Tuesday, December 29, 2009

reading (lots of) poetry

I'm of two minds about it, the whole business of bulk-reading.

On the one mind, I'm all for it: I was always astonished by the statement I read somewhere by some recent MFA grad who was gushingly thankful for having been required to read 50 books of poetry during the course of his two or three years in the program. Wow – fifty whole books! (Read that with heavy irony, okay?) Sorry, fella, but it's a really slow year when I don't read at least half again more than that, & lately I've been trying to keep up a pace of at least 100 volumes (counting chapbooks, of course, but also counting big things like The Prelude & "A" & JH Prynne's Poems) every calendar year. And that's not counting magazines, journals, & miscellaneous stuff online.

It's partly vocational: as a guy who teaches modern/contemporary poetry, I feel like I've got an obligation to know, at least to the limits of my ability, the "field." So I try to look into things I don't find very congenial at a first glance, sometimes even to plough thru an entire volume to find out what the reviewers are so excited about. And I try to have a pretty clear picture in my head of what's happening in the sorts of poetry I find more exciting. Given the pace of poetry production and publishing these days, that's probably a quixotic intention, but still–

And as poet & lover of poetry (not necessarily identical subject-positions, we all know) I simply want to know as much of the stuff as possible, to hoover down as much of that sweet word-work as I can. The Doritos effect. So when I was admiring but not particularly enthusiastic about Karla Kelsey the other day, & then even rather disspirited by what struck me as the virtuosic self-absorption of Jorie Graham, I turned to two little chapbooks published last year by Slack Buddha, Catherine Wagner's Hole in the Ground X and Tom Orange's American Dialectics, and got all excited about "doing" poetry again. And I've got a stack of more SB productions on my desk right now, just waiting to stoke the excitement-furnace.

But on the other mind: I told a class this past semester that one doesn't really come to terms with a book until one's read it at least twice. Maybe that's me, perennial slowcoach: I don't really begin to come to terms with a book until the second reading. So in many ways the poetry reading that means most to me is reading something for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, nth time: Going back thru Prynne's Wound Response for the 5th time, Geoffrey Hill's Triumph of Love for the 6th time, Susan Howe's Bibliography of the King's Book for the who knows how manyeth time. You can review a book on a first read (usually, you have to); but you can't really think deeply – or I can't – about it until it's so familiar it's become somehow absorbed into your cerebral grooves.

So I'm more than willing to forgive a certain degree of tunnel-vision in my scholarly friends – the Stevens guy who hasn't read anyone since Stevens, & precious few of Stevens's contemporaries, the Auden scholar who's never heard of LZ or Bunting; that tunnel-vision probably compensated for by a deeper understanding, a deeper engagment with their chosen figure. (At the same time, I distrust their historical sense, & suspect that rather than a love of poetry in all its forms, they love just one sort – like the "gourmet" who always orders the same thing at the restaurant, or the "music lover" who only listens one narrow sub-genre.)

And I think I'm still capable of mustering the intense engagement I brought to LZ's work all those years ago, even if I seem to have less time for it these days, what with all this mass reading (oh, & work responsibilities, parenting, etc.). But how am I ever going to find just that right poet to fixate on if I'm not reading at least a 350-degree swathe? So, back to the chapbooks & the coffee.

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.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stephen Collis; Marjorie Welish

The Commons, Stephen Collis (Talonbooks, 2008)

This is the second installment of a sequence? – network? – work begun in Anarchive (North Star Books, 2005), & whose overriding title is "The Barricades Project." A kind of reinventing, reinterpretation, reanimation of various past radicalisms – in this case the flash points are Winstanley's Levellers ca. 1649; Henry David Thoreau; John Clare; & the various Lake Poets in general. I have enormous sympathy & interest in Collis's project, not least in how it overlaps with my own "Anarchy for the U. K." sequence (much of which appears in Anarchy, Spuyten Duyvil, 2003). & I envy the extent to which Collis has gone beyond Duncan & Howe – his most obvious precursors – in thinking about the literary heritage as a kind of poetic "commons" as yet unenclosed, open not to appropriation but to principled shared use.

Word Group, Majorie Welish (Coffee House, 2004)

This one's a knockout. It's all rich, & strange, & suggestive, but the parts that stick with me most insistently are the 16-section "Textile," which "weaves" a long poem, at least in the early bits, out of repeated phrases & structures as warp & woof. Best is "Delight Instruct" (as in Horace, get it?), a long poem which both dissects & rebuilds some Penguin volume of art history – not its contents, but its form – laying bare both the ordinariness & the strangeness of that oddest of information-bearing objects, the bound codex. Word Group is saturated thruout with evidences of Welish's other lives as visual artist & art critic. Poems both painterly & conceptual at once.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009


The girls & I are back in the smug heat, leaving J. on her own in the bracing chill of Manhattan for the next couple of days. It was a nice jaunt, if a bit short. I managed to take in a grand performance of The Marriage of Figaro at the Met, to spend some quality time with a vast, nay overwhelming Kandinsky exhibition at the Guggenheim, & to ride down to the Strand and replenish – well, supplement – my already groaning shelves of next-to-be-read poetry books.

Two things I picked up were on biography – not biographies per se, but biographical criticism, the sort of thing I read with avid interest: Janet Malcolm's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice and Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography. Both of them I read in hungry, greedy gulps – and ultimately unsatisfied gnawings. Sigh. I'm always on the hunt for the holy grail of biographical criticism, the single book that will capture the practical & theoretical joys & problems of the genre, the epistemological conundrums, the place of life-writing within the whole literary system. And while Malcolm & Lee offer lots to think about, they aren't it: indeed, they come nowhere close to Leon Edel's Literary Biography, Richard Holmes's volumes of meta-biographical essays, or even Malcolm's earlier book on Sylvia Plath, The Silent Woman.

I guess I'll just have to write my own book.
It's time for year-end lists. I always hate these things when I read 'em from others, mainly because everybody's so hip & with-it, listing books they've read that have been published in the last three weeks, while I'm still laboring thru stuff written back in the benighted '80s. Oh well – with the proviso that I'm constitutionally something of a slow learner, a perennial catch-up-ball player, here's my list of things I read this year that blew me away:

To an Idea: A Book of Poems David Shapiro
Lingos I-IX Ulf Stolterfoht
Things on Which I’ve Stumbled Peter Cole
Ours Cole Swensen
Eschaton Michael Heller
Meteoric Flowers Elizabeth Willis
Emptied of All Ships Stacy Szymaszek
Goan Atom Caroline Bergvall
Fig Caroline Bergvall
Scribe Norman Finkelstein
Broken World Joseph Lease
Raik Ray DiPalma
Terminal Humming K. Lorraine Graham
Memnoir Joan Retallack
Uncle Silas Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Perdido Street Station China Miéville
Ryder Djuna Barnes
Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan Jean Daive
How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation Marc Bousquet
Greater Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory John Dixon Hunt
Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism Meghnad Desai
Nature Over Again: The Garden Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay John Dixon Hunt
Heaven knows a lot of stuff has fallen thru the cracks, especially in fiction & nonfiction. (How embarrassing is it to confess you've first read Little Women or David Copperfield in your mid-40s? and how wonderful they were?) But a few things that stick in my mind.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

home stretch (palate-clearing before grading blogging)

My friend Bradley, who has more than a little professional & personal investment in these matters, draws my attention to Monday's Times editorial from Stanley Fish on Sarah Palin's Going Rogue. Ah, Stanley Fish. One thing I'll miss about my chum Brian's blogging – if indeed he's surrendered to the soundbite-ethos of Twitter and Facebook updates, as so many of us have – is his more-or-less regular conniption fits in response to Stanley Fish's NYT blog posts. Brian, I'd murmur, he's just trying to get your goat, & succeeding; as Mom says, "he's just trying to get a rise out of you."

The Palin piece is a typical bit of Fishian contrarianism: Yes, he read Palin's autobiography Going Rogue, even tho Palin's on the bad guys list among his scholarly colleagues, & even tho the snooty liberal clerk at the Strand winced when he asked for the book, & sent him over to Barnes & Noble. And guess what? He enjoyed it. He found it (in words that could come from one of my undergraduates' papers) "compelling and well done." (Good Lord, Stanley, what's happened to your prose?)

And here's where it gets interesting. The left media hit Going Rogue hard on account of the autobiography's rather slippery relation to the historical record – in short, there were incessant & at times pretty shrill accusations that Palin's book was, if not a tissue of falsehoods, at least shot thru with misrepresentations. (For a slideshow of sometimes trivial things, see here; for more substantive policy-related boners, see here.) Fish doesn't commit himself as to whether he thinks Palin's lying or misremembering or whatever: for him, the book's truthfulness simply isn't an issue, because autobiography presents a different sort of "truth" than other nonfiction genres:
My assessment of the book has nothing to do with the accuracy of its accounts. Some news agencies have fact-checkers poring over every sentence, which would be to the point if the book were a biography, a genre that is judged by the degree to which the factual claims being made can be verified down to the last assertion. “Going Rogue,” however, is an autobiography, and while autobiographers certainly insist that they are telling the truth, the truth the genre promises is the truth about themselves — the kind of persons they are — and even when they are being mendacious or self-serving (and I don’t mean to imply that Palin is either), they are, necessarily, fleshing out that truth.... autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say will truthfully serve their project, which, again, is not to portray the facts, but to portray themselves.
Did you follow that? In short, even if Palin is lying through her teeth about every substantive moment in her life, she's still presenting us with autobiographical "truth," since she's portraying not "the facts" but her own mendacious "self."

I will, as Fish is careful to do, entirely bracket the issue of whether or not Palin's book is accurate to the historical record. I have my own opinions, as he does (I suspect we share them), but they're not germane to the issue at hand – the status of "truth" in life-writing. In a piece from a decade ago, Fish made a careful distinction between biography, in which factual accuracy is a baseline standard of assessment, and autobiography, where we don't worry about such trivia because we're getting a portrait of the writer's self. Biography, Fish deconstructively concludes, always fails, always gets it wrong in trying to achieve an impossible factuality, while autobiography, inherently biased, unobjective, even disdainful of data, by its very announced subjectivity cannot fail.

Janet Malcolm, a far deeper thinker on these matters than Fish (& frankly, a much better writer), phrases it memorably in her The Silent Woman:
The questions raised by the passage only underscore the epistemological insecurity by which the reader of biography and autobiography (and history and journalism) is always and everywhere dogged. In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination.
In short, Sidney's "Defense of Poesy" is put on its head: where the "the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth," one might say that the (auto)biographer (or historian, or journalist), since she or he makes statements that claim truth status (ie, "affirmeth"), will always to some degree fall short of absolute factuality.

This is the conceptual conundrum at the heart of life-writing, the hole of interpretive uncertainty that lies at the core of any biography (and yes, autobiography); it's part of what makes reading and doing the genre so interesting to me. We never know the truth of a life; we only know what a biographer – even an autobiographer – presents as a plausible attempt at that truth. The autobiographer or memoirist presents us with a particularly interesting, intimate, & in some ways problematic glimpse into a subject's subjectivity – but even the most seemingly disarmingly candid writer on the self (Montaigne, say) is consciously or unconsciously constructing a self to present to the reader.

Needless to say, this is even more the case with a political autobiography like Palin's, which is written not as an unprompted mon coeur mis à nu but as a full-dress act of self-construction in support of a public career, perhaps a run for the presidency. Truth to the historical record, factual accuracy isn't really the issue. Nor is the truth about Sarah Palin the human being. What's being given us is a construction of an ideal, maverick, perhaps even presidential Sarah Palin. In the last paragraphs of his review, Fish seems dangerously close to having swallowed the construction of Palin Going Rogue offers its readers, rather than the Palin his own (once sophisticated) interpretive techniques would disentangle.
The one bit of Fish's piece that I have to simply cry "foul" about is this:
I find the voice undeniably authentic (yes, I know the book was written “with the help” of Lynn Vincent, but many books, including my most recent one, are put together by an editor).
Bullshit. Nothing is easier to fake than the "voice" of authenticity, and there's really no comparison between the kind of "collaboration" involved in most political autobiographies (the subject sits and talks, the actual writer recasts it all into coherent prose) and an editor's task of compiling previously published essays into a book. (If I were the editor of Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time I'd be pretty pissed off right now.)

Monday, December 07, 2009

home stretch (quatre)

More from the annals of those Kwazy Kompositors:

On the cover (but not the spine, title, or half-title) of Jean-Michel Rabaté's Language, Sexuality, and Ideology in Ezra Pound's Cantos (SUNY Press, 1986):
Language, Sexuality, and Idealogy in Ezra Pound's Cantos
On the spine (but not the cover, half-title, or title) of Antony Easthope's Literary into Cultural Studies (Routledge, 1991):
Literary into Cultral Studies
Bloody hell – my copy is the fourth printing; did this persist thru 3 reprints, or did it creep in after the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd versions? See what happens when you go into cultural studies? – you loose the ability to spel.

And finally (drumroll...), the half-title of Ian Brinton's excellent collection A Manner of Utterance: The Poetry of J. H. Prynne (Shearsman, 2009):
A Man of Utterance
I think that's reimporting the author function with a vengeance, no?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

home stretch (trois)

In the thick of reading porfolios (portfolioi?) & writing, but this caught my eye, the first epigraph to Richard Kostelanetz's very excellent collection The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature (Prometheus Books, 1982):
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism.... The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order of the form of European or English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.
Henri Peyre, The Failures of Criticism (1967)
Who would've thought that Kosty, way back in 1982, would be "reframing" texts right along with Kenny Goldsmith? Or that Henri Peyre'd be doing it in 1967, copying out a very famous passage of T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" & publishing it under his own name?

Or maybe the compositors at Prometheus Books just slipped, losing a Peyre epigraph & attaching his name to the Eliot quotation.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

get writing!

Jonathan Mayhew has just launched a new blog, "Stupid Motivational Tricks," devoted to the business of academic writing – and the most basic & most difficult part of it, getting it done. Okay, there's not much there yet; but if the wealth of sensible tips available on Mayhew's other blog, Bemsha Swing, under the label "scholarly writing" is any indication, this will be an important resource. I know JM's lit a fire under my bottom more times than I can remember.

(This post is of special relevance to some of my grad students: you know who you are!)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

home stretch (deux)

One of those days. Massive grading all day, broken only by a little undirected reading. A FB comment by Ben Friedlander sent me to my Library of America stacks to haul down Poe's Poetry and Tales & re-read the Dupin stories. "Murders in the Rue Morgue" just as good as when I read it at 14 or 15; "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" just as I recalled it – a total snooze. (I'm saving "The Purloined Letter" for a more Lacanian day.) How does that happen? The guy writes a brilliant, even suspenseful, story, in the process inventing Sherlock Holmes & the whole genre of ratiocinative detective fiction, then he turns around for a sequel & writes one of the most inert corpses in his whole oeuvre. Poe fascinates me by his ability to snatch bathos out of the jaws of brilliance. Almost the greatest writer of the 19th century – and often among the worst.

Enjoying Meghnad Desai's Marx's Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism. One wonders if the editors at Verso (!) actually read all the way thru this one before sending MD his contract. It amounts to a smart, mostly accessible & mostly well-written survey of economic thought & history from Adam Smith to the turn of millennium. Desai, once a man of the Left, has become a free market evangelist. (That's Baron Desai to you commoners, by the way.) There's no stopping the course of globalization & the mind-bending evolutions of capital, he tells us – the best we can do is to try & make sure as many people get caught up in the prosperity as possible; maybe sometime in the future – who knows when? – we'll emerge on the other side of capitalism; but for now it's the only game in town. I can't say I'm convinced, but I know a real live economist, & one who's actually read & weighed all the theories & evidence for himself, when I read one – as opposed to the half-baked slogans and articles of faith that get served up (on both right and left) most of the time.

3 Mustaphas 3: Lu Edmonds's saz sent me back into the vinyl files, where I decanted a half-dozen 12-inches & cast my mind back to the late 80s. The Mustaphas were a group of London musicians/musicologist-types who wore fezes and pretended to be from some vaguely situated Balkan province, a town called Szegerly. They were all first-rate musicians; played what was beginning to be called "world music": half the time straight-up covers of Greek, Turkish, Balkan, Arabic, whatever, the other half weird bastard mixes – a paean to Soba noodles sung mostly in Japanese to an American truck-driving country beat, with a Serbian dance thrown in as the bridge, a Klezmer tune played on the Turkish cümbüs with a tabla break in the middle – you get the picture. They spoke in funny accents, when they spoke English. (I'm told their pronunciation of non-English lyrics was pretty atrocious – my Indian friend said their version of the Hindi "Awara Hoon" was flatly unintelligible.) A string of comments to a YouTube video made me realize the connection: 3 Mustaphas 3 were musical Borat, avant la lettre. Minus of course the savage satire; these guys really loved the music they were playing, & played it for the most part nobly.

Alas, the records haven't held up awfully well: the production of most of the 3 Mustaphas 3 records sounds a bit on the thin side, & let's face it, the original recordings of most of the songs they cover have more grit & interest, & after all who needs manufactured transculturalism, complete with fezes, when you can get the real thing so easily these days? Like this, which I listened to this morning: Roberto Rodriguez's Ballo! Gitano Ballo!, a dandy set of Judaeo-Cuban dance tunes; klezmer to a latin beat, glorious horns & strings.