Wednesday, October 01, 2008

literary history: probably not possible

I've lost track of precisely how far we're into the semester; I just know that I'm generally overwhelmed & sleep-deprived & behind on just about everything. Blogging, obviously, has almost entirely fallen by the wayside.
Saddened to learn of the death of Hayden Carruth. I didn't know his poetry well, tho there were some of his mid-length narrative things that I found rather moving, but I remember his giving a reading in the chapel at Ithaca College some twenty years ago which began with an astonishingly sensitive rendition of Pound's "The Return," a reading which made the poem come literally alive. It seemed a wonderfully generous gesture.
Some excellent comments on that last "literary history" post, however. People pointing me towards books I hadn't thought about, or had forgotten I'd read: Michael Davidson on the San Francisco Renaissance, Alan Golding on the formation of the postmodernist "canon," Robert Von Hallberg's really very excellent half of a volume of the Cambridge History of American Literature (I imagine I'm one of maybe four people in the country who actually own that book, given CUP's monstrous prices), Jed Rasula's volumes. 

Johannes Göransson drew attention to the post over at Exoskeleton, where there were a couple of useful comments, including Jordan's: 
A general literary history is at least as desirable as a general anthology, which is to say about a 6 on the hotness scale.

A well-written highly-partisan clearly-bracketed literary history would require no intoxicants, aphrodisiacs, rationalizations, etc.
Perkins's History of Modern Poetry, for all its 1200-page scope, ends up in the "general literary history" category, & for me barely scores a 3 on the "hotness scale." I suppose the problem is comprehensiveness – that Perkins is trying to write about almost everything, in order to present some sort of global history of 20th-c. poetry. He ends up presenting potted career summaries of heaven knows how many poets, but ultimately there's little sense of larger shifts in the art, how one community of poets relates to another. One sentence for Jeremy Prynne (whose biography I will not be writing), shoved up against two sentences on Christopher Middleton (so that the 2 Middleton poems mentioned  – but not quoted – end up being indexed as Prynne's).

But I wouldn't be writing Perkins again; I think I'd definitely shoot for Jordan's "well-written highly-partisan clearly-bracketed literary history," with the emphasis on "well-written" & "highly-partisan." (The only books worth reading, ultimately, are w-w & h-p.) But then I think of Eric's thoughtful comment:
Maybe one reason there's no such book yet lies in the lack of an audience--or, at least, a recognized, institutional audience--for it? [Alex] Ross has a "general reader" in mind; so does Kenner; haven't most publishers given up on that for books on poetry, other than perhaps books on poets?

That leaves poets, profs, and grad students--all of whom might be expected to prefer the more tightly (or restrictively) focused books that do exist. Yes? Or am I looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope?
Sadly enough,  I think Eric's right. (By the way, check out the badass profile photo on his blog – and kid him about it.) Maybe, heaven help me, I should consider reinserting myself into actual academic discourse, & throw over this hopeless pining for more than 50 readers.
So I joined this informal CD "mix" club last year, where everybody contributes a mix every month. And it's showing me precisely how out of touch I am (not that I need reminding of advancing age, given the grim date approaching this Friday [my birthday, that is]). But here's the mix:
The Damage Manual: Sunset Gun
Naked City: Piledriver
Mekons: I'm Not Here (1967)
Naked City: Thrash Jazz Assassin
New Model Army: Here Comes the War
John Zorn: The Violent Death of Dutch Schultz
Bill Laswell: Upright Man
Painkiller: Warhead
Mekons: Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem
Eliza Carthy: Blind Fiddler
Gang of Four: Damaged Goods
Bruce Springsteen: O Mary Don't You Weep
Oysterband: Jam Tomorrow
Painkiller: Skinned
Motörhead: Orgasmatron
Naked City: Perfume of a Critic's Burning Flesh
Public Image Ltd.: Rise
Last Exit: Last Call
Art Bears: FREEDOM
Naked City: Jazz Snob Eat Shit
Naked City: Pigfucker
John Zorn: White Zombie
Oysterband: The World Turned Upside Down
Music to take to the polls.


Amy said...

Off topic, but: happy birthday, Mark!

Brian said...

Indeed, sir. Happy birthday!