Tuesday, April 12, 2016

12 april 2016

Hannah Sullivan's book The Work of Revision (did I mention how generally excellent it is?) captured a long-held desire of mine to think about and perhaps theorize the process of revision. I'm certainly planning on mining its bibliography.

But thinking about revision sent me to an alas as-yet-not-properly examined shopping bag of books I picked up over the New Year's holiday in Sarasota and Sanibel, and digging out a collection edited by Judith Kennedy, Victorian Authors and Their Works: Revision Motivations and Modes (Ohio University Press, 1991). It has essays—unfortunately brief ones—on a variety of important writers of the period, from Carlyle to Conrad. So I read Kennedy's introduction, and a couple of the essays.

Or I should say Kennedy's "Preface," for it's not really long enough or searching enough to be a proper introduction. She nods towards what she calls a "recent surge of interest" in textual scholarship, then gives a too-hasty overview of the shift from Greg-Bowers methodology to the "social text" thought of McGann and Shillingsburg. It's way too hasty—undigested even—and pales beside the careful, scrupulous, and inventive way Sullivan dovetails an account of that same shift with a description of attitudes towards revision in her own first chapter.

Only two chapters of Kennedy's collection actually read. Susan Shatto provides a quick-n-nasty overview of how Tennyson composed Maud (desultorily, for himself, then finishing when there was the prospect of a publication contract and money). Fred Kaplan tells again the story of John Stuart Mill's maid accidentally burning the manuscript of Part I of Carlyle's French Revolution, and of Carlyle having to compose the whole thing over again. What's striking is that a very few scraps (all burnt around the edges) of that first manuscript have survived, and their words seems to be pretty much precisely duplicated in the book as Carlyle actually (re)wrote it. Did he treasure up those scraps of prose, incorporating them into his new text when he got to the right place? Or Carlyle (as Kaplan tends to think) simply have such a retentive and capacious memory that he was able to largely reconstruct the whole book as he originally wrote it?


Peter O'Leary's The Sampo, now read (slowly, with feeling), is magnificent. It makes me wonder if there isn't (or shouldn't be) some movement back towards outright narrative among the few poets I follow and value.

Monday, April 11, 2016

11 april 2016

It's been ages; no excuses, though this has been a wearying semester, punctuated with some fine conference visits and some good music. I've resolved to begin writing in this space again.

First, a bit of self-promotion:

Mentioned earlier on this blog, but as yet unlinked (I think), I have two recently published books:

Intricate Thicket: Reading Late Modernist Poetries is out from the University of Alabama Press; it collects essays and long-form reviews that I've written over the past 15 years or more. I'm rather proud of many of the pieces here.

Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy and the World's Pain is out from McFarland; it's a rather lighter affair, falling somewhere between fanboy-enthusiasm and real live criticism. But it is frankly the most comprehensive book on Moorcock out there, so if you're a fan you really ought to buy it.


What I've been reading lately, and what I'm reading:

Just finished a third go-through of Geoffrey Hill's Selected Poems (Yale, 2006). I've been forcing my graduate creative writing students to work through this one over the course of the semester, just to give them a taste of late high modernism and high formalism (and frankly, because I love Hill's work). It's weird to work with a selection, rather than the single volumes I usually teach out of; I'm always trying to lay my finger on a particular poem or section of a longer thing, only to find that it hasn't been included. And I note how the volume tapers off towards the end—Scenes from Comus and Without Title are only very scantily represented—as if to catch breath before the grand explosion of work that Hill's released over the past decade—the last 1/3 or so of Broken Hierarchies, the vast 2013 collected poems.

The Kalevala, in its 1907 Kirby translation, despite the Hiawatha-meter into which the translator has predictably cast it, is highly readable indeed. I'm not sure whether the book wouldn't have moldered indefinitely on my shelves if I hadn't taken it down to gear up for a serious plunge into Peter O'Leary's fantastic recasting of portions, now available from the Cultural Society as The Sampo. This one is not to be missed: all of O'Leary's characteristic energy and verbal invention, in the service of high fantasy. Or—to call it what it is—sword and sorcery!

Hannah Sullivan's The Work of Revision (Harvard, 2013) is a pretty splendid piece of criticism. I confess to reading fewer books of criticism these days than I did, say, two decades ago. But I was pleasantly surprised over the summer by books by Brian Reed, Chris Nealon, and Gordon Teskey, and since have found myself reacquiring the taste. (Part of it, I think, is getting my own two books out the door, and being able as it were to take a breath.) Sullivan's book is for the most part gracefully written and more importantly just generally smart. She takes all that we already knew about writers' revisionary processes (both pre- and post-publication) and sorts it into a general theory of the cultural importance of revising, reaching a kind of apotheosis in the Creative Writing Industry's making revision a kind of index of "real" writing. Which is, as she points out, an inheritance of high modernism, a way of thinking that would have been utterly alien to the Romantics. Her book is chock full of insights in particular authors, and does a really fine job of taxonomizing various types of revision.

As usual, I'm dipping into and digging into various slim volumes of contemporary verse. I hope to begin noting them in depth—as I hope to be updating the blog at rather more decent intervals.

Monday, December 14, 2015


I'm about a third of the way through indexing the book—that is, entering all my highlighted elements into an alphabetized document—and I figure I'm working at the rate of about ten pages a hour, twelve when I'm doing well. That's not bad at all, but I'm sure not going to get rich doing this.

My drummer-colleague in the history department as a 900-page manuscript he needs indexed; he tells me he's contacted an indexer who'd do it for $1.50 a page; which seems rather low—this page recommends expecting between $4 and $6 per page for an academic book. Even if we take that top number ($6) and my fastest rate (12 pp. an hour), we need to figure in probably at least as much time spent going over the proofs in a preliminary fashion. So 6 pages an hour, all told, at $6 a page = $36 an hour.

That seems like an impressive number, or at least it would have when I was eighteen. These days, in white-collar land, I feel like I might be working beneath my normal rates. On the other hand, I'm going to come up with an index that I can truly call my own.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


So I read and returned the proofs of Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy and the World's Pain. By my count, 15 corrections total, and only two of them were the press's mistake. The rest were bits I'd overlooked. Like I said in my last post, a very clean set of proofs.

Now I'm deep into indexing the book. This is I believe the fifth book I've indexed, and I've gotten into a rhythm with the thing. I read the proofs with three different colors of highlighters at hand; I mark (1) proper names, (2) titles, and (3) concepts/ideas/miscellaneous, each in a different color. Some pages end up looking like Monet paintings; others are relatively white. Then I go back thru, a page at at time, and transfer each marked item to a Word document.

That sounds pretty slow and painstaking, and, well, it is. I like it that way. By the time I'm done, I know my book inside and out. I know what needs indexing, and what really doesn't. Yes, I've tried it with a PDF of the proofs, doing the word-search thing, and I can easily imagine how that procedure might make the whole business much easier and more palatable for someone who's in a hurry. But there's something about moving from one medium to another—from the printed-out proofs to the Word document—that makes me a bit more careful.

My antiquated indexing habits (hey, at least I don't use index cards!) make for a better book—at least for me.

For one thing, I end up reading proofs at least twice. That is, I read once, with pen in hand, for proofing, looking specifically for errors. But I don't send corrections in until I've done the highlighter-armed pre-indexing markup. That means that I've read the entire script, closely, at least twice. It works for me—so far as I can tell, there are fewer than a dozen typos in The Poem of a Life, and less than 10 in Intricate Thicket.

And I feel that it makes for a better, more comprehensive index. And yes, as one colleague tells me, everyone uses Google Books for their words searches anymore—but they'll be better off using my index for Michael Moorcock, because I can do concepts, which Google Books can't.

My new life motto: I am an anorak, and proud of it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015


I've been feeling not great about my writing lately, so it was a mixed blessing to get page proofs for my forthcoming Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy and the World's Pain, which should be out (hopefully early) in the new year. But reading the proofs, in the interstices of grading papers and preparing exams, has actually been kind of fun. For one thing, they're really, really clean—very few corrections necessary. (I pat myself on the head for that, frankly—I gave them a clean ms to work with.)

And I've been having a ball reading the reference notes, and am reminded of one of the things that I love about doing criticism/scholarship. I try really hard to project a kind of sprezzatura in my text, to just "toss out" whatever insights I have come to as if they're perfectly obvious. But it's in the notes that I record my real labors, all the various texts I've collated, the stuff I've brought together and thought about and disentangled.

When I re-read my own notes—and this is true of The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky, especially—I can't help thinking, damn, this guy knows some stuff, he's read a bunch of books. The notes are a kind of gesture towards the clich├ęd 9-10ths of the iceberg that's out of view; the text is the visible portion.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015


I often wonder what I might have accomplished—as poet, as scholar, as writer in general—if my attention were more disciplined. As it is, the string of things I've published over the years seem to me to represent a trail of half-accomplishments, of projects half-done and half-thought-through.

I taught Milton this semester—indeed, since we haven't had finals yet, I suppose I'm still technically teaching Milton, or at least at the moment avoiding grading a stack of Milton papers. As an adjunct to re-reading Paradise Lost for the umpteenth time, I read a couple of translations of the Aeneid I'd been meaning to get to. (And thus the Susanna Braund podcasts I mentioned in the last post...) Along the way, and because of a stray FB comment by my friend Alex Davis, I decided I needed to read Lucan.

So I hauled out the only translation of Lucan's Civil War I own and set to work. The poem is fascinating, entirely different from the classical epics I know (Virgil, Homer, Apollonius). It's clearly one of the great missing elements in my background knowledge of Milton, certainly. And now I have in hand Braund's own Oxford World's Classics translation of the poem, and have begun reading it again.
But the death of Christopher Middleton (1926-2015) the other day has sent me back to his work, which I've been reading, off and on, in no systematic fashion, for some twenty years. I have a stack of Middleton books I haven't read; I'm looking at them now.

What should I be doing? I should be grading essays, of course, and making up final exams. Or I should be reading or re-reading the books that I've assigned on my syllabi for the coming spring semester. Or I should be working on the conference papers I've committed to delivering in a couple months' time. Or even working on my own poems, or thinking about the vast, rangy book on Ruskin and modernism that I hope to write before I go gaga. Instead, I continue to litter my mind with distantly related facts and impressions, continue to scatter a few words on pages that I'll probably never go back to re-read.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

my iTunes U

I've been walking a great deal, in part for my health, over the past 6 months. I like to look around, pay attention to my surroundings. But I'm of a bent that I feel occasionally guilty for not spending the time reading, or writing, or doing something (alas) productive.

Over the course of the semester I've taken to listening to podcasts on my phone, mostly by way of the iTunes U application. I can without reservation, indeed enthusiastically, recommend John Rogers's series of 20-odd Milton lectures from Yale. They are wonderful. He's talking to an undergraduate Milton course, twice a week (the third meeting is apparently discussion sections) for about 50 minutes a shot. The lectures are beautifully paced, well-written, and delivered with a delightful sense of off-the-cuffness.

More recently I've begun listening thro Susanna Braund's Stanford series on Virgil's Aeneid. Not so happy an experience. This is not an undergraduate course but an "adult learning" class of some 30 students, meeting four times for 2 hours a session. Braund's got a wonderful English accent which I could listen to all day—but she's clearly much less prepared than Rogers: she's working from outlines rather than composed lectures, and sometimes fumbles her way thru things she knows well. She does a decent job of fielding questions from the class—sometimes off the wall, often very sharp indeed—but she's all too likely to get diverted from her main point by answering an ancillary query.

Most irritating of all is her round-up of available translations. Day Lewis she dislikes—too "monumental." Mandelbaum is okay. Fagles she's not so keen on. Lombardo she owns but hasn't yet assessed. She is of course teaching from Fitzgerald (and one gets the sense that she's doing so more out of inertia than anything else). But her primary criterion for picking a translation, in the end, seems to be that it stay close to the Latin in line-count, so that students reading criticism that cites the Latin line numbers don't have too much trouble finding passages in the English.

I know it's more complicated than that—but that's the impression she gives to her adult learners. In the end, alas, I feel all too often than Braund's talking down to her not-quite-up-to-Stanford-standards students. Which isn't the way I'd go about doing an adult learning course.