungle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

I learned today from The Writer’s Almanac that today is Virginia Woolf’s birthday. The above is a line from Mrs. Dalloway which, beyond being beautiful in and of itself, says much about Woolf’s take on life. Her take is a capital-M Modernist one, informed by ideas of kinetic and potential energy, which is that just about everything has potential to be important, important in a soulful, poetic, spirited way. More specifically each thing has the potential to become a piece of art, and each piece of art has the potential for epiphany trapped within it. The book Mrs. Dalloway is nothing but epiphany – that is, a series of epiphanies, or “moments” as Woolf liked to call them. The book is all insight – hardly anything happens in it that is not inside Mrs. Dalloway’s mind. Some readers find this frustrating, some find it a wonderful freedom from the confines of plot. I fall into the latter category. So I encourage people to read Mrs. Dalloway and all things Woolf and celebrate her life and her work.

Lines Written: Leo Tolstoy

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‘Not bad,’ he said, peeling the sloshy oysters from their pearly shells with a little silver fork and swallowing them one after another. ‘Not bad,’ he repeated, raising his moist and shining eyes now to Levin, now to the Tartar.

From Anna Karenina, as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

This little paragraph doesn’t have any philosophy contained in it, no, the reason I’ve singled it out is its poetry. Read it again a couple more times. Read it aloud. This passage, usually forgettable in a 800-page book, jutted out at me and asked me to reread it several times before continuing on with the book. What I love about it is the resonance of the words. They all seem to run on the same frequency, building harmonically on one another into a shiny, glimmering little thing – a little pearl, if we want to keep with the oceanic theme.

This is a testament to the power of translation. It’s nearly impossible for me to know what the passage looks and sounds like in the original Russian. Does Tolstoy give the passage the same resonant harmonies? I’m sure he does elsewhere, but here? Or is the beauty of this passage found purely in translation, specifically, the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation? Translating is a daunting task, and the couple that translated this and other Russian novels have done more for Russian literature than anyone in the past hundred years, I think. It’s not enough simply to translate the words into another language. The poetry of the words must be kept alive, and it’s this that Pevear/Volokhonsky excel in. So often the trouble with translated works is that they’re just not readable. They are competently, even perfectly, translated, but they lack attention paid to what’s not written down. So they read stiffly, and make one find the original author dull. The energy, poetry, and vigor of the original works are lost to whole generations of English readers. Maybe it’s simply that this book is written with a more modern eye, and the Garnett translation (and her translations of other Russian masterpieces), the original master translation, is just too, well, old, trapped in the musty language of turn-of-the-century England.

Either way, this is an opportunity and an invitation: go and visit/revisit those Russians that have so daunted you for years, and find they’re not so hard to understand and love.

(I’ve added Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov to my Powell’s bookshelf)

Lines Written: Jorge Luis Borges

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Interviewer: In your Antologia Personal
Borges: Look here, I want to say that that book is full of misprints. My eyesight is very dim and the proofreading had to be done by somebody else.
Interviewer: I see, but those are only minor errors, aren’t they?
Borges: Yes, I know, but they creep in, and they worry the writer, not the reader. The reader accepts everything, no? Even the starkest nonsense.

From The Paris Review Interviews, vol. I