Saturday, June 10, 2017

6. Long haul

I’ve just finished the 42,000+ lines of William Morris’s The Earthly Paradise, volumes 3 through 6 in the big collected works. There was no prize at the end of the last volume, no badge I could stick on my lapel: “I FINISHED THE EARTHLY PARADISE!” I suppose I’ve joined a small and select club; how many people, in 2017, have read this gargantuan Victorian poem? I know one personally, and have met a couple of Victorian scholars whom I’m sure have read it; but I can’t imagine that there are more than a few hundred others.
 
Strangely enough, it’s (mostly) hasn’t felt like a slog, or an unending burden. Rather—since I’ve paced my reading out over six weeks or so—it’s been a rather charming evening’s (or morning’s) recourse: a half hour here, an hour there. The lines melt away beneath the reading eye, the pages seem to turn themselves. Which makes it I suppose the sort of “popular” reading Ron Silliman described all those years ago in “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World.” Poetry as easy reading; poetry lite?
 
But I understand why the book was such a bestseller, at least on the level of readability. Would I read it again? Not straight through, certainly; but there are passages, and individual tales, that I know I’ll revisit. Maybe not soon—the poem as a whole has such a strong and bitter flavor of mortality that it’s thrown me into a dark mood, from which I suspect I’ll have to extricate myself with a blast of Frank O’Hara.

5. Note on Boredom

[prefatory to a longer note on boredom]
 
I was at a mini-conference on the long poem, in the city, at a famous university, a few months back. A critic-scholar professor X (not his real initial) was in the chair. Two poets read. The first, Y (not his real initial), was a conceptualist, who read a long piece generated from a much shorter source text by a complex and somewhat mechanical procedure. The second, Z (not his real initial), a Language Poet, read a long piece “guided”—by some extent—by procedure, but relying upon old-fashioned “compositional” skills.
 
Afterwards, X opened the Q&A period with a comment on how his own attention had wandered. I found myself, he said (though I’m paraphrasing), tuning out now and then, losing the thread. And I’m wondering how you guys build that inevitable “tuning out” into your conception of the poem, that moment when the audience or reader loses focus on what’s going on.
 
Y grinned and nodded throughout his comment. Z knit his brow, and answered: No, no, not at all, I’d hope for the reader to be paying attention all the way through.

Friday, June 09, 2017

4. Eyes

“This book seems to give me eyes.” —Charlotte Brontë, on John Ruskin’s Modern Painters
 
It’s all about seeing, Ruskin argues in those first volumes, all about opening your eyes to the natural world and seeing it as it actually appears. That’s what J. M. W. Turner does in his paintings, says Ruskin. If a Turner doesn’t look like we conceive the world around us, the problem isn’t with the Turner, but with our conception of visual reality. Where do we get that everyday conception (the sky is blue, clouds are white, trees are mostly green, shadows are black, etc.)? It’s a shorthand, a reduction, derived from memories of our rare moments of actual looking and (more importantly) from representations of the world we’ve looked at—Old Master paintings, in short. “The Ancients,” Ruskin calls them.
 
It’s another battle of the Ancients and the Moderns, and the Moderns (with Turner at their head) come out on top this time. Turner can paint landscape, seascape, skyscape more truly than any other painter because he’s actually looked at those things, seen them without the goggles of convention. Modern Painters begins as a book-length cheering-session for Turner, but it turns into a course on how to look at nature—what nature “really” looks like.
 
“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion,—all in one.”

Thursday, June 08, 2017

3. Divided

Feeling strangely divided this late morning. After a few days of intense stretching exercises—many of them suggested by FB friends, some of them picked up from various physical therapy sites on the internet—my “ache” is amazingly diminished. By no means gone, but much better; I can now sleep on whichever side I find most congenial, at least.
 
I started the day by registering and reserving a hotel room for the Orono conference at the end of next month. I’d been heading into this with nothing but enthusiasm: I’ve been to I believe three previous “decades” conferences there, and found all of them wonderful, energizing events. Indeed, the first one I went to—the “1930s” conference, back in 1993—was a kind of blast-off moment in my academic life. Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky came out of that conference, as did many friendships that I still value.
 
But last night I had a dream about this coming conference, a strange and surreal dream (as my dreams so often are), clearly inflected by what I’ve been reading (NK Jemisin’s excellent fantasy novel The Kingdom of Gods) but also shot through with various run-of-the-mill self-doubts and diffidences. I won’t go into the details—they were remarkably crystalline, but very strange and disturbing—but they’ve left me with a very bad feeling looking forward to the end of the month. Then again, I suspect that bad feeling will only last a few hours.
 
On the other hand—since we’re speaking “divided”—I’m midway through a briefish prose piece that has me filled with unalloyed excitement. The last couple months have been very good in terms of intellectual work: First I completed a long-form review that had been bedeviling me for probably half a year (and the work I was reviewing had been lowering over me for far longer); writing the thing was agony and deep research, but I’m pretty proud of the finished product. Then I turned out another piece, a shorter review, which proved to be nothing but delight from start to finish. And now I’m in the midst of a piece which combines poetics, literary history, literary sociology, and Victorian stuff. The words don’t flow from my pen—it’s never a matter of “flow” with me, but painful coaxing—but the ideas are coming together in wonderful constellations. I can’t wait to get back to my desk.

2. Deterioration

I’ve had pretty decent luck with the old machine—my body, that is—for never having taken particular care of it. I was not an “active” child or adolescent, never got into the habit of regular exercise. Most of the time, I simply ate whatever I wanted, as much as I wanted. For much of my adulthood, I was shall we say “portly”: never quite obese, but sometimes verging thereupon.
 
It’s only in the last ten years or so that I’ve taken to any sort of exercise regimen: first a decent amount of biking, then a stair-stepping machine (too bloody boring), then a fairly significant program of daily walking. Combined with an all-out effort to avoid junk food and between-meal snacks, I’ve managed to drop about forty pounds from my all-time high some six years ago. (I still think of myself, however, as a fat guy.)
 
But everything deteriorates over time. A couple of years back, I had what amounted to an inflamed coccyx; that wasn’t a bad thing—I spent most of my time teaching on my feet, and rigged out a standing desk for my work at home. That kept me off my bum most of the time, but lordy it hurt when I had to sit for a long period, or at least it hurt in that particular spot.
 
The coccyx went away; then last year, shlepping the air conditioners from the third floor to the basement, and moving some cartons of LPs, I did something to my lower back that lasted for three weeks or so. (Expert tip: NEVER pack LPs in 12” x 18” boxes, unless you have someone stronger than me in mind to move them.) And that went away, as well.
 
So now it’s what I think is piriformis syndrome, brought on almost certainly by some peculiarity in my gait, or by my incessant walking. I can stand fine; I can walk fine; I can lie down more or less fine, except in a few very specific angles. But sitting—there’s the rub. I find myself fidgeting like a four-year-old, trying to find a comfortable position, trying to quell the dull ache in my left buttock.
 
I suspect this too shall pass, one way or another. And wonder what’s going to happen next.

1. Mammalian fauna

When I first moved to Florida late last century, I was fascinated by the animals, more specifically by the reptilian-type animals. When I was a kid roaming the western Kentucky forests with my cousins, I’d see lots of water moccasins, even an occasional rattler, and of course the garden-variety black garden snakes. In my parents’ home in Tennessee, there was the occasional blue-bellied salamander. But nothing compared to the scaled denizens of south Florida: snakes, all manner of lizards—from tiny gecko-like things, to curly-tailed fist-sized bruisers, to the vast and intimidating iguanas that hung around the fringes of campus at Our Fair University.
 
Wild mammals were rarer: lots of raccoons and squirrels, of course, and an occasional feral cat. And plenty of possums (yes, marsupials, I know, but furry...). One of the pleasures of moving northeast has been becoming reacquainted with mammalian wildlife. We have the raccoons and squirrels of course, but there’s more. Just in our yard, on an almost daily basis we’re visited by an extremely shy woodchuck (he lives somewhere out back, I think) and an extremely cute rabbit. I’ve caught sight, on a number of occasions, of hasty pairs of chipmunks.
 
The other night, on one of my late night walks—probably around 11.30 or so—I was glancing down at my phone as I walked down the sidewalk (dark, not many streetlamps, but plenty of light for walking). I heard the rustle of a heavy body a few feet from me and froze—I’d almost walked into a dark-clad late-night runner the week before—and there, in the corner of the yard I was passing, not eight feet from me, was a fully-grown doe, no doubt browsing at someone’s landscaping. We stared at each other for a moment—no, not at all a James Wright moment—and then she bustled off.
 
(The chipmunks scampered across the driveway as I was typing that last sentence.)

cross-posting

I haven't been good at keeping up the blog for the past—well, a long time. Recently, I started writing short notes on Facebook's "Notes" feature, and a gentle nudge from a friend reminded me that I was, in effect, blogging—only I was blogging on a platform that only my Facebook "friends," and others who use Facebook, could read. So I think I'm going to start cross-posting—composing on FB, whose interface I like rather better than Blogger, and then importing the posts here. I'll put the first (rather nugatory) one up now, and follow with the others I've done over the next few days. They're numbered, I suppose in imitation of Jeff Nunokawa's.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

the new Tsar

Reading Bob Archambeau's little memoir of Ron Ellingson and Chicago's Aspidistra Bookstore in Bob's latest collection, Inventions of a Barbarous Age, I'm reminded of various bookstores in which I've spent time over the years. There have been many—Blacksburg's Softcovers, Ithaca's Blue Fox, Boca's BookWise, and any number of places in Washington DC and New York City. I haven't often struck up relationships with booksellers, alas, though when I have—Dave Wulf of BookWise, Sean Norton of Reston's Book Alcove—I've valued them. For a long time I've written my name in books, along with date and place of acquisition. Not usually the precise bookshop—but I can usually remember that, oddly enough, just by handling the book.

Reading Martin Gilbert's very long and not particularly good history of the First World War, I've gotten to the overthrow of the Tsar Nicholas and the Bolshevik revolution. Which reminded me, as it always does, of an incident in a bookshop in Alexandria, Virginia, a little over twenty years ago.

It was an odd place—in a kind of anonymous office space, as I remember it: not really a retail center at all, but a unit of office space that was being used as a bookshop. Well-organized; much of the stock seemed to consist of Library of Congress extra copies, or so they were stamped. I came up to the counter with five books: Terence Irwin's Aristotle's First Principles, three volumes of Mallarmé's letters in the big French paperbacks, and a nice hardcover Grove Press de Sade, 120 Days of Sodom.

The proprietor was an old man, heavily overweight, bald on the crown though long-haired otherwise, speaking with a thick eastern European accent. He chuckled at the de Sade: "You better not let your girlfriend see that!" As I paid for my books, he rambled on about how long he'd been in America. Then, apropos of nothing in particular, he started telling me about his childhood in Russia, how he'd grown up in St. Petersburg. "One day, my mother takes me out to the street. She holds me up, and there is a big car passing by, and a man in it with a uniform and a crew-cut. 'Look,' she says, 'it is the new Tsar!'"

He pauses. "It was Kerensky."

[Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky (1881-1970), for something less than four months leader of the Russian provisional government after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II; went into exile after being forced from power in the Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917]

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

many Morrises


Yes, that's the Cambridge Library Edition of William Morris — a nicely-produced, print-on-demand reprint of the twenty-four volume Collected Works his daughter May Morris edited early in the last century.

I will admit that I was hoping for something rather more sumptuous in this edition; something more like the Ruskin Library Edition, with its endlessly informative introductions and its scrupulous footnotes. May Morris contents herself with reprinting the final versions of each of her father's texts, making note of some (but by no means all) of the variants in her intros. There are no footnotes, no illustrations to speak of. The typography is gorgeous, it's true, but this is a reading edition, not a state-of-the-art scholarly edition — as the Ruskin, over a hundred years after its publication, still remains.

It's taken me a long time to come around to reading Morris, I'll admit, and I wonder why. He's always been there in the background of my consciousness. Maybe, I reflect, it's because there are so many Morrises — a different William Morris for every interest.

•For those of us with radical tendencies, there's Morris the socialist. I'm also reading EP Thompson's biography of WM, in its second, revised 1977 edition. Thompson notes that he's ratcheted down the Marxism of the first 1950s edition, and has shortened the book, cutting out some of the details of Morris's socialist activities. But it's still over 800 pages long, jam-packed with analyses of Morris's readings of Marx, of how his work with the "anti-scrape" preservation society dovetails with his reading of Ruskin's socially-inflected work, etc. Morris is a foundational figure in English leftism, and there's no getting around that.

•Morris the socialist bleeds into Morris the proto-alternative-history novelist, author of News from Nowhere, the one text of his that remains in print in the most editions. This one I happened to have read a few years back, with some enjoyment, though it's a book that's frankly rather devoid of tension or incident.

•For readers of Architectural Digest, "Morris" means a kind of chair, or a family of wallpaper and fabric patterns — Morris the designer. That's probably the most widely known Morris. His design firm, founded in part to put into practice the craft-oriented principles of Ruskin's "The Nature of Gothic," ended up producing a kind of ubiquitous late-Victorian environmental decor.

•There's Morris the rather interesting poet: the poems of The Defence of Guenevere, his first book, are quite excellent, tense exercises in Victorian medievalism. He's no Tennyson in music, and no Browning in psychological penetration, but there are some really wonderful moments throughout these poems. The longer narrative things — I've just embarked on Jason, volume 2 of the set — are far more languid, so far as I can tell, but still highly readable.

•And then there's Morris the fantasist. My friends in the fantasy scholarship world recognize this Morris first and foremost: the guy who wrote these long prose romances like The Waters of the Wondrous Isle and The Wood Beyond the World. Thompson spends about six pages on these books, which take up several volumes in the Cambridge edition, but which loom far larger in the imagination of fantasy buffs (thanks largely I think to JRR Tolkien's enthusiasm for them).

•Morris the translator: When he wasn't writing epic poems or vast prose romances, or designing furniture or weaving tapestries, Morris translated the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and a stack of Icelandic sagas — in the process introducing the sagas to the English-speaking world. The classical translations are no better than okay (LZ cites some in A Test of Poetry), but the sagas are quite impressive.

In short, at least 6 overlapping Morrises, one it seems for almost any audience. I've known about each of them for ages, but they've never quite coalesced in my imagination into a single figure. Now they're beginning to, and I'm becoming more and more impressed with the man's energy and breadth.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

the letter I sent to Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee)

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Dear Senator Alexander,

One of the proudest mementos of my adolescence is a photograph taken of me as a high school senior (public school) from Clarksville, being congratulated by you in the governor's office in Nashville for having been awarded a national merit scholarship. That picture must have been taken in 1981 or 1982, and I treasure it. I have followed your career with some interest since, and while we diverge on many political issues, I have always believed that you have a strong and abiding commitment to public education.

I beg you to reconsider your support for the administration's nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She has spent her life attempting to undermine public education in the United States, to reshape it according to profit-driven free market model that will in the long run benefit only rich districts and rich parents. And she is patently unqualified for the position, as her testimony before the Senate committee amply demonstrated. Not merely has she never attended a public school or worked in the field of education, but she has no grasp of, or evident interest in the real issues confronting public education in this new century, only an ideologically-driven agenda.

You have forged an impressive legacy in public service, and have repeatedly demonstrated your commitment to our schools and our children. Please don't destroy that legacy and betray that commitment by voting for Ms DeVos.

Yours truly,
Mark Scroggins

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Trump and Style

There's a video turning up frequently in my Facebook feed of the president praising Frederick Douglass in terms of astonishing banality: "Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed."

Okay, so he probably has no idea who Frederick Douglass was, or what he represents. He's been told this is a person who's important to some other people, and so the president is mechanically praising him, in the only vocabulary—impoverished, grade-school, business-oriented—he has at his command. And our response (rightly) is disbelief and ridicule.

We—writers, academics, intellectuals—are for better or worse appalled at Trump's style. We hate his hairdo, his suits, his general demeanor. We find his gold-plated apartment a kind of over-the-top parody of what a 7-year-old imagines it's like to be rich. Many of us prefer Bernie Sanders's style-less, rumpled "style." (A prime manifestation of Castiligone's sprezzatura, a style achieved precisely without any of the effort that usually goes into achieving a "look.")

There a kind of snobbishness here, as I'm nowhere near the first to point out. Whatever we don't have, we like to think we have style—if not sartorially (most poets and academics, myself included, are fashion disasters), then verbally. If we had the president's money, our apartments would be models of arts & crafts coziness, or coolly impressive midcentury modernist spaces. But barring wealth, we know language, and we bristle when we hear the repetitive, aggressive, and intellectually flattened bits of rhetoric that make up Trump's speech.

But in order to resist this new regime, we've got to do our best to ignore the stylistic flourishes of its figurehead. Every moment we spend decrying the new gold drapes in the Oval Office, the president's too-long necktie (held together with scotch tape), the Rube Goldberg haystack of his bouffant, the ghastly spectacle of his Manhattan apartment, or the rather remarkable shallowness of his vocabulary, is a moment in which our attention has lapsed from the plans, policies, and appointees that are issuing from the White House.