Monday, February 22, 2010


So I'm back in Florida, after a long weekend in Louisville at the "Louisville Conference on Literature & Culture Since 1900" – formerly known as the "Louisville Conference on Twentieth Century Literature." The weather was surprisingly moderate, even for someone whose blood has "grown thin" (as they say) living in south Florida.

The recession is hitting the conference scene: the 1st thing that gets cut when university budgets are straitening is of course faculty travel funds (what, you were thinking administrative salaries?), & that shows up in decreased attendance rates at conferences like this – most notable at the plenary lectures, cash bars, & (alas) at the usually huge but this time rather nicely intimate end-of-conference party.

What did I see & hear? A number of excellent talks: Joe Donahue & Robert Zamsky gave luminous talks on Gustaf Sobin, promoting the much-anticipated release of Sobin's collected poems, out any day from Talisman House. There was good work on LZ by Julius Lobo & Michael Fournier (corresponded with for years, only now happily met), provocative work on Pound by Kristine Danielson. An arresting panel on performance & poetry by Tyrone Williams, Bill Howe, & chris cheek, who performed his semi-improvised piece inside the projection of his powerpoint, images bouncing off of his utility kilt.

Michael Davidson delivered an excellent plenary address on George Oppen, punctuated with recorded snips of the poet himself: I'd never heard Oppen read, a wonderfully heymish "Old New York Jewish" accent, tho to my ears an unfortunately sing-song delivery. The closing talk was a disappointment. Of course, speaking late Saturday afternoon to an audience that's been conferencing & carousing since Thursday is a tough assignment, and Rita Felski came off very well in terms of lively delivery, clarity of argument, & so forth; that's what an Anglo-Australian education'll do for you. But her talk itself, under the title of "Suspicious Minds" (always a bad sign when an academic goes for the pop song reference, but the pop song's a bit over 40 years old), disappointed. She was addressing the old shibboleth of the "hermeneutics of suspicion" (obligatory nod to Paul Ricoeur), why we in the academy insist on readings that demystify the text, that demonstrate how it means otherwise than it seems, works at cross purposes to its seeming intent. Problem is that her talk, which wound around and around the same presuppositions like some elegant labyrinth, never itself stepped out of that hermeneutics, never paused to seriously consider its alternatives. 50 minutes of elegant wheel-spinning?

And as M. Zamsky observed to me afterwards, what's this "we" so invested in demystifying texts? Some of us are still interested in figuring out how the writings that allure us work in the first place. Perhaps, when the history of literary theory from the 1970s to the 1990s is written by those who have enough distance from the period not to have a dog in the race, the "hermeneutics of suspicion" in English departments will come to be seen as a moment of Oedipal rebellion on the part of critics interested in prose fiction and hyper-canonized poetry. (Itself, I know, a demystifying description.) Readers of alt-poetry need not apply.
A grand house reading at Alan Golding's on Saturday night. I know I'm leaving someone out, but among the performers were Lisa Shapiro, chris cheek, Bill Howe, Michael Davidson, Joe Donahue, Ewa Chruschiel, Aldon Nielson; coolest moment: Norman Finkelstein reading his mid-length poem on George Oppen at Altamonte; most moving moment: Alan reading some of the late Burt Hatlen's poems. (So who's going to edit and collect the best of those hundreds of uncollected essays Burt published over the years?)
I seem to have acquired more than a few books on the trip, a sentence that I could probably paste into any summary of any trip. A nice second-hand copy of Alan Moore's From Hell, which I probably shouldn't have bought because it keeps luring me away from reading for classes and grading papers. And something I'd been coveting for some time: Frederick Ahl's recent translation of Virgil's Aeneid (Oxford, 2007). Okay, so I've been coveting this book in part because it's just such a beautiful physical package: a stunningly minimal cover design (Virgil | Aeneid | A New Translation by Frederick Ahl on Jan Brueghel the Elder's Aeneas and Anchises Fleeing Troy), a hefty but compact Everyman's Library-sized binding in the old-fashioned Oxford deep blue, eye-poppingly readable typeface, yellow ribbon marker, etc. Hey, I judge books by their covers all the time. Just saying.

But the translation itself, for all the eccentricities of Ahl's approach – he's rendered Virgil's Latin into his own version of English hexameters, & he's tried to get across some of the anagrams that he's convinced are an integral part of Virgil's poetic technique – is pretty boss. He gets across the nail-biting violence of the fall of Troy in a way that I've never encountered. Here's Achilles' son Pyrrhus (or Neoptolemus) dealing the death-blow to King Priam:
Pryrrhus replied: "You'll report this, then, to my father Achilles,
Fully, in person. Remember to tell him the tale of my grisly
Actions. Describe Neoptolemus just as he is: a degenerate bastard.
Now: die."
While he was speaking, he pounced on the quivering Priam,
Dragged the king, slipping in pools of his own son's blood, to the altar,
Grabbed his hair, yanked back his head with his left, with his right drew his gleaming
Sword which he then buried up to the hilt in the flank of the old king.
The Aeneid is the red-haired stepchild of the big three classical epics, inevitably the also-ran beside the Odyssey and the Iliad. Virgil gets dismissed as pen-pusher for imperialism, or recuperated as a clever underminer of imperialism (H of S, anyone?). Pound didn't use Virgil to jump-start the Cantos; Simone Weil didn't write a momentous essay on the Aeneid; Joyce didn't shape the book of the 20th century around Virgil. But I've been fascinated by the poem a long time (I know it best in CD Lewis's translation), & this new rendering is just another damn thing to distract me from the things I ought to be reading.
Update: Oof! Aldon recorded that reading at Alan Golding's house, & it's available to listen to or download from the PennSound site. Be sure and listen to Norman's "Oppen at Altamonte," or check out where I am in Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles.
Another Update: Not merely was he recording audio, but Aldon was snapping pix as well; check out his HeatStrings blog for a great selection of snaps of the conference & reading.


Anonymous said...

The comments are always invigorating/insightful. I'm commenting because "From Hell" is my fave Alan Moore comic, one of my favorite writers and one of my favorite comics. I revisit the book for the occasional re-read, something I rarely do with a comic, and well, something I rarely do.

Norman Finkelstein said...

Believe or not, the post-conference reading is up already at PennSound:

Thanks to Aldon Nielsen who made the recording and Michael Hennessey who posted it.

Alex Davis said...

Ahl's rendering of 'degenerem' as 'degenerate bastard' is a nice touch, but 'pounced' is an infelicitous interpolation (one made to keep up the hexameter, perhaps?). Virgil's 'traxit' suffices, surely: Pyrrhus drags the king off violently, to the very altar itself, trembling and slipping in his son's blood as he goes to his death.

Joseph said...

And where did you get these books? Is there a bookstore in L'ville you've been keeping from us? Fess up!