Thursday, April 30, 2009

so it's official...

Checked my departmental mailbox today, & lo & behold there was "that letter" from the Provost of Our Fair University (dated the 24th, so I guess I might have overlooked it earlier this week), informing me that on the basis of yadda yadda yadda I'd been recommended for promotion, & that the President had concurred with the Provost's recommendation: so look at me now, a real live Full Professor. (You can still call me "Mark.")

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ruskin: The Poetry of Architecture

So I've taken the plunge, tho heaven knows I don't have the time right now: I'm deep into the first volume of the Library Edition of Ruskin, Early Prose Writings. First things first: it's an immense pleasure, on a purely sensual level, to read Ruskin in this edition. The book is big, maybe 6 1/2" x 10", and a good 2 1/2" thick; the paper is delightfully heavy (specially laid for the Library Edition, with Ruskin's crest and initials as watermark), & to my eye as bright as when it came off the press over a century ago. The margins are ample, and the text is clearly & beautifully printed. Best of all are the illustrations, most of them photogravures of Ruskin's own drawings, in perhaps the clearest reproductions I've ever seen. And of course the annotations are delightful, in the best tradition of late-Victorian scholarship – every allusion accounted for, every connection with Ruskin's other works drawn.

This volume, as befits the first volume of the set, is for the most part juvenalia. Cook & Wedderburn have opted to organize their edition mostly chronologically, with a few exceptions: multi-volume works (Modern Painters, Stones of Venice) appear in consecutive volumes; within volumes, more important large works come before odds & sods. That's the case here. The first & largest piece in Early Prose Writings is The Poetry of Architecture, which Ruskin published as a series of articles in The Architectural Magazine in 1837-8, & which was only collected as a book much later.

It's very much a young man's book – Ruskin was 18 & 19 when he wrote it (tho he'd been publishing poems, & the occasional essay or note, for several years) & trying his best to do well at Oxford, which wasn't easy: his strong suits, as he laid them out around this time, were imaginative writing (read: sub-Byronic verse), drawing, & the study of geology & architecture – none of which were on the curriculum at the University. Indeed, while he was stoked to the gills on Sir Walter Scott & the Authorized Version, his Latin & Greek were pretty shaky, which put him at a distinct disadvantage among the Etonians & Harrovians around him. The Poetry of Architecture is a bit of rag-bag, an attempt to argue for the relationship of architecture to national scenery/topography on the one hand and "national character" on the other. Mostly it's JR recounting what he saw on his various family visits to the Continent, & compare it to what he knew from the family's annual wine-selling tours of Great Britain (Ruskin's father was a sherry merchant, in partnership with the Dolmecq family, whose sherries one can still pick up at the supermarket). Lots of descriptions of what characteristic English, Swiss, & Italian cottages look like, & how they best harmonize with the surroundings.

What I'm most struck by in this apprentice work – for JR has yet to formulate a coherent aesthetic in any self-conscious fashion, tho he's already got a good start on his aureate prose – is how astonishingly self-assured he is in his pronouncements. This is the work of a young man whose parents had been telling everyone he was a genius for a decade or more, & he's perfectly aware of it, & perfectly happy to live up to the label. The vast majority of the dissertations I've read, & the vast majority of the first books, have nothing like the consistent sense Ruskin's prose shows of inherent rightness. It gets oppressive after a while – as does the work of any 19-year-old jackanapes, no matter how brilliant – but there's also something rather intoxicating about it, even as he hands down Moses's tablets on matters I couldn't care less about (the proper form of a chimney, the proper angle a roof should make to its supporting wall).

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Janet Holmes: Humanophone

So we're back from a wedding at of all places Orange, Virginia, midway between Fredricksburg & Charlottesville. Old stomping grounds, in part. Lovely country, rolling hills & farms & horses & kine. A visit to Montpelier, home of James & Dolley (with an "e") Madison, recently renovated from some DuPont's hideous "upgrade" back to its early 19th-c. state. An elegant formal garden, endless hiking trails back into the woods. My calves ache. Surprisingly, my head doesn't, given the endless potations at the wedding last night. The dog's nose – one of Basil Bunting's favorite drinks: beer + gin – is a wonderful thing, but probably too dangerous for extended bouts.

I don't like bed & breakfasts. Something creepy about that "welcome to our house" business, when I'd frankly prefer the anonymity of a hotel, the more aseptic & non-Victorian the better: give me Swisshotel any day.
Humanophone, Janet Holmes (U of Notre Dame P, 2001)

Various poems in various forms here: a number of quite personal lyrics (some very moving); some confrontations with literary texts (Dante, Keats); meditations on place. The centerpieces are 3 sequences on musical material: "Celebration on the Planet Mars," which explores the life & work of jazzman Raymond Scott; "Humanophone," on Charles Ives's father George, a Civil War bandleader & as much a visionary as his more famous son; & "Partch Stations," on the incomparable composer & instrument-maker Harry Partch – all three men who heard music that no one before had ever imagined, & sought new instruments to make it real.

I'm reminded in these 3 sequences of one of the modes of John Matthias (& Matthias's student Bob Archambeau): a poetic hearkening back to certains strains of the high modernist, in which the poet's goal is to hold up & display the shiny, odd byways of cultural history. Poems like these, at their best, stand alone – but they always seize the reader by the shirt: here's something you might not know, might never have heard of, but it could change your life, were you to follow this trace – read these books, listen these recordings, look at these pictures! Something fundamentally generous there.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

sloppy annotation, part 438

I highly recommend Clive Wilmer's 1985 Penguin edition of Ruskin's Unto this Last and Other Writings; it's a more than solid cross-section of 30 years of Ruskin's social criticism, from the early fairy tale The King of the Golden River thru the whole of Unto this Last down to a couple of letters of Fors Clavigera. At the start of his Select Bibliography, Wilmer (like every Ruskinian) pays homage to the Cook/Wedderburn "Library Edition," "a masterpiece of editorial scholarship and very easy to use. The introductions to each volume are unusually long, well-written and informative; it is beautifully illustrated, mainly with Ruskin's drawings; the notes are incomparable."

That last bit of italics is mine, because I'm thinking of Wilmer's own notes to the Penguin Unto this Last – over 40 closely printed pages to 250-odd pages of Ruskin's text. Wilmer sets out with the editor's usual brief: to fill in contemporary contexts with which 20th-century readers might be unfamiliar, and, since "Ruskin was an exceptionally allusive writer," to identify his quotations and allusions. For the most part Wilmer does a better than fine job; if anything, the book is over-annotated – but the notes are at the end, so they can be conveniently ignored. But what to make of the following?:

In Fors Clavigera 10 (7 September 1871), after having identified himself as "a violent Tory of the old school (Walter Scott's school, that is to say, and Homer's)," Ruskin goes on to describe the ideal of monarchy that he formed from such childhood reading:
I perceived that both the author of the Iliad and the author of Waverley made their kings, or king-loving persons, do harder work than anybody else. Tydides or Idomeneus always killed twenty Trojans to other people's one, and Redgauntlet speared more salmon than any of the Solway fishermen...
To the latter reference, Wilmer appends this note:
Redgauntlet: the hero of Scott's novel of the same name, a courageous young knight who undergoes many adventures in eighteenth-century Scotland. Scott's life and works are among the recurrent minor themes of Fors.
Where to begin with this? Redgauntlet (1824) is the last of Scott's novels to deal with the theme of Jacobite rebellion. In his first novel, Waverley, he had written about the 1745 Jacobite rising on behalf of Bonnie Prince Charlie (the "Young Pretender"); in Rob Roy (1817), he treated the 1715 rising on behalf of Charles's father James Stuart (the "Old Pretender"). Redgauntlet, set in the 1760s, imagines a final abortive Jacobite uprising, in which Prince Charles returns to Scotland (not so young anymore, & dissipated from his years of drinking & womanizing on the continent) & is swiftly more or less shoo'd off by the English military.

Hugh Redgauntlet personifies a kind of superannuated Jacobitism, a fierce loyalty to the Stuart cause & disdain for the Hanoverian monarchy. He is in short a man born too late, & when Charles returns to his continental exile, Redgauntlet, knowing that there will be no further Jacobite risings, turns his back on Scotland and leaves with him, making way – as is so often the case with Scott's novels – for a new, less romantic, bourgeois order. Jacobitism, in the late 18th-century, becomes a kind of sentimental conservatism, rather like Archie & Edith singing "Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again."

And Redgauntlet, whatever he may be, is most definitely not "a courageous young knight who undergoes many adventures." He's in late middle age, a grizzled laird best known for his prowess at fishing. So where in god's name did Wilmer get this annotation? Is this a joke? Did he just make it up?

Wilmer shows similar distance from other Scott references; rather than describe characters & situations, he throws out brief overviews ("Ruskin refers to characters and places in the two novels named, both of which are by Scott"). We all have blind spots: I suspect Sir Walter is one of Wilmer's, a writer he can't bring himself to read, even though he knows how important Scott was to the formation of Ruskin's imagination. But if you're out to fully annotate an allusive writer, for better or worse you need to have read everything the writer has read. No small order with Ruskin (or Pound, or...).

This is why the best annotated editions are the products of several hands, rather than a single editor, however devoted he may be.

[Cook & Wedderburn – as I find out from consulting my own lovely copy – don't annotate the Redgauntlet reference at all – I guess they assume it's a part of any educated reader's cultural vocabulary.]

kunst für alle

[Ruskin, from Fors Clavigera 7 (1 July 1871), on a report that the Louvre had been set afire in the fighting over the Paris Commune:]

For, indeed, I am myself a Communist of the old school – reddest also of the red; and was on the very point of saying so at the end of my last letter; only the telegram about the Louvre's being on fire stopped me, because I though the Communists of the new school, as I could not at all understand them, might not quite understand me. For we Communists of the old school think that our property belongs to everybody, and everybody's property to us; so of course I thought the Louvre belonged to me as much as to the Parisians, and expected they would have sent word over to me, being an Art Professor, to ask whether I wanted it burnt down. But no message or intimation to that effect ever reached me.

Monday, April 20, 2009


I may, however, anticipate future conclusions, so far as to state that in a community regulated only by laws of demand and supply, but protected from open violence, the persons who become rich are, generally speaking, industrious, resolute, proud, covetous, prompt, methodical, sensible, unimaginative, insensitive, and ignorant. The persons who remain poor are the entirely foolish, the entirely wise, the idle, the reckless, the humble, the thoughtful, the dull, the imaginative, the sensitive, the well-informed, the improvident, the irregularly and impulsively wicked, the clumsy knave, the open thief, and the entirely merciful, just, and godly person.

–Ruskin, Unto this Last (italics mine)

We hear Major Brisbin's voice again in the so-called DeRudio narrative. The narrator, concealed in a ravine, listens to "the silvery, but to me diabolical voices of several squaws" who are scalping an unfortunate soldier. "Two of the ladies were cutting away, while two others performed a sort of war dance...." This must be the major at work. Truth, no matter how startling, customarily rings with a distinctive note, rather like the hard ring of a silver coin dropped on a table, but this clinks like a potmetal counterfeit.

–Evan S. Connell, Son of the Morning Star

"Don't be so hide-bound, Simon. The name of the Recording Angel was Raduriel, and he wasn't just a book-keeper; he was the Angel of Poetry, and Master of the Muses. He also had a staff."

"Wound with serpents, like the caduceus of Hermes, I suppose."

"Not that kind of staff; a civil service staff. One of its important members was the Angel of Biography, and his name was the Lesser Zadkiel. He was the angel who interfered when Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, so he is an angel of mercy, though a lot of biographers aren't."

–Robertson Davies, What's Bred in the Bone

Friday, April 17, 2009

wild rumpus

In honor of National You-Know-What Month, the online culture magazine The Rumpus is posting a new poem (that is, an unpublished poem by an actual living poet) every day. Go there and read mine for today, "Dumbfoundry."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Last night at a lecture by Dinty Moore of Ohio University, who's doing a visiting gig this week at Our Fair University and leading a creative nonfiction workshop. The talk was all about the difficulties of defining this new "genre" – difficulties which I suspect have more to do with the disciplinary demands of creative writing programs in the academy than with anything intrinsic to the nebula of sorts of writing that one could plausibly call "creative nonfiction," both now & historically. But this is a discussion that Bradley & I have been having for 3 years now, & will probably continue when our partners have strapped on the drool cups & checked us into the same wing of the long-term care facility.
The upstairs bathroom reading these days is Robinson Crusoe, which I haven't been thru in 2 decades or more. A slow start, as is Defoe's wont, but once things get going – once RC's on the island, that is – things pick up amazingly. As the last time I read it, I'm fascinated by the degree to which Crusoe structures his life as a balance sheet, reckoning up credits & debits, blessings & curses, counting days & pounds of gunpowder & all manner of items. A commonplace of Defoe criticism how Crusoe embodies the Protestant/Capitalist ethic.

And of course today's tax day, a day of summing up accounts. I'm beginning to think Jonathan Mayhew is the Crusoe of the blogosphere, continually counting & self-examining & laying out self-improving plans. Salutary, but probably only to the degree that the plans get followed thru on (Jonathan seems remarkably efficient in that regard). Which makes me want to cast my own accounts, & try to make some medium & long-range plans (ignoring for convenience's sake more or less immediate obligations – finishing the semester's teaching & grading, writing the 3 essays I've committed to over the next few months):

•force some kind of order upon the midden of papers, books, CDs, musical instruments, & just plain shit that is my study
•come to grips, really come to grips, with Hegel
•read my way thru Ruskin, all 37 volumes
•along those lines, tackle some of the writers whose works I know a just a bit of – Djuna Barnes, Wyndham Lewis, Thomas Middleton
•acquire a real knowledge of music – learn to read, that is, maybe take up a classical instrument (this was supposed to happen this January, but...); learn jazz, learn to hear Romantic period "classical" music
•shore up my knowledge of Victorian literature (I've read maybe 40 Victorian novels, but half of them are by Wilkie Collins – there's bunches of Dickens & Eliot I don't know at all)
•continue to paint, learn new techniques & "tricks"
•blog smarter – figure out the relationship between my blogging, my obsessive notebook-keeping, & my "real" writing
•start getting that poetry manuscript out there
•short book on biography, theory & practice
•possible project: Ian Hamilton Finlay garden theory/poetics book
•possible project: Ruskin & the modernists book (has anyone already done this, aside from the collection of essays that came out a few years ago?)
This kind of dopey resolution-making is usually reserved for New Year's, I guess. Tax day seems just as convenient.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Pre-Raphaelite impermanence

[William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat, 1854-6]

[Jerome Buckley, in The Victorian Temper: A Study in Literary Culture (1951):]

Most of the Pre-Raphaelites worked patiently with a medium over which they had little technical control; they painted, repainted, and overpainted layer upon layer of pigment; and in so doing they frequently altered their whole design after a long-pondered picture had been well begun. By blending a slow-drying varnish into their oils, they were able to match colors over protracted periods during which they could proceed deliberately with their innumerable revisions. They paid little heed to the fact that, with the darkening of the resin mixed into the very colors, their pictures so produced would eventually deteriorate beyond reclaim; for they were enabled by slow painting to attain, for a time at least, the illusion of a carefully transcribed reality.

Kevin Killian on biography

In conversation with Joseph Bradshaw at Rain Taxi, Kevin Killian, biographer & editor of Jack Spicer, says nice things about The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky, & smart things about biography in general:
My experience has changed over the years, and this I think of primarily in terms of having written (with Lew [Ellingham]) that biography, and following helplessly what I subsequently learned were the three stages of biography. Stage one, you love your subject, and everyone else is wrong in some way. A lot of biographies seem to be of this booster sort. Then there's stage two, in which at a certain point you realize, uh-oh, he was just human after all, and he was filled with faults, and this comes as a giant shock—a shock which freezes some biographers into adopting a position in which their books become evidence for the prosecution. I don't know of course, but that's the feeling one gets, isn't it, when one reads Ekbert Fass's book on the young Robert Creeley or Tom Clark's life of Charles Olson, a book I admire a good deal but one that seems needlessly contestatory, like Olson was not the great Oz and everyone should know it. And then there's the third stage of biography, where you seek the balance between the good and the evil in your subject and find the actual person somewhere in there. I don't know, maybe that's how friendship works in regular life? Anyway that's why I came away loving the new life of Zukofsky, because Mark Scroggins had every right to stay in stage one and he didn't—he moved on to the dangerous shoals of stage two and pushed right on through to the bay of stage three.

Bell on Ruskin

Quentin Bell, from the Preface to the 1978 reissue of his Ruskin (1963):

Ruskin, early decorated, luxurious Ruskin, complete with crockets and crenellations is I am convinced, a model which all those of us who are learning to write should study, imitate, and learn to love. I say this despite the fact that in doing so I shall find that, amongst teacher of English eyebrows will be raised, lips will probably be pursed and a variety of clucking noises will be clearly audible. 'What', you will say: 'is that gold and purple prose that cloying sweetness of language to be considered wholesome fare for the young? We live in the late Twentieth Century and what style could possibly be less appropriate for us than that of the eighteen forties? The suggestion is absurd, it is as though some girder-bending, concrete-mixing, polyvinylurinated art student were told to copy Bernini.'

This of course is just what such an art student ought to do (and is saying this I am looking straight at you Jane Doe and at you, Richard Roe, both of you now majoring in creative writing at the University of Labrador). Ruskin can help you, he cannot harm you. The authors who can do you a mischief are those whom you would naturally admire, those whose writings 'make sense' within the context of your own age, those who are still new and smart and popular and 'relevant'. These you copy at your peril for they are saying the kind of things that you want to say, in using their phrases you may be cozened into believing that they are your own, their style is so close to yours that yours may become infected by theirs. Then indeed you may grow into a sedulous ape, a wind bag blown tight with the stale phrases of other people and then indeed you will be damned.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


The long solo-parenting weekend almost over – J returns tomorrow noonish from DC (the Shaxspere Association). No children have been visibly harmed since she left at the crack of dawn Thursday; that's my story, & I'm sticking to it.

Lovely seder Wednesday night, my first at the (kitchen, if not ceremonial) helm. A real live shank bone, which I collected from a handy "take your own" box of frozen shanks at the local mega-grocery. (Me to woman beside me: "Are you supposed to cook this thing?" She: "How should I know? I've been making a fake shank out of tin foil for 30 years; my daughter insisted I get a real one this time around.") Easter menu: Passover leftovers. (Religious parable there somewhere...)

Even as the semester winds down & thoughts begin to turn towards such exotica as vacations, business at the factory (Our Fair University) continues in tangles of nail-biting budget cuts & bureaucratic shuffling. Will I, should I, could I sleep with myself if I did, volunteer to teach an extra course? For a board of Trustees who had to be hauled in front of an arbitration lawyer to be told they could afford to give faculty a 2.5% raise (they were offering 1%, against the union's 5% demand – & this after what, 3 years without a cost-of-living adjustment) even as they handed the president a cool 10%. Talk about executive compensation. But one counts one's blessings, I suppose, or so my mother always used to counsel me.

A perfectly good B&N gift certificate frittered away on 3 volumes of the latest omnibus collections of Michael Moorcock's Elric books. And my my, they're still as dreadfully written as they were 30 years ago, when I was too callow to notice. I still keep insisting MM's important, somehow (a great biographical subject, I bet...). Elric doubtless the first & greatest Goth anti-hero – if you don't count Byron, Solomon Kane, Milton's Satan, & heaven knows how many others. Anybody got an unneeded copy of Colin Greenland's Entropy Exhibition?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Ruskin, in spades

In the home stretch of the semester, which may account for the slackness of blogging around here. One class is in the midst of Harryette Mullen, Trimmings (this week) and Muse & Drudge (next). The graduate seminar is watching Samuel Beckett whittle his characters down: week before last, we watched the progressive burial of Winnie in Happy Days; this week, we regaled ourselves with talking canopic urns in Play; next week, the disembodied mouth of Not I. Reading (my own) has almost ground to a halt, save for a few novels. Paul Auster's latest, Man in the Dark, last weekend (perhaps a trifle better than the dire Travels in the Scriptorium, but still a very very weak effort); Michel Houellebecq's Platform this week.

Much of my spare time seems to have gone into painting. Alas, I'm pretty sure that I'm no better a painter than I was 25 years ago, when I spent far more time with pencils, canvases, & paints. But one learns new things every time around: (1) don't do your canvas sketching in pencil: graphite is oily, refuses to be erased from the gesso ground, & leaches up thru your paints; (2) blue underpainting produces wonderfully cool shadows in flesh; & (3) glazing medium is da shit.
I don't call myself, in any sense Walter Benjamin would recognize, a book collector – I'm rather a book accumulator. Mine is for the most part a working library, with lots of second-hand editions, & things I've read rather tatty & marked-up. Only occasionally do I go over the edge & invest in a scholarly "complete works," like year before last when I took the plunge with the Gary Taylor Thomas Middleton from Oxford UP, 3000-odd pages of plays, poems, pamphlets, entertainments, & whatnot that I've yet to really scratch the surface of.

But now I've done it. Now I have to become a full-time John Ruskin scholar. Yes, it's true – I've acquired a set of the impossible-to-find, bank-account-breaking, second-mortage-requiring Works of John Ruskin (Library Edition), edited by Cook & Wedderburn, in 39 volumes (1903-1912). I have set myself up to become the object of death threats, assassination attempts, & general black envy on the part of real Ruskinians everywhere – you know, those folks whose library carrells have been groaning under the weight of these books for years (since the library won't check them out), or whose interlibrary loan fines (since most libraries don't own the set) are outpacing their car payments.

[The set pictured here, by the way, is in the super-fancy leather binding; the one the UPS person delivered yesterday – in 4 huge cartons, approximately 150 pounds total – is in a far more modest morocco cloth – but this gives you some idea of the sheer mass of the thing: those books are approximately 10 inches tall.]

The Library Edition, compiled after Ruskin's death by his followers Edward Tyas Cook & Alexander Wedderburn, is by all accounts one of the glories of scholarly editing. C&W, with full backing of George Allen & Co., Ruskin's own publishers, set out to gather pretty much everything Ruskin had ever written; and like a true Victorian, he'd written an awful lot. (They didn't get every last piece, but they came close.) Each of the 38 volumes (the final volume is an astonishingly lengthy & comprehensive index) has a large introduction & copious running footnotes. They're illustrated thruout – over 800 wood blocks, almost a thousand color plates, & over 100 facsimiles of Ruskin's manuscripts, all beautifully reproduced: none of the muddy pictures you encounter in too many contemporary books. (Guy Davenport used to complain how various publishers had reduced his painstakingly cross-hatched drawings to "burnt toast.")

These are beautiful books. That's really all I can say. And the editing is beautifully done, as well. It's a testament to Cook & Wedderburn's labors that the Library Edition, a century after its publication, remains the gold standard for Ruskin scholarship. Sure, there've been a zillion paperback selections, & a handful of his books keep getting reprinted in Penguin editions, but nobody's attempted a new Collected Ruskin. (Edinburgh UP seemed to have started one back in the 1990s, but it didn't get past Praeterita and a selected Fors Clavigera.) If you write on Ruskin, you rely on the Library Edition: and if you don't have access to the Library Edition, then you're at a distinct disadvantage in your Ruskinizing.

So, don't ask me what I paid for this leviathan (it was a bargain, but I'm still not telling). And expect more – much more – 39 volumes' worth – Ruskin blogging in the future.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

finish (continued)

Not dead yet, merely snowed under with various responsibilities. Not so much that I haven't continued thinking about the issue of "finish" in art. Indeed, I started a canvas – a representational one no less, a nude even – & decided I would pursue it in the old masters' manner: underpainting (en grisaille, this time – not brave enough for the green, somehow), followed by glazing: multiple layers of thinned color. Titian claimed he would go thru 30 layers or more in painting flesh – which is a pretty lengthy proposition, considering the drying time for oils. Me, I'm using acrylics, so after underpainting over the last couple days, then blocking in shadows in blue & burnt sienna, rosy bits in diluted crimson, & highlights in white, I've spent part of today glazing in flesh tones. Six layers so far, & maybe as many to go. I dunno if they were always right about suffering, but the old masters were damned patient.