Tuesday, December 29, 2009

reading (lots of) poetry

I'm of two minds about it, the whole business of bulk-reading.

On the one mind, I'm all for it: I was always astonished by the statement I read somewhere by some recent MFA grad who was gushingly thankful for having been required to read 50 books of poetry during the course of his two or three years in the program. Wow – fifty whole books! (Read that with heavy irony, okay?) Sorry, fella, but it's a really slow year when I don't read at least half again more than that, & lately I've been trying to keep up a pace of at least 100 volumes (counting chapbooks, of course, but also counting big things like The Prelude & "A" & JH Prynne's Poems) every calendar year. And that's not counting magazines, journals, & miscellaneous stuff online.

It's partly vocational: as a guy who teaches modern/contemporary poetry, I feel like I've got an obligation to know, at least to the limits of my ability, the "field." So I try to look into things I don't find very congenial at a first glance, sometimes even to plough thru an entire volume to find out what the reviewers are so excited about. And I try to have a pretty clear picture in my head of what's happening in the sorts of poetry I find more exciting. Given the pace of poetry production and publishing these days, that's probably a quixotic intention, but still–

And as poet & lover of poetry (not necessarily identical subject-positions, we all know) I simply want to know as much of the stuff as possible, to hoover down as much of that sweet word-work as I can. The Doritos effect. So when I was admiring but not particularly enthusiastic about Karla Kelsey the other day, & then even rather disspirited by what struck me as the virtuosic self-absorption of Jorie Graham, I turned to two little chapbooks published last year by Slack Buddha, Catherine Wagner's Hole in the Ground X and Tom Orange's American Dialectics, and got all excited about "doing" poetry again. And I've got a stack of more SB productions on my desk right now, just waiting to stoke the excitement-furnace.

But on the other mind: I told a class this past semester that one doesn't really come to terms with a book until one's read it at least twice. Maybe that's me, perennial slowcoach: I don't really begin to come to terms with a book until the second reading. So in many ways the poetry reading that means most to me is reading something for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, nth time: Going back thru Prynne's Wound Response for the 5th time, Geoffrey Hill's Triumph of Love for the 6th time, Susan Howe's Bibliography of the King's Book for the who knows how manyeth time. You can review a book on a first read (usually, you have to); but you can't really think deeply – or I can't – about it until it's so familiar it's become somehow absorbed into your cerebral grooves.

So I'm more than willing to forgive a certain degree of tunnel-vision in my scholarly friends – the Stevens guy who hasn't read anyone since Stevens, & precious few of Stevens's contemporaries, the Auden scholar who's never heard of LZ or Bunting; that tunnel-vision probably compensated for by a deeper understanding, a deeper engagment with their chosen figure. (At the same time, I distrust their historical sense, & suspect that rather than a love of poetry in all its forms, they love just one sort – like the "gourmet" who always orders the same thing at the restaurant, or the "music lover" who only listens one narrow sub-genre.)

And I think I'm still capable of mustering the intense engagement I brought to LZ's work all those years ago, even if I seem to have less time for it these days, what with all this mass reading (oh, & work responsibilities, parenting, etc.). But how am I ever going to find just that right poet to fixate on if I'm not reading at least a 350-degree swathe? So, back to the chapbooks & the coffee.

Monday, December 28, 2009

interim; Karla Kelsey, Jorie Graham

In that odd in-between time after the major holiday festivities (we have, as usual, absolutely nada planned for New Year's) and before the beginning the spring semester. I'm doing my best to avoid planning my classes, & only slightly less successfully avoiding writing the things that need to be written. I'm happy, however, not to be in Philadelphia at the MLA, which is unfolding its whole baleful carnival as I write. There's lots I love about the MLA: the sprawling book displays (an academic candy-store); the lively off-site poetry readings & events; the chance to spend time with friends & colleagues from far away, & to make new acquaintances; sometimes even the lectures & papers being presented. But as anyone will observe, the problem with the MLA as academic conference is that both the intellectual and the social sides of it are always inflected, inevitably negatively, by the job-market aspect of the gathering. And since, as a recent story in Inside Higher Ed confirms, jobs in English are heading towards an all-time low, that means nothing but nonstop angst (though, as good English professor wannabes, we all pronounce it in the proper German fashion, ahhhngst, rather than the illiterate New York ang-st).

The holiday was nice: many pleasant meals & gatherings with friends. Some nice presents under the tree. What did I like best? Well, that'd have to be this, a fantastically sumptuous coffee-table book on the Velvet Underground in the '60s NY avant-garde art milieu. Great pictures, many of which I'd never seen before, despite my small shelf of Velvets books. And two volumes of these, DVD sets of classic avant-garde films from the '20s thru the '50s. Lots of stuff, I suspect we won't be watching with the kids. And some we may be.

A late but very welcome present from Fors: Just when I'd begun to suspect The Poem of a Life had dropped entirely off the edge of the earth, an old Cornell acquaintance contacts me to let me know that the book was indeed reviewed in Choice (back in January), and has now been listed as one of Choice's "Outstanding Academic Titles of the Year." How cool is that? Anyway, for those of you who don't subscribe to Choice (ie, if you're not a librarian), & to primp up my flagging self-image, here's what R. J. Cirasa said about the book back in January:
Though this volume is important because it is the first biography of a poet whose importance is steadily growing, the merit of Scroggins's book is not just that it fills a vacuum. Avoiding the precious psychological and other extrinsic, theory-driven framings common among scholarly biographies, Scroggins presents the events, circumstances, and interests of Zukofsky's life in a refreshingly direct way, showing all these contingencies (many quite ordinary) to be the illuminating literal sources of the poet's famously opaque, even unintelligible work. Scroggins places this comprehensive account of the myriad "hushed sources" (Zukofsky's own phrase) on which (despite Zukofsky's own belief to the contrary) any real understanding of Zukofsky's work depends within Zukofsky's own paradigm of quotation, translation, and especially transliteration as a "graph of recurrences" that constitutes all of human culture. A series of "interchapters" on the poet's methods interspersed throughout the narrative of his life combine with Scroggins's impressively concise and illuminating running keys to Zukofsky's individual works (as they emerge in his life) to make this volume the single most important critical as well as biographical resource for Zukofsky studies. This is a necessary acquisition for the study of 20th-century American poetry. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.
Hmm. Couldn't have said it better myself.
Knowledge, Forms, The Aviary, Karla Kelsey (Ahsahta, 20006)

A fine instance of the period style in obliquity, descending one suspects less from a reading of Michael Palmer than from a sustained engagement with Jorie Graham's mid-period work. Kelsey's writing is lean and surprising, many lines little short of amazing. But I can't help feelign that the package as a whole, from the big white spaces of the pages, the breathless gravity of the lines, the intensity of the jacket photo, even the book's overall design (Jeff Clark – is Quemadura becoming to poetry books what Hipgnosis was to album covers in the '70s?) – is all too familiar. Kelsey largely redeems herself in the book's last section, where the focus shifts from individual epistemology to the "polis," the intersubjective social realm. And none too soon.

Is subjectivity the only thing worth reading about? Has today's period style merely reinscribed the Romantic Ideology (cf. Jerome McGann) within a framework of vaguely post-avant, paratactic formal gestures?

The Errancy, Jorie Graham (Ecco, 1997)

Is this what one calls "mid-period" Graham? At any rate, she's retreated from the more extravagant formal experiments of The End of Beauty & Materialism to a more recognizable, if still extravagant, 1st-person-centered subjectivity here. I can't gainsay the brilliance of the writing here, the endlessly proliferating excess of metaphor and striking language, the lyrical phrases that seem to pour out as if from an unstoppable cornucopia. But must it always, always be a mere tracing of the poet's brilliant & sensitive processing of the world? It's as if Graham's sensibility is one great open wound of perception and thought, constantly aching out a stream of language in response to the world's phenomena. "The river," at least, speaks to the poet in terms of self-recognition: "why do you hurry to drown yourself in me /its flashing waves laugh-up, / why do you expect constant attention /why your eagerness for self-creation, self-explanation – / what would you explain..." Kelsey, in contrast, is a model of restrained thought, a careful sorting-out of the rush of particulars in the sensorium; Graham is the rush itself.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stephen Collis; Marjorie Welish

The Commons, Stephen Collis (Talonbooks, 2008)

This is the second installment of a sequence? – network? – work begun in Anarchive (North Star Books, 2005), & whose overriding title is "The Barricades Project." A kind of reinventing, reinterpretation, reanimation of various past radicalisms – in this case the flash points are Winstanley's Levellers ca. 1649; Henry David Thoreau; John Clare; & the various Lake Poets in general. I have enormous sympathy & interest in Collis's project, not least in how it overlaps with my own "Anarchy for the U. K." sequence (much of which appears in Anarchy, Spuyten Duyvil, 2003). & I envy the extent to which Collis has gone beyond Duncan & Howe – his most obvious precursors – in thinking about the literary heritage as a kind of poetic "commons" as yet unenclosed, open not to appropriation but to principled shared use.

Word Group, Majorie Welish (Coffee House, 2004)

This one's a knockout. It's all rich, & strange, & suggestive, but the parts that stick with me most insistently are the 16-section "Textile," which "weaves" a long poem, at least in the early bits, out of repeated phrases & structures as warp & woof. Best is "Delight Instruct" (as in Horace, get it?), a long poem which both dissects & rebuilds some Penguin volume of art history – not its contents, but its form – laying bare both the ordinariness & the strangeness of that oddest of information-bearing objects, the bound codex. Word Group is saturated thruout with evidences of Welish's other lives as visual artist & art critic. Poems both painterly & conceptual at once.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009


The girls & I are back in the smug heat, leaving J. on her own in the bracing chill of Manhattan for the next couple of days. It was a nice jaunt, if a bit short. I managed to take in a grand performance of The Marriage of Figaro at the Met, to spend some quality time with a vast, nay overwhelming Kandinsky exhibition at the Guggenheim, & to ride down to the Strand and replenish – well, supplement – my already groaning shelves of next-to-be-read poetry books.

Two things I picked up were on biography – not biographies per se, but biographical criticism, the sort of thing I read with avid interest: Janet Malcolm's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice and Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography. Both of them I read in hungry, greedy gulps – and ultimately unsatisfied gnawings. Sigh. I'm always on the hunt for the holy grail of biographical criticism, the single book that will capture the practical & theoretical joys & problems of the genre, the epistemological conundrums, the place of life-writing within the whole literary system. And while Malcolm & Lee offer lots to think about, they aren't it: indeed, they come nowhere close to Leon Edel's Literary Biography, Richard Holmes's volumes of meta-biographical essays, or even Malcolm's earlier book on Sylvia Plath, The Silent Woman.

I guess I'll just have to write my own book.
It's time for year-end lists. I always hate these things when I read 'em from others, mainly because everybody's so hip & with-it, listing books they've read that have been published in the last three weeks, while I'm still laboring thru stuff written back in the benighted '80s. Oh well – with the proviso that I'm constitutionally something of a slow learner, a perennial catch-up-ball player, here's my list of things I read this year that blew me away:

To an Idea: A Book of Poems David Shapiro
Lingos I-IX Ulf Stolterfoht
Things on Which I’ve Stumbled Peter Cole
Ours Cole Swensen
Eschaton Michael Heller
Meteoric Flowers Elizabeth Willis
Emptied of All Ships Stacy Szymaszek
Goan Atom Caroline Bergvall
Fig Caroline Bergvall
Scribe Norman Finkelstein
Broken World Joseph Lease
Raik Ray DiPalma
Terminal Humming K. Lorraine Graham
Memnoir Joan Retallack
Uncle Silas Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Perdido Street Station China Miéville
Ryder Djuna Barnes
Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan Jean Daive
How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation Marc Bousquet
Greater Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory John Dixon Hunt
Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism Meghnad Desai
Nature Over Again: The Garden Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay John Dixon Hunt
Heaven knows a lot of stuff has fallen thru the cracks, especially in fiction & nonfiction. (How embarrassing is it to confess you've first read Little Women or David Copperfield in your mid-40s? and how wonderful they were?) But a few things that stick in my mind.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

home stretch (palate-clearing before grading blogging)

My friend Bradley, who has more than a little professional & personal investment in these matters, draws my attention to Monday's Times editorial from Stanley Fish on Sarah Palin's Going Rogue. Ah, Stanley Fish. One thing I'll miss about my chum Brian's blogging – if indeed he's surrendered to the soundbite-ethos of Twitter and Facebook updates, as so many of us have – is his more-or-less regular conniption fits in response to Stanley Fish's NYT blog posts. Brian, I'd murmur, he's just trying to get your goat, & succeeding; as Mom says, "he's just trying to get a rise out of you."

The Palin piece is a typical bit of Fishian contrarianism: Yes, he read Palin's autobiography Going Rogue, even tho Palin's on the bad guys list among his scholarly colleagues, & even tho the snooty liberal clerk at the Strand winced when he asked for the book, & sent him over to Barnes & Noble. And guess what? He enjoyed it. He found it (in words that could come from one of my undergraduates' papers) "compelling and well done." (Good Lord, Stanley, what's happened to your prose?)

And here's where it gets interesting. The left media hit Going Rogue hard on account of the autobiography's rather slippery relation to the historical record – in short, there were incessant & at times pretty shrill accusations that Palin's book was, if not a tissue of falsehoods, at least shot thru with misrepresentations. (For a slideshow of sometimes trivial things, see here; for more substantive policy-related boners, see here.) Fish doesn't commit himself as to whether he thinks Palin's lying or misremembering or whatever: for him, the book's truthfulness simply isn't an issue, because autobiography presents a different sort of "truth" than other nonfiction genres:
My assessment of the book has nothing to do with the accuracy of its accounts. Some news agencies have fact-checkers poring over every sentence, which would be to the point if the book were a biography, a genre that is judged by the degree to which the factual claims being made can be verified down to the last assertion. “Going Rogue,” however, is an autobiography, and while autobiographers certainly insist that they are telling the truth, the truth the genre promises is the truth about themselves — the kind of persons they are — and even when they are being mendacious or self-serving (and I don’t mean to imply that Palin is either), they are, necessarily, fleshing out that truth.... autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say will truthfully serve their project, which, again, is not to portray the facts, but to portray themselves.
Did you follow that? In short, even if Palin is lying through her teeth about every substantive moment in her life, she's still presenting us with autobiographical "truth," since she's portraying not "the facts" but her own mendacious "self."

I will, as Fish is careful to do, entirely bracket the issue of whether or not Palin's book is accurate to the historical record. I have my own opinions, as he does (I suspect we share them), but they're not germane to the issue at hand – the status of "truth" in life-writing. In a piece from a decade ago, Fish made a careful distinction between biography, in which factual accuracy is a baseline standard of assessment, and autobiography, where we don't worry about such trivia because we're getting a portrait of the writer's self. Biography, Fish deconstructively concludes, always fails, always gets it wrong in trying to achieve an impossible factuality, while autobiography, inherently biased, unobjective, even disdainful of data, by its very announced subjectivity cannot fail.

Janet Malcolm, a far deeper thinker on these matters than Fish (& frankly, a much better writer), phrases it memorably in her The Silent Woman:
The questions raised by the passage only underscore the epistemological insecurity by which the reader of biography and autobiography (and history and journalism) is always and everywhere dogged. In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination.
In short, Sidney's "Defense of Poesy" is put on its head: where the "the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth," one might say that the (auto)biographer (or historian, or journalist), since she or he makes statements that claim truth status (ie, "affirmeth"), will always to some degree fall short of absolute factuality.

This is the conceptual conundrum at the heart of life-writing, the hole of interpretive uncertainty that lies at the core of any biography (and yes, autobiography); it's part of what makes reading and doing the genre so interesting to me. We never know the truth of a life; we only know what a biographer – even an autobiographer – presents as a plausible attempt at that truth. The autobiographer or memoirist presents us with a particularly interesting, intimate, & in some ways problematic glimpse into a subject's subjectivity – but even the most seemingly disarmingly candid writer on the self (Montaigne, say) is consciously or unconsciously constructing a self to present to the reader.

Needless to say, this is even more the case with a political autobiography like Palin's, which is written not as an unprompted mon coeur mis à nu but as a full-dress act of self-construction in support of a public career, perhaps a run for the presidency. Truth to the historical record, factual accuracy isn't really the issue. Nor is the truth about Sarah Palin the human being. What's being given us is a construction of an ideal, maverick, perhaps even presidential Sarah Palin. In the last paragraphs of his review, Fish seems dangerously close to having swallowed the construction of Palin Going Rogue offers its readers, rather than the Palin his own (once sophisticated) interpretive techniques would disentangle.
The one bit of Fish's piece that I have to simply cry "foul" about is this:
I find the voice undeniably authentic (yes, I know the book was written “with the help” of Lynn Vincent, but many books, including my most recent one, are put together by an editor).
Bullshit. Nothing is easier to fake than the "voice" of authenticity, and there's really no comparison between the kind of "collaboration" involved in most political autobiographies (the subject sits and talks, the actual writer recasts it all into coherent prose) and an editor's task of compiling previously published essays into a book. (If I were the editor of Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time I'd be pretty pissed off right now.)

Monday, December 07, 2009

home stretch (quatre)

More from the annals of those Kwazy Kompositors:

On the cover (but not the spine, title, or half-title) of Jean-Michel Rabaté's Language, Sexuality, and Ideology in Ezra Pound's Cantos (SUNY Press, 1986):
Language, Sexuality, and Idealogy in Ezra Pound's Cantos
On the spine (but not the cover, half-title, or title) of Antony Easthope's Literary into Cultural Studies (Routledge, 1991):
Literary into Cultral Studies
Bloody hell – my copy is the fourth printing; did this persist thru 3 reprints, or did it creep in after the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd versions? See what happens when you go into cultural studies? – you loose the ability to spel.

And finally (drumroll...), the half-title of Ian Brinton's excellent collection A Manner of Utterance: The Poetry of J. H. Prynne (Shearsman, 2009):
A Man of Utterance
I think that's reimporting the author function with a vengeance, no?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

home stretch (trois)

In the thick of reading porfolios (portfolioi?) & writing, but this caught my eye, the first epigraph to Richard Kostelanetz's very excellent collection The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature (Prometheus Books, 1982):
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism.... The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order of the form of European or English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.
Henri Peyre, The Failures of Criticism (1967)
Who would've thought that Kosty, way back in 1982, would be "reframing" texts right along with Kenny Goldsmith? Or that Henri Peyre'd be doing it in 1967, copying out a very famous passage of T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" & publishing it under his own name?

Or maybe the compositors at Prometheus Books just slipped, losing a Peyre epigraph & attaching his name to the Eliot quotation.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

get writing!

Jonathan Mayhew has just launched a new blog, "Stupid Motivational Tricks," devoted to the business of academic writing – and the most basic & most difficult part of it, getting it done. Okay, there's not much there yet; but if the wealth of sensible tips available on Mayhew's other blog, Bemsha Swing, under the label "scholarly writing" is any indication, this will be an important resource. I know JM's lit a fire under my bottom more times than I can remember.

(This post is of special relevance to some of my grad students: you know who you are!)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

home stretch (deux)

One of those days. Massive grading all day, broken only by a little undirected reading. A FB comment by Ben Friedlander sent me to my Library of America stacks to haul down Poe's Poetry and Tales & re-read the Dupin stories. "Murders in the Rue Morgue" just as good as when I read it at 14 or 15; "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" just as I recalled it – a total snooze. (I'm saving "The Purloined Letter" for a more Lacanian day.) How does that happen? The guy writes a brilliant, even suspenseful, story, in the process inventing Sherlock Holmes & the whole genre of ratiocinative detective fiction, then he turns around for a sequel & writes one of the most inert corpses in his whole oeuvre. Poe fascinates me by his ability to snatch bathos out of the jaws of brilliance. Almost the greatest writer of the 19th century – and often among the worst.

Enjoying Meghnad Desai's Marx's Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism. One wonders if the editors at Verso (!) actually read all the way thru this one before sending MD his contract. It amounts to a smart, mostly accessible & mostly well-written survey of economic thought & history from Adam Smith to the turn of millennium. Desai, once a man of the Left, has become a free market evangelist. (That's Baron Desai to you commoners, by the way.) There's no stopping the course of globalization & the mind-bending evolutions of capital, he tells us – the best we can do is to try & make sure as many people get caught up in the prosperity as possible; maybe sometime in the future – who knows when? – we'll emerge on the other side of capitalism; but for now it's the only game in town. I can't say I'm convinced, but I know a real live economist, & one who's actually read & weighed all the theories & evidence for himself, when I read one – as opposed to the half-baked slogans and articles of faith that get served up (on both right and left) most of the time.

3 Mustaphas 3: Lu Edmonds's saz sent me back into the vinyl files, where I decanted a half-dozen 12-inches & cast my mind back to the late 80s. The Mustaphas were a group of London musicians/musicologist-types who wore fezes and pretended to be from some vaguely situated Balkan province, a town called Szegerly. They were all first-rate musicians; played what was beginning to be called "world music": half the time straight-up covers of Greek, Turkish, Balkan, Arabic, whatever, the other half weird bastard mixes – a paean to Soba noodles sung mostly in Japanese to an American truck-driving country beat, with a Serbian dance thrown in as the bridge, a Klezmer tune played on the Turkish cümbüs with a tabla break in the middle – you get the picture. They spoke in funny accents, when they spoke English. (I'm told their pronunciation of non-English lyrics was pretty atrocious – my Indian friend said their version of the Hindi "Awara Hoon" was flatly unintelligible.) A string of comments to a YouTube video made me realize the connection: 3 Mustaphas 3 were musical Borat, avant la lettre. Minus of course the savage satire; these guys really loved the music they were playing, & played it for the most part nobly.

Alas, the records haven't held up awfully well: the production of most of the 3 Mustaphas 3 records sounds a bit on the thin side, & let's face it, the original recordings of most of the songs they cover have more grit & interest, & after all who needs manufactured transculturalism, complete with fezes, when you can get the real thing so easily these days? Like this, which I listened to this morning: Roberto Rodriguez's Ballo! Gitano Ballo!, a dandy set of Judaeo-Cuban dance tunes; klezmer to a latin beat, glorious horns & strings.

Monday, November 30, 2009

home stretch

One more set of papers to get thru, one more day of classes. The familiar litany of the end of the semester, a rhythm I've been living for the better part of 3 decades now, counting my own college days. Looking forward to a quiet holiday stretch. We're going to New York for a few days as soon as grades are turned in, but will be at home doing familial things for most of Hanukah & Christmas itself. Trying to avoid consumerism; J.'s asked me for a want list several times now, but I can't for the life of me think of much I want – nothing, really, I need.

I read a stretch of newish books of poetry criticism over the past couple of weeks, found myself getting excited about my profession once again, as I do whenever I find the time to delve into what bright people are doing in it. I have problems will all of them, to one degree or another – Jennifer Ashton's From Modernism to Postmodernism, Charles Altieri's The Art of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, Jahan Ramazani's A Transnational Poetics – but they have a passion that proves infectious. Even more passionate, & more infectious, the last few books of poetry – Caroline Bergvall's Fig, Joan Retallack's Memnoir, K. Lorraine Graham's Terminal Humming (the full-length version). Wish I had the time & energy to add them properly to the "100 poem-books" list. I suspect, as the month grinds along, I'll get around to compiling a "most satisfying reads of 2009" list.

Certainly the most satisfying musical discovery lately has been hatchet-faced Lu Edmonds, player of the oddly minimalist-looking saz with the Mekons (cf. the video in the last post), whom a little detective work has shown to be Uncle Patrel Mustapha bin Mustapha, master cümbüs player of the late lamented 3 Mustaphas 3. Also, golly, a founding member of the Damned & the guitar player for the upcoming Public Image Ltd reunion tour. Yes, that's what I want for Christmas – an electric saz:

Yes, that's also known a "baglama" for you Turkic purists. But, heartened by Jahan Ramazani's paean to all things transnational, I like to think of myself as hybrid to the core, confidently switching cultural codes without bothering much about the details. And if I'm never able to master the Turkish scales, I can console myself with the fact that the most popular tuning of the saz/baglama, it turns out, is something called "buzuk" – identical to the top three strings of the Irish bouzouki. I've already got a leg up.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

thankful for...

this, one of the greatest bands ever, still at the height of their powers: the Mekons earlier this year at the Bull & Gate, Kentish Town, playing one of the best songs of the century (well, so far), "Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem":

Doesn't get any better than this, even allowing for Jon's dreadful 'stache & Sally's occasional off-keyness. New love interest: Lu Edmonds's saz.

Monday, November 23, 2009

utopian Miami Beach

[Edward Wadsworth, Street Singers, woodcut, ca. 1914]

While I was busy introducing Barrett Watten, listening to his talk, & doing all the things one does when one has a visiting speaker Thursday night, J. was down in Miami Beach at the opening reception for this exhibit of British modernist prints at the Wolfsonian, Florida International U.'s museum of design. (Typical South Florida – nothing happens culture-wise for months, then the two events I'm most interested in fall right on the same day.)

I'm absolutely mad about the the Futurist-Vorticist British art of the teens & twenties, Edward Wadsworth, CRW Nevinson, David Bomberg, Wyndham Lewis, etc. So even tho J. had been there not two days before, we drug the whole family down yesterday afternoon. The Wolfsonian's show – which has been at the MFA in Boston & the Metropolitan in New York, & I believe is slated to move on to Austin – is wonderful, absolute angle-porn for a modernism-fancier like me. (Lots of great images here.) If you're in South Florida over the next three months, this is a must-see.

As we strolled around Miami Beach afterwards (and for those of you unfamiliar with the area, Miami Beach has a beach, but really isn't a beach – it's the heavily built-up barrier island between the city of Miami proper & the Atlantic Ocean, a Manhattanish sliver of land covered with hotels, restaurants, nightspots, apartment buildings, cottages, bungalows, etc.) I was delighted as always by the famous "Miami Beach art deco," the host of prewar buildings that are the purest examples down here of high modernist architecture. It was entirely appropriate, it struck me, that the Vorticists had found a temporary home in Miami Beach.

And I was reminded again of one of the most compelling affects inspired in a contemporary viewer by modernist design & architecture: nostalgia for the future. If the buildings in the Art Deco District look like houses from the Jetsons, that's because, like the Jetsons, they're a particular imagining of what the future would look like, with their bold curves, pastel colors, & rectilinear lines. When I see a new building going up at Our Fair University or a new strip mall having its few pitiful, false bits of ornamentation glued on, I see an architecture of the now (literally – the shelf life of buildings down here, before they're completely overhauled or demolished, seems to be something like a decade). Walking down Miami Beach's bright & bold streets, you can't help but get a whiff of those prewar architects' imaginings of a sleek, snazzy future – a kind of glitter of utopia, rendered by time – as time renders us all – merely historical.
[Addendum, from the comments box, a passage from Michael Heller's memoir Living Root (SUNY, 2000):]

And yet, as a fairly new and speedily erected vacation place, Miami Beach also seemed constructed to repel time, to assert with Ozymandian arrogance the power of Works over the eons. For the constant peculiar islandedness of the area, which embossed its resort culture with the raised lips of the pleasantly fantastic and the commercially viable improbable, had detached it as well from history and even reality. That sense of time passing, as marker and reshaper of human existence, had been totally abandoned.

In effect, time, the causal element of all contrasts was missing, which led to a kind of free play of the signifiers; it gave to the shops on the streets and the hotels and swimming pools a quality of both distance and familiarity highly original to the tourist. One suspects there were other places like it in the world, certain amusement parks such as The Tivoli in Copenhagen, or the cluttered haut bourgeois sitting rooms of Hapsburg Vienna. Yet nowhere had histories and cultures been so thoroughly ransacked, to be reconfigured on purely different (commercial) lines as in the Miami Beach hotel lobby. There, an imaginary axe had been taken to the historical-cultural continuum. Time and geography had been chopped up into 18th century Chinese lacquered screens, Italian provincial settees resting on the patterned curlicies of Persian carpets where they were positioned in the shadows of plaster Venus De Milos. Strauss waltz music played on the Musak, webbing the entire lobby in the straining strands of violins. There was nothing second rate about these fakes cleverly deployed across vast expanses of thick, dark carpet among which the Jews of the Bronx and Brooklyn and Philadelphia oohed and aahed. They had come here to be provincial in a different way, both to stand in mild awe at their surroundings and to snub, with crude manners, this plaster cornucopia of the past.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Earlier this evening, Jonathan Mayhew posted a funny & rather wise open letter, beginning "Dear students: I am not smarter than you." Well worth a read.
Barrett Watten read & talked last night, mostly from The Grand Piano but with a longish illustrative poem thrown into the mix as well. A nice event. In the Q&A moments afterwards, one of my undergrads asked the most basic of questions, but one that ended up dovetailing rather nicely with what Watten was circling around in his talk, the relationship of personal formation, as detailed & explored in autobiography, and literary interpellation: Who were the first poets you read?

Allen Ginsberg, Barrett replied, and went on to situate that "hailing" to poetry within the context of his own early (?) teens, living abroad in a military setting (Taiwan, a navy family). One can only imagine the exotic, colorful picture of a distant America Ginsberg presented to a young person an ocean away from the country his immediate, probably quite sealed-off, community so enthusiastically (indeed, dutifully) identified with.

(I sympathize, sharing with BW not merely a birthday, but a parallel experience of being born on a military base abroad & spending much of my youth in the strange bottle-universe of foreign US defense installations. For us, shopping was the PX or the commissary; to venture out into the Kassell or Frankfurt streets was to go "on the economy.")

And I thought, who hailed me, all those years ago? I have a photo somewhere of myself at maybe 2 or 3, wearing a pair of chubby khakis & one of those cable-knit tennis sweaters I always identify with the original miniseries version of Brideshead Revisited (Anthony Andrews, Jeremy Irons), standing with my hands in my pockets, a sly smile on my perfectly circular face, in front of one of my father's bookcases – in which one can read the spines of the Portable Milton and the Portable Blake. It was Blake who hailed me, that very Alfred Kazin-edited volume, which I seized & read over & over – at least the lyrics: the prophetic books were beyond me then, in my middle teens – & carried off to college my first year, & still have on my shelf today.

What I learned first from Blake, & later found repeated in the odd sequence of John Crowe Ransom, Pound, & then the whole rhizomatic rush of poets I discovered in my college years – Michael Palmer, Ronald Johnson, Leslie Scalapino, Jonathan Williams, Emily Dickinson, Robert Duncan, and LZ – was the home truth that for me, poetry was always as it were at an angle. The poems that stuck with me – all of Blake's, perhaps one of Ransom's, many, many of Pound's – never had the neat conceptual & metrical balance of the doggerel we read in high school classes: there was always an excess or a deficit, an overabundance of meaning or affect, or a corresponding hole, a mystery that no summation could encompass.

I cracked my head in college on Donne's crystalline metaphysical crossword puzzles, trundled thru the library for the sources of Duncan's Passages, and spent hundred of hours cross-referencing, annotating, or just reading aloud The Cantos. But I never expected to master any of those poems, to be able conceptually to wrap them up in brown paper & tie them off neatly with a bit of string: there was always, in any poetry that held my interest, some corner or vast stretch of unknowing that could never be mastered. Like the house in Danielewski's novel, the poem is always larger on the inside than on the outside.
And that's why, perhaps, when I deal with my own students' negotiations with poetry, I sympathize with the undergraduates who lament that they can't "sum up" what the poem's "about," but counsel them that what's important is what the poem does; & when my workshop students lament that their productions aren't as "coherent" as they'd like, I try to cough and grin and change the subject to the lines & passages that will always, precisely, fail to "cohere."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

application time

Guess what? I'm not on any faculty search committees this year! To all of those of you who are, I can only say HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA! No, seriously, you have my deep sympathy as you wade thru the stacks of really quite impressive applications from intelligent, creative, imaginative, and seriously, traumatically anxious young people whose futures depend on their fortunes in this Ponzi scheme called The Academy. Yes, you – you, faculty recruitment committee – are playing God this time of year. No fun, is it?
It's also grad school application time, and Mark Wallace has an excellent post up on his blog about what's at stake in applying to MFA programs. Everybody who's considering graduate study in "creative" "writing" needs to read this one.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

course texts / anthologies

It's that time of year again – well, it's actually rather past that time of year, but I'm finally getting around to ordering books for this spring's classes, among them a grad seminar on postwar American poetry. Man, this one was tough. In the end, even tho I'm normally pretty allergic to using anthologies rather than actual books of poetry, I've decided to teach primarily out of 4 anthologies: Donald Allen's New American Poetry; Paul Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry; Eliot Weinberger's American Poetry Since 1950; and the recent Cole Swensen-David St. John American Hybrid – along with, of course, the usual range of xeroxes, PDFs, & internet resources.

Here's the logic: I want to teach the course with an emphasis, not on a half-dozen or dozen or 20 "major" figures, but on group-formations, "schools," filiations of influence. Allen here is I suppose the inspiration, with his initial (& still to an extent valuable) groupings of San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain, Beats, New York Poets; one can cobble together interesting tours of various more recent groups out of Hoover & Weinberger (Language Writing, Analytic Lyric, 2nd generation NY School, etc.); Weinberger is good on the isolatoes, & provides some useful stuff by earlier (2nd & 3rd) generation modernists – precisely the folks who slip thru the Allen chronological cracks – late WCW & Pound, the Objectivists; & there are plain just a lot of interesting poets in Swensen-St. John (if a fair number of duds, as well).

We'll see how this all works out. I suppose in some circumstances I would anticipate objections from some quarters for not really doing anything at all with "official verse culture" post-1945: "where's Robert Lowell, where's Anne Sexton?" On the one hand, I rather snidely feel that including those folks, even as "mainstream" baseline against which to talk about poets I find really interesting, would be rather like including John Williams's Star Wars soundtrack in a course on contemporary "classical" music, just to show what most people were listening to. On the other hand, as lovely & bright & lively as my students are, they seem to have almost no sense whatsoever of literary history, of the immediate past (or even the more distant past) of their own art (I speak here of the MFAs, but the MA students are just as innocent). That of course isn't their fault, tho one might fault them for a lack of consuming curiosity. But it makes for an opportunity, I think: to present some of the really vibrant aspects of postwar American poetry with almost no reference to the "grey flannel" formalism of the 1950s, the histrionics of the confessionals, the quotidian sludge of the 1980s workshop industry.

Every anthology presents its own narrative of literary history, of course: heroic embattled outsider experimentalists in Allen & in Silliman's American Tree, heroic isolatoes in Weinberger, unruly wilderness of unsponsored creativity in Hoover. I'm interested, tho ultimately still unconvinced, by the salvific closure of Swensen & St. John's. After decades in the wilderness, all of the experimentalisms of the '60s, '70s, & '80s have finally found a place at the table, in the form of the new "hybrids" springing up all over the country (mostly, it seems, in MFA programs). A cynic sees this as the belated institutional "consecration" (Bourdieu) of the avant-garde, but in a significantly denatured form: more tonic in that drink please, much less gin. The parataxis is groovy, but could we please slip the central subjectivity back in?

Swensen's intro takes the mainstream v. opposition model – one version of Ron S's "school of quietude" v. "post-avant" distinction – as a given, but claims that while it was accurate in its day, it just isn't valid anymore. Hmmm. True to a certain extent, I suppose – but Swensen, taking Allen as her baseline here, elides the very real fact that Allen never presented "two camps" (the New AmPoets v. the Mainstream): he presented 4 loosely defined groups, plus a grab-bag of uncategorizables from which one could construct at least 2 or three more. The story was never quite as simple as "us against them." What's missing from American Hybrid is any sense that group formations, personal associations, shared journal affiliations or publishing houses matter anymore. If you're interested in such esoteric matters, you have to divine what you can from the rather skimpy author's bios.

I suppose, once again, I'm hankering for a better map of where we are, a richer sense of relationship among the denizens of the now. Literary history, in a word: someone write the history of Flarf, of the Flood Edition writers, of the Brown University avant-garde.
Struck by Kit Robinson's computer industry metaphor in Grand Piano 8: the "tech" guys "wrote the building blocks, a tool set called PeopleTools, and were responsible for the software architecture"; the "apps" guys used this architecture to write the specific software programs that enabled companies to do stuff (payroll, accounting). The first-generation Language writers, then, were techies, opening up & tinkering with fundamental working of language: for them, "the infrastructure space was the interesting place." But then – ominously? –
They did not anticipate all the uses to which their work would be put by later writers for whom Language writing would serve as a technical platform for writing that also embraced narrative, character, identity politics, satire, drama.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

quick one

A hasty post – we've been away for a long weekend, our annual pilgrimage up north to feel cold air & see what's left of the foliage. It wasn't bad, actually: in Maryland & Pennsylvania the maples are still quite spectacular, & there were a few quite lovely ginkgos along the streets in Lancaster. Yes, this was the familial venture into Amish/Mennonite territory. After a day spent with a distant cousin who own a horse farm in Pikesville, MD, we drove up Lancaster-way to spend three days boarding with a charming Mennonite family on their farm (the girls got to milk cows, feed goats & donkeys, pick feed corn, etc.) & venturing out into the odd tangle of pre-modern farm life & hyper-consumerist touristica that is "Amish Country."

Yes, I was skeptical about this vacation from the get-go. But I ended up having a fairly grand time all told. There's something oddly soothing about rolling farmland in all directions, something spiritually calming about having to drive super-gently in order to avoid the black and grey horse-drawn buggies and the young people in 19th-century dress on their scooters. (That's right – the Amish have scooters; no bicycles or skateboards – yet – but scooters.)

While everybody else collapsed into bed every night after a day of buggy-rides, quilt-admiring, & eating heavy Germanic food, I would sit up a while reading The Grand Piano 8 (for my money, the best installment yet – more later on that), Watten's Progress/Under Erasure,* and a nifty history of the Mennonite movement: I haven't lost my taste for Reformation history. And wonderfully enough, the weather back here in St. Peter's Waiting Room was actually tolerable upon our return.

And I got myself a v. cool, broad-brimmed black Amish hat (well, Amish-ish – made in China). Now when the hell does one get to wear such a thing in Florida?

*Yes, I'm gearing up for Watten's visit to Our Fair University this coming Thursday. A formal announcement, for interested locals:

BARRETT WATTEN will be on campus at 5.00 pm, Thursday November 19th at the Schmidt Center Gallery (PA 51), to read from and discuss his poetry and The Grand Piano, the ongoing "collective autobiography" of the Bay Area Language Poets (including Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and six others).
Watten has been a major figure in American writing for some two decades now. He is the author of over ten volumes of poetry, including most recently:
Progress/Under Erasure (Green Integer, 2004)
Bad History (Atelos, 1998; 2nd printing 2002)
Frame (1971-1990) (Sun & Moon, 1998)
Watten was coeditor with Lyn Hejinian of the ground-breaking Poetics Journal, and has published a large number of essays; his most recent critical collections are The Constructivist Moment: From Materialist Text to Cultural Poetics (Wesleyan UP, 2003), winner of the 2004 René Wellek Prize from the American Comparative Literature Association, and a collection coedited with Cary Noland, Diasporic Avant-Gardes: Experimental Poetics and Cultural Displacement (Palgrave, 2009).

Over the past few years, he and nine other of the original Bay Area Language Writers have been publishing a serial autobiography, The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, San Francisco 1975-1980, to be complete in ten volumes early next year.

Sunday, November 08, 2009


About 10 this morning someone in West Springfield, Mass, made the 150,000th visit to Culture Industry.* That's nice: I've been at this since March 2005, and never really expected to get more than 40 or 50 visitors a day, so knowing that for the past couple of years someone's dropped by here just about every quarter hour is actually pretty profoundly gratifying.

At times – frankly, pretty often this fall, under a sift of assignments & an unexpectedly gnarly teaching burden – I've pretty seriously considered pulling the plug on the blog. After all, I don't seem to have the resources of time & imagination more consistent bloggers have (I think here of the indefatigable Ron S. & the scintillating John L.), nor do I have a particular political/cultural agenda that's burning a hole in my hard drive, demanding to be disseminated to the world. (Or yes, I do have a particular political/cultural agenda, I just don't find a blog the best place for its dissemination.) But I think I'm going to keep Culture Industry up & running for at least the near term; somebody out there's reading it – and if you're that somebody, I'm grateful.

*S/he was googling "petergizzi" (read: Peter Gizzi).

Friday, November 06, 2009

Gary Snyder; Geraldine Monk; Ray DiPalma

Three quick entries in the "100 poem-books" thing, somewhat in the way of coming up for air in the midst of heavy-duty reading, writing, & teaching.

Axe Handles, Gary Snyder (North Point, 1983)

It's been years since I've read a Snyder book. I'd forgotten what a tonic his straightforward delivery and terse, quasi-Asian lyricism can be. I can live without the joyful ecocelebration – the last poem ends "one ecosystem / in diversity / under the sun / With joyful interpenetration for all" – not that I don't sympathize with the Thoreauvian impulse behind so much of the verse, it's just that – well, maybe it all feels a bit too '60s-ish optimistic. I find it hard to write about nature, or even to look at nature, without being overwhelmed with a stomach-bottoming sense of foreboding & even guilt at what we've made of poor old Mater Gaia, now circling the drain. But Snyder's at his best when he's chronicling the intense pleasures he gets out of the grain of everyday living, the daily grind of dropping the kids off for their ride to school, trying to keep the raccoons out of the refrigerator at night, drinking and eating.


Selected Poems, Geraldine Monk (Salt, 2003)

I already knew Interregnum, the centerpiece volume of this big selection of Monk's work, a snazzy recounting of the trial & execution of the East Lancastershire Peddle Witches in 1612. Good stuff – Monk's 17th-century witches tend to blur into 20th-century bikers, anarchists, crusties, & other British anti-establishment types, & her language is always muscular & surprising. The 4 post-Interregnum collections in Selected Poems show Monk moving in interesting directions. The early work is a bit too druggy & Wiccan-ish for my taste at times; the later is more satisfyingly weird, breaking up and morphing words on the phonemic level, circling around verbal motifs and repeated cadences. Oddly enough, I find it far more emotionally immediate than the earlier things.


Raik, Ray DiPalma (Roof, 1989)

This is procedural poetry on some level, or at least it takes the notion of form to whole new levels of rigor. Each poem, that is, is composed of evenly-spaced lines: 16 characters, or 32 characters, or whatever. Typeset, obviously, in a crunky Courier-like font in order to preserve ye olde typewritere look, but you get used to that in a page or two. I'd love to know how DiPalma did it: on the computer, with a Courier font? on a real live typewriter? by hand, on graph paper? I'd also love to figure out the numerology behind the various poems, which come in all sorts of even stanzas and line-lengths. It's something of a spit in the face to the whole notion of the page as field of composition, the typewriter as "scoring" the voice (Cummings, LZ, Olson, Duncan), but in a good way: for what's amazing here is the richness & energy of DiPalma's lines, the way he manages to shovel in all sorts of linguistic registers and subject-matter. The poems here range from spare Creeley- or LZ-esque lyrics to dense philosophical meditations to Steinian round-songs. And all in these teeny, über-constrained little boxes. The sort of book that sends me to the keyboard & notebooks to write, & that's praise.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

my Facebook problem

Okay – end of kitten blogging for now. I've put one major project to bed for the nonce, & am deeply involved in another, so there's not a huge prospect of my getting back to this "blogging" business very seriously for a while. Indeed, maybe it's just me, but the whole blogosphere seems to have dulled down a bit since everybody & his dog jumped onto Facebook, & started the direct-feed dissemination of what's on their mind, 18 times a day.

I've been on Facebook for I guess a year & a half now. On the whole – apart from the radical time-drain it can become – it's been a good thing. It keeps me in closer touch with some good friends who live far away, it keeps me "plugged in" to the network of poets & academics I'm interested in, & it's put me back in contact with friends – some of them very good friends indeed – with whom I'd fallen out of touch. (Needless to say, I can live without the constant quizzes & games the Facebook world offers; tho for your information, the "Literary Character I Most Resemble" is Jane Eyre.)

Of course it's always grand to reconnect with friends from college, or from graduate school – I'm even Facebook "friends" with a chap who was once in an American lit section I TA'd for in grad school, & who is now himself a professor up in Pennsylvania – a colleague, in fact, of an old friend from my cohort in grad school.

High school acquaintances are another matter, I'm afraid. For the most part we move in different worlds more than two decades later, our lives so different that becoming "friends" would amount to little more than a voyeuristic sniffing around into "what's become of X." And what do you do with a friend request from someone who announces her religious views on her profile page as "FULL gospel-santified [sic], Holy Ghost, want God's most," and her political views as "God's choice (pro life republican)"? (In my case, you don't reply...)

And I'm delighted to know that the species continues to propagate itself (as if we had any doubt of it), but Lordie it makes me feel old when I see people from high school becoming grandparents right & left. Each to his or her own, I suppose: while one colleague comments that "it's just the way they do things in hill country," I reflect that it's not that I didn't have the capacity to become a parent at 20 or 21 – I just would've been an incredibly lousy one. I hope that other members of the class of 198- have made a better job of it than I would have at that age. And same goes for their kids, now launching out onto the uncharted (or overcharted?) waters of parenthood.

I think I prefer the nomenclature other, more career-related social networking sites use: people you're hooked up with are "connections," rather than "friends." Sure, I'm "friends" on Facebook with some of my actual real-world best friends; and that's great. And I'm happy to connect up with anyone who shows any evidence of having glanced at anything I've written, or who's connected in any way with the various creative/scholarly fields I dabble in. Are we "friends" in any real sense? Not really, but it's no different from your connection to that person whose hand you warmly shake every 2 or 3 years at a conference.

And I'm thankful – I suppose – I think, tho I'm not sure – to Facebook for putting me in touch with various subcultures that I'd only heard about, or perhaps dreamed of. For instance: the subculture of semi-serious marginally "literary" hackdom. There's one "friend" out there – I've never met him, never heard of him until he "friended" me – along with about 1200 other people – who posts daily updates of how many words he written on his latest novel, how many short stories & poems he's read (he's aiming for 365 stories per year, 10 poems a day), & how many short stories & poems he's in turn churned out himself.

I've got no problem with über-productivity – if you're writing in one of the genres where that's a plus (science fiction, say, or romance fiction). And I'm all for a steady work ethic; gosh, I'm trying to cultivate one myself. I suspect I read at least 10 poems a day; of course, there's some days I spend entranced in front of 20 lines of Prynne, and others I read 40 pages (& still come nowhere near finishing) something of Silliman's. Perhaps Friend A is throwing away 90% of what he writes: but the stuff I've googled up on the web suggests that he's sending every bit of it straight out to the little mags.

Friend B, on the other hand, is someone I knew back in high school, & always thought of something approaching a soul-mate. You know, geekish isolato, rather intelligent, lots of trouble fitting in with the rather rough & confrontational crowd in semi-rural Tennessee. Lo & behold, he reappears! As a truck driver, twice-divorced father of 4, & barking right-wing lunatic. In the sense of someone who takes what Glenn Beck has to say seriously. Who thinks Sarah Palin's great, & got a bum deal in the "mainstream media." Who's convinced that Obama's a real live socialist, gearing up to lead us into the perdition of a soviet-style workers' paradise.

I think it's educational to have a real live brush up against the noisy minority who get their news from the Fox network; it's given me insight into how those folks think, & where they're coming from. Hint: it isn't pretty. Despite what you may think, it's not deep-seated racism; rather, it's a kind of atavistic fear in the face of the immediate consequences of globalism, coupled with a classic conservative revulsion at shifting social mores.

Luckily, there's football and baseball to distract these folks. (Friend B's irascible political comments have almost disappeared as the seasons have begun; he'd much rather post updates about the progress of a game from in front of the tv than rail against the "death panels.") Terry Eagleton has said on a number of occasions that he'd like to abolish televised sports, as he finds it the number 1 obstacle in the way of a proletarian revolution. Me, I'm thankful for them, though I'm not likely to watch 'em: pro football & the World Series may be the only thing standing between us and outright civil war.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


My friend Bradley, who used to run this blog that covered creative nonfiction & culture & the academy & boring shit like that, has gone all kittens all the time. Who am I to resist the Zeitgeist? Here's our new adoptee, dubbed Elizabeth Junebug:

She's hiding under the bed, still her fave hangout; for scale, note the green craft pipecleaner. Or better yet, check out this one, the Junebug trying to muscle her way off the ample spread of yr. humble blogger:

And here she is at her favorite sport, boxing with our older cat, Panda:

After that momentary lapse into excruciating cuteness, we'll be shortly returning to the regularly scheduled academic angst, semi-formulated political kvetches, & disjunctive poetry.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

month's end

Okay, to wind up a month of desultory blogging, here's some Halloween cheer. The girls, in all their costumed splendor, a study in contrasts:

First Pippa, 7, as Wednesday Addams. (Alas, all too many neighbors didn't get the joke. "What a cute little pilgrim girl!," they'd burble, as P. maintained the grim iciness I'd assured her was Wednesday's proper demeanor.)
And then Daphne, 5, as the Candy Corn Fairy. What's a candy corn fairy? Search me – she saw the costume, & it had to be hers. The fluffy white wings are an add-on, as are the Dora the Explorer shoes. (And for that matter, the blue stamp on her forehead, which isn't intended to be an über-early Ash Wednesday reminder.)

Many houses were visited, much candy collected. Everybody's exhausted. Thank Ba'al for an extra hour's sleep tonight!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

new poems in Cultural Society!

To leaven a disastrous week – up to the eyeballs in work, the car in the shop (yet again – yes, half an hour after I retrieved it from the shop this morning, after five days, the "check engine" lights lit up again), the heat still not broken – Zach Barocas's excellent Cultural Society has updated, including new work by Peter O'Leary, Norman Finkelstein, Tyrone Williams, & a pa'cel of others, including yr. v. h. blogger: two poems, each of them entitled "Untitled."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

back (?)

Almost a two-week hiatus there, almost unheard of. Jeepers. My only excuse – well, there are several:

•General work-related busyness: a flock of papers to grade, a set of midterms ditto, novels to teach that I've never taught before & am unsure I have anything interesting to say about.

•Pedal-to-metal work on a longish essay on of all things gardening poetics: LZ, Ronald Johnson, Cole Swensen, Ian Hamilton Finlay. Great fun, tho harder work than anything I've tackled in some time. This one is by no means put to bed, since I'm sure there'll be at least a couple rounds of revisions, but at least it's drafted & sent off to the editor.

•We adopted a kitten. Not exactly adopted – rather found, lonely & mewling, in the back yard. The vet identifies her (a grayish tabby, very very fuzzy – I can see pulling cat hair out of my mouth for years to come, & Ba'al knows this is the end of dropping my black jeans onto the floor & expecting them to be wearable next morning – & of course very cute) as about 5 weeks old. Still generally feral, but beginning to warm up to the idea of being in a people house.

But mostly work-related busyness. The task at hand is rereading The Portrait of Lady, & coming up with something interesting to say about it for next week. And of course gearing up for the next essay deadline, this one perhaps the most challenging of all the 5 or 6 things I've foolishly committed myself to this fall. I will try to get back to blogging more or less regularly, but no promises: there are certainly enough books of poetry I want to write about, not least the sumptuous new Bloodaxe Briggflatts, which should be on everyone's stocking-stuffer list this Hanukah.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Joel Bettridge: Presocratic Blues

Presocratic Blues, Joel Bettridge (Chax, 2009)

One of my favorite college assignments of all time was a take-home midterm in Nick Smith's "History of Philosophy" ("part I: Presocratics thru Plato") course back at Tech. Nick handed out an unidentified presocratic fragment (he'd written it himself, of course), & our assignment was to identify its "author" on the basis of doctrine, style, or whatever logical clues we could follow. (Hint: It's not by Pythagoras, who left no extant writings.)

I think I got an "A" on that one, & have remained more than mildly fascinated by the presocratics ever since. (My copy of Kirk & Raven is on the verge of disintegrating.) I love it that some of them wrote their philosophy in verse – which is part of what gives Joel Bettridge's project, a mash-up of presocratic philosophy & classic American blues, a kind of air of inevitability (why didn't I think of that?) even as it comes as a complete surprise.

Nifty poems these, constantly surprising and amusing, divided into "Testamonia" – poems about various presocratics overlaid with various blues figures ("Diogenes and Stagolee in a Punch-Up," "At cards Hippocrates and Blind Willie Johnson...") and "Hollers," poems attributed to various presocratics, in which the mysterious totalities of their philosophies are juxtaposed with the affective immediacies & repetitive structures of classic blues. It's got a great beat & you can dance to it, and (to quote is it Spinal Tap?) it makes you think.


Friday, October 09, 2009

green thoughts/green shade

What do you want to do on your day? was the question last week, & after thinking a bit, I realized that I wanted to do something that would combine pleasure with work. (I have a lot of sympathy with Adorno, reflecting on how the "illustrated weeklies" always report on famous people's "hobbies":
I have no hobby. Not that I am the kind of workaholic, who is incapable of doing anything with his time but applying himself industriously to the required task. But, as far as my activities beyond the bounds of my recognized profession are concerned, I take them all, without except, very seriously. So much so, that I should be horrified by the very idea that they had anything to do with hobbies – preoccupations with which I had become mindlessly infatuated merely in order to kill the time – had I not become hardened by experience to such examples of this now widespread, barbarous mentality. Making music, listening to music, reading with all my attention, these activities are part and parcel of my life; to call them hobbies would make a mockery of them.)
So I said, "let's go to Vizcaya."

Villa Vizcaya, down Miami-way, is an Italianate villa built by zillionaire industrialist James Deering early in the last century as a winter home. The house itself is a rather splendid affair, chock-full of 400-years'-worth of fine & decorative artworks Deering had plundered from Europe. My own interest, however centered on the gardens. Vizcaya's extensive formal gardens, designed by Colombian landscape architect Diego Suarez, are probably the finest example in the United States of a garden in the 16th-century Italian formal style.

I wandered thru the grottoes, along the curvilinear parterres, past the statuary and fountains, snapping literally hundreds of photographs, trying to take in the garden not merely as pretty thing but as experience, as aesthetic whole. It's not that I hadn't been there before – I've visited probably 3 times in the past, & I've been to many of the important bits of landscape architecture along the east coast: the gardens of Williamsburg (& of course all of the gardens adjoining most of the historic mansions in the Virginia/Carolina region), Longwood Gardens, Winterthur, Biltmore, Dumbarton Oaks, etc. (Not to mention a handful of the more important northern Italian gardens, Butchart Gardens in Victoria, & of course Central Park.) But I'm trying to begin to make sense of the garden experience, to conceptualize what goes into garden design & what experience a design aims to provoke in the garden's visitor.

All of which signals that my longtime interest in garden poetics, which first poked its head out of the ground in a 1996 Toronto paper on 80 Flowers (still unpublished, & for good reason), is beginning to become a central research occupation. It gives me a chance to correct the errors of & update my Ian Hamilton Finlay essay (oddly enough, perhaps my single most cited piece of "scholarly" writing). And it gives me an excuse to spend lots of time with books that have large, beautiful photographs.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

author functions

The Kent Johnson/Kenneth Goldsmith Day business has gotten me thinking about authorship issues – that, & the fact that I'm in the middle of grading papers, where I have to be on constant guard for some bleeding chunk of internet-derived prose somehow sneaking in under the name of one of my students. And lo & behold! what should emerge from the tomb but the Bill Ayers-Barack Obama authorship "scandal."

For those of you who don't follow the nail-biting hijinks of American political "discourse," here's the short version: William Ayers was a 1960s radical, a founder of the leftist anti-war group the Weather Underground; he spent a number of years as a fugitive. After coming in from the cold – charges against him for a number of bombings had to be dropped, as the FBI had used illegal tactics in gathering evidence – he became an academic. He's now a highly-regarded professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago. And a longtime acquaintance – a bosom buddy, an ideological soul-mate, some on the right say – of Barack Obama.

In 2001 Ayers published Fugitive Days, a memoir of his time with the Weather Underground. Astonishingly enough, in 1995 Obama had published his own memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Intelligence. Something was fishy there, it seemed to those on the right, among them the conservative journalist Jack Cashill, who was convinced that Obama couldn't have written that book (a best-seller, & by all accounts a hell of an absorbing read) on his own. But who was the ghost-writer?

Bill Ayers was the obvious culprit. After all, he was the figure who most clearly linked Obama to a radical anti-government socialist agenda; and he'd written a book, which was also a memoir. And both of them misspelled Frantz Fanon's first name – in the same way! and referred to eyebrows, 6 times in Ayers's book, seven in Obama's! And they each use the terms "baleful" and "bill of particulars"!

This silliness persisted for some time, reaching a particular height right before last year's election, when a right-wing moneybags named Robert Fox offered Peter Millican, an Oxford don & expert on stylometric analysis, $10,000 to "prove" by computer comparison that Ayers had written Obama's book. Millican looked over the two books & quite sensibly opined that they looked very much as if they'd been written by, well, William Ayers & Barack Obama, respectively. For $10k he'd run the analysis, sure, but only if he were free to publicly announce his conclusions. Fox backed down & withdrew the offer.

One would have thought the issue was dead, at least as dead as the argument that Christopher Marlowe had faked his own death, went into hiding, & went on to write all of Shakespeare's plays – a comparable bit of silliness. Until the other day, when conservative blogger Anne Leary ran into Ayers at a Starbucks at Reagan National Airport. And you know what? He confessed:
Then, unprompted he said--I wrote Dreams From My Father. I said, oh, so you admit it. He said--Michelle asked me to. I looked at him. He seemed eager. He's about my height, short. He went on to say--and if you can prove it, we can split the royalties. So I said, stop pulling my leg. Horrible thought. But he came again--I really wrote it, the wording was similar. I said I believe you probably heavily edited it. He said--I wrote it. I said--why would I believe you, you're a liar.
I know what you're thinking: he's indeed pulling her leg. He's had it up to here with this authorship bullshit, & he's talking to this blogging head who's forced herself on him, in a voice dripping with irony ("if you can prove it, we can split the royalties"). Even Leary seems to recognize this, for a brief moment – until she falls back into the far-right's more typical loony conspiratorialism:
But the question remains--is Barack Obama a fraud? Is his myth-making creation and only major accomplishment a product of Bill Ayers' imagination? (or his own) Is our President Barack Obama's biography written by an unrepentant domestic terrorist?
And what's even more astonishing (amusing?) is that the right-wing blogosphere is now alight with crowing exultation over Bill Ayers's "confession." Even Jonah Goldberg of the National Review (remember William F. Buckley? would he have wasted time on this?) finds himself "forced to revise" his "earlier pooh-poohing" of the Cashill story.

What they all seemed to have missed was a National Journal piece over the weekend, recounting a meeting with Ayers at a book signing:
When he finished speaking, we put the authorship question right to him. For a split second, Ayers was nonplussed. Then an Abbie Hoffmanish, steal-this-book-sort-of-smile lit up his face. He gently took National Journal by the arm. “Here’s what I’m going to say. This is my quote. Be sure to write it down: ‘Yes, I wrote Dreams From My Father. I ghostwrote the whole thing. I met with the president three or four times, and then I wrote the entire book.’” He released National Journal’s arm, and beamed in Marxist triumph. “And now I would like the royalties.”
What's missing on the right here, I guess, is any sense of irony. In their frantic quest to find anything with which to smear Obama, they're running with the most obviously sarcastic "confessions" on Ayers's part as to the authorship of a book which I'm sure he'd've been all too glad to have had a hand in, if only to help out with the mortgage. (In all fairness, Goldberg goes on to admit that Ayers seems to be "pulling some chains" – including JG's own.)

The operative assumption here, I suppose, is that politicians aren't talented enough (or don't have the time, or whatever) to write their own books, even their own life-stories. And generally speaking, that's true, if you look at the author-lines on "autobiographies" by most of the major figures of the past few decades. Even the word-peddlers on the right don't seem to write their own books, more often than not: Glenn Beck's books are co-authored with Kevin Balfe, Rush Limbaugh has used a succession of hacks to turn his tirades into linear prose. How then could Obama actually write his own life story?

What they're missing, obviously, is that Obama is a highly educated man – an academic, in fact, having taught at the University of Chicago Law School for 12 years. And one of the main things that academics do is write. That's how we communicate within our disciplines, that's how we argue the issues we care about. I'm not surprised that Obama & Ayers were able to write compelling memoirs – they had compelling stories to tell, & by their very professions they had a certain mastery of language. What would be more surprising would be if they had written downright boring or incoherent books.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


I'm moved by, & sympathetic to, Josh Corey's post on the difficulties of blogging – what with, you know, parenthood, teaching, trying to do real writing – & his simultaneous reluctance to jettison the blog. I hope he doesn't, because I've found much food for thought in his Cahiers.
The glumness displayed in my last post has dissipated a bit, largely because I've just made the decision to forego a bit of travel that had been weighing heavily on my mind: neither an academic nor a personal trip, but something rather in between, which would have been kinda fun & kinda useful, but a pain to the tush schedule-wise & something of a financial burden. Hard to pass up, in the end, but deciding to pass on it actually makes me happy.
In the midst of teaching Uncle Tom's Cabin, which I'm finding surprisingly engrossing. I confess – for once I'm not rereading the book along with the class (tho I did read it just a few weeks ago); the texture of Stowe's prose is just too icky for me; but as I'm turning thru the book, I keep finding more & more for us to talk about. It's really a fantastically rich (& of course problematic) novel, in terms of rhetoric & argument, of ideology, even of narrative structure. Maybe not in the end a good book, but a vastly teachable one.
I suspect much of the discussion time in my graduate workshop this evening will be devoted to Kent Johnson's Day, his "retread" of Kenneth Goldsmith's Day, the dogged typing-up in 836 pages of every word of a single issue of the New York Times. In an upping of the conceptual ante, Kent & the folks at BlazeVox Books have simply slapped new stickers on existing copies of Goldsmith's book, announcing the work as Johnson's & adding BlazeVox to the publishers' credits. (You can watch BlazeVox's Geoffrey Gatza actually doing this, interspersed with hits – er, "puffs" – on a handsome little pipe, on a video here.)

I've known Kent for maybe 15 years now; he contributed an excellent essay to the Upper Limit Music LZ collection – that was back around the time the Yasusada business was in the works – but we've been in only intermittent touch since. I admire gadflies, & Kent is the best gadfly contemporary American poetry has. (I don't count William Logan, whose brand of nay-saying has little to do with Carlyle & lots in common with the teabaggers – & is light-years away from Johnson's Wildeanism.)
Trying to get something done on my own poems. The long sequence of Zorn-inspired shorts, "Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles," moves rather slowly, but lately I've been turning out somewhat longer things under the repeated title "Hope and Change." Hard to miss the irony there, but I suspect utopian flashes linger in the interstices.

Monday, October 05, 2009


I wonder if my own desultory blogging is just a reflection of overwork & overcommitment, or somehow a symptom of the general online Zeitgeist. Facebook seems to have drawn off most of my "social networking" energies – that is, my impulses to post hasty updates about what I'm having for lunch, or whether I'm happy – and the micro-bursts of Twitter seem to enraptured any number of folks who've in the past devoted themselves to more lengthy ruminations. The upshot of it all for the denizen of this particular desk chair is that my energies seem even more scattered than usual, my attention-span shorter & shorter. I have to make a particular & sustained effort to bolt myself down to write a paragraph or two here, & the effort is commensurately greater for writing the half-dozen lengthy & serious pieces I've committed myself to over the next few months.

I worry of course about aging & the mind. Not a class meeting goes by these days but I have some fleeting attack of aphasia, inability to remember the word "commensurate" or "ambidextrous" or "syllabus." (My GP told me my vitamin B12 levels were a bit on the low side, by the way, so I've been trying to pop a supplement occasionally – or trying to remember to...) One of those milestone birthdays rolled around this past weekend, which brought it all home: I realized that only if I'm extremely lucky in the decades to come can I look back on this year as "nel mezzo" etc. I'm definitely on the downward slope.

What does that mean? If, as I think Hayden White argues, the essence of narrative lies in an act of retrospective judgment, then I suppose I'm worried about the final judgment on this particular life-story. What have I done? A handful of decent essays; an overlong & painfully mannered scholarly monograph, read with care by the 200 other people in the world interested in its subject; a not-bad literary biography, reviewed with enthusiasm in some quarters & vile disdain in at least one; a slim volume of poems, almost all of which I look back upon as sheerest juvenilia; a stack of newer poems – much better to my eyes, but still painfully limited – awaiting some seismic shift in my acedia for me to try hawking them about to a publisher.

A fire, I fear, needs to be lit under me.
At any rate, in true bourgeois fashion let me turn away from such bleak ruminations & focus on what in our late capitalist society really makes life worthwhile – consumption: the stuff I got for my birthday! The Library of America Elizabeth Bishop was a welcome addition to the collection, as was the DVD of John Adams's Doctor Atomic. And I was much moved to look over the new Bloodaxe edition of Bunting's Briggflatts, a poem which has rarely been out of my mind over the last two decades. This edition is just plain splendid, luminous, with lots of photos, introductions & afterwords by both Bunting & his editors, a fascinating note on the poem's textual state & composition by Don Share, & best of all, both a CD of BB reading the poem and the DVD of a very fine 37-minute documentary produced by Peter Bell in 1982, two years before Bunting's death. The poet is old, halt, & ruminative, but his voice is as rich & sharp as ever.

Best of all, perhaps – in terms of literal consumption, & in terms of eco-consciousness – was the seltzer maker from the SodaStream folks. Now as a true son of the South, my beverage of choice has always been iced tea: "unsweet" tea, as opposed to the sweet variety. (Yes, Yankee illiterates, that's "unsweet," not "unsweetened.") But at the time of my 2-years'-past kidney stone bout, my urologist, as he told me to radically up my fluid intake, also warned me off tea & coffee – not the caffeine, but the vegetable solids, which he said had been shown to lead to stone formation.

Well, I can't do anything about the coffee: like many of my other vices, it's simply a physiological necessity. But the tea was entirely replaced with seltzer. Soon enough, Daphne decided that she too likes "fizzy water," & we have gotten to the point of going thru maybe 3 gallons of the stuff a week, which means shlepping a lot of two-liter bottles from the grocery, & throwing a lot of them out in the recycling. The SodaStream setup – which isn't particularly cheap, tho I suspect it'll pay for itself sooner rather than later – changes all that. More or less instant seltzer, direct from tap water (or from the Brita bottle).

Oh yes, & in a rare venture to the only decent 2nd-hand bookstore in South Florida outside of the excellent Bookwise in Boca, I found a copy of the rare & elusive The Studio, a 1979 paperback introducing the "fine art" (ie, non comic book art) work of Jeffrey Jones, Barry Windsor-Smith, William Michael Kaluta, & Bernie Wrightson. Seriously good stuff.
Update: Today's letter carrier brought in the last few outriders among promised gifts: the Library of America Hart Crane; Ian Brinton's collection of essays, A Manner of Utterance: The Poetry of J. H. Prynne (this one I'll have to put on a high shelf & promise myself as a reward for finishing the stack of papers due in tomorrow); & a shiny new release from Verso, Gopal Balakrishnan's Antagonistics: Capitalism and Power in an Age of War. (Did I briefly, distantly, know GB back in the day at Cornell?)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


[Some bits of Alexander Pope's table-talk, from Joseph Spence's Anecdotes, Observations and Characters of Books and Men:]

If I am a good poet? (for in truth I do not know whether I am or not.) But if I should be a good poet, there is one thing I value myself upon, and which can scarce be said of any of our good poets: and that is, "that I have never flattered any man, nor ever received any thing of any man for my verses."

Middling poets are no poets at all. There is always a great number of such in each age, that are almost totally forgotten in the next. A few curious inquirers may know that there were such men, and that they wrote such and such things; but to the world they are as if they had never been.

[Pope's sister, Mrs. Racket:] When my brother's faithful dog, and companion in these walks, died; he had some thoughts of burying him in the garden, and putting a piece of marble over his grave, with the epitaph; O RARE BOUNCE! and he would have done it, I believe, had not he apprehended that some people might take it to have been meant as a ridicule of Ben Jonson.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


[Last night our department's graduate program held a "faculty juvenilia" reading, in which faculty members were invited to read specimens of the embarrassing things they'd written in very early youth & by the way to proffer "words of wisdom to our graduate students. I was unable to unearth any of the atrocities of my childhood or high school years – hopefully they've mouldered to dust in a closet of my mother's house – but I was able to turn up my file of undergraduate poems, opening which felt rather like cleaning out the fridge after two months' absence – ie many stomach-turning science experiments to be disposed of.]

Introducer: Mark Scroggins, after 4 years of geekish isolation in high school (most notable achievement: Latin club, for god's sake) & uncountable years of geekish, isolated intellectual humiliation in college & grad school, is now circling the drain of his middle years, exposing his ignorance at every turn to colleagues & unfortunate students. He 'teaches' modernist & postmodernist poetry & culture, though he doesn't believe in postmodernism anymore, & leads poetry writing workshops, though he suspects that poetry writing can't really be 'taught.'*

MS: This poem, which I wrote when I was an undergraduate – & which, as you can see, was actually typed on an actual typewriter [holds up sheet of onionskin] – doesn't seem to have a title. One of the few things I knew that still proves true is that titles are important, and hard. But if I had titled it, it would have been called "The Fish." I will read it in my best William Shatner voice, so you know it's poetry:
When I was a child, I love to play
at fishing in the shallow pond behind
my grandfather's house in Alma, Texas,
dropping strings and pebbles into the water,
roiling the bottom mud in watery dust-clouds,
chasing the tiny fish that crept along the slime.
The water of the pool was clear, the fish
as sharp and shiny as minted coins;
I could see them move from left to right,
but when I tried to touch them with a stick,
they were not there.
The mind is a fish,
and moves in a medium, turning around
barriers and nosing muddy depths,
darting and circling until it returns
to chase the self it cannot catch, to find
the pond dried up, and with it the frogs
and minnows;
and my grandparents moved away.
I had forgotten it all, but for the clearness
of the water, the way the scales, refracted,
flashed the sunlight to my grasping eye.
So what "words of wisdom" can be derived from that calcified but still slightly smelly turd? I wrote it for a professor who endlessly drilled into us that the iambic meter was the true genius of English verse – so it's roughly iambic, at times intrusively so. He told us to write about things we knew & cared about – so I wrote about my childhood & my grandparents' pond. He told us to let the specific experience open up to a larger insight – so I cooked up some crap about "the mind" and memory.

In sum: while I agree wholeheartedly with the smart & even inspiring things my colleagues have just told you – don't believe a thing we say.

*Yes, I composed that intro myself.