Synopses & Reviews
Through a twist of fate that the author of Labyrinths
himself would have relished, these lost lectures given in English at Harvard in 1967-1968 by Jorge Luis Borges return to us now, a recovered tale of a life-long love affair with literature and the English language. Transcribed from tapes only recently discovered, This Craft of Verse
captures the cadences, candor, wit, and remarkable erudition of one of the most extraordinary and enduring literary voices of the twentieth century. In its wide-ranging commentary and exquisite insights, the book stands as a deeply personal yet far-reaching introduction to the pleasures of the word, and as a first-hand testimony to the life of literature.
Though his avowed topic is poetry, Borges explores subjects ranging from prose forms (especially the novel), literary history, and translation theory to philosophical aspects of literature in particular and communication in general. Probably the best-read citizen of the globe in his day, he draws on a wealth of examples from literature in modern and medieval English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, and Chinese, speaking with characteristic eloquence on Plato, the Norse kenningar, Byron, Poe, Chesterton, Joyce, and Frost, as well as on translations of Homer, the Bible, and the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.
Whether discussing metaphor, epic poetry, the origins of verse, poetic meaning, or his own "poetic creed," Borges gives a performance as entertaining as it is intellectually engaging. A lesson in the love of literature and in the making of a unique literary sensibility, this is a sustained encounter with one of the writers by whom the twentieth century will be long remembered.
In This Craft of Verse, [Borges] discusses some of his favorite texts, conducting a literary journey that began in his father's library in Buenos Aires...The unhurried flow and warmth of these talks produce a sense of intimacy, Borges's enjoyment infecting the audience...Borges's ultimate gift is his unwavering belief in the world of dreams and ideas, the sense that life is "made of poetry." Micaela Kramer, New York Times Book Review
"Jorge Luis Borges is inarguably the most influential Latin-American essayist and short-story writer of our time. To spend a few hours in [his] company, even on the page, is a civilized entertainment not to be missed...[Borges] emphasizes the power of poetry to work its magic...I would have given a lot to have been at Harvard in the audience when this courtly man of letters looked "upward with gentle and shy expression on his face, seeming to materially touch the world of the texts" and spoke about the poems and books he loved most." Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World
"If few writers in history have been as prodigiously learned as Borges, certainly none wore their learning so lightly or humbly...[The lectures] display the eloquence and erudite, offhand wit familiar from his writings as well as a charming, plainspoken modesty. Ostensibly about poetics, the talks were an occasion for Borges to review his lifelong relationship with literature, including his passion for English." New Yorker
"Readers who fret they don't 'get' everything--'significant' readers with no allowance for sound, rhythm, revelation--would benefit from Jorge Luis Borges' [lectures]...Even in these scholarly lectures, given without notes...there is so much assumption and conjecture, there are so many gaps to fill, that Borges seems to be creating at once the authors and the ideas and the texts he's quoting...But there is also in This Craft of Verse the small pleasure of watching a wordsmith seek the joy of minutiae, the nitty-gritty of lex." Orlando Aloma, Miami Herald
"Anything written by Borges glows...with an unearthly light that transforms the world into a plushly furnished drawing room crammed with knicknacks and dusty, leather-bound volumes of arcana...Almost every casual aside from Borges suggests a book of its own; this one is a wondrously limpid testament to the pleasures of reading." Steven Poole, The Guardian [UK]
"If any writer could publish from the grave, you'd expect it to be Borges: master fabulist, patron of paradox, imaginative rebel, gentle tour guide to life's labyrinths. By a kind of librarian's magic, long-lost tapes of the great Argentine poet and short-story writer's 1967-68 Norton Lectures at Harvard turned up a few years ago in a vault. Now...these newly released transcripts display a literary giant, managing from beneath heavy academic robes to keep the spryness and serendipity of literature alive...An appealing aspect of these meditations is Borges' humility, always distinctive even after he became one of the world's most esteemed high-cultural figures...His views will delight." Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer
"What if one of the giants of twentieth century literature rose from the dead and told you how he read and thought about poetry? The closest you may come to such a living-room epiphany is This Craft of Verse...a set of allocutions that, as one can hear on these four discs, delighted as much as dazzled their audience...Like reading his work, listening to Borges offers the opportunity to think, muse, and marvel...The chance to be in the auditorium while the nearly blind librarian of Babel speaks from his heart is a technological wonder that should not be missed." Eric Lorberer, Rain Taxi
Few have dedicated themselves to literature with the purity of Jorge Luis Borges, so the discovery of the text of his Harvard University Norton Lectures for 1967-68, now published as This Craft of Verse, is cause for celebration. Common sense and radical insight flow in equal measure here: This Craft of Verse will inspire young and old alike to follow the muses. And now, more than 30 years later, one can actually listen to the lectures: in a 4-CD set, the words of the master come thrillingly alive in his own voice. Matthew Battles - www.hermenaut.com
The first lecture, 'The Riddle of Poetry', begins with Borges, ever humble, apologising. 'I have only my perplexities to offer you,' he says. Confidently pulling examples from De Quincey, Keats and Whitman to Plato and the Koran, Borges builds a case that poetry is around us and that beauty lies in the freshness of it...After moments of erudition and great beauty, Borges ends his 43-minute lecture humbly, excusing it as 'fumbling and awkward'--a view not shared by the applauding audience. Hearing them I felt I was there, in that vast auditorium more than 30 years ago. 'The Metaphor', the second lecture, is more playful and looser, as Borges wonders why people use the same stock metaphors when 'every word is a dead metaphor--this statement, of course, is a metaphor'. This feeds naturally into discussing the epic in 'The Telling of the Tale'. This lecture is Borges's call to action...Lectures four and five, 'Word-Music and Translation' and 'Thought and Poetry', given the following spring, are the most academic of the series. Borges speaks with great vigour on the problems of verse translation and the form and source of poetry...It is the final lecture, however, that is the most intriguing. In 'A Poet's Creed' Borges traces his development as a writer from the age of seven, in his father's library, and delves into the sources of his own poetry...The greatest joy in this last lecture comes from Borges himself. In the others he was erudite and intriguing but here he is also witty and puckish. Steven Poole - The Guardian
Borges started to make a living by lecturing after overcoming the shyness that made him stutter, marring his early years. Although he never lost entirely the fear of large audiences, he managed to make a master form out of the public lecture genre. Some of his best essays were first delivered as talks, mostly in the English tradition of confession, wit, and eloquence. This performance of intelligent intimacy with the audience gave his rich commentary and bright summation a conversational tone and the poignancy of a revelation. Borges had an epiphanic view of reading, and to him literature was a memory of the exceptional. These lectures have that elegance and edge, indeed the beauty of the best possible library on the happiest of islands. Julio Ortega, Brown University
These newly released transcripts display a literary giant, managing from beneath heavy academic robes to keep the spryness and serendipity of literature alive...Here Borges daydreams aloud, and the result is wonderfully disarming. Orlando Aloma - Miami Herald
What's most astonishing about these previously uncollected essays...is that for all their complexity and elusiveness they are oral performances. While Borges's blindness is a major figure in his writing, the breadth and density of his rhetorical web obscures the fact that he has no notes to read, that he is calling these texts up from the inexhaustible abyss of his memory...In his decomposition of genres and styles, Borges provokes language to express this immanent word-magic, knitting his own pronouncements together with the primordial force of oral composition. Borges speaks on metaphor, bringing the tangled, sensuous allegories of San Juan de la Cruz into contact and concert with the cold, salty kennings of the Norse Eddas. He discusses translation with freshness and an uncanny sensitivity to the ligatures among the languages; he considers the narrative arc and the transformation of thought into poetry...As editor Calin-Andrei Mihailescu puts it in his graceful afterword to this volume, 'Literature,' for Borges, 'was a mode of experience.' Carlin Romano - Boston Globe
About the Author
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is the author of Labyrinths and Ficciones, among other books. His Collected Fictions was recently published in a new translation.Calin-Andrei Mihailesu is Associate Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures, University of Western Ontario.
Table of Contents
1. The Riddle of Poetry
2. The Metaphor
3. The Telling of the Tale
4. Word-Music and Translation
5. Thought and Poetry
6. A Poet's Creed
"Of This and That Versatile Craft"
by Calin-Andrei Milhailescu