Tuesday, January 22, 2008

14.5 minutes & counting

The heady excitement of appearing in the Times Book Review is slowly abating. I sense that I'm in the last half-minute or so of my Warholian 15 minutes. Not that it made much difference in the way we conducted our weekend, save for the Sunday morning trip to the supermarket, where I took P. to the newspaper stand & subtly but ostentatiously bought a pile of Sunday Timeses, flipping thru & saying loudly, "look, honey, there's Daddy's book." As yet, there's been no phone call to join the staff of Poetry or The New Yorker, tho a couple of nice reviewing assignments have dropped into my lap.

Many – many – thanks to everybody who left their congratulations in the comments box (or who backchanneled). It really does mean a lot to me. The inevitable comment, however, was that Dan Chiasson's generous piece had quite a lot to say about Louis Zukofsky but not a hell of a lot to say about The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (still available from Amazon.com – link at left – tho most of the really cheap "new & used" copies have disappeared – but still a steal at $19.80). I of course am not complaining: he said the book was "terrific," & that's an adjective I can live with (right up there with "definitive," "brilliant," "indispensible" etc. – future reviewers take note).

But that's the way of the world for reviews of biographies, isn't it? In the first pages of Reflections on Biography (OUP 1999, still one of the very few semi-rigorous studies of the form), Paula Backscheider recalls her disappointment at reading review after review of her Daniel Defoe: His Life that "narrate[d] pieces of Defoe's exciting life" without commenting on how Backscheider had opted to present that life, the principles of research, selection, and presentation that made the biography what it was.

It's inevitable that this will be especially the case in reviewing the biography of a figure like Zukofsky, whom the average NYTBR reader probably knows only by name (as late as 1992 or so, one of the most prominent American studies people at Harvard, in conversation with me over dinner, revealed that he didn't really know the difference between LZ & Charles Bukowski – "he's really big in Germany, isn't he?") or by reputation, as Mr. Über-obscurity of modernist poetry.

And that's where I think Chiasson's review really shines: he acknowledges the "difficulty" for which LZ's work is famous, starting out by quoting Hugh Kenner on "A" as "The most hermetic poem in English,” a “long intent eccentric unread game.” But then he turns that on its head, & makes an argument for LZ as of all things an intensely personal poet, a poet who ought to be of interest to readers of Henry Adams, Henry James, perhaps even of Robert Lowell. I think it's a canny move indeed, particularly pitched for a particular readership – but a very large readership indeed.

And it's not a false move: despite Chiasson's move (a move that will no doubt irritate some) to wrest LZ away from the baleful clutches of the Language Poets – remember, some of the few American readers who could spell his name correctly thru most of the 1970s & 80s – the "personal" LZ Chiasson describes does not falsify or reduce Zukofsky, but presents one of his several faces – the one most likely to appeal to NYTBR readers.

In this, it's a fruitful contrast to William Logan's mean-spirited review (in the same issue) of Geoffrey Hill's magnificent A Treatise of Civil Power, which castigates Hill for his "difficulty," and complains that "without explication, a poem like Hill’s is hardly a poem, just language at war with itself."* Logan seems to want an immediately accessible poetry of sensitive description: anything beyond that – probings into history, philosophy, etymology – is pretention and kerfluffle. Chiasson acknowledges that Zukofsky is more complex, more challenging than the books the Pitt Poetry Series was publishing thru the 1980s: but then he invites, encourages, nay bids readers to plunge in and find the "human values" in the man's work. And that's fine with me.

And I still like that word "terrific."

*And of course Logan can't resist getting some parting shots in at what for my money are still Hill's finest two collections, The Triumph of Love and Speech! Speech!, which he dismisses as "caterwauling," the products of Hill's "course of antidepressants"; clearly he prefers his poets unmedicatedly depressed.


Su said...

On the word 'terrific': I can never hear or read the word without thinking of the goose (voice of Agnes Moorehead) in the animated film version of Charlotte's Web (1973).

Charlotte asks, "Does anyone know how to spell it?" The goose replies, "I think it's T double-E double-R double-R double-I double-F double-I double-C, C, C." It's the ram who corrects her and advises Charlotte not to consult geese in matters of spelling.

I kind of like the goose's spelling. It makes 'terrific' linger, stay with us longer.

Mark Scroggins said...

Ah, a video in heavy circulation at Culture Industry headquarters (D. having after all a pig fixation); but I'll confess that the middle stretches of the film (ie from Wilbur's adoption thru Charlotte's demise -- which set me a-weeping last time around) are unviewed territory for me, as is the case with many of the girls' favorites.

I'll have to sit thru the whole thing; love Paul Lynde's snarky Templeton, tho.

Jonathan said...

What I liked about the review, probably what I'll like about the biography once I get my hands on it, is the emphasis on the poetry itself. So many biographies just give us everything BUT the poetry (or music, or art, etc...)

I also liked the mere fact the LZ was in the NYT.

Ed Baker said...


just go to the poems... one- word-at-a-time! the poems are where the poet is...

or,maybe you can go to the Cliffs-Notes? ,and "speed-read" ?

jeeze... a person spends 60 years in his work and you want a synopsis?

Mark Scroggins said...

Fie upon thee, Ed! Are you trying to discourage my sales?!?

One big reason I wrote on LZ was to get people to read the poems; they're always welcome to cut out the middleman & go straight to LZ if they like, but maybe they'll enjoy/appreciate/understand 'em just a bit more if they read me alongside Z.

I don't provide Cliff's Notes -- more like running commentary.

Jonathan said...

What the hell? (Ed) What makes you think I am NOT reading the poems? When did I say I wanted a synopsis? (I'm assuming that that is not what Mark's biography is, either, a mere synopsis of "A.")

What's the matter with wanting a biography that actually emphasizes the actual reason why we are interested in the person in the first place? The painting of a painter, the poetry of a poet, etc...? That's all I meant. That's what Mark's book seems to be, based on the reviews I've read and the title "The POEM of of a Life." That's all I was saying. How that came to be construed as a request for Cliff Notes is beyond me. (I double that "Fie!)

And it's not "Johnathan." Who the hell spells it that way?

Ed Baker said...

It'll increase your sales 12-fold...

my copy just got here...

will "marry" it with your

"...and the Poetry of Knowledge"

I ferreaquently use "fie" in my 'ordinary' conversation but, instead of "on thee" I use "on you"
and, in a more-or-less humourous vein..

hang in, spring break isjust around the corner

Henry Gould said...

Agree with you, Mark, about the G. Hill piece. The photo, etc... the drumbeat emphasis on Hill's irascible moroseness, his obscurity... He gives a skewed impression of Hill's complex criticism as well. It was a thoroughly damn-with-faint-praise performance.

If you read Hill's essays on 18th century poets, you see how deeply & carefully he absorbed & studied the particularly sulfurous atmosphere of London literary politics - the hard going professional writers sometimes found there. Logan's kind of bland acid ironically replicates, to some extent, what Hill took pains to explore & understand. It's all about the moral stance of the writer as witness to the times.

But speaking anyway of the Geoffrey Hill shtick : I'd say, in the oily world of po-biz as we know it, that gruff standoffish manner is priceless.