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Poetry’s Mistakes

Why do critics insist on treating gaffes as other than what they are?

Good morning. Poets make mistakes—and not just by having children. They make mistakes in their poems. In The New York Review of Books, Evan Kindly reviews Erica McAlpine’s book on famous (and not so famous) mistakes in poetry and how critics try to explain them away:

Everybody makes mistakes; only some of them become canonical. John Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is one of the most celebrated poems in the English language, and it concludes with what appears to be a serious gaffe. Describing the experience of reading Homer in translation, the speaker compares himself to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés surveying the New World for the first time; he is ‘like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men / Look’d at each other with a wild surmise— / Silent, upon a peak in Darien.’

Unfortunately, Keats seems to have mixed up his explorers: Vasco Núñez de Balboa is the one who founded a colonial settlement on the Isthmus of Darien (now known as the Isthmus of Panama) in 1510, and it’s Balboa who is credited as the first European to view the Pacific Ocean. Cortés saw it nearly a decade later, and never set foot in Darien.

Even Homer nods, as the saying goes. (Fact check: it was Horace, in his Ars Poetica, who first referred to Homer nodding, though notably he was expressing irritation, not tolerance: “Indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus” translates to “I become annoyed when the great Homer is being drowsy.”) But as Erica McAlpine, a poet, translator, and scholar at Oxford, demonstrates in her painstaking new study The Poet’s Mistake, contemporary literary critics have become uncomfortable acknowledging any authorial fatigue whatever.

In other news: Joan Didion isn’t easy to interview, but when you start off with impossibly broad questions like “What would you say to the millions who have lost loved ones in the past year?” and suddenly pivot to “Do you fear death?”—well, it makes for a stilted exchange that in this case ends up sounding like a job interview: “What makes a better journalist: the ability to empathize, or the ability to observe with detachment? Which is your greater strength?”

A history of pirate publishing: “It is now 55 years since Robert Darnton first became aware of the vast archive of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), one of the principal suppliers of books to the French market in the late 18th century. It is fair to say that this happy combination of remarkable source material and Darnton’s analytical skill has transformed book history. Darnton’s first major engagement with this literature, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982) was followed in 1996 by The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, a book that offered a key to understanding the mysteries of the long established and rather settled French book market. In the late 18th century, a network of protected and conservative domestic producers in Paris were increasingly vulnerable to the buccaneering strategies of publishers who were, like the STN, established abroad and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the French authorities.”

Bhanu Kapil has won the T. S. Eliot Prize for her “radical” (natch) collection How to Wash a Heart.

Margot Enns reviews William Souder’s biography of Steinbeck: “In it, we get the man in full—one who hated tax season and loved his dogs more than his women.”

Gerald Russello reviews Edmund Fawcett’s “magisterial” Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition.

Patrick Bishop goes fishing on Scotland’s South Uist island: “We hit the water at my favourite spot at 9am on Monday. The Howmore is the only river in South Uist and it is less than a mile long. It flows out of a clutch of three lochs that are the best sea trout lochs on the island. The river is the fishes’ route into them so it is the obvious place to mount an ambush. But you have to be there at the right time, that is, when the tide starts to rise. Sea trout, like Atlantic salmon, are anadromous — meaning they start life in fresh water, then spend part of it at sea before returning from the salt to spawn. They go out brown and come back silver and pink-fleshed, the result of gorging on prawns and shrimps. They are less streamlined than salmon and deeper-bodied. Both salmon and sea trout come up this little river. If you get a bite you know before you see the fish which variety you have hooked. The salmon take is a long draw. You feel the line taughten steadily and you must wait a few seconds before lifting the rod tip — the ‘strike’. Sea trout do the striking for you. They hit the fly like a train, then race off at a speed that leaves spray trailing from your line. In those first seconds even a pound fish can feel like a serious sea trout only to reveal its true dimensions when it breaks the surface.”

David Wooton reviews J.L. Heilbron’s “big book about a minor painting — a double portrait of John Bankes, aged about 16 (the son of the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Sir John Bankes), and his tutor, Dr Maurice Williams.” More: It was done in Oxford in 1643-4 by Francis Cleyn, a court painter. At the time, Oxford was the headquarters of the royalist army, and painters were busy recording for their loved ones Cavaliers who would soon be dead. In the left corner of the painting there is a copy of Galileo’s Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in its Latin translation, open at the frontispiece, along with a globe and a telescope. Young John holds out a drawing compass into the centre of the image, and looks out into empty space. J.L. Heilbron devotes 500 pages to trying to make sense of this painting, but makes surprisingly little progress. What does he get wrong?”

How WallStreetBets tripled the stock value of GameStop, “which isn’t expected to turn a profit before 2023”: “One trader turned $53,566 into more than $11 million.”

In search of the real Tiger Woods: “A few moments in Tiger do resonate like a flushed three-iron, including the interview with Dina Gravell, Tiger’s first girlfriend. She shared with the filmmakers home videos of a teenage Tiger acting with an unscripted abandon unthinkable to today’s polished high-school Instagrammers: Tiger dressed as Santa Claus, Tiger posing for prom photos, Tiger preening for the camera in a living-room dance party, playing an imaginary saxophone. Dina and Tiger continued to date after he went off to Stanford, but when Tiger’s parents concluded that she was a distraction, the relationship came to a summary end via this missive from the golfer: ‘The reason for writing this letter is to inform you my parents and myself never want to talk or hear from you again.’”

Photo: Howmore

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