Friday, June 12, 2009

archive fever

Undine is doing archival research, & man am I jealous. Some observations she makes:
•I'm in Research City, spending long, concentrated days in the archives, enjoying hours spent seemingly inside the head of the authors whose letters I'm reading, and wondering if, with all this typing and transcribing, absorbing words and sentence structure, I'll start to sound like these authors once I'm done.
•It may be easier, on the whole, to be a tortured creative genius and fill notebooks with tiny handwriting in black ink than to decipher that handwriting years later.
•No matter how much energy I think I have, it is never as much as that of an author who likes to write letters.
Some of the most intellectually energetic weeks of my life were the three months I spent doing groundwork for the LZ biography at the HRC in Austin. One can intellectually accept, even endorse, all of the post-structuralist arguments about the death of the author, all the substitutions of an "author-effect" for the old-fashioned author, & still get swept away with a kind of immediacy when you're actually holding in your hands the letters, the drafts & notes, that a given poet wrote. (I've written about this before.)

As Undine's specific comments above: 1) Yes you will, at least in bits & pieces; part of what Leon Edel calls "transference" (tho I think he presents a severely emaciated version of the process); probably in the end not a good thing, so be aware. 2) Of course it's easier to write the notebooks than to read them; hell, I'm not even a "creative genius" & I can't decipher my own handwriting from six months ago. 3) I wonder if the species as a whole hasn't declined since the 19th century, energy-wise. God knows Ruskin seems to have churned out a couple dozen pages of manuscript & correspondence every day, & he didn't have to resort to heavy doses of caffeine, nicotine, & amphetamines (like Sartre). Then again, I suspect the absence of radio, television, electronic media, & telephones – plus the fact that all cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. was done by others – added to his writing time.
Random LZ archival notes:

•A prominent LZ scholar once opined to me that Zukofsky's increasingly "crabbed" (LZ's own word) handwriting, beginning mostly in the 1950s, was due to the psychological constraints of his marriage. Interesting theory, but Occam's razor suggests something more prosaic: the invention of the ballpoint pen. LZ, you see, was a lefty, & in the days of fountain pens would perforce have to write rather slowly & carefully in order to avoid smearing the still-wet ink. Once a "dry" writing instrument was invented, he could follow his natural bent & write as microscopically as he pleased. (This is clearly evidenced in a long early letter to Carl Rakosi, written on a train from Chicago to Madison, where his pen runs out halfway thru & he finishes in pencil – in much smaller script.)

•One thing that hit me more & more as I read thru the correspondence – & not merely the HRC's collections, but various other collections around the continent, along with bales of photocopies sent from various hands – was the extent to which every letter is in some sense addressed: that is, every bit of "evidence" you glean from a writer's correspondence has to be weighed & calibrated on the basis of the writer's relationship with the addressee. Probably necessary to extent this to most notebooks & journals as well (as Claire Tomalin does in her brilliant Pepys biography): even if the journal is entirely private, somewhere in the writer's mind there's an intended or ideal audience, & the writing is to some degree addressed to that audience.


Ed Baker said...

letters, post cards, art that I'd written to [...]

during 1972 and 1978 archived in acid-free boxes
at two different university libraries

"stuff" (400 + pieces) sent to same poet-friend 1998-2004 archived at a third U library

well I spent 4 or so days "digging" into several of those boxes
at the Lily Library

wearing cotton gloves, etc.

for a moment I felt that I was an archaeologist digging in..

or, maybe, even, a maggot-like surreal being

subsequently to get me outta there the library xeroxed nearly all of my "stuff" and sent the copies to me..

and a bill for the copies

as I recall 4 cents a copy plus postage..

what a secure place that University Library Archive room was!

ot-side walking back to motel in the sunshine I was nearly run over by a cute co-ed on a two-wheeler... willy-nilly
flying by
in the then
right now

my "goose" was
c o o k e d ...

she ws THAT

undine said...

Thanks, Mark. Now I'm envying you--three whole months at the HR library!

All that you say here is true, especially about weighing the relationships with the correspondents. One of the things that's surprising to me about reading Author's letters, especially those to correspondents who didn't make it into the collected letters, is the kind of language that Author uses in addressing them--slang, for example--never used anywhere else. The sense of audience is very strong indeed with Author.

Anonymous said...

Mark - help me out. Whose archive (this time) are you exploring?

Yes,I agree, where possible, the envelopes and stamps, and, when it happens, drawings on the envelope bring in aura the whole relationship between the writer and receiver of the letter. I have been processing the archive of Laura Ullewicz which includes about 100 or so letters and postcards from Jack Gilbert from over a 40 year period. Gilbert always enshrined the envelopes' address info with super enlarged calligraphy - a kind of mutual celebration of both her (once a lover and a longtime friend. This kind of psuedo-calligraphic elegance was also a calling out of "this is important" etc. Laura's personal journals also have an implicit read and ultimately publicly "share me" character. She was a mid-century bohemian and I think she new her account - difficult as it could often be - was important.

Enjoy yourself,

Stephen Vincent

Mark Scroggins said...

Alas, Stephen, I'm just at home reading books -- no archival research in the foreseeable future for me, tho whenever I hear of someone sifting thru masses of papers I get really, really itchy to get back into the library.