Friday, May 29, 2009


My friend & colleague A. Papatya Bucak has a great little piece up at the Chronicle of Higher Education on the experience of getting tenure; I find my feelings on promotion are pretty much the same (tho I can't say I share her enthusiasm for Anthropologie).

It seemed that Eric Selinger was (alas!) deep-sixing his consistently lively & thought-provoking (if not consistently updated) blog Say Something Wonderful, but happily he's reconsidered & has resurrected the blog as what it was at its best, a sandbox for his own ideas-in-progress & reactions to the books & scholarship he's reading. Latest post is a read-thru of Eric Keenaghan's essay on Robert Duncan in the latest Contemporary Literature.

I realize now that I ought to read Ralph Maud's bio of Olson, if only as counterweight to Tom Clark's. See Alan Casline's assessment here.

Steve Evans's annual core sample of what people are reading, the "Attention Span," has taken shape on Third Factory. I'm delighted to see that four people reported reading The Poem of a Life, & two of them were generous enough to say write nice comments about it.
The poetry blogosphere all a-buzz at Stephen Burt's latest attempt at capturing the Zeitgeist in the Boston Review, "The New Thing: The object lessons of recent American poetry." (Many reactions, including this by Bob Archambeau & this by John Latta.) I was pleased to see the attention Burt pays to the press Flood Editions, & the Zach Barocas's consistently excellent website Cultural Society. (Also nice to see my own name appear, if only as a member of a list...)

What do I make of Burt's essay as a whole? Well, I'm not sure yet. I admire the impulse to try to make sense of the shifts in poetry that one feels around one, the sense one gets that the social organization of the art, & the art itself, is evolving as one ages. I've watched the "scene" changing over the past 2 decades with some interest – from my own callow youth, when the most visible insurgency on the scene was the highly vocal (& now largely forgotten, I guess) "new formalists" (the Language Poets, far more radical, were only an ugly rumor in academic & official verse culture circles), to my grad school years when I learned of an entirely new generation of poets (my own generation, I guess) who'd been reading the things I thought I was the only person alive reading, to the general dissemination of certain post-avant gestures thruout both academic & OFC circles (what Burt in an earlier essay calls "elliptical poetry), to Flarf & the new conceptual writing.

Once or twice along the way I've tried to conceptualize or theorize why people started writing in ways different from the ways they'd been writing in – or rather, why presses & journals were publishing things different from what they'd published – or rather, why critical & popular attention was being paid to the latest "new thing," so that suddenly yesterday's status quo seemed altogether, er, yesterday. But I've always given up after throwing out a half dozen hypotheses & outlines of ideas. This is I guess what I admire about Burt – that he's willing to set stakes into recent poetic movements & try to write real literary history, just as it's happening.

The problem of course is that when one tries to assess where we are – especially in a literary landscape as astonishingly varied, lively, & just plain densely populated as the first decade of the 21st century – one invariably ends up seeing only part of the picture. Literary shifts, shifts in writerly fashion, are incredibly overdetermined, & many of the causes contributing to the trends in poetry writing probably won't be evident for decades to come – if then.

That's not to say that one needs to just sit by George Bush-ly and let history be written by those who come after us. Literary histories written on the spot & for the first few decades after tend to be markedly partisan, devoted to establishing the legitimacy of a particular poetics or cluster of writers. Roy Harvey's Pearce's Continuity of American Poetry, for all its acute readings, really aims to establish American poetry as a long prelude to Wallace Stevens; Marjorie Perloff's "Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?" is in part a brief on behalf of the post-Poundian Language Poets; and heaven knows how many books were written between 1930 & 1955 showing anglophone poetry's hegelian evolution up to TS Eliot.

Perhaps more to the point, I'm not convinced that literary histories written decades after the fact are all that more insightful than on-the-spot assessments like Burt's. The historian's choice of which among an overdetermining variety of factors are most important shifts with intellectual fashion, & we never really get more than a partial view of what was going on at any given point, or what's going on now.

At times, I wanna say hey, it's really simple – poets get bored with what they're reading & writing, & decide to do something different. Other poets like what the first group's doing, & do something similar. Voila! A shift in the Zeitgeist. But that sounds like the School of Larkin Criticism, doesn't it? Kudos to Stephen Burt for trying to do something more, as Quixotic as the attempt may be; and wholly unreserved kudos to him for drawing attention to some very interesting poets & presses.


We got back from Oberlin (& a side trip to Cleveland) Tuesday, J. with a howling respiratory infection, me just plain exhausted (what else is new?). The reunion, & the whole "college town" experience, was rather nice. I'd forgotten, in the many years since I've lived in an isolated place where higher education is the principal "industry," how cool it is to be in a community where liberal – nay, leftist, even ultra-leftist – is more or less the default political-cultural stance. Oberlin's recently appointed president, whom we ran into a half-dozen times over the weekend, bikes from his home to campus, & sometimes forgets to take leg of his suit trousers out of the sock into which he's tucked it (ie to avoid the cycle chain). I suspect the president of Our Fair University drives his block-long SUV the quarter-mile from his extravagant mansion (Barbie's Dream House, we call it) to his office.

The dorm in which we stayed was emblematic. Dating back I think to the 1880s; fronted by a striking monument to the Underground Railroad (on which Oberlin was an important stop); fitted with a fascinating "Dorm Orb" – a glowing sphere fixed into the second floor wall, which tracks the energy use of the entire dorm (green everybody's cool, red you're overusing the microwave & the hot water). Plastered everywhere there were signs letting you know that if you'd traveled a long distance to the reunion, you could conveniently buy carbon offsets on campus to compensate for all the jet fuel you'd burned. The dorm was equipped with "All-Gender" bathrooms; this wasn't especially a problem (tho it didn't create the kind of thrill I probably would have felt back in my own undergraduate days, when VA Tech dorms were still strictly single-sex & overnight stays were officially verboten) – what was a problem was getting access to one of the three, count 'em, three shower stalls serving the entire floor.

And heaven knows Obies know how to party, even when they've been away from the alma mater for over two decades. Which made for noise problems, given that party central seemed to be right under our feet.
I finally made it to the end of Volume II of the Ruskin Library Edition, the poems. I oughtn't to deprecate them too much: they're competent, sometimes even musical. Clearly, JR had saturated himself in the rhythms & tricks of Romantic English verse: he does quite a competent "funny" Byron, & at times even approaches the majesty of Wordsworth's blank verse. But the poems never quite catch fire, & serve mostly as teasers for the prose that he'll later come to write.

I'm a bit torn about Volume III, the first volume of Modern Painters. I'm direly tempted to plunge right in, even despite its 650+ page bulk, & report my findings as I go. But I've already blogged Modern Painters I, almost two years ago, it seems. For blogging purposes – ie for the 4 people out there who might conceivably be interested in a 20th-century poetry scholar's reading thru Ruskin – it would be best for me simply to read the ancillary materials (the long & rich introductions, the appendices, all the wonderful textual variations) of the next (chronologically) four volumes (MP I & II, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice I), then resume real blogging with The Stones of Venice II. But I'm not sure I can resist re-reading the volumes I read over the last 2 years, now in their sumptuous, ideal settings. Stay tuned.
On the other hand, I just acquired Dinah Birch's 2004 edition of Ruskin, Selected Writings (Oxford World's Classics). A solid & well-annotated smattering of every period & almost every genre of his writing, it seems. Methinks one could even teach a Ruskin seminar one of these days, given Birch's & Wilmer's anthologies, plus whatever other paperbacks & online editions one could scrounge up.
One of these days I'll take up reading poetry again.

Friday, May 22, 2009

off the air, temporarily

We're off to Oberlin for J's college reunion tomorrow, & won't be back until Tuesday. I'm actually on the verge of looking forward to the trip: all physical systems very much on the mend & so forth. No Library Edition Ruskins coming with me, I'm afraid; the books are just too damned big to schlepp around. Instead, I'll probably pack Kenneth Clark's little anthology of juicy bits, along with a few dryly academic things. I thought of packing a sketchbook & trying to capture some landscapes, Ruskinianly, but J tells me it's just as flat there as it is here, alas.

A stack of Ray Monk-related articles has revived my interest in doing a book on biography, but I see gleams of a large study of Ruskin & modernism somewhere down the line.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

end of an era

[Shane MacGowan – what's wrong with this picture?]

After who knows how many years of trademark toothlessness, it seems that Shane MacGowan has finally done a Martin Amis & gotten his choppers fixed. As the writer in the Daily Mail notes, perhaps now even the famously fastidious Americans will approve of his dental hygiene.

rain; torpor

So the "rainy season" is upon us here in the vast paved suburb that is south Florida. Which means, in effect, that after an hour or two of sunshine, or mixed sunshine in the morning, come the early afternoon the clouds bank in & begin emptying themselves, sometimes with brutal intensity. At best, it's overcast all afternoon & begin raining in the evening.

I've discovered over the past few years that my moods are appalling linked to the weather; if I lived in Norway, I would probably have killed myself years ago – how in the world did I survive those years in Ithaca? At any rate, the rainy season always slows me down, physically & mentally, & the coincidence of its arrival with a rather nasty set of infections (pinkeye, chest cold) has rendered me practically comatose over the past week or so. Here's hoping that the wonders of modern medical technology, in the form of massive does of antibiotics, will pull me out by the weekend.

But there's still the rain.
David Rich of Gloucester has been carrying on the Olson legacy with aplomb. The first issue of his journal Process hit the shelves last year, featuring work by Nathaniel Tarn, Pierre Joris, Alan Davies, Jerome Rothenberg, & a host of others (including some fascinating unpublished pieces by Edward Dahlberg, including letters to Fanny Howe, a letter to Louis Zukofsky, and a poem addressed to LZ).

Over the next couple of years, Process will be appearing not as a perfect-bound journal but as a series of chapbooks. The first one, Process: The Basement Tapes, is out now, printing work by James Cook, Donald Wellman, Craig Stormont, Ewa Chrusciel, and David Rich. There're also three small pieces by yr. humble blogger – 3 excerpts from a long project, Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles: "Blood Is Thin," "Demon Sanctuary," & "Thrash Jazz Assassin."

The Basement Tapes is available for $5; Process #1 for $14: contact David at process[dot]journal[at]gmail[dot]com.

Monday, May 18, 2009


So here's one that I "finished" last week. It's acrylic on canvas board; obviously, the unabashed figure is unabashedly stolen from the Edward Burne-Jones Perseus & Andromeda that I commented on the other day. I make no claims for the technique I'm slowly trying to "master" (or recover? – I painted better at 17, I fear), but the photo doesn't capture the background, which really does glow after 12 or 13 coats of glazed blue & a very thick varnish.

Obviously, this & the various other things I've bunged onto the Flickr page are mostly attempts at coming to terms with the medium, rather than real "art." But I have biggish plans burbling somewhere for a series of big canvases. First, tho, I need to get comfortable with painting real stuff in the background, rather than fun geometries.

et cetera

Okay, so I thought I was getting better – the eye clearing up, the mucus fading from kelly green to a less alarming sandpaper beige, the cough no longer rattling the windows in their frames – but then I woke up Saturday almost literally dead. Okay, not that bad, but I felt seriously rough; Sunday was just as bad, & the conjunctivitis was back as well. Sigh. Methinks I need to get ahold of some serious antibiotics & get this business under control before loading the family up for Oberlin & J.'s college reunion this coming weekend.
Ruskin's poems burble along comfortably enough, if unmemorably. I've gotten about halfway thru the 550-page 2nd volume of the Library Edition; I've finished, that is, all the poems he formally published & collected during his lifetime (the collection of record, which more or less signalled the close of Ruskin's already negelected poetic career, came out in 1850, when he was 31), & have just embarked on the real live "juvenilia," starting with the bits of precocious doggerel he was cranking out at 7 or so. What's striking about the –er – mature poetry (he really pretty much gave up poetry when he got deeply into the 1st volume of Modern Painters, published when he was 24) is that Ruskin's much-admired descriptive "eloquence" – what many would call his "purple prose" – is already very much in place. Indeed, the stuff comes absolutely naturally to him, simply flows off his pen. What makes the difference is that in Modern Painters that descriptive gift will be harnessed to a coherent moral aesthetic; later, things'll get even more interesting, when that moral aesthetic is imbricated with a social & political vision.

It's hard not to agree with Kenneth Clark in his introduction to the Penguin anthology Ruskin Today, who regrets "the sheer nonsense which occupies a great part of his later work." On the other hand, Clark presents an interesting meditation upon his choice of particularly "beautifully written" passages – the "purple" bits, precisely:
There are good reasons why this kind of writing [a "highly coloured prose style"] is no longer admired and, by younger critics, actively despised. It introduces an emotional appeal into matters which should be the concern of reason, and even the emotions it arouses are inflated by the pressure of words. It is commonly used to conceal the truth,to stir up hatred, and to promote war. A rhetorical style intoxicates the writer and seems to generate a particular state of mind, so that Ruskin will suddenly indulge in a tub-thumping justification of the Crimean War or a violent incitement to go out and seize colonies (although in his quieter moments he knew that both war and colonialism were wrong), simply because the mounting rhythm of his style carried him in that direction. Today the suspicion we feel for degraded language rhetoric extends to elaborate writings of all kinds. We find it hard to believe that anyone who is sincerely anxious to tell the truth will do so in long and well-contrived sentences, rather than in a series of monosyllables and grunts. [Compare the inexplicably popular Matt Taibbi's neanderthal attack on Terry Eagleton, or the American right wing's promotion of the "rhetoric" of Joe the Plumber & Sarah Palin against Obama during the last election.] And so the marvellous eloquence which, to his contemporaries, seemed to guarantee Ruskin's immortality, has become one of the principal reasons why he remains unread.
Gay Daly's Pre-Raphaelites in Love continues to amuse & engross. I called it a "pot-boiler with academic pretensions," which was perhaps a trifle harsh but on balance fair enough. The material itself is fascinating, & presented gracefully – the erotic relationship between painters & models, the collision of Victorian moral strictures & hard-wired human desires, the place of the "fine arts" in Victorian political economy, the process of a new "avant-garde" assimilating itself into the structures of official culture, etc. – but I'm continually hankering for Daly to dig a bit deeper, to indulge in a bit more hard analysis. But that, of course, might well push the book out of the "popular audience" category into the "academic" world. (Precisely the wall I found myself walking atop while writing The Poem of a Life, & I'm not sure which side I kept falling onto. [Perhaps, given that the book is still available, & a bargain, you should pick up your own copy & decide for yourself?])
Is it too obvious that I'm avoiding writing what I ought to be writing?

Friday, May 15, 2009


I never saw the movie of The Da Vinci Code, tho I do regret the few hours I wasted reading the novel; & I think it's fair to say that I'll never, ever, ever open a copy of Angels & Demons. But there's a delicious, if somewhat trashy, thrill in reading the kind of savagery A. O. Scott dishes out for the new film version of Dan Brown's opus in today's New York Times. What's not to love in such sentences?:
I have not read the novel by Dan Brown on which this film (directed, like its predecessor, “The Da Vinci Code,” by Ron Howard) is based. I have come to believe that to do so would be a sin against my faith, not in the Church of Rome but in the English language, a noble and beleaguered institution against which Mr. Brown practices vile and unspeakable blasphemy.

Its preposterous narrative, efficiently rendered by the blue-chip screenwriting team of Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp, unfolds with the locomotive elegance of a Tintin comic or an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” Mr. Howard’s direction combines the visual charm of mass-produced postcards with the mental stimulation of an easy Monday crossword puzzle. It could be worse.

[T]he Harvard symbologist [sic]* Robert Langdon..., no favorite of the Holy See and long denied access to the Vatican archives, is summoned to Rome to assess, and then defuse, a deadly threat involving antimatter, papal succession and the ancient pro-science terrorist underground known as the Illuminati. You didn’t suspect the Illuminati? Nobody suspects the Illuminati. Except Robert Langdon of course.

The high-minded shop talk, half buttressed by real historical information, half floating in the ether of cocktail party nonsense, seems to be a crucial feature of a Robert Langdon adventure, and you can only be charmed when the symbologist says things like: “An obelisk! A kind of pyramid adopted by the Illuminati! If he’s going to kill, he’ll do it here.”
Why, I can't help wondering, aren't more poetry reviews this much fun?

*Like, where does Brown get the idea that there's an academic discipline of "symbology"? And where do I sign up?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

ruskinizing, with summer approaching

The house has returned to some semblance of health. I'm always the last one at healing, & still have a bit of a sniffle & an irritating cough, but for the most part am feeling around 75%, if not better. The Florida summer is close at hand, I can tell: we've begun the daily round of drenching thunderstorms, & the heat & humidity (after a long rather mild spell) are starting to kick in in their usual unbearability.
Well, I'm deep into the 2nd volume of the Library Edition of Ruskin, the one consisting entirely of his poetry. Sigh. For a chap who figured out by his mid-20s that he was a poet only in prose, it seems a damned shame that JR managed to crank out over 500 pages of the stuff.

Volume I, Early Prose Writings, proved unexpectedly pleasurable. Really very much a ragbag of juvenilia. Aside from The Poetry of Architecture, the volume includes a number of occasional notes & essays (including a school theme stoutly defending Sir Walter Scott, Bulwer-Lytton, & Byron as not morally depraving to young minds & an essay on the comparative merits of painting & music, written to impress a young woman), a longish run of letters to an Oxford chum, & the whole of Ruskin's fictional oeuvre: the perennially popular – & actually rather good – fairy tale "The King of the Golden River"; "Leoni," a dreadful short story written in abject imitation of Sir Walter; and the abortive beginnings of a novel, if anything more in thrall to the Laird of Abbotsford – and to his worst aspects, I fear. Scott's novels have infamously slow starts, leisurely-unfolded frame narratives within frame narratives, so that it's sometimes 30 or 40 pages before the actual story gets underway. The frame narrative of The Chronicle of St. Bernard is really the only bit of his own novel that Ruskin manages to finish. (The title, like Scott's Chronicles of the Canongate, refers to the frame narrative – the Alpine hostel where the story proper, which is set in Venice, gets told.) As soon as he's a chapter into the actual narrative, Ruskin seems to have abandoned the whole thing as a bad job.

The poetry – well, what to say about the poetry? It's very competent, in its relentless but tame aping of Keats, Byron, Shelley. It's very earnest, & not very funny. Ruskin, it seems, had by his early 20s made a name for himself as one of the most popular "annual" poets of the nation – you know, those gigantic coffee-table volumes, chock-full of poems, essays, & stories, all carefully calibrated not to offend the most morally sensitive members of the family, which were marketed as Christmas presents on a yearly basis. I'm not sure I'll have a lot to say about Ruskin's verse; the 120 pages or so I've traversed have yet to yield a single line that sticks in my head.
Turning over the pages of Gay Daly's potboiler-with-academic-pretensions, Pre-Raphaelites in Love, & eagerly awaiting books in the mail: a scholarly study of P-R painting techniques, a collection of Jeff Jones artwork, & an illustrated biography of Jane Morris, she of all those Rossetti paintings. Oh, what hair!

[Jane Morris]

Saturday, May 09, 2009


Here perhaps the apotheosis of my "comic book" style, a portrait of LZ in pen & ink & gouache, based on a 1941 studio photograph. Probably did this one five or six years ago, when I was first contemplating picking up brushes again. It's fairly small, maybe 8" x 5".

Thursday, May 07, 2009


Yes, I've been painting this Spring. Above is acrylic & collage (the last page of Scott's Fortunes of Nigel) on canvas. I've started a Flickr page for photos of my daubs, tho as useless as I am as a visual artist, I'm even worse as a visual arts photographer.

I'll probably post more on Culture Industry in the weeks to come.


This was meant to be the week I got on top of everything – paying the bills, sorting thru some of the sifts of papers in the common areas of the house, getting a running start at some of the summer's writing projects. Then some malignant deity intervened: I woke up Sunday with a dreadful case of conjunctivitis in the right eye – glued shut with goop, redder than Joshua Clover's diapers. Like a good Protestant, however, I sucked it up & suffered in passive-aggressive silence.

Daphne had been rubbing an eye for a day or day or two & had been nursing a cough for much of the Spring (but generally feeling pretty decent), & Pippa was moving slowly; both of them wanted to stay home from school yesterday, so why not? A trip to the veterinarian – oops, I meant pediatrician – confirmed that both of them had eye infections, ear infections, & throat infections. On a hunch, I swung by my own G.P., to have my diagnosis confirmed & pick up a prescription for a run of drops.

Last night, however, D. took a turn for the worse, a spiking fever & a hacking cough, which woke her sister up at 15-minute intervals. Problem is, I didn't want to move P into the "guest room" (read: playroom), as I'd been sleeping there myself & the bedclothes were already saturated with my own bacteria, which on an off chance might be a different family from hers. So I ended up spending the night on the floor next to D.'s lower bunk, roused at 15-minute intervals from a non-sleep by her coughs, hysterical sobbing, & feverish delirium. (Hands me a sippy cup: "Use it on the cat!" Me: "Huh?" "Get the cat away from me!" Poor cat is of course slumbering happily somewhere downstairs, entirely oblivious. "Hold my hand, Daddy!") Not a happy evening.

Everyone markedly better today. A bit more Ruskin read, a new canvas gridded in & sketched out for underpainting. Writing projects – well, they're still waiting, their eyes glinting evilly in the corner.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Cole Swensen: Ours

Norman comments on that last scattered post:
it seems odd that the distinguished biographer of Louis Zukofsky [who? – oh, me – "distinguished"?!?] 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.
(Amen to that last, tho I suppose I'd substitute something even trashier for Gibson...) Yes, it is all about pleasure, on some level, & I guess what I'm lamenting is that in pitchforking thru "cultural overproduction" (Tyrone's term), in reading thru scores of books or listening to hundreds of hours of music, I find myself losing immediate pleasure, perhaps even losing the capacity for immediate pleasure.

There is a big element of Puritan guilt here, the sense that "I own it, I've got to listen to/read it, whether I want to or not at the moment" – my own particular fundamentalist heritage (which I learned to my delight recently, I share with Evie Shockley) is still a far-too-big element of my mindset in general. But I'm not sure it has much todo with Bloom's "more severe, more harassing" pleasures: that's the pleasure of reading Bruce Andrews rather than Billy Collins, & I'm up for that any day. Bloom would quite rightly put my "read it all" passion down to simple anality.
Ours, Cole Swensen (U of California P, 2008)

I was drawn to this one by its very subject matter – 17th-century French formal gardening, particularly the work of the landscape architect André Le Nôtre (from whose name Swensen gets her punning title). I know relatively little about the French formal tradition of landscapes, exemplified by Le Nôtre's work at Versailles & Vaux-le-Vicomte; I've been more interested in the transition between formal & "picturesque" styles that takes place in England over the 18th century, & gets thematized in Pope & others.

But I'm a sucker for gardening poems, & Swensen's evocations of Le Nôtre are rich with history, pondering deeply the implications of shaping the landscape, its plants & watercourses, along strictly geometric lines. What I increasingly found fascinating in Swensen's poem-sequence, however, was her sense of the sentence. Her sentences, that is, unforld with deceptively straightforward syntax, often enriched by internal rhymes & sound repetition. But as they unwind over multiple lines, they shift direction, rhetoric, & blossom out into something quite different from what they began as – often, something larger, more "metaphysical."

Much of the time, I think it's fair to say, Swensen's addressing a strict and neoclassical art (the formal garden, which owes more to Euclid than it does to Longinus, more to geometry than to the sublime) in an interestingly post-Romantic register. Where Marvell's Mower laments the sterility of those evenly demarcated parterres, Swensen lets her imagination move over them until they become the source of a different sublime from that which the Romantics shivered at as they contemplated the Alps or the ocean – a geometric sublime, comparable to what the advanced metaphysician sees in a well-formed equation or proof.


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.]

Sunday, May 03, 2009

oh my ["a pale peach at sunrise"]

[Edward Burne-Jones, Perseus Slaying the Sea Serpent, ca. 1875-1877]

As someone who's thought about, & even dabbled in, the genre of literary biography, I yield to no-one in my admiration for Tim Hilton's enormous two-volume biography of Ruskin, John Ruskin: The Early Years (Yale UP, 1985) & John Ruskin: The Later Years (Yale UP, 2000). It really does seem one of those books "unlikely to be superceded" – Hilton seems to capture every last significant detail of Ruskin's doings, at the same time keeping up a running & very perspicacious commentary on his writings. I've read some 4 or 5 lives of Ruskin now – more than anyone except Pound & Shakespeare, I think – & Hilton's is by far the best (tho John Batchelor's much more manageable life has much to recommend it, & John Dixon Hunt's The Wider Sea: A Life of John Ruskin is 150 pages in a rather extraordinary book – of which more anon).

But I turned the other day back to the first Hilton book I'd ever read, The Pre-Raphaelites, a 1970 monograph now available in the usually excellent Thames & Hudson "World of Art" series. After you've read Hilton's biography, his book on the P-Rs seems very much a footnote to his later work on Ruskin – The Pre-Raphaelites is saturated with references to Ruskin, takes Ruskin as a pivot around which Hilton's entire assessment of the movement revolves.

And the book, while it's beautifully written & full of strongly & wittily stated opinions, hasn't aged particularly well in some respects. Take sexual politics, for instance. It's difficult to imagine an art historian getting away with a passage like this these days:
Perseus Slaying the Sea Serpent [see above] has a fine slimy monster, and the added advantage of an extremely fetching naked girl. Here is an aspect of Burne-Jones's art which deserves manly [!] commendation, for even if he did it with something of a sly, voyeuristic quality, Burne-Jones did put an end to the latitancy of the mid-Victorian nude.... It is always nice to see a breast in a painting, or as delicately glorious a bottom as Andromeda's, like a pale peach at sunrise [!!]. There are many such pleasantnesses in Burne-Jones's painting. The historical point is that he painted nudes at a time when naturalism could be combined with idealism, and it is the idealism that makes his nudes so much more shapely than those of [William] Etty, but at the same time less tangible. That, of course, is the trouble with ideal girls.
Of course.
In re/ Ed's question as to writing instruments: the metal dip pen began to be mass-produced in 1822 (when Ruskin was 3), & by the middle of the century had rendered the quill pen entirely obsolete. Ruskin & Dickens, & all those prolific Victorians, used Manchester-made steel pens. You still have to periodically re-dip, of course, but it obviates the need for the periodical re-trimming of the nib that one suffers thru with the quill. Ruskin really didn't live long enough to enter the fountain pen era, tho if he had I'm sure he would've jumped on that bandwagon enthusiastically. (Note for future blog post: Influence of pen technology on poets' handwriting, with special reference to Zukofsky.)

Friday, May 01, 2009

why Ruskin?

I'm a great fan of LibraryThing, the online book-cataloguing site. In heroic bursts of data-entry activity over the past few years, I've managed to get the bulk of my books online – I estimate between 1/3 & 2/5 remains uncatalogued, but I'm working on it – & it's enabled me to get some kind of handle on the shape of the metastasizing collection. The widget down on the right is a cute lagniappe: it throws up a random (?) selection of books from my library, linking them to This morning's selection [captured above] struck me as a nice encapsulation of my books: Marilyn Robinson's Housekeeping, Camille Guthrie's The Master Thief, Gregory Kavka's Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, Don DeLillo's Underworld, Henry Weinfield's Without Mythologies, Andreas Huyssens's After the Great Divide, Romana Huk's collection Assembling Alternatives, & Erich Auerbach's Mimesis (tho mine is the old Anchor edition, rather than the shiny thing pictured). And yes, The Poem of a Life.
A commentor on my last Ruskin post asks, quite rightly, "You mention Ruskin a lot; why Ruskin? I've never read him in school or out, and don't know if he's some Victorian stuffed-shirt or some wild creative genius. What do you recommend for starters?" (Vance replies that it shouldn't be "or" but "and.") I'm not entirely sure why I've become so obsessed with Ruskin over the past few years. My records show I started reading Ruskin back in 2001 or so. Heaven knows I never heard his name as an undergraduate, tho I took at least two or 3 Victorian lit courses. And he never popped up in my graduate career, either, even tho I did a course on Victorian poetry with Paul Sawyer, the author of one of the finer critical books on the man. (I do recall during my undergrad years reading the Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark's A Ruskin Notebook, but I guess I wasn't prompted to look up the source-texts of his poem.)

I think, frankly, it was Guy Davenport who put me onto the man, as he put me onto so much us, both false trails & true. I'd been reading Guy for maybe 15 years when I noticed that he was talking about Ruskin all the time on the occasions we met, & then I noticed and got very excited by his essay "The House that Jack Built" (in The Geography of the Imagination) – yes, the one that posits Fors Clavigera as a kind of Victorian Cantos, & that argues that the symbol of the labyrinth is central to Ruskin & inherited by Joyce, Pound, & practically everyone else. That made me sit up and take notice.

I entered Ruskin rather randomly, by way of an Everyman edition of To this Last (collected with other essays on political economy), & found myself riveted by the man's voice – this eloquent, sometimes indeed "purple," rhetoric furiously excoriating Victorian capitalism & philistinism. It was obvious that Ruskin was not someone whose political solutions I could accept – if he hated capitalism as deeply as Marx or Engels, his solution was not a kind of socialism but a return to something like paternalistic feudalism – but the subtlety and underlying fury of his rhetoric proved intoxicating, ultimately addictive.

And from To this Last I found myself dipping into every sort of Ruskin I could lay my hands on: art criticism, architecture, literary criticism (there's an analysis of a passage from "Lycidas" in Sesame and Lilies that stands as perhaps the best bit of "close reading" before Empson), ecclesiastical criticism, & the wild & wooly digression-upon-digressions of Fors itself. Sometimes you can hear the machinery of his prose creaking, the rhetoric straining at the end of an exhausted essay or lecture to rise up to the expected peak of eloquence at the close – but there's always something there to reward the reading: an unexpected bon mot, a savage stretch of angry criticism, or an extended stretch of utterly insightful interpretation. Yeah, Ruskin is wrong – politically, morally, aesthetically – an astonishingly high percentage of the time. But he's very rarely dull for very long, at least to my ears.*

But what continues to awe me is the range of Ruskin's interests – you name it, he wrote on it: geology, meteorology, political economy, fiction, poetry, ecclesiology, philosophy, painting, ornithology, sculpture, engraving, iconography (a clear line of descent from JR to Panofsky), mythology, the illustration of children's books, architecture both practical & theoretical, the theory of landscape painting, music, and so on. Like Pound, Ruskin felt qualified to express an opinion on everything; unlike Pound, Ruskin's opinions are almost always worth considering. I'm beginning to suspect that a Ruskinian cast of mind – if not Ruskin's ideas directly, those ideas as diffused thru anglophone culture as a whole – is a central backdrop to the whole modernist enterprise, in ways that go well beyond Proust's translating Ruskin or Pound's name-dropping his works in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. (This may end up being a very big book.)

Joe asked the other week where to begin with Ruskin. I stick by my answer, tho I suppose that modernistic/postmodernistically-inclined folks might conceivably want to jump right into Fors: Kenneth Clark's old (but widely available) Penguin anthology, Ruskin Today, is a nice collection of high points; Phaidon still has an excellent selection of his art criticism, The Lamp of Beauty; both Oxford and Penguin have current selections available, and The Stones of Venice (abridged) and The Seven Lamps of Architecture are both available in nice paperbacks. Perhaps the loveliest way to get acquainted with this often unlovely & prickly man is his autobiography, Praeterita. Yes, start with Praeterita, then The Lamp of Beauty, and when your appetite is whetted, go on to the Penguin To this Last for a taste of the angry Ruskin.

*I will confess the first volume The Stones of Venice, after the virtuoso opening, is largely an ultra-technical yawn, & I've only cast my eyes over the disspiriting bulk of Vol. II of the Library Edition, which is devoted to his poetry; I suspect that one will be something of an ordeal.