We live in a genre-obsessed literary culture, but there have always been border-crossers among us. Some of the most powerful prose of the 19th and 20th centuries was written by poets. In this class, we’ll take a look at outstanding essays, book-length nonfiction, and prose-y meditations by major poets from Russia, Spain, the Caribbean, Canada, and the United States. We’ll consider what makes these writers such ardent believers in the idea of a global culture, and in a world of literature that transcends place and time.
We’ll investigate how each of these writers simultaneously describes an era and location – and seeks to escape it. We’ll pay special attention to how each writer discusses questions of literary quality and immortality, and we’ll explore how each viewed the relationship between the act of writing and the challenge of living a moral life. Finally, we’ll think about how and why poetry and nonfiction feed, inspire, and sustain each other.
Joseph Brodsky, Less than One
- “As failures go, attempting to recall the past is like trying to grasp the meaning of existence.”
(A PDF of the title essay in the book, “Less Than One”)
- Review in The Guardian: “If there’s an essential essay collection, it’s this one.”
- Brodsky’s masterful 50-page essay on Auden’s “September 1, 1939”—the highlight of Less Than One— is not online, but this New York Times Book Review piece mentions it.
Joseph Brodsky, Watermar
- “I always adhered to the idea that God is time…” – an excerpt from Watermark
Louise Glück, Proofs and Theories
- “The fundamental experience of the writer is helplessness.” From “Education of the Poet,” the first essay in the collection. Browse the collection here.
Federico García Lorca, In Search of Duende
- “I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.” A.S. Kline offers Lorca in translation.
- And a review of the book in The Cortland Review.
Mark Strand, The Weather of Words
- “For some of us, the less said about the way we do things the better. And I for one am not even sure that I have a recognizable way of doing things, or if I did that I could talk about it. I do not have a secret method of writing, nor do I have a set of do’s and don’ts.”
Marina Tsvetaeva, Art in the Light of Conscience
- Brain Pickings offers a fragment of Tsvetaeva’s prose.
- Review of the translation in Slavic Review.
- And here, Tsvetaeva’s famous “Poem of the End”—about the end of a passionate love affair—is the subject of The Guardian’s Poem of the Week feature.
Derek Walcott, What the Twilight Says
- Walcott’s essay on Larkin, included in the collection What the Twilight Says, can be read at The New York Review of Books online. It begins:
“The average face, the average voice, the average life—that is, the life most of us lead, apart from film stars and dictators—had never been defined so precisely in English poetry until Philip Larkin. He invented a muse: her name was Mediocrity.”
- Part of Walcott’s essay on Joseph Brodsky in English translation—including his comments on the “kind of translation that turns Doctor Zhivago into Omar Sharif” – is also up at NYRB online….the full essay is in What the Twilight Says.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: Poetry and Prose
- The Library of America has a note on this book, including commentary on Whitman’s prose. “Whitman’s prose is no less extraordinary. Specimen Days and Collect (1882) includes reminiscences of nineteenth-century New York City that will fascinate readers in the twenty-first, notes on the Civil War, especially his service in Washington hospitals, and trenchant comments on books and authors. Democratic Vistas (1871), in its attacks on the misuses of national wealth after the Civil War, is relevant to conditions in our own time…”
- Whitman’s long essay “Democratic Vistas” is available online. “Democracy too is law, and of the strictest, amplest kind.” And of course: “Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? “
Aviya Kushner grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home in New York. She is the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau/ Random House), and is also The Forward’s language columnist. She is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago and a Howard Foundation fellow in nonfiction.