Reasonable Words: Commonplace Book

A few nice bits encountered in this week’s reading:

First, the opening bit from Jorge Luis Borges “This Craft of Verse” (the book form of his Norton Lectures on poetry from 1967-68, once thought lost, but lovingly transcribed from audio tapes and published by Harvard University Press).

“1. The Riddle of Poetry

At the outset, I would like to give you fair warning of what to expect–or rather, what not to expect–from me.  I find that I have made a slip in the very title of my first lecture. The title is, if we are not mistaken, “The Riddle of Poetry,” and the stress of course is on the first word, “riddle.” So you may think the riddle is all-important. Or, what might be still worse, you may think I have deluded myself into believing that I have somehow discovered the true reading of the riddle. The truth is that I have no revelations to offer. I have spent my life reading, analyzing, writing (or trying my hand at writing), and enjoying. I have found the last to be the most important thing of all. “Drinking in” poetry, I have come to no final conclusion about it. Indeed, Every time I am faced with a blank page, I feel that I have to rediscover literature for myself. But the past is of no avail whatever to me. So, as I have said, 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.”

Echos of Mark Strand‘s

“There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.”

If Borges thought he was “trying his hand at writing,” there’s not much hope for the rest of us.


and a great lead to James Wade’s TLS review of Lawrence Warner’s THE MYTH OF PIERS PLOWMAN, a sort of bibliographic true-crime thriller about the brouhaha over medieval text Piers Plowman and its questionable provenance.


If Piers Plowman offers a vision of human life in its entirety – a “fair feeld ful of folk” – Lawrence Warner’s study The Myth of Piers Plowman veers towards humanity’s rougher edges: insane scholars, hapless librarians, drunk students, depressed antiquarians and tyrannical monarchs, not to mention rebels, prostitutes, con men, forgers, heretics and, perhaps worst of all, very dull academics.


Warner assembles this motley crew of rogues and oddballs to serve up a rollicking tale of how an entire field of study came to be created, or rather, fabricated. This latter term is one Warner shies away from in the book’s subtitle, but its range of connotations is fundamental to his understanding of archive formation. When it comes to the long history of amassing the raw material of “Langland Studies” or “Piers Plowman Studies”, a history this book traces (or fabricates), it turns out to be neither possible nor necessarily productive to always distinguish between those who created, those who copied, those who corrected and those who just made things up.


Turns out life (or at least literary life) is more like Borges than perhaps even he suspected.

“Drunk history” is an internet meme (even a TV show), but drunk bibliographic collation? Could be the next big thing…


A page of a Piers Plowman manuscript from the British Library's site. Love those pilcrows!
A page of a Piers Plowman manuscript from the British Library’s site. Love those pilcrows!

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