Monday, December 31, 2007

year-end lists

I too dislike them, especially when they insist on appearing in tens, as if the evolutionary accident of our 10 fingers & 10 toes had something to do with the pace of useful/interesting cultural production over an annual cycle which has, after all – 12 months, 365 days – nothing whatsoever to do with a decimal system.

But here are a few lists, notable perhaps for showing precisely how far I've gotten from being up to date: books I've read or re-read this year & found particularly compelling. Lists in no particular order, nor in ten-ishes:

Stephen Rodefer, Mon Canard
Benjamin Friedlander, The Missing Occasion of Saying Yes
Martha Ronk, In a Landscape of Having to Repeat
Melanie Neilson, Civil Noir
Geoffrey Hill, Scenes from Comus
Geoffrey Hill, A Treatise of Civil Power
Kate Greenstreet, case sensitive
Carla Harryman, Baby
Rosmarie Waldrop, Curves to the Apple
Myung Mi Kim, Commons
Paul Naylor, Arranging Nature
Norman Finkelstein, Passing Over
Peter Riley, Alstonefield: A Poem


Samuel R. Delany, Phallos
A. S. Byatt, Angels & Insects
Paul Auster, Oracle Night
Jane Austen, Emma
Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out
Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon
Geraldine McCaughrean, Peter Pan in Scarlet
Peter Ackroyd, The Plato Papers


Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria
Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
Lyndall Gordon, Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life
Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
Lorenz Jäger, Adorno: A Political Biography
Elzbieta Ettinger, Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger

Other (criticism, philosophy, usw.)

Lawrence Rainey, Revisiting the Waste Land
Geoffrey O’Brien, The Browser’s Ecstacy: A Meditation on Reading
Theodor W. Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies
Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment
Garry Wills, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth
L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson
Joseph Brooker, Joyce’s Critics: Transitions in Reading and Culture
Rosmarie Waldrop, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès
James Fairhall, James Joyce and the Question of History
Robert Sheppard, Far Language: Poetics and Linguistically Innovative Poetry 1978-1997
As usual, hoping for better in the new year.

Friday, December 28, 2007

laser rot; Shane MacGowan's teeth; year's end

I'm an unabashed Pogues fan, have been thru thick & thin since maybe 1986. One of my stocking stuffers this year was the band's latest "best of" compilation, The Ultimate Collection – probably not really a necessity, since I already own The Best of the Pogues, The Rest of the Best of the Pogues, & The Essential Pogues. But this one contains, as a second-disk lagniappe, "Live at the Brixton Academy," a recording of one of the gigs from the band's 2001 reunion tour. Judging by the Brixton disk & by the various concert videos up there on YouTube, the band is frankly better than ever – faster, sharper, more melodic. And even Shane MacGowan, the man of many words & few teeth, seems to be slurring his vocals a bit less than he was on such latter-era Pogues releases as Peace and Love & Hell's Ditch.

So I set to ripping the rest of my Pogues collection to iTunes, & discovered that laser rot has affected not merely Shane's teeth but my CDs as well. Turns out that Waiting for Herb (1993), the band's first post-MacGowan release, simply won't play at all. This is not a huge loss, mind you: the Pogues minus Shane MacGowan is kind of like non-alcoholic beer, or a gin & tonic without the gin. But there were some pretty decent tracks on that disk, I seem to recall, & I'm irritated to think that I'll be tempted in the days to come to actually purchase a second copy of that anemic record, just so I can satisfy my inner anal completist.

[Oddly enough, it turns out that the band's 1996 release, Pogue Mahone – also without Shane, & without my hero Terry Woods & two other core members of the group – is actually a pretty potent piece of celtic punkery, or so the first listen in maybe 8 or 9 years reveals.]
There's an eloquent post today on Eric Selinger's Say Something Wonderful; Eric, humblingly, takes the publication of The Poem of a Life as occasion for asking what he should be doing next. Eric's done the academic writing-about-poetry thing, in a tenure-panel's worth of peer-reviewed essays & in the form of his lovely first book, What Is It Then Between Us?: Traditions of Love in American Poetry; he's spent years training secondary school teachers to teach poetry in his NEH seminars; he's published – what? – 8 or 9 perceptive and lively omnibus reviews of books of poetry in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, writing for whose editor Herb Leibowitz makes writing for PMLA seem like falling off a log; and he barely mentions it, but he's co-edited two big & important critical collections, Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections (with Jonathan N. Barron) & the forthcoming & eagerly awaited Ronald Johnson: Life and Works (with Joel Bettridge).

Eric & I have been friends a long time now – at least 15 years or so – & there's nobody's critical opinion I value more highly. To be frank, Eric's always made me feel like an also-ran: his prose makes mine seem lumpish & academic, his critical eye cuts to the quick of the matter while mine is still lingering over the surface, & his wit runs circles around mine. I've always felt like Jack Lemmon to his Tony Curtis. So it's odd now to find that both of us are in something of the same boat: for I, too, am wondering what to do next.

I've been in Zukofsky-land for a long time now, ever since I started my dissertation at Cornell almost two decades ago. That dissertation morphed into a handful of articles & the book Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge (1998), & the biography, which I started work on while LZPK was in production, seemed a natural outgrowth of that project. Along the way, there were some ancillary jobs – the essay collection Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky (1997) & the "additional prose" section of LZ's Prepositions+: The Collected Critical Essays. And of course I was writing other things: conference papers, essays, lots & lots of book reviews (the best of them, like Eric's, for Herb L's Parnassus). But this major, panoptic Zukofsky-project was always the great looming presence in my intellectual & writing life.

And now my Zukofsky affair has come, if not to an end, then to an appropriate pausing point, or at least a fermata. And I, like Eric, am wondering what the hell to do next. I have a bunch of ideas:
•first & foremost, it's time to find a publisher for another collection of poetry; goldfinches, maybe 120 pages of carefully cull'd post-post- poetry, has been shamefully gathering dust in a drawer of my hard drive

•and then there's the notion, which I might have aired on the blog some months back, of a brief & popularly-pitched book on the relevance of biography for reading modernist & late-modernist literary texts; this isn't a wholly serious intellectual project, but I've been reading the books middling biographers have been publishing lately on their art & have concluded that I could do just as well, if not better

•and there's all those book reviews and occasional essays – maybe 3-400 pages' worth, tho I haven't counted lately; but I'm not Helen Vendler or Marjorie Perloff or Dominick LaCapra – it would be a mad press indeed that would take on a collection of Scroggins odds 'n' sods

•what about another biography? ask readers who have little idea of the effort & agony that went into The Poem of a Life; truth to tell, I'm deeply tempted by a second biographical venture, but I have no idea who the lucky biographee might be

•a book on contemporary British avant-garde poetry, focusing particularly on those poets' relationship to the English language, to history, to place

•a book on the poetics of gardens, and the poetry of gardening – from Marvell thru Pope all the way to Ian Hamilton Finlay – indeed, such a book would probably end up being a book on Finlay with a very long historical preamble; but Lordy, the research it would take, & what I'd have to learn!
It comes down I suppose to a question of obsession, for I've found that I can't really write deeply or memorably at length about a given subject unless I'm to a certain degree obsessed with it. And while I'm pretty interested in all of the above subjects (the poetry collection, of course, is something else altogether), I'm not – yet – quite obsessed with any of them. (Now a book on contemporary avant-garde erotic poetry, that's got me interested at the moment...)

I suspect it's the time to lie fallow for a while, to let the next thing grab me from behind, unexpectedly. It's no great sin to stand and wait awhile, to see whether this past decade's labor will turn out to be a grand Roman candle or a damp squib. In the meantime, I'm entertaining and & all suggestions as to where my energies ought to be applied.

My worst fear, tho, is that my own Oblomovian tendencies will get the better of me – that 20 years hence, as I shuffle onto the dais to receive the gold-tinted, Chinese-made wristwatch Our Fair University hands out to career retirees, the young poets publishing four-dimensional poems on the ultra-internets & the young turks at the MLA will vaguely recall my name as "that guy who wrote some stuff on Zukofsky back in the day."

Deaths; Stephen Rodefer: Mon Canard

I'm not sure I'm ready to get back to semi-regular blogging, despite the fact that (most of) the holidays are over & I've survived them. There seems to be a haze of melancholy, due to a string of deaths: Benazir Bhutto, of course – & I, like everybody who's been watching affairs in Pakistan with any sort of interest lately, am rather in a state of shock – but also, in the closer-to-home world of poetry, the Gloucester poet Vincent Ferrini, who was so much more than "that guy Olson attacked in Maximus"*; and Sylvester Pollet, a genial & familiar presence at poetry conferences in Orono, Maine, & the publisher of the lovely & modest Backwoods Broadsides series: one of the few men who could wear a late-Basil Bunting beard & hairdo, & get away with it.
But the year winds itself down. No, thank heavens, I'm not going to be at MLA this year, much as I'd like to hang with my friends in Chicago & get away from the surreally warm weather down here. Instead, I'm girding my loins for the coming semester's courses & finishing up a few books. The tip of the week is Stephen Rodefer's Mon Canard (The Figures, 2000). All six of the poems in this collection are first-rate, but the real tour de force is the title poem, some sixty-odd fourteen-line stanzas that seem to marry Zukofsky's Catullus "translations," Finnegans Wake, and a snazzy trans-dictional, translingual crosscutting into a wonderfully erotic cassoulet (which, as a fine violinist once showed me, must always be eaten with vinegar). It begins
Julie my duck, mama's lute, chouchou in lieu of amore
of our loo, butte of my butte, beate of your butt
mont rue, my verity former not HERE, not her
mob spent of row, flowers in rue Lappe, pet asinine pot
my lovely cinder, mine ashen heart, onliest wit
ness to my witness, jump in Seine, berth, ankeberry
every thin necklace nested, sturdiest hysteria, white
patent leather policefemme, unreading gaoler, op
pen opera, princess mon amie electuary Jew, petit rat burg
er, my choo choo, coughdrop of my esophaguy, my lu
dens, by my mitten, minion of my invisible cake, liz
ard die of my destiny, mutt, cuff, flycast, gal
oshes, SMITTEN GLOVES, smith of my smith bull
's blood drawn in sleepy smiles....
And on and beautifully on. Hot stuff.

*I was astonished some years back, in conversation with someone or other, to learn that my interlocutor regarded Edward Dahlberg primarily as "that guy Olson wrote letters to & had a falling-out with": Because I Was Flesh, after all, is something like a benchmark in American memoir-writing.

Monday, December 24, 2007

holiday weirdness

So I shan't blog at length from the bosom of family etc. & the depths of the usual holiday depression, except to wish everyone out there a peaceful time. I mean, so far as Christmas goes, I can do without the crap holiday music, I can do without the annual battle over the presence/absence of the Baby Jaysus, I can do without Santa Effing Claus & his effing elves & all the godawfully tacky electric lights festooning all the houses in the neighborhood, I can certainly do without the rampant consumerist stampedes & the peer-pressure anxiety over whether I've gotten the right/enough gifts – I can even, at a pinch, do without some of the lovely carols, which I've often thought would be much nicer listened to sometime in March or April. The only thing about the holiday that I appreciate is that it's the one time of the year that people at least pay lip service to the concept of peace. And lip service, however superficial, is better than never mentioning it at all.
But did I mention identity theft? Here's the very weird story: I have a checking account in my name, a distant descendent thru a score of moves & bank consolidations of the same checking account I opened when I was 16 years old. It's lain moribund for maybe 5 years or so – in fact, the only checks I have for it are printed with the name of a bank that got swallowed up by my present bank some years ago; I keep a very little bit of money in it to buy things on eBay, but that's it.

Anyway, I had the opportunity to deposit a fairly substantial windfall into this account the other day, maybe the first real deposit I'd made in three or four years. And then a couple of days later I went & did some holiday shopping. Lo & behold, waiting for me at home, when I returned from the mall with my new yellow shoes (which yes, Bill, I am wearing), there was a package waiting for me, mailed from Miami Beach: inside, a bottle of emu oil-fortified facial cleanser. It had been ordered with my checkcard; the invoice had my address, my phone number (which I don't really give out very often), & a hotmail e-mail address that bore no resemblance to mine.

Going online to check the account, I discovered a whole series of unauthorized purchases, including online audio books & something from a company called "Boca Java Coffee." Of course I immediately got on the phone with the bank & got those purchases refunded & my card cancelled. Only today did Boca Java's box of two pounds of premium coffee – the first installment of a monthly subscription – turn up in the mail. Another receipt with my home address & an e-mail address (different from the first) bearing no resemblance to mine.

How very strange: someone somehow filches my card number – I have no earthly idea how, since the damn thing never leaves my wallet – & then uses it to order stuff to be shipped to my home address. It's as tho I have a secret admirer (probably a first for me) who's determined to get me stuff I like or need (yes, I dig coffee, & yes, my complexion could probably use some emu oil) – but who doesn't want to pay for it themselves.

At least the weirdness of this is distracting me from the annual glums. Have a good holiday, everyone.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

[for academics only...]

I've been neurotically searching the web for news of The Poem of a Life [Amazon & publisher's links to the right, as always] – what, me neurotic?? – & have noted with disquiet that only a single score of libraries, according to Worldcat, which is supposed to be the authority on these things, have acquired copies thus far. (Okay, so the book's only been out about 4 weeks, but it's been available for preorder forever...)

I'm worried, that is, that having been published by a trade house rather than a university press, the Zukofsky bio might end up falling thru one crucial crack: the academic library market. In the long long run, while it'd be nice if the book sold as many copies as Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!), it's probably more important that academic libraries have it on their shelves. So it'd be a wonderful holiday gesture if those of you with university connections, however tenuous, would suggest to your librarians that they ought to acquire this book.

new shoes!; good guitar

Damn the hiatus; I feel like blogging. Ed Baker kindly suggests that the malaise implied in my last post is the result of – you got it – the holidays themselves: "all holidays are too divisive and are cause of your current sicknesses/angst... they are all about buying things and murdering "them infidels" or about celebrating some invented 'happenstance' (phantasy)." To which I can only reply, yeah, I think you're right.

We were – horrors – in the local hi-tone mall the other night, & the spectacle of massed consumerism was rather like the shark-feeding scene in Moby-Dick; me, I turned into the shark who gets so enthusiastic that he starts swallowing his own entrails. In short, I bought new shoes [see above]. Pretty boss, no? A pair of New Balance trainers whose design – according to the press release –
pays homage to 70’s Grindhouse Cinema through a hard-hitting collage of the era’s slickest iconography. From the streets of Harlem to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, [Sean] D’Anconia’s fusion of 70’s funk, yakuza and kung-fu imagery brings his unique pop-fusion universe to life in this limited-edition New Balance Creation.
I dunno. I just think they're cool. I'd draw your attention to the fact that the very hip gentleman on the inside of each shoe [see image to the right] has an actual crushed velvet afro.
Last week I wrote about bad guitar playing (ie, my own). This week I've been thinking about good guitar playing. It's time of course for that dreaded year-end phenomenon, people's lists of "best books of 2007," "best albums of 2007," etc. [The Poem of a Life, it seems, was released too late in the year to make anyone's list, tho it does happily appear on Pierre Joris's year-end list of "books I should have sent in to Steve Evans's Attention Span project," where he's kind enough to comment, "Still in the process of reading it, and so far completely delighted. A must for anyone interested in the most secret of the great American poets of the past century." And Su, bless her heart, says nice things here.]

Any way, while I can't claim to have anything like an encyclopedic knowledge – or even a cursory knowledge – of the records released over the past year, I'd hasten to put in a plug for my old flame Richard Thompson's latest electric release, Sweet Warrior. Every time RT comes out with a new band album, I'm inclined to think "this is the best thing since Rumour & Sigh" (1991) – & then, after listening for a couple months, decide that it's a good album but perhaps not quite up to R&S, which is after all pretty close to a perfect record. But Sweet Warrior (which I'll blog at length sometime soon, perhaps) is the real thing.

But I'm struck at the moment by a little note on the front page of RT's spiffy official website, letting us know that oor man made the top 20 of Rolling Stone magazine's 2003 list of the "100 greatest guitarists of all time" (number 19, in fact). I'm abnormally fascinated by such lists, which seem to mime the process of classic literary canon formation. Unfortunately, RS doesn't provide any information on how they came up with their pantheon of guitar heroes: did they just throw out names around the office? is it the result of an online or print readers' poll (as I suspect)?

And what makes a "great guitarist"? Here, for your perusal, are the top 20:
1 Jimi Hendrix
2 Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band
3 B.B. King
4 Eric Clapton
5 Robert Johnson
6 Chuck Berry
7 Stevie Ray Vaughan
8 Ry Cooder
9 Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin
10 Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones
11Kirk Hammett of Metallica
12 Kurt Cobain of Nirvana
13 Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead
14 Jeff Beck
15 Carlos Santana
16 Johnny Ramone of the Ramones
17 Jack White of the White Stripes
18 John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers
19 Richard Thompson
20 James Burton
It's pretty hard to argue with some of these: Hendrix, B. B. King, Duane Allmann, James Burton, Robert Johnson are all pioneers of their idioms, breakers of new ground (as Pound might have it); Santana, Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, & Kirk Hammett are very very fine players, impeccable technicians as it were. But what does Stevie Ray Vaughan have to offer that isn't already in Hendrix? And what in the world are Jack White & Kurt Cobain – iconic figures, & decent players but no more – doing in this top 20, many strata above such marvelous musicians as Ali Farka Toure (#76), Tom Verlaine (#56), & Vernon Reid (#66)? Are the rudimentary stylings of Lou Reed (#52) & Ron Asheton (of the Stooges, #29) really "greater" than the impeccable madness of Lightin' Hopkins (#71) & Robert Quine (#80)?

Rock music, however, has always been about more than just music itself, which goes some way towards explaining why Jimmy Page outscores the late, great, & much lamented Robert Quine by 71 positions. After all, who wouldn't vote for the romantically hairy, bare-chested Page, who in the eyes of his fellow guitarists wore the bloody guitar too low to bang out a decent solo in concert (ever wondered why the solos are so much better on Led Zeppelin's studio albums than on their live releases? wonder no more), over the bald, bespectacled Quine – Mr. Magoo with an electric guitar?

I'm an unabashed fan: I love all his work, from his stuff on Lou Reed's best albums of the 1980s to his solos on Matthew Sweet's records to his work on various John Zorn & Tom Waits releases. But if I had the choice of which tour bus I get to ride along on, I'm pretty certain that I'd choose Zeppelin's floating orgy over whatever studious accomodations the ex-legal student Quine might have to offer.

Out-on-a-limb statement of the day: Eric Clapton is the single most overrated popular musician of the last quarter of the 20th century.

[Robert Quine, 1942-2004]

Friday, December 21, 2007


As if my blogging of late hadn't become spotty enough, I suspect it's time for Culture Industry to take a week or two's hiatus. The holiday season's always been a dreary & desultory time of year for me, & I see little reason to inflict my own spleen on my 7 readers out there. Not to mention the fact that I seem to be headed into vacation with a full-fledged bug of some sort, which has me shuffling & sniffling & just generally grumpy.

I do hope to get some reading done. In addition to the bales of course texts that need to be read, reviewed, & set in order, I have new 2nd-hand copies of AS Byatt's Babel Tower & Angels & Insects (60 pages in, this one's absolutely engrossing), Michel Houellebecq's Platform, & Houellebecq's weird little HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. On the poetry side of the boardwalk, I've just finished Lisa Jarnot's Ring of Fire (fab) & Paul Muldoon's Quoof (not-quite-so-fab), & am in the midst of Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day & Stephen Rodefer's Mon Canard.

Alas, not many sightings of The Poem of a Life on the horizon, tho if you want a very brief preview, Al Filreis has posted a recording of himself reading a page or two on his 1960 blog.

Most pressingly, there are letters to write: several letters of recommendation (as usual), but as well stacks of long & thoughtful emails that deserve long & thoughtful replies. After all, one has no business pining over an empty In-box when one owes as many messages as I do.

So I hope everyone's having a pleasant Solstice & Saturnalia, & wish you all a peaceful & fulfilling Yule. You'll hear from me sooner or later, like it or not.

Monday, December 17, 2007

limbo; bad guitar playing

In a state of "inbetween"-ness, as one friend used to spell it (Canadianly?). The book is out, tho I have little idea of how it's "doing" – commercially, that is, it being far too early for sales statements from my publisher; on the other hand, a few very gratifying emails from readers out there – mostly friends – and a scattering of blogosphere responses. Don Share, God bless him, is at least halfway thru, & thus far has said nothing but nice things: "spellbinding"... "a book so good I'm anxious about what the heck I'm going to read when I finish it!" Blurb fodder, on the off chance this thing makes it into paperback.
I've largely recovered from the hangover attendant on Saturday night's book release party – for me, a drunken, rather melancholy affair, as these years I find most parties, even the ones I'm hosting. Too many people I wanted to see not in attendance, too much mother-hen-like worrying over whether everyone's having a "good time." Many musical instruments about, to little avail: the sad truth is that for my part I can't remember more than half a verse of any given song once I've gotten a couple drinks into me, & my fingers turn into fumbling bratwursts on the fretboard. The detached space reggae of the Mekons' "I'm Not There (1967)" ringing in my head all weekend:
A velvet glove strokes a hairy thigh
Day is breaking against the sky
My mind is purple...
Like the bubbles on your lips
Ooh baby I groove the way
You move your hips...
A colleague's 15-year-old son, enticed by the promise of music-making, had brought his gear along, & we tried to see if we had any common musical ground. Alas, apart from the inevitable 15 minutes of 12-bar blues in A, such was not to be found. Few things make me feel older than being in company of a "shredder," as these young folks refer to a player who's able to rip thru the Metallica catalogue with fleet fingers.

Hazy as I was, I recognized that our guitar-Bildungs (Guitarrebildungen?) were fundamentally different, that there's been a sea change in the way one learns to play rock guitar in the past couple decades. I learned chords, open & barre, & only then progressed to scales & riffs. (One could probably fake 80% of the corpus of pre-1980 pop music if one knew the old I-IV-V-VIm progression.) Alan, on the other hand, thinks in terms of lines, of melodic patterns, of the dit-dit-diddle-dit-dits that underpin the fast metal he listens to. I can't wrap my head, or my fingers, around it – & won't ever be able, I'm afraid, to play "Master of Puppets" or Tool's "Schism."

(But then again, as one friend remarks, a 15-year-old brings an intensity of practice time to these things that isn't really available to those of us with jobs & such. I do have every intention of blocking out some time over the break to draw and paint, pursuits which don't plunge me into quite the despair that music-making usually does.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

ad interim: saucy swinburne

So I finished my latest trawl thru The Cantos the other day – from soup to nuts over six months, Odysseus in Hades to all those lyrical, fragmentary regrets. A grand read, tho a trifle tiring in the final stretches. And then I pulled down Richard Sieburth's Library of America edition of Pound's Poems and Translations, wondering if I would see more in the early stretches than I had before.

Well, this time around I saw – or rather, heard – quite a lot of Celtic Twilight-era Yeats. Certain verbal tics, like Pound's repeated use of the adjective "dim" to describe the hair of whatever beloved his persona happens to be addressing. But I also heard a good deal of Swinburne, which sent me back to the Swinburne I'd been reading last spring (in, of all places, Orlando), a nice fat Carcanet Selected Poems that I seem to have bought in Florence for 5000 lire some years ago.

Now like everybody else I'd heard lots about Swinburne's S&M propensities, but I'd only seen flashes of them in the poetry. Not so this time around. I won't even start on "Dolores," a 440-line hymn to "Our Lady of Pain," a phantasmagoric tour thru a sensual underworld that makes Eyes Wide Shut seem rather tame (no, wait, Eyes Wide Shut was rather tame...). Instead, I'll fasten on a single unforgettable stanza from a little love ditty entitled "A Match." It begins tamely, innocently:
If love were what the rose is,
And I were like a leaf,
Our lives would grow together
In sad or singing weather,
Blown fields or flowerful closes,
Green pleasure or grey grief;
If love were what the rose is,
And I were like the leaf.
The poem gets progressively weirder from there, contrasting "life" & "death," "sorrow" & "joy," but settling down in the penultimate stanza to a chaste "If you were April's lady, / And I were lord in May..." But then there's the final stanza, which plunges it all into a scene that ought to be illustrated by Félicien Rops, or acted out by Bettie Page:
If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain,
We'd hunt down love together,
Pluck out his flying-feather,
And teach his feet a measure,
And find his mouth a rein;
If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain.
Am I the only one who finds this irresistably kinky?

Thursday, December 13, 2007


In between drifts of paper – final portfolios, final student essays, bills to be paid, great sifts of mail & other paperage to clean up. But noted some lovely words on The Poem of a Life (still time to get your gift copies before Christmas!) on Don Share's excellent blog, Squandermania & Other Foibles. The money phrase: "a gratifyingly large volume."

Lovely contrast to the gormless grad student of a few years back: I was covering the first day of a colleague's Dickens seminar, holding up the assigned texts & pretending to know something about 'em. "Wow, those are big books," quoth she, apparently never having picked up a Dickens novel (apart probably from A Christmas Carol) before.

Back to the mill, grinding slowly but one hopes small.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Having a little bit of a breather, before the final papers & portfolios descend upon me like a swarm of locusts tomorrow. The dental situation seems to be mostly under control: I had a temporary crown break during Thanksgiving dinner, then entirely fall out last week; the dentist replaced it today gratis, & only put a moderate amount of guilt on me for not coming in sooner. (He knows there's a handsome chunk of cash coming his way when he installs the permanent crown next week.) Nice to be able to chew on both sides of one's mouth again.
Trying to tuck away a few books before the break begins, & the holidays make sustained intellectual labor impossible. AS Byatt's strange little novel The Biographer's Tale, for one, which begins with the narrator sitting in a post-structuralist theory seminar & realizing that he's tired of post-structuralist theory:
I went on looking at the filthy window above his head, and I thought, I must have things. I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness. The thing is, that the thing was also there. A real, very dirty window, shutting out the sun. A thing.
So Phineas G. Nanson – yes, that's his name – sets out to become a biographer. (Fool! Fool!) To write the biography, no less, of another biographer, Scholes Destry-Scholes, author of a magisterial multi-volume life of Sir Elmer Bole. Nanson spends much of the novel trying to uncover traces of the enigmatic Scholes, & reading the copious notes he's left in what might or might not be preparation for 3 further biographies, of Carl Linnaeas, Henrik Ibsen, and the Victorian eugenicist Francis Galton.

Like most novels on biography, this one's about the impossibility of recovering the subject's life – really, after all, a post-structuralist theme – but it's great fun, & enlivened with the emotional & erotic complications of Nanson's simultaneous affairs with Scholes Destry-Scholes petite niece, an artistically inclined radiologist, and Fulla Biefeld, a great Scandinavian Valkyrie of an ecological entymologist.
On the other hand, I'm still revelling in Joseph Brooker's Joyce's Critics: Transitions in Reading and Culture (U Wisconsin, 2005), a book far more diverting than its clunky subtitle. Struck by some paragraphs on Richard Ellmann's still-dominant doorstop* biography of Joyce:
As Bernard McGinley remarks, the phrase "it's in Ellmann" has come to serve a kind of guarantee of authenticity – "epistemologically final, the last word" – for all kinds of claims about the writer. This reflects not only Ellmann's biographical skill, but the cultural and academic significance of the genre in which he did his most extensive and admired work. The status that his name carries could only have been attained by a biographer; the plainly entitled James Joyce retains its centrality amid a welter of identically titled books partly because of its generic difference from works of literary criticism. A literary biography is more likely than a critical work to be seen as achieving a kind of identity with its subject, a fit correspondence between text and individual.
All this, Brooker forcefully points out, in spite of the epistemological destabilization of the biographical genre carried out by such modernist writers as Strachey & Woolf.
The contemporary quickening of interest in biography may partly stem from a public desire for the linearity and coherence that twentieth-century fiction has put in question, which the record of a life can still hope to achieve. When the biographical subject is an artist-innovator like Joyce, an ironic disparity can result, with the modernist being reclaimed by the kind of "transparent" language and chronological narrative against which he had set himself. Through biography, the most radical avant-garde and antilinear figure can be reclaimed for sequential time and the consolations of storytelling.
Indeed. Next time: Colin MacCabe and English post-structuralist Joyce; or, Language Poetry avant la lettre. And a tenure battle
Kevin Killian's review seems to have pleased 3 readers, & kept The Poem of a Life in the teens of its sub-sub-sub-category. But I've resolved to stop watching the sales rankings there, since they seem to jump 50,000 points or so with every copy sold – & thereby mean almost nothing. I never did this with my university press books, but just waited around for that bi-yearly royalty statement: gosh, 143 copies this year! Woo-hoo!

But I love finding things like this. (Thanks, Daniel.)

*I am told that since The Poem of a Life clocks in at a bit under 600 pages (take heart, potential readers – only 450 or so are actual text), it's not technically a doorstop book, & therefore nobody is allowed to complain about its length.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Poem of a Life: Responses

[Now that The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky has actually hit the shelves, I'll be doing my best to track responses to the book in the "conventional" reviewing outlets & on the blogosphere. All in the service, of course, of pure, naked promotion. So go buy it already.]

The first reader review, by the prolific & always delightful Kevin Killian, novelist, poet, playwright, & co-author of the excellent biography Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance, is up, pushing Poem of a Life back into the teens of its sub-sub-sub-category. Kevin begins, magnificently,
Avant-garde poet Louis Zukofsky is the subject of a splendid new biography, one I scurried through, with barely a moment's pause for rest or water, over the past four and a half hours, and you shut the book exhilarated wanting nothing but more, more of this wonderful blend of exposition, narrative drive, and critical analysis all hand in hand like the heroic girls striding the battlefield in Henry Darger's painting.
Hard to beat that – am considering it for my tombstone.
A. Papatya Bucak blogs The Poem of a Life here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

reading (at stool)

I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.
–Max Reger

Evening hours, girls in grey gauze. Night hours then: black with daggers and eyemasks. Poetical idea: pink, then golden, then grey, then black. Still, true to life also. Day: then the night.

He tore away half the prize story sharply and wiped himself with it. Then he girded up his trousers, braced and buttoned himself. He pulled back the shaky door of the jakes and came forth from the gloom into the air.
–James Joyce,
We all do it. Read in the bathroom – the washroom, the loo, the bog, the "smallest room of the house," what have you. We all snatch those few or many moments of enforced inaction as the opportunity to scroll thru just a bit more text.

The phenomenology of bathroom reading has always interested me. Everyone, even the inhabitants of the most appallingly book-free homes, seems to have some stash of reading material in the bathroom, whether it's a stack of fashion magazines, children's books, Reader's Digests, or (god help us) motivational business books. (I suppose this is in default of having yet another television in the bathroom, tho I know one local restaurant which has miniature screens in every urinal stall of the men's room.)

The key element of the phenomenology of bathroom reading is of course brevity: even the very costive reader is unlikely to pull down a copy of In Search of Lost Time or Absalom, Absalom!, with their endless chapters & vertiginously unwinding sentences, for what will be at most 10 or 15 minutes of reading. (There's an old copy of Doctor Faustus beside the upstairs watercloset, but it hasn't seen much reading.) This is why there's a niche market for bathroom books, consisting mostly of collections of jokes & brief anecdotes. And it's why Leopold Bloom's choice of morning reading, the prize-winning but brief "Matcham's Masterstroke," a short story published in the newspaper, is exemplary. (I have never resorted to Bloom's or Max Reger's method of disposing of their reading material, tho I've been sorely tempted by some of the pages of John Betjeman's collected poems.)

We recently installed a handsome set of bookshelves in the downstairs bathroom, which rapidly filled (as bookshelves around here magically do). Some of these books are simply overflow, things I haven't yet found a permanent home for. Others – perhaps the majority – are things I've pulled from other bookshelves to leaf thru briefly, but not yet to seriously tackle: heaven knows the collected letters of Walter Benjamin & Theodor Adorno, or Hegel's Philosophy of History, or Jürgen Habermas's The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, deserve better than the modular, slightly abstracted reading the toilet allows for.

On the other hand, there are books which seem to be best taken in once or twice daily 5 minute doses. For some weeks, I enjoyed in that manner Geoffrey O'Brien's The Browser's Ecstacy: A Meditation on Reading, only hauling it out of the loo when I came to the final chapters, in which his little angular parables abruptly expanded into a larger scope. He was replaced by Flann O'Brian's The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman, not a book about famous English poets but a collection of elaborate & sometimes very very funny shaggy dog stories.

Currently I'm trawling in 3- to 4-page swoops thru Michael Bérubé's What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education. I suspect this is a book that some readers will want to give the full monty, serious reading treatment – comfy chair, beer at one's side, pen in hand, etc. Mostly the conservative readers who're out to skewer MB, & are looking for juicy quotes. But I was a pretty much religious reader of Bérubé's late much lamented blog for a couple of years, & I've heard most of the arguments of What's Liberal before – they're for the most part good arguments, but I need no more than a wee occasional dram of them anymore; heaven knows there's enough to be depressed about in academia without being reminded of the bile the David Horowitz Right is directing at liberal arts departments around the country. It's enough to give you – pardon my French – les merdes.


Okay, enough of this personal revelation jazz – who wants to know about my crappy dental work, my frustrated musical ambitions, or my obsessions with various Scandinavian-Viking types? Instead, enquiring minds want to know – Lattaesquely – what have you been reading, Mark?

Oddly enough, not much poetry at the moment, save for a breathless dash thru the later Cantos; covering maybe 50 pages a day, reading my own annotations but not pausing to look up unfamiliarities; finding more in Thrones & less in Rock-Drill than I had remembered, but letting the poem/s stir up all sorts of questions: the pace of reading in the long poem, as opposed to the standard contemp. slim vol. of lyrics; in Pound's case particularly, the question of truth-value – bluntly put, how does one factor into one's judgment of the poem – personal, aesthetic – the question of whether or not Pound's whole rhetorical/formal structure stands in support of an ideology that's an unpleasant sack of shit?

Johnson's Life of Richard Savage.

Jennifer Ashton's From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge UP, 2005) & Kevin Pask's The Emergence of the English Author: Scripting the Life of the Poet in Early Modern England (Cambridge UP, 1996).

Today's hasty & desultory stroll past the stalls fetched up, for a mere two bits, a faded copy of William H. Pritchard's Lives of the Modern Poets (Oxford UP, 1980). What an anomolous book: WP name-checks Barthes & Derrida & the whole poststructuralist crew, even quoting Foucault on the death of the author, but still persists in writing a genial series of biographical-critical studies of the 9 guys (yes, guys – that if anything dates the book the most) he sees as the most important of the "moderns": Hardy, Yeats, Robinson, Frost, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Crane, & Williams. Entirely unstupid criticism, woven much more closely with life-stories than Dr Johnson's model text, in which brief biography was followed by character sketch which was followed by critical analysis.

I have a pipe-and-brandy-snifter fondness for this sort of book, criticism leavened with narrative, with what used to be called (& still is, in New Yorker circles) "human interest." I'll send a bright but iggerant undergraduate (tho not a grad student) who wants to know something about modernism to Julian Symons's Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature, 1912-1939 before I'll send her to Peter Nicholls's Modernisms: A Literary Guide. God help me, I even entertain fantasies of someday writing such a book on the second generation of American modernist poets, & their late/post-modernist offspring.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


I'd like to say I don't do memes, but the truth of the matter is I almost never get tagged for them. And being by nature a rather passionately (anally?) self-contained person, I have a really ambivalent relation to self-revelatory memes – which means that most of my answers simply go to underline my self-containment & anality. Anyway, this one comes courtesy of Dance at Prone to Laughter:
1) The first time I ever saw an opera – Wozzeck in Florence, with Zubin Mehta conducting (Italian supertitles & a libretto in front of me in German & French, so I could figure out what was being said about 85% of the time) – I spent the entire hour & 1/2 with a goofy grin of absolute ecstacy on my face; I'm sure the folks in the neighboring seats, given the grimness of the subject matter, thought the shabbily dressed American tourist was just plain nuts.

2) Most of my youthful dental work – & I had dreadful dental hygiene as an adolescent – was done courtesy of the US Army, so I seem to have a filling dropping out every six months or so.

3) This November marks a solid 20 years that I have kept track of every single book I've finished reading. (Okay, I didn't count Harry Potter and various other "young people's" books, but I'm regretting that now.)

4) Along those lines (should be 3a?), I'm becoming more & more constitutionally unable to "browse" books. (This is a serious problem, by the way, for someone who claims to be a scholar...) I don't start with the chapter that interests me: I start with the Preface & the Acknowledgments, & I usually end up reading all the way thru the Bibliography.

5) Whenever I read a poem in ballad meter, I sing it to myself to the tune of Joan Baez's version of "Mary Hamilton."

6) Altho I'm about as unbelieving an unbeliever as you'd want to meet, I own at least 9 Bibles, in one of which are still interleaved copies of little communion homilies I delivered at church at 16 or so.

7) I often wish I'd had the guts & obsessiveness & sheer silly determination to pursue music. I'm at least as good a guitarist as Lou Reed was in 1970. (Which isn't saying much...)

7+1 [lagniappe]) I often get the sense that I'm faking it & it's all a dream.
So there. The meme itself? Of course, it's the old "7 random and/or weird facts about yourself." And since the rule is that I'm to pass this on to 7 others, I'll name all four of the Incerti – Amy, Brian, Emily, Bradley (unless they've already done this) – Bob at Samizdat Blog, Michael Peverett (unless he has better things to do), & Su at V's Blabbateria (who may already have been hit with this...).
At least 2 Amazonian copies of The Poem of a Life have reached their new owners.
The font, by the way, is Skia.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

random/erotica (midweek fatigue edition)

So by now my colleagues, my few remaining friends, even my longsuffering students are pretty sick of seeing me walk around with my shiny mylar-protected copy of The Poem of a Life tucked under my arm: "Yes, Mark / Professor Scroggins / Irritating Jerkwater, it looks really nice, and yes, you already showed me..."
The weather apparently was mercifully dry thru the holiday weekend, so all the student watching the house had to worry about was reshelving the books in the right places and avoiding attacks from the neighbor's chihuahua. But this evening there've been torrential rains, & did I mention we have multiple roof leaks? One of them sprang in the den right over an enormous tottering stack of holiday catalogues that J has been saving over my objections (given my druthers, they'd go straight into recycling): oops, your catalogues got wet; my heart is broken.
A cute & curious bit of academic erotica (?!) at University Diaries this morning. Uh, but I have a little problem conjoining "sex" & "Philip Roth" in the same sentence, my own dreams along those lines running in far less literary channels.
Speaking of the genre of the big "E" –– It's already been established that I'm entirely out of the loop in contemporary Pound studies & Eliot criticism, but it's also embarassing the habit I've fallen into of buying CDs and then letting them gather dust for months before actually listening to them. Tonight I put on for the first time what I'd nominate as the sexiest album of the decade: Björk's Vespertine. (Did I mention that I have a major sick crush on the elfin Icelander (along with Mina Loy, Sarah Bernhardt, and all of the women in Gustav Klimt's paintings)?) Hoo boy! It's kind of like Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, & Cassandra Wilson filtered through a Scandinavian dissonance machine: very, very cold, but very, very hot at the same time.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Eliot's typewriter

Once upon a time, I'm told, publishers hired something known as "press clipping services," folks who'd read all the relevant venues & look out for reviews of newly released books. Well, that was once upon a time. I found out that The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (now shipping!) had been reviewed in the TLS from a friend in Cork, not from my publisher. (When I asked my editor if she'd seen the review a couple of weeks later, she said, "Oh yes, we saw that – very positive, no?" Thanks for letting me know...)

Anyway, in the interests of prolonging the euphoria of publication as long as possible, I'd love to hear from any of my seven readers out there if they happen upon any reviews of the book – in print, on the blogosphere, on the walls of the loo – in the next few weeks or months. And if you happen to be one of the four people who've pre-ordered from amazon or the evil B&N, I'd love to hear from you when the book arrives, & get your feedback on't. Feel free to email at mw - dot - scroggins - at - gmail - dot - com. I'll try to avoid turning Culture Industry into a full-time book promotional outlet – but allow me to indulge myself for a while: after all, this has been a very long haul, & there are college funds involved.
Back in the old days – "good" or otherwise – there was a standard procedure for academically tackling Pound's Cantos: one procured a copy of one of the "guides" to the poem (Peter Makin's Pound's Cantos is still my favorite) to explain the overall architecture, & one of the volumes of annotations – Carroll F. Terrell's 2-volume Companion was industry standard, but William Cookson's Guide would do at a pinch – to elucidate foreign phrases & recondite allusions. I worked my way thru the Cantos (not the first time around, however) this way, & I suspect generations of undergrads & grad students have done so as well – & scores of books on Pound bear the marks of a Terrell-supported trawl thru the text.

All that changed for me in 1992, when I picked up (at the much-missed Blue Fox, one of the loveliest of Ithaca's many used bookstores) a copy of Lawrence Rainey's 1st book, Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture: Text, History, and the Malatesta Cantos (Yale UP, 1991). That book was my first exposure to the "new modernist studies," now I guess almost 2 decades old. In re-reading the Malatesta Cantos, Rainey destroyed the notion that EP was drawing upon some homogeneous archive of "history" in writing about Sigismundo Malatesta – an impression the student reader easily arrives at relying on Terrell's or Cookson's laconic annotation. Instead, LR showed that Pound's Malatesta was a profoundly romanticized figure, drawn as much from 19th-c. potboiler novels as from the historical record – & moreover, that EP's quotations from archival sources – as we already knew, but sometimes were apt to forget – were highly selective & sometimes considerably retouched, yielding a Malatesta that met the ideological needs of the poet in his own historical moment, but by no means an "objective" portrait of the 15th-c. figure.

The "new modernist studies" to which Rainey's book introduced me have revitalized modernism as an academic field. (Indeed, Rainey has been so prominent in that revitalization that he has become the target of younger scholar's potshots, as I learned at a modernism conference at Cornell a few years ago.) More & more attention has been paid to the ways in which modernist texts were produced, disseminated, & received, & to their social and political contexts. Far more attention has been given to the works of women, gay & lesbian writers, & writers of color. Modernism, from being a heroic revolution of a handful of white men – "the men of 1914," in (I think) Wyndham Lewis's phrase – has become a whole international congeries of overlapping "movements" & individual initiatives, firmly embedded in a very particular set of social, political, & economic circumstances.

But even as salutary attention has turned to the works of HD, Langston Hughes, Mina Loy, & the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, scholars have continued to read & re-read the "men of 1914" – Joyce, Pound, Eliot, & (too rarely) Lewis. Rainey's most recent book, Revisiting the Waste Land (Yale UP, 2005), which I picked up at The Strand this past weekend, looks at the single most canonically secure work of "high" modernism (besides of course Ulysses), the poem WC Williams complained had dropped an "atom bomb" amid a burgeoning nativist American modernism.*

Rainey's book is made up of 3 chapters & about 50 pages of "synoptic bibliographical" description of Eliot's letters & manuscripts (the sort of thing that I, anal animal that I am, dote upon). The chapters essentially follow the Jerome McGann-sanctioned triad of examining a text according to the stages of its production, publication (dissemination), & reception. I was a trifle disappointed to find that the middle chapter was "The Price of Modernism: Publishing The Waste Land," a ground-breaking & eye-opening essay that's old enough to be a "classic" (Rainey has already published it in at least three venues), but the logic of including it is pretty much inescapable.

And its familiarity is more than made up for by the chapters which bookend it. The last, "IMMENSE. MAGNIFICENT. TERRIBLE.: Reading The Waste Land," does a fine job of dispelling some of the myths surrounding the immediate reception of the poem. It shows that the tension between reading TWL as expression of the Zeitgeist & reading it as TSE's "personal grouse" was there from the very beginning, & how TSE's subsequent writings & career worked to enforce a kind of coherence & "classicism" on the poem which was by no means evident to its first readers.

But it's the 1st, mammoth chapter – "With Automatic Hand: Writing The Waste Land" – that's the real wonder here. Ever since Valerie Eliot published the draft materials for TWL back in 1971, scholars such as Hugh Kenner, Lyndall Gordon, Grover Smith, & others have advanced often conflicting theories about precisely how the poem was composed, in what order the various bits were written & woven together. Rainey unravels the entire mystery, to my eyes quite convincingly, using the most basic bibliographic methods: He compares typewriter scripts – LR shows when TSE stopped using one typewriter & began using another – and he looks at the watermarks on the various papers used. Since TSE apparently bought paper only in small batches, & used the same paper for drafting & typing poems & writing letters, it becomes a fairly straightforward (if highly technical & tediously painstaking) matter to date each fragment of the poem – to a particular place, sometimes to within a matter of days.

Rainey ends the chapter with a meditation, fittingly enough, on the typist in "The Fire Sermon," a forlorn figure who exemplifies both the social pressures of the early 1920s & the process of composing the poem in which she appears. Revisiting the Waste Land is a solid & illuminating piece of scholarship (Rainey strives hard, sometimes with limited success, to make the more technical aspects of his research accessible & exciting): like all too few books of literary criticism I read, it makes me a little proud to be in this business.

*The good doctor, in retrospect, protested too much: after all, at least 3 of the greatest works in American modernist poetry – Spring and All, The Bridge, & "Poem beginning 'The'" – were written in explicit or implicit reaction to The Waste Land.

Monday, November 26, 2007

back; biographical anonymity

Well, we're back to warmer climes. New York was wonderful as usual, pulsing with life. Cultural tourism (apart from a fruitful but sweaty visit to The Strand) was confined to the Macy's Parade (this year's highlight – according to the tastemakers – a giant inflatable balloon version of Jeff Koons's "Rabbit" – not a patch on the flower-covered two-stories-high "Puppy" at Rockefeller Center some years back) and to a wonderful Lincoln Center production of Cymbeline. I've always had a soft spot for the late Shakespeare tragicomedies they used to call "romances," but Cymbeline has been my least favorite of the four. Okay, it's still not up to the mark of The Tempest or Winter's Tale (& my own partiality for Pericles Prince of Tyre is perhaps perverse Zukofskyana), but this production made Cymbeline come alive for me (& made it make sense – I always lose track of the characters when reading early modern dramas about 2 acts in, & wander befuddled thru much of the most important action) in ways that I hadn't anticipated. I gather the show is actually still yet to officially open, but if you're in NYC over the holidays, I'd highly recommend it.
Well, my comments the other day on Andrew Motion's Guardian review of A. David Moody's Ezra Pound, Poet: The Young Genius got me a righteous smacking down from a blogger named Eshuneutics, both in my comments box & on his own rather interesting blog. Yes, I suppose I was over the top a bit there in attacking Motion & wondering about what Moody's biography – as yet unread by me – would amount to. I suppose Culture Industry leans a bit too much towards the pugilistic at times, & I think I ought to give my own splenetic tendencies a rest: to try for a bit more celebration & thoughtful speculation, a bit less simple grousing.

But Motion's review made me think about a grad student who dropped by my office hours the other day to discuss my upcoming biography seminar, & who shared his response to a review of the latest Hunter Thompson biography: "The guy begins, 'The only time I met Hunter S. Thompson...,' then spends several paragraphs talking about Thompson's career, life, & eccentricities, & only at the end does he say 'Oh yeah, this is a pretty good biography.'"

That, I'm beginning to think, is about the best the biographer can expect from the average reviewer.* This makes reviewing biography potentially a rather cushy task, as opposed to reviewing a new book of, say, poetry, philosophy, or political economy. One needs take only the most cursory note of the shortcomings or strengths of the biographer's actual text: instead, one can fill up all that dreaded white space with a potted summary (garnished with anecdotes) of the subject's life. This isn't at all inevitable – there're lots of reviews of biographies that focus sharply on the actual dynamics of the text – but one finds, frustratingly, the "6 paragraphs of life-summary plus 2 paragraphs of actual reviewing" all the time, from the Guardian to the TLS to the Miami Herald.

Sometimes I think biography is the anonymous art, the art in which the biographer, if she has done her work well, vanishes from the reader's attention, which is wholly drawn into the reconstructed narrative of the subject's life. There are of course wonderfully intrusive biographers: Boswell, for instance, continually poking his presence into the camera shots of Johnson's conversation, or Peter Ackroyd, inventing dialogues between himself and the long-dead Dickens. More often, however, we have to be cunningly alert for the biographer's presence in the text, for those moments when the biographical "might have" shades into a "would have" & then into a "did"; or when a subtle turn of adjective performs the work of interpretation that by rights ought to be left to the reader alone.
Huzzah! Amen! Selah! The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky, according to, & according to the stack of complimentary copies I found waiting by the doorstep earlier today, is now shipping!

*Motion goes a little beyond that in assessing Moody's book, & in praising Moody's objectivity and energy, but his review spends far too much time providing an abbreviated account of Pound's career, pitched it seems for an audience who knows next to nothing about one of the 20th century's central poets.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Culture Industry takes to the air tomorrow, on the single worst travel day of the year, bound to NYC for the holiday (including a possible viewing of what some New Yorkers insist on calling the "Macy's Day Parade"). The blog may or may not be dark over the next few days. In the briefcase:
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
the Oxford Authors Samuel Johnson
The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky
It's true, I and the latter book have rarely been more than five feet apart over the last few days.* And while the rarely cynical Peter O'Leary reminds me that the "initial bask" of such things fades rather rapidly, I'm doing my best – like a pensioner on his last excursion to Nighttown – to prolong the ecstasy.

*I do, however, leave it elsewhere when I take lavatory breaks – tho after I joked to my department chair, as he was flipping thru the book, that I took it to the potty with me, he laughed nervously & started rubbing that scented antiseptic stuff into his hands.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Guess what the postperson brought...

Yes, that's right – a printers' advance copy of Daddy's new book. We're happy!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

laureates in space

Who'd've thought it – an English Poet Laureate entirely out of it? I'm shocked, shocked. (Until, that is, I consider John Betjeman & John Masefield, & a whole parade of mummified relics who've occupied the office: the list is of course considerably shorter than the American one only because the English post is a lifetime one.) But then I read current PL Andrew Motion's review in the Guardian of the first volume of A. David Moody's biography of Pound, Ezra Pound: Poet. Vol 1: The Young Genius 1885-1920.

Motion begins by lamenting "the blur near the centre of 20th-century literary biography: lives of the two greatest modernists are missing." Of course, he means modernist poets – heaven knows there are lives of Joyce, arguably greater than either Eliot or Pound, the "two greatest" he's referring to. Motion continues:
Peter Ackroyd and others have done their best to get round the prohibitions of the Eliot estate, but we still lack a properly detailed, intimate account. Problems of a different kind have delayed a full and scholarly biography of Pound, despite the best efforts of Humphrey Carpenter and others. Pound's life is so vast in its energies, so richly international in its reach and so bedevilled by controversies that it has taken more than 30 years - since Pound's death in 1972 - for A David Moody's book to arrive on the scene. The first volume of this grand opus is a significant event.
I'm flummoxed by this paragraph. In the first place, while the Eliot estate did indeed make problems for Ackroyd in his writing TS Eliot: A Life, it's still a pretty damned good biography, and Lyndall Gordon's TS Eliot: An Imperfect Life is even better. I can imagine more detailed, more revelatory biographies – & heaven knows we'll get them in 15 years' time, when crucial caches of TSE's letters are unsealed – but I have no idea what Motion wants in a "properly detailed, intimate account": details of Eliot's cock size, as we get in Lew Ellingham & Kevin Killian's life of Jack Spicer?

And this notion that we lack a "full and scholarly biography of Pound" has me rather puzzled. There's no shortage of Pound biographies out there: full-length treatments include Charles Norman's (1960), Noel Stock's (1970), Humphrey Carpenter's (1988) and JJ Wilhelm's (in three volumes, 1985, 1990, 1994); shorter & more specialized books include Ackroyd's illustrated Ezra Pound and His World (1980), Jacob Korg's book on EP & HD (2003), C David Heymann's Ezra Pound: The Last Rower, A Political Profile (1976), Anne Conover's book on EP & Olga Rudge (2001), John Tytell's Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (1987), Ira Nadel's recent volume for Palgrave's Literary Lives series, & probably a few others shelved in my office at work right now, where I can't lay hands on them.

All of these books have shortcomings, some of them more dire than others. Norman's book is a breezy celebrity bio, notable mostly (to me at least) for his use of Zukofsky as a resource. Stock's is the life as told by a somewhat repentant former disciple. Wilhelm simply can't write, & has no sense of discrimination among his materials.

Humphrey Carpenter's big (1000+ pp.) work, then, is probably the biography of record, unfortunately: while he conveys an admirable density of facts & dates, his work is hampered by the fact that he's utterly unsympathetic to, & mostly uncomprehending of, Pound's mature poetic project. (What possessed the author of lives of Auden & JRR Tolkien to devote this much energy to Pound of all people? Aesthetically, it's rather like me polishing off the LZ biography & setting out to write the life of Billy Collins.) I'll consult Carpenter for a date; but for a sense of Pound's poetry or for a clear idea of what his political or economic thought at any particular stage, I look elsewhere.

For all of Motion's boosterism on behalf of Moody's new biography (or at least its 1st volume – which, let's be frank, covers Pound the young man and Pound the impresario, & doesn't quite get to the Pound of the Cantos, which is where the real interest lies), he doesn't really say anything to persuade me that this book's any better than its predecessors: according to Motion, Moody's
prose is more obviously driven by the need to get the facts straight and to grapple with the strengths and weaknesses of the poems, than by curiosity about psychological motives and personal characteristics. It means the book has an air of slightly detached efficiency - which is no bad thing, except that it makes Pound himself seem a touch remote. We see the blaze of his firebrand energy; we marvel at his generosity to writers of whom he approves; we admire his astonishing powers of self-driving; but we rarely feel these things on our pulses.
And that's all he has to say about the book itself; the rest of the review is, as the manner of anglo-reviewers on biography, a summary of the biographee's career (as if readers of the Guardian had never heard of EP).

Which leads me to a tentative conclusion: A David Moody's is not merely the best Pound biography Andrew Motion's ever read, but it's the first. And what makes it better than all the rest (which he seems not to have dipped into) is the mere fact that it's been published by Oxford University Press – a grand step towards making Pound safe for British palates.

[Final note: I'll read Moody's book, of course, & its sequel, tho there's nothing about Moody's criticism – mostly on Eliot – that persuades me he'll have much perceptive to say about Pound's poetry. The Pound biography I'm waiting for, of course, is the one in progress by Tim Redman, author of the excellent Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism.]


I'll have more to say about recent movements on the happily reappeared Say Something Wonderful & my own comments box, but for the nonce, I'm watching the numbers as the days count down to the release of The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky. I have little idea what those "sales ranking" numbers on actually mean – I recall someone saying that if you buy a single copy, you can get your book to jump a few thousand spaces – but it's worth noting that Poem of a Life has made its category's bestsellers list. Here's what the top few books in the sub-sub-sub-sub-category "Books > Literature & Fiction > History & Criticism > United States > Poetry" look like as of about 10.45 this morning:
1) Shel Silverstein, A Light in the Attic

2) Garrison Keillor, Good Poems

3) Robert Hass, Now and Then: The Poet's Choice Columns, 1997-2000 [another Shoemaker & Hoard book, mark you]

4) Mary Karr, The Liar's Club: A Memoir

5) TS Eliot, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, Illustrated Edition

6) Louise Glück, Averno: Poems

7) Selected Poems of Langston Hughes

8) Yr humble blogger, The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky
That's what I call a pleasant Saturday morning surprise.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Prynne & pleasure; incoming

What with J. away in Phoenix for a drama conference, I'm one day into a four-day stint of single parenting, & am thus far just plain exhausted. Not necessarily in a bad way – some of the day's events have been very pleasant indeed, & the weather at least is cooperating by not being godawfully hot (which in South Florida is still more than possible in mid-November).
Among the great stacks of unsifted mail I find the latest Chicago Review (53:2/3), which I'd opened and briefly glanced at. Too briefly, it turns out, for I find to my delight that this issue publishes the hitherto unpublished Book V of Ronald Johnson's Radi os, as edited by Johnson's executor the estimable Peter O'Leary. I can't wait to read it – but it'll have to wait till tomorrow, when I'm a bit less bleary.
Tonight in the graduate poetry workshop I pretend to lead (moderate? ride herd on?) a student did a stunning presentation on JH Prynne's Furtherance, turning up all sorts of riches that I hadn't yet uncovered in my own readings of the book. That in itself was delightful, especially in contrast to what I'd been reading lately myself (in addition to the big Bloodaxe Prynne Poems), NH Reeve & Richard Kerridge's Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of JH Prynne (Liverpool UP, 1995).

This, I will admit, is my 3rd assault on the book – the 3rd time I've started to read it; the previous two attempts have petered out somewhere in the second chapter. It's by no means a stupid book – quite the contrary – nor is it poorly written: indeed, it's marked by a refreshing lucidity. But once again I'm reminded of why I've started and abandoned the book twice now, & am unsure whether I'll get thru it this time. R&K, that is, pay far too little attention to the phenomenology of reading Prynne; while they give an obligatory nod to the notion that JHP is notoriously "difficult," they entirely ignore the reaction that the average reader – & even the average reader of modernist & late modernist poetry – has to work of such obduracy: a reaction, that is, of boredom, of resentment, of grudging labor, ultimately perhaps of abandonment. In short, they spend precisely no time exploring or discussing what sorts of pleasure Prynne's poetry might offer.

I for one value Prynne's work very highly indeed. While I came to it relatively late – I think I bought my first Prynne book, a little second-hand copy of High Pink on Chrome, around 1992 or so – I've always taken a particular pleasure (perhaps in part masochistic) in the dense & shifting textures of his poetry. And I know a lot of people who do likewise.

But Reeve & Kerridge, in their intelligent but profoundly dispassionate analysis of Prynne, fail utterly to present any reasons, apart from the intellectual unpacking of the verse*, why anyone who isn't already committed to the poet would want to read JHP's work. It's true, one doesn't have to make such an argument for Pound, or Joyce, or perhaps even Zukofsky – at least not now – but in the first book devoted to a "notoriously difficult" writer, the failure to make any sort of partisan appeal to pleasure strikes me as a significant misstep. Maybe that appeal's just yet to come, somewhere in chapter 3 or 4. But that'll be too late for non-Prynnites, I'm afraid.

*R & K's actual readings of Prynne's poems, so far as I've read, too rarely go beyond the "let's see what kind of sense can be made of these lines" move – ie, let's see how we can try to translate them into something resembling a coherent line of discourse. Sorry, gentlemen, but I can do that sort of work on my own – & end up liking my naturalizations better than yours.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

placeholder/reading list

One book leads to another – or rather, the ignorance revealed in reading one book leads to a desire for remediation – ie, another book. After finishing Strachey's Queen Victoria & Eminent Victorians, & spending the usual amounts of time in class discussing how modernism is a reaction to Victorian culture in general, I found myself reminded how butt-ignorant of Victorian literature in general I am. Okay, so I've read at least one book by all of the "major" novelists & a smattering of poetry by most of the poets (lots & lots of Tennyson, Hopkins, Barrett Browning, & Browning, truth to tell) – and of course more Ruskin than is good for anyone – but it's kind of embarassing that I've probably read more Wilkie Collins novels than Hardies, Eliots, & Dickenses put together. And I can never keep straight which parties Disraeli, Gladstone, & the rest belonged to, much less remember what they stood for.

Solution? Crutches: Jerome Buckley's The Victorian Temper & Richard Altick's Victorian People and Ideas (the former one of my dad's books – he was a largely autodidact Dickens scholar – the latter some sort of hangover from my undergrad days). Yes, very old, very one-sided surveys. But much of it is news to me. Thus far my favorite (in theory) new discovery: The "Spasmodic School" of poets. The work looks godawful, but who can resist the name? Bill Keckler, I hereby invite you to join me in a new grouping of "innovative" poets: THE NEW SPASMODICS.

Monday, November 12, 2007

placeholder/reading list

So I had this dream last night – no, not that kind of dream, tho it was very pleasant indeed – & when I got up this morning, I dashed off an email to my managing editor: "Dear R–––: While ordinarily I don't share my dreams, I had a lovely dream last night that I'd gotten an advance copy of The Poem of a Life; any chance this one's going to come true?" Of course I'd forgotten that today is the day after Veterans Day (or Veterans' Day, or Armistice Day, etc.) & therefore a holiday for most white-collar types. "Professor Fidget," Paul Naylor calls me; he doesn't know the half of it. I expect, once I get the book in my hands and the first 2-day euphoria has passed, to be (in Samuel Beckett's words) "a sad animal indeed."
I am incapable of sustained intellectual effort in blogging these days (& yes, I know there are many who would have me strike "these days" from that sentence), but I've been reading:
•Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians: as readable & as acid as the day it fell from the hands of the "neurasthenic" (thanks, WB, for that moniker)

•JH Prynne, Furtherance: 4 chapbooks, two of which are every bit as stonily impenetrable to me as the first time I read them three years ago

•Jennifer Bloomer, Architecture and the Text: The (S)crypts of Joyce and Piranesi: okay, I'm a sucker for any book that manages to wind in Joyce, Piranesi, Ruskin, Zukofsky, & Guy Davenport, & while I'm only a few pages into this one, I can tell it's going to be a doozey

•Joseph Brooker, Joyce's Critics: Transitions in Reading and Culture: I'm a sucker for reception histories – Gary Taylor's Reinventing Shakespeare, for all of Taylor's sometimes flamboyant silliness, is one of the landmark pieces of litcrit for me – and what's not to love about a book whose central chapter is titled "The Men of 1946: Tales Told of Dick and Hugh"? (that's Dick Ellmann & Hugh Kenner)

•Andrew Taylor, God's Fugitive: The Life of CM Doughty: modernist scholars know Doughty, if they know him at all, as the subject of a line in the Pisan Cantos, in which Pound recalls reading his epic poem The Dawn in Britain to Yeats back at Stone Cottage. Arabists know him as the most important traveller in the middle east between Burton & TE Lawrence, & the author of the quirky but brilliant Travels in Arabia Deserta. Taylor writes his life as the life of a traveller more than a writer, but the character of this God-besotted eminent Victorian – he brings Strachey's General Gordon to mind occasionally – is absolutely rivetting
And of course about a page & a half of The Phenomenology of Spirit daily. It keeps me from feeling intelligent.

Friday, November 09, 2007

biographical anxiety

[Left: The Worrier, London statue]

So I spent an hour and a half in my office at Our Fair University today, putting together my book orders for the spring term & letting myself be distracted by jocular & very pleasant conversations with colleagues, students, & various persons of interest. And I got those little buggers in to the bookstore, & for once well in advance of the deadline. I had one pretty scary moment, though (and those who know me well know that behind my blustering Archambaldian exterior I'm really a mass of fears & neuroses), when I showed a colleague I like & admire very much my booklist for the biography grad seminar & asked "If you were one of our grads, would you take this class?"

"Sure, it looks great," he immediately replied. "But I can see why you're worried about the class making." ("Making" the enrollment threshold, that is – and I hadn't been worried before he said that, but by God I was now...) "After all, they think of literature & theory, but they don't really think of biography as... you know... serious."

I cited Daniel Green at The Reading Experience and Richard Prouty at One-Way Street the other day as having written "interesting" things about biography. Probably more accurate to say "troubling" things, so far as my own investment in the genre goes. Green writes
only through biography do some critics reach an audience at all and do some writers receive any public attention at all. Biographies are the closest thing to long-form criticism published by most presses, and the closest most readers of newspaper and magazine reviews ever get to extended consideration of even the most famous writers. But if most biographies wind up having only "scant bearing on the literature," it's hard to see why we need them. Successive biographies of the same usual suspects, each claiming to be the new "standard life" are hardly a good substitute for real criticism.
Prouty is a deal harsher:
Biographies are interruptions in my normal reading. I prefer the fiction to the author most every time. If a writer's biography is more interesting than his or her works, I get suspicious. Even well-written, engaging biographies have limited readerly appeal. They tend to be really long with highly predictable plot structures: birth, early discovery of genius, development of first great work, big personal crisis, development of first not so great work, another personal crisis, second great work, a period of cruising on their reputation, health crisis, bitter and useless old age, death.... Biography is considered kind of a low skill in literary studies, primarily because they can sometimes read like they're a research notes dump rather than a thoughtful examination of a life and its work.
It's that last sentence, particularly the "low skill in literary studies" bit, that hurts. It sets off all kinds of career-oriented alarm bells in my little head – have I committed academic suicide by devoting almost a decade to this damned book? Will they laugh at me behind my back at the MLA & the MSA: "Heh, heh, while I was building an immense edifice of intellectual history tracing the rise & decline of the notion of aesthetic autonomy from Shaftesbury to Silliman, & while you were teasing out how Slavoj Zizek's Lacanian Hegelianism works to revise Laclau & Mouffe, that poor schmuck was writing a storybook!"?

So while I was getting into an epic 3-way comments-box pissing match over at Incertus yesterday over the academic & aesthetic status of the emerging genre of "Creative Nonfiction," my inner shlimazl was moaning (or kvetching maybe, but I don't know from Yiddish) "Oh, but who's being marginalized more? When's the last time you saw a job in the MLA Joblist for a 'biographer or scholar of biography'? I'll never get any respect now..."

But there's no help for it at this point. At least you, gentle readers & ungentle, could salve the ignominy of my intellectual self-immolation by purchasing some gift copies of The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (guaranteed tastily readable, tho possibly intellectual quite-low-calory) for Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, & Saturnalia. I have a PDF of the dust jacket, & it would look quite nice on a coffee table in a room with a rust & teal color scheme.