Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Swedish style, Swedish design

I guess I mentioned we spent a couple of weeks in Stockholm at the tail end of the summer (now officially over, due to the start of classes this week). I'd love to earnestly say that it's one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen – and I think that's the case, only it was raining about 80% of the time, so it was kind of hard to tell. Beautiful cobblestones, tho. A wonderful change to be spending time in a city that dates back to the Middle Ages, & looks it, here where a house that was built in the '60s is likely to be on the historic register, & one can drive 30 minutes in any direction without seeing a single structure that wouldn't have made Ruskin puke.

I was thinking a lot about Swedish style & design while I was there. On the one hand, there's the "traditional" style, what gets marketed as "Scandinavian Country" – muted yellows, greens, & blues, whitewashed pine furniture, lovely detail painting. A certain amount of that in people's interiors, tho not nearly as much as you'll find in US antique shops. (We never visited anyone's country home, however, so I can only vouch for the urban interiors – admittedly, it's pretty hard to place an 8-foot armoire in one of those 400-square-foot apartments.)

Far more common – indeed, ubiquitous – is the high modernist, Bauhaus-derived Ikea style. Not just Ikea style, either, but literal Ikea. Everybody, but everybody, seems to do at least some of their furnishing – the younger folks, almost all – from Ikea. It appeals to my Samuel Beckett side, I must admit, but gets a bit oppressive after a while. So much white, so many clean lines. I found myself longing for a bit of colorful, texturally various just plain clutter. (No lack of that back home, I assure you...)

Most shocking of all, however, was the general sense of personal style. I had the mistaken impression – derived mostly from a regular diet of Hannah Anderson catalogues – that the Swedes were a nation who dressed with a wonderful, colorful flair: lots of pastels, stripes & patterns, etc. I even bought a couple of pairs of eye-poppingly colorful striped socks to wear with my red Diesel trainers, just to fit in with this fashionable race. Instead, I found a bunch of folks whose passion for earth tones, clunky shoes, and muted sweaters would make them fit right in in, say, Portland, Maine, or Waukegan. Occasionally you'd see something cool – a sixtyish man with spiky grey hair in a magenta sweater, or a pair of running shoes in colors that don't occur in nature – and the children, to be sure, are miniature palettes of bright color; but for the most part the Swedes I saw seem to melt right into the countryside.

Worst of all, I must confess, was the youth style. Aside from a half-dozen weird approximations of American hip hop wear, the default mode for the Swede of 15 – 21 seems to be, of all things, "New Wave" styles, MTV circa 1983. Much black, usually accessorized with chains & studs; fishnet hose; stovepipe trousers, inevitably worn with Chuck Taylor sneakers; lots of dyed hair; many Robert Smith asparagus hairdos (the Cure must still be really big in Sweden, judging by the number of t-shirts on people who weren't born the first time they played Stockholm). I felt like I was in a time warp back to the "new wave nights" at the local Marriott, Blacksburg Virginia, during my undergraduate days.
Alas, with a 4- and 6-year old in tow, there was little time for sampling Stockholm's cultural pleasures (tho I do have a good working knowledge of the city's playgrounds now, & have been to Junibacken – read "Pippi Longstocking Land" – twice). But I'm happy to report that the architecture is magnificent, the public transit system is extraordinary, the people are uniformly friendly and welcoming even to an American ugly as I, and the Modern Museum ("Moderna Museet") is absolutely first-rate. The weather – at least for our two weeks – could use some work.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

product placement

Try as I might, I can't entirely seem to move myself into the digital age – even, for that matter, into the keyboard age. Now and again, when taking up a new writing project, I resolve that this one will be strictly word-processed – no pens, paper, ugly scribbles, & so forth. All clean & on the keyboard & screen. But I can't really do it, ultimately, even though I know it would save me tons of time & help avoid the writer's cramp that seizes my right hand just a little bit earlier every time I sit down to write. 

I've had some luck writing reviews and brief prose pieces on the keyboard, but I simply can't make it work when I'm trying to write poems. It's pen & paper or nothing. (Note: think about what writing technology means to literary texts – Pound was Mr. Typewriter, but he still drafted his poems by hand; the late Henry James, however, & Adorno for that matter, tended actually to dictate their work.)

Anyway, a big part of my equipment for life has always been notebooks. Yes, I fetishize notebooks, & I'm not the only one. A post a couple years back on Ron Silliman's blog alerted me to his love for the clunky orange Rhodia notebooks (see left), which are pretty cool but not quite to my taste. For the past seven years or so I've been pretty much in love – like everybody else, it seems – with the wee compact Moleskines, with their elastic closure, the pages that end flush with the binding, & their deliciously portable size. I think I've filled maybe 17 or 18 of them; they're the sort of books that make you want to write.

Problems with Moleskines, however: (1) Their very size, which is great for jotting travel notes or scribbling blog entries or taking notes at a lecture, can be constraining when drafting poems. It's true that I tend towards a short-lined poetics anyway, but there are times when I dream of a Whitmanian / Kochean expansiveness, & it just doesn't work when I'm scribbling in a Moleskine. (2) I also happen to fetishize pens, fountain pens in particular; this doesn't mean that spend money on cigar-sized pretentious Mont Blancs or other corporate office doodads, but I have a pretty large collection of brightly colored inexpensive, mostly beautifully designed European student-quality fountain pens (and yes, a couple of nice Pelikans as well). The paper in Moleskines simply doesn't take fountain pen ink very well – it bleeds thru, or spreads out. I've spent ages trying various inks to find which work with the notebook best (for the record, Waterman ink wins out, which is bad luck for the pens that don't take Waterman cartridges or can use bottled ink). (3) The darned things are expensive; when Moleskines first got reintroduced in the US, they retailed for $12 apiece; now they're down around $10 at most outlets, but that's still a pretty steep price for a hunk of paper.

I came upon solution of sorts to my notebook dilemma at the MoMA design store over the summer. One word: Muji. Muji is short for "Mujirushi Ryƍhin," which means "No Brand Quality Goods." It's the Japanese Ikea, a company that makes well-designed products that range from paper goods & office supplies to clothing, furniture, & packaged foods. I picked up a couple of their notebooks (see right) at MoMA because I was entranced by their size & clean lines: approximately 8" x 5", a single fifteen-leaf sewn signature (for 60 pages total) with a band of heavy tape covering the spine, the pages narrow-ruled with very light grey lines. And mind-bendingly cheap: $1.00 apiece, in fact. 

When I got them back to the apartment, I found that this might well be my new workhorse notebook: the color of the paper is pleasantly neutral, the notebook opens satisfyingly flat, the cover is stiff enough to promise some durability, while still being able to be written on. And delightfully, the paper proves absolutely perfect for fountain pen use. Even the broadest, wettest nib leaves a perfect line that doesn't spread out or bleed thru to the opposite side of the page. I was delighted: the next time J. left me at the apartment to catch something on Broadway, I sent her to the new Muji flagship store in the New York Times building to pick me up a serious stack of the things – 10, to be exact. (There, it turned out, the notebooks were going for all of 99¢ apiece.) I'm looking forward to filling them up.

Enough anality for now. Is it clear I'm avoiding preparing syllabi?
But speaking of slim & cheap volumes, I have a largish stack of copies of Anarchy on hand at the moment, probably enough to send one out to anybody who cares to backchannel me a request.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Moody's Pound

So we're about 65% unpacked; I'm still waiting for a couple of cartons of books to arrive from New York – acquisitions from The Strand & Book Culture (formerly Labyrinth), but there's plenty to keep me busy right now, including a copy of A. David Moody's new Pound biography. The thing's got one of those titles that makes you unclear as to where to colonize & where to hyphenate: near as I can tell, the full moniker is Ezra Pound: Poet – A Portrait of the Man and His Work – Volume I: The Young Genius 1885-1920 (pause for breath).

Back in November, I responded rather snarkily to Andrew Motion's Guardian review of the book – mostly to Motion's inane review, mind you, not to Moody's book, which I hadn't seen at the time. I do regret, however, a sidenote in which I doubted – based on Moody's Eliot scholarship, which was all I'd read of his work – how good a Pound biographer he'd prove. Boy, how wrong could I be!

Anyway, back then I'd noted that Pound had already received more than a little biographical treatment:
There's no shortage of Pound biographies out there: full-length treatments include Charles Norman's (1960), Noel Stock's (1970), Humphrey Carpenter's (1988) and JJ Wilhelm's (in three volumes, 1985, 1990, 1994); shorter & more specialized books include Ackroyd's illustrated Ezra Pound and His World (1980), Jacob Korg's book on EP & HD (2003), C David Heymann's Ezra Pound: The Last Rower, A Political Profile (1976), Anne Conover's book on EP & Olga Rudge (2001), John Tytell's Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (1987), Ira Nadel's recent volume for Palgrave's Literary Lives series, & probably a few others shelved in my office at work right now, where I can't lay hands on them.
All of these books have shortcomings, some of them more dire than others. Norman's book is a breezy celebrity bio, notable mostly (to me at least) for his use of Zukofsky as a resource. Stock's is the life as told by a somewhat repentant former disciple. Wilhelm simply can't write, & has no sense of discrimination among his materials.

Humphrey Carpenter's big (1000+ pp.) work, then, is probably the biography of record, unfortunately: while he conveys an admirable density of facts & dates, his work is hampered by the fact that he's utterly unsympathetic to, & mostly uncomprehending of, Pound's mature poetic project. (What possessed the author of lives of Auden & JRR Tolkien to devote this much energy to Pound of all people? Aesthetically, it's rather like me polishing off the LZ biography & setting out to write the life of Billy Collins.) I'll consult Carpenter for a date; but for a sense of Pound's poetry or for a clear idea of what his political or economic thought at any particular stage, I look elsewhere.
And now I know where that elsewhere is: Moody's first volume (out of a projected two, which even if vol. 2 is the same length as this hefty volume 1, will still be a bit shorter than Carpenter) is absolutely luminous. I'm tempted to say that this, folks, is biography as it ought to be written – if you've gotta read one biography of a major modernist (who isn't Joyce or Zukofsky, of course), then Moody's Pound is the ticket.

I'm particularly impressed, beyond Moody's limpid and sometimes elegant (but never show-offy, like Carpenter's) prose, with how the biographer keeps Pound's poetic project in his sights, and shows convincingly that even the "stale cream-puffs" of A Lume Spento are logical steps in the development of a quintessentially modernist poetics. He's very good on the poetry; he's even better on Pound's cultural thought, how even in his earliest stages he was seeing poetry as inextricable from the larger life of the polis (in volume 2, we'll see how this leads him down the path to Italian fascism). And he's very good indeed at depicted Pound in the context of the London literary scene of the 'teens – just how much of an outlander, a kangaroo Pound was even to those who sensed his formidable drive and intelligence.

The only fault I would find with Moody is his discounting of WC Williams's testimony about Pound's early years. (By the way, on the evidentiary issues that I find so fascinating in biography, Moody is about as scrupulous as they come; his notes at the end of the book make fascinating reading when he tangles with earlier biographers & editors.) All of WCW's testimony about the pomposity & basic silliness of the young Pound, it seems, is vitiated by the distance from which Wms was writing, & by his tangled relationship with EP in the intervening years. The biographer in me approves of Moody's handling here; I think he's well justified. The biography-reader, on the other hand – the one who's cherished those snapshots of a silly young Ez – is disappointed with a rather puerile disappointment.

Go read this one; you won't regret it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


So we're back in Boca, & have just ridden out messy Tropical Storm Fay (a fine welcome home, I should say). Weary from too long away, perhaps too much travel. Much to write about – Swedish style, Moody's Pound, Proust, and many new entries for the "100 poem-books." But for now will leave my few remaining readers with a snap of winsome Daphne (aet. 4) in attendance at the fabulous if rainy Stockholm Europride parade. ("Is this the Swedish flag, Daddy?")