Friday, January 08, 2010

new year

So I'm back – back from the holidays, back from a harrowing weekend at Sanibel Island on the Gulf Coast: not that Sanibel isn't a lovely place, but when the weather's dipping into the 30s at night, even the heated pool's too frackin' cold to swim in (don't even mention the Gulf itself!), you've got two young ones who are altogether too young to enjoy the meditative pleasures of wildlife observation, & you're stuck on a skinny little island where there's nothing to do but resort-y things – well, things can get tedious. Yes, I know, my northerly comrades shoveling snow don't have much sympathy.

New year's resolutions? Well, first (as always) to get done the things I didn't finish last year. (Managed actually to get a decent amount of that done on Sanibel, surprisingly.) Yes, to lose some weight (as always): getting rather tired of that "portly" look. There's nothing I can do about the shiny pate & the grey beard, but heaven knows I shouldn't be going around looking like Dom Deluise – this is South Florida, after all. (I remember seeing Hüsker Dü back 'round 1985 or so & thinking, damn, Bob Mould is FAT – I look at the videos now & he looks pretty darned slim, compared to yr humble blogger.) Maybe get around to getting those tattoos; then who knows? maybe some serious body mods – pointy Spock-ears, cleft tongue, etc. Hey, I'm a full professor now – I never have to interview for a job again!

Other more serious friends (Brian & Amy, Eric – big huzzah!) seem to have resolved to ease up a bit on the nano-discourse of Twitter & Facebook & blog a bit more steadily, which is a fine thing. (See Amy's fine meditation on the multitasking-enabled mushification of the American brain.)

I was mulling over the notion of a decade's-retrospective post, & I may still get around to that, but there's this matter of syllabi to cook up before next week's classes, so that'll have to wait.

That last post on voracious poetry-reading stirred up some responses. To respond to some of my commentators:

Norman – I hear you. But I think it's also true to say, as Samuel Johnson says somewhere, that in your youth (or, lest I be guilty of calling you "middle-aged," in the earlier part of your youth), you most definitely "read hard." Both Norman & Ed are right about too much reading scrambling the circuits of one's own creative work; maybe I'm just in a heavy reading mode right now because I'm in a lower gear in my own writing?

Curtis – absolutely right, & I suspect that there's a point at which I'll taper off, or ratchet down. And of course by no means all, or even the majority of, my poetry-reading is from the shelves of newish unknowns – I mean, I seem to reread Spring and All & Tender Buttons & various other personal "classics" at least on a yearly basis, & am regularly plunging into some acknowledged monument I haven't yet read. And a significant chunk of what I read – probably about 1/3, at a quick guess – is re-reading.

I don't think you can find the books that "touch" you without reading a certain number of things that you'll probably forget, maybe instantly. And this is where "marukusuboy"'s Sherlock Holmes quotation, as much as I like it, fails: I'm by no means cramming all those poetry books into an already overcrowded mental "attic": rather, I'm filing the ones that "touch me" in among what's already there (LZ, Olson, Pound, Blake, Dickinson, Stein, Johnson, Palmer, Johnson, Howe) & putting the rest on the shelf (or hauling them to the used bookstore to pile up some credit – the reviewer's trick).

Eric responded in a measured way on his own blog. Not sure I like that word "pathology," but have to plead guilty to at least a bit of OCD on this score. Hey, I like to read; it's not my worst habit.

Perhaps the most thorough & thoughtful response has been from Andrew Wessell, whose blog A Compulsive Reader will go on my blogroll (if I ever get around to updating it). He's got two excellent posts titled "On Reading," the second of which quotes an email from his friend Nik, who in turn links to a Poetry Foundation piece by Paisley Rekdal, in which PR takes up the gauntlet thrown by Timothy Liu at last year's AWP – Liu, it turns out, reads FIVE books of poetry a week.

Have a look at Wessell's posts, if you're at all interested. But two quick thoughts:

1) When Jacques Derrida told the interviewer (it's in the Derrida film) who asked him if he'd read "all those books" (the classic doofus question – cf. Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library" essay) oh, no, only three or four of them, but I've read them very thoroughly – HE WASN'T BEING SERIOUS.

2) In re: Nik's final sentence ("it reminded me of a 9th grade bench pressing contest — whatever that mfa’r said, whether it be 50 or 75, scroggins was going to put up at least 25lbs more"): I wanna say something intemperate, but won't. I'm not trying to one-up anyone; it just struck me as a little symptomatic of the thinness of writing education. Put it in perspective: The guy I quoted had just finished an MFA, a "professionalizing" degree in poetry writing which typically takes 2-3 years, & was happy he'd been required (!) to read 50 books of poetry. That's 25 books a year, two books a month. Let's imagine a graduate film production person who watches 2 videos a month, or a student at a conservatory who listens to 2 albums or goes to 2 concerts a month. Hmmm.

And a little more perspective: most contemporary books of poetry clock in under 100 pages; chapbooks at maybe 30 tops. Even a careful, recursive reading isn't going to take more than 2 or 3 hours for the books, maybe an hour for the chapbooks. How does one find the time? I can only answer for myself – but I don't watch TV, I don't have a Wii or an Xbox, I don't stand in line at Starbucks. Yeah, I read a lot of poetry, & a pretty good deal of other stuff: but I play with my kids, I cook the meals in my household, I noodle around on various stringed instruments, & I make a pretty good pretense of doing my job. And I do a little writing on the side.

Quantification is for the birds, ultimately. But Sean Bonney's Blade Pitch Control Unit (Salt, 2005) is pretty damned devastating – by a long shot the best thing I've read this year. Go read it – but take your time, if you like (or if you can – it's one of those propulsive reads).


E. M. Selinger said...

Good to have you back, Mark! For what it's worth, I wasn't seriously suggesting that there was something pathological in your reading habits. Rather, I was pointing out that the comparable reading habits of romance readers have been, for decades, pathologized by critics (Greer, Modleski, Radway, etc.) who would never dream of applying the same standard to readers of poetry.

A small, smarmy point, but one worth making.

Andrew said...


Glad you happened across my posts! I will similarly be adding you to my blogroll--I'm rather surprised I haven't stumbled across your blog before.

re: Nik's final sentence. It was meant to be a humorous joke in the moment, I believe, as much as anything.

I think both Nik and I (I can only speak specifically for myself, though, obviously) were surprised to some degree at our response. As I mentioned, my reading load is similarly thorough to yours (88 books in '09). Both Nik and I have numerous times discussed our frustrations with the number of people "into poetry" who don't read and have never actually read any poetry. And who, furthermore, have little to no interest in or enjoyment in reading poetry.

I think our sympathy with the MFAer in question is that it seems that (former) student enjoyed reading those books and seemed to get something out of reading those books. Thus, though certainly not as thorough as Ezra Pound would like, there did seem to be a level of success in the reading.

I wonder if the root of the problem is more in the MFA as an institution. The idea that getting the degree, and reading what is required to get that degree, like you said "professionalizes" the degree recipient--that NOW the student IS a poet. Reading a list of assigned books becomes one in a series of hurdles to clear to get a degree, rather than a part of the process of becoming a poet.

Not to get into a critique of the MFA institution now...But here's hoping that the MFAer takes that enjoyment in those 50 books and continues to build on his/her reading in the future.


Mark Scroggins said...

Eric -- yeah, I got the snark; maybe I'm just not sure there *isn't* something pathological in my reading habits.

Andrew -- oof! Defensiveness on my part; I think I probably misread the tone of Nik's sentence; tone is so hard to gauge on these internets-things. Obviously, I am myself kind of ambivalent about reading so much poetry lately, & that ambivalence comes thru in ruffled feathers.

Actually, the 50-book thing, as you point out, isn't necessarily a bad thing: when I did my own MFA back in the late middle ages, we didn't *have* to read a single damned book. It was assumed we'd take care of that sort of business ourselves: some of us did; others didn't, spending lots of time in bars building up "experience" scrapping with townies.

And I just hate that Derrida quote; geez, that mofo had read *everything*. (Benjamin, in his essay, quotes Anatole France on being asked the same question: "Not one-tenth of them. I don't suppose you use your Sévres china every day?" Which reduces books to interior decoration, I guess.)

Joseph said...

scrapping with townies, catching a workshop to the ribs?

SOS said...

From my brief (but enjoyable) experience of leading a writing workshop for undergraduates, there were several students who had the notion that one did not have to read in order to write well. One could pick up a pen and the magnificence of his or her own thoughts and ideas would fall onto the page. A few students told me they didn't like to read, but this didn't keep them from thinking they could write.