Sunday, April 29, 2007


So here's what you've all been asking about:

The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky
has been in progress since 1998. It is a full-length critical biography of Zukofsky, covering the whole of his life and taking note of his writings in all genres. It incorporates the findings of many hundreds of hours of archival research among manuscripts & correspondence, & draws upon numerous interviews with Zukofsky's fellow poets, his students, & his family members. The book as a whole clocks in just a little short of 600 pages; I'm not sure precisely how much short, since I haven't yet generated the index – which will be comprehensive, scrupulous, & highly useful.

The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky is scheduled to be released in jacketed hardback, with a cover price of $30 (a bargain or what?), in early December 2007. It will be published by Shoemaker & Hoard. S&H is the latest venture of the legendary editor & publisher Jack Shoemaker, the motive force behind Sand Dollar Press (Ronald Johnson's Radi Os, Robert Duncan), the long-lived & extraordinary North Point Press (Gary Snyder, Leslie Scalapino, Michael Palmer, William Bronk, Ronald Johnson, Guy Davenport, Evan S. Connell, Wendell Berry, Stanley Cavell, Hugh Kenner, & too many others to name), and more recently Counterpoint Press (with many of the same authors, & Geoffrey Hill to boot). Jack has for 30 years been one of the major names in American independent publishing, & I'm proud that he's elected to bring out The Poem of a Life. Of course, I think he's absolutely right to do so.

So that's the news: the proofs have been corrected; the 8-page photo insert of mostly hitherto unpublished LZ-related photos has been set up; the index has yet to be generated, but once that's done there's nothing left but the waiting. As Ray points out, it's not up on Amazon yet (tho it is on the database of the Library of Congress), so I'll let you know when you can start pre-ordering the book. In the meantime, I'm gearing up to do some promotion. Chicagolanders with access to talk series or bookstore appearance scheduling – I haven't yet made any plans in re/ the next MLA, but I certainly could make it up there this December. Anybody else with open Spring lecture spots, keep me in mind – I've got a book to sell, & lots to talk about!

So if you've got a blog, by all means link to this announcement; send it out to whatever listservs might find it of interest; tell your friends & relatives; tell your professors; tell your students; put the damned thing on your holiday wish list...
(And in the interim, there's still that pesky poetry manuscript burning a hole in my hard drive...)
Recently read & recommended: Martha Ronk, In a Landscape of Having to Repeat (Omnidawn, 2004), & Carla Harryman, Baby (Adventures in Poetry, 2005).

Friday, April 27, 2007


...what Mr UPS brought by this afternoon.

Am I happy? I am happy.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

More biography

My call for suggestions in re/ a prospective course in biography netted a plethora of suggestions. Everyone seems to enjoy biographies – everyone, that is, except Ray Davis, who manages nonetheless to toss out some excellent possibilities (Ray’s reservations about the genre give me pause, tho they remind me as well of Hugh Kenner’s diatribes about Ellmann’s Joyce distracting readers from Ulysses etc. – one of the great old critical rivalries, Kenner v. Ellmann, tho I suspect RE’s coming out the longterm winner) – including Gaskell’s Brontë (one of the Victorian classics) & a great example of the biography-as-problem genre, Symons’s Quest for Corvo. Oh, & perhaps the ground-breaking deflationary biography, Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (which Alex also cites).

The group bio is an interesting case. I’d read the TLS review of Lovell’s book on the Mitford Sisters (which Pam suggests), & found myself actually wanting to read the book, a response I only have to TLS reviews about 1/3 of the time. Strachey come to think of it is less a group or collective biography than it is a roundup of short lives, their very brevity (apart from Strachey’s delicious nastiness) serving to deflate the Victorian tradition of multiple-volume documentary monuments. The only proper group biography I recall reading offhand is Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, a neat read but so far as I can remember lacking one of Guy Davenport’s best anecdotes (by way of his tutor H. Dyson): in the midst of an interminable reading by Tolkien of the latest stretch of Lord of the Rings, CS Lewis wedges his pipe out of his mouth and growls “Oh fuck, not another elf!”

Tiffany & Frank, by citing Richard Holmes’s Coleridge (compulsive reading) & Hermione Lee’s various books, remind me how good the current crop of professional British biographers are. Holmes, Lee, Michael Holroyd, Victorian Glendenning, Clair Tomalin all write biographies that are both scrupulously researched & and remarkably graceful reads. (Holmes & Holroyd have each as well turned out a couple books apiece on the process of writing biography.) It’s these folks that make the reviewers keep talking about a “renaissance” of the genre. I’m sure there are Americans out there just as good – but I, like most biography readers, choose the book by its subject first, & only later shop for authors.

I’m probably not alone in thinking that 20th-century poets haven’t been awfully well served by biographers – poets, that is, from the generation after the “high” modernists. (And Stevens & Moore have yet to have a readable biography written on them.) Linda Hamalian’s Rexroth is indeed pretty good (tho I’m told that Norton made her cut out vast stretches of actual discussion of the poetry, which is a bit of a shame). The Bunting and David Jones lives available aren’t really much good. I have my problems with the Mina Loy and Laura (Riding) Jackson biographies. I like the Killian/Ellingham Jack Spicer biography, tho I often found myself saying as I read, “this is too much information – I didn’t need to know this fascinating factoid about Jack’s sex life or anatomy…” And I too can’t wait for Lisa Jarnot’s Duncan, tho deep within me there's some type-A gnome who keeps thinking of her as the competition.

I’m glad that Paul suggests Steven Nadler’s excellent life of Spinoza & Tony throws out Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein (the latter was for me a wonderful thing, coming as it did on the heels of a deeply researched & really flatly inert first volume of what looked to be a very long bio by Brian McGuinness), as well as Peter suggesting lives of Mozart & Jung. (As for philosophers, Tony & Paul, I’d steer you towards Rüdiger Safransky’s wonderful life of Nietzsche.) Steven Fama is right – “biography” alone is way too broad a field.

Of course, literary biography is what I know best, with philosophical biography coming in a distant second. (I’ve read more than a handful of historical biographies – mostly of 17th-century folks – and for you, Ray, I’d recommend Antonia Fraser’s life of Cromwell: long but rewarding.) But both literary & philosophical biography are in some ways special cases: writing the lives of people who are best known for themselves writing. A little closed loop there, a conceptual Möbius strip. One way to break out of it, while still hewing to one’s sense that it’s somehow more important to have written a perfect poem than to have won a bunch of battles, is to look at biographies of writers who actually did stuff: Pepys, for example, who never suspected he’d be remembered for his personal diary as he went about the real work of reforming the navy; or Charles Montagu Doughty, who thought of himself first as a poet but who gets remembered as a guy who trekked all over uncharted Arabia.
I’m gonna find it hard to resist assigning Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives, a big book which begins with a short bio of Shax (basically covering everything actually known about the chap & leaving out all of the speculation that fills three-quarters of Greenblatt’s & everybody else’s books) & then proceeds to map out a history of the tradition of Shakespeare biography right up into the 20th century (with highly entertaining side trips into the Bellevue or St Elizabeths of the “authorship question” wackos).
Did I mention that I’ve written a biography that’ll be out later this year?

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Biographical "Would"

I’m moved by Josh Corey’s thoughtful comments in the aftermath of Monday’s Virginia Tech horror, & given pause especially by his final meditations:
I was dismayed to learn that Cho was an English major, as though that somehow tarnished the discipline, further tugging on my perhaps overdeveloped sense of responsibility. One of the New York Times' articles on the shootings today includes this sentence: "Carolyn D. Rude, chairwoman of the English department, said faculty members were pro-active, even attending seminars on helping students in distress, a skill particularly applicable in an English department, where creative writing teachers had intimate glimpses into their students’ troubles and temperaments." This intersection of the academic discipline of creative writing with mental health and crisis prevention frankly takes me aback. In what sense has my scholarly and literary training prepared me for "helping students in distress"? If I am supposed to be a mental health counselor for my students, give me the appropriate resources and training! It surely doesn't hurt to attend "seminars on helping students in distress," but is it really a creative writing teacher's job to counsel disturbed students and to search their work for evidence of pathology? And should we accept the culture's further demand to view "creative writing" as thinly veiled narratives of the pathological, as opposed to the difficult art of possibility that it is? I fear these attacks will lead to the further erosion of the dignity of writing—will encourage the tendency to view poetry and fiction as more or less transparent containers and blunt instruments for deeply impoverished notions of "the personal" and "the real."
Perhaps I’ve been remarkably lucky – or perhaps I somehow project an of air of prickly unapproachability to my undergraduates – but in my decade & a half of teaching I’ve only very rarely had to deal with students who had personal or social problems severe enough to merit institutional intervention. Those very few exceptions, however, invariably happened in creative writing classes.

It’s not that I encourage the unveiling of unvarnished personal histories, emotional autobiographies, present desires, in my workshops – on the contrary. But it happens anyway, inevitably. I think that by the time students reach college, many of them already have a conception of creative writing as a fundamentally confessional, therapeutic activity – in Josh’s words, of “poetry and fiction as more or less transparent containers and blunt instruments for deeply impoverished notions of ‘the personal’ and ‘the real.’” It may be, given our culture’s obsession with self-revelation & sensationalism, & with the way that creative writing is used in primary & secondary school (somehow the verb “taught” doesn’t seem quite right) – as an exercise not in making verbal objects, but in “self-expression” – that keeping tabs on the potentially dangerous pathologies of students in undergraduate workshops is simply part of the job description of the creative writing professor. I wonder if instructors in other disciplines – studio arts, for instance, or musical composition – have similar challenges.
It’s question with something of a connection to the issue of literary biography. A bit over 100 pages into Will in the World, his bestselling Shakespeare biography, Stephen Greenblatt lays his cards on the table: “the whole impulse to explore Shakespeare’s life arrives from the powerful conviction that his plays and poems spring not only from other plays and poems but from things he knew firsthand, in his body and soul.” I’d begun dipping into Will in the World year before last, soon before Ron Silliman began blogging his way thru it in earnest, but had laid the book aside in irritation – that is, for all of Greenblatt’s forceful prose and encyclopedic command of early modern culture, his book seemed far more speculative & sensational than more sober, informative Shax bios – notably, books by Park Honan and Dennis Kay, and Samuel Schoenbaum’s beautifully spare Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, which simply presents all of the surviving documentary evidence of Shax’s life, woven together with restrained interpretation.

For all of Greenblatt’s captaining of the at-the-time revolutionary “New Historicism,” he’s produced a remarkably old-fashioned life of Shakespeare which reminds me of nothing so much as Sidney Lee’s & Georg Brandes’s turn of the century psychobiographies of the bard (Stephen Dedalus cribs most of his sensational interpretation of Shax in “Scylla & Charbydis” from Brandes). With Shax, one has almost a blank slate: the man was an early modern script doctor and content provider who left not a whole lot of traces of himself outside of his published writings (think fast – how much do you know, or expect to know, about the personal lives of the screenwriters of The Sopranos?); Greenblatt in essence reconstructs a highly speculative (which at rare moments he admits is highly speculative) personal history of the playwright from the evidence of the plays and poems themselves.

Greenblatt does it well & highly readably, so long as one keeps reminding oneself that what one is reading is more akin to historical fiction than to documentary history. What irks me, however, is how often one encounters what I’ve come to call the slippage of the “biographical would”: The biographer first posits that subject X “may” have done something; a page or two later, that “may” has metamorphosed into a “could have,” which soon after becomes by extrapolation a “would have”; and a couple of pages later it becomes a simple past tense “did.”

For instance, take Greenblatt’s argument about Shax’s Catholicism. He begins with a now-lost document discovered in the 18th century in which Shax’s father asserts his own Roman Catholicism. A lost document, mind you, whose authenticity has always been in question. He then speculates (along with a number of others, granted) that Shax worked for some time in a northern Catholic household as a schoolmaster, & might even have met the Catholic missionary Edmund Campion. Thruout, Greenblatt is careful to deploy the language of speculation: “would have,” “might have,” “may have been,” “it is at least possible,” “it is altogether possible,” and so forth.

It’s unfortunate, then, that when SG finally gets to an authentically Shaxperean document, an anti-papal diatribe from King John, he slips out of the language of speculation into the language of certainty: “This coarsely explicit piece of Protestant pope-baiting is by no means the sum of Shakespeare’s mature attitude toward the Catholicism in which he had been immersed as a young man.” The preceding 20 pages or so may indeed give the impression that Shax “had been immersed” in Catholicism in his youth, but SG hasn’t presented real evidence, but rather a chain of speculation and thin circumstantial coincidences. A whole stack of “maybes” doesn’t add up to a single “had been,” but rather a big “might have been.”

(Many thanks, by the way, for the stack of recommendations in response to my call for suggestions; comments to follow.)
Department of Self-Promotion: The most recent Chicago Review, an excellent issue on contemporary British poetry, includes my review of John Wilkinson’s Proud Flesh and Lake Shore Drive.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

My students will tell you that for better or worse I’m rarely at a loss for words. But today I just feel weary, & sad, & tired of talking. I was an undergraduate at Virginia Tech twenty-odd years ago, a double major in philosophy and – yes – English. It’s hard to watch the videos of the buildings I spent four years taking classes in, the drill field I used to cross every morning, snow, sun, or (mostly, it seems in retrospect) rain. It’s harder than I’d imagined it would be to see the distraught or nonchalant undergraduates in front of the CNN microphones, young people who look much as they did all those years ago. I’ll write about biography or poetry tomorrow, or the next day: tonight I just wish I were in Blacksburg, & could do something.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Call for Suggestions

The long haze of reading proofs is almost over, just in time for the last run-up to finals week & the ensuing purgatory. So I suppose I'll be back to scribbling here in a day or two. But in the meantime –

In Spring 2008, I've decided, I'll be teaching a graduate seminar on biography – history & theory of the genre, research methods, stylistic decisions, reception, practical problems, etc. (Clearly, I'm still thinking my way thru what's gonna go into this gumbo...) So I call out to my 7 1/2 readers: What are your favorite biographies? (Lives of literary figures, historical figures, scientists, politicians, musicians, whatever?) What books have you found compelling, perhaps even despite your lack of initial interest in the subject?

Help me write my syllabus, please!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Grand Piano, part 1

I’ve survived J’s 5-day absence at the Shakespeare Association, & mirabile dictu I’m some 230 pages into reading proofs. So I need a break, & writing a bit about The Grand Piano Part 1 seems just the thing, tho I doubt I’ll be able to add much to John Latta’s wonderfully detailed notes (not to mention the fact that he’s a whole volume ahead of me now!). John’s done the heavy lifting of close reading & scornful pomposity-lancing, so I can stick my forte, which is hazy generalities.

Norman, it seems, is expecting me to be winding up for a big attack. He writes, in response to my previous wool-gathering,
At last! Scroggins is really going to give us his take on langpo. He's going to survey its strengths and weaknesses, the sociology of its avant-garde position, the implications of its successful bid for academic hegemony, and the ensuing marginalization of other formations equally entitled to being regarded as worthy successors to high modernism. He's going to point out the risks when previously marginalized poets attempt to write their own literary histories, not the least of which is a self-regard bordering on narcissism. Lay on, Scroggins!
Scroggins suppose he should leave all that stuff to folks more comfortable with various -ologies, -isms, & -ations, being himself a bear of very little brain. It’s hard, however, to resist quoting Joe Strummer: “Ev’ry gimmick-hungry yob digging gold from rock ‘n’ roll / Grabs the mike to tell us that he’ll die before he’s sold / But I believe in this and it’s been proven by research / He who fucks nuns will one day join the church.” That, of course, is a pretty much unanswerable summary of the institutional absorption of the subversive margins. (Adorno could probably say something much more lapidary about how the cultural industry can swallow up whatever threatens it, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun to skank to.)

It’s of course an old move to point to how many prominent Language Poets (hereafter LPs) have moved into the academy, & how the publishers of choice for their theoretical statements are no longer Roof or Sun & Moon, but U of California P, Northwestern, U of Alabama P, & U of Chicago P (note snazzy MLA-style abbreviations). Or how Wesleyan UP, back in the 70s & 80s neck in neck with Pitt for the title of most tepid poetry series, has become almost a house press for various LP types. Those data in themselves mean very little in a grander scheme of cultural capital – that is, we’re still talking about print runs in the neighborhood of 1000 copies or fewer. And it assumes that there’s an identity between the academy – as in ‘academic hegemony’ – and the ‘inside’ from which the LPs were in those heady days of the 80s considered themselves ‘outside.’ I don’t think that’s the case: what the LPs attacked with some regularity (despite occasional sallies like Ron Silliman’s review of Barry Ahearn’s book on “A”, “Why the MLA Can’t Read”) was not the academy per se, but MFA programs, the culture of MFA poetry, & the poetry published by trade houses & large-circulation periodicals.

The “self-regard bordering on narcissism” Norman identifies (an identification which I’m not sure I entirely endorse) might be more closely defined as a desire, even as the group has moved closer to certain sources of power & influence (& let’s be realistic here: the big money & big circulation firesources – the NEA, the Guggenheim foundation, the Poetry foundation – are still entirely closed off to alt-poetry), to retain a stance of opposition & subversion. True enough, but it’s a trifle too facile to attack the LPs for this. While a rigid purist might attack Derrida, Foucault, Jameson, Said, or Spivak for holding faculty positions at elite institutions, one can’t deny that they were/are able to exercise considerable subversive force from those bully pulpits. Would Foucault have accomplished more by throwing over teaching & writing altogether & taking up leaflet-distributing?

What I sense irks Norman is that many of the LPs most definitely do not promote a “big tent” picture of the avant-garde – that there are sheep & goats in the pastures they survey, & it’s not just “School of Quietude” that gets goatishly dismissed, but alternative varieties of alt-poetry – the visionary works of Ron Johnson & Robert Duncan, the so-called “analytic lyric” of Aaron Shurin, Benjamin Hollander, Norma Cole, etc., the short-lived “Apex of the M” phenomenon. One can, I suppose, fault the LPs for a certain puritanism, a sense that theirs is the only alt-poetry that matters, & that certainly shades into a kind of self-group-centeredness. (I recently heard a couple of prominents LPs dismissing “analytic lyric” – which a more accurate genealogy of alt-poetry would classify as a particular development of the poetics of Duncan, Spicer, & others – as a reaction-formation against 1980s Bay Area Language.)

But I’m inclined to allow a measure of narcissism to The Grand Piano. After all, to write autobiography, even “collective” autobiography, one needs a healthy dose of self-regard. And frankly I’m rather intrigued by the notion of these 10 poets chronicling their early years in this shifting, polyvocal fashion. They’ve repeatedly argued for collectivity in creative endeavors, and they’re putting their money where their (collective) mouths have been.

What surprised me most reading the first installment of The Grand Piano, however, was precisely how little space was given over to assertions of the innovativeness, the subversiveness, the sheer importance of Language writing. Perhaps one can credit Bob Perelman, who has always struck me – & everyone else who’s known him whom I’ve spoken to – as a singularly sweet human being. Perelman, by some roll of the dice or a cutting of the deck or whatever aleatorical means, got to write the tone-setting first segment of this installment, and he chose to write about of all things love.

That I suspect went a long way towards defusing the Mr Roboto theory-massage to which many of his coauthors have subjected their readers in the past. They can react against Perelman’s speculation about how the “desire” texts of his youth have given way to the “love” texts of his fatherhood – “Love, as the end of a poetic tradition at least in America,” Barrett Watten writes, “is authoritarian”; Carla Harryman claims that “The theme of love is subject to proprietary claims within poetry’s patrimony”; Ron Silliman begins his entry to detailing his father’s infidelities; Kit Robinson tells us that “According to Viktor Shklovsky, in order to write about love one must write about everything not about love” (& proceeds to do so) – or they play other, more positive variations on the theme: Lyn Hejinian tells us with admirable straightforwardness that “we were undertaking it for love” ; and Ted Pearson tells us, with Jamesian convolutions, that poetry is an “art, without embarassment or equivocation, I love, and loved then, as I also love, without conflation, its makers as makers of this art I love, that is, in the absence of any dispositive claims of filiation.” (Okay, read that one again, a trifle more slowly…) One contemplates with a shudder what the first segment of The Grand Piano might have read like if its opening had fallen to someone who chose to write about revolution, or disjunction.

The poets of The Grand Piano – and let’s name them, just for the record: Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, & Ted Pearson – write indeed with a sense of self-importance and historical moment, a sense that’s liable to rub one the wrong way. But I’d note a couple of things:

•For the most part these poets – as one would hope – write rather well here; there is little in the way of what Bunting called the “see-here,” the theoretico-parodoxial flourish or the obdurately unreadable but achingly important. Instead, by whatever collective process they’ve managed to produce a various & actually pretty obsessively readable set of meditations on what they were up to 30 years ago. It’s doesn’t have a hell of a lot in the way of lightness or wit or literary anecdote – cf. Lewis’s Blasting & Bombardiering for that – but then again it’s nowhere near as ponderous as Biographia Literaria.

•And self-importance is an index, in the end, of ambition; & I for one prefer the writing of poets of high ambition (whether misplaced or not) to that of those who’ll settle for a workmanlike minority. Philip Larkin, I’m convinced, never thought of himself as anything more than a minor poet, & he succeeded brilliantly in never becoming more than that. (Bunting, despite bestowing upon himself one of the best epitaphs ever – “minor poet, not conspicuously dishonest” – was just kidding: he knew how good he was.) If these 10 poets write with an air of self-importance, it’s at least in part justified: all 10 of them, 3 decades later, are still active & evolving writers. I’ve read work by all of these poets that I’ve found compelling; at least half of them have written books very important to me.

Whether we take the “Language” movement as a moment in these poets’ collective past or a still-active tendency in contemporary writing, the proof of the pudding is after all in the reading, & I for one am hankering for the next installment of The Grand Piano.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Toy Piano

[This post began as a meditation on The Grand Piano, part 1, & became something else – a meditation on the reception of Language Poetry by a poet born in the mid-1960s, who first encountered the language poets on the page in his early 20s, & only met them in the flesh somewhat later.]

By the time I graduated from Virginia Tech, I was pretty deeply versed in “high” modernist poetry. I had written an honors thesis on the Poundian ideogram & its contemporary manifestations in Robert Duncan’s poetry, Guy Davenport’s fiction, & Hugh Kenner’s criticism. I was reading Ronald Johnson, Olson, WCW, Jonathan Williams, Robin Blaser, Leslie Scalapino. I had started to read Zukofsky. And I had heard, but only heard, something about this thing called “language poetry.”

Over the next few years, as I pursued my grad work at Cornell, I worked hard to bring myself up to speed on this “new” avant-garde. I bought & read the anthologies – The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, In the American Tree, “Language” Poetries – and the few critical works as they hit the shelves – George Hartley’s Textual Politics and the Language Poets (1989), Linda Reinfeld’s Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue (1992). The campus bookstore had a pretty excellent poetry section, & I could get almost any new book from Sun & Moon or Roof as soon as it was published. And the used bookstores wre unfailing sources for the prehistory of many of the LPs’ publishing, in the form of Ithaca House books.

During I think my 2nd year at Cornell, John Taggart alerted me that a pair of very interesting poets were on their way to Ithaca; the following Fall Harryette Mullen joined the faculty & brought with her her then-husband Ted Pearson, who had been – in his own inimitable parlance – one of the “original players” of the Bay Area Language “scene.” Ted was always delighted to talk, & I, young & impressionable, was happy to spend many hours listening to him reel off lists of names, recount reading series, and analyze the various components of the San Francisco poetry world in the previous decade. (& I would be the last to deny that Ted, thru the example of his own spare, highly lyrical – & sadly undervalued – writing, taught me a great deal about how to put together a poem.)

By the time I got around to writing my dissertation (on LZ and Wallace Stevens) & to reshape it into the book that was published as Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge, the language poets & various others who moved in their general neighborhood had come to represent for me a clear continuation & rethinking of Z’s own innovative poetics. In my book I directly discussed poems by Michael Palmer & Charles Bernstein, & name-dropped at some length a number of other folks – Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, Barrett Watten, Erica Hunt, Lyn Hejinian. (An emblem of my divided loyalties, however, was that my final chapter, on continuations of the “Objectivist” tradition, focused not on any of them but on Taggart & Ron Johnson.)

This is not to say that Language Poetry was entirely unheard of in Ithaca in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, tho the poets in Cornell’s MFA program – AR Ammons, Kenneth MacClane, Phyllis Janowitz, & Robert Morgan – showed little interest in much alt-poetry. (They had other things to offer: Bob brought John Matthias & Geoffrey Hill to campus, & Phyllis had on the wall of her office a life-sized, deeply-cleavaged photograph of her novelist daughter Tama, who seemed to smile down when workshop became insufferably tedious.) Cecil Giscombe was managing editor of Epoch; he brought Nathaniel Mackey for a reading, commissioned me to write a review of Bedouin Hornbook & Eroding Witness, and allowed me to edit an issue of the magazine in which Clark Coolidge and Charles Bernstein appeared.

But even as he was ruminating over the good old days in San Francisco (over endless cups of coffee, followed by bourbon shots with Heineken chasers), Ted was alerting me to the existence of what WCW once called “a new wave of it” – a group of younger writers – God help me, of more or less my own generation – who were carrying on the Language torch: Andrew Levy, Benjamin Friedlander, Jessica Grim, Jena Osman, Jennifer Moxley, and others. As if my own sense of provincial belatedness were not already acute enough – not merely was struggling to take in the example of an avant-garde now almost 2 decades old, but I needed to come to terms with a cohort of writers my own age, for whom the LPs were immediate & available forebears.

Perhaps, I now believe (sour grapes?), there something enabling in such belated marginality. At least, when I read Jessica Smith, a poet perhaps 15 years my junior, lamenting the almost hegemonic influence of the Language Poets at Buffalo, I feel grateful for not having come of age in the shadow of that “scene,” and only coming to touch the hem of its garment in later years.
This is the point where I actually start talking about The Grand Piano – but damn! Mr UPS has just brought me 550 pages of page proofs to read, & J. is out of town thru the weekend (San Diego, the Shakespeare Association) so I have to get up at 7 to feed the children – and what am I gonna say about Nausicaa & Oxen of the Sun tomorrow night – what am I doing blogging?!?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Among the Kabbalists

A lovely if somewhat shambolic – or perhaps lovely because shambolic – seder this evening at a colleague’s house. Yesterday we ventured down to Hollywood (FL) to meet up with some family members who’re in town to celebrate Pesach with the Kabbalah Centre (TM); when I got home I found myself sent back to Gershom Scholem, determined after all these years to knuckle down & tackle Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. The medieval Kabbalists about whom Scholem writes would have little to do with Scholem himself, with his own resolutely rationalist and historicizing habits; I suspect the present-day adherents of the Kabbalah Centre would have even less. In turn, I imagine Scholem’s shade is glad that he didn’t live to see what forms his beloved Kabbalah has taken these days.

From what I understand, Rabbi Philip Berg of the Kabbalah Centre & his followers regard Kabbalah less as a sort of gnosticism or “mysticism,” an immediate communing with the godhead, than as a technology. “You don’t have to believe in it,” I was straightfacedly told; “that’s the beauty of Kabbalah: it’s not just another organized religion, it’s science, a technology to tap into the spiritual structure of the world. Just to look at the words of the Zohar, even if you don’t read Aramaic, sets beneficial forces in motion.”

The potential of such a faith-neutral spiritual technology is breathtaking – not least its potential as a profit-making enterprise. At the various Kabbalah Centres around the world (there’s a large, new, and very plush one here in B––), you can buy beautifully-bound copies of the Zohar; you can buy those red strings Madonna & Britney Spears famously wear, which have been wrapped around the tomb of Rachel and ward off the evil eye; you can buy “Kabbalah Water” (TM), Canadian spring water that Rav Berg has subjected to a process of Kabbalistic meditation, thereby imbuing it with various healthful, even cancer-fighting properties; you can buy Kabbalah Energy Drink, the familiar caffeine-heavy brew with the addition of Kabbalah Water. (“Red Bull with a Red String,” I call it.) The medieval Roman Catholic Church, with all its trade in indulgences & relics, had nothing on these folks.

As someone who was reared in a fundamentalist Protestant church where the taking of the collection seemed to be viewed as a necessary but embarassing, even slightly scandalous part of the Sunday service, the unabashed, enthusiastic product marketing of the Kabbalah Centre has always struck me as alien and disconcerting. There’s a word for it, with which Joyce was quite familiar: simony.

Scholem’s Major Trends shows elegantly how mystical movements such as Kabbalah arise out of & in tension with the ordinary evolution of major religions – that Kabbalah & Hasidism are both part of & other to “normative” Judaism, just as medieval Catholic mysticism could not exist apart from a more generalized Catholic theology & faith practice. Kabbalah, that is, is not a tradition apart from normative Jewish tradition of interpreting & following Torah, but is a particular mystical or gnostic-like counterpart to those traditions, which takes those traditions as a baseline & extends them in particular directions.

But the Kabbalah (TM) of the Kabbalah Centre, it seems to me, is no longer a form of Jewish religious hermeneutics or religious practice, no longer a form of Jewish mysticism at all. Kabbalah (TM) is spirituality for the first-world global consumer, what the grand traditions of the medieval rabbis have been reduced to under Late Capitalism. Salvation – in the form of little bits of red string, $400 sets of the Zohar, videos of Rav Berg’s lectures & homilies, bottles & pallets of holy – er, Kabbalah – water, cans of carbonated energy drink – can now be easily bought – bought for hard cash, bought thru easy (but expensive) courses of study & Amway-like personal marketing; but never at the price of real spiritual assent, of what the old-fashioned would call faith.

Like Apple’s GarageBand software, which offers one the opportunity to make pretty good-sounding pop records without the hassle of actually learning an instrument – & I’m sorry, all you shiny anti-“Rockists” out there, but learning to play a real-time instrument, from the human voice to the violin, is of a far higher order of qualitative difficulty than mastering a piece of software – Kabbalah (TM) offers an ersatz version of the rewards of traditional religion without ever asking its adherents to make the ultimate commitment: to actively change their lives, and change their world.

[I’m well aware, by the way, that there seems to be a good deal of evidence that what Berg’s Kabbalah Centre organization offers its rank & file members is something much more closely approximating the demands of the “cults” one heard so much about back in the ‘80s – constant financial demands, a regimented lifestyle, a kind of military devotion. (See this Guardian article, for instance.) But for its more well-heeled adherents, the Madonnas & Britney Spearses of the world, Kabbalah (TM) offers a guaranteed spiritual technology, & demands in return neither faith nor a changed life, but the most painless sacrifice of all – the abstract marker of exchange-value we call money.]