Friday, December 31, 2010

year's end iii

We arrived back from NYC last night, after a purgatorial trip – endless security lines at LaGuardia with our two small children, numerous carryons, two violins, etc., an overcrowded airplane sitting on the tarmac for ages, and to top it all off the car we'd reserved to carry us home from the airport simply didn't show up. But we're back, weary & unpacking.

And the year's almost over. Not a bad year, on the whole. Much work accomplished, many books read & thought about. I was tempted to list them all, but it's a long, long list this time around. Instead, in the spirit of last year's round-up, a selection of a few of the things that arrested me the most this past year. Some of these I've blogged, others I've alluded to; a couple I've actually taught. As is obvious, I'm totally hopeless at "keeping up" with what's just come out, & indeed spend a good deal of my reading time going back over things I've read ages ago.

As to fiction, it's been rather thin on the ground this year, & for some reason seems to tend towards fantasy & science fiction; I'm embarassed to be reading some of these for the first time. So sue me:
Kindred Octavia E. Butler
Babel-17 Samuel R. Delany
A Wizard of Earthsea Ursula K. LeGuin
The Scar China Miéville
There were many good biographies on my desk this year, but three stand out, Clausen's for its density & thoughtfulness (you certainly wouldn't go to it for chronological facts), Delblanco's for its lovely prose, and Campbell/Corn's for its general easy comprehensiveness:
Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius Detlev Claussen
Melville: His World and Work Andrew Delbanco
John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns
Not a great deal of criticism & philosophy this time around, which just goes to support my growing suspicion that I don't belong in the academy; some picking up of things written ages ago (Rosenberg, Empson) that still remain green; the real delightful discovery the Finlay letters:
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Diogenes Laertius
Guy Debord Anselm Jappe
The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius John D. Rosenberg
A Model of Order: Selected Letters on Poetry and Making Ian Hamilton Finlay
Milton’s God William Empson
The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age E. P. Thompson
The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin George P. Landow
And then there's poetry. This listlet represents maybe 1/7 of what I read this year, & I know I've overlooked things I value. But here's some of the things that set me afire, & that you ought to read too:
Blade Pitch Control Unit Sean Bonney
Luminous Epinoia, Peter O'Leary
Three-Toed Gull: Selected Poems Jesper Svenbro
My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer Jack Spicer
Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988-2008 Norma Cole
Complete Twentieth Century Blues Robert Sheppard
If Not Metamorphic Brenda Iijima
Swallows Martin Corless-Smith
Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip Lisa Robertson
Looking Up Zach Barocas
Mirth Linda Russo
Pen Chants or nth or 12 spirit-like impermanences Lissa Wolsak
Sub Songs J. H. Prynne
How to Do Things with Tears Allen Grossman
Continental Harmony
Michael Gizzi
New Depths of Deadpan
Michael Gizzi
Those two last are from one of the poets we lost this year; and I had no idea, until I'd read these two wry, deliciously funny collections, what a loss Gizzi was.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

year's end ii

Tomorrow P. & I leave for the northeast, & we'll be there almost thru the end of the year, so I don't imagine I'll be doing any significant blogging (huh? you snort – when'd'you ever do any significant blogging, Scroggins?) between now & then. I leave with my head abuzz with theories of Romanticism, & with a whole bunch of contemporary poetry echoing in my ears. Over the last few days, I've read chapbooks by Alan Halsey & Joe Donahue, books by Lissa Wolsak, Dan Featherston, William Bronk, and Prageeta Sharma; I've re-read Geoffrey Hill's Oraclau | Oracles, hoping to be set afire this time around – hasn't happened yet; there's a delicate music there, & a good deal of familiar Hillian significant grumbling, but I've yet to catch the scent of the spiritual agonistics that so energize Scenes from Comus or The Triumph of Love. Probably I should give it time – I've found that Hill, like lots of other poets, needs some time to "sink in."

I returned the page proofs for the big Parnassus piece yesterday, & I suppose am taking a deep breath before tackling the big essay I've (foolishly?) promised to turn it at the beginning of February. The "finishing touches" on the other two pieces floating in submitted & accepted limbo will have to wait for their editors' gentle or not-so-gentle prodding.

This is not the first time I've felt that I'd prefer to be spending the holiday at home; but I'm not terribly broken up to be traveling, either. Most of the dither of packing & printing out maps & reservations & boarding passes has been taken care of, & I'm actually looking forward to giving my cold-weather gear its annual workout. So for all of those out there journeying this season, I wish you safe & pleasant travels. And no, I'm not going to MLA – hahahahahahahaha!

Friday, December 17, 2010

more romanticism...

I love a post like that last one, or at least the reactions to it – here, read this, read the other... It's like having a real, you know, community, people to talk to & get ideas from, brains to pick, and so forth.

Kent's comment bears pretty directly on one source of my recent Romanticism interest – I've been dipping into Simon Jarvis's Wordsworth's Philosophic Song, a product very much of that Cambridge nexus. (Prynne's own Field Notes, a longish essay on "The Solitary Reaper," is on the shelf waiting to be read.) I'm not ready to full-on tackle Jarvis's book quite yet, but his discussion of the critical issues surrounding Wordsworth got me thinking about my own deficiencies in the Romanticism department. So I've been looking at Abrams's Mirror & the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism (which I seem to have read much of at some point, as I'm finding quotations that I pillaged for some of the poems in Anarchy), leafing thru some of the essays in Stuart Curran's Cambridge Companion to English Romanticism, & reading pretty closely in Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Revolution.

Aside from Bob A's enthusiastic endorsement of Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre's Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, I'm struck by how many recommendations are of biographies, single or group. (I'm also struck by how many biographies of these chaps I've already read – Holme's 2 volumes of STC [his Shelley, a wedding gift of all things, sits on the shelf waiting to be read], Ackroyd's Blake, Gill's Wordsworth, Gittings's Keats. Thanks to you, Norman, I picked up a copy of Hay's Young Romantics last night.) That is, while many of us in this conversation are scholars of one stripe or another, I think we tend to primarily identify as poets, & find a kind of immediate access thru biography, rather than thru more austerely critical works – at least I didn't hear anyone recommending Paul de Man. Would it be self-interested of me to say that I find this investment in the biographical to be a very heartening thing?

The Cambridge "school" & Wordsworth – now that's an interesting conjunction that bears thinking about on a kind of meta-critical level. We – at least we alt-poets in the US – tend I think to regard Wordsworth as the most canonical of the canonical, a sort of zero-degree of institutional verse, utterly impervious to the sorts of recovery operations carried out so successfully on Whitman, Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, even Shelley (I recall one memorable MLA talk on PBS by Michael Palmer some years back). He simply can't, that is, be recuperated for the avant-garde. He has no place in the lineage of the modernist revolution, except as a baseline to be reacted against.

But what if one were to read Wordsworth, as I think Prynne & Jarvis do, as a magnificent, deeply subtle, & deeply strange poet; and furthermore, to read one's own work, not as a reaction against a canonical "mainstream," but as the simple furtherance of tendencies already present within a poet like Wordsworth? (A version of what Bunting is doing – thanks, Bill – ie placing his own work within a tradition in which Wordsworth is a magisterial exemplar.) I suspect that something like this is at play in Prynne's & Jarvis's critical work on WW (including the Chicago Review essay Kent cites, which I haven't read but have heard, at least if it's the same talk he gave at U Chicago a few years back).

In the end, it's hard to resist quoting J. K. Stephen's Wordsworth sonnet (the source, I suspect, of all of Pound's dismissals of WW as a "bleating sheep"):
Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud's thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times
Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes,
The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst:
At other times--good Lord! I'd rather be
Quite unacquainted with the ABC
Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

my romanticism problem

I am not, alas, a romantic, in any sense of the word. I have some friends who are true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool romantics (like Eric) in the "passionate love" manner; and I have some who are deeply versed in Romantic poetry; I even have some (like Norman) who are both. But I've always been a rather tight-assed product of my Protestant upbringing, shrinking away from the loss of self-control involved in passion, & wincing a bit at its expression in poetry. While I deeply admire the music of their verse, I've always found something a bit, well, embarrassing about Keats & Shelley.

At any rate, the semester's over; I don't leave town for holiday travels until Monday, so rather than tackling the beginnings of the next big essay that's due in oh, 6 weeks' time, for some reason I've been thinking about Romanticism – & how little I know about the whole period, the whole movement. I posted a squib to that effect on my Facebook page, & lo & behold a number of friends have chimed in with a whole year's worth of weighty reading.

My education in Romanticism has been spotty. As an undergraduate at Beloved Alma Mater, I must have taken a survey course that covered the Romantics, but I don't remember a moment of it. And I was feeling the lack when I came up to grad school at Campus on the Hill. CotH's PhD program, however, was not the best place to fill in holes in one's undergrad education. The grand old men of Wordsworth studies could still be seen walking the halls (MH Abrams would have coffee every morning with Archie Ammons downstairs, & I was even a TA for one Stephen Parrish's undergrad courses – Victorian novel, I think), but they generally weren't teaching graduate seminars anymore. So I enrolled in a "Romantic Poetry" seminar with Professor Fearsome DeManean, & found myself largely at sea for 14 weeks, reading poems I hadn't read before – enjoying them, for the most part – & then every week sitting stupidly around the seminar table as my fearsomely theory-savvy colleagues argued the fine points of (mostly) Paul De Man, with very occasional reference to Keats, Wordsworth, or Shelley.

I already had a well-developed taste for Blake, & somehow managed to develop a taste for Wordsworth as well. I put stacks of Byron on my comprehensives lists, and dutifully read them (with nothing less than constant enjoyment). And since then I've read around a great deal – most of Keats's poetry and letters, lots and lots of Coleridge, bits and pieces of Shelley. I worked up Keats in general for a "lifelong learning" lecture series I did a few years back, & had the great satisfaction of reducing a roomful of elderly women to tears with a pathos-ridden performance of "Ode to a Nightingale." I've taught Lyrical Ballads several times, & know The Prelude pretty darned well.

It's a matter of improving what Jonathan Mayhew calls one's "scholarly base." Now, I know I'll never be a scholar of Romanticism (tho I wouldn't mind teaching an undergraduate course on Romantic poetry someday), so the "scholary" isn't quite applicable; but as so often, I've gotten the urge to know more, to fill out or round off the vast blank or roughly sketched areas in my own mental map of what everything means. (I got a similar urge in re/ Marx & the Frankfurt School about a decade ago, Milton sometime before that, Hegel about five years ago, Victorian thought at the same time – all ongoing projects.)

It feels oddly like a counter-productive impulse, so far as one's academic career goes. The classic model is that you establish yourself in one limited sub-discipline, then branch out in subsequent work to adjacent or occasionally more distant fields. I don't know any model, offhand, for this kind of intellectual back-filling. Maybe I'm trying to retool myself as a classic "generalist" – a term I deeply distrust, & which is of course the kiss of death in academia these days. Or maybe I'm just trying to get myself to where I can take more pleasure in Keats & Shelley.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

year's end

No, it's not Santa Claus, but Geoffrey Hill, as pictured in this Oxford Today feature on his entry as Oxford Professor of Poetry. Not much in the way of news here, but some nice stanzas from a work in progress.

I'm feeling the usual semester's-end weariness; the last grades were turned in this morning after a frantic few days of grading & number-teasing, & now I face the horrors of our department's moving to a new building over the holiday break. My office is probably 60% packed; another day's cursing and throwing books in the general direction of cartons should do it. But whether the new office has enough space for the old office's books, now that's another issue altogether.

To celebrate the end of semester, and to take my mind off of Milton final exams, I went thru a splurge of poetry-reading over the last few days. Quite a number of books, in fact, in no particular order. First, a run of Keith Waldrop chapbooks from all over the last 40 years:
my nodebook for december (Burning Deck, 1971)
Intervals (Awede, 1981)
Water Marks (Underwhich, 1987)
Two-Part Invention (Meeting Eyes Bindery/Poetry New York, 1999)
I've always been fond of Waldrop's work, which has struck me as falling usually into the category of the spare and precise, a sort of post-Objectivist work that I associate with Cid Corman (most prolifically); but KW is inevitably a far more careful and thoughtful craftsperson – and his work has a muted sense of humor that I enjoy immensely.

Then Phyllis Rosenzweig's more substantial (page-wise) chapbook Reasonable Accomodation (Potes & Poets, 1998). I knew PR glancingly when I was a lurker on the fringes of the DC scene a couple of decades ago, but had never really read her work. It's quite good: disjunctive on the order of much Language writing, name-dropping in the best New York School manner (tho the names dropped are usually of DC folks I know), & showing a sometimes surprising sense of closure – ie the poems actually end, rather than simply trail off.

Kenneth Fearing's Selected Poems (Library of America, 2004) isn't as good as its editor Robert Polito would like you to believe. That is, Fearing really isn't the great American hard-boiled poet, the fellow who actually marries the grittiness of James Cain to the social conscience of Muriel Rukeyser. Rather, he's a kind of lefty Whitman which a strong dash of second-hand surrealism. A congenial combination, to be sure, but the catalogues & the socio-political hectoring get old after awhile.

Donald Wellman's A North Atlantic Wall (Dos Madres, 2010) is a welcome new piece from a poet who's more than content to work in the footsteps of Pound and Olson – a "late modernist," that it. Wellman's deep in the culture of contemporary and historical Spain here, drawing from the works of medieval thru contemporary Spanish poets and writers, musing over the ruins both concrete and metaphysical of the Third Reich's "Fortress Europe."

Two from Laura Sims, Practice, Restraint (Fence, 2005) and Stranger (Fence, 2009), exemplify contemporary "elliptical" poetry in its purest form. I'm enraptured by the spareness of Sims's writing, and she has a wonderful lyric ear. I wonder, however, whether the poems' very evanescence won't have them floating off the page entirely at some point. (Even as I write that, I find myself admitting that Stranger, an extended elegy to Sims's mother, has a kind of emotional gravitas that keep the wee stanzas pretty well anchored indeed.)

The great discovery, however, is Linda Russo's Mirth (Chax, 2007). Of all of these books, Mirth is the one I most wish I'd written – and the one I find myself most admitting is beyond my abilities. A first section of excellent, cutting political poems – then extended fantasias on Ovid (among others) exploring, in a theoretically sophisticated & often deeply funny manner, what it means to be a politically engaged female poet in what alas is still too often a man's man's man's world. By the time you're thru with Mirth, however, you've forgotten that the dour Mr Hill is arbiter of poetry & morals at Oxford, & are enthusiastically following Russo into the twenty-first century.


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Peter O'Leary: Luminous Epinoia

[Peter O'Leary, February 2008]
We were talking at the pub last night about the sensation of reaching a certain age – a certain point at one's life – where one can see the overall "curve" of the careers of one's culture-heroes – musicians, writers, etc. As usual, I took it as an opportunity to lament impending senility etc. But truth to tell, I don't feel particularly old, or even particularly middle-aged. In some senses, I feel that my poetry has only within the past 5 years or so emerged into what I think of as a "mature" voice; & suspect that a decade from now I might dismiss what I'm writing right now as juvenilia.

I'm comfortable watching poets a few years older than me, folks like my friend Norman Finkelstein, emerge from being pretty damned good poets to being really breathtaking,
big poets – poets I'd mention in the same breath as the great poets of the 1920s or 1930s generation – as Norman's done with his last two books, Scribe (blogged here) and Inside the Ghost Factory.

It's a little more unsettling – but simultaneously exhilarating – when I see one of my coevals breaking forth into something like "major" status. I've known Peter O'Leary for something over a decade. I suspect we hooked up by means of Ronald Johnson's work: I've been writing on Johnson as long as I can remember, and Peter, after corresponding with him for several years, was named Johnson's literary executor upon his death in 1998. (Since then he's lovingly shepherded thru the press a number of Johnson projects:
The Shrubberies, To Do As Adam Did: Selected Poems, and a reissue of Radi Os.

I've followed O'Leary's poetry, both in his first two full-length collections,
Watchfulness (Spuyten Duyvil, 2001) and Depth Theology (2006), his chapbooks, and his periodical appearances. I was even, I'm proud to say, a press reviewer for his excellent critical study Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness. But nothing has prepared me for the impact of his brand new collection from the Cultural Society, Luminous Epinoia.

I haven't even tried to reproduce the cover, as I've yet to see a photo that does justice to this book's visual presentation. It's a Quemadura (Jeff Clark) design, but bears no resemblance to Quemadura's typical combination of slurred visuals and hard-edged, sans-serif lettering. Instead, the book's a jacketless hardcover in blinding silver, etched white repeated designs (snakes, crosses, & stars) surrounding a Gothic "L. E." (The insides, equally scrumptuous, are more recognizably Quemaduran: sans-serif running heads, Gothic epigraphs.) It's a book to be immediately struck by – but the real beauties are inside.

I'll admit that I fall back on comparisons when my critical/descriptive skills falter. What's this book like? Well, imagine a poet whose worldview, and whose visionary tendencies, are akin to those of Dante (in the
Paradiso) or Henry Vaughan; whose vocabulary is as ornate (tho nowhere near as pretentious) as Edward Dahlberg's; and whose sense of form, of diction, and of general poetic movement is near kin to Charles Olson, Ronald Johnson, and Nathaniel Mackey. Throw in a generous dash of Freud (& even Jung), an outraged political sensibility, & a kind of deep, radiant, tender humanitas, & you have something like Peter O'Leary.

Not being a believer, I do not write religious poetry. But I do appreciate religious poetry (if I didn't, let's face it, this past semester teaching Milton would have been more than unpleasant), and so far as Christian poetry goes I find a clear distinction between Protestant and Roman Catholic poetics. Milton is the great Protestant poet; Geoffrey Hill is the best Protestant poet writing now. Dante is of course the preëminent Roman Catholic poet. (Oddly enough, I read Hopkins, despite his holy orders, as more Protestant than Catholic in his poetics.) Raised as I was in fundamentalist, text-based Protestantism, I relish the wrestle with the law's letter, with the philosophical paradoxes of faith; but I find myself more often than not left cold by the literary manifestations of ecstatic, mystical religious states.

Or rather, I find it hard to mix the religious & the aesthetic. I love visiting ornate churches & cathedrals; but I find myself bulldoggishly resistant to the "beauties" of the service or the mass. I am as low church as low church can be.

But O'Leary's work moves me, and moves me deeply – so deeply I'm puzzled. He is, yes, a Roman Catholic poet, one whose work is redolent of incense and wine, is shot thru with the light of both stained glass windows and the sun; his poems are almost a series of icons, dense with human detail but alight with hammered gold. Like his mentor Johnson, he relishes science's untangling of the physical and chemical bases of our existence – and he finds in them powerful metaphors for the relationship of God to humanity, even – at some head-spinning moments –
explanations of that relationship.

These poems are more personal in many ways than O'Leary's earlier books, including a longish "Spiritual Autobiography" towards the end. It is something of a
Vita Nuova crossed with The Interpretation of Dreams, embedded within the Paradiso of exploration and praise that is the book as a whole. Luminous Epinoia may be one of the stranger titles you're likely to encounter – roughly speaking, it refers to one's creativity, conceived I take it as an emanation or a reflection of the divine creativity – but it shouldn't put off even faithless readers (like this one). It's a terrific, rich, mysterious & moving book. I'm almost moved to devotion; but alas, am quite certainly moved to envy.


the fénéon book

A couple years back, my most delicious internet reading was the blog Faits Divers de la Poésie Américaine et Brittanique, a series of for the most part brutally funny satirical squibs directed at the poetry "scene" in general, & emanating from the anonymous fénéon collective. Hoo boy did the fénéon folks stir up ire on all sides of American poetry (except perhaps for the trade-press-entrenched hyper-establishment, which doesn't really traffic in internet communication). Eventually, after pissing off just about everyone who is anyone in alt-poetry, the blog's contents disappeared.

I won't go into the history of the "collective," which is laid out in loving detail in "Anonyme"'s introduction to the recently released Works and Days of the fénéon collective (Skanky Possum/Effing Press) (hard to come by at the moment, but you might look here). Suffice it to say they take their name from the art critic and anarchist Félix Fénéon, and are inspired by his Nouvelles in trois lignes, cryptic and anonymous squibs which appeared in the Paris Newspaper Le Matin in 1906. Fénéon's "novels" are capsulized and crystallized social commentary:
A dozen hawkers who had been announcing news of a nonexistent anarchist bombing at the Madeleine have been arrested.

Reverend Andrieux, of Roannes, near Aurillac, whom a pitiless husband perforated Wednesday with two rifle shots, died last night.

Too poor to raise him, Triquet, of Théligny, Sarthe, smothered his son, aged 1 month.
The 232 "faits divers" of the "fénéon collective" are rather more loquacious, and focus their commentary on the angst- and ambition-riddled microcosm of contemporary poetry. The humor is for the most part broad. We encounter the perpetually needy denizens of MFA programs:
The MFA students of Iowa are on strike! Marching towards the Capitol, post-avant and School of Quietude as one, they brandished cans of Spam, the only aliment they can afford.

In the midst of economic crisis, things proceeded as normal at the AWP: bailouts, bonus packages, back-room deals, aimless loitering of the unemployed.
Conceptual poetry makes an appearance:
"Ouch!" cried the cunning oyster-eater, M. Goldsmith. "A pearl!" Someone at the next table bought it for 100 francs. It had cost 10 centimes at the dime store.
Time and time again, poets whose surnames assiduous followers of the "scene" will recognize collide head-on in the street.

The collective's primary targets are on the one hand the tired rhetoric of outsiderhood among post-avant poets –
Assistant Professor M. Devaney, of Penn, read a paper at the MLA, attacking Official Verse Culture. Now that it is printed in the Writer's Chronicle and collected in a prize-winning anthology from Wesleyan, the Literary Industry has been dealt another penetrating blow by the avant-garde.
– and on the other the failure of real world political engagement among poets who are otherwise assiduous at trumpeting their own heartfelt political beliefs:
Let's protest the war, poets, said M. Hamill! 15,000 did. Messrs. Bernstein, Silliman, and Watten gave speeches, protesting the poets who protested. Irony.

Well, Guernica's come and go... As Gaza burned, Mlle Dark, the self-appointed U.S. poetry medium of Badiou, devoted her blog to a personal "Top-40 Countdown" of pop music hits in 2008.

Yes, and as Gaza burned, the avant with 2,000,000 hits, former editor of the Socialist Review, devoted his blog today to an anecdotal homage for the '70s sitcom hit, Starsky and Hutch.
This sort of thing will certainly not do (as Samuel Johnson might say). The fénéon collective's squibs are nasty, mean-spirited, and not at all constructive. They are also for the most part wickedly funny & often very pointed indeed. The very anger they aroused on their first publication is an index of how close to the bone some of their satire strikes.

There is something here for everyone to be offended by, and likewise there is something to solace every resentment. My own favorite:
There is no god even for drunkards. The pugilist-poet M. Kleinzahler, of St. Germain, who had mistaken the window for the door, has left this world.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

the damned 100 books thing

So the "BBC 100 books" meme is going around Facebook again. You've seen it -- it's a list of 100 books, chosen by some arcane process, of which the BBC has found most people have read only 6. And you're supposed to go thru the list, marking the ones you've read, & tagging your friends.

Problem is, of course, that the BBC apparently had no such intention in compiling their original list (which can be found here). That list is a reader-voted list of 100 most popular novels. Somewhere along the line, someone monkeyed around with that list, making a bit more highbrow (maladroitly – they added both Shakespeare's Complete Works and Hamlet, separately). It's in that latter form that it's getting passed around as a test of one's literacy. (For a straightforward comparison of the two lists, & their sources, see this blog post.)

What does the phenomenon say about contemporary reading habits, & habits of thought more generally? Well, first & most obviously: when people think about "books" they've read, they think novels. The BBC was explicit about their list being novels; whoever altered the list to "books" didn't really think it necessary to do more than throw in a couple of Shakespeares – after all, the important reads are still novels. Where're the biographies, the books of history, the nonfiction things that squat atop the bestseller lists for ages?

Secondly, most people apparently haven't read a whole lot since high school, and what they've read rarely goes beyond the front displays of Barnes & Noble (or Waterstone's). The vast majority of the books here fall into roughly three categories: classic children's books (and young people's books – Little Women, The Secret Garden); things that are assigned in secondary school (To Kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath); and books that have been atop the bestseller lists (Harry Potter, Captain Corelli's Mandolin). There's also a fair number of "classics," especially in the later "altered" list – what I would call "warhorse" classics, books that everyone's heard of & agrees are suitably serious (Jane Austen, Dickens, Melville, Tolstoy).

But most interestingly, everyone still wants to feel themselves somehow "well read" – that they've somehow kept ahead of the curve of their peers, those poor schmucks who've only read 6 books from this list. Frankly, I imagine anyone who reads much at all – anyone, that is, who isn't part of that 95% of the American public who never reads a book* – has probably read at least 15 or 20 of these. But I'm not sure there isn't a category mistake taking place here: can we really call the warm bath of looking back over Winnie the Pooh (#7) or Black Beauty (#58) reading in the same sense that working one's way through Ulysses (#78) or Gormenghast (#84) is reading?

*I just made that statistic up.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

most bizarre sentence in a "scholarly" book, episode 237

From K. W. Gransden's Virgil: The Aeneid (Landmarks of Western Literature) (Cambridge UP, 1990).

We all know about Eclogue 4, right? You remember, the one which addresses the Consul Pollio, prophesying the birth of a man child who will bring back the golden age associated with Saturn? The one Virgil wrote in 40 BCE, and in which no-one has any real idea what he's talking about? The one that got taken up by Christian commentators as a prophecy of Christ's birth, & had a great deal to do with Virgil's being enshrined as a "Christian poet" avant la lettre?

Gransden writes, gravely: "It must be emphasized that there is no evidence, and little likelihood, that Virgil was referring in this poem to Christ."

The mind boggles. What precisely would constitute "evidence" that Virgil, writing in 40 BCE, was "referring to" Christ (born ca. 7-3 BCE)? What would make it more or less "likely"?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Addendum to the below (& perhaps a mortal blow for my potential use of Sarah Ruden's version of the Aeneid in next semester's class): These sentences that open her introduction:
I am in awe of scholars who can expertly debate Vergil's political purpose and attitude; I find him difficult just to read. In part, I blame the half-finished state of his epic: only twelve out of the projected twenty-four books exist, and many lines are two- or three-word fragments.
First off, it's bad to start out your intro with an "aw-shucks-Miz-Scarlett-ah'm-just-a-translator-&-don't-know-nothin'-'bout-scholarship"; it may establish your poetic bona fides, but it gives no comfort to those who hope to find in your translation a firm grasp not merely of the Latin language but of the poem as a whole, which has been thought about by scholars – sometimes very fruitfully indeed – for some two millennia now.

But where in the Sam Hill did she get that business about only 12 of 24 books being finished?? Of course, there are indeed around 60 partial lines in the poem. That's explained by Virgil's method of composition: he'd write a prose draft, then versify in blocks; when he got stuck, he'd leave a half-line, which he called tibicines (props), to support the overall structure until he could raise the final columnes (pillars). Virgil had worked on the epic for some 10 years when he died in 19BCE, & he was projecting another three years' work to "finish" it – polish it up, remove inconsistencies like those you find thruout Homer, and finish up those half-lines. But by no means could he have been intending another 12 books.

I'm no classicist, tho I did my stint of Virgil back in high school Latin (books I thru VI, if I remember rightly). But I've got a stack of classicists' books scattered around the house & the office, & nowhere can I find a projected 24-book length to the Aeneid. K. W. Grandsen, in his little Cambridge UP guide (where I also picked up the snazzy factoids about the tibicines & columnes), puts it most forcefully: "It should however be emphasized that the poem, though unrevised, is in no sense incomplete or unfinished (as Spenser's Faerie Queene is unfinished)."

Please, somebody who knows more about this than I do – who's plugged into the most recent Virgil scholarship – prove me wrong. Otherwise I'm going to to irrevocably lose faith in the whole academic publishing industry – or at least in the Yale UP copy editor who let that sentence get onto the first page of this highly-promoted translation.
The Thanksgiving celebration, by the way, was lovely. Not least for the fact that we were invited to some dear friends' house, where the food was delicious and the alcohol flowed freely, & I didn't have to cook anything more than a bowl of Gujerati string beans.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

my Vergil problem

This holiday morning I'm brooding over book orders. Yes, I turned them in weeks ago, but it's probably not too late for revisions.

Here's the deal: After dithering around over Homer translations, I finally settled for Fagles (Penguin), who seems solid enough, & whose texts are accompanied by really excellent extended introductions & notes by Bernard Knox. The Aeneid proved something more of a challenge. I like C. Day Lewis's version, find Fitzgerald's rather bland, & have a fondness for Frederick Ahl's recent Oxford, even though I recognize it makes a hash of Vergil's elegant concision. But I finally succumbed to the publicity materials – wow, they even sent me an e-mail! – and ordered Sarah Ruden's new translation from Yale UP. Academic friends, admit you've done this before yourselves – ordered a book for a class without actually having a copy in hand; please, admit it, so I don't feel like such a jackass. (I did, however, download their PDF of Book I, and liked it very much.)

At any rate, my desk copy arrived yesterday, and I'm having buyer's – or rather, assigner's – remorse. On two counts: First, the translation itself. Ruden is good, there's no getting around it. She translates Vergil's (and for some reason I'm very fond of that old-fashioned Latinate spelling) hexameters into terse iambic pentameter, & there's a kind of electric telegraphy to her lines that make the poem more fast-moving & active than any other Aeneid I've encountered:
The trumpets gave a harsh blare. Turnus raised
The war sign from the tower of Laurentum,
And whipped his horses up, and clashed his weapons.
Instantly all of Latium joined in frenzy
And panic. Its young men grew cruel and savage. (VIII)
But her decision to translate not merely in pentameter – ten-or-eleven-syllable lines – but line-for-line, an equal number of English lines to hexameter Latin lines, is simply mad. Latin is notoriously more compressed than English. (Her own example, from the Twelve Tables, "Si in ius vocat, ito," can be translated no more succinctly than "If a man is summoned to court, he must go" – 5 Latin words into 10 English.) And the hexameter is simply longer than the English pentameter. So her Vergil is of necessity a bare-bones, almost telegraphic version: all sorts of detail, all manner of adjectival richness, have gone by the board.

At times, this reads like Vergil as rendered by Beckett, or by LZ. That's not at all a bad thing – as I say, I admire her version very much; but is it the first Vergil for my junior-level undergrads, almost none of whom have any Latin, many of whom are encountering classical literature for the first time, to read? In some ways, Ruden's ideal reader is someone who already knows the Aeneid fairly well, and who can thereby appreciate this stripped-down version.

And there are a couple of weird moments in Ruden's all-too-brief introduction, as when she comments on enjambments:
I have reproduced enjambments wherever I could, but Anglo-American poetic taste in this connection is fairly stringent. Though making exceptions for emergencies, I took as a ready reminder of what is allowed two lines of A. E. Housman's that I particularly like: "It looked like a toad, and it looked so because / A toad was the actual object is was."
This does not, I fear, given me much faith in Ruden's sense of the poetic line. What about Milton's "sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another"; what about the stunning and expressive enjambments in Spring and All? Why pretend there is some unitary "Anglo-American poetic taste" regarding line breaks (exemplified in a formally retrograde English poet of a 100 years ago), and ignore not merely the whole modernist moment but the wonderfully cunning line breaks of Paradise Lost?

My second moment of doubt is more academic: Yale/Ruden gives us the (English) text of the Aeneid; they give us a brief and unhelpful introduction that focuses mainly on her method as translator (no background about Vergil himself, no situating of the poem within the epic tradition, no historical context); and they give us a glossary of proper names, itself strikingly minimal. What Yale/Ruden don't give the undergraduate reader: explanatory notes, so that one can make sense, say, of the parade of Roman history in VI; any clear sense of Vergil's poetic, how it's related to yet distinct from Homeric epic; maps, so one can figure out the geography of Aeneas' wanderings.

All of this is provided in Ahl, and in spades. Indeed, his Oxford edition has one the best apparatuses I've encountered recently in a scholarly press edition of a translated work. His lengthy introduction (by Elaine Fantham) is a wonder of information, interpretation, & commentary; his notes are lavish and pertinent; there's a bibliography, and a chronology of Vergil, and three very useful maps.

But Ruden, from the point of view of sheer poetry, is by far the superior text. Ahl is accurate but wordy; his own hexameters end up padding the Latin, even as her pentameters end up abbreviating it. Is this a distinction, however, that my students are going to appreciate? Do cultural & historical context – & general understanding – trump poetic elegance on my syllabus, or vice-versa? (Keeping in mind, however, that both versions are after all translations...)

So over the holiday weekend, along with the essay I'm close to finishing revising, I'm stuck with a dilemma: Should I howl "stop press" to the bookstores, and have them substitute Ahl for Ruden at the last minute? (Well, it's not quite the last minute – we won't read the Aeneid till sometime in late March, so there's plenty of time.) Or do I soldier on with Ruden, hoping to supplement all the things missing in her version thru classroom lectures, handouts, and online resources? I suppose I'll decide by the end of the weekend, but thoughts and suggestions would be more than welcome.

(Let me anticipate the first comment: Mandelbaum! Taken under advisement. And the second: Fagles! But Fagles is right out – they've already had enough of his voice after reading the Iliad & the Odyssey both.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Two of my favorite academic-type blogs have shut down: Michael Bérubé's (again, perhaps this time for good?), and Dr. No's painfully funny and irreverent Acadamnit. I followed MB pretty religiously for a while, probably several years back, but altogether missed his first shut-down & subsequent resurrection. Dr. No – kudos to him for keeping his anonymity intact over 2 years, a couple generations in blog-time – I'd discovered only recently; I'll miss him voicing, with remarkable panache & profanity, grouses I feel almost every week in my own professional life.

Of course, the blog-form is dead. We all know that. As dead as the Atari and the 8-track tape. But while I've thought about shutting Culture Industry down on a number of occasions, I'm pretty dead-set on keeping this thing running.

I write on three occasions (aside from the once-in-a-while event announcement or simply check-in to show I'm still more ore less alive):

1) When I'm reading something & want to "notice" it. That was the idea behind "100 poem-books." I still read, & I still notice, tho I've been so busy I've been keeping my notices to myself & to my notebooks lately. I suspect I'll get back to doing more of that sooner or later.

2) When I've been actually thinking, & want to work thru something in prose. That doesn't happen very often, because I am an incredibly slow learner & actually have very few coherent ideas. And this past few months have been pretty short on thinking, in large part due to the new school the girls are in, whose schedule has just totally fracked my work routine.

3) When I'm trying to avoid actual writing. (Like right now, for instance.) But blog-writing isn't entirely not-writing: it's a way of semi-productively filling intellectual time. I think of Samuel Johnson on smoking:
Smoking has gone out. To be sure, it is a shocking thing, blowing smoke out of our mouths into other people's mouths, eyes, and noses, and having the same thing done to us. Yet I cannot account, why a thing which requires so little exertion, and yet preserves the mind from total vacuity, should have gone out. Every man has something by which he calms himself: beating with his feet, or so.
Of course, I smoke too, so I have a plethora of means of preserving my mind from total vacuity.

At any rate, I'm going to set the "Freedom" program for a few hours of "real" writing now; my newfound regimen of aesthetic asceticism (thus far, an outstanding success) hasn't yet extended to relinquishing my online connections without an external crutch. And I'll be back soon.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Guy Davenport once told me he figured he received at least one book a day – review copies, authors' gifts, etc. I began to feel that way last week, as the postal carrier dropped packages almost every day of the week – things I'd ordered, presentation copies, desk copies for courses, and so forth. It's all good, but heaven help me there really isn't any shelf space anymore.

Once upon a time I had two squat bookshelves in the living area devoted to unread and mostly unsorted books. Three years ago I added a long three-shelfer to my study to take up the overflow, and to shelve books I was working with at the moment. That got retired last year & replaced with a seven-foot-tall job – which is now full as a tick (as Mom used to say), & is even double-shelved (ie books in front of other books). Not to mention that it's surrounded by stacks of books on the floor.

I blame inheritance: First, a few years back I got a biggish carton of books from my Alma Mater, books that had belonged to my first academic mentor of beloved memory, a Hopkins & Austen scholar who passed away some years back. It means the world to me to read Hopkins in her densely marked copies, but my own library has never quite properly absorbed the books. Then an in-law retired from teaching at CUNY and invited me to take whatever I wanted from her library of film studied and anthropology; then my Beckett colleague at Our Fair University retired & before flying to Paris, told me to take what I wanted of thirty years of Beckett criticism; then my bookseller friend pressed upon me (oh & I was unwilling, you bet) the overflow of his enormous Ruskin & Romanticism collection. You get the picture. There have been vast intakes of books over the past years, & the shelving simply hasn't kept up.

I don't mind having too many books. But things just might have gotten out of hand when I spent more time looking for books than I do reading them.

(Worse may loom ahead: our department is moving into a new building at the end of this month, & no-one quite seems to know precisely how much shelf space the new offices will have. My office has been, time out of mind, the overflow valve for the house, the place where I shelve fiction, religion, criticism that I don't need to consult often. What, I wake up asking myself in a lather of cold sweat, if I have to bring a couple hundred books home?)

Sunday, November 14, 2010


In an idle moment today – after I finished The Philosophy of History, and between books 7 & 8 of Paradise Lost – I sat down to think about what I've been teaching over these past decades. I thought about that because I'm reading David Harvey's Companion to Marx's Capital, the print version of his excellent CUNY lectures (which can be downloaded here), and he remarks that he's been teaching the book every year for several decades now; which made me think of David Kastan's introduction to his edition of Paradise Lost, where he remarks that in his 14 years at Dartmouth he taught the poem on an annual basis. How satisfying it must be to dig so deeply into any single text, thought I.

Anyway, it turns out I've taught almost a hundred courses since I began this lifelong trudge; that's including my stint as a TA in grad school, my several years of frantic adjuncting, and my mostly happy years at Our Fair University. What immediately struck me was that when I left aside courses one might call "service" – freshman composition, intro to the major, etc. – I've done remarkably few things directly in my field. That is, if my field is modernism and postmodernism, poetry in particular – and I think it is, right? – probably a quarter of the classes I've taught have been more or less directly in that. Probably a fifth of the classes I've taught have been American lit courses of one description or another, & I've obviously slanted my syllabi in those classes to make them more "modernist" whenever possible (& I know I've taught a good deal more poetry than some of my colleagues – who teach a good deal more drama than I do, & so forth). I've done Bible as Lit maybe a half-dozen times, and a half-dozen sections of Milton and Shakespeare. And then "boutique" courses – graduate seminars on Joyce and Beckett, theory of biography, other things that have caught my fancy.

But given my publication record, I've really taught relatively few classes flat-out directed at modernist or contemporary poetry. Instead, I find with some interest, over a quarter of all the courses I've taught have been creative writing workshops. Oh my. Very interesting indeed, for someone who pretty much stumbled into my own MFA program, never thinking that the CW industry would end up paying a substantial portion of my bills.

If I were somewhere else – CUNY or Princeton, say – I'd not merely have a lighter teaching load, but I'd be able to craft what I taught far more closely to my research agenda. I imagine Marjorie Perloff or Stephen Greenblatt teach (or taught, since Marjorie's retired) pretty much what they damned well please, and the texts they go over in class feed directly into what they happen to be writing. There's a lot to be said for that, both from a scholarly and a pedagogical standpoint. But there's something also to be said for a place like Our Fair University where a modernist scholar like me gets to acquaint himself rather intimately with Milton, or to harness his otherwise useless fundamentalist upbringing to a literary reading of the Bible. It's made me a far broader reader & thinker, I think, than I would have been otherwise. Broader, but perhaps also shallower?

Or maybe it's just made me scattered.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

scattered reading

The "brown bag" lunchtime talk advertised in the last post got talked today. It went over pretty well, I thought – at least, talking thru it did the sort of "cultural work" that I wanted to get done: it clarified to me where I needed to go with the piece, where the holes were. And it was kind of fun.

Briefly, I was talking about antinomian – really, 17th-century revolutionary – texts in a particular Mekons song, situating them in the contexts of various post-punk bands' hat-tips to the English Revolution, Christopher Hill's Marxist historiography of the period, & the Situationists – which as yet don't quite fit. But I should get this a good deal tighter & smarter before I deliver it in a formal context.

I realized, as I talked, that I was doing what I continually flog Christopher Ricks for doing in his Bob Dylan writings – discussing lyrics almost in a vacuum, wholly apart from their song context. But it's damned hard to write about music, especially when you know as little about it as I do. I mean, I know how chord progressions work, I can play my way thru most relatively simple rock songs, but I don't read music at all; and my knowledge of the "canon" of punk, or of country, or really of any given subset of music, is pretty pitifully thin. When I discuss music, I do my damnedest to stay away from the kind of impressionistic description that bedevils much of music criticism; but on the other hand, I don't yet have the vocabulary to describe the sounds I'm hearing without evoking comparisons. (A problem that also afflicts my writing about poetry – poet X "sounds like" poet Y etc.)

Indeed, as I was reminded the other night at the pub, when I listened to a very bright student of mine lament his education, how little he'd read in college, the things he wished he'd learned, I don't know as much as I'd like to about anything. And my reading, which has lately gotten more & more scattered, isn't really helping. I know this & that about a vast variety of things, but there are only a couple of things that I know a lot about: I guess I know LZ pretty well, & modern poetry in general. But I'd like to know the Romantics better; I want to finally get to grips with Hegel, from beginning to end; I want to get a firm grasp of what Badiou is up to; one of these days I want to read Lucan's Pharsalia, and Tasso, and Camoëns, and Ariosto.

But life is short – only so many hours in day, only so many pages one can riffle thru. For the record, right now I'm reading
•Hegel's Philosophy of History (a long-term project, one winding down now)
•Christopher Hill's The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries (a break from Stanley Fish's big How Milton Works)
•Glenn Burgess's The Politics of the Ancient Constitution (I really want a better grasp of 17th-c. political thought)
•John Guillory's Cultural Capital
•Bourdieu's Distinction (another long-term project)
The Odyssey (a great pleasure, somewhat spoiled by being "for work")
The Aeneid (in the "beige" Fitzgerald translation, while I wait for Sarah Ruden's new Yale)
•several different books on Samuel Johnson & biography (next semester's seminar)
and of course the stuff I'm "teaching," which means Paradise Lost and (this week) Martin Corless-Smith's Swallows. In the interstices, I read slim volumes & chapbooks of contemporary poetry (most memorably lately J. H. Prynne's Sub Songs, which would be memorable if only for its humongous dimensions). It's no wonder that I'm scattered.

Clearly, I'm not cut out to be a scholar at all – or maybe, not anymore. What I need is a gig as a (regular, paid) book reviewer, or a weekly "cultural" column for some upper-middlebrow newspaper. Anybody out there with a job for someone who knows a little something about just about everything, and way too much about things no-one else cares to know?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

brown bagging

(Yes, that's the back cover of Never Mind the Bollocks; click on the image to get a legible version.)

Pound, re-selected

In my department mailbox today two new New Directions Ezra Pound volumes, New Selected Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth, and ABC of Reading. It's nice to see that Pound is finally getting edited. I grew up on the crunky old black-&-white ND volumes, with their sometimes erratic typefaces & generally awful cover designs. No notes, often no indices, sometimes eccentric tables of contents. But God bless James Laughlin for putting & keeping the stuff in print!

But it is good, as I say, to see that Pound's work is finally getting presented in a from that doesn't make one blush when assigning the book to class. I guess the first big step in the right direction was the 1990 reissue of Personae (ed. A. Walton Litz & Lea Bachler), which cleaned up the texts somewhat & added the 3 "ur-Cantos." Then New Directions issued, in 2003, a single-volume paperback of the Pisan Cantos; the poems themselves are simply offset from the big collected Cantos volume, but they have copious back-of-the-book annotations by Sieburth, who the same year published his massive Library of America version of Pound's Poems and Translations, which has become the industry standard for well-edited Pound.

I suspect New Directions' flurry of publishing activity this year might have something to do with the passing out of copyright of much of EP's early work, which opens the door to such projects as Ira Nadel's Penguin Early Writings, and even the Dover "Thrift Edition" of his Early Poems. At any rate, I haven't spent much time with the New Selected Poems and Translations, except to note that in replacing the dear old Selected Poems he's weeded out a number of the lame early poems & added a number of later Cantos; appendices include the original introduction by TS Eliot and a scrapped intro by John Berryman; and there are lashings of notes at the end, no doubt a welcome addition for Pound newbies and college students alike.

The new ABC of Reading, alas, is barely new at all. There are three additions: a well-turned introduction by Michael Dirda, an index of proper names (THANK YOU, NEW DIRECTIONS!), and an eye-popping magenta hue to the cover, replacing the dour old black. The text itself is still in the same gritty, spectacularly ugly typeface, with the ample margins indicating that this was a mass-market sized paperback blown up to trade size. And there's one loss: on page 9 of the old edition, there was a paragraph entitled simply "ABC"; that's been lost, replaced with a perfectly useless title page. For those who're coming to the ABC for the first time, here's what you've missed:
Or gradus ad Parnassum, for those who
might like to learn. The book is not
addressed to those who have arrived at full
knowledge of the subject without knowing
the facts.
A paragraph I realize that I know by heart, & whose implications I've tried to take to heart.

Monday, November 01, 2010


I seem to have survived another Halloween – this one particularly strenuous: the calendar made it so. With the holiday itself falling on Sunday night, that provided an opening for an astonishingly number of events:
•Saturday morning begins at a wholly ungodly hour with D.'s soccer game

•then a venture to the pumpkin patch, along with some last-minute makeup purchases at the party (yes, you're wondering, why wait till the last minute for the pumpkin? well, when it hits the mid-80s every day, pumpkins simply don't last – they turn into mush, we've learned over the years, in about 3 days)

•then a Saturday afternoon kids' party, which seemed to be mostly populated by 8-year-old boys in that state of adrenaline-drenched excitement that makes me say to myself, God, I'm glad we've got girls

•then a mostly-faculty attended evening costume party; great fun, even tho the conversation seemed to center on 2 of the most depressing possible topics – the internecine struggles in our own shark-snapping-its-guts college; and real-live politics (thankfully, only one Christine O'Donnell costume on display).

•Today, a solo paternal morning featuring morning violin practice for the girls followed by pumpkin-carving with minimal cursing & surprisingly few self-inflicted wounds (J. was working a pre-election phone bank)

•then another kids' party, at a bowling alley no less! – but actually great fun

•followed by the neighborhood kids' party (this is getting old)

•and finally wound up with trick or treating.
So yes, I'm bushed. And facing a looming deadline to thoroughly revise a 45-page piece.

But I've managed to add two pieces to the "Torture Garden" manuscript, & have a new biggish project moving from the back to the front burner. This one, by Ba'al, is poetry. Importunate editors wanting essays and reviews can just leave my doorbell alone for a while. (No, just kidding – I never say no.)

And the postperson delivered a shiny, mint hardcover of Simon Jarvis's Wordsworth's Philosophic Song yesterday (I seem to have lucked out – an Amazon Marketplace seller had it for $24, about 2/3 of what those creeps at Cambridge UP are charging for the POD paperback). After the ecstatic notices this thing got in the British alt-poetry community, I felt obliged to read it myself. And I've been querying every romanticist I meet – So, how's the Jarvis book? (My favorite response: "It's not as mind-blowing revelatory as you've heard, but it's not as abysmally awful and eccentric as you've heard either. It's a pretty good book.")

Now to find time to read it, among the 2 books of Paradise Lost for tomorrow & the various ditherings in preparation for the "brown bag" talk I've committed to end of next week.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Harness your OCD!

I'm still reading Geoffrey Hill's Oraclau | Oracles, savoring. I'll report when I'm done. Actually, as usual I'm reading it in tandem with a stack of other things, among them Modern Painters Vol. 3, Robert Fagles's translation of the Iliad, and Allen Mandelbaum's version of the Divine Comedy. Just finished that last, in fact – and as usual, everything else under the sun seems to pale in the light of those last few blinding cantos.
The Milton class got their midterms back today, & for some reason it seemed as tho a sudden cloud had blotted out the sky as they filed out of the classroom, muttering grimly. Not my fault if they can't tell a quote from Lycidas from a quotation from Areopagitica.
I'm gearing up for some serious writing/revising over the next few days, & actually looking forward to it. My lodestar on matters of how to get academic writing done, for the past months, has been Jonathan Mayhew's wonderful blog Stupid Motivational Tricks. (Given the rampant tenure-bashing one's been hearing the past couple years, it's worthwhile scrolling down to read his beautifully concise & wholly accurate post from Sunday, "Why Do Research After Tenure?") Mayhew's a more than solid scholar – 4 books to his credit – & by all indications an all-round nice guy. If one finds his scholarly output pretty intimidating at first glance, he has a knack of breaking down the tasks of writing articles & books into doable chunks, so that even I feel I might get something cranked out in the mid-future.

Most of the "stupid motivational tricks" are just that – gimmicky but effective ways to channel wasted time & mental energy into productive labor, or handy ways of focusing your scattered energies in useful directions. But I suspect that even if I were to put all of those tricks to use, I wouldn't be able to match Mayhew, because the guy also seems to be operating with a fairly high level of OCD – a kind of wonderful over-organization that I couldn't begin to match, given the general slovenliness of my mental & physical life.

On the other hand, I reflect, I too have a certain level of perhaps useful OCD. I like organizing things, and making lists: I'm cataloguing all my books on LibraryThing, and the ones that I have shelf space for are for the most part pretty rigorously organized; I keep track of everything I've read, & actually pay attention to the "play counts" on my iPod, so that I can make sure I listen to every song thereon before I add another album or two. (I'm behind – there're about 400 unlistened-to songs – but that's out of maybe 13,000 total, so I'm doing okay.) I keep track of how many liters of seltzer I make out of every Soda Stream charger. And so forth.

So why don't I channel this low-level OCD into something useful – like losing weight? I've decided it's no fun being the fat man of the department, and my lower back and calves have begun to feel the strain, as I trundle down the long winding slope of middle age. I've looked at any number of diets & exercise regimens, & all of them come out to the same thing: eat less, move around more. I can do the moving around more bit. I own a bicycle, & I enoy riding it. I climb the stairs at work rather than take the elevator. I've been doing much of my reading & writing at a standup desk, which I'm told in itself burns more than a few calories.

But there's the "eat less" thing. It's true – I love food. Indeed, I'm a desperately oral creature. I like searing hot sauces, crunchy, savory snacks, oily things of all descriptions. I like to snack, and I tend to overeat. But there's a well-sculpted me, somewhere within these adipose waves, struggling to get out. Heaven knows, at least I can get myself looking as good as Morrissey – once the epitome of skinny hotness – does these days.

Perhaps, somehow, I can harness my own obsessiveness to an aesthetic of renunciation: of not eating that handful of cashews, just because they're there, or those malted milk balls P. brought home from her youth orchestra party. We're coming up on Halloween, I know, which may be the stiffest test of this recent experiment of mine. If I come thru without gaining a pound or two, I'll let you know. If my own OCD fails me when I need it most – well, you won't hear about it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ruskin v. Benjamin

It's hard not to like a blog like The Leeds Arcades Project, which seems to be obsessed on the one hand with Walter Benjamin and the other with John Ruskin. Party on!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Geoffrey Hill's production pace

[Geoffrey Hill on the left, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams center – try imagining Ron Silliman with Pat Robertson – oh, never mind.]

Someone should write a book on poets' rate of production. I once began a Parnassus essay on Ted Enslin with the following snarky anecdote:
Two friends of mine were waiting at the maître d's desk in a posh New York restaurant, when one of them whispered urgently, "Look over at that table – there's Joyce Carol Oates! She's having dinner with a guy – and he's holding her hand. He must be telling her he loves her." "Naw," the other said, "he's just trying to keep her from writing during the meal."
I went on to compare Enslin – who's published a veritable blizzard of books over his long and immensely prolific career – with Cid Corman & Robert Kelly, & gave some thought (& rather too much snark) to the effects of overpublication, overproduction.

I think I had in mind, as counterexample, a poet like Basil Bunting, who popped off at 85, leaving behind – what? – 250 pages of work, only a handful of lines of which I'd be willing to sacrifice on that desert island. Or Geoffrey Hill, whose slim volumes – at least thru the mid-90s – emerged with such irregularity and constipated, impacted grace that one couldn't imagine His Giant Dourness becoming a publishing machine like John Ashbery or T. C. Boyle.

Well, there's a new Geoffrey Hill book out: Oraclau | Oracles, just published by Clutag Press in Thame, Oxfordshire. As it comes closely on the heels of A Treatise of Civil Power (Penguin, 2007 – an earlier chapbook version by Clutag in 2005), it's worth casting an eye over Hill's publishing pace, as he nears 80.

I met Hill once in I think it was 1987, at Campus on the Hill, where I was impressed by his savage comb-over (he'd just gotten what seems a very bad haircut, so the combed-over portion failed to meet the hair on the other side of his bald spot, as tho he'd been imperfectly scalped), limp handshake, & implacable seriousness. I was already deeply impressed by his poems – I had his first Collected Poems (Oxford UP, 1986; Penguin, 1985), which brought together 5 books & one longish poem published over 25 years:
For the Unfallen (1959)
King Log (1968)
Mercian Hymns (1971)
Tenebrae (1978)
The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983)
Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres (1984)
For those who're counting, that's something like a book every 4 years. There was a lapse between the Collected Poems & Hill's next volume, but when that one came out, it was as if someone had turned on a spigot:
Canaan (1997)
The Triumph of Love (1998)
Speech! Speech! (2000)
The Orchards of Syon (2002)
Scenes from Comus (2005)
Without Title (2006)
A Treatise of Civil Power (2005/2007)
Oraclau | Oracles (2010)
What's more, the jacket copy for Oraclau | Oracles announces that this book is actually only one of five collections Hill has completed since A Treatise, one of which will appear in 2012, and all five of which will constitute the "final section" of Hill's Collected Poems 1952-2012, "scheduled for publication by Oxford University Press in 2013."

My word. 12 collections, then, in 16 years. The man has picked up the pace a bit. What's most surprising is that Hill's post-1990 work is to my mind his best, retaining the gnarly intensity of the early work but transposing it to a decorous (& sometimes flippant) vernacular, plumbing the moral issues with which he's always been obsessed more deeply than ever. I haven't read Oraclau | Oracles yet, but I'm itching to; at this point in Hill's career, more collections are just more of a good thing.

Maybe I should reconsider that Joyce Carol Oates joke. Or maybe read some more of her books. Naw.


Reading – mostly re-reading – Ezra Pound's early criticism, most of it from before the First World War, in Ira B. Nadel's Penguin Early Writings: Poems and Prose. An odd freshness to the reading, out of the aged New Directions typefaces and into the "canonical" Penguin fonts – and perhaps simply the lapse of a couple of years since revisiting the texts.

Pound was 28 when the Great War broke out; me, I'm – well – rather older than that now. When I was 28, I was living in Northern Virginia, finishing my dissertation. It would be another three years or so before I landed my first (and still only) academic position. Where I am now Full Professor, aged, grey-bearded, balding, making up for the sclerosis of my thinking with a kind of awkward Pythonesque classroom showmanship.

The cusp of 30 is a good age, a vigorous age: I read Pound's always energetic prose, his boundless ambitions, & envy:
I resolved that at thirty I would know more about poetry than any man living, that I would know the dynamic content from the shell, that I would know what was accounted poetry everywhere, what part of poetry was 'indestructible,' what part could not be lost by translation, and – scarcely less important what effects were obtainable in one language only and were utterly incapable of being translated. ("How I Began")
There is no waffle, no "on the other hand" or "but" or "one might concede." Positions are staked militarily, with no concessions, no "I am staking out a position" – the poet-critic speaks, & presents what he says as self-evident truth:
Ibycus and Liu Ch'e presented the "Image." Dante is a great poet by reason of this faculty, and Milton is a wind-bag because of his lack of it. ("Vorticism")

No good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old, for to write in such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from books, convention and cliché, and not from life... ("A Retrospect")
This is the writing of youth – or the writing of sublime self-assurance – or the writing, some would cavil, of monstrous arrogance. I wish I could write like this. I wonder, is my constant weighing of alternatives a mark of my fundamentalist upbringing, my deeply-ingrained diffidence (a Uriah Heepish humility – my mother always pronounced "humble" without the aitch)? or has a quarter-century in the academy so socialized me in the discourse of the "yes, but" that I'm unable, without considerable strain & self-analytical unease, to say what I think?

Note to self: a course in arrogance, in the sublime self-assurance that makes Milton (fuck you, Ezra Pound) just as great a poet as Dante, and just as scrappy.
all criticism should be professedly personal criticism. In the end the critic can only say 'I like it', or 'I am moved', or something of that sort. When he has shown us himself we are able to understand him. ("The Serious Artist")

All that the critic can do for the reader or audience or spectator is to focus his gaze or audition. ("A Retrospect")

Monday, October 18, 2010

Seth Abramson responds

Seth Abramson posted a reasoned & nicely-toned response to my little recent bellyache about the professionalization of poetry; my first impulse was to respond in the comments box, but I think he deserves to be heard above the fold:

I think it's important to remember--as I always say, in nearly every article I write on the MFA degree--that the MFA is a "largely-unmarketable, non-professional art school degree." Consequently, the purpose of the rankings is to encourage programs to fund students (and do other things that applicants care about, like emphasizing studio work and a three-year flexible curriculum) not to help anyone get a job because (say) they went to the #11 program instead of the #42 program. That's really beside the point -- the rankings are intended for applicants only, i.e. to help them understand which programs are best at offering applicants what applicants report they care about, not for the benefit of professors, employers, &c. I realize everything in life has contained within it the possibility for its misuse and misunderstanding, but that doesn't change the fact that the rankings are not conceived of, nor designed as, the sort of cultural artifact you seem to presume they are.

And here's how I'd respond:


all your points are well taken, & I'm totally supportive of the extent to which your lists really are designed to help applicants find a program that will give them what they need, without saddling them with lifetime debts.

And I'm not presuming anything about how the rankings are "conceived of" or "designed." Alas, in this sublunary world of Consumer Reports and the US News college rankings, your lists will inevitably taken as something other than what you've conceived or designed them for. As many times as we repeat that the MFA is, in your apt words, a "largely-unmarketable, non-professional art school degree," prospective MFAs will continue to imagine that they are the lucky few who will win the brass ring: much of it has to do with simple modeling, their wholly reasonable observation that poets & writers who teach in MFA programs, especially those who've managed to hook up with the "visiting writer" and contest judge circuits, have a pretty good life of it.

And as I implied in that previous post, while the MFA ideally would be an "art school" degree, the vocational training that comes with the program – teaching undergraduate courses, working on a magazine or a book series – is directed either towards a career teaching in the academy or a more vaguely defined "being a professional writer" within the various networks that make up the biz.

In the end I suspect it's a bit of a catch-22: despite the listing's laudable intentions, & its very real orientation towards applicants rather than institutions – as opposed to the program lists Lingua Franca used to run, ranking PhDs in various sub-disciplines – it's inevitably being taken in ways you didn't intend. And its very existence, as a kind of Rough Guide for those who are about to insert themselves into the MFA & all it entails, is a mark of this "art school" degree's sliding into professionalization.

Thanks for responding so thoughtfully,

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


No, I'm not packing quite yet, but we're leaving at the crack of dawn for a long weekend in Williamsburg, VA, which has become one of our semi-habitual autumn haunts. It's good to get away to where one can really feel the chill in the air, where the trees actually turn. We also like 18th-century architecture, & the smell of woodsmoke, & people pretending to be 18th-century folks. If I lived in England, I suspect I'd be a (English) Civil War reenactor (Parliamentary side, of course).

I've decided on course texts for this spring's "Epic" class. Yes, it'll be Robert Fagles for the Iliad and the Odyssey; Stanley Lombardo tempted me, but Bernard Knox's introductions and notes for the Fagles volumes are just so very good, & the translation is so generally solid (if occasionally "chatty," as one scholar notes) that I'm not sure they're losing much. For the Aeneid, I'm leaping into the dark & using Sarah Ruden's new Yale translation. I'll let you know how it works out.

This afternoon I will attempt to make students excited about Milton's Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. I'll let you know how that works out, unless it's such a fiasco that I end up resigning my professorship and crawling into a hole somewhere. Go figure – I love teaching Milton. I just want to jump up & down & say, See, see, can't you see? He's so BRILLIANT! & he's such a PSYCHO! But that of course is beneath my dignity, so I try to do in balanced, periodic sentences.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

My MFA problem

That last post set me thinking – or maybe this weekend I'd think about anything to avoid marking papers – about the entire institution of the MFA, which has become a topic of internet pissing & moaning as ubiquitous these days as Madonna was in 1985. Bob Archambeau, in the comments section of a recent, typically learned, post about "wit" in contemporary poetry on his own blog, lays out a list of a list of "ways to talk about the professionalization of poetry," from most to least boring:
1. Most boring: ranking MFA programs
2. Second most boring: complaining about the ranking of MFA programs.
3. Semi-boring: complaining about the prevalence of MFA programs
4. Sort of exciting: looking into the causes and effects of the rise of MFA programs from as disinterested and historically-informed a perspective as possible.
5. Exciting: seeing how the MFA programs fit into several long histories: of the universities, of the social role of the poet, of professionalism.
6. Totally exciting: linking the histories mentioned in 5, above, to aesthetic effects.
Hmmm. My own thoughts probably fall somewhere off the scale on the "boring" side, I fear. Let us say
0. Eminently pass-overable: personal ruminations on the MFA.
At any rate, I find the whole Seth Abramson-MFA ranking phenomenon actually rather interesting, at least as an index of how much things have shifted between my own far-off days as a young poet in an MFA program & my present as a portly, grey-bearded full prof who teaches in a young "dark horse" program. (Which, in case you're interested, includes exciting faculty with expertise in Creative Nonfiction, Literary Translation, and even – dare I say it? – Biography!)

Some things never change: there's the endless mantra, repeated by almost everyone, that "writing can't be taught"; a program can only do something else – give one time & breathing space in which to write, provide a interested company of similarly-minded young poets, perhaps (if one's really lucky) even drop one into a mentorship relationship with an older poet.

But certain things have clearly changed. The very existence of Seth Abramson's list, for instance. Now of course people back in the day used to talk about what the "best" programs were – where the "hot" poets were teaching, & where there were generous fellowships and cushy assistantships. That all this scuttlebutt has been qualitatively analyzed and put into a list, however, is an index of just how professionalized the MFA industry has become. I hear it in the corridors, & see it when I visit other institutions; MFAs are talking about poetry like they always have, but they're talking about pobiz (the prizes, the publications, the fellowships, the various ways to "make it") more than they ever have.

Indeed, the whole business of being a poet associated with academe has become much more rigorous and codified than it was. Publications – sure; journals are good, but a book is even better (which of course necessitates the endless round of $25 reading fees – a boring grouse in itself). A web presence is a must. Five years ago, you had to have a blog; now you have to be on Facebook, and friend everybody who might possibly help you get ahead. Attending AWP is a must – not so much to go to panels or readings, but to rub shoulders with possible publishers and useful connections. (And let's not kid ourselves – the off-site readings, both at MLA & AWP, are less a counter to the onsite events than they are their hipster simulacrum: if AWP is the mall, then the offsite events are the black market – but they're both commercial gatherings.)

I have rather ghastly misgivings whenever I lurch back and think about the MFA as a professional program. Here's where I'm coming from: I spent 6 or 7 years at a top-ranked PhD program where we as grad students were being explicitly groomed to do precisely what our professors/mentors did: to take up tenure-track positions teaching some variety of literature/theory/cultural studies. I don't have precise figures on the fortunes of my cohort at Campus on the Hill, but I suspect that we may be the last generation to have a better-than-even chance of grabbing that brass ring. The bottom dropped out of the academic "job market" around the time we matriculated, and it's been dropping steadily downward ever since. And as the jobs have dried up, the bar for grabbing one of those vanishing tenure-track jobs has climbed steadily higher. Once upon a time you could get a starting tenure-track position at Our Fair University with an ABD and a promising scholarly project; these days you won't even make the first cut of the applicant pool unless you've published at least a couple of articles. (In another 10 years, we might just as well put "book published or under contract" in the job description.)

Things are even tougher for MFA grad students who hope to get jobs like those of their MFA professors – you know, secure tenure-track university positions with livable teaching loads. The lucky ones will end up with instructorships or tenure-track positions at community colleges or teaching-intensive institutions; they'll be teaching 4 or 5 courses a semester, wondering where all the time for writing went. More will end up trying to piece a living together out of adjunct gigs, and maybe eventually drop out of the academy altogether. Only an exceptionally lucky few will end up doing what they were professionalized to do.

But, some argue, we're not training MFAs to be professors – we're training them to be poets. Well, so far as any real vocational training they get in the MFA goes, it's to to the things a professor does – it's certainly not to be an accountant or a dental hygienist or a geologist. And what many MFA programs seem to be doing, besides initiating young people into an increasingly dead-end profession, is professionalizing them as poets – is teaching them to work the circuits of publication, prize contests, post-graduate fellowships, etc.

My problem – aside from a general, gnawing sense of bad faith in participating in the graduate side of higher education at all – is that I don't have a clue as to how to help anyone get ahead as a poet. I can look at your poems & tell you what's exciting & unexciting about them to me; I can show you a bunch of tricks I've learned over the years; I can point you to any number of poets you might not have looked at otherwise. But I know about as much as your cat does about how to become a famous and successful poet-person.

I gave up staying awake nights trying to figure out how to be a famous & successful poet-person a long time ago. I've settled for trying to figure out how to write the poems I want to write, and to write them as well as I can. I think I might be able to help you with your poetry, if you want help with your poetry. Getting you published, hooking you up with the right contests, helping you into a job? I won't say you're on your own there, because there's thousands upon thousands out there right now trying to grab just those brass rings. But it's like those lovely subdisciplines of Middle English or colonial American lit: there are some regions of this profession I know a bit about, but don't claim to "do."

I'm not ashamed to call myself a professional academic; I'm a professional teacher, a professional scholar, to some degree even a professional writer. But I'm not a professional poet, & the moment a graduate program falls into the trap of thinking it can professionalize a creative praxis (even if it does so unconsciously), that's the moment it becomes a betrayal of that very praxis.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

dark horses

Seth Abramson, with his annual Poets & Writers rankings of the top creative writing programs in the country, has become something of a kingmaker in the whole CW industry. Some people, like the folks who rush out to buy the US News college rankings every year, actually take these things seriously. My old undergrad alma mater, bless her, has been touting their program's breaking the top 40 of the rankings at the head of every e-mail and brochure I've seen over the past year.

Imagine my surprise then when I came upon Abramson's piece on the Huffington Post, something of an appendix to his latest rankings (see 'em here), on "The Top 25 Underrated Creative Writing MFA Programs," and found, by the magic of alphabetization, the MFA program I attended –
Hard to imagine an underrated Ivy, but Campus on the Hill's MFA struggles to stay in the top 10 nationally despite boasting the third-best funding scheme in America -- even if you don't consider the fully-funded one-year lectureship virtually all graduates receive. The American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) rates College Town at the Foot of the Hill the top college town in America. Plus, the student-to-faculty ratio is jaw-droppingly good
– cheek by jowl with the program in which I now teach at Our Fair University, described with beautiful concision as "A dark horse among dark horses."

I have no idea what the hell that means, but having studied hard in the long schoolroom of poststructuralist logodaedaly, I'm convinced that it can be made to mean something good. Very good.