809: This Craft of Verse by Jorge Luis Borges

by Gerard


809.1: Borges, Jorge Luis. This Craft of Verse. The Charles Eliot Norton Lecture Series, 1967-1968. Edited by Calin-Andrei Mihailescu. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. 150 p. ISBN 0-674-00290-3.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 800: Literature
  • 809: History, description, or critical appraisal of more than two literatures
  • 809.1: Poetry

Most years since 1925, Harvard University has invited an accomplished writer or artist to give a series of lectures regarding “poetry in the broadest sense.” Speakers have included T.S. Eliot, Czeslaw Milosz, Aaron Copland, and John Cage. In 1967, they chose one of my favorite writers: Jorge Luis Borges. These six lectures sat in the Harvard audio archives for 30 years before they were found and transcribed for the next generation. His series, entitled “This Craft of Verse,” illustrates not only a theory of poetry, but also Borges’s connection to his readers and the world.

Each of the six lectures takes on a different aspect of both poetry itself and Borges’s interaction with it. He deals with engagement, metaphor, translation, epicness, philosophy, and finally, his own approach to writing and poetry. He speaks (we have to keep in mind that these were lectures when they were first presented) in two minds. The first is of one who has been reading and writing for the last five decades; the second is someone who is always tentative when approaching great literature and great writing.

Even though he was 66 years old at the time, his lectures always seem to have a sense of deference to the material he talks about. He constantly mentions that his knowledge and ability are nowhere near those he has read. He laments the loss in the collective memory of so many past writers—the Spanish poet Rafael Cansinos-Assens, Byron, Keats—and how these great voices still play in his mind.

Many times during this book, I imagined myself as one of the bright-eyed scholars of Harvard, sitting in the audience and receiving the wisdom of a great author. I hoped that a few people in attendance were able to get something out of his words. He says of poetry: “[M]eaning 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.”

There is a tremendous sense of grandfatherly love in the lectures, as if he spent his entire figuring out one small piece of the world and is trying to tell us all about it. I could read this book over and over. I not only read, but consumed this book; if I could, I would have clawed at the pages for more. Borges’s language is simple but still, much like the truth, resists simplicity. A definite five-star read.