it was so beautiful it hurt
November 13, 2011 9:33 AM   Subscribe

Do you know any fiction/nonfiction/poetry that has beautiful, aching language?

Have you ever read something that just made you ache inside? Like a heartache blooming, I suppose. It can be a good or bad kind of ache. It can be about grief or love or food or just about anything. Mostly I would like to read something that uses language in a manner you didn't think was possible before, that would make you say, it was so beautiful it hurt. I don't know how else to describe it -- not to say that it should be in expense of the plot, but I don't want anything too plot-driven, like a page-turner. Rather it would be something where you take the time to read it? For example, Hayden Carruth's The Cows at Night or Marguerite Duras' The Lover or Anne Morrow Lindbergh's North to the Orient. Not the kind of hurt where you cry and are depressed afterwards, but just something that weighs heavy in the heart and reminds you that you're alive, and you keep this with you all day thinking and thinking?
posted by pleasebekind to Writing & Language (66 answers total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Everything by Nabokov.
posted by Houstonian at 9:43 AM on November 13, 2011 [7 favorites]

The subject matter isn't necessarily so heartachey, but there are huge swathes of Nabokov's Lolita that caught my breath and held it and still swim around in my head whenever I pause for a moment.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:45 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I always loved the poetry of e.e. cummings and Philip Larkin. Beautiful.
posted by kdern at 9:48 AM on November 13, 2011

Another plug for Nabokov, this time for "John Shade's" Pale Fire.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:48 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sappho! The "if not winter" translations are great.
posted by chaiminda at 9:49 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Elizabeth Smart

Some might say Shakespeare, and the plays surely have the depth and power you speak of. However, since so many of his innovations are now part of the language, they may not provide the reaction you're looking for.
posted by iotic at 9:53 AM on November 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wow, yet another one for Nabokov. Lolita was really the first thing I read that had this effect on me.
posted by phunniemee at 9:53 AM on November 13, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver. I still think about it, several years after having read it.
posted by just_ducky at 9:56 AM on November 13, 2011

I found Lauren Groff's short story "L. DeBard and Aliette" to be quite haunting and beautifully written. I thought about it for days afterward and ended up buying her book of short stories, which were also lovely.
posted by mireille at 9:58 AM on November 13, 2011

John Berryman's collected Dream Songs. Far more so than anything else I have ever read.
posted by invitapriore at 10:00 AM on November 13, 2011

Autumn Song

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the heart feels a languid grief
Laid on it for a covering,
And how sleep seems a goodly thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

And how the swift beat of the brain
Falters because it is in vain,
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf
Knowest thou not? and how the chief
Of joys seems—not to suffer pain?

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
Bound up at length for harvesting,
And how death seems a comely thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
posted by Think_Long at 10:01 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Emily Dickinson, Margo Lanagan, Theodore Roethke, Wolfgang Borchert.
posted by mynameisluka at 10:03 AM on November 13, 2011

Best answer: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities by Delmore Schwartz.

The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz.


Thomas Mann.

posted by trip and a half at 10:13 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a song by Rodney Crowell, called Beautiful Despair. The opening of it is:

Beautiful despair is hearing Dylan
When you're drunk at 3am
Knowing that the chances are
No matter what you'll never write like him

The rest of the song is good, too, but that verse takes my breath away. It's so hopeless and yet still holding onto a shred of hope.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:37 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets kills me every time. Usually I have to sit in silence, just breathing, for a while after I read it.
posted by kingfishers catch fire at 10:55 AM on November 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

A lot of Archibald Macleish, such as You, Andrew Marvell.
posted by frobozz at 10:57 AM on November 13, 2011

And this from The Wasteland:

'You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
'They called me the hyacinth girl.'
--Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed' und leer das Meer.
posted by frobozz at 11:01 AM on November 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

I opened the door, and the new gerbil walked in. The children cheered wildly. The School by Donald Barthelme name is linked to a site I just found which may be the website of our own jessamyn?
posted by FatRabbit at 11:04 AM on November 13, 2011

Lots of pleasurable melancholy in Tennyson, if that's what you're after. His Ulysses is a good example. Or Dylan Thomas? Maybe Once it was the colour of saying?

Prose? How about Dubliners generally and The Dead in particular?
posted by howfar at 11:15 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

michael ondaatje's "in the skin of a lion"
posted by raw sugar at 11:19 AM on November 13, 2011

Sullivan Ballou's letter to his wife Sarah. An excerpt:

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
posted by Bokmakierie at 11:40 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Stoner, by John Williams. Not by the Star Wars film composer, not about weed. It's about the payment you get at the end of your life for consistently doing the right thing. Hint: It isn't a cash prize. Beautifully written, and of all the books I've read the only one that really slayed me at the end. Highest recommendation.

Last Night, by James Salter. 10 or so short stories in near-perfect, economical, powerful prose. Many of them are heartbreaking, all superb.

And Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow. Eugene Henderson is one of the only literary characters I have ever liked that had a positive attitude. He will make your heart ache at the same time he makes your heart feel full.
posted by TheRedArmy at 11:42 AM on November 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Seconding chaiminda's recommendation for the Anne Carson translations of Sappho.

From fragment 94:

Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.

But if not, I want
to remind you
        ]and beautiful times we had.

For many crowns of violets
and roses
        ]at my side you put on

and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.

posted by zer0render at 11:44 AM on November 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, and if you really want to give your heart a brutal beating, read Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry. About a man whose hands are possessed and are constantly doing things that make his life more lonely.
posted by TheRedArmy at 11:47 AM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

After years working with poetry and poets (and with an MFA in poetry, myself), I still go back to Carolyn Forche's book A Country Between Us over and over and over. Also, Belle Waring, especially her book Dark Blonde. Elizabeth Bishop's language is so concentrated it makes me hurt, and always unexpectedly. CD Wright, especially her longer form poems. Sometimes, for me, a single work will get to me and haunt me for years, like the poem below, or like the lyrics to Pela's sing "The Trouble With River Cities."


Neither music,
fame, nor wealth,
not even poetry itself,
could provide consolation
for life’s brevity,
or the fact that King Lear
is a mere eighty pages long and comes to an end,
and for the thought that one might suffer greatly
on account of a rebellious child.

My love for you
is what’s magnificent,
but I, you, and the others,
most likely,
are ordinary people.

My poem
goes beyond poetry
because you
beyond the realm of women.

And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.

After we die,
and the weary heart
has lowered its final eyelid
on all that we’ve done,
and on all that we’ve longed for,
and all that we’ve dreamt of,
all we’ve desired
or felt,
hate will be
the first things
to putrefy
within us.

–Taha Muhammad Ali
posted by rumposinc at 11:58 AM on November 13, 2011 [10 favorites]

If songs are allowed under the heading of poetry, I'd put in Greg Brown's "Rexroth's Daughter" and Josh Ritter's "Thin Blue Flame".

Guy G. Kay's quasi-historical fantasies - The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic, for example - will just tear your heart right out, although they're pretty plot-heavy and perhaps too romance novel for some.

Cormac McCarthy's prose has had this effect on me. Sometimes it can get so convoluted and abstract that you get sort of lost, but there are swaths of his novels that are just hypnotically beautiful.
posted by brennen at 12:08 PM on November 13, 2011

Rainer Maria Rilke:

Do you still remember: falling stars, how
they leapt slantwise through the sky
like horses over suddenly held-out hurdles
of our wishes–had we so many?–
for stars, innumerable, leapt everywhere;
almost every look upward was wedded
to the swift hazard of their play,
and the heart felt itself a single thing
beneath that vast disintegration of their brilliance–
and was whole, as though it would survive them!

Mary Oliver:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I also liked a lot of the imagery in White Oleander by Janet Fitch.
posted by runningwithscissors at 12:10 PM on November 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Try Aleksandar Hemon.
posted by onepot at 12:29 PM on November 13, 2011

Best answer: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
posted by missjenny at 12:47 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I love this question. I can think of so much and remember so little all at the same time.
Let's see...

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I've never seen language used how she uses it here.
Short stories written by Andre Dubus. Particularly his (long) short story "Adultery."
Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros.
Oh! Poetry by Larry Levis! Read his book The Widening Spell of the Leaves and Winter Stars. You'll fall in love.
The Maytrees by Annie Dillard. Maybe the most purely lyric novel I've ever read.

If I remember more I'll come back with them. Thanks for reminding me of how good that beauty ache hurts.
posted by tacoma1 at 1:09 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

"I had a thought for no one's but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon." - "Adam's Curse"
posted by bookgirl18 at 1:12 PM on November 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

'The Dead' by James Joyce, the final story in 'The Dubliners'; it's sorrowful with immense attention to detail, and full of melancholia and loss. It's very famous but it's emotional wallop isn't what one usually associates with the arch modernist that Joyce was.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 1:36 PM on November 13, 2011

I was going to say Yeats. His poetry has a gorgeous, yearning, elusive quality. The Wild Swans at Coole always gives me heartache:

THE TREES are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 1:37 PM on November 13, 2011

Pablo Neruda. From "The Earth":

And when sleep comes
to stretch me out and take me
to my own silence
there is a great white wind
that destroys my sleep
and from it fall leaves,
they fall like knives
upon me, draining me of blood.

And each wound has
the shape of your mouth.
posted by bah213 at 1:38 PM on November 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

I love Amiri Baraka's
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note

Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus...

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter's room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there...
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands
posted by pelican at 1:40 PM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, and...

Not the kind of hurt where you cry and are depressed afterwards, but just something that weighs heavy in the heart and reminds you that you're alive, and you keep this with you all day thinking and thinking?

Personally, I would call this melancholy. Melancholy makes you feel sad and glad you're sad. :-) As such, you may like this old MeFi link. There's also Keat's Ode on Melancholy (which I don't think is actually very heartachy). In Shakespeare, there's Richard II speech (For God's sake let us sit upon the ground...), Viola's 'green and yellow melancholy' speech in Tweflth Night... Shakepeare and the English Romantic poets very stuck on their melancholy. You might also like (if you speak French) Baudelaire's La Fontaine de Sang ( it doesn't really work so well in English). Finally, back to prose - I would suggest The Rector's Daughter. It's dreadfully sad, but also very inspiring. Enjoy!
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 1:51 PM on November 13, 2011

Best answer: John Berger, I remember in particular sections of "Our faces, my heart, brief as photos" and (more recent and actually in print) "Here is where we meet"
posted by gijsvs at 1:56 PM on November 13, 2011

Best answer: Also: The Boys of My Youth by Joanne Beard
To the Lighthouse and The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
posted by tacoma1 at 1:57 PM on November 13, 2011

Best answer: Another couple votes for Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway.

Anne Carson's translations of Euripides plays in Grief Lessons (4 plays).

Jennifer Boyden's poetry collection, The Mouths of Grazing Things, and Lorca's Poet in New York.

Most of Anthony Doerr's The Shell Collector, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, and Peter Carey's Oscar & Lucinda.
posted by phonebia at 2:37 PM on November 13, 2011

Best answer: I'm pleased and a little surprised that someone has already recommended Stoner by John Williams. It's the first book that came to mind after reading your question.

And I'll also repeat the recommendation for Mary Oliver. Here's a different piece,

Mary Oliver

The trees on the hospital lawn
are lush and thriving. They too
are getting the best of care,
like you, and the anonymous many,
in the clean rooms high above this city,
where day and night the doctors keep
arriving, where intricate machines
chart with cool devotion
the murmur of the blood,
the slow patching-up of bone,
the despair of the mind.

When I come to visit and we walk out
into the light of a summer day,
we sit under the trees —
buckeyes, a sycamore, and one
black walnut brooding
high over a hedge of lilacs
as old as the red-brick building
behind them, the original
hospital built before the Civil War.
We sit on the lawn together, holding hands
while you tell me: you are better.

How many young men, I wonder,
came here, wheeled on cots off the slow trains
from the red and hideous battlefields
to lie all summer in the small and stuffy chambers
while doctors did what they could, longing
for tools still unimagined, medicines still unfound,
wisdoms still unguessed at, and how many died
staring at the leaves of the trees, blind
to the terrible effort around them to keep them alive?
I look into your eyes

which are sometimes green and sometimes gray,
and sometimes full of humor, but often not,
and tell myself, you are better,
because my life without you would be
a place of parched and broken trees.
Later walking the corridors down to the street,
I turn and step inside an empty rom.
Yesterday someone was here with a gasping face.
Now the bed is made all new,
the machines have been rolled away. The silence
continues, deep and neutral,
as I stand there, loving you.


Simone Weil's 'The Poem of Force', is a commentary on the Iliad and very different from all the other works mentioned here. Achingly beautiful? Absolutely.


Perhaps, Stanley Kunitz? I'm only familiar with this poem, which is outstanding.


A few summers ago, on Cape Cod, a whale foundered on the beach, a sixty-three foot finback whale. When the tide went out, I approached him. He was lying there, in monstrous desolation, making the most terrifying noises—rumbling—groaning. I put my hands on his flanks and could feel the life inside him. And while I was standing there, suddenly he opened his eye. It was a big, red, cold eye, and it was starting directly at me. A shudder of recognition passed between us. Then the eye closed forever. I’ve been thinking about whales ever since. —Journal entry


You have your language too,
an eerie medley of clicks
and hoots and trills,
location-notes and love calls,
whistles and grunts. Occasionally,
it’s like furniture being smashed,
or the creaking of a mossy door,
sounds that all melt into a liquid
song with endless variations,
as if to compensate
for the vast loneliness of the sea.
Sometimes a disembodied voice
breaks in as if from distant reefs,
and it’s as much as one can bear
to listen to its long mournful cry,
a sorrow without name, both more
and less than human. It drags
across the ear like a record
running down.


No wind. No waves. No clouds.
Only the whisper of the tide,
as it withdrew, stroking the shore,
a lazy drift of gulls overhead,
and tiny points of light
bubbling in the channel.
It was the tag-end of summer.
From the harbor’s mouth
you coasted into sight,
flashing news of your advent,
the crescent of your dorsal fin
clipping the diamonded surface.
We cheered at the sign of your greatness
when the black barrel of your head
erupted, ramming the water,
and you flowered for us
in the jet of your spouting.


All afternoon you swam
tirelessly round the bay,
with such an easy motion,
the slightest downbeat of your tail,
an almost imperceptible
undulation of your flippers,
you seemed like something poured,
not driven; you seemed
to marry grace with power.
And when you bounded into air,
slapping your flukes,
we thrilled to look upon
pure energy incarnate
as nobility of form.
You seemed to as of us
Not sympathy, or love,
or understanding,
but awe and wonder.

That night we watched the you
swimming in the moon.
Your back was molten silver.
We guessed your silent passage
by the phosphorescence in your wake.
At dawn we found you stranded on the rocks.


There came a boy and a man
and yet other men running, and two
schoolgirls in yellow halters
and a housewife bedecked
with curlers, and whole families in beach
buggies with assorted yelping dogs.
The tide was almost out.
We could walk around you,
as you heaved deeper into the shoal,
crushed by your own weight,
collapsing into yourself,
your flippers and your flukes
quivering, your blowhole
spasmodically bubbling, roaring.
In the pit of your gaping mouth
you bared your fringework of baleen,
a thicket of horned bristles.
When the Curator of Mammals
arrived from Boston
to take samples of your blood
you were already oozing from below.
Somebody had carved his initials
in your flank. Hunters of souvenirs
had peeled off strips of your skin,
a membrane thin as paper.
You were blistered and cracked by the sun.
The gulls had been pecking at you.
The sound you made was a hoarse and fitful bleating.

What drew us, like a magnet, to your dying?
You made a bond between us,
the keepers of the nightfall watch,
who gathered in a ring around you,
boozing in the bonfire light.
Toward dawn we shared with you
your hour of desolation,
the huge lingering passion
of your unearthly outcry,
as you swung your blind head
toward us and laboriously opened
a bloodshot, glistening eye,
in which we swam with terror and recognition.


Voyager, chief of the pelagic world,
you brought with you the myth
of another country, dimly remembered,
where flying reptiles
lumbered over the steaming marshes
and trumpeting thunder lizards
wallowed in the reeds.
While empires rose and fell on land,
your nation breasted the open main,
rocked in the consoling rhythm
of the tides. Which ancestor first plunged
head-down thru zones of colored twilight
to scour the bottom of the dark?
You ranged the North Atlantic track
from Port-of-Spain to Baffin Bay,
edging between the ice-floes
through the fat of summer,
lob-tailing, breaching, sounding,
grazing in the pastures of the sea
on krill-rich orange plankton
crackling with life.
You prowled down the continental shelf,
guided by the sun and stars
and the taste of alluvial silt
on your way southward
to the warm lagoons,
the tropic of desire,
where lovers lie belly to belly
in the rub and nuzzle of their sporting;
and you turned, like a god in exile,
out of your wide primeval element,
delivered to the mercy of time.

Master of the whale-roads,
let the white wings of the gulls
spread out their cover.
You have become like us,
Disgraced and mortal.

~ Stanley Kunitz
posted by BigSky at 2:53 PM on November 13, 2011

This novel "If nobody speaks of remarkable things" by Jon McGregor is full of beautiful, lyrical, haunting prose...
posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 3:13 PM on November 13, 2011

Out of Africa is a memoir, but after a while you realize it is also a beautifully written and heartbreaking lament for a place and time lost to the author, and also a lost love.

"If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?"
posted by gudrun at 3:35 PM on November 13, 2011

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro makes me want to cry.
posted by kirst27 at 5:00 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

William Maxwell, definitely. "So Long, See You Tomorrow" or "They Came Like Swallows." The second is the only novel I've ever been unable to finish because it was too emotionally powerful. It's a semi-autobiographical short novel about his mother, who died when he was a boy. I'm going to give it another shot next year. His longer novel "The Folded Leaf" is also a good choice for what you're looking for.
posted by pete_22 at 6:10 PM on November 13, 2011

Oh, yes, seconding Pablo Neruda.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
posted by bookgirl18 at 6:14 PM on November 13, 2011

Gregory Orr: Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved (poetry), The Blessing (memoir)
He has a new book How Beautiful the Beloved that I haven't read yet but it is a continuation of Concerning the Book. . .AMAZING and heart wrenching.
posted by rachums at 7:13 PM on November 13, 2011

Breakfast, by Jacques Prevert

He poured the coffee
Into the cup
He poured the milk
Into the cup of coffee
He added the sugar
To the coffee and milk
He stirred it
With a teaspoon
He drank the coffee
And put back the cup
Without speaking to me
He lit a cigarette
He blew some rings
With the smoke
He flicked the ashes
Into the ashtray
Without speaking to me
Without looking at me
He got up
He put his hat
On his head
He put on
His raincoat
Because it was raining
He went out
Into the rain
Without a word
Without looking at me
And I
I took my head
In my hands
And I wept
posted by rahulrg at 7:18 PM on November 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Have to say I don't think that Prevert poem translates well at all. The original, however, is gorgeous, even for those of us with barely functional French.
posted by howfar at 7:27 PM on November 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Truman Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, from the '40s. God damn - what a voice!
posted by 5Q7 at 9:04 PM on November 13, 2011

Seconding John Berryman's Dream Songs:

Dream Song 14

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no
Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:37 PM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've found a novel by Martha Grimes called Dakota to be vastly unappreciated. It took a couple of days for me to get back to my comfortable little corner of the world after I finished that book.
posted by aryma at 12:34 AM on November 14, 2011

I live for writing like this, so this answer might go a little long.

John Ashbery has a sense of language unlike anyone -- a gigantic vocabularity, a tendency to let sentences float high into the metaphysical or plunge into the mundane, and a prosey way of writing poetry that occasionally admits a clever internal rhyme that will just upend you.

From And the Stars Were Shining:

It was the solstice, and it was jumping on you like a friendly dog.
The stars were still out in the field,
and the child prostitutes plied their trade,
the only happy ones, having learned how unhappiness sticks
and will not risk being traded in for a song or a balloon.
Christmas decorations were getting crumpled in offices
by staffers slumped at their video terminals,
and dismay articulated otherness in orphan asylums
where the coffee percolates eternally, and God is not light
but God, as mysterious to Himself as we are to Him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote extremely sexy Christian poetry -- dense, alliterative, with a pattering meter that sounds more like Busta Rhymes than John Donne.

Here's his poem Pied Beauty:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:

John Berryman has been mentioned. People are right. The Dream Songs are transcendent, and widely regarded. But his sonnets are often overlooked. It's a shame.

Here's his Sonnet 1:

I wished, all the mild days of middle March
This special year, your blond good-nature might
(Lady) admit-- kicking abruptly tight
With will and affection down your breast like starch--
Me to your story, in Spring, and stretch, and arch.
But who not flanks the wells of uncanny light
Sudden in bright sand towering? A bone sunned white.
Considering travellers bypass these and parch.

This came to less yes than an ice cream cone
Let stand... though still my sense of it is brisk:
Blond silky cream, sweet cold, aches: a door shut.
Errors of order! Luck lies with the bone,
Who rushed (and rests) to meet your small mouth, risk
Your teeth irregular and passionate.

Grace Paley wrote amazing short stories -- they're funny, meandering, and humane, and she occasionally writes a tangent like this one that hits you right in the lower-middle of the rib cage:

At this very moment, the thumb of Ricardo's hovering shadow jabbed her in her left eye, revealing for all the world the shallowness of her water table. Rice could have been planted at that instant on the terraces of her flesh and sprouted in strength and beauty in the floods that overwhelmed her from that moment on through all the afternoon.

And, here's Nicholson Baker, from the Mezzanine, writing about popcorn in a way that could make you cry:

I felt somewhat like an exploding popcorn myself: a dried bicuspid of American grain dropped into a lucid gold liquid pressed from less fortunate brother kernals, subjected to heat, and suddenly allowed to flourish outward in an instantaneous detonation of weightless reversal; an asteroid of Styrofoam, much larger but seemingly of less mass than before, composed of exfoliations that in bursting beyond their outer carapace were nonetheless guided into paisleys and baobabs and related white Fibonaccia by its disappearing, back-arching browned petals (which later found their way into the space between molars and guns), shapes which seemed quite Brazilian and intemperate for so North American a seed, and which seemed, despite the abrupt assumption of their final state, the convulsive, launching "pop," slowly arrived at, like risen dough or cave mushrooms.

Whew. MeMail me if you'd like some more.
posted by liminalrampaste at 1:20 AM on November 14, 2011

Lures by Sue Goyette. It's... yeah. Achey and beautiful and the amount of happiness and sadness in it is just awesome. If nothing else it's worth reading for her descriptions of the emotional changes brought about by the physical changes of the seasons.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 1:37 AM on November 14, 2011

Any poem by Louise Glück.
posted by joannemullen at 1:57 AM on November 14, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions and do keep them coming! I am shopping for books soon and want to buy as much as I can from this list.

Some feedback:
- I haven't read anything by Nabokov except Lolita, and that one was a long time ago so I think I'm due for a reread. Thanks for suggesting him.
- I have Lionel Shriver books! Double Fault and A Perfectly Good Family. So I might check out We Need to Talk About Kevin.
- Is Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles still available in bookstores? I have Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes, which I know is based on this book.
- I have James Salter's Last Night and it is fantastic. Other titles by him that you guys can recommend?
- Saul Bellow's Henderson and the Rain King + John Williams' Stoner are two books I've been meaning to read but haven't gotten around to yet, so thanks for the push
- Speaking of Stoner, are there other NYRB titles that you can recommend which are along the lines of what I'm looking for?
- I have "If nobody speaks of remarkable things" but haven't read it yet
- Very curious now re: Elizabeth Smart and other titles so I'm marking them as best answer; if you think of more similar works, then please let me know

Poets I love and have books of:
- cummings, Larkin, Ashbery, Dunn, Oliver, Atwood, Yevtushenko, Forche, Rilke, Yeats, Auden, Neruda, Li-Young Lee; so other similar poets are welcome
- I like Ondaatje's poem, The Cinnamon Peeler's Wife; has anyone read Divisadero?
- Gregory Orr wrote a poem, Glukupikron, and it was dedicated to Sappho. It is beautiful so I'll check his books out, too.
posted by pleasebekind at 4:32 AM on November 14, 2011

this thread comes to mind. I stand by what I said there, which is mainly that for short story prose, nobody somewhat contemporary (IIRC she passed away recently) wrote more hauntingly beautiful sentences than Gina Berriault. Get Women in Their Beds. Just about everything Ondaatje does prose or poetry-wise is pretty in this funny way where it's also scathing in a submerged element kind of thing. The best Colette--stuff like My Mother's House and Sido--is languorous and wonderful, like girly Proust. Totally agree about Elizabeth Smart; her diaries are amazing too.

As for poetry...Lisel Mueller is pretty good. So's Ezra Pound, Anne Sexton, Gerald Stern (the comp Leaving Another Kingdom is the best place to start), Ai, Dennis Nurkse, Ned O'Gorman, Charles Simic, Kobayashi Issa are all good. They're more angular and jagged, spare in ways, and playful, but Elaine Equi, Alice Notley, Larissa Szporluk scatter hidden jewels all over the place if you're willing to look. And Gerard Manley Hopkins is pretty damn beautiful too...Yeats, Lorca, Auden, Merwin. Select Dickinson. Elizabeth Bishop, super masterful and restrained just-so, with awesome diction, reminds me a little of Ashbery for sheer craftmanship. And I say it all the time but Yusef Komunyakaa's I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head and James Tate's Absences are two of my absolute favorite books of poetry, just mindblowingly beautiful and painful.
posted by ifjuly at 6:25 AM on November 14, 2011

I just browsed the NYRB catalog. So many books there I want to read. Most of the NYRB books I've read (esp. Simenon and Braly) have been more on the cool and detached side. Only Williams and Weil had a strong emotional affect. Felix Feneon's prose though, is very memorable.

Feneon's 'Novels in Three Lines' is a great read. He writes incredible, hilarious sentences, but as he's largely playing up the tragedies of others for a joke it's a cold laugh. Someone twittered many excerpts, which was mentioned on the blue.
posted by BigSky at 8:18 AM on November 14, 2011

I felt that way about Dava Sobel's "The Planets." I love science and poetry, and this is a perfect mix. I took it on a trip and found myself bookmarking almost every other page to remember when I got home.
posted by gretchin at 8:45 AM on November 14, 2011

Mark Helprin. Ohmygod.

The novel "Winter's Tale" is probably my favorite book ever, and it is FULL of language that makes me ache in that way. It's a wonderful story, too, of course.
posted by kostia at 10:35 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

James Salter's A Sport and A Pastime is one of the most lyrical, passionate and hypnotic books I have ever read. Highly recommended.
posted by rahulrg at 10:47 AM on November 14, 2011

It's been years since I read "Housekeeping" by Marilynne Robinson, but I remember being spellbound by the slim volume for days, for pretty much the reasons you described.
posted by of strange foe at 12:00 PM on November 14, 2011

Richard Ford's Independence Day. He has an amazing ability to present what seems like mundane America in vivid prose. The first sentence is a good example.

"In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems."
posted by vecchio at 2:41 AM on November 15, 2011

- Is Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles still available in bookstores? I have Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes, which I know is based on this book.

It's in stock at Amazon. I haven't checked recently at my local bookstores.

(And I was not aware of Tree of Codes, so thank you! I will investigate.)
posted by trip and a half at 7:16 PM on November 15, 2011

2nd Winter's Tale by Helprin -- beautiful writing. Also, "Little, Big" by John Crowley
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 6:33 PM on November 16, 2011

Came here to mention God of Small Things and Henderson the Rain King. They've both already been mentioned, so I'll just second them. And hopefully reread them soon.
posted by notswedish at 10:57 AM on November 19, 2011

Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days, by Ted Hughes

She gives him his eyes, she found them
Among some rubble, among some beetles

He gives her her skin
He just seemed to pull it down out of the air and lay it over her
She weeps with fearfulness and astonishment

She has found his hands for him, and fitted them freshly at the wrists
They are amazed at themselves, they go feeling all over her

He has assembled her spine, he cleaned each piece carefully
And sets them in perfect order
A superhuman puzzle but he is inspired
She leans back twisting this way and that, using it and laughing

Now she has brought his feet, she is connecting them
So that his whole body lights up

And he has fashioned her new hips
With all fittings complete and with newly wound coils, all shiningly oiled
He is polishing every part, he himself can hardly believe it

They keep taking each other to the sun, they find they can easily
To test each new thing at each new step

And now she smoothes over him the plates of his skull
So that the joints are invisible

And now he connects her throat, her breasts and the pit of her stomach
With a single wire

She gives him his teeth, tying the the roots to the centrepin of his body

He sets the little circlets on her fingertips

She stiches his body here and there with steely purple silk

He oils the delicate cogs of her mouth

She inlays with deep cut scrolls the nape of his neck

He sinks into place the inside of her thighs

So, gasping with joy, with cries of wonderment
Like two gods of mud
Sprawling in the dirt, but with infinite care
They bring each other to perfection.


And my favourite Prevert, L’Automne

Un cheval s’écroule au milieu d’une allée
Les feuilles tombent sur lui
Notre amour frissone
Et le soleil aussi.

(A horse collapses in the middle of an alley
Leaves fall on him
Our love trembles
And the sun too)
posted by andraste at 10:10 PM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

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