This Craft of Verse

This Craft of Verse

Jorge Luis Borges
Edited by Calin-Andrei Mihailescu
University of Harvard Press, 2000.

Book: ISBN 0-674-00290-3; Hardcover $22.95. [Browse/Purchase for $18.36]
Audio: ISBN 0-674-00587-3; 4 CD Set $24.95. [Browse/Purchase for $19.96]

Review by Allen B. Ruch

Skillfully edited by Calin-Andrei Mihailescu, This Craft of Verse is published by Harvard University Press. A very attractive and compact hardcover, the lectures have been thoughtfully laid out in large print backed by pleasant but subtle typographical effects. Each lecture is supported by extensive footnotes that detail Borges' references, offer translations and extensions of his examples, and gently correct his occasional mistakes or inaccuracies. "Of This and That Versatile Craft," a brief but informative essay by Mihailescu, follows the lectures, explaining their history and offering an academic gloss on Borges' often deceptively simple words. It is oddly placed, however, and seems more like an introduction than an afterword. The book closes with an index; a very useful and welcome touch that helps to justify the price of this slim volume.
In a welcome move sure to delight countless Borges fans, Harvard has also released the lectures as a 4-CD set. While the packaging is somewhat of a disappointment -- the CDs come tucked in the pockets of a flimsy and awkwardly-shaped cardboard folder, and little documentation is provided -- the sound quality is surprisingly good, and the price is very reasonable. The following review will focus on the lectures as presented in the book; after I have heard the entire CD set, I will add some additional comments to the "Audio" section of the site.

I have spent my life reading, analyzing, writing (or trying my hand at writing), and enjoying. I found the last to be the most important thing of all. "Drinking in" poetry, I have come to a final conclusion about it. Indeed, every time I am faced with a blank page, I feel that I have to rediscover literature for myself.... I have only my perplexities to offer you. I am nearing seventy. I have given the major part of my life to literature, and I can offer you only doubts
--J.L. Borges, "The Riddle of Poetry"

It is almost impossible to begin a review of This Craft of Verse without commenting on the very Borgesian nature of the discovery itself. From 1967 to 1968, Jorge Luis Borges delivered the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University. Having never been transcribed, they were subsequently assumed lost -- until the end of the century, when a dusty recording was discovered in a library vault. There, committed to magnetic memory, was a voice from thirty-odd years ago, the voice of a poet himself now silent for half that time. A voice perhaps even more vital today, after the long and often controversial course of postmodernism has delivered us to a new millennium; a voice urging us to keep language alive.
It is not hard to imagine an amused Borges, smiling ironically at the playful trickery of time and fate while brushing away a sense of import with an impatient twitch of his hand from its cane. Often known to remark -- perhaps a bit coyly -- that he was born in the last century, Borges has always radiated a charm and grace borrowed from an earlier age, his vast intelligence grounded by a kindly, self-mocking sense of humor. Besides the famous eclecticism and scholarship one would expect from Borges, the most striking thing about these lectures is their warmth, a casual confidence that conjures a feeling of intimacy not usually found in his essays and fictions. Each lecture is delivered with an avuncular twinkle, turning over familiar subjects with ease and inviting literary figures such as Don Quixote and Sherlock Holmes to the discussion like old friends. Here is a poet and fellow reader who wants above all to share his passion, his sense of wonder at the written word; and he is charmed to have an audience eager to take part in the exploration. Faced with a crowded auditorium of Harvard students and faculty, Borges invites them into the circle of his erudition with a sly wink, tempering references to Anglo-Saxon kennings with "As you may know," and sprinkling the odd "Perhaps you remember this better than I" upon stanzas of English, Spanish, Italian and Latin alike. In the mouth of another lecturer, such hestitations might strike a cloying or false note, but here they bring a knowing smile, and help fend off that occasional feeling of guilt known, I suspect, to many of Borges' readers, that being a failure to possess a passing familiarity with every book ever written.
The series begins with "The Riddle of Poetry," which is as good a title as any for what amounts to a charming ramble on poetry, prose, books, translation, and the act of reading itself. Indeed, this first lecture contains all the seeds of the next five, establishing the major themes that will flow through the porous series like sparkling currents. Beginning with an apology -- a series of apologies, actually! -- Borges cautions us that he has only his perplexities to offer. But despite his warnings of riddles and doubts, his central message is an affirming one, which is simply that a poem must live. A poem is essentially undefinable; as Borges states, in words touched with the glow of poetry themselves, "we know what poetry is. We know it so well that we cannot define it in other words, even as we cannot define the taste of coffee, the color red or yellow, or the meaning of anger, of love, of hatred, of the sunrise, of the sunset, or of our love for our country." What is important is that poems or books are "brought to life when you open their pages."
The next lecture, "The Metaphor," is the most focused in the series. Something of an open love letter to the metaphor, Borges happily discusses the history and use of metaphors, how they structure our very language itself, the different types and patterns of metaphor, and the most effective way of employing them in writing. The talk is both informative and lucid, entirely free from academic jargon, and ends on the hopeful suggestion that we continue to find new metaphors to "strike the imagination."
In "The Telling of the Tale," Borges broadens his topic of verse and poetry to discuss the novel, suggesting that the difference between verse and prose is the difference between "singing something and stating something." Offering an almost hesitant critique of modernism, Borges wonders if the novel is "somehow breaking down." Despite his respect for writers such as James Joyce and Henry James, Borges laments the "degeneration" of the epic into the novel, which is more concerned with deconstructing the central character than in uplifting a hero as "a pattern for all men." Borges sees this as linked to the modern preoccupation with failure and irony: "we cannot really believe in happiness and success. And this may be one of the poverties of our time." However, Borges is not afraid of a future filled with the children of Ulysses and Kafka's The Castle. He puts faith in the idea of the tale. Trusting in the human desire to always hear a good story, Borges feels assured that this need will perpetually reinvigorate literature. Who knows? We may even again hunger for the epic, that poetic fusion of the tale and its telling.
Thematically speaking, "Word-Music and Translation" may be viewed as the central lecture, forming a bridge between major topics. Revisiting his belief that a good translation should be as equally valued as the original, he contends that a great translation may even artistically eclipse the original. From this discussion Borges further evolves one of his principle themes -- that the sound of verse, the sense of it in the imagination, is just as critical, if not more so, than the actual meaning. Perhaps we are too bound by our "historical sense," our ideas of authorship and authenticity, and we should place a higher value on beauty itself.
This idea is given full expression in the following lecture, "Thought and Poetry," which he begins with Pater's famous dictum, "All art aspires to the condition of music." According to Borges, this is because "in music, form and substance cannot be torn asunder." From this thread, he spins out one of the most enjoyable lectures in the series, first speculating on the difference between prose and poetry, and then making a case for poetry as being "word-music" (or "word-magic"), a fusion of form and content. The poetic expression cannot be successfully unravelled, nor can it be communicated by a description of mere plot or structural elements. It is the responsibility of the poet to return language to a sublime, "magic" state, where a word resonates with a power that resists any cut-and-dried definitions. Not that Borges is trying to destroy meaning entirely, but he makes an eloquent case for the enjoyment of a poem based on its sheer sound alone: "I have suspected many a time that meaning is really something added to verse. I know for a fact that we feel the beauty of a poem before we even begin to think of a meaning." (This reminds me of a comment Brian Eno once made about music, to the effect that he had been listening to Joni Mitchell's Blue for a decade before he noticed there were lyrics.) Though some may claim that Borges is just reversing the content/form hierarchy in his whimsical deconstruction, there is a sense of joy and even liberation that flows from his argument and examples. (Also, it comes as a pleasant surprise to discover that Borges reads certain Shakespearean sonnets for their lyricism without troubling himself over their meaning; perhaps now I can enjoy Dylan Thomas with less guilt!) He goes on to make the distinction between living and dead poetry, elevating this difference above the more stylistic pairing of "plain" and "elaborate," and finally establishes conviction as the cornerstone of good writing -- the reader has to believe in the writer. Whether or not we agree with a poetic metaphor, we must believe that the poet is expressing his convictions; similarly, we may not believe in the adventures of Don Quixote or Huckleberry Finn, but we believe in them as characters.
The collection ends with "A Poet's Creed," which is the most personal of all the lectures -- the poet in question being Borges. Beginning with his father's library in Buenos Aires and taking us to the present day, Borges shares his love of reading and language, and even briefly discusses the inspiration behind one of his early works, "The Immortal." This is no simple exercise in autobiography, however -- Borges is quite aware of his perceived persona, and he teases himself gently as he does the literary establishment. Reminding his audience that they, too, are part of the creative process, he ends by reading one of his own poems, "Spinoza," delivered in Spanish: "The fact that many of you have no Spanish will make it a finer sonnet. As I have said, meaning is not important -- what is important is a certain music, a certain way of saying things. Maybe, though the music may not be there, you will feel it. Or rather, since I know you are very kind, you will invent it for me." It is a fitting conclusion for one who offered to share only his perplexities. Because these perplexities come from an honest reflection on his own convictions, we believe in Borges the writer; because they are expressed with such beauty, we take delight in Borges the poet.

--Allen B. Ruch
12 January 2001

Additional Information

This Craft of Verse -- The book's official Web page, hosted at Harvard University Press.

MP3 Lecture Samples -- Harvard's page containing several audio samples from the lectures, available as MP3s.

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