Sunday, February 28, 2010

canon-making, in progress

[Lest we forget, here's Francis Jeffrey, the Helen Vendler of his day, writing in the Edinburgh Review in October 1829:]

The tuneful quartos of Southey are already little better than lumber: – and the rich melodies of Keats and Shelley, – and the fantastical emphasis of Wordsworth, – and the plebeian pathos of Crabbe, are melting fast from the field of our vision. The novels of Scott have put out his poetry. Even the splendid strains of Moore are fading into distance and dimness, except where they have been married to immortal music; and the blazing star of Byron himself is receding from its place of pride.... The two who have the longest withstood this rapid withering of the laurel, and with the least marks of decay on their branches, are [Samuel] Rogers and [Thomas] Campbell; neither of them, it may be remarked, voluminous writers, and both distinguished rather for the fine taste and consummate elegance of their writings, than for that fiery passion, and disdainful vehemence, which seemed for a time to be so much more in favour with the public.

Friday, February 26, 2010


A strangely torpid Friday; the sun is out, it's cool but comfortable at my back porch desk, all circumstances should be perfect for diving once more into the stack of Tempest papers I have before me – but instead I've been paying bills, dithering online, turning over a few chapters of Kenneth Clark's The Gothic Revival, reading some of Ruskin's responses to his reviews at the end of Modern Painters I. (JR can be testy, but heaven knows he doesn't threaten someone with a libel suit in response to a bad review, as this hair-raising story recounts.)

Much is being made online of David Alpaugh's extended lament about over-production – or rather, over-publication – of poetry in the US these days. I suppose I might write something about it, if i didn't seem so much like one of those periodic teapot-tempests that get raised every five years or so about the general mediocrity / inbred backscratchingness / overall dumpiness of the poetry scene. Didn't I read something like this, minus the references to the internet, back in 1989 or so? Didn't Ruskin complain about the same phenomenon in visual arts back in the 1850s? Once I get over my general irritation at Alpaugh's overall weird elitism, his piece makes me think three things:

1) Alpaugh doesn't really understand the mechanisms of cultural canon-formation much at all, if he still really believes that it's a matter of sifting the gems out of the pebbles (or the grains out of the horse-droppings, choose your metaphor). He should read Bourdieu and John Guillory – though I suspect he hasn't the patience.

2) Yep, there's more poetry than ever to sort thru & think about. So what? Well, for Alpaugh it comes down to the fact – and you don't have to read very deeply to see this – that his own chances of some kind of "fame" (perhaps even posthumous canonization?) are that much smaller. A lot more tickets for the lottery have been sold. Alpaugh whines that
Every now and then someone asks me, "Who are the best poets writing today?" My answer? "I have no idea." Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art. That would be the most devastating result of the new math of poetry. The loss would be incalculable.
That, not to put it politely, is bullshit. (My own answer to the pro-life folks who ask, "What if Beethoven's mother had aborted him?": We wouldn't have missed him, would we?) Yes, the loss would be incalculable, precisely because it wouldn't be a loss. We only consider Blake & Dickinson essential elements of our culture because we have Blake & Dickinson; if we didn't have them, we'd be living in a different culture. It's an effing time-machine game, Mr. Alpaugh – stop playing Star Trek and start reading, writing, & promoting as best you can the poetry you value. That's the way critical approval, fame, canonization & the rest have always worked.

3) I really need to get my finger out & find a publisher for my book manuscript. Otherwise how can I enjoy any of those lavish perks & "po-biz power" out there?

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.

Friday, February 12, 2010

the internets iz yr friend

Peter Nicholls, writing in his own edited collection (with Giovanni Cianci) Ruskin and Modernism:
Ruskin had in a sense laid the ground for both men [Pound & W. Lewis]: 'The art of any country,' he wrote in Modern Painters, 'is the exponent of its social and political virtues. The art, or general productive and formative energy, of any country is an exact exponent of its ethical life.'
Nice quote, one I can use; the footnote reference is to the JR Library Edition, 2:38-9. Problem is Volume 2 of the Library Edition is "Poems." Modern Painters doesn't begin until volume 3; no such quotation on pp. 38-9, nor on 138-9, 238-9, etc.

Back in the day I'd be pitchforking thru stacks of books & papers, looking for somebody else's citation of this (after all rather famous & important) couple of sentences. In our brave new intertubes world, all I have to do is google up the first sentence, where I learn that it's not from Modern Painters at all, but Ruskin's inaugural Slade Professorship lecture at Oxford – the Library Edition's volume 20, that is, rather than volume 2.

(And the sentences in question are on page 39, not pp. 38-9, not to mention that there's another sentence in between 'em, not indicated by ellipses. Methinks Peter is doing the old "second-hand" quotation thing, scooping up the ripe bits from another book – in this case SueEllen Campbell's The Enemy Opposite: The Outlaw Criticism of Wyndham Lewis, also cited in his note. Something we've all done once in a while, I bet. Smashing good article, anyway.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Advancing age, in my case, shows up largely in the increased discomfort of cross-country travel. Got back at an ungodly hour last night from Boise, Idaho, after I don't know how many hours of airplanes & airports, & am still recovering. An extremely pleasant visit: I'd been invited to talk on a subject of my choosing, revolving somehow around the LZ biography (which a grad seminar – mirabile dictu! – has actually been reading). So I delivered another stab at the next book-in-progress (in-gestation?) on the genre itself of literary biography: excursuses into Richard Ellmann's dealings with Joyce's childhood, LZ's correspondence with Edward Dahlberg, John Ruskin's (non-) burning of JMW Turner's erotica. (Alas, I couldn't get any decent scans of the latter, so I decided that without naughty drawings by Turner, it just wasn't worth the trouble to work up a PowerPoint presentation.)

Yes, Undine – it never gets easier, at least for me. That goes for lectures as well as classes: nervous hiccups in my voice, twitchy, tic-like movements behind the podium, an occasional adrenaline-fuelled three-pace stride back & forth. And always that reedy, twit-ish voice echoing in my ears. Only consolation is that it's probably more painful for the auditors than for me. But visiting the seminar afterwards was pretty much straight pleasure. Janet Holmes presides over a bright, talky bunch – a group refreshingly attuned to the tactile qualities of the poems under discussion: more than cool to hear (& pitch in with) full vocal readings of "A"-9 and "4 Other Countries."

I fear that regular blogging won't resume for at least a couple more weeks. Right now (among everything else, including – hey, I almost forgot! – my actual classes) I'm putting the finishing touches on the Ruskin-Pound-Hill piece for next week's Louisville carnival. And when I'm back from that, then I can actually catch my breath, remember my kids' names, & read a few books of poetry – oh, to hell with poetry: I've got two China MiĆ©ville novels that really want reading, & Robert Richardson's really incredible biography of William James.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Scroggins World Tour: Spring 2010!

[photo copyright Shannon O'Brien]
Scheduled Dates:

•Monday, 8 February: "Queen Victoria's Birthday Present: Some Aporias of Literary Biography." 3.40 pm at LA-208, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho.

•Thursday, 18 February: "The 'half-fabulous field-ditcher': Ruskin, Pound, Geoffrey Hill." The Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900. 1.30 pm at Bingham 106, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky.

Less Tangibles:

•27-30 May: "Zukofsky, Rexroth, and Levertov: Literary Biography and the 'Supporting Cast.'" Panel on "Biographical Cross-currents," ALA, San Francisco, California.

Tickets available at LiveNation/Ticketmaster. Or just drop by. And should I go to AWP, just for kicks?