Monday, May 04, 2009

anality & available canons

Tinkering with iTunes today; somehow, in shifting my music library from one hard drive to another, the program lost the "connections" with about a third of my ripped & downloaded mp3s, so that I'm having to go thru, track by track, repairing those connections. Tedious. Someone's about to tell me that I can just delete the albums, then re-import them to iTunes – yes, that would work just fine. The problem is that it would lose the all-important "play counts." You see, as another evidence of my overriding anality – perhaps some mild OCD? – I'm in the process of systematically listening thru every track I own. No small task: there're something like 13,000 tracks in my iTunes library; I've gotten it down to a mere 1100 unlistened to "songs" (a category which includes poetry readings, lectures, podcasts, & other stuff).

It makes me think, perhaps not oddly at all, about literary canons. Someone whom I can't bother to look up distinguished between the "canon" – that always hegemonic, nasty-bad list of great dead men – a canon which no-one has really believed in since the early 1970s, so far as I'm concerned – and the "available canon," the pieces of writing which are more or less easily accessible for reading & teaching (canon-perpetuating?) practices. Which is to say that literary works end up on our syllabi (speaking as a professor, now) do so in large part because they're available in affordable anothologies, online, or in paperbacks we can in good conscience make our students buy. Lyn Hejinian's My Life is probably a canonical text to a lot of readers of this blog; but when I went to teach it this past semester, I found that it was in some "not out of print but unavailable indefinitely" limbo. (Get your finger out, Doug!) I'd have no such problem with Gulliver's Travels, or The Awakening, or Three Lives, all of which are available in a variety of editions, ranging from cheap Dover Thrift editions to lavishly annotated scholarly things.

So I was thinking about (was it) Milton, the last writer for whom it was possible to have read everything – every significant text in Western literature. (And who said that? And of course it's not really true – he couldn't have read all of those early modern plays, even the ones that managed to get published, or the whole of the Church Fathers...) But the range of books he had available to him was so unimaginably more curtailed than what we have today, even in the most dreary Waldenbooks suburb. And my iPod, with its 13,000 songs – does that represent more music, of a wider range, than Mozart (or Robert Johnson) heard over the course of his life?

I'm feeling, that is, overwhelmed by riches, to the point of being at a loss. I have probably a couple thousand volumes of poetry, most of it American, most of it published over the last 30 years, on my shelves & in stacks on my floor; and several hundred of those volumes I haven't yet read. As with my "unplayed" iPod playlist, I'm assiduously trying to work my way thru it all, trying to sift the gems from the – well, from everything else. But sometimes it seems like sheer volume of cultural production works to dull the ear & eye. When I listen thru the Pogues box set, for instance, I hear live versions & demo versions of songs that are interestingly different from the versions with which I'm familiar; but those differences don't register with the same impact they would have when I was in my early 20s, & played every new album four times over as soon as I got it out of the shrink-wrap. Too many books of poetry in a row & the genre itself seems to hover into a blur of disjunction, image, & musical line. When I bought my hot-off-the-press copy of Leslie Scalapino's that they were at the beach back in 1985, I read it till the spine broke. Now, even the most impressive new book is hard-pressed to provoke more than a 2nd or 3rd reading.

Perhaps the cure is to restrict one's reading, one's listening, for a while. There's something to be said for Christopher Ricks's Bob Dylan fixation (in conversation, it becomes pretty abundantly clear that Ricksie isn't particularly interested in rock music, or in popular songwriting in general – he just loves, & knows in microcopic detail, Dylan). But I'm not ready to cut back my reading list just yet. Perhaps I just need a season of slow reading.
Looks like I'll be teaching, come next Spring, a grad seminar in Postwar American Poetry. But golly, I'm disinclined to put together a syllabus of 13 or 14 volumes by people I like. I'd rather do something that tries to give a sense of the shapes & directions of American poetry since 1945, a bit of – for want of a better word – literary history. Anybody got any suggestions for useful anthologies, histories, approaches, etc.?

[Professional arse-covering: Of course, anything you suggest, I'll already be familiar with (wink wink, nudge nudge); I just need – er – reminding.]


Steven Fama said...

Anthologies: Donald Allen's. Leary and Kelly's. Carruth's, Silliman's, and Codrescu's. Surely there's more, especially contemporary. But ugh how many dang anthologies can a college kid be made to buy?

Vance Maverick said...

And my iPod, with its 13,000 songs – does that represent more music, of a wider range, than Mozart (or Robert Johnson) heard over the course of his life?Not more music, I think : at 2-3 min/song, that's about 30K minutes, or 500 hours; a professional musician would hear several hours of music a day, passing 500 in a year. But it's hard to imagine that the range of your iPod doesn't surpass what they knew -- even allowing for Mozart's wide travels and life experience (including folk genres we can hardly imagine now), and your own seeming focus on the British Isles and the years of your youth.

Ed Baker said...

less IS more...

why not just 'cultivate your own garden'?

and "dump" every third book.... don't even "look back" in anger...or angst!

I have that Hegenian book around here somewhere.... or did I donate it to Senior Center?

just couldn't "warm-up" to her writing/attitude.

as for the 13,000 "tunes on my i-pod" : what tunes count? and, why have ann i-pod to clutter-up your mind with 'canned" music/sounds

going to shcool sure sounds boring and superfluous.... and over-priced might as well sit-in-a-park and feed the pigeons.

or, better still, learn a trade.

tyrone said...

Tears ago, pre-marriage, I did the same with my albums and cds, mostly as a way of seeing what still--and no longer--resonated. A lot of my punk, funk and folk stood up. What often didn't was the pop...Haven't dared to do that with my poetry book sfor the reasons you can't--too much yet to read. However i did read back )okay--glanced back) through my chapbooks and got rid of stuff I was no longer interested in. One interesring side effect of cultural overproduction--not only does it de-aura-ize the canon, or any canon, but it also renders moot the used-to-be punch of "parochial," "regional," etc.

Norman Finkelstein said...

A number of thoughts cross my mind, Mark. First, it seems odd that the distinguished biographer of Louis Zukofsky has overlooked Z's emphasis on pleasure, as in "the test of poetry is the pleasure it affords..." Is all this concern about getting everything listened to or read some sort of post-Protestant guilt? Some sense that one's dealings with the arts mandates strenuous labor? Related to this, I am reminded that somewhere in the tomes of Harold Bloom, he talks about poets (and by extension, critics) sacrificing lesser pleasures for greater (more severe, more harassing) ones. Well, OK--but only up to a point. I mean, I need to finish reading Proust, but I think I'm going to reread all of William Gibson first.

Ed Baker said...

I use this from LZ as (sort of) an intro or "set-up" to my
G OO DNIGHT (soon to be published if it hasn't yet been by MORIA POETRY)

The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and
intellection.... criticism probes only my own considerations. I believe
that desirable teaching assumes intelligence that is free to be attracted
from any consideration of every day living to always another phase of
existence. Poetry, as other object matter, is after all for interested people.
(L.Z, A Test of Poetry, 1936)

Alan Golding said...

Re your postwar (US?) American poetry course, Mark, the last two or three times I've taught that I've organized it around the idea of the "movement" (scene, coterie, call it what you will): Black Mountain, New York School, Beats, SF Renaissance, Black Arts, Langpo, feminist avant-garde poetics. There are many possible variations, obviously, and my approach is hardly original, but I've found it affords a decent combination of breadth and focus, practice and theory, introduction to some of the key historical debates. I'll probably do something different next time. When I started teaching, back in the Stone Age, something like "coverage" seemed possible; for a long time now, that's looked like an impossibly quixotic goal. Nor do I feel the responsibility I once did to teach writers who are considered (by whatever source) "important" but in whom I'm not interested.

BTW, with the idea of an "available canon," you might be thinking of Alastair Fowler's "accessible canon" from *Kinds of Literature* [I just corrected an apposite typo--"kings!"], recycled by Alan Golding in his still-useful *From Outlaw to Classic* . . .

Curtis Faville said...

No one is really responsible for the burgeoning surfeit of STUFF out there. Follow your whims: Two years ago I went on a Telemann jag--this was when there were still brick-&-mortar music stores selling CD's on the boulevard--and bought up all the recordings I could find. Played them all at least five times through--literally immersed myself in it.

But the thought of, for instance, attempting to hear, even the available recordings of, one segment of musical "time" (like late Baroque) would be not just daunting, but disrespectful to my life's span. Sheer idiocy.

The same is true of poetry. The San Francisco Library bookstore at Fort Mason gets all the review copies of the local books reviewers, and every month there are dozens and dozens, poets I've never heard of, each with dozens of magazine appearances, each serious and committed and cranking'em out. Not only could any single reader not keep up with it all, there's be no earthly reason to want to.

I compose a fair bit on the keyboard, and on my Kurzweil. I once attended a contemporary composers group dedicated to promoting their own work. I asked: "why should we keep piling up more music, most of which will never be heard, when there is Mozart and Hayden and Hindemith and Bartok that most people have never even heard yet?" Then they all lit into me. More is better.

Well, maybe. There's an awful lot of bad stuff being written and composed.

Ed Baker said...

what were those little characters in Lil Abner?

millions of taking over (again) pear-shaped critters with Huge-Huge bellies and Tisy-Tiny mouths?

Shmoos? or Shmos?

how to fill the belly through such a tiny mouth

and feed 'em what?

more and more of more and more... horse shit!