Thursday, May 31, 2007


We leave tomorrow for a long weekend of "holiday," which as every parent of preschoolers knows involves much more labor than any two weeks of "work."
Revisiting Ronald Johnson's early work has many pleasures, among them revisiting Blake's illuminated books (too little looked into in the past decade) & happening back upon William Empson's wonderful bitchy Milton's God, full of wonderfully human anti-Christianisms that make Christopher Hitchens seem like a hamfisted angry drunk. E.g: "I think the traditional God of Christianity very wicked, and have done since I was at school, where nearly all my little playmates thought the same."
Please keep me away from The Fellowship of the Ring; I fell into the first three chapters today, & can see the next two weeks – which must, must be occupied with Johnsonizing & indexing – being simply washed away on a tide of pleasure reading.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Michael Moorcock: The Brothel in Rosenstrasse

Somewhere in the sixties (the number, not the decade) I lose count of how many Michael Moorcock novels I’ve read. Most of them I consumed at a gluttonous rate in my early teens, when DAW books was reissuing his novels in paperback editions. I recall most of them in a blur – sword & sorcery epics, alternate histories, fantasy books that thought very hard about “big” issues, a very little bit of hard SF – their prose qualities mercifully repressed. Once upon a time, I would read two or three Moorcocks in a week; I would later learn that MM hadn’t spent much more time than that writing them.

Out of the many novel series and interrelated threads of his fiction, one made a real impact beyond filling my adolescent head with heroic phantasmagoria and proto-Goth angst: the Cornelius Chronicles, four novels featuring the superlatively hip Jerry Cornelius, who pursued his adventures in an urban landscape that was a cross betweeen Austin Powers’s swinging ‘60s London & a post-apocalyptic nightmare. I think I got my first taste of prose postmodernism in the later volumes of the Cornelius books, a fractured, modular storytelling that privileged mosaic juxtaposition over narrative continuity – & which, as I discovered last year, remains eminently readable (as opposed to his “fantasy” novels, which are as embarassing as the songs one danced to in 1984).

The Brothel in Rosenstrasse (1982), which followed Moorcock’s Elizabethan fantasy Gloriana; or, The Unfulfill’d Queen, is the beginning of MM’s (still-continuing) bid to become a “serious” author. It’s part historical novel – tho the central European principality & city in which it’s set, Wäldenstein & Mirenburg, are a fantasized combination of Vienna & Prague – part feverish war memoir, & part erotic/pornographic fantasy. It’s frankly a pretty good read, tho I was always conscious while reading of what put me off of the book the 2 or 3 times I’d started it before: the texture of MM’s writing, of his prose. His descriptive prose is occasionally lyrical, sometimes awkward, & usually readable but no better. His dialogue is sometimes okay, but all too often wooden, sententious, barely believeable.

Over the last 20 years or so Moorcock has been dispensing advice to young fantasy writers that always begins with the caveat, Stop reading fantasy all the time! Read Dickens, read Kafka, read Joyce, read novelists more concerned with the quality of their prose than with the dimensions of their protagonists’ weapons or the precise effects of their wizards’ spells. But I fear that Moorcock’s own apprenticeship, churning out “Elric” & “Hawkmoon” & “Corum” novels at the rate sometimes of one every two weeks, has had the effect of so blunting his own self-critical eye for prose that he may never be able to write the truly fine work to which he aspires.

We’ll see. Next up on the summer reading list is MM’s Whitbread-shortlisted Mother London, then his recent King of the City. Moorcock wants to be reckoned in the same league as JG Ballard, Peter Ackroyd, and Iain Sinclair, rather than Robert E. Howard & Lin Carter. On the evidence of The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, he’s got a ways to go, but he’s started in the right direction.

Allen Ginsberg / guitar picks

Eric, who’s vowed that he won’t let Say Something Wonderful die, has posted a lovely little video of Allen Ginsberg singing “Father Death Blues,” a bit of tape which brought me pretty close to tears. It’s Ginsberg’s elegy for his father Louis, so it made me think of Eric’s father & my own father, who passed away within a few years of each half a decade or so ago. As Eric says, it’s a “sweet, sweet” poem – and it’s also a pretty darned good poem, & more than that, an excellent piece of folk-pop songwriting.
It’s made me consider rethinking my rather knee-jerk alt-poetry Ginsberg line, which goes something like this: AG works hard at it, busts out of bad formal verse & by dint of lots of trial & error & a great deal of labor writes two magnificent poems (“Howl” of course and “Kaddish”) & and handful of very good ones; then sometime in the 1960s he starts taking the “first thought best thought” business seriously & his work goes straight into the dumper, so that you can safely ignore everything he wrote after (arbitrarily) 1965 or so. (Which didn’t keep me from going to see him read at SUNY Cortland in 1988 or so, & enjoying it immensely.
My one conversation with Allen Ginsberg:
Me (from urinal on right): I’ve admired your work forever. I’m really looking forward to your reading.
AG (from urinal on left): Thank you very much. I hope you enjoy it.)

But hearing Ginsberg deliver “Father Death Blues,” & seeing that it really does stand up on the page as well – not as a dense, wildly iconoclastic piece of alt-poetry, but as a fully-achieved, modest, angular elegy – makes me want to go back & explore the post-“Kaddish” Ginsberg in the detail I haven’t allowed myself before.

(“Father Death Blues,” by the way, sounds really boss on the Irish bouzouki, where you can get a wonderful drony-thing going on the lower strings during the A chord.)
On a not entirely unrelated note: I’d been wondering what critter had been eating guitar picks around the house lately. I was sure I’d had at least a half-dozen lying around or threaded thru the strings of various stringed instruments, but when I picked up the acoustic to thrash thru the AG song, there was nary a plectrum to be found. Until I shook the guitar, & heard at least two of the little devils rattling around inside. Daphne, apparently, has decided that the proper storage facility for Daddy’s little bits of plastic is – admittedly rather logically – inside the stringed instruments he uses them to play. The final count: 2 inside the Washburn acoustic, 2 inside the bouzouki, 2 inside the gold-flake Sorrento, and 1 inside the ES-295 – at least one pick inside every instrument with a soundhole to receive it.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Morerotica; dyspeptic Latta; Greenblatt's Shax

That last entry looks a bit cranky, I guess, or a bit – as I think I said – ‘self-interested.’ But ‘erotic,’ as it’s defined on the dictionary packaged with my laptop, does have something to not just with sex, but with “arousal” – so that for a piece of writing to be ‘erotic’ there ought to at gesture towards what one of the Lustbites bloggers Eric cites refers to as ‘one-handed reading.’ ‘Kinetic’ art, pokerfaced Stephen Dedalus calls it in Portrait, & dismisses it (prig!).

So the ‘erotic,’ like the obscene, perforce varies from reader to reader: Alan Davies’s Rave doesn’t qualify for me, while Daphne Gottlieb’s Final Girl often does (tho I think I ought to feel guilty about that). Kathy Acker – almost never, tho some folks seem to get quite a charge therefrom. Cleland, yes indeed, Sade, for a moment – before the boredom & disgust set in.

I recall an odd moment when I was at the beginning of a (scholarly) piece that looked like it might involve a good bit of thinking about desire: I asked a monstrously well-read colleague what he’d recommend on the subject, only to get the conventional brace of Frenchmen: Sade & Bataille (Erotism, Story of the Eye). But what about objects of desire which aren’t a) in pain b) tied up, or c) in the process of being dismembered? Without coming across like James Dobson or some other dreadful retrograde, I can’t help wondering what’s happened to straightforward sexuality in contemporary critical discourse? In a profession that prides itself upon its radical openness to sexuality and the somatic (Terry Eagleton says somewhere – or he ought to have – that there’re more “bodies” at the MLA these days than there were on Flodden Field), how come consensual desire has been almost entirely ignored in favor of discussing various flavors of S/M? It’s almost enough to make one sign on with Eric’s romance bloggistes.

But Michael Moorcock’s The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, which I seem to have acquired almost two decades ago, & only now am actually reading, is proving quite tasty. Don’t get me started on Moorcock, okay?
Speaking of cranky, somebody’s really peed in John L.’s cereal these days, judging by the frequency & velocity of the missiles he's flinging. Greasy eminences in the business of promoting followers or mythologizing their own past should take note: at least one vox clamantis in deserto is out to puncture y’r pretensions.
After much kvetching over its first 100 pages, I finished Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare in a state of pretty much surrender. That is, I read the first stretch with the eye of a critic of biography, looking out for the spots when SG built rhetorical certainties on foundations of speculation, moments when he allowed his imagination of what Shax might have done become accounts of what Shax did.

Once SG’s gotten his major biographical project out of the way – as the subtitle indicates, this is an account of Shax’s Bildung, his formation – the book settles into an intricately linked & effortlessly eloquent series of biographical essays: Shax & the formative rivalry with Marlowe & the other “university wits,” the sonnets & their relation to Southampton, Merchant of Venice and the execution of the crypto-Jew Lopez, Hamlet & the invention of dramatic interiority. And I read, I found my reservations about SG’s biographical methods, if not falling away, then at least lessening. Perhaps it’s because he’s on more securely “canonical” grounds here – many, many biographers have written about the connection between Hamlet & Shax’s son Hamnet, between Prospero’s broken staff & Shax’s retirement from the theater, between Banquo & Macbeth & the accession of the witch-obsessed Scot James VI to the English throne.

Which is to say in part that there are no surprises in the last 2/3 of Will in the World, once Greenblatt has gotten the bee of Shax’s possible crypto-Catholicism out of his bonnet. But it is all beautifully done, handled with thoughtful straightforwardness, punchy, sensitive prose, & even occasional wit. (If anything, SG’s greatest fault is an excess of earnestness.)

Will in the World is not the first Shax biography one ought to read; far too much historical, sociological, & literary background is simply passed over or assumed.* It is as it were a meditation on selected themes in Shax’s life & works, best pitched to those who already know something of the play & the life. But it’s a fine book, a study – & this is one of my highest categories of praise – that’s worth the time to argue with.

*My own semi-random recommendations, for what they’re worth, are Park Honan’s Shakespeare (Oxford UP, 1998) and Dennis Kay’s Shakespeare (Morrow, 1992).

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Alan Davies: Rave

Blurbage: “The erotic works of Alan Davies hold a unique place in contemporary literature. They do not focus on the fantasy of sex, underwear and velvet ropes, but on the language of sex and the social framework of sex in a very sexy way…. Rave is avant-garde poetry as spice.”

Well. Maybe my own definition of “erotic” writing is a trifle narrow, even self-serving, but I’ve always felt that “erotic" writing shouldn’t just be about sex, but ought to have a particular effect on the reader – you know, the sort of stuff, that get you, well, er, aroused.

That’s definitely not happening in the 2nd long poem Alan Davies’s Rave (Roof, 1994), “Vitals,” where a kind of schematic reduction of about 40 pornographic novels (“Jessica listened Jodie. wJ watched wJ2. Jessica listened Jodie. wJ2 watched wJ breasts. wJ2 touched wJ2 c––t. wJ2 touched wJ c––t” etc.) is accompanied by diagrams of how to make a hotel bed.

And I doubt anybody’s getting particularly tingly over “Split Thighs," either, tho this is excellent verse in Davies’s characteristic disjunctive, musically sensitive mode:
gaff droll surmise hot
matrimony slot toted
mercurial glimmer stuffed
strafe moaned silence
lurid clam amour
stayed remorse
enunciate score triads
splice moray quiver
managed treat stones
slay frugal stand
man again
lanced effort
what life

flange tamed surety
tinted great anglings
glide slurred utter
prick stone word slit
other slowed spices
mute arguable treats
three graded stammer
stepping mowed alp
I like Alan Davies’s poetry very much, have for a long time. And I like most of Rave (that is, I like “Split Thighs” and the final “short story” “Isherwood Novel,” and could live without “Vitals”). It’s a pretty fascinating analysis of the language & phenomenology of sexuality, but it’s not what I call erotica.

Daphne Gottlieb / Stephen Greenblatt / Garry Wills

Daphne Gottlieb, Final Girl (Soft Skull, 2003): "Final girl” theory, adumbrated by Jane Dark’s mum Carol Clover – the last woman left alive in the slasher film, the one who just barely manages to off the semi-human killing machine. A scary, very contemporary mix of slam-performance-beat rhythms and intonations, Suicide Girl aesthetics, and grindhouse cinema – with a canny sense of historically grounded feminist foreground: Mary Rowlandson’s abduction during the 17th-century King Philip’s war in Massachussets reimagined as the first slasher movie, the first “final girl” narrative. Prostitutes, strippers, sex workers of all stripes, the babysitter desired by the middle-aged bourgeois father, the broken condom; drinking, drugs, sex, etc.
Shax as proto-postmodernist, courtesy of Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World): “Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occulding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.” Or ST Coleridge, on Iago: “motiveless malignity.”
Garry Wills, on how to make the inert second half of Shax’s “Scottish drama” work in the theater (Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth): It's simple, stupid: just don’t cut Hecate and the witches.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

summer stupor

Almost a week & a half into my own summer vacation, what for way too many of my colleagues is the first summer term – & aside from a week’s worth of paper-sorting & -shredding & -tossing out, nothing of any real moment accomplished. Read Carl Rollyson’s A Higher Form of Cannibalism?: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography (Ivan R. Dee, 2005), a deeply uninspired set of meditations on writing lives; makes me think that I too could toss out a not-too-smart book on biography in a few weeks’ heavy work. Chapter 1: Milton, divorce, marriage in Paradise Lost; Chapter 2: Stephen Dedalus as the young James Joyce, ironic distance in Portrait & Ulysses; Chapter 3: TS Eliot’s bad marriage & The Waste Land; Chapter 4: Paul Celan, Martin Heidegger, & “Todtnauberg.” 200 pp. manuscript, with a ruminative pipe & brandy introduction.
The most astonishing thing I’ve read about TS Eliot & anti-Semitism in a long time: Denis Donoghue, commenting (in Words Alone) on the (in)famous passage from After Strange Gods, “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable”:
Eliot’s social philosophy at this point is no more questionable than if he were to say, alive and writing now, that reasons of race and religion combine to make it undesirable that any large number of Palestinians should live in the predominantly Jewish state of Israel, or undesirable that a large number of Irish Catholics nationalists should live in the predominantly Protestant and loyalist Northern Ireland, or that a large number of ethnic Albanians should live in Serbia. The resultant heterogeneity, it would be reasonable to say, is bad for everybody, including the dominant party.
Slobodan Milosevic or Ian Paisley couldn’t have said it better. That, my friends, is the quality of “reasonableness” that will get you a named chair at New York University.
We had the cat put to sleep today; Aphra had been creaking about the house with increasing difficulty over the past few weeks, & the blood tests showed almost total kidney failure – a kind of systemic poisoning. A good long life – 18 years – by my estimate, probably 12 or 14 of them spent sleeping in the sun. The vet was decent enough to pay a house call for the euthanization, & I drove up with the girls – both primed with a long talk from their mother – just as he was finishing up. He was stepping out to his vehicle (an incongruously huge pickup with 5-foot monster-truck tires), having just administered the injection, carrying a little medical bag.

Pippa (5): I know what you’ve got in that bag!
Vet: Oh, do you?
Pippa: My cat!

As he drove off a quarter hour later with Aphra’s limp grey form wrapped gently in a towel, Daphne (3) stood on the front step for some minutes, waving from the wrist: “Bye-bye, Afree, bye-bye.”

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


With the Spring semester behind us, & the summer’s travels/travails not quite begun, we’re in the midst of a take-no-prisoners clean-down of the house, one front of which is my pitchforking thru six years of stacked TLSes, tearing out occasional things to save before I consign the great mass of newsprint to recycling. An easy job to get sidetracked at, as the old rag’s an endless source of nicely turned sentences & amusing quotations. Slavoj Zizek, from his essay in The Matrix and Philosophy (ed. William Irwin, Open Court, 2002);
When I saw The Matrix at a local theater in Slovenia, I had the unique opportunity of sitting close to the ideal spectator of the film – namely, to an idiot. A man in his late twenties at my right was so absorbed in the movie that he continually disturbed the other viewers with loud exclamations, like “My God, wow, so there is no reality!” I definitely prefer such naïve immersion to the pseudo-sophisticated intellectualist readings which project refined philosophical or psychoanalytic conceptual distinctions into the film. [take that, 2/3 of the other contributors…]
And then there’s one’s amusement at seeing the same factoids trotted out by different reviewers. The first sentence of Declan Kiberd’s “Bloom in Bourgeois Bohemia” (4 June 2004):
According to Richard Ellmann, James Joyce set Ulysses on June 16, 1904, to commemorate the occasion of which he first walked out with Nora Barnacle and she made a man of him.
A bit less than a month later, Brenda Maddox (2 July 2004) opens her review of Carol Loeb Shloss’s Lucia Joyce: To Dance at the Wake:
James Joyce made a religion of himself, with two sacred days in his ecclesiastical calendar: his birthday on February 2, and June 16, the day in 1904 when he first walked out with Nora Barnacle, the girl who became his wife, and on which he subsequently set the entire action of Ulysses.
Marjorie Perloff, reviewing Tom Raworth’s Collected Poems (30 May 2003), recalls a wry comment of Raworth’s on Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”: “I imagine he wrote ‘They tuck you up, your mum and dad’ and then rode the wave of a typo.”
Denis Donoghue (from Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot) on Donald Davie, back in the day in Dublin:
We were not intimate friends. He was morally intimidating, with a touch of the commissar about him. He used the word “infidel” more freely and more deliberately than I supposed it had ever been used since the seventeeth century.
Donoghue himself a man who carries no excess of humility, nor one afraid of passing moral judgments.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


I thought memes had gone out of fashion on the internets, but I’ve just gotten tagged by none other than Ron S. as a “Thinking Blogger,” & while I’m of course flattered by the mention, I’m a bit depressed by how he describes me: “Mark Scroggins, a scrupulous literary scholar who doesn’t take short cuts even in his blog.” Oh well, farewell to my cherished self-image of jaunty, effervescent bons mots, of quicksilver connections & startling juxtapositions. Meet my next avatar: Professor Microscope Drudge. Ain’t that sexy?

(& I do write poems...)

Just for the record, my own five “Thinking Bloggers” (remembering that to my mind “thinking” covers a hell of a lot more than Dupinesque ratiocination or Cartesian headaching): Michael Peverett, Kate Greenstreet, Josh Corey, Juliana Spahr, & John Latta.
In the midst of a veritable s––tstorm of grading, but snatching the rare moment to read a few more pages into a handful of books. Right now, the snazzy juxtaposition of Ruskin’s Aratra Pentelici: Six Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture (1871) & Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993). Odd that both books take the form of lecture series – Ruskin’s a real live course deliver’d at Oxford during Michaelmas Term 1870, McCloud’s a virtual classroom in which a cartoonish reduction of the author hisself lectures us from panel to panel. Both fellas have bigger fish to fry than their immediate subjects, of course: like all of his JR’s late works, Aratra Pentelici is as much about national morals & the ethics of art as it is about a given medium, while SM’C manages to give us a potted global theory of all the arts. A tall order, given that he’s simultaneously trying to defend a medium that gets (or got more often back in ’93) dismissed as the happy hunting ground of spotty teenagers. More later.
One of my two or three favorite English poets, Peter Riley, has a fascinating interview on the Greek website Poeticanet, where he promises to get around to talking about the genealogy of contemporary BritPoetry but never quite gets thru the ‘Sixties. Fascinating nonetheless, especially in his discussion of the modernist poetics of WS Graham & Dylan Thomas.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Our University on the blogosphere!

Check it out: My place of employment (I know this, because I just got an e-mail from the personnel department letting me know that I am free to wear "summer casual" dress these days) has made the front page of Margaret Soltan's splendidly splenetic University Diaries. She's given her post a really catchy title, as well.