Thursday, June 28, 2007

Available Now!

For those of you (Jessica among others) who want instant gratification – or at least as instant as 5-months-in-advance gratification can be – The Poem of a Life is now available for pre-order from And such a bargain! (Mind you, the list price of $30 for the handcover, so far as I'm concerned, is already a bargain...) And it'll be out just in time for the holiday gift-giving season, if you take my hint.

Yes, that's right. The fruit of 7 or 8 years of grubbing in the archives (think Gandalf in the Minas Tirith scrolls basement, minus the pipe & tankard of ale), interviewing poets, writers, & folk of all walks of life from San Francisco to Edinburgh, and (mostly) bending over a legal pad or a word processor in a haze of tobacco smoke & caffeine – is finally available for general purchase.

The preliminary jacket copy (with one error corrected) reads as follows:
The Poem of a Life is the first critical biography of Louis Zukofsky, a fascinating and crucially important American modernist poet. It details the curve of his career, from the early Waste Land-parody “Poem beginning 'The'” (1926) to the dense and tantalizing beauties of his last poems, 80 Flowers (1978), paying special attention to the monumental, complex, and formally various epic poem “A”, on which Zukofsky labored for almost fifty years, and which he called “a poem of a life."

Zukofsky was a protégé of Ezra Pound's, an artistic collaborator and close friend of William Carlos Williams's, and the leader of a whole school of 1930s avant-garde poets, the Objectivists. Later in life he was close friends with such younger writers as Robert Creeley, Paul Blackburn, Robert Duncan, Jonathan Williams, and Guy Davenport. His work spans the divide from modernism to postmodernism, and his later writings have proved an inspiration to whole new generations of innovative poets. Zukofsky's poetry is oblique, condensed, and as fantastically detailed as the late writings of James Joyce, yet it bears at every point the marks of the poet's life and times.
All this in some 450-odd pages of text, another hundred or so of lovingly detailed notes (at least one joke in the notes, for those who actually read these things), and a carefully prepared – tho alas not particularly Zukofskyan – index. And packaged, if I may say so myself, in one of the most handsome books that the legendary designer David Bullen has ever produced. So for the love of Pete, & for my daughters' college funds, go forth & BUY!

(Feel free to post to listservs, to announce on your own blog, to tell your neighbors...)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


The latest blog hiatus stems from a week-long trip to God’s Country (the Old Homestead) – an alright “vacation,” so to speak, tho I’ll be cleansing my system of the accumulated lipids of barbeque and fried catfish for weeks to come. Of course I brought a stack of books to “work” with and work thru, & ended up reading almost none of them (save Geoffrey Hill’s Without Title, upon which I’ll comment soon). Instead, as always happens when I visit C—, I ended up pulling down things from my own pre-college shelves & from my dad’s library. This time around, for some reason I was seized with the desire to learn something about the Enlightenment, so I pulled a stack of books on the subject.

Harold Nicolson’s The Age of Reason is by no means a hardcore piece of intellectual history, but rather a series of vivid thumbnail portraits of major figures from Bayle to Rousseau (with side-trips to Ben Franklin, Dr Johnson, the Stürm und Drang, et al.): Compulsively readable – I knew I should be embarking on something more substantial, like Paul Hazard or the complete Plutarch I’d hauled down, but I just couldn’t forego another evening with Nicholson’s graceful prose & eminently reasonable summary judgements. (That is, when I wasn’t pleasurably wasting time with eminently disposable genre fiction like Moorcock’s The Silver Warriors – the first of his novels I ever read, maybe 30 years ago, & I remember little more of its plot having read it just last week than I did a decade back – or A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool – a tremendously spooky, compelling opening score pages, which immediately thereafter disintegrates into the the worst sort of Buck Rogers pulp.)

I did manage, however, to make a substantial start on Ernst Cassirer’s still-magnificent The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Cassirer’s is the sort of book of intellectual history that just takes my breath away with its broad-ranging yes-I’ve-read-everything scope, keen close studies of individual figures & passages, & overarching historical perspective. Makes me wish I hadn’t given up philosophy after taking that undergrad degree. (Well, given it up as anything but a left-handed hobby.)
One of the odder experiences of the week was the repeated expeditions into the broiling attic with Pippa (5) to retrieve various of Daddy’s old toys for the girls to play with. Odd, in that as I unpackd each box of Legos or Lincoln Logs or whatever, I would be seized by a kind of somatic memory: my hands would remember how each part fit into the next, how I could make one shape, one structure or another out of these inert pieces of plastic or wood, & a whole miasma of childhood obsession would come rushing back on me. for her part, P was less fascinated by the toys per se than by their “association value” – that they had been Daddy’s once upon a time. At any rate, we’ve UPS’d a few boxes of them (along with, yes, many books) to Florida. Time will tell which of us spends the most time playing with them.
Suprisingly enough, I didn’t feel particularly bereaved by 9 days without internet access, obsessive reading of blogs, newspapers, watching of eBay auctions, etc. Not that I haven’t been catching up today (& sifting thru a great mass of e-mail). As to Our University, two items caught my eye: A local paper responds to an internal “university family” memo from our Glorious Leader; and we seem to be on the verge of enlarging our endowment (!) by what I like to call the “death dividend.”

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Index, relief at completion of

One begins with the notion of the ideal index, the key to all the book’s mythologies, the list that is itself a re-visioning of the book, a re-seeing of its shape & bearing. Or, failing that, the invaluable readerly tool, the list that enables the casual scanner to pounce straight on whatever information she or he desires.

But then reality – the clock, the calendar – intervenes. With galleys in hand, one realizes that one has 3 or even 2 weeks to produce something, some sort of index. On the desk – in the CD drive – is nearly 500 pages of text, goddess knows how many proper names, places, events, titles of poems, novels, plays, essays, periodicals, musical scores.

To a large extent, computer searching of the pdf files can take care of this. Key in, say, “Turnbull” for the late, lovely Gael Turnbull, & up pop 20 or so mentions of his name. But what of the numerous “Williams”es (Jonathan, Floss, William Carlos – often “Bill,” or even, in one letter, “Unkle Bull Walrus”)? And what of the family members who so often become “her son” or “his father”? There’s no algorithm to find those. And there’s no digital method to know what’s there to be found in those 475 pages, short of actually reading them again. Did I mention the poems quoted without titles mentioned, the tags & sentences plucked out of unattributed essays? One has come a long way from the hundreds of index cards on a big, big table – but one can’t do the job without a good supply of paper, pens, and highlighters handy.

It’s no surprise, as I lamented last week, that so many indices are little more than concordances of proper names & titles. When one has nailed down those names & titles, there’s not a hell of a lot of energy left to tackles themes, ideas, even events. (& of those proper names, who deserves to thunder in the index? “Wyatt, Sir Thomas,” cited some 4 times as the sources of an (unquoted) passage, as a font of English lyric tradition, as a pioneer of the English sonnet? – but never quoted. The dozens of poets & artists name-dropt as characteristic of a given aesthetic moment? I’m inclined towards the big tent – let’s see what my editor has to say.)

But it’s not a very Zukofskyan index. As J. said the other day, “have you indexed a?” Me: “Of course I’ve indexed “A” – and I’ve indexed “A”-1, “A”-2…” J: “No – have you indexed a, & an, & the?” LZ & Celia had time and leisure & the sheer obsessiveness necessary to produce idiosyncratic indices, selective x-rays of the work done. I – Professor Microscope Drudge – I muddled thru as best I could.

Inevitably, however, indexing reveals even to the author things unseen before, unseen even in copy-editing & proofreading stages: thematic threads I’d thought lightly touched upon become pounding Wagnerian leitmotifs; names dropt as casual scenery turned out, surprisingly, to have been dropt over & over – who’d’ve thought I had a Tennyson obsession? And the sheer comprehensiveness – from Adams, Brooks, to Zukowsky, Morris, not a letter of the alphabet or a period of literary history untouched. A book far more learned than its author – or at least I hope so.
For the casual dropper-by, I refer to my forthcoming The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007). Publisher’s – or rather, distributor’s – announcement can be found here.

Michael Hamburger (1924–2007)

Since no-one in the alt-poetry world has to my knowledge noted his passing, I’ll say a few things on behalf of the fine English poet Michael Hamburger, who used to joke that all his introductions began “Better known as a translator…” Yes, that’s true: his Sebald and Hölderlin translations are excellent, and his Celan translations are philologically speaking still among the very best: indeed, one might argue that one reason Celan translations in general have been as aggressively exploratory as they’ve been over the past two decades is the very high benchmark Hamburger set with Paul Celan: Poems. The Truth of Poetry: Tensions in Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the 1960s is a scrupulous, even-handed study of European poetry in the best comparatist tradition, by a poet who is by no means hostile to modernism, but who is at the same time skeptical of messianic claims on behalf of any given movement or tendency.

From his Collected Poems 1941–1983 (Carcanet 1984): Two bits of Martialism:

Take rhetoric and wring its neck.
Ditto, with anti-rhetoric.
Then, poet, all temptation gone
To fake or posture, wring your own.

Poor Performance

Why is your tone so low, so low,
Why is your tone so thin?–
Because I’m playing solo, solo
On a plastic violin.
And the final piece, “Dying”:
So that’s what it’s like: hearing them talk still
In a whisper, and letting your love pick up
Crumbs in response from the bare table
Till – there are crumbs left, things to be said
And their voices are audible still and their faces
Clearer than ever – another need
orders withdrawal, silence.
A bad joke, you think, this pretending not to be there –
And are gone, where they will follow.
Going, have punctured the bubble, time,
So that your wide-open eyes insist:
Speak louder, my near ones, laugh, and rejoice.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Our University on the blogosphere!

From the midst of a sea of letters & numbers, all to sorted into the right order: once again, Our University is in the news, and University Diaries (Margaret Soltan) has cast her cold eye upon our "community" in this typically cutting post.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Indexing, aesthetics of

Various views of the index: The Chicago Manual stance, in which the index is the indispensible tool for finding what you want to find, for getting to the heart of the book & tearing it out (as Dr Johnson was said to read books, handling them so roughly his friends ceased lending them to him). An elegant road-map, an aerial photograph of the text’s territory.

Or – the index as a re-seeing of the volume, a re-reading of what one has already written. Zukofsky’s own indices: the index to Prepositions, which is nothing but concepts; the collaborative index to “A” – LZ indexed only “a,” “an,” and “the,” and his wife Celia did the rest, chiding him that no-one would find a three-word index of any earthly use. As if anyone “uses” the index to “A” that way. (Note to self: re-read “A”, not from the beginning, but thru the index.)

Alice couldn’t abide books without pictures or conversations: I love a book with a long, rich index. My ideal of the index is an endless labyrinth of topics, subtopics, cross-references, rich asides & inside jokes. Hugh Kenner used to tag proper names with little titles: Derrida, Jacques (deconstructeur).

But I have less than three weeks to weave my ideal index, and 450-odd pages to sort thru. No wonder more often than not one meets with a sigh the pallid index of the academic study, all proper names & titles, nary a concept or event or argument. My publisher sends along as a handy example of an “author-indexed book” a copy of David Castronovo & Janet Groth’s Critic in Love: A Romantic Biography of Edmund Wilson. Blurb: “a romantic biography of Edmund Wilson, detailing his shagfests with luscious luminaries…as well as satisfying nights on the town with drinking buddies… Big kiss.” (Note to self: write a book that will win the words “shagfests” and “luscious luminaries” on the back.) I turn to the index: no “shagfest”; no “sex”; under “Wilson, Edmund” no “favorite positions” or “loses virginity to Edna St. Vincent Millay.” Just a list of names & book titles. Sigh.

Pity me my laptop and printout and three-colored highlighters.
Good Zukofsky talk in as yet (by me) unvisited corners of the blogosphere, here and here.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Turkish delight / various

So we’re back from a long weekend away – the less said the better, a combination of great fun & some highly irritating moments & more than moments. I’ve hurt my foot somehow, & find myself limping around rather pitifully & contemplating getting one of those electric scooters so popular among the retirees hereabouts.

Reading is various (as usual). My fears came true, & I’ve been sucked into what is for me the enormous pleasures of Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf has just fallen with the Balrog off the bridge of Khazad-Dûm, which means it’s time for a breather. My own enjoyment of Tolkien, I find, has not been much altered by Peter Jackson’s really quite successful film versions. I have my cavils about his presentation of characters – Frodo’s really much too young, & there’s no reason to play Pippin & Merry for laughs, but on the other hand Jackson’s made it possible for me to visually imagine Aragorn for the first time time – but the real problem with Jackson’s movies is that he’s bent on turning what is essentially a quest novel into an action epic, so much of the 3 films end up revolving around a big set battle scene: the death of Boromir in Fellowship, Helm’s Deep in Towers, & the Pelennor Fields in Return – this is blown entirely out of proportion in comparison to its scope in the novel. Think about it: the vast battles of Helm’s Deep & the Pelennor Fields, which occupy maybe 45 minutes apiece in the latter 2 films & cost zillions of dollars in special effects & thousands of extras – in Tolkien, they fill respectively 16 and 11 pages of text.
On the other hand, Michael Moorcock’s Mother London (1988) is turning out to be a pretty rivetting read, despite the fact that practically nothing happens in the book: it’s a series of vignettes, scenes, arranged in a kind of whirlygig anti-chronological sequence over 4 decades – an arrangement which I’ve given up trying to sort out, though I suppose it could be done.
The big discovery for me on holiday was Algernon Charles Swinburne (who, admittedly, I’d read around in a number of times over the last couple decades, but never head-on). I’d been thinking a bit about ACS, particularly in regards to something Ron Johnson said to me maybe 20 years ago, when we discussing Zukofsky’s “A”-22 & -23, & he was extolling their sound values, their “music.” Yes, I said, playing grad-student-devil’s-advocate, but can’t you say the same for Swinburne? “Oh sure,” sez RJ, “but Swinburne’s music is like eating Turkish delight. Zuk is like gnawing a marrow-bone.”

I’m happy to admit that I love Turkish delight, both in its debased, chocolate-covered English candy-bar form & in the original levantine shape. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this “delicacy,” it’s basically a gummi-like candy made of sugar & corn starch, wth rosewater flavoring & sometimes a bit of almonds on top. So, remembering Ron’s saying, I took down my old Caracanet selected Swinburne the other day & launched in.

And found myself entranced. ACS is indeed the laureate of diffuseness, as somebody once said: he makes Shelley at times read like an Objectivist. But there can be an aesthetic of diffuseness, as well – lots of Whitman qualifies, not to mention recent Ashbery. But Swinburne is an astonishing formal master, & there’s a tasty undercurrent of pain and bondage – not to mention an intoxicating overcurrent of rank sensuality – that quite fascinating. Dig these stanzas from Laus Veneris, Swinburne’s version of the Tannhäuser story:
So lie we, not as sleep that lies by death,
With heavy kisses and with happy breath;
Not as many lies by woman, when the bride
Laughs low for love’s sake and the words he saith.

For she lies, laughing low with love; she lies
And turns his kisses on her lips to sighs,
To sighing sound of lips unsatisfied,
And the sweet tears are tender with her eyes.

Ah, not as they, but as the souls that were
Slain in the old time, having found her fair;
Who, sleeping with her lips upon their eyes,
Heard sudden serpents hiss across her hair.

Their blood runs round the roots of time like rain:
She casts them forth and gathers them again;
With nerve and bone she weaves and multiplies
Exceeding pleasure out of extreme pain.

Her little chambers drip with flower-like red,
Her girdles, and the chaplets of her head,
Her armlets and her anklets; with her feet
She tramples all that winepress of the dead.

Her gateways smoke with fume of flowers and fires,
With loves burnt out and unassuaged desires;
Between her lips the steam of them is sweet,
The languor in her ears of many lyres.

Her beds are full of perfume and sad sound,
Her doors are made with music, and barred round
With sighing and with laughter and with tears,
With tears whereby strong souls of men are bound.