Friday, July 31, 2009

various; Susan Stewart: Red Rover

We leave Sunday for several days in God’s Country – Tennessee, my home state – & when we get back we’ll be spending most of the last week of the “vacation” on Fire Island. I hope that there I’ll be able to get some actual writing done. Heaven knows I’ve read enough over the last month, but I’ve made little headway at the various projects that have been piling up on my desktop. So maybe I’ll get at least one of them behind me before classes begin again.
Been re-reading Dante, this time in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation, which seems sturdy & idiomatic enough. (Alas, the Everyman single-volume Comedy I just bought has no Italian text, but who can afford those Bollingen volumes, anyway?) I don’t know Dante anywhere near as well as I know Milton & Homer (not even to speak of Pound & Zukofsky), but I’m always surprised by how familiar the famous lines & set pieces of the Inferno are. An astonishingly good essay by William Arrowsmith, “Ruskin’s Fireflies” (in the John Dixon Hunt/Faith Holland collection, The Ruskin Polygon) reminds me of how absolutely saturated Ruskin was in Dante – probably as saturated as any major English-language writer except Eliot.
Why, alas, did I waste an hour of my life reading Philip Roth’s The Breast? What a nasty, shallow, prurient little book. The difference between Joyce & Roth: Joyce would have imagined the situation of The Breast, bunged it into a hilariously funny page-&-a-half of the “Circe” chapter, & then moved on; Roth wrote a novella (& then 2 prequels). Is P. Roth any relation to Samuel R., the man who first pirated Ulysses in the US (& who ran an English for Immigrants outfit that employed LZ for a while)?
Red Rover, Susan Stewart (U of Chicago P, 2008)

More spare than the poems of Columbarium and The Forest, less of the lush lyricism of those volumes. The contemporary seems to nag the poet, a humming distraction or a moral quandary continually pulling her away from a contemplation of first things – either the immediate data of the natural world, or the spiritual, martial, & erotic matter of the middle ages & classical antiquity.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

place-filling book grouse

Not much news here; backlog of poem-books to note, some CDs purchased the other day.

But here's a grouse: I've noted, over the past few years, that when I buy a hardcover book, its spine is at a nice right angle to its front & back covers (like this: |_. By the time I finish reading thru it – or even by the time I'm halfway thru – the spine is at a slant: ie, \_, with the back corner a trifle further out than the front. Am I somehow mishandling my books? I phoned a rare book dealer friend with this complaint (somehow remembering I'd once upon a time heard a set of instructions for "properly" reading a book). His response: cheap bindings; nothing to be done. Sigh.

I personally don't really give a fast flyer about acid-free superpermanent paper; if my books turn to dust 50 year hence, I probably won't be around to lament them. What I'd like is for them to look half-decent on the shelves right now.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Pound in the marketplace; Susan Stewart: Columbarium

When we first got into the city, I headed down to Union Square & the Strand to pick up a stack of Ruskin books I’d bought online. I didn’t really spend a lot of time there that evening; there were a lot of things I wanted to read thru on hand already, & I didn’t want to disperse my always tenuous attention. Anyway, t'other night I finally made the big pilgrimage & did some serious shopping, filling a bag (mostly) with slim volumes of contemporary poetry.

Do I need to say that decent poetry bookshops in South Florida are pretty much nonexistent? Well, there aren’t many anywhere, for that matter. I don’t know the midwest or the west coast, but on the east coast & south the only good new poetry bookshops I know are Bridge Street in DC, Talking Leaves in Buffalo, & St. Mark’s in NYC. And places that have consistently interesting used stock are even rarer – Rust Belt in Buffalo is the only one that springs to mind. But the Strand’s poetry section is so damned large, & I get up here so rarely, that there’re always at least a dozen things I end up buying. Indeed, semiannual trips to the city & the Strand seem to be the primary way recent works of poetry enter the house anymore. (But yes, I bought your book new, straight from the publisher.)

One of the few non-poetry books I picked up, however, was Gregory Barnhisel’s James Laughlin, New Directions, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound (U Massachusetts P, 2005). A very solid piece of scholarship. It’s weird to think of our distance from the modernists, which these days is approximately that of the modernists themselves from the late romantics. And it’s only now that we’re beginning to get histories of modernist writing that aren’t in the “heroic” mode of Hugh Kenner et al. What they called the “new historicism” in early modern studies when it hit modernism became the “new modernist studies,” & it’s not so much a “new” historicism as the first round of a real live critical history-writing.

At any rate, Barnhisel’s is one of those books whose thesis is so simple & unified & compelling that you wonder why the hell this book wasn’t written decades ago. After a very interesting examination of Pound’s publication history thru the 1930s, veering between trade publishers & small press coterie editions, Barnhisel traces how James Laughlin & ND published & promoted him in the postwar years – when Pound was a political pariah; Pound wanted to be Ruskin, the commentator on culture & society: ND promoted him as Pater, a mostly apolitical aesthete. Or rather, they promoted his poetry & his literary essays & downplayed precisely the public persona he most valued, that of political & economic gadfly.

In the process they implicitly supported & underwrote New Critical apoliticism, & a notion of aesthetic autonomy that went far beyond Pound’s own; for Pound, the poet was both the technician of a purified language and the prophet of corrected social structure: that latter role disappears in his public face, as presented in ND books, between 1946 & 1973 (the year of the Cookson-edited Selected Prose, which finally made many of his economic writings available).

I wish Barnhisel’s prose were a trifle more elegant, & I’d like to see a bit more Bourdieu brought to bear on these issues, but on the whole this is a very useful book indeed. (Not least, he confirms that at least one other reader has conceived the 1930s American publishing scene in much the same way I did in Poem of a Life.)
Columbarium, Susan Stewart (U of Chicago P, 2003)

A book of “first things” – between the bookends of four longish poems on the 4 Empedoclean elements – air, fire, water, earth – a series of shorter poems on various themes, arranged from A to Z. The elements of which we are made & among which we live, & the 26 glyphs by which we comprehend & express them. A curious blending of the pre-Sokratic & the high classical (Virgil’s Georgics one touchstone). As always in Stewart’s work, an almost obsessive, loving regard for the evidence of the senses. An impressive range of forms in the alphabetic section, most of them ad hoc & gracefully realized.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Donald Revell: Thief of Strings

Thief of Strings, Donald Revell (Alice James, 2007)

I read Revell in a kind of enraptured haze, I’m so taken with the odd combination of his poetry: a lovely, consistent lyricism, a mild, very American surrealism, an entraced eye for the unfolding details of the (especially natural) world, closely tied in with a genial piety. If Geoffrey Hill is a High Church Anglican Prophetic poet, & Susan Howe an Antinomian Calvinist poet, then Revell is a Franciscan poet. And that’s a compliment.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Susan Stewart: The Forest

I didn’t think I’d buy it when I saw it in Book Culture (used to be Labyrinth), but ultimately I couldn’t resist Robert Hewison’s John Ruskin, in the Oxford UP series “Very Interesting People.” The series itself seems a reductio ad absurdum of the “Very Short Introductions” series – 120 or so page lives of British worthies, small paperbacks in large type with ample margins & generous spacing.

A glance inside shows that what they’re doing essentially is marketing single lives from the big 2000 relaunch of the Dictionary of National Biography. I suppose with 55,000 entries to that monstrosity, along with the rumors I’d heard of less than stellar sales, OUP is trying to recoup some of what must have been an enormous investment. But Hewison is one of the biggest names in Ruskin studies, author of several important books, & the damn thing was only $3.98 – how could I lose? At any rate, it turns out to be a very nice compact biography indeed, managing to do justice to almost every aspect of JR’s life & career. A definite recommendation for anyone who wants to know a bit more about the man without investing in a full-length life.
The Forest, Susan Stewart (U of Chicago P, 1995)

A kind of effortless mastery to much of this book, & a deep interest in interesting things quite apart from the poet’s own sensibility, which I appreciate – the embryology of “The Desert 1990-1993,” the Biblical rewriting of “Lamentations.” “Medusa Anthology,” which revolves around Gericault’s grand Raft of the Medusa, is the great set-piece, but for my tastes it ends on afar too lyrical, conclusive note – as do too many of the poems. I think I like the more ambiguous, fragmentary works of Part I, “Phantom,” better than the more accomplished longer pieces of “Cinder,” the 2nd part. But there’s much to admire thruout the book, even if Stewart in her more traditionally formalist moments isn’t my cuppa.


Monday, July 20, 2009

back on the air

The city has been considerably less muggy & unbearable than last summer – less, that is, like Florida. That hasn’t kept me from being in a state of almost savage torpor, sitting in the sun & reading book after book. I have now joined the 200 or so members of the Have Read All the Way Thru Fors Clavigera Club. The last half-volume or so rather sombre stuff; Ruskin returns from his penultimate bout of lunacy annoucing that from now on Fors will renounce its rage and contumely, that he’s going to clean up his act & stop digressing all over the planet, & that he’s generally going to be nice. Of course, he can’t keep any of those resolutions, but he tries to hold to them staunchly enough to quell much of the flame of the book. His mind is elsewhere, on the genial autobiography Praeterita which he’s already writing.

Far more fun are the 10 or 12 volumes of Guy Davenport’s I’ve brought along with me. He’s always a pleasure to revisit, if only on the basis of style (heaven knows he can be enormously off base when it comes to the fiddly business of facts). Even Objects on a Table, the book on still life, has paid off more this time around than the first time I read it.

Little Women, which I was reading (ashes of shame upon my head) for the first time, ended satisfactorily. If Alcott felt compelled to bow to readerly pressure & marry off Jo, rather than preserving her as an independent writing woman, then I approve of marrying her to a portly, bearded professor-type. Mark well: only portly, bearded professor-types can truly satisfy a thinking woman!
And the occasional bouts of “culture.” I went to see Godot on Broadway, in a production with brilliant Bill Irwin as Didi, Nathan Lane hamming it up as Gogo (one wonders what he’ll do when there aren’t any more Zero Mostel parts to reprise – if he doesn’t go on the South Florida borscht belt circuit with Fiddler on the Roof), & the hulking John Goodman as Pozzo. Surprisingly good, actually, tho I kept feeling like I was attending Old Home Day of my kids’ favorite actors (Irwin in “Mr. Noodle” on Elmo’s World, Goodman Sully in Monsters Inc., Lane the warthog in Lion King): audience members without small children no doubt had entirely different associations for each of those worthies.

The real prize was Krystian Lupa and the Narodowy Stary Teatr’s hour stage adaptation of Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Lime Works, under its German title Kalkwerk & performed in Polish. Devastating. As I described it to J, it was a cross between Wozzeck and Endgame, only spread out over three & a half hours, and punctuated with ear-splitting dissonant music. Certainly a limit-text for traditional theater.

Oh yes, and Janet McTeer in Schiller’s Mary Stuart, a full-blown Romantic reinterpretation of the all the old Shakespearean dramatic moves – but nonetheless quite compelling.
Weeekends have been spent on Fire Island, where one kills mosquitoes at night and horseflies during the day (sorry, Buddhists), and the worst traffic noise comes from bicycle bells.
100 poem-books shortly (I hope) to recommence.

Friday, July 17, 2009

ad interim

Hi folks – he said shamefacedly. Well, I was pretty sanguine about keeping the blog updated over the summer this year, but obviously that hasn't happened. And I don't think this note is going to add up to anything more than a placeholder either. But we're still here in New York: we've been to scads of culture: Godot, Mary Stuart, Alan Ayckbourn on Broadway; the fantastic Polish adaptation on Thomas Bernhard's Lime Works at Lincoln Center. Seen some people, read some – well, read a lot of – books. I'm considering a resolution to restart regular blogging next week – when we get back from Fire Island, that is. Till then ––