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.



Amy said...

You have a NYE party invite in your inbox! :)

Bradley said...

Congratulations on the great (and well-earned) review.

And I know exactly what you mean about being glad not to be in Philadelphia this week. MLA can be fairly depressing in any given year-- you have to go to a funeral to see as many people dressed in black crying. On the one hand, I'm thankful everyday that Emily and I got the jobs we did, when we did; on the other hand, I get seriously depressed when I think about all of the smart, talented people-- many of them good friends-- who are flying across on the coutry on their own dimes, desperate to win their chance at an on-campus interview. I mean, it's like appearing on a game show, except the one who doesn't win doesn't even get a copy of the board game version of the show to play at home. Of course, who would want it...?

Happy New Year to you and yours.

Ed Baker said...

I'm not going

need here
is to

use my social
security monthly

check buying



nothing much ever
in a

pee est..

took me a year to read your LZ bio:

a terrific read.

Curtis Faville said...

Haven't been able to make heads or tails of Jorie Graham (yet).

I think she's a fake.

Sorry if that sounds rude.

I call'em like I see'em.