From Tacitus to Flaubert, and beyond

A philosophy major turned essayist and poet, Daniel Pritchard’s favorite books read like a compendium blessed by Harold Bloom. Daniel may be a devotee of Irish-language poets, but he’s just as sure-footed on a broad range of other topics. Indeed, a conversation that nimbly leaps from Tacitus and Bishop to Flaubert and Ellison deserves to be savored. And if you can spot the Sartrean reference below, I’ll give you a well-deserved shout out.

Photo 48

The book with the light in it.

Who are you?

I’m the editor of The Critical Flame, an online book review journal; I write a regular blog called The Wooden Spoon; I am the managing editor of Fulcrum: an Annual of Poetry & Aesthetics; I’m an essayist and poet; and during the day I work at David R. Godine, Publisher.

What was the last book you read? How did you like it?

Let’s see — I’m currently reading the new edition of Thom Gunn’s Selected Poems, and I just finished Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome. Tacitus was amazing, but quite a challenge in terms of keeping names straight, and understanding the political and social order. The system was all fairly byzantine back then — but I guess not so different than it is today in America. Tacitus recounts the death of Caesar Augustus and the following terms of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, (the chapters on Caligula are lost) and the infamous Nero. It is Roman history for policy wonks: Tacitus is less concerned with the grand movements of empire and more interested in the intrigues of the political realm. One is surprised how eminently translatable so many of the lessons are.

I’m always surprised by the quizzical looks I get when people learn I’m reading Proust. As if I were eccentric, or worse. Surely, poetry lovers are in a whole different category of strange, no?

Oh come on, we can’t be that odd. Poetry gets a bad rap because people stop learning poetry sometime after The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere; if we read as much poetry in school as prose, it would be a far less daunting for the average reader. That being said, somebody is making millions off of Mary Oliver every year.

Care to share some of your favorite verse and explain its significance?

Elizabeht Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

I’ve always loved the poem “Casabianca” by Elizabeth Bishop. Its title & first line is a reference to a little-known poem of the same name, but knowing that reference and context is secondary to enjoying the poem by itself. “Casabianca” is ostensibly about redefining Love as the experience of loving changes the definition for you, outside of your control. If you wanted to pair it with a prose piece, you might choose Raymond Carver’s famed short-story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. But the two don’t compare, in my mind — as much as I like that story, Bishop’s poem is beautiful (read aloud) and forceful; and small! brief —  you can take it in whole and revisit the experience over and over.

Go ahead, try for yourself and enjoy:

Love’s the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite `The boy stood on
the burning deck.’ Love’s the son
       stood stammering elocution
       while the poor ship in flames went down.

Love’s the obstinate boy, the ship,
even the swimming sailors, who
would like a schoolroom platform, too,
       or an excuse to stay
       on deck. And love’s the burning boy.

What can a John Ashbery do with langauge and experience that a Jose Saramago cannot?

Let’s see, John Ashbery — good question. I’m not really a fan of his work, for the most part. His poems are often willfully evasive, like an inside joke about which you may or may not be the punchline. It’s probably just a personal taste issue.

How about D.A. Powell though? His collection Cocktails is, I think, a modern masterpiece, and what makes his poetry work (besides the language) are the line breaks, stanza breaks, weird punctuation, and juxtapositions of phrases, that beg to be read in several meaningful senses (which obviously isn’t possible in prose, or, when it is attempted, is more laborious than valuable). It is funny, daring, powerful, lyrically beautiful, and brings in all types of cultural reference; really, just amazing and enjoyable work. A bit like James Joyce.

Is there a book on your shelf whose siren call you simply cannot ignore?

Well the book on my shelf that I keep picking up and re-reading is a book of poetry: Geoffrey Hill’s New & Collected Poems (I also have the new Yale invisibleSelected but I prefer the older volume). His is a difficult, brilliant, and worthwhile poetry. But if you really need a novel, let’s see: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which keeps drawing me back and becoming ever more meaningful. It’s one of the fabulous books that really seems to change with every reading. I notice more and more elements that complicate the way I thought about the book, and it is so full of the concerns of the world in which we live that it really does change the way I see our society.

In your opinion, what’s one of the best poetical novels you wish were more widely read?

herzog_jpg_300x1000_q85It’s often said (rightfully or not) that the first poetical novel was Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, because it’s written in a stylized prose as opposed to prose that is intended purely for clarity of expression (compare Dickens). On that basis, I’d say that the book I wish were more widely read were Herzog, by Saul Bellow. Bellow is slipping out of favor with readers (and to some degree, except for stalwart James Wood, with critics), for reasons that I think relate more to his late-life conservative cultural politics than to his literary merit. Hezog is beautiful and ruminative; intelligent but not condescending; human, flawed, and brash. It is written mostly in the form of letters from Moses Herzog, the protagonist who is having a breakdown after an ugly divorce, to people real and imaginary, alive and dead, etc.

Actors, comedians, and athletes are often elected to political office. Is there a novelist you think would make a good senator? Explain.

No decent novelist would burden himself with the world of government — which is essentially the business of being for others. Writers are for themselves and their writing, too solitary to shake babies & kiss hands. (Actors are used to being for others, having a different relationship with the audience.) Bad novelists, on the other hand, would love to win an election but would be terrible statesmen, and ought really to give up fiction and write obituaries for a living.


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