Eric Ormsby

  • Selected Prose Works

    The poems of C. P. Cavafy, even when fragmentary or incomplete, have a stamp of finality about them; they seem permanently incised, like inscriptions recovered from antiquity. The same cannot be said of Cavafy’s prose. His essays and reflections are restless, hesitant, darting. That makes them all the more precious. They reveal to us a Cavafy shorn of pince-nez and sleeve garters; still at a slight angle to the universe, as E. M. Forster memorably described him, but somehow more cozily akimbo. Peter Jeffreys, who last year edited the dry and amusing correspondence between Cavafy and Forster (

  • culture September 28, 2010

    Whatever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici

    The French poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945) once said that he could never write a novel because sooner or later he would find himself setting down such a sentence as "The marquise went out at five o'clock." Why did the marquise leave at five? he wondered. Why not at six or seven? In fact, why did she go out at all? And why a "marquise"? Why not a duchess or a washerwoman? The arbitrary nature of narrative devices irked Valéry; they pretended to an authority that was, at bottom, a sham. They invited us to treat mere fancy as hard fact.

  • Thy Song is Strong

    Shelley wrote that the skylark pours its heart out in “profuse strains of unpremeditated art.” The description is itself melodious—as well as studiously vague. Shelley knew better than to mimic the skylark’s song. When we try to replicate those notes in words, we’re reduced to tweets and chirps—at best a tek-tek here and a weeta-weeta-weeta there. In John Bevis’s new handbook, Aaaaw to Zzzzzdabout which more below—the skylark’s “profuse strains” are compressed into a ludicrous tirra-lira! We’re better at calls; crows do seem to caw, owls to hoot, ducks to quack. But there are some forty-six

  • Peasant Company

    The great English poet John Clare spent the last twenty-three years of his life in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum; it was his second extended stay in a madhouse. When he died there, on May 20, 1864, his poetry was virtually forgotten. After a frenzy of celebrity in the 1820s, when he was taken up by London literary society and rubbed shoulders with Coleridge, Keats, and Hazlitt, Clare soon fell victim to changing tastes: The “Peasant Poet” was no longer a novelty. By 1821, Clare’s Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery had gone through four editions, but his Shepherd’s Calendar,

  • Exile's Return

    In "Fame," one of the prose poems from A River Dies of Thirst, the last collection he published before his death in 2008, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish noted sardonically that "fame is the humiliation of a person deprived of secrets." Darwish knew fame well; he had been acclaimed from the moment his poems first appeared, in 1960, when he was only nineteen. For the rest of his life, he would be celebrated as "the Palestinian national poet" and "the voice of his people." One of the ironies, if not the humiliations, of such a role is that the poet whose words promise liberation may find

  • culture June 08, 2009

    Collected Stories and Other Writings by Katherine Anne Porter

    Katherine Anne Porter came from “the soft blackland farming country” of north central Texas. The touch and the smell of that dark earth would stay with her for the rest of her long life. Born in 1890 in Indian Creek—then still a frontier settlement—she died, laden with honors, in 1980, in Silver Spring, Maryland. She lived on the move until well into old age; in a late interview, she calculated that she had resided at more than fifty addresses in her lifetime. She was restlessness incarnate. She married four times, once divorcing within a year, and had numerous love affairs, often shedding her