Friday, September 30, 2005


An image in wide circulation on the internet: the Dauphin, some months before his accession to the throne, clowning before the camera. "A one-finger victory salute," he says. (Ronald Reagan, on bombing Russia.) An image that opens the cultural divide of contemporary politics like a butcher knife splitting a melon. He was on mike, too, when he muttered to Cheney that the Times reporter was a "major-league asshole." Those of the left, secure in armchairs or manipulating mice before their PCs, give the finger verbally or physically into empty air, rage against the offence to their sense of propriety, of dignity in office. Those of the right, a bit embarassed, are mostly amused & heartened. A man of the people, the same appealing coarseness that endeared LBJ to the red-dirt farmers. (Pick up that dawg by the ears, show me your surgery scars...) He gives the finger to everything they hate: to the technologies of mass communication that no-one, left or right, quite understands, but which manipulate them all; to the style sheets that bid him unslur his consonants & regularize his vowels; to the suit and tie that straitjacket him for electronic consumption. He gives us the finger; he gives the finger for us.

Philip K. Dick and Style

I’ve committed myself to serving on a thesis committee for one of our grad students who wants to write about Philip K. Dick, so I thought I ought to read some of his books besides the couple I had chanced upon over the years (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in a Blade Runner movie tie-in edition, The Man in the High Castle). I’m halfway thru Valis right now. It’s a fairly compelling read, if a bit short on plot and a bit long on far-out ideas. The writing is better than that of Man in the High Castle, but it’s still pretty meat ‘n’ potatoes. I don’t get much sense that the words have been revised, or even deeply pondered, but just punched out as they came to him. And we’re to read them, forgiving him the fact that he’s not Joyce or Proust (or even Iain M. Banks or William Gibson) for the story. It reminds me of one old friend who’s a great consumer of mass-market romance novels; the inherent interest of the subject matter obviously overcomes his very well-honed stylistic prejudices. Rather like my ability to (sometimes) read my way thru really lame rock histories and biographies.

I wonder how Fredric Jameson, who has such a deep involvement in prose style – his first book, which I haven't read, is on Jean-Paul Sartre’s style – is able to switch off that section of his sensibility when he reads Dick, who’s a recurrent touchstone of the postmodern in Jameson’s writing, someone who furnishes, time and again, scenarios & ideas to spark Jameson’s own theorizing. I do notice how FJ steers clear of Dick as writer – he’ll describe a story, talk about its particular outrageous scenario or premises, and then move on to beautifully convoluted theorization. But he never quotes Dick at any length, or analyzes the grain of his writing as he does with, say, Claude Simon or Adorno.

It’s not that Dick is an actively bad writer, like Dan Brown or Kathy Acker.* It’s just that he’s (like Stephen King) a serviceable writer, someone who can tell a compelling story clearly, can get the compellingness of its events across to the reader – but never in language itself compelling or memorable. He’s no Melville, or Woolf, or Joyce, or Marilynne Robinson, or Samuel Delany. Not even a John Barnes or Iain M. Banks, who have a much better feel for presenting action. Dick’s prose has the rushed quality that reminds me of not-the-best Vonnegut, all of whose novels have evaporated from my head since I read them in high school. But I think I’ll keep reading Dick, and see if any of his vivid scenarios stick with me a year from now.

*A CLEAR DISTINCTION: Brown is bad because he’s a tone-deaf hack; Acker’s “badness,” on the other hand, is part of thorough-going aesthetic of transgression – you have to work very hard indeed, if you’re a person of such manifest intelligence as KA, to write as outrageously badly as she does in, say, Empire of the Senseless. Violating the style taboo is parallel to violating the incest taboo, the superviolence taboo, the taboo against sex with stuffed animals, etc. – simply part of the package.

Thursday, September 29, 2005


History carries an important lesson: we are in a game in which all the moves made today, wherever, have already been made – from the rejection of politics and the return to the religious, to the resistance to actions by a political power hostile to intellectual things, via the revolt against the grip of the media, or the disabused abandonment of revolutionary utopias.
–P. Bourdieu, The Rules of Art

A pencil and a rubber are of more use to thought than a battalion of assistants.
–T. W. Adorno, Minima Moralia

One cannot be too afraid of the world, such as it is.
–T. W. Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis (Critical Models)

Pity is not natural to man. Children are always cruel.
–Samuel Johnson

Another damned thick square book. Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon…
–The Duke of Gloucester, on the presentation to him of volumes 2 & 3 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

For Cinna the Poet, see under errata.
–Geoffrey Hill, The Triumph of Love

A revision in the undergrad syllabus, in response to something like an e-mailed cry of despair at having to read The Waste Land, Kora in Hell, Spring and All, and Tender Buttons seriatim. Perhaps time to reflect on why I keep assigning Books My Undergraduates Find “Difficult.”

Monday, September 26, 2005


Kasey dropped the bomb of a long and thoughtful post on irony Friday, taking as starting point the definition from Fowler's Modern English Usage. A bit of additional fuel:
10 And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. 11 And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: 12 That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. (Mark 4.10-12)

[Cf. Fowler, "a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear and shall not understand, and another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more and of the outsiders' incomprehension..." Matthew's gospel, which most scholars consider to be later than Mark, softens the "elitist" rhetoric – only a bit – in its version of this discourse:]
10 And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? 11 He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. 12 Who whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more in abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. [And here's the key revision:] 13 Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. (Matt. 13.10-14, my emphases)

The shift from "That seeing they may see, and not perceive..." to "Because they seeing see not..." shifts the "blame," as it were, for the incomprehensibility of Jesus' parabolic irony from Jesus himself (who in Mark teaches in parables precisely to exclude a particular audience) to his audience, which (in Matthew) is treated to parables because they have already somehow proved their obtuseness.

All this treated with depth and subtlety in Frank Kermode's The Genesis of Secrecy, and a thousand theological texts. But striking that Fowler finds a handy foundational text for the ironical moment (which he quotes but doesn't cite) in scripture, & in a bit of scripture which emphasizes the exclusivity of Jesus' discourse, its function of election and reprobation among listeners.
"Finally, there is the irony of irony. Generally speaking, the most fundamental irony of irony probably is that even it becomes tiresome if we are always being confronted with it. But what we want this irony to mean in the first place is something that happens in more ways than one. For example, if one speaks of irony without using it, as I have just done; if one speaks of irony ironically without in the process being aware of having fallen into a far more noticeable irony; if one can't disentangle oneself from irony anymore, as seems to be happening in this essay on incomprehensibility; if irony turns into a mannerism and becomes, as it were, ironical about the author; if one has promised to be ironical for some useless book without having first checked one's supply and then having to produce it against one's will, like an actor full of aches and pains; and if irony runs wild and can't be controlled any longer." (Frierich Schlegel, On Incomprehensibility, 1800)

Friday, September 23, 2005

Age of Enlightenment Guitar

Many thanks to those who've commented and e-mailed techy suggestions for my iPhoto quandry. Thanks to some keen walking-thru from Nicholas at New Broom, I think I'm in the process of getting things fixed.
Ron S. has posted two consecutive posts on one of my favorite poets of the 70s/80s, David Melnick. By all means have a look. It's terribly un-New Critical of me, but I'm very happy to finally have a picture of Mr. M.
Spent 3 hours last night at a reheasal studio with a few co-conspirators. We've decided that these events would be designated "jam sessions" rather than "rehearsals" or even "practices," since those latter terms imply the uncomfortable possibility of actually playing in front of someone else. It was fun, as always: our m.o. is to play a song thru (shredding it rather badly), then, without actually stopping, to play thru it again. Usually sometime during the second time round it begins to sound a bit better. (Kinda hard on the drummer, I'm afraid.) Last night's maulings included an impromptu "Twist and Shout," Steely Dan's "Do It Again" as sort of a heavy metal piece, Van's "Gloria," Bill Withers's "Use Me," "London Calling," "Sunshine of Your Love" sequing into "Cocaine" (in the wrong key), a version of the Damage Manual's "Blame and Demand" hampered by the fact that only one of us had actually heard the recorded version of the song, and one of those endless twelve-bar blues that two guitarists are liable to fall into when the bass player/singer has nipped off to use the potty.

Oh yes – a 9-minute version of Queen's quite politically incorrect "Tie Your Mother Down," which I insisted on a) because it's got just such a wonderful, stupidly perfect basic riff, and b) so I could try out my latest acquisition, a very cheap Korean copy of Brian May's "Red Special" guitar. That's me playing in the photo – well, actually no, that's Brian. Looks exactly like me except that 1) he's thin & I'm – uh – not 2) I don't really have a lot of hair, much less an Age of Enlightenment curly mane, & 3) I got rid of most of my flowing shirts and skin-tight pants a while back. But the guitar looks the same.

My own Red Special is a downmarket copy of a Korean downmarket copy of an authorized copy of May's legendary handmade instrument, but it's surprisingly playable, & with the 20-plus (!) different pickup options available on its vast array of Vegematic controls, along with the right amp settings & fuzz boxes, I can can actually nail some of Brian's "signature tones" ("signature tone" is guitar magazine-speak for what "distinctive voice" is in poetry-speak). Of course, I don't really sound like BM – for that I'm going to have to work on putting the fingers on the right frets in the right order, & hitting the strings at the right moment. That stuff.

Cf. "How to Play the Piano," from The Fairly Incomplete and Rather Badly Illustrated Monty Python Songbook:

1. Select the right key
2. Put it in the piano and open it (not essential, if you can't play)
3. Once the piano is fully open, put your fingers on top of the notes
4. Move your fingers about, making sure they hit the right notes in the correct order*
5. Watch your friends be amazed
*Like a pianist

For other instruments:
The same thing but without the piano

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Any Macintosh aficionados out there who can backchannel me with some quick advice? I'm using a two-year old iBook running OS X 10.2.8. Apparently iPhoto has somehow gone haywire. The program starts up, but then stalls on the "Loading Photos" screen. No albums show up on the left, and I can't get it to create a new album. Nor can I drag and drop photos from the desktop. All of my photos seem to still be there in the iPhoto library folder, I just can't get at 'em. Should I reinstall the program?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Transatlantic Zukofsky ii

That quotation from Adorno on Chaplin reminds me vaguely of a passage from Zukofsky’s 1936 essay on Chaplin’s great Modern Times:
In the wider design of the plot – a movement continuing and never let down, as a theme developed in pricksong – there is the terror of Charlie’s face being brushed by a mechanical wiper, and later the cumulative terror of Charlie lovingly wiping the face of a machinist caught in a machine. The spectator may refuse to be convinced that the director’s intention was terror, but by the time that shot in the film is reached laughter is somehow involved in the lachrimal. (Prepositions+: The Collected Critical Essays 61)

That same passage, rendered into French by Benoît Turquety in “Les Temps Modernes” in the latest issue of the poet Jean Daive’s magazine fin:
Dans les dessin plus large de l’intrigue – un mouvement se continuant et jamais abandonné, comme un thème développé en contrepoint – il y a terreur du visage de Charlot en train de se faire brosser par un essuie-bouche mécanique, et plus tard la terreur cumulative de Charlot essuyant affectueusement le visage d’un ouvrier pris dans une machine. Le spectateur peut refuser de se laisser convaincre que l’intention du réalisateur était la terreur, mais au moment du film où ce plan est atteint, le rire se trouve d’une certaine manière mêlé au lacrymal.

Turquety’s translation is the first time, so far as I know, that the essay “Modern Times” has appeared in French. But it’s certainly not Zukofsky’s first appearance in print in France. Back in juillet 2003, fin’s 13th issue was an LZ special, including an interview with Paul Zukofsky (conducted in French, but full of dandy anecdotes for those who parle the tongue), a reproduction of Celia Z’s little compilation of her husband’s poems “1939-1978,” and Jacques Roubaud’s version of LZ’s “Poème commençant ‘La.’” (For those interested in these documents, fin’s address is Gallerie Pierre Brullé, 25 rue de Tournon, 75006 Paris.) Serge Gavronsky and François Dominique have been beavering away at a translation of the complete “A” for over ten years now; at last count, they’ve filled three volumes and gotten through “A”-12. (Try or

I think a good-sized essay could be written – perhaps has been written – about LZ’s influence on a generation of French poets that includes Roubaud, Daive, Claude Royet-Journoud, and the wonderful minimalist Anne-Marie Albiach. Albiach translated the first half of “A”-9 in 1969 (it was published in the journal Siècle a Mains in 1970), and during that translation LZ wrote her a wonderfully characteristic letter: his French was not idiomatic enough to allow him to make specific suggestions, he said (and then went on to list an entire page of possible emendations); any word she could cut would be good; and if she could make her French sound like LZ’s English (as LZ’s Catullus sounded like Catullus’s Latin) that would be very cool indeed.

My sense – though only a very vague one – is that LZ’s work has had a deep impact on a certain, probably very circumscribed, group of French poets: perhaps “priming” them for their reception of the language poets a few years later. And – since my first “Transatlantic Zukofsky” post could be read as somehow slighting the English – one shouldn’t pass over the fact that Albiach’s and Royet-Journoud’s reception of LZ seems to have been mediated in part by a Briton, the poet and jazz violin enthusiast Anthony Barnett.
[That first “Transatlantic Zukofsky,” which dealt rather roughly with a poem by Matthew Caley, procured me possibly the most stinging e-mail I’ve gotten in ages, from Mr Caley himself. If you’re reading, MC, maybe we should try and be friends; I still don’t like “L. Z.,” but I’m rather interested in your other projects. Want to swap books?]

Monday, September 19, 2005

Adorno meets Charlie Chaplin

This fabulous Adorno quote on Croissantfactory today:
Perhaps I may justify my speaking about [Chaplin] by recounting a certain privilege which I was granted, entirely without having earned it. He once imitated me, and surely I am one of the few intellectuals to whom this happened and to be able to account for it when it happened. Together with many others we were invited to a villa in Malibu, on the coast outside of Los Angeles. While Chaplin stood next to me, one of the guests was taking his leave early. Unlike Chaplin, I extended my hand to him a bit absent-mindedly, and, almost instantly, started violently back. The man was one of the lead actors from The Best Years of Our Lives, a film famous shortly after the war; he lost a hand during the war, and in its place bore practicable claws made of iron. When I shook his right hand and felt it return the pressure, I was extremely startled, but sensed immediately that I could not reveal my shock to the injured man at any price. In a split second I transformed my frightened expression into an obliging grimace that must have been far ghastlier. The actor had hardly moved away when Chaplin was already playing the scene back. All the laughter he brings about is so near to cruelty; solely in such proximity to cruelty does it find its legitimation and its element of the salvational. Let my remembrance of this event and my thanks be my congratulations to him on his 75th birthday.

Anybody got a bibliographical reference on that?


Polishing up a large project – the subject too broad, the allotted words too few – for a prestigious “reference” series. And thinking about “style,” that elusive quality that distinguishes a book you can’t put down when you’ve picked it up from one it’s hard to pick up after putting down – and something that never gets taught in graduate school. (At least not where I went to graduate school.) It’s hard to talk about style, at least for me. I have a shelf-full of my father’s books back at my mother’s house in God’s Country, all of them on “English Prose Style,” not a one of which I’ve ever opened. Perhaps it’s time.

I can feel style in my bones, know a good style from a flat one, but have trouble talking about it. For me it’s a matter of sound: I know when a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph sounds good, and I can chip away at a recalcitrant chunk of prose until I get it sounding the way I like. (Of course, I can’t teach anyone else to do that – they’ve got to have read enough books, both good and bad, to be able to tell the difference themselves.) A few pointers to myself, perhaps as beginnings towards what’s already been codified in all those unread books (the first ones are pretty old & obvious):

•Avoid the passive voice, which drains agency from your prose (unless you want to drain agency from your prose – which means passive constructions are pretty useful for ironic purposes).

•Avoid nominalizations, or rather, Don’t make nouns out of verbs if you can help it – the verb has more energy.

•Avoid jargon: this one may be a personal thing – what’s jargon for one person is the technical mot juste for another – but I find that all those dandy terms and phrases all too often end up doing my thinking for me, or bending what I want to say into something slightly more conventional.

•If your sentences are running to more than four lines, they’re running too long and ought to be broken into shorter ones; or at least you should try to break them down, and see what happens. Sometimes a massive periodic sentence is precisely the thing to instantiate a complex conceptual relationship. Often, however, it’s just the flow of your own prose running away from you.

•Try to alternate sentence lengths, or at least never string together four or five long, complex sentences. Break them up with shorter, punchier things.

•The single greatest source of tedium in prose is repeated words. Try to vary phrases and constructions from sentence to sentence.

•A shift in diction, like a whammy bar dive towards the end of a guitar solo, is a great ice-breaker. A neat trick – but only once in a while. I’d rather be locked in a room with Charlie Christian than with Eddie Van Halen.

•All rules are made to be broken. Every piece of formal writing should have at least one crucial sentence fragment.

•Don’t be afraid of jokes, even rather dry ones. (Every oral presentation should have a joke within the first two minutes.)

•The Scylla and Charybdis I myself must avoid: banal lucidity and preciousness. Every writer has her or his own set of poles to identify and steer between.

•A great stylist breaks every regulation laid down in the style sheets, in the process inventing the only style that will carry her or his thought. Adorno, Stein, Derrida, Geoffrey Hill. Those who weakly imitate that style, however, will be among the worst writers of their generation.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Another 13 from W. B.

[Following "The Writer's Technique in Thirteen Theses," another thirteen for book reviewers. To call the irony "savage" would be far too gentle – but is Benjamin uniformly ironical?]

The Critic's Technique in Thirteen Theses

I. The critic is the strategist in the literary battle.

II. He who cannot take sides should keep silent.

III. The critic has nothing in common with the interpreter of past cultural epochs.

IV. Criticism must talk the language of artists. For the terms of the cénacle are slogans. And only in slogans is the battle-cry heard.

V. "Objectivity" must always be sacrificed to partisanship, if the cause fought for merits this.

VI. Criticism is a moral question. If Goethe misjudged Hölderlin and Kleist, Beethoven and Jean Paul, his morality and not his artistic discernment was at fault.

VII. For the critic his colleagues are the higher authority. Not the public. Still less posterity.

VIII. Posterity forgets or acclaims. Only the critic judges in face of the author.

IX. Polemics mean to destroy a book using a few of its sentences. The less it has been studied, the better. Only he who can destroy can criticize.

X. Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby.

XI. Artistic enthusiasm is alien to the critic. In his hand the artwork is the shining sword in the battle of the minds.

XII. The art of the critic in a nutshell: to coin slogans without betraying ideas. The slogans of an inadequate criticism peddle ideas to fashion.

XIII. The public must always be proved wrong, yet always feel represented by the critic.

One-Way Street, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1996) 460-1.

Friday, September 16, 2005

dwarf fruits

Rereading Kora in Hell reminds me why poets stay in the academy, even when they bitch about it. Simple: you have a lot less unstructured time in most other professions. WCW used to bash out those “improvisations” every night after a day of office visits, house calls, delivering babies, whatnot. Unsurprising they’re short. The real wonder is that he managed to write so many continuous pieces – American Grain, the novels, the bits of Paterson that spread out over more than a page or two. Pity that so many of us with our four-day weekends can’t show a bit more expansive ambition.
“European intellectuals such as myself are inclined to view the concept of ‘adjustment’ merely negatively, as the extinction of spontaneity and the autonomy of the individual person. Yet it is an illusion sharply criticized by Goethe and Hegel that the process of humanization and cultivation necessarily and continually proceeds from the inside outward. It is accomplished also and precisely through ‘externalization,’ as Hegel called it. We become free human beings not by each of us realizing ourselves as individuals, according to the hideous phrase, but rather in that we go out of ourselves, enter into relation with others, and in a certain sense relinquish ourselves to them. Only through this process do we determine ourselves as individuals, not by watering ourselves like plants in order to become well-rounded cultivated personalities.”
–Adorno, “Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America
Didn’t know it existed until I stumbled on it in a used CD place the other day: Sonic Youth, Corporate Ghost: The Videos: 1990-2002, a DVD collection. Sonic Youth videos?! Bit hard to wrap one’s mind around that. I’ve watched around in it a bit; nifty to see Kim Deal & Kim Gordon singing duet on “Little Trouble Girl,” and Chuck D puts in a cameo in “Kool Thing.” There’s one tiny Richard Kern piece, “Scooter & Jinx,” which takes us into familiar seamy Kern territory (think the recent Fence cover), lots of concert footage, and lots of not particularly convincing lip-syncing. From what I’ve seen, I’m afraid the Sonics don’t take this medium seriously enough…

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


I’m a happy blogonaut these days: Henry Gould’s back! (Tho I wish he were reading something meatier than Ron Sukenick’s deeply lackluster book on Wallace Stevens…) And John Latta’s returned with a new blog, Rue Hazard, that’s even wilder & more eclectic than Hotel Point.

Kasey has two consecutive posts mulling the issues of poetry reviewing – in perhaps more self-critical depth than I’m willing to dive, being myself an entirely superficial creature. I’m interested in the contrast he draws between indie music criticism and what I think from now on I’ll call “alt-poetry” criticism: that’s an analogy between spheres that for some reason has never occurred to me – and now that it’s been dragged into my attention, I can’t get it out of my head. I wonder if the alt-poetry scene wouldn’t be a trifle more interesting if there were more “ruthless” reviewing going on. My own sense is that even a mixed review of a book by someone on the scene attracts far more unreasoned backlash than one might anticipate (or so I can testify from bruised experience).

I’m torn between two impulses: One is the critical impulse, to try to take apart a work and show where it works and where it doesn’t, and then to offer some kind of Eliotian ex cathedra pronouncement on whether or not my humble readers ought to be spending their time on it. The other, more congenial, is simply celebratory – to hold up something shiny or gnarly or crabbed or luminous – but something that I find above all exciting – and say “Lookee here!” That’s one thing that draws me to the blog form (despite all Barrett Watten’s recent pooh-poohings): when I read a book that rings some or all of my bells, I can write a couple-three paragraphs about it, quote a stanza or two – simply gesture towards it and say, see for yourself, if you’re interested. Casual text: which, like casual sex, can be brief, kinda nice, or very pleasurable indeed.

Kasey’s awfully apologetic when he complains about slack proofreading in new books of poetry (a “fetishization of the surface,” he murmurs): “I fully grant that each individual ought not to be held to exacting standards of spelling, grammar, etc., and that such skills are not synonymous with artistic competence. That's what editors are for.” Well, no. That’s what editors were for, back before the process of producing a book was something more arduous than downloading a poet’s word processing file and pouring it into a typesetting program. These days, it’s all down to the poet her- or himself to take responsibility for these little things. Editing is hard work, and proofreading is a drag; when you’re working on a shoestring to produce what you feel are artistically important books, a close attention to the poet’s text is (perhaps paradoxically) the first thing that gets discarded. (Not always: I’ve yet to encounter a typo in a Flood Editions book; but some of the bigger indies seem to regularly churn out books whose text is only as good as whatever file they’ve gotten thru the mail.)

On a personal note, having done a good bit of reviewing myself, I want to put in a plug for the editing of reviews. I’ve sent off a lot of pieces and never heard of them again until page proofs (or until the magazine in which they were published) showed up in the mailbox. But the ones I’m proudest of are those which have been closely and harshly edited, where somebody with a different eye and perhaps a different set of aesthetic investments from me has sent a review back with a maze of queries and objections: I don’t buy this argument; So what?; If you call this passage “beautiful,” you’d damned well better show why, because it doesn’t look beautiful to me; don’t be coy; I got your amphibrach right here… Whether we write out of a critical, analytical impulse, or out of that celebratory thing, we’ve got to keep in mind that there’s a readership out there which doesn’t share all of our investments and tastes, and part of our job is rhetorical, by whatever means necessary to persuade those readers over to our camp. E.g.: Kasey’s first take on Linh Dinh’s American Tatts left me pretty cold, but his super-snazzy image in the second post – “crudely hewn chunks of messed-up affect set in the middle of a big parking lot and spray-painted all over” – makes me want to run out and read the book right now.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Le Bon David

I’m midway thru E. C. Mossner’s monumental biography of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, The Life of David Hume. (Another piece of evidence that I AM NOT A SERIOUS STUDENT OF PHILOSOPHY: I’m reading the 1954 edition, printed by Thomas Nelson & Sons in Edinburgh and published over here by the University of Texas Press, rather than the who knows how globally revised 1980 Clarendon Press second edition.) Mossner is good – for the most part compulsively readable, he combines an up-to-the-minute knowledge of Hume commentary (circa 1954) with a solid sense of narrative flow. I wish there were more solid passages of explication and discussion of Hume’s texts, but Mossner largely makes up for that (and golly, there are lots of good commentaries out there) with great anecdotes. Like the obese Hume, describing his visit as part of a military embassy to the Empress Dowager of Austria in 1748:
You must know, that you neither bow nor kneel to Emperors and Empresses; but Curtsy: So that after we had had a little Conversation with her Imperial Majesty, we were to walk backwards, thro a very long Room, curtsying all the way: And there was very great Danger of our falling foul of each other, as well as of tumbling topsy-turvy. She saw the Difficulty we were in: And immediately calld to us: Allez, Allez, Messieurs, san ceremonie: Vous n’etes pas accoutumés a ce mouvement et le placher est glissant. We esteemd ourselves very much oblig’d to her for this Attention, especially my companions, who were desperately afraid of my falling on them & crushing them.

I suppose the first philosopher whose work I really internalized was Wittgenstein, tho I was pretty keen on Spinoza even before I began writing on Zukofsky in earnest. Levinas was my leisure reading during grad school, & Adorno has been looming large for me in the last couple of years. But if I had to choose a single thinker to spend my strolling time in Elysium with, I think it would be the genial skeptic Hume. I can read a passage of Adorno and be mortified by the keenness of his dialectical pessimism –
That intellectuals are at once beneficiaries of a bad society, and yet those on whose socially useless work it largely depends whether a society emancipated from utility is achieved – this is not a contradiction acceptable once and for all and therefore irrelevant. It gnaws incessantly at the objective quality of their work. Whatever the intellectual does, is wrong. He experiences drastically and vitally the ignominious choice that late capitalism secretly presents to all its dependants: to become one more grown-up, or to remain a child. (Minima Moralia 133)

– and then turn, with what must be the rankest bad conscience – but with relief – to one of the most famous passages of Hume, from the conclusion to Book I of the Treatise of Human Nature:
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon. I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hour’s amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Eric – the guitar on the far right is a gold flake Epiphone Sorrento, visually perhaps the tackiest in my collection, but aurally a real jewel. It’ll be on the block, I think. I’ll let everyone know in advance.

Friday, September 09, 2005

the hobbit-hole in its horrid splendor

Time for a bit of tidy-up, I'd say. Look out for a couple of those guitars on eBay in the next few weeks.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

By the way, Culture Industry is six months old today. Thanks for looking.

Peter Dale Scott: Coming to Jakarta

I had a hand – a very small hand – in bringing Peter Dale Scott's Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror into print in the United States. I was a member of the editorial staff of Epoch (Cornell's literary magazine) back in 1988, when the poem as a whole was published by McClelland & Stewart in Canada and was being prepared for US publication by New Directions. Out of the blue, we received a chunk of the poem, not from Scott but from New Directions itself (tho it might have been Scott's agent), wondering if we wanted to publish it – the implication being that we would help create a buzz for the book appearance, and in turn the publicity the book received (for it was already making a bit of a stir in Canada) would redound upon Epoch. Perhaps not the most flattering proposal an editorial board ever receives, but we decided that it was worth running, and three sections from Coming to Jakarta accordingly appeared in Epoch 37.3.

I'm a bit embarassed that I've only gotten around to reading the book as a whole 17 years later. And reading it's been an interesting experience. I recalled the poem as being largely historical, seeded thickly with quotations from CIA-related documents and studded with marginal references to a long bibliography. (In some ways, it's a fine example of the sort of "contingent" poetry Bob Archambeau has written about.) I find on tackling the whole thing that it's really much more personal, as much a poem about PDS's coming of age as it is about the CIA-financed & inspired coup in Indonesia in the mid-60s. Its focus, that is, is on PDS coming to consciousness of complicity with terror, both in Indonesia and in all the other places where the American Imperium has cast its tentacles. As he puts it on the back cover, the poem is "one person's account of what it is like to live in the 20th century, possessing enough access to information and power to feel guilty about global human oppression, but not enough to deal with it. The usual result is a kind of daily schizophrenia by which we desensitize ourselves to our own responses to what we read in the newspapers. The psychic self-alienation which ensues makes integrative poetry difficult but necessary."

PDS has had more "access" than most. As he details in the book, many of the key players – diplomats, intelligence officers, political scientists – in the lead up to the Indonesian coup and massacres were family friends, college buddies, colleagues of his. So Coming to Jakarta is not a "camera eye" portrait of terror, or even as set of testimonies (as in Reznikoff's Holocaust), so much as it is a Prelude-like account of the growth of the poet's consciousness in the face of complicity.

The big counterweight in the poem is Ezra Pound, who invents a wonderfully capacious historical poetics, yet himself buys into the most evil political movements of the 20th century. Coming to Jakarta imitates The Cantos in its pervasive quoting, but the prosody is kind of limp late Williams (with a slightly reversed triadic line). I would not claim this as a masterpiece, but it's a book whose scope goes beyond mere poetry (or mere political poetry). Here's a swatch, from late on, a rather personal bit which ends by invoking Hegel's Owl of Minerva, a figure for historical hindsight:

And it is easy
          to be introduced
     to Jacques' wife from New York

at Eloise's candlelight
          dinner party and
     say with complete decorum

not like with Gregor yes
          your father was OSS
     Sullivan and Cromwell

and then Standard Oil
          your grandfather
     practiced law with the

son-in-law of J. P. Morgan
          and your cousin
here I get
     two completely different

families confused but in vino
          and error I tell truth
     was secretary of the CIA's

Fairfield Foundation
          and his wife's cousin
     Christopher Emmet a descendent

of John Jacob Astor
          and President of the
     American Friends of Vietnam

was the man whose Common Cause
          accepted the tax-deductible
     donations for the deliverers

of the Marseille waterfront
          into the hands of friendly
     socialists and behind them

the Corsican Guerinis
          already smuggling Saigon opium
     through the Armenians in Beirut

to be sold on Harlem streetcorners

          but why tell you this
     who married a French-Canadian

lawyer from Westmount
          and are serious about the piano
     now it is the new blood

from the Reagan entourage
          who meet with the Aginter
     veterans of the Guatemala bloodbath

and no one in your
          generation seems to have preserved
     that ancient appetite for power

As long as I haven't
          offended you let
     us step out on the lawn

sloping down to where the
          streetlight in the maples
     at the edge of the water

shines on the long-disused
          lakefront bandstand
     where as a twelve-year-old

I was given popcorn
          to sit still as the
     Voltigeurs de Sherbrooke

went through their precarious
          Saturday-night arousals
     of John Philip Sousa's

martial nostalgia
          What is that whirr
     of low wings in the darkness

of the ornamental pines?
It is the owl

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

First Grandmother Fears Immigrant Invasion of Texas

On NPR's "Marketplace," Barbara Bush gushes over how well things have worked out for those po' folk from New Orleans; don't get any ideas about staying, tho....

Almost everyone I’ve talked to says we're going to move to Houston. What I’m hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this – this [chuckles slightly] is working very well for them.

"a new aura of linguistical creativeness"

Tomorrow's news today:

Microsoft Launches MS-Word Ultimate® With Poetry Checker

Monday, September 05, 2005


Lee tells me that his entirely germane comment to the mysterious "Obscenities" post was made, after all, in the absence of said post – heartening, I guess: lost due to a slip of my typing, rather than to some arcane burp in the blogosphere. And compliments to Lee for his ability to interpret one of the most "minimalist" texts I've ever produced. But the data's all out there, sorted rather carefully in some recent posts on Michael Bérubé's blog.

If you haven't already

The land of missing posts...

That last post used to be there – or at least it was there long enough for Lee G. to read it & comment; but now it's not. For the record, it simply listed links to Condi Rice's Fifth Avenue Shopping spree and denial of race bias in the White House's bolloxing of the response to Katrina; to some loonie pastor's claim that New Orleans was now "abortion-free, witchcraft-free, etc."; to FEMA director Michael Brown's letting New Orleans' poor know their problems were their own damn fault, because they didn't jump into their SUVs and evacuate when Big Brother told them to; and probably something else. It's impossible to keep up these days – this past week has been such a storm of incompetence and bad spin. Worth noting, however, for anyone who hasn't already noted it, that FEMA director Brown, it turns out, is a political appointee; ie, someone with no discernable interest, experience, or fitness for a position, but who has some sort of personal connection with the Dauphin or his crew. Indeed, Mr. Brown's biggest job before FEMA was as "Judges and Stewards Commissioner" for the International Arabian Horses Association – a job from which he was fired, by the way...

Relax, folks, we're in good hands...